Thursday, March 29, 2012

Backing Up the Winnebago

It's like... when you're doing your first draft, or second or maybe even third, it sucks because what you thought was awesome before turns out to look like total shit when you read back over it again.  But I'm coming up on a new snag, here, because I've finally hit the point where it all looks great to me - genius, I say! - and that means it's time to rely on other talented folks to give it an objective eye.

It's like trying to back a trailer into a parking space, or something - you can think you know what you're doing and be good at it, but ultimately the person on the ground is the only one who can really tell you how close you are to hitting that fire hydrant.

And right now I am just not sure I will ever be able to get this goddamn thing parked.

"Well," the reasonable reader might enquire, "if YOU feel like it's good to go, why don't you start sending it off?"

Two reasons, say I.  First, you need an absolutely KICK ASS beginning, and while I've gotten considerably divergent feedback on what particularly is wrong with mine, kick-ass it is not.  And second, it's not that 148,000 words is totally out of the question for big fat fantasy novels, but if you're going to try and sell that, you have got to make SURE that every single one of those words is absolutely mission-critical.  And mine aren't.  (I think it's more a case of trimming bits here and there, rather than cutting out vast tracts of irrelevance, but I have lost considerable confidence in my bit-trimming insight - again, it's gotten to the stage where it all looks pretty good from here.)

Anyway, the consolation in all this is that I already know I'm going to keep working at it until I'm dead or published, so no danger of quitting in despair.  AND I have already gotten awesome feedback from awesome people, with more yet to come.  Right now it is just real hard to see how this giant unwieldy thing is ever going to fit between the yellow lines.

Fantasia has no boundaries.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Women in Fiction: You're Doing It Wrong

Well, look: I just finished reading Patrick Rothfuss' The Name of the Wind, and won't bore you with all of the particulars (my review is over hither.)  But there's a lot to it, good and bad, and this blog is nothing if not a Sarlacc pit for fiction.

Anyway, I'll keep this particular digestive contraction short.  Here is the thing: writers of the world, you do not have to have women in your books.  Really.  There are some truly fine first-rate stories in which women are nowhere in the picture: the Old Man and the Sea was exactly that, Bilbo Baggins got there and back again with nary a lady in sight, and I'll spare you the Moby Dick reference.  In short, there is nothing wrong with sporting an all-male cast.

BUT (and boy, it's a big but.)  If you're going to feature women in your story, and you want my dollars and my readership, I would kindly ask that you balance out your stupid and/or submissive women with some of the other kind.  Think of it like fixing your carbon footprint by planting some trees. 

"But," you may say, "writing women is HARD.  The delicate-flower thing isn't PC anymore, but everybody gives you grief if you just make a man with tits."

BOY do I hear that.  So here's what you do: go watch Firefly.  Doesn't take long; they canned it after like one season.  Watch and learn, and then, get feminine.  You might even like it.

Sir? I'd like you to take the helm, please. I need this man to tear all my clothes off.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

New This Week #3: Finding Misery

Well, this was an apt title to choose for today - I wouldn't say I've exactly found MISERY, but I did just find out that my submission didn't make it through this round of the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award, so it's not exactly puppies and rainbows either.

Anyway, so Finding Misery, by Russell C. Connor.  This guy is another I’ve met through the book group; as before, I wanted to try at least one of his books, but I confess: ever since Pet Sematary scared the daylights out of my 12-year-old self, I’ve been too chicken to revisit the horror genre, which is Connor’s bread and butter.  (I do really want to try his Whitney at some point, though: the idea of setting a horror story in the aftermath of a hurricane, when the power is out and streets are flooded and looters are prowling through wrecked homes EVEN BEFORE the unspeakable whatever-it-is comes crawling up out of the sea, is pretty thrillsome just on principle.)

So I was delighted to find out that he had a new book just coming out, this one in something of a different vein.  I could sketch it out here, but let me put it to you the way that the book itself does: our man – earnest nice-guy underachiever Rudy Compton – just found out that his wife is cheating on him.  Again.  And in the aftermath, on his first and only night in jail, shit gets REALLY weird, REALLY fast.  I want to emphasize this opening part of the book, because for me, it’s what sells the whole thing.  Sure, there’s plenty of awesomeweird spec-fic supernatural stuff further in, but I wouldn’t have gotten that far if Rudy’s Earth-normal life didn’t hook me all by itself.  I think Connor’s winning strategy comes down to two things, really.

1.  Triggering the reader’s morbid curiosity / rubbernecker instinct.  Relationship drama (of the call-the-cops varietal) is always ugly, fascinating stuff, and packs an extra punch here because it’s as new and shocking to Rudy as it is to us – this is NOT his accepted norm.  Which brings me to:

2.  Casting Rudy as a true newbie in all this – sharp-witted and a little scrappy but also profoundly lost.  You can picture Ed Norton’s character in Fight Club without going far off the mark, and maybe that’s the best way to sum it up: in both cases, it’s the voyeuristically-detailed shambles of the main character’s life that draw you in, and the story just gets bigger from there.  

There's a few more points to make about this book, but all of them are over in my review, so I'll leave it here.  Apparently even the rejected entries get feedback from two reviewers though, so I'll probably come cast up my private shame here in the next day or so.  Look forward to it!

Hemingway said to never write about a place until you're away from it, because it gives you perspective.  But one look at that exposed metal toilet in the front corner of the cell reminds me I'm no Hemingway.

Monday, March 19, 2012

New This Week #2: That Weird City

This one is harder to write about, but I want to try and do it justice.  That Weird City, by Aaron Jacobs and C. Brian Hickey, is a collection of ten spec-fic short stories, which I hate for furthering the stereotypes of self-published work, and love for every other reason under the sun.

First, the beefs: there are typos and errors galore, and several of the stories desperately need to go back in the drawer for a substantial reworking. That first part’s easy enough to fix – one careful read-through by a good editor would have taken care of it. The second part, though, is what really showcases the difficulty of writing sci-fi and fantasy short stories. Of the four that fell flat for me, three were doing what would have worked PERFECTLY in novel-length fiction: setting up a fantastical scenario, explaining the rules of the magic system / super-technology, and then forcing the protagonists to duke it out within the given rule-set, often by doing something clever to overcome long odds and carry the day.

What sucks is that that tends not to work in short stories, because even if you’re efficient and canny in explaining how her Grass-type Pokemon beat his Fire-type Pokemon because she Pokevolved the Bulbasaur into an Ivysaur at the last minute and then used Overgrow to KO the Charmander… it still tends to evoke more of an “oh, okay” than an “ohmygod NO WAY.” I think that’s because after you’ve spent so many words setting that all up, and more words on top of that to describe all the resulting awesomecool special effects, you the short-story writer have very little space left to accomplish what the novelist still has chapters and chapters’ worth of room for: creating emotional investment in the character(s), amping up the tension and the stakes, and bringing the reader right to the edge of their proverbial seat before the first Pokeball is thrown.

The thing is, though, there is PLENTY of evidence in this collection to show that Hickey and Jacobs are black-belt masters at all of the above, and the simplest of their stories show it off the best. For example, there’s the one about the second-grader, whose monster under the bed is actually real. That’s it – that’s all the setup you need. It’s real, it’s under there, it wants to eat her, and let me tell you, by the time you get to the part where the monster is starting to ever-so-slowly tip the bed, your eyeballs will be RIVETED to the page.

And maybe part of the reason why that’s so gob-smackingly effective is because it’s scarier and more mysterious when you DON’T know all the rules. Maybe that’s the real advantage of the short-story format: for almost the entirety of your 10-30 pages, you can absolutely marinate the reader in the “strange happenstance” phenomenon that the novelist is obliged to start actually explaining after the first three chapters.

And at the end of it, that is why I will absolutely recommend That Weird City to anyone with a passing interest: it’s HARD to pull off a triple-lutz, and the fact that these guys occasionally fall flat on the ice in attempting it actually serves to underscore what an ambitious, talented, and profoundly entertaining program they’ve created.  Like I said in my review, $3 won’t buy you a better time anywhere.

Come back tomorrow for Finding Misery, in which Misery absolutely does come with the capital 'M'.

There was rioting, yes, in the first days after the announcement.  Rioting, and skirmishes, even a nuclear exchange somewhere in Asia.  It was all just a tantrum.  A species kicking its feet and flailing its arms, not wanting to be put to bed.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

New This Week #1: Emperor Mollusk vs the Sinister Brain

Actually, I believe one of these came out two weeks ago, but nevermind: I have conquered no less than three books in the last seven days, and since they are all new releases from less-than-ridiculously-famous authors, I wanted to take a minute to showcase them for you, the discerning fiction enthusiast.

First up is Emperor Mollusk versus the Sinister Brain, by A. Lee Martinez.  Full disclosure: I met the author at my local writing workshop, and then went to find some of his books.  The only one I could immediately get my hands on was A Nameless Witch, which I read and for the most part enjoyed, but also had serious issues with (you can see my review over here.)  So I had tempered my expectations for this new novel, even in spite of its scintillating title.

Well, let me tell you: it lives up to the name.  This is a pulp-tastic Earth-and-space adventure with mutant dinosaurs and cheerfully voracious cyborg-centipedes and immortal mummy queens and loads more besides – and what really impressed me isn’t that it’s fun and colorful and creative all the way through, but that all of it is used to overlay a Deep Thought or two – pretty artfully, to my mind.  I guess my biggest regret with this book is that all of those neato-terrific creatures and setpieces are so transient: coming from a section of the bookstore where you can readily expect to spend a sequel or three with all the fantastic characters and conceits from the Discworld or the Hitchhiker’s Guide, glossing over these ones here in the space of a couple hundred pages (and really more like thirty apiece, since the narrative keeps us hustling on through) is like having only half an hour to tour the whole of Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory: frustrating as hell, but what a great problem to have!

Tune in tomorrow for That Weird City, a collection of short stories for which 'weird' is just the beginning.

Mutant insects were eating Kansas.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Ordering, or, What Pushes YOUR Buttons?

No awesome accomplishments to detail this week; real life has sucked me up altogether.  (Well, I did go to a pretty kick-butt author-reading session at the local B&N today; that was rad.) 

You know what I've always liked in fiction?  Ordering.

And when I was a kid, I didn't care if it was ham-fistedly done: I was consternated and delighted when I got to the top of the Tower of Zot and had the showdown with Sandy, Cindy, and Mindy (there's an order to taking them down, and you are screwed without it!), and just because you knew from the get-go that there were four Elemental Fiends didn't make them any less thrillsome in turn (all right, she's the Fiend of Air, what's she going to - OH GOD WHAT.) 

As I've gotten older and harder to please, though, what really pumps me up are the stories where the ordering is less rote, more subtle.  A truly excellent example is the matching of the Ur'Ru and the Skeksis in The Dark Crystal: in the movie, it's no secret that their lives are linked, but the finer parallels are laid out in the book: the Alchemist shares his soul with the Scientist, the Cook with the Gourmand, and so on.  Or (for real thematic whiplash here), there's the Seven Evil Exes of Scott Pilgrim: you know the number from the get-go, but the numbering under the numbering is sublime.  I hardly need to nerd at length about it when the Wiki spells it out so much better than I could.

To be sure, this is the WORST of all plot elements when it's abused.  (Man, I was SO INTO InuYasha for the first... what, four or five episodes.  Then the shikon jewel shattered into a MILLION tiny little pieces, every one of which would have to be individually collected in what promised to be a truly bloated and episodic saga, and I was done.)  At its worst, it makes the story obscenely predictable, and cuts the tension down to zero: if it's said outright that the hero has to collect seven magical plot-coupons in order to save the world, is anyone really on the edge of their seat thinking that he might die trying to win coupon #4? 

But when it's done right, ordering is a SUBLIME way to ratchet up the tension.  Every deadly sin in Se7en nudges up your horror and nausea as you try to imagine the next ghastly atrocity - and I don't know about you, but knowing that three of the five Gates have already been destroyed is leaving me right on the edge of my seat as The Order of the Stick tries to save at least one of the last two before the bad guys can get at them and ruin the world.

You know, for a wannabe author, I have a suspicious dearth of books represented in all this.

Anyway!  So that's my rambling; let's hear yours.  What particular fiction elements get YOUR creative brain-sensors all a-tingling?

I'm Ramona's FIRST evil ex-boyfriend.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Today's Special: Cream of Yesterday

Didn't get to do as much on the career-oriented do-list this week - there was just a monstrous pile of responsibility waiting for me when we got home from Houston - BUT:

--read Dresden Files 3!  Review is over hither:

--went back to writers' workshop and read again, and it worked out just swell: it was a whole different group of people, so I got to read my same piece from last week over again (having fixed a couple of small things in the interim), and this time I did it slowly and without having a nervous aneurysm - to much better effect!  Overall it was much better received, but there was enough continuity in the criticisms from week 1 to week 2 to make it real clear what I need to do with this first bit.  One scene down... only 127 more to read!

--did some homework on the agents attending the writing conference in May, and picked out my top three choices for pitching.  I still don't know much about what the actual pitch itself should be like, but there's time enough to work on that.

I am aiming to put a lot more time into the reading/writing/posting sphere over this upcoming week, though it's hard to know exactly what to do next.  It doesn't make sense to rip back into editing the manuscript just yet, but I would not like to be idle, either.  Maybe the next job should be the language-construction stuff.  I can go bang out a neuter-gender for French regardless of what actual dialogue is going to get used in the book.

Well, the NEXT job is getting out of this chair and going to bed so that I can get up early tomorrow, fix breakfast, go hurry and clean my folks' house, come home, fix lunch, and get my ducks in order before my new class starts tomorrow afternoon.  But thanks for the foray into fantasyland, Internetizens - see you again ASAP!

Holy brillig and slithy toves, Batman.