Friday, December 31, 2010

Deep Blue Sea


I’ve been afraid of sharks ever since I watched Jaws, but it took a less well known work of Peter Benchley’s – a short story called The Day The Sharks Died – to make me fascinated by them. Now I’m convinced that sharks get a far worse rap than they deserve.

And nowhere is this more obvious than in the film Deep Blue Sea, though to be fair, nearly everyone in it is a nonentity or a caricature. The sharks just get treated the same way as the rest of the characters, that’s all.

But to start at the beginning, the premise of this film is that a scientist, Dr. Susan McAlester, is extracting serum from mako sharks’ brains to cure Alzheimer’s. As scientists always do in bad horror movies, though, she can’t leave well enough alone and so she genetically engineers sharks with bigger brains that produce more serum.

All together now : “She tampered in God’s domain.”

Naturally, that makes the sharks superintelligent and the scientist considerably less so. Seriously, who would do this without building in some kind of failsafe mechanism, like the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park all being female and lysine-deficient?

I did like Aquatica, the research facility out in the midst of the ocean. Communications tower, undersea labs, a huge pool for the sharks, security cameras, crawlways and so on… this place could have been used to tell a much better story.

This one, though, is dead in the water. Take the sharks, another CGI creation that had the potential to be far more. In Jaws, one ordinary shark was enough. This film multiplies that by three and makes them superintelligent too. One shark causes a helicopter to crash, while another turns on an oven when the cook is hiding inside (one of the few good scenes). And while they don’t yet understand the concept of electricity, they’re real good at playing keepaway.

But even their murderous nature is a predictable trope. Why is it that any time an animal becomes intelligent, that flips a switch to either HELP HUMANS (if the animal is a dog or a dolphin) or KILL HUMANS (if the animal is anything else)? The sharks would have been so much more fascinating if they had had their own non-human-focused agenda – or if escape was more important to them than swimming into narrow little corridors looking for humans to eat.

Ah, the corridor scenes. Yes, it’s very suspenseful when you’re wading through waist-deep water in a long corridor, and you look back to see a fin rippling towards you.

Of course, then you wonder just how tiny this shark is, if it’s perfectly at home in water that’s three feet deep – not to mention filthy and full of floating or submerged debris. There was probably a reason that the Jaws attacks took place in the ocean, rather than in, say, a swimming pool.

Finally there’s the heroine. Other than the stereotype of the mad scientist, she has so little personality and affect that she seems in need of that magically fast-acting brain juice herself. And since she caused the whole mess, I expected her to be eaten by the sharks, but she survives until the end and then sacrifices herself in a completely needless gesture. If the last surviving shark will abandon its plans of escape and race back into danger the moment it smells her blood (so much for superintelligence), why does she need to cut herself and leap into the water? She could have held her cut hand over the edge and pushed a heavy piece of debris in.

But by then the audience was probably sick of her. The two surviving characters certainly were – a few minutes later, after the last shark audibly chomps her and dies, they lie back and chuckle in relief. I know how you feel, guys. The appearance of the closing credits was the best part of this film.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

What was your favorite Christmas present?

This was mine!

Gone with the Wind is my favorite novel and this is my third copy of it. Hopefully the one I'll end up keeping.

My first copy was the one I got when I was fifteen. I read it so many times that the book fell apart, and no amount of Scotch tape would keep it together.

My second copy stayed with me for several years, until I started tutoring a student in English Literature. She wanted to read more but wasn't sure where to start, so I gave her my copy of GWTW and we watched the film together.

After that I didn't have a copy of my favorite novel. I would eventually have bought myself one, but there are some books ahead of it on my to-obtain list - books that I haven't read twenty times over. So I was surprised and thrilled when a friend gave me a copy (she also gave me a Transformer, but GWTW edged that out).

What was your favorite gift?


Also, final grades for the semester arrived in time for Christmas!

Clinical Chemistry : A
Clinical Microbiology and Infectious Diseases : A
Hematology : A
Transfusion Science : A-

So that was nice too. :)

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Strong heroines

Most of the readers who reviewed Before the Storm said they liked the strong female characters. I'm happy about that, and it made me think about how strength is expressed in fictional female characters.

I’ve always liked books with tough heroines, even when they're in the middle of an all-male cast – Hyzenthlay in Watership Down and Petra Arkanian in Ender's Game. A female character doesn’t have to be the star of the show to be strong, and she can make mistakes, as Petra does after Ender depends too heavily on her at the end of the book.

In fact, it’s much better if she makes mistakes and gets hurt for it. Invulnerability means the readers are never going to care about her as much as if she really gets hurt. While I enjoyed Jacqueline Carey’s Kushiel's Dart otherwise, I soon realized that the heroine, Phedre, could get raped, beaten and burned with a hot poker without this detracting in any way from her beauty or having a psychological effect on her.

Strong also doesn’t mean unfeminine. There are novels where the heroine is so focused on being intelligent or being in charge that she ends up frumpish and unattractive. It’s one thing for a woman not to be interested in fashion, or to not have the time and money to take care of her appearance if she’s got other priorities. But that’s not the same as the stereotype that a woman can be clever or pretty, but not both.

And I prefer heroines who are strong rather than feisty. Feisty always makes me think of someone who stamps her foot while claiming she can take care of herself. The really brave characters, like Melanie in Gone with the Wind, don’t need to tell anyone that they’re strong. They just do what it takes, whether that’s giving their wedding rings to a cause or struggling up after childbirth to defend their loved ones.

And what made Melanie so three-dimensional and realistic was that she followed her society’s norms otherwise – she was modest and shy, deferred to her husband and loved being a mother.

Especially in fantasies set in medieval lands, overly feminist women will stand out. It’s more believable to have them challenge one norm than several. If a woman supports her family, is the head of a business, is single but has several lovers, and beats up an assassin, it’s going to be very unrealistic.

What are the ways in which your heroines are strong?

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Bad Fate

The idea of a character predestined to do something fascinates many people, but in fantasy there seems to be more Good Fate than Bad Fate.

Good Fate is when you’re the Chosen One, though the writer may make up other names for it. The world saw you coming before you were ever conceived, gave you special powers, a great destiny, a magical sword and maybe a birthmark to show everyone that you deserved all of it.

Bad Fate is when you’re picked or destined to do something which is likely to result in a horrible death. And even if you live, you’re not going to be very happy.

I can see why there’s more of the former, and that’s not entirely sarcastic. If you’re a soothsayer called in to make a pronouncement regarding the newborn heir to a kingdom, it may not be politic to declare that he will die in ignominy. And if there’s anything written from the point of view of such a fortune-teller, someone who sees a terrible fate but doesn’t dare make it public, I’d love to read it.

Characters often try to get around Bad Fate, especially if they have a glimpse of how their lives might have been otherwise. I enjoyed The Last Temptation of Christ for that reason. Ironically, they end up doing whatever it was they were trying to avoid, just as in the “Appointment in Samarra” fable.

A merchant in Baghdad sent his servant to the market. The servant returned, trembling, and said, “I was jostled in the market, turned around, and saw Death. Death made a threatening gesture, and I fled in terror. May I take your horse? I can leave Baghdad and ride to Samarra, where Death will not find me.”

The master lent his horse to the servant, who rode away to Samarra. Later the merchant went to the market, and saw Death in the crowd. “Why did you threaten my servant?” he asked.

Death replied,”I did not threaten your servant. It was merely that I was surprised to see him here in Baghdad. You see, I have an appointment with him tonight, in Samarra.”

Sidney Sheldon’s A Stranger in the Mirror uses this technique very effectively, by beginning with a description of a strange scene on board a luxury liner. A wedding was supposed to take place on board but the bridegroom has just left on a motorboat. The projector in the theatre is warm even though no films were scheduled for that night. And on the tiered cake, someone has twisted off the head of the bride.

Then the story goes back to the beginning and events build up slowly and inevitably to the climax. The heroine struggles fiercely to make a happy and secure life for herself and almost gets it. But everything is shattered at the end, partly as a result of her own actions. The last line of the book is that there is nothing but the sea and the sky “and the stars above, where it had all been written.”

Fate plays a great role in mythology and the classics. I loved stories like Oedipus’s and Perseus’s for that reason; both were fated to kill their fathers, who sent them away after learning of that destiny. Naturally, patricide happened anyway.

It’s almost a given in fiction that the moment a character is given such a Bad Fate, that’s going to happen, since it’s usually an anticlimax for the character to either find an easy way around it or for there to be a mistake in the proclamation. That contributes to the horror, since many modern societies tend to support the right of the individual to choose his or her own lives (insofar as capability allows), rather than being controlled and doomed by some arbitrary pronounciation.

It’s possible to evoke some of the horror while not necessarily having a doomed main character, if the curse is something that can be overcome. In J. V. Jones’s A Cavern of Black Ice, there are powerful and malevolent creatures who were imprisoned thousands of years ago. But someone who can free them has been born. Her name is Ash March, her power is growing and it will consume her unless it’s released – which will, of course, doom the world.

Special abilities that people wish they never had are always fun.

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Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Song of Kali

Of all Dan Simmons’s novels, Song of Kali is my favorite. Not just because it takes place in India and features a nightmarish goddess, but because of the twist near the end. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

The story begins when Robert Luczak receives news that his editor wants him to find out about a prominent Indian poet, M. Das. Everyone believed Das was dead, but he has since resurfaced (literally, as it turns out). Luczak’s Indian-born wife and their seven-month-old daughter go with him to Calcutta to meet the poet.

It’s a fairly low-key start, but the story quickly spirals down into what happened to Das, which involves suicide and resurrection at the (multiple) hands of Kali. And Kali herself is unforgettable. I’d seen a picture of her before, but the book goes into vivid, disturbing detail to show something that is part woman and part demon and part overwhelming, unstoppable force that permeates everything down to the human heart.

She was power incarnate, violence personified, unfettered even by the bonds of time which held other gods and mere mortals in check.

In the sweltering, smoky night-heat of Calcutta, Luczak learns of this goddess – at first from word of mouth and later up close and personal. A theme of this book is that behind all the purposeless violence in the world is the purpose of Kali. And that violence will touch Luczak’s family in a way he never expected, and can’t prevent.

The descriptions of Calcutta aren’t beautiful, but they make for an realistically oppressive atmosphere. Life there tends to be nasty, brutish and short. The snippets of poetry in the book are well-written, but they tend to be on the dark side as well.

But the book ends on a hopeful note as well, the acknowledgment that no matter how pervasive the Song of Kali, there are other songs to be sung. All in all, this is a very thoughtful take on evil – or more relevantly, on senseless cruelty and meaningless violence. It’s much, much more than just a horror novel.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Final exams

I started to write something about finals, since I'm mired in them right now, and then had the feeling that there was a speculative fiction story somewhere called "Final Exam".

A few minutes of searching through the personal library found not the actual story, but a copy of The Issue at Hand, a collection of essays, critiques and reviews by James Blish under the pseudonym of William Atheling, Jr. The "Final Exam" in question is dissected in the essay titled "One Completely Lousy Story, With Feetnote". Atheling's take on it is both scholarly and scathing, and will scare anyone off using too many euphemisms for "said".

It's also an easier read than anticoagulant therapy, which is why I was thinking of that rather than the hematology exam on Monday.

But on a more pleasant note, there's a wonderful writeup on Before the Storm by Maldivian Book Reviewer, who enjoyed the book's heroine.

Beautiful, capable, strong and with a mind of her own, Alexis is a heroine I loved right from the very beginning.

The book got an A-. Cross your fingers that I'll do at least as well in the finals.

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Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Five uses for mushrooms in fantasy

This is inspired by Polenth’s blog. I like how followers are spores, agents/editors are mushrooms and writers are toadstools.

1. As defenses

While I don’t read R. A Salvatore any longer, I enjoyed his novel Homeland because of the detailed descriptions of the underground city of Menzoberranzan. Since the city is mostly lightless, gardens are filled with fungi, which don’t photosynthesize.

Some of the fungi serve defensive purposes as well – scattered among the regular mushrooms are shriekers. Those respond to movement by letting out a loud scream and alerting everything in the vicinity.

Other fungi can be adapted for defense as well. A carpet of defensive puffballs could explode in infective spores if stepped on, or might release stinking fluids if stepped on.

2. As shelters

I once read that a fungus weighing close to the mass of an adult blue whale had been discovered in Michigan. Much of this is likely to be the underground part of the fungus, the mycelium, but it made me imagine giant fruiting bodies above the surface. Would it be possible for people to live in those?

Assuming that the fruiting body (the mushroom part of the fungus) didn’t die, such a home would be slowly self-renewing. It might also break down its inhabitants’ wastes, making them symbiotes rather than parasites. Some mushrooms are edible and could be an emergency food source for their inhabitants, but others are poisonous.

Those might be prisons.

3. As symbionts

Brian Aldiss’s Hothouse is set on a future Earth which has become overgrown with giant plants, but one of the more dangerous inhabitants is a sentient fungus called the morel. It attaches itself to the head of one of the characters and communicates mentally with him.

In that novel, the morel’s motives were entirely self-serving, but the connection could be symbiotic as well. A person might have a mold growing over part of his body, which would be disfiguring but would also continually supply him with natural antibiotics – a valuable asset for a healer in a medieval world ravaged by disease.

But if you want to go in the opposite direction, that’s possible as well. Some fungi can cause brain infections, so what about a fungus that takes over people’s brains completely and turns them into mobile fruiting bodies that disseminate its spores over great distances?

4. As hallucinogens

I read once that Alice in Wonderland was written after Lewis Carroll had experiemented with hallucinogenic mushrooms, and had realized just how they can distort time and sensory perception. In medieval worlds without access to modern chemical laboratories, people might resort to such fungi to experience hallucinations or undergo “mind expansion”.

5. As decoration

People wear flowers on their lapels or in their hair. Why not mushrooms? Some of those are very decorative and colorful.

And those people certainly wouldn’t be the first characters in speculative fiction to wear something edible on their lapels. The fifth Doctor Who wore a stalk of celery, and it was for a useful purpose, since the celery would turn purple if exposed to certain gases in the atmosphere.

Image from here :

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Well, now I've heard it all

People justify e-book piracy in all kinds of ways, but this one is the best ever.

What if someone in an impoverished nation illegally downloads a book? What if in the process of reading that book that individual is profoundly changed? What if that profound impact moves that person in such a manner that they in turn spread that impact to others?

It's bad enough when someone steals from you. But it's adding insult to injury when they try to make this seem like a good thing. Piracy is stealing, not a Rosa Parks-esque act of rebellion against The Man that will eventually make the world a better place, for you and for me and the entire human race.

As for the what-if story, I was hoping the profound change wrought in the hypothetical e-book pirate would be a realization that they had deliberately defrauded the author who wrote the book and the publisher who produced it. Then they could decide never to do it again, and would encourage others to buy their e-books legally.

That would be a happy ending for everyone.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Happily Ever After Reviews on "Before the Storm"

What a wonderful way to start the day! Check out this recommended read: adult romance about people who are flawed, scarred, burdened, and terribly terribly remarkable. I loved them and I loved this book. I see that it is a trilogy and I am fascinated to see where it will go from here.

And in other news...

Yesterday I took the Canadian citizenship test. It was twenty multiple choice questions, with the passing mark being fifteen. The questions ranged from amazingly simple ("What was the significance of the discovery of insulin?") to the kind you'd better have studied for ("Which province provides the most hydroelectricity?").

Citizenship and Immigration Canada will inform me in three to five months if I've passed, and when that happens I'll be invited to take the oath. After that I can get a Canadian passport, which will be a very good thing since my Sri Lankan passport expired in 2007 and I never bothered to renew it.

And then the world's mine oyster, which I with sword will open. :)

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Resources for speculative fiction writers

1. Action Central

A great collection of links about writing action scenes. Myths about martial arts, the reality of sword-fighting and even Poul Anderson’s famous “On Thud and Blunder” essay – it’s all here.

2. Planets for Man

Co-authored by Stephen Cole and Isaac Asimov, this book is available as a free pdf and discusses the properties of planets with regard to whether or not humans can first reach and then survive on them.

3. Horror Factor

An excellent collection of online articles offering tips, advice and information on what’s been done to death already. No pun intended. I don’t write in this genre, but some of these suggestions would be useful to any writer wanting to build suspense.

Horror writers use many techniques to heighten the terror in their work. One of my favorites is the bottleneck.

Happy reading!


Also, if you haven't yet read Before the Storm but would like to, Happily Ever After Reviews is offering the e-book as a giveaway. Just become a follower and leave a comment to enter!

Saturday, November 27, 2010

What happens after you die?

For the purposes of this post, I’m going to assume that after a person dies, that’s it. Their mind and personality cease to exist in any form and what remains is a corpse - ruling out regeneration, reincarnation and so on. I’m also going to assume that said corpse isn’t going to be reanimated, so no zombies.

But there are a lot of other things that can happen to corpses. In Margaret Weis’s and Tracy Hickman’s DragonLance novels, I always enjoyed reading about the draconians, because they gave rise to such interesting effects when they died. Bronze draconians explode, brass ones turn to stone (trapping any weapons that might be impaling them) and copper ones turn to pools of acid.

Such things could happen to humans or humanoid creatures as well. It’s an advantage for your corpse to cause damage to whoever kills you. Bodies could turn to clouds of poisonous gases, become white-hot or metamorphose into swarms of stinging insects.

Corpses might also turn into something neutral – ashes, salt, ice, metal, etc (reminds me of the story of Lot’s wife turning into a pillar of salt). I like the idea of a cadaver turning to beautiful crystal. And it would be interesting to see their society’s attitude to the use of materials obtained from such post-mortem events.

Or they might give rise to new organisms, depending on how they died. Drowning turns them into fish or merfolk, while being burned alive makes them into salamanders.

What if bodies didn’t decompose? They don’t have to, in a fantasy world. They might still be vulnerable to fire and acid and so on; they just wouldn’t decompose of their own accord. And they might then be stored away safely as-is if the person’s family can afford it.

If they can’t, on the other hand, the corpses are going to be used for other purposes. For instance, they might make good habitats for other organisms, like the humanoid versions of seashells.

I’d be fine with any of the above except for something else living in my body, especially if it tried to pass itself off as me. Or worse, if it succeeded.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

The Fountainhead

The Fountainhead is Ayn Rand’s second novel and the second most famous of her works of fiction. It’s also second only to Gone with the Wind as my favorite novel. Maybe it’s just a coincidence that the book’s original title was Second-Hand Lives.

The story begins as Howard Roark’s formal education ends, in expulsion from a school of architecture. Not only are his designs unusual, he’s neither malleable nor respectful of tradition.

Peter Keating is the son of Roark’s landlady and is also a student of architecture, which is how the two of them meet. Their careers diverge widely from then on. Keating conforms to expectations and knows how to handle people, so despite having little talent or interest in his field, he gets a job with a famous architect and eventually becomes that architect's partner.

In contrast, Roark is brilliant and creative, but also stubborn – he’s a my-way-or-the-highway person, much like his creator. But I like that, because the problems he faces are caused as much by himself as by society and the people who work against him. He’s not by any means an innocent martyr. And I loved reading about each success of his, because they’re rare and because he fights for them. Nothing comes easily for him.

The other men in the novel are just as fascinating. Gail Wynand is a powerful newspaper tycoon who compromised his values (“sold his soul”, as the book puts it) to rule the masses. As for Ellsworth Toohey – the four parts of the book are named for those four characters – he’s one of the best antagonists I’ve ever encountered.

Toohey is brilliant, self-controlled and superbly manipulative. He’s the only antagonist who can give a Villain Monologue at the end and get away with it, since his only listener has been mentally broken down to the point where he’s no threat. Toohey’s drug of choice is control. He searches for the weak points in every person and organization, then insinuates himself into those cracks. Rand shows this in fascinating progress throughout the book, and I do mean shows; the meetings of Toohey’s kinds of creative people are a great example.

And while he has a huge influence on Roark’s career (basically, he tries to destroy it), the two of them only have one direct exchange, which ends when Toohey says, “We’re alone. Why don’t you tell me what you think of me? No one will hear it.”

“But I don’t think of you,” Roark replied.

The heroine, for me, is quite a different matter. Dominique Francon is intelligent and independent, but what really frustrates me is her skewed view of the world. As she explains, she wants perfection or nothing, so you can tell that she and Roark will be happy together. But she spends a lot of time trying to destroy him – so that he won’t continue to give the world beautiful buildings that will be mocked or ignored.

So she never struck me as being completely sane, and she’s about as normal physically as she is mentally, since according to the book she has “rectangular eyes”. Though I did like the descriptions of her clothes. And there’s a great scene where, in the course of her work, she dresses down and moves into a slum tenement to see what it would be like to live there.

But she moved as she had moved in the drawing-room of Kiki Holcombe – with a cold poise and efficiency. She scrubbed the floor of her room; she peeled potatoes; she bathed in a tin pan of cold water. She had never done those things before; she did them expertly… She was indifferent to the slums as she had been indifferent to the drawing-rooms.

More of that and she would have been a great heroine.

But the book was well worth reading to me regardless. As a writer I could sympathize with someone who faced rejection. And when I was living back in the Middle East, being pressured to conform to my family’s expectations (especially concerning religion), I would remind myself not to compromise my values. I’ve read this book at least six or seven times and despite its flaws, I love it.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Why manuscripts are rejected

Two editors say why they decline certain manuscripts. Both are entertaining reads, as well as providing insights into the process of acceptance.

Don D’Auria’s article is called What was he thinking? and explains why some manuscripts are turned down even if they’re very good (an editor’s inventory isn’t inexhaustible).

One of the most painful for me is simply bad timing, where I really love a book but I just bought a book with a very similar plot. It happens and it kills me. And I know it isn’t easy for the author either, because it isn’t his or her fault.

Yes, the “he” in the title refers to the editor, and what writers might say on being turned down.

The next article, though, is about mistakes in pacing that sabotage stories. It’s by Samhain editor Deborah Nemeth, and lists several problems that make a manuscript an “empty tank”, a “premature ejaculator” and so on. My favorite is the “pack animal”.

The pack animal likes to hang out in caravans. It’s a sequel that collapses under the weight of the previous volumes in the series. Crammed with summaries of the action and characters from past episodes, it forgets that nothing interesting is happening in this one…and if it is, readers are too distracted by the baggage to notice.


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Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Authenticity in fantasy

It’s easy to immerse yourself in magic, other worlds and the paranormal if the background and setting are realistic. But how to do that if the background and setting are unreal to begin with? Some of the techniques I use are :

Evoking the senses

No matter how bizarre or mystical a world is, it still has sounds and smells. Characters can hear the sandpaper rasp of giant flies compulsively “washing” their front legs together, or smell the sharp chlorophyll odor of green plants crushed underfoot.

The best example of this I’ve ever read is Ray Bradbury’s short story “The City”, where astronauts land in an alien city which appears deserted and dead – but which is, in reality, very much alive and aware of them.

Unusual details

I didn’t realize, until I read Robert T. Bakker’s Raptor Red, that flowering plants were unknown in the Jurassic period and still new in the Cretaceous. Information like that goes against what we take for granted, but if it’s woven carefully into the narrative, it becomes part of what makes the world unique.

In Sharon Baker’s Quarreling, they met the dragon, races distinguished mainly by their size are either slaves or masters. The slaves are the smaller ones.

Senruh flexed his chest and arms. Their breadth and his clogs made him more the size of a tall ruler, he thought. All the half-breeds developed their strength as he did, and saved for the high sandals.

Numbers and specifics

The giant shark slammed into the ship.

The giant shark’s forty-ton bulk slammed into the schooner.

The second sentence is more evocative to me. And slipping little details like that into the narrative is a good way to establish the setting without doing an infodump.

I wouldn’t overuse it – e.g. “the hundred-and-eighty pound hero drew his four-foot-long sword” – because it’s a story, not a police report. But when the technique is used well, readers can tell the writer knows what he or she is talking about.

What techniques do you use to make a fantasy world realistic?

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Self-publishing and bad advice

Self-publishing has its place. Some writers, like J. A. Konrath, have enough of a readership that they don’t need a publisher’s marketing or distribution channels, some writers have niches to tap and some just want to print and sell a few dozen copies of their books. There’s nothing wrong with self-publishing per se.

But it is not right for everyone. And when I see any writer being urged to do it, without thought for genre or sales or what that writer wants to accomplish eventually… well, I have to say something. Or write a blog post.

Henry Hutton, the person giving this terrible advice was one of the founding members of Lulu and now owns “a self-publishing agency” called Publish and Sell Enterprises, so he has a vested interest in getting writers to self-publish. And this is what he has to say…

What advice would you give to authors considering self-publishing?

Do it, and don’t wait. You’re only harming yourself if you do.

Supplies are limited, call now!

Talk about pressure. Working to improve your craft and trying for commercial publication is actually hurting you. Who knew?

I’ve seen too many authors that have waited years to garner a publishing deal, without success.

And I’ve seen too many authors who rushed their early efforts and learning experiences into print through self- or vanity publishing. Or who had manuscripts with real commercial potential, but wasted this and couldn’t get a publisher to accept a reprint.

Saying that people wait years for a publishing deal is like claiming that people wait years for a medical degree. That’s rather the point. I don’t want a doctor who graduated after six months.

By self-publishing, authors - especially first-time authors - will better understand the process and challenges of publishing.

How so? Does self-publishing teach them to write query letters or synopses or back cover copy? Does it teach them to self-edit? What about cover art? How do they go from uploading a book to Lulu to learning about marketing and distribution and returns?

Self-publishing to learn about commercial publishing makes no sense. Wouldn’t it be easier to research the “process and challenges of publishing” without trading one’s rights away for it?

They’ll learn what works and what doesn’t, and actually become better positioned - through the self-publishing success - to get picked up by a traditional publisher.

Assuming they have a success. The odds are heavily against them.

And if they don’t succeed, why would the commercial publisher (“traditional publisher” is a term usually used by vanity presses pretending to be otherwise) be interested?

Or, alternatively, they’ll find their niche and remain as a self-publisher to maintain control over their book and income. It can be a win-win, but you won’t know if you don’t try.

Or, alternatively, they’ll spend a great deal of time and effort trying to achieve sales outside their pocket market, only to run up against all the barriers – professional reviewers don’t touch self-published books, distributors won’t take them, stores won’t carry them, etc. And then at the end, they won’t have a career in writing. They’ll have one book which sold an average of 75 to 100 copies, and broke even if they were lucky.

I don’t know about anyone else, but I can do without that kind of “control”.

Thousands of people are self-publishing every day.

If thousands of lemmings were leaping into the ocean, would that make it a good idea?

And if we’re going by what thousands of people do, well, thousands of people query agents too.

Their book is being purchased, it’s being read, and the author is receiving feedback. Yes, sometimes the feedback is negative, and sometimes the book wasn’t as good as it should have been. If that’s the case, it’s better to have a small self-publishing failure (that you can quickly recover from) than a failure with a traditional publisher. That’s almost impossible to recover from.

Where to start?

Firstly, what is a “small” self-publishing failure? One where you only lose a few hundred dollars buying your own books and self-promoting, or one where you can’t get any publisher to accept reprint rights? Only writers can tell how quickly they’ll recover from these.

Secondly, when commercially published books flop, writers don’t say, “Now I shall hang up my quill and never write again, because it is almost impossible to recover from this debacle.” They submit the next manuscript under a pen name. And they get to keep the advance anyway. I’m sure it’s “almost impossible” to recover from getting thousands of dollars that you can keep even if a book flops.

Finally, I don’t like scare tactics, and this particular answer of Mr Hutton’s had them from beginning to end. It’s one thing to promote your own company’s products and services, but it’s another thing to misinform or try to alarm people into buying them.

Image from :

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Cannibalism in fiction

This is an odd topic, and I’m not sure what exactly put it into my head. Of course, once it was there, it stayed. So I had to write about it.

Cannibalism is a huge taboo in most human societies. People don’t normally resort to it unless they’re starving, and sometimes not even then. Shirley Conran’s Savages deals with four wealthy women being stranded on a tropical island and struggling to first survive and then sail back to civilization, but one of its most horrifying scenes focuses on what happens on the women’s boat once their food and water run out.

The child-eating Pale Man in Pan's Labyrinth is a terrifying figure, especially since it’s implied that despite the banquet spread out before him, he prefers to prey on children. But what if this practice, rather than being something resorted to in dire straits, is commonly accepted? What if everyone in a society does it?

Chances are, they’ll prey on those who are not members of that society – much like tribes which feast on their defeated enemies to either insult them even after death or to absorb their better qualities. You are what you eat, after all.

The Meewinks in Barbara Hambly’s Dragonsbane may simply have no other means of feeding themselves, since they’re small, frail-looking and wizened. Even their name sounds quaint rather than dangerous. But because of that, they easily deceive people who don’t know who they are, and they attack in a crowd of dozens, all starved and greedy.

Ritual anthropophagy, referred to as Sacrifice, occurs in Sharon Baker’s world of Naphar because the soil there is poor in the essential mineral selenium. People therefore recycle it by consuming flesh, an acceptable practice for them but not for offworlders who usually feel what the Napharese refer to as Revulsion.

“And that night I had my first Dream of Knives, and the other, the Dream of Meat that Speaks and Weeps. It’s common. There’s a joke--”
Quarreling, they met the dragon

Finally, Graham Masterton’s Feast depicts a cult which believes that the way to heaven is to permit others to feed upon you. And self-cannibalism is even rarer. Stephen King has a short story about a man who’s shipwrecked on a desert island and resorts to eating his own body parts to live. I don’t remember the title of that and don’t particularly want to; that crossed even my horror threshold.

When I first started reading role-playing gamebooks, the cannibals in them were painted savages dancing around a stewpot, but there’s more to the practice than this cliché. Cannibalism in speculative fiction nearly always produces a knee-jerk reaction of shock and disgust at first, but if a writer wants to develop it further (dare I say “flesh it out”?) it can add a unique aspect to alien societies.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Writers as protagonists

How do you feel about books where the main character is a writer?

I tend to avoid these, unless they’re by Stephen King. Maybe King is different because he doesn’t hesitate to put his protagonists through as much misery (pun intended) as possible. But in other novels I’ve looked at, the protagonist has fame and fortune for their writing – for instance, Danielle Steel’s Once in a Lifetime.

One reason I don’t find this much fun to read about is because it’s the hundred-and-eighty-degree opposite of the reality of writing. It’s difficult for me as a writer to sympathize with someone who doesn’t get rejection letters, who doesn’t worry about sales and who never has critical reviews. And usually success comes because the protagonist hit it big in commercial publishing and got a large advance, rather than because she has several books on the mid-list.

Or if the writer is toiling in obscurity, that’s because the Establishment hasn’t yet recognized his talent, rather than because he has none.

But another problem with the protagonist being a good writer is that this skill may need to be demonstrated (otherwise it’s difficult to suspend disbelief). So that means including excerpts of what they write – and this needs to be different from the actual writer’s style. King does a great job of this – the short Alexis Machine snippets in The Dark Half were perfect illustrations of George Stark’s style – but I’ve also seen such quotes look painfully self-conscious and constructed, rather than natural.

The more things a character and a writer have in common, the more danger there is of the character becoming an authorial stand-in – or a wish-fulfilment fantasy at worst. And for many readers, the protagonist-as-writer can be too meta, too much of a self-reference.

What are your thoughts on this?

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Will Write For Shoes

I like books which get into the specifics of writing for a particular genre, so I picked up Cathy Yardley’s Will Write for Shoes, which is subtitled How to write a Chick Lit Novel.

The book discusses the various types of chick lit, including its history from Marian Keyes (I loved Watermelon) and Bridget Jones, to Sex and the City. I didn’t know there were such subgenres as Tart Noir, Widow Lit and Christian Chick Lit.

While this is a short book, it touches on nearly every topic a beginning writer might have questions about – even the elusive “voice”, which IMO is very difficult to dissect and pin down. I also like the stress placed on conflict, though I’m not certain that every scene has to end in disaster, i.e. with a character not getting what they want.

The reader may still be invested in finding out if your character still achieves her overall story goal, but they’re probably thinking, “She’s okay for now,” which is dangerous. Why? Because that means you’ve given them a rest stop. They can now put the book down and do something else.

I would be careful about applying this advice, because a character who fails over and over and over again is more painful than fun to read about. If every scene ends in disaster, it’s also predictable. Another thing to be aware of is that this book was published in 2006, and there have been changes in the publishing industry in the years since then.

On the other hand, my favorite part of the book was the discussion of how to outline. Outlining tends to be a controversial topic on discussion boards, because some writers (like myself) swear by it and others work best with a seat-of-the-pants approach. But the author was given a six-month deadline to complete the second book she sold, and she needed a system in place to complete it.

So in conclusion, this was a quick read, taught me some things about chick lit that I didn’t know before and would be a help to new writers. Plus, if you ever wanted to see an outline that’s both carefully constructed and flexible, and which can be applied to any work-in-progress, I recommend this book.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Burial in fantasy

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

Burial practices vary from culture to culture. Burial and cremation are common in First World countries, but the Zoroastrians believe that dead bodies pollute earth or fire. So they place corpses at the top of a tower – sometimes called a tower of silence - and exposed to birds of prey and natural decomposition.

If burial is intended to preserve the corpse, there are several ways to do this. Corpses could be immersed in wax – or better still, embalmed. In the far north, they might be frozen – imagine a huge berg/graveyard with headstones carved from ice. The classic example comes from the ancient Egyptians, who extracted internal organs and preserved those along with the bodies.

Makes you wonder if their elaborate tombs are to keep robbers out or to keep the dead in. Maybe both.

Of course, some burials are intended to have a different result. In the Stephen King novel, two graveyards are different sides of the same coin – there’s the Pet Semetary, where pets are buried, and there’s the Micmac burial ground beyond it. That’s the place from which animals – and humans – can come back.

Sailors have no choice but to carry out burial at sea, though they may also try salt preservation of corpses. Assuming they have the time and the space to carry these, which is by no means a given. What if each such ship had a specially bred shark following it for that purpose, though? Each time someone was newly dead or near dead, the body would be given to the shark, so that some part of the person’s soul would live on in the creature’s body.

There are other options for burials – placing a corpse within the heart of a hollow tree and closing that up, for instance. Or there may be a special city set aside for that purpose – a necropolis or gravetown. Or burial may be seen as more wasteful than continuing to utilize the body. Maybe it’s offered to an alien species which needs hosts and which is happy to accept the gift.

Burial of the dead is one of the things that links us to the earliest humans, and can be a fascinating part of another culture.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

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Sunday, October 24, 2010

Your Money God's Way

I was skeptical about this book.

My parents, who were devout Christians, would lend money to anyone whom they perceived as similarly devout Christians, with the result that they were nearly defrauded out of thousands of dollars. I wasn’t sure if Amie Streater would adopt a similar approach in her financial self-help book Your Money God's Way, or if it would be more of a “sell all you have” philosophy.

But something about the book’s subtitle – “Overcoming the 7 Money Myths That Keep Christians Broke” appealed to me. I’ve always been interested in ways to save money, so I decided to give the book a try, and Thomas Nelson sent it to me as part of the Book Review Bloggers program. And it turned out to be an excellent read – straightforward, sensible, helpful and written by someone who knows what she’s talking about when it comes to both finances and Christianity.

Amie Streater identifies several “counterfeit convictions” that cause Christians to make poor financial decisions. For instance, these could be the (unfounded) beliefs that God will provide no matter what, or that it is always safe to do business with a “brother in Christ”. She then goes on to show why these convictions don’t help anyone, illustrating her points with practical examples as well as verses from the Bible. And I do mean practical.

How are you going to be generous if you’re broke?

You can be generous with your time, of course, and you can be generous of spirit, but your time and good nature are of little use to a starving child in Africa…

At the same time, Streater doesn’t preach a “prosperity gospel”, where you only have to pay a monthly “Jesus tax” to receive great bounty in return. She makes it clear that if you give, you should do so for the joy of helping others and out of gratitude for what you have received, not in the hope of a payback.

To summarize : I’d definitely recommend this book to any Christians who were having financial difficulties, but I’d also recommend it to people of other religions or none. It will make you feel as though you’re being either entertained or educated or both – not preached to.