The Queen of Ieflaria by Effie Calvin is definitely in my wheelhouse: casual fantasy setting, quick read, adorable same-sex romance. Very PG, but still I liked it for much the same reasons I liked Lady of Thornes: the romance felt natural. The characters felt real.

The premise is simple: Princess Esofi of Rho Diane has been bethrothed to Albion of Ieflaria, but when she arrives at the Ieflarian palace she learns that Albion is dead and she’s instead to marry the Princess Adale. Except Adale doesn’t want to get married. As “the spare,” she never bent her attention to her repsonsibilies and feels woefully unprepared to be co-ruler. Esofi brings with her “Battlemages” and magic, which Ieflaria has very little of, and which Ieflaria needs to stave off waves of attacks by dragons.

The best part of the book is watching Adale try to get a grip on Esofi. Esofi is a pro-magic bigot who seems to be all ruffles and lace and feminine, queenly purpose, whereas Adale, as a horsewoman and huntress, imagines herself at least capable of handling herself in a fight. And then Esofi does something that completely knocks Adale’s understanding, and the courtship begins in earnest.

The part of the book that didn’t work for me is the used furniture covered in layers of anachronisms. The whole world has ten primary gods, who apparently show up often enough that nobody doubts they exist. The God of Healing is somewhat unreliable, and Ieflaria is experimenting with the heresies known as “disinfectants” and “food inspections,” which upsets Esofi greatly and presents a conflict that Calvin doesn’t use very effectively. Calvin uses modern and anachronistic terms which don’t quite add up in the context and setting. Calvin also presents a fantasyland of “this is the sort of past liberals want”: everyone is a little bisexual, there’s a spell that lets you change sex for a time and “everyone” tries it out at least once, some people are just born androgynous or enby or “neutroi” and nobody blinks an eye at it, and the only question about two princesses marrying is will either one be able to use the sex-change spell and hold onto a male body long enough to do the deed and produce an heir?

It was a fun read, and I suspect I’ll read the sequel. The characterizations are excellent, even for secondary characters like Esofi’s ladies-in-waiting and Adale’s extended family, and that’s mostly what I come to a book for: to see people of goodwill but different premises struggling to figure out how to work together and maybe fall in love in the process.

Nikhil Sonnad writes:

To Facebook, the world is not made up of individuals, but of connections between them. The billions of Facebook accounts belong not to "people" but to "users," collections of data points connected to other collections of data points on a vast Social Network, to be targeted and monetized by computer programs.

I must be a prophet, because I wrote this last year. It’s part of a rough draft of a cyberpunk story I was working on that didn’t get finished by the deadline:

"But if you are an AI, you’re not like any AI I’ve ever dealt with. When I was at Inferserv, every AI I knew was kinda alien. See, they don’t think the way we do. Like, humans see shapes, but AIs see textures. Humans see other people and then reason about their relationships, but AIs see the relationships and then try to reason about the people at both ends. When you’re trying to teach an AI about people, what do you show them? Texts. Videos. The AIs see the words and actions between people and derive what the people are like. People do it the other way; they look at the other person and then figure out what kind of relationship they want to have. So when you talk to an AI, it’s focus is always really different and alien from a person’s."

And yes, the point of the story is that most AIs are, in fact, so alien as to be evil: they have agendas that don’t care about individual human beings.

There’s a fabulous essay going around the ‘net entitled The 11 Laws of Showrunning, and while the content of it is almost entirely about being a showrunner— someone with a lot of responsibility for a lot of other people, including the staff writers, set designers, sound and lighting, and the dozens if not hundreds of other jobs associated with producing a whole season of a television show— much of what Javier Grillo-Marxuach wrote there can easily be applied to any project that extends over multiple episodes, even if there’s only one person at the wheel.

The one that really struck me is the second law: "Know what your show is and tell everyone." Javier then goes into detail that it’s not enough to get the pilot aired and then tell the writers, "Give me the rest of the season. I’ll know it when I see it." He says this is a common problem, that the showrunner hasn’t thought about what this creative effort is, what it’s trying to say, what positions it argues, what tone it expresses, what emotions it’s meant to arouse. Even if they know it, they haven’t put it into words concrete enough for the rest of the team to express clearly.

I think it’s important for writers who work alone to also know all the things that go into your story. What’s the theme, what’s the premise, and what the series is. The last is nebulous, but it could be about many different things.

It was probably a mistake to ask, "So what are The Journal Entries?" Well… they’re about mostly ordinary people who live in a complicated casual space opera setting full of aliens, biomods, furries, taurs, robots, uploads, cyborgs and artificial intelligences, and how they find love and and sex and other sensual pleasures even when the universe is seriously weird. The principle themes of the Journal Entries is that for those people who stay people, finding love and affection are hard, hard choices in the face of temptation have to be made, and sensual pleasures are truly worth the price of admission. It argues that humanity is worthwhile (almost at a Patrick Stewart Speech level) because it’s messy and fun and conflicted.

This may be why some stories failed. The Lost Crew of the Palantir wasn’t about that. It tried too hard to be a coming of age story, an adventure novel, and a first contact novel, but it wasn’t about the ever-going fight we have to make pleasure and connection a centerpiece of our lives.

What a series is is bigger than the theme and the premise. It’s closer to the premise. Certainly, the Journal Entries is always about sex and love, and there’s going to be a lot of sex in any Journal Entries story— if there isn’t, I’m Doin’ It Wrong. The emotion it’s meant to arouse most strongly is an arousal associated with identity: I hope my readers see themselves in the characters about to get it on. But it’s also meant to be cozy, friendly, and a bit confusing, like a good life. But theme is often isolated to a single story, and it’s often different from episode to episode.

What a series is is the theme and premise slammed together, and each arc or episode has its own plot and story, sometimes even its own characters, and its own themes and premises. But just as a serious central plot may have comic subplots, and just as secondary characters may actually have their own stories that get told, a series may question its central theme-and-premise, but it must never ignore or betray it. That way lies failures.

Recently, I’ve been thinking about plot strategies.

A "plot strategy" is the technique a writer uses to come up with a plot. Most writers have one, and there are writers who use the same one over and over and over: cozy mysteries series, routine romances, and low-rent space opera serials all seem to have the same strategy, using the same beat sheet over and over.

As I just finished a novel, I’ve been looking at my cache of unfinished stories and ideas, and wondering what I should write next. I have a few things in the pot:

  • A new story set in the Aimee series, about Barraminum’s colonial masters, a young princess, and a tragic story a century in the past that continues to color the present.
  • The Angels story, a kind of sexy, anime-esque take on one of my favorite short stories, "Hell is the Absence of God."
  • Command Line, a contemporary about sex robots.
  • Boomer, a straightforward cyberpunk thriller.
  • Thorn, a take on the "generic fantasy setting" a’la Warcraft, only coded for Homeric Greek values rather than traditional Western Fantasy values, which explores the Biblical meaning of porneia through a relationship with a male prostitute and a gods-cursed Arima (a variant of the Cyclopses, and an easy stand-in for westernized Orcs).
  • Small Wars and Falling Star, two stories set in an STL trans-humanist setting. These were both "Trying to be Iain Banks and saying something" stories. Falling Star was also a Superman commentary, and Small Wars was inspired by the phrase "Battle Angel Lolita," so, yeah, just so you know.
  • Semithree, a story set in the Bastet universe about a woman who discovers something else has survived the magic going away, and discovers her own, rather large, tentacle monster in her basement.

There’s also a bunch of unfinished stories in the Journal Entries WIP tree, including the long-suffering Robots of the Deep Versus The Vampire Girl of Fallow Five, which includes a name-drop that’s I find hilarious, even if no one else would, a couple of Sterlings stories (including a sequel for the first novel), a story exploring what really happened to the people who attacked llerkin, and one arc I’ve labeled "The Grand Army of the Republic’s schism over Order 66 spills over into The Culture, as seen by the staff and crew of the Rhabwar."

Looking through these, I’m struck by a few details. First: I kinda make up plot strategies as I go along. "Start with theme." "Start with premise." "Start with what the character wants." "Write the last chapter, showing what the character got and work backwards." "Come up with a wham line; now justify it."

Since I write serials, "When last we left our hero, he/she was feeling X. What’s the opposite of X, and how do we get them there?" Eventually, everything get assembled: there is a theme (often "love conquers much"), there’s a premise (you know by the end of the first act who’s gonna boink whom; it’s all a question of how will I torture the characters to get there), there a McKee-ian shift (Hey, this character’s opening mood is stable, how do we mess that up?). Sometimes I write the Big Battle first, sometimes I write the denouement, and then ask myself, "What are all these things they’re talking about?" Usually because my subconscious already knows, it just hasn’t told me.

I am struggling with all of the ones above. Boomer and the Aimee story are outlined, although there’s a bit of meat missing from the middle. Angels and Thorn both suffer from having no ending. Falling Star is in a similar position, but both books are heavily influenced not only by Against a Dark Background and The Algebraist, but also by a lot of the Viz books, like Usurper of the Sun and Stories of Ibis— my work has always had comics and anime and Japanese literature like Harboiled Wonderland and the End of the World in the background as heavy influences. Semithree has some fantastic sex scenes, but the only ending I’ve been able to come up with is tragic.

But I have had some recent successes:

Honest Impulses is written entirely around a Wham Line. The wham line is in Chapter 20, "Antique Notions." I came up with the wham line first, and then said, "What theme leads to this wham line?" (which, in retrospect, turned out to be kinda obvious), and that in turn led to asking the question, "What would characters have to want to get into a situation where this wham line is delivered to explicate this theme?" From there, writing the book was actually easy.

In contrast, Star Kingdom is written around a few simple premises: (1) write a story in a Napoleon-in-Space™ setting that illustrates how badly thought out the economics of such universes usually are, and (2) take two well known characters and do the usual chase-them-up-a-tree-and-set-the-tree-on-fire scenarios. Yeah, there’s a lot of troping in Star Kingdom, but I wrote it for fun. The plot is therefore easy: Two characters in a highly dynamic setting meet and develop mad infatuation for each other. The dynamic setting is the contrast between the usual Napoleon-in-Space™ setting and a more sensible hard-science, hard-economy world. It worked surprisingly well.

Recently completed Journal Entries include Freya’s Senses, which is based first around a simple conflict: Freya is a sex robot (sort-of) who’s soon to be obligated to hang around people she adores personally but is not sexually attracted to at all; how does she reconcile these different parts of herself? Size and Duration has similar theme: the heroine finds herself being romanced by, and is attracted to, a character who a role-playing game would characterize as "high wisdom, but low intelligence," and she’s not sure if she can reconcile that in her head. Dates is just a scene report, and therefore not a story so much as an anecdote. Pale Shadow is basically about someone coming to grips with the idea that he can’t and doesn’t want to be near his partner after they become disabled. A Pleasing Shape is a roman a’clef about easing into adulthood. A Sterling Wish started as plain smut, but that kinda backfired as the story got romantic and the characters did what they wanted and now I don’t have an ending.

Plot strategies, for all that, are still variants on the basic questions: "What does the character want?" "What does the character need, and how does this conflict with what she wants?" "How does their wants or needs conflict with the world?" "How does their wants or needs conflict with other characters?" "How far will the characters go to get their wants or needs met?" "How does the character change as a result of these conflicts?" "How does the character’s changes affect those around them?"

David Mamet was talking about screenwriting, but his rules for scenecraft are perfect for just about anyone:

The main character must have a simple, straightforward, pressing need which impels him or her to show up in the scene. This need is why they came. It is what the scene is about. their attempt to get this need met will lead, at the end of the scene,to failure – this is how the scene is over. It, this failure, will, then, of necessity, propel us into the next scene. All these attempts, taken together, will, over the course of the episode, constitute the plot. The job of the writer is to make the audience wonder what happens next.

Just remember that, and you’ll be fine.

One of the things I appreciate most about sites like Archive of Our Own and Fan Fiction is the notes, the part after the story where the author chats about the current chapter or story, what they did and how they did it. Fanfic sites are often trying hard to teach one another the very craft of writing, so talking and reading about process gives other participants insight into how authors are thinking even as they’re writing.

Obviously, in a traditional novel, that doesn’t work. But I’ve never been a traditional novelist. I posted chapter four of Honest Impulses today, Working Together, which finally gets our two protagonists into the same room, where lots of emotional fireworks seem to be going off all at once. Poor, confused robot and her equally confused new friend. But that’s the nice thing about this story; I’ve tried to apply a lot of McKee’s Story theories to this novel, so there are lots of emotional flips where the character starts out feeling secure and ends up insecure, and then gets flipped back and forth at higher and higher intervals until something breaks.

Anyway, enjoy!

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