Category Archives: On Writing

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.

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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…

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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): Daily Life in Fantasy Settings

This is the second part of a blog series about panels on the upcoming Ravencon panels, specifically the ones I didn’t sign up for that nevertheless look interesting.  For a more complete description, see the first post here.

DAILY LIFE IN FANTASY SETTINGS

The (draft version, so if you get a hold of the program book and the description is different, it’s because things have changed between now and then) description of this panel is “Economics, food and where it comes from, spiritual systems, laws – all things that impact our daily lives but often get glossed over in fantasy world-building. Let’s take a deep dive in building daily lives in fantasy worlds.”

This.  Is.  A.  FASCINATING.  Topic.  Had I seen it when the sign-up sheet was sent out, I would have signed up for it in a second (it was easy to miss, mind you — the sign-up sheet included almost five hundred panels, some of which were miscatalogued (there will not be five hundred panels at the convention; about three out of every four panels didn’t make it to the final list).  There were probably other panels I would have loved to do that I missed, but of those that made it to the schedule this is the one I regret not seeing the most).

Now, there is a term in writing fiction called “worldbuilding,” which refers to establishing the rules of your fictional world.  Figuring out the daily life of your characters is all worldbuilding.

There are a lot of factors to consider before you can even start to come up with a character’s daily life.  Is your fantasy novel in a real world setting?  If so, the key is researching what daily life was really like in that setting.  Simple (well, not really, but at least simple to say).  If not, you have several questions you need to answer (because no one else will):

What do you want to use as your fantasy world’s tech base? This is important because it can effect… well, everything.  A Roman-era tech base might give you flush toilets (of a sort) but you might not have had pasta (as we understand it today, anyway).  A medieval farmer would practice crop rotation; that is, he would have his farmland divided into three sections, one left fallow while the other two grew different crops; a Roman-era farmer also practice crop rotation, but would only have two fields (one fallow, one with a single crop).  An early-mid 20th century farmer would still be practicing crop rotation, with any number of different crop fields and nothing left fallow, but in some of those fields he would be growing crops that he knows would restore the nutrients in the soil (thanks, George Washington Carver!)  A late 20th century farmer might, however, move on from crop rotation to use specially formulated fertilizers that would do roughly the same thing.

In my fantasy books, I want as much flexibility as possible, so I generally have a policy that any technology is fair game… unless it requires electricity, modern chemistry, or gunpowder to discover it and\or make it work.  This means I can have characters using flush toilets after eating a large pasta dinner, if I want.  But I could also restrict myself to only those technologies that were available in specific places during specific eras… which means I might have a culture that could eat pasta, but then would have to go in the woods rather than at a flush toilet.

Is your fantasy world in a dark ages (or has it recently emerged from a dark ages)?  Then it’s possible that your characters might be required to live one way, but might find or use artifacts from a more advanced version of their same culture.

I use this in my own books; the world of The Kitsune Stratagem is still emerging from a dark age society, and a lot of technology (and the entire field of magic, but we’ll discuss that later) has been lost and is slowly being re-discovered; for example, they have ancient roads they’re trying to maintain, but until recently they didn’t know how they were built in the first place.  Towards the end of In Forgery Divided I show that my (other) fantasy world has also experienced a dark age, and while the events that caused it ended some time before there is still evidence of it:  The characters have to travel using transportation from an ancient Dwarven tunnel system… using steam-powered mining carts (which didn’t exist in the real world until the 1830s) that the modern Dwarves aren’t able to re-build.  The only way to get to that system involves a steam-powered lock very similar to something Hero(n) of Alexandria developed for pagan temples in Ancient Rome… a technology that in rea life, from what I can tell, was lost even before the dark ages began.

Technology isn’t the only thing.  Do you have multiple fantasy races?  Is there some degree of inequality between the races (or sexes, or whatever… but that’s trending towards a political discussion, and I want to keep politics off my blog)?  Well, you can justify anything in this regard, if you need to, but you need to make this decision before you start writing.  You can’t go three hundred pages in your book with your male human and your female dwarf fighting side-by-side, drinking together, meeting royalty together, etc. with nary a word about their differences, and then suddenly the inn won’t allow your female dwarf inside because “we don’t serve their kind, here!”  Not unless you’ve moved your characters into a new culture, which might have different rules (but then you need to establish the rules of THAT culture, instead).

Then we start moving into style.  What do things look like in your world?  Borrowing from the real world makes a lot of sense, but takes a lot of research.

Take architecture, for example.  You can’t say a building uses Tudor-style architecture if there were no Tudors in your fantasy world; you need to know the buildings are (usually) waddle-and-daub built into timber frames.  And you need to know the consequence of the material you’re using; if the buildings are built using “pink” bricks, your characters are probably living in an iron-rich area.

Alternatively, you could create your own construction material, but you still need to know some details about how it works.  In the aforementioned In Forgery Divided, I introduce the idea of Ancient Elves making buildings out of giant crystals.  How were these crystals formed?

Well, “magic” could be one way to explain it, but it wouldn’t explain why they STOPPED using crystalline construction.  So instead I decided to look up how artificial crystals were formed in real life. There are several processes, including some that have been turned into educational kits for children, but I needed one that worked for larger crystals.  I found one that required a high-temperature smelter that would be ideal; I didn’t know everything about it, but I did learn enough of the broad strokes to design a similar process… using dragonfire.

Would it really work?  Well, there are no real-life dragons, so that’s hard to say, and I didn’t go into the details in either my study of the real life process or the process I “invented,” but I had enough details to make it plausible.  All you need to do is make the “scientific” process plausible enough that your readers buy it (and your more educated readers don’t complain) and you’re good to go.  Still takes research just to make it plausible, though.

You don’t need to explain everything (though you need to know it, just in case it comes up), but it’s probably a good idea to explain the more exotic details of your world.  And there are a LOT of details to consider:

Architecture (a character living in a two-floor Tudor-style house intended for one family would have different home-life issues than a character living in a communal long-house)

What and how people eat (Victory!  Time to party!  So, what dishes will your heroes likely be served in celebration?  Or how skilled would a spy need to be to infiltrate the castle as a cook?  And do they eat food by hand, using forks, using chopsticks, or something else?)

How everyday people view and enjoy art and music (Tolkien showed this by interspersing ballads — both in English and in his own constructed languages — throughout all his books.  A number of other fantasy writers have followed suit, with mixed results)

What would your hero drink? (not everyone drank just beer or water.  There’s wine (you need an environment where grapes or similar fruits can grow for that), mead (made from honey; means there are bees common in that part of the world, and that honey is cultivated.  Yes, Vikings loved mead, so that meant there must have been Viking beekeepers.  If you just pictured someone in a horned beekeeper’s hat, you probably found that concept as amusing as I did), rice “wine” (arguably more of a beer-process; rice wine would mean rice, which means rice patties, which can effect the terrain and limit or effect the battlefield if armies come marching in), hot chocolate (and the type of hot chocolate; the type of hot chocolate Montezuma served to his guests is more like coffee than the hot chocolate of today), tea (again, has agricultural implications), milk (what type of milk-producing animal is likely to be living in the area, though?)… I could go on.

Government matters, even if your characters never interact with a single member of the government or enforcer of its laws.  A feudal system would affect characters based on their class (like medieval England or Japan; peasants were most likely serfs, which effects their ability to move around legally and means they had little or no money.  That’s not to say there were no freemen, even in feudal times.  Freemen usually had money, businesses, even land and so forth, and could travel at will, but held no titles, and they could lose their rights if they lost their property.  A noble or knight’s retainers might also have social status equal to or greater than normal free men, but again had no hereditary titles.  Knights were both landed and landless, with landless knights (or ronin… well, in very rough equivalencies) having a low status about equal to freemen and landed knights (or samurai) having a high status about equal to a semi-autonomous governor, and then the full-on lords and nobles (or daimyo) who employed the knights (or samurai) and were almost de facto equals in power to the kings, shoguns, and emperors themselves), a republic might change a character’s status with the populace depending on the circumstances of his or her birth (citizens at least theoretically have rights; there are codified laws and a council of some kind — often consisting of citizens — who can make and change those laws.  But these laws usually only applied to citizens; a non-citizen girl might be attracted to a man simply because he is a citizen and can therefore give any offspring they have the rights of citizenship), direct and absolute monarchy\dictatorship (in which case, the bureaucracy that maintains civil order is probably weak… but enforcement of laws that the king cares about is probably swift and strong, because otherwise the king is going to lose power very quickly), a “constitutional” monarchy (which often has some of the same elements as a republic, but may maintain the elements of  social stratification of the feudal system), or… well, democracies DID exist (see ancient Athens) but, outside of Athens itself, rarely survived for very long in the Ancient world.

What industry supports the village\city your characters are in?  It may be easy enough to come up with a job your character does in the village, but villages don’t usually sprout up in the middle of nowhere.  Were they founded in a militarily strategic location (and if so, why was this site strategic militarily?)  Are they a fishing village (means a waterfront)?  Are they a farming village (in which case the decision on the government matters, because farms with a bunch of serfs or slaves to maintain them can grow different crops than a single farmer overseeing a field he owns and runs himself)?  Are they centered around a specific natural resource (gold, iron, silver, etc.  Heck, several of the more wealthy cities in prehistory were centered around salt, believe it or not; a phenomenon that continued for millennia)?  Were they formed as a trading outpost along a major trade route (in which case, what is being traded)?  Etc.

Religion.  Your characters will have some.  Is your culture monotheistic, polytheistic, anamistic, spiritualistic, etc., etc.  Do they worship at central temples or in home-based shrines?  Atheism would probably not be the norm in a fantasy setting (although there may be some other form of “ism” if, in your fantasy world, your characters believe there was a god but he is dead).  Are there holy days, sacred rites, etc.  If you bury a body, what is the method of the funeral?  In fantasy novels, these sorts of questions come up all the time.  Even if you don’t need them for a story element, it helps to have an idea of what sort of religions your characters practice to determine their motivations (a scene where my characters are appealing to their god(s) or otherwise worshiping in their religions has never come up in either of my fantasy series; that said, I have several details in mind about what the religions are like in both of them, whenever one of my characters must face a moral choice.  So if the religious practices of these characters ever come up, I’m covered)

Fashion.  Even soldiers and mercenaries didn’t walk around in armor all the time; when not in armor, did your fantasy civilization wear tunics and pants?  Togas?  Kilts?  Kimono?  Do your characters typically wear hats (a common uniform component, even when not part of armor)?  Are these clothes made of wool, cotton, silk, linen, leather, or something else (don’t ask.  Well, if you really need to know)?  Learn the properties of these cloth types, and how they may cause your characters problems (or how to avoid turning them into problems, if you want to streamline things); linen wrinkles easily, wool would typically be uncomfortable in hot environments, cotton and silk have environmental challenges, and leather requires a lot of maintenance.

How cosmopolitan is your society?  Your hero may live in a trading town of Tudor-style buildings, drinking lingonberry wine, eating stew, wearing a buckskin leather hunting outfit while trying to come up with a law proposal for the town council, but if a stranger wearing a kilt, with the smell of mead on him, comes into the room offering to sell him a ton of his liege lord’s chalk, how strange will your hero think this guy is?

Does your world have magic?  If so, how would that change the way your world has developed.  Is the prevalence of magic the only reason no-one ever developed gunpowder or electricity?  Is magic fairly common, or incredibly rare?  Are people who use magic feared, hated, beloved, worshiped?  Is magic used for everyday things like cooking, cleaning, etc. (after all, we’re talking “daily life” here), or is it only ever used in exceptional circumstances?  How does magic even WORK in this world?

I’m sure there are things I haven’t thought of (in fact, I’m sure of it; I’m posting this blog a day late, and there were things I was thinking of including last night that I can’t think of right now).  The key thing is that, to come up with a daily life for your characters, you must think everything through, and make sure the decisions you’ve made work together.  A person living in a desert is unlikely to eat fish all that often, unless he’s on the coast.  A religion that makes the displaying naked bodies taboo would be very hard to work with inside of a communal longhouse (where EVERYTHING is done publicly.  Yes, even that!).

And if you’ve made it this far, through all the walls of text, you’ve… just barely scratched the surface of what you need to think about for daily life in a fantasy novel.  It’s a big, broad topic, probably worth a whole series of blog posts on its own.  Enough that there are whole books on the topic.

A few recommendations for further reading:

(For Free)

Roman Dress

Sengoku Daimyo

Rosalie’s Medieval Woman

The Viking Answer Lady

(For Bookstores\Libraries)

The Tough Guide to Fantasyland by Diane Wynne Jones

What Kings Ate and Wizards Drank: A Fantasy Lovers Food Guide by Krista D. Ball

Lobscouse and Spotted Dog:  A Gastronomic Companion to the Aubrey\Maturin Novels

Medieval Underpants and Other Blunders: A Writer’s (and Editor’s) Guide to Keeping Historical Fiction Free of Common Anachronisms, Errors, and Myths

1001 Inventions That Changed the World by Jack Challoner

The Prairie Traveler: The 1859 Handbook for Westbound Pioneers by Randolph B. Marcy

Old-Time Farm and Garden Devices and How to Make Them by Rolfe Cobleigh

Book of Old-Time Trades and Tools

And many, many more.  These are just the things I could find on my shelves or in my bookmarks after a few minutes of checking.  If I really wanted to make a comprehensive list, I would have hundreds of bookmarks and thousands of books listed.

Like I said… maybe this is a topic that deserves a whole series of blogs on its own.

Edit:  Comments closed due to 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.

Indie Author Day

Yesterday (yes, I am writing this post on Sunday; it wasn’t possible to get started sooner with this topic) was the 1st Annual Indie Author Day. If you weren’t aware of it, this was an event organized as a collaboration of multiple public and municipal libraries to celebrate indie authors.

Not every public library system celebrated, and those that did had differing levels of participation. From the example of my own local library and from some others that authors in my facebook feed promoted, the program varied a bit but had roughly this program:

1. One or more panels by supposedly independent authors (more on this later).
2. A 2pm live-streamed Video conference to be projected for all attendees (if you’re curious, that conference can be re-watched on Youtube. I thought it was a little dry, myself, and with a bit more self-congratulatory back-patting than I prefer, but there were a few points made that some of you might be interested in)
3. A meet-and-greet of local authors (well, at least those who attended.  Every other local author I knew of didn’t go, and I knew nothing of the ones who did show up.  But it was probably the highlight of the thing, as it allowed indie authors to get to know their fellow indie authors).

This was an event that some libraries did better than others.  Chris Kennedy’s report of the Virginia Beach Library’s program seemed to run so much better than my own (in the Loudoun County Public Library system.  While I am going to be a critical of the program in this blog, however, I am giving them big kudos for having the event at all; several library systems didn’t bother), with more programming:  Virginia Beach had three panels of authors, several of whose names I recognized, against Loudoun County’s single panel, none of whose names I knew.

Also, the Loudoun County meet-and-greet session was mixed in with demonstrations of their Espresso Book Machine; I’m all for them pushing that (these could be good tools for supplemental self-publishing POD distribution, as I mentioned once or twice in my Self-Publishing Roundtable, but more of the machines need to be installed nationwide before they become much more effective than a curiousity), but it should have been at a seperate time (perhaps an hour earlier, leading into the rest of the event).

I also could have wished for better guests for the “Indie Writer” panel.  It wasn’t that the people who were there didn’t belong (well, some of them belonged; I question whether the corporate consultant with no connection to the publishing industry who “self-published” his business book on corporate consulting back more than a decade ago, mostly as promotional material for his business, and who used a vanity press to do it, really qualified as an “Indie Writer”), but… well, there were no headliners. There were no people especially experienced with most of the challenges of independent publishing of fiction (one short fiction writer who mostly wrote for anthologies, one person whose books were originally published with a small press publisher that has since gone defunct, one self-published textbook writer (whose dully-delivered advice consisted, from what I remember of it, of discussing the difficulties of dealing with peer review as an indie.  If you’re writing textbooks, that would be very good advice, but most writers, especially most indie writers, don’t have to deal with that), and the final panelist was the aforementioned vanity-press-published business writer).  These guests all had something to contribute to a panel on one aspect of indie writing or another, but all of them really had limited knowledge on the subject.  No-one really knew indie publishing.

This was an event intended for indie authors and aspiring indie authors.  The aspirants may have heard something new, but the panel spent most of its time dispensing advice which most writers (even most of the aspirants) would have heard a million times before.  It would have been nice if the panel discussing indie publishing and writing had someone with recent experience publishing and writing indie books.

And the panel went on far longer than it should have.  Technical flaws prevented the librarians from connecting with the live video (they had the computer projected on the screen, so I was able to witness the error and all the things they tried to fix it.  All they really needed to do was refresh the web browser, but these librarians, having tried repeatedly to ensure the laptop was plugged in to the power strip, eventually decided that the only way to fix the problem was to replace the lapstop with a different one.  I’m still not sure what they were hoping would happen by replacing the power cords).  Then the librarians got bored and decided to shut the video-conference down and move on to the meet-and-greet session, which I’ve already mentioned was itself interrupted by the Espresso Book Machine demonstration.

So… the event was a little disappointing, technically flawed, and had other issues I won’t go into here (for example, they had a table of cookies as “refreshments.”  Some of these cookies were bone dry, almost dessicating the mouth of those who ate it, and the library offered nothing to drink with them.  You had to go out of the programming room and  into the hall and find a water fountain to wash them down).

And yet I applaud our library for at least trying.  So many public libraries look down on indie writers, and others refuse to do anything to support their local writers.  Ours… well, they don’t know what they’re doing, but at least they and the other two hundred Indie Author Day participating library systems are TRYING to reach out to and support the local writing community.  That’s what libraries should do.  And, if the local writing scene supports it, the librarians at the library will learn what it takes to make an event like this successful.  If there’s interest, they will add more programming, put more effort into the scheduling, and learn better what kind of panelists would interest other writers.

So, if you were at an Indie Author Day event yesterday, or knew of one taking place at your local library, great!  Let your librarians know you were glad they held it, and offer suggestions for what you want to see at such an event in the future.  Ask them to request certain guests in the future, if you know someone (local; they aren’t likely to make much effort reaching out to someone who isn’t already part of the community) who would be good for the panel.  Encourage them to expand the program, either in terms of hours or in terms of more support for Indie Authors (or both, if you think you can pull it off).

If you weren’t, try to find out if your library did participate.  If they didn’t, ask them to look into joining in the event next year.  Show interest in getting your library to support local writers and indies.  If enough people show interest, even the most anti-indie of librarians will eventually (if grudgingly) start doing something for indie authors.

It’s worth the effort.  Libraries can be a great resource for a writer, both in researching for your next book and marketing your existing ones, and events like this would be a great way to connect with them.

On Giving (and asking for) Writing Advice

I thought I had posted this blog last week.  I could have sworn I had, but when I went in to write this week’s Sunday blog I discovered I hadn’t.  Nor was there any mention of it on my Twitter or Facebook feeds.  Oops.  So, slightly revised to accound for the week’s difference, here is the blog that was supposed to be out last Sunday.

Earlier this (or rather, last) week, in a writer’s group on Facebook, a fellow poster posed the following question:

“How do I best handle a character’s accent?”

I can’t find the post in question any more (either it was deleted, Facebook’s notorious “algorythm” is hiding it from me, or it just aged too far back for me to find it), but it had me thinking.

I might have been able to help that person. I like helping my fellow writers, where I can. I’ve done a lot of study just for that reason, and have learned tips and techniques that I’ll probably never use professionally just so that I can give advice when it’s asked for.  But that means, when someone asks a question like “How do I best handle a characters accent?” I come up not with one, but dozens of possible answers… yet I also know that such a question doesn’t provide nearly enough information to give a quality answer, and depending on the details I may not know the right way to answer it:

What genre is the story written in?  What language do your characters regularly speak in?  When is it set?  How important is the character speaking it?  Why is portraying the accent important?  How thick is it?  Does the accent come from regional variations or a foriegn language?

All of those questions matter to my answer.

If your characters don’t speak English (or whatever language you’re writing your novel in), that adds a complicating factor — a French speaker, for example, will have different pronunciation oddities when they’re speaking Japanese versus when they’re speaking English.

If your book is set in the past or the future, colloquialisms will be different, possibly too different for modern readers to recognize (as I said in a previous post, you can’t use the phrase “making lemons out of lemonade” in a setting where they haven’t discovered the lemon, yet.  Similarly, without appropriate context to set it up, it’d be very hard for most modern readers to know what you’re talking about if you refer to brothels as “stews” or candied plums as “suckets.”  And it’s very hard to establish a character’s accent and provide the appropriate context at the same time).

If the character speaking this accent has a small role or only appears in the story for one scene, at most, you have less time to show that accent, and subtler accents will be harder to demonstrate to your audience (despite that rather oversimplified and cliché bit of writing advice, you may have to do more “tell,” less “show,” if you want your readers to know this character has an accent).  If this character has a major role and will appear repeatedly throughout the book, you can take your time to let the reader see it properly.

Why is it important that this character speak with an accent?  Is it a subtle clue (or a read herring) that this character is a spy?  Is it being used to ostracize the character?  Is it just to add color to the story and background to the character?  All of these questions will affect how the accent is best portrayed, whether it should be subtle, whether it is something the reader can\should notice early on, etc., etc.

How thick is this accent supposed to be?  Any accent thick enough will be “noticed” by your other characters, though they may not necessarily be able to place it.  The thicker it is, the more the other characters can react to it.  The subtler it is, you’ll have to give other clues to your readers to show it off.

Does the accent belong to a foriegn language (i.e., Russian) or is it regional (i.e., Southern)?  It makes a difference in how easy it can be to portray an accent — you can show a milder Russian accent just by slipping in the occasional “da” or “nyet,” but if you want it to be a REALLY thick Russian accent you may have to learn a few basics of Russian Grammar to portray the sorts of mistakes your Russian character will make in his speech.  A Southern accent can be portrayed with a few “Y’all”‘s, but you might be better off adding in some uniquely Southern sayings like “Bless their heart,” instead.

This is why I’ll probably never write a book on writing advice. For all too many of the questions that writers actually need advice on, there are too many variables for a “one size fits all” answer.  When you try, you end up with trite, over-generalized catch-phrases like “Show, don’t tell!” and suggestions that might be beneficial in moderation, but taken to the extremes often recommended will have you performing surgery with a chainsaw on your manuscript, like “get rid of all your adverbs!”

Let’s face it — while I like to think I’m a first-rate storyteller, I’m not perfect (few of us are).  From a technical perspective, I’m not the best writer around.  I’m aware of what my flaws are, and do my best to improve on those flaws and to fix them where possible (I don’t obsess over them, however — I’m a strong believer in “the perfect is the enemy of the good enough.”).

Even so, while I will read (or listen) and consider anything any other author has to say on the subject of writing, I generally disregard any “writer advice” that doesn’t fit my personal tastes.  I feel blindly taking such advice, even of people who I acknowledge are better technical writers than I am, might make my writing worse, not better.

That includes “get rid of all your adverbs” and “show, don’t tell.”  There are SOME occasions where both principles will help (I nearly ruined “The Kitsune Stratagem” because I was using adverbs to handle point-of-view problems; thankfully, my editor pointed out the issue and I was able to fix it.  Fortunately, he was a good one, and didn’t tell me to get rid of ALL my adverbs, as some do; he just pointed out the problem and let me cut out the adverbs that needed to be cut and leave in the ones that made sense to leave in).  That said, there are plenty of times where using an adverb makes more sense than not using one, and many times where yes, you do need to TELL people what’s going on rather than show it.

Too much of the writing advice out there has become so generalized it actually harms writers more than it helps them (like Elmore Leonard’s “10 Rules for Writing” AS IT IS POPULARLY REPORTED.  His actual rules include tons of caveats that are almost never included, and those caveats are IMPORTANT, as he details examples for why\how\when they might be broken.  And even with the caveats, I think he’s a bit too strict on several issues).  As Kristine Kathryn Rusch says, follow these rules too strictly and your individual “voice” is gone; it all becomes “Serious Writer Voice.”

I always try to help my fellow writers where I can.  I’m more than willing to answer questions.  But if you have a specific question for me, know that (1) I may need a LOT more information before I can answer it, and (2) I may not have an answer… and if I do, make sure my advice actually works  for YOU.  Don’t let anyone’s “rules for writing” kill your voice.

Note:  Comments closed due to spammers.

In Forgery Divided, Two Months In

It’s been (very roughly) two months since In Forgery Divided‘s release, and I thought I would do a little comparison and contrast for the sales between it and it’s predecessor, In Treachery Forged.

First, a few differences in how the releases went:  When I released In Treachery Forged, it only took me one month to get the print book out.  Two months in and there still is no print edition for In Forgery Divided, and the biggest delay has been the cover.  (I just couldn’t bring myself to approve that cover.  I went back to my cover artist to see if he could help, and he’s sent me a “watered down” version that might not become quite so blacked out in print.  A new proof just arrived, and it actually looks like it’s supposed to.  I’ll have to make a quick check to make sure nothing odd has creeped into it since my last proof, but I should be approving it this week regardless).

The world has changed some; namely, taxes on eBooks in Europe have gone up significantly (they used to be a negligible sales tax; now they’re a 20% VAT tax)

Also, I attempted a few more new-release promotions, trying to get advertisements on Awesome Gang and another company (which I’m not linking to here; from what I can tell, they never showed my ad after agreeing to do so, negotiating a fee, and scheduling a date to show it.  They also never charged me, however, so I suppose it’s no harm, no foul).  I should also note I have twice as many Facebook followers, twenty more mailing list members, infinitely more twitter followers (I opened my twitter account for the first time a few months after In Treachery Forged’s release, so one person would be infinitely more), and… oh, yeah — this blog.

Some things remain the same.  The prices for both are identical at US$5.99, and I haven’t (for either book) run any price promotions; I will note that some portion of oversees books (mostly in Europe) will cost readers more because of the aforementioned changes in tax laws.  Both times, I submitted the cover to the Monthly Indie eBook Cover Design Awards (one difference:  For In Treachery Forged, I was able to submit the cover such that, by a fluke, it was shown by these awards during its first month of release.  For In Forgery Divided, however, it only showed up on the awards well into the second month after publication).  Both books have been given wide releases; I have never availed myself of Amazon’s KDP Select marketing program because of the exclusivity demands.

With that out of the way…

Two months in, with In Forgery Divided, I had sold a total of 1,505 eBooks (and a lone print book, but we can ignore that for now).  Or, rather, I sold 1548 eBooks and had 43 returns for a net of 1,505.  Most of them (1,406 of these net sales) were purchased on Amazon.com’s US store.  I also had 8 net sales on Amazon.uk (curiously, I had 4 returns, so 1/3 of my gross UK sales were returned at that point — by far the largest percentage at the time.  This trend did NOT continue, but at the time I was wondering if something odd was was going on), 20 net on Amazon.de (Germany), 2 from Amazon.fr (France), 4 net from Amazon.in (India), 1 from Amazon.bs (Brasil), 26 net from Amazon.ca (Canada), 27 net from Amazon.au (Australia), 7 from Nook (two of these sales are not technically part of the 1,505 figure even though they did occur in the first two months; the explanation for why is too long and involved for here), and 6 from Smashwords.  (I may have sold as many as 3 additional copies through Apple iBooks via Smashwords during this period; those weren’t credited to my account for another month, however, so I couldn’t count them here. I now go to Apple directly, thanks to my brother owning an Apple computer).

Most of those sales didn’t start until the book was in its second week of sales, but when it started selling it went right up the charts.  I do not have screencaps, but in 2014, I had a few weeks in the top-50 (topping, for one day, in the top-20) on several genre list bestsellers.  At the peak on those lists, I was getting 50-100 sales a day.

I will note that those 1,505 sales were roughly half of my sales of In Treachery Forged prior to publishing In Forgery Divided (which sparked a resurgence of sales in the former).  Another thousand (roughly) were sold over the next four months, and since then the sales dropped to a mere trickle, selling a mere 500 copies over the next year and a half.  So, what my experience with In Treachery Forged suggests is that the “New Release” burst of sales, even when successful, only lasts about six months (to a degree, I saw the same pattern with The Kitsune Stratagem, but that book never had the sales of In Treachery Forged).  Ideally, I’d have another book out before then… but it took over two years for Book 2 to come out.  (I’ll try to be faster with Book 3)

Unsurprisingly (given that not everyone who buys the first book of a series will buy its sequels… especially after a two year wait), sales for In Forgery Divided have not been as strong (on their own, anyway; as I said, it inspired a resurgence in sales of In Treachery Forged, which is making up much of the difference).  They’ve been pretty good, however, considering how long it took me to get book 2 out.

In Forgery Divided’s sales started strong, with its heaviest day of sales occuring just a week and a half after it was published.  The totals for the (roughly) first two months of sales are as follows:

Total Gross Sales:  702 (note: Amazon gives you three different ways of checking your sales; your ranking on the sale page, a graph on your sales dashboard, and a full accounting of your “month-to-date sales.”  These all report at different rates; I’m using the month-to-date sales for these records, because it’s the only one of these that also lets me know about returns… but it’s also the slowest one to report.  I think I have somewhere between 3-5 more gross sales that haven’t been accounted for in this record, yet)

Total Net Sales:  694 (only 8 returns, total?  That’s a real improvement over In Treachery Forged’s initial release)

Net Amazon.com (US) Sales:  603

Net Amazon.co.uk (UK) Sales:  31

Net Amazon.de (Germany) Sales:  18

Net Amazon.fr (France) Sales:  1

Net Amazon.ca (Canada) Sales:  8

Net Amazon.au (Australia) Sales:  27

Net Smashwords sales:  2

Net Nook Sales:  3

Net Apple iBooks Sales:  1

Far fewer returns, even accounting for the fewer sales.  I guess people who read book I are less likely to return book II.

UK sales are much stronger (the UK did, eventually, become the #2 purchaser of “In Treachery Forged,” but for some reason most of those sales didn’t start coming in until four months after its release), and there are even small improvements to sales in Australia and Germany.

It’s only in the US (both on Amazon and with the other vendors) where my initial sales are significantly weaker.  And much of that gap is being compensated for by sales boosts for my other books — over the past two months, the boost in sales to In Treachery Forged can account for approximately five hunded eBooks sold, and even my unrelated novel, The Kitsune Stratagem, has had another twenty or thirty sales generated by the new book release.

I’m not really sure what to make of these numbers, just yet, but as time goes on and I get more data ponts to go on, these numbers might start to mean something.

In the meantime, I’d better keep writing — I want to know what effect Book III will have on sales.