Friday, September 19, 2014

Foodskin descriptions


















In a sample of a book on Amazon, I read that a character had “mocha skin”.

This didn’t make me close the window. I’m brown-skinned, but I don’t feel offended by these kinds of descriptions. But it did make a change in the way I was reading the book. Suddenly the enjoyment level had lowered, and instead I was alert for any further such descriptions.

Sure enough, there it was again. The second character with “mocha skin”. And at that point, I stopped reading.

I thought about this, and realized why foodskin descriptions don’t work for me.

1. They’re cliched.

Chocolate, caramel, mocha, coffee, cinnamon, hazelnut. Chances are, the description is going to involve one of these. I’m guessing if someone has Nutella skin, since this is both chocolate and hazelnut, it means this person has TWO brown parents.

The worst is from a blurb I once read:

…all he could think about was her long, slender, mocha colored legs wrapped high around his cream colored hips.

“Maybe they’ll have a frappucino colored baby,” I thought.

So if a book hits a note I’ve heard once too often, I’m going to subconsciously wonder if there are other tired, stale descriptions. This isn’t a frame of mind that lends itself to enjoying a story.

That said, if the book is amazing, I can overlook flaws. I love Gone with the Wind despite the portrayals of black people. But if an author hasn’t written the Great American Novel, it’s safer to correct mistakes.

2. They give me the impression the author is uncomfortable with the words “brown” or “black”.

This impression may be completely off. But it’s still what I come away with. These are disturbing words and therefore they need to be prettied up, or expressed in terms of synonyms.

I’m brown-skinned. I think of my skin as brown. It doesn’t offend me at all to be called brown. No need to reach for “tea” or “coconut” or “demerara sugar”. Just call me brown.

Brown.

One writer said the reason she repeated “chocolate skin” was to emphasize to the readers that these characters were people of color. That was an admirable intention, but unfortunately it’s likely to turn off readers who are tired of such descriptions (or who notice that it’s never applied to white characters). Plus, if certain readers are determined to see characters as white-with-a-tan, then whatever you say doesn’t matter.

So you could find some less cliched description. Coppery or earth-dark skin sounds attractive to me, without the overuse/fetishizing factor of food.

Or just say black or brown.

Image from Creative Commons

Monday, September 15, 2014

Fanfic writers and artistic rights


Some time ago, there was a discussion on Absolute Write about fanfiction, so I peeked into the thread. It was interesting to read, but there was one claim I disagreed with : the assertion that fanfic writers have a right to the characters that original authors create. All quotes in blue are paraphrased from that discussion.

“Not a legal right, but an artistic right.”

I was puzzled as to what gave fanfic writers this artistic right when they hadn’t created the characters.

“They love the characters.”

Is love alone enough to establish any sort of right over someone else’s intellectual property? I like the original Transformers cartoon, and my favorite characters from it are the Stunticons. I heart these incredibly dysfunctional ‘cons and have written a lot of fanfics about them—fanfics which developed them far more than the cartoon did. Readers have often told me how they never noticed or cared about these minor background characters before encountering my fics.

But I don’t own the Stunticons in any way, nor do I feel entitled to any such rights.

Because I didn’t create them.

“Your characters are like your children. Once you publish them, it’s analogous to their growing up. You don’t have any more control over them after that.”

Well, if we’re pursuing this (bizarre, IMO) analogy, then a fanfic writer who feels an artistic right to my characters doesn’t get that either, because my characters didn’t consent to it.

“I don’t believe characters can be owned by anyone.”

It’s nice if you believe that I can’t own or control my characters, but the thing is… I’m the person who thought about them and wrote about them and got them published. They didn’t exist before that.

Here’s the other thing. If I write a future novel where, say, Alyster and Miri from The Farthest Shore separate for some reason (which they never will; together forever, those two, but humor me for the purpose of this discussion), and a fanfic writer pens a similar novel where they stay together despite their differences, guess which one will be canon?

The fanfic writer can swear on a stack of Kama Sutras that his/her vision is more artistically true to the characters. More romantic than what I wrote. What the characters would want. It still doesn’t make a difference to whose version is the official one, and who gets to say what happens to the characters.

Possession is nine-tenths of the law. And I possess all my heroes, oh yes I do. Heroines too, of course. And villains, mustn't leave them out.

“Trying to own characters is like trying to own people.”

At this point I realized my worldview and that of the person making this claim were so far apart that there was no point in continuing the discussion. A slavery comparison is only one step away from Godwin’s Law.

Plus, as I said, I don’t consider my characters to be real, actual, living people entitled to all the same rights and freedoms that real, actual, living people have.

I don’t care if someone else feels their characters can’t be owned. Do whatever you like with the characters you come up with—renounce copyright, let them roam free, whatever. But I don’t have to humor any such claims about my creations. And now I’m off to make more of them.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

How I found a cover artist


The previous process for cover art was simple. I filled out a form with a brief plot summary, the motifs and elements I’d like to see on the cover, and short descriptions of the hero and heroine. Then I sent it off to my editor.

But now what was I to do about my novellas “Secret Water” and “Silent Water”? I felt at sea. No pun intended.

One thing I was sure of was that I didn’t want an obvious Photoshop product with a title slapped on a stock image. I saw enough of those when I was putting together a thread about PublishAmerica’s covers. That ruled out doing the cover myself.

In the Cover Design forum on Absolute Write, I browsed the thread where designers offered contact information and showed examples of their work. The sheer variety was a little overwhelming, but I didn’t have much money to spend. That automatically ruled out any covers which might be $200 or more. Having to buy two would double the cost, though. :(

Then it occurred to me there might be another way to save money while still having a good cover.

The novellas feature the same character in the same setting. Why not have the cover be the same except for a change in one obvious, striking motif? Just like the covers in an erotica series where each features legs, but the color of the shoes is altered. That way I could afford one great cover, rather than two mediocre covers, while still showing that the novellas were different.

So I picked out a few cover designers from the thread and emailed them. All responded promptly, and all of them said that since the covers were going to be the same except for the title and one change, they could offer a large discount on the second one. I’ll keep them in mind for the future, but the one I decided to go with was a bit of an unexpected late addition to my list.

I’d liked Amber Feldkamp’s premade covers when they first appeared on AW, but when I originally browsed her website there was none with a shark fin image and the site said she wasn’t doing custom covers at the time. For some reason I checked the website again after I’d emailed the other designers, and that had changed. She was accepting requests, so I jumped on it.

Amber created a mockup fast. Speed alone wouldn’t have won me over, because one thing you get used to in trade publishing is waiting, but there was something else I really liked about one of the images she’d chosen. With other designers, I’d said one of the elements I wanted was a woman on a rock overlooking the sea. They sent images of women lounging (no) or sitting (which I was OK with).

Amber sent a picture of a woman standing with an outflung arm, as if she was holding back the tide. This stance hadn’t occurred to me, but once I saw the image I knew it was right.

This is why covers are one of the nerve-wracking things about self-publishing, for me. No regrets, but I’m very much aware I’m in charge of something I’m not overly familiar with. Thankfully Amber knew what she was doing. Her positioning of the title was brilliant. And I knew better than to get overly specific (“the woman should be wearing an ankle-length gunmetal grey dress with a blue belt and a knife hanging at her right hip and…”) or to request too many elements on the cover.

All I really wanted was the woman, the sea, the shark’s fin in the water and the moon overhead. The moon was the element which would change: blue for one novella, red for the other. I also requested that my name be on the bottom in a typeface that mirrored that on my Samhain books, to show they’re in the same series.

I’ll be posting the covers here as soon as I can.

Friday, September 12, 2014

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Self-Publish















I’ve been thinking about self-publishing for some time now. Of course, I also think about getting more exercise, and all that thinking does me a lot of good.

But anyway. Self-publishing has gone through rapid changes, and I’m not the kind of person who wants to be on the cutting edge, keeping abreast of every new development. I like being published by a company which will handle the cover art and editing and formatting, and I intend to try for this at every opportunity.

Last year, though, I considered putting a short story up just to test the waters. So I emailed a friend of mine called Merri Hiatt.

Merri was a fellow romance writer who died unexpectedly this year, but she lived life to the fullest, especially when it came to writing. She started from scratch—making her covers herself, learning along the way—and what I liked most about her approach was how businesslike she was. Her progress with multiple series was charted with spreadsheets and sales. No “Success is holding my book in my hands” for her; she counted numbers.

I asked Merri where to start, and she sent me a copy of the Smashwords Style Guide. Let’s just say I am not a technical person and found this a bit overwhelming. Since I didn’t need to have the short story out this way (submitting to magazines was an option), I shelved my self-publishing plans.

But then this year, my novel The Deepest Ocean came out, and a couple of the reviews mentioned wanting to see more of the heroine and her great white shark. This gave me ideas for a couple of novellas and I wrote them in a white-hot streak of creativity.

Except these didn't fit my publisher's requirements, and since they featured the characters (and shark) from the novel, they couldn't be sent elsewhere. In other words, they were ideal for self-publishing.

The question was how much I’d have to spend in advance. There are several reasons I like commercial publishing, but a major one is that there’s no money out of my pocket beforehand. This post by self-published writer S. L. Huang is especially interesting, because she spent more than $2000 on her book.

Though as she points out, the reason this price was so high was because she wanted to reach a certain minimum production standard. I didn’t plan to bring the novellas out in paperback, so typesetting wasn’t needed. There were a few other areas I could cut costs as well.

But for now, I’ve taken the first step to becoming a hybrid author—and that step is to have written something that’s right for self-publishing. I don't know if the novellas will sell, but that's a risk I'm prepared to take. A risk I'm comfortable with. I'm mentally prepared for this journey in a way I wasn't before.

So let the voyage begin. I’ll be charting the rest of the steps here as I go along. Wish me luck!


Wednesday, September 10, 2014

House of Stairs




If you are ever forced to choose which futuristic dystopia you’ll live in, that of The Hunger Games or that of William Sleator’s House of Stairs, please, please pick Panem. Even if you’re chosen as a tribute, the worst that will happen is that you’ll die.

And what’s really scary is that Sleator’s book was written in 1974.

The story begins very simply. Sixteen-year-old Peter, an orphan living in a state home, is blindfolded and taken elsewhere. When he’s allowed to see again, he’s in a vast white room filled with nothing but stairs.

Without railings they rose and fell at alarming angles, forking, occasionally spiraling, rising briefly together only to veer apart again, crossing above and below one another, connected at rare intervals by thin bridges spanning deep gulfs.

I love bizarre houses, mazes and strange testing grounds. This is all three.

Left to his own devices, Peter would close his eyes and wait for punishment, but he quickly meets another teenager, Lola. A juvenile delinquent, she’s got all the toughness he lacks, and they discover the one source of food in their new world. Located on a landing, it’s a machine which dispenses pellets (cooked meat, though neither of them are used to that) when they do what it wants them to do.

One by one the other involuntary participants in the experiment—handsome, manipulative Oliver, uncertain Abigail and Blossom, who’s the most dangerous—gravitate to the food source. From there, the five of them try to make sense of what’s happened. The machine quickly conditions them to do a repetitive dance for their meals—and never quite dispenses enough for them to be satiated.

Once that foundation has been laid, though, the machine slowly but inexorably rewards them for a whole new set of behavior patterns—harming each other. Here’s where the nightmare really begins.

I’m not going to spoil the ending. I’ll just say that while no one dies, what happens is not at all predictable, and the horror grows to Lord of the Flies-esque proportions. And then the experiment ends, so I breathed a sigh of relief—except for the denouement and explanation that unfolded in the epilogue. Which was even more horrifying, because it shows what the United States has become (this is why even Panem would be preferable) and because it ends with a six-word sentence that is utterly chilling.

At least with the Hunger Games, if you won, that was a good thing. You could go home. Not so here.

If you’re getting burned out on YA dystopias, you need to read this. No love triangles—no romance, period—just a meticulously crafted psychological thriller. House of Stairs is unforgettable.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Romance and Rohypnol


I don’t normally rant here, but in a manuscript offered for critique, I came across a scene which made me see red.

The tough, kickass heroine has two men in her life: the hero and her best friend. Both are, of course, overprotective of her, but because of some problems she hasn’t been sleeping well recently. So the best friend gives her a nice hot drink to help her relax, and she keels over a minute later. “I crushed some pills into it,” he explains to the hero.

“Seriously, dude?” says the hero (okay, that’s paraphrased), and as the friend shuffles his feet in embarrassment at this small gaffe he’s made, the hero carries the heroine to a bed so he can lay her down, tuck her in, smooth her hair and think how gorgeous she is. So basically, that’s the whole point of her being knocked out. Yes, she might be tough and kickass when she’s conscious, but now she’s just vulnerable and beautiful.

The manuscript was already getting so much criticism that I decided not to pile in, but I wondered what made me react so strongly to this. It’s not personally triggering. And I’ve read a lot worse. There are romance novels where the hero pays someone to sexually assault the heroine and where the hero sets the heroine up to be gang-raped.

Compared to that, slipping her a drug isn’t even something I’ve never read before. In one novel, the hero gives the heroine laudanum after she’s told him she’s pregnant with his child, to calm her down enough that she won’t struggle when he has sex with her. There’s another where the hero drugs the heroine twice, the second time after he knows he’s in love with her (the first time, he just undresses and ogles her).

I’ve also heard of this being done at least once in reverse—the heroine drugging the hero’s drink so that he’ll stay out of some battle. Notice that in this case, there’s no sexual component to it. But drugging someone’s drink never comes off as protective to me. Yes, in real life it’s the prelude to date rape, but even in the context of fiction it doesn’t work.

For one thing, if the person you love settles problems between the two of you by knocking you out, how do you know this won’t happen again in the future? If one drink was spiked, and if this wasn’t treated as the betrayal of trust and violation of bodily autonomy that it is, why shouldn’t the other person do it again some time?

We won’t even get into how creepy it is for someone to take advantage of you while you’re unconscious, whether it’s to remove your clothes or just to gaze lovingly lecherously at you. The men I want to read about are the men who wouldn’t do anything to a sleeping/incapacitated woman that they wouldn’t do a woman wide awake.

The other thing is that while the rape of a heroine is sometimes—maybe even often—addressed as something the hero needs to make up for, drugging the heroine rarely if ever is. Sometimes, this isn’t even something she’ll be told about. It’s that unimportant.

And yet it’s dangerous to just dump sedatives in someone’s drink, something none of these romances address. What if it’s too much or the person has an adverse reaction to that particular drug? Yes, in fiction, the person just goes to sleep and wakes up later with no ill effects—nowhere near as bad as what happened to Tammy Homolka—but that doesn’t change the fact that a life was put at risk without that person’s consent or knowledge.

And if I’m then asked to like whoever was responsible, that’s too much.

Here ends the rant.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

The Ghost and the Darkness




When I’m working on certain stories, I like background sound to match. The most recent WIP was set in an Africa-esque land, so I borrowed The Ghost and The Darkness from the library. Maybe I should have gotten Zulu instead.

The story behind the film is fascinating. In 1898, construction workers on the Kenya-Uganda railway were repeatedly attacked by two man-eating lions, who were finally shot by the project supervisor, Colonel Patterson. Patterson claimed the lions had killed over 130 of the workers. Whether that’s true or not, what I found most chilling was that the lions ignored, got through or escaped nearly all of the traps and defenses set up for them. So I settled in to watch.

I’ll start with the pros. Robert Beaumont, the financier behind the railway, is delightfully nasty, though perhaps I enjoyed him more because Val Kilmer’s Colonel Patterson is a such a bland good guy. Some of the minor characters like Abdullah are fun too. The lions in the film were real and the scenery is beautiful.

What prevents this from being Jaws-in-the-savanna is that Patterson is no Quint or Brody. True, anyone would be taken aback by a lion which doesn’t just attack at night, but stalks into the camp by day—and as Patterson aims his gun, he hears a growl from above him, the first indication of the second lion. That’s all good.

But the film then leaps ahead to thirty men having been killed, which made me wonder what on earth Patterson was doing for all that time. It might have been better not to stick close to reality here. Patterson finally builds a trap where the entering lion will set off a tripwire which seals it into a double-compartmented cage. The second compartment contains three armed men who will shoot the lion through the bars.

They all go to sleep. When the lion trips the trap, none of them put the barrels of their rifles between the bars. Instead they just fire, bullets ricocheting every which way until one such shot actually frees the (completely unhurt) lion, which runs off while the Three Stooges knock over a lantern and nearly burn themselves alive. Something similar happened in real life, but honestly, being faithful to the incident didn’t do the film any favors. I just wondered why in the world Patterson didn’t get into the cage himself. Or throw the lion poisoned meat. Or turn some dogs loose on it—didn’t they have Rhodesian Ridgebacks at the time?

Or hell, just wait for it to die of old age. Anything would have been better than what they did.

Then Remington shows up. He’s a big-game hunter who has something like twenty armed and painted Maasai on his side, and those are experienced lion hunters. I eagerly watched the Maasai ceremony, complete with the drinking of a cow’s blood, to prepare everyone for the lion hunt the next day.

Patterson, the idiot, swaps guns with someone else, doesn’t test out the new weapon he’s unfamiliar with, gets a misfire when he tries to shoot a lion who looms up before him, and does not get et for the sole reason that he is Val Kilmer, star of the film. Then the Maasai go home. I’m not kidding; the twenty armed and painted warriors, who have done nothing other than show up and do a ritual dance, decide the lions are evil spirits, and that’s the last we see of them.

To cap it all, there’s then a scene where Kilmer’s—I mean Patterson’s wife and baby come to visit him. As he’s running towards them, the lion appears, and the wife doesn’t seem to see or hear the Africans fleeing, the lion leaping or her husband screaming. Yep, it’s a dream. Like anyone really thought they would kill off the hero’s wife and child.

The Ghost and The Darkness was atmospheric and I liked the soundtrack, but other than the farcial aspects of the plot, there isn’t much else to recommend this.


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.