Category Archives: Science Fiction

Make me care – the two sides of Bioware storytelling

I am an avid gamer, as many folks are. Over the years I’ve come to focus primarily on strategy games and role playing games, with the draw of both being the story that unfolds out as you play.

This is especially true for the role playing games produced over the years by Bioware. Bioware has a knack for combining winning gaming systems with engrossing stories that has kept me involved in their products for more than twenty years now.

For the purposes of this post, I’d like to highlight two of their most famous game series and how the writing for those series helped me become a better writer myself. Ironically the big lesson for me lay in studying why Mass Effect, one of my favorite games of all time, failed to get me emotionally engaged with the main character.

Mass Effect is the story of Command Shepard, a player-created character who embarks on a mission to save the galaxy from the oncoming threat of the deadly Reapers. The story spans three games, each of which can take hundreds of hours to play through completely. Mass Effects world building is peerless in its industry, and to this day it is my favorite science fiction universe created in the past twenty years. From one corner of its galaxy to the other, the mythos and lore of Mass Effect pulled me in deep.

Yet as connected as I was to the world, I could never connect with Commander Shepard himself (or herself, as I did a second playthrough with a female Shepard). It took me a while to work out why this was, but over time I realized it was a lack of personal stakes for the main character of the story.

Shepard walks through the three Mass Effect games almost as a blank space with the whole world being colored around him. Shepard himself has no family, no background beyond a cursory few paragraphs and no real motivations beyond what the player might give him in their own head canon.

The game is more about the rich worlds Shepard visits and the amazing companions he meets along the way. Over the course of the games characters like Garrus, Liara and Mordin grew into friends to me and what happened to them became important. They grow and change, each going on story arcs that are deep and very impactful. Yet Shepard doesn’t change at all. He’s the same guy at the end of game three as he was at the end of game one. I guess this is why, while I love the Mass Effect series, the main character always left me cold. It was like watching a movie where they forgot to put in the main character.

For the most part, this is the modern Bioware model. The main character is a cipher by design to allow for player insertion. The plot and side characters flow around the MC, and while the player gets to impact the world in a very meaningful way, the game isn’t *about* him or her.

Bioware made an exception to this is the second game in the Dragon Age series, and this deviation is one of the main reasons this game is so divisive among the fanbase. Unlike all three Mass Effect games and the other two Dragon Age games, Dragon Age 2 is very much about its main character Hawke.

Right from the first scene we are given Hawke’s family, fleeing in terror from a horde of monsters destroying their home country. We meet his mother and siblings. Early in the story one of the siblings is killed and the rest of the family is reduced to refugees, begging for work in the streets of their new home of Kirkwall.

Through the course of Dragon Age 2, many of the standard Bioware tropes are still on display. Characters with deep and rich backstories come to your side, and Kirkwall gains depth as a setting as the game goes on. The plight of Hawke and his family never leaves center stage though. Hawke’s fortunes change for both better and worse through the story, and at the end of the tale he is a significantly different character than who he was at the beginning.

I connected deeply with Dragon Age 2’s Hawke in a way I never did with Shepard in the Mass Effect games. The story was about him, rather than just how he impacted the story. Hawke had personal stakes – he wasn’t just a hero trying to save people because that’s what heroes do. He had family in the thick of things, and he had to sacrifice and change as a character in order to try and save them.

The difference between Hawke and Shepard is subtle but important to me, and it’s one I’ve tried to remember as I am writing my own stories. I try to give my heroes personal skin in the game, to make them more than just ‘good guys’ who rode into town to right wrongs but to have something on the line that is personal to them and requires them to grow in order to see things set right.

Mirages and Speculations

Setting is a crucial part of storytelling. Setting affects the story in many ways. What challenges do the protagonists face from nature and their environment? How has the landscape shaped the culture of the people who live there?

There are some common tropes for fantasy and sci-fi stories. Fantasy stories are often set in a parallel version of medieval Europe, with small villages, walled towns and thick forests to traverse. Sci-fi stories are often set on gleaming high-tech space stations. There’s nothing wrong with these settings, of course. Sometimes they suit the story perfectly.

But an unexpected setting can result in an unexpected kind of story.

Mirages and Speculations is a fantasy and sci-fi story set in a different kind of landscape: the desert. Think wind-swept plateaus, scorching sands, and arroyos. Come discover if that glimmer on the desert horizon is a lake, or the gleam of light off the side of a flying saucer. If those swirling clouds are dust devils–or djinn.

Seventeen authors of science fiction and fantasy take you into worlds both futuristic and fantastic under the desert skies.

You can order it as print or e-book from Amazon here.

Welcome to December – 2017 Year In Review

This month, the Fictorians and a few guest bloggers will share their successes, lessons learned, and their challenges as we collectively pursue our writing careers. I hope that some of their stories and posts resonate with you. We’re all at different places in our journey, but the idea that we’re all stepping forward is critical to remember.

Every year, I set Writing Goals. Those goals have become more ambitious over the last few years and I’ve been challenged to get my butt in the writing chair to achieve the things I wanted to at the beginning of the year. I opened up my schedule to attend more conventions and events, I ambitiously took on a new project that was not on my writing goals at all, and I managed to get two books published in the last half of the year. I’ll share more about those projects later this month, but there were two things that happened this year that harken back to something that Kevin J. Anderson talks about: “Popcorn Theory.” The idea is that as writers, we can’t treat our stories like a single kernel of popcorn. If we were hungry, we’d starve cooking one kernel at a time. Having more projects going breeds creativity and creates unique opportunities. This year, I’d decided to take a break from writing all short fiction to focus on writing/editing two novels. Yet, opportunities knocked and I listened.

The first was an opportunity I’ll discuss more in a couple of weeks, but I received an invitation to submit a story for an anthology in the bestselling military science fiction series of the Four Horsemen Universe. I had a blink in my schedule, so I wrote the story, turned it in, and saw my whole calendar for the year derailed when not only did editors Chris Kennedy and Mark Wandrey love my short story but they asked me to write a novel with my character Peacemaker Jessica Francis. But, more on that later.

Very soon, AVATAR Dreams – An Anthology Inspired by the ANA X-Prize, will be published that features some of the biggest names in science fiction. Edited by Kevin J. Anderson and Mike Resnick, this collection features stories from Jody Lynn Nye, Todd McCaffrey, Martin L. Shoemaker, Tina Gower, Marina J. Lostetter, Brad R. Torgersen, Josh Vogt, Dr. Harry Kloor, Andrea Stewart, Ron Calling, Kay Kenyon, and Kevin Ikenberry. That’s right – me. Opportunity knocked and I was in the right place.

Kevin J. Anderson looked across the table at me and said, “I need another story for the AVATAR Dreams Anthology. Can you get me something in two weeks?”

Yes, I could.

From story idea to turn-in was seven days. It was a crazy, hectic time but I had a story crystallize in my head that combined the movie “The Fast and the Furious” with Isaac Asimov’s Fantastic Voyage. With the help of my friend Lou J. Berger, some bacteriology tutoring from my father (putting that PhD to use), and a couple of late nights, I turned in a story faster than expected. Hearing that it was a great fit for the anthology was icing on the proverbial cake. But, my take away from the experience was that I could take a short-notice opportunity and do something good. It’s the fastest I’ve ever written a short story and I’m pretty proud of “That Others May Live.”

So, as we go through the month of December and hear different stories, there’s a chance you’ll hear opportunity knocking. Don’t be afraid to answer the door. Everybody on the blog this month has been listening, I’m sure.

When Disaster Strikes – Getting My Momentum Back

I’ve blogged on the Fictorians before about the infection that nearly killed me in 2014. What I may not have mentioned that outside of that scary situation and hospital stay, it really wrecked my writing momentum. This was February 2014. If we rewind back to mid-2013, I went into the most productive period of my writing at that point. From July 2013 to January 14, I wrote two novels. I wrote what became my debut novel SLEEPER PROTOCOL and another shorter novel that’s my tribute to Elmore Leonard called SUPER SYNC. In that six month period, I also wrote a few short stories and my overall total of words written was probably somewhere near 180,000. This was an incredible time and I really felt like I was getting into a higher gear when everything came crashing down.

After my illness, I barely wrote anything new for a year. Yes, I sold and went through subsequent edits on both SLEEPER PROTOCOL and an earlier novel RUNS IN THE FAMILY, so I was “writing” but I wasn’t writing anything new, which we all know are two entirely different things. But, in that period from April 2015 to January 2016 came the impetus for the sequel VENDETTA PROTOCOL and I decided to try my hand at a prequel to RUNS IN THE FAMILY. Writing was slow and arduous. There were several times when I wanted to simply give up. I was going to publish a novel, after all. I ultimately decided that I wasn’t going to be happy with one book on that shelf by my deathbed. It was time to write more, so in January 2016, I decided that it was time to get off my ass and write. I’d been incredibly productive before then, and I believed I could get back to, or surpass, my productivity. It just required self-discipline to get into the chair and write and a little faith that I would get better, both mentally and physically.

It was slow going at first, but I outlined an alternate history novel. From there, I went into the draft of VENDETTA PROTOCOL with the goal of writing it in three months. SLEEPER PROTOCOL took me 7 weeks and I figured I would need about double the time. Turns out, I wrote VENDETTA PROTOCOL in 9 weeks. Because I could feel myself getting faster and I trusted myself as a writer. Was it perfect? Hell, no. But I was getting it out of my head. I turned around from that draft and wrote a novella LANCER ONE. After that, I was asked to submit to a military science fiction anthology, so I wrote a 9,000 word story “Stand On It.” At the end of 2016, I started work on the alternate history novel I’d outlined in February-March. I worked on that draft into February of 2017.

Not long after I finished that project, my military science fiction anthology story turned into a novel titled PEACEMAKER. I wrote that novel in less than three months. During that time, I was asked on short notice to provide a story for the upcoming X-PRIZE: Avatars anthology. I had to turn it around in two weeks – I did it in a week. All of that “new writing” ended back in June of this year. I’ve been editing ever since. The results are crazy.

PEACEMAKER get worldwide release on August 25th. VENDETTA PROTOCOL gets an ebook release on September 13th and a print version following. The novella LANCER ONE is due out in October. The first anthology A FISTFUL OF CREDITS was released in June and is selling like hotcakes. The X-PRIZE anthology is due later this year.

Two weeks ago, I turned in the alternate history project to my editor/mentor. It’s the most difficult book I’ve written to date. I’ve now laid out a plan for the rest of 2017 and it’s ambitious as hell. I can get it done, though. My momentum is back. How did I do it?

Go back a few paragraphs. For me, it’s about putting my butt in the chair and writing. Yes, I plot and outline, but I’m also thinking about the books and projects all the time. I take a lot of notes. Some of them work, others don’t. The best ideas I don’t have to write down because they stay with me. Once I’m committed to writing the project, I let go of my inner critic – that little bastard that likes to click the backspace button more than he types. I write because I know that I can fix it later. I get the story out of my head. If it comes in short or over the desired word count, I go back and fix it. All of that is faith in myself. Will I make mistakes? Yes. Can I fix them? Yes. I’ve taken very strongly to the belief that I can fix anything in editing. The result is my productivity is higher than ever.

Let go. Have faith. Write.