Monday, December 29, 2014

Christmas Reading and Rustic Simplicity

This Christmas, as usual, I received a bunch of books-- including history books and cook books and other goodies.  One of them was Gabrielle Hamilton's memoir Blood, Bones and Butter, where she basically tells her life story journey to becoming a renowned chef.  In it she talks about traveling in Europe, as well as growing up with her French mother, and the basic pleasures of simple, well-prepared foods.  She also gets annoyed with cooking that tries too hard to be "innovative".
I'm going to loop this back to writing, so bear with me for a bit.
I was reminded of two of the best dinners I had this year, which happened to be back-to-back while I was in Portland.  Both of them were home prepared: one was steak and pesto linguini; the other a rustic Tom Kha soup. Both were absolutely fabulous in their simplicity.  The steak, simply an excellent cut of meat, seasoned with salt pepper.  The soup was as unfancy as you could imagine: chicken still on the bone, large chunks of ginger and lemongrass.  And both dinners were amazing
If you hadn't guess by all my talk of food and worldbuilding, I'm something of a foodie.  I don't like to call myself a "chef", because I think that's a proper title that's earned through study and appointment, not something you claim for yourself just because you can cook. And when it comes to food, I'm all about that rustic simplicity.  Molecular gastronomy, plates that look like this.... that stuff doesn't appeal to me.  I want food with character, with soul-- not food that is more trying to dazzle me rather than nourish me. 
I feel the same way about writing.  When I pick up a book, the main thing I'm looking for is-- to paraphrase someone smarter than me-- that they tell me a good yarn.  I don't need prose that tries to dazzle, writing that tries too hard to make sure I'm aware that the writer has done their homework, descriptions that drag out obscure synonyms instead of using the perfectly serviceable word in common usage, sentences that need to be re-read several times to parse out what they mean. 
You don't need that.  Just give me basic, effective storytelling.  Tell me a good yarn, with character and soul.  The rest will come with that.

Thursday, December 25, 2014

How 2014 Changed Me as a Writer

This year has been a really amazing, fascinating and oddly frustrating for my writing career.  It's been a year of growth, learning, and most of all, patience.
Of course, 2014 has been amazing for me: I SOLD TWO BOOKS, and my debut novel is coming out in less than six weeks.  So, yes, I leveled up, I unlocked achievements, however you want to call it: this is the year it happened.    And with that, being able to say to myself, "I am a professional novelist now", I took my writing game to the next level as well.  In addition to doing the required edits to Thorn of Dentonhill and A Murder of Mages, (and copy edits and checking proofs for Thorn), I've written, cleaned up and submitted the sequel to Thorn, as well as writing and cleaning the first third of Murder's sequel.  I also outlined some new ideas, cleaned up and finalized Way of the Shield, which is still waiting in the wings with Holver Alley Crew, and got back on track with Banshee, the Space Opera novel that got put on the backburner when the Thorn/Mages deal came through.
It's been fascinating, of course, because this year I've been learning more about being on the business end of being a writer.  It's been great working with the various people at DAW (namely Sheila, Josh and Katie, though I'm sure there are more people who did great work for me who I never directly interacted with), as well as the additional support from people at Penguin and Book Country.  I made contacts through SFWA, leading me to writing for WordWhores.  I did more conventions, and learned how to soft-pitch Thorn without ramming it down people's throats.*
And the frustration comes from learning the necessity of the pace of the industry.  I mean, I learned that the sale was going to happen a year ago, and the book doesn't come out for, well, another six weeks.  So I've had to learn to pace myself.  I've had to learn to not get too overanxious, and to be as zen as possible about the fact that Thorn is not out yet.  Especially at those conventions, where I would have to tell people about a cool book that they were not able to buy yet.  But now here we are, at the tail end of the Year of Patience.  If all goes well, at this point next year Thorn and Murder will be amongst the well-regarded books of the year, and Thorn II will be on several lists for hotly anticipated fantasy novels for 2016. 
Until then, I keep breathing, keep writing, and hope for the best. 
*- Especially since I was apparently pitching WAY too soft at ArmadilloCon.  I ran into people at FenCon who I had SPOKEN TO at ArmadilloCon, who hadn't yet learned I had books coming out.   Of course, one of those people did say, "Hey, man, I had a lot of bourbon at ArmadilloCon."

Monday, December 22, 2014

THORN OF DENTONHILL and Representation of Female Characters

The_Art_of_the_Steal_posterSo, I've been holding off writing this post for a while, but with this article recently making the rounds, it's probably high time I talked about this.
I don't know much about this movie (The Art of the Steal), beyond what's shown here on the poster, but the poster is very telling.  We've got eight characters: seven male and one female.  So, a bunch of guys of all different types and The Girl.  In other words, we've got The Smurfette Principle in full effect.  Furthermore, while Katheryn Winnick isn't being overtly sexualized in this image, it still stands out that she's wearing shorts while everyone else gets pants.
Images like this one are pretty common, not only for movies, but for stories in general, especially of the action/genre/sf/fantasy types.  Here's another example. Another. Another. Another. YET ANOTHER.  I didn't even have to remotely try hard to gather those. It's so typical, such a pervasive paradigm, that movies, books and TV shows can have little-to-no female presence, and it doesn't stand out as strange.  I mean, who's the most significant female character in Hunt for Red October?  It's Jack's wife, who only appears for a couple lines in the very beginning.  How about Saving Private Ryan?  I'd argue it's Mrs. Ryan, who doesn't even have lines, but is talked about as someone who deserves to have at least one son come home.
I could go on about this sort of thing, but there's one big problem: Thorn of Dentonhill falls into the same trap.  An image not entirely unlike the Art of the Steal poster could be used to show the main cast of Thorn.
I didn't mean to do that, which is exactly part of the problem.  While writing it, it didn't seem strange that there was only one significant female character.  Now, I could make excuses or arguments that the world we're looking into with Thorn is made of spaces where men intentionally isolate themselves in some way-- the all-male dorms of the University of Maradaine, for example-- but that would be pure rationalization.
The real reason is I wasn't fully aware.
Now, this doesn't mean that Thorn is, in and of itself, a problem. Frankly, I think it's a great book, and the early reviews have been very strong.  But it is part of this problematic trend, and I need to be aware of that as I move forward in my writing career.
I felt compelled to be up front about this.  If this means that Thorn is a problematic read for you, I respect that.
All I can say beyond that is I believe I've done better with A Murder of Mages, as well as with the Thorn II manuscript I've submitted.  The other finished manuscripts I'm shopping-- Holver Alley Crew and Way of the Shield-- also do better.  And that's a trend I intend to continue as my craft and career progress.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Engaging Things I Read In 2014

First, confession time: I don't read anywhere near as much as I should.  Part of that is because I tend to be a slow reader, unless I really get to sit away from All The Things and get into the book.  Also, I'll also admit, I'm a tough fish to hook.  I'll often read a couple of chapters of something, and while there's nothing wrong or bad about it, it doesn't really pull me in.  So there are a lot of unfinished books on my shelves where it really is, "Hey, it's not you, it's me."
I did read several books, though, and here are the five that stuck with me:
Lock In: I've been a big fan of Scalzi's work, and Lock-In is probably his best yet.  He takes a single science-fictional concept, and works crafts an engaging story with that concept as its engine.  While relatively light and propulsive, it still made me stop and think about one's sense of identity as tied to one's own body.  But I'll be surprised if this one isn't on awards short lists this year.
READY PLAYER ONE: Yeah, yeah, I'm late to the party, only having read this one this year.  This book... lived in a strange space where I was annoyed much of the time I was reading it, but at the same time, I found it impossible to put down.  I mean, the book moved, but it was also little more than name checking nostalgia, of which I was about 85% on board with-- that nostalgia was mine as well. And maybe that was part of my problem-- to me, the riddles were pretty easy, so the idea that all the hunters would just be stuck for YEARS without figuring it out was unbelievable.  But it didn't quite feel like a story.  That said, I understand why it got a lot of notice.
The Art of Asking: This is Amanda Palmer's memoir, and I found it fascinating.  I mean, I haven't had half the life experiences that she's had, but I did spend my time toiling in the theatrical arts, which involved learning similar hard lessons on scrounging and community and trust.  So I got this book and where she was coming from.
The World Until Yesterday: Another book by Jared Diamond (of Guns, Germs and Steel), where he talks about traditional societies and their commonalities and differences, as well as the commonalities and differences with our own WEIRD societies. (WEIRD: Western, Educated, Industrial, Regulated and Democratic)  Good worldbuilding sourcework.
On the Map: An interesting work on the history of maps and mapping, which is just the sort of thing a worldbuilding map geek like myself can get into.

I realize this list is pretty useless if you're looking for "best SF/F work on 2014" or something like that.  Sorry.  I'm not the guy who makes those lists, unfortunately.  I'm the guy who reads those lists to figure out what to read next.  As well as the "anticipated books of 2015" lists.  Of course, I already know of two that I've been anticipating for some time now.

Monday, December 15, 2014

The Cost of Art and the Calculus of Value

I tend not to use the word "artist" to describe myself.  Not that I think it doesn't apply, but sometimes I feel its a title I haven't earned yet.   But despite my hesitation, artist is an accurate term for what I am.  
There's been some noise out there lately about what it costs to be an artist, and whether artists "deserve" to make or keep the money they make, or if the expenses they incur are "worth it". 
 Case in point, the recent explosion of controversy regarding Jack Conte of Pomplamoose laying out what they made and what they spent on their recent tour.  Reading the article, it's pretty straightforward stuff.  They paid their backing band and support staff fairly, slept in hotels and ate relatively decently. The tone of the article is informative.  Despite reporting a net loss on the tour, Conte doesn't come off as bitter or upset, and he's not shaking the hat to cover his losses.  He's mostly just saying, "Hey, touring isn't exactly a huge windfall, even when you're doing objectively well."
There's been backlash, of course, saying that they shouldn't have slept in hotels, shouldn't have paid the backing band a salary, etc.  I wonder if these are the very same people who complained that Amanda Palmer wasn't paying volunteers she invited to join them onstage.  Certainly, the same websites took these contradictory opinions.  Of course, it seems that many of those people think that musicians and other artists shouldn't care about money.  It should be purely out of love and devotion to art as an abstract concept; rent and food be damned. 
I don't know much about the music industry, especially the more independent stuff.  Hell, I never even heard of Pomplamoose before this.  But I do know the cost-to-value calculations that have to be made as an artist.  Back when I did theatre, I ate a LOT of costs, and never expected much more than hopefully making back what I spent, usually with actors who were equally there for the love.  Make money?  I don't need to do that!
That attitude eventually let me to declaring bankruptcy.  So I don't do that sort of thing any more.
Fortunately, I don't have too many up-front expenses as a traditionally-published writer.  I'm not paying for editing, cover art, printing, etc. The prime thing I spend money on is going to conferences, so that's travel expenses.
I don't have to bring boxes of books to sell whenever I go anywhere, so one advantage I have is I don't have to directly monetize any encounters I have with people there.  But the flipside of that is I don't have a direct number to look at and say, "Yes, going to this conference sold X units, so I made Y dollars, minus the amount that I spent to go, equals this much profit." 
There isn't clear algebra of value.  Instead, I have to derive the value-- going to this conference probably netted me some new readers, and those readers might be the kind to tell other people to read me, etc.   Until I have a better sense of what my sales will be*, it's a lot of guesswork.  So right now, conference choices are based on my ability to minimize expenses, or alternatively, secondary value considerations that make going worth the expense.  Case in point, my next conference, Boskone, is in Boston, where my sister and her family live. So going to that one is win/win. 
But I'm pretty fortunate, in that I have the luxury to think about the value of such things in more abstract ways.  A lot of artists, especially musicians, have to accept that they'll sleep in the van and subsist on tortilla chips in order to balance the books.  And given those considerations, it really is incredible that they push through, that their love for their work is enough to keep them going.
Because when I'm going down into the word mines, I need a decent bed to sleep in at the end of the night.  See you down there.
*- Kind of hard to gauge until the book actually, you know, comes out.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Five Things I'm Following

I have to admit, I'm still figuring out social media, especially Twitter.  I don't think I'll ever become a "Twitter personality", in part because I focus a lot of what I "have to say" here on the blog, or don't say publicly.  Plus, when it comes to any issue I care about, by the time I reach Twitter, it's been said better and smarter by someone else.
I wouldn't say I'm overly choosy about who I follow-- on Twitter or elsewhere-- but I don't like a particularly crowded feed.  So anyone I follow who is a high-volume poster, they better be posting things I want to read*, as well as things that I'm not likely to find elsewhere.  Which is why I follow @saladinahmed and @lisabolekaja, who both post and re-tweet things that I, in my relatively sheltered life, might not otherwise be aware of.  So I value getting their points of view.
I'm also a big fan of @NussbaumAbigail, partly for her twitter feed, but mostly for her blog Asking the Wrong Questions.  I don't always agree with her points of view on things (though I think she's spot-on when it comes to Battlestar Galactica), but I really enjoy reading her thoughts.
Outside of the twitterverse, I've become mildly obsessed with John Green's Crash Course on YouTube, especially the World History episodes.  Honestly, if you're a writer doing any sort of large-scale worldbuilding, it's a great, well, crash course in the basics of the rise of civilization.  I mean, most of it was stuff I essentially knew, but getting a refresher in a charismatically presented package helped re-frame my thoughts.
Finally, for something different and fun, I'm also a big fan of Scott Bradlee & Postmodern Jukebox.  Scott and his wide array of musician friends take modern pop songs and reframe them in old and different styles.  It's like peeking into an alternate timeline.

10406377_10105415672690390_8126622644644978457_nIn other news: ARCs of Thorn of Dentonhill have arrived!  I now have an actual, tangible THIS IS A REAL BOOK thing.  I'm now almost completely sure that I'm not the victim of some super-elaborate prank.
*- I could tell you stories of the person I briefly followed who had set up a series of twenty-odd randomized autotweets plugging her books. Every day, three to five times a day, one of the same "BUY MY BOOK!" tweets. DON'T DO THIS.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Worldbuilding: Levels of Industry in Fantasy

Fantasy fiction, when it comes to technology and industry, typically has two settings: Medieval and Steampunk.  Rarely do things deviate from those two, unless it's "urban fantasy", in which it's essentially the current, modern world, but with magic and magical things. 
I want to emphasize that there is nothing wrong with writing fantasy in those settings.  Because swords, bows and castles are cool.  Steam engines, goggles and waistcoats are cool.  Run with that. 
But at the same time, don't let that hold you in.  I lost track of the number of times, over the course I was writing Thorn and all the other Maradaine works I've done so far, and thought, "I can't do that, it's not... oh, wait, can I do that?  Of course I can."
Because you can make the fantasy world whatever you want, as long as its consistent and sensible.
For me, it was crucial that I had a handle on where, technologically and sociologically, the nation of Druthal is.  As part of the historical backstory, Druthal had recently spent fifty years in an island-hopping, large scale war a half an ocean away.  So it needed to be the kind of nation that could have fought such a war.  To me, that meant that it had to have had, at least to some degree, a Market Revolution, some level of early phase of industrialization.  I didn't want steam engines or trains, but I wanted factory work.  Not necessarily mass-production level, but with a city as massive as Maradaine is supposed to be, I needed there to be slaughterhouses and tanneries and weavers and a whole system of shipping to get goods from where they were made to people who needed them.  I needed a city with an organized government, with services including constabulary (because how else could A Murder of Mages work without that?), fire brigade, sanitation, river patrol, etc., etc. 
In other words, I needed something that was much more advanced than medieval, but not quite to the level of steampunk. 
In doing that, I let go of my preconceptions of "what fantasy could be", and opened myself to a world of possibilities.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Paying Forward in the Writing Community

Since I've written quite a bit about how others have helped me-- often quite selflessly-- it's quite fitting to put some thought into ways I can give back.  People reached back over the wall to help pull me over, so when I get the chance, I'm going to reach over and grab someone.
There are three key things, for me, that that entails:
1. Working Writers' Workshops:  I've been working the ArmadilloCon Writers' Workshop for several years, and I'll be running it in 2015.  When I was starting out, attending this particular workshop was a critical step in getting out of the "every word is gold" phase of writing and taking a hard look at the work I needed to do.  So providing that service to new writers is important.
2. Being Responsive: No one is pounding down my doors just yet, but when I do get people asking me for insight or advice, I take it seriously. That includes at conventions-- often after a panel I'll get a sense that someone in the audience wants an extra word or a comment, and I make a point to be approachable.  I mean, to a large degree, that's literally why I'm there: I learned stuff because people were there for me, I need to be willing to do the same.
3. Remembering We've All Been There: Every person working on being a professional writer is on a different place on their journey, and I think it's crucial to maintain a certain degree of humility about one's own path.  I mean, I doubt anyone who read the opening chapter to a now-trunked novel that I brought to my first ArmadilloCon Workshop thought to themselves, "This is the guy who's going to get a book deal in a few years."  We are all works in progress, and you never know where the next great one is going to come from.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Worldbuilding: Verisimilitude in Constructed Languages

I won't pretend that Constructed Languages aren't a lot of work.  To really get into it, to do every element of it, you have to love it.  And if you have a world full of different cultures, different languages.... that's it's own project completely, and not one you're likely to want to engage in if you actually want to, you know, write stories. 
Especially if you're not going really need full languages in your stories.  You probably won't. 
What you will need, though, is a certain degree of linguistic verisimilitude, so that names of places, people and culturally unique terms will seem like they come from the same language base.
Easiest way to do that is to construct a phonology.  A phonology describes what sounds can be used in the language, and how syllables are constructed.  With that information, you know what words can exist in the language, and to a degree, that's all you need to know. 
So, how to you make a phonology, especially if you really don't know anything about linguistics?  Fortunately, the internet has some tools you can use to make it easier.  Right here is a webpage that randomly generates a phonology: phonemic inventory, syllable structure, allophony (the rules for breaking the rules, essentially) and sample words.
Now, the catch with this is, it's all done in IPA: the International Phonetic Alphabet.  You'll probably want, for the sake of your writing, to figure out a way to latinize the words, so your readers can wrap their heads around it.  Mind you, this will have nothing to do with how the language is written, whether it's alphabetical or syllabic or pictographic.  It's simply figuring out how to write the words in simple text.
I recommend taking the sounds of your phonology and coming up with a consistent way to express each sound with a latin letter.  It does not have to be a one-for-one.  For example, your phonology might contain both a nasal alveolar (n) and a laminal nasal alveolar (n̻)-- the difference between the two are subtle, and you might choose, for the sake of writing words out, to describe both with just an "n".  Of course, you could load up your latin approximation with diacritics (for example: å,ä,á,â and à could all represent different sounds), but if you do that, you should first understand what those diacritics mean and how they are traditionally used.*   However, if you are going to use diacritics, I recommend you use them surgically and sparingly.  Same with apostrophes.  Fantasy authors love throwing those in, but you should only do it if it means something-- for example a glottal stop or another sound that isn't easily latinized. 
So, with a phonology and a defined latinization of that phonology, you've got the tools to make words and names in another language that feel like they come from the same language, without having to overwhelm yourself with making up an entire language from scratch. 

*- You might decide that å,ä,á,â and à represent various open-mouthed vowel sounds, but if the sound you match it to doesn't correspond to how it's typically used, you'll just created confusion. For example "Ä", the A-with-umlaut, is used in in Finnish and Swedish as a "near-open front unrounded vowel", or "æ" in the IPA, so if you use "ä" for, say, an open back rounded vowel ("ɒ" in the IPA), your readers in the know will just think you don't know what you're doing.  Or, more likely, throwing in diacritics because you look neat and foreign.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Always More To Be Thankful For

So, today's post will be brief, because, you know, it's today, and I've got a lot to do in the kitchen.
On the theme of who or what to be thankful for, I've already said a lot over the past year, in no small part to this year being a HUGE one in terms of "being thankful".  I've talked at length about some key people who I'm thankful for, and in the acknowledgements page of Thorn I list a bunch more. 
But there is someone I don't list, but who did something I was quite thankful for-- who personified what I think a writers community should be about.  Her name was Brenna Smith.
I was at the DFW Writers Conference, back in 2011 before I had secured my agent.  That conference is one where fledgling professional writers have the opportunity to pitch to agents.  If you are in the query/pitch stage of things, and you can manage going to one of these, I can highly recommend it, because you are surrounded by your peers.  Just about everyone there is in the same place.
Well, as I was in that place, I had been querying Thorn and Holver Alley Crew (what would become A Murder of Mages was still a rough draft at that point), and I had a pitch meeting scheduled for Sunday morning.  I had spent Saturday going to panels, practicing my pitch, and beating down my nerves.
And then a little after 5pm, I got the email.  A rejection on one of my queries for Holver Alley Crew.  By the very agent I was scheduled to pitch to the next morning.
Needless to say, I was a wreck. 
So, I'm sitting there, brooding, and this woman--- Brenna--  is with a group of people, and she spots me and calls me over to join them.  She immediately zeroes in on something being wrong and pulls it out of me. 
Once I tell her, she asks, "What do you write?"
"All right, hold on."
The various agents attending the conference are all at a dinner with the organizers, and the big mixer was scheduled to start in a little bit.  She slips off and then comes back in a few minutes. 
"Come with me." 
She brings me into the ballroom near the door where the agents are going to enter in from the dinner.  When they start to come in, she goes up to one and starts chatting her up.  She gently leads this agent in my direction, and then goes, "Oh, hey, have you met Marshall?  He writes fantasy books.  Oh, I have to check on something, I'll be right back."
And thus, there I was, in a casual, impromptu pitch with a completely new agent.  And it was casual and organic feeling-- we talked about Buffy and D&D and worldbuilding before she said, "So, tell me about your book."
That, friends, was exactly what I needed in order to not end up in a meltdown.  Now, of course, that pitch didn't end up with representation... but having the shot did a lot to bring me back to a balanced place.
And it was all thanks to Brenna Smith.
Every writers community needs a Brenna, I think.  So while we're all being thankful, we should also think about how to be the person that others are thankful for.  Because that person can make a huge difference, and that's how we pay it forward.

Monday, November 24, 2014

On the Horizon

So, here we are, 10 weeks away from the release of The Thorn of Dentonhill.  And how are all the things going for the writer at this stage of the game?
Really well.  I'm thrilled.  And nervous, but mostly thrilled.
Thorn is, for all intents on my end of things, done.  Edits, copyedits, proofs, etc., DONE.  Except for anything I'll be doing for it on the promotion side, but in terms of making it a book?  DONE.
A Murder of Mages comes out on July 7th, 2015.  Here's its Goodreads page.  This one still has copy edits and proofs to do, plus I've got to finalize one of the street maps.  I've seen a preliminary cover and it's pretty cool, so I can't wait to see the final cover.
Elements of Aventil is the sequel to Thorn.  I've submitted a polished draft to the editor, so hopefully news on that will come in the near future.  The Little East is the sequel to A Murder of Mages, and I'm hammering my way through that as my current "main project".
What else is on my plate?  Currently, I'm also doing a read-through-and-final-polish of Way of the Shield to send it back to the agent.  That one was challenging to write, but I'm actually quite pleased by how much I like it when I'm reading through it now.
After that, I'll get back on the horse of finishing the rough draft of Banshee, my Space Opera Epic.  I had done quite a bit on it, but put it to the side once the Thorn/Murder deal came though.  Hopefully I'll have a finished version of that to my agent within a few months as well.
There are a handful of other things cooking in the back burners, but none of them are quite ready to talk about yet.
But, if all goes to plan, soon Thorn and Mages will be rousing successes, and from there you'll see many, many books set in Maradaine.
All right, off to the word mines.  See you down there.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Perils of the Writer: The Writing Game and the "Big Money"

On one of my OryCon panels-- "What I Wish I Had Known Then"-- one of the other panelists made the distinction between a writer "getting paid" and "getting paid money".  Which confused me, because what would you be getting paid in, if not money?  His answer was "exposure".  And it's true, there are several publications of lesser repute who will offer this "payment" of "exposure". 
But that's not payment, any more than handing someone an issue of Saveur is making them dinner. 
Now, if you're at a stage in your writing where, to you, there's value in your work getting seen without monetary compensation, hey, that's your business.  But don't call it "payment". 
But beyond getting actually paid-- which is a lovely thing-- there is the next level of "money" which is the Big Prize. 
King/Rowley/Grisham Money.
I'm not going to fool myself into thinking that's going to come, at least not quickly or easily, if at all.  I'm not doing this with stars in my eyes.  Well, maybe a little bit. 
The truth is, there are several ways to make the "big money" that are far more lucrative-- at least in terms of yielding said big money-- than writing fantasy and sci-fi books.  If I were only concerned about making money, I'd do one of those things.  But doing this-- writing these books-- that's what drives me. 
So if the big money comes-- a film or TV deal based on Thorn and what follows, for example-- I'd like to think I'd mostly keep doing what I'm doing: writing the next book.
And travel more, of course.  Those aren't mutually exclusive, after all. But in the meantime, I'll be digging away in the word mines.  See you down there.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Perils of the Writer: Composing the Symphony vs. Plot Jazz

In any long term creative endeavor, there is a limit to how much you can really plan out ahead of time.  Of course, you can always make detailed outlines, but the reaches a point of diminishing returns– where what you’re writing is more rough-draft than outline.*
And I’m a big planner, both in terms of individual novels and long-term series plans.  I’m a get-out-the-map-and-figure-out-where-I’m-going guy.  I’ve got outlines for novels I’m still going to write: specifically Books Three for both The Thorn of Dentonhill and A Murder of Mages, as well as Books Two and Three for Holver Alley Crew and Way of the Shield, books themselves that are still waiting in the wings for their time to shine.  And past that, well… let’s just say that as far as I’m concerned, none of those series are intended to end with Book Three.
But outlining is going to have its limits.  For me, a typical outline of a 100k-ish novel is somewhere between 1000 and 1500 words.  That hits the key plot points, but clearly lacks details of character interaction and transitions.  I find that there’s plenty of “Here is Point A” and “There is Point B”, but I still have plenty of chess pieces to move around to have things in place for Point B.
And that’s where the Plot Jazz comes in.
“Plot Jazz” is a term coined by some fans of Deep Space Nine and Farscape to talk about how those shows– shows which never really had a “plan” more than a few episodes ahead– had a great tendency to build off of things set up by throwaway lines or the possibilities a random idea offered up.  An excellent example is in Farscape, where John having hallucinations of Scorpius in “Crackers Don’t Matter”– an episode where everyone is going crazy for spacy-sci-fi-reasons–  triggered the idea that “Hey, maybe Scorpius put a chip in John’s head!”.  That concept ended up being a key factor that shaped the rest of the season, and the series as a whole beyond it.
Plot Jazz, where you play it where it takes you, and hope it sounds good.
Now, what Plot Jazz means to a dyed-in-the-wool outliner like me is that secondary and tertiary characters often become more than they were in the outline.  Not taking over the story, but having more consequence that the outline would have indicated.  And that’s usually because in writing the outline, I don’t necessarily know what I’ll need those characters to do in the specific.  The “what” is in the outline, but not the “why” and “how”, and there is a fair amount of discovery in working that stuff out.
There’s a fair amount of that in Thorn of Dentonhill, where while I was writing I’d realize something like, “Colin needs a friend he can talk to in this scene” or “I need a Constabulary officer to show up here”, and then the character that comes out of that expands into a life of its own.  That’s where, for example, Colin’s crew of Jutie, Hetzer and Tooser or Lt. Benvin came from in Thorn, and those roles ended up being more than could have been predicted in the outline.  Jutie and Lt. Benvin both get mention in the outline for Thorn II, but the details of the how and why with what they do ended up giving them both a crucial role in that book, including realizing I needed to give Lt. Benvin a whole group of constabulary officers under him.
So while I love my outlines and will never, ever let them go… that doesn’t mean I can’t embrace the Plot Jazz when I need it.

*- I do know of one writer who does write very detailed outlines for his novels, that the outline is around 40K for a 100K novel. He said the main difference between his outline and the novel is dialogue.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

My Culinary Obsessions

53327_10100389539032530_2285202_oSo, last week I talked about how drawing maps and doing worldbuilding is my non-writing artistic outlet.  But, to a large degree, that's still about writing.
Of course, it's all about writing, even this one.
 Because my other artistic outlet is cooking.  I love to cook, and I'm strangely obsessive about doing things from scratch.  And to some degree, that comes from writing and worldbuilding.  I like to think about where food comes from, what it means to the people, and how disparate flavors can help define a culture.
52919_10100389538982630_7188290_oAnd today I have a special project!  Today I'll be taking blackberries and a whole variety of nuts, seeds, spices and dried chiles and making a glorious molé de zarzamoras.  And, of course, beyond that, I intend to get some writing in.  But as you can imagine, this is a project that's going to take up a good chunk of my day.
But once it's done, oh, it'll be something quite special. 
And then I'll go down into the word mines.  See you in there.
One more thing: as I've updated my website, I've created an Appearances page listing where I'll be in 2015.  There's only a few listed for now, but that will probably increase as the year goes on.

Monday, November 10, 2014

OryCon and Separating the Work from the Person

So, I had a wonderful time at OryCon, which was my first Con outside of my usual "circle of influence", as it were.  I mean, when I went to FenCon, it was my first time at that Con, but I knew plenty of people there.  At OryCon, not so much, but that didn't matter.  I enjoyed myself on all my panels.  If you saw me there, I hope you found me charming and eloquent, or at least moderately competent.  I do have a tendency to keep talking to the point of blathering on. 
Fortunately, I was not aware of any harassment or bullying at OryCon.  Of course, my lack of awareness is hardly proof of it not happening, or not even being reported. 
Bullying, on an online level, has been an issue of late, of course, as evidenced and compiled in this post by Laura J. Mixon.  This is the sort of contentious thing I tend not to dip my toes into, in no small part to it not having affected me.  Yet. 
So here's the thing, at least from my point of view*: negative reviews, especially and including ones pointing out problematic aspects with regard to gender, race, sexuality, etc., are a necessary and valuable thing.  I know that personally I've made mistakes along those lines, and done my best to learn from those mistakes, and will in all likelihood continue to make more mistakes that I will hopefully learn from again.  Hopefully, my awareness will improve.
But part of that means I need to be called on it. I honor and value that, and will strive to listen do my best not to be all, "but you see..." or otherwise act defensively.  I'm certain that Thorn of Dentonhill has problems along those lines which I'll need to do better on in future books.  Let me make it perfectly clear that I welcome having that dialogue so that I can learn and improve.
HOWEVER, there is definitely a line between a harsh, even angry review of a work, and angry, hate-filled vitriol aimed at the artist themselves, and while some reviewers seem to think that line is fuzzy and easy to cross, it's really quite clear.  Attacking and bullying the person, even someone whose work is systemically problematic, is not acceptable.  I don't care who you are, what "side" of things you are on, whether you've faced actual or perceived marginalization for who you are or what your beliefs are: No.  Do not do this.  Shred the work all to hell, but treat the person behind it with something resembling decency. 
It really is just that easy.
*- Which is, of course, Full Privilege Bingo of White, Straight, Presumed-Christian, College-Educated, Right-handed Male, so: apply as large a grain of salt as you feel in necessary.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Creative Outlets That Aren't Writing

One can't just pound out words for eight hours a day, five days a week.  Well, maybe some people can, but I sure can't.  So what else do I do to chum the creative waters?
Full World Map Historical Work MapFor me, and I know this is going to be a real shocker-- it's worldbuilding work, especially maps.
Now, I'm sure a lot of writers just build the world for the stories, or craft a world around a story idea.  Which is probably the smarter thing to do.  I mean, if you're doing all that worldbuilding work, it should be for a purpose, right?
  And for each of these, maybe there will be a purpose somewhere down the line.  But when I'm-- I don't want to say stuck or blocked, because I don't think that's accurate, but let's say conceptual brewing, and my brain needs to mull on where things are going or how to do a certain bit, then doing some map-drawing or other worldbuilding activity (like figuring out biomes and then connecting rise of agriculture to said biomes, and thus determining where those Fertile Centers of Origin are going to be that civilization arises in) or micromanaging a pair of linked villages for what sort of setting might be there.  Or the rise of multiple interstellar empires. 
Space-Opera-Sample-MapThis is probably the sort of thing that other sf/fantasy writers dread.   And I get that.  But for me, it's a lot of fun.  And dorky.  I will fully admit to compiling spreadsheets filled with just raw data of animal domestication or tech development of number of planets for hundreds of stars or regions or whatever else.  That gets the processing and analytical part of my brain in gear, and lets the writing brain churn and simmer, and then, hey... a thousand words show up. 
Plus, maps are fun.  I can't draw very well, but I can do maps.
That's all for now.  I'll be at OryCon this weekend, and if you're in the area, I hope to see you there.


An admin note: I'm in the process of consolidating and updating my website, so everything, including this blog will be in the same place.  I'll post in both places for a while, but eventually the Blogger version will go away, and everything will be over there. 

Monday, November 3, 2014

Tightening the Screws and Off to OryCon

So, we're now at T-minus three months for the release of Thorn of Dentonhill.  Which is fantastic and exciting, but it also means things are heating up.  I'm finishing my final check on the galley proofs, and then I'll be turning my focus onto A Murder of Mages, which comes out later in the year.  I got to see some preliminary cover art for that, and I'm quite pleased.

Which is all to say, right now is a crunch time, with a lot of things to do this week.  Especially since this week I'm heading up to Portland for OryconI'm excited, this is my first time going to the Pacific Northwest.  So if you're going to that, I'll see you there.  My schedule for the con is below-- a good batch of panels, if you ask me.

And, in the meantime, I'll be off in the word mines.  See you down there.

Sat Nov 8 10:00:am
Sat Nov 8 11:00:am
What I Wish I Would Have Known: Pitfalls for New Writers

All the things writers should know going in, from craft to scams, and what our panelists wish they'd known.
Erica L. Satifka, Marshall Ryan Maresca, Dean Wells, (*)John Hedtke, Mike Moscoe

Sat Nov 8 12:00:pm
Sat Nov 8 1:00:pm
Defining Magical Systems

Magical systems are not to be trifled with as far as a reader's concerned. Discuss how to give your characters powers--but not too much power--and how to keep internal consistency.
Devon Monk, Kier Salmon, Judith R. Conly, Alma Alexander, Marshall Ryan Maresca

Sat Nov 8 2:00:pm
Sat Nov 8 3:00:pm
F&SF From Book to Movie

Recent adaptations and what's on the horizon.
(*)Rob Wynne, Scott Alan Woodard, Anthony Pryor, Marshall Ryan Maresca

Sat Nov 8 3:00:pm
Sat Nov 8 4:00:pm
Decline and Fall

At what point does society stop being civilized?
Clayton Callahan, Judith R. Conly, (*)Manny Frishberg, Kristin Landon, Marshall Ryan Maresca

Sun Nov 9 11:00:am
Sun Nov 9 12:00:pm
Effective Readings

You may be a good writer, but reading aloud is a separate skill. Learn to make your words on the page sound great.
(*)Frog Jones, Keffy R. M. Kehrli, Todd McCaffrey, Marshall Ryan Maresca

Sun Nov 9 12:00:pm
Sun Nov 9 1:00:pm
Creating New Ecosystems

Ecosystems have rules, even in fantasy. Come discuss ways to create worlds that are coherent, deep and logical.
Marshall Ryan Maresca, (*)Petrea Mitchell, Jennifer Linnaea, Karen Azinger

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Perils of the Writer: The Horrors of the Trunked Novels

I like to remind people that getting to the point where I am, with two novels coming out next year with a major publisher, was a journey.  Before I even wrote the first draft of Thorn of Dentonhill, I wrote two other novels.  Two novels which should never see the light of day.

So let's talk about them.

The Fifty Year War was a very bad attempt to emulate something akin to Isaac Asimov's Foundation, where the key events of a multi-generational war is told through a series of novelette-length vignettes.  Because nine 10k-ish novelettes equals one novel, right? 

Except not so much.  Let alone that there isn't so much a "plot" as there is "stuff that happens".  There isn't anything for readers to hook into.  The closest to a "main" character is an officer named Benton who has a key role in three or four of the sections, and then a minor cameo later.  The only other bit of recurring involves the various generations of a soldier family who keep getting killed in key battles.  That was my way of highlighting the toll on the 'average' man in this war: killing off pikemen named Weaver. 

When it comes down to it, Fifty Year War is essentially a chunk of Druth history that I had already worked out, setting the stage for the "real" time I wanted to write in.  So in a lot of ways, it comes off as a prequel to something that didn't exist, filled with the obvious piece-setting that prequels have, but making zero sense to anyone but myself.

So I would fix those mistakes with Crown of Druthal.  There I had a set cast of characters, so the readers would have main people to grab onto.  And I would have them... do... plot-like things? 

Yeah, not quite.

First problem with Crown comes down to the same challenge a lot of fantasy-worldbuilders face: I've made this whole world, and now I'm going to show it ALL TO YOUALL OF IT.  It was literally a travelogue with absolutely no McGuffin to chase from country to country.  The characters were the crew of a diplomatic ship more or less assigned to go on a world tour.  They were to go to each country so I could show you each country.  I totally had a whole multi-book series planned, and by "planned" that meant I knew which countries they would go to.  Which was a huge part of the problem, especially with Crown, the book I actually wrote.  I had to jam a series of events from "stuff that happens in country A" and "stuff that happens in country B" into something that looked like a plot for a single book.  But since I was far more interested in just touring both countries, the plot takes a good long while to get going.

The other problem is the story is loaded with characters who are essentially there to be set decoration.  I had a ship full of people, with different specialties and jobs, and most of them served absolutely no purpose in the story.  I did some logistical contortions to give most of them a toehold in the climax-- so a combination of telepathy, magic and celestial navigation is used to determine where my main character was being held captive, so then the guys with swords could mount a rescue. 

There are bits in Crown that I'm fond of, but it's mired in long sections where characters are more or less hanging out, taking at least half the book before the plot proper actually gets going.  And the plot itself?  Kind of a long way to drive to get a gallon of milk.

But in the process of writing these two trunked novels, I learned plenty about how to write a novel, how to structure character arcs and plots.  So: they're bad, they'll stay in the archives for all time, but they were vital to the process of eventually writing Thorn of Dentonhill and A Murder of Mages

Monday, October 27, 2014

Worldbuilding: Building Blocks and Lists

I've talked before about the importance of understanding how agriculture and domestication of animals influences the building of societies.  Cultures don't move past hunter-gather stages without domesticating animals and mastering agriculture, and they can't do that if the proper plants or animals aren't present. 

So, what are the "proper" plants and animals? 

Well, I've done research (built off other people's research, of course), and compiled it here for easy access. 


Here's a list of forty animals which form the basis for early-culture domestication.  I'll break this into three sections: large domesticatible animals, small domesticatible animals, and semi-domesticatible animals.  The semi-domesticatibles are ones where various individual factors (such as ability to breed in captivity, or demeanor) prevent full domestication from occurring.  I've also included how each animal can be useful to the culture domesticating them. 

Alpaca (Vicugna pacos) USES: fibre, meat, show, pets
Domestic Bactrian camel (Camelus bactrianus) USES: milk, transportation, working, hunting, plowing, draft, mount, fighting, show, racing, meat, hair
Domestic pig (Sus scrofa domesticus) USES: meat, leather, research, show, racing, fighting, truffles, pets
Yak (Bos grunniens) USES: milk, transportation, working, plowing, mount, racing, fighting, meat, fibre
Domestic dromedary camel (Camelus dromedarius) USES: transportation, working, hunting, plowing, draft, mount, show, racing, fighting, milk, meat
Bali cattle (Bos javanicus domestica) USES: meat, milk, show, racing, working, plowing, draft
Donkey (Equus africanus asinus) USES: transportation, working, plowing, draft, mount, meat, milk, pets, racing, guarding
Domestic goat (Capra aegagrus hircus) USES: milk, meat, fibre, skin, show, racing, fighting, clearing land, pets
Horse (Equus ferus caballus) USES: transportation, meat, working, guiding, servicing, hunting, execution, plowing, draft, mount, fighting, show, racing, milk, pets
Water buffalo, including "river buffalo" (Bubalus arnee) and "swamp buffalo" (Bubalus bubalis carabenesis) USES: working, plowing, draft, mount, fighting, meat, show, racing, milk
Zebu (Bos primigenius indicus) USES: meat, milk, leather, hides, working, plowing, draft, vellum, blood, transportation, soil fertilization, fighting, show, racing
Gayal (Bos frontalis) USES: meat
Cattle (Bos primigenius taurus) USES: meat, milk, leather, hides, working, plowing, draft, vellum, blood, transportation, soil fertilization, fighting, show, pets
Llama (Lama glama) USES: transportation, working, draft, pack, meat, show, racing, pets, guarding
Sheep (Ovis aries) USES: fibre, meat, milk, leather, pelt, vellum, pets, show, racing, research, guarding, fighting, ornamental

Domestic goose (Anser anser domesticus) USES: meat, feathers, eggs, show, guarding, pets
Domestic duck (Anas platyrhynchos domesticus) USES: meat, feathers, eggs, pets, show, racing, ornamental
Domestic pigeon (Columba livia domestica) USES: show, ornamental, messenger, meat, racing, pets
Chicken (Gallus gallus domesticus) USES: meat, eggs, feathers, leather, show, racing, ornamental, fighting, pets
Ferret (Mustela putorius furo) USES: pets, hunting, pest control, show, racing
Domestic turkey (Meleagris gallopavo) USES: meat, feathers, eggs, show, pets
Domestic silkmoth (Bombyx mori) USES: silk, animal feed, pets, meat
Guinea pig (Cavia porcellus) USES: pets, meat, show, racing, research
Domestic rabbit (Oryctolagus cuniculus) USES: meat, pelt, fibre, pets, show, racing, research
Cat (Felis silvestris catus) USES: pets, pest control, show, pelt, research
Dog (Canis lupus familiaris) USES: Pets, hunting, herding, guarding, pest control, transportation, draft, working, show, racing, sport, rescuing, guiding, servicing, meat, research
Domestic guineafowl (Numida meleagris) USES: meat, eggs, pest control, show, alarming, pets

Mandarin duck (Aix galericulata) USES: meat, ornamental
Stingless bee (Melipona beecheii) USES: honey, pollination
Indian peafowl (Pavo cristatus) USES: show, feathers, meat, ornamental, pets
Egyptian mongoose (Herpestes ichneumon) USES: pest control, pets
Addax (Addax nasomaculatus) USES: meat, horns, leather, skin
Muscovy duck (Cairina moschata) USES: meat, feathers, eggs, show, pets
Red deer
(Cervus elaphus) USES: meat, velvet, hides, leather, antlers
Western honey bee (Apis mellifera), including subspecies Italian bee (A. mellifera ligustica), European dark bee (A. mellifera mellifera), and Carniolan honey bee (A. mellifera carnica) USES: honey, wax, pollination
Fallow deer (Dama dama) USES: meat, hides, antlers
Semi-domesticated reindeer (Rangifer tarandus) USES: meat, milk, transportation, working, draft, mount, hides, racing, leather, antlers
Asiatic honey bee (Apis cerana), including subspecies Indian honey bee (Apis cerana indica) USES: honey, pollination
Asian elephant (Elephas maximus), including subspecies Indian elephant (Elephas maximus indicus) USES: working, transportation, hunting, show, racing, fighting
Scimitar oryx (Oryx dammah) USES: meat, hides, horns


For this list, I'm going to look less at individual plants, and more at centers of origin for plant domestication.  Roughly speaking, there were eight "centers of origin" on Earth for independent rise of agriculture (two with subcenters), so the more realistic option would be to keep these various species of plants grouped together.  So here are the centers, including where they were developed.

Center 1  (Mexico/Central America)
Grains and Legumes: maize, common bean, lima bean, tepary bean, jack bean, grain amaranth
Melon Plants: malabar gourd, winter pumpkin, chayote
Fiber Plants: upland cotton, bourbon cotton, henequen (sisal)
Miscellaneous: sweetpotato, arrowroot, pepper, papaya, guava, cashew, wild black cherry, chochenial, cherry tomato, cacao.

Center 2 (South America, northwestern region)
Root Tubers: potato, Other endemic cultivated potato species. Fourteen or more species with chromosome numbers varying from 24 to 60, edible nasturtium
Grains and Legumes: starchy maize, lima bean, common bean
Root Tubers: edible canna, potato
Vegetable Crops: pepino, tomato, ground cherry, pumpkin, pepper
Fiber Plants: cotton
Fruit and Miscellaneous: cocoa, passion flower, guava, heilborn, quinine tree, tobacco, cherimoya
2A (Chilean region)
Common potato (48 chromosomes), Chilean strawberry
2B (Brazilian region)
manioc, peanut, rubber tree, pineapple, Brazil nut, cashew, Erva-mate, purple granadilla.

Center 3 (Mediterranean Coasts)
Cereals and Legumes: durum wheat, emmer, Polish wheat, spelt, oats, sand oats, canarygrass, grass pea, pea, lupine
Forage Plants:  clover, white clover, crimson clover, serradella
Oil and Fiber Plants: flax, rape, black mustard, olive
Vegetables: garden beet, cabbage, turnip, lettuce, asparagus, celery, chicory, parsnip, rhubarb,
Ethereal Oil and Spice Plants: caraway, anise, thyme, peppermint, sage, hop.

Center 4 (Middle East)
Grains and Legumes: einkorn wheat, durum wheat, poulard wheat, common wheat, oriental wheat, Persian wheat, two-row barley, rye, Mediterranean oats, common oats, lentil, lupine
Forage Plants: alfalfa, Persian clover, fenugreek, vetch, hairy vetch
Fruits: fig, pomegranate, apple, pear, quince, cherry, hawthorn.

Center 5 (Ethiopia)
Grains and Legumes: Abyssinian hard wheat, poulard wheat, emmer, Polish wheat, barley, grain sorghum, pearl millet, African millet, cowpea, flax, teff
Miscellaneous: sesame, castor bean, garden cress, coffee, okra, myrrh, indigo.

Center 6 (Central Asia)
Grains and Legumes: common wheat, club wheat, shot wheat, peas, lentil, horse bean, chickpea, mung bean, mustard, flax, sesame
Fiber Plants: hemp, cotton
Vegetables: onion, garlic, spinach, carrot
Fruits: pistacio, pear, almond, grape, apple.

Center 7 (India)
Cereals and Legumes: rice, chickpea, pigeon pea, urd bean, mung bean, rice bean, cowpea,
Vegetables and Tubers: eggplant, cucumber, radish, taro, yam
Fruits: mango, orange, tangerine, citron, tamarind
Sugar, Oil, and Fiber Plants: sugar cane, coconut palm, sesame, safflower, tree cotton, oriental cotton, jute, crotalaria, kenaf
Spices, Stimulants, Dyes, and Miscellaneous: hemp, black pepper, gum arabic, sandalwood, indigo, cinnamon tree, croton, bamboo.
7A (Southeast Asia)
Cereals and Legumes: Job's tears, velvet bean
Fruits: pummelo, banana, breadfruit, mangosteen
Oil, Sugar, Spice, and Fiber Plants: candlenut, coconut palm, sugarcane, clove, nutmeg, black pepper, manila hemp.

Center 8 (China)
Cereals and Legumes: e.g. broomcorn millet, Italian millet, Japanese barnyard millet, Koaliang, buckwheat, hull-less barley, soybean, Adzuki bean, velvet bean
Roots, Tubers, and Vegetables: e.g. Chinese yam, radish, Chinese cabbage, onion, cucumber
Fruits and Nuts: e.g. pear, Chinese apple, peach, apricot, cherry, walnut, litchi
Sugar, Drug, and Fiber Plants: e.g.sugar cane, opium poppy, ginseng camphor, hemp.

Hopefully, you'll find these lists helpful to build some interesting things.  Good luck.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Perils of the Writer: Deadlines and Schedules

I'm a big believer in a regular writing schedule.  Find a time of day that works best for you, carve that time out, and affix yourself to a chair and get it done.  It's not always easy or fun, but that's how one gets it done. 

Now, fortunately, so far, I've not had much of a problem with deadlines.  The Thorn of Dentonhill and A Murder of Mages were essentially complete manuscripts when they sold.  Editing work was required, but the time I was given to get that done was ample.  On top of that, as soon as I signed the Thorn contract I started to put my nose to the grindstone on Thorn II

That doesn't mean I'm immune to things blowing up in my face.  A disruption to my life can throw everything out of sync.  A few weeks ago my wife was in a car accident.  Fortunately her injuries were relatively minor, but the car was totaled.  So the process of dealing with things like insurance, car rental, and so forth is time and energy out of my day, and that has to come from somewhere, and "somewhere" more often than not turns out to be writing. Or sleep.  Or the dishes pile up.  Those last two tend to come to a head far sooner than the writing, though. 

Since my deadlines are relatively self-imposed at this point (i.e., when I want to get something done is sooner than other people are asking for it), getting back on track is mostly a matter of readjusting my expectations and going back to the grind.  I've learned from experience that trying to do things like double my output or "catch up" usually results in things going even further off the rails.

Not to be all tortoise-and-the-hare, but slow and steady, getting back on task and doing the work each day is really the only thing you can do.  But it does help that my personal deadlines give me enough breathing room to account for things going wrong. 

Monday, October 20, 2014

Worldbuilding: Putting the Civil in Civilization

The real test of a civilization is not just its laws, but how its laws are put into practice.  Criminal law is one aspect, of course: does the society care more about justice, or maintaining order?  Are trials designed to be fair, and truly find the guilty, or simply expedite a resolution.  Are the people protected from the state, or is the state protected from the people?

But civil law is another matter, and is often less examined in worldbuilding.  How do two citizens resolve a dispute or wrong in which, strictly speaking, no crime has occurred?  At least, in something resembling a culturally-accepted "official" way.  For some people, regardless of the level of civilization, the answer is, "Punch the other person in the face."  And at that point, quite possibly, a crime has occurred, or if nothing else, the situation will continue to escalate into more violence.

However, a society, in general, is going to want to avoid "punch person in the face" solutions in favor of non-violent, non-escalating one. 

Depending on how advanced the society is, this can take a lot of forms.  Sometimes it's just a ritual in which one party acknowledges they wronged the other, gives some form of recompense, and things return to normal.  However, the larger a society is, the more likely the two parties are complete strangers, and have little reason to trust each other to "do the right thing".  The right thing must be imposed, usually by contract or third-party arbitration.  Is this a formal or an informal process?  Is the third-party's authority universally recognized, or is simply agreed upon by the initial parties involved?

Now, in a lot of fantasy fiction, which often has its roots in an idealized version of medieval or Renaissance Europe, there is often the solution that is violent, but under strictly controlled rules and traditions.  I'm speaking, of course, of the duel.  But the duel does boil down to a formalized version of "punch the other person in the face" where it's designed to not escalate into further fighting, or even war. 

So, how does it work in your worlds, when no crime has been committed, but someone's honor must be satisfied, or a grievance must be addressed, or some other wrong righted? 

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Thoughts on My Online Presence

There's something strangely meta about writing about my online presence here, as this is part of my online presence.  My blog-writing is more or less the centerpiece of it.

Managing one's online presence, especially as an author (or any other creative-type-promoting-oneself) can be a full-time job in and of itself.  No one has time for that.  I'm actually quite surprised when I see big names constantly blogging, tweeting, facebooking, etc.  But, hey, if they can make it work, good for them.  There's no way I can do that.

Here's a piece of advice I received on the subject a few years ago: Pick one aspect of on-line presence to be your center-of-gravity.  This is the primary place you'll put original content.  For me, it's my blog.  Every other bit of social media or online presence should be designed to direct back towards that central presence. 

That means that my Twitter, Facebook, Google+, etc. are all designed to be a public face, and lead you back toward the blog, which is where you'll see new and interesting things from me.

I even linked my blog to my LinkedIn and Goodreads page.  Those update automatically when I do.  And that way I can put most of my online-presence energy into writing creative and interesting content here, and still have energy to also write books. 

And that's important, because what's the value of having the online presence if it isn't in service of your books?

AND SPEAKING OF... over at Goodreads you can enter to win a free copy of Thorn of Dentonhill.  Head over there and sign up!

Monday, October 13, 2014

Worldbuilding: Magic, Sorcery and Witchcraft

Magic is usually an integral part of any secondary fantasy world.  That tends to be the thing that makes it a "fantasy world", rather than just some form of alternate Earth.  But "magic" is a broad, wide-ranging term.  What exactly does it mean, and how does it work?

If you're trying to define magic in the simplest, most accurate way possible, the best I've got is "Energy that can be shaped to generate effects contrary to natural order."  Which can cover a pretty wide range. 

How magic works in your world is a pretty crucial concern, as well as what you call it. Hell, talk to just about anyone about process of writing fantasy, and the phrase "rules of magic" will probably come up.   In Thorn of Dentonhill, I call it only "magic"-- at least in what Veranix can do-- and since it's in an academic setting, I name the energy itself ("numina"), but what magic can do in that world is relatively open-ended, so there's little need for a more specific term.

But what marks the line between a mage, a wizard, a witch, a warlock, a sorcerer, a necromancer, etc?  Well, necromancer is easy: they deal with the dead.  But even that can be open-ended.  A necromancer might be raising a zombie-army, or might be investigating the dead and contacting spirits to solve murders.*  But are those all things in your world?

But what is "witchcraft"?  What is "sorcery"?  Are these all just different names for the same thing in your world, or does your world have one of them specifically?  Does your world have all of them, as different forms of "magic"?

I've often cited The Belgariad as an early influence on me, and one thing I liked was how he had several different powers in his world, though "magic" and "witchcraft" were limited forms, while "sorcery" was a more direct connection to the source-code of the universe, giving its users immortality and the ability to create something-- including a new species-- out of nothing.

Magic in Thorn of Dentonhill is not so limitless.  For one, it can't heal, nor can it touch the dead or the afterlife.  (Strictly speaking, a mage could make a dead body get up and walk around, but it would be literally nothing more than puppetry of any inanimate object.)   It can't directly affect the mind, or give one the ability to read someone's thoughts.  However, in the world of Thorn, there are other powers beyond that of "magic".  At the beginning of Thorn, Veranix isn't as familiar with them as he probably should be.  He's not exactly the best student, after all.

*- Have you read Amanda Downum's Necromancer Chronicles, specifically The Bone Palace?  Well, you should.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Writing Is Never Working Alone

I like to use my "go down into the word mines" analogy about writing, as if it presents this image of me as this lonely old prospector, heading down into the depths with pick-axe over my shoulder. 

Of course, that's not how it really works.  You can't do this without people having your back. 

I've got a lot of people, but if I had to narrow it down to the inner circle, I'd have four names.

1. Dan Fawcett -- Dan's been my friend since seventh grade, and has been my constant sounding board for story ideas, worldbuilding concepts, and generally putting up with my ramblings.  He would probably hesitate to take any credit, but Thorn of Dentonhill and the rest of the books in Maradaine wouldn't be what they are without his influence.  Heck, I'm pretty sure he's the one who suggested "Maradaine" as the city's name. 

2. Mike Kabongo-- my agent, who has stood with this work in the time it took us to sell it, who encouraged continued projects while Thorn and others were out shopping, and who read a manuscript that wasn't ready, but saw enough potential in it that he was hooked.

3. Sheila Gilbert -- my editor at DAW.  There are plenty of other people at DAW as well, half of whom I don't even know their name, who are all doing things for me and my work.  But Sheila is front and center, making Thorn be the best it can be when it hits the shelves in February.

4. Deidre Kateri Aragon -- my wife.  Of course she's on this list, because it would have been impossible for me to achieve this without her.  She's the one who kicked my butt so I stopped being the person saying, "Yeah, I'd like to be writing books" and made me actually write books.  And just as I'm working every day on writing, she's working every day so I'm able to.  But we both work from home, so we get to sit across from each other at our big table.  So it's the best of all things; I get the space I need to work, but I have my favorite person in the world right there with me. 

Are there more people?  Yes. Tons. I could go on, but that's what acknowledgement pages in books are for, right?  And even there, I probably missed a few.

That said, it's time to make the most of their support.  Off to the word mines.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Perils of the Writer: Riddles, Puzzles and Games

There is something alluring to putting a riddle in your story, especially in fantasy.  Heck, that goes back to The Hobbit and the riddle game between Bilbo and Gollum.  But making a good riddle, that's another matter.

I recently read a book-- no need to go into specifics-- but the underlying premise involved solving riddles to get to the end goal.  And in it, people were downright stumped by said riddles. For months on end.  Thus the author was telling us that they were super hard.

Except I solved each riddle within moments of reading them.  So, at least for me, the foundation the book was built on was extraordinarily flimsy.

But on the other hand, you don't want your riddles to be so hard they're based on a logic that only a madman could get from A to B to C, and then realize that "C" means "see", and you need glasses to see, and glasses are kept in the cabinet, and therefore The Riddler is going to assassinate the President's Cabinet!*

So, having your puzzle actually make logical sense is crucial.  But the great thing about logical puzzles is they can seem like complete crazysauce, because Pure Logic rules don't really apply to the real world.  Take, for example, the "100 Green-Eyed Dragon" puzzle.  The nature of the puzzle is extremely convoluted, involving several rules and caveats to enable it to work the way it does.  I won't give you the answer, but I will say that the answer only works because it's a matter of Pure Logic, including the caveat that every dragon involved operates on pure logic, and they also know that every other dragon involved also operates on pure logic.  Take that presumption away, and the whole house of cards falls apart.**

Of course, much of the fun of putting riddles or puzzles in a story is having your characters go through the process of solving it.  If you can work it that A. your (average) reader hasn't already figured it out and B. after going through the process with the character they will think, "Yes, that makes sense now.", then you've succeeded. 

What are some of the riddles you have in your stories?

*- This is not an actual example of The Riddler's riddles on the old Superfriends show, but it more or less fits the train of logic to get to the actual intended answer the show had.   
**- Another example is the Prisoners and Hats puzzle.  Quick version: three prisoners are sentenced to be executed, but the jailer will let them go if they solve a puzzle. He has four hats: two blue and two red.  He lines them up and puts the hats on their heads, so no prisoner can see his own hat, and the second prisoner can see the first, and the third can see the second and first.    Now, the the solution comes from the fact that if the third prisoner sees two hats of the same color on #1 and #2, he immediately knows he's got the other color, and says so.  But if he sees #1 and #2 have different colors, then he knows nothing about his own hat.  However, #3's silence would indicate to #2 that his hat is different from #1, so he can figure it out.  That's the solution, but it's entirely based on the idea that #3 isn't an idiot, and that #2 also isn't an idiot, AND he knows that #3 isn't an idiot.  Poor prisoner #1, of course, has no information and has to rely on the both of these two, praying that they aren't idiots.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Perils of the Writer: Haters Gonna Hate; Raters Gonna Rate.

So I have to confess to another bad habit, at least a bad habit for writers.  I like to go to the Amazon page of books I enjoyed (or Goodreads or what have you) and read the one-star and two-star reviews.  And, sometimes, they have valid points, and I can see where they were coming from.  Other times, said reviews are crazy-sauce.  If the internet has proven one thing, it's that some people will fundamentally mis-read something, and have loud opinions about it.

Knowing that, am I going to be able to keep myself from reading my one-star and two-star reviews? 

No, I'm not.  I'm really not.  I just don't have that kind of self-control.

However, what I think I'll be able to do is roll with those bad reviews.  I won't respond to or challenge the reviewers. I will likely rant and scream a bit within the confines of my own household, but nothing public.  I mean, I was an actor and theatre producer, so I've had bad reviews before.  I can take it. 

But.... I might also see some valid points. Points that I could learn from in the next project.  Or give me insight into which aspects of the books are or aren't working for people.  Because, it would be the height of hubris to think that I've got everything figured out and there's nothing left for me to learn.  Even the most misguided, vitriolic bile-spitting hate-screed of a review could have a seed of value I can harvest. And if there isn't, then... ignore it.

And since there's always more to harvest, it's off to the word... fields.  Hmm.  That metaphor isn't quite as romantic, is it?

Monday, September 29, 2014

And that was FenCon

So, I've returned from FenCon, up in the Dallas/Fort Worth area, and it was quite an excellent time.  This is my first non-homebase con that I've attended since selling The Thorn of Dentonhill and A Murder of Mages.  However, many of the people at FenCon are also ArmadilloCon regulars, so I wasn't in unfamiliar territory.  It made it a very good environment to get my travelling-to-a-con sea legs, just the right mix of comfortable and new, and plenty of people to talk up Thorn and Murder to.  Though I've learned I do need to polish my pitch to "what's the book about" a bit.  Someone suggested I start saying "Magical fantasy adventure meets 'The Wire'.", and that's not half-bad.

I drove up first thing Saturday morning, giving me just enough time to get checked in and get the lay of the land before my first panel on "Getting the Geos Right", using geology and geography in one's sci-fi and fantasy writing and worldbuilding.  The panel was interesting, but since my main focus was how geography affects your worldbuilding, and other people on the panel were actual geologists, I mostly yielded to their expertise.

After a bit more settling in and hanging out, my next panel was on "Technobabble and Handwavium", where things like Star Trek and unobtanium and reversing the polarity of the neutron flow were all discussed.  The main point I came away with was that you can get away with those things to some degree, but only if the characters and the stakes hold true. 

The evening then moved to the Room Parties and BarCon portion of the evening, which is always fun.   Down in the bar, a large group ended up putting several tables together, and it became one of those moments where several conversations are going on at once, and you wish you could listen to and participate in all of them, but that's just impossible.

The next morning I had a reading from Thorn of Dentonhill, which was decently attended for a 10:30 in the morning panel on a Sunday.  I read the first chapter, talked a bit about craft and process with the people in the audience, and was pretty pleased with the experience. 

The final panel for me was on "When Will It End?", about series that go on too long, and why they hold on when they seem to have worn out their welcome, and strategies for writing them in general.  That panel included Guest Of Honor Eric Flint, so naturally he was the primary focus of that panel, talking about how his book 1632 started as a stand-alone novel but became a series, including anthologies of short stories with several different authors.

All in all, an excellent time, and I'm ready for the next con.  Which, for those of you keeping score at home, with be OryCon in Portland, Oregon, November 7th-9th.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Perils of the Writer: Putting Yourself on the Market

More than once, I've had people speak to me of "marketing" like it was something separate from "promoting".  I'm a writer, not a marketer or promoter or advertiser, so I did the most sensible thing.  I went to the dictionary.

marketing |ˈmärkitiNG|noun
the action or business of promoting and selling products or services, including market research and advertising.

Well, that's no help.  I mean, "promoting" is right there in the definition.  Pressed, I'd argue that "promoting" is about awareness, and "marketing" is about sales.

With the books coming out next year, at least at the moment the main thing I have to market is myself.  To actually sell something, I more or less have to convince people I'm someone worth noting.  So I've got to rely a lot on charm and personality, and being able to use those traits in a public venue with a suitable target audience.

Fortunately, I've got a venue for such a thing this weekend.  I'll be at FenCon!  You can check out my whole schedule right here.  If you have the opportunity, come on over.  I'll be on panels on geography, technobabble and series that go on too long, all topics I should be able to say clever and intelligent things about.  Plus I'll be reading from Thorn of Dentonhill.  Hope to see you there.

In the meantime, I've got to get down in the word mines.  Always more to do down there.

Monday, September 22, 2014

The Very Different World of Literary Fiction

Literary Fiction is not my world.  And on some level, it totally boggles me.

Case in point, this weekend I just heard about the book The Goldfinch by Donna Tarrt, which came out last year and won the Pulitzer.  Now, I haven't read it, of course, and can offer no meaningful comment on either it or Ms. Tarrt's body of work.  As evidenced by the fact that I only heard about it this week, what's going on in literary fiction (and especially with the Pulitzer) simply is not in my usual circle of information.

But here's the thing that I honestly do not understand.  The Goldfinch is Ms. Tarrt's third book.  Her other books, The Secret History and The Little Friend, came out in 1992 and 2002, respectively.  So that's three books in 21 years, with a decade between each one.  How exactly does one maintain audience, let alone the interest and patience of one's agent or publisher, with that kind of gap between each work?  It would strike me that in this day and age, one could hardly build a writing career like that.

I mean, I get the literary once-and-done, like Harper Lee with To Kill A Mockingbird.  The lack of follow-up makes it stand out all the more.  But I would think that, say, around 2010, there wouldn't be anyone sitting around saying, "Remember the person who wrote that book eight years ago, and that other one eighteen years ago?  When's the next one coming out, because I can't wait!"

Now, it could be that Ms. Tarrt is an extraordinary talent-- each book was lauded with praise, including the Pulitzer, so I can accept that she is an outlier.  Maybe each of those books stay with the readers so strongly that no amount of time would fade interest.  But it strikes me that the path of "great' literature usually follows along these lines: three or four novels written over the course of a lifetime.  That this is almost what is expected of those authors.

As counterpoint, consider the current leading Grand Poobah in SFF circles: George R R Martin.  With just Songs of Fire and Ice books He's written almost twice as much book (by word/pagecount, not number of books) as Ms. Tarrt in almost half the time, in addition to other writing projects... and yet there is an underlying narrative of George needs to write faster.* And in general, if someone in genre had their last novel in 2002, on the whole the narrative in 2013 would have been that their career was dead.  Heck, I know of one who, because she waited a few years between publishing Book Two of a series and finishing Book Three, was completely unable to sell Book Three, and ended up self-publishing it even many more years after that.

So, is this part of the nature of Literary Fiction?  Does its audience expect their writers to deliver a masterpiece, then vanish for many years while working on the next one?  In those circles, is that the pace of writing they aspire to? 

Now, I'm not saying that genre writers need to be machines, where cranking out product is more important than craft.  But it seems within genre a pace of, say, a novel per year is a lot more common than out in the lit field.

But since I do have a pace to maintain, time to get back to it.  So you in the word mines.

*- And, as they say in the song, in the time George has had, William Shakespeare churned out 35 fricking plays.  Because he needed to pay his bills.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Perils of the Writer: The Beast that is Promotion

Promotion is a challenging thing for a writer to get right.  You want to get word that your book is out there (or in my case, that it's available for pre-order), but you don't want to be that person who's just "BUY MY BOOK!"  Because that person is obnoxious.

Seriously, that person isn't just hypothetical.  There are people out there like that, and they are obnoxious.  I once knew someone whose twitter feed would auto-tweet one of ten different "BUY MY BOOK HERE'S THE LINK" messages every few hours, like clockwork.

I never bought that book.

But you have to do something, of course, else no one knows the book is out there.  The trick is getting the word out there without annoying the people you want to be enticing.  Of course, the best way to do that is for someone else to be the one talking about your book.  That way it's not you doing obnoxious self-promotion.  It's someone who's genuinely excited about your work and wants to talk about it!

And sometimes you get blessed with a bit of serendipity.  In my case, it tied to Book Country.  See, I was one of the initial beta-testers of the writing-critiquing community, which was designed and owned by Penguin.  Thorn of Dentonhill was one of the first books available on the site for critique-- at least, its first few chapters.  So when Thorn was bought by DAW-- part of the Penguin group-- the folks at Book Country were eager to talk it up

Of course, I'll still be talking it up plenty in the months to come.  Have no doubt about that. 

All right, off to the word mines.  See you all down there.