Sunday, May 27, 2012

The story of Katherine and the fish

After living in Iqaluit for two weeks now, I've had some... interesting, shall we say?... experiences, but before I get too deep into those, here's a story one of my co-workers told me about her attempt at ice-fishing.

So Katherine went out on to the ice to try her luck, and she stayed there for what felt like several freezing hours without a bite. Nearby, though, an Inuk woman was at a similar hole in the ice, pulling out big fish after big fish with ease.

Finally Katherine felt a tug on her line. Excited, she hauled on it, only to bring up a tiny fish the length of her finger.

The Inuk woman looked over at it. Obviously trying to be encouraging, she said, "Catch eleven more of those and you can make soup!"

At that moment a large raven swooped down, grabbed Katherine's fish and flew off.

The Inuk woman said, "Twelve."

Friday, May 11, 2012

Movin' On Up

I've been offered a job in Iqaluit, which is a little distance from Toronto (see map for further details). It's a four-month contract position, so I should be back before the winter really sets in, which is a bit of a relief since winter temperatures in Iqaluit can get down to -45 C. -65, with wind chill. You can see how close the place is to the Arctic Circle, which means the sun rises just after 3 am.

It's going to be quite the experience. I've never lived anywhere so far north; apparently that's all permafrost, so there are no trees or even much vegetation. Iqaluit is also the only territorial capital which is not connected by highways to the mainland, so all groceries have to be shipped or flown in except for local fare such as caribou, seal and Arctic char. I'm going to be flying up there Monday morning, and I don't know how reliable my Internet connection will be after that, but I'll use any free time (when I'm not working or taking in the local culture) to get some writing done.

Wish me luck, guys!

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Ella Minnow Pea

The island-state of Nollop was named after Nevin Nollop, who devised the pangram “The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog”. His accomplishment is commemorated in a memorial monument with 35 tiles spelling out his immortal sentence.

The problem begins subtly, though, when the Z tile falls off.

Ella Minnow Pea, one of the islanders, writes to her cousin Tassie to explain that the islanders’ Council has met to discuss the implications of this. They conclude that, rather than the tile’s fall being a random event, it must be a sign from the island’s favorite son. Nollop no longer wishes the letter Z to be used, and therefore it must be removed from use and vocabulary.

Mark Dunn’s Ella Minnow Pea: A Novel in Letters tells the story of how the island’s community and culture spirals down from there. Eliminating the Z doesn’t seem too difficult at first, but when Tassie’s mother, a teacher, accidentally refers to twelve eggs in a different way, one of her students reports her to the Council. Penalties are imposed for such misdeeds, and a third offense means banishment from the island.

The Q drops off next, and the J. As news spreads, the editor of an American journal arrives with the news that chips from the broken tiles have been smuggled to a laboratory for analysis. The glue affixing the tiles to the monument is faulty, and chemists predict that more tiles will fall.

As that happens, the islanders’ vocabulary shrinks along with their numbers. People who have not been banished have fled; those who remain have to change their names to avoid forbidden letters. And Ella tries her best to devise a new pangram that will replace Nollop’s all-but-deified sentence, because only this will convince the Council to relent.

Tiles plop. 8 tiles plomp plomp plomp all in one nite.
Tee ent is near.
So lon A!
So lon E! (Nise to no ewe.)

The book starts sedately, but once the islanders take their first steps on to the slippery slope of censorship and totalitarianism, the plot picks up speed. It’s both fascinating and unnerving to see how fear eats away at their common sense and social structure, turning otherwise good people into informers and fundamentalists. And yet the story unfolds with both elegance and humor, such as when the Council sends written notice of deportation to a woman, concluding with: “You may bring two suitcases. We will permit, also, one hatbox.

As well as being an engaging satire, this is a great read for anyone who enjoys the written word. It was on my must-buy list, and now it’s on my shelf.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

The Writer’s Essential Tackle Box

When it comes to books about writing and publication, Lynn Price’s The Writer's Essential Tackle Box is a great all-rounder. I’d recommend it to any new writers, and some chapters would be interesting to those of us who have been around the block a few times as well.

The book is divided into four sections—interviews with industry professionals, the submission process, publishers and troubleshooting problems in manuscripts. My favorite section was the first one, which showed the perspectives of the numerous people involved in getting a book from its writer to bookstore browsers. If you ever wondered what a book shepherd did, how professional cover designers pick colors or how distributors accept clients, this is the go-to book. Also, just a couple of the familiar names in the interview section were Victoria Strauss of Writer Beware and Laurie McLean of Larson Pomada Literary Agents, so this is quality information.

The second section covers query letters, pitches, log lines and synopses, but the most entertaining part was, as always, the what-not-to-do chapter. The SASE that was actually an empty coconut, the chocolate that melted in the envelope and the flower-scented envelope that had little hearts dotting the i’s.

It felt inherently wrong to put a rejection letter into something so frilly and fluffy. This was a happy envelope that should hold happy things… I swear I could see its little paper edges begin to curl and the little hearts deflate.

If I had a complaint, it would be that I’d read the horror stories about the dark side of publishing before, on Lynn Price’s blog, but there’s something to be said for a book that gathers them all together and adds plenty of new material. I thought I’d read her "Punctuation Beerfest" before as well, but it was fun to see this for a second time, and to have it close at hand in this book. I might not call this book “essential”, but it was a lot of other e’s – educational, energetic and entertaining. For everyone.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

I did it!

After much studying and even more worrying, I passed the national certification exam of the Canadian Society for Medical Laboratory Sciences. I made it! I'm the prettiest! Uh, well, not that last one.

The last few days of waiting for the results were the worst, because I started dreaming about the damn results, or lack thereof. I was also consumed with the utterly irrational fear that I had forgotten to sign the form that came with the exam, meaning the whole thing would have been invalidated. But it's finally over. Now I can celebrate! And get a job, of course.

*dances around*

Monday, March 19, 2012

Five uses for sharks in fantasy

1. Variety

Go beyond the Great White. Sharks come in an incredible range of shapes, sizes, colors and types. As well as the hammerheads, there are thresher sharks, where the upper part of the tail can be as long as the shark itself, and sawsharks have long serrated snouts to slash prey.

Megamouth sharks, as the name suggests, swim along with their giant mouths open to swallow and filter plankton. Cookiecutter sharks are small, but they feed by gouging out round plugs of flesh from larger animals, hence their name. What’s scarier than this? The fact that they sometimes travel in schools.

And the names of milk and angel sharks just sound cute.

2. Scouts

If I lived in or on the sea, I can’t think of anything else I’d rather have watching out for me than a shark.

As well as some species being able to detect one par per million of blood in seawater, others have external features that further enhance their senses—the hammerhead’s widely spaced eyes, for instance, or the nurse shark’s whiskerlike tactile organs. Their lateral lines contribute to their hearing.

The most fascinating sensory feature they have, though, is the ampullae of Lorenzini, electroreceptor organs that detect the electromagnetic fields all living organisms produce. I keep trying to imagine what sensing these must be like, how the sea appears to a shark in consequence, and if there’s any way to deceive or circumvent such a sensory system.

3. Weresharks

I rarely read books about shifters—burned out on werewolf novels a long time ago—but if there’s a book about people who turn into sharks, that will be the exception. It would just be a great change from wolves and big cats. One caveat: the weresharks shouldn’t be mindless killing machines to be destroyed in the end or destined for soup. They have too much story potential for that.

4. Despots

But do you want terrifying, thousand-fanged leviathans of the deep? Go for the ocean version of the mob boss.

These sharks patrol a territory and every other creature within it pays tribute by bringing in prey (such as luring unsuspecting humans in?) or sacrificing members of their own species which are weak, ill or which have just pissed off the rest of their shoal. In return, the sharks defend their territories fiercely, especially from rival sharks. Better the devil you know…

5. Submarines

The world is covered with water, or the land is just not habitable. People have to live beneath the sea, but why go to all the trouble of building submersiles that must be maintained and resupplied when the submarine could carry out self-repairs and defend itself?

Living inside a creature that dwarfs a megalodon would be an interesting experience. Such a shark would have to be genetically modified to contain living spaces for humans, and to reroute oxygen to interior chambers. Though a convincing argument would have to be made for the humans being symbiotes rather than parasites on a creature which could do very well without them.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

"Your cells will make you immortal."

In 1951, Henrietta Lacks lay in a "colored" ward of the Johns Hopkins Hospital, losing a battle against an aggressive type of cervical cancer. She was thirty-one. When she died, she left behind five children, the youngest not even a year old.

She left behind something else, though--something taken from her without her permission or even her knowledge. When she was operated on, the doctors took a sample of tissue from her cervix and tried to make the cells grow.

The science of cell culture was still in its infancy at the time, mostly because human cells were difficult to propagate in vitro. Experimenting to find any cells which would grow well in a flask, doctors tried hundreds of patient samples. Informed consent wasn't considered necessary or even relevant at the time. None of the samples yielded results; the patients' cells died.

But Henrietta's... didn't.

HeLa, as the cells are now known, were the first immortal human cell line to be grown in a laboratory; they can multiply an infinite number of times provided they have the right growth conditions. Even compared to other cancer cells, they grow fast. Highly adaptable, they can become airborne to infect other cell cultures in the same laboratory.

They revolutionized cell biology and virology. HeLa cells were used to test the first polio vaccine and used to create the first hybridomas--cell lines producing large quantities of antibodies. They were shipped all over the world and sent into outer space.

Slowly, a multi-billion dollar industry selling human biological materials was born.

The tragedy, though, was that no one told Henrietta's children about any of this. Her name was revealed in the media for the first time in 1971, and her children only learned of the industry surrounding her cells in 1975. They struggled to deal with the fact that people were buying and selling cells from the mother they never knew, when they couldn't even afford medication.

"I would like some health insurance so I don’t got to pay all that money every month for drugs my mother cells probably helped make."

Rebecca Skloot researched and vividly described The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. Ever since she took a biology class in college, she was curious about the unknown person behind HeLa, the woman who was buried in an unmarked grave, yet who impacted science--and medical ethics--long after her death, and the mother who left behind a daughter longing to know more about her.

Finally the cells popped into view for Deborah. And through that microscrope, for that moment, all she could see was an ocean of her mother's cells, stained an ethereal fluorescent green.
"They're beautiful," she whispered.

Striking a perfect balance between the science and the people involved, this book was a New York Times bestseller. Although I knew of some failures of medical ethics, such as the Tuskegee syphilis study, others were new (and horrifying for someone who studied medical laboratory technology in a different time and place). Most of all, though, this is the story of an ordinary family who learn about an extraordinary legacy from a woman who should be remembered for her life, and death, and immortality.

Read an excerpt here.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012


For most of my life, my tastes in music were predictable. I liked pop and New Age/Celtic, so my playlists featured Enya and Michael Jackson, with Roxette and Loreena McKennitt backing them up.

But then I heard a Finnish symphonic metal band called Nightwish.

Heavy metal, or any kind of metal with loud drums, electric guitars and snarled lyrics, didn’t work for me. What hooked me on Nightwish, though, was their unusual combination of the drums and guitars with a truly operatic voice—their singer, Tarja Turunen, has an incredible vocal range. As a result the songs have a sense of depth and drama, and the lyrics often contribute to this as well. “Wishmaster” references both The Lord of the Rings and DragonLance, while "7 Days to the Wolves" is inspired by Stephen King’s Wolves of the Calla.

Nightwish and Tarja Turunen parted ways in 2005, however, and while I listened to a few of their songs after that period, they never quite did it for me. The band had a new vocalist, Anette Olzon, but her voice was just too different—the grand soaring quality was gone. I’m not so invested in music that that came as a disappointment, though, so I just listened to the Nightwish songs I did like, and thought it ended there.

Then I heard of their latest album, Imaginaerum. Maybe it was the name, the lovely cover, or just curiosity which made me listen to a few of the songs, but… they’re superb. Fast-paced but haunting, infused with atmosphere, just right for a night carnival, a dark-side-of-the-mind wonderland and an “Imaginarium/dream emporium”.

I am the voice of Never-Never land,
The innocence, the dreams of every man,
I am the empty crib of Peter Pan…

Last Ride Of The Day evokes a roller-coaster ride under the moon. Turn Loose The Mermaids is another of my favorites—sad and dreamy at the start, yet seguing into an energetic C-part that’s apparently influenced by spaghetti westerns.

Then again, the album is the soundtrack for an musical fantasy film, and it shows—the songs reflect the panorama of the big screen. Anette’s voice fits perfectly with this new style. I don’t think Nightwish will ever reach that operatic plateau they did in the past, but they don’t need to—they’re brilliant, bold and evocative. Metal has never been easier to listen to.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Word counters

Does anyone else use a word counter when working on a novel or story? If you know the length you're aiming for (in words or chapters), it's fun to watch the little counter inching along towards your goal.

I usually use Ticker Factory. It's got a lot of different styles to play with, so the counter can be customized for any setting. Here's the one for the book I'm working on right now:

Now, back to writing.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Fake literary agents

Writer Beware’s latest blog post referenced this literary agent profile. It’s either hilarious or jawdropping or both.

I'm an hungry hunter... YES, but only of... bestsellers!!!

Maybe there’s so much merda taurorum on this page that even the greenest of newbies will steer clear. I’d like to believe that. I really would.

Our policy is FREE (for first reading!) and very different from other agents:
1. We accept to read all your book (the first 3 chapters, in my opinion, are not sufficient to judge the whole book! They are sufficient only to mock you!).

Scammers are usually consistent in telling writers what they want to hear. We’ll read your book from cover to cover. We’ll reply fast. We respect you. We believe in your dream. Sometimes they go further—hopeful clients were conned out of hundreds of thousands of pounds by Robin Price, who told them Johnny Depp and Martin Scorsese were among his contacts. He was convicted in 2011, not that that’ll help the retiree who mortgaged his house to pay Price.

I entered “fake literary agents” into Google, just to see what cropped up. One result was an article about the increasing number of literary scams in India, which was something new, so I read it with interest. Unfortunately, the advice it gave about how to avoid such scams was not very good.

Talk to them: All these agents have fancy websites and online profiles. However, a chat with them over the phone can be a revelation. It is very important to know about their intellectual level and the seriousness with which they are going to try and place your book.

Firstly, this may work with legitimate agencies in India. I can’t say how they operate. I really hope, though, that aspiring authors don’t try it with agencies in the States.

Secondly, it’s easy to say “talk to them”, but do writers know what kinds of questions to ask? If they’re inexperienced, scammers will find it easy to take them in. Anyone can make any kinds of promises over the phone, and some salespeople come off as very convincing.

Finally, “intellectual level”? An agent can have a PhD or be a member of Mensa, but this is irrelevant to the question of whether they’re experienced at selling books.

Talk to some of the authors these agents claim to have represented: A candid feedback from them can be invaluable.

Talking to authors is a step up from talking to agents, but again… what are the questions to ask?

“Hi, I was wondering if you’re happy with your agent.”

“Oh yes. I signed up with him last week and I couldn’t be more thrilled. He made my dream come true.”

This is certainly candid feedback, but it’s not going to help the first writer make an informed decision. Plus, some writers are honest about mistakes they’ve made and some aren’t. I know someone who signed with PublishAmerica because she asked two PA authors about their experiences—and they both provided glowing reports that failed to mention overpriced books, lack of availability, poor royalties and so on. New writers need better information than that, or at the very least, they need to know where to go to get such information if they want it.

This Is Nothing Like An Official FAQ – from Absolute Write’s Bewares and Background Checks forum.
Writer Beware.
Preditors and Editors
Publisher’s Lunch – a free ezine with the latest industry news and a weekly deal report. People who claim major publishers don’t sign unpublished writers have never seen one of these deal reports.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Starting with trauma

Fun activity: outlining a new manuscript.
Problem: characterization – specifically, of the hero, Flecton Burwood.

I had a bit of a backstory for him. What I didn’t have was a good grasp of how he thought, what flaws he had, or what he liked about the heroine. Then I asked myself a question.

Hey, Marian, I said. If, from the ages of eight to thirteen, you lived in fear that your charming older cousin would secretly kill you, what would you be like now?

This was the most important part of Flecton’s backstory, by the way. When he was eight, his twelve-year-old cousin Leighton came to live in Burwood Hall. Flecton had two sisters, so he was happy to finally get what he thought would be a big brother.

Leighton was happy too. He wanted to be the master of Burwood Hall, and the only thing standing in his way was the heir.

The first accident killed one of Flecton’s sisters and put him on his guard, but Leighton was too clever and too patient to be caught. After the second accident and Flecton’s narrow escape, he accused Leighton, only to be punished by his parents for telling such horrible lies. This only ended when his father died (of natural causes) when Flecton was thirteen. He became the master of Burwood Hall, and Leighton lost no time in heading for the hills before anything could happen to him.

So getting back to my question, what would I be like if I were Flecton?

Cagey. I wouldn’t trust anyone easily. I’d sleep with a weapon in the room. I’d be over-prepared for danger. I would double-check doors to make certain they were locked.

I’d also have some less rational habits. Like having some kind of weird little ritual to remember the past or protect myself, something that really doesn’t make sense to an outsider or looks bizarre but which kept me more or less sane when I was a child.

I would find it difficult to enjoy life. I might have few qualms about listening to private conversations because hey, maybe that once saved my life when I was a kid. Also, because I didn’t know whether I would live out the day as a child, I’d be even more of a control freak than I currently am.

Suddenly I had a lot of material about Flecton. Plus, now I really want to give him a happy ending.

Starting with a major trauma and extrapolating how that might affect someone will only work for some characters, and they’ll need traits or habits that are not caused or influenced by the trauma, or else they’ll look pretty one-note. But it worked for Flecton, especially since the heroine is direct, well-balanced and can enjoy life.

Too bad he sees her making out with his cousin…

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Five monobiome worlds

1. Plants

Sheri S. Tepper’s Grass begins with a lyrical description of the world—how the grass forms hills and dunes that fall away into valleys of grass. The colors are different—some grass might be more blue than green, some yellowing—but it’s all a single great endless sea of grass.

Jungle planets fall into the same category—the future Earth in Brian Aldiss’s Hothouse is one. A true Daisyworld isn’t ecologically feasible, but more biodiversity can be added—or the single-species system itself could be sustained through some alternate method, such as magic.

2. Ice

There’s the planet of Winter in Ursula K. LeGuin’s classic The Left Hand of Darkness, and any SF story about an expedition to the outer giants of the solar system or their moons is likely to describe such conditions.

I’d love to read about iceworlds in a fantasy setting, though, where the characters have fewer hi-tech resources to help them survive. It would be especially cool, no pun intended, for the perfectly preserved corpses of woolly mammoths and so on to be found entombed in the ice—or, for that matter, utilized by the people.

3. Sand

Arrakis, the world described in Frank Herbert’s Dune, is a great example of this, but a far more frightening sandland is the one in Stephen King’s short story “Beachworld”. Not only is there no water to relieve the endless miles of sand, the sand itself is sentient, seeping into machinery to damage it and hypnotizing one of the astronauts into swallowing great handfuls of it.

4. Water

Reviews of Waterworld don’t paint it as promising, but such a biome has a lot going for it. Even if the people haven’t physically altered to handle such an environment (growing gills, being able to hold their breath for long periods), they could adapt in other ways. A tamed dolphin helps protect the ship-city of Armada in China Mieville’s The Scar (the book for sea adventure), but I’d love to see something other than dolphins or killer whales in such a role. A plesiosaur, maybe.

5. Fire

Perhaps not literal fire, but a world like Venus would be interesting.

Everywhere I look, all across the expansive basaltic plains, geysers and fumaroles belch up sulfurous plumes of smoke.

Volcanic features, water reserves deep underground, physical modifications to cope with high CO2 levels and most of all, lots and lots of volatile, dangerous and potentially explosive chemical compounds. What’s not to love?

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Watership Down

Watership Down is my favorite fantasy novel.

Yesterday I reread it with a more critical eye so I could review it. The book was first published in 1972 and the style reflects this to some extent. Descriptions of the English countryside tend to be lengthy, as do infodumps (and the narrative includes some explanations in parentheses)1. Kehaar’s dialect can be painful—but thankfully it was kept to a minimum, as opposed to the tod’s speech in Adams’s The Plague Dogs—and it was difficult not to think of General Woundwort as the rabbit Hitler.

This is still an amazing novel. I could reread it again and enjoy it just as much.

The story starts off simply. Hazel’s younger brother Fiver senses that a great danger is coming to their warren, and they all need to leave. To the Chief Rabbit, this is nonsense, but Hazel trusts Fiver’s intuition and the readers know of the notice-board set up nearby to say that the surrounding land is going to be “developed with high class modern residences”.

Hazel and Fiver decide to leave, and a few other rabbits join them. Of those, Bigwig, so named because of the thatch of fur on his head, is my favorite: he’s blunt, loyal, tough, always ready for a fight and not inclined to respect authority unless that authority accomplishes the near-impossible task of earning his respect. And Blackberry is the clever one of the group—he figures out how to cross rivers by sitting on flat pieces of wood that float.

That’s one of the things I love about this book—the characters are rabbits, not furry humans. They’re small, they’re scared of the unknown and they’re simply not aware of things we take for granted.

Compared to the others, Hazel often comes off as ordinary, but he holds them together, keeps them moving and believes in Fiver’s vision of the safe place they will eventually find. Even when they make a home on Watership Down, he thinks of their future—or rather their lack of one, since they brought no does out of the warren. And that need eventually leads the rabbits to the warren Efrafa, which is ruled with an iron, er, paw by the terrifying General Woundwort.

Few fictional places are as nightmarish as Efrafa, with its Council police and the system of scarring the rabbits to mark and segregate them. The worst is a would-be escapee being mutilated, exhibited to each Mark in turn and forced to repeat, “Every Mark should see how I have been punished as I deserve for my treachery in trying to leave the warren” — with the knowledge that he will be killed once all the Marks have seen him. The infiltration of Efrafa and the escape are only topped when General Woundwort, coldly furious at his defeat, leads an expedition to destroy the Watership Down warren.

Every element in the book works together to hone and enhance a gripping plot. Even the stories the rabbits tell of their trickster god El-ahrairah play a role in the story, and the foreshadowing is brilliant, such as when Bigwig says sarcastically that on the day he calls Hazel the Chief Rabbit, he’ll stop fighting. That day is the last day of the siege of Watership Down.

The book is also self-contained. Unlike a lot of fantasy novels, there’s no trilogy or even a sequel, unless you count Tales from Watership Down, which I don’t. There was no need for feminism among the rabbits, or magic powers for El-ahrairah. The book is as close to perfection as possible, a classic of the genre and a wonderful read.

1. Also footnotes.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Why I will not review your book

I get occasional emails from writers requesting reviews. Although I read nearly all of these, my time for the past few months has been very limited. Even now that school and placement are officially over, I'm catching up on a lot of things, including a TBR pile, so I'm extremely picky about what I request.

Fortunately (for me, that is) the vast majority of the emails make this an easy decision.

So I came up with a checklist of things I've seen that mean I won't be requesting the book. Several of the examples, by the way, are from actual review requests. If any writers hopeful for a review are reading this, please ask yourself if your email contains

___ an attachment?

___ a copy-and-paste of a press release?

___ something that shows you haven’t read my blog, e.g. “Since you enjoy reviewing political thrillers…”?

___ white text on a black background?

___ several errors, e.g. “Set in , this book tells the story of a serial killer and his murderous rampage through this sleepy country town”? I scrolled down to see who had released this and read “Publisher: Press”.

___ anything that suggests the book was rushed into print, e.g. “I decided to self-publish my book so I didn't need to wait for anyone else to like it or shop it around"?

___ grandiose prophesies, e.g. “This book will be a bestseller”?

___ a claim that your book was top in its sub-sub-genre on Amazon’s free Kindle best-selling list both yesterday and today?

___ a bit too much information upfront? A recent email began: “Marian, Raped at the age of seven, I was a lost and lonely child.”

___ any suggestion that the author is a little too close to the book for me to risk providing an objective review? In the email referred to above, the novel was about a seven-year-old who was raped. I'm very hesitant to comment on anything which seems like self-therapy for the author. Plus, I’ve already had the experience of pointing out something that seems unrealistic, only to have the author claiming it was possible because it happened to her.

___ requests for something I can’t provide, e.g. “I need your help to make my dream become a reality”? I just run a blog here.

___ too many rhetorical questions? One email concluded with, “Will Rod be able to save his family from the clutches of the evil Terry and his own greedy sister-in-law? Will Rod be able to save himself?” Given that the rest of the book description barely even mentioned Rod, I had no idea (or interest).

___ claims that something which is common to most books of this type is unusual about your book, e.g. “The story is developed through several intertwining plot lines that unfold through the actions of multidimensional characters”? Well, that certainly sets it apart from the novels with a single plot line which is uninfluenced by the actions of one-dimensional characters.

___ a description of your book as straddling three or more genres, e.g.. “New Science Fiction Novel Is Part Mystery, Part Thriller, And All Adventure‏”? This is the literary equivalent of turducken.

___ cover quotes without names appended to them? I have to assume you called your own book “a work of dark genius”.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Fighting Fantasy blogs

Fighting Fantasy role-playing gamebooks were a phenomenon of the eighties, but dwindled in popularity with the rise of video games. Still, retro sometimes comes back into fashion—several of the original gamebooks have been reissued by Wizard Books—and Fighting Fantasy remains popular among a lot of people who grew up in the eighties and fondly remember rolling up SKILL and STAMINA scores.

Myself included, of course. I have the entire collection—some of the books I bought over fifteen years ago, and purist that I am, they’re all the original releases. Recently, though, I found a couple of bloggers who are playing through the books and describing the experience, including the incongruities of the stories, the amazing number (and type) of meals you have to eat and every time you die.

The latter is one of my favorite things about the series, of course. The more sophisticated the books became, the more elaborate the deaths (or non-victory adventure endings, i.e. more or less the same thing).

Dan of Fighting Dantasy tackles every book in the series. The moment I read this ending to his City of Thieves adventure I knew I would enjoy his blog.

I had no food either, having traded it all for a silver arrow.

So when a boy came up to me offering to sell me either plums or apples, I was ecstatic. He recommended the plums, and knowing this town pretty well by now I chose the apples, and they were a bit off, doing a single point of stamina damage. Problem: I only had one point left.

I was killed by an apple marginally past its use-by-date.

Then there’s Sword of the Samurai:

Next thing we know, we meet a forty-foot centipede, which I assume must've been common in medieval Japan...? It bit off Moichi's arm, and no amount of food was going to fix that, so I felt justified (but not exactly honourable) in not giving him any. If he needed food that badly, he should have bought his own.

The other blog is Turn to 400, which is much more detailed and snarky.

Somebody needs to let these guys know that when it comes to last words, pithiness is what gets you over. You shouldn't be glancing at your wrist-watch during a guy's dying words. You shouldn't start wondering what might be for dinner. You shouldn't have to interrupt to clarify whether the man is, in fact, actually dying at all, or whether there might still be enough time to drag him down off the mountain or invent all of modern medicine.

I can’t wait for the author to get to my favorite book, House of Hell.

You can also check out back-issues of the Fighting Fantazine here - they’ve got mini-adventures, interviews with authors and artists, humor columns and much more. Enjoy (and don’t drink the white wine)!

Monday, February 20, 2012

Final rotation

This was the Chemistry rotation, and it left me so burned out that I haven’t even felt like talking about it until now.

Imagine you’re working in a fast-food restaurant. You have to cook the burgers, pour the drinks, operate the cash register and handle the drive-through traffic. At lunch hour. Oh, and if you get any of the orders wrong, someone could die. It was a bit like that.

Chemistry encompasses more tests than any other department, which meant a huge number of samples to process. Like Hematology and Transfusion, Chemistry operates around-the-clock, with huge analyzers that take dozens of specimens at a time and which are constantly working.

Yet it’s not as simple as feeding in the specimens at one end and collecting the results at the other. The analyzers need regular (and sometimes constant) maintenance, cleaning, calibration and topping-up. If one breaks down, it can cause an serious backlog. And as well as running these, the technologists need to do a number of other tests which are few enough in number that they can be handled manually—analyzing sweat samples for cystic fibrosis, running the flame spectrophotometer, pregnancy tests, fecal occult blood tests and so on.

Most of the time, though, I felt as though I was just trying to keep my head above water—or above the flood of specimens. There was no time for the technologists to ask me questions about the theory behind what we were doing. Chemistry can be interesting, and I never found it particularly difficult in college, but towards the end I was so exhausted I was just counting off the days.

And after it was over, there was the qualifying exam to study for. That was on the 16th, and even if I had wanted to get a full night’s rest before it, I was too tense. I probably had reason to be, since the exam was tough, and I honestly have no idea how it will turn out. CSMLS will let us know in four to six weeks, so that’s another month of worrying I have ahead.

Though at least now I can start looking for jobs. For the past nine months I’d been working part-time in a bookstore owned by a psychic, but I quit that when it got to be too frustrating – here’s a link to the story. Things have got to get better from here.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Characters whom everyone loves

Recently I read Kathleen E. Woodiwiss’s The Flame and the Flower, one of the grand old novels of the romance genre. One reason I didn’t enjoy it was the near-universal adoration of the heroine by the other characters, and that made me think of characters loved by everyone.

1. Give them a reason for this.

If it’s not obvious to the readers why so many people love this character, it’s going to be difficult for them to share the feeling. Worse, it’s likely to turn them off. In real life, people who are very obviously beautiful have their admirers, but they may also have detractors or people who just don’t like them, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

In fiction, a character will need more than stunning good looks, given that paragraphs of description are likely to be ineffective unless very well written. So such characters should have other qualities, traits, goals or backstories that show why they’re so well liked.

That was something I enjoyed about Richard Adams’s The Girl in a Swing. The narrator marries a woman called Karin, despite knowing nothing about her past, and it’s made clear throughout the story that people find her extremely attractive. But it wasn’t until my second read of the novel that I realized Adams never actually said what Karin looked like. He mentions her clothes, but not her hair or height or the color of her eyes.

So she’s as much of an enigma physically as she is in other ways, but that technique puts the focus on her charming mannerisms, dialogue and actions rather than her looks, and it works very well.

2. Consider not making them the protagonist.

It’s easier to like characters who are near-perfect when they play a secondary role. Gone with the Wind probably wouldn’t have been so popular if Melanie rather than Scarlett had been the heroine, and taking such a paragon out of the spotlight nearly always makes them easier to like.

In Orson Scott Card’s Hart's Hope, the Flower Princess is described as the most beautiful woman in the world because she has never told a lie, meaning she’s both morally and physically perfect. People everywhere love her. But she’s not the main character, and she loses her bridegroom, her position, her freedom and her beauty in one day, making her sympathetic rather than saccharine.

3. Don’t make it a moral yardstick.

If all the good characters love the heroine and all the villains hate her (or are jealous of her, or lust unrequitedly after her), she’s going to come off as a Mary Sue. The other characters’ feelings toward the protagonist shouldn’t be a sign of their moral development. No matter how benevolent or cruel people are in real life, there’s sure to be someone who hates or loves them regardless.

4. Give them consequences

What are the consequences of everyone loving you? Maybe the fact that you’re placed on a pedestal from which you can only fall, never rise. Maybe the fact that the people who love you the most can rarely evaluate your skills objectively or give you the kind of tough training you might need to succeed at a task.

Unconditional, unchanging love is like an unconditional and unchanging supply of anything: eventually it loses its appeal. I’d like to read a story where a character had such a powerful charismatic appeal that he or she was universally loved – but grew to secretly hate this.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012


This has never happened to me before, but I guess there's a first time for everything.

After lying in bed wide awake for three hours I finally decided it was better to be exhausted but productive than exhausted and feeling like I hadn't accomplished anything into the bargain. So I got up, answered emails, wrote a lengthy review and studied the bilirubin section in my chemistry notes. Chemistry rotation starts today, and will probably be fueled by vast quantities of this:

On the bright side, though, I have two reviews of Before the Storm
to share, and that's a great way to start the year! The first is from Books Without Any Pictures:

“Before the Storm” contained a lot of strong female characters who rode into battle, blew shit up, and wore chainmail under their dresses.

I love it when women dress prettily and pack heat at the same time.

The second is from the Crazy Bookworm, and this blog is THE go-to place for current YA (just looking at all the lovely covers makes me want to read those rather than chemistry notes).

I have never been much of a Fantasy reader. I have only read a few of them, but could never really get into the genre. However, Before the Storm was a completely different story!... Marian Perera DID NOT skimp out on the Characters, in fact, I believe they were the strongest qualities about the book. I adored Alex, she was such a unique and feisty character.

I think characterization is vital too, and I work hard at that, so it's great to read this.

Off to get ready for work now.