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.