Archive for the 'Greg van Eekhout' Category



27
Apr
09

Things I hate – Synopses

Novel synopses. Hate them.

This morning I’ve been working on a detailed chapter outline for a new book I’m trying to sell, so I’ve been drinking a glass of fresh squeezed hatred for breakfast.

A synopsis has to prove that you’ve figured out your plot from front to back, with all the major parts in the middle. It proves you’ve got your story logic in place, that your major characters experience complete arcs, and that the ending proceeds naturally from that which came before. What’s annoying about this is that you might not have figured all this stuff out yet, so you either have to fake it, or, even worse, figure it out.

But the really unfair thing about a synopsis is that the form makes it very difficult to engage your best tools, like snappy dialog, pacing, and surprise. The lushness or muscularity of your prose can’t be employed in its natural environs. Yet the writing in a synopsis still has to be good. It has to suggest that you’re the kind of writer who can do dialog and pacing and lushness and muscularity. It’s kind of like trying to make an audience laugh by summarizing jokes rather than telling them.

After the cut you’ll find a portion of my synopsis for NORSE CODE. I’m not providing it as an example to follow. Due to various circumstances, it was written after I sold the book, so I can’t point to it as something that contributed to making a sale. But hopefully it’s enough to demonstrate what I was shooting for. If you’ve got links to good synopsis examples online, please do link to them in comments.

Obligatory warning: CONTAINS SPOILERS

Continue reading ‘Things I hate – Synopses’

26
Apr
09

Greg’s Sunday quickie – Characters

I’ll forgive a writer many things, but if I don’t get along with their protagonist, it’s over. It’s kind of like embarking on a long road trip with a stranger. Say we start out on Santa Monica Beach and head east. If we’ve reached Las Vegas and they’ve got their feet on the dashboard, picking their toes while singing along with Toby Keith, I’m booting them out in front of Treasure Island.

I always hope I’ll love the protagonist. I hope the way they approach problems makes sense to me. Or surprises me, and not because I’m surprised at how stupid they are. They don’t have to be perfect people, but they have to have enough admirable qualities that I won’t want to impale them on a cactus by the time we hit the Grand Canyon.

I recently made the acquaintance of Mau, the only survivor of a devastating tidal wave in Terry Pratchett’s Nation.  I came late to Pratchett. Not being a great fan of comic fantasy, I was pleasantly surprised to discover in him a writer who is not only funny, but also humane and wise. Through Mau, Pratchett tells the story of what it might be like if everything you knew and loved were literally swept away, and you had to reassemble your world one piece at a time. You had to learn to survive open seas. You had to figure out how to overcome the cruel indifference of nature and the unnecessary evil of other people. You had to rediscover not just what you believed, but what deserved your belief.

Watching Mau courageously face these challenges was a pleasure. I liked him, and I’m glad we met.

20
Apr
09

More writing advice, good and bad

The best advice for a writer is this: If you’re having trouble, keep writing.

Plot’s not working? Dialog sounds like a machine translation of raccoon language? Keep writing. Editors sending you nothing but form rejections? Agents don’t bother to respond to your queries? Your critique group is full of jerks, including the guy who gets unsettling stains on your manuscripts? Keep writing.

For all that writing is a state of being, a way of looking at the world and a role that can come to define who you are, before anything else it is the activity of forming words and sentences until they become stories and novels. Without writing, there is no writing. So keep writing.

This even applies to personal problems. There were many times when a hideous day (or month, or year) at the job felt a little better when I could look myself in the eye (using a mirror, as opposed to a prehensile eyestalk) and tell myself that at least I made my word quota. There were times when my world felt like a swirling toilet and creating fiction was one of the things that helped me climb out of the pot. Keep writing.

The worst advice for a writer is this: If you’re having trouble, keep writing.

Yes, I know, the worst advice is exactly the same as the best advice. I never said this wasn’t tricky.

Writing makes some people unhappy. Miserable, even. The joy they get from making stories and any resulting success is outweighed by all the rejection, poor sales, and lack of critical or popular appreciation that is too often our lot.

For many writers, it’s the actual work they’re producing that makes them unhappy. With rare exception, good writing is achieved only through bad writing, be it the proverbial million bad words that precede the first good ones, or (as in my case) the bad words that occur in the middle of the good ones. Is the solution to keep writing? Maybe. But if writing is making you and your friends and loved ones unhappy, then, Jesus, why the hell are you doing it?

You can stop. You can stop for good, or you can stop for awhile. No writing will occur while you’re stopped, and you probably won’t get better while you’re stopped (although it’s been known to happen), but you can stop.

It’s every person’s right to aim for happiness, and if writing is getting in the way of your pursuit, it’s perfectly okay to seriously consider stopping. There are plenty of other worthwhile things to do with a life. Find something else that doesn’t make you miserable and pursue that with all your heart.

— Greg

19
Apr
09

Greg’s Sunday Quickie – My favorite reference book

Being essentially lazy, my favorite reference source is my blog, where I can throw out any random question and have someone much smarter than I provide the answer in the comments. Failing that, there’s always Wikipedia.

But as for books, I relied on the Eddas for NORSE CODE, both the Younger Edda (or Prose Edda) by the 13th Century Icelandic poet, Snorri Sturluson, and the Elder Edda (or Poetic Edda). The Eddas gave me armor against any readers claiming I got the myths wrong, because even these supposedly official versions can’t agree on how things went down back when the gods were tromping about.

Right now I’m writing what I’m calling my “Los Angeles book,” and I find myself often turning to Los Angeles A to Z: An Encycolpedia of the City and County. Scored it in hardcover for $1.50! It’s great for flipping pages and coming up with ideas for settings. You really can’t come across the entry for the Angel Flight funicular and not want to have a scene set there.

12
Apr
09

Greg’s Sunday quickie — My favorite fantasy novel that isn’t a fantasy novel

One of my all-time favorite fantasy novels involves a dark magician who gathered around him a small cabal of talented, like-minded specialists and led them in a pact with demonic forces in exchange for great power, wealth, and notoriety. What followed was a meteoric rise to the pinnacles of influence. They strode across the world like gods. Denied nothing, they freely indulged any depraved amusement they could dream up. And for a time, they were rewarded for it.

But, as these things go, there came a cost. One of them lost his child. Another, his life. And the dark master magician himself found his sanity and health drifting away. Only the fourth of their brotherhood, the least flamboyant among them, who alone refused to enter into the pact, emerged largely unscathed. This one would go on to enjoy quiet satisfactions, such as arranging the strings on REM’s Automatic for the People album. He was called John Paul Jones, and he’s still a great bass player.

And that’s pretty much Hammer of the Gods: The Led Zeppelin Saga, by Stephen Davis. I consider it the rock bio equivalent of the Matter of Britain. Only with more urine.

06
Apr
09

Greg’s Sunday quickie – Shouts

This week’s Sunday quickie is about those who helped us along on the journey to writing and selling our novels. If you happen to read the acknowledgements page of Norse Code, you’ll see a lot of heartfelt, sappy gushing about those people, but one person I forgot to thank was William Wrigley, Jr., the chewing gum magnate.

I was ten years old on the family vacation when we took a bus tour of Catalina Island, and the driver pointed out the house of the great writer of cowboy sagas, Zane Grey. It was an awesome spread, and it planted the idea in my head that writers could get immensely wealthy.

No, stop laughing! It could happen!

As it turned out, I’d misunderstood the driver. He was actually pointing out the Wrigley mansion. I’ve chewed a fair share number of sticks, but I wouldn’t know thing one about making or selling gum. It has something to do with sugar and glue, I think.

Anyway, I still have to credit Wrigley for igniting within me the spark of greed.

Zane Grey’s place was pretty nice, too, actually.

30
Mar
09

Greg: Writing advice, the good and the not so much

When I was but a very wee writer in Angus Young schoolboy pants, I would attend just about any science fiction convention panel for which the topic could be described as anything close to “Some Writer(s) and/or Editor(s) Talk.” Sometimes I would sign up for a writing class offered through a university extended education program, as long as there was some writer or editor who promised to talk. And I would read interviews with writers and editors, and tune into radio programs featuring writers and editors. For gosshake, I’d even haul myself to the library to read each month’s issue of Writer’s Digest, featuring such helpful articles as “Five Story Hooks To Blow an Agent’s Medulla Oblongata Right Through Her Eye Sockets!!!”

Shorter version of the above: I was hungry for wisdom.

I knew better than to expect a magic word, a shortcut, the literary equivalent of a get-rich stock quote. But I quite reasonably hoped to learn from the experience of others. I once watched our family cat Sheila teach our adopted kitten Socks how to walk the narrow ledge of a high fence. Even cats don’t learn everything by instinct. We animals need examples.

So, I think from time to time I’m going to use this space to post a good piece of wisdom I’ve picked up from others, and a bad one. If I can save someone from having to wear Angus Young pants, I will have done my job here.

The Good: Writing is not a race, and if it were, it’d be a marathon.

What It Means: It’s easy to get demoralized by the success of your peers. While you’re still waiting for a personalized rejection letter and they’re worrying about tax sheltering the advance on their third series, it’s easy to feel as if you’ve fallen behind, that everyone else is getting rich and famous and you’re just getting old. There’s no easy way to not feel this way, because there’s no easy way to avoid feeling natural human emotions, unless there’s something wrong with you, in which case please stand way over there, thank you. But, hey, look, writing is a selfish act, so don’t make it about them. Make it about you. Do you still enjoy the act of creating? Do you still get pleasure from writing a precise, beautiful sentence? Conveying a neat idea? Perfectly capturing a mood or an image? If so, focus on that. Your successful peers won’t drink up all the success beer before you get to the finish line. The world will continue brewing success beer.

The Bad: You’re not a writer until another writer says you’re a writer.

What It Means: It means there are some who’ve written and published and want more than the satisfaction of having achieved a goal. They want privilege, and they want someone to lord that privilege over.

Nothing wrong with wanting respect and recognition from other writers. But writers don’t get to decide who’s a writer. Not even agents and editors get to do that. If anyone at all gets to make that determination, it’s the reader. But I would dispute even that, because I was a writer before I ever published a thing. How did I know I was a writer? Because I habitually moved my fingers in such a fashion that writing occurred. I think it’s really that simple.

29
Mar
09

Greg’s Sunday Quickie – My Unqualified Success

The first book I wrote was a YA science fiction adventure about kung fu and cryptoxenozoology called Down the River Havoc. It never sold, and I consider it an unqualified success.

Not that it’s a brilliant piece of work. It’s not. The pacing and plot are pretty shaky. And not that I wouldn’t  like to have sold it, because I always hope for an audience and money whenever I write something. But my only real goal for it was completion, to prove to myself that I could make a novel.  So, working on it until I was able to type “The End” means it was an unqualified success.

Like I said, it’s a flawed work, but there are still components of it I like and that I’m proud of, and maybe one day I’ll brush it off and see if another draft or three can turn it into a saleable piece of work. But if not, no worries. Down the River Havoc has already accomplished everything I asked of it.

23
Mar
09

My shameful lie about short fiction

From time to time I get asked if working to establish oneself as a short story writer is helpful when trying to write and sell novels. My stock answer is that, while it can’t hurt, it’s hardly necessary, and that the only really good reason to write short stories is because you love writing short stories. Shorts pay too little and require too much labor to make them worth writing for any reason other than you love writing them. Writing them doesn’t teach you how to write novels any more than running sprints trains you to run marathons. Also, the audience for them is small, and in talking to book editors and agents, I’ve come to the depressing conclusion that many of them, probably most of them, don’t follow the short fiction field.

In thinking about it, though, I’ve come to realize that my stock answer is a load of horse poo. I was lying. Short fiction totally helped me sell my first novel.

With the exception of a few anomalous print appearances that nobody read, I date the start of my short fiction career to 2001, and while I’ve never been the most prolific writer around (I mean, I’m not a freak like Tim Pratt), I’ve been able to count on a handful of publications in good anthologies and magazines every year. A few years ago, I started to get occasional inquiries from book editors wondering if I had a novel in the works. In each case, the conversation began with them mentioning some specific story of mine they’d read. Indeed, Juliet Ulman, the editor who acquired Norse Code for Bantam, initially wanted to know if I had a novel based on my story, The Osteomancer’s Son, which she’d read in Asimov’s. I’d like to believe that Norse Code is so brilliant that it could have radiated right through a manila envelope and compelled an editor to lift it off a slush pile and write me a check, but that’s not really how it happened. My short fiction publications helped.

And, no, writing short stories is not like writing novels. Novels are longer, obviously, but they’re also shaped differently. They require different rhythms, different approaches to pacing, to weaving plot and character. More than that, though, they require a different degree of faith to complete. If you finish a short story only to find that it’s a big pile of suck, you’ve wasted a few days or maybe a few weeks. It shouldn’t be devastating. But do the same with a novel, and you’ve squandered your ENTIRE YOUTH.

Which is why it’s useful to work on short stories, at least until you’ve done it enough and failed at it enough and garnered enough rejections that you move beyond that point and start to sell some. Because then, even if you squander your better years on unsaleable novels, you can take some satisfaction in the success you’ve experienced as a short story writer. And the science fiction and fantasy genres have long, proud traditions in short fiction. Success in the continuum of those traditions ain’t no small thing. It’s good to be able to feel good about something when you’re in the depths of novel despair. So, yes, while the best reason to write short fiction is because you enjoy writing short fiction (life’s too short to spend it doing non-mandatory things you don’t enjoy), I can say that short fiction helped launch me as a writer of novels.

And if my novel career withers and dies before it’s had a chance to really get going, I know I have a form and a field and a home for my other writing. And since I enjoy writing short stories, I’ll be okay. Now, if you hate writing short stories, most of the preceding is probably irrelevant to you. Short fiction is by no means the only path to novels. But it was mine.

22
Mar
09

Greg’s Sunday Quickie – Authors and parenthood

Our question for this week’s Sunday Quickie: Are authors like parents to their characters?

Short answer: No.

Characters are distorted manifestations of ourselves. Our experiences, our perceptions, and our memories get blenderized and expressed in language that sparks experiences, perceptions, and memories in the reader. And it’s the reader who then creates characters in his or her own head.

So, if that’s parenthood, then I was totally lied to in health class.