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Unaltered and writing Irin

Unaltered and writing Irin

Unaltered and Irin Seviki

Unaltered was an interesting story to write, not least because, six months prior, I had absolutely no intention of writing a novella in the Cortii series. To add to that, Unaltered is written third person, like the rest of the series, but usually when I write third person I write from several viewpoints, and this novella is written purely from Irin’s perspective.

Yes, I’m a pantser. No, there is no cure.

In terms of reading order, Unaltered is set between Elemental Conflict and the upcoming fifth book in the series. Irin himself is a key character in Fighting Shadows, where he and Khyria first meet while Khyria’s on a recon assignment. However, aside from the fact that Irin and Khyria have a pre-existing relationship, and Irin trusts Cortiian competence to keep his hide in one piece, Unaltered is pretty much a stand-alone.

Irin’s also interesting to write from because he’s a human involved with the Cortii, and most of the series is the Cortii written from a Cortiian’s perspective. Because of that, there are things about the Cortii that he doesn’t know, and, because he’s not a complete idiot, knows he’d prefer not to know.

He’s also had, at least from a Cortiian perspective, a very sheltered life, which means that writing action scenes from his PoV provided some unique challenges. To put that in perspective, Irin’s reaction to a laser waved at him is closer to ‘huh, those look smaller in the shows’, than ‘shoot back!’.

Irin himself is the principal manager, when he can’t talk a sibling or cousin into doing it, of Seviki Equines and Exotics, which is a business that breeds exotic pets, including horses, for the wealthy of Central Worlds. Living on Central Worlds, the first four planets of humanity, is seen as a status symbol by various humanoid cultures. Space on ancestral soil is therefore at a premium, which makes the ability to own and house a large pet, such as a horse, a very visible ‘my credit balance is bigger than yours’.

Irin doesn’t actually care about Central Worlds status symbols, beyond the number of zeroes he can fleece them for, and among the status symbols he really, truly doesn’t care about is the whole ‘genetic purity’ discussion. Because the vast majority of the Federated Planets Alliance, and all of the more recent humanoid governments, are space-faring, almost everyone has had some modification made to their genes to make life a little easier – a tweak to make them more comfortable in artificial gravity, a tweak to let them tolerate lower oxygen levels…the list goes on. On Central Worlds, therefore, and elsewhere, being able to prove that your genes are free of modification is an elite status symbol.

Unfortunately for Irin, an accident of birth means that he actually is genetically ‘pure’, not that he’d ever given it much thought before Unaltered.

Much to his annoyance, his genes make him a person of interest on Central Worlds, and when he finally runs out of denial and creative avoidance, Khyria Ilan is the genetically impure mercenary he trusts to watch his back while he tries to deal with the fallout.

English, the ‘universal language’

English, the ‘universal language’

Bordering on English

I’m seeing a lot of noise online recently about English, the ‘universal language’. And it makes me laugh.

I invite these optimists to try travelling from York to London in the UK and ordering a Maccy D’s. Come to that, try asking if you can wear thongs into a restaurant in Newcastle and in Sydney. I guarantee two very different responses, but I’d only bother standing by with a camera for one of them.

This is because English has several oddities out of the gate. It’s spoken widely, and suffers from all the inconsistencies normal to wide geographical spread. Put a Scouser and a Texan together at an open bar without an internet translator and watch the fun.

English is built from a smattering of Celtic overlaid forcibly by Latin, in turn overlaid by Saxon and then Norman French, meaning it takes part of its vocabulary from the largely Germanic North, and a lot of it from the Romance languages to the South.

Have a look at some untweaked Chaucer (c. 1343 – 1400), the first person to actually write in English, rather than French or Latin. At that point in time, actually writing literature in English would be roughly comparable to someone now writing a work of philosophy in text-message shorthand…doable, but something of a freak of nature.

Whilom, as olde stories tellen us,

Ther was a duc that highte Theseus;

Of Atthenes he was lord and governour,

And in his tyme swich a conquerour,

That gretter was ther noon under the sonne.

Ful many a riche contree hadde he wonne,

What with his wysdom and his chivalrie;

He conquered al the regne of Femenye,

That whilom was ycleped Scithia,

And weddede the queene Ypolita,

And broghte hir hoom with hym in his contree,

With muchel glorie and greet solempnytee,

And eek hir yonge suster Emelye.

The Knight’s Tale

Certainly you can unfocus your brain a little, and stare at it, and you can make it out without too much trouble. If you have some grounding in Classic Mythology, you can cheat and fill in any blanks (cheat. There’s another good word, etymologically. ‘To escheat’, a shortening of Old French ‘escheat’.) If you feel particularly technical, you can even take a red and a green pen and highlight the words that are clearly Saxon in origin, and which are clearly Latin / French.

Let’s take one of the words there (just one, in the interest of having a post that doesn’t equal a full-length novel). Let’s look at contree. Obviously, modern English, ‘country’. Or you could say ‘nation’. Or, hang on, what about ‘county’? Doesn’t ‘county’ have anything to do with it? Starting to feel a twinge of sympathy for those who have to actually learn this language the hard way? I do. You’ve already got two completely different words meaning pretty much exactly the same thing and a third that looks really, really similar.

Among other oddities from its mixed heritage, English has nearly twice the vocabulary of most languages, with most estimates pinning it at somewhere near 1 million words. Given that the majority of English speakers actually commonly use about 5,000 words of that, and even a highly-educated university graduate only about 20,000…that’s still a lot of variation for a second-language speaker to try to master.

For example: fish is a plural noun. Except when it’s not. Anyone want to take a stab at why and when you can actually say fishes? What’s the difference between a belfry and a belltower? Come to that, which English-speaking populations can you insult by calling them a bellend, and which will just look at you blankly?

As practical choices go, picking English as the ‘universal language’ scores a resounding E for effort. It’s hard to pronounce, regional dialects vary wildly, and the vocabulary is, if possible, more enormous even than the number of grammatical irregularities.

Of course, as far as writers go, that makes English a whole bundle of fun with occasional streaks of psycho. You can do nearly anything in English. (Well, you all knew I was going to end up talking about writing.) You can turn up ten or so synonyms for pretty much any word you care to use (or not use. That’s what synonyms are for.) And if you care to dig yourself into regional slang for some character colour…well, the Urban Dictionary is a writer’s boon there. If you weren’t planning on slang to start with, you’ll almost certainly end up wanting some after ten minutes in there.  Not to mention if you put any two grammar nerds into a bar with a pitcher of beer, you can get five different opinions on something as basic as when and where to put a comma (Oxford commas, anyone?).

Basically, English as a universal language is a moderately shitty choice. Why do I blaspheme? Well, because language, at its most basic, and basic is really what you want as a universal interface, is a means to communicate easily and clearly. Yup, really. I can lose most native speakers in three sentences if I make the effort. English has weird pronunciation, which varies wildly depending on region. It has a massively complicated grammar structure. And don’t forget that huge, doubled vocabulary. As far as simple, clear, universal communication goes…well, some of the Eastern writing systems might, possibly, throw more of a wrench in the works, but only by a whisker.

Scene it here?

Scene it here?

Making a Scene

So, yeah, right, a scene. Loosely defined as the smallest unit of book building, built of many of the sub-units of book building known as mugs of coffee.

Essentially, I see a scene is the smallest piece of your book that can be self-contained. It can be a paragraph or even a sentence, but if you lift it out of context and hang it on your wall, it can be read as a piece. Most of my scenes are a few paragraphs to a few pages.

They’re also something I tend to focus on when I’m editing, because they’re, in a word, achievable. If I look at 100,000 words and tell myself that all that has to be coherent, de-adjectived, copy-edited, proof-read and thrilling in a few months’ time, well, that way leads to ‘Author Not At Work’ syndrome, not to mention ‘Drunk Author Tweeting’. A few paragraphs to a few pages, though? Easy. Get ‘er done before dinner. Do that for a couple of months, and *BAM* edit done.

Right, but why focus on scenes again, aside from my motivation issues?

Well, basically, because we’ve all read ‘those’ books. They can be great books (I’m going to cite the Wheel of Time series here), but you find yourself at about page 423 thinking ‘Why the hell didn’t an editor come through here with a flamethrower?’ or ‘These eight books could have been a trilogy’. Sure, those 423 pages may have been full of well-structured, well-developed stuff. But was it all actually stuff necessary to the story, or did the author, in the process of writing, bolt a jacuzzi, a sunbed, and a whole ten-room mansion on the top of the Ferrari?

Please note, I’m not knocking jacuzzis. Or ten-bedroom mansions, come to that. They’re great. But are they what the Ferrari needs to be, well, as Ferrari-like as possible?

Scenes are good to look at because you can read them easily as a piece, and ask yourself some basic questions to determine if they’re vital, fascinating, or a jacuzzi.

Question #1 – does that scene need to be there?

If not, can I put a big red line through it without leaving a plothole, a continuity hole, or missing a vital bit of character development? Is it, in fact, the kitchen sink on the Ferrari of my storyline?

Question #2 – does that scene, if it’s really bothering me but does appear to be vital, need to be where it is in the story?

Would it stop sending me Code Yellow alerts at the other end of the book? Sometimes you write something, and it is actually great and a vital bit, but your subconscious had a hiccup and spewed it up on a page about fifty pages too early. Or too late.

Alternatively, would that scene make more sense if I (yes, sometimes, really) add some set-up so it makes sense? Because sometimes, when I’m writing, something that’s absolutely crystal clear to me, the author, is absolutely not crystal clear to a reader. Why is that damn planet so important that they’d send an entire fleet there? …well, it’s rich, it’s central, it’s famous… did you tell your reader that?

If you’re looking at your scene, and it’s not, technically, vital storyline advancement, you can’t think of anywhere better to put it, but you still feel it’s doing something useful, you’re on to the last item on the checklist:

Question #3 – is the scene serving as character development (or general society / atmosphere development)?

Because while dumping 400 pages of nothing but backstory, society dev and character dev on your reader is likely going to get your book used as a doorstop, yes, you do need some of that good stuff in there. Otherwise, why is the reader going to give a damn if your protagonist saved the unicorns / galaxy / right to personal freedom?

In short, if you’re staring at a scene in your book and you can’t make an argument for its survival under any of these three reasons…most likely you can pull the plug on it. ‘I thought it was hilarious’ is not, necessarily, a good reason to include it.

Look on the bright side. If you delete it, you don’t have to edit it. And your readers will thank you for it.

Etymology Excavation: Judas goat

Etymology Excavation: Judas goat

What is a ‘Judas goat’?

Originally, a Judas goat refers to a goat trained to make its way into a herd of beasts marked for slaughter, so that they will follow it into the slaughterhouse. The Judas goat itself is then spared from slaughter so it can do the same thing again. (Wikipedia)

The animal in question varies, but the reference is to the figure Judas Iscariot in the Christian Bible, who betrayed Jesus’s identity and ultimately led to his execution. The details of the story vary widely, but the use of the term ‘Judas’ for a traitor has been in use since the C15th (Etymonline.com).

Some examples of Judas goat used figuratively:

  • ‘He’s a Judas goat. He led the whole army into a trap.’
  • ‘That girl’s a Judas goat. Any stupid decision she makes, the entire squad follows.’

It can be used figuratively for a person being used to bait a trap, or for any figure leading others to disaster. All you really need, in terms of world-building, is a rumoured or actual figure who through design or stupidity, caused a disaster. It doesn’t need a lot of build-up (ancient scroll, anyone?) and can be used for local colour in a range of situations.

What is etymology, and why are you excavating it?

Etymology is like the archeology of a language (definition: the study of the origin of words and the way in which their meanings have changed throughout history).

No New Year’s resolutions, no regrets

No New Year’s resolutions, no regrets

No New Year’s resolutions?

Nope. Nary a one. I’m an irresponsible creature and I hate resolver’s regrets, so about this time in the year I pick a comfy patch of sofa and settle down with a cup of tea to gloat about all the awesome shit I did get done in the past year.

So, this year, feel free to bring-your-own teacup and settle down with me for an organised gloat-in.

2018 was pretty chaotic for me. In my day job, I changed bosses three times, got sent to the UK for a few days, my entire department moved offices, I got promoted, and now have someone reporting to me (or, as I could say, doubled the size of my team).

In terms of writing, I published my very first urban fantasy novel, Death is for the Living, on 26th December, and so far it’s attracted four- and five-star reviews, which I’m pretty happy about, as I’m primarily a sci-fi writer. I now have a row of five books in my shelf that have my name on the spine, which gives me a daily ego boost (not that my ego needs the boosting). I’m hoping to make that six by the end of 2019. With the above-mentioned day job, one book per year tends to be about my limit; there are just too many days when I crawl home and fall face-down in my sofa at the end of the day to reliably manage more than that.

I’m also happy that despite a day job that flattens me on a reliable basis, I managed to read 180 books in 2018, and 41 of them were for-review books (you can check out my top picks if you’re looking for reading matter…).

I got away on holiday this year, and spent two weeks in Iceland, riding very small horses across waterfalls and lava fields, driving around the west coast and into the Westfjords, and basking in mineral hot springs.

So, overall, while I wouldn’t mind 2019 being a bit less crazy, overall 2018 was a pretty good year.

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