Skip to content

Archive for

Readers’ Round Table of Books

Good morning, all! It’s LibertyCon weekend and the fifth Friday of the month. So we here at MGC are going to throw the door and the floor open — so watch where you step. Here are the rules. In the comments below, you can link to either a book you would recommend, a book you’ve written or something a friend has written. Only rules are to keep it PG-13 in the comments and please don’t flood the comments with your own work. Let’s let everyone play.

I’ll get it started off here with a list of books posted over at According to Hoyt this morning. After all, don’t we all need some good books to read?

Note: If you have more than two (I think it’s two) links in your comment, it will go to moderation and stay there until one of us has time to approve it. So keep that in mind. Thanks!

Did You Want Some Fiction With Your Message?

As several folks here have observed a few times, sermons thinly disguised as fiction suck. And not in the fun way, either.

Personally, I’ve never enjoyed a message tract with a thin veneer of fiction, regardless of whether or not I agreed with the message. These can work reasonably well in short form, if written well enough (very few authors meet that bar), but in novel-length works, not so much.

The end result emerges rather like the pizza the Husband and I once ordered from the local pizza joint, where we made the mistake of requesting extra garlic. What we got would have given any self-respecting vampire fits: we couldn’t taste anything except garlic. We took a bite, looked at each other. The rest of the pizza went in the trash. The words “I wanted a pizza with extra garlic, not garlic garnished with pizza” were used. Then we found something else to eat, and we never went near that place again. Even though at the time it was quite literally half a block away.

This is what message fiction usually does to the reader who isn’t reading it for the message (someone who’s reading for the message is likely to get irritated by the unnecessary plot and characterization the author has added, so it’s a no-win either way). It turns them off. Sometimes it turns them off reading altogether, especially when they’re force-fed a diet of the most dreary, dismal, and shitty message fiction imaginable (hello, school reading lists).

I’m sure the proponents of having fiction with the message would think this is not a bad thing, but I beg to differ. You see, readers of fiction tend to draw their own messages from that fiction. It was fiction that taught me it was possible to endure and emerge more or less intact despite years of vicious bullying. Fiction gave me hope, and it showed me there were ways to be who I was even if things were shitty at the time.

It wasn’t message fiction. It was a mix of things: any historical fiction I could get hold of in the school and town library (and that they’d let me borrow, since librarians tend to be kind of reluctant to let the 8 year old kid borrow from the grown-ups section), Doctor Who novelizations (which lead into my love of science fiction and fantasy), and pretty much anything else that took my fancy. I read so much that I didn’t have a library card, I had a set of them stapled together and I used the initials of the book title to write in what I was borrowing because I was getting them in job lots.

Along the way I picked up an extra serve of Heinleinian cussed independence, some of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s self-sufficiency, an abiding loathing of bullying in any form, and many, many reminders that I could do good and sometimes heroic stuff too, even if I was scared.

If I’d been stuck with message fiction, I wouldn’t have gained any of that, not least because the characters in every message piece I’ve read are functionally ciphers standing in or sometimes embodying the virtues the author wants to showcase or the evils the author wants to decry. I preferred the heroes who were scared and did it anyway because they had to. Edmund Pevensie, confused and frightened, and realizing what he’d betrayed but still going after the White Witch and nearly dying in the process. Jill in a later Narnia book crying and trying to keep her bowstring from getting wet because she couldn’t afford to do that. Laura Ingalls and her battles with jealousy of her too-perfect older sister who she also loved dearly (Yes, I’m aware the Little House books are fictionalized autobiography. I didn’t know that when I read them as a child). Anne Shirley and her often disastrous romantic fantasies.

The messages came through without the sermon. Simple messages: it’s better to be honest than not. It’s better to be kind than cruel, but sometimes you have to be harsh and sometimes the wrong group wins. Life is harsh and life doesn’t care. Be true to yourself. Those messages.

Perhaps more to the point, I learned them for myself, without some Great Expert telling me how it was supposed to be. It’s because I learned them for myself that they stuck and they meant something to me. Being lectured is just like being stuck in a classroom waiting for the bell to go so you can be free again.

Since most people want to do things their way at some level, letting message emerge seamlessly from the interaction of your characters and plot for your readers to discover has much more impact. It also doesn’t make reader-puppies sad and desperate to escape you.

I know which way I choose.

Ride Alongs

Yesterday I found myself trying to agree with/explain to a young man how to find the thread of a novel, and how to prune the parts that don’t fit.

I was doing this LONG before I knew why I was doing it, based it on a “gut feel” I couldn’t explain.  (There are things I STILL do by gut feel, including finding the voice and setting the pace of a novel.  I don’t think it’s entirely possible to control every detail of a novel RATIONALLY.  Or at least not for a certain type of writer, which I’d guess I am, which is why I say “the thing isn’t exactly under my control.”)

The problem is this: the gut feeling can lead you astray and the thing it most often leads you astray on is plot, at least if you don’t figure out what you’re trying to accomplish.  It’s your world and your people; you love it like you can’t help loving it, and of course you want to spend way more time there just hanging out with your creations than anyone not invested in it is likely to.

My first book, I was painfully aware that I wasn’t getting “plot” at the level the pros did.  Thing was, ever book I read said things like “Plot are the things that happen.”  Well, thank you very much.  And I suppose the white horse of Napoleon is white?

There are guides, of course, and you can find them yourself, you look for them.  The W plot is a series of try fail sequences, in which the W tracks how well your character is doing at extricating him/herself from difficulties.  You start at the top, the stable situation, but you want something, and you try for it, and when you end, you’re at a lower position.  Then you try again, and end slightly higher, but there is still (the same or another problem) and you try again and–

It’s a mutant W as most of them have at least three try fail, even for short stories, and the low point goes lower and lower, until the climax, when the problems are solved, etc, and suddenly the leg goes shooting back up to where you started.  It looks something like this, for a novel with multiple try-fail sequences:

wplot

This type of plot is particularly useful for thrillers, women in peril, hard boiled mysteries and other sorts of plot where your character faces the gates of hell and death is at his side.

It is less useful for plots of interior development, self-discovery or — as my novels tend to be — mixed.

The greatest danger with this peaks and valleys W plot is that you’ll end just having elephants fall from the ceiling at your characters.  I.e. the character’s efforts make things a little better, you need to get him/her in trouble again, so you just have something drop on the character, unforeseen.  That type of plot is tiresome and weirdly gets boring quickly.  The rules of writing determine that your character trip over something the reader can foresee but which is invisible to the character.

Say your character is being chased, goes into an old house to escape. Things get a little better, the house is a place to hide.  But he/she overhears someone plotting a crime.  Worse, the criminals know someone is listening.  Character comes out, into fog, and realizes he/she lost a distinctive, traceable piece of jewelry.  Things get worse.  Character is now being chased by original antagonist AND people who know they were overheard (they might be the same or not, mind you.)

So, why have things get slightly better?  Why the respite of having a place and not being chased, before things get worse?  Well, mostly because otherwise it’s incredibly tiring.  I did this with a book of mind, Mirrorplay (whose title is now being used for something else) because I didn’t know any better.  It was my first novel in a consciously created world, and I felt it was important to do this big heroic thing, and I just had things drop on my character, and he couldn’t escape.  Round about the middle of the novel, that character was worse than dead.  He was lifeless.  And I had no more interest in him.  There’s only so many walls you can drop on a character before he’s pancake-flat.

Turns out the best structure for a heroic novel is Campbell’s hero Journey.  the best destillation of it is the one used by Disney (yes, Disney, deal) which is compiled in the book writers’ Journey.  Your library probably has it, and if not, it’s NOT available on kindle, because eh traditional publishing.  But you can find reasonably priced used copies here.

Thing is that the hero journey is very flexible.  VERY flexible.  And if you don’t have an internal compass to tell you when you’re going wrong, you’re going to get lost in your own head.  So you’d better take some breadcrumbs.

What are the breadcrumbs you can take for this sort of thing?

Well, in my case… with my very first novel that was published, I knew I didn’t know how to plot, and I was sure there was some sort of secret to it, some thing that told you when a plot fit.  I’d got enough rejections telling me I needed to learn to plot.  (Actually they were wrong, I needed to learn to foreshadow.  I had sort of an instinctive grasp on plot, but I didn’t know it and was overthinking it.  (Thank you to Dave Freer who after I had about 8 books out, published, looked at my uh… oeuvre, and put his finger on the problem in a way agents and publishers had missed, and told me “You have to learn to foreshadow, Sarah.  I can see the plot, but one experiences it like something dropped from nowhere.”  (If you want a post on foreshadowing, which I had to learn hand over hand, by observation, let me know, will do that next week.))  So for my first book, I ended up — which was not… abnormal for me in those days — with a 350k word formless blob.

Now, you can publish formless blobs if you’re lucky — I’ve read a number of them, some in mystery — but a) I’m not lucky.  b) unless you have a lot of promo to convince the reader you’re just too deep for normal humans, the reader will get to the end of it and go “now, what WAS the point of that?” which was not the reaction I wanted. c) even if you’re lucky and get some following there ain’t no way you’re going to appeal to a lot of people with your avant garde formless blob.

So I did what writers do when there’s a part of their craft that’s lacking: I stole it.  Ill Met by Moonlight borrows a lot of its plot from Tam Lin.

Unfortunately I still had exactly clue zero what I was doing on the plot front, which means I was easily influenced, and my second agent convinced me my second book, as finished, had no plot.  (It did.  It NEEDED foreshadowing.)  So, he made me rewrite it and superimposed what he seemed to think was the “one, true plot” which was a thriller plot.  Since it sat very uneasily on an Elizabethan fantasy, that book — All Night Awake — traditional AND indie, is my WORST selling book out of thirty many (I haven’t counted recently, okay?  Give me a break. Do you want me to count, or do you want me to write?)

I continued sort of blundering around, looking for a plot, before I developed my current philosophy of plot I THINK around the time I wrote the second Shifter’s book, Gentleman Takes A Chance.  (Available as part of the omnibus Night Shifters.)

So, does that mean that my books up till then had no plot?  Well… no.  In fact Darkship Thieves was written before Ill Met By Moonlight and it has a plot, though it is arguably three novellas shoved together (the second half, the sequence of Thena waking up in the hospital was written first and I thought it was going to be a short story.  When it became clear it was too large to sell anywhere, I wrote the two beginning sequences.  In reverse order.  Because the thing isn’t entirely under my control and also some assembly required.)  BUT it has a perfectly functional plot.

The problem is after I started overthinking it, I had to think myself out of it.  Because that’s how I work.  And it took me to Gentleman Takes A Choice to take full hold of my plot philosophy.

It turns out all those people who told me the plot was that things happened, were right, if unhelpful.

The reasons I can’t tell you how to plot, is that IT’S YOUR PLOT.  Plot is intimately bound up with who you are, how you think, and how you process information.  Also, your objectives for your book.  What I mean is there is no right or wrong way to plot.

Asking me what is the right plot for your book is like asking “Why is a mouse when it spins?”  It can be asked, there just isn’t an answer in this universe.

As to what belongs in a novel and out, you get some useful answers — ahem useful — like “remove everything that isn’t advancing the plot” (which meant I used to cut things to the bone, including character development and leave the reader nothing to hold onto.)  And “your novel must be x length, so cut what you need to cut so it’s x length and still a story.”  The butchery done in the name of that last can’t be described.

Then there’s the slightly more useful — for certain writers — “follow your theme.”  This is particularly useful to writers who first come up with a theme, say “motherhood” or “love of dogs.”  You just remove everything that doesn’t enhance that, though you might end up writing a lot on the way there.

Problem is I’m not one of those writers.  Oh, my novels have a theme, and it’s usually something I’m trying to noodle, because I’m brain is not very useful as a direct-thinking instrument.  Sure, it’s okay if the theme is small enough.  But when I’m trying to digest something big, like an emotional experience, the only way I can process it is by accretion and similarity.  And sometimes I only realize afterwards what the “theme” was.  (Sometimes when I get my first review and go “Oh.”)  Sure, in retrospect it’s easy.  And I know why I’m in that mental cull de sac. For instance, right now there’s a whole lot of mothering and motherhood in my books, because I’m at the almost-empty nest stage, and at a guess my brain is going “So, what was THAT all about?” about the entire “raising the boys” period.

At some point before GTAC I realized what I WANTED to do, which is part and parcel of what plots are in a book.  Sort of the pointing arrow of the objective.

I realized this by trying to figure out why the nineteenth century novels a friend adores and tries to imitate no longer draw or hold (with limited exceptions.)  Which led me down the path of the novels I studied in school, which often had a whole novella or unrelated sequences stuck in, or the path of why Jane Austen has almost no description (she was writing about a small set to that same small, homogeneous set.  This means when she said “it was a handsomely appointed drawing room” to us it’s a puzzle, to them it was a vivid picture.)

This led me to what novels are NOW.  Not all novels, mind you, and I’m not saying you can’t rationally start with theme and build a plot from there.

What I’m saying is that the novel these days has ONE great advantage over movies and games (besides being cheaper to create): it’s easy to create as a unit of emotion.

You can write things in such a way that your readers are ride-alongs in a plot that creates a complete emotional experience.  Sure, movies do it too, to an extent, but it’s a little different, because seeing things happen is a distancing magazine.  It’s harder to remember then as things that happened to you.

However a novel done right means the writer takes a ride-along in the space behind the eyes.  For a time you’re someone else, and you experience something as intensely as if it happened to you.  In fact, done right, it is capable of creating false memories.

This is a guide to the plot, because inviting the reader in is making him your accomplice/co-conspirator.

I was discussing with a friend collaborating on a book of how to write violence for writers (probably four actually and yes, more anon.  We had one very long meeting, and then I left to to to Dallas, so I haven’t sent him the outline yet, and I’m the one supposed to write that.) And we came up with “when the hero kills the villain, if you’ve done things right, you’ve built the need for the villain to die to the point the reader is an accomplice before the fact.  He’s going “KILLHIMKILLHIMKILLHIM.”  long before the last bullet is fired/the sword is driven home, etc.

But it’s not just with violence.  It’s with everything.  If the writer has done his/her job and guided the plot accordingly, by the end you’re riding along with the romance, too, and you want the marriage as much if not more as the main character.

So, in every type of book, if your philosophy of writing is like mine (and I’m not saying it is) sure, use the W or the campbell, or whatever you want.  But when you’re looking at your plot in the cool and dispassionate light of day, keep in what enhances the experience and invites readers into that ride-along, and discard everything that doesn’t.

It’s that simple.  And I think it will take me the res tof my life to master.

Ack!

That is the sound you hear — okay, maybe I’m the only one to hear it — when this writer’s brain realizes it has two active works-in-progress going on and suddenly, without warning, a third (and possibly a fourth) suddenly pops in and demands attention. That “Ack!” is immediately followed by hysterical laughter and then sobbing.  I’m sure a catatonic state will shortly occur. Not that it will silence Myrtle the Evil Muse. She, it seems, enjoys doing all she can to torture me.

I’m not really complaining. At least not too much. You see, I think this is Myrtle’s way of getting back at me because I’m not letting her have her way with one of the current WIPs. She might not care if some of my fans (waves at Amanda F.) would come after me with sharp objects if I did as she wants but I do. Besides, there are times when the Writer has to throttle the Muse, toss her to the ground and drag her, kicking and screaming, to the closet where she will be locked in until time for the next project to begin. This is especially true right now because she is drunk or high or just sadistic.

Nope, I’m not going to do what she wants.

Oh, wait, you don’t know what she wants? Oh, that’s simple. She wants me to kill off a main character, THE main character, in one of my series. Sure, the current story arc is rapidly coming to an end but it isn’t the end of the series and, as I said, Amanda F. has threatened me if I kill this particular character. And that doesn’t even come close to what the other characters in the series said they’d do to me if I allowed Myrtle to have her way.

Actually, this all comes around to a question someone asked the other day. When do you know it’s time to end a series?

I wish there was an easy answer. Well, in a way, there is. The series ends when the story is over. Except, in a series, the story can be far-reaching and include many more plots and sub-plots than expected when it first began. So, the easy answer gets a bit more difficult in application.

We’ve all seen series that have gone on too long. Sometimes it is because the author is so in love with the characters that she doesn’t want to move on. Sometimes, and this is particularly true in traditional publishing, the publishing house relies on the name of the author to sell books. They know the author will bring in at least a certain level of sales. So, they keep wanting more in a series even after it has run its course. All too often in this case, the author is ready to move on but with the publisher waving money in front of him, he keeps writing. The problem is, if the author is ready to move on, the series can and usually does go stale.

Then there is the situation where an author isn’t ready to move on and neither is the publisher but the series itself is done. The characters have been developed to the point where everything now turns into Mary Sueism or deus ex machina. Or, worse, a combination of both. Sure, the books will sell but, a critical eye will see that the sales are decreasing. But, for whatever reason — and it can be the author’s love of the characters or universe, the money the publisher is throwing at her or even the author’s fear that the next series won’t be as well-received as the current one — the author doesn’t want to move on.

In each of these cases, the author is doing a disservice not only to herself but to her readers. It’s a lesson I try to keep in mind with my own work.

Currently, I have four series working. One, the Eerie Side of the Tracks series, is more a series of interconnected characters and stories all taking part in the same fictional town. Each book can stand on its own. Another, the Sword of the Gods series, is a very limited series in number of books it will contain because of its story arc. There are currently two books in the series and, unless something unforeseen happens in the third book, that third book will be the end of that particular series. Now, I might return to that world but the current plot lines will be tied up and the characters will be ready to figuratively ride off into the sunset.

The Honor and Duty series has surprised me. When I first began it, I did so with a three book story arc in mind. Then I realized that three books would become four. That fourth book is currently in the draft phase and, while it will tie up many of the plot lines, there will still be some unanswered questions. But that’s all right because it will allow me to continue playing in that universe but with other characters taking the forefront in some of the subsequent titles. In that, it will become like Eerie Side of the Tracks. The books will be interrelated but you won’t have to read each and every book to know what is happening in the latest one.

The one series I’m beating Myrtle the Evil Muse on is Nocturnal Lives. If I have a series that I have a real emotional investment in, it is this one. Mackenzie Santos is very much one of those voices in my head I don’t want silenced. Yet, even as I say that, I know the time will come when she no longer is an active part of my writing career. This next book, which will go up for pre-order at the end of the week, will be the culmination of the main plot lines in the series. However, it will open up a whole new series of challenges for Mac and company.

But what does that mean for the series?

To be honest, I’m not sure. Yes, there will be more titles with Mac and crew. Whether it will be part of another multi-book story arc or more a series of independent stories, I don’t know. What I do know is I’m not ready to let the series go and my sales tell me it’s not time to either. So, I have to figure out where to go from here.

In the meantime, here is how Mac’s story began in Nocturnal Origins, currently on sale for $0.99.

Some things can never be forgotten, no matter how hard you try. The memory remains, forever imprinted on your soul. It colors your perceptions and expectations. It affects everything you say and do. It doesn’t matter if the memory is good or bad, full of life and love or pain and death. That memory remains until the day you die – if you’re lucky.

If not, the memory haunts you for all eternity.

Detective Sergeant Mackenzie Santos knew that bitter lesson all too well. The day she died changed her life and her perception of the world forever.

It didn’t matter that everyone, even her doctors, believed a miracle had occurred when she awoke in the hospital morgue. She knew better. She knew she had died.

It hadn’t been a miracle. At least not a holy one. Ask the poor attendant who’d run screaming from that cold, desolate room in the hospital basement, when Mac had suddenly sat up, gasping for breath and still covered with too much blood. He’d been convinced a demon from Hell had risen to come for him.

Mac couldn’t blame him. As far as she was concerned, that was the day the dogs of Hell had come for her.

Now, standing in the alley behind Gunn’s, one of the most fashionable restaurants in Dallas, Mac closed her eyes and prayed. She suspected what lay ahead. She could almost smell it – not quite, but enough to know what was there. Sweat trickled down her spine and plastered her thin cotton shirt to her back. Her stomach lurched rebelliously and she swallowed hard against the rising gorge. She had to keep control. At least for the next few hours.

Easy, Mackenzie. Just take it slow and easy.

She opened her eyes and drew a deep breath. She knew it was bad. Two uniformed officers, hands on knees, vomited into the gutter. There was no black humor, no conversation, nothing. In fact, other than the sounds of retching, the scene was eerily quiet; it felt almost like a dream. A nightmare.

She took a few more steps. The harsh, unmistakable stench assailed her nose, warning her what she’d find.

Unless the restaurant had dumped several hundred pounds of raw hamburger out to spoil in the summer heat, a dead body lay at the far end of the alley. That was bad enough. Then she felt as though she were enveloped in blood, and her stomach rolled over once again.

Oh, God.

Jaw clenched, she stepped forward. Never before had it been so hard to approach a crime scene. Not even when she’d responded to her first dead-body call a lifetime ago. She hadn’t hesitated then, not like this.

But she was different now. She knew what sort of horror awaited her. She’d seen it before and it haunted her. Haunted her because it touched something in her very few suspected even existed, something she tried so desperately to hide. The beast within fought for dominance, called by the smell of blood, the sight of raw flesh.

She mustn’t lose control. Not here and certainly not now. She blew out a long breath and slammed her mind shut to the horribly enticing sights and smells. Even as she did, the nightmare that had become the core of her existence clawed against her all-too-fragile self-control as it fought for release.

Focus on the job, Mac. Just focus on the job.

Finally, satisfied she wouldn’t lose control – yet – she nodded once. It was time to get to work.

***

You can find a snippet from Nocturnal Rebellion here.

‘Bring out yer dead’

I’m a volunteer Ambulance officer, and my son assures me on the verge of canonization. Oh, it’s not what I do, or that I’m God’s gift to that (I’m not. I’m a very minor and inept cog.  I find the fact that I’m responsible for taking decisions (fast and effectively) that if I have screwed up, I could kill or maim the person I’m trying to save incredibly hard to handle.). No: It’s all the miraculous cures when the death’s-door patient sees who will be driving: “I’m feeling much better! I think I’ll take a little walk.”

Heh. I’ll probably have a terrible accident tomorrow, but oddly, besides reversing my ute into a stump hidden in the tall grass, I haven’t hit anything yet. I used to ride a motorbike with only a front brake. It made me quite observant. And when I’m actually conveying patients I give that task my full concentration, and try not to help them too much to suddenly find religion.

Ahem. I seem to have lost my thread again. Anyway, what I was going to write about was something that came out two of us Ambos talking about very stuff of sf and some fantasy: real disaster. Now, let’s be honest many a writer has never experienced much in the way of disasters. Trust me, this is a good thing, even if it does sometimes make their books irritate the hell out of me. I’ve never been through a major disaster (and I’d like to keep it that way. About 60 injured in bunch was my worst. That was pretty terrible. I can only admire the guys who deal with hundreds or thousands) but I’ve been through a lot more than my fair share of lesser ones – on both sides of the equation (the victim and the rescuer) and a couple of times both. I hasten to assure you that I’m not a jinx (much).

The awkward thing is how badly you remember a lot of it. Seriously, the adrenalin kicks in, and you just do stuff. Well, about 10% of people just do stuff, some of it incredible, some incredibly stupid. The other 90% do freeze and/or panic. Okay maybe I exaggerate a trifle. I’m not much good at most things, but fortunately that also includes panic. I’ve done the wrong thing a few times, but without the panic. I’ll probably master it at precisely the wrong time. That still doesn’t mean I am that good at reconstructing disaster and what happens – besides that people panic. It does mean that when I read SHTF disasters, I often find them throwing me out of the book, without precisely knowing why.

Now, it is perfectly possible that it throws me out simply because of my background. That other people, with the same lack of experience as the writer, think that in a crisis most people do something (besides freeze, panic, or run around like chickens just after having their heads cut off). There is a reason why the military and emergency services practice, practice, practice, practice – because seriously, it’s a lousy time to try and think. Some people do, but most can’t. They (or at least some people) can however go through a pre-thought, pre-practiced routine – whether that’s taking cover and returning fire, or applying pressure to a major bleed, or sounding a fire-alarm. Yeah, I know: all that planning usually goes to shit, because it never happens according to plan. But, speaking personally, that few seconds of practiced, drilled-into-you behavior calms me and helps me to think. Sometimes it’ll be wrong reaction, but generally it saves lives.

So I thought it might be worth trying a bit of this ‘crowd-sourcing’ stuff. Maybe if pool experiences and memories, we’ll get the whole picture. Adrenalin does strange things to me, I don’t even know if they’re normal. Yes, heart rate goes up, mouth dries. Those are common. I also lose all emotion (and normally I’m a big softy. Bawl my eyes out at a funeral) – but I can (and have) dealt with the horrible and tragic with a complete clinical detachment. I know hysterical strength is well reported. It’s very real – I’ve carried twice my body-weight, lifted things I can’t normally move. Pain is another odd one. Unexpected injury can be mind-numbingly sore, robbing you of the capacity for action – expected (or at least possible and known to be) when you’re full of adrenalin – hurts like hell… later.

Under that sort of stress – especially searching or waiting, the jokes are tasteless, crude, and absolutely necessary. Oh and really funny.

What you don’t do (or not me, anyway) is agonize about decisions, or experience a second’s worth of angst. (one of my co-authors –Misty — has people angsting mid crisis. Maybe she does.  It’s so unlike me, it drives me spare)

Later is always hard. The hardest part is remembering it all. I find I get scenes, like snapshots, rather than a whole movie. I replay it a lot. I can’t sleep – even a call-out will have me awake for 4-5 hours. Maybe that’s just me. Sex, if it happens is pretty desperate, urgent, and usually entirely without pre-amble.

So: anything you guys can remember?

The other thing I am very aware of is just how in disaster, people actually show a face that you don’t see in day-to-day life. Some of it… seems a great reason to preserve the human race. And some of it shows what useless assholes some people are (the guy who ran up his wife’s back to get into a tree when they were being chased by a Rhino comes to mind. Photographs of the boot-print on her back were used in the divorce case.)

Other people show sacrifice and kindness and courage so far past any expectation as to leave you wondering if anyone knew that quiet guy who drowned, going back into the water for the fourth flood victim, was really something of a demi-god in disguise. (That’s my only ghost story. I was underwater, bleeding like a stuck pig with several 8 inch cuts down my back from being swept over a rock. I was exsanguinating and drowning. I had already passed trying, and was to all intents and purposes in final stage of drowning, and going to die. Then I saw my brother (who was a 1000 miles away at the time) – with muttonchop sideburns (which he never had). He lifted me and shoved me into the wave that washed me up at my father’s feet, who hauled me up the rocks and emptied water out of me. I kept trying to tell him to get help for my brother. There was no-one else in the water. Years later I had the eerie experience of being shown an old picture of the man who had saved me: my Great Uncle. He’d been dead for seventy years or more, drowned after rescuing three Mosotho women in a flooded river. I’ve never been able to explain that one.)

It’s the one place where I have trouble with the basic building block of good character writing – people do not do what you expect, so it is hard to foreshadow. Look, I cheat. I do foreshadow it, even if by putting it in in lesser incidents – so it is not so implausible when it happens. But yes, disaster: when the veneer of human society is stripped off, and you see the raw steel, or the raw crap underneath. And size and strength… don’t seem determinants.

It does make me wonder what will happen if – or rather — when, we have the big disaster. When the power grid goes down, or Yellowstone blows, or that asteroid hits. Odds are those who do have the right background – the military, the outdoor survivalist, the paramedic will have a better chance. But of course every time is different, and just because you kept your head before, doesn’t mean it will be true this time (more likely, but not sure). I always have this lurking fear that I’ll flip out, run away, myself, if it was big and bad enough, or just do the wrong thing. It’s something you just can’t write off. And then there are opposite extreme: the people who will panic, the people who will turn feral to save themselves. The people with no experience and no skills. Most will die. But I believe some will surprise us… and that would be a story to write.

If you’re not appropriating culture, you’re not paying attention.

We’ve all seen the amusing Facebook meme: There are two kinds of countries in the world — those which use the metric system, and those which have landed on the Moon.

You could also easily say: there are two kinds of civilization in the world — the ones which culturally appropriate, and the ones which get left behind. Maybe even die?

It’s 2017, yo. Get your woke-ass panties out of your crack. Nothing you eat, read, listen to, drive, wear, or do for a living, was created in a vacuum. Each and every bit of your modern existence, is the result of people borrowing and stealing good ideas from somebody else. Doesn’t matter if it’s Hong Kong, or Paris, or San Francisco — every modern city is a gleaming, rich example of what happens when cultural appropriation is carried out with gusto.

Consider the nearest Chinese food establishment, employing Mexicans in the grill, a Filipino girl at the register, and serving food which bears little resemblance to anything anyone in China was eating a century ago. Because once people figured out how to jazz things up for an American palate, there was no stopping the culinary freight train. It was Mongolian Beef and General Tso’s from coast to coast. Ka-ching, ka-ching.

Did anyone ever ask the general if his recipe could be used for this purpose?

Hell no!

And it doesn’t matter anyway. The general’s descendants are over at KFC, eating the colonel’s chicken. While listening to South Korean hip-hop. Wearing synthetic clothing made from artificial fabrics invented by a company founded by a Frenchman. That same company also supplied almost half of the Union Army’s gunpowder, during the American Civil War. Gunpowder: another Chinese invention, imported to the West via Mongolian and Arabic means, and originally used for fireworks, as well as rockets. Rockets, which entered liquid-fueled prominence thanks to a New Englander named Goddard, as well as a German named Werner von Braun, who competed with a Russian named Sergei Korolev — to develop intercontinental ballistic missiles capable of carrying hydrogen bombs to the other side of the world, but which put human beings onto the lunar surface instead.

So, there you have it. From Americanized Chinese food to Armstrong’s, “One small step for man.” A cavalcade of glorious cultural appropriation, end to end.

Which begs the question: what culture in its (collective) right mind wouldn’t borrow or steal somebody else’s bright ideas? That’s what human beings are good at! We wander around, bump into other people, see how those other people are conducting their business, say, “Aha, that’s the ticket!” and suddenly things are going Gangnam Style. In Yonkers. In Dubai. In Saskatchewan. Everywhere. A global orgy of people ripping people off. Happily. In every way possible.

Anyone who says things ought to be different, not only doesn’t understand how history works — she doesn’t understand how people work, either.

Because culture is not a genetic trait. Nobody is born with culture. It’s not property. You cannot trademark or copyright it, though you can trademark and copyright specific fragments, which the Peoples Republic of China will steal and facsimilize anyway — because they don’t give a fuck. “Suck our dicks, capitalist pig dogs!”

No, culture is absorbed, at the same time it is constantly re-synthesized. Doubt me? Go talk to the middle and lower-middle class white kids who grow up in the Cherry Hill area of Seattle, or maybe out in the Rainier Valley. Do they sound more like George Plimpton, or Sir Mix-A-Lot?

Clearly, nobody owns culture. So why do we worry about appropriating it?

(Cough, when I say “we,” I mean American progressives and Social Justice Zealots who clearly have too much time on their hands, cough.)

My take: If you’re a science fiction or fantasy writer, you have more to say on this topic than anyone. Because you’re extrapolating futures, presents, and pasts. Alternative histories. Possible horizons. The “What if?” that makes SF/F so much fun in the first place. There are no rules which you aren’t automatically authorized to break. The entire cosmos is your paint box. Nobody can tell you you’re doing it wrong.

Are we really going to be dumb enough to pretend that SF/F authors of demographics X, Y, or Z, cannot postulate “What if?” for demographics A, B, and C?

We’re not even talking about homework — which is a good idea, simply because some of your best syntheses will occur when you take Chocolate Culture and Peanut Butter Culture — kitbash them together — and come up with the inhabitants of a frontier planet for your thousand-year-future interstellar empire.

We’re talking about authors voluntarily yoking their creative spirits to somebody else’s pet political and cultural hobbyhorses. A game of rhetorical, “Mother, may I?”

Quick: how can you tell that a strident fire-breathing feminist is full of shit? Put 20 randomly-selected women in a room, ask them all to tell you what a “real woman” would do in a specific situation, and you will easily get half a dozen different answers. All of which are valid! Because nobody “owns” womanhood. Different women define their paradigms differently. Hell, we’ve even gone so far as to let dudes into the game now. Still have your junk attached? No problem! Just say you’re a woman, and we’ll be forced to believe you. Otherwise the Correctness Patrol will be along to Twitter-shame us into submission.

“Mother, may I?” is a lunatic way to go about imagining possible futures, and could-have-been pasts. You — as the creator — have your vision. Set apart from anyone else’s. Unique to you, and your specific blend of experience. You will have insights about, and inject flavor for, your world(s) in ways that nobody else can match. Because they are yours. It’s your blank canvas. Do what you want to do. According to your inspiration. Kitbash the hell out of those cultures! Intergalactic Comanche Samurai Inuit space whale hunters! Flat-earth fantasy Zulu Highlander elephant-riding clansmen! Cyborg Brazilian disco geisha Valkyries! Nobody can say you’re fucking it up, because you’re not writing a history paper. You’re doing what people have done throughout time: looking at the universe around you, taking the parts you think are awesome, and incorporating these parts any way you damned well choose.

And if the Wokeness comes to your digital door — torches and pitchforks raised — give the assholes a dose of the old phased plasma rifle, in the 40-watt range. They can go do their own heavy-lifting. It’s not your job to appease them. Especially since they cannot even agree among themselves, about what the “right way” looks like.

When they’re not busy being dicks to decent artists, they’re being dicks to themselves.

Not your circus, not your monkeys.

Go forth. Have fun. Make awesome shit. That is all. Carry on.

Covering the Myths

I’ve written about this many times here at Mad Genius Club, but it’s a topic that gets asked about over and over. And it’s an important topic. The book cover is the first thing your readers see, and no matter how often they might insist that they don’t judge a book by it’s cover, they are judging silently in their heads.

Your cover sends subliminal messages, even when it’s the size of a postage stamp, and little things like font choice, age of model (hat tip to Dorothy Grant for pointing this out to me recently), and contrasting areas on the cover art can make a huge difference.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had an author say… No, let me back up a little. Let’s talk about myths and mistakes.

Myth #1: The scene on the cover should be pulled straight from the pages of the book.

No, the cover should contain the distilled essence of the book in one powerful wallop. You know that cliché about a picture being worth a thousand words? yep, that one’s truth. Furthermore, if you choose one climactic, thrilling scene, you risk spoilering a whole story right there before they even start reading. I have to admit to having fallen for that one recently while working with a client. Both of us were very excited about the mental image his final scene provoked… but it would have meant the book was revealed on the cover. So that had to be set aside.

Myth #2: The cover art should be like no one has ever seen before.

Again, no. Just like most stories contain comforting tropes that allow authors to take shortcuts and pack a story into a hundred thousand words or so, avoiding explaining every last little assumption (unless it matters to the plot, you really don’t need to explain the innermost workings of your fundyminion drive and hyperquespace). Just like you can use some handwavium in the writing, you can use it on the cover, too. Genre covers change fashions like hemlines, and you’ll want to keep up with whether miniskirts are in this year, or ankle-length hoops instead. That being said, there’s a fine balance between following the herd, and finding a way to stand out (and standing out in a good way, not pink flamingo in a zebra herd, but pink zebra in the herd kind of way). If, say, you’re writing a romance the trope is heaving bosoms (male or female. Don’t ask me why male bosoms are a thing on book covers, because they are all shaved and oiled and frankly I prefer my men built like teddy bears in the chest hair department but you’ll never see that on a cover because evidently I’m weird or something). If you’re writing science fiction, it’s space ships or mechanized men in roboto suits.

Myth #3: The more detail the better! Gorgeous art you have to stare at until you’ve seen all the amazing points is the best!

No, no, no… so much nope. While this may have been true on print books (and I will admit to having picked up a few books just to stare at the art, but see above about hairy chests) it is certainly not true for the modern book marketplace, which is about 90% ebook. Ebook covers are usually viewed in thumbnail, maybe on a PC at about a tenth of the size they would be in print. On a phone? less than a postage stamp size. Now, when I’m building a cover, I format it to the size it would be on a trade paperback (6×9″, 300 dpi), but that’s file and image quality, not the size it’s going to be judged at. Ebook covers are all about contrast and one (usually one, there can be exceptions, but I’d say never more than three) focal element. Also, you need room for your title and author name, which brings me to my final myth…

Myth #4: I should be humble and make my name discreet on the cover.

Honey, this is no time to hide your light under a bushel. At BARE (bear… heh) minimum, you should be able to read your name when you’re looking at the cover shrunk down to a thumbnail. When I was first starting out fumbling my way through making covers, I took Dean Wesley Smith’s workshop on cover design, and that’s one of the major points he makes (I highly recommend that workshop if he’s teaching it, BTW). Make the author’s name bigger. Bigger than that. Put the name up in lights – you might not be a celebrity yet, but the readers don’t know that. Make it loud and proud and legible.

Mistake #1: Font Choice

I have seen so many bad fonts on covers. heck, I’ve *used* bad fonts on covers, although admittedly with Pixie Noir I was at least doing it on purpose modelling after the old pulp noir covers. Rule of thumb is to never use a font for a title that you would use in the book for the body of text. Fonts can subtly signal so much, take the time to look for one that says what you want it to say. And if you’re not a font geek, use the categories at dafont.com or 1001 Fonts to help you sort. But then, look at the title in thumbnail. Is it still readable? Is it readable quickly? Ask a friend (or two or three) to look at it. Can they read it? Ornate fonts can look terrific – if they are ten feet tall on a billboard. They shouldn’t be on a book cover. Readers are not going to sit there and puzzle it out. Now, you do have the benefit of a book description right next to the cover most times – but not always. Design the cover to be able to stand on it’s own two feet.

Mistake #2: Too much text

You do need more than just your title and author name. Not a lot more, though. The bare minimum would be (located near title) a series identifier: e.g. Book One of the Souldark Saga. Located near the author name, if you have other work, would be ‘author of Firstbook’

Where I have seen covers run off the deep end and into trouble is with subtitles, book blurbs (clue: they don’t go on the front cover on ANY book version), and pull quotes. Pull quote, singular, is about all I want to see on a cover that is well-laid out and here’s were we break the thumbnail rule: it should NOT be readable in thumbnail. What you’re looking for is the overall appearance of a modern print novel cover, and most (but not all) have pull quotes which are too small to read in thumbnail, but you can see there is text there. And if you have a print edition, it will be readable there. Really, this is a part you can skip, a lot of people do these days. I like it. I don’t use them on shorter works than a novel, though. It’s too much, and that’s not a story that will be appearing in print, unless it’s an anthology and then you do want a pull quote, probably from the foreword you talked someone into writing for you. Now that we’ve wandered far into the weeds, let’s find our way out again…

Mistake #3: Not being a Professional 

Ok, this one isn’t necessarily a mistake. It’s more a life choice when it comes to presenting your writing. If you want to be merely an amateur with your writing, go right ahead and use that painting your five year-old made for you on the cover. But if you want to create a powerful marketing tool that evokes an emotional reaction from a potential reader, draws them in to read the blurb (and then to read the whole book) then you need to have a professional looking cover. You can do it yourself, you can buy one, you can commission one – costs range from free, to a couple of hundred dollars, to thousands. No matter which path you choose, consider your return on investment, and realize that a properly packaged product sells far better than one which is presented shoddily wrapped. Consumer products brand design is wrongly predicated on the notion that shoppers make rational, informed decisions. In truth, most are purely instinctive and reactive. Eye-tracking studies show that consumers read on average only seven words in an entire shopping trip, buying instinctively by color, shape and familiarity of location. Best sellers succeed by appealing to the reptilian brain, which decides before logic has a chance.

I’d get into branding, but I think that this post is already long enough. So, I’ll check in on the comments, and I’m happy to critique those who are brave enough to present their cover concepts here and want help with them. Commentors, remember, be gentle! This may be their first time…

 

 

 

 

Open Crazy Month

Work threw a monkey wrench into my plans for today’s post, plus my research into the benefits of forming an LLC as a writer is incomplete, which leads me to…

This has been a crazy month. How are you holding up?

But where do you get your ideas?

Every writer gets this one: people wanting to know where those ideas come from. It’s led to snarky rejoinders about the idea of the month club (said to be operating from assorted odd locations around the world but never actually sighted in the wild), weary responses along the lines of “How do you keep them out?” and a whole lot of confusion.

For me, it’s not a direct line. I’ll have a thought related to something else, then I’ll read something else which will set off a different chain of thoughts which hook up to the first one, and so on over a period of months or years. Eventually something that works for a book emerges.

Of course this is the kind of subconscious-heavy process that makes people nervous. We don’t know what’s going on in there so how can we rely on it to deliver when we need it?

Which is why I trawl weird news sites and check out conspiracy theories every now and then.

You do need to be careful with these. They can suck you in and chew through what passes for sanity in record time. But for story fodder? Priceless.

Seriously.

How many conspiracy theories are there about alien abductions being hushed up? I grew up hearing them. They collided with a stray thought along the lines of “Wouldn’t it be awesome if an alien abduction accidentally got a bunch of trained knights instead of an average joe and the knights went on to form an interplanetary empire?” There may have been some interesting fan fiction mixed up in there as well. And maybe a little Humanity Fuck Yeah.

The con vampire books had a similarly mixed start. I’ve read vampire fiction for years and I know all the tropes, even the (ugh) sparkly ones. The stray thought that the SF con scene was perfect for vampires because there’s one damn near every weekend most of the year and as long as they can manage not to go killing dinner, nobody’s going to bad an eyelid at pale, avoids sunlight, and has bad teeth. That kind of mixed up with my sense of humor and led to Jim Hickey and his werewolf best buddy. Everything else in those books is a combination of “it seemed like fun”, “it wanted to be there”, “Make me a reformed succubus” and the like.

Hell, even Impaler started life with the combination of being fascinated by Vlad’s life and wondering what the world would be like if he hadn’t been murdered just as he’d reclaimed his throne. I made a few attempts at writing his story over the years, none of them going more than a few handwritten pages, then I tried writing him first person just to see if that would work better.

That’s what I mean by the subconscious process. Any kind of odd tidbit can set off a chain of thought that leads you to a working story. I usually have several bubbling around, although lately they haven’t been able to push past the damn narcolepsy that well (she says as she sleep-types – I’m still recovering from the medication interruption, alas). They’re still there, just not screaming at me to bloody write them. Although I could do without the infinitely spawning Harry Potter alternate universes. Those are just irritating.

So go and read all the weird shit, try to stay out of the black holes of conspiracy mania, and ask the magic question “What would happen if it were true?”, then you too shall never be without ideas again. Just don’t come crying to me when your mind won’t shut up and it’s too weird and scarring for words. I’ve been there. I have no sympathy.

What is long enough?

Thanks to Sarah for filling in for me yesterday. Family always takes precedence over blogging and my son is home on leave.

This morning, as I was talking with Kilted Dave about what to blog about, I came across a post from an author wondering if they should change how they write. No, they weren’t talking about their writing process but more the length of what they sell. They were noticing how some authors are releasing titles every month or so but that those titles are shorter works. So they were wondering if they needed to move away from novel-length work to shorter work in order to sell more.

My first response, after beating my head against the proverbial wall, was shake my head. Yes, it hurt to pound it against the wall and I needed to clear the cobwebs. But also because you can’t judge what is right for your work by what other authors are doing. You have to look at each individual work and decide what length best serves the story.

Oops, there I went and did it. I said the icky word: story.

Let’s face it, story is what we need to be worried about. Have we written enough, well enough to not only give the reader an enjoyable and engaging story or plot but also characters they can identify with and cheer for or against? If we haven’t, it doesn’t matter how long or short the piece is. Without that development, it won’t sell for long and you certainly won’t garner the sort of reviews that help other readers decide to buy your work.

There is something else to consider when you are looking at how long a story should be and that is the way you write. Not everyone is a natural long fiction writer and not everyone finds writing short fiction easy. I can take almost as long to write a 12,000 word piece as I do a 100k word novel. Why? I’m not really sure. Well, in one way I am. You can’t go into as much detail, have as many scenes and sub-plots in a 12k word piece as you do in something longer. So you have to pare it down to the essentials — plot, character, message (if you have one).

Now, Amanda, you can release a novel in serial form.

Yes, you can. But what about the reader who accidentally misses one installment? Or what happens when your reader realizes that those $0.99 installments or episodes are suddenly costing them as much — or more — than a traditionally published e-book? I quit doing episodic fiction as a reader when I realized that the novel when and if it ever finished was going to cost me much more than I am willing to pay for an e-book.

I also realized that a number of authors releasing their work as “episodes” really didn’t get the idea behind serials. They hadn’t spent time reading the serials from magazines like If and Analog back in the Golden Age of SF. They hadn’t watched serialized shows like Flash Gordon and others (no, I’m not THAT old but they used to play them late at night on the weekends). There is an ebb and flow to a good serial that most of those trying to do them now simply don’t get.

The basic lesson is you have to give the reader a reason to come back and pay you more money to keep reading your work. Going hand-in-hand with that, for me at least, you have to prove you are going to finish the serial. I do NOT want to spend $0.99 or more per episode only to have the author decide in the middle of the thing that it isn’t worth finishing. Then there is the problem of making sure your reader remembers to go grab the new episode when it comes out. Unless you have figured out a way to make a subscription to the serial work, you run the very real risk of losing readers simply because they don’t remember to go back each month to grab the new title.

So I will repeat the rule we’ve all been told who knows how many times. A book or story is as long as it needs to be. Quit putting artificial word count limits on yourself without taking the plot of your book into consideration. Anyone who has been around short story writers knows the agony they go through after writing a story and then having to cut words to meet a word count requirement for one publication or another. There are times when they have to say the market they initially wrote the story for won’t work because they can’t cut it any more than they already have.

Also, don’t go into a project with the mindset that you think you only have so many words in you for it — ie, you don’t think you can write more than x-number of words — and then limit yourself to that number. I have known writers who, before they have put the first word down on paper have said they really don’t think they have more than 40k words in them for a certain project. What always happens is they either wind up not giving the reader the description the reader needs to truly enjoy the book or they rush the ending — something that is very noticeable. If you have spent 38k words building up to the climax of the story and then you have the final showdown and the cigarette moment in 2k words, you have probably just done your reader a disservice.

In other words, don’t worry about what other people are doing. Yes, there will always be writers out there who write faster than you do. They may write long fiction or short fiction. It really doesn’t matter. All that does is putting out the best work you can.

And now, for the mandatory author promotion. Nocturnal Rebellion will be released in the very near future. To help ramp up for its release, I have lowered the price of Nocturnal Origins, the first book in the series to $0.99.

Some things can never be forgotten, no matter how hard you try.

Detective Sergeant Mackenzie Santos knows that bitter lesson all too well. The day she died changed her life and her perception of the world forever.It doesn’t matter that everyone, even her doctors, believe a miracle occurred when she awoke in the hospital morgue. Mac knows better. It hadn’t been a miracle, at least not a holy one. As far as she’s concerned, that’s the day the dogs of Hell came for her.

Investigating one of the most horrendous murders in recent Dallas history, Mac also has to break in a new partner and deal with nosy reporters who follow her every move and who publish confidential details of the investigation without a qualm.

Complicating matters even more, Mac learns the truth about her family and herself, a truth that forces her to deal with the monster within, as well as those on the outside.But none of this matters as much as discovering the identity of the murderer before he can kill again.

I have also started working on the “Special Edition” version of Vengeance from Ashes. I’m really excited about this project. These special editions will include new material and it has been fun planning them and, once Rebellion is out, I’ll be working on them in the evenings after the days are spent writing the next book in the series. Well, not really writing as it has been drafted already but taking a very rough draft and making it publishable. Then it will be on to the next project, whatever it might be.