Archive for February, 2009


Be a Writer

A while back I was skimming posts in a very popular forum/bulletin board for writers, and ended up with two semi-related rants. But after writing the rants out, and then reading what I’d written, I decided that my rants were probably a bit too rant-tastic for this site, so I decided to rewrite my rants into something more along the lines of “Observation and Advice.”

 Observation #1) I swear to god, if I see the quote about how you should only write because you Love Writing and not to Be A Writer one more time I’m going to scream.   I would like to humbly disagree with the oft-made assertion that one should write for the Love of Writing before writing in order to Be A Writer. I understand where the posters are coming from (I hope.) I would like to think that they are advising aspiring writers to keep the stars out of their eyes, to let go of the dreams of fame and fortune, and write because they love to write.

Except. If you’re writing with the goal of Being A Writer (i.e. a professional writer), then the love of writing is pretty much a given. Anyone who doesn’t have a love of crafting words and stories isn’t going to be willing to endure the torture and flaying and depression and difficult road to publication. It’s pretty much a self-culling herd.

Therefore, I give the opposite advice: Make your goal to Be A Writer. I believe that if you have any aspiration whatsoever of becoming a writer who is actually paid money for their work, then you absolutely must at some point want very badly to Be A Writer.

Without that desire, there’s no drive to improve, no need to learn the business, no fire in your belly that pushes you to finish what you’re working on and then start another project. Without that desire to Be A Writer, you won’t be able to swallow pride and accept criticism. I think that once a person accepts that whatever they’re working on isn’t going to be sold and published, then that’s when they stop trying. That’s when their work loses that extra little spark. I’m not talking about literary genius, I’m talking about that life in a really cool story, that extra mile that the author pushed because it mattered, because they wanted their audience (see? Other people reading it?) to love it as much as they did.

But more than that, I think that if you don’t have the desire to Be A Writer, then you’re not going to be willing to put the time in on the business end of Being A Writer.

Because, let me tell you, Being A Writer is a job.  I haven’t been doing it all that long, but in this past year it’s been driven home to me that it’s a job. (Don’t get me wrong–it’s an awesome job and it’s the one I’ve always wanted, but there’s a lot more work involved than just writing words for a story.) And, like any other job, you can do it half-assed and get half-assed results, or you can put A-level effort in.

Which leads me to Rant Observation and Advice #2) The search for an agent. 

Again, I read a number of posts on this subject. Yes, I totally remember how frustrating and depressing that process can be. I know that in today’s market it’s pretty much a necessity to have an agent if you want to sell a book to a major publisher, and I remember well that sense of desperation when the rejections started rolling in. I didn’t have a personal referral to my agent, and I didn’t meet him at a conference or convention.  I landed my agent the traditional way–with a query letter. 

What kills me is the number of people who shoot themselves in the foot during this process.  I would like to offer some helpful advice to those readers who are currently or will soon be in a search for an agent to represent their work. If you’re searching for an agent, that would seem to indicate that you want to sell your book, i.e. be a Professional Writer. And, if you want to be a professional writer, then you need to treat your search for an agent like a profession, because at this stage of the process your JOB is finding an agent.


Research which agents handle the type of fiction you write. It’s not that hard. I mean, seriously, you have the internet. That’s all I used when I did my agent search, and there are quite a few free sites. And, in the same category of research: Address the query to the agent. Not To Whom It May Concern

Make sure you’re querying a reputable agent. Again, there are many sites to help you figure this out.

Every agent out there has guidelines for submissions. And yes, they’re all different. Deal with it. They have zillions of submissions to wade through, and those guidelines are there to help them do their job in the manner that best suits their own personal style. Asking all agents to do things the same way is like asking all writers to sit at the same type of desk and use the same word processing program and listen to the same music. Do what I did, and make a spreadsheet with columns for agent/agency, date submitted, material submitted, submission guidelines, response, etc.  

And yes, you’re going to have to describe your 400 page book in a paragraph. Yeah, it sucks, and it’s not a great representation of how wonderful your work is, but again, it’s the best system in place for dealing with the 50-100 queries that most agents get every day. Practice. Read queries for other books (again, that cool thing called the internet.) Get others to read and critique your query.

Keep trying. And, in the meantime, keep writing your next novel.

[more pompous ranting deleted] 

 Good luck!




My husband, the world wrecker

So, as we saw this Sunday, all authors (or at least, all of us) have a few book bodies we’ve buried in the woods. Slaughtering and burying our babies is all part of the long, bloody process. No wonder people look at authors a little askew, it’s a violent business. Fortunately, despite the solitary nature of writing, you don’t have to do it all yourself. I’m of the firm belief that every writer needs a partner in crime, someone to hold the flashlight while you hack things up if nothing else, maybe help you clean the blood off the furniture. Some writers have first readers, trusted friends who can tell you without holding back if your baby’s third arm needs to go. Others have writer friends who lend them a hacksaw on occasion. Me? I have my husband, Travis, the world wrecker.

It often goes like this. I’ll be driving home from work, walking the dog, cooking dinner, curing cancer, whatever, and it hits me. An idea! Maybe it’s a character, maybe it’s a new magical system, a pantheon, a dark secret that could shake the world! Whatever it is, ideas never obey the speed limit. They hit me like freight trains, and woosh, I’m off. This is the most dangerous time for me, when the new idea is the BEST THING EVER, SO much BETTER than whatever I’m actually supposed to be working on. There are no flaws, no limitations. My mind goes a million miles a second, connecting things, spinning stories, and falling head over heels in love with my new, perfect idea.

Within hours (or even minutes), I’ll be SO EXCITED, the story will bubble over, and I’ll run to my husband to tell him about this AMAZING idea that will blow him away.

This is where things start to go wrong.

First off, the idea never sounds as cool when I say it as it did in my head. (Fact: Oxygen makes ideas wilt.) Next, you have to understand that Travis is a gamer. Not just any gamer, but a high school DM turned local GM who makes his own table top games. The  gamer’s mentality is so deeply ingrained in his mind that it is impossible for him to listen to an idea without immediately trying to find a way to beat the system… even (especially) my system.

For example, in the Spirit Thief, everything has a spirit, tables, rocks, swords, everything. Wizards can talk to these spirits, that’s what makes you a wizard. When I first had this idea years and years ago, it was the COOLEST THING EVER ™. But when I told my husband (then boyfriend) about it, his little GM mind started ticking. What about food? He asked. If everything talks, how do wizards eat? Could you eat an animal that could talk to you? You couldn’t even be a vegetarian because your salad would scream for help as you ate it. Can spirits to talk to each other? Could I bully spirits around me and have them bully other spirits and put together a spirit army? What if I had a water spirit I was good friends with, could I get my enemy to drink that spirit, then have it bust out of his chest, alien style? Can I make a flamethower out of any fire, or just really big fires?

And so it goes. The next thing I know, I’ve got wizards riding around on mountains carrying rocket propelled grenade launchers made of metal and gunpowder spirits who are being manipulated through a Machiavellian system of intimidation and lies to shoot exploding firebombs through the shattered husk of my beautiful, ruined world.

This is generally about the time where I realize that I’m a hack who never had a good idea in her life. Thus we enter the moping stage where I pick up what’s left of my idea after the world wrecker’s onslaught and see if there’s anything worth saving. However, in evolution and in writing, the strong survive. Though all the shine and glitter has been stomped to dust, if the idea had real bones, they can survive even a Travis attack. The world that comes out the other side is hardened and tested, and ready to support a story.

We went through this process a dozen times at least with The Spirit Thief, and every time I almost threw the idea out. But every time, the innate coolness of the world drew me back, and that’s what you need to get a world that can hold a story. If my world isn’t strong enough to handle my husband’s wrecking ball of abusive, player character min maxing, then it wouldn’t be strong enough for my characters, or my reader.

I used to get mad at my husband when he wrecked my worlds. Now, I treat him as a testing ground. With the loving cruelty only found in writers, I take my sparkly, new born lovely and toss her into the arena where she it trampled mercilessly and bent into abusive shapes she was never intended to have. But if any world survives once Travis is done, it is stronger, tougher, and deeper than it ever was before. I’ve never managed to stop being mad about it, especially on those occasions where no world survives at all, but I realize the destruction is necessary.

Writing is, after all, a violent sport. No coddling allowed.

Edit: On a slightly different note, John Scalzi just posted an awesome post on 10 things to remember about authors. I LOL’ed at and agreed with most everything, so check it!


Dead darlings

Maybe it’s because of the recent “stories that didn’t make it” Sunday Quickies post, maybe it’s because Rachel’s post about letting people be people has stayed with me, but I’ve been thinking about all the discarded work I wrote as a kid. When I was just starting to write with an eye toward creating something beyond a few journal entries, I shied away from writing actual narrative in favor of writing background: long pseudo-historical articles chronicling the Crown of Suchandsuch or the murky prophecies of the five oracles, all of which would be fulfilled by the novel I had in mind — if I ever got around to writing it.

Needless to say, I never did write the full story, not to a finished state.  I invested so much time and energy and, most of all, imagination on these side stories that I never got to the real story.  The phrase “murder your darlings” originally applies to prose rather than backstory, but in this case I think it’s still relevant.  Once I learned to focus on one narrative rather than the weird little bits at the side and how my characters were totally justified in having super-special changing eye color (shut up, I was in high school), then I actually started writing stories.

However, there’s a reason those things were and are my darlings.  They caught my attention, drew out the “isn’t this cool?” effect that I’ve since learned to follow, and were in essence the first sparks of a story.  They were the equivalent of a zeroth draft, something to be written before the story ever got started.  If I spent too much time on them, the need to write the full story faded, but I needed them to fuel my imagination for those first steps into writing or plotting the first draft.

Even now, I’m only just starting to work out the balance between writing-for-the-story’s-sake and writing-that-will-actually-appear.  To take an example, I stopped dead in the middle of a recent revision and wrote out several longhand pages of backstory for a side character.  I traced his history back two generations, worked out his relationship with his mother and his grandmother, explained some of the reasons why he is the way he is, and ended with where he enters the story.  

Absolutely none of this made it into the rest of the story.  But knowing all of it made my work easier.  I wasn’t trying to match this character’s actions to some plot-ordained pattern; I knew what he would do because I knew what kind of person he was.  For me, this kind of invisible backstory helps most with characters, though I can see how it’d be useful in fleshing out a setting.  I like having an idea of how a character will react to a new situation, even if it’s something that will never, ever turn up in the novel. (Another example: I’m convinced one of my characters writes Harry Potter fanfiction.  Will this piece of information ever be relevant?  Probably not.  But it tells me something more about this particular character.)  It’s a way of preserving the mental fiction that they’re real people, and if I can convince myself for a little while, then I can have a hope of convincing the reader. 

And now I’m discovering another advantage of having all that already worked-out material to hand; I can use it again.  I’m currently in the middle of some fuzzy, first-draft work, where making a sudden left turn in the plot doesn’t require so many repairs as it would in the next revision.  So if I need to use one of these ideas that I scattered in earlier, they’re already there, rooted in previous work, ready to turn into something new as I go on.

I suppose that makes this post about undead or zombie darlings, then, except that zombies scare me.  I’ll leave the zombies for someone else.


Calling An Audible

It is Book Release Day! Huzzah and whoo-hoo! Spell Games is now available! You can read the first chapter here.

And another thing (and this is pretty exciting, and counts as one of those Career Milestones I always hoped to hit) — I had a novel become an audiobook! (Actually, four of my novels.) Blood Engines, Poison Sleep, Dead Reign, and Spell Games are all available for download at!

This is about ten kinds of cool. I’m a big fan of audiobooks — though I listened to them more frequently when I commuted more often, admittedly — and find the experience of hearing a novel qualitatively different from reading something on the page. Reading Neil Gaiman’s Anansi Boys is great; hearing the Lenny Henry-narrated audiobook version is a whole different experience. I catch things in listening that I don’t catch while reading (and vice versa, of course), and it’s interesting to hear the words of a book inside my head in someone’s voice besides my own. I’ve had short stories recorded for podcasts before, but this is, like, 40 hours of my fiction being read! Incroyable! I hope people like it. I do. (I also like how selling the audiobook rights paid for my family vacation to Hawaii last summer, but that’s a different issue.)

One note: I know some people have (very reasonable) concerns regarding the DRM that comes along with Audible, and in a perfect world, I’d prefer the audiobooks to be DRM-free, too. I’m sympathetic to the argument. But I will say that everyone I’ve worked with at Audible has been great, from the guy running their (very impressive) drive to add more SF material to the narrator who read my books (the awesome Jessica Almasy). I was an Audible subscriber for years, too (though I eventually stopped subscribing because my commute time dropped and I had less time to listen to audiobooks), and was always happy with the service. So I didn’t really hesitate when they wanted to do my books, and I think they’ve done right by them.


Things I wish I’d written: Last Son of Krypton

I think I’m going use this space to occasionally talk about things I wish I’d written. I’ll start off with a book I just had to replace, because my original copy is disintegrating into its constituent molecules.

It would be easy to look at the cover of Elliot S! Maggin’s Last Son of Krypton and dismiss it as a novelization of the 1978 Superman movie. I mean, there’s Christopher Reeve, right on the cover.

Last Son of Krypton

If it were a novelization of the movie, I’m not saying that would necessarily be a bad thing. I almost never read media tie-ins anymore, but I have nothing against them. They were my gateway to science fiction and fantasy. When I was a wee tot I almost never went into the children’s sections of bookstores. Instead, I’d gravitate to the dusty little corner of the sf section at Vroeman’s on the Santa Monica Mall, where maybe they’d have two or four shelves of Star Trek and Planet of the Apes novels.

Anyway. The cover notwithstanding, Last Son of Krypton has nothing to do with the movie released simultaneously with the book’s publication. Veteran comics writer Elliot S! Maggin’s offers his take on Superman’s origins and explains his animosity with Lex Luthor (Superboy killed his baby, which was just slime in a Petri dish, but still understandably upsetting to Lex), but what truly distinguishes the book is that it’s one of the few times Superman is presented in a way I find absolutely compelling and right: A god who chooses to be a man.

The story gets underway with Albert Einstein, who understands that Superman must be, first and foremost, a man. Which was not necessarily Jor-El’s plan. Using Kryptonian fizzy-wow technology, Jor-El contacts the great Earth scientist to tell him that he’s sent his son rocketing to Earth, and if Professor Einstein would raise him, he’d be much obliged. But Einstein thinks young Kal-El would be better off being raised by humble salt-of-the-earth folk, so he contrives to have Jonathan and Martha Kent come upon the super baby’s crash site. It’s not an accident that Superman is raised by simple farmers. That was Einstein’s call.

The story that grows from that premise gives us a hero who’s not the “Big Boy Scout,” or the “Boy in Blue,” or any other kind of naive, law-and-order character worthy of our suspicion whom we’d love to see pounded and kryptonite-poisoned by the Batman. This Superman is charming, witty, canny, and as urbane as one might expect from a citizen of the galaxy. But he’s also a god. Because you can’t have Superman’s abilities and not be a god. It would make no sense.

So, when Kal-El poses as Clark Kent, lets himself be the brunt of sportscaster Steve Lombard’s jokes (and then, because he’s not without pride, finds subtle ways to give Lombard his comeuppance), when he chooses to live among a species as fragile to him as wet tissue, it has nothing to do with maintaining a secret identity. It’s because he’s chosen to be human. Because that’s what his parents were, and, as most parents do, they raised him to be like them.

There are themes and motifs in Last Son of Krypton that I’ve played with in some of my own writing, but I’ve never done it as movingly as Elliot S! Maggin does in the following passage. It’s Jonathan Kent’s death scene.

He had broken the time barrier, he could speak every known language on Earth, living or dead. He had been born among the stars and could live among them now if he so chose. He had more knowledge in his mind and more diverse experience to his credit then any Earthman alive could ever aspire to.

Yet he stood at the deathbed of this elderly, generous man whose last Earthly concern was his son’s happiness. Superboy listened, because he believed Jonathan Kent to be wiser than he.

It’s not the most euphonious thing I’ve ever read. On a line level, it’s got some clunk. But I’d be incredibly proud to have written it.


Nora’s Sunday Quickie: Mary Sue with dragons!

I’ve been writing since I was nine years old. I “published” my first book on construction paper, with cardboard (hardcover!) and yarn binding. My first few stories were probably the wildest things I’ve ever written, because I started out using the smorgasbord method of idea generation — a nuclear holocaust here, some talking cats there, toss in some ESP and bazookas. (I was unduly influenced by Seventies science fiction films.) I can’t say they were good, but they were certainly… hmm… imaginative. But as I hit my teens, the stories changed, and suddenly I started writing female protagonists who were brave, beautiful, charismatic, and surrounded by people who liked them and would do anything for them.

That’s right. I had discovered Mary Sue.
Continue reading ‘Nora’s Sunday Quickie: Mary Sue with dragons!’


Diana’s Sunday Quickie: The Mary Sue of all Mary Sues

Since this week’s Sunday Quickie topic is stories and novels that didn’t make the cut, I feel I must share the details of my first novel:  A 175K word epic fantasy doorstopper that was a wish-fulfillment Mary Sue in every possible way. She was beautiful. She was tough. She was a totally badass swordswoman. She was a long lost descendent of a powerful sorceror and therefore heir to Awesome Power. She had red hair. And, for the final Mary Sue-ism: Her name was “Ziana.”

Grooooooaaaaaannnnn.  I can’t imagine why it never sold! 😛

But, I wrote on that novel every single day, and after I finished it I had that knowledge that I could finish a novel–and a long one at that!  There’ve been a few other novels since then, but I definitely learned the most on that first one!



Tim’s Sunday Quickie: Undead Fiction

Today’s topic is failed stories. There are many dead novels in my past, but I’ll write about the one I attempted to re-animate, Herbert West style, and which became a lumbering shambling horror with bits falling off…

Back in 2000 I tried to write a novel about my character Marla Mason, who had appeared in a couple of short stories (and who stars in my current urban fantasy series). That first attempt was called Ferocious Dreamers, and it had a nightmare king and a crazy psychic who infected people with a supernatural sleeping sickness. I worked on it diligently. At around the 55,000 word point I finally gave up on it, because it had gone completely off the rails, made no sense, had no discernible plot anymore, had characters who acted wildly out-of-character, and wasn’t even fun anymore. I trunked it hard.

Years later I sold my novel Blood Engines, and when my agent asked me to come up with a sequel I thought back to that earlier novel. I still like the idea, and I thought — clever me — “It’s 55,000 words long, and I can probably salvage a lot of the scenes, and, thus, save myself time in writing Book 2. Am a genius!”

Hoo boy what a mistake. I spent probably a month wrestling with that mass of hideous misshapen pages, shocking it with the electricity of new enthusiasm, performing radical surgery, grafting new scenes onto old ones, and etc. The result was a putrid dog’s breakfast. Eventually, I had the good sense to throw every one of those pages away — it was probably a total of 70,000 wasted words by then — and start over with a fresh, from scratch, page-one rewrite. The basic idea of a plague of nightmares and a mad psychic survived… but almost nothing else did. That book became my novel Poison Sleep, which I’m quite proud of, but which bears little resemblance to Ferocious Dreamers… and which took me a lot longer to write than it should have.

Sometimes it’s best to let dead things lie.


Margaret’s Sunday Quickie: The old shame

Today’s Sunday Quickie question is “Stories That Didn’t Make It,” first tries at novels and stories that never made it into publication.  I’ve written a lot of crap, far more than the million requisite words that you’re supposed to get out of the way before writing anything good.  For the sake of brevity and sanity, I’m going to gloss over the stuff I wrote in high school and college, most of which only exists now in a quarantined section of my hard drive and in a few notebooks I can’t bear to throw out.  I’ve also got a couple of novels that ended up only half-written — one tried to link Easter Island, The Destruction of Da Derga’s Hostel, and Max Ernst; the other was a big space opera that had too much backstory and not enough life in the current story to work.  Both of those I’m still hoping to salvage in some way.

But the first full novel I wrote is never going to be salvaged.  It was called Lost Colony or The Broken World, depending on the draft, and it gave new meaning to the words “turgid and overblown.”  182,000 words of evil faceless corporations, mysterious benefactors, ice worlds, desert worlds, water worlds (all of which were the same world), psychic aliens with nothing better to do than to poke at humans, poorly defined magic that was revealed to be poorly defined science, social engineering of the totally ineffective kind, nebulous “planetary life-force” and (very rarely) ass-kicking.  I hadn’t yet learned proper pacing and the trick of cutting out the parts that the reader would skip over, so there were such gems as the twenty pages of technobabble that wasn’t even remotely relevant to the plot, and the riveting, chapter-long urban planning scene.  With extra departmental squabbling.  

My heroine was an astrophysicist who didn’t seem to know much in the way of astrophysics, mainly because I hadn’t done the research and had filled in the gaps with handwavy pseudoscience.  She had really cool ocular implants for reasons that didn’t really hold up and a tragic past that was imperfectly grafted on.  Her counterpart was a shapeshifting (see above re: poorly defined magic) community leader who was also an exile and whose past was obscured by a cloud of false memories, possibly relating to how the original colony was lost.   The side characters were more fun, and even though the novel itself was a failure, I liked some of what I was able to evoke for them, although in hindsight I should have focused more on them than on my main characters.  One guy was obviously having sex with a space newt, and I’m still kicking myself for not paying more attention to his story.  Or the space newt’s.
There was a lot of tragic posturing, last stands, mystic knowledge imparted in large indigestible chunks, menacing figures who turned out to be good guys, and backstories that got neatly tied up and then forgotten about for the rest of the novel.  I even had one character get plot-induced amnesia, for crying out loud.

However, I regret nothing.  I enjoyed writing it, and I learned a lot in the process.  I do, however, regret that when I finally sent it out to a publisher, I spelled the editor’s name wrong in the cover letter.  That’s the sort of error that doesn’t just make me cringe, it makes me want to hide under the bed and not come out till everyone’s forgotten that I exist.  

I’ve since gone back and cannibalized the novel for parts, using some of the central conceit for a short story.  Unfortunately, it still didn’t quite gel, although I had a better grasp of it in a shorter form.  Maybe later on, it’ll come together.  Minus the urban planning scene.


Greg’s Sunday Quickie: Mystery of the Idiotic Writer

I tried writing a mystery story once. There were three characters: A detective, a victim (who was dead), and a suspect.

The detective had a pretty easy time of it.