And here is Em’s article, showing the other side: how not to go about self-publishing.
August 18, 2015
by Teresa Edgerton
August 18, 2015
by Teresa Edgerton
August 18, 2015
by Teresa Edgerton
August 10, 2015
by Teresa Edgerton
When I wrote my first book, writers had few choices. They could submit to traditional publishers and hope and hope and hope that one of them would pick up their book. They could self-publish, which involved dealing with printers and taking on large production costs, and then hoping and hoping and hoping to find bookstores that would be willing to sell the book. (A rare and expensive option that worked best for poetry and for non-fiction aimed at a specialty audience … and not particularly effective even for them.) Or they could turn to a vanity press—which was such a bad situation for writers who fell into the clutches of the vanity presses that it could almost not even be called an option at all.
Times have changed—oh how they have changed!—and authors have many choices: traditional publishing with a large or medium size publisher, traditional publishing with a small press, self-publishing (which bears almost no resemblance to self-publishing back in the twentieth century) and a hybrid approach, combining traditional publishing with self-publishing. Each of these can lead to spectacular success or spectacular failure. Reasonable expectations, researching your options to find out exactly what is involved, hard work, and finding the right approach that works for you are key.
Four of us (Thaddeus White, Em Tett, Jo Zebedee, and I) are collaborating on a series of articles about these alternatives, the challenges involved and the opportunities. Articles will appear on our respective blogs on Fridays throughout August. Look here for links on the main page of this blog, as the articles appear.
July 28, 2015
by Teresa Edgerton
Guest blogger Steven Poore has kindly agreed to contribute the latest in our series of articles about writers and the worlds that they create for their stories. Steven is nothing if not versatile, writing science fiction and fantasy, novels and short stories. He is the author of two series: the epic fantasy Melassar’s Curse, and space opera The Empire Dance. A founding member of the Sheffield SF&F Writers’ Group, Steven also organizes the popular SFSF Social Events.
The first volume of Malessar’s curse, The Heir To The North, will be released by Kristell Ink Books on all platforms in October 2015.
WELCOME TO MY WORLD: WORLDBUILDING AND THE HEIR TO THE NORTH
by Steven Poore
One of the hardest jobs in writing – in writing epic fantasy in particular – is to make your secondary world stand out. What’s going to make the reader want to immerse themselves in your creation? What’s going to make them remember that city, that battle-blasted plain, that castle, over any other?
One method might be to make your story’s landscape so startlingly different that it can’t help but stand out. Kameron Hurley’s Mirror Empire takes this approach, for example – acid nightmare visions of semi-sentient walking trees, blood-drinking thorn fences, fork-tongued bears and glowing everpine weapons. It takes a fair bit of getting used to and runs the risk of alienating the reader rather than drawing them in, but it can be enormously effective too. Mirror Empire certainly lives up to Angry Robot’s “SF/F/WTF” mission statement and it was a fascinating read because of that approach.
I took a different route in my own work. Heir To The North is an unashamedly old-fashioned epic fantasy: a quest to overthrow an ancient curse, complete with dragons, sorcerers, a handsome prince, and a protagonist who has a lot to learn…
The secondary world created for this book came from two places: from stories, and from real-world places. But while I wanted enough detail to immerse the reader in the world, I didn’t want to drown them. That’s why, for example, only a small part of the world itself is ever explored. Other parts may be mentioned in passing, but only that. The same goes with cities like Galliarca and Hellea, where there’s hopefully just enough detail to let the reader visualise the place.
Rod Duncan (The Bullet-Catcher’s Daughter) has demonstrated in his workshops simple methods to provide enough description to hook a reader’s imagination. I’ve since realised that in some respects I was doing a similar thing: each place that Cassia visits has one or two points of focus, things that I hope will stick in the reader’s mind and allow them to build up their own picture of the location. For example, in the description of Galliarca’s cramped mede (based heavily upon Marrakesh’s souks) Cassia discovers that “a small and anonymous door set into a long, blank wall had been left open to reveal a great, vaulted airy temple, the glazed columns suffused with sunlight.” Malessar’s house in the city looks inward onto a small, beautiful garden, framed by columns, again based on Moroccan architecture but never detailed to such an extent that I might be a columnist for Fantasy Homes & Gardens Magazine (a trait my editor has beaten out of me…).
Back in Hellea, the city’s great library, with musty cellars deep within the hilltop, is modelled on ancient Alexandria (and the name Hellea itself should start the Imperial Roman comparisons running). Far to the North, an abandoned watch-tower sits on the border of Caenthell, all dark, cold spaces around an overgrown yard, the crumbling walls manned by wraiths; and on the rocky moors only half-buried, broken floor tiles remain of the lost city of Gethista… you can see these places already, can’t you, even with these slight descriptions?
Meanwhile, as the daughter of a storyteller, and determined to make her own name in that field, Cassia’s journey across Hellea to find and defeat the warlock Malessar involves a lot of stories and histories. Some hold truth, others are… incomplete. While one or two of them were so important to the actual plot that I left them intact in the narrative, most of them were little more than incidental flavour.
For example Cassia proves her worth to the crew of the Rabbit by entertaining them with the tale of Pelicos the Illuminated – “The hero of Kalakhadze, of Stromondor, of the plains-built fortresses and more besides; the man who left a trail of broken hearts and enraged husbands in his wake.” Elsewhere, she recites the tale of “Pelicos, Pelicos the Brave, Pelicos Bedstealer with his sheets to the wind – the wind that had borne him away from the shores, and into the seas that took him to wife.” Neither story is ever actually told to the reader, but I bet that even from those short lead-ins you can construct your own version of my fictional rogue. Using Pelicos the Many-Named was a simple way to bring colour and depth to a story within a story that would otherwise remain untold; to do any more than that ran the risk of distracting the reader and bringing the plot to a standstill (as well as giving my editor a nervous fit…).
The stories narrated by Baum, Malessar and Arca weave in and out of Hellea’s history, containing both truth and fiction in their own way, and so I told them to Cassia (and the reader) through a mixture of dialogue and third-person description. You should get a deeper sense of Hellea’s history through them – but also a nagging suspicion that something has been left out. JV Jones’s protagonist in The Barbed Coil had to sift through layers of truth in the same way.– and that’s the space that I wanted to find for the reader in Heir To The North.
If I’ve succeeded in that, then Hellea, and Cassia’s quest to restore Caenthell, should come alive for you as it has been for me ever since I got lost in a series of narrow alleyways somewhere in the depths of the souks of Marrakesh…
July 22, 2015
by Teresa Edgerton
Originality can’t be taught; it can’t be passed on from one writer to another. Neither can creativity. But they can be encouraged, they can be nurtured. Of all genres the fantasy genre ought to be most apt to encourage originality. Unfortunately, for some writers it has precisely the opposite effect. The reasons for this, I think, are two. The first is misconceptions about the genre, and the second is fear.
And so today I offer . . .
SOME THOUGHTS ON ORIGINALITY, GENRE, AND STYLE
Over the years, I’ve heard a lot of new writers talking about how their books are so different from everything that has gone before that they are going to reinvent the fantasy genre. But when I have had the opportunity to read their works, the one thing that has struck me is how very much their books are like all the other books being produced by writers who are also attempting to do something completely new and reinvent the genre. I think this can be traced back to several causes, but it starts with their sources of inspiration.
Some of these writers have read very little (or no) fantasy but nevertheless believe they know what it is all about. On the other hand, some of them read a great deal of fantasy, but it’s of a very limited type, usually heavily influenced by role-playing games. In both instances, the writer thinks that taking even a small step outside of what they (mistakenly) understand to be the confines of fantasy will amount to a major revolution. Having avoided one or two clichés they manage to incorporate several others into their story, believing that a story cannot be a fantasy without them.
But the field of fantasy literature is rich and vast. The possibilities are limitless, or at least as limitless as the human imagination. There are fads and trends; there are subgenres, styles, tropes, and conventions of the genre that go in and out of fashion. None of these define fantasy, fantasy is too big for that.
Sometimes a writer coming new to fantasy makes the decision to curtail their reading within the genre because they fear they will be “influenced.” This leads to the unfortunate side effect that they’re overly influenced by any books they’ve already read.
If the only wizards you ever read about were Gandalf and Dallben, you would probably be unable to visualize a wizard without some combination of white beard, staff, irascible but loveable personality, book, pig. But if you know Prospero, Väinämöinen, Math, Taliesen, Ged, Roger Bacon, Cornelius Agrippa—if you have even begun to acquaint yourself with the long, long, list of wizards in legend, folklore, and literature—then you come to understand that the archetype “wizard” is not limited to any one set of features or characteristics.
And whether you want them or not there will be influences. Everything you ever write will be influenced by things you read, see, think, feel, and do. And this is a desirable thing, not something to be avoided. The more you read, the more other writers will inspire you with ideas—but you will no longer be copying their creations nearly whole. You’ll be picking up inspirations and influences from a variety of different books and writers and you will be combining them in ways that are uniquely your own.
As fantasy writers we may write about non-human races, but there is always in those races a touch of humanity—our orcs, elves, vampires, may be used to explore a handful of human characteristics, exaggerated perhaps, often intensified to become stronger drives, or to become physiological or psychological imperatives, nevertheless these characteristics are essentially human—and the very best fantasy, no matter what else it has to recommend it, reveals something about our human nature, our hopes, aspirations, and fears, seen from the sort of fresh perspectives that only speculative fiction can offer. The vampires of legend may not be real, but hunger is, and obsession, we each know them, and if it happens that we choose to write about vampires, then if we choose to follow our own instincts and intuitions, explore our own deepest hungers, incorporate our own experiences with obsession, instead of relying on what is expected, we free ourselves to go beyond what is stale and predictable. It can be a fearsome thing to examine our own hearts, to show who we really are—what if we are rejected?—but it is also one of the best ways to liberate our creativity.
But since we are each one of us only privileged to see and experience a small part of everything there is to be seen and experienced, it only makes sense that we would wish to broaden our understanding by collecting other viewpoints as well. To do this we should read widely, inside and outside our chosen genre. We need to get our ideas (ah, the ancient question!) not only from fiction but from nonfiction as well, from movies, newpapers, people we meet, people we already know—in short, study the world around us. Ideas meet, mate, and give birth to other ideas. If we gather our inspirations from a limited range of sources, chances are high that the results will be inbred and predictable. On the other hand, inspirations that come from a wide variety of sources and a wide variety of perspectives will often produce offspring with singular and unexpected qualities.
But originality requires more than the intitial inspiration.
There are those who believe that writing fantasy is all about the Idea, the grand and glorious original premise. But it is not enough to come up with the Great Idea, if you are not willing to explore it, if you just leave it lying there flat on the page while you go on to tell a stereotypical story with stereotypical characters. It is not the idea you start out with that makes a work original, it is where your ideas lead you.
Certain archetypes turn up in fantasy over and over because people sense that they are metaphors for our deepest hopes, fears, or aspirations—though it is true that they’re often treated in an unthinking, predictable way. Take the fantasy quest: In the hands of one writer the characters may simply collect magical artifacts like the property deeds in a game of Monopoly. For another writer, something as familiar as the quest can be a profound metaphor. Even the objects of the quest can have deep personal meaning, and those deeper meanings inform the story. The writer is writing with heart and passion, telling a story that no one else could tell even if they began from the same starting point.
We all know that most fantasy and science fiction stories owe their origins to the question “What if ____?” Yet we shouldn’t be content to leave it at that, because it’s a very good question to ask at every single stage of the writing process. “What if, instead of what I had originally planned, my character decided to do this?” “What if, instead of following the obvious course, I choose to examine one of the other possible consequences of this particular set of circumstances?”
And though it is wise to polish our craft and learn the basic principles of good writing—whose purpose is to help us learn to communicate the stories we envision more effectively—we should not be afraid to allow our own voices and our own styles to develop. This, of course, can be an uneasy balance. If a style is too eccentric it may sacrifice clarity, or limit the writer’s audience, but if we do not choose eccentricity for its own sake (in order to impress people), if instead we choose it because it is the best or the only way to tell the particular stories that we have to tell, then our goal should be to master that style and develop it to its fullest potential. Here again we need to listen to our instincts, which will seldom lead us wrong. Our vanity, on the other hand, almost always will.
July 20, 2015
by Teresa Edgerton
ATLANTIA, by Ally Condie
At the time of the Divide, the air had grown so poisonous and polluted, those who lived on land endured short, ugly lives, plagued by sickness and misery. Thus, a great underwater refuge was built so that humanity might survive, and a chosen few were sent to live Below, that they might enjoy long, beautiful lives, breathing pure air, and populating the marvelous city of Atlantia.
Since that time, those Above grow the food and supply other necessities to those Below, hoping (it is said) to be rewarded in the afterlife for the bodily suffering they endure in this one. Atlantia reciprocates by trading ores mined by mechanical drones from the floor of the sea. This exchange is not equal, however, which is why each year young people who have reached a certain age are given the choice to stay Below or to lead a life of sacrifice Above, helping to grow the crops and produce the other things that Atlantia cannot provide for its citizens.
Every year, there are some who choose the sacrifice. Rio has always dreamed of going Above, not purely out of a desire to serve, but because she longs to feel the sun on her face, touch living trees, and walk for miles without ever reaching the edge of the world. But the choice of whether to go or stay is irrevocable. There are no visits, no communications between family members once they are divided. Their separation is as complete and as final as death itself.
Rio has a fraternal twin, who has been pleading with her since childhood to remain with her Below. “Though Bay and I are not mirrors of each other,” Rio says,“we’re still as near to the same person as two completely different people can be.” Yet Bay’s devotion to Atlantia is as strong as Rio’s desire to leave—and as the last children of their bloodline they would not, in any case, be allowed to both go Above. Rio remains firm in her decision to go Above until the unexpected death of their mother, Oceana, when Bay’s pleas take on a new desperation. Rather than leave her sister alone, Rio makes the painful choice to stay.
But when the day of the ritual choosing comes, Bay shocks Rio by making the choice to go Above, leaving Rio stranded Below. So Rio must not only endure the loss of her twin, but also the loss of her dream.
Left alone, Rio begins to notice that things are not quite right in Atlantia, that there are secrets that may lead to the truth of her mother’s death and to falsehoods about the very nature of their city and its relationship with those Above. Rio’s only remaining family member is her estranged aunt, Maire, who is one of those born with a powerful gift, the beautiful and compelling voice of a siren. The sirens are both valued and feared, and for the most part kept apart from the other citizens of Atlantia. Only Maire, the most powerful of them all, is able to live as she chooses.
Rio learns that Maire may hold the answers to all her questions about Oceana’s death, as well as other secrets, dangerous to know, equally dangerous to ignore. And Rio has a secret of her own: she too is a Siren, one who has suppressed her true voice in order to keep her freedom.
The setting is captivating and vividly portrayed: from the soaring beauty of the temple with its great rose window, to the chaos of junk and treasures in the deepmarket, to the workshops smelling of oil and seawater where the machinists repair the mining drones, to the constant sound of air pumping through the walls and out into the city.
Rio is an appealing character, both vulnerable and strong. The author does not minimize or trivialize her grief at being parted from her sister; it is raw and inescapable. Yet Rio is not a passive character. She asks questions, determined to solve the mysteries that surround her. She devises an elaborate and dangerous plan for escaping the city and going Above. She doesn’t flinch from the truth when she discovers that so much about her world is not at all as she thought it was.
For most of the book the plot moves along at a steady pace. As well as Rio’s longing for the world Above, her determination to achieve what she wants against all the combined weight of law and custom there are the mysteries to be solved and every answer leads to more questions. Rio’s tenacity in searching for those answers is as much a part of her story as her resolve to reach the world Above. But near the end of the book I thought the plot became over-complicated and muddled, and given that, the resolution seemed too easy and not at all credible. To me, it felt as though the author left out the one thing that could have made it work.
Because the story is told in first person from Rio’s viewpoint and we never get to hear the thoughts of the other characters, or see the world from their perspectives, most of them come across as just a bit flat. Perhaps—even probably—in some cases this is intentional, as with Maire, to maintain her mystery. But it would be nice if the boy who emerges as Rio’s romantic interest were a more rounded character. Yes, he is appealing, and there is more to him than initially meets the eye, but of his personality we see little beyond his kindness and loyalty. His romance with Rio is not, however, a major part of the plot, since it only really develops near the end. Because of that, I think some readers will be satisfied with his character as it is, and others will wish the romance had developed earlier.
July 14, 2015
by Teresa Edgerton
When it comes to the rules of good writing, there are three different ideas that are likely to trip up the inexperienced writer.
1. You must learn the rules and religiously adhere to them.
2. Once you learn the rules you can throw them away and ever after do whatever you want.
3. A true artist never pays any attention to rules.
Each of these is, in is own way, wrong. In writing, as in any other art or creative endeavor, there is only one rule that is really a rule rather than a guideline. To quote Tim Gunn: Make it work. If it doesn’t work, you must do whatever is necessary to remedy that. If it does work, you can safely shove all of the other rules to the back of your mind . . . right up to the time when something doesn’t work.
This, in the end, is what agents and editors care about. They don’t go through a manuscript keeping a tally of adverbs, adjectives, saidbookisms, passive verbs, head-hopping, or any of the other things you will be told by other writers that you should never use or do. If the writing grabs an agent or an editor (or indeed anyone), if it hauls them in and doesn’t let them go until the end, none of these things will matter. What publishers are looking for are engrossing stories with compelling characters, written in such a captivating and persuasive manner that they will grip readers from the first word to the last.
All the rest is about how you can make it happen.
The most important purpose of the so-called rules (which for purposes of brevity shall from this point on be simply referred to as the rules, even though they are more in the nature of guidelines) is that when you have that uneasy sensation that something isn’t working, the rules can help you identify the reason why. This is where learning about passive verbs, saidbookisms, head-hopping, and the rest will come in handy. Not that these things are anathema or anything close to it (as very eager new writers who have just been cautioned about using them are liable to insist) but that they are to be employed sparingly and above all mindfully, because it is so easy to overuse them, or to use them badly. The rules are merely a list of things that usually make your writing more effective and things that usually make it less so. Once you have identified that your problem does, in fact, involve a rule that you have broken, you have two options. You can change what you have already written to conform to that rule, or figure out what you can do to compensate for what you botched when you broke it.
Many people, especially relatively new writers who are still looking for guidance themselves and who will believe almost anything they are told, will pass on rules that they have garbled out of recognition, or turn something that is meant to be merely a caution into an outright prohibition. These misconceptions will be passed around from one writer to another until newer writers, hearing the same thing from more than one source, consider it absolutely trustworthy advice. This is why it is important to listen to your instincts. Does what you have written feel right? Does it accomplish what you want it to accomplish? Then don’t get flustered because you have apparently violated some prohibition that you just learned about today. But perhaps you’ve already been sensing that what you are writing has been pulling you deeper and deeper into difficulties? (Be honest with yourself.) If so, you need to take a hard look at what you have and ask yourself why those difficulties are proliferating.
So the rules are really just guideposts that can point you in the right direction to improve your writing. They will also help to pinpoint the problem if you find that your writing is bland, awkward, boring, too obscure, overwritten, etc. But what exactly happens when you break a rule or two or several? You may still write a good book, it is possible you may even write a great book, but you have begun to raise obstacles in your path, obstacles you may or may not be ingenious enough or persistant enough to overcome—obstacles that might lead you, in the end, to decide that it is simply not worth all the extra work compared to what you thought you might gain by breaking those rules.
Breaking the rules most often leads to quite obvious consequences, and it is by those consequences, and only those consequences, that you should judge whether or not you are committing writerly felonies and misdemeanors. Break a rule, and a problem generally appears, if not immediately then somewhere before you reach the end of the story. Break a rule, and something that would have made your story more readable, more engaging, is sacrificed. However, changing course to follow that rule may not be the only or the best way to deal with the situation, because sometimes breaking that specific rule makes that specific story so much better that it really is worth the extra work to find a way to compensate. This is why it is not enough to memorize the rules and be able to parrot them back. I would even venture to say that if the rules are going to do you any good at all it is more important to understand them than to follow them.
The truth is, they are not much use even as guidelines unless you first comprehend the reasoning behind them. What is it that you are supposed to accomplish by following a particular rule? What are the difficulties that may arise when you don’t? There is a difference between ignoring a rule out of inexperience (or a mistaken idea of one’s own genius) and deciding not to follow it in order to achieve a particular effect. If you have decided not to follow a rule and if you run into difficulties, if the result is not what you hoped it would be, understanding the rules will help you to figure out what you need to do next to a) restore whatever it is you have sacrificed, b) get creative and find alternative ways to make it all work anyway, and/or c) backtrack, identify where things began to go wrong, and steer a better course from there.
If you know the rules you can find a workaround more quickly and more surely. But it is also true that you can figure out a solution by the simple process of trial-and-error. There is much to be said for learning things the hard way—you may, for instance, better assimilate what you have learned—but it can be a lengthy and difficult process. It’s where so many writers grow discouraged and give up, either because they lose confidence in their abilities (sometimes prematurely), or because they refuse to recognize that what they have written isn’t perfect, and they grow frustrated and paranoid because other people don’t offer them the praise they think they deserve. Yet it can also be how a writer comes up with the most creative solutions.
How you figure out what you need to do in order to compensate for whatever difficulties you created for yourself is up to you. There will always be more than one way to work things out. (And sometimes the something that compensates for a habit of rule-breaking may be sheer bloody genius, but it’s as well not to count on that being the case in your own instance. If you are a genius, someone will tell you. It may escape the attention of those who know you best, but someone will recognize it and let you in on it. If they don’t, your only alternative is to learn how to actually write.)
But how might one go about this business of breaking a rule and finding something that works just as well in its place? I’ll use a book that most fantasy writers will be familiar with as an example.
One of the rules you are most likely to hear repeated again and again is that over the course of a novel-length work major characters must show some growth, they must each of them change in some significant way or they will be so flat they might as well be made out of cardboard. Or, if it is a tragedy, their inability to change may be the thing that destroys them. It has been noted (usually by those who don’t like the book for other reasons entirely) that in The Lord of the Rings—one of the most influential and highly regarded books of the twentieth century—some of the most important characters don’t change at all. Aragorn is the one usually singled out. And it is is true that Aragorn is very much the same at the end of the book as he is at the beginning, yet the impression is not that of a static character. The reason is that while Aragorn himself doesn’t change, our knowledge of him does. Throughout the book there is a gradual revelation of his identity, his character, his destiny, and his abilities, which for most readers makes him just as compelling as if he did go through some great revolution in his thinking or his personality.
Did Tolkien figure this out and do it exactly that way on purpose? Probably not. He never regarded himself as a professional writer. But the story went through numerous revisions and the character of Aragorn emerged through draft after draft, as Tolkien was constantly making changes to the characters and the story. Whether he hit on the right combination by experimenting until he found what worked—through years and years laboring away at the manuscript—or because he knew what he was doing when he broke the rule and what he must do to compensate for it, the important thing is that he stuck with the story until he made it work.
As another example, I’ll mention a book that is not so highly regarded: The Da Vinci Code. Plot holes abound; characterization is poor; the prose is uninspired. Yet the book is popular with readers, and even among those who are very much aware of its faults many say that they still found it entertaining. So what did Dan Brown do to make up for these flaws? He played to his strengths, which is something every writer should do. (Only make sure that they really are your strengths, rather than your inclinations or your vanity.) After a relatively slow beginning, the pace is relentless and the tension is high. Most readers race through the book eager to find out what happens next; they are at the end before they even have time to notice its faults. Again, whether this was all done by design or whether the writer stumbled onto a winning formula, the fact is that he found it and made use of it.
Of course there are those who have no wish to be successful. They wish to create “high art” and to win accolades for doing so. Despite what some people like to think, it is neither clever nor creative simply to break the rules. Anyone can do that. There is nothing easier. And if a writer does so, it is absurd to expect to get credit merely for trying something risky. That’s where the risk part comes in: If the result is brilliant, others may praise it, but if the result is an unfortunate one, others will criticize it. If you want to be daring and break all the rules, you must do whatever is necessary to make it work, no matter how much extra thought and effort it takes—otherwise it’s just posturing. True artists are not content to stop with the job half done.
On the other hand, it is a mistake to adhere to the rules too rigidly. There must always be enough freedom to allow for creativity, or the writing will only ever be competent. Yet those who say that the story is all that really matters, that how a story is written is hardly important, do have a point. It is not nearly so strong a point as some of them like to think*, but it is not completely without merit. There are writers who have made millions writing mediocre** prose because they have the gift or good fortune to offer exactly the sort of story that the public is looking for, at exactly the point when the most readers will be receptive to it. Writers also become successful by doing two or three things exceptionally well (see what I said about The Da Vinci Code above), but this may depend on passing trends and fads in writing, and those same skills that recommend themselves to readers now may seem dated, silly, or boring to a later generation, who will shake their heads at the questionable tastes of their parents or grandparents. Take, for instance, Edward Bulwer-Lytton, who was popular in his own day, yet in the twentieth century his name became a byword for tortured prose.
But of course sometimes it goes the other way: a book that received a great deal of criticism when it first came out may grow in stature over the years until eventually it is hailed as a classic. It is too soon to predict whether any popular book written in the last twenty or thirty years will fall into one of these categories . . . or, for that matter, whether it will simply and gracefully lapse into obscurity.
Neither can we predict the eventual fate of our own books. All we can do is concentrate on producing the best work of which we are capable. And understanding the rules—whether we choose to follow them or not—can be a great help in achieving that.
*What weakens their argument is that they obviously can’t know whether they would have liked whatever story they are giving as an example even more had the writing been better. Also, the people who make this argument tend to equate the words “good writing” with what they imagine other people mean by good writing—flowery and boring—when good writing is, of course, writing that is effective and draws readers into the story.
**I say mediocre prose rather than bad or clumsy, because even though people rail against certain books that are hugely successful, I believe that in many cases those very same books, had they enjoyed only a modest success, would have been viewed more charitably. Not admired, certainly, but not harshly criticized either. Most likely, instead of receiving loud condemnation they would merely have been damned with faint praise.
July 13, 2015
by Teresa Edgerton
BEAUTIFUL INTELLIGENCE —— by Stephen Palmer
Artificial intelligence researchers Manfred and Leonora Klee used to work for Ichikawa Laboratories. Which is to say: they were prisoners in the luxurious enclave Aritomo Ichikawa created to prevent commercial espionage—and equally to prevent his researchers from leaving him. But the Klees found a way, even knowing that their lives thereafter would be in constant danger from the assassins Aritomo would surely send to find them.
The setting is somewhere around the beginning of the 22nd century, and though Palmer is not specific, the world has clearly suffered some sort of environmental /technological disaster. The “nexus” has replaced the internet, and the nexus is far more pervasive, intrusive, and addictive than the internet ever was, for it is a way of interacting with society, of being constantly bombarded with information, that fosters dependence. It also makes it nearly impossible to live without leaving the sort of traces behind that someone with the necessary resources, such as Ichikawa labs possesses, will eventually pick up.
Once they gain their freedom, Manfred unexpectedly gives Leonora the slip; they will not meet again. As the book opens several years later, they are heading separate research teams, each with a very different philosophy and approach to creating artificial sentience.
Leonora is hiding on Malta, while a virtual copy in San Francisco acts as a decoy, interfacing, downloading, uploading, while layers and layers of virtual camouflage provided by her security expert, Hound, conceal her real location. Her team follows a traditional approach, creating a single AI, an android with a quantum computer for a brain. Manfred’s team is in Philadelphia, trying to invent what Manfred calls “beautiful intelligence,” by creating a network of individuals, none of them self-aware, hoping that together they will raise themselves to sentience.
But for both teams research is hampered by the need to keep moving and also by the need to create credible new identities with every change in location. Leonora’s journey takes her team around the Mediterranean and across northern Africa, while Manfred’s team crosses a devastated and dangerous America. Aware that a single slip could leave them vulnerable to Aritomo’s minions (who never seem to be far behind) both teams must also meet the challanges of interacting with their evolving creations—and those creations are not evolving as planned.
Palmer is a writer of unique and remarkable imagination. He can also be a bit didactic. He has strong beliefs about the environment (he wants to save it) and religion (he believes it is a bad influence), beliefs that he wishes to communicate to his readers. While these are not absent from this book, they are less evident here than in some of his other novels. He writes about ideas, and characterization is not his strong point. Instead, through discussions and diagreements between the various characters—particularly when they are faced by new and unexpected developments—Beautiful Intelligence examines theories about artificial intelligence, as well as posing philosophical questions about sentience, self-awareness, and conscience, about the ways that consciousness develops, and the dangers when technology advances far more quickly than our understanding. For someone (like myself) who does not have the necessary background to understand all the substance of these arguments, it can be at times difficult to follow, but even without that background, the chase, the tensions and shifting alliances within the two groups, make for a suspenseful and entertaining story.
On Amazon and Goodreads I gave it four out of five stars. On a scale of one to ten, I would waver between a 7 and 8, so I rounded up.
July 3, 2015
by Teresa Edgerton
I have decided to supplement the reviews and guest blogs with some articles of my own on the subject of writing, which I hope will be instructive to new writers. Many of these will include material that I have posted elsewhere before. (The following article is one of them.)
There is no one right way to write a story or to learn to write; let us be clear on that from the very beginning. What I am about to say is based on my personal experiences as a writer and an editor and my own personal opinions. Others with equal experience will disagree—perhaps vociferously. However, if I can’t be pompous and opinionated on my own blog, then where else will I have a better opportunity?
And so we begin with:
BOOKS SHOULD NOT BE WRITTEN BY COMMITTEE
It’s not a good practice to be constantly asking other people questions like: Do you like the name of my main character? What do you think of this idea for a plot? How should my characters solve their major problem and wind up the story?
Brainstorming is one thing after you have a plot and characters; it is another thing altogether to ask other people to help you figure out what your plot ought to be. There is only one good reason to become a fiction writer, and that is because you already have a story you want to tell. If you don’t, wait until you do. Your first stories need not be good, original, or even complete, but they need to be yours. Your characters may not be realistic, well-rounded, or even plausible, but you can fix that later. Asking other people to supply you with plot and characters before you even start is pretty much useless.
As for how to start, you begin with the seed of a story that you, personally, are eager to write: an intriguing setting or situation, with a character or characters that interest you, facing a genuinely difficult problem. (Don’t poll your friends in advance on what sort of character and what sort of problem would interest them—and yes, to my horror, I have seen this done.) And when you have circumstances, character, and problem, from that point on the story can grow in either or both directions. It can wander off onto unexpected paths. It can divide and divide again into numerous subplots. It may occasionally take wrong turns that will oblige you to backtrack, deleting as you go. Or it may march straight ahead to the conclusion that you set up at the beginning. This is where you discover what works best for you: writing organically without much planning, or writing to a detailed outline.
In the early stages, nothing you write is wasted so long as you keep an open mind and are willing to learn from your mistakes. Writers groups, books on writing, classes, workshops, beta-readers, all can teach you things that you need to know, but there will always be things that you can only fully assimilate by making mistakes and learning from them. Before you have completed a first draft you need not worry about the hook, or whether or not to include a prologue, or at what point the book should begin. These are all things you can attend to later. First drafts are where you get to experiment, to learn by trial and error.
But if you allow others to observe this process too closely you may feel too inhibited to take full advantage of this freedom you have during the first draft. You need to learn how to tell the story that only you can tell, and how can you do any of this if you are relying on other people to tell you what to say and how to say it every single step of the way? Later, when you have gained more confidence, when you have developed your own instincts to the point where you can trust them to tell you when someone is steering you in the wrong direction, or if that someone is giving you invaluable criticism, it may be safe to show your story to others in its early stages. Even then, remember that what you have written to that point may not be a fair representation of what you intend the plot to be and where you intend for it to go, and those who see your story at that stage might not fully understand what your goals are. They cannot then give you their best advice.
So at the very least write a large chunk of the story before you show it to anyone. For a short story that should be the first draft. For a novel, while I would personally suggest that you wait until at least the second draft, at least wait until you have written several chapters. Do not rush to show others those first few pages you dashed off last night. Do not rush to show others your first chapter as soon as you have finished it. Do not, above all, show them the first couple of paragraphs and ask, “Would you read more?” So what if you can write a clever paragraph or two to pique their interest? Many people who could not write a complete story to save their lives could do the same. What you need to learn is how to sustain your readers’ interest.
In fiction, context is everything. Without context, it’s very hard for other people to tell whether your story is good or not, whether your characters are believable or not, whether your ending supplies a satisfying resolution or not. Industry professionals are trained to evaluate books in this way and most of them are very good at it, but even they are not infallible—how much less competent, then, will your friends or chance-met strangers on the internet be? Aspiring writers frequently complain that editors and agents make snap decisions based on short excerpts, but they will happily accept advice (and praise) under the same sort of conditions from other inexperienced writers. Now, honestly, does this make sense?
A quick synopis will not tell others what they need to know in order to give you the most constructive advice. The first few chapters will not tell them either, not unless there are a great many more chapters already written and polished. Early in the writing process most of the context is still in your mind, and very little of it has found its way into the actual writing. Allow your vision of the story to solidify before you allow other people to put their hands on it. If it’s still too malleable they’re likely to leave their own fingerprints all over it—or worse, try to fit it into their own mold. Give them the opportunity to give you the criticism you most need to hear, and still respect what you are trying to do. Do not give yourself the excuse that they didn’t like it because they didn’t understand.
And there is a thing that often happens when you ask others to critique something that is still in the early stages of creation. Some critiquers pick up on any ideas they like and start imagining the story they would write from that point on. They wax enthusiastic; they tell you that you have the beginnings of a great story. But it is not your story they are talking about, not really. It is the story playing out in their own minds, the one they are inventing based on a few ideas they have extracted from yours and embellished with ideas of their own. Or the opposite happens: they pick up on the ideas they don’t like, decide they know exactly where your story is going—and in their opinion it isn’t anywhere good—and they try to fix it accordingly. Soon, you are getting so much conflicting advice you don’t know who or what to believe. Little wonder if you are confused: the people doing the critiquing are all talking about different (imaginary) books, and not the book you actually intend to write.
Eventually, you may be fortunate enough to find a circle of critique partners who do neither of these things. Until you do, it is best to control your impatience to discover whether what you have written already will garner the praise you wish for, the constructive advice you hope for, or the criticism you dread. Wait until you have enough to show where the story is really heading. And while you are waiting put every effort into communicating your own vision as completely, as compellingly, and as confidently as possible. Then when other people read it and give their advice (pleasant or painful as the case may be), it will at least be based on your story—not what they think your story is going to be, or ought to be, or the story they would write in your place.
June 15, 2015
by Teresa Edgerton
I’ve been gone for quite a while, but hope to do better in the future. To begin with, we have another guest blogger writing about her books and worlds. This time it is Sue Boulton, author of the gaslight fantasy Oracle, a fascinating mix of politics, religion, and romance. I had the pleasure of editing the book for Tickety Boo Press, and was much impressed by the way she brought all three of these together in her plot. You’ll find more information about Oracle and where you can buy it in the article below this one, but for now, let’s see what Sue has to say about constructing her worlds:
A dear friend once told me there is a fantastical, built-from-the-ground-up world in every writer. Whether that world should see the light of day is another matter. SF and Fantasy, no matter which sub-genre, be it Hard SF, military, space opera, epic, steampunk, or—as in my case with Oracle—gaslight, more than any other form of creative writing depends on building a world. And the building of that world can swallow you whole. You can and do, at times, find yourself living in the belly of the shark, wondering how deep into its bowels you are going to travel and is it really necessary.
That is the crux of the matter isn’t it?
What is necessary?
Do you need to create a monetary system worked out in excel, for when your character is buying a pint of ale?
Do you need a complex transport system spread out across three A3 sheets on your dining room table to tell your reader that character Joe went from here to there?
Then there are clothes, footwear, houses, food, animals, shops, trades, religion, ships (space or otherwise), rivers, whole planets etc … and then there is the matter of weapons of all kinds and size. Just don’t get me started on swords. I spent three years of my life, off and on, researching the use and construction of pointy-tipped steel things for a novel that every now and then rattles the trunk it is buried in. Don’t get me wrong. I enjoyed the research and the writing of the novel. But I feel it taught me more of what not to do and how to avoid being swallowed, and chewed to pieces by the create-a-world shark.
I have three lever arch files full of notes concerning this trunked novel, two art books full of sketches, photos, and a reference list of books a mile long. The novel itself is over 300,000 words in its current form. How much of my world building and research made it into the novel? I think about 50%. Way too much to be honest. It is a plodding blow-by-blow descriptive monster in all its glory. I wanted to show my world to my reader. I didn’t want them to see it with their own imagination. It was my world for goodness sake. There was no place for the readers’ interpretation of my world. My characters became lost in the detail and their story, which I still believe is a good one, totally obscured.
So I was determined that the next novel I wrote after the epic fail in the trunk would be different. It was: it was under-developed in its world building. I did not give the world a chance. I concentrated on my characters, their development and journey, not the blooming world they lived in. The novel is a fun read, but it is just a bare bones of a story and now lives alongside the heavyweight descriptive monster.
Which brings me to the writing of Oracle.
The character of Oracle was the first step. I wrote a good 5000 or 6000 words of Oracle’s story without detailing the world she lived in. I slowly began to create the other characters in her story and then, of course, I hit the teeth of the create-a-world shark. The story needed a setting. Do I take the plunge and create a medieval world, complete with all the trappings, close off the place from my readers’ imaginations again, or do I try a different world? One that would need research, a time and place I could control, but also one my readers could control as well in some respects?
I am lucky to live in a part of the country where the industrial revolution began, the behemoth that swept away the Olde England of myth and plunged country and people into the dark satanic mills and smoking chimneys, which Tolkien used as the basis for the final chapters in Lord of the Rings, with the hobbits returning home to the Shire to find that it has been despoiled and corrupted. Though most of the early foundries and industrial buildings of this revolution have now been re-clothed by nature, torn down or turned into flats, historical museums, art galleries and the like, the explosive pace of change that took place during that time has left a deep scar on the working class and politics of this country. And I wanted this to be the backdrop for Oracle’s personal story. I wanted to create a world that mirrored her inner turmoil. It also allowed me the freedom of using a technology base that most readers were familiar with. Say a stream train, most will have their own vision of such a beast. I know how I see the Northern Express in Oracle, but I know my readers might see it differently. I could channel my research into areas that I felt needed to be explained in my created world. Though at times I got carried away and self-trimmed. The narrative was also trimmed by my editor, Teresa. Especially my political debates, based on the encounters between members of the UK parliament both in the past and present. For the better I believe. Creating a world that makes sense to others besides you is a matter of letting go and that is not easy to do.
Teresa also encouraged me to include more about the religion in Oracle, as it is such an important plot element and it needed to be fleshed out. It had, I must admit, been at a times vague. Politics and mutilating characters I can do, religion for me, even a made up one is tricky. I suppose it comes from having, on my mother’s side a staunch Methodist background. My maternal grandfather was a Hellfire-and-brimstone Welsh Methodist preacher from a mining village background. And I found in my creating of the religion for Oracle, that both the good and the bad of my own experiences, with regards to the Church of England and Methodist churches crept into the narrative. I was reluctant to expand, but found in the end, as Teresa encouraged me to do, I needed to.
How much of the world I created for Oracle, which by the way only fills one lever arch file and one sketch pad, made it into the novel? 5% maybe 10% I think. I wanted the story to be character driven, but it needed a solid setting. A world created
As for my novel, Hand of Glory currently out on submission. I chose to use the real world. That is a whole different kettle of fish as they say. For no matter how sure you are of your source of information, someone believes they know better. If it get published I am waiting for someone to say I turned the borough war memorial round to face the wrong way. No I haven’t. The statue of the Tommy used to face towards the train station, but it was turned round to face St Mary’s church when they built the new crown courts.