Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Eating Our Words

Before I go into how to make up an alien language that at least superficially makes sense, before I go into how to sprinkle this into your writing, let me explain why – for me at least – a little of this goes a long way.

To me – and this is perhaps a philosophy not many agree with – the language you use in a story should not be a barrier to the understanding of the story. The reader is not approaching your story with the burning desire to work hard, he’s approaching it for entertainment. A strange or intruding use of language must have enough value-added to pay for the extra trouble you’re giving the reader.

This is a very important thing with me, because – having learned English abroad, primarily in the British variant and in a classroom – the word that comes naturally to me is often the ten dollar word, not the twenty five cent one. So I fight it constantly.

Even in English, not going into invented, foreign or dialect type of expression, the "look at my humongous vocabulary" author tends to put me off, partly because I can see them strain to do what to me comes naturally and I fight. Now, there are some that don’t strain, and whose language does provide enough value-added to me, though the only one I can think of right now off the top of my head is Ray Bradbury.

Beyond being a speaker of English as a second language I – being the gift that keeps on giving – am hearing impaired. This means if you try to reproduce dialect on the page, you’re going to bring me to a screeching halt. There are entire bookshelves of authors of the picturesque/regional variety I can’t read. It would be like reading in an archaic language and working it out word for word. In earlier days – when I was merely a graduate student of English, having lived only one year in the US – a word in a Heinlein book popped me out of the story, because it required I pronounce it aloud to know what it was. The word was "purty."

So, my feeling – mostly – on invented and foreign languages in writing is "don’t." That said, I’ve seen it done very well and even I admit that particularly in sf/f giving your alien/different Earth characters or places a set of names that are linguistically cogent with each other is important. So I’ll go into that next time.

Meanwhile, what are your pet peeves on dialect use? Do you disagree with me? (It’s okay if you do, I left the hand-smacking ruler in Texas.) Are people like me such an outlier that the author shouldn’t worry about them?

Tuesday, September 29, 2009


Resonance is a term from movies meaning 'To evoke a feeling that lingers in the mind'. (Or that is the way I interpret it).

Think of the movie 'American Beauty'. There was that opening shot above the suburbs. It seemed to say, here in Middle America we will peel back the covers and reveal what goes on. The red rose, the American Beauty, has been bred to look beautiful but it has no thorns or scent, which is another comment on the film's theme.

When I'm writing a book I collect photographs and research fascinating details which convey evocative feelings for me.

The book I recently handed over to my agent 'The Shallow Sea' was a fantasy set in a tropical paradise. I collected images of azure seas, exquisite lilies and details about deadly creatures. For me it was the combination of the idyllic tropical setting with dangers hidden below the surface, that was a metaphor for the book. It had a resonance, a flavour in my head as I wrote.

I know many writers play music while they write. It helps them get into the mood to create the resonance for their current work-in-progress. Music bypasses the higher brain and goes straight to our emotional hind-brain.

I used to work as an illustrator, so I think I'm more visually oriented. I can get 'high' on beauty. If I go to the art gallery to see an exhibition, I come away feeling as if I'm floating on air, with images flooding my mind.

Some books evoke a stronger resonance than others. It's not necessarily the characters that linger, it might be a sense of mystery, elegance, or tragedy. It's like taking a mental holiday to another place and time. For instance, 'Perdido Street Station' lingers in my mind. I'd just finished reading a book about London from its earliest times to now. The thought of those pits where they buried the plague victims, then built housing estates over the top, still makes me shudder. Almost anything by Michael Moorcock stays with me years later. I can still remember Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast and I read that thirty years ago. I think it was the layering of backstory, the obsession with detail and the eccentricity of the characters.

Resonance is not something we talk about much as writers, it's hard to pin down.

What books have stayed with you, resonating in your mind and why?

And do you set out to create a resonance for the books you are currently working on?

Monday, September 28, 2009

The Tale of a Tired Writer

Thanks to Dave for filling in for me yesterday. Considering I am currently nothing more than a zombified writer, if I'd tried to blog yesterday, it wouldn't have been pretty -- or coherent. Now, I'm not guaranteeing coherence today, but ....

This past weekend was fun, informative and oh-so-very-tiring. For those of you who don't know, our own Sarah A. Hoyt graciously agreed to come to the Dallas-Fort Worth area to conduct a 3-day writers workshop. If you have never taken a workshop by Sarah before, run to register the next time she conducts one. Not only will you learn so much about this industry of ours and how to have a chance to succeed at it but you will never, ever be bored.

One of the participants asked Sarah the other day what they should do to have a chance at getting published. Her comment, one that she's posted here before, was "read, write, submit, repeat". And it is so very true. You have to read to know what is being published in your particular field or genre. You have to write -- and finish it -- in order to have a chance. Then you have to let go of your baby and send it off into the world. If you keep it at home, you will never have a chance to be published and then, when it comes back -- and we all get rejections, whether we admit to them or not -- we have to send our baby back out to see if there's another editor out there who likes it better than the one who just rejected it. Add into the mix that while you're doing all this, you have to be writing the next story and the next and the next and kicking them out of the nest as well.

There was a second piece of advice to come out of that weekend and it came from Rebecca Balcarcel, a local poet who took part in a 6-author panel on Saturday night. Rebecca told the audience that she finally had to give herself permission to make mistakes and not be perfect when she is drafting her poem or story. Trying to be perfect her first draft was keeping her from finishing anything. Listening to her, I realized this is something I have to allow myself to do as well.

So, you read, write, submit, and repeat by allowing yourself to make mistakes and not be perfect the first time you put pen to paper -- or fingers to keyboard. The important thing is to finish your story, your novel or whatever it is you are reading. Hopefully, once I've caught up on my sleep, I'll remember this and be able to put it to use.

My question for you is what is the best piece of advice you've recieved that's helped you advance your craft as a writer?

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Carpe diem and all that stuff

Dave standing in for Amanda -It's not your lucky day is it? Ah well you'll just have to take the best out of it that you can. Let's face it, there is an element of luck in this business. But then, there is in fishing too. And that's the carp part of the diem, because we all bitch about our luck (when fishing too) BUT in spite of that a lot of us trot off for another go. And you know, while the bloke who writes greats books/stories and keeps trying doesn't always succeed. But the one who parks that great story under the bed in a shoebox will NEVER succeed. And yes, it's a lottery (but if you do it right, the odds are closer to the school funderaiser lottery than the Euro-millions) but if you don't have a ticket, you can't win. And if you take lots of tickets (they're not free - they cost you time, commitment, hope, courage - none of which are low value coins but will never earn you tuppence in satisfaction or return if you won't spend them) and fill the forms properly and enter every lottery going, well, you might win big. You're more likely to imitate my fishing (which means if you're very sensitive about bad smells, or critics whose comments smell that way... maybe take up stamp collecting) and never catch any vast whale-fish but reliably bring some pan-fish home. A bit on the small side, bony, but edible. And there is always the chance of the bigger one. Because this really is a profession where being in the right place at the right time can make you... you need to be in possible right places (authors forums, cons, competitions) and when opportunity knocks, don't be a fool like I was (my publisher asked me if I wanted to co-author with a big name. He wouldn't say who. I was cagey because there are a couple I really don't like much. The opportunity passed. It was Dave Weber, and I would have been very happy to do it). Now, because caution is not exactly my first or even my middle name, there have been chances I've taken since that just didn't pan out. And a few that have. The 'fish' are not inspirationally large, but I've loved catching them. And damn me if I won't go and throw another line. The place I see as worth being in is Electronic publishing. See you all there.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Dracula Was Framed

Or: The Importance of Good PR

Quite a few of you know that I'm something of a Dracula geek, and that I've spent a good chunk of time researching both the 15th century Wallachian prince and the vampire mythos that's grown mostly from Stoker's novel. Given the popularity of the undead porn subgenre, I don't think there's any need to discuss PR for vampires, but Vlad III Dracula, "the Impaler", definitely suffered from bad PR.

Okay, I can hear people thinking "Yeah, right. They didn't call him "the Impaler" because he was a nice guy.", and yes, you do have a point. Vlad was not a saint by anyone's standards. But - and there's a message in here for us, now - if you look at him and his life without looking at the context of the era and his contemporaries, you get a very distorted picture.

Perhaps the main source of information today on the kind of man Vlad was are the Dracula stories. The problem with using these to judge him is that the Dracula pamphlets and the Russian chronicles were written by his enemies. The Russians regarded him as apostate for converting to Catholicism (something he did because it was the only way he was going to regain anything resembling freedom). The writer of the German/Saxon pamphlets was financially dependent on the King of Hungary and the Germanic merchant families in Transylvania, both of whom had reasons to want Vlad portrayed as an evil monster. Even the name by which he is mostly known today - "the Impaler" - was coined by the Ottoman Turks, who were probably his bitterest enemies.

Possibly the only sympathetic sources are the Romanian peasant legends, which portray him as harsh but just, and have a subtext that he needed to take drastic action to restore a country which today would be considered a failed state.

Now to his contemporaries. One of the best insights I got into the mindset of Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II, "the Conquerer", came from translations of contemporary accounts of the siege and fall of Constantinople. All three accounts I found, two from the defenders perspective and one from the besiegers, agreed closely on the events. The short-short version is that Mehmed besieged the city while building an immense cannon to bombard the walls, and carried his ships around the chain stretched across the mouth of the Golden Horn to position them where he could attack the weaker sea-walls. Even so, he might still have failed if not for the good fortune of a small gate left open (or possibly deliberately opened) through which he was able to send forces and get one of the larger gates opened, after which his armies went on a rampage of rape and slaughter (which Mehmed had encouraged - and that information comes from the sympathetic source).

Some of the side excursions proved most illuminating. While the great cannon (also known as the Great Turkish Bombard) was being built, Mehmed took a smaller force to one of the ancillary fortresses, where he besieged it, bombarded it with cannon fire and threw men at it until the garrison surrendered - after which he took the men who surrendered back to Constantinople and impaled them outside the walls of the city. Oh, and standard operating procedure for the Ottoman customs forts further up the Bosphorus Straits? If a ship tried to evade them, sink the ship and impale the survivors.

Mehmed is - mostly - remembered today as a sophisticated, cosmopolitan man who oversaw the restoration of Constantinople to a major trade and cultural center. What's forgotten is that he had his infant brother drowned while the child's mother was congratulating him on his succession to the Imperial Ottoman throne. His harem of attractive young boys and boyish young men is also mostly forgotten - although some of the braver clerics of the time condemned that particular habit. Then there's the known fact that he was precocious in matters of intrigue and murder, and is suspected of arranging the murder of at least one of his older brothers. I've never seen any suggestions that he was involved in his father's short illness and death, but the illness is curiously unspecified.

Then there's the hero of Hungary and his father the White Knight - King Matthias of Hungary, and his father John Hunyadi. Hunyadi's efforts included attempting to negotiate a truce with the Ottoman Sultan while he was organizing a war alliance against the Ottomans. Matthias went one better - he received a good deal of money from the Pope to finance a campaign against Mehmed II, and used the money to ransom the Hungarian crown from Poland. The leader of that campaign? Vlad Dracula. Matthias arrested Dracula on obviously false charges to deflect questions about his lack of action - and his employee produced the first of the Dracula pamphlets shortly afterwards. Perhaps not surprisingly, the pamphlets depict Dracula as a bloodthirsty madman.

So... Filtering the various Dracula stories through that lens (as well as the knowledge that there is simply not enough space in his castles and palaces for him to have impaled hundreds there)... The Dracula 'atrocities' fall into three broad categories. First, there's the law and order set. Remember, he was ruling a failed state. In order to shut down rampant crime, fast, he opted for severe penalties for pretty much everything. Given that he started from a culture where mutilation for minor crime was the norm, he didn't go that much further. Then there are the politically motivated executions. Those were done to break the power base of the Wallachian Boyar class - not least because they were quite willing to swear life-long loyalty to a man, then murder him a couple of months later to install someone else on the throne. The notorious "Forest of the Impaled" falls into this category as well - it was calculated to terrify Mehmed, because Dracula didn't have the numbers to defeat Mehmed in battle. It worked: Mehmed remained terrified of Dracula despite the disparity of power between the two men, and never attempted to directly attack him again. The third category was perhaps Dracula's biggest weakness. He was prone to insane rages that resembled berserk fits. The only Dracula stories that involve him doing something clearly counterproductive show him in one of these rages.

On the positive side: he was the only one of his contemporaries who never broke an oath. The evidence I could find suggests that while he initially paid the tribute required by the Ottomans, he didn't actually swear loyalty to them and never considered himself a vassal of the Sultan. He remained loyal to the Hungarian King despite Matthias's lack of support and later betrayal. He risked his life to help one of his few friends, Mihaly Szilagy (who was later sawn in two by the Ottomans) and helped his cousin Stephen of Moldavia (known today as St Stephen the Great) to claim the Moldavian throne. He appears to have belived in honor and duty, and maintained both to the best of his ability all his life. He was also acutely aware of his failings, if his time praying and the large amounts he donated to various churches are any guide.

Complicated? Hell yes. Easy to find? Not bloody likely. To find out more about Dracula the man, I spent a lot of time digging through obscure legends, translations of primary documents that would leave you cross-eyed, and a whole lot of international politics in 15th century Eastern Europe. The point, of course, being that ultimately what gets remembered is what other people say about you, not why they said it.

I should probably apologize for inflicting so much Dracula geekery on you, but I'm not going to because it illustrates something particularly useful to us as writers - good PR matters. None of us are likely to be remembered as one of history's greatest villains, but we writers do work in an industry largely driven by gossip, and gossip is basically viral PR. If we don't control it and seed the rumors that help us, we will be controlled by it and not in a good way.

What other historical figures got really bad PR? Conversely, who's been unfairly glorified? And what tactics can be used to seed helpful rumors for the gossip mill?

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Godzilla Attacks Sydney!

Recent reports of a massive dust storm in Australia -- with an 800km storm front and sweeping across thousands of kilometers -- fail to advise that the irradiated dust has drawn an attack on Sydney by the feared Godzilla! The image on the left was sent to our office only moments before the brave soul was incinerated by radioactive flame.

Mothra has been spotted on satellite images, and is moving swiftly toward Brisbane. Scientists fear it is being drawn to the Sunshine State by the scent of radioactive mangoes. The east coast of Australia remains on high alert. . .

OK, well maybe it wasn't quite that bad, but the recent dust storm that blanketed the east coast of Australia (and is heading toward New Zealand) was certainly epic in its proportions (it really was that big). It was the biggest dust storm in 70 years, and dumped more than 75,000 tonnes of dust on Brisbane in one hour. More than one observer reported 'It was like the end of the world' or 'It was like being in a science fiction movie'. The sunset was awesome, the sky as red as Martian dust (Australian desert sands have a high content of iron oxide).

When you see something like that -- really experience it -- it truly is amazing. It got me thinking about settings in books. If only we could channel that experience directly, make the reader feel that same creepy wonder, that otherworldlyness combined with the wake-up-and-look bite of something that is absolutely real.

It also made me realise that we owe it to ourselves as writers, and our readers, to get out there and really experience everything this world has to offer. There are some truly strange and wonderful things out there. It took that massive dust storm to remind myself of that.

So what things have you experienced that have made your head spin? That lifted you out of your own reality? And what writers have inspired similar feelings in you with their sense of setting?

By the way, if you want to see some great images of that dust storm, check out this link:,23816,5060705-17382,00.html

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

What do I say now?

Currently I have a proposal with a relatively good chance of selling sitting on my desk. I need to do a final read over, adjust the outline to coincide with what changed in the sample chapters (yeah, yeah, but that’s life) and send it out.

It’s been sitting on my desk for two days, in this state.

I can hear you go “What’s wrong, Sarah? Allergy to money?”

Uh. I went to a con over the weekend. It’s not just the proposal that’s sat. There’s dust bunnies (well, technically havey-cat bunnies or perhaps dust havey cats) on the stairs and the guys are running out of clean clothes. I’ve caught up on some of the more urgent emailing. I haven’t even gone to the diner, because I don’t have the energy. I’m just starting to recover but I’m leaving tomorrow to teach a workshop in TX. (Looking forward to it, but also glad it’s the last trip of the season.)

The entire summer has been like that, and I’ve got remarkably little accomplished. I know I can’t be “normal” on that, because I know people who are off to a con every weekend or every other weekend and still write encyclopedic amounts. Perhaps it’s because I don’t like flying.

All this prompted me to think about the life of a writer. See, I thought it was going to be sit down and write, and go to coffee shops and look romantic. Sometimes talk to other writers about our precious gift or something.

Okay, I didn’t exactly think that – I’m not a total prat – but at the back of my mind, I think I imagined something like that. Instead, it’s writing proposals, tracking advances, staying on deadline, all the while trying to promote the books, read enough to stay on top of the field and – heaven help me – at least try to stay in touch with the real world and your family.

We live in a walking area because I’ve found I need to go out preferably once a day and see people. Not necessarily talk to them, but just people watch. Strangers. Passerbys. It keeps me grounded on the fact that there are people outside my head. I haven’t gone out in weeks.

So, what is the purpose of this, other than bitching? To ask you guys a bunch of questions. I know we’ve been running a mini workshop of sorts for the last several months. And I know lots of you are writers. But I also know not all are. And the workshop format does have limits – for one, how many years can we keep this up and still have something interesting to say?

No, I don’t propose leaving the blog. I like you guys and I like my fellow bloggers. My question is more – what else would you like us to talk about? Our current projects, that might never see the light of day? What we’re researching at the moment? The reading cravings that have afflicted us and we have no idea where it will lead? Whom we met at the last con and how they seem to be doing? (Not in mean spirit, but we all have many friends in this field.) Our current impression of what’s going on in the publishing district right now? (I don’t mean just bitching. We have to keep that to a minimum, anyway. But “Did you know such and such merged? What do you think?”)

I’m asking because I found at cons that fans like to hear us talk about this sort of thing. Stuff like “I thought DST was going to be this story about a thief named Imogene and then this Athena chick took over.” (And no, that’s not true. Spare me. It’s five thirty in the morning for me.) They like to know what books we’re currently reading – non-research – how we’re enjoying them, and how they relate to the writing, sometimes in a tortuous way.

Would there be any interest in that type of thing? Not so much “writing” as “my writing life.” (Mind you there’s use in that for aspiring writers too. One of my mentors told me, when I was a wee writing lass – it’s five in the morning! – that in this field you trade up for bigger problems ever step up the ladder. I think it’s true. You also trade up for bigger rewards, and I don’t mean just monetary. Sometimes only knowing a writer over years allows you to see both sides of it.) So, talk to the blitzed between-trips writer. What would you like to see more of?

No, I’m not proposing leaving the blog. I enjoy both the blog and my co-bloggers. I'm just trying to figure out how to make the blog more useful to more people. And also more fun to the rest of us.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Something to make us Smile and Inspire us.

Feeling bereft of inspiration this week I went agoogling. The wonderful thing about the internet is that you can find almost anything. Here is a Great Quotes site.

The first quote came from Art, but it also applies to books. The rest were under the topic of Writing.

Something profound

Art is not a study of positive reality, it is the seeking for ideal truth. George Sand, 1804-1876, French Novelist

Something tongue in cheek.

Writing is a socially acceptable form of schizophrenia. E.L. Doctorow, 1931 , American novelist

Something from a fellow genre writer.

There is something about the literary life that repels me, all this desperate building of castles on cobwebs, the long-drawn acrimonious struggle to make something important which we all know will be gone forever in a few years, the miasma of failure which is to me almost as offensive as the cheap gaudiness of popular success. Raymond Chandler, 1888-1959, American Author

On why we write.

The need to express oneself in writing springs from a mal-adjustment to life, or from an inner conflict which the adolescent (or the grown man) cannot resolve in action. Those to whom action comes as easily as breathing rarely feel the need to break loose from the real, to rise above, and describe it... I do not mean that it is enough to be maladjusted to become a great writer, but writing is, for some, a method of resolving a conflict, provided they have the necessary talent.
Andre Maurois, 1885-1967, French Writer

Something on style.

It is excellent discipline for an author to feel that he must say all that he has to say in the fewest possible words, or his readers is sure to skip them. John Ruskin, 1819-1900, British Critic, Social Theorist

Something earthy.

The most essential gift for a good writer is a built-in, shock-proof, shit detector. This is the writer's radar and all great writers have had it. Ernest Hemingway, 1898-1961, American Writer

Something from a frustrated fellow writer.

Any writer, I suppose, feels that the world into which he was born is nothing less than a conspiracy against the cultivation of his talent. James Baldwin, 1924-1987, American Author

On how hard writing is.

Only amateurs say that they write for their own amusement. Writing is not an amusing occupation. It is a combination of ditch-digging, mountain-climbing, treadmill and childbirth. Writing may be interesting, absorbing, exhilarating, racking, relieving. But amusing? Never! Edna Ferber, 1887-1968, American Author

On how hard success is.

Writing, at its best, is a lonely life. Organizations for writers palliate the writer's loneliness, but I doubt if they improve his writing. He grows in public stature as he sheds his loneliness and often his work deteriorates. For he does his work alone and if he is a good enough writer he must face eternity, or the lack of it, each day. Ernest Hemingway, 1898-1961, American Writer

And my favourite.

If you describe things as better than they are, you are considered to be a romantic; if you describe things as worse than they are, you will be called a realist; and if you describe things exactly as they are, you will be thought of as a satirist. Quentin Crisp. 1908-, British Author

Do you have any inspirational quotes printed up and pinned to your work area?

Monday, September 21, 2009

The (writers) Eureka Stockade.

I belong to a novelist’s group and the other day the Google thing rumbled into the usual piracy war. And people holding out about copyright and theft... I’m not going to go into the whole piracy war again. You all know where I stand on it: that it is largely a self-inflicted injury, best solved not by DRM but by reasonable prices and reasonable convenience and availability. Your milage may vary.

What I am going to talk about is copyright and its purpose. Because that’s a debate I believe we have start again.

The purpose of copyright, plain and simple, is to allow the creators of duplicable intellectual property to make a living. To nuture and foster the arts in a better fashion than a patron or storyteller’s bowl did.

The purpose of copyright is NOT (and expressly NOT) to look after look after retail. Or to shelter distributors, publishers, movie production houses or music producers.
Amazon, Google, EMI, Microsoft and every publishing house out there SHOULD HAVE NO INTEREST AT ALL IN COPYRIGHT if it is serving its purpose. If they’re all trotting off with multi-million dollar suits about copyright and who owns it... something is very wrong. If that is all (or even principally) that it is doing: It’s a pointless, worthless law and needs to scrapped, struck from the statute books and buried like ‘patrons’ as having failed in its purpose. They need something that protects creators. The rest are effectively replacable and add little value to society.

And it has failed.

It’s purpose, remember, was to allow the creators of intellectual property -- the most valuable people in any society - without whom George Bezos has no business, and the directors of EMI are out selling vegetables -- TO MAKE A LIVING. To nuture and to foster the creators.
It’s failed and failed dismally. Copyright isn’t just there for JRR Tolkein’s heirs, or Disney or even JK Rowlings. It’s there to nurture the BOTTOM of the system too. None of the above are struggling to make a living. 95% of published authors, who are earning from copyright, are. Therefore, either they should not be in the ‘creation’ business, or there is a problem with how the law has fulfilled its purpose. In my opinion, it has failed almost completely. That’s why Rowena was talking about other ways of writers making a living. Talking about state support. Talking about taking second jobs.

That’s just wrong, gentlemen, ladies, and other animals. We have an international law intented for the purpose of selecting the best talent and letting it grow and flourish. That means that the governments of the world perceived the value of CREATORS. The law has failed, been subverted and perverted. It’s not doing it’s job and now, and with the electronic medium as a potential breakout area, all of the parties who have battened onto the income that was intended for the creators of intellectual property... are trying to keep the status quo, or in Google’s case, muscle in. Leaping up and down... and as the only shred of legitimacy they have for that claim is (hollow laughter) the public interest (See the Australian parallel importation debate, where the principal price drivers are claiming they want to give the public cheaper books) and the supposed interest of the creators. Which they are ‘protecting’, see (and maybe some of the publishers are. Baen can at least claim to be doing a better job than others - but it is still not enough to live on in many cases. And the rest of the chain really can't even say that much.) Telling us that even the crumb we have been left, will be taken away. And many of us are so frightened and desperate that we’re falling in with it.

We need to back off from this. Look at the ‘living’ we earn. Look at the way that copyright derived income is divided up (in most cases more than 90% goes to parties who are not the creators). Look, dispassionately, at the costs in the electronic arena. Look dispassionately at costs overall: Authors’ incomes are calculated as a ‘gross’ under the weird assumption that this is all ‘profit’ - that there are no staff who need to earn enough to pay their COL bills, no equipment, no office, no phones, no medical. Yet profit in every other step in publishing is considered as Nett -- profit after those things are taken off. You will frequently hear the loud protestation from the rest of the chain that they make scant profits...say 3 or 5%. But, if you make the assumption that as they’re all living off the proceeds of the law to allow the creator to earn a living... then surely the creator’s ‘profit’ should only be calculated from point at which they are making a living wage for the most valuable part of the chain. Most authors - 90% - would smile if their profit from the book they took a year to write was calculated from a nett position and that was only 3% -- even if they were being paid minimum hourly wage, and time and half for overtime (I’d be earning more than 50K a year - at minimum wage ;-). I wish I did - and I’d be very happy with 3% profit on that, let alone plus the costs of office, equipment, medical etc.)

There has to be a better way of doing this: either we divest ourselves of that chain, and hire the necessary part on a work for hire basis -- which has a lot going for it in the electronic field, or we consider letting the corporates have copyright to play ducks and drakes with (which is what to all intents and purposes for all but a small percentage they do now) and cop out of it, and just work for hire, charging the sort of rates per hour that other skilled professionals who work for hire do.

Or has anyone else got any other suggestions or modifications? Because as it stands, copyright is not succeeding in its purpose. Most of us are not making a living. And it’s not nurturing and fostering the creative arts.

Or do you think writing should be an amatuer, part-time profession?

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Follow the Yellow Brick Road

Or, in this case, the rules....

This past week has seen me on the other end of the writing game. Usually, I'm one of those sending out short stories, anxiously awaiting to hear from an editor or contest judge about how I've done. This week was my turn to play judge. More than that, I was the only "real writer" -- not my words, but the words of some of my judges -- to read the entries. In its own way, judging these stories was as difficult as waiting to hear how one of my stories has done.

To start, I have to say I'm thrilled with the response we had this year. Ours is a little library, one of a number located between Dallas and Fort Worth. So we never expect to have a lot of entries. This year, however, we quadrupled the number of entries over last year. That's a big feather in the cap of everyone who helped organize the contest.

But, with the increased number of entries came the increased need to apply the rules of the contest across the board. Hence the title -- and most particularly the subtitle -- of this post. You can follow your muse down the yellow brick road, but you have to follow the rules as well. Don't count on the beauty of your prose to blind the judges to the fact your entry is too long -- or too short, your margins don't meet the requirement or -- and this is a very BIG one -- you submitted it in font so tiny the judges need a magnifying glass to read it.

I guess my point is that I hadn't realized just how badly I wanted some of the writers who submitted to follow our very simple rules. We had some good stories that simply could not be passed into the final round of judging because they had failed to read the guidelines. Even worse, there were several stories where it really seemed like the authors didn't include all their pages. In the middle of a scene, the story just stopped. Never again am I going to assume I know the guidelines or that I've included everything I'm supposed to. It's a checklist for me from now on.

So, for those of you who have submitted to contests before -- or to editors or agents -- what is the strangest thing you've seen in their guidelines? Conversely, what piece of advice would you have for those who are trying to successfully submit their short stories to either a contest or an editor?

**(Image is, of course, from The Wizard of Oz.)

Saturday, September 19, 2009

New Scientist Sci Fi Special

New Scientist has a special featuring flash fiction from eight modern British SF authors.

They were asked to visualise the world 100 years from now.

The results are very pessimistic partly, I suspect because the authors are British and partly because they often have scientific or technical backgrounds. Looked at through the eyes of a natural scientist, western civilisation seems to be in a 'progress trap', heading for a disaster that our political institutions are incapable of solving.

Sic Transit Gloria Mundi.

New Scientist also have a writing contest for unpublished authors.

In the meantime, here is a photo of the city in which I live. No really, you are looking at a city. If you blow the picture up you can just see our church tower. It is clad in scaffolding for repairs. The church is 800 years old so it does need a bit of tlc from time to time. This is the Saxon Shores, once ruled by the comes litoris Saxonici.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Characters & Superstitions

Fleshing out a characters can be a lot of fun. One popular choice, particularly with horror/suspense writers, is to give the character a particular fear that plays into the story. For example they might have a fear of flying and the big confrontation with the glowing aliens from Mars has to happen on the outside of a racing spacecraft over Manhattan. Or they are afraid of the dark, but to confront the villain they have to go down THOSE stairs into the pitch black basement. This often works well, but can also seem a little contrived if the latter scenes are not woven in convincingly.

But there are plenty of other options. One that is a bit of fun is to incorporate a superstition. This got me thinking about superstitions in general and thought it might be fun for people to post their own superstitions or those of friends and relatives. Having something from real life like that adds a real element to fiction.

In terms of my family, the one I remember most distinctly is one of my grandmother's (that's Eileen up on the left). She used to cover all the mirrors in the house during a thunderstorm. She also used to live in fear of birds flying into windows - it would mean that someone in the family was going to die.

There is the old salt over the left shoulder ritual to hit the Devil in the eye if you spill the salt, but that's never been too convincing for me. What's the Devil care about sodium chloride anyway?

For myself - I have one that I have never been able to shake that was passed onto me by my mother. If your ears are ringing, it means someone is talking about you. If it's your left ear it's something bad - if it's your right ear it's something good. You might say I live in fear of left-sided ear infections. This is totally crazy, and yet I can't shake it. It has a spooky king of logic. If my tinnitus worsens I could be in for permanent paranoia.

What superstitions do you have? Or interesting rituals - the more bizarre the better!

Thursday, September 17, 2009

The Things Writers Do

Last night I was googling bizarre lethal animals, stinging plants, and weird parasites. Why was this, you ask? (Yes, yes, I know you didn't. Shut up. You're interrupting my rhetorical flight of something or other.)

The short short version - I needed all sorts of interestingly nasty ways to kill people. If there's a forbidden zone chock full of lethal everything, then it's a plot necessity that Ye Writer's characters will need to go either into or through it. If there are other characters with them, it's equally necessary that the other characters die. Unpleasantly, of course. The technical term for this is a writer-cookie, also known - to me at least - as a redshirt-with-extreme-malice (I do take special requests, as my friends know).

It's a very specialized form of writer-voodoo. I snapshot the person I'm going to kill with a little thumbnail portrait, maybe only a line or two, and sometimes a name that's derived from the original's name. Then I kill them in interesting and gruesome ways. Sometimes repeatedly. My manager has been killed twice now, and oddly enough he becomes easier to deal with each time I kill him (No, he has never read anything I've written. No, you can't tell him. It takes all the fun out of it.)

In any case, my forbidden zone was there anyway, there were some fourteen people going to die there anyway, four of them minor characters who readers are hopefully going to care about a little bit, the others servants along for the trip more or less (Yes, it does make more sense than that. No you can't read it yet. I'm still writing it.). It's with the others that I get to have fun and do the redshirt-with-malice thing to people who've managed to irritate me.

Why do I insert people I know who have pissed me off? (No, "piss" is not a rude word where I grew up. It's 'earthy'). It's therapeutic. I get to have fun researching bizarre and horrible ways to die and I get to let off steam by putting someone I'm angry with in the role of Ensign Cannonfodder and writing their horrible death.

The bizarre parasites, biting trees, and other nasties got to be featured because this particular book is set in a far future where the bio-engineered war tools have gone on to reproduce and evolve, assisted by said war putting a very hefty dent in the unmodified human population worldwide. Sites where the biolabs were, or where nuclear weapons were used, are still, centuries later, uninhabitable. And the rest of the world is more or less feudal, but the rulers are the descendants of the saner modified humans. Not surprisingly, they got names that reflected what kind of mythical critter they resembled most, so there are dwarves (short, muscular, able to smell metals and rare earths - optimised for finding and mining deep underground deposits), elves (pretty, charismatic, telepathic, and capable of controlling other people's minds as well as reading them - all very handy for spying), vampires (who absolutely do not sparkle and are more or less one of the less ethical faction's version of elves) and... well. You get the idea.

What this piece looks like - and will probably be marketed as when I get that far - is "epic fantasy with vampires". The war that created them isn't even legend, it's completely lost. The bio-enhancements are regarded as "magic" or "gifts from deity" depending on culture. And of course the forbidden zones are terrible places where evil magic happened so long ago their legends merely hint at it.

The fun part for me is finding workable reasons why someone would have engineered something like this and how a culture where pure humans are very much an inferior race somewhere between animals and "real" people might evolve. I'm going to end up exploring several variations on that evolution as I write the books - which means I've been digging into history, sociology and evolutionary theory as well, although it lacks the 'cool' factor of bizarre lethal plants and animals.

In all probability the only part of the research that will be visible in the finished book will be the forbidden zone stuff. I made a deliberate choice to avoid the standards like giant spiders, and go for the kinds of nasties that aren't all that common. Things like the tree whose leaves are covered with microscopic silicon needles that release a neurotoxin painful enough to kill (Rowena, Chris, you've probably heard about the Gympie Stinging Tree) and whose shed needles stay actively toxic for at least 100 years. Or the bird whose feathers and beak are coated with the same basic poison the poison dart frogs secrete (A New Guinea native bird).

As I've learned - repeatedly - from the virtual "PTerry was here" signs all over odd branches of history, you don't need to make this stuff up. It's already out there. Two of my big writer-cookies are finding the stuff, and making it happen to someone who's got on my nerve (I only have one, and it's rather sensitive).

What are your writer-cookies? And what are the things you do when you write just because you like it?

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

LISTEN, she said!

(Thursday -- Sarah apologizes to everyone for not responding to your posts, but an electrical storm fried her modem yesterday and has caused her no end of headaches. She promises to respond as soon as she has the new modem installed -- Amanda)

Listen, she said. This is urgent. If there is one thing you must remember, when writing a book, it’s the voice. It can make the whole thing hang together or not. The best story with an hesitant, meandering voice – a voice afraid of itself – will come across unremarkable. The oldest, most hackneyed story, blared forth in a strong voice, will make people sit up and pay attention. Lots of attention.
So, what’s the difference? Yeah, yeah, I know I’ve covered this before. But it’s my current obsession.
I confess I’d never even thought of voice as something one must have. You have to understand, I grew up reading... everything. We didn’t have a tv till I was eight, and then the tv we had had about four hours unremarkable daily programming. I used to try to catch the noon program, which was often Merry Melodies. And on Saturdays there were Westerns. But the rest of the time, really – dance competition, singing program, news, boring lecture – the books were far more attractive.
You didn’t need much of a hook to grab me. Not putting me off was enough. I read fiction. Mystery, Science Fiction, Fantasy and, in despair, my cousin Natalia’s "blue collection" (not what you think, dears. Blue because the covers were blue) of truly trashy romance books. (I’m probably doing this line an injustice, but the plot that seemed to be most common was girl meets matador, girl falls in love with matador. He falls in love with her. Intrigues or whatever intervene. She realizes he loves her and JUST before they reconcile, he dies. She mourns him forever. Happy ending Portuguese style.) If truly, truly out of other stuff, I read school books. Mine, my brothers’, my cousins’, my parents’ from when they were younger. For instance, I first fell in love with history reading my mother’s old school book. And if all else failed, I read want adds. Truly, no voice needed. Being on paper and printed was enough.
Then I grew up, got married, had kids. My time became very limited. I don’t remember when I began to realize about half the books I started ended up somewhere, face down, forgotten, not missed. The books needed to have something special to hold me.
I still didn’t think of it as voice. And sometimes it wasn’t. It’s very easy, for instance, for mysteries to lose me when the plot makes no sense.
As a writer, my first fear was language. This is because English is my third language. I spent my first ten years of writing in fear that all the editors were laughing at my wish to be published in English. When I let go of that – thanks to Dean Wesley Smith who told me I had worked the language enough, pick something else. Only more politely – I turned to plot, because I knew I was weak there. Characters – those seem to come naturally and without much thought. I worked plot like crazy. And pacing. Because in addition to odd ideas of "happy endings" Portuguese story-telling rhythms are naturally slower. I didn’t want to tell Portuguese stories. It’s not what I read.
It wasn’t until Constellation a few years ago, when I was listening to Dave Weber that I realized the importance of voice. Dave pointed out you can make all sorts of mistakes, provided you have a strong and confident voice. I realized this was true. Look, for instance, at the opening of most Heinleins. He tells the story so confidently, you never doubt he SAW it, and it is happening or happened. Which is the first part of giving a d*mn about it, of course. And a lot of the people I mentor are GOOD writers. But their voice hesitates, meanders. They don’t speak from authority. They let you see that they’re lying.
Since then I have been very conscious of voice. To an extent, I always was, in that until I HEAR the story in my head I can’t write it. But now I also get tied up in knots. "Is this a good voice? A voice of authority?"
The truth is I don’t know. Sometimes you can feel it, like an almost electrical charge. Most of the time you don’t know till someone else reads it. Or till you come back months later. Which is not always possible.
I bought a book on voice, but it is lame. The author’s idea seems to be that if you eliminate all conjunction, all buts and ands, you have voice. I defy anyone to find fault in authors with a more flowery/convoluted use of language, including Bradbury and on occasion Pterry. No, they have voice. This guy doesn’t know what he’s talking about.
So, am I chasing a chimera? Is there such a thing as voice? And if there is, is it worth pursuing through the labyrinths of story telling? Or am I like those whom the (storytelling) gods love?

And in case you all have forgotten, Dave is still telling a great story over at:

Update from Rowena


Update to my last post about writers making ends meet.

I've just heard I'm now an Associate Lecturer at Qantm College. I'll be working two days a week, teaching narrative and dialogue. So I'll still have time to write.

How cool is that?

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

How do writers make ends meet?

This is me doing a workshop at the Woodford Festival.

I don't know what the figures are in the US or the UK, but in Australia, very fewwriters make a living out of writing fiction. There are a couple of people who have won the 'publishing lottery' and then there are the solid performers like the romance writers, who can turn in 3 books a year. Then there are the rest of us, who might have between 5 - 20 books under our belt but there's short fall between royalties and reality.

In Australia we have government bodies that administer grants at a state and national level. Authors, musicians, artists etc can apply for a grant to support them while they write, paint or create. But the grant pie is only so big and there are many more applications than there are slices of pie.

Many authors supplement their book writing income with part time work. Or they work full time and still manage to write.

Many authors make up the short fall by running workshops, doing manuscript appraisals, appearing on festival panels and teaching creative writing through academic institutions.

The wonderful artist, JC Leyendeck, did a painting of an artist painting a beautiful feast, while he shivered, wrapped in a blanket, cooking sausages.

How do you make ends meet?

Monday, September 14, 2009

Illusions, delusions and realities

The human mind is a peculiar thing. It's a smoke and mirrors con artist. I think if it ever really let us see what was happening out there we'd all quietly move back to the trees which we never should have left in the first place. And nowhere is this more true than world of writing and getting published. Still, sometimes it pays to look beyond the world as we think it should be, to the world as it really is, so we can get to the world that we really like to see.

For instance your manuscript, which you've labored long and hard on, followed guidelines precisely and sent off with high hopes and a SASE... It's precious to you isn't it? You've kept the pages clean, and neat. In the delusion, it arrives on the editor's desk, she opens it, is blown away by the prose and story, reads it voraciously and calls you up that aftenoon to offer you a nice contract and you're on your way to fame and fortune. In the illusion it goes to the publisher's mail-room and gets delivered to the sub-editor's desk, she reads it, likes it, sends it on to the editor who in a day or two has a look, doesn't like it and pops it in the SASE with a letter saying why not. In the reality... what is precious, rare and unique to you, is merely one of thousands to them. There are no hard feelings or deliberate disrespect of your art. Just reality is that your sub is a minor part in a very big business-process. At least 10 'precious jewels'arrive every day. It arrives in the mail-room, gets assigned to someone... very busy. Doing all the myriad jobs expected of the junior sub-editor. She eventually does fish it out (or waits untl she has fifty and they are going to overwhelm her desk) and yes, she likes it. And sends it on to someone else. It takes them a few days/weeks to say 'not for me', and send it back. The good sub-editor (and you get some, despite the pressures etc. ) then sends it to another editor. Two months later, overwhelmed with an inbox threatening to explode, they read it on the subway. They like it too. And send it on again to the biggest honcho. And some weeks or months later the important person either decides to buy it or puts it aside for later. Or takes it to a monthly (or quarterly) editorial board. And they decide no thanks. Now- handled by half a dozen people and read on subways and moved in briefcases, lets be frank your manuscript looks like a bit of a dogs breakfast ... Is your SASE still attached to this? Maybe, but let's be realistic here. So: to gain what you can from the process. If it comes back fast in its SASE... It doesn't mean it's a bad book. It just didn't get anywhere. If it doesn't come back, cheer. That means it has moved up the process. It also means, probably that after a reasonable elapse of time (say 6 months, if you are me), you need to query. Now in the delusion, they've been waiting for your letter, and know precisely where you manuscript is. In the illusion they're able to establish within a few minutes what is up... it may even happen this way sometimes. In the reality I've experienced... your manuscript is one of 3000 that has arrived at this publisher. It's been passed around (that's very good) and they liked it... where is it right now? Um. maybe in that pile/that folder. And maybe its very easy to find, but in case it isn't this is the time to turn your reality into that dream. This is not the time to prima donna and wonder how they could treat your jewel like that. I don't think there is ever such a time. Make it as easy as possible, offer another copy, so they don't find it easier to say 'Oh sorry, didn't work' rather than hunt for it. If you need to politely send another copy... that's fine. Appreciate that your illusion was a lot easier than their reality. Be happy you didn't get back in the nice SASE.

And this is something I wish I'd known (no it wasn't with Baen.)
So what other illusions have been cruelly shattered? Fame and Fortune? Your book will be promoted? writing is easy?
Tell me. And try not to diss anyone. It's probably your illusion/delusion that was well, delusional.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Sunday Mix and Match

Okay, I'll admit it. I couldn't decide on a single topic for my post today, so I'll just touch on a couple of topics that caught my eye this week. Amazon public relations fiasco take 2 -- it hasn't been that long ago that Amazon pulled certain editions of 1984 and, if I remember correctly, several other e-books from Kindles without prior notification. At first, the only recompense Amazon was going to give their customers was a refund of the .99 cost of the book. One customer, however, has sued them because when they deleted 1984 from his Kindle, they also deleted notes he needed for class. Now word comes down that Amazon will not turn off service to a Kindle if the owner reports it missing or stolen, nor will they turn over the location of the Kindle when downloads after the theft are made without being presented with a subpoena from the police. It seems that there is no way right now to officially transfer ownership of a Kindle, so Amazon won't do anything to help without the police getting involved. From the New York Times:

Samuel Borgese, for instance, is still irate about the response from Amazon when he recently lost his Kindle. After leaving it on a plane, he canceled his account so that nobody could charge books to his credit card. Then he asked Amazon to put the serial number of his wayward device on a kind of do-not-register list that would render it inoperable — to “brick it” in tech speak.

Amazon’s policy is that it will help locate a missing Kindle only if the company is contacted by a police officer bearing a subpoena. Mr. Borgese, who lives in Manhattan, questions whether hunting down a $300 e-book reader would rank as a priority for the New York Police Department.

So, sorry, Kindle owner, find it yourself or you're out of luck -- for the moment at least. Amazon isn't going to do much to help. September 9th saw the announcement of the closure of Quartet Press. My initial reaction was to worry about any authors who might have already signed contracts with Quartet. Then I went back to their blog and read some of the other posts. I'm not lying when I say it appears those behind the scenes were doing everything they could to make a go of it. One thing I particularly liked was how they were open about all phases of the operation -- from submission guidelines to what they were looking for in content editors to how they would pay their editors. That's not exactly something we tend to see from the more traditional publishing houses. The day after Quartet's announcement, Kassia Krazser blogged about the entire process at Booksquare. One particular point she made is something every author and every person considering starting an e-publishing site should keep in mind: It did not come as a surprise to us that companies like Amazon take a huge chunk of receipts (50 to 65% of every dollar, depending on the program you’re in), and as we built financial models, we had to consider — which in some ways means guess — the volume of sales that would come from third party sources. For a digital publisher of any size, the best returns come from direct sales. In the romance ebook world, readers are accustomed to buying direct; many are aware that this practice puts more money in the pocket of authors, and make the effort to “buy local”.

This is consumer education done right, but most customers shop at Amazon or the Sony Reader store or Fictionwise or Books on Board because these entities aggregate ebooks from many publishers. Oh, and by tying hardware to the store, this means the retailers own these customers, lock, stock, and proprietary format. This cuts into the share of cash received by the publisher, and there is no expectation that retailers will become less aggressive. During Apple’s recent presentation, Steve Jobs noted that the company has 100 million active credit card numbers on account. Consider how much negotiating clout the music industry has with Apple right now. Extrapolate.

So, how do we, as authors, deal with this situation? More to the point, how do we, as readers and consumers, effect the situation? Are you more likely to buy an e-book directly from an author's site, or an e-publisher's site, or go to Amazon or Fictionwise, or one of the others? Maybe it's time we take a page out of the romance e-pub book and buy directly. It certainly seems obvious that our favorite authors would benefit more as a result. What do you think?

Saturday, September 12, 2009

I will not read your effing script!

Josh Olson, writing in the Village Blog, has produced a wonderful rant called "I will not read your effing script".

He tells the story of a friend whose boyfriend has written a screenplay. This friend, who is clearly female, persuaded him to agree to review it. Worse still, he was persuaded to be honest, the dreadful things women persuade us to do.

Apparently, it was dire.

Olsen sat down and wrote three pages of critique of the first few paragraphs. He tossed that away as he rightly felt that it would not help. Instead he composed a tactful over view pointing out that the story was incoherent, badly paced, and was badly written in a technical sense (grammar, spelling etc).

He received one line back from the would-be writer "Thanks for your opinion." Later he discovered that the couple were rubbishing him to anyone who would listen.

I have been extremely fortunate in having a truly successful professional author give an honest critique of my work. Without this person, and others like him, I would be nowhere.

My friend says that the reason he is willing to squander his valuable time reading my work is because (i) I listen to his comments AND ACCEPT THEM, (ii) I go away and think about them carefully and (iii) I do my incompetent best to follow his advice.

What really puzzles me is that this response should be considered unusual. I am a professional academic and I have published more than seventy five papers through the peer review system. Taking criticism constructively is an essential component of the academic's tool box if one proposes to have a career. Most would-be writers have not benefited from this discipline.

So, here are my pointers from my own experience.

1. A professional writer's professional time is valuable. When you ask one to criticise your draft you are asking him or her to work at his craft for you for nothing. If by some miracle, a professional agrees to advise you then for God's sake be very grateful. You are entitled to nothing.
2. Learn to write a decent sentence. You do not to need to be an engineer to drive a car but you had better bloody well have engineering skills if you intend to design one. Your creative teacher at school was talking bollocks when she said that technical writing skills were irrelevant to art.
3. Have you a story to tell? No, be honest.
4. Do the very best job on the manuscript you can before you send it anywhere near a professional. Anything less is an insult.
5. Do not bother to tell the professional why his criticism is invalid. If he does not understand why your draft is near perfect then neither will anyone else. Don’t waste his time with your amateur ideas about story construction, writing styles or characterisation. If you want encouragement and praise then show it to your mates who can be guaranteed to tell you sweet little lies.

And I wish you good luck because you will need it.


PS The pic is from a production of Romeo & Juliet acted on a mat on the dockside outside HMS Gannet at Chatham. Minimal props, no special effects, just a fine bunch of actors and a bloody good script.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Magic Systems

OK, this is geek time now. What are some of the choices in creating magic systems in fantasy?

For originality, Steven Erikson's idea of the Warrens was really something different. I enjoyed his Malazan books of the fallen, but they eventually got a little bogged down in the storyline, or maybe the characters didn't grab me as much as some of the earlier novels (Gardens of the Moon is a classic). The originality in the magic did not abate though.

As much as I liked David Gemmell, his magic was pretty straightforward and fairly familiar from the SFF spectrum.

I guess as fundamental distinctions go, one of the most basic is Innate Magic Vs Learned Magic. For example in the Earthsea books, or Wheel of Time series, the talent was there from birth, whereas in other books - I think one of the Lawrence Watt-Evans's books comes to mind - it is a skill that can be learned, a bit like learning what needs to go into a science experiment in our world to make it work according to our physical laws.

I remember a great little scene (not sure what book this was from) - this skinny, white-bearded, yet very fit Mage, pounding away with his feet on some sort of platform to generate the energy for his spell. The idea here was a sort of conservation of energy, where the Mage had to first generate the energy with his own sweat before he did the spell. That was kind of neat. He also got to burn off lots of calories.

You can have a blend as well. In my fantasy novel The Calvanni, there are innate magic-users (Sorcerers) who are quite powerful, yet rare, while most others can be trained in other less powerful forms of magic (Druids, Priests and Priestesses). The premise was that the Sorcerers came to dominate their world and formed a magic-using nobility. The power in the upper classes - feared and hated by many - waned over time and the Druids took control, forcing a purge of the now 'evil' Sorcerers and monopolizing magic.

Another fundamental distinction is just how Powerful is Powerful? Is the pinnacle of magic the ability to obtain a vision, or perhaps influence a person's thoughts - as in shamanism - or can an 'Adept' wipe out armies with the wave of a hand (Pug from Fiest comes to mind)?

I think some books take the ultimate power of the Mage way too far. I like it better when the magic-user is limited, and has to pay for the use of his power.

What magic systems from fantasy literature take your fancy?

Thursday, September 10, 2009

How Will We Know?

If you choose to be even moderately optimistic about the future of humanity, it's pretty much a given that at some point we'll end up in space, and we'll colonize all sorts of places, some very like parts of Earth, others... not. It's also pretty likely that sooner or later we'll be able to perform gene modifications, inheritable and otherwise.

Which inevitably brings up the question, will we still be human? And with it, if we stop being human at some point, how will we know?

There's any number of stories in that, ranging from near future SF all the way out to possible futures so bizarre they might as well be fantasy. The question of whether we'll end up as a whole lot of related species is its own subset of these.

At last year's WorldCon in Denver, I wound up in a fascinating discussion with an evolutionary biologist and several other scientists of varying flavors. I don't remember how we got to the question of speciation, but it seems the jury is still out on the question of whether you've got a separate species when two groups can breed but don't (because of geographical or morphological issues), when they can breed but the offspring usually won't be fertile (ligers and mules - which actually can be fertile but usually aren't), or when they can't breed at all. The obvious example here would be dogs and wolves - which are usually considered separate species but can produce fertile offspring - and of course the various breeds of dog, which at some extremes would have a lot of difficulty breeding. While a peke with a stepladder could mate with a great dane, it doesn't happen often, and for obvious reasons it's a unidirectional mating unless some really perverse person wanted to do a test tube fertilization with great dane sperm and peke ova then implant in a female great dane (because there's no way on earth a peke is going to carry those puppies to term).

So... when do we humans speciate, and what will happen then? If we engineer people to live comfortably in null-gravity, are they and their children still human? And of course, where does our old friend evolution fit into all this?

People tend to forget that evolution is still, well, evolving as we speak. Pale skin is an adaptation to living in climates where there isn't that much sun. Lactose intolerance is the human norm - only the cultures where milk is a major food source have a significant number of people who can drink it as adults. People who have been living in cities for generations have, on the whole, brain structures optimized for multi-tasking by comparison with people who have been living in small rural communities (don't ask me for references. This is the stainless steel lint trap in action. I remember weird shit with no idea how it got there).

Here's the thought experiment. Let's say three more or less uniform groups set off to colonize some newly discovered planets. We won't go into how they get there. Group A finds themselves a tropical paradise - big oceans, most of the land masses are in temperate to tropical zones - with plenty of edible plants and animals. Group B's new home has pretty distinct seasons, but adapts very well to Western style agriculture, and also has some large predators. Group C gets the booby prize - they find themselves in a hostile climate where they need to make the most of every drop of water, defend against filthy weather, and protect themselves against a range of predators, poisonous critters, and just plain nasty stuff.

Fast forward a few thousand years, assuming that all three groups have been pretty much isolated and managing without outside intervention, and what do you think you'll find?

Here's my guess. Group C will probably be either dead, or a collection of geniuses, because in that environment if you're not smart enough to do the right things and forward thinking enough to do them before you need it, you're dead. They've probably made a bunch of technological advances just to cope with the environment. Group B will be about... well, average. Seasonal variation requires a certain amount of foresight and intelligence, but not nearly as much as a situation that seems designed to kill you if you slip up. Group A, with their tropical paradise? With nothing to kill the not so bright, and a nice easy food supply, they'll probably have changed least, and be, as a group, the least intelligent. Meaning if you picked a random person from A, B, and C, chances are the person from C would be smartest (and probably kind of paranoid), the person from B middling, and the person from A not so bright and probably pretty relaxed and easygoing.

What do you think will happen? And will all three still be human?

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

The Other Half

Sorry to be late this morning, but I came back yesterday night, late, from the first North American Discworld Convention. Well, technically, I came away from the convention on Monday, but we had business in Denver yesterday, so we delayed on the way.
Though I’ve been going to conventions since 98, I only started going after I sold my first novel. So I’ve never been to a con as a fan. Not, mind you, that I have anything against fandom. The whole idea of organized fandom was just so alien to me, though – because it didn’t exist in Portugal – that it never occurred to me to look for fan groups/conventions until I was told I should go to World Fantasy to meet agents.
So this is the first time I’ve gone to a convention as a fan. It was lots of fun. Far more relaxing than going as a pro. Oh, I was still on some panels and I signed some autographs, but overall I was there to hear Pterry speak and to hang out with people who understood when I said "That’s so Sam Vimes" or "Please don’t let me detain you" and that was enough.
But of course I’m a writer, and being a writer is not something I can turn off so... Things I learned at the Discworld con about how to treat your fans – not that I ever expect to have as many as Pterry, but who knows? One of you might! --
1 - They’re there to see you, make yourself available. Pterry talked a lot and also mingled and talked to people. Mind you, he didn’t need to do anything else to make us love him, but if he’d been the "I’m too important to talk to fans" type of author, I doubt he’d have got where he is.
2- Let them in just enough into your private life. No one likes their privacy more than I do. I’ve been known to say if I could have fortune without fame, I’d take it. But the truth is fans feel they own a little part of you and they want to know some stuff. Stuff such as... how your health is doing. And perhaps some fun project you’re involved in just now. Pterry, for ex, is doing better than expected, and he’s building a bridge, back home.
3 - If possible, genuinely enjoy your fans and your worlds, so you can play in your worlds with your fans, without its being a put on.
Presumably the rest of you have gone to cons at fans. At least some of you. What lessons do you take from it for when you’re on the other side of the table?

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Females in Fantasy and SF

R&D Studios

I went to a great workshop at the Romance Writers Conference where we covered characterisation. One of the things that came up was being sure to make the heroine worthy of the hero. We had to exercise our 'inner mother-in-law' to decide if she was good enough for him.

Then later at a panel of Paranormal and Dark Urban Fantasy writers with Denise Rossetti, Keri Arthur, Emily Gee and myself we were talking about how the heroines in these books are allowed to get away with a lot more than the heroines in mainstream books. They can take more than one lover and they don't have to deny their sexuality.

It made me realise that there is still a big divide in what we will let female characters get away with, compared to male characters.

Sarah Rees Brennan wrote a really good post on women in fiction here. Her section on 'Harry Potter and what if HP were really Harrie Potter, how would we feel about her?' confirmed this feeling. Her point was that we let male characters get away with a lot more than females. if you had a female character who was amazing good at everything and men were constantly throwing themselves at her, wouldn't you feel annoyed by this character? She cited James Bond as an example.

If it was a guy in the illustration above he would be wearing sensible furs, maybe with his chest bare. He certainly wouldn't be wearing the equivalent of a chain mail bikini.

In SF and fantasy are we creating female characters who are restrained by the gender limitations of our own society? What do you think?

Monday, September 7, 2009

The problem with pigeon-holes is pigeons

And of course the products of pigeons. And no, strangely enough, I don't mean eggs. Or even chicks.

As Kurt Vonnegut put it: "I have been a soreheaded occupant of a file drawer labeled 'Science Fiction' ... and I would like out, particulary since so many serious critics regularly mistake the drawer for a urinal."

Being me I really don't care deeply about serious critics inherent anti-sf bigotry. The literary establishment is desperately insecure and needs something to look down on, after all. What I do care about is when pigeon-holing, pre-conceptions and ignorance cuts me off from readers. Take, for example, SLOW TRAIN TO ARCTURUS. Now, if I had to try to put it into discrete genre pigeon-holes... I'd start by saying it doesn't fit into any one. To the best of my knowledge the technology -- while it involves space travel -- is (unlike a lot of sf) all based on working (or near working) technology. It is a grand concept, but I intentionally went for a very matter of fact no-dazzling-flashing-lights-and-exploding-impossiblium attitiude to it all. It neatly 'solves' three of the enormous problems in any pre-existing slower-than-light travel sf : the issue of habitability of the target (the colonists are colonising space, not planets. They need space debris and a sun - something a lot easier to find than a second Earth), the issue of ship size for bio-viability (the viability and carrying capacity is not related to volume. It is related to surface area! The 'folded' inside to the habitats is a first), and the speed issue (the trip time is hugely increase by accelaration and decelaration - and these are energy expensive. Therefore accelarate once, and drop modules. Cheaper, faster and better!) It therefore fulfils the hard-sf genre pigeon-hole. It is intentionally a Gulliver's Travels through isolated human societies using the established satire technique of the 'innocent observer' to show up the ridulousness of the mores of present society: That would put it into social satire (and not Science Fiction at all any more than Animal Farm is Science Fiction) or, if you were to ignore the satire aspect, social Science Fiction - which as it also is, in that it looks a social issues (such as colonialism and isolation) in a science fiction setting. There is a distinct element of humor and, um, biology (they go together so often) - humorous sf. Biological sf. Oh and then there is the just straight adventure story to carry it all along and keep it moving fast. Depending on you, the reader, you'd probably say it was one or another of categories with aspects of the others. About the only thing you wouldn't say it was, was space opera. There are no intergalactic conflicts, no powerful and fanciful unexplained technology, no untamed frontiers a la Wild West or Africa. To quote Wikipedia on Space Opera: "Perhaps the most significant trait of space opera is that settings, characters, battles, powers, and themes tend to be very large-scale." Hello, this is the story of a small cast of individuals on one space ship. The themes, I suppose, might be large. But I think you can safely say that this is not a pigeon-hole that book fits into at all. Probably the only one... SORCERESS OF KARRES and WIZARD OF KARRES are principally Space Opera. They certainly fit the Wikipdia profile: so I do write it, and to some extent it has a fairly distinct reader group (ie. there are people who only read that, or who don't).

So let's see what the critics who do this for a living (and thereby affect our living) said about which pigeon-hole SLOW TRAIN TO ARCTURUS fits into:

Publishers Weekly: 'doesn't bring anything original to space opera.'

I have to laugh. I suppose in a way this is a first :-). That is 100% accurate. It really doesn't bring anything original to space opera. Yeah, Kurt. I feel your pain! I shudder to imagine what pigeon-hole they're going to put DRAGON'S RING into. Odds on paranormal romance or funny fantasy anyone?

Anyway, so let's talk about pigeon-holes. Do you think your work belongs in them? Which ones, and why? Are they useful? Do you buy by 'type' of book? Should you try to write, or market your work to a pigeon-hole?

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Rules for Writers

Last weekend, I blogged about the things I wished I'd known before writing my first novel. That started me thinking about how you can find all sorts of advice, some good and a whole lot more bad, on the internet. One of the blogs I follow on a regular basis is Janet Reid's blog. Ms. Reid is an agent with Fine Print Literary Management -- and no, she's not my agent -- and she has not only her own blog, but she also has Query Shark where you can send your query to be posted and critiqued by her.

One of the things I like about Ms. Reid's blog is that she tells it like it is, at least as far as she's concerned as an agent. Along that line, she's written series of blog entries on Rules for Writers. And no, these are not rules to least not often.
  1. Be ready. Despite what you might have heard, whenever you are attending a convention or workshop where you might be pitching your work to an agent or editor, have your pages with you. Have them in your car, in your hotel room, even in your briefcase in case the agent or editor asks to see them. Of course, you need to wait until they ask for the pages and then you need to find out if they want the pages now or if they want you to send the pages either via email or USPS.
  2. Be reachable. Don't do like I did the first time I sent off pages and list the wrong phone number or email address, etc. In my defense, we had just changed the phone number after years with the same one. Still, it was embarrassing to have to contact the editor and tell him I'd made such a stupid mistake. So, check to make sure you have the right address, phone number, email address and even blog address or web page address all listed. Don't run the risk of an agent or editor really liking your work and then not being able to reach you.
  3. Be brave. This is probably the most important advice Ms. Reid gives, and the piece I fail at the most. The first time to be brave, according to Ms. Reid, is to get up, get out of the house and go to a con or workshop, whether you know anyone else who is going or not. Take your pages. Take part in the critique sessions and don't let what anyone -- be they other participants, an agent or an editor -- make you give up. Listen to what they say, take notes and then see if what they say will actually make your piece better. Then either work to make those pages the best they can be or, if necessary, move on to the next piece, remembering what you learned from the critique.
  4. Be polite. It seems simple enough, doesn't it? But I'm sure everyone out there who has ever received a rejection has felt the same knee-jerk reaction I have. You want to respond to the agent or editor and ask why they rejected your baby. Hopefully, common sense wins out in those situations and you file the rejections away and get to work on your next story or novel. If not, remember what Ms. Reid says. The quickest way to be rejected or fired by an agent is to be rude to any member of her staff.
  5. Be imperfect. I'll admit, this one stumped me at first. Then I read what Ms. Reid had to say. She wasn't telling prospective clients to send in work that hadn't been spell-checked or didn't follow agency guidelines. Far from it. To paraphrase, if you insist on being perfect in your writing, you will wind up never writing anything. Or, you'll write but you will never feel it is ready to send out. So, instead of focusing on being perfect, focus instead on doing the best you can and remember you're human. So you can't be perfect.
  6. Be wary. Very simply, when looking for an agent, remember that they need to have contacts in the industry. As Ms. Reid says, "this industry runs on who you know. An agent who doesn't know anyone is worse than useless. It's ok to ask who do you know to a prospective agent asking to represent your work particularly if the agent is new and doesn't yet have much of a sales record."
So, what rules do you think every writer, especially a writer trying to break into the business, should know?

Also, while you're cruising around Blogger, check out Dave's latest posts about his upcoming move at Flinders Family Freer.


I recently reread Dan Abnett's Gaunt's Ghost military SF Series. This is a rightly highly praised collection that has sold extremely well.

A couple of things struck me when I was trying to deconstruct the books to see why I liked them so much. Here are my thoughts in no particular order.

1. The pages crackle with high energy. The reader is taken on a breathless ride. Something is always happening.
2. The line-by-line is remarkably simple and clear. The writing never gets in the way of the story. The author never tries to show how clever he is at the expense of the reader.
3. The plots are essentially very straightforward. The action is not lost in complexities of chance or motivation.
4. There is an interesting cast of characters who spark off each other. You care about the protagonists.
5. There is no deeper message than the essential truths of people acting under pressure. The author does not try to force you to buy into his personal conspiracy theories.
6. Each book has a different theme - trench warfare, haunted house, siege, insurgency etc. This refreshes the interaction between the characters and their responses to situations. You are not reading the same book a dozen times.

OK, I am sure I have missed some points. Can you suggest other characteristics of a great action story? How much do you agree with my analysis, or not?


Friday, September 4, 2009

Squeezing into the Gaps

We've all seen the lists of writing tips - things to do to develop as a writer - e.g. read widely, experience life, research etc. . .

Chief on the list is often to write every day. This has always been a tall order for me, balancing work and family and running two businesses on the side. In the periods where I have managed it there has certainly been a beautiful flow in my expression and effortless connection to the work, but this has (for me) unfortunately come at the cost of connection to the people in my life.

On the other side of the coin, there are periods in life when it is legitimately impossible to write anything. For sanity and the sake of not taking the skin off my back via self-flagellation, this was an import thing for me to acknowledge. It might be work, family bereavement, illness. . . a host of things. I guess I believe that if you were stamped at birth with the hidden sigil that marks you as a writer, after the dust settles you will always gravitate back to the written word when you are capable of doing so.

But for that middle zone, when you are trying to live a life and squeeze writing into the cracks and gaps, how do you manage it?

One of the best pieces of advice that I had was 'do it first'. I guess that generally works well for me as more of a morning person, but the general gist is to try and get some runs on the board with the writing (sorry Cricket term there) before the other 'urgent' things in life take over - like paying the bills and eating.

One of the useful things I have discovered is that my laptop works fine on the bus. This gives me up to an hour a day during the week, and it all goes surprisingly well (when the battery does not run out). I remember one story about a British Thriller writer who managed to have a whole career and publish a dozen novels while doing his writing commuting on the train (1 hour each way) to his office job as an accountant in London. I guess a predisposition for travel sickness might knock that one on the head.

Carry a notepad: I used to do this religiously, and ended up with about twenty of these stuffed full of ideas for stories. Many were penned in the middle of industrial plants while wearing full PPE -- ear muffs, steel-capped boots, hardhats etc. A writer friend of mine also filled up notepads with ideas - that and writing in the emergency stairwell during his half-an-hour lunch with pen and paper were all he could manage between work and a sick wife for well over a year. He went on to win awards and break through into mainstream publishing as a novelist.

Unplug the TV set: Well, here is where I don't take my own advice. I am a bit of a movie and video addict - although I limit myself pretty well - and I don't watch live-to-air. I record and watch the programs at night before bed as a wind down when I would not be physically capable of even sitting at a computer terminal.

Use Auto-pilot: Use the mundane tasks of the day as brainstorming time - doing the dishes, sweeping the floor, ironing, painting, handyman stuff etc

By the Pets a Toy: OK. I don't have pets, but all this talk about cats disrupting things has got me thinking. I guess you could include spouses in the general idea - get them a hobby? I went to a workshop with Zoran Zivcovik here in Brisbane a few years ago (this is where the anthologies Devil in Brisbane and Fantastical Journeys to Brisbane emerged from), and he told a story about his cat, who every morning sat on his keyboard and would not move without a dedicated 10 minutes of petting. After that he had to learn how to type one-handed, as the cat required him to continue stroking with one hand while he worked.

How do you squeeze your writing into the gaps?