Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Author behaving badly

If responding defensively to a critical review is the Author's Big Mistake, responding while pretending to be someone else compounds that mistake by a factor of at least a hundred.

On Amazon, a reviewer called Caligirl08 wrote that she had read a Christopher Pike novel because it was set in her homeland of Turkey. Unfortunately she found several problems - the novel mentioned Istanbul as the capital city, called Turkey an Arabic country, placed a desert in Istanbul, etc. She gave the book a one-star review and said she was very disappointed.

Someone calling himself Michael Brite then responded, saying he was Christopher Pike's editor. I sat up a little straighter when I read that, because I couldn't imagine any editor intervening like that on an author's behalf, especially not to praise the author :

"Pike would be the first one to accept blame for any mistakes in his book... Pike deliberately made Sara realistic... Pike embraces fans of all types, especially the crazy ones."

That wasn't even getting into his claims that there were good reasons for the problems the reviewer pointed out (e.g. readers preferred a non-Turkish name for the Turkish hero). He concluded by asking, "If you found the Secret of Ka so offensive, why did you read it?"

Perhaps because the reviewer isn't precognitive and therefore doesn't know she'll dislike something before she actually reads it?

But then it came out. "Michael Brite" is actually Christopher Pike.

This is Pike,
This is the real Christopher Pike, ignore the name this response appears under. I use many names online.

I was wondering why an author would need to "use many names online". I use two - Marian Perera and "Queen of Swords", and it's nearly always obvious that the two are one and the same person. But apparently "Michael Brite" gave several glowing five-star reviews to Pike's books, so perhaps that's why.

It reminds me of the time I came across a vanity-printed novel that had well over a hundred reviews posted in a short space of time, which was surprising because of the book's lack of distribution. But most of those were by anonymous posters who praised the book as an "epic" which combined "romance, action, adventure, fantasy, and tragedy". They also stressed that the book should be made into a movie. I read through the entire collection and still don't know what the story is actually about.

But at least that author may have felt there was no other choice - the vanity press wasn't going to send her book to any reviewers, professional or otherwise. Christopher Pike had no such excuse for his sockpuppet(s).

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Interview at SolelyFictional

I was delighted to be interviewed by N. K. Kingston, and the result is up on her blog SolelyFictional. The interview covers Before the Storm, my views on e-publishing and some of the promotion that Samhain and other Samhain authors have generously helped me with.

It was fun to do. Thanks very much, Natalie!

Friday, September 24, 2010

All My Friends Are Dead

I write fairly lengthy reviews of books, especially if I like them. This will be an exception.

In All My Friends Are Dead, by Avery Monsen and Jory John, the cartoons and captions speak for themselves - you can read the first few pages here. The dinosaur's compatriots may all have died, but the sock has lost his only friend. And the tree is painfully aware of his future as an end table. Though he's probably lucky compared to the cassette tape, who has no future.

Each character, animal, plant or object has some bleak but amusing awareness of its own impending doom or predicament - with the sole exception of Death, who happily goes about doing his job. This book is cynical and depressing and hilarious at once. And I'd love to see a sequel where one bacterium alone on a vast Petri plate is saying, "All my friends were susceptible."

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Free will in fiction

Free will is an important concept in theology, but I recently read a story that made me realize how necessary it is in fiction as well.

In the story, one particular species was created to be evil. The narrative made that explicit. And right away I knew that unless the writer was going to twist the concept, to make it unusual and surprising, the story was doomed.

1. Moral judgment

Say that a species was developed to be violent and I’ll buy it. Dogs, after all, were bred to serve different purposes, and some breeds can be more aggressive than others. But when we get into good/evil, that’s a moral judgment and it’s much easier to spot the hand of the writer pulling the strings. Even if this is inspirational speculative fiction, it’ll be difficult to pull off.

2. Definition of evil

What exactly is evil? Aggression or venality or any other of the seven deadly sins are clear in comparison, but evil is a broad blanket term. Does it mean crimes against other people, against animals, against the environment? Or does it extend to personal decisions and choices which may not be approved of? And who does the approving?

Unless a novel operates within the preestablished framework of a religion, such as Frank Peretti’s This Present Darkness, telling me that a person or species is evil tells me… well, nothing.

3. No option but evil

Would you expect a dog to fly?

If you wouldn’t, if dogs as we know them can’t be expected to fly, then a Created Evil species or character cannot be expected to do good. So it/they can’t be held morally responsible for any wrong actions either, because it/they had no other choice. That would be like getting mad at your oven for not keeping your ice cream frozen.

4. Unrealistic premise

How does a species that’s completely evil manage to function at all? Raising children, for instance – how is this done if individuals are incapable of attachment to their children? How are such children even conceived? Is there such a thing as consensual sex in their society?

5. Readers’ emotional responses

When I realized that the evil characters had no choice but to be evil, I immediately felt sorry for them.

Yes, even when they were killing people. What choice did they have? Authorial bias was so much in evidence – with the narrative stressing that they were supposed to be that way – that I could only sympathize with them for their lack of free will. They weren’t being cruel because of their own ambition or their own greed; they were being cruel because the writer was pulling their strings.

And I knew that sooner or later the writer would punish them for doing exactly what the writer had made them do, so I felt sorry for them.

6. Lack of surprise

If a species or a character is completely evil and created to be evil, readers are unlikely to feel surprise (or shock, which is even better) by what this race or character does, especially if the narrative spells out in advance what to expect.

There’s no choice, and when there’s no choice there’s no tension.

7. Where there’s a drow, there’s a Drizzt

Having one member of the race of puppets turn out to be good isn’t too startling a development. Such a character often has a ready-made moral compass installed in him courtesy of the writer, rather than struggling with the ethical dilemnas that he should face in such a society.

Worse, he doesn’t make really serious mistakes, nor is his future in much doubt. If the Drizzt is the protagonist, he ends up with the good guys; if he isn’t, he dies a martyr’s death, usually helping the good guys. He has little loyalty to his own race, nor any guilt about what happens to them. Nor are there any aspects of his former life that he misses.

Tolkien’s world accomodated completely-evil races such as the orcs and goblins because he wrote high fantasy in the 1940s. Since then, not only is this concept rarely used but there have been fantasy novels from the perspectives of said evil races – for instance, Mary Gentle’s Grunts. Anti-heroes, flawed protagonists and nuanced villains tend to be more realistic and entertaining than a black-and-white worldview where some characters or races are intrinsically evil and some are intrinsically good.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Mr Darcy's Little Sister

There are so many sequels to Pride and Prejudice that I wasn’t sure where to start. Told from the points of view of Elizabeth, Mary and various Darcy relations – Mr Collins hasn’t yet had his turn in the spotlight, but I feel sure this is merely a matter of time – the sequels cover quite a spectrum.

But the story of Georgiana, Darcy’s shy younger sister, seemed intriguing and I requested an ARC of C. Allyn Pierson’s novel Mr. Darcy's Little Sister from Sourcebooks. What interested me about her in the Austen novel wasn’t her sweetness and gentleness, but the fact that she had nearly eloped with Wickham. What can I say? Heroines who make such serious mistakes are fascinating. I was wondering if there would be any repercussions of that in this book.

In a way, there are. Georgiana lacks self-confidence, partly because of that error and partly because she is sixteen and has been protected by Darcy for all her life. As a result, she’s very much the awkward adolescent in this story. But she grows up gradually – with Elizabeth’s warmth and wit guiding her – as she deals with two fortune-hunters, Lady Catherine de Burgh, and her own increasing affection for a man who seems to have only a paternal interest in her.

First, the good points. While history isn’t my forte, the background of this book is far more than wallpaper. Georgiana is chaperoned everywhere (even during a kidnapping!), is presented at court and writes charmingly polite letters to her new in-laws. Clothing styles, teas, balls… everything is described in detail and rings true.

It was also pleasant to read about familiar characters. Elizabeth and Jane have happy marriages – which is a change from sequels such as The Independence of Miss Mary Bennet – and Mr Collins provided reliable comic relief.

“I congratulate both of you again, my young cousins, on your excellent good fortune in your marriages. It will be most gratifying to me to do my part in assuring your future happiness.”

Jane and Elizabeth glanced at each other, their faces unrevealing but their eyes wide. Elizabeth found her voice and said faintly, “I beg your pardon, Mr. Collins?”

“I said I shall be delighted to perform the marriage rites for my two dear cousins.”

On the other hand, Georgiana’s romance wasn’t as appealing as it might have been. Readers who like guardian-ward relationships may be fine with this, but Georgiana’s guardian seems very much older than her – on page 236 he remarks that “My elderly bones are not accustomed to such rigors.” Add that to her extreme youth, and I found it difficult to enjoy them as a couple.

For her part, Georgiana doesn’t realize she’s attracted to him until the midpoint of the book. Then she dresses differently from her usual style and color so that he notices her. In other words, the very real problems that Elizabeth and Darcy faced in Pride and Prejudice – issues that they had to overcome over the course of a novel – aren’t present here.

Instead, Georgiana seems to have many smaller problems – how to become more poised, how to stop people from ignoring Elizabeth, how to comport herself at the wedding, etc. – and the book moved from one to the other. Unlike Elizabeth, she had no concerns such as her lack of financial prospects or an embarassing family. So while she was an unobjectionable heroine, she wasn’t the most vivid of characters either.

There’s plenty to like in the book nevertheless: Lord Byron makes an appearance, Elizabeth is finally accepted into haute society and Jane has her first child (after some nonsensical ramblings of doom from Mrs. Bennet). Plotwise, this book didn’t work for me, but it does have familiar characters and an elaborate, accurate background. Other readers may enjoy it more.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010


Seven begins as William Somerset prepares to quit his job. Somerset is an educated and experienced detective, but is also jaded by years in a city that’s oppressive, miserable and apparently filled with violent crime.

The latest case he’s called to, the murder of a grotesquely obese man, is apparently no different. But Somerset is also partnered with another detective, David Mills, to solve this one. Mills is the complete opposite – young, brash and hot-tempered – but he’s a newcomer to the city and idealistic.

The discovery of the fat man’s corpse sets the tone of the film. It happens while rain falls from a grey sky, though the interior of the man’s house is even darker and grimier. Roaches scurry away from the plates of food. Somerset and Mills discover that the man’s murderer forced him to eat (and eat, and eat) at gunpoint until he died, and then scrawled a single word – GLUTTONY – on the wall. Next comes the murder of a lawyer forced to cut a pound of flesh off his own body, with the word GREED printed in blood nearby.

It looks as though they have a serial killer on their hands.

Somerset soon realizes that the killer – while apparently insane – is also extremely intelligent and erudite, which may give them their only chance to track him down. But that’s one of the best things about this film: the killer is by no means incompetent either. Even when he’s surprised, he gets the upper hand. What’s happening always seems to be in his plan, and he almost never appears angry or disconcerted.

He doesn’t have a name, by the way. That’s something he has in common with all but two of his victims, and it increases the bleak horror of the film. The victim could be anyone, perhaps even someone you know, and the killer is as anonymous after capture as before.

As well as providing brilliant characterization, the film plays its theme like a violin. The events take place in seven days, and the countdown to the last is mirrored by the metronome Somerset uses to provide white noise when he’s sleeping – but which gives the impression that time is running out. And I love the fact that Somerset reads the classics to find out about Dante’s Inferno while Mills picks the Cliff Notes.

Somerset: Of Human Bondage…
Mills : Bondage?
Somerset : Not what you’re thinking.

Finally, the ending is a shocking but entirely believable twist. I couldn’t look away from the screen as I watched it. And yet the film’s final line is one of hope, and a refusal to give up. As long as the viewer doesn’t mind foul language, blood and some horrific moments, I’d recommend it. A lot.

On a personal note, this film made me fascinated by the seven deadly sins, to the point where I named roads after them in one of my manuscripts. So, of the seven – Gula, Avaritia, Acedia, Luxuria, Superbia, Invidia and Ira, to give them their Latin names – which one is your greatest vice?

I’d have to admit to Pride.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Swords in fantasy

Wow, where to start?

Swords can be a sign of office or status.

The first one I ever read about was the Sword in the Stone, which showed Arthur was the rightful King of England, and then there are all the ancestral swords in A Song of Ice and Fire - each one corresponding to a different family. They also have lovely names – Red Rain, Lady Forlorn, Needle, Lion’s Tooth, Heartsbane and so on.

In Rosemary Edghill’s The Sword of Maiden's Tears, the titular weapon was the heirloom of the elven House Rohannon, but there was a curse on it – any human who wielded it would be changed into a monstrous creature.

Swords can be magic.

That would be the second such sword I read about, Sting from The Hobbit, which glowed blue when there were Orcs around. Though as Diana Wynne Jones pointed out in The Tough Guide to Fantasyland, that’s only an advantage if 1. the sword won’t give you away by such a warning 2. all Orcs are evil and out to kill you.

Otherwise, all you need is for a Good- or Neutral-aligned Orc to join the party and the sword is permanently glowing, or permanently on fire, etc.

The Twelve Swords of Power in Fritz Saberhagen’s novels are some of my favorite magic weapons. Not only are their powers varied, but they have real weaknesses, to the point where some of them can’t even be drawn. The Sword of Despair, for instance, causes instant misery and depression to fall in a battlefield-wide area around it, meaning that no one has the will to fight. That would be great, except that it also affects whoever draws it, and that person loses all inclination to sheathe it again.

Woundhealer, the Sword of Mercy, is incapable of killing. Coinspinner, the Sword of Chance, brings good luck but has a habit of leaving its wielder when it’s most needed. Farslayer can literally fly across the world to kill an enemy, and nothing will stop it – except that once it’s buried in that enemy’s heart, it’s not coming back. The enemy’s bereft friends and relatives can then get to use it.

The Blood Sword role-playing gamebooks, a series of five that are sadly out of print, featured the titular weapon, which was “forged by the Archangel Abdiel and tempered in the Savior’s blood”. Blood tempering seems to be a way to ensure the sword will have magic powers – as in the tale of Lightbringer, King Stannis’s sword in A Clash of Kings.

Swords can be sentient.

I especially liked the evil sword Stormbringer, carried – but not owned – by the doomed Elric of Melnibone in Michael Moorcock’s novels. Stormbringer ended up murdering Elric, just as Turin Turambar in The Silmarillion was killed by his sword Gurthang.

"Hail Gurthang! No lord or loyalty dost thou know, save the hand that wieldeth thee. From no blood wilt thou shrink. Wilt thou therefore take Túrin Turambar, wilt thou slay me swiftly?"

And from the blade rang a cold voice in answer: "Yes, I will drink thy blood gladly, that so I may forget the blood of Beleg my master, and the blood of Brandir slain unjustly. I will slay thee swiftly."

There’s also Wirikidor, the Mankiller, in Lawrence Watt-Evans’s novel The Misenchanted Sword. Wirikidor fights with superhuman skill and always defeats its opponent… but has certain possibly lethal weaknesses as well, hence the title of the novel.

I’m sure there are swords which are a little less eager to stick them with the pointy end, perhaps wanting the victim to have a fair trial first. Just haven’t come across any yet.

Swords can be matched.

They can be a pair or an entire set (for serious collectors only). I especially like this when the two swords are half of a whole, and something unforeseen or terrible happens when they come together. Usually, one will be in the hero’s hands and one in the villain’s.

Back in 2000, I joined a discussion board but wanted a handle that sounded cooler than my first name. So I picked “Queen of Swords”, after the Tarot card. The Swords suit represents freedom, strength and power – but also the responsibility and negative consequences, such as violence, that can result.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Giving startups a chance

Why shouldn’t we give new and startup publishers/agents chances?

I’ve seen a lot of arguments in favor of doing so. To list just a few…

• It’s either a startup or Random House.
• If no one submits any manuscripts to these publishers/agents, how will they grow to the point where they’re good choices for writers?
• Newer publishers and agents tend to be nicer and more approachable.
• A new outfit is more likely to be unconventional, to take chances, to be hungry for success and to consequently work hard.
• It’s a stepping-stone to better places.

These reasons sound plausible and can be persuasive for new writers, especially if they’re coming off a round of rejections. After years of work and refusals, nothing’s more heady than the thrill of finally having succeeded. Sadly that emotional response won’t distinguish between an acceptance from a good publisher/agent and one which is mediocre, amateur or a downright scam.

Further complicating matters is that there’s so much information on the web about publishers and agents, and some of it may not be helpful. When I first looked into publishing, I read that Nicholas Sparks’s agent had no sales when he signed up with her. Obviously she went on to do very well by him, but for a long time that story had me sold on the idea that a startup agent could and would be an acceptable risk.

Exceptions like that can be misleading. If one person wins the lottery, that doesn't mean everyone should go out and buy tickets. So let’s take a closer look at those arguments…

1. False dichotomy

If criticism of an amateur micropress is met with an inquiry as to whether the critic with Random House, that’s a false dichotomy. It implies that writers only have two choices. Nothing could be further from the truth when it comes to publishing.

These days, you can be with a major publisher, a reputable small press (Ellora’s Cave, for instance) or even a good self-publishing service. All of those are likely to be better for writers than an outfit which takes their time, their rights or their money – or all three.

2. Startups need manuscripts to grow

This one seems very plausible. If no one ever submits anything to a startup, it’ll remain a startup and be forever criticized for that, for something which isn’t under its control. This can appear inherently unfair and may generate quite a bit of sympathy for the unfortunate publisher or agent.

But no one’s manuscript deserves to be treated as a guinea pig, and such startups often lack the experience and resources to do much else with manuscripts. Even if they learn from their initial mistakes, I’d rather not see a company built on a foundation of unsold manuscripts and sunk books.

“Getting in on the ground floor” is a risky proposition when the building doesn’t have an elevator yet.

Since I’m a newbie to the field of health care, I’m starting out with simulated clinical specimens in a controlled setting where experienced professionals are monitoring my work to make sure I do it right. My college isn’t letting me out to learn off the backs of actual patients just yet. Likewise, a newbie to the field of publishing should get their start working as an intern and then an employee with an established publisher or literary agency. Neither of those are entry-level professions.

Once such a newbie becomes more experienced, he or she may well found a new company – but it won’t be amateur hour. Literary agents who leave established firms to strike out on their own may take their own clients with them, or they may attract new clients because they already have recognition for the sales they made while with the established firm. In other words, they will have a proven track record already and won’t be treating anyone as a learning experience.

As for publishers, a good startup press should have manuscripts ready to go before it opens its doors to the general public.

3. Niceness and a positive attitude

“We treat you like family.”

“We read each manuscript in full and give you comments and feedback even if we can’t accept it.”

“We are enthusiastic about our authors and want to make their dreams come true.”

These are frustrating because it’s difficult to reason with an emotional response – and that’s what niceness usually produces. A warm friendly connection to an agent, a feeling that you’re now part of a publisher’s close-knit family, a sense of belonging and acceptance… all these are good things. Why are those crabby naysayers trying to talk you out of your happiness?

Even when such agents/publishers are clearly in difficulty, many authors feel loyal to the person or company which gave them a chance.

”Also, I applaud the authors who come out and support their publishers. For those who choose to throw their publisher under the bus though.... shame on you.”

Unfortunately, niceness doesn’t get distribution or sell books. Reading manuscripts in full is a waste of time if you can tell from the first few pages that it’s not a genre you publish or the writing isn’t up to standard.

As for replying with feedback to rejections… well, some writers respond angrily or bitterly to even form rejections. People with experience reading slush for pay do it as quickly as possible and rarely give personalized feedback, because that’s usually not a productive use of their time.

I don’t recommend even querying amateur agents or publishers because if they accept - especially if they do so enthusiastically and tell you how fantastic your writing is and how they would love to help launch your career - it will be difficult to say no.

4. A new outfit is more likely to take chances and to be hungry for success.

That’s true enough. But without experience, how far can they go? Wanting something, even wanting it desperately, doesn’t mean you’ll get it.

New agents at established agencies are a good bet because they’re likely to be working under the guidance of senior and more experienced agents. New publishing houses owned and operated by people with prior experience in publishing are a good risk too. Otherwise, better not bank on it.

5. Startups can be a stepping-stone

”I want to one day sell thousands of books, what author doesn't? But you have to get your foot in the door somehow.”
a writer with the now-defunct Cacoethes Publishing House

Micropresses may or may not be stepping-stones, depending on how professional they are and how many copies of the book are sold. The worst-case scenario, though, is that such a press will collapse and take the writers’ books with it. Even if they get their rights back, many publishers are reluctant to take reprints. And the fact that the startup accepted it may not mean anything if the startup – in the eyes of industry professionals – didn’t have the experience required to tell a great, marketable manuscript from a mediocre one.

If there’s a risk that my getting my foot in the door will result in the door slamming on my foot, I’d rather try an automatic door (another publisher) or use a bigger foot (a better book).

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