Friday, July 31, 2009

Hive minds

One of the first Doctor Who novelizations I ever read, years ago, was Terrance Dicks’ The Brain of Morbius, which begins with the crash-landing of an insectoid alien which belongs to a hivelike species. I still have the book.

Kriz came from a world where his insect-like species had evolved into the dominant race. Their deep-seated instincts for order, cooperation and selfless hard work had built a great civilization. Kriz, like all his people, existed only to serve the Race, which in turn was symbolized by the Nest and by the Great Mother, Goddess and Queen in one.

This was published in 1977, and it was the first time I’d encountered the concept of a hive mind. I found it utterly fascinating, and nearly cried when Kriz was decapitated on the very next page.

I didn’t think of writing about hive minds, though, until I read a post on New Adventures in Fantasy Fiction where Lee mentions that he’s thinking of having a hivemind in his work in progress, but is concerned that by making said hive mind evil would be a cliché. That started my brain ticking over.

Types of hive mind

There are two kinds of hive mind I’ve come across in speculative fiction. One is the kind where all are equal within the swarm or hive or collective, the other is where the group is more of an ant or termite colony with an individual being designated the queen/sole breeding female (or, much more rarely, the king or sole breeding male).

My preference for relatively mindness, animal-like hive species is the latter. Bees or naked mole rats or George R. R. Martin’s sandkings (from the brilliant novella of the same name) seem to function well with a division of labor. Queen, workers and soldiers.

On the other hand, when they’re sentient and humanoid species, I don’t really want to see a queen. For one thing, it’s difficult to have a humanoid queen maintaining the reproduction rate of her insectoid parallel. For another thing, there’s often a tendency to give the Queen a personality and have the protagonists interact with her – which means she becomes more of an individual. I like it when every creature in the hive has the same personality (or lack thereof), despite their different functions.

A great example of this is the Borg Queen of Star Trek: First Contact. I don’t really care if she’s a representation of the Borg that helps them interact with humans; she put a face on to the faceless Borg. And much of the fear of them was derived from that facelessness, their utter lack of individuality.

Good or evil?

If I were creating a hive mind I’d make them either neutral or good in some way, perhaps because of the Doctor Who book, where the hive mind is presented as a productive and moral species. Or maybe it’s just to go against the norm. Many societies these days value the rights of the individual highly, so an alien culture which does not do so (or one where are are no individuals) might well be seen as too different for us to peacefully coexist with.

Death swarms within this rocky wall,
Where all are one, one mind rules all.
Beneath the dead, the living strive
With mindless will to serve the Hive.
Emily Rodda, The Shifting Sands

If I went this route and made the hive mind an evil one – or at least a predatory amoral one, not necessarily the same thing – then I’d try to give them some aspect or ability or goal that distinguishes them. The Borg, when they first appeared in Star Trek: The Next Generation, were frightening because they didn’t want to kill people so much as to assimilate them.

“We are the Borg. Lower your shields and surrender your ships. We will add your biological and technological distinctiveness to our own. Your culture will adapt to service us. Resistance is futile.”
Star Trek: First Contact

Advantages and disadvantages

On the plus side, the creatures sharing a hive mind may be far less prone to neuroses and psychoses than those of us with more individuality. For instance, if someone with mental problems was assimilated by the Borg, the effects of this might be spread out through the Collective until they were diluted to the point of nonexistence, while the presence of so many other minds might have a calming effect on the newly assimilated Borg.

Creatures with a hive mind may also have access to a huge amount of information on which they’re able to draw at any given time. Imagine having your doctor’s knowledge of medicine or your accountant’s knowledge of bookkeeping, for instance.

What about disadvantages, though? One reason I didn’t like the ending of the film Reign of Fire was that by killing the one male dragon, the humans were able to knock out the entire species. Why don’t the dragons have a system similar to that of some insects, where the sole breeding female produces pheromones that inhibit the sexual development of others? That way, if she’s killed, the inhibitor is removed and a new queen (or king, in the dragons’ case) can develop.

“Hive mind” should not equal “evolutionary stupidity” or “evolutionary dead end”, for that matter. I really dislike stories where the hive is portrayed as inferior to individualism and humanity (unless the stories are called The Fountainhead or Atlas Shrugged). It’s a different system, that’s all.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Breaking the laws of physics

In and of itself, fantasy tends to break the laws of physics – for instance, with magic. So it sometimes takes a little more blatant and striking a twist to really catch readers’ attention, to give them a sense that this is a much stranger world than Ye Average Medievale Lande.

One way to do that is to not just break the laws of physics, but chase them down and ravish them senseless. Or to put it less floridly…

Perpetual-motion phenomena

These can’t happen in real life (though apparently people still submit proposals for perpetual motion machines to the US Patent and Trademark Office). They can be spectacular in fantasy, though. Imagine constant wild weather, such as the Whirlwind in Steven Erikson’s Malazan Books of the Fallen series, or the storm on Jupiter which is wider than the Earth’s diameter and has lasted for well over a hundred years.

Another twist would be to make such a feature mobile – such as a great, permanent fog or abyss that moves slowly and randomly across the map.

Temperature anomalies

Ice-cold pools in the desert. Rapids with fire substituted for water. I’m also inspired by Jacek Yerka’s art in this, such as his painting “Sun Spots” – since sunspots are a couple of thousand degrees cooler than their surroundings, the sunspot is actually part of the countryside, complete with trees, grass and a little pond surrounded by a wooden fence. Around that is a boiling blaze of hydrogen being fused. It’s a stunning image.

Negation of gravity or the flow of time

If you ever have a chance to look at the maps in the Edge Chronicles books, you’ll see a river which flows right off the edge of the world (hence the name). No need to plan out an alternative water cycle in a fantasy world. And the Edge Chronicles also feature huge rocks floating in the sky, one of them serving as the foundation of a city and tethered to the ground by a thick chain.

Make such features a normal part of the world, and it’ll be all the more fantastical as a result.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Pan's Labyrinth

I saw the trailer and clips of this movie on YouTube, and the Pale Man scene was riveting. I'm going to watch it if I can find a copy at the library.

The visuals look stunning, but it's the story which seems most intriguing - the power of myth and magic, the horror of the labyrinth's denizens (and those of the real world) against the courage of a child, and an ending which is sad and hopeful at once. If anyone else has seen it, what did you think?

Sunday, July 26, 2009

When The Sun Goes Down

Death is a mystery, and burial is a secret.
Stephen King, Pet Sematary

Actually, no. Not if you’ve read Betty Breuhaus’s When The Sun Goes Down: Planning the Funeral of Your Life (published by PublishingWorks, Inc; a trade paperback, $14.95).

The title intrigued me enough to request this book for review. Its take on after-death planning is detailed and respectful but not overly solemn; cartoons illustrate some well-known or amusing epitaphs, and there are pictures of unusual headstones. I especially like the one designed like a Scrabble board, with the player’s tiles spelling out “wemissu”.

There are also plenty of anecdotes about the ways in which people have eased or personalized the handling of the remains and the memorial services. I didn’t know that Hugh Hefner had reserved the burial plot next to Marilyn Monroe, so he could be next to the most beautiful woman in the world, but I’m not likely to forget that now.

The brisk and easy tone of the book strips any morbidity from the topic and demystifies the processes that we set into motion after death. From obituaries to alkaline hydrolysis to green cemetaries... it even contains pages at the back which can be filled in with notations on funeral homes, caskets, ethical wills, services and so on. And it encourages people to play an active role in what might otherwise be seen as a finality that cannot be influenced, much less controlled. You can still be present at your funeral, in other words, helping your family and friends to remember you and be comforted.

The sun does go down, but that’s when the stars come out. I enjoyed reading this book.

Friday, July 24, 2009


July 17 was Anti-Plagiarism Day.

I’m a week late and a dollar short, and the blog post to which I’ve linked, from Jane Smith’s “How Publishing Really Works”, sums up so many notorious cases of plagiarism in this industry that there’s not much I can add. But it did make me remember a case of plagiarism that I once encountered, years ago.

This was back when I used to post on the Internet Infidels Discussion Board under the handle “Queen of Swords”. A relatively new poster started a thread saying that one of her professors had asked to meet with her to discuss an essay she had handed in, and she was worried that she would be accused of plagiarism. She was adamant that she hadn’t done it, and put the text of her essay up on the discussion board for us to read.

Someone Googled a sentence or three from it. An article (written by someone else) showed up on the first page of hits, and matched the rest of the essay perfectly too.

The backlash against the poster was pretty severe, especially since many of us had originally reacted with sympathy. Someone even emailed the dean of her college with a link to the discussion. I’m still not sure why the student asked us for support when she knew she was in the wrong – perhaps she was in denial – but she had an explanation for why her essay was identical to the article. She’d copied the article off the web to use in research, and then she had mistaken it for the rough draft of her own essay and handed it in by mistake.


Plagiarism these days is all the more difficult to get away with. But also easier. On the one hand, it’s incredibly easy to enter text into a search engine and see what comes up. On the other hand, outside of an academic setting, plagiarism is more difficult to detect and identify. Plagiarists could, for instance, copy from out-of-print novels or (relatively) obscure articles, such as the one on black-footed ferrets which was plagiarized for a bodice-ripper.

It’s not as kinky as it sounds, honest.

Back when I had no money to buy a plane ticket to get out of the Middle East, I wrote some college application essays for a young man with more cash than spelling. I’m not proud of it, but I didn’t feel there was any other choice under those circumstances. Ripping off someone else’s writing wouldn’t be something I could do even then, though. Who would ever trust that anything I produced after that was my own work?

Plagiarism is just a bad thing all around.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

A Little Princess

"It's all very well to suppose things if you have everything," said Lavinia. "Could you suppose and pretend if you were a beggar and lived in a garret?"

One of my favorite books is Frances Hodgson Burnett’s riches-to-rags-to-riches story A Little Princess. It hooked me from the start, where seven-year-old Sara Crewe, meeting the greedy headmistress of her new boarding school for the first time, wonders why the woman is calling her beautiful. Sara is self-assured and intelligent, but doesn’t have any opinion whatsoever of her own looks.

And interestingly, this isn’t a chance for the author to show that Sara really is a beauty without knowing it. In fact, the story explicitly states that she looks like a Shetland pony when her dark hair falls around her face rather than being tied back, and her only really notable features are her eyes. That’s a great contrast to the titular character of Burnett’s Little Lord Fauntleroy, who’s as flawlessly perfect on the outside as he is in every other way.

I couldn’t stand him, but I liked Sara right away, especially after reading about her love of books, her imagination – vividly revealed in her telling of stories, her generosity and her courage in the face of adversity. Even after her father suddenly dies, leaving her a pauper and a servant in the boarding school, Sara struggles to remain a princess on the inside – kind to those who have less than she does, polite and proud and self-controlled, despite her hot temper and the harsh treatment she receives. She has no money and no hope of a future, but she has character, and that has been very appealing to a lot of readers.

So it’s no surprise that A Little Princess has been filmed – more than once, and there’s a televised version as well. I tried watching the 1939 film, but there were too many changes made to the original story (such as Captain Crewe being found alive), and Shirley Temple as Sara just did not work for me.

Then I watched the 1995 film. I’ll list its positives first.

1. The soundtrack includes a wonderful song called “Tyger Tyger”, with lyrics taken from the William Blake poem.

2. The plot of the film is interwoven with a story from the Ramayana, which was a very realistic touch, given that Sara grew up in India.

That was pretty much it, unfortunately. Everything else the televised series does better. But I’ll list a few of the problems I had with the film.

1. Someone seems to have told the actress who plays Sara that the way to project an expression of innocent wonder is to have one’s lips constantly parted. It’s a cute look for perhaps five seconds, but after that it comes off as mouth-breathing. In fact, “cute” is the most charitable way to describe this Sara, whereas in the book she seems more of an old soul, quaint and amusing but dignified.

2. In the novel, Sara befriends a scullery maid called Becky and buys food for her when she (Sara) has money. After she loses everything, Becky continues to be her friend and keeps treating her like a lady. I like that steadfast loyalty. In the end, when Sara regains her wealth and status, she sends for Becky and offers her a position as lady’s maid.

Now in Victorian England, that would have been a huge step up for Becky. Sure, she would still be one of the working class, but she would be in relatively easy service to a well-off young lady who would treat her more as a friend than a servant. The movie, however, tries to bring 1990s attitudes to a bygone age. Therefore Becky is black, but Sara sees beyond her skin color. I thought Sara was egalitarian enough already without her tacking racial issues.

And at the end, Sara and Becky become sisters. Perhaps it just wouldn’t have been as modern if Becky had become her personal maid.

3. Captain Crewe is found alive.

The first turning point of the novel is when Captain Crewe dies, leaving Sara an orphan and destitute. Sara believes her father’s best friend, Tom Carrisford, is responsible for this, since Carrisford convinced Captain Crewe to make some risky investments and then disappeared when the investments turned out to be worthless. In the novel, the investments eventually turn out to be very valuable. And Carrisford, now an invalid, tries to assuage his guilt as he searches for Sara.

That’s what I liked most about the happy ending of the book – the fact that Mr Carrisford and Sara slowly build a warm relationship. He provides for her and becomes a father figure, while she forgives him and helps him recover. There’s a sense that even though terrible things happen and beloved parents die, one can still pick up the pieces and be happy eventually.

To have Captain Crewe found alive is to negate all that. It presses a reset button and wraps everything up oh-so-neatly. And then the film has to show why he, aware of Sara’s whereabouts, didn’t help her sooner. So he’s given amnesia that’s cured right after he finds Sara, which is very convenient plot-wise.

4. Sara is not an action heroine.

I can’t stress this highly enough. In the novel Sara is a very strong person, but that’s courage and fortitude, not physical feats.

In the movie, she uses a plank as a makeshift bridge to cross over to another building – high above the ground, with the rain pouring down and the police after her to make the scene even more exciting. Then she slips. The plank falls. Sara catches the edge of the wet roof with her fingertips and hauls herself up. This is so far from Burnett’s heroine that I wouldn’t have been too surprised if she’d leapt into the air and kicked out while the camera revolved 360 degrees around her.

I like the subtlety of a person who fights back by making a deliberate effort to remain who she is and who she wants to be. There’s no need to give her a death-defying rooftop escape from the police. And they’re an addition of the movie as well, since it’s unbelievable that anyone would send four to five policemen after one eleven-year-old girl.

I guess the police knew she was an action heroine too.

5. "There are not many princesses, Miss Minchin, who are richer than your little charity pupil, Sara Crewe, will be.”

At the end of the novel, Miss Minchin learns that Sara is now wealthy again and of course, will not be returning to the boarding school. To lose such a source of income, and to perhaps have parents learn of how she treated Sara, is a huge blow for her.

So of course the movie had to turn drama into melodrama. At the end, Miss Minchin loses her entire establishment and becomes a chimney sweep, laboring along with a boy to whom she was cruel when she was the headmistress. The irony. I’m also not sure why she has a white skunk-streak in her hair. Coupled with her personality, it keeps reminding me of Cruella De Vil.

The best version of A Little Princess that I’ve seen is a 1986 TV serial that’s extremely faithful to the source material. It’s available on YouTube and I recommend it to anyone who loved the book.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Five fantasy art books

1. The Art of Rowena, by Rowena Morrill

Rowena Morrill’s paintings tend to be conventional, as far as fantasy goes, but they’re very well done and worth a look. She’s illustrated books for Anne McCaffrey, so she’s familiar with dragons, but my favorite is her painting of Isaac Asimov in a throne that illustrates his work. I love this one.

2. Mirage, by Boris Vallejo

Boris Vallejo’s art is blatantly erotic, but it is also very much fantastical. The people (mostly women) in his paintings are beautifully rendered, many of them having wings, scales, claws or other alterations, and there are other otherworldly elements such as tattoos that come to life, tiny imps and unicorn gazelles.

His backgrounds tend to be undetailed – they’re more of a wash of muted colors that makes the people or fantastic creatures stand out – but for great backgrounds, check out…

3. The Fantastic Art of Jacek Yerka, by Jacek Yerka

Jacek Yerka’s paintings tend to focus on places and scenery rather than people, and they’re relatively subtle. They rarely have vivid, grab-your-eye colors. But they’re incredibly detailed and just a pleasure to look at. You could lose yourself in those paintings – all but falling into the page – and each time you study them you’ll see something new.

Best of all, these paintings are imaginative and utterly surreal; for instance, take a look at the water maze.

More examples here. These keep inspiring me with ideas for my own work.

4. The Alien Life of Wayne Barlowe, by Wayne Barlowe

Wayne Barlowe does extraterrestrials (Expedition) and demons (Inferno) as well as fantasy creatures. All of them are imaginative down to the last detail: my favorite is the Villar, which is a giant human from the waist down and a castle, complete with multiple towers, in the other direction. In other words, a mobile home of the medieval fortress variety.

5. In Pursuit of the Unicorn, by Josephine Bradley

If you like unicorns, this book is a must-have for your library. As well as about a hundred different pictures of unicorns, there are some beautiful pieces of poetry in this book. And the paintings are lovely – a unicorn trapped in the maze of a roseblossom and a woman with a twisted horn growing from her forehead are the most memorable.

Friday, July 17, 2009

The latest from PublishAmerica

I enjoy reading about vanity presses, but there’s little to be said about many of these since they’re honest about what they are. They also tend to adopt a single method of being paid by authors (e.g. up front, through book sales, etc) and stick to that more or less faithfully.

In contrast, PublishAmerica frequently attempts new tricks and tactics. Most of these are fascinating from a psychological perspective, and I have to give PA credit for sheer inventiveness; there is nothing that this author mill seems unwilling to try when it comes to getting money out of the unfortunate writers who sign up with them.

PA’s business model revolves around selling books to writers, which they do by sending weekly emails offering discounts on bulk purchases of these overpriced books. The shipping and handling for the first book is $4.99, with $2.99 for each additional book. As a PA author puts it,

But it's $4 book shipping. The shipping is a killer.

And it by no means stops there. First there was the auction for advertising space in the backs of other books.

Then there was the sale of framed royalty checks.

Then PA offered hardcover and large-print versions of books. Naturally, many authors were delighted at this news and eager to order copies, especially since hardcovers were the same price as paperbacks. Their joy didn’t last for long, though.

Well I tried ordering a few hardcovers of my book today and was told that I couldn't order any unless it was 9 or more!I think this is a big mistake because,I know everybody would buy at least one of each of their books!

It’s not as cost-effective to PA to sell one or two books at a time. That’s also why there were (and probably still are) problems with ordering hardcover books directly from PA.

On another note, has anyone noticed we can't get to the hardcovers on the PA site? I could yesterday, then when i tried today, it seemed to have disappeared. I'm hoping the site is just "under maintenance"

Let’s not get into what the shipping and handling costs for hardcovers might be. PA claimed that the prices of hardcovers will go up this week, though whether this is true or a ploy to make writers rush to purchase copies isn't clear. Authors do get regular emails offering them a small number of free hardcover books if they order paperbacks in bulk – s & h not included, of course. But then came the most recent twist.

Did anyone get the PA message about changing to a 1-900 to order books? Have any ideas of the $ $ $ that is going to cost? I have never used such a number- very disappointed.

PA’s response was that they would now have a help desk with a 1-900 number, so authors will have to pay to speak to a real person. However, authors can still order books for free.

Future book purchases can be made online, at no phone cost at all, using a special code that will be made available to all authors.

Why won’t this special code be made available to bookstores and readers? Because PA doesn’t want to sell to bookstores and readers, only to authors, and will use any opportunity, no matter how small, to force authors to buy books.

I am in the middle of working on trying to get someone to buy out my contract. The only problem is, I have to retype my book because I lost my original and PA won't send me a new electronic file. They will if I purchase more than 8 copies and then buy the e-book. I don't want an e-book.

I think of this as the vanity press version of the Death of a Thousand Cuts. In and of itself, each individual email or tactic might not result in mondo profits, but put them together and multiply them by the number of writers on whom PA preys, and it amounts to a lot. And since writers don’t even get the two free copies that they used to – PA has discontinued this practice – they nearly always end up buying copies of their own books just to see the product of their labor.

By now there are numerous warnings about PA. Writers still sign up, though – partly because they may not be aware of these problems and partly because the idea of seeing their work in print so easily and at no (initial) cost to them is too strong to resist. But that worm is on the end of a very sharp hook. And PA will keep coming up with ways to bleed whatever is caught on the end of that hook.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

More thoughts on names

Since my last post was on names that don’t work for me, I thought I’d write a little about names that do. As GunnerJ mentioned, most of those in George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire are well-chosen, especially when it comes to indicating familial relationships. Considering how many characters appear in these novels, the idiosyncratic naming conventions of some of those families help readers to remember who belongs where.

On the other hand, Martin is still careful to distinguish the most important individuals within those families. So even though the Targaryens past have used names like Rhaella, Rhaenyra and Rhaenys, the last Targaryens are called Rhaegar, Viserys and Daenerys. The connections between their names are still clear, but it’s much less likely that the names will blend into each other.

Similarly, although the Frey family often names sons “Walder”, they’re distinguished with some addition to the name. Hence characters such as Big Walder, Little Walder, Black Walder, Red Walder, Bastard Walder and so on.

Speaking of nicknames, these can be tricky. I recently read a story where an alien had a nickname based on the initials of his names after they were translated into English, which would have been fine except for the whole “alien” part. There was no conceivable reason why he would have accepted such a nickname, since he wasn’t at all interested in human culture or trying to blend in.

The antagonist of Dean Koontz’s The Bad Place has a much more interesting nickname. He’s a vicious, unstoppable monster (the antagonist, not Dean Koontz), but a flashback shows that his mother doted on him and called him her “little candy boy” when he was a child. The nickname stuck but grew shorter, so now he’s Candy.

I like this because the origin of the nickname is realistic. And “Candy” is not in and of itself an intended-to-frighten “Look at me, I’m eeeeevil!” moniker – it’s light-hearted and cute, until you read about the sadistic crimes Candy commits. Then his personality brings depth and weight to the nickname, not the other way around. Unfortunately, newer Koontz villains like Vladimir Laputa don’t have that much subtlety and contrast.

Many characters in fantasies have fairly complex names - elves in Tolkien’s novels, for instance - so I like to see these contrasted with shorter, crisper names that may also be easier to remember. One thing I’d avoid doing, though, is restricting such shorter names to an arbitrary number of letters unless there’s a good reason for this. In James Barclay’s Chronicles of the Raven novels, all Protectors have three-letter names, which makes them seem simplistic. And it wasn’t clear whether this was a custom of their society or an authorial decision.

Choosing the best names, according to the bible, is the first thing humans ever did. Maybe that’s why it’s still so much fun. :)

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Five more names that don’t work for me

My main peeve with fantasy names is the sort of name exemplified by Jaelle, Lissar, Aerin, and of course Krystalynne. They sound like names I would have liked when I was five years old and wanted to be a unicorn when I grew up. Very few real names have this sort of prettiness, and that might be because it gets cloying.

1. The Evil Emperor Zurg

I recently read a query for a fantasy novel. The protagonists’ names were something like Jeffrey and Lydia, while the antagonist was called Zarg.

This is going to seem like a parody no matter how you slice it (and the query gave the impression that it was a serious heroic fantasy). Worse, it seems like a heavy-handed parody. And it comes off as a throwback to the early days of space operas where the hero always had a wholesome, All-American name while the villain always had something vaguely foreign-sounding that includes the letters Z, X and possibly Q.

The only way I could see this succeeding would be if the writer showed very clearly that these names were selected with tongue in cheek and with the writer being fully aware of their implications, but using them in an insightful or amusing way. Maybe names in the characters’ world have status based on the initial letters, so slaves’ names always begin with an A while emperors and gods have Z names.

2. Nammmes that are diffficult to pronnnounce

It should have been enough of a warning when I read of an alien race called the “V'ornn” in Eric Van Lustbader’s The Ring of Five Dragons. Repeated consonant, check. Apostrophe in the middle of the name, check. But I kept reading and found names like “Rekkk” and “Wennn Stogggul”.

I’m not sure there’s any way to pull off a naming system like this. The best that could be said of it is that it’s consistent and it’s not something encountered on Earth. Other than that, I think it’s better not to make the reader have to consult the pronunciation guide in the back of the book.

The first time I read Tolkien, I didn’t know that Celeborn was pronounced with a hard C – i.e. “Keleborn”. But I didn’t need to stop reading to figure out how to mentally say the name. And when I read up on pronunciation, it was out of interest in Tolkien’s world rather than because that was the only way to continue reading the book.

3. Moniker indicates alignment

I’ve read books where an evil female character was called Malice (Homeland, R. A. Salvatore) and Mallice (Duncton Found, William Horwood). Then, because I obviously wasn’t thinking too much, I named an antagonist Malis.

This could still work for me, but only in the right context – in a relatively traditional fantasy and when the names are kept subtle. I’d rename “Malis”, for instance, because that signals to readers that this is an evil, evil person. And although she can be, I want readers to see matters from her point of view as well, which won’t be easy with a name that proclaims a quality quite so loudly.

4. Weird nicknames

In Shirley Conran’s Tiger Eyes, the heroine and her husband (who are white and Anglo-Saxon if not Protestants) are called Plum and Breeze.

Even given that these are nicknames, each time I read them they reminded me of haiku. Normally I like exotic names for heroines when I read erotic romances or sex-and-shopping novels. Pagan (Lace, Shirley Conran), Jazz (Dazzle, Judith Krantz) and Blaze (Blaze Wyndham, Bertrice Small) sound fine. More than that, they sound exciting and vivid.

But Plum? Makes me think of a plump, motherly type taking a pie out of the oven. Either that or a character in Cluedo.

5. The Corleones vs. the Harrises

I can’t remember whether I read this in a query letter or a published novel, but it was an organized crime family with the last name of Harris.

Is it possible to have a realistic Mafia clan with the last name of Harris? I suppose so. In the hands of a skilled enough writer, anything’s possible. But really, aren’t there enough challenges already in creating the suspension of disbelief without adding to them?

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

The X and Y of Buy

I confess to being very fond of shopping. When I saw that Thomas Nelson had a new release on why and how men and women make decisions on purchases, I requested it right away through the Book Review Bloggers program, and settled down for what I hoped would be an entertaining as well as illuminating read.

According to Elizabeth Pace’s The X and Y of Buy, women and men operate differently on a psychological level – caused by genetics, by brain structure and chemistry, by millions of years of evolution – and one expression of this is the way that they shop. The book is structured to provide help and advice for salespeople to deal with both kinds of customers.

A man’s approach tends to be direct and finely-focused, while a woman’s approach is more likely to be holistic, taking several factors into account. This is illustrated by a Cautionary Tale of a BMW salesman who tried to sell a car to the author, but dismissed her question about the cupholder, or lack thereof. To him, the important things were the car’s design and performance – the driving experience, in other words. To her, all the other experiences she would have while driving were as important.

And of course, she didn’t like her concern being trivialized.

The book also describes how successful advertising appeals in different ways to men and women. For instance, many ads aimed at men focus on conquering one’s environment. Ads aimed at women, on the other hand, focus on successfully integrating the different parts of a woman’s environment – job and family and self and community.

Finally, the book covers ways in which to communicate when selling to men and women (e.g. whether to nod in agreement or acknowledgment, allow the buyer private time to make a decision and so on). I would have liked a few more memorable examples like the BMW salesman, though. I’m not a businessperson, so I can’t evaluate the book from that perspective, but from a layperson’s point of view, it was an interesting enough read.

When I read books on business, I often try to relate the advice in them to writing (because to me that’s the most entertaining business of all). And one suggestion leaped out at me: an easy way to make sure your product or presentation stays in the customer’s mind is to make them feel strongly about it. Try to make your book or story have an emotional effect on the readers, in other words.

This is something writers of fiction do on a regular basis, but it also applies with non-fiction. Perhaps even more so, if the writers want to reach readers who may not share their interest in a topic or their position on a controversial issue.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Life, not as we know it

I’ve often written about ways to make humanoid creatures as alien and intriguing as possible. But what about creatures which aren’t humanoid, which don’t look like anything we know or expect?

Life not as know it, in other words.

What inspired this post was the trailer for Aeon Flux. I’ve been warned not to watch this movie, but something in the trailer fascinated me – the swarm of ball-bearings that rolls purposefully down a corridor, stacks against a door and blasts it open. I couldn’t help wondering if they were alive. Sentient, even. Were they a group made up of individuals or one mind in several small, identical, spherical bodies?

Wayne Barlowe’s Expedition is another rich motherlode when it comes to truly alien creatures. Barlowe deliberately designed the organisms of the planet Darwin IV to be very different from those of earth, so none of them have eyes. I find myself looking at their heads and searching for a point of reference, something to meet my gaze, but there’s nothing of the sort. Many of them are also monopedal or tripedal – another fascinating difference.

And while I don’t remember anything else about Samuel Delany’s City of a Thousand Suns, I think there was a council scene featuring creatures with thirty-foot eyestalks, beings composed of crystal and others consisting entirely of sound. Whether this is feasible or not, it produced a visual image that’s remained in my head for nearly twenty years now.

It also makes me imagine even more unusual substances that could make up the bodies of such creatures. What about fire? Allow the fire – whether it be a candle’s flame or in a fireplace – to go out, and the creature ceases to exist.

Or rock… no, better yet, mountains. Gives a new meaning to “the hills are alive”. If the mountains of a land were alive, opening their eyes so high above the world that all they saw were clouds, what would they be like? Slow to speak and decide, rather like Ents, since they’ve lived for millions of years and aren’t going anywhere?

Or what if that substance only produced sentience and intelligence when enough of it was gathered together to cross a certain threshold? So a handful of sand – just enough to fill an hourglass – might understand and obey basic commands, but an entire garden of sand would be more than capable of carrying on an intelligent conversation with you. And a desert… well, that would be the silicon equivalent of Stephen Hawking.

Graham Masterton’s Edgewise features the Wendigo, which is two-dimensional, hence the title. This characteristic enables it to slip under locked doors and disappear whenever it stands edgewise. When it stalks the heroine, she’s only able to catch a glimpse of it (and take it aback) by setting up an arrangement of mirrors that reflects it no matter which way it turns. I’d love to see the same thing done with shadows. Shapeless creatures made of shade would be fascinating.

Life, not as we know it.

Friday, July 3, 2009

Five fun things to do with villains

I enjoyed reading the Evil Overlord list when I first saw it years ago, and I’ve always wanted the antagonists of a story to be as intelligent, resourceful, creative and tough as possible. The higher the dice are stacked against the protagonist, the more enthralled the readers will be. With that in mind, here are a few interesting things that could be done with villains.

1. Have him save the heroes at the start.

This could happen before he knows that they’re going to work against him or pose a challenge to him. While he might later be frustrated to realize that he inadvertently helped his enemies, it’s likely to create a problem for the heroes too, since now they’re in his debt. And they’ll lose reader sympathy if they don’t acknowledge what he did.

2. Give him someone he genuinely likes and admires.

This isn’t the Mad Scientist’s Beautiful Daughter, or the James Bond villain’s cat – these are more like prized possessions, stereotypical status symbols who tend to be kept safe from harm. Instead this is a friend or subordinate, preferably the latter since this means the antagonist will have to order him out on missions or assignments, any of which could be his last.

The death of the antagonist’s loyal officer or trusted confidant will carry much more of a punch than a hundred nameless redshirts being wiped out.

3. Let him perform small, casual acts of mayhem or malice.

Make these as amusing as possible, and the readers will perk up the moment the antagonist is on stage. Some villains get sarcastic comebacks, but few of them get to do funny, petty things like using a little magic on the beautiful heroine’s portrait to make one of her breasts look bigger than the other (no, that’s not from any fantasy that’s been written yet; I just thought it up for this post).

4. Give him some unusual detail of appearance or object.

In Tanith Lee’s Delusion’s Master, Chuz, the lord of madness, keeps the jawbones of an ass and uses them as a ventriloquist’s aid, sometimes carrying on a conversation with them. That kind of thing is unforgettable.

5. Make him really, really attractive.

Even when villains are physically appealing, the heroes and heroines are never attracted to them. Either they sense the darkness lurking beneath the fair exterior or they’re so much in True Love with a good person that the villain’s appearance never sways them.

But what if it does? That’s one thing I liked about Matthew Woodring Stover’s debut novel Iron Dawn; when the heroine meets the villain for the first time, she’s literally dry-mouthed and blushing because he’s so handsome. He’s a murderer, a rapist and a pedophile, true. But he’s got amazing beauty and physical presence, and she can’t help feeling the effects of those.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

How should writers respond to reviews?

Alice Hoffman’s recent, uh, response to a review made me think about writers and negative reviews, and there’s a question I’d like to ask anyone reading this.

We all know that the best response to a review is “Thank you”. Reacting to a negative review by becoming angry or defensive – or worse, trying to enlist fans or fellow authors against the reviewer – won’t change the fact that the reviewer didn’t like the book. It won’t produce good reviews to counteract the negative one. It’ll just establish the author as someone who behaves in a less than professional manner, someone who can’t take the heat.

But what’s the best response if a reviewer misunderstood something factual in the book, or made an error? As a very crude example, let’s say that your character does a firewalk, pacing barefoot over a layer of hot coals. A review says that this couldn’t happen without your character’s feet being burned.

In reality, though, people can do this and escape serious injury because the coals are covered by a thin layer of ash that doesn’t conduct heat. As long as the people are walking briskly, it doesn’t hurt them.

So, would you respond and mention this, or include a link to the information?

On a concluding note, yesterday I reviewed a novel printed by the infamous PublishAmerica, and my review was pretty blunt about the problems that an actual publisher should have corrected. The author responded to thank me and let me know he found the review helpful. That’s a classy, professional response, and I hope his next book does very well.