Thursday, June 30, 2011

Busy Week, Quick Post

Two points:

1. You still have about 36 hours to sign up for the ArmadilloCon Writers' Workshop:

Writers' Workshop

Are you an unpublished, beginning to intermediate level writer?
Put your unpublished, original work of SF/F/Horror fiction in front of pros! Sign up for the ArmadilloCon 33 Writers' Workshop and receive invaluable feedback from two SF/F professionals (writers and editors), plus critiques from fellow attendees.
The $75 fee includes group sessions and panels or presentations throughout the day about the craft and profession of writing, plus lunch on Friday. You also get admission to all three days of the convention.


Lou Anders; Paolo Bacigalupi; Matthew Bey; Jayme Lynn Blaschke; Rosemary Clement-Moore; Amanda Downum; Mark Finn; Scott Johnson; Julie Kenner; Stina Leicht; Scott Lynch; Marshall Ryan Maresca; J.M. McDermott; Jaime Lee Moyer; Marshall Payne; Patrice Sarath; Katy Stauber; Lee Thomas; Thomas M. (Martin) Wagner.

About the Workshop

The ArmadilloCon Writers' Workshop has become a major event for aspiring SF/F writers. On the Friday of the convention, you will have the opportunity to have your work critiqued by major pro editors and writers. Breakout sessions will cover craft, markets, the dos and don’ts of preparing your work for professional publication, and more. Discussions range from the basics of grammar and style to plot, theme, character, and setting.
You will get an in-depth critique of your work from the teachers in your group as well as from your peers. This roundtable style critique session is invaluable for learning what works, what doesn’t, and how to edit your work.
Check it out here.

2. I'm still open for Book Trailer reviews.  Send me yours, or send me ones you find interesting.  I'd especially love to see some that people consider to be winners.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Book Trailer Reviews

So, I was suggested two book trailers by my friend Abby.  In her opinion, the first one is worse than the second.  I actually feel it's the other way around.  Though, not by a lot.  We're talking about the difference between a C- and a D here.

First up is "Infected".

I like that it's active.  Things are happening, and the whole thing keeps moving.  That's good.  However, content-wise, it's something of a mess.  It spends a good portion of it's 1:38 telling you what it's not about.  I don't get that.  A large percentage of time-- not to mention the CGI work (presuming that wasn't stock) showing meteors coming to Earth and telling the audience how it isn't what the story is about.  There are a lot of things it's probably not about.  Why tell me that?  It's not an effective reversal.  There's some other footage, which isn't terrible, but it's not well lit.  This shows we're looking at, apparently, a viral-zombie story.  If there's more to it (the virus's extraterrestrial origins aren't much of a game-changer for me), I can't tell from this.

Does it make me want to read it? Not really.
Grade: C- 

Next up: Max Quick.

This is exactly what I was talking about last week when I was talking about trailers that have no point was a video.  There's a single image-- I presume the cover-- which is either shaken or zoomed in and out in a vain attempt to not have it be completely static.  Sound is forgettable.  Some blurbs and back-cover copy.  In other words, there's nothing here that I wouldn't get from just picking up the book in the store and looking at the front and back.  Actually, it's more like if someone else picked up the book, held it in front of me and shook it.

Does it make me want to read it? Not at all. 
Grade: D

Do you have a trailer you want reviewed, or know what you want to see reviewed?  Let me know. 

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Book Trailers

Book trailers are a phenomenon that have fascinated me for some time.  This shouldn't be much of a surprise, as I am a writer and have a degree in film production.  I think, in theory, book trailers can be an excellent method of promotion.

Theory and practice are two different things. 

I've almost never seen a book trailer where my reaction scored higher than, "Well, I don't NOT want to read the book now."  I can't think of seeing one where it actually enticed me.

Part of why is so few book trailers (at least, of those that I've seen) use the medium effectively.  The book trailer should do the same sort of job as the cover and blurb... but not the exact same job.  Because the medium is not the same.  It's video, you need image and motion and sound.  Some give me little more than words on the screen, words that I might as well read on the back of the book.  That's not a trailer, it's just dictating my reading speed.

And, let's face it, many book trailers (even ones for traditionally published books) are very amateurish.  I once, on a panel, heard professionals advice would be writers to use stock images.  This strikes me as completely off the mark.  If you use stock images, then all you'll accomplish is making your work look painfully generic.  Same thing with the sound: sometimes I see nothing, or a selection that came from The Public Domain's Greatest Hits.  Does it FIT?  Does it work?  Eh, usually no.

Here's one that's not bad.

The sound design is crisp and professional.  A nice voiceover of, I presume, text from the book read by someone who has a good dramatic voice.  Music is well-crafted into the rest of the work.  I like the shot of the moon with the clicking years.  The shot of the eye goes on a bit too long.  The naked body is a bit generic-stock looking, but the shifting words over it keeps it active.  The shot of the guy in the suit, standing on a cliff edge while carrying a briefcase?  Kind of pointless.  That reads like someone plucked the word "stockbroker" out of the text without paying attention to the context.   But the whole thing keeps moving and gets done in one minute and 11 seconds.  That's good.

Do you have a book trailer?  Do you know someone who has a book trailer?  Do you know of a book trailer that you think is really good?  Send me a link.  I'm going to start doing reviews.  (And I have a film degree, and I had an A- average, so I'm right, like, 93% of the time.) 

Monday, June 20, 2011

Writing Minor Characters: The Story of Citizen #4

I believe that I'm somewhat unusual amongst fantasy/sci-fi writers, in that I cut my writers' teeth as a playwright.  Coming at writing novels from a theatre background gives me a different perspective on writing than most people, especially since I was also an actor.

I'm not going to pretend that, as an actor, I was much above "competent".  My presence onstage would not be a detriment to your show, but that was about about the extent of my skills.  So, many years ago, in my acting days, I was in an excellent production of Julius Caesar, playing "Citizen #4". 

For those of you unversed in the specifics of Julius Caesar, after Caesar has been murdered and Antony turns the public against the conspirators with his "Friends, Romans, Countrymen" speech, the public goes a little nuts.  Thus, four citizens are hungry for some blood, and they know one of the conspirators was a senator named Cinna.  They find another guy named Cinna, and proceed to beat the snot out of him, because that's good enough.  Citizen #4 gets to explain the logic behind that:

It is no matter, his name's Cinna; pluck but his
name out of his heart, and turn him going.
As an actor with only a small bit to do, you do try and make the most of it. Why?  Because it's who you are in that moment.  I was never a method actor, but I always took to acting with the idea that there's more going on than just your lines.  I recall this advice from Michael Caine*, talking about what a director told him when he was in a small part.  The director noted him and said, "What are you doing right here in this part?"  "Nothing, I'm don't have anything to say."  "Of course you do," the director said.  "You have amazing, brilliant things to say.  You're just deciding not to say them."

Doing this kind of acting crystallized something for me when I was writing.  I can't, as a playwright, write a part that would be no fun for an actor to play.  And as a novelist, whenever I write a character, even the most minor ones, I can't help but think about making it at least a little more interesting than it, strictly speaking, "needs" to be.

In Thorn of Dentonhill, there's a bit where Veranix runs into two mounted constabulary.  These two cops (or "sticks", to use the street vernacular of Maradaine) could have been just Cop #1 or Cop #2.  But where's the fun in that?  These are still two guys who got up that day, put on their uniforms, got on their horses and went to work.  These are two guys who work at night, as partners, in a tough neighborhood where most cops are in the crime boss's pocket.  But not these two.  These two are a couple of guys who have each others' backs and do their best.  These two guys would be the heroes of their own story.

Conversely, in Holver Alley Crew, at one point I jump to the POV of a character who hadn't appeared before and doesn't appear again, partly for the fun of seeing one of the main characters from a completely outside perspective.  She has her own problems and concerns, which have nothing to do with what intrudes upon her.  Her reality gets affected by the main story, but it stays her reality.  And, if I may say so myself, it's a fun bit.  It's more fun than had I written it from the main character's POV.

*- This was in a lecture he gave on video, it's not like he told me directly.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Intentionally hiding tools in your toolbox.

Interesting bit of "advice" I heard the other day:

A stylistic thing: I was just at the Backspace Conference, where in the opening pages agent-author seminar, the agents stopped reading a participant's opener as soon as they hit an exclamation point, and stressed that shows lazy writing. There must be some other way to show the emphasis, or else don't emphasize the point where it is used. 

I have to admit, I'm always a little skeptical about those sorts of arbitrary rules that one hears, like the exclamation point thing. That one, in particular, strikes me as especially arbitrary. Exclamation points show lazy writing? Incorrect usage of exclamation points can certainly be problematic, but to exclude their usage altogether? Absurd. I'll say again with emphasis: Absurd! (Especially considering one of the events at that conference was titled, "The Power of Positive Writing!” Yes, with the exclamation point.)

But more to the point, there are only three punctuation marks that can end a sentence.  Why avoid one-third of them completely?  How is that lazy writing?  I don't know.  It's a fundamental part of punctuation.  The advice, as a reading rule itself, I find almost obscene.  It's a step away from saying, "If I see a sentence with two words that start with a 'k', I stop reading." I shudder to think of fledgling writers running to their manuscripts and slashing out exclamation points. Because THEY! MUST! GO!

I'm so glad my agent doesn't follow such a silly rule.*


*- The first sentence of Thorn of Dentonhill is "Thief!"

Monday, June 13, 2011

Revisiting the Fantasy Manifesto

Back when I first started this blog, I did a few posts on the idea of my Fantasy Manifesto-- a series of guidelines of what I wanted to avoid in writing fantasy.  Looking back, there's elements that I still agree with, and elements that I don't.

1. No Fucking Elves. The principle behind this, I still hold.  The presence of elves tends to indicate lazy worldbuilding, which then tends to lead to uninspired writing.  I think there could be a good elf-using story out there, since the concept of what "elves" are in folklore is actually a lot wider than their typical fantasy usage.  But I mostly see elves used as a sort of culture-building shortcut.

2. Don't Rename the Wheel. Again, I'm still behind this idea: if a perfectly good word exists, don't make up a new one.  I recently read something for critique that did the inverse: using a perfectly good existing word, and have it mean something utterly different (in this case, the author created a unique creature and called it a horse).  That said, I'm all behind creating new slang that exists in a world.  Slang is constantly evolving, and the way people say something can change from year to year.  Well done slang, of course, is when the reader can quickly pick up the meaning and follow along.

3. No More Chosen One. There can be interesting twists on this cliché, of course.  One thing that always struck me about this cliché is this: if someone is chosen, then who is doing the choosing?  And what gives them the authority to do that?  I don't know of a story that explores that very much.  Harry Pottter did a good job of showing the burden Dumbledore took upon himself in mentoring Harry, but ultimately he wasn't the one who chose Harry. 

4. Dont' Copy and Paste Cultures. I still believe this is crucial, and I still believe it is very hard NOT to do, to some degree.  What fascinates me is how many times I've seen readers complain about something not being a straight copy of medieval Western Europe.  Though I have to admit something of a bias: it used to be that a copy-and-paste of something European will always bother me less than a copy-and-paste of Middle Eastern or Asian.  I'm starting to get over that.  I think Amanda Downum did a very good job creating an Asian-based culture in The Drowning City (though it helped she drew more from Southeast Asia than China or Japan), and I am looking forward to seeing what she does in Kingdoms of Dust.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Worldbuilding: Food and Regionalism

Here are some choice passages from the intro of a book that most people probably wouldn't think of in terms of worldbuilding, especially fantasy/sci-fi worldbuilding:

In bald terms, terroir refers to the soil, climate and topography of a microregion, and pinpoints what makes an ingredient grown in one place taste different from the same ingredient grown in another.
But terroir isn't merely rainfall, mineral content, and angles of exposure to sunlight.  no matter where we're form, terroir is our cultural and historical link to the land, the expression of the land itself and the people who live there.
         --Country Cooking of France, Anne Willan
Defining regions, when it comes to worldbuilding, is a big part of a shift from macro-worldbuilding to micro-building.  The food people raise says a lot about who they are and the way they live.  Especially in any sort of pre-industrial setting, where a hundred miles of distance could may as well be a world away. 

The basic staples of domesticatible animals and major crops will only give you so much definition (unless you really go to town in building all new flora and fauna, in which case, I salute you)... but the minor variations of culinary regionalism can give you a wealth of details to color your world with.  Then you can even take a basic dish-- say a stewed chicken-- and then add in two or three ingredients that define the region, and you have a traditional regional dish. 

Travelers in Druthal could therefore have Chicken Thalin (in the eastern region of the Archudchy of Sauriya), cooked with onions, carrots and mustard seed, and then cross the Maradaine River into the Toren region of Maradaine Archduchy, where the local dish is stewed in cabbage and beer.  (And, of course, Toren locals might give funny looks to a bunch of bulbmouths from Thalin coming over.  But that's just what those cabbage-eaters do, isn't it?)

Monday, June 6, 2011

Summertime and the Living is Easy

Now it's officially summer, which means that my non-writing job becomes as close to a "typical" day job as things get for me.  I do like the change in pace-- it usually works just about perfectly that around May I'm ready for things to change and have a more "set" schedule, and by August when the summer camp sessions are winding down, I'm ready to go back to the more free-form schedule.

So, what about writing work for the summer?  I've got my plans, here laid out in order of priority:

  1. Maradaine Constabulary- Transforming the first draft to a solid second draft.
  2. Holver Alley Crew- Writing up full synopses of potential books 2 and 3.  In case I need to have that.
  3. Vanguard- Writing the rough draft.  You know, it's funny, but if I was asked three years ago, I would have told you I would write my four Maradaine books in this order: Thorn of Dentonhill, Vanguard, Holver Alley Crew, Maradaine Constabulary.  But Vanguard kept eluding me.  I think I'm getting it figured out now.
  4. Banshee and Starstruck- Hashing out characters and outline.  Right now they're vague ideas that need fleshing out before real writing can begin.  But that's a good "writers' block break" kind of project.
Off to a hopefully productive summer.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Breaking the glass and hitting the Big Red Button

One of the Big Stories out there this week is how DC Comics is apparently planning a hard reboot of their entire universe, re-launching everything as #1 with 52 different series.

Whenever news like this comes out, I try to approach it with a healthy dose of skeptical optimism.  It could prove really interesting, or it could fail horribly, but I want to believe that it'll prove interesting. 

For me, the most interesting aspect is the fact that they are going all in.  When Marvel did Heroes Reborn or their Ultimate line, they didn't stop publishing their regular universe.  They were both toe-in-the-water experiments, with varying degrees of success.  DC, in some ways, had intended to do exactly this back in 1986 with Crisis of Infinite Earths, giving an in-story reason for a hard reboot.  The problem was there wasn't full commitment to the hard reboot, and there certainly wasn't a cohesive editorial vision behind it.  Here it seems that DC is doing a full jump-out-of-the-plane bold move that could soar or crash, but they aren't hedging their bets.

Now, for me this sort of idea can work a lot better for DC than it would for Marvel, because when you come down to it, DC's characters are more iconic.  The proof comes when you try to parallel the DC characters to Marvel counterparts: the main DC characters tend to embody a iconic Big Idea, and the equivalent on the Marvel side is somewhere in the C-list.  The Flash is super-speed, while Quicksilver is a superfast guy who is more known for being a creepy, possessive anti-hero.  Aquaman is the ocean-based hero, while Submariner is... more known for being a creepy, possessive anti-hero.  (I would argue the only major DC hero that has a solid Marvel counterpart is Green Arrow, who matches Hawkeye, both being definitive bow-wielding heroes in their universes.)

My point being, the DC universe is one where you can boil down the characters to their core, restart them and do something very interesting with them.  That was the core idea behind Marvel's Squadron Supreme and Supreme Power. (And it should be noted, DC has never really successfully done the same sort of treatment with Marvel's characters.)

So can this idea work, and be a huge success?  Absolutely.  Will it?  Hard to say.

I have to admit, I do have a twinge of jealousy towards the writers on these projects.  The opportunity to write these iconic characters, but starting from scratch?  That's potent.  If I had my druthers, do you know who I'd want to take on in that context?  Aquaman.  My big idea there would be to change Atlantis into a far more complicated political landscape-- many nations with loose alliances and straining relations.  Cast Aquaman as the Ned Stark in an underwater Game of Thrones, if you will.  Throw in some environmentalism and intrusions from the surface world, and set the whole thing on a low simmer.  Oh, yeah.  That would be fun to write.