Escaping the List

I love fantasy but there are fantasy characters that make me put a book down as soon as I see they're involved.


Wait, what? Dragons? How could dragons be on the list? It's the most iconic monster in all of fantasy. Smog, anyone?

And that's the thing. The dragon is the most overdone creature in the genre. No one does anything interesting with them. No one twists them in new ways. It's the same hard-scaled, fire breathing, treasure hoarding, lanced knight riding on its back because this super powerful creature is somehow still beholden to humans, monster in every book.

There are some books I'm missing out on. I've been told by numerous trustworthy sources that I'm missing some worthwhile novels because of this policy (TWELVE, THE GREYFRIAR, etc.) and it got me to thinking. Maybe I'm missing something worth reading. Now I could read either of the above because vampires are so high up on the list, it'll take more than some really good recommendations for me to pull them off. Sparkle or no sparkle, no vampires nada.

In 1999, I gave up watching TV. It seemed like nothing good was on TV and the commercials were atrocious! I didn't give the tube a try again for five years when I found out I missed both Firefly and The West Wing. I missed other good shows like Buffy and Angel, but Firefly and The West Wing rate in my top five best television shows ever. EVER. And I missed them.

So what books am I missing?

So I looked around and saw something that piqued my interest, a little ditty edited by Anne Sowards, who I've gotten to know on Twitter and she's pretty cool. SONG OF THE BEAST by Carol Berg.

Dragons are still the big scaled things that breathe fire, but the premise as to why the are beholden to humans, the origin stories of how dragons affected the world, and their need for the main character. It's a great idea. It's a genius idea! I'm still coming to terms with the ending, but I wouldn't hesitate recommending this book. If you're looking for some good fantasy, give it a try. I'm so glad I picked it up.

A Paragraph

If you read industry blogs at all, you have seen an agent or two (or two hundred) occasionally talk about reaction emails. Reaction emails are when an amateur (not an aspiring author) shows that he or she is no way emotionally ready for the challenges of publishing and may never be. They submit their query and receive a form rejection.

See now right there, that's pretty awesome. More and more agents are just not responding if they don't want to see more and I think that's lame because accidents happen and who knows if they ever received it or not (*beats the dead horse a little more*). Regardless, when you get the form rejection, that's pretty awesome. They saw your query and decided to pass. Closure.

But then these jerk offs write back and tell the agent how he/she cannot possibly conceive of the genius they have just rejected. That X number of other agents have already offered representation (which is a load of crap because no one goes from querying to partial to full in that little amount of time). And how could an agent ever think to judge one's genius by the five sample pages requested as part of the query!?!

See, I don't like that last part. I don't like any of it. When you get a rejection that's the end of it until you have something new to query. Don't be a dick. But if you think a professional in the industry needs more than five pages to gauge the quality of your work, then you're not a professional in the industry. Be thankful they gave you five pages. They probably knew the answer in the first paragraph. If you're particularly shitty at this whole thing, they knew in your first sentence.

And if you're not shitty at this whole thing, then you should be able to do the same. Critical reading is a fundamental skill and one necessary to improve your writing. When you read, you should find every crack in the paint, every loose nail in the floorboard, every over-watered cement mix in the foundation. You need to know when someone's repeating the same descriptors, using conflicting cadence, and/or showing and not telling. You need to know all these because you need to do it to yourself before you let other people read your work. You want your writing to be the best it can be so they don't waste their time finding the things you should have found but finding other things you hadn't thought of. (To which you will commit those mistakes to memory and find them on your first past the next go around, thus continuously improving until you're so awesome you cause the universe to implode from the sheer mass of your awesomeness.)

For the time being, pay someone you love (spouse, sibling, best friend). It won't cost much. Five bucks and a pizza or something. At any time they overhear you complaining that someone would love your work if they'd just read the whole thing, you have that person slap you across the face. Then say thank you, because that person is on duty, always vigilant, to bring you back to your senses. You make sure that you build the most amazing house of a novel in those sample pages, not a McMansion that would lend itself to hijinx with Tom Hanks and Goldie Hawn.

And if you think what I'm saying is harsh, keep in mind two things. First, it's late and I'm not feeling well, so my personal filter is working at half-capacity. Second, you already do this. When you read a book and that first page is utter shit. So then you go to the next page and it's even worse. It's a rare thing to keep reading a book in hopes that you'll love it only if you read to the very end. You put your much valued time toward endeavors that are worth it. You can tell by the page. You can tell by the paragraph. Perhaps even by the sentence. And so can they.

Remember that the next time you're in the mood to bitch. (Not to mention there are so many other things to bitch about! Like agents that don't even send form rejections! Or that the Canucks won game 1 of the Stanley Cup playoffs against the Bruins with an off-sides goal! Priorities, people!)

God's (Book) Country

So I've had two really good posts all week but I've been so busy at work. In my off hours, I've been spending time at Book Country. It's a place for authors, aspiring and successful, to gather and share and critique. It reminds me of Authonomy without the used-car mentality or with less strict tit-for-tat rules. Or Critters (or at least what I've seen of Critters since my application went unanswered). It's in open beta right now which means there's still plenty of room for improvement. But they have a healthy attitude and a positive community approach. So far I'm enjoying myself.

On the Outside

Has there ever been a series that you read and thought was okay, but you just didn't get why people are so fanatical about it? I'm that way with the Hunger Games trilogy. I see posts and you tube clips all over the net and everyone's so excited. I certainly don't want to spoil their fun or anything, but I wish I could participate. It started as a strong story, the second two books never matched the first, in my opinion.

It feels like there is a party going on and everyone was invited except for me. :)

Reading is Fundamentals

Today's post is written on my phone while I take the late train into work. Will be busy as soon as I sit down, so it's now or never.

Someone commented on a blog I read how the blogger must feel so proud for buying books as gifts. A coworker of mine only reads classics because she likes feeling superior to people who don't. I don't get these mindsets. The latter is just dumb, mofe telling of her character more than anything, but the former... I own a lot of books. All readers do. I cannot think of a single book I own that would make me proud.

Reading is one of many media people use for entertainment and learning. I don't get the weight people put on it as the most important thing EVAR! I like movies and plays and music too.

Bordering on the Ridiculous

Sara Megibow posted recently that she "did her part to help Borders" by buying a book there. And all I can think is, you either screwed the publisher or screwed the author by buying there. If Borders doesn't pay for the books it's selling, someone has to take the loss. Either the publisher will take that hit, or they won't count is as a sale and the author will take the hit or maybe they'll both share a little bit in the screwage. Either way, the only way they get paid is if Borders recovers and Borders isn't going to recover.

The "doing her part" thing is what bothers me. All of a sudden there's some kind of community obligation to save Borders from itself. And yes, Borders brought this on itself. It used to be dominant over Barnes & Noble and while sure Amazon dramatically upended the industry, it could just as well be Barnes & Noble teetering on bankruptcy while Borders becomes the last brick and mortar mega-bookstore. Bad management, poor planning and implementation, bad business. And for as frequently as agents remind authors that writing is a business, that fact never seems to apply to bookstores. Borders is a business and it failed. Yes it represented the third-largest book seller in the industry (not represents like some are still saying--if it's not paying publishers, it's the largest book thief in the industry).

Borders does not have such loyal clientele that if it goes out of business, they'll quit reading. This isn't something we need to do to save the industry. It represents a marked difference in methodology with its competitors, one that I've liked as a customer. But it is simply incapable of functioning as a business, so that doesn't matter. To buy at Borders now is to effectively buy a pirated copy of the book.

I can't help think of Amtrak. Not a lot of you have been on an Amtrak train. That's why the government gives them money every year to stay in business. They don't draw customers. Amtrak tickets are the same or more expensive than flying and the trip time is five times as long. We "save" Amtrak every year because the only companies interested in buying it are European and we couldn't have that. Better to throw millions of dollars to a company that doesn't know how to function in its own business than to let Europeans try and make a profit on American soil.

While I am liberal in most of my political persuasions, this is one instance where the free market is doing exactly what it's supposed to do. Borders has failed as a company. It will now go out of business and its marketshare will be taken by those capable enough to do so. This isn't a cause for writers and industry insiders to rally around. There is no noble cause here. They weren't the victim of monopolization or unfair government pressures. They were a business that failed to do what it set out to do.

It's time we turn our attention to those companies that are still surviving. You want to do your part, buy a book from a store that actually pays the people that make the book.

The Transition Story

Empire Strikes Back is my least favorite of the Star Wars trilogy1. This is heresy among accepted Star Wars fandom, but it is the way it is. You can rattle off the various elements of the movie that make it better than the others, a richer universe, more defined characters, a darker/grittier edge to it, and you'd be right. It has the basic fundamentals to be all the things the other movies aren't but is missing one thing: a story.

Oh, it has story. It has plot and adventure and action, but as an arc of introduction to conclusion goes, it's incredibly wanting. Now I had to suffer through a novel in college that showed how you can craft a story that doesn't have that kind of arc. But I don't participate in media to suffer. I want an inciting action. I want a climax. I want resolution. Empire Strikes Back is a bridge from Star Wars to Return of the Jedi. You couldn't reach the third story without the second movie, but they didn't offer any sense of accomplishment on its own.

The Two Towers? That's a movie that bridges Fellowship of the Ring to Return of the King but also stands as its own movie. Dislike the absence of the Rangers or the increase in self-depricating Gimli jokes or Legolas surfing down stairs on a shield, the movie begins, there is a big ass fight at Helm's Deep, and the movie resolves pointing to the third movie.

CATCHING FIRE is not a bad book. It's certainly not as good as THE HUNGER GAMES and by the end I'm more annoyed with Katniss as a character than the author probably wants me to be, but it's not a good book either. It's a bridge. Sure the climax and resolution exist. A climax and resolution technically exist in Empire Strikes Back as well. But they are of a degree that I don't think warrants a story of their own2.

I don't read a book just to get me to the next book. If a book exists only to propel me to the next book, it's not worth reading. It should have its own merit, it's own story, it's own essence. The entirety of CATCHING FIRE was a transition from the events of the first book to the events of the third book. The events of the second book only occur in two chapters. Really, at that point, you're looking at an epilogue of the first book and a prologue of the third book and bam, you have everything that's happened in the second.

Transition stories feel like the author has enough peanut butter for one sandwich but has four slices of bread, so (s)he just spreads it on as thinly has (s)he can. And when you pay full price for a book, you want all the peanut butter.

1 Yes, there is only a trilogy. That is all. Nothing else. Han shot first only.

2 The problem being, they were necessary to craft a trilogy, so the genuine failure is that they just weren't big enoug.

A Matter of Style

Mentioned previously, I'm reading CATCHING FIRE, by Suzanne Collins. It's the second book in the Hunger Games trilogy. With the exception of this morning's dumb decision on the part of the main character, the book maintains the style of the first book I enjoyed so much. There doesn't seem to be a lot going on, though. Well, there's enough, but nothing that says "THIS IS THE CHALLENGE THE PROTAGONIST MUST FACE!" It's just a continuation of a theme with no real plot point propelling the story forward. There is one, I guess (President Snow, I will say without spoilers), but it is treated in such a way that I don't find myself genuinely concerned with the main character.

And I think it's because of how THE HUNGER GAMES ended. It was a fair ending. I did not feel cheated. I did not roll my eyes or swear or throw my nook across the room. But if I had been writing the story, there would have been one significant change.


At the end of THE HUNGER GAMES, the gamemaster predictably reverses the rule that says there can be two victors, forcing Peeta and Katniss to face off. But they have poisoned berries, so they start the game of chicken. If the capital expects them to kill one another, they'll refuse and kill themselves instead. They pop the berries in their mouths, the capital caves at the last minute, they spit the berries out and stand triumphant.

That's how it happened in the book. In my book, the capital caves, announces them as the winners, and then they both fall down dead.

At the point, everything that's happened in the first 100 pages of CATCHING FIRE could have been summarized in a single epilogue. And I think because I'm effectively reading a continuation of a story that I would have condensed into a single chapter, I'm finding it kind of hard to sign onto the premise of the story like I did with the first one.

I'm not done with CATCHING FIRE. As long as it is average, I will read MOCKINGJAY. I'm curious whether either/both characters survive the story. Since it's a YA trilogy, I will assume they do. I would have been more satisfied if THE HUNGER GAMES had been a single book and they had died at the end.

No One Likes a Dumb Protagonist

The subject line says it all. No one likes a dumb protagonist. We accept flawed characters and we accept that situations can be shrouded in mystery or so layered that a character cannot comprehend it on spec. They need time to peel back the layers or let the whole thing soak in before it finally clicks. This is all well and good. It's even better. No one wants a story so superficial that there's no depth or complexity to the challenges the main character faces. They need to unravel it all.

HOWEVER, as they unravel it, you have to be cautious about how you give them clues or what clues you give them. They need to figure out what's happening at one of two possible times. Near the end to propel them to the climax. Or near the beginning where they realize X is happening and thus need to begin the investigation that will lead them to the climax. If you are going for scenario A but give them a clue large enough that they should figured it out closer to the beginning, you have officially made your character stupid. Some clues are such a fish to the face that anyone with an IQ of 100 should be able to figure it out. So when your character doesn't... yeah, exactly.

I'm reading CATCHING FIRE (sequel to THE HUNGER GAMES) and Katniss just got slapped in the face. In a single paragraph, she said the fish was in fact a badger and continued on as if nothing happened. No, see dear, when you do that, I care for you less. When your obliviousness leads you to trouble later, I figure you deserved it because you were too stupid to realize someone just hit you in the face with a fucking fish. That kind of thing hurts. The scales scratch you all over. They used to use that as a punishment in biblical times. It's not a badger. They're furry and shit.

Decide when your character is going to figure things out, beginning or end, and measure out the progression accordingly. Do NOT switch the two because any later emotional conflict caused is completely deserved and then your reader is not engaged with your character. And if your reader is not engaged with your character, your reader is not engaged with your book. That's when they set it down and go read something else. You don't want that to happen. You want your book to be the one they read instead of finishing their own manuscript because it's that good. Use your fish appropriately.

Beware the AYFKM, My Son

There are plenty of reasons a person may stop reading your book at the beginning: overwriting, underwriting, rehashed plots or story elements, a disconnection with the protagonist. I can't even list the number of books I've picked up and put back down before the end of chapter 1 (it's a long list). That's the important part. I can't list them. I don't even remember most of them. Those books are discarded from my memory as not worth remembering or filed into the "not right for me" category. The worst that happens when someone starts to read and dislikes your story is that they stop. They might go so far as to comment that they did not enjoy the story when the subject matter comes up. Sure it stings and you want all the readers you can get, but in the grand scheme of things, much worse things can happen.

Like the AYFKM--the Are You Fucking Kidding Me moment. This is so much more dangerous than a person giving up after page two. The AYFKM happens much later in the book. The reader has invested time and money, but more importantly has invested in the story. He or she cares for what's happening, cares for the characters and the outcome. There is something at stake. Then you hammer the square peg into the round hole and that whole investiture comes apart. You shat on their feelings with your plot decision and there are consequences for your action.

AYFKM Level One
The reader immediately stops reading the book. They then seek out others to vent their frustrations, say like a blog post. ;) They're not waiting for conversation. They're starting the conversation. This isn't the same as weighing in with a "yeah, I just didn't like xxx main character, so I never read the series." This is "I was reading xxx and yyy happened. Are you fucking kidding me?!?!"

AYFKM Level Two
The reader immediately stops reading the book and refuses to buy any more books in the series (or possibly no books by you ever again). They actively begin conversations, but rather than voicing their frustration, they tell people that the entire experience is a waste of time. Stay away from this series. The author completely ruins everything that came before it (*cough*HPbook7*cough*). If you're lucky, this person may read the back cover copy for your next series, but as far as this one goes, it's dead in the water, and they're going to try to sink it with everyone they know too.

AYFKM Level Three
This is where all the bells and whistles go off. The torpedo is in the water and the submarine has to dive before everyone on board is killed. You didn't just waste their time, you hurt them on a personal level. For whatever reason, the bond they established with your story/character was an intense emotional investiture, and you just gave them a golden shower. You have made yourself an internet enemy. Nothing you ever write will ever earn you forgiveness. They will hunt you across the internet and make you pay. They will troll your blogs, spoil your Twitter hashtag conversations, and even show up at conventions to tell you how much they hate you. Nothing breads entitlement like an open mic and anonymity (aka, the internet), and you're about to suffer the worst of it. And you deserve it (or so they think).

And the real trick is, beneath all this self-assured rage, the person has a point. There is quite possibly, a fundamental flaw in the event that set them off. Too often an author will bend the plot to accommodate a personal desire/whim at the expense of immersion/realism. I know writers who decide what the beginning and end are going to be, what they want the plot to be, and they'll beat the story as hard as they must to move it from point A to point B.

I had a level one AYFKM moment this evening, that I will put behind the cut because it includes spoilers.

I've arrived at Lowell, reading BLUE FIRE all the way home. I have 20 pages left in the entire book and I'm at the tail end of the climax. Rather than driving home and finishing it there, I head up to my car in the parking lot and continue reading. I am that invested. We're not going anywhere until those last 20 pages are accounted for.

The big bad is defeated (for this book at least), the mysterious machine is going haywire, and the big damn hero has to make a run for it. Using the BDH's unique powers, the MM has killed people, disintegrated objects, and is destroying the BB's palace all around them. Walls and floors and ceilings are crumbling. RUN!

The BDH takes two survivors with her (as BDHs are wont to do). They run through the palace, walls exploding around them and the roof about to collapse on their heads. And just when they reach the door to the outside world, to freedom, to survival, one of the rescuees stops them. You see, using the BDH's unique power, the MM disintegrated her clothes. He stops them--INSIDE--and gives her his tunic lest she go outside naked.


A palace. Not a shack. Not a shanty. A motherfucking palace is about to fall on top of you, and you're going to stop and put on a skirt?

Let me guarantee you, if I was naked and fleeing a crumbling palace, the world would see my swinging cod before I stopped to put on a pair of shorts and give that building one last chance to drop a rock on my skull.

And it's a palace. Why didn't they stop outside the building on the grounds? What palace doesn't have grounds? You already described how long the walk was. There have to be grounds.

I loved this book. I devoured it. I got it yesterday and was 20 pages away from finishing it today (and I read slow). As soon as that happened, I turned off my nook and came home.

I have since finished the book and the ending is of a satisfactory nature that I will buy the third. As a result of the AYFKM moment occurring so close to the end of the book, my enthusiasm for the next installment is considerably depreciated. Time will heal this, of course, but where I was champing at the bit for book 2, book 3 can take its time.

How many people did the BDH kill in this book (middle grade my ass)? But she can't go outside naked. This is a pervading fact of American fiction (both in text and in screen) and it is incredibly stupid.

BLUE FIRE, Writing to Age, and the Agency Model for eBooks

 BLUE FIRE by Janice Hardy released today. Some how, I switched the 10 and the 5 and thought it wasn't coming out until Friday even though new books come out on Tuesdays. I are dumb. So I get an email while riding the train into work saying the download is available. I turn on my nook's wifi to see if there's a signal on the train. There is. And I promptly download the new book, setting aside the two other books I'm still in the midst of completing (those being ROSEMARY AND RUE and JULIET). As a personal note, this is the first ebook I've ever pre-ordered.

I was introduced to Janice's first novel, THE SHIFTER, through Kristin Nelson's blog when she discussed the challenges of titles. (THE SHIFTER was originally titled THE PAIN MERCHANTS, which is a much cooler title but was thought it might inhibit the target market from buying this title.) Kristin being an agent I want to work with, I have looked over all the fantasy novels she has sold so far. Now, I'm a bit finicky in my fantasy tastes. If you give your main character a "cool name," it's an immediate turn off. This was the first of Kristin's fantasy novels that piqued my interest.

I actually passed on it the first time, though. Then she did a second blog post where she posted first pages. She was illustrating how important first pages were and how little Janice's first pages changed from what she sent as part of her query and what they submitted to publishers in an attempt to make the sale. They were very similar, almost identical. (Hence, first pages are important. But then, so are the rest of them. :) Reading the first pages, I felt like it was a book worth buying. Two days later, I had finished the entire thing. I read it again about six months later. It's a short but solid work. I am glad that the second novel came out when promised and not fallen into the sophomore slump of coming out years after the initial success.

What really shocked me about this series is that Kristin called it Middle Grade. Wow, really? It has a young protagonist, absent sexuality (other than young infatuation) or profanity, and most violence is threat more than execution. And it has a short word count. But still, Middle Grade? I would have assumed YA (sure, the line between the two isn't as distinct as between genres, but I don't usually read YA and I never read MG--I thought--so this came as a shocker to me).

I have one young-reader's story. Without it being finished, I don't know it's classification. MG is kind of new, really. Everything else I write is most certainly adult. I have graphic violence, profanity, sexuality, and all used (I think) in a manner appropriate to the work. Could I take it out? Could Otwald, aged 18, be the star of a YA TRIAD SOCIETY rather than the adult fantasy as I've written it? Until today, I never even considered it. I don't write YA. I have no interest in writing YA (with the exception of HOUSE ON SANDWICH NOTCH LANE). But "The Healing Wars" is a solid story that never seemed "young" to me. It's well written and an immersive setting. I have no qualms reading it. But writing it..?

I don't know, man. I just don't know. That's really the point of this post. Most of the time I just think of YA as the genre every agent and her sister reps when there are less than 30 agents remaining that accept submissions for adult (non-urban) fantasy. Now, let me be clear, I'm not pondering this to possibly expand my available agent pool. I'm just pondering on the state of adult fantasy all together. Between YA and Urban Fantasy, the genre is much diminished.

One last thing to note about BLUE FIRE. I bought it for $9.99. I bought so many more books last year before the agency model was implemented with ebooks. I was buying them left and right. Now that they're being priced $5 higher, I won't buy them. This makes me sad. A lot. There have been a number of books I wanted to buy that were priced too high.