Category Archives: Ramblings

I Promised a Post This Week…

So, I promised a blog post this week, and here it is.  Unfortunately, it’s not the one I was hoping for — namely, a blog on the panel topic, “Mythology as the Basis for Speculative Fiction.”

It’s already a week and several days late, and it really isn’t moving as well as I was hoping.  I have a lot of things to say on the topic, but my views seem… disconnected, somehow.  I’m having trouble finding ways to transition from point to point.

If these posts on the panel topics were REAL panels, there would be no issue.  I’d be led by a moderator through his questions.  Or if I were the moderator, I would be asking different questions — ones which regular followers of this blog would have already heard my answers to several times.

I mean, if you don’t know (for example) that, when confronted by an editor who insisted that Elves and Dwarves and Dragons were played out, I drew from the mythologies of Japan, Finland, aboriginal Australia, Inuit, and Shetland Island folklore to fill out a replacement set of mythological creatures (Kitsune and Wulvers and Bunyips, among others) as I constructed the world for The Kitsune Stratagem, then you haven’t been reading here very long — I’ve certainly mentioned it often enough.  In front of a new audience like a convention panel, however, I could expound on that and, for them, it would be fresh material.

Again, though, I still had a number of points to discuss; things on mythological allegory, things on the different types of Elf you can find in mythology (High Elves from the Norse, brownie-like Elves from Wales and Elizabethan England, etc.), a discussion of the different mythologies that were brought together for Tolkien (he drew from Norman, Anglo-Saxon, Norse, and Arthurian myths, among others, while putting together what he considered a “British” mythology.  Finally, I wanted to talk about how the fiction popular in modern geek culture was re-interpreting or forming mythologies of its own, citing fiction like Dragonball, Superman, and Star Wars in the process.

But… none of those points seemed to fit together.  I’m not happy with what I have, either in the structure or in the depth of my content.  I’ve been working on it for two weeks, and it’s not worth posting.  It’s been distracting me from my other writing projects, and it’s already too late to start a different blog to be ready Sunday.

So… this is it for a blog this week, no blog will be available next week, and if I do continue this series I’ll be skipping this panel and moving on to “Using Tropes to Tell Stories.”

Finally, some business:  I just learned that the current ebook price of the new anthology I’m in, Worlds Enough: Fantastic Defenders, is a special introductory price.  It’s expected to go up THIS THURSDAY, first to a (still discounted) $3.99 and ultimately up to $4.99 in another few weeks’ time.  So, if you haven’t bought it yet, NOW is the time to get your ebook copy.  (Or you could go ahead and get it in print, but any discounts of that will be Amazon’s call)

Ravencon Panels (I actually DID do): Swords Not Required

Note:  As I was writing this blog last night, I learned that the print edition for the anthology World’s Enough, Fantastic Defenders, in which my story “A Gun for Shalla” appears, had appeared in print on Amazon.  This was a bit of a surprise for me, even if I knew it was SUPPOSED to be released soon (I was told the book launch would be at Balticon, which is next weekend), because I was expecting at least one more communication requiring my response before it was released.  But, hey, it’s out!  There are several good stories in this anthology in addition to my own, so buy your copy, today!

And now on to the regularly scheduled (and delayed for an evening) blog….

When I saw this panel on the long list of possible Ravencon panels, I was quick to pick it.  And, it turns out, it became my first panel (as a pro) ever.

Now, if you haven’t read my books you might not guess it (after all, I have a series I’ve called the “Law of Swords” series), but I frequently use weapons other than swords in my fiction.  So I was quite ready to discuss the topic…

And then I was made moderator.  While I could pick which questions to ask the panel, time management issues meant I couldn’t answer them.  I wasn’t really disappointed (I got all kinds of interesting discussion based on the questions I posed), but I do want to give my own answers to my “questions for the panel”:

I.  Why are Swords so compelling in fantasy fiction, and which of those characteristics would you recommend when considering a different type of weapon for your main character?
There are many reasons swords are a great weapon for the main character of a sword-and-sorcery style fantasy series (beyond just, well, the word “sword” is used in the genre name).
1. For one thing, it is the iconic weapon of the middle ages (though it probably shouldn’t be; the iconic weapon SHOULD be the English Longbow, or the horse-mounted pike, or… well, several other options which would have been more commonly and effectively used by the warriors of the middle ages, but because they were the weapon of choice for symbolical reasons during the crusades; after all, the cross guards used in the swords of the time made them look like crosses).  Most sword-and-sorcery fantasies are set in the middle ages.  So, it just makes sense.
2. Tactically, swords are equally good offensively and defensively.  My fellow panelist (and Ravencon Literary Guest of Honor) Chuck Gannon brought this up and discussed it extensively.
3. Swords have been used (are still used, though mostly ceremonially, today) for thousands of years, though for long stretches of time they were more of a secondary weapon.   Outside of some style differences, a “sword” is a fairly universal thing; if you are writing a fantasy, it doesn’t matter where in the technological timeframe you set your fiction, a sword of some sort would be available.  This wouldn’t necessarily be true (for example) of a handheld crossbow, or many types of throwing weapons used (theoretically) by ninja, or other more exotic types of weaponry.  And we know they have really be used in combat, unlike, say, the military flail.
4. Now, this is a bit of a “chicken or the egg” thing, but swords are popular for writers (or movie people) to use as a weapon because their use is already popular enough that people can easily visualize how swords work.  It’s almost impossible to grow up without being exposed to some sort of sword fight in movies or television, and while I’ve heard on occasion that the style of sword fighting used in movies isn’t historically accurate, people will be able to picture SOME kind of sword fighting as you write your fight scene.
So, to sum up, some of the characteristics that might be useful for you to consider when choosing a weapon for your character are:  Symbolism, effectiveness both offensive and defensive, does not appear out of place in the technological timeframe of your fantasy, and the audience understanding how it works.  We’ll touch a bit on some of these in the next few questions, so let’s leave it there for now.

II.  Different weapons have different “best use” characteristics — bows and arrows are better used at range, ninja tools are best used for the assassin type, spear-and-shield are best used in group tactics, and so forth. Does the choice of weapon you give your main character affect their personality, and if so how?

I really should have asked whether the weapon “affects or is affected by” their personality when I asked this at the convention, because you might not decide on a weapon until after you’ve finished designing all the other aspects of your character.  Regardless, the weapon you choose to arm your character with can easily shape or be shaped by the character’s personality.
If your character is a pikeman (spearman, part of the shield wall, whatever), you had better be able to get along with your fellow soldier or you aren’t going to live very long; while you can apply some other polearm styles to a spear and use it successfully, they really aren’t intended for one on one fighting.
If your character is using assassins’ tools, they (or their trainer, if they’re still learning how to use them) probably have some significant secrets in their background.
If your character is using a bow and arrow… well, they either need a secondary weapon for close in fighting (most commonly a sword or dagger, as seen by Legolas in the Lord of the Rings and Robin Hood in most versions of his tale.  It doesn’t have to be a sword, however; in The Kitsune Stratagem, I gave my male lead a bow and arrow with a modified version of a ninja tool for close range fighting) or they need to hang back from the center of the action.
I could go on, but I think you get the point.  The tactics required to use the weapon, the style of combat suggested by the weapon, the range of the weapon, and so forth all make differences in how you expect the character to behave.  If they break the expected behavior, you have to justify that.  So, if you have an anti-social spearman, you’re going to have to justify that.  If your character is an assassin who blabs out everything about his life at the bar every week, you’re going to have to justify that.  Well… you get the idea.

III.  Certain archetypal fantasy races have weapons they’re expected to carry — a significant plotline in my Law of Swords series came about because of an argument I had over whether Dwarven Axemen made tactical sense or not. If you give an atypical weapon to your fantasy race character — for example, a heavy warhammer wielded by a stereotypical high fantasy elf — how much explanation do you think is necessary?

You know, I spent a lot of time answering OTHER moderator’s questions with “it depends,” it is fitting I need to give that answer to one of my own questions.
If all you’re doing is giving your Dwarf a nice sword, or some kind of ranged weapon, or something of that ilk — something that you would expect them to be able to handle, even if you were expecting them to have an axe or a warhammer — you don’t really need to give any explanation.  On the other hand, if you’re giving, say, a zanbatou to a hobbit, you need more of an explanation than the Rule of Cool.
But you might WANT to explain why your characters are being armed with atypical weapons.  There’s a reason you picked those weapons, right?  If it’s anything more than a whim, don’t you think your audience might also be interested?

IV.  No-one thinks twice if your magically-inclined characters decide to use a small twig — also known as a wand — in battle, even if small twigs were never used that way in real life combat. Do you think — IN FANTASY — that you can get away with inventing a completely original type of weapon for your non-magical characters?  If so, what cautions would you suggest authors consider when inventing these weapons?
An admission:  I asked this question because I did this, myself (sort of) in The Kitsune Stratagem.  I took a real life weapon, a ninja tool (though a variation that was typical of the legend rather than the accepted historical form), and altered it to be a little more portable.
So, obviously my answer to this question is “yes,” I do think writers can get away with inventing original fantasy weapons.  But I think they need to be careful:  Don’t throw your readers out of your universe by making too complicated a weapon, or something too anacronistic.  If no other society in your world is using gears, having someone carry around a clockwork-powered repeating crossbow would throw your reader out of place.

And that’s how I WOULD have answered my own questions.

Edit:  Comments closed due to too many spam attempts.  If you would like them re-opened, please contact me.

Ravencon 2017 Recap

I’m going to start this recap with something that happened after the convention ended: I got con crud.  I’m usually very good about avoiding that, but somehow it hit me this time.  Ugh.  If this blog is less coherent than normal, well, that’s why. But for now… back to the beginning.

THURSDAY

I left for the convention on Thursday.  It’s about a 3 hr drive from my home to Williamsburg (a little less, actually, if you drive non-stop), and I got to the hotel a little before 2pm.  I found a full parking lot, because the previous event (some sort of meeting for Greenway planners, I think?) hadn’t broken up, yet, and my room wasn’t open right away.  I was told to try again an hour later, so I ducked into the hotel bar to wait it out.

You may recall, if you read my post on last year’s Ravencon, that my biggest complaint was the dining.  The food wasn’t bad, but it was slow.  I made efforts to prepare for a repeat of that experience, actually buying a microwave and lugging it down to Williamsburg with me (complete with a half-dozen cans of soup) so I’d be sure to be able to eat something as the convention was going on.

But, until I had my room, I couldn’t pull out that microwave, and I was trying to kill time anyway, so I figured I might as well have lunch.  The bar was empty, save for the bartender.  I let her know I was there for Ravencon, and asked whether they would be opening the restaurant this time.  I was told that it would, with buffet dining and a special Ravencon menu for most of the weekend.  “We learned our lesson from the last time,” she told me.  As it turns out, she was right — I never wound up using that microwave during the convention, and the food was actually much better than I remembered from last year.

After lunch, my room was ready for me to check in.  I let my Facebook friends know I was there, then unpacked, and rested up a bit.  I tried to make contact with some family who lives in the area to see if we could meet up, but that proved impossible.  I also tried to get to my e-mail, but found that the hotel wi-fi servers and the webmail access for my usual e-mail server were incompatible.  This proved to be important (as I’ll discuss later), but I spent about an hour trying to get things to work unsuccessfully.  So, with nothing else to do, I decided to try and find the spot where Con Ops was being set up.

I’d received an e-mail saying Con Ops would be in “Room M.”  I checked the hotel map — there was no Room M.  I checked the hotel’s posted activities list, and saw there would be set-up in Room J… but that room was empty.  I tried a few other locations I thought it might be at, but couldn’t find any evidence of the con set-up.  I finally gave up and (my settling-in having taken several hours) decided to have an early dinner.  So I was back to the bar.

Dinner was fine, but uneventful… until I was on my way out the door, where I ran into another Ravencon guest (and fellow panelist), Jennifer R. Povey.  I mentioned that this would be my first convention as a professional guest, and we traded stories about travel and conventions past.  I then joined her to again try and find Con Ops.  Which we did find… but only after Con Ops had shut down for the night.  It was in Room 8.

And that was it (for the con-relevant part, anyway) for Thursday.

FRIDAY

I learned why there was so much confusion about the rooms early on:  The hotel’s convention rooms are nice and laid out okay, but the normal room number system was confusing.  The Ravencon staff, after the problems from last year (another thing I mentioned in last year’s Ravencon Recap), decided to re-label the hotel’s room numbers to make things less confusing.  Which is fine, but they didn’t have those new room designations up Thursday… so Con Ops was in Room M, but only after the rooms had been relabeled on Friday.  The new room numbers made a lot of sense, actually, but that didn’t help on Thursday.

Badge pick-up was supposed to start at 1pm.  I met Jennifer R. Povey again at Badge Pick-up about five minutes before then, and started waiting.  And it did open at one… but not for guests.  The “guest packets” hadn’t been put together, and so we couldn’t pick up our badges.  While frustrating (and somehow tiring; I was more worn out waiting for my badge to finally be made available than anything else that I did over the weekend), the time wasn’t a total waste; instead, I learned a few tips about being a panelist from someone who had been on a few panels, herself (the aforementioned Jennifer R. Povey).

It was about three hours later that I was finally able to pick up my badge.  The guest packet included our badge, a copy of the programming booklet (which is the same whether you’re a guest or an attendee), a few letters to welcome the guests, our “final” schedule, and a folding paper nameplate.  Following one of those tips, I’ve kept the nameplate for future conventions which might not be quite as well prepared.

Now armed with a badge, a schedule, and a nameplate, it was time for the convention to begin.  The first event was authors-only:  A meet-and-greet in the Green Room.  I had high expectations for this, but it started out a bit dull; there wasn’t as much meeting and greeting as I had expected (possibly because there wasn’t enough seating for everyone to eat while they met and greeted one another, or possibly because several of us just trying to get something to eat before our panels).  After having a few snacks, however, I noticed a couple of people that I thought (correctly) would be on my first panel sitting — Jeanne Adams and Nancy Northcott — and went to introduce myself.  I was scheduled to be moderator (again, my first panel as a professional and I’m moderating?  Ack!), so I took the opportunity to briefly go over my plan for that panel (as Ravencon’s moderator instructions recommended.  I will note that, in the five other panels I was on, the moderator only did this once).

The meet and greet was interrupted (for me, Jeanne, and Nancy) for that first panel of the evening:  Swords Not Required, a discussion about arming your fantasy characters with weapons other than swords.  The three of us were joined by Chuck Gannon, the Literary Guest of Honor, adding just a touch of star power to my first-ever panel.

Now, over the next few weeks (health and time permitting) I intend to write blog posts on each of the panels I worked at Ravencon, so I won’t be covering the contents of each panel today, but I AM really looking forward to covering this one.  As moderator, it was my job to manage time while keeping the panel on topic and direct questions (either my own or the audience’s) to the panelists.  I figured I would let the panelists introduce themselves, then go through four or five of my own questions, and try to preserve about ten minutes for audience questions.  I was keeping a very close eye on the time.  While the panelists had plenty of time to come up with answers to my questions, there was no time left for me.  I was willing to cut people off if time was going to be an issue, but I wasn’t going to cut people off just so I could speak.  So… I never got to give my own answers.  Well, that’s partly what next week’s planned blog post is for — I’ll be answering giving my own viewpoints on the questions I asked my fellow panelists.

I think the panel went well enough.  My fellow authors, as well as some of the people from the audience, all gave me kudos for handling the moderation duties well.  I… well, my own case of imposter syndrome has me thinking that most of that praise was just people being polite to the newbie, but I’m willing to accept that I didn’t mess things up too badly.

After that panel it was time for the opening ceremonies.  Now, this may have been my first ever convention as a pro, but obviously I’ve been to conventions as an attendee (and, many years ago, as a fanfic panelist) many times over the years, having attended a few dozen conventions all told (I stopped counting at twenty or so).  However many conventions I’ve been to, however, I’ve ALWAYS skipped the opening ceremonies; they’ve never held any interest for me.  But I was a guest, and they were expecting me to attend, so there I went, not knowing what to expect.

Ravencon has over a hundred guests most years, and they promote a lot of guest turnover from year to year.  I figured I might have to stand up and be seen, but with so many guests — many of whom were, like me, first-time guests — I was NOT expecting to have to say anything.  But no, there I was, being asked to introduce myself (alongside twenty or so other new Ravencon guests) to a crowd of people interested in the convention guests.  I drew a complete blank about what to say, only mentioning the basics (that I was a self-published author and would be doing several panels that weekend), and was very glad when it was over.  Of course I thought of a million things I COULD have said, far too late to say any of them.  Next time I’m a guest at a convention, I’ll have to remember to be prepared to speak at the opening ceremonies, even if it seems like it would be impossible for me to do so.

Off the proverbial hot seat and with opening ceremonies (thankfully) over, I rushed off to the restaurant for dinner.  I’d had some snacks at the meet-and-greet, but those were just to tide me over.  I only had two hours until my next panel, and remembering last year I was afraid I barely had enough time to eat.  As it turns out, I had plenty of time:  I got to the hotel restaurant, and was shown a nearly empty buffet with no lines and almost no wait time for the staff.  The food was excellent (I had both the fish and the chicken; neither were overcooked, neither were dry, and both were well-seasoned and flavorful; you can’t ask for more than that from a buffet) and I was done with much more time to spare than I thought possible.

So, I went to attend my first panel on the “fan” side of the table, the “Economics of Self-Publishing” panel.  Ravencon has had this panel for several years, now, and it was moderated (as it had been last year) by the inestimable Chris Kennedy.  Now, for a very long time, the draft schedule for the convention had me listed on this panel; it was only in the last few weeks before the convention started that I was dropped from it.  That was fine, as it wasn’t my favorite aspect on the topic of self-publishing to cover (I was scheduled for a different panel on self-publishing later in the convention, which I figured was more my speed), but I’d been mentally preparing for this panel for weeks.  Most of what was covered by the panelists were things I was already well acquainted with, and there were a few things I’d thought of that I never heard mentioned during the panel.  It kind of made me regret not pushing harder to be on this panel; I think I could have contributed.

And then it was time for my Mythology as the Basis for Speculative Fiction panel.  Again, I will discuss the contents of the panel in a later blog post, but here are a few off-topic comments on this panel:  This was my panel alongside Guest of Honor Mercedes Lackey.  That was a great experience, but it’s entirely possible that I caught the con crud from her:  She had a cold (well, I gather it was a little more serious than a mere cold), and was warning people that she would be our “patient zero” for the convention.  Even the moderator said that we should keep at least two seats between her and us while we were setting up.

Other than Mercedes Lackey, my fellow panelists included Jennifer R. Povey, Christopher L. Smith, and moderator Bishop O’Connell.  The difference in experience between the Guest of Honor and the rest of us panelists became stark when we started talking about our publication credits.  A few short stories and anthology credits for a couple of them, four books for the moderator, three books for myself (and an anthology story theoretically coming out at Balticon in May, and one more novel I nearly had ready before Ravencon.  I mentioned a simplified version of why I didn’t get that book out in time during my panels, but the full story of what’s going on with that is worth a blog post on its own).  Then Mercedes Lackey mentioned her book total:  128.  (Well, she pointed out, 129, but the 129th wasn’t yet available for sale)

At any rate, all of the panelists had something to contribute to the panel, and the audience seemed to enjoy themselves, so I’d call it a success.  And as for me, it was the end of my evening.

SATURDAY

I started the day by ordering a room service breakfast that actually arrived in time for me to eat it (another sign that the hotel learned some lessons from last year).  I needed it fast, because I had a panel first thing that day:  Using Tropes to Tell Stories.

The panel consisted of myself, Bishop O’Connell, and Jim Bernheimer.  We were short a panelist (someone must have cancelled at the very last second), and it started a bit slow — we all needed coffee or something, I think — but we rallied, and in the end it was a success.

I went back to my room after that and had that cup of coffee (hotel room coffee… which wasn’t as bad as what I’ve had from some hotels, but still wasn’t great), spending the next hour getting myself better prepared for my next panel:  Building Worlds for Fiction with Dave Joria, Rob Balder, Mark Wandrey, and myself.  It was an interesting panel, though I kind of wish I had been moderating this one for one reason:  Two of us panelists were novelists, two were in webcomics.  I was hoping to get more about the different perspectives on building a world when writing prose versus when you could use illustrations for a portion of your worldbuilding.  I don’t think that topic was touched on, much, during the panel.

I had a long break after that panel, and decided to go to the hotel restaurant for lunch.  I almost chose to use the buffet, as the dinner buffet from the night before had been so good, but I wasn’t all that enthused by the buffet menu and went into the bar, instead.  This may very well have been the most fortuitous decision I made during the entire convention.

The bar waitress was showing me to my seat when, from what was the largest table in the room, I heard someone call, “Hey, are you here by yourself?”  I wasn’t sure they were talking to me at first, but once I was sure I indicated I was.  “Well, then, get your butt over here!”  I was being invited to sit at his table.

The person calling me was Baen Books‘ consulting editor, Kelly Lockhart.  Also at the table were Baen Books science consultant (and proponent of scientific outreach) Dr. Tedd Roberts, and Baen authors Mike Massa, Kacey Ezell, and Christopher L. Smith.  (There were also a couple other people at the table who I have yet to identify).

There were discussions about a number of things — other Baen authors, other conventions, a few scientific anecdotes from Tedd Roberts, and far too many other things to discuss in this post.  There were interesting conversations going on all sides of the table, and it was hard to keep track of everything being said.  Needless to say, this was an unexpected and welcome event in and of itself.

But lunch eventually broke up, and it was back to the convention proper.  I’d signed up for a wine and cheese tasting at 2pm, largely because the wines involved were coming from Three Fox Vineyards (as my self-publishing company is called Fennec Fox Press, you might guess that I have a bit of an interest in foxes), so I went straight there.  Unfortunately, things were horribly disorganized at first — I was “carded” three times, by three different people (twice by the panel organizers, once by someone sent down from Con Ops just to ensure everyone had been carded), they didn’t have the cutting board they needed for the cheese selection, they had to get the hotel staff to find them a couple pitchers of water before they could start, and so forth.  With the tasting running long, I wound up having to leave in the middle to make it to my next panel.

That panel was Self-Publishing 2017, with fellow authors Thomas A. Mays, Toi Thomas, myself, and (replacing the two expected panelists I mentioned in my last post) Christine McDonnell along with moderator Jim McDonald.  Now, as I’ve said before, I’m not going to be discussing panel content in this write-up; that’s for follow-up posts over the next few weeks.  There’s not much to say about the content of this panel which wasn’t mentioned somewhere in my Self-Publishing Roundtable blog series from a couple years ago, anyway.  There was something I wasn’t able to discuss at this panel, however, which will be in that topic:

In preparation for the convention, I had contacted my local library system about resources they were making available to self-published authors.  My local library is very supportive of the local author scene, and I wanted to know if there was anything they particularly wanted discussed.  I got an e-mail with all of that information… on the 28th, when I was already at the convention and couldn’t read it.  So, in place of a “Self-Publishing 2017” blog post, I’ll be making a “Self-Publishing and the Local Library” blog that week.

After the Self-Publishing 2017 panel, I had a brief break.  After my lunch at the “Baen table,” I very nearly stopped by the Baen Books Traveling Roadshow (a regular panel at many conventions I go to).  That panel wasn’t supposed to actually start until 4:30pm, though, and I had a panel at 5; I would have had to leave shortly after they started.

My 5pm panel (my last as a panelist, this convention) was on the Mechanics of Magic in Fantasy & Science Fiction, coming full circle with fellow panelists from my first panel Nancy Northcott and Jeanne Adams.  Along with us was Joe Wetmore, one half of the Instant Replay Live Youtube channel, which does lets-plays and game reviews (an odd panel for such a guest, but it worked out well for us).

Now, I had planned on attending a bunch of other panels after that, but I was exhausted.  I went back to my hotel room, rested up a bit, had dinner, rested up some more, went to sleep… and overslept the next morning.

SUNDAY

Well, “overslept” may not technically be right (I didn’t set an alarm, or have any particular place I had to be that morning, so I didn’t miss anything; had I been scheduled for a panel, I would have had alarms set and room wake-up calls going before I went to bed the night before), but I woke up so late that I couldn’t go to any of the morning panels.  After a much less eventful lunch than Saturday (skipping breakfast because I woke up so late), I went to a final convention panel as an attendee:  The Mad Scientist’s Revenge!

This panel consisted of Carolyn O’Neal, Samantha Bryant, Tedd Roberts, and his grad student going by the psuedonym of EvilPenguin.  Two writers, two mad scientists.

I felt a bit sorry for the writers.  The moderator (who was one of the writers) didn’t seem to recognize that this wasn’t going to be a different kind of panel.  She was trying to ask questions as if this was a standard writer’s panel, but based on the write-up (“Presenting preposterous theories for world domination and evil conspiracies”) it was intended to be more of a silly, story-telling humor panel to close out the convention with rather than “education for creatives” like so many of the other panels were.  Tedd Roberts and EvilPenguin, however, had such strong personalities and such interesting anecdotes that the panel worked more as I believe it was intended than it otherwise might have.  The other writer, caught between the two big-personality scientists and the moderator who didn’t understand what kind of panel she was on, barely got a word in edge-wise.  Still, from the audience’s perspective, it was fun and entertaining…

And then the convention was over.  Well, for most of the attendees, anyway.  There was one more event:  The Dead Dog Dinner.  Basically, as you might guess from the name, it’s a dinner, at which guests and staff who were staying at the hotel for the night could get together and chat about the convention.

I wound up sitting at a table with the programming director, the assistant to the con chair, and several other staff members; there were other panelists at the dinner, but somehow all of them wound up at different tables.  Still, it was nice to be able to have a conversation breaking down some of the things that happened during the convention with the staff.  (And I got some “gossip” about the state of the convention which I won’t discuss here, because I’m not sure how much of that was in confidence).

And then I was done for the day.  I spent the rest of the day packing and resting up, and then returned home on Monday.

And by Tuesday I knew for sure I had come down with con crud.  *sigh*

Health permitting, next week I’ll start my next blog series on Ravencon Panels (I DID do).  Until then…

Ravencon Panels (I’m Not Doing): One Man’s Villain Is Another Man’s Hero

This is the fifth in my series of blogs on panels at Ravencon I’m NOT doing.  For further explanation, see my earlier blog here.  (I noted last week I had apparently been cut from several of the panels I was originally scheduled for; well, the program guide has been… well, not quite finalized, because these sorts of things tend to change at the last minute, but close enough — they’ve made a PDF of the schedule public here. In the end I was put back on some of those I originally feared I had been cut from, and should now be on listed on six panels, which (assuming nothing changes) I’ll mention next week.

One Man’s Villain is Another Man’s Hero

Here is the Ravencon write-up for this panel:

Twirling mustaches and obvious evil plans are a thing of the past. Today’s villains and heroes are as complicated as the world we live in. Discuss with our panelists what makes the difference between villain and hero, and how thin that line can be.

Once again, we’ve got an interesting topic.  Now, I’m not sure you’ll find many complex villains in my own novels (I try to focus on developing the heroes at the start of a series, with the villain getting more development later in the series.  Unfortunately, it’s still very early in all of the series I’ve released, so my best villains haven’t shown up yet.  That’s partly why I didn’t sign up for this panel), but I do know something about the topic nonetheless.

It’s actually fairly easy to advise people on how to make a complex villain.  “Give your villain a sympathetic back story,” and “everyone is a hero in their own story; your villain must think he’s doing the right thing” are things I’ve repeatedly heard.  That seems to just be common sense… although (a) common sense is not common and (b) sometimes the story you’re writing doesn’t make it easy to show your villain’s point of view.

There’s also the matter that, well, there have been plenty of popular stories with popular villains who aren’t exactly complex.  While a powerful force of nature and a great danger to all of the people of Middle Earth, Sauron is a fairly straight-forward villain who didn’t need a sympathetic back story to become the main villain of Lord of the Rings (now, he did GET an interesting backstory when the Silmarillion was released, but that wasn’t published until almost twenty years after Sauron was introduced to the reading public).  While the now-non-canon expanded universe did eventually fill out his story, Boba Fett was a villain who became a cultural icon from his physical appearance alone.  His past was a mystery (some people actually think his character was weakened when it was filled in), his motivations were unclear, he had a tiny role, and yet he developed a fan following as big as many of the major villains of the series. (In fact, much of the backstory for him was created BECAUSE he became so popular, if I understand things correctly)

And the villain doesn’t have to be a person.  A “villain” can be a natural disaster, for example, or simply surviving alone in the wilderness.  While not typical of fantasy or science fiction (my main genre), there have been a number of stories where the big struggle is surviving against the odds, and those odds aren’t someone else at all. It can, though — one of the biggest hits in recent years is The Martian, which features a struggle to survive in an alien landscape.  Mars itself is the villain of the story… well, sort of.  “The elements of Mars,” perhaps?

But this topic is specifically about creating a complex villain, and saying (effectively) “give them a sympathetic back story” might not be enough help. It’s a great piece of advice; if you’ve ever seen Batman: The Animated Series, their sympathetic treatment of Mr. Freeze took a Batman villain often considered a comic laughingstock and made him into a major villain that many people could hope succeeded some day.  In fact, I’d argue that series is a virtual blueprint for creating sympathetic villains.  But just that line itself — “Give them a sympathetic back story” — is, well, not enough.

It’s too generic of a piece of advice, and honestly it isn’t always true.  I’ve read many an amateur effort at writing (thanks to my background in fanfiction) where the writer tries too hard at giving the villain a sympathetic back story, and while the villain may be “sympathetic” (or not; if the ‘excuse’ for becoming a villain is too weak, it feels like “Really? That’s it?  That’s why this guy is trying to take over the world?”), but if you make things go too far your villain can appear… well, pathetic, not sympathetic.  So perhaps just “try and give them a sympathetic backstory” isn’t the best piece of advice.

So, what else can you use to make your villain seem complex? Well, how about using other techniques for making a villain compelling and complex.

In the Lord of the Rings, we know next to nothing about Saruman’s back story… except that he was supposed to be a good guy, in fact a leader of good guys, who turned traitor when he thought he was going to lose.  As a villain, he is more complex and compelling than Sauron.  It’s a common technique for the creation of a villain; TV Tropes refers to it (using wrestling parlance, of all things) a “Face-Heel Turn.”

One of the best-known villains in the world of mystery novels has almost no backstory, sympathetic or not, but he is thought to be complex and compelling because, well, he’s basically a villainous version of Sherlock Holmes (I am, of course, referring to Moriarty).

If your villain has a complex, intricate plan, and your reader can follow along with it (even if they may not know the villain’s true end goal), that can make them seem complex and compelling. It’s a method a lot of television shows with a-plot\b-plot formats (the episode has a specific “a” plot that is the focus of that episode’s story, but there’s also elements from an overall seasonal “b” plot) use.

So, there are many ways to create a complex and compelling villain… if you need one.

Ravencon Panels (I’m Not Doing): Gearing Up For War

This is the fourth in my series of blogs on panels at Ravencon I’m NOT doing.  For further explanation, see my earlier blog here.

GEARING UP FOR WAR

This panel is described in the (still just a draft) write-up as “Depending on the time period, terrain, and the nature of the fight, you’re going to need different kinds of kit. We’ll discuss how human beings prepare for battle physically and mentally — and what that says about their society.” I really feel under-qualified for the topic of mental and physical preparation, and I don’t even want to touch the one about what these preparations “say about society” (talk about a land mine for those of us who try to maintain politically neutral public faces!).

But discussing military kit? That I can do, if only from the perspective of a military history buff who’s done enough research into this topic to know (at one time) what people were supposed to receive in a few historic kits by heart. (Okay, so, um, my focus was the history of the US Sailing Navy, but sailors needed kits, too!  And it has been a while since I last studied this, so don’t test me; I probably can’t recite everything from memory, any more)

Now, one of the things to remember is that, until the last century or so, a soldier’s “kit” was largely theoretical. Some bureaucrat somewhere would write up a list of what was supposed to be in a soldier’s kit and set a budget (usually below what was actually needed) for obtaining these supplies; some lesser bureaucrat elsewhere would receive the money to put these kits together, skim some of it off the top, and then toss it down the chain. Each toss down the chain to the next layer of government usually meant less money for each kit, to the point that soldiers and sailors rarely received much the kit they were assigned.

But, for the sake of our sanity, let’s talk about what was SUPPOSED to be issued to soldiers and sailors throughout the various eras we have records for… and we have records, in some cases, dating back to Roman times.  Sometimes the government paid for these kits, sometimes the soldier or sailor were responsible for paying for these things themselves; sometimes the kit was required to fit a uniform standard and design, and sometimes the soldier or sailor (or, especially, feudal lords\knights) could customize or fit themselves out on their own, and sometimes some things were provided and you had to pay for others.  Usually, the only ‘advantage’ of paying for your own kit is the ability to customize things.

Regardless, whether you were a Roman Soldier or a member of the modern military, there are several things which are common to every soldier’s (or sailor’s) kits:

Some form of weaponry.  Whether that’s swords, spears, bows and arrows, or firearms, you would get a weapon (sometimes more than one).  At times in history, the weapons would not actually be issued with the kit, but handed out right before battle; regardless a weapon of some type should be considered part of the kit.

Body armor.  Note that this isn’t always a part of your kit; early Roman infantry soldiers wore none to increase speed and ease of movement (and as a cost-cutting measure), though later on various different types of armor were developed and issued.  Sailors from the Napoleanic era certainly didn’t wear armor into battle (though Spanish officers sometimes did).  Frequently, armor was something the soldier would have to pay for out of his own pocket (or get docked out of his pay), as it often had to be custom-fit to the person wearing it.  Today, soldiers are usually issued body armor (bulletproof vests) as part of their kit, though occasionally soldiers may purchase “civilian” gear if the issued equipment is defective or insufficient and replacement gear is slow to arrive (this is technically not permitted in the US Army, but the rule has been relaxed and\or ignored at various times of crisis).

An “entrenching tool” (aka, a shovel) were part of most soldiers kits (though not most sailors, as you obviously aren’t going to be digging through your wooden ship’s decking; in its place, however, sailors were issued tools for splicing rope or similar Naval tasks).  A soldier needed his shovel to be able to dig out camp latrines, dig in temporary fortifications and trenches, and more.  Plus, they could work as a backup weapon in a pinch.

Usually, soldiers were also issued clothing.  This could be something as simple as basic livery to go over your armor, or multiple types of uniform for use in different times of the year and on different occasions.  This can include not just the obvious uniform pieces, but also things like socks, shoes, underwear, belts, etc.

A water containment device (whether that’s a waterskin, a canteen, or something else).

Cooking gear of some sort.  You might not have the tools for gourmet cooking on hand, but some way to build a fire and hold food over that fire is quite handy.  You also need some method of eating food given to you, so a bowl for soups and stews, a spoon, a knife, a fork if they’ve been invented… that kind of thing.

An axe or saw for cutting wood.  Because you need some way of getting fuel for those cooking fires.

A satchel\backpack\bag of some kind.  Because you’ve got a lot of gear you need to carry around.

Bedding.  This could be anything from just a simple blanket to a full-on kit for a tent, a sleeping bag, a rain tarp, and more.  The most original bit of bedding kit I recall is from the American Civil War, where soldiers were each issued HALF of a two-person tent; if your buddy lost his gear, you were out of luck.

Frequently, sewing supplies were a part of a soldier’s kit.  Soldiers and sailors were responsible for the maintenance of their clothing, so having a needle and thread were handy.  Plus, it gave you something to do in your downtime.  Macramé may popularly be thought to have its origins in the fringe work of arabic carpets, and in modern times is often stereotypically found in some hippie peacenik fashions, but making it was an extremely popular hobby among 17th, 18th, and 19th century sailors.

Finally, most soldiers starting out get a small supply of consumables — some hard tack biscuits or similar emergency rations, a half-a pint of rum a day (usually watered down into grog on shipboard), gunpowder when needed to support a black powder weapon, oils for maintaining equipment, soaps for keeping clean, etc.  How regularly these consumables were replaced (or whether they were replaced at all) varied from army to army.

Specific parts of the military might get special items, as well.  For example, if you were in the horse cavalry, you’d probably get special gear for your horse (while I know this is true, I’m fuzzy on the particulars of what would be issued).  Scouts might be issued some form of looking glass (binoculars, special sights, etc.).  Etc.

Of course, even if the military provides all of that, there were still things soldiers and sailors loved to add to their kit whenever possible.  Games (such as chess sets), cards, small musical instruments, and other material designed for entertainment were often more of a necessity than the shovels, cooking gear, and spare underwear, but rarely would any government service give them to their soldiers for free.

And if you’re a writer, you may need to add a few more unusual items to the kit, depending on genre.  I mean, if you’re writing a sword and sorcery, any magical characters may require certain components for ammo.  In certain science fiction universes (think Star Trek), some sort of portable sensor (think tricorder) would likely be a part of your kit.  That sort of thing.

As a writer, you may never need to let your readers know everything that’s in your fictional character’s kit, but it’s generally a good idea to keep track of the resources your character has as a writer.  Otherwise, you might wind up in a situation where your character has a ridiculous number of little-used items (like, say, Bat Shark-Repellant) that can turn the whole thing into a joke.  And it’s a good idea to get some idea of how much a soldier can store on themselves — it’s probably more than you think, but less than you want — while composing your characters’ kits.

Of course, like every other bit of writing advice you might receive, it’s not a hard and fast rule.  After all, the 1960s Batman is still a popular cultural icon, Bat Shark-Repellant and all…

Edit:  Comments closed due to multiple spam attempts.  E-mail me if you want it re-opened.

Ravencon Panels (I’m Not Doing): Where Do You Get Your Ideas From?

This is the third in my series of blogs on panels at Ravencon I’m NOT doing.  For further explanation, see my earlier blog here.

WHERE DO YOU GET YOUR IDEAS FROM?

When people find out my mother is a professional art quilter, they almost always say, “Oh!  My grandmother was a quilter!”  And maybe they’ll follow that up with something about patchwork scraps or the like.  Note that my mother uses computer-aided design, state-of-the-art quilting machines, laser-guidance, and all kinds of things your average grandmother-the-quilter would never bother using for a hand-stitched patchwork quilt (nor would my mother, for that matter; they’d be unnecessary).  My mother usually gives some form of “smile and nod” type response, knowing there is no real comparison between what she does and that.

As a writer, there are certain things you hear all the time that the best response is a similar “smile and nod.”  Among them are “Oh, I’d like to write a book some day.  My memoirs would be fascinating!” (The people who live lives interesting enough to make good memoirs are often too busy living those lives to think about writing them) and “Oh, you wrote a book?  Anything I might have read?” (How would we know?  Usually, we don’t even know these people well enough to know whether they read at all, much less if they might possibly have read anything we wrote).

Another question we often have to deal with in the topic of this Ravencon panel:  “Where do you get your ideas?”  And often, as a writer, the answer is a smile, a nod, and some pithy nonsense answer.  Sometimes we’ll expound on it, and yes, following whatever we suggest WILL (usually) give you some ideas.

But here’s the thing:  If you’ve been writing for a while (like I have, and most writers who’ve published have), coming up with new ideas isn’t the problem.  The problem is we have so many ideas that it’s impossible to get around to them all, and usually coming up with an answer to that question gives us even more.

Because ideas come from everywhere, and are in everything we do.  Do you want to know where the ideas have come from for things I’ve written (published and not published)?

  1. I was in the sixth grade.  Inspired by a character from the Danny Dunn books, I challenged some kids in my class to give me a word, any word, and I’d give them a story around it.  The word they gave me was eyeballs.  I gave them a story involving mutant eyeballs taking over the town.  Sadly, like everything else I wrote in my school years, it was lost (at least the handwritten stuff, like this thing; the schools were supposed to keep permanent records of everything I wrote that would follow me from elementary to junior high to high school.  Come high school, my file was “misplaced.”  Shame, that — while none of it was usable at all, some of it might have been worth saving to re-visit some day).
  2. Back when I was in high school, I had a teacher that said “You cannot write from a 1st person omniscient perspective.”  I suddenly felt challenged to write a story in the first person omniscient perspective whose main character was a mind reader.  (This resulted in a short piece, almost flash, that I still plan to publish if I ever find somewhere for it… but it’s far too small to publish on its own, and I have nothing to group it with)
  3. I was in a college.  I had been assigned to read Oedipus Rex for a class.  This was the fourth or fifth time I was being required to read this “classic” piece of dreck.  I heard for the first time, however (and I’ve never bothered to confirm it) that the three plays that are the current “Oedipus Trilogy” are actually the only three survivors of a set of NINE plays (3 interconnected trilogies).  So, to try and get myself through reading the play again, I used it as research for a new prequel (perhaps explaining just why the gods entrapped Jocasta and Oedipus so horribly).
  4. A discussion about whether axes would really be a good weapon for stock-fantasy-race Dwarves, and if so why (and\or in what situations), and if not what really would be a good weapon for them.  This contributed to In Treachery Forged (but was not the sole idea behind that story).
  5. Back before self-publishing became viable (or at least before I recognized the opportunity), I was trying to go for a traditional publishing deal.  I used many tools to find possible places to submit my books and short stories, including a book (the Writer’s Marketplace) which listed what genres each publisher was looking for.  There was one particular publisher which noted they mostly did non-fiction, but they did publish four novels each year “focusing on caves and spelunking.”  I came up with an idea for a story of a fictional cave — whose layout and general location would be based on a composite of the three or four different caves I have been spelunking in — that had been involved in numerous incidents over the millennia (a prehistoric man’s home, a refuge during the civil war, a boy scout-esque educational trip, and more), the cave itself unchanging.  Unfinished; as a compilation of short stories (I’m even slower in the short form than I am writing novels) it’s a slog.  I haven’t given up on it, but it’s very low priority.
  6. I saw one too many anime and cartoons where characters existed who had hair over their eyes.  I started wondering why someone would have that hairstyle.  (Inspiration for Euleilla from In Treachery Forged)
  7. As I’ve said before, The Kitsune Stratagem came about because I ran into too many people who were saying “Elves and Dwarves are so overplayed!  If I see another book with an elf in it I’m going to throw it across the room!” (and similar sentiments).  I figured I’d see just how overplayed it came across if I tried a similar story to one I would have written using Elves and Dwarves and Dragons. but instead substituted in other types of fantastical creatures (in this case, Kitsune and Wulvers and Bunyips, oh my!)
  8. I was watching some long-forgotten TV show where there was a discussion of sawed-off shotguns.  I started wondering what the fantasy equivalent would be.  The resulting story will be appearing in the upcoming World’s Enough anthology, due to be published in time for a launch party at Balticon (May 26-29).  Since I’m not the one who set that schedule, there’s a slim chance it’ll actually be released on time.
  9. Getting a bit silly, and instead of saying the phrase “he brought a knife to a gun fight” I replaced it with “he brought a trebuchet to a sword fight.”  Something unfinished and put off for a while, but maybe I’ll get around to it some time.
  10. I wanted a non-stereotypical hero (think someone like Porkins in Star Wars) in a space-based science fiction novel.  I wrote about half of it before I learned that my plot was almost identical to Night Train to Rigel.  (Well, maybe it was Slow Train to Arcturus.  I always mix those two up)  I liked what I had, but I decided I needed to re-plot the whole thing, so it’s waiting for a while.
  11. I was watching a hockey game, and started wondering how hockey would be played in space.  That was the origin of the Rink of War.
  12. While researching the California gold rush (for the Rink of War), I read the story of real-life character Emperor Norton.  I thought about bringing someone like him into a sci-fi boom-town setting.  The result (Emperor Norton II) makes a brief appearance in the Rink of War, but was a central figure in the sequels… of which four are mostly written, but since there was so little interest in the Rink of War itself I’ve abandoned that project.  I may revisit it, some day, retooling the planned series of shorts (short stories, novelettes, and novellas) as a full length novel.

I could go on.  And on.  And on.  My full idea bank of unwritten\unfinished stories (even just the ones I’ve made some effort to plot out or take notes on) would be ten, twenty, a hundred times that long.  So, yeah.  The idea that ideas are hard to come by seems… alien to me.  Which might be why I didn’t sign up for this panel in the first place….

Edit:  Comments closed because of multiple spam attempts.

Ravencon Panels (I’m Not Doing): Imposter Syndrome

INTRODUCTION TO THIS SERIES OF BLOGS

This blog has been dead for a while — largely because I’ve been too busy, but now I’m having trouble getting into the habit, again.

Ravencon (which, if you’ve missed the last several blogs, I’ve been invited to appear as a guest; note that other conventions only use the term “guest” for the Guest of Honor, in which case this role would instead be referred to as an “attending professional” or something similar) is coming up in a month and a half.

There was a limit to the number of panels I was allowed to sign up for (they wanted guests to pick a minimum of four panels and a maximum of ten).  I looked up some advice for first-time guests, and one overarching point I saw was not to take it easy.  So, I signed up for six panels… but also provided about nine possible alternates.  As it turns out, it looks as if four of these fifteen panels were cut, and four more were merged into other similar panels I’d signed up for… and I’ve wound up, in this draft of the schedule, having seven panels.  Heh.

At any rate, in addition to the panels I signed up for, there were quite a number which I was very interested in but which didn’t make the cut (either because I figured I wasn’t the right person for the panel, didn’t know enough, or I just had too many panels I was already planning to do).  And some of the topics in the draft schedule I was sent look more interesting now than when the sign-up sheet went up.  At any rate, it occured to me I could solve my “dead blog” problem by writing posts on those panels I’m NOT going to be doing at Ravencon.  (And then maybe, after Ravencon is over, I’ll do some blogs on those panels I DID cover… but we’ll see how things go.

THE TOPIC AT HAND:  IMPOSTER SYNDROME

So, for this week, a topic I probably wouldn’t have signed up for even if I’d had no limitations for sign up, but which I figure I’ll be fighting against for a lot of these blog posts and maybe even some of the panels I’m signed up for:  Imposter Syndrome.

To begin with, Imposter Syndrome is not currently classified as a psychosis, neurosis, or any other type of mental disease.  It’s perfectly normal.  According to Wikipedia, it is:

“…a concept describing high-achieving individuals who are marked by an inability to internalize their accomplishments and a persistent fear of being exposed as a “fraud”.”

As an author, I follow a lot of other authors, and one thing I can say is that most of us (myself included) suffer from at least a mild form of this phenomenon.  So, by the way, do musicians, painters, and quilters (hi, mom!), and artists of all other types.

It shows up in all kinds of ways, and sometimes you can recognize it in yourself.  This very post has an example of it (and, in fact, that is why I chose Imposter Syndrome as the first topic in this series).  You notice how I made that clarification that being a “guest” at Ravencon was more like a “attending professional” at other conventions (even though “guest” is just as common, if not a more common, title for what that role is)?  It’s because I’m afraid people will see me say I’m a guest at a convention and think I’m claiming to be more than I am.  That is a practical example of mild Imposter Syndrome.

Imposter Syndrome manifests in a number of ways.  For example, JUST related to things that will come up in the next couple months:

  1. I’m going to be a panelist at Ravencon.  I’m just this self-published author with three novels, a single short work, and a couple still-in-production works to my name.  Am I really enough of an expert to justify my selection as a convention guest?  (The answer, I know intellectually, is yes; even though the number of title I have written is low, I’m also constantly educating myself in the fields of writing, self-publishing, etc.  I know for a fact that I’m more of an expert in the field of self-publishing better than several self-publishing “experts” I’ve encountered at various conventions in the past.  But there is still that doubt…)
  2. I’ve been accepted into an anthology (the title will be World’s Enough: Fantastic Defenders).  I was given back some editorial comments, though, and a deadline of the end of February to get the rewrites in.  Then I broke a tooth.  Even though I’d been told I could ask for more time if I needed it (and even though everything else on this anthology has run late, so far), I was terrified to ask for an extension of just a few days after I broke my tooth and found myself unable to work on it at the worst possible time.  If I’m more trouble than I’m worth, will they just drop me and go with one fewer story?  (Of course, I got the extension, no problem.  But now I’m worried that I didn’t do enough with the changes to make my editor happy after having gotten that extension)
  3. I’m trying pretty hard to get one more book out there before Ravencon (The Merrimack Event, in this case).  I’d hoped to have at least five books out, but I’m struggling to make it to four.  I may not make it at all (at this point, it depends on factors outside my control; namely, the cover art), but with every new release — especially for a new series, and in a new genre — I have to wonder if the success I had with my first book will carry over.  I may have 4+ stars on both Amazon and Goodreads for all my books, but I still have this fear people will read the new book and think “Oh, look — this guy’s just an amateur after all!”  (stay tuned for this one)
  4. Saying “I’m bringing back the Weekly Sunday Blog Post” and then never remembering that it’s Sunday to write a blog, or having any topics in mind to write about when I try (although I have ideas, now, and I’m remembering to do it this Sunday).  The fact that I almost NEVER get comments on this blog hurts (even if I do get the occasional comment on Facebook or Twitter).

So… yeah.  Some of these things actually help fight the Imposter Syndrome (someone at Ravencon must think my resumé is strong enough to be acceptable as a “professional,” at a minimum.  I was accepted into the anthology, regardless of the editorial work needed.  I’m actually getting books out, even if not at the pace I’d like, and most of them do have good sales early on and good reviews the longer they sell.  Etc.) at the same time that they hurt.  Imposter Syndrome is funny that way.

So, how do you combat Imposter Syndrome?  You want to overcome that under-confidence that makes you feel like a fraud, but not get so cocky you annoy your fans and turn people off, or start ignoring your editors, or let your books go out before they’re ready, etc.

I’m not a psychologist, so I don’t know if there are any specific treatments or therapies being developed for it.  I do know that it’s an irrational fear.  Like most irrational fears, it takes a while to overcome.  Genuine moments of success (such as selling new books, being invited as a guest at a convention, etc.) help. Positive feedback (aka good reviews) help.  But ultimately?  It’s something you have to work through yourself.

You just have to be sure you never let those fears prevent you from doing the things you need to do for your job.  Don’t knock yourself down too much, don’t stop yourself from applying to be a convention guest or releasing that next book because you’re not sure you’re good enough, etc.

In other words, don’t let your fears go to your head.

Yet Another Set of 10 Rules For Being a Writer

(I meant to release this blog last week; I hadn’t finished it in time for Sunday, however. So here it is, finished)

So, over the last couple weeks (probably for the run-up to NaNoWriMo), I’ve seen people post several versions of “10 Rules for Being a Writer” type blogs and magazine articles.  I’m not sure of the value of this type of article, but hey — it’s a good topic for a blog entry, so why not throw my own hat into the ring?  So here are David A. Tatum’s 10 Rules for Being a Writer.”

Rule 1:  Write.  Actually, this is pretty much the only rule you need to be a writer.

Rule 2:  Keep Writing.  This is the difference between being a writer and being a former writer.  Some people suggest you write every day; I think this is a good recommendation if you can manage it, but I’ve had life interfere with my ability to write for far too many days to say it’s a requirement.

At some point, you may want to pursue writing as a profession.  Authors (while “writer” and “author” are, by definition, synonyms, I usually use “author” to refer to professional writers of original material.   Another type of professional writer would be a technical writer, but I’ve never known someone to describe themselves as an “aspiring” technical writer, whereas I’ve seen many describe themselves as aspiring authors) do need to hold themselves to a slightly higher standard than amateur writers.  Amateur writers only need to follow the first two rules on this list; the rest of it is for anyone who wants to advance past “amateur” and into the ranks of “professional.”

All writers are also different, so the remaining “rules” aren’t rules at all, but merely suggestions.

Rule 3 (aka Suggestion 1):  There have been far too many writers who’ve written a few chapters of a book, then gone back and revised those chapters before moving forward, then done the same thing another chapter later, and again, and again.  Frequently, these revisions can actually weaken the text (in much the way overworked dough can result in tough bread, over-edited text can find itself drained of life and “authorial voice”).  Worse, these writers spend so much time revising that they never finish whatever it is that they’re writing!  For MOST writers, therefore, the best advice is to wait until you’ve finished the entire story before going back and revising anything.  But I can think of at least one counter-example (J.R.R. Tolkien) which shows you can write professionally even if you do this… but I don’t recommend it.

Rule 4 (aka Suggestion 2):  If you follow rules 1, 2, and 3 long enough, you’ll eventually have finished a manuscript (a short story, a novel, something in between, a play, a screenplay, etc.).  This is NOT (necessarily) the time to try and sell it.  You need to ensure that what you’ve written is reasonably good, first — I mean, yes, you COULD just post it to Amazon as it is, but if it isn’t any good you’ll be poisoning your brand.  While I think the whole idea that you have to write a million unpublishable words before you write your first publishable one is pessimistic (at best), I do think you need to stop and evaluate things before moving forward.  Don’t be afraid to reject your own work — you will eventually get something good enough.  If you start to think you’re close, find a way of showing your writing off to people who have no emotional connection to you (in other words, not friends or family.  I went the route of writing fanfiction, but there are other ways to do it.  In fact, fanfiction might not work for most people, as there is a lot of really bad fiction on Fanfiction.net that gets a ton of praise.  Then again, I’m also familiar with a number of fanfics which were written to what I would call a professional standard, whose authors never publish anything).

Rule 5 (aka Suggestion 3): To help you assess your own work, and to grow as a writer, it is a good idea to read.  I’ve heard people say you should “read a level above what you’re trying to write” (meaning, for example, if you’re writing fanfiction read midlist novels; if you’re writing midlist novels read bestsellers; if you’re writing bestsellers read Pulitzer Prize winners; etc.).  I’ve heard people say you should read everything (fiction of all genres, nonfiction, commentary, etc.).  I say you could do either of those things… or you could just read what interests you.  If all that interests you is webcomics, read webcomics.  If all that interests you is YA fiction, read YA fiction.  If the only thing you like to read is Tolkien, read the Lord of the Rings, the Hobbit, the Silmarillion, etc. over and over and over again.  It doesn’t matter what you read, as long as you enjoy it.  If you enjoy what you read, I think you’re more likely to learn from it.

Rule 6 (aka Suggestion 4):  So, you’ve finally got something you think the public might like.  THIS is the time to start revisions.  I recommend reading your manuscript through at least once as a sanity check (not as in “Was I sane when I wrote this?”  Though that is a good question.  I mean as in “Did I forget to write the chapter that introduced the main character?”), making light corrections as you go.  Then you need a second set of eyes on it, to find all the things you forgot to explain because the story was so set in your head (for this stage, you do not need to bring in another professional).  THEN you get it copy-edited by someone who has professional-level talent and experience copy editing.  This is required for self-published authors who wish to maintain a professional standard in their work, and is STRONGLY recommended even for those seeking a trad publishing deal.

Rule 7 (aka Suggestion 5):  Once you’ve completed Rule 6 (aka, you’ve hired an editor to get things smoothed out), you will get back the manuscript you’ve written with “corrections.”  Go through the edits to your manuscript with a critical eye.  You DO NOT ALWAYS HAVE TO AGREE WITH YOUR EDITOR.  On the other hand, YOU HIRED YOUR EDITOR FOR A REASON.  So, consider everything your editor tells you.  My own proportion is to accept about 80% of the changes my editor makes.  Of the remaining edits, I see why he\she made the the change and agree it needed to be made more than half the time, but I have an alternate way of correcting it that I feel better fits my vision of the story.  The remaining edits (less than 10% of the whole) I revert to the original.

Rule 8 (aka Suggestion 6):  Once you’ve completed Rule 5, it’s time to consider publication.  Wait!  Put on the brakes, here!  First, research your options.  Don’t just submit your book to a random publisher or agent and pray; don’t just toss your book up on Smashwords or Amazon and hope for sales.  Start learning your trade, first!  Too many self-publishers have their book out but don’t understand things like what ISBNs are for, or that it’s okay that someone is selling your print copy book on eBay even though you haven’t sold any copies.  Learn how to avoid scams.  Learn the pitfalls of agents and contracts.  Learn what is good, ethical behavior vs. “best practice” vs. what’s acceptable.  This is something you can do in those anxious days while you’re waiting for your editor to get back to you with notes and corrections; you almost certainly won’t learn everything before you publish (I’m still learning; you never stop learning, really) but just a few weeks of investigation can help incredibly.

Rule 9 (aka Suggestion 7):  Once you’re published, reviews are your friends.  Reviews help sell your book.  But you should never respond to your reviews.  In fact, I recommend not even reading your reviews.  Paradoxically, you also need to get an idea of what people are saying about your work (at least in general), so you know where your writing needs work and if there’s a problem that needs to be fixed.  So… get someone else to read your reviews for you?

Rule 10 (aka Suggestion 8):  When it comes to writing, once you understand the rules — it doesn’t matter what the rules are, whether they are of grammar, of how to get published, of how to self-publish, of simply writing overall — and once you know the WHY of the rules, you can break them (well, except rule 1 — you aren’t a writer if you never write).  Or rather, you’ll know HOW to break them.  You often hear writing advice like “never use any adjectives.”  If you understand WHY that rule is in place, you’ll not need that “never use any adjectives” rule; you’ll be able to use adjectives effectively and judiciously, so you can go ahead and use them.  If you understand why you shouldn’t stop your writing-in-progress to go back and revise the unfinished piece, you’ll be able to effectively and judiciously go back and make tweaks when needed.

And those are my “ten rules” of writing.  How useful are they?  Well, you’ll have to decide that for yourself… but I find them useful enough.

Sick Days

You know, when you’re self-employed, you don’t get such things as sick leave or the like. You do, however, still get sick, and sometimes it’s so bad you lose time.

For the last week and a half (almost two weeks), I’ve been fighting off the worst head cold I’ve had in years (surprisingly, I had all the symptoms of a case of the flu except the usual accompanying fever. I wasn’t always coherent during the worst of it, however). I haven’t been able to write at all, not in my book or on my blog (though I was able to manage a Facebook post or two).

During that time, my mother won a blue ribbon for one of her quilts at the Pennsylvania National Quilt Extravaganza.  During one of my less lucid days (the early phase of the cold brought on a bought of insomnia that left me unable to get much sleep for several days on end; I think this was about when I finally started getting some sleep, but I was still perpetually tired when I was awake), I also had my 39th birthday (egads!  When did I get that old?).  And I’m sure there were other “life goes on” moments that I just can’t recall right now…

The kicker is, though, that I missed last Sunday’s blog, and don’t really have much more of a blog than this for today.  I’m still a little under the weather (though I am VASTLY improved), but I hope to get back to writing this coming week and I think I’m still on track to get at least one, maybe two more books out before my appearance at Ravencon.  Wish me luck!

Keeping Up With the Joneses…

I am sure people here recall me mentioning “The Merrimack Event” on this blog on occasion. Maybe not — I only bring it up every third or fourth blog post. Some day in the not-so-distant future (as in, between now and Ravencon), I hope to get this book out there.  But it is still in the “needs work” category.

The thing is, “The Merrimack Event” is old.  It’s actually older than In Treachery Forged (well, sort of; I started The Merrimack Event first, then wrote most of In Treachery Forged, then finished The Merrimack Event, then finished In Treachery Forged).

When I decided to turn to self-publishing, I sat back and evaluated everything I’d ever written, seperating it into several categories.  There was the stuff that just needed a polish before it was ready (sadly not that much; there was In Treachery Forged, which was the first book in a novel series, and the Rink of War, which was the only “ready” story one out of a much larger collection of novettes, novellas, and short stories taking place in a shared universe, and Voices — a very short story (just barely above “flash fiction” length) which I still need to find a place for), stories that were looking good but weren’t finished yet (the novel now published and entitled The Kitsune Stratagem, plus a few other things which I’m not discussing yet as I still haven’t worked on them since), and a depressingly long list of things I rejected as unpublishable.

(Yes, that’s right — as a self-publisher, you have to learn to reject your own manuscripts if they aren’t good enough).

Most of the rejections were short stories, barely begun unfinished works, and the like, but there were at least three works which, while not necessarily finished, had already reached full novel length.  The first was a historical fiction entitled “The Little Ring-Giver” about a barbarian mercenary hired by Rome to fight against Attila the Hun; it ended tragically (the hero is killed before the end, so his lover disguises herself and plots to marry Attila and murder him on their wedding night).  It… well, let’s just say it had a silly plot, overly purple prose, and a poor grasp of the “historical” aspects of historical fiction.  The second was a prequel to Oedipus Rex (I may have mentioned this here, before — in High School, I was required to read this play several times; when I was forced to read it one too many times in College, in an act of self defense I decided to do something to make it (a) more interesting and (b) to make sense of Oedipus’ punishment (if it were modern times, I think he could argue the situation the Greek Gods put him in was entrapment of the worst kind).  The problem with this one was I couldn’t decide whether it should be prose or script, and wound up with an awful amalgam of both.  The third novel-length manuscript of my own I rejected was another historical fiction; a highly improbable bit of Naval combat during the Napoleanic wars.  I actually might still write a novel with the same premise of this one, some day, but just about everything else from this book (bad research, bad dialog, purple prose, improbable plot twists,and more) means I’ll have to start over from scratch.

The Merrimack Event was the only significant item of a final category, however — things that were “not publishable yet, but still salvageable.”  It was in… rough shape, and had a lot of dust on it, but there was a lot of promise in it as well.  It had been through three or four revisions already, at the time, and with all of that work into it I was loathe to abandon it entirely.  So, after “In Treachery Forged” was released, I dusted the cobwebs off of The Merrimack Event and started to revise it… again.

It needed a LOT of work just to get it good enough to send to an editor, and it took me almost as long to get it to that point as it would have to write the thing over from the beginning (only for my chosen editor to vanish without a trace before I could get him the manuscript, which is a good part of the reason why it’s not already come out), but in the end I felt the story had been “salvaged.”

Which brings us to the title topic of this post.  The Merrimack Event still needs editing, but at this stage I’d say it is a “publishable” book.  Or, well, it was when I last touched it… but, uh, there’s a problem, as I was reminded earlier this week:  It’s a scifi novel, but some of the scientific tech that was in it has, well, proven not to be so fictional at all.  The book hasn’t “kept up with the Joneses,” so before I can do anything with it I  need to go back into the book, dust off the cobwebs, and “update” it, so that things that either looked unfeasible but weren’t, or which I figured wouldn’t catch on but did, don’t get so emphasized as “new.”

For example, I need to make sure that the engineer doesn’t call touchscreen keyboards a poorly adapted “new” technology (a real example from the book), even though… well, if you’re reading the blog on a Kindle Fire, you’ve probably already got one in your hand.  Back when I first wrote that scene, touch screens seemed a lot more impractical (something which might work, but no-one would favor a touch-screen keyboard over a tactile keyboard).  Obviously, time has proven that my read on that was wrong, but even though the story has been edited many times since it became clear that touchscreens were here to stay that scene has never been changed to reflect reality.  Now, the character discussing it was talking about how his service was being forced to adopt new technologies before the bugs had been worked out, and how he prefered more retro technologies in these cases, but given that this story is supposed to be set hundreds of years in the future one would think that any of the bugs he discussed would have been worked out by then.

I’m not alone in having this difficulty.  During the 2009 Marscon (a good convention, but that year it was at a horrible hotel; I didn’t go back until they changed hotels), author John Ringo (who really would have a worse time of it than me, considering he was writing “near future” science fiction and The Merrimack Event is more distant-future space opera, so the stuff I can write about can be even more off-the-wall) pointed out that there were one billion engineers and scientists on Earth (note: I don’t know if this number is even close to accurate, but the point stands even if it’s a lot less), and there’s only one of him trying to stay ahead of them all.

And Authors are not alone in this...
And Authors are not alone in this…

This is a fixable issue, and will be corrected before the book goes out the door… but the next time you read a science fiction book, and something fairly everyday is discussed as impractical or impossible, remember that technology can advance in unpredictable ways, and unexpectedly fast.  And that the technological prediction might have been made longer ago than you might realize….