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.

Pro-Lithic Ramblings: 6/13/12

This is not my typical Webcomics Wednesday post, but more of a grab bag what I have read and enjoyed lately. I think this mix of different media will be the new norm for Lithicbee; less one-medium-per-day, more whatever-I-want. To that end, I need a new name for these types of general posts. Any ideas? (Today’s title, “Pro-Lithic Ramblings,” is courtesy of my wife, Danielle, and I may stick with it. Kind of catchy.)

So no more Webcomics Wednesday for me, but does that mean I am forsaking the wide world of webcomics? Hell no! Up first…

Polterguys (webcomic)

Polterguys, by Laurianne “Laur” Uy, is a black-and-white, manga-style  “story of a nerdy college girl befriending a bunch of ghost guys and solving their unfinished businesses.” The nerdy girl is named Bree, the college town is a take on Berkeley, and the guys are all hiding in an old rental house for reasons that become clear as the story progresses. First off, let me say that this is a super-professional-looking manga comic, one that I would not have been surprised to read in Shonen Jump (yes, I subscribed to SJ for 5 years, as an adult; there was much about it aimed at a younger audience, but it was a great deal and I would love to see more monthly digests like that in the U.S., perhaps targeted to those of us older than 13).

The art is excellent and the writing is smart and funny (check out the poster wannabe-doctor Bree puts up on her wall; classic). As a main character, Bree is the right mix of smart and spunky, cute and awkward (oh so awkward). Her high school life was hell, and she is hopeful that college will be better, but initial results are mixed, especially when every dorm-mate she is assigned drives her crazy. This is how she ends up renting a room in an otherwise empty house, or at least what she believes is an empty house. She quickly discovers the polterguys that are living there, and their fates become intertwined.

I don’t want to ruin anything by giving more away, so I will simply say that I cannot stress enough that this comic is fun fun fun and it was just what I needed this week. If you’re looking for a light-hearted supernatural romp, be sure to check out Polterguys.

Ignition Zero Kickstarter

As I was writing this post, I switched over to TweetDeck to procrastinate and noticed that Noel Arthur Heimpel has a Kickstarter up for Volume One of Ignition Zero. I have been waiting for a collected volume since I first discovered IZ, so I was happy to see this news, which comes one day after I posted the piece I commissioned from Noel: The Dream Bear (my name for it). There are good rewards at many levels, so I am pretty certain he is going to blow past his $600 goal in no time flat. I backed the project, how about you?

The Children of Hamelin (short story)

Lately I find that the short stories I am most likely to enjoy and recommend have a strong emotional component. “The Children of Hamelin,” by Dale Bailey, is no exception. This is basically a story of loss and dealing with it, and it makes no bones about it. All the children in the world have gone missing, vanished in a moment (hence the Pied Piper reference), and so this could have been a story about discovering how and why this happened. Instead, it is a story of one father simply dealing with the loss that this bizarre event has caused, and as such the story really spoke to me.

You can find the story in the May 2012 issue of Lightspeed Magazine.

The Confessions of Jonathan Pratt (serial)

The Confessions of Jonathan Pratt, by Robert Wilhelm, caught my interest at first simply due to the design of the web page.  It is set up to look like you are reading out of an old book, and the layout makes it very easy to navigate. It is the best example that I have seen of a web page design for a serial story fitting its content. And with so much free stuff to read out there, sometimes the first look can be the most important. Beyond its look, though, the story itself pulled me in. The writing is good, well-detailed but not rambling. Plus, you can’t go wrong with this subtitle: Being An Account of His Travels Through the State of New York in 1848 and of the Wickedness Which He Found There. This is the same time period as Gangs of New York, which I enjoyed (movie and book), so I am looking forward to what wickedness Jonathan gets up to in the same setting.

The beginning of the tale is compelling, with Jonathan Pratt in his cell the night before he is to be executed for murder. He is being urged to confess and he agrees to do so in order to have some peace and quiet; his written account of his crimes is the story that follows. But while he will admit to many instances of breaking both man’s law and God’s commandments, he claims he is innocent of murder. The story then jumps back to earlier in his life when he takes his first steps off his family farm and onto the path that ends up with him in a jail cell. The story is only two posts in, but it is promising enough that I will be following it and I recommend you get in on the ground floor and follow it as it progresses.

Also, Robert has a companion website, The National Night Stick, a faux newspaper covering “Crime, Eccentricity, and the Sporting Life in 19th Century America,” which is really cool to explore. It is a curated collection of stories from and about the 1800s, and it includes references to original sources, which gives me hope that Robert really knows his stuff and will be serving up a fairly accurate portrayal of 19th century America in his serial as well.

FYI: I found this story at Tuesday Serial, a great place to find new serials to read.

Up Next:

Friday: The Only City Left: The Story So Far. For those of you who might not have read my serial SF/F adventure yet, a synopsis to bring you up to speed so you can leap from your horse of not-reading to the moving train of The Only City Left without serious injury. (No, I could not write that without laughing.)

Sunday: The Only City Left Part 18. The flashback is (mostly) over and now you know how Allin’s parents died. (For my new readers, don’t worry, this is not a spoiler: you pretty much know this happened from Part One.) So what’s next? How about some info on the man who sent the assassins after Mom and Dad Arcady in the first place?

Fiction Friday: 6/1/12

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Fiction Friday is here again, and here is what I have been up to, fiction-wise. (Note: I’m still reading Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2312. It’s somewhat slow-going for me at the moment.)

Aurum (short story)

In “Aurum,” by Genevieve Valentine, steampunk and fantasy mix in a world of airships and dragons. In the world of this story, dragons and humans co-exist in a truce of sorts, with dragons lending out money from their hoards if they feel like it, but rarely adventuring out into the greater world. Brandon, a human and the architect of a new type of airship, needs to borrow some hoard money to complete his project, but is surprised when Regia, the dragon who lends it, also demands passage on the ship as part of her terms. Like other short stories I have read and enjoyed lately (Ken Liu’s Nebula Award-winning “The Paper Menagerie,” and Brent Knowles’ “Stone Eater,” for instance), it is the emotional content of this story that most intrigued me. What I thought would be an adventure tale turns out to be more of a story about internal motivations, and this ended up being a much more powerful basis for the story. Give “Aurum” a read in Issue 42 of Abyss & Apex.

Very Near Mint (graphic novel)

Very Near Mint, by Justin Peterson, is a comic book about two guys running a comic book store, which I discovered through the Kickstarter for its second volume. In Volume One, Colin and Sam, proprietors of The Splash Page, have to deal with their shipment of new comics being destroyed in a car crash, teaching a new employee the ropes of running a comic book store, and the return of Colin’s ex-girlfriend, Mackenzie. Worse than all that, though, is the opening of a mega-store across the street from The Splash Page. The aptly-named Across the Street Comics promises to put Colin and Sam out of business. The comedy and drama continue to unfold in Volume Two, as the identity of Colin and Sam’s nemesis is revealed.

There is a lot of humor in here, especially if you are a comic-book fan who can laugh at yourself, because Very Near Mint pokes endless fun of that world (the fans, the stores, the Cons, and the comics themselves). The comic convention in Volume Two especially had me nodding my head at how right-on the depiction is, even down to the smell of a Con. I definitely recommend these volumes if you’re a comic-book fan or know someone who is. They are available in manga-sized softcovers and in digital form at the Very Near Mint Store.

Delilah Dirk and the Seeds of Good Fortune (comic book)

Tony Cliff’s Delilah Dirk and the Seeds of Good Fortune is the comic book sequel to the webcomic Delilah Dirk and the Turkish Lieutenant. Let me stop here and say if you have not read The Turkish Lieutenant, get thee hence. It marries amazing artwork, lush, beautiful scenery, fantastic characters, and a rollicking good story, and I can’t wait until there is an English-language graphic novel version available.

Unlike the full-color Turkish Lieutenant, Seeds of Good Fortune is in black-and-white and is only available as a physical comic book. Given the chance to read more Delilah Dirk adventures, however, I will pretty much go wherever Tony leads me. Plus this way I got a sketch and personalized dedication, which is nice. In Seeds, both world-traveler Delilah and former lieutenant Selim are back, although Selim is present only on either end of the main story (the part he plays is integral, though). You see, Selim sends Delilah off on her adventure with some fresh-picked apples. Thoughtful, but it turns out they don’t taste all that great. Selim’s simple kindness ends up playing a pivotal role in Delilah’s ensuing (mis)adventures. ddapple2
The art is, as expected, superb, from facial expressions to action sequences to the architecture and scenery, to the Family Circus-esque two-page spread in the middle of the book. The characters and story are likewise great, especially the scenes between Delilah and the rope merchant. (I think it’s fair to say this story hinges on apples and rope. How often do you get to say that?) Unless you catch Tony at a convention, the only way to pick up a copy of Seeds is through his online store. With shipping it is a bit pricey for a 32-page comic, but as an investment in convincing Tony to produce more tales Delilah and Selim? Priceless.

The Case of the Misplaced Hero (serial)

Since I started writing my own serial adventure not that long ago, I have been on the lookout for other serials to read, and one I am enjoying right now is Camille LaGuire’s The Case of the Misplaced Hero. It is the story of Alex, whose mysterious and wealthy parents died when he was young, leaving him in the care of his eccentric great-aunt Flavia. Now Alex is in college, a perpetual student who fails classes in order to stay in school.

The story doesn’t take long in hinting that Alex will end up on an adventure in an alternate reality. Heck, it’s hinted at in the first episode and alluded to in the title of the series, so I don’t think I’m spoiling anything by mentioning it. I am a big fan of alternate reality stories, whether it is in TV shows like Fringe, comic books like Excalibur, or books such as Charles Stross’ Merchant Princes series, so Misplaced Hero seemed like a natural fit for me. Given its premise, I admit that the first few episodes had me a little concerned about how long into the story it would be before Alex stops messing around in college and got to adventuring in the world next door. Luckily, by Episode 5, the story takes a turn for the speculative once again, and at two episodes a week, it wasn’t all that long to get there after all.  The story is still in its early days, so now is a good time to get on board and follow Alex through the looking glass.

Up Next

Sunday: Part 16 of The Only City Left, my own SF/F serial action-adventure story. In Part 16, Allin’s flashback to the time of his parents’ death continues.

Webcomics Wednesday: Each Wednesday I review some of the wonderful long-form webcomics that are out there. Not familiar with webcomics? Think comic books by passionate independent creators, released for free on the web. Have a look at my Links page for a list of the ones I am currently reading.

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Photo Credits: Header photo of books (cropped), courtesy of Stewart on Flickr.