Saturday, October 31, 2009


The key to any story is the motivation of the characters. However, something that happened recently in Britain reminded me that people are not rational and may have quite unreal, self defeating and contradictory motivations.

The Home Secratary, under the prodding of our Prime Minister, Bonkers Brown, just fired the Chairman of the Government Scientific Advisory Committee on the Misuse of Drugs. His crime was to publish a scientific paper giving the degree of harm of various recreational drugs.

The list in order of harm based on actual evidence is: Heroin, Cocaine, Barbiturates, Methadone, ALCOHOL, Ketamine, Benzadrine, Amphetimine, TOBACCO, Buprenophrine, Cannabis, Solvents, 4-MTA, Methylphenadate, Anabolicsteroids, GBH, Ecstasy (and similar), Alky Nitrates & Kat.

Based on this, Professor Nutt advised that Cannabis and Ecstasy should be downgraded for legal purposes. That is the purpose of his Committee, to give the Government scientific advise - which they gave for free unpaid. Ecstasy is classed as a Grade A illegal drug with Heroin and Cocaine, and Cannabis a Class B. Alcohol, meanwhie, is being heavily pushed by the Government who have scrapped most of our alcohol control laws and allowed 24 hour drinking, massive sales of cheap booze in supermarkets etc. Alcopops, aimed at young people, is cheaper than mineral water to buy. Of course, the Government makes a great deal of money out of taxing nicotine and alcohol.

Professor Nutt, incidentally has a medical degree from Cambridge and has just been poached by Imperial friom Bristol to be Director of their Neuropsychopharmacology Department where he will be developing Positron Emission Topography scanner techniques to track drug effects on the brain.

But Bonkers has decreed that Cannabis is lethal so what does Professor Nutt know? What finally enraged Bonkers was Nutt pointing out that ten times as many people die from recreational horse riding as recreational ecstasy.

Nutt reports the following conversation with his political masters:

MP: ‘You can’t compare harms from a legal activity
with an illegal one.’
Professor Nutt: ‘Why not?’
MP: ‘Because one’s illegal.’
Professor Nutt: ‘Why is it illegal?’
MP: ‘Because it’s harmful.’
Professor Nutt: ‘Don’t we need to compare harms to
determine if it should be illegal?’
MP: ‘You can’t compare harms from a legal activity
with an illegal one.’
repeats …

I have also given evidence to politicians and can confirm their inability to think rationally.

So put yourself in Gordon Brown' motivational position. What motivations would you give such a character. He schemed and plotted to take the PMship from Blair and now he has it the resuls have been a disaster but he has pleaded with his party not to sack him. What do think his motivation might be? I know we call him Bonkers but he is not actually mad, in the clinical sense.

Power: he is near powerless.
Status: he is a national joke.
Respect: see earlier comment.
Ambition to achieve a goal: he has shown no sign of having any ideas.

How would you bring Brown to life as a protagonist for a reader? What would you make his motivations and how would he rationalise his desire to cling to office until next year's electoral disaster? How would you make the irrational seem rational?


The photo is taken at Greenwich (promounced gren-itch) with the financial centre of London, the largest in the world, across the Thames in the distance. Greenwich is the old Royal Observatory and I am standing on the zero line.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Primordial Soup

Just as Rowena talked about the different ways that we writers stay inspired, there are no doubt myriad ways in which we all first approached the Muse.

What was the writer's ‘Primordial Soup’? Were you drawn by the prose itself? Did it sing in your head? Did sentences appear before you written in fiery letters?

Or was it a sense of character, building up inside you until you just had to let those critters free on the page? Or perhaps it was emotional – something from your past that drove you to explore a theme that strongly resonated with you. Perhaps you recreate the same emotional landscapes that haunted your childhood, and your protagonist is an aspect of you, saving you over and over again (guilty as charged).

Or was it the ideas themselves? Those Wow concepts that electrified your brain. ‘Oh, my God! What if . .. ?’ And this was so compelling that it drove you to weave an entire world around it, just so you could communicate it? My SF definitely comes into this category (not that I’ve written much lately).

Of course wherever we start, as writers we have to create all the elements of a story landscape – character, setting, conflict. And answer all those questions of Rowena’s – what is the story about? What does the character want? What does the character have to overcome to get there (or try to)? We need a plot – a series of events that define the story and show the character’s journey.

But where did you start? What was the first form of that passion that drove you to the page?

Thursday, October 29, 2009

The Fantasy Economy - What do you mean lifestyle matters?

And no, I don't mean the one politicians of all kinds are always making noises about.

What I'm talking about here is something that just about everyone gets wrong - usually because most of us are so used to the way things have worked since the Industrial Revolution that it's invisible. The changes the Industrial Revolution kicked into overdrive had already been happening, but in the space of fifty to a hundred years they went from upper class only to ubiquitous, and rearranged European society in the process. The other thing about the Industrial Revolution is that most of the changes were economic. The industry side was the means, not the end.

I'm going to start by reduction: it's easier to see the differences this way. Besides, we've all got a more or less reasonable idea of how "the economy" works nowadays. We know you earn money at a job or selling stuff and spend it on the things you need and want, hopefully in that approximate order.

The screamingly obvious first. Say goodbye to electricity, piped gas, and the car. For light, you're using either candles (expensive) or some form of oil/fat/grease light. More often than not, you're going to bed when it gets dark and getting up when it's light. Anything happening at night probably involves a full or at least three-quarter moon because that way there's a decent amount of light out. Cooking means a fire, which you've got to watch constantly and makes things miserable in summer. No cars means everything perishable is coming from close by, if you didn't grow it yourself. You're not going anywhere that's not in walking distance unless you can afford and have space for horses or there's a coach service. For most people, the effective 'range' is three to five miles for general errands, maybe ten miles if you're going somewhere and staying there, and if you've got access to good horses, fifty miles is a day's journey, more or less. Oh, and you're getting water from a well - yours if you're lucky, otherwise it's by bucket from a communal well, and the quality can be pretty iffy since there's no sewage system either. A bath means heating water bucket by bucket and pouring it into a tub as it boils. By the time you've filled the tub what you've got is - hopefully - warm water. If you're in a large family, everyone uses the tub water and the poor sod who goes last gets cold, dirty water to wash in.

Now get rid of mass-produced furniture and whatnot. Your dishes are probably wood, because for those all you have to do is cut down a tree and make it yourself. Nails are expensive because a blacksmith has to make them, individually. The old joke about granddad's axe isn't a joke any more - everything you own gets used, re-used and repaired endlessly. Your roof is probably shingle or thatch because you can do that yourself with local material, and you have to fix it constantly. Furniture-wise, you've got maybe a bed a table, and some stools or benches. Unless you're wealthy - which usually means you own a lot of land - you made it all yourself, or someone in your family did. If you're doing well, you've got some chickens and pigs, maybe even some cows or sheep. You don't usually see money at all: instead, you barter with whatever you have surplus or your skills. Money is for the wealthy. Even your taxes get paid in kind rather than in money. That's life for most people.

If you're one of the relative few who lives in the (rather small by our standards) cities, you probably still keep chickens and possibly pigs, and you might have a small garden that keeps you in vegetables. For flour, honey and such, you go to the markets. Also for cloth, since you haven't got space to grow flax or hemp or raise sheep. Cotton is rare and expensive because it's a sub-tropical crop and needs a lot of intensive labor. Mostly what you buy is some version of linen or hemp cloth or wool. There is no such thing as ready-made. You or your family make it yourself. You probably have two sets of clothing: one for everyday, and one for Sunday. Washing your clothes means dunking them in boiling water and beating the dirt out of them - soap hasn't been invented yet.

Trade means non-perishable goods - high quality fabrics, metals, gemstones, wood, dyes, spices (which are typically dried and will keep for a long time unless they get wet), lace (hand made by skilled artisans), and such. It's all expensive - your family might own one lace collar, which the lady of the house wears to church on Sundays and treats with extreme care. If you're a trader, chances are you live on the edge because travel any distance is dangerous and you could lose a fortune if your goods are stolen or the ship sinks. You probably specialize in one type of trade because of the specialized knowledge you need for it. If you're a skilled artisan, you're selling mostly to the relatively few wealthy people, or to traders, and you're probably fairly well off yourself (unless you're a blacksmith, in which case how wealthy you are depends a lot on where you're working and how specialized you are - a really good swordsmith or armorer makes a lot more than a village smith). Jobs as we understand them don't exist: most people are basically subsistence farmers or managing a little above that. People who are 'employed' are generally servants or slaves who live in their master's homes, or they're apprenticed to a merchant or artisan and learning their trade. There were a few 'open' trades - keeping an inn or tavern (which generally was done as an extra by someone who was a bit better off than his neighbors), prostitution, and hired muscle of all flavors. One of the things that kept this structure relatively static was a variety of laws that banned moving above the class you were born to.

All of this added up to a finely tuned economy that mostly excluded the majority of people. Farms and villages had their own micro-economies based on barter, with occasional luxuries like blankets being brought in by traveling peddlers and usually bartered. National economies relied heavily on how much precious metal could be mined or traded for, and on taxing trade (other taxes generally got paid in kind). Nations that were foolish enough to debase their coinage with base metals suffered inflation and lost trade. Standing armies were rare. More typically, a monarch had a small personal guard, and raised an army from the populace with promises of loot and easy victory. They only did this when they needed to - or thought they could win quickly or cheaply - because once they took people away from their normal livelihood they had to pay them. A long war could cripple a country's finances.

I'm not touching what magic does to this kind of system, because it depends on what kind of magic and what it can do. Similarly, I'm not getting specific anywhere - but pretty much all pre-Industrial cultures fit this general model, although late pre-Industrial you start having factory production and hugely uneven changes in social standing, wealth, and customs (which can and often did destabilize things). The assorted 'Daily Life in...' books offer a decent thumbnail guide to get started with. After that, I'd recommend good translations of material from, and preferably about, the period your setting is most like. Archaeological reproductions help too, as do re-enactor materials. The basic idea with this is to get the general feel of how things worked, dig out enough specifics that you can include the corroborating details (things like peeing in a bucket for your launderer tend to be more effective for Heinleining than things like the exotic carpet in Lord Sonso's manor because they illustrate the differences in everyday life).

Oh, and if you want a really good insight into war, politics (and underlying it, economics) read Machiavelli. Start with The Prince, then the Discourses to get perspectives on absolute vs republican rule in ancient and medieval times, then move to the Art of War. For double bonus points, start estimating how familiar your favorite authors are with Machiavelli. Heck, for modern war all you really need to do with Machiavelli is update the weaponry.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

These Boots Are Made For Kicking

So you want to write short stories. Or you don’t. Couldn’t care less. It is my considered opinion – and as everyone here knows I am a moderate and ponderous sort of person, mild-mannered and calm – that all of you need to write a lot more short stories, so you can submit it and get over this namby pamby fear of submitting your work. Because I can’t be having with that and I don’t want to call y’all sissies. (Even if you are.)

What I most often hear is "But I don’t like writing short stories." Or perhaps "I’m a natural novelist." Or yet "I don’t have short story ideas!"

The fact I normally hear these pronounced in the tone my kids used for "but I want a cookie" normally means I roll my eyes and go hide somewhere with a book. But leaving aside my excellent parenting skills, my general answer to these is "cry me a river" for the first two and "You can learn" to the last. I too am a natural novelist, I don’t generally like writing short stories, and heaven knows I don’t even have SINGLE NOVEL ideas, but more like a six book series.

You see, there are reasons to learn short stories – beyond the fact that you need desensitizing. Once you’ve made it and you’re a big name (shut up. The alternative is I keep kicking you. ALL of you will become major names by default) people will ask you for short stories and short stories are your cheapest means of self promotion. Write short stories for as many anthos and mags as you can – chances are people will find them and then look for everything else you wrote. At least if you do a creditable job. So... about learning to do that job.

Ideas are the easy part. I have a friend who routinely tells me "I have this idea for a short story" – when in fact he doesn’t. What do I mean by that? His "idea" will be something like "What if squirrels discovered electricity?" That is not an idea. It is the rawest glimmering of what-if. And it’s certainly not a Short story idea. Maybe an essay.

Could it be a short story idea? Sure. Follow that life line. So, squirrels discover electricity. Do they discover how to create electricity or how to steal it from homeowners, with tiny wires so they can watch squirrel porn on their tiny laptops? Let’s say they steal it. We have Mary. She lives downtown and suddenly her energy bill skyrockets. The landlord/energy company doesn’t believe her. A quick investigation finds that squirrels have found some discarded computer parts, assembled them, and are stealing electricity to watch Nutkin does Norway. Mary solves the problem by teaching the squirrels to distribute their electricity theft. She perhaps furnishes them with bigger screens, or something. In return they do something else for her – perhaps fill one of the electricity company’s trucks full of nuts. Or take nude pictures of the landlord and paste them all over the neighborhood.

Now what you must resist is the impulse to figure out how this will affect university at large. Will Mary’s boyfriend who is a biologist want to study these newly sentient squirrels? Will the squirrels become partners with humans in space exploration? Will there eventually be a tiny twitch of the tail for squirreldom, a giant step for the species of Earth? No. Don’t go there. Drop it. I mean you, Chris. You don’t know where it’s been, and besides you’re borrowing trouble. Short stories by definition take a smaller slice of the pie, usually concentrated on one person’s problem and its more or less reasonable solution. Yes, there are a few short stories with a cast of thousands and dancing elephants, but they’re rare, far between and require consummate skill.
I will confess part of this is weighing "what is a short story idea" and part of it is habit and practice – like everything else.

So, grab a couple of short story anthos (the Greenberg themed anthos are actually pretty good for this) and read a couple of short stories, it might help.

In any case, shoot me a few ideas in the comments. I’ll weigh in, as will the bunch that hangs out here, and we’ll discuss whether they’re short story ideas or not. If it makes you feel better shoot ideas you never plan to use, just so we can argue if they’re short story ideas of not. Just post them, we’ll discuss them, and your understanding will improve. (Grasshopper!) Of course, you might also want to tell me how insane my squirrel idea is. ;) Or your alternate ideas for Squirrels Discover Electricity. (Ah, like any of you is as brilliant as I am. Whole cities are powered by my shining intellect. In fact squirrels would probably steal me... er... um... WHAT is in those cold meds?)

I know you have questions: So, you have this idea, but is it YOUR idea to write? What is a satisfying end for a a short story, versus a satisfying end for a novel? And where the heck do you find all these ideas, anyway? Will you give me the address in Kansas where they send you ideas if you send them a SASE?

All this and more will be answered when you tune in to the next episode of "Boots, Stories and tired writers!"

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Writing back cover Blurbs. Oh my!

My new editor at Solaris, asked me to write a 100 -150 word blurb for each book of the King Rolen's Kin (KRK) trilogy. Since these books are 120K, 130K and 150K, reducing them to bite sized blurbs seemed insurmountable.

Let's see, I had to retain enough of the feel of the story to get that across. I had to encapsulate the important conflicts of the plot, without revealing too much. And I had to do all this while making it sound interesting and enticing. Easy ... sure.

In the past, I've found it easier to write a blurb for a book I haven't written, than for one already completed, when I'm familiar with all the subtle twists and turns. Rather than tear my hair out, I went back to my KRK file and pulled out my Chapter Outlines which contain scene breakdowns.

When I'm writing an intricate plot that stretches over 1,500 pages and three kingdoms with parallel time lines, I keep notes for myself on what happens in each scene. I've learnt from experience there are times when I wake in the middle of the night thinking, 'Oh no, I forgot to mention that X was wearing his lion tooth trophy necklace early in book two.' Then I have to go back and find the right scene and the right place to mention this in passing. If I haven't done a scene breakdown I spend ages looking for the right spot. So I have this handy tool that reduces each book to the important events in each scene. But these documents are up to 10 pages long. At least I was one step closer to writing a 100 word blurb.

Still not there though. So I resorted to the old faithful:-

Who is the story about?
What do they want?
Why can't the achieve this?
How do they overcome it?

Only I avoided the last line because these were blurbs to tease the readers. After three days of intensive writing, editing, putting aside for a couple of hours, going back to it. I had the blurbs written. Under 400 words in 3 days -- Wow!

After all that I had to wonder, do the reading public pay much attention to blurbs? Do you buy a book on the strength of the back cover blurb?

Monday, October 26, 2009

Mad Genius Monday

Since Dave is being hammered by all the things that need to be done following his mother's passing, he will not be posting today.

Instead, the Mad Geniuses have opened the lab. Step carefully, mind the strange bubbling stuff over there (no, don't drink it!) and have fun. We take no responsibility for any strange ideas you might pick up.

No politics (unless it's fictional political systems), religion (ditto), or insults, please.

If you've got a work in progress, perhaps you might like to see what the Mad Geniuses think of it. Or perhaps you just want to hold forth in iambic pentameter about the weirdness of the world. Ladies, gentlemen, and others, you have the floor. Please put it back when you've finished with it.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

It's Magic!

Thursday, Kate talked about world building and some of the issues it raises in science fiction and fantasy. Her post started me thinking about a question raised in my local critique group this past weekend. Specifically, a couple of the new writers in our group wanted to know how you make magic a part of your world and what I meant when I said it had to “follow the rules”.

We've all read books where everything is going along according to the rules set out by the author and then BAM the main character – or the bad guy – does something not only unexpected but distinctly against the rules as they've been established and the book goes flying across the room. Maybe your main character has no magic and then, just in the nick of time, he does and he manages to save the day – this usually happens with no foreshadowing that his powers are growing, etc. Just a form of deus ex machina in the shape of magic to solve a plot point the author couldn't or wouldn't take the time to solve by following the rules.

So, what are the rules, you ask? I wish I could tell you there is this magical little rule book that sets it all down for you. But there's not. The one rule I try to abide by is that it must follow the rules of your world, ie your worldbuilding. To do so, I ask myself the following questions:
  • What is magic in my world? This seems simple enough, but think about it. There are still places in our world where technology seems like magic. So, do inventions such as steam-powered engines or electrical lights and telephone-like communications count as magic? Or is it more along the line of potions and rituals and spells? Maybe it's something else. It is up to you to decide.
  • Where does magic come from? Simply put, are your characters born with magic, do they learn it or is it a "gift" from the gods?
  • Who can perform magic in my world? Basically, does everyone have it or only some of the people.
  • If only some of the people in your world have magic, how do those with magic look at those without it and vice versa?
  • If you have a hybrid system of "natural" or god-given magic and "learned" magic, how do the practitioners of each view the others? Is there a hierarchical system involved?
  • How does the magic manifest itself, ie what magical powers exist in your world? Remember, these powers have to fit the rules of your world, so you have to take into account religion, economic and social rules as well. Depending on the storyline, you also have to look at military and technological factors.
  • What does it cost your characters to use magic? Magic has to cost the user in some form. In other words, there is a price to pay for it. Magic is energy – yes, there are a multitude of books out there where magic is a divine gift with no cost to use for the Hero. However, ask yourself if that really is no cost. There usually is, even if it isn't in the form of personal energy/health. The cost is in becoming a martyr or forever questing in the service of the god involved. Think about it this way -- how likely is it you can ride a horse at a gallop for hours on end without stopping? You can't without killing the horse. So if there is a cost for magic, you have to show it, whether it is by having your mage (or whatever you call him) be ravenously hungry or exhausted. It can even be something as simple as, to borrow from Stephen King, if you use your abilities too long and too frequently, you have nosebleeds and worse.
  • So, how does the user power the magic?
  • If by ritual, what is that ritual?
  • Finally, and in many ways the most important, how does magic fit into your world? I asked earlier if everyone in your world has magic or just some of your characters. There is a corollary to that. If not everyone in your world has magic, do they know magic exists? If they do, what are their feelings about magic, notwithstanding what they think about the magic users.
There are any number of other questions that can be asked during the course of worldbuilding when using magic as part of your plot. There is, however, one rule that must be kept in mind -- well, two actually because you always need to remember the KISS rule (unless part of the plot is making the spells so intricate that your main character, sap that he is, can't remember all of them and is always screwing up) - keep to the rules you set. Don't have a firestarter suddenly able to call the wind to fan the flames of the fire he just started or rain to put it out. At least not if you haven't laid the groundwork for it all along the lines.

Here are a few links with more information on magic in worldbuilding:

So, what questions do you ask yourself when you are writing magic? What pitfalls do you see and try to avoid?

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Some types of literary genre are inalienably linked with a culture or nationality. For example, the ‘western’ is an art form always set in the American west. There is no absolute reason why this should be so. Westerns could be set on the frontier of any expanding empire be it Rome, Russia or Britain, but they never are. Similarly, one associates serial killer stories with the modern United States notwithstanding that the media-serial killer was invented in London. Gangster stories are another American literary genre. Again, there is no particular reason for this. The American mafia never got a hold in London because there was no opening. London has always had its own organised crime.

But there is one literary form that is indisputably English dominated and that is the murder mystery story. The bestselling novelist of all time is Agatha Christie. Only Shakespeare has sold better and I am not sure we should class him as a novelist. Christie did not invent the genre; she is simply the most famous exponent.

An English murder mystery is quite different from a crime story or a police procedural. Murder is committed on some upper class or generally respectable member of society for reasons that are not immediately apparent. There are always plenty of suspects but those that have the motive do not have the opportunity and visa versa. More murders follow. Eccentricity spirals through the story like a bright copper wire. The victim and suspects are eccentric and the detective is, if anything, weirder. Midsummer murders, the latest successful TV murder mystery broke the mould slightly by having a perfectly normal family man as the detective. That did not last, however. Barnaby’s wife and daughter take up increasingly eccentric activities and recently it transpired that Barnaby was an MI6 agent. Murder mysteries are solved by ‘the little grey cells’ not by car chases, shoot outs, or patient police work.

So why is this genre so associated with England? Is it just because of Christie or is there something deeper going on? To put it another way, are there real life murder mysteries in England? Well take a look at these.

There is a village in Herts, one of the Home Counties, called Furneux Pelham (pronounced Furnix) of 250 residents. One morning in 2004, an NHS carer found their patient, Colonel Workman (rtd from the Oxforshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry), dead of a shotgun blast on his doorstep. The Liberal Peer, Dame Shirley Williams is a neighbour. The Colonel has lived there for 40 years, alone since his wife died the previous year. He had no enemies and was not robbed or professionally assassinated. Suspicion fell on the Puckeridge Hunt because they have shotguns but, then, so does everyone in this area.

A 999 call was received that morning alerting the police to an incident in Furneax Pelham from a phone box in the nearby village of Braughing, referring to the Colonel’s cottage by its old village name of 24 years previously. A year later a prisoner in Parkhurst alerted the baffled police to the Colonel’s secret life as an active homosexual in London gay clubs in the 50s and 60s. As far as I know neither the murderer nor the caller has ever been traced despite police investigations in America, Africa and the Med. The problem was that neither Miss Marple nor any of her relatives lived in the village.

Or how about the English civil servant with gambling debts who cancelled his wife’s car insurance forcing her to cycle everywhere then trying to run her down in a stolen sandwich van? Or the sex-mad spiritualist minister who murdered his wife, who was a TV makeup artist, and left her body by the track of the steam railway which he helped run. Or how about the farmer who tried to kill the postmistress, his wife, with a tractor so he could collect on her life insurance and run off with the village pub barmaid? Then there’s the royal dentist who murdered his wife and his lover’s husband.

There really is an English murder.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Our Deepest Sympathies

go out to our own Dave Freer and his family. Dave's mum passed away earlier today. Here's what Dave had to say on Twitter:

Out bright candle. My mother has died. Posts may be erratic and bleak. She wa a few days short of 93, had lived a life worth living.

Dave, our thoughts and prayers are with all of you. Lots of virtual hugs,
Your fellow Mad Genius Club cohorts

Tales of the Old Country

I was wandering around town last week, and as often happens, my feet took me down Charlotte St to one of my favourite haunts, Gilhooleys pub. As I relaxed at the bar, preparing myself to meditate over a pint of Guinness, I suddenly recognized Duncan, a distant cousin of mine from the old country. Usually laconic, old Dunc looked even more down than usual.

‘Hey Duncan, why so somber?’

‘Did you not hear?’ He shook his head sadly and slumped down even further, his face sinking toward the froth on his untouched beer. 'Old Maggie.'

He meant Sister Margaret, known as the ‘Mother Teresa of the Irish West’

‘Surely not?’ I prompted.

‘I was there,’ he said. He shook himself a bit. Then taking a long pull on the black stuff, he sat up straighter on his stool.

‘There she was – lying back on the pillows. Her face so pale. . . yet aglow like. There was myself, a young little nun from the convent, Bessie, and old Father O’Hennessy. Nothing to do but just hold the vigil.' He paused. 'How many times can ye' say the Rosary? God, forgive me,’ said Duncan, crossing himself.

I wasn’t sure what to say. Duncan is little older than me, and always held me in a sort of spell with his reserved gravity. I sat and waited, and eventually the story unfolded, my eyes on the pint and bar, but my mind lost in Duncan’s voice, the memory of the peat smoke, and the warm shuttered rooms of my childhood. I was there, in that room with Duncan.

‘Will you not take some water?’ asked Father O’Hennessy.

Maggie shook her head, making a sound deep in her throat that might have been anything.

‘Perhaps some milk?’

‘I’ll try,’ croaked Maggie weakly.

Father O’Hennessy nodded his head at Bessie, who slipped out of the room, returning a moment later with a large glass of creamy milk.

Bessie stepped up to the bed and held the glass to Maggie’s lips. Maggie choked and spluttered, the milk spraying out onto the cover. Maggie shook her head, and Bessie withdrew the glass. I could see poor little Bessie’s eyes tear as she mopped up the spill.

Eventually Bessie came back over to myself and Father O’Hennessy in the corner near the fire.

‘It’s no good, Father,’ said Bessie.

Father O’Hennessy looked down at the floor, then up suddenly. He considered for a moment, then his eyes lifted to the ceiling. ‘May the Lord forgive me.’ He turned his back on Maggie and slipped a silver flask from his coat pocket, pouring a good slug of Jameson’s Whiskey in with the milk. ‘Try that, girl.’

Bessie went back the bed. At the first touch of the glass to Old Maggie’s lips, her eyes lit up. She pushed herself back up into a sitting position, and gulped down the rest of the drink.

A little colour came back into her cheeks then, but there was something – the unearthly clarity of her eyes or the pallor of her skin – that alerted us.

‘Get the others, Bessie. Lively now,’ said Father O’Hennessy. It would not be long.

Soon the room was crowded with clergy, most of them the nuns that Old Maggie had led for more than a quarter of a century.

For a long moment Maggie looked at the them, then she tried to push herself up higher. This was it. The last words of this wonderful woman.

‘Help her up, Bessie.'

Maggie’s face was rapt as she drew a breath.

‘Whatever you do – don’t sell that cow!’

Thursday, October 22, 2009

The Problem With Politics

Politics in fantasy and science fiction, that is. I'm not going near the tar pit that is modern politics in any country.

Something you notice when you read a lot is that most people haven't got a clue how politics actually work, leading to what could be described as Tough Guide to Fantasyland political systems (If you haven't read the Tough Guide, find it and read it. It's hilarious, and boy does it skewer shoddy the fantasy cliches). Sadly, the same kind of thing also shows up way too often in science fiction, complete with the fantasy memes of the Evil Empire - it doesn't matter what it's actually called, if it functions as an Evil Empire, it might as well be one - the noble, heroic anti-imperial forces, usually horribly outnumbered/out-weaponed and so forth.

Part of the problem with imagining other forms of government is that English is actually a very egalitarian language. Over centuries we've lost any distinction between formal and informal address, much less anything more complex. Compare this to some of the European languages where there are formal and informal forms of "you", or some of the Asian languages which have multiple forms of address depending on rank, level of intimacy, level of formality, and so forth. To most native English speakers that kind of distinction is beyond confusing and heads rapidly into the realm of utterly incomprehensible - with the result that we find it very difficult to truly understand the kinds of protocol that go with any highly class-conscious society.

A rather length aside here - even English royalty is remarkably egalitarian. The rule for speaking with any member of the English royal family is burned into my memory, courtesy an incident from when I was part of a choir in Australia. The choir was singing at a college graduation where the Duchess of Kent (as patron of the college) was presenting the degrees. One of my sisters was graduating, so naturally the whole family was there - me and my mother in the choir, the graduating sister in with the other graduates, and the rest of the horde in the general audience (Yes, my family is a horde. I'm the oldest of 5. Back in the bad old days when the Queensland Government restricted public gatherings, we used to joke that we needed a permit to go anywhere as a family). Security, naturally, was tight, but we choristers were told that if by chance we did end up speaking with the Duchess, the rule was to address her as "Your Grace" the first time you said anything, and "Ma'am" after that. I wouldn't remember this except that... mum is a mad keen photographer and she wanted a photo of the Duchess. So, after the graduation is finished and everyone else has gone home (it was well after midnight) mum manages to find out which elevator the Duchess is going to be using and positions herself there - and gets permission from the security people, who basically said photos were fine so long as she stayed behind this line. I'm hanging back - figure painfully shy mid-twenties in dorky choir uniform and you've got it. Besides, mum's the outgoing, impossible to embarrass one, so if any of the horde gets to talk to the Duchess, it's her. The elevator opens, the Duchess sees mum with camera and pauses long enough for mum to get a nice photo, then heads straight to me. I'm not sure how long I was the very picture of gobsmacked, but it was probably a lot less time than it felt like! There was this moment of pure panic followed by a thought along the lines of "Oh, crap, what were the rules?" Fortunately the Duchess is a very gracious lady who knows how to talk to painfully shy, overwhelmed people - we ended up having a short but relatively sensible discussion about the choir she's a member of, the policies of both choirs about what jewelry the women can wear for performances, how much fun it is to sing certain works and so on. But after being singled out - I suspect because she saw me hanging back and I was in the choir uniform (so was mum, but she was waving the camera around, too) - I'm never going to forget that rule!

Anyway, back to fictional governments and forms of protocol that go with them. What you could call the 'default fantasy' setup involves a king, some number of usually not very well defined nobility, mostly parasitic, and everyone else. It doesn't take too much thinking about the setup to realize it not only doesn't work, it can't work. Part of the function of class distinctions is to define responsibilities - the higher the class or rank, the higher the responsibility. Slaves are responsible for whatever their job happens to be. Serfs (slaves tied to land rather than people) are responsible for feeding themselves and their families fed and usually having enough surplus for the land owner's requirements. Free farmers are responsible for feeding themselves and their families, usually providing at least one armed man for whatever purposes are needed, and paying taxes to their lord in either money or goods. In towns, the various merchants are responsible for making enough profit to keep their families fed, paying taxes to both the town upkeep and the lord, and usually some form of guild association as well. The 'noble' class - ranging from relatively small land owners to control of several cities - are responsible for keeping everything they own in good running order, collecting the taxes for those higher up the chain, enforcing the laws and where necessary making their own laws for problems specific to their regions. Royalty is responsible for keeping the nobility in order, relationships with other countries, maintaining law and order, and generally keeping the whole thing running - which is a huge simplification. In a fantasy setting, the effective limit of a country's size is based mostly on how long it takes to travel from one end to the other. Anything more than a few days becomes very difficult to manage unless there are trusted governors/nobles/whatever in each district who can act as royal proxies if needed. China overcame the distance issue by imposing a common culture on conquered peoples. Russia didn't reach its full extent until the late 1800s, when rapid communication by telegraph was possible. The British Empire managed to hold on to territory all over the world by a combination of local governors with vice-regal authority (that is, they could act as if they were the monarch) and relatively fast shipping which allowed them to reach pretty much any part of the Empire in six weeks.

To successfully deal with all the complications that arise in anything like this, you need to know who is in charge of what, because the actual distribution of control/responsibility gets pretty diffuse in anything large or complex. The whole system might be pretty much invisible to Joe Average - but it needs to be there, or you get the Tough Guide effect where it all seems to exist on tourism from adventurers.

On the science fictional side of the coin, it's often even worse. Those star-spanning civilizations connected by whatever macguffin is used to permit space travel? Impossible, even with the handwavium of faster than light/wormholes/whatever. Here's why: in any sufficiently technologically advanced society, knowledge is the key to wealth, and currency is typically a nominal unit of value rather than the 'hard' currency of less technologically based cultures. One of the things that makes this possible is effectively instantaneous communication, which can be done on a single planet. Over several light years? Not likely. To have a functional currency through a multiple star empire, you need to be able to withdraw money from a bank on planet A, and have that balance reflected instantly in the database on space station Z. I've yet to see anything that takes this into account.

Then you have the lunacy that is standard SF trope interstellar war. By using a quasi-Napoleonic environment, some authors make this sort of limp along, but space is effectively boundaryless. Your space empire or republic or whatever is effectively a collection of discrete islands surrounded by a whole lot of buggerall. If you've read anything about the problems of naval warfare during World War Two, you've got some idea - just extrapolate to three dimensions instead of two, and expand the scale from "big" to "so utterly freaking huge it's mind blowing". The Napoleonic analogy is probably as close as you can get, but even so, the assumption behind that analogy is still one of scarcity of resources when most planetary systems have more than enough of everything for a sufficiently advanced technological base to leverage - and that's without the extremely high likelihood of some degree of replication or fabrication.

Without near-instantaneous communication, there can't be any viable star-spanning anythings - instead there'll probably be a series of effectively self-sustaining/self-contained settlements and settlement clusters, each with its own economic systems and rules - making life very interesting indeed for the space traveler. The likelihood of this generating any kind of empire, much less an Evil one, probably has so many zeros after the decimal point it might as well be zero - except that there's a 100% chance some lunatic will try to form one. (There's a large historical precedent for this. Practically every attempt at building a utopian society anywhere falls into this category, because people aren't perfect and trying to make them fit the vision usually ends badly.) Not to mention that, like the fantasy realms, they're not going to be homogenous. There'll be misfits, eccentrics, leaders, followers, predators and prey, because every society has them.

All things considered, I'd better leave it here, because if I get into economics and how that works - or doesn't - in the vast majority of science fiction and fantasy, I'll have to write a book-length rant, and I'd much rather just write a book that does get it more or less right. I hope.

Who do you think does get it right, or close to right? What do they get right?

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

No Will But His by Sarah A. Hoyt

Sarah is fighting the flu and asked me to post this snippet from her upcoming novel No Will But His: A Novel of Katherine Howard. It will be released April 6, 2010. Enjoy! Btw, she will begin her short story clinic next week. Promise. -- Amanda)

The Backstairs of Hampton Court

“Are you brave or foolish, Your Majesty? Brave or foolish?” Thomas Culpepper’s fine, long fingers quested beneath the bodice of my dress, caressing along the rounded slope of my breast till they found the nipple and played upon it as a musician upon a virginal. His blue grey eyes sparkled like a cloudless summer’s sky down at me as he demanded, his voice thickened by desire, “Brave or foolish?”

I smiled at him, but I said nothing. It has ever been my belief with men that it is far easier to allow them to make up their own minds and tell themselves whatever pretty story they want about your motives.

They can think you love them or hate them, that you’re brokenhearted at leaving them or else that you have turned your heart to another. There is naught you can do about their fanciful imaginings, and it saves time and many tears if you simply let them believe as they will. Then they tell themselves their pretty stories and your soul remains unstained by the lie.

As I looked at Master Culpepper from beneath my half-lowered eyelids, I thought it was a good thing he had auburn hair and those fine eyes, and that his features—I thought—resembled what my husband’s had been before he’d grown so fat. Any get of Thomas could pass as the get of Henry, the king of England.

“Don’t you know, madam, that the wrath of kings is death?”

I smiled at him, my sauciest smile, and endeavored to appear lighthearted and fanciful and interested in nothing but my pleasure. Or perhaps half mad in love with him, which Thomas would probably fain believe I was. He’d grown very vain.

“You speak too much, Master Culpepper.”

“Should one not speak?” he asked. “When such grave matter is afoot?” His hand, more forward than his brain, quested still in the warm reaches of my bodice, and by that questing hand I knew I had him. He might think, and he might talk, but his body would no more let him walk away from me than it would let him ascend to flight like an angel bound for heaven above.

“My quarters are warm, and all my servants abed, save only Lady Rochefort and Mistress Tilney who is utterly devoted to me—and both of them would die before they betray me.”

In his eyes for a moment there was a flash of fear. Then it was gone. “Madam!” he said, desire in his voice strong enough to drive away any fear. “Madam.”

“Dare you not, Thomas Culpepper? And I thought you a brave man.” Which by all accounts I should well think him—in the field of joust and in dispute, he stood with the most gallant courtiers.

“Brave I am, and I’ll dare if you will, but . . .”

My finger rested on his lips, stilling them. “Hush then, and dare you all.”

In his eyes I read lust mixed with a little fear. He would never be allowed to see the fear in mine. I kept my gaze level, my smile broad. He would never be allowed to know that as I stood here, in my velvet gown, my sparkling jewels, I walked a narrow path between two deep abysses.

The king, my husband, lay ill abed. At this very moment, already, he might be dead, taken by the same illness that had caused the wound in his leg to stop flowing and turned his face black with foul humors just two months ago. That same illness had returned, that same blocked humor. And now he would die. And if he died—

If he died, he left nothing. Two daughters and a small son who, though he might be a lusty infant, would still be a pawn of every pretender, every hand against him.

We would find ourselves again as in the time before the king’s father when my grandmother said every man had been against every other and no one safe. And I, the relict of the sovereign, would be the first to lose life and limb in such strife.

Only one thing would protect me, and hold me on the throne, and that was that my womb should ripen with a child.

But that was impossible as my husband did little that could lead to such an auspicious result.
And so, at this moment, in my peril, I must seize upon another who might impregnate me and whose son I could pretend to be Henry’s. Of course, discovery of my treason would lead to death, but so would Henry’s death without having seeded my womb.

I half closed my eyes and wondered how I—who had wanted nothing more than to keep myself free from any man’s single, brute power over me—should have come to this.

But I said nothing. I closed my eyes and allowed Thomas to think it was just my desire for him making me hoarse, as I said, “Speak no more, Thomas. Only make me yours.”

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Where would Writers be without Chocolate?

Okay, I confess.

I love chocolate, especially chocolate with nuts.

My idea of heaven would be a coffee, some chocolate and a good idea that I can't stop writing. You know, one of those days where you are in the 'zone' and the story just flows.

Of course, you have to do your ground work. You've been reading about related subjects for years, just because they interest you, so you've done your research without realising it.

Every spare moment, when you've been bored while waiting to pick the kids up from school or in the checkout queue, you've been taking the characters out of their 'green room' and chatting to them, finding out what happened in their childhood, what makes them the way they are, finding out what they really want from life and how they interact.

And then the day comes when it all meshes and the story just comes bubbling out. Of course it helps if you have a supply of chocolate and a fresh cup of coffee.

Then there are those days when you've deliberately done the research, you've text-book planned the characters, you've actually planned a story arc and you sit down to write and even chocolate and coffee don't help. Everything you write is flat and uninspired.

What do you do? Why do some stories come naturally and others are hard labour?

What do you do to get in the 'zone'? Do you plan and plot or plunge and grab the story tiger by the tail?

Do you indulge in chocolate to help get the creative juices flowing?

Monday, October 19, 2009

As funny as a funeral

I'm rather wrapped up in family disasters (my mother remains in a comatose state after a stroke) and not as focussed on writing or replying as I might be. I thought I'd turn to pet subject of mine, which is rather appropriate under the circumstances. Many people have tried to analyse humor and what makes us find things funny. What makes us laugh. One of the curious things coming out of all of that is that laughter is a reaction to the innappropriate. It's one of our ways of dealing with what should not be - whether it is a word meaning something inappropriate, or a word meaning something else besides the contextual setting, or a man walking toward the open manhole... (we know he is going to fall) and stepping straight over it and slipping on the banana peel on the far side. The predictable may be delightful, but it isn't funny. Which falls in line with my thesis - the funniest books - or the funniest books you remember are the ones where laughter is not constant. Where in fact -- like ADOLF HITLER, HIS PART IN MY DOWNFALL the story is quite riddled with tragedy. If you think about it, some of the great humor writers - Douglas Adams, Terry Pratchett, Tom Sharpe - have elements of pathos and in the latter cases some real drama too. Ie the books run an emotional gamut and continue to surprise by shifting between the various 'expectations'. It's a hard trick to master. It was the failure to recognise this as a necessity that led - at least in part - to the 'humor collapse' of the late 80's - when from every publisher having jumped on the bandwagon and bought a bunch of 'humor' which in general was yawn-worthy (one man's inappropriate is another's boredom?) has meant that humor - which outsells everything else 6 ways to breakfast, lunch and supper WHEN it sells - has dropped off the aquisition radar.
It'll stage a comeback eventually, and we just hope that value of pathos in humor is appreciated this time around.
So who is funny? And why do you find them funny.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

I've Gone Over to the Dark Side

(image by Vader_is_a_Leafs_fan23)

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a mini-rant about the Kindle and how Amazon had reached in and snatched out several books their customers had purchased without advance warning. The whole thing started when some folks put up "editions" of books such as 1984 without the proper permissions. Amazon did what needed to be done, if not in the best possible way. The comments not only to that post, but to similar posts across the blogosphere ranged from outrage that Amazon would do such a thing to comments that those customers should have known better because they paid less than a dollar per book. My reaction fell more along the lines that Amazon most certainly could have handled it better AND the customers should have realized there might be a problem based on the extremely low cost of the books in question.

Then I received a Kindle for my birthday and, to be honest, I've had to re-examine my thoughts about e-book readers, e-publishing and Amazon in general.

Let me start by saying one of my biggest complaints against ebook readers is that they aren't books. I like the feel of a book in my hand, of being able to curl up in bed with a book before bed. You can't do that with a computer and I assumed you couldn't with an ebook reader. WRONG. Yes, it felt different when I first received the Kindle. However, it is close enough to the size of a book, although not the depth, to almost convince me. Then I bought the cover for it and now that it "opens" like a book, a lot of the issue of it not being a book has gone.

Then there is the sheer convenience of a Kindle. I'm a reader. No, I'm an avid reader with what can best be described as eclectic tastes. Add to that the fact I always have at least three writing projects going, at least one of which requires research in some form or fashion. That means books, lots and lots of books. Which, before the Kindle meant carrying a backpack or more whenever I left the house to work. After al, I had my notes, my laptop or eee and power cord, MP3 player, research books, probably one book to read for entertainment, my purse or at least my wallet...well, you get my drift. Now, I carry a book bag, if that. My purse can hold the Kindle and eee. I still carry an MP3 player even though the Kindle has the ability to play my tunes. But I don't need to carry all the books, not when I currently have over 100 books on the Kindle with much more room to grow.

The biggest issue now facing ebook readers isn't the cost of the reader itself, although that is still an issue. The biggest issue is the cost of the books. However, before you start thinking I've lost my mind and have mortgaged the house for the books currently on my Kindle, I have to confess that a good number of them come from Baen -- the one "traditional" publishing house that has the right idea about ebooks and their pricing. Another large group of the books comes from Amazon itself -- and for free. Each month Amazon lists books that have been best sellers or are first books for best selling authors or the first book in a series for free. Is it a hook? Sure. They are wanting to hook you so you will buy the other books in the series. Nothing wrong with that.

Amazon also lets you download the opening of a book, either a few pages or a few chapters, onto your Kindle to see if you actually want to buy the book. I happen to like that idea as well. Just like I appreciate being able to use my Kindle to check my email or look up something on wikipedia.

So what's the big issue about pricing, you ask? It's the cost of the ebooks themselves. Amazon is attempting to hold firm to the idea that ebooks, including best sellers, should list at $9.99 or less. The traditional publishing houses, on the whole, hate this idea. They call it "unrealistically low". My question in response is why? As Dave and others have pointed out, publishers don't have the same financial input regarding an ebook as they do with a dead tree version of the same book. There are no printing costs, no transportation costs, no housing costs. Accounting for ebook sales is much easier as well -- oh wait, that's good for the author, not necessarily for the publisher.

Basically, the time has come for the publishing industry to realize they have to take a hard look at their business models and adapt to the times. Our children have been raised with computers. They think more in terms of bytes than pages. They use their cell phones for everything from making calls and texting to playing games and surfing the web. Universities are using ebooks more and more to help keep costs down for students. I won't even get into the "green" benefits of an ebook reader and ebooks as opposed to traditional publishing.

Frankly, if the traditional publishers and big box bookstores aren't convinced that times are changing, they need to take another look at the pricing war currently taking place between Amazon and Walmart. Both of those retailers understand that the average reader can no longer afford to pay $25 or $30 for a hard cover book, nor do they want to pay close to $9 for a paperback. Are the publishers screaming? Hell, yeah. Are the big box bookstores screaming? You betcha. Do I have an answer, no. Publishers have to make a profit to stay in business. However, trying to do so by raising the price of ebooks to the same, or almost the same, as a dead tree version isn't the answer.

One recommendation I do have is to bring their backlist out as ebooks, price them reasonably and introduce a whole new generation of readers to authors and books they've never heard of before. Oh, yeah, along with that, pay the writers a reasonable percentage of the ebook sales. Take a look at those ebook publishers who are making a go of it and follow their business plan. Everyone will gain that way - readers, writers and the publishers.

What are your thoughts? Has my soul been forever blackened by its conversion to the Kindle? How should the publishers react to the growing demand for ebooks, especially reasonably priced ebooks? And what is a "reasonable" price for an ebook?

Off-topic and your fair warning advisory: Sarah said to tell you she can't be all places at once and is afraid her pointy toed boots would be blunted by all the butts she has to kick because of folks dragging their feet about sending out their work. Sstarting Wednesday, she will be holding an on-going short story clinic to help "encourage" everyone to let go of their "babies" and send them out into the real world. So sharpen your pencils, get out your paper and be prepared to work!

Saturday, October 17, 2009

John has man-flu

Very nasty, man-flu.
On the downside I have nothing worth posting.
On the upside I am retiring to bed with a bottle of asperin, a bottle of gin, and Garrett Serviss' "Edison's Conquest of Mars", the original unofficial sequel to HG Well's "War of the Worlds".

Friday, October 16, 2009

Chasing Geronimo

After Amanda's threat to sick Sarah onto me if I did not do some send outs, I guess it was time to grapple with this particular bugbear.

For some time now I have been a strict advocate of the Geronimo method. Here it is highly important to ignore all markets for as long as possible, allowing internal tension to build to breaking point. Now - by an extremely esoteric and mysterious process that shall remain a secret - a single market is chosen.

At this point a bolt of light from heaven strikes the aspiring writer in the forehead, filling them with glorious (and unrealistic) expectations. Here comes the vital element of the technique -- to shout 'Geronimo' at the top of your lungs as you send your little vessel of hopes and dreams out into the wide world to this market - which by now is gold-plated and hovering improbably on some cloud somewhere. Unfortunately, if the pearly gates should remain closed, then the writer is banished to a Purgatory for no less than two years, here to be fed on brackish water and the bitter unleavened bread baked from the pulped early drafts of their novels and short-stories.

Surprisingly, the Geronimo method does actually work sometimes. Unfortunately - and this could be a co-incidence - it has led to an embarrassingly large pile of manuscripts that have been sent to only one market. These manuscripts develop a thick crust of psychic cyanide, deadly to touch, and just a deadly to thoughts that stray in their direction.

Apart from probably revealing a little undiagnosed mania, the Geronimo method gives one possible (dysfunctional) approach to grappling with markets.

I'd love to hear how other people get their writing out there. Do you work to targets? What tricks do you use to overcome the emotional 'potential energy hill', or is it just down to sheer determination?

Thursday, October 15, 2009

In order to lend artistic verisimilitude to an otherwise bald and unconvincing narrative helps if you've been there. Since there are no tours to Tasmarin, or Elizabethan England - particularly the versions with elves, demons and magic - not even a Slow Train to Arcturus, we've got to make it feel like we've taken that journey.

That means artistic verisimilitude, better known in writing circles as the telling detail or Heinleining. Sarah's posted about this a few times, particularly how the one right detail can bring a huge amount of extra "baggage" with it, filling in great big chunks of world-building without anyone knowing you're doing it. It's knowing what the right detail is that's the interesting part.

I've spent a good chunk of the last couple of years focusing on getting the details in and making my writing feel real, because I have a sad tendency to drift towards the curse of talking heads in empty rooms. The way I did this - which I'm offering for discussion, analysis, whatever - was before I started a scene, I'd think about what information needed to go in, where this was happening (what it looked like, smelled like, warm cold or neutral temperature), what was happening to whom and what they thought and felt about it. Then I wrote it. And often micro-edited as I worked to get the right details in.

Then the latest brightshinyhappynew novel dropped in (the epic fantasy with vampires - who are not sparkly) and made me write enough of it to build a clear link to the world and the characters. And I realized to my considerable shock that the Heinleining was happening more or less without conscious input from me. I wasn't working to make the environment real and solid, it was just happening.

So, just to show the evolution, I'm going to splat a bunch of openings in - from the earliest to the most recent, one or two paragraphs apiece. The earliest was written about 2 years ago, give or take. The first two are finished, then there's 60k, 50k, 10k (I chose to write that much then outline it for a proposal) and 20k. Now that I've got the outline done for the steampunk, I'm going back to the space opera to finish it. ConSensual, alas, will need to wait until ConVent finds a home.

And ConVent, naturally enough, starts this set of openings.

Another convention, another con hotel. After a while, they blur together into an indistinguishable mass of faux-elegance and bizarrely costumed fans. I usually go in what you could call Olde Worlde Vampire - three piece suit, John Lennon glasses, cane with a pewter wolf-head topper. Take Gary Oldman in that appalling Dracula movie, and you have the basic idea, except I wear black and my hair is darker. And short.

About 6 months later, I wrote the opening of Impaler. This one is a little different because it starts with Vlad explaining himself, so the grounding is in personal rather than in physical details.

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.

The next opening, for ConSensual, I wrote early this year. This one is about 60k of probably 90-100k done, but until ConVent finds a home or the characters wake up and start nagging, it'll probably stay where it is.

Nothing says you've left normal reality like walking into a hotel lobby and seeing a Clone Trooper chatting with a Sith Lord. The sign on the back of the Clone Trooper's armor, 'Come to the Dark Side. We have cookies. Tonight. Room 1226', was really just corroborating evidence.
The next of the partials, Long Haul, is at about 50k and was started around mid-year.

Jack McClatchkey strode through the airlock before the iris finished opening, stepping over the partially retracted lens. He didn't so much as hesitate at what the clean-room -- which served Galway Mining Station as a customs inspection station and extra storage the thirty days of the month there wasn't a ship docked here -- held. It was one of the many things he'd learned from his dad before the old man bought it rigging emergency repairs in an uncharted branch off the wormhole lines. You never let anyone official see you sweat unless you wanted them to think you were scared.
The steampunk, tentatively titled Light Through a Harsh Lens, has about 10k written and a 5k outline - I'm considering sending this as a proposal. This was started mid-yearish. This I think is about when I started to really get the hang of the Heinleining skill.

Soft light from a tinted glass tube lit the Apprentice Day Board. Cleaner and less harsh on the eyes than gaslight, it was one of the many benefits even the newest apprentices of the Society of Artificers enjoyed.

And finally, the brightshinyhappynew! epic fantasy with vampires, Blood Oath, where it all seemed to just click into place. I've written about 20k of this one.

"Where is my son?" Lord Karras s'Daria Ashleon glared around the Great Hall with narrowed eyes, his lips drawn back into a snarl that showed his fangs.
Having reached the point where this happens as I write it, I'm wondering what the next step is going to be. One thing I've worked out is that everyone learns the skills in a different order, and can have several different ones all snap into place more or less at the same time. Maybe it'll be "how to get submissions out" - I'm very bad at that part.

What are some examples of books that show an author building their skills? Sarah's mentioned the differences between the various Heinlein books, and with PTerry's Discworld books there's a clear evolution from Color of Magic through Unseen Academicals. So who else, and what is it that's growing?

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Head Down In The Bone Marrow Pie*

Lately I’ve been studying the elders of our faith. Not religious faith. The other one. The one that says you must write, write everyday and improve in our craft.

I started with Heinlein, which is usually where I start. Over the next few weeks I’ll probably move to Bradbury and Pratchett, with a few detours through minor prophets as the mood strikes. (If no one has read Simon Hawke’s time war series , do, now. Massive fun. Also, read Simak’s Way Station and City and perhaps Our Children’s Children – all of them crying out for a rewrite to modern standards, and I don’t mean an edit, but a recast.)

Anyway, all of you of the female persuasion who are convinced Heinlein is anti-woman – the feminists who proclaimed that gospel never actually READ Heinlein, or not without being sure of what they would find. Yeah, he had – some – different expectations of female behavior. He was a man of his time. As we are women of ours. And if you don’t think the pendulum will swing back again, sister, I have a bridge in NYC I’d like to sell you. So take it easy and read for what’s there, and for what you can learn. (I had a friend who was furious at Heinlein for having Friday raped. She thought he was doing it because he liked the idea. Mind you, if a woman had written it, she would have thought it was because she wanted to show how oppressed women are. This type of semiotic understanding is wrong. Also the D word – Dumb. You should never allow your mind to be sequestered by an ideology. Any ideology. The rape of Friday shows us several things – besides being plausible. Rape IS a weapon used against women over most of the world – including the inner consequences of her not considering herself QUITE human.)

What I learned in reading what I consider his first work with true voice, Double Star, is the subject for another post. But what I learned in just starting Starship Troopers is the "advantage of effective beginnings." He starts ST just before a combat drop, even though he goes back to the spoiled-rich-kid-joins-the-army story afterwards. This is called starting in media-res, or in the middle of the action. (Not, as one of my character thinks "The media rests.") and it is a tricky thing to handle but very effective, particularly for coming of age novels where your character isn’t very effective at the beginning.

Have others used this? Sure. But Heinlein uses just enough... er... heinleining – i.e. burying of the worldbuilding details – to make the pay off extraordinary.

As everyone here knows by now, I devote an extraordinary amount of time to beginnings. Often a good half of the time I give any novel. And when they’re not going well, I bitch, moan, behave like a bear with two mad heads, and generally make myself a pain until it clicks. Normally, I advise everyone to start at the beginning and I rarely break that advice. So, for those who write – and read – in your experience, what are the pitfalls and side-benefits of beginning in media-res? As readers, does it bother you? Does it feel like bait-and-switch?

*Face Down In The Bone Marrow Pie is the title of a very decent mystery. The title just seemed appropriate to this post.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

First Paragraphs or how to grab your Reader!

Have you ever stood in a bookshop and picked through the shelves, looking for something to capture your imagination? We all have.

The cover and/or author's name leads us to pick up the book. We glance at the back to read the blurb, then flick the book open to read the first paragraph and that is when a lot of us make the decision whether or not to buy that book.

Well, agents and publishers do the same thing. So you need a 'cracking' first chapter, to use an English term.

Here's a quick survey.

The traditional exciting start.

Logen plunged through the trees, bare feet slipping and sliding on the wet earth, the slush, the wet pine needles, breath rasping in his chest, blood thumping in his head. He stumbled and sprawled onto his side, nearly cut his chest open with his own axe, lay there panting, peering through the shadowy forest. 'The Blade Itself', Joe Abercrombie.

The philosophical start.

Both moons were high, dimming the light of all the brightest stars. The campfires burned on either side of the river, stretching away into the night. Quietly flowing, the Deisa caught the moonlight and orange of the nearer fires and cast them back in wavery, sinuous ripples. And all the lines of light led to his eyes, to where he was sitting on the river bank, hands around his knees, thinking about dying and the life he'd lived. 'Tigana', Guy Gavriel Kay.

And the whimsical.

This is the bright candlelit room where the life-timers are stored - shelf upon shelf of them, squat hourglasses, one for every living person, pouring their fine sand from the future into the past. The accumulated hiss of the falling grains makes the room roar like the sea. This is the owner of the room, stalking through it with a preoccupied air. His name is Death. 'Mort' Terry Pratchett.

Reading these has made me go back and take another look at my first paragraphs. Have you come across some great openings? Do you need some feedback on yours?

While we're thinking about opening paragraphs -- Nathan Bransford from Curtis Brown is having a First Paragraph Challenge Competition here.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Dastardly plotz

If there is one thing I really need to say before I start: it's that no two writers ever do things quite the same way. There is no such thing as the only right way. What works for you is the right way. And what works for me is seldom the right way twice.
I have noticed a lot of people talking about story ideas... often story ideas that never turn into stories. Now, quite a lot of us are pantsers. Good luck and may the pants of inspiration guide you. On the other hand some of you are dedicated plotters. I tend to fall somewhere betwixt, but I do like to establish something of a plot outline. That varies from a detailed 50 page anal summary, which is missing the dialogue and description - the sort of thing I could turn into a book in three weeks because I've already spent a lot of time and effort on it -to a half a page of broad outline. The latter will probably take quite a lot longer to turn into a book, but for me both of them have followed more or less the same pathway. They've come from a story seed, be it someone telling me that something is impossible, or a spark provided by anything from a nightmare to something I've read in New Scientist (their physics reporting seems reasonable, some of the biological and particularly psychological articles probably need to be taken with a generous pinch of salt. But even pure manure can grow some interesting plants if you mix it with good soil.) It then for me involves reaching some kind of solution - i.e. I'm talking about a probable endpoint. I then work out a beginning. That often means writing a few thousand words which may be entirely disposable, just to get a handle on the setting and characters. It's then that things become much more variable. Basically I can scattergun it with scenes that I can see will have to happen, and try and link those up. That I'm finding seems to work better for me these days. The method I used to follow -which ended up in the 50 page outline which usually didn't survive direct contact with the first three chapters-involved systematically working from the front.
So what works for you? How do you make it from that idea spark to a viable outline? Or do you think outlines are a waste of time?

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Do Not Want!

The other evening, Kate and I were talking on AIM about our current projects. No, to be honest, we were whining. Whining because the voices in our heads were being very loud and demanding, each one representing a different story or novel. I was particularly whining -- yes, I know it's hard to believe yours truly would ever whine -- because yet another novel had just dropped into my head and was yelling as loudly as those already there for my undivided attention.

So Kate and did what so many writers do when faced with too many plots demanding attention. We went to look at lolcats. Hence the picture and the topic for today's post.

Of course, since then the topic has morphed some. I was going to talk about how, as writers, most of us have several projects going at any one time, all at different phases of the writing process. In fact, I teased one of our regulars, Chris K, about just that the other morning. He'd made the mistake of posting on Baen's Bar the question of why the Grays (you know, those aliens everyone claims abducted them and did all sorts of things to them onboard their UFOs) are naked. In the course of our conversation, I told him to write the story and he started whining -- sorry, Chris, but you did -- about already having a story in progress. That's when I told him the facts of life for the writer trying to break into the business. You should have, in my opinion, a work you are researching or simply making notes on, one you are writing, possibly one you are editing and at least one out on submission. THAT is what I was going to blog about. Well, guess I already have. ;-p

Right now, I have an urban fantasy at a publisher and I'm biting my nails as I wait to hear if it's been accepted or not. I also have two short stories out. There's another novel I'm looking for an agent for. I am less than a week away from completing another novel. I have final edits to do on yet another before sending it out. Works in progress include three books at various stages, ranging from initial research to finishing the first draft. There are three short stories in progress. None of which takes into account the space opera, the fantasy, two urban fantasies and, help me, a romance that are all waiting impatiently to be written.

So, what do you think the proper writing cycle should be? How many projects are currently on your desk or hard drive? Also, as a writer, what do you do when you're attacked in the middle of the night by that screaming, maddening plot that just won't go away?

Creative fire

“No great genius has ever existed without some touch of madness.” Aristotle.

Kay Redfield Jamison, Johns Hopkins University, analyzed the mental health of forty seven of England's most highly honoured poets, novelists, playwrights, artists and biographers. More than a third had diagnosed mental-health problems, thirty times higher than the norm. Fascinatingly, while a third of creative writers, such as poets or novelists, showed mood-swing problems this was not the case in factual writers, such as biographers.

Scientists do not seem to be as prone to mental illness as do other creative people and it has been speculated that this is because of the more rigid nature of scientific research, which requires at least some measure of stability and predictability. As a professional research scientist, I would point out that the word ‘scientist’ covers a multitude of jobs from routine technical to strategic research. Having worked in elite research institutes, I find the figure of one third having mood-swing illnesses about right for creative scientists.

Mood-swing mental illness covers a range of disorder including depression, maniac-depressive cycles, bipolarism and even possibly schizophrenia. Self-harm and suicides are also symptoms. So do you have to be mad to be creative? Is it the madness that drives creativity?

The answer to that appears to be yes and no. First of all it is quite clear that mood-swing disorders are found in certain families and that creativity is found in the same families so there is a genetic correlation. Also, children born of older parents are more likely to suffer mood swings. To a biologist that suggests that genetic mutation is involved.

This has been confirmed by modern molecular biology research. There is much yet to discover but it is becoming clear that mood-swing disorders are connected to a complex mix of mutations in genes that influence brain function. For example, a recent Russian paper reported an analysis of 62 unrelated Caucasian students. They found a significant correlation between verbal and spatial creativity scores and polymorphism (variation, mutation) in the 5-HTT gene. This gene impacts serotonin neurotransmission indicating the connection between serotonin and creativity. And SSRI’s (Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors) are a common treatment for mood disorders.

So, to go back to my original question - do you have to be mad to be creative? The answer really is yes and no. Mood disorders and creativity are both the result of certain complex combinations of gene mutation. Creative people who show no sign of mood disorders are statistically likely to have relative who are sufferers. Deeply mentally ill people such as schizophrenics are often too ill to be creative.

So far, I have only looked at the biochemistry and it is quite a jump to trying to understand how variations in neurotransmitter performance raise creativity. I would speculate that it is connected to how well the model of reality in your head that you perceive is more or less bound to the actual reality, which you can not perceive. Schizophrenics, for example, seem unable to distinguish between the outside world and their internal voices and I would suggest that fiction writers dance to internal voices as well.

The creative mutations have fixed at about five percent of the population suggesting that a ratio of one creative in twenty gives the optimum advantage between the upside of creativity and the downside of madness. And it is creativity that separated our species, Homo sapiens, from other primates and hominids. Our very name means ‘wise man’. In our madness we created abstract art and fashion, spear throwers and bows.

Our species has been scorched by the fire of creativity. It remains to be seen how long we can dance in the flames without getting burnt.

John Lambshead

Friday, October 9, 2009

Altered States

Every now and then in the arts (some arts more than others), you see artists who swear that they are more creative under the influence of drugs then while 'straight'. Favorites range from the psychedelics enjoyed by visual artists to the headbanger's cocktail of speed and alcohol (Motorhead). Reading Stephen King's On Writing, he mentions that he could not even remember writing some of his books he was that high - I think Misery comes to mind (he speculates the writer in the story was actually himself, held prisoner by his addiction). Its not just illegal drugs either. David Gemmell once related how he had tried to give up smoking, but looked at what he was writing, realized it was crap then started smoking again. In the end he died of heart failure at 57, and I guess the smoking would have had no small part in his untimely death.

I have always been suspicious of these claims, and I guess I have come out pretty much strongly on the other side of the argument -- that you will be more creative the more healthy and drug FREE you are. I think what often happens is that artists will be such long term users that they become functional addicts, and when they try to quit they actually do find their performance dropping. But this is just a short-term effect. If they persevere they will find themselves more creative than ever.

One of the odd things I do is read musician's autobiographies. A recent one was Eric Clapton. In it he rattles off a series of famous recordings and concert events where he was completely off his head either on dope (heroin) or alcohol or both. Even as an Eric Clapton fan some of his playing on these latter records sounded like shite to me. Not saying I did not enjoy them, just that I got so frustrated he could not lift his game. When I hear something like that, I can't help but feel cheated. How much damn better could that guy have been if he wasn't hiding in a bottle?

So what do you think? Is there some truth to the assertion that drugs enhance creativity? Or is that just the seductive reasoning of an addict?

Thursday, October 8, 2009

I am the ball

Instead of the thoughtful, considered, and probably somewhat scatological piece I was going to write today, I'm writing shameless fangirly squeeing. This is because Unseen Academicals, PTerry's latest novel, was in my mailbox today. Dragon's Ring was there too, but... Sorry Dave. One book a night is the limit if I want to be able to function the next day, and PTerry won. I'll have to do the fangirl squee over Dragon's Ring later.

As usual, I emerge from a Pratchett book caught between awe and despair. Awe should be self-evident. Despair because I will never, ever be able to write a measurable fraction of that well. In what appears on the surface to be a book about the wizards of the Unseen University having to play a game of football (soccer to those of us who think of football as involving an elliptical ball and a lot of legitimate physical contact) there's a tour through a human nature and how effectively and securely we make our own hells - as well as how every single one of us can escape them.

There's a lot more than that, of course. This is PTerry.

The title? That's a direct quote from the book - and it sums up something we tend to forget. In a game of football (any sort of football) the ball is the most important part, and it becomes in a sense the spirit of the game. That spirit becomes part of our culture and our souls, whether the ball is a ball or something else, and whether the game is football, soccer, cricket, baseball, basketball... Keep your eye on the ball. Out of left field. Outfielders. Goals. Sports are, as Pratchett says, about everything except the sport.

I'm going to leave off with two things, a quote from the book, and a question.

"Forgiveness is the name of Pastor Oats's double-headed battle-axe."

What else - books, movies, whatever - absolutely nails some part of human nature without preaching a sermon? My first (non-PTerry) vote goes to Dave's Rats Bats & Vats and the sequels for reasons that ought to be obvious.