Friday, May 1, 2020

Writing for Television

A few years back, Creative Screenwriting magazine had a column called Know Your Show. It was targeted to TV writers trying to "spec" [write unsolicited screenplays] different TV series. Spec scripts are [or were] a way to showcase your work for agents and showrunners.

One of the most important rules for spec-ing is to know the story rules that govern the show you've chosen. Know Your Show was designed to make those implicit rules explicit, breaking down the requirements for different shows by talking to the showrunners themselves. It was a great column. Here's one I wrote for it.

Ted Rabinowitz

Spec for TV long enough, and someone will tell you to "fill the gap." If you've written two killer procedurals, that means write a Gossip Girl or 90210. If your portfolio bulges with twisted but critically praised fare like Dexter, then try a Psych. With that in mind, we've chosen to examine two popular shows that differ from each other in virtually every way: True Blood, HBO's vampire serial; and Burn Notice, the action-oriented spy procedural on USA Network.
True Blood offers a Deep Southern look at issues like drugs, sex, dysfunctional families...and vampires. It's a good way to showcase your (melo)dramatic chops. Burn Notice is a tightly plotted, high-testosterone action series with a lighter feel. It emphasizes con games, plot twists and authenticity in its covert-ops sequences.
Both shows are internationally distributed, with a deeply loyal fan base. True Blood has received several WGA, Emmy and Golden Globe nominations, and a Golden Globe Best Actress win for Anna Paquin; Burn Notice has won an Edgar for Best Screenplay, received a WGA nomination, and inspired two novelizations so far.

Created by Alan Ball, True Blood is based on Charlaine Harris' SouthernVampire mysteries. With a weekly audience of 6.8 million, it is now one of the most critically acclaimed series on HBO.
Ball, the creator of Six Feet Under and American Beauty, read the first Southern Vampire novel while waiting for a dental appointment. "It was an impulse buy," he says. "And it was so entertaining, I immediately ordered the rest of the series on Amazon. The world was already so complete; I liked how funny it was, how scary it was, and how romantic."
The first episode premiered on September 7, 2008; the series just ended its second season, and the third will air in the summer of 2010.

With the creation of synthetic human blood, vampires no longer need to hunt humans or hide from them, and they have become one more minority in America's melting pot. When Sookie Stackhouse (Anna Paquin) a telepathic waitress in the small Louisiana town of Bon Temps, meets Bill Compton (Stephen Moyer), the town's first Vampire-American, she's immediately attracted to him; as a vampire, Bill is the first man whose thoughts Sookie can't read. Sookie and Bill become lovers, despite the disapproval of Bon Temps' human citizens and the contempt of Bill's vampire community.
"Sookie is a strong young woman who felt that she was a freak, alone in the world," says Ball. "Now she's found love with someone like her."
Meanwhile, Sookie's best friend Tara Thornton (Rutina Wesley) and her brother Jason (Ryan Kwanten) struggle to find their places in a world that is becoming more and more supernatural. Jason is a "horndog" who never thinks ahead; Tara is smart and tough, but her defensiveness alienates boyfriends, bosses, and anyone who might care about her.
Each season is loosely based on one of Harris' books. "It's about 50% us and 50% the novels," says Ball. The storylines center on Sookie, her relationship with Bill, and the lives of Jason and Tara. In addition, there is usually at least one external threat or mystery. In the first season, a string of murders threw suspicion first on Bill, then on Jason; in the second, a maenad gained control over Bon Temps while Sookie and Bill searched for a missing vampire elder.

     Merlotte's Bar
     Sookie's House
     Bill's House
     Fangtasia Vampire Bar
     The Bayou

In the first season, Sookie and Bill became lovers. Sookie had to adjust both to her first romantic relationship, and to a vampire world in which Bill has killed other vampires to save her (although she has also saved his life). Meanwhile, Jason's fecklessness led him from womanizing to vampire-blood addiction to prison; and Tara's search for stability was sabotaged by her abusive, alcoholic mother, Lettie Mae (Adina Porter).
The second season has been dominated by three storylines: Sookie and Bill's search for the missing vampire leader Godric (Allan Hyde); Jason's involvement with the Fellowship of the Sun, an anti-vampire church and paramilitary group; and the seduction of the citizens of Bon Temps by Maryann Forrester, a maenad who encourages and feeds on violence and sexual frenzy. One of Maryann's key converts is Tara, who falls under her hypnotic influence and begins a relationship with "Eggs" Benedict Talley (Mehcad Brooks).
Ultimately, Sookie and Bill rescue Godric from the Fellowship, only to see him commit suicide as penance for his failures. Sam, Bill and Jason (all in their own ways) try to save Sookie and Bon Temps from Maryann's sacrifice to her dark deity, the God Who Comes.
Along the way, there are other developments. The local vampire "sheriff," Eric Northman (Alexander Skarsgård), connives to feed his blood to Tara's cousin Lafayette Reynolds (Nelsan Ellis) and to Sookie. This links them to Eric, both psychically and sexually, and makes Eric Bill's mortal enemy. Lafayette, who spent an horrific time as Eric's prisoner for selling vampire blood, now suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder. 
Sam Merlotte (Sam Trammel), who has carried a torch for Sookie for years, uses his shapeshifting abilities to save Bon Temps from Maryann. While doing so, he's forced to drink Bill's blood, marking a resolution to their conflict over Sookie. 
After Maryann is dispatched, Bill proposes to Sookie. Before she can say yes, he disappears, and the season ends on a cliffhanger.

The target page count for a script is 54.
Minor storylines usually run four beats, with the major story in each episode at six or seven beats. 
Each episode begins with a teaser that addresses the previous episode's cliffhanger, and ends with another cliffhanger. Story lines are layered – scenes switch back and forth between stories.
The regular characters must be serviced in every episode. Sookie, Jason, Bill and Tara must be at the center of their story lines.
True Blood's vampires are similar to, but not exactly the same as, other vampires. They're inhumanly strong and fast. They have no problems with crosses, holy water, garlic or mirrors, but silver and daylight burn them, and they cannot enter a house uninvited. Drinking a vampire's blood directly from its veins creates a psychic bond between the vampire and the drinker.
Vampires are connected to the older vampires who "made" them. Humans hunt vampires both from fear and from greed: Vampire blood, when drained surgically from the vampire, is a powerful narcotic for humans.
The vampire world has its own politics and lifestyle choices. Vampire territories are ruled by sheriffs, who are ruled in turn by kings and queens. Vampires are split between those who "nest" – live with their own kind – and those who are trying to "mainstream" back into the human community. Mainstreamers are trying to fit in; nesters tend to be the nasty, creepy predators everyone knows and loves from horror movies.

Characters: The regular characters are the heart of True Blood. Get them right, and the rest will follow. "We try to root the story in the characters," says Ball. "For instance, [in Season 2] Tara wouldn't have fallen under Maryann's influence if it weren't for her mom's interference."
To nail the characters, you need a handle on the sources of their actions. "Jason puts on a big macho show, but all his behavior – the horndog aspect, the drug abuse –comes from a deep well of insecurity," says Ball. "He's lost everyone he's ever loved, except Sookie. He wants to feel needed. Deep down, he's a good guy." People think that Jason is stupid. Even though he jokes about it, he's scared they're right.
In her own way, Tara has the same issues Jason does. "But instead of acting out sexually," says Ball, "she's a smart-ass." Tara is smarter and stronger than Jason. Like him, she wants a family. Right now, that family is Sookie and Lafayette – and she is still in love with Jason.
Ball's advice on Tara and Jason: Don't push their main attributes too far. "People love it when Tara mouths off, but don't make her too tough. And don't make Jason too stupid. A little bit goes a long way."
Sookie is strong and moral, but not perfect. "She's a little self-righteous," concedes Ball. This is easy to see when she's in conflict with Bon Temps' good ol' boys and their vampire opposites.
"Bill speaks very formally, because he came of age in the 19th Century," says Ball. Bill's character note is the dichotomy between his courtly, gracious side and his lust for blood and power. He knows the fear he inspires in humans, and he's not above using it.
"Lafayette can play different roles. He's an entrepreneur – that is, an opportunist." As with Bill, there's a useful dichotomy between Lafayette's campy persona and the hard-core fighter and hustler he can be when the need arises. Lafayette is also a fan favorite – although he dies in the novels, he proved to be so popular that he survives in the series.
"After Sookie, Sam Merlotte has the strongest moral compass of the regulars," says Ball. "Like her, he's an orphan and, like her, he thought he was a freak." Although he "pretends to be easygoing and gregarious, that's part of his job. He's actually very cautious and very suspicious." He still loves Sookie and tries to protect her.
Dialogue: When it comes to dialogue, less is more. "We'll always choose subtext over something overt," says Ball. "Nothing on the nose. The best writing is when you understand why someone's doing something without having it explained."
Future seasons: The best way to spec a serial is to know what's happening in advance. The next season of True Blood will focus on Club Dead, the third Southern Vampire novel. Consider reading it before you write your sample – but be aware of the significant differences between the book and the series. 
In the third season, we'll see more of the vampires' Byzantine politics. We'll also see werewolves for the first time. "They're kind of like cowboy gang members," says Ball. "Really arrogant."

Southern Gothic melodrama...with fangs. Gritty stories about dysfunctional people trying to be their best selves.
"I've seen so many vampires that are 'operatic,'" says Ball. "But Charlaine's vampires are small-town Louisiana. This is not Underworld. This is not Anne Rice. These are Wal-Mart vampires."

True Blood is a hot series. A good spec will demonstrate your ability to write for premium cable (i.e. to write grittier, more "R" rated material). It will also showcase your chops with vampires, serialized shows, small towns, and (most important) character-driven, atmospheric drama.

Sookie Stackhouse (Anna Paquin, X-Men, The Piano): A waitress and a telepath, Sookie has "a strong sense of right and wrong that sometimes makes her a little self-righteous." At the start of Season One, she thought she was a freak, alone in the world; now she's found love with another outsider, Bill Compton.

Bill Compton (Stephen Moyer, Quills, 88 Minutes): A vampire and a veteran of the Confederacy, Bill is trying to "mainstream" – live as a normal human. His vocabulary is reminiscent of the Old South, and he retains his courtly manners – unless his vampire nature gets the better of him. He would die or kill to protect Sookie. As a vampire, he's immune to her telepathic abilities.

Tara Thornton (Rutina Wesley, Numb3rs, How She Move): Sookie's best friend. Smart and strong, she has a troubled past that also makes her angry and defensive. Her abusive mother Lettie Mae is a constant obstacle in her life, and she is in love with Sookie's brother Jason.

Jason Stackhouse (Ryan Kwanten, Don't Fade Away, Flicka): Sookie's brother, Jason is a womanizing ex-jock who can't stay out of trouble. Fundamentally good-hearted, he's deeply insecure. He fears that he's stupid – and then acts in ways that confirm it.

Sam Merlotte (Sam Trammell, AVP:Requiem, Going to California): Owner of Merlotte's bar, Sam is friendly, guarded, and in love with Sookie. He's also a shapeshifter – a secret revealed in Season One.

Lafayette Johnson (Nelsan Ellis, The Soloist, The Express): Tara's cousin, and the cook at Merlotte's. A drug dealer, hustler, and role-player, Lafayette genuinely cares for Tara and Sookie, but he's sold drugs to Jason, and he can be ice-cold when he needs to. He's gay, but not currently in a relationship...with anyone human. After being a vampire's prisoner in Season #2, he suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, and a psychic link to the vampire Eric Northman.

In the middle of its third season and returning for a fourth, Burn Noticepremiered on June 28, 2007. The premiere episode won an Edgar Alan Poe mystery award for Best Screenplay. Its creator, Matt Nix, was primarily a movie writer before approaching USA Network with the project that became Burn Notice
Nix's initial vision was for a dark and gritty spy series set in Newark. After meeting with USA Network execs and getting a sense of their programming, he lightened the tone considerably and set it in Miami. 
"My friend Michael Wilson" (a producer and consultant on Burn Notice) "was an inspiration for the show," says Nix. "He has a long background in intelligence, but his stories don't focus on danger and violence; they're about things like the sand in Afghanistan screwing up your Walkman. That formed the sensibility of Burn Notice."

Covert operative Michael Westen (Jeffrey Donovan) is in the middle of an operation in Nigeria when he gets a "burn notice" – someone has tagged him as unreliable. He barely escapes with his life, passes out from his injuries, and wakes up in his hometown of Miami. His accounts have been frozen, and agents follow his every move to ensure that he doesn't leave the city. The only people who will talk to him are his ex-girlfriend and gunrunner Fiona Glenanne (Gabrielle Anwar), his old spy buddy Sam Axe (Bruce Campbell), and his mom Madeline (Sharon Gless). With no other options, Michael dedicates himself to finding out who burned him and to helping local residents with problems no one else can solve.
Episodes usually feature an A and B story. The A story is the "case of the week" in which Michael, Fiona and Sam use their covert-ops skills to help friends, family, and needy strangers defend themselves against the scum of Miami, from hit men to human traffickers. The B story is the "Burn Notice runner," in which Michael tries to salvage his career. In Seasons 1-2, that meant discovering who had burned him and why; in Season 3 the focus is on getting his job back.
Often woven into the A and B stories is a C story that focuses on Michael's relationships with his friends and family, or (rarely) on the status of another regular.

     Michael's loft (Int./Ext.)
     Madeline's house
     Café Carlito
     Fiona's house

By the end of Season Two, Michael had escaped the power of "The Organization," the shadowy group that had burned and then forcibly recruited him. Leaving has had consequences, however. Although the Organization controlled Michael, it also protected him from other groups and from old enemies. Now he is "back on the radar"...and still burned. Soon the Miami police, in the person of Det. Michelle Paxson (Moon Bloodgood) are investigating Michael's activities, and old enemies are out for revenge.
After neutralizing Det. Paxson by helping her solve a case, Michael uses Diego Garza (Otto Sanchez), a local operative, to reestablish contact with his old spymasters. Fiona tries to be supportive, but she can't hide her disappointment that Michael still hasn't given up his dream of "getting back in."
Matters escalate when Michael is approached by "agent to the spies" Tom Strickler. Strickler offers Michael money and information if he'll take the assignments Strickler offers. When Michael resists – he feels that accepting will make him a mercenary, not a patriot – Strickler offers the one thing Michael can't resist...a way back in.
Michael accepts, only to find that Strickler has arranged for Fiona's death in order to keep Michael focused on the mission. When Strickler tries to stop Michael from mounting a rescue, Michael kills him to save Fiona.
Strickler's death triggers a firestorm. The first nine episodes of the third season end with the killing of Michael's one agency contact by anonymous assassins, and Michael waiting as they come for him.

Scripts run between forty-nine and fifty-two pages; usually they're at fifty-one pages "packed to the gills." There are four acts, a teaser and a button:

The teaser runs one to two scenes in three pages.
The first act ends in the late teens.
The second act ends in the late twenties (often at 29).
The third and fourth act are ten pages each.
The button is 2-3 pages.

Michael's voiceovers on tradecraft must be dry, matter of fact, and impart information that is both true and unexpected.
For the case of the week, Michael will have developed a plan by the end of Act One and will pursue that plan through Acts Two and Three. At the end of Act Three, something unpredictable will disrupt that plan, and Michael will be forced to improvise a new one...and this is the hard part.
"I cannot tell you how many stories die on that particular beach," says Nix. "The second plan cannot be unrelated to the first plan. It must be a logical outgrowth of the first plan that leverages the successes and failures of Acts Two and Three."
Although each episode has at least two storylines competing for time, Nix says the best ones are those where there's "a thematic echo in all three stories. For instance, in the episode "Broken Rules," everything is about rules and breaking them: In the A story, we have two bad guys – Diego (Tony Perez) who follows the rules of the old gangs, and his boss (Idalis de Leon) who breaks them. In the B story, we have Agent Bly (Alex Carter) who breaks the rules by going after Michael's family, so Michael blackmails him by creating evidence that proves he's corrupt. And in the C story Michael and Fiona break their own rules by sleeping together."
POV rules are strict. The audience can only know what Michael knows, or occasionally what Fiona and Sam know. 
Finally, there must be a scene in which the case of the week is resolved conclusively, preferably at the moment in which the Bad Guy thinks he's won. "We don't let the Bad Guy go in the case of the week," says Nix. "He can be arrested, intimidated, fled, whatever, he doesn't escape consequences."

Nix and his fellow writers are espionage aficionados who focus on the covert-ops details when writing. "When writing a new episode, we often work backward from a spy technique we like," says Nix. "We copy a lot of 'bad guy' techniques. So we'll say something like 'Here's how Hitler bamboozled Stalin. Why can't we do that?'" If you can pitch an episode based on an interrogation method or covert strategy they haven't used, that's sure to impress.
Another possibility is to take a technique that's already been used and "stand it on its head. We do that a lot," says Nix. "If you watch some episodes closely, you can see where they relate on a deep level to other episodes."
The cases of the week can't be about run-of-the-mill crime solving. "It's important that these are problems that cops or PIs can't solve," says Nix. "Michael is neither, and if the case demands something other than Michael's unique skills, he'll pass." 
Solving the problem can involve intimidation, explosions, break-ins, con games, impersonation, interrogation, and gunshots, but not depositions, eyewitnesses, or whodunits. "We have a certain minimum level of mayhem," says Nix. 
Michael's motivation is always personal. "Michael has no abstract commitment to justice," says Nix. "He helps individual people with problems. I know a pitch is going to fail when I hear the words 'Michael decides to investigate.'"
Another pitfall: spending more screen time with Michael's clients than with the bad guys who hurt them. "The Bad Guy is usually the guest star," says Nix, "not the Client. Unless the Client is a source of conflict in some way, it's the Bad Guy who's more important."

Light and fast, but not frothy and not filled with gags. 
"This danger is the water they swim in," says Nix. "So the humor arises from the tonal contrast, from the human side of the dire situation." A bad break up or a smashed loaner car matters as much as the man trying to kill them.

Burn Notice spec is a good showcase for your ability to write believable action and espionage, to generate story twists, and to write to a demanding structure. However, to do it, you must truly enjoy the world of John leCarré and Tom Clancy. Nix advises caution. 
"Everyone tells me this is the hardest show they've ever had to write. I've actually never heard of a completed Burn Notice spec, only abortive specs that were abandoned after ten pages."

Michael Westen (Jeffrey Donovan, Changeling, Crossing Jordan): Once a world-class covert agent, Michael now uses his skills to help clients with nowhere else to go. He is an expert in martial arts, surveillance, and undercover tactics. The son of an abusive father, Michael is more comfortable with guns than emotions - especially when it comes to Madeline and Fiona.

Fiona Glenanne (Gabrielle Anwar, The Tudors, Scent of a Woman): Gunrunner, ex-IRA member, Michael's girlfriend, and practitioner of therapeutic violence, Fiona never holds anything back. She feels that Michael always puts the mission before their relationship, but she also knows that he remains the most important thing in her life, even when they are not together.

Sam Axe (Bruce Campbell, Evil Dead, Hercules): An amiable ex-Navy SEAL, Sam can take a punch, cause a distraction, or run an interrogation. His friends in law enforcement are Michael's primary source of background information. When not helping Michael, Sam successfully pursues his two other vocations: women and beer.

Madeline Westen (Sharon Gless, Queer as Folk, Cagney & Lacey): Michael's mom, a chain-smoker and hypochondriac who can still push his buttons. Madeline knows that she did not protect Michael from his dad as she should have, and is trying to reconnect with him. She is also tough and savvy – bad guys underestimate her at their peril.

Thursday, March 12, 2020



The Masque of the Read Death, Poe
A Journal of the Plague Year, Defoe
The Killing Game, Ionesco
The Plague, Camus


The Decameron, Bocaccio - yes, kind of about plague, but also about sexytimes
The Wrong Sword, by me, because it's funny and good and I don't use Patreon
Anything by P.G. Wodehouse

You're welcome.

Friday, January 17, 2020

Not Meant To Be Mythic

I was in Venice the other day, strolling past the Basilica of St. Mark's - as one does - when I stopped in at the Doge's Palace.

The place is mind-blowing. Not just for the quality of the decoration, but for the sheer amount of insanely detailed murals that cover the walls, the ceiling, everything.

Also, stone filigree.

But despite the crazy magnificence, the stuff inside is...chilling. Because the Republic of Venice was *not* a democracy, because it invented mass production centuries before the Industrial Revolution, and because this gave Venice control of the Eastern Mediterranean for the next 400 years.

At the height of its power, Venice was able to produce an entire warship - from hull to sails to oarlocks - in a single day. [For other realms, a warship took months.] Venice had reserved forests on the mainland for timber, mines for iron, copper, and tin, and developed assembly lines Henry Ford would have envied to create hulls, sails, powder, and shot. Its rope-making was so efficient that it sold the excess to other maritime powers. It also locked up residents it considered to be vital to its commercial interests - like glassmakers and Jews. [Venice invented the ghetto as well as the assembly line.]

And it mass-produced the items that we fantasy writers think of as unique artisanal products: swords and armor. Take a look at the pommels of the swords in the Venetian armory. Look at the black-powder pistols. Look at the helmets. Mass-produced, all of it. No individual flourishes. Not created by some mythic craftsman, but by assembly lines. And all the more deadly for it.

Not a "helm" - a helmet. They all look like that.

See how all the pommels are the same? Those are VI swords...Venetian-issue.

Not pretty, but effective.

Monday, December 23, 2019

New York Photo Notes

1. In New York, even the bathrooms are cinematic.

2. Sometimes, we live outside in.

3. Even if you don't have a Christmas tree, you have a Christmas tree.

4. Shabby/ornate is what the city's about - but gentrification is erasing that like sea rise on Miami Beach.

And here's hoping you don't feel attacked when I say...
Happy Holidays!

Sunday, December 15, 2019

I Love New York

Actually, I don't. No New Yorker does. It's like loving your blood type.
But I will admit that this city does offer the occasional compensation for the noise, the jerks, the crowds, and the expense.
I'm typing this from the reading room of a discreet midtown hotel that was once home to a famous Jazz Age writer, a five minute walk from the Algonquin Round Table. I'm surrounded by wood panelling and leather chairs, and there's a cappuccino machine bubbling away in the back. The streets outside are packed, but there's a murmuring silence here, and I have the room completely to myself...

Sunday, November 3, 2019

The Exile Returns to New York - WIP Chunk #2

She took my hand with one almost as grimy and led me to the forward bay, where they let us mingle with the first-class passengers for the landing. 
“What is that?” she pointed. “And that? Tell me!” 
“We’re flying over…this water is Long Island Sound. On the left, that’s Queens. It’s part of the city. And on the right, that shore, that’s Connecticut.”
“A city?”
“No, uh, una regione. Rich people live there. And now - see those towers, with the round plates on top? Those were from the World’s Fair, in your father’s grandfather’s time. They’re defense wards now. And that big wall across the water, that’s the City Island Sea Gate.” Was I tearing up a little? No. I’m a tough New Yorker, see?
“We’re turning!”
“Yes, south. Look there. Now we’re flying over Manhattan, that has all the fancy tourist stuff.”
“Is that Central Park?”
“No, that’s Fort Tryon. Central Park is coming…”
The exile returns. Yeah, I was getting a little misty. Past the old Lennox Avenue towers, now overgrown like Babylon with 24-story hanging gardens, low over the green promenade of St. Nicholas, soaring above Morningside Heights – hello, 112thSt! – south past the great, perilous expanse of Central Park, then-
“See it? See?”
“Empire State! Empire State!”
“That’s right. Empire State.”
There it was, the good old Empire State Building, standing tall in its cloud of circling ornithopters and flying carpets, the air around it a perpetually gentle spring day thanks to the New York Thaumaturgical Board’s weather team. The spire’s landing light went green, and we docked.

Thursday, October 31, 2019

Happy Horror-ween!

Here's a chunk of my #WIP, which I hope is appropriately dark...


I stepped inside and swayed. I wanted to hold my breath, but I knew it wouldn’t help. The salty bowel reek of Corruption drifted on the breeze, the product of decades of misery and cruelty and willful blindness. Tonight’s festivities would just frost the cake.
The guests drifted down the crumbling hallway, stepping over years of dead leaves and soil, plaster and broken brick, to an enormous hexagonal atrium with a spiral staircase in the center. I felt wards and sinks under my feet, working overtime to drain away the bad mojo and stop anyone with the power from doing something unwise. Dance music boomed from behind the staircase; in front of it was a low platform lit by spotlights. A magic circle had been laid out around the platform in silver wire, and signs in yellow chalk were scrawled all over the platform itself. I tried to read them, and shuddered. Some looked like gibberish; others were versions of the Angels’ Letters, deformed to facilitate the ritual. The atrium floor might have been a dead zone, but the platform was active – and sick.
A DJ’s voice boomed out. “First come, first come, here it is.”
The lighting shifted to purples and blues, the music became a loud breakbeat, and a quartet swaggered onto the platform like a boxer and his cornermen. But here it was two truck-sized goons in shiny suits, followed by a man in a monk’s robe, and flanking a scrawny boy who looked like a Goth groupie in a long black shift, pallid skin, and teased black hair. The audience applauded and he stared back defiantly before spreading his arms. The goons grabbed his shift and tore it from him, leaving him naked. The crowd didn’t applaud that. They weren’t here for burlesque.
He was tattooed, and his nipples and penis were pierced. The goons removed the metal swiftly. He didn’t flinch. Then the robed man raised his hand and muttered, and the goons held the Goth’s arms. The boy whimpered and cried out as the tattoo ink leeched from the skin of his arms, feet, and torso, and dripped to the floor. 
Once the ink was gone, the goons let him sag into the heavy iron chair at the platform’s center. His eyes were closed and he was breathing deeply as the goons strapped him in. The pseudo-monk produced a pot and a whisker brush from inside his robe and drew signs on the boy’s forehead, chest, and belly in black ink.
Fake Monk stepped back and spread his arms and invoked…something. It was almost the Tongue of the Gate he used, but blurred and distorted, with different accents and rhythms. 
That fast, Something was in the hall with us humans. Magus or not, you felt it – I could see it on the faces of Vic and my dad and the crowd around us. A presence huge, and inhuman, and…eager.
It reminded me, a little, of the Mayor of the Second Palace. There was that sense of cosmic distance. But the Mayor had drawn near to humanity like a dolphin in the surf; it had worn our face, out of affection. This thing was from no sunlit bay. It came from the abyss outside the Created Worlds, alien as a sea spider. I couldn’t know its purpose, but I knew it should have had nothing to do with Man.
The presence filled the hall, waiting for the chance to manifest. Fake Monk slammed his hands together, mouthing a single word, and Goth Boy screamed.
For half a second.
Then he rose from the chair, supple and graceful as an octopus in deepest water. His eyes were pure black. His arms reached out, returned, played bonelessly over his legs, his crotch, his torso. 
“Ask me,” came the voice of the Presence. “Ask me anything.” The words had the lilt of an FM deejay, but the overtones were the inhuman warbles and moans you hear from deep-space radio objects. 
The crowd went wild.
The guests crowded up to the line of silver. I worried for a moment that they would break the circle and release the thing, but instead they spread against an invisible wall like a horde of mimes.
“Let me talk to my dad!”
“What will the Exchanges be tomorrow?”
“Where is the Green Knight of Eris?”
“Who is the Ruined Child?”
One by one, the thing in the boy’s body would point to a guest. The guest would approach, and they would speak to each other. The words would sound like English, but no one could understand them but the Thing and the guest. Then the Thing would smile and the guest would step back, looking suddenly frail and frightened and old…and another guest would ignore that look and step forward in the first one’s place. 
With each guest that stepped up, the stink in the room got a little worse. With each question, Goth Boy grew weaker. His pallor shaded to snow white. Green-black veins appeared in his arms, his cheeks.
“We could stop this right now,” said my father, meditatively. “We could leave the device and go. It would be worth it.”
“Dad? What device?“
“Focus, sir,” said Vic. “It’s only for emergencies.”
“I know. I know.”
“Later,” said Vic. “Let’s spy. That’s why we’re here.”
On the platform, Goth Boy shuddered and collapsed, black bile dripping from his mouth. He twitched as the two goons hauled him upright, wrapped him in a survival blanket, and broke the circle. 
The Presence was gone.
The crowd applauded wildly and the music started again. Fake Monk stayed on the platform, stretching like a wrestler between bouts. I picked my way carefully around the room, through the alcoves, past the pillars and doors, listening hard.

Friday, October 18, 2019

A Little Experiment

I'm a member of BSFW, one of the best damned spec-fic writers groups anywhere. [Here's there link, BTW]. Anyway, I've been providing some content for their Twitter feed, and maybe, just maybe, it might be useful to you blog readers. Let's read, shall we?

Today, a writing tip about finding your material to inspire you: Don't get locked into the familiar.

1. For instance, if you live in the West, see what's happening elsewhere. Not just events and histories, but what people are writing.

2. Reexamine things you thought were "dead ends." If you look closer, they might inspire you. For decades, historians wrote off the Byzantine Empire because they thought its influence simply stopped at the Ottoman takeover. Now, they're reevaluating it, and it's a fascinating source of material for writers.

Hell, even the Burgess Shale might give you something...…

3. In archaeology, absence of evidence isn't evidence of absence. Not every civilization builds in stone and iron. Look past the civilizations you can see to the ones you can't.…

4. Be aware of the gaps in our knowledge. We've been Homo Sapiens for more than 200,000 years; but our written history begins only 5,000 years ago. What happened before?

If you're feeling uninspired, look where you didn't look before.

Thursday, May 16, 2019

Imagine There's Religion...

Time for another thread on worldbuilding in fantasy and science fiction. And oh my gods, this time it's about religion! [But religion in writing, not worship. No value judgments.]

Religion are important - they influence worldview, education, and personality. So what kind of religions do you want in your worldbuilding?

Shinto shrine
1. Universal vs. ethnic religions. A universal religion is one that claims it applies to all people
everywhere - like Christianity, Islam, or Buddhism. An ethnic religion is the religion of a specific group of people - like Alawites, Jews, or the Japanese [Shinto].  Sometimes one kind of religion can evolve into the other.

Universal religions often have an imperative to proselytize. This can be anything from publishing tracts to LDS missionaries knocking on your door at 8:00 AM all the way to inquisitions and holy wars. Ethnic religions...not so much, although there are exceptions.

2. Syncretic vs. discrete religions. A discrete religion is one that seems to have only one source. If it has more than one, those others are lost in time. Syncretic religions have combined and drawn inspiration from several faiths that have come before.

Shrine to Oshun [Lukumi]
For instance, syncretic religions like Voudoun and Lucumi [Santeria] combine aspects of Roman Catholicism with West African [esp. Yoruba] religion. Bahai'ism does not consider itself to be syncretic, but some religious scholars think it is. Some scholars make the case that Christianity is a syncretic religion, combining Hebraic elements with Hellenistic ideas of a god who dies and is reborn and is consumed, like Zagreus or Attis.

Important: Syncretic or discrete is not a value judgment; it doesn't reflect on the truth or authenticity of the faith.

3. Polytheistic vs. monotheistic religions. This distinction is fuzzier than it looks. For instance, a polytheistic religion may consider its pantheon to be different aspects of a single ultimate deity.

Pantheon of Rome
Polytheistic religions are often ethnic ones, but that's fuzzy too. Gods can be adopted, abandoned,
even created. The Romans were famous for importing gods from other cultures, and discarding ones they considered scandalous. They even made Julius and Augustus Caesar into gods postmortem, and deified the city of Rome itself. They also adopted Greek gods and identified them with Roman ones. 

People can think of gods - and saints, and orishas, and loa - as mascots. A Catholic might wear a St. Anthony medal just as a Santéro might wear the red and white colors of Shango.

4. Mystery Religions/Secret Societies - religions that test applicants before they are accepted, and maintain secrecy about their rites. In the Greco-Roman world, these included the Eleusinian and Mithraic Mysteries. We don't know much about them because they kept their secrets very, very well - but their influence was undeniable.

5. Hierarchical vs. congregational - some religions maintain a hierarchy that determines dogma, chooses priests, and enforces religious law. Other faiths are "bottom up" - local congregations make decisions. Roman Catholicism is hierarchical; Judaism is congregational.

The Byzantine eagle - the two heads symbolize
power over religious and secular affairs
6. Caesaropapism - the state controls the religious hierarchy. The Emperor of Byzantium was also the head of the Orthodox Church, and Queen Elizabeth is officially the head of the Church of England. With Caesaropapism, universal religions shade closer to ethnic ones.

7. A religion doesn't HAVE to have gods in the traditional sense; or it can have deities that do not require worship. A case can be made that Soviet Marxism was a religion, despite its materialism. Confucianism is focused more on right action in this world than on supernatural questions. Many schools of Buddhism acknowledge the existence of gods, but consider them a distraction from enlightenment.

8. The distinctions between religion, philosophy, and magic are fuzzy.
Treat the worldview of others with respect.