Why I Wrote an Early 20th-century Sci Fi Adventure in the Early 21st century
I’m writing about how I’m publishing a new science fiction series in 2019. This is the second part of the series.
In my new book, Return of the Exile, first in the Salvage of Empire series, the main character, Director Kolteo Ais, has a terrible secret. It says as much on the cover blurb.
If his secret is revealed, it will destroy everything he’s worked for: his place in the ruling council for the Galactic Empire, the Empire itself, and even his marriage.
Even worse? His brother-in-law knows his secret now. And he’s returning from his self-imposed exile with every intention of thoroughly destroying Kolteo.
The Inspiration & Heritage
As I mentioned in my previous article, I read widely, and I consistently find a particular period of literature to be the most fun to read:
The early 20th century “pulps”.
Edgar Rice Burroughs, H.P. Lovecraft, Clark Ashton Smith, Raymond Chandler, Leigh Brackett, E.E. “Doc” Smith, and the list goes on and on.
Are they perfect? Good heavens, no. But they’re fun.
They’re books that make you want to read more books.
When I set out to write Salvage of Empire, I consciously decided that I wanted to write a book in the old pulp style.
I think what I came up with is also fun to read. I’ve read it a million times, and I’m still enjoying it. I’m admittedly biased.
Not only is it fun to read, it’s has been fun to write. I began Salvage of Empire in the style of a running serial: each episode is a 1,500–2,000 word cliff-hanger with endings that (hopefully) drive the reader forward through the story.
The technique is simple: in each episode, always raise at least as many questions as you answer.
I love the serial format, and what’s more, serial storytelling has provided the foundation of my success in building a more consistent writing habit in the past six months.
Each week, I ship a new 2,000 word episode. I took a week off for Christmas, and I’m taking some time off to get this launch together. Every other week since mid-June 2018, I’ve shipped.
Amy Hoy is right! Shipping is everything. It’s addicting, even.
The serial format can be intimidating though. The scary thing about writing a serial: maintaining continuity and setting up mysteries and twists. I’ve already had to retcon one episode after realizing that I’d screwed up the timeline.
So how do I keep it all straight? Yes, this pantser has gone over to the dark side: I live by my outline, and I write as formulaically as possible. Cue the violins!
When it’s finally done, Salvage of Empire will comprise eight novella-length books and more than 280,000 words. How do I know that?
My rough outline has 40 plot points (based on a generic outline from the Smarter Artist guys at Sterling & Stone), strictly following an uber-traditional Four Act progression.
Each plot point has four episodes, or as some of us in the #PulpRev call it, a Dent, named for Lester Dent’s famous pulp story formula:
- all is lost/self-rescue/revelation
Strangely enough, the Dent resembles the Four Act structure, doesn’t it?
Each episode is constructed from scenes (goal/conflict/disaster) and sequels (reaction/dilemma/decision).
Each scene and sequel is constructed from Motivation-Reaction units (external motivation/internal reaction: feeling/reflex/rational action).
If you squint, you realize that all these formulae are different ways of representing the same classical story structure, whether it’s Three Act or Four Act or Story Circle. It’s the fundamental building block of Western Civilization.
(Eastern Civ has its own classical story structure, but I’m no weeb, so I couldn’t explain it to you.)
And that’s how I keep my story straight, and tell a story that’s structurally sound, keeps the reader wanting more, and pierces the heart of any Man of the West.
As you read the story, you’ll see that I’ve taken my inspiration from many places. Most recognizably, you’ll recognize Asimov (Foundation), Herbert (Dune), Lucas (Star Wars), but there’s more. I read widely, and I love recombining ideas to make new things.
Markov Chains & Lester Dent’s Formula
While the heritage is ancient, this story has benefitted from some of the cuttingest-edged technology on the face of the planet.
The story that became Salvage of Empire started out as a short story that I wrote when I was first testing out the Lester Dent formula. That story (the basis for chapters 9–12 of Book 1) was grown from an initial seed.
I’m a big fan of random generators. A few years ago, I got interested in NaNoGenMo, an annual contest in which participants compete to write programs to automatically generate novels.
Long story short, I ended up writing a bunch of experimental tools in Python that generate quick plots.
One of those tools was a YAML-based generative grammar (similar to, but more powerful than, Tracery). I took Lester Dent’s formula, the various thematic oracles from Abulafia, a heap of lists from TV Tropes, two scoops of Plotto, and I made a plot generator.
I still have the original seed that became Salvage of Empire (SPOILER WARNING!):
Our heroine, Alejandra, is a socialite swayed by pretense.
Undergoing an experience that results in a remarkable character change in Chinatown, she achieves a spiritual victory.
Opposing her, ugly, dense worker, Raising the Steaks.
- The rotting hulk of a spaceship, flagship of the old empire, found at the end of a beacon.
- The damaged recorder from a shipwreck, with a startling revelation.
- A galaxy on the cusp of open war.
- The galactic savior-child stolen by pirates who want a planet as ransom.
Poetry it’s not. Of course, I went in some different directions than the seed suggested (you’ll have to find out which), but the concept is somewhat recognizable.
In my research for the story, I re-read Asimov’s Foundation. People complain about the lack of action and the dry scenes with bodiless voices, but there are two things about the book that are undeniably great: the concept (Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire, in SPAAAACE!!!), and the names. Asimov has awesome names:
- TRANTOR Done, right there. Genius at work, folks.
- Hari Seldon
- Gaal Dornick
- Salvor Hardin
- Sef Sermak
- Poly Verisof
- Theo Aporat
- Eskel Gorov
- Linmar Ponyets
- etc., etc.
They sound like names, but are distant enough from any common English names to sound appropriate to a Galactic Empire tens of thousands of years in the future.
Star Wars has great names too, though less consistently so: for all the genius names like Boba Fett and Han Solo, the main character is Luke Skywalker and the heart of the Empire, the world-spanning city, sounds like a breakfast pastry.
Well, my Galactic Empire Space Opera needed good names too, but I’m lousy at coming up with them. So I did what any reasonable person would do:
I sourced myself some inorganic, small-batch, locally-produced Markov chains.
With the Markov chain algorithm, you take a set of words, chop them up into pieces (called n-grams), and recombine them using STATISTICS. So all the male names are just regular Census data male names, chopped up and recombined willy-nilly. Female names are generated from common female names. Surnames, likewise.
Planet and place names come from a list of asteroid names that I’ve been hoarding for just such a purpose for over a decade (aged to perfection!).
So when I need a name, I just run a python script:
$ presto run oracles/names-male-surname-markov.yaml
I might just use some of those. “Anger Kis”? Yes, please!
Finding the Fun
I’ve aimed all this effort at writing a fun story.
Look at what was happening when the pulps were in vogue: World War I had devastated an entire generation. The banks collapsed. Farms failed. The Great Depression wrapped the world in financial ruin.
The pulps were an antidote to the gloominess that pervaded the US. When life was tough, people could count on Weird Tales or Planet Stories to transport them into another time and place, where times were even tougher and good triumphed over evil.
These were the stories that inspired the generation of Americans that rose up to fight the double threat of fascist imperialism in World War II.
Not bad for a bunch of cheap, trashy stories, eh?
It’s not nearly that bad right now, thank God. But our generation has plenty of troubles. We have plenty of serious stories. We have plenty of sad stories. We have plenty of lecturing stories.
We need more fun stories, because it’s those stories, the redeeming, the uplifting, the thrilling stories that save civilizations.
Next, I’ll tell you why I’m publishing my first novel in a format you’ve never heard of.