Silver Wordsmith: An author's journey
I got a bit of a nasty surprise this weekend. As I’ve mentioned in recent posts, my buffer of chapters for my science fiction web serial is growing and I’m gearing up to start releasing installments in the next couple of months. Since I feel like the project has taken on an unprecedent level of seriousness for me, I figured I’d do some additional due diligence before I truly commit. For years, I had been referring to the project as “Drops of the Black Sun”. I had vetted it earlier as the full phrase, and found no similarities, so I went ahead and reserved a domain name, and have been using the name consistently ever since conceiving of it.
This time around, I decided to scrutinize its constituent parts, so I googled “Black Sun” as a separate entity. What I found was that the Black Sun is the name of a crime syndicate in the Star Wars universe. A small issue, I figured. My “Black Sun” didn’t refer to an organization, and even though there’s significant overlap in genres, the crime syndicate formed a relatively minor part of the overall Star Wars lore. I concluded that this wouldn’t be a huge deal.
The other use of “Black Sun” is as a Nazi symbol that is widely associated with neo-fascists and neo-Nazis.
Cue me whispering several bewildered obscenities.
To say that this is a “problem” would be a colossal understatement. Whatever connection works for Star Wars – a crime syndicate being associated with some of the worst villains in human history seems at least somewhat appropriate – there was no way I was going to be associated with this. Not only would I not want the title of my work in any way related to such repugnant ideology, I also wouldn’t want my work to get a signal boost from those searching for the symbol, or vice versa.
I admit I probably should have done more vigorous research at the time I decided that this was the name I was going with, but I knew I had to correct this oversight immediately.
So I had signed up for a new domain name, and scoured my blog for any mention of the original name, replacing it with the shorter and crisper “The Bloodlet Sun”. This was a team effort between myself and my family over the weekend. Even the kids tried to help though their suggestions never made it into the final product.
So in case you’ve been following this blog, and suddenly have noticed this name change, that’s the story behind it. And if there’s any mentions of the original name that I missed somewhere on this site, please point it out to me so I can delete them as well.
As for the new name, I’m glad I got pushed into another brainstorming session, because I quite like it, even though it hasn’t had a chance to grow on me yet. It’s shorter in terms of number of words and number of syllables, and brevity does tend to serve catchy titles best. I retained the image of an ominous sun, though I admit I cheat there a little bit. To use “bloodlet” in the way I use it hear isn’t entirely grammatically “proper” but I like the unusual use and the imagery that it might invoke.
It also allows me to use the longer concept of the Drops of the Bloodset Sun to describe the actual objects in my world without clogging up the title of the work with unnecessary words.
So here’s a lesson to us all – do your due diligence. You never know what might be lurking out there that you simply aren’t aware of that would cause you to send the worst kind of wrong message. I’m just glad I caught it in time, and had a chance to right this mistake.
Last week I mentioned that I’ve been riding a wave of productivity over the last month. The result of this is perceptible progress on all my projects, including the completion of Chapter 2 of The Bloodlet Sun. The only reason I haven’t started posting again is because this time I want to build a bit of a buffer first (not that a buffer would save me from a similar year-long hiatus that I’ve experienced since concluding Chapter 1, but I’m trying to be a little optimistic here). I’m already in the process of editing Chapter 3, and have also almost finished writing the first draft of Chapter 4. I’m hoping to start posting DoBS at a fairly regular weekly schedule in a month or so.
The fascinating challenge I’m facing with Chapter 4 is character naming. A lot of characters get introduced here, and even though I’ve worked on some of them for years, their names have never been set in stone. And I’m finding out that names are a big deal.
Han Solo, Kosh, Daenerys Targaryen, examples from some of my favourite works of sci-fi/fantasy fiction are memorable, punchy and evocative. In the case of the former, can be short, and easy to pronounce, in the case of the latter, longer, and a bit more of a tongue-twister depending on how many drinks deep you are into trying to forget Season 8. A character’s name is a far bigger deal in fiction than it would be in real life. Nothing in the real world is stopping Bill Jones from being the best he can be, but fictional Bill Jones is not going to amount to anything more than being an accountant in a room of other non-descript throwaway accountants preventing Stalactite Sinclair from financing her coup against a brutal dictatorship. So I’ve taken my approach to names seriously, although if my brainstorming of the last few weeks is any indication, perhaps a little too seriously.
In a way, naming the alien characters is a whole lot easier – there are fewer constraints to work with. There’s the species’ or culture’s naming conventions and phonetic inventory to consider, while also keeping an eye out for acceptable syllable structure, but otherwise, the rules here are entirely in my head. Just don’t spit out something with five syllables, three-consonant strings and multiple apostrophes like Shr’ulia’akrgi, and you’re golden. I break, or come close to breaking, the first rule with Thorian naming conventions (as you’ll see more in Chapter 2), but generally I also subscribe to shorter is better. Just look at some of the examples from J. Micharel Straczynkski’s Babylon 5: Kosh, G’Kar, Vir. All three are single syllables that are both palatable to the English speaker, but that could sound alien nonetheless.
The lay of the land for human characters is entirely different. Maybe if I was working in a pure fantasy world, I can be as unconstrained as with my alien names, but I’ve created for myself a specific setting and I have to try to play by the rules of this setting. Without going into any spoilers and simply borrowing from the general description of DoBS – it takes place approximately two thousand years from now, about the same amount of time from a great planetary disaster.
Thinking back on how human society, culture and demographics have changed over the last two thousand years, without a great calamity on top of that, I realize my puny human brain can hardly comprehend that many years into the future. So any “realism” here would be purely aspirational. Not to mention that in my perceived future the Earth has become a far bigger melting pot than it is today, and suddenly using names that exist across our world right now doesn’t seem too appropriate.
At least my inspirational golden standard, Babylon 5, was set about two hundred and fifty years in the future, so names like John Sheridan and Susan Ivanova don’t seem that far out of place. Crank the time scale by a factor of 8 and add all the waves of human migration, and “John Sheridan” might not seem too out of place, but if everyone else’s name was similarly familiar, it would seem like a cop-out.
Granted, I think I could get away with giving those names – I doubt the readership would judge me too harshly for it, but it doesn’t feel right in my own head, and I need to be fully immersed in my own world if I am to bring it to life for someone else. So, let’s take a look at the parameters I set for myself in deciding how to formulate human names in DoBS:
So now that I laid the parameters out, comes the actual hard part. Even though I have those “rules” for my naming conventions, I still need the names to come out naturally. The character rises out of my imagination – they have a personality and a history and first and foremost they are people who are alive, you know, as much as a fictional character can be in my head. Applying some sort of rule-based or flowchart-based approach to their names is mechanical and artificial.
Not only that, but developing a diverse cast of characters based on what would essentially be a checkbox exercise, isn’t exactly progress, it’s lip service, and not at all how representation is supposed to work. I can hardly claim that my characters are people first when their identity came about out of their names, rather than the other way around.
While I don’t want my cast of characters to look like Game of Thrones, or, face it, most of Star Wars, I also don’t want to blunder into this thinking that I already know exactly what I’m doing. I’m terrified of making mistakes, but I’m more terrified of continuing to be part of the problem just for the reason that I don’t want to stick out my head. This preference to do this from the comfort of one’s own experience is what has allowed systemic problems to continue unabated for so long and let’s face it, the fact that I’m even in this position is already a sign of privilege.
So, perhaps the solution is to shut up and write it, and if I mess up, to shut up and right it.
Any day now, I’ll finish draft 4 of Wake the Drowned, and when I do, I will inundate you with useless statistics and maybe some marginally helpful editing and novel planning tips along the way, but until that happens, I want to talk about inspiration.
For the writers in the audience, we all have an author or work that at one point has made us go “Wow, this is the thing I want to create. I want my writing to make someone feel like this makes me feel right now.” For me, one of those works, and probably the earliest one I can remember, is J. Michael Straczynski’s science-fiction series, Babylon 5, which I have previously mentioned on multiple occasions as a great inspiration.
Not sure how many of you folks will remember Babylon 5 but it ran in the 90s on the Prime Time Entertainment Network and then TNT for its final season and was the original (and superior) cousin of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. The show followed the crew of the space station Babylon 5, built by humans to be a hub of diplomacy and understanding between different species, as they struggled with their internal politics and threats from ancient races.
Very importantly, it was one of the shows that found both syndication and a fan following in 90s Russia, where I had grown up, and because off its airtime, served as a forbidden fruit. It was on after my bedtime, which was extended to cover the show only on Fridays, so the other four days of the week I had to piece the show together by sneaking out of bed and standing quietly in the doorway, bolting every time there was a commercial break knowing that that’s when I was apt to get caught. My parents later claimed they mostly knew about this but I still like to think I was pretty stealthy.
What struck me about B5, aside from the cool aliens which would tickle the imagination of any young boy who was into Star Wars, was that it was my first exposure to long-form storytelling. Babylon 5 remains fairly unique in its approach to its story – it started off with a pre-planned five-season story arc, and it was given a chance to conclude its full five-season arc, albeit with some shuffling in the final two seasons due to a threat of cancellation. My little child mind was absolutely boggled by this as stories and themes were interwoven, secrets had satisfying resolutions, and actions had consequences reaching into seasons ahead.
It was the first work of fiction that taught me that characters can come in shades of gray, that as one enemy redeems himself the other can face a cruel downfall, their fates seeming both inevitable and completely avoidable. It showed me that humour can cohabitate with tragedy, and strength with vulnerability, and that somewhere deep within me my own stories were itching to get out.
The reason B5 was on my mind as I set to write this post is twofold. Firstly, I have been diligently working on Chapters 2 and 3 of The Bloodlet Sun (despite what the general lack of updates would otherwise suggest), my own long-form mostly pre-planned sci-fi series that I’m sharing here on this blog. As I’m putting together these early chapters and planning for the future of the series, I can’t help but seek inspiration from B5 and I have spotted some unintentional minor similarities that make me question whether I have an original bone in my body.
The other reason this has been on my mind is because on Tuesday, through the magic of the internet, I had a chance to have a brief interaction with the creator of B5 himself. J. Michael Straczynski did an AMA on the /r/books subreddit and I was lucky enough to catch the beginning and fire off my comment. I told him the little tidbit about watching it past my bedtime and what an influence he was.
The ever-humble Straczynski advised me to never let “some other show” influence me as a writer. In general, I take his meaning. Those previously mentioned similarities notwithstanding, I want my work to be original, but what are we without the giants whose shoulders we stand on? Straczynski is one of the giants for me. While I want Drops to have a unique voice, to breathe life into a story and into characters that are entirely my own, I can’t help but see my work through the lens of works that have inspired me. I want to at least come close to bringing to the world the same complexity, the character development and engaging story that Straczynski brought me when I was a kid.
So with that said, I hope you all get a chance to experience the brilliance that is Babylon 5. I know I’m already looking to my next rewatch, and to bringing you even a smidgen of the same powerful storytelling.
Lately I’ve been feeling a bit like George R. R. Martin, if Martin had wrote the first chapter of A Game of Thrones and then promptly fucked off the face of the Earth. Success seems to be a favourite prey of ambition. One of my major follies is building up myself a lofty goal and then getting buried by the inevitable avalanche that follows. The only solution is then to burn the ruins to the ashes and move onto the next overwhelming task.
About three months ago, I ambitiously started my science fiction project, The Bloodlet Sun, which I planned to release as a web novel on this blog. Usually I’m a non-genre writer, but I’ve always had a soft spot for science fiction, so I figured I could write it off the side of my desk and share it with the rest of the world in an unhurried fashion. In mid-March, I finished posting Chapter 1. Almost three months later, Chapter 2 is a work in progress, and like George Martin, I am filled with wholehearted promises to get my audience the next installment.
In the meantime, instead of being content with tweets of lamentation, I figured I’d share in a bit more detail what I’ve been going through the last couple of months in terms of the creative process, and hopefully the other writers out there can glean something useful out of my experience.
First and foremost I want to say, I haven’t given up on the project, nor has it turned into a chore, which is one of the reasons why it’s been progressing so slowly. I didn’t want to be buried by the weight of my own ambition in this case. Instead, I carefully took a measured approach to keep my joy alive and to keep some kind of semi-regular release schedule. This turned out a bit harder than I thought, and the main culprit is quality control.
It is far easier to be mediocre than good. So while the plot outlines and character arcs existed as networks of interconnected neurons in my own mind, they were difficult to scrutinize. But now that they were made flesh by writing them down, they needed to meet a standard. I knew I wasn’t planning to make it as polished as my traditional stuff, but that was still no excuse to make it sloppy. There were standards I needed to meet before I could share my work with others.
So that was one of the issues I face – “writing as I go” isn’t as easy as I thought when an involved editing process was going to be a crucial part of it. The bit of pressure I feel to continue to share the work does take the edge off the editing trap – revising and revising until your figurative knuckles turn bloody – but any way you spin it, editing is still not my favourite part of the writing process and it grinds along.
The other major issue that has been bugging me is worldbuilding. Which is funny, because in my introduction to Drops I explain that incessant worldbuilding is the reason I threw up my hands in the first place and started to write instead of plot the story to death. In a way, this reason is related to the first – quality control. My world needs to be polished and consistent, and I can’t risk being blindsided by neglected details.
I thought setting out to write was all I had to do. Yet not even two chapters into the endeavour I discovered that whereas worldbuilding without writing would not satisfy me, writing without a careful eye to worldbuilding is just as unsatisfactory.
I don’t know how the great worldbuilders do it, but I doubt they have a catalogue of all their world’s minutiae stored in their head. It’s not a task that my mind is up for and I already caught myself either thinking that I introduced something when I didn’t, and introducing something I thought I didn’t share but actually established in the previous chapter. I realized that I couldn’t move ahead at a good pace because I was worried about messing this up.
Anytime I namedrop a species or a planet, I need to make sure I record this instance. Both for consistency, and to avoid repetition and unnecessary exposition every time something comes up. Every little fact and name needed to be cataloged. So where I thought that setting out all this detail in advance wouldn’t work for me, neither would I be successful if I didn’t set out this detail after had I introduced it through my writing.
So now that the problem had been identified, I needed to look for a solution. Something that could replicate the ease of navigation of a wiki but be stored on my computer. Now, there is probably an app out there that would do a better job, but I’m a simple man – I need to record stuff, I go to Excel.
So over the last little while, all those times where I otherwise I would have worked on chapter 2, I’ve been putting together this lore repository that I myself could consult. Everything is separated into tabs by characters, planets, species, objects, etc. And in each of those tabs I record everything said on the subject as well as the precise chapters where they were referenced. It’s a bit of a painstaking process to build up, but I’m hoping that once I have the base, it will go a little quicker and won’t slow down my writing too much. My main goal here is using consistency to bring the world to life and keep the reader immersed. Now let’s hope the story itself can do the same thing.
So there you have it, some of the misadventures behind this unfortunate delay. I admit it’s a bit of a learning process, but I’m still committed to the story. Hope to see you for the release of the next chapter, whenever that might be.
Michael is a husband, father of two, lawyer, writer, and is currently working on his first novel, at a snail's pace. A very leisurely snail. All opinions are author's own.