Saturday, 31 October 2009

the infernal family: now terrorising beta readers

Today I finally finished a beta draft of THE INFERNAL FAMILY.

I’ve revised from start to finish. Axed storylines. Added characters. Rewritten huge sections from scratch. And when I read through a final time and found myself changing only the punctuation, I knew I was done.

I suffer from writers’ fear. I fear that my work isn’t good enough. I fear that if I think it’s good, I’ll be disappointed. I fear showing my work to people that I respect in case it causes them to realise I’m an idiot. But I’m learning to ignore those fears - and I hit that button and mailed out the beta version to the first of my wonderful beta readers, my amazing writer friend Amy. And I’m glad I did.

In the meantime, as always in the terrifying gap between submitting work and receiving feedback, I’m remembering my five commandments for scared writers:

1. Good enough is fine. Perfect is for later.
2. Everything can be fixed.
3. This is the millionth draft. There will be a millionth-and-one.
4. People still love me even if they don't love my work.
5. At least it's spelled correctly.

(Dear beta version of THE INFERNAL FAMILY,

Hi there. I’ve waited a long time to meet you.

I know you’re not perfect. There are things I wanted to do with you that I couldn’t pull off, and scenes that still clunk after a million revisions. But there are things about you I love - things that made you worth working on. And if I wait for you to be perfect, I’ll be waiting forever.

So I’m declaring you officially ... good enough.

Go play with your beta readers.

your writer)

Friday, 30 October 2009

the problem with prologues, as illustrated by the tv show sanctuary

I enjoy a lot of science fiction and fantasy TV shows: Battlestar Galactica, Doctor Who and Darker And Edgier spinoff Torchwood, Supernatural, Flash Forward and Dollhouse, to name but a few. So I popped the pilot episode of Sanctuary on with high hopes.

I’d like those fifteen minutes of my life back, please.

(SPOILERS for Sanctuary 1x01.)

  1. Our pilot opens with a woman facing off against a prostitute-killing vampire in 1880s Whitechapel, the inference being that he’s Jack the Ripper, in a scene apparently ripped directly from Angel. As far as I could tell, these characters disappear and the storyline is never brought up again.
  2. Giant time, location and scene change. Present-day cops burst into a murder scene and find a kid hiding under a bed. The kid bursts out tentacles and eats them or something. All these characters drop off the radar.
  3. Another time, location and scene change. In a hospital, a delusional criminal is being interrogated about the murdered bodies of a bunch of people he claims he didn’t kill ...

At this point, I’m fifteen minutes in, and I hit the exit button of disgust.

When I start watching a pilot (or open a book to the first page), I’m ready to get excited. Give me something -- a compelling character, a unique voice, conflict that gets my heart racing -- and I’ll keep turning pages.

But if you don’t give me time and incentive to engage, and you rip me out of that scene and stick me in another and expect me to try and engage with that scene too, and then you rip me out of that scene ... then I’m done.

And that’s my problem with prologues. You get one shot at hooking me as a reader. It’s a fair shot: I’ll keep turning pages to give you time to get into your stride. But if you can’t hook me with your opening scene, throwing a scene change at me doesn’t help. And if you did hook me with your opening scene -- shoving me into another, completely different scene, often with no continuity of character or plot at all? Also doesn’t help.

Honourable exceptions to my prologue hate include Scott Lynch’s The Lies of Locke Lamora. This prologue is so snappy and pacy and caustic, I loved it instantly: I counted down the days until I could rush out and buy the novel, which I also loved. So they can work. You just need to be brilliant like Scott Lynch.

ironbane, or: what's your nanowrimo?

I'm gearing up to resume my stalled-at-30k epic fantasy for Nanowrimo. Say hello to IRONBANE.

Cranky fortysomething fugitive Anjen is better known as Ironbane: the war legend who took out the evil Winter Queen but left scorched earth, slaughtered generations and a trail of destruction behind her. She's lost her friends, her rank and her magic as punishment for war crimes, and she’s fleeing legions of vengeful enemies. So she desperately needs to stay undercover as a nobody - especially after the charming Summer blackmails her (with a smile) into helping him hunt and execute Ironbane.

Then she accidentally pitches herself and two hundred innocent people into a hopeless battle only Ironbane can get them out of.

If she’s to save her people, Anjen must unleash her inner Ironbane and face everything she fled. Starting with the enemies hunting her. And ending with the toxic magical prison built to hold her, where her nemesis the Winter Queen will rise from the dead.

Ironbane - traitor, butcher and professional villain - is back.

What's your Nanowrimo novel?

Wednesday, 28 October 2009

you are not a beautiful and unique snowflake, or: not being a teenage author any more

Following a discussion Amna is hosting about young writers, I've been reflecting on Choco's fascinating comments about realising that she wasn't going to be a published teenage author.

I chased that dream too. I finished my first novel just after I turned sixteen, and my second before my eighteenth birthday, and I wrote every night for years. That dream bit the dust somewhere along the road, and so did a succession of smaller dreams - I'd query agents before I hit eighteen, I'd at least have a complete, polished manuscript by then, I'd I'd I'd ...

Number of dreams hit: 0.

Ultimately, I think I was hooked on specialness. As a teenage writer with two novels under my belt, I was exceptional. ("You're how old?") Once I got kicked out into adulthood, I wasn't an exception any more: I was just one among millions of adult writers.

The train has now pulled in to grown-up station, and I'm happy to report that my destination is not as scary as it once seemed.

Lessons I've learned about and since the teenage writing years:
  1. Being a young writer is only meaningful as a way to get to being a good writer. You don't need to be young to be good.
  2. Not having reached my dream doesn't mean I didn't work hard enough: it certainly doesn't mean I'm a failure.
  3. There are other kinds of specialness.
  4. Keep dreaming. If you don't make it, update your dream to something more possible.
What about you? Have you missed out on any dreams and had to reframe them? Are you dealing with not being special any more?

Monday, 26 October 2009

the evolution of a story question

Story question: the key question, set up by the inciting incident, that keeps the reader turning the page to find out the answer. I think this post by Annette Lyon at Writing on the Wall, and this post by Jordan McCollum, explain better than I could.

When I started revisions for THE INFERNAL FAMILY, I defined the story question as, "Will Johann rescue his friend's daughter?" But as I revised, I realised that saving the friend's daughter was actually symbolic of a larger question.

Having ditched his biological family (demon) and legal family (abusive), protagonist Johann believes that real family is something you choose with people you love: like the kid he raised and thinks of as his son, his close friend, and her daughter. This is the stable, loving family he's always dreamed of.

In the first 4000 words the antagonist kills his son and steals his friend's daughter, and the friend is so outraged by his part in her daughter's kidnap that she bails out. Bang. No family. If he saves his friend's daughter, maybe he can get his friend back as well, and then he can reassemble a family worth having.

So a better question is, "Will Johann put what's left of his family back together?"

Then I realised that that was too simplistic. 99% of fiction has a happy ending, and while I'm a fan of the apocalyptic tragedy endings, unfortunately the thematic elements of this novel constrained me to a happy ending. So you can confidently answer "Yes", to the story question. And I don't want the conflict to feel predictable. If you can answer the story question before you even pick up the novel, I think something may be wrong.

When I looked a little deeper - especially at how much at fault he is, or feels he is, for everything that happens in those first 4000 words (not to mention torturing people and being a borderline sociopath) - I realised a better question was, "Does Johann deserve to put his family back together?"

Not so predictable. (I hope.)

Sunday, 25 October 2009

stages of competence, the dunning-kruger effect, and what they mean for writers

Struggling today, so I'll cheer myself up with one of my favourite topics: stages of competence and the Dunning-Kruger effect. (I like this topic because it tells me that the worse I feel about my writing, the more awesome I secretly am.)

The stages of competence theory states that when you try to learn a new skill, you progress through four predictable stages:
  1. Unconscious incompetence. You're bad at the new skill, but because you're so new, you lack appreciation of just how bad you are.
  2. Conscious incompetence. You're starting to learn the new skill, and you're beginning to appreciate that you're not very good at it.
  3. Conscious competence. You've learned to be good at the new skill if you work very hard.
  4. Unconscious competence. You've internalised your new skill to the point where it's second nature.
Let's apply this theory to a skill we might be learning ... like, say, writing.

You start out as a wide-eyed newbie. You've banged out a first draft and you think it's the best thing since sliced bread. Because you don't understand the mechanics of writing, you can't see why your work is bad (unconscious incompetence). In your puppy-like enthusiasm, you join a bunch of critique groups and throw your work up, expecting everyone to see awesomeness - just like you do.

Except nobody thinks it's awesome. You have the sobering experience of realising that your work may not be very good at all (conscious incompetence). Actually, it's terrible.

How do you get better? What is better, exactly? Will you ever get to stage 3, conscious competence? How long will it take?

You've entered the yawning chasm of stage 2.

Similarly, the Dunning-Kruger effect states that the unskilled lack the awareness to know just how bad they are - so they consistently and strongly overrate themselves in that skill. Conversely, the highly skilled underrate themselves. They know how much they have still to learn.

Morals of the story:
  1. If a harsh light has dawned and you now see that your work is terrible, you've moved up a stage of competence. Yes, it hurts.
  2. If you lack confidence in your work, you're in a better position to improve than someone who thinks their work is perfect.
  3. When I tear my hair out and swear never to write again, it secretly means I'm awesome. Really.

Tuesday, 20 October 2009

things I'll never win prizes for

Things I'll never win prizes for:
  1. Beautiful prose.
  2. Literary merit.
  3. Originality.
  4. Plot.
That said, when I reread THE INFERNAL FAMILY today, I liked it. In a clunkily written, non-literary, unoriginal, poorly plotted way. :)


"It is our choices, Harry, that show what we are, far more than our abilities." - Dumbledore to Harry Potter, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets.

I enjoy the TV crime series Castle. It's glossy, amusing and ultimately heart-warming. But they just blew it big time.

(SPOILERS for Castle 2x05.)

In last night's episode, bestselling writer Castle is offered the opportunity of a lifetime - a lucrative deal writing James Bond novels. The catch is, it means abandoning his partner and love interest, NYPD detective Beckett. It's a character-defining, career-defining choice between untold fame and riches and his romantic and personal attachment to Beckett. He has to choose. Either ditch the riches or lose the girl.

Everyone knows how this scene goes. The protagonist is supposed to realise that his relationship with the female lead is more important than fame and wealth. He'll turn down the money and stay in his current role.

Except at that key moment ... Castle is offered a major deal which allows him to stay with Beckett.

Moral of the story: You can have both riches and the girl of your dreams. Actually you can have everything you've ever wanted. And you won't have to choose between them, because that would be dangerously like drama, and would require something awkward like consequences.

Tuesday, 6 October 2009

teaser tuesday

Teaser from my urban fantasy, THE INFERNAL FAMILY. Protagonist Johann is back in the wreckage of his home to pick up the body of his murdered son.

(Here be bad language.)


By night the hall glittered with broken glass, smeared with blood gone black, the carpet stiff underfoot. It looked unreal enough that he could pretend not to recognise it. Must have been somebody else who’d let his son die here.

A trail of black footprints led upstairs.

“You put him to bed?” Nicholas said.

“I couldn’t leave him there.” His voice cracked for some stupid reason. “Not on the floor.” Like an unwanted thing, a toy Johann’d ditched when it broke.

He went upstairs. If he didn’t touch the footprints it wouldn’t be the same as before, as the weight of his son curled in his arms, fingers slipping from his shirt. So he could look into Marcus’ room and not see --

Johann stopped, feet stuck, couldn’t take another step. Nicholas said “What?” and looked over his shoulder, and went silent.

The body lay curled under the duvet, hair fair against the pillow. Johann couldn’t look at it, but it kept dragging his eyes back, displacing his memory of cradling his warm living son. Marcus couldn’t be a huddled thing under a duvet, dead long enough to stiffen, he’d been bright and brave and alive and this wasn’t real, Johann refused to let it be. He wanted Marcus back.

“When I first took Marcus in he, he wouldn’t sleep in the room I gave him.” The words spilled out, even though it was a stupid story and Nicholas hated personal stuff. “I’d find him curled up in a chair in the morning looking miserable. I thought maybe I was doing something wrong, maybe he was scared of me or something -- But later I found out his dad walked out on him. Just left one night and never came back. So he only wanted to sleep somewhere where I’d wake him if I left.”

God, Johann’d been so scared back then. Scared of hurting him. Scared of him leaving. Scared of this fierce need to protect him. It didn’t make any sense that Marcus would want to stay, and every time Marcus crept sleepily under his arm and tucked his fair head under his chin Johann thought it’d be the last.

“He never does that any more. Did. And I left him today. I left him while he was sleeping. What if he wasn’t really dead yet, what if he woke up and I was gone, and he thought I walked out on him, I didn’t want him any more --“

The words were running down into useless babble, so he stopped. It wasn’t right that he’d survived.

“Stark,” Nicholas said awkwardly behind him. Johann reached out and took hold of his arm without looking, grip too tight but not caring about hurting him, and just -- focused on what was real. What mattered. Not this thing that wasn’t his son.

“Let’s just get this over with,” Johann said.

Something moved downstairs.

Both of them froze. Streetlights poured between the open curtains, a tide of orange creeping across the bedcovers, Johann felt trapped in amber.

The silence resounded. Maybe he’d imagined the sound. He was already losing his mind, it wouldn’t be a big leap from there to hearing things --

A door shut.

Hunters. In his home. Where they’d murdered his son.

Everything else slipped through his fingers. Fury fired up, hot and savage, settling in the pounding of his blood and the curling of his hands into fists.

When he went for the stairs Nicholas barred his way, knife already drawn, light jumping along the edge. “Could be anyone. Neighbour. Police. Drunk idiots who --“

Johann slammed him aside and took the stairs three at a time. Empty of people, the skeleton of the house passed by in a blur, the walls its bones, doorways gaping like sockets. A shadow moved in the kitchen -- Johann burst into the kitchen feeling alive and full of fire, smashed aside the hunter’s pathetic attempts to defend himself and threw him into a kitchen cabinet.

Wood splintered. Glass rattled in its frames. The hunter fell onto the counter in a cascade of cabinet wreckage, rolled off the counter clutching his ribs, slid to the floor. Johann flexed his hands and the fresh cuts on his knuckles stung; he liked that, proof that he could still hurt people.

The kitchen was a mystery now, shadowed and streetlit, no longer home. “Marcus and I used to cook here,” Johann told the hunter conversationally, hauling him off the floor. “I was never any good at it, but Marcus enjoyed it. Flour everywhere.” Marcus used to sit at the kitchen table and reread the recipe with furrowed brow, ticking off with mathematical precision things he’d already added. For a moment Johann pictured him there, real enough to reach out and touch.

Johann slammed the hunter onto that table so hard something broke, wood or bone, he didn’t care. The hunter choked and couldn’t scrabble out of his grip. “Doesn’t happen any more. Since you killed him.” He flung the pathetic human down with a snarl. “My boy was smart. Aced all his exams, he liked studying, he wanted to go to university. He could’ve done, I would’ve figured something out, I -- He used to sit right here.” Johann broke that chair with his hands, sudden bunch of muscles, satisfying smash. Another memory broken.

The hunter gripped the counter and pulled himself off the floor. His other hand skittered out for a kitchen knife.

Johann didn’t care. “Go ahead. You should have killed me instead, I would’ve let you, why would I care, he was just a kid, he was my son --“

The hunter smashed a jar in his face. It spilled white, the stuff got in his eyes and burned. Salt. Then the hunter slashed him across the ribs -- shocking cold at first, then the cut burned, warmth seeping through his shirt.

Johann hit the bastard in the face and rocked him back against the counter. The bloody knife Johann ripped out of his hand; he wanted to stab and stab but that would be too quick, Marcus had suffered before he died. Johann slashed him instead, going for his face but catching his upflung arm, cutting and cutting, red lines running down and blood smearing everywhere, the taste of salt in his mouth and stinging his eyes --

“Stark, what the fuck are you doing?”

He spun and Nicholas stood in the doorway, cold and stern and out of reach, and for a second Johann choked on the red urge to hurt him.

“What is wrong with you?” Nicholas demanded, his accent sliding into a vicious extreme. “You can hear him screaming from outside the house. So can all the neighbours you just woke up, and so will all the police they just called, who will find us in a ruined house with a corpse!”

His heart hammered, the knife slash stinging, hands slippery with blood. Nicholas always talked too much, stupid words that meant nothing. “Scared?” Johann threw back at him.

Nicholas narrowed his eyes. “Give me that knife.”

The hunter slipped as he tried to get up. Johann stamped him down, fury hot and blind, wanting to smash him into a red pulp he could squeeze through his fingers. “No.”

“Then I’m taking it off you.”

“This is what you do to things that scare you, isn’t it.” Johann lifted the knife, liking his sudden tenseness, not quite a flinch. “You get in their faces and dare them to hurt you. Like you did to the angel.”

“Go ahead.” Nicholas stepped right in, startlingly close. “Dare you.”

Thursday, 1 October 2009

in fantasy men fight and women surrender

In my review of Heroes Die, I commented on gender roles:

"I got a twitchy feeling of gender stereotyping from [the heroine’s] sweet, nurturing, protect-the-innocents nature versus [the hero’s] rampant destruction. This feeling increased when the heroine has to surrender to and channel a greater, external force in order to match the (male) antagonist, which is just weirdly sexualised."

Then I got to thinking about women in fantasy, and all the surrendering they seem to do.

Robert Jordan’s epic fantasy series The Wheel of Time features a type of magic called the One Power, which is split into male and female halves. This sounds equitable. Except “touching [the female half] saidar is like an embrace, touching [the male half] saidin is like a war without mercy. (V: 66)” (Wheel of Time Concordance)
  1. the female half, saidar, is "gentle, but infinitely powerful; a force which will do what you wish it to, but requires patience and submission to guide its power. Surrender is necessary to gain it, and women universally speak of it as 'embracing' the Power." (Wheel of Time Wiki) ... “cannot be forced for women, they just lose hold of it. To control the Power, a woman must surrender to it. (II: 208)”
  2. the male half, saidin, is a “raging torrent of the Power which must be subdued and dominated” (Wheel of Time Wiki) ... “must be fought against and controlled. (IV: 152)”
I’m seeing a common theme here in both Heroes Die and the Wheel of Time. Men fight, women surrender.

It taps into a greater gender distinction that I see in a lot of fantasy. Men are warriors, women healers. Men are aggressive, women nurturing. Men are the heroes, women their damsels in distress. But more of that later.

Are there other examples of this fighting vs surrendering dichotomy in fantasy? Can you suggest authors and novels which subvert this idea?

matthew woodring stover - heroes die

Heroes Die is the first in the Acts of Caine series by Matthew Woodring Stover. Protagonist Hari Michaelson is better known by his stage name Caine - he's an Actor who travels to a medieval alternate dimension and participates in spectacular derring-do to entertain sheeplike Earth viewers. When his estranged wife is kidnapped by the bad guys, Caine lines 'em all up for one gory takedown mission: his studio bosses, an oppressive government and an amusing range of competitive bad guys are all standing between him and his girl. Hilarity ensues. And violence. And profanity. ("**** me like a virgin goat!" = new favourite epithet.)

This is a good book. My jaw dropped on several occasions. There are great set-piece battles, especially the climax, which functioned on so many different levels it broke my mind - I swear the plot could only be followed with a flow chart: I had to talk it out with my brother afterward. (Unfortunately, Caine's actual plan was a little disappointing compared to the head-exploding inspiring brilliance of his fake plan.)

I enjoyed the mixture of D&D-esque magic and real-world military tactics. I think the appeal is that it perfectly captures the D&D and MMO gaming experience. You interact with fake-medieval people in a fake-medieval world, using fake-medieval magic, but you bring modern ideas and tactics. Also, the politics of both settings within the book, plus the interrelation thereof, were pure gold.

Sociopathic protagonist Caine rocked. He's not quite Richard Morgan's Takeshi Kovacs, but he'll do fine. I also liked the sociopathic antagonist Berne. Conversely, the lead female character was flat and cardboard. I got a twitchy feeling of gender stereotyping from her sweet, nurturing, protect-the-innocents nature versus Caine's rampant destruction. This feeling increased when the heroine has to surrender to and channel a greater, external force in order to match the (male) antagonist, which is just weirdly sexualised. Then I realised the only other female characters of importance are:
  1. who hero-worships Caine;
  2. a whoremistress; and
  3. her, uh ... miniature lesbian sex pet.
I feel much better about the gender roles now.

The constant homoerotic tension between the antagonists Ma'elKoth, Toa-Sytell and Berne (don't even try and figure out the naming patterns, there is no logic) was pure hilarity. Add all the jealousy re: who liked Caine better than who and I was holding my breath expecting a hot foursome of evil.

It was sweet deliciousness, and I have authorised the purchase of the second book. (Book-buying in the household of us is a complicated affair of figuring out which book will appeal to the most readers.)

Verdict = 4 out of 5 stars. If you enjoy Richard Morgan, especially if you enjoy both his SF and the fantasy, I suspect you'll like this. Just be prepared for the violence, swearing and gruesome torture scenes.