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.


Image from : http://www.jupiterimages.com/Image/royaltyFree/90264346

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 : http://www.jupiterimages.com/Image/royaltyFree/105767623

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.