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This blog is my online wordsmith workshop, where you'll find notes on my writing experiences, excerpts from my fantasy and science fiction novels, and essays of a more homeworld flavor.

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Saturday, July 30, 2011

Just a short note because it's late and I'm trying to catch up on sleep with limited success. Work and play both take time and energy and my sleep has been irregular. The play time has been more inspirational fo fantasy than science fiction, with lovely and otherwise interesting landscapes, primitive life styles hinted at in the rocks and ruins, and a smattering of odd and foreign notions which are easily interpreted as primative though the more I think about it, the less I know that that means...

Santa Fe has a lot of old European charm and a similar need for small vehicles, with narrow roads hardly more generous than the paths that had been carved for visitors into the volcanic tuff (volcanic rocks made more from ash than lava)- volcanoes provide more science fiction landscapes than fantasy ones, with their technical complexities and odd side effects and impacts to the surrounding nature and life styles, although some of them are so dependent on what seems like unlikely coincidences that you couldn't believably explain all the details in a story.

My travel journal is a bit behind in favor of good air and exercise, but the guy at the book store claimed that one thing many many bright, famous people have in common is journaling, so I'll use it as an incentive if the joy I find in writing anything lags at times. I wonder, though, if in the death of hand writing and paper, journaling will go by the wayside. I've never found online journals to capture the same sorts of content.

Writers challenge. go somewhere (even the nearest street corner) and write your observations in as much detail as you can for fifteen minutes, either looking up frequently or writing without looking down.

30 jul 11 @ 12:25 am

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

No tv
Sometimes I can edit and revise while watching tv - when the tv gets interesting, the story progress lags, when the story goes well, the tv gets forgotten. Other times, though, the dullest shows and advertising will distract me, especially, I think, when my day has been mentally demanding and I'm tired if not yet sleepy. Then multi tasking becomes harder and creativity definitely lags.

Bits and pieces of story stuff still creep in with some effort. I have a lot of early story attempts that went nowhere - a character or two, a setting, a few scenes, but mostly background or too simplistic a plot for the culture I've developed along the way to have a chance these days, when most of what sells seems to have lots of characters, soap opera relationships, etc., besides the main story line (though it results in extra long books or non-stand-alone books that I thought were both frowned on, they still get published somehow). I realized that the flavor/style of two of them was close enough--mostly low tech wilds with hints of an advanced tech in the background or in isolated, protected locations, a touch of superstition, isolated cultural groups that don't get along... such that I could merge them, use one as background (or both) and have one (or all the central characters) away from home so that the elements of their cultures that are different can just be "back home" versus "here." The low tech and wilds means that aspects of the culture are very geography/ecology dependant rather than contra-indicated by the other subculture's differences, and the differences provide both immediate sources of conflict and the means of looking with an outsider's view for clear presentation to the reader, at least over time.

Part of why I was looking at the options was several discussions at HNS about what agents and publishers were looking for: one of them being the movie rights. An Alan Alda film said that the three keys to a successful movie were sex (and/or nudity, or at least romance), violence (my grad school history teacher said explosions or at least conflagrations that looked like explosions were key in anything pretending to be an adventure), and I forget exactly what the third was but think it was essentially bad language as perhaps a form of rebellion.

For science fiction I would add that a tie to humans of Earth is pretty much a necessity or at least a human race among the aliens. The popular audience is not ready to relate to a story about two groups of aliens that are neither quite human. Ditto fantasy. People appreciate hobbits, and the protagonist need not be human, but at least the sidekick must be.

One can't merely write a story based on recipis, but like rules of grammar, it pays to be well aware of them. In my case, what I currently lack is the romance. I have family soap operas including an abusive father, sisters with varying relationships, a good father and missing mother, demanding social expectations, but not boy for any of the girls that form my core characters. It reminds me to consider that if I add a human, it doesn't have to be another girl... The efforts at romance need not be successful, and failure would add an element of humor, comic relief, lighter moments that are currently missing from both story set ups...

So, I've finished polishing the story I've been working on and have a couple of others that I've done with major rewriting but in need of much polishing. Meanwhile, I have a direction for an attempt at a new book to slowly tackle while I look for new candidates for agents for the rest.

Writer's challenge: Find every checklist for story elements you can find and look at the story you've recently completed with the lists in mind: are all the elements there? If not, why not? Would adding it help the story or detract from it? (How are those ponderosa-pine-inspired stories coming, btw?)
26 jul 11 @ 10:48 pm

Saturday, July 23, 2011

only seven hours late
Only. My train, that is, sort of. People write stories because they have something to say that can't easily be tweeted. My train was three hours late to start with, got to our destination city, Albuquerque and then had to stop a few miles from the station. Over three hours later... For details, a query for AMTRAK and Albuquerque should get you more information than anyone cared to give the passengers. I know facebook messages were posted, and there was a news camera...

Of course, services aren't open that would have been otherwise and fortunately I realized this for the three hour problem in time to find a place with cell service, changed rental car locations, adjusted day plans, skipped supper mostly, and many hours later we have arrived in Santa Fe. One long road up from Albuquerque.

Burnt trees are an interesting sight, by the way, and I guess maybe they aren't necessarily dead trees. They told us the ponderosa pines like a fire ever 7 to ten years so they don't have to compete so hard for water with the under brush. That means the trees are either perpetually under ten years old (and my understanding of high altitude trees suggests not) or they survive the fire. Some had lots of branches there, if not twigs or needles, so I guell a quick flame up but not necessarily burnt to the core...

I didn't bring my HNS notes with me, but I'll post more on what I remember and other such stuff this week while I have wifi access.

Writer's challenge: write a personal adventure as a story or write a science fiction or fantasy scene that is inspired by the ponderosa pines.
23 jul 11 @ 2:38 am

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Historical Fiction and the Fantastic
Well, getting a refer to an agent might have helped get a reasonably quick response, but not a good one, and not a personalized one, which was my main hope. I guess a referal doesn't mean quite as much as everyone seemed to think. Another generic reject card for the file.

Meanwhile, we live and maybe learn to do something that sells a little better...

One of the sessions at HNS was right in line with my fantasy writing, although less than I expected. Panel members included Christopher Cevasco, Shauna, a Clarion editor for SF and Fantasy, nd others

A lot of Historical Fiction includes what could be called fantasy, reflecting historically correct beliefs and superstitions in a wide range of ways and to a wide range of degrees: everything from merely the POV characters crediting normal phenomenon and coincidences and such to their belief system and superstitions, to making their beliefs real, even exxagerated, showing the magic, the gods and their powers, the fairies and their unique characteristics. Most discussed at the session though were at the more realistic end, sometimes just the crediting, sometimes leaving the magic and miracles uncertain - not quite clear whether a dream is a vision, the convenient finding of some object subconscious, absent-mindedness, human elf, or magic. They might land on Fantasy shelves but more often fiction unless it is blatantly high fantasy and the author established as a fantasy writer more than a historical fiction writer.

Like science fiction and other unique fantasy worlds, the world building can be complex, the ability to establish believability appropriate to the story key. History provides a setting that may be familiar to the readers, but most casual readers of history are not familiar with the differences between modern and historical religions, the degree to which people can believe in the unusual and illogical: people see things even today that those who didn't see it don't believe. When the concept of logic and physics and laws of nature are unknown, our imagination is freed and the mindset is very different, but we still need to be able to name the unusual things our eyes see and our ears hear.

Part of the difference in presentation can be handled by he POV. Time travelers are popular, or visitors from a more rational culture, as they can provide an outsider view: an outsider can explain to the reader what the insider accepts.

Due to the ability to reach a broader audience and other definitions of success, it was recommended that, if you can take all the fantasy out and still have the story work, take it out (same advice for science fiction). If you want to keep the fantasy (or science fiction), it not only has to fit the culture and circumstances (concepts like evil eyes, dieties and charms are almost universal, but elves, fairies, and such don't seem to have an equivelent outside of European cultures), some things can be squeezed in, but no matter what, it has to be vital to the plot, closely tied into the story, it will fall flat.

Writer's challenge: look at your magic or science fiction elements: what events in the story line would change if they were gone? What impact do they have on the characters, the culture, the outcome of decisions, changes, and fights?
19 jul 11 @ 9:28 pm

Sunday, July 17, 2011

YA notes
One of the YA writing sessions was led by CC Humphries. More was on teens than YA, the impact of school up to high school, etc.
They are more often teen characters (YA are usually adult characters)
85,000 words or so as they prefer shorter books and quick reads (Harry Potter not withstanding) due mostly to the lack of time for reading among all the demands on their schedules outside school.

The historical novel has an advantage especially if it is very accurate, so that it can be billed as a way to help them learn history as they read.

YA used to be a combo of teen and what is now YA, typically for 20 somethings, college age readers looking for something light, entertaining.

The younger generation is more multi-culturally aware and comfortable with a wider range of topics, histories, places, open minded to all the genre's and variations thereof.

Old adults may appreciate YA and are gradually becoming more aware of the need to check the YA shelves for the books they want to read, especially the cleaner stuff. Sex is allowed, even popular, but not graphic, maybe barely hinted at: love scenes instead of sex scenes (the really hot stuff is always the emotion anyway).

For marketing and pitches, most of the guidance was specific to historical fiction rather than YA, but they did note that YA historical fiction had less need for the reference to someone famous, however indirectly, that is often expected of adult historical fiction. The main difference is after it reaches the publisher. Selling needs to match the new tech savvy generation, with blog tours, arc tours (where bloggers are given a week to read and review a book then pass it on to another blogger to review). Teens are less likely to attend a book signing at a book store, more likely at one held at school where they are more comfortable.

No challenge today. Take a break. Take a walk. Leave your pen behind. But not for too long.
17 jul 11 @ 8:51 pm

Friday, July 15, 2011

fight night observations
The new phenomenon this year was fight night, a combo of small demos and several readings of fight scenes. There was more variety than I expected though it made sense once they began - fights can be fisticuffs or battles, even odds or overwhelming odds, brief or extended and they had a good mix of all of them Running battle might literally be an attempt to flee with little exchanges along the way or drawn out battles, playful or blood and gore. With the historical bent, sword and other hand to hand weapons were common but there was mention of something with machine guns and Napoleon if I read my notes correctly... Along the way, they pointed out (and demoed things like a sword is nearly silent coming from a leather scabbard; it's metal on metal that causes a noise...there are size issues of some weapons in proportion to some characters that need to be dealt with appropriately, and weight - a fencing sabre isn't a broadsword and the mechanics, effect of long battles, and other factors are different.

n the other hand, the readings were evidence enough that the tales don't always have to be perfectly realistic and authors can get away with all those things that authors are warned against, with care. flowery descriptions can be done even in battle scenes, as long as, like all action scenes, the phrases are brief, the details precise, and the action continues between descriptions and practical thoughts, and are focused on the things the fighter might be focused on like weapons and footing and the bits of scenery that might get in the way more than the distant and broad-stroke landscape.

Regarding battles, some tidbits to keep in mind are that shouting energizes and pushes up the adrenaline (even though thte participants would necessarily know that's whay it makes them feel battle ready and brave) Hoses are big and bulky and closely spaced on a charge so they get in the way of each other if there is a retreat. Charges can be very effective but depend on fear so can also be repelled by a well-experienced and courageous front line who knows that if they hold steady with spears planted, the horses will turn as often as not and cause chaos. Getting a front line together than can effectively stand in the face of a charge, not so easy. A cute trick for finding a reason to stop and describe a scene in mid fight - a need to look for something within that scene. Also, while the core group of fans may be knowledgeable about war terms, history, etc, not all the readers will, so a well-placed adjective that might seem a bit redundant to the writer and some readers can help the broader audience learn - like war horses: a "huge war horse" is redundant, but helpful for those unfamiliar with what all defines a war horse, or it might be worth pointing out that a senior lieutenant is a mid-level officer for the uninitiated...

Blood and gore - purely optional and almost beside the point for a geed adventure, at least.

Well, it's late and been a long day so I'll leave it at that.

Writer's challenge: Take a look around wherever you go for a day and ask yourself in each, what kind of fight could or would take place here? Jot the ideas in the notebook you of course have with you.
15 jul 11 @ 11:28 pm

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

HNS notes continued
The first of the guest speakers and probably the most famous at the HNS convention was Harry Turtledove. i didn't take a lo of notes, mostly busy being thoroughly entertained. A great speaker with lots of little stories about writing, about his life, about writers and past, present, and future.

We all ask ourselves, what if I had, what if i hadn't, what if some other circumstance... alternate histories take that another step on a bigger scale, often starting with one technology in the wrong place and time (or else missing or a step sideways, like Steam Punk).

Some of his story ideas come not from the imaginary but the weirdness of reality. Others from stamp collector magazines and such other places that have little random bits of history (e.g. people and events that have made it into memorial stamps and such). "You can't make this stuff up, you have to dig for it."

something he said, though not the poit of what he was saying, maybe a description of some oddity of the roman or medieval history, but what I noted down was that bad guys don't give mercy, might go out of their way to achieve the opposite (in reality as well as much fiction), and they regularly have someone you could call henchmen.

He also pointed out that historical details can be very helpful, and if you want very specific events, look at all the details. Even days of the week, historical holidays, and other seeming trivia can change how a fictitious action fits or doesn't fit into real historical events, such as an office being closed on the day the fiction character if going to visit someone at their office - maybe let them plan on it and it's a surprise to the character, too, that it's closed. Such tid bits can thrill readers more even than general cultural things, with the unexpected twist that makes less sense for its reality, but is all the more delightful for that and keeps the history buffs from fussing at mistakes.

I assume that applies to fiction worlds in it's own way - the tiny, local, specific realistic details and tiny problems being as meaningful to the reader as thorough world building. Good world building will give you the right details to work with, but the whole grand scope of the world doesn't have to show up in the first novel or the first three.

Writer's challenge in honor of Mr. Turtledove: pick up a magazine - antiques, collectables, old or new, and skim it. Write a scene based on some tid bit.
12 jul 11 @ 9:04 pm

Friday, July 8, 2011

Endings
I'm not sure whether to be sadder about the end of the shuttle program or the end of cursive writing. Besides writing space science fiction to a shrinking audience, I do calligraphy and hand write a lot of things including letters, story drafts, journals...

I sort of get the reasons by both of them. People e-mail instead of writing letters. Everything depends on computer key boards, not handwriting if all the students have lap tops for writing notes quickly and writing papers and all. And I find that computer writing tends to drive me toward logic and grammer and non-creative things that are useful for technical degrees we have too few people getting. And the shuttles are aging, expensive, and maybe there are cheaper and still safe alternatives, at least in other countries we can given money and jobs to...

But one of my professors said that studies show students learn better when they have to hand write their lecture notes during the lecture because it forced them to sort between the important and the side notes, the key words and the explanatory material, as they listened. Most college students at least can type way faster and don't have to narrow the field, don't even have to listen and understand as they type. Are we really helping students by not giving them the means to write quickly with their hands, to write quickly (and learn to read cursive in the process, so that they can read grandma's letters) instead of only through a machine? And does anyone know how it will impact creativity, logic, and other things that are impacted by the interaction of mind and body that is different for cursive than it is for typing?

The space program has always had many of those same secondary impacts. They say US will still be leaders in the space program, but I bet there's not a tenth of the people in the US or the world who know anything NASA does besides the shuttle program, and I don't notice anyone trying to correct that. Leadership doesn't mean just being involved, it means being visibly involved, inspiring, encouraging. How many people will choose the engineering fields that contribute to the space program when the space program, such as is left of it, is invisible? And what of all the many many technologies and now-common products that were developed because of the space program? Commercial sources are better at being creative than the government, but the government has typically been better at funding research to get there, if we had a visible, end goal that people could get behind. Maybe that's changed, maybe companies needing to show a regular profit can still fund raw research in esoteric technologies, but I haven't noticed much sign of it.

Anyway, one almost appropriate little tidbit on writing: two topics, lots of side issues, it's a lot like books with multiple lead characters: it can be easy to start a book with one character and have the ending focused on the other, and it will come across as subtly wrong. Start with one, end with the same one, even if the second or third candidate is close to equal through the whole book. It gets especially tricky when you aren't sure which one to have as the lead and change your mind. In my experience, the close interaction throughout means it doesn't take a lot of changes to fix, but makes it harder to realize the problem is there. Just be aware.

Writer's challenge: write a letter to someone. Write a letter to a neice or nephew or young cousin. Do it with pen and paper, while they still make them.
8 jul 11 @ 9:25 pm

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

some days...
some days you can deal with a major disaster, and some days the little things are just too much. Today was one of the latter: a little neglect/disrespect where it wasn't expected, a lack of sympathy from someone who should have understood the frustration if not the cause, a phone call achievement undone by a bit of bad news on the work front... On the upside, those kind of days present a valuable writing lesson.

Some writers seem to think that drama and a powerful climax require disaster on top of disaster, but where do you go from there? Don't you just have to do worse in the next book? And really, it doesn't have to go there. Often all you need to do to maintain and build the tension is to have the little things add up, deny your protagonist a break, even a moment's rest, the one little thing they crave, the answer to the one minor question that no one is willing to answer, turn the answer into a minor disaster or the nap into the one moment they really needed to be alert to what was going on, and there the crisis is.

But be sure to have something that can be interpretted as an explosion or portrayed explosion-like on screen. Every fantasy, science fiction, and adventure movie has to have one and your book will sell better if it looks like movie material. That's what they say, anyway. Some of mine might do better as tv series... I'm not sure if that has the same impact as a selling point to a publisher though.

Writer's challenge: What did you do today that could be a minor scene in a story? Write down the key points: the players, the mood, the change. Envision yourself sticking your pen knife into it and giving it a twist: what would turn a minor irritation into a minor disaster? A major one?
6 jul 11 @ 5:51 pm

Friday, July 1, 2011

young adult
A couple of the sessions I intended were about what makes a book a young adult. Most of the discussion ended up being more about what makes a teen book, and the fact that it didn't use to be a category at all. Some young adults are following their books and their authors there. Many teens follow their favorite authors wherever they may go with a loyalty rarely seen in other age groups, so it's certainly not a bad thing to be able to sell well to that age group and doesn't carry the... impression of unserious authorship that it used to. Some books may also get different covers and billing because they are expected to sell at multiple age levels and because book sellers can be expected to put books in the wrong places based on the cover and title, ignoring any category labeling the publishers try to give them.

There was not a lot of agreement on features of teen or young adult and pinpointing what made them different from other (normal, grown up, adult, whatever) books of whatever genre. Any genre and subgenre, any topic, vitually any content -- so long as you don't care if they aren't getting the book through school or parental control -- seemed to be fair game.

Presentation seemed to be the part that differentiated them a little, and some character differences. They said teens wanted straight forward, blunt, not simple, not toned-down terminology, being willing to look things up or pull it from context if a word is new, definitely not talking down to the reader as if they don't know everything, and preferably not current day slang, because any author not a teen will probably get it wrong and because it will be out of date by the time it's published even if the writer manages to get it right.

Blood, guts, and violence was typically popular, also sex, and "rape books" seem to be becoming a subgenre of their own, although authors were warned to not go that route unless they planned to include it regularly. Even implying that it might have happened without going into any details was likely to result in mixed reviews from parents, teachers, librarians with varying degrees of tolerance toward its presence in teen reading. One of the authors indicated that for the same book she had gotten people that didn't notice rape was even a possible explanation of the un-described attack, and people who complained about "the rape scene."

The discussion expressed concern about the interest in the topic and feared it meant it was happening among teens more than we know; I've also heard explanations that it is a common fantasy of those who are not overly hopeful about their chances of finding true love or even a good romance: teens being in a steep learning mode with radical changes in confidence, experience, differences between movie and fiction life and their own innocent lives... I imagine they are just curious. A lot of tv shows have focused around rape for the last several years, with a wide range of cause, effect, action and reaction, and the usual fascination with all kinds of violence.

While teen fiction is as likely to contain violence and adventure as adult fiction, it's also as likely to not. Some suggested that it would sell better in the end of teachers and parents approved, besides the author's personal attitudes: one author said she avoided included anything in books she wouldn't want her grandmother to read, with the expectation that her grandmother would, in fact, read every book she got published but also just as a personal value and a hope that readers would share or learn to share those values through characters that perforce shared them.

The one rule of thumb for characters was that they be strong, age-appropriate to themselves, and older than the audience by a year or two minimum. They can be all adults but typically less convoluted story lines. If teen characters, multiple teen characters help in teen stories as teens interact more freely with each other than with adults and the characters can/should, too.

Agent-wise, some list young adult and some list fantasy and science fiction, and based on discussions, I would aim for one that handled both because there's a better chance they will appreciate a book that is both and because a book that is both could land on both sets of shelves and sell well if the combination of publisher, agent, and all handle it right.

Writer's challenge: look at one of your stories and consider what audiences would be interested in it. What genres might it touch? What age groups would enjoy reading it, if they could find it? Can you rewrite it to aim for a different audience? What would you change?
1 jul 11 @ 8:42 pm

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