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My advice has also been, “If there’s a spaceship in the story, it’s science fiction. If there’s a unicorn in the story, it’s fantasy. If the unicorn is piloting the spaceship, let the marketing department figure it out.”

It is well-known that genre labels are artificial, designed only to market books to niche fandoms who might find them most appealing. (Which makes it really odd when people fight over what is “science fiction” versus “fantasy,” especially after Star Wars mashed the whole thing together.)

I was reminded of this recently when I saw a copy of The Rules of Magic, by Alice Hoffman. Now, there is no doubt that this book is fantasy: it’s about magic. But you won’t find it on the Science Fiction/Fantasy shelf, because it’s labeled as “Fiction” (as if the rest isn’t). But the author has found herself a wider audience and so escapes the genre niche. (Diana Gabaldon does the same with Outlander.)

So far, though, this is old news. What piqued my interest was a Facebook post I saw on a page devoted to “sword and planet” books, which noted that the 35th Gor novel is being published. (I was surprised; the series started in the 1960s and I thought it had expired long ago.) The post explained that regardless of what you think of the Gor books, they are certainly “sword and planet” and belong in the pantheon.

For those who have not clicked on the links, a couple of short explanations are in order. “Sword and planet” generally describes books where the hero is transported by some means to a distant planet where, although technology is advanced, the natives still use swords in their arsenals. The hero typically gets caught up in local disputes and adventures ensue. The most famous example is Edgar Rice Burroughs’ “John Carter of Mars” series, which has inspired many imitators, including my own “Stolen Future” trilogy. The point is to create a romantic adventure in the classical sense of “romance.”

The Gor books, while certainly adopting the trappings, are nothing more than soft-porn male power fantasies. Women exist only to be slaves, chained up until they can be reduced to a “happier” state through domination and mistreatment. Most sword and planet fans who have read any (the first four or five, were more adventure and less … fantasy), quit and would never go back.

And therein lies the irony of genre labeling. Fantasy fans would love for Hoffman or Gabaldon to be seen as “genre,” because those books are as much fantasy as anything you find from Martin or Gaiman or Maas. On the other hand, the Gor books are found in the SF/fantasy section, and most fantasy fans would love to see them declared less genre–or moved, as in to the “adult” genre, and preferably only in the adult bookstore.

So maybe we should worry less about labels than about what’s inside, kind of that “don’t judge a book by its cover” thing. If nothing else, it will really confuse Amazon’s algorithms.

And perhaps we could expand that lesson beyond just our books.

#SFWApro

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The question comes up fairly often, and it came up today: How far afield can an author go from established facts and still keep an audience? This is similar to our last discussion, but different. Here the question is not why some people like an author so much they will let her get away with (literary) murder, but how far an author can stretch the truth–or more specifically, how many times in one story?

I once had a story rejected because it contained Too Many Wonders. (It was capitalized in the rejection letter. I can show it to you.) The complaint was that the story had too many fantastical elements when it should have depended on one major speculation. And if that’s how the editor wanted to run his magazine, then he was right to say so. Honestly, it wasn’t the only problem with that story and he wouldn’t have taken it anyway, but I had sent in a lot of stories by that point, and I think he was trying to be encouraging. I sold the story much later, but even then the editor asked for significant changes (and he was right).

But I see stories all the time where there’s more than one speculative element! you say. And you, too, are right. If your story is set in the future, practically all of the elements will be speculative in nature. (Ironically, my story was set in the far future. Didn’t help.) The relevant phrase here is “practically all.” There’s one thing that doesn’t change, that can’t change, and that’s the human element. No matter how many changes you make, your characters have to be identifiable to present-day audiences. (Unless you’re Fred Pohl. Then you can do anything you want.)

The problem with Too Many Wonders is that they distract from the characters. I once heard it said that SF is the easiest thing to write because you don’t need characters; you can depend on gadgets and aliens and exotic settings. That is, to use a polite term, garbage. The idea of SF is to use the fantastic to explore real-world ideas without seeming to, thus allowing the author to make a point without hitting the reader over the head with relevance. (Or it can just entertain. But the best SF, the best literature, does both.)

Regardless of whether it’s serious or fun, a story should make a point. And the only elements that inhabit that story should be those that help to make that point. I thought my story fit that description, and my long-ago editor did not. You see who won that argument. So when you ask why a story should only have one speculative element, the real question is, why does it need more?

Answer that question to determine which editor will read your story. Answer that question well, and many people will read your story, over and over again.

#SFWApro

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It seems that every time you turn the page in this writing gig (pun intended), you see something new, and come to understand something that you may have known, but didn’t really appreciate until it was put into such personal terms. And now it’s happening again: I’m coming to understand that when it comes to my readers, I don’t understand you at all.

Let me hasten to say that I appreciate you–more than you can know. For me to reach even this lowly plateau on the mountain that is literary success has taken so many years, and so many stories, that every day I marvel that so many of you have put even a few hours’ and a couple of bucks’ trust in me. The fact that some of you really seem to like what I’ve done is a delirious delight. And some of you don’t. That’s okay, I can live with criticism–in fact, that’s why I writing this post.

In personal injury law, there’s a principle that “you take your plaintiffs as you find them.” Readers are the same way; even though you try to present your product in a way that it will find an appreciative audience (putting futuristic cities on the cover to attract science fiction fans, for example), there’s always the chance that your reader just won’t connect with your story. It’s a sad thing for an author, but you can’t win them all, so as long as you do your best you just have to live with it. And it’s balanced by everyone who has found your book and given it five stars.

But how does that work? Why is it that (assuming that your readers have looked at your cover or read your blurb and know what they’re buying) two people can read the same story and have such diametrically-opposed opinions? And they can have conflicting opinions about the same elements of the story?

Part of this is that there are differing levels of dissonance that people will let slide. My wife reads a particular high-profile series in which, as she freely admits, the author is terrible at reconciling details, and gets some very basic facts wrong. And yet, my wife (and literally millions of others) hangs on her every word. In the same vein, I once put down a hugely-selling author’s book in a genre I should by rights find very enticing, because I thought he couldn’t write a compelling grocery list, let alone a doorstop-sized novel. And yet both those authors’ books are found in every airport. Again, it’s a balancing act; you do one thing so well it overshadows your weaknesses.

So why are some writers well-regarded by their peers and yet unable to make the same dent in the market as those who are less stylistically gifted? Aren’t all readers looking for the same thing, an escape from the everyday into a world where they can experience the vicarious lives of characters who may inspire, or excite, or even frighten them? Why are those considered the best in their field by their peers not necessarily those who can capture the popular imagination?

It’s the eternal struggle: First you want to write, then you start writing, then (usually) after great struggle, you manage to sell a story or two. Maybe you sell a novel. But you’re always climbing that mountain. And even if you get to the top, there are readers who will say, “Been there, tried him. Couldn’t finish.” At which point a thousand others will shout that person down and he’ll leave that Facebook group.

But is he right? Or can a million readers not be wrong?

Tell you what: Find me a million readers, I’ll do a survey. (Well, at that point I’ll have my people do a survey. I’m pretty sure that once you get to a million readers, you get to have people. I’ll let you know.)

#SFWApro

 

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And it’s done. Or at least it’s drafted. 58,650 words; the first draft, and I mean the first draft. This one is going to need to cleaning up.

It’s weird, the things you learn about writing, when you write. For instance, when I finished this latest, tentatively titled The Valley Beneath the World, a stand-alone book in my “Stolen Future universe, I honestly couldn’t remember how many books I’ve written. I mean, Digital Fiction has published three, and I’ve self-published four others plus one non-fiction book (more like a treatise in length, but it counts). And that doesn’t include the practice novels and the ones lying about or in submission, so we’re talking, um, at least 14.* I thought it was more like ten…

And that’s not the only thing. I’ve talked about characters taking over and directing the course of the story, but this was the first time my main character took over at the end of the book and explained what really happened while I thought I was writing it. Seriously, in the last chapter he sat down and explained all kinds of stuff I hadn’t known was going on. And now he expects me to go in and backfill everything, just because it makes a more interesting story than the one I thought I was telling.

I hate it when that happens!

So now before I can edit and do a read-through for draft 2, I have to go in and write draft 1.1. I mean yes, I knew there were placeholder names that had be fixed, but that’s what find-and-replace it for. Fortunately, he not only told me what happened, but he explained how he knew, which means I can go back in fill in those details for the reader. How thoughtful…

Really, I don’t mind characters taking over. I just wish they’d tell me what they’re doing.

*Technically, it’s more like 14 1/2.

#SFWApro

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The popular romantic view of writers is huddled souls shivering in an unheated attic room, bent over a piece of paper half-covered with cryptic scribblings that are unreadable because the writer is shaking too hard from the cold to write legibly. This picture conveys the impression that writers are poor, wretched, and half-mad, and consequently, is not completely inaccurate.

Obviously, most writers now use computers. And they don’t freeze in their garrets because they’re at the local Starbucks–which also argues against them being poor, although sitting in a coffee shop hoarding your rapidly-cooling latte and a half-eaten bagel can get expensive if you do it every day. (Not speaking from experience here, oh no, not at all…)

But the greatest inaccuracy about the romantic view of the writer is the word “romantic.” English majors (I am being kind by lumping all writers together as members of that noble fraternity) know that “romance” in fiction doesn’t mean “romance fiction.” There’s “romance” in the larger sense of being fictional, such as the old term “scientific romance,” which has been replaced by “science fiction,” still misunderstood but at least literally correct.

I, however, am purposely melding the various meanings here to make a point: If you want romance (literally), you don’t spend all your time being romantic (fictionally). Writing fiction takes time, and romantic partners tend to want you to spend time with them. Unfortunately, while you can divide your time into various pursuits, this subtracts from the amount of time you can spend on each one. And we cannot (as of yet) add or multiply time.

I have been known to spend hours, four or five nights a week, writing. If I don’t, it doesn’t get done. This has required sacrificing other enjoyments (bye, bye, TV), one of which is time spent with my lovely wife. She is surprisingly accommodating, but there are limits. And I, for my part, would like to spend time with her rather than on distant planets. But I can’t do both as much as I’d like.

It’s a balancing act, and it extends to your whole life. How people with small children find time to write is utterly beyond me. But all I know is my own experience, which tells me if you can’t separate the two kinds of romance, and find time for both, you’ll fail, at least one.

But then you might as well spend your time in a freezing garret, too cold to hold a pen. And it’s hard to get any writing done that way. As the Bard would declare if he were alive today: “Get thee to a Starbucks! And try the scones! They’re delicious!”

#SFWApro

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I hate my characters.

Me: This is not going well. I need a big finish. What’ve you got?

Characters: Go back.

Me: What? Why?

Characters: This part doesn’t work. It’s hampering you now.

Me: But that was my big reveal at the end of the second act! It informs all the character interactions for the rest of the book!

Characters: That may be so, but it doesn’t work. You can’t make people do what you want, just to fit the plot. You’re not J.J. Abrams.

Me: If you’re so smart, you write the book.

Characters: Isn’t that what you just asked us to do?

Me: Smart asses…

#SFWApro

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For a limited time, my comedy/fantasy/medieval quest novel, Once a Knight, is on sale for 99 cents!

brianswarriorfinal.pdf

Set in the quaint and you’ll-never-find-it-on-a-map kingdom of Ieed (named after the last words of its first king, who died in battle), Once a Knight is the story of two brothers, Bruce and Stephen Legume, who, after suffering the misfortune of being separated at birth, experience the even greater misfortune of finding each other again.

Bruce has been raised in Japan to become a noble and fierce samurai warrior. When his clan is betrayed, he is forced to flee to the West in order to discover the family Secret, which may help him avenge his adopted kinsmen. Stephen has grown up on the streets, never knowing a bed of his own (but plenty of others’). A rake and a con man, the only nobility he recognizes is the jack of hearts.

As they say, you can’t choose your family–no matter how hard you try.

And yet, through a series of adventures both thrilling and fortuitous, our boys find themselves the only hope of a kingdom besieged by enemies that appear invincible.

Will Bruce ever find the family secret? Will Stephen ever pay his bar bill? Can they save Ieed? Will they be able to keep from killing each other long enough to do the job?

Heroes. You take them where you find them.

“…cleverly written… [A] pun in every paragraph and a smile in every sentence…” – Fantasy-faction.com

 

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