Saturday, December 22, 2012

Not a Morning Person

I am always amazed/impressed by the writers (and other people I know) who say they get up early in the morning (like at 4 AM) to "get things done" while the rest of their household is still sleeping. Some of this amazement is that they can have the discipline and focus to be productive when they know they're going to have to stop in just a couple of hours to get ready for work etc. I tend to like my writing time (or any other kind of "me" time for that matter), to be more open ended.

I am also amazed that anyone can go to bed early enough get a good night's sleep while getting up that early. I've always needed eight hours of sleep to feel my best, and so getting up at 4 AM would require my being asleep by 8 PM. Yipes.

I haven't gone to bed that early since I was a little tyke, and even then, it was resentfully. I never fell asleep right off and often snuck a flashlight under my covers to read. When my mom caught me at it (she and Dad stayed up until midnight or so), she'd confiscate my book, and I'd have to tell myself stories until I finally got sleepy. The habit persists to this day, and some of those stories became the nuclei of things I've tried to write over the years.

As an adult, if I try to go to bed earlier than midnight, I'll lie awake until God knows when. I'm familiar with the insomniac's relentless mantra. "If I fall asleep now, I'll still get 5 hours...." And counting. But if I go to bed later, I tend to drop right off.

It really sucked when I had jobs that required me to be at work by 8 every morning. It also sucked when I was in grad school when everyone assumed people who weren't in their labs at the crack of dawn weren't properly dedicated grad students, even if we stayed later than everyone else in the evening (and where lab meetings were inevitably scheduled for 8 AM). It still sucks when I get an early morning class to teach, or when I want to enter a dog agility trial (they never start later than 8AM). Six AM feels like the middle of the night to me. Always has. Heck, these days, 9 AM feels like the wee hours.

I've been lucky over the past year or so. My teaching assignments have been afternoon and evening classes. This means I can do my writing until I get tired, go to bed (often between 2-3), wake up when I'm not tired anymore (instead of when my alarm tells me to), and still have some time in the late morning/early afternoon to grade, write lectures and answer student e-mails.

There is a down side, however. The older I've gotten, the fewer people I know who are night owls. Most of my friends want to engage in social activities that start (horrors) before noon. And not a week goes by where someone doesn't conspire to rob me of my sleep. Appointments and meetings with colleagues usually involve penciling out a block of time in the morning. And there are those mid-morning phone calls. Most people think it's entirely reasonable to call at 9:30 AM, even on weekends. My sleepy hello earns me a bemused, "Did I wake you up?" (asked in a vaguely disapproving voice). Most people are flabbergasted when I tell them how late I go to bed. I remember one time when a friend told me she thought my computer clock must be broken. When I asked why, she said, "The time stamp on your last e-mail read 2 AM. There's no way you'd be up that late ... would you?"

At a certain level it's silly for me to feel guilty or apologetic for being a night owl. It seems to just be how I am, and I know I'm not completely alone. But people like me are a distinct minority, and it always feels bad to be outnumbered.

And getting up early has traditionally been linked with industriousness, while sleeping in has been associated with sloth and indolence. I saw a link to a study that insists that morning people are happier than night people (wonder if being able to work and play on a schedule that works for you influences happiness). But I also saw one to a study that suggested that night people are more intelligent, if less cooperative (wonder if uncooperative is defined as refusing to get out of bed when nagged).

In my experience, night people are usually perfectly happy to let their morning-oriented friends and family members go to bed when they're tired and wake up when they're rested (I actually kind of like having the house to myself late at night), while morning people tend to want to get night people on their schedule.

It's a bit lonely being a late night person, but it's been a part of who I am for so long I can't imagine being anything else.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Query Letters are Fun--Not!

A year ago, aside from the vague notion it was some kind of cover letter you included with a novel submission, I had no idea what a query letter was. For the uninitiated, a query letter must include a really short synopsis of your novel's main plot arc with regards to its main protagonist. It's supposed to address the following questions.

1. Who is your main character or protagonist?
2. What does he or she want?
3. What stands in his or her way and must he or she do to surmount these obstacles.
4. What happens if he or she fails?

Easy peasy, right? Well, um, no. At least not always. First of all, there's the issue of deciding who your actual plot-driving protagonist is. Sometimes that's not hard. But what if there are many point of view characters, and they all have roughly equal point of view time? The answer is to find the character who actually drives the plot. If you've really written something with multiple story threads (akin to George RR Martin's Game of Thrones), most people suggest picking a single character, the one with the most interesting and compelling sub plot, and focus on him or her.

The second question can be tough as well, because characters usually have many wants, often competing. And those wants can change as the story progresses. With some stories, elucidating which of a protagonist's competing and ever-evolving wants is the overarching one can be harder than it seems.

The third question can be hard too. Often there are multiple obstacles and multiple things the protagonist must do to overcome them. You don't want to simply toss a laundry list out there. Again, it comes to boiling things down to the most important obstacle and the most important thing(s) the hero must do. A common mistake is for the query writer to assume it's obvious. "Well of course he's got to find the sword of awesomeness so he can kill the evil wizard and fulfill the prophecy." It's easy to get so close to your work and the common tropes of your that you forget that the agent reading your query might not "know" that in your world, evil wizards are not killable by mundane things like slips in the tub or poisoned wine.

Finally, what happens if she or he fails? This also may seem implicit. The evil wizard won't die and life will continue to suck for everyone. But wait! Life has sucked for everyone for a long time already. Why is it so critical that this protagonist succeed at this time?

The good thing about writing a query (or a longer plot synopsis for that matter) is it can help you see some of the weaknesses in your story--those things you're too darned close to to notice most of the time. It can also help you clarify for yourself what the central plot of your story is. Many people suggest trying to write a query well before your novel finished for this reason. It may alert you to a problem.

Once the major points are in place, the thing probably isn't done. First of all, all the points must be connected in a logical manner. You don't want to get bogged down in details but you don't want to be vague either. Not easy.

Then you have to have some voice in the thing. Getting my character's and novel's voice into my query has been an Achilles heel for me. When writing non fiction, I tend to slip into a sort of academic writing mode where I want to cram as much information into each sentence as possible. This results in a bunch of grammatically correct sentences that fail to capture any sense of how my novel's actually written.

But you don't want to err in the direction of trying to be too cute or clever either. There are some examples of writers who have done this and caught an agent's eye. But more likely, you will simply annoy a person who has 200 more of these things to get through before she even goes into the office.

And once you think you have something sharp in place, you need to solicit feedback (and get some from people who aren't familiar with your novel). For this, you must gird your loins, because the fur will fly. You'll quite possibly have to start over from scratch--or gut the thing down to its bare bones. It's frustrating, but necessary. I always find myself trying to explain things to the people who just aren't seeing what my story's about from the query. Problem is, you won't be able to provide the agents with notes.

And no matter how frustrated you get, don't forget to thank the people who take time to read and comment on the thing. Even if you think they're way off base or if their opinions contradict one another (and sometimes they will). As a rule, the people who provide feedback are trying to be helpful.

The final layer of query writing frustration is that there's a lot of conflicting advice out there about it. Some of it is simply out of date (anything more than 5 or so years old is particularly suspect, as technology and conventions evolve rapidly. Also, some things simply go in and out of style. A query that caught an agent's eye ten or more years ago might be dragged straight to the delete folder today.

And never forget that agents are individuals. They all have different tastes. Some of them put the specifics they want on their sites, though many don't. But if agent A says he wants a one paragraph, 100 word query synopsis as the core of your letter, he probably means it, even if Query Shark says queries can be up to 250 words long and that multiple, short paragraphs are better than single long paragraphs.

Since I am still very much a newb at this, I'll toss in some links to some sites that have been especially helpful in learning about queries and what they entail. When writing a query letter, it's important to check a particular agent's guidelines (or blog if one is available) to see what he or she specifically likes and dislikes in a query.

A great site where an agent named Janet Reid rips queries readers have sent her to shreds--all to get them revised to the point where she'd want to start reading the associated manuscript. It's very illuminating, and often funny.

An online writers' community that has a share your work forum that includes a "Query Letter Hell." You'll have to create an account to view the share your work forum and you must post at least 50 times in their forums before you can submit something there for critiquing. But reading (and commenting on) other peoples' work can be very helpful.

An author and agent who has a website that addresses many things of interest to a writer, including query and synopsis writing.

This one says to include a one-sentence hook or logline, which is considered by some to be dated advice. But some of the information in this guideline is still valid, if taken in the context of other things you've read about query writing.

Contains a list of agent blogs that discuss query writing.

If anyone reading this has any other favorite query advice sites, please let me know

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Where are the Dogs in Fantasy?

I haven't encountered many dogs in fantasy novels, and to be honest, I'm not sure why.

The dog (Canis familiaris) is thought to be the first animal to be fully domesticated by humans. The earliest remains discovered so far that are unequivocally domestic dogs are about 14,000 years old, though some estimates place the divergence between domestic dogs and wolves to have occurred 40,000 or more years ago (Serpell, 1995; Wikipedia). Although the relationship between humans and domestic animals have changed over time, there is evidence that humans living in ancient civilizations were often very attached to their canine companions.

Most dogs in industrialized countries are kept as pets or companions, though they still fill a variety of other roles. In the US alone, there are 78 million pet dogs, and approximately 40% of US households have at least one dog ( In less industrialized parts of the world, feral or semi-feral populations of "village" or "pariah" dogs are widespread, and may outnumber actual pets. Some anthropologists (Coppinger and Coppinger, 2001) think this semi-feral state may resemble that of the earliest domestic dogs and that Canis Familiaris was essentially "self domesticated."

In spite of their popularity and important role in history, dogs seem to be strangely underrepresented in fantasy fiction when compared with horses, cats, birds of various kinds, and even their wild cousins the wolf.

One of the main characters in my novel has a dog, and it has been used to move the plot forward in a couple of places and to provide a little comic relief from time to time. Most of my test readers like Arrow (the dog's name) and want to see her playing a more prominent role in the story. But as a writer, I've found that slotting her in some places has been challenging. Arrow is not a trained war dog (she's more similar to a border collie), and although smart by canine standards, she is not a human in a fur suit. Her ability to understand the "big picture" of what is going on or to behave appropriately in novel and unexpected situations is no better than a "real" dog's would be. My experiences with my own dogs (who are probably better trained and socialized than the average pet out there) remind me that having an ordinary canine tagging along on a quest or getting underfoot during combat would be at best distracting and would likely end badly (for the dog).

Perhaps this logistical issue is the reason why dogs haven't figured as prominently in fantasy as some other animals. Horses are required for transportation in your typical pre-industrial fantasy setting. Cats (unless they are being portrayed as beings with human intelligence) are expected to go their own way and to disappear when punches start flying, so the logistics of writing your character's pet cat into a combat scene rarely figures in. Wolves, are either presented as adversaries or allies in fantasy, and intelligent wolves and wolf-like beings are a common trope. Perhaps the prevalence of wolves as a fantasy trope is one reason bona fide dogs are seen less often. Dogs are seen as being sort of mundane and ordinary, so a writer who wants to include a canine in the story will slot a wolf in.

Conversely, dogs are also seen by most as being heroic, so if they are included in a story, readers might expect them to play some pivotal role (aka, saving the protagonist's life at some point). Readers rarely ask the author why a character's pet couldn't drive the plot more or come in and save the day, but many expect this from dogs. This raises the issue, which I am struggling with in my own book, of how to satisfy my reader's requests to see more of Arrow and have her do something important during the novel's resolution without either turning her into a canine Mary Sue (aka Lassie) or having her lay down her life. Tearjerking isn't always bad, but the death of an animal character is something that needs to be handled carefully, as it has the potential for eliciting stronger emotions in readers than almost anything else. If "old shep" lays down his life for your hero, some readers may resent it or accuse you of milking their emotions. And to be honest, if I killed the mutt off, my own tears would probably short out my keyboard.

Below is a very short list of fantasy titles I've read or run across where dogs play a significant role in the story. If anyone can think of any others, they could be added.

Assassin's Apprentice by Robin Hobb

Dogsbody by  Diana Wynne Jones

Dog Days by John Levitt

Prince of Dogs by Kate Elliot

The Dog Days of Arthur Cane by Ernesto Bethancourt

The Iron Druid Chronicles by Kevin Hearne (thanks, Beth for letting me know about this one)

To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis (okay, this is sci fi, not fantasy, but dogs are underrepresented in Sci Fi too, and it's a really good read. It also has a cat in it).

There are a number of books for children, and even some for adults, where an animal (occasionally a dog) is the point of view character and is presented as being more intelligent that a dog "really" is, though still, in essence, a dog. One could argue for the inclusion of these in the category of low fantasy, but I am limiting my list to titles that employ at least some of the more traditional fantasy tropes (aka alternate worlds, magic, the paranormal or supernatural).


Coppinger, R. and L. Coppinger. 2001. Dogs: a Startling New Understanding of Canine Origin, Behavior and Evolution. Scribner, New York.

Serpell, J (ed). 1995. The Domestic Dog, its Evolution, Behaviour and Interactions with People. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Filtering Character Perceptions

I'm a member of an online critiquing group, and I have several people with whom I exchange comments about novel chapters. I also read books about craft belong to some online writing communities. These have helped me to broaden my perspective as well as expand my vocabulary of writing related terms. One term that someone used a while back was "filtering." I wasn't familiar with the term as such, though when I looked it up, I recognized the phenomenon.

I was thinking about this the other day, because I was reading a friend's excellent chapter, and the only real thing I noticed about it was the use of filtering in some passages that were meant to be very emotionally intense and action heavy. It's a common thing for writers to do on first drafts, and fortunately, it can usually be fixed, or at least reduced.

When a writer employs "filtering" he or she is using phrases like "he thought," or "she noticed," or "Tom realized that." In essence, they are telling the reader what is happening with the pov character, not showing.

For example:

Tesk glanced up at the gilded ceiling, trying to hide the curiosity and awe she felt. To a country lass, Lord Campion's villa resembled a museum. If this was just the parlor, she wondered what were the banquet hall and ballroom like? She smoothed her skirts, then stopped when she realized that her sweaty hands were staining the green muslin. You can dress a farm horse in the trappings of a blooded mare, she thought, but no one will take her for one.

This is not wrong, per say. But the use of the filters (bold-faced) creates some distance between the character's perceptions and the reader's, and reminds the reader that he or she is experiencing narrative and not the character. The "she thought" is not technically filtering, but it is an unnecessary "dialog tag," on internal dialog, which has a similar effect to filtering of a character's perceptions.

Here's a different approach:

Tesk glanced up at the gilded ceiling, trying to hide her curiosity and awe. To a country lass, Lord Campion's villa resembled a museum. If this was just the parlor, what were the banquet hall and ballroom like? She smoothed her skirts, then stopped. Oh hells, her sweaty hands had just left stains behind on the green muslin. You can dress a farm horse in the trappings of a blooded mare, but no one will take her for one.

Same scene, same information, but in the second example, it's presented to the reader more directly.
Of course, in writing, there are few hard and fast rules, and there are times when this is necessary to make something clear to the reader. For instance, you may need to employ one at the very beginning of a scene when you want to establish point of view, or when writing in omniscient (where you can change perspectives in a scene and sometimes need to clearly "tag" which character is perceiving or thinking something). Filtering can also be beneficial when the actual act of realizing or noticing is the point of the sentence. But when writing in limited third in particular (and limited third is a very popular point of view in genre fiction these days), these filtering terms are often unnecessary and distancing. Avoiding filtering when it is feasible to do so makes the point of view feel deeper and more immediate and removes that layer of gauze from between the reader and character.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

The Web as a Platform for Hurt Feelings

I've been online in one form or another since the early 1990's, and the expansion of the web, both as a useful tool and as a major time sink blows my mind. I played WoW, an online computer game for several years (I still log on to my account now and again but spend very little time playing anymore), and several years ago, one of my so-called "real-life" friends who also played WoW commented (in response to being passed over for his guild's "core" raid team because they already had enough shamans) that the internet was shaping up to be yet another tool that humans use to hurt each other's feelings.

This study, performed by a researcher at Penn State [] suggests my friend was right. According to this research, college students find online rejections just as distressing as face to face rejections. Although the investigators caution that their results may not apply equally to older demographics, I wouldn't be surprised if future research finds that us old fogeys can also be deeply hurt by things that happen on the web.

As a mature adult with FB friends who are (mostly) mature adults, I am at least spared the horrors of internet bullying, sexual harassment, or those awful pranks where a bunch of popular kids will friend, then promptly unfriend, an unpopular peer. But I definitely feel a genuine stab of pain when someone I know and think I have an amiable relationship with in RL ignores or rejects my friend request.

Even worse is when someone unfriends me with no (by my way of thinking) provocation or explanation. Since FB doesn't send special messages saying you've been unfriended, it can take me several days or weeks to notice that someone is no longer on my friends list but is still active on FB. This has happened to me (with a person I'm friendly with--I thought--in real life). It has, I'll freely admit, undermined my feelings towards this person. Every time I see her now, my smile is a little bit forced.

There are also those little hissy fits and small dramas that some people throw on social media of various kinds. In these cases, the people may not eventually unfriend one another, but if you get caught in the crossfire (by inadvertently posting a comment in a thread you didn't know was heating up because of something simmering below the surface), you almost wish they would. I really scratch my head when two people who do have a robust RL relationship use FB or twitter as a platform for, say, marital or familial quarrels or try to draw their friends (and more distant acquaintances) into the drama.

The thing is, there really isn't any good way to know if someone is hurt or angry by something that's said (or not said) in an online environment unless they choose to tell you. Yet communicating one's hurt or anger is almost guaranteed to engender hurt and anger (and possibly drama) in turn. Withdrawing is often the easiest way to deal with conflict in this setting.

I wish I had some words of wisdom on this issue that were more profound or unique than simply enjoining people to always keep in mind that there's a real person on the other end of every internet communication and to give people the benefit of the doubt rather than assuming they said something specifically to hurt you. Obviously, I don't want to force someone to be my FB buddy, critiquing partner or twitter followed if what I have to say bores or offends them. Logically, I know that no one is 100% popular and I know that even my nearest and dearest consider me quirky and off the wall in some ways. But emotionally, I want to be loved.

It's certainly true that humans, like other social animals, evolved in an environment where interactions were face to face and conflicts were resolved fairly quickly. Being a member of the pack, herd or clan was important to one's survival, so that stab of guilty shame and sadness one feels when rejected or rebuked is a neurological and endicrinological survival mechanism that's been shaped over millions of years. The development of language, writing and finally the internet has only expanded the opportunities for social embarrassment and rejection. I'm not convinced that our social conventions, let alone our hard wiring, have really caught up with what it means to be able to communicate instantly and remotely, let alone given us the tools we need to do so responsibly and compassionately--and to put these communications into an appropriate perspective.

But unless one wants to take the approach my husband has embraced (no social media and minimal e-mail communication), we'll have to muddle through and hope for the best.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

The Perils of Novel Length in Fantasy

I sat down and really started writing my novel about a year ago. For the first time in my life, I really got bitten by the bug and soon became so obsessed with the story and characters that skipping a day of writing became almost unthinkable. One thing that helped feed and maintain my focus was the discovery of a good and supportive online fantasy writing community that consisted of many aspiring (and some published) writers who critique one each others' work and provide everything from amusing diversions to hard-bitten advice.

I've been an avid reader of fantasy and science fiction for most of my life. I have certain preferences, and it's easy to get caught in the trap of thinking that your own favorite authors are "typical fantasy writers" in most respects. For instance, I prefer traditional "other word" fantasy, set in pre-industrial sword and sorcery societies, and I prefer stories where the magic system in painstakingly developed and made as realistic as possible. I also tend to refer complicated characters with a rich inner life and for there to be an element of romance, or at least emotionally satisfying relationships, somewhere in a story.

Another thing I tend to prefer are books that are fairly long. Although few of my favorite authors wrote debut novels as long as Patrick Rothfuss's, most of the fantasy novels on my bookshelves (and for that matter, most of the books I read in other genres as well) are considerably longer than the 80,000-100,000 words that is often cited as the average length for an adult novel. Fantasy is different, I always figured.

So as I got enthusiastically into writing my budding epic-length book, my writer friends who are a bit further along than I am had to break the news gently. Fantasy is not all that different with regards to length restrictions--at least not fantasy from first-time novelists who have not won the Writers of the Future contest, received a Hugo or Nebula for a piece of short fiction or won some other prestigious honor as a budding writer. In fact, the number that comes up most often as a target length for first-time fantasy writers (even those writing in the high fantasy tradition) is 100,000 words. The upper limit most agents and editors will consider from an unknown talent is around 120,000 words. Ouch!

The reasons given for this make sense, really. Longer books take more time to edit. Longer books cost more to bind and ship and take up more room on bookstore shelves or in warehouses. It's one thing to publish a 150,000 word plus wrist-sprainer from an established writer who has a loyal fan base and a track record of at least respectable sales. It's another to risk extra money on a first timer that no one's heard of yet (and sadly, there are plenty of first time novels that just never sold all that well, in spite of being quite good).

But it's still a frustrating issue, as many fantasy readers want and expect longer books. I wonder if a short little 300 page paperback by an unknown will even draw a browser's eye if it's sitting sandwiched between two much longer novels by well known authors. Of course, length is less of a factor with books bought online, as one does not search visually in that format (but then there is the issue of how a reader finds a first-time author at all on Amazon and B&, since readers tend to search for their favorite authors there or go off the sites' often incomprehensible recommendation system).

Be that as it may, I've had to edit Umbral Heretic down by quite a bit. I'm now hovering just above the 120,000 word "upper" limit and am at the point where some of my readers' suggestions are to add things rather than take them away. Overall, shortening the story has probably improved it. I don't have any of those elaborately detailed long journeys where nothing happens except description of the world (often cited as a pet peeve about fantasy, even by fans of the genre), and I've been complemented by some readers for having "just the right amount" of description to give them a picture of my world and characters without going overboard and bogging things down. I've streamlined my dialog and have no 2-3 paragraph monologues by a single character (I mean, really, how long are any of us allowed to go on for that long without being interrupted in real life)? But there were some scenes and characters that it broke my heart to delete.

I guess in the end, I'll have to see if the length cutting was a worthwhile sacrifice. And if the novel wins big and gains representation, I am given to understand that more cuts (and possibly a few additions as well) will be in its future.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Suspension of Disbelief

The suspension of disbelief is something every writer hopes to instill in his or her readers. Writers are liars by trade. They invent people, places and situations that never existed (and in some cases, never could exist) and strive to make total strangers care about them. Fortunately, there are plenty of people out there who are looking to do just that. Still, it's possible to fall flat. And even the most successful writers won't please everyone on every front.

People who write stories set in the "real world" have a particularly difficult task, because there are so many little details to keep straight. And some authors (evidently) don't even bother. My mom recently told me about a mystery she stopped reading because the protagonist had a close encounter with a shark that was so completely un-sharklike (it displayed almost human intelligence and seemed to be able to breathe with its head out of the water), that she started giggling.

I tend to get annoyed by books or movies that portray science inaccurately or that perpetuate myths or stereotypes that I despair of (like that stupid idea that we only use 10% of our brain). Some people would say I'm not picky about these issues. But my military history buff friends are far more likely than I am to get knocked out of disbelief by a scene that incorrectly portrays military ranks or organization, or has the wrong type of planes appearing in the Battle of Midway.

I write fantasy, and so in some ways my job is easier than an author who writes realistic novels set in the so-called real world. Fantasy readers are coming to the table with an expectation that at least some of the things in the books they read will be, well, fantastic. There's usually a huge leap of faith you have to make when you pick up a fantasy novel. We all "know" magic doesn't exist and there are no such thing as werewolves or dragons or parallel worlds that exist beneath the streets of London, but we're prepared to believe for a while--so long as the writer creates an interesting premise and compelling characters.

Still, a fantasy writer doesn't have free reign. When I create a setting for my story, I can decide what type of world it's going to be and how its rules will differ from the so-called real world. If I want to take a page out of CS Lewis's book and make my world flat (and only a few thousand years old), that gives me more latitude if I want to do something like, say, make the moon and sun go around the world and turn stars into sentient humanoid beings. But if I create a fantasy world that is essentially Earthlike, except for the presence of magic, I have to be a bit more careful when I describe the physical workings of that world.

I ran into a suspension of disbelief issue when reading one of my favorite authors. Her world is very Earthlike (one sun, one moon, evidently round) and seems to have the same basic laws of physics as we do, with a few exceptions made for magic. But for some reason, the moon always rises at dusk and sets at dawn, no matter what phase it is in. I can't think of a way for this to be possible. A solar eclipse is a major event in one of this writer's books, but on the morning of the eclipse the moon was setting at dawn. If the moon is setting at dawn, it's not going to be in the sky during the day to get exactly between the sun and the Earth (to cause an eclipse). This knocked me out of disbelief.

But I didn't stop reading, and I still enjoyed the book. Except for the moon thing, her writing is very well informed and I love her plots, world building and characters. She has, in essence, earned my trust as a reader, so I am able to forgive that small slip (one that many readers probably don't even notice).

The fact is, no matter what a writer does and no matter how carefully he or she researches things, there will be some mistakes or omissions. I notice little unlikely things in books all the time (and undoubtedly miss countless others). George RR Martin had a character tossing hay bales around in Game of Thrones, for instance, even though it's unlikely something akin to the 1930's era pickup baler would exist in his medieval-ish world. It was a very minor thing, however, and I still enjoyed his books. I don't think the plot ever hinged on the presence or absence of hay bales.

And sometimes an author has to fudge something to make a story work. I know that something the size of a dragon can't possibly fly (without magic), but I was able to set that knowledge aside and enjoy Anne McCaffrey's Pern books (which are actually science fiction and not fantasy). At some point, a writer has to set things up as best he or she can and tell the story.

Ultimately, readers all have certain tropes or situations they are more willing to accept than others. For example, there are all kinds of "realistic" reasons why women in pre-industrial societies did not (generally) pursue lives of adventure. But I like to read fantasy novels set in sword and sorcery style settings that are "unrealistically" egalitarian. This is an example of a trope (swashbuckling female adventurers/heroes) that has become pretty commonplace in modern fantasy and is acceptable to a large number of modern readers. But 50 years ago, novels with a sexually integrated military (even in futuristic settings) and sword-wielding female heroes that were portrayed as everyday, normal occurrences, probably would have knocked many more readers out of disbelief than they do today.

Of course, even in a modern novel, there are ways of portraying this integration of male and female roles that will be perceived as more or less realistic to some readers. For instance, an understanding of the frictions and issues that can arise in heavily co-ed settings, even in our relatively enlightened times, can make a scenario seem more realistic.

In the end, readers will be inclined to accept or reject certain things, based on their past reading habits and personal knowledge or inclinations. But the fact that a story takes place in a fantasy world does not abrogate a writer from doing some research and creating a set of internally consistent rules. If the writer does this, readers are much more likely to be forgiving when he or she does fudge something--whether it's by omission or design.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Cats and Writing

It's no secret that many famous writers were and are fond of cats. Sites such as this one ( are only scratching the surface. I assume writers (famous and otherwise) often like cats because, like them, we tend to be independent creatures. And their soothing, undemanding company can be very inspiring to the creative process.

I'm a night person by nature, and tend to do a lot of my writing in the wee hours, after most of the world (and most of its distractions) are safely tucked away for the night. There's a definite changing of the guard that occurs around the time my husband goes to bed each night (sometime between 11-12 usually). The dogs go to bed with him, and the cats, who have been sleeping for most of the day and evening, become active.

Leo, Oberon and Merlin usually announce their presence by using one of the litter boxes. I won't elaborate, but this generally requires me to don a gas mask and scoop the thing so I can go back to work. Okay, stinky cat bombs are not inspiring, unless I'm writing about miasmatic clouds or noisome dungeons.

After emptying their intestinal tracts, the boys will proceed to gallop in circles for a while. Oberon is a tiny little thing (8 pounds dripping wet), but Merlin and Leo are much more amply proportioned (14.5 and 16.5 pounds, respectively). When they get to playing, it sounds like a chorus line of hippos are performing in the hallway outside my study. It's not too hard to tune it out, unless something smashes to the floor  in the kitchen, or one of them decides to leap up into the window behind my desk. Leo, in particular, has been known to come crashing down onto my keyboard when he does this.

Leo awakening

Merlin's a bit too large for the bathroom sink

Oberon thinks it would be incredibly rude for me to actually print anything.
Sometime around 1 AM or so, they start demanding their late-night snack. This consists of a few kibbles, dutifully doled out sometime before my own bedtime. This (theoretically) prevents the cats from waking us too early in the morning.

Recently, I discovered that the cats have an even better scam going than we thought. Doug has informed me that he always gives the cats their pre-bedtime snack before he goes to bed in the evening. So their innocent, wide-eyed assertions of hunger a couple of hours later is ... somewhat exaggerated. This explains why Leo's girth is not decreasing, in spite of our cutting back on the size of their portions.

I have tried to cut out this second "bedtime snack," but Leo now expects it. If I haven't scooped the kibble into his bowl by 2 AM, he starts rearing up and patting me on the wrist. If this fails to get my attention, he'll bite me sharply on the ankle. I've taken to keeping a squirt bottle by the computer.

This continues until I run out of steam by around 3 AM and fall into an exhausted sleep (occasionally interrupted by one or another large, furry presence on my pillow). There's no question that my writing would be far less productive without "the boys."

Saturday, October 20, 2012


Bob said, "I am going to go and find out what we will be doing tomorrow. Then I will tell Marjorie that she will have to come with us."

"Let us do that," answered Beth. "She has always been helpful."

What's missing from this dialog (besides anything interesting)? Contractions! Nearly all of us use them (or 'em) when we talk. Most of us use them when we write as well. But there still seems to be a lot of misunderstanding surrounding the actual appropriateness/acceptability of their use.

It always seemed like a no-brainer to me to use contractions in dialog, since people use them when they speak. I tend to use them in narrative as well, unless I'm shooting for a very formal tone. I tend to write my stories in first or limited (tending towards deep) third person, so my narrative is written (or at least attempts to be) written in the pov character's voice. Unless there is a reason the pov character wouldn't use contractions, their absence feels a bit strange to me.

But budding writers often avoid their use, even in dialog. Some say it's because their grammar checkers have trained them not to use contractions. Others explain that their English teachers place their use on the same moral level as the torture of puppies. Still others claim they've heard that editors will summarily reject any fiction manuscript with contractions.

The grammar checker argument is easy to set aside, since grammar checkers are clearly designed by rabid squirrel monkeys who want to derail the human race's use of language. As for the English teacher argument, one must remember that teachers are training students to write very formal non fiction, and students tend to interpret the guidelines given in that context as immutable rules (even though, as stated above, these rules are changing, even in formal writing).

The comment that fiction editors hate the use of contractions is the only argument that bears investigation. I haven't had any conversations with professional editors on this topic, so I pulled several of my favorite fantasy books from my shelves and looked at their dialog. I found tons of contractions (and some in the narrative as well). Still, it's possible that the books on my shelf are an atypical subset of the population of published works.

So, I went to the web and did a little research. As it turns out, it's becoming increasingly acceptable to use the common English contractions in business correspondence and in technical writing, so long as they improve the flow and rhythm of the writing and convey the desired tone and voice ( ; ;

This does not mean, of course, that different editors or publications don't have their own preferences or in-house styles (or that all readers will find a business letter with contractions more readable and friendly), but it does suggest that there is no hard and fast rule against using them anymore, even in formal writing.

So what about fiction? I did some more searching and found two different opinions about what the "rules" are, though all of these writers/editors agreed that rules in writing are often broken to good effect.

1. They're desirable in spoken and internal dialog, but not in narrative.

2. They're desirable in spoken and internal dialog and entirely permissible in narrative as well, so long as it suits the voice and style of the writer or pov character.

I suspect the differences in opinion over whether it's appropriate to use contractions in third person narrative are probably influenced by one's attitude towards a truly deep/immersive third person pov and the use of a more causal authorial voice in modern writing. It is entirely possible that editors have different opinions here.

But in spite of what many newer writers claim, it doesn't seem like there's any controversy over contraction use in dialog. As a rule, dialog will sound stilted and formal without them, so unless you are intentionally creating a context where a character is not using them for a clear reason, sprinkle in the standard English contractions.

Colloquial contractions (such as ain't) can also be used in dialog, of course, if  it's appropriate for the character and setting.

Sometimes an author may use a situational or made-up contraction to indicate that a speaker is hurried or being careless in his speech. gonna, 'fraid, etc. are examples of these. Be sure these are being used in a way that's appropriate and are not overused to the point of rendering the character's speech incomprehensible or annoying to read.

When should contractions be avoided?

1. When they actually make the sentence more cumbersome to read/speak.

2. Faux historic speech that is not well-researched and actually appropriate for the overall setting or voice for the characters or narrative.

3. When there's a plausible reason a character wouldn't be using contractions. I can think of two books I've read in recent months that avoid contraction use in at least some contexts, and both of them worked quite well. But they are the exception to the rule.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

What is High Fantasy Anyway?

I thought of my novel as high fantasy (though not necessarily epic fantasy) before I even started writing it. Although the world is basically Earth like (it's round, follows most of the laws of physics and biogeography), it is clearly separate from ours, has its own history and cultures, a number of species that don't exist in ours (though no elves or dwarves), and magic plays a prominent role in the story.

Now that I'm at the stage where I'm starting to formulate agent queries, I've tossed a few samples I've written up in fantasy writers' forums. One reader commented that there was nothing in my query that made him think my novel really was high fantasy. Well, a query has to focus on the plot and characterization, not world building. When I told him this, he said that doesn't matter, because high fantasy isn't about the world building or conflicts, but about the voice and tone of the novel. This engendered much disagreement and a lively discussion about what HF "really" is. Some of the (competing and complementary) definitions people tossed out:

--there has to be elves, dragons, dwarves etc.
-- high fantasy is concerned with world-level wars and conflicts
--there need to be active supernatural entities involved in the story (aka gods)
--the laws of physics and nature must be very different from the real world (I guess that means a flat world, or floating cities that must be reached by winged mounts)
--the setting has to be largely medieval, both in terms of culture and technology
--the setting should be pre-industrial, though not necessarily medieval
--the struggle between good and evil must be central
--the tale needs to involve some kind of heroic quest that takes the characters to various locales within their world
--the main protagonist needs to be larger than life in some way, and preferably royal
--destiny needs to play a major role in the story (aka the protagonist is a chosen one)
--magic must be central to the plot
--there need to be at least some sort of non-human race or culture

My story fits some of these, but not others. When I mentioned my confusion over this on a different fantasy writer's forum, a fan of my novel commented that she didn't think it was HF because my magic system was too scientific and my healing too advanced (the nature of my world's magic allows healers to visualize and manipulate the workings of the body to some extent, so they're not mucking around with the degree of ignorance exhibited by "real-life" Medieval and Renaissance era physicians, nor are they merely waving their hands and allowing a god to do the "real" healing).

 In desperation, I turned to wikipedia, and found a very broad definition of HF.

"High fantasy is defined as fantasy fiction set in an alternative, entirely fictional ("secondary") world, rather than the real, or "primary" world. The secondary world is usually internally consistent but its rules differ in some way(s) from those of the primary world." (

In addition to well known examples, such as Tolkien's and Robert Jordan's works, the site included novels by authors such as J.K. Rowling, Piers Anthony and Phillip Pullman as examples of the genre.

By this definition, my novel is probably High Fantasy.

But a quick perusal of other web sites that define/discuss HF lead to more confusion. Some people claim high fantasy is the same as epic or heroic fantasy (, while others make a distinction ( Adding to my confusion are the plethora of different definitions of the terms "low fantasy," "heroic fantasy," and "sword and sorcery."

According to Fantasy Faction's entry on the subject (, George RR Martin's work is epic fantasy, but not high (not sure why not). If they are correct, my novel would not be high fantasy. And there seems to be some disagreement about whether high and low fantasy are differentiated by the setting, the role magic plays in the story or the nobility of the characters ( ; ;

I guess the take-home message here is that there is no consensus about what high fantasy, or the other fantasy subgenres, really are. Some definitions exclude even classic works usually cited as examples of the genre, such as Lord of the Rings, from the category of HF.

I suppose I can just query my novel as a work of fantasy and let an agent or editor define it. Most bookstores lump all adult fantasy and SF together anyway, and many agents simply say they take fantasy, without defining specific subgenres.

My main concern is that I've researched a few agents who say they take SF and fantasy but stipulate, "No high fantasy." Since there is no "set" definition of what HF is, I'm not clear whether they'd be interested in my MS or not. If they are simply saying they don't like works set in faux-medieval societies with stereotyped fantasy races and tropes (told in that old-fashioned, stilted language), then I'm probably okay. But if they're saying they don't want anything taking place in a separate world with its own history where magic plays an important role, then I'm not.

I guess there's no harm in submitting when in doubt. I'm going to rack up a ton of rejections, no matter what. It's the nature of the business.

Monday, October 8, 2012

The Next Big Thing

I’ve been tagged by Erik Larson to talk about the novel I have in progress in his Next Big Thing blog post. The Next Big Thing is where a writer answers ten questions about a novel he or she is working on, and then tags other authors to answer the same questions. 

1. What is the title of your Work in Progress?

Umbral Heretic

2. Where did the idea come from for the book?
I think these characters have been rattling around in my head in one form or another for well over a decade. I got the idea for one scene in my novel (the one where my healer character finds the protagonist beaten up and devoid of his memories) when I was walking my dog along Boulder Creek back when I was in grad school in Colorado. The idea sort of shuffled to the back of my brain, but it popped up from time to time, and I gradually fleshed it out over the years.

3. What genre does your book fall under?
I've been thinking of it as adult high fantasy, but  I'm not sure everyone agrees with my definition of the genre. I'll probably query it simply as fantasy.

4. Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?
This is a tough question for me, as I don't spend a lot of time following celebrities, so most of my favorite actors are older now ... way too old to be playing characters in their twenties.
Both Jarrod and Tesk are reasonably tall (Jarrod around 6' and Tesk around 5'9"-5'10") and have brownish eyes and hair and are active, strong people. Most of the young actresses out there today seem to be little slips of things. Of course, Hollywood has always been good at manipulating camera angles and so forth.
Maybe for Tesk, someone who looks like Jewel Staite (though taller and more muscular). or Siebil Kekili from Game of Thrones, though both of these gals are over thirty. For Jarrod ... hmmm. Seems like most of the young actors are too pretty or too smarmy, so no one's leaping out at me.

5. What is a one-sentence synopsis of the book?
A magically damaged exile must master his rogue talent and defeat a network of dark wizards who seek to return the world to a time of chaos and terror.

6. Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?
I hope to find an agent.

7. How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?
It took about a year to get a complete manuscript with no gaps in it.
I am an on the fly reviser, though, so by the time I got to the end of the manuscript, I'd rewritten parts of the first 1/2-2/3 of the book several times. The "first" draft is really more like a second draft for this reason.

8. What other books would you compare this story to in your genre?
Well, some of my favorite contemporary fantasy and sci fi writers include Lynn Flewelling, Mercedes Lackey, Robin Hobb, CJ Cherryh, Anne McCaffrey and  Glenda Larke. I think It would be arrogant to compare myself to these writers, but it is certainly true that various aspects of their narrative style, characterization and world building have influenced me more than old style fantasy writers like Tolkien, Norton or Leiber (who I also enjoy as authors).

9. Who or what inspired you to write this book?
I've been wanting to write since I was a kid and have been taking abortive forays into writing for my entire life. Aside from a couple of short stories I wrote for a class back in college, though, I never finished anything. I'm not sure why I finally got the wherewithal to finish a draft of a novel length work (and a few short stories) at last. I think I just got sort of addicted to writing for the sake of writing. It helped finding a good online writing community as well, as I've never had much luck finding a local writers' group that focuses on speculative fiction.

10. What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?
I feel that the book is definitely character driven, but it's set in a world that blends elements of traditional high fantasy with some newer approaches to world building. Although the story is character driven and the plot centers around intrigue and conflict between characters, there is some sword and sorcery style action and even a little romance.

It takes place in a world where the naturalistic nature of magic has informed and enhanced people's knowledge in some ways and held it back in others. It is probably about halfway along the spectrum of idealized to gritty in that it takes place in a world with plenty of unpleasantness, but most people are striving (with varying degrees of competence and success) to do the right thing and move things forward. I hope it appeals to people who like conflicted and flawed characters and a dose of realism but have grown a bit tired of fantasy and sci fi worlds that take place in very dystopian societies where no one (including the protagonists) give a damn about anything except for gaining power over others or exacting revenge.

The protagonist (Jarrod) has several apparently conflicting goals and faces plenty of external obstacles and adversaries throughout the book, but ultimately, his largest adversary may be himself. I hope some readers may find that relatable as well.

Oh yes, and there's a dog....

Include the link of who tagged you and this explanation for the people you have tagged.

Erik Larson tagged me.

I tagged Nick Mena:

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Pesky POVs

I'm taking a little stab at discussing craft today. I always feel a little phony doing this, since I'm not a professional writer. So I've written this as much to consolidate my own learning process as to be seen as a writing guru dispensing pearls of wisdom that no one else can provide.

I've done enough critiquing of other writer's stories by now to notice that some people have more trouble with point of view (pov) than others. Traditionally, most fantasy stories are written in third person, and recent years, most are in some form of limited third (with occasional dives into omniscient for prologues, introductory chapters or transitional scenes).

The greatest area of difficulty seems to be with writers who do something called head hopping. Usually, head hopping is accidental, but occasionally, I've read a scene that looks like it was written by a kangaroo on cappuccino but the author defends his or her approach by saying it's all right to head hop, because it's written in omniscient.

This often spawns a discussion (which can become heated) about authorial voice and whether it's a good idea for a beginner to try and write omniscient in the current market and whether stories where the reader is tightly tied to what the protagonist senses and knows are more engaging than ones where the reader can be aware of things the characters are not. But these debates bypass the fact that third person omniscient does not feel like head hopping when it's done properly. To put it another way, saying you are writing in omniscient does not make head hopping okay.

There are a ton of bloggers out there who have done a good job of discussing the various points of view in writing and who refer readers to various published works for examples. I'm going to take a different approach with this piece. I took a very short snippet from a chapter in my book that takes place at a party (the original is written is a fairly close or deep third pov) and had some fun rewriting it into different povs and as a head hoppy passage. I am hoping that it illustrates the differences in a fairly concrete way.

Limited third person (deep or close):

Jarrod smiled stiffly as Master Eammon introduced him to a bewildering array of people. Councilors, entertainers, academics--the mage seemed to know all sorts. Everyone's eyes lingered on his face for an extra second before flicking politely away.

Tesk flashed him one of her heart-stopping smiles. "Don't worry about them." Her green dress showed just enough silky-smooth skin to make him tingle in ways he didn't want to think about in public. How had he ever thought of her as ordinary? He averted his eyes before she caught him staring like the damned fool that he was. No woman in her right mind would welcome attention from a battered husk like him.

This is very similar to how it might be written first, except for the pronouns. This is my favorite pov to read and write, but I'll admit that I do hybridize it with a more detached pov sometimes, especially in scenes where I need to clarify that something is a thought or a realization or whatever, or when doing so just makes things feel a little clearer.

Limited third (more detached):

Jarrod smiled stiffly as Master Eammon introduced him to a bewildering array of people. Councilors, entertainers, academics--the mage seemed to know all sorts. Jarrod noticed that everyone's eyes lingered on his face for an extra second before flicking politely away.

"Don't worry about them." Tesk flashed him one of her heart-stopping smiles. Her green dress showed just enough silky-smooth skin to make Jarrod tingle in ways he didn't want to think about in public.

How did I ever think of her as ordinary? he wondered. He averted his eyes, knowing he was staring at her like a damned fool. He doubted that any woman in her right mind would welcome attention from a battered husk like him.

This is similar to the previous passage. We're still only getting Jarrod's pov and we're still seeing inside his head, but notice how I've changed the wording in a few places. I'm tagging some of the things Jarrod is noticing, doubting or thinking as such, rather than simply stating them directly. Also, there is an extra paragraph break, since turning Jarrod's thought about Tesk not being ordinary into a tagged "internal dialog" creates what is, in essence, a new speaker. So we need a paragraph shift.

Third omniscient:

Jarrod smiled stiffly as Master Eammon introduced him to a bewildering array of people. Councilors, entertainers, academics--the mage seemed to know all sorts. Everyone noticed Jarrod's scarred and branded face and stared for an extra second before remembering their manners and looking away.

"Don't worry about them." Tesk flashed him a smile, knowing full well that her green dress showed just enough silky-smooth skin to make Jarrod tingle in ways he didn't want to think about in public.

Completely unaware that she'd selected the dress with him in mind, Jarrod averted his eyes. How did I ever think of her as ordinary? he wondered. He doubted that any woman in her right mind would welcome attention from a battered husk like him.

Writing this was a bit harder for me, because I don't generally write in omniscient, and few of the books I've read in recent years are written in this pov. I had to pull some of my older books from my shelves for a refresher on how the authors did it. Someone more used to writing in this pov could probably provide a better example than I have.

But notice how we now are privy to some information that Jarrod isn't. We know that the people Eammon is introducing him to actually do notice his face and it's not just Jarrod's perception that they do. We also discover that Tesk wanted Jarrod to notice her dress, even though Jarrod doesn't know this. What I did not do was present "deep" thoughts from different characters without tagging (or present deep thoughts from different characters in the same paragraph).

I've encountered some conflicting advice about how important a strong narrative presence is with omniscient. It's certainly stronger and more noticeable than it is with either type of third. There is a type of omniscient (exemplified by CS Lewis's Chronicles of Narnia) where the narrator is almost a character in the story at times. With the narrator telling you the story, you're less likely to get confused when he or she tells you about what different characters are seeing and thinking, because you are really inside the narrator's head. But not all omniscient narratives are exactly the same. Examples of more modern novels with omniscient povs would be The Hitchhiker's Guide books by Douglas Adams, and even parts of the opening chapters in JK Rowling's Harry Potter Books (though she then reverts to a more limited third for pretty much the rest of each book).

Head Hopping:

Jarrod smiled stiffly as Master Eammon introduced him to a bewildering array of people. Councilors, entertainers, academics--the mage seemed to know all sorts. Everyone noticed Jarrod's scarred and branded face an stared for an extra second before they remembered their manners and looked away. Did they have to stare at him?

"Don't worry about them." Tesk flashed him a smile. Hopefully, he wasn't feeling too self conscious. Her green dress showed just enough silky-smooth skin to make Jarrod tingle in ways he didn't want to dwell on in public. How had he ever thought of her as ordinary? Completely unaware that she'd selected the dress with him in mind, he averted his eyes.  He doubted that any woman in her right mind would welcome the attentions of a battered husk like him.

This scene violates a couple of rules, which make it hard for a reader to follow it (well, I know I can't follow it, and I wrote it). Firstly, we are switching perspectives/pov in the same paragraph--and in back to back sentences at that. Secondly, we are Putting untagged, "deep pov" type sentences (how had he ever thought of her as ordinary? and Hopefully, he wasn't feeling too self conscious) in the middle of paragraphs that have more than one pov/perspective presented in it. Not tagging the pov in an omniscient scene will confuse readers. It's a bit like mixing two flavors that are delicious separately but yucky in the same dish.

Omniscient is a tough pov to get right, though there are some wonderful novels that make use of it. I am a firm believer that there are few (if any) hard and fast rules in writing (well, commas splices are always bad, I think). But if your reviewers are confused or say they think you're head hopping when you're shooting for omniscient, it probably means you haven't gotten it quite right.