Archive for March, 2013

I’ve said this before, but when it comes to discussions of writing as a craft and motivation, the three best people I’ve found in the SF circles are Chuck Wendig, Sam Sykes and Myke Cole. If any one of them has something to say, I’m going to stop and listen. This showed up in my twitter feed while I was getting the kiddo to sleep the other day…

Okay, folks. Have at it. New blog post on why I don’t write short stories (except when I do) mykecole.com/blog/2013/03/w…

— Myke Cole (@MykeCole) March 27, 2013

 

Go ahead and check it out. It’s ok. I’ll wait.

Read it? No? Seriously. Go check it out. Frickin’ wisdom over there.

Ok. Read it finally? At least gonna fake it? Good enough, let’s go.

So Cole put some words so stuff that’s been floating around in my noggin for a while now. I mentioned as much in the comments of his blog, but there was too much trying to get organized all at once to really be the insight I wanted it to be. I had a sleeping baby on my lap and tapping away on the Nook isn’t the best way to post anything of length.

Pretty much, I think I’m going to end up agreeing with everything he’s got to say, but I hope to add to the ideas too. If not, then I’ll fall back to my “Blogging as thinking aloud” because sometimes thinking aloud helps me. Also, from here on out I can’t just go with his last name. It’s kinda weird because the protag of my next project is named Cole. And I can’t go with Myke because even though it’s spelled differently, I can never refer to anyone else with my name. It’s a thing fairly common with people that have common as hell names. So full name it is!

The main point Myke Cole has here is that not all types of writing are created equal. The craft of novels and the craft of short stories are very different beasts. There’s a pacing and flow that you can use with 75k words that you can’t get away with using when you’ve only got 75oo to work with. Even the language you use in a short story is different from the novel. There’s a brevity of thought that you need when there’s a finite word count involved.

I have discovered that my mindset, my skillset, isn’t one designed for brevity. Bet you’d never guess that by reading any of my random tangents in this blog. The first short story I tried to shop around exploded to 11k words. That’s not really a short story anymore. Most of the SFWA pro listed markets want 5k or less now. I distinctly remember my thought process when writing  that story, lamely called “Catalyst of Our Fate” because I suck at titles so usually pull a line from the story. I kept thinking “Oh! I want to know more about that. And now I want to know more about that.” And so on and so on. That’s a lot more kosher when you’re playing with three hundred pages.

I guess this is something I’ve known for a while. Lately, when I do take a stab at a short, the challenge to keep it short has been part of it. I know they’re difficult for me so by taking on the challenge, it’s a way to get better at it. And I think I am getting better at it. I’ve gotten some personalized feedback and more importantly to me, I’m comfortable enough with my writing to actually believe those rejections that say “Cool, but not a good fit for us.” I do tend to write slightly off kilter stuff. The personalized feedback story was about an elf drug dealer and kidney theft. Yeah. Not for everyone. Character’s got a second story now too. No idea what to do with them. Eventually, I think I’ll shake a novel out of them.

Myke Cole makes another good point about the audience of short stories. The short story market sure as hell isn’t what it used to be. And by “used to be,” I mean “way the hell before I was born.” I dabble with it. I dabble with it more now that I have my Nook, which goes back to my whole thing how ereaders are ideal for shorter works. But I stopped to really think about all the short stories I’ve taken the time to read lately. They’re almost always by writers I already know because of their novel work. I didn’t know a thing about Wild Cards until I read Game of Thrones two years ago. I backed a kickstarter called Glitter and Mayhem because of their awesome lineup like Seanan McGuire and Diana Rowland. My Nook has short story compilations from Saladin Ahmed and Tobias Buckell. I still pick up a few off twitter recommendations (Like the epic “Fade to White” by Cat Valente) and I try to seek out the award nominees. But for the most part with any short stories, I read their novels first and sought out the other stuff second.

Clearly the short story first model of getting published has a long history. Ahmed did exactly that. Lots of people did, especially back in the day before the internet opened up a lot more avenues. More and more, I don’t think that’s the path I should be on and I think I am going to shift my focus even more towards the novel end of the spectrum. I’m not giving up. I’m not going to stop writing them all together. It’s more of a focusing on my strengths as a writer rather than only trying to beat the weaknesses into submission. I am going to use my short stories as tools. I’ve talked about using them to take my characters for test runs. Of the three shorts I have in various stages of completion, two are prequels / back story for my next novel and the other is the beginning of an idea I want to bank for a future novel (possibly integrate into an Amity sequel).

So that’s a thousand words of thinking. It’s not another novel, but thinking is important, especially when it clarifies and motivates. I’m going to end by cherry picking a couple quotes out of the other blog post that got me thinking so much.

“That stuff is impor­tant, but it’s the sizzle, not the steak. The steak is writing the best book ever, and nobody likes to focus on that because it’s really really fucking hard.” -Myke Cole

“There is no end run. Want to be a great nov­elist? Write a great novel. It’s as simple as that.” -Myke Cole

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The Hammer and the Blade

Posted: March 27, 2013 in Reading
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I’ve said this a few times before, but I will go out of my way to check out anything released by Angry Robot. I haven’t read anything of theirs that I haven’t liked. In that spirit, I picked up The Hammer and the Blade by Paul S Kemp. He’s not an author I’ve read before, but a name that circles around the stuff I follow online. So a publisher I like and some name recognition. Let’s just jump right in.

Back of the book time!

So here’s the plan– Kill the demon… Steal the treasure… Retire to a life of luxury!

It sounds easy when put like that. Most unfortunately for warrior-priest Egil and sneak thief Nix, however, when the demon they kill turns out to have worshippers in high places, retirement is not an option.

A wonderfully fast-paced fantasy adventure redolent of the classic tales of swords and sorcery from NYT bestselling author, Paul S Kemp.

So that’s really not much to go on. The more of these blog posts I do on books, the more I sympathize with the poor person that’s got to write the back of the book copy. That shit can’t be easy. But, like I said above, Angry Robot has the collateral to get me to buy in anyways.

Have you ever read a fantasy book that sounds like it should be a D&D campaign? Duhr, I’m sure if you’re reading this, you’re at least a little bit interested in the genre and therefore, yes, yes you have. Hammer is one of those books. That’s not a criticism nor is it a positive. It’s a neutral thing. I’ve read shovelware books from the 80s put out by TSR that are god awful. But I’ve also gotten the same sense from Perdido Street Station and The Scar. The “Retire to a life of luxury” part of the blurb isn’t just a phrase. Egil and Nix are like the level 20 characters who’ve cakewalked through all the adventures the DM can throw at them. They’ve seen the world, they’ve kicked down the doors, they’ve stolen all the treasure. They really do start out wanting to settle down.

Obviously they don’t settle down the way they’d like. They get … convinced… that they should go on another quest. I enjoyed the quest but the best part of what’s going on in Hammer is the interaction between Egil and Nix. There’s a relationship between the characters that goes way beyond just this book. There’s a real sense that they’ve been a team for years. When they’re throwing down in combat, they know each other’s moves and can anticipate each other. The dialogue between the two is fast and snappy. There’s a very natural flow to it.

One of the best bits of characterization of Egil and Nix involves a minor character who falls in with the quest they’re on. They start out at odds with each other. But there’s a lot of demons and nasties on this quest and they’re all up to their necks in trouble. I was pleasantly surprised that the relationship with this minor character evolved and changed as their quest progressed. I think the weight of old timey White Hat vs Black Hat fantasy is why this surprised me. Usually, the protags and antagonists are set and stay that way. I know better than to expect anything so traditional from Angry Robot but sometimes the weight of all the books that came before are a large shackle to toss aside.

Hammer specifically says on the cover “A Tale of Egil & Nix” implying there are more. I’m all for that. These two have a lot of stories in them that I’d like to read. By the end of the quest in question in this book, there really aren’t any loose ends to worry about in the next book. I’m not sure if that’s a Trilogy thing (which would leave lots of threads between books two and three) or if the series is going to be more episodic in nature. I’m game for whatever because I like these characters so much.

The story moves fast, the dialogue is witty, the combat is oiled slick and the characters are crazy enjoyable. It’s straight up fantasy but it’s not kowtowing to the stodgy traditionalist parts of the genre. The Hammer and the Blade is fresh with life in it, the kind of fantasy novels I want more of.

Editing: First Pass

Posted: March 18, 2013 in Writing
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Amity v1.6 is a thing. At least on paper. I just finished my first complete read through of the novel and need to input the results into the computer so I can print it up for the beta readers. By the way, holy crap printing is expensive.

So even though I had to transcribe the entire thing from my hand written notebooks to the computer, chunks of it were already transcribed prior to my completion of the novel. There was a stretch a while back where I used the act of typing it into a word file as a kick to the pants to get going with new words. Something to get me back into the swing of things, I guess. So this pass really was the first time I had read it cover to cover. Three people have read the first two chapters before, my wife and two buddies from work who kept bugging me to read part of what I was working.

I’m digesting my thoughts on it as I type this blog post. I literally did just finish about ten minutes before firing up wordpress. I think my initial thought is “Holy crap I’m a bad typist.” EverQuest may have taught me to type fast, but not particularly well. I’m really glad I did a pass before giving it out to the beta readers just to catch all the fuck ups that spellcheck didn’t catch. I spell a lot of things wrong that are really other words it seems.

Names are something I screwed up with minor characters a lot too. I had a lot of bracket notes saying [Doctor’s name] in them. The protag’s mother had three different middle names in the course of the book. A few names didn’t even get fixed in the pass, I decided to wait to use the search function in word before fixing them. I think a lot of that happened because I didn’t always expect minor characters to show up more than once. Even though I often made notes on the opposite page of the notebook as I was going (I only write on one side of the page to leave space for said notes), sometimes I’d be in a new notebook by the time the character showed up again. In the next book, I think I’m going to make it a point to keep a character list on the inside cover of my notebooks and transfer it from one to the next as I go. It’ll save myself a lot of trouble.

Plot points. This is something I’m a bit worried about, mostly because I didn’t seem to worry in my first pass. Aren’t I supposed to be worrying? I only found two points that I had to juggle about. I never felt the need to slash scenes out or deconstruct things and rearrange them about. I am going to hope that’s because the skeleton of my novel was written long before the actual novel itself. I don’t detail every single nuance ahead of time. I like to leave space for my characters and narrative to surprise me, but I need a road map of where I’m going. Not having that road map caused the first three attempts at a novel to founder. The plot map changed significantly six or eight times as I went where I had to stop and re-write all the plot points on out to the end. I’m hoping that got most of it out of my system. I also think that the overall structure is something that more sets of eyes are going to help with majorly. The plot as it stands was set in stone six-ish months ago so it is probably engrained into my noggin to much for me to see what it needs.

I do know that I want to add more in a few spots, but I want those other opinions before I start adding them in wantonly just to have to cut them out. The novel stands at a trim 72k. That’s a bit shorter than average. Before I was typing it, I was estimating that it’d come in at an average 80k upwards to 85k. I guess I wrote the last few chapters large. The front end of act three is where I think I can meat up the story the best. I have bracket notes suggesting just that.

Originally, as I was going, I was worried that the two sisters would sound too much alike. I use three POVs in the novel and it was touchy towards the beginning when I wasn’t fully committed to just those three. I want to make sure each character had a flavor to the text. I think I got better at that as I went so some of the first act might need to be rearranged.

And speaking of POV… halfway through typing the novel into the computer I had a horrible realization… The book might be better if I take the primary protag and rewrite her chapters as first person instead of the limited third I use. Just her chapters though, leave the other two as is. It’s a scary thinking of rewriting a third of the damn book already. After the beta reads are in, I may just do a couple test chapters and see how it goes.

My only other big concern is the tech level in my book. I’ve been contemplating a whole blog post on that subject in SF in general. It threw me for a loop when I read Redshirts and everyone has a smart phone. I had to stop and realize… yeah all that stuff I grew up watching in Star Trek TNG, that’s just daily life now. And that’s my default vision of science fiction more often than not because it was the fancy stuff when I was a kid. I had to consciously change every reference to a ‘data pad’ to a ‘tablet’ in my book because data pads don’t make sense anymore.

Anyways. The next step is beta readers which is pretty fucking scary if I do say so. But they’re going to be instructed to red pen the hell out of it. The worst I can do is say “Nope, gonna leave it as is” but that’s the sort of thing that will stop sounding great until I get a manuscript full of red ink back.

Getting to Know Your Characters

Posted: March 13, 2013 in Writing
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There are so many parts of a story that can turn it into something wonderful. Plot, world building, tone, language and so on. There’s a lot. There are arguments for everything and in the end, most end up being a matter of personal taste. The more writing I do, the more I find that a lot of those building blocks hinge on knowing your own characters.

Plot? How am I going to know what’s going to happen unless I know my characters?

World building? If I don’t filter it through my characters’ eyes, it’s just a DnD sourcebook.

Language? Without knowing my characters, how can I put words in their mouths?

See what I’m getting at? An InkPunks blog post a while back talked about how Zelazny wrote short stories about his protags before writing them into novels. One of Saladin Ahmed’s short stories in Engraved on the Eye works out as backstory for Throne of the Crescent Moon. Sam Sykes has done annual Valentine’s Day blogs where his characters answer relationship questions.

I kind of got to know my characters on the fly in Amity… I’ve noticed a few bits in act one that aren’t quite matching up with act three since it took me so long to get from one to the other. This time, I’m going to get into my character’s heads before I start writing the next novel. In addition to helping out with the Connecticut godpunk novel, this whole thing will keep up my creative momentum while I’m doing the initial editing passes of Amity.

First, I’m going to try the short story route. The “now” of the novel, isn’t when the protag/POV character gets the powers which are central to.. well… everything. How he becomes who he is independent of the novel’s plot. So the short story is going to work out as backstory similar to the way Ahmed’s story works for Throne. Backstory that’s crucial for the character, but only referenced in the plot itself.

Second, I’m going to go the meta route. I started doing this a little bit on twitter a while back by writing quotes from various characters of mine on twitter. It wasn’t really a concentrated effort and tapered off when I made my big push to the finish for Amity back in November. This time around, I’ve made an actual twitter account. I’m going to see where it goes. It might not work out. Maybe no one bothers to look at it. Maybe both. But it’s a small investment of my time with the potential for a solid payoff. @ErisKatsopolis by the way.

Third, I’m going to dust off something from college and an acting class I took. I wasn’t a theater kid, but as part of my film degree, I thought it would be fun to use a couple electives for what was happening with the other side of the camera. Also there was a hilarious moment on the first day of class because I was the prof’s first second generation student. One thing the prof did in that class was give us all a handout of 47 questions and we had assignments to run through them all to get in the characters’ heads. It’s a lot of typing and I’m not actually sure where the prof got it from so I’m not sure on the kosherness of typing it out here anyways. If anyone is interested, ping me and I’ll share. But there are some in depth questions involving goals, happy/sad memories, family life and education. Even short answers can get you a lot of information about your characters.

Setting the Bar High

Posted: March 10, 2013 in Writing

Stage one of my novel is done. It has been for a while. Now that it’s three pounds of paper and I’m editing the b’jebus out of it (which is a whole different blog post), I’m paying a lot more attention to the back end of getting things published. You know, all the stuff that happens after the writing. Finish my initial editing pass, dole it out to the beta readers and dust it up after that. So all that other stuff like agents and submissions and contracts… that’s all on the horizon for me.

Well, the SF world is all up in arms about that kind of stuff now. Writer Beware dropped some info on a new imprint that’s douchey to writers. With no real experience whatsoever, even I knew it was pretty douchey. The Random House people responded and people got even angrier. Scalzi has a lot of it over on his blog. I’m sure anyone who is even tangently involved with SF writing has heard about it.

Two things in all this really stood out to me and struck home. First is Never Reject Your Own Story from Kelly McCullough’s blog. The other one was from Scalzi again, New Writers, eBook Publishers and the Power to Negotiate.

McCullough’s post in particular is helping me out a lot. There’s a great opportunity for a short story out there. I outlined it from scratch six weeks ago and then lost all my steam on it. I wasn’t feeling it. That story wasn’t exciting to me anymore. I tend to outline when I write. I tend to have idea’s marinate in my head a long time before anything gets committed to paper, outline or skipping to the actual story. I didn’t in the case of the Great Opportunity. I pulled a couple of characters I really like from another story and created this from scratch. Now it’s weeks later, the thing is due this week, and I’ve been sitting around wondering if I should try to push through it to take advantage of the Great Opportunity or keep working on one of the projects that’s exciting, Amity v1.5 or outlining the Connecticut godpunk novel.

Never reject your own story. It’s up to me to write it. If I get all blah about the story, it’s never going to go anywhere. It’s got to be sent out on its way to go anywhere. It was a kick in the pants. Not one I needed for the novel writing, that comes more natural to me. But my short story writing really needed that. It’s more of a challenge to me so I needed that kick.

I lopped off the beginning and redid the entire outline. It’s going somewhere now. I like it again.

The Scalzi bit is important as hell for anyone trying to shop around anything, novels, short stories, their kidneys. Don’t sell yourself short. Look, I know my stuff isn’t out there yet, but I’ve gotten to a point with my work that I know it’s pretty good. I’ll never call it perfect. I don’t think any writer should call their stuff perfect. We should always be trying to do a bit better than the last thing. I can actually believe the “we like it, it’s just not for us” rejections now. I’ve read a lot of stuff that’s better than mine, but I’ve also read plenty that’s worse. So I can get it out there and get on the other side of the fence.

So when I do, I don’t want to accept a pile of crap for my work. I’m sure it would suck real hardcore to be handed a garbage contract when I shop my novel around. But damnit I’m going to say no to garbage. I don’t shop my short stories to markets that don’t qualify as professional. It’s not going to help me to take the short stick. People keep going on about how exposure doesn’t count as anything worth a damn. I can get exposure in the pro markets. So what if my stuff is kind of weird for them? Maybe my Great Opportunity story sells. Then maybe someone wants to see the other story with those characters. That quirky story that was too weird for someone might become prime then. But if I dump it off on a second rate market, then all those opportunities dry up. If I end up dropping a story here on my blog or dabble with an estory, that’s my choice to pull it out and apply it to a different area. That’s not someone else making a buck off of giving me the short end of the stuck.

I’ve got more pride than to sell my own work short.

Mini Book Posts

Posted: March 6, 2013 in Reading
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So with the push for editing on Amity I haven’t had as much time as I would like to devote to this space. But I’ve got some time now so that means I am all about catching up on my book posts. I don’t have so much time that I  can sink a couple hours each so it’s Mini Book Post time. I may not be able to devote as much time to the book posts as I’d like, but I enjoy spreading the word about good books so I’m going to do what I can.

Poltergeist by Kat Richardson

This is the second Harper Blaine book. The first, Greywalker, was one I read back in 2011 so it had been a while. There’s always a bit of trepidation when diving into a series after an absence. One of the best things I can say about a mid-series book is that it feels comfortable even after a time away. Harper is the kind of protag that I felt like I was hanging out with right along with no reading gap. I liked what was going on in this second book more than I remember the first book because we’ve already established a lot of what Harper’s unique abilities are. We don’t have to spend large swaths of the book figuring out what she can do because we already know the most of it. The artificial poltergeist is right up my alley. I love that kind of stuff.

For the record, I didn’t figure it out before the reveal.

Black Blade Blues by J.A. Pitts

This walks the line between urban fantasy and godpunk, although I think most would just call it urban fantasy since not many people use the term godpunk. (If I type it here enough, it becomes a thing, right?) It’s centered around Norse mythology but not much around the gods themselves. Dragons and dwarves are the big players here. What drew me into this is the protag, Sarah, is a blacksmith, not a prophecized warrior or anything. The craftsman viewpoint isn’t one that gets tossed around our genre that much. There’s a chunk of this book that delves into “coming to terms with myself so I can have an adult level relationship.” There’s a line where solid, realistic characters crosses into high schoolish relationship drama story. And the “I’m gay but hate myself a little bit for it because my parents are assholes” bit gets repeated. A lot. Although it may have seemed that way because that kind of stuff by itself isn’t my cup of tea. The book brought it back before crossing too far over the line for my tastes. But make sure you realize I am fully aware that’s a taste issue. The fantasy is solid as is the combat. (Pretty sure the author is an SCA guy… they’re all over this book) It’s first in a series though so there are a mess of loose ends for book two to deal with.

 

Hounded by Kevin Hearne (Iron Druid #1)

Bloody fucking brilliant. Tempted to leave it at that but it’d be a disservice to the book if I did. Atticus is a 2100 year old druid who lives in Arizona with his dog, Oberon. He’s got a legendary Irish sword he ganked on the battlefield centuries previous and has been running around keeping off the charts to stay alive. It catches up with him, good thing too otherwise we wouldn’t have much of a story. First off, this is godpunk from a pantheon we don’t usually get to read about. Most godpunk is Greco-Roman, Norse or to a lesser extent, Egyptian. Well, Atticus is an Irish druid, with an Irish sword, who do you think he’s going to run across in his travels? This is one of those times where I felt like I learned while reading fiction. Hearne writes the Irish gods as absolutely fascinating characters. There’s all sorts of double dealing and misinformation with them. I also love how the worldbuilding sets up that all the pantheons and gods are out there, they just tend to interact with their own people and not anyone else. (Atticus’ lawyer-warewolves have some beef with Thor) What’s even better than the pantheons and worldbuilding, is that Atticus and Oberon are downright funny. Humor can be hard to do in SF but the back and forth between druid and dog goes down as one of the best character relationship’s I’ve read in a long time. This book is brilliant and I’m going to nab up all the others.

Brain Thief by Alexander Jablokov

I enjoyed this book but it’s not exactly what it was billed as on the Back of the Book. “New England cyberpunk noir” sounds epic right? Cyberpunk is a bit off in the description though and that’s too bad because it’s on the Back of the Book a couple times. “Massachusetts near future noir” is more accurate. That’s ok, ’cause like I said, I liked reading the book anyways. Bernal makes for a good noir protag. He has a churning thought process that’s always moving, always giving the reader something to follow. Importantly, Bernal isn’t always making the best decisions either and that makes for good reading. The near future tech involves a lot of cryogenic freezing, AI space probes and decapitation. This isn’t a hard tech heavy SF but the book still touches on it deeper than a pure soft SF would.

Merchanter’s Luck

This is fresh from ’82 and it is in that awesome spot of reading as ageless. I picked it up off the recomendation of Tobias Buckell one day on ye olde twitter. He was talking about how influencing the book was to him. This is only the second Cherryh book I’ve read and I liked this one much more than Forty Thousand in Gehenna. This one is a more focused. Rather than a history of a whole planet, it is one very small crew trying to get by. I really wish there was a direct sequel to this.