Saturday, March 29, 2014

How Not to Write with Starcraft: Speed of Darkness

Hey y'all.  So I decided that when I review certain books, like Starcraft fanfictions for example, I'll combine the review with the How Not to Write segment unless the book doesn't deserve it, or its mistakes are stuff I've already gone over before.

Guess what book deserves it.

To be fair, this is a somewhat better book than SC:Ghost Nova.  Sort of.  See, the author, Tracy Hickman, is just about the opposite of Keith DeCandido.  While DeCandido had generally good concepts and generally bad narrative, Hickman's narrative is decent and his concepts are meh.   Granted, some of the concepts were nice, but they were never fleshed out enough or high enough in number to create a good story.

And yes, Tracy Hickman is a dude.  I finished the book thinking that he was a girl, and was all ready to come back here and have a girls v. boys cootie competition.  Oh well.  If it makes you feel better, Mr. Hickman, my pastor's name is Stacey, and I know of two guys named Ashley.  Y'know, I think that Ashley is better as a guy's name.  When it's for a girl, it sounds like stuck-up chick.

Um, back on topic.  So the thing is, there's basically two sides to every story told.  You know, concept and execution.  Where DeCandido succeeded was in putting his character Nova in dangerous situations, and the reader would want to know how she got out of it.  He just wrote it out in a way that was pretty painful.  When I read the first chapter of Hickman's Speed of Darkness, my first thought was "[his] narrative doesn't suck!"

By the way, spoilers.

For a while, I was pretty interested.  The first chapter showed a young man, Ardo Melnikov, hanging out with his girlfriend Melani.  It's a perfect day on Mar Sara, and the two of them are enjoying a perfect day at their Christian settlement (the book uses "religious", but it's obvious what they're talking about).  That is, it's perfect until the Zerg come in and ransack everything.  Ardo makes it onto a rescuing dropship, but Melani doesn't.

Ardo spends the rest of the book as a marine: after a brief resocialization process where his memories are over-layered, Ardo and several more marines are sent to Mar Sara to get a device.  Or so they think.  It turns out that the Confederacy simply wants to kill them all, and the device they were sent after too.  The person guarding this device is Meredith Jernic, a woman associated with the Sons of Korhal.  The device is one of the psi emitters mentioned in Starcraft's first Terran missions, used to lure the Zerg to come in and destroy planets.  Meredith wants it for evidence.

Trouble is, everyone has abandoned the few remaining marines, along with Ardo, and these guys lose all hope of escape.  Their only choice is to use the device and lure the Zerg to them so that other people will have a chance to evacuate.  They do.  And then they die.

What a lovely story, no?

Before I get into nitpicking what went wrong in Mr. Hickman's story, here's my overall impression.  While the book is fairly well written, and there was the potential here to really create something good, it falls pretty flat for me.  When reading it, I found myself skipping several pages and hoping something interesting happens a few pages later.

I'm debating internally if this book really is better than DeCandido's.  It's miles above his narrative, but when I was reading Nova's story, I wanted to know what was happening next.  I felt bad for her and wondered what I would do in her situation.  In this story, I didn't really care about anything outside of the first chapter. While a part of me wants to say that Speed of Darkness is better, the real point of any book is to be entertaining, and I was more entertained by Starcraft Ghost: Nova.  So in the end I'll say that Tracy Hickman is a better writer, but didn't quite get the Starcraft universe.  Or so goes my theory.  Maybe I'll go pick up a Dragonlance book to make sure.

The main trouble with Hickman's work here is that he never pulled it into the Starcraft universe.  This is a story that could have been told in any universe.  It's a story of paradise lost, of sacrifice and self-worth in a glorious death.  While that has the potential of being a good story, it isn't a good story.

Let's get into it, shall we?

----- A story basic is not a story.

You know those jerks that say there's only twenty or so plots in the world?   The reason why they say this is because many stories have a story basic -- a base idea that propels the story forward.  These are things like good versus evil, coming of age, falling in love, and in the case of this book, desperate sacrifice.  The idea of a man losing everything and then finally losing himself is an old one.  Even when I read the well-written first chapter, I knew (as you would reading it) that pretty soon Melani was going to be deader than a red-shirt.

The trouble with this story is that at no point does it feel like Starcraft.  Sure, Ardo is adorable, but at no point is a new detail about the Starcraft universe shown or explained.  It talks about how the Confederates and Sons of Korhal use psi emitters to lure the Zerg into doing what they want, but those of us who played the game already knew that.  It talks a bit about the resocialization process, but it never explains why Ardo needed it or what the process exactly does to a person.

Does this book show a new angle on previously established characters?  No.  Does it show the culture of a people group in the game we never got the chance to hang out with?  No.  The Christian colony was cute, but it wasn't in Starcraft and we still don't get to see its way of life.  Does this book teach us anything new about the Zerg?  Nope.  It's like a guy played just the Terran missions in Starcraft and then threw something together.

Instead: Now, as a writer, you can use a story basic if you want.  Or you can go the route of Lord of the Rings or The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly and craft a world that is too deep to be described with a story basic.  But if you do use one, you have to make sure you're not retelling a cliche.  You have to put meat on its bones, so to speak.  Take the basic and add detail, plot twists, and characters of your own that not only subvert expectations but create people that your readers really care about.

- Don't write bland battles and expect the reader to remain interested.

Maybe this is just me, but battle scenes can be really boring.  Sure, I've read War as I Knew It, by General Patton, but reading someone go on about cannons, flanking, dodging fire, and following snappy orders isn't my idea of fun.  I have to have a reason to care -- like they're on a rescue mission, or I like the main character so much I don't want him to die, or something like that.  Here, I'm so bored out of my mind that I'm sure I missed a crap ton of details about this story when I skipped the pages.

Narrative is always important, but it's even more important when you're describing something that doesn't interest everyone.  Not everyone is into football, or steamboats, or the process of creating coffee grains enough to read pages of them happening.  You either have to get the reader to care, or only cater your book to those interested in the topic at hand.  Given that this is a book for a gaming company, it requires a bit more of a broad audience.

It really doesn't help when Hickman describes a bit of a battle like this --

"Cutter was firing his plasma weapon with a single hand while still holding on with his other hand to the rag-doll survivor slung over his shoulder."

First of all, Starcraft has weapon names.  Use them.  Second, past tense is the enemy in fiction!  Don't say "Cutter was firing...", say "Cutter fired".  Sheesh.  Nothing more than battle scenes depends on a present-tense narrative style.

Instead:  Make me care about the people fighting in your story.  Don't just describe a battle and hope the readers stick it out.  Go over your narrative and remove every "was" that you can.  When describing something happening in a battle, take your time and make sure to show emotion (or special lack thereof) to make your very likely non-military audience understand what's going on at a deeper level.

---- Either get the belief system right, or don't use it at all.

I've never written a story about a Buddhist, primarily because what I know about Buddhism fits comfortably into a thimble.  Writers for decades have written about Christianity without having the slightest idea of what it is, and then expect their stuff to be profound and touching.  Usually this is done to insult us somehow, but to be fair to Hickman, he creates a realistic position for K-Sector Christians to be in.  They've suffered persecution, so now they're setting up a place where they can live in peace.  Sounds good.

The only trouble is, not only does he never go into detail about their lives as a colony, but when he attempts to show how this belief affects Ardo, it's either wonky or nonsensical.  The first instance of this is when Ardo finds himself face to face with a zergling and suddenly finds his head quoting "Thou shalt not kill".  When he's about to shoot a Zerg.  Yeah.  Uh huh.

Note that this particular commandment was given to the ancient Jews.  Also note that the ancient Jews had a complex system of animal sacrifice.  God at no point told the Jews to become vegetarians.  Thus one can very easily conclude that "thou shalt not kill" maybe has nothing to do with animals.  Besides that, the Jews were killing sheep, stupid creatures that are more or less harmless.  I'm sure that when an animal in question is a vicious, murdering 'ling, even the most ethical among them would have no problem killing it dead.

What makes it even worse is that Ardo once attempts to use an unconscious man to get his brother -- a dropship pilot -- to come back and rescue them, all without caring if the unconscious man lives.  At no point does Ardo seem to feel any regret for this action.  Sure, he didn't technically do anything wrong to the guy and we're all human enough to want to live when surrounded by enemies, but if a man remembers the Bible when killing a Zerg, it's really out of place to forget it when he's dragging an unconscious man through a facility.

Part of me suspects that Tracy Hickman knows a bit about the Bible, but it never really matters because it never relates to Ardo or his actions, other than the absurd Zerg moment.  His sacrifice at the end never arises from his beliefs, and he never saves anyone or respects the female characters from them.  This may have to do with his resocialization, but since it's not clear what exactly resocialization does, we have no idea.

Instead:  The rule of writing what you know applies to spirituality too.  If you don't know Christianity, don't write it.   Quoting a few verses fools only people who don't care, and even then not really.  Also, one's spiritual beliefs have an impact on who they are as a person.  It's not something as clunky as spouting a few words and "Hey, I'm a Christian!", it's something that changes a person's behavior in subtle ways, such as how they treat others and the ways in which they speak.  If one of your characters believes in anything, make sure it has a noticeable effect on who that person is, not just be a flat label.

---- At no point ever should you say "Hey look, readers, I'm smart!"

Page 74 is a notorious example of this.  It's talking about the difference between blunted bullets and sharp bullets, essentially.  Sure, it says "steel tipped bullets" instead, but the proceeds to the classic argument of why it's better to injure an enemy rather than kill him.  If a man is killed on the battlefield, he's out.  If a man is hurt, it takes four men out of the battle to get him to safety, and then still more to tend to him.  So injuring reduces your enemies, blah, blah.

Nobody likes to be talked down to, both the readers and Ardo in particular.  Spouting off facts like that makes you sound like a jerk, and when your readers already think your story is boring, the effect is multiplied.  The reader feels, "Oh, you can't even write a story and you're here trying to teach me?"

I bet that you noticed the logical error, too.  They're fighting the Zerg. Zerg cerebrates treat their minions as expendable fodder, and they don't give a crap if the minions live or die. So no one is going to be taken out of the battle by being wounded.  Not even the wounded Zerg.  Given how vicious the Zerg are, I can't imagine that the injured one wouldn't try to kill-kill-kill until the very second it died.

Sure, if Hickman could somehow explain that the Zerg are better injured than killed, it'd be fine.  Maybe there's a special bullet that poisons the Zerg that eat their injured.  Something like that.  But if it's not explained, then it's not only a flaw in the story, it's off-putting for the readers.

Instead: Sometimes facts are important to a story.  When used, however, they should be blended in the narrative where they don't stick out, or perhaps be discovered by a character so that the reader doesn't feel talked down to.  Or it can be something like Sherlock Holmes, where you know the guy is going to talk down to you or other characters and it's a part of the story's charm.  If you feel you have to prove you know about a subject (say, the military), then that's a sign your fact is going to stick out.  People who know the military exude it with every paragraph.  Every new fact is presented as a part of a briefing or as a training sequence.  Because the whole story is peppered with information, it never feels like it was a hastily put together research project made to impress students.

---- Stop it with the past tense already!

Past tense is fine in histories.  It's fine in biographies.  It's fine in reviews, on blogs, and on facebook.  When it comes to fiction, nothing drowns your narrative more than past tense.  Now, I did mention that Hickman was better than DeCandido on narrative.  That's true.  But it doesn't mean he's perfect.  Here's a quote right here.

"He was shocked when, in the next instant, the flame was gone from his smoking faceplate."

What the bleep does that even mean?  I read before and after this sentence, and I still don't get it.  A firebat was involved, but I'm still confuzzled about it.  For the moment, this sentence itself has several problems.  It has two "was" inclusions (how hard is it to write "it shocked him" or "the flame disappeared"?), and it's stated very face-value, very straightforward.

How straightforward is anybody in the middle of a firefight where they can't see anything?

Here's a better attempt:  "In an instant, the wall of flame around him vanished.  Shocked, Ardo barely kept his senses in time to shoot an oncoming hydralisk."

I dunno, something like that.  See, while Hickman has better narrative, even the least of errors can ruin the text when you're in the middle of a battle.  Battle narrative needs to be face paced and exciting, and nothing ruins it faster than a collection of "was", "has", and "could be" errors.

Instead:  Keep in mind when you're writing your battles that you need to be present focused.  Relate everything that's happening to or through a character.  When they're angry, the narrative is angry.  When they're overwhelmed, the narrative is overwhelmed.  When they're hot, sweaty, and want nothing more than to run off, the narrative needs to make the reader feel the heat.  Don't treat it like regular narrative.  This isn't the same as writing a guy slowly and carefully examining exhibits in a museum.

---- Keep in mind the rules of the world.

Now, this applies very obviously to fanfictions, especially official ones where one must adhere very closely to what has been previously established.  However, it also applies to original fiction.  You, as the author, establish your own canon, with rules about what is physically possible and physically impossible, what fits with the themes and what doesn't.

Well, it's not as if Speed of Darkness ruins the Starcraft lore.  It just ignores it entirely.  While sure, one of the things that irked me about SCG: Nova was that it tried too hard to relate to Starcraft, this one didn't try enough.  Let me clarify and explain that I don't mean that there should always be references so that we know exactly what is going on when, but rather that each fanfiction should add to the world of Starcraft in an interesting way.

In Speed of Darkness, we learn nothing.  It's just a story about one man, and the major reference to the game is a plot point any of the players already knew.  You could literally remove the story here and place it withing almost any universe you want: wartime, westerns, fits in all these places.  I already mentioned the generic guns, but there are other problems too.

One thing is the resocialization.  This in Starcraft has always represented someone who was a criminal or an insane person who needed an entire personality overhaul.  Like, they're too nuts to live.  Why then is a guy who has been through one simple tragedy subjected to this?  Did it really make it that insane?  Did he volunteer for it?

What's more, the resocialization is supposed to be a personality-ripping process.  It's not supposed to be a simple overlay of memories.  Sure, I can understand the Confederates forcing an overlay on certain victims, but resoc would change a person to their core.  That's not the case with Ardo.  I will say, though, that the description of how the resoc process began was very good.

Also, "Ardo" isn't really a Starcraft name.  For human characters, most of the names are hickish, or in some way representative of who they are as a person or ethnicity.  Basically put, the names are simple, flavorful, and not conventional misspell-a-word-until-it-looks-like-a-new-name sort of thing that you find a lot in science fiction.

Instead:  Every universe has rules.  Make sure to play by them.  When writing your own fiction, it can be fun to create a "history" set of notes.  Just so long as you don't spend all your time writing them instead of your story.

---- Don't give me boring characters

To be fair, Hickman is not the worst offender in this regard.  Still, his characters are pretty meh.  Ardo himself, besides the tragedy in his background and the badly handled Christianity, hasn't much personality.  Neither do many of the others.  Meredith's characterization is that she's "like Melani".  And that's it.  We never hear her background from a computer, she never does anything unique, and what little she does do makes her obnoxious.

There's also LZ Breanne, who is was pretty annoying too.  She's the one that spouted off the information on the bullets.  Because she's so shallow I have a hard time believing that men fear her.  Of all the characters, Fetu Koura-Abi, the South Pacific guy, was the most interesting.  Despite having the most personality in this collection of cardboard cutouts, he ends up being just the butt of a lot of jokes, and we can't take him all that seriously.  Then again, he is a firebat, so...

Instead:  The people around you in real life aren't boring.  Dream up your characters in such a way that they have enough depth to be real people, not two-dimensional cartoons.  Even if you don't use half of the stuff you come up with for them, the readers will be able to tell that the depth exists.

---- Don't spoil your own ending.

I never thought I'd have to say that.  Most of the time authors are very guarded against revealing their endings, and only end up showing it through having a cliched story -- and that happens more in Hollywood than with real writers.  But you know what?  That's exactly what happens here.  A little while before the book ends, maybe fifty or so pages, Ardo announces that they should sacrifice themselves to save other evacuees.  And then there's lots of puttering around and preparation, then that's exactly what happens.

Granted, if the point of this story was to make them take the sacrifice, then that should have been done at the very tail end of the story, and up till then the guys try their hardest to survive.  If Hickman wanted to write it that early, then he should have made the ending unexpected, like they suddenly get rescued, or the device gets destroyed and some of the soldiers are found alive under rubble, or the Protoss suddenly come in and render everything moot, or just something like that.

Instead: Something I've noticed in books and television is that when a character announces his plans, they go wrong. When the plan is meant to go exactly right, that plan isn't revealed to the reader until it happens.  This is a bit of a convention, but a good one, and the point of it is to subvert reader expectation.  Basically, if the reader thinks you're going to do something, don't do it.  Or do it differently.  Otherwise you make the reader waste their time.

I think that's about enough.  This game wasn't as bad -- sort of -- as Starcraft Ghost: Nova, it fails on a lot of levels.  It never takes advantage of the Starcraft universe, and stays too long at the battlefield without making us care specifically for Ardo or other characters.  What should have happened is that it took longer for Ardo to get assigned to Mar Sara, or a simultaneous story cuts in every so often.  Y'know, so it's not so boring.

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