Sunday, November 30, 2008

Honest reviews

I read a post about the objectivity of reviews on How Publishing Really Works, and it raised a great point about why honest reviewers are unlikely to be paid by publishers or writers*. But it also made me think of the reviewers and review sites which don’t charge for reviews and yet which I wouldn’t trust.

For me, an important part of being a reviewer is complete honesty. Many unpublished manuscripts may be unreadable, but even published books line up on a bell curve. In other words, everything published isn’t going to be an automatic great read for anyone. And if it is, then the reviewer is either

1. not discriminating, in which case I’m unlikely to take their opinion into account when deciding to buy a book, or

2. operating for some purpose other than to tell readers whether a book is worth their time and money.

The reviewer might instead want to please authors, and what better way than to tell them how wonderful their books are? Or the reviewer may want a high rank on Amazon and one way to get that was to comment on as many books as possible. I say “was” because Amazon recently changed its ranking criteria and now goes by how helpful reviews are to readers, rather than how many reviews are posted.

Discrimination, in the positive sense of the word, also matters a great deal. I checked out Ghostwriter Literary Reviews, which claims to offer “An unbiased evaluation of your work”, and I read all the posted reviews for November – ten reviews in all. Without exception, these were four- and five-star reads that the reviewers loved.

On the other hand, the grades for the books reviewed on All About Romance for November range from A to D-, and many of the reviews are Bs or Cs. Just like a real bell curve, and I know which site I’m more likely to trust. There’s not much value in a gold medal which is given out to everyone who competes.

For me, this is what helpful reviews do or don’t do.


• Repeat the blurb on the back of the book and tack on a few sentences at the end to say what a good read it was

• Veer into hyperbole or excessive praise, e.g. ”…is sure to be an instant classic that will be read for generations to come.”Children’s Literary Reviews

• Focus attention on the reviewer rather than the book (“The descriptions of life in Bellefleur-sur-Seine reminded me of my own childhood in France, though I didn’t find the farmer’s motivation believable when he blew up his own barn. My Oncle Rene was in the same situation with the local gendarmes…”)

• Contain errors. A typo or two is unlikely to matter, but several mistakes in spelling, punctuation, wording or sentence construction can make a review appear amateurish, unintentionally funny or both. Ghostwriter Literary Reviews provides an example : “Belle's father, Master Francois St. Clair wanted his unborn adolescent to become part beneficiary to one of the richest sugarcane Plantations… Her Master and Mistress in apprehension of demise; gave her no alternative.”


• Say what the book’s genre is. I’ve read dozens of amateur reviews which don’t even provide this basic information.

• Say who the main characters are and give an idea of the plot. I’ve also read reviews which were so vague they could have been applied to any book.

• Warn readers if there’s something they should know in advance, without (as far the reviewer is capable) giving away spoilers. If I were writing a review of A Game of Thrones, I would make it clear that this was the first in a series and that the series is nowhere near complete. I would also caution them that this isn’t a book with happy endings for everyone.

• Comment fairly and critically rather than focusing only on praise or only on what doesn’t work.

• Show familiarity with the author’s body of work, the genre or at least books in general. I read a review which noted that the main characters of a book had chapters from their different points of view, and this was “a most clever and unique way to tell a story in my opinion”.

There are many sites and reviewers out there which are honest about the books they read, even if they risk backlashes from authors or fans by doing so. Those are the sites and reviewers I take into account when deciding which books to read and buy.

*Examples of paid reviews include: Authors on the Rise Book Reviews and Children’s Literary Reviews (for anything over 18 pages). Ghostwriter Literary Reviews previously offered a paid fast-track service, and now offers other paid services such as an "Author Spotlight".

Friday, November 28, 2008

The lightbulb game

A fun thing I tried with different races from my stories. How many _____ does it take to change a light bulb?


A whole flag, but they’ll get bored halfway and start juggling the bulb. Then they’ll quarrel about who gets to keep the pieces.


Just one. She shoots all the Glores from a safe distance, steps over the bodies, changes the bulb and requests payment.


Three: one to change the bulb, one to reflect that in the past, they were elite bodyguards rather than changers of bulbs, and one to divide the metal parts of the old bulb equally for them all to eat.


Only one, as long as he has a monkey familiar to do it.


None; they can see in the dark.


None; they can glow in the dark.


Two: one to thank the dragons for giving them the light of truth that will never fail, not even in their darkest hours, and one to order a slave to change the bulb.


One; she reverses time to the point where the bulb was still lit, sits back and waits for admiration.

Iternans (Outward Way)

One; he uses telekinesis to remove the old bulb and fit the new one in.

Iternans (Inward Way)

One; he used psychic coercion to make the first Iternan change the bulb.

How many of the races or species in your work would it take to change a lightbulb?

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Magical artifacts

I just realized that there’s one fantasy element which never shows up in my current stories. That’s the magical artifact.

Most of the role-playing gamebooks I’ve read (and loved) had magical artifacts. In fact, one of my favorite series, Blood Sword, is even named after the Quest Object. There are thousands of fantasies out there with plots about finding some kind of powerful item which will tilt the scales in the protagonist’s favor. And that’s the first problem…

1. The story revolves around the artifact.

If there’s more focus on the artifact (or the search for the artifact) than on the characters, this can make the fantasy come off as flat. It’s also easier to make readers care and worry over people than over Quest Objects. Swords are cool, but I’ll bet readers were more upset over what happened to Ned Stark than over what happened to Ice.

One reason I like Lawrence Watt-Evans’s The Misenchanted Sword is because the story isn’t about a hero and Dark Lord both hunting down an ancient artifact… with the hero getting there first, of course (some day I’d love to read a story where the Dark Lord reaches and uses or destroys the artifact first). Instead, the story begins when a hermit undertakes the haphazard creation of a magical sword to help a protagonist pursued by enemies, and the sword is definitely not the fantasy version of the AK-47 or the nuclear warhead.

The story is always about the protagonist trying to survive the war and build a future for himself in peacetime, not about the sword.

2. The artifact is too powerful.

Some magical items are so +∞ to Everything Destruction that I wonder why the story doesn’t come to an end shortly after they’re found. Even objects that don’t directly destroy anything can be used to defeat the opposition speedily – orbs that see everything or see into the future, for instance, could always be used to keep track of an enemy’s movement or whereabouts.

One way to get around that is to make sure that “with great power comes greater peril”. Tolkien’s One Ring is a superb example, but unfortunately, a lot of artifacts in fantasy aren’t like this. Either they simply supply the great power, like medieval batteries. Or they’re evil unless they’re in the hands of the right person (i.e. the protagonist), at which point they’re batteries again.

Fred Saberhagen’s Twelve Swords of Power are immensely powerful weapons, but nearly all have disadvantages. One of them, the Sword of Despair, induces a state of deep and instant apathy and depression in an area the size of a battlefield around it when it’s drawn. This would be enough for one wielder to win a battle, right? Nope, because whoever draws the sword is subject to this effect as well, and can’t summon up the willpower required to sheath it afterwards.

3. The artifact exists for the sake of the story

With the most realistic characters, I feel that they have lives and histories beyond the printed pages. I’m privileged to see some part of what they think and feel and do, but there’s much more about them that I’ll never know.

The best artifacts give me this impression as well. They weren’t just created for the purpose of being Quest Objects; they have a history that explains why there’s only one or a few of them. They may have personalities and memories as well. I’d love to see a crown which would reflect morosely on the far better rulers whom it had sat upon, or a sword which had its own, very decided ideas on who its wielder would fight.

4. There’s more than one artifact.

Back in the late nineties, I started reading a series called The Twelve Treasures, and yes, there were supposed to be twelve books in it, dealing with the recovery of the twelve magical objects. Except only three novels were ever published.

Most unpublished fantasy writers won’t be able to count on getting a long series in which to detail the search for multiple magical artifacts. Shoehorning them all into a single novel may not work either. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows could do this not just because of its length but because there were six other books which also fleshed out Rowling’s world and characters.

5. There’s only one artifact.

If a wizard is able to make one magic sword – and is rewarded for doing so – I wonder why he doesn’t make another. In The Misenchanted Sword, the reason was clear: the hermit had such limited supplies that some of the spells he put on the sword were makeshift. There was no way he could create another such sword, and no reason for him to try.

But under other circumstances, why doesn’t the wizard carry out more enchantments? This is what I find sad about magical objects, by the way. They’re too often big flashy portentous MAGICAL ARTIFACTS, so the subtlety and charm of the smaller things is lost. Imagine a Lord of the Rings with just the Rings. No Sting glowing to warn of orcs nearby, no phial lighting up in Shelob’s lair.

Why not have more of the smaller items? Wind chimes that ring out to announce a visitor’s presence, blank slates on which maps of the immediate surroundings appear… anything is possible. One thing I enjoyed about Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone was the sheer scope of magic, how it was everywhere and influenced nearly everything in the wizarding world. That was partly because Rowling didn’t save magic for the large, grand objects; she let wizards use it as humans would use technology.

And it was a great read.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Five kinds of weasel words

Scam agencies or publishers often make claims that sound good but which allow them to either skirt the truth or wriggle out of any obligations to writers. Watch for the weasel words in their phrasing.

1. “Your book will be available to bookstores.”

Available to them, or available in them?

Readers who haven’t already heard of the book won’t go up to the special order desk to ask for it. Even those who know of the book’s existence may not be willing to place an order without having read at least part of it… meaning the book should be available in stores.

“Available through bookstores” is another way for publishers without distribution to cover themselves.

2. “We market the book at our discretion.”

What exactly does “at our discretion” mean?

I haven’t seen any publisher which claimed this actually define what their discretion would entail. Usually because when they say this, they mean, “We market your book when we feel like it” or “We market your book to you extensively; to other buyers, not so much”.

3. “We have worked with dozens of major publishers”.

You might see this claim made by a scam literary agency – either this or “Here are the publishers who have worked with our clients”. This will be followed by a list of prestigious names like Random House and St. Martin’s.

Unfortunately, “worked with” can mean anything. If I send a manuscript to Tor and get a rejection, I can say I have worked with Tor, and that will sound very impressive until I define exactly what our working relationship was.

The funny part is that I found this on the Barbara Bauer agency website, which lists PublishAmerica along with several major commercial publishers. This is shooting yourself in the clown shoe; an agency which works with PA in any capacity is one you want to avoid like the plague.

Maybe that’s why Random House is mentioned twice in the list; gotta make up for PA.

4. “We’ll send a press release to the New York Times.”

Yes, but will they print it?

Press releases aren’t much good unless they’re sent out well in advance of the book’s release date and accompanied by a review copy. Major newspapers are also inundated with press releases, meaning they’re highly unlikely to feature any book that’s been self-published or vanity-published.

5. “The staff of Oprah receives our newsletter.”

Maybe, but do they read it?

Send Oprah a copy of your manuscript or book, and you too will be able to say that the staff of Oprah has received a copy of your manuscript or book. And since they are probably conscientious people, it will have gone into the recycle bin rather than the regular trash.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Sexual abuse

I was going to write a blog post about all kinds of character abuse in a story – physical, mental, sexual – but this one turned out to be the longest. So it got its own blog post. Yay, I guess.

Sexual abuse, whether it’s part of a character’s backstory or occurring in the present, can have a powerful effect on readers. Unfortunately it’s also prone to being misused in a few ways.

1. Sexual abuse is a defining part of a character

I’m burned out on the backstory where a woman (it’s always a woman) is a survivor of rape or incest that was so bad she cannot feel any physical pleasure and hates to be touched. That is, until her love interest provides Sexual Healing. I’ve read this so often that it’s lost any emotional appeal it might once have had.

The problem with this concept is that the woman’s sexuality and sexual expression is too often defined by what men do to her or have done to her. I don’t think I’ve ever read about a woman who worked through the pain on her own, who realized she could still give herself pleasure despite what had happened to her. This might be great for the romance, but it slots the character into a stereotype from which she’s unlikely to emerge.

I especially don’t want to come across yet another tough, hard-nosed professional who’s fragile as spun sugar on the inside because she was raped. Giving an Action Barbie a stereotypical trauma doesn’t make her any more dimensional than she already is.*

The other issue I have with this is that different people react to sexual abuse in different ways. A woman could, for instance, graciously acquiesce to sex with any man who wants her, but shut off her emotions during the process. Yet in so many novels, she becomes the Ice Maiden instead.

2. Sexual abuse is rarely inventive

If if’s something very traumatic that happened in a heroine’s past, it’s often rape or incest. This can get a little dull after a while. I’m not asking for spectacularly inventive abuse – I can barely stand to read that kind of thing – but a little originality wouldn’t hurt.

For instance, I once read a romance novel where the heroine’s ex-husband often forced her to tell him that she loved him as he was abusing her. As a result, she can’t say those words to the hero. It’s not the most psychologically complex detail, but it’s something I remember even while I’ve forgotten the names of the book, the author and the characters.

3. Sexual abuse is recovered from too easily

This can be a difficult line to walk. On the one hand, writers often need the heroine to play some major role in the story other than working through and recovering from the abuse. On the other hand, romance is not a universal panacea, and having the hero in her life shouldn't easily erase the abuse.

Different heroines should recover in different ways, too. I’ve read the scene where the woman breaks down and cries in the hero's arms once too many times. Also, if her relationship with the hero is the diametric opposite of her relationship with the evil ex, if the hero always treats her like an ailing butterfly and never disagrees with her on anything important… well, that’s not so much fun to read.

Some day, I’d love to have a character who became pregnant as a result of rape, gave her child to her brother’s family to raise, went on to have a career and didn’t feel guilty or have a tearful bonding session with the child later. I think she would contribute financially to the child’s support – but she just would not feel like a mother and no one would punish her for this.

4. Sexual abuse disparately affects one gender

I don't know how legitimate this concern is, given that sexual abuse also disparately affects one gender in real life, but it seems to be even more skewed in fiction. Of everything I've read, I could count the number of books in which a male character is sexually abused on one hand.

I was going to say “one finger”, but then I realized I'd actually read two such books – Sharon Baker’s Quarrelling, they met the dragon, where the main character is a male prostitute who is gang-raped and Arthur Hailey’s The Moneychangers, which features a prison rape.

Romances where the heroine forces herself on the hero don't count, because in the few of those I’ve read, the hero doesn’t behave as though he’s been abused. His goal afterwards is usually to repay the heroine in kind (i.e. have more sex, except with him on top), not to get away from the person who ignored his freedom of choice.

*That’s one reason I like Joss Whedon’s Firefly. Three of the four female characters were very comfortable with their sexuality and the expression thereof. They could conduct business/kick ass and enjoy themselves in bed.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

The too-flawed protagonist

If your protagonist has flaws that are too deep or serious, will readers be turned off?

I wondered about this yesterday, when another writer expressed concerns about a protagonist who was a racist.

"Protagonists are meant to be likable, you're meant to be able to sympathize with them. So if your protagonist is racist, and it's put across that this is a kind of core characteristic of his that is meant to be acceptable, then me and a lot of other people will put the book down."

I've read, and enjoyed, books where the protagonists are drug addicts*, pedophiles**, cold-blooded murderers*** and rapists****. I’d add cannibals, assassins and incestuous would-be child-killers to the list, but that would be way too many asterisks.

These characters worked for me because they have excellent qualities to balance their serious flaws – they’re intelligent, ambitious, amusing and loyal to their friends. They also face challenges that are seemingly insurmountable, and they win. So it’s easy for me to cheer for them. In fact, if you make your characters realistic and sympathetic enough, the flaws will actually work for them. Sure, readers will think, Sherlock Holmes may be a cocaine addict, but he’s our cocaine addict. And far more palatable than a flawless saint. It’s all right, Mr. Holmes, we understand.

Should a writer make it clear that such flaws are unacceptable? That raises another question: what would be considered acceptable? If a protagonist was racist at the start of the book, and is a racist at the end, might readers take this to mean that the writer subtly endorses racism? Does the writer have to condemn the belief or behavior, either through the mouthpieces of other characters or through the story itself?

That reminds me of a book I once read where the antagonist brainwashes a woman, makes her believe that she’s his daughter and then sexually assaults her. The narrative states that he “kissed her as no father should ever kiss a daughter”. I immediately thought, At least not his own daughter.

I think going to this extent to show that the writer doesn’t approve can backfire. Most readers already know that incest, racism, murder, etc. are wrong, and don’t need to have this spelled out to them.

It doesn’t always work if the writer tries to be more subtle, either. I’ve read too many stories where characters who are racist or misogynistic or atheistic are shown the errors of their ways, at which point they repent wholeheartedly and embrace their newfound principles. It just doesn’t happen that way in real life. In reality, people with prejudices rarely give them up so easily, and the most fanatically intolerant fundamentalist can have good reasons (good to them, anyway) to hold certain opinions and beliefs.

So I’m in favor of letting readers make up their own minds whether a character’s traits are positive or negative – and I like characters who have both of these traits to begin with.

*Sherlock Holmes.
**Jericho Moon, Matthew Woodring Stover.
***The First Man in Rome, Colleen McCullough
****The Fountainhead, Ayn Rand

Tuesday, November 18, 2008


I once had a discussion with a writer who claimed that using four-letter words was lazy, unnecessary and likely to limit one’s readership.

I didn’t agree, partly because I’ve read books with a lot of vulgarity which were nevertheless bestsellers – Stephen King novels and A Song of Ice and Fire, for instance (by the way, check out this alternate title for George R. R. Martin’s books). Kill Bill also would not have had its coarse edginess (which I liked) without the characters’ choice of language.

If a writer is planning to submit to an inspirational fiction imprint like Steeple Hill, that will definitely restrict the language which can be used, but the rest of the time it’s a judgment call. I believe that the choice of words should not be what suits the writer’s sensibilities. It should be what suits the characters and the tone of the work.

With some books, it’s appropriate for the characters to use four-letter words often. With some (like mine), they use the words sparingly. I feel that this makes the words all the more punchy when they do crop up. And some books work fine without any. There are some romance novels where the hero has a manhood, others where he has a penis, others where he has a cock and probably some where he has nothing at all. They all work for their different contexts and readerships.

If a writer doesn’t want to use vulgarity, though, what options are available?

1. Don’t have four-letter words at all.

If you’re searching for a way to alter a character’s dialogue so that, “How could the son of a bitch say that?” passes muster, just change it to, “How could he say that?” Mentioning that a character cursed or swore might also work; the readers can substitute whatever four-letter words work for them.

2. Substitute a made-up word or blank space.

Stephen King does this in Lisey’s Story, using “smuck” instead of another rhyming word. There are two problems with this, though. First, it’s usually obvious to the reader that the concoction stands in for a four-letter word, and in cases like Lisey’s Story, the specific four-letter word that’s being disguised is very clear.

In other words, no one’s being fooled. The character knows what she really means, and the readers know what she really means. It’s the literary equivalent of a fig leaf. So the only reason to try something like this would be to show that this is a character who makes up coy substitutes for four-letter words – perhaps she wants to swear, but feels too repressed to actually say the dirty words.

The second concern I have is that it can come off as silly, e.g. “Tell the mustard to get his bass in here”. On the other hand, this might work very well in a humorous story.

I once read a book where such a word was replaced by a blank line. In the story, someone had spray-painted graffiti on the protagonist’s house:


The narrative went on to state that the last word was an obscenity, but for a moment I thought that the vandals really had spray-painted a horizontal line on the house. It reminded me of the fill-in-the-blank tests we had in elementary school. But this worked brilliantly in a humorous fantasy; Terry Pratchett’s The Truth would not have been the same without Mr Tulip’s constant “—ing”.

3. Substitute a less vehement word.

This is the “Gosh darn it to heck” option, and I don’t recommend it. I once browsed through a romantic suspense novel because a review claimed that the author never used vulgarity. The book starts out well, with the heroine receiving a call from her psychotic ex-husband, who has tracked her down. He describes what she’s wearing, and frightens her so badly that she knocks over a vase of flowers. Then she thinks,

“Oh bother. Look what the idiot made me do.”

The only character who can say “Oh bother” and get away with it is Winnie-the-Pooh. And I’ll bet that if Pooh’s psychotic ex-husband tracked him down, even he would resort to something a little stronger.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Crime and punishment

So I finished The Scar, and that made me think about the justice system and legal consequences in fantasy worlds.

1. What is a crime in your world?

This could be an entire post – or even a chapter in a book. A fantasy world should not be identical to our own, and so the laws should be different in some ways – which is part of the fun of worldbuilding. For instance, in a world where everyone is empathic, anger or lust (to name just a couple of the seven deadly sins) could well be against the law. In a world where people become stronger or more beautiful after they die for the first time – like caterpillars turning into butterflies – would murder be as much of a crime as it is in our world?

2. Why is this a crime?

I’ve read a few stories where witches are persecuted, and these weren’t set on past-Earth or alternate-Earth. The good witches were simply hunted down by fanatical puritan types because that’s the established pattern, that’s the way it’s always been done.

Well, you know what? Let’s either break the pattern or show why there’s merit to it. The magicians in The Mark of Vurth, a fantasy of mine, spread magic like a highly contagious disease to normal people, turning them into magicians as well. No freedom of choice about it. And using too much magic too fast, which is what a lot of newly made magicians do, is a sure way to have that power turn against you. You end up not just a magician - which is different enough from the norm - but physically or mentally twisted.

As a result, the authorities have a good reason to want magic removed from their world. In the long run, they believe it causes more harm than good, and they have more than enough reason to think so. So their draconian penalties make sense.

3. Who enforces the law?

“No, I can see that you don’t know who I am,” said Caesar, still in a conversational voice. “Therefore, daughter, it behooves me to tell you. I am the paterfamilias, the absolute head of this household. My very word is law. My actions are not actionable. Whatever I choose to do and say within the bounds of this household, I can do and I can say. No law of the Senate and People of Rome stands between me and my absolute authority over my household and my family. For Rome has structured her laws to ensure that the Roman family is above the law of all save the paterfamilias. If my wife commits adultery, Julilla, I can kill her, or have her killed.”

Colleen McCullough, The First Man in Rome

On the opposite end of that spectrum is the Riding Women’s society in Suzy McKee Charnas’s Motherlines. In this unstructured, nomadic, all-female community, there are few real laws. And when the camp congregates to discuss issues, more attention is paid to women of the Conor bloodline, because they have a long-standing reputation for speaking good sense.

A society doesn’t always need judges or juries – or executioners, for that matter. Punishments can be meted out by the victim or the victim’s family, by a god or by what’s believed to be a god’s avatar, such as a giant snake or a flock of ravenous crows. For a cruel little twist, how about the criminal’s family being forced to pull the lever?

4. What is the punishment?

Here’s where writers can have a lot of fun. China Mieville certainly does; in New Crobuzon, criminals are often sentenced to be Remade. They have the body parts of other people or animals – or even machine parts like caterpillar treads – grafted on to their bodies, sometimes replacing their own limbs. Needless to say, this instantly marks them as criminals. It sets them apart. On the other hand, sometimes it can be useful to have tentacles, or a giant mantis claw.

If your society wants to segregate the guilty, that can be done either physically – exile or incarceration – or in other ways. For instance, criminals could be subjected to spells that leave them visible but incorporeal. They can wander through the world like ghosts for the term of their sentence, but can’t physically interact with anyone.

In any place where space and resources are limited, it makes sense to spend as little as possible on criminals. So for instance, on a sailing ship, they could be put into suspended animation or shrunk to a small enough size that they survive on crumbs and can be imprisoned in a bottle. Of course, if they escaped, they’d be nearly impossible to catch, and might well pose a threat to the ship (story potential!).

What if petty criminals were assigned familiars which accompanied them everywhere, like Philip Pullman’s daemons but with another purpose entirely? The familiars would act as consciences at best and constant witnesses at worst. The criminals might hate their loss of privacy – but to the authorities, this might be quite a merciful sentence.

Readers tend to be jaded by the usual whips and gibbets and chains, so something more is needed to horrify them. I like psychological tactics in this capacity. A punishment which leaves bruises on the victim may be effective – but one which leaves the victim convinced that he deserves those bruises will be shocking. Especially if there's any chance it's being inflicted on an innocent person.

Gaslighting can make the target believe he's slipping into insanity. Permanent personality alterations can change a victim from a courageous resistance leader to a cowed and obedient puppet. A great example of Efrafan discipline in Watership Down is the scene where Blackavar is forced to repeat, to anyone who approaches him, a litany of why he was punished. And he knows that once he's given this coerced confession to the whole warren, he will be killed.

If rabbits can be that inventive, people should be even more so.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Romance problems

If a romance novel is light-hearted and cheerful, either a comedy of manners or a sweet story set in some Little Town on the Prairie, I’ll kick back and enjoy the setting or the style or the witty banter. Those will often compensate for a lack of major conflict. Romance novels don’t always have to have sturm und drang.

On the other hand, if there’s potential for fireworks of the wrong kind between the hero and heroine, there are a few things I’d like not to see.

1. Characters from very different races/cultures/societies fall in love and live happily ever after

Shouldn’t there be some problems caused by the fact that they may look different, behave differently, have varying expectations and customs and behavior? I’m highly Westernized, for instance, but I love spicy food. If I ever made Sri Lankan sambol for a man who’d been eating poutine and perogies all his life, he might end up in the emergency room.

Especially in the romantic subplots of speculative fiction novels, this consideration applies. Star Trek played fast and loose with genetics; anyone could breed with anyone else, and I expected to see Klingon/Tribble hybrids at any moment. If two characters are from very different races, their offspring could well be sterile, and their cultures shouldn’t seamlessly mesh either.

2. Characters meet and they’re soul mates.

The soul mate trope is either loved or loathed. I like it when the writer does something different with it – for instance, uses it to start a realistic relationship rather than using it to bring a happy happy ending to the search. Often it seems as though once you’ve found a soul mate, all your emotional troubles are over.

There’s also the free will issue. Is there any real difference between the powerful alpha hero abducting the heroine and insisting that she’s now his forever, and the powerful alpha hero abducting the heroine and insisting that she’s now his forever because the soul-star on her forehead lit up when he met her? I’d like to feel that the heroine spends the rest of her life with the hero because that’s the best possible choice for her, not because it’s the only choice she was given.

3. Unbalanced love triangles

In Gone with the Wind, Scarlett is caught between Ashley and Rhett. It's obvious to the reader that Rhett is the best partner for her, but at the same time, Ashley's not a stupid lout who beats her up. He's attractive in his own way, intelligent, respected in society, treats her courteously and compliments her. So it's also obvious to the reader that there's some basis to her infatuation with Ashley.

A lot of love triangles aren’t like this. Instead, it’s very clear that the writer favors one pairing, and the left-out person is therefore painted in unflattering colors. This doesn’t make whoever’s in the middle seem very smart – can’t they see that one of their suitors is roast evil with ugly sauce on the side? And, of course, there’s no conflict. Why should there be, when it’s clear to the readers that there’s only one possible choice the person in the middle can make?

Pamela Morsi’s Simple Jess gets around this very well. Althea isn’t interested in either of her suitors (who are both decent men in their own ways). Instead she grows steadily closer to Jesse, whom no one seriously considers a candidate for her affections because he’s “feeble-minded”.

4. Characters forced into a romance

By the author, rather than by other characters or circumstances. I once read a romance where, in the epilogue, the souls of the hero and heroine end up in two characters who meet for the first time, feel an instant connection and know that they will be blissfully happy together. There was no indication of why they would be happy – just that Fate or Destiny (AKA the author) had decreed it.

Even in fantasies of mine where there’s no overt romance, I like to have sexual tension between characters. That worked in every manuscript except Dracolytes. There was simply no way to engender romance between an aggressive fundamentalist soldier of one race and a sarcastic atheist psychologist of another. There was also nowhere a romance could go, considering that their homes were about three thousand miles apart.

They didn’t hate each other at the end, and that was all I could realistically expect from them.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

The Scar

Spoilers abound.

I borrowed this book aware of what to expect from China Mieville. I didn’t hope for sympathetic characters or a happy ending and I expected a great deal of bodily fluids. I skimmed a bit at the start, but enjoyed the second part of the book very much – to the point where I plan to buy a copy. The imagination in this book is superb.

The story is told mostly from the point of view of Bellis Coldwine, a character as appealing as her name sounds. A passenger on a ship that’s captured by pirates, she’s press-ganged into working for Armada, a magnificent floating pirate city made from hundreds of ships lashed or bridged or chained together.

Armada alone would have been worth reading this book for, because Mieville goes all-out to make it as realistic and vivid and original as possible. It’s circled by small tugboats and ironclads, guarded from below by menfish and crays and a dolphin, watched from above by airships. It has several rulers – the strange scarred Lovers, the vampiric Brucolac, the council that in true council fashion doesn’t accomplish much – and so far it has simply made occasional raids and gone nowhere in particular.

So far. Then Armada steals a floating rig that belongs to New Crobuzon and Bellis soon learns what’s behind this. The Lovers plan to travel through the Endless Ocean to reach the distant Scar, which is a place of infinite possibilities.

What happens after that, no one knows. Possibly not even Mieville. Because the book isn’t really about the Scar – that’s the MacGuffin. The book is about the journey, not the destination. And although I thought of plot coupons – especially in the scene where Armada raises a storm to attract elementals to draw up an avanc to harness to the city so they can cross the Endless Ocean to find the Scar – the simple fact is that Mieville’s worldbuilding is great enough to overcome this.

It’s also good enough to compensate for the fact that few if any of the characters are likeable. I honestly couldn’t stand any of them except Tanner Sack. Well, maybe the Brucolac too. He had a certain appeal. I have to say, after books where the vampires are all as gorgeous as they are protective of humans, it was a refreshing change to read about a vampire with a serpentine tongue who imposed a blood tax on the people in his territory.

Many of the other characters are repulsive (intentionally, I’m sure), and Uther Doul was just a bit too Superman for me – nothing, not even a three-hundred-year-old vampire, could take him down. But it wasn’t about the characterization any more than it was about the plot.

It was about all the wonderfully alien races of Bas-Lag. If you liked the ones in Perdido Street Station, you’ll enjoy these too. There are scabmettlers whose shed blood hardens instantly into armor, anophelii which survived the Malarial Queendom, and the vampir. Best of all, there’s a wonderful scene where Mieville describes exactly how a man is Remade into an amphibian.

It’s about the battles at the end, when warships of the New Crobuzon navy catch up to Armada. Mieville plays with point of view and tense here, shifting from past to present, but the battle itself was so gripping that I barely noticed the transitions. It’s fought in the air and on the ships and below the water, fought with flintlocks and rivebows and magic. And even that is superseded by the next battle, where the Brucolac and his ab-dead cadre run rampant through the ships, slaughtering people as they try to force the Lovers to turn back from their suicide run to the Scar.

The book’s conclusion would have to be pretty good to outdo battles like that, and unfortunately, it isn’t. The book doesn’t end with a bang - it’s more of a decrescendo trail-off similar to that in Perdido Street Station - so perhaps it was a good thing that I wasn’t caught up in the fates of any of the characters. Armada itself – and the teeming, unique races of Bas-Lag – were more than enough to keep me as hooked as the avanc.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Elves and dwarves

So I write a lot about different races in fantasy, but I’ve never said anything about the two old faithfuls, the elves and the dwarves, until now.

When I first started writing fantasy stories, I had a race of slender winged creatures who were the descendants of elves, and another race of short people with storage hollows in their chests – they were the descendants of dwarves, so they kept their tools in those hollows. Specifying that they were related to elves and dwarves was, I suppose, either the literary equivalent of keeping the training wheels on the bike or an assurance to the reader that no matter how fantastic my races might seem, they had their origins in Tolkien’s tradition.

After a while I realized that there wasn’t much point in trying to keep a foot in both camps. So I made up my own races, and didn’t write about elves and dwarves until now. Actually, it went beyond not writing about them – I didn’t want to read about them either. After Tolkien, I’d read enough DragonLance and Forgotten Realms novels to be thoroughly burned out on them.

One problem with elves and dwarves – a persistent problem, because a lot of fantasy writers seem to start out with these two staples – is that they follow the Tolkien pattern slavishly. The elves are all beautiful pointy-eared archers who play beautiful music and look beautifully sad. I’ve critted more than one query where they’re sad because their race is dying out. Dwarves are less common (or fleshed out), but they’re all gruff, bearded short people who mine and battle the forces of evil with equal enthusiasm.

I only realized how bad this was when I read an article on dwarves and a writer commented on a dwarf character of hers.

“And she's always going on about how her Ma used to cook the best rats... She also likes the taste of elf ears. :P”

Until then, it hadn’t occurred to me that the dwarves could be a hostile, violent race which might even be responsible for the elves dying out. I knew that in Middle-Earth, relations between the two races were not the most cordial, which was why the friendship between Legolas and Gimli was so important. But in every single book and story I’d ever read, dwarves were good guys.

Why not subvert that? A world where dwarves were intelligent and powerful antagonists, marching to war in armor they had made themselves, devising siege engines to take down castles, mining beneath defensive walls… that would be intriguing. Even the elves have had books where they were the antagonists – Terry Pratchett’s Lords and Ladies is head of the line, though the elves in Dark Sun seem like self-centered opportunists much of the time. I’d like to see more of that kind of thing, as long as the elves weren’t called Dark Elves or Night Elves or Evil Elves to distinguish them from their radiant counterparts.

Even if the elves and dwarves weren’t antagonists, their cultures and physiologies could be fleshed out and tweaked to be as individual as possible. Rather than setting such a story above ground, where the dwarf is usually a Token Alien, why not have a human go underground into a dwarf city? That would be a great way to illustrate a very different society with its own needs and customs.

Tolkien elves and dwarves were best written by Tolkien.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Five expensive ways to get into print

1. Outskirts Press, Pearl Package, $1099

“All Pearl books include professional interior layout, an ISBN number, and unlimited wholesale printing, fulfillment and distribution via Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Ingram, and Baker & Taylor, among others.”

There are also Diamond, Sapphire, Emerald and Ruby Packages. Something about them turns me off, though – maybe I was just never into bling.

2. Raider Publishing Services, Silver Package, $1799

But that $1799 is completely worth it, because along with other services, you’d be paying for a “Personal Promotion Assistant”. Can I pick mine out of a catalog of assistants (young, male, 5’10” or above)?

For the Gold Package, you also get

“Professional Consultation at our main office in the EmpireStateBuilding (including flights to New York, hotel stay, extras)”

Understandably, the price for this package isn’t included on the website. If a Platinum Package ever comes into existence, may I suggest that it includes a commercial airplane with a picture of the book’s cover painted on the side?

You could use that to fly to New York.

3. Tate Publishing, $4000

“Hey! I have a contract with Tate Publishing signed...the only thing I'm trying to find is the $4000.00”

I’m kind of disappointed that this broke the “sliding scale of expenses with shiny names” pattern. Oh well.

4. Elderberry Press, over $5900

“Our fees, inclusive of all included services are:

Adult books: $5900 plus 2¢ per word all inclusive.”

Remind me again: is everything included? What’s funny is that on its main page, Elderberry Press repeatedly claims that it’s cheaper than other vanity presses.

Its mission is “To publish, distribute and promote books the way they should be at a fraction of the cost of vanity presses... A better product for less money… Though our fees are a fraction of the fees of vanity publishers…”

Well, 10/2 is a fraction.

Elderberry Press goes on to say, “For authors on a limited budget we recommend these reputable, large, inexpensive publishers:, or” Nuff said.

5. Xlibris, Platinum Package, $12,999

“The Rolls-Royce of publishing – the Platinum Service offers an exclusive world of publishing privileges and benefits.”

Someone please tell me there are no metals beyond platinum. If there are, the package would have to include a personal alternate dimension where you didn’t just spend thousands of dollars to feel like a published author.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Critical feedback and professionalism

When an author asks for feedback, or publishes a book, what is a professional response if the reviews or the feedback criticize the work?

To me, these are unprofessional responses:

1. “Lots of other people liked my work.”

If something didn’t work for a reviewer or critiquer, it didn’t work for them. If they felt a character was unsympathetic, telling them that ten other people loved the character is unlikely to make them agree and decide that they love the character too. Mothers usually express this in terms of what their children would do if all the other kids jumped off the bridge.

The exception to this is when the ten other people are agents or editors, meaning their professional opinion carries a lot of weight.

2. “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.”

This shows a misunderstanding of the purpose of reviews or feedback. Reviews are not intended to make the author feel good – they are intended to give potential readers an idea of whether the book (or film, or product) is worth spending money on.

Likewise, feedback (except when it’s from one’s family) is not meant to make the author feel on top of the world. It’s meant to give the author an honest assessment of his or her work. There’s nothing wrong in wanting to hear only good things about one’s work, but it’s best if such an author is careful when asking for feedback. Rather than saying, “Please read this and tell me what you think”, the author should specify, “Please read this and tell me what you think as long as you don’t say anything negative”.

At least that way, people who provide honest feedback will be warned in advance.

3. “You only said something negative because you don’t like me/don’t like my genre/don’t like my publisher.”

These are a form of the Ad Hominem fallacy – rather than focusing on the quality of the feedback, the response attacks the motives of the person who gives the feedback. It often comes from writers who don’t want to think that there might be problems with their work. If they can somehow turn the review or feedback into a personal attack, then it’s no longer about their work – it’s about some other issue.

The most professional response to critical feedback is to thank the person who took the time to read and respond to the work. If it’s a review, the book obviously cannot be changed, but if it’s still a work-in-progress, writers can often benefit from hearing about what doesn’t work for other people.

It doesn’t feel good to hear that there are problems in one’s work, but there are a lot of things in life that don’t feel good and yet are necessary. And responding in an unprofessional way is a good way to not just lose readers but to halt one’s own growth as a writer (for an example of a major author doing this, google “Anne Rice” and “meltdown”).

I recently read a blog where the author linked to an excerpt from a book and asked readers to tell her what they thought. When I did - briefly and tactfully - she said she felt "disappointment, hurt, sorrow, anger". Reacting professionally to feedback is a skill almost as important as writing, and writers who don’t have it would do well to learn it.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Five myths about commercial publishing

Recently I read a post from a writer whose work is being printed by a new company that doesn’t have much of a web presence, let alone a reputation. The writer nevertheless stated that there was less risk associated with such a company than with Random House.

Yes, you read that right. Major, reputable, advance-paying publisher < new startup company which may or may not pay advances (no information available yet). It soon turned out that certain myths about commercial publishing were partly responsible for this, so I decided to write a blog post about them.

1. Commercial publishers make authors return advances

This claim is sometimes made by the supporters of vanity presses – where the money flows in the opposite direction. It might also come from small presses which can’t afford to pay an advance but try to make this a positive somehow. So they say that commercial publishers make authors return their advances if the books don’t sell enough copies.

In reality, there are only two circumstances under which commercial publishers require advances to be returned. The first is if the work delivered is unpublishable, and in this case, the writer is given a chance to make revisions. The second is if the writer doesn’t deliver the manuscript by the deadline and does not give notice of the delay. Even then, publishers are more likely to extend the deadline than to ask for the advance back.

2. Commercial publishers expect authors to handle all the marketing and distribution

“On the other hand, my publisher provides media contact lists and press-release mailing services, and I can purchase a more comprehensive media package, if I choose. Thus, I’ll receive far more publicity support from the self-publishing company than my partner and I had from our traditional publisher two decades ago.”

I found this quote especially interesting because the media receives far too many press releases already for vanity published and self-published books. And this service is what this author’s press provides for free. From the quote, it sounds as though she’ll have to pay for the rest.

This particular myth takes the form of a dichotomy – either you’re the famous bestseller author who gets a book tour and a full-page ad in the NYT, or you’re the small author who falls through the cracks and has to do all the marketing and distribution yourself. The reality is that even the least a commercial publisher can provide is more than a vanity press can or will – and may be out of the league of most self-published authors as well.

At a minimum, commercial publishers have publicists and distributors – either a division of their own company or distributors who work with them to pitch titles and have books carried in stores. They list books in catalogs sent out to buyers. They send free copies of books to reviewers. J. A. Konrath’s publisher, Hyperion, printed thousands of flyers, bookmarks and promotional items for him – free of charge.

3. Commercial publishers edit manuscripts excessively

I’ve seen writers express concern about all the changes a commercial publisher might ask them to make to the manuscript, and some vanity presses capitalize on this by assuring writers that their “unique voice” won’t be touched. If commercial publishers dislike an author’s voice or writing style to that extent, what reason would they have to offer a contract for the manuscript?

In reality, the edits commercial publishers ask for involve fixing problems in the story or trimming the manuscript. Cutting down the word count makes for a lean, trim manuscript which can be priced more competitively and will be more attractive to bookstores. If there’s only space on the shelf for one 800-page book or two 400-page books, which would be better for the author?

4. Commercial publishers only want authors who have published before

This is a common fiction. In reality, commercial publishers want excellent manuscripts. If an author has been published before and the book sold extremely well, then of course this gives the author an edge when submitting a second manuscript. But it works the other way around as well. If an author has been published before, and the book sold poorly, commercial publishers may be reluctant to take a chance again. It’s easier to promote a brand-new author than an author whose previous book flopped.

5. Commercial publishers reject manuscripts for trifling reasons

The color of a character’s hair or the fact that the writer is disabled (yes, I’ve read both of these before). In reality, most manuscripts are rejected because they aren’t good enough to be published. Teresa Nielsen Hayden’s Slushkiller provides thirteen reasons why a manuscript might get an R, and none of them had to do with a character’s appearance.

Non-fiction manuscripts might also be rejected due to a lack of author credentials. I recently read a Lulu preview of a book about how to publish one’s manuscript. The author’s previous experience was a single book put out by PublishAmerica, so using Lulu for a book about publishing was a good idea; commercial publishers would have been unlikely to consider the manuscript.

There’s a reason a lot of writers make their thoughts on publishing free. ;)

Monday, November 3, 2008

Dramatic irony

The first definition of dramatic irony I learned (sixteen years ago) was the audience or the readers knowing what the characters did not. That’s a simple way to express what can be a very complex and powerful tool in a novelist’s bag of tricks. Dramatic irony can occur in every genre, and it can be used in different ways.

1. An alert to the readers

When the three witches mention Macbeth’s name at the start of the play, that’s something the other characters have no idea about, but the audience does. We know that a dark purpose is in motion, that something ominous is going to befall Macbeth, and soon enough it does.

Dramatic irony walks a line here. If not for the single mention of Macbeth’s name, the witches would have seemed to come out of nowhere when they confronted Macbeth, and yet they don’t need to make their intentions explicit. Dramatic irony does best when it’s not heavy-handed, when it doesn’t spell out too much of what’s to come or belabor the point. The characters should never be aware that what they’re saying is portentous.

2. Raising tension for the readers

At its best, dramatic irony should make readers want to shout or plead with the characters to listen, to wait, to run, to draw back. A long time ago, I wrote a story which I think of as a Cautionary Tale because I made so many amateur mistakes in it, but there was one moment I still like. An assassin set out to kill the protagonist, and took passage with some mummers called Mallekho’s Players. Meanwhile, the protagonist kissed his wife and children goodbye and set out to confront his enemies (who had hired the assassin). As he rode out from the city, he passed a chain of brightly painted wagons with the words “Mallekho’s Players” on the side.

Dramatic irony is similar to foreshadowing this way: it hints that something bad is going to happen. One difference, to me, is that dramatic irony is more specific – and as a result, produces far more tension. I could have had the protagonist riding out under a flock of crows perched on the bare branch of a cypress tree – both symbols of death – but that would have been far too subtle. It wouldn’t have been clear exactly where the danger lay.

Dramatic irony is also different from (and more effective than) the omniscient narrator viewpoint used incorrectly. Dramatic irony always arises from the characters not having all the necessary information, or not putting it together correctly, rather than not being privy to the narrative.

Julia's estranged husband sent her an envelope containing the key to a hotel room. The note inside said that he was sorry about the affair and knew they had a lot to talk about. “Be there at eight tonight,” he wrote. “And don’t tell anyone. It’ll be easier to enjoy each other’s company without your family calling to check on the reconciliation.”

For me, this works a lot better than spelling it out for the readers.

Julia's estranged husband sent her an envelope containing the key to a hotel room. What she didn’t realize at the time was that he had no intention of meeting her, much less reconciling with her.

3. A source of humor

My favorite Shakespearan comedy Twelfth Night, revolves around dramatic irony. Even gritty fantasies like A Song of Ice and Fire occasionally use this device to milk wry humor from situations. When Arya finds Elmar Frey crying over the fact that his betrothal to a princess has fallen through, neither of them realizes that she’s the princess. I thought that was funny. Of course, Martin promptly scared me again by having Arya, angry with Elmar’s selfishness, wish that his princess would die.

Dramatic irony can really manipulate readers' emotions, in other words. And that's a good thing.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Travel in fantasy

I read an article on travel in fantasies, which made me think. The article covered the usual methods of transportation in a fantasy – animals – and the problems that could and should arise from depending on literal horsepower to reach a destination. But what about alternative methods of travel?

1. Travel through space

I’d like to see a fantasy city which was heavily dependent on canals for transport, like Venice. A map of such a city would be great. George R. R. Martin’s Braavos qualifies, but everything about it seems so exotic that the canals don’t really stand out to me.

Air travel is another option. Hot-air balloons are relatively simple, but aren’t very steerable. Some method of propulsion or navigation that relied on birds or flying mammals/reptiles might be interesting. Then, of course, the story could take a turn into the wholly fantastic and just posit airships or cloudcutters or skyschooners. Over a relatively small area, something like an intangible web across the sky could work as well – it would let in sun and air, but allow people to move rapidly across its strands.

For urban fantasies, I’d love to see more dangerous, edgy methods of transportation, like Blaine the insane monorail train in Stephen King’s Dark Tower series. Or what about a city where the main method of public transportation was a group of intelligent vehicles (or intelligent pterodactyls, for that matter), who worked for or were controlled by a powerful guild? Lots of story potential there.

2. Travel through alternate space

Science fiction has hyperspace, so why shouldn’t fantasy have it too? Whether it’s another dimension that can be reached only through a mirror, an alternate version of our world or a bizarre M. C. Escher-esque place, it could be used as a method of transportation as well – and that would open up a lot of potential plots.

Whoever controlled the alternate space could charge for transport, or could pull strings in the real world through their influence. For that matter, whoever controlled the real-world doorways or portals (or waypoints or phone booths) that led to the other dimension could also wield power – and might not always be in agreement with the first person.

Then there’s the nature of the alternate space itself. Can you simply use this dimension to step from Point A to Point B, or would you find yourself facing four identical doors and have to pick the correct one to make sure you didn’t end up in an active volcano or ancient Rome?

3. Travel through time

I was thinking of my work-in-progress, where one kind of magic involves time manipulation, and I realized that this could be used to allow a person to reach their destination more quickly. For instance, a lake in summer could have time reversed for it by a couple of seasons, meaning it would freeze over and the characters could cross it on foot.

Or what about a mountain pass or city street where time operated differently from the norm, meaning that whatever entered that passage would move three or four times as fast as it usually did? Taken to extremes, you could even have the time dilation effect.

Fantasy writers of the world, imagine! We have nothing to lose except our brains. :)