Critique #16

December 15th, 2012

This scene comes to us courtesy of M.H. Mead’s Taking the Highway of the Detroit Next series, which just released on December 1. I’ve read it and the other Detroit Next novels, and they’re pretty awesome near-future cyberpunk. Available from all online retailers.

Setup: Taking the Highway takes place in near-future Detroit. In this scene, detective Andre LaCroix has been temporarily suspended from the police force, pending an investigation. However, his partner, Sofia Gao, tells him they got a tip from an informant that will break open their case and vindicate Andre. The informant has set a meeting in one of Detroit’s abandoned neighborhoods. They have no choice but to go. We have some lively dialog and detailed description as they drive to the meeting place, and then…


“I just want to see if there’s anybody in the area if we need backup.”

“Backup?” Her voice shaded between amusement and scorn. Andre understood. If she were on her own, without a disgraced partner in the car, then maybe she could ask for some. As it was, unless things went very shitty very fast, they were on their own.

Sofia spun the wheel around a sharp corner with an obstructed bend and stood on the brakes.

The active and passive restraints held Andre tight against the passenger seat, but his head still bobbed forward. Across the narrow road, two derelict cars, burnt-out minivans from thirty years ago, stood nose to nose, their side-mirrors sticking out like handles. [Good setup of the scene here, minimal but evocative of the feeling of being trapped in an ambush.]

Sofia swore and was about to move to reverse when a gunshot slapped her window, fogging it white-gray in an instant. [I really like this.] She and Andre ducked down, fighting their seatbelts for room just as the window sagged and fell away, followed by the one on Andre’s side.

“Yes, backup!” Andre yelled over the thrum coming from his implant. Sofia must have triggered the alert and a single, deep note pooled at the base of his skull. Designed to resonate with the hypothalamus, the signal acted like a battle cry, triggering an adrenal surge from the nervous system. Fine if you were on the receiving end, but the person triggering it was usually panicked enough.

Sofia fumbled to draw her weapon.

Andre grabbed her wrist. “Get us out of here!”

Rounds impacted the doors with ineffectual thumps. The lightweight memory plastic between the panels was designed to absorb and disperse crash energy, but it had the added benefit of making the doors nearly bulletproof. [This sentence slows down the urgency a bit. You could probably say something simpler, trusting your audience to sort out the rest. Also, couch it in Andre’s perceptions. Something like: They’d told Andre at the Academy that memory plastic made doors bulletproof. He was glad they’d been correct.] Sofia reached for the shift lever again and flinched when several rounds entered from each side and blew out the rear windows. She ducked in the seat and pushed the accelerator to the floor panel.

The swoop of elation Andre felt as they surged backward was as short as their movement. They hadn’t gone three meters before they were thrown against their seats and ground to a skidding stop, the left rear of their car now raised off the ground by whatever they’d hit. Fire from the right impacted the windshield. The slight tilt forward pushed them against their seatbelts and left them hanging, helpless. They’d hit hard, but not hard enough to trigger the airweb system. [Great paragraph!]
Andre tore off the restraints and kicked his door open. He nodded to Sofia as she freed herself and followed him. [Is she unable or unwilling to get out her own side, which would be faster? And if they’re being shot at from both sides, wouldn’t they be in the best cover possible by staying in the bulletproof car until it becomes a necessity for them to leave it?] Using the open door for cover, they scrambled out and around the rear of the car. Both of them had drawn their weapons and crouched against the ruined rear bumper of the Banshee where it angled up and onto the wreck of yet another junker, this one unburnt. Everything about the car—except the tires—looked like it had been rescued from a junkyard. Who put new tires on a car like that? [Not sure this observation is necessary. It wasn’t behind them before; it’s pretty obvious somebody rolled it behind them. Things like this can drag down an action scene. It’s not bad, because you keep it brief and tie it into the narrator’s perceptions, but consider whether it’s needed at all.]

Sofia was breathing hard. [“Panting” might be a stronger, more active term here.] A cut near her right eye trailed a thick line of blood down her cheek. Fat drops fell from the line of her jaw. “Where the hell did this thing come from?”

Andre risked a look and saw the driver side door hanging open, a glimpse of something dark and lean running farther along the street they’d turned in from. She ran like a panther, black hair flying, disappearing around a corner. “I’d say that’s the lid on the pot.”

Gunfire continued to impact the car—cars now—but it had slowed. The three-round bursts had stopped and the attackers, whoever they were, were using single shots, conserving ammunition. Or, Andre thought grimly, trying to make us think they’re low on ammo. He touched Sofia’s cheek and held up his fingers. “You’re bleeding.”

“Nicked by the windshield glass,” she said impatiently. “I think those are Ingram nine millimeter, the longer barrels for accuracy.”

Andre was glad Sofia’s mind was still working, analyzing, but her assessment was depressing. Nobody wanted the gunpowder shooters anymore. Everyone wanted light and quiet and odor-free, so Ingrams were everywhere on the black market and clips were cheap. These guys could shoot all night.

[You’ve got a great little action sequence here. I think the pacing is very well-done, and you have an excellent blend of urgency and dialogue. When all I can do is figure out a minor tweak or two, it means you’ve done a good job. Thanks for submitting your scene!]

Anatomy of a Sequence, Part 4

October 8th, 2012

Continuing our series, Angel has just jumped from her boat onto Gwynnie Bartlett’s boat to engage her in less-than-gentlemanly fisticuffs.

[This begins the “Boat Fight” Engagement.] Gwynnie locks the controls to face Angel and defends herself with intelligent, economical moves. The skiff roars on down the waterway toward the busy shipping lanes of the Thames, as the two women battle on the aft deck. Fists and feet fly back and forth. [Stunt 1] Gwynnie has more training but Angel is more durable, which is good because Gwynnie plants a solid kick into her midsection and sends Angel back to crash into the aft deck railing. [Stunt 2]
Gwynnie grabs a gaff and swings it downward. Angel rolls left to avoid the first blow, then right to dodge the second, then sweeps Gwynnie’s feet out from under her. [Stunt 3] They wrestle for control of the gaff as the skiff bumps and bangs at high speed along the edge of a pier. Gwynnie manages to get a superior position and Angel has to devote all her effort to keep the gaff from crushing her throat. [Stunt 4]
Gwynnie grins down at her through bloody lips as she leans her weight on the long haft. “Yer goin’ to die now, bitch.”
Strong, black-gloved hands wrap around Gwynnie’s head and twist it to one side with a sickening crunch. [Stunt 5] Mikio tosses the dead Bartlett sister aside and overboard. Angel lies on the deck, gasping for breath, and glares up at him. “It’s about fucking time.”
He bows. “I did not wish to interfere with your battle. Some consider such an interruption rude and dishonorable.”
“I don’t give a shit about honor.” Angel sits up. Movement overhead catches her eye.
Something is in the sky that shouldn’t be there. It takes her a moment to realize it’s a motorcycle flying toward them, and Gladys Bartlett has just back-flipped off the seat. As her head and shoulders rotate upward, she fires the gun clutched in both hands. [Stunt 6, and one I’m damn proud of!]
Mikio moves with the speed only a cyborg ninja can. He jerks his hand in between Angel’s head and the onrushing bullet and catchesit. [Stunt 7] As Gladys lands on the deck in a combat crouch, her motorcycle crashes into the driver’s station and obliterates it. The cycle’s rear wheel catches Mikio in the back of his head and he goes down. [Stunt 8]
Angel kicks upward and sends Gladys’ gun flying into the Thames.[Stunt 9] Unfazed, Gladys raises both her arms and flexes her wrists. Ten-inch stiletto blades slide out from the bottom of each palm, and she goes for Angel. Angel backpedals. Those blades could be coated with anything, or be hollow and ready to inject who-knows-what in through any scratch. Her foot bumps against the discarded gaff and she flips it up into her hands. [Stunt 10] Gladys backpedals as Angel spins the gaff at her like a quarterstaff. Angel forces her all the way to the aft of the boat before Gladys catches the gaff on one of her blades and cuts it in half. Undaunted, Angel swings the severed handle at her, but Gladys cuts it again to leave Angel holding a few inches of splintered wood. [Stunt 11]
Gladys freezes, her eyes focused on something behind Angel. Angel knows it’s a trick, but then she hears the characteristic shingof metal sliding on metal.
Mikio stands, backlit by the burning wreckage of the motorcycle, holding a katana. She turns back to Gladys, expecting to have to dodge those blades again.
The look on Gladys’ face isn’t one of fear, but of indecision and something that resembles recognition. Angel doesn’t squander the opportunity. She ducks inside Gladys’ guard and drives a forearm into the woman’s throat. Gladys tips back over the rail and drops beneath the cold surface of the Thames. [Stunt 12]
Mikio steps up next to Angel, his sword held at the ready, and watches the waves behind the boat for any sign of Gladys. Angel glances sidelong at him, reassessing her opinion of him. “Nice sword,” she says.
He bows his head forward. A port opens in the back of his neck and he slides the sword back down inside his back alongside his spine. “It is a marvel of modern metallurgy. Flexible enough to bend and twist without hampering my own movements, yet sturdy enough to perform its original functions.”
“My, aren’t we special? I bet it plays hell when you get a shiatsu massage.” Angel looks back into the water. No sign of Gladys. “I think she’s gone. I hit her pretty good.”
“I suspect you are correct. However, we have a new problem to contend with.”
Gladys’ motorcycle ruined the driver’s controls, and she doesn’t know how they’re going to stop the boat’s progress as it roars across the river. The answer becomes apparent as Angel sees they’re heading full-speed toward a huge freighter loaded with containers. Isn’t that just ironic, she thinks. The behemoth can’t stop or change course to avoid them, and they’re helpless to halt the skiff’s progress. She can see the curious heads of the crew peeking over the deck rails. The skiff won’t do much more than cosmetic damage to the heavy freighter, but that’s small consolation to Angel.
“Shit,” she utters for what she hopes will be the last time of the day. “I hope they get us out quickly. That water is fucking cold.”
Mikio nods. “I’m certain they’ll abide by maritime regulations.” He opens the emergency kit affixed to the aft railing and removes the dye pack. “I suggest we stay together.”
“What the fuck ever.” They have only seconds to get off the skiff before it will collide with the freighter. Angel grabs one life preserver and Mikio the other, and they both tumble off the back rail into the water. The shock of the cold takes Angel’s breath away, but that’s mitigated by her getting to watch the skiff’s impact on the massive steel wall of the freighter hull. She’s a little disappointed that it doesn’t explode, but the carbon fiber hull breaks apart into splinters that are swept underneath the foam churning around the freighter. [Stunt 13]
True to Mikio’s prediction, the freighter crew rescues them with a loading crane and one brave asshole who rides it down in a sling. Angel is shivering too much to thank him properly, but resists the urge to feed him his own toes when he grabs a generous handful of her ass while lifting her to safety. She figures he’s earned the grope. [This ends the “Boat Fight” Engagement and the entire Sequence, which consists of four distinct Engagements – Dock Gunfight, Foot Chase, Boat Chase, Boat Fight. Each Engagement has an average of 8 distinct Stunts, some more, some less. The entire Sequence fills a chapter and a half. Any questions?]

Anatomy of a Sequence, Part 3

October 7th, 2012

Continuing from our previous two posts, Angel the bounty hunter is fleeing the Bartlett sisters with the help of her ally, the corporate cyborg ninja Mikio.

[This begins the “Boat Chase” Engagement”.] Sirens fill the air as the police notice the high speed chase and gunfight running through their streets. Two officers on aquabikes and two more in a patrol skiff swing off of a side street to fall in behind the Bartletts. “Please drop your weapons and turn off your motors,” calls an officious voice from the skiff’s external speakers.
Angel ignores them and watches the GPS. Three more seconds. Two… one…
She presses the detonation button on her wrist. For a moment, nothing happens. Then sparks shoot out of all the streetlights on the boardwalk behind them. The police sirens die out and the skiff grinds to a halt against the waterfront while the aquabikes bob unpowered.
Unfortunately, neither of the Bartletts’ ’bikes are caught in the EMP blast radius. They must have been just outside the effective range.
“Shit,” says Angel. She hopes the EMP at least blanked their computers back at Coopersmith’s. She sights on Gwynnie, preparing to put a bullet in that pretty blonde head. She squeezes the trigger, and just as she does, Mikio whips the boat around a sharp corner. Her bullet creases the ’bike’s cowling instead of Gwynnie’s face. [Stunt 1]
Angel turns to berate him for his timing, and gasps as she realizes the boat is running up toward a traffic jam. Several boats are stuck around an intersection where a barge lists to one side. “There!” She points to a loading ramp. “Gun it!”
Mikio hammers down the throttle. The boat leaps forward. It hits the ramp with a bone-jarring thud and sails up into the air, startling pedestrians and other drivers alike. The boat glances off the roof of a ferry at the crossing and starts to spin. Just when Angel thinks they’re going to catch the far waterfront and prepares to jump, Mikio vents the starboard hydrogen tank. The pressurized gas blows out the side and heels the boat over just enough to splash down in the opposite lane so close that Angel could reach over and touch the pier if she wanted to. [Stunt 2]
The Bartletts attempt the same trick. The lighter aquabikes clear the ferry, but Gladys must have hit her launch angle wrong. Her ’bike lands on the pedestrian walkway in an explosion of carbon fiber splinters and skids into a storefront. Angel doesn’t see what happens to Gladys, but hopes it’s fatal. [Stunt 3]
The tenacious Gwynnie doesn’t falter in the least. She sails up and over the traffic jam, then splashes the ’bike down at a steep angle to dive underneath a barge in the oncoming lane. She pops back out of the water behind it and tosses away her wet and useless gun. [Stunt 4]
Angel smiles and takes aim, safe in the knowledge that Gwynnie can’t shoot back.
As she fires, another police skiff roars out of an inlet and rams them. Angel’s gun flies away and she struggles to keep from tumbling after it. “Shit!” she screams in frustration. [Stunt 5]
Pull over your vehicle now and shut down your motor!” orders the skiff’s driver. His partner has an assault carbine leveled at them. So much for the tradition of British cops going unarmed.
“Give me your gun,” Angel hisses at Mikio.
“I do not have one.”
Her jaw drops open in shock. “You what? You don’t have a fucking gun? What kind of ninja are you, anyway?”
This is your last warning! Pull over or we will…ulp—
“Ulp?” Angel and Mikio look at each other in surprise, and then glance back at the skiff.
Gwynnie must have come up behind the skiff and jumped on board from her bike while the officers were preoccupied with Mikio’s boat. She’s just relieved the driver of his gun and thrown him overboard. The other officer whirls and she points the gun in his face. “Jump off,” she screams at him. [Stunt 6] He must not be paid well enough to take a bullet for the King, and hits the water. Gwynnie puts the skiff into full pursuit mode. Armored airbags puff outward from the forward hull, and the engines take on a deeper hum as she pours auxiliary power into them. “You fuckin’ bitch,” she screams over the external speakers. “I’m goin’ to smear you all over this city.”
The skiff rams into the back of the boat. Mikio fights the wheel to keep Gwynnie’s prediction from coming true. Mindless of other boats, traffic buoys, or anything else between her and them, Gwynnie smashes the skiff again and again into the back of Mikio’s boat. [Stunt 7]
“Can’t this thing go any faster?” shouts Angel.
“I fear not.”
“Oh, for fuck’s sake! Next time spring for something with some balls.” Angel scrambles over the seats to the very rear of the boat. Just as Gwynnie drives the skiff in on them again, she leaps onto its prow. Angel just manages to catch the railing and hang on for dear life. Gwynnie sees her right away and spins the wheel hard to bounce the skiff off a dock and shake Angel loose. [Stunt 8]
The broken bones in Angel’s left palm grate together and her hand slips loose to leave her dangling by one hand. She resists the urge to vent her implants again. She was too impatient to read the entire manual for each one and doesn’t know what kind of bad things can happen to her if she uses too much of the combat drugs in too short a time span.
Gwynnie bangs the skiff against a ferry and Angel falls, but instead of hitting the water, she tumbles onto the hood of Mikio’s boat, which he’s maneuvered next to the skiff to catch her. [Stunt 9] Gwynnie raises her gun in exasperation and empties it at Angel, who twists and gyrates on the weaving boat to avoid being hit. One bullet grazes her thigh and another flies through her hair near enough to her ear she can feel the skin burn with its passing. Galvanized by the pain, Angel vaults onto the skiff over its railing. [Stunt 10]
“I hate being shot!” She charges at Gwynnie. [Out of breath yet? Because we’re not done yet! Tune in tomorrow for the “Boat Fight” Engagement!]

Anatomy of a Sequence, Part 2

October 6th, 2012

Continuing from yesterday’s post, Angel has just escaped from the “Dock Gunfight” Engagement via a broken window, but she’s not out of the woods yet.

The explosion knocks Angel and everyone else on the street flat. The steel dock door tips into the water, which creates a miniature tidal wave along the watery street. The corner of the building sags to the point of collapse and part of the plaza breaks away and sinks.
Angel turns to look upon her work. Just as the façade of the building slides down into the drink, two aquabikes flash out of the ruined dock.
Gwynnie and Gladys Bartlett, battered, bloodied, and pissed off as hell.
[This begins the “Foot Chase” Engagement”] “Shit!” Angel turns and sprints away from them along the waterfront. [Stunt 1] Behind her, the Bartletts wheel their ’bikes around in pursuit. She could immobilize those ’bikes with the EMP bomb, but Angel’s too close to it. She can’t close up her Faraday suit while sprinting away from the furious sisters. If she fires off the EMP, she’ll lose her iChip, her implants, and everything else that has any kind of circuitry in it.
She’ll just have to get out of range first. She hurdles a bench and dodges through a crowd as her legs pump like pistons. [Stunt 2] The sisters close the distance, aquabike motors howling. Angel calls Mikio and gasps between breaths, “It’s all fucked. I’m on foot and heading in the wrong direction with the wrong company behind me.”
I’ll come to you,” he ’chips back.
Angel rounds a corner and realizes she’s lost. If she had time, she’d check her position on GPS. Of course, if she had that kind of time, she’d get that gun out of her thigh pocket and put a hole in each of the Bartletts’ heads. But she doesn’t dare slow her pace even a fraction to get that pistol free. It frustrates her to feel it taunt her with every step and to know she can’t reach it. “How you going to find me, smart guy?” [Stunt 3]
A bullet ricochets off a stone wall near her head. “I’ll follow my ears,” says Mikio with something resembling amusement.
Angel gives up a little horizontal speed to jink left and right as she runs to make herself a little harder to hit. [Stunt 4] She’s got to get off this road, away from the waterways. Higher ground, she thinks, except she doesn’t know which way to go. The flats and storefronts line the narrow sidewalk and she can’t see anything but walls.
Her weaving has narrowed the distance advantage between her and the Bartletts. They’re adjacent to her in the waterway. She runs past a bridge, but at the last moment she springs and twists to catch a light pole at the far edge of the bridge entrance. It bends as she swings out over the water, but doesn’t break. She swings around it like a tetherball. At the perfect moment, she releases her grip, tucks into a ball, rolls, and comes up to sprint across the bridge. [Stunt 5]
The Bartletts curse and get in each others’ way as they turn around to follow Angel on a course perpendicular to her previous vector. One of them fires a few rounds at her but only hits railings and cobblestones. Once more, the drugs in her system have an unanticipated effect, and she giggles at the notion of the Bartletts’ collision. She clamps down on her hysterics as best she can and calls Mikio again. “Goddammit, where the fuck are you?”
Jump to your right… now.
Angel doesn’t hesitate and flings herself off the sidewalk over the waterway. Mikio’s boat roars underneath her with split-second timing, and she sprawls onto the long hood. Bonnet, they call it a bonnet here, she thinks and bursts out laughing. [Stunt 6]
Mikio reaches a hand over the windscreen and clamps it upon Angel’s wrist. She grabs onto him and pulls herself into the front seat. The first thing she does is pull that infuriating gun from her thigh and squeeze off a couple rounds at the pursuing Bartletts. [Stunt 7] “Nice catch,” she pants to Mikio. He nods, eyes glued to the waterway ahead as he steers the boat through midday commuter traffic.
Angel activates her fourth implant to cancel her combat chemicals. She needs her wits about her now more than she needs pent-up aggression with nobody nearby to hit or hit on besides Mikio. Right away, she discovers how much she hurts all over. It feels like she fell down a flight of stairs and out a second story window, which is a pretty fair assessment of what just happened to her. Her left hand feels like it’s gone through a meat grinder. She’s sure she’s broken a bone or two in her palm, but she can’t sit here and catalogue her aches and pains; she has one more job to do. She accesses the GPS with her iChip to check range from the EMP bomb. They’re still within the approximate effect radius, but won’t be in a few seconds. [This is the end of the “Foot Chase” Engagement. But we’re not done yet! Tune in tomorrow for the “Boat Chase” Engagement!]

Anatomy of a Sequence, Part 1

October 5th, 2012

Troubleshooters contains what I modestly think is one of the best action sequences I’ve ever written, as well as one of my favorites. I’d like to take a couple of posts here to break it down for you so you can see how it works based upon the lessons in the Action! book.

Setup: Angel is a professional bounty hunter, raiding a competitor’s base of operations as revenge for an incident that happened earlier in the book. The setting is London in the mid 2050s, after the sea levels have risen to make much of the city resemble Venice, with waterways replacing roads.

Angel listens to the faint sound of conversation from the surface; she can’t make out any words, but hears at least three voices. Footsteps lead on and off the boat multiple times. Eventually the noises from overhead cease. She waits a full fifteen minutes before she dares to raise her head above the water.
The spacious dock has several boats moored along it, from the Bartletts’ speedboat to a couple of dinghies and a small cabin cruiser. A crane on rails lurks overhead like a fat yellow spider waiting to pounce on unsuspecting prey. The air smells of ozone and lubricants. Angel sees a machine and maintenance shop at one end of the dock and a stack of crates at the other. An office sits off to the side, and she can overhear faint conversation from it. The dock itself is sealed from the exterior waterways by a reinforced steel door which Angel is certain requires a code to open. That presents a problem for a quick getaway. She’s got some pretty good explosives with her, but it would take all of them to make a dent in that monster, and she still might not be able to get out afterward. She looks around for other options, and sees a small round window high on one wall. It’s dirty, but shows daylight from beyond. It’ll have to do.
She attaches a bomb the size of a small cookie to the hull of the Bartletts’ boat, and slaves the detonator to a switch worn on her wrist. Sure, it’s petty, but she’s not doing this job for anyone but herself.
There are bound to be cameras in the dock, maybe even monitored by a Turing. If a private citizen like Whitecastle has his own pet A.I., it stands to reason others in his social circles will too, so Angel stays low in the water for the most part. She fixes charges to two other boats, including the cabin cruiser, which runs on hydrogen and should make a very satisfying BOOM. Of her remaining charges, two go on the ends of the boardwalk, which she hopes to make collapse. The rest she intends to put on the support pillars for the ceiling. She figures if she does enough damage, Coopersmith might either fire the Bartletts outright or else pull them off the TISbottle hunt to seek out the perpetrator of the attack instead. If Angel is careful enough, they’ll spend an inordinate amount of time and effort to track her down, if they can even identify her.
She still can’t see any cameras, but they could be almost microscopic in size, so she’s just going to have to trust to a little luck. She lifts herself out of the water in the shadow of the crane, and then heads along the wall. She places her remaining charges on the way toward the stack of crates. She can hide the EMP bomb amid them.
The device weighs about ten pounds, and is about the size of a one-liter bottle. It’s uncomplicated; SWAT guys are notorious for their impatience with fussy equipment, and Angel approves of that practice. There is a selector switch for manual or timed detonation. She picks Manual and clips the small detonator button to her wrist band. After switching off the safety device and arming it, she slides the activated weapon between two crates.
“Freeze, asshole!” yells a feminine voice. Angel lifts her hands but dumps all her combat chemicals into her system. She’d hoped she wouldn’t have to fight her way out. “Turn around.”
It’s Gwynnie Bartlett, and she’s got a hand cannon leveled at Angel.
“You!” she hisses in recognition.
“Me,” replies Angel. “How’s the shoulder, Gwynnie?”
Gwynnie’s eyes narrow. She mutters something, and Angel knows she’s calling for backup. “Don’t believe we been prop’ly introduced, luv. What’s yer name?”
“Nobody special. Just a working girl like yourself.”
[This begins the “Dock Gunfight” Engagement.] A door slams open and three armed security guards rush into the dock, followed by Gladys Bartlett. Gwynnie glances in their direction for a fraction of a second, and Angel throws herself to one side. [Stunt 1]
Gwynnie fires. The deafening shot blows apart the crate that Angel had stood on half a heartbeat ago. Angel rolls, digs her hands into the thigh pouches of the wetsuit, finds her guns, and comes up shooting. [Stunt 2]
The Bartletts and guards scatter for cover as Angel ducks behind the crates. A guard pops up, his gun held in a sideways grip which means he’s seen too many classic vids. He shoots once and hollers as the kick breaks his wrist. Angel puts a bullet into him and he falls with an agonized yell from a superficial wound. [Stunt 3]
“Where’d you find these morons, Gwynnie?” Angel calls. “Chumps ’R’ Us?”
Gwynnie stays under cover. Angel knows she’s waiting for a shot of opportunity.
“Oy,” calls Gladys from somewhere to Angel’s left. “Ye’re a bit far from Down Under, ain’t ye?”
Angel sees motion out of the corner of her eye and jumps over a crate as the guard who’d been sneaking up on her cuts loose with his gun on full auto. Angel slips and slides over more crates as bullets chew them apart. She hits the cement floor of the dock and rolls. [Stunt 4] She stays flat, where the guard wouldn’t expect to see her, places her gun flat on the floor, and squeezes off several rounds. [Stunt 5] The bullets skip like stones on the floor to smash into the man’s feet and ankles. He screams and falls. Angel ducks back under cover as Gwynnie cuts loose with that hand cannon again. Splinters rain down upon her. Some of those heavy shells pass right through crates to hit distant walls and come close to Angel in their passing.
Still, she can’t let the Bartletts think they’re winning. “Score’s two to nothing and I’m ahead. What’re the chances I pop one of you ladies next?”
“I’d play the odds we’ll take this match, luv,” calls Gwynnie. “I owe ye for my latest scar.”
“Ye can’t hide in them crates forever.” Gladys sounds like she’s moving to flank Angel.
“I don’t have to last forever,” says Angel. “I only have to outlast you.”
A whine of machinery makes her look up. The crane’s heavy hook races across the dock toward her. It’ll smash through the crates and Angel too if she doesn’t get out of the way. She knows Gladys and Gwynnie await their chance to take her down as soon as she’s exposed. Then a crazy idea pops into her drug-enhanced mind and she runs with it.
With just a second to act, she jams one gun back into a thigh pouch. When the hook crashes into the crates, she jumps up and stretches her hand out to grab the braided steel cable in passing. The momentum nearly jerks her arm from its socket but she yanks herself up to a precarious perch on the hook. In the space of a heartbeat she fires three shots: one at Gladys, who ducks and rolls; one at Gwynnie, who twists behind a pillar; and the last at the guard inside the crane control booth. [Stunt 6]
He doesn’t duck.
The bullet enters his forehead and his brains exit the back of his skull. He slumps down with his hand still at rest on the crane control. Angel nearly loses her grip on the thick, oily cable as the crane accelerates on its rails and heads for the far wall with that tiny round window. She twists around the cable and spins like a pole dancer to keep Gladys and Gwynnie from getting a good shot at her. [Stunt 7]
The crane crashes into the blocks at the end of its rails with an impact hard enough to shake the entire building. The hook swings upward in an arc. Angel empties her clip against the window. It stars with each bullet. She lets go of the cable and jumps from the hook as hard as she can, fists extended like battering rams. [Stunt 8]
She crashes through the window in a glissando of shards. Shock runs all the way up her arms into her shoulders and she wonders how many bones she just broke but can’t feel because of the combat chemicals. Her pistol splashes into a waterway, but Angel tucks and rolls onto a small plaza. People gape at her dramatic exit from the building and one woman shrieks in fear. [Stunt 9]
Angel bounces to her feet, triggers the detonator switch for all the charges except the EMP bomb, and runs. [This ends the “Dock Gunfight” Engagement. Tomorrow: The “Foot Chase” Engagement!]

Blocking a scene

September 30th, 2012

Author Carrie Vaughn posted a short piece about how she used action figures to help with an important scene. Here’s the link to the original post.

If you’re having a tough time with an Engagement, you might try setting up a physical model of the setting and the characters. You don’t have to be detailed at all. Carrie Vaughn used a fold-up TV tray and some action figures. You could use something as simple as some stacked books or DVD cases on end for walls, furniture, or whatever. Bottles, spice shakers, or even coffee cups can stand in for your characters. Anything to help you visualize the Engagement and how your characters move through it in the course of their Stunts.

Source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/horiavarlan

If you have kids, or you are a kid, or you still have your toys even though you’re no longer a kid, I’ll bet you’ve got something lying around that can function well enough to play the part. I’m a fan of LEGO for the flexibility it offers. Your mileage may vary.

Source: http://italianlane.com/how-to-defeat-a-dinosaur/

Don’t be afraid to play as part of your writing. It’ll make you a better writer and make your action scenes sparkle that much more.

Because Dragons Should Have Lasers

September 10th, 2012

Stephen Gustav is writing an epic contemporary fantasy/military mashup called The Veil War, and posting chapters as he completes them. His latest chapter had a really tremendous pitched battle scene between two large armies, and I thought he wrote it very well. I asked him to break it down for you all here, so read and enjoy! Although you should probably read the story from the beginning, if you would like to read the chapter that really stood out for me, it’s here. Take it away, Stephen…

One day it occurred to me that folks were writing a lot of fantasy mashups. Paranormal Romance by the truck load. Urban fantasy combining film noir and magic. Police procedurals with wizards. Charles Stross’ Laundry series mixing Lovecraft, spy novels and UNIX geeks.

Wait – no one had done Tom Clancy techno-thriller meets fantasy? Something must be done!

Step one, daydream a lot. What would happen if the dark hordes invaded the Earth? First approximation: they’d get blown up from a great distance. Start over…

The Veil War is goblins invading the Earth. Giants, dragons, trolls – creatures of myth that turn out to be a little less imaginary than we had supposed. Magic had existed once, and now has returned. And in the Middle East, a company of Marines is trying desperately to get home.

Our Story So Far

Over the course of twenty-four chapters, Captain Lewis and his Marines manage to make some progress toward this goal despite all I do to hinder them. They’ve fought their way out of Iraq. They’ve met and allied with the descendants of crusaders, whose own world is threatened. Lewis quickly comes to realize that the knowledge these crusaders possess is crucial to our survival.

The enemy is coming after them, and in great force. As they approach Kuwait they find that between them and their pursuers is a Heavy Cavalry Brigade Combat Team – a few thousand Idaho National Guardsmen who are about to be ground into paste by the enemy. This turn of events presented Lewis with two options:

* Run behind and let the cav get ground up to hamburger. Maybe escape, maybe get caught anyway.
* Intervene now, and combine the strength of his magical new allies with the firepower of an armored brigade to inflict defeat upon the enemy.

Lewis chooses the latter.

From about Chapter 19 to present, that battle is ongoing – and will continue for several more chapters at a minimum.

What is this ‘Process’ you speak of?

I find myself mildly embarrassed to discuss “process” or “craft” in relation to my own work. Not that I don’t sort of have a process and certainly not that I don’t believe that there is a craft of writing that I hope one day to have.

But I am new to this whole writing thing. Sort of. I’ve been writing for decades, and I even get paid for my writing. Yet the Veil War is the first fiction story I have ever run to even the moderate level of completion that I’ve achieved here.

So, that out of the way, what was I doing here? Well, something very different than what I was doing in the first eight chapters. The first eight chapters I had actually imagined in a rather thoroughgoing way before ever I laid finger on keyboard. So that was really like dictation.

As the story moved on beyond the little movie I had made in my head, things immediately became more difficult. But I soldiered on; and with a few brutal reminders sound editing advice from Ian managed to tame the story and get it focused to the point where we could get to the next big action sequence.

What’s a Day Job?

So is there a process? Thanks to a cruel and uncaring universe, writing the Veil War is not my day job. That miserable fact imposes certain constraints on how I go about getting it written.

Last winter, I took a week off from work so that I could get some serious writing done. Everything from about chapter thirteen on, I wrote that week. Or at least I wrote the original version that week. I wrote as fast as I could, being as visual and descriptive as I could. My goal was simply and always to get as much written as possible.

Since then, every week I read the chapter before, read what’s next in the queue, and then attempt to figure out how I need to change the text to fit what’s happened already and how my picture of the plot has altered. There’s a lot of clean-up, too. Like places in the text where I’d inserted <> or <> in order to keep the story moving. It’s hardest when I hit a <> as that usually means writing and thinking.

Sometimes it is as simple as rearranging a couple things, a few tweaks, some polishing and, presto DONE! But not as often as I’d hope.

If in the greener lands of the future I am a professional novelist, I don’t know that I’d write a novel this way. There are advantages though: it forces me to treat every chapter on its own merits. (And if it doesn’t have any, repair that.) I can’t just skip ahead to the interesting bits. It also forces me to cut and pare away the dross, so what’s left is better – I think – than if I’d just written the whole thing in seclusion.

The biggest benefit is feedback. The input from my weekly readers has been essential, and I don’t think it will be easy to move away from that.

How Sausage Is Made

There’s a lot going on in this battle. There are four distinct sides: Lewis and his men, The Prince and his crusaders, the Cavalry Brigade, and the enemy. Lots of that last. Not being content with such a simplistic layout, I divided the crusaders in two. And among the enemy there are many regiments of goblins. Plus trolls. Plus giants. Plus a dragon. And, starting next chapter, even more.

All of this needs to be coordinated. First, in my head; and then I have to relate all that to the reader. I have to be mindful of the pacing and build tension in how I flip from one aspect of the battle to another.

I’ve tried to treat each scene as a short story of sorts – I’m not just cutting away at a random word length or just to get back to something else. I try to have each one come to some sort of climax or at least a plausible cliffhanger before I move on to the next.

For example in this chapter I begin with Odo, the crusader second in command. I’d left the readers hanging for quite a while as he charged toward the giants – a good cliffhanger. That needed to be resolved, so I tackled that first before moving to the next scene.

As the battle has gotten more complex, I find I’m diverging more from what I wrote back in February. For the last few chapters, my process has changed from editing to something more like construction. To manage the complexity, I’ve assembled a timeline. Each faction has his own thread – a sequence of events that they personally encounter.

When I assemble a chapter, I dip into the timeline to see what has to happen. Then I dip from the pot of prose to get story that covers the need. The shape of the battle is different from what I originally imagined – but strangely a lot of the individual events in it are much like what I’ve already written.

There’s a few things that I try to keep in mind as I write, whittle and edit. One thing Ian impressed upon my fragile brain last Spring was, “Does this move the story forward?” If it doesn’t, it goes no matter how much I like it. Another I learned from Tom Clancy, in an inverse way. Don’t have everything go right for your heroes. My final rule is, “Try not to suck.” That’s the hardest one.

One of the biggest struggles I’ve had writing this battle is that it is not happening to Lewis. Corporal Coleman is essential, because he’s a kind of a geek chorus. He says what needs to be said because most of what I’m doing is actually describing someone watching someone else fight. Which makes sense in the context of choosing Lewis for my point of view, but otherwise is completely retarded.

The one saving grace is that it offers a reasonable means of offering commentary on what is happening. It’s a frame for describing the events of the battle. This will change shortly, as the battle is coming to Lewis – and that will present different challenges.

Back in Action!

September 9th, 2012

Wow, it’s been a stupid long time since I posted anything on here, and I imagine most of you are no longer reading. But if you are, I’m here to announce that I’m back and blogging about Action again-at least as much as I am able to.

There will be some design changes coming here soon-a whole new look. In the meantime, I want to address the last comment I received in its own post.

M.H. Boroson wrote: Hello Ian Thomas Healy! I have read your ebook (one of the rare ones that was worth the price), but it left me wondering: what about wizard battles? Yes, yes, fireballs and lightning bolts are essentially shootouts, but there’s voodooesque spells as well, and spells that cause opponents to shrink or turn into a thousand butterflies, and much more. What advice would you have for the writers of cinematic magical battles?

Interesting idea, that. Let’s remember that the basic requirement of any combat situation is that your protagonists are trying to (a) kill or (b) defeat without killing their opponents. Whether they use bullets, blades, parahuman abilities, or magic is just special effects. Make sure you have the proper intent behind your characters first of all.

For magical spells such as you described, the first question you have to answer is can such a spell be dodged, blocked, or parried? If your shrinking spell can be defended against in some way, then it’s a ranged attack and therefore falls under the category of a Shootout.

Example: Warren the Wizard casts his Shrinking Spell upon Wanda the Witch. Wanda throws up her Impenetrable Shield of Butterflies, protecting her against Warren’s spell.

Now, if your spell cannot be defended against, then it just changes the complexion of the combat. Perhaps the setting is altered, or the nature of the combat changes from a Shootout to something else.

Example: Warren casts his Shrinking Spell upon Wickersham the Warrior, who winds up the size of a mouse. Suddenly, Wickersham isn’t any longer a threat to cut Warren into Wizard Giblets, and Warren can do his best impression of stomping on a cockroach. The combat has changed from a Fight or a Shootout to a Chase, with Wickersham doing his best to avoid getting trod upon.

Hope that helps!

Action! in print!

April 30th, 2012

Great news, everyone! Using amazon.com’s disturbingly useful and easy CreateSpace process, I have transformed the Action! book into a print edition. This slim, 60-page volume has an attractive new cover and retails for the paltry sum of $7.99. You should totally order one, because then you will have it handy at all times when the urge to write an action scene strikes you. You can also order the ebook for only 99 cents, but let’s face it. Sometimes you just want to hold a bound book in your hands, you know? Here is the new cover. It’s not quite ready for sale yet, but you can expect it to be within the next week or two at the latest.