Category Archives: The Martian Empire Trilogy

Obsessed with an Idea

Exactly seven years ago tomorrow, I wrote a free-form poem called Iron Town. The basic idea and image of the poem was of an industrial nightmare, a city of rust and decay and pollution where haggard workers toiled day in and day out without purpose or joy. In a word, bleak. During this period, it was contrasted by the City of Crystal, a metropolitan dream filled with glass towers and blue skies. But Iron Town was the end result of that particular story. Around the same time, I also wrote a short story, as part of a series of connected stories, that touched upon the fall of the City of Crystal as it collapsed into Iron Town, the City of Rust. As in the story, it was the image of Iron Town, and what it stood for, that stuck with me.

Not long after this I began an attempt to write a story about Iron Town, taking the name of the city as the name of the story. It carried on the industrial nightmare theme, taking on the idea that Iron Town was beginning to die as all the available resources in the area were rapidly running out. The story centered around a young factory worker, who dreams of leaving his dangerous job, and Iron Town, behind. But the catch is that no one ever leaves Iron Town. This story never went beyond three pages and a simple idea. In the shuffle of other stories, it was eventually lost and forgotten.

Four years passed as I worked on other things, mainly The Martian Empire Trilogy. Having finished that trilogy, I started working on some short stories. One of those stories was called The Blasted Lands, which will appear in my short-story collection, Fragments of Mind. The bulk of the action in the story takes place in Iron Town, which rests amid a vast desert land. This time, however, the city was no longer an industrial nightmare, but rather a city of strange monsters and horrible curses; bloat, avarice, and excess abounded there. Far more fitting a fantasy story than something resembling modern day. But the basic idea was the same. Dark, depressing, and dangerous.

After writing a number of short stories, I began work on a new novel, which I called The Jester and the Thief. In the story, a young, exiled prince escapes from a prison in Iron Town with the aid of a crazy old man. Iron Town, however, despite appearing early on, faded away after the first few chapters. In looking back at the finished story, I lamented that it had gone too far afield from the original idea, which was to focus on Iron Town and its bizarre peculiarities. In the end, I put the story aside. However, the basic concept, characters, and world remained.

Several novels later, I began working on a new novel, borrowing liberally from The Jester and the Thief. I called it Between Sand and Sky. I kept the exiled prince, the crazy old man, the beautiful but strange princess, and the assassin. I kept Iron Town. I kept the great desert waste where the city itself was located. I kept the story of the prince searching for the men responsible for his exile. But a lot of things changed. Rather than an escape from Iron Town, Between Sand and Sky was a search for Iron Town. By this time, the more fantastical elements of Iron Town had fallen away, leaving me with something that was much more realistic and, in a way, much more sinister.

More recently, as in just a few months ago, I laid the foundation for a new novel called City of Crystal, City of Rust. As of this moment, there’s really nothing more than a vague idea and an opening paragraph. The thought I have with this is to either retell or write a sequel to The Blasted Lands, focusing on the story of The Traveler and his dealings with the aptly-named City of Rust.

In writing this post, it became even more clear to me that Iron Town and what it stands for is the most enduring theme in my writing. But why? I think its because Iron Town, in all its many appearances, always represents one very simple concept: the sum total of the worst of humanity. People who are absorbed in their own pursuits without a care for anyone else, the turning of a blind eye to the suffering of others, rampant disease and poverty, torture and slavery, and the terrible irony of urban isolation. All the characters who enter Iron Town have to somehow survive its many horrors, but are often changed by their experience regardless.

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The Roles of the Hero and the Villain

The hero is the good guy and the villain is the bad guy, everyone knows this little bit of standard fiction theory. But then we get into anti-heroes and sympathetic villains and the roles that those two fit into begin to blur. What if the hero is a total jerk? What if the villain is simply misguided? These are the kinds of questions that break the characters out of their preset molds and tear away the preconceptions inherent in the roles they fill.

These roles have always fascinated me, the idea that the hero is not wholly good and the villain is not wholly evil. Many times in fiction, the two fit their roles quite well. I’m not against that sort of thing, as those roles do serve a purpose and adhering to them can still lead to interesting entertainment, but it’s also true that breaking out of the roles can lead to something even more interesting.

I’ve played with this idea since way back in the days of the Martin Empire Trilogy, setting up a villain who appeared as a mustache-twirling bad guy who just simply loved being evil for evil’s sake. But as the plot went along it was revealed that the villain’s intentions were actually more pure, despite the fact that his methods produced violence and chaos. In his mind he believed he was doing good. Whether he is or isn’t may ultimately fall to the reader to decide. It is in this way that the work becomes more challenging. It forces the reader to consider the actions of the character and the outcomes of those actions and wonder whether it’s worth all the downsides if the ultimate outcome is a good one. Kill one to save two. A hard thing to accept, without a doubt.

I’ve also played with the idea of heroes who are not actually heroes in the traditional sense. While far from anti-heroes, I like the idea of a character who is just a regular person, no one special and with no special skills, who must someone navigate through a dangerous situation and come away victorious. After all, skills and ranks do not make a hero, only what a person does is what makes them a hero or not.

“No heroes on villains, only men.”

It would be safe to say that this is a motto I return to rather often, though certainly not exclusively. Doing my own writing has allowed me to explore these two roles, digging deeply into what makes them work and how readers might respond to them. It’s been an interesting exercise on my part, that’s for sure, but I feel like there’s still a great deal more for me to learn.

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And Yet I Keep Coming Back: The Martian Empire Trilogy [Part 4]

I spent several years writing and polishing the Martian Empire trilogy. Writing and polishing. It felt as though I was in a never-ending spiral of those two activities and I was never going to pull out and actually get something into the public consciousness. Finally, I said “enough” and stopped writing. I had my finished story, a trilogy of books that chronicled the lives of my characters as they got pulled into epic events, had space adventures, and so on. At last it was done. But I had to learn one more lesson, the hardest lesson to learn for any writer.

And what is that lesson? I had to learn that sometimes you’ve got to throw all your work in the garbage. The problem was that the Martian Empire trilogy just plain wasn’t that good. It wasn’t written all that well and the story jumped around way too much with all these weird little ideas about perspective thrown in for good measure. It was high-minded, but I didn’t have the skills to really pull it off. It just wasn’t good.

I could spend another year, or two years, writing and polishing more, but that wouldn’t have helped much. The story was too far gone, the time and effort needed to fix it was too great. I would have had to start all over from scratch, rewriting virtually every sentence in the entire trilogy. So I dumped it instead and started over writing something else. You know what happened to that novel? I trashed it, too. It was okay, but not great. The story didn’t go the way I wanted it to and some of the events were just dumb. Four full-length novels, tossed in the trash and forgotten.

That was hard. How do you just let go of all that hard work? But you have to let go, because you’ll never grow if you don’t. When you’re a writer, actually being a serious writer, you have to know when to give up on a story that isn’t working. The first two stories didn’t work. Starting over let’s you start fresh, without any prewritten words to get in your way. All those little mistakes you made the first time are allowed to fall away, well, not all of them. But some do. Your second story will be stronger than your first. Your third will be stronger than your second. Until you finally get good enough to start letting other people take a peak at what you’re writing. And then you keep learning, because you’ve still got a long way to go.

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A Personal Comparison Between Then and Now

Everything changes over time, that much is certain, but how much? Let’s find out.

Then:

After about 20 minutes she reached the top. She walked over to where here telescope sat and began to search an area to the south-west of the city. Nothing. Whatever, had been out there was gone now. Either it had been moved by someone, or something as was more likely, or it had been covered by the shifting sands of the desert.

It was already beginning to get dark so she hurried down the stairs to her jeep. She drove about a block to where there was a building whose front had been blown off. She parked the jeep inside the building and walked across the street to where her house was. It was a small house, consisting of two rooms. The living room in the front opened into a small kitchen area. A door on one side of the living room led to the bathroom.

It wasn’t much, but it was home. She sat down her bags in the coffee table in the living room and then walked into the kitchen to get something to eat. The cabinets held a wide variety of canned foods, all of which tasted basically the same. She chose a can of corn and then as an after thought grabbed a box of dehydrated potatoes.

There had definitely been something out there, of that she was sure. She had clearly seen sunlight glinting off of something metallic out in the desert, but what it was and where it had gone were a mystery. She got up and turned on the radio. Most of the news was the same as everyday, which was to say just about nothing interesting, but there was one story in particular that got here attention.

A Martian cargo ship was schedules to land at the Dallas Spaceport. Martian ships didn’t come to Earth very often, but when they did, they paid high price for anything dug up out of the ruins. Kara got and marked the date of the ship’s landing on her calendar. She hadn’t been making much money recently, but she had been saving a few things and now would be a good chance to get some money for more supplies. She switched off the radio, put up what was left of the food, and promptly went to sleep.  

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That’s right, bask in the shame of it all. There’s certainly enough of my personal shame present in these five paragraphs for everyone to suitably wallow in. In a word…it’s bad. Very bad. This was something I wrote about 8 years ago. I wasn’t being particularly serious back then, but I was trying. It wasn’t fanfiction, so that was something that I could feel a small measure of pride about. That’s about the only thing I can feel pride about. It was a start, a beginning. Not the first thing I’d ever tried to write, but the first stab at doing an actual story with chapters and a plot that extended beyond a few events tossed together in a blender and then spilled out on the carpet.

Stiff writing, repetition, and way, WAY too much passive voice going on here. Some of those sentences are rather convoluted, as well, in part because of lackluster use of commas. I still get tripped up by commas. How do they work? I don’t understand! But it was far worse here. Missing words, too. Misspelled words. Sloppy. Some of that did eventually get fixed over the course of the next few years, but not enough of it. The Martian Empire trilogy is best left as an object lesson and no more.

Now:

Kalis shifted his pack, relieving one shoulder at the expense of the other, and then came down from the outcropping, moving slowly along the exposed rock. It was well into the afternoon when he reached the village. By then, the inhabits had come out of their shelters and were milling about, seeming uncertain as to what they ought to be doing. Many of them cast sidelong glances in his direction, others ignored him entirely. None spoke. The creak of a wooden sign, painted in garish colors, drew him towards what roughly approximated the center of the rude village.

A large tent had been set up there and the sign informed weary travelers, through crudely-drawn pictures, that food and drink might be purchased within. Kalis expected nothing beyond the bare essentials and was not surprised to find that the merchant’s supply consisted mainly of dried camel flesh and stale rainwater, collected when and where it could and then stored in large, wooden barrels.

The merchant himself, a tired-eyed man moving past his prime, accepted a few small copper coins in exchange for refilling Kalis’s canteens. Kalis asked his usual questions, but the merchant barely seemed to hear. Even the prospect of payment couldn’t roust his interest. The merchant didn’t know, didn’t care. The canteens returned to the pack and Kalis left.

A gaggle of children, laughing now that the storm was over and gone, ran past him. One child carried a brightly-colored bit of paper with a long, thin string attached and the others chased. They were carefree, unworried by storms or desert sun. A faint gust of wind tugged gently at Kalis’s long cloak and then caught the colored paper, pulling it high up into the air. The children laughed all the harder and the one child struggled to control his drunken bird as it bobbed and weaved. Soon enough it came crashing to the ground as the wind subsided, but the children did not mind. They retrieved their paper bird and continued on towards the other side of the village, full of energy. How many years now since Kalis had laughed as those children laughed?

But the sun would not wait for him to reminisce of better days. Kalis left the little village behind and traveled deeper into the desert. By his reckoning, he was less than twelve leagues from Sirtan, one of the desert’s few cities. He hoped to find some information there, but Sirtan, like the other cities he’d already visited in the past year, would likely yield a similar result. And he would be left to wander further, deeper into the desert, deeper into that sun-blighted wasteland. How many more days? How many more weeks? How many more months? The answers he sought could come tomorrow or never.

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Much better, no? Years of writing will do that. More variety on sentence structure, less of all that passive voice nonsense, better descriptors, less mistakes. Those lines are probably about a year old, written during a second attempt at writing a storyline I had in my head. The first? Went far afield, I’m afraid. Poor story choices doomed it to a swift death. Best forgotten, as well. But I get better and I get better because I keep writing. Right now we’re looking at seven years of progress, of making attempts and failing spectacularly. Each failure was a lesson learned, each success was a mountain climbed. I wish it could all have come easier, but it never does. You work and work and work and eventually you get there.

Have I finally reached that magical nirvana where every sentence I spit out is solid gold? No. Far from it, in fact. My writing is still too stiff, still too plain, still too filled with mistakes. I still want to get better. So I keep writing.

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And Yet I Keep Coming Back: The Martian Empire Trilogy [Part 3]

Alright, so I’ve got my characters under control and I’ve flogged them a bit. As the story goes along, they slowly become less like the characters from a book and more like people. People have flaws, people have unfulfilled desires, people often do things that they know will hurt themselves. People aren’t perfect. Lesson learned. But what now? Now I have to learn the next lesson and that lesson is the answer to a question: Why are my characters important? They’ve got an entire book devoted to them, so they must have done something that matters. Are my characters just goofing around doing nothing worth thinking about or are they the central figures in an intergalactic war? I had to find the aspect of the story that made my characters worthy of being the main characters of their own story. Perhaps it’s a story about personal growth, with no far-reaching implications. Perhaps it’s a story about how two kids from Earth end a war that’s put the entire galaxy at risk. Why is anyone reading their story?

At last I find the answer to that question. My characters are important because they do something important. They get sucked into a brewing war and must somehow come through all these trials alive. So, not only did I learn that my characters needed a few flaws and a few trials along the way, they also needed to do something worth taking note of. Now my characters have personality, now my characters have purpose. The story I’m writing expands beyond a simple adventure and becomes something more. The original idea was for a book that might have been, at most, 30k words. About 120 pages. The first book in the series clocked in at 75k words.

Suddenly I had something real in my hands, not just a little piece of fluff that I could pat myself on the back for having written, but an actual novel with a story, twists and turns along the way, that was building towards something even bigger. It was in that moment that my limitations began to fall away and my horizons expanded. It didn’t just have to be for me, it didn’t just have to be a pastime to fiddle with when there wasn’t anything else to do. I was working on my future.

But there was still one more lesson to learn and it was going to be the toughest so far.

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And Yet I Keep Coming Back: The Martian Empire Trilogy [Part 2]

It’s not uncommon for writers to play things safe with their characters, giving them easy obstacles to overcome and setting them up as dream characters that all the readers want to be. It’s not uncommon, but it’s often very boring. Playing things safe means that the story’s usually not very tense or dramatic and the characters end up being flat caricatures or simply reader avatars. When you want to get serious about writing a story, you’ve got to make your characters suffer a little bit. Knock them around, give them something they really have to fight to overcome, give them flaws that cause them to make mistakes. Your characters are tough, don’t baby them.

This was the lesson I learned that took me from just tooling around in Word for fun and taking the first step towards becoming a serious author. Now, let’s be fair: a straightforward adventure story with fun characters is fine, but even those have obstacles along the way and the better authors find ways to make you question whether the characters are going to make it through or not. Even Indiana Jones came very close to being crushed to death by a trap and you really wondered just how he could possibly make it out alive. He does, of course, because they made more movies, but at the time you’re not thinking about that. So, you’re presented with two options: write well enough that your readers aren’t thinking about just how easy things are for your main characters or just laying into them so much that things are never easy. For the Martian Empire Trilogy, I went with the latter.

Instead of Kara [the main character] going on a fun adventure, things get dark. Her situation is actually pretty bad and she even considers just ending it all when things take a particularly nasty turn. Fate intervenes, of course, because otherwise the book would have been pretty short. But even when things get better, Kara is involved in an accident while searching through the ruins of city and winds up breaking her leg. I won’t go on, but bad things keep happening. That’s not necessarily how you’ll want to do things, and I’m not even sure that that was really the best way for my own story to go, but that was the lesson I learned and I ran with it. Kara really got beat up pretty bad, but she survived, because deep down she had inner strength and resolve that allowed her to roll with the punches and not give up even when things were at their worst.

But maybe she doesn’t, maybe she gives up somewhere along the way and that opens up a whole host of new opportunities for the story. There are no hard and fast rules for how your characters will react or how their arcs will end, because that’s all down to the kind of story you want to write. The one important thing to keep in mind is that there’s more to your characters than writing the people you always wanted to be.

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And Yet I Keep Coming Back: The Martian Empire Trilogy [Part 1]

Let’s be clear about one thing here: My Martian Empire Trilogy is not good. It isn’t. I weep whenever I think about it because so much of the writing is just so painfully horrid and I had so many high-minded [but dumb] ideals I wanted to inject into it but ultimately failed at this because I had no idea what I was doing. Yet I keep coming back to it, thinking that maybe it’s not really as a bad as I remember it being. It’s nostalgia, you know?

Rewind to the heady days of high school. I had it in my head to try my hand at writing. A few short stories came first, just little experimental stories that were more about expanding my ability as a writer than actually telling a story. They’re not that great either, but I made most of them over the course of a few days, maybe a week, so it’s not like I had some huge time investment. But I wanted to go beyond those little stories, I wanted to write something big, something that would take time to craft and at least a few hours to read.

From this sprouted The Ruins of the Earth, a quaint little post-apocalyptic adventure about a girl who digs through old ruins looking for things to sell. She meets a boy. They have an adventure. They find treasure. The story ends. That might have been the true end of it, but I started talking with a friend about my story and about writing stories in general. Things got in-depth, I started getting ideas. The current story was pure Pollyanna tripe. Safe and secure, good kids having fun in the future and going on all the cool adventures that you never got to as a kid. Nothing bad happened.

Then I realized it was fun to torture my characters a little bit.

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