Monday, December 30, 2013

Banshee, and the Slow Cooker Process: 2013 in Review, Part Three

The other big milestone, in terms of what I've been writing, that I hit in 2013 was getting solidly underway on Banshee

Banshee is a project that's been stewing in the back of my mind for a long, long time, and has gone through several permutations in that slow cooking process.

Part of the reason I took such a long time to get around to this is the little promise I made to myself to finish the first books of my four "Maradaine" series before I really moved on to a new major writing project.  I'm not entirely sure why I felt I had to do them first, but that's how I felt, but on some level it was probably a good thing.

Because the Banshee I would have written several years ago is not the work I'm writing now.  Not even remotely.  Essentially everything except the central character (Lt. Samantha Kengle) and the name of the ship (and only tangentially) is different now.  And in the older versions, Lt. Kengle was more the nominal lead in an ensemble, and now she's in the central spotlight, the only POV character. 

Part of that had to do with the worldbuilding.  I started the Space Opera setting that Banshee lives in way back in 2002, but it's evolved and grown a lot in the past eleven years.  As have my writing skills.  My first attempts at Banshee, some of which reached nearly 50,000 words, were all wrong.  Essentially fanfic for a universe that only existed in my head.  It was only after I really started to interrogate what the story was, and who it was about, and why it was about them, that the pieces really came together.

When I shipped Way of the Shield off to the agent, Banshee was really ready to go like gangbusters.  And in about three months, it's about two-thirds to three-quarters done.  Not too shabby.

So that was 2013, which turned out to be a pretty good year for my writing. And I have a very good feeling that 2014 will turn out even better.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Way of the Shield, and the Geena Davis Rule: 2013 in Review, Part Two

The next big milestone of accomplishments in 2013 as finishing the draft of Way of the Shield, cleaning it up and sending it off to the agent.  He just recently sent it back to me, so now I've got a last round of tweaks and polishes to put on it before sending it back to him to put out into the world.

Long time readers will be aware that Way of the Shield was something of an albatross around my neck for much of 2012.  I was working on it and it simply wasn't coming together at all.  I had actually decided to put it to the side and focus on other things early this year, but it kept poking at me until I cracked the problem I had been having with the antagonists.  It actually came together when my beta reader/sounding board guy asked me a simple question regarding Way of the Shield, and that brought about a breakthrough in writing out a long and complicated response.  Doing that brought me from a manuscript languishing at around a third of the way done to complete in two months.

Breakthroughs can work like that.

The other thing I did with Shield, both in the original draft and again in the current clean-up, was confound the gender expectations of the old knightly orders that Dayne is a part of.  Druthal and Maradaine are hardly a paradise of gender equality, but I wanted the Orders to reflect the idea that anyone who gets through the training process is considered an equal.

But my first chapter had no female characters. 

Then I was thinking about this bit of advice Geena Davis recently gave regarding female characters in Hollywood movies, advice I think can easily apply to genre fiction as well:

Go through the projects you're already working on and change a bunch of the characters' first names to women's names. With one stroke you've created some colorful unstereotypical female characters that might turn out to be even more interesting now that they've had a gender switch. What if the plumber or pilot or construction foreman is a woman? What if the taxi driver or the scheming politician is a woman? What if both police officers that arrive on the scene are women — and it's not a big deal?

And it stuck me, if I've already established this idea that the Orders have more gender equality than the culture at large, then why not just have Dayne's chapterhouse master in Lacanja (the city Way of the Shield starts in before Dayne returns to Maradaine) be a woman?  I never gave Master Thall a given name, male or female, to begin with, so rewriting the scene involved little more than some pronoun switching.  But, I think, it will have a strong effect on the worldbuilding of the Orders, which will ripple through the rest of the book-- which already has many female characters in a variety of roles.

Regardless, as I mentioned back in May when I finally finished the draft, it felt very good to get this particular project out of its long, slow, "work-in-progress" state.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Jump the Black- 2013 in Review, Part One

On January 1st, 2013, I sold Jump the Black to Rick Klaw's Texas-themed sci-fi anthology Rayguns Over Texas, which was my first pro-level genre sale.*

I haven't ever really talked about the story itself, as it didn't seem appropriate when I first sold it. 
When it was coming out, it made more sense to talk about the anthology as a whole. 

I should preface this by saying I'm really not a short-story writer.  It's just not a format I have a lot of affinity for, and I don't tend to write them without a specific purpose or plan.  However, "invited to submit to this anthology" works very well as a specific purpose or plan. 

So, I received the invite and remembered a nugget of an idea that I had had for a sci-fi story.  It was little more than this: A sci-fi future with a large interstellar, multi-alien community, but Earth isn't a part of it.  Earth is the place you leave to have opportunity.  Earth is Mexico.

I did some research into border crossings, the lengths people go to in order to get in the States.  I thought about "coyotes"-- those who "help" others get across the border, and the methods they use to do it.  The conditions people will submit themselves to, the trust they will place on those bringing them, and the hope that when they emerge on the other side that an opportunity will be there that will make it all worth it.

And I wanted something in there that could be a direct allegory to swimming across the Rio Grande. Thus "jumping the black"-- where the smuggled humans, freshly awoken from the paralytic "sleep" they were put in to avoid getting noticed by the scans-- have to leap through empty space from the smuggler's cargo hold to a port left open on the space station, so that they're off the smuggler's ship before his cargo gets inspected.  If the humans jumping don't make it safely... that's their problem.  Also, if they get caught right when they get in the station, their problem. 

I really enjoyed writing this, and it definitely clicked one big button for me: I could write a lot more of it.  I kept it at 4000 words to make it fit easily in the anthology, but I could easily expand the story to novella length, building out what happens next once the humans make it off the rock.

But, as I said, selling that on January 1st was an excellent way to start 2013, and I was quite pleased to see it in print in September.

*- My story for The Norton Anthology of Hint Fiction was paid at over a dollar per word, but it was only 21 words long.  Twenty-two with the title.  But it wasn't genre.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Perils of the Writer: Fanfic of Yourself

I was thinking about one of my trunked projects, Crown of Druthal, as well as the process of novel midwifery that has brought Banshee to the point where it is now (i.e., a rough draft in progress that I feel relatively good about). 

And I came to realize that the problems with Crown and the earlier versions of Banshee (which bear almost no resemblance to the current project) was that neither one was really a story.  Sure, they had characters, they had setting, they had events happening... but neither one added up to a cohesive whole.

I was essentially writing a fun time hanging out with characters I liked in a setting I liked, and not doing much but enjoying doing that.

And that, dear readers, is essentially what fanfic is.

Mind you, I'm not saying fanfic is bad-- if you enjoy doing it, have at it.  But you are quite limited in what you can do with it once you've written it.  You can, essentially, share it with the fan community, and the degree that it can be enjoyed is based on the size of that fandom.  No one who isn't already a fan is going to care in the slightest.

So if you're writing fanfic of a thing that only exists in your head, how many fans are out there?

Just you.

So, if you find yourself caught in that rut, how do you break out of it? 

For me, it was a process of figuring out an actual story, tied to a central character (or characters).  The central character came first, of course, but then figuring out what their story was brought in secondary characters as needed. 

And that was a key place where I had gone wrong with Crown and early versions of Banshee.  In both cases, I had come up with a wide, sprawling cast.  Both involved ships (one at sea, one in space), so I had worked out who ALL the key people on the ship were, what their jobs were, how they all related to each other... but that had nothing to with any specific story.  They were just there, giving me a deep bench of characters to pull from in any given situation, without any organic reason to have them all. 

And in the long run, that won't give you a compelling story that will hook anyone who isn't you.


A small plug for fellow agency-brother.  Glynn Stewart's Starship Mage series has launched on e-books.  The first one just came out, and the next one is due in March of 2014.  Go check it out!

Monday, December 16, 2013

Tools of the Writer: Growing with the times

You know, way, way back in the day-- by which I mean high school-- I did my writing on WordPerfect, using the 8088 PC-clone that I had at the time.  Before that I had an Apple II+, and I don't recall having a word processing program on that.  I did actually learn to type on a typewriter, though it was probably a weird and strange choice made by a weird and strange child*.  But my high school creative writing classes had us go to the computer labs, where we had to sign in with our TOTALLY SECRET IDS** and use WordPerfect to write our stories.

 At some point around when I started college, I switched over to WordPerfect for Windows, which I mostly used on my dad's computer, since it would have made my 8088 explode.  This did create a challenge in the college computer labs later, which all used-- I want to say WordStar for Windows, but it might have just been Mircosoft Word-- but the important thing was, NOT WordPerfect, and trying to transfer a *.WPW into one of those formats was an exercise in futility.

Ah, the early days of computer usage. 

As a matter of fact, the process of transferring archives from one computer to another, regardless of utility, means I still actually have some *.WPW files on the laptop I'm currently working on.

Eventually, I switched over to Microsoft Word, once I got a desktop that could handle it, and pretty much stayed with it for quite some time.  And that was handy, because it was a format I could use on computers at home and at work, and plenty of early writing was done on that.   Even going back and forth between using PCs and Macs didn't impede me.  Portability of projects was a very crucial thing for me.

Trunked novels "Fifty Year War" and "Crown of Druthal", as well as many plays, unfinished projects, and the early drafts of Thorn of Dentonhill, Holver Alley Crew and Maradaine Constabulary were all written on Word.  And while I never had a problem with Word, the challenges of writing an entire novel on it were quite clear.

And thus, eventually, I went, heels dragging, to Scrivener.  Which now that I'm here, I totally love it.  I won't lie, it had a bit of learning curve that I resisted.  But the process of transferring the drafts of those three novels so I could rework them into Scrivener taught me how it could be a valuable resource to me.  Especially in terms of keeping all sorts of character and outline and conceptual information in one place, and being able to visualize the scope of the story. 

And in writing Banshee, where I've been jumping around like crazy with regards to what part I'm writing any given day, Scrivener has been absolutely perfect.

Will I change again, when some other format presents itself?  Hard to say.  I know that any form of cloud-based writing holds very little appeal to me.  Perhaps that's because I'm already gypsy enough with taking my laptop anywhere, but also because I like the files I'm working on to actually be on the computer I'm using.   

But things may someday reach a point where I'm a dinosaur with my dying MacBook Pro, typing into outdated Scriviner files with the antiquated "keyboard", telling all you kids to get off my lawn.


*- Seriously.  I went to a day camp as a child that let you sign up each day for your afternoon activity.  While most children signed up for "soccer" or "swimming", yours truly, at the tender age of eight, signed up for "typewriting".  And I'm pretty sure most of the other people in there were high school kids obliged to do it for summer school. 
**- Mine was "MARMAR".  My friend Dan Fawcett was "FAWDAN".  Ken Chang was "CHAKEN".  You can see how they stayed up all night coming up with the system here.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Perils of the Writer: Clavicle and other crucial word choices

This week's work on Banshee brought me to an interesting point, somewhat unintentionally.  In brief, my main character, Lt. Samantha Kengle, was injured on a mission (a nasty creature managed to bite her on the neck).  She loses consciousness, and when she comes to, she's being treated.

Initially I wrote that she would wake up with her uniform coat off and one of the aliens pressing her hand to Kengle's bare chest.  (Said alien can essentially function as a living diagnostic scanner). 

But then it hit me about the unintended implications behind that.  Sure, it's medical, but the point is my one female human character gets stripped down while unconscious, and wakes up being groped.  Sure, groped in a medical fashion by a female fish-alien, but still.  I had put in a layer of sexual vulnerability that I had never intended, and it rested largely on the word "chest". 

I re-thought the scene.  I needed the alien to be able to get at bare flesh and the injury, but keep it professional.  Leave no doubt, no subtext, that what was happening was anything other than medical treatment.

So I changed "chest" to "clavicle".  Made no difference in terms of the text of what was happening, but pulled away the subtext I wanted to avoid.

I'm not going to get all, "words are important, words have power", because I'm sure you all know that.  But word choice is crucial, and sometimes we make strange choices-- subbing in a not-entirely accurate synonym to avoid repetition, going for an uncommon word to avoid a common one.   And sometimes the words we choose have unintended consequences.

Fortunately, this time, I think I sidestepped it.  But there may be other ones that I'll fall into.

Back to the word mines for now...

Monday, December 9, 2013

A Rare Moment of Blatant Plugging: Give the Gift of Texas this Christmas

Folks: Christmas is coming, and I'm busy keeping balls in the air this week, so let's keep this short and sweet.

What are you giving your Science Fiction reading friends and family for Christmas this year?  Consider the merits of giving Rayguns Over Texas, a compilation of science-fiction short stories entirely by Texas writers. 

It's quite an impressive line-up of writers and stories, if I do say so myself. 
  •     “Pet Rock” by Sanford Allen
  •     “Defenders of Beeman County” by Aaron Allston
  •     “TimeOut” by Neal Barret, Jr.
  •     “Babylon Moon” by Matthew Bey
  •     “Sovereign Wealth” by Chris N. Brown
  •     “La Bamba Boulevard” by Bradley Denton
  •     “The Atmosphere Man” by Nicky Drayden
  •     “Operators Are Standing By” by Rhonda Eudaly
  •     “Take a Left at the Cretaceous” by Mark Finn
  •     “Grey Goo and You” by Derek Austin Johnson
  •     “Rex” by Joe R. Lansdale
  •     “Texas Died for Somebody’s Sins But Not Mine” by Stina Leicht
  •     “Jump the Black” by  Marshall Ryan Maresca
  •     “An Afternoon’s Nap, or; Five Hundred Years Ahead” by Aurelia Hadley Mohl
  •     “The Nostalgia Differential” by Michael Moorcock
  •     “Novel Properties of Certain Complex Alkaloids” by Lawrence Person
  •     “The Chambered Eye” by Jessica Reisman
  •     “Avoiding the Cold War” by Josh Rountree
  •     “The Art of Absence” by Don Webb
If you're still not convinced, then you can preview every story here.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Perils of the Writer: Hooks and Investment

Let's talk for a moment about Marvel's Agents of SHIELD, possibly the biggest disappointment of the current season of television.  And it was the biggest disappointment because the expectations were set high: take the biggest hit of big screen of 2012, a movie which successfully integrated the worlds of multiple movies to create a mega-star movie, and have the acclaimed and beloved writer/director of that movie helm a new show to explore the deeper nooks and crannies of the greater Marvel cinematic universe that a movie couldn't take the screen time to do.

How could it fail?

If I may be so bold, I'd suggest that it failed with its hooks.  Namely, it treats its characters as its biggest hooks, when those characters are not hooking the audience at all. And it feels like it considers it's big hook-- its setting-- as more of an albatross than advantage.  One of the executive producers was even quoted saying something like, "You shouldn't be looking for easter eggs".

Now half a season in, its somewhat clear that what we are seeing is not the "growing pains" of a genre show finding its feet.  Rather, we're seeing the very show the creators want to do: in essence, a brighter, less skeptical* X-Files.  

And that isn't hooking.

Now that's always the challenge a writer faces: that the characters that you love, these hooks that fascinate you... well, that it's just you.  No one else is going to invest in it like you do.

And this is especially true with genre writers.  We spent hours upon hours drawing maps and hashing out centuries of history.  We are deeply, deeply invested in our work, even if the quality of the work itself doesn't match the passion behind it.  I can't tell you how many manuscripts I've read for critiquing purposes that, while the writing didn't hold up, the love was practically pouring off the page.

I didn't get into the story, but I knew that the writer was utterly in love with it. 

And, frankly, the craft can be improved, if the love is there.

*- By "less skeptical", I mean when they're investigating hovering bodies or apparent telekinesis, they approach it as you would in a world where superheroes beat off an alien invasion in downtown New York: as the sort of thing you have to accept happens now. 

Monday, December 2, 2013

Perils of the Writer: Disasters Big and Small

Little things can throw kinks in your day.  A speeding ticket throws you ten minutes behind (and a minor headache to deal with).  Ten minutes behind means you're now in the worst thicket of traffic that you had hoped to avoid, making that ten minute drive to your destination take twenty-five.   Being late means you have to play catch-up, forcing you to miss lunch.  The drop in blood sugar makes you slower, leaving you a pile of work that you have to take home that night.  That takes up your whole evening, and what time is left for you to squeeze some writing in?


Unless you sacrifice your sleep, and thus oversleep in the morning, come in to work late again, etc. etc. 

And what happens when you have a real disaster?

Be it a minor, personal disaster (a grease fire in the kitchen, a fallen tree through the bedroom window, a leak in the bathroom necessitating ripping open the walls) or one's own story within a greater disaster (a flood or tornado tearing through one's home)-- disasters change our expectations of how the rest of our day, week, month, even life are going to go.

And while it's incredibly inconvenient, it's also the underlying source behind great drama in writing. 
First off, the thing that comes to mind is the immediate, quick decisions that need to be made in the face of disasters.  How we (or our characters) react when disaster strikes define us.  

But once a disaster has hit, and the immediate repercussions have been felt, what next?  For me, the thing I always start thinking about is the small details.  For a personal example, the thing that sticks with to me (in the case of the bathroom one, which happened to us a few years ago) was less the big work of having to have the bathroom remodeled, but the steps we took to minimize dust from the remodel from covering the rest of the house, and cleaning off the bits and pieces of personal items that did get covered. 

Stuff like that sticks with you-- sometimes literally, as you find something that got missed weeks later-- and as I work on Banshee, a story that is quite populated with disasters, and how each character deals with the big and small of the disasters that befall them.

Time to jump into the wordmines.  See you when I get out.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Worldbuilding: Rituals for the Dead

I've gone over this before, but it bears repeating: cultures have rituals to mark almost every important occasion: marking adulthood or marriage, for example.  Or, it the case of the Minbari of Babylon 5, every single thing possible.

And then, of course, there are the rituals of death.

I've been thinking about this as something of a necessity for Banshee.  Without going into spoilers, various aliens die, and treating their bodies in a respectful manner for their cultures is important to the survivors.  

In coming up with rituals for the dead, be they for secondary-world human cultures, demi-human cultures, or alien cultures, you need to consider the purpose they serve.  On some level, you should address three elements of purpose.

Practical: The body itself must be dealt with.  Preserved, interred, cremated, otherwise kept from rotting on the floor.  It can be as simple as burial, as complicated as mummification, or somewhere in between.

Spiritual: On some level, the ritual should consider the intangible element of the deceased, matching the faith of the culture.  Does the lack of a proper burial mean the dead's spirit wanders the Earth, unable to reach the afterlife?

Emotional: Ultimately, rituals of the dead are for the bereaved.  They are how grief is processed, either publicly or privately. 

Ideally, your rituals address all three elements, or even better, integrate them into a unique whole. 

Consider, for example, the mummification rituals for the kings of ancient Egypt.  The actual mummification itself preserved the body, and it was interred in a tomb, designed for the purpose of giving the king everything he would need for the afterlife, allowing the people to process the death of a person they worshiped as a god, knowing that his time on earth was only part of his journey.

This is a pretty heavy-duty one, though.  You might want to come up with something simpler for the average person.

How do your cultures deal with their dead?

Monday, November 25, 2013

Perils of the Writer: NaNo No No No

Right now, on November 25th, the rough draft of Banshee stands at 54,932 words. 

If I were doing NaNoWriMo, that would be pretty impressive.

But I'm not doing NaNoWriMo, and I started writing this book in earnest in September.  I've been writing at a steady pace that, while hardly breakneck, has been working for me.  And it's the fastest I've written a rough draft, with the exception of the one year I did successfully did NaNo.

And that novel is an unreadable mess.  Even with a post-NaNo re-write.

This novel?  It's a rough draft that will need a strong editing hand when its done.  But I feel like I'm laying a solid foundation of character and plot to make that editorial work far more rewarding than I could ever have done with that NaNo project. 

Part of that is because I'm a stronger and far more seasoned writer than I was when I did that.  That NaNo project was part of the process of learning how to write a novel, and I think it is a fantastic way to do that.  When it comes to those Big Question sort of things about "Can I write a novel?" "How do I write a novel?" "Am I really a plotter or a pantser?", then an exercise like NaNo is a great way to test yourself.  An old friend of mine recently ran a 5K, more or less to see if he could, to figure out what his currently fitness level is.   NaNo is the same sort of thing. 

Plus there is the emphasis on "winning" and "losing", and keeping that pace.  I know personally, nothing is more discouraging to my writing than failing self-imposed deadlines.  More specifically, when falling behind makes making said deadlines feel more and more impossible.

Now, this is different for everyone.  If writing at a 1500-2000 words a day pace works for you, if you can manage it without your pulse hitting 180 and your lungs burning, go for it

But it's not for me.  Especially since having only one month as "novel writing month" doesn't work for me.  Every month is novel writing month.

Which means its time to jump back into the word mines.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Worldbuilding: Origins of Herbs and Spices

Food is a crucial part of worldbuilding.  This is a point you can be certain that I will keep coming back to.  And all foodstuffs, while helping define a culture, has a point of origin. You shouldn't just throw in a few herbs and spices at random and say, "There!  Food as worldbuilding. Done."  You should think about where these foods have their origins, and apply that sort of thinking to your own world.

Now, that doesn't mean you need to give pure one-to-one correlation.  Vanilla has its origins in the Americas, as do peppers and potatoes... but don't feel like you need to create a psuedo-Americas where all three come from if you want all in your world.  But you should make deliberate choices, and you should be aware of the real-world origins of foods. 

And, of course, cultures can import and fully adopt herbs and spices from other areas, and that's a crucial element of worldbuilding.  Cultures do not exist in a vacuum; they bleed into each other.  By making the herb or spice originating from one region of the world a critical element of the cuisine of another region, you've already told a lot about that culture.

So, in the interest of "I'll make your research a little easier", here's a quick list-- but hardly exhaustive-- of various herbs and spices and their areas of origin.  Hope you find it helpful.

Basil – India / Southeast Asia
Bay Laurel - Mediterranean
Chervil – Eastern Europe
Coriander/Cilantro – Southern Europe/Northern Africa
Dill – Europe
Epazote – Mexico / Central America / South America
Fennel – Meditteranean
Garlic – Central Asia
Lavender – Western Europe
Mint - Mediterranean / Western Asia
Marjoram – Cypress/ Southern Turkey
Oregano – Western Europe / Mediterranean
Parsley – Mediterranean
Rosemary – Mediterranean
Saffron - Mediterranean / Western Asia
Sage - Mediterranean
Savory – Western Europe
Sumac – North America & Africa
Tarragon – Europe & Asia
Thyme - Mediterranean / Western Asia
Wasabi – Japan
Watercress – Europe / Asia   

Achiote / Annatto  - South America
Allspice – Southern Mexico / Central America / Greater Antilles
Anise – Eastern Mediterranean / Western Asia
Cardamom – India/Nepal/Bhutan
Caraway – Western Asia / Northern Africa
Chili – Americas
Cinnamon – Southeast Asia
Clove – Indonesia
Cumin – Mediterranean / Western Asia /India
Fenugreek – Persia / India
Filé – Eastern North America
Ginger – South Asia
Horseradish – Southeastern Europe
Juniper – Mediterranean
Mace / Nutmeg – Indonesia
Mustard - Mediterranean / Western Asia
Paprika – Americas
Pepper – India
Tumeric – India
Vanilla – Mexico/Central America

Monday, November 18, 2013

Heroes, anti-heroes, and misaligned moral compasses

A degree or two off course doesn't lead you wrong at first.  At least, not too wrong that you can't self-correct.

But eventually that wrong course, that misaligned compass, leads one too far afield, and there's no way back to the place you thought you were going.

A misaligned moral compass can take your characters to interesting places, regardless of if you are writing heroes or anti-heroes.  Of course, then one of the biggest challenges you have is making it clear that you, as the writer, are not advocating said moral failings.  It's a story about a flawed person. 

Take, for example, Ken Connell.


OK, it's not the most famous example, but roll with me.

Ken Connell was the main character of the flagship title of Marvel Comics's fascinating failure, The New Universe.  The underlying concepts behind the New Universe were interesting, but much of the execution was disorganized and flawed. 

The Star Brand was essentially combining Superman and Green Lantern into one concept: a tattoo-like power source that could be given to another, granting the owner incredible power only limited by his or her imagination.  Possessed by the right man, it could be an incredible force for good.

Ken Connell is not the right man.  But he really wants to believe that he is.  He totally sees himself as a good guy who could do more and be great.

In other words, he's exactly the guy to buy into his own hero-destiny narrative.

In truth, Ken is kind of a loser.  He works in a auto-repair shop, and is constantly talking about how much smarter he is than anyone else around him.  He's got a lovely girlfriend who dotes on him, whom he consistently cheats on with a teenage girl who is so enamored of him that she happily slips out his back window in her underwear when his actual "girlfriend" shows up unannounced.  (It's worth noting that he hides the StarBrand power from his girlfriend, but tells the teenager on the side all about it.)

He's that guy who is constantly complaining that life never gave him "his shot", but even with nigh-infinite power he doesn't do much to change his life.  He does keep trying to do "good", in an abstract way, but he really isn't the good man he wants to think he is.  When confronted with an "unstoppable" villain-- a soldier whose body has changed to be indestructible, and has decided to just walk into Russia and wreck the place*, Ken tries to do the "right" thing to stop him.  But he can't stop him, so he just picks him up and flings him into space. 

And also, Ken destroys the city of Pittsburgh. Not out of malice, but because he was too lazy to fly all the way to the moon to do an experiment with his power that he knew would be explosively dangerous. 

But a lot of people believed that Ken was being presented as some sort of ideal, some sort of personal-avatar by then Editor-in-Chief at Marvel Jim Shooter.  This mostly because Jim, like Ken, is tall and from Pittsburgh, and also because a lot of people did not like Jim and wanted to paint him in a bad light.**

The New Universe failed for a lot of reasons, but I think partly because audiences at that time weren't interested in "heroic" characters who were so flawed, so ordinary.  It's funny, because plenty of stories like the New Universe and StarBrand have come up since.***   Characters who do the wrong thing for interesting reasons, and end up where they never wanted to be, and are only heroes in their own mind.

Ken is not a good guy, and is never presented as that.  He never understands that he's not the hero of the New Universe, but it's most dangerous villain.

*- This was 1987.
**- In fact, having Ken destroy Pittsburgh was a decision made after Shooter was ousted, essentially a "Ha, we're having your hero destroy your city" pettiness.
***- Though, to be fair, with better overall execution and coherence of vision.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Fantasy Worldbuilding: Drinks and Weapons

All right folks, here's where I lift up the hood and show you the cheat codes...

Er, that metaphor is rather mangled.

The point is, I'm going to show you some inner-workings of worldbuilding, based on my research, to give you the simplest tools to set the technology level of your fantasy world.  With those building blocks, you can focus on more interesting elements.  That, in turn, should help you avoid "generic medieval" or "generic steampunk".

So, the course of civilizations has many, many benchmarks that you can use, but on some level, the easiest are what people drink and what they fight with.  With that, you can break down the pre-industrial era into six basic phases.

Phase One: Beer and Bronze.  Beer, of course, pre-dates bronze.  Beer is one of our oldest inventions.  The origins of beer and bread are intertwined; historians aren't even sure which came first, but both involve grains, yeast and fermentation.  But it does go hand in hand with bronze age, dawn of civilization stuff.

Phase Two: Wine and Iron. Wine comes about with the classical age, the drink of choice for thinkers of distinction.  But it also represents the point where civilization strives to be a bit more than just collective survival.  And it's good for a setting of "civilized" people who think they're above the "barbarians" around them.

Phase Three: Spirits and Steel. Transition from dark ages to Renaissance, this is what you have.  Probably the most traditional thing to use for a "fantasy" novel. 

Phase Four: Tea and Canons.  This is where you might transition to a "wider world" level of fantasy-- sea trade and expansion of thought. 

Phase Five: Coffee and Muskets.  A more civilized, controlled version of the previous version, but also more revolutionary.  Coffee was often connected with subversive thought, the drink of choice for folks who would stay up late discussing ideas away from the mainstream.  Well, that still hasn't changed.

Phase Six: Soda and Pistols.  This is simplifying things, but if you're going steampunk, don't forget that carbonated beverages were drank as early as the late 1700s. 

Now, of course, that doesn't mean that you can't cheat, cheat like CRAZY on this stuff.  Because that's how good worldbuilding surprises us: taking what we expect and subverting the hell out of it.    Don't just wedge your story somewhere between Phases Three and Four because that's what "fantasy" is supposed to be.

Further reading, for the drinks side of things here: A History of the World in Six Glasses by Tom Standage.  Good worldbuilding research book.  Check it out.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Perils of the Writer: Heroic Support and Infrastructure

Most of what I write essentially involves one or two key characters who, through choice or circumstance, have to go out and do hard, heroic things.  Of course, sometimes these hard, heroic things aren't exactly heroic.  They might be self-serving or even downright criminal. But the key thing is the characters themselves believe in the fundamental rightness of what they are doing, no matter what else the world tells them.

However, in most cases, they can't do it alone.  Even the most die-hard of "loner" characters have a deep bench of help and support characters to get the job done.  Batman can't Batman if he doesn't also have Alfred, Jim Gordon, Lucius Fox, Dr. Leslie Thompkins, Barbara Gordon and Dick Grayson in the mix with him.

I've been thinking about the archetypes of these support and infrastructure characters, how I've usually expressed them in these works.  It's not been a conscious thing, a checklist of, "Oh, I need this"-- but when I look back at each works' set of dramatis personae*, I see most of the archetypes represented.  Of course, each of these things aren't limited to one character each: one character could fill many roles, and some roles can be fulfilled by multiple characters.  This is hardly a fully representative list of "this is what you must have". 

A Hero needs someone who knows the things they don't. Heroes that know everything are not particularly interesting.  It's good to have someone in their corner who gives them information they specifically need to figure out what do to.  Not necessarily someone to put the pieces together for them, but someone who can say, "Here are the pieces for you."

A Hero needs someone to tell them hard truths. Any hero that's worth reading about is going to stray from their path, get their moral compass out of alignment, or otherwise have a blind spot.  Someone needs to be there to smack them across the head and tell them the thing they won't tell themselves.  Things that they don't want to hear, but probably need to.

A Hero needs someone with authority. Much like the previous point is about keeping the hero in check, I think a hero needs to have to answer to someone, in one way or another, to keep them from just having carte blanche to do whatever.  An unrestrained hero is also uninteresting.

A Hero needs someone to patch them up.  This is twofold: someone to physically heal them when they get hurt, and someone to pull them out of the abyss when things go wrong.  The first is just common sense, and doesn't even necessarily involve a character so much as infrastructure.  But a specific character is probably more interesting.
Do not use this as a checklist: that would probably get you in a lot more trouble.  I may use the word "need" a lot in this, but take that with a grain of salt.  Above all, a story needs what it needs. 

There is one deliberate omission, something I was going to put, and then erased, but it's worth mentioning: Someone with loyalty.  I mostly erased it because, to a degree, that loyalty is implied in all the other elements.  But I also erased it because it implies that the loyalty to the hero is something that is deserved rather than earned.  The hero must earn that loyalty.  The hero must KEEP earning it.

Plus, the conflict that arises from a rock-like loyalty being shaken?  That's real juicy stuff to write.

*- I always write up a Dramatis Personae for each book, mostly because I need a quick reference for the names of minor characters. 

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Perils of the Writer: Writing on Shuffle

I am not a NaNoWriMo person.  I don't think it's a bad thing to do, per se, but I do think it sets an artificial ideal of breakneck pace over, you know, writing a good novel.  But I do think it's a good way to learn about your own writing habits and needs, and to learn how to write a novel. 

But you eventually reach a point where every month is a NoWriMo, and you've got to run that at your own pace. 

Which is what I've been doing with Banshee.  Since mid-September, when I really officially "started" it (I had had about 4,000 words and copious notes already), I've been writing 500 words per day as a minimum quota.  Every day*, I've written at least that, sometimes more.  Now, on no day did I write the NaNo minimum (1,666), but that's probably a good thing.  A. I've got other stuff to do, and B. that could burn me out.

Burn-out pace is no way to write. 

That said, I've hit several walls.  Several times I've hit points where, on any other project, I would get stuck, and spin my wheels, stare at a blank screen, etc.  But here?  I've been jumping around.

Now, I've jumped around before, but usually it's along the lines of, "I'm stuck here, so I'm going to jump ahead to THIS PART, and then come back to fill in the gaps between later" or "I need a scene where X happens somewhere down the road, so I'll write it now and figure out how to get to it when I need to."   In other words, I'll jump, but remain fairly linear in my jumping. 

This is not what I'm doing on Banshee

I am jumping ALL OVER THE PLACE.  I mean, I know the general outline, so I know how the plot goes from A to B to C to D.  And most of my shuffling has been between A and B.  So far A involves setting up a bunch of dominoes, and B involves rebuilding after knocking them all down.  Both are fun in their own way.  Both are frustrating and blocking in their own way.

So I'm jumping around. 

Which can be very helpful, because I can write something in B, and think, "Oh, I need to properly set this up", and slip it in something in A. 

On the other hand, it can be confusing, because I sometimes forget what I need to set up, or what I've already set up.  For example, last night, I started writing a bit where one character talks about needing to ask another character to do something.  Except I already wrote the bit where he asks, and that bit takes place before the bit I was writing.  It was utterly redundant. 

And that's where I run into trouble: I'm not quite sure, at this stage, when I'm reiterating or reinforcing a key point, or if I'm just repeating it. 

Not to mention, I get confused about how my main character feels about certain characters at any given point.  She has a fair amount of trust in one character at B that she wants nothing to do with in A... and sometimes I screw that up and the trust retroactively bleeds into A.  Whoops.

It's a rough draft, of course, but it's shaping up to be a far rougher rough draft than I typically write.  Which is okay.  That's what editing is for.

*- To be fair, on Saturday I only hit 300ish words.  But I also was doing a ton of prep work and organization for a huge event on Sunday, while also hosting a house guest.  Frankly, only failing quota by a small margin under those circumstances was pretty damn impressive, in my humble opinion.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Perils of the Genre Writer: Prophecy and Inevitability

Given my frequent mentions of Edding as, if not an influence, at least an inspiration, it’s no surprise that I think about prophecy as a tool in the fantasy writers' box.  It's a troubling and challenging tool to use, of course.  Make prophecy too obscure, and you're filling the page with strange semi-poetic rambling which doesn't make much sense, often followed by a post-game debriefing where characters thread the needle of explaining how the prophecy made perfect sense, or otherwise telling the audience what the symbolism meant.*   Make it too direct, and you're just dragging the characters by the nose from point to point, with very little tension or doubt.

Some of my earlier storytelling attempts followed the latter approach.  To bad effect.

Prophecy can serve a lot of purposes, especially in a story where the relationship with the divine is more direct. It can be as literal as the gods themselves serving the Wise Mentor role, telling the protagonists what they need to do.  Or it can be a test from the gods, to see if the characters can figure out what they are supposed to do.

Now, being a bit of a classicist, I'm quite fond of the misunderstood prophecy.  Now, the most traditional form of this is one where someone hears a prophecy, and their actions to avoid it cause it to happen.  Oedipus's father leaving baby Oedipus in the forest to die being the most famous example.

But the other form of it is the one I really love, where the prophecy seems to be telling the protagonist the thing they want to hear; for example, Macbeth believes he cannot be defeated once he hears that "no man of woman born can harm Macbeth".

Of course, Macbeth wasn't being told he couldn't be defeated.  He was being told the explicit circumstances of his defeat:

                               Thou losest labour.
 As easy mayst thou the intrenchant air
 With thy keen sword impress as make me bleed.
 Let fall thy blade on vulnerable crests;
 I bear a charmed life, which must not yield
 To one of woman born.
                                         Despair thy charm,
 And let the angel whom thou still hast served
 Tell thee, Macduff was from his mother's womb
 Untimely ripp'd.

Whoops.  Walked into that one.

Of course, the big questions you should ask yourself is, does your story need prophecies?  Or are you using it because it is an expected trope in fantasy?

*- While the third season of Babylon 5 is largely excellent, there probably was no scene more awkward or painful than the bit in "Shadow Dancing" when a few characters hash out the imagery of Sheridan's dream, scene by scene.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Worldbuilding: Shortcuts for Language Building

When it comes to worldbuilding, especially fantasy worldbuilding, constructing a language is the sort of thing you sometimes feel you ought to do, especially since Tolkien set the standard by not only building several languages, but their historical evolution.

That's hardcore linguist stuff, and you shouldn't go there unless you've got love for it. 

And let's face it, the bulk of the constructed language stuff only exists for small percentage of purists in your audience. 

But, let's say you wanted to have that hint of the larger language-- just that hint of verisimilitude, so when you drop an "othered" word in your manuscript it doesn't feel like you threw a handful of Alpha-Bits on your desk to get your word. 

So, the easiest way to accomplish this is not to worry too much about grammar and vocabulary.  If you don't need to construct complete sentences on a regular basis in your manuscript, there's no need for it.  But what you can do, without too much work, is figure out what the building blocks of the words are, and use that to create a sense that the language has a consistent framework. 

One way is to familiarize yourself with the International Phonetic Alphabet, which is a simple, codified way to express about every sound the human mouth can make.   You don't have to memorize or master it (I certainly haven't), but get a sense of it. 

From there, you can figure out what phonemes and morphemes can exist in the language.  You don't need to come up with an alphabet, or even if the language is alphabetic (like English and Romance languages), syllabic (like Japanese) or logographic (like Chinese).  You just need to know what sounds are allowed. 

Now, devise a consistent way to express these allowed sounds.  In a way, this is creating the alphabet, but specifically you're creating the transliteration of your language, using the symbols you can readily type.  (You could just use the IPA, but that might frustrate readers.)   But it's important to make it consistent.  English can be a maddening language in that sense: "straight", "wait', "weight" and "late" all rhyme, but express the same vowel sound four different ways.  This can also minimize your own confusion when you go to make a new word.

This will also prevent you from making typical "fantasy language" errors-- namely, throwing in accent marks or apostrophes or excessive use of the letters "æ"or "y" to make it seems like a Fantasy Language word.  I'm not saying you can't use accent marks or apostrophes or the letters "æ"or "y", but if you create a clear set of transliteration rules, then they won't come off as random.  They'll be a consistent feature of the words of that language.

And that will make it feel more real, without having to invent the whole thing.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Dueling Query Letters!

This time around we have two variant query letters for the same project, courtesy of Amy Judd.  Let's see what we can do for her:

Version One:
Genieve Hart is about to grow up –but not in a way she expected.
Born one of the Marked, Genieve expected to learn about her gift in her home city-state. That was until a benefactor betrayed her to the Council. Wrongfully accused, Genieve faces incarceration or a fantastical escape with the help of sky pirates. Getting in contact with the Resistance was easy, as easy as falling face first into the middle of an uprising war. Haunted by strange dreams, and an all-knowing spirit Genieve begins to understand exactly what her Mark’s power is. In the meantime discovering who’s her friend and who’s her foe, but not before it’s too late.

Aleister Malakim is willing to sacrifice anything – or anyone to conquer the City-States.  Even if that means kidnapping, using his own Mark, or filling the atmosphere with falling air ship, all trying to cash-in on the bounty on Genieve’s head.  All he needs to make the Malakim Regime’s rise to power absolute is Genieve’s cooperation.

MECHANICS OF FATE is a Steampunk Fantasy novel, complete at 109,000 words. Thank you for your time and consideration.

Amy Judd

Version 2:

Dear Mr. Maresca,

Genieve Hart is about to grow up---but not in the way she expected.

Born one of the Marked, she expected to learn about her gift in her home city-state. That is until one of her supposed benefactors betrayed her unusual talents to the Council. Falsely accused of a terrible act, Genieve faces incarceration. She chooses instead to make an escape with the help of sky pirates. Getting in contact with the Resistance was easy, so easy that she fell face first into the middle of a civil war. As Genevieve is haunted by strange dreams and an All-Knowing Spirit, she becomes fully aware of her power designated by the Mark. Discovering who’s her friend and who’s her foe is important but it’s too late…

Aleister Malakim is willing to use anything or anyone to conquer the City-States even if that means kidnapping or using the power of his Mark. His ambition succeeds in filling the sky with air ships all trying to cash in on the excessive bounty on Genieve’s head.  What he needs to make the Malakim Regimes’ rise to power absolute is her cooperation.

Mechanics of Fate is a steampunk fantasy novel, complete at 109,000 words.
Thank you for your time and consideration.


Amy Judd

In both cases, I think that first sentence is doing you more harm than good.  That sentence is almost a cliché, and even if your story is following that trope, announcing it right off the bat will probably shut more agents down.  Plus you should consider using that first space for a more personalized greeting of the agent in question.

FIRST PARAGRAPH (both versions) : I think you're trying to overpack a lot of concepts in here, that may go above an beyond what you ought to do in a query letter.  It's loaded with high-concept key words: Marked, gift, benefactor, sky pirates, Resistance, All-Knowing Spirit, etc.  It's a bit overwhelming.  Remember that you don't have to explain everything in the query.  However, while at the same time, there's a certain vagueness which can make the whole thing sound generic. 

Generic is the last thing you want. 

Case in point: "her city-state".  Does it have a name?  "Her gift", "her power".  Is this about magic, or something else?  "Resistance"-- who are they resisting, and why would Genieve find that useful?  Are they resisting "The Council", who are similarly vague in their nomenclature?  "A terrible act"-- what, exactly?  "All-knowing Spirit"-- what is that?

The second version is stronger-- "falsely accused" is a bit better than "wrongfully accused", for example (the former implies malignant intent, while the latter merely a mistake).  Same with "middle of a civil war". 

Also, "who’s her friend and who’s her foe" is a bulkier way of saying "who she can trust". 

SECOND PARAGRAPH- The way you've put this together, I'm getting the impression that you're going to be doing some sort of alternating-POV in this book: a chapter of Genieve,  a chapter of Aleister, and back to Genieve.  That's what I infer when I see two separate paragraphs about two different characters.  However, their stories are clearly intertwined, so you might consider dropping this format. 

In general, consider the merits of integrating the two paragraphs to represent the narrative flow a bit better. 

OVERALL:  I think the thing that's hurting this query letter the most is you're going for breadth over depth.  You hit a lot of elements in a generic way as opposed to a few in a specific way, and I think the latter will present a stronger hook.  From my read, these are the points you should focus on, as they represent the drive of the narrative:
  • falsely accused
  • escapes with sky pirates
  • face-first into civil war
  • price on her head
  • haunted dreams
  • who can she trust?
Hope this helps!

Anyone else have a query letter they want an opinion on?  Send it my way.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Analysis of a SF/F Query Letter

This week we have a brave soul who is willing to have his query letter given a public critique.  And there's a good lesson in here about the overall challenges genre writers face with queries.  It's kind of the same problem we have with first chapters.    Let's take a look.

First, here's the letter as I received it:

Dear Mr. Maresca,

I have chosen to submit to you due to your interest in fantasy and young adult novels. I am a frequent reader of your blog and appreciate all of your advice to aspiring writers.

In my novel Eliza of Edge, a teenage girl discovers that her world and her memory have been altered to remove all evidence of a younger brother, a boy who has grown to become the fanatical tyrant of a magical land.

Alone during a summer storm, Elizabeth finds her home under attack by mysterious assailants who disappear as quickly as they arrived. Things only get stranger when she stumbles into a room that shouldn't exist, the bedroom of a younger brother her world has been made to forget. Within this room hides a mysterious stranger named Grim, a traveler from a mystical land. He has come to seek help in defeating Silas the Pretender, the tyrant who rules over the land of Edge...the tyrant who was once Elizabeth's little brother. Eliza of Edge is the story of a girl who is forced to confront not only a powerful magical ruler, but her own forgotten adventures in a world where her name lives within legend.

Eliza of Edge is a 132,000-word novel of the young adult/fantasy genre. It is the first novel that I have written.

Thank you in advance for your time.


Matthew Brown

 OK, Matt, the first thing that jumps out at me is how this is formatted, with a lot of extra lines between paragraphs.  It's a minor thing, easily fixable, but even a little thing like that, hitting the eye "wrong" can have a negative impact.  Of course, if the query letter really sells, something like that shouldn't matter.  That's not the same as doesn't, though.

Greeting and First Paragraph: This is pretty solid: it shows personalization, and he's researched enough into me (or rather, me-as-hypothetical-agent, but the premise stands) that I know he's not just blasting out to the world.  That was an especially good touch for this exercise-- keep that up for the actual queries.  My only real complaint here is "I have chosen to submit to you..." is a bit indirect.  Perhaps "I am submitting to you" or other phrase that hits with a straight line.

Second Paragraph: It strikes me this is giving me an overview of the book that you are essentially repeating in the third paragraph.  This is not a strong use of your limited space here, especially since the way you tell me in the third paragraph is far more dynamic.

Third Paragraph: Here's the real meat of the query.  The thing that has my attention is the twist on the "portal" story-- more on that in a moment-- in that the initial portal adventure already happened, and Elizabeth doesn't remember it.  Not only doesn't she remember, but there were real consequences to going.  Her brother stayed behind.  I really like that because it subverts one of the "rules" of portal stories: that the adventurers return home, with no tangible evidence of their journey.  Since that's impossible with him staying behind, "our" universe bends to accommodate, and hides that he ever existed.  This is a fantastic hook.

However, I don't think you're communicating it quite as efficiently as you could.  So, first off, kill the second paragraph as is-- you're giving away your big reveal a bit too soon-- and break the third into two.  The first paragraph should hit the set-up points: Strange attacks, fragments of memory, discovery of the "missing" room and Grim.  The second paragraph should be the reveal: Elizabeth going to Edge, hinting at her power and her legend... and that the tyrant she must defeat is the brother she can't remember.

Here's the things to keep in mind: "Portals happen", as I once heard an agent put quite succinctly.  So you don't have to overexplain it, as your target audience (an agent who reps fantasy) knows the tropes.  You can presume a certain degree of genre-savvy, and you don't have to front-load your query letter to pre-explain it.  I think this is the same sort of problem genre writers have in their opening chapters-- they approach their audience like an overcautious tour guide, making sure that everyone is clear about what's happening and what the rules are, rather than jumping in an trusting that your audience knows the sort of thing they are in for.  They know, and they (hopefully) want to see how you're going to play with it. 

Detail points:
  • I'm not too keen on the repeated use of "her world" here.  It's a bit too twee for my taste. It's her memory and life, keep it more focused on how the removal of her brother affects her.
  • Why is a "summer" storm relevant? It's not necessarily a bad detail, but you tell us that before you tell us Elizabeth's name, it gives that point heavy importance.  Something to think about.
  • "Eliza of Edge is the story of a girl who..."  We already know it's a story about something.  Get rid of the extra couching terms, and tell it directly.  "Elizabeth is forced to confront..."
Final Paragraph: Succinct, no problems in how you wrote it.  Something that might concern you, though: 132,000 is, from what I understand, too long for Young Adult, by a large margin.  You might be getting passed over by agents who see that number and immediately reject.  Someone with more direct knowledge can correct me, but my understanding that the YA target length is 70-90K. I'm not sure how you'll want to address that.

Thanks for sharing, Matt!

Monday, October 21, 2013

Perils of the Writer: Query Letters

I brought up query letters last week as part of the whole Heinlein's Five Rules posts, so it's worth talking about them.

Query letters are evil.  I've never met a single writer who was all, "Yeah!  I get to write a query letter!"  It doesn't happen.  Query letters are, for all intents, the equivalent of trying to get a prom date at a high school with a 500:1 gender imbalance in your disfavor. Your goal is to get your intended paramour's attention while the other 499 of your competition are always screaming, and to have any chance, you must follow specific rules of courtly approach.

And they have to be succinct.  You want to tell the agent EVERYTHING.  But don't forget, the query is only the bait to get them to bite.  Your actual manuscript is where you reel them in.  

So, I've decided to extend my offer to read and critique query letters.  You've got one and you need another pair of eyes on it?  Send it this way.  If you are really bold, I'll critique it here on the blog. 

Simply send it to me at maresca at, with "Query" as the subject, and indicate whether you want a public or private critique.

Still not sure what a query letter should look like?  Here's a sample that, hopefully, will at least amuse you.

Dear ____,

Not Writing My Query Letter is a 90,000 word young adult novel. Since you are interested in procrastination, I thought it would appeal to you.

Holly Harris is a young girl with a dream: a finished novel that she wants to query to literary agents. If gets her foot in that door, she knows she'll hit the best seller lists.

But when the Query process begins to look like a looming horror of rejection and pain, writers block hits her hard. She hopes her boyfriend Jake can help her work it out, but he's always busy, and it seems that bad boy Eddie is always around with his thesaurus. Which boy will be the beta-reader of her heart?

Not Writing My Query Letter is a stand-alone novel, but I envision it as the first in a series of several books. I'd be happy to send a complete copy of the manuscript for your review. Thank you for your time, and I look forward to hearing from you.


Thursday, October 17, 2013

Heinlein's Fifth Rule

Final installment in our Heinlein Rules.  To backtrack: First, Second, Third and Fourth.

Heinlein gives his Fifth Rule as such:


So, here's where Mr. Heinlein and I must part ways*, because I don't fully agree with this rule.  For one, I think it's already intrinsic to the Fourth Rule-- you need to put stuff out there, and it needs to stay out there.  Sure.  So in part, I'm not too keen on this rule because it's redundant.  But also, on some level, I think it's bad advice.  You've got to be able to recognize when it's time to put something in the trunk.  That you might be doing yourself more harm than good flailing a project out there that's well and truly flawed and unsellable. 

The other big reason I'm not on board with this rule is it doesn't feel like the next proper step in terms of discipline.  "Put it out there" is energy.  "Keep it out there" is inertia.

So what's a better rule to show what one needs to do in order to move on to the next level?  If I may be so bold:


This makes a lot more sense to me.  You've pushed your baby out of the nest, and regardless of what happens with that, you've got to make something else.  Something new.

And I must stress the 'something new'.  I fully understand the temptation, but you shouldn't go headfirst into 'Book Two' of whatever you're shopping.  Put down notes, draft an outline, have a plan?  Sure.  Yes.  If my experience is typical, if you get interest in the book you're shopping, you'll be asked for plans for possible books two and three.  So having those plans is good.  But leave it at that. 

Whatever you really work on next needs to be something whose sale is not dependent on the sale of the thing your shopping.  Because then you're building a whole house of cards, investing more and more into something you might have to through in the trunk.  And if you invest that much, you're going to become more and more petrified in letting go.  Move on. To something new. 

It's hard.  It's supposed to be.  Tom Hanks will tell you why.

Go get to it. 

*- There's also the "time travel to seduce my mom" part of Time Enough For Love, and in general the creepiness of late-era Heinlein.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Heinlein's Fourth Rule

Continuing the discussion of Heinlein's Rules of Successful writing (First, Second and Third rules.)

So, now you've written something, you've finished it, and you've stopped fiddling with it.  This can only mean it's time for one thing:


This rule ties into the third rule a lot.  Because when it comes down to it, you've got to push the baby bird out of the nest and see if it's going to fly.

Because everything you've done up until this point is darn we'll useless if you don't.  They aren't going to beat a path to your door to see if you've concocted some brilliance that they might want to publish.

This includes the ever painful act of querying an agent, which may be the most dreaded act a writer has to face.  But let me tell you, querying in and of itself is pretty easy.  It may almost be too easy.  It's so easy that many agents receive over 500 queries a week.  However, a good portion of those queries are more or less the equivalent of shouting baboons hurling their feces at an agent.  So you've got to work extra hard to make your query be the thing that can be noticed above the din of baboon screeches and feces.  There are only two steps to accomplish that:

1. Follow the submission guidelines.
2. Write a brilliant query.

Step one is very, very easy if you just pay a modicum of attention.  Do not get lazy or sloppy with it.  Every time.  Or you might send a query addressed to "Dear ".

Step two is harder, I won't deny it.  Research query letters.  Polish the hell out of it.  This is the calling card for your novel, and you need to make it as strong as possible, clean and concise.

Concise is a big thing.  I've had the opportunity to read many query letters, and many times I see-- especially with genre-- writers who want to explain EVERYTHING in the query.  It really isn't necessary.   You want to entice the agent to read the book, not summarize it. 

Also: avoid negativity.  Especially in regards to a. the genre you're querying and b. other writers in that genre.  Apparently this sort of denigration ("Sci-fi is stupid, so I wrote a better sci-fi novel which will blow everyone away.") is common. 

So: LIMITED TIME OFFER.  Want to test the waters on your query letter?  Send it to me at maresca at  I'll give you my take on it, either privately or publicly (aka, here on this blog).

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Heinlein's Third Rule

Continuing from the previous posts (Heinlein's First and Second Rules), let's move on to Heinlein's Third-- and to some, the most controversial-- Rule to succeed at writing.


Now, this makes it sound like Heinlein is talking about not editing your work at all, which I don't see as the case.  Editing your work falls under, in this case, the Second Rule: finish the work.  A rough draft that you've typed "the end" on is nice, but it isn't finished. 

But at some point, you have to decide it's done, and further fiddling isn't serving any purpose beyond feeding your own anxiety.  So the advice is less, "You shouldn't edit your work" but, "If you keep picking at it, it'll never heal." 

So you have to reach a point of acceptance with the work, where you stop seeking one more bit of beta-reading approval, where you think if you just re-do this one part it'll be right, and then the full scope of your genius will be clear.  But are you really making it better, or are you just rearranging the furniture?

 And, again, this is a point where you have to do some triage of your own work.  Are you constantly fiddling because it really is salvageable, or because you don't want to admit that you've invested too much into it already to put it in the trunk?

That's the dark side of this advice: some works, you have to stop messing with and decide to send it out into the world.  Others, you have to stop messing with and put it away forever.  Either way, once you reach that point, you have to stop poking until someone gives you a really good reason to. 

Monday, October 7, 2013

Heinlein's Second Rule

Continuing from the last post on the Heinlein rules writers need to follow for success, let's move on to his second rule:


To which I say, yes.  But a qualified yes.

Of course you have to finish what you're working on.  An unfinished story-- especially an unfinished novel-- is nigh-useless unless you get hit with exceptional circumstances*, which are not something you can count on. 

But here's the ugly truth that is sometimes hard to face: not every project is worth finishing.  Sometimes you're just going down a blind alley, and continuing to work on it is the equivalent of flailing around in the dark instead of finding a light.

So here's the qualification: You must finish what you write, unless you determine that finishing it wasting your time.

HOWEVER, "wasting your time" is a LOT different from, "This is hard and I want to work on the shiny new thing I came up with".  Like I said last time, write with discipline, and that means pushing through the hard work to the other side.  And every one of the finished projects that I have shopping had that fallow period were the process of writing felt interminable. 

There's a difference between smashing your way through the brick wall, and smashing your head against it.  The really hard part is figuring out which one you're doing.

And most important, if you don't finish one thing that you write, you're not finishing that so you can finish something else.  Because, yes, you must finish before you can move on to the next step.

*- For example, Scott Lynch sold Lies of Locke Lamora on the strength of excerpts of the unfinished novel he had posted online, mostly for the purpose of having friends give feedback.  But because of a friend of a friend, that led to it getting the attention of a publisher.  However, this was a lightning-strike confluence of luck and talent, and should not be one's battle plan. 

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Heinlein's First Rule

If you go to workshops-- especially SF/F related workshops-- or otherwise seek out Writing Advice, sooner or later you're going to hear Heinlein's Five Rules for getting published. 

The rules are pretty strong, solid advice, but to a degree they have more bearing on a short-story market than a novel market.  So I'll go over the five rules over the next few posts, and how I've integrated them into my process.


You really can't argue with this, right?  If you want to be a successful writer, writing is a given.

But what does this mean, in terms of actual action?  Here's how I see it:

A. You must know what you're writing.
B. You must know how you write.
C. You must work with discipline.

Now, for the first part, knowing what you're writing: apply this as broadly as you want, but I think you need to know what your general plans and intentions are.  Of course, things can get away with you: you can start writing a short story and discover a novel.  Or you can start a novel and find it's only a novella.  But the point is you've got to have some sort of plan when you sit down. 

This ties directly to the second part: know how you write.  Which is very different from "know how you think you write".  For example, I'm a big outliner.  This is what works for me, and I learned that through a process of discovery.  I did a whole lot of, "I'm going to write and see where it goes" and where it went was nowhere slowly.  Another example: I'm not a writer who can do the "just get it written, and then fix it in editing" thing.  That isn't to say I don't edit or make a lot of changes when I do, but I see a rough draft as a foundation, and if I'm not building a strong foundation, it doesn't work for me.   Another point: I get the most creative in later hours, usually after 10pm.  I've accepted all these points as how I work best, and I've thrived by accepting that.  So the advice I have there is: learn how you write, but look very critically at if that's really what works best, or if it's how you think you ought to work best.

Finally: write with discipline.  Once you know what you're doing and how you do it best, sit down and get on it.  "Write every day" is good advice, but it doesn't necessarily apply to everyone (see point B).  But this is what I've found effective for me:  when I'm working on a project (in rough draft), I set a daily writing goal.  This is a low-balled goal, a minimum quota.*  This is the, "Fine, you've earned the right to eat today" amount of writing.  It's a C-.  Now, many days I will write more than that quota-- and going over quota doesn't give me slack the next day.  But by keeping that quota low, I keep myself from getting in a shame-spiral of failure.  Because I know how I work, and if I "get behind" on even an arbitrarily set quota, part of my brain says, "We can't do it" and shuts down. 

And before I learned properly how I write, I would do that to myself constantly.  I would set an Unreasonable Writing Goal (I would even call it that to try and spur myself on), and then kick myself for not reaching it, and the whole thing would stall out.

Next time: Rule #2.  But for now, it's time to get writing.

*- Currently for Banshee**, it's 500 words a day.
**- Of course, one thing that helps in having a solid outline-- I can jump all over the project and write crazily out-of-order, which makes a big difference when one section is stuck.

Monday, September 30, 2013

Worldbuilding: Aliens and Environments

Now I'm working on Banshee, a space-opera novel that, on a fundamental level, is about putting a human being on a ship with a whole lot of different aliens and asking, "So how is this going to work?" 

There are some hard questions that can be asked that a lot of sci-fi works tend to ignore or only give a passing nod to.  

If I'm being honest, on my end, I'll probably be giving a passing nod to some of them myself.  But here are some things I've been thinking about in terms of putting nearly a dozen different alien species on one ship together.  First and foremost, the question of, "Is this even worth the trouble?"  Can the advantage of mutual cooperation amongst different species outweigh the inherent difficulties in trying to live in the same space?

Let's just presume, in this instance, that most species on the ship have a respiration cycle that requires oxygen.  It's not a terrible presumption, mind you-- any respiration cycle will need a molecule that's reactive, but not TOO reactive-- but then you have the question of How Much Oxygen?  Odds are not everyone will need the same balance as everyone else.  What if one species needs, say, 30% oxygen in their atmosphere?  Then the reactive properties that make oxygen molecules useful for humans becomes a little more problematic.  What if one species requires an atmosphere that's toxic to another?  What if one species's waste product is toxic to another? 

How do you decide who needs to just wear an environmental suit, since their environmental needs are far too inconvenient to everyone else?

Other factors to consider, just for starters: Gravity.  Light levels. Temperature tolerances.  Radiation levels.

And that's just about being in the same space.

What about working in the same space?  Even presuming that interspecies communication is functional enough to facilitate working together, what about ergonomics?

How do you make workstations that accommodate beings with different body sizes, body types, forms of fine-motor control, visual ranges and hearing ranges?  Do you put chairs at them?  If you aren't humanoid, chairs are pointless.  If you have only two hands (or equivalent) then using a console designed for four or more will be very challenging.  Similarly, if you have four or more, using a console designed for only two would feel woefully inefficient.

So you have to ask yourself, which compromises are the best fit for everyone, and which ones create ones that everyone can tolerate, but no one is comfortable with?  And at what point would it become too hard to be worth the trouble?

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Future Worldbuilding: Choosing the Future

I've now switched gears, in earnest, with my "primary" writing project.  I've written four books in Maradaine and the world around it (six if you also count the two trunked novels), and while I'm not at all bored of it*, a palate-cleansing switch is due.   So I'm now (finally) writing the project that I've been calling Banshee for some time, which is pure space-opera.

The setting of this book is something I've been cooking for some time.  I've done a fair amount of worldbuilding here, with regards to future history, alien species and technology.

Now, trying to predict the future, especially in broad strokes for the next four hundred years, is pretty much a fool's errand.  You're not going to get it right.  So, you need to just embrace what the future you're creating is going to be, and jump in at the deep end.

The way I see it, you need to ask yourself three Big Idea Questions:
  1. Where are we?
  2. How did we get there?
  3. Why aren't we over there instead?
The first two are essentially about establishing what your setting is.  In the case of Banshee, it's a wide-sprawling, vibrant space-opera where great interstellar powers are forming alliances and empires... and humanity is a minor power that has only started to be a part of the larger community.

The third question is about establishing what your setting isn't, which is just as vital and necessary thing to think about when building sci-fi in the future.  For example, is genetic engineering of people common?  To what extent?  And if it isn't being used to the fullest possible extent, why not?  Cybernetics, nanotech, cloning, brain-taping?  Artificial Intelligence? Have these been fully embraced as part of normal life?  Or have they been shunned?  If so, why? 

For example, the future humanity in Banshee do not have artificially intelligent computers, and any form of cybernetic replacement of limbs or organs is done in a very controlled way (or on the black market).  Partly because, as a writer, these were cans of worms I didn't want to open and had little to do with the future I wanted to explore.  But I felt I couldn't just ignore it, pretend that such sciences didn't exist.  So I've included in the history a point where humanity achieves Artificial Intelligence, and it goes horribly badly; a bloody war against the machines where AIs try to take over, and people with cybernetic implants are unwilling meat-soldiers used against the rest of mankind.  Humanity wins out, but the cost is high, and the result is the feelings behind never do that again are quite strong.

So, with that worked out, I'm diving into tomorrow.  See you there.

*- In fact, I've got specific outlines for Books Two and Three for each of those four books, and a rough plan for more beyond that, which all really excite me. 

Monday, September 23, 2013

Perils of the Writer: Clarity and Transition

Earlier this week I was reading a piece with a very troubling section.  Troubling in a technique and clarity way, not content. 

In the scene in question, two characters were talking-- dialogue back and forth, always perfectly clear who was speaking.  And then there was a descriptive paragraph of what was happening while they were talking.  And then they continued their conversation.

Or so I thought.

Because I grew increasingly confused as the conversation continued.  It seemed their circumstances had changed utterly. 

I went back and re-read that descriptive paragraph and found my error, and it was huge.  HUGE. 

It turns out that the paragraph had not only moved the two main characters ahead in time several weeks, but had moved them to a different living situation.  The conversation which had felt like an organic continuation of the earlier conversation was, in fact, a completely different conversation, weeks later.

Now, I'll fully, fully own that my confusion here was utterly due to my lack of care in reading and processing that crucial paragraph.  My bad.

However, it doesn't change the fact that it's a lot to pack into a single paragraph.  The story had, up until that point, all been in a single night, and focused on a lot of minute details.  A sudden leap ahead in such a casual manner was... unexpected.  At the very least, one would expect a chapter break to prepare the reader for such a change.  Instead it's just one paragraph between two separate conversations between the same two people. 

This is, of course, a question of style and voice.  I would never write a transition like this, but that doesn't make it wrong or improper.  And for all I know, this was an editorial edict-- condensing what had been five to ten thousand words into a single paragraph, in order to get on with the core story. 

However, it does remind me of a point I've made again and again in workshops: Clarity is never the enemy.  Especially in moments of great change.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Perils of the Writer: Writing Race in SF/F

A little story from some 20 years ago:

My college roommate and I were watching Deep Space Nine, and in the episodes a small group of Bajorans were meeting with Cmdr. Sisko.  One of the leaders of the Bajorans was played by a black actor.

"That's cool," my roommate said, "They have African-American Bajorans."  Then after a moment he said,  "Of course, that's inaccurate.  He's Bajoran.  Bajor is a different planet, there's no Africa, there's no America."

Over the course of the series, we saw that the Bajorans were as racially diverse as humans are*, but we never learn any real details of that diversity.  And that's fine, because it didn't need to be directly addressed, it just was a part of their reality, easily achieved by color-blind casting.

Writing different races in secondary world fantasy, though, can be a challenge.  And I'm not even talking on a cultural level, though that's definitely an aspect.  I'm talking about purely on a level of clarity and description. 

Here's the exercise: describe a character whose race is different than the norm of the primary culture of your world, without using any geographic or geopolitical signifiers from our world.  Also, avoid words or terms that could be racially charged.  Now do five more. 

How do you feel about what you did? 

Now, one thing you can do is make distinctions between races and cultures in your world without getting too specific, and noting how the characters are aware of the cultural differences themselves. 

   "You reek of fish, you know," she said, her flat nose crinkling in disgust. Kaiana Nell was a dark haired, brown-skinned girl. Ruder people would call her a Napa: half Druth, half Napolic. She was a soldier's daughter, born out on the tropical islands during the Fifty Year War.
   Ruder people would call Veranix a "Dirty Quin" if his Racquin heritage were as clear on his face.  Of course, Racquin were only a little darker than 'regular' Druthalians. They just kept to the roads and kept to their own, for the most part.  Though Veranix, like Kaiana, was only half.  His father was a 'regular' Druth, born and raised in Maradaine, just blocks away from the University.  Veranix had inherited his father's fair skin and green eyes, and could speak in his father's Aventil neighborhood accent.  No one suspected he was anything but a local.

Did I hit the mark, or did I miss it?  Perhaps badly?  I think I've still got room for improvement.

But who doesn't?  Even George R. R. Martin has left a lot of room for interpretation.  It seems every time a new character is cast for Game of Thrones, I see intense debates on how the actor or actress does not match what various readers imagined for that character or that character's race.

*- Which makes a strange sense, in that-- save for their nose ridges-- Bajorans were indistinguishable from humans in appearance.  If you can accept that premise (as a time-and-budget saving reality on a TV show that couldn't hire actual alien actors), the rest follows. 

Monday, September 16, 2013

Perils of the Writer: Failure vs. Defeat

Last week I talked about failure, and how to find value in failing.

I should point out that failure is not the same as defeat. 

Failing is when you get knocked down.  Defeat is when you don't get back up.    And, reader, you're going to get knocked down plenty.  Plenty.  The process of having your work critiqued, of querying for an agent, of submitting to publishers is brutal.  Bone-grindingly brutal.  Getting up after, say, receiving ten it's-not-you-it's-me style rejection letters and saying, "All right, let's send out ten more" is not easy.

But it's what you need to do.

Now, let's dovetail this into self-publishing.  Or indie-publishing.  Or whatever you want to call it.* I'm not going to say it's bad or wrong or misguided.  Sometimes it is absolutely the right path for a writer to follow.  It's not a bad thing to do, but it's an easy thing to do badly.  And one of the biggest way it's done badly is for the wrong reasons. 

For example, let's look at a few phrases that may sound familiar:
"The gatekeepers aren't interested in new authors."
"You can't get an agent without being published, and you can't get published without having an agent."
"The 'traditional' publishing industry is going to die, so I'm not going to bother."
"I don't have time to do that sort of thing, I need to get this published now."
I've heard this sort of thing a lot.  Usually from people just starting out.  From people who haven't even finished one novel.  From people who haven't made a concerted effort to acquire an agent or get their work published. 

People who've admitted defeat before they even got in the game.

There's no value to that.  None.  Point to the fences and swing as hard as you can, and if you strike out no one can tell you it was from lack of trying.  And to me, that's a hell of a lot better than letting yourself get beaned just so you can say you got on base.**

*- I'm personally fond of Chuck Wendig's "Author-Publisher" term, as it emphasizes what you need to do to do it right: wear two distinct hats. 
**- I'm really not one for baseball metaphors, but here I find them apt.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Perils of the Writer: Finding Value in the Faceplant of Failure

Failing is important.

Not just failing, but the full-on, spectacular faceplant of FAIL.

Because that kind of failure can only be managed by really trying something.

Take, for example, the movies The Fountain or Suckerpunch.  Both of these movies are absolute fiascoes, don't mistake me.  But they are fiascoes of ambition: these are works that pointed to the fences and then struck out magnificently.

And to me, that's far more interesting, far more worthwhile, than something milquetoast that merely fails to offend.  Fails to try anything.

Fantasy writers, especially, should take heed of this idea. The genre is overwhelmed with "safe" cliches, tropes that can serve as a shorthand and allow lazy storytelling and uninspired worldbuilding.  I've read enough unpublished first chapters* through workshops and crit groups to see that.  It astounds me how many fledgling genre writers really aren't willing to expand past their narrow vision of what the genre is "supposed to be".  It astounds me how often I've gotten crit-comments from people regarding how something I wrote didn't fit into that narrow vision, and is therefore "wrong".  Not, "I didn't care for that" or "it didn't work for me", but empirically wrong, like writing fantasy is a math problem. 

Take, for a selfish example, the first chapter of Thorn of Dentonhill.  It starts in a fish cannery.  I've had someone tell me that's wrong because "they didn't have canneries in that era".  In other words, they didn't see the presence of the cannery as a definition of the worldbuilding and the level of technology, but rather already decided what the technology level ought to be, and defined what was anachronistic based on that decision.

Now, did I fail in that instance?  Possibly.  I'm going to say the jury is still out right now, but I can accept that what I wrote didn't work for them, and pointing out the cannery was really a symptom of a larger problem that they were not able to articulate. But, if nothing else, in writing it, it forced my examination of what is and isn't "right" in fantasy.  Over the course of writing Thorn and the other books in that setting, I busted through a lot of my own preconceptions. 

Back in one of the workshops I attended, John Scalzi gave a quick lecture to the students, telling us to "embrace the power of sucking".  I'm telling you something similar: accept the possibility of failure.  Accept that failing has worth. 

And when you fail, you get up, dust yourself off, assess what you may have learned from that failure, apologize to the appropriate parties if necessary**, and try again to do it better.

*- And published, but let's not get into that.
**- Especially if said failure ties to, say, depiction of cultures or genders that are not your own.