Philip K. Dick: Writer or Prophet?

Philip K. Dick was a prolific science-fiction writer. He usually depicted a bleak, dystopian future. His works have become more famously known as the motion pictures Blade Runner, Total Recall,  and Minority Report, as the current television series The Man in the High Castle. He died of a stroke in 1982 at age 53.

Below are some of the things he said during his life. Now, remember, he died in 1982.

Today we live in a society in which spurious realities are manufactured by the media, by governments, by big corporations, by religious groups, political groups… So I ask, in my writing, What is real? Because unceasingly we are bombarded with pseudo-realities manufactured by very sophisticated people using very sophisticated electronic mechanisms. I do not distrust their motives; I distrust their power. They have a lot of it. And it is an astonishing power: that of creating whole universes, universes of the mind. I ought to know. I do the same thing.

The basic tool for the manipulation of reality is the manipulation of words. If you can control the meaning of words, you can control the people who must use them.

There will come a time when it isn’t ‘They’re spying on me through my phone’ anymore. Eventually, it will be ‘My phone is spying on me’.

Strange how paranoia can link up with reality now and then.

It’s the basic condition of life to be required to violate our own identity.

There are no private lives. This a most important aspect of modern life. One of the biggest transformations we have seen in our society is the diminution of the sphere of the private. We must reasonably now all regard the fact that there are no secrets and nothing is private. Everything is public.

Look at the world around us today. I ask you, was Mr. Dick a mere writer of science fiction, or a prophet?

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Continuity Conundrums!

Well over a year ago, I wrote a post about the importance of bibles, those character dossiers full of background information and outlined stories that help prevent continuity issues. I wrote three nice thick ones on all my characters. Unfortunately, I wrote nothing about the magical realm they inhabit from time to time.

That almost chomped my posteriors!

In the The Valley of the Mystic Moon (the first Aura Lockhaven book), I mentioned that the valley is 200 feet deep. I know, that isn’t much of a valley, but the setting is southern England, and they don’t have Grand Canyons there, so I thought it was deep enough. In The Fires of Tollenburgh Hall, the second book and the one I’m currently writing, I describe Aura’s tour of the Citadel, the capital of her new magical order. The spire is 200 feet tall. That’s as tall as the whole valley! That’s what I get for drawing a map, and not writing a three dimensional description! Fortunately, the first book is still baking and undergoing a final revision, so I can change the valley’s depth to 1,000 feet. If I had already submitted the first book to the publisher, I would have either been stuck with an oversized drainage ditch for a magical realm, or been forced to commit a deliberate breach of continuity.

So, I reiterate. Bibles are important! Don’t forget an in depth description of your fictional realm! It is probably a good idea to include dossiers of armor, weapons, animals, and anything else you can think of, too.

The Trouble With Tropes

Ah, tropes. Some people love them. Others hate them. They are unavoidable, really. The trick is to make them fresh, and that is the hard part, as I found out yesterday.

Let’s establish a working definition of trope, shall we? At least, for the duration of this essay. A trope is generally considered a cliche’. I disagree. A cliche’ is a cliche’; something that has been overused to the point that it is no longer a commonplace, but a grating, irritating nuisance in the hands of a lazy man who does not want to employ genuine thought and vocabulary. A trope is different. A trope is a standard element in a story. Without the trope, it isn’t the story. For example, it isn’t a fantasy story without magic. Magic must be wielded by someone, and that someone is usually a wizard or sorcerer. The wizard or sorcerer is the trope. The trope can move toward cliche’ when he falls into the Merlin / Obi-wan Kenobi / Gandalf / Dumbledore category. He stands on the threshold of becoming a stereotype. The work of the writer at that point is to move him away from that threshold and make him original.

I think the worst trope of all is the concept that tropes must be eliminated from a story. Tropes exist for a reason; they are mythical elements, and expected elements. They serve great purposes. The effort to eliminate them will be obvious. Those efforts can also knock a story right out of its genre. It isn’t fantasy without magic, science-fiction without technology, horror without a monster, romance without love, or a mystery without a corpse. Even mainstream literature has its own set of tropes that must appear, otherwise it isn’t literature. So, unleash the tropes! Then, make them your own. They are tropes, not stereotypes, not cliche’s, but tropes. A war story without a soldier? The soldier is the trope. Now, make him a three-dimensional character.

I use quite a few tropes in my Aura Lockhaven stories. I like fantasy tropes. I grew up with them. But when I use them, I turn them into light-hearted elements. It’s my way of gently poking at a genre I love. Here’s an example:

I use the hidebound trope of the farm boy who becomes a wizard. Except that’s it’s a farm girl. Well, she isn’t a farm girl, she just lives on a farm. Well, okay, she also didn’t exactly grow up on the farm. Her first ten years were spent as the spoiled daughter of a tavern owner. Oh, and she doesn’t become a wizard; she begins the story as a freshly minted wizardress. And it isn’t really a farm. Neither she nor her master are farmers; the place is overrun with blackberries and heather. Uh, where is that trope again? I pretty much stripped it of all its stereotypical elements, and ended up with more or less a nice, charming setting. The rest of the tropes I use face the same treatment.

There was this one trope, however, that I could not turn into a lighthearted fun element. I had a magic portal into another realm. It was a leftover from the old graphic novel I wrote back in 2010. As open minded as I am, I grow weary of that trope, unless it’s in the back of a standalone closet. I just couldn’t turn it into anything else but a stereotype. It worked in the graphic novel, but it refused to bend to my will in a written novel.

So, I got rid of it entirely.

The result was chaos! That one act threw the entire story into confusion. No magic portal meant no magic realm to step into. The longest story arc in the entire book just disappeared. I had characters that became unnecessary. The events that followed no longer made sense. I had a minor villain who suddenly wanted to be the major villain. The former major villain now looked more like a minor hero. I had an important situation that had to appear for the later books to work, but its setup just vanished. Even Aura’s genealogy collapsed into crumbs. Removing that trope actually unwove the fabric of the entire series. How was I going to straighten out this mess I caused by getting rid of just one trope, one scene, one paragraph?

I went back to the end of chapter nine of book one and started over. That was the earliest point in the story that did not suffer the ripple effect of eliminating the magic portal. In the process, I trimmed the story by one-third. Following the graphic novel script, the introductory story was going to be four books long (the magic portal appeared halfway through book three). Now, I can fit the introduction into two books without sacrificing the story (I hate trilogies — now those things are a cliche’). I was able to make the entire story tighter, add a ton of intrigue that wasn’t there before, and focus even more on the development of my main character. I do have some problems to work out, but the solutions will present themselves when I reach those chapters. A major delay, yes, but a welcome one.

Well, time to get off this blog and get writing. Aura Lockhaven is tapping her foot and glaring at me. I caused her some distress and she expects me to correct it.

The Visual History of Aura Lockhaven

It’s interesting that every summer, a major milestone occurs in the Auraverse. This summer is no different. I thought I’d share these moments with you.

JULY 2010

Aura Lockhaven is born. Well, so she wasn’t yet Aura Lockhaven. She was just a barbarian pinup girl. This is how she looked that summer.

Aura first image

She was just a lark I did in 3D art, and not very well. Perhaps it isn’t noticeable but her eyes aren’t green here (green eyes are Aura’s trademark). But as I looked at this image, I wondered what would cause a woman to dance naked in a forest of fire. Thirty minutes later, I had the answer. She was Aura Lockhaven, and she was an enchantress.

AUGUST 2010

Aura began as the central character in a four chapter graphic novel. I planned for her to romp around England naked and have sex on every page. This is the cover to that first graphic novel, so long ago.

Aura second image

You can tell she evolved, even if just a little.

AUGUST 2011

I stopped working on the graphic novel that month; in the middle of chapter thirteen! Halfway through chapter one, Aura seized control of the story. She had a fascinating tale to tell and demanded to tell it. So, I let her. The story ceased being merely prurient, and became that of an uncertain girl, traumatized and full of self-doubt, becoming a confident woman of destiny. And kicking some baddie ass along the way. By then, the mere four chapters had grown to 3,000 separate renders. But, I was in graduate school and gearing up for my final year. I could either work on my hobby, or go to school. Guess who won?

This is how Aura looked when I stopped work on the graphic novel.

Aura image 3

AUGUST 2012

That summer, all I had left was my thesis. With my classes finished, I knew it was time to get serious about writing. But what? Well, it just so happened that I had a great story sitting in my computer. I returned to work on Aura … as a written novel. If a picture is worth a thousand words, how many words are 3,000 pictures worth? I’m still writing! And remember, I never finished the graphic novel!

This is how she looked when I transformed those renders into words.

Aura image 4

AUGUST 2013

When I graduated in December, 2012, I had a novel and a half finished. I also plunged into a malaise from which I could not escape. Between no longer having an externally imposed discipline, and my own brain chemistry backfiring on me, it took me six months to ever think about writing again. By August, I finally could again, thanks to my naturopathic doctor. In the meantime, something happened. Victoria 6 appeared.

The previous incarnations of Aura were based on the Victoria 4 3D figure by DAZ3D. The new Victoria 6 has twice as many polygons, so she looks more like a real woman — a series of round cylinders instead of a bunch of flat planes. Not only did I think Victoria 6 looked more realistic, but making clothes for her was a breeze. I decided to overhaul Aura from the soles of her feet up. I made her look like I described her in the books, with a more English face. She ended up looking more her age. I made her jewelry, staff, and sandals to match my own descriptions. I wanted to make her bikini, but that durn bra kept fighting me (how many men can say they were bested by boobs when fitting a bikini to a woman?). Well, lazy animal that I am, I noticed that the new dynamic bikini was a corseted affair and looked close enough to how I wrote it for Aura. And a cape is a cape. A few purchased items won’t hurt. So, this is how Aura Lockhaven looks today, on the threshold of my return to writing her adventures.

Aura image 5

I am especially proud of her dragon-headed toric. Trish wants her sandals!

As for the summer of 2014, I hope to post the cover to the novel that you will see in your local bookstore. I hope that it is painted by a professional illustrator! We shall see.

IMPOSING LIMITATIONS UPON MAGIC

I encountered a problem with my main character, Aura Lockhaven. She was too powerful. Her magical ability seemed to have no limitations. Let’s face it. That makes a boring character! If a character cannot be defeated, much less killed, then there isn’t any real drama. There are times when a main character needs to say “I don’t know how to do that, but I do know how to run away!”

It is important to establish the strengths and limitations of any type of fictional power: magic, supernatural, fencing, martial arts, military combat, scientific knowledge, and even craftwork such as blacksmithing or mechanics. Those strengths and limitations must make sense and they must be consistent. Otherwise, not only does the story quickly become boring, but a Mary Jane character can be created. One of the best dramatic elements is when a character encounters his or her own weaknesses and limitations and tries to overcome them or bypass them. Even if they are defeated, they grow as characters. Even Superman has his weaknesses and self-imposed limitations.

We can’t get carried away with those strengths and limitations, however, or we create an equally boring story in the other direction. In fact, that can be worse.

Let’s focus on magic here. In the Aura series, I’ve tried to root the use of magic to how it is practiced in the real world, to give it a sense of gravity and realism. Yes, magic does exist in our world. How would you like it if I walked you through a quick spell? I shall do that.

Find an item near you that isn’t heavy, say a pen or coffee cup. Look at it. Pick it up. Hold it in front of your face. Congratulations, you just performed a magic spell! That’s because magic is visualizing a desired outcome, putting your will behind that desire, and taking the necessary action to make it happen. That’s all it is. You saw the pen. You desired to pick it up. Even if you were not aware of this part of the chain, you visualized yourself picking it up and holding it. You put your will behind your muscles. It happened. It ceases to be just physical action and becomes magic when the outcome is something we can’t do with our minds and hands alone, and we have to use herbs, rituals, prayer, angels, etcetera to get it done.

Magic is slow. It is very slow! No one can snap his fingers and start a fire, not that there is any need with readily available matches and lighters. When most people cast a spell, they walk away from it and let it “bake.” It can take days, months, or even years to manifest. For magic to work in my series the way it works in reality, it must be slow. There are places, however, where I can speed it up without violating the sense of reality. Then, there are places where I had best speed it up. Slow magic is fine for real life, but imagine that in a novel. A character casts a spell in chapter one. By chapter thirteen, the characters are still sitting around the fire, playing poker, and waiting for a manifestation! That is as equally boring as having a character that is too powerful.

So, for the sake of the story, especially considering that it’s an adventure, some level of instant magical results must be allowed in certain situations. For everything else, magic takes time. Both instant magic and standard (slow) magic follow a set of rules that Aura adheres to, whether she likes them or not.

I wrote all these rules down. I wrote down Aura’s personal powers; those of her own personality, and those for which she has a natural talent. I wrote down her weaknesses; those of her own incompetence, her own fears, and things she thinks are distasteful. Then, I wrote down the strengths of her order; what they do better than anyone else, and the powers granted Aura by membership in the order. I wrote down the limitations of her order; what happens when they use their strengths, what they absolutely cannot do, and what they will not do by their own vows. I also set the rules for the other magical orders. Aura is not the only magician in her world and will encounter others who have to work within their own parameters. The only powers and limitations with any flexibility are those that are personal to Aura. As her personality changes and develops, those powers can change and develop, too. The rest are ironclad. She didn’t write the rules of her order.

Now, I have a character who is human again. Now, I have a character who must think her way through a situation instead of just blasting everything around her. Now, I have a character who earned a level of power and self-knowledge through enduring what she endured to reach this point in the story. Now, I have a story!

No, I won’t tell you what Aura’s powers and limitations are. You’ll have to buy the books to find out. I will say that they make sense now, and I shall endeavor to keep them consistent.

FIRST NOVEL, FIRST DRAFT!

The Valley of the Mystic Moon, the first novel in my Chronicles of Aura Lockhaven series, is finished!

Okay, so it’s just the first draft. It really won’t be finished until I thoroughly revise it. I’ve already spotted places that need major work.

And I cheated. Halfway through the next to last chapter of the intended first book, I realized that the word count had crossed the 100,000 word threshold. So, I decided to end the first book earlier, and moved the last four chapters to the second book. I think it balances the first two books better that way.

You may be wondering why I was concerned about word count. When a publisher looks at a first novel from a writer, he or she likes the word count range of 80,000 to 120,000 words. Any less signals that the book isn’t developed enough. Any more signals that the writer didn’t revise enough. At 100,000 words, I knew this book would present a problem. My second drafts are always longer than my first.

That flies in the face of conventional wisdom, but it’s how I write. My first drafts are always skeletons. I write dialogue first, then description and action. I only add enough narrative to hold the story together. Narrative is my weak area. It isn’t enough, though, to just say “Aura walked across town.” Readers want more. They want their emotions engaged. Oh, all right! So, the narrative grows in my second draft. At 100,000 words, I really had no room to add muscle and flesh to my book. Now, at 85,000 words, I do. My goal is that 100,000 word mark. It’s a good size.

And I have a good beginning on book two, The Witch of Stonewall, already.

Now, to let Valley sit in the drawer and bake while I write Witch. Then, in January, I’ll start revising.

 

 

COMPENDIUMS

Compendiums? Is that even a word? Compendia?

Books about stuff!

I blogged earlier about bibles and how important I had come to realize that they were (by the way, that bible has come in handy more than once already). Now, I feel the same way about compendiums.

I am a big believer in the power of specific details. The more concrete details that can be woven into a story, the more realistic it feels. Try this … make up a bald faced lie, but litter it with name brands, specific time of the day, specific place, and actual people. See how many of your friends believe it. It’s those details that make a lie seem real. Whether we like to admit it or not, fiction is essentially a big lie (if it were the truth, it would be called history), so we need to make it feel realistic.

Not so easy when you’re writing a fantasy novel. I can’t have my heroine whip out a Walther PPK 7.62 pistol, like Ian Fleming did. Everything was custom made 1,000 years ago. But I can still use specific details, such as describing the makers mark on her sword.

Which brings me to the compendium. I’ve started writing down specific details in a notebook. It’s just things like the maker’s mark on Aura’s sword, the names of plants and animals that exist only in the small magical realm she is journeying through, and exotic types of clothing. I started by taking things that already exist, but giving them a small magical twist (such as changing the leaf color on a common larch to bright purple, because of the influence of heavy magical use nearby). Sitting up creating trees and rocks helps with insomnia, too.

Like the bible, the compendium is already helping me complete my first novel. Having a ready supply of names, colors, actions and descriptions is helping make this story a little more concrete and realistic feeling. For instance, Aura just encountered the Golden Socialite Spider, a sentient spider that is very fond of people. And poor Aura suffers from extreme arachnophobia. Having a specific name and description already at hand helped that chapter flow smoothly.

It also turns out that I’ve started a companion book in the process. Why just keep this to myself? When the series is nearing completion, I’ll polish up the compendium and sell it, too.

SOME REASONS TO WRITE

There are many reasons to write. I’ve been thinking about a few today, and they all begin with the letter E.

ENTERTAINMENT — There is absolutely nothing wrong with entertaining the reader. With today’s economic, social, political and international pressures, we need entertainment more than ever just to forget what we heard about on the evening news. Entertainment also serves as the main vehicle for the other reasons that follow.

EDUCATION — It’s always good to teach the reader new things, even things they didn’t know they wanted to know. Those facts are best hidden in the guise of entertainment, too. Walt Disney believed the best way to educate people was through entertainment. Hence, the movie Bambi. That movie was about the dangers of irresponsible use of fire in a forest. It ended up being about hunting, but that was an unforeseen side effect. It worked.

ENLIGHTENMENT — I think it’s different from education. Education presents new facts that the reader doesn’t know. Enlightenment stimulates the mind to think about things the reader already knows. For instance, the education in Fahrenheit 451 was the potential threat of a fascist government, while the enlightenment was the importance of reading, especially in its absence.

EDIFICATION — I would call this emotional enlightenment. The reader just feels good after reading something satisfying.

ECONOMICS — And what is wrong with money?