fantasy, General Writing, Language

Apostrophes in Names

Fantasy writers love apostrophes in names. They have done so at least since the pulps of the 1930s, although their use was probably popularized by Anne McCaffrey’s Pern series. On Pern, a person’s name is shortened when they become a dragon-rider, so the series includes characters with names like F’lar and F’nor. It seems an unlikely custom to me, but at least McCaffrey uses apostrophes in an immediately recognized way. By contrast, the only answers I have coaxed from imitators is “it’s cool” — never a good reason for background details — or that the apostrophe indicates a pause — which is not a standard reason for using an apostrophe. Few have any idea why the apostrophe is there.

In English and French, an apostrophe indicates that some letters are left out. For instance, in French, “d’Erlon” is short for “de Erlon,” and reflects the oral habit of dropping a duplicated sound. In English, an apostrophe by extension indicates possession, because in Old English, the possessive ending was “es” and Modern English does not pronounce the “e.” In addition, an apostrophe is used in attempts to render non-European pronunciations using Latin characters. For instance, in the Haida language of the Pacific Northwest l and l’ are separate sounds. So are k and k’. However, only experts in a given language can be expected to know the conventions, so if you do decide on an unorthodox use, at the very least you should provide a pronunciation guide at the start of the book. If you don’t, you risk readers settling on an embarrassingly inappropriate one, as Ursula Le Guin found out when she learned that her wizard Ged from A Wizard of Earthsea was called Jed by some of her readers, making him sound like a hillbilly from an 1960s TV show..

On the whole, though, it’s best to stick to the standard English purposes when writing for an English-speaking audience. Mysterious apostrophes are almost always an exotica too far, like names without vowels or ones full of Qs and Xs. Many readers will simply substitute a blank in their mind for a name that is too exotic, which estranges them from the story, especially when several names are replaced by blanks. If you must use exotic punctuation, accents and diacriticals are available from your keyboard and are easy to look up.

Apostrophes in fantasy names are a rookie’s mistake, and make the writer appear illiterate. In A Tough Guide to Fantasyland, a humorous dictionary of clichés, Diane Wynne Jones said it all:

"Few NAMES in Fantasyland are considered complete unless they are interrupted by an apostrophe somewhere in the middle (as in Gna’ash). The only names usually exempt from apostrophes, apart from those of most WIZARDS, heroes, and COMPANIONS on the Tour, are those of some COUNTRIES. No one knows the reasons for this."

Including, more often than not, the writers themselves.

Diversity, fantasy, Fiction, General Writing, World Building

The New Sword and Sorcery

As a teen, I read every Sword and Sorcery novel I could find. Even then, I knew much of it was poorly written. Worse, Robert E. Howard and many others could be downright racist. Yet I retain a sneaking affection for the adventure and magic of the best of the genre, particularly for Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and Gray Mouser series. However, when I sat down to write my own fiction, it took several years before I realized that I was trying to write S&S for adults of the modern era. Recently, I’ve taken to calling what I was doing New Sword and Sorcery as I queried my novel The Bone Ransom.

My affection has a long history, some of it embarrassing. I would just as soon forget how as a teen I struggled to write the first act of a verse play called The Lion At Bay that stole the plot of Conan the Conqueror. The same goes for many of the role-playing games I organized as a young adult, whose source books borrowed the racism and sexism of the pulps without question.

However, I remain proud of Witches of the Mind, my Master’s thesis on Fritz Leiber. It was inspired in part by Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser series. From the start, Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser had irony and wit that most S&S lacked. More importantly,Leiber’s social views evolved with the times, and in its final form showed the two heroes growing into responsible middle age and settling down with two feminist women in a culture inspired early Iceland. To this day, there is no question in my mind that Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser is the most literate S&S ever written, and proof that the genre can be more than it usually is. And it was only by being inspired by Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser that I ever finished The Bone Ransom. When I tried to write classic S&S, I never got past the first few chapters.

So what do I mean by the New Sword and Sorcery? Basically, I mean a purging of outdated social outlooks. To start with, the stock figure of the stoic barbarian has to go. As a character, the barbarian is an uneasy mixture of Rousseau’s Noble Savage and obsolete sociological models, with all the racism those sources imply. Allegedly primitive cultures are much more complex than S&S depict. They may be illiterate, but they have a wealth of oral culture. Often, they have rich cultures in which art is part of everyday life, and elaborate ceremonies and dances. Historically, they tend to meet technological cultures as a group, not as individuals, and often manage to preserve their cultures and become enriched by trade. Simply by eliminating the stereotype of the barbarian, writers gain access to a wealth of untold stories and plot points.

The same is true of the standard female characters. Usually, in S&S, they are either pliant slave girls or strong women who come to a bad end. Either way, they are usually viewed as the prize for success — never as permanent partners or fellow parents. Such depictions may be fine for boys new to puberty, but are as limited and as repetitive as they are misogynist. Complex women characters add an adult complexity, especially if matrilineal societies are depicted, in which property and status come through the female line, and the male parental figures are uncles.

But perhaps the most restrictive aspect of classic Sword and Sorcery is that the story lines are usually power fantasies. The barbarian hero shows the decadence of other cultures by becoming a king. At best, an obscure farm-hand becomes the Chosen One. In either case, the hero gives nothing back, and takes only for themselves.These stories have their source in the nationalism and imperialism of the early 20th century. They do not even begin to touch on the post-colonialism of the last seventy years: of the struggle of colonies for independence and their generally troubled relationships with the colonizers. The stories that classic S&S tell have become irrelevant and obsolete.

Yet despite everything, adventure stories have their lasting appeal. George Orwell said that there is no reason that there could not be socialist adventure stories that featured activists fighting and outwitting the police. In the same way, there is no reason Sword and Sorcery could not feature realistic oral cultures and realistic women, and depict modern politics. So, presented for your consideration: New Sword and Sorcery.

Anybody with me?

Characters, fantasy, Fiction, General Writing

Roleplaying Norms That Don’t Translate Into Fiction

New writers are often inspired by roleplaying. Probably, only film and anime inspire more — with fiction, sadly, a distant fourth. At first, that seems to make sense. After all, aren’t both games and fiction a form of storytelling? Yes, but they are different forms of storytelling. In fact, there are at least seven ways in which storytelling in games differs from storytelling in fiction:

Gaming is communal

Roleplaying tells stories that are outlined by DMs, fleshed out by players’ choices and interaction, and often determined by the dice. The responsibility is shared around. Fiction, by contrast, is entirely the responsibility of the writer. Nor is it generally a matter of chance. It’s far more work — and all up to you, which is why online forums often have posts in which the writer tries to get others to do the work for them.

Gaming largely ignores diversity

Despite recent changes, gaming still tends towards a racial perspective: elves are agile and clever, orcs are stupid and evil, and dwarves combative and good with their hands. Especially in Young Adult books, such stereotyping is apt to get you flayed alive on Twitter today. Just as importantly, such casting usually makes for derivative and uninspiring fiction. What was acceptable in Tolkien is obsolete today.

Gaming is episodic

A roleplaying game can run for months, or even years. While the best games have an overall goal, and even several arcs, all games tend to be episodic, with one session often having minimal connection to others. Some fiction is like that, too; it’s call picaresque. More often, though, fiction is plotted: the first event causes the second, and the second the third, and so on until only one possibility remains at the climax. If you use games as a model, you are likely to lose direction and flounder because of what, in fiction, is a lack of structure.

Gaming does not consider point of view

On the one hand, a gaming session is developed by the players. Even the DM doesn’t always know what all the characters are thinking. A skilled DM might make some information known only to selected players, but, more often, all characters know what the others know. On the other hand, a fiction writer needs to decide on the point of view? Limited or deep third person? First person? Omniscient narrator? All these choices present challenges that gaming does not

Gaming emphasizes action

In most games, character points are based on action — if not killing, then figuring out traps and puzzles. Inner thoughts and dialog are only part of the socializing that is part of a gaming session. But focus on action in fiction, and the result is as mesmerizing as a choreograph diagram. Whether it’s fighting or sex, thoughts and reactions make the scene more readable in fiction.

Gaming focuses on a limited number of characteristics

Because games focus on action, their character development focuses on talents and skills. Anything further will be provided –if at all — by the player using the character. Some players may commission a sketch of their favorite character, but all the things that make fictional characters enjoyable, from background and appearance to how they move and talk, is rarely considered and is unimportant if it is.

Gaming develops characters separately from plot

When you roleplay, your characters are developed before the story begins. In fact, most characters can be dropped into any scenario. In comparison, characters are developed alongside the plot. The plot of Hamlet, for example, depends on a main character who thinks before he acts. Put Othello into the lead, and the play would be over before the end of act one; once he talks to the ghost, Othello would immediately rush off to kill his uncle. Conversely drop Hamlet into Othello, and no one would be murdered, because Hamlet investigates thoroughly before he acts. For this reason, the character sheets that are often suggested for fiction writers are largely useless. They simply provide the illusion of progress.

Two Forms of Storytelling

None of this is to disparage games. Rather, it is to point out that what works in roleplaying is likely to fail in fiction. If games inspire you to tell stories, perhaps you should consider writing roleplaying scenarios. But if you decide to write fiction, carrying the assumptions of games on to a novel or short story is one of the worst things you can do. Instead, read as widely as possible, and learn the conventions of your new form of storytelling.

fantasy, Uncategorized

Why Sword and Sorcery Is Obsolete

As a pre-teen, I devoured sword and sorcery. Even then, I could see most of it was mediocre at best. The sole exception was Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser series, which was rarely about hack and slash, and first made me aware that fantasy could be humorous and ironic.Leiber, at least, stilll holds up today (In fact, I wrote and published a Master’s thesis on his career). But unfortunately, Leiber was never typical S & S. So when I recently came across a magazine whose goal is to revive S & S, I had to wonder why anyone would want to. The conventions of S & S date both badly and embarrassing.

The most obvious convention is the portrayal of women. In vintage S & S, women are accessories. They kneel at the hero’s feet and gaze lustfully up at his face in a way that leaves no doubt who is the dom and who is the sub in the relation. Often they are manacled. At the end of the story, they tumble into bed with the hero, only to mysteriously disappear before the start of the next adventure. Personally, I suspect the hero sold them for drinking money. Yes, you can point to C. L. Moore’s Jirel of Joiry or Joanna Russ’ Alyx, but they are exceptions, and you can’t easily find them to point out. Vintage S & S is toxic masculinity, soaked with the outlook of a boy who has just discovered puberty, but is still a little nervous about girls and probably doesn’t know any

Less obviously, S & S is still enmired in a concept of other cultures that was dead and rotting before the twentieth century. This concept is seen in the typical barbarian hero — a simple, but honest Noble Savage who is always pitted against the corruption of civilization. S & S rarely stops to consider that such a character never existed, and is essentially racist. A true member of a culture that S & S labels “barbarian” may be unable to read, but is likely to have tens of thousands of lines of poetic wisdom stored in their heads. Probably, too, they can rattle off complicated family relationships and social obligations. They may have no agriculture because they live in a rich environment where you would have to be stupid to starve. Or perhaps their agriculture is centered on practices like clam farms or the rights to a defined hunting ground that the so-called civilized eye misses because it doesn’t expect them. They may even have breathtaking arts. In any event, they are not ill-bred half-wits like Conan. And far from despising or being over-awed by technologically advanced cultures, they will gladly trade with them and cheerily borrow anything that might enrich their daily lives. Barbarians are a stale fictional conceit that has been kept alive only by roleplaying games. In real life, there are only humans with different cultures.

Most of the time, Sword and Sorcery has one basic plot. And it’s not the Hero’s Journey, the story of how a character matures and becomes useful to their society. Instead, the story is a power fantasy, a tale of how brawn and pigheadedness win out over wits and knowledge, traits that are often personified by evil wizards. It is, in the most literal sense of the word, puerile — the outlook of a naive teenage boy who feels overwhelmed by looming adulthood and longs to imagine himself superior to it. There’s a reason Sword and Sorcery has become unpopular in recent decades: shackled with such conventions, it is nearly impossible to write a story in the genre that is meaningful in today’s world. The genre deserves to stay buried — or, better yet, cremated, and the ashes scattered to the winds where they can never be reassembled.

General Writing

How to Coin Fantasy Names

Take a look at a writer’s names, and you can predict how well they write. Are the names dull and strewn with unusual letters? Shamelessly borrowed, like Mycenae and Illyria? Or have they become an end in themselves with no relationship to the back story? The fact is, coining names is a minor art in itself, and, like all aspects of storytelling, takes practice to do well.

You can choose from lists of names in a modern setting. No one expects originality with realism, and lists of popular names are available online for many countries and eras. Digging into the original meaning of names, though, is likely wasted effort, that will be only appreciated by one in ten thousand readers. Avoid, too, the lists of fantasy names online — they’re fine for gaming, but why risk using the same name as half a dozen other writers? Besides, the lists are rarely fine examples of the craft of naming. I remember one that was so impoverished that it suggested Brassica — the Latin word for cabbages — as suitable for dryads. I can only imagined an exceptionally dowdy dryad with that name.

Similarly, be wary of adopting typos, mashed-together keystrokes, drawn Scrabble tiles, or any of the other half-seriously suggested methods for randomly coining names. The problem with such tactics
is precisely that they are random, and languages are not. If you do discover a usable name at random, it will be an accident.

All true languages have a consistency about them. English, for example, makes infrequent use of Q, X, and Z, while northern Germanic languages often use “sk.” Every language will also have its own distribution of diphthongs like “str” or “th.” And don’t forget diacriticals — English may make little use of accents, but a modern word processor gives access to a complete list of characters, at least for western European languages. Just be sure that you know how to use them. An apostrophe, for example, in English means letters are left out (yes, even when used as a possessive; originally, the possessive ending in English was “es,” but today we omit the “e.”). But when other languages are written with Latin characters, an apostrophe can indicate a glottal stop, so be sure you don’t just throw one in without knowing what sound you are indicating. You’ll only look ignorant.

To be believable, fantasy languages should have their own patterns. If you are a linguist, you can invent your own patterns; there will always be favored sounds, and sounds that are rarely used in any language. For the rest of us, a quick and dirty way to create the appearance of patterns is to choose half a dozen words from a real language, and rearrange their syllables to suit yourself. In this way, you can quickly create psedo-French, pseudo-Malaysian, or any other pseudo-language of your choice. If you want to be more elaborate, use two or more languages to draw your random syllables from.

Alternatively, you might try a poetic approach like Lord Dunsany and E. R. R. Eddison did, manipulating sounds n the hopes of creating the impression you want. For instance, to my ear, “Jolgoth” with its sonorous vowels suggests a hulking, Conan-like character.In the same way, I borrowed Haulteclare, the name of the sword carried by Charlemagne’s fictional paladin Olivier for the vaguely French name of Alteclare. Then, naturally, I named Alteclare’s captal Tolivier, just as an Easter egg. To provide other names, I borrowed syllables from Old French.

Once you have names ready, you can add to their plausibility by the way you distribute them. The names of people and places often reflect the movements of people, so that in England you can tell where the invading Vikings settled down by the place names. In the same way, you can cluster place names to create a sense of history, and name characters from each cluster in a pattern. In my own case, the most western names are derived from the syllables of Frankish and Old English. Further east, the inspiration for names is Middle English, and in the utmost east, the names sound like those of the American West, reflecting a mass pattern of settlement.

Whatever method you use to coin names, be prepared for a high failure rate. Even though I’ve been coining names for years, I still reject four or five coinings for everyone that goes into a dictionary of names. Moreover, dozens of names that go into my dictionaries will never be actually used. I will only ever chose a few, but I can be sure that I only use the best of the best. The result, I firmly believe, is greater realism, and the satisfaction of practicing the art of names properly.

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.

Queries

What I Look for in an Agent

Many writers are so eager to find an agent that they accept the first offer they get. That’s understandable, but the longer I query, the more I realize that find representation is a two way process, just like any job hunt. If I must capture an agent’s interest, an agent must convince me that they can represent me properly. After all, the relation between a writer and an agent is a major business relationship. It only makes sense for each side to evaluate the other. For that reason, as I query, I am starting to develop lists of what to look for. It’s very tentative, like everything else about querying, and can only be developed by inference.

For instance, how old should an agent be? An agent fresh out of grad school may have ambition and a desire to build a client list, but is that enough? Do they belong to an agency where they can be supported by veteran agents? What are their connections in publishing? If they are too inexperienced, they may be no more useful in placing my work than I am.

Conversely, an agent with more experience may have more publishing connections, but by signing with them, I may be one horse in an overcrowded stable. Are they so busy they can’t give me much attention? Have they become more of an executive managing other agents than an active agent?

One indicator may be an agent’s guideline for submissions. In particular, I have become wary of agents who want only the first five pages of a manuscript. This criterion seems to me a poor one, not just because of its brevity, but because the opening is probably the most revised part of any manuscript. Just like a court prosecutor can seem more interested in clearing cases than ensuring justice is done, so an agent who asks for five pages may be more interested in making quick decisions than in the quality of the work. At least when an agent asks for a full manuscript, I can have some confidence that they have delivered a considered judgment.

As for the agents and publishers who want to know how many Twitter followers I have and what marketing plans I have — forget them. These days, writers must be prepared to market their own work, and I’m prepared to do my bit, but these questions soon sound like the burden of marketing will fall entirely on me. If I wanted to do that, I would self-publish.

Of course, I will probably not be spoiled for choice. Moreover, after a few rejections, the temptation to fall at the feet of the first offer and weep tears of gratitude for the attention becomes almost irresistible. But in the long run,I would be doing no one a favor if I did not evaluate agents just as they evaluate me.

Uncategorized, World Building

Axing Questions

When fantasy writers think of axes as a weapon, they usually assume that a fighting axe is much the same as an axe for cutting wood. They assume that a fighting axe is heavy, clumsy, and is used for chopping strokes. It is a weapon for the working class, like a scythe and billing hook, with none of the glamour of a sword. However, thanks to an article on Quora and the opinion of some historical re-enacters, I recently discovered that none of these assumptions are true.

Admittedly, re-enacters report that an axe in unskilled hands is not much of a weapon. To wield an axe well requires strength and practice. But the same can be said of a sword. To use a sword requires more than thrusting the point towards your opponent, and to use an axe require more than chopping with all your strength. The only difference is that a novice sword-user might survive reasonably well in a shield-wall, while a novice axe-user is apt to leave themselves exposed and end up wounded or killed.

The most effective axe for combat is usually called a Dane axe. “Dane” in this case is a generic name for all Norse, who were as likely to use this weapon as a sword. A Dane axe was usually a one-handed weapon, with a wooden shaft about a meter long, and weighing about 1.5 kilograms, depending on the user. These are also the average dimensions of a sword, although longer, two-handed Dane axes also existed. The blade was an uneven crescent, with the top horn longer, and the bottom horn more of a hook. Many people assume that a Dane axe would be top-heavy in order to deliver a crushing blow, but the technical descriptions all emphasize the lightness of the blade, as well as its thinness, which could be as little as 2 millimeters of high grade steel. In other words, a Dane axe is balanced, just like a sword. When I think, that is only sensible. A blade-heavy axe might deliver a stronger chop, but would be harder to pull back, and would expose the user longer. Much better to be satisfied with less force and increase your chances of survival.

More importantly, this construction indicates that a Dane axe was not used just for chopping, or even primarily for that purpose. In fact, the design was much versatile. Besides chopping, the user of a Dane axe could thrust with the upper horn, transforming the axe into a short spear and allowing the user to inflict damage at a bit of a distance, especially if the axe was two-handed. In addition, the lower horn could be used to hook a blade or shield, allowing the wielder to block, or else thrust the enemy’s weapons aside, then to attack with the upper horn. The Dane axe actually offers multiple attacks in one, just as a sword’s tip or edge does. Once that is understood, it becomes obvious that a Dane axe was not a clumsy weapon, but one that required considerable skill.

The construction also refutes the idea that a Dane axe was a peasant’s weapon. The thinness of the blade and its shape suggests that the Dane axe required a skilled smith to make. It was not a farming implement that could be carried by a poor man marching off to war. Moreover, it was carried by the elite housecarls of Anglo-Saxon England, as well as by the Varangian Guards that protected the Byzantine Emperor. Later versions of the Dane axe were considered a knightly weapon, just as a sword was, and are known to have used at times by both Kings Stephen and Richard I. As well, during the Viking era, Dane axes with elaborate silver inlays were made, likely for ceremonial purposes. The common argument that swords were the weapons of the nobility simply does not hold up.

Besides, although a first-rate sword, in which various metals were twisted and folded over each other, took time to make and could be fabulously expensive, not all swords were so elaborate. Probably the majority of swords in the Dark and Medieval Ages were cheaper works, produced by local smiths. There is also evidence for swords cut in one piece, like the average kitchen knife, a form of mass-production probably inspired by the suppliers to the Roman legions.

If swords have more prestige than battle-axes in the modern imagination, the reason is probably that ceremonial swords were worn in Europe by nobility and army officers long after they were obsolete. In fact, they are still worn today. Nor have axes been favored in romance and fiction. There is no battle axe equivalent to The Three Musketeers or The Princess Bride. And along with romance of swords has come a denigration of the battle axe — as well as a deep-seated ignorance of how versatile they could actually be.

Fiction, Plotting

The Disciplined Imagination (And Why You Need One)

Anton Chekhov famously remarked that if a pistol is hanging on the wall in the first act of a play, by the time the curtain falls, it should be used. The remark advises an economy of storytelling that helps to create a sense of unity and to avoid confusing the audience with irrelevancies. Unfortunately many new writers fail to follow this sound advice, for no better reason that “it’s cool” or “it’s fantasy, so anything goes.” But in doing so, they often miss details that might enrich their stories.

For instance, in a soon to be released novel, one writer decided to throw dinosaurs into the story. Despite a reasonably advanced level of technology, they have characters being pulled about in carriages by velociraptors. In tweets, the author says they made this decision so they could have sweeping outsized staircases and have them easily navigated. The trouble is, the decision seems incompatible with the level of technology. Nor are velociraptors large enough for the stated purpose of climbing steep staircases. More importantly, no attempt is made to consider how having vicious predators on the streets might shape the culture. Worse still, neither the velociraptors nor the steep staircases play any role whatsoever in the plot — although, having started on that downhill slope, the author accelerates their descent by adding the even less purposeful dire wolfs as draft animals as well. No attempt to consider these details is made, and the only result is a meaningless and clumsy distraction.

Early on in writing my first novel, I made the same mistake repeatedly. In my case, I added atmospheric references and never stopped to consider how they might be used in the plot. For instance, my main character’s last name was Ravenpiper. It’s Gothicly evocative, at least to my ear, and I was proud of it. I even gave the family a rhyme that made a riddle of the family name. It took a while for me to realize that the origin of the name could become a major plot element, and help me tell a more interesting story (which I won’t tell, because spoilers). Since the story is all about family, especially the Ravenpipers, I found that making the surname part of the story gave a richer, more unified story.

Similarly, I imagined a mountain pass that is a nexus of gateways to other worlds. Paths can take travelers to other worlds, and can change their direction and destination. At times, the inhabitants of other worlds follow the paths to the mountain pass. Originally, it was a poetic effect — a spooky one, I hoped. Then it occurred to me that people who kept track of the changing paths might earn a living guiding merchants safely over the mountain. Then, with more thought, I decided that families would claim the right to certain paths, and jealously control the safe ones. Eventually, this background influenced the story. At one point, for example, the main characters enter one of the otherworldly paths to escape pursuit, and find themselves in a world of ghosts and forest spirits. What was originally a line tossed off for atmosphere grew to shape major elements of the story.

In both cases, my disciplined extrapolations meant I no longer had to strain for plot development. As a plot should, it began to unfold in light of what had been planted before. I soon understood what elements I wanted in the story, and, conversely what did not and what — sometimes regretfully, I had to omit, and perhaps leave for another story. I concluded that inspiration is not enough. In the end, I learned that even the most inspiring idea was only as good as its development.

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.