Monday, August 31, 2015

Perils of the Writer: Characters Who Are Not Like Me

Over at SFSignal, I contributed to the Mind Meld on Obscure Books, where I talk about Arthur Byron Cover's Planetfall.  One thing I don't mention over there is the very important thing Planetfall did for me as a reader, and as a result, a writer.
The main character of the book Planetfall is Lt. Homer B. Hunter, essentially the everyperson "you" from the games Planetfall and Stationfall.  In those games, as it was with many* of the Infocom games, there were no defining characteristics of who "you" were, so every and any player could self-insert themselves to the situation.
Thus, when I first read Planetfall, from the start I thought of Lt. Homer B. Hunter as "me".  Which was kind of a strange thing to do, but it seemed to make sense at the time.  But about a third of the way through the book, something very unexpected happened.
Lt. Homer B. Hunter was black.
As a teenager, I found that jarring, even shocking.  For a moment, I was just stuck.  I re-read the passage multiple times, to make sure I had it right, that it wasn't a mistake.  My brain hit a wall for a moment, thinking it couldn't be right.
It took me a bit to confront in myself why I felt it couldn't be right: because I had made presumptions based on my experience, what it was supposed to be for me.  But the world had no obligation to live up to my presumptions, nor was it obliged to give me characters that were just like me.
It's not a major revelation, but for a suburban white kid in the late 80s, it was quite a bridge to cross.  I could have stayed stuck on it, just hitting the wall, feeling the book had been dishonest with me or some bullshit like that.  Instead, I embraced my new understanding of the character and kept going.
Not a major revelation, but an important one to make at that age: it was totally all right to read characters who were not like me.
In retrospect, I wonder if that was part of Cover's clever plan: to create a character that readers would put themselves into, allowing readers like me plenty of time to make presumptions before showing them the truth.  Which is a pretty subversive thing to do in tie-in fiction for a computer game.
So, a few years later, when I read Tom Robbins Half Asleep In Frog Pajamas, a very odd book written in Second Person where "you", the main character of the book, are an uptight 28-year-old Filipina stockbroker named Gwen, I didn't even blink.
And that brings me to the writing.  I know I'm not a writer that will inspire anyone to go, "Oh, wow, look at that incredible diversity in race and gender in his work!"  Maradaine is a city that fits in a psuedo-European mold, for the most part.  I am trying to do things with race that I don't think I've seen too much of in fantasy fiction, and I may screw it up.  That's a given.  This review for Thorn seems to have caught some of what I'm going for, so I'm hopeful that it's coming through.  But I definitely think the early revelation that Planetfall gave me helped put me on a path to be able to write a character like Kaiana.  And writing scenes with Kai are possibly one of my favorite things to do.
In the meantime, I keep working, digging through the word-mines, and trying not to screw-up.  See you down there.
*- Some of the games had an in-game method of identifying your gender, and then the game would treat you as that gender for the rest of the game.  Leather Goddesses of Phobos, for example, starts with your character needing to use the restroom, and which one you choose locks your gender in.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Perils of the Writer: Making the Series Work

It's been said, both by me and to me, that it's pretty crazy to start two parallel series at the same time.  Do I like burdening myself with work and expectations?
Strangely, yes, I do.  
One of my biggest fears was that one of the series would really "click", while the other would completely fail to.  So then I'd have people going, "Ugh, why is he writing another X book when he should be writing a Y book?"  (Little do they know that I've also got the Z books and Q books and On Beyond Zebra in the wings...)  
But it seems like both Thorn and Murder have found fans, which is a good start that makes me happy.  Now the question is, can I maintain that?  What does it take to maintain that.
I really believe that the core of a successful series is the characters.  For Thorn to work, you have to click with Veranix.  For Murder, you have to connect with Satrine and Minox. If I don't make those key connections between the readers and the characters, then those books, and with them, the series aren't going to work.
But that's just for any given book.  To stretch that out for a series requires a bit of a juggling act.  Specifically, you have let that character grow, while at the same time retaining the core that the audience connected to.  
Now that I've turned in a final version of The Alchemy of Chaos and a finished draft of An Import of Intrigue, the big question is: did I pull that off?  Time will tell.

Monday, August 24, 2015

Did Not Finish and other RageQuits

I've quit many a thing without finishing: books, TV shows, movies, you name it. Usually, that's been out of disinterest more than anything else. I just feel little need to continue, so I don't.  A lack of emotion, frankly.
I almost never quit out of anger.
I started watching The Affair a few months ago, as it had won the Golden Globe and its Rashomon conceit sounded intriguing. And the first episode, I felt, lived up to the promise. Both versions of the same events were interesting, as the two main characters cast themselves as a put upon hero whose family doesn't appreciate, and their opposite as the sexual aggressor who instigated their affair.  It's to the actors' credit that they make these inverted scenes work so well, and that they could make two drastically different interpretations of a character still feel like facets of the same human being.
To understand where I'm going, the main male character-- Noah (Dominic West)-- is a novelist who at the start of the story has recently had his first novel come out, to little-to-no notice or acclaim.  It didn't get panned or bashed, just... ignored.  But he already got an advance on his second novel, which he intends to write over the course of the summer in Montauk, Long Island at his in-laws home.  Noah's father-in-law is a huge, major writer, in the King/Grisham vein.  Major books, major movies based on his books, but yet somehow also highly literary.  He is a novelist unicorn.  
In the first episode, though, we get the first strike against this show: the father-in-law throws a passive aggressive shot at Noah (who hasn't written word one of this second novel that he's already taken an advance for), saying, "Just about anyone can write one book.  Very few people can write two."  
Such a dick thing to say.  But, he's a dick character, so I move on.
In the second episode, we get the second strike.  The In-laws are hosting a big party, and at one point Noah is called over to meet the father-in-law's agent.  There's a certain degree of sniffing around like now said agent might be interest in representing Noah, specifically on the second book.  This triggers my bullshit alarm.  For one, the idea that Noah would have gotten a major-distribution level book deal* AND an advance for a second without an agent already is almost, but not entirely, absurd.  It IS possible, but highly unlikely.  Though I could see, if he didn't have one, or even if he did, that a superstar big shot agent being interested in him would be worth checking out.  But more to the point?  The second book?  He got the advance already. Deal is done.  So what would said agent do?  Collect 15% on a deal he had nothing to do with?
Third episode.  Noah meets the agent for lunch.  They talk about the second book deal and the advance. The agent suggests he could possibly negotiate something better for Noah.  Then he asks if Noah has a contract for the second book.
"No," Noah says.  "Handshake deal."
And that's where I turned it off and never turned it on again.
I mean, WHAT?  His advance on the second book was a HANDSHAKE DEAL?  Find me any-- ANY-- publisher with the credibility to get books into stores and libraries that operates like that and I will saw off my own foot and eat it.  
Seriously, do the people in Hollywood really think the publishing industry works this way?  Do they ever give anyone money on a handshake deal?  No, of course they don't.
So that's something that lost me, based on something that had very little to do with the core of the show itself.  Since the details were so off base from reality, in ways that I was intimately aware of, it yanked me out of the story so hard that I couldn't possibly continue.  I was angry at how wrong they got it.
The moral?  Do your research, get the details right.  The things that might not seem a big deal to you can be the big details that knock your audience out and lose them completely.
So try to get it right.

*- Which the show clearly shows he did; his book is at the Montauk Public Library, though no one had checked it out.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Perils of the Writer: The Kissing Stuff

Writing romantic scenes are not my forte.  There is a reason why in the Stomp Vs. Romp blog challenge going on right now, I got put on Team Stomp (aka Action Scenes).  
When it comes down to it, I tend to skirt around the romantic plots-- which I actually have been getting lauded for.  One of the most consistent things in the reviews for A Murder of Mages has been the effusive praise that Satrine and Minox do not have a romantic connection at all.  People are really happy that I didn't take that route.
Now, does that mean I don't think romance has a place in SFF writing?  Not at all.  I think it's a crucial part of life, and should absolutely be included.  In The Alchemy of Chaos, I do dive a little deeper into the romantic aspects of my characters' lives.  In The Way of the Shield-- which is still not scheduled to be published (fingers crossed)-- I have a full-blown romantic subplot.  And that, friends, was specifically to challenge myself.  Not that I get into hot-and-sweaty details, really.  I remain a fade-to-black sort when it comes to that.  But in Shield, I wait just a bit longer before the fade.

Monday, August 17, 2015


The summer went by quickly-- I can hardly believe it's already the middle of August.  But that's what happens when you have several deadlines and other projects all coming up in June and July.  On some level I feel like I've only now come up for air.
But now it's time to look to the future, and that means starting to talk about the books for next year.
THE ALCHEMY OF CHAOS: A Novel of Maradaine
February 2nd, 2016
Mass Market Paperback
ISBN 9780756411695
So, if you've checked out any of those links, you'll note they are lacking in real information about the book, beyond the title and release date.  So, what is The Alchemy of Chaos?
The Alchemy of Chaos is the sequel to The Thorn of Dentonhill, so we return to the University of Maradaine and the streets of Aventil.
Veranix Calbert is The Thorn—the street vigilante-turned-legend—and a pest to Willem Fenmere, the drug kingpin of Dentonhill. Veranix is determined to stop Fenmere and the effitte drug trade, especially when he discovers that Fenmere is planning on using the Red Rabbits gang in his neighborhood.
But Veranix is also a magic student at the University of Maradaine, and it’s exam week. With his academic career riding on his performance, there’s no time to go after Fenmere or the Red Rabbits. But when a series of pranks on campus grow deadly, it’s clear that someone has a vendetta against the university, and Veranix may be the only one who can stop them…
So, yes, Veranix is back, as are the Rose Street Princes and the other Aventil gangs.  I can promise you'll see a lot more of the gangs, some very special assassins, plenty of magic-- both practical and academic, and action where buckles are swashed and the derring is done.
I can't share a cover with you all yet, but I've seen the preliminary version, and I think it's very pretty, much in the same vein as the Thorn cover.
So what are you waiting for?  Go pre-order that.  Head over to Goodreads and mark it as to-read.  You'll be glad you did.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Perils of the Writer: Being Too Current

I was asked by an aspiring professional writer the other day whether it was all right for her teenage character to be into The Doors, or if that would seem unbelievable.  I was quick to tell her that A. that is TOTALLY BELIEVABLE*, and B. that would probably be better for the long-term health of her novel.
See, pop culture is a fickle beast.  Today's big hit could be tomorrow's big joke.  Writing something 'current' right now will probably make it hopelessly dated by the time it hits the stores.
And this is coming from a 42-year-old man with Taylor Swift in his writing playlist.
Fortunately, the main thing I write is secondary-world fantasy, so things like "pop culture" are hardly a concern for me.
Or is it?
I mean, even if you aren't having direct references to something contemporary in your fantasy world, there are ways to slip in a sly nod, if you're so inclined.  Amanda Downum won me over early in The Drowning City by using Tom Waits lyrics as a series of passcodes.  And The Thorn of Dentonhill has what I thought was a rather obvious pop culture nod in it which, to date, no one has called me on.  
Maybe I'll do a contest or giveaway based on spotting that...
*- These kids today, they're into stuff older than them.  They're into stuff older than me.  Don't believe what the cranks tell you-- kids today are all right.

Monday, August 10, 2015

Perils of the Writer: Reworking the Plan

Of late, I've developed more empathy for the writers of LOST.  
Now, mind you, I've long been a defender of LOST.  Despite its flaws-- which I will discuss at length if prodded-- I think it's possibly one of the finest complete series of television in the medium's history.
And what's the core complaint level at the writers?  "They made it up as they went along."
Well, frankly, that's something you have to do sometimes.  And, as I've discovered, just because you have something planned out doesn't mean that's how it will really go.
Allow me to explain.  Way back when I was first shopping The Thorn of Dentonhill, part of the package my agent and I put together involved outlines for Book II and Book III.  These outlines were written completely in good faith-- this represented exactly what my plan was, as well as its own portion of the Big Crazy Plan.  
So, once Thorn sold, I got to work on turning that outline for Book II into The Alchemy of Chaos.  And while there was a lot more detail and a few new twists that came up over the course of writing it, that original outline remains a fairly accurate skeleton of the finished novel.  
However, this is what I discovered when I sat down to start work on Book III.  The outline wasn't going to work.  I often talk about the outline being a plan on a road map for where a book is going to go, and the actual writing is the drive.  Well, the drive for Alchemy of Chaos didn't quite leave me in the place I thought I was going to go.  (Or, more correctly, I picked up some passengers I hadn't anticipated, so I needed to take them into account.)
Therefore, this past weekend was spent re-tooling the outline.  
Bringing it back to LOST: things happen in the writing that you don't anticipate in the planning.  That's just reality.  Now, do you drive on with the plan, despite it no longer being viable?*  Or do you adjust and find a new path?
Now, in the case of Thorn III, these aren't radical changes.  It's mostly a case where, I originally thought the story was about A, B & C, and now I realize that it's about A, B, D & Q, and B is nowhere near as important as I thought it was going to be.
Adjust and drive on.
*- AKA, the How I Met Your Mother method.

Thursday, August 6, 2015

Respecting the Building Blocks

About a year ago, I was on one panel, and my initial response to a audience member's question was, "That's a bad cliché that gets overdone."   After a bit more discussion, I said, "I want to amend what I said earlier.  I should say that it's a common trope that's easy to do badly."
Because you can't hate on genre tropes.  They're the building blocks of all the storytelling points we work with.  Sure, some of them have been done to death, and yes, a lot of times they signpost where a story is going so perfectly that you could write an accurate summary of the whole things after just getting through the first quarter of it.
But that's all right.  Because the other side of using tropes is finding ways to subvert or tweak them, or combine them in new ways.
After all, using tropes is often the easiest way to describe our stories.  I had to embrace The Thorn of Dentonhill being called "Harry Potter As Batman", or A Murder of Mages being referred to as a "fantasy novel buddy cop movie".  Both descriptions tells you, quite simply (though perhaps too simply) what you're going to get and what to expect.  
And our best use of tropes, as storytellers, is using them to both manage and subvert expectations.  Stay on the path too narrowly, audience gets bored; deviate too wildly, audience gets lost.  
All right, time to head into the word mines.  See you down there.

Monday, August 3, 2015

Chasing The White Rabbit

On one of my panels at ArmadilloCon, the comment was made that "glaciers often honk at the publishing industry to tell it to speed up."  And it's true, things don't move very quickly, which gives you time to think.
And simmer.
And dwell.
For example, once edits and copy edits and final proof checks are DONE, and there's nothing else you can do but wait for the book to come out... you still have a few months before the book comes out.  
And since this is 2015, and the Internet is just a given in our lives, you look around.  You check out the places where people are talking about books.  You notice those lists of "Must Reads For [Month Your Book Is Coming Out]".  You notice what the buzz is.  And every once in a while you see your book on such a list.  And there is much rejoicing.
But most of the time, you don't.  Most of the time you see other books.  Over and over.  You get to be familiar with the ones that are bound to be on the list, before you even click on it.
And there will be one book that will be your White Rabbit, the one that has the buzz you're chasing.
This is not your White Whale, I should say.  You shouldn't be obsessed with it.  You shouldn't want to destroy it.
You'll chase after it, because it's always just ahead of you.
And then your book comes out, and it gets pretty good attention and reviews, and you realize that you put way to much energy fretting about this other book, and it's not a zero-sum game.
But here's the other thing I realized, having gone through this twice in rapid succession, and having talked to the authors who were my "white rabbit": everybody does this.  And the authors you do this to, in turn, have other authors that they are white rabbiting.  When I mentioned this to one of them, the immediate response was to groan out the name of an even bigger, buzzier book that also came out the same month.
And I'm sure-- stone cold positive-- that there was someone out there with a book that came out this past month or last February and quietly damned my name that it was popping up more than their own.  
In the end, there's a limit of how much I can let myself fret about this stuff.  Maybe that's why I set myself up with a hectic writing pace, so I'd have to focus on the work, and not sweat out this too much.