Thursday, June 30, 2011

Top Down and Bottom Up

There are probably other, traditional terms to describe what I'm about to say, terms that literary critics, agents and college professors would use.  I don't know those terms.  This is how the Story Monkeys talk about this stuff.

A good novel works well from both a top down and a bottom up perspective.

The top down perspective is the perspective that looks at structure.  The top down perspective asks is the story set up properly in the beginning?  Is there an inciting incident no later than page 50?  Do the subplots feed into the resolution of the main plot, resolving just before or at the main plot complex?  How is the bulk of the story structured -- is it a quest with three tasks, is it organized into four acts around four different places, what?  Is the story properly paced -- do action/tension parts (scenes) alternate with slower scenes where the reader catches his breath (sequel)?

The bottom up perspective looks at the story from the perspective of each character?  Bottom up asks what does this character want overall and what is he doing to get it?  What does he want in this scene and what is he doing to get it?  What is this character afraid of?  Who does this character like, dislike, fear, resent, love?  What means does this character consider legitimate, and what means will he shun out of fear, distaste or moral sentiment?

A novel has to work from both perspectives.  In my experience, the top down perspective is strategy, it's charting the course, it's knocking away the biggest pieces of marble to find a head or an arm.  The bottom up perspective is tactics, it's steering around the icebergs, it's the small, careful strokes that reveal the sculpture's toenails and eyelashes.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

So Long as the Invasion Ain't Planned for Nap Time

A rangy young man in buckskins and a shapeless felt hat, apparently unarmed, came up the side of the Liahona and clasped arms with Captain Jones.  His lean face bore the long, wispy beard of a young man who had never shaved but had no natural gift for the growing of facial hair.
“Come back around to the Cottonwood Fourth Ward Elders Quorum again, has it, boyo?”
The newcomer chuckled.  “Yeah, Brother Cannon sent an inspector in disguise and he caught the High Priests napping.  No more gate duty for the old boys, I’m afraid.”
“Shame, that.  Some of the old boys, you know, Swenson, can shoot the whiskers off a squirrel.”
“Absolutely,” Swenson agreed.  “And I feel greatly reassured that the Kingdom is safe from an incursion of squirrels, be it ever so large or be-whiskered.  Just so long as the invasion ain’t planned for nap time.  You got a manifest for me?” 
Jones handed over a big logbook together with a single sheet of paper.  “Original and a copy.”
The newcomer reviewed them quickly together.  “Looks fine.  Anything we need to go talk about in the wheelhouse?”  He shot a quick sidelong glance at Burton, and Burton felt shrewdly appraised.
“We were waylaid,” Jones growled, “but that’s a matter for Brother Brigham’s ears.  Did you stop a fellow by the name of Clemens by any chance?”
Burton took that as his cue and stepped closer.
Swenson shook his head.  “He passed through.  I didn’t know to stop him.”
Burton cleared his throat.  “He would have had diplomatic papers, anyway,” he said, injecting himself into the conversation. 
            “Never yet saw diplomatic papers that’d stop the bullet out of a Henry,” Swenson shrugged.  “Hell, I don’t care that he was driving that fancy new steam-truck, even.  If I’d known the Captain here wanted the man stopped, he’d have been stopped.”  He leveled frank blue eyes at Burton.  “Who are you that I oughtta wind the crank on my give-a-damn machine?”
            “He’s alright,” Jones muttered.
            Burton extended a hand and smiled a rugged, manly grin.  “Richard Burton,” he introduced himself.  “That is to say, ahem, Captain Richard Burton, special envoy of Her Britannic Majesty Queen Victoria.”
            Swenson shook it confidently.  “Jerry Swenson, second counselor, Elders Quorum, Cottonwood Fourth Ward.  President Williams is back up there with the artillery—he’s an old Battalion man, and knows his big guns.  First counselor’s fishing.”
            “Fishing!?” Jones spat, dismissive.  “And war coming and all?”
            Swenson shrugged.  “He’s taken to shaving every day, too.  He might be bucking for a release.”

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

How to Write Good

The Grey Mouser sent me this.

This Dark Endeavor

Yesterday I read This Dark Endeavor, to be published this fall by Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers.  It's a good book, gothic boy-oriented YA, a prequel to Mary Shelley's Frankenstein in which Victor Frankenstein fights with his older twin over their common love and on the way learns a little alchemy.  This post, though, is not a review.

I just wanted to comment on the structure of the book.  Its bones show through so clearly, that you can see exactly how it's put together.  Some observations:

  • In the first chapter, we meet the principal characters, see a play that foreshadows the theme (the brothers will fight), and end with an incident featuring physical danger that tells us about the personalities of the two brothers and tells us another theme of the book (one brother saves another).
  • Within fifty pages, we have an inciting incident (or really two: the older brother becomes sick, and the kids find a secret alchemical library / laboratory in their family manor).  Victor resolves to heal his brother using alchemy.
  • A Yoda / Siduri / Gandalf character on the border of the quotidian and adventure worlds, a crippled old alchemist, sends Victor and his friends on a quest: they must collect three exotic items, which the alchemist can only reveal to them one at a time, each of which can only be collected with risk, adventure and sacrifice.
  • The brothers' relationship is punctuated with a series of fencing matches which becomes increasingly tense, reflecting the state of affairs between them.
  • Approximately halfway through the book, Victor admits to himself that he is in love with his brother's girlfriend, committing himself irrevocably to healing his brother, not for his brother's good, but for his own glory.
  • At the end of the completion of the third quest, there is a plot twist (one not particularly well foreshadowed, but still predictable) that leads into the climax, which consists both of action sequences and Victor's ultimate choice: which brother will be healed?  Which will get the girl?
None of this is innovative.  It's good, straightforward, pretty traditional structure, and if you are thinking about how novels are put together, that alone makes the book worth looking at.  It's also a well-written milieu adventure story for boys in a field dominated by books written for girls, and, of course, it's a fun read.

You can find This Dark Endeavor on bookshelves late August of this year. 

Monday, June 27, 2011

What Is Steampunk (11)? (K.W. Jeter)

K.W. Jeter famously coined the term "steampunk" in the late 1980s (when "cyberpunk" was all the rage) to describe what he, Tim Powers and James Blaylock were writing at the time.  In the current (Angry Robot 2011) reprint of his classic (seminal steampunk) Infernal Devices, Jeter includes a short essay on his coining of the term and on the genre.  You should buy the book and read the whole essay, but here is the money paragraph:

"While I might not have anticipated the slipping into common parlance of the word I coined, the larger steampunk enthusiasm wasn't similarly unanticipated.  Yes, most of this is just a matter of people having good, clean, if somewhat gimmicky fun, but there's a genuinely worthy element to it that makes me one of those happy few who, even if we can't say we love our species, we can at least tolerate it on its better days. A fascination with Victorian tech is at its heart a salutary acceptance of the machine-ness of machines -- and correspondingly an acceptance of the humanity of human beings.  There's something nauseatingly pre-digested about the look of late 20th and early 21st century industrial design, all those Steve Jobs-approved rounded edges like cough lozenges sucked on for a minute or so before being spat out into your hand.  Whereas Victorian machines, with their precision-cut gears and spurred mantis armatures, are unabashedly themselves rather than trying to smoothly cozen their way into your life.  Thus we similarly perceive flesh & blood Victorians -- even the fictional ones -- as being more genuine than ourselves.  They had lives; we have marketing.  Even unto our souls; drama and ruin were possible to those who guarded their secrets and shame, as pre-digital clocks held their tightly coiled mainsprings inside themselves."

Amen.

(P.S.  Steve Jobs, I'm writing this on a MacBook Pro.  Please don't have me killed.)

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Ci vuole un fisico bestiale


This is the song that made me a Luca Carboni fan, almost 20 years ago.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Twitter

And now I'm tweeting, as DavidJohnButler.  Expect some inanity while I figure this out.

Dave Carter


The late Dave Carter was the songwriting genius behind the folk duo Dave Carter and Tracy Grammer.  All their albums together are terrific (Drum Hat Buddha might be my favorite, though that's a hard call), as is Flower of Avalon, the album of previously unrecorded Carter songs that Grammer recorded after his death.  This is a good one.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Goodreads

So I'm on Goodreads now.  Look for me.  For now, I'm just keeping track of what I read and commenting on a few of the books.  Later, I'll join some groups and maybe even get fancy and get an author page.

What Is Steampunk? (10) (Baritsu, the Steampunk Scholar and the Steampunk Empire)

Sherlock Holmes was a baritsu practitioner, according to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.  Enjoy this essay on baritsu, or, er... bartitsu, as a steampunk martial art.

Also, check this guy out.  I'm only occasionally throwing out steampunk nuggets for those of my readers who aren't familiar with the genre (that's you, Mel).  He's all steampunk, all the time.  It all looks good, but check out his Steampunk 101 page first.

And this.

I may be almost done posting about steampunk.  If you haven't figured out what it is yet, you're not paying attention.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

What Is Steampunk? (9) (Variations on a Theme)

Steampunk is to Jules Verne as Bluegrass is to Bill Monroe.  Discuss.

I think the heart of Steampunk, as most people understand the word, is a vision of a milieu with the technological trappings of science fiction as Jules Verne (or H.G. Wells) might have written it.  Hence, big steam-powered devices, clockwork technology, ether-ships, phlogiston cannons, etc.

But just as Bluegrass music has thrown up and embraced its heretics and deviates, e.g., Sam Bush, David Grisman, John Hartford, Jerry Garcia, Bela Fleck, so Steampunk, from its beginning, has included a lot of stories that are not just straight riffing on Verne, but are Verne+.  Here are some examples, in no particular order.  They're all pretty clearly Steampunk; also, each of them has something else going on in it.

Scott Westerfeld has written the Leviathan series (YA), comprised of Leviathan, Behemoth and the forthcoming Goliath.  It is Steampunk "updated" to the First World War, with the global conflict between Clankers (riding around in big steam-y machines) and Darwinists (riding and fighting with genetically modified creatures of various sorts).

Philip Reeve is the author of the Hungry City Chronicles (middle reader -- the original UK title is the Mortal Engines Quartet), the first of which is Mortal Engines.  The Hungry Cities high concept is very cool: in the distant future, cities are giant, mobile, steam-y machines, and the big ones get raw materials for their maintenance and expansion by chasing down and devouring smaller ones.  It's set in a distant and post-apocalyptic future and features some straight futuristic technology, like weapon satellites.

Stephen Hunt writes "Jackelian" books (books in a shared setting but not necessarily connected in plot).  The first is The Court of the Air.  These books are set in an alternate world that is sort of Dickensian Steampunk plus magic plus inner earth/underworld story.  The Court of the Air features young protagonists but is written for adults.

China Mieville writes, well, stuff.  See, e.g., Perdido Street Station.  It's Steampunk technology, but the technology behaves like cyberpunk tech -- there are artificial intelligences, and characters with steam-powered grafted limbs, etc.  There are fantasy races, but they're bugs and frogs and birds.  Also, there is magic, and a grotesque, ghormenghastly esthetic to everything, and cyberpunk/radical politics, and horror creatures and plots.  Also, the main character is a city.

Cherie Priest writes Boneshaker (and forthcoming sequel(s)).  It's YA Steampunk plus zombies.

What's in your Steampunk?

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Nights at the Silver Eel

video

Here's another musical offering.  This one won't be on Tall Tales, though I'm fond of it.

The Grey Mouser part is here sung by Jon Wahl of Merit Networks.  He does a fine pirate tenor, and I've ripped him off here by not also featuring his advanced guitar stylings -- the rest of the music is all me.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Woo Hoo!

Many congratulations to Platte.  Today he (with the guidance of his extraordinary and enthusiastic agent, Deborah Warren of East-West Literary) has accepted an offer from Simon & Schuster for Max Spencer and the Codex of Infinite Knowability and two sequels.

Story Monkeys, ho!

Il Romanzo (2)

(From Chapter 31 of The Island of the Day Before, another gem on novel-writing)

"It is true that Poets, after having spoken of a memorable event, neglect it for a while in order to keep the reader in suspense -- and in this skill we recognize also the well-planned novel.  But the theme must not be abandoned for too long, so the reader should not become lost among too many other, parallel actions."

*   *   *

More translation quibbling.  "Well-planned" is "bene inventato", which could be "well done" or "well created" -- "well-planned", I think, implies too much.   Note also that here Weaver translates "romanzo" as "novel" rather than "romance".

Monday, June 20, 2011

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Fan Fiction


William and I made this diorama this week.  The figure positioning and implied narrative are 100% his: already facing off against the deadly bounty hunter Cad Bane (they are up a tree and the dogs are barking), the Jedis' lives are unexpectedly complicated by the appearance behind them of a desert creature, angry that they have stumbled into its nest, giving the impression of threatening its young (hey, this tree is on fire!).

Prediction: the Jedi knights will induce the desert creature to attack Cad Bane, allowing them to escape (they chop the tree down to both put out the fire and knock the dogs unconscious).

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Two Mes


Here's me, at Life, the Universe and Everything in February.  There is a professionalism point here -- when you are selling yourself as a professional writer, don't go to business events dressed like a goombah or a slacker.

And here is the image of me I drew (with a Sharpie) that will go on the front of the Tall Tales CD.  It's meant to be more or less recognizable as me as I actually appear at Cons, so someone who has the CD might spot me and know who I am.

The CD is not full of banjo music, by the way.  Banjos are just easier to draw than guitars.  And they're very American and folksy and retro-cool.

Yeah, I know it sucks, I'm not a visual artist.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Long Time Gone (Slow Boogie)

video

I am putting together a promotional album, the working title of which is Tall Tales.  More on this subject later.

For the moment, the above is a teaser.  I made a video of the song because Blogger doesn't let me post audio only, and I don't want to futz around and learn to link to audio hosted on other sites.  The video is just Flip footage of my Tascam 2488 Mk. ii during the mastering process -- don't get too excited.

This song requires a couple of words of explanation.

First, I originally wrote this, several years ago, to celebrate the retirement of a guy named John Combo, an Intel lawyer, a gentleman, a scholar and an enologist of some repute, who didn't really retire after all.  In the press of affairs, I didn't actually have time to record the song and give it to him at the time, so this may come as some surprise to him.  The second verse originally went "Arizona sunshine, Paris in the rain", which made more sense in the context of John Combo's career, but none in the context of mine.

Second, I had never listened to Crosby, Stills & Nash (and/or & Young), but after I had written this song, they came and performed in the little Idaho town where I live, so of course I had to go.  To my surprise, they played a song which has a refrain in common with this one.  Oops.  I can't be sure I hadn't heard their song on the radio, but I can tell you that I was not a CSNY listener and was not consciously aware of it.  Besides, let's admit it, it's kind of an obvious lyric.  And anyway, the two songs are totally, TOTALLY different.  Here's CSNY:

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Beta Readers and Experts

You need "Alpha Readers".  If you're in a writing group, your group members are among your Alpha Readers, along with anyone else who just has to read your drafts before anyone else does.  For me, Alpha Readers are the Story Monkeys and my wife.

You also need "Beta Readers".  Your Beta Readers are a bigger group.  They may not be exactly the same people every time.  They're less likely to be story or writing experts, and probably won't often give you clear comments about a story arc or how a plot and subplot intersect, for instance.  But before your writing goes out to the general public, it should go out to a restricted public.

The variety of comments you get will surprise you, and that variety is the point: you are trying to get a reaction from a range of tastes, and also tap into a variety of (often hidden) expertises.  I have had Beta Readers come back and test me, or help me out, on points like whether silver can be melted down in a campfire, how blackpowder-powered bullets ricochet and the appropriate make of firearms for shooting coyotes.

After a few rounds with your Beta Readers, you'll have flushed out some of these expertises, and then you'll find you can turn to your Beta Readers during the writing process as experts.  In my experience, people like to be asked questions, as long as you're polite and a friend and the questions aren't burdensome for them to answer.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Il Romanzo

(From chapter 8 of The Island of the Day Before by Umberto Eco, trans. William Weaver)

"A romance," Saint-Savin explained to him, "must always have at its base a misconception -- of a person, action, place, time, circumstance -- and from that fundamental misconception episodic misconceptions must arise, developments, digressions, and finally unexpected and pleasant recognitions.  By misconception I mean things like a living person's reported death, or one person being killed in place of another, or a misconception of quantity, as when a woman believes her lover dead and marries another, or quality, when it is the judgment of the senses that errs, when someone who appears dead is then buried, while actually he is under the influence of a sleeping potion; or else a misconception of relation, when one man is wrongly believed the murderer of another; or of instrument, as when one man pretends to stab another using a weapon whose tip, while seeming to wound, does not pierce the throat but retracts into the sleeve, pressing a sponge soaked in blood... Not to mention forged letters, assumed voices, messages not delivered in time or delivered to the wrong place or into the wrong hands.  And of these stratagems the most celebrated, but too common, is that involving the mistaking of one person for another..."

*   *   *

Translation is hard, and maybe impossible, but I still want to quibble with this one.  The first two words in the Italian paragraph are "Il Romanzo" [sic], so I would have translated the paragraph above as "The novel" or "Any novel", which is what a "romanzo" is to contemporary italians.  Oh, well.

(The Italian word translated "misconception" is "equivoco", by the way.)

This is Eco, so we probably shouldn't be such naive readers as to assume that here we have Umberto Eco's own view of what novels are.  Still, we might.  And we definitely do have the advice of Signor Saint-Savin, a Paris-educated seventeenth century sophisticate, and it's interesting advice to contemplate.

I recall there being a similar passage somewhere deep in the Aubrey-Maturin books.  I owe myself a re-read of those imminently, anyway; I'll have to keep an eye out for the passage on novel-writing.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

CONduit Report: Gotta Let My Freak Flag Fly


I bought this decal (and a matching black one) from Carter Reid over at The Zombie Nation in the CONduit Dealers' Room.

I stuck it, as you can see, on my Toronado case.  I guess this means the Lutherans up on Chinden aren't going to be inviting me to play in their band anytime soon.  I'll have to figure out where the local Deep Ones meet.  Probably down in Nampa.

Monday, June 13, 2011

CONduit Report: Peter Orullian

"Those critics who still decry [fantasy literature] for its usual lack of deep characterization do not see that it completely reverses the "real" world of the social novel -- placing its heroes in a landscape directly reflecting the inner landscape of the ordinary man.  The hero ranges the lands of his own psyche, encountering the various aspects of himself.  When we read a good fantasy we are being admitted into the subterranean worlds of our own souls."

Thus the great Michael Moorcock, writing in 1963 in Science Fantasy magazine.

I don't think all fantasy (or speculative fiction) writers work in the vein Moorcock identified, but many do.  Stephen Donaldson's Thomas Covenant books are explicitly psychological, Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast books are all about ritual, tradition and the individual, with the theme acted out on the entire world-platform, and many fantasy novelists create worlds which seem designed specifically as stages on which to enact certain philosophical debates.  Think of David Farland's Runelords books, in which the eponymous runelords becoming powerful by taking "endowments" from their vassals, volunteers and even prisoners, by which the "dedicate" gives some quality of his -- e.g., brawn, wit, metabolism, etc. -- entirely to the runelord.  Or consider L.E. Modesitt's long-running Saga of Recluce, with its constant theme of order and chaos and the interplay between them in human life.  In all these books it's the setting, as much as the characters, that are explorations of the human soul.

Enter Peter Orullian.  I met Peter at CONduit, and immediately thought this dude is at the wrong convention.  With his glam hair and lean <<chain smoker / zero carbohydrate eater / maybe both>> face, he looked like he should be fronting a metal band, not sitting on panels about the use of literary cliches in fantasy fiction.  And it turns out I wasn't all wrong.  Explore his website a bit -- he's a musician and singer and multimedia guy, a full package artist, and a man after my own heart.

And Peter is also a successful author.  Tor has published his first book, The Unremembered, book one of The Vault of Heaven, and his second is nearing completion in the wee hours before Peter's day job.  The Unremembered is classic heroic fantasy, complete with a beginning reminiscent of The Sword of Shannara or The Fellowship of the Ring, in which young Tahn, hunting meat to stock the larder of the inn, has a dangerous encounter in the forest.

It's also fantasy in the Moorcockian sense, in that the world is built to explore certain themes.  In its prologue a council of the creators of worlds meet to chastise and then bind a Satan figure, a member of the council whose job it has been to create evil in all the worlds.  Despite his binding, he threatens to continue his task, and we are set up for themes of good and evil, opposition, trial and free will.  In the early chapters of the book, we learn that in the world since its creation, a League of Exigents has come into being and it goes around trying to wipe out history to free the current generation from the shackles of the ignorant past, so we are set up to read about further themes, of memory, culture, history and political control.

All of this, of course, to be explored through the tale of a small-town boy with the weight of destiny upon him.  Peter Orullian: check him out.  I think he's going to be big.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Library!


This is the Boise Library!  I like it so much, I wrote it into Project Alpha, which isn't even set in Boise.

Friday, June 10, 2011

George Orwell, "Politics and the English Language"

Forget about the "Politics" in the above title and in the link below.  This is not a political blog.

George Orwell was a master of writing English prose.  Nineteen Eighty-Four and Animal Farm are probably what you know him for.  You also ought to read Down and Out in Paris in London, which is excellent.  If you have time, and especially if you are a connoisseur of good English, you should consider reading his four volumes of collected essays, journalism and letters, of which this is the first.

But if you are a writer, you simply must read this essay here.

Money quote: "modern writing at its worst does not consist in picking out words for the sake of their meaning and inventing images in order to make the meaning clearer.  It consists in gumming together long strips of words which have already been set in order by someone else, and making the results presentable by sheer humbug."

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Smart Novels with Really, Really Long Plots

Two and a half cheers for Steven Erikson.

I know when I write this I split my readership in half and risk losing you both.  One of you is a big Erikson fan and is now offended.  The other is scratching his head and saying, "who's Steven Erikson?"

Steven Erikson just published the tenth (!) and final volume of his epic fantasy series The Malazan Book of the Fallen, of which I just finished book four.  The whole thing is something like three and a half million words long.  I really, really, want to like this series.  It's inventive in its details and it's inventive on an industrial scale.  The story world is huge and the story goes back in time hundreds of thousands of years (there are lots and lots of characters in the story who are that old and who are still around, machinating for their various ends).  It's fantasy for archaeologists, with tells and ruins and flint weapons all over the place.  It's fantasy for anthropologists, with curses and customs and folk magic in abundance.  It's fantasy for gamers -- Erikson and his fellow Malazan author, that other dude whatsisname, made up this world originally as a setting for a GURPS campaign.  It's got some literary flair and boldness; it starts in the middle of the action in a big way, and Erikson is not shy about filling it with his poetry (which may or may not be a plus).  It's got all kinds of cool fantasy races without ever dipping into the well of elves and dwarves and hobbits.  In its special effects, at least, his magic system is cool and different.

So you should both read it, at least the first one, The Gardens of the Moon.  But I just don't love it.  So here are what I think are the reasons why.

Everyone in the books is a soldier or an assassin, and that gets boring.  There's way too much carnage.  I rarely describe mayhem as "pornographic," but some of this really is; Erikson lingers lovingly over the descriptions of piles of mutilated corpses.  I don't enjoy that.  The depth of the backstory means that there's lots and lots of conversations where characters stand around and tell each other about Things of Grave Import that Happened in the Past.  I know this is a problem for heroic fantasy generally, but Tolkien gets most of it out in one scene in Rivendell -- with Erikson, every fifty pages I have a conversation where someone tells me one more little snippet about Kellanved and Cotillion and what they did and what their plan might be.  Ugh, too much.  There are too many characters.  I mean, this is really cool from the perspective that it makes me feel like a whole world has been created, but I can't care about all two hundred main characters, and in the end I find I don't really care about any of them.  Heck, half of 'em I can't even keep straight.  Never did a book more justly include a list of dramatis personae at the front.

So where do I end up on all this?  When I'm not reading the series, I think about how I should get the next book and read it.  And when I am in the middle of one of the books, I mostly feel tired.  I guess Erikson wins, since he's got book dollars out of me.

Two and a half cheers.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

The Good vs. the Essential

The essential thing I do, every day (maybe six days a week, maybe seven), is write.  I write original pages, and I write revisions of existing pages.  That is the core and necessary part of what I do.

I do a lot of other stuff in my quest, as Indiana Jones would have it, for fortune and glory.  I network.  I read and comment on stuff by the Story Monkeys.  I read and comment on stuff by other writers.  I write query letters.  I talk to my agent about revisions, or about how it's going with publishers.  I read the Publisher's Market daily deal e-mail for a market update.  I go to bookstores and browse the shelves.  I read in my target audience.  I read David Farland's Daily Kick, and the blogs of other writers.  I write this blog.  I attend conventions.  Those are all good things.

But no amount of writing this blog or reading the daily deals will generate a book.  All that stuff is good and important, but unless I do the essential thing -- write -- it's pointless.

So I don't ever let myself off the hook by saying "I didn't write today, but I did put together a query letter," or "I didn't write today, but I did some good market research."  That way lies frustration, barrenness and the death of writing.

Don't you do it, either.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

More Pages!

I've just added a Links page (over on the upper right).  I'll add more pages as time goes on, and I'll add to the Links page, too.

A quick note about the Links, and specifically about the authors I've linked to.  I'm not sure there's any point in my making a list of "authors I like", much less trying to set up a links page with links to the blogs and websites of Umberto Eco, Michael Chabon, Jim Butcher, Nail Gaiman, etc.  The writers I've linked to are all people I've personally met and interacted with and whose work I've liked.

Some of them (e.g. Carter Reid of The Zombie Nation) are also people I've already specifically mentioned in the blog, and as I meet and come to enjoy the work of other writers, I'll try to remember to add them to the Links page, too.

What Characters Call Each Other

            “Fifteen seconds!” snarled the Goblin, and pulled back the hammer on the pistol.
            “I don’t know!” I yelled. My mind was a whirl.  The plan was in tatters.  Was this how New York State was to end, on a little hill in the Stansby-Williams Park in Applesey, because a ten-year-old ghost couldn’t think straight?
            “Ten seconds!  You will make me kill the girl!”
            “Frankie, I gotta tell you something,” Bron rocked back and forth, her eyes closed and her face calm and thoughtful. 
            “Please, no!” pleaded Jimmy, but this time the Goblin didn’t hit her.
            I was trapped.  If I surrendered myself, Canker would kill me, probably kill Bron and Jimmy anyway, and then go commit the murders as planned.  I had to jump the Goblin, there was no other choice.  Could I even hurt him?  Or could I signal Edmund Serious to help me?  I glanced at Serious – he was chewing on a fingernail and didn’t meet my gaze.
            “My name isn’t Bron.”  She was still rocking, and now Canker ignored her.
            “Five seconds!”
            “It’s Bronwen!” and she attacked.
*   *   *
How characters address each other really matters.  Above is a distinctive example, in which Bronwen, known to her male friends as Bron, chooses to reveal her full, more feminine name, in a moment of great physical courage and risk.


But how characters address each other matters in any conversation.  Take two men, A and B.  They are having a dialog, and A addresses B, using one of the following:

  • Sir
  • Mr. President
  • Mr. Johnson
  • Johnson
  • James
  • Jimmy
  • Jerkwad
  • Dad
(I don't mean to imply anything by the order of the foregoing.)  The name, or nickname, or title, chosen, reflects the relationship between the two characters and also the frame of mind of the speaker.

Monday, June 6, 2011

A Saga of Rewrites

“Dude, you’re never gonna take the dress off,” Jimmy snickered at me.  He snickered under his elbow, so the teacher and the guest speaker wouldn’t see him, but he was still snickering.  “You’re gonna put that thing on and you’re gonna like it so much you’re never gonna take it off.”
            “Shut up,” I said.  I wished I hadn’t told him.  “Show me the pictures of the rabbit again.”  If I could get him playing with his smartphone, maybe that would distract him.
            “Change is coming to Applesey,” the guest speaker announced to us.  He was almost shouting, and he seemed really excited.  He was burly and had a head like a salt shaker, smooth and shiny and sprouting out of his checked-shirt-covered shoulders without the benefit of a neck in between.  Ms. Perkins had introduced him as Professor Hooke.  She had said he was a Professor of Everything at Applesey College.  Today he was talking to us about trains.
            “Yes,” Ms. Perkins nodded.  She stood in the corner of the classroom.  It was her classroom, but she always went to the corner when we had a guest speaker.  Usually, she sat in a hard wooden chair in the corner with her hands folded across her lap.  Today she stood instead, and shook a little bit from time to time like Professor Hooke was saying something really exciting.  She usually wore dark grey sweaters over light grey dresses, but today she had a yellow dress with red flowers printed on it.  I didn’t have time to wonder about her unusual clothes, thought, because my friend Jimmy was teasing me.
            “No, because first of all, dissected rabbits are gross.  I never should have let you talk me into taking pictures in the first place.  And no, because second, I don’t want Ms. Perkins taking away my phone.”  Jimmy paused, and then grinned.  He wasn’t going to let it go.  “Tomorrow you’re gonna wear it to school, I bet.  We’ll be sitting in the lunchroom, and you’re gonna tell me how comfortable it is.  How you like to feel the gentle breeze on your legs.  And I am so totally gonna blog every minute of it.” 
            “The dress is just for my mom’s party,” I reminded him.  “You’d do stuff for your mom, right?  And dissected rabbits are science.  Science isn’t gross.”
            “Everyone knows that things around here will change when the train starts running after the grand opening next Monday,” Professor Hooke went on.  “The questions we should ask are, first, how will things change, and second, are those changes for the better?”
            “Oh, yes,” gushed Ms. Perkins.  She made a gesture like a spastic hand clap, only at the last second she didn’t clap her hands together, so it made no sound and just looked really silly.  She looked like a seal begging for a fish.
“The good news is that you won’t have to change your name.  That was some impressive foresight your parents showed, giving you a girl’s name.”
            “Francis is not a girl’s name,” I muttered, sinking low into my chair.  “There’s lots of famous boys named Francis.”
            “For starters, we can expect that property values will go up.  Because the train will connect us to the City, people that didn’t want to live in Applesey before might give us a second look.  They’ll want to buy houses, so house prices will rise.  And higher property values means a bigger tax base, so more money for the schools.”  He smiled mildly at Ms. Perkins.
            “Oh, yes!” Ms. Perkins snapped back, like the fish had been tossed and she was snatching it out of the air with her snout.  This time her hands did connect, in a single loud slap.
            “Hmmn,” Jimmy pretended to think about it.  “Like Frances Hodgson Burnett?” he asked, his face all innocent.
            “Frances Hodgson Burnett was a girl!”  I shouted. 
            Professor Hooke stopped talking and blinked at me, a shiny bald owl surprised in its hollow tree.  Ms. Perkins wheeled and stared at me like she had suddenly discovered the taste of rancid fish in her mouth, and it was all my fault.
            “Francis Delaney!” she barked.
            Jimmy exploded into a gangle of laughing arms and legs.  “Exactly!” he chortled, and he slapped his desk.  “Exactly!”
            “James Koster!”  Ms. Perkins was red in the face and her eyes shot lasers at us both from across the room.  “Both of you, down the hall, now!”
            I glowered at my friend, but it wasn’t an I hate you glower.  I was going to detention, but at least I wasn’t going alone.
*   *   *
I'm working on my second significant rewrite of The Devil's Interval (if you've been watching the sidebars on the left, you'll have noticed its title shifting around a bit -- no guarantee it's come to rest yet).  Above is my new and current opening.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Trollhunter

Watched Trollhunter last night.  It was fun.  I don't have anything especially insightful to say about it, but I will observe that this film is great from a high concept point of view (it's Fablehaven, but just with Trolls, and for grownups), and that the story just sort of falls apart and dies at the end.  The conceit that this was real footage was cute but labored, you don't believe it from the beginning, so why not have real characters with actual backstory and subplots, and a structure that includes an actual ending?  Entertained, but mildly disappointed.

CONduit Report: Self-Promotion Addendum

I attended a panel at CONduit (mostly, I didn't actually go to the panels -- that wasn't what I was there for, but I went to one or two) on self-promotion.  It featured such fine writers as Larry Correia and Michaelbrent Collings and was excellent.  Among other things, I've learned that I really need to know karate.

Several panel members encouraged the use of social media in self-promtion, but they left out an important point that I'd like to make... you know, for both of you that are reading this blog.  Whatever social media you use--Facebook, Twitter, Blogger, whatever--don't just click through when you sign up, read your terms and conditions.

In particular, read the intellectual property provisions and take them into account in the nature of what you post.  You don't want to give Mark Zuckerberg a license to things that you write just because you post a teaser chapter.  Much less do you want Mark Zuckerberg to own pieces of your book.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

CONduit Report: He's Science Fiction, but She's Steampunk

I met Bill Housley of Wyoming at the Con.  He's the author of a novel called Into the Dark: Escape of the Nomad (Cowboy Logic, 2010), which I just finished reading.  Bill Housley and Umberto Eco back to back are some stiff competition, but I expect Umberto can take comfort from the fact that Bill's not after his medieval thrillers audience.

Into the Dark is Star Trek: First Contact meets The Astronaut Farmer with John Galt cast in the starring role.  It is science fiction and also a thriller and also a call to action, strongly advocating the manned exploration of space (which I support, too, whether or not there are alien civilizations out there waiting to bio-mine us out of existence if we fail to achieve it).

Bill makes the first chapter of Into the Dark available on his blog (link above).  It's a strong start, and I recommend it for writers thinking about how to begin a novel.  Some strong points:

  • it begins on conflict (an argument);
  • it has to handle a lot of exposition, and for the most part it builds this into the argument, which is almost always the best (least boring) way to handle exposition;
  • the protagonist is introduced;
  • the stakes (interstellar war and the destruction of the Earth) are made clear; and
  • the chapter ends on something of a hook -- even the good guys are skirting at the fringes of the law.
Bill attended CONduit with his daughter and assistant, Alicia, who went in character as Bess Raptor (a stylish steampunk sky pirate of her own creation).  Here's Bess:

video

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Smart Novels with Cool Plots

That's what I like.  I say this having just finished Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose (this must be the third time I've read it), which is terrific.

Set aside all the cerebral stuff about the interaction among texts and the question as to whether there is order in the world (which I like).  Demur to the awesomeness of Eco's setting, his diversions into Latin, his bringing to life the schism of early fourteenth century Christendom (of which I can only stand in awe).  Enjoy the prose, capable of rugged narrative muscularity, distinctive and vernacular dialog and learned sinuousness in the same paragraph (wow).

The book's just a good thriller.  Some incomplete and off-the-cuff observations about what makes the book good and that could be emulated in a less cerebral and less literary novel:

  • the hero is rapidly characterized (in the opening scene, Brother William makes a series of surprising inferences about a missing horse, and takes pleasure in the astonishment of his audience);
  • the hero (and sidekick) are flawed, vulnerable and interesting people;
  • the plot kicks off quickly, with the first murder taking place almost immediately;
  • the detective characters are active, affirmatively seeking information to test hypotheses throughout;
  • tension escalates right through the very last chaper: at first it's just a murder, then it's murders plural with the imminent arrival of the Pope's men, then we learn that the Pope's men are headed by a ruthless inquisitor, then the apocalyptic scheme is deduced, then the papal legation arrives and we see the fearsome Bernardo Gui in action, then there is only one night left to solve the mystery, then there is the climactic action sequence and the fire!... wow, again;
  • although tension rises steadily through the book and each action sequence ups the ante from the one preceding it, there are breaks (sequel) between the action bits (scene) -- the book is well paced.
I'm going to have to re-read Baudolino and The Island of the Day Before, but first, back to CONduit and related reporting.