Friday, December 31, 2010

Happy New Year & Resolutions

Happy New Year to everyone on this side of the international date line. It's going to be a another hot one here - probably around 30C (96F) and with the typical Brisbane humidity. Planning another day lounging around my pool (see left :)), and dozing off the effects of New Year's Eve.
For those on the other side of the planet, I hope the white Christmas is a nice one and you are not too snowed under!
This year I have so many projects I want to start I hardly know where to begin. Choosing where to start will really be the hard part.
My New Year's Resolution is to be productive this year on the writing front, yet to do it in such a way that I maintain the core enthusiasm that made me excited about the projects to begin with.
How about you, what are your New Year Writing resolutions?

Thursday, December 30, 2010

A Different Dracula

Vacation hath its perils, not least of which is that I forget what day it is... Sorry.

So... Once again, my thoughts are running back to Prince Dracula, his life, and my alternate history version of it. Of course, that's helped by the fact that Naked Reader Press is releasing Impaler in first quarter 2011 (insert author squee here), and the novella prequel, Born in Blood, is available at Naked Reader, Amazon, and Barnes and Noble.

Me being me, I can't leave the myths as they stand, of course. While vampirism appears, it's in the form of what Dracula believes is a curse, and is something he - at best - endures. I can promise there are no sparkly vampires here. The very notion is offensive: a sparkly vampire had better be on fire, in my opinion (Dracula would probably prefer 'enjoying the view from the top of a stake', but then his views on that matter are rather pointed - or well rounded and thoroughly greased, and at least six foot above the ground. Anyway...)

Here's a short teaser for Born in Blood, introducing a very young Dracula, in a hostile and unforgiving world.

Born in Blood

I am dying.

The thought drifted across my mind, shocking in its clarity. Dying. The haze of pain and long imprisonment threatened to return, enticing me with forgetfulness, with near-oblivion until true oblivion could claim me.

I fought it with the stone-hard certainty of who and what I am. I am Vlad, the second son of Vlad Dracul, and I am a Knight of the Order of the Dragon. I would not go peacefully to my death. That I and my brother Radu had been held hostage for our father's actions for some three years – perhaps more, for the passage of time blurred with long imprisonment – that I had been but thirteen years of age when we were first imprisoned, these things mattered only to my resolve. Our Ottoman captors would come to regret their actions.

The Ottoman Turks were not gentle with their hostages. Perhaps those of a more compliant nature than I had more congenial cells, though I doubt comfort could assuage the shame of being forced to pay the Turkish homage to the Sultan's son Mehmed, much less our condition as de facto harem.

If the Sultan knew, he did not care.

I doubted I would care ere long, for all that I fought the inevitable. The nausea and weakness which had plagued me since last winter me had now grown so that I could no longer stand without aid. Mehmed, may he rot in his faith's hell, thought I feigned weakness to evade his attentions.

I could still muster enough strength for action if I was sufficiently enraged, hence my current discomfort. Yesterday I had snatched a dagger from a guard's belt and scratched Mehmed with it. Had I possessed more strength, I would have killed him.

The flogging I earned for my troubles still burned, and blood from the wounds trickled down my legs. The stone wall of my cell chilled my back, the shackles holding my wrists above my head biting into flesh, for I lacked the strength to take my weight upon my feet. My shoulders ached with strain.

The tremors wracking my body only added to my misery. I had long since ceased to try to hold up my head: it leaned against my right arm. I knew I must reek, but I had long since grown accustomed to the prison stench.

Death, even death by torture, could only be an improvement.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

It's Only Words

It is one of the er... interesting aspects of a writing career that moments of heartbreak and the most fallow, dark years are inextricably linked to the moments when something clicks.

Perhaps it’s true of life, anyway. Human beings are creatures of habit. If everything is going along fine – or even tolerably – nothing changes. This in terms of society explains why wars and revolutions tend to change the world in scientific and innovation terms as well as in political and social. Because once everything is made “wrong” or “uncomfortable” and a mass of humans are broken out of their routine, then you can reestablish your quotidian life using new information/science.

In 1997/8 I’d come to the conclusion I’d never sell, not at the professional level. This required I rearrange my entire life, which had been geared towards my learning the craft and trying to get published for over a decade and strongly geared that way for at least six years.

I realized early on that I couldn’t actually give up writing. It’s an ingrained habit that long predates any dreams of publishing for pay. I make up stories and I write them down to get them out of my head. I finished my first “novel” (Okay, so it was forty pages) at ten AND wrote it during finals week in fourth grade (which actually determined what kind of secondary school I would attend, so it wasn’t as unimportant as it sounds.)

So, in 98, first I tried to write just for myself, but that didn’t work. When you’re writing for yourself, there’s no reason to make sure you are understood or understandable. There’s no reason to affix the details to paper. What you write ends up sounding like memories of dreams – things that come out of the subconscious and submerge again. After a while it feels pointless.

I needed to write FOR someone, but I had no audience. These days I might have written for online. How that would have turned out is anyone’s guess, and I truly have no clue. Perhaps I’d have attracted no readers, studied, and ended up about where I am. Or perhaps I’d have attracted a couple hundred, just enough to keep writing at the level I was.

As it turned out, though, self-publication at the time was – at best – silly. So I thought I’d keep writing just as a hobby and to get readers, I’d write for fandom. Finding a fandom was something else again. My dad used to introduce me to people with “this is my daughter, she doesn’t like television” – making sure people knew my handicap up front.

I’m not going to be high and mighty here and say I picked the one fandom that was out of copyright on purpose. If Anne McCaffrey hadn’t stomped so hard on all fanfic related to her work, I’d probably have fallen into dragonworld fanfic. Hard. As it was all the traces of those that I could find were long since shut down.

Other than that, my tastes verge on the fuddy-duddy. I wasn’t going to attempt Heinlein fanfic, (I’m not that crazy) or the rest of the genre. Dumas fanfic is the ONLY fanfic that runs to foursomes. Er... same gender foursomes. And I didn’t want to write erotica, anyway. I wanted to write stories.

So I fell into Austen fanfic at Derbyshire Writers Guild and The Republic of Pemberley. I got myself kicked out of the Republic of Pemberley in short order. No, I didn’t want to write erotica, but I reserve the right to make stupid jokes. Apparently, that wasn’t allowed at RoP.

This left me with DWG. And because I had learned to write for publication – even if I hadn’t been published – I studied the market first. What I found was so surprising that it took almost a year for it to penetrate.

You see, partly because I am foreign born and an ESL speaker, I paid a lot of attention to words, always. I think I’ve shared that my idea of how my work was received at publishers when I first started writing – I thought people sat around laughing at my misuse of idiom and wondering where I was from.

Because of this, I obsessed on words for many, many years. In fact, when I went to the Oregon writers workshop, Dean Smith STILL had to order me to not think about the words. (For which I can never thank him enough.)

But DWG taught me how truly unimportant words are. If you start writing a story that puts Darcy and Elizabeth in a perilous situation, you can have malapropisms in every line and grammar mistakes in more than half the text, and you’ll still have a lot of comments and a large following.

I’m not saying that people don’t care about entries, and I’m not going to say that most fanfic authors are illiterate – both would be false. At DWG though there are writers from all over the world and from all avocations. People write in their spare time and don’t spend hours polishing for the best word.

Most of them are still easilly on a par with published work. One or two are startlingly bad with words. And there is one who, for a while, had a “fandom” of this author’s own, devoted to analyzing and making fun of the tortured sentences.

And yet, even this language-slaying author had a real fandom, that followed the posted serials with bated breath and gave the author much love in comments.

Why? Well, because the plot of these series were almost unbearably tortured. There were kidnappings and murders and mad wives in towers, and men pining away for love, and women who were despoiled and... Yeah, I know, you’re laughing “all the elements of cheap melodrama.”

I will remind you that this melodrama sold more than any of our more plausible and restrained novels sell. I’ll also say that while the lack of internal logic annoys me – personally – a lot of people LIKE these extreme situations. Why? Because the extreme situations bring forth extreme emotions.

And in the end, people read to follow the emotions, to fee what characters they care about are feeling.

What I found at DWG is that the words mattered far less than characters people could love and situations that enthralled them or made them empathize.

What do you think? Should an author shamelessly play with the audience’s feelings? Do you read for the feeling of it? What makes you return again and again to an author?

*Crossposted at According To Hoyt*

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Awards ...

Okay, I'm going to start out with a blatant plug. The King's Bastard is on the ballot for the David Gemmell Award. If you enjoyed reading my book, please vote for it. Here's the link.

So what is the David Gemmell award? According to the people who run it:

The DGLA aims to:
• Raise public awareness of the Fantasy genre

• Celebrate the history and cultural importance of Fantasy literature

• Appreciate & reward excellence in the field

• Commemorate the legacy of David Andrew Gemmell and his contribution to the Fantasy genre

This award sets out to celebrate fantasy. All the awards I'm going to mention set out to celebrate their genre.

I like awards. I like to find the books that have been short listed and read them to see what's going on in my genre and associated genres. You discover fresh new voices and people who are pushing the envelope of their genre.

So I'll start with the Aurealis Awards. This is Australia's version of the Nebulas, in that the selection is made a peer review. Then there are the Hugos, which are voted on at the World Con. Then there are the RITA Awards from RWAmerica. I go to my favourite sections, the Paranormal and the Regency. That is how I discovered Melissa Marr's books. Then there's the RWAustralia R*BY.

I've done my fair share of setting up awards and working on the committees that run them. The people involved in these awards all deserve a pat on the back. For instance, it takes dedication to judge fantasy section of the Aurealis Awards with over 40 fantasy books to read and you know how big those fantasy books are!

Do you read the books that are shortlisted for awards? How do you keep track of what is happening in your genre?

Monday, December 27, 2010

On ‘Piracy', Pricing and Twelve Days of Christmas

Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum!
Merry Christmas! Sorry, a faulty translator...

In my blundering about the web, I was reading about Feast of Fools and the Lord of Misrule. It's a pity, in my usual lunatic opinion, that it has died away (or been put down). Society needs a time when the normal order is inverted. It gives those who are at the top a reason to make sure the people don't prefer the fool's rule. It was easier to outlaw it than to rule well, I suppose. Ah well. Perhaps I am the only paranoid who thinks the lunatics have been running the asylum for far too long, and the ones who are merely insane as a comparison to the new norm, are almost beginning to believe they're the mad ones.

I think there is an element of this desire for an overturn of the existing order spread throughout humans -- and of course it runs thicker in some of us -- but it's why we like to read of the underdog winning. Yes, there is a market for self-congratulatory camp-follower books, but I like to imagine that there is just as large a mob who like things that overturn the established order, or at least question it. Ok, so I am one of the intrinsic rebels, I suppose, albeit one who has made the unusual leap of logic that you cannot be both the victor and become authority... and still be sticking it to the man, when you are the man (a problem as prevalent in politics as publishing).

Anyway, to meander on, what brought me to wander into the Lord of Misrule and the twelve days of Christmas, and piracy, was this blog by Paul Cornell. Now I don't know Paul Cornell, and he might be nicest fellow and most brilliant writer that ever breathed. But just as surely as the Twelve days of Christmas follow after Christmas (and not before which was what I was looking up), I found a few things in this back-to-front and I wanted to ask your opinion of them (and uh, give you mine!).

Now to quote Mr Cornell, as the fundamental point from which he starts his take on piracy and e-books:

1: Publishers have always thought that when you buy a hardback, what you're paying more for is the chance to own it on the day of publication. Paperbacks are cheaper because they come out a year later. The reading public, on the other hand, always thought what they were paying more for was the extra physical mass and quality. (Actually, a hardback costs, one publisher told me, only from 50p to a couple of pounds more to make.) So obviously publishers think an e-book, out on the day of publication, should cost the same as a hardback. And obviously the reading public think it should cost less than a paperback. From this difference in perception stem all subsequent horrors.

Really? Am I the only person in the universe who read this, fell about in helpless laughter, and abused ‘Casablanca' to say "I'm shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on in Rick's Casino!" It's possible, I suppose, that some of the reading public really were unaware of any early release premium -- the ones who continue to buy hardcovers of books of mine which are available in paperback, even books which have been out for nine years. But, well, hands up anyone who thought publishers really had no idea why the public thought they had to buy the hardback at that price?

Ah, you at the back. Did you bring enough of that stuff for everyone?

Look, if publishers were of the opinion that the public believed they were only paying for an early release, and not the materials of the format.... well, why on earth would they waste that 50p to couple of pounds pure profit, when printing "EARLY RELEASE" on a cheap paperback would entitle them to sell it for the same price? And why do books that only come out in paperback not get marked up for that first year? I am sorry, it won't wash. There was always full knowledge of what the public thought. Historically excuses like a rise in paper prices and printing costs have been used as reasons to raise prices. Either those were lies, or this is, or maybe both are. But this statement is true for no possible scenario.

Which then brings us back to well, why are prices so eye-watering for electrons (from everyone but Baen and a few independents) instead of hardbacks? Especially as there are no returns (50% saving right there), no paper, printing, warehousing or distribution costs (well microscopic costs). The answer may lie in any of a dozen real reasons, none of which they're prepared to share. Which of course brings us all to believe they are really good reasons and without malice or guile. My own guess is a reluctance or inability (or both) to change their business model and lose many historical overheads -- most of which do neither writers nor readers an iota of good. Does a book read better if it was edited in New York? Does a book read better if the publisher rents offices in Manhattan or St Paul? You couldn't get the staff to live in St Paul? Really? Being unable to find work in your field in NY must be more attractive than I had guessed. And why do they have to work in an office anyway? There is a great deal of cross-subsidy in publishing (and I suspect not all of it in ways one would expect. For instance I think you'd find the midlist subsidises the best-seller list - or the best-seller list would not be profitable). Is an advance (which puts up costs hugely) even necessary, if you can pay monthly and not years later? Of course, if there is a real reason which benefits readers and writers, there'd be nothing like a whiff of public scrutiny to show that yes, e-books need to cost $25 and garner support for that. Haven't seen any sudden outbreaks of transparency have you?

Speaking for myself: I think 6 dollars would cover a reasonably professional job, as long as you can sell at least 2400 copies - and as long as you weren't carrying the overheads.

Anyway - just to have a dip at the piracy issue - to quote Paul Cornell again.

4: People just like stealing stuff. As a recent Wired magazine article pointed out, every utopian excuse for illegally downloading music, from the presence of Digital Rights Management on tracks to the inability to move tracks between systems, has now been swept away by a market desperate to sell more music. There's literally no excuse any more. But this year illegal music downloading continued to grow, with 1.2 billion tracks being stolen in the UK alone.

I think he is conflating two issues - people like to pay as little as possible, and if possible, nothing. That's actually not the same as ‘like stealing'. Yep. There are those too. But not the human race in general. Given the social stigma attached to theft, and the elegant scientific work showing that at least in Western Liberal Democracies a sense of fairness is ingrained, virtually from birth, no, it is not true. People will rationalise theft, but they don't in general LIKE to steal. If you let them have grounds to self-justify their actions, more of them will do it (and that includes the utopian reason he didn't mention, overpricing and the artists getting a tiny fraction - which have not changed). The baseline rationalisation for most piracy IMO is Robin Hood: You're stealing from a greedy (especially if the price for an e-book matches the price of a hardback), rich (and faceless) megacorporation who robs everyone blind, and giving to the poor: ergo yourself. The fact that this is quite an accurate assessment of relative wealth does make it easier. So does the fact that it's ‘victimless' crime, in that the property remains available, and the victim (and there is one, really) is anonymous.

Now, you can get on your high horse and shout ‘piracy is theft and theft is illegal' and quote lawyers at me and stand on your legal rights. By law you're right.

Unfortunately, someone forgot to explain to those who make the law (and those who believe it will work for them) that law exists and works only at the will of the people. You can -- and lawyers and governments do -- pervert this to serve your ends... but there is a limit, and people break and evade laws as much as possible... if they do not have popular support. For example: There are speeding laws just about everywhere. And although they have logic behind them, they're enormously frequently broken. Constant policing is required to keep them at all, and if they weren't a major revenue stream with, actually, substantial support for the law in principle, the authorities would have given up long ago. On the other hand: There are places where public nudity is illegal... it's a lot less serious or risky(okay, mostly) than speeding. Yet it requires almost no policing. Why? Because really, in areas where it is illegal, you'll find most people support the law. If not: it is ignored or changed. The "it is illegal and I hate you for doing it" attitude leaves ‘piracy' about where the prohibition was, or banning Christmas for ‘elf-an-safety' reasons would. It's not going to work, just as it has not worked too well in music.

To box clever, to shift it to the probability of illegal copying to that of a nudist offending shoppers in rural Pennsylvania in mid-winter... you need to get the public to support the law. To believe it is fair.

And to do that the steps are IMO simple. Do away with the Robin Hood syndrome and the anonymity. The real victim needs to be - and to be seen to be - the author. And I think honesty on our part comes into this too. Writers are not rich (and if you are robbing the handful that are, shrug. JK Rowling or Dan Brown can fight you on their own dime and time). The paperback you paid Aus$20 for (or US $7.99)... I got 64 cents. My advances are typically around $10 000. The latest one was $6 000, thanks to the DRAGON'S RING hardback debacle. That means I need to write a lot (working 14-16 hour days, more or less 320 days a year) and live frugally, just to survive. For the record I get 50% of my e-book cover price from Naked Reader, and Amazon gets 30%. I specifically requested (ok insisted) that the price be LOW. Knowing all this: I have extreme doubt that most of my readers would want to rip me off on the Robin Hood principle (and if they did, go for it guys, you must be in dire, dire straits, and I hope the book lifts your spirits)!

The only reason for not making this information public is it makes the rest of the chain look like they might be gouging both the reader and the writer. Of course this is not possible. Could not be true. Now if retail, distribution and publishing would care to do the same as I have, we could see that publishing really needs to charge x for books, and that theft was crippling.

Or so declareth the Lord of Misrule.

No wonder they used to put him to death!

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Boxing Day

It's the day after Christmas and all through my house, people are stirring....

Hopefully, everyone has had a wonderful Christmas holiday so far. Due to a number of circumstances, some foreseen and other unforeseen, I haven't had time to pull together a post for today. I need to get ready for the next wave of Christmas guests, present opening and my third major Christmas dinner needs to be cooked. One turkey so far has been completely demolished. One ham has seen its better days -- fortunately, there's enough left for sandwiches. Tonight is the pork loin unless I find enough energy to do the Yorkshire pudding for the roast beast (which ain't gonna happen).

So, to end the year, let's throw open the door and give you the floor. You can toss out ideas for upcoming posts. You can ask questions. You can comment on trends in the publishing field you've seen. I promise to wander through, probably in a haze of exhaustion, later on to add a few comments of my own.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Keeping the Faith

I was listening to a recorded interview with coach John Wooden earlier in the week. I'm sure he is a familiar figure to US readers, but for those who do not know him, he is an American basketball player and coach, most famous for winning seven NCAA national championships in a row as the coach of the UCLA team (and ten in a 12 year period).

It's a strange thing with me. I'm not much a sport follower at all, and a very restless spectator (that said I think I would happily play any sport), yet I love movies about sportsmen or coaches who overcome the odds. I guess it's a heroic story, but also I think to succeed in writing takes a similar high level of dedication, high-level skill and belief.

In the interview, John Wooden covered a lot of ground, and I was impressed by the sense of character that came through the audio. When he reached his 'Pyramid of Success' - my ears really pricked up (you can get a printable pdf copy from the links at the bottom of the John Wooden Wikipedia page). There are fifteen elements in total that build the Pyramid, and each has a whole story attached too it. Too many to list here. What really caught my attention was what he called his two 'cornerstones' - the two elements at the left and right bottom corners of the Pyramid. Elements so vital that if taken away they will cause the Pyramid to collapse.

The two cornerstone elements were Industriousness and Enthusiasm. Writing it down it sounds a little simple, but I guess it was something in the way he said it that really impressed me. It also got me thinking. Industriousness - I guess we all know it's about getting the words down - putting in the 10,000 hours it takes to become an expert in anything. But enthusiasm is just as vital. You can bang away at the computer, like getting blood out of stone, but if you are not inspired - if you are not filled with a raw enthusiasm for the art you are creating, then what you are producing is well crafted - but flat. I think it is true to say that an editor will more likely be excited about something raw that grabs them, then something well-crafted that seems samey. That is a real trap with crit groups - if you take on too much criticism you will kill your piece.

I guess it just struck a chord with me. I have been pushing ahead like an ice-breaker for years now, working against everything that life has thrown at me, but I think I have lost a little bit of that innocent love for the work that first drew me into this field. I am looking forward to recapturing it:)

How do you keep your love for the work alive when the going gets tough?

Are we there yet?

So, another Thursday approacheth, and Kate sitteth upon her well-padded cushion to compose another scintillating Mad Genius Club post. Only... Kate sayeth unto herself "What now?" Or words to that effect.

I actually had a post planned out and even pre-written, and then Rowena beat me to it. Meanwhile my brain is somewhere in the Caribbean partying, and it doesn't even send a postcard. I'm horribly offended.

The fact is, it's been a hellish year for me, and I can't wait for it to be over. I've got one more workday this year (today), then a smidge over a week to recover for next year's fun and games. Getting to the end of the work year has been something of a death march - a long, painful drag with no apparent end most of the time.

I swear, if I did to a character what's landed on me this year, I'd have people telling me there's no way all that crap happens to anyone all at once. Besides, the character would hunt me down and kill me. And probably resurrect me so he could hunt me down and kill me again.

So, instead of a sensible, thoughtful kind of post, you've got a bunch of more or less aimless rambling, some cute and funny (at least, I think they're funny), and a challenge:

Go to the Random Plot Generator, pick one or more of the options in the list, and write a short summary of a story that uses it.

Here's mine:

Advice for the Evil Overlord:
The gun turrets on my fortress will not rotate enough so that they may direct fire inward or at each other.
Story: The Mad Scientist and the Evil Overlord engage in a pitched battle over the design of the fortress gun turrets. While they are alternating between trying to kill each other and trying to sabotage the other's plans, the World's Luckiest Hero saunters in, rescues the Princess, and recruits all the Evil Overlord's soldiers and the Mad Scientist's minions.

(okay, it's crap. But you get the idea)

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Three Matches

*This is the first time in a long time I forgot to post early. Sorry. It's particularly vexing since I meant to put up the free short story I wrote for the Knight Agency blog and which is also on my blog right now. It was supposed to be an article about our favorite holiday short story -- only as you guys probably know it's easier for me to write short stories than articles. So, I wrote this. It's set in the world of the Shifters (Draw One In The Dark, Gentleman Takes A chance. The people who frequent my diner got it yesterday because membership hath its privileges. Sorry for not writing an article, but I spent three days painting the bathroom and am now coming down with something."

Three Matches

You shouldn’t cry when it’s snowing. Besides, crying wasn’t going to do me a bit of good. Not on New Year’s Night with a blizzard blowing in low and tight over the city of Goldport, Colorado and turning everything further than two inches from my nose into vague shapes that I no more than suspected might exist.

I abandoned my car on Fairfax Avenue. People say Fairfax is the longest straight street in the western states. Perhaps it is, since it runs from one end of Goldport to the other and clean out of town on the other side. Which makes it a very easy street to follow, even in pitch dark night and under the snow. But not when your car was low on gas and the street was coated in ice.

As I got out of the car, pulling my gloves on and wishing I were wearing my snowboots and not the tennis shoes, I thought mom might have been right at that, when she said dad hadn’t left her so much as he’d left Colorado. You see, my father was a meteorologist, and mom said the Colorado weather had driven him insane being completely unpredictable. You could start the day with eighty degrees and bright sunshine and end up at noon in a hard frost and subzero temperatures. I’d always suspected dad had other reasons for leaving, but now I wasn’t so sure.

I’d left Denver, three hours ago, in eighty degree weather and bright sunshine and look at me now.

Blinking, because it felt like my eyes would be frozen in their sockets, I walked carefully along the street, heading for the sidewalk. There should be a space near the buildings where it was relatively warmer and perhaps not quite so icy. Also there was a chance – okay, a chance in Hades – that a coffee shop or restaurant or something had left its door unlocked. And that would be good, even if no one where there, because then there was the chance I wouldn’t die.

The thought surprised me, because I had been thinking of it in terms of stupidity and annoyance. Stupid, stupid Rya had left home without her snow boots, or her emergency kit in the car. Stupid, stupid Rya had blown past the small towns on the way here without thinking to get her tank filled up. Now the thought came, stark and naked. Stupid, stupid Rya is going to die.

Which stopped my mind from spinning on the track it had been playing since I’d left Denver – how to tell one’s mom and step dad about one’s little embarrassing problem. Particularly when said embarrassing problem is of a bizarre enough nature they’ll consider having one committed?

In the sudden blankness of thought, I patted my pockets, suddenly wondering if I had what it took to survive this, if perhaps there would be a reprieve from my fatal idiocy. This was when I realized my stupidity was greater than it seemed. I’d brought my mom’s jacket instead of my own. Which meant I didn’t have my cell phone, or my lip balm – so I’d die with cracked lips – or the mini candy bar I’d put there after grandma’s holiday party. On the other hand, I had a matchbook, that mom must have picked up somewhere and put in there. I brought the matchbook out, wondering why people even gave them out considering that there was no smoking in bars or restaurants in Colorado anymore. It was black, with a name and address printed on it.

I blinked. The George. On Fairfax Avenue. In Goldport. That didn’t even make any sense. I’d come to Goldport to University, but I didn’t think my mom had even bothered to visit since the first weekend of my freshman year. It was all “Rya, won’t you come home.” And “Rya, darling, grandma is having a party.”

Grandma wasn’t really. She was my stepdad’s mom. Not that there was anything wrong with her. Or with Mark, my stepdad, except I always got the impression that they were more interested in having me there so they could show what a great family we were than in me, as such.

How long had mom been carting this around? On the one hand the matchbook looked barely creased. On the other hand, there were only three matches in it. Right. Three matches.

I found the edge of the sidewalk next to the buildings. I was right there was less ice there, except for little patches there the water had melted and run or perhaps run before it froze. I could watch for those, as I moved along, looking at the numbers. From the numbers, the George was about eighteen blocks that way which, of course, gave me plenty of time to freeze to death.

But hey, I had three matches. I flashed on my favorite holiday story as a kid, The Little Match Girl. My dad had read it to me on Christmas every year, with a bunch of others – which was kind of odd since The Little Match Girl takes place on New Years. Even odder since – as far as I knew – my dad didn’t have anything against little girls, and a holiday story where the happy ending is that she froze to death while dreaming of her grandma seemed kind of strange.

I patted the pocket of my jeans, on the off chance I had anything useful there. This was Colorado. We read about people who survived blizzards on three cough drops and snow melt all the time. Not that my big issue was hunger – even if I hadn’t eaten since breakfast – but more cold. And that... well... I’d just have to keep walking.

I stomped my feet, to make sure I could still feel my toes.

As though in answer to my stomping, there was a weird sound to the right, like a muffled hiss/growl.

“Who? Who– ” I said, sounding exactly like a very enthusiastic owl. The hiss/growl came again. All I could think was that someone’s dog must have got out of their yard, but if that was a dog, then it had laryngitis problems. Scare it away with something flashed through my mind which, unfortunately neglected to tell me what I should scare it away with? My keys? The way my lanky brown hair must be all messy and now getting crusted with snow? The matches?

As the hiss/growl came again, I figured what the heck I might as well try, right? I mean, what was the worst that could happen? I’d use up the match and that would seriously cut down my possibilities of smoking three cigarette...which I didn’t have. Right.

And besides, maybe if I lit a match I would see angels or get a great dinner. Right now an hallucinatory dinner seemed preferable to dying out here knowing how cold and how alone I was. I lit the match as the hiss/growl, followed by a slithery noise, dragged closer. And there, in the middle of the snow stood... I blinked. Okay, I was hallucinating, but this was no angel known to man. It was an alligator. A very old alligator, its hide scarred and marked by past fights.

The thing is that, though it was walking through the snow, straight at me – and were alligators supposed to even be alive in the snow? Weren’t they cold-blooded? Shouldn’t it be comatose or dead or something – clacking its teeth, it didn’t look dangerous. It looked like a happy alligator, out for a jaunt. Like... something out of a live animation movie about animals who move to the city, or perhaps what happens to discarded pets.
I blinked, but he didn’t suddenly sport a little jacket or a jaunty bowler hat, so I was at least not that far gone. Or perhaps he – for some reason I was sure it was a he – was real.

The idea had me backing up, feeling tentatively with my feet, till my back hit a street lamp and I stopped. “Please don’t hurt me,” I said, as the match burned down towards my fingers. “Please don’t... I’m not... I’m only out here because I couldn’t explain to mom I was a shape shifter. I kept trying to tell her, and she kept asking me if I was gay.” My fingers burned, and I dropped the match, and it was all dark again, except for the snow swirling around. I snorted, a snort half laughter-half panic. “As if that would be such a big deal today. But how do you say Dear mom, I thought I was dreaming of turning into a fox, but my roommate told me she’d seen a fox, and dear Lord, it was running in the gardens, where I’d dreamed of being. And then I started following footprints in the snow, and I think I am a were fox. My mom would have me committed.” From the darkness came a clack-clack that could be the alligator’s mouth opening and closing. “And then I had to storm out, with nothing and without filling the gas tank. Because I didn’t know how to talk to my mom. I am so stupid.”

The clacking of teeth somehow seemed like someone saying tut-tut, and then the alligator’s nose was so near I could see it, despite the darkness and the snow. He... sniffed delicately at my jeans and my shoes, and then looked up, his eyes contriving to look very amused and strangely human. Right. Now I was going nuts.

Fine if it was going to bite me, it could bite me as I was walking towards the more populated areas of town. I thought around that address on the matchbox there were apartments. Someone was bound to find me, right?

The alligator didn’t try to follow me, as I walked on, which was good but also, inexplicably, felt really lonely. Yeah, because you know, a girl and her gator was infinitely better than being alone.

I walked another three blocks, and it felt like my head was going to freeze solid by then, when I heard a weird flapping ahead and a little to the left of me. It sounded like someone was flapping sheets in a really high wind. And while the wind was there all right, the only thing blowing around in it were snow flakes. I tried to see ahead and could see nothing, and reached for my matchbox, because maybe these were magic matches, since they could scare away gators. if I hadn’t dreamed up the whole thing.

I paused, and tried to light my match, then realized there was a parking lot to my left – leaving a space without buildings, but somewhat sheltered, since the parking lot was bordered in warehouse walls on all three sides. I lit my match, then looked up.

The snow was less thick here, and the match did give a good amount of light.

None of which explained what I saw. I’d almost have preferred angels.

Right in front of me, looking like it had just alighted on the parking lot was a dragon. Not just any dragon, no. It was a red Chinese dragon, cute lion face and all.

Okay, I thought as I blinked at it in the light of my match. I’ve gone completely around a bend.

I registered that it was holding something in its right paw. And then it started coughing. I couldn’t move if I wanted to. The match burned towards my fingers, as it coughed and spasmed. it looked like what it felt like when I transformed into the fox. But... a dragon? Dragons didn’t exist, did they?

Of course, neither did shape shifters.

As I dropped the match, I could barely see the naked young man in front of me. Which was probably good, as he seemed to be trying – simultaneously – to cover his privates and put his clothes on.

I had glimpsed enough to see he looked Chinese and about my age. He had a red dragon tattoo on his arm.

“I’m sorry,” he said, his voice an unexpected surprise as not only did he lack any foreign accent, but he had a southern drawl thick as corn bread and slow and molasses. “Did I scare you? I didn’t mean to. Only old Joe called and said you were one of us and you were lost in the snow.”

“One of... one of ... us?”

“Yeah, a shape shifter,” he said.

“I’m not a dragon!”

He smiled. He was now dressed and very close, and he had a sweet smile. “No,” he said. “Dragons rarely get caught like this in storms. We fly. But Old Joe said you needed help. Where do you need to go? I’ll shift again and give you a ride.” The smile again. It was impossible not to trust him when he smiled like that.

I thought about it. My dorm would be good, but it was in the middle of campus, and someone would see me arrive on dragon back. I took the matchbox out, “I wonder,” I said, speaking as much to myself as to him, “If the George has a parking lot where no one would see you land.”

He blinked. “The... Why the George?”

“I don’t know. My mom had this matchbook with the address. I just found it in her jacket pocket.”

He gave me a half-evaluating half-puzzled look, then smiled. “The George it is, then. If you’ll just let me change...”

Modestly, he stepped just far enough away from me that he could shape shift without my seeing him naked, which was reassuring. Then the coughing started, and the sort of odd sound that suggested flesh being compressed and twisted and... a red dragon walked through the snow towards me. When it scrunched its face and let down its wing, it looked exactly like the young man’s expression when he smiled. I climbed the wing, carefully, hoping not to hurt him, and sat astride him then, because he seemed to be waiting for something, and because dragons – apparently – don’t come equipped with seatbelts, I leaned forward and wrapped my arms around his neck.

It was oddly intimate, but also very warm. Blessedly warm. I had to fight to keep awake, it was so... cozy and also because the relief of being rescued hit me.

In almost no time, we were flying over a diner. I could see even through the snow, a neon dragon flipping pancakes, and neon letters proclaiming The George.

My dragon friend flew over the dragon, to a parking lot at the back and let me down. I went around the front door which – surprisingly – was open. And the George was lighted and filled with groups of people. A young man with long dark hair, tied back, was at the grill. He turned and gave me a curious look as I came in, but I didn’t care. I was so exhausted. Of course, I didn’t have any money, but perhaps they’d just let me sit down and make a phone call.

I collapsed into a seat and closed my eyes and next thing I knew, I heard the southern drawn, “Kyrie this is the young woman that Old Joe called about.” I opened my eyes to look into the familiar face. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I never even asked your name.”

“Rya Stevens,” I said.

“Ah. I’m Conan Lung,” and then as though he feared I’d laugh, “My parents used comic books to study English. They thought it was a good American name.”

“Sounds like a lovely name. And you were a hero. I mean, you rescued me.”

I swear he blushed bright red. “Oh, it was nothing.”

The young woman he had introduced me to – Kyrie – grinned at me. “You poor thing must be frozen. Relax and I’ll get you coffee. Do you want a clam chowder?”

“I don’t have any money on me. I–”

“Oh, never mind that, we’ll just get you warmed up. You can pay some other time.”

She bustled away and Conan said, “that’s Kyrie. She and her boyfriend Tom own the diner.” I felt ridiculously relieved she wasn’t Conan’s girlfriend. Like I had some claim on him, or something.

“You said Old Joe told you about me?” I said.

“Yeah.” And at my look. “Alligator shifter. He said you were nice.” The blush came again. It was fascinating. I’d never met a man who blushed like that.

To stop staring at him, I looked around the diner. So many people, and none of them seemed very interested in us. In the next table over, there was a man scribbling in a notebook. He was probably fifty and he had... I stopped. He had hair exactly the color of mine. And I knew him. Oh, I hadn’t seen him since I was five, but a girl knows her own father.

“Dad,” I said.

He turned around, and he was dad. His mouth dropped open. “Rya!”


“You... did your mom tell you where to find me?”

I shook my head. “My mom knew where to find you?” She’d told me he’d left the state. She’d told me he never wrote.

He nodded and frowned at me a little, then squinted. “Are you... the one they called about?”

I nodded.

“So you’re one of us?”

“Us?” That again.

“Most people who come to the diner, and all here today are shape shifters. This is our safe place. The owners are shape shifters too. You... shift?”

I nodded.

“Fox?” he asked.

I nodded.

“Your mom was afraid... she wanted me to leave. She made me leave and she told me never to contact you or she would... She has pictures. I didn’t...”

“Oh, dad,” I said.

Later on I said a lot more, as we talked over the sixteen years of my life he’d missed. He’d been living in Goldport all along, but mom hadn’t told him I’d gone to college there. Now I understood why she’d tried to convince me to go to UC Boulder – because Dad was living in Goldport, retired and writing a novel. She’d been trying to convince him to move. She’d met him at the George just last week.

“Well,” I said. “She won’t want to ruin me and herself by implication. I mean, she’s my mother.” Though she might cut me off completely now she knew I too was a shape shifter. But I didn’t care. It wasn’t like I’d be left without any family now.

When the chowder came, I noticed there was an unlit candle on the table, and I struck my last match and lit the candle from it.

This time, the story of the little match girl did have a happy ending.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Bonus post from Rowena

Angry Robot has opened to subs for one month.

'The month of March 2011 will be Open Door Month at Angry Robot. The publisher has put together a dedicated team of readers, who will diligently work through every submission received. The best of these will be considered for publication by the Angry Robot editorial team.'

Here's the link.

New Year Resolutions for Writers

I chose this picture because this is what Christmas means to me. Holidays by the beach.

Right now I’m a bit obsessed about setting goals. I have 3 books to hand in and they are growing as I do my last read through. New scenes keep surprising me, scenes which are really necessary for the dramatic tension and character development.

So, since we are headed towards the new year. I thought I’d do a post about setting goals. Here are some of the traditional suggestions for writers who want to set goals.

Jennifer Minar talks about the 5 steps to setting goals, starting with writing them down. Barbara Kay talks about much the same steps, but she adds giving yourself a pat on the back. (We all need that some time). Moira Allen talks about setting effective goals, including short term, medium term and long term. And here Joyce Good Henderson talks about setting specific goals such as I will submit to X.

Now I’m going to throw a spanner in the works. I think all work and no play makes a writer’s creative muscle grow weak, not stronger. So as well as setting goals for completing and submitting work, I think any creative person needs to:

1. Attend a convention. If you’ve never been to an SF convention, then go to one this year. If you’ve been to SF conventions, then go to a comic con or a computer game convention. Streeeetch yourself. (I’m going to do SUPANOVA this year. I have been there once before but it is so big, there’s still a lot for me to see).

2. Go somewhere you have never been before. It could be in a town nearby. It could be on the other side of the world. Going somewhere new makes you look at your own home with new eyes and we all need that now and then. (A few years ago I visited my great aunt in the UK. I’d never been outside Australia before, except for New Zealand, and I’ve never been away from my children for 21 days before. I came back a new person. It was like rediscovering myself).

3. Learn a new skill. Pick something that you’ve always wanted to do and enroll in a short course. You work hard. The family expect you be at their beck and call. This is time out just for you. A new skill will streeeetch your mind. You’ll meet new people. And, at the end, you’ll have a sense of achievement. (I took up the art of the Samurai sword at 42 because it was something I’d always wanted to do. It gave me an insight into Bushido the Japanese warrior’s way).

4. Go see the ballet/theatre show/art gallery/orchestra/jazz concert. Feeding one creative muse doesn’t mean you switch off all the other creative areas. Writing is a compulsive mistress, but you’ll be a better writer if you expose yourself to other creative arts. For one thing, those other artists are just as crazy dedicated as you are and you might as well support a fellow creative. For another thing, the insights that they bring to their medium will help you gain insights into yours. (My daughter attended the conservatorium where she did Jazz vocals. When I go see her perform I can feel the passion. It’s inspiring).

5. Get together with other writers at least once a year, talk shop and critique your work. Make sure these are writers whose judgment you trust. It gives you a chance to be a writer, before anything else. It gives you feedback on your current manuscript. And it helps hone your critical skill to give your writing friends feedback on their manuscripts. Make sure there is good food and good wine. Let your hair down. Have some fun. You deserve it.

My writing group ROR meets every year or so, this means we have to get books finished for these deadlines. At each ROR we have a realistic goal and a dream goal. There’s no harm in having a dream. Mine is to be able to write and make enough to live on. LOL. My realistic goal is to get my 3 Outcast Chronicle books finished and handed in, and do a rough draft of the next King Rolen’s King book one by September. Now that is really pushing it, but that’s when the next ROR is, so I’ll need to have something to take with me.

What are your dream goals and your realistic goals?

Monday, December 20, 2010

Chasing fore-shadows...

If I was going to tell you something vital/ important / unpleasant/ shocking ... You're pregnant/ you have AIDS/ your husband is having an affair with bi-sexual crossdressing Kangaroo from New York... I'd probably prepare the ground slightly. "Hi Fred, you're pregnant..." will probably fail to achieve breaking the momentous news in a beliveable fashion. To do that you have prime Fred about the possibility of some people being XXY and and having functional genetalia of sex they may think they don't belong to etc. It's going to take a while, and some careful explanation to get Fred to believe you (a thing which is particularly important in fiction, where, after all, it is FICTION, and you are still trying to suspend disbelief.)

This requires foreshadowing. Or if you prefer, priming the reader. Plausibility and that suspension of disbelief require that the reader is brought into the frame, and has sufficient hints (3 is the gospel, but the truth is, more is better than less, especially if you are subtly building up to horrific revelations... like the husband having an affair with... someone from New York ;-).

All storytellers foreshadow instinctively to some extent. Some of us, have a real natural flair for it. Most of us don't understand it, and do it without thinking. To readers it is all but invisible, until it isn't there. It's more than merely the mention of the shotgun on the mantlepiece, the lead character saying he likes skeet-shooting, and picking up a roll of Cherry Lifesavers to find that actually they're a shotgun cartrige. If you slipped these into your story - the denoument when the lead character siezes the shotgun and blows his head off would at least seem plausible. Otherwise... sorry, but it's not even a story. And to do it well requires SO much more.

I think it is easiest to explain in movie terms. When the background music goes all slushy and the lighting a little soft, you know that this is a romantic scene coming and the kissy bit is as inevitable as sunrise or taxation. When the music goes all eeky-squeeky and the scenes are largely black-and-little bits of light showing things that could be nasty... you know your better half will have you on their lap, and not looking any moment, because someone is going to die (or nearly die). And that happens BEFORE the kissy bit or the murder. It doesn't spoil either. BUT if you have the kissy bit without the foreshadowing it feels bare and un-natural. If you have the kissy bit with axe-murderer music... it's a disaster. So foreshadowing is partially about managing expectations, preparing the ground for events. Priming the reader for something they don't necessarily think they expect, but do. If it is done well it is near invisible.

so for example:

The boss at a small company that kept dropping hints it was 60th coming up... and on the day no-one said anything. So he worked, getting more down in the mouth all day. At last his secretary - at 5 to 5 in the afternoon - says 'what's wrong?'
He tells her how un-noticed he is by his staff, and it's his birthday and he'd thought... She's a pretty young lass and he's a plump shy old bloke... and she says, "that's terrible, but it's five o'clock, come and at least have celebratory drink with me."
So they go to a wine bar and one drink turns to two, but she keeps looking at her watch. He's flattered by the notice but thinks, well, a pretty young thing has probably got a date or something.

So after the second glass she looks at her watch again and says: "well, why don't you come back to my place. I've got some decent wine there."

They take a taxi and she lets him into her lounge and sits him down in the best comfy chair, pours him a glass of wine... and says "I think have a little present for you after all. I'll be back now." And she walks out and turns the lights out.

The trouble is by the time she walks back in and throws on the lights, with the entire office staff, all yelling "Happy Birthday!"...

He is only wearing his socks.

(and that was foreshadowing by example (if you look carefully you'll realise I was 'priming' you, and example of how nasty a surprise we REALLY don't expect can be. :-))

without foreshadowing

Nobody in the office noticed the boss's birthday, so he told his secretary, and she took out to a winebar for a couple of glasses of wine, and then to her place. She gave him a glass of wine, sat him down turned the lights off and said she had a little birthday pressie for him after all,

The trouble is by the time she walks back in and throws on the lights, with the entire office staff, all yelling "Happy Birthday!"...
and he was only wearing his socks.


the set-up here included details like their ages, appearance and his shyness, and the hints he was dropping, and her watch watching...

If a scene is well foreshadowed, even if you DIDN'T actually expect the twist, it does not feel unnatural. If a scene is not foreshadowed it simply doesn't.

So: give me some foreshadowing, gentlefolk.
I expect it.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Random Thoughts on a Sunday Morning

When I talked with Sarah last night, I noted -- well, actually I complained and whined, but we won't go there. It wasn't pretty -- that I was having a hard time figuring out what to write about today. I should have known better. Because by morning, a number of topics reared their ugly heads and now I'm having a hard time narrowing them down to a manageable number. So, here we go.

For those of you who have been waiting for a color e-ink e-reader, it's on it's way and possibly sooner than most of us thought. I have only one thing to say: YAY! I love my kindle, especially the fact that I can read it in direct sunlight and I don't get headaches from prolonged reading on it that I do from backlit screens. But it will be nice to be able to have full color maps and illustrations and it will make reading newspapers and magazines feel more "real". Here's the article from CNET about this latest development.

I also came across an interview with agent Chris Parris-Lamb. Now, what stood out in this interview was Lamb's view that an agent has better things to do for his clients than to take time out of his day to blog, facebook and tweet. At first, I found myself nodding and agreeing with him. After all, as writers, we want out agents out there finding the best deals they can for our work and doing all they can to protect our rights. But then the reality of publishing today hit me. Most agents blog for two reasons and they work hand in hand. One is to raise public awareness of the agent. The second, and as a writer the most important, is to promote the writer's book. Let's face it, publishers aren't spending the money they used to on promotion. Most writers don't have a clue about how to promote their own work. Then there's the added "ick" factor of going out there, shouting to the world how wonderful we are. So agents have to do it for us. What do you think? Should agents take half an hour a day to blog and tweet and facebook in an effort to promote themselves and their clients' work?

Finally, the cry of censorship by Amazon raised its ugly head again. Earlier this week, an author of "erotic fiction" posted on the boards that several of her titles had been removed for violation of Amazon's terms of service. Mind you, like most terms of service, Amazon's are vague at best in places. It wasn't long before another author joined in, saying she'd had titles taken down as well. Soon, cries of conspiracy and censorship were raised. Now, I don't know why these titles were taken down. But, by the first author's own admission, neither did she. She'd contacted Amazon but had not yet received clarification. In her own post, she was giving Amazon a set period of time to answer. And this is where I have an issue. First, I searched for the titles she said had been taken down and, at that time, at least two of the titles were available in print (which she'd said had been taken down along with the kindle versions). Second, and most importantly, she had raised the claims of censorship and thrown fuel on the fire by basically saying "if this happens to me, it can happen to you" before her own deadline for Amazon to respond.

As one of the editors for Naked Reader Press, one of the things I've had to do is read and try to understand the terms of service for Amazon's DTP program (as well as Barnes & Noble's PubIt program and Google books and iBookstore, etc). Every one of them has an out which allows them to remove objectionable material. Would I like the terms to be more specific? Absolutely. But they aren't, so you either accept that or don't publish with them. They are a retailer and can choose what they sell and what they don't. If there is a big enough demand for an item to be removed, they have to weigh the potential loss of sales if they keep that item in stock vs. loss of sales if they remove it.

That said, they have to be fair about it as well. If they remove one -- or a few -- books because they depict underage sex (which, according to the author in question her book did, albeit consensual), then you need to remove all books that do that were brought into the program under the same terms of service. However, we don't know that that's why the books were removed. The author jumped the gun by posting in the forums before getting an answer. As a writer, I feel for her. I'd hate to have anything I'd written removed from Amazon without explanation. I'd be furious and want an explanation. Still, there are channels to go through. You might not get your answer as quickly as you'd like, but you will get one. Wait for it before fanning the flames of conspiracy theories and cries of censorship, etc.

I hope Amazon isn't starting down the road of removing books simply because they get a few complaints about the subject matter. I hope the authors involved will soon get an explanation about why their books were removed. They, and a number of the commenters on the forums, assumed it was because of content. It could be any number of reasons, including format problems. Amazon certainly needs to make its initial notice of removal more specific. But authors also need to wait a reasonable period for clarification before whipping up a firestorm on the forums.

What do you think? Am I off-base here?

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Twas the week before Christmas . . .

. . . and we're all running around trying to meet deadlines, do shopping, prepare for days of cooking, family, and who knows what else. (Just to prove the insanity of the season has hit me, it's 0830 and I've already been out to gas up the car, drop clothes off at the cleaners and have gone grocery shopping. All on only half a cup of coffee.) So we're going to throw the doors open today. You can ask any writing or publishing industry-related questions you might have. If you have an opening paragraph or two you want quick critiques on, put 'em up. The rest of us will do drive-by responses and critiques. Also, remember, if you put something up for critique, anyone can say whether it grabs them or not and why.

The floor is now yours!

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Character Purpose

I have been contemplating character purpose lately.

As a key part of characterisation, most people would agree that a character needs to have some desire that propels them - a driving force for their actions. In a more classic sense, a Quest in which they are searching for something. Of course, not everyone agrees with this theory. Some writers, while noting this element of storytelling, choose to do the opposite and leave the character a blank slate in that department, perhaps with a quirky personality, but pretty much pushed around by the forces of their world. Not my favourite type of book, although enjoyed by a certain breed of stylists who throw darts at plot structure.

Robert McKee, in his book Story (and seminar series), talks about conscious and unconscious desire. If any of you have run into McKee before you would know he is an advocate of structure with a capital S. In McKee's view, a character must follow a conscious desire. If they, perhaps through self-revelation or temporary defeat, abandon this desire, it must be because having delved a little deeper they have found their true desire (which they had not realised until this point) or their unconscious desire (which of course is now a conscious one).

I would have to say I agree with McKee completely on this point, but then again I absolutely hate books where the character is at the whims of their world and makes no attempt to solve their own problems or make their own way.

There is one important distinction. I like the heroic journey, but a character can be firmly driven by their purpose and yet ultimately fail without invalidating the story. It's not fun, maybe it is not heroic, but it is consistent storytelling that does not betray the reader's expectations where the character is concerned (although it stands a good chance of disappointing them).

What do you think? Does a character always have to driven by a clear desire/purpose/goal?

Filling the technology-shaped holes

One thing that tends not to happen too much in science fiction (or in fantasy, where it's less overt but still an issue) is any kind of consideration of how technology shapes morality. I'm not talking absolutes here, but generalities - the kind of consensus morality that most people in any given society can agree on. If a society doesn't have that consensus, it's not going to last: without a consensus morality that covers a good chunk of what happens in public life (and usually private as well) people tend to revert to tribal mores, finding themselves groups that share their views and identifying with their chosen 'tribe' over everything else. I don't think I've seen the phenomenon described that way, but you can see it in descriptions of the dying Roman Empire, and in the long and painful decline of the Eastern Roman/Byzantine Empire. Once too many (and I have no idea where the tipping point is) people started thinking of themselves as something other than Roman - the reason they did this is a different beast altogether - the Empire was doomed.

That's actually not what I'm talking about here, but it is incidental to my point. One of the things that happens when you get a collapsing empire is that technology levels in the general populace drop. In part this is because it takes a large, well educated population to maintain and improve technology. Plus, technologists are specialists of a kind you tend to only find at high levels of technology: a society has to have a high food production level and a sophisticated trade and distribution network to maintain people whose principle function is basically making stuff that makes life easier. Once you knock a technological society back to pre-industrial or even to subsistence farming levels, that society loses the ability to maintain the people who build and run the tech.

The other big reason tech levels drop is the one I'm interested in. Morality. The consensus morality always lags behind technology by at least a generation. Sometimes it's a lot more - but it never freezes. If society is fragmenting, it's much more comfortable to drop back to the technology level that your morality can accept, at least at first. We tend not to see the massively interconnected frameworks that make up the current technological basis, and most of us don't have the luxury of choosing which technology we're going to accept. The Amish, who do, only have that luxury because they're protected by the much larger body of the society around them.

Now... Imagine a society where no-one carries any harmful recessive gene markers. Hemophilia and a host of other inheritable nasties no longer exist. Leaving aside the question of how those people got to that state (hint: probably not by gene surgery), would those people regard (consensual, between adults) incest as taboo?

I think after they'd been that way long enough, they wouldn't, but the shift would be a long and painful one, possibly involving ugly protests and persecution. It would make an interesting story - but it's not one anyone could write and have published today, because almost everyone today regards incest with abhorrence.

To add a new twist, what new taboos might have arisen? To put this in context, we have taboos and rituals today that were either impossible or unthinkable a few hundred years ago. Sometimes both. Take hand-washing. It's not possible to wash your hands regularly without at minimum a reliable supply of clean water. In Western societies today we take this for granted. Maybe in future societies they won't because everyone will carry pathogen-eating nanobots. Or maybe they'll have some kind of bug-zapper that you walk through to instantly sterilize you and whatever you're carrying (this could cause problems in the future version of programming, since it will make sacrificing goats to one's computer rather more awkward. But anyway...). Possibly your future person wouldn't dream of going anywhere without having gone through the zapper first. Or will think that anyone who carries a child through pregnancy is insane when bio-wombs are so much more convenient and protect the growing embryo so much better than the old, messy, biological method.

Of course, there will be controversies. People may well be arguing that it's immoral to have a child whose genetic makeup is entirely derived from you (that is, two eggs or two sperm are merged to produce a unique individual who has only one biological parent). Maybe the big argument will be over whether or not technological artifacts can be considered people - and whether it's murder if someone destroys an AI. Perhaps the big moral issue of the day will be who actually 'owns' vat-grown meat and organs - is it the source of the DNA? Or the owner of the vat? What if there's a dispute over the ownership of the replacement parts that were grown for you after you wiped out a lung, your liver, and a hefty chunk of assorted other internal organs in an accident? Will you be the 'villain' for your foolishness in risking your life, or will the company that wants to repossess the organs be the 'villain'?

One of the aspects of Sarah's DarkShip Thieves that I really enjoyed was the moral conflicts she slipped in under the main storyline. Most of them aren't things that are much of an issue today - if they're even possible. Some of them were - to my delight - notions I'd never considered. There's a lot of that in Heinlein, too, and in Dave's writing. With Pratchett the moral questions tend to be masked somewhat with the fantasy setting, but not always (the question of dwarf gender comes to mind).

And now, so inhabitants of the future can read and laugh at how silly we were back in that primitive era of networking (or alternatively, so it can all be vanish without trace when the last Google server rusts out in the new dark age), what do you think will be taboo in 50 years time? 100 years? 500? How about way, way in the far future?

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Ein Kleines (fort)Nacht Break

Sometimes you get caught in a certain pattern and don’t realize you’ve got trapped.

I’ve been working too much and getting just about nothing accomplished. Part of this is that I tend to do this when there are to many demands from disparate locations coming at me. I want to do everything and end up doing nothing.

In this case, it’s trying to get things setup for the holiday and my official (we have two anniversaries. Long story) Silver Anniversary coming up while trying to finish a book. Nothing is set up and the book was just not progressing at all. But worse of all, I felt like all joy had gone out of my life.

So I called my editor – I’ve worked for her for eleven years, she knows the book will come – and asked her if I can send it in in January, on the tenth. She said sure.

I hate doing this, but I don’t think I would survive this next week otherwise, and I suspect the book would still be not done.

So I’m taking a vacation for two weeks. It is the first vacation I’ve taken for a long time. Mind you, the next two days will be cleaning and setting up so the house is ready when the guys come home for the holidays that start on Friday for them. BUT it’s a change of pace. I’m going to sleep late, and then clean tomorrow and then maybe go visit my friend Charles at the bookstore and get a bunch of truly trashy books (Yay!).

What are you guys doing in the next two weeks? Do you try to write when you have vacation? Or is it free time? And do you ever get in the frame of mind that you’re trying to do everything and don’t realize you’re killing yourself?

crossposted at According To Hoyt

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Deadlines for Books and the Writing Process

We all know the Douglas Adams quote: I love deadlines. I love the wooshing sound they make as they fly past.

Years ago I heard Sean Williams give a talk. He had a contract to write two books in two years. Then his agent called him with another contract to write two books in the same two years. He thought, can't turn it down, so he accepted. That's 4 books in two years (each over 100K). Then he had a call from George Lucas's people who wanted him to write two Star Wars books in two years. Thinking he'd be crazy to turn them down, he accepted. Now that was 6 books in two years. He set himself a goal of X number of words and wrote every day no matter where he was. And he did it.

I asked him, what if he'd gone wrong and had to scrap a couple of chapters and start again. He said, he couldn't go wrong.

Now that's confidence.

I'm bringing this up because I just read this post by Zoe Archer who has four books out this year. When that call comes and the editor says 'I want your book.' They are just as likely to say 'And is it part of a series? We'd like to release them back to back.' As they did with my King Rolen's Kin trilogy.

I love reading and really appreciate it when the whole series comes out at once. But I know for a fact that I'm not a brilliant, first time it's right, kind of writer. I write the book. I think it is finished. I go off and write something else, then I come back to it and discover I can tighten the narrative and delve deeper into the character arcs. (Make those characters suffer!).

As regular readers of this blog know I'm cleaning up The Outcast Chronicles for my publisher. I know I'm improving the books, but they are growing as I add more layers and tweak the narrative. I'm lucky in that I had the books written (in first draft form) when the publishers accepted them. The editor gave me feedback on the synopsis and I've been nose to the keyboard ever since.

Maybe other writers can write their best draft first. Maybe the editor steps in and helps them pull the book together. I like to hand in a book that requires nothing more than a line edit and maybe a 'what did you mean here?' query or two.

I just can't see myself writing 3 100K books from scratch in a year. I might get 2 written, but they would be raw first draft. I'd need another year to polish them (and in the process the 2 books would probably expand into 3 books). That's the thing about NanoWriMo. I like the idea of spending a month doing nothing but writing (banish the husband, six children and the job!), but I don't just sit down to write from Beginning to End.

I sit down and write with a general idea of where the book is going. But at some point I will hit a brick wall and it will be there because I'm trying to make the characters do something they don't want to do, or because something that happened earlier isn't quite right to motivate them to do this scene. So I'll have to go back to where the problem is and re-write. By the time I get to the blockage, I can write through it because the problem is fixed. For me the book is very organic, it just grows. So I end up with a first draft book that is really polished in the first half, then less so as I go on. Time away from a book is really important to help me bring fresh eyes to it.

What is your writing process? What would you do if you had an offer from a publisher who wanted you to hand in three books in twelve months? (After you'd broken out the champagne? LOL)