Monday, January 31, 2011

Guest blog : Anticipation, by Lisabet Sarai

Lisabet Sarai writes scorching erotica, but I first found her site through her article on HTML for writers. Dealing with computers gets me hot and bothered too, just not in a good way.

But that was an informative article and had me looking through the rest of her site. I found it fascinating that she was from Wisconsin but now lived in South-East Asia (and had written stories set in Thailand). So that led to a guest blog exchange, and today Lisabet is featured here. It's also her birthday, so many happy returns and a warm welcome!


I'm writing this post on January 28th. It will appear on Marian's blog on the 31st of January, which happens to be my birthday. It's three days until I turn my personal page to a new year, and I am reveling in pleasant anticipation.

It's not as if I have anything all that unusual planned. After all, it's a Monday. I have a dentist's appointment early in the morning. Then I'll be off to work as usual. My husband and I will probably go out to dinner, maybe to our favorite French place if we can get a reservation, but I'm not having a party or going out dancing. (That's what I'd call a celebration!) I don't expect any presents. (DH and I have an agreement about this, and all of my family members are far away.) Still, I find myself looking forward to the day, mostly for the unexpected pleasures it might bring. Maybe a friend will call with birthday wishes. Maybe I'll get a card. I sense somehow that it will be special - even if nobody else knows. I'll be walking around with a little secret. It's my day!

This realization started me thinking about the joys of anticipation. Looking forward to something you desire is almost as good as actually experiencing it. I'm planning my annual trip to the U.S. around now (I live in Southeast Asia) and I find myself full of excitement at the prospect of seeing my parents, my siblings, my friends. The trip will be as much business as pleasure, but I don't care. I'm already visualizing what it will be like to give my mum a hug!

I try to express the thrill of anticipation in my stories. My characters are ultimately destined to make love but I find myself holding back, building the suspense, encouraging my readers to savor the wait - knowing that they will be satisfied, eventually. Sometimes, of course, I like to read (or write) a story in which passion sweeps the characters into bed together in the first chapter, but more commonly I take a more gradual approach.

Last week I was working on a new story, a gothic ménage that really illustrates this point. I found myself a good four or five thousand words into the tale and the characters still hadn't actually had sex. Here's a brief snippet from the as-yet-unpublished "A Breed Apart" : link (warning : R-rated).


BIO: A dozen years ago LISABET SARAI experienced a serendipitous fusion of her love of writing and her fascination with sex. Since then she has published two single author short story collections and six erotic novels, including the BDSM classic Raw Silk. Dozens of her shorter works have been released as ebooks and in print anthologies. She has also edited several acclaimed anthologies and is currently responsible for the altruistic erotica series COMING TOGETHER PRESENTS.

Lisabet holds more degrees than anyone needs from prestigious universities who would no doubt be embarrassed by her chosen genre. She loves to travel and currently lives in Southeast Asia with her highly tolerant husband and two cosmopolitan felines. For more information on Lisabet and her writing visit Lisabet Sarai's Fantasy Factory ( or her blog Beyond Romance (

Lisabet's most recent release is Almost Home, a M/M/F holiday romance featuring a mistletoe kiss, a warm fireplace, a hot tub, and lots of snow! She's giving away a copy of this book to one person who leaves a comment for her (contest closes February 3rd). Comment here and on her blog, and double your chances of winning!

Sunday, January 30, 2011

It's almost here...

The official paperback release date of Before the Storm
is February 1st (it even got a mention on one of Tor's blogs, which left me delighted!).

This is exciting but scary at the same time - nerve-wracking in a way that pathogenic bacteriology never was. But real-life promotion has a way of doing that to me. It's much easier to do so online, although I know I have to get out of my comfort zone. My book is worth it.

So this will be a tumultuous week, and not just because of the book. There's another piece of wonderful news I've waited a long time to see, and here's a picture of it.

That turned out smaller than I expected, so here's what it says : "NOTICE TO APPEAR - TO TAKE THE OATH OF CITIZENSHIP. Please appear on 04 February 2011, 1:00 pm."

I'm going to miss two classes, but my instructors were fine with it once they heard the reason. And I love the bubblegum-pink color of the paper. Just the right color on a cold winter day.

It's a complete coincidence that this happened the same week as my book's paperback release, but sometimes lovely coincidences happen. :)

And tomorrow there'll be a guest post from Lisabet Sarai, on the topic of anticipation - something every writer knows a lot about. So stay tuned... there's so much going on in February that I'm starting the celebration now!

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

A spirit of place : cities in fantasy

I love creating cities. Which is perhaps to be expected, since I grew up in them – Colombo, Dubai and Austin. And when they’re inventive and well-depicted, they form much more than the backdrop to a story. They become an integral part of the world and the fantasy, as three-dimensional as a character.

Each fantasy city I remember vividly had something unusual to set it apart. Hart's Hope, in the titular novel by Orson Scott Card, is rigidly divided into districts characterized by their purpose (trade, pilgrimages, etc) and the different gates which lead into them. Calcutta, in Dan Simmons’ Song of Kali, is a reeking, overcrowded warren ruled by a goddess thirsty for blood.

I still believe that some places are too wicked to be suffered. Occasionally, I dream of nuclear mushroom clouds rising above a city and human figures dancing against the flaming pyre that once was Calcutta.

The city of Armada, in China Mieville’s The Scar, is made of a thousand ships lashed together and floating across the oceans. Armada has a park, a prison, markets, a library called Booktown and even a Haunted Quarter. All of it protected by airships and small ironclads and menfish who swim beneath the waves.

There’s Deepgate, the city suspended in a net of chains over an abyss in Alan Campbell’s Scar Night, and a floating city called Sanctaphrax in the Edge Chronicles by Paul Stewart and Chris Riddell. Mechanized moving cities hunt down each other in Philip Reeve’s Mortal Engines. And one reason I bought The Fantastic Art of Jacek Yerka was the beautiful painting on the cover – a giant tree that both grows into and supports a city.

All this is just scratching the surface. Cities can be constructed within huge living creatures which protect them like anemones do clownfish. They could be divided into different time zones – medieval, industrial, modern – where people but not technologies are able to cross over. They can be built from materials that might be extremely common in another world, such as slabs of uncut diamond.

What are your fantasy cities like?

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Five yet more expensive ways to be printed

Another sequel to Five expensive ways to be printed and Five more expensive ways to get into print. It's amazing how many vanity presses are out there.

But to start with the cheapest...

1. Basic Package, Roval Publishing $599

While this package does include “1 author copy”, I’m not sure serious writers would be helped by publication with the same company that produced the plagiarized novel Of Atlantis.

2. Jada Press, Executive Program $1250

This is described as "A Publishing Program that will separate you and your work from the rest!" Though first it'll separate you from your money.

And the publisher has a long article claiming that even NYT bestselling writers are being cheated by their publishers, so you might as well pay upfront and be done with it.

3. Morgan James Publishing variable; probably over $10,000

Morgan James doesn’t provide a single one-fee-fits-all figure. As their website states,

Author is asked to commit to purchasing, during the life of the agreement, twenty-five hundred copies at cost plus a percentage

What I find deceptive is that they claim this to be normal, asserting that “most major houses” also have this requirement for their authors. Not true. Actual, reputable publishers give authors books for free – sometimes dozens of copies.

And why would real publishers ask authors to buy their own books in bulk, anyway? So they can recover their advances right away? Because they’re afraid no one else will buy the books? On top of that, Morgan James’s website says, “No Publishing Fee charged hidden or otherwise”, perhaps because the fee has been shifted to the back end.

So how much would it cost to buy those 2500 copies? On this page, there’s a breakdown of cover prices according to book length. Here's a sample of that, with the length in words :

100,000 -- $17.95-$21.95
120,000 -- $20.95-$23.95
140,000 -- $22.95-$26.95

Let’s take my novel Before the Storm. That’s 113,000 words, but I’ll round it down to 100,000. We’ll also assume that my book would have cost $18 at that length, and we’ll assume that the cost of production is 25% of the cover price. In total, I’d be paying (0.25 x 18)2500 = $11250.

Which is before adding the unstated “percentage” Morgan James would include.

Which is before paying shipping and handling.

4. Cambridge House $15,000 or more

Author's costs range from $15,000 and upward, depending on the amount of work involved. However, that investment is repaid from first-proceeds and the royalties are 4-5 times what the standard publishers pay. With some financial risk comes increased financial reward- it's only fair.

If an upfront payment of fifteen grand or more is just “some” risk, I’d hate to see what Cambridge House would consider a “major” risk. The website goes on to say, “We're only successful if you're successful.” Well, who’s financially more successful? The people who write out checks for fifteen thousand dollars, or the company which takes them?

5. WestBow Press $19,999

This is Thomas Nelson’s vanity publishing arm, but what’s even more astonishing than the price are some of the things you get for your twenty grand. For instance, windshield flyers and ”Line Editing (30,000 words included)”.

I wonder if there’s an extra charge if your book happens to be longer than 30,000 words.

Image from :

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Jared, the Subway Guy

I like books on health and nutrition, but I never read diet books (no real need for them – I’ve always been underweight). And I certainly never thought I would review one.

But back when I had a television, I saw Subway commercials starring Jared, who was apparently an ordinary guy who had lost a lot of weight by eating Subway sandwiches. So when I saw a book called Jared, the Subway Guy, I had to check it out and see what the hype was about.

The book is subtitled “Winning Through Losing : 13 Lessons for Turning Your Life Around”, but that’s just filler. One of the lessons, for instance, is “the harder you work, the luckier you get”. Basically, it’s the kind of thing that would never sell if it wasn’t attached to the story of how Jared weighed 425 pounds and how he shed over half of that.

There are two things I like about this book, and one I don’t. The first thing I enjoyed was the breezy, self-deprecating style, which made me laugh more than once. Once, Jared tried eating food like broiled chicken breast and green beans. Unfortunately, he was used to such gargantuan portions that he was still hungry after his healthy but relatively small meal.

And my stomach made so much noise I didn’t want to go out. People might think I’d swallowed a midget whole, and he was yelling for help inside my gut.

The other is Jared’s description of his life when he was obese. While some parts of it are probably exaggerated, others seem only too likely – like Jared supplying the punchlines of the fat jokes because he’s heard them all before. People with that condition are often stereotyped or are figures of fun, like Homer Simpson, so this book might help to show how difficult their lives can be. Jared even claims that he chose college courses based on which lecture halls the classes were taught in. Because if the desks were fixed to the chairs, he couldn’t fit behind them.

He tried to lose weight by eating healthy homemade food and TV dinners. It didn’t work, but then he discovered Subway. And after learning that Subway offers sandwiches which contain under 6 grams of fat, he embarked on a completely new diet. Black coffee for breakfast, a turkey sub plus baked chips for lunch and a veggie sub plus baked chips for dinner. Every day.

That was the part I didn’t like. Even if he could stick with the same monotonous food day in and day out, that wasn’t a balanced diet – where were the Vitamin C and calcium, to name just two nutrients? I suppose that if you were used to eating 10,000 calories a day, most of them from Big Macs and pizza, anything would be an improvement, but the part where his doctor approved of the Subway diet seemed dubious at best.

On the plus side, he does make it clear that anyone wanting to lose weight has to find something individual that works for them. Switching to the all-Subway-all-the-time station worked for him, but he exercised as well, after losing about a hundred pounds.

So all in all, this book was an inoffensive (though not informative) read. I’d just have liked it to describe the nutritional content of more sandwiches, because I enjoy eating at Subway’s every now and then. Usually the meatball marinara.

To readers : if you eat at Subway, what’s your favorite sandwich?

Monday, January 17, 2011

Caste systems in fantasy

My favorite caste system is the one in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, where people are divided into groups ranging from Alpha to Epsilon. Epsilons, if I recall correctly, are deprived of oxygen and exposed to alcohol while still in gestation vats, to physically alter them to the point where they’re appropriately suited for their work and will fit into their caste.

That’s pretty radical a change. Most fictional worlds don’t go that far, though some can be as brutal. In the Holdfast, one of the last outposts of civilization in Suzy McKee Charnas’s The Slave and The Free, fems (women) are at the bottom of the totem pole, but men don’t have it easy either. Their divisions are age-stratified.

The appropriate attitude of an older man toward a younger was wary concern, not lust.

This makes the major caste divisions clear and unchangeable.

On the other hand, caste systems can also be based on some variation of warriors/priests/workers. Substitute magicians for priests where appropriate. Workers make up the largest class, much like the serfs of the feudal system, and tend to have the least power.

Though a fantasy with more interesting political elements may allow the worker class to elect representatives who take their concerns to the ruling council, and who are given at least some respect there.

And in a world where most of the work is done by machines or magic, it may be more difficult to segregate people along these lines. A caste system rarely remains untouched by an Industrial Revolution.

A caste system produces plenty of questions which can be used to shape the worldbuilding. For instance, can people ever rise out of their original strata within that society? Or is there downward mobility? Perhaps the equivalent of white-collar criminals are punished by being made to do blue-collar work.

Do different castes have different religions – or do they pray to different gods in the pantheon? Are certain parts of the city set aside for people of other castes? Maybe the plebs use common coin as money, while the patricians have a different type of currency. What about the results of interbreeding between castes – and if this never happens, why not?

Finally, for every person who hates this stratified system where all animals are equal, but some are more equal than others, there’ll be one who is just fine with The Way Things Are. And the second person won’t automatically be wrong for holding that viewpoint. Even in the most modern of societies there are such divisions – money, education, type of work, where you live, etc. I don’t think it’s something we can ever really overcome.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Five uses for salt in fantasy

Inspired by Felicity Savage’s novel Humility Garden, which is set on a world called Salt where there were literal fields of the stuff. People rarely ventured out into those because if the wind blew crystals of salt into their eyes, the crystals would grow there and blindness would result.

1. Salt circles

Magic circles can be drawn in salt, to either provide protection for whoever is within or to keep power contained within the circle.

To make it a bit more complex, different colors of salt could hold different kinds of magic within the circle. Aluminum chloride can be pale yellow, while copper (II) chloride is blue-green.

2. Salt armor

Not as practical as chain mail or plate, but slabs of salt might be an effective defense against creatures composed of snow or ice. I’d also love to see armor covered with long needles of salt, especially if these were wont to break off and fly at opponents.

3. Salt used to attract water

Useful in the desert – sprinkle salt in a hollow dug in the ground and wait for water to well up from below. Of course, that would also attract predators who can detect salt or water a mile away.

4. Salt lenses

I read somewhere that salt lenses are used with infrared lasers, but I just like the idea of looking through such lenses and seeing things invisible to the normal eye – things which might not want to be detected.

5. Salt sown into earth

Historically, convicted traitors in Spain and Portugal could expect to have their houses demolished and salt plowed into the ruins and the land, to ensure that nothing would grow there again.

But what if this was done as a cleansing measure to remove the taint from the earth, and what if it was believed to have worked, such that other people were encouraged to live there? What effect would the salt have on them?

I’d love to see the crystals becoming semi-sentient somehow – perhaps because the traitor was wrongfully convicted, and therefore there is no taint to destroy. And so the crystals try to show the new occupants the truth.

Image from :

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Yours for the Taking

There’s only one way for Ben Walsh to inherit the ranch from his grandfather – get married, something he has no interest in doing. So he proposes to a woman who’s even more commitment-phobic. Gina Reyez is also willing to do whatever it takes to secure her future, money-wise, and ten million dollars buys her cooperation in what’s going to be strictly a business deal.

Plus, she thinks he’s gay.

The marriage-of-convenience trope still works, even in contemporary novels like Robin Kaye’s Yours for the Taking
, and I liked the fact that Ben and Gina were clear from the start about their expectations in their marriage. Well, clear other than Ben not correcting her impression of which team he plays for, though that’s sorted out quickly after they inadvertently share a bed. But Gina also has to deal with Ben’s family, cope with an increasingly intimate relationship and hide the real reason she married him – the reason she needs his money.

The family contributed to the sheer number of characters, which could be confusing, especially since some have similar names. Ben’s cousins are Hunter, Trapper and Fisher, while Gina’s sister is Tina. Ben and Gina are also a little bit too perfect. Ben, as well as being filthy rich, is handsome, accomplished and a marvelous cook. The blurb on the back starts with “He might be too good to be true”, and he was indeed.

As for Gina, she was a bit too uber-hot. I like heroines to be attractive, but when the narrative as well as every male character comments on this, it becomes difficult to sympathize with them. She’s had a rough past, though, and it was easy to see why she would keep Ben at arm’s length – which she does until that secrecy backfires.

So in conclusion, this is an easy read that makes up in pacing and style what it lacks in characterization. I’d probably pick up another Robin Kaye novel – especially if it was about Rafael, Gina’s brother.

This novel was sent to me for a review by Sourcebooks and is a mass market paperback, $7.99 for 384 pages.

Saturday, January 8, 2011



Does anyone else dislike it when older books are altered to be more with-the-times, more politically correct?

The updating of Huckleberry Finn to remove the N-word is the best example of this, but I also noticed it with reprints of Enid Blyton books. Anyone who’s grown up in the United Kingdom or in one of its former colonies has probably been exposed to Enid Blyton books, and one of my favorites was the Malory Towers series. This is a set of books set in a boarding school and told from the point of view of a girl called Darrell as she goes from the first to the final form.

In the first book, Darrell is impulsive and still hasn’t learned to control her temper. Therefore, when she sees another girl being a bully, she slaps the girl hard – four times. Later on she realizes she was wrong to do so and apologizes.

In 2005 I started working at a school library in Dubai, and they had new copies of the Malory Towers series. I flipped through those, feeling happily nostalgic – until I came across the slapping scene. It had been rewritten so that Darrell shook the bully instead.

I couldn’t see the point of this. Is a shaking supposed to be less violent than slaps? Were there concerns that children would read the original scene and think it was all right to slap each other? It was especially puzzling since the original scene never painted the violence in a positive light, and instead showed that it was the wrong thing to do.

I kept on reading and realized that further changes had been made. Blyton’s books came out in 1940s and ‘50s, so of course things were different back then. In another boarding-school book, a girl receives a pound from her family and is overwhelmed by how much money this is.

Well, inflation has taken its toll, because Blyton’s schoolgirls now seem to get pounds as pocket money much more routinely. I think that’s sad. Sure, it may make the books more accessible for children these days. But to me, part of the books’ charm was that glimpse into another place and time, when people had different values. I don’t want to read an updated Little House on the Prairie where Laura gets a dollar in her Christmas stocking rather than a penny.

That being said, are there cases where older books could benefit from corrections? For instance, Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None was originally called Ten Little Niggers. And one of the girls in Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons is called Titty, though a film adaptation renamed her Kitty for obvious reasons.

On the whole, though, I think this should be done for better reasons than to keep older books in step with modern values. What do you think?

Friday, January 7, 2011


A blurb about shapeshifting aliens and flying motorcycles made Jon S. Lewis’s Invasion sound like a fun read. I requested this book from Thomas Nelson as part of their BookSneeze program, but soon I was struggling to finish it. YA speculative fiction is popular these days, but a book needs good worldbuilding, realistic characters and well-written prose to stand out from the crowd.

The story begins when Colt McAlister’s father drops him off for a day at a top-secret military training school – which has a mildly Ender’s Game feel – and he competes against other cadets while learning about an organization that protects Earth from aggressive extraterrestials. This part was enjoyable, but there was a moment during the combat practice that didn’t ring true, when Colt manages to defeat a far more practised opponent without even realizing what he’s doing.

I thought this anomaly would be explained later. Sadly, it’s par for the course. Throughout the story, Colt and his friends go up enemies of every kind and in every case, they escape or win. Usually very easily, because the robots have the worst aim ever, but with a little more difficulty in Colt’s mano a alieno showdown with the chief villain at the end. There was no suspense.

Part of the problem was that they faced down so many different assassins, robots, aliens and mind-controlled humans that I lost count. In Terminator 2, there was only one evil Terminator. Only one was necessary. Invasion, on the other hand, opts for quantity over quality, and the story suffers as a result. The aliens, for instance, are furred or scaled cliches who talk and behave exactly like humans, with the evil ones being six-armed lizard men. As for the human puppets, when they’re being mind-controlled, their eyes glow red.

The book may have been aiming for a pulp-SF feel – hence the jet packs, lizard men and a claim that the Nazis used technological mind control. This sadly never got recorded in the history books, but is the basis for a set of comic books which everyone in the story constantly refers to. Sixteen-year-old surfer/guitarist Colt – who is no Alex Rider, let alone Ender Wiggin – also gets the best scores in the military program’s history and is considered for the position of its director.

It was impossible to take this as serious fiction, but it might still have succeeded as campy space opera if not for the style.

Colt looked at Koenig’s bodyguard, then at Danielle. He hit the ignition switch on his jet pack, and it roared to life. He leapt. His shoulder rammed into Rainer’s midsection.

That’s a representative sample. Action scenes are reminiscent of a chess game – first one player moves a piece, then the other responds by moving another piece. During it all, the other pieces stand and patiently wait their turn. The descriptions are flat and minimal, though I did smile at the line where Colt’s grandfather mentions his friends Dale and Hank. Finally, on page 95 “two more Trident assassins repelled down through the debris”. I can’t tell whether there were more mistakes in the second half of the book, because I was skimming at that point.

This book may have a few interesting concepts – and the cover is great – but I can't recommend it.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Disease in fantasy

When I was fourteen, I read a book called The Black Death, which is now out of print. It described how the titular plague might spread through the modern United States, and the descriptions of its effects – on the cellular level – were fascinating, like an arms race.

That began my love of microbiology, and ever since then I’ve liked learning about diseases. Not to mention writing about them, especially in the context of my other fascination, fantasy.

In pre-modern societies, people weren’t often aware of the exact means of transmission, so diseases could be passed more easily. Medieval cities also tended to have poor water treatment and sewer systems, both of which contributed to the spread of disease. Port towns were especially vulnerable because sailors and shipments could bring infections from afar; even something as simple as flushing ballast tanks could introduce foreign microbes into the water supply.

People still had ways to deal with disease. As far back as prehistorical times, it was known that certain plants and plant compounds could be used to treat illnesses – the athelas of The Lord of the Rings, for instance. People with diseases could also be isolated – for instance, sent to leper colonies or sanatoriums. That kind of stigmatization happens even in modern times – as experienced by the main character of Stephen Donaldson’s Lord Foul's Bane.

Diseases in fantasy can be very interesting to devise. My favorite part is naming them –wasteaway, the crawling stripes, coldfever, milkeye (myxomatosis, which in Watership Down is called the “white blindness”), stoneskin, fingerfall (leprosy), the red cough (tuberculosis).

Then there’s the method of transmission. Diseases in fantasy can be transmitted in bizarre ways – through flies or butterflies or even plant pollen. They can be spread by fomites (inanimate objects). And, of course, they’re transmitted by hosts or carriers – who may or may not be aware of the fact that they’re spreading a disease.

In a fantasy world, that might even result in the host being changed into a walking repository for the disease, able to do little else but eat, to keep the organisms alive, and travel, to spread them.

Or the disease could be something that everyone in a society is born with. Star Trek: Voyager did a pretty good job of that with an alien race called the Vidiians, which was completely ravaged by “the Phage”. As a result, their bodies are a patchwork of different types of grafts and organs, scavenged from other species.

The disease might be caused by a curse, or it could be something cyclical – people start to become sick at dawn, are in the throes of the illness at noon, which is when some die, and recover as dusk approaches. The night is usually filled with feverish (no pun intended) activity, to prepare for the inevitable sickness ahead.

Disease in fantasy, as in the real world, can be heartbreaking and horrific… and extremely interesting.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Happy New Year!

May you all enjoy a wonderful 2011, with peace and prosperity in the year ahead of us.

And although I sometimes call this the Land of Always Winter, when I looked out just now, it was actually thawing a bit. Perhaps that's a good omen for the year ahead. Or it could just be global warming. Regardless, I'm going to spend my last couple of days of the winter break writing.