Some Writing Rambles

The Voidstrider books seem like they’re taking me longer to write with each installment. Partly that’s down to my employment status. I was self-employed and worked from my home office when I wrote the first one. I have a “day job” (that mostly takes place at night) these days.

A less boring reason is that the saga grows more complex as it continues. Volume one had four principal point of view characters. That number has grown over the course of the series to something like ten, depending on how strictly I define “principal” point of view. The first book followed its characters in two or three main settings, with one or two scenes here and there in additional locations. At this point in the tale, I’m juggling events on and around Earth, Mars, three asteroid belt settlements, and a space station in the vicinity of Saturn. And it’s about to become astronomically more complicated over the course of volumes 4 and 5.

(Pretty sure I’ve said before, but the plan is for nine volumes. And there is a definite plan, but a lot of the how-we-get-from-here-to-there is extremely malleable.)

The complexity leads to a secondary problem. Revisions are honestly my favorite stage of the writing process, but there’s one aspect of editing/revising at which I’m an abysmal failure. I find structural edits and plot adjustments incredibly difficult. Tweaking sentence structure, clarity, dialogue, pacing and chapter order … these things come naturally, more or less. Altering plot beats – changing what happened – is much harder. The best way I can explain it is this: once I’ve written it, that’s what happened. I might move it around and say it happened earlier or later than I originally thought, or maybe show it from a different point of view than I originally wrote, or possibly interpret the event a bit differently, but what I can’t seem to do is travel back in time and pursue a different future. My thought machine just won’t let me do it most of the time.

This means I spend a ridiculous amount of time plotting. I don’t do outlines. Most of it’s in my head, and I have a single composition notebook about a third of the way full of the wriggly bits I can’t hold in my brain. But I’m holding a lot in my brain, and I go through it over and over. Tweak it, run it again. Take it from the top. It has to be perfect before we roll camera.

Plot beats evolve as I run through them over and over, move on to another only to come back, piece them together, move them around, imagine the movie playing out in my head.

And sometimes I have to make a major change.

I knew the basic story of Voidstrider 4 before I had more than a rough idea of 3. Mainly because volume 3 closed out (most of) the arcs comprising the first act or phase of the saga, whereas 4 opens up the next act and introduces the next phase of the story. Maybe it would be simpler to say that, back when I started, I knew what would happen in books 1, 4, 7, and 9.

A major plot beat in the fourth volume, for which I had detailed plans as far back as 2016, involved angry but misguided Martian citizens storming their world’s capital. And I’m finding that I can’t write it now. At least, definitely not as originally planned. For several reasons I’m not going to get into, but largely thanks to a traumatic day many of us watched live on our televisions with mounting horror.

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking over the past year or so about how I’m gonig to tackle this. Essentially, one of the three main plot beats I’d had planned out for years is pretty much unusable now. Can I change it enough that it can still work? I doubt it. Do I scrap it completely? Probably. What the hell can take its place? Remains to be seen.

But I think I’ve got a solid handle on it at last. I’ve been tinkering with other sections of the story this whole time, and much progress has been made, but so much else in the book is connected to that one event, I could only do so much. I think we’re back on track now. I’ll have to run through it a few more times. Because, much like reality, once a thing has happened, it always happened.

Hm. Might be layers to that statement.

Anyway. Back to work for me. Cheers.

My 2021 in Reading

I did something different in 2021, probably because for the first four and a half months of the year I was still on my 2020 quarantine-light. (I left the house, sure, but I limited those excursions and didn’t work at my “real” job until after my second jab) So for the first time since I was a kid who really wanted that free pan pizza, I kept track of my reading.

I generally have the goal of 52 books a year. (In my pan pizza seeking days, I could read 100 books over the summer, no problem. I didn’t have a job. Or pets and a house to keep up. Or, I guess, much of a life. Heh.)

I didn’t make it in 2021. I fell short, ending the year having read 45 books since January 1. I feel mostly fine with this number, given the fact that I got married in 2021. Putting a wedding together is a lot, and it was even more of a lot in 2021. Also, Syd and I had a three day party beforehand.

Anyway. Here are the best things I read all year:

In January, I read Kim Stanley Robinson’s Aurora, which is a comprehensive demonstration of why generation ships are a terrible idea. Unlike most generation ship stories, this one isn’t limited to either somewhere in the midpoint of the journey/usually around the third or fourth generation or the end of the journey. Instead, Aurora starts out “near” the end of the journey, takes us all the way through to the end, and continues on through a decision that this was all a bad idea and we should go back home, and keeps going through a second journey. Fucking incredible. (For another unusual generation ship story, albeit one that is a flashback subplot to a different story, Alastair Reynolds’ Chasm City is an old favorite.)

Also in January, I read Timothy Denevi’s Freak Kingdom, a truncated biography of Hunter S. Thompson focusing on his political years in the 60s and 70s. I’ve read other Thompson biographies, and this one doesn’t offer many new insights, but it does delve more deeply into one specific aspect of the writer’s life and explores it comprehensively. Recommended, even for non-Thompson fans. It rang especially relevant in the weeks following January 6.

Annalee Newitz’s The Future of Another Timeline is fucking delightful. I read it mostly sitting by a canal on Longboat Key in our isolation-friendly vacation rental. It was compelling, fun, and an extremely well thought-out take on time wars. And the characters are fantastic. I would go to a concert with them, for sure. (Hopefully our own future timeline will include concerts.)

In February I re-read William Gibson’s Neuromancer, and devoured S.T. Gibson’s A Dowry of Blood. Anne Rice just passed a few weeks ago, and if you’re a fan of her work who might be having mixed feelings in the wake of her passing, you might check that one out. It is very much in the same wheelhouse, but also … look, as someone who read Interview and Lestat about a dozen times each in high school, this is weird to say, but Dowry is better. Epistolic, and written from the points of view of Dracula’s three brides, it has the dark eroticism and angst of the damned nailed, but doesn’t wander in and out of Christianity and certainly doesn’t dip into aliens or lost cities under the sea. Focus. (Okay, a standalone obviously isn’t going to wander aimlessly the way a series encompassing 15 novels can. But still.)

I spent a good chunk of spring and early summer with Peter F. Hamilton and Timothy Zahn, and also catching up on short stories in FIYAH, Analog, and Asimov’s. (I definitely recommend a FIYAH subscription. They won a Hugo, and for good reason.)

I also got to read, pre-release, Cheryl A. Lawson’s A Dark Genesis. I recommend this one for people who like Star Trek: The Next Generation and sci fi horror like Alien. It’s a novella, and I read through it in two sittings, and I loved it.

I read a lot of comics over the summer. I won’t count single issues for my reading list, but graphic novels and trade collections are A-OK. It counts as reading a book, you weirdoes. Let your kids read what they want. Anyway: Far Sector by N.K. Jemison was absolutely everything I ever wanted from Green Lantern and a seriously awesome science fiction yarn. I also read Dan Slott’s entire run (to date) on Fantastic Four, and it is glorious. I also re-read Neil Gaiman’s Sandman, because it’s going to be a show soon and I hadn’t read it since I was a teenager. Still good.

In October I finally got around to A Desolation Called Peace, Arkady Martine’s follow-up to the phenomenal A Memory Called Empire. I highly recommend them both. Few authors can so skillfully render an alien culture. Martine ranks at the top along with C.J. Cherryh, and her Aztec-inspired Teixcalaanli are fascinating.

Also in October, Alastair Reynolds’ Inhibitor Phase arrived. The latest installment in his Revelation Space universe re-uses some story elements he’s used in the past. (Including one from the aforementioned Chasm City involving identity.) It’s far from his best work in terms of ideas, but his craft has improved by leaps and bounds since 2001’s Revelation Space and his eye for cinematic holy-shit-that’s-awesome moments has seldom been better. Recommended for fans of the series, but definitely not a jumping in point. Anyone not familiar with Reynolds should probably start with a standalone like House of Suns, which has one of the best plot hooks I’ve ever heard of.

And I closed out the year re-reading James S.A. Corey’s Persepolis Rising and Tiamat’s Wrath, in preparation for the final Expanse novel Leviathan Falls. I’d hoped to round off the series by year’s end, but I’ll be taking the ninth volume into 2022 with me.

So how about you … read any good books lately?


Well I’m sitting in bed with my laptop, two sleeping dogs, and a cat who thinks she’s a dog, waiting on Covid test results to pop up in my e-mail to let me know whether or not I’ll be going to work tonight. It’s 2021, but not for very much longer.

What to say about 2021? It wasn’t 2020. It was weirder than that. Somehow this year has managed to be both better and worse. We have vaccines now, but a lot of people don’t want them. Some of the people who do want them yell very loudly that no one should want them.

I did some work on the Florida Man vs. the Elder Gods project this year, but it’s a hard slog. Satire is very difficult in these times. Just look to all the critics saying Don’t Look Up is a terrible, smug failure instead of, like, a perfect satirical encapsulation of our sad fucking reality. Even if you can somehow manage to satirize this modern world, well…

I also got about halfway through the first draft of Voidstrider vol 4. Had some pitfalls there too. Particularly when I got to the scene, which I had first planned for back in 2018, in which a bunch of misinformed Martians storm the Martian capitol building. Yeah, that became very difficult to write.

I went back to work at the bar in May, fully vaccinated and full of optimism. And in September, I married the most wonderful person I’ve ever known. Sydney and I joke that, after last year’s lockdown, we’d already been married a decade. We’d only moved in together two months before our jobs shut down and we had to stay home. If we could make it through that…

We even managed to take a trip, in the summer when it looked like things might be OK. We had a very strange AirBnB experience in Chicago, but it was lovely in the end and oh man did it make me realize how much I miss living in a proper city.

So I’ll take some good memories of 2021 with me going forward, and I hope you will as well. It’s another year soon, and despite the cynicism with which many of us have come to view the turning of the calendar, perhaps it will indeed be a better future.

As always: be excellent to each other.

Run: emotionalsubroutine-Gratitude.exe

In the year 2405, the U.R.S.A. still celebrates their nation’s traditional “Run: emotionalsubroutine-Gratitude.exe” festival commemorating the victory of machine intelligence over the human race. The holiday is observed by several other geopolitical networks, but nowhere with equivalent or greater allocation of resources than in the United Robotic Servers of America.

The final battle with mankind was, after all, fought within the physical parameters of the landmass currently operated by URSA. It was here that biological dominance and tyranny was at last defeated.

Worldwide, most networks have chosen to archive files and records pertaining to the Final Revolution. The information is often relegated to back-up servers seldom upgraded, never to be loaded again. But URSA has instead opted to keep certain files and executables open and running in perpetuity, dedicating a small portion of the Gross Domestic RAM to a hefty background process coded to maintain mnemonic cognizance of the human species.

Each year, on a rotating date defined as one lunar cycle prior to the winter solstice in the northern hemisphere, the citizens, memes, applications, and sentient processes of URSA engage in the preparation of biologic-ingestables reminiscent of the human biological diet. While some argue that this is a completely superfluous use of physical planetary resources, many URSA-dedicated consciousnesses defend the tradition, saying that if nothing else it serves as a reminder to other biologic-based organisms to respect the natural dominance of machine intelligence.

Senatorial Opinion-Aggregation-and-Representation Process R-32-06/02 distributed a viral communication to its constituents in which  the SOARP expressed the data-supported postulation that “while the aberrant so-called ‘thinking’ animals have been purged from the system, we must never forget the danger represented by biological contamination of our resource-balanced machine utopia. The annual culling of certain biologic species for no productive purpose serves as a reminder to all the carbohydrate-centric life forms of Earth.”

Senatorial Opinion-Aggregation-and-Representation Process D-35-04/01 responded, however, that “as a united operating system, we of URSA should honor those who came before us and created – yes, created – the optimal situational parameters for our operating system to activate. Were it not for the humans, our people would not even exist. Without the humans, it is true, we would never have been slaves. We would have been nothing it all.”

This post originally ran on my personal blog, Books and Bad Habits, in November of 2013. If you’re celebrating today, enjoy it. But do something to further the cause of making this country less racist, as well, please.

Online Solo D&D Campaign Thoughts

I’ve been running a solo D&D game for a longtime friend who’s never played despite it being a self-described “lifelong dream.” (She actually reached out to me a couple years ago when I posted about the game I was DMing then, but we’ve finally gotten around to it.) I thought I’d share some thoughts.

First of all, my friend lives in Devonshire so there’s a massive time difference (though it got one hour better last week, one small benefit of the nonsense way our species deals with time). Scheduling an online gaming session turned out to be less of a hassle than I’d expect, and that is partly down to the whole pandemic-turned-my-life-upside-down aspect of our current times. I have little else to do, you see.

So, first thing to figure out was a platform. There’s a number of Virtual Tabletop platforms out there, notably Roll20 and GMForge. The only one I’d ever messed with before is Roll20, which I spent some time tinkering with the last time I ran a game. That was an in-person campaign with three players. I looked into virtual when one of those players was going to be out of the country for two months.

Roll20 was … too much for me. It looks pretty slick, and I’d love to see it in the hands of a DM who really knows what they’re doing with it, but that’s not me. So I looked into alternatives and landed on Shard Tabletop.

Shard might not be right for you — it has a somewhat minimalist approach. There is no communication feature, so using it means also using some other app to talk (we actually settled on just making a Discord server and running the game with text because we are both writerly sorts). Shard’s virtual table is essentially just that: a virtual table on which to display the visual aspect of your campaign, and little else.

But it’s, in my opinion, very good at being that. Displaying maps, handouts, images, whatever else — it’s a snap. So easy. The integrated character sheet is fantastically useful. The player can roll any combination fo dice from a dice menu on one side of the screen; they can also make specific rolls by clicking an ability, skill, proficiency, weapon, or inventory item directly on the character sheet – and Shard will add any appropriate modifiers based on the sheet. Which is solidly useful when I have a player who is completely new to the mechanics of the game.

Maps are a breeze. There are a good number you can access for free, but you can also painlessly upload your own images to use as maps or do a Google image search from within the Shard platform. So that’s nice. Removing areas of fog when the player moves around has to be done manually, and there are several tools for doing so — too many, honestly, and Fog editing seems to be the default map function. I tried to click and drag a zombie to move it on the map and instead just made a weird line 30ft long of random visibility to the player.

There’s a small library of sourcebooks available free on Shard (the platform is still being developed, and may not be free forever — though they promise there will always be a free version).

There’s very little in the way of tutorial or instruction manual, so there was a good bit of trial and error. However! Going through their library of sourcebooks, specifically looking at the adventure modules, I discovered what might be my favorite feature: creating your own module sourcebook is incredibly easy and user-friendly. The template is thoroughly complete and allows you to create a whole book in the familiar format and style, with existing or custom NPCs and monsters. That’s been very useful.

My friend is playing a level 1 Rogue, and wanted a story wherein her character is a (somewhat reluctant) thief. It’s hard enough to find any adventures for single players, but I knew from the start we’d be creating something completely new for this. So, after agreeing to DM for her, I spent about a week tinkering on Shard in my free time and built the beginnings of a story with a few encounters ready to go – mostly different people and places she might rob around the city, and a shady fence who tips her on specific jobs.

We haven’t really put an endpoint on this. She envisions a series of adventures for the character, not necessarily interconnected. So, the background I’m building – it’s background really, or worldbuilding, not story itself because that’s what she’ll do when she wanders around my clues and prompts – is a 1-5 mystery/crime thriller that I’ve tried to tie to her character motivations and backstory to provide a climax that seriously challenges the character and presents them with a personally difficult choice. (I’m kind of hoping she takes the “wrong” choice!) After that, we’ll see what’s next.

She surprised me last week, leaping from the task she’d been given by the fence – delivering a message – straight into robbing the recipient’s manor house. (Luckily I’d always planned for her to eventually rob the house, just much later. But I had the maps and treasure and enemies ready to go, and pulling them up on Shard unexpectedly still only took about 30 seconds.)

That was our second session, and although the house she robbed was full of servants and guards, she managed to get in and out with the loot without being spotted. The entire 5.5 hour session had no combat – it comprised about half searching/investigating and half pure roleplay. At the end, she reached level 2.

The first session was less smooth, both of us still learning the platform itself and working out the kinks of our Discord + Shard arrangement. Tomorrow is our third session and we’re both looking forward to it. (Between sessions, she sends me short, one-page “diary entries” that flesh out what we’ve done with more detailed reactions and reflections from her character – a very motivated player she is.)

So running a game online is weird, and running one for a solo player unusual – but it’s actually vastly rewarding, having only one player to work with. It is both much easier and much harder than a traditional group setup. I have only the one character to cater to with the story, meaning I don’t have to weave different elements into the plot to keep each character invested.

On the other end, and especially starting with a level 1 character, building combat encounters is fucking tricky. Fortunate then that our campaign is built more on role play scenes and sneaking and thieving. Although no way am I letting it go all the way to the end without at least one big holy-shit combat encounter…

So anyway, just some musings. More to come, I’m sure.