Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Last post of 2008!

It was an interesting year.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I hope you all have a wonderful New Year.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Jones Harvest Publishing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why choose Jones Harvest Publishing?

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

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

Hometown Campaign - $350

Regional Coverage - $750

National Blitz - $1450

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Red Dwarf

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CAT: That many?

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

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

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

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

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

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

Merry Christmas, everyone. :)

Monday, December 22, 2008

Five similes which fail

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

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

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

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

Ew. Another first kiss.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, December 20, 2008

The ticking clock

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Fantasy food

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Five famous books with sequels…

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

1. Pride and Prejudice

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

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

2. Gone with the Wind

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

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

3. Rebecca

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

4. Wuthering Heights

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

5. Peter Pan

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

Nothing for Captain Hook? :(

Sunday, December 14, 2008


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

1. Reasons for self-publishing

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

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

2. Type of book

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

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

3. Famous self-publishing stories include those of

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

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

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

4. Self-publishing non-successes

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

___ Yes
___ No

5. Success in self-publishing

What’s your goal in self-publication?

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

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

6. Startup capital

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

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

7. Reviews

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

___ Yes
___ No

If you ticked “No”, why not?

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

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

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

Friday, December 12, 2008

Of Aliens and Nodkins

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

1. Solaris

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

2. The Dalek

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

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

3. The Pnume

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

Named after the Pnume in the Tschai novels.

4. The Gaian

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

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

5. The Default Race

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

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

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Five more books about writing

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

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

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

2. How to Write Best Selling Fiction
by Dean Koontz

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

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

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

3. The First Five Pages
by Noah Lukeman

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

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

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

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

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

5. The Art of Fiction
by Ayn Rand

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

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

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

Monday, December 8, 2008

Long paragraphs

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

Thank goodness for white space!

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

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

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

1. Speeches and streams of consciousness

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

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

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

2. Description

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

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Intelligent characters

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

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

So what are some ways to write regular intelligent characters?

1. Show, don’t tell.

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

2. Give the character realistic flaws.

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

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

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

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

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

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

4. Justify their intelligence

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

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

Lots of story possibilities!

Thursday, December 4, 2008

The character wakes up

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

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

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

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

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

Lessa woke, cold.
Anne McCaffrey, Dragonflight

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

What should you write?

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

So why am I not writing an urban fantasy?

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Image courtesy of Loren Petrich)