Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Children in fantasy

There are a lot of risks I’ll take in fantasy. Putting a microbiologist in a medieval fantasy world, trying to make a psychotic character sympathetic, doing the same for a religious fanatic, when I don’t share either the fanaticism or the religion… I’ve done all that. But I just realized that none of the manuscripts I’m hoping to have published one day has a main or even secondary character who’s a child.

One reason for this is that all my stories have been medieval fantasies. In such a world, it’s difficult for a child to have much say in anything, unless he or she is Special and Chosen in some way or under the aegis of a more powerful character. Even George R. R. Martin’s protagonists have to wait till they hit their teens to command armies, defend the Wall or rule the kingdom on their own.

Children are also going to have less experience than adults, so unless they’re geniuses along the lines of Ender Wiggin, they may not be the best people to lead others. They’re also more prone to being overridden or influenced the wrong way, so any high, epic, medieval, dark or urban fantasy which features a child protagonist is likely to have the kid already pretty mature or getting that way fast.

Another reason is that while putting children in jeopardy results in major tension, it’s difficult to really send them through the wringer without turning readers (and agents, and editors) off. I have no compunctions about flaying half of a character’s face off, or having my heroine experience lots of nonconsensual sex in the past. But there’s no way I could do this with children.

One way to get around this is to do what Martin does – have the children lose everything they hold dear, like their parents and siblings and home and favorite teddy bear if you must. In other words, inflict psychological rather than physical pain on them. But even then, there’s a limit as to how much the child and the readers can take, and I’d expect a realistic fantasy to show just what effect all this is having on the child – both immediately and in the long term.

It’s tricky. So for now I think I’ll stick with adult protagonists.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Little Mosque on the Prairie

After I read about this show on Wikipedia, I ran like a bunny to YouTube to look for episodes. I found them all, along with a lot of spirited discussion, and settled down on the weekend to watch.

I found it difficult to think critically about the show at first, because I actually felt nostalgic at the accents, the music, the Arabic words and the brightly colored shalwar khameezes. That wore off after a while, though, and that’s when the show had to stand on its own merits.

And I’m not sure it did.

LMOTP as message/drama

The show tries to eat its cake and have it too when it came to Muslim characters. On the one hand, Muslims are ordinary people, just like anyone else, warm and friendly. On the other hand, Muslims have no major flaws that cause real problems. Even Babar, possibly the funniest character on the show since he’s xenophobic, sexist and has a little anger problem, doesn’t really antagonize any of the white infidels. I understand that issues need to be wrapped up in half an hour, minus commercials, but LMOTP’s approach doesn’t exactly make for meaningful drama.

Some of the other characters came off as walking messages. Rayyan is the “Islamic women can be educated and feminist while wearing the hijab” character, but she was a little too prickly for me. Having a comeback for anything which might be construed as disparaging only works if the comebacks are witty. Amaar is the “Imams can be liberal metrosexual guys” character, but the joke about him not having a beard wore thin after the first few repetitions. Yasir is the “Muslim men treat their wives better than equals” character, but he was so uxorious that he came off like a caricature.

LMOTP as humor

Humor – and realism – comes easier if people have flaws, if they’re allowed to fail in a major way. Nearly all of the LMOTP Muslims are nice and care about each other (despite mild disagreements). They don’t worry about losing jobs (despite slacking off) or financial woes, which produced so much of the humor on Only Fools and Horses.

One episode even revolved around bad hair days, and how Muslim women can somehow sense these even under the hijab. This kind of, er, plot needs plenty of humor to keep me entertained, and even then it’s likely to come off as superficial. The other problem is that short of the expected jokes about Muslims on plane flights, there isn’t much Islam-related humor. Given that the producer is a devout Muslim, I can understand, but at the same time I’ll never forget how my Sunni best friend Nazia laughed when I said to her, “Shi’ite happens.”

I might look for episodes of the next season on YouTube, but I won’t be in a hurry to do so. Finally, I’ve learned as much about Islam from watching this show over one weekend as I have from knowing Nazia for sixteen years. I think that’s one reason she’s my best friend. :)

Friday, September 26, 2008

Five famous name changes

1. Gone with the Wind

The working title was “Tomorrow is Another Day”.

2. Pride and Prejudice

Was originally “First Impressions”.

3. Atlas Shrugged

Was originally “The Strike”.

4. Sherlock Holmes

Was originally called “Sherringford Holmes”.

5. Wide Sargasso Sea

Two previous working titles were “The First Mrs Rochester” and “Le Revenant”.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

How many protagonists?

I recently read a blog post that made me think about the optimum number of main characters in a fantasy. My friend GunnerJ wrote that he had originally planned to write the stories of four main characters, to illustrate different sides of a conflict.

"Each chapter would be from a different viewpoint and their plots would weave in and around each other to form a hopefully cohesive whole."

Although this didn’t work for him, it gave me something to think about. Multiple main characters work well in an epic fantasy series – A Song of Ice and Fire being the definitive example. The points of view show off the worldbuilding to its best advantage, and contribute to the epic scope of the story. It’s also wrenching for the readers to care about characters on both sides of the conflict, characters who are unlikely to all end up happy (or even alive).

In a standalone fantasy novel, though – especially when the writer will be under more pressure to follow length restrictions – it’s more difficult to give equal time to multiple main characters, especially if plotlines have to be wrapped up at the end of the book. Part of the fun of this kind of plot is watching the different strands of the storyline coming together (there’s a hint of this in the Tyrion sample chapter on George R. R. Martin’s website), but there may not be enough space in a single novel to do this realistically.

It also makes writing a query letter that much more tricky. Multiple characters can make the two paragraphs of plot description in a query seem cramped, and yet it may not be easy to decide which ones to eliminate.

I must admit that when I bought A Game of Thrones, started reading and realized how Martin had structured the story, I flipped through and read all the Daenerys chapters one after another. Now I’m interested enough in other characters to read the books straight through, but at that time, I just wanted to follow a single protagonist who didn’t seem likely to die soon (i.e. ruling Bran out). I don’t know if anyone else is likely to do this with a novel that has multiple main characters, but it’s an argument in favor of making them all as interesting and active as possible.

I’ve also read tried to read a novel with five main characters who were going through the same test of their magic, which meant that the same storyline was repeated from each perspective. The only way I could get through something like this would be if the various characters had wildly different personalities and voices (a la Stony’s The Grand Tour), and perhaps there was a Rashomon-type question underlying it all.

My own rule of thumb when planning a novel, so far, has been to set up a storyline around a protagonist and another character of a different gender (to build sexual tension*) who’s initially not on the protagonist’s side. There are scenes from the points of view of several other characters, but the book begins and ends with the protagonist’s point of view, and hopefully the last scene shows how far he or she has come since the first one.

*It worked in every manuscript except Dracolytes. Morava and Julon maintained a mutual disapproval that never resulted in Slap Slap Kiss. More like Slap Slap Cease Fire Temporarily Someone Else Is Trying To Kill Us.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Describing beautiful characters

In previous blog posts, I’ve written that the personalities of characters are more important than their appearances, mostly because it’s easier to win reader sympathy through characterization than through descriptions of a person’s beauty. But what if a character’s beauty is necessary for the story? If readers must believe a character is physically attractive to the power ∞, what are good ways to accomplish this?

1. State upfront that the character is physically perfect.

This hyperbole can work quite well in high fantasy, where – when done well – it’s part of the poetry and grandeur and magic of that subgenre. The Flower Princess in Orson Scott Card’s Hart’s Hope is the most beautiful woman in the world, because she has never told a lie. Likewise, if the writer establishes at the start that the magic mirror shows whoever is the fairest in the land, the readers don’t need extensive descriptions to prove that yes, the woman in the looking-glass really is the prettiest.

It’s not easy to connect with such a character on a mental or emotional level, though. I’d like to read more about Dagny Taggart or Elizabeth Bennet or O-Lan, but I don’t feel the same interest in the Flower Princess. She’s too nice, too pretty, too perfect. But in the context of Hart’s Hope, she fulfils her part in the plot, and her perfect beauty is an important part of that.

2. Show how other characters react to the heroine.

It’s usually a heroine; I’ve yet to read a fantasy where the hero’s magnificent appearance plays a role in what he does or what happens to him. If other characters admire her appearance, feel physically attracted to her or tell her partner what a lucky person he/she is, readers will think of her as beautiful even if you don’t actually describe her.

This phenomenon reminds me of a psychology experiment where subjects read a short description of a medical operation. After that, they were asked whether words such as “surgeon”, “scalpel” and “incision” appeared in the description. None of those words had been used, but the subjects recalled that yes, they had read those words.

Likewise, if you show other characters responding to the heroine as though she is a lovely woman, the readers will agree that yes, she’s lovely. The other characters don’t need to spell out that she’s pretty, as long as they respond to her beauty. That’s much more effective than going into detail about the heroine’s body type, breast size or hair color.

3. Describe the character.

This is both the easiest and most difficult option. There’s nothing easier than stating a character has emerald-green eyes, thick dark hair (in most of my early drafts, characters have thick dark hair) and a slim well-muscled body. But such barbies are a dime a dozen.

In other words, a description intended to show readers that a character is extremely beautiful needs to be skilfully written, especially since such rhapsodies have the potential to turn readers off. I like them in Judith Krantz novels, but they rarely work for me in fantasy. The descriptions in fantasy that I do like are either poetic.

Skin like lilies, hair like apricots.
Tanith Lee, The Book of the Mad

Or they’re idiosyncratic, intriguing and provide an insight into personality as well. For instance, there’s a world of difference between these two descriptions.

Joanna had short red hair.

Any decent woman would wear her hair long. But no one would ever mistake Joanna for a decent woman – and that hell-colored hair was only the start of it.

The first description is flat and factual; it could come from a police report. The second is crackling. It has personality. And it makes me want to read more about Joanna. Which in the end is what everything – description, character, plot, style – should do to readers: make them keep reading.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Self-promotion and distribution

I recently read most of J. A. Konrath’s A Newbie’s Guide to Publishing. I say “most” because it’s long*, but it’s very enthusiastic on the topic of self-promotion. There was also information about Konrath’s novels, characters, book covers and so on, but because the guide was well-written and provided plenty of advice, it never came off as simply an advertisement.

Then a few days ago, I went to the library and decided to check the mystery/thriller section to see if there were any Konrath books. Sure enough, there was a copy of Rusty Nail, so I checked it out.

And that got me to thinking. Konrath’s self-promotion made me interested in checking out his books, but what if I’d gone to the library and the book hadn’t been there? I might have looked in the local Indigo bookstore, but what if it hadn’t been there either? I wouldn’t have plunked down money on Amazon for something I hadn’t read through first, especially if I had to wait for it to be shipped.

If publishers don’t made books available to wholesale buyers and to libraries (e.g. making sure the books are reviewed, have LOC CIP data and so on), the only way I’d have access to those books will be if the authors talk stores into carrying the books, or if authors donate them to the library. Konrath is a tireless self-promoter, but I don’t think flying to Canada to drop off copies in individual stores would be very cost-effective.

In other words, self-promotion doesn’t go far without the muscle of the publisher’s marketing department and distributor backing up the author’s efforts. That’s one reason POD or vanity presses wouldn’t work for me (and why I wouldn’t recommend them to anyone wanting an actual career in writing). Vanity presses derive their profits from the author, and therefore don’t need to put books in stores. POD presses rarely if ever have the funds to support a marketing department and salesforce. So most of their book sales are made to the authors instead.

Authors who have been printed through vanity presses or PODs sometimes defend these business models by claiming that word of mouth is all that’s necessary to make a book a success. But what’s the point in being aware that a book exists, if you can’t obtain it? Or if, to read it, you need to shell out $25 for the paperback (yes, POD books can be this expensive) and then wait for it to ship? Unless the book is something the readers really want, how likely is it that they’ll spend and wait patiently?

An author who wants more than local recognition (i.e. within the family/community/town) is nearly always better off with commercial publishing. All the self-promotion in the world won’t get an author past the stumbling blocks of POD or vanity publishing.

*It has some funny moments, though. I especially like the part where Konrath stayed in a friend’s house, ate all the food and built a fort with the sofa cushions. :)

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Publication = lottery?

On the Absolute Write forums, a writer querying his first novel said he was giving up on trying to find an agent. His reason? Representation and publication were a lottery where “Chance is everything”.

I’ve come across this before, the belief that acceptance in the publishing industry is as arbitrary and unpredictable as a roulette wheel. I can understand why people think this way. Writing itself is subjective, and the opinions of the industry aren’t black-or-white either. A novel that one agent loves may fail dismally with another.

But does this mean that trying to get a book represented and then published is a crapshoot? That you just have to rely on chance, with no way to influence the outcome? To illustrate my view of it, I’ll tell the story of another kind of lottery.

The Green Card Lottery

When I was 18, we were living in the Middle East and my father would play the Green Card Lottery every year, trying to get us into the United States (which by then had moved away from the “Give me your poor, tired, huddled masses” approach to immigration). So every year he would give me all the family’s passport photos. I would carefully type our names and birthdates on sheets of paper, cut the photos to the correct sizes, stick then on the correct papers and mail them off.

We carried out that dutiful routine every year, as did thousands of others. Naturally, there were scammers who offered to apply on people’s behalf for a fee (even though there was no fee to enter the Lottery). We never got accepted.

Canadian Provincial Migration

Ten years later I was trapped in the Middle East again, and I considered provincial migration to Canada. More than anything, I wanted to be in a First World country which would give me citizenship, which wouldn’t make me leave when I was too old to work, which wouldn’t require permission from a male relative before I could work. With a graduate degree, I had just enough points to qualify for provincial migration.

I saved every dirham I could to pay the fees, then studied French intensively to pass the interview. The waiting lines for an interview in Dubai stretched out for a year. So I flew to Damascus for one, even though Syria can be… inhospitable, shall we say… to young single women who dress and behave in a Westernized way. There were moments during the Syria sojourn when I was afraid for my safety, but I passed the interview.

Next came a battery of exhausting and painful medical and psychological tests, all of which I paid for and which left me utterly worn down. There were moments during that time when I thought of giving up, but fortunately I was a member of a supportive Internet community which had been closely following the saga (with my regular updates) and which encouraged me not to quit. All the tests came back normal.

About five months later I received the Canadian visa.

What does this have to do with representation and publication?

Some writers may believe that representation and publication are like the Green Card Lottery. Send out the book or query over and over. Rejection means sending the same thing out again without making any changes, and ultimately it’s all down to chance. However, I believe that a successful search for representation and publication is more like Canadian migration.

1. Make sure the submission matches the agent’s or editor’s requirements.

I hated every hoop that I had to jump through to fulfil the Canadian High Commission’s requirements, but I jumped them. So even if it takes time to tailor submissions – one agent wants a two-page synopsis, another one wants the first five pages pasted into the body of the email – it’s time well spent.

2. Make sure the submission stands out from the crowd.

I took French classes, and had a graduate degree giving me even more points so that I qualified. I’m not saying go as far as J. A. Konrath’s submission strategy, but just making a query letter relevant, professional and interesting can be enough to attract an agent’s attention.

3. Make sure there’s nothing about the submission that sabotages it.

There was another applicant staying in the same hotel in Damascus, and she had her interview just after I did. She was rejected because her application included her husband, and although she could speak French, he couldn’t. Likewise, a query letter for a manuscript of 275,000 words may not get many requests for more material, especially if the writer is unpublished. And if a query letter is rejected over and over, it’s a good idea to pause and re-evaluate the query letter, rather than simply continuing to send it out.

Getting represented and published would only be a lottery if the agents or editors randomly picked query letters or manuscripts out of a hat – which they don’t. It can be a depressing feeling, to think that you’re competing with thousands of other writers, but in reality, so much of the slush pile is unsaleable that if you can put together a good query letter, you’re already standing out from the crowd.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

PublishAmerica Auctions Ad Space to Authors

PublishAmerica has always been a vanity press focused on getting the most out of its authors for the least effort on its part. Recently, though, PA has ramped up its collection process, using a three-pronged strategy.

1. Weekly emails to authors offering them a chance to buy their own books from PA.

Here’s an example, and this website provides copies of all the emails PA has sent to an author who told them in advance that he would not buy any of his books. In the past, PA sent these out less frequently, at least attempted to tailor them to seasonal events (e.g. “Since it’s Halloween, we have an offer so great it’s scary”) and only gave authors a discount if they purchased books in bulk.

Now, however, PA offers authors the same, continuous discount for smaller purchases (and, hilariously, warns them that “this one-time discount offer will not come back anytime soon”). This might seem like a good thing, if not for the price hike.

2. Book prices raised by up to $5.

Posts about this on the PublishAmerica Message Board (PAMB) were quickly deleted or moved to a private forum, but here’s one which was saved elsewhere. This puts the price of the average PA book well above that which most readers (and some authors) are willing to pay.

”My book just came out. It is three hundred two pages long, paper bound, and retails online at B&N, Amazon, etc. for 29.95. That really put a damper on my excitement.”

As a comparison, yesterday I bought a paperback copy of Atlas Shrugged, published by Signet. It’s 1074 pages long and costs $12.99. Even with the 50% discount for authors (not readers or bookstores), the average PA novel is simply not good value for money compared to books put out by actual publishers. Posts on the PAMB questioning the price increase were moved to the private forum or deleted, and the authors chastised.

“Anyone questioning their pricing policies has had their user names and passwords deactivated (mine being one of them) and scolded by P.A. as requiring a 'time out' if we can't tow the line.”

3. An auction for advertisement space in the backs of books.

Books put out by real publishers often contain blurbs for other books on the last few pages – such blurbs being tailored to genre or advertising the author’s next or previous novels. PA has recently decided to copy this, with the only criterion being how much the authors are willing to pay. A post from the PAMB makes this clear.

“By now, everyone will have received the e-mail from PublishAmerica auctioning that advertising space to the highest bidder.”

Copies of the email are available on Absolute Write and The Author Society, a board which was previously very pro-PA. However, its administrator (a PA author) was recently banned from the PAMB for questioning the auction.

The auction itself sounds extremely suspect.

“You may now bid on being the next author whose book will be advertised in 10,000 other books that will be seen by readers all over the country. Titles are selected based on immediate demand and may include all genres.

May include all genres? Does this mean, for instance, that an inspirational novel may contain an ad for an erotic romance if the author of the latter pays enough? It’s also not clear how how the ten thousand books will be selected – the next ten thousand copies of any books printed (since PA runs a POD operation)? – and how readers all over the country will see these books, given that PA does no marketing except to its own authors.

“How much do you want to spend on securing a full page in ten thousand books? Please respond to this email with the dollar amount of your bid, together with your book title… Bidding ends this Thursday morning at noon EST, Sept 18. The highest bid wins.”

Sounds like a very honest and reliable way to run an auction – not. There seems to be no way for the winning author to ensure that his or her ad will be in 10,000 books. Hopefully there won’t be too many authors bidding to get what real publishers provide for free. PA has always been venal, but the auction goes beyond that and into bizarreness.

In summary, with PublishAmerica…

1. You pay for your own books
2. You pay for your copyright
3. You pay for PublishAmerica to advertise your book
4. When you’re tired of all this, you pay $300 to have your contract terminated

After all that, is it really a consolation to believe that you didn't pay to be published?

Monday, September 15, 2008

Monstrous Regiment

Warning : here be spoilers.

I was on a Pratchett jag recently, so I picked Monstrous Regiment up from the library. The book began promisingly, with Polly Perks disguising herself as a man so she can join the army to look for her brother, who has already been conscripted. Women can’t join up because this is “an abomination to Nuggan”, though the god Nuggan seems to find pretty much everything an abomination these days.

This was a good start, especially since Polly’s love for her brother is warm and believable. I was immersed in the story. Polly signs up along with a lot of other raw recruits, including a troll and a vampire, and a gruff sergeant takes on the work of whipping them into shape - a task made a little more difficult by the fact that they're losing the war.

So far so good. Then one of the other recruits anonymously approaches Polly to say that her disguise would be more convincing if she stuffed a pair of rolled-up socks down the front of her trousers. Polly realizes that the other recruit, whoever that is, must be female too.

And that’s when the story began to fall apart, because they all turned out to be female. One after another, bing bang boom, including the troll, the vampire, the sergeant and even the generals of the army (the weedy lieutenant was the only one to escape). It got to the point where I could see and dread each revelation before it occurred. When Sam Vimes, Otto Chriek and William de Worde showed up for their cameos, I was very relieved, not only because they’re great to read about but because I could be reasonably sure that they weren’t going to pull rolled-up socks out of their trousers and declare their femininity.

I don’t know what this was meant to accomplish. Striking a blow for women’s rights is admirable, but to have nearly every character turn out to be a woman in disguise was just… unbelievable. The message gets buried under the surprise - not surprise at the revelations, but surprise that the same thing is happening over and over. It’s also very difficult to suspend disbelief. I just might have been able to buy all those disguised women as new recruits, since the ongoing war left a shortage of men, but as generals of the army? Not likely.

The periodic unmaskings (Wazzer’s a girl! So’s Maledict! And Jackrum! And the Igor!) call so much attention to themselves that they detract from the plot of the story, and when I sat down to write this, I realized that I couldn't remember the names of any of the places. Is war bad? Maybe so, for most of the novel, but at the end of the book Polly signs up again as a sergeant. And wouldn’t you know it, the new grunts she has to beat into shape are disguised girls. It just wasn't funny any more - or an insightful comment on gender politics either.

Speaking of the humor, there was a hilarious moment where the lieutenant’s horse bites Polly in the socks. Polly’s fine, but the lieutenant faints. Other than that, most of the amusement came from the gender issues, e.g. a whole regiment of women trying to belch, fart and walk like men. After I finished this, I reread the brilliant Small Gods and I might write happier reviews of Going Postal or The Truth, but I can't recommend Monstrous Regiment.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Five good books about writing

In no particular order…

1. How Not to Write a Novel
by Howard Mittelmark and Sandra Newman

A bitingly funny collection of 200 mistakes that writers make, with descriptions thereof, and supplemented with sidenotes. Blunt and comprehensive, rather like a beating applied to every body part, but some of the jokes still make me laugh, even though I’ve read this about three times over now.

May not be suitable for some beginners; contains several four-letter words and explicit descriptions of sexual situations (not that there’s anything wrong with that).

2. Self-Editing for Fiction Writers
by Renni Browne and Dave King

Contains dozens of examples of what can and should be edited in writing, and some of these are subtle mistakes that are easy to miss. It’s also a workbook, since each chapter ends with sample passages that need correction. Practical and extremely useful.

3. How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy
by Orson Scott Card

There are a lot of books I’d recommend to anyone starting out in speculative fiction, but this would be at or near the top of the list. It was written in 1990, but the advice still rings sound; Card has an excellent grasp of what works and what doesn’t work when it comes to magic, alien species, creating another world and keeping it all plausible. And his description of how he came up with Hart’s Hope is wonderful to read. I wish a few other authors would write “the making of” descriptions as well.

The only thing I disagree with is his caution at the end against coffee or other drinks which contain caffeine, which is more due to his religious beliefs than to any evidence that caffeine (in moderation) negatively impacts writing.

4. Writing to Sell
by Scott Meredith

A good how-to guide for beginners. Plenty of tips and examples on the basics of plot, characterization, style and so on. Plus, if not for this book, I would never have known that plot cards or plot wheels existed.

The only thing I’d warn a new writer against is the bit at the end where Meredith defends the practice of fee-charging among agents.

5. Characters and Viewpoint
by Orson Scott Card

Have you ever had an experience where something was explained, perhaps in only a sentence or two, and yet when you heard it, something else suddenly made perfect sense? Sort of like the “It’s a cookbook!” moment of “To Serve Man”, except that in Characters and Viewpoint, it was much more pleasant an experience.

When I first read this book, I realized that Card’s refusal to physically describe Ender in Ender’s Game had led to me thinking of Ender as physically small and dark-haired – much like myself, in other words. And because of that, I identified much more closely with him than if Card had described him. That was eye-opening. And the book is crammed with examples of what’s effective and what’s not, to back up the sound advice. The sections on humor and Romance vs. Realism can get a little complex for beginners, but on the whole I’d recommend it to anyone.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Made in Lunacy

What do Stephen King’s horror novels and the Gossip Girl books have in common?

For me, it’s the brand names. Characters in King novels are always striking Diamond Blue-Tip matches to light up their Pall Malls, while Gossipgirlland is populated by Manolo Blahnik shoes and La Perla undies. This is such a good way to root the world in something readers can grasp or identify with or sigh over, using nothing more than a few words, that it’s no surprise so many other authors do the same thing.

Which made me wonder, is it possible to use brand names in fantasy? In urban or contemporary fantasy, certainly, but what about the kind I write, fantasies set in a medieval world? Is it possible to give readers that kind of instant recognition?

1. Geographical brands.

Example : Valyrian steel, Myrish lace (A Song of Ice and Fire). These are the easiest, so they’re most frequently used, but it also means they can be overused. If too many mundane nouns get something fantastic added to them, it becomes predictable and trite, especially if there’s nothing else to distinguish plain old tea from Tarkalean tea.

A good way to make this work is to do what Martin does : show what sets the fantastic version of the product apart from the regular. You never forget what Valyrian steel is, and Martin only needs one or two descriptions of this per book to show just why it’s so valued and admired. Then the one-word description works perfectly as a brand.

2. Attributions.

If a land or culture or craftsperson has been well enough characterized, then the qualities of that land, culture or craftsperson can be carried over to whatever they produce. Japanese paintings and poetry, for instance, are distinctive – vivid but delicate, simple and uncluttered. Not surprising that some of the best-known traditional Japanese weapons, like the katana and shuriken, follow the same strong and graceful design.

Likewise, in Before the Storm, anything made in Lunacy will be odd, unexpected and bizarre. The story itself is set in Dagre, which is practical, solid and down-to-earth. Dagre exports weaponry, and you know that weaponry will be chunky-looking and powerful. But Lunacy exports moonspun madness. Establish these patterns, and readers will soon be able to expect differences in both style and substance from the different names.

3. Created brands

These can be anything you devise. We’re used to swords having names, but what about breeds of horse, architectural styles or fashions? In Dagre, fashions and even colors (A Quarter Past Midnight, which is a fancy name for navy blue) have such names, though only women are expected to take an interest in these.

So maybe the chief cook of Castle Loftmark has a name for his specialty. Or the painter who did the portrait of the lord’s wife does them in a recognizable style so that people know at a glance who painted them. “Ah, a Bregona. I can tell by the dragonfly in the corner.”

Foreign and untranslated words work as brand names, especially if there’s no easy English equivalent. Bat’leth, for instance, sounds better than “curvy Klingon sword held with both hands and used to block, slash and stab”. Finally, brand names can be amusing asides and in-jokes as well. The weapons in William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet were guns with names like “Longsword”.

A world that has brand names is a world that’s lived in, a world which is that much more real – and which is at least a step away from the generic.

(However, for a funny take on what can go wrong with brand names, check out this post on the Wild Rose Press’s blog.)

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

My manuscripts : Dracolytes

One day I tried to come up with a fantasy featuring dragons that weren’t mounts, friends, foes or simply wild creatures. The result was Dracolytes.

The world

Karne isn’t as distinctive geography-wise as lands in other manuscripts of mine, but its people make up for that (it’s based on the beehive model). The Karnish population is skewed gender-wise, with three times as many women as men, and relatively few people of each generation are chosen to breed. Broodmothers produce over a hundred offspring and then die.

The ruler of Karne, the Immolated Queen, reigns in the west of the land. She survives birth since she only has to produce six or seven daughters, who fight each other to the death when they are old enough. The single survivor, who is called the Lady of Sulphur and who is the crown princess of Karne, governs in the east, since there’s always a cool cautious detachment between mother and daughter.

The story

Morava Siyyan is a soldier of Karne. The Karnish are called Dracolytes since they worship the dragons who once ruled over them and who are responsible for Karne being the most powerful nation in the land. Long ago, the dragons defeated the enemies of Karne in war, and the Dracolytes took the survivors as slaves.

There is only one living dragon left, though, and the Karnish have waited fifty years for him to come to them. So when a foreigner called Julon Rule approaches Morava with news of this dragon, she’s skeptical at first. And when Julon tells her the dragon is in the hands of their enemies, she’s livid.

Julon, for his part, is hoping the Dracolytes will pay him for the news. He studies the science of the mind, and is in need of money to fund his experiments. Morava arrests him for blasphemy instead, and the Lady of Sulphur interrogates him. She decides that although he’s lying about the dragon, she would like to know who put him up to it.

So she releases him and sends him back to his homeland – without any money, but with Morava as an unsociable traveling companion. But it’s a long way from Karne to anywhere else, and the best-laid plans of dragons and Dracolytes can go astray…

The characters

Morava Siyyan is brave, loyal and fanatically religious, like most Karnish. As long as people show dragons the deference due to them, those people are her friends or at least equals. But one reason she dislikes and distrusts foreigners is their lack of faith – or, as in Julon’s case, outright atheism, which is even worse.

Morava’s dream is to do something for her homeland that no one has ever done before. She isn’t sure what this could be – given that in in the hierarchy of Karne, she’s just a foot soldier, not to mention a little hot-headed and impulsive – but she’s happy with her life so far.

Julon Rule is a psychologist trapped in an asylum – or at least, that’s how Karne appears to him. He’s frustrated that they refuse to believe him, though he’s even less pleased to be saddled with Morava when he’s released. Julon is educated, sarcastic, cautious and an unbeliever in the divinity of the dragons, so his dearest wish is to return home safely. Though if he can sell information – behind Morava’s back – to someone who may or may not be a spy for an enemy of Karne, he won’t hesitate too long. He does need funds for his research, after all…

Dragons + religion + psychology = Dracolytes. What I like most about it is the friendship that slowly develops between Morava and Julon – though I don’t think either of them would admit to that in public. There’s the dragon, the last living deity of Karne, and those who hate him. And it’s the only one of my manuscripts which has a twist in the last sentence.

”Death has no lasting power over gods.”
Dracolyte proverb

Monday, September 8, 2008

Creating humanoid races in fantasy

One of the most consistent themes in my work is that of people of different races or species having to live, work or travel together. As a result, I like finding interesting ways to differentiate these races, especially if these ways provide one more source of conflict in the story. Here are a few of the things I’d take into consideration.

Physical characteristics

What kind of physical alterations could be made to the basic human pattern? Pretty much anything, though I like ones which have actual uses, so it doesn’t look as though they evolved for the sole purpose of readers being able to tell different races apart. Zoology is a good source of distinctive but necessary features – the tear-tracks on cheetahs’ faces, the nictitating membranes of a lot of species, even antennae and whiskers.

There are only two caveats. First, don’t make it something too reminiscent of Star Trek. Pointed ears just might make the character come off as an elf, but forehead ridges will probably make this the Alien of the Week (and green skin only belongs on Orion Slave Girls). And secondly, physical alterations are best when used in conjunction with other traits and qualities. Just as it takes more than a handful of feathers to make a bird, a single lonely prosthesis on a human won’t carry all the weight of alien-ness and fantasy.

Populations and genetics

Another way to set humanoid races apart from humans is to play with them as a population. For instance, most alien or fantastic races have a 50:50 gender split, but then there are the people in Ursula LeGuin’s The Left Hand of Darkness, who are genderless for most of the year except for a fertile period. David Brin’s Glory Season features a race which reproduces by parthenogenesis. You can skew genders – have far more females born than males – or have more than two genders. Don’t let science fiction have all the fun with this.

More Tricks with Population Genetics would be linking certain traits with odd syndromes or consequences. Maybe all blue-eyed people of a certain race are deaf (like Persian cats) or all people with white forelocks have a certain rare condition (it’s called Waardenburg syndrome in real life, but it can be anything in fantasy).

In the land of Fairfell, in my work-in-progress Empire of Glass, twins are always born mentally and emotionally disabled, but they just as frequently share a psychic link, so the rest of their society uses them as communication devices. Send one twin with your army as it invades another land, and keep the other at your side; they function like the two halves of a tin-can telephone.

Social customs

In rural Sri Lanka, it’s considered disrespectful for a woman to address her husband by his first name (like Scarlett’s parents calling each other Mr and Mrs O’Hara after 17 years of marriage). I once asked a woman how she would attract her husband’s attention from a distance, and she said she would yell the Singhalese equivalent of “Hey!”

Similarly, other humanoid races in fantasy can and should have different customs. Anthropology books are a great source of ideas in this regard. As long as no authorial opinion or valuation is attached to the custom (as in “Such a culture is evidently backward if the women are treated as servants”), this is a great way to make readers feel that they’re in a world very different from our own.

Clothing styles, family structure, art and architecture, religion, languages (which could be a post all its own), names, special traits and abilities – all or any of these can be used to create memorable and distinctive fantasy races. Infinite diversity in infinite combinations, as the Vulcans would say. Enjoy it.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

A Cautionary Tale

In the comments about my post regarding The Twilight Zone, Loren mentioned an episode called “A Nice Place to Visit”, about a crook who dies and wakes up in an afterlife where his every whim is catered to and he wins everything. At first he believes it’s heaven, but after a month he’s so bored that he asks to go to the Other Place, only to be told he’s already there.

That reminded me of an episode of another show I saw once. It was in color, so it might have been The Outer Limits. In it, a man gets a device which makes his every wish come true. He can wish for anything he likes – except immortality – and he’ll get it. So he does. He wishes for money, valuables and finally a grand castle all to himself, but like the crook in the first tale, he gets bored. And the single caveat, that he cannot wish for immortality, keeps gnawing away at him.

Eventually he can’t take it any more. He wishes for immortality. Instantly everything disappears and he finds himself in a quarry where people dressed in rags are laboring away with pickaxes. Someone shoves a pickaxe in his hands and tells him to get busy, because that’s what happens when anyone breaks the one rule of using the device. And there’s no way out.

“But how long do I have to work at this?” he says.

“You wished for immortality, didn’t you?” the other man replies. “Now hurry up. Some idiot just wished for a castle.”

It made me wonder what life would be like for writers if everything we wrote was praised uncritically and published without question.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Five baffling things writers do

I’ve done some ill-advised things in the past when it comes to writing – for instance, working on a lengthy series before selling the first book (when the first book wasn’t saleable in the first place). And there are a few things that I haven’t done but which I understand – signing up with a vanity press, or querying before the manuscript is complete. I don’t agree with them, but I can see why the writers would do them.

But there are a few things writers have tried which leave me baffled. Not only do these fail, they could never have succeeded.

1. Publishing fanfics.

Another Hope, by Lori Jareo, is a Star Wars fanfic that is no longer available on Amazon, although both the customer tags and the first pages can still be read. I’ll leave it to you to decide which is more entertaining. The author is one of the principals of the POD micropress which printed this lawyerbait, and she defended her decision to publish it by saying,

I wrote this book for myself. This is a self-published story and is not a commercial book. Yes, it is for sale on Amazon, but only my family, friends and acquaintances know it’s there.

Then there’s Austin P. Torney, who published Star Trek : The Death Wave, through Amazon’s own CreateSpace. I couldn’t even find the ghost of that one on Amazon.

2. Faking an agent.

I’ve heard of writers either doing this themselves or getting a friend/family member to do it. It comes off like something George Costanza might try. Editors aren’t likely to be taken in by a fake letterhead or a name they’ve never heard before. Of course, if this were a Seinfeld episode, the editor would call the fake agent, pretending to be taken in, and much Schadenfreude would occur.

3. Enclosing bribes with a submission.

The first time I ever submitted a requested full, I included three maps of various lands (thankfully I didn’t send the characters’ family tree as well). Some writers go a little further, sending flowers, candy, toys, photographs, glitter and even jewelry.

The impression this usually gives agents isn’t that the writer is generous, it’s that the submission cannot stand alone (therefore needing support from the props) and that the writer is not a professional.

4. Responding angrily to rejections.

It’s normal to feel disappointed or even annoyed at the nth rejection letter – especially if it’s something like a form letter rejection of a requested full. What’s not so understandable is why anyone would send angry or sarcastic replies to an agent or editor. Rachel Vater gives an example of such a letter here.

"Unless you have ESP how would you know what my novels
are about?

Thanks for nothing."

What goes through someone’s head when they send this – a hope that the agent’s feelings will be hurt? Don’t they realize that this only means the recipient of their ill-will is likely to recall them as unprofessional, to say the least? Sarcasm may help the writer feel better, but this can be done without dynamiting any bridges. Write some snarky reply on a piece of paper and burn it, for instance. That’s less detrimental to a career.*

5. Surprise visits.

In my line of work, I’ve often had to explain to people that no, we could not release their medical test results to them without their doctor’s authorization. In return I’ve been yelled at, sworn at and threatened with lawsuits (to which I say, Bring it on, because the company I work for has Deep Pockets and a Legal Department). But only once has someone said he was going to meet me in person. And when he learned that I was in a city three hundred miles away, he presumably changed his mind. I didn’t even get a chance to mention the access-controlled doors and security guards in the building.

Even if literary agents and editors have the same measures in place, that doesn't seem to deter a few people from dropping by, showing up or just hanging around in the lobby without an invitation. Never a good idea. Maybe that's why some agents and editors bring their dogs to work.


*When I was living at home, we had a system that operated any time my father wanted to send emails of complaint or remonstration, since when he got emotional, he was not the most grammatical or tactful person. First, I had to edit the email for spelling and grammar. Second, my mother had to check it for content. Finally, it would be sent. The system worked well until one night.

That night, my father came back from a church committee where an election had taken place, and his side won by one vote. Twelve Angry Men never got so heated. It was late, so everyone else was asleep, but he sat down before the computer and vented. He composed a scathing email to the pastor, denouncing the opposition, then felt better and tried to click “Save”.

Know what was right next to the “Save” button? You guessed it – the “Send” button. That email went out as-was and the church descended on him like all the horsemen of the Apocalypse. After that, I always composed sensitive emails in Word.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

The Twilight Zone

So this Labor Day weekend, I decided to watch as many episodes of The Twilight Zone as I could manage, even though I’d often be using them as background sound while I wrote.

The show holds up surprisingly well for something that aired over forty years ago. All the women wear pearls and have their hair in bouffant ‘dos, while the special effects may be better left to the imagination. But many of the ideas behind the stories are so great that they overcome this, and I enjoyed the horrific or grotesque overtones. They’re like a Ray Bradbury tale.

I was able to spot a few of the shock twists coming (such as the one in “Stopover in a Quiet Town”), but “The Eye of the Beholder” scared the hell out of me, and the wishes in “The Man in the Bottle” had darkly funny consequences. The main character found a genie who gave him four wishes. He spent the first one on repairing a cabinet, to make sure the genie was real. For the second wish, he asked for a million dollars, which he got – but since he hadn’t specified a million tax-free dollars, he ended up with $5 after the IRS took its ton of flesh. For the third wish, he asked to be the leader of a powerful modern country, who could not be voted out of office. He became Adolf Hitler and spent the fourth and last wish to undo that.

“Nightmare at 20,000 Feet”, starring a pre-Kirk William Shatner, is a good story that’s also an excellent example of the plot skeleton. Start out with a sympathetic character in a difficult situation (a guy who’s had a nervous breakdown and who has to take a plane flight in a storm). Add an obstacle (he sees a creature clinging to the plane’s wing). He takes steps to overcome the obstacle (he tells a stewardess about the creature). The steps fail (no one else sees the creature and they believe he’s crazy). And things get even worse (the creature begins tearing up the plane’s wing).

There’s a reason this show is a classic.

Monday, September 1, 2008

Writing characters of the opposite gender, part 2

So the question was whether it’s difficult to characterize people of the opposite gender.

There are a few times when I’ve found this difficult, and after I thought about it, I realized that these times all dealt with situations that may tend to be gender-skewed. By that I mean a situation which is likely to provoke different emotions in men than it does in women.

A good example of what I mean by this occurs in the non-fiction Walking After Midnight by Katy Hutchinson. Her husband was killed by a drunken teenager, leaving her widowed and their four-year-old twins without a father. Hutchinson nevertheless forgave the teenager, worked with him to warn other teens of the dangers of excessive drinking and eventually came to consider him a friend.

There was a very interesting postscript to her speaking engagements and seminars, though: she said that women often told her that they understood why she forgave the person responsible for her husband’s death, but men would come up to her to say they respected her choice but couldn’t understand what she felt. Likewise, her son doesn’t seem to want much to do with the teenager (now much older, of course), whereas her daughter is comfortable around him.

Gender-skewed. Whether this is due to cultural expectations or biological programming, it has to be taken into account. I realized that this can be a stumbling block recently when I was working on the revisions of Before the Storm. I had a scene where the heroine, having made love with the hero, was discussing a tense political situation with him while she dressed. She mentioned a duke who had used her sexually in the past – not to bring up what he had done to her, but because she hoped to get him on their side to sway the balance of power.

GunnerJ pointed out that almost any man (especially a proud, conservative and insecure one like the hero) would probably not react well to knowing that the woman he cared about had been treated like a unpaid prostitute by other men. This was something that didn’t occur to me, because I was trying to make the hero accept her as she was and not condemn her for her past. But he would have come off as robotic if he didn’t feel in the least bit upset. I think I read somewhere that men react strongly to sexual infidelity, whereas with women, emotional betrayal is more important.

So there are a few situations where I’ll have to stop and carefully think through how my character will react in terms of his gender. I may also ask men how they would behave under those circumstances. “Hey, guys. Hypothetically, if you had, uh, assaulted a woman in the past, but you felt really sorry about it and another woman – guys? Hey, wait!”