Thursday, December 23, 2010

I'm Dreaming of a Sandy Christmas

I began planning for this next vacation a few months ago. Vacations are great, but knowing you must take on in the middle of winter can be a bit limiting. We first tried to plan a trip to Florida to visit my favorite aunt and take in the Harry Potter theme park, but the flights were incredibly bad. So, we decided to head to Thailand.


I have been to Thailand twice before, so I knew that the weather there is generally fantastic around Christmas and New Year's. My family has never been there, and Bangkok is gorgeous, so I am really excited to show it to them. We lived in Beijing for three years, but it isn't exactly a beautiful city, and they have destroyed a lot of what made it exotic.

Here is a shot I took while riding an elephant on Christmas Day in 1995, and below is a picture of me on James Bond Island near Phuket (part of one of the Bond movies was filmed there).

We'll spend the first week in Bangkok, and then head for the beaches of Pattaya. I'll be gone until mid-January, so I want to wish all of those who visit a great holiday season!

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

We're Getting Better All The Time

I imagine that most first-time writers follow a similar path to my own, in that we first write our novel and only then (or in my case it was about halfway through my first book) do we really start checking out 'writing' online via blogs and articles. In other words, we write our first books while relatively uneducated about all things writing/agenting/publishing.

If you are like me, you look back over each year spent online and are just amazed at how much you have learned about writing. No matter how much I love my first book, after everything that I have learned I know I could rewrite it far better than I did.

This leads to a potential trap for writers -- we realize how much more we have to learn and how much we are in fact learning all the time, so we can wonder whether we should really be bothering to put our first works out there for agents and publishers to see. I think it's a valid concern, and for many of us (myself included) I think the answer may be that we really should (at some point) go back and rewrite that first novel. I know so much more now that I am really excited about my second novel, so I plan on shelving my first until I complete the second. But I don't want my beloved first book to collect dust forever. I want it to be published. I don't think it needs a complete rewrite, but I do think I can at least rework the beginning to make it more immediately exciting for readers.

How about you? What are your thoughts on what it means to enter into the online writing world?

Monday, December 20, 2010

Nitpicking Great Authors

I've been doing a lot more reading lately, which is great since I just love reading, but I've been doing so with a writer's eye so that I can try to pick up small hints at bettering my own writing.


The book I am reading right now is Scott Lynch's The Lies of Locke Lamora. I am enjoying it very much so far (I am about a third of the way through this very hefty tome). Lynch has a way with witty dialogue, interesting world building, and good description.

He breaks some rules (such as using lots of parenthetical remarks, like this) but makes it a part of his voice, so it works.

I don't really wish to sound like I am being nitpicky on a very successful author, but I do so from the point of view of trying to always learn and better myself as a writer. I think that even the best authors make small mistakes and can get better. I've seen only two things that I would do differently if I were writing this book, and they are relatively minor, which means that Lynch is really very good (and definitely worth reading!).

One is that he has every character that I have met so far have the same witty dialogue. Even in a world where citizens all pride themselves on witty repartee not everyone would be good at it.

The second one is certainly very nitpicky, but no less true. The city where this story takes place is a lot like Venice, with lots of islands. Lynch put a bunch of ancient bridges and buildings from some vanished race all over the islands. This is a cool idea, but the problem is that islands are not set in stone. Tides change along with ocean levels (and with three moons this would be even more true than on Earth), so all these bridges and catwalks would not necessarily still be in the correct places after so many centuries. See, I told you it was nitpicky, but it was something that I noticed as a reader. I try to avoid such inaccuracies in my own writing, though I imagine someone will point out something to me eventually!

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Breaking Into Epic Fantasy As An Unknown Writer

In this blog post I read about an epic fantasy panel at the World Fantasy Convention. What I liked most about the panel was when they spoke about new writers trying to break into epic fantasy. They suggested that new writers would have a harder time trying to sell the typical trilogy, and that they may be better off trying to sell stand-alone epic fantasies, though each book may still reside within the same make-believe world.

Hey, this is what I am already doing! I have five stories prepared within the fantasy world that I created, and I expect I will come up with many more. All of them are so far designed as stand-alone stories. There are some characters who are the same in each, but none of the stories follow directly after another.

I didn't set out to avoid the trilogy model. I set out to write one epic fantasy. But the world I created had a whole history, or the book wouldn't have been any good, and creating that history naturally led to events in other time periods that were interesting enough to warrant books of their own.

So, I like the stone skipping analogy in that blog post. It fits nicely with what I am planning for my own fantasy world. Now if I can only get an agent or publisher to share this vision with me!

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Agents, I Dare You!

I've touched on this idea before, but not once has anyone taken me up on it. Basically it's this -- I challenge you to find a single well-written Tolkienesque fantasy novel that did not sell well. Honestly, I would love to know if there is one. I am fairly well read within the fantasy genre, and I cannot find even one. In other words, my idea is that if writing a good Tolkienesque fantasy always sells very well, then it is as close to a sure thing as one can get in publishing. So then why would agents pass up a well-written Tolkienesque fantasy novel?


I don't count the official Dungeons & Dragons books, because in my opinion they don't fall into the category of 'well written' (with apologies to the many people who really love Drizzt). I count books such as The Sword of Shannara, which was a blatant rip-off of Tolkien that was a mega-best seller, and McKiernan's Iron Tower trilogy and Silver Call duology, which were also extremely blatant in their following of Tolkien, yet again they sold very well.

My books do not copy any of Tolkien's plot lines; they merely dwell within the Dungeons & Dragons/Tolkien-style world that I grew to love so much as a young D&D player. I purposely set out to avoid what bugs most people about the official D&D books, i.e. that they seem to much like a game, are not realistic enough, and have plasticky characters. I wanted mine to read like a true, well-written novel, but set within a D&D type world. There are a ton of readers out there who never want to see another elf or dwarf in a book again, and more power to them, but they would be wrong to think that there aren't also a ton of readers out there who crave more.


So, I challenge any agent to show me a well-written Tolkienesque fantasy book that didn't sell well. I would love for that agent to tell me why my books shouldn't be given a chance, since they fall directly into the category of 'a sure thing' (not to mention that Game of Thrones and the Hobbit movies will draw a lot of attention back to epic fantasy).

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Fantasy As Escapism

I read on this blog about the World Fantasy Convention, and I was struck by one of the blogger's very first quotes from one of the panels:  "J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis were living in a war era; they were living in an unsatisfactory present, so in their writing they looked back to a more appealing era."

I don't love fantasy explicitly because of this. I just happened to read my first fantasy novel when I was young and absolutely loved it. I loved it far more than all the other types of books that I enjoyed, so I naturally began reading more fantasy. I also got into playing Dungeons & Dragons, so that further pushed me in this direction.

However, I really think there is at least something to this idea that fantasy offers a desirable escape from an unpleasant world. I know that I, for one, am thoroughly discouraged about humanity in general. There are certainly many wonderful individuals out there, but the pure amount of selfishness, corruption, and the vast lack of empathy that I encounter in so many people leave me with a strong distaste for this world. I have no hope left that this world will ever truly become a wonderful place in which to live. There are small victories over time (America has resolved most of the corruption issues that plague most other countries in the world) and these are certainly worth fighting for. I live to try to improve what I can, even in small but significant ways such as instilling true empathy in my children. But for me it is not enough, and that is why I more and more love to dwell within the beautiful, if unrealistic, worlds of my favorite fantasy novels.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Twenty Years Later...

I encounter my old crit group partner Matt Rush at an enormous Seattle writers convention.

*******
Matt:  Hey, Ted!  Man, it's been a long time!

Me:  No kidding!  We've both been busy, though.  What's that now, you've gotta be closing in on your twentieth book?

Matt:  It only feels that way!  This one was my thirteenth. And you!  When are you ever going to break the mold, live a little?  I mean, what is it, fifteen books and every one of them in the same fantasy world?  I thought you said you were a sci-fi writer, too?

Me:  I always did want to do that. You know how it works. They pigeonholed me.  Said my audience wants more of what I've already given them.

Matt:  Ah, I guess I got lucky that the young adult phase passed and my agent let me move on. Oh hey! I was looking through my archives last week and stumbled across my old blog. Can you believe we were ever that lame?!

Me:  Aw, man, don't even remind me!  Publishing sucked back then. We all secretly thought we were good and were being overlooked; wondered if we'd ever get picked up.

Matt:  Yeah, yeah. Hey, it all worked out. It's amazing how many of those old blogging pals are still around. Mid-listers, a few big-timers like Simon.

Me:  Simon. We all knew he'd do it once he got off his lazy butt and stopped writing about vampires.  Never knew he'd do this well, though. Move over Stephen King!

Matt:  Yeah, won't even talk to us anymore. And a romance author! Who'da thunk it? Hey, I hate to run off this quick, but I've got a lecture. We need to catch up more. Drinks later at the club?

Me:  I don't drink.

Matt:  Damn!  I always forget that!  Okay, the Pepsi's on me.  Good seeing ya, man.
********

Sorry, Matt, for putting words in your mouth! I was just in the mood for a little fun. If anyone doesn't know who Simon is, check out Matt's post about our crit group.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Patrick Rothfuss

I checked out Patrick Rothfuss's blog for the first time today. Now come on, don't any of you tell me you haven't heard of him! He's only the most successful debut author of epic fantasy in recent history for his book The Name of the Wind.

I had never read anything about the author himself, so what hit me the most was how down-to-earth he seemed. Reading about him reminded me so much of myself in certain small ways, or at least in our down-to-earthness. I was also struck hard by him saying that his book had been rejected by every agent in the known universe. You see, that's the thing that eats at me about agents and publishers these days -- they write all these blog posts about how wrong we are to call them out about overlooking great books, yet how could anyone have passed up this one? It just didn't grab them? How come they all LOVE, LOVE, LOVE it now?

Okay, so it wasn't exactly the same when they saw it as opposed to the published version. That's the whole point to me -- why are they only looking for a completely perfect, finished version of a book rather than recognizing real writing talent when it is there? It took Patrick going to a conference before he was finally able to get someone to take notice, and - voila - he gets one of the biggest fantasy debuts in ages. I bet it took some real work from the agent and editors to polish it into what it became, but wasn't that worth it? I would say 'YES', obviously.

Sorry for the mini-rant, but I feel like I am in a similar situation to where Patrick was before he finally got discovered. I have spent more than twenty years building my world in my head. I spent more than three writing the first book. I know it needs some polishing to make it shine. I know I am getting better as a writer all the time. But, why wouldn't an agent see the talent that is there and want to help turn out another Patrick Rothfuss rather than allow some other agent to get me somewhere down the line? It's not like I have amateurish big-issues with my first book; it just needs a bit of rewriting in the early stages to make it more tense. I'm fully convinced that I can be a well-known fantasy author. I know I can do it eventually over many years of hard work, but I still think that an agent should be good enough to recognize talent early and want to snag the writer before another gets him or her.

I'm not suggesting that agents or publishers should want to deal with writers who need a ton of help. I just wish they would be more willing to nurture those who show real talent, have an interesting concept, and look like they could really have something awesome with just a bit of guidance.

And since I am in THAT kind of mood right now, I'll mention that I did query Rothfuss's agent, and he never responded at all. Okay, I'll be back to my usual cheerful self tomorrow (I think it's my sore throat and headache that did this to me today)!

Monday, December 6, 2010

Rethinking My POV Characters

If you read my previous post you would know that I had been planning at least two central point-of-view (POV) characters in this second fantasy novel I am writing. I described the first one last time and I promised to describe the second this time. I was excited that day because I had just come up with the idea of that second character, and I felt that this new character helped me to resolve the very issue that was my greatest weakness in my first book -- there was no immediate connection of my characters to the antagonist, so conflict and tension (at least through the first third of the book) always felt too remote.

Well, I have had time to think and ponder and mull over and stew and whatever else we writers do when we are building our stories, and I have come to the conclusion that I may not need this second character to be a POV character after all.
His name is Villem Tathis.  He is the third son of a minor noble, meaning that he has been raised to become a knight. At some point in his young life (he is 17 when the story opens) he realizes just how unfair the feudal system is, i.e. that only his oldest brother will inherit the small keep and town that his father owns, and he will get nothing but his war horse and gear and perhaps a marriage to the daughter of another minor noble. His bitterness grew to the point where the magic of the spire forces him to live in fear and weakness. Like most such people in the Known Lands, he can't live for long that way, so he sets off to join the army at East Gate (many able-bodied men who can't handle the magic of the spire go to East Gate since it lies outside of the spire's area of effect). I figured this made him a perfect character to start off 'bad' and later be redeemed, all the while giving readers the close connection to the primary antagonist, Prince Darus Kaldarion (who, like the others, spends his time with the army because he is affected badly by the spire).

There are two problems that I thought about over the weekend. One is that there are only a few natural scenes early on for this character, and his major storyline doesn't begin until the last third of the book. The second is that if I find ways to force him to have a full number of chapters throughout, I believe it will make the book too long, especially for it to maybe fall into the Young Adult category.

So, I am now thinking of sticking to the one POV character of Imric. I haven't ever written a story solely from the viewpoint of one character, so this should be challenging for me!

Thursday, December 2, 2010

The Shattered Spire

I am writing my second novel now, tentatively titled The Shattered Spire until I can come up with something more inspired. It is set around eight centuries prior to my story in The Shard. My last blog post detailed the high level concept for this next book, and I think this idea gives me a lot of room for adding a lot more tension and conflict from the very start than my first book did.

I haven't completely decided on how many point-of-view (POV) characters I will use in this story, but I do know two of them so far, so I figured I could tell you a bit about them here.

The first (and primary character) is Imric Kaldarion, the 13-year-old youngest son of the king. Now hold on with the eye rolling. I know loads of fantasy protagonists are royalty, but this is a bit different than usual. Poor Imric has never been acknowledged by his father, who so loved the queen that when she died giving birth he was inconsolable. He blamed the wizard Xax, who had understood the queen was beyond saving and cut her open to try to save the baby, and he blamed the baby as well. The baby was so sickly that no one expected him to live, so the king abandoned Imric to his fate. With the help of his eldest sister Liva, Imric did survive, though he purposely pretends to remain sickly so that he will remain unnoticed by his father and not have to join his brothers in being raised as a knight but can instead study (he loves to read histories of the Known Lands) under Liva's tutelage. His older brothers call him 'Rat' since he always seems to be scuttling about the back halls of the castle 'spying' on everything that goes on.
Imric has two brothers. The apparent heir is feebleminded. Everyone expects that the king will pass him over in favor of the younger son, only the king has never gotten around to actually announcing this. The younger son is off leading the army at distant East Gate because he is one of those who cannot stomach living within the influence of the spire, since he has grown up bitter and jealous about being clearly better than his older brother but not being the heir. Nearly the entire army is made up of men who could not live within the realm due to the negative influence of the magic upon those who have too much of some bad trait within their hearts. When the spire is destroyed  by a dragon and the king later slain (when the dragon attacks the capital), this younger son will be the most obvious antagonist as he leads the army from East Gate against his older brother (who is being championed by his uncle since the king never truly renounced his eldest as heir).

Since this post is already getting too long, I'll talk about the second POV character in my next post.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The Drawbacks of Peace

The book I am currently writing is set eight hundred years prior to the events in The Shard (my first fantasy novel). It begins with the event that destroys a peace that has been magically enforced upon the major civilized realm for more than five thousand years. This gives me the opportunity to explore some interesting ideas concerning this enforced peace.

The Peace Spire was a monument built to bring the races back together at the end of a terrible war. In this war, the races of elf and dwarf were tricked by an evil wizard (who nobody yet knew had gone bad) into going to war with each other. They went at each other with a vengeance until the evil wizard struck them with his armies of orcs, trolls, and goblins. The elves and dwarves belatedly realized they had been duped, but they put aside their enmity to join together to fight back, and eventually after years of bloody conflict they prevailed.

The council of wizards felt that something was needed to help heal the wounds of the war, so they helped the elves and dwarves construct an enormous spire, and on the top they placed a huge crystal that they imbued with powerful magic. The magic could look into the hearts of all living beings within its area of effect and see whether they were basically good or evil (since these are artificial constructs, it actually had a complex means of looking at various vices and emotions, such as empathy, jealousy, hatred, love, etc.). If one was good then at times of great need (when one's pulse raced, or as modern people would see it, when adrenaline was pumping) the person would gain courage and strength, while those with evil in their hearts would despair and feel weak.
The consequences of this are obvious. Anyone who was basically bad could not stomach living under such conditions and migrated to towns and cities that sprang up beyond the area of effect of the spire. Those who were good began, over time, to no longer choose on their own to be good, but were conditioned to be so.

So, what happens when the Peace Spire is destroyed? That's the big idea for this new book, and I am relishing the challenge. Can people conditioned to only peaceful thoughts and feelings defend themselves from evil? Naturally those on the fringes will gleefully take advantage of the situation. This is going on too long, so I'll reserve space to tell about the actual story line for the next post.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Tension and Conflict

Tension and Conflict are arguably the most critical elements for maintaining reader interest in a fantasy story. Sadly, this appears to be my biggest weakness as a writer. For my book's first hundred pages or so the conflict never becomes dire and always seems remote. Well, that's because it is remote. I tell the story using close 3rd, which means I can't show what's happening if the character is not there to see it.

My epic fantasy basically follows this model:

1. Life changing event happens for a character
2. The character must journey to the place where the action is
3. The character arrives and the action really starts

My weakness is in number 2, the journey to where the action begins. Now, writers have always used little plot events to make journeys more entertaining. Tolkien threw in black riders to give real menace to the journey of Frodo and company, and he added in all kinds of waypoints such as Tom Bombadil. My problem is that I absolutely loathe contrived action. I don't like throwing in a band of robbers along the road or other such things, unless it can feel like an authentic part of the story. Also, a band of robbers is just a tiny event along the way and doesn't lend itself to maintaining tension. Black riders who continue to hound you all along your journey do keep this tension, but it's already been done before. For the life of me I can't come up with a similar plot device to maintain tension throughout the journeys of each of my POV characters. I do have little events that happen to them, but as I explained above, they don't maintain tension if they don't follow the characters along their road.

I suppose this is just a weakness I'll have to spend a lot of time working on. My action really takes off once the characters arrive at their destinations, but that does no good if the readers don't read that far. How do you deal with this issue?

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Home Run Books

I keep reading various articles and blogs talking about how these days the major publishing houses have moved to a model where they are seeking to publish fewer books while selling larger amounts of the ones they do publish. Rather than remain diverse in what they sell, they are looking for more 'home run' books that sell mega-amounts.

This is really depressing for most of us, I think. I am writing books that I wish to read, and I don't think my primary tastes fall into the category of what makes up a home run book. I didn't much care for The DaVinci Code or Twilight. I did like Harry Potter, and that has spawned a whole Young Adult phase that is also killing off writers like me who do adult speculative fiction. I have nothing against Young Adult books. I just wish all the agents and publishers weren't jumping on the YA bandwagon so heavily that many of them specifically ask only for YA on their websites these days.

Sure, they are selling a lot of YA today. But that can blind them to tomorrow's trends. I see A Game of Thrones HBO series being produced and building up a tremendous amount of excitement because it looks like they may be doing it right (the way that Peter Jackson finally did a fantasy the right way after decades of pathetic fantasy efforts). I see the two Hobbit movies coming out in the next few years. The Hobbit may technically be YA, but it doesn't have that feel. It feels more like epic fantasy, and A Game of Thrones is completely adult fantasy. Any half smart publishing exec looking for home run books right now should be thinking about this.

Another thing to keep in mind is that the vast majority of epic fantasy lovers already purchased the Tolkien books because of the Lord of the Rings movies. They will be looking for something new once the above shows come out.

The problem remains that most epic fantasy novels are not so huge that they make it into the 'home run' category. They can do very well, as The Sword of Shannara demonstrated and A Game of Thrones also, but still they don't sell the tens of millions of copies that we saw with Harry Potter or DaVinci Code. If publishers insist on only going after home run books, it means that it will continue to be nearly impossible for writers like me to get published.

My hope is that some very smart small publishers will recognize the void and step in to snatch up books like mine. So far I don't see this happening. A couple months ago I looked up a big list of small publishers for fantasy. I went to each of their sites. Almost all of them were either closed to submissions or were looking for only YA or urban or paranormal fantasies. I found no one I could submit my books to.

So, I am writing my second novel right now. I wish I could write it in the same adult style that I used for the first. However, I keep fighting myself on this, thinking that if I just tailored it to the YA audience it would give me a much better shot at being published. I really don't want to go that route, but I can't stop thinking that I may have little choice, since I do wish to be a published writer.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

The Iron Druid Chronicles

Blogging buddy and all around good guy Kevin Hearne is living the dream right now with not one but all three of his first novels on pre-order through Amazon. Anyone who likes urban fantasy should at least check out the first book!

Monday, November 15, 2010

Missing Link

I know I haven't been blogging much. Sorry. Part of it is that my brain was hijacked by a new story idea. I was already writing a prequel to my first novel, but this new idea hit me like the proverbial freight train and I haven't been able to let it go.

I haven't been able to start typing out the story yet. The reason is that there is something missing. I have the characters. I know a whole bunch of great plot points. But I need something to tie it all up in a way that seems fresh and new. I don't want to simply look at the motivations of each character along with the chaos sown by the plot points and logically write out what happens next. Why? Because what happens next -- if done logically -- would probably sound an awful lot like any number of other past stories. This is the problem. I need something that is both logical but shockingly different.

I have several ideas for the best starting point, but each of them has certain drawbacks. Thus I can't get myself to begin until my mind can come up with a solution to these drawbacks.

Agh! My last book was so much easier, because I had no idea I was ever going to write it. The story evolved over more than twenty years and it was basically complete by the time I did decide to write it. This new story is killing me. It's been almost two months now since it hit and I still can't figure out the whole path.

Monday, November 8, 2010

It's Good to Feel Wanted

Life at a crossroads. We've all been there. You know those times in life when you have a big choice to make, and you hope that the choice you go with is the right one? Do you go to Stanford or to Princeton? (Ha, we should all be so lucky as to have a choice like that!)

In the Foreign Service we get these big choices every few years. A posting can be anywhere from two to four years long (actually three years is the max, but in certain positions one can extend for a fourth year). This means that we are continuously having to push for a new position, and often we end up having to choose between offerings. The choices are sometimes not hard to make, as one will be clearly nicer than another. Other times you get more than one offer that you like, so you have to pick one.

The State Department rates posts by level of hardship based upon lots of different criteria. I have had five hardship-level postings in a row, ranging from the harder posts like Baku, Moscow, and Beijing, to the mild hardships like Zagreb and Reykjavik. My family wanted a break from this; we wanted a non-hardship posting this time around.

So, I bid on nothing but nice posts this time. This can backfire on you, because these types of posts tend to have a large number of bidders for each position, so there is nothing to say you will actually be offered any of these nice positions. If you end up with no offers, you can end up with the truly unsavory posts because that may be all that is left. There is a huge difference between competing for a job in, say, Bamako, with a mere three bidders versus trying to get a nice job in London or Prague with more than thirty bidders.

I ended up being very lucky this cycle. I got to choose from among several really nice positions, because I was selected as the top choice for each of them. There is a drawback, however (even if it is a nice one to have, so I am not complaining!), and that is that we can only choose one. How sad to have to turn down Paris, Vancouver, and Brussels. My family would have loved all of those places. My wife and I honeymooned in Paris, so we knew we would love it there, and I have always wanted to check out Vancouver and Brussels.
Budapest at Night
We simply could not turn down Budapest, though. My wife and I both love Budapest. I have been there twice before, including this past July. It is a lovely city with tons to do. One of my favorite hobbies is chess, and Budapest is perhaps the best city in the world in which to pursue this hobby. One can participate in high-level professional chess tournaments each and every month of the year there!

There is also a good school for our children, which is another of the most important criteria for us. Also, it is very easy to travel to many amazing places close to Budapest, such as Vienna, Prague, Bratislava, Zagreb, and so many others. It isn't hard to take the train or drive into Italy, Austria, Germany and so forth.
Budapest at Night
Lastly, I am so starved for my favorite American foods. In many of my postings I have had to survive on local foods and a smattering of what I can order through the mail, which isn't enough. In Budapest we have the ability to order food from our bases in Germany. Yay, I will finally be able to have a broader range of dinners!

I have been dreaming of being posted to Budapest for years, but an appropriate position has never been available in my previous bidding cycles. When I saw it open this time, I held out little hope of getting such a highly sought after job. I feel so fortune right now, and my family is excited. We should finish up here in Baku by next June and arrive in Hungary in either July or August.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Inaccuracy Means Mediocrity

Sorry, I have been in a bit of a slump lately and haven't been inspired to blog. Yesterday, though, I watched a movie that should have been just the type of movie I love, but due to a common problem in movies I ended up disliking it very much. The problem is directors being purposely inaccurate in how they depict things, most likely playing to what they think the audience wants rather than what is actually true.

The movie was called Centurion. Now, I am a great lover of Roman history, and I snatch up all movies and books on this subject as long as they look at least halfway decent. I liked the series Rome, for instance, and Colleen McCullough's huge series of historical fiction novels about Rome is one of my all-time favorites.

I so wanted this movie to be good (dare I even imagine one that could be great?). They did do quite well with the way they made things look in the movie. However, the director committed one of the cardinal sins of movies with combat in them -- he made the combat utterly unrealistic.

This movie reminded me of other recent ones that did the same thing -- Troy and 300. In each of these films the directors had the combatants set out to fight as individuals. For some reason they each had their Greeks or Romans put in a brief appearance of a proper formation, but this was just for show and as soon as actual combat began the men all sprang out of place and fought one on one. This is NOT how Greeks and Romans fought. They fought in shield walls, maximizing their strength of organization against the often superior numbers of their foes.

I can't explain just how appalling it is to me to see supposed Greeks or Romans fighting in a manner that is diametrically opposed to everything they believed in. To read about how they truly fought, I highly recommend Steven Pressfield's Gates of Fire, perhaps the most awesome historical fiction novel I have ever read.

Would it truly hurt a director someday to make a realistic portrayal of combat during Greek or Roman times? I think it would be like fantasy movies, where every director did mediocre low-budget tripe until Peter Jackson came along and showed everyone just how great such movies can be if done properly.

In my fantasy novel The Shard, I attempted to be as accurate as possible with combat while still hopefully making it interesting for the reader (and not be overly gruesome!). A couple of examples are in this post and in this one.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Steel Enema

Some people on Authonomy last week got a kick out of this excerpt from my fantasy novel The Shard, so I figured why not post it here. To set the scene, my MC Midas and his sons got themselves trapped inside a mountain along with a small group that was going after a dragon. Since Midas's primary goal was keeping his sons safe, he wasn't at all happy about this. After much exertion, the group manages to pass through the mountain and get within sight of the exit only to encounter an overwhelming number of goblins along with three trolls. The situation seems hopeless...

BTW, since the excerpt mentions the 'Kaldarion Sword', I had better let you know that this was found in the dragon hoard and was a dwarf-made weapon presented to the first great king of the Known Lands, Aronis Kaldarion, two thousand years earlier. It was lost when the dragon destroyed the capital city eight centuries ago.
**********

The first goblins smashed into the line and were cut down. Years of training snapped Midas out of his panic. He bulled forward into three goblins, bowling them over with his shield. He kicked at them while they flailed on the ground, and plunged his sword into the belly of the nearest. He thought for one last second about yelling to his sons to move to the rear, but then he was forced to turn all his attention to mere survival as new waves of goblins enveloped the group. The hall was too large to allow the party to maintain a shield wall, so the goblins easily swarmed around the flanks.


This is it! We’re dead! These words passed repeatedly through Midas’s head as he thrust and punched and kicked at howling figures that came at him from all sides. He swept his shield around in an arc, clearing a small space to his left. Then much of the torchlight dimmed as a massive figure loomed over him, sweeping a huge mace back over its head.

He couldn’t think. He knew he was about to die. The only bit of open ground he saw was the space beneath the troll’s legs, so with the logic of pure desperation he jumped forward and ducked under the massive pot belly. The troll’s ring mail skirt scraped against his helm, and with a surge of strength born of fear Midas plunged the Kaldarion Sword upward through the troll’s buttocks. Blood drenched his sword arm. He was shocked at how easily the blade penetrated all the way to the hilt.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Underlying Message Within a Story

Almost all stories have some sort of underlying message, in many cases more than one. I touch on many issues in my fantasy novel, from women's rights to evolution to religion to racism. However, there is one true emotional undercurrent to my book, and it is based upon my own greatest fear in life.

In my story, the main character has certain expectations to meet, from his duty to the king to his own expectations on how to properly prepare his children for life. These expectations are offset by his tremendous fear for the safety of his children, especially since he already experienced the death of his eldest son in a manner for which he holds himself responsible.

This ties in exactly with my greatest nightmare, which is a fear of something bad happening to one or both of my sons. As logical and sane as I consider myself to be, I cannot imagine what I would do if something happened to them. I feel like I would lose my mind and no longer want to live. So, I poured some of that fear into the story line of my main character, only I had him actually have to confront the reality of his fears coming true, not just with the original death of his eldest, but later with his youngest son also dying. I have to admit that I cannot read that part of the story without tearing up a bit. I read it aloud to my family and I had to pause when I reached that scene. I sure hope I never have to face this fear during my life.

A Problem of Characters versus Reality

Yesterday Nathan Bransford did a post about absent parents in YA fiction. The consensus opinion, with which I agree, is that the presence of parents interferes with the ability of the child protagonists to go out adventuring (not to mention that you get a built in amount of sympathy due to whatever has removed the parents).

I had a slightly different issue in my novel. All of us who have been studying writing have read numerous times that we must cut down the number of characters to just those that are truly needed for the story. It isn't good to introduce and let readers get to know a dozen characters and even more sub-characters if some of them play little role in the plot or their role could be just as easily done by an already existing character. My problem is that in a standard medieval society, families tend to be very large, often with more than a dozen kids. I do manage to show this in passing by describing some families this way, but when it comes to the families of key characters, I keep their numbers way down. After all, it wouldn't help the readers or the plot any to have to introduce 14 brothers and sisters, even if that is more realistic.

So, I find (for me) unsatisfying but plausible reasons for all of my major families to have only two or three kids. A mother died in childbirth and events have prevented the father from remarrying. A wife who dislikes her husband and avoids her wifely duties as much as possible. Anyhow, I kind of despise doing this, while at the same time I completely understand that having too many family members simply doesn't work for my kind of tale.

Have you had to compromise absolute realism in order to make your story more readable?

Thursday, September 23, 2010

North Hemisphere-centric

It occurred to me the other day that every fantasy book I have ever read was North Hemisphere-centric, regardless of whether it was set on Earth or an alternate-Earth. I tried to imagine doing my fantasy novel as if it were set in the Southern Hemisphere, with the ice/cold to the south and the deserts to the north. I bet if I did that many readers would be confused!

I thought about all the fantasy maps I have seen in my life, and in every case the cold and ice was to the north. In one sense this is logical, since our European medieval life (upon which most fantasy is based) was based in the north, and most fantasy readers also live in the north (the major exception being Australians). However, there is nothing to say that a different world would similarly be north-centric.

How about you, have you any thoughts on this? Have you read any fantasy books that were set in the Southern Hemisphere?

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Writing Fantasy Races

I purposely chose to use my favorite fantasy races in my book, well aware that there is a rabid group of writers/readers out there that never wants to see another elf or dwarf in a book again. I respect those readers' opinions, but I wish they would in return respect the fact that there are many readers who absolutely love reading about the standard fantasy races and want to read more about them. So, elves, dwarves, trolls, dragons, goblins, and even orcs populate my book. This is exactly what I love most, so if you are tired of such races, well my book is simply not written for you.
What I really wish to discuss is an odd problem I encountered while writing the book -- whether or not to capitalize the race names when they are used. I had never thought about it before. When I started typing out the story, I initially used capitals, not even really thinking about it. It was no problem to use 'Elf' and 'Dwarf' as I typed, but I initially hit a snag when I first needed to use the term for the human races. Would I always capitalize 'Man'? I thought it was no big deal and simply did so for a while, but I began to encounter things I hadn't thought about.

I turned to Tolkien to try to resolve the issue. He only confused me more, since he was not entirely consistent in his usage. For the most part, he capitalized race names whenever they were used in their broad form, but he did not use capitals when the usage was personal. So, if he was referring to the dwarf Gimli, it would not be capitalized, but he would use the word Dwarves when referring to the race in general.

Okay, so I began doing this in my book, only to run into snags. I had one sentence where an elf was referred to personally but there was also a generic usage of Elves within the same sentence. So, if I went with Tolkien, I would have had the same term in one sentence with one capitalized and one not. I could just see a literary agent looking at my text and dismissing me as an idiot!

So, I dropped it all and decided to go with all lower case for races! It isn't a perfect solution, because I always run into critters who wonder why nothing is capitalized, but honestly it is the simplest solution that I could find.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Favorite Woman Authors

I have blogged many times about my favorite authors, J.R.R. Tolkien and George R.R. Martin. It would be a little unfair to leave Robert E. Howard and Stephen King off of that list, too. However, I haven't blogged much about my favorite female authors, and I do have some whose books I love and reread every so often.

My favorite has to be Colleen McCullough.




























Sorry for so many links, but this entire series is brilliant. Anyone who loves the history of Rome simply cannot miss out on these books. I studied Roman history all my life, as it was my favorite period (especially Republican Rome), but I still learned more from this fictional account of history than I ever had before. McCullough uses real history as best she can, while fictionalizing most of the action within the historical pieces. Her writing is vivid and exciting, and I will most likely reread this series throughout my entire life, just as I do with Tolkien or Martin.

My next favorite is Ursula LeGuin, primarily for her fantastic Earthsea series. I do have a bunch of her other books on my shelf, but I have not gotten around to reading them yet. Regardless, no fan of fantasy should miss her Earthsea books. If you think young wizards discovering their power and going through a wizard school is cliche by now, well remember that LeGuin did it first. Sorry, Harry Potter!















 The last one I will feature this time is a lesser known author, but she deserves better, all the more so because the subject of her fantasy novels is one I would normally think I wouldn't like, yet she manages to make it truly interesting. It is Katherine Kurtz for her Deryni cycles. There are too many of them to put them all up here, so I will just put one and let you know that the entire series is well worth reading. Religion plays a huge role in these, and I have never been thrilled with such books, but Kurtz makes it work very well. 

 Now, there are many more female authors that I love. I must mention J.K. Rowling since I will certianly be revisiting the Harry Potter novels, despite the fact that I am not a big fan of YA books. I have some books on my shelves that I have not yet read, while I have heard good things about the authors, such as Mary Kay Penman or Robin Hobb.

 So, what female authors will you always reread?

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Romantasy

I decided to follow up on my last post because I hadn't been prepared the first time I visited B&N. This time I went back with a pen and paper so I could take down title and author names. To recap, I was stunned the other day (the first time I had the chance to go to a real bookstore in a couple of years) to see just how attrocious the covers were on many titles I saw on the shelves in the Sci-Fi/Fantasy section (with apologies to Kevin Hearne).

It appears that today's publishers have decided to go after the huge female audience for romance by turning speculative fiction covers into mimics of romance covers. As Alex Cavanaugh stated in the comments yesterday, they also seem to want to place supernatural stories in the fantasy section rather than in the horror section where they belong (though I would imagine that the brilliant Anne Rice is quite happy not to have these books shelved next to hers).

I call these new covers Romantasy, which I define to mean a cover that at first glance looks like a romance but turns out to be a speculative fiction book. The very first shelf I saw in the fantasy section the other day had nothing but these books on it. Here are the first six I saw on the shelf:

For those of you who love such work, more power to you. I am not trying to offend you. I just cannot for the life of me figure out why anyone would want to see such covers when you could have great covers instead. Check out the Frazetta covers for the Conan novels, or Alan Lee's work on McKiernan's Iron Tower trilogy. How about the art for Fritz Leiber's Fafhrd and Gray Mouser books? Awesome. Only one cover stood out to me on the shelves when I looked today. It isn't the best I have seen, but it is head over heels better than those above:
The book is Ghosts of Ascalon. See, it is still paranormal in style, but it is actually interesting and immediately conveys the fantasy setting. I would buy this book and hope that the story inside reflects the care that the publishers took on the cover art. The others? I will never get the chance to see if they have a decent story inside, because I would never buy such a book.

One last thought that strikes me as interesting (completely scientific, of course, based upon my own long life of reading speculative fiction). I have found that the quality of covers alone actually does tend to predict the quality of the work inside. I have never yet encountered a great cover that did not end up having a great story inside, and conversely I have never been surprised by how good a book is when it has a terrible cover. Not once, ever. There is a gray area, though, in those books that have mediocre covers -- these ones I have found can range from great to awful. For instance, I thought the George R.R. Martin covers for ASOIAF were very mediocre, but the story is fantastic.

Friday, September 17, 2010

What's With Fantasy Covers These Days?

I've been in Rochester, Minnesota since Monday and haven't had much inspiration for blogging. Today I finally had time to wander into the local Barnes & Noble. It's nice to get to visit a real bookstore.

I was immediately struck by the first rack of fantasy books I saw -- all the covers looked like romance novels with hot babes on them. I had to look closer because I thought someone must have stuck a bunch of romances in the wrong spot. Nope, they are all fantasy books. Is this some new trend?

Having seen those and feeling, "Yuck, what terrible cover art the publishers are going for these days.", I walked along the entire fantasy section simply looking at how the covers were like in general. Now, they did improve a bit over that first section (where someone must have purposely gathered all of the new Romantasy) but I was truly underwhelmed. I sure wish I could be in charge of a marketing section at a publisher. I would do much better covers, ones that would really grab the readers.

Oh, where are the new Frazetta's and Alan Lee's and John Howe's for today's books?

Friday, September 10, 2010

What's Your Greatest Skill?

I've been putting off posting because I was hoping to get more readers for my last post, which was the first real action excerpt I have posted from The Shard. Yeah, I know many readers don't have time to read longer posts, but those who have read it seemed to enjoy it!

I leave on Monday for Rochester, Minnesota in case anyone I 'know' online is from that area. I'm having some testing done at the Mayo Clinic for some digestion issues I have had. No big deal, but it will be nice to have them diagnosed properly so I can take care of them.

World Champion Garry Kasparov in the process of beating me in 35 moves
Okay, so how about a non-writing topic for a change? Greatest non-writing skill? For me it is chess. I started chess late, at around age 16, but I really got into it pretty heavily. I've now played chess all over the world, gained a correspondence master title, tied for 1st in the US Amateur Championship in 2001, and played against five world champions. I wonder if there are any other amateur players out there who have played against Kasparov, Karpov, Kramnik and Anand?
Me playing World Champion Anatoly Karpov
 How about you? What's your greatest non-writing skill?

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Blood & Gore Blogfest Entry

I so wanted to try doing a Blogfest for the first time, but I am getting swept up in too many things right now. I wanted to call it something like Blood & Gore Blogfest, or perhaps simply Gorefest. The idea was to post a scene that gets good and bloody.

I'll go ahead and present the scene I meant to use. My party has a decent number of members, so please forgive the names, but basically they are trapped within a vast dark mountain city that used to belong to the dwarves but has been abandoned for eight centuries. Since the main exit was blocked, they are attempting to make their way through the mountain to escape through the other exit. They haven't run into too much trouble yet...

The main character is the minor noble Midas, while Sol is the higher ranking noble and is in charge. Fridrik is Midas's squire. There is a group of warriors with Icelandic names; this is because they are descended from an Icelandic geneticist who arrived with the other scientists from Earth 6,000 years before. Xax is the only remaining scientist left (at least as far as he knows).


*****
It wasn’t long before all were asleep except for the sentries. Midas heard snores and his own shallow breathing, but nothing else. He was far more tired than he expected and had to fight to keep his eyes open. Suddenly he realized that Fridrik was kneeling next to him.

“Milord,” the squire hissed. “Did you hear something?”

Before he could say ‘no’, Midas heard a soft, distant echo from the hallway. “I heard that,” he said. “Is that what you heard?”

“Something like that, milord, only from my own passage.”

Midas straightened up, fully awake now. More noises echoed through the halls, louder this time and continuous. Midas distinctly heard a guttural shout followed by hoots and howls. He leapt to his feet and began shaking people awake.

“Up! Up!” he shouted. Fridrik joined in the shouting. When a dwarf refused to wake, Midas kicked him in the buttocks. “Get up!”

“All right already!” growled the dwarf, who turned out to be Valgorn. “What--”

The dwarf stopped, as shouting and clanking sounds filled the room. Valgorn jumped up and grabbed his morning star. “Goblins!” he shouted. “I'd recognize those sounds anywhere!”

Midas ran to his sons. “Get your shields ready, boys. Stay to the side of the room as reinforcements. You are not to enter the fray unless there's no choice, you hear me?”

He waited for them to nod before continuing, “They’re coming from both sides. Roll up blankets and tie them to packs. We may have to leave in a hurry. Keep your heads down! I don’t want you taking a stray arrow in the face.”

Midas turned and joined Sol, who was organizing the fighters into groups. To the west side of the room he sent Kiddi, Bragi, Ulfr and Gorm to form a shield wall across the passage. Next he indicated that he himself would lead the defense of the eastern passage. He chose Midas, Fridrik, and Dalthis to join him.

“Ismar,” yelled Sol to the big swordsman, “you back up your fellows on the west passage. Sir Brindor, you back us up here.”

“What about me?” shouted Valgorn. “I should be up front!”

“You’ll have more than your share of fighting, Valgorn,” Sol replied. “I need you to be our cavalry charge when needed. If you see our line give anywhere, you must run in to fill the gap, okay?”

Valgorn growled loudly, but didn’t argue.

The sound of many running feet echoed loudly now and a faint glow of torchlight appeared far down the hallway. Sol was nearly out of time. He turned to Alvanaria. “Milady, we need you as archery support. Xax, do whatever you can. Perhaps you can help any wounded.” Sol didn’t wait to hear any replies; he turned and rushed to the gap next to Midas, who anchored the left side of the line.

Just as Sol raised his shield to lock it with Midas’s, swarms of goblins appeared down the corridor, rushing full speed at the men and shrieking madly.

“Wait for it!” Sol screamed. “You know what to do!”

The four warriors locked their shields together and all of them hunched down slightly. Just before the wave of goblins arrived, the men roared and launched themselves forward. The shield wall slammed hard into the first wave of attackers. The impact of the goblins on the shields was tremendous, but the men held, only dropping back a single step before surging forward again.

Midas smelled blood. He kept his head down below the rim of his shield and shoved forward with all his strength. He heard an arrow whip by above his head followed by a strangled scream. When a gap opened up between his shield and Sol’s, Midas shoved his sword blade through and felt it punch into something soft. When he withdrew the blade there was blood on the tip.

“Recover!” shouted Sol.

As one, the four men took a step back, then just as quickly raised the shield wall and rammed it forward again, eliciting shrieks of pain from the mass of goblins. Midas heard terrible cries from behind as well, but he had no time to check on the progress of his comrades across the room. More arrows hissed by, this time in both directions. One thudded hard into Midas’s shield. There were more screams from the goblins, and Midas grinned at the thought that the goblin archers had struck some of their own.

An axe slammed hard into his shield. He angled the shield slightly to the left and used the small gap to skewer the axe bearer. He flung the sword up to parry a strike by another goblin. The goblin’s curved blade snapped when it met his, and Midas brought his sword down onto the goblin’s neck. It cuts so easily, he thought. It’s almost unfair to fight with such a weapon! A goblin leapt onto the top of his shield and snarled in his face. He saw the glint of hatred in the creature’s eyes, and its fetid breath made him want to choke. He snapped his head forward, smashing his helm into the goblin’s nose. It howled in outrage as it fell back out of sight.

The floor became slick with blood. Sol cursed loudly, and Midas saw blood sheeting down into Sol’s eyes from a long cut on his forehead.

“Fall out, Sol!” he cried. “Brin! Take his place!”

The four warriors shoved hard on their shields to gain some room. Sol stumbled back out of line. Shrieks of glee erupted from the nearest goblins and they tried to pour through the gap. Midas hacked one in the neck and saw Fridrik slice one across the belly. With a loud cry, Brin leapt into place next to Midas and closed up the shield wall.

When his feet nearly slipped from beneath him, Midas cried out, “Valgorn! We have to move back; the floor’s too slick.”

He heard a growled shout from behind: “Bring it on!”

Midas shouted, “Two steps back, men, now!”

The four fighters strode backward onto firmer footing. The goblins smelled victory and howled louder than ever. For the moment they had room to slip around the sides of the shield wall.

“Spread!” roared Valgorn.

Midas stepped to his left, bringing his shield close to the wall again. Brin stayed with him. Fridrik and Dalthis went the other direction, leaving a gap in the center of the line. With a terrible roar, Valgorn bowled into the gap with his shield up. He slammed his morning star down onto the head of a goblin, crushing it and spattering brains and bits of skull all about.

The goblins broke and ran.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Hello! It's the 21st Century.

I was checking out the website for Wizards of the Coast, the publisher that does the official Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) novels. I figured that my book might be a good fit for them. I was saddened to see that they apparently are only interested in books that fit exactly into their 'shared world' setup. Why wouldn't they like a good book that was inspired directly by D&D and fits everything about it other than existing within their particular world?

Anyhow, the other thing I noticed was that they don't allow any eSubmissions. It hit on a pet peeve of mine, especially concerning the agents or publishers who still insist on using archaic snail-mail for correspondence. Haven't any of these people figured out that there's a brave new modern world out here? Why would I ever wish to deal with an agent that hasn't learned the magic of email? I am sure many of these agents are great, and they don't need me, but I certainly feel that I need an agent who is comfortable enough with modern technologies to deal with me in the way I wish to do business.

Okay, so they have their reasons and they are fine not to have people like me. I think that is a bit sad. I think they will lose access to more and more writers like me over time.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Style/Voice

We all have unique writing styles and voices, however I believe most of us can point to an author or two and suggest that our style or voice has real similarities to theirs. Perhaps they were authors who had great influence on us, so we purposely incorporate some of their writing habits.

I had my greatest influence from George R.R. Martin, whose A Song of Ice and Fire series is not only utterly brilliant but his dark, realistic style is exactly what I love most in fiction. I can't copy his writing style, nor do I wish to, but I have borrowed his manner of rotating chapters between each POV character. Naturally, I also attempt to create a gritty realism even if I can't yet master it the way Martin does.

I see Martin's influence in my work, but I don't see his voice or style there, and I consider that a good thing. I want to develop my own voice and style, though I would like it to get much better than it currently is.


The reason I am writing this, though, is that I just started reading the Belgariad series by David Eddings, and I can say that despite certain things I actively dislike about the book, I think my writing style is far more similar to Eddings' than to any other author I have yet found. Of course our styles are different, but when I am reading the way he strings his words together and the overall tone of his work, it reminds me of my own writing more so than any other author has done.

I do generally like the book so far, though I don't believe it will be one I love. The main reason I dislike some elements of it can be found in this old post of mine. Eddings used this cliché not just with his main character, but with practically every character around him!

How about you, can you point to an author or authors and see your style in their work?

Friday, August 27, 2010

Interview with a Wizard

The wizard in my book, The Shard, is a bit of an enigma and also a real headache for me. I wished to write the book with him as one of the POV characters, thus allowing me to present the science fiction aspects of the story to readers, but this would have made the book far too long (it is 130,000 words without his chapters) and adding the sci-fi elements would have made selling the book more difficult. So, I decided to make the book stand-alone as fantasy, with only hints within the story of its more complex underpinnings. I can't say I'm happy about having to do it that way, but agents these days seem pretty hard-line about book length.

I did a post that described my wizard Xax, but I figured it could be fun to interview him also. Everyone knows this, but I want to reiterate that all of this is my copyright. (I'm normally not paranoid about these things, but this particular post contains some important things from my WIP).

Me: Pardon me for saying so, but you don't look much like a wizard.

Heh! Yeah, well, that's because I still don't think of myself as a wizard. Strange, I've lived more than six thousand years here on this planet, yet those first 63 years lived on Earth are what made me feel like my true self. I still see myself as a Russian and a scientist. I'm a wizard here because I have little choice. Much of what I knew from Earth doesn't apply here, and my friends and I who landed here happened to be the only ones who can overtly manipulate the energy that they call magic.

You don't view it as magic?

I don't know. I have so many thoughts on all this stuff. You know, all of us scientists were agnostics, but arriving on this world threw everything out of whack. Evolution just doesn't work this way. If there is life, it should have evolved along its own distinct paths, not mimicked that of Earth. Seeing wolves and elm trees and so on really messed with our minds.

Then, once we began to 'see' this energy flowing through everything, it gave us ideas. It appears to run through every atom, so in theory it must flow between everything in the universe. Our first inclination was to default back to Earth-think and imagine that we were wrong about God or gods. It seemed like there was a pattern, so it must have been purposely created, right? Later we decided that we were being foolish. It seemed far more likely that there is simply a resonance or echo of some sort transmitted through this energy, such that any habitable planet will follow this similar pattern of life.

But there are some living things here that are different from Earth...

True, but we still see resonance involved. Whatever happens to live here does in fact appear on Earth in some form, most of it in actual life but some merely within our legends. Therefore we posited that there are some people on each planet that are more attuned to the energy resonance and can have visions or dreams of other habitable worlds. Thus, the stories on Earth that appear to be strictly legends in fact came from the minds of those more closely attuned to what was happening on sister planets.

And magic?

We found that we could manipulate the energy in some minor ways, though it was exhausting to do so. The greater the feat, the more draining it was. There were no guidebooks on how to do this, so we had to experiment and make everything up on our own. We are far weaker as wizards than any fictional wizard I ever read about back home.

Okay, tell us about your name. You weren't called Xax on Earth, right?

No, but I used to spend a lot of time playing Web-sim role playing games, and my favorite character was a wizard named Xaxanakis.

How did you pronounce that?

It only looks hard. It's pronounced zax-AN-a-kiss. They just call me Xax here.

So, you took the same name of one of your gaming characters? What year was this?

The last year I recall from Earth was 2138. Yes, we decided that our original names simply didn't fit in well with the linguistic tones of this world. Since we were being forced into the role of wizards, it seemed appropriate to take on a name that sounded like a wizard's name. I already had one. One of my friends wanted to call himself Gandalf, but I convinced him that the Tolkien family would track him down across the universe and kill him.

You're probably right! Can you tell us how you came here?

Back home on Earth our group perfected a couple of critical things needed for a relative immortality. We first perfected cloning. It was meant for military purposes. We also perfected the capture of information from the mind and digitalizing it through our slot interfaces. Essentially we proved that a soul doesn't exist. Once we overcame the body’s inclination to reject certain things, we could successfully imprint mind data back into a younger cloned version of one's body.

We not only saw this as providing a form of immortality where the original body still ages and dies but you get to continue living on in a new copy of your own body, but we saw the means to win the race to the first habitable planets. While China and the U.S. were building massive generation ships, we beat them to the punch by building a small, fast ship with no one manning it. The ship had a set of automated creches that could clone our own bodies over a twenty year period. Once it arrived and confirmed that life indeed existed on the planet, it kicked off the cloning cycle and reconstituted our group...only young again.

Later we found that our bodies interacted with this world entirely differently than it does with the natives. We found that we weren't aging. Or, at least it seemed that way at first. When we met the elves and found that they didn't age, we assumed that the magic energy interacted with our bodies in some way to rejuvenate them. However, the elves never seem to age, while we actually do but very slowly. After six thousand years, I look like a middle-aged man, though I was twenty years old physically when I landed here.

This is fascinating stuff, and I could go on forever, but I think my readers will find it overwhelming. Perhaps we can continue another time. Thanks, Xax!

You are most welcome!

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Entry for the Rainy Day blogfest

This is for the Rainy Day blogfest over at The Writer's Hole. There is quite a lot of rain through part of my novel. I suppose that if it is meant to portend anything that it would have to be this: the rain lasts as long as the prince is heading down the wrong path, and it clears up just as the correct decision is made. I didn't plan it that way, but it sounds appropriate.

Anyhow, this scene starts after the armies of the Known Lands have begun their march to attack the elves of Laithtaris for supposedly instigating it, when in fact the prince himself hired men to sabotage things because he wants an excuse to take more land that he sees as rightfully his.

Midas is the MC, a noble so minor that he's not even considered a noble by most, while Sol is the one true noble friend he has (other than his father-in-law Lord Tathis of Iskimir).

Sorry if it's a touch longer than the rules asked for. Any help spotting issues is greatly appreciated. You all found some great fixes the last time I did this!

*****

What should have been a three day march to the crossroads instead turned into a dreary, exhausting five day slog through pouring rain. The banks of the road back to Iskimir were now littered with broken wagon wheels and even a few dead mules. One of Midas’s mules had to be put down after snapping an ankle while trying to pull a stuck cart out of the muck that had once been a road. The men put their heads down and endured the misery with only the typical grumbling of soldiers on the march.

Midas’s troops had been the last in the line of march, and thus got the worst pickings of campsites upon reaching the crossroads. Sleep had not been easy to come by for anyone over the past few days, as there was no dry ground to be found, so tents had to be staked out in the quagmires that were once wheat fields. The prince and some of the other lords found farmhouses and barns to take over, forcing Lord Tathis to pay off his grumbling farmers.

Mules huddled in lines along the fences, while men huddled no less miserably under large tents. Putting tarps down helped little; water quickly poured in and formed pools inside the tents. Men placed boxes of supplies and packs and bundles of clothing around the tent, and tried to sleep on top of the uncomfortable mounds. Tempers frayed, so men talked little. When they did talk they often snapped at each other. Fortunately the men were too exhausted to resort to fist fights.

Midas gave up on sleep, groaned, and sat up. He rubbed his aching back. It was impossible to make the crates underneath him comfortable, even with the soggy blankets. He looked around the tent. His men appeared to be sleeping, but he could hear muttering sounds and quiet groans here and there, and he knew they weren’t sleeping any better than he had. The only one snoring was Sir Brindor. Midas rubbed at his aching head, wishing he could perform that wondrous elf magic that he had experienced a few short days ago.

He needed to go find Lord Tathis and see if he had been successful in seeing the prince and telling him about the elves’ offer to meet. He wasn’t hopeful that the prince would listen, but, nonetheless, he had to try. There had been no opportunity to speak with any of the other lords, other than Sol, during the march. Sol’s men had marched just ahead of Midas’s, so Midas and Sol had ridden side by side at times, trying to figure out anything they could regarding this miserable expedition. The only conclusion they could reach was that they needed to find a way to stop the attack on the elves, even if that meant committing treason.

Midas groaned again and stepped as quietly as he could into the pool of water beside his makeshift bed. The water reached his ankles. He waded to the entrance of the tent, balancing carefully so as not to fall on any of his men. He poked his head out and found the rain only a light drizzle.

He had no way of knowing what time it was. There was little to differentiate between night and day these past five days. They never saw any sign of the sun or moons, though there were times when the darkness appeared to lighten a bit. He kicked himself for not having a man keep an hourglass going, and then just as quickly dismissed the idea as pointless.

Heaving a heavy sigh, he set out toward the road, clambering over the wooden fence slats that marked the edge of the field. The road was only slightly better than the swampy fields. He walked along the rows of wagons and mules, looking at tent after tent and seeing no coats of arms. No one was bothering, and this made it impossible to find anyone. Midas wondered whether Lord Tathis would be with his men or with the prince in one of the farm houses.

After an hour he gave up. He stopped in the middle of the road and threw back his head to let the rain fall on his face. I’m too old for this. He turned around and set off back toward his own camp.

A short time later, he saw, low on the horizon, a small red ball glowing through the clouds. He knew it was either the sun or the small red moon; if it was the moon this was the first time in his life that he was happy to see it.

As he approached his own camp, he saw a figure sitting on the fence ahead. When he drew near he saw that it was Sol, and his spirits lifted a bit. Midas barked a laugh and climbed onto the fence next to Sol, who clapped him on the back.

Sol pointed down the road and said, “I think it’s that vile little moon, but at least something is breaking through the cloud cover.”

“Yeah, I saw it. Do you think these rains might subside?”

“I dunno,” Sol said. He groaned and stretched his arms. “I’ll tell you what--I doubt anyone is getting much sleep. I honestly don’t see how Prince Valderis expects us to be in any condition to attack anybody.”

“I keep wishing this could just be a nightmare, and I could wake up back in Welby, even if it means having to wake up next to Rina.”

Sol looked hard at Midas for a moment. “You know, Midas, the boys are about grown up. I don’t think Havlin would mind you and Rina splitting up. He thinks the world of you, and he knows you two are miserable together.”

Midas scratched the stubble on his cheek. “I suppose so. I just wanted to get the kids grown before I worried about what to do with Rina. I hate to think of upsetting Havlin, though.”

Sol leered. “Hey, my eldest is old enough to marry, and she’s not so bad looking now. She’s a little plump, but she’s got a pleasant enough demeanor. Hmmn?” He nudged Midas in the ribs.

Midas laughed. “Those red haired demons of yours? The prince should sic them on the elves; this would all be over by now!”

Sol laughed so hard he nearly fell off the fence. When he calmed down he said, “Yeah, they’re a handful aren’t they? I should’ve spent more time with them, tried harder to raise them better. Then maybe I could’ve married the girls off to your boys. I’m just not cut out to be a father, I guess.”

“Hey, at least Vona was a terrific wife. I envy what you had with her. The sickness took her so young. You can’t blame yourself for how the kids turn out when they don’t have a mother around. Hey, how come you never married again? You were always good with women.”

Sol groaned. “Oh, don’t start now. I love women, I do, but marriage doesn’t suit me. Anyhow, I have my fun when I want it.”

After a few moments, Midas said, “It’ll be a hard year. The crops are ruined.”

The two kicked at the mud puddles beneath them. The rain picked up again, and the red moon disappeared behind black clouds. A few minutes went by in silence.

Sol looked over at Midas again. “I know we keep asking the same question, but what are we going to do to stop this, Midas?”

“I can’t even find anyone to speak with, Sol,” Midas replied. “That’s what I was doing walking down the road--trying to find Havlin. You go try to find him, I dare you. No one’s bothering with livery right now.”

“We need Ord,” Sol said. “There’s no one else, other than the king, who commands as much respect among the nobles. He’d know what to do.”

“I don’t get it, Sol,” Midas said. “Ord cares as much for these lands as we do. More perhaps. He’d never let this happen if he could prevent it. Something must’ve happened to him.”

“Well, we don’t have time to send anyone to Pangalia to find out what’s going on. I had expected to see him in Iskimir. I hope you’re wrong about him.”

“Me too, Sol. Me too.

Friday, August 20, 2010

How to Outline

There it is -- the full outline for the first half of my second novel, written out in about two minutes on a yellow sticky. It shows each of the three POV characters in order of their relative importance. The guy at the bottom is the Russian scientist who ends up becoming the wizard Xax in my first novel.

It may seem funny, but this is about all I need in order to write my books. At some point I may sketch out a timeline to ensure everything matches up. I'll also use some index cards in order to keep track of all the tiny characteristics for each character in the book. But, for the story, all I need to know is what character is in the next scene and what plot point is involved.

The way I write a chapter is to take the character and the one plot point and simply let them go. My mind has already evolved loads of history and detail of the 'world' and of each character, so I already know how things go in general; I just don't know the specifics of dialogue and any unusual happenings that will spontaneously show up as I am typing. All I know is that once I begin to tap out a chapter on the keyboard, I zone out and wake up later with a chapter, and never once yet have I been disappointed by what came out!

Thursday, August 19, 2010

One Simple Fix for America

I normally don't blog about politics, and I don't intend to do so much, but I believe almost every citizen of the US is sick to death of how bad our politics have gotten. There is no one on any side of the spectrum who is willing to do the hard things that are necessary in order to stave off some pretty nasty things that are coming in the not so distant future. It doesn't matter what they believe, even if they are for it, they still won't vote for anything that they feel may endanger their reelection chances.

That one word, 'reelection', is the cornerstone of our political problems. From the moment an official takes office, almost everything they do is based around their reelection. They know that we must fix many big problems, like Social Security or the mounting debt, but even if they are for doing this they still won't touch it, because it means death to their reelection hopes.

I think the solution is rather simple, though of course it will never be implemented. There should be no reelections.

I would lengthen the term of each office by some reasonable amount, say 8-10 years for presidency and senators and 6 years for a representative, but no one is allowed to be reelected to any office. The benefits to this are clear -- officials would not be worrying about being booted from office and could focus directly on their actual job. An additional benefit would be the flow of fresh 'blood' through the system on a regular basis. People will argue that there are good things to be said for getting seniority in office, but I don't think it is hard to see that the current system is quite broken and having seniority is certainly not a valid enough reason to keep a system where people refuse to do what is right in favor of their own tenuous grips on power.

In the comments, Bethany mentions that people will not want to aim for politics as a career if they can't remain in power. Well, I don't believe it should be a career, nor do I think our founding fathers meant for it to be. Much as with juries (and the founding fathers themselves), political office should be a temporary public service performed by good, intelligent citizens concerned for their country.