Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Five ways to tell that your child...

...will grow up to be a fantasy writer.

1. When you took her for swimming lessons, she named the three parts of the pool Seafarer's Rest (the shallow end), Mermaid Cove and Shark Bay (the deep end).

2. After watching A Little Princess, she rewrote the end so Sara discovered a portal to another world in the attic, entered it and learned real magic in the other world to defend herself from Miss Minchin (i.e. the story became A Little Sorceress).

3. In her geography book, she did to maps of the world what Piers Anthony did to Florida.

4. Asked for an essay on what he did over the summer, he wrote of how his family had discovered and tamed a mammoth, which unfortunately ran away just before school began.

5. He offered to write a sequel from the mammoth's point of view.

I've actually done most of these, too.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Feminism and fantasy novels

On the Toasted Scimitar blog, merc wrote,

What bothers me is when a fantasy culture randomly has 21st century beliefs that make no sense and are clearly there just becuase the author wanted their own personal worldview in the story. I get annoyed.

I feel the same way. When I open a fantasy novel, I like to see a different world with different ideas and ways of doing things. That’s not to say that everything must be 180 degrees removed from our own standards, like a mirror universe. But there have to be some realistic, convincing differences, something more than just the outer trappings of swords and horses rather than guns and cars. And the characters have to acknowledge these differences. That topic could be a book all its own, so for the purposes of this post, I’m just going to address feminism in fantasy novels – and some of the pitfalls in implementing this.

1. Female characters have to be products of their own culture

If the story is set in Regency England but the heroine wears pants, takes lovers and fights crime, she’s going to look like a product of our own times shoehorned into a different culture. Those traits which would not be common to women of that era or that culture need to be carefully chosen so they don’t come off as jarring, and they need to make sense. If a heroine learns to fight, why does she do so? If a heroine has sex outside marriage, is she prepared for the possible consequences?

This is one reason I gave up on historical romances where the heroine refuses to marry because she’s independent, but she happily has sex without sparing a thought for pregnancy. This is fine for modern times when there’s reliable birth control. In medieval times, it doesn’t say a lot for the heroine’s common sense.

2. There’s more than one way to be feminist.

It may be more sensible (from a character’s perspective) and original (from a reader’s) for a woman in historical times to dress modestly and observe societal mores while running her father’s estate while he’s off to war. And in other respects, she may like doing whatever the custom or religion of that time says that women should do. A woman can enjoy cooking and embroidery while simultaneously working as a spy or a magician – in other words, she can be feminist while still being feminine.

3. The heroine will sometimes have to choose.

Barbara Hambly’s Dragonsbane is a great example of this. Jenny has her magic and her independence – but she also has her lover and their two sons. She lives in her own house, trying to strike a balance between her need for her craft and her love for them. Too many heroines in fantasies (especially written by new and more idealistic writers) have it all. They get to become knights, have sex before marriage or indulge in other typically masculine pursuits while still receiving the love and admiration of all. Try making them choose between societal approval and following their dreams; they’ll be that much more palatable as a result.

4. The heroine’s goals should be realistic for her society and time period.

I once came across a story where the heroine, who has grown up sheltered and protected in ancient Greece, insists to her new husband that she be treated as an equal. I don’t know what made her believe she deserved such treatment, what she planned to do to get it or what “treat me as an equal” meant in the context of that society. It’s one thing to have the heroine work to improve her marriage, but she shouldn’t speak as though she’s read The Cinderella Complex.

If a heroine’s society doesn’t allow women to become knights or serve in the army, she should be aware of why this is the case (for instance, female soldiers have to take marriage and pregnancy into account, captured women are likely to be raped, etc). There may be some substance to people’s concerns, rather than just an attempt to maintain the glass ceiling. Matthew Woodring Stover’s Iron Dawn features an assertive axe-wielding heroine who speaks six languages and takes lovers – but when she was younger and ran away from home to join the army, three male deserters found her first. What happened afterwards was disturbing, but very realistic.

A lot of fantasy novels now feature tough, kickass heroines - to the point where they're becoming almost as much of a stereotype as the damsel in distress. Making them assertive and strong in different ways might help them stand out from the crowd.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Justifying upfront fees

The most powerful inducement of vanity presses that don’t have upfront fees is that anyone can be published without paying a cent for it. This made me wonder how vanity presses which did charge in advance could get away with it. I didn’t think they’d charge very much – perhaps five or six hundred dollars, which would be enough to make a nice profit and still make the authors happy.

I soon found Tate Publishing, which charges $4000 and still has authors willing to defend the practice of charging fees. Tate doesn’t count as many victims as PA does, but the correspondingly larger cost makes up for this. Interestingly, Tate’s website never mentions the hefty price tag. This information comes from writers who have paid and who are justifying it, and from writers who declined Tate’s services when the contract arrived, and the deceptiveness may be one reason why Tate is on Writer Beware’s "two thumbs down" list of publishers.

I read further, wondering how people could rationalize spending so much money. Let me count the ways…

1. The publisher is helping unknown authors and is taking a risk on you.

The guilt trip. In other words, the publisher is doing something nice for you, so why don’t you do something nice for the publisher? That something can range from “ignore warnings about the publisher” to “pay $4000 – or however much it costs”.

The best defence against this is to keep in mind that publication is a business. It is not a charity where the publisher reaches down from on high and plucks you out of the gutter, earning your lifelong gratitude in the process. A commercial publisher doesn’t take a chance when publishing manuscripts any more than a banker takes a chance when giving a loan; both are calculated risks. And a vanity press like Tate takes even less of a chance, since it’s being paid upfront.

2. It’s not actually a fee.

People who have signed up with vanity presses have several euphemisms for the fees. Tate’s website mentions “author investments” in the fine print, and also describes the price tag as an “Author Participation Fee”. Likewise, authors refer to this as a partnership effort and a meeting of the minds (there’s almost as much creativity here as in the manuscripts). Vanity presses may also be renamed “subsidy publishers” or “co-operative publishers”, which sound much more palatable.

3. In exchange for the fees, you will retain all rights to the manuscript.

Vanity presses which make this claim are bargaining on the fact that many new and inexperienced writers will not do the research and learn that writers don’t pay commercial publishers to let them keep their rights. In any case, one of the most important rights is that of first publication – and that will be wasted on a vanity press which can’t and won’t do anything much with it.

4. Every writer is charged.

This is the idea that authors will have to pay at some point along the line for publication, so it might as well be upfront.

With Tate I have "paid up" all at once, and now will concentrate on working with their marketing representative to try to make a profit.

The defenders of vanity presses get extremely creative here as well. Some claim that if you use an agent, that will be money lost too. This ignores the fact that agents get your work before publishers, negotiate for higher advances and enable you to keep those rights that you might otherwise have to pay $4000 for. Others say that if a publisher gives you an advance, production costs will be deducted. Again, they’re bargaining on their targets not doing the research and realizing that this is an outright falsehood. Finally, there is this prediction of doom (scroll down to the end).

JK Rowling was poor and poor for a very long time until her later books when she had to re-sign in order to get more money. You can actually see the same thing happening to lots of authors who didn't 'Pay' to have their book published.

That has to be the ultimate vanity press defense. No doubt Rowling cried all the way to the bank, wishing she’d panhandled enough pennies to go with a vanity press instead.

5. The costs of publishing a book are so high that authorial contributions are needed.

One person who published with Tate justified the expense with, “The $4,000 I paid will not even cover the cost of printing the books, much less editing, promotion, etc.” The idea here is that publishing is a co-operative venture between the publisher and the author, where the author puts up $4000 and the publisher puts up the rest. The publisher may even claim that they are investing $20,000 or $30,000 or whatever amount in the manuscript – there’s no way to verify this claim, but it may make the author feel better. And four grand looks small in comparison to twenty thousand.

Why should the publisher take all the risk? the defenders of vanity presses say. You have to spend money to make money. For an excellent description of this excuse, check out this article from How Publishing Really Works. And for new and inexperienced writers, this can be a convincing reason, especially if the publisher claims to be spending thousands of dollars.

The best defense to this is to keep in mind that you, as the writer, have already done your part by writing and editing the manuscript. You don’t have to do anything more (other than listening to feedback and incorporating what works). The publisher will recoup the costs from selling manuscripts to the reading public. A vanity press which doesn’t sell to the reading public (because of lack of marketing or distribution) will recoup the costs from the author. To increase profits in this regard, the vanity press will keep the costs of publication low by providing a minimum of editing, stock image covers and so on. PA’s costs of printing a title are around $300; I doubt Tate’s are much higher.

As for spending money to make money, just ask yourself if you pay your employer to let you come to work each day.

6. The publisher will refund the money.

The empty promise. The publisher promises to pay back the money if the author does the industry equivalent of winning the lottery – for instance, selling five thousand copies in the first year. For a commercially published novel, this is do-able; in fact, for many genres, this would be a disappointingly low figure. For a vanity-printed novel without distribution? The publisher will never have to pay up.

7. There are no other fees (e.g. editing or marketing fees).

This is like a salesman telling you that if you buy a car from his lot, there won’t be any extra charges for the headlights or the accelerator.

8. The fees are a sign of good faith.

The $4000 Tate asks for is to guarantee that you'll complete your part.

If a writer queries with an incomplete manuscript, why doesn’t Tate simply ask for the rest of the work before offering a contract? Then there would be no need for such a guarantee. Besides, it’s not as though the money is returned to the writer once the complete manuscript is delivered.

I came across a claim that paying the fees was an indication of an author’s seriousness and dedication. This doesn’t even merit a response.

9. You get extra attention for the money.

Tate’s website claims that writers will receive additional services such as assistance with marketing. I’ve also read claims of higher royalties, which are a very safe promise for the publisher since vanity-printed books rarely sell outside the pocket market of an author’s family and friends. So it’s not as though the publisher will have to pay higher royalties on thousands or even hundreds of copies – the average number of sales for a book put out by a vanity press is 75.

Authors may believe that the upfront payment will somehow guarantee distribution from the publisher.

Would TATE not do everything in their power to get my book on the shelf so they could also make more money in the end?

What’s easier – having to be a real publisher or snaring another hopeful writer with money to burn? I’ll bet there’s nothing in the contract which states the vanity press has to do any marketing or distribution in return for the author’s dollars, either.

10. If you don’t pay up, you lack faith in your work.

A Tate author, speaking in defense of the company, said that Tate’s owner had told him, “If you don't feel that your manuscript is marketable, then do NOT do this--we feel it is marketable." Nice pressure tactic, especially if it follows glowing praise from the publisher. I love your manuscript enough to invest my money in it. How could you not do the same? How could you lack faith in your manuscript baby?

The best defense to this is to say, “I find your lack of faith disturbing” in a Darth Vader voice. At least that will make you laugh. And then you can turn it back on the publisher and say, “If you think my manuscript is so marketable, go ahead and market it. I give you my blessing. But I will not give you my money.”

There are countless other reasons – the bigger the scam, the harder the scammees will struggle to justify it. People claim that no one forced them to pay, and it’s not illegal to charge fees (though not everything legal is ethical). Others express disbelief in Yog’s Law or say that they’re getting something in return for their money. Ultimately there’s only one reason to spend money to see a book in print – when you know beforehand that you’re signing up with a vanity press, when you don’t expect to recoup the investment or have a publishing credit. There’s nothing wrong with vanity publishing per se, only with fooling oneself that it is anything other than what it is.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Yog's Law

Money flows toward the writer.

I think that for new or inexperienced writers, this seems counter-intuitive. They’ve just had a wonderful time writing a book (especially if they haven’t thought too much about editing, word count, marketability and so on). So they go online, wondering what they should do to get it published. There they read that if a commercial publisher accepts the book, they will be paid (imagine it, someone paying you to tell a story!) and the book will be advertised and distributed to bookstores.

This seems like a incredibly good deal, especially to new writers. So they send off queries or manuscripts, and before long they find themselves on the interminable Road of Rejection (which may or may not lead to the Publishers’ Palace – there are no guarantees in life). There are two ways they can go from here.

1. They can decide that their manuscripts need more work or that they would be more successful with another story, so they keep writing.

2. They can decide that since they were rejected, the system doesn’t work. What they were told – that publishers pay authors for manuscripts – is either wrong or not applicable to unpublished authors. The idea that money flows towards a writer might be more than just an idea for bestselling authors like Stephen King, but it doesn’t apply to the fledgling hopefully submitting his fortieth query letter. If he can’t even get the manuscript accepted, getting paid for it is a hopeless pipe dream. And if he does actually get an acceptance… well, he'll be so grateful that he won’t expect anything else of the publisher.

At this point the writer is ready to be led down the primrose path of vanity publishing. As well as signing up with scams like PublishAmerica which don’t charge upfront, writers may discard Yog’s Law entirely and pay a vanity press to publish them. I wondered how much money writers would be willing to pay in this regard, and how they would justify the expense. In the case of Tate Publishing, that amount is $4000. And how writers rationalize paying it… that’ll be the subject of my next post.

To be continued…

Monday, July 21, 2008

Room 101

Torture is tricky to work with under any circumstances, but in fantasy novels it can be even more interesting. Firstly, many fantasies are set in the past, where life could be nasty, brutish and even shorter if someone powerful decided to make you suffer. Secondly, speculative fiction offers much potential in terms of what can be done to a person that simply can’t be done in real life. Finally, fantasy these days is more open to the dark and gritty aftereffects of these actions. Tortured characters have always had a certain appeal; now let’s focus on the torture rather than the characters.

1. Torture should not be easily shrugged off.

A great example of a book where this didn’t happen is Kara Dalkey’s Goa, where the Inquisition has the hero placed in a strappado and it takes him until the next book to recover the use of his arms. There are so very many fantasies out there where the hero recovers almost effortlessly from beatings, starvation, sexual abuse and mental abuse that I’m not going to name them.

Lorraine Heath has a nice moment at the start of Texas Splendor, where the hero has just been released from prison for a crime he did not commit, and he’s sitting down to dinner with his family for the first time in five years. He pulls his plate towards him, puts his arms on either side of it and bends his head over it. That said a lot for his prison experience. Likewise, I’d like to see characters changed by torture, especially the long prolonged mental kind.

2. Whoever’s doing the torturing needs a good motive.

It may done from sheer sadism, just to cause pain, though this has been overused to the point where it may turn off readers. It may be part of a scientific experiment carried out in a forced labor camp. It may be to produce a certain state of mind – either the victim repents and converts at the end, or they’re so broken in mind that someone else’s personality and thoughts can be downloaded into their still-functional body.

Or it may be because the person who’s being tortured committed a crime so vile that it deserves execution, except that the land does not support the death penalty. Very well; the next best thing is torture. At least it’s better than death, in that it doesn’t end anyone’s life if the torturer is very careful.

3. Torture can be mental as well.

I’d like to see more mental torture. Not just the “expose character to deepest fear” idea, but something creative. In Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? the titular main character, placed in charge of her wheelchair-bound sister, roasts first the sister’s pet canary and then a rat, placing both under elegant silver dishcovers in the trays she takes up to her sister. Involuntary confinement, sensory deprivation and gaslighting techniques work as well.

But with magic, this could really take off. How about the implantation of addictions or false memories or sexual paraphilias? Imagine waking up tomorrow to find yourself physically attracted to children. Or permanently skewed perceptions – for instance, making the victim see himself as repulsively ugly, or anything he tries to eat as some disgusting substance (not going to give examples here). Magic which plays with people’s minds can make any such torture original and memorable. And the best part is that there’s no evidence that this character’s new phobia or weakness has been caused by torture – other characters may well conclude that the victim was really like this all along.

4. Sexual torture : handle with care.

If this actually happens (unless it’s a male victim and a female rapist, in which case it’s usually written for titillation), it can be ugly to read about and it should have serious consequences . It’s not something anyone can recover from quickly (unless the victim in question is an anguisette who actually enjoys it). I think that’s one reason the Bloody Mummers in A Song of Ice and Fire never actually succeed in raping Brienne, although it seems most if not all of them want to do so.

If the sexual torture doesn’t happen, well, coitus interruptus scenes between heroine and villain are a dime a dozen. It’s the one kind of torture that I couldn’t inflict on my main characters – not because I don’t want them to suffer, but because I don’t think I’m capable of dealing with the psychological fallout. I’ve done it to secondary characters, but not to the protagonists.

Painful and realistic doesn't necessarily equal gory, but it often means interesting. Especially when it comes to torture.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Five less common query letter mistakes

1. “I’ve spent years polishing this manuscript.”

From the comments here. It implies that the writer needs years to edit and refine a book, which doesn’t bode well for any revisions that an editor might request.

2. “I’m prepared to make any changes necessary to sell this book, or to correct anything you don’t like.”

On the face of it, this may not seem so bad. The writer is being flexible, keeping saleability in mind and not showing the smallest gleam of Golden Word syndrome. On the other hand, it looks as though the writer has gone in the opposite direction, and isn’t too confident in the work. It’s fine to be prepared to make changes, but the agent shouldn’t be left with the impression that something in the manuscript might need to be corrected.

3. “I’m an unpublished writer, and I know this may be a problem.”

If no other novels are mentioned in the query letter, the agent will know that the author is unpublished; there’s no need to state it explicitly. What seems like acknowledging a problem may come off as putting oneself down or being too diffident. Even if the writer's nervous, there’s no need to let anyone know it.

Also, a brand-new author is often going to be more favorably received than a previously published author who hasn't had good sales.

4. “My novel is a story of a character who faces great obstacles but finally succeeds.”

This is like saying that the novel is composed of words which are organized into sentences and even paragraphs.

5. “Published Author Joe Smith says of my novel, ‘This will be a great read.’”

In other words, it isn’t one yet. If there isn’t a solid recommendation in writing from Joe Smith, this may be taken as either a polite brush-off or damning with faint praise.

Saturday, July 19, 2008


One recommendation given to new writers wondering how to begin a story is “not with the main character dreaming”. Such a start can be problematic. If the reader knows the character is dreaming, then the reader’s not going to be too worried by anything that happens in the dream. Unless this is set in a Nightmare on Elm Street-type world, the worst consequence is that the character wakes up and needs to get a fresh pair of pyjamas. If the reader doesn’t know that this is a dream, that can be worse, since the suspense will end sooner or later when the character wakes up. “It was all a dream” is a bad way to end a story, and not a great way to begin one either.

What surprised me was how different – and effective – dreams can after the start. Once the reader has hopefully come to care about the characters, even their dreams can be interesting. By the middle of the book, the reader should know enough of the story that the author can drop in details and hints that the dreaming character might miss but that the reader won’t. What happens in a dream can also reflect a character’s growth - for instance, Jaime’s dream of Brienne in George R. R. Martin’s A Storm of Swords. A dream in the body of the novel can be a warning, a turning point, a prophecy, a hint to the reader or a twisted reflection of what’s happening in reality, whereas at the start, a dream is usually just a hook, and one that annoys as often as it snares.

There’s even a book (Iron Dawn, by Matthew Woodring Stover) which utilized the “it was only a dream” ending to a scene where a character was apparently murdered, and I was so relieved that he wasn’t actually killed that I didn’t mind the device. But this happened in the middle of the book, by which time I’d come to like the character. If I’d read it at the start, it would have been too much like a cheap trick. The dream also turned out to be somewhat prophetic, since the events in it happened to the character later, but that’s normal for dreams in fantasy novels.

While dreams in fiction are often imbued with more accuracy and significance than they would be in real life – which is how it should be – they shouldn’t reveal everything to the character. I love it when characters figure things out on their own. I’m not so keen on the characters learning too much from a dream, even if it’s a dream sent by the gods or the character’s future self. That’s too easy. Give them dreams that are ambiguous, difficult to interpret, like the dream sequences in Rosemary’s Baby. The first time I read them, they just sounded like gibberish, but the second time, I realized that the dialogues in them are the cultists’ discussions as they search for a woman to impregnate. Rosemary, of course, doesn’t know this until it’s way too late for her.

Dreams and nightmares can be psychic attacks and communication devices and portals into another world. They may not be the best way to begin a story, but after the beginning, there's plenty of scope and potential for them.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

The first five sentences

On the Absolute Write forums, a writer suggested that even a questionable or amateur agent might be able to "get a clean query letter in front of an editorial assistant who reads all of the first five sentences of Chapter One before passing judgement".

Much of the resulting discussion focused on possible pitfalls of dealing with such agents, but I wanted to comment further about the first five sentences. It's quite possible that this is all the editorial assistants read - not only because they have stacks of manuscripts, partials or sample pages to get through, but because one bite is usually enough to tell whether you're eating an apple pie or a mud pie. As an example of first paragraphs that are a turnoff, check out this collection from POD-dy Mouth. My favorite is, "They called her Labia."

I've seen similar opening sentences in a lot more books and in manuscripts presented for critiques, so a good way to both stand out from the crowd and hold the editorial assistant's attention is to hone the start. Begin with a character in trouble, an unusual setting, a vivid image, a hint of danger.

The moss-ball bounced across the floor of the cavern towards Fernfeather. He lunged forward to sweep it aside, but stumbled at the crucial moment. It seemed to mock him as it rolled slowly past his outstretched leg and into the goal.
Roger Eldridge, The Shadow of the Gloom-World

Some places are too evil to be allowed to exist. Some cities are too wicked to be suffered. Calcutta is such a place.
Dan Simmons, Song of Kali

It's easier to work a gripping hook into the first five sentences (maybe even the first sentence) than to deal with an inexperienced agent.

Monday, July 14, 2008

A book is not a movie

I recently critiqued a short story which began with a cinematic description of the landscape and the weather. People in a generic medieval village were briefly described, but they were unnamed and didn’t speak. After a few paragraphs of this, the camera panned away to another location and the main character (who was named) began to speak. The writer explained that she often wrote as though watching the events unfold movie-style.

Such a cinematic point-of-view opening is used in any number of movies, where it works well whether with or without voiceovers, and this makes a number of new writers use it too. But to do so without understanding the difference between the two media can be a stumbling block. A movie offers an unfolding visual, which is often more atmospheric and attractive than a written description. Such an opening, coupled with stirring music, may well do what paragraphs of written description at the start of a novel cannot.

Minus moving pictures and an orchestra in the background, most writers don’t have a page or two in which to describe the setting, especially not in this day and age where competition for publication slots is stiff. Even a paragraph of description may slow down the pacing. Most writers may therefore be safer beginning with the main character dropped head-first into a difficult or dangerous situation, and allowing the setting to unfold and develop around him or her. On the other hand, there are some circumstances under which a more leisurely and descriptive opening could work.

1. The description is unusual.

A soft grey mist settled on the fishing village isn’t going to be as interesting to me as A soft grey mist settled on the first human settlement on Jupiter Prime. If the story is describing an obviously alien or fantastic environment – and doing so well – that might be enough of a hook to overcome the fact that the main characters haven’t stepped on to the stage yet. Poul Anderson’s “The Queen of Air and Darkness” begins with such description, but when I’m reading about braidbark, jewelleaf and flitteries, I don't notice anything but the unusual and well-thought-out setting. An exotic locale and a vivid style can be as fascinating as people in danger – but this locale and style has to be as intriguing to the reader as they are to the writer.

2. The description is evocative.

Phillipa Gregory’s Wideacre begins with a paragraph of description of the titular hall, but the paragraph is imbued with the narrator’s emotion, full of her love for her home. That was one problem with the cinematic point of view in the story I critiqued. Since the writer was recording the villagers' actions from a detached and emotionless distance, I felt detached from the events and the setting as well.

3. The description is strongly connected to the story.

Putting anything – a character, an aphorism, a description – at the start of a story tells the reader that that thing will be important. This works in Wideacre because the setting is almost a character in its own right; the story could not have taken place anywhere else. And it connects the opening of the book to its end, where Wideacre Hall lies in ruins.

As Orson Scott Card says in Characters and Viewpoint, we have a trick the filmmakers don’t. Short of having the characters in a movie think aloud, there’s no way the screenwriter can put the reader into a character’s mind or have an interesting omniscient narrator comment on events. I’ll take those any day over the panoramic pan over the setting when it comes to hooking readers at the start. That’s not to say this can’t work, just that it may often be easier and more effective to begin a story (especially a short story, where every word counts) in other ways.

I have to say, though, when I imagine Redemption being made into a film, it gets the panoramic sweep at the start. Every time. :)

Friday, July 11, 2008

Five worst said-bookisms

I once read that the term "said-bookism" comes from little books containing lists of synonyms for the verb "said". While "said" often comes off as plain and simple beside exotic euphemisms, in general it's a better choice. Nearly invisible to the reading eye, it focuses attention on the dialogue rather than how it's delivered. It's also far less likely to have as many amusing connotations as some of the said-bookisms in this list...

1. barked

“What the hell are you doing?” Luc barked.
Shayla Black, Decadent

The word "barked" makes me think of the character doing a dog impression. Unfortunately, the above line is from a sex scene, which is really the last place I needed to imagine a dog.

2. husked

I don't have an example for this, but it enjoyed a brief honeymoon in romance novels from the eighties. It's probably meant to indicate that the hero (or more rarely, the heroine) is speaking in a husky voice, but it's more often applied to ears of corn. Thank goodness it didn't catch on; otherwise the next logical said-bookism might have been "he hoarsed" or "he throated".

3. whinnied

"Oh, Lucius Cornelius!" whinnied Gaius Lusius.
Colleen McCullough, The First Man in Rome

Gaius Lusius is supposed to be a stereotypical gay man in a very heterosexual army (don't ask, don't tell), but the narrative was doing more than a good enough job of portraying him as such before this speech tag. I'm not even sure how one whinnies dialogue. It makes me wonder if Black Beauty ever whinnied anything.

4. ejaculated

"Snape!" ejaculated Slughorn.
J. K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

Ah, the word that launched at least one piece of slash art I'm aware of - and no, I didn't save the link.

5. half-whispered

I read this in a review by James Blish (writing as William Atheling, Jr.). The word "whispered" is one of the few that I wouldn't hesitate to use instead of "said", but I'm not sure whether a half-whisper is an even more quiet whisper or if it's describing a voice that begins quietly but rises to a normal pitch at the end. What's the other half of a half-whisper, anyway? I feel as though I need algebra to work it out.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

In the Dark of the Night

Warning : spoilers abound.

I picked up a copy of John Saul’s In the Dark of the Night from the library a few days ago. Most of Saul’s thirty-three horror novels share the same elements – children or teenagers in danger from evil stirring in a small town, but a few are real standouts. One of my favorites is Second Child, where everything, from the characters to the supernatural element to the title, works together to make an excellent story. Unfortunately, this didn’t happen with In the Heat of the Night.

The main characters of Second Child are Melissa, who’s intelligent and good-hearted but shy and plump, and her older sister Teri, who’s beautiful and self-confident (and who plans on being an only child very soon). I’ll bet you saw the conflict even before you read the part in parentheses. In contrast, the main character of Night (I’m not typing all that out again) is Eric, who likes hanging out with his friends and doesn’t like a bully in the small town. Not too much character or conflict there.

I don’t think Mr Saul had the space to develop Eric, though, given that there were so many other point-of-view characters in the story. There’s Eric’s two friends, Eric’s mother, Eric’s would-be girlfriend, three women in the small town, the local sherriff, the town bully, the bully’s friend, the killer, some random woman who’s killed at the end and even Eric’s cat. And those are just the ones I can remember. As a result, I couldn’t connect with any of the characters.

In Second Child, the characters came together and the plot that followed was believable and compelling, since it grew from their personalities. In Night, the plot is propelled by objects that once belonged to serial killers, which wasn’t as interesting. A psychologist studying ways to treat the criminally insane bought items like Jack the Ripper’s bag of surgical scalpels (maybe he left them to Scotland Yard in his will). The objects still have a psychic energy about them, so the psychologist takes them apart. Seven years later, though, he has disappeared, so his house is rented out to Eric’s family. Eric and his friends find the objects hidden in the house and, feeling the psychic energy tingle through them, start to put the objects back together. Each time they do so, someone dies, evidently killed by the objects.

While this is an interesting premise, it left the book without a real antagonist. Sure, there’s a killer, but he’s a mental patient, and the ghosts of various serial killers made him do it. He didn't have a plan of any sort in mind. Since the psychic energy makes the boys put the objects together, their own personalities don’t play a role in events (i.e. nothing like Stephen King’s brilliant “Apt Pupil”). And with at least four examples of serial killer memorabilia in the story, there wasn’t much space for them either.

The end of Night was especially difficult to believe, since the axe-wielding mental patient charges a crowd of people who are enjoying the Fourth of July fireworks. Keep in mind that there’s been one grotesque unsolved murder in town already. As the axe-wielding guy cuts down one person after another, the rest of the crowd continues to look up at the fireworks, unaware that people are screaming and dying nearby. After twenty-four people die, Eric and his friends wrestle the killer down, but I had already disengaged from the slasher-movie finale by then. As a reader, the deaths of two dozen people whom I don’t know aren’t going to affect me as badly as the death of one person whom I do. Quantity isn’t superior to quality here.

The final straw for me was the style. Saul has always written in one-sentence or one-phrase paragraphs to build suspense, but in this book, this technique was used throughout. Since suspense cannot be maintained at the same high level through the entire book, the technique stops working sooner or later, and worse still, it draws attention to itself.

The smell from the kitchen greeted Eric as he opened his bedroom door. He stood at the top of the stairs, rubbing his eyes, listening to his parents talking with his sister as they made breakfast.

A breakfast of waffles.

Now imagine the entire book being written in this style, with certain words being emphasized in the follow-up paragraph.


Like that.

It comes off as artificial.

And repetitive.

Very repetitive.

I’ll probably still keep reading John Saul’s books – they’re short and crisp and can be genuinely moving, since in previous novels, at least one sympathetic character would die in each book. That’s what I remember and like about them, not the one-sentence paragraphs or a high body count.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008


Many fantasy novels have prologues, so it’s normal for many new writers to begin a fantasy with a prologue. Even though I’d read several novels that began with Chapter 1, it had never occurred to me that a big epic fantasy could be written without a prologue until I read Orson Scott Card’s How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy. After that I never wrote one, and enjoyed jumping straight into the story while hopefully pulling the reader along with me. If I were to write one, though, I’d keep some tips in mind.

A prologue is not the place to describe the background, the magic system or the mythology of the story – mostly because those aren’t inherently fascinating to anyone except the author. Mythology is often retold in a“Long long ago, when the world was young and gods walked among men” way, and any characters in them are unfleshed, inaccessible and may not appear again in the story. Prologues that are mostly infodumps are worse. There may be a lot of information about the world of the story, but it shouldn’t be delivered to the reader in a mighty avalanche at the start.

I made this mistake when I first started writing fantasy, trying to condense the history of my world down into a few pages and thinking, “There, now we’ve got all that out of the way, we can settle down and enjoy the story.” But now that I plunge straight in, the reader can start enjoying the story right away, and I’ve also found that the reader doesn’t need to know every single detail to do so.

The best use for prologues in fantasy novels is to give readers a brief glimpse of events from another perspective, perhaps from a point of view that cannot be included in the novel or from a time just before the story proper begins. For instance, a prologue can deal with an event in the main character’s past which shows or hints at why the main character is now in a certain position or way of life; Ursula LeGuin’s The Tombs of Atuan is a good example of this. Such a prologue still needs to begin with a hook, and to have characterization and plot just as good as that of the first chapter, but if it's short and intriguing, it has the potential to be a delicious appetizer before the main course of the novel.

One last caveat : the prologue shouldn’t give away spoilers. If it features a prophecy stating that the Sword of Sunbeams will yield to the last heir of the Shiny Kingdom, and the hero happens to be that last heir, no one is going to be in the least worried when he steps up to the Sword. No matter how menacingly it glows or how much he sweats in advance, the readers will already know what happens (unless the writer subverts the prophecy and the Sword burns the hero’s hands off, which to be honest I wouldn’t mind reading).

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Five funny things non-writers say...

...when they hear that you're a writer.

1. "I have an idea for a novel. You could write it and we could split the profits."

I want to reply, "So you'll supply the idea and I'll supply the characters, plot, background, setting, style, research, editing, submission and revision? What kind of split do you have in mind?"

2. "I have an idea for a book about {insert favorite nonfiction topic here}."

This one just baffles me. A coworker once saw me editing the first draft of Dracolytes, asked if I was a writer and said, "You should write a book on Type II diabetes." The only connection I could see between Dracolytes and diabetes is that both words start with a D and end with an S. Other than that, I have no idea what made her think I might be qualified to write such a book, or that I would want to do so.

3. "I'd like to write a book. Could you help me?"

Yes, I can smack you until the craziness goes away.

Seriously, if someone asked me this, I'd describe what getting accurate criticism of a first draft feels like, and what the fiftieth form rejection can do to you. I'd talk about the time it takes to complete a manuscript, and the even longer time it takes to query and submit the thing. I'd go into detail about the scam sharks in the writing waters. I'd wind this up by cautioning the would-be writer that there is NO guarantee of publication and NO guarantee of mondo money either.

Then, if he or she still liked the idea of writing a book, I'd suggest some good books and websites on the subject.

Then, once he or she actually started writing the book, we could talk.

4. "Where do you get your ideas from?"


I read once that a writer, tired of this question, started telling people that he subscribed to a weekly magazine that provided him with ideas, but it was for published authors only.

5. "You know, I've always wanted to be a writer."

People don't normally say, "You know, I've always wanted to be a stockbroker" or "I've always wanted to be a neurosurgeon" to someone they've just met. Writing is different, though. Since nearly everyone writes (emails, letters to the editor, schoolwork, proposals, etc.), many people believe it's just one small step from there to the aura of authorhood. People know that you need to have studied for years to be a scientist or gone through rigorous training to be a firefighter, but being a writer is much more attainable. And glamorous. Sometimes, the implication is that the person could have been a writer if they had had just ten minutes' more time in the day.

As someone once said, writers write. Wannabe writers wanna write.

Friday, July 4, 2008

Diary of a slush pile reader

In my salad days, when I was green in judgment and cold in blood, I thought it would be fun to read slush. I could read all day, but I could put down any manuscript which didn't hold my interest and there would be no need to critique them. Plus, every now and then I'd find a ruby in the rubble. What wasn't to like?

Then I read Slushkiller, Teresa Nielsen Hayden's Making Light article that mentions the proportion of nonsaleable to saleable manuscripts in the slush pile - 99 to 1 - and makes it clear that a significant portion of the 99 are, shall we say, not an easy read. I still didn't think it would be that bad, though whenever I read about editors who got proposals for plagiarized work or bizarre stories like a garbage can lid's love affair with an empty box, yes, I could see how that might make someone not eager to dive into the slush pile headfirst. It also couldn't be easy to read sad or hopeful cover letters.

But that wasn't the worst thing that could happen to a slush pile reader, as I realized when I read this hilarious article, Confessions of a Slush Pile Reader. That would be the writer who hung around in the lobby, waiting for the editorial assistant (OK, he only wanted to get his manuscript back, but still, that's a bit unnerving). Then there were the people who called, asking for the editor. The assistant's solution to this is brilliant. And then there's the great Kilimanjaro of the slush pile itself - not just a mound of manuscripts, but the repository of dreams (and nightmares). I thought that sending bribes or manuscripts printed on colored paper was the weirdest thing people could do. Note to self : people will always surprise you that way.

I don't think I'll ever want to read slush again. But I'd love to read more great articles about other people reading it.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

A woman's place

There’s a certain plot that I’d rather not read again. It goes something like this : Heroine has a challenging job in a big city. Either a job problem or a relationship problem makes her travel out to a small town (or a farm, or a ranch) where she realizes how much better life can be. The townsfolk welcome her with open arms and are so much warmer and friendlier than people in the big city. She supports herself by growing flowers or selling home-made jam, all the while becoming more beautiful and more fulfilled. When she receives an generous offer from the big city, she turns it down and lives happily ever after.

I was familiar with this plot from reading reviews of romance novels, and I’d learned to avoid it, but recently I picked up a chick lit from the library. The book was Sophie Kinsella’s The Undomestic Goddess, about a woman who leaves her job as a lawyer and accidentally becomes a housekeeper, even though she can’t cook. I could sympathize with that, and I thought it would be interesting to see the heroine balance her skills as a lawyer with her newly acquired interest in running a house.

I was overly optimistic, since at the end, the heroine decided to stay in the small town, which was straight out of a Thomas Kinkade painting, and be a housekeeper. Every lawyer in the book was portrayed as greedy and manipulative at worst, or cold and insensitive at best, and whether or not that’s in touch with reality, I didn’t like it. It was like reading something from the fifties – the notion that women are not happy, attractive or fulfilled when they’re in business suits and holding down jobs that require degrees. Instead, a woman is at her most feminine and joyous when she bakes bread and cleans a house.

I’m not sure what the appeal of this plot is, unless it’s that country life is portrayed as one long vacation and little details like money or a career, which people worry about in real life, are just not that important. It’s escapist fiction at its best. Maybe the reason I don’t connect with it is that I have an idea what country life can really be like. My grandparents owned a plantation in Sri Lanka – cows, chickens, coconut trees – and I sometimes spent a week or two there. A week or two was all I could take. I like living in big cities (Dubai, Austin, Toronto), being able to walk ten minutes to the library or grocery store, having the Internet at my fingertips, so the usual demonization of the big city that occurs in these books really doesn’t work for me.

I wouldn’t mind if there were also novels about women who left the farm or ranch or small town to find success and happiness in the big city, but if they do, it’s usually a brief and disapppointing experience. Then they return, sadder but wiser, to whichever small place they came from. That’s one reason I like Judith Michael’s Possessions - the main character’s husband leaves her, so she goes to San Francisco and gets a job. That's my kind of heroine.