Friday, July 12, 2013

Featured Author: Andy Gavin

Today I'm excited to bring you Andy Gavin and his novel, Untimed, a YA time travel book, published by Mascherato Publishing. In addition to answering my inane questions, Andy treats us to a guest post and an excerpt from Untimed.


About the book:

Charlie’s the kind of boy that no one notices. Hell, his own mother can’t remember his name. So when a mysterious clockwork man tries to kill him in modern day Philadelphia, and they tumble through a hole into 1725 London, Charlie realizes even the laws of time don’t take him seriously. Still, this isn’t all bad. Who needs school when you can learn about history first hand, like from Ben Franklin himself. And there’s this girl… Yvaine… another time traveler. All good. Except for the rules: boys only travel into the past and girls only into the future. And the baggage: Yvaine’s got a baby boy and more than her share of ex-boyfriends. Still, even if they screw up history — like accidentally let the founding father be killed — they can just time travel and fix it, right? But the future they return to is nothing like Charlie remembers. To set things right, he and his scrappy new girlfriend will have to race across the centuries, battling murderous machines from the future, jealous lovers, reluctant parents, and time itself.


Interview with Andy Gavin:

Andy, Untimed is your second book. How long have you been writing, and how did you start?

I’m a lifelong creator and explorer of worlds. As far back as first grade, I remember spending most of the school day in one day dream or another. I had a huge notebook stuffed with drawings, story bits, and concepts for an elaborate Sci-Fi/Fantasy world I cobbled together from bits of Star Wars, Narnia, and Battlestar Galactica. By fourth or fifth grade not only was I loosing myself in every fantasy or Sci-Fi novel I could, but I was building Dungeons & Dragons castles and caverns on paper. Then from 1980 on the computer.

Over the following decades I wrote dozens of stories and created and published over a dozen video games all set in alternative universes. And as an avid reader (over 10,000 novels and who knows how many non-fiction volumes) it was no surprise that I eventually decided to write some books of my own.

Wow. That's quite a background. How did you come up with the title Untimed?

I wanted a single-word title, and I wanted it to imply time travel, so I bounced words and phrases around in my head until I came up with Untimed. It seemed pretty good immediately.

How did you create the plot for this book?

Typically, Untimed began from a fusion of ideas. Lingering in my mind for over twenty years was a time travel story about people from the future who fell “downtime” to relive exciting moments in history (until things go wrong). I worked out a time travel system but had no plot or characters. Separately, in 2010, as a break from editing The Darkening Dream, I experimented with new voice techniques, especially first person present. I also read various “competition.” One of these was The Lightning Thief (the first Percy Jackson novel), which has an amazing series concept (if a slightly limp execution). I love mythology and history, and liked the notion of something with a rich body of material to mine. I wanted an open ended high concept that drew on my strengths, which brought me back to time travel.

Some of the mechanics from my earlier concept merged well with a younger protagonist, voiced in a visceral first person present style. I started thinking about it, and his voice popped into my head. I pounded out a chapter not too dissimilar from the first chapter of the final novel. Then the most awesome villain teleported into the situation. I can’t remember how or why, but it happened quickly and spontaneously. Tick-Tocks were born (or forged).

Do you outline, write by the seat of your pants, or let your characters tell you what to write?

Personally I find the two different modes: plotting vs. just writing, to use different sides of the brain, and therefore useful to stagger. I can only handle a few days of plotting before I need the release of getting it out there. There really isn’t any rush in writing as good as just pounding out a great scene that’s already gelled in your head, and it’s even better when the scene and characters take on a life of their own and bring something novel to the process. Looking back on it, I realize that as a computer programmer I took this same exact alternating approach (between designing the algorithm and just coding) and that the rush and rhythm were nearly identical.

Did you have any say in your cover art?

The cover photo-illustration is by award-winning fantasy artist Cliff Nielsen. I found him originally for my first novel, The Darkening Dream. Back then, I combed through the more recent books in my 10,000 novel collection and put aside ones with covers I liked. Going through those I found like eight (including the new edition of Narnia!) with covers by Cliff. But it was really the Map of Time cover that totally sold me. I had to have him do mine. So I called. With Untimed it was natural to go back to him, as the first cover rocked. I had the Tick-Tock image in mind all along, still he read the book and then we talked. It was instant agreement, had to be Rapier.

Untimed also has interior illustrations by Dave Phillips. I could tell looking at his portfolio that he was an amazing artist. I have a lot of experience judging art, my mother is an oil painter, I half grew up in museums, and video games are all about art. Dave’s figures had an emotive quality, a correctness of proportion, and a sense of motion that only good artists can evoke. I picked twenty-one scenes from the book that seemed to cover the most characters and iconic moments while being fairly well spaced out and then wrote up detailed descriptions. I had really specific images in my head, so I included reference images, particularly costumes and props. Dave did rough drafts of each and pretty much nailed them all. We made a few tweaks and he popped out awesome finished versions. It sounds simple, but it took a few months as he has a day job and twenty-one detailed illustrations takes a while.

Are any of your characters inspired by real people?

Perhaps, but I’m not telling. Really, like most authors, I just borrow bits and pieces of traits from people I know and even from characters in other books and movies. Literary tradition (I include TV and film here) supplies a lot of rough templates.

What song would you pick to go with Untimed?

I’m not sure, but while writing it I listened a hell of a lot to the Daft Punk Tron Legacy album. It seems to fit.

Who are your favorite authors?

I have so many, but to start: George R. R. Martin, Dan Simons, Tim Powers, Orson Scott Card, Guy Gavriel Kay, Sherri S. Tepper, Octavia Butler, Ian M. Banks, Jack L. Chalker, Robin Hobb, Stephen King, Gene Wolfe, Katherine Kurtz, and Vernor Vinge.


Do you have a routine for writing? Do you work better at night, in the afternoon, or in the morning?

My work space is extremely messy but with a great view of Santa Monica and the Pacific Ocean. I write on a 12 core Mac Pro with two Apple 30” monitors. Yeah, I’m a computer geek, and an Apple weenie to boot. I write in Scrivener which is a totally awesome writer’s word processor. Any writer still using Word is crazy.

I just have to interrupt to say I agree on both counts: Apple and Scrivener are awesome! Also, I'm extremely jealous of your view of the Pacific Ocean. Okay, please continue.

Unless something distracting is going on I try to have my butt in the chair by around 10am (after working out) and more or less keep it there until around 6pm. If drafting new prose I try to do about 2000 words a day. I write, then I do a polish pass. If I had to rewrite significantly during that pass I’ll do a third sweep to cleanup.

Then I print and run to my wife for instant feedback. Next, I email it to my mom and my “story consultant” (one of my friends who reads it right away). Feedback is good. I find that I’ll often redraft a chunk on the basis of these early comments.

You read a lot. What three books have you read and would recommend?

Anubis Gates by Tim Powers. Powers has ability to bring to life the fey in a grounded yet truly otherworldly way, and Gates is the best of his many books. It’s totally zany with time travel, werewolves, ancient sorcerers, Romantic poets, and more, yet it totally works.

Hyperion by Dan Simmons. A space opera roughly based on the Canterbury Tales? It’s got not only a massive scope and impressive world building, but repeated and genuine pathos.

A Game of Thrones by George R. R. Martin. Martin has this uncanny ability of making his gigantic cast of characters feel developed and above all, human. He plots like a demon too as the number of twists and reversals is out of control. But fundamentally he really makes you care about the people.

What’s one of your favorite quotes?

“Think of it as evolution in action” is pretty good, but in light of this being about Untimed, we could use a favorite Ben Franklin saying, “Three men can keep a secret, if two of them are dead!”

Gotta love Ben Franklin. What are you working on now?

Yep. Right now, I’m writing two more novels and adapting Untimed into a screenplay. The new books are the Untimed sequel and a totally separate short novel that involves old school fairies and iambic pentameter.

Sounds intriguing. Come back and tell us about them when they're published!

Guest Post by Andy Gavin:

Games, Novels, and Story


Storytelling, the old fashioned way

Modern man has a wide variety of "pure" storytelling mediums, like film, long form television, and novels. While these have some very significant differences they all share the same basic focus on plot and character. Typically at least, good stories introduce a character with problems, get you to like them, then chronicle the struggle as they are compelled to change and adapt to overcome these problems. In the end, they either do so, or are defeated to teach us a lesson (a variant we call tragedy).

These elements: character, plot, and transformational arc, are completely central to the normal story (I deliberately ignore weird experimental storytelling). Really, they are the core of what makes a good film or novel.


                                     
Roman mosaic showing comedy (right) and tragedy (left)

But with a game, this whole business is secondary. The primary focus of a game is fun. And fun through gameplay. Does Tetris have any character or plot? Did even Doom? No. But they were fun games. Really fun.

Games such as Naughty Dog's Jak & Daxter or Uncharted strive to bridge these gaps by offering both. This is very difficult because they don't really serve each other.

The gameplay in Uncharted 2, for example, has three primary modes: survival gunplay, platforming, and puzzle solving. The player must assess the layout of the level, learn it, and navigate it without getting killed. This involves anticipating the enemies and taking them out first. You use the weapons at your disposal, the mechanics, and the terrain provided to do so. With platforming you need to come to understand what the character can do physical, find your way, and successfully traverse the route.



Some games do focus on story

When these are done well, when the design is varied, the levels pretty, the enemies cool, and the challenges measured, challenging and above all, doable - it's fun. Uncharted 2 is such a game.

It also has a pretty darn good story which is woven in with the design of the levels and the challenges. This adds to the whole thing. Watching the next segment of story becomes part of your reward for finishing a segment. There is a tremendous level of art that goes into getting both of these to work at the same time, but certainly each is constrained at times by the needs of the other.

Content in games is expensive and difficult to make. Therefore it needs to repeat. You really do need to shoot the same enemy hundreds of times. Otherwise the enemy isn't providing enough mileage to justify the labor involved to create him. The player is also in control and therefore the consequences of his play affect success or failure.




My first novel

But in storytelling, success and failure are the carefully monitored heartbeat of any good story. You bring the protagonist up, dash him down, grind him into the ground, lift him up, slam him sideways. I knew this intuitively when writing my first novel, The Darkening Dream. I've read so many books and watched so many films and shows that it seemed "obvious." But at the same time, it turned out to be far from easy. Writing a good story has less constraints than making a good game, but it's still extremely difficult. You need to be constantly balancing the issues of character, motivation, the logic of the plot, and the need to seesaw the dramatic tension. In the end, stylistic concerns sometimes overwhelm dramatic ones (to the reader's detriment).

In a game, it's even more complicated, and there is barely a chance of hitting all the right dramatic notes. The player has a lot to say about this natural up and down pacing, so the story-based game tries to separate how well you are really doing from the actual plot. Usually death or failure in the game causes the player to merely repeat some segment of the game (and hence the story), when they finish the level and get the next segment of storytelling, they'll get it regardless of whether they died once or 100 times. The better player merely proceeds faster.

This is different, but even more problematic in a less linear game such as World of Warcraft. There, the mechanics of the game heavily distort the conceits of storytelling. The story is even broadly linked to the chronological evolution of the game in real time. For example, in December of 2009 Blizzard released the Icecrown Citadel patch of Wrath of the Lich King, making it possible for players to finally reach and confront the ultimate boss of the expansion (the titular Lich King). But the fact is, in order to properly maintain the reward mechanics of endgame raiding, each character was and often did, progress through this segment of the story once, or even twice a week.



The Lich King

Now, two years later, the Lich King has been defeated, the world of Azeroth has been broken, yet it's still possible to go back to Icecrown and take on Arthas again. And again. Ditto for any of the several hundred even older bosses. Players accept that they have random access to a long and convoluted story. In fact, the need to generate so much gameplay in WOW has created a body of lore that gives the Silmarillion a run for its money. But the way in which it's experienced mutes the emotional intensity.

What really provides the excitement in WOW (and many other games), isn't the question of whether the dragon queen Onyxia lives or dies, but the - shall we dare say - drama of whether she does tonight, for us, the group fighting her. And more importantly, will she drop the Nemesis skullcap (arbitrary cool piece of loot) one has been trying to get for six months.

Excerpt from Untimed

“You think me daft, do you?” the girl in the refuse pile says. “You’re from the future.”

Living the last hour in a high-budget documentary has made me a time travel believer, so I’ll take her word for it.

“How do you know?”

“Boys always be from the future. What’s me name?”

“Yvaine?” I say.

Her smile is so genuine it startles me.

“There you go. I haven’t never heared that since I was a wee bit.”

I know how she feels even if I only mostly understand what she says.

“Help a lady up, Charlie.”

I take the hand she extends, pull her upright, then kick my feet into the dirty pair of shoes I took off when I ran after her. Her scruffy outline stands out with unnatural clarity.

This cinches it. I know how to spot the historically homeless!

Dad’s history books, all his lessons, swirl in my head. He totally knew! If us extra-in-focus-no-names are time travelers, and he and Sophie have been off visiting the Crusades or whenever, why’d they wait till right before the clockwork cop showed up before trying to tell me?

“Are you from the future too?” I ask.

“You know nothin’, dinna you?” Yvaine cuffs me on the arm. “Boys are from the future, girls are from the past.”

“Where? I mean when? And when is now?”

“Let’s cosy someplace warm.” She tugs me toward the alley entrance. “We’ll be lucky not t’catch cold.”

“That’s what my mother would say.”

“I’m not your mother.”


Check out the book trailer for Untimed:



About the author:

I’m an unstoppable storyteller who studied for his Ph.D. at M.I.T. and founded video game developer Naughty Dog, Inc. at the age of fifteen, serving as co-president for two decades. There I created, produced, and directed over a dozen video games, including the award winning and best selling Crash Bandicoot and Jak & Daxter franchises, selling over 40 million units worldwide. I sleep little, read novels and histories, watch media obsessively, travel, blog (a million hits last year!), and of course, write.

Connect with Andy:
Website | Blog | Facebook | Goodreads | Twitter | Amazon | sample chapters 

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