Voice Actor. Author. Alien. Human

MECHANICAL FAILURE Launches Tomorrow!

Hi everyone!

I've been a bit out of touch lately gearing up for the launch as well as a billion other things going on in my multiple careers that all seemed to happen at the same time.

Can you believe MECHANICAL FAILURE launches tomorrow? I've heard reports that copies have already made their way onto shelves at Barnes and Nobles and other booksellers, so I may go roving tonight and see if I can't sign some stock.

If you are in the Los Angeles area, you are cordially invited to attend my launch party, tomorrow, June 14th, at Barnes and Noble in Santa Monica. The address is 1201 3rd Street and the event starts at 7 PM. I expect it to last about an hour, perhaps a little longer. 

We will be having a tweeting/instagram contest, so bring your phones to take pictures! You could win a FREE COPY of the audiobook and some other stuff I've got planned.

The event hashtag is #MechanicalFailure. You can of course tweet straight at me on Twitter, too. 

If you still want to get your hands on a copy of the book but won't be at the launch party, you can order it here: http://amzn.to/1PpBOPd

I am SO EXCITED to get some humorous Sci-Fi out there in the world. I hope you can join me tomorrow! Please keep your eyeballs on the events list for a signing near you.

[EXPLETIVE!] (you'll get that joke tomorrow)

The (My) Path To Publishing

Since I've made the announcement about selling MECHANICAL FAILURE, I've had a bunch of people ask me how to get their novel on the shelf at the local Barnes and Noble.

Let's be honest; there are thousands upon thousands of articles out there on the interwebs on how to get your novel published. At the risk of being redundant, I'm going to try to break down my own personal journey into five phases (I hate the word "steps" because it implies a non-iterative, linear process) that got me here. Just remember that this was my journey. I know many authors that came about this in different ways. Take this for what it is: a personal story, and not a prescription.

And because I've been in the military, I'll give all my phases operational code names. I haven't gotten to do that in a while and it's kind of fun.

1. Operation WRITE, DAMN YOU

A lot of people don't give this step enough attention for a couple of reasons. First, it's hard. Second, it's hard. Third, it's also difficult. Writing takes a long time, a lot of trial and error, and, actually, a lot of reading as well. If you're not consuming literature, or at least reading books on writing, you run the risk of writing things that are not very good. But the main point is that you might have to produce an awful lot of words before any of them are worth reading. David Farland, a renowned writing teacher and author, asserts that you must write a million words before you write anything good.  That will take you time. START NOW.

To further bust the myth that publishing just happens, here's what I did. For me, between 2010 and 2015, I wrote 6 novels and about 40 short stories (about 15 of which were sold to semi-pro/pro markets). I sometimes used NaNoWriMo as a jumping-off point, but for the most part I just wrote as much as I physically could, to the tune of - wait for it - 1,005,972 words before I wrote the first word of MECHANICAL FAILURE. Weird, right? According to the aforementioned urban legend, I'm 5,972 words crappier than average. Awesome.

2. Operation TALK TO PEOPLE SOMETIMES

I am of the firm belief that art is pointless if done in a vacuum. I mean, all those tubes and all of that suction really make it hard to see whatever you're doing, never mind concentrate with all of the noise going on.

Do you see why I sold a humor book?

Anyway, I meant what I said. Art is a form of deep communication; in order for it to "work" you need to communicate with someone. This comes in many forms, but at first you need to have people read your work. They need to be people whose tastes you trust and whose opinions you value. Your mom does not count unless she is a literary agent or editor and is also mean. You can join a writing group or pawn off your work to a book club and discuss. Be prepared to reciprocate; nobody wanted to read my crappy 150,000 word novel unless I read their crappy 150,000 word novel in the attempt to make them both less crappy.

How did this go for me? I was in an online writing group for a while, met a couple of people whose opinions I trusted, and broke off from that group, keeping those relationships I had fostered. I found fans of SF/F in the air force unit I was in and asked if they'd mind reading it. It worked; I got lots of great feedback.

Also, get engaged with the community at large. I went to WORLDCON - the world's premier SciFi/Fantasy convention - and started talking to thought leaders, agents, and editors in the industry. Schmoozing, if you will. I weaseled my way onto a couple of panels because I was ostensibly an expert in military affairs, having been in the military, even though I hadn't published a book yet.

3. Operation SHOW THAT YOU ARE NOT F$#KING AROUND

One of the greatest pieces of encouragement I ever got from another author when I was starting was from Myke Cole, the first professional I ever became friends with. I asked him to take a look at my novel, and he agreed. Afterwards, he encouraged me to send it to his agent, saying that "this manuscript absolutely demonstrates to anyone who reads it that Joe Zieja isn't  f$#king around."

You need to show the right person that you are not f$#king around.

Once you've got a manuscript that is probably going to win you a Hugo Award, it's time to send it out so that people can tell you it will never win a Hugo Award. The best place to start is with an agent - someone who the industry respects as a taste-leader in fiction, who will be taken seriously by editors when she/he sends them your book.

Back to my story.  The novel Myke was talking about? That was novel #4. Not MECHANICAL FAILURE. Don't get ahead of yourself yet. Publishing is about building your talent, but it's also about building your relationships. Joshua at JABberwocky Literary Agency did read the book, did see that I was serious about this, and then absolutely did not accept it for representation. Why? Because it wasn't ready.

The next book was.

But woah there. It was not so simple. You see, things always happen in ways you never expect. Did Joshua read the next book? No. Why? Because his assistant, Sam, took one look at the title and stole it from him. It was a much better fit, and you'll find that there is a lot based on "fit" in this business. Some people love stories about evil teddy bears. Some people don't. You can't please everyone.

4. Operation PULL YOUR HAIR OUT AND CRY AND ASK WHY GOD WHY DID I DO THIS

All artistic endeavors are about learning to accept rejection gracefully and not be discouraged from continuing what you are passionate about. Even when you get the 100th rejection letter (you will get 100 rejection letters) you have to keep writing. Because when you get that agent, when they finally accept your book and say "this should be on the shelves," you know what you get to do?

Get rejected. Except this time it's by editors.

The book that JABberwocky originally snagged from me was not MECHANICAL FAILURE. It was a zany, ridiculous fantasy novel called DEATH BEAR AND THE SNUGGLE OF DOOM that I really hope you'll get to read one day. I don't think the world was ready for it. It got rejected by everyone my agent sent it to. Someone even found my house, put the manuscript on my doorstep, lit it on fire, and then rang the doorbell and dashed away.

Okay that's a lie. But that's what it felt like. It was so much worse for me personally than getting rejected by agents - now I felt like I was on the cusp of being published and continually let down (I'm purposefully not using an analogy that involves cerulean spherical objects because I am a decent, good man and I know my mother reads this blog).

While that was happening, though, I was still writing books. And editors were learning my name (see #3). And one editor, who liked my style, asked me if I had anything that, given my background, was military sci-fi with a humorous bent.

"Sure!" I said, typing furiously. "I have like, a thousand of those, but my email is down, and uh, you're breaking up *static noise*"

That was MECHANICAL FAILURE. I wrote it very quickly. He bought it.

5. Operation GET RICH AND DIE FAT AND HAPPY

Hahaha I'm just kidding. If you want to see some real statistics of real authors publishing real books, check out Jim Hines' blog post about his writing income and Bradley Beaulieu's post about the same.

While I'm waiting for the gold bullion to come pouring in, I'm busy marketing the hell out of my book. Selling a novel isn't the last step in the process - there's edits, copy edits, marketing, events, getting established on social media like Twitter and Facebook , and generating hype about the book. There's still a lot to be done before I can even start thinking about the next book in the series.

That brings us to today. That's my path! I hope you learned something. Feel free to reblog or ask questions in the comments section below.

Interested in seeing the fruit of my labor? Pre-order MECHANICAL FAILURE today and you get to read this blog article again at no additional cost by refreshing the page!

Don't Worry - You Can Still Get Paid To Write: How To Depress People With Bad Statistics

Short little article here for you that's somewhat of a duplicate from my Facebook page, but I thought it could go as a blog article too.  I apologize if you're afraid of re-used content.

My author friends are passing this link around today, and I immediately raised an eyebrow when I saw it. Something didn't feel right, and I generally dislike doomsday articles. So I read the whole thing, and one line really slapped me in the face:

"Around one in six writers did not earn any money from their writing in 2013, it said - despite 98% saying their work had been published or used in other ways."

Wait.

What?

One in six "professional" writers aren't earning any money from their writing?   To me, this said that the net they cast must have been really wide. I mean...do you ask people who aren't making any money as a plumber (but who occasionally fix their sinks) to report on the status of the profession of plumbing?  Seemed pretty wonky to me.

So I opened the actual PDF of the report.  I didn't need to read very far to get my answer.

The Methodology section stated that the only way it selected participants was to send a SurveyMonkey link to about 35,000 members of two British writers' associations called ALCS and the Society of Authors - this is how they qualified "professional" writer.

From the Methodology Section

Hum.  Okay, well, maybe they're like unions in the US, where you have to earn a minimum of $x.xx to be a part.   Let's find out:  How do you get into these associations that qualify you as pro enough to be used in a BBC-reported statistical study?

The answer from the websites themselves:  You pay about $50. That's it. They have even less requirements than America's SFWA (which mandates certain publication credits in reputable markets). In these associations, you don't even have to have published any work at all.  You don't even need to have written a paragraph longer than your credit card number.

To me, that makes the data, and the article, pretty worthless.

I'm not one to be elitist and say that only traditionally published authors coming from respectable publishers can be considered professional, but I think the data would be far more useful if that is who it was confined to.  Or at least, you know, people that got paid.  In ten clicks or less, anyone can be a published author via Amazon and then sell absolutely nothing.  Does that make them a professional?  I would argue no.  So some hard criteria would have to be applied.  I would love to see this survey taken using just SFWA membership as a criteria.

Right now, this is a really long winded way of saying "Breaking into an art-driven business like writing or acting is hard."  What a revelation!

The result, I think, is an article that is not statistically sound being used (probably inadvertently) to discourage writers everywhere. Don't get me wrong - this business is hard. I've barely scratched the surface, and I've been trying for four years. But I doubt the real numbers would paint this dour a picture.

So cheer up and get back to the keyboard.  You have a story to tell, and you're not going to let anyone tell you it's not worth telling.  Especially not tabulated SurveyMonkey results.

I Am A Writer, and I Want To Ruin Your Life

Writing is a discipline of unintentional instruction. I don't think many self-respecting writers will tell you that they have all the answers and that by reading their books you will glean the most valuable pieces of wisdom that will help you life a better and more fulfilled life. But that's the funny thing - it happens all the time anyway. You can't control it. When you read, you learn, even if the writer had no intention of teaching you.

That's because, aside from the many different other ways we learn about ourselves, our existence, and everything else, we learn vicariously through the lives and examples of other people. While nobody's life is more valuable than another's, the great thing about stories vs. real people is that you can stretch a person to their limits and see what they're made of without causing any real damage to an actual human being. You can put yourself in their shoes and wonder "if I'm ever in this situation, how would I act? How would I want myself to act?  Would I measure up?"  Reading other people's stories widens your point of view, expands your idea of what it means to be human, a man, a woman, neither.

That being said, I want to openly declare my attention to ruin your life.

I don't want you to read my stories and laugh.  I mean, yes, of course a chuckle would be good, since I'm a humor writer among other things, but I want more.  I want to ruin your public persona because you are on a bus and can't stop laughing and everyone thinks you're nuts.  When you run  for president ten years later, I want to ruin your campaign because someone came of the woodwork and say "I saw that psycho ten years ago giggling to himself on a bus!"

I don't want to distract you from your life, I want to ruin it.  I want to shake it at the foundations because you see something in one of my characters that reminds me of you.  Or your mom.  Or your brother.  Or that guy on the corner who you always ignore but now maybe you want to say hi to.

I don't want you to read my stories in your spare time.  I want you to stay up late, give up a few hours of sleep, because you're too busy reading.  I want you to give someone important in your life that really irritating "mm hmm" answer because your nose is so deep in one of my stories you can smell the characters' body odor.  I want you to suddenly realize it's 5PM and you haven't eaten anything in three days because, shit, this book is good.

In short, I don't want you to read my stories.  That's a cheap aspiration.  I want my stories to shake something inside of you to the point where your life is different because of something I wrote.  Entertaining is good - we all need to be entertained from time to time.  But ruining your life?  That's better.

Maybe it's an arrogant goal, but I feel like I'm not serving you as a reader unless I'm working toward it.  I may never get there, of course.  None of this has been about how good I am or how good I think I can be.  Just about how good I want to be.

WORLDCON 2014 in Review

Last week I traveled to London to experience the 72nd World Science Fiction Convention, also known as WORLDCON or LONCON3 (it being the third WORLDCON held in London.)  It was my second WORLDCON and third convention overall (I attended Life, the Universe and Everything back in the beginning of 2012) but I hadn't been to one in over two years thanks to moving around the country and simply not having the time or funds to do so.

The conference was held at the illustrious ExCel (I'm not really sure what's up with the random capital letters) in the equally illustrious London Docklands (read: a place that used to be suitable only for salty sailors).  So, I have to say the location wasn't nearly as good as the previous WORLDCON I'd been to in Chicago, which was much closer to the city center and surrounded by businesses, restaurants, and bars.  ExCel was...not.

[caption id="attachment_745" align="aligncenter" width="490"]wpid-imag0066.jpg Plenty of water though...yep...all that water, just...waiting for you.[/caption]

 

But there was the programming, right?  Well, LonCon3 was happy to have panels called "What is Azad" (I still don't know) and "Saturday Morning Cartoons," but the programming staff wasn't interested in having a military in fiction panel run by 3 very prestigious authors (and some idiot named Joe Zieja).  So I didn't have any programming to attend either.  I attempted to go to panels three times, but the otherwise mammoth ExCel center kept turning me away from panel rooms that were too full (I know, I guess I could have waited in line, but still.)

So, alright.  Strange location in London.  Told to shove off when I proposed a panel.  Unable to get into any panels that seemed interesting.  Chased by mad giraffes after I stole their spots.  What does one do?

Well...I kinda blew it off.

I mean, I was in London for Christ's sake, completely by myself, so what was I supposed to do?  I spent most of every day in the middle of London, seeing some sights, relaxing, and EATING MY WAY THROUGH EVERYTHING.  People complain about British food being bland, but there are definitely some things they get right.  And I also found my happy place.

wpid-wp-1408825084349.jpeg

 

I happened upon this tea house while I was coming back from parkour at Vauxhall (I'll get there in a second) and it was so amazing I actually ended up going there three times over the next four days.  It's been there since 1862 or some crazy year like that, and practically everything they have - the cakes, the scones, the jam - is made from scratch on site.  Their food, which I didn't get to experience because I WAS TOO BUSY EATING CAKE, was also locally grown/sourced and, from what I saw on other people's plates, looked amazing.  So I would come here, relax, have a pot of tea, and either think about life or work on my latest novel.  Whatever craziness happened during the day (one of my days included a 3-hour stuck-in-pubic-transportation mess while I tried to get to the Churchill War Rooms) I found a little bit of peace here in the tea house, with the large fields of grassy parks next to it.

[caption id="attachment_735" align="aligncenter" width="490"]I also found scones. Lots of scones. I also found scones. Lots of scones.[/caption]

So.  Food.  Tea.  Cask ales.  Meat pies.  And there was also parkour.

I'm not really sure I've written about parkour on here yet, which is strange, but for those of you unfamiliar with it, it's basically being a crazy spaz in urban jungles and jumping off/on/through/around/over objects, swinging from scaffolding, and altogether convincing everyone around you that you have lost your goddamn mind.  Just look it up on YouTube and you'll have plenty of stuff to look at.

I do parkour (that makes me a traceur - keep up with the French, now) and it just so happens that London is home to some of the most iconic parkour spots in the world, like Vauxhall here, where I met a couple of random French traceurs that were really nice.

[caption id="attachment_742" align="aligncenter" width="490"]I have no idea what the actual function of this place is. I have no idea what the actual function of this place is.[/caption]

And, it just so happened that this very same weekend was a massive parkour gathering put on by Parkour Generations, one of the best parkour schools in London, called the 2014 Rendezvous (French, remember?).  I got to hang out with some really amazing traceurs who, in the short time I was able to be with them, welcomed me into their fold and helped me refine my technique.  I only wish I could have spent more time with them during the two-day event, but I actually DID have some LonCon stuff that I needed to do.  So after I got done OH SHIT A BRIDGE HOLD UP A SEC

 

[caption id="attachment_739" align="aligncenter" width="490"]ACTION MAN. Pit stains not included. ACTION MAN. Pit stains not included.[/caption]

Right, so after I got done running away from the London police (I did not actually run away from the police), there were actually some con things I had in the evenings that were pretty cool.  The daytime was for London, the nighttime was for AUTHOR-ATING.  I had the chance to hang out at the SFWA reception and meet some folks that I had missed at the last Worldcon, and was eventually whisked away by someone from JABberwocky Literary Agency to go hang out at one of the (few) local bars, where I met some great folks from Gollancz, Tachyon, Harper/Voyager, etc.  As I'm relatively new to the industry, and relatively segregated thanks to moving around a lot, it was a little bit of a whirlwind getting to meet everyone.  It's a little embarrassing when someone tells you that they work for one of the top publishing houses in the UK, and you ask "who is that?"  But Joshua (from JABberwocky) took care of me, so I managed not to put my foot all the way in  my mouth.

Relaxing in the evenings with other authors was fantastic as well, some of whom are quickly becoming some of my favorite people.  And my wonderful friend Amy Sundberg  managed to land me a ticket to World Fantasy Convention in DC this November, which I had stupidly not registered for before it filled up.

So, while I can't say I really went to the con very much, I had a great time in London, met some absolutely wonderful people, ate a lot of scones, jumped over some shit, sprained my left ankle, bruised my right heel, and altogether had oodles of fun.  For right now, I'm happy to be home and not having to pack/unpack my voiceover studio again, and very glad that the next convention (World Fantasy) is very close to home.

Here's one last picture of me having a fistfight with gravity, because I know my mom reads this blog and these photos make her nervous.

[caption id="attachment_748" align="aligncenter" width="490"]Wheeee! Reckless disregard for self-preservation! Wheeee! Reckless disregard for self-preservation![/caption]

Love you, mom.

A Writing Workshop For Those That Can't Afford a Writing Workshop

If you're not familiar with Mary Robinette Kowal, she's one of the hosts of Writing Excuses as well as being a veteran puppeteer and fantasy author.  She's great people, and she's one of the best advocates out there for up-and-coming writers.  I wanted to help spread the word about a workshop she's offering, because it sounds like a really wonderful opportunity.

"I’m offering a one-day intensive on writing rounded characters. This is a sliding scale workshop and is specifically for people who can’t afford to attend a regular workshop. You don’t have to submit a writing sample, or jump through any hoops to apply. Just pay what you can. If that’s $5, that’s fine. If it’s $50. Cool.

I just ask that if you can afford to pay for a full workshop, in this case $150, that you sit this one out. It’s part of my regular weekend intensive. I’m only breaking it out into a single day because I figure there are folks who can ask for one day off from work, but not two."

 

Part of the magic of Writing Excuses and other like-minded efforts in the modern age is that it makes writing feel accessible and achievable to those who have always thought that publication was something that happened to other people.  This is just another great opportunity from the pros who remember what it was like to be that person, and trying their damndest to make sure it doesn't hinder the newcomers.

Click here for details.  

Writing Groups: Do They Help?

Getting people to read and give feedback on your fiction is an outrageously important aspect of writing, but finding people to read your stories critically is tough.  You give your story to your spouse or girlfriend, and they’re automatically biased to liking it AND understanding your point of view, something that most readers won’t be able to do. Friends fall into the same category.  While we all have that friend that has no problem telling you that wearing a scarf and a T-shirt in August looks dumb, you need more than one opinion.

That’s why I like writing groups, particularly online ones.  Of course there are some bad sides to being in an online group, but for the most part you can deliver criticism from behind the Internet Shield.  In most cases I see this as an awful, awful thing – like when people disrespect each other on Facebook arguments and say shit they would NEVER say in person – but in this case I think it’s a good thing.  It allows people to give you feedback on your writing in a way that is both brutally honest and (hopefully) useful.

That and it’s a lot easier to find a group online than it is in your local area.  I’ve lived in some pretty obscure places, and had I needed to rely on a real-person writing group, I would have been screwed.

That being said, being in a writing group is a skill in and of itself.  Most people don’t understand that, but there’s a skill to critiquing work.   You can’t treat it like a review – that’s not helpful and you come off like an pretentious idiot – but you also can’t treat it like an English teacher, where you just red pen all the misplaced commas and call it done.  That’s not helpful either, and it makes me want to poke you in the eye.

Sometimes, you’ll find a writing group that is full of people who do the above, or, worse, do nothing at all.  You give them brilliant, unbelievable critiques, and they read your story and say “hey this is good thanks.”

My point in highlighting this is that being in a BAD writing group is BAD.  Being in a GOOD writing group is GOOD.  Knowing how to tell the difference is extremely important.

But I’m not part of a writing group.  HYPOCRITE?

Well, yeah, probably.  Yes.  I was in a fantastic writing group for about two years, an online one at farlandswritersgroups.com, a place I still recommend to people who need a trove of authors ready to consume their work and exchange it.  My problem became twofold.

First, I wanted to focus on writing novels, and doing novels in a critique group is really hard for a number of reasons.   Second, time.  At this point in my life, I’m trying to work a day job to keep my family afloat, write novels, expand my voiceover and music business, and still be available to my wife and daughter.  I just don’t have time to read other people’s novels and critique them, at least not without sacrificing something that is keeping me sane.

So, can writing groups help your writing and your career?  Abso-freaking-lutely.   But I think it, like all things, comes with a balance, and the wherewithal to understand when something is helping you and when something is standing in your way.

The Ten Impacting Books Meme

This popped up on Facebook and someone asked me to answer it, so I thought this might be a good place to post it!  Leave some notes on your opinions.

While these probably change daily and I'm sure I'm forgetting some, here are (currently) the ten books that have had the most impact on me.. I've included three non-fiction books because I took "impact" as also including "changing the way you think or act" as well as "struck you as super awesome stories."

1.) The Blue Sword by Robin McKinley - easily my entrance into fantasy as a genre, before I understood what it was (I was like 11). Strangely I started my fantasy journey with two books that had females as the lead character, something that certainly wasn't popular 20 years ago when I started reading.

2.) The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss - at some point it transformed from a fantasy novel into a thing of beauty. I love this book and I hate Patrick Rothfuss for not being an actual musician and understanding music so well.

3.) Memory of Light (last book in Wheel of Time). It's rare that I have to stop reading a book midway because I can't take the emotional strain. I literally put this book down after "the Last Battle" chapter and had to take a break. I'm not a huge fan of the denouement, but that was like the best chapter ever written.

4.) The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingslover. Just a really emotionally gripping story about a missionary family in Africa that I still think about many years after reading it.

5.) Catch-22. Being in the military and having a dry sense of humor, this is a must read for anyone and I absolutely loved it.

6.) Starship Troopers - Again, colored by my military experience, I read very few novels that really get across what it feels like to be in the service. This was one of them.

7.) It Starts With Food - Non fiction book explaining the biological impacts of the standard American diet and what you can do to change it. If there was one book to sum up the "real food" movement and why it's important, this it it (and it doesn't talk about GMO, so don't start acting like a jackass because that debate makes your internet-muscles flex)

8.) The Five Love Languages - Cheesy, I know, but every couple must read this book. It will change the way you think about communicating with your spouse.  Actually, it can be expanded to include communicating with everyone.

9.)  Husband Coached Childbirth - Completely reshaped how my wife and I went through pregnancy and birth together, as a team.  Changing the way we thought about childbirth (as in destroying the modern stereotypes and looking at how we were designed to do this) has had a real and tangible effect on how it all unfolded with my daughter's birth.

10.)  Brian Jacques' Redwall series - I'm reaching a bit, here as I run out of books (I read a lot of books but I don't know that many have really made a huge impact) but these were a huge part of my childhood reading experience and I still get hungry when I think of the feast scenes that are ubiquitous in the series

11.) Fifty Shades of..err...umm. Nevermind.

SHATTERED SHIELDS: An Anthology That Will Totally Have Me In It

I’ve had to sit on this piece of news for a while now as the machinations of the publishing world worked their magic and connected dots and all sorts of other jargon.  But I am pleased to announce that my short story, “A Cup of Wisdom,” will be featured in SHATTERED SHIELDS, an anthology published by Baen Books in fall 2014 and edited by Bryan Thomas Schmidt and Jennifer Brozek. From the Goodreads description:

High fantasy and mighty conflicts go hand-in-hand. In great wars, armies rise to fight evil hordes and heroes struggle to push beyond their imperfections and save the day. These stories include more than just epic landscapes and characters…but also epic battles.

My story is about a mouse wizard who uses magic to clean a house with a mop and bucket, but then everything goes horribly wrong. No, I’m just kidding.  My story is about epic battles.  Other members of the table of contents include:

Introduction by Jennifer Brozek and Bryan Thomas Schmidt

Ashes and Starlight (Runelords) by David Farland

The Fixed Stars (October Daye) by Seanan McGuire

The Keeper of Names by Larry Corriea

The Smaller We Are by John Helfers

Invictus by Annie Bellett

Rising Above by Sarah A. Hoyt

A Cup of Wisdom by Joseph Zieja  ß  LOOK!  That’s ME!  That’s ME!

Words of Power by Wendy N. Wagner

Lightweaver in Shadow by Gray Rinehart

Hoofsore and Weary by Cat Rambo

Vengeance (Frost) by Robin Wayne Bailey

Deadfall by Nancy Fulda

Yael of the Strings by John R. Fultz

The Gleaners by Dave Gross Bonded Men by James L.

Sutter Bone Candy (Black Company) by Glen Cook

First Blood (Paksenarrion) by Elizabeth Moon

You’ll be able to find SHATTERED SHIELDS at bookstores everywhere starting November 4th, 2014.  If you have trouble finding it, look for me doing something like this:

Many thanks to Brian and Jennifer for the generous invite to participate.

The Short Fiction Question

People often ask me…ha, I can’t even write that with a straight face.  Nobody ever asks me.  But the beauty of a blog is that I can answer questions that nobody asks me.

Nobody often asks me whether or not they need to write short stories to begin building their writing career.  Lately I’ve heard this topic get a lot of negative press; a lot of authors are saying that short stories aren’t necessarily important to a writer.  While there’s always the caveat that it might be a good idea, very few writers will then explain why.  The result is that short fiction has a negative stigma around it that might be giving the wrong message to new writers.  The wrong message being “don’t bother with it.”

When I say I’ve only been writing “seriously” for the last 3 years, what I mean is that I’ve only started seriously trying to get better instead of just sort of throwing words out.  I’ve been studying the art of writing, I’ve been writing novels and trying out different things, I’ve been submitting my pieces to magazines and editors and agents.  And here are some stats for you:

-          I have written over 1.1 million words

-          I have written 5 novels of varying lengths

-          I have written 48 short stories

So why the hell did I write almost 50 short stories if it’s not worth it?  There are a couple of reasons.

They Help You Establish a Reputation: This is the contentious point.  “Nobody cares about your short stories” is something I hear a lot, and I think it’s hogwash.  It does a couple of different things for your reputation.  First, it helps you test the waters.  Are those stories getting published?  By whom?  Are you reading that particular market correctly and sending them stories that will suit that magazine?  It’s helping you learn the market and learn the business without a huge time commitment.  Second, if you are getting published, walking up to an editor and saying “I’ve written 2 novels, would you like you read one?” is significantly different from “I’ve been published in Asimov’s – and I’ve written 2 novels, would you like to read one?”  You’re showing that you’re serious about your craft, and that counts, damn it.  Third, and this is purely personal, it’s quicker than a novel and I enjoy the back-and-forth and the suspense of waiting for another rejection letter or the thrill of seeing my story get picked up and published.  Purely validation, but I’m not ashamed of it.

They Are Your Playground:  How many concepts can you play with and experiment with in a novel?  Probably one, and you have to spend months doing it.  That’s kind of like saying “You know what?  I’m going to build this house, but I’m going to built it out of those twisty straws and just see what happens.”  In the end, you’re going to have wasted an awful lot of time constructing something that doesn’t work, and there are going to be a lot of people who are pissed off at you because they can’t find any twisty straws.  Try building a lego-sized house out of short straws first. In a short story, you can see what happens when you tell a story in second-person flashback in a story-within-a-story format with an unreliable narrator.  And when it crashes and burns, you self publish it on Amazon (NO DON’T DO THAT IT’S AN AWFUL IDEA AND I AM KIDDING).

Personally, My Short Game Needed Work:  I was writing awfully verbose and expository prose when I started out, and I needed a mechanism to help me fix that.  When you have a maximum word limit of 5,000 for Magazine X, you learn to be economical pretty damn quick.  No, Joe, you don’t need 3 paragraphs of description before you introduce a character.  No, Joe, you don’t need to follow a character’s train of thought from the girl in front of him to why parmesan cheese is so salty.  Writing short stories helped me tighten up my language, so that now, when I go to edit a novel, I’m cutting 5-10% of the length for verbosity, not 30%.  I learned to deliver ideas quicker and more efficiently without sacrificing the poetic nature of prose (don’t listen to people when they tell you that modern readers don’t have time for beautiful prose.  It just has to be beautiful, effective prose.)

The point that writers and editors are making, I think, is that you don’t absolutely, positively need to write short stories in order to make it.  But I’ll argue until I’m blue in the face that it can’t hurt.  In fact, it’s probably going to help.  I challenge you to find successful authors who say “I’ve only ever written stories greater than 20,000 words.”  If you do find one, though, don’t tell me, because I prefer continuing to think that I’m right.

 

 

I've Been Agented: JABberwocky Literary Agency Acquires DEATH BEAR AND THE SNUGGLE OF DOOM

A few weeks ago I mentioned that I wouldn’t be participating in NaNoWriMo this year due to some super secret news that I’d be sharing eventually.  Well, I’m finally able to tell you all.

My screwball fantasy (I’m coining this term) novel, DEATH BEAR AND THE SNUGGLE OF DOOM, has been picked up by JABberwocky literary agency and is currently on its way out to publishing houses for submission.

What does this mean?  For those of you not familiar with the publication process, it means I have agency representation as an author.  They act as intermediaries on my behalf to sell my novel to publishing houses (like Penguin Random House, Tor, Harper Collins, etc).  Most publishing houses will not consider manuscripts unless represented by an agent.

Who is JABberwocky?  If you’ve heard of Brandon Sanderson (MISTBORN, WHEEL OF TIME), Myke Cole (SHADOW OPS), Peter V. Brett (THE WARDED MAN), or Charlaine Harris (TRUE BLOOD/SOUTHERN VAMPIRE MYSTERIES), you’ve heard of JABberwocky literary agency.  They are a small group of the finest and most respected agents in the science fiction and fantasy genre, representing many New York Times Bestsellers – and now, me!

What the f@#^ is a DEATH BEAR?  DEATH BEAR AND THE SNUGGLE OF DOOM is a story about an Evil Lord (certified under the Evil Lord’s Union) who is bested by the Six Wizards of Wobbleton in an epic battle over the city.  The result?  His soul gets stuffed into a teddy bear, and a six year old girl who believes him to be the reincarnation of her dead grandfather absolutely loooovvvessss him.  To get his body (and his powers) back, he’ll have to contend with clowns, wizards, pancake chefs and tea parties.   And believe me; that's not easy.

To be honest with you, I’m still feeling a little bit dazed over this whole thing. Joshua Bilmes, the president, and I met at WORLDCON 2012, and since then we’ve been in contact.  I’d only passed one manuscript to him previously, but the unique story behind this acquisition is that Joshua isn’t the one who read DEATH BEAR.  He emailed the book to another agent, Sam Morgan, with instructions to convert it so that Joshua could read it on the kindle.  Sam looked at the pitch and said “to hell with that, I’M reading it.”   And now we’re here.

As to where we’re headed...I have no idea.  But I sure as hell am excited about it.  Many thanks to all my cheerleaders and beta readers!  Next time I post about this book, hopefully it’ll be about when it’ll be on the shelves.

NaNoWri...No....

NaNoWriMo was a great thing for me, because it showed me that I could finish a novel in 30 days.  The timing has worked out for three of my novels that I was ready to begin writing on November 1st, but this year I'm afraid it's a different story.  I won't be able to complete NaNoWriMo this year.

I have my reasons, but for now I'm keeping them a secret.

Regardless, if YOU are going to Go NaNo this year, best of luck!  Don't stop writing, and remember that it's only 1,667 words a day to get to your goal!  That's just a couple of emails, if you're long winded, or one long raving tirade to an ex-lover.  And if you reach 1,667 words in one day and have some more time, keep going!  Don't let a number stop you from getting ahead.  My goal two years in a row was to reach 100,000 words (I failed, miserably, and engaged in self-loathing for months afterward) but it made 50,000 seem like a (very over-described and expository-prose-heavy) walk in the park.

Surviving Your First Conference Panel

I have this habit where when I go see something, I want to do it.  Every time I go see a concert, I end up working on that particular skill for the next week (I see Trace Bundy and I start working on my guitar tapping, for example).  When I see movies about ninjas, I spend the next week fighting people on the streets and doing backflips over objects.  It’s just a natural thing for me.

So it should have come as no surprise that after the Life, the Universe, and Everything conference in early 2012, I found myself leading a panel in front of hundreds at the largest science fiction and fantasy convention in America four months later.  Because why the f**k not?

Thank god it wasn’t a panel about writing, because lord knows I’m not equipped to talk to anyone about that.  I actually ended up on four separate panels about writing realistic militaries into fiction environments, not because I’m incredible at doing it but because I have a solid amount of actual, no-kidding military experience.

As we approach WORLDCON 2013, I wanted to take the time and give a few pieces of advice to any n00bs that might be in the same position as I was last year.  I’m not an expert, but I learned a lot in those four panels.  Most of life’s problems can be reduced to bullet statements, so here it goes.   I’ll make another post about what I learned about leading a panel another time – this is really just for survival.

Be an expert.  This, not your personality or your dashing good looks, is the reason you’re on the panel.  Offer good, concise, understandable expertise and advice to the audience.  You might be a big name that they’re just coming to see so they can tell all their friends they saw you, but probably not.  You’ve somehow managed to convince the con planners that you have something to contribute to this program to make it better – utilize that knowledge and give people bits of information that can only come from someone in your position.  I never gave the advice “Here’s a f***ing gem for you:  people die in war.”  I gave advice like “Here’s how the culture of the real military deals with the division between enlisted and officers.”  When someone asked me a question I didn’t know, I didn’t BS – I told them I didn’t know.

One note on the above:  make sure you read the description of the panel you are volunteering for.  I made the mistake of misinterpreting the descriptions of one of the panels and ended up on one talking about the space shuttle because I thought they wanted to talk about military aircraft capability.  (It turns out the alphanumeric codes of the aircraft were mislabeled in the description – there is a huge difference between the C-130 and KC-135 and the NASA C-130 and KC-135). 

Be professional.  Don’t interrupt people and don’t belittle people for not knowing things.  You’re probably on a panel of 3-5 guests, all who have unique experience and knowledge sets.  If you have additional information, offer it.  In fact, if you’re really suave you’ll do some research on the other panelists beforehand – nothing makes you look cooler than saying “Hey, Bill, I read somewhere that you killed JFK.  How does that experience help you answer this question from the audience?”

Be witty and funny and charming, yes, of course.  But don’t make that the focus of your presence on the panel.  If you’re only there for comic relief or don’t know when to throttle back your jokes – and believe me, people in the audience can tell when you’re just trying to bring the attention back to you with a joke because you have nothing else to contribute – then you might be on your last panel.

And, holy shit, don’t plug plug plug plug plug your book, especially if it’s not related to the topic.  If you can’t think of any other example in literature other than your own work where someone does something related to your panel’s topic, you’re not reading enough.

Be yourself.  Because this wouldn’t be an advice post if I didn’t write something incredibly trite and cliché, like “be yourself.”  Really, though, this is important.  The combination of personality and expertise is what got you here in the first place.  This isn’t a proving ground where people will judge you based on your performance; people have already come here believing, for better or worse, that the con planners have hand-picked the speakers.  It’s a great audience to be in front of - rarely hostile and most often a little starry-eyed, since psychologically you are in the position of power/knowledge and they are in the position of student.  You can relax.  Seriously, take a breath and don’t be afraid to offer information .

I’ve been to a couple of panels where there’s that one guy that says absolutely nothing and looks as if he knows something that everyone else doesn’t – like he knows where all the bodies are.  It’s just creepy.  Don’t be that guy…and if being yourself means you’re that guy, then you probably shouldn’t be on a panel.  Unless the panels is about where the bodies are.  In which case I don’t want to be at that conference.

Those are just three basic tips.  I know it doesn’t seem like much, but give me a break, I’ve only been to one conference.  It’s stressful, nerve-wracking, but it’s a whole lot of fun once you get into it.

I won’t be at WORLDCON this year, but good luck and have fun to everyone that’s going.  If you’re up for a Hugo award, best of luck…wait – if you’re up for a Hugo, why the hell are you reading my blog?

 

A Smooth and Natural Transition

So, a few weeks ago in mid March I finally finshed the first draft of the longest book I've ever written.  I still don't have a good title for it yet, but the series that it kicks off is called the Deicide Saga.  The easiest way to explain the plot is a mash up of Greek and Hindu mythological principles in which you have a deal-with-the-devil type of story, lots of magic, a gigantic world, and protagonists that you might not always root for.  I wrote "The End" at just over 250,000 words, and now it is definitely in hibernation. 

It was, by far, the hardest book I've ever written.  I so enjoyed writing In the Shadow of Legends that I expected this book to be as free-flowing and easy - In the Shadow of Legends took me a full month less to write, and it was just about the same amount of words.  And when I go back and read it, I like it.  This book was like pulling teeth all the way through, and I haven't quite figured out why, yet.  I really, really hope I do figure it out, and I hope it's not because the book is awful.  The thought of spending November 2012-March 2013 writing a 250k word book and then throwing it out is painful.

And, honestly, that might be why it was so hard to write, since that's exactly what I did last year.  In the Shadow of Legends was rejected by the agent that I really want to land (Brandon Sanderson's agent).  That normally wouldn't be the end of a book for me, but the rejection was caveated with a "but I want to see more from you," and thereafter he seemed genuinely interested in representing me.  That means  I have to trade the chances of In the Shadow of Legends ever seeing a bookshelf for a chance to have a king-maker as my agent.   Seems like an easy choice, but it wasn't.  My grandfather died shortly after I completed the book that was, in a very strange way, inspired by him.  It's tough to let something like that go for the sake of something that you're not even sure really exists.

Wow, that got a little deeper than I wanted it to.  Reset.  Chin up.  Make a pun about socks.  Anyway, I was excited to finish the first book in the Deicide Saga so I could move on to something new.  Because it was such an epic fantasy book - serious, gritty a little depressing - I really felt like I wanted to freewheel something and write something very light and easy.  So, the title of my next book?

"Death Bear and the Snuggle of Doom."

I started writing it immediately after the other book after brainstorming with a friend for a few days, who helped give me the idea, and I'm somehow already 25,000 words into it.  I won't give you any hints except that it's going to be ridiculous and about half the length of my other books.  It'll be part of a very loosely structured wizard world that I've come up with over the last few years (like a Discworld, in a way) and it's full of I-Don't-Give-A-Shit.  For those of you not familiar with the technical term, it's when you're not quite freewriting (writing without an outline) but you're not really paranoid about the actual content. You're just writing.  So far, my two professional sales to Daily Science Fiction have been full of that - each one was written in about 20 minutes and not edited.  I'm hoping I can achieve that level of greatness (?) with this book by doing something similar.  If it works, then maybe I'll adopt this posture for future novels. 

So, a smooth and natural transition from heavy, deep, slightly depressing epic fantasy to Terry Pratchett.  I don't think there's anything wrong with me at all... 

 

 

Military in Fiction Bonus Episode: WORLDCON 2012 Panel

Thanks to Ben Delano over at The Roundtable Podcast, I'm able to bring you a bonus episode of Military in Fiction.  This is a recorded panel from WORLDCON 2012 entitled, "Military Fantasy and Science Fiction."  On the panel are:

Joseph Zieja (ME!) as the moderator

Myke Cole, author of Shadow Ops: Control Point 

John G. Hemry (a.k.a. Jack Campbell), author of the bestselling series, The Lost Fleet

Brad R. Torgersen, Hugo and Campbell award nominee, army reservist, and author of several published pieces of short fiction

David Voderberg, military and fiction enthusiast

Together we talk about subjects ranging from military SF/F as a subgenre to how long a war between Canada and the United States would last.  Join us for this hour-long recording.

Download HERE!

Thanks for listening,

Joe

MILITARY IN FICTION #7 - Logistics

*Get the audio HERE

For more details, as well as a list of resources on military history and culture, check out my resources page.

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MIF #7 - Logistics

I alluded to the issue of logistics in my article about organization, but I felt like I needed to go into greater detail to make it worthwhile for those trying to create a realistic military environment in their fiction.

But let’s pause a moment.  I’ve said this before, but it bears repeating.  Creating a realistic environment doesn’t mean you have to describe everything in intricate detail.  It doesn’t even mean that you have to give every part of the military life any attention at all, and it certainly doesn’t mean you can’t bend the rules for the sake of telling a damn good story.  My goal here is to educate, not to direct.  In some places I’ve been giving bits of advice on how to integrate this information into good storytelling, but as we get into more specific detail I think it’s safe to say the reader expects less and less attention paid to it.  Frankly, the only people that want to read a book about logistics are logisticians.

What I’m trying to say is that please don’t write a story about logistics.  Please.

Starting from scratch then.  What is logistics?  Logistics is the art and science of getting your crap from one place to another.  That’s it.  If you remember from my article on military lingo, the general might say “we are having logistical difficulties”, while the grunt would say “where’s my s@$t?!”

It’s an incredibly complicated problem even in the civilian world.   In today’s global economy, businesses and governments are consistently debating over the most efficient way to get things from one place to another, weighing the cost of one mode of transportation over another.  Now take that problem and compound it with a bunch of people running around with guns.  When a shipment of toy ninja swords is late from China, a small stand in Manhattan loses a few dollars.  When a shipment of bullets doesn’t reach a unit in the field, people die.

Well, people are probably going to die either way, but I think you get my point.

Speaking of points, here are three of them.  In each of these I’m also going to show you how to break the principle of logistics.  This will help you if you’ve ever unsure how to set up some strategy, but have no idea where to start.

1.)  When do we eat?  It’s said that society is always three meals away from collapse.  It’s the same with armies.  If you can’t eat, you can’t fight.  That seems obvious, but it’s just as easy to miss.  If your army has been wandering through the desert for a week without a proper supply convoy following them, you’ve just created a race of superhuman soldiers that should by all rights be able to take over the world.  Hey, maybe that’s what you wanted.  I’m not judging.

To feed an army you need to do one of three things.  One – brown bag it.  Bring the food with you. The American military loves to do this because we have sensitive stomachs and shun food that doesn’t have the word “burger” in it.  We’re pretty efficient about it, too.  Next time you can get your hands on one, try a Meal Ready to Eat (MRE) and you’ll find out how to pack 5,000 calories into a small brown box.  I’ll give you a hint: it probably involves potatoes, and it probably doesn’t taste good.

Fun fact:  A World War II favorite was called “shit on a shingle” by troops because of its remarkable likeness in appearance (it was ground beef on a cracker) and less-than-pleasant taste.

Counter tactic for option one:  Interdict the supply train.  I’ll talk about that in the next point.

The second thing you can do is go nomad.  Live off the land.  This works great in forest environments, but not so well when you’re talking about navies or if your story takes place in the deep reaches of space.  It also only works proportionally to how large your army is.  The larger the army, the quicker they’re going to run out of deer to kill.

Counter tactic: If you’re retreating, raze the land as you leave so that the enemy has nothing to use as they go farther and farther into your territory.  Poison the water supply.  Dispatch Occupy Wall Street protestors.

The last way has two versions.  You can either a.) rape and pillage or b.) shop.  As your army conquers areas, they can take the food and supplies of the people they conquer because they have the weapons.  Many warrior societies in the past have used pillaging as a selling point for recruiting new soldiers, because it was an easy way to make a buck.  On the other hand, if you look at the German conquest of France in World War II, it was a more civilized sort of endeavor (comparatively).  German soldiers visited French cafes, grabbed a quiche on the promenade, and in general simply acted like tourists who, upon being requested to show their passport, showed the Panzer tank instead.

Counter tactic:  Torch your own villages before the enemy can get there or, as in the case of the French, start an underground resistance movement that uses the German economics to its advantage where it can.

2.)  The Concept of a “Supply Chain”.  Expanding on the idea of brown-bagging your army’s supplies, a supply chain is the act of positioning your supplies so that they flow easily from the home front to the front line.  This is how empires are built.  Think about it this way: If you can make one storage dump between your army and your garrison, you’ve just cut your resupply time in half.  You can get a new batch of goods in six months rather than a year, or one week instead of two.  That’s a pretty significant advantage.  Now take that and place a supply dump in every village you conquer on your way to the enemy’s border – you have fresh supplies coming in all the time.  It’s like you live on the battlefield.

When thinking about countering this, think of it like your enemy is hanging from a rope, trying to climb down the side of a mountain.  Each safety clip he has in the rock is like a supply point, a point from which he has support so that he doesn’t turn into soup at the bottom of the rocky gulf.  If you cut the rope all the way at the top, he still has 90% of his rope to work with.  You’ve hurt him, and you’ve probably inconvenienced him, but he can hang on to the side of that mountain with the rest of that rope. For a while. If you cut the rope close to him, he’s got nowhere to go but down.  He either has to turn back, accept defeat, or find a way to tie those loose ends back together.

3.)   Wear and Tear.  Nothing lasts forever.  Your consumables, like food, fresh water, and medical supplies, aren’t the only things that disappear over time.  You also have to look at the condition of your vehicles, your weapons, and your people. People get tired after long periods of time in the field, swords and armor get chipped and dented, powder builds up in rifles.  You need to have the flexibility, the materials, and the skills to take care of them, or you’re as good as dead.  What good is a sword that can’t cut anything or a tent that can’t keep out the rain?

This isn’t so much something you can counter as it is something you can take advantage of.  It’s the very basis of siege warfare.  If you can outlast the enemy, or at least make it impossible for him to resupply, repair, or refit, you can force him to capitulate.  What if you killed all the blacksmiths or broke all the forges?  There wouldn’t be much weapon manufacturing getting done.

What if, for example, you constantly needed new ball bearings to replace ones that were getting used up due to the high activity volumes of your machines – like tanks and airplanes?  The enemy, if they knew you relied heavily on ball bearings in order to maintain your mechanized force, would choose your ball bearings as a center of gravity, a point of weakness.  You would be Nazi Germany, and your center of gravity would be Schweinfurt.  This is exactly what happened during World War II.  The execution (and the intelligence) was poor on the part of the United States, but the principle is the same.*

Case Study:   History

I can’t really have a case study for all aspects of the military in all genres of fiction, and I can’t say I’ve ever read a book and said “Wow, the logistics in this novel are so real, I can almost feel the enemy starving!”  As I get into more and more specific details when it comes to the military, I’m probably going to need to start referring to actual historical events rather than works of fiction.  After all, history is the greatest story of them all.

If you want real examples about the successes and failures of logistics, you only need to put one word in Google:  Empire.  Empires start from a central location (Rome, Great Britain, Berlin, Istanbul) and extend giant tendrils of power over thousands of miles.  Each of the Muslim Caliphates covered territory from halfway into Russia to the southern coasts of Spain.  Napoleon made it into freaking Russia.  I’m not going to go into the details here because I couldn’t do them justice, but I will tell you that if you want to learn how to do logistics, go read some history.  Some particular campaigns to pay attention to:  World War II’s Pacific campaign, Napoleon’s conquest of Europe, and the Roman Empire.  Pay close attention to the different ways supply chains were established; the Romans were masters of assimilating and creating supply points as they went, and America is pretty good at bringing the whole country with us wherever we go.

While I don’t expect any writer to give us a detailed explanation of their army’s supply chain, I hope this gave you some ideas on how to maintain a realistic environment AND keep things interesting.  If you’re writing a book about an empire, how might it alter the course of events if a major supply city suddenly rebelled?  How about someone poisoning a major water source?  Don’t forget that there are always unintended consequences of these types of actions, too.  Everyone, including citizens, drink that water you just befouled.

I’ve been getting some good feedback on these articles and some good suggestions on where to go from here. Do you have any requests, any questions that you want answered?  Leave a comment, and don’t forget to attend some of my panels during WORLDCON this year.  Check the link at the top of my webpage for the schedule.

Thanks for reading,

Joe

*If you look at the link in the “belligerents” section, and notice the echelons, about which I spoke in MIF #6.  The large echelon is an “Air Force” (Eighth Air Force) and is composed of several “Bomber Groups” (BGs).

MILITARY IN FICTION #6 - Rank and Organization

*Get the audio HERE

For more details, as well as a list of resources on military history and culture, check out my resources page.

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MIF #6 - Rank and Organization

The greatest difference between a military and a bunch of roving bandits is organization.  We are, really, institutionalized anal retentiveness.  We have specific rules by which we do just about everything, from the way we iron our shirts to the way we shoot weapons to the way we have to stand when the national anthem is playing.  If there isn’t a form or publication that details how I’m supposed to do something, I’m probably not supposed to do it.  That’s the military – at least the United States military – and that’s the world I live in.

Of course I’m using hyperbole here to highlight my point.  Not every facet of our lives is regulated by complicated codes, ranks, and bureaucracy, but a significant portion of it is.  Certainly far more than a civilian’s life.

But why do we do it that way?  Organization and discipline transform us from a militia into a military, and even though the purposes behind our structure may not be readily apparent, there really is a method to our madness.  Often we are slaves to tradition as well as practicality and discipline; the salute, for example, stems from the raising of the visor during the times of knighthood.  By doing so, one knight allowed the other to see his face, and since most knights were right-handed, it removed their sword hand from the vicinity of his weapon.  Now we use the salute as an exchange of respect between officers and enlisted (or for the flag, the president, or the Secretary of Defense).  That way, when I pass an enlisted troop, I can be fairly certain he is not about to shoot me.

When you’re creating or imitating the military, you’re going to need to have some structure to it.  This can be as loose or as tight as you want it to be; the US military looks a lot different from the German military on the drill pad (and I’m not sure French military knows where the drill pad is).  But you’re going to need some sort of structure; otherwise all you have is an armed mob.  Who knows – maybe that’s what you were aiming for.

Here are your three points for understanding and utilizing organizational structure in your writing.

1.) Rank structure – have one.  Rank may be one of the most important aspects of the organization of a military, but it is not the only important thing.  Too many writers focus entirely on rank when it comes to making decisions and crafting characters, over-emphasizing or misapplying its importance.  I don’t blame them; it’s tough to really understand rank and its application when you’re not in the military environment.  It’s very easy just to look at a rank chart like this one and view it too linearly.  I’m going to be referencing this chart as we go, so pay attention.

[caption id="attachment_404" align="aligncenter" width="300"] Officer Structure - O1 is the first officer rank, and so on[/caption]

[caption id="attachment_403" align="aligncenter" width="300"] Partial Enlisted Structure - E1 means First Enlisted Rank, and so forth[/caption]

Rank is primarily a determinant of responsibility and expectations.  Look at the bottom enlisted rank of each of the services and notice its title – private, seaman, and airman.  The word “private” is a shortened term for “private soldier”, so you might as well look at them as soldier, seaman, and airman instead.  These low ranks describe the (ostensibly) most basic skillset of the service.  As a low ranking member, you are expected to espouse the basic values of your service and become competent in its most basic skills.

This brings me to the division between officer and enlisted.   This gap differs widely between militaries, and it is up to you to determine how to use it.  First, you must understand that it is not a linear flow; in most militaries, one does not start as the lowest ranking enlisted man and end up as the General of the Army (the highest ranking officer in the US Army).  They are two different tiers of ranks, with different qualifications, responsibilities, pay, and expectations.  Let me go into the US military rank structure as an example, and by explaining these responsibilities I should be able to help you understand what rank is and how it’s used.

In the US, officers are managers and leaders.  Their job is to understand and utilize the skills of the other officers and enlisted underneath them to achieve victory, and not necessarily to possess technical expertise.  Low ranking officers are called “action officers” or “company grade officers” because they make the low-level, tactical decisions that have direct, visible outcomes.   Then you have “field grade officers”, those whose purview should be wider (about as wide as a field, for example).  They should have a better idea of the big picture, and they are not expected to execute basic tasks as often as their lower ranking counterparts.  General officers are expected to understand military policy, manage civilian-military relations, and form strategic objectives.  Generals and admirals do not (usually) man the machine guns and spray fire at the enemy.  If they do, it probably means everyone else is dead.

In the US military, enlisted are the followers, but they also lead in their own right.  Lower-ranking enlisted are the “do-ers” the accomplishers of tasks, the people that are working hard to become technically proficient in their assigned skill set.  As they grow in rank, they become subject-matter experts and mentors to the lower enlisted, advising the officers on enlisted affairs and contributing to problem solving.  They are not, as many writers attempt to portray them, peons and drones that can’t walk without an officer telling them which foot to put forward (that only happens in boot camp).  They are required to obey orders and can be punished for insubordination, but the order has to be valid.  I can’t order an airman to go get me a cup of coffee because I’m feeling lazy.

That being said, I’ve worked with the militaries of other countries where the enlisted served the officers lunch.  Literally.  That’s how far the gap was between the two rank tiers.  You have a wide range of options to choose from when building your military.  You can have a weak officer corps, mired in politics and completely distant from the fighting enlisted men (see the British high-ranking officers in World War I for an example of that), or you can have a military where rank has very little influence.  It’s up to you, but once you establish your structure, make sure you stick to it.  If it’s improper for an enlisted man to disagree with an officer in public, yet you have a character who consistently does it without repercussion, you’ve violated the principle of rank structure.

2.) Militaries are a bureaucracy.  While rank structure may be one of the most important, the bureaucratic nature of the military is easily the most frustrating.  But who can blame it for developing that way?  It’s an organization of millions of people with access to the means by which to make warfare.  It has to be regulated if it is to be effective. Records must be kept.  Rules must be written. Dilbert must have material for his dry, cynical humor.  I say this tongue and cheek, but much of what Dilbert talks about can be applied to the US military (and likely many other militaries).  I have a friend who makes a hobby of slightly altering text in Dilbert cartoons to make fun of real-life military situations he’s been in, then hanging them on the walls for the amusement of his compatriots.  Many times he doesn’t have to alter them at all.

Not all militaries are equally bureaucratic.  I’m nearly positive that the Zimbabwean army doesn’t keep dental records on all of its troops, and I’m equally as positive that they don’t have to fill out three forms when they go on vacation.  I have to fill out three forms as a minimum, and I can find out how many cavities I had ten years ago if I wanted to.

Applying this to your writing may seem tricky, but it’s as easy as understanding that your military is a living, breathing organism that has many moving parts, many different agendas, and, perhaps, many different masters.  The bigger the military, the longer it’s going to take to get things done, especially when it comes to mobilizing for war.  The only reason the US is able to move so quickly is because we have established bases all throughout the world.  That alone took us almost a century and two World Wars to achieve.  Campaigns in ancient times often took years just to start.

You have some wiggle room in your fiction, since it’s much easier to pull the wool over your readers eyes when it comes to logistics, something with which the average reader isn’t familiar.  The level of realism you want to include is up to you, but understanding the bureaucratic monster is a key to making it work for you instead of creating plot holes.

3.) Echelons.    When I use the term echelons, I am partially referring to the “chain of command” and partially referring to how an effective fighting force is organized.  As with all characteristics of militaries, yours might vary anywhere between having no echelons and having hundreds.

Let me pause to explain the chain of command, which will also help you understand echelons.  The chain of command is the line you can draw from one person in the military all the way up to the highest ranking member.  I, for example, am a member of a squadron, the second lowest echelon in the air force.  The next person in my chain is the commander of my squadron, who is in charge of a unit (the squadron) of about 300 people.  His boss is the commander of a group, comprised of several squadrons and totaling, perhaps, a few thousand people.  The group commander’s boss is the wingcommander (no, not the PC game).  The wing commander’s boss is the numbered air force commander, followed by the major command commander, followed by the chief of staff of the air force, and the president of the United States.

[caption id="" align="aligncenter" width="640"] US Army Echelons[/caption]

 

 

I have a lot of bosses, but I never talk to any of them except the one directly above me.  That’s how we filter orders down from the president, who gives us strategic guidance, to the squadron level, which accomplishes tactical objectives such as destroying individual targets.  Each of these echelons is commanded by officers of increasing rank, and each of the echelons is expected to achieve different objectives.  An entire major command and the assets allocated to it would not be dispatched to fight an army of ten men.

What this means for your military in your writing is that there is more at work than a single soldier or even a single field commander.  The divisions that come between echelons (and ranks) will have their own implications.

Humorous interlude:  If you want to see a real-life violation of the principles of the chain of command and echelons, check out this letter from an Airman, First Class (one of the lowest ranks in the air force) to the Chief of Staff (the highest ranking person in the air force).

My point in showing you this?  A pikeman isn’t going to go running to the commander of your military and complain about food shortages; he’s going to tell his boss, who is probably a low ranking officer of some sort.

Hopefully I’ve given you a good look into the structure of the military.  Take these principles and apply them to your writing – with some additional research – and I guarantee you’ll have a more realistic military setting.

Case Study:  Gardens of the Moon by Steven Erikson

I’ve only read book one of this series, but if you want a great example of how to organize a military in a fantasy setting you need to check it out.  In fact, I almost didn’t like this book because it felt too military to me.  I tend to not want to read things that correspond too closely with my daily activities – the last Clancy novel I read was fifteen years ago -  and the regimental military structure in this book hit a bit too close to home.  But I still recommend it as a good book with a great story and a fantastic example of my point in this article.

Erikson obviously did some research.  As far as I know, he’s had no personal military experience, but you can’t tell at all in the novel.  Just a look at the glossary shows that he knows how to organize – he defines the “Bridgeburners” – a nickname that works wonderfully with the article on lingo – as a “division” underneath the “2nd Army”.  Using words that correspond with modern militaries – division, regiment, company – lends immediate credence to your military environment.  It’s okay to steal from the real world – you don’t have to have a random combination of consonants and vowels for everything in a fantasy novel.

Erikson blends some of the conventional with the fantastical.  He subordinates echelons like “divisions” to a “Fist”, a fictitious but realistic body of military combat power.  Ranks like Lieutenant and Captain are intermingled with Adjunct and High Fist.   More importantly, he interweaves them properly.  A captain is in charge of a lieutenant, who is in turn in charge of a sergeant.  Armies are broken out into divisions, which are then broken out into companies.  You could mix them up – it’s your world after all – but it would be exceedingly confusing for anyone who has any knowledge of military rank.

Coming up with a structure for your military can be fun or mundane, depending on how OCD you are.  You don’t necessarily have to have one as clear-cut and defined as Erikson’s, but if you’re going to be talking about the military you are going to have to have some semblance of a chain of command.  Otherwise, all you have is a band of brigands in uniform.

Thanks for reading,

Joe

 

MILITARY IN FICTION #2 - The Vibe

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MIF #2 - The Vibe

I had a bit of trouble figuring out which topic to start on.  It seemed I could go after a litany of different sub-categories of writing realistic military fiction: technology, tactics, rank, etc.  I will, of course, go into each of these in turn, but I wanted to start with the most nebulous and tricky of them all:  the feel.

I call it the vibe because, first, I consider myself hip enough to use the term, and second, because it’s probably the most difficult for those that haven’t spent any time in the active military.  My position is that you can do it right, if you just pay attention to a few small details.  In reality, you can apply this strategy to almost any profession.  How do you get the vibe of a bunch of professional sports players?  Engineers?  Accountants?

Answer:  You become one.  Jane Goodall lived with apes to figure them out.  You can do the same. Right now, go find your nearest recruiter and join the military.

Okay, so that might not be realistic.  Barring your willingness to brandish weapons at other people, you should find people who are willing to brandish weapons at other people and hang out with them (do us all a favor and stick with people who also wear a uniform, please).  Notice I didn’t say explicitly for you to hang out with military folks.  Do you know anyone who is a cop?  A firefighter?  The military is a profession of service that happens to include combat, not a profession of combat that happens to include service.  You can glean some of the military lifestyle from other professions that emulate a similar vibe.

So, first, assimilate.  Second, associate.  If that’s not possible, artificially immerse.  That’s the key buzz word for this article, and I am going to give you THREE POINTERS on how to do it.

1.) Read.  Read blogs of soldiers, sailors, airmen, marines.  See what sort of issues they’re dealing with, take note of the way they talk, the differences in how the blogs of an officer or an enlisted man sound (also – learn the difference between officers and enlisted, but we’ll get to that later).  We, as a community, have become much more vocal in the last ten years than we ever have been in the past.

Try some books as well.  It used to be that the only people writing books were general staff and head-honchos.  That gives you a great top-down view of how to run a military, but not necessarily how to be in one.  Now you can read books by privates, sergeants, junior lieutenants and captains (for those of you still unfamiliar with rank structure, if any one of these people tells you that they make strategic command decisions, you should laugh at them).  These are the grunts, trying to tell you their story, and they’re also likely the people you want to emulate for many of your characters.

Another thing you might consider is taking a look at some of the online publications written FOR military members, not just BY military members.  We have periodicals, too.  Magazines, newspapers.  Check out the “times” of each service – Army Times, Air Force Times.  Stars and Stripes is another one.  Every base in the country has its own web page with its own news feed on it that you can access anytime.  What are those pages talking about?

2.) Watch.  This caveat may seem obvious, but DON’T RELY ON HOLYWOOD.  Movies like We Were Soldiers and Black Hawk Down are okay because they are very closely tied to real events, but they’re still fictionally enhanced to be spectacular.  Movies like Behind Enemy Lines, Eagle Eye, and most movies derived from Tom Clancy books are just pure fantasy, and are going to lead you astray – unless you want to make spectacular movies that fly free from the bonds of reality.  Try some documentaries, instead.

If you want to see a real movie made by real soldiers, go watch a movie called Ristreppo.  If you don’t come out of that movie with a better understanding of what it feels like to be a man on the ground with a gun, you’re not watching close enough.

3.)  While reading and watching, discern the finer points.  As an example, learn to distinguish between the sub-communities in the military.  This lends enormous credence to your writing when you can show that you know that the air force constantly makes fun of the army for being ground-pounders, or how the marines make fun of the air force for “building the golf course first”, or how navy guys are just really, really weird because they spend six months at a time underwater.

A great book I can recommend for this point in particular is called The Masks of War, a study by RAND corporation.  It was published 30 years ago, but you’ll get a good idea of how services can develop a personality.

Knowing the nuances of these sub communities really shows that you went the extra mile – and when you’re making a military up from scratch, know that these sub communities WILL develop.  If you’re writing a fantasy in middle-age Europe and the cavalrymen treat the pikemen like equals, you’re doing it wrong.   If the Space Fighter Pilots from Nebulon Command don’t have a rivalry with their brethren Space Fighter Pilots from the Skolon Command, you’re probably also doing it wrong.

Those are three points I can give you to achieve artificial immersion.  This will help with all the tenets I will eventually talk about, but especially for the “vibe”, that je ne sais pas. The more you can surround yourself with real stories by real military members, the more realism will show up in your fiction.

Case Study:  Schlock Mercenary, by Howard Tayler

Schlock Mercenary is a space opera in which a band of mercenaries known as Tagon’s Toughs tackle a litany of strange problems from snake lawyers to the Longshoreman of the Apocalypse.  It is first and foremost a comedy, a comic strip in which ridiculous people do ridiculous things, somewhat led by a pile of poop known as Schlock (he’s not really a pile of poop, but he looks like one).

Howard is known for his ability to create a realistic military environment, which is interesting for two reasons.  One, it’s a comedy.  There are battles, but it’s not meant to be realistic.  Two, he’s never done anything with the military at all.

Why did I choose Schlock?  Well, for one, I like Howard and I like his work.  I also, being a military guy, immediately got the impression that he understood the vibe and I wanted to choose something a little unconventional to make my point.  You don’t have to have serious combat to create that environment.

How does Howard do it right?  Well, as Schlock Mercenary is a comic of thousands of strips over the last decade, it’s hard to pick concrete examples.  I’ll try to cite a few.

In his first strip, a mercenary recruiter explains that their job is to “hurt people and break things”.  Howard nailed that one – that’s a phrase we use all the time to explain what we do to other people (except we usually say “kill people and break things”).  It showed me immediately that Howard was in touch with the attitude and a little bit of gallows humor, something that all military members possess.

In a strip on December 9th, 2004, Howard talks about the healthcare system of their military organization.  He cites it as a confusing, bureaucratic mess that doesn’t necessarily fit the needs of the members but always adheres to regulations and conforms to what policy has determined is the right course of action.  I really can’t be more blunt than that – that’s how it goes!  I’m guessing he probably extrapolated from other government bureaucratic institutions, but let me clue you in on something:  The military is a giant government bureaucratic institution.  We just have guns.  This doesn’t really have anything to do with technology, lingo, or tactics – it’s simply a part of our existence.  That’s the vibe.

One last example: In a strip on October 22nd, 2010, the Toughs’ Artificial Intelligence Ennesby is redesigned with a new hacking capability by engineers, directed by someone in the general staff.  He touts his new skills with pride, only to be asked the question:  “Yes, but can you do what we really need?”  His response is, “No, but I can create dummy accounts on the Damico-P’sloyq payroll.”

If I had a dollar for every time a capability requirement got screwed up by the time it went through high command, engineers, and made its way down to the end user (me), I would be a rich man.  I definitely felt like Howard got the military vibe.

In closing this case study, I will give you two examples of where you can go to look at the modern US military (the air force, specifically) in a humorous light.  These jokes are meant for military people, written by military people, and even if you don’t quite get them, they might give you some insight.

www.edodo.org  - a comic written by cadets at the United States Air Force Academy, lampooning the absurdity of their daily lives.  These cadets are active duty, and there’s nobody outside of a deployed environment that lives the military quite like a cadet at a military academy.

www.afblues.com – a comic written by an air force member lampooning…well, everything in the air force.

I leave you with that, dear reader, and declare that the first article in my series on Military in Fiction is concluded.  I hope this helped in some way, and I invite you to follow my blog and comment.  The real good stuff is going to come from discussion, and we can’t have that without you.

Thanks for reading,

Joe

MILITARY IN FICTION #5 - The Human Element

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For more details, as well as a list of resources on military history and culture, check out my resources page.

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MIF #5 - The Human Element

I’ll preface this with a bit of background about myself.  I have never been in face-to-face combat. It is the nature of my particular specialty that I am not required to do such a thing.  I have, however, had my hand in combat operations in a very real and tangible way. This may be difficult to understand, but you’re going to have to take my words at face value.

The single most difficult component of the military to dissect is the mind of the humans that make up its forces.  It took us thousands of years before we really even started to consider what makes us tick under normal circumstances – never mind the unbelievable stressors that combat brings with it.  Honestly, I’m not confident I can do a good job with it here.  I can only hope to give you some insight into the mind of a military member and through that insight help you create a more realistic environment through more realistic characters.  Beyond that I make no claims.

When soliciting my online writers’ group for topics for this series, the subject of humanity came up the most often.  What surprised me was the way some of the questions were phrased.  One member asked how it was possible to turn an average human being into a “ruthless killing machine” or to “take a life on command.”  In all my years of being involved in three different armed conflicts, I have never known anyone to be or do either of these things.  The nature of these questions, as well as bad examples in mainstream media, told me that I needed to address this.

I’ll jump straight into the three points, since I’ll likely have a lot to say about each of them.

1.) Soldiers are people.  At the root of it all, everyone in the military is still a human being.  They have to eat, they have to breathe, and they have to deal with the repercussions of their actions.  Most of them have families in some capacity or another: a worrying mother, a wife to support, kids that are missing them when they’re off fighting.  Other things are inside their head before, during, and after combat that alter their perception, influence their aptitude, and affect their motivations for doing what they do.  Despite how it may look as though the uniforms and the training make us identical, if you ignore the individuality of the soldiers in your stories you are ignoring what makes them an interesting character.

The first question is, then, why are they in the military?  Some join because they have to (conscription).  Some join because they want to be part of something bigger, or to travel, or to do something interesting and different.  Some join because they can’t find a job anywhere else, and they need to support their family.  Some join because they truly believe in the cause for which they’ve been called; recruitment in the armed forces swelled after the events of 9/11.

All of them join knowing they may have to fight, but all of them join for different reasons.  Those reasons change over time and are likely not the reasons they stay.  Your characters will have some form of one (or a combination of many) of the above reasons.  You’ll have to work that out for yourself, but make sure you DO work it out.  A character without motivations isn’t acceptable for any other occupation, so why should the soldier be any different?

While they’re in the military, they retain their personalities.  Regardless of how boot camp may suppress or alter some parts of a person’s character, they are still going to be the same person.  They will change – never, ever neglect the power of combat and the military to change a character – but the way in which they change and the resulting personality will depend on who they were before entering the military.  If you create a bunch of cookie-cutter soldiers, all of whom spit and curse and laugh as they disembowel the enemy, you’re probably doing it wrong.   The military has as diverse a population as any other profession, even though they might share a lot of common traits. It’s a job!  Look at a group of lawyers or doctors.  They share a common influence on their personalities, but every one of them is different.

When crafting military men and women into your stories, make sure you understand that real life is going on, as well, and that each soldier has his own life as the background to his profession of arms.

2.) There is almost always a conflict between duty and conscience. I’ve never met a “ruthless killing machine”, and I haven’t met anyone who would, without hesitation, kill someone simply at the command of their superior.  Regardless of their training, regardless of how many times the act is repeated, the act of killing will always have an effect on the soldier.  It is a very small (and very pathetic) group of people that have acquired a taste for killing, and you would be hard pressed to find a soldier that would fire on a child because his captain told him to.*

Yet warfare and the condition of the soldier is a topic rife with contradiction.  Soldiers manage to somehow view their own acts as moral while viewing those of the enemy as deplorable, even when the end result is the same.  How does this happen?  The conflict between duty and conscience is a strong one, one that is not easily (yet often) overcome.

Part of it is dehumanization of the enemy.  It is a natural and historically ubiquitous phenomenon that warring parties view the opposition as less human than themselves.  I alluded to this above, a bit.  Take a look at some propaganda posters.

Can you imagine how much easier it is to fight an enemy when you think of him in this way?  Imagine, instead, if the poster was of a Japanese farmer holding a child in each hand, with his wife standing behind him, yet held the same title:  “This is the enemy”.  That would be a bit harder to swallow.  Dehumanization is one way to close the gap between duty and conscience.

You see examples of this in fiction all the time. In alien based fiction, this process is easy and instantaneous, since humans cannot relate to a species that is not even human.  But it always makes for some interesting character development when they DO start to relate to one another.  Look what happens to Ender in Ender’s Game.

In what I like to call Black and White Fantasy, where evil is evil and good is good, the authors very often create new races of dark creatures on which the warriors apply their battle training – orcs in Lord of the Rings, Trollocs in the Wheel of Time, koloss in Mistborn.  These creatures provide an opportunity for glory without guilt – nobody is concerned with the family of a troll.  If you, as a writer, don’t necessarily want to deal with the dehumanization of actual humans, I would suggest this route.

The second, and probably the most powerful way to overcome this gap, is the survival instinct.  A pacifist may find him or herself very quickly throwing grenades when confronted by batteries of enemy machine guns turning everyone around them into jelly.  Kill or be killed is undoubtedly a cliché, but it’s a cliché for a reason: it’s true.

This ties into what I’ll call a subset of the survival instinct, and that is the desire to protect those around you.  Ask any soldier who has been in combat why they kept on fighting, and invariably many of them will say “because of the person next to me”.  Camaraderie is a powerfully motivating factor in combat.  When those around you are in danger, there is a natural instinct to protect them that overrides the survival instinct and, therefore, the duty/conscience gap.

While I’ve never been shot at, I’ve lost friends in this war.  Did I go to work next day with a fire in me?  You bet your ass I did.

An incident was televised a few years ago where someone took a video of an American soldier clearing a building.  He approached a man lying on the ground, apparently dead, and started shouting at him.  He kept saying “He’s pretending.  He’s pretending he’s dead.”  He then proceeded to shoot the man (who was in fact pretending).  This was a clear violation of the law of armed conflict and a huge leap over the duty/conscience gap.  But why did he do it?

Because, the day before, someone faked death while that soldier was on patrol with his friend. When they were close enough, the enemy soldier threw a grenade, killing the American’s friend.  The duty/conscience gap vanished for him, just like it does for many soldiers.  Every time that sniper pulls the trigger, he might be thinking of one less airplane flying into the World Trade Center.  Just like I said in the first point, everyone has their own motivations for doing what they do.  Including the other side.  Insurgents in the Middle East have their reasons for doing what they do, whether they are religious, personal, or political.   As you add depth to your protagonist soldiers, so you must add depth to your protagonists’ enemies as well.  Everyone is the hero of their own story.

I understand we’re basically talking about revenge here. I’m not trying to argue that vengeance justifies killing.  Violence that begets more violence doesn’t solve anything at all.  I’m just saying that it’s one of the ways a “normal human” can overcome the revulsion we feel when we think of killing another human being.

3.)  If you want an army of robots, you’re going to have to build one.  This point is short and sweet, but it relates directly to the previous two.  There are numerous psychological experiments in the ability and willingness of people to obey the commands of other people.  If you’re unfamiliar with the Milgram experiment, I suggest you look it up and give it a read.  The bottom line is this:  65 percent of people will kill you if ordered to.

Alright, I’m being a little facetious, here.  There are numerous things wrong with the way that particular experiment was conducted, and the results don’t necessarily apply to the military.  What I’m trying to say is that yes, people often succumb to peer pressure or the demands of their superiors, but not always.  Everyone has a limit.  Those limits differ; the Mongols under Ghengis Khan had slightly different moral compasses than a samurai, for example.  They are defined by your culture, by your personal upbringing, by the worldview of your society and the societies surrounding it.

You can, of course, cite a dozen examples of entire populations that performed terrible acts under the guise of following orders, such as the Nazis.  I’m not equipped (nor do I want to spend the time) to talk about the power of mass movements or how a crowd can become a mob.  Do some research on it if you really want to know how a group of normally civil people can turn into a group that murders six million Jews.  What I can tell you is that I guarantee they weren’t all 100% committed to the cause.  Just like they all had different motivations for joining the military, they all had different motivations for following orders.

My point is that it doesn’t always happen with everyone.  I’ve seen plenty of troops suggest anatomical impossibilities to leaders when ordered to do something stupid or unjust.  Soldiers aren’t lemmings, and you shouldn’t treat them like it in your writing.  If you’re going to plot something as dramatic and insane as the Holocaust, you had better spend the time researching and setting it up.

Case Study:  A Game of Thrones by George R. R. Martin

A lot of people say that A Game of Thrones is dark because of the way George R. R. Martin (GRRM – stick with the military vibe, here) kills off characters.  I realized when I got to the end of it (I won’t spoil it for you) that, in truth, not many people died.  It was a little violent, but not over the top. Yet I still felt that the novel was “dark.”  Why?

Because war sucks, that’s why.  In A Game of Thrones, you get a very good look at the people involved in the conflict and what they’re thinking, and you get to run the gamut of outlooks.  King Robert is a bit more of a warmonger, but still understands the price of spilling blood.  Ned is a sort of pacifist that begrudgingly employs combat forces because he understands the effect on the human element.  Yet everyone, in their own way, takes steps to dehumanize the other side of the conflict.  Robert often refers to his enemies in vulgar, disparaging ways in front of his soldiers.  Anyone who hears that sort of talk often enough will eventually start to agree with it.

There’s no Black and White Fantasy in this book, either.  You get an excellent view of both sides of the conflict because GRRM writes POV chapters from both the Lannister and Stark sides of the conflict.  It comes together beautifully in Tyrion the halfman, who is a brilliant character study in and of himself.  Tyrion is a bit of a coward at heart with some serious complexes to deal with mentally, and the few times he’s involved in battle you get to see a perspective that’s not often written.

Even the characters with smaller roles have their perceptions of war colored by their upbringing and environment.  The best example is the duel between Ser Vardis Egen the knight and Bronn the brigand.  Duty and conscience don’t have much of a conflict for Bronn; he jumps in grinning, knowing that he’s going to be making some money at the end of this fight.  The knight, on the other hand, enters battle almost reluctantly, not wanting to kill for sport but understanding that he must do so in order to protect his mistress.  Notice, if you’ve read the book, how ritualized Vardis’ preparations are for battle, and how casual Bronn’s are.  We’ll talk about that in a later article.

I hope through this I’ve given you my two cents in a billion dollar issue.  There’s nothing easy about applying the human element to your fiction, regardless of the setting.  Humans are complex, multi-dimensional creatures when we’re deciding what we want to eat at a restaurant or what kind of car we want to buy.  That complexity, colored by the core of each individual, can do some interesting things to people when they’re in combat.  If you’re writing about a military organization, don’t neglect the power of the individual to influence the story.

Thanks for reading,

Joe

*This is not to say that it doesn’t happen.  If you want an example of how combat stressors and the commands of poor officers can cause immoral actions, research the My Lai massacre in Vietnam.

MILITARY IN FICTION #4 - Technology

*Get the Podcast/audio HERE

For more details, as well as a list of resources on military history and culture, check out my resources page.

_________

MIF # 4 - Technology

If you took a look at the book Masks of War that I recommended in my article on the vibe, you saw the author’s hypothesis that the US Air Force “worships technology."   In a way, that can be said to be true for all the services, for all militaries, for all time.

This argument might inspire some debate.  One can easily point to the Tokugawa Shoguante of feudal Japan, who spent the better part of its 200-plus year rule trying to keep technology (firearms) out of its country.   To me, this only highlights Japan’s obsession with technology; to them they linked their swordsmanship to their culture.  They held to their technology with steadfast devotion until the fall of the samurai class in the late 1800s.  It defined them as a people.

Examples of technology changing the tides of battle are littered all throughout history, most notably in the last century of warfare.  The tank, the airplane, the repeating rifle, the GPS, the internet – all of these inventions – most of which were originally developed for military and not civilian use – dramatically changed warfare, and therefore the world.

You will need to devote some time to researching technology if you are to write about the military; there really is no avoiding it.  Barring a completely farcical comedy in which all the principles of physics and reality are ignored (I can’t quite think of one at the moment because this is such an extreme), technology is going to play a role in your plot.

Here are your three points to make sure you are asking the right questions about technology in your writing:

1.) Accuracy/Feasibility of Information.  Regardless of how low or hi-tech your society is, you need to make sure that you can at least create the illusion of feasibility for your technology.  I rag on movies like Eagle Eye or Stealth, but that’s only because I’m intimately familiar with modern militaries and the principles of aviation.  In truth, it doesn’t matter that Hollywood does some truly absurd things with technology, because they make it seem believable.  Nobody (at least not many people) turn off a sci-fi program because traveling near light speed makes an object’s mass approach infinity, and is therefore impossible.

Understand basic physics.  If you are writing a book in which aviation takes place, understand the principles of lift, drag, thrust, and weight, and understand how they affect flight.  Know that you can’t do a barrel roll in a 747, and know that the human body doesn’t normally withstand G-forces higher than 7.  So if you have a character who saves the day by making a passenger airliner do a 50-degree turn at 50 feet above ground, what you really have is an explosion and a lot of dead people.

If you are writing a book where sword combat takes place, understand the principles of your basic combat equipment like weapons and armor. How much force does it take for a sword to penetrate well-made scale mail, chain mail, or plate armor?  Can a cavalryman, dismounted by a lance, roll smoothly to his feet and draw his sword while wearing  heavy armor?  Probably not.  Knights in the middle ages, once unhorsed, were usually taken captive or killed because they spent the next hour doing their best impression of a turtle flipped over on its shell.

Readers don’t need to know that you have ten books about medieval swordfighting on your bookshelf from the litany of details you give them, but you need to be secure in what you’re talking about so that when you DO decide to bend the rules, you have already built your credibility to the point where the reader doesn’t notice.  I’ve heard advice to the effect of “make them believe the big things, and you can lie about all the little things you want."   That’s good advice to go by – if you have a man on horseback that travels 300 miles in a day on a single animal, I’m probably not going to believe you when you try to tell me that an arrow shot from a recurve bow went through three bad guys dressed in full armor.

There are many resources you can use to become familiar with gear, especially modern technology.  Check out the Janes Information Group series of books/magazines at www.janes.com (or your local library), or the Federation of American Scientists at www.fas.org.  If you want to get into the minute details of swords and swordfighting, look up Medieval Swordsmanship:  Illustrated Methods and Techniques by John Clements.   That’s more of a tactics resource for a later article, but there’s some good info in there about the equipment as well.

2.) Implications and Applications.  This is one of my favorite parts about putting technology, especially new technology, into my fiction, because it sets the creative juices wild.  Think about how much the world changed after DARPA (not Al Gore) invented the internet.  Imagine what the world would be like today without it.  Now you get to write a situation that is just as crazy.  How cool is that?

This applies equally to magic systems as it does to technology.  In fact, for most of this article you can easily substitute “magic” for “technology.”

All technology has two parts of application: its intended use and its unintended use.  The internet was originally invented as a communications system for the military; now we use it for everything from commerce to dating.  Radar was developed under a British research project looking for the death ray.  Their criteria for success was whether or not one could use the device to kill a sheep from about 150 feet away, and eventually they realized that you could achieve “returns” when the radio waves bounced off metallic objects.  Now we use radar to detect, track, and engage targets AND give you speeding tickets through Doppler measuring.

(*Wheel of Time Spoiler)

Technology cannot exist in a vacuum.  Look at the later novels of the Wheel of Time series, when Mat Cauthon (in conjunction with an Illuminator) inadvertently develops artillery in a world that was thitherto dominated by bladed weapons.  Now all of a sudden it’s not just the magic users that can create explosions and spread death and fear – anyone with a match can do it.  What implications is that going to have on warfare, on the social status of the magic users who before were held in such fearful esteem because of their terrible power?  What effect did the introduction of firearms finally have on the social structure of the samurai in Japan?  It was the end of an age for the samurai, and all because a thousand years earlier someone figured out how to make some black powder explode.  In one of my novels, I make allusions to a type of magic that allows instantaneous communication over any distance.  That is going to make for some interesting societal developments in a world that is fueled by rumor.

The ripples of new technology are never-ending and sometimes severe. When YOU introduce technology into your combat environment, consider its unintended applications, its repercussions in both civilian and military society, and don’t forget to look beyond the narrow focus of warfare.

3.)  Development and Counterdevelopment.   As I’ve alluded to before, technology builds on technology.  It is especially so in competitive environments, the apex of which is warfare.  Look at the business competition between Nintendo, Microsoft and Sony, each trying to one-up the other by coming up with the next new thing.  Without competition, you would have stagnation.  We might all still be playing Pong, and that would suck.

There is no greater example of development and counterdevelopment in today’s military world than the Cold War between the Soviet Union and the United States over the last half of the 20th century.  Technology went absolutely insane between the end of World War II and today, completely revolutionizing the way the world works.  I would argue that almost no period in history has influenced life on earth as rapidly or as dramatically as the Cold War.

This really boils down to that silly song we’ve all heard, "Anything you can do I can do better.”  Oh, you can see my airplanes from miles away using your radar?  Boom – here’s the F-117 stealth bomber.  Chew on that.  You can send a monkey into space?  We can send a man.  You can send a man?  We can put him on the moon and then have a popular music star invent a dance about it.

In your writing, consider the competitive spirit of the warrior.  Not only does he want to become more technically proficient in fighting, he wants to become better equipped.  He wants sharper swords, bigger guns, brighter lasers - whatever will bring him victory.  If the enemy gets it first, he must have something better.  It is competition, the tit-for-tat development of technology, that makes this possible.  The rapid increase in the use of firearms in warfare in the latter part of the 14th century happened largely due to the clash between the Ottomans and the Christian empire even though gunpowder had existed for nearly a thousand years.  Without that competition, without that drive to push the limits of technology, LARPing might not be so far from reality (lightning bolts aside).

Or you can turn this principle on its head and force a culture into stagnation because of its underlying principles.  There are many examples in history of warrior cultures that refused to integrate new technology into its tactics.  I’ve already talked about the samurai, so let’s look at another example.  The Zulu warrior society showed both extremes; their relatively small, insignificant tribe was able to take over  Zululand through the leadership of Shaka, who introduced a new type of close-range stabbing spear that revolutionized the way the tribes conducted warfare. In the end, however, the tides were turned.  They stagnated, and the British army crushed them at the end of the 19th century using superior technology.*

As you can see from the examples given above, your armies don’t need to adhere to one principle or another.  But you do need to be consistent, accurate, and considerate when using military technology in your fiction.

Case Study:  Mistborn Series by Brandon Sanderson

I purposefully chose a book that doesn’t actually have all that much “traditional” technology in it because I wanted to illustrate the principle in an unconventional way. Plus, sci-fi examples are a dime a dozen, and I don’t want to hear any fantasy writers whining because they feel left out.

Let’s give a quick synopsis of the system so we don’t lose anyone who might not have read the books, which are, by the way, excellent and highly recommended.  Basically, certain people have the ability to ingest metals and “burn” them – kind of like calories or Magic Points – to do specific abilities.  Tin lets you do one thing, copper lets you do another, etc.  There are other branches of that system – some people can use certain abilities simply by touching the metals, for example – but that’s the gist of it.

Brandon hits point #1 on the head, even though his system is completely fantastical (I love that word).  He’s big on making magic systems with rules associated with them (unlike Gandalf in Lord of the Rings, for example), so it doesn’t surprise me in the slightest that he got this part right.  Yet he pays strict attention to physics and even a little bit of biochemistry.  Newton’s law states that every action has an equal and opposite reaction; when a magic user uses magic (wow, read that again) to push on something three times his weight, he’s thrown back instead.  Those little tidbits of realism really help the credibility of the author and the believability of the magic system (technology).

He also adheres to point #2 above – the implications and applications of the magic system (read: technology).  By burning iron and steel, one can push/pull metallic objects toward oneself.  Brandon extrapolated on this concept and moved from simply throwing things around to actually using it to propel oneself through the air – pushing on railroad tracks, or even coins thrown by the magic-user himself – allows for hugely varied methods of transportation.  Say goodbye to the horse and buggy.  Can we go any further with this?  Well, in Brandon’s world only certain people have the ability.  But what if it was common?  What do you think about riding in a taxi that is flinging you through the air using coins pushed off the ground?  That’s what I mean when I say implications.

This article was a look through a soda straw at a very large and complicated topic, but I’m allowed to do that because, hey, this is a blog, not a doctoral thesis.  Hopefully I’ve given you some resources and some insight into technology and its military (and civilian) applications.  Remember to properly equip your fighting force, and that will properly equip you  to keep your military environment feeling real.

…Man that was corny.

Thanks for reading,

Joe

*Interestingly enough, in the Battle of Isandlwana in 1879, Zulu warriors armed with primitive spears and shields defeated a well-equipped British army.  This was mostly due to the British underestimating their opponent, but I’ll bet you can learn from this example and create something interesting in a story.

MILITARY IN FICTION #3 - Lingo

*Get the Podcast HERE

For more details, as well as a list of resources on military history and culture, check out my resources page.

____________________

MIF #3 - Lingo

Prior to DTG 170800ZJUN12, I wanted to give 30-50 PAX a good hack on how to establish comms, but that became OBE so we CANXed that.  So instead, let me give you a nug’s up; we’re going to ROLEX and slip to the right just a bit so we can synch up the machine of many moving parts, tally on the correct requirements and pickle on time.  Otherwise you’re going to go into vapor lock and start shouting bogey dope, and this thing is going to turn into a Charlie Foxtrot real quick.  Lock it up and keep your cranium on a swivel for the next twenty mikes – how copy?

Everything in the above paragraph makes complete and total sense to someone in the military, though I’m sure they’d be rolling their eyes by the middle of it.  We don’t typically lay it on quite that thick, but on occasion you can’t make out what we’re saying any better than if we’d been speaking Chinese.

Communication is the key to combat, and clarity is the key to communications.  When bullets are flying, you also need to be FAST.  So the modern military has established a host of ways to shorten complicated concepts and condense them into single words or phrases that can convey what we’re trying to say.  As a result, we get an added bonus: nobody outside knows what the hell we’re talking about.

That’s great for warfighting, but not so great for fiction writing.  My goal here is to give you a good insight on how we talk and how to put elements of it into your story.  If there’s one thing you should remember, though, it’s this:  You need to achieve a balance between realism and accessibility.  If you start writing things like the first paragraph of this article, you’ll lose just about everyone.

Before I start doling out advice, however, just remember that this is very specific to a modern, technologically advanced military.  You will have to take these principles and extrapolate in order to apply them to other worlds, times, and cultures.  The underlying principle of extrapolation is that of development; this language came from somewhere, so your military lingo should come from somewhere as well.  Combat terminology eventually bleeds into normal, day-to-day conversation.  Soldiers in your fantasy setting are going to frame their conversations with their experience, like an advanced form of an accent; some say “pop” instead of “soda”.  Navy guys call the bathroom the “head”, call going to sleep “racking out”, and call the Air Force when they actually need to get things done*.

That being said, here are my THREE POINTS to help you learn and utilize the lingo.  Each of them has a translation table at the end, which is tremendously exciting because I get to build a table without a hammer.

1.) Brevity/Simplicity.  If your characters are engaging in long philosophical conversations in the middle of a heated firefight, you’ve watched the Matrix too many times.  You don’t have time to discuss the finer points of strategy.  You have time to swear, point, and shoot, and you’re going to let your training (if you have any) take over.  From a stylistic standpoint, this is going to help you build and maintain tension in your action sequences, an added benefit of making your military talk sound real.

In the air force we have a whole set of training goals aimed at achieving memorization of procedures – we call it “bold face”, because that’s how it appears in the manuals. Let me give you an example.

CIVILIAN:  First you pick the peanuts and you peel them, you peel them.  Then you take the peanuts and you crush them, you crush them.  Then you take the butter and you spread it, you spread it.

MILITARY:  Harvest nut.  Remove shell.  Crush.  Apply paste.  (this would probably be reduced to an acronym: HRCA and pronounced “hurka” in common speech – I am not joking.  Next time you are making a peanut butter sandwich, advise your significant other that you are engaging in “hurka” and see what happens).

Specialists are also going to use terms specific to what they do.  If an engineer says “splash”, he’s probably talking about something impacting a fluid.  If a fighter pilot says “splash”, it means he just successfully employed ordnance on a target.  If you have mages, your military force might classify them using short terms.  Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn series classifies his Allomancers into catchy phrases that describe what they do:  Smokers, Soothers, and Seekers.  While not precisely military, it definitely helps the feel and establishes a lingo that characterizes his magic system.

Below are some other examples of how you might take a piece of communication and shorten it to make it sound more “military”.  Some of these I’ve completely made up to support the speculative fiction author, others we actually use.  Note the heavy use of acronyms – this is a way to really, REALLY shorten very complicated terms.  Acronyms don’t work as well in a fantasy setting (it doesn’t work in Elvish), but they’re wonderful for Sci-Fi.

CIVILIAN

MILITARY

I understand what you have said and will do what you ask. Roger, wilco (will comply).
I did not understand what you just said. Did not copy.
Six thousand men armed with maces. Three divisions of bangers.
A mage has cast a spell on our city that caused everyone to go to sleep. Magic slumber party.
Aircraft that we don’t have a lot of, but are extremely important to what we do. HVAA (pronounced HAVE-a, stands for High Value Air Asset)
A car that has been rigged with homemade explosives and will likely be driven straight into something to cause damage. VBIED (pronounced VEE-bid, stands for vehicle borne improvised explosive device)
A device that produces two beams whose focal point has the ability to disrupt the bonds between atoms in molecules and destroy them. Little Doctor (from Ender’s Game, shortened to Molecular Disruption Device, then shortened to MD Device, then shortened to “little Doctor” because of the implications of the abbreviation MD)

If you want some real insight into how to make complicated concepts brief, check out the US Army’s Field Manual FM1-02.1 “Brevity Terms”.  Yes, we have a manual on how to do this.

2.) Fit.  Use language that fits the cultural scheme and the character using it.  By this I don’t mean slang.  What I’m talking about here is more akin to jargon than official terms, but you have to take into account who is speaking, what they’re saying, and who their audience is.  A top-ranking general isn’t going to go to a press conference and use the phrase “blow shit up”.  A platoon sergeant probably wouldn’t use the phrase “achieve synergistic battlefield effects” when giving a pep talk to his soldiers.  Swap the two phrases, and you have a better idea.

As I mentioned in the previous point, “fit” can apply to the type of specialist as well.  Artillerymen are going to use different terms from infantrymen, submariners are going to use different terms from regular sailors.  Many times this prevents us from understanding each other.  I said communication was important; I never said we had it perfect.

Below is a table that describes the difference between levels of command – a grunt versus a general.  Remember that these two individuals have different audiences as well as different specialties.

GENERAL

GRUNT

Effects-based operations Get the job done
Show of force Scare the shit out of them
Enemies Bad guys.
Logistical problems Where is my stuff?
Time-phased approach We’re going to have to wait a while.
I don’t agree with that Yes, sir

See how one tends to be professional, even a little political, while the other is more get-to-the-point?  That’s the way we communicate – grunts aren’t as lingo-centric because often they haven’t been immersed in the environment long enough to assimilate.  You can mix and match these, of course; you will find low-ranking soldiers that talk like generals, and generals (like Patton) who talk like grunts.  Establishing one or the other will not only help you create a realistic environment; it will help you build character profiles as well.  The way someone speaks is often indicative of how they will go about solving problems.

I, for example, am not known for being very political.

3.)   Kizzle Kazzle.  The term comes from a friend of mine who coined it to describe all the ridiculous ways we say things that should otherwise be very simple.  In reality, it describes a specific thing in the sport of curling, but the phrase was so strange (and curling so obscure) that she applied it to military speak.

You can use what I’m about to describe here to develop strange speech patterns and turns of phrase for your own military.

I used several kizzle kazzles in the opening paragraph of this article.  For some reason, we can’t be bothered to say something is going to happen later – we say “slip to the right”.  These expressions violate the principles of brevity and, sometimes, clarity, and can be more likened to jargon than anything else.  We don’t typically use these sorts of terms in a combat environment because of that reason – they can be confusing and lengthy.

This isn’t just about talking in a confusing way.  Most of these examples have a sort of etymology behind them that stems from something we’ve done at one time or another, or something one of our leaders said that caught on.   The military, US or Mordor, is going to create its own subset of language, much like areas of the country.  Look at some of Suann Sanche’s dialog in the Wheel of Time series.  What does she always compare things to?  Fish!  Because she grew up in a city whose population was totally immersed in the fishing culture.   The military is the same way, and over time these phrases have lost their original context and morphed into something that you have to live to understand.

In the air force, somewhere along the lines we developed call signs, nicknames that stem from the way we need to communicate with each other in the cockpit.  At first it was just for fighter pilots, then it branched out to include other pilots and crew.  The military is pretty keen on nicknames – yours can be, too.

I have a callsign, but I’m not going to tell you what it is.  Instead, let’s move on to my translation table.

KIZZLE KAZZLE

ENGLISH

Slip to the right It’s going to occur later than we thought
In the weeds This is too much detail for our context of conversation (comes from the brevity term “weeds” that signifies an aircraft is flying very low)
Nugwork Requires thinking (comes from noggin [head], went to nuggin, shortened to nug, combined with work)
Vapor lock To seize up under pressure (comes from a mechanical term that causes engines to malfunction)
As fragged This will occur as we planned (I have no idea where this comes from)
Cleared hot You are authorized to do said task (comes from how we say it’s okay to drop a bomb)
Charlie Foxtrot This situation has become very complex.**

You can create these for your military if you have a good enough back story.  Try coming up with some strange terms to describe some things, then writing out the history behind the term.  You might find that it leads to a richer development of your military’s history.  Remember that the military is just another subset of society; its speech is going to be just as unique and idiosyncratic as its lifestyle.

Case Study: Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card

While all of OSC’s books in the Ender series are outstanding, the first one in particular is the one that includes the most military terminology.  I could pick out a dozen books that are based on real life militaries, but since my own genre revolves around speculative fiction, I want to keep my examples in those same genres.

I’ve already talked about the Little Doctor, which in and of itself was a brilliant use of military-type lingo.  Another great example is the term “Buggers”, the catchy word used to describe the antlike enemy against which the galaxy and Ender are struggling.  A military organization would never consistently refer to the enemy as “giant insect-like creatures from such and such galaxy”.  We didn’t call them “members of the Soviet Union” – we called them Reds.  Or Commies.  Whatever.  Viet Minh or Viet Cong got reduced to Charlie.  It’s the way of the world that we fight wars by first truncating the name of our enemies, like the first sword stroke in a duel.

The patterns of speech fit a modern military as well.  During one of the dialog sequences that often begin chapters, one of the characters uses the phrase “defeated the effectiveness of our training method”.  That’s a very military way to say “screwed this up.”  You can tell immediately that the men that are talking are of higher rank, from point #2 above.  Lo and behold, it’s a conversation with a Colonel.

Card uses proper military time – the 24 hour clock – proper military acronyms, and proper military ranks.  He did his research beforehand, and it shows that he went above the big things of understanding basic military terminology and advanced to understanding how we speak (and why we speak that way).

Creating lingo for your military is a lot of fun, and very effective in creating a realistic world if you do it right.  Just don’t go overboard.  Otherwise, your reader will go into vapor lock and things will go SNAFU quicker than an off-tether AMRAAM.  Copy?

Thanks for reading,

Joe

*You may notice I’m consistently jibing at the services.  We do this a lot, and it’s never meant to insinuate that the Navy can’t do their jobs.  We’re all part of one big family, and, like any family, we share a love-hate relationship.

** For the purpose of eliminating vulgarity, I’ve been deliberately imprecise in my definition of this term.

MILITARY IN FICTION #1 - An Introduction

*Get the Podcast HERE

For more details, as well as a list of resources on military history and culture, check out my resources page.

_______________________

Welcome to my series of articles on creating a realistic military environment in your fiction.  I’d like to offer this brief introduction before we get into the actual articles to give you a better idea as to the scope and purpose of this series.

For those of you that haven’t been following my blog or have no idea who I am, let me offer a brief introduction.  I’m Joe Zieja, a budding author of fantasy and science fiction.  I’ve been writing for as long as I can remember, but only since 2010 have I really thought of it as a potential career.  Since then I’ve been published just over a dozen times in magazines and anthologies and written three novels, one of which I actually believe may be worth reading.

I’ve spent ten years in the military, and as with any profession, such a long period of immersion tends to discolor your perception of how entertainment media portrays it.   That is, it can be annoying when fiction in any form – movies, TV, books – gets it wrong.  Given that I embody a relatively unique cross-section of the population in the juxtaposition of military man and fiction writer, I thought perhaps I could contribute to the writing community by offering some insight into an increasingly shrinking percentage of mankind.

When I got invited to speak at WORLDCON this year in Chicago on this very topic, I thought I would develop a sort of primer, a repository of advice on varying topics on how to portray a realistic military in fiction.  Thus, this series was born.

I don’t write about modern military events in any form.  Frankly, living it every day doesn’t make me want to integrate it into my hobbies that much.  But I do include military elements in my fiction, as do many (if not most) speculative fiction writers.  Science fiction and fantasy routinely deal with wars and militaristic bodies, whether they are bandits, the king’s army, or a roving group of space pirates.  That’s what makes what I have to say relevant to you as a writer.

I’m not approaching this from a prescriptive angle.  That is, my focus isn’t on telling you precisely how to write.  Instead, I want to offer a window into a microcosm that many people don’t have access to.  The key to making these articles useful is extrapolation; the first step to writing a realistic military environment is learning about ones that already exist and then applying that to your world.  So I’m going to take you through a wide variety of topics dealing with militaries on a very general level that also incorporates a unique insider point of view that you don’t get from reading books by military historians.  These will include things like capturing the vibe of a military unit, rank structure and organization, the human element, technology, and lingo.

This isn’t exclusively for authors either.  If your interest in military affairs is piqued but you don’t necessarily know where to start, this will probably satisfy some of your curiosity.

I have no set amount of articles, nor do I have an iron-clad list of topics.  I want feedback from you via comments, and to inspire discussion that will take what I have written and develop it.  So, at the end of each of these articles, please leave comments at the end.  I want to know, primarily, if what I’m doing is useful to you, and, if not, how I can make some changes to make it so.

I’m looking forward to starting a dialog, and, if you’re going to WORLDCON this year, I’m looking forward to meeting you there.

I invite you to follow my blog, leave comments, or follow me on Facebook or Twitter.  These articles will all be available on a new page at the top of my website, and I plan on releasing all of these in podcast form as well.  Then you’ll have me coming out of the speakers of your car or headphones, which is just a little weird.

Thanks for reading,

Joe

Military in Fiction

For a little bit of insight into who I am:  Aside from being a writer, I'm also an officer in the US Military and have served in uniform for just under ten years now.  I won't bore you with the details.

In all of my writing efforts over the last two years, I've come to realize the importance of research.  Whether you're writing about horses, seafaring vessels, black holes, or just how to use a carpet-weaving loom, it's something that all writers need to do but a lot of writers forget about.  Putting an incorrect fact in your writing, even if it's a piece of fiction, is one of the quickest ways to throw readers out of the story.  Treating a horse like a motorcycle, for example - simply parking it outside a saloon for three days and expecting it to be there when you get back - detracts from the realism of your fiction and negates much of the hard work you may have done in other areas of your writing.

One of the major areas where writers slip up these days is writing military in their fiction.  Hollywood is the worst offender, of course, but all forms of storytelling apply.  And it's no wonder; less than 8% of the American population has served in the military, and that number is rapidly shrinking.  By some estimates, when the World War II and Vietnam generations fade away, that number will fall below 1%.  Yet people still want to read and write about it.  Stuff blows up in the military, and for a lot of readers that's pretty cool.  There's a drama that comes with warfare that you just don't get in Pride and Prejudice, but with it comes a host of pitfalls that are easy to miss.

As a rare member of the military who is also a speculative fiction writer, I've been asked to speak at WORLDCON this year on this very topic.  In preparation - and so that I have something to refer people to after the conference - I'm going to be starting a series of articles that talk about creating a realistic military environment in fiction.  These articles are going to focus on examples of how media is doing it properly or improperly and break down the elements of how to follow (or avoid) those examples.

I've been talking with Howard Tayler, author of the successful Schlock Mercenary comics, who is consistently lauded for creating a realistic military environment in his tongue-in-cheek comic strip.  He's agreed to let me do the first article on his comic strip, and offered a small interview to augment the process.  The great thing about Howard is that he has absolutely no military experience, so it will serve as a good example to authors everywhere that such realism is possible even without wearing a uniform.

I hope these articles help authors understand not only how to portray military organizations in their fiction but also how to do research and ask the right questions when they're feeling stuck.  For non-writers, I hope they serve as an interesting series of essays that anyone can enjoy, a small window into an increasingly small microcosm of the population.

The first article will be released in the coming weeks.  I invite you to follow me on Twitter, Facebook, and subscribe to  my blog (the links should be on the top right of the page).  Any comments on the blog will undoubtedly help contribute to the discussion.

See you there!

Joe

 

In the Shadow of Legends: An Editing After-Action Report

I finished the first draft of my latest novel In the Shadow of Legends on March 8th of this year.  I put it into a drawer for two months before even thinking about it again, something I learned from The Last Scion.  Trying to edit a book right after you've finished it is not unlike calling your own baby ugly.  You just can't do it.

If you look back at my post entitled "The (Red) Pen is Mightier", you'll get a feel for what I mean.  Today, I finished going through the last of the 225,000 word novel (about 7-800 pages paperback) with a red pen and a vengeance.  It took me a few weeks, and I wanted to share what I've learned.

Dean Wesley Smith, who wrote a book about the myths associated with writers, suggested that rewriting is a gimmick used by authors to make their work seem harder than it actually is.  He says that all he does is "sit in a room alone and make stuff up", and it's as easy as that.  I agree with him to a point - you can really suck the voice out of your writing by taking your Strunk and White and stapling it to the pages - but mostly I think that's a rule for writers that have millions of words under their belts.  I learned an awful lot from my read-through, and by the time I'm done making the changes I mapped out I think I'm going to have the best book I've ever written.

I noticed that the first 1/3 of the book seemed to have been written by my thirteen-year-old self.  Run on sentences, overly complicated exposition, misuse of adverbs.  I bled all over the page, literally running out of red ink somewhere later on in the novel.  The Last Scion had a dearth of description, the action happening in voids of nothing that it took many months to fix in my rewrites.  This time I think I swung the pendulum to the other extreme, and I'll have to pare it down a bit.  I think, however, that In the Shadow of Legends succeeds in bringing the reader into the world in a way that my other writing hasn't up to this point.  I'm happy that I'm learning something, at least.

Somewhere in the middle of the book my writing changed completely.  I'm still trying to figure out the timeline to see what exactly happened, but it may have had something to do with my going to Life, the Universe and Everything with my wonderful friend Jen Lerud.  While I was there, I had a few conversations with the clever and talented Mary Robinette Kowal, who said one thing that I had written in large, block letters in my notebook:

REMEMBER THE WONDER

I get it, now.  You can't just attack writing with the task-master approach that I use with nearly everything else in my life.  That certainly helped - the first draft took just over three months to complete - but the spirit of Mary's advice really rings out in my writing.  It's the passion for telling a good story, the passion for recreating that goose-bumps feeling you get when you read something so powerful that your body reacts of its own accord.  I'm not saying that my own writing is anywhere near that good, but I can see the seeds of the things I've learned starting to sprout.  Grinning like an idiot at your own work, even if it's only every once in a while, is a great feeling.

It wasn't all flowers and wonder, though.  I still have a lot of work to do on this novel.  I noticed that I have some gaps to fill in regarding my foreshadowing, and the backstories of some of the characters created some plot holes that need filling.  The arc of the whole plot is good, and the arc of the main character is solid, but I need to make sure my villains have motivations other than simply being evil people.   I also caught on to my "favorite" words.  My characters tended to "freeze in their tracks" a lot, and some other cliches that need eliminating.  I also need to work on my similes and metaphors, and stop using phrases like "seemed like" and so forth.

The great thing is that the book isn't broken.  It can be fixed with some strokes of paint here and there, and in the end I think I'm going to have a really good book on my hands.

Now, to get someone to buy it...

- Joe

***Note:  As I have just finished the red-pen process, a rewrite is about to take place that, depending on my schedule, will take a while.  I am currently canvasing for test readers.  If you would like to be a test reader for In the Shadow of Legends, leave a comment or hit me up via the contact tab.  I'll be looking for a larger edit, not line-editing where you make suggestions on verbiage, etc. Just people to read my book and tell me where a.) you're bored, b.) you're confused, or c.) you're thrown out of the story.   Also, telling me when you're in love with it, if I do anything cool, helps.  (Thanks for those questions, too, Mary!)

Taking a Break

There's value in hard work, elbow grease, and pushing yourself forward.  A lot of people think that there's no such thing as writers' block, that all "writers' block" means is that you aren't putting your butt in the chair and typing enough.  I'm actually inclined to agree with that viewpoint.  If you can't continue writing one story, write another.  If you can't get into that one, do something else that has to do with writing.  If you're brainstorming, drafting, outlining, worldbuilding, or drawing a map in crayon on your wall while hoping your wife doesn't catch you, you're still writing.

There is a time, however, when you have to look at yourself in the mirror and ask yourself "Does my prose look as tired as I do?"  Lately I've been answering "yes" to that question an awful lot.

I've been working on In the Shadow of Legends since November 1st.  Since then I've pounded out 140,000 words (just about 75k a month) and gone places with this novel that told my outline to go pound sand.  It's been a wild ride, but I'm getting tired.  Maybe it comes with the speed of typing very quickly, or writing so many words so fast, but lately I've been re-reading sections of the book and feeling like I needed to get a glass of water because it was so dry.  It could be that my eyes are jaundiced from looking at the same thing for so long, from dealing with the same characters and setting, but in any case there's probably some handwriting on the wall that I need to take a break.

And I think that's a good lesson for myself.  I pumped out the Last Scion relatively quickly as well - more words in less time than I've done with In the Shadow of Legends - and at the end of it I added something like 40,000 words to compensate for the dry, point-to-point storytelling method I'd adopted in favor of speed.  Now, in the middle of In the Shadow of Legends, I'm finding myself bored and it's starting to show up in my writing.  Not good.

I'll come back to it after a short while, I think.  I'm too in love with this story to stay away for very long, but there are a couple of short stories (and maybe some worldbuilding for other novels) bouncing around in my head that are trying to get out.  In the Shadow of Legends has so far given it the Heisman, and the Type A personality in side of me is screaming "No!  Finish this one, and then you can start the next one!"  But that's making my writing suffer, and I need to tell Type A to go in to corporate management instead of writing.  I'll never miss a deadline - a personal promise to myself - but I'm not operating under any right now.  It's time to start treating my writing that way.

Anyway, even just writing this post has been a little refreshing.  I've written something that had nothing to do with my novel, and I have at least 3 short stories and one or two novels ready for something to come out.  It's about time I get to it.

Ciao, and Happy New Year to everyone!

NaNoWriMo 2011 in Review

Well it's over.  NaNoWriMo came and went, and thus the beginning (well, nearly half) of my novel In The Shadow of Legends was born.  It's been a good run, and I don't plan on stopping here.  Let's take a look at the month as NaNo saw it.

[caption id="attachment_159" align="aligncenter" width="490" caption="Figure 1: NaNoWriMo 2011 Statistics (Click to Enlarge)"][/caption]

Ah yes.  That's a good looking bar graph, if I do say so myself.  I topped out at just over 90,000 words, and I'm pretty happy with that.  Somewhere in the back of my mind, I wanted to break 100,000.  I've done it before, but this year it just wasn't meant to be.  Despite the idea behind NaNoWriMo, it's taught me to slow down a bit when I'm writing.  The prose that comes out when I'm concentrating is a lot better than the stuff that comes out when I'm racing,  like in my first draft of The Last Scion.  That monster was a 150,000 word book written in 34 days, and I definitely saw the results of that after I went back to edit it for the first time.  My goal for In the Shadow of Legends is to take a bit more time, write a bit slower, and make a better first draft that won't make me wail in despair (and run out of red ink) when I go back to edit it.

November held a lot of interesting things in it other than NaNoWrimo.  In looking at the way my writing statistics shaped out, I noticed a couple of anomalies in the slope of the curve.  If I kept a consistent writing pace and followed the minimum word requirement to finish on time, I should have seen an equation that looked something like x = 1667y, where x is the total word count and y is the number of days.  Instead, at the beginning we had a more x=700y curve, but shortly thereafter followed by an exponential increase, something to the effect of x=500y2.  After performing a detailed analysis, I came up with the following (click the picture if you can't read the notes).

[caption id="attachment_160" align="aligncenter" width="490" caption="Figure 2: Causality Analysis (Click to Enlarge)"][/caption]

See?  There is nothing that can be solved by simple scientific observation.  I think everyone can benefit from this sort of analysis.

Anyway, the novel isn't done, and therefore neither am I.  This, right now, is shaping up to be about a 200,000 word novel (around the size of a Twilight book, or one of the latter Harry Potters).  I'll post a bit more about my experiences writing this book, and compare them with the experience of writing my last few, another time.  For now, I think it's time for  a well-earned rest.  Oh, and work.  Have to go and do that, too.

A Whole New World

I had a discussion with a few other fellow writers on Worldbuilding - the idea of creating a new world for your fantasy/science fiction novel - and I thought I might post some of my thoughts here.  I don't presume to be an expert on all of this, but it seemed to be blog-worthy, and I haven't gotten a real handle on what should be in this thing yet.  So you are subjected to my rambling.

Recently this is what I've come to understand: We talk about good stories being "character driven" rather than "plot driven", and that's a good thing. We don't want the story to unfold by itself, we want the characters, with their own unique motivations, to do so.

However, we seem to neglect the importance of the setting in a lot of cases. I am of the opinion that we are shaped by our environment. Our parents, our schools, our jobs, our countries - all of them make us as people into unique characters. So why not have the setting make your characters into unique characters? In the case of a fantasy, you have a completely new set of principles shaping its people. They may have similar social standards, but chances are your magic system creates a fundamental difference that will therefore give rise to totally unique characters. I try to keep this in my mind when I consider skimping on the worldbuilding phase. That's exciting, but not nearly exciting to me as actually sitting down and cranking out a novel.

My tendency,unfortunately, is to do nearly everything at once. I want to write the first chapter at the same time I am developing my main character, the magic system, and geography. It worked for my last novel, The Last Scion, because the setting wasn't very rich. I could get away with doing it as I went. But the next novel I am working on (the Deicide Trilogy) is designed to have a very lush world that has radically different principles than the one we live in and a variety of different magic systems that all tie together. So when I sat down to do what I did with The Last Scion, I found myself stuck - questions started popping into my head that prevented me from plotting the novel, because their answers would determine the type of characters that arose from the setting, and therefore the plot.

The short answer, then, is that I am constantly redeveloping my worldbuilding and novel writing process. In my most recent iteration, however, I think I am going to try a bit more structure, and this is how I plan on doing it: I have the basic idea for a world in my head, and I am going to begin asking questions about the world in my head and answering them. Namely, what would X do to the social structure of my society? Who are the leaders? How do they lead? What is the economy like? How does this magic system alter the answers to the previous questions? How are the places and people tied together? What are their values? How do they differ? The list goes on and on.

When I have a solid BASIS (I completely disagree with the idea of a certain amount of worldbuilding being a goal to reach before writing), I will start to develop the characters that live in that setting based on what I know I want to happen in my novel. If I want a character to take over the world, it makes a whole list of questions arise - how, given my magic system and societal contraints, can he do such a thing? This will no doubt bring about more questions that need answering in your worldbuilding, and therefore make it that much richer.

Simultaneously I am keeping idea net out. I am trying to make writing a sort of every-moment choice of consciousness. When a scene or a character quirk jumps into my head, I jot it down. Then maybe I wonder how that might have ripple effects throughout the plot and the setting.

The biggest question for me is when to start actually penning chapters rather than outlines. For my last book I had mentally divided up the sections between 3 of the major, huge, plot-altering events in the book. I would not begin writing those chapters until I had a rough outline of how I was going to get from major event to the next one. That didn't create a very smooth plotline. This time around, I am going to try to get a bit more fidelity on my outline before attempting to start. That's hard for me because I just want to GO.

...I still really just want to GO!

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