Wednesday, July 30, 2014

An Exploration in Fantasy -- Part Two: Orphans and the Gum Under the Seat

It may seem that the easiest way to find the origins of fantasy literature would be to simply follow the trail of fantasy literature back in history until we get to the earliest examples of it, but that would cause some problems. For instance, when does fantasy cease to be fantasy and become legend or myth? Are we going to call Beowulf a fantasy story? Or the tales of the Greek and Egyptian gods? Or Gilgamesh? It gets kinda messy if we do that. And that's not really what we're looking for, anyway. No, we're trying to establish where our current model for fantasy writing comes from. Look back at the last post to see the list.

So, although we're not going to go looking for historical beginnings, we are going to start at the beginning. Or, at least, where all fantasy stories start: the orphan boy. Sure, sure, it's not always a boy; Disney has given us plenty of girls, after all; but, when we start talking about the genre of fantasy literature, it's nearly always a boy. Or, even, outside the strict confines of fantasy. Let's take a look at some of the most popular examples (and some that I just like):

1. Harry Potter
2. Luke Skywalker
3. Garion (The Belgariad)
4. Rand al'Thor (The Wheel of Time)
5. Richard Cypher (The Sword of Truth)
6. Batman
7. Spider-Man
8. Superman
9. Arya and Bran Stark (A Song of Fire and Ice)
10. Dorothy (The Wizard of Oz)
11. Katniss Everdeen (The Hunger Games)
12. Skeeve (MythAdventures)
13. Pug (The Riftwar Saga)
14. Harry Dresden (The Dresden Files)

And, actually, I could just go on and on, but I've probably made my point. The fact is, almost any piece of fantasy that you pick up will have the orphan kid as the protagonist. In fact, I'm having trouble thinking of anything that doesn't use that as a starting point. Okay, technically, Dresden is not an orphan kid at the beginning of the series, but there is much made of the fact that he was an orphan so, even though we start with him as an adult, we get the full orphan background for him and how that set him up as the person he is when the series starts. And, yes, Arya and Bran don't start that series as orphans, but the orphan thing for them is significant and clearly part of the paradigm. We just get to see them get orphaned.

In fact, the author that is conspicuously missing from this list is Tolkien. Bilbo is most definitely not an orphan nor is he a kid. Bilbo isn't even young. Nor is Frodo. Okay, you could make a case for the orphan status of Frodo, but it doesn't actually have any bearing on the story. It was actually a contrivance by Tolkien to give Bilbo an heir that wasn't there during The Hobbit. Then there's the fact that Frodo is 50 by the time he leaves the Shire with the Ring. The orphan trope just doesn't apply when we're talking about Tolkien, so it must have come from somewhere else.

Added to the "orphan boy" trope there are the "child of prophecy" and "special" tropes. Special can mean some sort of special ability or having royal parents or any number of things. So let's go down our list and see which of these apply to the group I've selected.

1. Harry Potter -- there is a prophecy, and he's special (survived the death curse)
2. Luke Skywalker -- son of Vader, which makes him pretty special (and the prequels add in a prophecy)
3. Garion -- there's a prophecy, he's the hidden son of a king, and he's a powerful wizard
4. Rand al'Thor -- there's a prophecy and he's special
5. Richard Cypher -- he's got both things, too
6. Batman -- no prophecy, but he's special (yes, unlimited wealth counts as a special ability)
7. Spider-Man -- also, no prophecy, but he's genius smart and gets super powers
8. Superman -- I think the special is apparent. Have they ever included any kind of prophecy for him? I don't know.
9. Arya and Bran Stark -- Arya has some kind of prophecy about her, and Bran has special powers. Maybe there's a prophecy about him, too? Not having read the books, I'm not clear on all of it. But it's clear that these two are central to the story, and they have all the markers. Actually, so does Daenerys.
10. Dorothy -- there's no prophecy, but they certainly treat her as if she is special
11. Katniss -- also no prophecy (I don't think), but she is clearly portrayed as being extraordinary
12. Skeeve -- I don't remember there being any kind of prophecy, but Skeeve is portrayed as being above normal.
13. Pug -- prophecy and special magic powers
14. Harry Dresden -- there is some kind of prophecy (though I'm not to a point in the series where I know what it is, but it's been mentioned), and he's more powerful than he ought to be

So all of these examples have at least one of the two things and many have both. Tolkien, however, has neither. There is no prophecy in either The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings, and Tolkien makes it very clear that Bilbo and Frodo are only special in that they are willing to go, which is to say not special at all. They have no special powers or abilities. They are just hobbits.

When we look back at the first four things on the list from the last post (special orphan boy of prophecy), we find that Tolkien has none of these things; therefore, saying that this part of the fantasy structure is based on Tolkien would be a foolish thing to say. This idea is fairly central to modern fantasy, but it certainly doesn't come from the "Father of Modern Fantasy."

Oh! Before you leave, make sure you check under your chair; the orphans, special or not, leave gum there for good little children. Or whoever is sitting in the chair.

Monday, July 28, 2014

How to Break the Writing Rules: Part Two, Fragments

Fragments. Incomplete sentences. Wandering around in public without a subject or verb to make them whole.

If you're writing a formal document, your language should be formal to match. However, as I mentioned in the first post in this series, when you're writing fiction, you can play with grammar, sentence structure, and other parts of the language to achieve a certain effect. What can you do with fragments? Let's find out.

Fragments are normally short (though you could write a long, rambling one if you chose), so they work well in scenes in scenes with high tension. I also like strings of nouns for lists. Here's an example (a paraphrase, actually) from one of my early works. The protagonist thinks there is something in his hotel closet, so he opens the door:

Two suits, neatly pressed. A pair of shoes on the floor. Empty hangers. Nothing else.

A similar list of verbs might work well in a combat sequence.

Fragments work best when used sparingly. A series of them can work, providing that the surrounding texts flows (so the fragments stand out and are obviously deliberate). Fragments can be overdone, even when used for effect. I read a book earlier this year that used clumps of fragments on Every.Single.Page. (There's another way to use fragments: to show emphasis. I see this most often used in dialogue. People don't always speak in complete sentences, so that's also good place to use fragments.) Some of the fragments were used in ways like ones listed above, but they were used so frequently they drew attention to themselves away from the story. I had to force myself through all of those fragments, so I can't recommend this story to anyone else.

Obviously, any attempt to catalog situations where fragments are effective will be (you guessed it) fragmentary. How do you feel about fragments? Do you use them for effect? If so, how? Please tell us in the comments.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

How speculative does 'speculative fiction' have to be, or should I have had the tortoises shooting lasers?

From time to time, I write short stories involving animals doing vaguely humanlike (although not quite human) things.  This began with a story called "2 Frogs" in which the 2 titular frogs discussed one frog's invention of a new word, and has continued through "7 Pigs," prompted by an Andrew Leon quote about bacon, "5 Chickens," "Bear" and, most recently, "3 Tortoises."

The latest, "3 Tortoises," I submitted to a website for publication, as I do with all my short stories now.  I won't name the publication, because I'm not trying to pick a fight with them, but I will share the rejection they gave me:

Hi Briane This doesn't appear to really be speculative fiction, so we can't accept this submission. cheers 

The rejection itself didn't surprise me; despite a run of success in which I had three stories published for pay in June 2014, rejection is still the norm for most of my stories.  (Actually, the norm is not hearing back from people for a long time.)

But I was surprised that a story about talking, thinking tortoises was deemed to be not really speculative fiction, and so although ordinarily I would publish the story somewhere down the line on my own blog, I am going to share it with IWM readers to help decide just how speculative fiction must be to qualify.

The cover took me WEEKS.
This was actually a debate that began during A To Z month, when one of our featured books was my collection of short stories Just Exactly How Life Looks, which I described in a comment as being more literary than sci-fi or spec fic, and I finally settled on magical realism, which fellow IWM-er Rusty Carl took issue with, saying:

So literary stories aren't spec fic because they are, um, what? You're not also Margret Atwood are you?

And P.T. sided with him, pointing out that things like The Lovely Bones might be considered literary rather than spec fic, and then, much as I had with my ongoing internal debate about what really separates a poem from a short short story (someday I'll do a post about two things I wrote that were both at the same time and discuss that) I began thinking about just how speculative fiction must be.  In Just Exactly, after all, I have cowboys roaming endlessly in a desert, but there's no overt speculative aspects to the story.  Another story in that book, God Shrugged, has God as a character, so I guess that is speculative? And there's one where scientists meet in a secret cabal to decide how to lie to the public and get people interested in science again ("Quantum Everything" is the title and spoiler alert!) which seems fiction-y but not speculative.

So I don't have a clear answer yet.  I mean, lightsabers, superheroes, wizards, dragons, ghosts: those all seem speculative.  But tortoises deciding on what to do? Seemed spec fic to me, but you decide:

3 Tortoises.

3 tortoises appeared on the edge of a clearing. In their whole lives none of them had traveled more than a quarter-mile, and their whole lives, so far had been 70, 50, and 57 years.

Are we now to come closer? The 70-year-old said to the two young ones.

Or shall we turn away from each other? The 57-year-old said.

The 50-year-old ate a leaf and watched the other two.  It was up to him.  He felt it.  What he did next would determine the fate of these three, a fate that might last another one hundred years.

If he stepped forward, the other two would also, and the three of them would remain in this clearing for five, twenty, seventy years, maybe never leaving each other’s company.

If he stepped backwards, each would turn away and over years would slowly (oh so slowly) drift apart, until several decades hence they might be separated by as much as 200 yards, each aware of the other two back behind it, moving away, each conscious of the proximity that for every other animal might be no big deal, but which for them was the chasm of time, of momentum, of the past.

When you live as slowly as we do, the 50-year-old said, you can afford to mull over your next step. He proceeded to do that.

The sun set.

The sun rose.

The sun set again, rose again, and so on for many nights.

The rains came.

The rains left.

The three tortoises had not moved.

The 50-year-old one morning, as the dew settled on the blades of grass around him, said let us meet.  They were the first words spoken in that clearing in 2 years, but they were the right words, and a year later they came true.


Wednesday, July 23, 2014

An Exploration in Fantasy -- Part One: The List

Prior to Tolkien, fantasy writing was sparse. At least, what we think of now as fantasy was sparse. Because of that, Tolkien is widely considered the "Father of Modern Fantasy" or, specifically, the "Father of High Fantasy." Along with the title has come the assumption that it was Tolkien who established our model of how fantasy ought to be written, that it was Tolkien who originated the tropes. People, often people who have not read The Lord of the Rings, look at what Tolkien did and ascribe the origins of all that fantasy has become to him.

Now, I love The Lord of the RingsThe Hobbit, as you'll know if you've checked out my "Of Significance..." page on my own StrangePegs blog, is one of the three books that I think everyone should read. And I don't undervalue Tolkien's importance. There would be no fantasy genre as we know it today without him. However, I don't think that we can "blame" Tolkien for today's fantasy tropes. In fact, many of the things we think he did, he did not, in fact, do. No, for the origins of fantasy, we have to look elsewhere.

And we will. But not today. Before we get to that, we need to figure out what are the key elements of fantasy literature, and these tend to hold true whether it's high (epic) fantasy or not.

With that in mind, I've come up with a list. This is my list, mind you, because I couldn't find anything that resembled a definitive list or even lists with many things in common. I'm just going off of the fantasy I've read (which is a lot) and the things I've found in common amongst them.

1. The protagonist (I'm just going to say "hero" from here on out; it's shorter) is not an adult (and usually male).
2. The hero is an orphan (usually both parents are dead, although there is sometime one (usually the mother)).
3. The hero is "special" in some way.
4. There is a prophecy, generally related to the hero.
5. There is an old mentor of some sort, usually a male. (We recognize this character as "the wizard.")
6. There is a quest of some sort involved that only the hero can complete.
7. There is some kind of descent
8. The hero has companions who help him on his journey.
9. There is some sort of "dark lord" who can only be defeated by the hero.
10. There's an absence of technology.

These are the ones that come to mind as being part of the general "fantasy ideal." I could include other things like:
There are other races like elves and leprechauns.
The setting is generally medieval.
Magic of some sort is involved.
But these things seem to me to be decorations for the story, not actually necessary to the functioning of it, so I'm not including them on the list (unless you can convince me otherwise), although I'm sure I'll talk about them as we go along.

Speaking of convincing, I'm not trying to say this is a definitive list, just the list I'm going to work with in looking at the origins of fantasy and, when I say "origins," I actually mean the blueprint that we use as the basis for modern fantasy writing. If you have other things that you feel are essential, please let me know what they are, and I'll look at them.

Oh, and just to be clear, I'm not dealing with any sub-genres like paranormal or vampire or anything like that. Even though those often use these same basic "rules," they have their own twist on them.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Death Knocks By Miranda Hardy & Jay Noel

Death Knocks:

Who knew a knock at the door could rupture your entire world? They don’t demand money or possessions…they want much more than that, they want your life.
Maverick is preparing for senior year: he’s no longer stuck in the “friend-zone” with the girl of his dreams, he’s looking forward to choosing the right college and being on his own, and he plans to have a blast along the way.
But a knock on the door changes all of that forever.
Maverick begins a mind-altering, life-changing journey to discover the truth—a truth that certain individuals will do anything to keep hidden.

Death Knocks is a Young Adult paranormal thriller about the strange global phenomenon known as the Black-Eyed Kids. Take a creepy and exciting ride in a world where myth meets reality.
Death Knocks is scheduled for publication on September 26, 2014 by Quixotic Publishing.
Death Knocks Book Trailer YouTube Embedded Link:

Quixotic Publishing
Miranda Hardy
Jay Noel

While I'm announcing books, now you can get my Chances Are and Girl Power series all in one convenient omnibus for a mere $4.99!
That's all three Chances Are books and all three Girl Power novels, plus the volume of Girl Power short stories.  Available for Kindle only.  Free to borrow with Amazon Prime or the new Unlimited thing.

Monday, July 21, 2014

How to Break the Writing Rules: Part One, Introduction and Adverbs

I’m one of the last people you’d expect to break writing rules.  I studied editing for my Master of Technical and Scientific Education degree, and I was a proofreader for a local newspaper. I favor the Oxford comma, and when I critiqued chapters on for an online workshop, I spent most of my time pointing out punctuation errors. And yes, I admit to being both anal and conscientious. So why am I blogging about breaking the writing rules?

Rules exist for a reason—to make something safer or fairer for everyone. When it comes to writing rules, the punctuation and grammar rules are there to make things clear. For example, knowing how to use semicolons and commas when making lists will help you separate each item correctly, so there’s no confusion. This is also why I use the Oxford comma. This sentence: “He liked my parents, Darth Vader and Yoda,” could mean that my parents are Darth Vader and Yoda. That would definitely cause a disturbance in the Force. Adding a comma after “Darth Vader” makes it clear that this name is a separate item in the list, not a description of my parents. Rules like this are worth following because if your readers become confused, you’ve lost them.

However, there are other writing rules that have less justification for existing. Some of them are based on a misunderstanding of the language, some of them might be applicable in formal speech but less so in fiction, and some of them are rules thoughtlessly passed down from writer to writer because that’s how they were taught or because some writing styles were in fashion when they started writing. When traditional publishing was the only game in town, writers had to follow the rules to have a chance of breaking in. Now, however, you don’t have to please agents and editors, only readers, and their tastes may be broader than gatekeepers give them credit for.  It’s worth re-examining these types of rules to see if they’re still worth following. There are times when breaking a rule will help you achieve a certain effect in your fiction. However, first you have to understand the rule in order to break it effectively.

Let’s start by looking at one of the most well-known rules: don’t use adverbs. (This advice is generally directed at words that end in "ly," but those aren't the only adverbs around.) The reason you’re not supposed to use adverbs is because they can make a sentence seem wordy or redundant. They may also be used to shore up weak verbs to make your writing style seem “pretty.” (Adjectives are also used for this purpose.) In my opinion, a strong verb is more concise and powerful than a weak verb plus an adjective.  For example, why say “walk slowly and deliberately” when you can say “paced” or “plodded”? But removing an entire class of words from your toolbox is extreme. There may be times when you want to use a strong verb but shade its meaning, or even imply the opposite of what the verb normally means. For example, smiling is normally a happy or friendly gesture, but pairing “smiled” with “sadly” or “meanly” puts a new set of emotions behind the upturned lips and in the eyes. Also, if you’re writing historical fiction or steampunk, using florid phrases may help evoke the time period.

When it comes to breaking any writing rule, moderation is key. If there are a lot of adverbs on every page, then they can become tiresome to read. The fewer adverbs you use, the more impact each one will have. However, it’s not worth breaking your writing flow to strip adverbs from your sentences as you write. If adverbs come to you in the heat of the first draft, feel free to include them. You can always strip them out later if you decide deleting them won’t affect your sentence. I deliberately included some adverbs in this essay, but I also removed some that I felt were too wordy.

How do you feel about adverbs, or writing rules in general? Are there other writing rules you’d like me to discuss in this series? Feel free to mention them in the comments.

Friday, July 18, 2014

You Want Some Relish With Your Paradox? 5 Time-Travel Movies (And One Television Show) To Blow Your Mind

THERE ARE PLENTY OF THINGS in this world that I like. I’m pretty happy I live in a world where I have the opportunity to pursue those things with as much depth as humanity as a whole can provide.

I mean, I love astronomy, cosmology, the history of space-travel… and I have access to the cumulative knowledge of our species at my fingertips. As much as  like to complain about our impending doom, there’s some awesome stuff out there to keep me entertained in the interim.

So, one of the things I like is Time-Travel. It’s got a bit of a weird rep in Science Fiction communities because there are some who declare that going backwards in time is purely fantasy, and any ‘machine’ that gets built to transport someone backwards in time runs on fairy dust and wishful thinking.

Me, I think people who get hung up on the lack of plausibility are missing the point. Time-Travel stories are amazing to me because they are opportunities to explore some paradoxical ideas. I think they are fun to think about. Even if I’m not the best at thinking through ALL the possible repercussions, I still get my entertainment value out of it.

I mean, if I did travel back in time and accidently kill my mother before I was conceived. I don’t think I would have much to worry about. Since I never existed, then I never got to travel back in time, never killed my mother, and therefore am okay… up until I travel back in time and accidently kill her again.

Which is fine, because that just means I cease to exist, and can’t kill her, therefore everyone lives.

And so on and so forth.

That explains why I was never that concerned about Marty McFly in the first Back to the Future movie, as soon as he gets erased from reality, everything will go back to being fine.

But sometimes, in either movies, or books, some of those paradoxes get explored in interesting ways. And in celebration of the IWM anthology that was released recently. I thought it might be nice to point out a few of the more interesting, but perhaps less popular, time-travel stories, that deal with some of the weirdness of time-travel.

Timecrimes: A Spanish film about a man who witnesses some strange things at the lab near his home. Goes to investigate, and ends up sending himself back in time so much that he’s got versions of himself running all over the place on the same day.

The narrative of the movie reinforces that idea that time is, more or less, immutable, so you can go back and do as much crazy stuff as you want, you aren’t going to change anything, because that’s the way it happened the first time.

My take – it’s an interesting movie, but the main character has to behave in some pretty hard to understand ways as he travels back in time in order for the movie to play out logically. Think of this as a purely Calvinistic view of time-travel.

Primer: A story about a group of young entrepreneurs that build a time-machine, which I think goes back about 6 hours. They then witness their entire lives fall apart as they deal with some of the more bizarre aspects of time-travel.

My Take – a VERY interesting look at time-travel, but nearly incomprehensibly complicated. One reviewer of the film said 'If you say you understood in upon a single viewing, you're lying.' And I have to confess that I'm on the opinion that repeated viewings must be necessary to begin to understand this. However, I have only seen it once. I can honestly say that I couldn’t make sense of what I’d witnessed. So I'm taking it on faith that it makes sense. It’s been praised as being one of the most clever time-travel movies ever made, but I’d warn any would-be viewer: It’s hard to follow.

Futurama: Roswell That Ends Well: An episode of the very clever Sci-fi animated show created by Matt Groening (Of The Simpsons fame) where Fry and the gang travel back 1940’s era earth.

My Take – one of my favorite episodes of the show, even if it isn’t the only Time-Travel episode (or the one with the most interesting time-traveling concepts). Not to spoil anything, but there are some intriguing run-ins with some of Fry’s ancestors. Fun to watch and at least nominally mind bending. This is a tad spoilery, but it does involve the consequences of messing around with the lives of your ancestors. 

12 Monkeys: Bruce Willis believes he's been sent into the past to discover the origin of the mysterious virus that destroyed most of humanity. Also, time-travel makes people go a bit bonkers. 

My Take - One of the better movies on this list, but also very intriguing because of it's take on the immutability of time. A side note that Brad Pitt plays crazy just a little too well. 

Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure: A couple of good-for-nothing-wannabe-rockstar kids are, apparently, destined to be be the saviors of humanity, as long as they can pass their history exam. So future society sends them a personal time-machine so they can be sure to do very well on their exam. Hilarity ensues.

My Take - Probably the movie that I obsessed over the most as a young adult that wasn't a carry over from my childhood (Star Wars, Raiders, etc.). One of the actual paradoxical t
hings this handled so well, that was touched on a least a little in the Back to the Future movies, but not really, was the fact that a time-machine can fix all your problems. 

For example, Ted's father can't find his keys. Hasn't been able to find them throughout the whole movie. During the climax, our young heroes desperately need those keys most urgently. They decide that after they get out of the mess they are in, they will take their time-machine, travel back in time to a point that Ted's father wasn't missing his keys, steal them, then hide them right beside the spot they are currently in. Say, right behind that small bush that they're standing next to. They agree that's a good idea, then reach into the bush and there are the keys. 

This made such an impression on me that I decided that there are a few key moments in my life that, should I ever have access to a time-machine and have the opportunity to communicate with my younger self, that then and there are my assigned times and places to make contact. 

The Butterfly Effect: The guy from That 70's Show is an unwilling time-traveller. He blacks out and reappears in the body of his younger self from time to time. He tries to undo the mistakes he feels like he made during critical times of his life, but those unintended consequences tend to make his older self quite unhappy. This movie has kind of a dark tone.

My Take - I like that it was a darker look at time-travel. But what this movie did that not many others do, is demonstrate that changing the past is possible. And with each jump back in time, our young hero typically screws things up. Of course, the less obvious message (i.e., my interpretation of the movie's subtext) of the movie is that the universe has dictated that if he is ever with the woman he loves, things will be disastrous. So who says Hollywood demands happy endings?

I hope everyone has had a chance to run out and pick up a copy of the very FIRST ANNUAL IWM ANTHOLOGY (The Time-Travel Edition). Still a great bargain at $3.99 over on Amazon

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Here's a taste of what you'll get in the Indie-pendence day annual!

First prize in our first-ever Anthology contest went to Russ Bickerstaff's entry, I Will Be A Jerk.  Russ' contribution was an unusual twist on time travel stories, as you'll see in the excerpt below:


I am a jerk. Not right now, exactly, but I will be a jerk. I figure it's probably about 20 years from now. It's a little complicated. Roughly twenty years from now I will be just a few feet from where I am now. Pretending to read a magazine. Pretending not to be looking at me. I will just be sitting there being a jerk. 

When I went off to go to college, I wasn't expecting this. Granted, it's not like there weren't warning signs looming out ahead of me. All my life there had been indicators that I might suffer from some kind of mental illness. It runs in the family. Dad once thought he'd accidentally unplugged the outside world from his house. He was perfectly cool about it for a while. Then everything disintegrated for him. A year ago my brother claims to have seen a cluttered residential apartment of infinite space in the complex he manages. He's still around, but he dropped out of college to be in some weird, experimental steampunk ska band. (Make of that what you will.) So I could have expected some kind of a schizophrenic break with reality. I could have expected some kind of a psychotic episode or something. If not now then maybe ten or twenty years from now. But not now because I'm pretty sure this is different.


You can read the whole story, and 14 other great time travel stories, in the anthology!  CLICK HERE FOR MORE INFORMATION OR TO BUY IT, and watch for an interview with Russ coming soon.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

No Respecter of (Third) Persons: Part Two -- The God Problem

All right, so we were talking about third person and why it's preferable to first, especially when you use it. Again, I don't necessarily mean you you, but I do mean the general you that's out there, 95% of whom are all writing in first person. Seriously, there was a study. Okay, well, I bet there really was a study, but I'm not actually citing any study. I'm just saying... The actual study was actually with ewes, and that study found that all ewes, all ewes that write, that is, write in first person. As it turns out, ewes aren't very imaginative, and most of the stories they write, something like 99.8% of them, contain a wolf or a big bad wolf as the antagonist. The other .02% contain a bear. The most frequent line in manuscripts by ewes is "I was scared," followed closely by "I was afraid," and even more closely by "I was terrified." Some of them write in present tense, too, so it's "I am scared."

The literary history of sheep. It's a thing.

So anyway...

Why shouldn't you write in first person? You should definitely go back and read part one of this to find out the obvious reasons. The other reason is larger but more subtle. Not as noticeable in general but more pervasive. It's the thing I think that most often wrecks first person manuscripts. I call it the "God Complex."

This problem springs up because, as the author of whatever you're writing, you know everything. That knowledge, however, does not extend to your protagonist... or, at least, it shouldn't, and that's a really hard line to hold in your head. It's the thing that makes first person perspective writing, good first person perspective writing, more difficult than third person perspective writing.

One of the most common abuses of first person, and it is an abuse, is the assigning of feelings of other characters by the protagonist. For instance, "I could see that she was hurt." On the one hand, this seems like a perfectly natural thing to say, and sometimes it is, but there are a couple of main issues with it:
1. It's a shortcut that allows the author to skip showing us the actions of the character in question, and it's the actions that should show the readers the emotions, not just being told what they are.
2. The protagonist is always right about how other characters are feeling which makes for an overly empathetic protagonist. Knowing people and how well people generally relate to each other, I find it difficult to believe in a protagonist that always just knows how every other character is feeling in any given situation.

Another issue is that first person protagonists are always incredibly observant, like Sherlock Holmes levels of observant, and that's also just not realistic. People don't notice things, so, coupled with the empathic-ness just mentioned, it's like every first person story was written by the same superempathic, superobservant hero. And this also goes back to what I said in part one: If you want to give detailed descriptions, just write in third person. At least, that way, it's an outside description and makes sense in setting the scene (or whatever) for the reader.

This also applies to first person protagonists explaining how things work, especially in sci-fi novels. When your protagonist is explaining how devices work, something is wrong:
1. How many of you know beyond, say, a general idea how your television works? Or your car? Or the Internet? Basically, you turn on your thing (whatever that thing is) and you don't worry about it as long as it works. So, when your protagonist goes to use the teleportation device and explains how the thing works (probably because the author had a "cool" idea and just had to put in a description), it's not realistic.
2. Besides, even if you did know how it works, would you explain it to yourself (which is essentially what the character is doing) every time you went to use it? Or the first time each day or whatever? I mean, when you turn the TV on, do you muse to yourself how the remote control activates the television and what brings the picture to the screen? I don't think so.

Your first person protagonist needs to only pay attention to things that s/he would pay attention to, which is actually difficult to do, because there's always more information that the author wants to give other than what the character would be able to give, which leads us to the last thing:

Frequently, in first person stories, the protagonist knows about events s/he should have no knowledge of, both things going on concurrently with the character and historical events (back stories) that the character has no business knowing. It's entirely too easy for the author to make the assumption of his/her knowledge about what is going on the world equate to the protagonist's knowledge, essentially making the protagonist omniscient. And that's true of all the other things I mentioned. Now, really, unless your character is actually God (or a god) or Charles Xavier or someone like that, your character just shouldn't know things.
And it's difficult as a writer to confine yourself that way.

Which is why you should be writing in third person, because, then, you can let us know whatever you want us to know. Even how your nifty teleportation device works.

Or the opposite happens and your character doesn't know basic things about, say, his or her own culture and has to have them explained to her by some other character. For me, that's even more annoying than the character explaining things to herself. For instance, I was reading something recently and, basically, some other character mentioned (the equivalent of) college and the character was, like, "huh? What's college?" Seriously? If your character is that ignorant of his own society, you might want to rethink your choice of protagonist.

All of that to say that I know first person seems like such an easy choice to write in. It's natural and all of that, but it's also way easier to mess up. It's really all about discipline and control, and you ought to learn that stuff by writing in third person where it's not so easy to see when you stray from what you were trying to do.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

It's finally here!

The First Annual Indie-Pendence Day Anthology is available for your purchase now!  We WANTED to put it out last week, but didn't want to hurt the USA's feelings by overshadowing the 240th birthday of our esteemed country, so we waited a week.

For just $3.99, you'll get fifteen different time travel stories, stories that will touch your heart and make you think and scare you and astound you and... what else do stories do? Work your eyeballs? YES! Think of this book as like zumba for your eyeballs, only with awesome time travel stories instead of, say, eye charts.

The authors in this collection include the hottest indie authors around, and all this week we will be featuring excerpts from their stories, but why wait? Go get the book NOW!  That's an order, soldier!

Click here to learn more about this awesome book.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Pro Tips From Authors Anonymous

Starting today you can get the Indie-pendence Day Anthology with 15 short stories about time travel from all the Indie Writers Monthly authors and many more!  It's just $3.99 right now on Amazon!

Recently I watched an indie mockumentary called "Authors Anonymous" that follows a writing critique group.  When it comes to writing a lot of movies still get it wrong, which is surprising because movies are written by, you know, writers who should know better than to have a character mailing their 2,000-page opus in a box to a publisher and getting a big contract.  This movie gets the writing game far righter than most.  Here are some tips on what to do and what not to do gleaned from the movie:

1.  Actually Finish Something:  Chris Klein plays Henry, the literary writer of the group who worships Fitzgerald, Hemingway, etc.  (A popular writing movie trope is that everyone always worships Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Steinbeck, and pretty much everyone else before 1950.  What about Updike or Vonnegut or the many authors since then?)  For most of the movie he's suffering from writer's block in finishing his great opus Pizza to Go.  It's only after some tumultuous events with the group that he finally gets the gumption to finish the book.  And this being a movie of course it succeeds.

2.  Don't Flog One Thing Forever:  Collette is another member of the group, who's been working on her steamy romance novel Nyet, Not Yet forever, despite that no one wants to publish it.  She finally barges into a literary agent's office with her guru, who's taken a vow of silence.  But instead of getting her book published, she becomes co-author of a book featuring the guru.  So hey she'll be a published author!  (Sort of.)

3.  How to Not Net an Agent by Creative Means:  Collette's husband is an optometrist, who considers himself the leader of the group.  When a literary agent (Mike from "Breaking Bad") comes in to get his eyes checked, the optometrist replaces the traditional eye test with a page of his wife's manuscript.  Instead of piquing the agent's interest, he just gets annoyed and leaves.

4.  How to Net an Agent by Creative Means:  By contrast Henry gets his novel in the hands of the same agent through a different method.  When he goes to clean the agent's carpets for his day job, he offers the agent 10% off if he'll read the first ten pages.  The agent agrees and likes what he sees, so he asks for more.  The difference between 3 & 4 is one is just pushing something the agent doesn't want on them while the other offers a reward.  Pro Tip:  Agents like money.  So really the optometrist should have offered free glasses if the agent would read his wife's book.

5.  Don't Revise Indefinitely:  One character worships Charles Bukowski (as do I) and wants to be a great writer like him.  The problem is he's only written 3 pages in like 3 years!  At one group session he turns in the same pages but claims it's completely different because he's changed one word.  Revision is great, but 3 years is a bit too much.  And I definitely don't think Bukowski put that much effort into it.

6.  Be Discreet When Researching:  Bukowski boy also has this habit of eavesdropping on people's conversations to write down interesting stuff.  The problem is he's completely not subtle about it.  This leads to trouble with a couple of women he's been spying on.  So if you're going to do that, be more subtle.  Or be like the NSA and just listen to phone conversations from thousands of miles away.

7.  Avoid Vanity Presses:  Dennis Farina plays an older guy who worships Tom Clancy.  He finally decides to self-publish his novel Roaring Lion with a vanity press called "U R the Publisher."   Except the books he gets back are formatted terribly.  The front cover features a tiny dog instead of a lion and the back text is in Chinese!  Of course if you do it yourself through CreateSpace or Lulu you avoid those problems.

8.  Know Your Audience:  After getting his books, Dennis Farina sets up a book signing at his girlfriend's hardware store.  This of course does not go well.  Watching it I shook my head and thought, "Why doesn't he sell them at like a VFW?"  I mean he was a Marine and he's selling a military-themed  book, so why not go to where other like-minded individuals will be located?  It's like how if I were not such a Grumpy Bulldog I'd try to have book signings for my superhero books at comic book stores and try to sell them at sci-fi conventions.  If you're going to sell books in person, try to sell them where people who might be interested in them might actually be.

9.  Keep a Recording Device Handy:  An annoying habit the optometrist has is keeping a tape recorder around for ideas of stories or characters.  The problem is that he never actually writes any of these ideas into books, which kind of goes back to my first tip.  Still, it's a good idea if you're forgetful because there's nothing worse than thinking of a story or title or something and then forgetting it later, because then it will haunt you for hours.  Or you can use a blog.  Idea for a novel:  a secret agent who's a bulldog mascot!   I'll call it Agent Double-Oh K9!
I like my wet food shaken, not stirred.

10.  Hook Up With a Famous Author:  There's one famous author who's Henry's idol, but at a book signing the author ends up hooking up with ditzy blond Hannah, who also has a book being published.  When it comes time for her book signing, the famous author has a lot of his friends show up, so it's far more successful than Dennis Farina's.  Of course it might be difficult for you to hook up with JK Rowling or Stephen King or someone like that, but keep your options open!

11.  Be Super Cute:  As mentioned in #10, Hannah is a ditzy blond in the group.  Throughout the movie she's challenged to think of a famous author and it's pretty clear the closest to a book she's probably read is TV Guide.  But she's the one who gets the big publishing deal for her novel Sleeping on the Moon.  Jealous group members suggest she got the deal because she's hot.  Whether this is true or not is debatable, but I will say not many people who look like me get mega book deals.  Now of course if you're like me it's kind of hard to actually apply this tip, but do your best.  I mean, what could it hurt?

For more tips, you can watch the movie on Netflix, Redbox, or On Demand or whatever.

A CHALLENGE FOR INDIE WRITERS MONTHLY AUTHORS:   When they make "Indie Writers Monthly:  The Movie" who would play you?  I was thinking about mine and then decided that it would be Jonah Hill just because I think it's a Hollywood rule that he plays any fat, nerdy guy under 40.  Now pick your avatar, who probably looks much, much better than you in real life.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

What I Think About When I Think About "Operation: Masquerade" by Nigel Mitchell.

Operation: Masquerade by Nigel Mitchell is amazing.

The basic plot of the book is that humans are at war with an insect-like species, and a new plan has been devised to slip a disguised operative onto an alien ship and get information from an 'archiver' bug that will help humans get information to win the war -- but it turns out that the director of the operation has other plans for that information.  That's not too much of a SPOILER ALERT! in that the description on Amazon already tells you there's a conspiracy involving this plan.

The book gets five stars from me.  It has great action scenes, decent characters with just enough backstory to make you care about them but not so much as to drag the story, and a pretty compelling universe it's set in.

With that said, here's what else I thought about as I read this book:

Insect aliens? Really?  In the June issue of IWM's magazine (still available here!) P.T. did an article about bugs in speculative fiction, and one of the first things I thought as I read this book was Oh, no, the aliens are insects.  That information comes on pretty quickly, and if this wasn't a Nigel Mitchell book I might have quit there, but this is a Nigel Mitchell book and I won it in a contest, so I kept reading (because I like Nigel's writing and I like winning things and I like I free), and eventually the bugs won me over as decent alien enemies, possibly because the rest of the story was so strong that it overcame that trope and possibly because the writing is so good.

I'm not sure why alien-insect-enemies thing bugs (ALWAYS INTEND THE PUN!) me so much.  If you think about it, it seems like the odds are aliens will look a lot like bugs.  According to a box at the the top of a Google search on "how many species of insects are there," (and how much more reliable a source can you find?) there are 950,000 species of insects already identified, and I am reasonably sure that 1/2 of them flew into my mouth while I was walking with the boys Saturday, which is way more than the 658 (including subspecies) species of primates known.  If the ratio of 1,443 bugs for every primate continues through the universe (why wouldn't it?) we are in for an awful lot of horrifying first contacts.

In Masquerade's case, as I said, the bugs won me over, mostly because Nigel does a good job of creating an actual bug society, and explaining it as much as he needs to in order to make the bugs more than simply generic video-game aliens.  He also does a good job of still keeping the bugs aliens, though: there is never a feeling that these are simply humans with bug shells, and Nigel gives great descriptions -- limited in perspective because his humans don't know much about the bugs -- of how bugs act, what they eat, even what they smell like.  It's all very well done.  Which bring me to:

What In The Worlds!  One of my favorite authors is Robert Heinlein, who has his flaws (his characters are talky, even if they are interesting) but writes great books.  One thing I always liked about Heinlein is the way he just dumped you into his universes and assumed that you as the reader were familiar with the universe.  Rather than tons of expository writing, Heinlein explained only what needed to be explained as he went along (and sometimes not even that), and then only if absolutely necessary to the plot or the reader's understanding of the plot (aside from the times that Heinlein gets sidetracked on the math, which is a different essay some day).

That's an important part of writing, especially science fiction, because explaining too much can cause the reader to take a step back. Think of Star Wars: aside from a brief explanation leading into the original movie, Star Wars doesn't explain too much about what the universe is really like.  There's no explanation for how the political system works or what commerce is like or how the various alien and robot characters came to be or how they act.  Things just happen and we learn about them as they do.  Like when Princess Leia lies about where the rebel base is and the Empire blows up Alderaan anyway, saying that the other planet is too far away to be an effective demonstration.  In most books, that would have been handled by 2 or 3 pages explaining how the Empire was set up and what these planets were and how they operated, and then the scene would begin.

Nigel does his world right: there is a minimum of explanation, and that lack of explanations has effect of making the reader feel closer to the world itself; assuming familiarity with the world means that the narrator is less intrusive and we're more along for the ride, and it gives the third-person writing more of that immediate first-person feel.   What with Andrew spurring all that debate about first- versus third-person, this is important: lots of first-person supporters said they like the urgency of the feeling of that point of view, but you can create immediacy and connection and urgency simply by putting your reader in the story rather than having a narrator hold them at arm's length.

So when the world needs to be explained in Masquerade, it gets explained as part of the action.  There are, for example, three levels of society on Earth, A, B, and C, and the poorest level is C, which one of the characters has to spend some time in, unwillingly (Level C is like Mad Max taking place in the sewer city of Futurama), and Nigel doesn't spend any time explaining how Earth got this way or even much about how it works, other than to have some characters mention some things in passing, as part of the action.  Again, like Star Wars, it works because it keeps the story from dragging and makes me feel like I'm part of that world as opposed to only reading about it.

Throughout the book, Nigel does that, and each revelation of the universe he's created is simply presented as "Oh, here are more things you ought to know about because they're just the world, you know", from asteroid mines/spaceship stops to an entire resort created on another planet by aliens for humans to visit to starships to the organization behind the conspiracy, Nigel presents these things are both amazingly detailed and seem to fit together well, but are also just mentioned in passing, for the most part, so the book moves along at a great pace and almost never slows down.

The effect is to have the book feel like a movie, which is a great compliment: books are not like movies, after all, in that they're read over days (or weeks, in my case) and put down and picked back up, while movies are just watched, usually in one sitting. (Not at my house, but that's not pertinent, here.)

The other effect is to make me want more.  There's so much of the universe that Nigel touches on here that this set of worlds could provide a lot more stories.  Like the Star Wars universe-- again, very much a compliment -- Nigel has created an entire system that would just spin off story after story after story, which means that I'll finish up with

Characters Matter:  Like the bugs, the other thing that could have gone wrong here but didn't was the main character, Jason Locke.  Jason Locke is more or less the Tom Cruise/Jamie Foxx character in every action movie, ever: good-looking, dedicated, amazingly skilled, quick-thinking, etc etc etc, he's basically a superman without a cape, which is almost every sci-fi character in almost every book ever, and it's a character I'm not totally sold on reading.

I once said in a comment on a blog that I wished someone would create a wizard who had no limits to his power, no weaknesses, and no qualms about using his power, like Genie in Aladdin once he's freed, because limits on powers are often artificial constraints that make it easier for a writer.  Why doesn't WIZARD simply blow up the bad guys? We have to use our power sparingly, or every time I use my power I die a little or he's wearing yellow and I am a Green Lantern.  Those limits are as often as not there because the writer couldn't figure out how to tell a story with an all-powerful wizard and have it be more than one page long.

The answer to that could simply be don't have an all-powerful wizard, or a wizard at all, which is what happens in Star Wars, almost: Luke and Han aren't all-powerful or even particularly skillful, at least in the first one.  Obi Wan Kenobi is a wizard -- I'm using wizard generically, here -- but they place limits on his power, too: you can't act in anger or go on the attack or whatever when you are a Jedi, and Obi Wan lets himself die to become even more powerful and I'm not going to get sidetracked on why that had to happen, because at the end of the movie Obi Wan simply tells Luke to use the Force even though Luke has had maybe 10 minutes worth of training in the Force, and also even though had Obi Wan lived he could have told Luke before they left on the mission to use the Force, too, so it's hard to see how Obi Wan became more powerful by being struck down, but whatever I'm getting sidetracked.

The point is: all-powerful characters would be boring if not handled properly, which is why every genie can only grant 3 wishes, etc.  So it's not just a crutch, but can be necessary to limit your character's power.

Why, then, the superman-action hero? Why does he still exist?  Bruce Tom Denzel Washington Cruise Willis can get blown up, swing from ropes, be shot, walk across glass, fall several stories, dive onto moving trains, etc etc etc and have only a photogenic superficial wound on his face at the 2/3 mark of the movie, rather than being exhausted and having numerous torn ligaments and wrenched shoulders that would have him unable to finish the fistifight on top of the biplane at the end of the movie.  Why? Why are those characters so popular?  I have no theories on that, other than again, it's easier for writers, especially: Why bother to figure out how your character is going to fight that guy after he just was dragged underneath a truck for seven miles, when you can just have him do that without explanation?

Remember one of the greatest scenes in movies, when Indiana Jones, exhausted, sees the swordsman and pulls out his gun and shoots him?  That was awesome, in part because it almost never happens.  Most heroes are up for a fight there, and that becomes unrealistic.

Jason Locke is kind of like that.  He is a superman, and while there are no doubt highly-skilled strong people out there that are more or less a notch above us -- Brett Favre never missed a start in something like 17 years -- I usually find that kind of character annoying.

Again, though, Nigel compensates for it, in two ways.  First, he puts Jason into an environment where it's hard for him to be a superman: Jason spends most of his time in the bugs' ship, where even his amazing abilities are taxed because everything is so strange.  That helps a bit,  because it introduces a weakness for Jason without it being the artificial "my powers are no good against wood" variety.  Jason's weakness is simply that there was no way to really prepare for the bug ship, and it shows.

More importantly, though, and more successfully, Nigel has supporting characters that make up for Jason being a superman.  Supermen are kind of bland and hard to root for: we know they're going to win and we can't really empathize with them because we are people who wake up in the morning achey and sore from simply going for a walk last night, or who struggle to figure out how to use our GPS and can't imagine figuring out an alien computer system.  Or at least certain people writing this post are like that.  But Nigel's supporting characters are more fleshed out and more human and easier to root for-- number one among them the co-star, Jason's new wife, who sets out to try to tell Jason of the conspiracy and has a far harder time than she'd imagined she would getting to him.  That half of the story -- Jason's wife is more or less the co-star of the book -- is every bit as absorbing as the main, Jason-centric story, or more so because Jason's wife is more human and has a harder time of it.

Jason does that successfully with other characters, including the bad guys, most of whom (with the exception of the main antagonist trying to kill Jason's wife) are well-drawn and have motivations that make sense and have enough backstory that you kind of care about them or at least keep them from being caricatures.

The main antagonist, though,  is more or less the opposite of Jason: a superman who seems able to absorb any punishment and keep on going.  In a bad guy, that's more acceptable than in a hero, if only because we're not asked to identify with the bad guy and also because that guy is in the Jason's wife part of the story, and it makes her plight more serious that she can't shake this guy for so long.

One thing I wanted to mention, too: even though they spend most of the story apart, Jason and his wife are a compelling couple that makes you actually believe they could be married and makes them seem more real.  Husband-and-wife superspies is a hard concept to pull off, but Nigel does it here and it really helps the story.

Overall: This book deserves to be a movie.  It deserves sequels, and spin-offs, and deserves to be mentioned in the pantheon with Star Wars and Star Trek and other great sci-fi stories.  It has that same feel to it, a combination of sheer adventure with some philosophy mixed, as those two universes, do.  It's a fast read and one I found compelling enough to look forward to reading each day.  A definite must-buy for any sci-fi lover.

CLICK HERE TO BUY Operation: Masquerade on Amazon.  It's just $3.99!


Don't forget to buy the July issue of our magazine! Look over to the right there!  Five short stories, tips on writing and creating an audiobook and blog reviews! Totally worth $0.99!