Oct 21

How to Write a Sequel, or Happily Never After

I'm writing a series. I hope it's a long series. I hope I get to work on it for 40 years or more (I'm 46). Whether I do or not, I have one book out, two more with my editor and beta readers (those two books are closely linked), a third that I'm revising and a list of ideas in various states of development. Barring the usual things that you bar over the next several years, we're looking at at least half a dozen books that I can see from here.

Writing a series is different from writing standalone novels, which is what I've done previously. I'm taking the Terry Pratchett approach to series - a number of more-or-less interlinked stories in the same setting, with overlapping characters, places and events - rather than the typical epic fantasy one-enormous-story approach. (I recently discovered that Steven Donaldson has published the tenth, and final, Thomas Covenant novel. I started reading those when I was at high school. I don't have kids, but if I did they would probably be about the age I was then, or older, so it's taken him a generation to finish his story. George R.R. Martin is still going, with no end in sight.)

Even if you take the Terry Pratchett approach, even if you don't follow the same characters all the time and don't have one big overarching plot arc, you'll still want to tie books together. The approach I've stumbled upon is what I call Happily Never After.

That's not as negative as it sounds. It's based on the endings to fairy stories, of course: "And the Prince married the Princess, and they lived happily ever after." The wedding in a romance, or the defeat of the main boss in an adventure, draws a big line under the story and says, "Finished now."

If you're writing a series like mine, though, that moves from story to story, nothing is a final ending. And, in fact, each ending contains the seeds of the next beginning - because every time your characters achieve something, that's another thing that can cause problems for them (or someone else) later on.

Endless love
Millzero Photography / Foter / CC BY-SA

I base this, like so many things, on real life. You got the promotion you were striving for? Great. But now you have more work, more responsibility, a new set of problems. You finally asked that person out? Fantastic! Welcome to your awkward first date. You're married? Terrific! Whole new set of problems there*. You've killed the main boss? Go you! Let the revisionist history/battles to fill the power vacuum/revenge attacks/resistance to the occupation begin.

We don't need to look far in our own life or in real-world politics to see that bringing something to a conclusion often just means substituting one set of problems for another. Our childhood tales tell us that when we kill the evil guy and/or marry the prince/princess our troubles are over, but it's just not so. The "all our problems will go away if we just kill this one evil guy" narrative, in particular, has proven hideously destructive (and wildly inaccurate) within the past decade.

When I got to the end of Realmgolds, the first book in the Gryphon Clerks series, I made a list of 20 problems that the resolution of that book had either created or intensified. They're enough to keep me writing for years.

The two linked books that are currently in edit/beta? The hopeful ending of the first sets up the opening problem of the second so neatly, it's as if I planned it that way.

I didn't. I didn't need to. Every solution potentially contains the seeds of the next problem, even if you don't have an overarching plot. Even if you're working within the same book, rather than a series, in fact. (Note to self: Do that more.)

* I should mention I'm happily married. Just because you have a set of problems/challenges, doesn't mean you're miserable.

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Oct 14

Three Types of Steampunk

I love the idea (or, as we'll shortly see, ideas) of steampunk. The Victorian Era, only more wondrous. Why wouldn't I love it?

Well, mainly because the execution so seldom matches the concept.

I've been trying to read more steampunk, and the books I've come across fall mostly into a couple of disappointing categories. I'll talk about the third category, or what steampunk can be, in a bit.

Type One: The Big Brass Romance

The first type of steampunk is basically paranormal romance in something which is unconvincingly pretending to be the Victorian age, with characters who are very unconvincingly pretending to be English (since the author is American, and doesn't know much about England, or the English, or the Victorian Era, or how to go about doing research, or for that matter how to use a comma). There are probably airships and/or automatons. There is certainly a Plucky Gel, with nonfunctional brass gears glued to her corset, who is simultaneously too awesome to fail and too stupid to live.

There is a Love Interest, or quite likely a Love Triangle. The Love Interest, or the ultimately successful male member of the Love Triangle, is a horrible human being with big muscles. The Plucky Gel at first tries to resist him, because she thinks he's wrong for her (which shows atypical insight on her part), but ends up with him anyway after he's rescued her a couple of times.

The text is full of homonym errors. Full. It is written by a woman who failed Feminism 101, and probably English Composition 101 as well.

Type Two: The Steampulp Adventure

The second type of steampunk is a 1930s pulp in a bad Jules Verne costume. It is also poorly researched, and unconvincing in its Britishness and Victorianness, but the setting is so sketchy it doesn't matter so much. There are still probably airships and/or automatons, though they may be more central to the plot than they are in the Big Brass Romance. There is quite likely still a Plucky Gel, but she's disguised as a boy or does boy things in defiance of convention, and she, or someone, has nonfunctional brass goggles attached to her top hat.

LuftFlotte Steampunk...
Stf.O / Foter / CC BY

There is a Big Bad, and there are chases, and explosions, and prison breaks, but not really enough of them to hide the fact that the author can't write very well and is kind of winging it. The Big Bad is trying to overturn the status quo, and the hero must prevent this.

This text, too, is probably well equipped with homonym errors. It is written by a man, who has taken Feminism 101 (and Postcolonial Literature) into the back room, tied them up and shot them.

Type Three: The Voyage of Imagination

The third type of steampunk is the type I like, and can't find enough of. Interestingly, hardly any of the examples I've found are set in the Victorian Era, and about half are in a secondary world. It's a world where, at a generally Victorian level of technology and society, there are airships and/or automatons or other such contraptions, and this actually makes a difference to how people live.

Indeed, society is in transition, and questions of equality, of access to power, education and technology, are central to the story. Sometimes it's about gender, sometimes about class or even race; often it's more than one of the above, and these questions are personally important to the heroes.

The writing is competent. If it's set in the real world, the author manages to demonstrate that they've been to the well of research, without making you drink from the bucket.

There may well be explosions and/or romance, but they're not the main focus. That would be the characters.

So, what are some examples of good steampunk? Besides the indie steampunk novels that I recommend, there's one trad-pub series I think highly of, even though it's a bit Type 2 (it's really well-done Type 2, what Type 2 should aspire to be). I'm referring to the Leviathan series by Scott Westerfeld. Yes, it's YA, and yes, the heroine is disguised as a boy, but it's good stuff all the same. It's not Victorian, but an alternate World War I, and technically it's dieselpunk.

I wish people would write more Type 3 steampunk, though. Get on that, would you?

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Oct 07

New Bread on an Old Plate

I've been going through updating the (private) wiki that I use to keep track of worldbuilding, characters and so on for the Gryphon Clerks, and thought I would write a post about how I handle sayings.

There are several valid ways to deal with common sayings in secondary-world fantasy. The most common is just to use familiar ones. This means that a reader like me, who's alert to these things, may need a bit of extra suspension of disbelief when they spot a saying from the Bible or Shakespeare, or just a common metaphor from our world that isn't in any way inevitable, but most readers will just slide on past without noticing - or having their attention distracted from the story.

This is what's sometimes called "Orwellian language", from an article that George Orwell wrote about the difference between language that's like a clear window (you see what's going on through it) and language that's like a stained-glass window (you look at the window itself).

Personally, I like a bit of stained glass from time to time. I also want to give the feel of a very different, even alien world, unlike our own world, and to freshen up some tired old metaphors by communicating the same thing using a different image.

How I mainly work is that if I find myself about to use a cliche or a conventional phrase, I think about the meaning of it and find another way to say it that makes sense in the setting, that sounds like it could be a cliche among the people I'm writing about. Here are some examples.

  • We're scraping polish off our boots for soup (= times are tough)
  • He has stones in his field (= he has a hard row to hoe)
  • Gave like a six-teat cow (= sang like a canary)
  • We’ll cut down that tree when it’s grown (= cross that bridge when we come to it)
  • The redfinch complaining of the chaffinch (= pot calling the kettle black)
  • Herding finches (= herding cats)
  • No dancing killed the ant (= all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy; from a children's fable)
  • We've started out with our harness tangled (= got off on the wrong foot)
  • Don't make a scarecrow and stand in your own field (= don't keep a dog and bark for yourself)
Miss Butterfly…!!!
Denis Collette...!!! / Foter / CC BY-NC-ND
  • More holes than a moth's lunch
  • As drunk as a dockworker
  • Three-days-fruit (= drunk, possibly as a dockworker)
  • Too swamped to be bothered bailing (= three-days-fruit; an Islands expression)
  • Take to something like gnomes to mushrooms (= a duck to water)
  • That apple's already off the tree (= you'd be locking the stable door after the horse has bolted)
  • You build the house you're paid for (= he who pays the piper calls the tune)
  • A carnival of fools (= a (metaphorical) circus, a Mickey Mouse outfit)
  • I'll push him down one well and fish him up another (= I'll kick his ass)
  • Catch the fish that's biting (= strike while the iron's hot)
  • Working like a gnome (= working very hard; some, though by no means all, gnomes consider this expression offensive, as if hard work defines them)
  • Like selling gritty melons (= a tough sell)
  • Water in front and fire behind (= the carrot and the stick)
  • Out of the mud and into the quicksand (= out of the frying pan into the fire)
  • Knows where the meat is in the stew (= knows which side his bread's buttered on; has an eye to the main chance)
  • You could have heard a man put on a hat (= could have heard a pin drop)

I've also got a couple of gnome sayings:

  • You're talking tonnage to the production foreman (= you're preaching to the choir)
  • We're two pumps for three (= we're extremely busy)

Not something that every writer does, or probably should do, but I enjoy playing with language like this, and giving my fellow language nerds occasional moments of delight.

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Sep 30

Hope and the Clever Man excerpt

Edits are proceeding on Hope and the Clever Man and its sequel, Hope and the Patient Man. I'm planning to have them out before and after Christmas, respectively. Here's an excerpt from the first Hope book to whet your appetite.

------------------

Bucket led her to a newer part of Illene, where the ancient, organic-looking, rounded or hexagonal elven buildings were replaced by newer dwarfbuilt structures, foursquare and solid. The small university city was built on the old river floodplain, and the streets were straight and wide. He flung open an undistinguished door and bowed her through as if welcoming an ambassador to the audience hall of a realmgold.

The room beyond was large, but she only knew this because she could see the enormous skylight that made up the whole ceiling. Her view of the room itself was blocked by a number of wheeled boards, covered in spidery dwarvish script interspersed with magical sigils and some other symbols that she found completely unfamiliar. She navigated through them, and found herself in what looked like a serious collision involving a print shop, a mage’s workspace, the stockroom of a mad glassblower, sixteen or twenty more boards, and the junk-midden of a medium-sized dwarfhold. Standing amid the ruins, bent over a draughtsman’s table, was a man no taller than Hope, and probably not much older, though his face was creased with worry-lines.

The Realmgold had mentioned things her clever man didn’t do well. These clearly included sleeping, eating, dressing, washing and shaving. His hair looked like it should be arrested for disorderly conduct, his eyebrows as if they had been partially burned off, and he had scars all up his arms, which were visible because his worn and threadbare sleeves were unevenly rolled up above his elbows. The state of his fingernails would have shamed a drunken farrier. His once-white shirt and beige trousers were marked and stained with scorches, odd colours and more than occasional burn holes, as was the tradesman’s smock he wore over them.

He didn’t look up at the sound of Hope’s footsteps.

“Master,” said Bucket loudly. “Master. The Realmgold has sent you a mage.”

The man looked up from his work, and visibly came back into the room from a great mental distance. “Oh, Bucket,” he said. “Did you go out?”

“For half the morning, yes,” said Bucket, but with more amusement than irritation. “Master, this is Hope at Merrybourne. She’s here to see if she wants to work with us, so you’re going to have to talk to her.”

“Oh,” said the man, and peered at Hope curiously.

She flushed a little under his gaze. It wasn’t the gaze she was used to getting from men. For one thing, when he looked away from her face his eyes didn’t go to her chest, but to her wrist, where she proudly wore the mage’s bracelet she had earned from the University (and was still paying off). It was made of silver set with a prominent ruby, showing that she was a full mage in energy magic. The clear diamond for the High Distinction and the cat’s-eye topaz for the Master-Mage’s prize would join it once she could get it to a jeweller. The bangles of a Mage-Minor in mindmagic (blackwood) and lifemagic (bone) bracketed it. It was fresh and unmarked — she would eventually have spells she used frequently scribed into it — and she valued it more than the arm it was clasped around, not only for its monetary worth but for the years of effort it represented.

She adjusted the bracelet nervously, making sure that he saw the ruby, and, on impulse, strode forward. “Pleased to meet you,” she said, holding out her other hand across his workbench for the mutual palm-press that was the usual greeting. He stared at the hand, and after an awkward couple of heartbeats, she took it away again, wiped the sweaty palm on her trouserleg and put it in her pocket, then took it out again.

“Tell her your name, Master,” prompted Bucket.

“Oh,” he said. “Dignified Printer.”

She had to swallow a smile. Not only was the name completely ill-suited to him, but it was rather an odd one. Silvers, people of the merchant and administrative class (as the name Printer revealed him to be), generally copied the Gold nobility and named their children after desirable abstract qualities, but Dignified was not one of the usual names.

“Hope at Merrybourne,” she said, in case he’d forgotten already. It seemed likely. He nodded, and kept staring at her inquiringly. She was obviously going to have to carry this conversation herself. Perhaps she could find something he was passionate about.

“So,” she said, “can you explain these symbols to me?” She pointed at random to one of the nearby boards.

She had spoken in Pektal, but at her question he perked up and began talking in rapid-fire Dwarvish. He had a good accent for a human, hardly adding any vowels at all, but she barely had time to notice that because she was busy trying to keep up.

Hope knew she was very intelligent. Nobody gets High Distinction at the University of Illene without a lot happening above and behind the nose. But Dignified was off over his own distant horizon of intelligence, somewhere that looked a lot like insanity to the casual observer. Despite her good mathematical education, it still took her some time to even figure out that what he was doing was mathematics, and another hour, and a lot of questions, to understand how that related to magic.

“Oh, right,” she said, as something Dignified had said finally connected two other concepts. “So…” she turned to a nearby fresh board that Bucket had unobtrusively rolled up. There was a kind of pen, a stubby thing with a thick barrel, resting in a little cup hung off the bottom of the board, and she snatched it up and started writing out the standard spell for making a permanent light. It was one of the first she’d learned, and she could write it out without thinking about it.

“If you say that this is…” she wrote out a formula in his notation, “and this bit is…”

“Not exactly,” he said. “You need to…” he snatched up another pen and wrote in a correction.

“Oh, I see,” she said. “And that means…” she scribed up another formula, looked at it for a moment, changed one variable, and turned to him with a questioning look.

Yes,” he said.

“That’s obvious,” she said. “Why didn’t my professors tell me this?”

“Old-fashioned,” he said. “Reactionary. Defended against the new. Whereas…” he started writing another formula next to hers, and she jumped up and down.

“I’ve wondered about that for years,” she said.

Bucket, smiling, manoeuvred carefully and quietly around the junk piles, retrieved some requisition forms from his little office and started to fill them in. Hope would need a few things, since she was obviously going to be staying.

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Sep 17

Three Points of View of a Flat

I'm working on two books at the moment, as I mentioned in my last post, both of them featuring the brilliant young mage Hope. In the second one particularly, I'm playing with point of view, telling the story through several different people's eyes.

As it happens, three of those people are shown seeing the same thing (a house) for the first time in the course of the two books. It's a classic writing exercise to reveal character through point of view by describing the same thing through different sets of eyes, and here I've done that writing exercise in my actual novels.

Let's hear from Hope herself first. She's the daughter of upper servants in a remote part of the realm who has come to the mainland to study magic, and she and her friend Briar are looking for a place to live. As an energy mage with a special interest in light, she mostly notices things like the colour of the paint.

The old house had been converted into several flats when the neighbourhood lost its cachet and the well-off families moved elsewhere. Built of brick, probably, Hope thought, but surfaced with plaster so you couldn’t really tell. There were no cracks, the steps were clean, and if the exterior paint was not fresh it was at least clean too, and a cheerful yellow.  Someone had made some attempt at a garden in the front, and it was free of rubbish and the shrubs were in good health, if a little shaggy.

Now let's hear what Patient thinks. He's a woodcarver.

He reached the house without further incident as the light faded from the sky. He hadn’t been there before, and was impressed with the tidy exterior. An older house, but well cared for, and some nice jigsaw work on the bargeboards....

He ascended the old-fashioned staircase -- all dark-stained wood with some very decent banister carving, though it could do with a touch-up on the stain -- turned right and knocked on the door.

And here's Rosie. Rosie's parents are wealthy, and she's lived a sheltered life. She's considering moving out on her own, though.

Promptly at the twelfth deep bell (she had inherited her respect for other people’s time from her father), Rosie fetched up in front of a smaller, plainer house than she had imagined Mage Hope living in. Of course, the mage was from a servant family, so she didn’t have inherited money, she’d made it all herself. That presumably made a difference. Which would mean that this was the kind of house Rosie could afford to live in, if it wasn’t for her parents. Hmm.

Same house. Three different viewpoints. Three different voices.

I love doing this sort of thing, having developed a taste for different character voices by reading my earlier book, City of Masks, aloud in order to put it on Podiobooks.com. It only takes a few little touches to give characters distinctive voices, and I think it provides the reader with a richer experience.

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Sep 10

My Accidental Romance

I haven't blogged for quite some time, and for the best of reasons: I've been writing the next Gryphon Clerks novel.

Actually, I've been writing the one after next. The next one (Hope and the Clever Man) is with my beta readers, and while I waited for their feedback I had some ideas for the sequel, and as I write this post I'm about to pass 70,000 words - all written since I started nine weeks ago.

This is a surprise. I've not written this fast or this easily before. I think it's because I've never written a series before, and now that I have a good run-up, and the characters and world are clear in my head, they're producing the story for me much faster.

Now, I know that I am actually producing the story. It's a useful fiction to say that the characters are doing it. Useful, because it describes the experience I have when I'm writing a scene and a character suddenly starts talking about a painful experience earlier in his life that I was not expecting him to mention in this context, one that I knew would eventually come up but which I hadn't worked out in any detail, and I'm writing away thinking, "I wonder what happens next?" And as I continue writing, I find out. That happened in the new book, and it was wonderful.

Although I'm making more use of outlining than I used to, I'm still what's politely called a "discovery writer", which means that for me, story generation happens mostly while I write. This has its drawbacks, in that I don't always know what happens next and can get stuck, but it also has its advantages, in that I don't always know what happens next and can be pleasantly surprised.

One of the surprises has been that Hope and the Patient Man (the current work-in-progress, sequel to Hope and the Clever Man) turns out to be a romance. I did not see that coming, though I probably should have, given the young man who turns up, unexpectedly to everyone including me, late in the first Hope book.

One of the current kerfuffles in the spec-fic field is over an article by an academic named Paul Cook on the Amazing Stories website called When Science Fiction is Not Science Fiction. In it, he basically says that he likes adventure stories, and that is what science fiction is, and ones with romance in them are for girls and not real SF. It's not a sophisticated argument, and rather than dignify it by linking to it I'll link to Lois McMaster Bujold's excellent commentary on the issue. (I've chosen the Goodreads version of her post, because she also has some interesting exchanges in the comments.)

What I write, of course, isn't science fiction by pretty much anyone's definition, including mine (though it's more sciency than most fantasy; I do have an approximate theoretical basis for the magic which kind of maps to some real-world science if you don't look too closely, rather than just saying "a wizard did it"). It's steampunkish fantasy, and to that I now need to add to the word "romance", apparently.

Prarie Dog Love, #2
Thomas Hawk / Foter / CC BY-NC

Some things about that. Firstly, it turned into a romance because I think relationships are important. I'm married (15 years come February), and that relationship is extremely important to me. A friend of mine, who I met on our first day of high school in early 1981 and have stayed in touch with almost continuously since, has recently moved back into the same country as me, and bought a house in the same city that I live in, and we're hanging out, and that's reminded me of the importance of friendships for helping define who we are. How relationships define us is a bit of an emerging theme in the second Hope book, in fact.

It's often said that characters are defined and revealed by taking action, by what they do in response to circumstances, and that's true. It's especially true in an action novel. In a novel that has more to do with relationships than with adventure, though, it's also true that characters are defined and revealed by their connections to one another.

These are not exclusive categories. There are novels that are high-action and low-relationship, and vice versa, but most occupy some kind of middle ground, especially in the spec-fic field. Some of my favourite characters, like Lindsay Buroker's Amaranthe Lokdon, Carrie Vaughn's Kitty Norville, and (to choose a male character by a male author) Jim Butcher's Harry Dresden, are remarkable because of their ability to collect people who are linked to them by ties of friendship, or at least shared interest, and who act as force multipliers for the characters when they want to get something done.

I'm grateful to the pioneers of the New Wave in the late 60s and early 70s for injecting more relationship into what had been a largely action-oriented genre, because personally I find relationships interesting as well as important. At the same time, I'm not going to go all Paul Cook and claim that only novels that deal with relationships are X (where X is members-of-genre-I-like, good, enjoyable, valuable, or other, as Lois McMaster Bujold puts it, valorising adjectives).

I do want to say a bit about romance as a plot element versus romance as a genre category, though. Romance as a plot element appears in all genres. Romance as a genre category has its own tropes, its own rules, its own recurrent themes, and I'm not planning to take all of those on in my writing.

I'll freely admit that I've read hardly any genre romance, and am poorly qualified to comment on the genre as a whole, so I won't. I will mention, though, particular kinds of romance that I find in other genres I do read, such as steampunk and urban fantasy, and some of the problems I have with them, and why I won't be doing that.

Before I do, though, I think it's uncontroversial to say that romance is largely written by women. Men who write it sometimes use feminine pen names, just as women who write science fiction sometimes take masculine pen names (or use their initials rather than their names). I'm not going to talk right now about whether that's good or bad or problematic; it's a thing that happens. Now, I'm a man (a cis man, if you like, meaning I was born male and have always identified as such; also a straight man; also a white, middle-class man, and yes, that's relevant). It would be somewhat surprising, our society being what it is, if I approached writing about relationships exactly the same way a woman would, because I've been raised with a different perspective.

I also identify as a feminist ally, and as such, I find some of the romance plots I encounter in steampunk and urban fantasy problematic. Tracing, no doubt, a lineage back to Mr. Darcy and Heathcliff, among others, the "heroes" of these romances are often unpleasant human beings. They treat women poorly, but are forgiven because they rescue them when the women do foolish, headstrong things that place them in danger, and because they have firm muscles that make the heroine's heart beat fast despite herself.

Now, I understand that there has to be a reason why the couple doesn't just get together right away, otherwise what you have is not a plot, but an incident. However, it's not essential or inevitable that this reason should be "it's actually a bad idea to be with this guy". To me, that's simultaneously naive and cynical: naive, in expecting a relationship with such a flawed man to work out anyway, and cynical, in that it assumes that men don't get any better than that.

I'm not going to point to examples of what I'm talking about, because they aren't that hard to find and I don't want to single out individual authors just because I've read them, when there are much more egregious examples that I haven't read. I will, however, point to a counterexample, an urban fantasy series in which there's a strong romance thread, in which there's a clear reason why the couple doesn't get together straight away, in which it's not because he's a cad and a bounder and a deceiver, in which the woman has agency and makes smart decisions and can rescue herself quite competently. I'm talking about Christine Amsden's Cassie Scot series. This is how you do it! </Randy Jackson>

So, anyway, the romance part of my writing works like this. There's a magic-based but in other ways realistic reason why the couple can't just get together. They work on it together, because he's a decent guy and thinks she's wonderful and worth the effort, and she appreciates this. Along the way, he contributes to resolving some other issues, both inside and outside her head, but she is ultimately the one who has agency. He's not trying to control her or live her life for her.

Part of the way that stories work is that they help us develop problem-solving skills. I have a real concern about some of the romance stories that are around, for that exact reason. So if my book is turning into a romance, I'm going to give my perspective - as a man, happily married to a woman with a master's degree in marriage and family therapy, who's also studied some psychology himself - on what a good relationship looks like. My hope is that it educates while entertaining.

In case it's not clear from what I've said above about my writing process, I'm not forcing this stuff into the book. It's coming up by itself, because I'm following the old principle of "write what you know".

If all goes according to plan, you should be able to read Hope and the Clever Man sometime around November this year, and Hope and the Patient Man early next year. To get announcements when they're published, sign up to my (low-volume) mailing list in the sidebar of the site.

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Jul 30

Freshness and Familiarity: Finding the Goldilocks Zone

OK, disclaimers upfront:

  1. Everything I'm going to say in this post is about my own taste.
  2. If your taste is different (entirely likely), that's fine with me.
  3. Your taste being different doesn't invalidate what I say about my own preferences, or, of course, vice versa.
  4. I nevertheless doubt that I'm the only one who feels this way.

Having got that out of the way, I want to talk about a spectrum in fiction writing that I'm going to call "freshness" versus "familiarity". "Freshness" implies that the author is doing something new, seldom or never seen before, while "familiarity" means that they're using elements (both genre elements and story elements) that have been around for a while.

Every book is somewhere on this spectrum. Finnegan's Wake is probably about as far as you can go towards the freshness end without degenerating into random word-salad (and even that references earlier literature), and up the other end we have, I don't know, fanfiction that's just a rewriting of a scene in canon.

Now, straight away I've dropped an implication that freshness is better, and I don't necessarily think that. I picked Finnegan's Wake up once, and quickly concluded that I didn't want to work that hard and probably wasn't that smart, and put it down again. Certainly, though, freshness is harder.

Goldilocks
violscraper / Foter / CC BY-NC

For me, the Goldilocks Zone on the freshness-familiarity spectrum is a broad one. I can enjoy a book like Charles Stross's Halting State, for example, written in second person, or one of his posthuman novels like Glasshouse. I can also enjoy a book that's very nearly pure vanilla D&D-style fantasy, or off-the-shelf space opera, as long as other aspects of the book (the characters, the writing, the plot) are well done - and have some freshness to them.

There is, though, such a thing as too much, and that applies both to freshness and to familiarity. I abandoned Walter Jon Williams' Aristoi, for example, 25% of the way through, because I didn't have a clue what was going on (and also didn't care about the characters). I didn't get past the sample for Hannu Rajaniemi's The Quantum Thief, for a similar reason, even though I love heist novels. When too much is unfamiliar, I become disoriented and it's easy for the book to lose my attention.

On the other hand, if I come across an epic fantasy in which the blacksmith's boy loses his parents in the first chapter (when cruel, heartless, evil people destroy their village) and joins up with quirky and assorted companions in a quest for an artifact which, as the Chosen One, he is destined to wield against the Dark Lord, I pass it by. I've already read that story, and when I read it before it was probably better written.

There's nothing inherently wrong with tropes, whether genre tropes or story tropes. I'm highly trope-tolerant. Oh, regardless of how much death and destruction is raining down, all of the core characters always survive, shrugging off significant injuries in insignificant amounts of time? OK, it's one of those stories. I can live with that. (Though some tropes are easier to tolerate than others, and the others are usually the ones that allow the writer to take shortcuts in character development and plotting.)

Where I start to have a problem is if the whole thing, or almost the whole thing, is constructed out of tropes, as if someone had built a character, plot and setting generator out of the TV Tropes website and run it, then filled in the resulting outline with poorly-written prose. I think of those as paint-by-numbers books. There's too much familiarity.

Sadly, a great many indie writers look out on the vast ocean of possibilities represented by the indie publishing revolution, in which they no longer have to write what the big publishers are buying in order to have a chance to reach an audience, but can create something genuinely new and fresh... and then they write another vampire romance with a whiny, annoying teenage heroine who's simultaneously the most awesome person ever and too stupid to live.

Freshness is hard, yes. And familiarity is important. But if you want to succeed with me, and readers like me, you're going to need to strike for the Goldilocks Zone.

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Jul 22

On Writing a Fiction Series

Hope and the Clever ManI've just sent the first draft of Hope and the Clever Man, the second Gryphon Clerks book, to my lovely and talented beta readers. This is the culmination of a five-month-long writing process; a few of the chapters were recycled, having been cut from an earlier work, but most of them are new.

It's also the start of an editing process that I expect to last two or three months. First the beta read, so I can get other eyes on the text for the first time and find out what's missing, or not working as it should. Then an intensive edit from me, in multiple passes, strengthening and expanding. Finally, two passes through with my wonderful development editor, Kathleen Dale, who helped make Realmgolds a much better book than the one I initially gave her.

Hope is about a third longer than Realmgolds (80,000 words, at the moment, versus 62,000), following the usual law of series by which the later books get longer. It overlaps Realmgolds in time, which makes it tricky to avoid spoilers, but I think I've managed it. There are a couple of characters who appear in both books: the redoubtable Realmgold Victory strides in and orders people about several times, and the venerable Master-Magus is back too. There's a brief cameo from Leading Clerk Grace Carter, just for fun, and the Realmgold's clever man, mentioned a couple of times in Realmgolds, has, obviously, an important role. Otherwise, the characters are all new.

The idea is that either book acts as a point of entry for the series; you don't have to read one before the other. I want to carry on that approach in future, creating a series more like Terry Pratchett's Discworld than, say, The Wheel of Time. WoT lost me as a reader years ago when the books started to be spaced further apart, with the promised resolution nowhere in sight and a huge, complicated cast winding round each other before disappearing up their own backstories.

There will be recurring characters in the Gryphon Clerks, recurring groups of characters, even. I love my characters, so do my readers, and I enjoy leaving Easter eggs like a brief appearance in one book by a key character in another. You won't have to read from the first book in order to understand what's going on, though. (You also won't have to read to the last book to understand what's going on, which means that, while hopefully the fans will still stay eager for the next one, at least there'll be a story that finishes in less than 20 or 30 years.)

Not having to start with Book One is important, because, while most of the reviews I've got for Realmgolds are four stars, even my greatest fans acknowledge that it has its flaws. I'm aware of that too. The first book of a series is frequently the weakest, or one of the weakest, even in series that go on to be hugely successful.

Look at Jim Butcher's Dresden Files. Personally, I like Storm Front, having been into Jim Butcher since before he was cool, but a lot of people don't, and even I freely acknowledge that the later books are much better. Fortunately, Butcher makes most of the early books, at least, reasonably self-contained, and does a good "who are these people and why are they angry" catch-up at the start of each new one, so you can read some of them out of order or even skip some without missing too much. At the same time, he keeps an overall arc going, which he's said is going to take about 20 books or more to complete. (I don't plan on doing that, partly because I'm not nearly the outliner he is.)

Pratchett himself didn't really hit his stride until Mort (in my opinion), maybe even Wyrd Sisters, and those are the fourth and sixth books in the Discworld series. I'm a huge fan of the Discworld, but my top favourites start about 10 years after the publication of the first book, around Men at Arms, which is book 15. Not to say that there aren't excellent books before that, but Men at Arms started a really strong run of writing which was deeper, more thoughtful, and consistently good, a run which lasted (again, my opinion) for another dozen years and 20 more books, finally broken, briefly, by Wintersmith. If everyone had to read 15 books before they started to be consistently good, I'm not sure the Discworld would have enjoyed the success it has. The multiple entry points ensure that they don't have to.

Another approach to series which avoids the one-story-in-12-books-released-over-30-years issue is to write self-contained stories in smaller numbers of books, with these mini-series then potentially having some kind of link to each other. Trilogies, of course, are popular, especially in fantasy. Lindsay Buroker has recently concluded her Emperor's Edge series, which is seven books, plus two other loosely connected novels set in a different part of the same world and some interstitial short stories. Because she writes fast, and they're short, the whole series has wrapped up in three or four years. She now has the option of writing other stories in that world, or even with those characters, while also having a completed series.

When you're writing fantasy or SF, worldbuilding takes a good deal of your time unless you're using a vanilla off-the-shelf setting (which is usually pretty dull), and there's definitely an advantage to being able to re-use it. Even Brandon Sanderson, who has the most insane ability to come up with new magic systems, writes more than one book in most of his settings. I created the foundations of the Gryphon Clerks setting over several years, and there is certainly plenty of space to tell stories in (we haven't even glimpsed what's over to the east yet).

Besides that, of course, it's becoming received wisdom that a series will hook more readers than a standalone novel, for much the same reason that it's easier to sell a novel than a novella, and easier to sell a novella than a short story. Readers, like writers, put a certain amount of investment into a setting and a group of characters, and if they like them, they want more of the same, only different.

Telling loosely connected stories lets me indulge my taste for novelty while also avoiding the work of building a new world each time, and hopefully will keep the readers hooked as well, while allowing them to skip a book or two if it isn't to their taste.

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Jul 08

News: Reviewing, Award Longlist, Book Progress, Cover Reveal

So here's what's happening.

1. Reviewing. I've decided to press pause on the reviews-by-request for a while. I currently have a huge backlog of books I want to read, including some by several of my favourite authors, and some by people who could turn out to be new favourite authors. At the same time, review requests have been flooding in. Even though I turn down a lot of them, it's becoming too much.

Also, I want to step down as a Kindle Book Review reviewer for a while, because...

2. Award Longlist. Realmgolds is on the longlist (they call it the "semifinalists", but it's a longlist) for the Kindle Book Review's Best Indie Book Award. Even though any perception of conflict of interest would only be a perception, perceptions are important.

Being on the longlist means that I paid my $20 to enter and at least two out of three screeners liked the first few chapters enough to let it through. The shortlist, which is decided in September, is based on the whole book, is much shorter (five books in each category), and means a lot more.

Hugh Howey's Wool won the sci-fi/fantasy category last year. I don't seriously expect to win, but it'd be nice to get to the shortlist for my category.

It feels like Realmgolds is vanishing into the rearview mirror already, though, because...

3. Book Progress. I've written close to 70,000 words of Hope and the Clever Man. There's still some more to go, between 10,000 and 20,000 words by my definitely unreliable estimate, but I think I have all the main plot threads teased out now. The hard work will be next: weaving all those threads together into a cohesive story with a beginning, a middle and (especially) a satisfying ending.

I'm seriously considering buying a piece of software called Aeon Timeline that will enable me to organize it visually in multiple arcs and by date, using my invented calendar. It's slightly overpriced, I think (it costs as much as Scrivener, which is a lot more useful), but it may be what I need. Part of the challenge, since the timeline overlaps with that of Realmgolds, is to keep the two of them consistent.

And speaking of the new book...

4. Cover Reveal. If you're on Google+ you've already seen this, but it's so beautiful I want to show it to everyone as often as possible. Like the Realmgolds cover, it's by the talented Chris Howard.

Hope and the Clever Man

My art direction to Chris included the phrases "a man and a woman collaborating...on some kind of steampunk device". I also described the characters in some detail, and he's captured them wonderfully: the scruffy inventor and the beautiful magus.

Now, back to telling their story.

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Jun 25

How I Turn Down Review Requests

I review a lot of books. For a few months now, I've been one of the reviewers on the Kindle Book Review (KBR) team, and that gets me direct requests from indie authors who want a review. (If that's you, you should first read my review policy.) Edited to note: I'm not accepting new requests for a while.

I have very particular tastes in fiction, and as a former professional editor I'm also highly conscious of quality, so I end up turning down a very high proportion of the review requests that come to me. It's probably 80-90%. At the same time, I'm enthusiastic about the indie revolution and I want to encourage people as much as possible, so I try to be helpful even when I'm turning someone down.

KBR has what I consider a sensible policy: no book review under 3 stars is posted under their name. They're not in the business of running books down. My particular implementation of that policy is that if I don't think I'm going to like the book, and preferably love the book, I won't review it. Apart from the 3-star rule, why would I voluntarily spend my time reading something I dislike?

This post is about why I turn people's books down and, more importantly, how. I've written a number of these rejection emails now, and I thought other reviewers might be interested to see the kinds of things I say.

/disapprove
striatic / Foter.com / CC BY

There are a number of what in the project management world used to be called "QA gates" that a book needs to get through before I'll review it - or before I'll buy it, if it's one I've found for myself. The first is the pitch or blurb (I'll refer to it as the pitch from here on in, regardless of whether I mean what someone emails me or what's on the Amazon page of a book I'm buying for myself). Some people pitch me stuff I don't read, like nonfiction, or epic fantasy, or dark fantasy, or conspiracy-theory-based thrillers (a lot of those, for some reason). I turn these down quickly, with minimal comment, usually reminding them that my Kindle Book Review profile says that I don't review what they've just pitched me. Pro tip: read the instructions.

Some people pitch me stuff I do read, but they do it so poorly that I don't want to read their version of it. Either their pitch contains significant editing issues, or it's rambling, or it just sounds like they've taken a stencil from their favourite book and sprayed some paint through it, producing a bad imitation.

If it's a book I've found for myself, I pass at that point and move on. If it's being pitched to me by email, I sometimes give them some benefit of the doubt and at least take a look at the sample, either by downloading it to my Kindle or just looking at it on Amazon. After all, a weak blurb can, theoretically, have a good book lurking behind it.

In my experience so far, though, this theory isn't borne out in practice, and if the pitch is badly written the book is no better.

Here's a rejection I wrote yesterday. Although I mainly mention the preview here, it was based on a combination of the pitch and the preview.

Thanks for the request, [author]. I've had a quick look at the preview on Amazon and it doesn't really grab me. The punctuation is very rough, which I always find distracting. I can forgive that if it's an unusually compelling concept, or if there's a great hook in the first couple of pages, or if the characters are out of the ordinary, or if it's a story I've never seen done before, but as far as I could see yours doesn't have any of those factors going for it.

I make it a policy to only review books I think I can love, and I can't see myself loving this one, sorry. Hope you find other reviewers that it works better for.

Sometimes I have doubts about the pitch, because it sounds like it isn't something I like, but I give the sample a bit more of a look just in case. Here's another one I wrote yesterday:

Sorry, [author], but I'm not loving it. It's well-written, for which I commend you, but it's just not a book that I would pick up to read if you hadn't requested a review for it. The broken-down, alienated protagonist and the devastated world that's the setting are putting me off.

I know that's just your setup for why the story's issue is compelling, but I'm afraid I just can't muster up enough enthusiasm to persist. I emphasize that this is a matter of my personal taste, and a lot of people will love it for exactly the reasons that I don't.

Good luck in finding other reviewers, I'm sure they'll give it a good review for all its many strengths.

I always try to distinguish between "this book has issues" and "this is not the book for me".

(I do feel a bit guilty sometimes about the "hope you find another reviewer" line, because I've submitted my own book for review to all three of the other spec-fic reviewers on KBR, one in March, one in April and one in May, and as at nearly the end of June none of them have replied, even to say "no". Nevertheless, I keep saying it.)

Another:

Sorry, doesn't sound like one for me. Post-financial-collapse sounds close to post-apocalyptic to me, which as noted in my profile is something I don't read. The blurb gives the impression of an overly complex story told in a hyped-up manner, and there are hints of conspiracy theory as well, which I need to have noted on my profile as something else I don't read. I glanced at the first few pages, and they read like the blurb, though at least they look like they've been edited (rare enough in indie books to be worth remarking on).

Not for me, but certainly for someone. All the best with finding that right reviewer.

And another:

I took a look at your sample. While it's well enough written, it's not really my kind of book. I don't read military or action-centred books as much as I used to. I don't think I'd love it, so I'm probably not the reviewer you want. I hope you find someone who enjoys that subgenre more.

One of my pet peeves is when an indie author tells me in the blurb (which we all know is written by the author) how wonderful the book is and what my reaction to it is supposed to be. Here's my response to one that said that his book "attempts to punch the reader in the gut with laughter, smack them on the head with passion and kick them in the shins with character development" (he did at least say it was an attempt).

Well, I've had a first look. I'm afraid I remain unpunched, unsmacked and unkicked.

It's not actually bad, though I'd seriously advise you to move your intro to the end and fix the homonym error ("you're" for "your"). But it hasn't hooked me, and I can't see that changing. I don't have an American sense of humour, is probably the problem.

I'd suggest that another reviewer would probably be more likely to give you a good review.

Here's another blurb-boaster:

To be honest, your blurb puts me off a little. That's mainly because you're using evaluative words, like "mind-bending" and "unimaginable", which sound like hype (and like things I'd rather decide for myself than be told by the author). I also tend to assess a writer's style by their blurb, and that formal, adjective-heavy style doesn't appeal to me. It leads me to suspect that I may get a lot of telling rather than showing in the story.

I want to give you a fair chance, though, so I will download your sample from Amazon, and if I enjoy it enough that I want to read the rest I will let you know. If I don't, I will tell you why, as helpfully as I can.

I've had a lot of requests lately, so you're currently fifth in the queue. That means I may not get to your book for a while, particularly since I'm going overseas for a couple of weeks soon. I'll get back to you as soon as I can, though.

And the follow-up:

I took a look at the sample last night, and I'm afraid I couldn't get into it, for pretty much the reason I expected. It's written in a very formal style, which seems like an attempt at a "high" style. It's very literate, but you don't quite pull it off. For example, the first character to speak is very slangy, which is clanging in the midst of all that formality, and then you use a phrase like "be him" when it should be "be he".

The other problem is that as far as I got (about 15% of the way through the sample) there was no actual action. It was all the character contemplating things, mostly in vague abstract terms, and running through the backstory in his head. I didn't see a problem he was trying to solve, and for me, at least, I need to see that very early on in the story if it's going to hold my attention. There was nothing to hold onto.

You've had a number of positive reviews, so clearly this book is working for people, but I'm afraid it didn't work for me. I hope that's helpful to you in some way, and I encourage you to look for another KBR reviewer.

I often let people know that I have hesitations from the outset:

I will download the sample, but I have to say my initial response is hesitant. That's mainly because I have difficulty suspending my disbelief of your premise (a stimulus that we've never encountered before that makes us helplessly abandon all rationality). I'll read the sample, though, and see how that goes, and if I want to continue to read I'll be in touch.

If you'd rather look for another KBR reviewer in the meantime who might be able to start sooner or might have a more enthusiastic response to the premise, please feel free. Let me know if you find someone, though, so we don't double up.

To which my later follow-up was:

I've read the sample, and I'm afraid it didn't grab me enough to overlook my problems with the premise. Sorry about that, and I hope you can find a reviewer who loves it.

Another example of the two-stage rejection. This one sounded different enough that I thought it might be worth making an exception to my usual reading taste:

I don't usually go for dark, and I never read zombie novels, but I'll take a look at the sample and if it's unusually good I'll write a review. I'll let you know either way.

The follow-up:

I've had a read, and I'm afraid it's not for me. Before I even got to the zombies, the staccato style, with very few commas, and a homonym error in the third sentence put me off.

I suggest you approach another KBR reviewer.

By the way, the responses I've had to these emails fall into two groups. Some people don't reply at all, which I think is a good choice. Others just thank me for the feedback, apparently genuinely, which is also a good choice. I've not, so far, had anyone get offended or confrontational.

Here's my response to someone who was writing in English, although it wasn't her first language:

I'm going to say no to reviewing these. I downloaded the samples, and although there were a few errors of English usage, I understand those, and they aren't the problem. The problem is the run-on sentences.

If you're not familiar with that term, a run-on sentence means that it runs on from one thought to another without much (or any) punctuation. What should be multiple sentences ends up as one, and the effect is that the reader has nowhere to take a mental breath and has to work harder on comprehension.

All of that means that I would probably find I had to force myself through the book, and that doesn't lead to a good review. I'd suggest that you approach one of the other KBR reviewers instead.

I hope this is not too disappointing for you. I know how hard it is to get reviews.

Last example. Here's someone I gave detailed advice to, stressing what he was doing well.

Well, I had a read of the opening chapters. I have some suggestions. I hope you take these in the spirit in which they're meant.

Firstly, the good. You can spell and punctuate, and the words you use mean what you use them to mean. That puts you way ahead of the average indie author right out of the gate. Your premise is interesting, and your character concepts seems sound.

The problem is that, in my opinion (and others may think differently), your writing needs a lot of tightening. Less would be far more. Your sentences are often very long, and they ramble. Not only that, but there's a lot of scene-setting detail that I suspect isn't important to the plot.

You open with a prologue, which some people are opposed to. There's another school of thought, though, that says that if you aren't going to get to the action and the conflict right away, having a prologue that sets up the action and the conflict is a good way to hook the reader.

The thing is, I think you should get to the action and the conflict right away, or at least as soon as possible. What hooks me into a book is that I see a character with a problem who's trying to solve it. We see that in the prologue, but in the first few chapters of the book we see a character who goes surfing, teaches a class, establishes his gamer cred, has a very long conversation with an old friend about how they're both broke and having relationship problems, and then we get a long chunk of backstory about how they became friends, and it starts to go into a blow-by-blow on the friend's academic history, and at that point I lost interest.

What I'd suggest is that you cut to the chase and drop in just as much backstory as you need, when you need it. I suspect, given your premise, that the exact details of how long it took to get the divorce and which court granted it and so forth aren't essential plot points. I further suspect that the important parts are that one character is a military historian who can use his knowledge to lead, and the other is an ex-cop, and they're old friends, and they don't have current relationships or jobs that they love and would find hard to leave. Now, I may be wrong. There may be other things in there that are important. But if so, I'd suggest mentioning them when they're important, and not in a long introduction.

You could do something like this: When the big reveal happens, and the protagonist has to decide whether to go off Earth and help in the battle, he thinks to himself: "What is there for me here anyway? By the time my adjunct professor salary pays off my student loans, there'll be a colony on Mars. My divorce is final as of a month ago. I don't even like my job." And then he says, "All right, I'm in."

I do think this book has a lot of promise, but at the moment, for me, the interesting bits are buried behind a pile of unimportant detail. The rule of thumb is that you can usually cut about 25% without losing anything essential, and I'd say that's a rule you'd do well to follow.

You don't have to take my advice, of course. I'm just some guy on the Internet. If you do decide to take my advice, though, I would like another chance to review the book, because I think it has potential.

Although this author replied and said he basically agreed, he also said he wasn't planning to follow the advice since he was moving on to the rest of the series now, and if I just "pushed through" the issues in the first 5 chapters...

Um, no. Your readers are not going to do that, any more than I will. I'm reviewing to help other readers, and because I personally enjoy reading. If it becomes a chore, or if your book just isn't my thing, I'll stop.

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