Sunday, May 31, 2009

Competition Winners Magic v Science

Ori P. and Kessalemma win the signed copies of Lucy's Blade.

Please email me on with (i) a postal address and (ii) what you would like me to write inside.


Grab Me!

No, not literally. But those two words are something of a mantra for agents and editors. They want our queries and pages to grab them. Not so hard, right? Wrong. At least for me. Because what the fine print says, and it's very fine print, is that we have to grab them in 5 pages if it's a novel or only a couple of paragraphs if it's a short story. So, no dilly-dallying around. No immediate launch into the detailed backstory of Grandma Sofie who died three years before the main character was born and for whom she's named. Instead, it's time to get right to hooking the reader either with characterization, action or both.

Jennifer Jackson, an agent with the Donald Maass Literary Agency, has written a couple of blogs on this topic, as well as on the importance of reading -- and following -- submission guidelines.

It might not actually feel like five pages are enough to make an assessment. But isn't that the same thing that happens with readers/consumers? They walk into the bookstore, pick up the book and read the back-cover which has a pitch (like a query has) and then flip it open and read the first couple pages to decide if they want to take it home. (May 22, 2009)

What do I think is the purpose of the first five pages? To get me to want to read page six (and hopefully 7, 8, 9, etc.). They don't need to be perfect. In fact, watch out for over-editing because that can make them seem stale. They do need to be exceptional. These pages don't need to have bombs going off or start with a big action scene. Though starting in media res can be helpful -- watch out for backstory that can bog down your opening. Someone recently repeated to me this advice: "Start the story as late as you can." Obviously, the whole story is greater than the sum of its parts. I'm not expecting to know everything about the book in just five pages. That's not why I'm reading them. I'm looking for a sense of things. The writer's style or voice, perhaps. A compelling character. A strong plot hook or concept. A taste that makes me want more. All they have to do is get me to turn the page (or hit page-down in my email) and want more when there isn't any more. (May 29, 2009)

Agent Kristen Nelson blogged about a workshop she conducted a workshop called "2 minutes, 2 pages". According to her, "[t]he purpose is to pretend we are sitting at home with our feet up reading the slush pile. As the author reads the work, we say “stop” if we wouldn’t have read on and then try to explain why." What she discovered is that the "openings lacked a sense of urgency that would have propelled the story forward or would have engaged the reader immediately in the story or the characters presented." This doesn't mean the scene had to meet the Die Hard test of bombs and bullets in the opening scene. All it means is that there must be something at stake for the character. That something can be a treasured keepsake that your character can't find, waiting for a phone call that she knows will change her life, or an explosion. But it has to be something to draw the reader in and keep her turning the page and wanting more.

So, what keeps you reading past that first page? What do you put in those first five pages to keep the reader wanting more?

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Bad Guys Rool, OK?

It's Saturday, again, and I have nothing intelligent to contribute, again, but I'll write on anyway.

I want to focus on the appeal of bad-guys or antiheroes. Bad-guys come in all sorts of guises. A favourite is 'the policeman who doesn't play by the rules', a character so clich├ęd that comedians run skits on them. In real life, Policemen who break the rules tend to be associated with corruption and make defence barristers think all their Christmases have come at once. In fiction, they are the life-blood of the police procedural.

Apparently, almost any low life can be turned into an anti-hero if it’s done right. For example, the A-team were a cuddly bunch of heavily armed mercenaries. How did they become sympathetic characters? Then there is Dexter, your local friendly psychopathic murderer, or how about the Man-With-No-Name, Clint Eastwood’s bounty hunter. While on that subject, why were they called spaghetti Westerns when they were filmed in Spain? Should they not be Paella Westerns? I’m a geek, these things bother me.

So what distinguishes a bad-guy hero? They have one defining feature in common that I have already mentioned. They break the rules. They don’t give a damn for the law or conventions of society. Most of us live in fear and trepidation of ‘them’, the man, our masters. Our cars are insured, taxed, serviced and MOTed. We creep around at the speed limit in case of radar traps, terrified of points on our licence. We swear impotently at scrotes who cut us up, but not too loudly in case they hear.

The Saint, on the other hand, treated the road network of England as a giant race track laid out for his personal benefit. When a road lout tries to cut up his Silver Hirondel sports car, Simon Templar floors the throttle and puts the swine in the ditch. When said swine catches up with The Saint in a country pub and expresses his displeasure, The Saint puts him to sleep with a straight right to the jaw. That’s the way to do it! All men want to be Simon Templar and all women want him to make love to them.

The Saint is brave, charming, handsome, strong, sexy, intelligent, educated and lethal. He cuts through life like a bullet through a pumpkin. What makes him so appealing is that he protects women and the weak and humbles the arrogant. Crooks are his chosen prey. He is the Robin Hood who robs the wicked rich to give to the poor, less ten percent fee for his trouble. He is everybody’s big brother. The fact that he cocks a snoot at polite society and the pompous, hypocritical establishment makes him all the more appealing. He has high morale standards despite his rebel nature and he is never mean or petty.

Read a Saint novel and you buy a ticket to a dream where you are all those things and beautiful women compete for your company or, if a lady, you are the heroine who wins his heart, at least for a while.

In one story, a fat, ugly rich woman is tormented on the Riviera by the beautiful people who make fun of her. The Saint befriends her with a view to stealing her fabulous necklace but he hears her singing to herself in her bedroom, remembering when she was young and beautiful and a man loved her so much that he bought her the necklace. The Saint moves on the next day without the necklace.

I was very impressed by a scene from Conan that demonstrates the same qualities. A girlfriend has betrayed Conan so that he is imprisoned, awaiting execution. He escapes and goes looking for the girl. Her new boyfriend draws a blade so Conan kills him without compunction. His revenge on the girl is to drop her in a cess pit. As Conan leaves, she is dirty and humiliated but clearly and very vocally unhurt. Conan has his revenge but rejects any idea of hurting a girl, even though she tried to get him killed. To do so would be beneath him.

To me The Saint is the ultimate bad-guy hero to me, but then, one is an Englishman and he is a very English hero.

So, what are your criteria for a bad-guy hero? Do different cultures have different perspectives?

Let’s have your thoughts.


Friday, May 29, 2009

The Elusive Guidebook

There is a rulebook, its just covered in elbow-grease and slips out of my fingers as soon as I get a grip on it. Every now an then I manage to flip it open at a random page and get a glimpse of something, then its flopping onto the floor again. There are a few writers who have read pages and pages of that thing – even whole sections – but they aren’t telling (You Know Who You Are!!!!).

Perhaps it was the first time I glimpsed that self-same rulebook on the bookshelf – and managed to tease it down like an Indian Snake Charmer – that I got my first character ‘eureka!’ moment.

‘That’s it!’ I thought. Character sympathy! That’s the key to hooking a reader.

I did get excited, because you only get that one chance to draw someone into your story, be it a casual reader or potential editor. Once you get a reader interested in your character, they might forgive you for bumps in the other story elements e.g. plots, world building, PoV, multiple characters, action scenes etc.

So I thought I had it. Build the sympathy!

The trick is – and what I learned the hard way – was that what one reader responds to in a character is often vastly different to another – in fact often diametrically opposed. One reader’s cool detached hero is another’s arrogant, insufferable narcissist.

I used to come home from critique groups often puzzled by contradictory comments that made little sense until the penny finally dropped. If people don’t like your characters, they just will NOT gel with your story. Once you reach that stage the critter will start (often unconsciously) working overtime to find all the things ‘wrong’ with your piece, when the real problem is that it simply has no resonance for them. They will talk vehemently about the punctuation on p3, or how they got mixed up in the dialogue, the logic error in par 5, or yada yada, yada…

Even successful writers don’t seem to have real control over reader’s reactions.

One of David Gemmell readers all time favorite characters is Waylander. David Gemmell himself set out to make this guy a real piece of work – a nasty customer that no one should like; a ruthless assassin that kills without a thought. The surprise was that people loved Waylander, and he went on to be one of Gemmell’s most successful characters, extending over three books and carrying the story well in each one. So why did people respond to Waylander? Was there something unconsciously carried through from Gemmell about that character’s destiny that altered his portrayal? Or do people just love the bad guy – the old Sympathy for the Devil chestnut?

Are the ways of building sympathy for a character as wildly different as the characters people enjoy?

What really draws you into a character? They way they love someone else or show they care? Being the underdog? Strength? Courage? Determination? Their vulnerability? Their sheer undead coolness?

Please let me know – while I keep trying to get a grip on that darn slippery rulebook.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Flesh on the Bones

Between Sarah's discussion of empathy, Rowena's talk of bent characters, and Dave's lament on the futility of forcing them to do what you want once they've come to life, I'm left without much choice for my first appearance as a new Mad Genius. The character in question is giving me the smirk that says "Next time trust me. I know better than you."

So without further ado, I shall ramble for a while on the process that finished with Prince Vlad Draculea taking up residence inside my head as a very real person.

For many years before I started writing Impaler, I was fascinated by the historical Prince Draculea (BTW: the spelling is the closest Anglicization of the way he spelled his name. Just another example of character stubborn. He won't let me spell it any other way). What I had was pretty much what any writer has in the early stages of story generation long before there's any conscious move to write the thing: a mix of 'this is a neat idea' and someone who does or did interesting stuff. Add to that the question, "What if he had survived the assassination attempt?" and I had my story.

What I didn't have was my character. Instead, I had a huge problem. How does one depict a man whose name is associated with the most appalling atrocities (and let's face it, they didn't call him 'the Impaler' because he was a nice guy) or the Stoker vampire? He was the central character of the story, but whitewashing his deeds was out of the question. I didn't consciously wonder how I could show him in a more sympathetic light, but the question gnawed at me for about a year between when I first jotted down the rough plot outline and when I started to write. In the meantime, I wrote a completely different novel, ConVent, which is under consideration at Baen.

And I read everything I could lay hands on about Draculea and his times. Translations of period accounts of the Siege of Constantinople (eye-opening, to say the least), reading and re-reading the various Draculea legends, and gradually building from the bare facts and the legends an idea of what kind of man Draculea might actually have been.

Probably the most useful thing I did was wonder, "Why?". Asking myself why Draculea would have acted the way he did helped me to understand the era, as well as the man, and led me to some truly mind-boggling bits of 15th century trivia along the way.

I originally intended to write Impaler as mostly Draculea's point of view, with a few key scenes from other POVs. Instead, somewhere as I reread one of the Florescu and McNally biographies, I got him. Somehow, the constant "well, why would he do that?" had fleshed out the man enough that he was there in my head, dictating the book to me.

From there it was a case of balance: showing Draculea's human side through his narrative without flinching from the worst of his nature. The end result was good enough to make the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award quarter finals, and is currently on an agent's desk in its entirety.

I'll finish with a few paragraphs from the opening so you can judge for yourself how well I fleshed out the man and brought him to life, and whether you can identify with him.

Chapter 1

Always before battle begins I am possessed by the need for solitude and prayer. It is a curious thing, for I have never fought as merely another knight. I first ruled men at the tender age of eighteen, when the old Ottoman Sultan Murad and his son Mehmed still thought I could be a Turk puppet.

Those who slander me say I care nothing for the fate of other men. They forget that those who rule by the Lord's grace are entrusted with the Earthly welfare of their subjects, and to some extent their souls. To take one's subjects into battle, however righteous the cause, ensures that they will sin. The burden of their souls falls upon me, their Prince.

I do not allow others to see my weakness. Few great lords care for the fate of those in their domains. That I of all men should do so would seem the most grotesque of jests. I, whose name echoes through Europe as a byword for atrocity. And yet, I am driven to pray for those whose lives will end on the battlefield this day, men whose only crime is to obey the commands of their lords.

I CAN feel your pain

*As usual I write five times as much as I planned to. Feel free to throw rotten fruit or something*

In this Frankenstein Business we’ve been dealing with – or if you prefer, this divinity business – of bringing our dead creations to life, a good point has been made for how this is accomplished. Matapam says it’s all empathy – and she might be right. As I’ve said before I do 99% of this subconsciously, so it’s hard to say what I did before they came to life.

Unlike Dave I don’t usually write lists of what the characters do or what they like. His practice strikes me as imminently sensible, I just never had to do it. I did once, long ago, interview a character, but that was because the rat fink wouldn’t let me hear his voice. In fact, I think I do what he does, but in the back of my brain, until the voice emerges fully formed. I’m almost sure I do, because of the sudden, brilliant insights. “God it. Her dad was a succubus. No wonder her mom is messed up.” These come to me at the oddest times, when I’m not even aware of thinking about the book, usually after I’ve laid down the note pad (my last tool in attempting to force the character to talk to me) and start doing housework to tire myself out enough that I can rest. (When trying to force a character/novel into the open, I have the cleanest house in the world.) Some of my best ideas have come while ironing or waxing floors.

(And wouldn’t that make a great T-shirt? Writing is Just Playing Frankenstein With Words.)

So let’s assume Matapam is right -- how do we build that empathy? Well, one thing I know you can’t do and that is take the easiest route. You can’t have the character come over and tell us everything everyone has done him wrong. Why not? Well... because people tend to react the same way as if a stranger had rung their doorbell and started crying all over them. “My boyfriend left me! I burned the roast! My boss fired me!” They slam the door – or the book – shut, run inside the house and ignore the character forever.

This said what CAN we do? Isn’t feeling sorry for the character a way to build Empathy. Yeah, it is, but... if I may say so, it is one of the weakest ones. Forming a bond with a character is like forming a bond with a friend. Are your best friends people you feel sorry for? Or do you, after a few days/months/years of being the adult in the relationship start hoping that your friend would grow up already. You catch yourself saying “She’s a good girl/guy, but...”

So, who are your friends? People who are interesting. People who do/know things you don’t. People whose reactions you can’t anticipate, but make perfect sense when they happen. People who live lives you love to hear about. People you have a great time with. People who are there for you when you fall and for whom you’re there when they fall. People you’d like to have at your back in a pinch.

The last one is difficult. If you try leaning on a character when you’re in distress, you’re likely to end up with a badly bent book. On the other hand, the character might provide you with a model for facing a horrible situation.

To my mind there are two great ways of imprinting a character forever in a reader’s mind. One I use rarely because it’s very easy to botch and also because it’s the weaker bond than the other.

This less desirable way is to make Writing is a game of first impressions. If your character comes across as a complete monster on page one, you might realize he’s a saint by page 100, but sometimes the reader doesn’t come along with you. (I once lost a reader – in a contest, so I knew from her confused notes – on page three because I described my hero as “he had hands like shovels.” She kept writing on the side of the chapters every time he appeared “but I thought he was the bad guy” from then on.) I call this the “don’t show him drowning puppies first thing off” rule. If you’re trying to write this, you need to think big canvas and bright colors. If the character is drowning puppies in the first chapter, you’d better find out in chapter two that he did it to save ALL the children in world and at great personal pain, because his religion says those who drown puppies are damned.

So, why is this the weaker bond? Because it’s based on guilt. You want to read more about the character and spend more time with him to atone for having misjudged him.

The more desirable way is to make you admire the character. To see him doing something that is universally considered good, at some cost to himself. Then you will find yourself wanting to know this person better. After that care must be taken. A hero without pores, a hero who doesn’t sweat, attaches nobody.

I have found personally my most memorable characters – my own characters, not those I read – tend to be people who are larger than life, but also, to post on a theme in the blog before, functionally insane. I.e. insane, knowing their own insanity and harnessing it.

Athena in Darkship Thieves is one of them, but you never really have a “dime drop” moment, mostly because she doesn’t stop long enough for you to get it. There’s the little tells, when she talks of juvie halls and madhouses as places she’s intimately acquainted with at a young age, and you start wondering what kind of family she has.

But then there is Athos, in my Musketeer Mysteries. Athos is an unstably wrapped little cookie. We of course know it’s because of his wife and what he had to do. I’m not stupid, I brought that up in first book. But there is still this feeling of “something not right” and a sense he was screwed up long before he was old enough to be married. This sense that he’s on the side of angels, but if he ever lets go, there will be bodies stacked like corded wood.

And I had NO idea why. That was just how he came across in my mind and on the page, but he wouldn’t tell me the reason – which, if you think about it, he wouldn’t.

Then on the fifth book – FIFTH and likely the last for a while at least – *Dying By The Sword* he delivers himself of a gem which, I think (not sure if it’s true but it is for me) immediately raised empathy. We know him as admirable and self contained. We also know he can’t unbend without some primal rage emerging. And then this came out. What do you think? Am I right that it builds empathy or at least gives us insight?

* – in that moment he reminded Athos of his father.

Athos’ father had been one of those people never very at ease near children. An only child, who in turn had sired Athos late in life, Monsieur Gaetan Comte de La Fere had treated Athos as an object of intense scrutiny – at a distance – until Athos had been breached at six or so. And then, suddenly, Athos’ father had decided that Athos was no a man, or at least a youth. It was as though nothing existed, in the late Comte’s mind between the mewling infant and the striding man. And so, he’d expected Athos to be proficient at horseback riding, competent enough with a sword for the honor challenges that might be befit any noble, and cultured too, so that his speech wouldn’t lead his inferiors to sneer at him.

Athos, a dutiful son, had learned the riding and the sword fighting from the masters’ provided and, though struggling, always managed to exceed the prowess of those ten times his seniors. Even the Latin and the Greek impinged upon him by yet another set of masters, the poetry, the diction – even that he learned and effortlessly.

Of the rituals and demands his father enforced on him far too young, there was only one that Athos had resented, but that one he had resented absolutely and with a raging hatred. Because every night, from the age of seven or so, he’d been brought into his father’s study and sat, across from his father, at a table that had been designed as a chessboard, and upon which elaborate, expensive China pieces were set.

Athos didn’t resent that his father expected him to play chess. He didn’t even resent that the late Comte gloried in winning games over his small son. What he resented – the memory that still made his bile rise at the back of his throat – was that the rules of the game had never been explained to him. Night after night, he’d sat there, and learned all the moves by trying them the wrong way first. Night after night, day after day, he’d brooded on the losses. And every night his father smiled at him, with the exact same smile that the Cardinal was now giving him.

Something to the movement of the Cardinal’s eyes made Athos realize he’d been inching his hand towards his sword, and he pulled it back by an effort of will. The day after his father had died, in a ritual composed part of grief and part of relief, he had taken the beautiful entaglio chess table, and all the chess pieces. He’d smashed the chess pieces in the depths of the garden, before setting fire to the table.

Now his fingers itched for the fire to set beneath the Cardinal’s feet, *

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Characters, bent is better.

Characters -- I prefer characters that are slightly skewed, odd ball people who don't quite fit in.

I'm a Buffy fan, not Buffy so much but as her supporting characters. I've just started watching TrueBlood, the Sookie Stackhouse series. I'm up to episode 6 and enjoying it. I couldn't help compare the characterisation. I'm thinking aloud here ...

Sookie is a sincere southern waitress, who just happens to be able to hear people's thoughts. She's a little but acerbic, which is nice.

Buffy's answer to everything is 'tell me how and I'll kill it'.

Even though we are only just into the first series, I prefer Sookie's characterisation.

Bill the vampire's back story is very straight. He was a poor but honest Confederate soldier, who was turned into a vampire and had to walk away from the family he loved.

Compare this to Spike the vampire's back story. He was a bumbling clerk who wrote bad poetry because his romantic soul outreached his ability.

The Spike character had the advantage of quite a few series to develop his character before his back story was invented and revealed, but I prefer the Spike backstory because he would risk all for love, while Bill would give up everything for love.

For me it is the odd ball person who sees the world in a slightly different way, who is the most interesting.

Are you into odd ball characters?

Monday, May 25, 2009

"I MADE you!"

("no you didn't. Did it of my own volition")

This ties into a recurring unkillable theme in sf and indeed fantasy - the creation that goes out of control. Not only does it reflect in stories but it also comes full circle on authors and bites them in the behind-regions, because their characters become self-willed and recalcitrant (I have for sale a lovely new line in character whips, crops, martingales and, for the ones that really won't listen, the electric cattle prod. Forget the naughty step. It doesn't work on fictional characters, and besides, it's cruel and unnatural. Available today, if you call now, at our special promotional prices... but wait, there is more...).
Sadly, this is the natural way of things with well-developed characters. They become self-willed, get a+ for their Turing tests, and blunder through your carefully crafted plot like a drunken sow through a ladies tea-picnic, gobbling delicate crustless cucumber sandwiches by the trayful, stepping on china, ignoring screeches, and then decide that Great Aunt Agatha really is the sexiest boar they have ever met -- which just proves that rampaging characters too can be right.
You actually can't restrain them. While this may ruin my newest get-rich-quick-scheme (more inspired than galvanic buggy whips or the pornographic rabbit trap) nothing actually works. If you try, you'll ruin the book. You have to give them their head (and not necessarily on a platter) and vaguely try and herd them toward the less breakable parts of the plot furniture. And the worst of it is that not only do they take over your head, (which can be extremely dangerous. Do not, I repeat, NOT associate with me while I think I'm Benito Valdosta) you have READERS starting to mutter "I am the finest swordsman outside of France!" puzzling their nearest and dearest quite a lot.
These are the characters that you remember. Not always your favorites, but the ineradicable - sometimes not with best brain-bleach. They keep coming back on you. And, it appears readers come back to them. (It's difficult when the author gets demands for yet another book with Miles, or Ariel or Biggles in it. But not as difficult as not being paid.)
These characters are born out of primordial soup... well, the brains of writers, which is much the same thing. And the one thing that provides that final galvanic spark... isn't known. But modern science, with tireless research or at least an infinite numbers of monkeys have established that you need LOTS of bits. Now, we seem chock full of authors here. When you 'build' a character on your sla... uh in your mind - what do you put in?
Give! Maybe we can identify that crucial element.
Mine of course is attitude. And hair. I have never had a character come to life without knowing about the hair. Even those without it.
Well. I showed you mine. Show me yours?

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Magic, Religion, Technology and Science

Magic, Religion, Technology and Science

If there is one thing that distinguishes a science fiction or fantasy novel from other fiction is that the story hangs in someway on the supernatural, some novel scientific idea or a fantastic technological device.

With this in mind, I have been giving some thought recently to how you define and distinguish magic, religion, science and technology. My background incidentally is that I read industrial biology and biochemistry at Brunel University of Technology, an engineering university. Isambard Kingdom Brunel was arguably the greatest engineer since Imhotep suggested to Pharaoh Djoser that a four-sided, pointed tomb might look impressive. I switched eventually to pure science, or strategic science, taking a PhD at the British Museum (Natural History) in ecology and biodiversity.

Let’s start with magic and religion. They both deal with the supernatural, so is there any difference between them? When does a religion rise above mere superstition, for example, and is superstition identical with magic? Most modern people would assert that the two are not identical and would probably assert that religion is about worship of a deity and an attempt to live by a moral code, while magic is about the manipulation of supernatural forces to achieve some result in the natural world. Unfortunately, this dichotomy does not entirely survive examination of modern religions, or magic.

Our ideas on magic and religion are traceable directly back to the Fertile Crescent, Mesopotamia and Egypt. Many of our ideas about wizardry are Egyptian, including magic wooden wands, spoken and written spells, magic potions and so on. We know a great deal about Egyptian religion and magic because of a dodgy British Museum Curator called Budge, who was a Cornishmen like me. He ‘acquired’ an excellent version of the Book of the Dead, more properly called something like Spells For Going Out in Daytime.

The Egyptian Book of the Dead is a magic manual of spells to help the supernatural part of a human being enter heaven and live forever and many other things. It includes explanations about the Gods and appropriate prayers to them. It also includes the forty two negative confessions that deal with morality that serve the same purpose as the Ten Commandments. However, the crafty Egyptians had a Plan B ready for those who had breached the negative confessions. You could use magic spells to cheat.

It is not so different today. Mad Max, sorry Mad Mel, has opinioned that, although his wife was a much better person than him, she was going to hell while he went to heaven because she was Church of England while Mel was a Roman Catholic. Apparently, leading a morale life is less important than having the right mojo come the awful day of judgement. Many years ago while, doing the middle of an all night drive to London, I picked up an American evangelical preacher on my car radio. The preacher had apparently desired to own something called a Winnebago, which I believe is some sort of motor caravan. How did acquire same, by working hard and saving? No he said the right prayers in the right way with the right body motions and he got his prize. God was a supernatural machine for dispensing consumer items.

Magic lends itself naturally to the way human minds work. Our brains are pattern recognition machines that link cause and effect. The grass moving against the wind causes a leopard attack. So run when you see the grass move. This is a very good survival adaptation. If the grass moves without a leopard appearing then all you lose is a little energy if you run but suppose a leopard appears and you have not run? A magic spell that that fails does not disprove the magic. It just means that the magician overlooked something. Obviously extra complexity is required in some way. Maybe the spell can only be performed at daybreak, or on a Thursday, or facing east – whatever. But if a spell works just once, i.e. the desired result happens, then it shows that the magic works.

Magic has neither logic nor consistency. The Egyptian Book of the Dead includes spells based on (i) a solar heaven in the company of the sun god, (ii) an astral heaven among the circumpolar stars and (iii) a heaven in the Field of Reeds under the Lordship of Osirus. There is endless, back-breaking agricultural work required in the Field of Reeds but fear not. There are spells to animate shabti figurines that will do the work for you.

I once wrote a short story set in the Bronze Age where I went to great trouble to get the details right, including magic spells. Guess what? A critic wrote that he hated irrational magic ‘systems’ that lacked logical consistency. I just love critics.

Technology is quite different from magic because it is empirical. Engineers traditionally used a suck it and see experimental approach. They tend to stop employing a building method if the resulting structure fell down before they had been paid. On the other hand, engineers have traditionally been happy if a technique works consistently without worrying too much about why it works.

Science is a relatively modern concept. The word ‘science’ derives from the Latin for knowledge, scientia. The word came into common use in the mid nineteenth century when the modern scientific method was developed. Mathematics, sometimes called ‘formal’ science, is the language of modern science but is as old as civilisation and was used in the Fertile Crescent for construction and for astronomical prediction for agriculture. Scientists create knowledge. They invent nothing, make nothing, construct nothing.

My main educational function was to supervise PhD students. I taught them the scientific method. This is not easy because scientific thinking goes against the natural inclinations of the human mind. It dismisses cause and effect patterns and demands destructive empirical testing. Science is quite different to religion, which starts with an assumption that there is a ‘truth’. Science assumes no discernable truth. There is nothing but models used to describe natural processes. Such models are subject to constant destructive testing until they fail, whereupon a more accurate model is devised. In science, the natural world is broken down into single ‘processes’ that can be tested. This is very different to magic, which involves increasing complexity until success is achieved.

Increasingly, science and engineering are converging into ‘science & technology’. Engineers are discouraged from trial and error methods because error can be disastrous in the modern world so they turn to scientific knowledge when planning novel technology.

To summarise:
1) Magic is the manipulation of the natural world by supernatural methods.
2) Religion is belief in the supernatural with an implication of universal truth and moral standards.
3) Technology is making things, partly by empirical experimentation and partly by application of scientific knowledge.
4) Science is a technique for investigating the natural world.
5) Magic involves complexification but science uses reductionism.
6) Religion is about truth, science is about useful, temporary models.
7) Magic lacks logical consistency.
8) Magic involves gathering evidence to ‘prove’ something. Science works by destructive testing.
9) Religion and magic require belief, science and technology don’t.
10) That’s it folks!

Well those are my thoughts but philosophers have argued over this for, well, for ever.

How do you feel about magic and science?

Do you want logical magic systems? Isn't that just wierd science and technology and not magic at all?

For God's sake someone comment, please. Pretty please.

I know - Try Bribery!

I will send a signed copy of my only novel to the most insightful comment.

Smut is a Fungus or Don't Call Your Mama's Romance Novels Smut

As I booted up my computer yesterday morning, a shudder ran through me. You know the sort I mean. That chill your mother or grandmother told you meant someone had just walked across your grave. As my e-mail account opened, I knew I had reason to worry. Sarah had had a brainstorm and my name was associated with it. Me. The one who likes to hide in the shadows, the darkness relieved only by the glow from my computer monitor. Alas, that is what brought about her brainstorm. She knows I am constantly trawling that vast information highway known as the Internet in an attempt to find that one pearl of wisdom, or the golden ticket, that will finally make those query letters easy to write and irresistable to agents and editors. And, since I hadn't yet had enough coffee -- is there such a thing as ever having enough coffee? -- I agreed to do this post.

The wonderful thing about the Internet is that you can find just about anything if you look hard enough. That's especially true when it comes to writing. Everyone has a blog these days. Or they tweet. Or they post on Facebook. Or all of the above. It's a wonderful way to promote yourself and your work, network with others in the profession and find out what agents and editors are looking for. It is also a time sink of monumental proportions if you allow it to become one.

That said, for the writer, the Internet can be an invaluable tool. Miss Snark still lurks in archive heaven to swill her gin and regale us with tales from the world of publishing while admiring her newest pair of Manolos. We can learn all about the latest "Preditors and Editors" and hopefully not fall victim to their scams. We can connect with other writers of all levels of proficiency. Welcome to the digital world of writers on the Internet.

This week, Dave, Sarah and Rowena have been discussing characterization. A comment I made in response to one of Dave's posts led me to think about genre fiction and how we tend to characterize it and, therefore, its characters. In particular, I started thinking about Romance. You know, those bodice-rippers with the long-haired, bare-chested men on the covers. The books no "real man" would be caught reading in public. The books that have been denigrated and made fun of from day one because they aren't "real literature".

One of the blogs I follow is "Smart Bitches, Trashy Books", a fun and informative blog focusing on romance novels. Today's entry is about an interview "about Bosoms, feminism, and defending our love of romance novels." When following the link to where the entire interview is posted, I knew this was NOT going to be your normal soft soap interview. I assume the writer thought she was being funny when she wrote, "After years of sifting through smut books in order to find the ones that are worth the $4.99 you’ll pay for it, these two ladies have created a humorous guidebook for the discerning smut reader." However, any romance reader worth her salt will be quick to tell you that Romance Novels are not, and never have been, smut. And, while the reader might enjoy a good bit of smut from time to time, you won't get that from a good romance novel. The line between romance and smut might be thinner than it used to be, but the sex in a Romance Novel is an essential part of the plot and not there just to satisfy the prurient interest of the reader -- or the writer who, of course, had to do lots of research before writing those particular scenes.

What Kate's Reading, picking up on the "smut" references in the interview, had the following to say: "Now, really, if you're posting an interview that's all about misconceptions in the genre and why feminists should read romance, should you make a point of referring to said genre not once but twice as smut? Or is this some sort of post-feminist way of reclaiming and becoming empowered by negative words - much as the magazine is called Bitch? Whichever, it just seemed counterproductive to try to talk intelligent and progressive about the genre when you're also calling it names."

Now, to pull this back around to characterization, What Kate's Reading ended the post with the following comment: " is a little annoying that you tried hard and had a really good interview, but you lost me in disgust at your first paragraph. One step forward, one step back." As writers, we can make the same mistake. We can try hard and have a really good story in mind but, if we fail to have a voice that appeals to our readers and we fail to have a hook that makes them want to read on, we will lose them.

Take a few minutes and look around Smart Bitches. Even if you aren't a romance reader, you'll find something there that will make you think and then something that will make you laugh.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

So You're Unemployed...

The picture is from the last Anthology I edited. Dave, Sarah, Amanda and Kate are in it. Next time we get the other mad geniuses in!

Now, to the real post:A couple of years ago, I responded to a post in the Baen Bar ( from a new writer looking to break in to the field.
He was between jobs and figured he'd just sell his SciFi/Fantasy novel instead of getting a job.
That's not realistic.
Get a job now and keep it until your writing has replaced that income at the same level. Period. You'll get the same advice from any self-supporting writer you'll meet, even best sellers.
About a year before that, I had an unsettling conversation with a friend who wanted to sell his first SF/F novel. He was also between jobs and had just received a small inheritance.
I advised him to get a job instead of relying on potential writing income, but he balked.
I have a degree in mathematics, so I worked up a spreadsheet with my friend's expenses and several writing income scenarios, and showed him how he'd run out his inheritance inside 18 months, which was too short a time to make an income from writing.
Needless to say, he ignored my advice, ran out of money and had to find a job.
Hoping to help this new writer avoid this same fate, I posted this sobering timeline of the money you can expect from most publishers when you sell your first novel. Some of this is from my own experience (my wife, Sarah, has sold over a dozen novels and about 50 short stories; I've sold a -dozen short stories and edited an anthology), and some is from other people I know well.
All of it is pretty typical in SciFi/Fantasy. Not guaranteed, though. You could sell your first novel in a day, or it could take you 20 years. But you won't see a living wage immediately, unless you sell that novel for a million dollar advance.
Now, down to the nitty-gritty. Strap yourself in and get ready for a reality check.
====== Writing Income Timelines ======
Absolutely EVERY first-time novelist believes that someone will publish his novel if they'd just read it!
Some are even right, but the reality is that 99% of those novelists are not ready for prime-time.
And even if you are, the likelihood the FIRST editor to see it cold will buy it is remote.
Baen works a little differently (more like a family business, taking more of a personal interest in their authors in our experience), but in most New York City publishing houses, editors/publishers typically handle up to 200 authors (depending at their levels) at any given time, spanning 3 years: the novels that came out last year (some need reprints or go out of print, etc.), the novels that are out this year, and the novels coming out next year.
If you're bound and determined to live from writing, here's some OPTIMISTIC timelines from our personal experience for an unknown to consider when trying to sell your novel to one of the major NYC (non-Baen) publishers.
DISCLAIMER #1: PLEASE don't take this as discouragement. You can do it, but you need to be realistic about breaking in. Once you're established, things usually happen faster and more lucratively. (But not always; there are authors out there with dozens of books published who are barely eking out $10-30K/yr)
DISCLAIMER #2: I, too, have a novel that I'm sure someone will publish -- once I finish some rewrites. And Sarah has sold over a dozen novels. I'm not blowing smoke, here. Just trying to set some realistic expectations in the hopes of preventing you doing something that ends up with you living on the streets and eating at the soup kitchen.
DISCLAIMER #3: I would like to point out up front that editors are by and large overworked, underpaid and harassed by overzealous, impatient authors and do this job as a labor of love. Some of the things below may sound mean or petty at first, but they're not, honestly, and I hope you won't take them that way. It's all part of ANY business, not just publishing. I'm just trying to illustrate that things don't always go smoothly, and you're not likely to get rich from only ONE book.
DISCLAIMER #4: The dates are clearly in the past, since I first wrote this in 2006. Live with it.
Scenario #1: The 5th editor accepts your manuscript(remember that JK Rowling was rejected by dozens!):
Jan 2007: Submit MS to Ed #1
Jun 2007: Ed #1 rejects MS
Jul 2007: Submit MS to Ed #2 the next month after finding that rejection is depressing (it's not YOU being rejected, or even necessarily your manuscript, so get over it).
Dec 2007: Ed #2 MEANS to reject MS, but is partying in NYC until New Year's (seriously, this happens every year after about mid-October through the end of the year; I know this is their prime networking time, but there DO seem to be a LOT of parties!)
Mar 2008: Ed #2 uncovers MS and rejects
Mar 2008: In a fit of rage over length of time for rejection, submit MS to Ed #3 next day
Oct 2008: Ed #3 rejects MS, trying to clear her desk before party season and end-of-year results
Dec 2008: You receive rejected MS in the mail, tattered and torn and clearly read by your postal carrier (the sarcastic comments in the margins give it away)
Jan 2009: Submit MS to Ed #4 after Christmas vacation (I'm not PC, sorry -- even if you're not Christian, you probably take some time off around then)
Feb 2009: Ed #4 rejects MS with apologies (inscrutably, sent FedEx with signature required on Sat AM -- yes, this actually happened to Sarah once!)
Mar 2009: Submit MS to Ed #5 after obsessing for a month on why Ed #4 rejected your MS so quickly
Feb 2010: Ed #5 sends you a "letter of 1000 edits" (apologies to Laura Anne Gilman) and asks to see MS again after you've fixed the problems
Dec 2010: Resubmit MS after months of rewrites, 'cause you didn't understand what Ed #5 MEANT by half the edit requests, some of which were very broad and subjective ("Pinky is lame", or "Your world didn't seem real enough to me") and others were way too specific ("Pinky doesn't work as a woman; make her an alien male")
May 2010: Ed #5 says she likes MS, but it has to "go to meeting" (monthly) for approval by the Executive Editor
Jun 2010: No response from Ed #5 (what really happened is that Ed #5 failed to impress her boss and will try again next month)
Jul 2010: Ed #5 says her Exec Ed liked your MS, and they'll give you a standard, $4K advance. Who's your agent? (Note: except for Baen, at the houses that claim they take unagented subs, your MS will usually fall into the hands of junior editors fresh out of college who are primarily looking for the kind of writing careers their professors had and drilled into them: literary. Which is great if you have a "literary" novel, but that also means your advances top out at about $10K every 1-2 years, and you'll probably never see a dime in royalties. You'll notice that NONE of those professors have quit the college yet -- they still need to eat. If you can live on $5-10K/yr, go for it; if you're looking for a PAYING career, try writing something lots of people want to read.)
Aug 2010: Interview 5 agents; by some miracle, an agent in Minnesota is willing to take you on (the others all say, "I don't see a career potential here, sorry")
Sep 2010: (And, believe me, this is really FAST) Resubmit to Ed #5 through your new agent
Jan 2011: Agent finally gets contract (it's that darn party season delay again!), but wants to "hash out some minor details" dealing with royalties
Mar 2011: Agent and you and Ed #5's legal department finally come to an agreement; you still get $4K, but the royalty structure looks better if the book comes out in hardcover (no promises, though); you also get a signing payment of $1.3K with the contract (less your agent's 15%), with a delivery/acceptance payment of $1.3K on the schedule for Jan 2012 (there's still some edits they'd like done, and you're not likely to get slotted in the Christmas quarter, with Stephen King and James Patterson and ... you get the idea) and a final payment of $1.4K on the scheduled publication of Jan 2013 (yes, a year from acceptance is not uncommon)
Apr 2011: Ed #5 sends you the additional editsJun 2011: You submit the final edits (through your agent)
Jul 2011: Ed #5 approves of final edits
Jan 2012: Your agent gets the delivery/acceptance payment (trust me, they won't send it to you until the contract says they have to -- it really doesn't matter far ahead you do the changes; they're running a profit-making business, remember?)
Feb 2012: You get a check from your agent (there's up to a month lag time while it makes it through HIS accounts)
Dec 2012: Ed #5 suggests to you that your "laydown" (the number of books initially ordered and shipped on the publication date) looks good, and she'd like to see proposals for another 2 (full MS for the second by Mar, so they can slot you in Jan 2013, and a partial for the 3rd, to be slotted in Jan 2014)
Jan 2013: Your agent gets the publication payment and you now have your brand-new paperback on the shelves! (Oh, well, there go the extra royalties for hardcovers -- but, honestly, your new writing friends tell you horror stories about how THEIR first novels went hardcover and got delayed 2 years from the contract date in the process, so you're not feeling too badly about it)
Feb 2013: You get your final check from your agent
Mar 2013: You submit proposals for #2/3 after feverishly working through #2 over Christmas break (good thing you anticipated this and started on it right after you finished the final edits on #1 back in Jun 2011!)
Jun 2013: You and your agent spend a week of sleepless nights getting the contracts for #2/3 worked out in time to get #2 on the shelf by Jan 2014; the house has ALREADY begun work on it 2 months ago, and you're getting $12K for the two of them!
Jul 2013: Your agent sends you a $5.1K check ($2K signing on each book, and $2K for delivery on #2, all less 15%)
Sep 2013: Your agent gets your first royalty statement (first half 2013, issued twice a year and takes about 3 months from the publisher -- they have a LOT of books to deal with, you know) and forwards it on to you: no money, since you haven't yet "earned out" (made as much as your advance, which is technically an "advance against royalties", and they track that on the royalty statements)
Nov 2013: You submit #3 ahead of time, 'cause YOU want to party THIS Christmas!
Feb 2014: Your agent sends you a $3.4K check ($2K pub on #2 and $2K delivery on #3, less 15%)
Mar 2014: (And this is REALLY optimistic) You get your first royalty check ... for $14.35 (it's actually pretty rare for a first-time author to earn out)Feb 2015: You get your final $1.7K check for publication of #3
Okay, to recap: You've made $13,614.35 net in 8 years, or less than $2K/yr. Not nearly enough to live on.
Now, Scenario #2: Ed #1 buys your novel. You cut off 2 years and 2 months. That's it. So you made just a little MORE than $2K/yr. Still not enough to live on.
Scenario #3 (aka the fairy godmother scenario). Ed #1 buys your novel for $100K. It still took 6 years, so you made $16K/yr (if you're lucky; usually they'll space out your payments more with a larger advance -- instead of 3, you get 6). Assuming for the sake of optimism, you earn out and make another $50K in royalties, you still only made $24K/yr. In most places in America, you still need a day job.
Scenario #4 (aka the Harry Potter option). Ed #doesn't-matter buys your novel for $advance-doesn't-matter and it sells 10 million copies. You're in clover and your recently-promoted editor loves you, along with most of the world (or at least America).
You feel like you should buy a lottery ticket, but you suspect you already won -- and you'd be right. And in a VERY, VERY, VERY, VERY small crowd of others who did the same.
If you've been paying attention, you've probably noticed a pattern forming. Write the next novel BEFORE the last one gets published, and keep write on going. It's a job that demands a lot from you, day in, day out, like starting a small business. Hopefully, you'll get better in the process and your books will get better and you'll build an audience.
But there's still a large lag time from submission to all the payments, so you have to stagger sales in order to keep your income stream going.
At some point, if you're lucky, you'll "break out" into Scenario #3 with one of your later books, and if you're even more lucky, manage to become a best seller. Then you can relax about your income stream some. (Maybe. They say Stephen King still keeps his teaching certification up to date, just in case).
Of course, getting the best-seller income stream brings with it other challenges I'll save for another post.

Friday, May 22, 2009

First, You Breathe in His Nostrils

So we’ve been talking about characters – the good, the bad and the ugly – but there is one thing that ties right back to my long disquisition on voice.

Just like I said your plot is a means to test the character (and I’ll be happy to explain that later, or the others can, I’m sure), the voice is a means to make the character live. You must have the reader present THERE, or it’s all for nothing.

I’m going on about this, because it’s all too easy to slip into what I call “sheet of glass” writing if you’re tired or sick, and then you need to have some idea what’s wrong and how to fix it.

I’m going to be insufferable and give examples from my own writing – well, one of them a collaboration with my friend, Kate Paulk who will be joining us soon.

Kate and I were working on this story (in the Valdemar Antho above) while we were both on deadline for other projects and so tired we might as well have painted eyes on our eyelids and slept through it. So the first version of the opening we came up with was this:

*Heart, Home and Hearth

The air smelled of snow to come. Ree snuggled closer to Jem in the burrow they had claimed for the night and wished he knew what to do. Summer learning to live wild, putting more and more distance between them and the walls of Jacona -- and the Emperor's soldiers -- had been hard on Jem.

The younger boy was all human, unlike Ree. He didn't have fur to protect him, didn't have the sharper senses of the rat and cat that had merged with Ree in the Changecircle last winter. Since they'd escaped Jacona and the hunt for hobgoblins like Ree, Jem had grown thinner until his bones showed under his skin even though between Ree's animal instincts and Jem getting wicked good with a slingshot they had plenty to eat most days.

But that was summer. Fall meant less to eat, and Jem's clothes weren't much better than rags. When it started to get colder at night, they'd tried scraping a deer hide clean and Jem wrapping himself in that, but it stank too much and got stiff and cracked. Neither of them wanted to leave the forest to try to steal clothes from the farms and towns they'd seen from the forest edges. *

It’s not bad, but we felt like you could hear the telegraph cables twang along the way. So we worked on it. This is the same opening in its final version:

*Heart, Home and Hearth
Sarah A. Hoyt
Kate Paulk

The air had a sharp bite and you could smell snow even deep in the narrow earthen borrow, under the roots of a great oak tree, where Ree and Jem had taken refuge.

Winter is coming, Ree thought. There’s no escaping it. He felt Jem shake with cough in his sleep, and snuggled closer, trying to keep the younger boy warm. Summer had been all right for living wild and putting more and more ground between themselves and Jacona -- and the Emperor's soldiers.

Even though Jem was all human and didn’t have the sharper senses of the rat and cat that had merged with Ree during the Changecircle last winter, he had got wicked good with a slingshot. With Ree’s animal instincts to lead the hunt, they’d rarely missed a meal. But the last few weeks, it had gotten so cold, and it seemed like all animals were either hybernating or had gone South for the winter. And you could see Jem’s bones through his skin. Hells you could see them through the rags that passed for his clothes. And he was cold all the time, and for the last three days he’d been coughing all the time, and wheezing when they walked too fast.*

Do you see a difference? Is there a difference? Am I imagining things?

Again, the same, with my own writing, the novel DarkShip Thieves coming out in January. This is the original run at the opening:
* Daddy’s Girl

I never wanted to go to Space. I never had the slightest interest in spaceships. The colonization of other worlds left me cold. I never even hankered to visit Circum-Terra or to see the energy trees up close, by the faint glow of almost-ripe energy pods.

There were people who dreamed of all of this. They cornered me at parties and social occasions -- adenoidal boys, skinny and overeager, with greasy hair and lumpy suits; and sad girls, awkward in dresses, their faces white and pasty and virgin of make up.

They talked of space-materials -- ceramite and dimatough -- strong enough to withstand travel through the void and light enough to consume very little fuel. They spoke of thrusters, acceleration, g-force, gravitation, sustainable space colonies.

Their eyes grew doleful, and their voices vibrated with tears when they spoke of how the human race had abandoned its birthright to outer space after the turmoils two hundred years ago.

In the late twenty second century, they’d tell me, their faces earnest, the mules had built an intergalactic spaceship and they’d made plans for colonizing the solar system in fifty years.*

This is the version that WILL be published:

I never wanted to go to space. Never wanted see the eerie glow of the Powerpods. Never wanted to visit Circum Terra. Never had any interest in discovering the truth about the darkships. You always get what you don’t ask for.

Which was why I woke up in the dark of shipnight, within the greater night of space in my father’s space cruiser.

Before full consciousness, I knew there was an intruder in my cabin. Not rationally. There was no rationality to it. The air smelled as it always did on shipboard, as it had for the week I’d spent here – stale, with the odd tang given by the recycling.

The engines, below me, hummed steadily. We had just detached from Circum Terra – a maneuver that involved some effort, to avoid accidentally ramming the station or the ship. Shortly we’d be Earth bound, though slowing down and reentry let alone landing, for a ship this size, would take close to a week.

My head felt a little light, my stomach a little queasy, from the artificial grav. Yes, I know. Scientists say that’s impossible. They say artificial gravity is just like true gravity to the senses. You don’t feel a thing. They are wrong. Artificial grav always made me feel a little out of balance, like a couple of shots of whiskey on an empty stomach.

Even before waking fully, I’d tallied all this. There was nothing out of the ordinary. And yet there was a stranger in my cabin.*

So, again am I imagining things, or does the second one work better? And if it does, can we discuss why? Why the character comes more alive in the second version than in the first of both of these?

Thursday, May 21, 2009


Sarah and I have shorts in this book...
It appears we have a shortage of posters today. It's probably because chaos reigns or a very large meteor has hit the US. Not NY because I have it on good authority that the bankers there would have caught it and tossed it back.

So therefore - once more into the breech, supermonkey. (clank. sound of breech closing, and sudden explosion.) With a sickening splat a small simian proves that 1) he is not supermonkey. 2)'human cannonball' is one of those jobs where specie-ist job-reservation is a good thing.

So let's go back to characters. And we dealt principally with heroes - by the way thing worked out. But what about Heroines? (or depending on preference or alieness - other).

Who do we love, and who do we hate? And why?

Come one-come all. Offer up your dream goddesses (that's you I'm pointing this thunderbolt at John) and role models and "if there were two people left on earth I'd pray it wasn't her."

Me, I have always had this soft spot for women who take on hell with a firebucket (the soft spot is in my skull, where I got hit by the firebucket, and are practical - Tiffany Aching, erhm and a few of mine. And for dislike Cathy Earnshaw the wet-lettuce (or that kitty character). Someone must like them.... why?

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

When I Fall In Love, It Will Be Completely

I decided to jump into this discussion on character and though there are many reasons why I love or hate a character, I must start at the beginning. And at the beginning I fell in love with someone out of the pages of a book.

I was eleven or thereabouts. I might have been eight. After a while all those ages run together. At any rate, real love and any interest in men was a long time in the future. But I got my hands on Dumas The Three Musketeers. For those who haven’t read let me explain that after some preamble with the youthful D’Artagnan and some barbed tongue-in-cheek comments, we move on to a scene in the Captain’s office, where he’s upbraiding two of the Musketeers – Porthos and Aramis – because he’s heard that the third of the inseparables, Athos, was wounded. Of course his wound was an humiliation for the musketeers, so he’s telling the two musketeers he called in that perhaps he should go and command a nunnery instead. Only at that moment Athos comes in. It is clear he is wounded and only staying on his feet by a powerful effort of will. He came to save his comrades from being yelled at and he refuses to show his weakness, but he is in fact so wounded that he collapses when the captain squeezes his hands.

At that moment I fell in love. Head over heels. As an adult and a writer, I think I can tell you why – it was his sacrifice for his fellows, his iron will in dragging himself in, his refusal to give and inch and – ultimately – the undeniable physical wound that causes him to lose consciounsness. This created a brew of courage, honor and the inevitable compassion for someone who is hurt that couldn’t help but capture me.

Athos is not a very admirable character. He drinks. He’s a mysogenist, and he killed his wife – perhaps with the best of reasons, at least for his time. But the introduction captured me so much that I stayed with him until the end of the series and then as some of you know went on to write mysteries with the musketeers – really for the sake of spending time with Athos! And might now be doing another (fantasy) project with them soon.

Such the power of making a character larger than life at the outset.

There are many characters in novels that I hate. Usually if I hate the character I hate the novel and vice-versa. And I’m not going to waste my time describing them. Instead I’m going to jump to an iconic novel of a legend of the field, a novel that by rights I should hate with a passion, because all its techniques and its “point” are the sort of thing that rubs me wrong. (This is not to say it’s bad. Just that it’s almost custom made to push my buttons the wrong way.) However, that novel remains on my shelves because of its main character. I’m talking about The Left Hand Of Darkness by Ursula LeGuinn. Therem Hart Rem Ir Estraven (not sure I got the first name properly spelled, and I’m too lazy to go to the shelf tonight) comes on stage through the eyes of the Earth character who despises him and views him as a conniving, venal sort of person. (The characters, for those who haven’t read the novel, are hermaphrodites, so the proper wording is hard.) Then we jump to Therem’s mind and we find he is actually an admirable person in an impossible situation, trying to live up to his commitments and hanging off the end of his rope. The author then proceeds to both put him through hell and make him come through it with honor and dignity. And then she kills him.

I’m not sure the last one is needed, but its emotional punch is very powerful and keeps you going back to see how she did it.

The only thing I have against what she did with that character is that it ruined two of my early – unpublished – novels in which I tried very hard to replicate that effect but just managed to make people take such a dislike to my character that they never got over it.

And those are characters that make me fall in love with them. There are others – Mr. Darcy in Pride and Prejudice. Demerel in Venetia (which, in answer to the obligatory Heyer question is, in fact, my favorite Heyer.) And it occurs to me both these characters are in reality very flawed and come across even more flawed than they are, but have an inner sense of honor that might not fit that of society but which is, in fact, noble and larger than life.

In the comments (to Dave?) Doc John mentioned that he was told one of his characters was too powerful. That is a big issue. I had to figure out how to handle this with Athena in DarkShip Thieves. For good and sufficient reasons, integral to the plot, Athena IS better than most people. I balanced this out by giving her good instincts but – due to her upbringing – the moral sense and self-image of a catatonic gerbil. What this means is that even though she’s smart, she can be completely blinded by her own perceptions and apply her mind/strength in EXACTLY the wrong way. In effect, in many ways, she’s her own worst enemy.

I think the point is that if your character IS larger than life in good, you must balance it with larger than life in ill also.

I’ve – as usual – written five times as much as anyone else. So let me bow out for now. I shall return eventually with my amazing, piercing, and possibly excess-coffee induced insights in how to create truly loathsome wretches. Maybe...

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Favourite Characters and Pet Peeves

Following on from Dave's excellent post on favourite characters -- Georgette Heyer is one of my all time favourite authors. My copy of Black Sheep fell to pieces about 5 years ago. I loved the interaction between Miles and (Sarah?) the female protagonist. Both were intelligent but more than that, they shared the ability to see the abdurdity in life.

Another favourite character of mine is yet another Miles -- Lois Mcmaster Bujold's Miles Vorkosigan. Talk about a protagonist with frailities!

My pet peeve when it comes to books or movies is characters who do dumb things. If I'm reading a book and the protagonist does the fictional equivalent of the horror movie babysitter, who goes outside to investigate a strange noise, I feel like throwing the book. I feel the character doesn't deserves the investment of my emotional commitment to them and their problem.

If I read a book and the characters live on for me afterwards, it means they've come to life for me. I love it when this happens.

What are your pet peeves?

Monday, May 18, 2009

A test of Character

OK, we've decided on a bit of furniture re-arrangement in here. Make it a bit more lively and play some wild music. Get more people involved.

The purpose of the joint was to talk about writing process, but it hasn't been very focussed, so I've suggested we talk about writing areas, and the mob get to chirp back, ask hard questions, offer topics and yeah, make our lives a bit more lively and miserable :-) So: to start the ball rolling - it's been said there are really two kinds of novels, plot driven and character driven. Of course like most generalisations this comes in 53 shades of true and betwixt, but I'm a believer in character being what get me to read on.

So: who is your favorite character and why? Chip in please. Let us know this worth doing and we'll all try for feedback and grow all of writing through this.

I'm going to start with Miles Calverleigh from Georgette Heyer's Black Sheep. I love the touch of antihero and humour. I also love the way Miles feel 'deep'. You're not quite sure what is going on in his head. Heyer manages a few neat tricks with writing this character that I've tried to use myself. She trails his the background JUST enough to intrigue for starters. It's cleverly and subtly done.

Come on. Roll up! Roll up! Comments on Miles, comments on your fave characters. Then we can extend this to what we do to build characters, what tricks there are etc.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

I just had to share

I have been reading some reviews of "Storming Hell"

The first is by good ole Lois Tilton (the lady who accused me of poor spelling - becaue I put 'u' in words like colour):


Storming Hell by John Lambshead

In an alternate world with some resemblance to our early nineteenth century, Sarah Brown is a neophyte pilot [a warrant officer, although the author does not say so] newly posted to Her Majesty's Aethership Cassandra. Pilots guide the ship through the equivalent of a jump, known here as metastasis, but from Sarah's point of view, she is being led through space by a spirit guide, who is in her case a highwayman known as Captain Hind. The Cassandra's mission is to eliminate piracy in the vicinity of a world named Lucifer. They engage a much larger pirate ship, but it is employing a sorcerer as a pilot, leaving the battle largely in Sarah's hands.

Sarah noticed ghostly figures on the edge of her vision that vanished as soon as she looked at them directly, like trying to see a dim star at night. She enthasised and was horrified to see goblin-like forms lurching around the bridges like small boys who had got out of their governess' control. The spirit world was overflowing into the natural realm and something was psychically boarding the Cassandra.

In essence, this is a comedy of manners in the guise of a naval adventure. The primary story is of Sarah's struggles for acceptance in the sexist, class-obsessed milieu of a naval warship. In some ways, it is reminiscent of Weber's Honor Harrington series, which is in turn based on the adventures of Horatio Hornblower in the milieu on which this story is modeled, but Sarah, while competent at her position, is not an ubersuperwoman. I was enjoying this one until the conclusion, when I was Not Amused by the lechery of Captain Fitzwilliam, which left a really bad taste that ruined all the fun.""


The second is by Sam Tomaino

he Fantasy section has two stories. The first is "Storming Hell" by James Lambshead. Set in an alternate universe where ships sail the aether by use of cavorite and guides from the spirit world, Sarah Brown is the pilot of Her Majesty's Aethership Cassandra. She pilots the ship through space by entering the spirit world and having the help of the ghost of Captain James Hind, "a highwayman and cavalier who was hanged for high treason in 1652". She guides them to the New Isle of Wight, a moon of the planet Lucifer. There they are to set a trap for pirates in a fun and exciting tale.


If Lois thinks Storming Hell is lecherous then imagine what she would make of Beauty is a Witch?

Beauty is a Witch

The Beggar’s clientele came to life like a bunch of extras when the director calls action. The curious gathered around to examine the body while the circumspect gravitated towards the way out. This was Rosalynne’s chance to get away in the confusion. She slid out of her alcove, stooping to render her lightly-built frame even less inconspicuous. She kept her head well down and concentrated on covering ground.

Someone stuck something between her legs. Rosalynne tripped and fell headlong, bursting through the crowd and falling face down in the monster’s blood. The top-hatted letch withdrew his stick. He giggled childishly like the third hick in a rural horror movie. All it needed was the sound of banjos.

“Hello, Rosalynne, we were looking for you,” said a male voice.

She looked up to see Jameson, gun in hand, between her and the door.

“Oh, bugger!” Rosalynne said, with deep feeling. “What have I done to attract the Commission’s attention?”

She could here the whine in her voice. She sounded like a small time villain having his collar felt. Not me Guv, she seemed to be saying, I ain’t done nothing.

“What haven’t you done, Rosalynne?” Jameson asked. “Your little forays into The City’s computer systems are causing chaos. You remember the run on the Newcastle Rock?”

Rosalynne considered. She did have some vague memory of people queuing for miles outside some bank branches up in the northern provinces.

“The Chancellor wants someone’s head on a block.” Jameson said, pointing the gun at her head.

Rosalynne reacted with blind panic and took off through the surrounding crowd’s legs. She gambled on Jameson not risking collateral damage by taking a shot through the bystanders. Unfortunately, she ran in the wrong direction, away from the door. She headed for the bar with the vague idea of putting solid wood between her and the gun. She never made it, never even came close.

“Karla!” Jameson yelled, like a man unleashing an attack dog.

Adrenaline surge speeded up Rosalynne’s mind. Everyone seemed to be moving in slow motion, everyone except Karla; she was still terrifyingly fast. Throwing aside a table, she was on Rosalynne like a terrier after a rat.

Rosalynne ripped the posy from her jacket lapel. In one fluid motion, she turned and threw it at Karla.

The herbs ignited in a cold flash that sent a directional shock wave away from Rosalynne. Karla bore the brunt of the impact but the wave rippled through the room, knocking people, tables and chairs over indiscriminately.

Rosalynne threw herself over the bar. Something went past her ear with a crack. That was no warning shot. Jameson was trying to kill her. The mirror behind the bar shattered in a blizzard of glass shards. She landed heavily on her back behind the bar. Henry looked down at her sightlessly and slowly shook his head.

Something stuck its head out of the broken mirror, something that looked like a gargoyle with stubby wings and a single horn on the end of its nose. Its skin cracked as it moved, releasing puffs of purple vapour that ignited into flickering green flames. It partly hopped, partly flew with a single downward wing beat onto the top of the bar.

Rosalynne rolled over.

The gargoyle waved a stubby arm. “Hello, Henry,” it said in a voice that sounded like a moving tectonic plate.

There was another thump and the bar panel beside Rosalynne splintered. A missile like a crossbow bolt with inlaid iron strips was embedded in the back of the bar. So much for putting solid wood between her and Jameson, the bolt would have gutted her if she had not moved.

Rosalynne screamed. Stupid, because it signalled to Jameson that she was still alive, but she could not help it.

The gargoyle noticed her, cocking its head on one side like a bird of prey. Its beak split in a broad grin, which was a disturbing anatomical feat in itself, and it wolf-whistled like a white-van driver.

“What a beauty,” it said, admiringly.

Rosalynne scrabbled along desperately on her hands and knees behind the bar. Another missile burst through the spot she had just vacated.

The gargoyle admired the rear view as she crawled past and whistled again.

“You’ll do. Yes, you’ll do very nicely.” Its voice was becoming smoother, more baritone.

Rosalynne resisted the urge to stop and pull her skirt down. It wasn’t fair! Everyone had it in for her. All she was trying to do was earn a pound or two. Why wouldn’t they all just leave her alone? She had but a moment to escape before Jameson, or worse still Karla, came over the bar after her.

She jumped up and hurled herself head first through the broken mirror.

“Goodbye, Rosalynne,” Henry said. It sounded like a valediction.

The Prologue

I like to write long short stories (novelettes?). I have also got into the habit of writing a sort of prologue that I use to set the scene. I always kind of liked those American programmes that had a prologue then ran the credits be fore the main story. Of course, they filled the space with adverts, which we did not see.

James Bond movies were hot on prologues. Truth to tell, the prologue was often better than the film.

So I tend to use them in my short stories. I always get criticised for this. Apparently, I am breaking one of those unwritten writing rules that 'every one knows'.

How do the rest of you feel about this burning issue?

Friday, May 15, 2009

A Week on the Oregon Coast

My trip to Oregon was well worthwhile. It was focused more on the business side of writing than the creative side, but being in a different place and spending ten days working intensely with other writers was stimulating on all sides.

I got in two walks on the beach. On the second, walking with three others from the workshop, we encountered this newborn seal pup that had come ashore to rest. What an amazing sight! The pup got rolled around and pushed farther up the beach by the surf. After a while it started crawling up the beach on its own, and paused to cry now and then. That was heartbreaking, but we knew its mother was nearby in the water, watching, and that the pup would be all right.

Sometimes the business of writing makes me feel a lot like that pup. You finish a novel, and you have to try to find a home for it. Suddenly you're in deep water, flailing around with no idea where to go. You get pushed around by forces beyond your control. Editors and agents are extremely busy people, and you have to try to get their attention for your baby. And the sea is very, very big.

Having a group of other writers to talk with is a huge boon when you're in this kind of situation. Whether it's a critique group or a network of friends, they can help you examine your options, and remind you that every writer goes through such times. Yes, it's scary sending your work to someone you don't know, asking them to give you money for it, especially when you have a lot of effort and emotion invested in it. Unless you're writing purely for your own pleasure, though, this is a necessary part of the job.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Can You Hear Me Now?

First of all I want to apologize about my repeated absences from this blog. After the horrible feather allergies at Opus, I seem to have been destabilized enough to catch anything that came by and – obligingly – my younger son brought home a horrible bug. In a sort of poetic justice, he got walking pneumonia out of it, while I just got very ill and unable to string two words together, which has me even later on my late deadlines.

Now the kid is better and I’m just getting back into working shape and it’s time to resume my ramble on voice.

If we all remember – I barely do :) – when last we saw our heros, we were discussing – or at least I hope we were – how good voice can cover a multitude of sins. A convincing voice will make you believe the character exists and thereby glide all sorts of inconveniently awkward world building behind its all-pervasive authority. A really good voice is the sort of thing that if you say "The sky is green and the moon made of cheese" the reader will believe it, even if they’re looking out the window and seeing it otherwise.

So how do you acquire this mysterious elixir of "a good voice."

Well... easier said than done. For one, if you’re a normal writer – yes, unlike me, but even I have this when I’m not writing as someone completely different – you can’t hear your own best voice. You’ll be writing, and it’s easy – this is one of the clues you’re doing it right, actually. You’re not fighting it – and it’s flowing, but you keep thinking "Heavens, this is blah. There’s no art to it." Then you give it to your beta readers and they go "Oh, wow. It sang. It danced. It did dishes." This usually means you’ve hit your natural voice and that because it’s natural to you you can’t "perceive" it.

So what am I talking about on the "writing as someone completely different" above? Well, while my natural voice might sing, dance and do dishes, it has some issues. One of them is that it tends to be a little dry and over-intellectual. Look, it’s how I was brought up. My inner self is eighty years old and wears half-moon glasses. My other issue is that unless I’m writing far future or foreign my voice can seem "odd" to native speakers. Nothing bad, mind you, but enough to have someone put a book down.

Fortunately I’m not a normal writer – and you’re all warned, right now, that if you reach for the phone to call the men in white coats on this one, I shall be MOST seriously displeased – and seem to suffer from a form of self-induced multiple personality disorder. I’ve been heard to say that my books start with a character who wants his/her story told. This is true. What I don’t normally reveal is that this is no half-formed wraith, but a definite voice. Oh, not in my ears – at least not yet – but in my mind. It’s a voice with a personality and his/her own word choices and attitude. I will usually get one or two paragraphs, sometimes if I’m lucky a whole page. I have only once, so far, got three chapters and only once – differently – a whole book.

If anyone else is afflicted with this – I honestly don’t know if this is normal – the first rule is to trust that voice. Write down however much you’re given and trust it as you build the rest of the novel, then trust it as you resume writing. This is harder than it seems. I always have an almost unbearable temptation to go back and edit those "given" sentences and make them more grammatical or more whatever. This is always a mistake.

Also, when writing after that, it is important to try to keep the voice consistent with those first sentences. Weirdly, if the book is going well, after a while it’s not an effort.

So, what if the voice isn’t there? Well... I also experience this. Note above "most of my books" but not all of them start with the character and the voice. Sometimes I have a great idea. Or worse, an idea that sold, but the voice won’t come.

Again, my advice will sound at best silly and at worst useless, but it’s what I do – cold comfort though it is, I advise you to seek the voice. Try it out. Give it some time, then try it out again. Think the book, immerse yourself in it. Think of the character, the character’s situation, what the character wants. Then try again. My record is two hundred and some first pages, but the voice did eventually come. Sometimes – again at the risk of being silly – it helps if you use a different medium to write those first two pages. Like, take a notepad and pen and try it long hand. Something about the shift jugs your subconscious lose.

But above all remember the important thing about voice is confidence. Your confidence in the voice translates to the page which in turn translates into reader confidence in what you are saying. So work on it, but don’t over think it and don’t doubt it.

Curiously, for those three people who aren’t tired of hearing about my art-class experiences, this translates to art. My art teacher says confidence and a distinctive, self-consistent style will carry the day over accurate technique and careful execution.

So, go forth, be confident, and have the courage to trust your words. PARTICULARLY when you’re telling made up stories.