Archive for August, 2009


The Map Thing

Seeing this amusing example of “Geography Fail” triggered this post. What’s wrong with this picture?

ur doin it wrong

ur doin it wrong

So as we confront yet another example of how Americans can’t even manage to correctly render maps of our own, very real world, I find myself contemplating the nature of maps in fantasy.

They’ve become a staple of epic fantasy, particularly those of doorstopper size, to the point that Diana Wynne Jones ruthlessly skewered them as a cliche in her seminal The Tough Guide to Fantasyland. (Note: I haven’t seen the revised version, which I’m told has a different parody map; the original was Europe upside down, with names that are anagrams of Our World names.) TV Tropes has a few choice things to say about them too. (Warning — I have never managed to visit TV Tropes without losing several hours of time browsing and laughing my nether regions off. Here there be lulz; click at your peril.)

It’s easy to make fun of fantasy maps — and yet we continue to see them throughout the genre, even when authors don’t want them (e.g., Terry Goodkind). It’s gotten to the point that an epic fantasy sans map doesn’t actually feel like epic fantasy to some readers. I was at Worldcon this past weekend, schmoozing and doing all the usual stuff debut authors need to do to promote their book. I handed one of my Advanced Reader Copies to an author whose work I admired, in hopes that she would read it and offer a favorable review. She thumbed through it, looked impressed by the teaser blurb, but then frowned and said, “I thought this was epic fantasy? There’s no map.” At which point I was obliged to explain that it had all the other tropes of epic fantasy — world-spanning scale, one brave heroine fighting impossible odds, Fate Of The Universe At Stake, the usual. Just no map. She still looked a bit dubious, but said she’d read it. Here’s hoping.

I got anxious enough about this during the early production phase of The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms that I actually drew a map. This was a mistake, of course, because I know diddlysquat about cartography and plate tectonics and had probably put a continent in the way of some critical Gulf Streamlike current, thus making the whole planet uninhabitable by human beings. But I worried that readers would protest that the story wasn’t Epic enough, despite warring gods and exploding mountains and such, without a map to illustrate the epic-ness. So I finished the map, then asked my editor if she wanted it. Here’s proof of how good she is — she demurred, noting correctly that it’s a good thing not to adhere to the overdone cliches of the genre. Amazing that I needed a reminder of this, but that’s how deep the programming runs.

Because I didn’t really believe I needed one. I feel the same way about maps as I do about depictions of characters in novel cover art — I know they supposedly sell more books, but I hate it when my mental image of the story is messed with by someone else’s rendering. When I finished my crappy map, I didn’t actually like it. For one thing, the underlying story of the series spans thousands of years. Imagine how much human civilizations in our world have changed in, say, the last two millennia. Which era would you choose to map? How would you depict shifting national boundaries, cities destroyed and rebuilt, and so on? On top of this, I make a point in the series of noting that this world’s rulers routinely obliterate nations that annoy them, literally wiping them off the map. Even the gods get in on the planetary renovation act, sinking continents and boiling oceans now and again. The survivors move to an undamaged location, plant a flag and name the new territory after the old, and hope they’ll manage to last a few centuries before the next displacement.

Trying to map all this made the world, complex and dynamic in my imagination, look simple. Static. Small. Which is partly a testament to my mapmaking (non-)skill, but also partly the purpose of a map — to render something as vast as a landscape into a comprehensible, graspable, quantifiable representation. Necessary for explorers, but for readers? I think it actually diminishes the epic fantasy experience.

So here’s my question for all of you. Fantasy maps: necessary? Desirable? Or an evil that must be stopped? You’ve got my vote, obviously, but maybe I’m atypical. I’d like to know what some other fantasy readers think.


Life in the big city

Apologies for the lack of a post last week; I was in Montreal on vacation before Worldcon, and the blog completely slipped my mind.  (Blame the tasty duck sandwiches.  No, blame the weather.  No, blame…anyway.)

Montreal’s a beautiful city, and completely unlike any other I’ve visited.  I was trying to make comparisons for the first couple of days I was there — this part is like that one section of San Francisco, this part is like New York, this is like Paris — but it completely fell apart before long, and I think it’s because I was going about it the wrong way.

Cities can be compared one to another, but each one has its own soul, and it’s sometimes difficult to remember that when writing.  Particularly if, like me, you’re from a small town and all cities have that first shock of Too Many People and Too Many Buildings.  It’s really tempting to write all of them from that point of view, to assume all cities are like the one city you know well, or just to ignore the individual differences between cities, concentrating instead on the action and treating the tall buildings as just something more for your hero to pose atop.

But readers notice — even if it doesn’t kick them out of the story, they notice when something’s done well.  Night Watch wouldn’t be the same without the film of Moscow clinging to it, and I probably wouldn’t like it so well.  Last Call captures a sense of Las Vegas that blends with the mythical underpinnings of the story so well that I can’t see pictures of certain casinos without shivering.  Neverwhere might be about London Below, but it’s still London.  If any one of these were set in, say, New York, they wouldn’t feel right.  The city shapes the story.

This carries over into fictional cities as well: New Crobuzon is a very different city from Ankh-Morpork, despite the superficial similarity of “corrrupt and squalid city inhabited by many strange varieties of people.”  Riverside is not the same place as Camorr.  Palimpsest is not Ashamoil.  Tavernel is not King’s Landing.  Even though some of the difference we as readers see has to do with the stories that are set there, the cities still have to have their own personalities.

For a city to work — for a fantasy to be urban — it needs to be a character in its own right.  And though it can have echoes of other cities, the same way that Vieux-Montreal echoes certain European cities, the same way that many glittering downtowns echo New York, it can’t be just a reflection of one.  It has to be an entirely new place — and as with any new place, it’ll give a visitor culture shock.

What cities have come through in what you’ve read?  Which would you most like to explore?


Know what a kid knows

by Diana

This is going to be a teensy rant.

Yesterday the Kid was in the car with me, singing away in the backseat–Christmas carols, of all things. She started in on “Jingle Bell Rock” but couldn’t remember all the words. When I had to admit that I couldn’t remember all the words either, she stated, “When we get home, you need to go online and find them!”

She’s five. She’s growing up in a world where instant access to information is a given. She’ll have a black belt in google-fu by the time she hits first grade. She knows that you can find out anything by going to the internet.

So why are there so many grown men and women who can’t figure this out? Okay, let me get more specific–why are there so many aspiring writers who can’t figure this out? Breaking into publishing can be seriously bitching hard. I won’t deny that. And it doesn’t really get much easier once you break in. The quest to get published is much like a job hunt.  Actually, it IS a job hunt. And just like in the business world, the best and brightest job candidate might get beat out for the job by the candidate who did his or her research on the company and the job opening.  In publishing the advantage is going to go to the writer who does the research and directs queries/submissions to the agents/editors who handle their type of work.  It’s going to go to the writer who pays attention to–and follows–submission guidelines. It’s going to go to the writer who acts like a professional.

All of this research and information is available online. There are scads of articles and blog entries about how the industry works. Dedicate a portion of your writing time to learning about the industry, or researching markets/agents/submission guidelines.

There’s no excuse for being clueless. Even my five-year-old knows that.


Dissecting the Devil

Dissecting the Devil
Today I’d like to talk about everyone’s favorite characters – villains. A good villain can make an otherwise normal story unforgettable. Silence of the Lambs would be nothing but a serial killer novel without Hannibal Lector. And I Claudius wouldn’t be much of anything except an historical drama without the incredible machinations of Livia. What’s Star Wars without force lightning? Villains are everything we love about fiction.
In my first novel, I didn’t worry too much about my villain, and while I think I still managed to pull it off, I didn’t want to ignore the villain in my next book. But what makes a truly memorable villain? I sat down to find out.
Your villain is your antagonist, so it seems reasonable that your reader should hate them as a by-product of cheering for your main characters. It isn’t hard to inspire hate in a reader, just have your villain do something awful. Burning down the main character’s village is classic, so is killing your swordsman’s beautiful and far too saintly wife, preferably on their wedding day. If you’re looking for something a little quicker, you can just have the bastard abuse a child, or better, a puppy, and you’ll have instant, rabid hatred.
But simple, hated villains rarely end up on top ten lists. There’s only so much evil cackling they can do before they start sounding like every other cackling villain. True, hated villains play their parts with great aplomb and push the story along admirably, but I can’t help feeling that simple hate isn’t enough. Pure evil is just as boring as pure good. For a villain to truly go down as an amazing character, they have to be a character, which means a mixed bag. A truly good villain must be someone readers love, or at least, love to hate, and to achieve this, you must capture the reader, trapping them into feeling empathy, admiration, or even simple watching-the-trainwreck fascination.
Empathy is perhaps the rarest and the trickiest. My favorite empathetic villain is Salieri from Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus. Here is a composer who has dedicated his life to music, who did everything right, but who was unfortunate enough to be a competitor with Mozart, who, in the movie (and the play), is a horrible, irresponsible, dirty little man, but whose music transcends the best of what Salieri can produce. In one of the most moving scenes, Salieri, a devout Christain who had dedicated his life to making music for the glory of god, turns his back on his creator, saying:
“From now on we are enemies, You and I. Because You choose for Your instrument a boastful, lustful, smutty, infantile boy and give me for reward only the ability to recognize the incarnation. Because You are unjust, unfair, unkind, I will block You, I swear it. I will hinder and harm Your creature on earth as far as I am able.”
It is at this moment that Salieri becomes the villain, and the viewer can not help but empathize. Salieri has been the movie’s central character. He’s charming, genteel, and his love of Mozart’s music, even though he hates the man with a murderous passion, constantly redeems him. He can not hate such beauty, and neither can we. He represents the inadequacy and mediocrity we all feel, tapping into an extremely human feeling of jealousy combined with seemingly justified wrath. For all that he does horrible things, we as the audience can not help loving and empathizing with Salieri.
Admiration is its own kind of tricky. How do you make the audience hate and admire a villain at the same time? It’s all about character. One of most masterful portrayals of this I ever saw was Livia in I Claudius. For those of you who haven’t yet had the pleasure, I Claudius is a so-so book and a fantastic BBC mini-series about the family life of the early Roman Emperors, from Augustus to Nero, following the life of Claudius, later Emperor Claudius, the stuttering grandson of Augustus.
The first part of the series is undoubtedly my favorite because it features Augustus’s wife, Livia, as the primary villain. Livia is desperately ambitious that her son, Tiberius, become Emperor on Augustus’s death, never mind that there are quite a few other heirs before him, or that neither Augustus nor Tiberius himself is very keen on Tiberius being Emperor.
None of this stops Livia, and she removes every obstacle in her path with such precision, such cunning, such ruthless efficiency, you can’t help but admire her. Here is a woman so skilled at what she does, namely bumping off family members, I found myself almost cheering for her because it was so much fun to watch someone so clever get around seemingly impossible obstacles. Through it all, Livia is a constant character, and, other than her murderous streak, a very no-nonsense, entertaining lady who happens to be a sociopath. She is, in short, murderously charming, and you can’t help admiring her as much as you hate her.
The villain as can’t-look-away train wreck is a difficult beast. It’s so easy to go from captivating to cliché. The best example I’ve seen of this kind of villain is the Joker from Batman, particularly in the Dark Knight movie. Here is a true maniac who, through excellent writing and characterization, manages to be completely original. You simply can not look away, there’s always this wonder of what will he do next, and how can such an insane, reckless genius be stopped? The tension in Batman and Joker’s antagonism comes not from us hating the Joker, but of our desperation to see how on earth Batman can beat him.
The truth is that, if the movie was centered around the Joker, and not Batman, we’d be cheering for him with pure murderous glee, and that, that right there, is the truest hallmark of a good villain. If the viewpoints were switched, you would still cheer for the villain as the hero because you love the character for themselves. A good antagonist is exactly that, an equal opponent for the hero in strength, cleverness, and characterization. A true threat, not just through armies or super weapons or power, but a clever, ruthless competitor who can stand up on their own.
These three types are certainly not the only options for villainy, just the ones I’ve encountered that I happen to like the most. In everything I’ve written, villains have always been my greatest challenge, and I still don’t think I’ve gotten it quite right. So if you have any suggestions for villains I should get to know, please leave them in the comments. I’m always looking to learn a new twist on how to make a great antagonist.

Today I’d like to talk about everyone’s favorite characters – villains. A good villain can make an otherwise normal story unforgettable. Silence of the Lambs would be nothing but a serial killer novel without Hannibal Lector. And I Claudius wouldn’t be much of anything except an historical drama without the incredible machinations of Livia. What’s Star Wars without force lightning? Villains are everything we love about fiction.

In my first novel, I didn’t worry too much about my villain, and while I think I still managed to pull it off, I didn’t want to ignore the villain in my next book. But what makes a truly memorable villain? I sat down to find out.

Continue reading ‘Dissecting the Devil’


No post today

…because I’m off to Anticipation, the 67th World Science Fiction con, up in fair Montreal. If any Magic District readers will be there, I’m doing a reading and a signing — yeah, even though I have no book — and running an ARC giveaway. Details at my site. See you (hopefully) there!


What To Do When The Sky Is Falling

I know I haven’t updated here in recent weeks; the Worst Year Ever continues to eat up my life. I mentioned the death of my boss a few weeks back, and we’re still sorting out the consequences of that at work, though we’re also managing to get the magazine finished on time, which is the important bit.

The latest blow was the cancellation of my urban fantasy series. See that book cover over on the right, that says Spell Games? That’s going to be the last Marla Mason novel, at least from that publisher. A combination of the crappy economy and not-so-great sales = the end. Not sure where we’re going from here — my agent will see if other publishers want to pick up the series, and if not, I may write a fifth book anyway and self-publish, or do it as an online serial (like my ongoing novella Bone Shop), or something wacky like that. It’s still a story I want to tell.

This does give me the opportunity to address the question: what do you do when your career crashes into a wall?

If you’re me — and your wife was just laid off a few weeks ago and you lost your steady freelance work and making money is a priority — you hustle, hustle, hustle. This past month I wrote auditions for two different work-for-hire projects, one my agent chased down, one that fell serendipitously into my lap. I already got turned down for one of them — though they’re paying me a nice hunk of dough for the proposal I wrote, even though they’re not using it, and seemed to like me in general, just not for this project, so we’ll see what the future holds. It’ll be a while before I hear about the other one, but if it comes through: money, for pretty fun work. Here’s hoping.

I’m also writing short stories — those, at least, I can still sell without much trouble — and more actively pursuing reprint sales. There are lots of secondary markets out there, especially in the podcasting world, that pay pretty well, particularly considering the fact that I’ve already been paid for the story once when I sold it the first time…

I’ve gotten into the editing side of things too. I’m doing an anthology of reprint stories about the devil (Sympathy for the Devil) for Night Shade Books, and an original anthology of SF stories about artificial sex partners (not erotica, though, mostly) called The Naked Singularity for the new small publisher Fugu Press. Neither will make me rich, but it’s cool, interesting work I’m excited about, and it swells the coffers here in the PrattShaw house.

Plus I’m writing book reviews, which I haven’t done in years, and am quite rusty at, but it’s ultimately a way to get paid for reading books and having a few organized thoughts about them, so it’s not a bad deal.

The upshot is, despite wandering in the desert novel-wise, I’m still pretty busy. I haven’t even pushed the limits of work I could churn up — I’m still just doing stuff I like. If I get really financially desperate there are other ways I can make money by generating copy… it just won’t be very fun copy to write. Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that.

In the meantime, I’ve got a couple of completed novels out on the desks of various editors, and am writing proposals for some original fiction projects I’d love to write, even if I do have to start over under a pseudonym (one even more pseudonymous than T.A. Pratt!).

See, I’m a writer. So what I do is, I write. Even when the sky is falling.


Bacon power

You have power. You’re fairly bristling with it. It sizzles off your flesh like bacon in a pan. You like power, don’t you? You like bacon? Here’re a few ways you can exert it this week.

1. Buy a book from an independent bookseller.

Last week, San Diego’s oldest bookstore abruptly closed its doors after 74 years of business. This kind of thing is happening a lot, unfortunately. The American Booksellers Association reports its membership roster declining from 4700 independent bookstores to 1900 last year. One need not launch a screed against chains and big-box retailing to see the loss as a bad thing. When you buy from a local independent, you’re keeping tax dollars in your community. When you buy from any independent, you’re giving the power of deciding what books get sold to thousands of individuals rather than concentrating it in the hands of a very few number of corporate buyers.

If you don’t have a local independent bookstore, try one in another city. Many of them have websites these days and do online sales. Don’t know where to start? Try IndieBound, a network of independent bookstores. The IndieBound site lets you search for a title, and then it’ll ask you for your zip code to locate an indie shop near you where you can either pick up the book or order it. Many of them handle e-book sales as well.

I’m not saying you should support crappy bookstores, but most of the very best are indies.

2. Support Strange Horizons

Strange Horizons is the longest-operating SF online short fiction magazine. A lot of writers, including some of those here at the Magic District, got started by publishing short fiction at Strange Horizons and places like Strange Horizons. They’re a SFWA pro-market, operated by a large cabal of volunteers, and they’re solely funded by reader donations. They’ve just started their 2009 fund drive, and donors get entered in a drawing to win fabulous prizes, like books or services or original art.

3. Tell an author you liked their book or story or article or poem or whatever.

Because when a reader takes the time and trouble to tell me they liked something I wrote? That’s really powerful bacon.


Out of the mouths of babes

by Diana

I was in Target this afternoon, shopping for exciting things like cat food, and toilet cleaner, and back-to-school clothes for the Kid. As is my obsessive habit, I made a pass through the book section to see if–by any chance–my book was shelved there. (Yes, I know that getting shelf space in Target is a huge long shot. Still, I had to check!)

The Kid is apparently used to this by now, because as we turned down the aisle she asked, “Is Mark of the Demon here?” (Yeah, she’s five, and she knows my book!)

I gave a tragic sigh. “No, sweetie. But I didn’t really think it would be.”

She looked at me with a serious expression. “You have to work very very hard for that.”

She’s a smart kid. 🙂

Her perception made me laugh, but it also made me stop and think. On the one hand I’m thrilled that I seem to be setting a good example and giving the lesson that success is a direct result of hard work. On the other hand, I worry a bit that all she’ll remember is that I worked a lot. I admit that there are probably too many times that I say, “I have a lot of work to do, babe. I can’t do [insert activity] with you right now.”

The last month has been like that. First I had a tight deadline for revisions, which meant that during a semi-vacation to Destin, FL, I ended up signing the Kid up for resort activities so that I had free time to work during the day. (I say semi-vacation because my husband was there for a work-related conference, and the Kid and I tagged along.) She enjoyed herself tremendously in the resort activities, but still, I couldn’t help but feel guilty that we didn’t do more stuff together. Upon our return she went right back to the day camp that she’s been attending this rest of the summer, and for the next week I picked her up from day camp and then turned her over to the husband so that I could finish the revisions. Then, as soon as I finished the revisions, it was time for me to head off to the San Diego Comic Con. (Which is why I missed posting last week. Sorry!)

So, this week I’m doing my best to compensate. I’m doing hardly any work. I’m trying to do “quality stuff” with the Kid. We’re playing tea party and watching movies.

Because I know that in another week I’ll be receiving the copyedited manuscript, and I’ll have about a short amount of time to get that finished and sent back. Which means that my Kid will have another week of seeing her mom head down in paperwork, and another week of hearing, “Not now, babe. I have a lot of work to do.”

All I can do is hope that she’ll eventually be able to accept the cycle of “no time to play” vs. “let’s cram as much quality time as we can into this interval between deadlines.”  And, I can only hope that the quality time will be enough.