Archive for July, 2009


no one poops in fantasy

So, like I do every year, I’ve been rereading Diana Wynne Jones The Tough Guide to Fantasyland (if you have not read it, go and do amazon’s free sample, you won’t be disapointed) and, as usual, feeling deeply ashamed of myself. Aside from my usual crimes of color coding (what… bad guys like wearing black… right?) and footwear that not only never wears out, but never smells and never gets waterlogged until plot appropriate. And, as always happens when I’m ruminating on things I got wrong, I always come back to what I see as my worse crime as a writer, which is something both simpler and far more sinister than impossibly convenient footwear.

My characters, simply put, are not human. Over the course of 2 books, I have fed my primary cast of 4 healthy adults the following:

  • a sandwich
  • a handful of fruit tarts
  • one scrawny rabbit
  • a loaf of bread
  • a bottle of wine, which no one got the chance to drink
  • a bowl of stew

Forget final confrontations, my characters will die of starvation before they even reach the climatic battle. Also, as the title would suggest, I haven’t had so much as a mention of a restroom, out house, or latrine pit in almost 150,000 words. Realistic characters eat and sweat and poop just like people, right? I’m a bad writer, a hack, woe woe!

Then I stop woeing and think. How many people – scratch that, how would I like to read a fantasy where people eat regular meals and use the restroom… on screen, so to speak? Sounds like a weird mix of gross and boring. I mean, there’s still no excuse for not feeding my characters a little more realistically, but no one reads fantasy novels looking for a real life SIM. They read them for magic, larger than life characters, and engrossing world building.

This is the lesson I relearn with every novel. In the end, I’m not writing a realistic novel, I’m writing a fantastical novel. While details like stones in shoes and a love of fresh bread help make characters real, there’s such a thing as TMI, even in novels. We know people have biological needs, but we’re reading the book to see how the hero’s going to get out of this mess, not to see what he’s having for dinner.

In the end, the dragon is way more exciting, right?



I’d heard from established authors that this happened, but didn’t quite believe it. Dunno why. I know people can be schmucks. Yet in the past few weeks, I’ve been shocked, shocked I tell you, to encounter people who hear about my book and then ask me, point blank, if I’ll write a book for them. Or if I’ll read their partially-written magnum opus. I thought I would get this from friends of the family, or relatives — people who at least know me a little and feel they can presume on the relationship. But no! I’ve been getting it from total strangers.

The conversation generally goes like this:

Nora: Do dee do dee do…

Random Stranger: Hi!

Nora: Hello. Nice to meet you.

RS: Likewise! I hear you’re a writer.

Nora: (Looks around, wondering WTF, is it written on her forehead?) Yes…

RS: That’s amazing. Y’know, I’ve always wanted to be a writer too. I’ve got a great idea, you know — Tell me what you think of this: (launches into spiel)

Nora: (Looks around again, for rescue, in between polite nods and “uh-huh”s.)

RS: So what do you think?

Nora: (Makes some comment to show she was listening.)

RS: That’s great! Y’know, I’d be willing to share that idea with you, if you want to write it. Just be sure to credit me on the cover!

Nora: Well, I’m pretty busy at the moment… and it’s not really my style…

RS: No problem, no problem, just keep it in mind! And if you get some free time, let’s talk more!

Occasionally I try to point out to these Random Strangers that there’s a name for what they’re proposing: ghost writing. And when done by established authors with preexisting contracts, it’s actually a pretty nice deal; the ghost writer gets paid a substantial portion of the advance (or so I’ve heard), the established author gets a book, and everybody’s happy. When done by an unknown author with no contract, and no money, it’s a waste of my time.

They always look surprised when I say this.

A variation on it is that the Random Stranger will have written the first chapter or so of a book, and wants me to read it. At this point I’m more helpful, because a person who’s actually trying to write (as opposed to just trying to find a ghost writer) gets lots more respect from me. I won’t read the chapter — only friends get that from me — but I will attempt to steer that writer toward critiquing resources, like Critters or the OWW, or in-person free workshops like the one at Wiscon and other conventions. If they seem really serious, I’ll tell them about my experience with Viable Paradise, which I highly recommend, or I’ll encourage them to apply to one of the Clarion workshops — the six-week “boot camps” of the SF field.

But back to my rant. Seriously, what is it with people thinking that writers spend all their time mooching ideas from random strangers? Or even wanting to mooch? I bet that if I turned around and asked those people to write my upcoming book — for which there is a contract and money on the table — they’d look at me like I had a third eye.

I think part of the problem is that a lot of people have no real idea what writers do. They think we sit around all day at coffee shops with beanies on our heads, drinking black coffee laced with gin, and ranting about True Art ™. Or something. I don’t know. And apparently in between rants, we hit up random strangers for marketable book ideas.

I’m trying to master my anger at these people so that I can respond politely when they offer me the rare and precious favor of writing their unwritten novels, because of this — it’s not just that they’re self-absorbed and obnoxious, it’s that they’re genuinely ignorant, and I can’t really blame them for the latter. But good grief it’s tough to hold it in. Kinda makes me feel like this guy sometimes. Not that I have a Messiah Complex.


Stubbornness and recommendations

Stop me if you’ve been through this before: A friend raves about a book to you, and you mentally add it to your to-read list. Then another friend mentions it, and instead of making it a higher priority, you push it back a little further. Even when more favorable reviews come in, some perverse impulse makes you more determined not to read it. It’s not that you don’t trust the opinions of those who recommended the book, it’s just that . . . you don’t wanna.

And then, for whatever reason, you pick it up later on and . . . hey, they were right. And not just right; this book was just what you needed! You’ve got to tell someone about this . . . dammit, all the people you’d tell are the ones who recommended it in the first place.

For example, I’ve just recently finished Gentlemen of the Road by Michael Chabon, and I had no good reason for waiting so long. It’s a rich and fun story with swashbuckling to spare, and I sank into it completely. It was the first of his books I’d read, despite multiple recommendations, and I’m going to have to concede that yes, I probably should be reading more of his work.

So why is it that recommendations, even well-meant and accurate ones, sometimes have the opposite effect on me? And does this happen to everyone, or is it just a juvenile reaction on my part?

I know my father’s book recommendations were, for a while, the kiss of death as far as I was concerned; anything he liked, I stayed the hell away from. That’s passed as I’ve gotten older, for the most part, and while we’ll never have identical tastes, there’s enough overlap that I no longer treat books he recommends as if they were made out of nettles.

Some of it probably has to do with the initial recommendation — being told that I “have to see/read/hear this” irritates me for some reason, and if I’ve first heard of a work in an unfavorable light, it’ll take a while to shake that first impression, no matter how inaccurate it is. Another factor, for me at least, is reverse snobbery; I have a bad habit of ignoring “mainstream” or “literary” works out of some misplaced genre loyalty. And another part is just plain laziness — after the last few months of planning, I’ve been craving old favorites, comfort reading, over new and winding stories.

Whatever the reason, if it’s keeping me from more swashbuckling, then I really need to get over it.

Any recommendations that pushed you in the opposite direction?  What happened when you finally read the book?  And, uh, how do you go about admitting gracefully that you were wrong?


Goodnight, Charles

When I got to work yesterday morning, I heard the bad news: my boss, Charles N. Brown, was dead. For those who don’t know, Charles was the founder, editor-in-chief, and publisher of Locus, the magazine of the science fiction and fantasy field; basically the trade publishing magazine for the SF business. Also my day job for the past, oh, seven years and eleven months.

I owe Charles a lot. First of all, he gave me a job when I desperately needed one, having just moved to Oakland with no prospects. I was lucky; one of my Clarion workshop teachers happened to be one of Charles’s best friends, and she vouched for me, so I basically had the job as soon as I interviewed.

I started out driving the boss around, which was the low-man-on-the-totem-pole job, but it was also an opportunity to hear all his stories about the field. And since he was a fan from, oh, 1947 or so (he read his first issue of Astounding at age 10 and was a science fiction convert for life), he had a lot of stories. He seemed to know everybody in the business, where all the bodies are buried, and he was an endless fount of fact, opinion, jokes, and (occasionally) withering disdain. Over the years I moved up the ladder, doing more and more writing and production work for the magazine, and eventually became senior editor, where one of my responsibilities is writing obituaries.

And so, yesterday, I started writing Charles’s obituary. I hope I do it well. I’m trying to write it as he would have wanted.

I had issues with the man sometimes, certainly, and he could be cantankerous, curmudgeonly, and stubborn, and had a tendency to demand things be done his way and his way only — I won’t pretend he was perfect. (I noted to some other staff members yesterday that we who worked so closely with him are unlikely to descend into hagiography now that he’s gone.) But he was also a friend and a mentor who helped my career in immeasurable ways. He connected me with my agent, Ginger Clark. He gave me a valuable and astute critique on my first novel, even though angsty fantasies about art students and magic doors and coffee shops were pretty far away from the conceptual, sociological, and hard SF he most loved. He introduced me to more people in the business than I can count. He taught me to edit, and to write copy very quickly in a way that requires minimal editing afterward. Access to his research and fiction libraries expanded my horizons beyond my ability to describe.

And on a more personal level, he taught me how to make a moist Thanksgiving turkey, taught me about wine and Scotch, shared my love of screwball comedies and barbecued meat, and was never stingy when it came to bringing vast platters of dim sum into the office. We had champagne when we finished an issue, and in the summers, we’d sit on the back deck after work and drink wine I could never afford otherwise and ate cheese and told bad chokes. He threw great parties.

He gave me a job working in a beautiful art-filled house in the hills. A job that, in many ways, defines a lot of my adult life.

It’s hard to imagine that life without him.


Never too stressed to hype


That’s pretty much been my life the last couple of weeks. Writing is a great job when you only have to write when you feel like it. But when you’re under deadline pressure? Well, actually it’s still a great job, just a bit more stressful, maybe.

Wanna hear what I sound like when I’m stressed? Wanna hear me talk about writing short stories and losing the Nebula Award and from whence my interest in Norse mythology came and what it’s like to be an author with a debut novel during a lousy economy and other things?

I blab on these topics and other things with podcaster/writer Shaun Farrell on Adventures of SciFi Publishing.

Shaun’s also running a Norse Code giveaway contest. Details here.


Thirteen what??

by Diana

First off, I apologize for not posting on my scheduled day last week. There was something of a perfect storm of distractions, including a holiday, a broken down vehicle, and manuscript revisions.

The last one is the biggie, and is what’s had me working a fairly solid sixteen hours a day for the past couple of weeks.

I’ll say this–my editor is an awesome goddess. Editor Goddess read through the manuscript I turned in to her for Blood of the Demon, then read it again (and possibly even read through it a third time) and in due course sent my manuscript back to me with line edits, notes, markups, and comments. Along with the manuscript came a letter with explanations of her comments and notes, as well as more detailed exposition of the areas where she had issues and what she wanted to see me work on in the revision. The letter for this book was thirteen pages–single spaced. However, the Editor Goddess knows what the hell she’s talking about. There wasn’t a single suggestion or comment that would have changed the basic story or characters. What she did point out were places where I’d tried to gloss over details, or where the character interactions fell flat, or where my timeline didn’t make sense (uh, yeah, was I smoking crack?) She didn’t let me get away with any sort of laziness, and forced me to get to know my characters better than I’d ever thought possible.

So, I figured I’d share with y’all the process I used and the stages I went through in the revisions of this novel:

1) Open FedEx package. Pull out manuscript and enclosed letter. See that the letter is thirteen pages long. Single spaced. THIRTEEN! Whimper. Set manuscript aside and read letter. Cry. Read letter again. Resist urge to cry again. Grudgingly accept that editor knows what the hell she’s talking about. See the very short turnaround time requested. Cry.

2)Put my big girl panties on and get to work

3)Rename a copy of my manuscript with “revising” at the end of the filename. Go through the marked-up manuscript and enter the line edits into the new file. (I know that many of these line edits might be cut when I start rewriting, but this is the easiest way for me to re-read the book and go through and see what my editor said in her notes.) Using a different color pencil, make my own notes as I go along. Be amazed at how a couple of months away from the book gives a different perspective.

3)Once all the line edits are done, start from the beginning again and begin to address some of the issues raised in notes. Start with the issues that merely require rewriting of existing scenes. Make notes on separate sheet for issues that are going to require a lot more work. Make other notes for the timeline (which I now see has some major problems. Seriously, how did I screw this up so badly?)

4)Go through the chapters and create a calendar. Start looking at the Big Issues. Glumly accept that I have to write at least two new chapters and a number of new scenes. Make notes on the calendar to detail what needs to go where. Figure out where new stuff needs to go. Start writing the smaller scenes.

5) Write the new chapters. Hate them. Rewrite the new chapters.

6) Make a list of remaining issues/things that still need to be written/rewritten. Start chipping away at them and crossing them off as I complete them. Do a wordcount. Whimper at the realization that I’ve added almost ten thousand words to the manuscript.

7) Start reading through from the beginning, fixing remaining issues as I go. Decide that it definitely sucks less than when I received it.

8 ) Read through it one more time.

9) Send it back to Editor Goddess. Wait for the second round of revisions.

10) Reintroduce myself to my family.


I’m actually at #8 right now. I’m hoping I can get to #9 by the end of the weekend. I’ll let y’all know how #10 goes.


Wait, I have to do what?

So I’m editing editing editing sleep eat dayjob editing crying editing right now, and sadly found myself without time to write the long post about villians I had slated for this week. (But strangely not without time to read Mark of the Demon, nom nom nom!!)

ANYWAY, instead, I thought I’d take the opportunity/copout to ask a question I’ve been quietly fretting over for some time and, as several of our Magic District denizens have had first hand experience with this of late, now seems to be a good time to ask. Namely, how does one go about marketing ones book?

I know Diana has a great ad up on Smart Bitches, and internet ads on sites full of people who would be interested in your book does seem pretty optimal, but I was wondering, what else is there? What else have my fellow authors tried, and of those, what worked the best? How do you even tell if advertising/promotionals work? What was the most fun to do?

I’ve read several articles on self promotion, but most of the advice doesn’t feel right for my book. If I had a romance, I think it would be easier. Romance reader have well known online hangouts. But my series is light action fantasy, all swordfights and magic mixed with comedy. I don’t  know where I should focus my efforts, and with a baby on the way and a day job freshly given notice, I don’t have the luxury of boucou bucks to experiment with lots of different approaches.

And so I turn to you, gentle, clever reader! If you ever saw something and thought “man, that’s an awesome way to promote a fantasy!” I’m all ears! If I try something, I’ll report back on how it works! If you read a good article, I’d love to see it, and if you tried something that you wish you hadn’t bothered with, then I’d really love to know. Even if you were just wandering around and saw something that made you want to buy a book, I want to know what and why. Nothing is too small to further my knowledge!  Thank you in advance, anything at all is greatly appreciated.