Saturday, December 31, 2011

At the Peak of Tides ...

When the moon is high and round and bright enough to cast a shadow, we are literally on top of the world, with the sun beneath our feet.

This is an astronomical truth, not just a poetic turn of phrase. The moon points us eternally toward the sun, whether with the curve of her bow or the fullness of her face. And when she has waxed to circular perfection, aglow in a crystal black sky, you can draw a line from her to yourself, and then continue that line onward for 93 million miles to know where the source of her light and our lives lies hidden.

In this way, geometry and poetics and science are as one, inextricably linking brightness, beauty and understanding by dark of night.

(Many thanks to C. Joybell C. for writing a blog post that made me think of this.)

Friday, December 30, 2011

Writing and Bean-and-Cheese Tacos

You may not know this, but if you've ever had a bad bean-and-cheese taco, then you possess the secret of why writing is hard.

On the face of it, both writing and bean-and-cheese tacos seemingly could not be easier. After all, most of us know how to string words together into sentences, and most of us know how to open up a can of refried beans and packages of cheese and tortillas.

So why is it that you can still find plenty of instances of professionally made bean-and-cheese tacos that just aren't any good? The beans are bland, or the cheese isn't sufficiently melted ... perhaps the tortilla isn't quite right in texture or flavor.

The reason, of course, is that in spite of the simplicity of the ingredients, an excellent bean-and-cheese taco requires that the person making it know what he or she is doing, and take the time to do it well. Maybe it's a matter of knowing the right amount of salt or the right kind of cooking fat to add to the beans. Maybe it's understanding how to bake a homemade tortilla, or at least how to properly prep a store-bought one on a griddle so that it is subtly toasted without becoming stiff. Maybe it's knowing just the right brand of cheese to buy, or grating it yourself, or both. I wish I knew, because then I could make myself a great bean-and-cheese taco, and I wouldn't have to risk being disappointed at bean-and-cheese tacos purchased elsewhere.

My point is, you have to know what you're doing to make a really good bean-and-cheese taco. You have to know your ingredients, know how to prepare them, take great care to achieve the right proportions, the right temperatures, the right timing. Even minor errors could result in a taco that's just okay, or one that's intolerably over-salted.

And writing is the same way, but with one crucial difference: if you don't know how to make a good bean-and-cheese taco, and you make a bean-and-cheese taco anyway, you're probably going to realize right away that your taco is no damn good. Maybe you won't care, especially if you have a secure job cooking tacos and the inadequacy of your bean-and-cheese ones is going to impact others rather than offending your own taste-buds. But you ought to care, and it's a shame when taco chefs don't.

Writers, on the other hand, often appear not to recognize the insufficiency of their efforts. They seem to think, once they've put together a bunch of sentences, thrown in some elves and dragons or spies and helicopters, and produced a plot that has at least a vague upward slope to it and some kind of turning point to the end, that the mere act of creation itself is enough. But creation without consumption is nothing, and if you want someone to consume your work, then you need to take care with matters of taste and texture.

So it's my job as a writer to understand that what I'm doing is hard, and that I need to be careful with it. It's not enough for me to say, "Okay, I'm going to spoon a glob of this in here, sprinkle a handful of that on, wrap it up in this, and -- done."

The mere presence of beans, cheese, and a tortilla in the same space does not a good taco make.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

A Significant Sale!

Yesterday, I sold only one copy of The Last Tragedy (and none at all of The Sharp Edge of Memory)-- but it was a terrific day nonetheless.


Because that one copy took me to 1066 downloads, and 1066 is one of my favorite numbers ever.

Sometimes Things Need To Sit For A Bit

I've been a terrible slacker for most of this month, in terms of actually getting any writing done. There's been a lot of time spent on publishing the books, whether finishing up the covers and maps, formatting the interiors, uploading all of it, or making the decisions on pricing and promoting. And there's been a lot of scurrying around frantically trying to figure out how to promote the books. And of course there's been Christmas stuff.

But ultimately, none of these things would have prevented me from a productive December of writing on my current book, if I weren't in a bit of a morass with it.

Fortunately, while in the midst of the scurrying, I've also been reading books and blogs by other authors, and some of the vivid personalities I've encountered made me realize the key missing element from my central protagonist in the new book. I've had development arcs in mind for three of four main viewpoint characters in the book, but one, the most important one, was missing. For the female lead, I hadn't asked myself the crucial questions of, "Just where is this person in her life?" and, "How did she get into this emotional state?" and, most importantly, "Where is this going to take her?"

The answers to those questions more or less jumped out at me once I started asking them. They were really pretty obvious, especially given her circumstances relative to the other two protagonists*. So now I have not only a direction in mind for her, but a number of ideas on how that direction must inform her relationships with the other characters.

If I'd been pushing, this whole time, I'd be a scene or two further along in the writing, maybe even a couple of chapters. But they would have felt a bit aimless to me, and probably to the reader as well. Now I'm more confident about how those scenes and chapters will turn out, because they'll be pulling me, instead of me pushing them.

There's a certain danger in attributing success to procrastination, but in this case I'm strongly tempted to do so.

(*The fourth viewpoint character is the antagonist, a quite loathsome fellow whom I almost wonder if I've made too repulsive.)

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

What I'm Reading

I have two books underway right now (three if you count the fact that I've been halfway through The Two Towers for several months): Catherynne M. Valente's The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making and Ron Franscell's The Sourtoe Cocktail Club. I'm just a few chapters into each, but so far they're both terrific.

Despite their thoroughly dissimilar genres, these books bear a number of curious resemblances to one another, setting off my coincidence-o-meter in a whimsical way. Both are itinerant stories, featuring a central figure on a journey through fanciful locales. Both have strong themes built around the tensions and affections that tie parents and children together. And both share the central aspiration of any literary work, which is to say something about Life. Each is funny and touching, with something amusing on almost every page and, more often than not, something thought-provoking following straightaway on its heels. Each is written in its own distinctive and different voice, yet they both exhibit a certain quality of effortlessness in their styles: they both make the process of narrative look easy and the delivery of wisdom seem casual.

I'll probably write reviews of each when I'm done, but for now, even a brief exposure to these books makes me confident in recommending them to discerning readers.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Covers ... a Quandary

I find myself beginning to second-guess my choice of providing my own cover art.

If this were 1982, I think my covers would be perfectly competitive with a lot of mainstream cover art in the fantasy genre. It's clearly not the work of a Whelan, Frazetta, Boris, or Sweet, but I recall tons of covers from that era and from the '70s whose art I would consider these the equal of.

But the bar is higher now, and I don't know that it's a great compliment to say, "This cover reminds me of a lot of the books I got from the old Science Fiction Book Club decades ago."

So I'm thinking perhaps I need to raise my own bar a bit, bite the bullet, and shell out to commission some art from a more proficient artist and graphic designer.

Feedback, of course, is always welcome!

Sunday, December 25, 2011

And Now for a Review of a Book Remarkably Different From My Normal Reading

Saint Paul Trois Châteaux: 1948Saint Paul Trois Châteaux: 1948 by C. JoyBell C.

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I was tempted to give this book five stars, but it's a literary work, and given that I don't typically read literature, I hardly feel qualified to say there is no work within this one's category that exceeds it. It impressed me, though, and that's my benchmark for a four-star book; that it rise above others of its sort that I have read, and mark itself as a rarity.

Like its heroine, the story is capricious and mercurial, vaulting between emotions, times and even tenses like a dancer in the most acrobatic of ballets, a lithe, elegant form delirious with passion and expressive impulse. If you told me that the entire thing had been written in a single sitting, in some mad, 36-hour compulsion that left its author's tendons inflamed and fingers near paralytic with cramps, I would believe you. And if you told me that it had been written over the course of ten years abroad researching every detail of the setting, then meticulously drafting and redrafting and editing each turn of phrase to achieve an impression of reckless spontaneity, I would also believe you. This work either flowed from its author in a cascade of emotion and vitality, or has been precisely crafted to produce that effect. In either case, it left me convinced that C. JoyBell C. is a person wildly alive, struck through with wonderment and awe at the world around us, and intent on communicating those sensations with the rest of humanity.

In Lucy, the author has managed to invest seemingly the entire catalogue of delightful female mannerisms and a spectrum of moods no less bright or fluid than the rays from a prism that might wash across the wave-tossed deck of a ship at sea, if some student of optics were to hold it aloft in demonstration to his fellow passengers. And this despite the fact that the story itself is mostly dark and night-bound, full of tempest-tossed moments that tell us how it feels to be cold and drenched and muddied, both inside and out.

It's a conversational story, in its structure and also in its ambitions. The present action consists almost entirely of two people talking, although their omissions are by and large as important as the words that they speak. But in making us guess and wonder and fill in a great many gaps, the author seems to want to engage the reader in a dialogue -- to make the reader a part of these discussions, with their turmoil of expression and repression, their mysteriously veering and ricocheting passions.

I was thoroughly mesmerized by "Saint Paul Trois Chatueax," and had circumstances permitted, would likely have read it all at one stretch. I hope that the author's life is as vibrant as this work makes Life seem.

View all my reviews

Friday, December 23, 2011

How I Write (in Case You're Interested)

(Here's another post I wrote in a forum, which I'm brazenly copying and pasting here.)

I usually start from a concept, a central conceit or objective that will drive the story. Let's say my starting point is ... a vampire unicorn. (I am fairly certain I will not want to write about a vampire unicorn, but let's suppose I did.)

I need the story to go somewhere, and I don't write well unless I have an ending in mind. So for now I'll say the ending is a big confrontation with the vampire unicorn. It also needs to start somewhere, so we'll say someone is looking for the vampire unicorn. Why? Well, maybe the horn of the vampire unicorn is reputed to be a cure for the curse of vampirism, and the seeker is trying to cure someone who's a vampire.

Now I have a protagonist and at least one supporting character. But who's the protagonist? The person seeking the vampire unicorn? Or the vampire he's trying to cure? And is the vampire unicorn a character, or a mysterious figure of legend unseen until the final culmination of the story?

I keep asking myself these kinds of questions until interesting characters emerge. The unicorn-seeker is now a self-styled hero of derring-do and nobility. But he's trying to alter another person against that person's will (the vampire). If the vampire is not really all that bad, and is not doing any harm to others, that suggests that our unicorn-seeker is misguided -- either a protagonist with a serious flaw or an antagonist whose goals are fundamentally opposed to our protagonist. I'm liking the latter option, so I start asking myself whether the vampire is an interesting protagonist, or if there is an as-yet undiscovered character waiting in the wings to take on our lead role.

Once I have an intriguing cast of characters -- one or more protagonists, a really good antagonist, and some supporting foils if I'm feeling in the mood for juggling plotlines -- I pick a Point A to go with my Point VU (Vampire Unicorn), and then I work up a rough outline that takes me from one to the other. In this case, I declare that my Point A will be the moment in which the unicorn-seeker boldly sets forth on his trek, because this will allow him to make a nobly heroic speech and will allow me to challenge myself to craft a scene in which a seemingly upright and admirable figure is strikingly drawn, but that also leaves the readers just ever-so-slightly unsettled -- hopefully for reasons they can't quite put a finger on.

Point B switches to our vampire, whom the hero has portrayed in his speech as the suffering victim of a curse, and whose salvation he intends to arrange by dint of mighty deeds. But upon meeting our vampire, we find she's a relatively content but perhaps slightly gloomy individual whose only curse is the persistent attentions of the unicorn-seeker, whom she regards with aggravation. A supporting character informs her of the impending quest, and she determines to oppose its completion.

The story is looking itinerant at this point, so I start throwing out some locales and events that our contending duo may pass through, or people they may meet, as they separately try to discover the vampire unicorn's location and reach it first. These may end up as chapter titles, or may be discarded or replaced as I work on the outline in more detail:

The Sewers of Sarville

Incidents Under a Library

Two Old Fishwives

On the Road to Wougliefe

A Dragon's Outhouse

The Fallen Mountain

Into the Earth's Bones

The Vale of Starlight

I may dive in and try to write an opening scene or two with little more to go on than what I've spelled out here, or I may spend days or weeks making notes about the outline, trying to figure out where the paths of our protagonist and antagonist will cross, and how their relationship will develop in the process. In any case, by this point I will have started a composition notebook to keep my thoughts in, where I will repeatedly outline and re-outline as work on the story progresses.

When I have a solid enough feel for the characters and the general path of the story, I start writing, and try to hold myself to a strict-but-not-too-strict routine. I make myself write on the project almost every day, allowing myself one day off a week, perhaps two if family matters intervene. I may only write a paragraph in a sitting, but I keep at it day in and day out, pushing forward.

I follow a few simple rules as I write.

First, I try my best to avoid rereading any prose unless I absolutely have to. Unless I need to remind myself of some detail from chapter one, I don't go back to it until the book is done. Rereading makes me tempted to rewrite things, and for me it's pointless to rewrite while the first draft is still in progress. I have to maintain forward inertia and be prepared to edit ruthlessly in subsequent drafts.

Second, whenever I encounter a scene (or even a whole chapter) that is slow and tedious to write because it just doesn't grab my attention, I throw it out and look for a way to rework that part of the outline. If the story isn't keeping me interested, why would I expect it to interest a reader?

Finally, I absolutely refuse to allow my characters to be stupid just because it advances the plot or helps move the story in a direction I want it to go. If I have designed a character as a stupid individual, then by all means that stupidity can drive the plot in any number of ways. But if I want the reader to admire a character, I never permit the character to overlook something obvious or make a foolish mis-step. My characters are not infallible; they err all the time. But those errors always reveal something about their personalities or help to develop the story's theme. They're never shortcuts that allow me to avoid working harder on my plot.

One more rule that I have found very useful is this: when I'm done with the first draft, I put the book aside and don't even look at it for several weeks or months. Someone told me that Stephen King does this, and I find that it has two terrific effects. First, it gives me the closest experience possible to the experience of a reader who's never read the book at all. And second, by dulling my familiarity with the prose, it allows me to more objectively judge what works and what doesn't, so that I have a clearer view of what to fix as I approach the next draft.

After that "hide it in a drawer" period, I adjust the manuscript into paperback format and print it through an online print-on-demand site, making copies for myself and a few trusted friends on whom I rely for initial feedback. Then I reread the book start to finish, just for the reading experience, making notes only when I see something that I'm worried I'll forget about. Then I compare my reactions with those of my first readers, usually over a lunch or dinner where we can chat at ease and I can make more notes.

My revision process then consists of one major pass and one or two editing passes. In the major pass, I'll add, delete, or rewrite whole scenes, perhaps to the tune of 10 or even 20% of the original prose. The editing passes are mostly about tweaking the language, finding things that I missed or errors I introduced in the major pass, and making sure my continuity is as seamless as possible.

Once I'm happy with the final product, the hardest work starts, which is trying to sell the book to a publisher. I love the mental puzzle of outlining a story, and the challenge of wrestling the outline into prose form, but for some reason, I absolutely hate to write summaries, query letters, and cover letters. If I had my way, all the book jackets of my novels would have the same back-cover text: "Just read the first page, already. If you think it's interesting and well-written, you'll probably like the rest too."

In a nutshell, then, that's how I do what I do. I've written four books this way now, after stumbling around to develop the process on a fifth that won't likely see publication anytime soon. It's been working pretty well for me, and from what my readers tell me, the results are working for them too.

Now I just have to fight off the temptation to set aside my current book to start writing about that vampire unicorn ...

A Couple of Approaches to World Building

I'm a fantasy writer, and fantasy novels take place in fantasy worlds, so I thought I'd discuss the two methods I've used for building worlds: mapping and concept exploration. (Actually, this is a bit of a cheat post, because I wrote most of it for thread I started on a forum, and I liked it enough I decided to spread it around.)

I find mapping to be an excellent way to get a fantasy world started if the world is not dependent on a fundamentally unusual concept. If I intend to have a quasi-medieval setting with magic and monsters and a variety of humanoid races, mapping is a good place to start. It doesn't even tax my limited artistic talents, because the outlines of continents don't need to look like anything in particular. In fact, if I just scrawl an irregular line, I often see a shape in it the same way you see shapes in clouds, and those Rorschach reactions may inspire geographic names: "Devil's Head Coast" or "The Unicorn Peninsula." (I'm not holding those up as good names, mind you.)

I generally start with a main continent, throw down some mountain ranges (using ^ marks or just a broad line), and then get to naming places. "The Anvil River," "Plains of Wrack," "The Glittering Sea." Then I start asking myself questions. Why is the sea "glittering?" Maybe it's a very shallow sea, but tossed by violent storms and chock-full of sea monsters, so there are tons of shipwrecks at the bottom, and on clear days (when you're not busy fighting off ocean beasts) you can see glints of treasure beckoning from the bottom.

In answering these questions, I find I open up other questions. If the sea is so dangerous, why is there so much traffic across it? Perhaps there's another continent on the other side where gold and jewels are plentiful, and the natives don't even see any value in them. So now I draw the new continent and have to answer questions like, "Are the natives of this rich continent civilized and powerful, backward and savage, or just unconcerned with worldly things, perhaps a woodland society of satyrs and nymphs?" And, "Have the nations of the main continent ever tried to conquer the mineral-rich one?"

The answers to all these questions get me started on political divisions and history (maybe those "Plains of Wrack" are the devastated ruins of a vast city, blasted to wreckage in some long-ago war or catastrophe), and I make notes of all of that as I continue to draw new geographic features, mark the boundaries of countries, dot in important cities, and so on.

My other method involves planning a world around some big idea, some concept that makes it significantly different from other worlds I've read about. For instance, while I've read plenty of s.f. novels about water worlds, I've never read a fantasy book set on a world without land. Let's say I want to do an ocean-based fantasy world. In this case, I have to jump straight into asking about the ramifications. If there's truly no land, where do people get building materials from? Perhaps more importantly, are there surface-dwelling people at all, or are all the races in this world aquatic? I don't want to get too alien, so I go with surface dwellers. But surface dwellers with arms and legs and feet imply one of two things: either they are immigrants from another world/plane of existence, or they are the remnants of a time when land existed on this world. Each of those possibilities carries with it an important historical event: the arrival of the first immigrants, or the disaster that somehow flooded the surface of this world with so much water.

I like the sound of a disaster, but I also like the idea of an intrusion from another plane, so I decide to put them together. At some point in the past, a powerful mage opened a magical gate to the bottom of an ocean on another plane. Perhaps he was experimenting and something went wrong, or perhaps he was trying to irrigate a desert. In any event, he could not close the gate, and eventually, the water level of the two worlds equalized at a level that drowned all the continents of the wizard's world.

Now there are lots of other questions to answer. How long did the flooding take? Is it possible people weren't even worried at first, especially if a new river flowing from the gate helped them turn a desert into fertile farmland? What else came through the gate along with the water? What steps did the nations of the flooding world take, once they realized that sea level had begun to rise? What ocean-dwelling races were already present in the world -- mermaids, sirens, sea dragons? How did those creatures respond to having their territories enlarged, but also to having the balance of their ecosystems upset?

Just by posing and answering these kinds of questions I can quickly come up with a wealth of background material and story ideas, all of which flow organically from the original concept. Then it's just a matter of fine-tuning them and deciding on the specific story I want to tell within the setting.

At any rate, those are my two main methods. I usually use them in some combination, either starting with a map and later working in concepts that make the world fundamentally unique, or starting with the concepts and creating a map once I feel I have the conceptual ideas well established.

For my Delvonian Empire setting, I started with an idea I'd had back in high school, of a world with floating continents suspended in air. I'd expected it to be a science fiction setting when I first imagined it, but by the time I returned to the concept, I'd changed my emphasis to fantasy (and found the science of floating continents to be awfully suspect anyway). To start with, I used the conceptual method, asking why the continents were floating in empty space. My answer was that a war between the gods ripped existing planetary worlds apart, nearly killing all the gods' worshippers and causing them to realize that acting within the mortal plane was maybe a bad idea. This led me to list out a bunch of deities for the world and construct an explanation of how the gods had reorganized the torn-apart matter of the planets in order to save the surviving inhabitants. Readers of the books will notice that almost none of this has made it into the books. So far, I haven't developed any stories that require the reader to understand this part of the world's backstory, so rather than squeeze it in artificially, I've just left it unsaid.

Once I had the background ready, and explanations for the major phenomena (like floatstone as the reason continents remain suspended), I turned to mapping. I started off with a large-scale map of Delvonia Major and Delvonia Minor, Hiisia, and a couple of minor continents. I drew these twice, once showing the major political divisions before the rise of the empire, and again showing the borders as they exist in the present. I did it that way because I knew that the empire was comparatively recent, and I wanted the feel of its various provinces to be that of independent cultural entities.

Okay, enough for now! If anyone finds this interesting, let me know, and I'll return to the subject in some future post.

Welcome to My New Blog!

Now that I'm self-publishing my books as ebooks, I figured I'd better start a blog. I hear they're all the rage.

I'll post things here on some kind of regular, semi-regular, or irregular basis. If you like something, leave a comment!