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


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.