Feb 11

Writing Two Stories at Once

I recently read C.L. Moore's Judgement Night (review here), and it got me thinking.

Moore was writing in the pulp era, very successfully. She and her husband Henry Kuttner (whose first contact with her was a fan letter he wrote, believing she was a man) often collaborated on their stories, but in the interests of not disappearing down a pointless rabbit-hole I'm going to assume that the stories with her name on were primarily her work.

Moore's stories, while definitely in the pulp mould, had extra elements that lifted them out of the ordinary. Her Wikipedia entry notes her use of the senses and emotions, but I'm going to talk about something else she did, which I refer to as "telling two stories at once".

External and Internal Stories

Drastic oversimplification time: one of the key differences between "genre" fiction and "literary" fiction is often that "genre" fiction has a lot going on externally (events that you'd see on a movie screen), whereas "literary" fiction has a lot going on internally to the characters (thoughts, emotions, internal dialogue, reflections on the meaning of life). This makes it unsurprising that most of the top-grossing movies of all time have been "genre" movies: science fiction, fantasy or thrillers, primarily.

There's absolutely nothing wrong with this. Sometimes, I'm in the mood for a story that doesn't attempt to do anything more than entertain me with the external events. As a matter of taste, I'm personally seldom if ever in the mood for a story that has very few events but a lot of internal reflection. What I really like a lot, though, is when someone manages to pull off both at once, which is what Moore did in many of her stories.

Double Double Toil and Trouble...
Arbron / Foter / CC BY

Most of the stories we recognise as "classic literature" do this. Shakespeare has murder and walking spirits and Birnam Wood coming to Dunsinane, but he also has "Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow" and "Out, damned spot!" Dickens, Jane Austen, Mark Twain, most of the authors whose names everyone recognises tell two stories at once: the story of the outward events, and the story of the significance of those events.

By the significance of the events I don't just mean their significance to the characters, though that is how we encounter it, through the characters' eyes. The authors who are best at this manage to make the characters' thoughts, reactions and emotions point beyond them to something more universal about being human.

For example, the story "Judgement Night" in the collection of the same name is about the fall of a galactic empire. However, it's also about the heir to that empire, and her close brush with a love affair, and how her training as an amazon warrior makes her reject the emotional and relational side of life, and how that influences the empire's fall. And that, in turn, is about masculinity and femininity, relationship and connection, competition and conflict, love and death. It's all woven together. If you told just the story of the fall of the empire, it would work as a story by itself, but it wouldn't have the richness and depth of the story that Moore does tell.

How I'm Applying This

If I look at someone else's craft, it's at least partly to improve my own (that's a big part of why I write reviews).

There's a writing concept called "scene and sequel" that Jim Butcher describes very well. In this context, a "scene" is what I've been calling the outward story: some things happen. A "sequel" is where the characters reflect on it and make it part of their internal stories (and hopefully the greater, more universal story).

My first Gryphon Clerks book, Realmgolds, has lost some readers because they felt that I didn't do enough of the internal story sometimes. Other readers don't seem bothered by it; perhaps it's just that they're already enough like the characters (and me) that they get what I was going for without my spelling it out, that they naturally understand how a character like that would feel. However, if I'm to improve as a writer and satisfy more readers, I need to take that criticism on.

When I was writing Hope and the Clever Man, I had a scene in it where two of the characters get caught up in a riot. Bearing in mind the lessons I'd learned, I added a couple of sentences of sequel to the end of it, in which the characters said something like, "I've never been so frightened in my life!" "Me either."

Starting to deepen your stories can be that simple: taking a moment to show the reader what the events the character has just experienced mean to them.

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Jan 31

New Release: Hope and the Patient Man

Hope and the Patient Man is out today, and you can get it on the Kindle Store.

This is the sequel to Hope and the Clever Man. I've already referred to it as "Hope 2: The Patienting" and "Hope 2: Compressed-Air-Powered Boogaloo", but it's quite a different story. The potential romance at the end of Clever Man becomes actual, though there are several knotty problems: Hope's splashback curse from when she cursed her first boyfriend, a fairly serious head injury that indirectly results from it (I don't count that as a spoiler, since it happens practically on the first page), and the mystery of why her mother is so hostile to her.

I started writing it in August, while my beta readers were looking at the first Hope book, because the characters would not shut up. This is a good thing.

I now need to decide what's next. I have a largely drafted book set in the same time period as Realmgolds and most of the first Hope book, but it has multiple issues (as they say on Wikipedia). I'll probably toss it over to my miracle-working editor and she'll give me a two-page summary of how to rescue it and make it my best book so far. This is likely to involve several months' work, of course.

There are two more books to come out of the Hope characters. One is hinted at in Patient Man, and involves Mister Gizmo the gnome and his team as they try to rediscover the techniques for making an ancient elven material that will indirectly help the cause of gnome freedom. I've got a few chapters drafted, but it's not really singing to me yet.

The other involves Bucket, the Clever Man's gnome assistant, and Hope's best friend Briar as they navigate the choppy waters of politics.

Then I've got a heist novel planned, and then a kind of steampunk Star Trek airship voyage of discovery and diplomacy. Somewhere in there there may be another book or two that I'm currently vague on or unaware of. There's a general plan, but I uncover the details as I get to them.

All of which to say: the Gryphon Clerks series continues, there's plenty more to come, but right now, Hope and the Patient Man is fresh and new and I'd love you to take a look at it.

(Edited to add: With excellent timing, and much to my flattered surprise, the New Podler Review of Books has included Realmgolds in their Best of 2013 today!)

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Jan 30

Sir Julius Vogel Awards

So, I'm a New Zealand citizen who has released speculative fiction in the year 2013, which means my work is eligible for the Sir Julius Vogel Awards. These annual awards are named after an early Premier of New Zealand who wrote science fiction - proto-feminist science fiction, even. How cool is that?

The beautiful trophy for the Sir Julius Vogel Award

The SJVs, since they're run by New Zealanders, are more relaxed than the Hugos. I don't have to be sprinkled with the special big-publisher or big-magazine fairy dust to be eligible, I just have to have published. Here's what I've got that's eligible (in the format specified for nominations):

  1. Name / Title of work: Realmgolds
  2. Name of Author: Mike Reeves-McMillan
  3. Novel
  4. Year of First Release: 2013
  5. Publisher / Production company name: C-Side Media
  6. How to contact the producer / author: mike at csidemedia.com
  7. Professional awards
  8. GENRE - fantasy
  1. Name / Title of work: Hope and the Clever Man
  2. Name of Author: Mike Reeves-McMillan
  3. Novel
  4. Year of First Release: 2013
  5. Publisher / Production company name: C-Side Media
  6. How to contact the producer / author: mike at csidemedia.com
  7. Professional awards
  8. GENRE - fantasy
Short Stories:

  1. Name / Title of work: Not Like Us (included in the Theme-Thology: Invasion anthology)
  2. Name of Author: Mike Reeves-McMillan
  3. Short Story
  4. Year of First Release: 2013
  5. Publisher / Production company name: HDWP Books
  6. How to contact the producer / author: mike at csidemedia.com (author); books at hdwpbooks.com (editor/publisher)
  7. Professional awards
  8. GENRE - fantasy
  1. Name / Title of work: Good Neighbours (published in New Realm magazine, Vol 2, No 3, December 2013)
  2. Name of Author: Mike Reeves-McMillan
  3. Short Story
  4. Year of First Release: 2013
  5. Publisher / Production company name: fictionmagazines.com
  6. How to contact the producer / author: mike at csidemedia.com (author); doug at fictionmagazines.com (editor/publisher)
  7. Professional awards
  8. GENRE - fantasy

(If you want links to any of the works, they are all on my books page.)

Now, I'm not under any illusions that, even if people are nice enough to nominate me, there will be enough of those people to actually get me on the ballot, which is what happens if you have one of the five most-nominated works in a category. Voting is by members of the SFFANZ (the fan association) and attendees at their annual con, and frankly very few of them will have any idea who I am at this stage. But it is pleasing to think that I'm eligible.

Someday, I want to win a Sir Julius Vogel, and I think that's a realistic dream.

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Jan 21

Short Story Challenge begins

Something new today. I've decided to do a Short Story Challenge this year, which works as follows:

  1. I read and analyse a classic short story each month.
  2. I take what I learned and write a short story of my own.
  3. I submit it to magazines and anthologies until it sells, or until I run out of markets.
  4. Once the rights revert, I publish it on Amazon, either alone or as part of a collection, and/or make it one of the membership bonuses for my mailing list.

Several people I know on Google+ are joining me (some of them are doing slightly different versions), and you can follow along with the hashtag #shortstorychallenge.

I'm working, at least initially, from the Oxford Book of Fantasy Stories, selected by Tom Shippey. It's a collection I own, I've read it before, and I know it has a lot of good stories in it, drawn from just over a century of fantasy literature (1888-1992).

I'm not planning to analyse every story in it, because I know I wouldn't follow through on that. Besides, I only need a dozen, and I want to throw some SF stories in later on as well (probably from the companion Oxford Book of Science Fiction Stories, also selected by Shippey, and which I also own). I may look at a detective story or two - my wife has about 30 mystery anthologies, including a couple of Oxford ones that she says are good - and possibly some mainstream short fiction, of which I also have a couple of collections. It's generally good to read outside your genre. It can freshen things up.

Here's my first analysis, then. It happens to be of a story that's freely available on the web: Lord Dunsany's "The Fortress Unvanquishable, Save for Sacnoth". I'll analyse it under a number of headings, which I'm making up as I go along, and italicise the things I take as lessons. Future analyses may differ in approach. In fact, that's highly likely.

Subgenre: Somewhere between Sword and Sorcery and Weird Tales. The events are S&S, the tone is Weird, and the combination works well. Crossing a couple of subgenres can have the effect of adding their strengths together.

Type of story: The plot has a strong Adventure core, but it's not just an adventure. It's also a Creepy Mood/Bizarre Experience story, like the ones that Lovecraft and co. wrote (going back at least to Poe). It has a Switch-up at the end, when the narrator questions whether it's an Hallucination or even a complete False Legend. This kind of category questioning is part of the Weird Tales genre, I think, and contributes to the genre's sense of confusion and fear.

Why the story works: It works more because of the atmosphere, the language and the tone than because of the plot, which is straightforward, with a minimal amount of tension in it (see analysis below). The adventure part would have made a decent story, perhaps a bit disappointing because the protagonist wins too easily. Those additional aspects make a great one. If you sizzle loud enough, you may not need as much sausage.

Language Elements: The names are the first thing to notice. The story itself is named after the fortress in it: The Fortress Unvanquishable, Save for Sacnoth. Even its door has a wonderful name: The Porte Resonant, the Way of Egress for War. Then there are the names of the other places, people, and enemies: the town of Allathurion, its lord Lorendiac, and his son Leothric (the first two sound more-or-less Norman French, the third Saxon, and all of them Arthurian); the dragons Tharagavverug, Thok, Lunk, and Wong Bongerok, whose resonant, clanking names reflect their metallic nature; the evil magician Gaznak, who sounds like a Tolkien orc;  The Land Where No Man Goeth. Take the opportunity that names provide to evoke atmosphere.

Then there are the descriptions. "Then Leothric advanced towards a door, and it was mightier than the marble quarry, Sacremona, from which of old men cut enormous slabs to build the Abbey of the Holy Tears. Day after day they wrenched out the very ribs of the hill until the Abbey was builded, and it was more beautiful than anything in stone. Then the priests blessed Sacremona, and it had rest, and no more stone was ever taken from it to build the houses of men. And the hill stood looking southwards lonely in the sunlight, defaced by that mighty scar. So vast was the door of steel." That kind of description is hard to pull off, comparing something mythical to something else mythical that you have to explain, but if you can do it, you can convey a sense of a world that extends beyond the edge of this story; that's being shot on location, not in a sound stage. Give the audience something that only appears in the corner of their eye to make the world more real.

A number of the descriptions of the evil things mention Satan. This not only gives a context (Christianity) but also ties them together through the repetition.

wili_hybrid / Foter.com / CC BY-NC

The whole story uses an "elevated" and pseudo-antique style, the kind of style William Morris pioneered (following Spenser's Faerie Queene): "unvanquishable" rather than "unconquerable" or even "impregnable"; "save for" rather than "except for". This is incredibly hard to pull off (judging from the number of people who fail at it). You need a very large vocabulary and a good ear. All too many writers who attempt it have a much smaller vocabulary than they think they do, so they use the wrong word and make themselves look like idiots, and are prone to dropping modern colloquialisms into the middle of the high-flown prose at intervals and completely spoiling the effect. Dunsany has the linguistic chops to make it work. He knew what he was doing, and he could probably have explained it if he had to. Unless you can explain how and why this works, don't try it.

Plot: Let's attempt to apply the Seven-Point Story Structure and see where we get to.

Hook: The village by the dark forest full of fae is peaceful (paragraph 1). A little... too peaceful, if you know what I mean. Already, we're waiting for the other shoe to drop. Hint at trouble as early as you can.

Plot Turn 1: The village becomes troubled by evil dreams (paragraph 2). There we go. Don't hold off too long on the plot turn.

Pinch 1: The magician can't defeat them with his best spell. (There's actually a brief try-fail cycle here, by a minor character, the magician, who doesn't reappear later, and the protagonist isn't even introduced until it's over.) The protagonist doesn't have to do everything.

This sequence also does a lot to establish both the tone and the world: there is magic, there's a culture that crosses various kinds of landscape containing camels, elephants and whales, even a village magician commands great power. Make the minor details work to establish world and tone.

Midpoint: Leothric steps up and volunteers to go and defeat the dragon-crocodile Tharagavverug in order to get the sword Sacnoth, so that he can defeat the sender of evil dreams. We have a sub-quest. Arguably, the whole sub-quest, in which he must demonstrate tenacity and courage and therefore his worthiness for the main quest, is part of the midpoint. The points can be extended sequences, not just moments; the midpoint is a demonstration of fitness to be the hero, not just a decision.

Pinch 2: Leothric fights his way into the Fortress Unvanquishable, Save for Sacnoth. This is a kind of try-fail cycle, the kind that looks like success. He keeps achieving tasks (break down the door; scare off the camel-riders; get past the spider; pass through the hall of princes and queens; resist the temptation of the dream-women; cross the abyss; fight the dragon; fight the other, more dangerous dragon), but none of them are the task he wants to achieve: fighting and defeating Gaznak. In his talks on the Seven Points, Dan Wells alludes to the example of The Princess Bride, where the Man in Black's contests with Inigo, Fezzik and the Sicilian, and the encounters in the Fire Swamp, are "try-fail" cycles. He wins, he progresses, but he doesn't yet achieve his ultimate objective: to escape to his ship with Buttercup. Try-fail cycles can involve the protagonist winning.

Leothric doesn't have any serious trouble with any of these obstacles, yet the story remains interesting, because they're so beautifully described and everything is so evocative. This is similar to Dunsany's models, the Arthurian quests (Gawain and the Green Knight, for example, which also gets echoed later with the detachable head). Success against opposition, even easy success, doesn't have to be boring, as long as the opposition is interesting and the success isn't instantaneous.

Plot turn 2: Leothric finally confronts Gaznak, and just when it looks like he will lose (because Gaznak's sword can destroy Leothric's armour, but not vice versa, and Gaznak's detachable head trick prevents Leothric from beheading him), he figures out that Gaznak has another point of vulnerability: his wrist. This has been set up in advance, so it doesn't feel like it comes out of nowhere, and in exploiting it he adds intelligence to his already-demonstrated virtues of courage and tenacity. Set up the solution, even if only half a dozen paragraphs before. Have the hero snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. It's never too late to have the hero show another quality that's consistent with his character.

Resolution: The evil dissipates, Leothric returns home and the village is again at peace. Return to status quo ante is an acceptable resolution; the hero has changed, but the world may be back to how it was. 

After the resolution comes the little twisty doubty thing in the last four paragraphs. If anything, this makes the story more of a legend, claims for it the status of a traditional tale rather than a newly-made-up story, as well as raising the epistemological question of what is true, what is real, and how we know. Those are questions academics ask more often than ordinary people, and perhaps they were preoccupations of earlier generations more than our own. It's not necessarily something to imitate, but I think it works for this story.

So there's my analysis. Now I need to write my story. I have a story in progress, but I'm not sure that the lessons I've learned here are directly applicable to it, so I may need to start another.

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Jan 17

Gryphon Clerks short fiction

One of the benefits you get from becoming a member of my mailing list (which is, of course, free) is exclusive access to short fiction, and the more people sign up, the more fiction I release.

"Gnome Day", the second piece of fiction, has just been released this week.

The protagonist of this 6000-word story started out as a face in the crowd in a scene that was first cut from Realmgolds, then moved to Hope and the Clever Man - where he ended up getting trimmed out. Meanwhile, though, I'd written his story: a tale of love, tragedy, family and friendship over many years.

It's downloadable in mobi, epub or pdf format. Check the Membership page for more information (whether or not you're already a member).

And if you enjoy that story, I also have another short, "Good Neighbours". You can wait until it gets released automatically when my mailing list gets another 30 members, or you can buy the December 2013 New Realm magazine, where it's just been published. It's also set around Gnome Day, and features an elderly lady who has to answer the classic question: Who is my neighbour?

I'm planning to write more short fiction this year, as well as more novels. I have a strategy, in fact, which I'll share in another post once it's underway.

Novel News

Speaking of novels, Hope and the Patient Man (the sequel to Hope and the Clever Man) is with my editor right now, and my cover artist Chris Howard is hard at work on the cover. Here's where he's got to so far:

Yes, that's an airhorse, as introduced in Hope and the Clever Man.

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Jan 08

How to Weaken a Scene

This morning, someone in a writers' community I belong to on Google+ posted a link to this Ars Technica article about how some of the changes in the Hobbit movies were necessary to strengthen the writing. (Obviously, both that article and this post contain spoilers for both book and movie, if you care about that, and in fact assume that you're familiar with both.)

Now, even though I love The Hobbit dearly (it was one of my first fantasy reads, if not the first, and I've read it at least eight times), I agree with much of what the article says. There's too much coincidence, luck and deus ex machina in the book. However, I think some of the changes made in the movie weaken the story rather than strengthening it.

Example: The spiders. Compare these two versions.

Book version: The dwarves and Bilbo, after many days of trekking through the forest, are out of provisions and almost out of hope. Bilbo climbs a tree to scout and falsely gets the impression that they are still far from their destination. In desperation, they disobey Beorn's advice and leave the path, trying to reach the elvish feasts they can see in the distance, but the elves, who are isolationists, keep disappearing as soon as they come near. They get separated in the darkness and confusion.

Bilbo wakes up from sleep being tied up by a giant spider, and kills it by a desperate effort. He luckily guesses which direction the dwarves are in, puts on his magic ring, and sneaks quietly towards them (it's been previously established that he's good at sneaking quietly).

The dwarves have been captured by the spiders. Bilbo cleverly manipulates the spiders through taunts and thrown stones to get them away from the dwarves, though he only just escapes from being surrounded by them and sneaks again to get away. He then kills another spider which has stayed behind, and begins to free the dwarves (who are in a bad way from the spiders' poison on top of their hunger and exhaustion). Before he can finish, the spiders come back, and they all have to fight. Bilbo cleverly draws them off again, and the dwarves make a desperate escape, having to fight repeatedly (with inadequate weapons) despite their weariness, hunger and the lingering effects of the spider poison. At a moment when it looks like the spiders will surround them and overwhelm them, Bilbo reappears and gives them the opportunity to escape. Bilbo fights so well and so determinedly, in fact, that the spiders eventually give them up as a bad job and go back to their nests.

The dwarves then realise that Thorin (their leader, and incidentally the only one with a decent weapon apart from Bilbo) has disappeared. He has been captured by the elves. The elves subsequently capture the rest of the dwarves as well, but Bilbo again uses the ring to escape and follows them.

Movie version: The well-supplied dwarves are having a bit of a frustrating time finding their way through the forest after what appears to be a few hours, so they send Bilbo up a tree to scout. He happily discovers that they're close to their destination. When he gets back, though, the spiders capture everyone, including him. He wakes up for no particular reason, gets himself out of a thorough binding and kills the spider with no real difficulty, and the dwarves start doing the same with a variety of effective weapons. The spiders are, individually, low-level mooks and apparently not much of a threat, but there are a lot of them.

The fight goes on for a long time, killing spiders, killing spiders, killing spiders. Then we get elves ex machina who finish up the fight, drive the spiders off and capture the party, apart from Bilbo, who rings up and follows as per the book.

Wolf Spider Portrait
e_monk / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA

Yes, the book version uses a lucky guess (the direction in which the dwarves were), though it's really more of an informed guess. But what gets established? Bilbo is resourceful, clever and brave. He can manipulate, sneak and fight. The dwarves' situation starts out bad and gets worse, then improves thanks to the protagonist's action, then gets worse again in a different way, and that cycle repeats several times. There's a lot of desperation, for several different causes.

In the movie, all of this is lost. It's flattened out to a straightforward fight in which Bilbo is, if anything, one of the weaker players. There's no real escalation of tension, not much up-and-down movement of the tension graph at all, in fact, and most of the sources of tension (hunger, weariness, loss of hope, believing they are far from their destination, being poorly armed and weak from spider venom) are removed completely. The protagonist doesn't solve the problem. We don't get to see much increase in his abilities. He doesn't show himself to be clever, resourceful or sneaky. The result is a bland bit of action with not much significance to the story or the characters, that isn't even that exciting to watch.

Now, I didn't write this just to sling mud at Peter Jackson and his writers. I think there's something to be learned here about writing.

Turn the process around. If you have a bland bit of action with not much significance to the story or characters, here's how you can punch it up.

1. Make the characters more desperate and/or weaker, so that the outcome is more in doubt. They're out of supplies, they have inadequate weapons, they're poisoned, they're lost, they don't know how far they have to go but it seems further than they can go. When desperate, weak characters triumph after a hard fight, it's more exciting than if strong, competent characters triumph after an easy fight.

2. Don't just write it as "they fight a thing, they fight another thing the same as the first thing, they fight yet another thing". Write a series of problems from which the characters have to escape: One-on-one conflict. Drawing off the spiders. Spiders nearly surround Bilbo. He gets away and starts to free the dwarves, but the spiders come back before he's finished. Spiders nearly surround the dwarves, Bilbo rushes in from the side and breaks through.

I watched an excellent example of this the other day: the truck chase sequence in Raiders of the Lost Ark. It's a thrilling sequence because it's not just solving the same problem over and over, it's solving a series of different problems in different ways on the way to an overall goal (escape with the Ark). Indiana Jones must pursue the truck on horseback, jump on, force his way in, overcome the Nazis inside, then he gets attacked by other Nazis who climb forward from the back of the truck (antagonists can struggle and be brave and resourceful too), he's forced out, he climbs under the truck and is dragged behind, gets back up and in control of the truck again, has to contend with the other vehicles in the convoy (which he gets rid of by several different tactics), hides the truck in the village... It has variety, and every time he solves a problem he gets a new, and different, problem. We get a series of small releases of tension as he solves each problem, but the overall tension continues until the end of the sequence.

3. This deserves to be its own point: Give a variety of problems a variety of solutions. Not just "stab a spider, stab another spider, stab a third spider".

4. Take the opportunity for character development. If Bilbo is going to encounter Smaug with any expectation of success, he needs to be clever, resourceful and sneaky. This scene (in the book) establishes that he is becoming all of those things.

5. Have the protagonist solve the problem. Tolkien is as guilty of violating this as anyone, but not in the spider sequence. It's not fatal to have your protagonist rescued occasionally, but if it becomes a habit, they're not much of a protagonist.

6. Have the problem be more than just "do they win the fight?". Most of the fights in The Desolation of Smaug have no higher, greater or other stakes than "do the heroes win this fight?" Those are not very interesting stakes, especially when you're pretty sure the answer is going to be "yes". Will the heroes be eaten by the spiders? Will they find their way out of the forest? Will they starve? Where is their leader, and how can he escape? Can Bilbo continue to conceal his possession of the ring? All of these things are at stake in the book version, and they lead into and out of the fight, meaning that the fight is hard to remove as a story element. The movie version of the fight (and most of the other fights in the movie) could be completely removed as a story element and nothing else would need to be rewritten. That's a sign of weak writing, and a scene that isn't necessary because it doesn't do anything except present a (rather dull) spectacle.

I'll close with a link to another article: Why You Should Never Write Action Scenes for Your Blockbuster Movie. It's excellent writing advice in general, and the summary version is: Don't write action scenes. Write suspense scenes that require action to resolve.

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Jan 07

Review Problems: The Breadth of the Fourth Star

I review a lot of books (100 last year, according to Goodreads; although that includes some I abandoned and excludes some I beta-read, it makes a nice round number, so let's use it).

Here are the figures by the number of stars I awarded:

5 star:  9
4 star: 54
3 star: 25
2 star: 8
1 star: 0
0 star: 4

The 0-star reviews were ones I decided against by the end of the sample, but had already put on Goodreads as books I was reading. Three of them I received when I was a reviewer for the Kindle Book Review, and one from Netgalley. I didn't feel I could give them a star rating because I hadn't read enough for a proper review, though I'd read enough to know that I didn't want to keep reading.

So more than half of the books I reviewed got four stars. Why is this? Is it a problem? If so, what can I do about it?


First of all, I'm getting pretty good at filtering out the bad books. I begin with the cover, though I really only glance at it, because I've seen good books in bad covers (and vice versa). Then I read the blurb. If the blurb has a typo in it, or is poorly expressed or confusing, or sounds like yet another rehash of tired tropes, or just doesn't sound like a book I'd be into, I don't bother to download the sample.

I check the reviews, particularly the ones with low numbers of stars. If anyone complains about a lot of typos or other language errors (which I find more distracting than most people), I rarely if ever download the sample.

Much of my filtering is by the sample. I sample any book that sounds like I might enjoy it (I have well over 100 samples on my Kindle right now), and if the sample doesn't grab my attention, or is full of typos and homonym errors or excessively dark for my taste, I delete it and move on. If it's borderline, or if it sounds interesting but I think it's a bit overpriced, I put it into a "possibles" collection on my Kindle. I have to say that I haven't, so far, gone on to buy any of the "possibles", because there are always plenty of other books.

No doubt this means that I've missed out on some books that improve dramatically after the (approximately) first 10% that's in the sample. That's unfortunate, but I have no way of telling those books from the ones that don't improve, which are, in the nature of things, more common.

It also means that I do read some books that get worse after the first 10%, which is where the three-star and two-star reviews mostly come from. Some of those low-star reviews were books I committed to read when I was reviewing for the Kindle Book Review, though, and I didn't feel I could just abandon them because I wasn't enjoying them. That no longer applies, so if anything, my proportion of 4-star reviews is likely to grow.

My Rating System

Here's the rating system I use. I've seen a lot of other reviewers describe their rating system, and it's pretty consistently similar, though everyone uses their own words to express it.

1 star: Awful. Dire. Pretty much all bad, with no redeeming features.
2 star: Bad, but with at least a hint that the author is capable of better; or very, very much not to my taste (despite being reasonably well done for what it is). I usually don't persevere with the second type these days.
3 star: The good and bad balance out; either there's a lot of both or not much of either.
4 star: I liked it, it was definitely more good than bad, but it wasn't without flaws (or, even if it had no significant flaws, it wasn't amazing enough for 5 stars).
5 star: One of the best books I've read, I will recommend this to all my friends and think about it long after I've finished reading it and buy whatever the author writes next and hug it and squeeze it and call it George.

So, between the filtering and the definitions and my increasingly-developed critical eye, most books end up in the 4-star bucket.

The Problem

The trouble with most books being 4-star is that 4 stars starts to have such a wide range of meaning that its significance is diluted. There are 4-star books that are barely 4-star, that are only a little more good than bad, that have significant flaws which weren't quite enough to prevent me from mostly enjoying them; and there are 4-star books that are almost 5-star, that only miss out on 5-star because of one or two issues, or because, while they are really competently done, they're not amazing.

Possible Solutions

In the past I've tried having sub-ratings for language, plot, characters and setting, rating each of those out of five stars and then giving a combined rating. In most cases, though, the sub-ratings end up pretty close to the overall rating, and they're often all four stars.

I've tried starting with 100 points, knocking off points for each issue, and then converting to stars at the end by dividing by 20. It gives much the same result, though.

I think what I need to do is create a scale within the 4-star space to indicate where in that relatively wide space a book falls. A 10-point scale would give me the most flexibility. I'll probably need to explain, each time I use a value above 5, that the scale doesn't round, that 4.5 means that it's in the middle of the 4-star range and 4.9 means it's almost, but not quite, 5-star material. Maybe I should use some punctuation other than a decimal point to make that clearer. A dash can be read as "to" (4-5), a slash as "out of" (4/5), and a comma just makes it look as if I'm German (4,5). A tilde looks like "approximately" (4~5) and a caret as if I'm raising it to a power (4^5). How about "4#5"?

No, I'm going to have to explain it each time anyway. I might as well just say, "On my 10-point subscale within the 4-star space, ranging from 0 (just above mediocre) to 9 (just short of amazing), this book rates a..."

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Dec 31

A Timeline of the Gryphon Clerks Books

Someone who's reading Hope and the Clever Man asked me on Google+ today if it came before Realmgolds, which he'd already read.

There's a complicated answer to that. So complicated, that I drew this diagram:

OK, the answer to that specific question is relatively simple. Clever Man starts before Realmgolds (in Hope's childhood), includes some of the events shown in Realmgolds from a different perspective, and ends after the close of Realmgolds. It's when you take the other books into account that it gets complicated.

I won't give you a blow-by-blow of everything in the diagram. The books you can check out on my Books page, which will also explain a lot of the other references, apart from the later ones because of potential spoilers. The Technology section shows when the various technologies that are significant in the series start to be developed and are successfully launched.

Farviewers, if you haven't read either of the books released so far, are basically magic mirrors that allow you to talk to someone far away. Flight crystals are the means by which the skyboats fly (they're antigravity, more or less). They already exist as of Realmgolds, but they're unreasonably expensive; the line shown is for the process of making them more efficient and cheaper. Hardlac is a light, strong artificial material (probably some kind of polymer) made by the ancient elves, who deliberately kept the secret from their human slaves. Its rediscovery, along with cheaper flight crystals, is key to one of Victory's cunning plans, and is detailed, unsurprisingly, in The Rediscovery of Hardlac. Technology, in the Gryphon Clerks books, is never there just to be cool. It always has social and political implications.

The Assembly is a new body of elected representatives, and in Mister Bucket for Assembly, we see the first election, with two characters from the Hope books standing.

The Unification War is the one that takes place in Realmgolds, though it's not called that there (it's a label that gets applied afterwards). The Underground War is the economic struggle between Realmgold Victory and the dwarves. It's kind of like our world's Cold War in that it's only a war metaphorically.

Obviously, this is all subject to change. Of the unreleased books, I'm nearly finished with Hope and the Patient Man, and it should be out in early 2014 (exactly when is partly reliant on my cover artist, who is backlogged for various highly legitimate reasons, though there are still several rounds of edits to go, too). The others range from "I have a draft that I'm not happy with" (Beastheads) through "I have a reasonably clear idea how this will go, but the devil's in the details" (The Rediscovery of Hardlac, The Great Gnome Heist) to "I have a concept and not much more" (Underground Railroad).

You'll notice a lot of overlap in the timelines, particularly early on (no guarantees that I won't add more books later and do the same thing, though). This is because my world is a large one, there's a lot going on, and I like the idea of looking at events through different sets of eyes via characters who occasionally cross paths. I'd also rather write three 80,000-word novels, each with one clear protagonist, than try to twine them all together in some 250,000-word chihuahua-crusher.

I haven't been watching closely, but I did happen to see that Hope and the Clever Man briefly made it to #90 in Steampunk on Amazon thanks to my post-Christmas sale. It's still going on as I write this, so if you haven't yet picked up Hope and the Clever Man or Realmgolds, those links will take you to them.

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Dec 27

Post-Christmas Sale, and an Excerpt

As I write, the latest Gryphon Clerks novel, Hope and the Clever Man, is on a Kindle Countdown Deal over at Amazon. That means it starts out at 99c and goes up by a dollar every couple of days until it's back at $4.99. The sooner you get over there, the better the deal, if you don't have it already. (Realmgolds is still on sale at half price, too.)

I'm using some of my holiday time to work on the sequel, Hope and the Patient Man, so I thought I'd give you an excerpt from Chapter 1. To find out how these two characters get together, and how Hope got herself cursed, of course, you'll need to read Hope and the Clever Man.


They’d had a delicious dinner at one of the more expensive Gulfport restaurants, and shared a bottle of excellent wine. Judging by the way Hope was walking, it was more wine than she usually indulged in. She took Patient’s right arm and stumbled against him, laughing.

“Careful,” he said, flinging out his walking stick to keep himself from falling, and mentally cursing his weak leg. The carved dragon head of his stick dug into his hand as he used it to lever his weight, and Hope’s, to the right.

“Sorry. It’s these shoes.” Her own footwear mostly had steel toes, so she had borrowed a pair of shoes for the evening from her best friend and flatmate Briar.

“I thought it was the wine.”

“And the wine. Shoes and wine, Briar’s two favourite things. What are your favourite things, Patient?” She laughed again. He would almost say she giggled, except that Hope didn’t giggle. Her large dark eyes met his with an unguardedness that he hadn’t seen before. Pale as she was from working indoors, her flushed cheeks brought her back to a more usual skin tone, and her black hair, gleaming and herb-scented, fell across one side of her face. She blew it away and laughed again, and his heart contracted sharply. He was still not used to the idea that such a beautiful woman wanted to spend time with him.

“I don’t think you should get on that airhorse,” he said.

“No? You’re probably right. But how’m I going to get home?” She stretched out the last word, crooning it.

“You could stay in town here and go home in the morning. Probably not much more expensive than a ferry back to Illene, then a ferry back here again to get the airhorse.”

“And how’re you going to get home?”

“I could take the ferry, I suppose, and walk.” Patient’s home in Redbridge, a village not far north of Gulfport, lay near the river that also ran through the city and through the university town of Illene, where Hope lived. Even with his leg, he could walk between the ferry dock and his cottage without much discomfort.

“Or you could stay in town too. Should we get one room, or two?”

“Now I know you’re drunk. Which means that the answer’s two.”

“Oh, come on,” she said playfully, and swung around in front of him on the pavement, seizing both his forearms. “We’ve had a nice night. Let’s live a little.” She slid her hands up his arms to the shoulders, stepped in, and raised her face to his. Startled, he let the kiss begin.

She screamed, convulsed, and collapsed. He staggered as he grabbed for her, trying to keep her from falling, but his weak leg folded under him and they both stumbled to the ground. Her head struck the stone kerb and rebounded.

“Hope!” he shouted. She was whimpering and twitching in some kind of fit.

He heard running footsteps from behind him as he tried to keep her head from impacting the hard surface a second time. They hadn’t walked far from the restaurant, less than a block, and he recognised the doorman as the man leaned over them.

“What is it?” he asked. “What’s wrong?”

“Not sure,” said Patient. “Some kind of fit. Help me get her safe, put…” but the doorman was already whipping off his jacket and wadding it up to put under her head. They got her stretched out and waited for the fit to be over, Patient pulling himself round to sit with her head in his lap while the doorman crouched next to her shoulder. Patient’s leg had woken up and was proclaiming its tale of woe, but he ignored it.

After what seemed like much longer than it probably was, Hope gave a gasp and her eyes came back into focus. She made gagging movements, and he rolled her quickly onto her side, whereupon she threw up a gourmet meal and half a bottle of expensive wine onto his new trousers.

When the vomiting was over and her breathing had settled down, she tried to get up, and he helped her as best he could. The doorman was more help; he had leverage, and heaved Hope to her feet.

“Are you all right, Mage?” he asked. The silver bracelet on her left wrist, proclaiming her status as a full mage, glittered under the street lights, and the gems set in it sparkled. She nodded mutely, clutching her head.

Patient had reclaimed his stick, and was trying to regain his feet. He nearly slipped in the puddle of vomit before the doorman, still propping Hope up with one arm, heaved him upright with the other.

“Thanks,” he said, trying to ignore the unpleasant dampness seeping through his trouser leg.

“Sorry,” said a still drunk-sounding Hope. She gently disengaged from the doorman and stood, a little shakily, on her own feet.

“What was that?” he asked.

“Oathconflict, I think,” she said. “Curse it.” Her voice came out toneless and dull, unlike her usual rich mezzo.

“Well, I think that answers the question of whether you go home tonight,” he said. “The answer’s no. Where can we find a hotel?” he asked the doorman.

“Just round the corner,” said the man. “You want me to walk with you?”

“Stone?” called a man’s voice from behind them. “Everything all right?”

“The lady and gentleman had a fall,” the doorman called back. “I’m just going to take them round to the Peerless. Can you watch the door?”

“All right,” called the voice.

“The Peerless?” said Patient, a little nervously. “That sounds expensive.” The doorman looked puzzled, as far as Patient could tell under the dim lighting, and rightly so. The restaurant they had just come out of was hardly Fat Berry’s Fry Shack, and if you could afford to eat there, you could afford to stay at the Peerless. He thought of explaining that their meal had been paid for by Realmgold Victory.

“Don’t worry about it,” said Hope in a shaky voice. “I can cover it.”

Patient opened his mouth to argue, decided that it wasn’t the time, and shut it again. He and the doorman began to help her down the street, one on each side. She walked like a woman with three times her not-quite-24 years, but they turned the corner at last, and Stone the doorman called to his counterpart at the front of the Peerless.

“Hey, Willing! Come and give us a hand, mate.”

The other doorman hurried over, and helped Hope into the reception area, where another uniformed hotel employee bustled round the desk in concern.

“Should I send for a healer?” she asked.

“If you would,” said Patient quickly, before Hope could say no. Not that she looked as if she was going to. She even shot him a look of thanks.

The receptionist rousted out a youth from the room behind the desk and sent him on the errand, while the two doormen seated Hope in a chair in the lobby.

“Thank you, Mister… Stone, is it?” said Patient to the restaurant doorman.

“My pleasure to assist, sir,” said the man. Patient dug in his pocket and found some coins. He gave him the two biggest pieces, equivalent to a quarter of a silver hammer, and Stone seemed happy enough.

“I hope your lady’s all right, sir,” he said, and ran off to resume his duties round the corner.

“Sir, would you like us to assist you with your trousers?” said the hotel doorman. The receptionist was fussing over Hope.

“Eh? Oh, yes, thank you,” he said. “And we’ll need a room. Um, two rooms. No, better make it one room. I don’t want to leave her unwatched.”

“Are you all right yourself, sir?”

“Yes, yes, fine,” he said. “An existing injury.”

“In the war, sir?” said the doorman. Patient looked up and caught a look that combined respect and pity.

“Yes,” he said shortly. “As it happens. How far does the healer have to come?”

“Not far, sir, there’s a healer just two blocks over, and he’s contracted to the hotel. Did the lady have something that disagreed with her?”

There was a distinct tang of wine in among the vomit, and the doorman was clearly being tactful.

“More than that, I think,” said Patient. “She’s a mage, and she was involved in a kind of magical incident some years ago that has left her with… I suppose you’d say a curse. It got triggered.” His tone was curt, partly with worry for Hope, but mainly because it was none of the man’s wretched business.

“Ah,” said the doorman. “Well, sir, if you’re all right I’ll go and watch for the healer, shall I?”


With the doorman gone, Patient limped over to the chair and carefully lowered himself to one of the arms, trying to keep his spattered trouserleg well clear. “How are you doing?” he asked, while going through a checklist in his mind. As a former part-time village warden, he had been trained to deal with emergencies, and he was trying to remember what you did for someone who’d just had a fit.

“Thirsty,” she said.

“I’ll get…” began the receptionist.

“Let’s wait for the healer,” he said. “I don’t think we should give her anything until he gets here.”

Before either woman could argue, brisk boot-heels rang on the marble of the foyer, and the healer arrived, the round hat of his profession askew and his coat and trousers pulled on over a nightshirt. The boy entered in his wake, and the receptionist made a curt gesture sending him back to his lurking place behind the desk, while hovering herself.

The healer knelt and took Hope’s wrist, reading the state of her body while asking, “What’s happened here, then?” in a calm professional voice.

Patient fell into the rhythms of an incident report, giving an unemotional summary of events. He included the fact that Hope had had an oathconflict reaction, though he didn’t go into the background. He wondered if he should, because not doing so risked the implication that she was oathbound to someone else and seeing him behind her oathmate’s back, but decided that it was nobody else’s business and he didn’t care what they thought. The healer, who hadn’t previously looked at him, shot him a sharp glance, flicked his gaze briefly at the stick, and nodded, without apparent hostility. He touched the side of Hope’s head where it had met the stone kerb. The skin was unbroken, but reddened, and she winced away. He closed his eyes to concentrate, sensing underneath the skin.

“There’s a bit of bleeding under there,” he noted. “Not a lot, but enough to be of concern. Merriment,” he called to the receptionist, “send your boy for a cab, will you? We need to get her into the healing house overnight.”

“Oh,” said Patient.

“Sorry, sir,” said the healer. “Not something to take lightly, a head injury. I’d deal with it myself if it was most other things, but head trauma wants a specialist. I’m afraid your evening is rather ruined.”

Patient smiled grimly. “Thank you,” he said.

While they waited for the cab to come, he leaned down awkwardly next to Hope. “I hate to mention this,” he said, “but I don’t have enough money to tip all these nice people, pay the healer, and pay the cab.”

She fished out a purse and handed it over.

“Thank you,” he said again, and circulated, handing over money to the boy, the receptionist, the healer (rather a larger amount) and the doorman.

“Oh! Your trousers, sir,” said the receptionist. “The cabbie won’t let you in like that, I’m afraid, or he’ll charge you extra. I’ll see if I can find you a pair. What’s your waist size?”

Patient told her, and by the time the cab arrived he was in a pair of the hotel’s uniform trousers which were attempting to cut him in half, the closest pair the receptionist had been able to find, and she had taken his away to be cleaned. He made arrangements to pick them up next day and slipped her more copper.

He had never, he reflected, spent so much money on what was supposed to be a free evening, a reward for Hope from the Realmgold for working so hard last year. He returned to her side in time to help her to the cab. The cabbie looked at him oddly when he got in, with his stick and his too-small trousers, and again when he paid from Hope’s obviously feminine purse, but he was well beyond caring. He had fallen into the mentally distanced state that they taught in the military and that he had held onto through much of the war — especially the part after his injury. It allowed him to move on to the next thing that needed doing, and put off anger, fear and frustration until later.

The night staff at the healing house were quietly efficient, and a young healer came and sat beside Hope in one of the tiny treatment rooms, using her gift of Invisible Touch to stop the bleeding inside Hope’s head and ease the pressure. Patient leaned against the wall, giving them as much space as he could manage. He shifted his stick uncomfortably, trying to ease his throbbing leg.

“All right,” said the healer eventually. “I’ve done as much as I can for now. Let’s get you to bed.” Patient helped Hope walk along the gleamingly clean corridor in the impractical shoes. They helped her to a washroom to clean up, and Patient stood outside while the healer helped her change into a nightgown, then returned to assist with getting her into bed. She looked grey and exhausted.

“I’m going to give you the Healer’s Sleep now,” said the young woman, and worked a spell with the confidence of someone who performed it multiple times a day. Hope’s strained face relaxed as her eyes closed, her breathing deepened, and she fell into a deep sleep almost instantly.

“That should hold her until well into tomorrow morning,” said the healer. “You’re her… what? Oathmate?” She glanced at their hands, obviously checking for rings and, of course, not finding any. “Promised?” she amended.


“You’re courting, then?”

“I’m her… friend,” he said. This, at least, was true. He wasn’t sure what else they were.

“Would you mind staying the night with her?”

“I’ll insist on it.”

“All right, let’s set you up with a pallet. You’re injured?”

“I got a knock to my bad leg,” he said, “but nothing new.”

“Let me take a look.” She sat him down in the corner and ran her hand over his leg above the borrowed trousers, eyes closed.

“That’s been well cared for, considering what a nasty injury it must have been originally,” she said. “Was it the war?”

“Yes,” he said, in the tone he used to discourage people asking anything more.

“How’s this?” she said, and he felt the cramped muscles relax and the damaged flesh flooding with warmth, as if he was in one of the herbal baths his local healer made him take. His pain eased.

“Oh, that’s helping,” he said.

“Good. I’ll send someone in to do your pallet. Do you think you can get to sleep?”

“Yes, I should be all right.”

“Good. I don’t want to give you the Sleep, because having you in here with her and able to wake up is an extra safety measure. Not that I think anything will happen overnight, but just in case. Someone will be with you very soon.”

Of course, with the best of intentions, it was actually some time before one of the healers’ assistants came in with a pallet for him, and he was able to take off the terrible trousers and fall onto it. Whereupon he lay awake late into the night, listening for any shift in Hope’s breathing.

She was still breathing steadily when he finally drifted off in the deep hours of the early morning.

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Dec 02

Hope and the Clever Man is released

I'm happy to report that Hope and the Clever Man is now available from Amazon.

It took a little longer than I had originally planned, largely because my development editor, Kathleen Dale, suggested a rewrite that strengthened the story considerably and gave more weight to the characters' actions.

Here's the blurb:

An act of powerful magic in a moment of rage almost destroys Hope's magical career before it starts, leaving her even more determined to prove her worth.

Her chance comes when she's assigned to work for the eccentric inventor known as the Clever Man. The magical technology they create together could change the course of a war and help an oppressed people plan their revolution, but wealthy and powerful interests will fight to put it down any way they can.

If you've read Realmgolds, this book's timeline includes the entire timeline of that first book. It's the story of the people behind the scenes who made some of what happened in Realmgolds possible. You don't have to read Realmgolds first, but if you haven't read it yet and you want to, I have it at half price while I'm promoting Hope. That's $6.98 for both books.

I'm going to drop the Chris Howard cover here yet again, because I love it so much. If you look at that cover and think "That looks like a book I'd want to read," you're very probably right, because Chris followed my art direction closely and gave me a cover that was exactly what I wanted and represents the book perfectly.

Hope and the Clever Man

I'm very happy with how it's come out, and looking forward to getting on with a less comprehensive but still significant rewrite on the sequel, Hope and the Patient Man.

Those links again (they're Amazon affiliate links, so buying through them gives me more of the sale price even than normal):

Hope and the Clever Man 

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