Friday, January 30, 2009

Why not begin with dialogue?

I’d read on more than one site that beginning a story with dialogue might turn off agents and was therefore not a good idea. No particular reason was given for why this was a turnoff, so I accepted it and just made a mental note to start in some other way.

Then I read a story beginning with a seven-line conversation, which didn't intrigue me. The writer had asked for critiques, though, which meant I had to think about why the conversation didn’t work – and for comparison purposes, I found a story starting with dialogue which did work.

So, why are writers warned off beginning with dialogue?

1. Talking head syndrome

Close your eyes and turn on the television, making sure you get a show rather than a news broadcast or documentary. Can you follow the plot simply through dialogue?

I imagine that reading a conversation between two unknown people is often as fun as not-watching TV, trying to tell what’s going on without visual clues. Very often such conversations look like this:

“We can’t tell anyone.”
“But that was a kid--”
“I don’t care. You want us to end up in there too?”

Is this a conversation between a couple, siblings, friends, strangers on a train? It’s words in a vaccum, talk in white space. The writer could fill in more details through the dialogue, but then we run into another problem…

2. As you know, Bob

“We can’t tell anyone what we saw Grandma Peters doing.”
“But that was a kid she lured with one of her homemade blueberry pies.”
“I don’t care. You want us to end up in there too? It’s not all blueberry, you know.”

The characters are telling each other what they already know. And the conflict doesn’t work too well either…

3. Dramatic personae

Since the dialogue alone has to hold the reader’s attention, some writers try to make it as gripping as possible. However, this can backfire if the dialogue is crammed with conflict and emotion, since the reader hasn’t had a chance to connect with the characters and experience whatever they experience.

It feels intrusive to begin a story with characters screaming at each other or confessing their love to each other. If there’s not even a minimal connection to the characters before they start talking about their divorce or the sniper across the street, the readers will be watching the scene from a detached distance. The conflict will be told to them rather than shown.

On the other hand, there are exceptions to every rule. And the one which came to mind right away was Ray Bradbury’s “The Veldt”.

”George, I wish you’d look at the nursery.”
“What’s wrong with it?”
“I don’t know.”
“Well, then.”
“I just want you to look at it, or call a psychologist in to look at it.”

The first sentence establishes who’s speaking to who. “I wish you’d look at this” is something most likely said within the context of a marriage, rather than a romance or a friendship. And since it starts with a name, we know the husband is George, meaning that this is probably a conversation between humans in the present or near future (since Bradbury writes science fiction, readers can’t take that for granted).

Also, there’s a problem with the nursery. “George, I wish you’d look at the kitchen” would not have had the same impact, the same uneasy little sense of children-in-jeopardy. Though as the story goes on to show, nothing could be further from the truth.

So the first sentence also sets up the conflict, but does that in a subtle way, so that the reader can learn about the problem along with the characters. Starting with, “Oh my God, George! The children are in danger!” would not have worked so well. By the time the dialogue gets to the request for a psychologist – meaning that whatever’s wrong with the nursery, it’s not easily fixed – I’m hooked.

Finally, this is a stripped-down, minimalist start to the story. That parallels the nursery, which is featureless and blank-walled when someone first enters it.

Picking up on the emotions and wishes of the person, though, the nursery walls quickly produce different three-dimensional scenes, complete with temperature and smells and sound, to make its occupants feel as though they’re in another place and time – hence the title, “The Veldt”. Likewise, the intriguing conversation at the start quickly unfolds into Bradbury’s beautifully descriptive prose, which uses the senses of smell and touch better than any writer I’ve ever read.

I’m still going to begin my stories with something besides dialogue, but it’s good to see how that can work when done well.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Names in fantasy

A few thoughts on names in fantasy stories, in no particular order…

1. The same first and/or last letters to denote names from the same culture

Can work if used carefully and sparingly – and if it seems realistic that everyone in a particular race or society uses the same format in naming their children. It works in the real world when different suffixes denote gender (e.g. Roman names, Japanese names), which is a good reason to stick to a formula.

One problem, though, is that readers sometimes find it difficult to tell characters apart if their names begin with the same letter. And if the names are short on top of that, or end with the same letter as well, this can give them a sameness that doesn’t help. The Vulcans of Star Trek are perhaps the best example of this with names such as Surak, Sybok, Sarek, etc.

2. Cliched names

Some names are cliched from the get-go. When I first started writing fantasy, I had a character called Fox. And yes, he had red hair, however did you guess? I eventually realized that he was about the hundredth character to labor under that particular moniker, and if I revisit that story, he’ll get a name change.

“Raven” and “Hawk” are similar names which are overused in both fantasy and romance. It doesn’t help that people with those names tend to be bold or dashing or darkly lovely; you never get a baker called Hawk or a pregnant seamstress called Raven.

3. Actual names

This one is tricky, since there are actual names of all kinds, but it’s something to keep in mind. I recently read a Watt-Evans novel which had a minor character called Gita, and each time she was mentioned, I pictured an Indian woman in Ethshar. This impression could probably have been corrected if Gita had been fleshed out more. The Gita of the story would have created her own distinct impression in my mind then.

Things I’d like to see, or plan to do:

Both (or more) people in a marriage change their given names to show that they’re married.

Names based on a common theme – for instance, all the villagers or islanders take the names of flowers, gemstones, etc.

Names assigned to people by another land or culture. One thing I liked about Alien Nation was that that the Tenctonese refugees were assigned new names by the US government, and although this was used as humor (Sandy Beach, Gayle Warning, etc), it’s actually a very realistic touch.


On a personal note, I've asked to review The Great Eight by Scott Hamilton, an Olympic gold medalist. The medal was in figure skating, the one sport I follow, so I'm looking forward to reading more about it.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Five types of half-human creatures

Specifically, creatures that have half a human body fused to half an animal’s body.

1. Centaurs

The most common of such types - see Piers Anthony’s Centaur Aisle for an example - though centaurs also played important roles in the Harry Potter books and the Chronicles of Narnia.

I’ve liked centaurs ever since I watched Disney’s Fantasia and saw the centaurs of various colors as well as the zebra fusions. More along those lines would be great. Humans joined to the bodies of stags, maybe?

2. Felinaurs

The felinaurs of Fighting Fantasy have a human’s torso fused to a lion’s lower body, but I found a picture of a cheetah cross as well. These haven’t seen much use in any of the fantasy I’ve read so far, but they’re intriguing, especially if they have a unique mentality or society to go with their appearances.

3. Xoroa

The Xoroa, also of Fighting Fantasy, have humanoid torsos fused to the lower bodies of giant ants. One reason I like them is that their physical alterations don’t stop at the waist; they have antennae instead of ears and cannot speak. Instead, they communicate with a clicking sound. They also live in a giant hive built around the only female, the Xoroa queen.

Insect and arachnid fusions turn up in other fantasies as well – the driders of Forgotten Realms , for instance, and Fighting Fantasy had human/scorpion crosses as well. Since there are so many types of invertebrate, this has nearly limitless potential. I’d love to see humans crossed with butterflies, scarab beetles, leeches or dragonflies.

4. Menfish

I’m borrowing the Mieville term here, because “mermaids” has been too Disneyfied to inspire any kind of serious, gritty fantasy for me. I think DragonLance had “sea elves”, but those were pretty, good creatures who turned up when they were needed and swam off when they weren’t.

But there’s so much more potential to this type of creature. Mermaids originally dragged shipwrecked sailors to drown. What if the mermaids were fused with piranhas, and the last thing such sailors saw was teeth, and lots of them? Stonefish, sharks, manta rays, barracudas, squid… there are a lot of creatures in the sea that either look deadly, or are deadly, or both. Don’t stop with half a fish when you can have half an anglerfish.

And also, how do mermaids reproduce? I’ve always wondered.

5. Avians

I couldn’t think of a better name for this type of creature, because I didn’t recall it being done in any fantasies other than the garuda of Mieville’s novels. Poul Anderson has a novel called War of the Wing Men, but this seems to be out of print, and other novels with bird fusions seem to settle for sticking wings on a human’s back, rather than creating an entirely new type of creature.

Which is a pity, because birds vary from ostriches to hummingbirds, from ospreys with eyes that adjust for light refraction in water to gulls that live in huge squabbling smelly colonies. And why stop at birds? I’d like to see a human/bat fusion. Or a human/pterodactyl.

Or, for that matter, any human/dinosaur cross. A human with a velociraptor’s lower legs and tail would be as cool as it was deadly.

What's Age Got to Do with It?

I read that Robin McGraw, at 55, wrote this book because her mother died prematurely after too many years of putting the needs of others before her own health. Since my mother died at 55, I decided to read this book.

What’s Age Got To Do With It? is a description of how Ms. McGraw (who’s married to Dr. Phil) keeps herself healthy and attractive at her age. She has an equally healthy mindset, and makes it clear that women of any age need to make time for themselves and their health even when taking care of a family.

This isn’t exactly groundbreaking information, but since many women do put their needs second to those of their family’s, reading this might make a difference for them. The book is organized into sections dealing with exercise, nutrition, hormones, makeup and so on, with anecdotes on each topic.

Ms. McGraw quotes several experts at length, and also describes the science behind processes like menopause. This is a nice contrast to the anecdotes, which at some points get a little too happy-families. Still, the stories which specifically focus on health are relevant, and I enjoyed the ones about makeovers gone wrong.

Unfortunately, since this is not a long book, it doesn’t go into some topics (such as spirituality) in depth. What readers often get instead is common knowledge, and the product placement reached the point where I started watching for the next brand-name cosmetic.

I’d recommend this book to women who want an overall look at health and beauty, accesorized with several pages advising them on exactly what to eat (taken from Dr Phil’s The Ultimate Weight Solution Food Guide). Ironically, my mother would have loved this – the mixture of health tips and celebrity-lifestyle would have worked for her. To me, though, it was a case of a book trying to be all things to all women, which rarely succeeds.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

PublishAmerica’s latest offer

Emails went out to PA’s “thirty thousand happy authors” yesterday.

Dear Author,

Frame this: February is royalty month. Your next royalty statement is due in less than six weeks.

Receiving their royalty check is a high moment in every author's life, no matter the dollar amount. A moment worth framing.

Since PA sends out biannual royalty checks, and since their contracts hold authors for a minimum of 7 years, this means authors will have 14 moments worth framing during their time with PA.

We are offering to frame your next royalty check for you, in a distinguished, transparent 8x10 hard coated frame that "floats" the check between sheets of glass and plexiglass.

Because nothing says “distinguished” like plexiglass.

Note: you will still receive a negotiable version of your check that you can deposit, ensuring that the framed copy is a keepsake forever.

Thanks to the glass and plexiglass, you too can enjoy the PA version of the Precious Moments figurine through eternity. And beyond.

Reserve your framed check today. Price: $19.95, plus s&h.

For most authors, the frame would be worth more than the check (though as PA was quick to point out, it’s not the check you’re framing, it’s the magical moment). The same email stated, “Checks will be mailed February 28; statements regarding titles that sold zero copies will be forwarded by email.” I don’t suppose anyone will want to frame such a statement, though.

Threads about this sprang up on at least three discussion boards, and not even PA’s defenders seemed happy about it. The good news is that whether this offer is prompted by greed or desperation or both, it’s so blatant that it may alert at least a few new authors to what PA wants out of them. PA doesn’t charge for publication - which lures people in - but it charges for

1. Books (a 182-page paperback is priced at $24.95)

2. Shipping and handling ($4.99 for the first book, $2.99 for each additional book)

3. Advertising (PA’s auction, which has since been repeated)

4. Lack of advertising (after some authors found inappropriate advertising in their books, others wanted their books free of advertising. PA offered to make it so for $300)

5. A frame for each royalty check ($19.95 + s&h)

6. The return of rights (starting at $300)

I wonder what PA will try to sell to authors next. A frame for the dollar advance? Cover art? A special certificate saying “Congratulations, you are now a Published Author”? A frame for that? With PA, you never can tell.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

The Clone Wars theory

I first read about the Clone Wars theory here. It’s based on a throwaway line from Star Wars where Obi-Wan says to Luke, “He fought with your father in the Clone Wars.”

There are no other references to the Clone Wars in the movie, but it’s the kind of tiny, telling detail that fleshes out the Star Wars universe, and for years fans speculated on what had happened in the Clone Wars. Finally another movie came along to tell that story.

So the theory is that such details shouldn’t necessarily be cut when editing, even if they’re not actively contributing to the story. As long as they’re making the world or the characters seem that much more three-dimensional or lived-in, they’re justifying their existence.

Another example of this occurs in my perennial favorite Gone with the Wind. Well over halfway through the book, Rhett divulges to Scarlett that he has a ward, a little boy back in Charleston. No other details given (is the boy related? Maybe even a son?) and what’s even more curious, remembering the child is an unpleasant experience for Rhett. Again, no reason given, which is all the more strange given that Rhett gets along very well with Scarlett’s son.

That and other details of Rhett’s mysterious past make up for the fact that so little of GWTW is told from his point of view. More so, they flesh him out as a character while still keeping him intriguing. Margaret Mitchell knew just how important it was to keep the readers longing for more.

Two caveats I’d use when applying this to my work, though. In Before the Storm, I took the Clone Wars theory to heart and had my characters mention the Infestation, which – from their mentions of it – sounded like a great war that had once devastated part of their land.

Unfortunately, I had them mention it on seven separate occasions, as opposed to the one-time Clone Wars reference, and as a result an agent asked what the Infestation was. Which left me in a corner, since I really didn’t know – and if I’d stuck to a single use of the term, I wouldn’t have needed to know.

The other concern is that whatever the throwaway detail is, it has to be truly throwaway. It’s one thing if a writer plays coy on very minor matters like the Doom of Valyria (I have no idea what that is, but it’s fun to imagine), but it’s another to keep important and necessary facts from the readers, especially if this interferes with their understanding the plot.

Other than that, though, this is a wonderful way to indulge both yourself and the readers. Not explaining everything makes readers feel that this is a three-dimensional world with hidden secrets, that the characters have lives deeper than the printed page. There’s more to them than meets the eye, and that makes them realistic.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Look who's Tolkien

Bad puns aside, I recently came across a story a writer had put up for critiques. The story began with a long description of how a god created the world and the various races in it.

When other critiquers explained that this was likely to deter readers, the writer was surprised. Wasn't that how Tolkien's book started out? Didn't the film version of The Lord of the Rings begin with a prologue?

The thing is, though, we aren't Tolkien.

The Lord of the Rings was written before 1950, and acceptable writing styles were different then. Especially in speculative fiction, readers were more willing to plow through paragraphs of description and backstory at the start. Everything changes, though, and these days readers want to be involved with the characters right away.

Also, Tolkien was more than a storyteller - he was a poet as well, and his prose has a beautiful, lyrical feel to it. Great writing covers a multitude of sins, but most new writers aren't likely to match this level of voice.

But the most interesting thing, for me, is that Tolkien's most famous books don't begin with the history of the world and how the gods created it. The Hobbit starts with a simple and personal introduction to Bilbo (a character, not a country), and The Fellowship of the Ring starts with Bilbo's party. Frodo - and the reader - has to wait until later to learn about the Ring and about the splendid and tragic history of Middle-Earth.

The Silmarillion is the definitive example of a book with a Genesis beginning, but even that isn't an encyclopedic entry. Instead of being dry and factual, it's woven through with emotion - Melkor's jealousy, Aule's love for his creations - and lyrical descriptions of the Valar.

And the book was published after the other two, when readers wanted more of Middle-Earth. It wasn't an introduction to the epic or a prologue which explained all the worldbuilding.

When I first began writing fantasy, I used prologues to describe both the world and the (usually portentous) birth of the protagonist. After a while, I realized these were both dull and cliched, and now I just start in media res. Works a lot better.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Lakeworld and ideas

Yesterday I came up with Lakeworld.

I wanted to create a world that was very different from my usual stomping grounds. Something easy to summarize, but as unusual and distinctive as Mieville’s Armada or Le Guin’s Tombs of Atuan. The result was Lakeworld.

Lakeworld is made up of fourteen lakes of varying sizes, close together in a roughly circular shape. Narrow stone landbridges divide them. Different lakes have different features – the largest, for instance, is home to a herd of plesiosaurs, while another serves as a primary fishing ground/waterfarm for the population. Most of the people of Lakeworld live on its surface, on ships or on the back of a giant beast that nearly fills one of the lakes, though some live beneath the water.

So, why am I mentioning this? Well, aside from the fun of sharing it, I wanted to say something about ideas.

A lot of new writers are worried that someone might steal their ideas. They hesitate to put up parts of their work for critique even in private forums, or are reluctant to mention the details of a story in a query letter. On one occasion, I even read a thread started by a writer who wanted to sell ideas.

Is there a process to go through in which an idea can be pitched for someone else to write?

The reality, though, is that ideas are not just common, they’re distinctive to whoever works on them. Here’s an example:

A woman marries a man inferior to her in both social status and money, because she can't have the man whom she really loves. They have a daughter who, like her mother, falls in love with a man whom she can't have and marries someone else instead. She has a child by the man she loves, but the child dies. She loses the man in the end.

Margaret Mitchell made this into Gone with the Wind. Colleen McCullough made this into The Thorn Birds. Two very different novels, both very successful.

In other words, if you give ten writers the same idea, you’ll get ten or more different stories. The idea never stands alone. The writer will add genre, characterization, plot, theme and style, until finally it will be as difficult to discern the original idea as it is to tell which seed grew into which tree.

And each writer usually generates far more ideas than they can use, ideas that are better suited to their favorite genres and ways of writing than someone else’s ideas will be. So there’s no reason to worry that anyone’s going to steal an idea.

Lakeworld is a good example of this. Right now, it’s a thinly-sketched milieu, and I don’t know what characters are going to use it to enact which plot. The idea of the world itself is only the starting point. I could go anywhere from here – and so could anyone else who came up with this first, because there aren’t that many original ideas in the world. Lakeworld is original enough for me, though, and I look forward to telling a story about it.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Five dead micropresses

May they rest in peace.

All of these were startup POD publishers which didn’t charge their authors for publication and which seemed like good ideas at the time to many people. All of them are now defunct, taking the dreams (and sometimes money) of writers with them.

1. Rain Publishing, 2005-2008

Writers were told that “Rain Publishing has begun a new revolution of conventional publishing”. A claim from a startup that it will change the industry is usually a red flag, but Rain’s insistence on taking the writers’ copyright was a more serious warning sign.

Rain went out of business in April 2008 due to “personal health reasons” on the founder’s part. One of their authors said that Rain’s books were priced even higher than PublishAmerica’s and Rain did not send out review copies even when major reviewers requested them (after being contacted by the author). Read more here.

2. Capri Publishing, 2005-2006

Capri was started by a former PA author, and named after the founder’s child*. The founder had a full-time job and a family, so the publishing was a part-time deal at best, although she claimed that Capri would accept only “a limited amount of manuscripts for 2007”. This limited amount included 50 novels.

In late 2006, newly released books stopped appearing on Amazon. A few authors received replies to their emails or phone calls about this.

I received an email stating that the reason I didn't get my books is because she was depressed.

Capri Publishing was taken over by new management which seemed to be as much out of touch with publishing as the old management, but which charged fees into the bargain. Finally it went down for good.

3. Luna Brilliante, 2006-2007

Although Luna Brilliante had no distribution (normal for POD presses), it started out with good intentions, claiming that it would publish only 4 – 5 books per year. Book prices were also more competitive than those of a lot of POD presses. Then one of the partners pulled out, leaving the company short of money.

But if funds don’t come from the publisher then there’s always another reliable source.

Luna Brillante Publishing, a Florida based business, announced the company is now accepting submissions from prospective authors for their new venture in Collaborative Publishing... The packages – Moondrop, Moonebeam, and Moonglade range from $399 to $899.

The publisher admitted that Luna Brilliante was run by people without much experience (or hope of doing anything more than breaking even), but that they were learning. In early 2007, Luna Brilliante went out of business. The fallout was severe for the publisher as well.

After we shut down LBP, our creditors began coming after us, we've burned through our savings and we're struggling to prevent leins against our home. One of the authors didn't take our demise too well and is threatening to sue.

4. TICO Publishing, 2004–2007

TICO Publishing started by offering paid reviews, though the publisher addressed concerns and seemed willing to make changes to their policies.

Unfortunately TICO had an very author-unfriendly contract that grabbed rights and did not require the publisher to commit to a publication date**. The publisher also claimed that,

All manuscripts get commented on by (at least) the first reader. The comments include a synopsis of the story and comments on what the reader did and/or didn't like about the story.

I’m not sure why the writer would need this synopsis. Including comments also doesn’t seem like the most productive use of reader time.

TICO’s website no longer exists and its blog has not been updated since May 2007.

5. Light Sword Publishing, 2006-2008

The first thing we ask each of our author's to remember is that YOU must sell your book. --> Link

Light Sword Publishing was founded by Linda Daly, a former PA author with no experience in publishing. Much like PA, Light Sword paid a dollar advance, described itself as a “traditional, royalty paying publisher”, and expected authors to do the bulk of marketing and distribution.

And much like PA, there were issues about nonpayment of royalties and unprofessional behavior. In 2008, an author successfully sued for breach of contract. Light Sword Publishing then changed its name to LSP Digital.

In addition, LSP will direct our authors to further promote their work by:

*** Requesting that they mail out a minimum of 100 announcement letters to family, friends and colleagues introducing their release.

In late 2008, Light Sword Publishing filed for bankruptcy, although LSP Digital did not. I’ll close with this quote from LSP’s “In the News” page, about an author’s self-promotion tactic.

…if the reader can get 10 others to buy a copy, they will have their purchase reimbursed. Getting 20 new customers earns the referrer a free copy of the book and 50 gets them a free 18 inch by 18 inch throw pillow.

I should hope the pillow was free. I’d hate to take part in what looks like a tacky pyramid scheme, only to find I had to pay for my pillow.


*If I were starting a publishing company, I’d find a rich person to invest in it and name it after their child.

**Which goes to show that “the publisher did everything specified in the contract” is not much of a defense of the publisher.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Monsters of the mind

A reliable staple of horror is having one’s mind controlled by some other entity. This can be another person, a creature of some kind or an entire race, and it can be either within or outside the person being controlled. I was wondering whether this could work in a fantasy context as well.

Science fiction features a vast array of mind-controllers, from Robert Heinlein’s Puppetmasters to Stephenie Meyer’s The Host. The Borg from Star Trek are another good example, though their extensive reconfiguration of the body tends to overshadow the mind-control aspect.

One thing I love about science fiction is that such controllers come in all shapes and types. I think Jack L. Chalker’s Well World series features a sentient virus which dominates anyone it infects, and Star Trek has had some sluglike creatures which do the same thing.

In contrast, the only such creatures from fantasy that came to mind right away were the illithids of Dungeons and Dragons. I’ve come across one or two other mentions of parasites which take over the host’s mind, but these weren’t fleshed out or given any unique features.

While I haven’t read The Host, the premise of it is intriguing because the alien invaders (called “souls”), genuinely believe that they are doing good by controlling the human capacity for violence. Too often, stories don’t give anyone who practices mind control this much benefit of the doubt. Instead, writers often have such people or creatures resorting to brainwashing to further their own predatory and rapacious goals.

But what if they had no choice in the matter? The souls of The Host need human bodies to survive, and likewise other species may not choose to mentally dominate anyone near them. It may simply be a feature of their biology, one which they can’t control any more than we can change our height or warm-bloodedness. Perhaps some such inadvertent puppetmasters would feel responsible for anyone falling under their sway and would treat them well, though others would not.

Or perhaps the manipulation is more subtle. Controllers who didn’t want to be either treated with hostility or exposed for what they were might be very careful. Rather than openly controlling other people, they might simply introduce intuitions or suggestions into other people’s minds. As a result, they might do genuine good, or be considered useful by people in a position of power.

And to take it one step further, what if the host chose to be controlled? I can’t see myself giving up part of me to an alien or fantasy race of any kind. But I can see myself doing the same thing if someone I loved very much was dying, and the only way to preserve some small part of them was to allow their mind into my body. If the only alternative was to lose that person entirely, undergoing a voluntary version of multiple personality disorder would not be so bad in comparison.

Or at least it might not seem that way at the start…


On another note, I took the "What font are you?" test. Turns out I am Impact, "the preferred font of LOLCats everywhere. A little dark. A little narrow. That's because you spend too much time in front of your computer." That, and coming from South Asia.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Do writers deserve to be published?

I’ve often seen writers defend vanity presses by saying that they perform a useful service – printing books that would not otherwise be printed. Many people feel that they deserve to be published, and that the publishing industry is elitist at best or practising censorship at worst by publishing so few writers. Therefore, a vanity press or author mill is a good thing, since it allows nearly everyone to “publish” a book.

I’m not sure why anyone would believe that they deserve to be published. Even the Constitution of the United States doesn’t hold this truth to be self-evident: that everyone has the right to happiness. It’s the pursuit of happiness that’s an inalienable right: there’s no guarantee that you’ll get it.

But let’s deal with a few of the arguments for this position.

1. The reading public should decide whether a book is good – not the publishers.

I can see why a writer might feel this way. If the writer’s family and friends and co-workers read and loved the manuscript, but editors and agents didn’t even request a partial, the writer might well feel slighted. The regular people enjoy the book – it’s just the industry which stands in the writer’s way.

The thing is, though, the reading public relies on the publishers to screen and refine its reading material. I’ve ordered several books sight unseen from online sellers, but in each and every case I knew that I would be getting books that had been read by agents, vetted by editors and fine-combed by copyeditors.

I don’t want to be placed in the position of having to sift through trash to find the good stuff – if I want that, I’ll go to, which is where I advise anyone to go if they truly believe that unleashing the slush pile on the reading public is a good thing.

2. The writer has a right to be heard.

I say: Absolutely.

But I also say: not on someone else’s dime.

If writers only want to disseminate their work, they always have the option of putting it up on the Internet. Do they want actual printed, bound copies instead? Well, then, someone’s going to have to pay the costs of book production.

In the case of commercial publication, the publisher pays, meaning that they pick and choose which manuscripts will give them a return on their investment. In the case of vanity publishing or self-publishing, the writer pays – one way or another.

3. The writer believes in the book and can make a success of it – once it’s made available.

Every writer believes in their work, without exception. But that belief doesn’t guarantee good sales.

Part of the problem is that availability doesn’t necessarily mean the reading public knows about it. A book can be on the online stores of Amazon or Barnes and Noble, but if the average readers don’t know the book’s title or the author’s name, how can they search for it?

I haven't heard of any book which had good sales even though it was a drop in the virtual ocean. Even self-publishing success stories rely on actual copies of the books being distributed, usually by the author. On the other hand, I've read numerous accounts of writers who signed up with vanity presses and then worked tirelessly to promote their books (sometimes through ill-fated ideas like reverse shoplifting or creating pages for themselves on Wikipedia). These efforts do not seem to have resulted in commercial success for the writers.

4. Having their books published makes writers happy.

This is true. Having their books published does make writers happy – more happy than going through endless cycles of rejection.

Most of the time, I think the rejections serve a good purpose, honing the writers’ skills, toughening their skins and making publication all the more valuable when it does happen. It’s all part of establishing a career. But what about those writers who don’t want a career? If an old lady only wants to see her recipes in print for her grandchildren, shouldn’t she get that chance?

Unfortunately that brings up the money issue again: who’s going to foot the bill for this indulgence? Even if the old lady can afford it, vanity presses often try to squeeze as much as possible from their customers/authors. They may, for instance, try to sell her things she won’t need, like promotional packages.

Another problem with vanity presses is that some of them deliberately foster the illusion that their customers are published authors just like Nora Roberts or Stephen King. This ties into making the writers happy, but it also means that writers will want the trappings of publication – reviews, awards and so on. So there are now amateur review services, some of which charge for their reviews, and fake contests. It’s an entire cottage industry.

Ultimately, publication is something best worked towards, rather than handed to any writer who has put words down on paper – because in the latter case, it will always come with strings attached and will do little or nothing for the writer’s career. With apologies to Stephen Crane:

A man said to the universe:
"Sir, I have written a book!"
"However," replied the universe,
"The fact has not created in me
An obligation to publish it."

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Cage a Man

I first found out about this book when I read Wayne Barlowe’s Extraterrestrials, admired the artwork and decided that I was going to read all the science fiction novels mentioned in that book. That campaign introduced me to the Well World series, the Tschai books and a buried treasure called Cage a Man, by F. M. Busby.

The plot of Cage a Man is simple. A man called Barton wakes up to find that along with several other humans, he’s been abducted from Earth and is sharing a huge cell with alien prisoners. Before he can do more than get friendly with one of them, Limila, their kidnappers shove Barton into a grey room where he will stay for the next eight years.

The kidnappers are Demu, an alien race which believes that everyone else is inferior to them – animal-like, actually. However, if others can learn the Demu language, they are considered people and are allowed citizenship among the Demu. They are also surgically enhanced so that they look like Demu. And the Demu happen to be exoskeletal creatures without noses, ears, external genitalia or secondary sexual organs.

Barton, however, is too angry at his captivity to learn their language, even when the Demu try to teach it to him. Instead he plays mind games with them, alternating comprehension with pretences of having forgotten what various signs mean. The Demu play those games right back, treating him like the guinea pig he is to them and giving him lobotomized women in the hopes that he will demonstrate mating. The room is a sensory deprivation chamber, and by the end of his time there, Barton’s on the edge of insanity.

He does escape, though. And that’s when the fun really begins.

I won’t say anything more about the plot, but the aliens in the story deserve a bit more description. The Tilari, Limila’s people, are physically not much different from a lot of aliens-of-the-week from Star Trek, but their culture is very alien. The Tilari use sex as a greeting among friends, a comfort, a means of reconciliation and a way of expressing gratitude. I’ve never before read a SF novel where the heroine had pleasurable, guilt-free sex with other men after she became involved with the hero.

The only stumbling point in this story is the extensive physical enhancement carried out by the Demu on anyone lucky enough to be admitted to their society. To be specific, I didn’t buy that a woman could have her scalp, ears, nose, teeth, fingers, toes, breasts and genitalia removed sans anesthesia without 1. dying from shock and blood loss 2. being physically scarred (if she lived) to the point where she would be reluctant to disrobe, much less have sex 3. being mentally scarred as well.

Limila, on the other hand, isn’t happy that she’s been mutilated, but she behaves as she did before the surgical alteration. She’s still willing to have sex with Barton (and others), though both his reaction and the slow rebuilding of her body are realistic. The story is very much Barton’s – no one else gets a point of view – and characterization-wise, it could be more fleshed out. But for what it is, it’s an excellent read, and I recommend it.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Low self-esteem

I came across a question on the Absolute Write forums about having characters with low self-esteem. It made me stop to think, mostly because my knee-jerk response was a dislike of such characters. And knee-jerk reactions are usually not as productive as thoughtful analyses.

My response stemmed partly from the fact that I was raised in a family and a culture that stressed achievement and success at all costs. However, another part of it is that low self-esteem isn’t often the kind of quality that attracts people. We’re drawn towards confidence, whether that quality is expressed by an applicant for a job, a date or a nation’s leader.

You could balance this out, having such a character project confidence in public while worrying about their performance or showing their vulnerabilities in private. I’ve done that on a few occasions, smiling and talking my way into a job while hoping no one can see me sweat.

But that would be understandable nervousness or performance anxiety rather than the kind of crippling inner nothingness that comes to mind when I think of really low self-esteem. That kind of character is one who probably never even takes the spotlight because he knows in advance that he’s going to fail.

What could be done with such a person? Well, most of the time, this would be a comic character. Seinfeld did wonderfully with that kind of neurosis, and so did Red Dwarf, which I discussed in a previous blog post. But what if you’re hoping for the readers to take such a character seriously? Or, heaven help you, like such a person?

Low self-esteem is one of the few flaws that can really torpedo a character – more so than greed, promiscuity, dishonesty and a lot of other negative traits. Some of those can even come off as edgy and cool, given the right circumstances. But a character who’s inept, who screws up, who achieves nothing and who hates herself as a result is unlikely to result in the readers liking her. Their response is going to be more along the lines of pity, annoyance or relief that they’re not such a person.

So, how to make it work? One way would be to show why the character became this way, why she can’t make any friends or have normal close relationships, like the heroine of Dean Koontz’s Whispers. Understanding why someone behaves a certain way goes quite far in fleshing them out.

Another, very effective way for me is to show that the character tries his best to succeed. A character who believes he’s worthless and therefore sits on his hands isn’t going to be as interesting as a character who believes he’s worthless but longs to be different and at least attempts to change his sad condition. I think that’s why I liked Rimmer from Red Dwarf the moment I read that he was taking the astronavigation exam for the thirteenth time (even though he was as destined to fail as when he took it for the first time).

Such a character may or may not express self-pity for their condition, depending on what the writer wants to achieve. I’d feel more liking for someone who didn’t whine about feeling worthless, but if such a whine was funny or incisive enough, it would cancel out the annoyance.

So the success of such characters depends on how well they’re done – like most other aspects of writing. I’m glad I got over the knee-jerk reaction, though.


On another note, I signed up to be a book review blogger with Thomas Nelson, and picked What's age got to do with it? as my first book. Let's see how that goes.

Also, my application to college is nearly complete. I still need to provide proof of fluency in English, though.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Five alternate fantasy environments

1. Jungle

I’ve skimmed one fantasy novel – by James Barclay, I think – which had a scene in a rainforest. The lack of other novels in this kind of environment could be because of most authors’ unfamiliarity with jungles, but it could also be due to the nature of that environment.

I once trekked through a rainforest in Sri Lanka and reached a waterfall (you can see part of it in the photograph). That was lovely, but the path to the falls was uneven, thick with a slippery paste of rotting leaves and crawling with leeches. The trees were packed close together. Not exactly the kind of terrain that favors pitched battles, much less cavalry charges.

From everything I’ve read, real-life settlements in rainforests tend to be small, on the village level, but the jungle itself can be plentiful in food, water and medicinal products. A story set in such an environment would be different from the usual fantasy fare in many ways, and I’d look forward to reading it.

2. Arctic

When it comes to fantasy novels set in cold, snowy places, there are many more examples. J. V. Jones’s Sword of Shadows series, Elizabeth’s A. Lynn’s Dragon’s Winter and all the Night’s Watch sections of A Song of Ice and Fire. There’s still much more that could be done with this, though.

Most of the stories I’ve read that feature arctic environments have the characters either living on the surface of the land or in caves – i.e. trying to stay as warm and safe as possible. I’d love to read a fantasy with scenes set at the bottom of a crevasse – the one picture of this I found on Wikipedia is haunting – or with more glacial features like ice tongues or ribbon lakes.

3. Desert

I’ve read one book which was set in a desert, and that was a Forgotten Realms novel called The Parched Sea, which I picked up because of the title. Unfortunately I can’t remember anything else about it, and most of the other fantasies that feature desert scenes have the characters actively trying to get out of the desert (for which one can’t blame them) rather than living in it.

But… why not live in it? Even if the characters aren’t physically adapted to survive in a desert, they could have underground towns with systems to tap groundwater. And there could be unusual physical features in the desert as well, like sand crevasses or the Whirlwind – a sorcerous wall of wind and sand in Stephen Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen series.

4. Savannah

I can’t think of any fantasies which take place in an Africa-esque land, which was one reason I used this setting for The Mark of Vurth. The other reason is that it was just plain fun. Zebras instead of horses, cheetahs instead of wolves, monkey stew and cassava bread… great, now I want to write a sequel.

But there’s more to the setting than just the animals. Geographic features that you almost never see in more traditional fantasy environments are dry watercourses, rivers turned brown or white with silt and sediment and fossil-rich gorges. All of it waiting to be explored by fantasy writers.

5. Imagination

This is the undiscovered country. Speculative fiction gives us cities suspended in chains over an abyss, lashed together from a thousand ships, floating or in flight, in motion as they devour smaller settlements. Imagination rocks. Let yours run wild and come back with rich pickings.

Friday, January 2, 2009

Would you rather live…

…in a science fiction world or a fantasy one?

I saw this question on someone’s blog (can’t remember which it was now) and liked it a lot. The choice seemed easy – I’m nuts about fantasy, after all – but I had to justify it as well.

Science fiction often produces worlds in which it would be easier to live. I’d love to have a house like the one in Ray Bradbury’s “There Shall Come Soft Rains”, where meals are served automatically and little mechanical mice scurry out from the walls to do the cleaning. Robots could do heavy or repetitive work – or serve other functions, a la Jude Law in A. I., and I wouldn’t mind my morning commute being replaced with a transportation booth.

Oddly, although I like artificially intelligent computers, I’ve never wanted one. Maybe because my computer is associated with guilty pleasures like playing Civilization III when I should be writing.

Most fantasies, though, are set in medieval times, or at least in places without indoor plumbing and antibiotics. Especially if you’re in something written by Martin or Mieville, your life will probably be nasty, brutish and short (and in something written by me, you had better hope you don’t have some special magical ability, because you’ll have a big handicap or some really bad luck down the line to balance it out).

On the other hand, to me a fantasy world is a place of unlimited possibilities. Anything can happen there. That’s not to say they’re inconsistent; good fantasies adhere closely to their rules and don’t break their contract with the reader. But more things can happen in a fantasy than in a science fiction. Introduce magic into a science fiction background and it becomes a fantasy; introduce chemistry or railroads or even computers (e.g. the Construct Council) into a fantasy, and it remains a fantasy.

And then there’s the sheer coolness of fantasy, the dragons and unicorns and other strange creatures, the fascinating weapons and secret artifacts waiting to be discovered, the magic and the mystery. And the clothes are definitely a plus. Try wearing a lace and velvet concoction in a science fiction story. Most of the time, you’d look out of place. But in a medieval fantasy, you’d probably fit right in.

So those are my reasons for preferring to live in a fantasy world. Which one would you choose?