General Writing, Publishing

Why You Need Rhino Hide

For the last few months, I’ve watched a tragedy unfold on goodreads. An author (who I will leave nameless) has been getting bad reviews of a book that they are proud of. Instead of ignoring the reviews, they have gone on the attack on Twitter. The readers don’t understand that the book, is an adult fantasy, nor how to read one, they say. Readers are prejudiced against the writer’s queerness. Really, their constant refrain is, the book is highly original, and a work of staggering genius. The defensiveness irritates some readers so much that a few have gone so far as to down-vote the book in response. The whole story has an inevitability that makes it a classic example of how not to respond to criticism.

Oh, I understand the urge to respond. Who isn’t proud of their published works? However, I have one advantage that most would-be writers lack: for years I’ve made my living through articles about open source software and the community that builds it. A more outspoken audience doesn’t exist. I’ve even had three stalkers, each of whom for a time apparently had nothing better to do than nitpick my every publication. For sheer survival, I quickly learned to develop the hide of a rhinoceros.

So how do I cope? Unlike some writers, I don’t just ignore comments. I’m too curious for that. But I have developed a basic strategy that allows my continued survival.

The first thing I do is consider the validity of comments. If I’ve made a mistake, I accept it. Sometimes I even thank the commenter. But if what I’ve said is taken out of context or misunderstood, I don’t waste time worrying. Once, for instance, I wrote something like, “I don’t believe that there are many differences between men and women. However, after reviewing this product from an all-women team, I have to change my mind.” No sooner was the article posted than some wrote a lengthy reply explaining to me why the first sentence was wrong and how I obviously wasn’t married (which I was) — and ignored the second sentence altogether. Once I noticed that, I could safely ignore the comment, except to laugh. Often, readers will bring things to a criticism that are only remotely related to what you actually write, and this case was one of those times.

Another question I bring to comments is whether there is any consensus, or even a substantial response that is not what I intend. If there is, then I will revise when I can to eliminate any faults or misunderstandings. But if there’s no prevailing experience, I can largely the response. I had one story that was called both communist and captitalist and feminist and misogynist. Since to be all those things at the same time is generally impossible, I could safely conclude that, once again, readers were voicing things they brought to the story, rather than responding to attitudes that the story actually contained.

Whenever possible, I try not to respond to any comments. I always would rather move on to a new story than rehash an old one. Still, sometimes the comment was based on a false premise that might mislead other readers. In such cases, I have a two response rule. In the first response, I correct the comment as needed. If the commenter responds, I reassert my corrections and end by saying that I will not be responding further. In both responses, I do my best to stay polite, even when insulted. If I still waste time with the two response rule, I avoid wasting even more time by being drawn into an endless flame war — all the while satisfying my too-human need to defend myself without going to extremes.

You may develop a different strategy, but if you are going to survive as a writer, you do need one that will leave you looking professional. I don’t know how the story of the writer on goodreads will end, but their reaction to criticism may have sunk that book of which they are so proud, and just might have labeled them as too difficult for agents and publishers to deal with. No one likes to have their work criticized, but if you develop a layer of rhino hide, at least you can look professional.

General Writing, Queries, Reviews and Analysis

Better Queries Through Olivia Atwater’s Better Blurbs

December isn’t the time to query a novel, so I am finding an outlet for my impatience by tweaking my query. By coincidence, yesterday I came across Olivia Atwater’s Better Blurb Writing for Authors, and immediately downloaded it. I’m glad I did, because it vastly improved my query letter.

Atwater’s book is a short read. Although she is mostly talking about blurbs on the back of a book, almost all that she says is valid for query letters, too. She begins with a point so obvious that many writers overlook it: a query letter is a marketing tool, and should be written accordingly. Atwater suggests that you begin by creating a list of features of your book that would encourage readers to take a closer look, including the genre and the comps – what she calls a one-click list, meaning what will make an online reader click for a closer look. From the one click list, you should then write an opening paragraph for your query that includes at least three items on the list, and a hook. Follow the opening with the pitch itself, telling the high points of the story and mentioning as many other items as possible on the list, if possible, giving a sense of the tone of the book. Only then should you descend into the comps, the length, and other materials, ending with one last pitch. Atwater gives much more detail, but that the gist.

As soon as I started reading, I started seeing the flaws in my query. To start with, I hadn’t figured out my selling points. Actually, I had overlooked the selling points altogether, giving a mediocre query:

Talson Ravenpiper’s ancestors were heroes, but he is doomed to become a clerk. Overnight, tht changes as he becomes his mother’s heir and the keeper of the family tradition – to say nothing of unwillingly betrothed, accused of murder, and on the run from his sister and her pet monster. Worse, in his struggle to survive, his only ally is a hereditary enemy. Before long, he is questioning not only everything he believes, but whether the family tradition should be preserved at all. And what if enemies become lovers?

Not the worst query I’ve seen floating around the internet, but not a good one, either.
Following Atwood’s advice, I started my revision with my list of selling points:

  • heroic fantasy
  • mis-matched lovers
  • pursuit
  • post-colonialism
  • the nature of heroes and heroism
  • comps: Merciful Crow, Realm of Ash

Technically, Margaret Owen’s Merciful Crow is Young Adult, and Atwater suggests never to comp a genre other than your own, but I would argue that Merciful Crow is a cross-over book, and popular with adults as well. At any rate, it is better than Patricia Finney’s Robert Carey mysteries, which were an influence, but less likely to work in a pitch for a heroic fantasy like mine.

Armed with my list, I wrote:

Not long ago, Talson Ravenpiper’s greatest worry was how to live up to his family’s heroic reputation. That was before he met Kosky of the GreaseMakers and her sarcastic tongue.

Talson learned early to honor the deeds of his ancestors and to shun its traditional enemies the hill-clans. But that was before his sister Skulae framed him for murder and started hunting him with her pet monster. Now, Kosky, a woman of the hill-clans, is the only person he can depend on. Yet amid their struggle to survive, Kosky forces Talson question everything he once believed – even whom he should love.

If this is heroism, it does not feel like it. And unless he finds answers to his questions, the best that his family stands for could be swept away by war.

The improvements are many. My query now has a hook: Talson’s life has changed, and with luck readers will want to know how. The names, and the obvious importance of heroism signal that the book is a heroic fantasy, and the mis-matched lover trope is introduced, as well as both main characters, instead of just the one mentioned in the original draft. Also, mention of Kosky’s “sarcastic tongue” provides just a hint of the occasional flippancy in the book. Just mentioning her “sarcasm” wouldn’t have quite the same effect.

The next paragraphs develops the list points first, with luck giving just enough additional detail that readers want to learn more. For example, they suggest that the novel is not just a heroic fantasy, but one that explores the idea of the hero, and make the mis-matched lover theme explicit. In addition, they add the pursuit theme. Perhaps most important of all, Talson’s dilemmas are no longer played out in his head, but among Talson and two other characters. Now, the stakes are clearer; the first draft query might summarize a philosophical study of heroism.

My last two paragraphs needed only the change in comps that I mentioned. Otherwise, they were more or less in keeping with Atwater’s suggestions. However, for anyone who might be interested in the whole query, here they are:

The Bone Ransom is a 102,000 word adult fantasy with series potential about a young man and woman thrown into the great events of their times and learning to overcome their cultural divide. Like Margaret Owen’s Merciful Crow, it is a story of pursuit and mis-matched lovers, but with a post-colonial background like Tash Suris’s Realm of Ash.

A recovering academic, I have written two books on open source software and a third on fantasy writer Fritz Leiber, as well as over 2200 articles on open source computing. Although my family is English-Canadian, I am a long-time supporter of emerging First Nations artists, and I offer a scholarship at the Freda Diesing School of Northwest Carving. Sitting in the workshops of First Nations teachers and students at the school has been a major influence on The Bone Ransom’s characters and settings, although I write strictly from an outsider’s point of view.

Besides my choice of blurbs, the only way in which I did not follow her advice was to end with an action item, such as “Buy this book!” While I believe in looking your best, an blatant hard sell is distasteful to me, and seems unnecessary. After all, a query is all about offering something for sale, and everybody knows that. Still, I was glad to compare my efforts to a more expert opinion, and perhaps I will reconsider my position later on. As Atwater says, a blurb should be revisited from time to time after you’ve got a satisfactory one.
Meanwhile, I can’t wait to try my fortune with my new blurb.

General Writing

Making Character Lists More Interesting

Fantasy novels tend to have a lot of characters. The Bone Ransom, the novel I am currently querying, has thirty-two, if you count off-stage and historical figures with names, although that number plunges to twenty if I only include those who actually appear. That’s far from the largest cast I’ve come across, but big enough that a list of characters seems to be called for. But character lists are boring to raead, even if useful as an occasional reference. How, I wondered, could they be made more interesting?

I found my answer in Lindsey Davis’ mystery novels set in ancient Rome. Davis plays it safe, titling her lists “Principal Characters” – a wise precaution, since unless you keep track as you write, it’s easy to miss a few. More to the point, her list is not just a dry description of each character, but often includes wry comments. Often, these comments can only be fully appreciated after you have finished the book. For example, her list in Two for the Lions, the first of her books I found on the shelves, includes “Maia: Falco’s younger sister, looking for her chance,” followed by “Famia: Maia’s husband, looking for a drink.” The same list includes “Pompius Urtica: a praetor who never did anything illegal” and “Iddibal: a far from beastly bestiarius.” With entries like these, Davis’ Principle Characters are always fun to read just for themselves.

In the same spirit, my list now contains entries like “Talson: a teenage boy corrupted by stories” and “Skulae: Talson’s sister. Nothing is her fault.” Other entries I am fond of include “Aglachad Torhte: Second Cousin to the Ravenpipers and not important enough” and (for a member of the undead) “Leel: A housecarl who has let herself go.” Whether readers will appreciate these remarks remains to be seen, but they definitely made compiling the list more enjoyable for me.

General Writing, Queries

Debunking Three Fallacies About Querying

I’ve barely started to query. Yet already, I have found three cases where the conventional wisdom of aspiring writers is incorrect, or a half truth at best.

For instance, the popular assumption is that an agent is a necessity. This belief is so ingrained that several people say they will sign with an agent no matter what. Considering that your agent is important to your career, that is a rash position. However, more to the point, that belief is not true. No doubt an agent, with a knowledge of publishing that you lack, can ease a new writer’s way. Yet early in my planning, I discovered that both DAW Books and Tor accept submissions without an agent. Almost certainly, others do as well. Of course, if a publisher does make you an offer, the first thing you might do is find an agent, although you might get along with the SFWA’s model contract as a guide to negotiation. But going directly to the publisher does have the advantage of removing one obstacle in your journey towards publication.

Another common fallacy is that 95 thousand words is the required length for an adult work of fantasy or science fiction. It seems a good average and target to aim at, yet requirements vary. To use the same examples, DAW Books has only a minimum length of 80 thousand, while Tor will consider works of up to 130 thousand. Unless you have a work in progress whose hardcopy would break your big toe if dropped on it, there is far more flexibility than new writers believe – in which case, you can try the more difficult task of pitching a series instead of a single book.

A third mistaken assumption is that your manuscript must be in MS Word format (.doc or .docx). That may have been true a decade or two ago. Yet today many agents and publishers are a lot more flexible, especially if they use Submittable. .Pdf, .doc, .docx, .txt, .rtf, .wpf, .odt (LibreOffice and Open Office), and .wpd may all be acceptable. Personally, I prefer .pdf, because it sidesteps the problem of font substitution, assuring that people will see your work as you intended. However, you may not have a choice, because, to avoid the possibility of viruses, many agents and publishers require the manuscript be added to an email in plain text, which is a nuisance if you use styles and have to find a simple way to add spaces between paragraphs (Using LibreOffice, I used the Alternative Find and Replace extension, saving myself hours of dull manual labor).

I expect to find even more to debunk as I get deeper into querying. For now, one thing is clear: don’t make any assumptions – especially about issues that everybody thinks they know. Each agent and publisher posts their submission guidelines, which can usually be found quickly. The lack of uniformity may sometimes seem like a form of literary hazing, but you are hopping to be accepted into a fraternity of sorts, and the first step to acceptance is to follow the guidelines.

Announcement, General Writing, Poetry

Just Released: The Raven Ballads

As of September 23, 2021, I am releasing as a free download Raven Ballads, a collection of fantasy poems mentioned in my recently completed novel The Bone Ransom. In a perfect world, the poems would be given in full in the novel, but it is over eighty years since Tolkien published The Lord of the Rings, and modern audiences no longer tolerate that. Some readers even go so far as to say that they never read poetry, which causes problems for writers who want to use poems and songs as part of their world-building. I have compromised by including only snippets, most under six lines and all under twelve. However, having written a snippet, I always find myself compelled to write the complete poem, which explains this collection.

Perhaps, though, I lie. I say I wrote Raven Ballads, but the truth is that my main character Talson Ravenpiper wrote — or, at least, at the start of the novel, he is collecting the material for a book of the same name. Talson’s Raven Ballads are about his family, and he hid his when he had to flee a series of unfortunate events. By contrast, my Raven Ballad carries a wider variety of songs and poems, only some of which are about the upstart Ravenpipers. So maybe I am a plagiarist, or at least an imitator, and Talson should be given the writer’s credit, as he insists in the small hours of the night. He’s quite persistent, in his polite way.

It’s all very confusing, but since no one will make one silver pence from the publication, perhaps I shouldn’t worry.

I hope to see The Bone Ransom published soon, and in a couple of years the rest of its trilogy. Meanwhile, for those who wonder how I (or maybe Talson) has spent the last few years, or for those who want a foretaste of the novel, you can download my Raven Ballads from:

Fiction, General Writing

Why I Don’t Plan to Hire an Editor

When I announced that I had finished writing my novel, several friends immediately suggested that I hire an editor. I thought about this advice, but in the end decided not to. I already have the necessary resources on hand, and, as my critique partner points out, doing so may not be the best tactic when I query.

I am what I like to call a recovering academic. I’m an ex-university instructor, whose teaching duties included composition, and I must have marked several thousand essays for both content and grammar. So long as I wait a few days in order to get some distance from my work, I have faith in my ability to edit my own work. And that is not a false conceit, either: for twenty years, the editors to whom I have sold non-fiction – over 2200, before I lost count – have remarked on my clean copy. Besides, if I miss something, my critique partner, who is another teacher and successful seller of her own non-fiction, is bound to catch it. She also has the added advantage of being more familiar with my work than anybody other than me. So I think I more or less have editing covered.

In addition, my critique partner points out that in traditional publishing, hiring an editor is generally frowned on. For one thing, it’s an extra expense. For another, publishers generally have their own in-house editors, so an outsider can be a needless complication. Even more importantly, agents and publishers often prefer to see what you can do on your own, so they can see your level of skill. Anyway, on the road to publication, there are likely to be countless changes, so that the best time for editing is usually near the end of the process. Edit too soon, and you are likely to have to do it twice.

Perhaps if I eventually decide to self-publish, I would reconsider and hire an editor. In that circumstance, the editor I hired would take the place of a publisher’s in-house editor. However, despite the conventional wisdom among aspiring writers, hiring an editor is by no means a required step for any form of publication. It depends on your level of skill and your available resources.

General Writing

Finishing a Novel

Ever since I was twelve, I wanted to write a novel. Over the years, I tried several times, but I never got very far in my efforts. Usually, I never got past the first chapter. Somewhere, though, I gained the necessary knowledge and persistence, and on July 23, 2021, at 3:20 pm, I wrote the last words of a fantasy called The Bone Ransom. The fact that I noted the time so exactly indicates how important the milestone is to me.

I have written three non-fiction books: a critical study of the fantasy writer Fritz Leiber, and a how-to about LibreOffice and another about making ebooks with open source applications. They are satisfying accomplishments in their own way, but definitely consolation prizes. For me, the first prize has always been a novel.

So how do I feel? I am still struggling to understand, but my first reaction is that I feel like I can rest. I struggled with the last few chapters, seeming to have a block against finishing. Months ago, I settled into the routine of drafting, and part of me wanted to stay in the safety of that familiar territory. One day, my anxiety about moving on became so extremely that I literally was unable to touch-type. Now, I feel that I can take some time off, or maybe try a short story or two that I can finish in a few weeks.

More importantly, I feel justified. Not many people, I suspect, manage to fulfill their lifelong ambitions. I have achieved my self-chosen, existential goals. Fiction, I believe, is what I have chosen to do, and my life has not been wasted. The result is a quiet, but definite satisfaction, accompanied by a paranoid obsession with backups so that I don’t lose the manuscript. Backup glitches were disturbing enough when the work was incomplete. Now, I don’t want to lose any of the 95,000 odds words, except through editing.

Both these reactions, of course, are tempered by the fact that, as satisfying as completion of the manuscript might be, it is only just a start. Ahead of me lie final edits, and after that the process of querying agents and publishers. I may not know for several years whether my novel will be picked up by a traditional publisher, or if I will self-publish. For this reason, as I contemplate my accomplishment, my strongest feeling is simply: Good start.

General Writing, Uncategorized

Story conflict without violence: Victoria Goddard’s The Hands of the Emperor

Writers often talk about conflict, but much of what they say is wrong. Too often, they are likely to see the word “conflict” and assume it means violence, especially in their opening hook. This assumption can quickly become a problem, because –let’s face it — many writers have no experience of violence. Moreover, if you start with a sword fight or a chase, you create the additional problem of making readers care about a character they know nothing about. Even more importantly, if you identify conflict with violence, you risk a crude and unsubtle story.

So what’s the alternative? In The Hands of the Emperor, a long self-published novel that is currently attracting widespread attention, Victoria Goddard offers one alternative: instead of external conflict, try internal conflict instead. Here’s how she does it:

Her main character, Cliopher Mdang, is the only member of his family to seek a career abroad. He has become personal secretary to the Emperor, the manager of the imperial bureaucracy, and a byword for efficiency. He rarely has time to return home, where everybody in his extended family knows him simply as Kip. Cliopher is proud of his accomplishments, but he is unmarried and sees few friends or family as he goes about his work. He needs balance in his life.

At the start of the novel, Cliopher has a distant relationship with the Emperor. The Emperor is ringed with tabus, and Cliopher is not one to presume, and avoids any familiarity. Then, tentatively, alarmed at his own daring, he suggests that the Emperor take a holiday. To his surprise, the Emperor accepts the invitation, taking Cliopher and several other leading members of the court with him. During the holiday, the Emperor learns to relax and Cliopher sees someone as isolated as himself. Slowly, a friendship develops between two lonely men who barely know what friendship even means.

As Cliopher assists the Emperor, he starts to think about his own retirement. The trouble is, home and family irritate him. His friends and family do not realize that he is the second most important person in the empire. They seem him as an amiable mediocrity, and he is too modest to correct them. Just as his pride in his accomplishments is tempered by a wish for a life of his own, so his love of home is tempered by irritation. The story is about he struggles with this ambivalence and —

–And that’s it. The violence is next to non-existent, and the magic is largely ceremonial, or a display at festivals. Yet those who rank their reading by the body counts –the higher the better — may be surprised to learn that result is fascinating. Cliopher is an intelligent, quietly humorous man who is impossible to dislike, and his journey from the stiff and lonely Cliopher back to plain Kip is quietly moving and impossible to put down.

This is not the first time I have heard that conflict does not imply violence. In the early 1990s, Ursula Le Guin discussed “The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction,” championing narrative over conflict. However, Le Guin never altogether managed to make her narratives as interesting as stories of conflict, and, without saying anything, slowly returned to a more conventional, if broader perspective.

By contrast, The Hands of the Emperor shows that at least one successful alternative to our traditional ideas of conflict and story structure actually exists. Based on this example, I am no longer thinking in terms of conflict, let alone violence, in structuring a story. Instead, I am thinking of story structure in terms of a lack of harmony, or perhaps an imbalance that the main characters struggle against. This re-framing, I believe, can only deepen our understanding of story.

General Writing

Connotations in Fantasy

For me, nothing kills the mood of a fantasy faster than modern language. I don’t expect writers to use Old or Middle English, still less what used to be called “speaking forsoothl” in the Society for Creative Anachronism — an imaginary dialect cobbled together from swashbuckling books and movies that no one every actually spoke and does ungrammatical things like adding “est” at the end of every word. I understand, too, that just because the culture in a story is medieval, it doesn’t have an exact copy of the actual Middle Ages. However, nothing is more jarring that modern phrases that carry a whole set of associations that are dependent on our culture.

Let me give you some examples I recently found. I won’t mention the title or the author, because it’s a first publication, and my point is not to shame anyone. Still, here are five example from the first fifty pages:

  • “estimated time of arrival:” An obsession with time and time-tables is no more than a couple of centuries old. It began with the regular running of coaches and later of trains and airplanes. A culture at any less advanced technological stage would have no interest in the implied concern with exact time.
  • “maximum potential”: This is the language of self-help, which is no more than a century old at best. Probably the closest most past eras would have to this concept is the idea of living a godly life and being concerned with charity.
  • “a feeling of weightlessness:” This phrase only makes sense if you understand that mass and weight are two different things in certain circumstances. Seventy years of space flight makes that concept familiar to most people today, but people of the past would know nothing of the theory. At most, they might notice that they felt lighter when submerged in water.
  • “toxic”: We talk all the time about people being psychologically toxic. However, that usage is no more than a couple of decades old.
  • “doing the math”: High school blurs the distinction between mathematics and arithmetic. However, that distinction would not have existed more than a century ago. Before that, it is doubtful that the average person would have heard the word “mathematics.”

I could continue, but I think these will give a sense of what I am talking abut

The trouble with these words and phrases is that they are tightly connected to modern culture. Hear “estimated time of arrival,” and visions of an airport arrival and departure board are likely to flash through your mind. Similarly, “maximum potential may bring visions of a room full of people on their yoga match. Nothing is wrong with such connotations in a modern setting, but in a different setting, they can take you out of the story and kill the atmosphere. At the very least, they are a distraction. In extreme cases, they can spoil the story.

A concern for connotation can, of course, take you too far. Technically speaking, for example, a story set in the Renaissance should avoid the word “Mind” because the concept of mind originated in the Enlightenment. But this example is obscure, and is unlikely to ruin the story for more purposes. In addition, some fantasy, like Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and Gray Mouser series, uses such connotation for comedy. However, connotation is something fantasy writers need to consider in their editing — perhaps even more so than typos or grammar.

General Writing

Lessons in Pacing

As I make my final revision before I query, one of the last aspects of writing that I am learning is pacing.

I long ago learned the trick of varying sentence length to increase tension. I’ve learned, too, such tricks of spacing dialog at regular intervals in a scene to increase or decrease readers’ attention, and half a dozen other tricks besides. However, I never learned how to pace an entire book until I had a nearly complete manuscript.

Like many writers, in my first draft or two, I had no idea of how long my finished manscript might be. I originally planned on a single book. However, two-thirds of the way through the first draft, I realized that the complete story would need to be divided into two books at a minimum. At the same point in the second draft, I realized that I would need a trilogy – something I swore that I would never write. I could persist in one or two books, but the story would be rushed and poorly told.

However, I didn’t worry much about the pacing until I accepted that I was doing a trilogy. Deciding where to end the first book, I found a natural climax almost immediately. However, in the first two drafts, the climax took a chapter. It was not that important, although I had always felt that the next chapter was a new start. To serve as a climax, the chapter had to be expanded to two or three. So, right away, I had to find a way to draw out the action and keep it interesting.

That was just the start of the change in pace. With the climax’s increased importance, I had to change the pace throughout. If the story were to rise to an exciting climax, I had to replot to have more encounters between the protagonists and the antagonists. That meant three new chapters, and heavy revision of several more. Mindful of the fact that Dracula works largely because the titular character has limited appearances, I also wanted to find ways to limit my antagonists’ appearances.

These changes had a ripple effect, throwing off the pace of the romance between my two main characters. Their personal story also needed to be re-paced, interwoven reasonably seamlessly around the main conflict. I was especially proud when one of the new chapters managed to advance both the main conflict and the romance sub-plot at the same time.

As I write, I am wrapping up the first book. However, already, I can see the ripple of changes continuing, and meeting other currents of revision. Most notably, the name of the second book means that events that originally started towards the end of the second book now occupy the whole of the second, and that another sub-plot has become much more important. As I turn my attention to the second book, I expect still more ripples, some scenes gaining importance and others becoming less important, rearranged, or even deleted altogether.

In the middle of this process, I have also learned that the distinction I once had between outlining and discovery writing has changed. As I think about pace, I have to outline far more than I did in my first drafts. Yet, at the same time, while revision of the whole means that I have to define my goals more clearly that in early drafts, I still need to allow room for innovation as I write. The distinction has far less meaning than I once imagined – both outlining and discovery, I have learned, are necessary to my way of working.
I doubt I would have learned any of these things except for refining my story. For that reason alone, I am glad that I persisted.