Lessons From Dead Books

photo credit: alancleaver
photo credit: alancleaver

As I write this, ORISON is in the hands of my editor at Nine Muse Press. While there is still no official release date, we are officially in the home stretch, and I am as anxious as anyone to get my book in the hands of readers.

Even a year ago, this is not where I expected to be. I recently came across an unpublished interview from 2011 I did for another blogger (we mutually decided to wait until I had a book out before posting it) and I was amazed at how much had changed between the time I answered the questions and now. In said interview, I say, and I quote:

I like Orison, but it’s really just an action-adventure novella. I think it’s an entertaining read, but not what I’d call thought-provoking. It’s basically a big gumball. Fun for a little while, and then you’re done.

Ouch. I’m kind of horrified at that sentiment now, because that’s not how I feel about Orison at all these days. Shaking the book to its foundations, then rebuilding it Steve Austin-style from the wreckage, entirely changed its character and direction, and to me, it’s far from a “big gumball.” It’s now the best thing I’ve ever written, and I’m damn proud of it.

There’s something to be said about humble-bragging and self-deprecation in regards to the answer quoted above, and how it can lead us to devalue our own work, but really, re-reading my own words got me thinking about the lessons we learn from our failed projects.

Fail, Learn, Repeat

If there’s one thing I’ve learned from being among other writers, it’s that everybody fails. Projects stall out. Plans fall through. Collaborations blow up in your face. Writers get exhausted, because rewrites and revisions can be an ongoing struggle. Blogs enjoy a strong start and then languish for weeks at a time. (Cough.) Sometimes, the project we think is The Big Thing turns out to be something small, or sometimes nothing at all.

But we can learn a lot from our failures. In fact, we must, if we’re ever going to get anywhere.

When I wrote the answer above, I was working on an epic fantasy called Daughters of the Moon (at the time, I had not bothered Googling to see if the title was taken; it very much is). Daughters is the story of a young woman getting revenge on the murder and kidnapping of her family by making a pact with dark gods. She learns to wield terrible destructive power that gives her the ability to rescue her family, but alienates and terrifies them in the process. The novel was set against the backdrop of an encroaching invasion by foreign powers, and had an ever-growing stable of characters and a rich, complex storyline. I liked it. The people I gave the draft to liked it. It had problems, sure, but it was a good story.

So I kept working on it. It grew in size and complexity. It grew so large it became the first book of a trilogy. I couldn’t wrap it up in the space of a single book, so after finishing and revising the first volume, I wrote a sequel (for Nanowrimo 2011, I believe).

The story grew larger and more complex still. It turned into something majestic and sweeping.

I worked on it some more.

Then I scrapped it.

It wasn’t an easy decision. It hurt like hell, in fact. But the original story had some huge, ground-level problems that I just couldn’t get past, even if my loyal beta readers could. I had written entire subplots to distract myself from my lack of a coherent ending. I had run circles around the story problems, perhaps in the hope that they would grow dizzy and fall down. And, finally, I decided that it just wasn’t Daughter‘s time.

So I put it to rest. Then I picked through its corpse and took some shiny bits for Orison, dressing my new darling up in my dead darling’s prose. Ghoulish and merciless, but that’s show biz, sweetheart. Sometimes fiction is a form of necrophilia. It’s not pretty, but it’s true.

I still love Daughters of the Moon. I may revisit it someday, under a title that’s not taken. Or it may just become part of the writer’s compost heap, slowly decaying as the best bits of it float away to become part of something else.

The circle of life, or something.

Love Your Dead Books

So what’s the lesson here? Sometimes, you have to know when a project just can’t be salvaged. Even something that’s actually pretty good. Editing and revision is hard, necessary, vital work, but sometimes, a story is better off being torn apart for scrap than held together with baling wire and solder so it can limp across the finish line.

Knowing where to draw that line is a deeply personal thing, so I have no real advice for you there. I believe that inspiration is, at times, overrated; that we as writers often hope that our hearts will always sing with joy for the stories we tell, but that ain’t always the case. Some days, we’re just going to wake up, look at our manuscript, and be this far from throwing it in the trash.

And sometimes, that’s what needs to be done. But the question is, what did you learn from it?

For me, I learned that I’m an outliner, not a pantser. That I damn well better know the ending before I start, or I’ll just keep writing while I search for one. I learned that I can inflate my word count to enormous proportions while I flail about for an arc, and then later I’ll despair as I must stalk my darlings and shoot them in the back of the head, one by one. And if that sounds morbid, believe me, it is. So I learned to write a leaner cut of story from the beginning, and save those poor orphans from a terrible fate in the cemetery of prose.

I learned that sometimes you have to walk away, instead of continuing to tinker.

And that sometimes, that can be a beautiful thing.


Song of Nice and Ire: The Subversion Becomes the Trope

Today, I’m going to spare a post to talk about Game of Thrones, because why not? The rest of the Internet certainly can’t stop talking about it right now.

Photo by  horslips5.
Photo by horslips5.

For that meager handful of you who haven’t read the books, watched the show, or somehow missed the inundation of memes and reactions that followed the most recent episode of the HBO program — I can only offer my green-eyed envy. Briefly, the “Red Wedding” has arrived on television — a scene in which several beloved characters die horribly, in a fashion that should be familiar to all GRRM fans, and yet is somehow a big surprise.

If you don’t yet know all about the Red Wedding, some spoilers follow, and names of dead characters are named.

Before we start, I will say I have read four of the Game of Thrones books, and the entirety of the Wild Cards series before that. I am pretty much done with it, and Martin in general. I have no real quarrel with him as a writer. He just doesn’t write the kind of thing I enjoy. Just so we’re clear that I’m not trying to smear Martin. He’s fine. We’re fine. You may continue to enjoy his work, or not, as before.

So anyway, Martin killin’ characters. That’s a thing. A very well-known thing. Probably the thing for which Martin is most well-known, at this point, and yet people continue to be shocked by the brutal deaths of their favorite characters. The range of reactions varies, from horror to anger to glee to self-important proclamations about how everyone else should have seen it coming. I’ve even seen some people angrily lecture about how feeling shocked was, in fact, the reader’s fault for having the temerity and naiveté to engage with Song of Ice and Fire in good faith. That’ll teach you, you big dummies!

Cartoons and memes and Twitter posts abound regarding Martin’s bloodthirst. Martin himself is on record as saying that he writes to keep his readers in suspense, and he’s killed off specific characters specifically to be unpredictable:

I knew it almost from the beginning. Not the first day, but very soon. I’ve said in many interviews that I like my fiction to be unpredictable. I like there to be considerable suspense. I killed Ned in the first book and it shocked a lot of people. I killed Ned because everybody thinks he’s the hero and that, sure, he’s going to get into trouble, but then he’ll somehow get out of it. The next predictable thing is to think his eldest son is going to rise up and avenge his father. And everybody is going to expect that. So immediately [killing Robb] became the next thing I had to do.

So Martin kills off beloved characters in order to subvert reader expectations. But after the first two times, what does the reader actually expect? What if you’ve read Wild Cards and find Martin’s debasement and slaughter of protagonists not only not surprising, but pretty much Martin’s stock in trade? Are reader expectations still being subverted then? I’m not trying to make the case that the massacre of fan favorites is all SoIaF has going for it. That’s hardly the case. But it is the thing people tend to talk about most often.

And that, to me, is the trap of “shocking” writing and unpredictability for its own sake. The same thing has happened to Joss Whedon, whose fans start ticking off the lifespan of a character the moment they get in a relationship, because they’ve seen them end badly so many times. Joss Whedon killing off characters in love is no longer a surprise to anyone who’s spent any time with his work. The subversion becomes the trope.

I think writers can also run into trouble when they try to double back and super-double-secret subvert reader expectations by letting characters live, or taking a break from the grim darkness to let certain characters off the hook. When you specifically raise the stakes through brutality, easing off can be seen as the calm before the storm, or it can just be interpreted as a sign you’ve gone soft.

Books on craft tell us that when we tell a story, we enter into a promise with the reader. We introduce a protagonist, set up a conflict, and make a pact that by the end of the book, there will be resolution — favorable, unfavorable, satisfying or infuriating, but met with integrity and consistency. We can be reasonably sure that SoIaF won’t end with flying saucers bombing King’s Landing. The series ending with every character the readers ever cared about dead, though, that’s another story.

It does raise the question of what the promise of a book is, when the storytelling rails are removed and the writer leaves the reader catapulting along an uncertain track. To some readers, this is exquisite agony; to others, a good time to jump off and board another train. I’ve parted ways with Game of Thrones, but it will be interesting to see if his series fulfills whatever promise it’s made to readers, and whether the next “shocking” death will still carry any real shock.

Thanks to Michael Hansen for correcting this post and pointing out that it was not actually the season finale!

Beta Feedback Loop: Making the Most of Critique

Last week, I wrote a post on finding a beta reader for your story or novel, and how to make the beta reading experience fun and profitable for both reader and writer. This week, I want to talk a little about how and when to incorporate the feedback you get, in the hopes of making your story better.

Know Thyself (Well, Your Story, at Least)

Photo by ShowOffDundee.
Photo by ShowOffDundee.

To reiterate a point from my previous post: knowing what you set out to do with the work is critical to getting good feedback. By the time you’re ready for a beta read, you should know your characters, and your story, inside out. That one character… is (s)he a misunderstood hero? A villain? A glorified extra? What’s your main character’s story about, internally and externally? These are questions you should already have answers to.

If you don’t, then make that part of the process. Let your reader know that you’re shaky on a particular character or subplot. Let your reader know your worries, so they know what to look for when probing for weaknesses.

Set Your Ego Aside

If you’ve chosen your beta reader well, then you best saddle up for some body blows. Even if they love it, a good beta reader will have some problems with it — because there will be problems.  So be prepared for readers to hate characters you love, champion the side character you thought was a meaningless nobody, find your “fascinating” subplots a meaningless diversion, and your resolution possibly incomprehensible. Maybe worse.

I’ll be all right. You can take it. Do so gracefully and with a smile. Don’t come out swinging in defense of your beloved word-spawn — or, if you must, do it silently and to yourself. If you feel your story is being treated unfairly, open a discussion about it, but don’t get into a bitter argument that will only alienate you both. A reader’s reaction belongs to them, and you have a responsibility to respect it.

That’s not to say that you must accept their every criticism as gospel. Your reader may dislike that plot or character because they missed something vital — and that may mean that you didn’t emphasize it enough, or it just may mean that they missed it. It happens. That’s your cue to do some detective work. Talk to them, and find out if they did gloss that troublesome plot point.

It’s always up to you on what feedback to take to heart and what to ignore. That’s where this next step comes in.

Decide Your Deal-Breakers

To be blunt, if you’re not open to compromise and improvement, then having someone beta read your work in the first place is probably a waste of everyone’s time. But if you are, that still leaves the question of where you will and won’t compromise.

It’s easy enough to say “just be open-minded” — a noble goal, but one that ignores some of the complexities at work in the beta / writer relationship. The story you want, and the story your reader wants, may be two different things. They may make recommendations that could undermine or even completely alter the premise of your work. Their ideas may be great, but not right for the story, or terrible, and better than what you have now. It’s a minefield that you’ll both be running across, trying to meet in the middle for coffee.

That’s why it’s vital to have a solid grasp on what you’re trying to say before you submit your book for a beta read. If you don’t, you may find that the lack of intersection between what you want and what your reader wants can become a deadly chasm, and you fall into it believing that your book sucks, when in fact that may not be true at all.

Remember last week, when I said beta reading should not be entered into lightly? This kind of thing is why.

To Pander or Not to Pander

Photo by stoic.
Photo by stoic.

But what if the opposite of all that happens instead? Your beta loves your story. They especially love a particular subplot, character, or element. They want more. They demand more. And who are you to question a reader wanting more? You want to give it to them, right?

Not necessarily. Sadly, you need to be just as careful with praise as criticism, and judge carefully whether to sprinkle sugar all over the things your reader enjoyed.


Because sometimes wanting more is a good thing. Sometimes minor characters work because they have one charming scene and then vanish. Sometimes subplots work because they’re an entertaining diversion that lasts just long enough. If your reader wanted more because they felt something was underdeveloped or unclear, that’s a good sign you should probably revisit the material and consider adding to it. If they wanted more because they loved it and didn’t want it to end, that’s probably a good sign you should leave it alone.

The Pact

Beta reading — the good kind, not the “I liked it” kind — can be complicated and nerve-wracking. Is it any wonder that so many readers come back with “it was really good!” and leave it at that? Who has the time to engage on this level and navigate all these metatextual hazards?

Well, not everyone. And that’s why, if you have a good beta reader, you hang on to them with all they’ve got. Bribe them with chocolate. Send thank-you notes. But most of all, listen. Then decide for yourself what to do with the data you receive.

Hunting the Elusive Beta Reader

Photo by moriza.
Photo by moriza.

Writers long to be read. Why else would we be in this business? Completing a book can be a lonely and isolating experience, and if you’re anything like me, gnomes of self-doubt will be gnawing at your ankles the entire way. But once we’ve struggled through that first (and second) draft, and finally hunted down and exterminated all the problems we could find… there is likely a big smelly heap of problems still lurking in the prose, waiting to ruin the good time of an unwary reader.

That’s where the beta reader comes in. Hero to millions, purveyor of wisdom and hope. That trusted soul who will weed out the treacherous needles in your precarious tower of haystacks. The paragon who delivers insight you never would have stumbled into on your own. A good beta reader is more precious than gold, and can make the process of editing and revising much easier.

Finding that perfect reader, on the other hand, can be damned difficult.

Here’s the thing. Almost every reader I know is also a writer, and writing and reading take a lot of time and energy. There just aren’t enough hours in the day to read all the books, write all the prose, blog all the posts, and also live the sociable, hygienic life of a fairly functional human being. Asking someone to beta read your work — or agreeing to beta read the work of another — is not a pact to be entered into lightly.

How to Be an Awesome Beta Reader

Be communicative. Taking the time to read an author’s work is only the beginning of the process. Chances are, if you’ve agreed to be someone’s beta, that writer will be on pins and needles within minutes, bleary-eyed and twitching as they sit by their phone or computer waiting for your email. “So did you like it?” they will yearn to ask, every five goddamn minutes.  Hours will stretch into years, each day an eternity, stars guttering in the void as aeons march past like elephants on Vicodin. Hit your writer with a three-word “I liked it!” email at the end of all that time, and they may well end up wanting to shank you with a staple remover.

Is that fair? Not really. But a writer looking for a beta reader is a writer in search of meaningful feedback. Getting a “like” or a bit of praise for your writing on the Internet is not actually that difficult. Post a snippet on Facebook or on your blog, and you can probably get a plus or a like from somebody, even if they’re just supporting a friend. Real, constructive feedback takes time and effort. I’m not saying you need to write a book of your own in response to theirs, but be ready to drop a few thoughtful paragraphs, at the very least. If you’re not willing or able to do at least that much for your writer, then maybe you should reconsider taking the assignment, to avoid wasting both your time and theirs.

And if you really want to earn your writer’s devotion, drop them a line every once in a while to tell them about a bit you just read. They will love you for it.

Photo by striatic.
Photo by striatic.

Be engaged. One of the toughest things about finding a good beta reader is narrowing the field down to those readers whose taste and interest intersect with yours. To get good feedback, you need someone who understands what you’re trying to do, knows the genre, and is excited to read your work. The sad truth is, someone might fulfill one or two of these criteria, and in general be an awesome person and a good friend, and still not work out the way you’d hope.

Even the most supportive, enthusiastic friend may not end up being your best choice for a beta reader. There are some people out there I’d love to give my work to for critique — people I interact with daily and whose opinions I value. But some don’t read much in my chosen genre. Or they’re too busy with their own work. Or any number of other reasons. This is all the more reason to choose carefully.

Be tough. In their bitty secret hearts, all writers hope that our half-complete second draft will blow everyone’s socks off. But we also know that it won’t, and probably shouldn’t. Praise, while nice, is only good if it reinforces what works on the page — and it must be balanced out by what doesn’t work. Spot the problems, point them out, and be tough. I don’t mean lay into the writer with the blazing fury of a thousand suns. But if something in the work made you uncomfortable or angry, say so and detail why. Because one thing is certain, people are far less forgiving and cordial out there in the marketplace.

Be available. Simply put, don’t commit to reading someone’s work if you don’t have the time. Sure, things happen, life circumstances change, and time you thought you had might unexpectedly disappear. But don’t just leave your writer hanging. Tell them what’s up, and politely beg off if you have to. But don’t just leave them to assume the worst. And don’t agree to beta read “to be nice” if you have no real intention of following through. Turns out that’s actually not nice.

How To Be an Awesome Writer (for Your Beta Reader)

Be choosy. Don’t just throw incomplete work at anyone who looks at you cross-eyed. Most of all, show consideration for your prospective beta-reader by making sure they’re interested, available and willing to put in the work. Don’t try to guilt them into it or force reading on them. That way lies strained friendships and sadmaking.

Be clear. Outline your expectations up front. Put together a couple of paragraphs on what you wanted to accomplish with the work, what kind of feedback you want, and any questions you want your reader to answer. Don’t expect them to use their telekinetic powers to glean what you want from the cosmic ether.

Be patient. Reading takes time, and reading critically even more so. It can be nerve-wracking to wait for any scrap of feedback. But that’s the road. You may wait weeks, or months. Deadlines may come and go before your reader regretfully informs you that their car exploded and the dog got chicken pox somehow and they’ve been selected for the next moon shot. It happens. If you simply must pester your reader for progress reports, do so gently and politely.

Be grateful. Even if things didn’t work out like you expected, take the time to thank your beta reader. They took time out of their life to read and comment on your work. That’s not nothing, especially if you’re someone they’ve never actually met in real life. And for the love of Heidegger, don’t unload on them or argue with them about your book if they level a criticism you don’t like. Nod your head, consider their point, and if you must, quietly resolve to find a different beta reader next time and just move on. But you gave out your work with the express purpose of getting another person’s opinion on it. Respect their reactions and alter your work, or not, as you see fit.

Finding Beta Readers

So I know what you’re thinking. “Yeah, those criteria are great, I’ve finally learned how to be picky and difficult, what a treat. But how do I actually find beta readers?” Well, if you’re looking for a magic bullet, I don’t have one to give. But here are the things that helped me find some awesome beta readers:

  • Talk about your work. Not in a spammy way. Talk about what excites and scares you.
  • Share excerpts and see who gets interested.
  • Support other readers and build relationships.
  • Pay it forward. Volunteer to beta read for writers you know.
  • Blog about what’s important to you. Reply to comments.
  • Be awesome to others.

Finally, I would be remiss if I didn’t take a moment to thank those people who took the time to try to make my work better. You know who you are. Thank you for being awesome.

How Goodreads Saved (and Ruined) My Reading Habits

Image by stilfoto on Flickr.
Image by stijlfoto on Flickr.

First of all, just so you know, I am not going to talk about Amazon buying Goodreads. That’s a conversation I am totally enthusiastic about… never having again. With anyone. At this point, my position can best be summed up with the words “don’t come crying to me.”

Now, if you’re not familiar with Goodreads (or, like Anna Meade, are frightened and confused by it), let me take a moment to poorly summarize it. Goodreads is Facebook for books. No, that’s terrible. Let me try again. Goodreads is a social media site for readers that allows you to add, rate, review, and share your reading experiences with others. Why would you want to do this? I don’t know. Ask the people who built it.

Now then. I am here not to bury Goodreads, but to praise it. And then bury it. You see, thanks to Goodreads, I went from a horrible, sloppy reading habit of one or two books a year to over fifty. Fifty! That’s ever so much more than one or two, yet a pittance compared to these people I see on Goodreads who go through like fourteen hundred books a year or something. What is with these people? Are they posting from some future cyberpunk utopia where they ram needles into their frontal lobes and experience all of Dostoevsky first-hand in a matter of seconds, like “The Inner Light,” but with screams and chainsaws instead of a little flute?

Well, anyway. The point is, I’m reading a lot more these days. And that’s good! Except when it’s bad. How can reading be bad, you ask? Well, it’s not. So, I admit I lied just now. It’s not so much the reading that’s bad as how Goodreads changed my reading habits — both for better and worse. Let’s examine this in detail, won’t we?

The Good(reads)

Goodreads makes it easy to discover new books. Thanks to having eleventy-billion friends on Goodreads (okay, 412 and counting, close enough), I constantly get recommendations on new books. My reading list just keeps growing. So many great new books to read!

Goodreads lets me share what I’m reading with my friends. I just finished a book and now I can share this super-important knowledge with everyone! “Like” button! Sweet validation! Virtual cookies for doing something I like doing anyway! I’m like a mouse in a lab who just got the cheese! Wait.

I can rate, review, organize and tag books! It’s like some kind of beautiful dream. If I wanted to know how much steampunk I read in 2012 for some reason, I no longer have to rely on my faulty memory. Remembering things is hard. Thank god for voluntarily submitting to data mining.

The Reading Challenge encourages me to meet a yearly reading goal. Finally, a way to feel superior to everyone else. It’s like a marathon without having to get up off my ass! Twenty books? Why not fifty? Why only fifty, Freddie, why not a hundred? Imagine the sweet Schadenfreude when all my friends fail and I metaphorically sail across the finish line… of reading… some stuff? /Chariots of Fire theme

The Bad(reads)

Goodreads makes it easy to discover new books. Thanks to having 412 friends and counting on Goodreads (feels more like eleventy billion), my reading list is growing faster than I will ever be able to read. I am going to die with thousands of books unread. Glancing at my Goodreads feed is now a terrifying gaze into the black heart of my own mortality. Now I’m reading Emotional Structure for Screenwriters. Now I sink into an alcoholic haze in a blind idiot universe that punishes and rewards without reason or mercy. I think I’ll polish off an entire bottle of wine and go watch Charmed or something.

Goodreads lets me share what I’m reading with my friends. Thanks, Goodreads, now everyone knows I abandoned that indie book I promised I’d read and the author is probably crying and defriending me on Facebook as we speak and then without meaning to I publicly admitted to liking a Dragonlance novel and now my author cred totally lies in ruins somehow only nobody actually cares so why am I thinking about this?

I can rate, review, organize and tag books! Yeah, because I totally wasn’t OCD enough to begin with. How will I know if I’m enjoying this book unless I properly categorize it by painfully specific minutiae?

The Reading Challenge encourages me to meet a yearly reading goal. Yes, thanks to Goodreads, I have totally  turned my own reading into some kind of perverse commodity. I think twice about reading anything if it doesn’t contribute to my abstract and totally meaningless Reading Challenge goal. Beta read your manuscript? That’s valuable time I could be putting toward collecting more Goodreads brownie points! Disappear into that thousand-page epic novel? We can’t do that, dude, it messes up the averages. I could fall behind schedule, committing to a long book like that. Are you crazy? Go outside? See people? I’M IN THE GOODREADS CHALLENGE HERE PEOPLE.

Of course, none of this is the fault of Goodreads. This is a prime example of digging a hole, throwing oneself in it, and then complaining about this hole somebody dug that one is now stuck in. And then clicking “Share” so everyone knows you’re miserable about being in this hole. I could walk away from Goodreads tomorrow and make my reading habits less pathological almost instantly. Reading challenge? Sir or madam, I submit to you, schmeading challenge. I can quit anytime I want. I just don’t want to.

So what do you think, reader? Goodreads! Balm or scourge? Threat or menace? Chicken or fish?

Surly Questions: Aaron Engler

headshot-1-e1346964344418Witness the triumphant return of Surly Questions! This time around, I’m interviewing Aaron Engler. Engler is the author of the upcoming fantasy novel Wizard and the Rat, currently in final editing. He blogs at lububrio.us, where he has an ongoing sci-fi series, Jovian Shadows, and you can find him on Google+. Thanks for the interview, Aaron! 


When did you know you wanted to be a writer?

As soon as I realized I was too dumb for astrophysics.


I’ve always had a yearning for artistry, but introversion and circumstance conspired to keep me from acting or performance, outside of the occasional high school band outing. I had a social desire to be with the artsy types, the dancers, the poets, the writers, the artists- but I lived in a cowboy town and there wasn’t much of a scene for people my age. I would have made a great goth.


I think that I never really considered writing as a professional career until college, entertaining it as a distant possibility. The stark economics of Montana living quickly drained any sense of hope one has of the future, and those ideas sank with my dreams into the dark pit born from the struggles of getting by day to day. It would be another ten years or so before I actually put ‘pen to paper’ and started seriously writing a long-form novel.


Tell us about your book.

The Wizard and the Rat is a story featuring two people, each lost in their own ways. It is about a father and his regrets about raising a son who turned from him, and how he longs to find atonement in training other young wizards, trying to shape him into what he thought he son should be. It is also about a young man, thrown out by his family and forced to live on the streets, who finds himself alone, ready to give up on himself and the world. The two meet in the gritty streets of the dying city of Haven, and each must help the other overcome their internal losses so they can battle an enemy that threatens everything- a necromancer, trained by the wizard, now become a failure, like everyone the wizard trained before…


You’re a long-time player of tabletop RPGs. How has gaming informed your writing?

All of my novel ideas have come from the RPG worlds I’ve created in the past. The ideas for my fantasy novels first came to being way back in high school, in the old D&D days. They played around in my head and injected themselves in my games as I ran them over the years. Eventually other players added parts of their stories and they became intertwined with the mythos, eventually adding to it.


Eventually, I stopped role-playing entirely, and had no more outlet for my stories to be shared. By then, the world had become as crystallized as it was going to get, and it was time to put it down and share a canonical version with the world at large.


What has been the most (or least) rewarding thing about connecting with other writers through social media?

My social media engagement has been fairly limited so far. My story is just about ready for sale, but still needs a couple chapters of editing, so I don’t really have a book I can point at and say, “See! This is what I do!”


I’ve been able to get more of my name out there by entering and winning some writing contests, which is fun and a nice little validation of my skill, and have started reading other independently written work like that of Brooke Johnson  (The Clockwork Giant) and James Calbraith (Shadow of the Black Wings). I won a copy of The Clockwork Giant from a writing contest, and Shadow of the Black Wings was a free promotion. I was especially interested in the latter work, because it’s in the same genre that I write in, and wanted to find out what kind of things people are expecting from self-published work. Hopefully I’ll be able to take part in more communities and discussions once I’m self-published.


What do you like in a character?

For one thing, a character can be great and I might not like him or her. The characters in Steven R Donaldson’s GAP series were impossible for me to like, and that’s part of what kept me from reading much more of the series. They were great characters, but I wanted to have some redeeming quality in them, something heroic, something noble. Characters I like the most have the potential to transcend themselves, to step beyond the borders that are limiting them. A character has to be more than believable, he or she has to be someone I can believe in.


What do you think makes a great story?

There are many ways to tell a great story. What makes a story great, for me, is one that gives you a sense of immersion, one that feels like it’s asking you to be part of the story, part of the world. When you start reading, you enter into the world of the story, like you were watching from inside the spaceship, or on horseback with the mustering army. Or even that you know the characters, you’re friends with them, or family. You know them. These things are very personal, and I don’t think apply to everyone, but that’s what matters to me.


What’s the best piece of writing advice you ever received?

I have read a lot of writing advice. But I’ve never solicited any, because there’s only one piece of advice that matters. Write. If you have a story in you, and you want a book out of it, you have to write it. Even if it’s just a page a day. Find a spot that is yours for half an hour, and write your story. If you never do it, you never really had a book in you. That’s fine, just accept that and move on, don’t dwell and keep saying you’re going to write a novel eventually. In writing, it really is, as Yoda said, “Do or do not. There is no try.”


Are there any other exciting projects in your future?

Writing and editing the second draft of the next book in the Voice of the Dragons series, “The Willow and the Flame” which is about a group of five young adults thrown into a world of magic and political intrigue and how their friendships grow and are tested along the way.


Right now, I’m writing a first draft of a science-fiction story, called “Jovian Shadows” which you can find at my website, lugubrio.us. I post each chapter as I finish it. Each part is about 1000 words or so, and is up to 32 as of now. I’m having a lot of fun writing it, and I think it’s a good, exciting story. I hope more people will read it and leave a comment or two, I always like seeing and replying to feedback.


What are your top five “desert island” books?

First, I have to confess to being not nearly as well read as I would like, and before my son arrived, destroying almost all my free time, I was reading a lot of non-fiction. That said, there are some books that have influenced me greatly, and expanded my understanding of not only what constitutes storytelling, but my understanding of the world, and of myself.


The most influential book would be The Lord of the Rings. There’s no question that the book is a cornerstone of not only modern fantasy, but of modern myth-building. With its realized languages, in depth history and unique cultures, it’s a completely engrossing experience that never failed to take me away from whatever mundane concerns of this world I had. I read the entire three volumes ten times before I was 14. It made me long for a world where there were real heroes to follow, real men of honesty whose purpose to was forge a just world, facing off against a dark evil so powerful, it’s very essence could corrupt the land itself. It let me imagine I could be at Aragorn’s side in the final battle with Sauron’s legions, or be a member of the Istari, and confer with Gandalf on the fate of the world.


The Lord of the rings also served as an entree into social circles of other fantasy fans and gamers, which led to a long history of connecting with people, some of whom would become friends for the rest of my life.


My science-fiction education began early, but no book in that genre captured my imagination like Dune. Like Lord of the Rings, Dune had a compelling, complex world, and yet had an unambiguous sense of good versus evil locked in an epic conflict. Unlike Lord of the Rings, Dune centered on the story of one boy coming of age and into his unexpected inheritance as a Christ figure, one claimed by a sect he wants nothing to do with. As a young man stuck in a small town, reading about someone my age growing into a powerful leader with the universe hanging on his every move was very appealing.


My father introduced me to sci-fi at a young age, and although I was hesitant at first, the stories of Issac Asimov were the ones that sparked my interest. Something from Foundation, or a collection of stories like I Robot would have to be with me, but I can’t choose off the top of my head. The study of man and machine, and what it means to be human, are themes that are close to my imagination and themes that have informed and influenced sci-fi ever since. And he wrote all of that before the invention of the modern computer.


I mentioned I had read a lot of non-fiction, and the book that had the most impact would probably be A People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn. History is passed down to us like religion, seemingly set in stone. We learn about the great men and battles that changed the world, but rarely do we hear about the conquered or vanquished. Rarely do we hear from the voices of the losing side, or from those who fought against the status quo.


Writing fantasy, it’s easy to keep in mind the heroes and villains of the time, but what about those whom the villains conquer, or what about those who follow the hero? Do they follow out of a sense of loyalty, or do they have no choice? When you take in to account that history isn’t just leaders and armies, but whole populations of people who might have stood in the way of those leaders, things become complex and messy. And that’s where a whole wealth of stories can come from.


My last book would be a good dictionary. If I have a lot of time by myself with nothing to do on an island (there’s always stuff to do on an island, but never mind that,) I would want to start reading, page by page, learning new words every day. Learning more words opens up more avenues of thought and the capacity to contemplate more nuanced ideas.
Those works would be the only ones I would need to create an infinite catalog of stories and novels. Those would be the ingredients for a witch’s brew of wonderment.


Carl Sagan said it best about writing: “A book is made from a tree. It is an assemblage of flat, flexible parts (still called “leaves”) imprinted with dark pigmented squiggles. One glance at it and you hear the voice of another person, perhaps someone dead for thousands of years. Across the millennia, the author is speaking, clearly and silently, inside your head, directly to you. Writing is perhaps the greatest of human inventions, binding together people, citizens of distant epochs, who never knew one another. Books break the shackles of time ― proof that humans can work magic.”

Why I Gender-Flipped My Protagonist

Cover art by Tracy McCusker.

Hey, everybody. Today, I want to talk about my upcoming novel, Orison. I’m finally in a position where I have something to blog about. Namely, a completed draft in the hands of the editor. I didn’t see much point in talking about the process until I was certain I’d actually learned something along the way. Turns out I did. This is the first of what will be a series of posts on what I learned from my book.

I’m slightly apprehensive that what follows might be considered controversial, although I see no reason for it to be. It’s about my decisions about my own creative work, and what led me there. There is no chastisement or polemic intended, although if you choose to take it that way, I certainly can’t stop you.

That said, let me tell you about Randoval.

Randoval’s been with me for decades. He first appeared as a protagonist in my first and never-to-be-published space opera, Free Enterprise, a novel about a lovable but slightly bumbling thief who ends up involved in a sprawling galactic war when he steals a vital piece of military intelligence. Yes, it was a slightly warmed-over version of Star Wars, and this guy was a slightly warmed-over Han Solo. No two ways about it. He even had the brown hair and sarcastic demeanor. There was even a princess. And they hated each other and then fell in love. It’s embarrassing to think about now. What can I say, except I was around nineteen when I wrote it.

All the same, I liked Randoval. I have a real fondness for slightly hapless characters who get in more trouble than they can handle.  I found Randoval charming and rooted for him when he got in way over his head. Even though Free Enterprise turned out to be an unholy mess that I’d never inflict on an unsuspecting world, he as a character always stuck with me. He would crop up in other works of fiction, sometimes subtly (or not-so-subtly) renamed. My old friend Aaron Engler even played him in an RPG campaign I ran, because, you know, nerds.

So years later, when I penned the first draft of Orison, I decided to port Randoval over to a fantasy world and put him in the same situation: a common thief unwittingly steals something earth-shattering, and gets in way over his head. That draft was really only my second foray into a novel-length tale, and I aimed low, going for a wahoo, “medieval heist” adventure. On that level, I think I succeeded, and I think Randoval fit right into his assigned role.

Then there was a long interlude where I worked on some other things for awhile (read: years), then abandoned them, then came back to Orison. After a long period of agonizing, I decided I wanted Orison to be my first published novel — once it had undergone a serious overhaul.

In the midst of my rewrite, though, something began to feel wrong. Staid. Boring. Randoval as a protagonist just wasn’t doing it for me anymore. There was nothing wrong with him, he was still the same charming guy, but something had been sticking in my craw ever since I’d written it. I had exactly two female characters. One was little more than a sexualized cameo, and the other, to quote a good friend and reader, was “a bit of a tight leather corset.” And he was right. It was all white guys, doing white guy things, chasing other white guys around. The girls were mostly there to look hot, and occasionally kick ass, but mostly to look hot.

Now, is there anything inherently wrong with that? Not necessarily. But I didn’t like that my only female characters were basically love interests. That’s precisely the kind of thing I don’t like in the fiction I consume, so why was I writing it? I realized my fiction was pulling stunts I occasionally tended to razz other authors for: lingering on the female’s clothes, putting them in situations the male character’s wouldn’t be in, adding sexualized nuances that the male characters didn’t have.

I’d see stuff like this in other people’s fiction and think, why don’t writers just treat the female characters with the same set of dramatic standards? Why can’t we have a female character who doesn’t have to be captured or rescued by a man, whose life doesn’t center on her romantic interest in a male? How about some damn variety?

And then it hit me. I could stop griping and just put my money where my mouth was. If I wanted to make a female character who didn’t get marginalized for being female, why not just make my protagonist female?

Suddenly, it all clicked. Exit Randoval Sarvas, enter Story Kai Tann, so named because she makes her career as a “second-story girl”. And then I gave her brown skin instead of white. (Why? Well, why the hell not?  Where’s the inherent virtue in leaving all our fiction switches on the default settings?)

new-front-coverIt wasn’t actually that easy, of course. The fantasy world in which the novel is set remains rather patriarchal, and I had neither the ambition nor the inclination to try to challenge that my first time out. A few details had to be changed, but Story was still every bit as in-charge as Randoval had been. And it made the story better. Where Randoval often came off as just another Han Solo wannabe, Story felt fresh to me. She challenged my perspective. And because I’d originally written her as a guy, she did things she probably wouldn’t have done if I had originally written her as a woman. In short, she taught me things.

To be honest, I questioned this decision. I had readers who loved and identified Randoval. I questioned whether this was born of some sort of male guilt, or a need to be (get ready for one of my least favorite phrases) politically correct. But I realized I had a lot of very good reasons for doing this:

It got me out of my comfort zone. Rewriting the protagonist from a female perspective forced me to confront a few assumptions about my own fiction. It broadened up my horizons a little. I’m not going to sit here and tell you I learned a Valuable Lesson About Life (cue The More You Know music), because that’s not what I mean. But it did shake up the ride a little, and I enjoyed it all the more for that.

Most of my readers are actually female. The ones I engage with, anyway. A couple weeks before I made this decision, Brianna Sheldon made a thread on Google+ about good, capable female protagonists in fantasy fiction, and maybe I’m just not finding the right books, but my short list was really short. Aside from Tristan Tarwater‘s protagonist in Thieves at Heart, I was hard-pressed to come up with much of anything in what I’d read recently. I know tons of awesome female writers and readers. Why not put someone in the book they can relate to? I don’t mean that to sound pandering — it just seems like basic marketing to me.

It just worked. Neither of the above reasons would have mattered if changing the gender of the main character had somehow diminished the narrative, or if it had seemed dishonest or smarmy. But it did work. I liked Randoval a lot, but I love Story, and I love what she did for the novel. It changed Orison from a book I thought was merely okay to one I’m really quite proud of. Even my editor said, rather emphatically, “Story could never be a man! Story as a man = boring. Story as a woman = awesome.” While I think the character would be just great either way, I’m glad she’s as enthusiastic about the change as I am.

I want to linger over that last part a bit, because in writing this, I realize it might come across like I made my protagonist female out of some desire to get Magic Feminism Cookies or whatever. That’s not the case. The dearth of good female characters in fantasy fiction has bothered me for decades. The next novel I wrote (now in a sorry state of abandonment) was written in part to address that lack.

I’m not trying to teach the world to sing, or anything like that, I’m just writing the kind of book I’d like to read myself. I don’t for one instant consider Orison to be some sort of Important Feminist Work; it most emphatically is not. It’s just a good fantasy yarn, which happens to have a female protagonist who doesn’t get by on her bare midriff and her sexuality. And if that makes my novel out of the ordinary somehow, well, all I can say is, it shouldn’t. I think it should be both common and unremarkable.

Finally, I think there is a greater writing lesson here, entirely divorced from gender. It’s about questioning your own assumptions about why your book is or isn’t working, and the value of breaking away from your routine. They say you should write fiction that scares you or challenges you, but I think that’s often more difficult than it looks, because we don’t always know what we should challenge or why. I feel fortunate that in the case of Orison, my desire to shake things up and my long-standing gripes with fantasy fiction intersected, and I was able to make something cool from the result.

Still, I do want to find a home for Randoval one day, because I think he’s a good guy and a good character. I hope someday to meet him again. But I’m really hope that when Orison drops, some of you will take a chance and meet Story. Because I like her a lot.

So You Need an Obscure Reference

If it seems like I’m endorsing the work of Tracy McCusker all the time, it’s only because she’s funny and brilliant and endlessly inventive. Like this hysterical infographic she put together. Working on some writing, but need to drop a reference to something oblique so people will know you’ve attained China Miéville levels of disaffected cool? Look no further. This handy flowchart will have you slyly bringing up shit no one’s ever heard of within minutes. Just don’t look too long, or you’ll lose about a half hour laughing. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go drop some references to M.A.N.T.I.S. into my burgeoning paranormal romance…

So You Need an Obscure Reference (via Playtime Arts)

Nanowrimo Comic #4: Survivalism

How’d this happen? It’s almost the end of November. Nanowrimoers are crossing the finish line. Those that haven’t yet know that the last two days are all about survival by any means necessary. Tracy McCusker has the fourth installment in her Nanowrimo comic series. If you’re just joining us, you can read the others here.