Friday, July 31, 2009

Your Favorite Bad Guy

OK, I've been well and truly out of the picture over the last week or so. I could say that I have been kept prisoner in a deep, dark dungeon by an evil overlord - and it might be true if the evil overlord is visible by electron microscope and is portrayed in the press with a pair of pig-wings. Yes, you guessed it - swine flu. The most voracious little pest. I've never seen anything hit so quick. Luckily my family and I were all reasonably healthy to start with. Make's you glad to live in a western country with access to medicine.
All it took was one irresponsible parent in the lower grades of our school sending their swine flued kids back to school while they were infectious and bang - half the school was down.

But talking about evil overlords, have you seen the evil overlord list? More specifically, the Top 100 Things I Would Do If I Ever Became An Evil Overlord? There are a few version of this, this one is Peter Anspach's. This is the link:

Its a nice bit of fun.

Having tooled up on the Evil Overlord list. Who is your favorite villain?

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Romancing the Cliche

I've done a lot of browsing lately over at TV Tropes, and it's interesting to see how many different ways all sorts of incredibly common tropes get used. Possibly the biggest eye-opener is how much really good fiction uses the exact same worn out old cliches everything else does, proving that it's not the package, it's what you do with it.

In the same vein, Diana Wynne Jones The Tough Guide to Fantasyland takes apart the fantasy cliches everyone has seen - but an awful lot of those self-same cliches can be found in the great books. Terry Pratchett - you can stop rolling your eyes, they gather far too much dust that way - has sold ridiculous numbers of books that use (and usually skewer) any number of the cliches. Interesting Times has a wonderful collection of them, including the barbarian horde, the inscrutable oriental, the innocent abroad ('innocent' in this case should be taken with a grain of salt, since we're taking about Rincewind) and much, much more. What Jingo does to political machinations, the ugly cross-dressing male, and any excuse for a war has to be seen to be believed.

What stories have you enjoyed that used one of the old standards in a fresh and interesting way? And on the flip side, what are some examples of recycling the cliches and beating out whatever life they still have?

p.s. Tolkein does not count. He pretty much pioneered the multi-racial group of mismatched questers battling existential evil.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Sarah's Off --

to Portugal this morning. Knowing how much she loves to fly -- NOT! -- I'm sure Dan and the boys are dragging her kicking and screaming onto the jet. She's promised to do her best to keep us updated on how the trip is going and will try to post next week at her regular time. In the meantime, something she said yesterday started me thinking (quit snickering in the back. I do think at at times. Yes, I know, it can be dangerous. But I promise, this time it's okay -- I hope.)

In case you guys haven't figured it out yet, Sarah and her metal tipped, pointy-toed boots are responsible for dragging me kicking and screaming out from under the bed and actually admitting to the world that I'm a writer. She's pushed me into submitting -- and selling -- and writing things I never would have imagined myself writing. Short stories have always scared the heck out of me as a writer because -- duh -- I don't do short. But my first pro sale was a short story. A romance/mystery -- EEP! -- historical fantasy and now I've just started a steampunk novel set around the time of the Jubilee Plot in England.

As a result of her prodding and pushing and reminding me that I am not a hack -- although I'm still not convinced of it -- I've had to pay more attention to the actual structure of my stories. One of the best sites I've found for an explanation of what a makes a technical aspect of a story successful is

Recently, Jacqueline Lichtenberg has written several posts on the 6 Tricks of Scene Structure. She analyzes the scene and then gives examples. I highly recommend both posts. You can find the first here and the second here.

Now here's my question for you: what makes a scene work for you? Tell me your favorite scene and why. If there is a scene that had you wanting to throw the book against the wall, tell me why. You don't have to tell me the name of the book. But tell me what it was about that particular scene that had you wanting to tear the author's hair out.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Time Management for Female Writers

(Warning, this is tongue in cheek. Male writers are not to feel slighted!)

I once heard a highly successful male writer thank his wife for taking care of the children, while he shut himself away in a room and wrote. She brought him his meals and cups of tea and made sure no one bothered him.

Believe me, every female writer I know would like a wife!

There are tips on the internet to help writers manage their time. Here Michael Stelzner makes suggestions. And here Annette Young talks about planning your writing day.

As a mother of six I used to think, 'When all my children are in school, I'll have time to myself'. I had one year where they were all in school. During that year the youngest broke his arm so severely he needed therapy to regain use of it. So I spent a lot of time driving him to specialists and appointments and doing his therapy with him. Then the following year, the eldest left school and went into part time work and study and I spent my days driving her to and from work and the train station to get to college. And how could I resist therapeutic coffee and cheesecake when she and I would have a D and Ms (Deep and Meaningful conversations)?

Meanwhile, I was still trying to find not only a room of my own to write in, but the mental space in my head to tap into creativity. Washing, cooking cleaning, driving kids to jobs, music lessons, tutoring and sport. Here are some tips wise women have passed along to me over the years.

Where possible, buy clothes that don't need ironing. If it is winter, only iron the collar of a shirt, the rest will be hidden by the school jumper.

If it isn't dirty, don't clean it. (Don't laugh. I used to vacuum the hallway, just because it was between the living room and the bedroom).

When the kids can be trusted in the kitchen, teach each of them to cook their favourite meal. If you have three kids, that's three nights of the week when you don't have to cook.

Learn to say 'No'. If you're a competant person, people will thrust responsibility on you, president of the school committee, treasurer, tuckshop convenor, run a stall at the school fete. It never stops. At some point you have to decide, I've done my share. Let someone else do it now.

And the last one is really important. At some point in your life, things may get too much for you. (Moving house, coping with illness in children or elderly relatives, stress on top of stress). Don't run yourself into the ground trying to please everyone all the time. Be your own best friend. Best friends can be honest with each other, they have their friend's best interest at heart.

So be kind to yourself. Imagine what you would say to your best friend if they were going through what you are going through. Now, give that advice to yourself and follow it!

How do you juggle work and family, and still make time for your writing?

Monday, July 27, 2009

Letting go - the post partum blues

Now speaking of books and stories-as-children I'm the old woman who lived in a shoe (well, silver-bearded old lady living in a miner's boot) with somewhere between 30-40 out and I find myself doing something like the famous "You -yes you - you live here. I KNOW you're one of mine. I'll find out just what your name is again eventually," about some of my stories. OK so maybe not quite that vague, or that many, but I find readers who just read RATS BATS and VATS expect me to remember the precise details of a dialogue I wrote 10 years back... interesting delusions they have about my memory! Hells teeth, my mind is an anti-computer collating vast amounts of good data and turning it into chaos, not the other way around.
But that doesn't mean I've forgotten just how hard it is to send your beloved manuscript out there (it actually gets harder, not easier, because unless you're that rarer than diamonds author who sold for vast sums off that first submission you know that there is a good chance it'll bounce back with a rejection that really doesn't suit your present needs. I've done it with a huge number of proposals and stories. I have seventy-four rejection slips in my top drawer.)

That doesn't mean that you don't have to do it, be it ever so hard.

My boys have just gone back to Uni, and them going hurts. I miss them. I worry about them. I would also be insane not to help them to go. To do go off into a life where I probably won't see them often. They're my sons, and I want the best for them. That means letting them go out there, letting them get into trouble, accepting that they may come home with their tail between their legs, needing succour, and yes, sometimes listening to unpalatable comments about them... and learning from that. A book or a story isn't a child... really. Nothing like as important in final analysis (although listening to the outraged squeals when someone dares to not love the little authorial oeuver you might think otherwise), but the same kind of rules apply to making it a success. (You know: 'beat the keyboard to sleep with a broken bottle and make it get up from the family home in the middle of the road, three hours before it goes to bed, lick the Encycloepeadia Britannica clean of ink with tongue and then go and work seventy hours a day down pit - we writers 'ad it tough - but you tell the young authors of today and they won't believe yer' - with apologies to Monty Python) or give it the best prep you can and send on to the best place to go further that you can... and prepare for that wholly inadequate rejection.

And one day it won't come.

Your story will be out there making it's way in the world. But it can only do that if:

1)You keep sending it out. Really, it'll never get published from you hard-drive. And trust me, it's NOT going to be stolen. (and even if this wildly improbable thing happened is that worse than it sitting on your hard-drive or in your story trunk, rotting?)

2) If when you get that rejection or piece of advice from a fellow writer... you curl into a defensive ball and refuse to accept that it wasn't perfect (even for their needs/kneads). Sometimes, they are idiots. Yep. Happens all the time. Books are rejected and go on to become bestsellers with someone else. And sometimes they're NOT wrong. Sometimes the book is fruther edited and polished by the author... and sells. Be dispassionate and sensible. It's weird but it works ;-).

And sometimes it doesn't sell. Ever. (shrug) The best way forward is to write the next, and send it out again (and while you wait, write the next), until you're sure it doesn't have a home to go to. Because... well if you have one story you've obsessed about and tried to sell for 20 years... when the dam bursts there is no weight of manuscripts to sell. Otherwise, when the dam bursts finally on that 23rd manuscript... you might find a great future for all the other 22.

OK so who is sitting on those 'children' polishing them that little more more before letting them out? And who got really shirty at a vaguely harsh comment? And who wrote a snotty comment back to the rejector?

Don't all shout at once ;-)

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Follow the Rules -- of Submitting and other fun things

I'm a little late posting this morning because, miracle of miracles, the dog and cat decided to be nice and wake the rest of the household instead of me. So, without further delay, here goes....

Several months ago, the local library asked if I'd be interested in helping start a critique group there. Mind you, it's been something I've asked about off and on for a year or more. The problem has always been space. Our library is bursting at the seams right now and we are anxiously awaiting the completion of the new building next year. Any way, I digress.

The critique group has been an interesting experience for me because I'm the "pro". I'm the one with the experience and the only one with any pro publications under my belt. More than that, it has shown me the importance of research. Not only about your current project -- you know, making sure you don't have your character from Tudor England using plastic toothpicks or your aliens from a totally non-Earth planet drinking coffee on their spaceship -- but also about your target market, be it an agent, an editor or readers.

Part of knowing your target market for an agent, and even for a publisher, is knowing what they want AND knowing their submission requirements. There have been several blogs this week where agents discuss the how-to of their submission processes. Jane Dystel, of Dystel & Goderich Literary Management, discusses the "etiquette" of submitting to their agency. First on her list is "read the agency's submission guidelines". That seems so simple and yet it is ignored so often. As writers, we sometimes seem to think the rules don't apply to us. After all, if we send our murder mystery to Agent X printed on blood red paper and little hearts with tiny knives sticking out of them decorate our envelop that will have to get us noticed and moved to the top of their to be read stack, right? Wrong. It will get you noticed. But you'll find the bottom of File 13, not the top of the TBR stack.

Another one of Ms. Dystel's rules is to be sure you include all your contact information. Apparently, there are some of us out there who think agents are also mind readers. They don't need our email addresses or phone numbers. If they like our project enough, they'll be able to magically devine how to contact us. (That sound you near now is my head thudding against my desk as I wonder if I remembered to put my email address on the last submission I sent out...oh, I did. Whew!) More to the point, in my opinion, than Ms. Dystel's rules of how to submit is Jessica Faust's blog entry on how to get an instant rejection from her agency (BookEnds, LLC).

In short, you need to read up on the agent and what he represents, what he's looking for and then, if submitting to him, follow the agency's submission guidelines. In other words, reseach.

(steps off of soapbox)

Some links of interest this week:

  • Rachelle Gardner wrote a five-part series on "Proposal to Publication" this past week. While I might not agree with everything she says, there are some good points there.
  • WriterJenn has an interesting post about how, as a writer, you need to be patient.

And, as always, ebooks are in the news:
  • Barnes & Noble announced the launch of its own ebook store. It will have something along the line of 700,000 books and, in conjunction with this, B&N announced it has entered into an exclusive agreement with Plastic Logic to provide ebooks for its reader.
  • PBS took on the issue of how the publishing industry is confronting "changing reader habits". It's an interesting article/interview about how ebooks are changing not only the face of publishing but also how they are impacting the brick and mortar stores.
  • Finally, the Idea Logical Blog discusses "A context in which to evaluate ebook strategies" and the four phases that will, or have, occurred in the process of ebooks becoming a true major player in the publishing landscape.
Lots of links, a little soap boxing, so how about discussion now? What are your thoughts on any of this?

Saturday, July 25, 2009

The biology revolution

As some of you know, I am a (semi) retired research scientist in the field of biology. Much, maybe most, biological research is now molecular. Molecular biology started with the deconstruction of a DNA molecule by Watson and Crick in '53, very close to my birth date. The development of PCR in '84 by Mullis was the first key step in molecular technology.

Molecular biology has turned out to be far more complex than it first appeared so, as yet, practical impacts of molecular research have been felt mainly in the field of identification. Bioengineering is still largely a matter for science fiction but that will change. Drug companies are moving out of random screening of likely organic molecules into a race for gene-based designer drugs.

Bioengineering is likely to have the most tremendous impact on our social system because, unlike the products of the industrial revolution and the electronic revolution, it will affect us directly.

The interesting point about technology is not that it gives new or better gadgets but that it changes society itself. Consider how sewage systems, pesticides, mass transport, electronic media and contraceptive pills have changed the way we do things, the way we think, our very morality.

Molecular technology will challenge our society and conventions of morality as has no other technology because it will be used to change ourselves and create new life.

The churches seem to have no idea what is about to hit. The CoE vicars that I have spoken to seem mainly worked up about cloning copies of individuals. That will be the least of our issues. We will start by eradicating genetic disease and then run straight into problems with the definition of 'disease'. Does that include cosmetics such as nose size, hight, breast size, or penis size? Will we have generations of little girls all looking like the contemporary celeb bimbo or should we just make showgirls with extra long legs?

Is it a good idea to up the anti-cancer immune response to people working with cancerous materials? How about manufacturing worker classes to do specific jobs?

Good SF is about people, not things.

So, here is a challenge.

What bioengineering development's impact on society do you think would make a good SF story?

Friday, July 24, 2009

Editors, a learning process.

Chris McMahon hasn't been able to post today, due to illness, so I've filled in).

As a newbie published author I had never worked with an editor before. The first time an editor sent me a book report and asked me to do a rewrite, I was lost. The report was rather nebulous and I didn't know where to start so I called a friend and we talked it through.

She made some practical suggestions such as tightening the first chapter, not so much back story etc. And the editor was pleased with the rewrite. In that case it would have helped if the editor had read the report and said you need to do this, this and this. As a new writer I needed some guidance. Nowadays a slightly nebulous book report wouldn't worry me, I've learnt to read between the lines.

An editor should be like a good shrink, they should help you refine what you want to say and suggest ways to do this. At the Inside View of Publishing, Alan Rinzler talks about choosing a freelance editor.

Getting useful critique from your editor feels like 'Wow, why didn't I think about that?' Or 'Doh, why didn't I see that?'

What have you learnt through working with editors?

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Harry Potter meets Star Trek, or The Fanfic Of Doom

The comments on Harry Potter as steampunk and a trawl through the crosslinks off Draco in Leather Pants got me to thinking about the fanfiction phenomenon. If you go looking, there's fanfic about just about everything, and it usually invokes Rule 34 somewhere. If you take a trawl through any fanfiction archive, you'll quickly discover there's a huge range of the stuff, ranging from the utterly abysmal right through to brilliant - and they're pre-sorted for you.

Some sites have ratings systems, including tags to indicate what the story is about (do not ever open anything tagged with 'slash', 'NSFW', or 'shipper' unless you're certain no-one is going to look over your shoulder and embarrass the heck out of you), a movie-like G/PG/M/R ranking, and sometimes some version of the 0 through 5 star system as well. What happens then is that the stories live or die on their ratings, rankings, and the number of comments they get. Stories with a lot of comments tend to get more interest over a longer period of time but will quickly "bubble up" to the top of any listing simply because in the fanfiction sites based on forum software, the default is to display by most recent comment. Crosslinkage helps too - comments telling readers "if you liked this, you'll love X" complete with a helpful link to that story.

Oddly, the most commented stories are either the best or the worst - the mediocre offerings are lost in the noise. The worst are often hilariously bad rather than merely dismal, testament perhaps to humanity's love of a disaster happening to someone else. Equally entertaining, the best pieces are often better than the originals, not least because one thing many fanficcers do is try to clean up or work around the continuity issues of the original. It's positively amazing that people have managed to produce coherent, sensible reasons for much of Star Trek's (all of them) characterization, plots, gimmicks, and other oddities.

Some of my favorites include the Naked Quidditch Match (which, despite the title, is actually safe for work unless there's a problem with laughing yourself sick at work), the Sith Academy series which pits Darth Maul against the horrors of everyday bureaucracy and the insufferably perky Obi-Wan Kenobi, and of course Cassie Claire's classic Lord of the Rings Secret Diaries. I also cherish a not-so-secret fondness for Austen fanfic (the respectable fanfic...)

Why mention fanfic at all?

First, it's an example of a self-sorting open market - every story competes on its merits or lack thereof. The readers are the ones who decide which stories rise to prominence and which fall. Oh, and there's a niche for everything you could possibly imagine and rather a lot of things you'd prefer not to.

Second, fanfiction is an ancient art form that's largely ignored and condemned today because of insane copyright rules. Quick questions - how many retellings of Cinderella are there? How many Star Trek novelizations? Dr Who novelizations? Yep, fanfic. Paid fanfic in this case.

Third, fanfiction is a valuable sandbox for budding, blooming, and even overblown writers to hone their craft toolbox. It's an area where you can experiment with new techniques and have their effectiveness judged by the most impartial audience - people who want to read about characters and worlds they love. They don't care who you are or how many books you've written or how many copies you've sold. They care that you write stories they like.

Fourth, it keeps you as an author in contact with your readers. Real contact, because they're on those boards demanding more if you start a story and fail to finish it, getting irritated if you do something they don't think is right for that character, and generally being people. There aren't many places in the publishing industry that do that - if you go wrong, you'll know.

There are fanfiction sites that take subscriptions, others that are funded by donations, and still others by advertising, as well as the ones that run on someone's love and devotion. All of them have something to offer writers and readers.

So what can the publishing industry learn from fanfiction?

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

From Whence You Dream

*Apologies about being late again. I forgot it was Wednesday. Sorry.*

Dave mentioned in his post – and I guess we are still in that vein of discontent – that we don’t see much “puzzle” sf. Part of this, I think is because it is so very hard to write. I have a nodding acquaintance with science and read about science constantly, but I think just the research for a problem short story would take me as much as research for an historical novel. And it doesn’t pay as well.

But there is something beyond that – something that ties in with discussions at Liberty con the weekend before last. There was a panel on why children aren’t all that interested in space anymore. It tied in with several panels I’ve attended or participated in as to why fantasy is doing better among children than science fiction.

Always the conclusion of the panel is something like “because we’re living in science fiction now.” It is a conclusion to which I offer a dissenting opinion. That is not it. That is not even vaguely it. Because, my dears, I was once referred to as “a child of the lunar age” and I fail to see my moon colonies and – do I need to say it? – “Dude, where’s my flying car?”

No, the reason children by and large aren’t interested in science fiction – and beyond the terrible teaching of science many of them receive, I hear. This is a part I don’t know from personal experience because my children, except for one year, have had excellent science and math teachers – is that we’ve become all too serious about it.

Okay, okay, I can see you all frowning, and you can stop it. You can stop with the “science is a serious thing” too. Yes it is. But when something becomes so serious that you can no longer be playful with it, it is in fact dead.

What first attracted me to science fiction were the big what ifs. What if there was a civilization on Earth before us? What if our ancestors came from space? What if we were visited by an alien race that changed our way of life completely?

At fourteen I read – no, devoured – the whole line of “Chariots of the gods” poppycock. At some level I think I already knew it was poppycock, but it was interesting and exciting, and it made me dream. So did a lot of the science fiction I read at the time: Have Spacesuit Will Travel; Puppet Masters; City; Way Station; Our Children’s Children. It made me dream and speculate and ultimately sent me into learning real science.

Could any of those books get published today? Spacesuit, maybe, updated for the new tech. The others? Not a chance. Puppet Masters? But we “know” xenobiology wouldn’t allow for this; City? But ants could not civilize even if...; Way Station: why would they need a transmission station on Earth? How does it work? Our current science indicates... Our Children’s Children? Time travel could not work in that way. And if we sent them back in time, why haven’t we found any remnants.

I could give you counters to all these dream-killing thoughts. If you think about it, you can imagine ways around it, and there’s always “what makes you think our science is the definitive word?” What if there’s something as big as “heavier than air can’t fly” that we hold immutably true and isn’t? However, I couldn’t get it past the science-fiction editors (except maybe Baen who have more imagination than most and a fondness for space opera) and I certainly couldn’t get it past the reviewers.

And there we come to the core of it. We’ve become small and petty and scolding, holding on to those verities we “know”. We’ve forgotten how to – or are scared of – dreaming big dreams. And then we wonder why kids aren’t interested in science fiction? Oh, my heavens – they aren’t interested because it’s become another lesson to be learned, while sitting quietly, mind, and not playing with your toys.

(This is, I think , why Steampunk is big. It allows one to dream again.)

So am I saying we should publish “garbage” like our ancestors came from the stars? Yes. Yes, I am. A respectable liar-for-pay like us should be able to come up with some reason to explain away all those skeletons and evidence of human evolution on this planet. (I can come up with three off the top of my head.) And because humans are always more interesting than aliens we can’t understand, a respectable liar for pay should be able to come up with ten reasons why aliens will resemble us; why there are humans in the stars; why the starts are – to quote a book title – our destiny.

No, I’m not saying do PFA. What Rowena and Dave said about “some nano machine that is in effect magic” has been annoying me for decades. Ditto for a lot of other things (though I have a fondness for parallel universes.) Look, guys, I have to come up with a logical background for my FANTASY much less my SF. A good liar creates a background that makes people wonder – and which sends them back to check the details. And when you do this with kids, they will go back and study the science, at first to figure out a way it COULD be true. And then they’ll be hooked.

When all we’re offering them is exacting priesthood and barren worlds, in my opinion, there’s nothing there for them. Or for us. So let’s learn to dream again, and teach it to our children.

What do you guys think? Am I being too cavalier with sacred science? Do we have to watch that our kids don’t stumble off the path, even at the price of losing them forever? Who here wants to set off, right now, to a world where ants have developed a civilization, dogs are intelligent, and humans are hopping along the stars, meeting species they can in fact talk to? And how many here read about the big impact on Jupiter and thought ‘it’s aliens, trying to alien-form the system to their requirements’? How many of you look at the starry night and would like to think there are humans out there among the stars, and one day we’ll join them?

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Is Harry Potter Steam Punk?

I did a slightly tongue in cheek post on the ROR blog asking if Harry Potter was Steam Punk.

It generated a lot of discussion so I thought I'd throw it out for you guys.

They ride to school on a steam train.

They attend boarding school full of tradition.

They learn latin and wear antiquated uniforms.

They use weird and wonderful machines, which are not powered by steam but by magic.

And don't get me started on how Harry Potter is really Enid Blyton's Famous Five with magic!

Monday, July 20, 2009

The return of the prodigal - hard-work-to-write books

Ok, I am baaaaack.....

Life, life at last.....

Sorry folks - it's been a monumentous couple of weeks with the net access going down, power going down, proofs for DRAGON'S RING needing to be rushed through, and finally, on a more personal front, our visa allowing us to emigrate to Australia coming through too. South Africa - that I had once been so hopeful about - has been on a slowly increasing slide with crime and corruption leading into an abyss. The murder rate has now climbed to 87 per day (from medical records - the government records show a decline from 52...) collaping healthcare, and corruption everwhere, and while the country is far from Zimbabwe, with patches of wonderful success, I am afraid I am calling it a day. It may recover and become the dream rainbow nation, but I believe that's a long way off, and some distance down before it starts to turn. I will always have an affection for the place and people (and many are good people) but it's time to move on.

Ok -on the subject of writing again: In the discussion of genres and sub-genres it always strikes me there is one sf sub-genre -- which I love -- which no one else seems to acknowledge exists. Yes, now that you mention it, that is typical of me - loving something no-one else even admits is there... officially anyway. Authors... because it is hard-work-to-write (and the pool of authors who CAN do it is even smaller than the pool that can write humor), and readers because they don't realise it is hard-work-special-clever-author-required. It's what I call the 'problem solving subgenre' and its a nearly extinct branch of hard sf (generally) but you do get right across the spectrum (even into fantasy). You might say it was the sf version of a whodunnit: the science-howdunnit - the clues and cues are there hidden in plain sight, but the problems seem insurmountable. Yet a bit of science and thought and there is your answer. Yeah, no dreadnoughts slugging it out with pyrotechnics in deep space, and no superhero stuff - except as background special effects. Just thinking, really. Poul Anderson wrote a fair number of these (you might say he was the real master, and I wouldn't disagree with you, although Heinlein and Asimov wrote quite a number too) -- since then, Larry Niven a good few. Other subgenre examples - in Space Opera for eg is Jack Vance's BLUE WORLD and in alternate history Sprauge de Camp's LEST DARKNESS FALL or Eric Flint's 1632 (alternate history really lends itself to this more easily - the solutions have been thought of elsewhere. If it is done well, it still takes a lot of research and ingenuity on the part of the author.) The trouble is it really takes a scientist or an engineer -- or someone who will research the subject damned carefully to write them -- and someone who has the many-ways-to-skin-a-cat attitude. Often, let's be honest, character is neglected for clever science. Still, I love the science-howdunnit dearly. But there seem to be a shortage of authors out there doing this sort of thing (or maybe a shortage of publishers buying it).

Anyone got any recommendation of authors who do this, possibly more recently (although I'd be nostalgic/curious about your ideas on old ones)?

And do you have to be a scientist to enjoy these?

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Sunday Free-For-All

No, now settle down. Sarah, put down that chair. Monkey, don't toss that coconut. This isn't the call for the WWE or Fight Club. It's merely a return to Sunday linkage. In other words, I'm doing my best to avoid editing this morning.

When I was a kid, we had a show on local TV on Sunday mornings where, in between cartoons, the host would read the Sunday comics. In honor of those long ago funnies, I give you this entry from Smart Bitches about things overheard at RWA this past week. I particularly love the fourth comment. Go take a look. (On a side note, I wrote earlier about how RWA was not going to have any panels on e-publishing. It seems they changed their minds at the last moment and added one panel. Of course, from what I've heard, they scheduled it for a room that was more than a little difficult to find. Still, I guess you could call it progress.)

The incomparable agent, Lucienne Diver, posted the link for Shelf Awareness, about the book trade and what professionals -- including librarians and booksellers -- are looking for. She calls the free newsletter "incredibly worthwhile" and recommends signing up for it.

KyleQ's comment to Sarah's post yesterday started me thinking about what we submit to agents and why it might be rejected. The Kill Zone has the following post by agent Anne Hawkins: "Why Good Agents Turn Down Good Books?" I recommend everyone looking for an agent read it.

Finally, there's agent Jennifer Jackson's comments this week concerning a response she received to a rejection. Not only did the author not understand why she turned him down, he went on to berate her for saying she was currently looking for new clients and yet she wouldn't read his book. Forget about the fact that he had submitted something she doesn't represent, but he relied on information not from her website, or from one of the more reputable agent referral sites. No, he referred to a site she'd never had any contact with. The moral of the story -- always check to see if an agent has an official website or blog. If not, check out Preditors and Editors, Absolute Write Water Cooler, etc. And never, ever email an agent back after a rejection to tell them how wrong their decision was. If you haven't figured it out yet, they have long memories and they talk to other agents.

So, what industry blogs do you follow? Any interesting stories this week?

Saturday, July 18, 2009

When stories attack

One of the things that might baffle our readers is how often myself or my friends on the blog talk about the books as though they weren't controllable. As if they are ... identities external to ourselves that lurk in the dark alleys of the mind and pounce on us when we least expect it.

It’s not exactly that. At least I think not. They’re not really independent from ourselves, but they come from somewhere so far deep inside that we can’t really control them or know which ones will be compelling enough to make us write them.

In the diner – my conference in Baen’s bar – one of the habitues made a big deal of the fact that I was posting my third or fourth beginning and hadn’t – to his knowledge – finished any of them. His knowledge wasn’t EXACTLY accurate. Like most professional writers I submit some books on proposal and if they sell somewhere other than Baen I don’t feel I have the right to take up the publisher’s bytes to post other house’s stuff. All the same it is true that sometimes I wake up with a strong, imperative beginning that, after I noodle around with it for a while, I realize is not something that I’m destined to write. There are novels that “belong” to you and others, no matter how good they seem, that perhaps you’d like to read, but you, yourself, can write.

On more than one occasion I’ve wished these misfits on other writers. Others just quietly go away after a while. And, of course, some novels I’d love to write go out in proposal and never sell, and therefore never get written. Of the twenty I sent out over the last five years, I have five of those in that uncomfortable position. Not a bad sell through, of course, but all the same, those always feel like reproaches to my mind.

Because of that – perhaps – I’m struggling with an attempt at changing my proposal-writing style. Perhaps it is entirely my imagination, but I think I’m a better novelist than an outliner. In fact, I think practically everyone is. It’s very hard to write an outline that won’t be – at best – skimmed over by a bored reader. At least it’s very hard for me.

I’ve bought a couple of books on the subject, but none has taught me anything I don’t know about it – so I’m throwing the question out there. Do you know of any site on writing outlines? Do you have any idea of how to make them more interesting? I don’t mean a chapter by chapter outline (I think those are of necessity deadly dull and not a good sales tool) but what some books call a synopsis – written in the present tense and taking the form of a “little story.”

Anyway have any ideas how I can make such a thing sing?

*Oh, the pictures are the latest way my stories have taken to attacking when I least expect. And no, I have absolutely no clue who these people are. Yet. I daresay I won't be lucky enough to escape KNOWING.*

Friday, July 17, 2009

Smart Running

I would never call myself a runner - more like a plodder - but I do enjoy pushing myself across a distance. I recently went for a run with a friend of mine who does 42 km marathons. He really likes to mix up his training program. He does 3km sprints, then walks, or does a longer distance but for two kilometers he runs for 50 paces, then walks for 30 paces, that sort of thing. I just stick with the same distance, pushing myself on at the same rate.

'Hey you run too much in your grey zone,' he says, with the relics of his Dutch accent and grammar.

'What do you mean?'

'You need to mix things up. You will never improve if you keep running the same.'

The whole thing just got me thinking. What I get out of running is a kind of pay-off for my own bloody-mindedness. I love pushing myself, exercising my determination to push on through exhaustion. Yet I am so inflexible. I resist things, such as different approaches that would really improve me.

I've always had that determination to go it alone. I don't know if its the fact that my Dad was a rare breed of righteous policeman that would actually book other cops for speeding (and after the notorious Fitzgerald Inquiry was named as the only honest cop in Queensland, but that's another story - guess how many friends he had), and this has rubbed off. But I always wanted to do it myself.

At university I got incredibly angry when a friend of mine asked me to cheat in an exam. I have had much the same reaction at panels when established writers calmly state they deliberately copied the styles of other writers early in their careers, aping the structure of their prose to such a degree that they wrote it out as an exercise in absorbing it. That kind of thing horrified me. Creativity is SELF expression. I was always determined I would succeed with my 'natural' style, with my own voice, perfected through my own sweat (there I go again pushing myself the distance - alone). I wanted my ideas. My prose.

But have I been shooting myself in the foot?

I am a natural structuralist. I try to cram all my ideas in with plots and subplots. Sometimes I end up with so much complexity that the story openings get hopelessly bogged down in 'necessary' backstory. In my frustration, I have finally relented and for the first time am actually studying the openings of other books to see how other writers balanced their work, handled character etc.

This might seem so basic to everyone else, but for me its just such a different approach. Almost like - gulp - asking for help.

How much do other people study other writers?

In the development of your own style, did you make a conscious effort to absorb the styles of writers you wanted to emulate? Is this cheating or just good sense?

Thursday, July 16, 2009

In which the finger of scorn is raised

[Important Note: Please check the next post for details about John's upcoming signing. Thanks!]

Yes, since I tend not to do scorn without defiance, it is that finger, and here's why.

The last week or so, we've hit a clear thread of discontent with the status quo, dislike of awkward euphemisms forced on us by people who don't know what they're talking about (or mostly don't know), and generally a lot of gloom, doom and despair. When you look at the optimism of the Golden Age and at what followed, this really isn't that surprising, but still...

The mess is in our laps and on our floors and seething away in that dark unacknowledged corner in the spare room: you know the one, where all the junk you're not sure you want to throw away but don't have a clue what to do with accumulates. Worse, it breeds.

We've all seen what happens when good intentions meet naivete, especially if combined with enough of the folding stuff to have an impact on the rest of the world. It's called the Law of Unintended Consequences, and with the possible exception of the Law of Gravity, it's the only rule that's never been broken. Ever. The end result is kind of like what's left after that great big oversized dog with the tail that leaves welts has finished slobbering, wagging tail, and tracking mud everywhere. There's shattered traditions, broken cultures and just plain grotty stuff everywhere. So you put the dog out, mend what you can, toss and maybe replace what you can't mend, and hope no-one's going to notice the stains on the carpet no amount of cleaning could get rid of.

Right now, the industry seems to be standing and staring at the mess with a kind of transfixed horror in between bouts of ineffective hand-wringing and hiding the wreckage (and the dog) while hoping it will all magically go away. Think of the elderly aunt you'd swear never did a day's work in her life, expected you to do everything for her and then blamed you for not doing it right. Oh, and pulled a guilt trip on you if you should dare to complain.

I think the time has come for a change of pace. We're not little kids who have to do what the adults say, not anymore. We can give old Auntie and her fits of the vapors the finger and tell her if she's not going to do anything she can sit down and shut up while you work. It's time to clean up the mess.

It's never going to be the same: we all know that. But I do think we can, to mangle my metaphorical allegoricals, do the phoenix thing and rise from the ashes of the industry's previous incarnation. There might be some smudgy feathers, and the early stages are going to be kind of wobbly, but I think it's not only time to try, it's time to say "Bugger it! I'm going to make this work somehow," dig in, and get it bloody well done and done right (For those who are wondering, this is the Australian work ethic - do it right the first time, then go have a beer).

We need to get our optimism back - as individuals, and as societies. Let's face it, most of us don't need to be told how horrible things can be. We've all been there often enough that we don't go seeking it out as a leisure activity. If we want sermons, we go to church. If we want lectures, we go to college.

This of course raises some big questions. We don't need to go into a frenzy of cleanup without really knowing what we want - all that gets us is a rather less dire mess with nothing fixed or properly cleaned up.

So, your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to answer these questions:

What do we, as readers, want books to do for us? Do we want earnest slice of life, nancing elves, rollicking space opera, gritty dystopia, or some psychotic combination of all of the above? (Hi Dave! You and Pratchett are probably the only authors I know who could make that work!)

How can we, as authors and lovers of science fiction and fantasy, get from here to there?

And perhaps most of all, are you prepared for old Auntie's fits of the vapors when we defy the old bit... er, dear... - and are you ready to give her the finger and tell her to get out of the way?

Book Signing

With apologies to Kate, for squeezing an advert into her slot, My I remind anyone who is free this Saturday and within reach of the North Kent Coast that we have an SF & F book signing:

Sci-Fi & Fantasy Book Signing
July 18th 11am – 1pm

Dan Abnett
Dr Who, Torchwood, Primeval, Warhammer 40,000
John Lambshead
Lucy’s Blade, Warhammer Ancients
Sandy Mitchell
Warhammer 40,000

The Rainham Bookshop
17-19 Station Road
Tel: 01634 371591
Fax: 01634 365046

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

The Situation Makes Me Kinda Nervous

There might be a war between men and women, between rich and poor, between right and left, between children and adults. (At least I’m told that by Leonard Cohen in a song.)

It does not compare – in injustice, massacre, blood letting and sheer irrational fury – to the war between humans and language. The English language in particular has taken some heavy hits, is bleeding profusely and needs reinforcements, or at least a pat on the back and a swat on the face of its attackers.

It pains me to say it, but the most egregious attackers are my own gender. In my last year of college, my American Lit Teacher was a Fullbright scholar. While teaching us something he started apologizing and we all (a class of women) stared at him blankly. He explained that he’d said he, not he/she and was apologizing for not including us. We explained – thank heavens, disdainfully – that “he” included the female gender. He laughed nervously. It wasn’t till I got here that I found the reason for the nerves.

Having found out there are bands of roving female guerrillas who take potshots at the English language when an opportunity offers, I am still not impressed. He/she – really? Seriously? People are driven so horribly insecure by the fact they have a vagina that they must hysterically demand their gender be made a note of? I thought we wanted equality...

Yes, yes, the male was always a portmanteau word. My dear children, until the pill established real equality – so sorry if you thought it was obtained shoulder to shoulder. It wasn’t. The pill just changed the game fundamentally – women were mothers, daughters or wives, or not worth mentioning. Unless of course they were members of the nobility. “He” made a convenient short hand. To be offended by this is to be offended by history. And to refuse to be integrated in the one term is to exclaim loudly and often that women are in fact different. Also insecure children who must be appeased. Do you imagine that once we get the whole world to do he/she we’ll have earned respect? Do you not see the condescension inherent in the “how to write politically correct prose” instructions. IS this where we should have our laser-like focus? And don’t tell me we have to start somewhere. He/she is not going to stop female circumcision or female stoning which still goes on merrily in lands where they can point to our attacks on language and say “see, that’s what giving women power does. They’re all irrational children.”

And if I could tolerate the he/she, I couldn’t tolerate the other abominations that proceed from that toddler-like tantrum and rolling on the floor. The non concordance of phrases for instance. To avoid saying “If one wants to do that, he” we are now forced – and copy editors correct to – “If one wants to do that, they.” I find myself doing it, and it’s wrong, silly and stupid.

And please, don’t get me started on herstory and womyn, two constructions of such mountainous philological stupidity they remind me of that white supremacist cult who refused to use human because it referred only to people of color (hue-man.)

I’d like to remind all womyn trying to rewrite herstory that English was NOT – contrary to certain books – the primeval language spoken in Eden and that if one’s entire being is devoted to keeping the language from oppressing us, perhaps there isn’t much THERE to oppress anyway.

Not that we are the only offenders. No, the offenses are multitudinous – though few of them, save perhaps that of the white supremacists (and I’m sure black supremacists and, for all I know, purple supremacists) DIRECTED and intentional.

I can hear you right now, telling me I’m fuddy duddy. Grammar is no longer prescriptive, just descriptive. And language has always evolved. Oh, sure. Note I’m not railing about online abbreviations, even as they creep into our speech. That is an innovation brought into existence to suit a new technology and creeping into mainstream. That’s how languages change. It’s the mechanics of progress that gin up the next phase of a tongue, if they’re not sabotaged. ;)

Yeah, some of it changes through ignorance. When doing my first musketeer book, the only reason I was allowed to leave in my subjunctive was because it was an historical. Because the subjunctive was too difficult for people to grasp. Of course, if we’re going to be forced to sing “If I was a rich man” it sounds plain stupid, but this, like one/they doesn’t seem to bother the powers that be.

And right now you’re saying “But Sarah, you said female equality was the result of the pill. So. There. Technological advance. We’re now entitled to our language change.” Uh. No. A female who is equal to the males shouldn’t feel a need to change an abstract he to he/she. A female who believes that equality was won shoulder-to-shoulder and ever vigilant, might. The thing is such changes proceed from the inside, and from the bottom down or not at all. Language, like the economy, is a chaotic system. You can’t change it from the top down. At least not in ways that make it more functional. It will at best shrug you off and at worst perform less well than it was doing before. (Oh, and by the way, you’re not entitled to anything other than respect as a human being.) At best he/she is a temporary distortion of the language. And an excuse for those of us who are perpetually insecure to jump up and down on the males and thus call ourselves feminists while achieving nothing of substance. If that’s what you want to do, go right ahead. But not in my name.

Articles are a very fundamental part of the language. Changing them can make sentences difficult, stupid or agrammatical. It can make things hard to read. It can prickle like a bur in your shoe and make reading less than fun. It costs me money. How many readers are lost to the butchering of language? How much ammunition are we giving those people who say women are infantile?

You want to fight? You’re spoiling mad? Oh, good. Go forth and fight against real injustices done to women. Leave-the-language alone. I warn you, I’m not in a good mood. Leave my tools of the trade alone.

If every interest group keeps pecking at what we use to communicate, soon enough communication will be impossible. Telling stories will be fraught with peril. And much too soon we’ll get to the place where liberty is serfdom, joy is sadness and every man – and woman, note how correct I am – is an island with no boats to reach any other island.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Antique Futures -- Dude, where's my flying car?

This 'Fantastic' cover dates from the 'Hush, I hear a white woman scream' era.

But seriously, Amanda brought up the 1960s Space Exploration and books like Heinlein's 'Podkayne of Mars', about settling our solar system.

Here we are forty years later and where are the tourism trips to the moon station? Those books of the 50s and 60s were full of excitement, no challenge was too big, anything seemed possible. Terraform Mars? Mine the asteroids? A colony ship to Andromeda?

Space Opera.Those were positive days, now SF is very dystopic unless it is Space Opera.

What's your favourite classic SF book and what have you read recently that inspired you?

Monday, July 13, 2009

Childhood Memories Become an Adult's Inspiration

Yesterday's blog about the masters of SF and their enduring importance to the field started me thinking about what inspired me to become a writer in this particular genre. I'm a child of the '60's. I grew up with Lost in Space and Star Trek (the original). I loved the B movies of the '50's that played on Friday and Saturday nights on the local independent station. Day of the Triffids terrified me and, to this day, I still have to remind myself that looking at a meteor shower won't cause me to go blind and be eaten by walking Joshua trees. TANSTAAFL and "Klaatu barada nikto" were phrases as familiar as my own name. Still, while all of that had an influence on me, it was just the seed, the germ of an idea that had yet to sprout.

What brought that germ of an idea to light was the space program. NASA. Project Mercury and the space race against the Soviets. Would we land a man on the moon before they did? It was the stuff of dreams and daydreams and it sent my imagination soaring.

It seems hard to believe that, come July 20th, it will be 40 years since Neil Armstrong stepped foot on the moon. Forty years since he uttered those words literally heard around the world thanks to technology that hadn't existed 20 years before: "That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind."

I was 11 years old that day. That's the day I knew science fiction could become science reality. It was also the day my imagination took flight, rarely to land for long. Even though I did the "responsible" thing and finished school, went to college, had a career -- or three -- my imagination never stopped flying. I hope it never does.

So, what is that one moment, that one image that inspires you to this day to do what you love?

Sunday, July 12, 2009

A Step Back in Time

Kate and I were talking yesterday -- well, to be honest, we were IM'ing -- about possible topics for today's post. We discussed a number of things, everything from how we are both being hit by new books wanting to be written to how nervous we are as we wait to hear from publishers/agents/etc to the panels being presented at Libertycon this weekend. The one thing we kept going back to is something Dave touched on in his last post -- how the older authors, such as Schmitz, have seen a new generation of readers come to know and love them through re-issues of their work.

But there is a different side of the issue I want to discuss today, one the name of a panel at Libertycon brought back to mind. I say "back to mind" because this discussion cropped up on Baen's Bar a year or so ago and has also made the rounds on several LJs in the past. But it's an important issue, at least in my mind as a writer, and one I'd like to get your opinions on.

What is the name of the panel that got all this started you ask? "Shell Worlds: Why Space Opera Has It Wrong". In particular, what stuck in my mind is the last of the title: Why space opera has it wrong.

I've had discussions bordering on knock-down, drag-out arguments with others about the validity of the old space operas. They claim Heinlein is no longer important because his technology is either too old fashioned or impossible. They diss Asimov because he based his Foundation series on historical narratives and faulty assumptions. John W. Campbell is nothing more than a name in a list of greats who has no importance today beyond the fact he helped make SF what it is today.

These readers eat up the technical aspects of books similar to David Weber's Honor Harrington series. They hold on-line discussions dissecting every possible equation to prove or disprove what Weber writes. They discuss the specifications of the different ships and munitions used in each and every assault.

Now, don't get me wrong. I'm a huge fan of David Weber. But my eyes glaze over after the first couple of paragraphs of technical data. I want the guts of the story -- the characters and the conflict. I can forgive an author if his science doesn't quite work today, especially if he wrote 50 years ago. It's the story that grabs me, not the tech.

What about you? Which is more important to you -- accurate tech (or at least believable according to today's standards) or character and conflict? Do you see the inaccuracies of the science of the old masters as a problem today and why?

Book Signing


I am at a book signing at a Science Fiction & Fantasy signing on Saturday morning, the 18th of July at Rainham Bookshop with Dan Abnett and Sandy Mitchell from 11am to 1pm.

Dan Abnett is best known for his Gaunt’s Ghosts military SF series and his Dr Who, Torchwood and Primeval novels.

Sandy Mitchell writes the popular Cain series of novels.

And I will be signing copies of Lucy’s Blade.

Rainham Bookshop is in Station Road, just off the A2 in the centre of Rainham Village. There is a large car park behind the shop. It is 50 metres south of Rainham Railway Station – a mainline station connecting Victoria (London) to Dover.


The Rainham Bookshop
17-19 Station Road
Tel: 01634 371591
Fax: 01634 365046

Friday, July 10, 2009

Describing Emotions

Emotions. We all have them, and our characters all have them (well apart from the scaled Zeomoth from Betelgeuse 7, but since the collapse of their stellar empire due to lack of interest, thank goodness we don't have to worry about them). Describing them in a character can be a challenge. I find describing my own emotions a challenge and there are no layers of prose between Me and Me.

There are plenty of words for emotion, but when its all said and done they all seem to boil down to four or five basic states. I can't help but thinking its a bit like how the Eskimos have so many words for snow. Are we now limited by our own language in expressing reality? Are we now dealing with the legacy of the stoic British with their endemic Stiff Upper Lip? Perhaps like people in equatorial New Guinea had no need for snow description, were our mostly bloody-minded and warlike [linguistic] ancestors not in need of emotional description? Was there a little known tribe of expressive Keltoi wiped out by Caesar's advance into Gaul that had twenty basic words for emotion? Or are we losing them even now as languages go extinct?

You have some basic states:

Angry, Sad, Happy, Fearful

Which come with flavors i.e. Happy => Delight, Ecstasy, Excitement etc

Then others that seem to be a combination of various elements of this basic emotional spectrum:

Apathy, Loneliness, Hate, Confusion, Bewilderment, Shame, Annoyance, Grief, Depression, Apprehension, Disappointment, Irritation, Horror, Jealousy - the list goes on.

I'm not trying to start an exercise in semantics, and I realize some Psychologists probably spend there lives studying this exact thing, just trying to express my frustration at grappling with it. Despite the bewildering array of words that you might get from a thesaurus, I often end up dissatisfied, falling back on a combination of the two. i.e.

"Yolinda looked at Finn, both pleased by the off-hand compliment and yet annoyed at the reference to her betrayal of him on Fraser Island. "

In this line above, isn't Yolinda actually feeling just one thing? A weird admixture of the two emotions? If so what the hell is the name for it!

Is this just me or do we need new words in the English language? Does it take us as writers to push the boundaries and invent new words and expressions, much as the Elizabethan Poets did way back when the language was in its infancy?

Yours Bemused/Hopeful/Anxious/Determined/Pained

Chris Mc

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Where am I going and why am I in this hand basket?

So Dave has talked about the way forward for the industry as a whole - and boy did he open the floodgates with that one - Rowena about what we use for inspiration, and Sarah about plotting and pantsing. This leaves me wondering what on earth I should be talking about, since, gee, I'm the itty bitty minnow in this pond of writers.

Scootching back a bit, Amanda's posted some interesting commentary on ebook, advances and royalties, John's talked about cheesy, bad taste headlines spawning stories, and Chris about crit groups vs going it alone. I'm not going any further back, but...

Is it my imagination or do I see the signs of a huge unmet need hanging around out there waiting for something to show up and provide it? We're living in what might charitably be described as interesting times for any number of reasons, but in a lot of ways we (meaning humanity in general and this subset of it in particular) have never been better off. Just thirty years ago the notion that someone would be able to type something, click a few buttons, and make it available to anyone in the world who wanted to see it wasn't merely insane, it was unthinkable. Literally unthinkable - there was no framework for the idea. Science fiction of the time has, assuming my often wonky memory hasn't jetted off to the Bahamas without me again (and it never sends post cards, either. sniff.), improved communications like video phones and often instant connection across vast distances. I don't recall anything I read that included anything like the ability for anyone to say anything and hang it out for anyone to see.

And yet... There's something missing. It shows in the responses to Dave's question about old-fashioned adventure stories and to a lesser extent elsewhere.

So I ask, what are we missing? Here we are with all this stuff we never dreamed of as kids, with friends from all around the world that we can more or less talk to, more or less free, any time we want. New books are flooding out at an unprecedented rate (aka title churn) but we writers aren't satisfied - and probably more to the point, we readers aren't satisfied.

I have my theories about why, and they tie into Dave's post from Monday, with the usual erratic segues all over the entire cognitive realm, but right now I'd like to know what you think is missing.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Talk to me!

Almost exactly a year ago today I found myself at a cocktail party at RWA. In case you wonder what professional writers talk about when they get together, it goes like this: Money; taxes; weird contracts; how do you do *this*; books. More or less in that order.

The first time I heard this from a pro writer, when I was a wanna be I thought “Taxes?” but of course, if you assume that everyone has already made it in, and if you know that taxes for any creative artist are a mess not likely to be covered by accountants, you see the importance of this.

However, since this party was with total strangers – you don’t normally plunge into the money on introduction – it became the second to last topic. I.e., “how do you work.” Or in this case “Are you a plotter or a pantser?”

Since – pace Robert A. Heinlein – only a fool or a sadist tells the unvarnished truth on social occasions, I normally answer that with whatever I think will let me off easier. If it’s a working crowd, I say “Plotter” while if it’s a more sensitive, literary crowd, I say “pantser.”

However this day I had been drinking for something like 10 hours straight, and when I drink I don’t play around. It started with whiskey at nine in the morning... (It was my agent’s fault, I swear. The woman did tempt me and I did drink, Lord.) So by seven in the afternoon, I had reached that place of terrible and compulsive honesty where I tell the truth. In this case, “Both.”

Unfortunately this is not something that lets you off easy, so you have to explain. I do bizarrely detailed outlines to begin with. But it’s sort of like doing an exact road map of an eight hour trip. Once you get under way, you find there’s construction blocking a road you planned to use; another area the road has washed out in floods and yet another the map has nothing to do with what’s on the ground. So there is this tendency to get ten chapters in, discard my outline and make a new one. If I am under pressure, then I often end up with the beginning of a book, the middle of another, and the end of yet another, which I then have to change into a cohesive whole.

By the time I was done explaining, I swear people were edging away from me and contemplating calling the men in white coats on their cell phones. But to me it’s the only thing that works.

And while I would like to tell you that all my plotting is absolutely rational... well, a lot isn’t. Something comes alive. Or it doesn’t. And if it doesn’t, usually it means I’ve done something wrong. The book goes silent. The plot I have doesn’t work, but I don’t know what to do. This is when I start drawing. Or listening to the right music. Or playing with the directions and seeing where it goes. It’s rather like trying all the little back roads looking for a way back to the highway.

I just had a book go silent like that, and it took me a month to realize the “fork” I’d taken led to a lot of “business meeting” situations, instead of developing the plot through things people DO. So I’ve eliminated eighty pages and taken a different fork. And now the book is talking and flowing.

So, how do you do it? How do you think it should be done, and why? Are you a plotter or a pantser? Do you have guesses about your favorite authors? Do you work differently for different stories? And does anyone out there discard as vast an amount of text as I do?

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Art Versus Music

Are you a visual writer or are you inspired by music?

So many writers I know blog about how they write particular manuscripts while listening to certain bands or albums. I do enjoy music, but I’m a visual person. I’m inspired by things I see, places I’ve been and either photographs or artwork. While I’m researching for a book I collect photos from newspapers or on-line and file them. These visual revolve around in my mind, and become imbued with the emotions and characters of the book.

Currently, I’m writing my Shallow Sea book, which is set in a tropical paradise so I have several computer desktops of tropical islands that I rotate to keep me in the right mood for writing balmy summer settings. (This helps as I’m sitting here wrapped in a blanket with gloves on while I type). When I work on the King Rolen’s Kin series, I use desktops of Russian winters, glimpses of sun streaming through icicles, that sort of thing. The artwork by Alexia Sinclair at the top of this post reminds me of my T’En series, beautiful, dark and sensual.

I tend to get very involved with what I’m writing. I spent a day on a series of scenes on a ship during a bad storm and by the end of the day, I was feeling sea sick. Doh!

Are you a visual writer or do you listen to music?

Artwork by Alexia Sinclair
Posted by Rowena Cory Daniells

Monday, July 6, 2009

The best way forward may be back

You know, I've been involved in mountain rescue over the years... and so many disasters happen when bright sparks (like yours monkily) take the wrong trail (because it looks better) and then don't have the common sense - or sometimes the self-confidence, to look at the 75 degree scree-slope with the cliff at the base in the dusk, and the mist swirling in on a freezing gale, to say "Okay, I was a plonker. We're staying RIGHT HERE until morning and then we'll walk back and take the other path. You were right, Fred, Mary and the dog." No, we press on, even as the scree gets steeper and more slippery.

Occasionally it doesn't all end horribly.

Humans (me neither, and I'm only distantly related) are not great at admitting we're wrong. At least not at the time or from close up. I was re-reading SHADOW OF THE LION as homework for the latest book, and I wanted take that Dave Freer outside and give him a good kicking. Because... If I was writing that book now, I'd chop a few bits I wrote (not to mention bits the others wrote) get rid of a few subplots entirely, and write it whole lot better. There are still bits (Benito diving for Kat's grey goods, the scene at the Red Cat, the mess that Marco gets himself into marrying Angelina to pay off an imagined debt of honor etc.) that are pretty well done and memorable. At the time it seemed a good scree slope, with the place we were trying to get to not far off. Now... heh. Well THIS ROUGH MAGIC was better written anyway.

Increasingly, however I have come to suspect that whole of publishing is on a steep, steep scree. It's getting steeper, and darker and wetter ahead. I think the industry is determinedly plunging forward even as it loses parts of the party into the abyss. And, actually, I don't think it's going to get better in that direction. There are a few people (Baen Books to name one) trying other routes but mostly it seems relentlessly the same imagined path.

The big question is, well, which direction SHOULD we be going? Well, in my opinion, toward books that have real appeal to massive numbers of readers. They exit. Harry Potter et al proved it. Just what are the kind of books that would get a lot of people reading? Where did the industry go off track?

My opinion - Based on the surprising success of the re-issue of the James H Schmitz books that there is a huge appetite for good old-fashioned space opera, with clearly defined bad guys and heroes we can identify with. And yes, that does mean alien villains who are not just misunderstood, now that you mention it :-)

So let's have some feedback: what authors style/type of story from the dark ages/golden years do you think would work well now in sf/ fantasy?

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Sleepy Sunday

I apologize for being a little late posting this morning, but I am recovering from the Fourth. And no, not THAT sort of recovering. The strongest thing I had to drink yesterday was a Coke. No, I'm recovering from 10 1/2 hours in a parking lot in the Texas heat selling parking just down from our community's Fourth Fest. Considering we had our first car arrive at 0930 and we were starting our fourth row on the adjoining grass field when I left last night, I'm hoping we exceeded our goal.

However, because of that, and because I think I think I sweated a good portion of my brain out yesterday, I'm going to leave you with some links to check out.

From our own Monkey, a very interesting and informative post on e-books and royalties. Be sure to read the link he includes in his post. --

Here is agent Lucienne Diver's take on RWA's decision regarding e-books and advances --

Courtesy of Smart Bitches comes this link for Tips for Writers choosing names for your characters. Now, in the interest of full disclosure [G], Smart Bitches does take exception to the third rule - that exotic names are for romance novels, soap operas and strippers.

Your mission, this morning, should you decide to accept it is to tell me your thoughts about e-books -- are they a valid form of publishing even in the absence of a dead tree version of the book? Any other thoughts you might have about e-books, including authors offering them a chapter at a time for donations or subscription fee.

Also, how do you choose names for your characters -- assuming they let you name them. Some of mine come complete with names and refuse to play nice until I agree they know best.

Have a great Sunday. I'm off to search for more coffee.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Girl Gang Kills Midget Wrestlers

I was very taken with Kate's post and the follow up comments. I then saw a British Newspaper headline that amused me.

The headline was: Girl Gang Kills Midget Wrestlers

How would you start a story that had this as a synopsis?

I have written a first page of a possible book - your turn next.


The Beagles were already on the scent when I arrived at Flat 4439. I waited in the doorway, reluctant to interrupt. The single room was like a hundred thousand others in the low zone, sixty four cubic feet of space filled with domestic appliances that dropped flat, lifted to the ceiling or folded up against the walls. The bodies were tastefully arranged on their backs in the centre of the floor.

“Officer present,” Serjeant Ruff said, noticing me.

He and his fellow Beagles stiffened to attention, standing rather unsteadily on their rear legs.

I waved a hand, “As you were.”

They went back to searching and sniffing, except for Ruff who hung around waiting to give his report. I ignored him; I liked to form my own first impressions. There had been a retro fad a few years ago for midgets dressed up as gnomes and suchlike. It hadn’t lasted, they never do, but we were still stuck with the midgets. From a poster ripped off the wall, these two had made a doubtful living as novelty wrestlers, billing themselves as Mighty Mouse and Little Dynamite.

“Ruff!” I said.

“Conciliator,” he replied, stiffening to attention.

“You were about to report that the victims were killed by a girl-gang using a drug-induced orgasmic heart overload, I imagine.”

“Yes, Conciliator.”

He looked puzzled as if I had done something clever but the erect nature of the bodies told its own story - that and the crimson lipstick logo scrawled in on the door. Now all we had to work out was why PROBLARM , the Provisional Brownies Liberation Army, was killing midgets.

John Lambshead

Friday, July 3, 2009

Lone Wolves N' Critters

So what's your critiquing style? How do you milk those nuggets of wisdom about your work from the minds of other writers?

There is the ever-popular critique group.

Advantages include the ability to bitch over coffee, or for late-night varieties, dinner and few choice glasses of wine. Networking is a bonus, and in the right company can be lots of laughs. Also on the upside, there is usually no shortage of opinions. In fact many groups bloat to such a size they are in danger of becoming dysfunctional. By the time you have reached the stage where you have a chairperson with a stop watch and you start talking in abbreviated code with words like 'Ditto' and 'Anti-Ditto' its probably time to lead a revolution or form a splinter group (or both!)

One disadvantage of the critique group is that they can fall into a rut.

The first species of rut is of the safe & predicable kind, where everyone is well known and overly careful of other peoples feelings (or just downright hedging/holding back and favoring potential networking over critique). Everyone enjoys a nice coffee and perhaps may leave with an glow of satisfaction, but key problems with work go unremarked.

Another species of rut is where a skewed dynamic takes hold. Perhaps most of the writers favor certain types of writing, genres, or characters. Over time a small clique emerges that dominates the tone and direction of critique - limiting the range of feedback as other opinions are squashed, or are expected to be so out of favor they are not mentioned in the first place. Perhaps people whose work is on the 'out' of the norm will be regularly targeted - and they find themselves in vehement finger-pointing territory. This doesn't mean that the clique are wrong, sometimes you get the most useful crits from the Hostiles, but if its so demoralizing that the writer's work ends up grinding to a halt - that's time to bail out.

Other writers go the Lone Wolf. Writing mostly alone, self-editing then getting critique only from one or two other writers they know and trust.

One example that springs to mind Louise Cousak. She told me once that she just cannot do the crit group thing. For the first draft she pretends she is the best writer in the world and does it all without external input. Only after the masterpiece is finished does she fish it out. There is an echo there with Stephen King from On Writing. In the book he says, 'Write first for yourself, then for everyone else'. Another version of this is: Write the first draft with the door closed and the second draft with the door open. I think I also recall that Kim Wilkins also tends to go the lone wolf. So there are a couple of very successful Australian writers who don't favor critique groups, but produce good quality work regardless.

I guess I howled in the wilderness for a long time before I found my first critique group. Now I tend to gravitate toward groups, although I also have a few writers I will shoot material off to on the run. Now days I do find it hard to physically get to a meeting, although that's the time factor more than anything else.

What works for you? Got any traps for the unwary to share?