Put It On The Shelf

…or, the best way to fix your “baby’s” ugliness.

Ben’s post from last week resonated with me a lot for various reasons. Right now, I’m finishing up a B.A. in English so naturally I’m being exposed to piles and piles of papers written by other students. Sometimes, those papers aren’t bad. Other times, they would best serve as kindling.

This fact was most apparent in the “Writing Fiction” class that I took. I have no illusions as to the quality of my writing, but some of this stuff…

Anyways!

As a writer, there are so many different suggestions for how to go about self-editing, but one of the most effective ones that I’ve used to the suggestion to take your finished manuscript and put it on the shelf for some period of time. The most common suggestion is 6 months, but I’ve found that even 3 months can be enough if you have sufficient work to do elsewhere and you can change your focus.

With the end of the semester approaching, I’ve had so much on my plate that I’ve had no choice but to put The Hydra Offensive on the shelf. But with my time freeing up, ever so slightly, I’m back at the keyboard, editing Hydra.

I’ve found that leaving the manuscript alone and doing other work has given me a different perspective on the prose and has allowed me to make edits that I might not have made otherwise.

Do you use this method with your writing? How does it work for you? Any other suggestions for solid editing methods?

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Snowed in and Snowed under

Snapshot_20140802_2by Chantal Boudreau

This year, the weather has brought me ample fodder for story concepts. Be it imagined scenarios of the aftermath of a bus crash during an April snowstorm or co-workers sharing ideas of snow monsters taking over the world when winter never goes away (not someone who writes stories herself,) the massive snowfalls we have endured here in late winter/early spring seemed to have inspired some unpleasant icy fantasies.

But that’s the thing about fiction – genre fiction in particular. The stories are found in the unusual, not in the norm. You’ll rarely see a “day in the life of…” kind of tale when exploring the speculative unless it’s presented in such a way to highlight the differences between our mundane existence and the strange alien planet, or the magical fantasy realm or the dystopian future society. Everyday life doesn’t tend to make for an exceptionally interesting story unless there is something exceptionally interesting about the protagonist(s)’s everyday life. Even in literary fiction, characters tend to have their eccentricities and are moving toward some point of self-discovery or self-destruction not just adhering to the status quo.

The entertainment value of a fictional story comes from events that wouldn’t typically happen. They might be used by the author for some sort of social commentary or moral point, something not likely to happen as the result of a protagonist sitting there twiddling his or her thumbs. Whether a character’s involvement is proactive or reactive, the story results from challenges, accidents, ambitions or extremes – something beyond the average.

I’ve been subject to the extraordinary for years, accused of being a weirdness magnet and of knowing everybody everywhere on more than one occasion (because I always seem to bump into acquaintances in the strangest of places.) I think that’s why, unlike some writers, I don’t cringe when people ask “where do your ideas come from?” I’ll gladly tell them. My life has always run so far outside of the norm, even when I’m trying to be just your average old boring accountant/mom, that I can’t escape new story ideas. I see them in my family, my friends, my co-workers, my environment, my goals, my fears and my trials and tribulations. Sometimes they even show up in the floors, doors or walls. With all this plot material building up in my head, if I didn’t write the occasional story, it might just explode.

So despite my unhappy mutterings about the record-breaking snowfall we’ve had this year, it’s really not all that bad. It’s just another one of those unusual experiences I can file away to break out when I need fictional inspiration – as the urge strikes me.

Something to keep me busy the next time I end up snowed in or snowed under.

Do Wizards Have Sick Days?

by Chantal Boudreau

16862_375871140031_2570479_nSuffering from a cold myself at the moment, I find myself reflecting on how illness is one of those factors of realism a reader might hope to see in fantasy fiction. Fantasy is often based on medieval culture where illness was abundant thanks to less than sanitary living conditions and limited medical care. Poverty meant crowded living quarters where the malnourished and overworked couldn’t avoid ill family members. Livestyle led to epidemic plagues and a lower average life expectancy.

Granted, characters in the typical fantasy tale aren’t necessarily the type of person exposed to these conditions. Royalty, or heroic figures from noble stock would be less likely to succumb to illness than the ordinary peasant, but including illness in a story allows a writer to explore realistic aspects from a more fantastical angle. How would illness be treated in a realm where magic is available, for example? Would it impact the lives of rogues, warriors and wizards in a significant way?

One of my favourite science fiction novels involves a time traveller who ventures into the days of the bubonic plague, Doomsday Book by Connie Willis. I consider this book a part of the inspiration behind the magic plague I introduced in my Masters and Renegades series. The ailment only afflicts those who wield magic and is the central theme of my second book in the series, Casualties of War. Not only does this illness make the practicing of magic dangerous, but it serves as the source for biological warfare – another way of applying real-world concepts to fantasy stories.

If you look at the type of illnesses that tormented soldiers in the trenches during real wars, you might expect similar obstacles for fantasy warriors entering massive battles. Trench foot, caused by standing in mud and water for long periods of time, parasites (trench fever was caused by body lice,) dysentary and shell shock were all real problems, but how often to they occur in fantasy fiction? Not all characters, like my dark elf, Urwick, have the mindset to tolerate combat. It’s refreshing to see such things realistically depicted in the fantasy we read.

Consider the weather conditions that questing characters would have to face while treking through wilderness. Getting drenched might make a less physically hardy wizard or rogue more susceptible to the flu or the common cold – perhaps even pneumonia, but how often does a wizard actually fumble a spell because of sneezing or congestion? It might actually add an element of comedy relief to a tense situation.

An illness need not land a character on the brink of death to add flavour to your story but it could be a welcome touch of realism. I definitely think it would be something nice to see, now and then.

And maybe then somebody could actually offer up the answer as to whether or not wizards get sick days…

Spies everywhere

I hate it when someone steals my idea.

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I thought it happened again when I first saw a coming attraction trailer for the new movie Seventh Son, with Jeff Bridges, Ben Barnes and Julianne Moore. It looked very similar to my first book, The Bones of the Earth, which I published in 2011.

I should be used to this. Back in 1980, when I was young and probably just as foolish as I am today, I decided to try running as a sport. I would run in the evenings in my neighbourhood, and realized that it was really quite boring. I thought how nice it would be to be able to listen to music while I ran.

I considered my Sony hand-held tape recorder, the one that was supposed to be used to record university lectures. I never actually used it for that, but did play music cassette tapes. The sound quality was … tolerable, and it was better than having no music at all.

Now, this tape recorder-player was designed to be held in one hand, but it was still pretty bulky for running. Heavy, too. I looked it over and realized that the speaker accounted for much of its bulk. “If it just had an earphone instead, it would be a lot more portable,” I remember thinking. “No—headphones! Stereo headphones! That would be awesome.”

Six months later, Sony released the Walkman.

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My first fantasy novel, The Bones of the Earth, in many ways follows the classic high fantasy quest genre. It’s set at a time before guns and gunpowder, when horses were the main means of travel, when civilization was still a tenuous bet and when magical beasts roamed the earth. It has a number of element that fantasy readers will find familiar: a wise old man, a young boy with a unique destiny, a damsel in distress and lots of monsters, witches, vampires and dragons.

In writing it, I determined to break as many of the tropes and conventions of the fantasy genre as I could. For starters, it’s not set in a made-up world, but in a real time and place, and some of the events in the story actually took place in history. But that’s a subject for another post. Suffice it to say, it’s not a conventional quest story, and the characters are not like those you’ll find in other quest stories.
But the main character, Javor, is the seventh son of a seventh son. In fact, I had recently decided to title the third volume of the planned trilogy (I have the outline already) Seventh Son.

Then Universal Studios brought out Seventh Son.

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And it features a wise old man and a boy with a unique destiny, who has to fight monsters, dragons and witches.

Damn.

I haven’t seen the movie yet, and I don’t know whether I ever will, but a little research showed that the movie is based on Joseph Delaney’s 2004 novel, The Spook’s Apprentice. There are other similarities, such as the main villain being a centuries-old, powerful woman. But there are also a lot of differences, enough to allay my misgivings.

I guess that the author of The Spook’s Apprentice and I were both tapping into the same energy and some of the same ancient mythologies. And let’s face it, the trope of the ancient master passing on his knowledge to a talented apprentice crosses many genre boundaries.

If All Were Equal

fisherby Chantal Boudreau
When someone mentions female characters in fantasy, some stereotypes come to mind. There is the damsel in distress, the plucky princess, the matronly queen or the bawdy tavern wench, just for a few examples. These seem to show up everywhere, unfortunate tropes who sometimes serve as sidekicks and who often give the male hero extra purpose to their cause, but don’t have much purpose in their own right.
Then there’s the flip-side – the “strong female” character: the man-hating amazon, the stoic and noble female warrior who is an exception to the norm, the experienced sorceress or priestess who often proves self-sacrificing. While they may have a prominent role in the story, they tend to be loners and atypical of the women in that particular fantasy culture. Most of the women in the story other than that one outstanding character fall into the traditional medieval female roles: the maids, the gentlewomen, the housewife mother with multiple offspring, perhaps an assistant to some professional or the healer/midwife.
What I enjoy more, but rarely see, is a fantasy society that is counter-culture, where men and women share roles with unbiased equality – where it’s the norm rather than the exception. Considering this is not something we’ve managed to achieve even in our own modern society, it would be nice to find more of that in the fabricated worlds of fiction. There, such a societal scope is an option for its creator rather than what we’re forced to live with in the real world. Why not break with tradition?
How does a writer apply this concept effectively? Lately, I’ve been watching the television show “The 100” that does a fantastic job of this. While it is post-apocalyptic/dystopian science fiction with YA elements rather than fantasy, it is a great example of gender-bias free storytelling. Just as a list of the female characters who aren’t what you would normally find in the average speculative fiction tale, you have the leaders of three of the factions who are female (the leader of the rebellious 100, the leader of the techno-savvy “Sky-People” and the leader of the tribal “Grounders”.) The head of security for the Grounders is a fierce and unyielding warrior woman who is now mentoring one of the 100 women in warrior-training as well. The head of engineering for the Sky People is a woman and their female leader is also a medical doctor. Even the more demure female characters (residing with the Mountain Men) have their moments of bravery.

The leaders make tough decisions too, and sometimes fail, but pick themselves up and move on, coming up with new strategies. At one point, one of these women chooses to kill a man who was once her romantic interest rather than see him tortured before execution as part of a punishment from their allies (he did murder innocents because of a misunderstanding and a mental break – and he was in the wrong.) She doesn’t fall apart after the fact, even though it was a painful and tragic decision for her. You just don’t see that in the average tale that presents women as predominantly soft and emotional. A typical female character would never be able to spare a loved one from torture by killing him, specifically because of their romantic relationship (“I can’t kill him – I love him.”)

Better yet, in “The 100” nobody questions these characters’ competency because they are female. Real people who have experienced life as both man and woman say that for the most part what they’ve found in our society is men are assumed competent until they are proven otherwise whereas women have to prove they are competent before being accepted as such. This unfair set of gender-biased assumptions often carries over into fiction. I’d like to see that change (as I’d like to see it change in the real world.)

I’ve made an effort to use men and women equally in responsible positions in my fantasy stories. The head of a major mercenary guild is a woman, Magic University is headed up by both men and women at various times, the head of the Renegade resistance in Feltrey is a woman, the Jadorans and Templars of Oron are equally men and women, assassins and soldiers as well as wizards. One of my heroes is a middle-aged female retired schoolteacher. A character’s competency has no basis in gender, age or social status. Everyone has their strengths and potential and are recognized for what they bring to the table.

In my fantasy fiction, I choose to not have a woman’s competency challenged just because of her gender. I hope to see this become commonplace in the fantasy I read, maybe inspiring more change in our own society in future.

The Business of Word Count

WordCountWordle
How many words do you need to tell a story well? Conventional wisdom (as stated by Chuck Sambuchino in Writer’s Digest) says a novel should be under 100,000, and one seasoned author in my circle claims that any book longer than 100K either has bloated prose or should be split into two novels.

The 100K edict serves two purposes. First, it discourages inexperienced writers from padding their narratives the way high school students pad term papers to make the assigned 10-page minimum. Second, it holds down production costs. Whether the publisher is one of the Big Five, a small independent press, or an indie author, spending more money to produce a longer book is a poor business decision, unless you can be reasonably sure people will buy it. For instance, Tolkien considered Lord of the Rings a single novel, yet it was published in three volumes because his publisher worried it might not sell, and they didn’t want to pony up the printing costs for a flop. Dividing up the text also helped them overcome the engineering challenge of printing and binding a 1200 page book—for a reasonable price—that wouldn’t fall apart as soon as someone opened it.

In fact, cost drives trends in the length of books. Publishers (both traditional and indie) operate with very thin margins and their only hope for profit, short of run-away best sellers, is to keep production costs low. Smaller word counts mean less time spent by copyeditors and proofreaders who are paid by the hour (or the word), as well as less paper and ink. Artificially breaking longer works into volumes also allows publishers (including indie authors) to sell one book for the price of two, or three, or six. (Note, data from Mark Coker, founder of Smashwords, suggest this isn’t the best strategy, because Smashwords readers, at least, tend to prefer books longer than 100K.)

litlenellA century ago, the market forces driving word count worked in the opposite direction. During the Victorian era, publishers sold novels in serial form and paid authors by the word. Naturally, authors like Charles Dickens responded by writing a lot of words in a lot of chapters. The hungry reading public paid for the books in installments, twenty or thirty or forty times, so they could find out what happened to Little Nell.

Several months ago I wrote a humorous post in which I gave Herman Melville beta reader’s notes about Moby Dick. I cited the 200K+ word count as something that would limit the success of the book. Indeed, Moby Dick flopped when it came out, and poor Herman died a pauper. Yet today people gather in Greenwich Village cafés to hold marathon readings of Moby Dick. They don’t gather to read Typee (Melville’s first novel, which was a best seller); they come to read a masterpiece packed with brilliant reflections on the morality of man’s desire to dominate nature, which also happens to be an incredible seafaring adventure. So, it turns out, the value of a novel doesn’t depend solely on its word count, but on how the words count. The difference between the novice who boasts about her 400K behemoth and Dickens, Tolkien, Melville, Elliot, and a host of authors who write long books is that the masters don’t waste words. Descriptions may be detailed but serve to frame and enhance the plot and provide subtext. Sentences may be long, complex tapestries woven from dependent clauses, but the resulting texture and poetry demonstrate mastery of the language. In short, the sentences are long but still vigorous. The reader does not slog through them, she glides.

BladeofAmber_final_sized for SWBlade of Amber and A Wizard’s Lot both exceed 150K. They’re not masterpieces (my magnum opus sits on a shelf in my workshop), but each offers a complete story (no cliffhanger endings) and a reflection on how we are molded by our memories—on the shadow the past casts on our present. The two novels together also present a mashup retelling of  Rapunzel, emphasizing the second half of that tale, when Rapunzel and the prince suffer separate travails. And let’s not forget they’re a pair of edge-of-seat adventure stories, with plenty of battles, hand-to-hand combat, magic, and giant intelligent insects. There are places roughly half way through each book where I could end with a cliffhanger and get four books out of two, but I prefer each Woern Chronicles volume to tell a complete story. There’s nothing wrong with authors choosing another strategy—many of my favorite series are one long story told over three or four or fourteen novels—but the single-volume complete story is the choice I made for my own work.

This choice may not be the wisest business decision. A word count over 100K closes many doors. Many agents and publishers won’t consider longer books; competitions may not accept them; book bloggers and media critics may not review them. I pay my editor more for each novel, and because I have to pay for more paper, I’m forced to charge a higher price than I’d like for a paperback copy. However, the beauty of the eBook age is that I can keep the price of my electronic copies at market rate (no paper costs!). For less than the price of a latte, readers can buy a ticket to Knownearth. And once there, they’ll get to stay awhile, reading words that, I hope, count.

Photo on 7-25-12 at 12.24 PM #3_2A.M. Justice writes fiction about distant times and places and chronicles journeys in the here and now. You can find more of her fiction and musings on the Knownearth Works website and her blog A.M. Justice Journeys Through Time.

Tricksters for Treats

by Chantal Boudreau

In the spirit of Halloween (and inspired by a short story submission I just sent out to a venue with a trickster theme), I thought it might be fun to address one of the tropes or arch-types of fantasy: the trickster. This type of mischievous character can appear in many different forms; from devilish deities to cunning spies to impish children, they can serve the sake of comedy relief, plot catalyst, annoying villain or even wisdom-instilling teacher by punitive measures. While not necessarily the protagonist in a tale, they are common to fantasy writing of all sorts, sometimes sidekick, sometimes rival and typically entertaining.

The trickster has strong roots in an assortment of mythologies, from Loki in the Norse mythos and Anansi in African lore to Coyote in North American Native legend, the mischief-maker seems ever present. Perhaps it ‘s because tricksters are a natural component to human social circles. Most people love a good practical joke, as long as they aren’t the butt of it. And we all need a good laugh from time to time.

But tricksters in story tend to be more than just someone with a playful sense of humour, the clever mischief-maker. Their tricks can be a unifying force, leading others to work together to counter their antics. They can be the cause of the trouble initiating a particular quest in a quest tale. Or in some cases they are the key, because they are inevitably brilliant and can be just as much a solution as a problem.

In addition to myth, tricksters are everywhere in fairy tales too. They are the playful fairy, the conniving fox, the dastardly witch or wizard or the wondrous talking cat in boots. It is no surprise that as characters, they transitioned to young adult and adult fantasy fiction.

And while tricksters are more commonly male – think classics like Fritz Leiber’s Gray Mouser or Flinx in Alan Dean Foster’s books – female tricksters are out there too. Tricksters and Pranksters: Roguery in French and German Literature of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance by Alison Williams dedicates a full chapter to the female trickster and some books, like Trickster’s Choice and Trickster’s Queen, by Tamora Pierce are centered on a female version of the arch-type. They are out there.

Male or female, the main point to the trickster is fun, and therein lies the treat. It need not be trick or treat – you can have both.

So how about you treat yourself to some trickster today. Might I suggest The Coyote Road: Trickster Tales, a fantasy anthology edited by Ellen Datlow, for starters?

The season of darkness approaches

IMG_0352By Scott Bury

It’s fall. My favourite season.

To some, fall is the season of decay, or winding down to winter. “It’s the time when everything dies,” someone once told me.

To me, it’s very different. The temperature falls, the nights lengthen. School years begin again, the harvest gets into high gear. Fall, to me, is the time to begin projects. It’s energizing.

Fall for the fantasy writer

As I’ve said before, I derive a great deal of inspiration for my writing from the natural world. I like to get out into the forest (not too far away from my house—one of the benefits of living in Ottawa), close my eyes and feel the forces of the earth.

And there’s a particular spirit to autumn. I’m not the first one to think so, not by a long stretch. The ancient Greek myth of Persephone is a personification of autumn and winter; Tolkein’s depiction of the final days of the elves in Middle-Earth is a metaphor for autumn, for a fading time.

Image courtesy DailyDot.com

George Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire is set in an extended autumn. “Winter is coming” is the catch-phrase of the northerners, and it’s a saying heavy with meaning: there are forces gathering that you have absolutely no ability to change, turn or affect in any way, so you had better make sure you have enough fuel and food stored to survive. Oh, yah, and fix that drafty window and put really heavy locks on your doors. Maybe sharpen those obsidian knives, too.

But there’s much more than that: the autumn equinox, which we just passed, is the time of year when light and dark are balanced. To the ancient Celts, it was a time of the year akin to dusk, when the veil between this world and the “other” is thinner, and passing through it is easier.

We can also think of it as a time of balance between the forces of light and dark, sky and earth, sun and moon.

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What are some of the ideas that come to me in the fall? The transfer of energy, for one—from the solar (celestial) sphere, stored in the earthly (chthonic) in the form of fruit. The dark season is the time when the celestial forces are secondary to the chthonic.

The harvest season is the time to turn our attention away from abstract, ethereal concerns and to the real day-to-day concerns like storing food for the winter—making jam, pickles, preserves, cutting firewood, making sure the tools you need in winter are all working, and making sure that you have enough various supplies to survive a season when nothing grows and there will be days, or periods several days long, when you just won’t be able to leave your home.

I feel balanced on an edge in fall. I’m filled with energy, with a desire to move forward, to write those stories that have been rattling around in my brain. To complete Dark Clouds, chapters of which I’ve previewed on this blog; to write the sequel to The Bones of the Earth, which I’ve outlined.

There are so many things to do, so many stories to write, so much inspiration to be taken from the season. I’m getting to it right now—

Pic-ScottBuryScott Bury is a writer based in Ottawa, Canada. His fantasy works include The Bones of the Earth, Dark Clouds, What Made Me Love You? and Teri and the River.

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And follow him on Twitter @ScottTheWriter.

Backstory Without Prologue?

In AM Justice’s post about prologues, she gives us a few guidelines for the user of prologues, including the advice: “Don’t include if, unless the story won’t work without it.”

I’m not one to argue about prologues: I decided not to include them in my works but I’ve seen them done incredibly well.

If you decide, however, that a prologue won’t work in your novel but you feel like there is a story that can shed light on your story, world, or characters, consider a different approach.

Like my own works, Gunpowder Fantasy author Brian McClellan has used short stories as a way to build his characters’ backstory and origins. Without these, the people of his world are well-rounded and deep; with them, the people of the Powdermage universe take on personalities that wouldn’t have made sense to develop in the main novels.

So what are some tips for building characters and backstory through secondary works?

-Have a Story
Without a story, your secondary work will be pointless – you’d be better off conveying information through other means. Do the same groundwork as you would for your novels.

-Build Something
If you’re going to use short stories to worldbuild, you can go wherever you like. But if you’re using these extra works to build an identity of personality, obviously you want your characters to play some role.

-Be Consistent
Finally, be consistent. You don’t want to use your short stories to build a character if it doesn’t match up with the personality in your main works.