Soundtrack for the Novel

Posted: April 13, 2014 in Junk, Writing
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I had a conversation on twitter today about the music played while writing. This is something that fascinates me to no end. I enjoy the process of having other senses and other mediums bleed into my writing. I imagine it comes from all those years in film school.

Every novel I write, including the unfinished ones, has a very specific soundtrack and playlist. That counts double for the current one I’m working on since it, quite literally, puts the punk in godpunk.

I’m going to make things quick tonight because I have a word count I’d like to hit. Below is a sampling of the music rolling around in my noggin as I write a book about a punk rock singer with magic powers.

2 Minutos

Civet … saw them live in Hartford a few years back. Close to the sound of the band in the book I’m writing, although my protag does not look like them

Ninja Dolls

Millencolin

Dropkick Murphys (duh) … Fun fact: I have a crack in my cheekbone from DKM on St Patrick’s day in Boston a couple years ago

New Riot … The best mosh pit ever was these guys in Providence opening for Reel Big Fish

So the antihero is firmly established in all corners of literature, film, and storytelling what-have-you. They’re the gruff, but lovable, people who cut corners and kicks asses but overall their karmic balance tilts towards the good. Eventually. The antihero is flawed, troubled, and screwed up a little bit. They’re a type, though, and have become a trope in their own right. Unless someone is mucking around with the trope, we know the antihero is ok even if they bust heads and break laws. They’re chaotic good to use the convenient DnD alignment chart.

I could rattle off all sorts of examples of the antihero in our genre in any medium. I’ve even got some examples on this here blog.

But that’s not really what I’m here to talk about.

Antiheroes can still be likeable. What do you do when you’re reading a book and you don’t like the characters?

A lot of times, it means you put the book down and pick up the next one. If you’re anything like me, you’ve got a huge To Read Pile and a To Buy List a mile long. The physical books I have in my To Read Pile are actually as tall as my kid. That doesn’t count anything on my Nook. It’s easy to just cycle out to the next book.

How can the writer still hook people even if their readers can’t stand their characters? This has been on my mind a lot because the godpunk novel I’m writing right now has a screwed up protag that drinks away her problems.

I’ve had this happen a few times, and not really with books I expected. Chuck Wendig‘s Miriam Black, Diana Rowland‘s Angel Crawford and Lee Collins‘ Cara Oglesby all start out as deeply flawed, screwed up people. Some of them remain this way. (At least as far as I’ve read, out of date on all three series) I never disliked any of them though even though it’s almost expected a little bit when you’ve got characters that are so messed up.

desertspearThe characters I didn’t like were Peter Brett‘s Jardir, Myke Cole‘s Harlequin and Delilah Dawson‘s Ahnastasia.

This blog post has been stewing in my head for a long time and I think I’ve finally twigged on to why I still consider all their books absolutely flipping fantastic anyways.

First and foremost, they’re all great writers. All the other parts of the books are expertly crafted. Worldbuilding, plot, supporting cast… all the set dressing is there to let the protags shine. Cole’s militarized magic has the plausibility to draw in readers. Dawson’s alternate world steampunk vampires are a fully realized mishmash of genres that are ripe for exploring. Brett’s got the sprawl, in both plot and worldbuilding, to support the massive tomes he writes. I’ve talked about all three authors around here frequently because these traits in their writing are the same kinds of traits I want to hone in my own. If anyone is looking for examples to act as torch bearers to level up their own work, you can’t go wrong with any of them.

Set dressing is fantastic, but character is where things happen. I wrote about Jardir last year when I read The Desert Spear. I think he’s a serious asshole. Even though Brett’s sprawling series has a lot of POV characters, Jardir is set up against who I consider the primary POV. It’s easy for him to come off as a bit of a backstabber. And he does. And I never warmed up to him. Eventually though, I understood him, even if I still didn’t like him. I knew why Jardir had to stand opposite of Arlen. Now, I actually like Arlen but the course of the novel is better when the lines between protagonist and antagonist are blurred.

breachzone-usCole does something very similar with Harlequin in his third book, Breach Zone. In the earlier books, he is at odds with the hero. Each of the first two of Cole’s books had different protags, so I wasn’t surprised that Breach Zone would. I did think it was an interesting choice to go with Harlequin though. Everyone is the hero of their own story, right? He always came off as a stuffed shirt kind of guy in the first two books. He’s not bad, not really. To me, Harlequin was the Bill Lumburg of the Shadow Ops universe. He was the middle management guy that got through the day by being a bit of a pain in the ass to the people around him. If Oscar Britton had a red stapler, Harlequin would have taken it.

Harlequin ended up being awesome by the end of Breach Zone. Cole leveled up his writing and that book is really a romance novel disguised as military fantasy. (Romance hiding in SF is a blog post for another day by the way) In one of the two threads in Breach Zone, we get to see how Harlequin became the super by the book guy. The state of his mind isn’t what I thought it would be in the past tense thread. When he was handed the tough situations, he found refuge in the rules. The rules aren’t his end all be all, they become his shield and he becomes much more human for it.

In Dawson’s Blud books, they are interconnected and set in the same world. There is overlap with characters and history but the books aren’t reliant on one another. In the second Blud book, Wicked as She Wants, Ahnastasia is a completely new character and the sole POV character. There is no luxury of her having a past. She comes out of the box (ha! literally!) as someone I really would not want to be involved with. This is aside from the fact that Ahnastasia is a bludwoman who would consider me breakfast. She is 100% a spoiled princess. True story. She’s a blud princess of Muscovy and all the pretentious snobbery that comes from said spoiled, sheltered life.

wickedasshewantsBy the end of the book, I want to high five Ahna for the awesome things that she does. Dawson nails the slow burn of Ahna’s character arc. There’s never any prophetic moment when Ahna changed her outlook on life and the people around her. It hit me somewhere around the two-thirds mark that “Wow, she’s been kind of awesome for a while now.” I am sitting here trying to think of another book where the slow burn was written with such a deft touch but I seriously can’t think of one. Dawson had nothing else to prop up Ahna while she was being a jerk. There were no other POV characters and there were no other timeline threads. Ahna has one, single, linear character arc. As I’m sitting here thinking of the mechanics of that from the Writer / Analysis point of view rather than my Reader point of view, I am all the most impressed by it.

I think it is worth noting, that with all three of these authors, Brett, Cole and Dawson, I had read previous books of theirs. To a certain extent, they earned the benefit of the doubt. I liked their writing already so that “you have 50 pages to hook me” gets a bit of a fudge factor. Not that I wasn’t hooked by any of the books in question. They already built up reader trust before throwing down characters that I wouldn’t like.

So where do all these examples leave me and anyone else writing “problematic” protagonists?

Well, character arc is key. Ahna, Jardir and Harlequin were not the same people from the beginnings to the end. You can have great characters, but if they’re stagnant, that means the plot of whatever you just wrote didn’t really have any stakes or agency to it. Hook the reader and then let the plot change the character. With a problematic, troublesome, or just plain unlikeable character, there is a lot more riding on that change. The plot becomes more critical because each bump in the narrative needs to shift the character down that arc a little more forcefully. The supporting cast and their attitudes to the protagonists cast a sharper reflection on how that arc is progressing.

I think following that change in a character is a big pay off to the reader. You’ve gone through three hundred pages and bam! Results. Find the treasure? Get the man? Save the world? Yeah, cool and all, but we’ve all read that story a thousand times. How did the treasure change someone. What had to happen to get the man? Did saving the world come at the expense of someone’s soul?

That’s what readers really want, I think, deep down inside.

Now that this has topped 1400 words and I’ve spent a large chunk of my afternoon noodling about characters I didn’t like when I opened the book on page one, I’m hitting that point where I realize how picking apart what works with these books will help my own writing. I’m seeing more of the missteps I took with the now dead Amity I tried to shop around. More importantly, I’m seeing what direction I need to head in to find the right steps for the book I’m working on now.

When I was in film school, the old adage was a quote from one of my favorite directors, Sam Fuller, “You gotta have story!” Picture a 70 year old with big glasses chomping on a cigar with a raspy yell when you say that quote. Storytelling is storytelling, no matter the medium, I used to always think. And it’s true. In a novel, you need a plot, but the more I write, the more I’m seeing it’s a lot more nuanced than that. Where the story comes from matters a lot more in a novel where you can, quite literally, be inside someone’s head with all their thoughts, dreams and desires.

I hope that conclusion can help people level up their own work. I think it will help mine. But hey, this hasn’t all been 1700 words of thinking out loud. Go read those books I talked about. Even if you don’t need examples to help level up your work, screwed up, problematic, difficult and unlikeable characters make for good reading. Why?

Because they gotta have story.

R.I.P. Amity

Posted: March 5, 2014 in Junk, Writing
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Amity … October 15, 2009 – March 5, 2014

I didn’t want to admit this, but I have to. My novel is dead.

Really, it’s been dead for a while, but I’m saying it aloud now, today’s the day on the death certificate. It’s been in a vegetative state since November-ish. For the writerly types, it’s been trunked.

Also notice I actually admitted how long ago I started the damn thing. Fun story, I actually started it in Ireland. My reading material I brought with me on the honeymoon sucked. I abandoned it in a bed and breakfast in County Claire and started putting pen to paper. One of the protags was named Claire because of that. Anyways, I didn’t really want to admit how long I worked on it either, but I feel like I need to. Saying all this stuff out loud is the only way I can digest what went wrong and make the current work in progress better.

I actually finished the draft of my novel on my 29th birthday. I detoxed from the crazy final push of the novel where I wrote 45% of it in five weeks. Then I spent eight months editing. My edit process was mostly addition but there were plenty of subtractions. I cut out heirlooms from the twin protag’s dead mother. I cut out the first five pages all together because it rambled. I enlisted a dozen or so beta readers. Some were well versed in sci fi, some weren’t. My best beta reader was my wife. I think it was largely that she knew exactly what kind of things I needed to here while some people were hesitant to hurt my feelings. I polished a lot. I dedicated scenes to Myke Cole and Saladin Ahmed because of the influence they had on my writing. The one I dedicated to Cole was actually my favorite scene in the whole book. I polished and polished and finally, at the end of August, decided it was go time.

Querying a novel for the first time is a special kind of hell. All the other writers who have gone through it are nodding knowingly. I compiled an agent list, made data spreadsheets, wrote up my query letter, all that good stuff. I remember I stared at the computer for an hour with my hand hovering over the send button. I clicked it and almost threw up. I sent out my first batch of five at 1030 or 11 at night on a Wednesday.

At ten am the next day, not twelve hours later, I got a request for pages.

Holy shit I was jacked up. It wasn’t my first choice, but damn I was in a happy place. Even if that first one didn’t bite, I must have been doing something right and someone on my list would want to rep my awesome little space adventure of long lost pirate twins. It was a long five days until I got that rejection.

And then all the rest started coming in. I got a few one line “No thanks” emails. I got plenty of form emails. A few of them didn’t even copy my name over and just said “Dear Author.” I even had one say “Dear [Insert name].” Seriously, with the brackets and everything. Some never bothered sending anything back. Some took a really long time. The record was four months. That one trickled in back in February. Not even a nibble from anyone after that first one.

I distracted myself by working on the next (and now current) novel, with mixed results. I say they’re mixed because I am restarting it after ditching 11k words and genderflopping my protag. But the frustration was there. A lot of it. I know why form letters are used. I know how practical they are. I get all that. I still felt like I was screaming into a vacuum. If I didn’t know what I was doing wrong, how in the ever loving hell was I going to fix that?

Months removed from writing off Amity as a lost cause, I can see the forest for the trees a little bit. I’ve joined with the Online Writing Workshop. My wife and some twitter pals recommended it to me. More than one author I really enjoy have used it successfully. I haven’t put any novel chapters up there yet, but I twigged onto a pattern after some of the crits of a side project short story. (Other than the fact I suck at commas) My characters are strong. The skeleton of my plot is. But I rush from one tentpole moment to the next without letting the plot grow in between. With the short story in question, I had these two really important, intense moments I wanted to hit… and didn’t hit enough in between to connect them.

I can see where I did that with Amity now. I have these scenes and moments I’m crazy proud of. They’re not connected right though. Especially towards the end of the book, as I was hitting the high word counts in the last act, the plot makes some jumps which must have hurt it. There must have been some jumps in the front end too, since that’s the part that went out with the query letter. Honestly, I think the middle of Amity was the strongest. As counterproductive as it sounds, I need to take my time with my prose. I need to not write so damn slow, but that’s a problem of time management.

I think it was too easy to miss where I needed to tighten up the prose itself, too. I don’t think it was in a “married to the prose” kind of way. It was too familiar with it to see what was wrong. I spent years with this manuscript and my brain could just fill in the intent of the broken sentences without having to actually fix them. Overfamiliarity is also why I don’t write characters like myself.

I like to think I’m improving. I’ve gotten sick of behind the scenes work with the godpunk novel and I’ve started going headlong into the word count again. The opening is completely new from when the protag was a guy. I’ve backed up the timeline a couple days. The protags don’t need to meet on page one. I hope it’s getting better.

Most days I can convince myself that all that time spent working on Amity was not a waste. It made me better at what I’m doing and all that good stuff. I’ve had a quasi-independent sequel for a long time now. I may still write that. Bernadette, Claire and Tomas don’t want to fade off into the ether just yet, but they’re going to have to dig out of a coffin first.

Because, for better or worse, Amity is dead.

51logoIt’s February so that means it’s Boskone time! This is my third time around at this con and the second year in a row that this con commuter got to drive through a blizzard. It’s a good thing I have the blood of the frigid northlands in me and winter doesn’t bother me.

I rolled in for two days of the con and hit up eight panels plus the Guest of Honor interview and the flash fiction slam. Wow, I didn’t realize I was that busy. No wonder I didn’t have time to eat lunch. The panels were split evenly between shop talk and fan stuff. There was talk of positive work habits at Finish It: Completing Your Work. I got that 500 words/day seems to be more of a magic number for pros and pros with day jobs than the mythical 1666 2/3 words/day from NaNoWriMo. That’s always a positive to hear what with having the day job and family. Food in Fiction was another fun shop talk panel. Elizabeth Bear, who is always a delight to hear talk on panels, pointed out how food is very underutilized in world building. World building is pretty damn important to any flavor of our genre so it was rather productive shop talk.

Pixels to Print: The Challenges of Running a Magazine was a behind the scenes with the head people from Clarkesworld, Beneath Ceaseless Skies and Galaxy’s Edge. I seriously wish my writer / newspaper editor friend had been in on that. I tend to only dabble in short stories, but I love learning about the behind the scenes stuff that goes into the products we all read. The last shop talk panel I hit up was Writers on Writing: Sex vs Romance. It bordered on genre talk at times because the relationship expectations for different parts of our genre can be wildly different. I have to admit, I lost track of a little bit of this panel because it keyed into something that was missing in my novel-in-progress and I outlined a new opening chapter on the spot. So super huge thanks on that even if I did miss a bit of what was said.

I drifted into Ezines, Fanzines and Blogs on Sunday. That frustrated me a bit. Waxing nostalgic about “the good ol’ days” has its place but it shouldn’t be paired with “new things are horrible and different and just go too fast.” I was seriously glad that Mallory O’Meara was there to be “yeah, no.” She runs a New England wide thing called Arkham Horror Book Club and was all “Yeah we do digital and still do all those things you think are missing from today’s fandom.” High five for all that.

Genre discussions always make me happy. I find that stuff fascinating, going back to the same kind of discussions in film school. Urban Fantasy in Transision tracked how the subgenre is evolving. I completely agree that it has come a long way from the “Buffy lookalike kills [insert monster] with [insert magic/weapon].” This is a good thing because I think UF has some of the most progressive storytelling around now and when it first came about, it was very needle-in-a-haystack to find the good ones. Future Fantasy and the Teen Protagonist spent a lot of time defining terms. That sounds boring written out but it really wasn’t. It keyed in with some of the YA trends. Apparently to kids these days (I think it makes me old because I just said “kids these days”) consider ‘sci-fi’ a dirty word. Future fantasy is becoming a term for “sci fi with wonder.” It’s a term I like that fits and I really wish I had written down which panelist said it. Wicked Good Villains went into how storytelling is evolving past black and white good versus bad. The best baddies are the ones you can understand, think Magneto, and the best protags are the ones who are a bit messed up. I’ve actually been thinking about a whole post on that for a while and took some notes to use accordingly.

The Guest of Honor interview was a lot of fun. Seanan McGuire is just as fun of a storyteller in person. Elizabeth Bear was doing the interview which really consisted more of “Hey, deadly viruses!” or “Tarantulas!” and then stories just happened. I also hadn’t realize that the massive pile of publications she’s written has all been since 2009. Damn, I knew she had a busy schedule but now that’s gone from damn to holy crap! I am seriously amazed by that time management fu. It’s also nice to hear someone say her name aloud because I wasn’t ever sure I was saying it right in my head. Having a last name no one ever pronounces correctly, but really should unless they’re from Canada, makes pronunciation something I worry about getting right.

I rolled in for the Kaffeeklatch with Myke Cole. He continues to be engaging and helpful and an all around cool person.

Reading at Boskone 51.

Reading at Boskone 51.

Oh hey, you didn’t think I’d forget to tell you how the reading went did you? It went well. I kept the nerves down and busted out my radio DJ voice. One thing that I knew but didn’t really click before the reading was that I brought a cyberpunk story to lay in front of people who helped invent cyberpunk. The inventors of the genre. Let that sink in for a moment. And then think if that was a really good idea. Whatever. I brought it, I laid it down and it was good. I didn’t win but the people who did dropped some excellent stories. The competition was very close. One of the judges said he thought there was a moment that seemed a bit dated, like a 70s or 80s kind of SF. That may have been the kicker, but you know what, I can live with that . That’s a personal preference. Everyone has them, doesn’t mean the story is bad. I had a couple people come up to me afterwards and also on ye olde Twitter tell me they liked my story. That’s a fantastic thing to happen after reading in public for the first time. An extra high five for Brenda Noiseux, a twitter pal I got to meet for real and was at the reading. She snapped that pic of me.

Last and certainly not least, my favorite part of going to these cons, finding cool new authors. Both of these authors this year sold me on their work during the Urban Fantasy in Transition panel. Like I said above, UF has some of the most interesting storytelling going on now. I will definitely be picking up the books of Mur Lafferty and Max Gladstone. Lafferty’s book, The Shambling Guide to New York City, I knew of but talking about where the character arc was heading for book two and being an all around well spoken and interesting individual really sold me. Gladstone is also well spoken and interesting, (there’s a theme, being cool helps sell) but I hadn’t heard of his books at all. Three Parts Dead is urban fantasy written from a fantasy world evolving up to the industrial age rather than most UF which is a real world base and magic added in. Necro lawyers. That’s bad ass. The only downside was that I was hording my cash money in case I got snowed in Saturday night and the books were all sold out from the huckster’s room when I went to get them on Sunday. Oh well. I’ll just get them on the next big order.

Quotable quotes, (sometimes with context):

  • “Just slide your Ender’s Game across the table and nod.” -Anna Davis, author of The Gifted, in the Future Fantasy panel
  • “We’re in a golden age of flawed heroes and sympathetic villains.” -Myke Cole on Wicked Good Villains
  • “It was my midlife crisis. Instead of buying a red convertible, I set up a company to see how fast I could lose my money.” -Shahid Mahmud (Galaxy’s Edge) on getting into publishing
  • “My comments aren’t as valuable as the quick turnaround.” -Niel Clarke, founder of Clarkesworld, on using form letters
  • “Everything is a draft until you die.” -Fran Wilde on Finish It: Completing Your Work
  • “Sci-fi is sort of a dirty word.” -Stacey Friedberg, Asst Editor at Dow on the Future Fantasy panel on marketing to a younger audience.

So Boskone 51 did everything I needed it to. I got fodder for the work in progress. I got fodder for the blog. I met and talked to some cool people. (Look mom! Introverts being social!) I had a lot of fun.

Counting down the days til my next con. Readercon in five months.

I am fortunate enough that that couple of SF’s bigger cons are within commuting distance from Rhode Island. Coming up next month is the 51st installment of Boskone. This is going to be my third time rolling in to that con. I’m excited for this one. Seanan McGuire is the Guest of Honor. There are a lot of names I’m happy to see again and new names for me to discover.

And it’s going to be my first time on the con programming.

Ayup. I’m part of the shindig. Check this out from this year’s schedule.

Flash Fiction Slam, Sun 09:30 – Sun 10:50, Burroughs

Join Boskone’s first Flash Fiction Slam. Eleven (11) writers compete for the title of The Flash, reading their own original fiction — which must tell a complete tale within a 3-minute period. Our expert panel of judges will score your work on a scale of 1 to 10, and you automatically lose 1 point for going over your 3-minute time. You may only read your own work. The reader with the top score wins! Sign up before the con for one of eight (8) advance reading slots on a first-come, first-served basis by e-mailing erin.m.underwood@gmail.com. Or sign up onsite at Program Ops in the Galleria for one of three (3) at-con openings. A waiting list will also be available.
Panelists:

  • Paul Di Filippo
  • Nancy Holder
  • James Patrick Kelly
  • Erin Underwood (M)
  • Walter Jon Williams

So I’m not really in the guidebook or anything, but I am going to be a part of this. I saw it announced on twitter two weeks ago. Remember the line from Ghostbusters, “If someone asks if you’re a god, you say yes.” I signed up before I could talk myself out of it. Then I timed myself reading one of my stories and realized three minutes is a hell of a lot shorter than you think it is. So I wrote a fresh story. I’m still tweaking it, but damn, I’m happy with it. Doubly so because keeping things short isn’t usually my strong suit. It was definately a challenge to keep someone so concise.

I am confident in my story. I might not win. I can’t control how well the other people in the contest write. I can control the quality of what I’m going to present.

And it’s a damn good story I’m proud to read to these people.

This has been percolating in my head for a while, like most of my bigger blog posts tend to do. I don’t remember any specific thing that spurred me on to this thought train. The aging old guard that hates any sort of change is an ugly thing in the SF community, and it’s all too often that they rear up and stomp around like dinosaurs. One of their many airing of grievances probably set this off.

I grew up reading the Old Guard. That’s what my parents read back in the day because they weren’t the Old Guard then, they were the Newbies. They were the Old Guard though when I started reading their books at ten. A lot of the Old Guard have written amazing things. The cornerstones of science fiction and fantasy came about because of them. That’s past tense. It’s a fact. Even if they’ve turned into curmudgeonly old guys, their past impact on the genre can’t be changed. Prime example: Ender’s Game and Orson Scott Card. Today’s version of OSC is not someone I would ever get along with, to put it in nice words that aren’t swearing. However, the book he wrote back in the 80s is profound.

Thanks to this nebulous mass of the Old Guard, there is an image that the Average White Guy who reads in our genre only wants to read about Average White Guys and put their foot down to squash diversity. Eh, that might be a bit dramatic, but the image is one of indifference at best.

I want to put it out there that it is a complete misnomer that people only want to read about people exactly like them. I think this is doubly so within SF circles. If we weren’t all fans of the different on some level, we’d all be reading “regular” literature instead.

Just from a practical point of view, think that I’ve been reading SF for twenty years now. No one can read everything, but I consider myself fairly well read in both the sci fi and fantasy sides of the genre from the 70s stuff my parents were buying in high school on up to the new stuff today. I couldn’t even tell you how many times I’ve read about the  Average White Guy Chosen One who must save the universe/kingdom.

Been there, done that. That’s not to say it couldn’t still make for a good book, but it’s a very tired trope. I want something new. We’re fortunate that we live in a day where it is a hell of a lot easier to find that shiny new story. Amazon may be the 900 pound gorilla in the room, but you can buy anything from them, not just what is confined to the shelves at the local big box. Finding something different than the bleached out vision of sci fi or the Anglo based fantasy is a lot easier than it used to be.

Examples galore are out there. Some of the ones I love to recommend (and frequently do) are Crystal Rain by Tobias Buckell, Throne of the Crescent Moon by Saladin Ahmed and a new one I recently read, Ascension by Jacqueline Koyanagi.

In none of these books, or the myriad of others I read, being different was not the end all be all of the book. Having a different cast of characters and a different cultural basis were defiantly points in favor for the books. None of that would have mattered though if they weren’t written well. How’s the plot? How’s the prose? Drop the ball on that and you’re novel could be about the UN and it wouldn’t matter one wit to me.

ascension-coverI’m going to use Ascension again as an example since it’s new so therefore hasn’t been talked about around these parts before. The protag, Alana, is black and gay. The relationships in the book are polyamorous. That’s quite possibly the polar opposite of the Average White Guy. Ok. That’s all well and good, how’s all the other stuff going on in the book? Plot? Prose? It happens to all be fantastic. Alana is a bad ass engineer who stows away in a cargo ship on a desperate mission. The engineer on a civilian ship is a point of view that’s refreshing in itself instead of the typical guns-blazing space marine. But that’s a tangent for another blog post. The point is, Alana is doing badassery independent of how she identifies herself. Her differences add more layers to a novel that already had a compelling base.

That is the best way to go about adding more diversity into the SF scene.

Because character diversity isn’t the end all be all of a good novel, it doesn’t always work out. I read an urban fantasy with a gay protag that spent more time sitting around moping “Does she love me? Do I love her?” It was book one of a series so the plot never felt any need to move about with urgency and the novel ended up being half relationship, high school type drama, dealing with intolerant family kind of stuff. If that’s your bag, great, fantastic, I’ll let you know where the used bookstore I sent it off to is. It’s not my bag at all because the plot took a back seat to all the introspection. There should be balance between the two.

There was another time I read a steampunk book that made a huge to do and reveal of a transgender character right at the start of Act Three. Ok cool. People are people. And? And nothing. The book went out of its way to make it into a Thing, I expected some sort of plot point out of it. When there wasn’t one, I felt the whole thing was distracting. The drama was distracting, not the character herself. I think it would have been more effective storytelling if it had been brought up earlier in the normal course of business and without the drama of a reveal. But then again, I don’t know anyone else who’s read the same book to solicit other opinions. Maybe other people liked the drama of it.

Having a diverse cast in SF become a non issue is a noble and proper goal. A multicultural, multiracial, multi(insert any adjective that describes people) landscape should be accepted as the norm. I think that treating it as normal is the best way to get people around you to also start treating it as normal. Lead by example kind of thing. Letting the storytelling take a back seat to creating a diverse cast does a disservice to the very cause they want to champion. Maybe disservice isn’t the right word choice. It’s more like a lateral move, not hurtful but not really helpful in the end.

I feel like writing diversity as normal is harder to accomplish as an Average White Guy writer though. I don’t want to deal with questions of “Is this guy pandering for sales?” or “You’re not X, you can’t write about X without authenticity.”

Whatever. Screw that noise. In the end, I’m going to write the stories I want to write. That will frequently be about characters that aren’t like me because otherwise life would be boring as hell. I’ve got a short story about a scientist that happens to be a black woman with genetically engineered pink hair and six fingers. Why? Fun. Also, the character design was inspired by one of my kid’s Nick Jr cartoons (so many points to whoever can call that one). The punk band in my in-progress novel has a Hispanic brother and sister and a Chinese drummer. Why? Well, originally it was set in my hometown which has large Puerto Rican and Chinese communities. There’s no reason the band should be nothing but white guys. That’s just things plucked out of my daily life plunked into my writing.

I might not write different people right. In fact, I’m sure I’ll screw it up once in a while. And if people want to respectfully talk shop about how to improve writing a certain POV, fantastic, I love talking shop and I always want to get better as my writing. The same goes for my reading lists. New points of view from diverse characters will always be another positive selling point in the laundry list of things I look for in a new book. I like to think that the genre community is getting better in that regard. We can drown out the haters by treating differences as a regular part of everyday life. That goes for the real world too.

The Year End Shenanigans for 2013 is going to focus on the books I’ve been reading. Largely because of all that free time I don’t have, I’ve scaled back on book review posts here. But I still love pontificating about great writing and spreading the word. I picked up most of the books I read now because of the people around me, so I want to do the same for the great things I read.

I’m not really feeling detailing out the query grind on this. Anyone familiar with a query grind is nodding knowingly right now anyways.

Onward to the books! I’m going to do this is lumps rather than singling out titles for specific things. Why? Cause it’s my post and I can do what I wanna! Except for the first thing. Always with the exceptions. But it’s an important one…

The Most Recommended Book of the Year

The Lives of Tao / The Deaths of Tao by Wesley Chu

From the overlords at Angry Robot Books, the first Tao book came out in February and did so well the second was pushed up to October. Hence I’m listing them both. There’s all sorts of awesome going on with these books which can tell you all about why I liked it. What makes the Tao books so recommendable for me though is the genre blend going on here. Chu writes science fiction with a healthy dose of adventure thriller. It opens doors to a broader audience. There’s something special about accessible genre writing. We’re not going to grow the genre without pulling new people in. A lot of readers I know in real life don’t read off of the same lists that I do. Tao has been recommended to the military SF readers to the non-SF Jack Reacker Clive Cussler crowd.

The Most Influence on My Own Writing

I guess I lied and I am going to talk about my writing a little bit. This is a special kind of category for me though. I firmly believe that you can’t help being influenced by everything you read. You take cues from positive things you read and steer clear of the stuff you don’t like. There are a few authors that have very directly influenced both the book that I’m shopping around and the one I’m writing right now.

In Amity, the book I finished polishing over the summer, there are two chapters specifically dedicated to positive writing influences. There is a Soviet style show trial going on dedicated to Saladin Ahmed. The third POV character needed the perspective shift so it was dedicated to a person who challenges people to broaden their own perspective both in his writing and generally in life. The second scene in Amity specially dedicated is to Myke Cole. It’s actually one of my favorite scenes in the whole entire novel. There’s a riot cop facing off with my main protag. There’s a respect that they’re both just doing their job… one that happens to put them at odds with each other.

My current in-progress novel, the Rhode Island godpunk, owes a lot to Chuck Wendig first. There is so much swearing involved and Wendig is a virtuoso of swears. Seriously, I work in a shipyard and swear every tenth word and it has taxed my ability to creatively swear. The female lead of my book has a little bit of Miriam Black in her. The book also owes a tip of the hat to Delilah Dawson. Remember Wicked as They Come? Oh yeah. Don’t fear the smooching in SF! There’s totally smooching happening because that’s what the characters want, it’s what they need. My novel doesn’t work without the chemistry between the two leads and that means there’s smooching.

The Favorites of 2013

favorites2013I will leave you now with blurb sized exhultations of my favorite books of the year, in no particular order beyond how they’re piled on my kitchen table right now. Fun fact, I got to meet three of the five at conventions this year. They were all very awesome people and personalized books for me. Also, I saw Wes Chu in the distance at Readercon.

The Lives of Tao by Wesley Chu – A genre blend that takes one of my all time favorite tropes, multiple consciousnesses stuffed inside of the same noggin and throws in a history spanning secret war.

Shadow Ops: Fortress Frontier by Myke Cole – Ok so I got to read it early before it’s January release date, but it still counts because I say it does. Bookbinder is a fantastic character bringing a different perspective to the military based SF. The logistics guys are just as important as the front line fighters but it’s not a POV that’s full of traditional glory. I loved getting the new view as watching Bookbinder grow into the roll he is thrown into. I’m loving this series enough that I already made my local B+N order book three for me so I can have it on day one.

The Republic of Thieves by Scott Lynch – How could I not include the new adventures of Locke and Jean? I drove to Massachusetts so I could get mine from the man himself. (I also won at twitter that day) We finally got to see Sabetha in action. Finally! Book one was Locke as a planner and in book two, he was more reactionary. In book three, he’s matching wits with his equal, not something he ever really has to do even when shit hits the fan.

Blood’s Pride by Evie Manieri – Straight up proper fantasy novels have had a resurgence in my reading lists lately. There’s a lot of tradition embroiled in fantasy and that’s not always a good thing. Manieri takes all the good parts of the epic fantasy and strips away all the bad breathing new life into the stodgy genre at the same time. World spanning sprawl and very personal stories come together to make something very special.

Wicked as They Come by Delilah S Dawson – I picked this up as a recommendation by Chuck Wendig. This is dimension hopping science fiction sprinkled liberally with steampunk but shelved as romance. Forget artificial shelf segregation and do yourself a favor by reading this. Tish has a fantastic character arc pulling herself back together after some bad times. The world building is top notch. So what that there’s smooching? Embrace the smooching!