Category Archives: Backwards Compatible

Backwards Compatible – Part 7: Double Vision

[Note: It’s been almost two years since the last installment of this series. Since there’s been something of a resurgence of The Backwards Mask lately, I think it deserves a continuation. This series was meant to inform folks of the odd experience of writing my first novel, and this part explains some of the confusion surrounding it.]

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Fun Fact: Foreigner’s hit “Urgent” was an oft-repeated song on my writing playlist for this book.

To recap, I found myself with the opportunity to complete a trilogy that had been started by another author, Paul Brunette. This new book had to pull double duty as both the conclusion of a trilogy, wrapping up the loose ends set up in the first two books, as well as a standalone novel since years had passed since the previous volume in the series.

I finally had the dark counterpart for to challenge my antagonist, and the stage was set for a final showdown between the two them. Development of the manuscript continued as I finally began to find traction with each character. Many of them were inherited from the previous books, so it took a while for them to really speak to me, and for me to make them my own. Everything just sort of clicked.

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Full speed ahead, Colonel Sanders!

 

Some of the most intense writing sessions I’ve ever had occurred during this time. Understand, I’m a pretty slow writer. Maybe not GRRM slow, but I’m lucky to write 500-750 words in an hour when I’m really on it. Once during this time, I wrote more than 13,000 words, with minimal errors, in a session lasting only a little more than three hours. That goes to show how dialed in I was to the character and the stories.

It was so strong…(How strong was it?)

It was so strong…that a character I fully intended to kill off in an escape attempt utterly defied me. I tried several ways to kill this character and nothing worked. She survived until the end of the story. (I’ll leave you guessing which one it was.)

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A life of its own, indeed.

At this point, the manuscript was about 80% done, and it was pretty long already. Still, everything was coming together. I knew what needed to happen. Now I just needed to get it down on paper. And that’s when it happened…

Paul Brunette’s version of The Backwards Mask surfaced online, on a fan fiction site. Neither I nor Marc Miller had any clue that it existed. As far as we knew, it had been discussed before Game Designer’s Workshop closed its doors in the ’90s, but never written.

But there it was, staring us in the face. Worse, (for me, at least) it was complete. Suddenly all the work I had put into the project seemed in jeopardy. I was an outsider to the series, and my book wasn’t finished. Here was a manuscript, by the original author, that was done and ready to go. Further, I was afraid that fans of Traveller or the first two Brunette novels would see his version as the ‘real’ version, and mine as some sort of weird exercise in fan fiction, or relegated to ‘rogue’ status. You know, like Never Say Never Again, the Bond film that doesn’t ‘count.’

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Not exactly what I had mind…

Thankfully, Marc Miller didn’t kick me to the curb. Instead, he made the decision to make both versions of The Backwards Mask available to the public. So you see, that is why there are two versions of the book floating around out there.

Naturally, this has led some to ask me: Did you take any cues or inspiration from the Brunette version? The answer is simple – no.

I made it a point not to read any of the other version until months after I had already turned my finished manuscript into Marc Miller. Even then, I got a few chapters in before I decided to read no more. To this day, I’ve never read it to completion. Not because it’s bad, but because it is uniquely weird to me as a reader.

It took me about three years to write The Backwards Mask. If you’ve read this blog series from the beginning you can see that there were many obstacles I had to overcome as far as finding a direction, guessing at the previous author’s intent, and generally trying to deliver the best book I could. After all that, reading the other version was like looking into some Twilight Zone/alternate timeline where I hadn’t put in hours upon hours exploring the mindset of the characters, plotting out action sequences, or rewriting whole tracks of dialogue.

I never realized how much ownership I had put into my manuscript until I began reading someone else’s take on the material. It’s a kind of weirdness that only affects me, but I just couldn’t read it. I still can’t. Even though I didn’t create Coeur, Dropkick, Crowbar, and Deep Six, I still feel the connection I forged with them years ago. Writing the final lines of the last chapter was bittersweet. Coeur’s frame of mind closely mirrored mine as the story came to a close.

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“Then again, all good things must come to an end.”

So now there were two versions of The Backwards Mask slated for release, and we were on the countdown to launch. And next time, we’ll talk about my scramble to get everything ready for publication.

[Check out The Backwards Mask on Kindle.]


Backwards Compatible – Part 6: Enter The Fox

So, after recovering from the single greatest bout of writer’s block I’ve ever had, I had to dust myself off and get back on the horse. During that time in limbo, however, when the main plot of the novel was on hold, I decided to write some sequences out of order.

Normally I don’t do that since it makes continuity pretty tricky to maintain. Still, I wanted at least some words on paper while I tried to sort out the real quandary of the A-story. In one of these sequences, I introduced the primary antagonist of the book, Captain Gaylon Fox.

The Man Himself.

Not even gonna lie, this is my dream casting for the character: Jason Issacs.

Most of the time, villains are more interesting to me, literarily, than heroes. I knew he would be key the story, so this was my chance to show the reader what this particular villain was made of. To be an effective nemesis to the main character, Captain Coeur D’Esprit, he needed have certain things in common with her. I wanted him to be a shadowy double of her, like the dark side of the same coin.

The previous novel, To Dream of Chaos, which I did not write, gave me the perfect set up. In it, the crew of Hornet faced off against ship of the Solee Navy, Royal Vengeance, near a gas giant. During the battle, Vengeance was critically damaged and, in an act of desperation, uses its Jump drive to get away without first getting to a safe distance.

Now, for those unfamiliar with Traveller canon, Jumping while in a gravity well is only slightly less horrible than crossing the streams in Ghostbusters. The ship might be instantly destroyed, or never emerge from Jump space, or appear parsecs away from where they meant to go, and be stranded.

Crossing the streams.

I love this plan. I’m excited to be a part of it.

A situation like that was one of Coeur’s defining moments, which led to some serious survivor’s guilt when only 4 crewmembers (including her) survived that stunt out of a crew of 100. If that weren’t enough, Royal Vengeance returns at the end of To Dream of Chaos, and is once again repulsed, and nearly destroyed.

Now that it was my time at the helm of the story, I decided that Gaylon Fox had been the Executive Officer on Royal Vengeance during that deadly encounter. When his incompetent Captain is killed during Coeur’s initial attack, he was the one who made the call to Jump. Subsequently, he became captain of the ship, and had been jonesing for a rematch ever since.

It felt only natural that Royal Vengeance should play a part in the third act of the New Era trilogy. And now I had a villain who had been in a similar situation as the hero, and forced to make some of the same hard decisions. Where the hero used those horrific events of her past to make something positive of herself, Gaylon Fox has gone done a darker road, using his experiences instead to focus his ambition like a laser to further his own agenda.

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Nope!

Having said that, I didn’t want this guy to be a complete mustache-twirler like Snidley Whiplash or Dirk Dastardly. So, I made him competent at what he does, fearless (though not reckless), polite, and coldly self-controlled. Besides that, he often rewards initiative, and inspires service and loyalty in his subordinates. While he’s no saint, I built him so that he might be viewed as a hero from his own side of the war.

To me, those are the best kind of villains, the ones who  ̶  even if it’s just for a second  ̶  you want to win. After the first scenes with Captain Fox, I knew that’s who I had on my hands. He would naturally be the unstoppable force to Coeur’s immovable object.

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Like that, only with more lasers.

What would happen when they inevitably collided? I would have to wait to find out.

Next time on Backwards Compatible…canon gets murky when another version of The Backwards Mask surfaces.

[Check out The Backwards Mask on Kindle.]


Backwards Compatible – Part 5: All Stop

After an incredible start, I settled into getting the characters on the move towards their goal. While there were stopovers on their journey, with a short action sequence on the planet Phoebus, I was already planning the book’s first major combat sequence.  It was going to involve both the spacer/Navy types aboard the Hornet and the Marines doing what they do best.  Everybody needed to have a moment where they did their part.

There were a few things I wanted out of this extended combat scene besides just some Michael Bay-esque ‘splosions. First, I wanted the main character, Coeur D’Esprit, to go up against someone who was as good or better than she was. In the previous books, Coeur’s plans and strategies always seemed to work exactly the way she wanted them to, and it seemed that her enemies were never truly up to the challenge. Since I was at the helm this time, I wanted her to go up against someone competent. To me, the true test of a military commander is when their best-laid plans completely unravel and they have to come up with something else on the fly.

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I love it when a plan comes together…and then goes horribly, horribly wrong.

Second, I wanted the aftermath of the battle to tear team the apart. I wanted it to be a Pyrrhic victory which left the characters with more questions than answers and more mental scars than physical ones.  There needed to be a little dissension in the ranks, some internal strife, and this sequence was going to pry those cracks in the team wide open.

The result was the assault on the Lambda-3 asteroid base. The Hornet, which is a converted trade ship, must duel it out in space with a mysterious warship while the Marines confront enemy forces inside the asteroid itself.  My chapters tend to be about 20-30 pages, on average. This sequence, found in Chapter 7, was originally 96 pages. Even when I broke it up into two chapters, those two are still the longest of the book.

I managed to hit all the points I wanted to achieve. We had the Ithklur Marines disobeying orders and abandoning comrades in the field. We had Coeur freeze up when it seemed that she had been outfoxed by her opponent. Everyone is stunned when it is revealed who the enemy actually is (if you haven’t read it, I won’t spoil it for you).  This becomes a central factor in the disintegration of the most important romantic relationship in the book, Dropkick and Snapshot.

So, mission accomplished.  The characters won, but aren’t exactly happy about it. I briefly left the crew of the Hornet and picked up on another storyline for a chapter. Things had become pretty intense, so it was necessary to have a ‘cooling off’ period.

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What he said.

When I came back to the main characters, things had gone from bad to worse. Trusts have been broken. People are isolating themselves and dealing with their own mental demons.  The good doctor, Orit Takagawa (remember her from the Prologue?) is tending to a Hiver patient. The alien had been horribly treated and tortured by its captors. It likely possesses information that would be vital to the Reformation Coalition, but now it may never regain consciousness.

As she sits in bedside vigil over the Hiver, she is strongly reminded of the loss of her friend, Cicero, a loss that carries with it a crippling emotional impact. During this scene, I wrote this line:

“For several moments she grappled with untangling the knot of emotions that swirled around her head like a galaxy of pain.”

The next line after that is simply the sound effect of : “Bleep, Bleep.” Orit’s instruments are letting her know her patient is waking up.

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We even have the machine that goes ping!

There was about seven months separating those two lines. As soon as I finished the ‘galaxy of pain’ line, I was hit by perhaps the worst case of writer’s block I’ve ever had. I suddenly looked up and thought to myself, “Now what?” I tried moving forward dozens of times, but something just wasn’t right. Nothing worked to my satisfaction. I would sit there at my desk, hands on the keyboard, and it felt like I was trying to push through a brick wall.

After months of trying and failing to push the story forward, I resolved that the best thing to do was to move forward with the Hiver waking up. There had been a whole other interlude I kept trying to put in there before that happened, but apparently my muse wasn’t having any of it.

Looking back, it seems like I probably should have arrived at that solution a heck of a lot sooner. Live and learn, right? Even today, when I happen to read that scene, I always draw a line in the margins between those two lines to remind me of the vast time gap there, what caused it, and how I overcame it.

Next up, “Enter the Bad Guy.”

[Check out the Backwards Mask on Kindle.]


Backwards Compatible – Part 4: Cave Aculem

So, there I was…with the idea for a novel burning in my brain. Unlike the dozens of other concepts I had come up with and discarded previously, this one satisfied all the conditions of the existing universe, the previous two novels, and was a story that made me excited.  The starship central to the story was the RCS Hornet, which carried the Latin motto: “Cave Aculem.” Beware the sting. Too late, I had already been bitten by the bug. I couldn’t wait to get started.

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Okay, hum the Mission Impossible theme. Ready? Go!

I had a three-day weekend coming up, so I cleared my schedule so I could concentrate on lighting the fuse on this thing. I sat down at my keyboard and let loose.  The opening scene with August Delpero and his ex-wife, Dr. Orit Takagawa, flowed from my fingers.

In it, Delpero is the former CEO of a megacorporation, imprisoned for his attempted genocide on the Reformation Coalition’s alien benefactors, the Hivers. Orit has come to visit in the hopes of sorting out her complicated feelings surrounding him. She loved him, truly loved him, but Delpero used her as an unwitting pawn in his scheme, which resulted both in their divorce and the agonizing death of her Hiver friend, Cicero.

I was almost to the point where something unexpected happens when my phone rang. It was a friend of mine who needed help moving out of her apartment.  She had until midnight the next day to be out. Even though I was on fire at the keyboard, I stopped in mid-sentence and went to help her move. Being Texas, it was boiling hot, of course, with near 100% humidity. We worked until almost 3:00 in the morning, but finally we got the last load out. Whew…

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African or European?

Even though I had lost a day, I didn’t let that deter me. During the routine of carrying boxes down two flights of stairs and up three, my mind was still chomping at the bit to get on with the story. I got up early the next day and picked up right where I had left off. Pretty soon the epilogue was done and I was on to Chapter 1. There I introduced the two main characters and gave them their marching orders. Before they can get to it, however, they receive a frantic message from Orit telling them about that unexpected turn of events at the prison.

This kicked off the first action sequence of the book, so my pace increased. I was constantly blasting the first Pirates of the Caribbean soundtrack, particularly “Will and Elizabeth” and “He’s a Pirate.” To this day when I look at those sections, those are the songs that go through my head.

In all, I wrote more than 20,000 words in two days, which is approaching ‘ludicrous speed’ for a slowpoke like me.  It was rough to be sure, but the emotion that I wanted was there. It just all sort of clicked.

So, just like that I had the prologue and the first two chapters on file. A naïve part of me believed that this level of speed and productivity might endure, or that it would be smooth sailing from there on out.

Silly, silly me.

Little did I know that soon after I would hit a creative brick wall.

[Check out the Backwards Mask on Kindle.]

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Iceberg, dead ahead!


Backwards Compatible – Part 3: Like Getting Punched By Batman

A quick note before we begin…

Normally I try to keep things upbeat and positive here. This time around, I’m going to offer some criticism, which could be taken as negative. Understand that these are just my personal opinions, and that they are stated here to show you where I picked up on The Backwards Mask. If you are a fan of Paul Brunette’s novels (or are Paul himself), you might want to skip this one.

Still with me? Okay, let’s continue.

I admit that I found the first two novels of the New Era trilogy rather ‘meh.’  Game-based fiction is notoriously hit or miss. To me, game-based fiction should not just be a shallow commercial for the game world it represents as much as a good story that just so happens to take place in that setting. I mean, you can find some of the best and worst examples of game-based fiction in the Dragonlance setting alone. The core books (Chronicles and Legends) are brilliant, and some of my all-time favorites. Outside of Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman? Well…

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Results may vary.

So, the first book of the TNE trilogy, The Death of Wisdom, seemed a bit bland, along with the characters and story. There were moments that were really engaging, but they were few and far between. It was not the worst thing I had ever read (far from it), but it was largely on the forgettable side. The premise of the book seemed like it should be far weightier than it came across. They were talking about the possible collapse of the Reformation Coalition, one of the only beacons of human civilization left in an otherwise dark and twisted universe. The characters just seemed rather nonchalant about the whole deal.

The next book, To Dream of Chaos, was better than the first one. It still left much to be desired in my opinion, but the characters seemed much more alive.  Most of the things that bothered me about this book were those staples of the setting itself (more on that later). There were some strange curveballs in there that left me scratching my head in places, but on the whole it was a improvement. It unfortunately left off on a mild cliffhanger.

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What do you think of the story so far, McKayla?

That’s where I stepped in.

As I stated in Part 2, I had no idea where the story was supposed to go from there. I had some ideas, sure, but nothing unified. It was a just a loose mosaic of vignettes and scenes in my head. I knew that the third installment really needed to up the ante, and bring together the struggles of the first and second volumes.  While I couldn’t change the characters, or their names, I could try to make them my own. The same went for the story. It had to be one that interested me or else it would never hold the reader’s interest. I pondered this during my months of research into the setting, and my endless re-readings of the first two novels.

I remember when I finally had my “Eureka!” moment. I had created, and discarded, a dozen ideas of how I could do justice to the story, of how it all might work. Apparently my subconscious had been chewing away at the problems I faced, because when the story came to me, it was all at once. Zowie! It was as though the Adam West Batman had finally knocked some sense into me.

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Holy bolt of unforeseen lucidity, Batman!

There was the story, all laid out in front of me in a strange moment of clarity. Now all I had to do was get it on paper.

Should be simple, right?

[Check out the Backwards Mask on Kindle.]


Backwards Compatible – Part 2: Just a Few Hurdles

When we last left off, our author was tasked with reigniting a milieu that had long since grown cold. We also secretly switched his coffee with new Folger’s crystals. Let see what happens (particularly since he doesn’t even drink coffee)!

Okay, so there were some immediate challenges facing me on this project, which I will outline here in a conveniently number format.

1.) Lack of Clear Direction

When we started, all we had to go on was the name (The Backwards Mask) and the existing cover art in black and white. There was no indication of where the storyline was going from the second book or how Paul Brunette intended to wrap up the trilogy.

After much debate and back and forth, Marc and I decided to create the new story as he put it “out of whole cloth.” I scoured the setting books and the two novels to figure out the core of the third story. In many ways it was harder than writing one from scratch. I needed to write a novel that was, if you’ll forgive the term, backwards compatible with the other books. At the same time, the series had been fallow for over a decade. While you could still find the first two novels in used book stores, Amazon and eBay, they weren’t readily available. That meant that the third story would need to complete the trilogy AND work well as a standalone story.

So how does one go about doing that?

Any which way you can

Whoah, thanks for the assist, Philo and Clyde!

2.) Literary Baggage

Since I was stepping in after two novels, I inherited characters and storylines that were not my own. It was not unlike a comic book author who takes over a title after the previous writer’s run. You want to tell your story, but you don’t to break faith with what has gone before too much, even if it’s terribly inconvenient. Sure, you can wave the ‘retcon’ wand around if you want, but that can work against you if you give your readers too much of a disconnect.

Much of the crew of the aboard RCS Hornet did not have given names. Instead, they were known by their taccode, or callsign. Even though it was part of the property, the excessive use of callsigns felt a little artificial to me, and seemed like a throwback to Top Gun.  I understand that many pilots in the armed forces (in real life) do use their monikers in place of their real names, but this wasn’t just limited to pilots. Practically every character involved with the Reformation Coalition had to have one, seemingly from the highest commanding officer to the professors at the academy.  Did the janitors and the mailmen have them in the Coalition as well? When a character’s mother, a politician or someone outside of the military addresses them, did they use their callsign then as well?

Negative, Ghostrider.  Clearly, I would have to fill in the blanks in some places, and explain away things that didn’t make sense in others. In short, I needed to write my way around certain elements to get free and clear to tell my story.

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What do you mean Whizbang and Bonzo have no real names? Seriously?

3.) Inconsistent Background Material

Besides all of the story elements, characters and history that I had to account for in the third installment, I had to contend with something else. The novels were not entirely consistent with the game books of the setting. There was some definite rule bending when it came to ships and how they operated. Even the game books varied at times from the ‘classic’ canon of the rest of the Traveller universe.

Worse yet, the game books themselves were not consistent with each other. One of the New Era books couldn’t decide who the Empress of Solee was (the leader of the bad guys) within its own pages. Was she an ex-naval officer who used her expertise to overthrow a planetary government and crown herself Queen, or had she been born a noble, inherited her throne by nefarious means, but had no real military expertise whatsoever?

There was also a ship named the Ashtabula, which was pretty much like the Enterprise in Star Trek (any of the non-Scott Bakula ones at any rate).  In one place it said that there were only two people alive who had served aboard the ship before she disappeared. In another place it mentions that one of the intelligence types attached to the government (who was still alive) had once served aboard her. And on…and on…

This left me on shaky ground. I couldn’t trust the previous novels to be entirely faithful to the setting, and I couldn’t trust the setting to be faithful to itself.

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But then…how do you know?

Once I had a solid look at the wall I was expected scale, it suddenly seemed much taller than I had originally thought.

But this was me…not giving up. *Cue the 80s inspirational power chords.”

[Check out the Backwards Mask on Kindle.]


Backwards Compatible – Part 1: Genesis

You knew it was coming…the inevitable post about my novel. This is, in fact, the first in a series of posts explaining how my novel came about.  The road from its inception to execution was a long and twisting one.

Well, let’s start at the beginning.

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No caption required, really.

In the mid-90s, Games Designers’ Workshop (hitherto referred to as GDW) launched their expansion to the popular Traveller RPG universe, entitled “Traveller: The New Era.” Unlike previous milieus of the game, which centered around a massive star-spanning Empire, this one was post-apocalyptic. Now I’m not talking your run-of-the-mill Mad Max/Tina Turner post apocalypse. No, this was devastation on an interstellar scale.

In the time period of The New Era, the great Empire is toast, laid waste thanks to an insidious, self-aware computer virus that makes Skynet look like shy and retiring by comparison. The virus (appropriately named “Virus”) has ravaged the Empire and its citizens, leaving trillions dead in sector after sector of smashed and ruined worlds.

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Geez, I’m bad, but not that bad.

Yet not all hope is lost. There are little islands of civilization among the vast ocean of cemetery worlds and boneyards that struggle to recover in the wake of the worst calamity in all of human history. It’s an uphill climb for the survivors to avoid a descent into barbarism and darkness.  If that weren’t enough, Virus is still out there, waiting to finish what it started. Civilization itself hangs by a very thin thread.

Pretty bleak stuff, huh? Well, many fans of Traveller thought the same thing, including yours truly. The epic scope of the previous settings shrank dramatically. Instead of focusing on an empire of 11,000 star systems, the new setting introduced the Reformation Coalition, a small polity with a little over 20. It was a controversial move and one that would divide fans of the ‘classic’ Traveller universe from those of the New Era to this day.

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Welcome to the new age, to the new age.
I’m radioactive, radioactive.

To promote this new setting, GDW added a trilogy of science fiction novels to their lineup to explore the setting in detail.  Paul Brunette was chosen to tackle this project.  He produced The Death of Wisdom and To Dream of Chaos. Before the third novel − The Backwards Mask − could be commissioned, however, GDW went out of business. The New Era trilogy went into limbo.

Years passed, until I happened to meet Marc Miller (the creator of the Traveller universe) at a convention.  At the time I was working as a writer for a game company. Though I was just a fan, Marc took the time out of his busy schedule to sit and talk with me. There was a great richness to the Traveller universe that I felt lent itself to fiction, and Marc agreed. After the convention, we started an email dialogue where we discussed possible Traveller fiction ideas. It was during this time that Marc dusted off the unfinished TNE trilogy and offered me the chance to write the third installment.

Of course, I jumped at it.

[Check out the Backwards Mask on Kindle.]