2015-04-28

Muses for Miasma - Omar Khayyam

I began writing Miasma in November 2014 (for NaNoWriMo of course), and as you would expect when throwing 50,000 words together in one month, it was a chaotic and unstructured process, ideas being poured into the bowl like ingredients for cake mix more than components for a carefully-constructed machine.
I somehow told the story I wanted to tell, but then I had to step back and get it into publishable shape. Now Miasma is out on Kobo,  and I'm no longer fiddling with it, I've got time to step back even further and try to see where that story I wanted to tell came from.
So, I'm going to write a few posts on some of the random inspirations that fed into the book, and maybe even understand why they fitted, although this is purely in hindsight, because if there was any reason to it at the time, it was subconscious.
The first is the great Persian mathematician and poet, Omar Khayyam.
I won't duplicate the Wikipedia page, you can investigate that yourself.
Firstly, I'm not completely sure why I thought incorporating 11th century Persian poetry into a science fiction story would be a good idea. Initially, the librarian Emi needed a hobby, and it had to be something to do with books, so I thought it would be interesting for her to be translating something. It didn't even need to be relevant to the plot of the story.
But everything in a story has to serve character development, plot or theme somehow. Hitting randomly on the idea of having Emi translate one of Khayyam's rubaiyat, it seemed that paraphrasing one four-line poem wouldn't be so much work.
Ha.

Hunt for a verse

Because the people on Miasma are so tame, I wanted something apparently innocuous originating on old Earth that could be seen as a little frightening and dark from Emi and Lanton's point of view, and hint at their artificial, sheltered condition. So I dug around and found this (Fitzgerald translation, of course):
And those who husbanded the Golden Grain,
And those who flung it to the Winds like Rain,
Alike to no such aureate Earth are turn'd
As, buried once, Men want dug up again.

Great, I thought. Fatalism, reference to death, hint at concealment. Now, how might Emi translate that (or slightly mistranslate it, to better serve the theme) if working from the original verse,  since no translated copies made it onto Miasma?
I came up with something (this is still the version on writeon.amazon.com):
Those who saved up their rice
And those who threw it all about
Both are turned to dirt the same:
Humans are buried and must be dug out.
Utter fucking doggerel, but anyway, fine for the purpose. Then, just to double check, I looked for any literal non-Fitzgerald translation to compare it with–and that verse doesn't actually exist. It looks like Fitzgerald used a lot of poetic license cobbling that one together, and there isn't an original rubai with the same sense and content. Therefore Emi couldn't have accidentally arrived at her translation by the same non-literal route. Apart from it being improbable anyway, Emi in particular is not a very non-literal-minded person!
So, the hunt was on for a better verse, and if it had to strengthen the theme of the book, I had to decide what that theme actually was.

Hunt for a theme

Then here, I found another verse:
Those who went in pursuit of knowledge
Soared up so high, stretched the edge
Were still encaged by the same dark hedge
Brought us some tales ere life to death pledge.
Nice, again with the death theme, also hints at how the Miasma colony are trapped under their gloomy sky with very incomplete knowledge of where they are or why they are in that situation. It's maybe even quite a literal translation, and there's the original right there beside it, in Persian.
But I can't read Persian, so is there a really literal translation out there? Even one in a language Google translate can help me with?
Yeah, I found one in Tajik. Helpful.
Онон, ки муҳити фазлу одоб шуданд,
Аз ҷами камол шамъи асҳоб шуданд.
(Дар кашфи улум шамъи асҳоб шуданд.)
Раҳ з-ин шаби торик набурданд бурун,
Гуфтанд фасонаеву дар хоб шуданд.
Or in other words (same site, English translation):
Those who have become oceans of excellence and cultivation,And from the collection of their perfections have become lights of their fellows,Have not made a road out of this dark night,They have told a fable and have gone to sleep.
Which I have Emi render as:
Even those who were fully civilised,
and made themselves into a guiding light,
have not found a way out of the night.
They told a tale and closed again their eyes. 
It does some violence to the rhyme scheme, but is a plausible translation. It's still dark and death-related, but doesn't serve the theme as well. There are multiple themes though, and I can reinforce with other verses. I looked for more.

Another use for Khayyam

I was looking to give Emi more agency, but she doesn't make an appearance in part three of the book. To give her some input into the story, I thought she should send a message to the other characters, possibly with the intention of hinting how she was feeling to Lanton.

From the same page on iranchamber.com as before, I found this:
Heaven is incomplete without a heavenly romance
Let a glass of wine be my present circumstance
Take what is here now, let go of a promised chance
A drumbeat is best heard from a distance.
To show Emi's increased determination, capability, and intellect, I had her shape this into a Tanka, and adjust its meaning a little to drive home her point.
Heaven is lacking
heavenly love to complete
I take what is here;
Promised chances I let go.
A drum sounds best from afar.
 (They are sending messages over Miasma's drum network, so that was almost too good to miss.)
So that verse added a little to character development and plot.

Theme at last

I close the book with a Fitzgerald translation of one of the best known verses, and when I realised that it was an almost perfect expression of the whole point of the story, I realised that while I had been playing around paraphrasing translations of Omar Khayyam and inserting them into science fiction, the guy had said what I wanted to say in 4 lines, 900 years ago.
Not included here, because spoilers. Buy the book.

2015-04-25

Miasma is out on the Kobo Store

You can get Miasma here: https://store.kobobooks.com/en-US/ebook/miasma-4

I am testing it on the Kobo store, which is a slightly (!) smaller market than the Kindle, for a couple of reasons.

Firstly, I like the idea of DRM-free ebooks. I don't expect to make a lot of money on selling copies of my second novel (the first being the slightly inexpert fantasy The Silk Mind, which is still out there for free). If I make a few quid that will flatter my ego nicely. And therefore I certainly don't expect to lose any significant amount of revenue by unauthorised copying. It would almost certainly be a net benefit to me to have more people read my book and, if they like it, look out for the next one.
Another benefit of DRM-free books is that nobody can pull them from the book store and erase them from everyone's device for bullshit reasons. Amazon have been known to do this. But if you get an EPUB with no DRM, you can copy it away, read it on another device, in effect own it the way you own a physically-printed book you got in a shop.
There's nothing particularly alarming in Miasma that might cause it to be pulled, but I reject the ability to do it at all on principle.
Secondly, precisely because the Kobo store is a smaller market, less can go wrong. Suppose someone is offended by inter-racial marriage, female masturbation, or general disrespect for traditional authority, and brigades me with 1-star reviews. I will wear those reviews like a badge of honour in that case (might even get a t-shirt made), but more realistically, I will see what the market thinks and then decide what to change before letting it loose on the Kindle.

It has been a lot of fun and slightly more hard work than I expected, to get to this point. If you want the full list of people I thank for it, buy the book; it's at the end.

2015-04-22

More Miasma concept art

Got concept art for all three main characters now. Made a rough mockup of one possible cover design.
Miasma fake cover concept

There's clearly work to be done to get to a real cover image, and that work will be done by someone who is good at it.

2015-04-07

Another Free Story! The Rat Catcher in the Walls

Another free short story for you all, (again CC BY-ND licensed): "The Rat Catcher in the Walls".

Its pure Lovecraftian pastiche, but since when is that not a good thing?

Available in MOBI, EPUB and PDF.

This was submitted to the upcoming Swords vs Cthulhu anthology, but it wasn't what they were looking for. I have high confidence that somewhere out there on the internet is someone for whom it is exactly what they are looking for. And they get it for free. Enjoy, strange internet person!

2015-03-28

Book of Lenses for Books - #18

Well, haven't done one of these for a while!
Continuing my series of posts where I try to apply the perspectives of the superb  The Art of Game Design: A book of lenses to the process of writing fiction. Part 1 is here.
This time I'm looking at Lens #18 - Flow
  • Does my game book have clear goals? If not, how can I fix that?
  • Are the goals of the player reader the same goals I intended?
  • Are there parts of the game book that distract players readers to the point they forget their goal? If so, can these distractions be reduced, or tied into the game book goals? 
  • Does my game book provide a steady stream of not-too-easy, not-too-hard challenges, taking into account the fact that the player reader’s skills may be gradually  improving?
  • Are the player reader’s skills improving at the rate I had hoped? If not, how can I  change that?
At first glance the situation with games and books isn't comparable, because what are the goals of reading, and what are the skills the reader is supposed to be acquiring during the experience? I mean, they can already read, right? But books do have flow and immersion the way games do. The letters on the page disappear, and the reader is walking and breathing in a strange faraway land, living as someone else---if you do it right.
Purely as an exercise in thinking about writing, and not as actual writing advice, let's suppose the goals of the book are the ideas you want to have passed on to the reader by the end of the story, the goals of the reader are what they want out of reading it, and one small skill the reader is acquiring is getting used to your voice and how you express those ideas. If the reader has questions, they need to become accustomed to how you are answering them, or they will put the book aside unsatisfied.
Looked at that way, the first two questions are simple. Is there in fact a point to your book, and will the readers get that point, and will it satisfy them when they do?
The distractions of question three are a concern. Imagine if you are writing a mystery story, and the red herrings you insert to camouflage the "real" clues are actually more interesting to the reader than the answer to the mystery. Then the reader gets to the end and is left hanging, uninterested in the irrelevant answer you have foisted on them. What can you do, write a sequel about the other more interesting stuff? They won't read it; far better to make that the story you write in the first place.
The last two questions are about an aspect of pace, or anyway a hazard that can be an obstacle to pace. A big, interesting, non-obvious idea you want to present in your own "original" way will probably come off as opaque and unsupported if given to the reader in one big chunk. If you're trying something unusual, maybe start off by being only a little unusual and see if you can carry the reader with you for a while before throwing them down the rabbit hole.
Looked at on a smaller scale, since every scene should be doing something worthwhile, should establish something that is needed later or resolve something that came before, it's obviously a good idea to make sure it does.
That's all I can think of for flow. Ironically, this article about was written after a long break, and I anticipate another one before the next instalment: #19 - Needs.


2015-03-18

Trying to measure pace again

I had another go at visualising the pace of my novel Miasma. The last attempt was not very credible.

This time, I kept it simple. I measured the approximate length of each scene in pages (of the current PDF draft). I counted things in each scene that I think of as story events, such as the introduction of a character, a decision made, that sort of thing. I also counted lines that for one reason or another I felt had more than average emotional impact, whether humorous, pathetic, exciting. All of these criteria are pretty arbitrary, but I tried to be consistent.
Then I calculated the ratio of good lines + story events to scene length.  What I'm hoping for is a rising sawtooth shape. I got this:
This is not too bad. There are two extra scenes added in part 3, and I think they helped. One of them is the highest peak, just before the end.
Where the graph dips down to zero, that's not a scene where literally nothing happens and all the prose is dire, it just means nothing stood out to me. They are still scenes I quite like, but they are a rest between more active ones.
I don't know if this approach has much value in general, but it has helped me think about the shape of the story, and make at least one extra pass through the text spotting things that need improvement, and that's always worth doing.