Monday, August 25, 2014

All kinds of yay

So much happening lately! First, The Farthest Shore comes out tomorrow. This is the one with the race across the ocean, the kraken and one of my strongest heroines ever, because it wasn't easy being interracial way back when, and it's even more difficult when you're caught between two lands fighting a bitter war. On sale at Samhain Publishing, so check it out!

Oh, and it has a great review from Books Without Any Pictures. Check that out too.

The second yay is the fourth book in the series, The Highest Tide. Not only are the edits complete, but it has the best cover in the series so far. I'm waiting impatiently to be allowed to display that.

The third yay is the next book in the series, The Coldest Sea. Just signed the contract for that with Samhain. This series is on a roll.

But wait, there's more! Today I have a guest post over at Jess Haines's blog, on the appeal of sea monsters. All the variations there are on these, the many ways they fascinate and frighten and appeal to readers - and why I make shameless use of them in my stories.

So writing-wise, I've fulfilled my goals for this year, though I am still unable to touch my toes (that was another resolution). I keep stretching and trying, the toes are as far as they have always been. Maybe next year.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

On Writing Romance

Leigh Michaels’ book On Writing Romance: How to Craft a Novel That Sells is a good starting-point for someone interested in writing in this genre, but it also has a few problems that make it a book I can’t recommend.

The book begins with a description of the various sub-genres of romance—and includes gay and erotic romance, which I liked. Michaels goes into detail how to research romances, especially those which depend on a background authors might not be familiar with, and I enjoyed reading this.

The chapter on characterization didn’t offer anything new, though I didn’t disagree with it until I read the list of questions at the end, intended to help writers “get to know” their characters.

What astrological sign was he born under? What kind of music does he enjoy?

Maybe it’s just me, but I’ve never found this kind of “what’s her favorite color” list useful, unless the story will involve colors in some way.

The chapter on conflict was great; I especially liked how Michaels differentiated between the short-term problem which brings the hero and heroine together, and the larger picture which keeps them apart. Not to mention the ways a writer can (inadvertently) sabotage the relationship.

What sank the book for me, though, was the section on dialogue, titled “The Battle of the Sexes”. Well, at least it gives fair warning. This is how you’re supposed to “make your heroine’s dialogue more realistic if you’re a male writer”, because us female writers have that down pat, so we get the section on how to write the hero’s man-talk instead :

Check for aggressiveness (bolding in the text—Marian). Women tend to be indirect and manipulative; even an assertive woman usually considers the effect her statement is likely to have before she makes it. Can you add questions to her dialogue, or add approval-seeking comments and suggestions that masquerade as questions?

When I read this, I turned to the start of the book to check if it was published in 1980. Nope, 2007.

Can I push my assertive, direct heroines into some shy, mealy-mouthed mold? I’m trying to imagine Captain Lera Vanze in my novel The Highest Tide (out from Samhain next year, yay!) saying, “If Seawatch finds out you coerced a seventeen-year-old operative of theirs into a dangerous mission where he was captured and murdered, no one in Dagran waters will be safe. So if you don’t mind, would it be all right if I tried to rescue him?”

Maybe if she was being sarcastic. Lera doesn’t need anyone’s approval. Nor do Yerena, Miri, Alex or any other heroines of mine.

But apparently, what’s self-confidence and competence in a man is aggressiveness (such an unattractive quality!) in a woman.

Check for emotions. Women tend to bubble over with emotion, with the exception that they’re generally hesitant to express anger and tend to do so in a passive or euphemistic manner. If you need your heroine to be angry, can you give her a really good reason for yelling?

My heroines don’t yell. They draw their blades, summon a great white shark out of the ocean, learn to use magic, or figure out other people’s secrets and exploit those ruthlessly.

Just finding these sections to quote annoyed me all over again. Which was a pity, because the last chapter, on revising a manuscript, is helpful and I didn’t notice anything too sexist there. So if you can ignore the part on dialogue, or if it doesn’t bother you, this book could be useful. For my part, though, On Writing Romance won’t be joining my keeper shelf.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Inspired by other authors' styles

I was reading query letters online, and found one for an epic fantasy. I always check those out, but in this one, the writer had mentioned a famous author who was first published in the 1970s. She said she enjoyed his books so much that she wrote in a similar style.

The writer tried to head off critiquers’ concerns by saying that the author’s books were still bestsellers—which they are. But when I read her sample pages, the concerns were justified. The style wouldn’t have been out-of-place at all in the 1970s, but compared to a lot of more recent fantasy novels, there was over-explanation which contributed to the slow pacing. The dialogue tags were heavy on the said-bookisms and adverbs, which have fallen out of favor.

It struck a personal note, because when I first started writing, I was inspired by Richard Adams’ style. So I decided to have snippets of verse at the start of each chapter, just like those in Watership Down.

Thankfully, even in my salad days I had some idea of copyright, so I made up my own verses which would reflect something of the plot in each chapter. This might still have worked if I’d kept the poetry short, but at best these were four to six lines.

Plus, let’s just say I am not a born poet.

That being said, there’s nothing wrong with admiring other writers’ styles and wanting to achieve the same effects. But this works better when we don’t take that style on board wholesale.

Instead, identify different elements of the style and see which ones work best. I love Jack Vance’s imagination in his Tschai series, and I try to capture the effortlessly inventive, otherworldly flair of his descriptions when it comes to clothes and food in my fantasy novels. But I wouldn’t copy his characters’ uniformly stilted way of speaking.

And some books may sell because the authors are very well-established in a genre, rather than because their styles have kept up with modern trends. For me, the nostalgia factor comes into play when I read certain older books, and because they’re older, I’m willing to overlook problems in their style. But books published these days—where there’s orders of magnitude more to read than there was in the 70’s—don’t have that buffer zone.

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Alienating readers with swears

From time to time on the Absolute Write discussion board, certain writers criticize the practice of using swears in fiction.

I’ve seen “swearing is lazy and uncreative”. I’ve also seen “swearing limits sales” – and if so, great, I want to sell as few copies as George R. R. Martin does. But recently, a writer made a more impassioned version of this last argument, to the effect that, just by choosing a specific genre, we’re alienating readers. Why alienate them further by including four-letter-words?

He went on to say that no one ever discarded a book because it didn’t have swears, whereas certain readers do toss books for containing, say, the f-word. Therefore, weighing everything in the balance logically (and reminding me a bit of Pascal’s Wager, for some reason), we should avoid swears.

So, what are the flaws in this argument?

1. The most important one, for me, is that to be consistent, you’d have to apply this “how many readers might I alienate by including X? By writing Y?” filter to everything. So, before you wrote a sex scene, you’d have to consider how many readers prefer so-called clean romance. Then you’d have to weigh how many readers enjoy sex scenes. Do you count them up and go with the majority?

And some readers are vegans, so how many of them would you lose if your characters eat meat? Some readers don’t drink. Are your characters enjoying a glass of wine?

As K. J. Charles, an author of m/m romance put it, “'I don't want to upset anyone' is a useful mantra for people who write...advertising copy, I guess? Not fiction.”

It’s a much better idea to appeal to your target market and not try to reel in everyone. They still don’t give out Most Unlikely To Offend awards at conventions.

2. The second thing the anti-swearing writer overlooked was that swears have impact. That’s why people use them. Consider : which would have worked better? Molly Weasley shouting, “Don’t hurt my daughter” or “Not my daughter, you bitch”? That word delivered a pow.

3. Very often, attempts to avoid swears while still retaining the power and impact of those words results in authors using alternatives that don’t work so well. They may make up some variation like “fupping”. Any reader can see through that, and every reader will realize it’s a rather spineless attempt to eat your cake and have it.

Or the author may try for some pseudo-swear that jars with the rest of the dialogue. “Tarnation, the casualty lists just came in!” “Got the dratted napalm right here!” This sort of dialogue never sounds authentic (and readers do stop reading books for this reason!). I’m reminded of this review:

Radford also ill-advisedly comes up with an all-purpose swear-word for her characters, and it completely throws you out of any mythic sense you might be experiencing when someone inanely blurts out "S'murgh you!"

In the end, I’d rather be true to my characters and my story than worry that I was alienating readers who probably wouldn’t be my target market anyway. Besides, I don't agree with Mormonism, but I enjoyed Orson Scott Card's novel Saints. I don't agree with Objectivism, but I liked Atlas Shrugged. If I don't need my reading material to exactly reflect my personal views, maybe other people will feel the same way too. Readers may not want to swear or fight pirates or go anywhere near a shark. But if I write well enough, they’ll understand why my characters do.

ETA : Also, check out Good Bad Language, a blog post by K. J. Charles. Because this post covered another anti-swearing suggestion I've seen, the idea that we could substitute "He swore violently" and thereby avoid the dreaded f-word. A bit like how we could write "He made love passionately" and do without sex scenes, I suppose.

Thursday, July 3, 2014


Movies based on Stephen King’s novels or short stories tend to be hit or miss for me. I didn’t think 1408 was a waste of time, but it did drag in places, and unlike Misery, it wasn’t the kind of film that’s likely to stay in my memory for a long time afterwards.

The premise is simple: an author called Mike Enslin goes around staying in various haunted-house locations to expose them as shams. No such things as ghosts. It’s later revealed he’s an atheist whose only child has died. Just once, I’d like to see or read about a happy, well-adjusted atheist. I live in hope, unlike our hero.

Anyway, Mike gets an anonymous postcard from the Dolphin Hotel, warning him not to stay in 1408. Naturally, he high-tails it there, but the manager warns him not to go in. Mike holds his hand out for the key, opens the door and says, “This is it? It’s just a room.”

One thing I liked right away was that there were no attempts to “dress up” the paranormal element. No ancient Indian burial ground or satanic cult is responsible for what happens: 1408 is simply an evil room which causes people to commit suicide, and no one has lasted more than an hour.

At first, it all seems mundane. But then things start happening: the clock-radio starts up on its own, then resets the time to 60:00 and begins the countdown. When Mike tries to open the door, the key breaks off in the lock.

The film has a ton of moments intended to make viewers jump, and I jumped. But those aren’t what I feel is real horror. Real horror is something that keeps me awake at night thinking about it. There’s a chill factor, as opposed to a scare factor, and the film only had two of those really disturbing moments. They were great, but they couldn’t make up for the rest.

The first such scene is when Mike, trying to summon help from the window, sees a man in the building opposite. This man’s window is directly across, and when Mike waves his arms frantically, the man sees him and comes to the window. He waves back. Mike mimics “call the police”, and the man copies his actions. Mike’s desperation gives way to bewilderment as the man reflects his every move.

That really was creepy.

But then it gets better. A figure steps up behind the man and hits him with a hammer. Mike spins around, only to find the same figure attacking him. It’s an illusion, but an effective one.

Then Mike climbs out the window and inches his way along the ledge to the window of the next room. I was convinced he’d reach the open window and find himself right back in 1408. Still, it was suspenseful watching him move along the ledge, limbs spread for balance, counting off the steps. Then he looks sideways to see how much further he has to go—and there are no other windows. None at all. The camera pulls back to show a sheer brick wall.

I loved those two tricks. Unfortunately, everything else the room did was kind of—not predictable, exactly, but without significance. It didn’t matter if the room was splitting open or crashing in, because I knew it wasn’t going to destroy itself. And the room also makes it clear that Mike has to kill himself.

“…all guests of this hotel enjoy free will, Mr. Enslin. You can choose to relive this hour over and over, or you can take advantage of our express checkout system.”

On cue, a noose drops from the ceiling. Yet what the room really inflicts on him is terror and despair. That’s bad, granted, but no body parts are being cut off, nor is anyone else in jeopardy. Besides, if you know that everything you see is being caused by an evil room, then you’re not likely to wonder if you’re losing your mind.

In the end, Mike destroys the room with a bottle of brandy he turns into a Molotov cocktail. The room is perhaps aware that the film had to end, so it burns up. There’s a final attempt to wring a little more scare from the story by having Mike hear his daughter’s voice on his tape recorder, but it just didn’t work. As far as hotels go, the Overlook from The Shining is far more disturbing.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Five reasons to warn writers about scams

Why do watchdogs like Writer Beware warn people about literary scams?

Why not allow those people to either indulge their publishing fantasies with a stealth vanity press/fake agent, or do the research and get away? That way, the savvy writers will be fine and the rest will get to play pretend. Most manuscripts are unpublishable anyway, so for many of those writers the vanity press may be their only chance to see their names in print.

This is a paraphrase of an argument I once read. The idea is to practice the literary equivalent of Social Darwinism, allowing scams to cull the naïve or inexperienced from the herd and operating on the assumption that such victims are unpublishable and always will be unpublishable. So it’s no loss.

This idea has a surprising number of proponents. But what’s the problem with this again?

1. A crime is a crime.

If it’s wrong to rip off a brilliant and experienced writer, it should also be wrong to rip off a naïve person who can’t string three words together. That the latter may be easier to do doesn’t change the fact that something unethical has been done.

2. Who gets to decide?

A lot of writers produce unpublishable slush when they first start out. I know I did. But does that mean that these writers will never improve, and therefore it’s all right for someone to sucker them into a scam?

I don’t think so.

No one has the right to decide that a writer, any writer, is so unskilled and so incapable of improvement that he or she deserves to be saddled with illusions and empty promises (and debts, in the worst case scenario). If the writers sign up with a questionable agent or a vanity press knowing what to expect and aware of potential problems, that’s different. But even if they’re naïve or desperate, they still have a right to hear the truth.

No writer deserves to be taken advantage of.

3. You don’t know what you don’t know.

Writers don’t emerge from the womb with a copy of Ten Percent of Nothing in their chubby little fists (and even that book doesn’t cover all the myriad forms a literary scam can take). They have to learn. Some learn from actual publishers or from experienced writers, but some learn from a scammer or that scammer’s defenders.

If writers don’t know any better, they may take that as the truth. Scams are nothing if not slick and plausible.

4. The truth doesn’t stay hidden.

”I believe you sincerely are trying to be helpful, but you are… taking away the sense of a fulfillment and accomplishment they should be feeling for being in print by focusing on what REAL publishers do for REAL writers.”

The problem is that this sense of accomplishment won’t last long. Vanity presses – especially the kind which try to pass themselves off as real publishers – give writers a feeling of success, but this feeling is unlikely to survive contact with bookstores, impartial reviewers and the writer’s first royalty check (or lack thereof). Writers soon realize that their books have no sales other than what they provide. They realize that the glow of gold at the end of their rainbow was the luminescence of radioactive waste.

And the letdown is all the worse as a result. The hard work and frustration involved in polishing one’s writing and getting rejections is nothing compared to knowing that you were taken for a ride, that you believed the lies, and that others knew it but said nothing.

Finally, there’s no such thing as a REAL writer/fake writer distinction. We’re all writers.

5. The argument from self-righteousness.

It’s easy to think, “I would be too smart to fall for that. Therefore you deserve what you got.” Sometimes it’s genuinely difficult for experienced writers to see how anyone could not do the research and learn about the scam.

But when you’re down-hearted from too many rejections and someone says they believe in your work, that produces an emotional high which overrides caution.

Even doing the research doesn’t always work as it’s supposed to. Someone who’s unfamiliar with publishing may not understand why established publishers are safer than “getting in on the ground floor” of an eager new company. I once contacted two writers who had been with PublishAmerica originally, but had moved on to self-publishing. I said I was looking for a publisher for my first novel, and did they have any suggestions?

They both recommended PublishAmerica, without a hint of any problems that I would face by following their suggestion.

Anyone can be deceived under the right circumstances. That’s why we warn writers about scams.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Passionate Ink

I like reading books about writing, and erotic anything is a hot genre these days, no pun intended. So when I saw Angela Knight’s Passionate Ink: A Guide to Writing Erotic Romance, released by Loose Id, I had to give it a try.

This book is ideal for writers new to the erotic romance genre. The author explains the distinction between romance (which relies heavily on sexual tension) and erotic romance (where the characters are having sex, and plenty of it). Under those circumstances, something else will have to keep the characters apart—either their own personalities or some external conflict, or both.

There are plenty of examples from the author’s books, with the author adding notes throughout to show what she was trying to do in terms of intensifying conflict and deepening the relationship. I also appreciated the warning about what can happen if you tease your readership too much. The more you build up the anticipation leading to the sex, the better that needs to be.

The example given here is of one book where this buildup lasted for hundreds of pages. When it finally did happen, it didn’t last very long (due to the author, not due to the hero) and the impression that gave was of an author who wasn’t really comfortable with writing about sex. Hence the protracted teasing which lead up to a fizzle. Personally, I’m fine with fade-to-black in novels like Gone with the Wind, but yeah, if I pick up a hot romance I want heat.

Another such EroFail is when the sex is too emotionally heavy—for insstance, one of the characters is severely scarred from rape. This can work great in other genres. But in erotic romance, the reader expects lots of exciting sex. If the sex comes off as difficult or heartbreaking because of the characters’ physical/emotional wounds, this might be tough to pull off.

One thing I didn’t like about this book was the author’s heavy reliance on alpha males—basically, 200-pound guys who sweat testosterone, who are always ready for “a fight or a fuck”. Even if these are common in erotic romance, I would have loved to see more nuances here. I’m not asking for a man who’s shy or passive. I just want to see someone who would rather outthink the villain than outfight him.

But I did appreciate the her suggestions for how to write an erotic novella or a short story. There really isn’t much room here for the hero and heroine (or other hero) to meet for the first time, so it helps if they have a past history, especially a past romantic history. I used to wonder about whether a romance could be compressed into a short story a la Ellora’s Cave’s Quickies, and this went far towards answering that question.

The book also includes notes on fight scenes, medieval battles, the difference between plate and mail and why the designs of swords changed—which I wasn’t expecting. It’s an unexpected bonus in an erotic-writing book.

From a physics standpoint, a gun that could send somebody flying would also send you flying in the opposite direction when you fired it. So resist the urge to knock somebody through a plate glass window with a bullet.

But it looked so amazing in Blade Runner!

Finally, there’s an appendix of non-fiction books dealing with sex, BDSM, etc. I didn’t go through this in any detail, but that’s because this is a very comprehensive book that covers a lot of angles, which meant I needed to finish it quick and return it to the library. Not a gotta-have-it-forever keeper, but definitely an engaging and useful read.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

On the waterfront

I visited the Toronto harborfront recently when I heard some tours of boats were available. Always a good idea to do hands-on research, even though the ships I'm writing about at the moment aren't at the same level of technology. But it was a fun experience and I took some pictures.

I like ships and planes. This one got them both in the same shot.

Here I am taking the wheel on the Mariposa cruise boat Rosemary. Twin diesel engines, 1064 hp, 14 feet wide, 60 feet long. Yacht certified for "sheltered water", meaning she has to stay within 1 nautical mile of the shore.

I'm on the bridge of the much larger Mariposa cruise ship Captain Matthew Flinders. Three decks and can hold 575 people. The captain also provided some interesting details of what it's like on the bridge, e.g. at night, the bridge is kept completely dark so that the crew can see everything outside easily.

Ducks don't like having pictures taken of them.

The swan was more laid back about it.

It was fun, though I still wish I could have a few hours on an actual sailing ship. Some day...

Saturday, May 10, 2014

The soulmate trope

There are a lot of romance tropes that I can take or leave, but for some reason, this one gets under my skin. Maybe because it has the potential to be fascinating, but so often it leads to romances with glaring power imbalances, or where there’s no real conflict once the hero and heroine meet each other. Because, after all, they’re soulmates so that means they’re perfect for each other.

For the purposes of my mini-rant, I’m going to define “soulmate” as someone who’s been destined for the main character, rather than someone who’s right for them but who hasn’t been preordained as their only choice by some higher power. So here are the problems I have with the trope, and a few ways to fix them.

1. Everyone else is automatically inferior.

No matter how much they care about the protagonist or how much he/she loves them, every other person they might be involved with is shown to be inferior or is forced to step aside when the soulmate shows up. In one case, the author flat-out made it clear that only a designated soulmate could actually love the protagonist.

Of course, that raised the question of whether the protagonist was naturally unlovable, such that someone had to be preprogrammed to care for him. Solution: don’t denigrate freely chosen love to make soulmates a more attractive choice (or the only choice). I’d love to read a romance where the hero found his soulmate, except she was happily married to another man and wanted to stay that way, even if she was with the hero too. Hey, menages are popular these days.

2. Obsessiveness or unhealthy controlling behavior on the part of either person is excused.

In two different stories I’ve read, the hero is a powerful immortal being while the heroine is an ordinary mortal. Fine, I’d prefer them to be on a more equal footing but I’ll go with this. But then I find out that, knowing they were soulmates, he watched her from the time she was a baby until it would no longer be statutory rape (under US law, of course, never mind the time and place of the story) for him to make a move.

This might have been presented in an "I'm watching over you like a sexy guardian angel" way, but I don't find it romantic. It's a violation of privacy. I mean, did these men even look away when the little girls took a bath?

Still, this works for some readers, because not everyone thinks it was creepy of Edward to watch Bella while she was sleeping.

3. “The universe will put a gun to my head if you don’t love me.”

In other words, unless the MC finds his preordained love interest, he will go insane, turn evil, be stuck in wolf form forever, etc.

For me, this puts far too much pressure on the love interest. I wouldn’t date a man who said he would die unless I did so—I’d think he was desperate or mentally unbalanced. Even if I had proof that yes, he would die without my affection, I’d admire him much more for trying to find the root cause of his problem, rather than sticking me as the Band-Aid over it.

This is my biggest problem with all soulmate stories where the failure to find a soulmate means insanity or death. Why has no one ever attempted to investigate this phenomenon, much less change it? These days, scientists are even studying the causes of aging, to see if lives can be extended, so you'd think that if everyone knows they have death or worse hanging over their heads, they'd try to investigate it or look for a third option.

If they don’t, either the author has created the most fatalistic, incurious population ever. Or they've all read the script and know they’ll be provided with a love interest.

I'd love to see a soulmate story where someone didn't accept that the rules were carved in stone. It would be awesome if the hero and heroine, without the usual insta-love between them initially, worked together to find a solution and fell for each other along the way.

4. No real exploration of what it means to be a soulmate.

If there’s some higher power handing out soulmates, what’s the reasoning behind the choices this higher power makes on behalf of the protagonists? It’s easy to say “a soulmate is someone who will love you and make you happy”. But that just raises the question of how this is different from someone you meet on your own, someone who doesn’t have a star on their forehead that lights up when you meet them, but who admires you and cares about you anyway.

For instance, is a soulmate someone whose personality matches yours or complements it? Does a soulmate think the same way you do, so if you’ve decided not to have children, the soulmate doesn’t want to have children either? But say you change your mind later. If the soulmate obediently goes along with the new decision, then they’re not a different person—they’re your reflection in a mirror.

On the other hand, if the soulmate has their own goals and needs, some of which conflict with the protagonist’s in a way that’s not easily resolved, that could be interesting. This would be a great example of the trope being used the right way—to bring the hero and heroine together, but as the start of the conflict rather than the end of it.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Sharkpunk bookmarks

These were fun to make, and I can include them with giveaway copies of The Deepest Ocean.

Not sure if the tiny fish who's in some of the bookmarks is a pilot fish or a snack.

On a completely unrelated note, the Cover Cafe's 2013 contest entries are up. My favorite category is always the Worst Cover, and this time there are some genuinely freaky ones, like the woman with the two mannequins or prosthetic-less Borg. Check them out and vote!