Sunday, February 28, 2010

"On the Writing of Speculative Fiction"

Last weekend, I posted Elmore Leonard's 10 rules for writing fiction. In the course of discussion, I admitted that I didn't look at them so much as rules as guidelines. In fact, most of the so-called rules of writing we see populating blogs and how-to books are, in my opinion, nothing but guidelines. When writing, you have to consider the rhythm of your prose, the type of book you're writing, your audience and, most importantly, your narrator or point of view character. You have to choose which rules to follow and which to break. That said, I came across a piece by Robert A. Heinlein last night that I highly recommend for every writer, especially those of us who write science fiction or speculative fiction.

Heinlein wrote "On the Writing of Speculative Fiction" in 1947. It was reprinted in Turning Points: Essays on the Art of Science Fiction (ed. Damon Knight, Harper & Row, 19770. It's not a long essay, only about 5 pages. But those 5 pages contain a lot to think about and I highly recommend you go find it. I could spend too much time discussing everything included in the essay -- so I'm going to focus only on the last bit: his rules for writing speculative fiction. I may come back to other parts of the essay later.

These rules are, according to RAH, "a group of practical, tested rules which, if followed meticulously, will prove rewarding to any writer." He starts by assuming, rightfully so, that anyone reading the rules and considering them can type (or keyboard now), knows the standard manuscript form or can at least look it up, and that they can spell, punctuate and know enough grammar to get by.

(Before going any further, let me add my two cents worth here. Don't rely on spellcheck for spelling. It is a good tool to get you started but it won't tell you if you've used "to" or "tow" properly in a sentence because they are both words. Turn off the grammar check utility and get yourself a copy of the Chicago Manual of Style and Strunk & White. A good dictionary and thesaurus are musts as well.)

Now for the rules:
  1. You must write.
  2. You must finish what you start.
  3. You must refrain from rewriting except to editorial order.
  4. You must put it on the market.
  5. You must keep it on the market until sold.
For the most part, I agree with everything he says. I also submit that these rules apply to any form of writing, be it speculative fiction or romance or westerns or non-fic. I wholeheartedly agree with rules 1, 4 and 5. To be a writer, you must write. But you must also put what you write on the market. It doesn't do any good sitting in a drawer or under your bed or as bonfire fodder (No, Sarah, I swear. I haven't had a bonfire recently.) That said, I'm not sure everything I have is marketable so, no, things don't always stay out there. Although, at the moment, I have three short stories making the rounds, looking for the right fit.

Where I do disagree, at least on a very minor scale, with RAH are rules 2 and 3. I'm not sure everything can be written to conclusion. I admit I haven't always finished what I've started. Yes, a lot of the time it's because I've lost interest in it or haven't had the discipline to continue. Other reasons are because the piece was nothing but fanfic or so close as not to be distinguishable. That said, I do try to finish everything now -- except for that one, on-going and never to be ended fluff that I do for decompression and is never to be seen by anyone else but me. In fact, I must figure out a way that it will self-destruct upon my death so no one sees it then. Hmmmm.

I also have issues with not rewriting except to editorial order. What I wish is that RAH had explained this a bit more. Does he mean only when an editor tells you to, or does he mean to clean up the manuscript to make it marketable? Sarah, you're our resident RAH expert. Any thoughts?

So, what are your thoughts? Does Heinlein have it right with these general "rules"? Do these rules still hold true 60 years after they were first written? Why or why not?

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Ups and Downs of Writing

It has been a good news and bad news sort of week.

First, I got a renewed contract and cheque in advance for editing - that was very good.

Then I made a sale to Jean Rabe for an urban fantasy style short story in a rural setting. It will be published in a DAW anthology titled Boondocks Fantasy.

My story is called Siren Tears and it was inspired by:

“What potions have I drunk of siren tears,

Distilled from limbecks foul as hell”

Shakespeare, Sonnet 119.

The story is set in Morwenstowe, North Cornwall as seen through the eyes of a London yuppy.

The real Morwenstow coastline is shown above.

Then the BBC rejected my Friday Short Story for Radio 4. It is very specific so does not have an alternative outlet. Shame, I think it is one of the most technically competent stories I have written. But I can see why it was not very BBC.

It is called Past Lives and I post it below:

Past Lives


John Lambshead

Something about the scent of the invitation card dredged up memories that I thought long buried under the silt. Maybe she still used the same perfume, or soap, or perhaps I could smell the chemistry of her skin. You never forget your first, no matter how hard you try. I held the card to my nose and was transported back a decade.


Hello fresher. Those were the first words she ever spoke to me. She was running the Literary Society’s stall at the university freshers’ fair. I was disinterested in highbrow literature, still am for that matter, but I paused to listen because she fascinated me. Her voice was low and throaty and she said “yah” instead of “yes”.

She was like the foreign movies that the Film Society was advertising on the next stall - exotic, confusing, incomprehensible, sophisticated and so very sexy. Our heads were close together when she showed me where to sign the application form and I inhaled her scent for the first time.

I was so smitten that I attended a meeting of her society. Greater lust hath no man than he sit through an evening of modern poetry. She chaired the meeting, introducing the first poet who read a piece consisting of random words arranged on the page to form patterns. Nothing rhymed but strawberry jam and menstruation formed a recurrent and disturbing theme. It was followed by an author reading his poem illustrating the evils of masculinity and the need for a feminist economy. I disgraced myself by asking how in practice feminine finance would differ from masculine. Apparently if I was too stupid to work it out then the author could not tell me. I shrank back in my chair at his scorn. She smiled at me and winked, her eyes dancing with laughter.

There was wine and cheese afterwards. People formed groups and talked about things like the allegorism in Bradbury’s latest novel and whether silence was more important to poetry than words. I worked my way across the room and sidled up to her. Eventually, I caught her eye.

“Hello fresher,” she said, with a smile. Her attention flicked away before I could reply, back to the circle of postgrads that formed the social elite of student society. No one noticed me leave.

My student life moved on without her. Twelve months later my class sat around a table in the public bar of the Bargeman, celebrating the start of the new academic year. No one commented that some familiar faces were missing, casualties of the end of year exams. It was no more done than bomber pilots asked how old Squiffy had bought it when he failed to show up for breakfast in the mess.

Our group drank real ale. I had little taste for the brew but lacked the courage to resist peer group pressure. The conversation around the table dissolved into background noise in my head and I wondered why I sat drinking a sour liquid with people that bored me. I put down my glass and slipped out of the pub. No one noticed me leave.

The canal was dimly illuminated by light filtering through the trees from the road lights. I walked along the towpath away from the university, happy to disappear into the dark.

A muffled female cry caught my attention. I heard the word “No” and the murmur of an answering male voice. White limbs writhed under a black shadow in the bushes. I hauled the shadow off her by the scruff of his neck. He gazed at me with goggling eyes. I hit him on the bridge of the nose, breaking the cartilage with a satisfying crunch. His blood ran black in the dim light. I pushed him away and he fell heavily. He called me a rude word but he fled when I raised my fist.

I reached down to help the girl to her feet.

“Hello fresher,” she said.

We became lovers that night. I had little sexual experience but she taught me. My naivety amused her and fixed her nickname for me for ever. No, you never forget your first.

She often stayed in my room on campus during the week. Occasionally I stayed over at the old terraced house she rented with two housemates. A bewildering variety of older men passed through. She laughed at my disapproval. Her room was a disorganised mess of research papers and text books scattered amongst old tissues and takeaway containers. She was amused to find I organised my lecture notes into a cardboard filing system, all annotated and neatly cross indexed.

Sometimes she talked and screamed in her sleep. I used to hold her tight until she stopped trembling. She insisted it was only a bad dream, not a bad memory, but I noticed it was always the same bad dream. When I tried to question her she would silence me with her lips until I was deflected.

Our relationship was entirely in the present. I learnt not to ask personal questions about her past because she either changed the subject or told me something fantastic that contradicted the previous answer. I had no past worth discussing. My life had revolved around school and homework to achieve my grades

We never discussed the future. She rebuked me if I called her my girlfriend. She said she was a free agent, and so was I. She was out of my league, so I never pushed the issue for fear she would dump me, but I did not want to be free.

It was one of those cold crisp London days before global warming. Bright sunlight from a startling blue sky caused the frost to sparkle like icing on a cake. The grass crunched under my weight. The air was so cold and dry that it burnt my lungs. We walked along the towpath by the icebound Grand Union Canal. The brightly coloured canal boats moored against the other bank stood out like lego bricks on a white tablecloth. Washing hung frozen and rigid in the still air.

“When I write, this is what will come out,” she said, gesturing at the scene.

She laughed in delight, eyes hidden behind fashionable pink sunglasses. Her breath condensed in the cold air as if her words were hanging in space. I photographed her, freezing the moment for all time.

Every detail of that walk is clear in my mind. It was the pinnacle of our relationship. Afterwards, we spent less time together. She disapproved of my love of shooting and photography, which she described as pseudo-art for chocolate boxes. Conversely, modern art exhibitions and experimental theatre bored me rigid and I found it hard to conceal my contempt for the posers who created it.

She had never claimed that I was her only lover, let alone that she loved me, and I chose not to ask. One night we had arranged to meet in the union bar after her seminar. I checked my watch for the twentieth time. This was not the first time that she had stood me up. The rest of her literary crowd were there so why wasn’t she? I tapped one on the shoulder to make enquires.

“She’s still with her supervisor, getting in some extra tuition,” he said with a laugh.

I stormed out and strode to her department, my anger building with every step. I ran up the stairs and threw open the door to her supervisor’s office. She was on her knees in front of him. She stared at me without expression before very deliberately turning away, resuming her performance as if I was not there.

He flapped his hand to shoo me away without opening his eyes. Something in me died that night. The greyness descended. I stopped attending lectures and dropped out of college rather than fail the year.


“Fresher, you came to my birthday party,” she said, throwing open her front door and giving me a hug. She smelled just the same. She had cut her hair and was thinner than I remembered. Lines radiated from her eyes when she smiled. It had been ten years but somehow I had not envisaged her changing. Life had marked me, I stroked the beard I had cultivated to hide the scars of cosmetic surgery, but in my head she had remained the girl at the freshers’ fair.

She pulled me in and thrust a glass of white wine into my hand. I was instructed to mingle. My leather jacket and jeans stood out among the fashionable suits and evening dresses. People stood in groups and discussed the latest ad campaign, Marxism, and the merits of various private schools for young Julian and Jemina.

A popular photoprint decorated the main wall – the ‘girl in pink shades’. It was my first big sale, the one that kick started my career. I had not really looked at that photo in years.

A man noticed my interest and came over to comment. He explained that his wife had known the photographer, indeed, his wife was the subject. He made a joke about how she had not aged well. I walked away, resisting the urge to break his nose again.

A woman recognised me as THE war photographer, the one who got all those awards? What was it like to be in a warzone?

I had a flashback. I felt again the hot dust of Afghanistan that penetrated everywhere.

Have you ever smelt a burning land rover? It’s a strange mixture of oily smoke from tyres and diesel, acrid chemical fumes from burning plastic and the sweet smell of roasting flesh.

I kept on snapping pictures as Terry Taliban sprung their ambush. Men fell round me and an RPG took out another car with a great whump of flame that battered my ears and seared my skin.

Brownie returned fire with the automatic grenade launcher bolted to our car. I photographed him crouched over the gun. A bullet hit him in the temple, blowing out the back of his head, and getting me another award-winning photograph.

I dropped my camera and grabbed the gun. Terry had dug themselves into pits on the hills above the track. They popped up to fire. It was so easy compared to clay pigeon shooting. Wait for Terry to give away his position. One short and one over to bracket the range then pour it in until they stop moving. I settled into a steady rhythm, changing ammunition belts as they ran out, until something exploded in my face.

The woman wanted to know how I overcame fear? How I could stand up unprotected on a Land Rover, single-handedly holding off the Afghans until our soldiers could rally. She wanted to know how I, an artist, reconciled myself to killing.

I wanted to scream the truth at her, that a dead man isn’t scared of death, that killing is easy, you just aim and pull the trigger, but I stuck to the platitudes I trotted out on daytime TV.

I let myself out, thinking no one noticed me leave, and flagged down a passing taxi.

“Fresher, wait.”

She ran down the pavement after me. She threw her arms around my neck and kissed me hard on the lips. Her scent filled my nose.

“I thought we might meet up,” she said.

“Sure,” I replied, “I’ll give you a ring.”

I waved the invitation card, to show I had her phone number, and climbed into the taxi without looking back.

The taxi driver cheekily asked me if the lady was a good friend. I told him she was just someone that I’d met in a past life.

I raised the invitation to my nose but her scent had gone. I tossed the card out of the cab window.

The End


By all means comment below.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Past Lives in Fiction

Ah. What a week! Apologies for being a little absent from the blogging. I had a three day short story Masterclass this week in Brisbane - part of the prize for the 2009 One Book Many Brisbanes short story competition. The Masterclass was excellent, and exhausting!

Past Lives.

Everybody has had past lives of some sort. For example, I had a past life as a pizza cook, but unfortunately used to burn way too many garlic breads. At one time I was a Shift Chemist in a sugar mill (I could not get out of town fast enough). Then I had various stints of Engineering with quite a few years spent running a Speech Pathology practice in the middle.

But there is the other type of past life. The one that many believe predates the current one. It’s a completely fascinating idea. I mean so much of what we are – and the meaning we ascribe to our lives – comes out of the examination of our past. Writer’s particularly, being very comfortable in their own headspace, often pore obsessively over the relics and flotsam of their own experience.

The idea of a past life – a prior incarnation – means that we have this whole other resource there – a whole other lifetime (or lifetimes) of experiences to draw on to put our own existence into perspective, to give it meaning, or divine some sort of path to the future. In fiction it gives a whole other dimension to the plot and the characterization. I guess in theory if you had time travel and past lives as possibilities, the very same person (or at least their ‘soul’) could be the prime mover, adversary and bystander in the story at the same time. Now that’s pretty interesting.

It seems like such a rich resource for a speculative fiction setting, but I could not for the life of me remember one story that featured it.

What are some examples of past lives in speculative fiction that really caught your interest? Who has done it best? Were you really a grasshopper in your past life or were you Napoleon? Or Cleopatra?

Setting the Scene (Get me in the mood baby, ooh yeah!)

Sarah's offered quite a lot about remembering that there's someone on the other end of the book, and way to keep that person reading. I'm going to look at one specific part of that: the scene-setting and cuing in it offers.

How many times have you read something where the author switched track on you, and the book turned into something you weren't expecting when you started it? And how often has it irritated rather than delighted you? Yeah. I thought so. See, we're so attuned to what a story should be, we can pick up - subconsciously at least - what a story is about from very little.

Take for instance the opening to Pratchett's The Color of Magic - In a distant and secondhand set of dimensions, in an astral plane that was never meant to fly. That one sentence is enough to cue readers in to several things: we're not in Kansas anymore, and it's not going to be reality as normal. Oh, and it's almost for sure fantasy. Comic fantasy.

It might not register at the conscious level, but we're primed for laughter.

Of course, this is Pratchett, and even Pratchett of nearly thirty years ago stands head, shoulders and quite a bit more over every other author alive today (although in my not at all humble opinion both Dave and Sarah are climbing that particular mountain at speed).

So how do we lesser lights set the scene? There's a few things to consider.

First up, and possibly most important, each genre and subgenre has its own distinctive 'feel' and tropes. Standard practice in a cozy is utterly verboten in splatterpunk horror, and so forth. The mood we set has much the same effect as a movie soundtrack - more or less invisible (or it should be) but puts the reader's emotions where we want them. Yes, it's manipulative. We're playing with people's minds because they want us to. If they don't like us hitting their emotional buttons, they don't have to buy our books. Next question? Good.

Okay. I got bitten by this not long ago, in a crit group looking at the opening of my current work in progress. The piece is typically Kate-weird, meaning it doesn't quite fit into any nice, neat slots. It's more or less space opera, but it's also got elements of erotica, in that quite a bit of the plot is carried by and depends on sex. Specifically, somewhat kinky sexual practices that aren't so much as hinted at in the start of the book. The advice I got, not suprisingly, was that I need to have the sex up front so that it's not picked up by someone who reads the opening and thinks it's okay for young teens. Or, for that matter, so editor X doesn't start reading thinking "light-hearted space opera, a bit of a romp", get to the sex, and have his, her, or its brain explode.

Attractive as the notion of making peoples' heads explode might be, it's really not a good idea to do that to people you want to give you money, so... I need to put sex up front, preferably in a way that foreshadows the kind of sex that happens later on (especially since said sex is emphatically not garden variety vanilla). What I start with now says "lightweight space opera, with humor".

As to how you do it, it's all in the power of words. English has a phenomenal number of synonyms, most of them with very different emotional/atmospheric connotations. Let's take, for the sake of example, sex. We all know what's involved. Call it making love, and it becomes a much more intimate act. Or take desire, longing, yen, urge, obsession, need - they all mean more or less the same thing, but the flavor varies. A lounge, a sofa, a Chesterfield... Curtains, drapes. And I haven't even gotten out of the common words.

For science fiction, probably the most common trick is faux tech-ese and using technical terms instead of the normal "earthbound" words. Epic fantasy and sword and sorcery often go the other way, using archaic forms of common words - sparingly. Urban fantasy generally maintains a conversational, smartass tone and uses a lot of not-quite-slang, enough to make it sound cool (or whatever the designated word for that is these days) without being so cutting edge it dates the book between the time it's written and the time it's published (For an example that dates a book, read Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy and then tell me you don't see late 70s written all over it). Horror of course pulls all the stops out: cognitive dissonance, bleak or grim descriptors, and every possible trick in the writer's vocabulary to make the whole thing bode. An excellent guide to the process is Stephen King's Danse Macabre, containing the famous quote about terror, horror, and gross-out. A good thumbnail distinction here is that terror is being in an iffy situation and realizing your buddy is missing. Horror is finding your buddy in a closet - and he's not alive. Gross-out is when the alien or monster comes out of his chest, usually featuring loving description of the effects. The word 'glistening' gets used a lot, even when there shouldn't be enough light for anything to glisten. As a general rule, if you're wanting to scare your readers, aim for terror. Drop to horror only if you can't manage terror. And gross-out is the last resort. (Yes, Stephen King said approximately that, and yes, he will go for the gross-out if he can't make terror or horror happen).

Let's have a few samples of story openings that do a good job of setting the scene. Short or long, yours or someone else's (if it's someone else's, please acknowledge the author). No more than a couple of lines - most of the good ones don't need more than that.

Here's one or two of mine, just to kick things off:

There are times when being a Quality Assurance Mage sucks. The silvery gray spell-ball on my desk told me today was one of them. Fantasy, rather whimsical, may or may not be urban. From my short story A Spell of Quality in Misspelled. This sale was an invitation, so I didn't need to have the higher standards that anything going through regular slush has to have.

The great looms stood silent, strands of Scylla-silk glimmering in semi-darkness above the completed weaves. Air heavy with the acrid tension of electrical discharge sparked and crackled with each of my cautious steps. Science fiction, fairly dark. The use of words like "heavy" and "silent" suggests that this isn't going to be a particularly fluffy piece (accurately, as it happens). This is the opening of my short story Choice of the Oracles in Fate Fantastic - another sale by invitation.

Another convention, another con hotel. After a while, they blur together into an indistinguishable mass of faux-elegance and bizarrely costumed fans. This is the opening of ConVent a novel which - alas - remains homeless. The setting is pretty obvious, and the tone suggests urban fantasy. Anyone who's ever seen photos of a busy science fiction convention can see the scene. So, for that matter can a heck of a lot of people who haven't been to one - because I've played on the stereotypes of science fiction fans with this opening.

What are some of your examples?

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Watching Yourself Go By

Lately I’ve run into two or three beginner writers who have EARNESTLY informed me they’re writing what they’d like to read. They don’t care what anyone thinks. They’re writing for themselves first and foremost.

Children, I’m here to tell you that unless you’re one of those sad people standing in public parks, talking to themselves, you are NOT writing for yourself first and foremost.
Oh, I confess I’ve been through this, once at least. Completely beaten, feeling like no one would buy my stories, I decided I would write "just for myself." I think this lasted a whole week – in my defense I was very ill at the time – and the result is one of the most formless, boring and unreadable pieces of tripe I’ve ever written.

Why should that be, you say. Well, for one, because if you need to write down stories to tell them to yourself, we need to talk. Most of us managed to tell ourselves stories in our heads long before we learned to write and read. But there is more beyond that. You are in full possession of the story from beginning to end. So even if you try to "tell the story" with a certain shape and structure, it doesn’t matter. You know at the beginning what the end is. Yes, even if you pretend you don’t. It’s kind of like trying to play chess with yourself. You always know which side you’re favoring.

The sad, unacknowledged fact is that we – the lone, ink-stained wretches in our little corner, are as much performers as the most stage-hungry actor, the most attention-craving politician. We write – at least if we’re not (yet) utterly psychotic – to be read. We can sit in our corner and say "Well, I didn’t WANT to be a bestseller, anyway" but that’s no more than the sniffling ego-defense after our darling isn’t loved as it deserves. Or "I don’t care if the market is stoooopid, I will write little green man sex, because that’s what I’d REALLY like to read. More people would like to read it, if someone would just publish it!"

So, what am I saying? Am I saying you should write to market?

Well, yes and no. If you write to market you have to be incredibly savvy. You have to be as savvy as financiers investing in futures. You can’t be sure the way you’re betting is the right way and to make things worse – in publishing – the signals you’re getting are distorted. By the time you see a big infestation of purple vampire porno at your local book store, these books were accepted 2 to 3 years ago, the houses are flooded with purply porno and the editors are screaming "no more."

Not saying it’s not possible to see the way the market is going to jump. Eric Flint tells me he did, and I see no reason to doubt him, so did Jacqueline Carey. The caveat here is that they didn’t aim wholesale at something that’s selling well. Instead, they took what’s selling well apart and looked at trends. Say, looking at Twilight you could say "the market is rife for young women with weak family structures who fall in love with masterly men who are in some way alien or magical and who can vouchsafe the women special status or power." Or you can go one better, and take that trend apart further. Read, say, all the bestsellers in your intended field over the last ten years and take the trend apart. "Protagonist, between ten and twenty; broken family or great loss; set in small town......" Etc. (I’m pfa here.)

NO, I’m NOT telling you that you SHOULD do that. I don’t think I could. It’s sort of a painting by numbers, and painting – embroidering, cooking, and I don’t see why not writing – by numbers causes me to get bored, which causes my brain to shut down and next thing you know I’m asleep and drooling on the keyboard. Note I’m not claiming this as any form of moral superiority. Heck, my dears, if I COULD do it, I would. I’m quite smart enough to see this sort of thing in the market, and if I COULD do it, I could be not only a bestseller but very, very wealthy. And though I don’t write to be wealthy, a little wealth and respect would give me loads of times to write the other stuff I’d like to write.

But I’m not talking about theme, really. Or the sort of elements that could constitute writing to market or not. Oh, theme is part of it. I wrote eight books no one will EVER buy, simply because I violated rule number one (below.) BUT writing a theme people want to see is not the same as writing to market, according to latest bestsellers. And it certainly is not writing things you have no interest in, or force yourself to write, for the sake of "market."No, it’s more basic than that – it’s more in how you introduce your book. How you put each sentence in, with the idea of what the person on the other side is getting. You might know your character is a nun, for instance, but if you start the book with her putting on bright red stiletto heels and never explain it, but just think this makes her a "complex" and "multifaceted" character, don’t come crying to me when your reader doesn’t get it.

The point here is that you know more about your world and characters than ever goes on the page, so if you are putting things down, you are not seeing them for the first time. You have no idea if this is "the kind of book I want to read" or not. It’s entirely possible coming at a stranger’s book with the same character putting on red heels, you’d read to see if it was explained, and when it wasn’t, you’d throw sister Charity Jewel and her red heels against the wall.

You can no more read your books as if they were a stranger’s than you can stand at the window and watch yourself walk by.

So, what can you do? Besides developing a few unstinting readers, as honest with criticism as with praise, when deserved. You can heed the rules of the Sarah.

1 - Thou shall know the boundaries.What does this mean? Well, you will become aware of what is considered "normal" in your culture, and you’ll not violate it without just cause. You’ll become aware of what’s normal sex, say, as portrayed in books. And normal violence. And normal science. And normal... Am I suggesting here you confine yourself to the median? No. I could no more confine myself to the median than I could develop wings and fly. HOWEVER you have to be aware of the uttermost boundaries of what you can do and still be read by a large number of your intended readers. This can be difficult if you read very widely as I do. What’s acceptable in main stream, in sex, politics, science or violence is completely different than what is acceptable in science fiction, and again in mystery and in different subgenres of mystery. (For instance, if you have a torture-murder in a cozy, it BEST be off screen and even the body not shown in full horror.)Mostly, because in every culture these are hot points, this boils down to 1 a) though shalt not push the ew in sex without just cause. Thou shalt be aware of penalties if thou dost. b) thou shalt not push the ew in violence and thou shalt know when thou dost, and why.I’m not saying sometimes you shouldn’t for shock or horror, or for whatever reason. The ew factor is a very powerful emotion. Just don’t invoke it till book goes against wall, and DO NOT think you’ll escape paying for it. The penalty might be people thinking you’re pervy or your being known as the lady who wrote sex with a dragon. OR it might be losing half of your potential readers. Or, as in the case of my first – written – series, it might be never getting published at all. Proceed with caution.

2 - Thou shalt, right off the gate, let these people know who where and when they’re dealing with. Also, if possible, which genre and subgenre. This is very important, very subtle, and has to be done at the same time as hooking the reader.Say I start a story by describing a man being mean to someone. This is my main character, and you’re supposed to think he’s kind and loving. By the time you get to the scene where he’s kind and loving, your reader will think he’s insane. Ditto for your world. If you’re in the future, show us the spaceship or the robot BEFORE the oxcarts everyone is driving because of environmental regulations. Just pay attention to the picture you’re forming in the readers’ mind. Place your clues and cues intentionally, not devil-may-care. This is hardest and most important in the beginning, but you should keep half a mind at it throughout the story.

3 - Thou shalt foreshadow.Yeah, yeah, I know. But... but... but... the big twist when your character goes insane and kills his former friend is supposed to be a shock, a surprise, a totally mind-blowing denouement.Right. And in real life it does happen that way – or not. Read the biographies of any serial killer, and you’ll see TONS of ignored warnings. When the worst happens, people are going "but he was such a nice man" even as they DON’T believe it. It’s partly to reassure themselves they say those things. Depending on the level of surprise you want, your foreshadowing can be more or less open. If less, though, be ready for people to tell you it "came out of nowhere" and again, you’ll lose readers.Look, books are not reality. Books are orderly. Reality is... not. If you want a story to make sense, you read a book. That means the story MUST make sense, and that you must expect the "reveal" even when you don't and will be "really suprised".

4- Thou shalt make sense.That means that if you got bored with your plot, and you want half of your characters to die crushed by rocks, you won’t do it. Or if you do it, you’ll go back and reforeshadow. You won’t create a whole mountain range of loose rocks you never talked about, just to kill your characters as they doubtlessly deserve. Ditto, your reserved character won’t become chatty. Your chaste character won’t become slutty. AND NO ONE WILL HAVE SUDDEN MADNESS AS A MOTIVATION FOR ANYTHING. Yes, that last one is a sore point. Not only does everyone who enters contests I judge think this is the ultimate in cleverness (It’s not.) BUT I’ve read more than a few professional mysteries that have this most unsatisfying of reasons as a motivation. Okay, I’m only a reader – even if LOUD – but let me tell you right now, if you do that, not only have you lost me as a reader, but I’ll make merciless fun of your plot EVERYWHERE. Unless you foreshadow the madness and the reason to go insane. To do otherwise always seems to me to be a shrinking in the face of evil, a childish belief no one would do evil unless they're insane. You KNOW that's not true. So why are you trying to treat readers like children?

5 - Thou shalt not have thy characters laugh or cry alone.I don’t care how much you love your characters, and how brilliant their jokes, sad their distress is. You will give your reader a reason to care. You will make sure the joke, the in-comment, the insanely funny bit of something is immediately obvious to your reader, even if you have to lay the ground work for ten chapters. Ditto for the crying, the loss, etc.Two of the MOST infuriating readings I EVER attended were the one where the woman was reading five characters of whom we’d never heard having a conversation full of in-jokes. This is where you’re going "say what?" "They who?" In the middle of laughing madly, she paused to tell us "helpful" things like "see, this is funny because he’s really a redhead." Since it was the beginning of the book, she had no explained this to the readers either. The effect was of being held on the outside of a group that’s laughing and you don’t know at what. The other was a woman reading the story of someone attending her own funeral, and crying as she described how sad all the family members were. Since we knew neither the main pov character nor the people crying over her – nor, it must be added, the writer who was crying buckets while reading – the whole effect was of wanting to go away so these people could grieve in peace.

So, what other rules would you suggest? What gives you the most trouble in terms of thinking everyone should get it and being baffled when they don’t? How do you feel about sex with purple aliens? Have you now or will you ever write sex with dragons? Do you know if your ew-factor is average for your culture or too high or too low? Do you often skim over scenes of unimaginable violence in bestselling books, or do you find the violence too tame?

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Commas and me.

I spent the last few days going through book one of King Rolen's Kin, doing the edits my UK editor had asked for.

Before I sent off the manuscript I read and re-read it. I had my husband read it, then I corrected it. I had my son, the mad-keen fantasy reader, read it and then I corrected it. Then I printed it up and read it and corrected it again.

It is amazing the silly little things that get past you. And then there are things you could just kick yourself for doing. For instance, all these years I've been writing about oriole windows. Not oriel windows. The first one is a type of bird.

And I had everyone drinking burgundy. I thought that was a type of wine, not specific brand, named after a place in France. Well, I knew it was a place in France but I thought it was also a type of red wine. Sigh.

A big thank you to my editor for spotting these things!

Then there are commas. You might gather from the title of this post that I am rather fond of commas. I know grammatically, there are places where it is optional whether you use them or not. And I guess I was one of those people who opted in, rather than out.

I find myself mentally putting commas into the pages of printed books. I also find myself reading happily away then, when I come across something that just looks wrong, I feel like I've tripped over it. It throws me out of the story.

We've been having a discussion on the VISION list about tricky words like 'affect and effect' or 'that and which'. Here's a web site. If you scroll down, you'll see explanations for their use.

For instance I have a thing about 'lay and lie'. I keep seeing it used in books and it sounds wrong to me. Chickens lay eggs, people lie down.

Then there's the thing with apostrophes. I see them used where they shouldn't be -- on building signs, where people should know better. I get the urge to go around and correct the grammar on signs. It's really rather sad. And don't get me started on 'it's and its'.

Are there words that trip you up repeatedly? Do you have a thing about commas?

Sunday, February 21, 2010

One hell of a night out... the Pizza-man's tale

It was a dark and stormy night, which was about normal in these parts, when suddenly all hell broke loose! At least, part of hell broke loose, cheering and running. Gwaarg, the dog-headed demon in charge of the western perimiter hell-fence maintenance growled "F'kit!" furiously, as he saw the damned souls streaming out of the nether regions toward Taki O'Loughlin's Irish Bar and Grill, Belly-Dancing Tuesday. He groaned as he set out after them. This would be another all-nighter. The only way of separating them from the rest of the patrons would be to listen to the accents, because merely looking for half-naked flayed-alive souls with white-hot scorpions clinging to their genitals was hopeless in that crowd once the Irish-Greek dancing started. Worse, he could hear the escapees practicing. "Begorrah!", "Nancy-Wuskey!", "Banshee!" Whuskey yee'r th'divil!" they bellowed eagerly in chorus, except for the one who was yelling "Mazeltov!" You always got one. No, that wasn't true. There'd be at least three in the pub, and while it might seem perfectly justified, he'd get yowls of outrage from human resources and a ream of paperwork if he took anyone too soon, or, as unlikely as it might seem, someone who wasn't heading for hell at all, but was just delivering pizza. And in a pub with shamrock-covered plastic tablecloths, delivering in pizza (even with anchovies)was considered a penance, as Gwaarg had found out last time.

Heh. Ok so I was taking a few moments to write a prologue to poke fun at Elmore Leonard's 'rules'- except for being Margret Atwood, which, as I am perfectly happy to write science fiction (with or without conversational cosmic calamari) I cannot imitate. They're actually not bad guidelines, just not 'rules'. Before I was so distracted the thing I was going to write about was food. Now, as we sort-of-I-hope proved up there, one man's terrible and boring and another's entertainment vary. One of my own pet entertainments is putting food into my books. It's such fun prising the pages apart later, trying to work out the squished splotches might once have been. It's also a good way of getting roaches to edit out paragraphs that you wish you'd never written or even read.

Actually, on that charming, appetising note... what I meant writing was about food. Now, as the sort of person who reads recipe books for light entertainment, I will admit to being a little biased here. The landscapes of my worlds are colored by food (and occassionally drink. I have come across red wine that permanently stained concrete, let alone the worlds of my imagination). They're a window to fill in on some of that descriptive guff I am (thank you Mr Leonard) generally quite sparse on. I have this odd idea that they appeal to different set of senses than ones involved in looking at scenery - But I could be wrong. What is your take, folks? Do you like food in books to be described, and had you noticed that I do so? (So does Sarah, for what it is worth).

Sunday Round-up

Most of you have already figured out that I'm a geek and the resident internet expert (tongue firmly planted in cheek). In other words, I have good google-fu and follow more blogs than is probably wise. Part of that is because I believe in being prepared and knowing all I can about any endeavor I'm undertaking. That means, as a writer, following agent and editor blogs, reading and trying to make sense out of thing like the Amazon - Macmillan ebook pricing war as well as reading blogs by other writers.. Then there's the research necessary for whatever my current wip might be. As a result, I spend a lot of time online and have to be careful not to let it become an all-too-convenient excuse not to write.

That said, two blogs/articles caught my eye this week. The first is the always informative Writer Beware Blog. The last three entries are of particular interest for those of us looking for ways to get our work noticed. The first, Beware of Fake Awards, lists several of these so-called awards and how to make sure you aren't being scammed. The next entry is Inspired Living Publishing: Another Vanity Anthology Scheme. This isn't the first vanity antho out there, and it won't be the last. But it is something to be aware of before signing on the dotted line and then realizing you are cutting the check and not the other way around.

The final Writer Beware entry of interest this week , Not Quite What It Appears, is a good reminder for all of us to be careful where we put out work online and how much of it up post. I've written about the perils of posting work online before. I'm not talking about someone stealing your idea and getting it published before you do. Nor am I talking about the comments -- some good and some very hurtful -- that can come and be counterproductive to your creative process. What is of concern is that there are a number of publishers out there who look at posting on the internet as publishing. That includes posting your work in places like the slush piles on Baen's Bar or online critique groups. Putting it up on a sight like or Authonomy can take you right out of contention with a publisher, so be sure before you post on sites like this that you aren't shooting yourself in the foot. Check the guidelines and blogs of the publishers you are interested in and then think twice before hitting the send button.

The article that caught my eye -- and the eye of a number of other bloggers this week -- is Elmore Leonard's Ten Rules for Writing Fiction.

  1. Never open a book with weather. If it's only to create atmosphere, and not a character's reaction to the weather, you don't want to go on too long. The readers are apt to leaf ahead looking for people. . .
  2. Avoid prologues: they can be annoying, especially a prologue following an introduction that comes after a foreward. But these are ordinarily found in non-fiction. A prologue in a novel is backstory, and you can drop it in anywhere you want . . .
  3. Never use a verb other than "said" to carry dialogue. The line of dialogue belongs to the character; the verb is the writer sticking his nose in. But "said" is far less intrusive than "grumbled", "gasped", "cautioned", "lied". I once noticed Mary McCarthy ending a line of dialogue with "she asseverated" and had to stop reading and go to the dictionary.
  4. Never use an adverb to modify the verb "said". . .
  5. Keep your exclamation points under control. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words. . .
  6. Never use the words "suddenly" or "all hell broke loose". . .
  7. Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly. . .
  8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters. . .
  9. Don't go into great detail describing places and things, unless you're Margaret Atwood and can paint scenes with language. You don' want descriptions that bring the action, the flow of the story, to a standstill.
  10. Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip. . . thick paragraphs of prose you can see have too many words in them.
Mr. Leonard concludes with: My most important rule is one that sums up the 10: if it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.

Sarah and some of the other MGCers have already talked about prologues and when you should or should not have one. But what about Mr. Elmore's other rules? Any thoughts or comments? How about any other rules you have when writing? The floor's yours. I'm off to find some more coffee.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Something Borrowed, Something Blue

I don't make a secret of the fact that I write Jane Austen Fan Fiction. Honestly, people might say I also write Dumas and Shakespeare fan fiction -- and get paid for it! So Pride and Prejudice and Zombies filled me with a sense of DUH because of course I could have done that.

My friend Sofie Skapski and I did do A Touch of Night -- Pride, Prejudice and Dragons -- which is set in the same world as my Magical British Empire trilogy. We're considering releasing it as a free ebook, to promote the series. I have started on a cover, that's about 1/3 done (part of the dragon, her dress... not her or the other half of the dragon or the dark sky behind.

Anyway, this is how it opens (and it, like the cover, needs a good go-over before it's ready to release even as a promo.)

So what other books would you like to see as crossovers with fantasy, or other fanfic enhancements? Let's get wild and have a Saturday party over it.

A Touch of Night


Elizabeth Bennet climbed the stairs, the sounds of rejoicing from her mother and younger sisters ringing in her ears. She was filled with trepidation. How would she tell Jane the news? How could she? Oh, it was all very distressing and Jane, the kindest, sweetest sister in the whole world was so far from deserving the dreadful curse she suffered.

She opened the door to Jane's room and found her sister sitting by the window, a notebook in her lap, a pen in her hand. Jane was the most beautiful of the five daughters: curls like spun gold, classical features, porcelain complexion and an elegant figure. Sitting by the window in the small, dark room, she looked like an angel and very far above her setting -- the simple country house of impoverished gentry. Jane deserved to be enshrined in a stately mansion and showered with all the riches of the world -- but that was never to be -- and all because of the terrible accident of her birth.

Jane looked up from her notebook and at Lizzy. Her sweet face held an expression of fear that made Lizzy's heart shrink in her chest.

"What is it, Lizzy?" she said, putting her pen back into the inkwell she'd rested on the windowsill. "Why is mama so happy?"

"Netherfield," Lizzy said, and had to swallow to build up the courage to continue. She knew what a blow her next words would be to her beloved sister. "Is let at last."

Jane gave a small shriek and her beautiful, pale hand went up to cover her mouth. "Oh, no." She moaned. She hunched against the window embrasure, trembling, filtering moonlight casting ghostly shadows upon her stricken face.

Elizabeth hurried to relay the rest of the news. "Kitty and Lydia say that it was rented to a rich gentleman from the North. His name is Bingley. He's said to be very handsome and they find it most impressive that he has a blue jacket. He's due to arrive soon, with a large party. Seven ladies and five gentlemen." She paused and then continued ruefully, "Too many ladies and gentlemen."

"A large party," Jane said, nodding forlornly, as though unable to command thought for more than repeating Lizzy's words. She looked at the notebook, which lay open on her lap, and then up towards the moon, which was waxing towards its greatest fullness. "Oh, Lizzy, what shall I do? I've been used to having the liberty of Netherfield's preserves and parks. Now I shall be forced to go towards Merryton." She paled at such a terrible idea.

Lizzy could do no more than nod. She watched Jane visibly pull herself together. "And yet," Jane said, smiling wanly, "Mama is so happy."

Lizzy sighed. "With five daughters to marry, any gentleman taking a house in the neighborhood must seem a godsend. For you know that any gentleman in possession of a large fortune must be in need of a wife."

"Oh," Jane said. She jerked out of her hunched position to sit tall and defiant. "I hope she doesn't plan on his marrying me."

"I'm sure she does," Lizzy said. "Since she has five dowerless daughters, and you are easily five times as pretty as the rest of us. I know exactly how her mind works - she plans on you marrying Mr. Bingley, thereby throwing the rest of us girls into the path of other rich men."

"But... Lizzy," Jane said in some agitation. "You know it can never be."

"Yes," Lizzy said, nodding slightly. "But Mama doesn't."

"Oh," Jane said, putting her head down in her hands. "Mama shall push me at him, shamelessly."


"Oh, Lizzy." Jane's lovely eyes were moist with tears. "What shall I do?"

"When Mama is set upon a course of action, there is not much anyone can do, however I shall do my utmost to protect you," she said.

"As you always have," Jane said, gratefully.

"What else could I do?" Lizzy asked. "Your affliction is not of your making. How it pains me that you have to suffer and hide away in obscurity as you do. You have the heart of an angel, Jane. No one could wish for a better sister. You do not deserve this."

"Oh, Lizzy. It is you who are the angel, always kind and willing to protect me as no one else would do."

"What else would you have me do?" Lizzy asked. "Turn you in to the authorities?" She patted her sister on the shoulder. "Now don't worry too much about Netherfield. We will survive this, as we've survived other adversity in the past. I will do everything in my power to ensure that nothing will happen to you."

"I am very lucky to have you as a sister," Jane said, tears again moistening her lovely dark brown eyes.

The sisters embraced and then Elizabeth departed from the room. She knew that Jane wished to be alone. Jane hated for anyone to see her distress. Lizzy, not feeling equal to sharing the nonsensical jubilation downstairs, repaired to her own bedchamber. Even from the privacy of her room, she could hear her mother shrieking with glee, "And Lydia, you shall dance with Mister Bingley."

Lizzy sat upon her bed, unable to shake the melancholy that was overpowering her. She removed her day clothes and put on her nightgown. True, she could have called on the maid to do this, but she preferred her solitude and had long ago learned to take care of herself -- and Jane -- in these small ways.

After undressing and putting her clothes away, she slipped into her nightgown and dressing gown, got her silver brush from the dresser and started brushing her hair. While doing so, she walked to the window, threw it open, and gazed out at the devious moon.

It was very close to being full now. People with less internal fortitude than Jane would already be feeling its relentless pull. She looked at the brilliant satellite in the dark sky with near hatred. What problems the moon caused! She wished there were no moon.

At that moment something dark and looming interposed between herself and the moon. Lizzy blinked to refocus, and realized it was a dragon, huge and a luminous green. She blinked again, and the beast had flown closer.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Cheat Post - Beginnings

Yes, that really is a picture of me (without the mustache).

I'm cheating today, and following on from Kate's post, which certainly hit the mark at the moment. I am in the middle of trying to resurrect a few short stories that have not been sent out in an embarrassingly long time, and yes - you guessed it - struggling to put together first paragraphs that actually manage to snatch someone's attention.

This is part of my all out effort to get all my stories onto the market (thanks to Sarah's pointy shoes). I actually have four out there (and written two new ones!), but have three more to go.

I don't have any intro scenes featuring changes in the weather, but I do have someone narrowly dodging a bucket full of nano-bacteria (does that count, Sarah?).

Recent intro paragraph suggestions include:

  • Sex scenes
  • Protagonists being attacked on awakening by Freudian monster
  • Protagonists being attacked in the shower (Freudian monster optional)
  • Character killing someone (reluctantly)
  • Kinky mud-wrestling.

So what really grabs you as an opening of a short story?

Jumping the gate

This is kinda-sorta related to a link Sarah sent me today (go read it - Sarah's comment on the post is excellent), via my usual leaps of illogic. The aspiring author's expectations seem to be set somewhere between "If I'm good enough, they'll see my brilliance and love me" and "They don't love me: they must hate me."

It's the same kind of thing that causes Joe Beginning Author to obsessively parse out rejection letters in the hope of divining some notion of the 'real' reason for the rejection (otherwise known as rejectomancy): we at the outskirts of the industry have no idea what actually goes on between when we send our story in and when we get it back. Some of us even harbor the quaint notion that we're going to get an unbiased read. We're not. (That's not to say there's a big hairy blacklist and if you put a toe over the invisible line you get smacked. It's more that slush readers have this humongous pile of unread stuff threatening to bury them, so they're looking for reasons to kick the story, not reasons to take it.)

Publishing does have a hefty image problem in the science fiction community, and deservedly so: as far as I can tell no-one really knows what happens between when a story is bought by a publisher and when it emerges sometimes years later as an actual book with cover art and everything, or if the people in the editing side of things know, they aren't telling us peasants slaving over manuscripts.

The result: we work on inference and observation. We see that everyone who's anyone in the field knows everyone else, and the obvious conclusion is that they pass information around and form a kind of quasi-monopoly, except for the designated pariah who dares do things differently. Naturally, writers being writers, the tendency is to leap from that to conspiracy and active collusion, and from there to an ever-growing blacklist and rumors of strange favors as a prerequisite along with the arbitrary "rules" like "thou shalt not commit prologue" and "thy urban fantasy shall be told in first person by a kick-ass female; mind thou that she be hot stuff"

Authors tend to be prone to conspiracy theory and paranoia anyway - a secretive cabal pulling the strings makes a much better story than random crap happening to some poor schmuck. Not falling into the conspiracy trap means finding out what I really can expect, and not letting myself fall into either the "They just don't understand my brilliance" trap or the "They hate me and I've been blacklisted" trap. Realistically, I'm not even on the radar - there's no way I'm going to be actively targeted.

On the flip side, I can expect that most places my manuscripts wind up, the first person who looks at it is likely to be an idealistic, poorly paid intern, and given the physical location I'm dealing with and the reluctance to move to electronic submission processes, probably one from a specific location and culture. If I start with something guaranteed to piss that sort of person off, I'm going to get bounced.

As to how to hook the poor sod reading the slush pile, who mostly wants to get away from the reams and reams of mind-bogglingly awful and is looking for reasons to cut the whole experience short and move to the next one, that I'm not so sure about. Sarah's advice yesterday helps, but what else is there?

How do we jump ourselves past that gate?

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

The Locked Box Trick

This feeds in to Kate’s post to an extent.

For the first time in several years I have a face to face/internet (mixed) writers group meeting semi-regularly. This has brought me in touch – for the first time in several years – with at least one writer who is not aware of how "things work" in the industry.

So there will be, say, these long, lovely lead ins to a short story. Which is all very well, of course, and we all can quote several of our favorites that start with long, swelling lead ins. But when you’re a beginner and dropping head first into the bottomless slush pile, long lovely lead ins – unless you find a punchy way to begin – will not get you out of it. Reality of life.

Which is why I – myself enamored of laying in ground work before plunging into a shocking sequence – spent years developing the art of the punchy first line. Hook them with the first line and they’ll sit tight for half a page or so, particularly if you are carefully ringing alarm bells behind the lovely prose. Is this how I’d normally go about it? Well... no. But I needed to get off slush and get read by editors, and this worked.

(On the same vein I’ll add that until you have a well established name, you need to hook a reader in the same way when he opens the book. Particularly in a novel. Otherwise, even if an editor buys you and you end up on the shelf [both big ifs with long lead ins] you’ll find yourself unbought and unread.)

There are other "gatekeeper" issues. We all remember, I’m sure, when every book started with a prologue. Nowadays we hear that a prologue is enough to get you throw out. I don’t know if this is true. I know that I personally abhor prologues that are dry summations and/or listings of dramatis personae. If you can’t skillfully introduce me to each character in a memorable way in each book in the series, I’m probably not going to read you. (Of course, there are exceptions.

Some writers put that in at the insistence of an editor or other.)

I have already addressed another "gatekeeper" issue. In certain houses, in certain genres or subgenres, a first person pov will throw you out. In the same way in other subgenres a third person pov might get you thrown out. (Urban fantasy comes to mind.)

Yet another issue is, say, romance from a male perspective, or romance that stays strictly in one head.

Another issue is the excessive use of adjectives and adverbs. Everyone tells you to avoid them and that they will get you rejected. Except of course, what they’re really talking about are vague, UNEEDED advjectives and adverbs.

Anyway, there are a dozen other rules, regulations, though shalt not cross tapes, and other similar barriers. There are stops and boxes all over. And I’ve often met writers – particularly beginners – who are FAR too aware of these, to the point that like Houdini, they’re doing their work up in a locked box, filled with water, fighting like mad to get out before their prose dies.

I’ve not met one who was the opposite in years, until recently.

So, what’s my verdict? Both are right, and both terribly wrong. The "I’ll do as I please and not acknowledge gatekeepers" is as much of a box as the opposite, because you’re locking the rest of your writing away from editors and – even if you get past that – from potential readers. If your objective is to be read, you’re failing.

On the other hand those who hem themselves in with all sorts of restrictions, are forgetting that some of the most successful forms of fiction break most if not all of the "rules."
There is a trick to it, of course, if you’re going to break the "rules" or even the fashionable opinions of what is good writing. One of them I’ve already discussed above. You can have a long lead in to action if you start with a punchy enough line/scene, then keep the tension up with an "underscore" of ominous notes in your soothing piece. There are tricks for everything else I’ve mentioned as well. But you have to know HOW to break the rule in a way that won’t cause the gatekeeper to toss you out, or what’s the point of the whole exercise.

You see, it’s all a trick, like "magic" is a trick. And you have to work fast so the hand deceives the eye. If you’re good enough, you’ll manage to get out of that box only slightly wet, and be standing on the pavement, receiving the ovation of the crowd. If not... your prose dies before being read.

Today exceptionally and in penalty for being ridiculously late in posting*, if you ask me how to get around your personal conundrum of this kind, I’ll do my best to tell you how I would solve the problem. Which might not be the way you do it, of course. The beauty of the locked box trick is that every bind is a little different and every set of handcuffs has a different amount of "give" and that the way you get out is what makes your writing special. However, my solution might give you some ideas. Or it might help you understand how your favorite author did it.

So, throw me some problems!

* Sorry about the lateness, but I'm trying to finish a novel -- for those of you in the know "Sexicle" -- this week. This already muddles me. But, as every time I'm doing a final push on anything, life has gone insane, (some writers believe there are supernatural reasons behind these occurrences. I think it has more to do with us trying to focus so hard we resent everything else) requiring long trips, doctors' appointments and other fun, fun, fun diversions. So I went to bed late last night, got up early and somehow completely spaced the fact that it was Wednesday.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Warning Touchy Subject -- Racism

Okay, so I'm writing an alternate history story that starts in Australia in the 1820s, then veers off into a different time line. The cast consists of educated Europeans, escaped English convicts, Irish convicts, aboriginals and a half-caste girl.

(I do have a map Dave. This whole book grew out of a map!).

Just as we are products of our times, these characters are products of their times. Some of them are down right nasty and, even when they are well educated and good hearted, they are unaware of the depths of their racism.

If I made them 'new age' and aware, this would be anachronistic. (I'm one of these people who like historical stories to be accurate). During the course of the story some of these characters are going to grow and change. But at the start things are pretty grim and accurate, according to my research. The topic of my Masters Thesis was Persecution and Discrimination in Fantasy Novels, which meant I did a lot of research into persecution and discrimination in our real world.

I've been reading Joe Abercrombie's books and I think readers are willing to read more realistic fantasy stories. His books are set in a fantasy world that is based on Europe, but distanced because the names have been changed and things have been tweaked.

I'm just wondering if readers can identify with characters (from our real 1820 world) who don't act politically correct by our modern standards. My hope is that the story and characters are interesting enough to keep the readers reading.

Have you read anything in the fantasy or SF genres recently that explored persecution and discrimination? Do you think readers are ready for more realistic fantasy books?

Monday, February 15, 2010

x marks the spot.

I can never even say that without the mental image of a face full teen erruptions - each with a x on them. It's hard living with my mind, I'll have you know. Anyway on a slightly more subject related topic, I just had to rush and provide the map of Valahia and the lands of the Golden Horde for MUCH FALL OF BLOOD. Georg is trying to do the thankless task of getting it done neatly in time for Wednesday. For once I am not the one trying to provide yet another rush-rush map and wrestling with mysterious monster that devours and distorts maps en route. Life was made interesting and even more fraught by not having a light table anymore or being able to find my notes and maps file (a real file with that weird stuff 'paper' in it. Oddly enough it's no less stressful or more difficult to lose than e-format, as there is only one copy) So: I am probably mildly unusual in that I like maps (or at least diagrams) in sf books, and find them almost intrinsic to good fantasy. I draw them. I obsess about them (now there is a surprise) and where I am working with 'real world' fantasy (such as the Heirs books) use Google earth and pushpins (with the correct place name for the time) almost constantly and the measure tool a lot.

So how do maps fit into your writing? Do you draw them? Hate having them in books? Get irritated (like me) by the map-maker (writer?) grasp of geography and underlying geology? Put distances on your maps and use those?

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Inspiration's Where You Find It

This has been a decidedly strange week in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. We've set the record for the most snowfall in a 24 hour period with over 15 inches of the white stuff hitting the ground, followed closely by tree limbs, branches and, well, entire trees. At one point, almost 250,000 homes and businesses were without power. Despite temperatures in the 40's yesterday, there is still snow on the roofs in in shaded areas. You'd think someone, somehow moved DFW further north and didn't tell us.

Of course, the snow with all its attendant problems hit just before all the NBA All-Star activities were scheduled to start at Jerry World (for those not familiar with Jerry World, it's also known as the new Dallas Cowboys Stadium.) There were a lot of nervous city and business leaders worried that all their money and hard work getting ready for the activities would be all for naught. But this being Texas, the impact was far.

Not to be outdone or forgotten, the Olympics began this week as well. Wonderful opening ceremonies, marred by a 4 minute technical difficulty toward the end. Team USA won 4 medals (1 gold, 1 silver and 2 bronze) last night. I held my breath with others across the nation as the Koreans made their move in one of the men's speed skating short track events, wondering if they'd push Apolo Anton Ohno out of contention. Then there was the crash and Ohno came through unscathed, capturing the silver medal, tying him with Bonnie Blair for the most medals won by any athlete in the Winter Olympics.

The cap on the week's news was learning that one of the major freeways here had been closed down last night when local police received a tip about a "suspected terrorist". Fort Worth and Arlington police gave chase and the suspect(s) finally crashed out. Before the police could move in, she told them there might be a bomb in her car. The freeway was closed for hours and now, more than eight hours after I heard the first report, there still isn't much information coming out about what happened other than the fact the freeway is open and the suspects aren't terrorists. Still, unconfirmed reports from one of the local TV stations say that one of the suspects has been arrested on several occasions -- once for hanging around one of the local airports not too long after 9/11 while dressed in camos and looking suspicious and making a lot of folks very nervous and another time for brandishing a hand grenade (which later turned out not to be live) at another driver in a road rage incident. She is on the record being against the war.

So what, you ask, does all this have to do with writing? A couple of things. The first is the easiest to identify. All of this has been a distraction -- a very big distraction -- to writing. I wanted to play in the snow. Then I had to cut up the huge limb that fell out of our pine tree out front. And shovel/sweep the front walk. And scratch my head and try to figure out what a person is supposed to do besides play when you have that much snow at one time. This is Texas. It takes years to get a foot of snow, not hours. As for the rest of it, well, there's this evil invention call the television. Or at least to me during the Winter Olympics and, yes, when there might be a terrorist in my backyard.

But there is something more important in all this. Each of these incidents is fodder for the creative juices. The Ohno silver medal race can now be the background of a scene...complete with guys yelling and screaming as the two Korean skaters go down and he skates past them to the finish line. Popcorn flying through the air on his qualifying round as he goes from last place to first, seeming to simply teleport to do so (hat tip to Chris K. for that image).

Then there's the incident last night. I am intimately familiar with where the suspect's car crashed and the freeway was shut down. I've been stuck in traffic there more times than I want to count. I could imagine being caught in the two mile backup and then hearing on the radio why the road is closed and not being able to get off. What would go through your mind as you sat there, wondering if -- should there be a bomb and should it go off -- you're far enough away to survive? Or what if you're sitting at home and you get the call from your husband or wife or child? Even now, as I sit typing this entry, I wonder why the police aren't giving up more information if, as the one TV station alluded to last night, this wasn't a terrorist they stopped but just a local crazy.

From all this, I have a lot of seeds of inspiration floating around in my head. I know at least a couple of them will find their way into something I write. It may be as a background or a passing scene, but it will be there. And that's cool -- at least to me.

So, where do you find your inspiration? Has anything happened this week in your life that you can use as fodder for a story idea?

Saturday, February 13, 2010

My week as a writer

Today has been a good week.

1) I finished editing the changes on the first section of my new novel required by my (far more experienced and talanted) co-author.

2) I received word that I have a new scientific paper out in Molecular Ecology.

3) Five days ago I got a commission for a short story for an Urban Fantasy short story - provided I finished it in a fortnight. the editor gave me a meme to get me started.

Of course, I said yes, deciding to panic later. I went to bed that night with various ideas running around in my head. In the morning, I had a story. Today I finished the first draft.

This has focussed my mind on how I did it.

1. Write about what you know. Either do extensive research or use material from your own life. The latter is infinitely preferable.
2. Ruthlessly trim down extraneous detail and side issues to focus on the story line.
3. Assume no special knowledge among the readers.
4. Use strong characters as the protagonists. Try to make them real.
5. See the story as a series of scenes, each of which either advances the plot or tells the reader something interesting about the protagonists.
6. Don't infodump - dump the information from the story. It probably isn't necessary.
7. Write. Write. Write.
I got up each day and wrote at least a thousand lines before lunch. Get into the writing habit.
8. Edit, show it to another writer and edit some more. When you have finished that do some more editing.
9. Removing words usually improves a story much more than adding words.
10. Enjoy it. You are not doing this to get rich so why bother if you are not having fun.


PS You can follow me on Twitter. I twit under johnlambshead.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Use of Theme

Quiet a few years ago, as a critique circle newbie, the group I was with would set deliberate exercises to help us focus on various writing craft elements. It might be point-of-view, writing in various tenses etc.

One month someone proposed themes – i.e. looking at and articulating the theme of our current work in progress.

I can remember thinking at the time ‘Theme? Huh?’

I had never consciously put a theme into what I wrote, and expressed my puzzlement to the group. Someone immediately responded ‘You do though! You always have quite strong themes coming out in your stories.’ After having thought about it a little while longer, I realized they were right. I did actually have themes in my work (it felt kind of like looking at those 3D pictures hidden inside another photo - it leapt out at me when I looked for it), but these were emerging almost unconsciously through the struggles of my characters and the way I had constructed the plot. Yet it was all instinctual.

I do spend time thinking about what is the core essence of a book – essentially ‘what the book is about’ – but really in terms of the characters and their journeys. I don’t use a theme or series of themes as a deliberate cornerstone for my work.

I know that some writers do have themes or issues that they feel strongly about, even to the extent that this may be one of the key reasons they are driven to write in the first place. In this case, the theme, and consideration of how to express this, forms an essential part of their initial creative process and a central anchor to their whole project – something that they may return to again and again to see if they are ‘on course’.

Do you try to bring out a deliberate theme in your work, or is it something you just let happen? Do you think the consideration of a theme is essential to writing fiction?

How do you brand a book?

Obviously, not with a hot iron, paper and such being a tad flammable, but still... Authors can build brand by writing series, but how does a publisher build a brand? What does it take?

I'm writing this from the usual Kate-weird perspective, which is particularly bizarre right now because I'm witnessing a truly spectacular example of brand loyalty in the computer game realm - and one that didn't really happen deliberately, it just kind of grew.

Those who know me know I love (okay, that may be a teensy bit mild) the Myst games. I've been hooked every since I first saw Myst, and have followed the game through all its assorted iterations. It's been some 5 years since the last standalone game was released, and nearly 2 years since the last iteration of the multiplayer online version shut down, and more than that since the last new content. Think about that - over 2 years with nothing new. In a computer game series.

Monday around 2-30pm Eastern USA time, the online game was resurrected. Within 3 hours, fans trying to create their accounts and return to the game - remember, there's still no new content in a game series that's all about puzzle-solving - had brought down the servers. At least 3000 people managed to get to the servers and create accounts, and a reasonable number of the 15000 forum members kept trying most of the evening. Within 24 hours, the servers had to be replaced with bigger ones to handle the load, and by mid-afternoon Wednesday, mirroring and other alternative download methods were being actively explored - and the servers were still down more than they were up because there were simply too many people trying to get registered and playing. That, ladies, gentlemen, and others, is brand loyalty.

How do publishers get that kind of loyalty? They do it the same way the Myst games did, with a little bit (well, a lot) of luck. Provide the fan base what they want, keep in touch with them even during the long breaks between major news, let them play in the sandbox, and have a consistent feel to the books that you're selling. Baen does this, mostly, although they're better on the science-fiction side of the fence than the fantasy side. Harlequin used to do it, with their assorted category romances, although they weren't too great on the letting the fans play side of things.

Oh, and provide a bloody good product. The Myst games did this by a combination of eye-popping graphics, plots that twisted, turned and sometimes went relativistic but were all in the form of "something has happened. You (the player) have to find out what and make the right choice with all the clues you have or something even worse will happen" and production values that didn't give any concessions to cost-cutting - even though cost-cutting was happening behind the scenes. The result is a community of fans who are so eager to come back to their alternate world (and yes, we Myst Online fans do regard it as an alternate world) that they've swarmed the servers and brought them down from sheer demand.

Now I know books and publishing doesn't work quite the same way, but consider the loyalty of Baen's barflies. Any article on ebooks will have at least one helpful 'fly pointing out that Baen does it without DRM and makes money in the process (Hm. That doesn't sound quite right). Baen authors will get followed around online and in real life, with a swarm of helpful (and sometimes not quite so helpful, but hey, loyalty is worth a lot, right?) 'flies running interference, publicising - and sometimes defending - 'their' authors, and generally treating Baen and Baen's authors as something they are a part of. You can't buy that kind of loyalty, but if you have it, it's worth more than any marketing budget.

To get it, you've got to earn it - and Baen earned the barflies much the same way Cyan earned the Myst fans. It provided a nice big sandbox that could double as an alternate reality playground (in some cases tripling and even quantuming as one), did its best to provide good books that had a number of things in common, like plots that didn't involve navel-gazing and introspecting in ever-decreasing circles until the protagonist metaphysically flies up his own fundamental orifice, characters who were real enough that readers identified with them and wanted to see more of them, big booms (who doesn't love a big explosion, anyway?) and high powered weapons (often the reason for the aforesaid big booms). Authors were - and are - encouraged to hang out with fans in the virtual homes provided at the Bar, and there's a lot of information and goodies shared around.

The result... speaks for itself.

I don't know how long it takes something like this to build from zero to self-sustaining, but I suspect as publishing morphs, we'll be finding out. Because I don't think any publisher who doesn't offer some kind of brand and loyalty bonus to readers is going to be following the dodo into history's appendix.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

A State of Chaos

At any given time, my life is in a state of chaos. This is not how life is supposed to be. And yet, looking around, I don’t see where it’s all that different for the rest of you.

What do I mean by this? Well, for the last 2 months – at least – I’ve been trying to finish a book I’m writing on spec. However, I really needed to write these proposals. Then this thing called Christmas intruded. Then there were various illnesses – not mine – and the great grades crisis. Events and emergencies swirl around me, sometimes sucking me out of my – I say it is, and you can’t doubt me! – zen like state, to make me do something about them.

Why do I say this is not how it’s supposed to be? Because it’s not how books are. This, of course, is because we lie for a living. And we have to. Anyone writing life as it really is would end up in the remaindered bin, if he got sold at all. In fiction, people want to see a story that has clear lines. (Not that I don’t try to reproduce this real life effect, by creating two or three secondary plots, so that there are other things going on. In past decades, they didn’t do that, hence the much shorter more linear – and better selling – novels.)

In turn, of course, these plots teach us that life is supposed to be orderly and make us really frustrated with our messing lives. Well, make me really frustrated.

A side effect of this is that I’ve found if I don’t take art classes, my writing dries up. Why? Are the brain areas linked? Quite possibly. But, more than that, I think – explaining why just doing art at home is not the same – it makes me shut down the words and follow verbal-visual directions to what I’m doing. This, by itself, rests the mind and brings me back, refreshed to my work. Mind you, I still have to fight the cats and the kids for writing space afterwards, but at least my mind works.

This having to fight life to write is so pronounced that all sorts of people have developed superstitions surround it. The idea that the moment you try to write reality attacks or you cause a hurricane of events around yourself, or whatever, seems to infect most writers at one time or another.

So, the writers out there how do you tell the winds and the waters "be still?" Sometimes it’s amazing to me that anyone manages to create anything at all. Do you as readers ever marvel at it? For everyone – do you think working outside the house would help? Do writers and other artists feel this effect more strongly because our production is not essential except in the monetary sense?

Sound off while I go into my office and try to finish three proposals! I’ll be back intermitently.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Creativity and IQ

(My son, photographed by his sister in an homage to Tim Burton).

I keep coming back to Creativity because it is central to what we do as writers. It is also so hard to quantify. Like editors who, when asked what they are looking for, say 'I'll know when I see it,' Creativity is something we know when we see it.

When I read Terry Pratchett I get a buzz because his books are so wry and clever. They make me smile and they make me groan because the observations of human nature are so accurate. I could probably list a dozen reasons why his books do this, but I couldn't give you a recipe to reproduce a Terry Pratchett book. The final product is greater than the sum of its parts.

It's is like when you go to the movies to see a block buster and it leaves you unmoved. They might have ticked all the boxes, but there's no soul. You can't engage with the protagonist so the movie loses you.

Scientists have been studying creativity and intelligence, trying to understand the correlation. For instance, high IQ doesn't mean sensible. In fact it often means the opposite.

Bruce Charlton, Editor-in-Chief of the journal Medical Hypotheses says,

" suggested explanation for this association between intelligence and personality is that an increasing relative level of IQ brings with it a tendency differentially to over-use general intelligence in problem-solving, and to over-ride those instinctive and spontaneous forms of evolved behaviour which could be termed common sense."

For the full article go here.

According to Scientific American

"... most highly creative people are polymaths- they enjoy and excel at a range of challenging activities. For instance, in a survey of scientists at all levels of achievement, the [researchers] found that only about one sixth report engaging in a secondary activity of an artistic or creative nature, such as painting or writing non-scientific prose. In contrast, nearly all Nobel Prize winners in science have at least one other creative activity that they pursue seriously. Creative breadth, the [researchers] argue, is an important but understudied component of genius."

See here for the article.

Years ago, I read an article about a study done on school kids. They were measured for IQ and Creativity and then much later the researchers did a follow up. High IQ did not mean high job satisfaction or high earnings. But high Creativity led to a higher level of life satisfaction. Of course, being older and wise now, I have to wonder how they measured all these things.

And there is an article on biochemical support for a 'theshold' of creativity. All that primordial soup in our brains, firing off neurons and creating characterisation out of memories and instinct.

According to the scientists, Creative Types had more sex partners.

'Talk about creativity. Professional artists and poets hook up with two or three times as many sex partners as other people, new research indicates. A study of 425 British men and women found the creative types averaged between four and ten partners, while the less creative folks had typically had three.'

I'm not going to ask you guys to either confirm or deny this.

There is also a Fine Line between Creativity and Insanity (as if this is a surprise!).

'History suggests that the line between creativity and madness is a fine one, but a small group of people known as schizotypes are able to walk it with few problems and even benefit from it.'

But, for all the research I did, I couldn't really find a way to define and control creativity. You wish you could on those days when you wake up feeling 'Blah' and you need to write the first draft of your book and you have a deadline.

So how would you define creativity and how do you 'kick start' your own on 'Blah' days?