Wheels within Wheels

Last Sunday I was able to publish my first foray into fantasy, The Stone Seekers, a sample of which can be read by clicking the corresponding tab above.  I mentioned it in Issue #7 of The Times, but placed it at the bottom of some other promotional material, and think that some folks may have burned out on what was essentially a bunch of ads before they got down to it, so I’m mentioning it again…  First, this time.  It is classic sword-and-sorcery, you can read three chapters in the sample, and if it strokes your zither, as it were, links and ordering info are at the top of the sample.

And with that bit of business taken care of, we’ll now move on to the real post.

“I suppose I am a born novelist, for the things I imagine are more vital and vivid to me than the things I remember.”


In this article, I am going to look at plots and subplots, and the folks who drive them.  I’ve been toying with this idea, and have come to liken the relationships between them to the relationships between bodies in a solar system.

Many beginning writers formulate the idea for a plot; this little manlike creature is going to carry a magic ring on a long, dangerous quest, and drop it into a volcano.  Along the way, a big mean guy with a lot of power is going to try to stop him.  That’s a good start, but a lot of beginners get this down in their notebooks, and say, “Okay, there’s my story.  Time to get writing!”

But not so fast; something is missing!

Think about your own life.  You, of course, are the hero.  You have a quest to complete.  You have to replace a broken-down car, put sealer on your deck, get your taxes done, some major task that has a loudly ticking clock associated with it.  You are perfectly capable of sealing a deck, shopping for a car, or whatever the quest is, and if you could just concentrate on it, it would be the work of a day.  But you can’t do that, can you?  Your boss needs you to work overtime, your brother-in-law wants you to help him move, you have to put new weather stripping around your windows before Friday’s storm comes in.

These are subplots, and they are the lifeblood of high-quality fiction.  Imagine your leading man is an attorney, a government prosecutor who has just stepped up to being the lead attorney in his office’s prosecutions.  Imagine one of the first cases in which he is leading is that of a high-profile drug dealer who has committed several murders in the course of his business dealings.  If this prosecution is botched, this animal goes free to continue his ravages on society.  That is your plot, and it makes for powerful dramatic tension.  Now imagine that this prosecutor has a vindictive ex-wife who has just informed him that she is about to marry an Australian and move to his home in Sydney, taking his five-year old daughter with her, likely never to be seen again.  That is the subplot, and it ramps the tension up to a whole new level.  The comparison I like to make is that the hero can’t give his full attention to the wolf at the door, because he has a rat gnawing at his ankle.  This is why subplots are sometimes called “distractions.”

So, where does this Solar System analogy come in?  As you can see from the diagram, a solar system consists of a number of planets orbiting a star.  The star is the plot, and everything in the story ultimately revolves around it.  Planets may be up close and fast moving, or at a distance so removed that they are barely influenced, but all revolve around the star.  These planets represent characters who impact the story, and the closer they are to the star, the more important their influence.  The Protagonist is generally the closest one in, followed by the Antagonist.  These two have the most vested interests in the plot, and affect, and are affected by it more than anyone else.  Further out revolve the Confidant, the (main) Henchman, a minor character, if you’re using one, that supports the protagonist, and a minor character that supports the Antagonist.  I never use more than six viewpoint characters, and rarely more than five.  If I need more than six, that means I am writing a series.

All right, we have the planets established in their orbits, what do we add next?  The moons that represent subplots.  The protagonist, the closest planet to the star, has one large moon, much like Earth.  There can be two, but at the risk of overly complicating the story.  Anyway, this large subplot keeps crossing in front of the planet, eclipsing its view of the main plot.  That’s what subplots are to the Protagonist, distractions, pure and simple, important developments demanding attention that must be taken from the main quest.  Referring back to the Lord of the Rings allusion that I started the article with, remember when Faramir’s men captured Frodo and Sam, and almost hauled them back to Minas Tirith?  Subplot.  It wasn’t necessary to the overall story, but it fed the plot by ramping up the tension, and delaying the destruction of the Ring, which gave Sauron more time to search for it.

By contrast, the second planet, the Antagonist, can look more like Jupiter, with a dozen smaller moons.  The Antagonist’s subplots will generally serve to help him, being minions that are performing various actions to interfere with the Protagonist.  Again from Lord of the Rings, one word: Saruman.  Of course, not all subplots serve to further the Antagonist’s schemes; you need look no further than Captain Hook’s crocodile for an example of a major hindrance.

The third planet, the Confidant, is a character who stands to gain little of a personal nature if the Protagonist wins, but he or she works on behalf of the Protagonist anyway.  Depending on the story you are telling, the Confidant may gain a great deal from the Protagonist’s victory, such as the survival of civilization, but the rule of thumb is that this character is completely altruistic.  To have them motivated by money or the promise of power makes them unsympathetic, and seriously harms your story.  They may start out that way, but should come to believe in the Protagonist’s cause before the end.  The Confidant has one serious limitation:  He or she cannot solve the Protagonist’s problem for him.  The Protagonist has to defeat the Big Bad all on his own.  If the Confidant is going to win the Final Battle, then the Confidant is actually the Protagonist, and should be written as such.  He can come to the Protagonist’s rescue once, but if it becomes an ongoing event, people are going to start wondering why they aren’t reading a book about this guy.  Finally, while the Confidant exists to support the Protagonist, you can’t have her come skipping down the garden path with a ready-made solution every time the Protagonist runs into a problem.  Again, that raises questions about who the hero of this book is, anyway.

The fourth planet, the Henchman, looks at first glance like the Antagonist’s Confidant, and while it is true that the two may be friends, the Henchman following the Antagonist blindly, the resemblance is superficial.  The Henchman can do all the dirty work for the Antagonist, who never has to get blood on his own hands.  He can be a respectable businessman, a bank president or senior attorney, who sends out his Henchman to “reason” with those opposed to him.  The Henchman, in turn, may send Minions to do the actual dirty work (these are the fourth planet’s moons); the Confidant, as a rule, has no such equivalent helpers.

I don’t have a name for the character represented by the fifth planet.  He helps the good guys in a minor sort of way.  An example should suffice.  Imagine a fantasy quest story in which the Hero and all his entourage, having assembled all the available data, set out to confront the Big Bad.  After they are well on their way, the scholars uncover additional information showing that the plan they are following will lead to certain disaster, so they find an apprentice warrior, someone who wanted to go but was turned down, give him the information, and send him out to find the heroes and redirect them.  That is the fifth character.

If the heroes have, unsuspected in their midst, a spy who is somehow sending or leaving reports for a Minion to pass on to the Big Bad, that would be the sixth character (and planet).  But a few planets and moons do not make a complete solar system.  There are other forces at play.

These are comets and asteroids, and as bodies in eccentric orbits that can land anywhere with devastating results, they represent random events, and minor characters respectively.  You never know how these things are going to play out, and just as an asteroid put paid to the dinosaurs in our own Solar System, a group of nomads might capture a vital character, or a talkative bartender might casually toss out a piece of information that changes everything.

So that’s my grand theory, that solar systems have a lot in common with the tightly-woven threads of a good, convoluted plot, and that you can learn a lot about one by studying the other.  What do you think?

News Updates


Steve Moore, a British Ameriphile and speculative fiction author, is putting the finishing touches on his new novel, which he describes as a “steampunk lite erotic vampire horror” story.  He is currently looking for beta readers, so anyone interested in trading your honest opinion for an advance reader copy from the cutting edge should contact him at the link above to arrange the details.  Incidentally, the eye-catching cover was created by Bryce Raffle, whose web page is linked in the sidebar under Illustrators.

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Karen J. Carlisle, author of such series as Viola Stewart, Doctor Jack, and Aunt Enid, is also an artist in her own right, and is offering a series of mugs with tie-in art to her books.  Whether you’re a fan of Viola, as I am, or a collector of rare mugs, you should definitely take a look at these.  Her current post is promoting in-person purchases at a local convention she is attending, but you can arrange on-line purchases using the Contact form at her website above.

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Today and all weekend, William J. Jackson has set the price of his dieselpunk opus, Down Jersey Driveshaft at 99¢ US for readers in the UK, so don’t miss this sprawling story of war, personal suffering, and triumph!

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And that’s today’s offering.  Be with me next Tuesday for another issue of Blimprider Times, when I’ll once again be rounding up the week’s news, and taking an in-depth look at one of my sister websites.  See you then!

Blimprider Times, No. 7

Featured Site of the Week


This week we’ll be looking at the professional web page of Aidana WillowRaven, a cover and illustration artist.  For the purposes of this promotion, I have selected one of her covers that well illustrates her skills with composition, script, and color.  I worked with Aidana some years ago on a cover for Beyond the Rails II.  In the end, I decided to go with a CreateSpace template, and maybe that was the wrong decision, but that’s a story for another time; in any case, there’s no sense looking backward.

Let me put this out there first:  Aidana is a saint to work with.  She was open and helpful in every regard, offering suggestions when my artistic visions didn’t coincide with the technical requirements of her trade, and even offering some insights about details of the  Kestrel’s construction.  Her prices are right around the midpoint of what you’ll find out there, she offers a list of discounts from complexity-of-design to a veteran’s discount, her work is top-drawer, and when you hire her, as I pointed out, you get much more than just an artist.  And even though I decided not to use her cover, she still provided me with the Blimprider Publications logo that you’ll find at the top of this blog, and on the back of the Beyond the Rails books.


This is obviously a post for my writing friends, and also musicians and scholars.  When you find yourself in need of a cover for a book, album, or any similar enterprise, an illustration, a map, or anything graphic in nature, a stop at WillowRaven Cover Art, Illustration & Design is a must!


View From the Blimp


The BIG news this week, and what I held the presses for, is the release of my new book, The Stone Seekers.  This is my first foray into fantasy, and is what I’m calling a work of “cozy sword & sorcery.”  That’s the cover to the left, and the blurb follows below:

The Settlements clung precariously to a hostile shore where the very ground opposed them.  The people, fleeing a vicious tyrant, had crossed an ocean to get here, and had nowhere else to go.  They bore with them a parting gift from a powerful mage, the Wellstone, an artifact that could locate clean water among the vile poisons their new land offered.  When it is stolen in a raid by creatures of the surrounding forest, there is no choice but to go in pursuit.  But with who?  The entire combined militia of all the towns haven’t the power to overcome the forest denizens, so a skilled tracker and a savage warrior are sent to achieve through stealth what cannot be accomplished by force.  What possible chance could two people have?

The cover is one of over 15,000 photographs displayed on Richard Schulte’s Cool San Diego Sights blog.  Richard takes pictures of San Diego County, a widely diverse region with everything from snowy mountains to surf-washed shores.  Some of these pictures are of famous landmarks, but many others are of cozy nooks and out-of-the-way sights like fountains, parks, and unusual buildings.  The picture on my cover was taken from a hiking trail in our nearby Laguna Mountains.  The site looks remarkably like the river crossing in Chapter Five, and is used with the kind permission of the photographer.  Richard is friendly and approachable, not at all unreasonable, and Cool San Diego Sights is definitely a must to visit if you need a picture for a project.

The Stone Seekers is available on amazon.com in print or e-book.  Not sure whether it’s for you?   Three chapters are available as a sample at the tab above, so dig in, check it out, and see whether it’s a read you might get into.

Now I’m off to pitch into Stingaree!

Update, next morning:  I think I might be wiser to keep the Beyond the Rails universe current, so my thought after a night’s sleep is to get serious about assembling the first chronicle of The Darklighters.

Breaking News, April 15th

Limited Time Sale


Long-time readers will be very familiar with the name William J. Jackson for his work on the Rail Legacy series.  This many-faceted writer also has a dieselpunk work in print, Down Jersey Driveshaft, a huge story of warfare, angst, love, death and robots.  If you enjoyed The Rocketeer, Sky Captain, or Commando Cody, this is practically a must-read, and will be on sale for 99¢ today and tomorrow at the link above.  Strap into the cockpit and head out on patrol!


Upcoming Changes… again

I am still feeling my way with the details; hopefully I’ll get it right soon!  Never one to duck the responsibility for my own mistakes, I’m admitting to one with these little news blurbs.

The purpose of this blog is to support my work as an author, and the way I see myself doing that is to post on a regular basis updates on my writing activities, and articles about my philosophy of writing.  When I then intersperse these news updates almost every day, the main posts tend to get buried in “noise.”

Let me hasten to add that I don’t consider the work of my friends to be noise any more than I do my own, but the blog has one purpose which I’m diluting with this.  It’s like the boy who cried wolf.  If every day a new post is announced, and you follow the link only to find a book ad or an event flyer, pretty soon you aren’t bothering to look any more.

So, commencing tomorrow, I will be posting every four days, and when there is news, it will be attached at the bottom of the main article.  I don’t expect that all will have attachments, but the ones that do will include the “News” tag for easy reference.  I hope this serves the needs of my friends adequately, but I’ve begun to get off-task here, and I need to reapply the discipline.  I may not have it right yet, but I’m learning what works, and am convinced that each change moves closer to perfection.  Any thoughts?