A Role-Playing Game Can Serve as Series Bible
A beta reader for The Faith Machine suggested I develop the setting into an RPG setting. And I had most of the work done. Not only did I have all of the world-building for the first novel, when I had an agent she had me outline two more books (for the magic words, ‘stand along novel with series potential’). So I had two more sets of adversaries and settings. Not to mention, notes for possible short stories and comic scripts I hope to finish once The Faith Machine builds an audience. I took two weeks to spill all the notes into a single document. As an unexpected benefit, organizing this information allowed me to see inconsistencies and gaps that needed to be fixed or filled in.
For example: I’d been using Card as spy slang for psychic, Hand for the team, and Player for team leader. When writing up the Spy Jargon page it occurred to me: The player’s boss should be called the Dealer. The agency they work for is the Table. A government that finances one or more Tables is called a House. And the entire psychic espionage community is The Strip. I wouldn’t have though of this if I hadn’t written up the role-playing game. Even if I don’t make a role-playing setting for future projects, organizing this information in a series bible has benefits.
To Outline the Hell out of a Story Before I Write It
At 12 pages, I thought I’d outlined my first novel. Oh the ignorance! There were a few plot points, sure. It touched on most phases of the Hero’s Journey, of course. But it was hardly an outline. It fell flat in the middle, no second act to speak of. and complications had to be thrown in to inflate a novella length word count to a full novel.
When I finished outlining The Faith Machine I had 77 pages of notes, one page per scene, one scene per chapter. Now that’s an outline. I kept it in a loose-leaf notebook, so I could easily rearrange, remove, or replace pages if necessary. Each page loaded with bullet points; the opening, end, and critical plot points and character beats at the very least. Lines of dialog, things to foreshadow, foreshadowing to payoff, pop culture references to hide. Every scene modeled after a function in a programming language; a few things come in, a few things come out, a few global variables might be updated, but always keep it simple. If a scene was doing too much work, making too many contributions to the plot, that scene needed to be broken up into two or more scenes.
This wasn’t a ‘fill ‘er up and get ready to write’ situation. When I’d outlined to the end I carried that outline with me everywhere I went. Whenever I had time I’d open it up and add details, thinking about who characters physically moved from setting to setting, edited out the redundant, fleshed out the skeletal. For every character got a continuity pass where I focused on what they were doing and where they were. I was revising before writing.
When it came time to type out the prose, I’d been thinking about these scenes for months. Some of them dropped right out of my brain and into the page. The scenes, and thus the plot, needed very little work going forward. Even after workshops, beta reads, and editorial.
I Discovered My Writing Style, At Least For Now
I set out to write my first novel, Picking Up the Ghost, with literary intentions, drawing influence from the American classics. Maybe I missed the target, maybe I produced old-fashioned prose that doesn’t sell. Whatever it was, it wasn’t a hit.
So I swung as far as I could in the other direction; Less is more. I removed the purple toner from my printer, tightened up scenes to 4-5 pages tops, put down the Hero’s Journey, and picked up the screenwriting guide Save the Cat for my outline. Ultimately, I ended up with a more honest style of prose, drawing influence from TV, film, and especially comics. No longer seeking the approval of some unknown and unknowable literary judge, my writing is now tight and visual, and my plot moves more than it talks. After much thought and research, I adopted two core rules to write by; the detached observer and dialog cues over dialog tags.
The detached observer is a form of third-person, limited narrator who can be in the POV character’s head, but chooses not to. Like a camera held over the character’s shoulder, he reports everything he sees and hears, without opinion. I only break this rule to offer insight into the POV character’s thoughts if I absolutely have to. Keeping the narrator out of the character’s head keeps the reader in the scene instead of inside the character; remembering or day dreaming.
Dialog tags like “he growled” or “she purred” are out of fashion. Writers can still get away with a “shout” or “whisper” but I took it one more step and cut as many as I could. Even “said,” especially “said.” If a character says something, they have to do something, even something small, as an excuse to drop their name in the narrative next to their dialog. Just like Ben & Jerry’s ice cream hits you on two fronts; taste and texture, dialog cues let you layer actions over words. Instead of “No,” Ainia threatened. I’ll write “No.” Ainia cracked her knuckles, and I can omit ‘said’ since it’s implied. Now something’s happening beyond lips flapping.
The combination of these techniques pushes the story out of the heads and moths of the characters and into their hands and actions. And actions speak louder than words, Tone shouted.
How to Write Superhero Stories Without Superheroes, Kinda
The Faith Machine was also inspired by a life spent reading comics. As part of the Watchmen generation, I grew up demanding my superheroes be strained through a filter of plausibility. I didn’t want any of that silly Silver or Bronze Age aesthetic in our power fantasies. We were telling ourselves, “This is how superheroes could really work.” In hindsight, the Modern Age of superheroes was built to answer question, “How can I justify the superhero power fantasies I love?”
With The Faith Machine, flipped realism around and asked, “If superheroes materialized, manifesting as a new power on the scene, how would the old powers react?” My answer was informed by the politics of the early 2010s when two grassroots political movements emerged; Occupy Wall Street, and the Tea Party. Both new powers on the scene, how did the old powers react? Oppression or exploitation.
Occupy Wall Street was persecuted by the law and misrepresented by the mainstream media as radicals. Oppression. The Tea Party was fooled into thinking they were welcome by politicians who took their money and their votes and gave lip service to fiscal responsibility in return. Exploitation.
Calling back to the First Thing: The Intelligence Community is often called upon to maintain the status quo for America’s elite. If superpowers were to manifest spontaneously among the population, you bet they’d be put on the job to draft all the ones they could, and eliminate the ones they couldn’t. That informed the backstory of the novel.
While I enjoy the Marvel movies, they’re drawing on decades of comics’ lore. When this wave recedes, there will be post-modern stories like this one putting a new spin on the old tropes.
Cold War Psychic Warfare Programs
The Faith Machine was inspired by The Men Who Stare at Goats, Jon Ronson’s book about US efforts to develop psychic phenomena for military and intelligence applications. Goats opens with the First Earth Battalion, a program under the US Army and DIA. Commissioned to blend mystic concepts from New Age philosophy and traditional military culture to produce ‘Warrior Monks.’ By their own account, veterans of the battalion developed clairvoyance, stealth, and the titular remote slaying of farm animals. As a comic book guy, this got me thinking about how the Army and the US intelligence community would develop and manage their own super humans, and what would happen to them after the Cold War.
The Cold War was a weird time. Every advantage was explored, and much material was thrown at the wall to see if it would stick. The First Earth Battalion was but one program the Department of Defense financed under the umbrella of the Stargate Project, established in 1978 and expanded to consolidate similar programs in 1991. While Stargate focused on powers of the mind, MKULTRA developed mind control chemicals under the CIA, and the US Air Force conducted Project Blue Book to study UFOs.
Spies being spies, much of the information about these programs were purged before declassification in 1995 (MKULTRA in 1971, Blue Book in 1969). Enough information survives for me to build my setting around, allowing me to do the Tim Powers thing; draw from history and build on top of it without contradiction.
How much water can be drawn from this well? I filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the CIA for a single document on the Soviet psychic warfare program. For $10 they sent me a DVD with over 12,000 declassified documents about Stargate. That’s a lot of water.