Monday, March 28, 2011

Bucking the status quo

All my manuscripts have something in common – a main character who goes against the established ways of a land or society.

I think this will continue to be the case, because it’s something I can identify with easily and it produces conflict. It’s also a theme in most of the books that I love. Protagonists who leave their little hidebound villages have become a cliché of fantasy, though, and that made me decide to write a little more about ways to get around this.

1. The status quo is not necessarily a bad thing.

Of course, it’s a little rarer to find fantasy heroes who are very much invested in making sure the current monarch remains in charge, or who want to improve their lives without leaving their village. But the system that’s in place may have been working for hundreds or thousands of years, which means there may be some merit to it.

2. Sympathetic characters can support the status quo as well.

Authorial bias shows only too clearly when all the good, decent characters come down on one side of an issue, while all the evil characters gibber and sneer from the other side of the dividing line.

Not only is this preaching to the choir, it can turn readers off. We know, often from personal experience, that disagreement on even the most controversial of topics doesn’t equal a moral failing. But not only is it more credible to have good people on both sides, it will engage the readers’ emotions as well. This way, they’re not certain that the author will allow the correct side to win. This way, someone they care about is going to be hurt.

That’s one reason George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series is so gripping. There are brave, loyal and above all three-dimensional people in every faction fighting for the throne. And some of them support usurpers – without being automatic antagonists for doing so.

3. The overturning of the current order should have consequences.

What happens after the Dark Lord is destroyed? Are the surviving trolls and orcs in his army or dungeons put to death? Pardoned? Rehabilitated? Who gets to keep his magical possessions or artifacts, and how can the new order make sure these are never used again?

I’d love to read a fantasy novel about what happens after the evil king is dethroned. What are the economical ramifications? How do ambassadors from other lands react? Do people flee the city, or is there rioting? Looting? If he has surviving relatives, how much of a threat do they pose, and what’s done about them?

This was the only thing I didn’t enjoy about Orson Scott Card’s Hart's Hope, which is otherwise a great fantasy novel. At the start, Palicrovol defeats the evil king but then has to cement his claim to the land by marrying and publicly deflowering the king’s young, unwilling daughter. It seemed to me that someone who ignored the law which said thou shalt not kill the king didn’t need to obey the one which said thou shalt marry the king’s daughter to rule the land.

4. Defying the established order can be the right thing done in a wrong way.

I have a world with different races that diverged from a human-like common ancestor. These races vary, sometimes very obviously, from the human-like norm and are often treated as second-class citizens. When a surgeon openly disapproves of this treatment of the Variants, he attracts several of them as his supporters.

It’s only later that people find out just how he deals with the prejudice. He uses his surgical skills to alter the appearances of Variants so that they no longer look different, and in the process he removes what makes them unique.

He may have the right idea – that people should be equal. But he’s going about it in a very wrong way.

5. The hero cannot change everything.

Sometimes the status quo can be so large and so monolithic that it’s unrealistic to have the protagonists upturn all of it. And in some cases, compromises may be easier for readers to buy than a wholesale revamping of the laws of a medieval world. Maybe they start a grassroots movement, or perhaps the book closes with a sense that things are going to change.

That’s better than a story which ends with the hero overthrowing the Dark Lord, making sure (feisty and attractive) women are allowed to serve in the military, smiling proudly as his black/gay/handicapped friend is finally accepted and welcomed by the people, and so on.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

All that twitters

There's room for one more on the Twitternet, right? I don't take up much space.

Though my blog posts and writing do. It should be interesting, trying to express myself in 140 characters or less. Facebook got me down to brief paragraphs, but this feels more like crisp soundbites.

And although I'm very pro-technology in principle, it's a different matter in practice. I'm still more comfortable with print media than e-books, for instance, so I feel at sea when it comes to Twitter. Though I already have a mental list of people to follow, so that's a start.

Fair warning if you decide to follow me, though - I sometimes make terrible medical-science-related puns. Like, "If you donate blood to someone but it doesn't help them, was the donation in vein?"

Follow MDPerera on Twitter

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Childrearing in speculative fiction

In a lot of speculative fiction – even that set on other worlds and taking place in other societies – the nuclear family is the norm. Parents raise children. But there are variations on this here on earth, and there can be even more pronounced differences elsewhere.

Some Native American tribes were matrilinear, meaning that descent was traced through maternal lines. A child was brought up by its mother and her oldest brother. One advantage was that they were sure that the child was related to them, whereas a biological father doesn’t always have the same certainty. I wouldn’t mind seeing a few alien societies like that.

Children can be reared communally (a la the kibbutz system) or by trusted and/or trained individuals other than their parents – nannies, guardians or household demons. In Suzy McKee Charnas’s Motherlines, children of the Riding Women are born into a small group of women – one of whom is the bloodmother, who actually gives birth and one of whom is the heartmother, who will be closest to the child. The others are sharemothers.

The system takes into account the fact that humanoid children require so much care that it can be difficult for one (or even two) people to provide it all. It may well take a village.

On the other hand, it doesn’t have to be the child’s own village. That’s the premise of Bernard Taylor’s The Godsend, which begins when a pregnant stranger seeks shelter at the home of a family with four small children. She gives birth that night, but seems curiously unattached to her baby daughter, and leaves the next morning - alone. The family decides to adopt the little girl.

When their youngest son dies suddenly, they believe the new baby is a godsend. At least they have someone to fill the void. Then another child dies… and the father remembers what cuckoos do with their young.

If certain traits – those that will be the most evolutionarily advantageous for passing on genes – are coded in those genes themselves, a child doesn’t need to be taught much by whoever raises it. Nature counts for more than nurture. It may need a parent to feed and protect it until it grows to adolescence, but that’s all. Or children might be born with an adult’s knowledge or memories, as they were in the universe of Dune if the mother underwent spice agony.

Children’s education is fun to imagine as well. The best story I ever read on this topic is R. A. Lafferty’s “Primary Education of the Camiroi”, in the anthology Asimov’s Extraterrestrials. The Camiroi have a rather unique way of bringing up children.

First Year Course:

Playing one wind instrument.
Simple drawing of objects and numbers.
Singing (this is important. Many Earth people sing who cannot sing. The early instruction of the Camiroi prevents that occurrence).

As someone raised in a family and culture that stressed achievement at all costs, I can sympathize. As for what’s done with children who fail (in the Camiroi, not in my original culture), well, there’s a judicious winnowing of the herd.

That could also be done in a race which produced dozens or hundreds of offspring and which couldn’t realistically allow them all to grow to adulthood. It’s not pleasant to contemplate. But it’s also not human, and that’s what makes it interesting.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Childbirth in speculative fiction

There’s an episode of The Outer Limits called “The Surrogate”, where a woman is implanted with an embryo that – unknown to her – belongs to an alien race living secretly among us. I was waiting for it to burst out of her belly like something from Aliens, but at the point of childbirth, the embryo took her body over completely, erasing any mental vestiges of the host.

“She” was quite calm and happy afterwards. That was the creepiest part.

Childbirth, the sometimes dangerous process that separates one life from another, has been a source of fascination and mystery for thousands of years. In Macbeth, the titular character is assured that “none of woman born” can harm him, but at the end of the play Macduff tells him that:

Macduff was from his mother’s womb
Untimely ripp’d.

Probably hinting at a primitive Caesarian section – if the mother’s life couldn’t be saved, someone decided to see if the baby could be removed alive. That makes me wonder, though. Could any special powers attach to babies who are delivered in this way, either because of the method of the delivery or because (in a medieval world) mothers would almost certainly give up their lives for it, whether voluntarily or not?

In The Verdant Passage, human/dwarf hybrids also result in the death of the mother during childbirth – plus, the hybrids are sterile. Realistic touch.

Males of the alien Tectonese species, in the television show Alien Nation, accept the developing embryos from females and then carry them until parturition – the seahorse principle, in other words. While this helps cement a pair-bond, it also means that the presence of both parents is required for the production of young, which may not be ideal.

Speaking of marine organisms, other humanoid species could mate as fish do. Deposit eggs, fertilize them and leave. The lack of parental care means they’ll have to produce thousands of eggs to ensure that at least a few of them survive, but that has other consequences too. What if humans discovered such an egg cache?

Childrearing in speculative fiction is next.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

The Floral Birthday Book

I've wanted this book for five years now, but it's out of print - and not to be found in the used-book stores, thrift shops, yard sales or even church rummage swaps of three different countries. So I bit the bullet and ordered it from a third-party seller on Amazon.

And while that lacked the thrill of finding a fifty-cent copy of the book at a flea market, which happened with Dean Koontz's out-of-print How to Write Best Selling Fiction, I was too happy to care. The Floral Birthday Book, illustrated by artist Bernard Carter, is a wonderful addition to my library.

I've always loved the Victorian language of flowers, partly because it's not all pretty. Some flowers represent love and passion and constancy, but others stand for grief, rejection and deceit. And Bernard Carter's book is a faithful reproduction of an earlier Victorian text, where each day of the year is assigned a flower, a characteristic embodied by that flower and a short piece of classical poetry.

The paintings of the flowers are not just detailed, they're realistic as well. My favorite is the dragonfly alighting on the water lily. Though one of my friends looked up her birth flower and it turned out to be gorse. I read out the part about gorse symbolizing enduring affection, but she just looked disappointed. "I got a weed?" she said.

Good thing she wasn't born on December 5. That has a painting of "Withered Leaves", which would probably have been even less delightful than the "weed".

As well as being fun to look at and read, this book is a great icebreaker - everyone wants to find out what their flower is, and what it means. So if you have any special days, let me know in the comments and I'll reply with the flower and its meaning.

This one is for dldzioba, though the fine print didn't show up too well in the scan. Click on the pictures to take a closer look or read the poems.

The flower is the globe amaranth, which means Unchangeable.

And for Neutral Fire's birthday...

That's the Cluster Rose, which means You are Charming. :)

Midterms and reviews

Midterms were tough. Thankfully this is the last semester with actual classes.

Clinical Chemistry : 84
Hematology : 81
Histotechnology : 77
Microbiology : 90

I really need to do better in histo.

But on the plus side, there's another review of Before the Storm. Bookingly Yours had some great comments about Alex, my heroine.

She bedded a lot of men, a typical day (or night) for her is getting laid by whoever Lord Garnath chooses. I like her character. She's strong even though she's been abused most of her life.

I'd say one reason she's strong is because she's been abused. Potatoes become softer in boiling water, but eggs get harder. Alex is very much an egg.

Finally, it's my birthday today! There won't be any celebrations until the weekend - too many tests and assignments due before then - but I'm planning a party for Saturday. Weeks ago I made (and froze) both Sri Lankan fish cutlets and shredded spicy chicken to use in quesadillas - I'm all over the map when it comes to food. But after that I haven't had time to do anything else except make place cards, so there's a lot of cleaning and tidying and cooking ahead. It's going to be worth it, though.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Tips on working with small presses

Writers don’t have too many questions when it comes to the major publishers. Not only are Random House or Grand Central well-established, writers who are accepted here generally have agents who can advise them.

But what about small presses? There’s a bewildering array of these, from reputable houses to enthusiastic but new micropresses, including everything in between.

1. How should a writer investigate a small press before submitting to it?

Speaking to other authors who are published there is always a good idea, as long as you ask the right questions. It’s usually best to find out about editing, distribution and sales. An inquiry about whether the authors are happy may receive a yes, but their definition of happiness might involve seeing their book in print (with sales being irrelevant or editing unwanted).

Scarlett Parrish, who’s published with Carnal Passions and Loose Id, offered a tip:

"…buy a few of their books to see if this is a press you want to be associated with. Too many writers are swayed by a contract offer and they could be getting shafted by a bunch of cowboys. Do your homework first."

This is great advice, because from reading a press’s books, you’ll learn three things :

1. Are the press’s books readily available? Can you find them on major online stores, or are they only available through the publisher’s website?

2. Are the books reasonably priced? If you won’t pay $20 for someone else’s paperback, who’s going to pay $20 for yours?

3. Are the books edited and as error-free as possible?

Before signing with Samhain I read two of their books and at least a dozen excerpts that were available on their website.

2. What potential red flags should writers look for when checking out these presses?

This is tougher, because while a publisher asking for money is clearly a vanity press, some of the stealthier scams shift their fees to the back end and lure writers in with the promise that they won’t have to pay anything up front.

Read over the publisher’s website. That should be updated regularly and free of errors. A press which makes spelling errors on its own website isn’t one I’d trust with my manuscripts.

Another red flag is a website geared towards new writers rather than towards readers. What is the publisher offering? To make the dreams of writers come true, or to provide customers with a great read?

Publishers appeal to their money source. If that isn’t the readers, it’s the writers.

The website should also show what genres the press accepts. If it takes everything, that’s a warning sign. A publisher can’t adequately specialize in every genre.

Be cautious with publishers who have just opened their doors, unless they’re being run by professionals with experience, resources and known authors. One such press – which did have experienced staff – closed before it was even open to submissions. It’s best to make sure that a publisher is established, selling books and lasting the distance.

3. What kind of experience do the staff have?

The publisher should have a webpage about their staff – as an example, here are some of the people at Angry Robot. Check how long the editors have been working there, and if they mention authors or books they’ve handled, do an Amazon search.

To me, this is one way to separate reputable small presses from amateur micropresses. Such micropresses are often run on good intentions by people who may not have much experience in the industry. This should also show whether the press really does have staff, or whether it’s a front for self-publishing the work of one author – like Reagent Press.

Finally, one of my personal red flags (which may or may not be a problem for other writers) is a press where authors also work as editors. That not only implies a shortage of staff, it makes me wonder about the author’s qualifications for the new position. I asked Stacia Kane for her thoughts on this, and she replied,

“I personally am not crazy about it, because I want my editor to be an editor only (just like I want my agent to be an agent only), but there's nothing unethical or anything about it.

I would want to know how open that was, though. Some of those tiny start-ups have two dozen author names listed but they're all pen names for one writer/editor, and that just smacks of vanity press or trying to be deceptive. They may not be doing it on purpose, and they probably aren't deliberately trying to deceive, that's just how it can feel.”

I hope this will help any writer who’s interested in submitting to a small press, but not sure where to start with investigating them.

Many thanks to Scarlett Parrish, whose hot menage By the Book was published by Loose Id.

And much appreciation for the feedback from Stacia Kane, who’s been published through both Ellora’s Cave and Del Rey – I enjoyed her urban fantasy Unholy Ghosts.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

An Amish Love

This book has one of the simplest, prettiest covers I've ever seen on a romance - perfect for its theme. So I requested it from Thomas Nelson as part of their BookSneeze program, and I wasn't disappointed with what was inside the covers either. An Amish Love is a collection of three novellas set in the same Amish community.

Amish romances are quite different from my usual reading fare. If a regular romance featured a heroine who only wanted to be a homemaker, and whose bedroom door remained almost as shut after marriage as before, I wouldn't enjoy it. But I knew what to expect when I started this book, and it's different when this is the normal way of life. It's a glimpse into another culture, rather than the author's own standards showing.

That, and I enjoyed the premise of the first of the three novellas in the book. In "A Marriage of the Heart" by Beth Wiseman, Abigail wants to leave her father's cold, loveless house by any means necessary - not that many are available to a young Amish woman. So she tells him that Joseph Lambert, a newcomer to the community, was forward with her. Joseph's rather shady past means people are likely to believe her claim rather than any denials he might make.

Except Joseph turns the tables - he makes no denial at all, figuring that a wife might be just what he needs to integrate himself into the community. And after the shotgun wedding, he offers to move into her house and work for her father.

These stories might not be action-filled or racy, but they've got enough conflict to keep me reading. Ellie, the heroine of Kathleen Fuller's "What the Heart Sees", was blinded in an accident, and Christopher was shunned by the community because he tried to press charges against the man who caused the accident. That man also happens to be Ellie's cousin.

Finally, in Beth Wiseman's story "Healing Hearts", Levina Lapp and her husband Naaman succumb to empty-nest syndrome after their grown children leave home. So Naaman leaves as well, only to return a year later to a wife who naturally distrusts him.

I liked this story because of the older couple and their realistic backstory, but a twist at the end didn't work. A sheriff appears in the town, searching for Naaman, and everyone engages in near-farcial behavior to keep the two of them apart, believing that Naaman did something illegal during his year away. Would any author set up such a subplot in the last few pages of an inspirational novella?

Other than that, this book was an easy and pleasant read. The characters eat so much delicious-sounding food that the reader might feel peckish as well, but there are recipes for teaberry cookies and cream cheese brownies at the back of the book. I'd definitely try more of Thomas Nelson's Amish romances.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

How not to respond to reviewers

angry dog

The Author’s Big Mistake is responding defensively to criticism from reviewers (or worse, trying to sue them). But there’s another kind of mistake authors can make in this regard, and that’s reacting less than professionally when a reviewer declines to take a look at their books. It happened to me on a discussion board.

I mentioned that I’d once read and reviewed certain self- and vanity-published books, but hadn’t enjoyed most of them. In fact, I wasn’t even able to get through two of the books that were sent to me. So I decided not to review self-published books unless they were by an author I was familiar with or they had received fantastic professional reviews.

I didn’t think this decision was offensive, but here are some of the responses it got.

1. The guilt trip

“If you have a blanket policy against reading self-published books, you are not doing your job as a reviewer, and you are doing self-published authors a great wrong.”

The only job description of a reviewer is “Write as truthful as possible a review of whatever book you read”. It isn’t “read everything regardless of publisher”. And there are some review websites which will only look at self-published books – are those reviewers doing commercially published authors a great wrong?

There are far too many books out there for any one person to read them all, therefore most reviewers set standards. Some don’t read certain genres, some don’t want certain formats and so on, but it’s nothing personal against the authors.

2. The challenge

“I challenge you to try the first ten to twenty pages of any self-published book that someone recommends.”

I feel as though I’ve already taken this challenge once by reviewing some self-published books. And there are a lot of commercially published books I’d like to read, books which have been vetted by agents and/or editors. Shouldn’t I take the challenge with these books first?

Plus, I’ve visited many authors’ websites that didn’t provide excerpts (or didn’t subscribe to Amazon’s “Look Inside” feature). Even the author giving me the challenge mentioned that “I do have a page and a half on my site...but only that, they don't allow the 20 page challenge”. What to do under those circumstances?

Most of all, though, the only challenges I feel a need to respond to are the ones I set for myself.

3. The request for help

“Honest reviews help self-published authors improve.”

That depends on the author. If a writer went into self- or vanity-publishing, chances are they’re not accustomed to specific criticism of their work from agents or editors, and may not react well to that from reviewers. There are self-published writers who have editors and who accept critical feedback graciously, but I’ve also seen enough unpleasant reactions to make me cautious.

But even if every author behaved professionally under those circumstances, I could still not agree that reviewers are under an obligation to help any authors, no matter how they’re published. It’s nice if they do so, but it’s not the primary reason I read or review books.

4. The insult

“I guess broadening your horizons is not for you.”

Alas, this didn’t make me want to check out the writer’s book.

It’s best not to react this way when someone turns you down, even if you’re disappointed. I sometimes bend my policy for a polite and professional self-published author, but I have no reason to do so for an author who’s defensive or rude.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Spunk and Bite

I like discussing and critiquing characterization and plot devices, but it’s much more difficult to do the same with style. That’s not just individual, it’s incredibly flexible. It’s influenced by several factors, including the author, the concept, the genre, the time period during which the story is set and so on. And very often, books on writing will warn you what not to do – e.g. no head-hopping, no adjectivitis – without giving you an idea of what you can do, who’s tried it before and how it worked for them.

Enter Spunk & Bite: A Writer's Guide to Bold, Contemporary Style.

If you ever wanted to play with punctuation, coin new terms and push the envelope right out of the ballpark, this is worth a look. It’s crammed with information that I might have found dry and scholarly in another context – much as I love writing, I find terms like “enallage” and “catacosmesis” a bit difficult to remember. But the author, Arthur Plotnik, always provides vivid examples, not to mention quotes ranging from Walt Whitman to Harry Potter.

Catacosmesis delivers statements in descending order of importance, often ending with a surprising triviality : I ask for peace, prosperity, and a bagel with cream cheese.

I still think whoever coined that term could have come up with something easier to remember, but to balance it out I learned miniphor - a subset of the metaphor. The chapter on colors is a paintbox in prose, with figures of speech like “an orange dress the color of a mussel’s lip”. It’s like a more fun version of a thesaurus. And there are quizzes at the end of each chapter.

Adverbs, tenses, semi-colons, onomatopoeia, neologisms, dialogue tags or the lack thereof - I knew before I started that chapter it would reference Cold Mountain - dangling modifiers and “the poetry of lists”... this book has it all. Rather than a dry, do-this-don’t-do-that guide, it’s a jostling crowd of fascinating factoids which makes it clear that writers, on paper at least, can get away with (almost) anything.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Bridges in fantasy

Bridges are interesting even in the context of reality. I like looking down from them, especially if they’re above water. But they can be really fascinating in speculative fiction.

There’s a story called “A Thing of Beauty”, set in a future where Japan is the dominant world power and the United States is reduced to selling off national monuments. The main character sells a visiting Japanese businessman a famous bridge – yes, you guessed it, the Brooklyn Bridge. It’s got a happy ending for both involved, though.

In a fantasy, a bridge can connect lands – or worlds. Prehistoric people traveled to the North American continent via a land bridge, after all. Whether a river or a chasm separates two lands, a magically built bridge could still cross it.

Of course, it would probably be guarded at both ends and people or shipments traveling over it would have to be screened. Such bridges might also have cultural and/or political significance. Maybe the two nations built them as signs of alliance or peace. And if such a bridge was the only means of travel and trade for an isolated land, it would make an even more important target for terrorists or for an invading enemy.

Bridges could be made of unusual materials. Salt, ice, cobwebs, bones. In a role-playing gamebook I once read (Blood Sword 5: The Walls of Spyte), the characters traverse a chasm by crawling through the dessicated exoskeleton of a giant insectile creature that lies with its head on one side of the chasm and its tail within the ruined city wall on the other side.

Or the bridge might still be alive – for instance, it could be a huge worm or serpent that’s continually fed to keep it quiescent, so that people can walk into its propped-open mouth and travel the twelve kilometres to the other side.

Bridges don’t necessarily have to lead to the same place each time. One thing I enjoyed about the original Doctor Who series was that the Doctor was rarely if ever in control of where he was going. He could end up anywhere. I’d love to see a bridge like that, with one end disappearing into fog. People would be simultaneously afraid and fascinated by it.

They might try rituals and practices supposed to influence the bridge into taking them where they wanted – and it would be up to the writer to decide whether or not those worked.

Bridges could connect two times, rather than two places – if different parts of a city were medieval, industrial or modern, (like the TV show The Crystal Maze), there might be no way to travel from one to another except over the Zonebridges. And in a dark fantasy, who’s to say what might live under the bridge, emerging only to drag down anyone who didn’t drop the required price of passage?

Finally, a bridge might be perfectly mundane in and of itself and where it goes. But it could cause subtle changes in anyone who crosses it – and those would be limited only by the writer’s imagination.