Tuesday, March 31, 2009


Here's some of my photo inspiration for the Shallow Sea book that I'm rewriting.

Originally I had three first person VPs, but my ROR colleagues felt they weren't differentiated enough. The reason I'd used first person was because I had invented a person called a Twisted, who was small and genderless. I wanted to tell one of the narrative threads from this Twisted's VP. This meant I had the problem of finding a non-gender specific pronoun, or writing those scenes from first person.

Inventing a non-gender specific pronoun is a very SF thing to do and I've read several short stories and books where the author has done this. I've never found it very successful, because every time I come across the invented word it throws me out of the story. This doesn't happen with invented nouns, but for some reason the invented pronoun jarrs, at least it does for me.

So I've compromised and left the Twisted scenes in first person, while rewriting the other two narrative threads in deep third person. Note, I've said 'deep' third person. I want to immerse the reader in the character and their struggles so they will identify and empathise with them. Even though I've gone from first person to deep third person, it's surprising how many subtle changes this makes to the narrative.

I think it is working really well. I know I've come across other books where some of the narratives threads are first person and some are third person. I found once I was immersed in the story it didn't worry me.

How do others feel about it?

Monday, March 30, 2009

There is always an exception

Jetlagged and zomboid I'm back from the US and Lunacon. Cons are a poor excercise in marketing and a great one in networking. I've been clearing my inbox and following - on one of the lists I am part of - the ardent efforts of some sensible writers to persuade an ardent young man that, really, publishing isn't interested in another novelization of a rpg, with a sort of write by numbers set of 'powers'. Trust me on this: it's probably the least likely thing to please an agent or publisher.



I happen to be an admirer of Australian writer Chris McMahon's work. I was sitting in the audience at Lunacon when he sat on a panel with a couple of editors and an experienced author, when someone asked where he got his ideas from. I watched how the jaws fell open (mine too) when he said 'it started as an RPG'.

I've read that book. It's really, really good. I would never have guessed that source in a 1000 years. It's complex, deep, well motivated.

Someone on the panel summed it up when they said that because one extremely skilled writer could do it, it wasn't going to work for most.

But there is always an exception. And a new look and good writing can make the oldest trope in the book seem new and exciting.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Storming Hell

The short story is supposed to be a dead art form but somehow it staggers on in SF & F.

I have always been a keen fan of reading short stories. I also enjoy writing them. It is a different skill to writing a novel. You learn to be concise and well planned. You don't have room for a single wasted word.

I am rather chuffed to find that one of my shorts is the cover story for the April 'Jim Baen's Universe' magazine (see pic).

I have also just sold a story to Black Library based on the universe of Warhammer 40,000AD. It is called Last Man Standing and is going well.

More later,


Friday, March 27, 2009

But how do I start writing? -- part two

By Jennifer Stevenson

Okay, say you’re one of those people so unlike me that you are painfully humble. You think nobody listens to you now, so why should they read what you write? You think you have no contribution to make to anything, not even the world of trashy entertainment, where I myself am struggling to make a buck.

Right now, I will give you an exercise that will show you how unique you are. How your voice is a marketable force. Why someone will want to read whatever you write, whatever you choose to say. You will need to find at least two other friends who will try it with you. Four is better.

Are you ready?

Finding your voice: fan mail from the future

In this exercise, you will learn at least five things about your writing that make it unique, that mark your voice as one in a million, that will point you toward where you will make a success of your writing. You will get some fan mail in advance. You will read the back of your twelfth paperback, where they print all the five-star reviews.

This exercise may take two sessions to complete.

Session one you can manage alone. Or your writer friends can help. This takes long enough to pile up about a two-inch-high pile of clippings.

1) Find a pile of old magazines, preferably a mixture. Your library sells them for two bits per issue. Pick up a Vogue, a Road and Track, a National Geographic, a TIME, an Entertainment Weekly, a Tiger Beat, and a Fly Fishing Quarterly.

2) Cut out a big pile of pictures. Be picky. Take only the ones that appeal to you.

Session two requires three to five writers. This takes about two hours.

3) Sit in a circle in front of your pile of magazine pictures. Everyone choose two pictures. Push the rest of the pictures aside when you have chosen your two.

4) Someone use a stopwatch to time this. Everyone look at their own first picture. Start the stopwatch for two minutes. Write for two minutes about the picture in front of you. There are no rules. Your snippet doesn’t have to be first person or third. It doesn’t even have to be about the picture. Just have the picture in front of you while you write. It is okay to suck. At the end of two minutes, do this again for your second picture.

5) Now that you’ve written about each of your choices, pass your pictures to the person on your left and take the pictures from the person on your right. Rinse. Repeat.

6) When everyone has written a two-minute snippet about their own and everyone else’s pictures, one by one, each of you read all of your snippets aloud, one after the other. Listeners jot down two or three things about what they are hearing. When the reader has finished, everyone reads aloud their comments. Tell the writer what you felt when you listened. Tell them what you noticed. Tell them what you were guessing about the rest of the story, even though there is no “rest of the story.” Examples of comments:
“Your stuff makes me laugh.”
“All your pieces are in first person -- I did this, I saw that.”
“There’s lots of description. I can really see and feel things.”
“I hear lots of emotion in your writing. I’m right there with the character.”
“Wow, nonstop action!”
“I notice there’s always a conversation, even if the picture has no people in it.”
“I can tell this is going to be a mystery!”
“They’re going to fall in love, aren’t they?”
“She’s going to kill him with that fork, isn’t she?”

Notice that every one of these comments is positive. If you don’t like what you hear, find something positive to say, or don’t comment at all.

7) While you are listening to your friends read their work aloud, notice this: You all wrote about exactly the same pictures. Yet what you each wrote is very different. The combination of what you care about, how you feel, what you want to say, and how you chose to say it, all mixed together to make a unique voice. Nobody, listening to those snippets, would ever guess they were all written about the same set of pictures.

8) As you listen to your friends comment on your work, write it all down. This is exactly what you will be reading in your fan mail, ten years from now, after your eighth novel is published. This is how the Kansas City Star will review your books.

Because this is the core of your voice.

Your voice doesn’t change over time. It just gets more intense. Your voice is who you are. If you can find your own voice and love it and feed it and let it run free to say what it says best, you will sell like crazy.

Yeah, it wouldn’t hurt if you knew some grammar. But grammar can be taught.

Your voice is not taught, it is you. Learn what it is, respect it, nurture it, experiment until you figure out what sort of story it wants to tell.

And then put the seat of your pants to the seat of the chair.

-Jennifer Stevenson
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JenStevenson on twitter

Wednesday, March 25, 2009


Just a quick note to say Sarah is on vacation, recovering from kidnapping Dave Freer. She'll return next week with all the news.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

World Building

I have to run a workshop for the Australian National Romance Conference on World Building for paranormal, fantasy and futuristic writers. The thing about World Building is that if you do it really well, people don't notice it. The World Building goes on behind the scenes and motivates the characters.

So I've decided rather than create a shopping list of attributes for created societies, I'll work from the other direction (which is what I do anyway). When I write I start out with the person and their problem and the world evolves from there. This may sound really crazy and cause all kinds of problems, such as how can I be consistent? But I've always been fascinated by the way societies evolve and the pressures this places on people. So I've done a lot of reading and I trust myself to wing it.

If you stop and look at a lot of the things we do and why, they seem very arbitrary. As long as the created society has an internal logic, even where it is inconsistent, people will accept this. After all, why would you withhold education from half the population, then complain that they are stupid and can't be trusted with the vote?

Besides, I think creating a story with character, plot and world building will be a better hands-on way to explore the craft of World Building. I'm hoping the problems that arise as we come up with stories, will cause discussion and clarify points. And I'll have my back up list of questions in case I need them!

Monday, March 23, 2009


For those who might be wondering where Dave is today, he was kidnapped after his Guest of Honor duties at Lunacon were over. The culprits? A family by the name of Hoyt -- Specifically, MGC's own Sarah A. Hoyt and her family. They do promise to return him in time for his next post. Until then, they are enjoying having Dave not only on the same continent but in the same city with them.

Sunday, March 22, 2009


by Jennifer Stevenson

Hel is an energy vampire. She has joined roller derby because skating counter-clockwise with twenty women generates extra prana, and so she doesn't have to suck the life out of innocent people. Which is why her derby name is Sump Pump. This is from chapter 13.

At roller derby practice that night I take out four skaters in a row, including Sacker Tart and the fearsome Trigger Happy, recently voted Rookie of the Year and League's Most Intimidating. Trig looks at me in surprise from the floor, but she grins, so I figure she won't go after me with any special malice next time. Still, I watch my back. I always watch my back. In spite of my super-strength and speed, I've been careful not to seek Most Intimidating status in the league. I need derby too much.
Scrimmage practice ends, and those of us sufficiently hard core stay on for speed class. Trig asks me if I've got something on my mind. She has been friendlier since last summer, when she first joined. She's a cop, an investigator with da Mayor's anti-hinkiness division. I don't trust her any farther than I would any other six-foot glamazon.
"I'm cool," I lie. "Why, are you defending your title?"
"You've got some go-juice tonight."
"Yeah. New vitamin." It's called fear, I'm thinking.
"Well get, ready for some vitamin J for Jamitupyourass," she says, and we line up for the sprint. The whistle goes and I streak away from the line as if last night's unremembered nightmares are catching up to me. I hear cheers. I'm putting everything I've got into it, and when I look around I realize I'm half the length of the track away from the rest. It's too late to slow down. I've blown my cover. I don't want to slow down anyway. I'm scared and angry, scared of Agent Nick Jones and angry at myself for lusting for him and scared for my Ma and angry at the world for, well, for about everything right now. The other girls start to catch up and I throw away caution. I pour it on. Within eleven seconds I'm lapping the laggers. Then the sprint is over, and I'm getting thumped on the back.
"Sheesh, Sump Pump, what the fuck is that vitamin? I gotta get me some of that," says Trig. I respond suitably, panting, because that was a great sprint, and moreover there is extra prana in the air and I want to suck it up.
I'm careful to act tuckered out from my recent star sprint on the next round. Coach comes up to me and asks if I've been holding back on her, because she wants to see that kind of speed next time I jam. I promise she will. I'm not even angry at myself any more. Apparently even my energy-vampire-enhanced body can do more than I thought it could. I shouldn't be surprised. That's what I've been learning for the past year since I joined derby.
The prana is knee deep in here, and I'm higher than a 7‑Eleven full of stoners at three a.m.
Sacker Tart lines up next to me with a gleam in her eye, and I think, okay, I've challenged the league speed demon and she's gonna lick me now.
I feel good, in a reckless, insane kind of way. It's the prana talking, and I don't care. I feel drunk. Only it's a good kind of drunk, no a soggy, self-pitying, self-destructive kind of drunk.
"Skaters to your mark," calls coach. The whistle goes. I blaze away from the line, pouring it on, breathing deeply and evenly. Again I am half a length ahead at the turn, and lap the last three people by the time I've made my three laps. The girls are cheering and clicking their wristguards. I think, I'm gonna skate like this in the next bout, and my next thought is, There won't be a next bout, 'cuz you'll be in Hinky Guantanamo and nobody will set eyes on you again ever.
Speed sprints are over. We start the endurance section. I've never taken in prana during endurance. It would seem like cheating.
Tonight I do. It's as if Ma's hospital bills and Agent Nick and oh shit, I remember Dr. Katterfelto and his fakey German accent and his diagnosis of my screwed-up aura, does my life not suck enough? And I just want to skate as far and as fast as I can. I settle into a nice long stride with a deep breathing pattern, and soon I've lost the pack, in my own little world where the wheels meet the floor and the turns come like a video-game Indy 500.
I realize, fourteen laps into the heat, that I'm chanting in my head. What I'm chanting is "straighten up and fly right."
There's a message on my cell when I get out of practice. Agent Nick. "Call me." I ignore it. For the first time since I don't know when, I go out to the bar with the girls. Tenneby's has been a bar for almost a hundred years, fancy pressed-tin walls and a suspended milk-glass ceiling, oak bar three inches thick, Tiffany lamps. We sit around the tall tables on the tall stools, laughing and throwing back car bombs, and I realize that I feel good. I'm not paranoid or angry or depressed. Trig has a hot boyfriend who shows up to bouts, and she tells extravagant lies about what they do in bed. Everyone laughs incredulously except Sacker Tart, who just looks thoughtful and a little wistful. Sacker Tart is a porn star in her day job. She's by far the most glamorous of us all. Like me, many of the derby girls are schoolteachers.
Except for Trig, the anti-magic cop. I stay aware of her without seeming to watch. If she has the smallest clue who I am, I'm screwed for real.
But Trig is only crowing about my speed. "You rock," she says, thumping my shoulder with a fist. "We're gonna kill those bitches from Milwaukee next time."
I lift my car bomb. "Here's to killing Milwaukee." We all drink to that. The energy in this bar right now is so sweet, so good. I wonder, in some rebel corner of my mind, if I've been wrong all these years. If I shouldn't have just relaxed and had some fun. The girls all look at me suddenly, as if in answer to this thought, and I feel a sudden surge of good energy, with a little extra tingle in it.
Then I realize they're looking behind me. There's warmth on my back. I feel my face change before I can control it, and I turn around, and it's Agent Nick, touching me, smirking at all the female good humor staring at him.
"You didn't call back," he says. "I worried."
"I was busy," I say. He stands there, radiating self-satisfaction and delicious, delicious energy. I take a tiny hit of chi off him before I can control myself. Oh, God. So good. I only meant to bring him down a little, keep his dick from leading him into saying something that will lead me into doing something that will get me into trouble.
He doesn't seem to mind. He doesn't even droop. He flushes, looking at me, and his energy output surges. I smell the woody on him as if he is the only warm body in the room.
"Introduce us, Sump Pump," says Sacker Tart, and Skater Spice says, "Yeah."
I raise my eyebrows at Agent Nick and he obliges, calling himself Nick Jones without the agent in front of it. He's smiling as if he doesn't know how to stop. The horndog.
I'd be jealous, only I know the woody is for me.
For two cents I could beat myself over the head with my car bomb mug. Instead I order another. Agent Nick takes advantage to draw up a stool and join us, ordering beer. The girls scoot over so he can sit next to me.
I feel like the candy store has parked itself in my pocket. Oh-God good. And bad. I don't know.
Agent Nick drapes his arm across the wire back of my barstool and murmurs in my ear, under cover of the chatter and the sidelong looks, "How'd it go at the doctor?"
At least one girl nearby sends us a look that says Doctor? I roll my eyes at the ceiling. "I don't want to talk about it."
"Your thumb drive isn't answering," he added.
So it was a bug, or a tracer or something. "I threw it away," I say.
He looks shocked. "That was very expensive."
I shrug and smile, feeling drunk and loving it for the first time in years. "I should have told you. I lose things."
He leans very close to my ear and murmurs, "It could be a tracer anklet."
He draws back to see the effect of this.
"No," I say, looking him in the eye with my vampire Look, "It couldn't." This should reduce him to something I can swat down, but he actually seems to expand a little. Does this guy not understand rejection? I've met his type, but most of them are, well, drunker or meaner, or both. Everything I do to him seems to make him hornier.
Now that's interesting, says a completely ungovernable corner of my brain.
"Later," I say firmly. "Drink your beer. It's getting cold."
And for a miracle he seems to accept this. He takes his arm off the back of my chair where it has been lying so temptingly, and picks up his beer and drinks, looking demurely around at the girls who are talking about everything except what they're all thinking, which is undoubtedly, Sump Pump has a boyfriend?! Sacker in particular is getting runny over him, and I'm not being metaphorical here, I can smell it. Trigger Happy has a semiprofessional cop eye on him that makes me wonder if she's sussed him. I drain my car bomb and order another.
But they finally relax, and I relax ... a little more ... and Nick talks like a normal person to Skater Spice and I tease the coach about her new tattoo and it's fun again. I absolutely refuse to think about what a terrible, terrible idea it is for me to be drunk in public with friends. God, did I just call them friends? They must be friends, or I wouldn't feel this good. Wake up, Hel, there's a federal agent at your elbow. Who has the drop on you.
Yeah, and I want the drop on him.
My car bomb slips out of my fingers at this thought and he catches it before it can hit the table.
"Girl, you can't hold your likker," says coach in amusement, and I think, how wrong you are.
"Good thing I can hold her likker," Nick says, and I turn to him to tell him to give me back my car bomb and he leans in and kisses me.
It's like having a train come straight at me and touch me warm and soft on the lips. His energy is bigger than the sun. He's hot and pink in the face. He smells like man. I do not even think of taking a hit off him.
He pulls away, looking surprised, and then kisses me again, harder, and I grab the back of his head and open my mouth to him.
I'm falling into his warm human flesh, the sweet strong pulse in his chest, in his throat. I smell oil from his car keys on his fingers where they touch my cheek. I want to crawl down his shirt front and sleep on his chest. I want to purr.
I come down to clapping, hoots, and cries of, "Get a room!"
"Busted," he says breathlessly when our mouths part.
I look straight into his eyes. He's glazed over with lust. "Yes. You are."
I'd like to say that I have a hazy idea of getting the drop on him somehow if I can just get him into bed, but honestly all I want is to get him into bed. Now. Soon. Before I sober up and panic, or God forbid start to cry, because there are tears in my future now, fer sure. Let me have one quickie with the federal hottie before that happens. Before my life is officially over.
I could stop now, I suppose, but of course that won't happen.
I look at the table and calculate hazily what my bar bill must be. "I make it about fifty bucks," I say uncertainly.
Nick pulls out a roll and tosses a fifty on the table. "C'mon," he says "let's get you home."
More hooting. I realize I have to keep my face on for a few more minutes anyway and throw a ribald glance around the table, rolling my eyes and smiling foolishly. They're all looking at me with something I can't figure out. Coach actually seems to look concerned, and Trig passes me a special wink as if from one ridiculously oversexed slut to another, and Sacker just looks envious, and I can't bear it, I tuck my head down and blush and let Nick lead me out of there.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

The dreaded second novel

I am currently employed writing my second novel, and we all know the curse of the second novel. Many great writers, among whose company I cannot be included, have come to grief at this point in their careers. I came across a fascinating list of disappointing second novel s that followed bestsellers, while perusing the Times .
Here we go:
Barbary Shore , Norman Mailer, following The Naked and the Dead
Marabou Stalk Nightmares, Irvine Welsh, following Trainspotting
Shirly, Charlotte Bronte, following Jane Eyre
Something Happened, Joseph Heller, following Catch 22
Thirteen Moons, Charles Frazier, following Cold Mountain
Valperga, Mary Shelly, following Frankenstein
Walking on Glass, Iain Banks, following The Wasp Factory

Oscar Wilde (The Picture of Dorian Gray), Boris Pasternak (Dr Zhivago), Margaret Mitchell (Gone with the Wind), Emily Bronte (Wuthering Heights) and Anna Sewell (Black Beauty) never did get round to writing another one.

I am trying to decide whether I should feel encouraged that even great writers can come to grief or utterly demoralised because if these guys can’t do it then what hope do I have?

On another note, here is a picture taken a couple of months ago of Bleak House, above Broadstair's Harbour. Dickens used to write in a study with a window overlooking the English Channel. The jetty on the right is Eagles Landing, where the captured French Eagles were brought ashore after the Battle of Waterloo, bringing the first news of Wellington's Great Victory.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Critiques, Retreats, and Alpha/Beta Readers

Rowena's post got me thinking about critique. Last weekend I was on a panel at Flycon about Alpha and Beta readers, and learned a few things (like what Alpha and Beta readers are; I hadn't heard the terms before). There's an archive of the panel if anyone wants to wade through all the posts.

So, a few of the things I learned and discussed. Alpha readers are readers to whom you give your in-progress or first draft work. In my case, the critique group I'm in sometimes plays this role. Beta readers are folks you ask to read a manuscript that's more finished, perhaps a later draft/polished final. Sometimes a beta reader is a specialist in a field your work references, and you want them to vet the piece for accuracy in that field.

The discussion made me realize that I've shifted from using my group as alpha readers to using them as beta readers. Specifically, I no longer bring novels in progress to my critique group, though what I bring them is often a first draft. The reason is that I've observed that critique on a WIP can often derail the writer. They may get distracted and decide to change the novel before they've finished it. Sometimes this results in their being caught in an endless loop of revision and losing sight of their original vision.

So I no longer bring unfinished novels to my group. I'd rather get to the end of a draft without being distracted by new ideas, some of which are wonderful and cool. My group has great ideas, and each member views things a bit differently. That's enormously valuable. I want to hear those ideas—after I've got a complete draft. Then if I want to include them, I can work them in.

Rowena's obviously got a great group of trusted peers who gather for group critique. That's fantastic and it's also unfortunately rare. I've heard from lots of writers, some on the Flycon panel, who have never found a critique group they could work with. I'm lucky on that one, but I've also cultivated my group for a couple of decades. It's not an everyone's-invited group. Those can be great, but I prefer working in a small group of known and trusted writers.

Retreats like the one Rowena went to are great for another reason. Getting away from home and all the million little should-dos and obligations is very liberating for a writer. Going to a new environment and interacting with people outside one's normal circle are invigorating. I'm going to a workshop this year on the Oregon Coast that will give me both of these.

Every writer does things differently. What are your thoughts about critique?

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Education really does pay

From a Ft. Worth newspaper:

The U.S. unemployment rate was 8.1 percent in February, the highest in about 25 years. A closer look reveals that the jobless rate is an alarming 12.6 percent for people who lack a high school diploma. It’s considerably lower, 8.3 percent, for high school graduates, and only 4.1 percent for college graduates.
A nationwide Census Bureau survey showed these estimated annual median incomes for 2007 for workers 25 and older at varying levels of education:
•$19,405, less than high school graduate.
•$26,894, high school graduate (includes equivalency certification).
•$32,874, some college or an associate (community college) degree.
•$46,805, bachelor’s degree.
•$61,287, graduate or professional degree.

I'm really, really glad to see that beloved son's expensive education should pay for itself. Eventually.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Con Crud Strikes

In truth, pneumonia struck first and then a battle with feather allergies during last weekend's con added insult to injury. As a result, Sarah is still feeling under the weather and will not be blogging this week. She will be back next week, as long as real life doesn't interfere again.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Surviving the Critique

These photos were taken with my phone camera from the back veranda of where we stayed, so they don't do the scene justice. We had an almost 180 degree view of a deep valley with mist in the morning, and sun traveling over it during the day.

Well, I survived ROR 2009. When ever I go away on these critiquing weekends I read the manuscripts before hand and write up my notes. Beforehand, I slave over my book, trying to make as good as possible and I go away feeling quite prepared.

By the end of the weekend, I discover all these things about my book that I overlooked, and I'm inspired to improve it. And, after hearing everyone else's critiques of the other books and reading them, I feel quite humbled. That's the power of the group mind. Although I shouldn't really call it a group mind, that makes it sound consistent. We are all so different, with differing strengths that it makes for interesting insights into the books and the way we write.

The important thing to bear in mind when having your work critiqued is to keep your vision for the book, while being open to new ideas. Try out ways ways to incorporate suggestions. Plus critiquing other people's books helps hone your analytical skills.

I can only judge by the people I know through ROR but writers strike me as lucky. They're passionate about their craft, generous with their knowledge and eager to see a fellow writer improve.

Now back to the real world. Sigh.

Monday, March 16, 2009

So where did THAT come from?

Someone told me this weekendthat a famous fantasy author avoided reading fantasy while he wrote, as he was scared he'd accidentally plagiarise...
My response was that my memory is so cluttered with 45 years of reading, I am sure that everything I write is somehow derivative. It's usually just very well mixed. And that fellow Pratchett plagiarised my unpublished ideas... of course he didn't, but I have seen both myself and other authors evolve similar ideas , independently. I've written a book which would have me accused of plagiarising TP... Only I wrote mine 5 years before he did. And no he did NOT steal my idea. But we both read - obviously - many of the same books. Everything is derivative, in a way.

They went on to say that well, perhaps the answer was just not to read any fantasy. I can happily say that this is a very bad idea. There are a number of authors in literary fiction who've proved this very well. People like Winterson and Atwood who put a lot of effort into saying publically how rubbish that squids in space 'sci-fi' stuff is (which, um, suggests they're terribly well read in the genre, doesn't it?), and then proceed to write sf (which just because it has robots and space ships doesn't make it sci-fi, as they put it) very, very badly. It's not their writing skills per se. It's their ignorance of the conventions of the genre. Now, genre conventions -- and literary fiction has its own set -- are evolved traditions, and like most evolved traditions developed from a seed of common sense wisdom at the time. All genre conventions - whether in murder mystery, literary fiction, biographies or fantasy - drag along a lot of garbage which meant something back when they evolved. And they also carry the elements which make the genre work for audiences. Yep, there may be better ways of connecting with the audience. But it is statistically improbable that you're going to come up with a better way from scratch. You're far more likely to get there by disposing of elements of the present convention which seem outdated, and retaining that which works. And yes, of course you should read other genres, and borrow from them. But an entire transplant of murder mystery (which tends to be plot heavy) into epic fantasy (which tends to be character heavy) is not going to work for the readers who love that genre. So thinking you're going to stun habitual fantasy readers with your new fantasy novel if you've never read any -- is wishful thinking most of the time. It could work. But it probably won't. If you're that lucky, buy a lotto ticket instead of writing. It's quicker and just as likely. Otherwise: read a lot of what you want to write.

That said: a lot of sf and fantasy is very closely derivative. And a lot of it is derivative of derivative. 'Oh no, not another collect the tokens Tolkein-clone... ' So: does the field get tired and need something new? Yep, of course. But here is the kicker -- 'new' is actually a bitch to sell to editors and even to readers. It has to really shine very, very bright. Otherwise... well the field actually loves 'old' - especially if you can put a new twist to it and give it a good voice.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Sunday snippet: sample chapter from THE BETRAYAL

Sample from The Betrayal copyright © 2008 by Pati Nagle and Del Rey Books. All rights reserved. No part of this text may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without written permission of the author. Exceptions are made for downloading this file to a computer for personal use.


A footfall on the forest floor below brought Eliani's head up sharply. The scroll in her hands curled back into itself. She had not been reading it-her thoughts had drifted long since. The Lay of the Battle of Westgard had failed to entrance her today.

She leaned out from the branch where she sat and peered down between the leaves of her favorite oak, seeking the sound's source. A shadow of movement below, the edge of a cloak curling out of sight. Not a kobalen, then. Nor could it be a guardian, for Alpinon's patrols were always at least three strong.

Eliani laid a hand against the oak's trunk-slender here, near its top-and closed her eyes. The tree's khi was slow and deep. She sent her own khi through it and out into the forest: roots running strong into the earth, whisper-fine grasses moving with each light breeze, small creatures dwelling in branch or under root. A much brighter, stronger pulse of khi reverberated through the wood, one that could only be ælven. Eliani drew back from it, as the ælven did not trespass upon one another's khi.

She opened her eyes and carefully set her scroll in a notch of two branches where she had stored little treasures since childhood. She loved the old ballad-heroic mindspeakers and soul-consuming alben warlords still thrilled her despite her inattention today-but her curiosity about the intruder was more immediate.

She moved stealthily down to the oak's lowest limbs, making no sound at all, for she could have climbed the tree blindfolded in any direction. Peering on a lower branch, she saw a solitary figure walking away northward: tall, male, pale-haired.

She caught her breath, thinking for an instant that it was an alben. Fear set her heart pulsing before reason reminded her that an alben would not be walking in daylight, even if he dared to cross the mountains into Alpinon.

No, it was a Greenglen, his hair not white but pale blond, as was common to his clan. He wore a cloak of Clan Greenglen's colors-sage lined with silver-and carried a long bow slung over one shoulder.

Greenglens were rarely seen in Alpinon, though their homeland of Southfæld shared a nearby border. Eliani had met only a handful of them in her short fifty years, and none recently.

She smiled a hunter's silent pleasure. She would track this foreigner, try to glimpse his face, see how long she could follow him unnoticed. It was the sort of game she most enjoyed, and she was good at it, having spent the last two decades in Alpinon's Guard. She felt a moment's wistfulness, reminded that soon she would become the Guard's commander. The other guardians would call her "Warden" instead of "Kestrel," the nickname they had given her.

Tomorrow, on Autumn Evennight, she would be confirmed in her majority and formally named heir and designated successor to her father, Felisan, Governor of Alpinon. The command of the Guard would pass to her as well. This was her last day of youth and irresponsibility. A little mischief might be forgiven her, this last time.

Grinning, she turned her attention to her quarry. She tensed her thighs, balanced carefully, and sprang to the forest floor, making no more sound than the falling of a leaf.


Turisan walked at his ease, enjoying the rich earthen smell and myriad colors of autumn leaves, only mildly curious at first about his pursuer. He was not quite certain how long he had been followed.

He was not averse to meeting a patrol from Alpinon's guard. In fact he half hoped to encounter one, for he had not previously been in this realm and did not know the way to Highstone. His pursuer, however, though certainly ælven, was evidently not a guardian. Such a one would have challenged him, not stalked him. He therefore continued to stride through Alpinon's fair woodlands, which were full of life and untouched by ælven hands, as unlike as could be to his home in Glenhallow.

Pausing to examine a spray of scarlet leaves, he saw a flicker of movement above. His brow creased in a slight frown. It was impolite to treat a visitor so, whether or not they knew who he was. He began to tire of the game.

And now he could hear his father berating him for not bringing along an escort suitable to his dignity. Had he been accompanied by ten of Southfæld's Guard, as Lord Jharan had wished, no zealous Stonereach would have dared to stalk him. In Jharan's view, a member of Southfæld's governing house should never travel unattended, though he walk through the most benign lands. Indeed, he should not walk. He should ride a finely caparisoned steed, or better yet take his ease in a chariot emblazoned with marks of state, surrounded by a mounted escort.

It was such excess of ceremony that made Turisan long so often to be gone from the court at Glenhallow. The more he learned of the intricacies of governance, the more he yearned for the simplicity of a wild wood, a clear stream, and the flicker of stars through leafy branches.

This journey was in part an escape from court formalities, though at the end of it they awaited him again. His father had sent him here on a visit of ceremony, to pay respects and carry messages to Lord Felisan, the governor of Alpinon, and to witness the confirmation of his heir.

Turisan had made no objection to this errand, for he knew it to be his duty as his father's nextkin. Lord Jharan's eyes, so often stern, grew soft with fondness whenever he spoke of Felisan, and that alone made Turisan curious to know him. He also expected the visit to Alpinon's woodlands to satisfy his longing for wildness. Yet even here in the forest he was to have no peace, it seemed. Annoyed all at once, he turned in mid-stride and nocked an arrow to his bow, aiming it amidst the branches overhead.

"You have followed me half the afternoon. Come down and declare your business with me, or begone."

A moment's silence. Then a rustle in the branches, and a lanky ælven female in worn and dusky hunting leathers emerged, landing softly before him. She brushed a strand of nut-brown hair from her green eyes and stood gazing at him.

"Peace to you, friend. I meant no harm. We seldom have visitors from the south."

Turisan lowered his bow. "And who are you?"

The little chin went up, then a corner of her mouth curled. "I am called Kestrel. I am kin to Lord Felisan."

Surprised, Turisan paused to return arrow to quiver while he reevaluated her status. No rustic this, whatever her appearance. Even a lesser relative of Lord Felisan deserved his respect, though she had not given her true name. He bowed.

"It is to bring messages to Lord Felisan that I have come. Will you honor me by guiding me to his house?"

The green eyes lit. "Messages? From Southfæld?"

Turisan smiled. "From Glenhallow."

He had thought mention of Southfæld's seat of government would thrill her. She drew a breath, as of deep pleasure, then surprised him by replying with quiet dignity.

"It will be my honor to guide you."

She turned and with a friendly glance over her shoulder, started northward. Turisan hastened to come up with her. Though not as tall as he, she had a guardian's purposeful stride. She looked at him sidelong as they walked apace.

"Forgive my discourtesy, I pray. What visitors we do receive from Southfæld generally come by the trade road."

Turisan smiled to show he held no grievance. "I prefer the woodlands."

"So do I. You have no horse? Glenhallow sends its messengers on foot?"

"I have a horse. I left it with the guardians at Midrange, thinking to enjoy a walk this fine day. I believe it is not far to Highstone?"

"No, not far." She smiled, her mouth twisting up in some private amusement.

Not a rustic, and not quite so young as he had first thought. Turisan observed her while she answered his polite questions about the land through which they walked.

She was fair of face and form, her coloring middle-dark as was common in the Stonereach clan, her figure well enough though leaner than the gently-bred maidens of Glenhallow's court. Turisan, being accustomed to receive the open admiration of every maid he met, was intrigued and somewhat abashed to realize that this female seemed more interested in his messages than in himself.

It would be a lesson to him, he acknowledged silently. He had indeed dwelt too long at court.

The woodlands, all ablaze with autumn, grew denser. Turisan's legs told him they were climbing, though at first the slope was scarcely noticeable. It became a true hill before long, and led to numberless others increasing in size, greenleaf trees giving way to tall pines as they proceeded from foothills into the mountains proper. Though he would have enjoyed a rest, his guide seemed unweary and he followed her onward, reflecting that the day he could not outmarch a slip of a Stonereach girl was the day he should renounce his heritage and become a magehall acolyte.

The mountain air took on a chill as evening fell, and warm glints of light had for some time been showing through the trees when they reached a road that sloped upward along one side of a pine-filled valley. It led to a town centered on a level shelf of rock, where houses spread out from an open public circle and clung to the steep, rocky walls above and below. A pale river cascaded through the chasm to the north, and he heard the distant roar of a waterfall.

His guide paused at the edge of the circle. "Welcome to Highstone."

This was Alpinon's chief city, then. Smaller than Turisan had expected. The houses were built of stone with steep, slated roofs to shed snow. Their ornamentation was minimal and rough compared with that of Glenhallow's graceful buildings, but after the long walk the glow of their lighted windows in the blue-shadowed dusk was especially welcoming.

The grandest structure was a long hall situated on an outcrop commanding the valley a little way above the public circle. Its roof timbers were carved with stag's heads, the token of Clan Stonereach. A row of tall, arched windows gave a muted glow through tapestries already drawn for the night.

"Felisanin Hall. Come, they will be at table. We are in time to join the meal."

"I would not intrude on Lord Felisan. Will you show me to a place where I can await his leisure?"

She grinned. "We are not so formal here. He would berate me for keeping an honored guest waiting. Surely you are tired and hungry?"


"Come, then."

She led the way across the circle with a backward glance to see that he followed, and started up the steep stone stair beyond that led up to the governor's hall. Reflecting that a lack of formality did not necessarily imply a poor table, Turisan hastened after his guide.


Eliani could not wait to see the faces of the household when she introduced their exotic guest. She was certain now that he was high-ranking. Elusive, too; he had said little about himself, and had turned aside a probing question or two with practiced ease.

She had longed to question the visitor about his homeland and what was happening outside Alpinon, but as he had clearly not wished to discuss such things with her, she had refrained. When asked the same questions by her father he could scarcely refuse to answer, and so she would hear the news all the same.

Pausing in the hearthroom that served as entrance to Felisanin Hall, Eliani warmed her hands by the welcoming hearth and looked more closely at the stranger while he gave his cloak, bow, and small pack into the keeping of the attendants who came forward to welcome him.

He was tall and slim, though his firm shoulders told of strength with bow and sword. The hunting clothes he wore were of fine, soft leather, dyed in subtle shades of green and richly embroidered. The silver clasp that pinned his cloak was intricate in design and bore a large, glinting white stone. He left it in the cloak as it was taken away, as if its possible loss would mean little to him, though it was finer than any jewel Eliani possessed.

How rich his life must be! How simple he must think what she deemed grand and fine. She felt as if she were watching a creature out of another world entirely, one to which hers bore no comparison. Even his person was of rare and unusual beauty-fine features, long graceful fingers, hair of rich gold, eyes like dark pools of shadow.

Abruptly he glanced up at her and smiled. Caught in her curiosity, she returned the smile and stepped forward.

"May I know your name, so that I may give you proper introduction?"

He seemed to hesitate for an eyeblink, then answered quietly. "It is Turisan."

"I have heard that name." Eliani gazed at him, frowning slightly, certain they had never met. "I do not remember when."

His lips twitched. "It matters not. I am ready, if you will lead me in."

She started into the hall, pushing the tapestry aside. No doubt he was used to much grander feast halls, but at least she need not be ashamed of her house's hospitality.

Torches burned brightly, musicians played in a corner of the hall (for Lord Felisan was very fond of music), and the household talked merrily around the long table. Eliani was glad to see that the meal was not very far progressed. Her father looked up and beckoned to her, but instead of taking her place beside him she strode up to his chair, bowed formally, and stepped to one side. The conversation fell away as the household became aware of the stranger she brought with her, thus it was to the accompaniment of music alone that she made her announcement.

"Lord Felisan, I bring you a visitor from afar. May it please you to welcome Turisan, who bears tidings from Glenhallow."

The murmur that followed confirmed the importance of their guest. Her father rose, and she was pleased to see that he wore one of his better robes of deep blue velvet, broidered with gilt thread and pinned at the neck with a large violet stone. No doubt he had put it on in honor of their kindred Beryloni, who was to be handfasted three days hence.

Felisan glanced at Eliani, his eyes glinting mischief. The next moment it was gone as he turned to greet Turisan.

"Welcome indeed!" Lord Felisan smiled broadly as he offered his arm. "I was present at your salutation-day, but you will not remember that, of course. Lord Jharan does me honor to send his own son with his tidings."

Eliani drew a sharp breath. She hoped it would go unnoticed, and quickly assumed a disinterested smile. As Turisan clasped arms with her father she thought his glance flicked to her.
Lord Jharan's son, was he? Heir to the governance of Southfæld, the second-oldest and second-largest ælven realm. She closed her eyes briefly, silently chiding herself for not remembering where she had heard his name.

"I thank you, Lord Felisan, and crave pardon for arriving unheralded."

Felisan waved dismissal. "Jharan and I have been friends for centuries. There is no need of ceremony between our houses. Come, sit beside me and give me news of your father! These are all my household, I will not trouble you with their names just now. And two of my theyns, Luruthin and Gharinan, there at the end. My daughter you have met."

Eliani, standing beside her chair, was gratified to see Lord Turisan glance up at her in surprise. Her suspicion was correct, then-he had thought her of little importance. She returned a sweet smile, and he acknowledged her with a bow before taking his seat. This appeased her somewhat. Even more so did the kind thanks he made to the cousin who gave place to him.

Eliani helped herself to warm bread from the basket before her, listening to the pleasantries that passed between her father and his guest. Lord Jharan's messages would be given later and in private. She intended to be present, and Lord Turisan might make of that what he would.

"Your mountains are beautiful. I have seldom seen such richly timbered woods, and some of the prospects are breathtaking."

Felisan looked pleased. "You have yet to see the best of them, having arrived from the south. Ask Eliani to show you the Three Shades. It is a high fall of water not far from here, a very pretty spot, with some interesting legends attached to it."

Turisan's gaze shifted to Eliani and he gave a solemn nod. "I would be honored if Lady Eliani would show it me."

Eliani felt color rising to her cheeks. No one had called her "lady" before. That honorific was reserved to governors and their heirs, the masters of guildhalls, and other persons of high responsibility. She was not yet formally her father's nextkin.

She returned Turisan's nod, then glanced away and took a sip of wine. She did not know why she should find Lord Jharan's son any more disconcerting than she had found a nameless high-ranking Greenglen, but so it was. Perhaps because she had always thought of the people of House Jharanin as stately beings, dwelling in luxurious palaces and occupied with lofty concerns of governance.

Turisan did not fit this picture at all. What governor-elect of any self-importance would undertake a day's journey on foot and alone?

She would. She laughed and choked a little on her wine.


THE BETRAYAL is a March 2009 release from Del Rey Books. More about the book and links for ordering at aelven.com

Saturday, March 14, 2009

The Lost Child

We have had a literary scandal in the UK, no, not plagiarism this time, something much, much worse.

The story starts in 2006 and involves that supercilious bastion of moral values, the Guardian newspaper. Editor of the Family Section, Sally Weale, commissioned a new column called ‘Living with Teenagers’ from a well known member of the literati. This was an anonymous warts-and-all reality show where a lady revealed all about the growing pains of her three children, two boys and a girl, and her relationship with her partner. Most of all, the column was about the lady herself, her feelings. After all, isn’t it all about her?

“Enough about me, let’s turn to you. What do you feel about me?”

The problem was that the longer this column went on the more the identity of the children was likely to be revealed.

It all came to a head when writer Julie Myerson decided to write a book, The Lost Child, about how she had slung her seventeen-year old son out of the house for smoking skunk. There is much detail about the boy that will haunt him all his adult life. Although Myerson denied it repeatedly, it soon became clear that “Living with Teenagers” and “The Lost Child” were the same family.

Other newspapers soon managed to dig the dirt about Myerson’s dysfunctional relationship with her late father and her sister, which she has cut out of her life, raising issues about where the underlying problem lay. The problem with writing a 'true story' from one side of a relationship is that truth is often a matter of perspective.

Now Bloomsbury are to rush publication of The Lost Child forward to cash in on the publicity. Sorry, did I say that? I meant to say "Given this week's extensive speculation about Julie Myerson's The Lost Child, we felt that it was right to bring forward publication to allow everyone the opportunity to read her brilliant book and consider the complicated questions it raises....we are pleased to say that we are making the book available within a few days."

And the Guardian are offering a deal!

All writers trawl through their own lives and snatches of other peoples' but to do his to your own child, to whom you owe loyalty and support, to sell a book for fame and money......how could she?

I make no comment about whether she was right to eject her juvenile son from the family home because I was not there but to wreck his life in this narcisistic way for an income stream.

How could she?

Friday, March 13, 2009

But how do I start writing? -- part one

By Jennifer Stevenson

This post is for about twelve hundred friends and acquaintances who have said to me over the years, “I’d like to write, but how do I start?” Three new ones this week. One enterprising and hard-working woman has even gone so far as to take grammar and rhetoric classes. (Holy heck! She’s learning craft, not just taking a memoir class! This is impressive.)

What I started to say to her, and then stopped myself, was that when one reaches a certain age it may not be possible to train your brain to write with good grammar. But with the power of positive thinking (and maybe a glass of wine) you can train your brain to let your true voice come out.

I’m not talking here about “how to get published” or “how to get an agent” or “how to write a good book as opposed to a sucky or lame or merely adequate story.”

I simply want to address crossing that line in the sand, a line that so many people perceive as a huge brick wall, between seeing yourself as “not a writer” and seeing yourself as a “writer.”

The simplest answer is, You’re a writer if you write.

My mother once said “How do I become a writer?” to a cub reporter at the Chicago City News Bureau. He told her, “Put the seat of your pants in the seat of the chair.” The cub’s name was Kurt Vonnegut.

I know a hell of a lot of writers, already published in book form, who talk, talk, talk, but who do not write very much.

By contrast, the amateur who has never even submitted so much as a joke to Reader’s Digest may write hundreds of pages a year. That gal is a writer.

So rule number one is, Write.

The second rule is, Stop worrying about your grammar, your market, your story structure, what your mother/your kids will say if they find out, and “whether you have anything valuable to say.” Especially the last one. Good gravy, you can't worry about them things!

This is where arrogance becomes your friend. All professional writers have some, though they’re smart if they mask it. It’s hard to survive a life of rejection and, worse, waiting for rejection, without arrogance. If you think arrogance is too much to ask of yourself, call it something else. Faith. Self-confidence. “I can do better than that.” Many a first novel has sprung from the sound of a paperback hitting the wall, followed by, “I can do better than that.”

It really doesn’t matter why you choose to write. Raging to set the record straight? Bored? Dying to become famous? Fed up with the last bad book you wrote? Want to get rich?

Put the seat of your pants to the seat of the chair.

-Jennifer Stevenson
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Thursday, March 12, 2009

The Pleasure of Writing

Literary agent Jennifer Jackson is having a discussion on her blog about the pleasure (or not) of writing: http://arcaedia.livejournal.com/193877.html It resonates with me because this was a discussion I had when I was singing. I had more than one colleague who claimed not to love singing, that it was nothing but a business, but I never quite believed them. Why do it if you don't love it? A career in the arts is nothing if not precarious, even for those at the tippy-top of their professions. I think we pursue artistic careers--music or literary--more because we can't NOT do it than for any other reason.

I loved singing. I loved the physical sensations, the musical satisfaction, and I loved performing for an audience, big or small. I love writing, too. I work hard to get all the trivia out of the way--the business, the promo, the housecleaning, even the blogging (!)--so I can sit down with my laptop and lose myself in the current book. The love of the work gets me through those dark times, those slow times, those weeks of waiting for an editor to respond, even the occasional not-so-glowing review. So, regardless of my commercial success, in the end I have success, because I'm doing something I really, really take pleasure in.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Voice training

So what is voice?

Voice is that feeling the writer creates, while narrating a story that convinces you that there is a real, living mind behind it. In a way, it is the way we keep the curtain closed and the feet tapping, the way we keep you from thinking too much about any potential contradictions or defects in world building

By this I don’t mean that you shouldn’t bullet proof your world building as much as possible, but when you’re writing a story you’re essentially constructing a big lie and, no matter how well researched and thought out, there are always holes that give it away as a man made thing.

The difference the voice can make is that a good, confident authorial voice will keep you reading the story to the end and only when you set it aside will you go “Wait there, on chapter seven he said magic didn’t work on eggs, but for the back story of the third subplot to work...”

A really good, strong voice will stay with you even after you’ve finished the book. Sometimes it’s not till weeks or months later that you see something couldn’t have happened, and even then you’re not likely to care.

OTOH a weak, meandering voice will make you put the book down when you’re not sure he’s right about some minor detail. You will go “Well, I have no idea what the duck penny is, but it doesn’t sound like he has it right.” And then you’ll set the book down and never pick it up again.

So right now you’re thinking it’s style, or perhaps the way one strings words... Well, yes and no. All those go to form a voice but a voice is something different that transcends all that.

The voice is the difference between the vaccum salesman who rings your doorbell and says “I’m not sure, really, if this is any better than what you have, but let me show you,” and then gets confused and stammers or tries to over explain and the man who rings your doorbell and says “I’m here to sell you a universe. It’s MUCH better than what you have now.” He will come in wearing the best clothes and look absolutely sure of himself, and will talk so convincingly that you’ll be sure you need that universe and you’ll give anything – even your vaccum to get it.

Is it charisma? In part. Like charisma, voice partakes self-confidence and the certainty what you’re doing is important and needful and there’s only one way to do it – your way.

I can achieve this, occasionally, on a story or two. Most of the time, I grope and I falter, and explain too much or too little. But when the voice is coming through and it’s golden, you know it, as much as your reader will know it. It’s a bravura performance, where you’re afraid to breathe least you disturb it.

So how can you cultivate your voice? Not sure. I’ve been studying it, and I have some idea what works for me. Hopefully I can communicate it to you next week. If not, you can always throw things at me. :)

On a different note, if anyone is interested, this is a podcast of myself reading one of my short stories. It is more like a reading than an audio performance, because I was nursign my voice (I've had the flu) and because I didn't edit or clean it up afterwards. So when I go wrong, I just backtrack half a dozen words. http://Diner.TeddRoberts.com/uploads/podcast2.mp3 The story is Ariadne's Skein which is part of my collection Crawling Between Heaven and Earth, available for free at the baen free library at baen.com.

And again, unfortunately, yes, that IS my accent. :) (See why worries about voice are natural to me?)

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Story is King

For me, Story is King, (I suppose I should say Queen), but you know what I mean. I love a good story. I want to be engaged by the characters, I want to care what will happen to them, I want to be up all night, reading the book because I can't bear to put it down. I want to forget that I'm reading an artificial construct, turn off my internal editor and be swept along for the ride.

After I finish reading the book, I want the characters and place to resonate with me so that I catch myself thinking about them as if they were friends. What would have happened if they'd done this instead of that? What are they doing now?

Am I weird? I don't think so. I'm guessing most readers want this level of immersion.

I don't want to be reading and to come across a sentence that is so self conscious I have to stop and read it twice, because it is the author saying, Wow, look at me. Aren't I clever? I want the author and the mechanics of their writing to be invisible.

And this is the way I want to write. For me, it is the Holy Grail of writing. I want to be a story teller. So that is what I'm aiming for with my latest book. It's with my ROR writing group now and I'll be hearing their reaction over this weekend. They don't pull punches. Maybe I'll be reeling this time next week. :->

Monday, March 9, 2009

Short stories.

Back in the dark ages, when I was young and we still had fax machines, covered wagons and dinosaurs roamed the wild and empty plains (huddling together to smoke, because of the laws that drove them out of diners. (Smoking killed the dinosaurs. They died of cold)... erhm. I seem to have lost my train of thought, which could be because I have far too much going on in my woolly pate for good logical thought and/or blogging right now... Anyway - When I was young we had short story pulp magazines. It was how my mother started reading sf, let alone me. Short stories and, most addictive and frustrating, serials, got me to know many of my favorite authors. The pulp magazine was a great 'tester-taster' which helped many a young author make a name, and incidentally (corrected for inflation) some money which was not just loose change. It wasn't wealth but it was not to be sneered at either. Circulation of 125 000 + made them influential in a small-ish field and the various awards reflect this. Short story, novella, novellette... and novel.

Shorts -and the magazines that carry them - have shrunk in stature and sales. The idea of having a 'novella' and novelette and short award (3/4 of the awards) as more or less equals to a novel when their sales, put together may not amount to 1/10 of one bestseller is faintly ridiculous. Reality suggests best short work and then a dozen or so sub-categories of novel... but that's another discussion. What I was meandering around was the way that the shrinking shorts market had altered the way in which novels are written.

You see I am a passionate believer in shorts. There is no finer training ground, IMO, for novelists. Just as poetry teaches us to work effectively within constraints, shorts teach the tools of powerful brief characterisation and effective plotting. Writing shorts produces disciplined, fast-paced writers, with coherent plotting skills. If you want to be one, write shorts.
Otherwise you'll write long confused waffle - just as I did in the first paragraph. A shorts writer will tell the story, neatly, cleanly and without wasting words to no purpose.


Sunday, March 8, 2009

Sean Williams talks Shop

Sean Williams (courtesy Cat Sparks)

Sean is a prolific speculative fiction Australian writer, with 16 Aurealis Award nominations and 8 wins, a Phillip K Dick Award nomination, four New York Times best seller lists, including one that debuted at #1, plus he’s an all round nice guy.

A few years ago when I was running the EnVision workshop I asked Sean to come along to talk to the aspiring writers about what it means to be a professional writer. And he told a story I’ve never forgotten …

Sean: It was ten years ago, or thereabouts. I'd just sold my first fantasy series to Harper Collins and received a major Australia Council grant to write it. The three books were due across a two-and-a-half-year period, which didn't seem too onerous. Having just quit my day job, I knew I'd have time to spare. Easy.

At about the same time I managed to interest Ace in a new space opera trilogy, co-written with Shane Dix, with delivery dates spanning those same two and a half years. That made six books, giving me around five months per draft. That was a slighter brisker pace, but as half of them would be collaborative novels, I figured that would still be doable. (Anyone who's collaborated knows that such work nets half the money and takes twice the time, but we'll gloss over that to get to the meat of the story.)

Six books, signed for but not delivered. Then my agent called in the middle of the night to say that Shane and I had been offered the chance to write for Star Wars. And not just one novel, either. A whole trilogy.

My agent said, "Oh, in the next couple of years or so, I think." I said, "That makes nine books in two and a half years. I don't know if I can write that fast."

He said, "Do you know you can't write that fast?" I said I didn't.

He said, "Well, let's just sign the contract and see what happens. If you fall to pieces, we'll work something out."

I did the maths. I added up the number of books and divided it by the number of days. That came to about 1375 words per day, every day, for 30-odd months. That was daunting, but not too daunting. After all, I'd already proven that I could write fast when I had to. Furthermore, if I aimed for 1500 words, that'd give me a small sanity-break between books.

Next I mapped out the due dates on a calendar. Three books of these nine were due the same month, but it was possible to stagger the drafts and get them all in on time, even when including the time Shane needed to work on six of the books. Some would even be ready early.

So I said yes. And started writing. To some people 1500 words a day may sound like a lot, but it isn't for everyone, once you get into the swing of it. Especially if that's all you're doing, every day. What I hadn't counted on was that it wasn't remotely all that I was doing every day. I hadn't counted on publicity, writers' festivals, interviews, all the mail from Star Wars fans, and three sets of page proofs, say, all turning up in the same week. And so on. The last six of those thirty months were

pretty hellish, but I did get it done. By taking the challenge, I learned what I was capable of.

I usually stop the story here, even though it isn't quite finished yet. My major concern was not with getting the words down: it was that I would drop the ball and release a crappy book. I don't regard myself as a book factory, you see. Being a writer who can work fast isn't enough, because being a writer at all means not just maintaining a baseline quality, but challenging yourself as well. The three series I wrote in those thirty months were very different to each other, and each of those nine books was a challenge in some way. I'm proud to say that, even as the pressure mounted, the quality of the writing went up too. The nine books earned two awards, seven nominations, and three New York Times bestseller listings. One of the last of the nine was recommended by Locus in the same category as Neil Gaiman and Isabel Allende. That's what really makes me proud.

Q: You have 8 book series published or due to be published as well as four independent novels. Some of your books are for adults, some for young adults, some are fantasy, some space opera, some near future noir. And you’ll have had 75 short stories published by the end of this year. If you had to describe yourself as a writer, how would you phrase it? (Other than busy!)

Sean's latest anthology.

Sean: I'm almost as eclectic in my writing as I am in my reading, but that isn't a particularly helpful response to your question. Given that I'm about to move into thrillers and crime fiction as well, I really have no idea how to categorise myself. I just write what I'm most passionate about, and I hope that the market will find a way to accommodate it. Writing under a pseudonym has always appealed to me, so maybe I'll explore this possibility in times to come.

For all my genre-hopping, though, there are themes and ways of storytelling I constantly return to. Speculation, sure--hence all the SF. Australian landscape--overflowing from my fantasy. The blurring of identity--hence crime fiction. Definitions of humanity and the limits of physics--space opera's the perfect vehicle for both of these. People of all shapes and ages--should go without saying for any writer.

Q: You have a long history of collaboration behind you--ten novels with Shane Dix, several short stories with Simon Brown--but just lately you've been concentrating on solo work. Was the transition hard to make? Do you have any plans to collaborate again?

Sean: I do enjoy collaboration, and that's one of the reasons I keep coming back to the Star Wars universe. No, it's not just about the money and the sales, or even clinging to the dreams of my faraway youth. It's working on part of a much larger story, with dozens of other authors, in a universe that is always expanding, always surprising. That's one of the key delights/terrors of collaboration: you can never be entirely sure what's going to happen next. Given that authors traditionally work in a garret with no feedback at all until the book reaches the editor, it's quite a jump into the unknown. I think it's a good thing for writers to take that jump every now and again.

Sometimes the leap has to go the other way. Certainly, working with Shane was a lot of fun and became a very familiar way to write space opera. I'd already begun the process of weaning myself from the collaboration with the Geodesica books, but he was still there to hold my hand. Astropolis was where I finally walked off into that big, bad universe on my own, with no one but myself to blame or give credit to when the book came out. That was terrifying in a whole new way, and just as invigorating.

Future collaborations are not impossible. Shane and I would like to write a fourth Evergence novel one day (The Roche Limit) and I'm working with a couple of people on film projects. Whether they come of anything, time will tell.

Q: You’ve support the writing community by serving on the management committee of the South Australian Writers Centre and now you have nominated for the management committee of the Australian Society of Authors. You’re a busy, successful writer, why do you take time out from your career, to serve the community? Do you have personal goals you would like to see? Eg. Genre writing achieving more respect?

Sean: I do spend a lot of time on committees, these days. I'm also a founding board member of the Big Book Club Inc. and I'm just finishing up a term as Chair of the Arts SA literature advisory panel. I judge for competitions like Writers of the Future and Somerset, and I teach as well. Why?

I guess it's because in the past I've been helped quite profoundly by other writers filling similar roles, in their own time. The late Peter McNamara was a great role model in this regard. He was a publisher, writer and an editor, and passionately committed to improving the lot for every other publisher, writer and editor in the wider community. Not just SF. Not just South Australia. Everywhere he could reach. He did things I could never do. But he did demonstrate how important even the attempt was. I don't think it's saying too much that the cohesion we currently enjoy in the Australian SF scene owes a large part to his efforts, and the example he set. So every time I'm invited to be involved in a large or small way in the betterment of other writers, I can't help but ask what Peter would have done, and to remember what a difference it made to be on the receiving end of such efforts.

Garnering respect for the genre is something I do rail about, but that I suspect is a battle that can't be won by anything other than writing good books. Humanity's natural desire to speculate about the other is gradually overtaking the critics, academics and readers who regard our field with disdain, and that's why we see it creeping more and more into the mainstream. I do worry that SF is becoming a "genre of the gaps"--turning its back on everything that becomes popular or is widely accepted, like Star Wars or The Time Traveler's Wife, simply because these works don't conform to some idea of what the genre should be--but that's not really a matter for such committees. I mainly want to make sure that good books reach a wide audience, and that good writers are rewarded by being paid.

Q: You’ve tutored at Clarion South several times now. (Clarion South is based on the US Clarions. It’s a 6 week boot camp for writers of spec fic. Each tutor comes in for one week). This must be incredibly exhausting but also inspiring. Can you share some insights with us?

Sean: I frequently harangue my students with m "10-and-a-half Commandments".

That's what I call them, but they aren't really commandments as such. They're more like first principles, along the lines of "If you want be a writer, here are some guidelines that will work for everyone." I've bounced them off dozens of people until I feel like I know them by heart.

When I rattled off the list to a group of wonderful writers in Melbourne last year, I was absolutely floored when one of them put up her hand and suggested that all of these first principles rest on one that was even more fundamental. I was stunned. A Zeroth Commandment, one I'd never even considered! It was a revelation.

That's why I like to teach. It forces me to examine anew everything I take for granted, each time I stand up to say something, and it forces me into contact with people possessing their own ideas, their own insights. I learn as much from my students as they learn from me, be they first-timers or practically hacks in their own right, like the WOTF or Clarion crowds. What I get out of the process is more than balanced by what I put into it.

The Zeroth Commandment, btw, was commitment. If you're not committed to being a writer, if you aren't absolutely sure that this is what you want to do, then no amount of first principles will help you. You might as well give up now and get a real job (as Charles Brown of Locus once advised me, way back when), and save you and everyone around you a whole lot of grief.

Q: I notice you write for YA and adult, plus you write across spec fic genres. Some might argue that this dilutes your readership. Based on experience, would you agree or disagree?

Sean: My experience doesn't reveal anything about this question, to be honest. The readers seem to work it out. Having good covers help, of course. There's no mistaking The Grand Conjunction for The Scarecrow, for instance. The difference is obvious just by looking.

One always hopes, of course, that the vast audience for Star Wars will drift across to original books by the same author, and to a certain extent that is true. But there's not a huge crossover. I have a Star Wars audience, a SF audience, and a fantasy audience. That's how I tend to think of it. And now, I guess, I have a fantasy audience that's split into kid, YA and adult age-groups, if those distinctions really mean anything. I basically count myself as fortunate to have any at all audience for the stories I love to write.

Q: In 1984 you won the Young Composer's Award for a theme and three variations for string quartet with flute, oboe and trumpet soloists called "Release of Anger". Its original title was "Cowled they the Rampant Gargoyle Down" which sounds like Angry Young Man music to me but I can’t reconcile this with a string quartet. Do you listen to music as you write? Does each separate book series have a musical album or suite of albums in your mind? And do you ever see yourself getting back into music in a big way?

Sean: I say that I would love nothing more than to have the time to take three months off writing each year and work solely on music. If I'm honest with myself, though, I'm not sure that's such a good idea. Maybe it's been too long. Maybe I only ever dabbled and simply don't have the skills now to do anything of value, so I'd just be wasting my time.

But what is this "value" I speak of? How hard can it be to re-learn the skills? What's wrong with dabbling in the first place?

I think I'd still love the opportunity to see what would happen if I did give it a go. I'm getting more and more ideas for musical projects as time goes on, and I guess that creative energy has to go somewhere eventually.

These days I write almost exclusively to experimental ambient music, cycling through all sorts of artists and sounds (never vocals, rarely structured in a conventional way, never ever boring) but usually coming back to the maste Steve Roach at some point. Quite often one track will stick through a project, triggering the right neural nets in my brain as I sit down every day. Just lately I wrote a novel while listening to a single track by Brisbane muso Deepspace, aptly titled "Another Empty Galaxy". At this very moment I'm listening to a couple of collaborative albums by Ryuichi Sakamoto and Alva Noto. They'll cycle around until the next ambient space opens up, as required.

Q: What’s inspiring your writing at the moment?

Sean: Apart from music, Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey & Maturin opus, which I'm halfway through. Garth Nix and others have been telling me to read these books for years. I can't believe it took me so long to pay attention! When I picked up the first one last year, I was instantly hooked me.

Q: Where do you see yourself in 5 years, and in 15 years?

Sean: Hmm. That's a tricky question. It was much easier in the early days. The goals were more clearly defined, then. "Finish a short story." "Sell a short story." "Finish a novel." "Get a novel published." I mean, is there anything quite as important as that? "Sell a novel overseas"? "Win an award"? "Publish in hardback"? "Be a natcon GOH"? "Write for Star Wars"? "Appear on the New York Times bestseller list"? They're all good things, but I wouldn't count them as goals as such. They're just things that happened along the way.

These days my goals relate to maintaining the career, because if I can't eat, I can't write. Maintaining the career, though, isn't just about keeping the cheques rolling in, whatever it takes. I need to keep learning new skills and conquering new fears. Romance? Check. Sex scenes? Check. Kids? Check. Realist setting? Working on that. Humour? Still far too chicken to try.

So in five years time I expect to be facing challenges I can't imagine now or still dealing with some familiar ones that I haven't conquered. I do hope to be writing more than one book a year only by choice, not because I have to, as is currently the case. I'd like my kids' books to have reached an audience overseas, as is currently not the case, so I can keep on writing them. I'd also like to have finished my PhD and at least dabbled with writing some new music.

In fifteen years, who knows? Maybe I'll have slowed right down, creatively, and taken up teaching as a career path. (Not that teaching isn't creative in its own way. It absolutely should be.) Maybe I'll have sped up. Maybe I'll be working in film or TV (two areas that seem to be creeping back into my life at the moment). I doubt I'll have retired completely, since I enjoy it so much.

Anything's possible, though. I'm fully open to the idea of going back to uni to study maths.

Q: I hear you can make a mean curry. Do you have a favourite recipe you'd like to share with us?

Sean: Ah, curries. I'd eat them every day, given the chance. One of my favourite recipes is a simple but deliciously spicy marinated chicken curry, which you can find in the Women's Weekl y Easy Curry cook book (my secret revealed--gasp!). We have a teenager in the family, Seb, who from the age of two refused to eat anything more complicated than steamed veges or a hot dog. At about 12, though, he started expressing interest in more lively food, and with great nervousness he tasted a teaspoon of this curry. He absolutely loved it, which is a sign of how delicious it is. Don't hold back on the coriander, and it'll taste even better if you have the time to grind the spices yourself. Like all things in life, the more you put into it, the better it'll be.