Look at the shiny!

*Sticks head into large empty room full of dust bunnies*  “Hey, anybody in here?”  *voice echoes like an insane ghost trapped in a funhouse*  “Well, crap.  The last person out could have at least turned off the lights.”

Okay, I’ve got four days until the end of the month and the world ends I reach my self-imposed deadline to finish and send out Blood Red Sun.  The blog, I know, is suffering.  *beats self around head and neck*

So, in a pathetic attempt to atone for the recent drought, I’ve managed to round up some fun, shiny links to share.

First, head over to Genre for Japan.  They are live auctioning all sorts of amazing stuff and the proceeds will benefit the survivors of the Japanese earthquake/tsunami/reactor meltdown/general catastrophic horribleness.

On her blog Practical Free Spirit, Amy Sundburg writes about the ways that writing has changed how she thinks.  I read this and thought: hey, yeah!

For your daily funny, Chuck Wendig explores the myriad ways writers are like rabid, dangerous animals who should be approached with caution in his post Beware of Writer over on Terrible Minds.

For those of you feeling like being productive, click on over to Writing Excuses and check out the latest podcast–this one focuses on writing action scenes.

And, since I promised shiny, a fire-breathing robot dragon.  For reals.

Okay…aaaand, back to work.  See you in April.

Book, book, goose

I’ve been tearing through my pile of books lately, so I thought rather than offering an in-depth review of just one, I’d give you the quick and dirty on several.

“Midnight Never Come” by Marie Brennan (2008, Historical Urban Fantasy, 379 pages)

What’s it about?: Set during the reign of Tudor Queen Elizabeth, Midnight Never Come explores the dark magic binding Elizabeth’s mortal court to the underground Onyx Court of the Fey Queen Invidiana.  Part mystery, part romance, the story follows a mortal man and fey woman caught up in the political intrigue uniting the two courts.

Pros: Lovely prose, lots of satisfying moral ambiguity, and great research woven into a compelling plot (rather than being inserted in dull infodumps).

Cons: slow to start; a sense of urgency and investment in the characters didn’t really flower (for me) until the book’s midpoint.

“Mark of the Demon” by Diana Rowland (2009, Urban Fantasy, 370 pages)

What’s it about?:  Kara, a demon-summoner and Homicide Detective with the Louisiana PD, gets assigned to a brutal serial killer case with arcane ties.  Caught between the attentions of a Demon Lord and an uptight FBI agent, Kara races to catch the Symbol Man Killer before he catches her.

Pros: a fast, fun read; explorations of the demon world are particularly compelling.  Some good red herrings.

Cons: a confusing array of very similar supporting characters and some plot transparency (those red herrings didn’t throw me off for long).

“The Heir of Night” by Helen Lowe (2010, Fantasy, 447 pages)

What’s it about?:  The Nine Houses of the Derai have traveled through space to the planet Haarth, fleeing their ancient enemies, the Darkswarm.  In Haarth’s bitter mountains, they’ve built a stronghold to hold back the Darkswarm invasion, but have rejected the ancient magic needed to triumph.  Malian, heir to the House of Night, possesses the magic needed to defend her people, if only they will accept it.

Pros: the concept here is very cool.  The Derai are harsh interlopers on Haarth, having brought a curse down on the planet, and the relationship between them and the indigenous cultures is deftly handled.  I also really like the mix of science fiction and fantasy.

Cons: as the story progresses, more and more of it takes place in a dreamscape.  I’ve never been a fan of this plot device and I sometimes found it hard to tell if something was happening in reality or in dreams.  Also, it should be noted that Heir of Night is the first in a series and is not a stand-alone book – it ends having wrapped up very few of the hanging plot threads.

“Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” by Philip K. Dick (1968, Science Fiction, 244 pages)

What’s it about?:  A bleak exploration of what it means to be human in a post-apocalyptic world, Do Androids Dream follows bounty hunter Rick Deckard as he endeavors to “retire” a record number of renegade androids in just one day.

Pros: Dick is a master of thoughtful, unsettling stories and this one is no exception.  Deckard’s inner struggle with his feelings towards the androids he’s set on killing, as well as his yearning for a real live animal to call his own (along with all the complicated feelings and motivations behind this), make for a genuinely thought-provoking social commentary.

Cons: like any book meant as a social commentary, Do Androids Dream is depressing and (depressingly) prescient.

Okay…that’s four from me.  What have YOU read lately, and do you recommend it or not?

Giving critiques: some thoughts

Awhile back I discussed how I process critiques of my own work.  The post generated rather a lot of commentary, during which the topic of giving critiques came up.  In some ways, giving critiques is harder than getting them, but both require an ability to separate your personal feelings from your professional ones.

When I get a crit request from a writer buddy, the first thing I do is make sure I understand what they’re asking me to do.  Do they want a high level Beta read?  Are they looking for line edits?  Sometimes writers are very well aware of the problem areas in their own stories but are stuck on how to fix them, while others can’t pinpoint their problem areas at all.  Thus, you’ve got to look both at what they’re asking for and what they haven’t asked for but clearly need.

One of the more challenging aspects of critiquing is providing feedback designed to help the author make the story they want to write as good as it can be.  This means restraining yourself from trying to shape the story into what you want it to be.  I might want their story about a sparkly vampire to end with the violent death of said sparkly vampire, but if they’re set on a love story, it’s my job to help them do that as effectively as possible.  So, step one is figuring out what sort of story the author is trying to tell.  Step two is sussing out what’s preventing the story from being its best possible self.

For feedback, I usually try to give comments in orders of magnitude.  Some problems are going to be more sweeping than others and the fixes are going to require a more substantial overhaul, be it to the plot, world, or characters.  I spend the most time and detail on these kinds of problems (after all, line edits and nits may become irrelevant if big structural changes are made in revision).  Honesty is the best policy and I try not to sugar-coat my feedback while still remaining polite and professional.

Another thing to keep in mind when critiquing is whether the story is the kind of fiction you tend to like, dislike, or feel indifferently about.  Personal preferences are obviously going to influence how you respond to a story.  It’s good to include a disclaimer (e.g. “I just love me some steampumk vampire-zombie mash-ups! This is right up my alley” or “Take my feedback with a grain of salt because Cthulhu stories aren’t my bag”)

In his response to my original post on this topic, Ferrett used the phrase “pummel with love” to describe his approach to feedback.  I interpret this to mean being brutally honest out of a desire to make the story as good as it can be, or giving the author “tough love.”  I agree wholeheartedly:  it’s no good blowing smoke just to avoid hurting the author’s feelings.  It doesn’t help the author and it weakens your own ability to give a clear-eyed critique.  I also agree with the “love” part of it.  If you find yourself giving critiques to people who, in your heart of hearts, you don’t really want to help…stop at once.  A writer needs to trust that the feedback they’re being given is aimed at one thing and one thing only: making their work better.  To me, this means sitting down and putting aside everything but a cool, rational assessment of the story and then writing the kind of response I’d hope to get on my own work.

Now, we’re all big kids here, and big kids need to be able to take a few knocks and still get back up.  A good critique, though, also includes consideration of the language we use to present our feedback.  This is a tricky one, and most often the place where hurt feelings are born.  We all have different filters.  If our language is too harshly worded or tends towards the snarky, the author may become defensive and fail to take in the point we’re trying to make.  If our language is too careful and pampering, the point may be equally lost in unjustified self-congratulatory back-patting.  Striking the right balance is haaaaard.  I often find myself spending a good amount of time writing and then revising  my commentary, trying to balance the constructive and the criticism in “constructive criticism”.  Sometimes I succeed, sometimes I fail.  All I can do is try.

So.  Those are my thoughts on giving critiques.  What’s your process?  I’m always looking for ways to be a better crit partner, so share your approaches, please!

A zombie in love

I know, I know…I’ve been off the radar the last few days.  Lots of revising and hair pulling and literary self-loathing going on here at Casa Suri.  No way through it but forward, and all that.  But, to keep you all happy in the meantime, I have an awesome video to share.

It’s a recording of fellow VP alum Nicky Drayden reading part of her short (zombie love) story “You had me rarrrggh,” which has pretty much the best title ever and is being published by Shimmer.  Give the video a look – it’ll make you smile, I promise.

Book Review: The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N.K. Jemisin (2010, 395 pages, Fantasy)

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms is one of the best books I’ve read in a long while.  I loved it not only as a reader, but also as a writer.  This was Jemisin’s debut novel (and is very deservedly nominated for a Nebula this year).  My second thought upon reading the final sentence (after thinking, “drat, it’s over”) was “I aspire to write like that.”

Jemisin creates a vivid world (the titular Hundred Thousand Kingdoms), and the plot is full of political intrigue and mystery, but it’s the characters that really make this book special.  Many of them are gods who’ve been forced into mortal flesh and enslaved to the will of the Hundred Thousand Kingdom’s powerful ruling family, the Arameri.  Petty, compassionate, complex, tortured souls, these gods are as vivid as any human characters.  Though imprisoned in mortal bodies, their divine power can still manifest; Jemisin uses this to potent effect, creating truly memorable scenes and images – such as a god who is forever a child playing with spinning, fiery planets and solar systems as toys.

Into the mix comes Yeine, daughter of the exiled and murdered heir to the Arameri throne.  Summoned by the king, Yeine is pulled into the political wrangling of the human and divine occupations of the fantastical capital city of Sky.  Yeine makes an interesting heroine.  She possesses no extraordinary powers or qualities.  She isn’t beautiful or intimidating or even particularly strong.  What she does have in spades, though, is steely determination and a refreshing pragmatism, plus a passion to solve the mystery of her mother’s murder.  I found myself rooting for her because she seemed so much like a regular person rising to the occasion under very challenging circumstances.  The story is told from her point of view and in the first person.  Usually I’m leery of first person POV, but it’s handled to very good effect here.

The final element I’ll comment on is the story’s primary setting, the city of Sky.  Jemisin has outdone herself creating a place that embodies the people who inhabit it – creepy, powerful, and jealous, yet still beautiful.  Sky is the kind of city that would be born if magic began to inbreed.  The place is fabulously eerie, capable of changing shape, and hides plenty of its own secrets — in a sense, it’s a character in it’s own right.

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms is a stand-alone novel, though Jemisin has recently published another book (The Broken Kingdoms) set in the same world.  A third book is on the way.  I look forward to devouring them both.

What’s in a name?

As many of you know, I’m nearing completion on one of my novels and getting ready to send it out to editors and agents.  Coming up with a title that isn’t completely horrible is part of that process.  The working title has been “A Blood Red Sun”…but working titles aren’t always the best ones.

So–you guessed it, I’m conducting a poll!  Please vote for the title you like best in the poll below – which one would most entice you to pick up the novel?  As a number of you have read the novel in draft form, there’s also a line for write-in suggestions…

It’s about a boy, see? He has to…uh…save the world

Why is it so hard for us authors to talk about our work?  Maybe I’m alone in asking myself this question, but I doubt it.

Does the following apply to you:  You labor and labor, painstakingly plot, world-build, and develop characters.  Revisions pile up, entire chapters fall to the editing scythe.  The final product gleams.  You love/hate it, and know, therefore, it’s time to send it out into the world.  But….  Though you know your story inside out and backwards, when it’s time to sit down and write that query letter or pitch the novel to someone at at a Con, or – hell – even explain the thing to a friend…verbal vomit ensues.  Stumbling, awkwardness, um-ing and ah-ing.  You struggle to articulate what makes your work special, and it all just comes out sounding lame.

Part of this is due to the rather vast gulf separating writing and marketing.  When we create something – a painting, a book, a sculpture, or whatever – it’s all about the details.  We’ve polished each verb, tinkered with every sentence, shaded and re-shaded our protagonist’s personality.  It’s hard to pull back from that, hard to look at the big picture.  Someone asks, “What makes your book special?”  Our response, “Everything!”  But you can’t (and shouldn’t) include everything in the pitch materials.  You’ve got 4, maybe 5, sentences to encapsulate your work and make it shine.  Impossible!

Of course, it’s not impossible.  It’s about letting go of the strict factual (extensive) account of what happens in the book and crafting a thrilling paragraph designed to entice someone to read it.  But what to leave in?  What to gloss over?

As you might guess, I’m struggling with these questions as I prepare the pitch materials for my very soon to be finished novel, “A Blood Red Sun.”  Troll the web and you’ll find countless articles, blog posts, and the like offering advice on how to write query letters, synopses, and outlines.  Here’s Nathan Bransford on the subject, and Lynn Flewelling (via SFWA), and a few words from the folks at AgentQuery.  But still, I’m finding it quite hard to step back from the novel and look at it with a marketer’s eye.

Any tips or advice, dear Reader?  Or even just commiseration?  I could sure use it.

Book Review: Dragon in Chains

Dragon in Chains, by Daniel Fox (399 pages, Fantasy, 2009)

Set against the gorgeous backdrop of Imperial China, Dragon in Chains tells a story of rebellion and magic, in which jade can transform mortal men into much more and a dragon lies (as the title implies) chained beneath the waters, waiting to break free and destroy the world.

Fox’s writing is some of the most beautiful I’ve seen recently – evocative, poetic, and spare.  While this does serve to distance the reader slightly, the characters he creates are vivid enough to pull you in.  Each struggles with immediate, personal concerns linked, if sometimes circuitously, to the larger unfolding drama of an empire at war with itself. 

Rather than following a single protagonist (indeed, I’d be hard pressed to identify any one of the characters as the lead protag), Fox puts us in the heads of a large cast of colorful characters – most of them from the lowest levels of society:  a slave, a pirate, an old fisherman and his granddaughter, and a jade miner’s son.  Thrown into the mix is a boy-Emperor fleeing a rebellion and struggling to fulfill his potential.  Fox does an excellent job of dramatizing war’s effect on both the powerful and powerless – and explores these concepts deeply and subtly.

Dragon in Chains is part of a projected trilogy (the second book is out now, the third will be released in a few weeks), and the ending does leave several large questions unanswered.  However, it also ties up many smaller ones – no cliff-hangers here – and gives the portion of the story told in this first book a feeling of completeness.

This lovely fantasy really stands out, both for its less common and very well-drawn setting and for its complex, intriguing characters.  Highly recommended!

Adventures in revising

Sorry for the somewhat protracted radio silence this week…revising my novel has taken over my life and I’ve been neglecting pretty much everything else.  Carrying out revisions, however, has raised some potentially blog-worthy questions for me about process. 

When I first started writing a few years ago, my revision process was very simple: try to figure out what was wrong  and fix it.  Since then I’ve learned a lot and, as a result, have started breaking the revision process down into much more specific components and steps. 

For one thing, I can now take my writing apart more effectively and analyze it through different lenses.  Are there problems with the structure, plot, and pacing?  Do the characterizations need more subtle shading or greater development?  Is the writing flabby?  Is the POV too distant?  Is the world-building vivid and deep enough?

Pulling out these individual strands has led me to revise in several passes.  For instance, the plan for final revisions to my novel “A Blood Red Sun” include the following passes over the manuscript:

1. Plot level changes

2. Shading and development of characters, especially the protagonist and secondary POV character

3. World-building (particularly with respect to improving sensory aspects – sound, taste, touch, feel)

4. Editing following the method in the 10% Solution (this includes a reading aloud pass and a printed pass)

At least…that’s the plan.  I’m midway through the first pass and I’m already finding it really hard separate elements.   In fact, it’s gotten to the point where pass #1 and pass #2 are merging.

I’m not sure if this is a good thing or not.  On the one hand, combining the two doesn’t seem to be hurting my focus, but it is taking longer and reducing the number of times I’ll go through the manuscript before declaring it done.  Do I need to force myself to be more regimented?  I don’t know.

Another benefit emerging from this project is greater awareness of my chronic weaknesses.  One thing I’m realizing I do A LOT is flounder around with spatial cues.  Characters are always crossing the room, looking at each other, “fixing their gazes” (ugh), and so on.  In a few rare instances, such cues are necessary for clarity, but usually they’re just useless filler.  I look forward to zapping them with my editing ray of death in pass #4. 

Distancing the POV is another trap I fall into when drafting.  Characters watch other characters experience things rather than letting the reader have direct access.  Instead of letting “the sun warm her face” the character will “feel the sun on her face.”  And then there’s the dreaded “was” replacing active verbs with its passive life-sucking force.  Again, my ray gun is at the ready.

One of the things I love about writing is how much of a learning process it is.  Sitting down to complete one task (revising a novel) allows you to simultaneously experience greater self-awareness and growth as a writer in general, which will benefit your next writing project.  I have no doubt I’ll look back on my first year of blogging and smile indulgently at how naive I seem to my now more-experienced self.  Not only do I have no doubt, I look forward to it.

In the meantime, though, it’s back to revisions for me.  Please share your processes and suggestions for revision in the comments…I could use the help!

Procrastinate, my precious

I’m a busy bee today, so I’ve put up a few links to distract you from whatever you’re supposed to be working on.  Never say I don’t do my part.

The SFWA blog on putting a price tag on your ideas (or not).

Chuck Wendig on how to avoid starvation and death as a writer.

Some advice for bloggers from Kristen Lamb.

A new Writing Excuses podcast on making the reader feel fear for your characters.

Have some great links of your own to share?  Post ’em in the comments…and happy procrastinating, my dears!