Archive for October, 2009


it’s hard to walk the highwire with no tension

So every now and then when I write I hit this… mode. It’s not writer’s block, because I’m still writing, but it’s like pulling teeth.  I know where I’m going, what happens, why the scene is important, I just can’t write it. I sit and I stare at the screen and I can’t write. This is my least favorite part of writing, even worse than writer’s block. Because I KNOW what I’m supposed to do, I just can’t, for whatever reason, do it.

Every single time this happens, I panic. First I blame myself: I’m being lazy, I’m a horrible writer, etc. Next I blame my book: it’s the plot’s fault, I didn’t plan this well enough, etc. Finally I blame things like the weather, being sick, on and on and on. Lots of blame, lots of hair pulling, and no words worth keeping.

This panicking is so stupid, because it always happens for the same reason: tension, or, rather, the lack there of. Tension is anything that draws a reader forward. It can be conflict, mystery, or something as simple as an unanswered question. When it comes to story telling, tension is the water that drives the waterwheel of a book. If there’s no tension, you can still have a story, technically, but it’ll suck. No one wants to read a book with no tension.

Same goes, apparently, for writing one. If a scene is lacking tension, I have the worst time writing it. I think this is because writing a scene is still reading it, only very slowly. If there’s no tension, the reader part of my mind gets bored, and the writer part can’t go on alone. For a long time I thought this inability to write was because I was a bad writer. Now I understand it’s my subconscious’s way of making me a better writer by refusing to let me write scenes with no tension.

All of this wailing is a long winded way of saying that, this morning, I cut 10k worthless, horrible, painful words out of my manuscript. Two bad scenes and a lame character also wound up on the floor. I have never been so glad to see something go. In their place, I have new scenes full of tension and a cool new character. They serve exactly the same purpose as the old stuff, but that’s not the point here. Just because the suit fits doesn’t mean it’s the right one to wear.

(Editorial note: Of course, even though the reason is always the same, I never realize tension is my problem until AFTER all the panicking. You’d think after 4 books I’d have learned the signs by now. No dice. I apparently refuse to learn, either that or I have the memory of a goldfish.)


Dream logic

I’m currently scrambling to get a draft finished so I can send it to my writers’ group and not have them point and laugh at me in the street, so I haven’t really had the brainspace to come up with a good post for this week.  I’d been thinking of posting from a reader’s perspective rather than a writer’s, maybe asking about romance subplots, what makes some fulfilling while others seem tacked-on.

And then last night my subconscious took over and presented me with one of those creepy as hell dreams that make complete sense even as they’re giving me the cold shivers (seriously, a raft of severed heads floating down a river?  What the hell, subconscious?), and I woke up thinking about dreams and stories just so I wouldn’t have to follow that particular dream image.  Romance will have to wait.

As I’ve mentioned before, I get zombie nightmares (not to be confused with Zombie Nightmare), and a lot of my dreams have some basic story structure to them.   I suspect that a lot of this is because my brain confabulates details in that semiconscious stage just before waking, patching in cause and effect and rationalizations to explain just why I and the cast of Firefly are on a mission to replace the Pope with a robot double.

But dreams don’t make good stories, no matter how detailed and clear (and, in some cases, incredibly fucking creepy) they are.  I’ve had only one story that came directly out of a dream, and even then it changed so much from first draft on that only two paragraphs remain from that original tangled outline. Dream-logic isn’t the same as plot-logic, and trying to make one fit the other usually results in plots that need so much external scaffolding to stand that they might as well not be there.  I can think of a few writers who handle dream-logic much better, particularly in works that refuse to explain their logic to the reader and thus force them to accept it.  But it’s not something I do well.

What I do get from the double handful of muck dredged up from my subconscious is images.  One or two potent images that may, in time, accrete a plot around them.  A group of refugees in the snow.  A woman on a tower speaking to a cloud.  A smiling man whose skin doesn’t quite fit.  (It’s probably no surprise that many of these images are closer to horror than fantasy, given that nightmares linger more than dreams.)

I’m curious as to whether this is something other writers do, or just how my own process works.  Do you find that dream-images make it into your writing?  Or if you’re reading something and dream of it, does that affect how you read it from then on?


The Horror, the Horror

The other night, while my baby was hollering at 4 a.m. (we think he had a nightmare, and we soothed him and changed him and so on, but after a while we just had to let him cry himself back to sleep), I was laying in a semi-awake state, thinking about the difference between horror stories and fantasy stories.

Specifically I was thinking about a story involving a magical door, a scary door through which potentially scary things might emerge into our ordinary world, and trying to think of a good way to end such a story. It seemed to me, in my trancelike state, that the moment in which the doorknob on the scary door began to rattle — the moment when something on the other side was on the cusp of emerging, with the mortals on this side watching in wide-eyed dread — would be a good place to end.

And, for a horror story, it wouldn’t be a bad ending. Much horror is rooted in the unknown. When you can see the monster, it’s almost always a let-down; the unseen monster, the monster implied, is far more frightening than the monster revealed.

But the next morning I found the notion of ending the story there a bit disappointing, perhaps even a bit craven. After all, the real leap of imagination would necessarily come when the door did open, and I had to create something on the other side worthy of the build-up, worthy of that sense of dread.

It seemed to me that, at that point, it would almost have to cease being a horror story, because I would need to explicate, explore, reveal — and have my characters somehow process and engage with whatever they saw. At that point, the central evocation of fear would be pushed aside in favor of other effects, and it would cease to be a horror story (in the sense of a story designed to invoke horror in the reader). Both horror and fantasy are rooted in the consideration of Mystery, but they approach that Mystery in different ways.

I was reminded of one of the widely-agreed-upon differences between a technothriller and a science fiction novel: in a technothriller, the status quo is restored at the end, while at the end of a SF novel, the world is changed.

And so my idea for a very short horror story turned into an idea for a rather longer fantasy story — albeit one retaining elements of horror, and several horrific moments; but not engineered for a horrific end.


Guest blog: John Brown–Testicles and the Zing life

Something different for y’all today! John Brown, author of Servant of a Dark God (forthcoming from Tor, October 13–yes, that would be tomorrow!!) has consented to stop by and dazzle us with his insight. (No pressure, John!) Enjoy!

Testicles and the Zing Life


Testicles do not taste like chicken.

I know this thing. At least the ones taken from cattle don’t. But this Nobel prize-winning discovery is not what’s important. What’s important is why I know this.

I’m a city boy. My wife Nellie is a rancher’s daughter. She told me she never wanted to live up in Rich County, Utah where she’d grown up. Too cold. Too boring. Too everybody-knows-everything. Nothing for our future bambinos to do but drink beer and make out. (Some folks might be thinking, heck, that sounds like paradise.)

So after college we set out to live in big cities. We lived in the San Francisco area for a few years then moved to Columbus, Ohio. Nellie was go, go, go all the time. Saw everything there was to see. But the fact that we had neighbors drove her nuts. She grew up with cows. Neighbors were things that lived five miles down the road.

In these various big city areas we had neighbors who didn’t know you could actually put blinds on windows so the folks ten feet away didn’t have to see you wake up, put on your clothes, and scratch various parts (maybe if they’d been hotties it wouldn’t have all been so alarming, although our turn to peeping tommery might have been). Neighbors who didn’t know that some people don’t want you peering over the fence at them while you eat. Other neighbors who were perfectly good in every way but who had dogs that didn’t quite know how to use their indoor voice yet. All sorts of neighbors.

For me, neighbors provide many of the charms city life offers. For example, every neighborhood has a kook of one stripe or another. And if they don’t live there, the kooks will show up. One day in Livermore, California a strange couple stopped by to baptize us, marry us, and then guide us in a beating ceremony with chop sticks. You don’t get that out in the country. Because in the country all you do is drink beer and make out, remember?

So anyway. 16 years after we both said “I do,” we moved to Rich County, Utah. And I found out that country folk do more than drink beer and make out. They also eat testicles. And they don’t do it in secret. No, they have an annual hoedown (hoe as in shovel, rake, hoe, not “ho” as in strumpet) and celebrate the emasculation. All the proceeds, of course, go to charity. It’s called the Black Gold Testicle Festival. They advertise it by telling people to “come on in and have a ball.”

Now, I had a choice before me. I could have turned up my nose. I’m an organ donor, not an organ eater. But I’m also a writer. And I know that life is full of zing. And that exploring such things can not only provide great material for a story, but also just make my few years as a carbon-based life form more enjoyable.

So I went forth and partook. Why wouldn’t I? The unmentionables were served up with a side of baked beans. We stood in two lines and moved inexorably toward the steaming Dutch ovens where smiling servers plopped the chunks of fried flesh onto our white plastic plates. The party was held at the rodeo arena. I took a spot in the bleachers. I set my can of root beer next to the plate. The can and I contemplated my fate for a few moments. But my curiosity got the better of me. The gag reflex kicked in on the first bite. But then I realized, well, shoot, this ain’t so bad after all. It kind of tastes like…

Well, I’m not telling. I’m going to let you find it out first hand because hunting zing isn’t just for writers.

And zing isn’t just made up of shock-yo-momma events. Zing is anything that provides a little electricity in your life. A zing turns you on, sparks your imagination, stokes your desire (no I’m not talking about making out again). It might be an incredible vista, a cool fact, an interesting person or tale. It could be a large hawk moth that didn’t make it back to its evening roost, clinging to the handle of the gas nozzle when you go to pump some unleaded into the car. Zings tingle your cool meter. Dude, yes, ah, oh baby, man-o-man, great oogily boogily–these are all common responses when you come across these experiences.

Most zings are small tingles. Others are zaps. Still others are freaking gigawatt monsters that shake you about and leave you breathless. And all you have to do is simply attend to them. Cherish them, even if for only a few extra seconds. They change you, kind of like fairy dust.

I once went snorkeling in Hawaii with a man because he wanted to confront his fear of sharks. We went just after dusk because he had heard this was when they feed. I was also there when a rancher was pulling a calf from its mother, assisting her in birth. I’ve held full moon festivals with my family with hot chocolate and doughnuts where we just celebrate the beauty of the rising moon. I once took the time to listen to the stories of a dying man and learned that once upon a time he’d been a bank robber, but had reformed his ways after going to the big house. When he got out, he met a Methodist girl, married her, and started a laundromat.

Each of these changed me in small ways. But I would have never attended to any of them had I not been on the lookout.

You might think your life has no zing or that it takes weird DNA. You’d be wrong.

I taught a writing workshop to teens a few years back. One week’s assignment was to capture ten zing each day. I don’t do that in practice. This was a one-week assignment to get them looking. The kids all groaned. How was this going to be possible?!—there’s not that much cool stuff in anyone’s life! One week later they all came back bubbling with what they’d found. One girl said, “It’s like I live in a new world. I used to think it was all just boring, but it [zing] is everywhere.”

It is everywhere.

As a writer, my job is to hunt down and bring back gifts to the reader—thrills, wonders, heart attacks. But even if you don’t read anything of mine beyond this post, let me give you this one gift. Winifred Gallagher wrote a great book called Rapt in which she demonstrates with science why “my experience is what I agree to attend to,” and that while you cannot always be happy, you can be focused, attending to good things.

So let me give you this. Be a hunter. Capture the zing.

And when you eat that plate of testicles, come on over to and tell me what you think.




John Brown currently lives with his wife and four daughters in the hinterlands of Utah where one encounters much fresh air, many good-hearted ranchers, and an occasional wolf. His debut epic fantasy novel, which is set in world where humans are ranched by beings of immense power, is called Servant of a Dark God.



So it’s that time of year again. I speak partially of National Novel Writing Month, but not really. The part of NaNoWriMo I love is actually October, the month before the legion scribblers begin to scribble, when they reset and reopen the forums. Friends, there is no greater, or more interesting, window into the aspiring writer’s soul.

Continue reading ‘eavesdropping’


WANTED: Self-Promotion Methods That Actually Work

As You Know Magic District Readers, my first novel comes out in February 2010. Just five months! That means I’ve entered the hardcore pre-release promotional phase — lining up readings, giving out ARCs to reviewers, planning my convention schedule for next year, etc. I’m a typical debut novelist; some things my publisher will handle, but other things are up to me. I’ve had some nifty bookmarks made, and will be taking those to World Fantasy in a couple of weeks. Have been scoping out spots for my book launch party, and think I may have just found the perfect place. And so on.

Among other things, I’m having a real debate with myself about whether to do a video or audio book trailer. I’ve seen a lot of the former on YouTube and authors’ websites; they’re trendy now. But frankly, I can think of only a few that actually served to get me interested in the book… and the ones that worked for me were clearly not made for cheap. An audio trailer is cheaper and easier to put together, and I think I have a better chance of snaring potential buyers by running ads on popular science fiction podcasts and radio shows — in particular those I’ve been on or will be going on in the coming months.

Here’s the thing, though: I’m shooting in the dark here. I have no actual clue whether a video or audio trailer is more effective. So much of marketing is conditional: if the trailer is good it might be effective, and if the trailer is poor it might actually hurt the novel’s sales. (I doubt that, actually, but you never know.) Bookmarks might help a potential reader remember to buy the book if the author is friendly and personable, but if the author’s a schmuck the bookmark could actually serve as the reminder of an unpleasant experience. So who’s to say what’s really effective and what’s not?

Well — marketing people, actually; they do research and stuff. But a lot of marketing research is proprietary and thus never shared with the public… and more significantly, a lot of the marketing questions I have are so small-scale that they’re beneath the radar of Srs Mrktg Bznss. I seriously doubt whether anyone has ever studied the efficacy of four-inch laminated bookmarks versus 3×5″ matte postcards. You’d spend more on conducting that study than on just buying the postcards and crossing your fingers.

So here’s where you come in.

Stats for the Magic District show that we get about 200 unique hits a day. Not bad for a bunch of n00b authors (two of whom don’t even have books out yet), and better than I usually do by myself on my own website. We do much better on days when one of us writes a really kickass post — like Maggie’s famously awesome text adventure, for example. That post has since gotten almost 6000 hits all total. More modest but still good numbers for something like my own Describing Characters of Color pt. 2 post for awhile back — that one’s at 1300 unique hits. Most of these come along in the day or two after the post is made. So basically, during any given week we’ve got a few thousand folks traipsing through here. Which makes you guys a handy-dandy research sample, for my purposes.

Now, OK, my old grad school research methods professor would come beat me if she knew I was doing this. A few thousand people is far too small a sample for statistical significance, and this is going to be just a quickie poll, not a proper survey checked for reliability and validity. Still, the information could be useful for me and the other Magic Districters, so please take a moment to fill out the poll below. Pass the word to other SF/F readers so we can get more responses. As you’re filling this out, some things to keep in mind:

a) Assume that all the promotional methods mentioned here are average examples thereof — e.g., think of typical bookmarks you’ve seen, not the craptastic ones that Joe the Author printed out on his spotty inkjet using MS Word Clip Art.

b) Please click on a method only if it caused you to buy a book or reserve it at the library, etc. If you thought, “Hey, neat bookmark”, then promptly forgot about the book, then it wasn’t effective. But if you thought “Hey, neat bookmark”, and hopped on Amazon to preorder it, then that counts.

c) If you’ve run across another method that was effective, please fill it in, or mention it in the comments. Fresh ideas are welcome here, folks.

So here goes:

ETA: Argh. For some reason, when people fill in an answer for “Other”, the answer doesn’t appear. Not sure what the problem is, but please put your answers in the comments of this post instead, folks. Sorry.

Your response can help impoverished newbie authors get their careers off the ground! Can’t you spare us a click for a good cause?


Other worlds

When I started reading fantasy, I was very clear on what I wanted from it. I wanted to meet characters I could identify with, who I could cheer on in their fight against titanic evil. I wanted a plot that wouldn’t leave me bored by page 53 or leave me and my sixth-grade certainties confused. And if there were some interesting ideas or fragments of other stories in there as well, that was just fine.

Most of all, though, I wanted a new world. Somewhere else, somewhere that people could summon fire or call forth strange and terrible creatures, where the laws of the universe were mutable and the stars were both balls of fire and separate, sentient beings. I wanted magic and a world that could accommodate that magic.

As you can probably guess, my tastes changed as I grew up; nuanced characters trump cardboard any day, I can follow more tangled plots and (depending on the story) remain patient well past page 53, and the elements of old stories in a new one can add a depth that I’d otherwise have missed. But what hasn’t changed, what I still crave, is that experience of a new world. There’s something about being drawn fully into a strange, beautiful world that hits me on some deep, almost unconscious level.

Luckily, there’s a lot of good secondary-world fiction out there.

I confess, this is all by way of drawing attention to the magazine Beneath Ceaseless Skies. Headed by a fellow Viable Paradise alum, Scott H. Andrews (seen here in his safety gear for dealing with the Internet), the magazine runs biweekly and takes as its mission “literary adventure fantasy.” I won’t attempt to define any of those three terms — better writers than I have fallen in such debates — but what that means in practice is that Beneath Ceaseless Skies features well-written stories set in a multitude of new worlds. (Full disclosure: one of my stories was published by Beneath Ceaseless Skies way back in January.)  More about their upcoming stories below the jump. Continue reading ‘Other worlds’