Archive for February, 2009


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.


The little story that never quite could

Today for a short Sunday blurb, I thought I’d take a break from talking about the novel that did make it, and remember for a moment that one that never quite got itself together. Like pretty much every novelist under the sun, I have a few novels who never saw that sun. I have literally dozens of novels I started and never finished, but one novel stands above all the rest, the very first novel I ever finished.

It was called Anna and the Duchess, and it was an epic YA fantasy clocking in at just over 260,000 words. Those of you who’ve mailed a query letter can guess how well that flew… bricks didn’t have shit on my book.  Still I got several bites for partials, but only one full from a brand new agent who was one of those beautiful souls willing to take a chance. I don’t blame any of these agents for rejecting poor little Anna. Looking back two years and several hard lessons down the line, my first book was such a wreck. It was long winded, the main character was milquetoast, and the pacing was accidental when it happened at all (this was before I thought about things like pacing).

As a novel it was a miserable failure. But, that’s kind of the job of first novels. Despite two false starts (I queried a heavily edited version about a year later, which failed slightly less, but not by much) Anna and the Duchess taught me all those little things, like the importance of daily writing no matter what, or how to deal with broken characters in broken scenes, that only the act of actually writing  a novel can teach you.  For that, I am very gratefu, and, looking back, there were parts of the novel that were pretty damn good. 

So, for your amusement, here’s my favorite scene out of the whole novel, where two religious zealots with very different views on how their now kingless country should be run decide what to do next.

Continue reading ‘The little story that never quite could’


The cutting room

I’ve put the bulk of this post behind a cut since it’s fairly graphic in parts. (You have now been officially warned!)

This description of an autopsy is drawn from my personal experiences as a forensic photographer and morgue tech. Other Coroner or Medical Examiner’s offices may have different procedures or methods. This is also a very “basic” description, just to give a general idea of what happens in an autopsy. Autopsies for homicides or suspicious deaths are much more detailed and complex; there are specific methodologies for investigating gunshot wounds, strangulations, blunt force injury, etc. If you intend to write an autopsy into a story, I highly recommend speaking with a Coroner/Medical Examiner to get specific information. For more basic details, I’m willing to answer questions to the best of my ability.

 Also, I have to state my absolute pet peeve: a morgue cooler is NOT a freezer. (Think about how hard it would be to autopsy a frozen slab of meat!) Morgue coolers are just that–coolers, set at about 34-36 degrees. And, remember, meat still spoils in a cooler, and bodies still decompose. Autopsies are seldom delayed more than a few days, simply because doing an autopsy on a decomposed body is a)far less revealing, and b) gross.)

And now: The Cutting Room.

–Diana Rowland


Creating depth in fantasy worlds: Let your people be people

As a reader, I have a three sided structure for liking novels. One wall is writing, one is plot, and one is character. If a novel has two out of three, chances are I’ll forgive it the third. Good characters and a great plot can carry mediocre writing, for example. Or interesting characters and great writing can make up for a Swiss cheese plot. Good novels often do two of the three very well, and are reasonably passable on the third. Fantastic novels do all three well. Those are my keepers.

But for Fantasy and SciFi, my rubric is slightly different, because when you’re dealing with invented places, the world itself becomes a dimension of the story. If plot, character, and craft are the three walls of my novel-liking pyramid, then the world is the floor that holds the whole thing up. Take China Meiville’s Perdido Street Station, for example. The plot was fairly ridiculous, and, with a few exceptions, the characters weren’t really likeable. The writing was transcendent, but that alone isn’t enough. By my pyramid scale, Perdido Street Station was propped on one, beautiful written but teetering leg, poised for collapse into mediocrity. Yet, I love that novel. LOVE it. Read it three times. Why? The world. The world of Bas-Lag is so amazing, so deep and colored and wretched and desperate and infinitely interesting, I could read about it forever.

This is a rather extreme example of the power a strong, imaginary world can bring to a story. This is why writing (and reading) fantasy is so much fun for me. With other genres, you really only get three dimensions standing on the solid but boring platform of our mutual reality. With Fantasy, you can rip that sucker out and lay down a whole new reality. But, of course, the danger in messing with anything this fundamental is the possibility of royally screwing things up. Just as a fantastic, interesting, absorbing world can carry a lacking story, so can a poorly thought out, inconsistent world doom even the best fiction.

 Now, if you’re an author, the internet is full of resources to help you with world building (Holly Lisle has some good stuff, the wonderful Patricia C. Wrede has more). These are very useful for a bottom up, nuts and bolts approach to creating a new world. But for me, in writing and reading, there’s only one real test, I call it ‘letting people be people.’

 “But Rachel,” you say, “that doesn’t apply to me. I’m writing about a world of sentient otters!”

Fine, you’re not writing about humans, but you’re still writing about people.

Now when I say ‘people,’ I’m not really talking about characters. A character is a person, but your world is filled with people, and I think Agent K said it best: “A person is smart. People are dumb, panicky dangerous animals and you know it.”

One person can be wildly different from another, but people all share some fundamental traits. For example, people are lazy. They’re ingenious in their laziness, though, and always looking for ways to better their situation, whether through innovation, or killing the innovators and taking their stuff. Some of our greatest inventions were made because we didn’t want to have to walk everywhere, or make a fire whenever we wanted to cook our food.

People want power, all the power. People who already have power want more, and people without power will stomp on those with even less until you reach the point of rebellion. To see an example, just look at all of human history.

People mess stuff up. They act in their own self interest, even when it’s horrible in the long term. They focus on meeting their needs and the needs of their loved ones, even if that screws over a lot of other people. They might feel bad about it, but they’ll still do it.

I could go on, but I’m sure you’ve got the point. As humans living on earth (which I think accounts for most readers of this blog), we all know, deep down, how people act. We know that there’s no such thing as a thousand years of uninterrupted peace. We know that civilizations don’t stay static, especially not for the kind of epic timelines you see all over fantasy as a genre.

Readers swallow these inconsistencies because people are also adaptable, and if you’re already suspending your disbelief to allow magic, it’s not too hard to stretch it a little further and believe that an Empire could stand unchanged for five thousand years. But when you make a reader do that, you’re cheating them, and your story, out of a world of depth. This doesn’t mean you can’t have ancient Empires in your novel to great effect, it just means that you have to make them real, and you do that by letting people be people. If your Empire has been around for five thousand years, it’s only going to have the scarcest resemblance to the government it was in the beginning, or at the two thousand year mark, because people are constantly messing with things. There will have been wars. Maybe distant, maybe at your gates, but violence and upheaval will have occurred. If there’s an ancient prophesy about a lost king, people will have tried to fake it. Maybe one of them was even king for a while before he was found out. Once you start digging into all of that, you find story after story, all interesting and varied and unique, and none of which existed before when all you had was a static, five thousand year of Empire.

This is what happens when the people in your world stop acting like a back drop and start acting like people. All of the other parts of world building, creating ecosystems and believable terrain and maps, these are cool, but secondary, the little touches of fine craftsmanship. But the real depth, the thing that will actually ruin your reader’s suspension of disbelief if you do it wrong, comes from people. Not just your characters, but the actions and lives of imaginary people who may have died thousands of years before your cast was born. You already know how those people acted. We all do. Use that knowledge, make your people act like people, and you’ll have a world I’ll want to read.  



Did that get your attention?

There’s romance in my novels, and it often culminates in sex. Not all of them, but many of them. I’m told this is still an unusual thing in the fantasy genre — an almost entirely new development centered around the popularity of urban fantasy (UF) and paranormal romance (PR), and the publishing industry’s desire to attract women readers. I’m not sure why this is such a new thing, given that romance (especially romance with an erotic component) is the biggest-selling category in genre fiction, and given that women have been about half the human population for oh, awhile now. Seems odd that fantasy has only recently started trying to attract them. Nevertheless, not so long ago, used to be that fantasy, like other speculative fiction, shied away from anything deemed sufficiently girly, and romantic subplots are about as girly as it gets.

Sex, note, was never off the fantasy table. From the comparatively mild sexual silliness of Piers Anthony’s Xanth series to the “is this legal?” master-slave ethos of John Norman’s Gor books, the fantasy genre has never been prudish. But this take on fantasy sex has usually been oriented towards a specific demographic: male readers, probably young or at least adolescent in their sensibilities, and probably heterosexual. This demographic has made up the bulk of the fantasy audience for the past few decades, and even with the advent of PR and UF, it’s still probably a very large percentage of the readership.

Particularly in epic fantasy, which is what I write. Which puts me in a bit of a quandry. How does a female epic fantasy writer, whose audience will include many or mostly male readers, handle the delicate matter of sex? Do I write sex in a way that appeals to me as a modern, postfeminist woman? Or do I write the kind of sex that sells, and has sold well in the past?

This is more than a sales issue. This is about my values, my complicity in perpetuating problematic genre conventions, my career reputation. This is srius bizns, yo.

So I give serious thought to the sex. I often ask myself whether I should include it at all — and sometimes the answer is no, I shouldn’t. So I don’t. But when I do, I have to consider how to include it. “Fade to black” or explicit? Stylistically depicted or plain straightforward language? If I’m writing a third-person narrative with multiple PoVs, should the sex scene be written from the hero’s perspective or the heroine’s? (And since I sometimes include gay characters, hero 1 or hero 2?) Given societal reactions to sexually assertive women, how will readers react if my heroine initiates the sex, or controls it? Given the male-centric history of sex in fantasy, is it good or bad if my male character is into bondage? What if the core romance is a threesome? How far can I push the envelope, and still make both myself and my readers happy?

It’s a delicate balancing act. Too realistic and the sex feels gratuitous. Too stylized/symbolic and it becomes laughable, or incomprehensible. If I follow the genre’s conventions too much, I run the risk of repeating the problems and cliches that have repelled me from other fantasy novels. If I get too avant garde, I risk alienating my traditional-fantasy audience.

This balancing act is not unique to me, note. I think most fantasy authors do it to some degree, especially the women. Quoting here from Dr. Debra Doyle, one of my instructors from Viable Paradise and an award-winning established fantasy author herself, in her hilarious essay, “The Girl Cooties Theory of Genre Literature”:

It’s possible to include sex (as distinct from romance) without adding girl cooties, but it’s risky. There’s always the chance that the hero might take a few minutes to talk to the girl afterward, and that gets you perilously close to cootie territory.

I think UF and PR have successfully proven that girl cootie-infested fiction can sell like hotcakes. But can it sell beyond these categories? That’s still up in the air. I hope to become one of the authors that proves it.

But y’know? In spite of all this talk about sales, those aren’t my first consideration. In general, I tend to opt for what makes me happy first. But then I always show my first draft to others — my writing group, or my agent, or friends who are willing to give me an honest second opinion. Then I rachet down, or up, depending on how they react. (And yeah, it’s sometimes weird giving sex scenes to friends; I do wonder what they think of me! But I usually hope they’ll apply the same fiction-reading standards to sex stuff that they do to any of my other writing. Writing about serial killers doesn’t make me one, and writing about characters who are into Sexual Kink #475 doesn’t mean I am.) This input is invaluable, and often keeps me from making mistakes.

For example — there’s a scene in The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms that you’ll never see, or at least not as it existed in its original form. In this scene, a woman makes love to a god whose appearance varies depending on his viewer’s perceptions and expectations, even on a subconscious level. So although she wills him to look like the man of her dreams, there’s some slippage: at one point he manifests distinctly feminine characteristics. (Yes, I mean that.) I’m a psychologist in dayjob life, so I’m aware of concepts like the Kinsey Scale, and the relative rarity of people who fall into the “exclusive” extremes of this scale. This woman’s heterosexual, but not exclusively so, and her lover reacts accordingly.

When I showed this draft to pre-readers, however, those who mentioned it reacted strongly in the negative. It was squicky, they said; it made the scene completely non-erotic. One person said it “took her into primordial Id territory”; this was not a compliment. Worse (IMO), it was too obvious that I was trying to make a statement about human sexuality and my beliefs; this turned the scene from one of pivotal, climactic character development into an authorial soapbox.

This proved to be the clincher for me, so I modified the scene, removing the variable-gender bit. I can make statements anytime, after all — but with this novel, my job is to entertain my readers. I think pushing the envelope and challenging dominant paradigms can be entertaining, but it has to be done in a way that doesn’t make readers run screaming from the Message ™.

So now I’m curious. What novels have you read in fantasy that handled sex well, and what did those authors do that made it work for you?

(Sex sex sex sex sex! Does that make you want to comment?)