Friday, June 27, 2008

What kind of publisher do you need?

Here's a quick and easy checklist to help people decide whether it's commercial or vanity publishing that they need.

I have written a book, and... (please tick all that apply)

___ I want it stocked in bookstores nationwide (and overseas).
___ I want a good advance and/or royalties for it (write for love, but publish for profit).
___ I want a professional editor to look over the manuscript and a professional artist to design the cover.
___ I am prepared to wait as long as is necessary to achieve this.
___ I will write another book while I wait.
___ I will accept critical feedback and correct any problems in the manuscript.

If these apply, then commercial publishing is for you. Either a trade publisher or a reputable small press should be fine.

___ I don't want to go through the stress of rejection letters and research.
___ I only want my manuscript printed up in book form.
___ I want a few copies for my family and friends.
___ I plan to sell the book in a certain specific context - for instance, from the back of the hall after I have given a lecture or presentation.
___ I know the manuscript is unlikely to be accepted by a commercial publisher, perhaps because its appeal is very limited, such as a family history.

If you ticked these, then vanity publishing should work for you. Consider Lulu, which provides better books than a copy shop would. Covers can be autogenerated or put together by the author, and you can purchase as many or as few books as you need. If you don't buy any of the extra features, like an ISBN, you won't have to pay anything, and Lulu will take a percentage of each sale.

___ I don't want the stigma of paying to be published, but I am prepared to spend money on the copyright, promotion and bulk purchases of my book.
___ I want to think of myself as a Published Author.
___ I would rather be published badly than not published at all.
___ I want it published soon.
___ I don't plan on writing another or having a career in writing.
___ I believe that editing, advertising and sales should be the responsibility of the author, not the publisher.
___ I don't want anyone suggesting any changes to my work.
___ I want it published very soon.
___ I believe that reputable agents only accept clients whom they meet in person.
___ I believe that one dollar is a fair price for the rights of first publication of my manuscript.
___ I believe that commercial publishers only publish books by celebrities and bestselling authors.
___ I believe that having a book on Amazon qualifies as distribution.
___ I don't want a publication credit that will be recognized by the industry.
___ I want it published NOW.
___ I am not a writer.

If these apply to you, I know this great company in Frederick, Maryland, which should be a perfect fit...

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Planet of Adventure

If I had George R. R. Martin’s plotting skills, Tanith Lee’s lyrical style, Orson Scott Card’s characterization abilities and Jack Vance’s creativity, I would be a very happy writer. But if I could only have one of the above, I’d go with Jack Vance’s imagination.

The first Vance novels I read were the Planet of Adventure series, also sold under the title Tschai, the name of the titular planet. I suppose “Planet of Adventure” didn’t sound like something adults would be likely to pick up, which is too bad, because that describes the books perfectly. Life on Tschai is an endless roller-coaster ride, alternately bleak and crazy and frustrating and fascinating. And no books that I’ve ever read can match the Tschai novels for sheer creativity.

The story itself is extremely simple. A spaceship from Earth is destroyed while in the orbit of an alien planet, leaving only one survivor. Stranded on the planet, Adam Reith gains allies, antagonizes powerful factions, avoids assassins, saves a princess and tries to get back to Earth. It’s told over four short volumes, each of which can more or less stand alone. The characterization is rudimentary. Reith is what you'd expect an American spaceman from a book published in 1979 to be like – brave, loyal, ubercompetent (he fences circles around a cavalier) and red-blooded. Every character speaks like every other, in a complex scholarly way that sometimes segues into speechmaking but very rarely into levity.

But that’s not why I read the books. I read them – and enjoy them – because Vance can, in a few words or sentences, provide an utterly alien culture or appearance or behavior. Tschai itself is home to four very different alien races (hence the four books), three of whom live on the surface and one which skulks below. Each race uses humans, kidnapped from Earth and brought to Tschai, and has selectively bred and trained these humans to be similar in appearance and behavior to whichever race they serve. Then there are the numerous other societies on Tschai, each with its own mating rituals, weapons, style of dress or religion. The setting is just as lush and inventive, and the meals... well, read for yourself.

There was yellow broth, faintly sweet, with floating flakes of pickled bark; slices of pale meat layered with flower petals; a celery-like vegetable crusted with crumbs of a fiery-hot spice; cakes flavored with musk and resin.
Planet of Adventure, book 2

Vance’s characters wear bizarre hats, haze-water and breeches buckled at the knee and ankle with jeweled brooches. I can see echoes of this in George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire novels, but in the Planet of Adventure books, it’s much more concentrated. It’s like taking a great gulp of literary vodka.

So I don’t read these books expecting a Byzantine plot, or characters who will make me laugh or cry. Instead, I browse through them with an open notebook at hand. Then when I read about something like sequins (the universal currency of Tschai) growing from the ground in great nodes, I can scribble something like, “Money literally growing on trees. Consider!” That’s a pretty crude example, but you see what I mean. There is so much imagination in these books (as there is for pretty much all of Vance’s work) that they spark my own thoughts in different directions. Because of that, I can browse through them again and again. I’m sure to find something I missed the first or second or third times, some throwaway term or description that will give me a flight of fantasy.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Rape shorthand

When I was at the library, I picked up a copy of People of the Nightland, by W. Michael Gear and Kathleen O’Neal Gear. The story deals with conflicts between tribes of Native Americans in the past, and at the start, one tribe captures and gang-rapes the hero’s wife. Subsequently, several women from another tribe are captured, and a traitor rapes a few of them. Towards the end, the hero gets into an enemy camp and discovers a warrior guarding some captives – three naked women and one eight-year-old girl (this was the point at which rape lost whatever shock potential it had left, so pedophilia was used instead). I doubt I’ll be picking up another book in this series.

Some fantasy novels do this as well, using rape as a shorthand device to inform the reader that whoever’s doing the raping or attempted raping is evil. Terry Goodkind’s Stone of Tears is a great example of this – the heroine is nearly gang-raped, though being the heroine, she escapes in the nick of time. Other women, including her sister, are not so fortunate. That’s an issue all its own, so what I’ll focus on in this post is the device of having captive women raped so the readers know which side of the battle to cheer for.

This can be (and often is) overused. The first hundred or so times I read about the bad guys raping women, I reacted accordingly. Now I’m tired of it. Other readers may be too, judging from the number of times I’ve seen writers bypass the women and go straight to the children. This may well be realistic, but it’s getting dull. I’d like to read a book where the bad guys captured some women and kids, but their leader ordered the prisoners not to be raped and actually enforced the order.

Another problem with this device is that I don’t find it realistic that the rapes are all committed by the antagonists. If I learned anything from what happened at the Abu Ghraib prison, it’s that sexual assault of prisoners happens even on the side which is supposed to be liberal and democratic. Of course, if a captive enemy woman in the protagonists’ camp is in danger of rape, that’s the signal for the hero to rush out, save her and take her to his tent, where she puts up token resistance before surrendering to his manly charms (e.g. Troy).

Once a man has raped a captive woman, he’s usually classified as Chaotic Irredeemably Evil, and is often killed to pay for it (or to show that whoever killed him is a good person appalled by the crime). He may sometimes be killed by the woman he’s currently raping, which was poetic justice the first couple of times I read it and became predictable thereafter. I’d like to read a novel which went deeper than this, to explore what might happen to a man who raped a woman as part of the aftermath of war, then regretted it later. It’s easy to make such a man evil and kill him off; it’s not so easy to make such a man a multifaceted character and let him live while paying for the crime in other ways.

In a battlefield context, I don’t think rape can be completely taken out of the picture, unless both armies are wholly asexual. It’s one of the quickest, easiest ways to hurt and humiliate the losers of a battle, which is why I don’t buy that it never happens on the good guys’ side, unless they keep a tight close watch over all their troops and make it clear that there are serious penalties for disobeying this order. Another plug for A Song of Ice and Fire here – when Dany conquers Meereen, she accepts that rapes will happen during the sack of the city, but clamps down immediately afterward. It helps that she has thousands of soldiers who always follow orders (and who are probably incapable of raping anyone themselves).

The other thing I like about Martin’s handling of rape is that he realistically depicts its consequences, so it’s not just a way to wring shock and outrage from the readers. And the victims usually have names, which was more than could be said for the three captive women and the little girl in the book I read. Rape happens, but it shouldn’t be a shorthand device.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Fantasy and details

I once critiqued a story that combined romance and mythology – like a secular version of Orson Scott Card’s Women of Genesis. Something about the critique bothered me, though. I had the feeling I’d missed something, though until today I didn’t know what I’d missed. The story had plenty of references to myths, but they were all to do with the romance. If a character from mythology was mentioned, it was because they had fallen in love (or had not, and were lonely); if a place was mentioned, it was because the lovers had visited it.

It’s one thing to have a strong theme in the story, but to have everything single-mindedly focusing on love made it a grand orchestra playing one note. Plus, many smaller features of the myths – which I found as fascinating as the tales of heroes – fell by the wayside, since they didn’t have much to do with romance. The actual myths incorporated magic and fanciful animals and strange customs, and these were the little telling background details that made up the fabric of another world, but the story maintained a relentless focus on romance.

Imagine a Song of Ice and Fire novel without any references to the Doom of Valyria or the exotic food or even “The Bear and the Maiden Fair”, because everyone had only the civil war in mind. It wouldn’t be the same. This problem just stood out more strongly with a background of mythology, since I’d read so much of the mythology beforehand and was hoping to see more of that in the story. A fantasy novel is a world with NPCs and ecosystems and superstitions that may go unexplored by the characters but which nevertheless exist (and which do their own thing quite happily while the characters do theirs). But the reader will never be aware of these if the story doesn’t make even a casual, offhand mention of them.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Profitable Publishing

I came across this publisher through a thread on the Absolute Write forums, and checked out their webpage. Profitable Publishing is a vanity publisher run by E. J. Thornton, who seems to be trying to pass this off as self-publishing, judging from the start of her book, The Basics of Profitable Publishing. There were so many misleading points in the foreword that I decided to address them here – quotes will be in blue, with my comments beneath.

The story of how I became a publisher is unlike most. I wrote a book.

It was a good book. Everyone who saw it, loved it. It was not a perfect book, as many who fancied themselves editors loved to point that out.

Somehow I’m getting the impression that the author didn’t like criticism of her work.

But it was a book that touched souls and changed lives and I knew that it had to be in print.

It’s great to have a book commercially published. I congratulate anyone who accomplishes that. But there’s no immutable law of the universe that says a book has to be published, even if an author has sweated and slaved over it. It’s not fair, but that’s how it is. An athlete might spend years training, but that doesn’t mean he has to win a medal. There are only three spots on the podium, and a lot of athletes competing for them.

Similarly, there are only so many slots for commercial publishers. Maybe this book won’t make it but the next one you write will. Maybe the book won’t get in this year, but next year it’ll be hot material. To believe that any book has to be published makes it likely that the writer will become bitter at commercial publishers for rejections and will be more willing to settle for vanity presses – either disguised or honest about what they are.

But at least she said it had to be in print, rather than published.

I joined "writers" clubs to see what other authors had done in this situation

I don’t know why the word writers is in inverted commas. I wonder if Ms. Thornton would like it if she was referred to as a “publisher”?

I wanted to learn what tricks it took to get a publisher’s attention.

Write a good manuscript.

Though thinking of this as a “trick” may not be the best approach.

I learned how to write query letters and submit manuscripts - paying strict attention to guidelines. So, I did - I submitted and submitted and submitted and got rejected and rejected and rejected.

Par for the course. I don’t think there’s any field of human endeavor which promises victory without defeat, success without frustration and publication without rejection.

No one else could see my vision, yet I saw it as plain as day.

If this is the case, the author needs to work on communicating that vision better.

One of my fellow authors spoke of his experiences self-publishing and it caught my attention, as he was very successful. He had first commercially published and subsequently self-published and vowed to never commercially publish again.

Compared to the number of people who try self-publishing and fail, the number of successes is small. The successes were generally aiming for a niche in the market, and had a platform on which they could build. This could work for specialized non-fiction; it’s unlikely to work for fiction.

In both cases, there were 5000 copies of the book sold.

In the case of the commercial publisher, he was given a royalty check of roughly $900.00.

And he didn’t get an advance? Which commercial publisher was this again? What kind of contract did he sign? Did he not have an agent or a literary attorney vet this contract beforehand?

In the case where he self-published the book, he grossed $50,000.00...

The staggering difference between the two amounts changed his way of thinking forever.

I’m sure it did. Which author was this again, and what are the titles of the books?

(crickets chirp)

Unfortunately the author doesn’t mention the cover price of his book or what percentage of the royalties his contract gave him. So let’s assume the commercial publisher prices the book at $6.99. If 5000 copies sell, that’s a total of $35000 (and since it’s priced more cheaply than the self-pubbed version - where 5000 copies sold for $50,000, meaning each book cost ten dollars - it ought to sell more copies).

The author got $900 of this in royalties, which is 2.5% (and I'm assuming that the royalties are paid on the cover price, rather than the net price, though it's difficult to be sure since no information is provided about this). Still, the percentage the author got is nowhere near the industry standard, which is usually much higher - see this article for more details. Assuming everything about this story is accurate, the unnamed author's experience is highly nonstandard. To imply that people should avoid commercial publication because of this is like warning people about luxury cruises because the Titanic sank.

Control: If a book is bought by a commercial publisher, they buy the rights and the right to change it. When self-published, the control remains with the author.

This is sometimes called Golden Word syndrome, and it’s the idea that one’s writing is of such a standard or quality that it does not need editing. While I love my work, I can’t say that I feel this way about it, since I’ve found that critiquers, agents and editors were often more adept at spotting weak points in my work than I was. And I’m very glad they did, since their feedback helped to improve my manuscripts.

I’d also suggest not thinking of the editors as bent on changing a manuscript, and thinking of them as committed to improving it instead. But if an author wants full and final say regarding the manuscript, the other options are vanity publishing and self-publishing.

Time: Most authors don’t last through the months of submissions, rejections and sending the queries back out again.

No question about this – weathering rejection can be a grinding, depressing process. But then, so are most other things in life. Some people drop out of college, some give up halfway through training, some quit before the sports championships, some don’t last through months of submissions.

Others do.

They get discouraged and believe that their project is no good because they get rejected. First, of all, nothing could be further from the truth - but I will address that another time.

Surely this doesn't mean that every manuscript rejected by a commercial publisher is good? I suppose that would depend on the definition of "good" - though I'm fairly sure that reading through such a publisher's slush pile would change anyone's mind about why manuscripts are rejected. Just reading about someone else reading through the slush pile is enough for me.

If the work is accepted, according to most publishing firms, it takes between 12-24 months for an accepted manuscript to make it onto the store shelves... Self-publishing allows the author to set the timeline. It won’t take several years to get the book into print. It will take however long the hired printer takes to produce it. Usually, just a few weeks.

This doesn’t sound as though the book has been gone over by an editor, a copyeditor and a proofreader. It doesn’t sound as though a design department has come up with ideas for the cover and assigned an artist to work on it. It doesn’t sound as though review copies were sent out to Publishers’ Weekly and Kirkus, or as though a marketing department has put the book in the publishers’ catalogue, or as though sales reps have pitched the book to buyers for the major bookstore chains.

I’d like all that to be done for my novels. That’s why I’m going for commercial publishing. Sure, that takes more time, but this is not the fast-food business.

Ultimately it’s everyone’s individual choice to make. But sites like this aren’t going to make writers aware of the facts before they encourage the writers to make that choice.

Love: The book is a baby to its author, an addition to the family.

This is one of the most disastrous mindsets a writer can have. Professional figure skaters don’t say that their programs are their babies, and scientists don’t say that their research projects are their babies. The vast majority of published authors don’t say this about their books either (and the ones who do behave as though their books are above criticism are thankfully few and far between). An author who is so bound up in his or her creation will be unable to improve it and unprepared to hear anything other than positive feedback about it.

There’s love and then there’s blind inappropriate love.

No one loves it the way the author does, so to let it out where it can be changed, or taken away for literally years, is hard to accept.

Would the author who feels this way even allow the book to be sold after it was printed? What if it was bought by someone who didn’t love it as much as the author did? What if the buyer wrote a bad review?

I love my work, but I’m not going to put it on a pedestal. And I’m helped in this regard by having more than one manuscript, which means that my hopes aren’t bound up in any one of them; even if one gets rejected by every publisher and agent in the industry, there’s always another manuscript I can fall back on. Throughout the foreword, Ms. Thornton has spoken as though the author has only one book/baby – perhaps that could be why rejection is so anathema.

The author wants the book close enough to touch. Self-publishing allows the author to keep the work close and safe.

I don’t want my work close and safe. I want it out in the wide world, being read by reviewers, stacked on the shelves of bookstores, in libraries for people to browse through. I don’t need it close enough for me to touch – it's closer than that, in my mind. I want it close enough for everyone else to touch.

That’s something a commercial publisher can do for me.

This is one of the reasons that authors chose to self-publish. It isn’t because publishers won’t ever pick it up - it is because of the love they have for their own creation.

I wonder if any publisher ever made an offer on Ms. Thornton's book/baby.

Some people call self-publishing, vanity publishing, but this author and I call it Profitable Publishing!

There’s a world of difference between self-publishing and vanity publishing. For Ms. Thornton to call the one the other, and then to give it a different name entirely, is not what I’d call being honest, nor is it keeping a writer’s best interests in mind. Though one thing is true – her vanity press must be quite profitable to her, since she apparently charged one author nearly six hundred dollars to print the book/baby. I hate to say this, but even PublishAmerica would be a cheaper choice.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Message stories that I like

One message novel I enjoyed is Orson Scott Card’s novel Saints. It was originally published under the title A Woman of Destiny, but that sounds flowery, whereas Saints is a crisp neat title that sums up the book accurately. The book is about the life of a fictional woman who becomes one of the plural wives of the Mormon prophet Joseph Smith and who is instrumental in the growth of the Church of Latter-day Saints.

The book is obviously positive about the Mormon faith, but Card takes it one step further by presenting polygamy in a very favorable light. No one is underage, it’s all consensual, and in the best case scenario, the wives become good friends. Although I think Carolyn Jessop’s Escape is more realistic in this regard, I still enjoyed the book.

Why was this? Several reasons, but the first and foremost is that the characters came before the religion did. Card begins by describing a family whose father has just deserted them, plunging them into appalling poverty. Dinah and her brothers struggle to keep themselves fed and housed, and it’s impossible not to feel sympathetic towards them. Therefore, by the time they were converted by a Mormon missionary, I was on their side and continued to be interested in what happened to them, even though I’m not uplifted by descriptions of beliefs or baptism. The effective message stories leave the reader saying, “I may not believe that, but I can see why the characters would.”

Another reason I like Saints is because there’s never a sense of, “Now that the heroine has converted to the author’s religion, she is Special and things will go her way”. Oh my, no. Card goes in the opposite direction and makes life as brutal as possible for Dinah. When she tries to leave for the Mormon city Nauvoo, her husband takes her children away from her. When she falls in love with Joseph Smith and marries him, his wife isn’t aware of it and so they have to keep it a secret – which backfires badly. When she gets pregnant, she loses that child as well. Very often, the protagonists are depicted as beautiful, popular and happy thanks to their espousing the author’s principles. Not so here. Card never describes Dinah, and she earns the friendship and love of the people around her – it’s never given to her only because she’s the heroine or only because she’s a convert.

Probably the only issue that I have with the book is that nonbelievers such as Dinah’s older brother and the town doctor are painted in an unflattering light, but it’s relatively minor compared to the book’s good points. It also helps that this is set in the past, where it was normal for women to take a secondary role to men. I stopped reading the Ender series partly because Petra, who led her own army in Ender’s Game, became focused on marriage to Bean and talked about decorating their bedroom in pink ruffles. Thankfully Dinah, even when she’s deeply in love, is more dignified.

The other novel – which is second only to Gone with the Wind on my favorites list – is Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead. I didn’t know much about Objectivism before reading the book, so perhaps that helped; I became involved in the story before I could be introduced to some aspects of Rand’s philosophy with which I disagreed. And one reason I kept reading was to see what the antagonists would do.

The primary antagonists in Atlas Shrugged - James Taggart and Lillian Rearden – are evil for the sake of being evil, and they always have been evil. They’re difficult if not impossible to fear. They’re completely defeated in the end.

The antagonists of The Fountainhead are quite different. First, there’s Peter Keating, who I found easy to relate to. He’s constantly pressured to live up to other people’s expectations, with the result that he sacrifices his own needs and hopes. To paraphrase Rand, he gets everything that society can give a man – money, accolades, a beautiful wife – and nothing that a man can give himself – choosing to be with someone who loves him, a sense of accomplishment and the joy of following his own dreams.

Peter Keating is a sympathetic antagonist at times, but Ellsworth Toohey is a superb antagonist always. He’s clever, polite, charming and popular. He makes a public show of forgiving someone who tries to shoot him. He’s also coldly manipulative, plotting very successfully against his enemies and ruining the lives of anyone who trusts him or depends on him. And he does all this with a plan in mind – though being Toohey, he’s smart enough only to confide this plan to someone who is no threat at all to him. He’s physically unattractive, but then Roark, the protagonist, is no Mr Universe either.

So I never got the impression that the antagonists of The Fountainhead were the black background against which the jewel-like heroes could sparkle even more brightly. Instead, they’re people with their own dreams and goals and weaknesses. They may spout the sentiments Rand disapproves of (and wants the reader to dislike as well), but they’re not automatically foolish or condemned to destruction because of that. And because Toohey is so effective as a villain, pulling the strings of people far richer and more powerful than he is, there was plenty of conflict. I never felt that Roark was facing someone whom he could easily defeat because the author was on his side.

I’m sure there are other message novels out there which are just as enjoyable, though after struggling through Rand’s We the Living, I’m not eager to seek them out. A little of this goes a long way – but perhaps it goes so far because, when it’s done well, it’s a good read and an interesting glimpse into an ideology that I might not share, but which I can understand in the end.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Message stories

I recently came across an amusing dissection of a message fantasy, and that inspired this post.

A “message novel” is one where the author’s political or social or religious stance takes precedence over the story. At worst, the characters can become mere mouthpieces for the author’s views, with the good guys preaching whatever ideology the author favors. The antagonists are therefore saddled with the opposing viewpoints, and are further handicapped by being foolish, ugly or cruel, so that the readers know that the opposing viewpoint is wrong wrong wrong. This is seldom pleasant to read, and even more seldom does it convert anyone to the author’s cause.

In some cases, writing a message story is expected. If a writer decides to submit to publishers of Christian inspirational fiction, for instance, the story would have to feature Christian themes and protagonists who uphold Christian ideals. There is most likely going to be a message here, and as long as the story is labelled accordingly, that’s fine. It will appeal to a certain audience, and readers who want something different will look elsewhere.

What I’m not so keen on are works of speculative fiction – science fiction, fantasy or horror – which are not so labelled but which are still message stories. If a novel is supposedly set in another world, but the good characters all talk about the equality of women while the villains are all misogynists, I’m not going to buy it. It’s going to be too evident that this world was constructed primarily to make an ideological point. And I’m a staunch feminist, which goes to show that even message stories which preach to the choir may end up losing choirgirls who want an interesting plot rather than a thinly disguised polemic. Many writers who try to send such a message often pick issues that readers are well aware of, and where the readers have usually made their minds up already.

Readers who don’t already start off with the same views as the author may be even less interested. That’s one reason I gave up on Dean Koontz’s newer books. I love his earlier work, but I lost interest when the villains became atheists and nihilists while the good guys were believers in the spiritual. Writers often have good intentions when they write message stories – they want to introduce readers to what they see as an admirable position or ideology – but readers rarely pick up novels in the hopes of being educated. They want to be entertained instead.

It’s possible to slip messages in under the radar, if an author is skilful and subtle and puts the story first, but the more removed from current reality the story is, the more difficult it is to insert a message. If a story is set fifty thousand years into the past, but the good people respect the environment and believe in marrying for love, it’s going to come off as a Disney film rather than a believable story. Modern issues don’t have much of a place in a fantasy land.

If an author absolutely wants to discuss these in a fantasy context, while not turning the readers off, the issues have to be geared to the context. No modern terms and no long speeches about equality or tolerance. The people on both sides need to be fully developed and to have good reasons for holding the views they do. Readers can tell when the author is trying to manipulate them (trying, because there’s rarely success in these situations).

One reason why authors might not want to present both sides of the issue equally is because this might lead to sympathy for the other side. I saw this for myself when I was writing Dracolytes. As you’ve probably guessed from the title, the story is set in a land where fanatical religious fundamentalists worship dragons – but since the heroine was a Dracolyte, I had to treat her religion as fairly and attractively as I could. There had to be a good reason for her to uphold this religion when the hero (an atheist) took a crack at it.

It wasn’t easy, but it was surprisingly fun. The religion turned out to be appealing in some ways, and I enjoyed writing scenes where the heroine prayed when she needed guidance or where she defended her beliefs. There’s no pleasure in constructing a straw man and then knocking it down. But there’s a lot to be said for presenting both sides of the issue and showing how each side just might have something to learn from the other.

My next post will deal with some books which were blatant message novels - but which I enjoyed a great deal.

To be continued…

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Names, the sequel

Here are a few thoughts on coming up with names in fantasy novels. In some real-world cultures, people take their father’s first name – a patronymic – and sometimes, more rarely, their mother’s name. This could be an alternative to a family name, or it could be used in addition to the family name. The family name could also come first, with the personal name second; perhaps that symbolizes the group being more important than the individual? Some immigrants take a new Western first name to go with their original names (which may be more difficult to pronounce) and this can be adapted to a fantasy culture, adding depth to the character as well.

Whose last name do children take, by the way – the father’s or the mother’s? Some combination of both, or none? Maybe they have a last name that distinguishes them as children until they hit puberty, when they decide whose family name they would like to have. Maybe boys take their father’s name and girls take their mother’s name. There are plenty of possibilities, and I’d love to see more of these in fantasy novels.

The most imaginative naming system I’ve ever come across was in Jack Vance’s Planet of Adventure series, where one character has a flower name (Ylin Ylan), a court name (Shar Zarin), a child name (Zozi), a friend name (Derl) and a secret name (L’lae). Basically, she has different names for different situations and circumstances. This would be a great way to get around the common problem of characters having only a single name. If the Vance naming system was applied to people here and now, they might have family names, community names, workforce names, church names and stranger names. They already have Internet names.

Names in the real world are wonderfully diverse – Marie Curie, Quintus Fabius Maximus Verrucosis Cunctator, Zayed bin Sultan al Nahyan and Viktor Vasilovich Petrenko, to name but a few. Fantasy novels can do no less.


Digression : one reason I like unusual approaches to naming is because I’m originally from Sri Lanka, and in my family, children have Westernized first names but traditional middle names. The middle names are for common use. So while I lived in Sri Lanka and then in Dubai, everyone called me by my middle name.

Then I went to college in the States, and everyone there addressed me by my first name, Marian. I was too shy at first to correct them, and by the time I’d got over that, I was used to Marian. And after a while I started liking it. I’d crossed over from the east to the west and I had a new name to mark the passage. These days, I’m Marian all the time, and can’t imagine being anyone else. :)

Tuesday, June 10, 2008


A few thoughts on names that haven’t worked for me, and why.

1. Apostrophes or random capital letters

Capital letters occurring in the middle of names make it look as though you’re writing in Klingon, or they can make the names come off as artificially fancy – fanfiction stories are full of names like MoonFlower. Apostrophes can make names difficult to pronounce. A name like Stephen looks better than StePhen or Ste’phen, and if the writing and the characterization is good enough, the readers won’t need the additional decoration to the name to remind them that they’re reading a fantasy.

2. Letter substitutions

Some names in fantasy novels have the letter i replaced with a y. Characters called Lysa, Tym, Myranda, Quentyn, Martyn and Mya appear in George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Yce and Fyre - I mean, Ice and Fire. Fortunately the cast of characters is so large that these don’t really stand out, but I also came across a romance novel where the heroine and hero are called Apryll and Devlynn. Why anyone would go thys far, Y have no ydea.

3. Names that are out of place

I’ve seen a character called Ace in a heroic fantasy – and I don’t think the writer was aiming for a parody here. Names like Carnival or Faraday or Priam*, in worlds which don’t have carnivals, famous physicists or the Iliad, can also shatter the suspension of disbelief because they’re so jarring against the context of the fantasy background. And there’s seldom a good reason to remind people that they’re reading a novel, as opposed to being fully immersed in a world. In Margaret Weis’s Mistress of Dragons, a king who cheats on his wife has two sons called Wilhelm and Harry. This might have been intended as humor, but after I read it, I kept thinking of Prince Charles in fantasyland. That ruined the sex scene, too.

4. Names without a common theme

This nearly threw me off when I first started reading A Game of Thrones, since I was wondering if there was a pattern to the Anglo-Saxon names (Robert, Joanna), the Spanish name (Jaime), the slightly-modified names (Catelyn, Petyr) and the whole-cloth-of-fantasy monikers (Daenerys, Cersei). But the story was so good that I was drawn into it before I could become confused, and now I no longer wonder about the logic of names. That’s just part of the Martinverse.

This may not apply to new writers, though, or to those of us who may not have as gripping and powerful a tale to tell. It’s a good idea, therefore, to have consistency or recognizable patterns to names. This is also a way to distinguish characters of different races. In Roger Eldrige’s novel The Shadow of the Gloom-World, all the cavern folk are named after plants and flowers. In books with a large cast of characters, or with people of different races and nationalities, this helps readers keep the characters straight.

*See Scar Night, by Alan Campbell, and The Wayfarer Redemption, by Sara Douglass

Saturday, June 7, 2008

When good characters do bad things

A person who never puts a foot wrong wouldn’t be an easy protagonist to like, so good characters need to have flaws or fail. Here are a few ways to keep them sympathetic at the same time.

1. The negative characteristics are a racial trait.

Star Trek gets away with this a lot, and some fantasy novels do it to a lesser degree. If the reader learns that all unicorns are hostile and aggressive towards humans, and a unicorn is forced to join the humans and travel with them, the unicorn’s loathing of them will be expected. As long as the unicorn doesn’t become actively unlikable (for instance, by killing a human child who’s left unattended), its misanthropy will be accepted as part of its personality. Misogyny, greed and superiority are also more excusable if they’re integral parts of a culture and if the character has something positive to balance them out.

2. The character has a good reason to behave in this way.

Unicorns can’t hate humans just-because. Even if it’s not revealed at the start, there has to be a reason for this, and if it’s something understandable – for instance, humans wiped out an entire unicorn tribe two hundred years ago – the unicorn can still be sympathetic. The Glores in my manuscript Redemption are all petty thieves, but they steal because of their liking for pretty or unusual things, and because they’re the poorest, most downtrodden race in the land. If they stole out of malice, they would be much more difficult to make sympathetic.

Likeable rogues such as the Saint get away with crimes because these are often committed to help others. The motivation is a major positive, and it helps that such rogues are often competent, insouciant and amusing as well.

3. The character does not try to excuse his flaws to the reader.

In Sidney Sheldon’s If Tomorrow Comes, the heroine robs people but justifies it because these people are rich, unpleasant and probably insured for the losses. That made her very difficult for me to like. If a heroine steals to survive, I’m on her side. If she steals even after her life improves, because she’s now accustomed to doing so, I could still sympathize. But if she calls her victims stupid and greedy for being deceived by her swindles, or if she pats herself on the back for her moral superiority in giving a portion of her ill-gotten gains to charity, I’m gone. I prefer honest indifference to a holier-than-thou attitude.

The bottom line is that the protagonist’s personality and backstory should be enough to justify their behavior to the readers. If the narrative or the protagonist’s internal monologue is doing this instead – and doing it explicitly – something’s wrong.

4. The character is treated appropriately for mistakes.

When Glores get caught stealing, they’re sent to forced labor camps. Sometimes they’re sent there even before they’re caught, since everyone knows they’re thieves. It’s better for readers to feel characters are being treated harshly and unfairly than for readers to think that characters can get away with anything, since the author loves them too much to let them face any realistic consequences of their actions. Readers are far more likely to sympathize with underdogs than with Author’s Darlings.

One way to allow the characters to escape unscathed is to show that the targets of their actions were extremely unsympathetic or deserved whatever the characters did. Be careful with this, though, since readers don’t want to feel that the author is trying to make them dislike someone.

It’s interesting, too, that characters can still be likeable even if they deliberately hurt (frame, ruin, rape, cripple) someone sympathetic – provided that they are punished for this and they feel genuinely sorry for it. In Arthur Hailey’s The Moneychangers, a young bank executive steals six grand and pins the theft on a teller who happens to be a struggling single mother. He’s found out and sent to jail, where he’s gang-raped and becomes suicidal; the only thing that stops him killing himself is his hope that he can some day apologize to the teller for what he did. I couldn’t help starting to like him. And Hailey never makes it easy for the ex-con to reintegrate himself into society, which made it all the easier to feel sorry for him.

If the crime is a very bad one, it may be a good idea to first present the protagonist as a character, showing what’s good about him and what he’s suffered – though not saying exactly what he’s done. Once the readers have grown to like him, the crime can be revealed, since the positive first impression should still be uppermost. Provided the protagonist never excuses or justifies himself, he’ll come off as very realistic and still sympathetic. We all know what it’s like to do something wrong and have to face up to the consequences. And hopefully, like these characters, we’ve struggled back up after each fall.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Writing vs. publication

On a message board where I post, someone said their writing group suggested that they write the first three chapters of a book and submit that to agents (along with a synopsis). This would save them the trouble of writing the entire book and then not being able to find representation.

This would work for nonfiction, which is typically queried with proposals, or for established novelists. For aspiring fiction writers, it’s not good advice. It implies that the priority is representation and publication, and writing is just the means to the end to get there. And even then, the means is short-changed by not being completed. If I’ve written three chapters of a good book, I would have to finish it; the fun would be in telling the story, watching events unfold and things get blowed up real good at the end. I can’t control whether or not an editor accepts the book, but I can control just how good I make my writing, so I can’t imagine truncating the latter stage in favor of hurrying on to the former. Someone who thinks of writing a book as trouble or labor - unpleasant but sadly necessary for publication – may be in the wrong line of work.

Not everything written may be saleable, but that’s par for the course. I’ll bet that Michelle Kwan didn’t get a medal each time she stepped on the rink in front of an audience. But if she had decided to save herself the trouble of skating a program and then not being able to stand on the podium, she would never have ended up there at all. Even an unsaleable book is a learning experience, and it can be revised if the writer knows what didn’t work about it – though it can’t be rewritten if it was never written in the first place.

Another danger of following the writing group’s advice would be that an agent might like the partial and request the full manuscript. The writer would have to buckle down then, completing and editing the book as fast as possible, and the agent may not be willing to wait three or six months or however long it takes. Some writers believe that an agent’s request will give them the incentive to finish the book, but personally, I write because I enjoy writing, not because I have a full request breathing down my neck. This thread is a great example of a worst case scenario – the writer sent out a manuscript which "wasn't polished or at least even a solid first draft" (his words). The agent asked for the full, and when that didn’t arrive, called to follow up. Panicked by the pressure, the writer avoided the calls and didn’t return them.

Keeping publication a priority is an excellent thing. I just don't believe it should be a writer's first priority - such that writing itself takes second place (at best).

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Symbolism in the story

I’ve loved symbolism ever since I took English Literature for my A’Levels and had to figure out what symbols meant in every book we studied. It was like trying to crack a code. “Annette’s wedding ring fell off – that’s an indication her marriage is ending! The conch represents democracy and the civilized world, that’s why it shatters at the same time Piggy dies!” I’ve tried to work symbols into my stories as well, with two guidelines.

The best symbols work on two levels. They’re intriguing or accomplish something in their own right, but they have a deeper meaning as well. Even if the reader doesn’t understand the symbolism, the symbol works; it doesn’t just stand there like something odd or out of place in the story, frustrating the reader who doesn’t get it. In the first example I mentioned, which is taken from Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea, a servant bends to pick up Annette’s ring and sees wisps of smoke creeping under a door – the house is on fire. So it’s not as though Annette’s ring just falls for no reason other than to telegraph the end of her marriage to the reader.

Telling the reader what a symbol means rarely if ever works. In Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner, the selfish protagonist’s martyred brother has a harelip, and later the protagonist’s upper lip is split as he tries to protect his brother’s son from an abuser. And the narrative explicitly tells us that the scar will be just like a harelip. That was just a bit over the top for me. I might buy such a coincidental wound if the author hadn’t taken such pains to underline the symbolism of it. If the narrative had described the scar, allowed me to think about it and come to the realization myself, that would have been so much more powerful than spelling it out.

Works of speculative fiction aren’t going to be studied in the same way as classics such as Lord of the Flies, but techniques like symbolism lend depth to any work. Avoiding cliches here is a good idea. While there might still be fantasies where the good guys are associated with light while the villains wear black and call themselves the Forces of the Darkest Dark, more and more authors move beyond this. In Anne Bishop’s Black Jewels trilogy, power deepens with the color of one’s Jewels, and sympathetic characters get the darkest Jewels of all.

Similarly, other symbols can have more than one clear meaning – snakes, for instance, represent deceit and death, but they are also depicted in mythology as protectors and guardians, and can symbolize medicine and wisdom as well. In one of my manuscripts, which is set in the continent of Eden, the heroine becomes lost on the Inward Way, a dimension where any misstep is deadly. Manifesting itself as a maze of white roads and grey nothingness, the Inward Way leads her to a crossroads where she sees a tree growing in the path ahead of her. A snake slithers towards her on the path which crosses hers.

The snake speaks to her, telling her how to get off the maze and escape the Inward Way, and that’s the point of the scene, but anything could have appeared and spoken to her – a bird, a signpost, a reflection. I chose a snake and a tree because I’d read that this was a well-known symbol for choice – the crossroads, the snake, the tree and a woman wearing violet (which represents indecision because as a color, it’s neither blue nor red). This tied into the name of the continent, drawing on the biblical story as well. And whether it worked or not, it was fun to imagine - and hopefully interesting to read about as well.