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.