Monday, December 5, 2016

Post Holmes


I finished my Sherlock Holmes story and it was a lot of fun to write.  The whole thing is on Wattpad if you care to read it; I claim no special skill at mystery writing and clearly am no comparison to Arthur Conan Doyle.  But it was an interesting experiment, and I learned something about writing in the process which was the whole point.


I set out to write this partly out of the fun of writing a Holmes tale, but mostly for several other reasons which were mostly about experimenting and learning.  I wanted to develop Watson as a more rounded and intelligent character, so I had to figure out what there was about him that Doyle had hinted at and mentioned which gave him more substance.  I wanted to demonstrate that Holmes and Watson were essentially modern day knights battling in a different war than the old time ones.  

I wanted to examine how to portray intelligence so that I can write a character much smarter than everyone around them more easily.  I wanted to write a mystery to determine how its done; I'm still not sure if that worked or not.  

The problem with writing a mystery is that as the author, you know the whole plot.  Its no secret to you.  Once you've read a Sherlock Holmes story, you know the entire secret and what happened.  You know the snake climbs down the bellrope and kills the person sleeping in the bed.  You know why the dog didn't bark.  So now when you read it again, the solution is obvious and easy.  The author starts out that way, wondering if perhaps this is too obvious or boring a mystery.

In my previous novels, there's been a mystery of sorts in each one.  In Snowberry's Veil its not clear what Lord Valance is up to or why at first.  In Old Habits, something is going on in the keep that Stoce is in the middle of and its not clear what until almost to the end of the book.  In Life Unworthy, its not certain what's going to happen to Cezar, and what Vladimir is up to is murky until the end.


That's because most of my writing style comes down to asking questions: what happens next?  Why did he do that?  Who is that girl?  I have a vague idea what the basic plot is, then dive in and start asking and answering questions as the story unfolds.  So there's always an element of mystery.

But in writing an actual, intentional mystery, the entire story is focused on that one plot point: the secret behind what happened.  All of the book serves the purpose of unfolding that mystery.  Yet a "fair play" mystery has to give enough clues and information that in theory the reader can figure out what is happening.

So its a balance between telling enough to be fair, but not enough to make it obvious.  And the mystery in this case has to be one that only someone like Sherlock Holmes can puzzle out soon enough to catch the criminals, while surrounded by other people who are trying to solve the case as well.

That was the challenge and I honestly don't know how well it worked.  I was told by one reader that he hadn't figured it out, which is promising, but who knows?  For the author its all so stupidly obvious and blatant that you feel like taking clues away and throwing red herrings in just to protect the mystery.

Another element involved was keeping the story within proper character and time.  I had to research a few things (different neighborhoods in London, how hard it is to get into the British Museum, what a Brit at the time calls a prybar, etc), but most of it was just trying to recall how Doyle portrayed the characters and told the tale.

I wasn't trying to duplicate Arthur Conan Doyle, but I wanted a sense of continuity between the stories, so it felt like it fit in.  I think I did all right with that, given my own twist on things.  I made Holmes a bit less of an arrogant jerk and Watson a bit less of a fumbling credulous dupe, with the presumption that Watson did that as literary devices rather than honest accounting.

I have read a lot of articles about writing intelligent characters, and some were pretty useless (equating "intelligent" with "technologically savvy").  But one in particular had some great ideas, and sadly when my hard drive blew up I lost the link.  He noted that the really intelligent character has easily and quickly figured out what the other characters take time to understand and work out.  They have it in a flash of brilliance, a combination of intuition and fast thinking.  The others have to take time to puzzle it out.  Another aspect is that the really intelligent person is able to connect things that seem unconnected or are not apparently tied together, into something new and useful.

This is important for me, because at some point I want to write a story about a mage, a wizard, and he necessarily must be very intelligent.  I want to portray that rather than just have him throwing fireballs about.  And to do so convincingly and usefully, I need to present the mage as being not intelligent because he has a pointy hat and casts spells, but because he'd be smart anywhere.

I'm reading Father Brown short stories right now, one before bed each night.  G.K. Chesterton does a brilliant job of showing Brown as being catastrophically more intelligent than everyone around him.  He sees, understands, and connects things that nobody around him can, instantly, and completely.  Almost no mystery goes by without Brown immediately knowing what is going on from the slightest clues, then working out how to save the person before they get worse.  That's been informative as well.

So, there you have it; the mystery and why its done.  Hopefully it's an enjoyable read and helps me write a better book next time.

Monday, August 22, 2016

Yo, Holmes

My laptop is down for the moment, pending a new hard drive install.  In the meantime, I've got the yen to write and cannot work on my ongoing projects very easily.  So what I've decided to do is work on a quick fun Sherlock Holmes story.  Its been quite a while that I have wanted to try my hand at one, and I have an opportunity now.

The story I've chosen is one of the over one hundred "unwritten tales" that Doyle throws in only as brief mentions in his tales.  Theres a whole huge list of them, some sounding quite intriguing, such as The Giant Rat of Sumatra and Ricoletti of the Club Foot and his Abominable Wife.  I chose one of the more famous untold stories, mentioned in The Six Napoleons, mentioned as The Dreadful Business of the Abernetty Family by Watson.  The only clue we have is where Sherlock Holmes mentions he was introduced to the case by "the depth which the parsley had sunk into the butter upon a hot day."

This obscure clue is a bit difficult to work out; parsley won't sink into anything unless its a whole sprig, and why would you lie one on the butter?  That in its self suggests several possible directions, not to mention why it would interest Holmes.

Yet I am no Arthur Conan Doyle, nor do I claim to be able to accurately mimic his style.  I suppose with great study and time I could do a fair knockoff -- indeed I intend to do just that in some passages -- but I thought of a better device.  Instead, the story will be told by Dr Watson's daughter Beryl, during WW2, years after the death of both men, using a newly discovered set of notes about the case.

With this device, I can have portions of Watson's direct notes but mostly Beryl's era and phraseology, which I am much more comfortable with than Victorian England.  I won't say much here beyond that about the full case other than to say I'm plotting in reverse -- figured out the conclusion then working back from that to how Holmes got there -- and that its going to be two interwoven cases which seem utterly unrelated to all but Sherlock.

But there are some philosophical things I want to establish about the stories.  Too often, people have picked up Holmes and used him for their own purposes or misunderstood the entire point of the Sherlock stories.

As I see it reading Sherlock Holmes stories, Doyle had three different kinds of mysteries he'd write. 
  • The first was about the science of deduction; he was not so much interested in the mystery its self so much as highlighting and explaining how deduction works and teaching the concepts of logical, systematic thinking. 
  • The second was about some social topic or theme he wanted to touch on, such as how awful blackmail was. 
  • The third was a story he wanted to write, and he used Holmes as the launching point, such as with Hound of the Baskervilles or Sign of the Four. This usually came from his historical researches. 
As I read other knockoff books about Sherlock, most of them do not seem to understand these purposes and will write about something else, usually tacking on deduction as an afterthought or to make it seem Sherlockian. That's something I hope to avoid -- I want my story to be about deductive and inductive reasoning and the differences, strengths, and weaknesses of each.

Further, people too often do not understand the characters of Watson or Holmes very well.  Holmes is portrayed as a lunatic, a jerk, a half-formed "fully functioning Sociopath" or a dirtbag addict.  The problem is viewing the character through modern eyes rather than as Doyle saw and intended him, in his time period.

Holmes was a Victorian era knight.  In the place of armor, he had official and police backing.  In the place of a sword, he had his incredible intellect.  In the place of jousting, he dueled wits with his opponents.  But the code of chivalry -- the romanticized version -- in which the great knight stoops to help even the lowliest person, following a personal code of honor, facing any difficulty with glee and always with courtesy and dignity... that's what Holmes was about.  That is what Doyle viewed a Victorian gentleman to be; a knight for a "modern" era.

Holmes was the intellectual side, Watson the physical side.  Holmes was a thinker, a scientist, even a philosopher.  Watson was more earthy, direct, and was a soldier.  Between the two of them, no quest, no challenge was too great to attack and defeat.  Their dragons were criminals, blackmailers, and thugs.  Their weapons were more sophisticated and subtle, but often just as deadly.

Further, Watson is not a bumbling retard.  While the show is poor Sherlock, the female Watson played by Lucy Liu is closer to the real character than most.  Jude Law's Watson seems to despise Sherlock and is his intellectual equal, but not as capable in combat (!).  Martin Freeman's Watson started out a strong and capable companion but quickly devolved into the hapless boob.

Watson is a very handsome, capable figure with military training, skill in weapons, and is bright enough to often keep up with Sherlock in the later tales -- even to the point of being praised by Sherlock.  I'll peel back why he so often portrays himself as a fool in the stories, and those who disagree can simply chalk it up to Beryl Watson overestimating daddy.

So, as time goes on, I'll write this story in segments, raw and unedited as I think of the tale on Wattpad.  I have two segments out so far you can read, and as they are added to, I'll alert people on Twitter and Facebook.

Thursday, June 30, 2016

Magnificent

I'm going to let you in on a little secret.  This blog doesn't get a lot of readers, but for those who do, you can have inside information on my writing.

Snowberry's Veil and Old Habits seem completely separate and unrelated as books, but they aren't.  They are part of a series, of sorts.  They aren't a sequential series of stories following a single plot, but they are related.  And its not just being set in the same world.

The main characters in each book are part of a set of seven main characters I plan on writing about, one book about each.  All of them are experts in their fields, all of them are distinct, but very capable people.  The remaining characters?  Well, I'll get to that in a moment.

The idea came to me after finishing Snowberry's Veil; one of my favorite westerns is The Magnificent Seven.  I'd written Snowberry as an experiment to see how a Louis L'Amour-like fantasy story would turn out.  It was easy, I could knock those out monthly, practically.  But then I thought, what if I did a fantasy version of the Magnificent Seven?  That film is its self a western version of the Kurosawa classic Seven Samurai, so an adaptation is hardly unthinkable.

We deal in mana, friend
But I wanted to do it differently.  The Seven Samurai was basically from the perspective of the villagers.  The Magnificent Seven was from the perspective of the heroes.  I thought: what if I wrote it from the perspective of the villains?

Doing so has its problems: you don't really ever get a deep look at the heroes that way, although you'll have glimpses.  I'd have to make the book too long if I introduced each hero separately.  So how to bring them into the story?

What if I wrote a book about each hero, separately?  That way they would be very well established already and people could know about each one.  Erkenbrand was the first.  Then I wrote a book about a thief, he's the second named Stoce.

Now, I'm not going to give away everything here, but there are five other characters.  There's a straight up just pure warrior, a paladin (whom readers have met already), a straight wizard type, a spellcasting warrior type, and a priest to go.  With books to introduce them all, the main story can be crafted with all of them established... except one, and you'll have to wait and see who and how that works out.

In between, I planned to write something else, some other book as a buffer and to do something different.  Every two books, something else.  That's how Life Unworthy came about.  I dusted off an early National Novel Writing Month effort, polished it up, finished it, and had my alternate book finished.

So that's what I have planned, if possible.  I don't know if I'll get a book done this year, other than my gaming stuff.  I want to write the paladin's book next, then the straight up warrior.  I would write a book every six months or so, but after I get one written, edited, and published, it takes several months to recover.  So once a year is about the best I can offer, and maybe not even that fast these days.

If I were completely healthy, I could knock off a book every couple of months, easy.  I have enough ideas to take me into my nineties.  But then, I wouldn't have time to write so... here we are.

There you have it.  A little secret.  Maybe some day if I sell enough books, people might dig this up and see how it was all planned out in advance.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

The Rules: Show, Don't Tell

Wow this guy's descriptions are amazing!
One of the most commonly listed rules of writing is "show, don't tell."  A classic quote along these lines is from Anton Chekov, who said "Don't tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass."   In another place, C.S. Lewis wrote:
Instead of telling us a thing was "terrible," describe it so that we'll be terrified. Don't say it was "delightful"; make us say "delightful" when we've read the description. You see, all those words (horrifying, wonderful, hideous, exquisite) are only like saying to your readers, "Please, will you do my job for me?"
This is a crossover to the "adjectives" rule, which is for another post, of course.  But the point is simple: if you have something to show in a story, do so, instead of stating it in bald terms or using lots of adjectives.

This is a good basic rule for writers to keep in mind.  It is too easy to simply write "the monster was ugly" and leave it up to the reader, instead of writing "the creature's jaws were mangled, with teeth jagged and long in all directions like his face had been crushed.  Each jaw unhinged in the middle, sideways, revealing writhing maggot-like organs within the mouth that reached and beckoned at Joan Travers as she backed away, furiously reloading her revolver."

The first presumes ugliness, the second demonstrates it.  Instead of telling the reader that something is a certain way, reveal it in a manner that the reader comes to that conclusion themselves.  Of course, there are exceptions.  H.P. Lovecraft regularly wrote about creatures that were indescribable to humanity, in colors that defied the rainbow, with shapes so outside human experience and understanding that they drove observers insane. There's only so much you can do to describe that, so you have to use extraordinary adjectives to attempt an image of the thing.But overall its a good rule.

BUT WAIT, THERE'S MORE!
However, this rule is often misunderstood.  While the "Show, Don't Tell" (SDT) rule is applicable to description, it is primarily meant to deal with larger issues of character.  For example, you cannot describe a Nazi interrogation chamber sufficiently horrific until the reader understands who and what the Nazis were about, what the consequences of being captured were, and how that interrogation was going to end up.  Just describing the room creatively and brilliantly will not suffice; in the end, its a box with people in it.

SDT is abused when someone merely insists that a character is "brilliant" or "charismatic" but does nothing to actually demonstrate this to be the case.  I can't even count the number of movies I've seen where the female lead is supposed to be irresistibly lovable, when she's actually very bland and uninteresting - or even unpleasantly selfish - but merely beautiful.  Why did the hero fall so hard for this girl, other than that she has a nice face and huge tracts of land?

When you insist upon something in a story that the story does not then support or reveal, you've violated STD.  This rule isn't just about moonlight, its about story.  You cannot pull characters in for an immersive tale if what you claim isn't supported by the story at large.  In this sense, showing is not so much descriptive or revealing an image as it is creating a scene or a character.  Make your lovable heroine more than just a pretty face.  Don't just have people say "boy they're brave" about your main character, show them being brave..

THE RULES DO NOT APPLY 

“Storytellers don't show, they tell. I'm sticking with that.”
-Ashly Lorenzana

However, there's another side to this.  The problem is, people are so familiar with the rule, they use it places where it doesn't necessarily apply.  Writing is a matter of using language.  We as authors are not drawing pictures, we're telling stories.  So you can take the SDT rule too far, which is another rookie mistake.  For example, is this showing or telling?
The latch was old and slightly dusty, it seemed no one had opened this door for some time. It was also locked. This, at least, was more along my line of work. First I pulled a little pouch of waxed paper from my waist and dabbed fat from it on the hinges. Squeaking hinges are a thief’s nightmare, they sound like screams of hell and you’re sure everyone in the city has heard the sound when you’re working. In truth people usually don’t hear much when they are asleep, but it’s best to be sure. And I wasn’t sure how soundly the bodies around me were sleeping. I worked the fat into the hinges with care, taking my time.
We have a thief doing things, describing what he's doing: he's telling you the actions.  But at the same time, he's creating a picture of what he's doing through his description.  Some might call this "telling instead of showing" because it is narrative.  Except this is what it would look like if someone violated STD:
I was worried about noise, so I lubricated the hinges.
The key here is not using words or narration, its creating the image and telling the story so that readers understand and are drawn into the story instead of simply being lectured.  Showing is not a lack of narration of dialog, you can show what someone is like using only their words.  Consider these two examples:
Bob was an arrogant, unlikable man.
OK, you insist upon it, but is he?
"I can't begin to imagine what it is like to have such a speck for a brain," Bob said.  "How do you people even make it through the day not having the mental capacity to even begin to understand my actions?"
Now he's an egotistical jerk.  You don't have to even be told it, you know because of his own dialog.  And you can violate this rule by showing what you ought to be telling, as well.  There are some basic things a story is always supposed to be about, a focus that you need to keep in mind.  Anything that goes outside this you should seriously consider cutting.  Your job is to tell the story, not to describe every single thing in ornate, rococo fullness with rich, florid language.

Say your characters go to a restaurant.  The purpose of this scene is to place them in a specific location and time (set the scene), and to develop their relationship (develop characters), moving the plot toward its conclusion (moving the story along).  We don't need to know what the hostess is wearing or how her hair is parted.  We don't need to see the chef cook their food.  We don't need to "watch" the waiter carry the food out to their table.
They ordered, and within ten minutes the waiter returned with the fries and two Caesar salads.
That's enough, unless there is something specific about the food or waiter that is used to serve the three tasks above (set the scene, develop the characters, or move the story along).  Showing all the details here would be not just irrelevant, but slow the scene down, clutter it with meaningless words, and actually hinder the purpose of the scene.

Showing can be taken too far, to the point where it becomes a distraction, and readers become bored with the excessive description.  What's even worse is that new writers can misunderstand the point of this and begin stacking adjectives on their sentences like they're playing Madlibs and it ends up violating another rule.  That stack of pancakes gets too high.

Like all rules, this one is primarily to help people remember to stay on target, and to help new writers know what to avoid and how to learn their craft.  Like all rules, its often in the breaking them that real excitement and genius is found.  Don't get too fixated on the rule, if it gets in the way of your story.

This is part of the Rules of Writing series

Friday, June 10, 2016

The Rules of Writing

Over time I've written several posts on the "rules" of writing, examining the various tips and ideas that people suggest on how to be a better writer and what to avoid.  As with all crafts, the rules are more to help beginning authors hone their craft and learn how to avoid pitfalls than absolutes, but they can be both useful and hindering for authors.
Some rules are just modern preferences or the ideas of individual editors.  Others are excellent tips on how to best craft your work to be readable and consistent.  As time goes on, I hope to cover all of these.  This post is a compilation of previous rules posts, and will be expanded as I add to them.

The Rules, an overview
The Information Dump
Don't Preach
Immersing your Readers
Write What You Know
Write Like A Reader
Read Like A Writer
Skip the Slow Parts
Show, Don't Tell

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Slow, or Clever?

Maybe we don't need to know how each hair was curled
There is a trend in modern writing with speed and brevity.  Like all trends it will some day go and another will take its place.  There's nothing wrong with getting to the point and skipping stuff.  I personally prefer Elmore Leonard's approach "When you write, try to leave out all the parts readers skip," because if they're not reading anyway, why put it in?  And certainly some books do drag on more than I prefer - I couldn't get into the Stephen Donaldson's Thomas Covenant books for that reason.

As authors, we're told in writing groups to cut the fat, keep things moving, and don't add too much extra into your books.  But there is a point at which you've gone too far in this quest.  Consider this review from a book (I won't say which):
There's no banter, no wisecracks, and nary a character beat for the sake of character dimensionality. Would Nick or anyone else in [the book] read Three Men in a Boat, play cribbage, build a still, or make the thickest malts in town? Only if it had plot utility later.
The problem here, assuming the review is accurate, is that the author was so fixated on serving the plot rather than telling the story.  Each action had to be brutally pared down to only that which moves the next event along or comes up later as a part of the plotline.

That is a danger with being too focused on brevity and focus.  In the drive to pare down your story, you can end up sacrificing good storytelling.

Your story has to serve three purposes:
  1. Move the plot along
  2. Develop the characters
  3. Set the scene
Has he gotten out of the car yet?
If what you've written doesn't do one or more of those things, then it should be cut, I believe.  Its filler.  But there's a lot of leeway in those three goals.  You can serve the story well by telling small quirks of the character, or describing the foliage of the forest, or giving background to an economic system - as long as its done engagingly and skillfully - even if some might call it "slow"

In the past, stories were more pastoral and patient.  Writers would take several pages to describe a scene, a chapter or two just setting up a character and their life, and even take half the book developing relationships before the story really gets rolling.  Modern readers aren't as patient as they once were, and are so surrounded by distractions, you have to grab them by the adenoids swiftly before their eyes move to something else.

Maybe you could have add some of that back in?
But that doesn't mean you have to abandon good storytelling and taking the time to do the job properly, either.  And there may come a day when the distractions are less significant, when people once again have more focus and patience to read.  And that day may welcome your book that people call "slow" or "over long."

As long as you write well and engagingly, then you can pretty well put the criticisms aside.  Just be sure you don't write dull and pedantic, or race so fast that you don't do the story justice.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

The Big Giveaway Post

I got into a discussion with a more successful author than myself once, about publicity and advertising. He insisted that giving books away had gotten him much of his success.  There was some misunderstanding, because I was pointing out that I'd put Old Habits up for free online and told people about it.  I moved over 200 copies in three days, but got zero reviews from it and in the end sales didn't move at all.  Basically I'd blown 200 free sales for nothing.

However, he had a point about giving books away.  He'd carry copies around and hand them to people (signed) if they seemed interested in his kind of writing.  They'd loan it out or tell others, or sell to a used bookstore or something and someone else would get a copy.  That helped spread the word.

If I had enough money to buy books, I'd do that kind of thing too.  But there's another sort of giveaway I have found useful and I wanted to share my experiences and observations about the process.

So far I've done two giveaways on Goodreads.  Each time its been the same: I offer two signed print copies of my novel, and run it for about a week.  Both times, I've seen sales go up.  On Goodreads, they handle everything regarding publicizing the giveaway, randomly selecting winners, and so on, so its pretty painless to set up.

The first time it was my fantasy novel Old Habits.  By setting this up, I ended up with over 1000 people signing up to win the book, plus about 400 who added the book to their "want to read" lists.  In the time period of the giveaway sales started to tick up, and following it I had more sales not just of Old Habits, but of all three of my novels.

The second giveaway was even more successful.  I set up one for Life Unworthy, the historical supernatural horror novel, and it did really well. Exactly 1500 people signed up, and over 600 added the book to their "want to read" lists.  Sales went up even more, with the best month of sales in my life following the giveaway.

The lessons I learned from this experience were:
  • Its virtually free advertising (roughly 30 bucks for the first and around $50 for the second, since I had to ship one to England).
  • You get lots of free eyeballs on your product by giving just a few copies away
  • People will remember and buy your book even if they don't win
So in all, I really do suggest this as an option for cheap publicity and an easy way to reach out to readers.

So how do you do it?  Well, as I said, Goodreads takes care of most of the tough stuff.  They have a handy interface that you just fill in various blanks with the necessary info, so all you have to do is know your own information.

Now, Goodreads allows you to give away as many books as you choose, for as long as you want, but here are a few pointers that I studied on and have found worked well for me.
Since Goodreads puts your book on the "new giveaway" page for the first couple days, and the "about to end giveaway" page on the last couple days, that's your maximum publicity window.  The time in between your book is pretty well buried by all the other dozens or even hundreds going on at the moment.  Therefore, you're better off with a shorter giveaway than a long one, so you can maximize the time your book is seen in those high publicity times.  A long giveaway doesn't really help you get any more notice.

Also, most people tend to have money available to spend and buy things with at the beginning and end of the month.  That means if you want to increase visibility and possible sales of your other books, and to entice buyers who don't want to wait for a giveaway, target those time periods.  I'm actually doing my next giveaway in the middle of the month to see if there's any difference, but its worth considering.

People will also, according to online studies, tend to shop more on the weekends than during the week day.  So targeting the weekends for your start and finish will put your book in front of more eyeballs when they're more inclined to spend.

I recommend small numbers given away.  It doesn't really even seem to matter how many you give away in terms of interest and publicity, but more books = more cost for you.  Buying and shipping 2 or 3 books isn't too bad, but 10 is pretty expensive.

You can choose what countries are eligible, and the list is huge.  I simply chose them all.  I don't know exactly how the system works, but I suspect they won't show your books in giveaways to countries with separate languages and internet setups if you skip those.  So why not?  The last one I did, some woman from England won.  Expensive to ship, but now someone in the UK has my book!
By giving away a few copies of your book, you basically are buying advertising on Goodreads for the cost of just a couple of them shipped out.  People will specifically and deliberately go to that page to see what's out there, and sign up.  Why not?  It costs them nothing, and if they win, hey free book!  

Plus, a giveaway is fresh activity from you as an author, which means you can tell people about it on your mailing list, social media, blog, etc.  And that's another advantage, because if you have nothing new to say, nobody cares about your repeated old stuff or just saying hi.  But news is interesting.

So... give it a shot.  I have my third giveaway for Snowberry's Veil showing up tomorrow.  Unfortunately, the new cover which it showed when I set it up and days after, now has reverted to the oldest cover, which is very frustrating.  I'm working with Goodreads to fix that.

Thursday, March 31, 2016

Unfinished Literature

"Some crazy stats that have come out of Kobo that track completion percentage. These books that everyone talks about as being important for literature are ones that no one finishes. I don’t see that as anything to celebrate about this industry, that there are books that are supposed to be awesome that no one really enjoys."
-Hugh Howey
Too many people buy books as a sort of social or tribal signalling.  I bought this political novel, I bought that book I saw on that talk show.  This book is hot, I bought a copy and carried it conspicuously on the subway.   Leaving it on the shelf or coffee table at a party shows you're one of them, a member of the tribe.

To me, it seems like this is worse than not buying books at all.  If you aren't going to actually read what you buy - and I mean more than a few pages and skim it - why did you even purchase the thing?  So you can signal your fitness to be part of the group?  To fit in?

It just seems so pretentious and silly to me, and it also seems like a lot of books in the "best seller" list end up with this kind of treatment.  And it seems to say a lot about the entire literary fiction or political book genre.  Politicians will write a book (or, more often, have someone else write it) and have followers and fans buy hundreds of copies to move it, making it seem super popular and them terribly wise or erudite.

I would like to hope people buy my books to read them.  That's why I write them, and that's why I get books.  To read them and enjoy them.  And if more people read books instead of getting them for the signalling, perhaps things might be a little less crazy out there.  Certainly book sales would be different.

Speaking of reading, I'm slightly behind on my reading challenge for this year, but I'll catch up soon enough.

Monday, March 21, 2016

All Part of the Job

The hardest lesson for me to learn as a starting writer was that being a good writer isn't enough. Writing as a career means more than just putting out books, you have to also be a marketer and publicity expert.

Its hard enough being an author to begin with, and it takes years of constant effort, practice, study, and thought to be any good at it.  Just finishing a single book is a tremendous challenge that almost nobody can overcome - even in a world glutted with self-printed books.
Just because you have a book doesn't mean people want to read it
The expectation that you go and sell your own book once you've finished it seems a bit much.  After all, most authors are rather introverted, and some like myself have poor health.  The skills required to sell something are completely different than those requires to create something.  And as skillsets go, sales and writing are about as far apart as you can imagine; charisma and interpersonal vs intellectual and private.

Even if you go through a traditional publisher, you are expected to go out and publicize your own work.  Even well-established authors do book tours, signings, convention appearances, etc.  If you are a first-time author or a nobody, they aren't going to run ads for your book anywhere.  Its up to you to get that book moving beyond just showing up on a shelf.

At first this seemed terribly unfair and unreasonable to me, but after a while I came to realize its just part of the job.  An unpleasant, frustrating part, but a part of being a professional author nevertheless.

If you are a great baseball player, its not enough just to know how to play baseball. You also have to know how to handle the press and deal with fans.  Jonny Cueto and Bryce Harper might not love talking to reporters and signing autographs, but that's part of what they get paid for and what they do. You might not like that part or want to do it, but that's part of the JOB of being a baseball player. Same thing with being an author.  Every job has aspects that are awkward, uncomfortable, easily disliked, or parts you wish you didn't have to do.  That's part of being labor: its not just fun, its work.
Well, at least it beats talking to Keith Olbermann
The job isn't just writing. If you self-publish, then you also have to be a publisher and printer, which adds to the stress, skillset, and challenge. All that seems awfully unfair, but it really isn't. Its just part of the job.  If you want to be a professional author, you have to take an awful lot of the bad - the hard work, the lack of sales, the long hours, the disrespect by people thinking you're not working, the bad reviews, the need to sell, etc - along with the good.

Monday, March 14, 2016

Writing Nice Guys

So I wrote a horror novel.
I won't bite, honest!
I didn't set out to do so, I don't really even like horror novels, or thrillers, or suspense.  It began as just a bloody vengeance scene, with Nazis being given what they deserved by a werewolf.  But the story began to develop and turned into a different sort of story, and like all of my books a theme came out of the writing.

That theme was an examination of evil, a comparison between the evil of the Nazis and the evil within the werewolf.  Evil imposed on him, a foreign evil within him trying to corrupt and overcome him as he fought it... and evil chosen from within, embraced by the men of the SS.

As I wrote, I had two concepts in mind for the Nazis.  First, I wanted to make them different, vital, and real human beings.  That meant no cookie cutter bad guys out of central casting, no soulless villains that twist their mustachio as they commit each crime.  Every one of them I tried to give a different reason for what they did, a different personality, a different approach.

And second, I wanted to make them each likable in their own way.  Some are more rogueishly likable such as Hans Frank.  Some are noble in their own way like Major Ritter.  Some are intellectually and scientifically skilled and admirable such as Dr Stoffel.  Others, like the soldiers, you get only glimpses of, but I tried to make them that breed of men who fight together and have camaraderie and charm of young men working together.

And then, when I established that, I made sure they did or said something horrible to remind people who and what they were.  Because I wanted to emphasize something true in life that we often want to pretend is not the case: very awful people can be very nice and likable when they aren't being monsters.
Oh yeah, those guys
Robert Parker was fond of writing in his Spenser books "Stalin liked dogs."  Sometimes he'd use Hitler instead.For Parker, this was the definition of a good guy; he likes dogs.  Yet both were evil men, both were monsters.  It was Parker's way of noting that nobody ever "all one thing" he'd write.  Nobody is constantly and totally evil without ceasing.  And nobody is all good all the time.

Its too easy to think that if someone is a nice guy or likable or charming, they can't be that bad.  But even Josef Mengele was known to be very mercurial, sometimes cheerful and likable, sometimes horrific.  The worst monsters in history had people that loved them, moments they were great.  And that's the key to making a real bad guy: make them nice.  Make them someone you can catch yourself actually admiring.

In the movie Full Metal Jacket, there's the moment when the little sniper girl looks down the gun at the soldiers, aiming through her scope.  Some people caught themselves almost rooting for her, as she lined up the shot, feeling that anticipation and thrill of success.  That's how to get someone in a story.  Grab them by their guts, where they aren't defending it.  Then when the bad comes, its not just a nasty deed, its a betrayal.

And for me, it makes a point about the nature of evil within us, the bad that we fight - or don't fight - every day, even nice guys.  For me it was an exercise in trying to make a point about evil without being preachy or pushing it down anyone's throat.  The attempt, for me, was to get people to question and think about what and why people do things and how we should respond, and to stop and think: is this thing someone is doing okay just because they seem like nice people doing it?  And how do we know what is good or bad?

It worked, at least to some level, judging by the reviews of Life Unworthy:
"Dark subject matter but presented in a good way that provoked some interesting thoughts, I thought a couple of times that it would be fun to be in a book club and discuss some of the ideas raised."

"The werewolf is deeply conflicted, and the comparison about the monster within him reminds me of the monsters within the Nazis."

"The characters are fleshed out. Usually Nazis are portrayed as one dimensional cartoon characters, Mr. Taylor's rendering is more rounded and... complicated adding to the horror of what is being done by people to others."
That's the kind of thing that makes me dance a little jig inside, its like fireworks going off in my soul.  They got it.  That's what I was trying to do.  its more than just an attempt to entertain, as fine as a goal as that, but to think and consider something beyond just the story's events.

As I grow as an author, I hope to accomplish this more skillfully and consistently.  To not preach or teach or lead the reader around, but to present things that stimulate thought and debate.  I'm not trying to force a conclusion on people, just to get them to think about something that maybe they hadn't before, or see something from a different perspective than they meant to.

And have fun doing it.

Because I'm no C.S. Lewis or Patrick O'Brian or Loren Estelman.  I'm not some 5 star literary giant.  I write fun books about implausible things.  But I want them to be at least a little thought-provoking, too.  Maybe a small layer more than simple entertainment.  And as time goes on, well maybe I can get pretty good at this stuff.

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

A Horse Tail

"I've often said there's nothing better for the inside of a man than the outside of a horse."
-Ronald Reagan

Pardon me, do you have any Gray Poupon?
I write fantasy.  I'd say for a living, but that implies enough earnings to survive on and that would be a slight exaggeration, like saying a AA battery can run Las Vegas.  But its something I have been doing for several years now, and I have a couple of books under my belt.

The strange thing is, I don't read a lot of fantasy.  I don't like much, most of it is pretty forgettable or the world doesn't appeal to me.  Too much of it is just awful, the kind of earnest nonsense that makes the genre a point of mockery for many people.

Something that often comes up in fantasy books and especially games is the horse.  Its a good old fashioned way of getting around; humans have been riding about on horses for thousands of years and they work well.

The problem is in the modern culture, almost nobody has more than a vague familiarity with actual horses and their nature.  And worse, being so influenced by modern culture, writers presume things based on their experiences that are nonsense.  I'm no expert on horses, but I do know some about them through limited experience and study with folks who are experts.

To begin with, horses aren't cars.  I know that sounds kind of obvious, but for some reason when it comes down to fantasy stories, authors seem to forget this.  Picture the scene with me now:

Cronan brought his steed to rein, its steel-shod hooves sparking on the rocks as it abruptly pulled to a halt.  The sun shone through the leaves of the canopy overhead on his broad, muscled shoulders as Cronan slid off the horse and looked around him.  This had to be the place the crone had mentioned, a cave with an entrance like a screaming mouth, filled blackness suggesting death and fear.  The vines overhead were growing low, hanging across the entrance as he strode inside, brushing his long black hair.  No darkness would stop his mighty sword from finding a sheath of vengeance in the lich this day.  He knew it could take him days of searching in the Labyrinth of Fell Desolation, but no matter how long it took, he would take his revenge.
Now putting aside the other problems with this melodramatic scene, think about something here.  What happened to the horse?  Its not like you can park one and hit the key fob.  A couple tweets and the alarm is activated, it will be there when you come back out, right Cronan?  Except it probably won't.

Horses are animals, and they have to eat pretty regularly.  They wander to look for food, and after a while start looking for company.  They aren't incredibly bright, so they will not understand you will be back, or what you're doing.  This mighty steed just saw the rider go into a cave and a day later not come back.

Cronan was disappointed in Old Paint
And that doesn't even count predators.  A big tough horse might look mean and dangerous to you, but it looks like a week of steak dinners to a lion.  Any world with liches in it will have nastier stuff than lions to deal with, as well.  That horse probably won't survive 2 days in the middle of the wilderness.  If it does, it will be miles away, having run from everything it couldn't stomp on (assuming its a warhorse) and Cronan will have to either track it down or hoof it with that big treasure chest on his back.

Which brings us to another problem.  Cronan the Barbarian is a typical mighty hero type, with shoulders so wide he has to go through doorways sideways and his 7 feet of muscle can bench press an ox.  That's great, but what horse is going to carry this guy?

He can get by with some gigantic draft horse type like a Clydesdale or Frisian, but not many others.  Your plain vanilla riding horse can carry a huge person like that, but not very long without trouble.  Don't get me wrong, a horse will go as long as you drive it to, they're dumb and very hard working when pushed to it.  But they'll die if you force them to carry a huge weight too long.

The only book I've ever read that even brought this up was Treason's Harbor by Patrick O'Brian.  His main hero Captain Aubrey is a big guy who varies in weight based on his riches and how long he's been at sea, but is a big fellow, and he needs a big horse to carry his weight.

But let's assume our hero found a huge horse to carry his huge frame; and armor, because only an idiot - a soon dead idiot - goes adventuring in a loincloth, and that weighs a lot too.  Plus all those weapons, food, bedroll and... well that's another post, I suppose.

Even a big, strong horse is still basically a horse.  And they survive by running away.  Not just running fast, but running first.  The first instinct of a horse when confronted with trouble is to run away.  And to make sure, a horse will assume pretty much everything is trouble.

Yes, you can train a horse to be mean, aggressive, and combative.  You can train a warhorse to kick and bite and ignore the sounds of combat, but you can't train a horse to stop being a horse.  That training will only take you so far, and will not remove its basic herbivore prey nature.

Bucephalus hears a sound
And that means the brute will sometimes think, without warning, that a rock is maybe a tiger and freak out on you.  It means that sometimes when a bird suddenly flies in front of the horse, it becomes terrified.

You see, horses don't have a fight or flight response.  They have a flight response.  You can train them to use their "fight over a mate" instinct on your enemies and you can get a stallion to emphasize their dominant nature over other horses, so they are mean and bite people.  But they're still made to run away when they face trouble.

When we see something strange or spot something that looks scary at first glance, we have a lot of options available to us, like examine it closer, go kill it, run away, hide and see what happens next, and so on.  Horses have one option when they're surprised: run.

We both have the same "what the--?" reaction when a quail explodes out of the grass in front of us, we both get that startled feeling, heart racing, skin prickling, step back in astonishment and so on.  The horse responds in fear and the need to get away fast so it won't be eaten.  Even the big mean warhorse.

Now, a well-trained, well-handled horse can be controlled sooner and won't have as many of these episodes, but they still have them.  Those mean little scrubby taiga ponies that the mongols rode were less panicky, but still were panicky.

Because the horse is an animal, not a car.  It doesn't just drive where you point it, its a creature too with its own personality, inclinations, fears, and desires.  It has a mind of its own, and won't just go from point A to point B without any complications or events, and it won't just sit and wait until you get on next time for a ride.

Horses are pretty needy animals.  Part of their physiology requires that they keep moving, its why they stamp and move about restlessly, it keeps blood flowing through their long legs.  They have little skinny legs and a big heavy body; that breaks easily.  More primitive and less bred horses suffer less from this, but its still an issue. They need a pretty constant amount of food and huge amounts of water to keep going, you can't just ride them around and fill the tank every few days.  They need rest.

This is an issue that most writers don't seem to get either; horses can't carry you and all your stuff indefinitely.  They have to stop and take a breather.  Yes, they're way stronger than you are, but its like carrying your toddler around.  That little guy couldn't win an arm wrestling contest with you even using one finger, but you can't carry him all day without noticing the weight and needing a break.

That means no "riding for days" or you get what you see in Gladiator when he reaches his farm: the horse collapses and dies.  Horses are kind of stupid when it comes to running for you, they'll do it as long as you compel them to, but their bodies won't hold up under the strain.

And I'm not even going to get into the whole mare-in-heat thing (good luck restraining your warhorse then, tough guy).

So if you're writing horses in a story, try to keep this all in mind.  Its not that you have to have gritty constant absolute reality.  Nobody needs to hear about how often the horse urinates or combing burrs out of their mane, but just don't treat them like an inanimate object, either.

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

The Rules: Don't Dump?

There are quite a few rules in writing that come up in any writer's group, class, or instructional book.  Don't use so many adjectives.  Show, don't tell.  On and on it goes; each one meant to help writers avoid common mistakes and craft their work into the best possible product.

All of these rules are well-meaning tips, meant to assist and shape young writers into skilled experts.  And one of the most commonly discussed is "no info dumps."  An Information Dump is when a writer gives a large block of information or background in one section, often through dialog but sometimes narration, without interruption and description.

At least they wadded it up first
The rule says that you should spread out this information through a story, weaving it through the book naturally and "organically" so that it feels like part of the narrative rather than a lecture.  This is almost always ideal because it leads the reader along without slowing the tale with a block of information.  Take character descriptions as an example.  You can either do it in one or two paragraphs (as they look in a mirror at themselves), or you can slip bits through the book in bites. 

Bob brushed his long hair back out of his eyes.  
Sarah's long legs curled under her as she sat.  
Gorthax fingered one of his intricately carved tusks as he pondered my fate.

By doing this, you give the reader information about the character in bite sized bits which makes it easier to remember by each bit being dynamic and interesting.  By the end of the book you have the full description.  And this is effective - its my preferred way of doing descriptions.

However, this push to avoid the info dump at all costs is pretty new; older books do it all the time without the slightest shame.  For example, nearly every Sherlock Holmes story starts with a big fat info dump by the client with few interruptions. Its gone out of style, but there's valid use for the device.
Holmes prepares to explain it all again
Like most of the rules, writing styles change and reader expectations change over time.  What was once quite proper has become out of fashioned or against the rules.  In the future, all of that will shift again.  In other words, what may be against the rules now isn't necessarily bad writing or something you need to avoid.  It might even be fashionable in a few years.

The purpose to these rules is to help new writers, not restrict capable ones.  H.P Lovecraft used adjectives to the degree it would make a modern editor or creative writing prof rip out their hair in horror.  J.K. Rowling ends every single one of her books with a massive info dump explaining what happened and all the background stuff her characters could not possibly understand or know, because they're children.  As I wrote in my post on The Rules a while back, 
And so on. As you become better at writing, then you can start to bend and even sometimes break the rules because you've become skilled at what you do to the point that you can carry it off. But until you get there, those rules help you learn and stay on target.

Because none of us start out great at anything except being selfish and loud as babies. You have to learn to bat and throw before you can make the baseball team, and even then you're a long ways off from starting on the Yankees. Writing is no different. Study, practice, work, learn, and write, and you get better and better. The rules are there to help you with that.
And there are some genres in which the info dump actually is preferable and useful.  If you're writing a zombie/reality show urban fantasy mashup then a block of description doesn't make sense.  But if you're writing a hard boiled detective novel, then its almost required.  Mysteries and detective novels need information in dry, hard format to give clues without manipulating readers or tipping your hand.  

Mentioning this character has a button missing on their sleeve might be the eventual clue that reveals the killer, but readers need to know that information in the name of fair play (giving the reader everything they need to know in order to solve the crime).  But if you mention that in isolation, it grows in significance to where it is to easy to pick up.  Plus, the genre is generally narrated by experts in the field or through their perspective, and the block of description like something jotted down on a notepad or police report is how they do things.  It pulls the reader into the story and helps them feel like the detective.
Another genre where the info dump is typical and useful is the period romance.  Some, especially Edwardian or Regency romances, revolve around clothing, appearances, balls, and parties.  Characters are revealed as if they stepped through the door and posed dramatically on the balcony before descending the steps revealing daring glimpses of their ankles.  That's a perfect place for the info dump.
Oh this old rag?  Its just something thrown together
So its a question of wisdom and talent, and delivering it well and judiciously rather than an absolute rule, I believe.  Like all the rules, it depends.  It depends on your skill, the genre, the setting, the pacing of the book, what you're trying to accomplish, and a lot of other things.

And learning those things is a matter of study, practice, and understanding, as well as raw talent.  Which is why the rules exist: until you get there, follow these and they won't lead you wrong.  Ignore them and you'll tend to go astray.

Friday, February 12, 2016

Win Life Unworthy

I'm doing another giveaway on Goodreads, this time for my Supernatural Horror WW2 novel Life Unworthy!
You can win one of two signed, print copies of this novel starting today and ending on the 22nd of February.
When the gas was delivered to a shower in Birkenau, the soldiers expected death, but what came out of that concrete chamber was far worse. Now the Fuhrer has demanded the monster be tracked down and destroyed, but a German scientist has other ideas for how it may be used for the third Reich. And the Werewolf has plans of his own. 
Caught in the middle is the city of Krakow and its citizens striving to survive under the brutal, murderous Nazi regime. In that city is Aniela Wisniewski, a pianist feeding snippets of information to the British. As events unfold, terror spreads over the city with Aniela at its center, a terror racing to an inconceivable conclusion! 
Why would you want a copy?  Here's what reviewers have said:
The characters start becoming individuals, with distinct motivations. They're not just Nazis in lock-step - they've got their own goals and agendas. Some justify themselves with Nietzsche, some just want the next promotion. The werewolf is a true monster, but he's also complicated. We meet the pretty Polish widow, a Romani with secrets. Then there's the weird Romanian guy with a leather trilby over his bald tatted scalp. They're interesting. 
Then things get really exciting.
Started reading and didn't put it down. Great history intertwined with regional monster mythology. Christopher obviously worked hard to get the history correct
Dark subject matter but presented in a good way that provoked some interesting thoughts, I thought a couple of times that it would be fun to be in a book club and discuss some of the ideas raised.
Excellent adventure, horror novel set in Krak√≥w early in WWII. The atmosphere of this book was almost another character in the book... The characters are fleshed out. Usually Nazis are portrayed as one dimensional cartoon characters, Mr. Taylor's rendering is more rounded and... complicated adding to the horror of what is being done by people to others. Chilling. 
A well researched historical fiction, it offers the harsh reality of living through WWII with the entertainment of a fast moving thriller.
Very entertaining and terrific action propels it to an exciting conclusion, enjoyed it a lot.
Available in print and ebook formats across the internet!