The Evolution of The Only City Left: Part One

Cover by S.A. Hunt.

The Only City Left has been a long time in the works, and has been through three phases of existence so far. In this post I’m going to talk about its origin and the first phase of its life as a serial.

The Only City Left was inspired first and foremost by the many fine independent webcomics I was reading. I was impressed that artists, writers, and artist/writers were throwing their work out there for all the world to see, and often learning and improving as they went. I thought, “Why can’t I do the same thing with my writing?” I hadn’t written consistently for a while, and it seemed like a great way to encourage myself to write more: write for fun, set a schedule, and don’t worry about mistakes. (That last part turned out to be the most difficult of course.)

My first entry for The Only City Left was posted on 2/26/12, and there wasn’t that much preparation that went into it. In my writing notebook for 2/24/2012, I have this entry: “The entire world is underground to the level of the tops of skyscrapers. (Think Trantor, but run-down and dying.)” Yup, The Only City Left was invented and begun in less than two days. This lack of lengthy world-building meant that I didn’t get stuck on the details, but it also meant that I had some sections of the story that were bogged down while I spun my wheels trying to figure out what happened next.

In my 2/24/12 notes, I went on to list every trope, cliché, and straight-up stolen idea that I could throw into the mix: “Vampires, kung fu, robots, werewolves, nano-swarms, aliens, mutants, mutated animals, treasure caches, ghosts, guns, lasers, swords, martial weapons, avatars of gods, underground oceans w/ preserved cities, twisted gravity, portals, bad air/no air, undead/zombies, charms.”

Several of these items made it into the first draft of The Only City Left, especially early on as I struggled to write 1,000 words each week to get the story started. One goal I had, though, was to put a twist on my use of familiar tropes.

Yes, there are werewolves, but how do they transform deep underground without moonlight?

There are ghosts, but there’s a pseudo-scientific explanation of their existence.

There are mutated animals, but they’re more civilized than the remaining humans in this tired, battered Earth.

I described my planned story to myself as “Trantor meets Cube meets Mad Max meets monster movies.” While that vision of the world and the story has changed over time (and through rewrites), this description has stayed essentially the same: “1st person viewpoint of young man, orphaned, only goal is to see the surface once before he dies, but he has no idea how far down he is, and there is no clear path up.”

That young man is Allin Arcady, whose name is a nod to Arcadia “Arkady” Darell from Isaac Asimov’s Second Foundation. Asimov is a big influence on The Only City Left (see my The Caves of Steel re-read for more discussion on that), and there were even some subconscious connections I made that I didn’t realize until later, such as Allin’s mother being named Jessie, the same name as Lije Baley’s wife in The Caves of Steel.

From February to November of 2012, I wrote The Only City Left as a 1,000-word-per-week cliffhanger serial. I used NaNoWriMo to write the last 50,000 or so words, but continued to post the story one week at a time. I figured that by the time the story ended online, I would have a second book in The Only City Left series ready to go. (That didn’t happen as planned, but more on that next time.)

During that time, I learned some of the ropes of the online serial game. Share your post each week at Tuesday Serial, submit it to the Web Fiction Guide (which also gets it added to the Top Web Fiction list), respond to every comment someone leaves, and keep to your schedule as much as possible.

For a while, I posted links to each new post on all the regular social media sites, but over time I felt like this was too much bluster for too little results. (Your mileage may vary.) Most of my visitors found me through one of the sites I shared in the previous paragraph.

If I had it all to do over again, I don’t think I would change a thing about the serial. I met my goals of finishing a book, I had fun, and I earned some dedicated readers. Even without new entries, people continue to find and read through The Only City Left, which is immensely gratifying. I was even invited to have the first three sections of The Only City Left made into a podcast by Webfiction World, which was a very cool and unexpected accomplishment.

The next step in the process was to convert the serial into a novel and work on the second book in the series. More on that next time.

Writing Research: Sword Fights

I enjoy fight scenes in movies, whether it is some gun-fu or a long martial arts battle or an awesome sword fight, which got me to thinking about how well I can pull off writing one of these scenes for a story. I would love to write a really cool sword fight, for instance, but I a) have never held a sword much less fought with one, and b) am not really familiar with sword terminology. Of course, as writers, we make stuff up all the time, but it is nice to at least sound like we know what we are talking about. So I turned to my pal Google for some help on the subject, and here is a round-up of what I found.

Martin Turner of martinturner.org.uk had two interesting posts, the first about the difficulties of writing a sword fight and how other writers have handled them, and the second a more hands-on how-to. The difficulties of writing a sword fight, per Mr. Turner, are that fights take much less time to occur than they do to describe, most readers don’t know the vocabulary of sword-fighting (so at least they’re in the same boat as I am), the fights are repetitive, and there must be real danger for the characters involved for the fight to be believable. Mr. Turner is a fencer, and in his second post he explains a lot of fencing terminology, but I like that he does not recommend using it. Instead he focuses on what can make a fight interesting to read, such as accidents and reversals, cheating, and crowd interactions. He also discusses the conditions that can lead to a fighter winning and losing. All in all, this is a great article with many inspirational tips.

This interview with R.A. Salvatore also has some helpful tips. He says that fight scenes are about the dance between the characters and also having an interesting environment for them to fight in. Like many others, he references the Inigo Montoya/Man in Black sword fight from The Princess Bride as an inspiration. His final piece of advice in the interview is “And most of all, make sure that the first fatality in any fight scene is the verb ‘to be.’ If you’re using ‘was’ and ‘were’ and ‘had been,’ well, the first fatality will be your reader’s interest.” Duly noted!

Over on kimkouski.com, I found an interview with Darrin Zielinski titled “How to Write Sword Fighting Scenes.” I liked his ideas about how weapon types can be used to define a character. (Mr. Salvatore also discusses his different characters and matching their weapons and fighting styles to the characters. I liked his description of the dwarf with spiked armor who charges into battle head-first: “How can you not love a furious dwarf hopping around with a dead goblin flopping around dead on his helmet spike?”)

I found this list of the parts of a sword and types of swords at the My Literary Quest blog. While I might not go into detail on all this in a story, it is handy to know and a nice, quick reference.

Now I want to write a cool sword fight scene more than ever, and I got some great ideas from these sites. I hope this post points one or two other people toward some helpful advice as well, and if you want to recommend any other sites or books, feel free!