Sunday, August 31, 2008

Writing characters of the opposite gender

Women and men (both little and small)
cared for anyone not at all
e. e. cummings

My critiquer, GunnerJ, once told me that he wasn’t certain of his characterization of women in his stories, since he’s male. He then asked me if I felt the same way when I wrote about men.

Until then, I’d never really thought of writing characters as male or female, but Before the Storm is the only story set in a world where there are rigid gender demarcations, so it was the only novel where I had to have women behaving and being treated differently from men. In most of my other lands, there’s no real discrimination, and so I just created characters without thinking too deeply about gender. So when GunnerJ asked me this, it really made me stop to consider.

Why do we make some characters male and some female?

Genre plays a role in this. For instance, if you’re writing for Harlequin Presents, your stories are probably more likely to feature “strong, wealthy, breathtakingly charismatic alpha-heroes who are tamed by spirited, independent heroines”, rather than, say, a wealthy alpha heroine who is tamed by a man. I checked out Harlequin’s Steeple Hill guidelines, wondering if an inspirational line might have different requirements for the heroine than the hero, but interestingly, I didn’t see any.

Likewise, a historical novel is going to have inherent restrictions when it comes to gender. It’s possible, of course, to have a historical fiction set in the year 1700 and taking place on a oceangoing vessel where the heroine is the ship’s doctor. But if an author does this and then glosses over the setup or consequences, the story can seem unrealistic and may require more suspension of disbelief. It may also look as though the author hasn’t done his or her research.

Conversely, the author could explain how a woman became a doctor, how she managed to get a position on a ship, how she manages on board the ship with a crew of men, and so on. While this might be intriguing, it also means the anachronism is bending the story around herself. Rather than being a tale of maritime adventure, it becomes the story of the female doctor. It may be easier to tell the story that the writer wants to tell if the characters operate within the gender roles of that time – but do everything possible and realistic and interesting within those roles.

It’s also easier to win sympathy for some characters if they’re female. For instance, Gone with the Wind is unlikely to have worked if Scarlett had been male. An impulsive, self-centered boy passionately in love with a woman engaged to someone else and who kept trying to dissuade him… not sympathetic. But since Scarlett began as a sixteen-year-old girl, her flaws were much easier for me to accept.

That’s one reason I made Morava in Dracolytes a woman – she begins the novel as a devoutly religious soldier who all but physically assaults a man for blasphemy. If she had been a man who ill-treated a woman for the same reason, I think she would have been impossible to like. You read about male religious fanatics in the news, but a female religious fanatic is still relatively novel and for me at least, more palatable.

I think this works for male characters as well. A cold, reserved, hyperintelligent woman who disdained men might appear frigid, but Sherlock Holmes came across as fascinating, the kind of person who could be thawed by just the right woman (or right man, judging by all the Holmes/Watson slash out there). There are some traits which are just easier to forgive and accept when they’re held by a person of one gender rather than the other. Which isn’t to say that they should never be applied to people of the other gender, just that this is one reason writers may (unconsciously) select the one over the other when creating characters.

Finally, it may simply be easier to write from the point of view of one gender rather than another. I’ve read several criticisms of romance novels where the heroes behaved unrealistically – for instance, they were more interested in talking about their feelings than in having sex – though this may also be due to the requirements of the genre or the publisher.

It was a very interesting topic to think about. So much so that only after I'd written all this did I realize I hadn't answered GunnerJ's question. Which I'll do in another blog post.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Five more things I don't want to see in sex scenes

1. The named member.

Probably the only novel where this worked for me was Lady Chatterley’s Lover. A few years ago, I picked up a romance where the hero named his penis Ambrose, and I kept laughing during the sex scenes when he referred to whatever Ambrose was doing. Ambrose isn’t what you name a rampant manhood, it’s what you name an elderly British professor.

2. The voyeuristic friend.

I’ve only come across this buzzkill once, in the film La Reine Margot, and the sex scenes between the titular character and her homme du jour were made even less arousing by Margot’s maid listening outside the door (with Margot’s knowledge). It was almost a menage a trois.

3. The mysterious cream.

I’ve read a couple of historical romances now where the first sexual encounter was less than consensual, and to make it a little easier on the heroine, the hero resorted to the use of “cream”. No indication what this 17th century version of K-Y Jelly is made of, or why the hero keeps a supply close at hand. Perhaps he’s accustomed to women who don’t lube naturally in his presence?

4. The animal impression.

Sex talk can be funny, it can be erotic and it can be touching. But when the characters discuss their lovemaking in terms of sheep mating – “Will you mount me like the ram mounts his ewe?” – and when the hero says “Baaa!” at the climax, I feel as though I’m reading about some woolly subculture.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

5. The clueless innocent.

I don’t mind the heroine being a virgin, or being inexperienced when it comes to sex, especially in a historical. But unless she’s grown up in a convent, I’d rather not read dialogue like this.

"What is this thing?"
"My cock."
"Is it attached to your body?"
"Yes. We're built differently."
"What is it for?"

This level of naivety just isn’t sexy. And it makes me want to say, “Now point to the dolly to show us where the bad man touched you.”

Monday, August 25, 2008


A lot of writers don’t make outlines, and may even discourage their use. This may depend, though, on the definition of “outline” and maybe even of “use”. I personally like them, but that’s because the one book where I leaped in without any outline in advance was Redemption. I hit the ground running and enjoyed the writing, but the book now needs to be completely rewritten, because the final product could use some improvement.

So since I’m doing an outline for Empire of Glass, I thought of what I normally put into my outlines – and what I don’t include.

Character profiles

Most of those available on the web – character’s favorite color, pet, high school sweetheart, worst memory, etc. – can be a pitfall. For one thing, writers may feel they have to fill in all the blanks and answer all the questions, when these may not be necessary. I have no idea what any of my characters’ favorite colors are, but I know what they want most, who (or what) opposes them and what they do about this.

Secondly, coming up with this information might make writers feel they have to include it in the story, whether it’s relevant or not. I’ve never actually put time into filling out these character sheets, but if I’d spent half an hour on one, I just might look at it and think, “All right, what do I do with this now?”

Thirdly, the division of character traits into positives and negatives sometimes backfires. Charm and persuasiveness and intelligence can be used to either help or harm; to pigeonhole them at the start might make it difficult for a writer to see the shades of grey that can make characterization so much fun.


I like drawing maps, though the first map I ever drew looked like the continental United States, so I made a determined effort after that to be original. Then I showed a map of Dagre to my friend Susana (who’s from Spain), and she pointed out that it looked like the Iberian Peninsula. Oy.

I still drew maps, since I like knowing where lands are in relation to each other, and how long it might take the characters to get somewhere. These are relatively basic maps that don’t show every major geographical feature and town; maps which did show this would be good for novels where the milieu and setting were more important, like The Lord of the Rings. The drawback to them is that they can be so much fun that they’re a distraction from actually writing, and not all fantasies need them. Tanith Lee’s and Lawrence Watt-Evans’s and Terry Pratchett’s novels do very well in a mapless state.

The history of the world

When I first started writing fantasy, I did reams on this. How the gods created the world, how they made people, how evil entered the world, etc. etc. ad infinitum.

Two days ago I took a sheet of paper and a pen and wrote three paragraphs on the origin of the titular nation in Empire of Glass. That was all I needed to know. Best of all, rather than being a Silmarillion ripoff, the birth of that nation was set in motion by a character who would be appearing in the story. There’s more history behind the other nations who oppose the empire, of course, but all I need at the start is the foundation – the empire has conquered Rukcia, Avayne fell five years ago, Fairfell is the last bastion, and the Fairfellans are so ruthless that most refugees think they’ve just exchanged one nightmare for another.

So what does go into my outlines?

I do jot down notes about worldbuilding, but they don’t tend to be detailed at the start. And by the time I get to the writing stage, I’ve usually been turning the ideas of the story over in my head, so I know who the main characters are and what the gimmicks or motifs of the novel will be.

So my outlines are more to do with the plot, giving me a framework on which to build. For instance, in part 1, they go to the Sea for the negotiations which may end the war, in part 2, their enemies spring a trap laid at the Sea, but the protagonists have plans as well, and so on. Then I break it down a little further : in Chapter 1, the protagonists meet at a war council and set off for the Sea; in chapter 2, they arrive at the Sea and try to secure the area but their enemies reached it first, etc. It gives me an idea of what’s ahead, like a map into an unknown place.

Some writers don’t like outlines because they feel it restricts the story, but my outlines are never written in stone. I have an idea of what kind of end I want for the story, but the personalities of the people involved get them to that point. And in one case, they resulted in the death of a main character, which I hadn’t foreseen at the start.

Other objections to an outline are that they detract from the wonder and discovery, the surprise of what’s just around the riverbend, but I haven’t found that to be the case for myself. Writing is just as much fun, and makes me feel more secure, when I know what’s going to happen. I also think that the longer and more complex the story (especially if you’re aiming for, say, an epic fantasy trilogy), the more important it is to have an idea of what will happen. Diving into the world without a map or compass might result in something glorious, but it might also result in a tangled mess as each character does their own thing and runs wild, rather than doing their own thing within the overarching framework of a plot and a purpose that drives the story.

Outlines are just one of the tools available to writers, so the use of them is personal. I just find that they work better for me than no outlines.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Burned out on vampires

I thought I was burned out on vampires. After devouring as many of Anne Rice’s novels as I could find, way back in 1995 after Interview with the Vampire had first come out, I didn’t want to read more about either the sad, conscience-stricken vampires (a la Louis) or the glamorous loose cannons (i.e. Lestat). I loved Lestat up till The Tale of the Body Thief, and after that I hoped he was resting in peace.

I tried one of Laurell K. Hamilton’s Anita Blake novels, but the vampire Jean-Claude didn’t really appeal to me. Maybe it was all that ma petite-ing. And somehow the very fact that vampires are so popular in urban fantasy and chick lit and YA fiction these days put me off them even more (I’m often the type of person who digs their heels in against peer pressure and goes in the opposite direction). Besides, there’s plenty of other reading material out there.

Then a week ago I was browsing music videos on YouTube, looking for songs by E Nuestro, and I found a great one called “Lucifer”, which seemed to have been used for an anime music video. I kept the music on in the background while I replied to some emails, since the video seemed gory – dark when it wasn’t dripping with blood. Plus, there was some gunman in a long red coat. How strange. The name of the video stayed in my memory, though, since it reminded me of Van Helsing from Dracula.

So the next time I was at work and didn’t have anything to do, I plugged the anime’s title into Wikipedia and read up about it. And this weekend, I made a cup of tea and settled down to watch a few episodes of Hellsing. Well, all right, nine episodes and counting. Did I say I was burned out on vampires? Hellsing is evidence that enough imagination can overcome any burnout. I like Alucard’s striking clothes, weapons of mass destruction, fanatical loyalty to Hellsing and utter are-we-having-fun-yet attitude (pretty much summed up in the psychotic grin that lasts even when he’s being shot to shreds). He’s a great example of what I love about fantasy per se – something which is both accessible and alien, familiar and strange.

The worldbuilding is good too. I’ve always been interested in religion, so I like the two orders of undead-hunters – the Hellsing Organization, which is Protestant, and the Iscariot Division of the Catholic Church. The latter has its own champion, the paladin Father Alexander Anderson, and if I hadn’t already known about Alucard, Anderson alone could have made me watch the anime. The blessed bayonets held in a cross shape, the bible pages skewered to walls… where were priests like this when I had to take catechism classes?

Hellsing isn’t the kind of show that’ll have me obsessively scouring the web for more. But I enjoyed what I saw of it. And it’s good to know that no matter how burned out on something I think I am, originality can still cure that.

”In the name of God, impure souls of the living dead shall be banished into eternal damnation. Amen.”

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Five red flags in claims of publishers

These are claims made about publishers – either by representatives of the company or by authors - which I would personally see as warning signs. Maybe not warning me to run, but definitely suggesting that I investigate further.

1. “We don’t charge upfront fees.”

Firstly, it should be a given that a commercial publisher doesn’t charge fees, upfront or otherwise, so to produce this as a positive is like a bank trying to attract customers by saying, “You will not be embezzled here”.

Secondly, there are so many more ways for scammers, amateur micropresses and vanity publishers to defraud authors that they might very well trumpet that they don’t charge upfront fees. The now-defunct Rain Publishing, for instance, didn’t charge upfront fees, but it took the authors’ copyright. So the truthful declaration of “no upfront fees” may be enough to set writers at so much ease that they don’t ask further questions, like “What kind of distribution does the publisher have?” (And the correct answer is not “Our books are listed online at

2. “We are a family.”

The claim that authors become part of the publisher’s “family” is a great way to blur the lines of what should be a business relationship. Warm fuzzies feel nice, but they’re rarely a good substitute for professional treatment, and authors who are repeatedly told that they’re part of one big happy family are less likely to evaluate their treatment objectively and to identify when a publisher isn’t doing what publishers should do.

And in commercial publishing, authors aren’t defined as belonging to one publisher's "family". I love George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire novels, but I can’t remember who published them. Bantam Spectra maybe? I’d have to look at the books to be sure.

3. “We do everything our contract says we will do.”

This is one of the primary defenses that PA authors use when their vanity press/author mill is criticized – the fact that PA does everything its contract says it will do. I’m sure this makes PA sound very honest and responsible to anyone who doesn’t ask exactly what the contract specifies PA will do (answer : not a whole lot).

A publisher or vanity press that didn’t do what its contract said it would do probably wouldn’t have lasted long before being sued for breach of contract. But being able to write a contract that allows the publisher to do very little, and then abiding by the terms of that contract, don’t seem like good enough reasons to sign up with that publisher.

4. “We’re not interested in making money.”

An editor for the now-defunct micropress Luna Brilliante said here,

“Our goal was never to get rich off this endeavor. We want to create great works of Speculative Fiction. We want readers clamoring for our books. We want our authors to become well known and do well. If we can at least break even on every book we create, then we're doing just fine.”

This one would send me running, but I’m kind of a mercenary practical person at heart, not to mention concerned about Filthy Lucre money. I once knew a writer who believed art (and the production thereof) should not have financial considerations and restrictions attached to it, so he might have been more at ease with statements like this.

What bothers me about such claims is that if a publisher thinks breaking even is fine, how much does the author earn? Or maybe I should say, does the author earn? I’m a firm believer in writing for love, but publishing for profit, so if I had to choose between a publisher which talks about making authors happy and one which talks about making money, it wouldn’t be too tough a choice.

5. "We want to make your dreams come true."

As a promoter of Rain Publishing once said here,

"Rain Publishing is not producing books; it is creating a mental voyage. A magic carpet ride to escape reality for a moment in time and become one with the written world of thoughtful illusion."

That is very pretty advertising copy. But I'd prefer a publisher which produces books (as well as editing, marketing and distributing them), and I'd rather hear details along these lines than talk which reminds me of "A Whole New World" from Aladdin.

Anything about making my dreams come true turns me off. I want to know about cover blurbs, distribution, print runs, catalogs, advances, royalties and subsidiary rights instead. Magic carpet rides are fun, but they don't pay the bills so well.

Further reading on ripoffs here.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Fantasy and technology

Like many fantasy writers, I was heavily influenced by Tolkien – not so much the quest and Dark Lord aspects of the story as the setting. The Shire and the Misty Mountains and Mirkwood were fascinating, since I was growing up in Dubai, in a city of buildings and pavements, sand and parking lots. I often dreamed of unexplored fields and hills stretching out to a limitless horizon.

Then I started writing. And eventually I realized that I wrote more happily about cities than about the bucolic countryside – partly because I was more familiar with the one than the other but also because technological developments are more likely to occur in a big laboratory in the city than in a Little House on the Prairie.

What’s the appeal of technology in a fantasy, though – especially if it’s not an urban or steampunk fantasy? For me, technology is one way to make a fantasy novel stand out from the crowd. There are hundreds if not thousands of fantasies which take place in the same world, one where all the siege engines are catapults, all the weapons are swords and all the aerial transport is done by dragons. I love tossing a spark of scientific progress into this world, whether that science is chemistry or microbiology or physics, and watching events suddenly turn in another direction.

Technology is one way to make a country change. I don’t mean just from a wasteland dominated by a tyrant to a paradise ruled over by the rightful king, but a more realistic and intriguing evolution, like what’s happening in Ankh-Morpork in the novels Going Postal and The Truth. Inventions could have fascinating effects on societies. Imagine, for instance, two competing and equally powerful families in a city, one of which has invented the printing press while the other has developed gunpowder.

Actually, no need to imagine too much – check out Harry Harrison’s Ethical Engineer, also published as Deathworld 2. And cities seem more capable of absorbing that change and growing in response, whereas environments like the Shire, for all their beauty, seem essentially static to me. They’re like paintings, frozen forever in time.

Even though fantasy seems to be moving away from the “pastoral farms and countryside GOOD, technology and cutting down trees BAD” atmosphere that was pretty strong in the The Lord of the Rings, there’s still a lot of untapped potential in the nomansland where technology and fantasy meet. Real applications of science require research, whereas when I first started writing fantasy, it took no effort at all to have my characters living in villages, traveling through pseudo-English countrysides and fighting with swords. I just hope they didn’t eat lembas too.

Finally, much as I love to imagine waterfalls and lush forests, I had the experience of actually visiting one – a rainforest in Sri Lanka. Although it was beautiful (and I may write rainforest settings into my work some day), it was also crawling with coodallo, or leeches. Just remembering them makes my skin crawl as well. I’m so grateful to be in a clean dry room instead.

(The picture is from the film The Cave Dwellers or Ator the Invincible, best known for its appearance on Mystery Science Theater 3000. I love the scene where Ator builds a hang-glider in five minutes)

Sunday, August 17, 2008


I finally finished my article on PublishAmerica!

It discusses writing, includes pictures, references dozens of websites and contains lots of quotes - basically a very long version of my blog posts. So if you like them, you'll enjoy the article.

My only concern now (well, other than whether I've gotten the math right) is where I'm going to keep that article. Should I quote bits of it here? Put it on a website that I no longer update because I've forgotten how to do "ftp"? Leave it in the Bewares forum? Can't think, too tired from writing. I don't even have any wine, so I'll just make a cup of tea and relax for the moment.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Pitfalls of prophecy

On another blog, I read a post about prophecy in fantasy, which made me stop and think. I didn’t have prophecies in Before the Storm, Dracolytes, Redemption or The Mark of Vurth, and I wasn’t planning on having any in the two novels that are still in the idea stage. There’s magic, there are dragons, there are swords and castles… but no prophecies.

Strange, that.

Well, no, not really. You see, back in my salad days I’d tried prophecies. They can be intriguing if they’re done right, and they give me the same sense of portent and foreshadowing that I get from a Shakespearan tragedy. They can offer hope that the heroes cling to in their darkest hour, or they can be a promise of doom, a prediction of inescapable fate. What’s not to love?

1. They can make things too easy.

Even if the point of the story is for the Chosen One to defeat the Dark Lord, a prophecy which proclaims the protagonist the Chosen One may make things too easy for him. It’s much more interesting if the protagonist isn’t welcomed as the fulfillment of a prophecy and has to work for whatever recognition he gets. I’d be very interested in a book where someone else was crowned the Chosen One, but the protagonist ended up doing all the work instead.

2. They can give away spoilers.

Sometimes this may not matter. In a romance novel, for instance, we know the hero and heroine are going to get together at the end – the fun comes from seeing what route they take to reach their destination. Plus, there’s often a suspension of disbelief here – if there’s enough obstacles and conflict between the main characters, you can forget that there’s an assured Happily Ever After. Likewise, a prophecy that gives away the “what” may still intrigue readers with the “how”.

But it’s also easy to go wrong here. If there are three contenders to the throne, and the prophecy at the start of the book states that the one with the crown-shaped birthmark is the One, that could undercut the tension unless the author subverts the prophecy. IMO, this is one of the best things about A Song of Ice and Fire - while Martin does seem to be slipping prophecies into the plot, there was no pronouncement from on high stating that Stannis or Dany or (Seven forbid) Joffrey was the Rightful Heir.

3. They can be too arbitrary.

Here’s where I fell down with a splat. If the prophecy was made a long time ago and is now available only through a crumbling book, then there’s no reason for the reader to expect more prophecies in the story. But I had a character (a fatesayer, I called him) who actually made such prophecies, because he’d been blessed by the goddess of fate.

Which of course raised the question of why he didn’t keep making prophecies. Each time the hero was in trouble, the fatesayer could simply have tapped into the story’s equivalent of the Psychic Hotline and told the hero what lay ahead of him. Naturally, that would have killed any suspense dead. I did have him only receiving such visions sporadically, and sometimes being reluctant to divulge information because that wouldn’t help the hero earn his victory. But it still felt arbitrary, because he was making prophecies when it suited me and keeping silent when I wanted to build suspense.

One way to get around this would be to have such a character make predictions which were vague or difficult to understand, like the visions of the crone in A Clash of Kings. She foretells Sansa’s role in Joffrey’s wedding, but her vision is so symbolic that no one could have interpreted it beforehand. Or the character could be a Cassandra whose predictions are never believed – but then the characters will need a good reason not to listen to her.

(Digression : I’m annoyed that I didn’t see anything of Cassandra in Troy. Of course, the film was messed up in so many other ways)

4. They can give the story an “epic fantasy” feel.

This isn’t a problem at all if the story actually is an epic fantasy, of course. There, even if the prophecy is vague or unhelpful (in the AsoIaF example, Arya couldn’t have done much about the crone’s vision even if she had known exactly what it meant), the prophecy can bring depth and color to the story. It can give an impression of unseen forces moving behind the scenes.

But this wasn’t the impression that I wanted to give readers with my books. I didn’t want any hint of fate being on the protagonists’ sides, much less being a prime mover in the story. And I wanted the readers to see the unfolding events at “ground level”, rather than with the detachment that can come from knowing a prophecy has dictated how events will unfold. So now that I come to think about it, the lack of prophecies in my books works for me, just as the several prophecies of Orson Scott Card’s Hart’s Hope work very well for that book.

Thanks for the inspiration, GunnerJ; that was fun to write.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Getting away with murder

A writer can do almost anything in fiction, and I do mean almost anything. Want to have a character who’s a rapist or pedophile or murderer and still make me like that character? It’s been done. Want to have characters who are invulnerable or gorgeous or hypertalented and still make me ask to read more? That’s been done too – and I’m a very critical reader.

The writers who get away with this do so by balancing their characters out – either with other traits for these characters or by other features in their writing (such as style, as in Richard Adams’s The Girl in a Swing). There are many ways to make this work for me, but in this post I’ll describe four explanations that don’t work.

1. It’s justified on page 30.

If the character’s unbelievable or repulsive traits are on Page 1, it’s going to be very difficult for me to either suspend disbelief or suppress nausea long enough to get to the part where the author shows why this character is worth reading about.

2. There’s a real-life precedent.

On the whole, I like critiquing. Not only is it flattering to be asked for feedback, it’s a learning experience that goes both ways. I have to think of why something works or doesn’t work, and this helps me with my own writing as well.

The exception to this was when I once mentioned why a character’s behavior didn’t seem plausible to me. Specifically, it was an antagonist who found the heroine attractive and knew she was deeply in love with him, but refused to have sex with her. No reason given – he wasn’t highly principled or gay or living in medieval times or married to a Mafioso’s daughter.

The author replied that she knew someone who had actually behaved like that. Because of that, she took it for granted that the character’s behavior was plausible, and she didn’t see why I had difficulty with it. And since that character came straight from real life, she was very reluctant to change him.

(Digression : With my own writing, I’ve found that characters, events and conversations in real life don’t translate directly into good fiction. I’ve shared jokes in real life that had me cracking up, but when I tried one of those with my characters, it sounded odd – wooden, almost.)

3. Other writers have done it too.

Unless the other writers were writing the same kind of story at the same time, this rarely works as a justification. I like long paragraphs describing the characters’ beauty in sex-and-shopping books, but not in fantasy short stories.

4. The gods created it this way.

When critiquing a story once, I mentioned a concern I had with the characters, and the author explained it away by saying that the gods were responsible for that. This wasn’t too strange an explanation, since the story was a fantasy in which gods featured prominently, and the characters’ unrealistic traits were ones the gods had given them. But that didn’t address the issue. Whoever had created the characters, there was a problem with them.

Besides, the author was writing the story, so “the gods did it” was really “the author did it”. If a critiquer points out a concern in the story, saying, “But I meant to do that” rarely makes them reply, “Oh, well, in that case there’s no problem.”

Thursday, August 14, 2008

There's four things about Marian

Now that I've finished the revisions for Before the Storm, I feel light-hearted and not yet ready to settle down to serious writing. So here's a post that's all about me instead, inspired by a "meme of four" that I originally read about on the Writer Beware blog.

Four movies you could watch over and over

1. Twelve Angry Men : I first watched this as an exercise for a social psychology class. No need for elaborate sets, musical score or special effects when there’s characterization and conflict as good as this.

2. Tootsie : It always makes me laugh. I'd prefer it if there were assertive women in the film besides the one who's actually a man, but it's still fun to watch.

3. Jesus Christ Superstar : Love the music, love the dancing, love the premise (hippies re-enacting Jesus’s last days).

4. The Lord of the Rings : OK, this is actually three films, so I cheated.

Four places you’ve lived

1. Colombo, Sri Lanka.

2. Dubai, United Arab Emirates

3. Austin, Texas

4. Toronto, Canada

Four TV shows you love to watch

I don’t have a TV, so I’ll change this to Four plays you enjoyed.

1. An Inspector Calls, by J. B. Priestley : A wealthy upper-class family is enjoying an evening at home when a police inspector calls on them. He has a photograph of a girl who committed suicide, and over the course of that evening, he forces the members of the family to admit their culpability in the girl’s death. There’s a great twist at the end, too.

2. Macbeth, by William Shakespeare : I studied this in high school, but I’d probably have read it anyway. The fatally flawed, originally heroic main character, the grim atmosphere, the irony and foreshadowing… it's my favorite Shakespearan tragedy.

3. A Doll’s House, by Henrik Ibsen : I can identify with a woman who leaves an oppressive state of control and strikes out into an unknown future.

4. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, by Tom Stoppard : The question game is hilarious, and even more so in the film, where the main characters are on either side of a tennis net when they play it.

Four places you’ve been on vacation:

1. London, England.

2. San Salvador, El Salvador

3. New York City, New York

4. Bangkok, Thailand

Four of your favorite foods

1. Chicken parmigiana

2. Sambol (a Sri Lankan dish made with grated coconut and chili powder)

3. Pizza Hut’s chicken fajita pan pizza

4. Chocolate mousse (or chocolate ice cream, or anything chocolate, really)

Good thing most of the people in my family are genetically predisposed to be thin.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Perseverance vs. insanity

The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.
Albert Einstein

On the one hand, you read about all the writers who counted dozens of rejections, hundreds of rejections, before their work was accepted and applauded. On the other hand, you’re told, “If you can’t get the book sold, put it aside and write another, better book.” So what should you do if you’ve received fifty rejections – forget about the book or keep querying? Which one is right?

I think both. Firstly, if a query letter has received fifty rejections, the problem may lie in the query rather than the book. My original query letter for Before the Storm received nearly thirty rejections. After that, I looked at the letter critically and realized that I hadn’t clarified either the romantic aspect of it or the most original part of the story, which was a battle fought with steam engines and cannons in a medieval world. I sent out twenty copies of my reworked query letter and got four requests for partials.

So it wasn’t the story that was the problem, it was the query letter. I believe the same thing applies for Dracolytes - nothing wrong with the novel per se, but I’d originally written a huge flashback into the first page (what was I thinking?). Similarly, a little rewriting may be all that’s necessary to raise both a writer’s spirits and a manuscript’s request rate.

Secondly, why not do both at once? Write another book while querying the first one, since you’ll have to write another one anyway. As Rachel Vater put it,

”I'm MUCH happier if the author has other material so I know they aren't just pinning all their hopes and dreams of huge success to that one novel/memoir/whatever. Because a writer's career is usually not comprised of just one book.”

That way, even if you have to reluctantly give up on or temporarily set aside an unaccepted manuscript, it’s not devastating. It’s also better to give such a manuscript a break than to pin so many hopes on it that rejection becomes unbearable.

Finally, with the new book, consider trying something different. I thought about the famous definition of insanity when I read a new short story that a writer had posted for critiques. It had the same problem as the stories she had written two years ago – an invulnerable character who was a huge stumbling block to plausibility – but the writer was so fond of this character that she wrote him into everything. Critiquers originally pointed out why they couldn’t get past this character to enjoy the rest of the story, but finally they just stopped reading.

That was quite a learning experience for me. I decided that once I finished Empire of Glass, that would be the last of my “scientist in a medieval fantasy” stories for a while, and the next one would be a quasi-urban fantasy. Doing something different doesn’t mean switching genres, but it does mean not telling the same story over and over again in the hopes that maybe this time it will work. Besides, part of the fun of writing, for me, is trying something new with the next book.

There’s intelligent persistence, where you do everything possible to maximize the chances of success. Then there’s blind repetition. And when writers get too caught up in their dreams, the line between the two isn’t all that difficult to cross.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Reverse shoplifting : an investigation

I first came across this practice on the Publish America Message Board. Since PA does not provide its authors with anything in the way of distribution or marketing, they are left trying to find ways to get their books into stores. Bookstores are not likely to order the books, which are highly priced and non-returnable (unless the author petitions PA to change this, and then the store is charged a restocking fee).

Some authors talk managers into placing the books on consignment, but when this doesn't work, they have one last option. It's called reverse shoplifting, and here's an example of it.

"I have started placing copies of my books in book stores; sometimes without their knowing it!"

Not the first time a PA author has tried this, either. Here's a whole thread devoted to getting past those little hurdles called "policies".

"I dropped one off at Martin's ( a local market ) and the manager gave it back to me and said to contact the district manager. Hell, I'd already signed it for the local one. I waited til he left and I put it on the front row of the best selling books. At least someone will look at it."

I wanted to investigate this practice further and see if it was at all likely to be successful, so today I went to the Indigo bookstore at the Eaton Centre and to the World's Biggest Bookstore, which is just five minutes' walk away. I spoke to three employees and a supervisor, asking them what they would do if they found a book that a hopeful author had left on a shelf without the manager's knowledge or permission.

At Indigo, I was told that any such books that the clerks found would be removed from the shelves and the store would then have to figure out how to return them to either the author or the publisher. At the World's Biggest Bookstore, the employees had never come across such books and so they directed me to a supervisor who gave me a lot of helpful information.

"Would you say that reverse shoplifting is not a good idea for authors, even if they're looking for any way to get more exposure for their books?" I said.

"No, not a good idea," she said. "If a customer tries to buy the book, that holds the line up while we try to find out why the book isn't in the inventory. Then we have to explain to the customer why we can't sell it. It's a waste of time."

"So you'd remember the book and the author, but not in a good way?" I said, and she agreed. On the PAMB, authors sometimes console themselves that "any publicity is good publicity", but I personally wouldn't spend money (purchasing a book from my publisher) if the end result was that people remembered me as the author who wasted their time.

"It's best if authors go through the regular distribution channels," the supervisor said, so I asked about books being left on consignment. She said that while the store will do this for local authors, it's rarely profitable because such books slip through the cracks. Books which the store doesn't order are not in the computer inventory (which comes from the head office, so the employees can't add books to it). This means that if customers or employees do a computerized search, they won't find the book that's on consignment. It'll only sell if the customers find it by themselves or the employees remember it and recommend it. She said this could be a problem for authors who went with vanity presses or other methods of printing which didn't give them adequate distribution.

"They should try to see it from the bookstore worker's point of view," she said, referring to the people who tried or advocated reverse shoplifting. I'm glad I had the chance to find out. On the Absolute Write thread where this practice was discussed, a co-manager of a Kroger store said that their policy would be to dispose of any books sneaked on to the shelves in this way, but I wanted to question people for myself.

Digression : I'm very shy in real life, so it was also good social practice for me to go up to strangers and ask them for a moment of their time. I'm fine once I get started and forget about being nervous and self-conscious.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

In search of the perfect title

I’ve never found it easy to come up with good titles for my work. The only one I love is Dracolytes, which is short, sharp and says very clearly that the story is a fantasy. Before the Storm, although it references the weather motif in the manuscript, sounds more like a romance. So it was with some apprehension that I sat down yesterday to find a title for the next book.

I didn’t need to, of course. It could have been the Untitled Opus until it was done, but I like giving my stories names at the start; it’s easier for me to think of them or mention them to my critiquer that way. So I tried to come up with a name for this one. It’s a fantasy, and I wanted the title to reflect a glass/crystal motif in the story.

What about just Glass? No, that could be anything, even a nonfiction book about the history of glass. It also reminded me too much of the title of Sheri S. Tepper’s Grass, but I like that title because the novel's planet is covered with grass. My world wasn’t like that.

I wrote down Children of the Crystal next. Alliteration… good. Similarity to Stephen King’s “Children of the Corn”… not so good. It also mentioned the Crystal, meaning the reader would be aware of that before the characters would. Finally, the group of people whom I had in mind with that title weren’t children at all, nor were they the children of anything. Pawns, maybe, but not children. OK, forget about that, get back to the glass.

I tried Glass Houses, but that didn’t sound like a fantasy. All right, Glass Castles. I could have the heroine say that glass castles break too; you just need very large stones (no pun intended). But if the title mentioned a glass castle, might the readers expect one in the story? Even if they didn’t, I wasn’t sure I wanted a castle in the story, whatever it was made of. I had castles in two other manuscripts; I wanted something different for this one.

I liked the contrast between “castle” and glass”, though, the balance between strength and fragility. I tried Castle of Glass, then crossed it out. Then I wrote Empire of Glass.

Now that one was do-able. It suggested vastness and power, but tempered with a weakness, an Achilles heel. Readers just might imagine an actual glass castle, but I don’t think anyone will think of a glass empire – the title doesn’t conjure up as concrete an image. At the same time, I like the alien-ness potential in an empire of glass, the questions it raises. Maybe I’m putting too much thought into this, especially considering that editors often change the titles of books to make them more marketable. Maybe the title won’t work for anyone else.

But it wasn’t all that painful to come up with one this time.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008


Whether these are requested by an agent, suggested by an editor or undertaken on my own, rewrites are the most un-fun part of writing for me. I’ll do them, and I’ll do my best, but I always approach them with a feeling of mingled dread and inertia. And no surprise, considering that with Redemption I had to scrap everything after the first part and start again (that wasn’t so much a rewrite as a re-imagination of what the book was supposed to be). Before the Storm fared better, but even then, the latest rewrite I did was about thirty thousand words long.

My guidelines for rewrites, what I sometimes remind myself of to stop the procrastination and start the work, are simple.

1. Get into the right frame of mind.

Revision can feel like a tiresome task, one more hurdle to crawl over even after all the writing, editing, submission, etc, but I owe it to myself to make sure that I'm writing the best possible story. In the end, my work will be able to compete with the rest of the submissions in the pile (and hopefully win).

2. Don’t be afraid to delete.

I have separate documents for sections of text that I’ve cut out of the story, and there’s the Track Changes function. It’s often easier to write a different sentence or paragraph if the original text is removed.

3. Have a plan before beginning.

As well as planning what has to be done – major overhaul or just correcting one problem – I try to decide what I absolutely must have in the story. I may need a character who backstabs the hero, but I may not need Judas McTraitor, the villain with no redeeming qualities who was in the first draft. I realized with Redemption that there were really only four characters whom I needed as they were; everyone else could be improved or replaced. Having a clear plan of action at the start helps to overcome the inertia.

4. Be open to what the story needs.

As opposed to what would be easiest for myself. I kept trying to revise Redemption and I kept coming up against a mental brick wall until I realized what I was doing wrong. My original draft had had four parts – let’s call them A, B, C and D. In the revision, I kept A and D, and was trying to rewrite B and C so that they would be better. But if I did so, they wouldn’t lead to D. They would take the story in a different direction (and would incidentally mean I’d have to scrap the sequel as well).

I wasn’t happy about this, but when I read B and C again, I saw that I could mine them for bits of descriptions, dialogue and so on while still allowing the story to develop more realistically. I’m not sure whether I’ll write B and C or B and C, but I know the story is going to be better at the end.

At least until the next rewrite, that is.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Five things I don’t want to see in sex scenes

1. The word “treacherous”.

I’m fine with what are called “forced seductions”, but I don’t want to read something like, Her treacherous body responded to him. That word always makes me think of beheadings in the Tower of London.

2. The giant member.

This feature took pride of place in two novels I’ve read so far, and in both cases it achieved the same effect – the hero was reduced to a walking oversized body part. I don’t think it’s possible to give the hero such an attribute without amusing the readers or having him defined by it in some way, especially if the story goes into detail about how his previous girlfriends weren’t able to accommodate him.

3. The orgasm smile.

Does anyone smile during an orgasm? After it, I can buy, but I’ve read more than one book where the characters smile at the climax, perhaps because it’s not pretty to have them making contorted grimaces instead. There’s even one where the heroine’s face becomes like an angel’s at the crucial moment. Maybe she looked like an angel having an orgasm.

4. The unexpected virgin.

This is where the hero discovers, much to his surprise and delight, that the tamper-proof packaging on his little aspirin bottle is intact.

5. The heroine’s skull.

The tension built up to the charged, emotional first kiss. The hero and the heroine held each other and the kiss grew passionate. Then the hero slid his hand into her hair, “on her skull”.

Suddenly the kiss was over for me, and the hero was doing the “Alas, poor Yorick” scene from Hamlet instead.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Room 102

On the post I’d written about torture, luc2 asked about torture inflicted by the protagonists, rather than on the protagonists. I hadn’t considered that aspect of the topic.

I tried to think of any books I had read where the protagonists tortured someone. Only three came to mind, and in two of them, the torture scenes didn’t work for me. They did help me come up with a few ideas for these kinds of scenes, though…

1. The protagonists need a very good reason to torture someone.

I’ll define torture as the deliberate infliction of pain (either physical punishment or deprivation such as starvation). Revenge stories where the protagonists trick, depose, shame, frighten or humiliate their enemies are common and popular. But I haven't come across many revenge stories where the protagonists physically hurt their enemies, perhaps because it’s difficult for normal people to coldly and deliberately inflict pain on someone (especially when it’s not in self-defence and the victim is begging them to stop). I haven't got too many qualms with the protagonists killing or executing someone who deserves it, but torture is different.

The only novel I can recall where the protagonist tortured someone and still remained sympathetic was Frederick Forsyth’s The Odessa File, where the victim was a former Nazi who was instrumental in helping other ex-Nazis flee to South America. The protagonist, who was hunting down one of them, broke the ex-Nazi's fingers to obtain information on their whereabouts (in other words, he had a good reason to inflict pain on the man). It also helped that the ex-Nazi was the kind of person who wouldn’t have hesitated to return the favor or kill the protagonist if their positions had been reversed.

The only other situation where I can see torture being justified would be if the torture was evidently justice – for instance, the victim once scarred the protagonist's child for life, so the protagonist immobilizes him and does the same thing. But this has to be handled with care. If the protagonist plans to execute the victim afterwards, making them endure pain beforehand just comes off as sadism for the sake of sadism, rather than to right any kind of injustice. An anti-hero may get away with this; a hero can’t.

2. The protagonists cannot be unchanged by the experience.

"When you look long into an abyss, the abyss also looks into you.”

Moral compasses vary, but a protagonist must have at least a moral needle on a thread. I recently read a novel where a group of vigilantes kidnapped a man who had killed someone in a hit-and-run. They would taunt him with starvation, leaving food just beyond his reach, then go off and eat pancakes together. The contrast was jarring, especially since the protagonists weren’t affected by the torture to any significant degree. Apparently the dehumanization went both ways.

If a protagonist is to remain sympathetic, I want to see them affected by the experience. They don’t need to show it openly – they don’t need to run away, weep or throw up – but they can’t shrug it off or be indifferent to what they have done. They’ve walked a thin line that separates them from the people they hate or oppose – how do they feel about that? Did they enjoy it? Would they do it again? They have looked into the abyss; what do they plan to do when the abyss looks into them?

3. Let the reader justify what’s been done.

If the protagonist justifies it (or her friends do, reassuring her and us that what she has done has been justice rather than torture) I’m gone. If I can’t justify it myself, all the protestations in the world won’t make a difference. Either the author’s shown that the torture was necessary (not just something the protagonist did to make herself feel better, but required), or the author hasn’t done so.

4. Show that the victim deserved it.

Another reason the book I read recently didn’t work for me was because the victim had killed someone in a hit-and-run. That’s manslaughter. The legal system doesn’t execute people for manslaughter, let alone torture them for it, so it was cruel and unusual punishment for the protagonists to do so.

Even if the villain richly deserves to suffer, it’s often a good idea to have the punishment delivered by someone other than a protagonist who's supposed to be sympathetic. I think a few authors believe that heroines in particular can mete out stone-cold sadistic treatment while still remaining likable, and sometimes I imagine the hero of a novel doing to the villain whatever the heroine does. If the scene then comes off as grotesque or unbelievably cruel, why should the heroine get away with it?

Flawed characters are great and anti-heroes can work superbly. But torture needs to be handled carefully, no matter who's inflicting it.