Posts Tagged ‘technology’

639876980

If, like me, you stalk the manuscript wish lists of various agents (here and here), then you may begin to see that certain patterns emerge.

One of them is, of course, diversity in all things (not just color, but sexual orientation, gender, socioeconomic background, and disabilities — both physical and mental).  If you write from the perspective of your diverse character (#ownvoices), then you have a leg up, because this is the clarion call right now. Unfortunately for me, as a middle-class, middle-age, healthy white male, there is no special market for “my” voice.  Which means I have to focus on another trend I see.

A couple of months ago I wrote about the explosion of new genres and sub-genres in speculative fiction, these days.  Gone are the days of simply Westerns, Romances, Science Fiction, and Mainstream.  Science Fiction alone has fractured into Horror, Fantasy, and Sci-Fi.  And within those are dozens of sub-genres, each with their own rules and audience: Paranormal Romance, Steampunk, Space Opera, Military Futurism, Dystopian, Historical Fantasy, Fairy-tale Retelling, and on and on.  The trend I’m seeing in agent’s wish lists is to recombine and create something new.  Find the literary equivalent of a chocolate bar stuck in a jar of peanut butter, yielding the next great taste sensation.

sddefaultA retelling of Cinderella, but with androids! Romeo and Juliet, but set during the Civil War.  You get the idea.  Waterworld was basically Mad Max but in the ocean instead of the desert.

If you can find that perfect but untried combination — and pitch it correctly — you have an enormous advantage over your competition in the slush pile.

 

 

James-West-Wild-Wild-West-Robert-Conrad-dI’m working on my own one of these.  Steampunk has taken on a life of its own.  It actually goes back to the days of Jules Verne and Disney’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.  And do you remember Wild Wild West, and all of the futuristic gadgets they had up their sleeves … and in their boots and on their train?  Steampunk + Western? That show was before its time, but it would fit right in today.

Steampunk is based on Verne’s worlds of Victorian England, but with modern devices cobbled together out of the technology of the day.  Like Doc Brown’s ice maker in 1885, from Back to the Future III.  However modern movies, television, and literature have taken the original idea of Steampunk and found a dozen new ways to define it: Cyberpunk (computers), Dieselpunk (1930’s, engines), Biopunk (biological experimentation), Mythpunk (post-modernized folklore and fairy tales), Stonepunk (think The Flintstones), and several others.

I have an idea for a world which is different from any of these, but still in the tradition of the original Steampunk idea.  And its for kids.  If I can find a way to define it and name it, I just may have a hook when I pitch it.  I’d rather not go into details just yet.  Not until I have a handle on it and flesh it out a bit more. Oh, and of course, I have to answer the most important question of all:

?????punk.

783768098_1701201

Unless you’ve been hiding in a cave or possibly just awoken from a prolonged coma, you will have noticed that all of the literary genre’s have come unstuck. Once upon a time they were pretty straight-forward: fantasy, science-fiction, romance, horror, mystery, western, and “mainstream.” There were books for adults and books for kids, broken into books for little kids (board books, and storybooks) and books for big kids (Nancy Drew and The Babysitter’s Club). And like old-time manners, these genres and age groups kept politely to themselves and did not step outside of their own social circles.

Then Something Happened, and the genres started to mix and mingle and breed offspring which had their own ideas and demanded to be recognized. Horror and fantasy got pushed aside by paranormal and magical realism, while science fiction shelves became segregated into military, post-apocalyptic, and space opera. Today there are hundreds of genre “grandchildren” to be found (biopunk, cyberpunk, decopunk, dieselpunk, solarpunk, and steampunk are all established genres).

And of course children’s books age categories went through a similar evolution: pictures books, early readers, and chapter books for the little kids, and “juvenile” and “teen” gave way to lower middle grade, upper middle grade, young adult, and new adult.

The mixing continues. Today you can find historic fantasy, comedy space western, and paranormal romance.

The challenge of coming up with something original seems a bit daunting. I have been scribbling down notes for a new series of adventure books for a lower middle grade audience (because they can be shorter), that has a steampunky feel to it. Well, fantasy steampunk. Contemporary fantasy steampunk adventure. Ahem. The thing about steampunk is that is has definite adult conventions, such as buxom women in leather bustiers, dark alley murders, and lots of absynth. Naturally, none of these things have a place in books written for 7-10 year olds. I discovered in my research into children’s steampunk that there are not very many books written like this. To be sure, steampunk is very popular in the young adult market, where those adult themes can make an appearance, but not for “children.” This means two things: there are few examples I can use for inspiration and guidance, but it also means this is a largely untapped market, if I can find the right balance.

There is certainly a great deal of material left to work with in the steampunk genre. Kids love the idea of building elaborate gadgets – have you been to a toy store lately? Kids love any kind of machine that goes – fast cars, flying machines, rockets, submarines, walking tanks, you name it. I do not intend to set this in Victorian England, which is the gold standard for steampunk, however I have seen plenty of examples of people being transported to parallel worlds or alternate timelines where technology is more primitive or electricity and fossils fuels are unavailable.

I just happen to have this contemporary fantasy world laying around (from my daughter’s and my Fae-born series, where descendants of the fearie-folk live among us). In the third book were were planning to have the classic fae of old descend upon the earth when their faerie realm is unlocked, resulting in a war. It would enhance that storyline and perfectly set up the new series to have the fae’s magic and presence in our world completely disrupt our modern technologies. If you take away electricity, that pretty much kills everything – vehicles, the power grid, communications, even nuclear and solar power. What you have left is clever clockwork versions of traditional gadgets. Lots of steampunk relies on crystals for power. Our hero will have access to magic. And LEGOs. And comic books full of superheroes for inspiration. Imagine an 8yo inventor with a cape and a jet pack (powered by a flying spell), and goggles that let him see through walls. With faerie assassins and gangs of goblin thugs to fight, as well as mysteries to solve with clever gadgets.

Meet Thomas Brökkenwier, the Gadgeteer.

Photo Jun 16, 1 19 43 PM

slim-case-laptop

A couple of weeks ago, I gleefully told you about my economical and oh, so convenient solution for writing on-the-go: my iWerkz folding bluetooth keyboard, which lets me write on my phone anywhere and at a moment’s notice.  This is great for getting in some writing during my short breaks at my retail job.

But let me be honest — I still want a laptop.  And I still don’t have the money for one.  And even if I had one, it would not be as portable as a phone.  Well, I found a perfect middle-ground, and I am in writer-geek heaven.

I happen to have a two-year-old iPad Mini.  I hear, you … what happened to “economical”?  Well, you can pick up a brand new iPad Mini 2 direct from Apple for less than $270.  There are better deals and refurbished iPads available all over the place, including deals on eBay for around $150.  Mine had been pretty much claimed by my eight-year-old son.  I bought him a dandy 7″ tablet from Barnes & Nobel for just $50, and now I have my iPad back full-time.

So what’s my killer solution? I found a rocking keybord case for the iPad Mini. It’s made by Zagg, who is known for quality cases for Apple devices, and this one is called the Zagg Slim Book for iPad Mini 2 or 3.  It’s been around for a couple of years, because the iPad Mini 2 came out three years ago. And that’s the best part of this; instead of the original retail price of $119, I paid only $26 for my case on Amazon, with free shipping.

It’s fantastic. As you can see, above, it looks just like a MacBook, with an aluminum keyboard with black, back-lit keys.  The top row of buttons take you to the home screen, turn the iPad on or off, launch Siri, launch search, and control video and audio playback and volume. While smaller than a standard-sized keyboard, this Zagg keyboard is surprisingly easy and enjoyable to use.  It really is as if I turned my iPad into the world’s tiniest MacBook. The keyboard even supports the familiar alt/tab feature that lets you easily switch between apps.

But that’s just the beginning. The “screen” part of the mini laptop (the actual iPad itself) is attached to the hinge mechanism by a series of very strong magnets. Which means you can detach it and use the iPad without the keyboard. This also means you can flip it around and use the keyboard behind the iPad as a convenient stand for viewing videos. And in this configuration, you can fold the keyboard flat behind in what they call “book mode.”

slim-case-book

 

The rechargeable keyboard has a two year battery life.  That’s right, two YEARS. Even if it’s only half that….

Here’s a nice video review.

The best part is that I can carry this around with me. I’m planning to get one of those padded slip cases for a little added protection and to hold a pencil and note pad. I already have apps for Wikipedia, Webster’s Dicionary/Thesaurus, and, of course, Microsoft Word and OneNote — all free. On an iPad, Word works without a 360 subscription, and it is integrated seamlessly with DropBox. I used my new keyboard case to compose this blog, and found it effortless.

If you happen to already have an iPad (Zagg makes this exact same case for the full-sized iPad, too), you can turn it into basically a touch-screen reversible laptop for under $50. The reversible touch-screen Windows laptop I bought my daughter cost ten times that much. If you decide to try this case, I’d love to hear your reviews.

Daddy’s Little Helper

Posted: December 15, 2016 in Writing
Tags: , , , ,

img_1088

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Writers write — they don’t let little things like lifestyle get in their way.

I work seven days a week and have a family, including three kids, two cats and a wife. When the family is awake I’m not writing, and sometimes I don’t get home from work until 11:00 pm. So how did I manage to write a whole novel in under two years? When do I write?

Whenever.  I developed the same habit old soldiers develop around sleep — any time you can catch a few winks.*

Most of the time I do my writing between 11pm and 1am.  But I often try to write on my lunch hour at work.  I’ve made Dropbox an invaluable part of my writing arsenal, because I can access my WIP from any device at any time, and always be sure I have the very latest draft.  Autosave is a huge timesaver. Microsoft made Word available as a free download for smartphones, and you don’t even need a 365 subscription to use it, so I can open and edit the same Word documents as those I access on my office PC.

I discovered a whole chunk of unused time, however, and recently took steps to remedy that. My second job is retail, and when I work on the weekends I get a half-hour lunch and one or two 15 minute breaks, but I don’t have a PC at my disposal.  When I work in the evenings, I just get one break.  However trying to write using the on-screen keyboard on my iPhone is not particularly efficient.

So for my birthday I treated myself to an iWerkz folding bluetooth keyboard.  It only cost $30 on Amazon.img_1089

The notch you see in the case holds a iPad at a convenient angle, and there is a little pull-out tab on the case which holds my iPhone in landscape mode (as above). And the best part is that I can easily carry this in my back pocket on the sales floor, so when I get a break I don’t need to waste any time running to my locker.  I can grab a beverage and be writing in 2 minutes.  My laptop takes longer than that to boot up.

I may not get a lot of writing done in 15 minutes, but I get some done.  Mostly I use this time to review what I wrote last and polish it. Best of all, I keep the story fresh in my mind between bursts of writing.

So if you find yourself using lack of time as an excuse to not write, here’s your opportunity to give that excuse up.

 

 

 

*Unfortunately, I developed the same habit around snacking.

Mini rex rabbit appearing from a top hat, isolated

About 35 years ago, when I was in high school and just beginning to think about writing seriously, I remember reading an article in Starlog magazine. It may have been written by David Gerrold, who had several columns in Starlog over the years. But the piece I remember talked about the difference between science fiction and fantasy. The author pointed out that science fiction had rules – that was the “science” part – whether the story involved science or technology or whatever. In science fiction, if a character can read minds or levitate objects, there must be rules about how that skill can and can’t be used, its limitations, etc. Whereas in fantasy, you can say the character can simply blink his left eye and levitate something. Fantasy needn’t have rules.

Immediately this bothered me. Oh, I saw the truth of it in the stories I read at the time. On one hand I had Larry Niven and Robert Heinlein with their hard science fiction that always made sense and was always internally consistent. And on the other hand I had Piers Anthony with his pun-filled Xanth books where nothing was sacred and anything seemed to be possible because of wild magic. I saw something then that I have always held onto in my writing (and reading), and that is that fantasy aught to have rules, too. After all, magic is really nothing but science we don’t yet understand. Science we understand perfectly will appear as magic to someone who does not understand it.

So I set out to write my Great American Overlong Fantasy Epic with this radical idea in the front of my mind: the magic has to make sense, it has to be internally consistent. I would treat it like science as if I was writing a science fiction novel.

Years later I began to realize that I was not the only person to do this, and if you listen to any successful fantasy writer or writing instructor today, they will tell you that your magic system must make logical sense, be internally consistent and have clear limitations and consequences. Many people still equate sci-fi with space ships and ray guns, and fantasy with dragons and wizards, ad leave it at that. But, in fact, Star Wars is pure fantasy. It’s like the Xanth books; there is no attempt to define or quantify “the Force” and the technology – while it looks fantastic – is based on no science anywhere. A planet that is a ball filled with water, where you can pilot a submarine from one side to the other by going through the middle? Giant tanks that walk on four legs? A spherical space station the size of a small moon? Whereas books like The Dresdon Files, a series about a wizard who lives in present day Chicago, are more like science fiction than fantasy, because Harry Dresdon’s magic is tightly defined, internally consistent, and its limitations are an integral part of the character and plot. Harry’s magic is as much science fiction as the transporters on Star Trek. Neither happens to exist, but if you accept that they do in their respective universes, they are both utterly reliable (or predictably unreliable) every time.

I am involved in a summer critique group for authors with finished manuscripts. One of those manuscripts is a middle grade of great promise that happens to deal with several kinds of magic. However, in reviewing it I found that I was vexed by the complete lack of differentiation between the different kinds of magic. One was witchcraft, another was priest-based magic, and the third was wizard-type magic. But in practice, they all worked exactly the same. In my view, if a character casts a spell, the reader should instantly be able to tell what kind of magic it is. The thing that really put the nail in the coffin for me was the priests were accusing a main character of using witchcraft, when that character was actually a wizard (and being accused of witchcraft was apparently a great insult). But the wizard in question was actually using priest-based spells against the priests! And the priests still thought they were dealing with a witch.

Audiences are much more sophisticated now than they were 35 years ago. Because authors and filmmakers have realized that any skill set – magic, technology, super-powers – must be defined, have limitations and remain consistent. And if there are more than one in a given story, they must be distinct. In The Avengers, we have four super-strong heroes: Iron Man, Captain America, Thor and the Hulk. But their super strength is different in every case, and each has their own limitations. Thor is an alien, whose race is generally stronger than humans, while Iron Man wears a suit invented by Tony Stark. Both Captain America and the Hulk are strong because of gamma radiation (under very different circumstances), but the Hulks strength is Bruce Banner’s weakness, and the Hulk is a beast with little or no control. And Captain America is a man out of his time with strong values which severely limits what he is willing or capable of doing. Of all of these strong men, only Thor can lift Thor’s hammer.

All four of these men have very distinct kinds of physical strength, which are used in different ways under different circumstances. The book I mentioned above is more like a superhero movie with three Supermen, each wearing a different colored cape.

So if you are writing speculative fiction, and your story contains some special skill or technology, it will pay to make it believable. I don’t mean possible. Science fiction has never been limited by the possible. Only the believable. Faster-than-light travel is not possible. But it is readily accepted in science fiction as long as it is treated like an existing science. In today’s market, magic is the same way. Even for children. Because the competition is fierce and readers of all ages are less forgiving than ever.