Books, news, & views from Karen Traviss

Imagination, extrapolation, & flying pigs.

I love anime. Whenever I admit that, people tell me it’s not what they expect from someone who writes heavily armed, hairy-arsed, foul-mouthed military fiction, but that’s me the individual, not me the writer. They’re not the same person. What I do for a job and what I like when I’m not working are two worlds. I love animation anyway, and I enjoy cartoons and illustration far more than “proper art,” but it’s not the cuteness of anime that appeals so much as how off the wall so much of it is.

The Japanese seem able to plunge into stories with impossible characters and situations without a backward glance, and make it work so that it never occurs to you to question why a seaplane pilot would be a pig under a curse. He just is. No explanation, almost no backstory, and no apology: that’s the way this world is, you accept it, and it makes perfect sense. I know Miyazaki said Porco Rosso was meant to be a more serious film, but most of us don’t know the creator’s intent when when we see it.

I rarely let myself watch a movie as a writer because it ruins it forever for me – you know how I have to compartmentalise my consumer mind from my creator one – but sometimes I can’t avoid seeing the sheer risk-taking freedom in an anime and envying it. I wish I could be that random. That’s the best word I have for it. I can usually see where other writers’ mental paths are taking them, but sometimes I can’t work it out, and it intrigues me. I’m not sure how random imaginations work or even if they’re different at all, only that I would never have thought of making a pilot into an actual pig in a million years. Readers say they don’t know how I come up with stories and that I’m imaginative, but I don’t think I am. An imagination is... a pig pilot. I’m an extrapolator. I deal in the art of the possible. As a journalist inevitably does. I always start from “What if, what next?” I might take it a very long way very fast, but to me it’s based on real world logic, and I don’t feel I could function without that. I’ve never had an urge to shove the proverbial cursed pig into a cockpit, and I wish I did. I have a book on the back burner involving a cockroach, and another with spiders, but both have a sensible starting point in the real world.

The last few months have forced me out of my comfort zone as a “sensible” writer. I’ve been working on a new comic series for 412 Comics, and although it’s political-military, my normal stock-in-trade, it’s set in a world with magic. Given the problem I had getting my head around Wonder Woman’s invisible plane, you’ll understand the mental gymnastics I had to go through to make the universe work. I’m not a natural fantasy writer. But once I built some rules, the “ecology of the fantastic” as Greg Frost used to call it back at Clarion, I was fine. And, of course, people always behave like people. You have the laws of that world’s physics, and then you drop your characters into it and watch how they navigate. I don’t think I would ever have invented this world myself, but once it “existed,” I could operate within it. I need to treat worlds as real to write, and once I’m past that belief barrier, the story writes itself.

I would love to spend time with a creative who has what I think is a random imagination and try to see how their mind works. Maybe the process is the same as mine, but drawn from a different cultural toolbox in the broadest sense. I didn’t grow up on fairytales and wizards: I never got the message that I might be a secret princess or whatever all along, or that magic would solve all my problems, but that the real world was a certain way, seldom “fair,” and that I could change my fate by working for it. Maybe that’s a good thing: even as an adult, I’m suspicious of fiction that encourages kids to think they’re born special in life but robbed of their birthright by inferior people, or that they can get things without expending any effort. That’s quite unpleasant if you stop and think about it.

But maybe being brought up on reality has a price, and I’ll never have the random and utterly wonderful idea of a pilot who happens to be a pig for no reason connected to the story. The upside of that, though, is that I’ll always approach anime with a sense of wonder rather than seeing the strings.

Calling for backup

No, this isn’t a public service announcement about how important it is for writers to back up their files. If you’re not doing that by now after all the times I’ve nagged, there’s no hope for you. This is about taking disaster recovery a step further so that you’re never, ever caught out with your work trapped in a dead machine or your files rendered unreadable when you’re right on a deadline. This is about making sure you always have an alternative suite of apps for the critical jobs in your business.

There’s no such thing as “too much” when it comes to just-in-case. My natural need to be prepared – emergency supplies in the car, tools on my key ring, you name it – was kicked up quite a few notches in the days when part of my job was emergency planning. (“Emergency management” in the US.) That planning was tested to the limit when we had a run of civil emergencies that covered everything from street riots to unexploded ordnance to trucks crashing into bridges to a massive factory fire, followed not long after by a flood and all the evacuation and aftermath that went with it. Our emergency planning supremo was a brilliant bloke called Alasdair Hogg, ex-Merchant Navy and with a gift for not only radiating calm when the Hellmouth opened but also the ability to coax favours out of any government agency when bureaucracy was getting in the way. I learned a lot from Al, which is why JACINTO’S REMNANT is dedicated to him.

Anyway, one of the many things that Al was big on was recovery plans – getting systems up and running again fast. (If our HQ was affected, we still had to be able to run the emergency response.) Every business and organisation should have one, and, dare I say it, so should every family. In the course of my various jobs, I’ve seen many people suddenly homeless or minus their business, both insured and uninsured, and no idea what to do next. It happens: but tech disasters happen a lot more often. As a small business – and a writer is the smallest business of all, a one-man band– you’re on your own, pal. Plan ahead.

Assuming you’ve heeded all the warnings about backing up your data and keeping one copy of it somewhere off-site, preferably with a spare machine to use it on, it’s worth thinking about alternative apps as well. If an app you’re reliant on isn’t available, you need to be able swap horses and carry on. And before you say, “But I keep my stuff in the cloud!” let me give you a withering glance. Those servers are not under your control. Even the biggest cloud providers can have disasters, as we’ve seen recently, and there’s no guarantee that any of them will be around long-term. If that’s the storage you’re relying on, you’re gambling. If you trust the cloud on security (I don’t, but YMMV) then you also need your data stored on something in your personal possession as well.

Anyway, apps. Dependency on single apps makes you vulnerable. Apps can crash after updates leaving you not knowing when a fix is going to be available, or they can decide not to play with something else in your set-up that’s changed. In the longer term, the developer might stop supporting the software, or might even do an Adobe and force you to subscribe to a cloud service. Your business can be screwed either by a very urgent failure or by a long-term, more persistent one. If data is stored in some kind of proprietary file format that can only be opened in a certain app, I get nervous.

The remedies need setting up and testing before the doo-doo hits the fan. Learn how to use the alternative app and do a dry run before events force you to. The important thing is knowing which file format to save documents in so they can be opened in the backup app, even if that means converting them with an intermediate app. Otherwise it’s not a plan, it’s a reaction.

The list below is the essentials that I need to cover – yours may be different. If it sounds slightly vague, it’s because I’m trying to cover the bases for Windows users as well as Mac. You can search for alternative apps for your particular platform.

I rely on:

1. A straight word processor app – Word or Word-compatible documents are the lowest common denominator. Many other apps can read, import, or convert them. You don’t have to write in one to have a use for it.

2. An internet connection. (Okay, not strictly an app, but it requires planning ahead and a bit of practice if you’re going to carry on without breaking your pace.) My broadband falls over quite often and at the worst possible times. So I always have mobile broadband to hand, and in my case that’s three different options. I can connect by mifi or by tethering via my phone or iPad.

3. FTP, if you maintain your web site – FTP is built into my web authoring app, but I also have Transmit, which I usually use for transferring files securely when I’m doing comics, and another FTP app on my iPad in case I really, really need to access my site to change something fast and there’s no other way.

4. Web authoring app – if you build and maintain your own, and don’t do it the hairy-chested way by writing your own HTML, this can be a time-consuming move if you have to make it. I use RapidWeaver 5, which is getting old but I don’t want to upgrade for various reasons. Knowing this version won’t last forever, I have Sparkle on standby in case I haven’t found a better RW alternative by then and I need to move content across fast. If RW croaked today, I could get a Sparkle site going in a few hours until I sorted out something longer-term. I’ve already had third-party plug-ins suddenly cease to function in RW and bork individual pages, so I’m ready.

5. Layout/ design/ graphics – this might not apply to you, but if you rely on design apps, you’ll need to know which file formats to save stuff in so you can open documents and work on them in the backup app. If you use Adobe Creative Cloud, you might sleep better with an alternative ready to roll. I remember the time when the servers went down and magazines were left stranded on deadline, but I’m not even talking about connection issues – one day you simply might find you can’t afford the subs any longer but all your files are saved in formats that won’t open elsewhere. I have a selection of free and paid-for apps that I could switch to, although I’d probably need to start over from the source docs – Scribus, Acorn, Graphic, Affinity Designer, Affinity Photo, Pixel, and a few others. I’m also waiting for the new version of Vellum to come out, which will be able to handle print layouts as well as e-books. It’s not InDesign, but it’ll let me take a Word master document and get a printable/ distributable file out the door if all else fails.

My recovery plan isn’t perfect. There’s nobody more wedded to Scrivener than I am, and to do the preparation right, I’d output everything I wrote in Scrivener each day as a Word doc. But that’s a huge amount of work on a daily basis. If Scrivener vanished for some unknown reason, I could switch to DEVONThink, which is a document management app that I use for collating my research, but it can also be used to write novels and other long documents with multiple parts. The question is how I would extract the data already in Scrivener in the event of a serious crash on a deadline, i.e. saved as .scriv files, and that’s where a physical backup comes in. If you have the file saved, you can get at your data. On a Mac, you can view package contents of a .scriv file to show Files/Docs, and in the documents folder you’ll see everything as .rtf, .txt, .pdf, and so on. It’s a bit cumbersome to reconstruct a project that way, but having had to do it once, I can assure you it’s not only possible but you’ll be glad of it.

So how far do you go with physical backups? Parangosky might think she’s got paranoia down to a fine art, but she looks like a carefree kid compared to me. I don’t even trust hardware. Built-in redundancy is where it’s at. Hold my beer.

1. Spare Mac and a spare Windows machine. (Also Linux, but that’s really for the end of the world.)

2. Daily boot clone copied to an external drive, for those serious Andrex events. (That’s the entire system, remember.)

3. TimeMachine copying to another external drive. (For Windows folk, that’s a normal backup, i.e. files, not system as well.) I take that drive with me when I leave the house for more than a quick walk down the road to buy a pint of milk.

4. DropSync backing up critical folders to separate SD cards automatically every time they’re changed. Those drives are formatted so that I can open them on Win or Mac. One always goes with me whenever I leave the house. I can rebuild my entire business from a single card – it contains all my writing output, website files, admin, and essentials.

I also keep hard copies of all my books in different formats. It takes up space, but you can’t rely on a publisher to keep a file – seriously, you can’t – or even be willing to give it to you if they have. Unbelievable, but true: I wanted author copies of e-books for archive reasons so that I had a complete record of what was actually published in each edition, but one big publisher refused to give them to me, and another stalled me indefinitely. They cost nothing except a little effort.

The moral of this whole piece is that nobody will look after your business interests like you do. Don’t entrust your critical data solely to a third party or rely on luck. Take responsibility for it, make sure you have it in your physical possession in a form that you can access on a different system or in a different app if the worst happens, and exercise for disaster from time to time. Rehearse exactly what you’d do if any part of your system fell over. How soon could you be up and running again?

It doesn’t take a zombie apocalypse to screw years of hard work. Just software going belly up or a drive dying on you can do it. Be prepared!


Tentacles and guesswork

A buddy who's been beta-reading for me since I started writing fiction mailed me this feature this morning with the message: "Hi Karen, how much more ahead of the science community can you get?" Yes, it's those fantastic cephalopods again, this time about clever stuff they do with their DNA:


Not a spoiler for the Ringer series, but you get where Ian's heading, and the answers Dr Kinnery didn’t find.

When I did some initial research on cephalopods years ago (as in reading, not chopping them up) I knew right away that they'd keep me in books for years. And they have, bless their clever little tentacles. Okay, I'm not a marine biologist, so my extrapolation has just been layman's guesswork, but I couldn't look at them and not see the endless potential for stories, even ones that weren't actually about octopuses and squid, and not even SF. (Same with jellyfish, who are equally amazing.) They’re so unlike mammals that it's impossible for me not to wonder what happens when we interact, either as individuals – alien or real-life – or at the genetic level, as in the Ringer books.

SF authors are used to being predictive because that’s part of the job, although we still have to explain why none of us really saw the internet coming, or why we gave the world false hope about personal jetpacks. And you can't patent a good guess. But actual scientific research like this confirms you're on the right track, which – if you're concerned about realism – gives you more confidence to push the envelope of the possible.

Don’t be too hard on us about the absence of personal jetpacks. Just imagine your neighbour, the one who can’t park straight and hits the fence every time he tries to back into his drive, and then visualise him crashing on you from a few hundred feet with a fuel tank. It’s all for the best.

Stating the bleedin' obvious, and how to avoid it

If you follow me on Twitter, you’ll know that I gave up broadcast TV at the end of last year because I decided I loathed funding the BBC more than I liked TV shows, so I invested in Prime, Netflix, and catch-up TV. courtesy of a Fire Stick. The unexpected consequence has been that I’ve lost interest in most programmes, I rarely switch on the telly at all, and I have to remind myself to keep up with the few series (mostly cop shows) that I used to regard as unmissable.

Inevitably, it’s made me even more nitpicky (yes, it’s possible, I was only 95% tedious pedant before) about screenplays. Things that used to get on my nerves now drive me to full-blown frothing. But there are lessons to be learned from that are as useful for novelists as they are for TV writers.

This week I settled down to catch up with a British detective series I normally enjoy. But you know how it is: something that doesn’t fit reality jerks you out of the story. It doesn’t have to be anything major, either. The bar for police procedurals is set high because there are any number of experts and retired officers available to production companies to advise on the law and how police officers operate.

This time it was the way the show handled exposition that made me roll my eyes. In every story, in any medium, the writer has to tell the audience something that the characters probably wouldn’t discuss among themselves because it’s such an obvious part of their job. It can be done well or badly. At its worst, it’s CSI, where alleged scientists tell each other bleedin’ obvious technical stuff that they’d all have to know to get the job in the first place. At its least annoying, it’s the stuff that stops you in your tracks a couple of scenes later and makes you think, “Hang on a minute...”

In the show I was watching, the information to be imparted to the audience was a drug connection. A body had been found with a quantity of heroin. Two detectives – one very senior and nearing retirement, the other junior but still pretty experienced – had this conversation, which I’ll paraphrase.

Senior detective: “What’s that on the wrapper?”
Junior detective: “It’s a dealer’s mark so that customers know it’s good stuff.”

The script was asking us to believe that a veteran cop, a senior detective with decades of service, didn’t know that drugs are often marked by dealers or labs. It was sloppy writing. It was perfectly possible to impart that information to the viewer without asking us to believe a senior officer wouldn’t know the basics. It could have gone something like this:

Senior detective: “There’s a dealer’s mark on it. He must be confident it’s good stuff. Have you seen this one before?”
Junior detective, studying packet: “No, it’s a new one on me, Boss. I’ll have to run it past the drug squad.”

It took two lines, just like the original. It didn’t lose any of the drama. It didn’t cost any more in production terms. It just required awareness of the job and what the person doing it would know.

As an example of how to get forensics information into a script in a natural way, check out an excellent cold case series called Unforgotten. It uses the device of the knowledgeable person giving information to someone not expected to know it, in this case the scientist explaining the latest techniique for recovering evdience so that the officers know the chances of getting anything useful out of a forty-year-old wallet. Okay, it required a sequence with an additonal cast member, albeit one who played a significant role in the series because it was forensics-heavy, but verisimilitude needs to be built into any work from the foundations.

It all comes down to one thing. What does your character know? What should they know? Write with that in mind, and pedantic viewers (or readers) like me will thank you for it.

The menu of characterisation

I took part in a podcast the other week and one of the topics we discussed as we roamed around the nuts and bolts of writing was the use of food in characterisation. It’s a useful lens to examine your writing. As ever, what follows works for me, but your mileage may vary, there’s more than one way to skin a cat, and there are nine and sixty ways of constructing tribal lays etc.

I don’t mean that you need to shoe-horn each character’s dinner choices into every scene, although it’s the kind of detail that can build reality for the reader if used carefully. I mean the stuff that doesn’t go into the book but still needs to be there in the writer’s head to form a three-dimensional, believable character. Characters need to feel as if they have a life that’s still going on when they walk off the page, even if the reader never sees it. If you’re a character-driven writer – or, like me, you depend wholly on characterisation to create plot – you need to know a lot about your cast.

You don’t need to dump it all in the book. Nor do you need to spend hours drawing up detailed notes of everything your characters like, have done, and wear. You just need to know them well enough in your head to walk into a supermarket and know what they’d put in their basket, or pick up a menu and know what they’d choose for dessert – or even if they’d bother with dessert at all.

It’s about knowing the kind of person they are. If you instinctively know that Fred would insist on artisan wholemeal sourdough and make a loud fuss about it, or that Ann wouldn’t mind what kind of wine she was offered as long as she got some, then you already know how the character ticks and what their life looks like. If you know the kind of person they are, you won’t even have to think about this, let alone write it down.

It’s like a marketing exercise. Certain groups of people tend to have broadly similar outlooks and buy certain things. The important thing for a writer is to work out why, and not to fall into easy stereotypes of Joe Slob and his beer or the neurotic middle-class mum making sure everything’s free of additives. Our food choices very often define us. Ah, you say, but what if those choices are constrained by income? Yes, they are: and that’s still part of characterisation.

The important thing is that moment when you know that a certain character would buy a certain food, why they would buy it, and how they would feel about it. When it happens, you’ll know you’ve created a fully rounded character in your mind, and you can draw on that for every reaction and line of dialogue. You can test this with preferences other than food choices, too. If you know without thinking what your character’s taste in music, cars, clothing, TV, or a hundred other things would be, then you’ve got a proper understanding of them. I just use food as the benchmark because it’s something every human needs, and we all form emotional memories around it.