Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Last post of 2008!

It was an interesting year.

I learned a lot about writing and publishing this year. The importance of keeping plots un-linear, and what to do and not do when querying or signing up with an agent were top of the list.

I subscribed to Publishers Lunch and will work towards getting my name in it some day. There was Black Wednesday and there were vanity presses of all types. But there were also some wonderful success stories. And I connected with dozens more writers online. It’s great to be part of a community.

It wasn’t the best of times, but it wasn’t the worst of times either.

I read too many entertaining books to count, though there’s still no sign of A Dance with Dragons. I checked Martin’s website just now, in a hopeful “if I refresh it just one more time, maybe something will have changed” way, but no luck. Still, that’s something to look forward to next year.

This blog began… and ran… and doesn’t show any signs of stopping.

In other news, Enya released a CD called And Winter Came. I like “Oh Come, Oh Come Emmanuel”, but my favorite is “White is in the Winter Night” – it’s fresh and energetic and has me singing along happily as I write this.

It’s a good way to end one year. It’s a good way to start another.

I hope you all have a wonderful New Year.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Jones Harvest Publishing

Yesterday I read of a blog entry which apparently mistook Victoria Strauss of Writer Beware for a publisher. Then again, the blogger also mistook Lee Goldberg for a woman (and also a publisher). I was intrigued and read further, learning that the inaccurate blog was written by the owner of Jones Harvest Publishing.

Jones Harvest Publishing (JHP) was formed by Brien Jones, a former employee of Airleaf Publishing. Airleaf was a literary fraud which was shut down by the Indiana Attorney General after over 450 scammed authors joined forces against it. I decided to take a look at the JHP website.

Under the company’s name are the words “Co-op publishing for new authors”. That’s two red flags in five words. “Co-op” is a euphemism for “vanity”, and new authors are often too inexperienced to spot the warning signs of such a vanity press.

On the plus side, the website didn’t contain a submissions link or inaccurate information about publishing that I could see, nor does it make any reference to payment to the publisher. It also features JHP titles and covers prominently.

Unfortunately, several of the book covers don’t look professional or artistic, and they don’t give me an idea of what the books are about. Here’s an example which I picked because the cover art seemed to indicate a fantasy.

The drawing on the cover is not in proportion – the horse isn't large enough to carry the man’s weight, but judging from his position, he’s not exactly riding it. Also, since it isn't colored, it has an unfinished look. The title (The Unsearchable Title, which makes the book sound like humor or a parody) also seems to be done in the Vivaldi font, which isn’t easy to read.

The Love Scrolls is a non-sequential rhyming epic series, and The Unsearchable Title, its next work is a love story for the ages, one that might just define our age. --> Link

Whether this is a fantasy or not, at $21.95 for 128 pages I’m not paying to find out, especially if it’s written in the same vein as the synopsis. I continued reading and found the JHP has several imprints and its own review service, Starred Review. It reviews books published by JHP, which is a conflict of interest to say the least.

Starred Review does feature another reviewer, though – "T&R Reviews”. I’d never heard of them before, so I Googled them. Only one page of hits came up, all associated with – you guessed it – Jones Harvest Publishing. According to Bonnie Kaye of Airleaf Victims Fight Back,

People pay Jones Harvest to get their books reviewed. I read the review. It was signed by Tim, Brien's former phone receptionist and college nephew. His title under his name was "Media Researcher and Educator, T&R Reviews." The T&R stands for Tim and Rosa, Tim's wife.

Then I checked out Brien Jones’s blog. Jackpot!

Why choose Jones Harvest Publishing?

Cost - Everything is included for just $950. We never charge for corrections.

This information may have been purged from the website, but it’s still on the blog, in the form of an email meant to show what a bad person Bonnie Kaye is. As far as I’m concerned, it just shows what a vanity publisher JHP is, and there’s further evidence from the same entry to back that up.

Hometown Campaign - $350

Regional Coverage - $750

National Blitz - $1450

All that money to “blitz” the media about a book that is unlikely to have received professional editing and is unlikely to be available to the public. The personal pitch from Mr Jones names an even higher figure, though.

We will not be satisfied until we place [Your book] in bookstores everywhere and [You] is a celebrity. This program has a one-time fee of $7500. There are no further charges of any kind.

The writer was offered a chance to pay only $5000, since this was the publisher’s way of “apologizing for the past misfortunes”. Considering that JHP seems to target senior citizens, this is even more sad. I emailed Mr Jones as well, inquiring about the services offered by JHP, and received a copy-and-paste spiel that didn't even address me by name but which offered the "Jones Harvest Publishing stimulus package".

For the rest of the year (This one-time offer only available for three days? -- Marian) we are charging just $950 to publish in paperback. That’s an eight hundred dollar discount from our regular price of $1750.

I found one last piece of evidence regarding JHP’s fees on another blog; apparently JHP “will guarantee an interview on a nationally syndicated AM/FM radio show”, but for this and other services, the fee was $2700.

In a movie called Where Does It Hurt? Peter Sellers played an extremely crooked hospital administrator who had a system designed to fleece patients as much as possible. The film begins with a perfectly healthy guy going in for a minor checkup, only to be talked into going for a complete round of tests. As each test is conducted, a close-up at the bottom of the screen shows a typewriter noting the cost. Cha-ching! That’s what came to mind when I thought of all the Jones Harvest Publishing charges.

Mr Jones’s blog was the final nail in the coffin.

Perhaps after wading through the “impartial forums” I might see the Better Business Bureau emblem on the Jones Harvest website. If I clicked on that emblem I would then see that Jones Harvest Publishing has a PERFECT record with the BBB.

The BBB is toothless when it comes to literary scams. As long as the publisher pays its dues and claims to have looked into complaints, the BBB is satisfied. Any time anyone defends a publisher by citing a BBB record, they’re either clueless about publishing or don’t have anything better to provide.

The blog also confuses vanity publishing with self-publishing. Although it does have support and testimonials from a few of its authors, there’s nothing to contradict the evidence of large fees being charged. Instead, there’s simply a lot of denigration of Bonnie Kaye.

I notice she says, “Happy Holidays”, instead of “Merry Christmas”. In this day and age of political correctness, this tells me something-that she is secular.

Best not to jump to conclusions here. I say “Merry Christmas” (and sing Christmas carols) but I’m more of an unbeliever than Thomas Covenant.

So, that’s it for Jones Harvest Publishing. Do I get to be a publisher now?

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Red Dwarf

I first became interested in Red Dwarf when I read the novelization Infinity Welcomes Careful Drivers, by Rob Grant and Doug Naylor. After that I watched all the episodes of the show. It’s hilarious, and well worth watching.

Red Dwarf’s premise is very simple. On a huge mining spacecraft*, Dave Lister, the lowest-ranked crew member, brings an unquarantined cat on board and is punished by being placed in stasis. While he’s there, a radiation leak kills all the rest of the crew.

Three million years later, the radiation levels have lowered to the point where Holly, the ship’s computer, releases Lister from stasis. Lister is a wee bit disturbed to find that they are three million years away from Earth and that he is the only living human on the ship to boot.

HOLLY: They're all dead. Everybody's dead, Dave.
LISTER: Petersen isn't, is he?
HOLLY: Everybody is dead, Dave.
LISTER: Not Chen?
HOLLY: Gordon Bennett, yes! Chen! Everybody! Everybody's dead, Dave.
LISTER: Rimmer?
HOLLY: He's dead, Dave. Everybody's dead. Everybody is dead, Dave!
LISTER: Wait. Are you trying to tell me everybody's dead?
HOLLY: I wish I'd never let him out in the first place.

Unfortunately for Lister, things only get worse from here. To keep him company, Holly generates a hologram of one of the dead crew. That person is Lister’s former roommate, Arnold Rimmer, who just happens to be the antithesis of Lister.

The friction between Rimmer and Lister - or between Rimmer and any normal person - was enough to keep this show rolling for years. Rimmer is self-centered, cowardly, uptight and lonely, a second technician who failed the astronavigation exam no fewer than thirteen times. Once he even took drugs to augment his efforts, only to end up writing “I am a fish” 400 times before fainting. Dying and coming back as a hologram has only exacerbated all these traits, and he constantly clashes with Lister, who’s similarly an underachiever heading nowhere but who enjoys himself.

(By the way, is it just me or do a lot of old British comedies feature people living lives of quiet desperation? Though in Rimmer’s case, he’s rarely quiet about it.)

Meanwhile, Lister’s smuggled-aboard cat was safe in the hold. Over three million years its descendants have evolved into Felis sapiens, though only one of these still remains on board. He’s what you’d expect a cat in humanoid shape to be – narcissistic, obsessed with his appearance and constantly on the prowl for female cats, of which there are none.

The crew’s lack of female companionship spurs on several of the plots, such as the one where they find Kryten, a service droid who takes care of the surviving three crew members on board a crashed vessel. Since pictures of the three show that they’re female and attractive, the Dwarfers deck themselves out in their finest and rush to the rescue, only to find that the ladies haven’t moved in three million years. They’re skeletons which Kryten has been tenderly feeding and nurturing to give himself a purpose in life.

RIMMER: Our first contact with intelligent life in three million and two years and it's the android version of Norman Bates.

Most of the humor on the show comes from very sarcastic observations and comebacks, plus Kryten’s serious-to-deadpan replies.

RIMMER: Step up to red alert.
KRYTEN: Sir, are you absolutely sure? It does mean changing the light bulb.

Unlike the other famous British science fiction comedy, The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Red Dwarf doesn’t feature any aliens. Instead, the show has human creations such as androids and GELFs (genetically engineered life forms), plus parallel dimensions, time distortions and enough space anomalies to fill an entire season of Star Trek.

My favorite such episode was where the crew met Commander Ace Rimmer, a version of Rimmer from another universe. Ace is intelligent, daring, popular and handsome, not to mention a test pilot in the Space Corps. Naturally, Rimmer hates him.

RIMMER: I bet you anything he wears women's underwear. They're all the same, this type, you know. Hurly-burly, rough and tumble macho marines in public, but behind closed doors he'll be parading up and down in taffeta ballgowns, drinking mint juleps and whipping the houseboy.
KRYTEN: Sir, he's you! It's just that your lives diverged at a certain point in time.
RIMMER: Yes, I went into the Gents and he went the other way.

The humor is often character-driven, which makes it possible to care about the crew when you’re not laughing at them. Holly’s losing a chess match to Queeg, the ruthless alternate ship’s computer, and facing deletion as a result was poignant. I also love the episode where Rimmer admits in a drunken depression that he’s never had a girlfriend and has only had sex on one occasion.

CAT: That many?

So Lister downloads eight months of his own memory – during which time he had a passionate romance – into Rimmer’s personality disks as a death-day gift. Rimmer believes he had the romance, and is very happy until he learns the truth.

Unfortunately for Red Dwarf, it’s a great series which went on for too long and the final episode simply stopped on a cliffhanger with no closure in sight. But the first five or so seasons are superb. Watch them if you get a chance.

*And I mean huge – just watch the opening section of the credits where some hapless spaceman is painting the F in DWARF.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

On the twelfth day of Christmas... true love gave to me:

Twelve Swords of Power,
Eleven wizard rules,
Ten-Towns on the frontier,
Nine princes in Amber,
Eight Dark Elf Houses,
Seven sacred Stillstones,
Six direwolf cubs,
Five-headed dragon!
Four elements,
Three Ethshars,
Two towers tall,
And One Ring to rule them all!

Merry Christmas, everyone. :)

Monday, December 22, 2008

Five similes which fail

With some books, even when I don’t remember the stories, unfortunate figures of speech in them stand out. A few of those are paraphrased or quoted here, and the first is from a Lord of the Rings fanfic.

1. Sauron’s fury had been building up inside him, like bread rising in an oven.

The second is from a romance where the hero and heroine kiss for the first time.

2. The corner of her mouth was as soft and tender as a child’s.

Ew. Another first kiss.

3. Their tongues touched like small creatures meeting for the first time.

That made me think of two naked mole rats stopping to rub whiskers in a tunnel underground. On to the later stages of lovemaking.

4.The folds of her sex blossomed like a wet lily. --> Link

A figure of speech this specific will make most readers imagine it too well, leading to a mental image of the heroine with a horticultural addition to her anatomy. Finally, for the fantasy fans…

5. The white mist rushed towards her like steam blown from the cheeks of an ice monster. --> Link

I have no idea why an ice monster would blow steam. Wouldn’t that cause the monster to melt?

Saturday, December 20, 2008

The ticking clock

One way to set fantasy races apart from humans is to give them an altered life span.

This is far more common in science fiction. When it comes to short life spans, the Ocampa of Star Trek: Voyager lived for nine years, but I’ve read of a short story called “Petals of Rose”, originally printed in Analog, where the aliens only lived for a day. And Robert L. Forward’s Dragon’s Egg beats that, since the aliens in his novel only live for fifteen minutes.

I wonder if they ever refer to someone’s fifteen seconds of fame.

On the other side of the spectrum are races which are extremely long-lived – usually elves, building on the Tolkien mythos – though those often aren’t as much fun or as poignant as those which shuffle off this mortal coil too soon. An exception would be when such a character takes on a Bicentennial Man role and watches his friends (or even family) grow old and die while he remains the same.

That would be very moving. I remember the scene in the film of The Lord of the Rings where Arwen sees herself, dressed in black, beside Aragorn’s corpse. More of that kind of realism would be great in stories featuring elves.

One problem with having a shorter-lived race is that if the lifespan isn’t short enough, it won’t make much of an impact on the reader. With the Voyager example, my first thought was that the Ocampa character would just outlast the seven years of the series. Even then, it might have made a difference if she felt or behaved differently from the rest of the crew, or if no one wanted to pursue a long-term relationship with her, but that didn’t happen. She was just like everyone else.

In contrast, Ray Bradbury wrote a short story* about humans living on another planet, affected by radiation that limited their lives to about a week in length, and their days were marked by a frenetic activity that made them wonderfully unusual. There’s one part where two little boys get into a fierce fight, and one says, “Tomorrow I will be big enough to kill you!”

Likewise, fantasy races with an altered lifespan need to behave in an altered way. Would people who only lived for a month sleep at all? How would they feel towards those who lived for decades? They might place a lot of emphasis on thinking through matters quickly, but not on being impulsive – that often wastes time if mistakes are made, and they don’t have time to waste.

Races which live for hundreds of years, on the other hand, would take a different approach. In my world of Nux Varas, such a race institutes breeding programs to develop experimental subjects of its own kind into different species called Variants – since they have hundreds of years to live, they can afford to watch as generation after generation of Variants evolve. Such a race’s mentality and language should fit their altered lifespans as well.

Changing the simple length of the lifespan many of us take for granted could lead to a very different race - as long as all the consequences of that change are thought out.

*I can’t remember the name, darnit. If anyone else knows, please shout out.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Fantasy food

One of the easiest and simplest ways to set a fantasy in a very different world is to have unusual food.

It’s often more effective to use real-life food – eggs, fish, what have you – cooked in different combinations and served in different ways than to fantasify the food. A reader probably won’t gain much from a mention of “Singarian tea”. It’s tea, but there’s nothing to say what makes it different from Lipton. However, if the narrative describes this as “hot red tea with a hibiscus flower submerged in it”, that’s much more distinctive.

I sometimes borrow cookery books from the library, especially if they deal with exotic or unusual foods, like nouvelle cuisine where scrambled eggs are served in real eggshells in a nest of fried shoestring potatoes. I don't have the time or the patience to cook this kind of thing, but it fires my imagination with some bizarre ideas for what food my characters will eat.

My inspirations also come from descriptions of meals in other books, such as Philippa Gregory’s Wideacre, which contrasts the propriety of an English country aristocrat’s life with an ugly secret beneath. I like the stately progression of meals – sherry first, then soup and salmon with white wine, venison or pheasant with red, peaches and grapes for dessert, port and coffee afterwards. And other cultures would have their own customs regarding what was served when during meals.

Food can be eaten on banana leaves, on plates of bone, from large seashells, from carved wooden bowls, from fine china that looks almost transparent. Garnishes make interesting additional touches as well. There’s no need to turn every meal into a banquettish production with everything described, but a carefully chosen detail can make the readers feel that they’re not in Kansas any more.

One thing to be careful about is not to include food that might be too anachronistic. The scene in The Last Unicorn where the outlaw offers Schmendrick a taco is funny, but a story that’s supposed to take place in a realistic medieval land would not include tomatoes (though they might fit if they were called wolf-fruit or love-apples and treated as the exotic items they would be).

Other than that, though, the sky's the limit. Readers probably won't buy the characters eating stone soup, but anything that might even be remotely edible will qualify. Tree bark, insects, maggots, lichen... I've seen all those in fiction, and real life provides even more examples of unusual food. Rocky Mountain Oysters, anyone?

And on that note, I'm going to make dinner.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Five famous books with sequels…

...which were not written by the original authors.

1. Pride and Prejudice

Mr. Darcy Takes a Wife: Pride and Prejudice Continues, by Linda Berdoll
Desire and Duty : A Sequel to Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, by Ted Bader
Mrs. Darcy's Dilemma: A Sequel to Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, by Diana Birchall

This is just the tip of the iceberg. Jane Austen published six novels, but there are over sixty sequels to these in print.

2. Gone with the Wind

Scarlett, by Alexandra Ripley
Rhett Butler’s People, by Donald McCaig

Margaret Mitchell refused to write a sequel herself; as far as she was concerned, the story ended where it had to end. The show did not have to go on. I think she was right. With GWTW’s inimitable ending, readers can imagine how it might have continued, and what we dream up for ourselves is often more compelling and satisfying than someone else’s creation.

3. Rebecca

Mrs de Winter, by Susan Hill
Rebecca's Tale by Sally Beauman

4. Wuthering Heights

Heathcliff: The Sequel to Wuthering Heights, by Lin Haire-Sargeant
Return to Wuthering Heights, by Anna L'Estrange

5. Peter Pan

Peter Pan in Scarlet, by Geraldine McCaughrean
Wendy, by Karen Wallace

Nothing for Captain Hook? :(

Sunday, December 14, 2008


With print-on-demand technology becoming more widespread, self-publishing is becoming more popular as well, especially among new or inexperienced writers who see it as an alternative to commercial publication. Self-publishing has a number of caveats of its own, though, and I’ve put a few of those in an easy-to-browse checklist format.

1. Reasons for self-publishing

___ All the agents rejected it, and every book deserves a chance with publication
___ All the agents rejected it, but that’s because they only want writers who have been published before or who have written the next Harry Potter
___ If a book is self-published, at least that gets it out there and available to readers or even to publishers who might be interested
___ Lots of famous books were self-published

Although I’ve seen all these reasons given as justification for self-publishing, they’re likely to result in disappointment later. Self-publishing isn’t a shortcut to commercial publication and has challenges of its own – distribution being one of them.

2. Type of book

___ Is your book fiction, especially fiction of a very popular type, like vampire romance?
___ Is your book non-fiction, but very generalized – e.g. good health, world history?
___ Does your book fit into some very unusual sub-sub-genre, like inspirational erotica?
___ Is your book a fanfic?

A safe type of book to bet on, when it comes to self-publishing, is non-fiction that fills a specialized niche. Poetry books are also candidates for self-publication, since there’s almost no market for poetry in commercial publication.

3. Famous self-publishing stories include those of

___ Christopher Paolini, Eragon
___ John Grisham, A Time to Kill
___ Mark Twain
___ Stephen King
___ Benjamin Franklin

If you ticked any of the above, please research them further. For instance, Twain – after he was famous – started a publishing company. It went bankrupt. Writers are often better at writing than they are at business and marketing, probably for the same reason that salespeople are better at selling than they are at writing.

There are self-publication success stories (The Celestine Prophecy, The Christmas Box) but the above examples aren’t among them.

4. Self-publishing non-successes

Are there any Cautionary Tales about self-publishing to balance out the positives?

___ Yes
___ No

5. Success in self-publishing

What’s your goal in self-publication?

___ Selling copies to your family and friends
___ Selling enough copies to cover the costs of the books, advertising and distribution
___ Selling enough copies for a commercial publisher to pick up the book

The first two are good reasons, but something to be aware of is the fact that the average self-published book (like the average vanity-printed book) sells 75 to 100 copies. And as for selling enough copies to interest commercial publishers, it’s usually easier to go to the commercial publisher in the first place than to sell the thousands of copies this strategy requires.

6. Startup capital

___ Not necessary, since you’ll be using POD
___ Necessary, since you’ll be paying for a small print run to keep the costs of individual books as low as possible

POD has its own problems, one of which is the higher per-unit cost of books, though as the technology improves this may change.

7. Reviews

Do most reputable reviewers accept self-published books for reviews?

___ Yes
___ No

If you ticked “No”, why not?

___ Because they’re in league with commercial publishers to keep entrepreneurs down
___ Because the majority of self-published books have no quality control and no editing, and reviewers have enough books from publishers already

That being said, self-publishing isn’t instant doom to a book. But as well as a suitable (and edited) book, authors need experience in marketing, knowledge of the publishing industry, a realistic approach and money for printing the books (plus whatever advertising is needed).

For more information, see this excellent post from an author who's going into self-publishing.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Of Aliens and Nodkins

I’ve posted quite a few times about new races and species in fantasy, but this might be a helpful way to classify and separate them. It’s a scale of most to least alien.

1. Solaris

Or the Black Cloud. This is entirely alien. Does not in any way, shape or form resemble a human. Chances are, it either cannot be understood or is very difficult to communicate with. Usually vast, but could be small – imagine a world where there were trillions of creatures the size of a peppercorn, which built structures or communicated using complex patterns, but had absolutely no interest in dealing with humans.

2. The Dalek

Alien responds to communication, but there are major biological and social differences between it and a human. F. M. Busby’s Demu or Orson Scott Card’s Buggers are a great example of this. Most alien or fantasy races with a hive mind would qualify; a collective and gestalt intelligence is one way to instantly mark another race as very different.

This kind of alien or fantasy race may maintain relationships with humans or groups of humans (it may not see individuals as having any status or meaning outside of a community). However, close friendships or involvement are likely to be difficult or impossible.

3. The Pnume

Alien takes the basic bipedal form, but is non-human in other ways. The physical similarity means that such aliens can usually live among humans, or vice versa, often using the same types of clothing or living quarters. However, biological and social differences mean that the aliens cannot interbreed with humans and are unlikely to be physically attracted to them.

Named after the Pnume in the Tschai novels.

4. The Gaian

Alien looks quite like a human, but with subtle physical or mental differences. Key word is subtle; the Trill from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine are a good example of this. If this kind of alien is physically indistinguishable from a human at first, speech patterns, behavior, social structure and mental skills should give it away, though this may not prevent it from being physically involved with one or more humans.

Named after the Gaians in Isaac Asimov’s Foundation and Empire. I loved the way Bliss never just used the first person singular; it was always “I/We/Gaia”, referring to her connection to her people and her world. The alien’s resemblance to a human could be used to great effect by an author; let the readers get comfortable with this nearly-human person, then use something like a very different mentality or an unusual breeding method to remind them that appearances can be deceiving.

5. The Default Race

Or “The Rubber Forehead”. I use the “default race” classification when the race is meant to stand in for humans – for instance, in several of my stories, there’s some race which is less alien than others, and the protagonist is from that race. It’s easier to describe the world from the point of view of someone who perceives it in a human way or who has human-esque concerns (though it’s also fun to write from an alien or fantasy-esque perspective).

This race becomes the Rubber Forehead when it’s meant to be alien but doesn’t have anything except for a ridge on its nose or a dab of makeup on its temples to distinguish it from the norm.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Five more books about writing

1. How to Write Tales of Horror, Fantasy and Science Fiction
edited by J. N. Williamson

This is a collection of over 20 essays by different writers. Ray Bradbury, writing in his unique, evocative style, tells how he used lists of nouns to spark his imagination and come up with stories like “A Sound of Thunder”. William Nolan provides examples of opening lines which don’t just hook the reader – they reel him in to be scaled and filleted. The historical model for Conan the Barbarian, how to make suspense as tense as action, the background of a fantasy series inspired by the ancient Middle East… they’re all here.

The only difficulty with obtaining this book is that it was published in 1987 and is out of print, but I found it at two local libraries.

2. How to Write Best Selling Fiction
by Dean Koontz

This book was published in 1981, when Dean Koontz was still writing taut, good horror like Midnight and Whispers. I’d recommend it to new writers because there’s a lot of basic advice, but it’s also got excellent examples of some of the techniques and tactics Koontz used at that time to build suspense and flesh out backgrounds. There’s also the story of how he produced a set of intriguing titles from the single word dragon. I never get tired of reading that one.

I also like the simple, entertaining description of the business of selling books, even though this is a short section towards the end. Until I read this book, I didn’t realize that stores could return unsold books to publishers for full refunds.

Unfortunately, this book is out of print. Another caveat is that Koontz tries – with the best of intentions – to stress the importance and potential of mainstream fiction over genre fiction. If you’re a genre writer, you might not agree with this, and given the popularity of some genres these days, it may not apply.

3. The First Five Pages
by Noah Lukeman

I thought this book would be about how to polish the first five pages of a manuscript, but Lukeman knows that there’s not much point in a manuscript that starts like a rocket and ends like a squib. As a result, this book covers hooks but also deals with mistakes in dialogue, pacing, focus and so on. I especially like the section at the start about the different sounds produced by alliteration, resonance and even punctuation marks. The tiniest, unnoticed details can make quite a difference.

The only thing that didn’t work for me is that some of the examples seem… basic, for lack of a better word. Most writers can tell that when John says hello, Mary and Mary says hello, John and John says how are you, Mary? and Mary says very well, thank you, John, and yourself?, this is poor dialogue. I’d have liked to see more subtle mistakes.

4. The Writer’s Complete Fantasy Reference
from the editors of Writer’s Digest books

This is a collection of information (mostly anthropological and historical) which will probably be helpful to new writers of fantasy. I like the diagram of a medieval castle and all the different types of weapons, though this is by no means an exhaustive list and I’ve learned almost as much from Wikipedia. The section on magic is extremely detailed, and lists about thirty different ways to predict the future. The usual fantasy races get basic descriptions, but this does not go into biological or cultural depth.

As a reference book, this deals mostly with worldbuilding, and specifically with the normal, historically accurate type of worldbuilding that’s likely to be found in traditional, heroic and epic fantasy. Then again, the scope of fantasy is almost unlimited these days.

5. The Art of Fiction
by Ayn Rand

While I enjoyed most of this book, it’s not for everyone. I would recommend it to writers who like Ayn Rand’s novels and who are experienced enough to recognize which parts of the book won’t work for them.

The best section for me was the one where Rand rewrites a pivotal scene in The Fountainhead with slightly altered dialogue for a character – dialogue that says the same thing in principle but has a completely different tone and which made the character different as well. I like it when writers illustrate their points like this. There is also advice on plot and character that I found helpful.

Where the book falters is in its discussions of style, especially Rand’s advice to writers never to use four-letter words or brand names (two words: Stephen King). That’s one reason I wouldn’t recommend it to new writers.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Long paragraphs

I recently read another writer’s request for a critique on a paragraph he had written. Just a paragraph, I thought to myself and began to read. Unfortunately, it was a very, very long paragraph, and just looking at that solid rectangle of text made me feel a bit tired in advance. Has that ever happened to you? I don’t remember if there was dialogue or anything else to break up the relentless march of text, just that that paragraph was at least ten lines long and I didn’t finish reading it, much less critiquing. I had a feeling that once I reached the end, if I reached the end, I would have forgotten what the start of the paragraph was about and might have to begin again, in a never-ending Sisyphean cycle, much like this paragraph, now that I come to think about it.

Thank goodness for white space!

Or sepia space, on the blog, but it’s the same thing. The white space enhances the text, just like the neutrally-colored mat within a frame enhances the picture and makes it easier for the viewer to observe. The contrast makes a difference.

Likewise, readers who flip through a book and see great blocks of text will be less eager to continue reading than readers who do the same but see short paragraphs. The former always looks to me like a wall, but the latter are like the rungs of a ladder, much more accessible.

Shorter sentences and paragraphs are not only easier to read, they build up tension and contribute to action scenes. But that being said, when would solid chunks of text work?

1. Speeches and streams of consciousness

The streams of consciousness are much more common in literary fiction than the genres, but when done well (my favorite example is Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea), they work excellently. It draws the reader into a different, often poetic state of mind and keeps the reader moving forward through a progression of thoughts without breaking the spell.

It has to be done well, though. There’s a big difference between a stream of consciousness and rambling repetition like my original paragraph.

The same applies to speeches, especially if they're tense, charged declarations such as a general rousing troops to fight against an enemy which vastly outnumbers them (the "We few, we happy few" type of speech) or a heartbreaking revelation like that in the last chapter of Gone with the Wind. Here, you don't want anything to disrupt the reader's complete immersion in the story, and if the speech is good enough, the reader doesn't want to look away either.

2. Description

Normally, I don’t like long paragraphs of description, and I avoid them in my work. But in some books, they work very well. A homage to Watership Down would probably include lengthy description, and when I read sex-and-shopping novels, I don’t mind the forward motion stopping as clothes, jewelry, meals or people are described (in my order of preference).

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Intelligent characters

It just occurred to me that although I’ve written about several intelligent characters, I’d never written about writing about them… convoluted though that sounds.

I looked for other articles on writing such characters, but the only one I found was this, and it used the term “genius characters”. None of my characters go that far. The word always makes me think of Stephen Hawking and Marilyn Vos Savant and I’m not sure I can write such a character convincingly – as in, give them the insights that geniuses have.

So what are some ways to write regular intelligent characters?

1. Show, don’t tell.

If the character says or does something clever, that will go much further than simply stating the character is clever (or worse, saying that he or she has “intelligent green eyes”). For instance, in Ender’s Game, when it’s Ender’s first night away from his family, he listens to the other little boys in the dormitory crying softly and starts mentally counting in multiples of two to stop himself doing the same thing. He gets up to seven digits before he loses count, and by then he’s under control again.

2. Give the character realistic flaws.

One reason I decided to have scientists in my fantasy novels was because I started out reading and watching science fiction Рand grew tired of the stereotypical mad scientists. Another clich̩ is the icy hyperlogical type, an asexual automaton who showers with his lab coat on. I wanted to have scientists who were sarcastic, vulnerable, amusing, greedy, compassionate, aggressive Рbasically, human.

3. Decide what form the character’s intelligence takes.

Is your character the type of person who can quote anything they’ve ever read, or are they the quick-witted MacGyver type who can build a gun out of two paper clips and chewing gum? One problem I’ve seen in a few stories is the character who’s brilliant or innovative when the plot requires her to do this, but whose intelligence fails her at another time – with no reason being given for this brain-shutdown.

If a character has used his innate wits and knowledge of psychology to persuade and influence people throughout the story, he should not stop doing this when he’s dragged before the Dark Lord, unless he’s prevented from speaking or he knows the Dark Lord will see through any such attempt.

Applied to scientists, this guideline should deal with another stereotype – the scientist, who, by virtue of being a scientist, can perform surgery, build a rocket and split the atom. The specialist vs. the Renaissance Man, in other words. It’s possible to be the latter, especially at a time when science was much less specialized and one person could conceivably know about several disciplines. But taken too far, such a character becomes unrealistic.

I like focusing on one field – psychology in Dracolytes, chemistry in The Mark of Vurth and microbiology in Empire of Glass - because it means the characters will have to work that much harder within the limits of their knowledge, rather than using too many scientific solutions to save the day.

4. Justify their intelligence

A farmboy in a medieval village may have a lot of native intelligence, but he’s unlikely to know about battlefield maneuvers or shipbuilding. Likewise, someone who grew up on the streets is unlikely to have become literate by reading graffiti. It takes years of study and application to become competent in some fields – even Ender doesn’t step into the Battle Room for the first time and annihilate the other army.

And if characters do become students of history or alchemy or surgery in medieval times, they’ll have to do so realistically. How will their apprenticeship be funded? One reason I like Colleen McCullough’s The First Man in Rome is because when the impoverished Lucius Cornelius Sulla finds a teacher, he eagerly accepts the offer of education, but prostitutes himself to get the money to pay for that education. Will they belong to a guild that regulates what they do – and demands that they pay dues? Will they find a rich patron who can finance their research – but who will insist that they work on developing a new, untraceable poison?

Lots of story possibilities!

Thursday, December 4, 2008

The character wakes up

And the agent reaches for a rejection slip. I’ve often read that it’s not a good idea to start with a character waking up – this is advice both from other writers and from agents – and after realizing that one of my own stories was much stronger without such an opening, I was scrupulously careful to follow this guideline.

But then I began to wonder. How many openings in published fiction include a character waking up?

As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect.
Franz Kafka, The Metamorphosis.

A thread asking this question on the Absolute Write discussion board resulted in a surprisingly large number of examples, but these are taken from published work, which will be better than much of the slushpile. Too often, such a character-wakes-up opening goes on to describe the character having breakfast and taking the subway to work. Maybe there, he’ll be fired, but the readers aren’t going to stick around that long, especially if they have twenty other manuscripts to deal with before the end of the day.

Another pitfall of this opening is that the character may be waking up from a nightmare. The nightmare can be very tense, but when the character wakes up, it will be a letdown to the reader – oh, it was all just a dream. Even if something very exciting and gripping will happen on page 2, the reader may be too annoyed to get there.

Lessa woke, cold.
Anne McCaffrey, Dragonflight

Writers are usually advised to start the story with conflict, and there’s rarely any conflict to a character waking up, unless it’s occupied England in an alternate reality and the Gestapo is shaking her awake. With my story The Mark of Vurth, the character originally woke up from a nightmare about an attack that had nearly killed him a few days ago. He soon realized that the people who had rescued him were much worse, but I didn’t want to risk readers being turned off by the opening. I revised it to begin with the attack, and that was a much stronger start.

The best character-wakes-up openings are ones where the character (or the reader) immediately realizes that something is wrong, that there’s something out of the ordinary in their world.

At eight o'clock on Thursday morning Arthur didn't feel very good. He woke up blearily, got up, wandered blearily round his room, opened a window, saw a bulldozer, found his slippers, and stomped off to the bathroom to wash.
Douglas Adams, The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

All the examples I’ve quoted are from books published before 1980, but there are still manuscripts which do well with this kind of opening. They hook the readers right away and reel them in. This kind of opening isn’t something I’d like to do, but it’s a good example of a rule that can be broken if you know exactly what you’re doing and are willing to take the risk.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

What should you write?

Urban fantasies and paranormals are hot right now. Vampire (and other undead) fiction has probably never been more popular. And I’m a practical writer with an eye to the bottom line.

So why am I not writing an urban fantasy?

One reason is simple math. If I start an urban fantasy or paranormal now, it would take me perhaps six months (at best) to complete and edit it. From there, I’d have to get an editor interested. Commercially published books take about two years to hit the shelves, so it could be three years before my urban fantasy is published. Will the sub-genre still be hot at that point?

The other reason is that I write what I enjoy. I like fantasies with a twist – science introduced into a medieval scenario – and so that’s what I write. I do plan on an urban fantasy (which I think of as sub-urban, because it’s going to take place in a hellish other world), but it’s something I’ll write after I’m done with the current book, and it’s something that intrigues me, rather than something written to capitalize on the trend. If it’s never published, I’ll still be happy about having written it.

I could probably force myself to write something completely different. I’ve thought, once or twice, of writing something multicultural, because that’s also popular and Sri Lanka seems relatively untapped compared to, say, Afghanistan. But such a book would risk being either a soapbox or a therapist’s couch. And it would be work.

Fantasies, on the other hand, are fun. And they’re what I love. That love is what kept me going through more rejections than I can count, through the years it took me to learn writing skills, through blunt critiques and requests for revision. And I believe readers can tell when writers enjoy their work and when they’re pandering to current trends.

That’s not to say it’s wrong to write to someone else’s formula. If you’re planning to submit to one of the category romance lines, you’ll have to write to their requirements. But I’ll bet that the writers who succeed here are those who genuinely like what they’re writing at the same time.

Also, if the dream of your life is to write about, say, Shakespeare’s plays as re-enacted by a set of sentient cutlery, all the love in the world may not be enough to get Twelfth Knife or The Taming of the Spoon published. But at least you’ll have more fun than if you made a grim, dutiful attempt to write yet another vampire story for an increasingly glutted market.

(Image courtesy of Loren Petrich)

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Honest reviews

I read a post about the objectivity of reviews on How Publishing Really Works, and it raised a great point about why honest reviewers are unlikely to be paid by publishers or writers*. But it also made me think of the reviewers and review sites which don’t charge for reviews and yet which I wouldn’t trust.

For me, an important part of being a reviewer is complete honesty. Many unpublished manuscripts may be unreadable, but even published books line up on a bell curve. In other words, everything published isn’t going to be an automatic great read for anyone. And if it is, then the reviewer is either

1. not discriminating, in which case I’m unlikely to take their opinion into account when deciding to buy a book, or

2. operating for some purpose other than to tell readers whether a book is worth their time and money.

The reviewer might instead want to please authors, and what better way than to tell them how wonderful their books are? Or the reviewer may want a high rank on Amazon and one way to get that was to comment on as many books as possible. I say “was” because Amazon recently changed its ranking criteria and now goes by how helpful reviews are to readers, rather than how many reviews are posted.

Discrimination, in the positive sense of the word, also matters a great deal. I checked out Ghostwriter Literary Reviews, which claims to offer “An unbiased evaluation of your work”, and I read all the posted reviews for November – ten reviews in all. Without exception, these were four- and five-star reads that the reviewers loved.

On the other hand, the grades for the books reviewed on All About Romance for November range from A to D-, and many of the reviews are Bs or Cs. Just like a real bell curve, and I know which site I’m more likely to trust. There’s not much value in a gold medal which is given out to everyone who competes.

For me, this is what helpful reviews do or don’t do.


• Repeat the blurb on the back of the book and tack on a few sentences at the end to say what a good read it was

• Veer into hyperbole or excessive praise, e.g. ”…is sure to be an instant classic that will be read for generations to come.”Children’s Literary Reviews

• Focus attention on the reviewer rather than the book (“The descriptions of life in Bellefleur-sur-Seine reminded me of my own childhood in France, though I didn’t find the farmer’s motivation believable when he blew up his own barn. My Oncle Rene was in the same situation with the local gendarmes…”)

• Contain errors. A typo or two is unlikely to matter, but several mistakes in spelling, punctuation, wording or sentence construction can make a review appear amateurish, unintentionally funny or both. Ghostwriter Literary Reviews provides an example : “Belle's father, Master Francois St. Clair wanted his unborn adolescent to become part beneficiary to one of the richest sugarcane Plantations… Her Master and Mistress in apprehension of demise; gave her no alternative.”


• Say what the book’s genre is. I’ve read dozens of amateur reviews which don’t even provide this basic information.

• Say who the main characters are and give an idea of the plot. I’ve also read reviews which were so vague they could have been applied to any book.

• Warn readers if there’s something they should know in advance, without (as far the reviewer is capable) giving away spoilers. If I were writing a review of A Game of Thrones, I would make it clear that this was the first in a series and that the series is nowhere near complete. I would also caution them that this isn’t a book with happy endings for everyone.

• Comment fairly and critically rather than focusing only on praise or only on what doesn’t work.

• Show familiarity with the author’s body of work, the genre or at least books in general. I read a review which noted that the main characters of a book had chapters from their different points of view, and this was “a most clever and unique way to tell a story in my opinion”.

There are many sites and reviewers out there which are honest about the books they read, even if they risk backlashes from authors or fans by doing so. Those are the sites and reviewers I take into account when deciding which books to read and buy.

*Examples of paid reviews include: Authors on the Rise Book Reviews and Children’s Literary Reviews (for anything over 18 pages). Ghostwriter Literary Reviews previously offered a paid fast-track service, and now offers other paid services such as an "Author Spotlight".

Friday, November 28, 2008

The lightbulb game

A fun thing I tried with different races from my stories. How many _____ does it take to change a light bulb?


A whole flag, but they’ll get bored halfway and start juggling the bulb. Then they’ll quarrel about who gets to keep the pieces.


Just one. She shoots all the Glores from a safe distance, steps over the bodies, changes the bulb and requests payment.


Three: one to change the bulb, one to reflect that in the past, they were elite bodyguards rather than changers of bulbs, and one to divide the metal parts of the old bulb equally for them all to eat.


Only one, as long as he has a monkey familiar to do it.


None; they can see in the dark.


None; they can glow in the dark.


Two: one to thank the dragons for giving them the light of truth that will never fail, not even in their darkest hours, and one to order a slave to change the bulb.


One; she reverses time to the point where the bulb was still lit, sits back and waits for admiration.

Iternans (Outward Way)

One; he uses telekinesis to remove the old bulb and fit the new one in.

Iternans (Inward Way)

One; he used psychic coercion to make the first Iternan change the bulb.

How many of the races or species in your work would it take to change a lightbulb?

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Magical artifacts

I just realized that there’s one fantasy element which never shows up in my current stories. That’s the magical artifact.

Most of the role-playing gamebooks I’ve read (and loved) had magical artifacts. In fact, one of my favorite series, Blood Sword, is even named after the Quest Object. There are thousands of fantasies out there with plots about finding some kind of powerful item which will tilt the scales in the protagonist’s favor. And that’s the first problem…

1. The story revolves around the artifact.

If there’s more focus on the artifact (or the search for the artifact) than on the characters, this can make the fantasy come off as flat. It’s also easier to make readers care and worry over people than over Quest Objects. Swords are cool, but I’ll bet readers were more upset over what happened to Ned Stark than over what happened to Ice.

One reason I like Lawrence Watt-Evans’s The Misenchanted Sword is because the story isn’t about a hero and Dark Lord both hunting down an ancient artifact… with the hero getting there first, of course (some day I’d love to read a story where the Dark Lord reaches and uses or destroys the artifact first). Instead, the story begins when a hermit undertakes the haphazard creation of a magical sword to help a protagonist pursued by enemies, and the sword is definitely not the fantasy version of the AK-47 or the nuclear warhead.

The story is always about the protagonist trying to survive the war and build a future for himself in peacetime, not about the sword.

2. The artifact is too powerful.

Some magical items are so +∞ to Everything Destruction that I wonder why the story doesn’t come to an end shortly after they’re found. Even objects that don’t directly destroy anything can be used to defeat the opposition speedily – orbs that see everything or see into the future, for instance, could always be used to keep track of an enemy’s movement or whereabouts.

One way to get around that is to make sure that “with great power comes greater peril”. Tolkien’s One Ring is a superb example, but unfortunately, a lot of artifacts in fantasy aren’t like this. Either they simply supply the great power, like medieval batteries. Or they’re evil unless they’re in the hands of the right person (i.e. the protagonist), at which point they’re batteries again.

Fred Saberhagen’s Twelve Swords of Power are immensely powerful weapons, but nearly all have disadvantages. One of them, the Sword of Despair, induces a state of deep and instant apathy and depression in an area the size of a battlefield around it when it’s drawn. This would be enough for one wielder to win a battle, right? Nope, because whoever draws the sword is subject to this effect as well, and can’t summon up the willpower required to sheath it afterwards.

3. The artifact exists for the sake of the story

With the most realistic characters, I feel that they have lives and histories beyond the printed pages. I’m privileged to see some part of what they think and feel and do, but there’s much more about them that I’ll never know.

The best artifacts give me this impression as well. They weren’t just created for the purpose of being Quest Objects; they have a history that explains why there’s only one or a few of them. They may have personalities and memories as well. I’d love to see a crown which would reflect morosely on the far better rulers whom it had sat upon, or a sword which had its own, very decided ideas on who its wielder would fight.

4. There’s more than one artifact.

Back in the late nineties, I started reading a series called The Twelve Treasures, and yes, there were supposed to be twelve books in it, dealing with the recovery of the twelve magical objects. Except only three novels were ever published.

Most unpublished fantasy writers won’t be able to count on getting a long series in which to detail the search for multiple magical artifacts. Shoehorning them all into a single novel may not work either. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows could do this not just because of its length but because there were six other books which also fleshed out Rowling’s world and characters.

5. There’s only one artifact.

If a wizard is able to make one magic sword – and is rewarded for doing so – I wonder why he doesn’t make another. In The Misenchanted Sword, the reason was clear: the hermit had such limited supplies that some of the spells he put on the sword were makeshift. There was no way he could create another such sword, and no reason for him to try.

But under other circumstances, why doesn’t the wizard carry out more enchantments? This is what I find sad about magical objects, by the way. They’re too often big flashy portentous MAGICAL ARTIFACTS, so the subtlety and charm of the smaller things is lost. Imagine a Lord of the Rings with just the Rings. No Sting glowing to warn of orcs nearby, no phial lighting up in Shelob’s lair.

Why not have more of the smaller items? Wind chimes that ring out to announce a visitor’s presence, blank slates on which maps of the immediate surroundings appear… anything is possible. One thing I enjoyed about Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone was the sheer scope of magic, how it was everywhere and influenced nearly everything in the wizarding world. That was partly because Rowling didn’t save magic for the large, grand objects; she let wizards use it as humans would use technology.

And it was a great read.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Five kinds of weasel words

Scam agencies or publishers often make claims that sound good but which allow them to either skirt the truth or wriggle out of any obligations to writers. Watch for the weasel words in their phrasing.

1. “Your book will be available to bookstores.”

Available to them, or available in them?

Readers who haven’t already heard of the book won’t go up to the special order desk to ask for it. Even those who know of the book’s existence may not be willing to place an order without having read at least part of it… meaning the book should be available in stores.

“Available through bookstores” is another way for publishers without distribution to cover themselves.

2. “We market the book at our discretion.”

What exactly does “at our discretion” mean?

I haven’t seen any publisher which claimed this actually define what their discretion would entail. Usually because when they say this, they mean, “We market your book when we feel like it” or “We market your book to you extensively; to other buyers, not so much”.

3. “We have worked with dozens of major publishers”.

You might see this claim made by a scam literary agency – either this or “Here are the publishers who have worked with our clients”. This will be followed by a list of prestigious names like Random House and St. Martin’s.

Unfortunately, “worked with” can mean anything. If I send a manuscript to Tor and get a rejection, I can say I have worked with Tor, and that will sound very impressive until I define exactly what our working relationship was.

The funny part is that I found this on the Barbara Bauer agency website, which lists PublishAmerica along with several major commercial publishers. This is shooting yourself in the clown shoe; an agency which works with PA in any capacity is one you want to avoid like the plague.

Maybe that’s why Random House is mentioned twice in the list; gotta make up for PA.

4. “We’ll send a press release to the New York Times.”

Yes, but will they print it?

Press releases aren’t much good unless they’re sent out well in advance of the book’s release date and accompanied by a review copy. Major newspapers are also inundated with press releases, meaning they’re highly unlikely to feature any book that’s been self-published or vanity-published.

5. “The staff of Oprah receives our newsletter.”

Maybe, but do they read it?

Send Oprah a copy of your manuscript or book, and you too will be able to say that the staff of Oprah has received a copy of your manuscript or book. And since they are probably conscientious people, it will have gone into the recycle bin rather than the regular trash.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Sexual abuse

I was going to write a blog post about all kinds of character abuse in a story – physical, mental, sexual – but this one turned out to be the longest. So it got its own blog post. Yay, I guess.

Sexual abuse, whether it’s part of a character’s backstory or occurring in the present, can have a powerful effect on readers. Unfortunately it’s also prone to being misused in a few ways.

1. Sexual abuse is a defining part of a character

I’m burned out on the backstory where a woman (it’s always a woman) is a survivor of rape or incest that was so bad she cannot feel any physical pleasure and hates to be touched. That is, until her love interest provides Sexual Healing. I’ve read this so often that it’s lost any emotional appeal it might once have had.

The problem with this concept is that the woman’s sexuality and sexual expression is too often defined by what men do to her or have done to her. I don’t think I’ve ever read about a woman who worked through the pain on her own, who realized she could still give herself pleasure despite what had happened to her. This might be great for the romance, but it slots the character into a stereotype from which she’s unlikely to emerge.

I especially don’t want to come across yet another tough, hard-nosed professional who’s fragile as spun sugar on the inside because she was raped. Giving an Action Barbie a stereotypical trauma doesn’t make her any more dimensional than she already is.*

The other issue I have with this is that different people react to sexual abuse in different ways. A woman could, for instance, graciously acquiesce to sex with any man who wants her, but shut off her emotions during the process. Yet in so many novels, she becomes the Ice Maiden instead.

2. Sexual abuse is rarely inventive

If if’s something very traumatic that happened in a heroine’s past, it’s often rape or incest. This can get a little dull after a while. I’m not asking for spectacularly inventive abuse – I can barely stand to read that kind of thing – but a little originality wouldn’t hurt.

For instance, I once read a romance novel where the heroine’s ex-husband often forced her to tell him that she loved him as he was abusing her. As a result, she can’t say those words to the hero. It’s not the most psychologically complex detail, but it’s something I remember even while I’ve forgotten the names of the book, the author and the characters.

3. Sexual abuse is recovered from too easily

This can be a difficult line to walk. On the one hand, writers often need the heroine to play some major role in the story other than working through and recovering from the abuse. On the other hand, romance is not a universal panacea, and having the hero in her life shouldn't easily erase the abuse.

Different heroines should recover in different ways, too. I’ve read the scene where the woman breaks down and cries in the hero's arms once too many times. Also, if her relationship with the hero is the diametric opposite of her relationship with the evil ex, if the hero always treats her like an ailing butterfly and never disagrees with her on anything important… well, that’s not so much fun to read.

Some day, I’d love to have a character who became pregnant as a result of rape, gave her child to her brother’s family to raise, went on to have a career and didn’t feel guilty or have a tearful bonding session with the child later. I think she would contribute financially to the child’s support – but she just would not feel like a mother and no one would punish her for this.

4. Sexual abuse disparately affects one gender

I don't know how legitimate this concern is, given that sexual abuse also disparately affects one gender in real life, but it seems to be even more skewed in fiction. Of everything I've read, I could count the number of books in which a male character is sexually abused on one hand.

I was going to say “one finger”, but then I realized I'd actually read two such books – Sharon Baker’s Quarrelling, they met the dragon, where the main character is a male prostitute who is gang-raped and Arthur Hailey’s The Moneychangers, which features a prison rape.

Romances where the heroine forces herself on the hero don't count, because in the few of those I’ve read, the hero doesn’t behave as though he’s been abused. His goal afterwards is usually to repay the heroine in kind (i.e. have more sex, except with him on top), not to get away from the person who ignored his freedom of choice.

*That’s one reason I like Joss Whedon’s Firefly. Three of the four female characters were very comfortable with their sexuality and the expression thereof. They could conduct business/kick ass and enjoy themselves in bed.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

The too-flawed protagonist

If your protagonist has flaws that are too deep or serious, will readers be turned off?

I wondered about this yesterday, when another writer expressed concerns about a protagonist who was a racist.

"Protagonists are meant to be likable, you're meant to be able to sympathize with them. So if your protagonist is racist, and it's put across that this is a kind of core characteristic of his that is meant to be acceptable, then me and a lot of other people will put the book down."

I've read, and enjoyed, books where the protagonists are drug addicts*, pedophiles**, cold-blooded murderers*** and rapists****. I’d add cannibals, assassins and incestuous would-be child-killers to the list, but that would be way too many asterisks.

These characters worked for me because they have excellent qualities to balance their serious flaws – they’re intelligent, ambitious, amusing and loyal to their friends. They also face challenges that are seemingly insurmountable, and they win. So it’s easy for me to cheer for them. In fact, if you make your characters realistic and sympathetic enough, the flaws will actually work for them. Sure, readers will think, Sherlock Holmes may be a cocaine addict, but he’s our cocaine addict. And far more palatable than a flawless saint. It’s all right, Mr. Holmes, we understand.

Should a writer make it clear that such flaws are unacceptable? That raises another question: what would be considered acceptable? If a protagonist was racist at the start of the book, and is a racist at the end, might readers take this to mean that the writer subtly endorses racism? Does the writer have to condemn the belief or behavior, either through the mouthpieces of other characters or through the story itself?

That reminds me of a book I once read where the antagonist brainwashes a woman, makes her believe that she’s his daughter and then sexually assaults her. The narrative states that he “kissed her as no father should ever kiss a daughter”. I immediately thought, At least not his own daughter.

I think going to this extent to show that the writer doesn’t approve can backfire. Most readers already know that incest, racism, murder, etc. are wrong, and don’t need to have this spelled out to them.

It doesn’t always work if the writer tries to be more subtle, either. I’ve read too many stories where characters who are racist or misogynistic or atheistic are shown the errors of their ways, at which point they repent wholeheartedly and embrace their newfound principles. It just doesn’t happen that way in real life. In reality, people with prejudices rarely give them up so easily, and the most fanatically intolerant fundamentalist can have good reasons (good to them, anyway) to hold certain opinions and beliefs.

So I’m in favor of letting readers make up their own minds whether a character’s traits are positive or negative – and I like characters who have both of these traits to begin with.

*Sherlock Holmes.
**Jericho Moon, Matthew Woodring Stover.
***The First Man in Rome, Colleen McCullough
****The Fountainhead, Ayn Rand

Tuesday, November 18, 2008


I once had a discussion with a writer who claimed that using four-letter words was lazy, unnecessary and likely to limit one’s readership.

I didn’t agree, partly because I’ve read books with a lot of vulgarity which were nevertheless bestsellers – Stephen King novels and A Song of Ice and Fire, for instance (by the way, check out this alternate title for George R. R. Martin’s books). Kill Bill also would not have had its coarse edginess (which I liked) without the characters’ choice of language.

If a writer is planning to submit to an inspirational fiction imprint like Steeple Hill, that will definitely restrict the language which can be used, but the rest of the time it’s a judgment call. I believe that the choice of words should not be what suits the writer’s sensibilities. It should be what suits the characters and the tone of the work.

With some books, it’s appropriate for the characters to use four-letter words often. With some (like mine), they use the words sparingly. I feel that this makes the words all the more punchy when they do crop up. And some books work fine without any. There are some romance novels where the hero has a manhood, others where he has a penis, others where he has a cock and probably some where he has nothing at all. They all work for their different contexts and readerships.

If a writer doesn’t want to use vulgarity, though, what options are available?

1. Don’t have four-letter words at all.

If you’re searching for a way to alter a character’s dialogue so that, “How could the son of a bitch say that?” passes muster, just change it to, “How could he say that?” Mentioning that a character cursed or swore might also work; the readers can substitute whatever four-letter words work for them.

2. Substitute a made-up word or blank space.

Stephen King does this in Lisey’s Story, using “smuck” instead of another rhyming word. There are two problems with this, though. First, it’s usually obvious to the reader that the concoction stands in for a four-letter word, and in cases like Lisey’s Story, the specific four-letter word that’s being disguised is very clear.

In other words, no one’s being fooled. The character knows what she really means, and the readers know what she really means. It’s the literary equivalent of a fig leaf. So the only reason to try something like this would be to show that this is a character who makes up coy substitutes for four-letter words – perhaps she wants to swear, but feels too repressed to actually say the dirty words.

The second concern I have is that it can come off as silly, e.g. “Tell the mustard to get his bass in here”. On the other hand, this might work very well in a humorous story.

I once read a book where such a word was replaced by a blank line. In the story, someone had spray-painted graffiti on the protagonist’s house:


The narrative went on to state that the last word was an obscenity, but for a moment I thought that the vandals really had spray-painted a horizontal line on the house. It reminded me of the fill-in-the-blank tests we had in elementary school. But this worked brilliantly in a humorous fantasy; Terry Pratchett’s The Truth would not have been the same without Mr Tulip’s constant “—ing”.

3. Substitute a less vehement word.

This is the “Gosh darn it to heck” option, and I don’t recommend it. I once browsed through a romantic suspense novel because a review claimed that the author never used vulgarity. The book starts out well, with the heroine receiving a call from her psychotic ex-husband, who has tracked her down. He describes what she’s wearing, and frightens her so badly that she knocks over a vase of flowers. Then she thinks,

“Oh bother. Look what the idiot made me do.”

The only character who can say “Oh bother” and get away with it is Winnie-the-Pooh. And I’ll bet that if Pooh’s psychotic ex-husband tracked him down, even he would resort to something a little stronger.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Crime and punishment

So I finished The Scar, and that made me think about the justice system and legal consequences in fantasy worlds.

1. What is a crime in your world?

This could be an entire post – or even a chapter in a book. A fantasy world should not be identical to our own, and so the laws should be different in some ways – which is part of the fun of worldbuilding. For instance, in a world where everyone is empathic, anger or lust (to name just a couple of the seven deadly sins) could well be against the law. In a world where people become stronger or more beautiful after they die for the first time – like caterpillars turning into butterflies – would murder be as much of a crime as it is in our world?

2. Why is this a crime?

I’ve read a few stories where witches are persecuted, and these weren’t set on past-Earth or alternate-Earth. The good witches were simply hunted down by fanatical puritan types because that’s the established pattern, that’s the way it’s always been done.

Well, you know what? Let’s either break the pattern or show why there’s merit to it. The magicians in The Mark of Vurth, a fantasy of mine, spread magic like a highly contagious disease to normal people, turning them into magicians as well. No freedom of choice about it. And using too much magic too fast, which is what a lot of newly made magicians do, is a sure way to have that power turn against you. You end up not just a magician - which is different enough from the norm - but physically or mentally twisted.

As a result, the authorities have a good reason to want magic removed from their world. In the long run, they believe it causes more harm than good, and they have more than enough reason to think so. So their draconian penalties make sense.

3. Who enforces the law?

“No, I can see that you don’t know who I am,” said Caesar, still in a conversational voice. “Therefore, daughter, it behooves me to tell you. I am the paterfamilias, the absolute head of this household. My very word is law. My actions are not actionable. Whatever I choose to do and say within the bounds of this household, I can do and I can say. No law of the Senate and People of Rome stands between me and my absolute authority over my household and my family. For Rome has structured her laws to ensure that the Roman family is above the law of all save the paterfamilias. If my wife commits adultery, Julilla, I can kill her, or have her killed.”

Colleen McCullough, The First Man in Rome

On the opposite end of that spectrum is the Riding Women’s society in Suzy McKee Charnas’s Motherlines. In this unstructured, nomadic, all-female community, there are few real laws. And when the camp congregates to discuss issues, more attention is paid to women of the Conor bloodline, because they have a long-standing reputation for speaking good sense.

A society doesn’t always need judges or juries – or executioners, for that matter. Punishments can be meted out by the victim or the victim’s family, by a god or by what’s believed to be a god’s avatar, such as a giant snake or a flock of ravenous crows. For a cruel little twist, how about the criminal’s family being forced to pull the lever?

4. What is the punishment?

Here’s where writers can have a lot of fun. China Mieville certainly does; in New Crobuzon, criminals are often sentenced to be Remade. They have the body parts of other people or animals – or even machine parts like caterpillar treads – grafted on to their bodies, sometimes replacing their own limbs. Needless to say, this instantly marks them as criminals. It sets them apart. On the other hand, sometimes it can be useful to have tentacles, or a giant mantis claw.

If your society wants to segregate the guilty, that can be done either physically – exile or incarceration – or in other ways. For instance, criminals could be subjected to spells that leave them visible but incorporeal. They can wander through the world like ghosts for the term of their sentence, but can’t physically interact with anyone.

In any place where space and resources are limited, it makes sense to spend as little as possible on criminals. So for instance, on a sailing ship, they could be put into suspended animation or shrunk to a small enough size that they survive on crumbs and can be imprisoned in a bottle. Of course, if they escaped, they’d be nearly impossible to catch, and might well pose a threat to the ship (story potential!).

What if petty criminals were assigned familiars which accompanied them everywhere, like Philip Pullman’s daemons but with another purpose entirely? The familiars would act as consciences at best and constant witnesses at worst. The criminals might hate their loss of privacy – but to the authorities, this might be quite a merciful sentence.

Readers tend to be jaded by the usual whips and gibbets and chains, so something more is needed to horrify them. I like psychological tactics in this capacity. A punishment which leaves bruises on the victim may be effective – but one which leaves the victim convinced that he deserves those bruises will be shocking. Especially if there's any chance it's being inflicted on an innocent person.

Gaslighting can make the target believe he's slipping into insanity. Permanent personality alterations can change a victim from a courageous resistance leader to a cowed and obedient puppet. A great example of Efrafan discipline in Watership Down is the scene where Blackavar is forced to repeat, to anyone who approaches him, a litany of why he was punished. And he knows that once he's given this coerced confession to the whole warren, he will be killed.

If rabbits can be that inventive, people should be even more so.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Romance problems

If a romance novel is light-hearted and cheerful, either a comedy of manners or a sweet story set in some Little Town on the Prairie, I’ll kick back and enjoy the setting or the style or the witty banter. Those will often compensate for a lack of major conflict. Romance novels don’t always have to have sturm und drang.

On the other hand, if there’s potential for fireworks of the wrong kind between the hero and heroine, there are a few things I’d like not to see.

1. Characters from very different races/cultures/societies fall in love and live happily ever after

Shouldn’t there be some problems caused by the fact that they may look different, behave differently, have varying expectations and customs and behavior? I’m highly Westernized, for instance, but I love spicy food. If I ever made Sri Lankan sambol for a man who’d been eating poutine and perogies all his life, he might end up in the emergency room.

Especially in the romantic subplots of speculative fiction novels, this consideration applies. Star Trek played fast and loose with genetics; anyone could breed with anyone else, and I expected to see Klingon/Tribble hybrids at any moment. If two characters are from very different races, their offspring could well be sterile, and their cultures shouldn’t seamlessly mesh either.

2. Characters meet and they’re soul mates.

The soul mate trope is either loved or loathed. I like it when the writer does something different with it – for instance, uses it to start a realistic relationship rather than using it to bring a happy happy ending to the search. Often it seems as though once you’ve found a soul mate, all your emotional troubles are over.

There’s also the free will issue. Is there any real difference between the powerful alpha hero abducting the heroine and insisting that she’s now his forever, and the powerful alpha hero abducting the heroine and insisting that she’s now his forever because the soul-star on her forehead lit up when he met her? I’d like to feel that the heroine spends the rest of her life with the hero because that’s the best possible choice for her, not because it’s the only choice she was given.

3. Unbalanced love triangles

In Gone with the Wind, Scarlett is caught between Ashley and Rhett. It's obvious to the reader that Rhett is the best partner for her, but at the same time, Ashley's not a stupid lout who beats her up. He's attractive in his own way, intelligent, respected in society, treats her courteously and compliments her. So it's also obvious to the reader that there's some basis to her infatuation with Ashley.

A lot of love triangles aren’t like this. Instead, it’s very clear that the writer favors one pairing, and the left-out person is therefore painted in unflattering colors. This doesn’t make whoever’s in the middle seem very smart – can’t they see that one of their suitors is roast evil with ugly sauce on the side? And, of course, there’s no conflict. Why should there be, when it’s clear to the readers that there’s only one possible choice the person in the middle can make?

Pamela Morsi’s Simple Jess gets around this very well. Althea isn’t interested in either of her suitors (who are both decent men in their own ways). Instead she grows steadily closer to Jesse, whom no one seriously considers a candidate for her affections because he’s “feeble-minded”.

4. Characters forced into a romance

By the author, rather than by other characters or circumstances. I once read a romance where, in the epilogue, the souls of the hero and heroine end up in two characters who meet for the first time, feel an instant connection and know that they will be blissfully happy together. There was no indication of why they would be happy – just that Fate or Destiny (AKA the author) had decreed it.

Even in fantasies of mine where there’s no overt romance, I like to have sexual tension between characters. That worked in every manuscript except Dracolytes. There was simply no way to engender romance between an aggressive fundamentalist soldier of one race and a sarcastic atheist psychologist of another. There was also nowhere a romance could go, considering that their homes were about three thousand miles apart.

They didn’t hate each other at the end, and that was all I could realistically expect from them.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

The Scar

Spoilers abound.

I borrowed this book aware of what to expect from China Mieville. I didn’t hope for sympathetic characters or a happy ending and I expected a great deal of bodily fluids. I skimmed a bit at the start, but enjoyed the second part of the book very much – to the point where I plan to buy a copy. The imagination in this book is superb.

The story is told mostly from the point of view of Bellis Coldwine, a character as appealing as her name sounds. A passenger on a ship that’s captured by pirates, she’s press-ganged into working for Armada, a magnificent floating pirate city made from hundreds of ships lashed or bridged or chained together.

Armada alone would have been worth reading this book for, because Mieville goes all-out to make it as realistic and vivid and original as possible. It’s circled by small tugboats and ironclads, guarded from below by menfish and crays and a dolphin, watched from above by airships. It has several rulers – the strange scarred Lovers, the vampiric Brucolac, the council that in true council fashion doesn’t accomplish much – and so far it has simply made occasional raids and gone nowhere in particular.

So far. Then Armada steals a floating rig that belongs to New Crobuzon and Bellis soon learns what’s behind this. The Lovers plan to travel through the Endless Ocean to reach the distant Scar, which is a place of infinite possibilities.

What happens after that, no one knows. Possibly not even Mieville. Because the book isn’t really about the Scar – that’s the MacGuffin. The book is about the journey, not the destination. And although I thought of plot coupons – especially in the scene where Armada raises a storm to attract elementals to draw up an avanc to harness to the city so they can cross the Endless Ocean to find the Scar – the simple fact is that Mieville’s worldbuilding is great enough to overcome this.

It’s also good enough to compensate for the fact that few if any of the characters are likeable. I honestly couldn’t stand any of them except Tanner Sack. Well, maybe the Brucolac too. He had a certain appeal. I have to say, after books where the vampires are all as gorgeous as they are protective of humans, it was a refreshing change to read about a vampire with a serpentine tongue who imposed a blood tax on the people in his territory.

Many of the other characters are repulsive (intentionally, I’m sure), and Uther Doul was just a bit too Superman for me – nothing, not even a three-hundred-year-old vampire, could take him down. But it wasn’t about the characterization any more than it was about the plot.

It was about all the wonderfully alien races of Bas-Lag. If you liked the ones in Perdido Street Station, you’ll enjoy these too. There are scabmettlers whose shed blood hardens instantly into armor, anophelii which survived the Malarial Queendom, and the vampir. Best of all, there’s a wonderful scene where Mieville describes exactly how a man is Remade into an amphibian.

It’s about the battles at the end, when warships of the New Crobuzon navy catch up to Armada. Mieville plays with point of view and tense here, shifting from past to present, but the battle itself was so gripping that I barely noticed the transitions. It’s fought in the air and on the ships and below the water, fought with flintlocks and rivebows and magic. And even that is superseded by the next battle, where the Brucolac and his ab-dead cadre run rampant through the ships, slaughtering people as they try to force the Lovers to turn back from their suicide run to the Scar.

The book’s conclusion would have to be pretty good to outdo battles like that, and unfortunately, it isn’t. The book doesn’t end with a bang - it’s more of a decrescendo trail-off similar to that in Perdido Street Station - so perhaps it was a good thing that I wasn’t caught up in the fates of any of the characters. Armada itself – and the teeming, unique races of Bas-Lag – were more than enough to keep me as hooked as the avanc.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Elves and dwarves

So I write a lot about different races in fantasy, but I’ve never said anything about the two old faithfuls, the elves and the dwarves, until now.

When I first started writing fantasy stories, I had a race of slender winged creatures who were the descendants of elves, and another race of short people with storage hollows in their chests – they were the descendants of dwarves, so they kept their tools in those hollows. Specifying that they were related to elves and dwarves was, I suppose, either the literary equivalent of keeping the training wheels on the bike or an assurance to the reader that no matter how fantastic my races might seem, they had their origins in Tolkien’s tradition.

After a while I realized that there wasn’t much point in trying to keep a foot in both camps. So I made up my own races, and didn’t write about elves and dwarves until now. Actually, it went beyond not writing about them – I didn’t want to read about them either. After Tolkien, I’d read enough DragonLance and Forgotten Realms novels to be thoroughly burned out on them.

One problem with elves and dwarves – a persistent problem, because a lot of fantasy writers seem to start out with these two staples – is that they follow the Tolkien pattern slavishly. The elves are all beautiful pointy-eared archers who play beautiful music and look beautifully sad. I’ve critted more than one query where they’re sad because their race is dying out. Dwarves are less common (or fleshed out), but they’re all gruff, bearded short people who mine and battle the forces of evil with equal enthusiasm.

I only realized how bad this was when I read an article on dwarves and a writer commented on a dwarf character of hers.

“And she's always going on about how her Ma used to cook the best rats... She also likes the taste of elf ears. :P”

Until then, it hadn’t occurred to me that the dwarves could be a hostile, violent race which might even be responsible for the elves dying out. I knew that in Middle-Earth, relations between the two races were not the most cordial, which was why the friendship between Legolas and Gimli was so important. But in every single book and story I’d ever read, dwarves were good guys.

Why not subvert that? A world where dwarves were intelligent and powerful antagonists, marching to war in armor they had made themselves, devising siege engines to take down castles, mining beneath defensive walls… that would be intriguing. Even the elves have had books where they were the antagonists – Terry Pratchett’s Lords and Ladies is head of the line, though the elves in Dark Sun seem like self-centered opportunists much of the time. I’d like to see more of that kind of thing, as long as the elves weren’t called Dark Elves or Night Elves or Evil Elves to distinguish them from their radiant counterparts.

Even if the elves and dwarves weren’t antagonists, their cultures and physiologies could be fleshed out and tweaked to be as individual as possible. Rather than setting such a story above ground, where the dwarf is usually a Token Alien, why not have a human go underground into a dwarf city? That would be a great way to illustrate a very different society with its own needs and customs.

Tolkien elves and dwarves were best written by Tolkien.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Five expensive ways to get into print

1. Outskirts Press, Pearl Package, $1099

“All Pearl books include professional interior layout, an ISBN number, and unlimited wholesale printing, fulfillment and distribution via Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Ingram, and Baker & Taylor, among others.”

There are also Diamond, Sapphire, Emerald and Ruby Packages. Something about them turns me off, though – maybe I was just never into bling.

2. Raider Publishing Services, Silver Package, $1799

But that $1799 is completely worth it, because along with other services, you’d be paying for a “Personal Promotion Assistant”. Can I pick mine out of a catalog of assistants (young, male, 5’10” or above)?

For the Gold Package, you also get

“Professional Consultation at our main office in the EmpireStateBuilding (including flights to New York, hotel stay, extras)”

Understandably, the price for this package isn’t included on the website. If a Platinum Package ever comes into existence, may I suggest that it includes a commercial airplane with a picture of the book’s cover painted on the side?

You could use that to fly to New York.

3. Tate Publishing, $4000

“Hey! I have a contract with Tate Publishing signed...the only thing I'm trying to find is the $4000.00”

I’m kind of disappointed that this broke the “sliding scale of expenses with shiny names” pattern. Oh well.

4. Elderberry Press, over $5900

“Our fees, inclusive of all included services are:

Adult books: $5900 plus 2¢ per word all inclusive.”

Remind me again: is everything included? What’s funny is that on its main page, Elderberry Press repeatedly claims that it’s cheaper than other vanity presses.

Its mission is “To publish, distribute and promote books the way they should be at a fraction of the cost of vanity presses... A better product for less money… Though our fees are a fraction of the fees of vanity publishers…”

Well, 10/2 is a fraction.

Elderberry Press goes on to say, “For authors on a limited budget we recommend these reputable, large, inexpensive publishers:, or” Nuff said.

5. Xlibris, Platinum Package, $12,999

“The Rolls-Royce of publishing – the Platinum Service offers an exclusive world of publishing privileges and benefits.”

Someone please tell me there are no metals beyond platinum. If there are, the package would have to include a personal alternate dimension where you didn’t just spend thousands of dollars to feel like a published author.