Latest Posts

Monsanto Wants Your Soul (book reviews)

Or, reviews of two dystopian novels: Karen Faris’s Grumbles the Novel, Part I: Take a Pill and Chuck Wendig’s Under the Empyrean Sky. (Note: I purchased both books, and was not asked to review them.)

So a few weeks ago my business required me to do a fair bit of airplane travel. In a perfect world, that would mean five or six hours of solid writing, but coach airplane chairs are so small it’s almost impossible to do any real typing without smashing my elbow into the poor bastard sitting next to me. So instead I read a couple of books.

In hindsight, I was amused to discover that I had unwittingly chosen books of a THEME, that theme being: GMOs are going to eat you.

In both cases, literally.

The first book I picked up was part 1 of Karen Faris’s Grumbles series. Now, I’m going to start with what I hated about this book: it’s not a complete novel, but ends just the story is starting to ramp up. Now, trilogies can be tricky this way, and sometimes the first book ends just as the quest is really getting started, but I felt this ending was jarring, and this book did not feel complete to me. I actually approached the writer about this, and she admitted that breaking up the book was the publisher’s decision, because they had felt the original novel was too long.

I thought we were past the age when publishers would pull a Tolkien on writers and force them to break up books, but apparently NOT.

So if you start to read this and are really liking it? Realize that you’re going to want to buy parts 2 and 3 at the same time, so you don’t have to stop. All three books are available.

But what about the book? Okay, so picture if you will a book as the love child of Terry Pratchett and Corey Doctorow. And that love child would be Grumbles the Novel. Set in the future in a United States where it’s illegal to grow your own produce (more on that theme later) and where the wild flora is both toxic and carnivorous, the novel follows the exploits of Pettie Grumbles, one of the last postmen in a world where the only ‘safe’ nutrition comes from vitamins and the post office is the last bastion of mystery men and spies.

One of the things I found so fascinating about this story was the lack of modern judgement values. Many of the people in Pettie Grumbles world are cheerful, not because they think their world is fantastic, but because it’s often human nature to make the best of things and (important) because they frankly don’t know any better. In a world where mandatory education has been eliminated as an affront to civil rights and where the most beloved political party are actual pirates (they run on a platform of total honesty about their motives,) the idea that it has ever been different is a topic most people simply cannot grasp. Drugs are cheap, the sky is always blue, and whatever you do, don’t drink the tap water.

It’s the most light-hearted, fun, grim dystopian cautionary tale I’ve ever read, frankly.

If potatoes are the mandatory staple crop of Grumbles’s world, corn is the demon plaguing the Heartland of Chuck Wendig’s Under the Empyrean Sky, specifically a strain of corn called Hiram’s Golden Prolific, so aggressive that the local farmers don’t raise it so much as desperately try to control it. The lowlander farmers who are forced to raise the crop for the Empyrean elite who float in city-ships overhead in a Morlock/Eloi relationship can’t even eat this corn: it’s only good for bio-fuel, plastics, and manufacturing, and is toxic for human consumption. It’s illegal to grow anything else, any idea which is harshly enforced by flame throwers and drone strikes. The farmers are provided food they can eat in exchange for the corn harvested, but that means if they’re under quota, people starve. There’s also a very interesting hint of Mother Nature’s revenge in a feared disease called the Blight.

Wendig’s Heartland is a grim place, as grim as any farmer who knows he’ll lose the farm with the next poor harvest, as grim as any dust bowl cluster of hopeless migrant farm workers. Hiram’s Golden Prolific is an unsustainable crop: besides depleting the soil with the next decade, the chemicals used to keep it under control are horrifically toxic and cancer causing. Into this world is born Cael (I see what Chuck did there) McAvoy, a teenage leader of a scavenger gang who has to deal not only with his own enemies, but his father’s as well. Cael means well, but he’s a typical seventeen-year-old, which means those good intentions are laced with healthy doses of hormone-driven stupidity. But when he discovers strains of edible crops that seems to be capable of overcoming the growth rate of Hiram’s Golden Prolific, the stakes become much higher than he can imagine…

If Cael is a straight-forward farmboy Destined For Great Things, his friends (and enemies) deserve a call-out for being so fantastically articulated. Wendig skillfully balances POVs to make sure that no character is ever completely two-dimensional, and to make sure we realize that even bullies are made, not born. Cael’s first love Gwennie may make some choices that Cael can’t understand, but we the reader certainly can, and she quickly proves she’s not just some princess who’s only role is to be rescued. Indeed, I find myself wondering just who will end up saving whom by the time this story ends, or if Cael will grow enough to make up for his own poor decisions.

Both books definitely left me reaching for the next in the series.

Disclosure: When I originally wrote this, Karen Faris and I had only the most cursory contact with each other, although we did have a common friend. I bought this book with my own money, and Karen did not ask or pay for this review. However, since then we’ve become friends who both write for http://www.rewritingmarysue.com, and Karen and I have started reviewing books together for that blog.

Thoughts on Motivation

I thought we might talk a little about motivation. You know that thing that actors are always asking? “What’s my motivation?” That.

I was recently watching a movie (it will remain nameless but it rhymes with Gorilla) where the primary motivation for the majority of characters was “what will advance the plot to the next action scene?” The characters had no other plausible motivation. They made decisions that seemed to be based solely on what the director needed, not what was internally consistent for their own histories and personalities. Self-interest wasn’t invited to the party: they performed actions which made zero sense from their own personal narratives but which did lead to awesome giant monster scenes. Needless to say, I wasn’t very impressed. Actually, I was flabberghasted.

Why am I talking about this as a writer?

Because this happens with books too.

Let’s discuss.

There is a meta-level motivation for anything that happens in a book, and it’s usually (although not always) ‘to advance the story.’ Why did the villain kill the hero’s brother? (So the hero would have a reason to be in conflict with the villain.) Why didn’t the hero just make the phone call/go online/ask someone so she might have found that vital piece of information she needed? (Because otherwise the book would only be 50 pages long.) Why did the villain kidnap the girl? (Because otherwise the hero wouldn’t go after him.) Are these answers? Yes. Are these good answers? …no. No, they’re terrible.

Seriously, don’t do this.

The main answer for why a character does something should always be: because it made sense for that particular character to do so, given their background, their needs, and their motivations. Why did Joe Chill kill Martha and Thomas Wayne? Because he was skittish, strung-out, and nervous petty criminal who panicked during a mugging. Why does Loki try to conquer Midgard? Because he’s never gotten over his own insecurities about being second fiddle to his brother Thor, pushing Loki to seek out ways to embarrass, corrupt, or screw up anything his brother loves. Their actions, and the consequences of those actions, are consistent within their frameworks.

If on the other hand, a character who only exists to prop up the main character’s back story might do something that’s bluntly suicidal, just because the writer needs them to do it.

So ask yourself why something is happening in your story. An event, an action, a choice. Is the primary answer:

  • Because otherwise it destroys the main premise of your story?
  • Because it’s neat (i.e. because explosions are cool?) [This one might be okay, but be careful. It’s still laden with traps.]
  • Because otherwise the story will be shorter than you originally planned?
  • Because you need this to happen to lay the foundation for the next scene?
  • Because if this doesn’t happen, the hero has no reason to move forward (often a cause of “fridging” a love interest?)

If any of these responses resemble your own answer, you need to give serious consideration to going back to the drawing board. A yes here means the odds are good that there is a core problem with your story, and you likely can’t fix it by piling on a lot of cool scenery or neat action scenes and hoping your audience won’t notice. (Your audience will notice.)

I’m not immune to the lure of an expeditious motive (no writer is.) My husband has a talent for picking apart a scene I’ve created and asking tough questions about the motivations behind them. “Why would this character do this?” He forces me to justify my characters’ actions, which is awesome.

For example, in one of my manuscripts, the master villain kept throwing peons at the problem, and happily for the hero, the peons weren’t up to the task.  He was powerful enough that he could have easily handled the matter himself, and stepping back and letting his minions flounder around (or more to the point, tolerate any more floundering from them) just seemed coy (not a trait one associates with powerful villains.) There was no good reason the villain would show that kind of reluctance. I realized I’d been holding the villain back because I thought I needed to on a metaplot level (because that’s how it works in movies and books, right?) rather than because it’s what made sense for the villain, given his motivations and personality.

When I pulled off the self-imposed restraints, the plot sailed (and the hero was really in a whole lot of trouble, which was even better!)

Now, I’m a fan of figuring out the motivation first, the consequences second, but it can be done in reverse. Dwight V. Swain, his book Techniques for the Selling Writer, advises writers that they should decide where they need their plot direction to go, and make sure that the author gives their characters motivations which match that goal. If you need your villain to murder the hero’s father in the first act, make sure the villain’s motivation’s support that action and are consistent with that desire (did the hero’s father fire the villain? Steal his love interest? Turn him into the police? Mugging gone bad behind the Monarch Theater?) If you know you need your hero to do a given thing, work backwards and create the background or motivation which results in that action.

I admit I’m not personally a huge fan of this, but I put it out there because I recognize that just because something doesn’t work for me doesn’t mean it won’t work for you. For me, this feels a bit like begging the question, and runs the risk in a series of having characters whose motivations seem inconsistent. (I think this method might work very well for short stories though.)

My personal favorite is to create motivations for characters which conflict with each other, but are consistent to their own background, methods, and personalities. In one of my stories, there’s a man named Darius Temple who is trying to build up his community and eliminate the deprivations of both gangs and corrupt cops. That’s his motivation. He sees himself as a champion of the community — which puts him very firmly at odds with someone like gang leader Crazy Tez, who  would far prefer to destroy and dominate that same community, whom he views as an invading occupying force. Both of these men are presented as adversaries to the main character, but both men have consistent reasons for their actions. Indeed, both men would swear they are right to act as they do. The fact that their motives conflict with both the hero and each other? Perfect.

Just don’t have your character’s only motivation be getting to the next scene.

Glamour Review (plus a sale!)

One of the books my publisher World Weaver Press recently published is called Glamour (written by Andrea Janes), and while on the surface the book is about witches, don’t let that fool you. It’s really about how power corrupts, the contrast between haves and have-nots, judging books by their covers, and the dangers of getting what you wish for (especially when it comes at someone else’s expense.) Good stuff, wonderfully written. Really the kind of work that deserves to be shared, so where I am, sharing it.

So I wasn’t given an advance reader copy of this book but I actually went out and bought it myself. Because.

(Okay, I liked the cover art.)

I’m very glad I did.

As Hannibal Lecter once asked: What do we covet, Clarice?

Answer with me: we covet what we see every day.

In this case, the ‘we’ is a young woman named Christina, who grew up in, lives, and works in a small Cape Cod resort town that might once have been the set of a Lovecraftian group of cultists, but now plays host to rich tourists who whisk in during the summer months to spend a lot of money on smarmy tourist traps (which the town requires to keep afloat.) Christina has ‘seen’ these rich tourists all her life, and she resents them even as she relies on their discretionary income for her survival. Told (mostly) from Christina’s POV, it’s clear from the start that her own prejudices are blinding her, never so apparent as when one of the tourists, a pretty, perfect blonde named Reese, takes a job at the ice cream shop where Christina works.

Christina may be of legal age, but she has a lot of growing up to do.

When Christina discovers she has magic powers, real honest-to-goodness magic powers, it’s not an instant trip to Hogwartz. Indeed, when she discovers her magic is capable of granting all her wishes, including giving her life she’s always thought she wanted, Christina also finds out the hard and painful way that her real problem is her own attitude. Now that’s a life lesson I can get behind.

Basically? I loved this book. I recommend the hell out of it.

I should also mention that the book is going to be on sale, starting May 25th (that’s THIS SUNDAY) at 8:00 am PST. The book will be $0.99 on Amazon, and it will go up by $1 every 38 hours until May 31 when it returns to it’s normal $4.99 price. So if you want to pick it up, now’s the time.

Get your copy here!

Kumiho

Kumiho was a short story I wrote about 10 years back, and semi-autobiographical. I chanced upon it when looking through some old files and decided to share it.

_______________

Since my boyfriend lost his car last summer, I’ve been taking the bus a lot. You meet a weird lot riding the bus, especially in Los Angeles, where public transportation is the option of last resort. There are the people who hop on and immediately open up the cases of stolen watches, the homeless who haven’t bathed in weeks if not months and sometimes, the people like me who are just enduring the commute to work. These are generic descriptions, but there are some very specific characters I’ve encountered: one fellow who carries a white cane and pretends to be blinds so he can ride for free; an old sweet-looking grandmotherly woman who always wears the same tweed suit with lace gloves and is so terrified that there won’t be any room for her on the bus she always cuts in front of the line, even if she has to push others out of her way.  I remember less benign sorts too: the young man mumbling to himself, writing ‘kill’ over and over and over on the pad of paper in front of him; the crack-high gangbanger who tried to pick a fight with a bunch of scared high school kids and waved his gun around on the bus, announcing: “I’m a god-damned Blood, so you had better be showing me some respect!”

This isn’t about any of those people.

When I stepped onto the bus this afternoon (after being elbowed out of the way by the old woman with the lace gloves), there was another old woman already seated. I sat down next to her, as most of the places were taken, and for some reason I was less than enthusiastic about sitting down next to she-of-the-sharp-elbows. I had my book with me. It was pretty close to a perfect arrangement: I could sit there and read, the old woman would just sit, and we wouldn’t have to so much as look at each other.

She had other ideas; she wanted to talk. Her English was quite good, but she’d never lost the Japanese accent.

There’s a hospital near where I work, and that’s where she was coming from. Her husband was there. She was coming back from visiting him, and she was very excited because today was the first day in six days that he’d been able to eat solid food.

I told her congratulations. That’s great news. I tried to read another paragraph from my tale of the Black Company.

No good. She wasn’t finished.

She told me the doctors said he probably wouldn’t make it. He’d had a heart attack and he hadn’t called a doctor when she told him to, and so she’d been forced to call 911 herself. They’d been forced to operate.

I told her I was sorry for her, and in the completely callous manner of a seasoned bus veteran, tried to go back to reading my book.

She smiled at me. Her eyes had the faint beginnings of cataracts, but they held no hint of sadness. No, she told me. He would survive. He had eaten today. He’d said he wanted to go home. From now on, she would make sure he took care of himself.

A third time, I tried to politely agree, ignore her, and go back to reading.

The old woman touched my hand. I startled, because well, she’d touched me. There’s some things you just don’t do. There was no threat to the touch though, no danger. It was just…unnerving. She looked at me and said: “You have beautiful hands. They are perfect. My hands were never so perfect.”

I stared at her. “Thank you, I…”

“Pretty hands. You don’t do anything to make them like that, do you? They look lovely all on their own.

I’d never really thought about it. I’m an artist, a writer. My hands are my life. Does sun block 50 count?

I was starting to feel embarrassed, so I said: “I’m just younger. I bet your hands looked just like this when you were my age.” She had a petite sweetness about her, a prettiness that suggested she probably had been quite stunning when she was young.

“I was your age when I met him in Japan,” she told me. “He was an American soldier.”

“Oh.” I resisted the urge to ask if he had been with the occupational forces. My ex-husband’s father had served there, after World War II. He’d come back to war trophies: a Japanese army officer’s ceremonial katana, two gorgeous silk embroidered tapestries, and two very beautiful, if somewhat unconventional, paintings of Mount Fuji painted with acrylics on silk. Frank had always claimed he’d paid for them, and I had no reason to doubt that, but I still didn’t think it would be very tactful of me to bring them up. Besides, she looked old, but she didn’t look that old.

“He gave me a diamond,” she said, holding up her hand. She whispered that, which I thought was prudent. She wore a wedding/engagement ring combo on her wedding finger. If it was diamond, it needed to be cleaned something fierce. She wore a string of pearls around her neck and another ring on the middle finger of her left hand, but the emerald was too big, too clear a green, to be anything but glass. The jade ring on her right hand was probably real enough. It was cut to look like a fox’s head. Probably made in China.

“He told me he would come back in five years to marry me. Five years can be a long time.” She laughed at the memory.

I looked at her. “Yeah. It can.” A damn long time, I thought. I didn’t know any American girl who would have waited that long, not for a soldier from another country, not in an age where there was no internet or cell phones to keep in touch. I wondered: had he written a lot of letters?

“Five years later, he came back, just like he said he would,” she explained. “That was when he was finished twenty years in the Army, you see. He retired. He said he gave me three things: his word, his heart and his time. This way, he could give all of himself to me.”

I started to get a funny itching sensation at the back of my throat. “Wow. That’s so sweet. How—how long have you been married?”

“32 years.” She smiled. “I love him very much. He’s a very good man. A very honest man. When he took a job, later, he would always come home the same time so I would know where he was, so I would know he wasn’t fooling around. When I think of our love, I feel very young.”

20 years in the military, with another 32 tacked on to that, and assuming he was 18 when he began…her husband was at least 70 years old. I couldn’t really tell how old she was. But him? 70 years old and a major heart attack? The lump in my throat grew.

She told me more then. How she had teased him, because he hated Japanese food but married a Japanese woman. How she preferred sticky rice, but she made him Minute-Rice, because that’s what his mother used to make him. How scared she had been at the heart attack, because she couldn’t move her husband. He was big man who weighed 200lbs, and she looked like she might break 100 if she was wet and holding the housecat. How glad she would be to have him home again. There was no doubt, no uncertainty, in her voice. How could he possibly die if he was hungry, if he wanted to come home?

It would be different this time. She would make him take care of himself. He’d always been too busy before. Too busy taking care of her.

I realized then, why she was telling all of this to a stranger on the bus: because she had no children, no family in the United States. Who knows? Maybe she had no family in Japan, either. In any case, she had thought her husband wouldn’t survive, that he was dead. The doctors had told her he wouldn’t likely make it, but here he was, opening his eyes, talking to her, eating real food and saying he wanted to go home. She was so full of joy she was ready to explode.

She had make someone understand. Anyone. Me.

Her stop came up before mine, and as she stood, she turned and asked me my name. Normally, I don’t give that out, but in her case I did without thinking about it.

She smiled and clapped her hand over mine. “Sweet girl. I’m Kumiho.”

I stared after her in shock as she walked down the bus steps.

Kamiho, I told myself. It’s the accent. You misunderstood her. Kumiho? That’s all wrong. That’s not even Japanese. A kumiho is a Korean nine-tailed fox. It’s something out of myth and legend, not real, and certainly nothing a parent would ever name their child. She must have said Kamiho. That’s a perfectly normal name for a Japanese woman, isn’t it?

I didn’t really know.

The bus moved on, and I lost sight of her. I never saw her again, even though I took that route every day for another year. Maybe we just missed each other.

When I stepped off the bus, I took the long way home, thinking about fox women, honor, and American soldiers, and how damn little I understand about love.

The Name of All Things

So here’s an excerpt and the cover reveal for the next book in A CHORUS OF DRAGONS. (Thank you, Barnes and Noble!)

Pre-orders are a go!

So while I had gone to sea and was thus incommunicado, I received a few comments on the blog that were interesting. So let me clarify a few things:

  1. Yes, we changed the name of the series from when it was originally announced. No, I can’t really discuss why. All I can say is that is was for legal rather than artistic reasons and honestly, that’s the end of that. It happens. Serendipitous, I actually like the new series name better, so sometimes we have, as Bob Ross liked to say, “happy accidents.” Unfortunately not everyone seems to have gotten the memo, so there are still the occasional references to the old series title lurking around on the internet. All we can do is keep asking them to update their information.
  2. The series is on a nine month release schedule. That means that, should everything go to plan, Tor will be releasing a book in the series every nine months or so. Two this year, one next year, two the year after that (again, if all goes to plan.) Is this stunningly ambitious? Yes. Is this going to kill me? Quite possibly, especially when combined with an aggressive convention and touring schedule (or heavens, production starting on the TV series.) This isn’t something being done trivially, and it has basically meant I have sacrificed all free time and all personal activities on the bonfire of this series until it is completed. Why did I decided to do it then? Because I happen to have the privilege of being able to work at this full time and because I do my best work when pushing myself to go as fast as possible.
  3. And on that last note, please be patient with me. It’s JUST me here. I don’t have an assistant or staff or anyone helping me. If I’m living here on the blog or on social media, I’m not writing, and nobody wants that. So if I don’t respond immediately, it’s probably not that I’m ignoring you. It’s far more likely I just haven’t remembered to check in.

Love you all! Now I’m back to finishing book 3.

The Tantalizing Promise of Hollywood

One of the things I’ve learned about the publishing process is that very often you cannot talk about your triumphs until months or even years later. Contracts might be signed, but announcements happen on a strict schedule. This business moves slowly…right up until it doesn’t.

Or, to put this more bluntly: The Ruin of Kings has been optioned to become a TV series.

But…what does that mean, you may ask? Good question. Truthfully, books are optioned all the time, and while it’s a lovely bonus to the author, it rarely results in, well, a TV series/movie/whatever. That’s because an option is just that — it’s a given studio paying a premium to have the option to develop a property. It’s not a guarantee that the studio will actually do so, only a guarantee that no one else can while the studio is making up its mind. Clearly I hope that in my case the studio WILL move forward, but I have to imagine every author with an optioned work feels exactly the same.

Still. This feels a bit like that first phone call with my agent (before he was my agent) when a possibility that had never before seemed practical or obtainable was suddenly a very real ‘this could happen.’ Likewise, this could happen. The Ruin of Kings could end up being developed as a TV series.

Excuse me. I need a moment to collect myself.

But will it happen? Impossible to know. I do know that I’m damn lucky to have gotten this far and I very much appreciate that.

I feel I should also point out that right now, I know as much as you do about how the TV show would move forward. I seriously mean that. Nothing beyond the option itself has been decided. And even when that changes, my involvement will be…let’s just say ‘advisory.’ I will say this: I respect that TV is a different medium from literature and has very different strengths. I wouldn’t expect the TV adaptation to be scene for scene from the book. I also really like the studio, Annapurna, who has bought the option. I feel confident they’re going to do an amazing job.

So, I have a book that is out in the public right now. The second book, The Name of All Things, comes out in late October. And I’m finishing up the untitled third book right now.

So I better get on that.

Hello Again

So, it’s been a while, hasn’t it? And boy, stuff has changed. My whole life has completely changed. I figure it’s a new year, so I might as well try to do at least the occasional blog update.

Where I currently stand: in less than 30 days, The Ruin of Kings will go on sale. It’s been an extraordinary journey. A few interesting stats, for folks playing the home game.

  • Number of queries submitted: 42 (should have been my clue)
  • Time from blind querying with my agent (yes, it was a blind query) to actually signing with him: 18 months. Please note this included time for Revise & Resubmit.
  • Time from selling the novel to publication: 21 months.

Add those together and you’ll quickly realize that reaching this stage has taken over three years from the point when an agent was actually interested until the book hits the shelves. Of course, it’s been far longer than that in terms of of all the agents who said no previously, the timing spent writing, etc. And it’s been an extremely busy three years — there was no stage the process was not extremely active. I was revising, people were editing, someone was proofing, creating layouts, sending out ARCs, marketing, designing the cover, recording the audio book.

In project management, one of the many things we seek to avoid is time where a project is in between owners. Where one person has finished working on it, but the other person/team hasn’t yet picked up and began doing their part. That’s waste. Ideally, a project is never idle. So it was interesting to me, as a producer, to see how rare it was for this project to be idle. It didn’t quite mesh with the public perception that traditional publishing is a slow gargantuan behemoth. Slow, yes, but not because of bogged down bureaucracies. Slow because people are taking a great deal of care. I hadn’t expected that.

The other thing I hadn’t quite been prepared for was just how busy I would be. Every author is different, but in my case, it turns out I’m one of those writers who need to spend a great deal of my time doing just that: writing. And while my editors adore that, it’s meant I’ve had to set some hard limits on my free time with friends, some of whom have been slow to understand that what they see as free time (the evenings) is in fact my work day.

This ride is still going, but every day I find myself thrilled, gratified, and humbled to see how the world I created is being embraced by the sff community. 2019 is going to be one hell of a year.

La Mort des Femmes

Okay, so let’s talk about “King Arthur: Legend of the Sword” the new Guy Ritchie movie. (Hint: That means there are spoilers below.) First, you should know that I am a bit of a King Arthur nerd. Not so much that I have a degree in it or anything, but enough that one of my most cherished possessions is a several hundred year old copy of Le Mort d’Arthur. King Arthur references (some subtle, some not) have made their way into every book I’ve ever written.

So I was hugely grateful when the movie opened on 300′ tall Helliphants (Worse than Oliphants, you see. Take THAT Peter Jackson!) and a text crawl informed me that obvious good guy Uther Pendragon was being attacked by the evil mage Mordred. OKAY, I thought. So this movie isn’t going to have a thing to do with any canonical telling of the King Arthur mythology. Cool. I know now. I can just lean back and enjoy the popcorn cheese of it all.

And honestly? I mostly did. It was a very enjoyable movie, with great patter, stunning special effects, and fantastic atmosphere. I will be buying the soundtrack as soon as possible, because it is SO GOOD. Guy Ritchie’s unique style of visual storytelling was, as always, a treat. I delighted in Guy Ritchie’s scoffing in the face of anyone suggesting a post-Roman England would need to be all white — multiple people of color are featured as major characters, without apology or explanation. (Indeed, one of the characters is named ‘Kung Fu George’ lest you miss that yes, he IS Chinese.)

But…

Oh man. BUT…the devil is in the details, isn’t it?

In this case, I knew I was going to be in trouble right from the start, when King Uthur woke up his wife, Queen Igraine (at least she has billing in the credits) with the greeting “Woman.” Woman? Queen of England and mother of his heir gets nothing more than ‘Woman?’

I suppose she didn’t really need a name, considering how quickly she dies.

Sadly, this was to be a precursor of things to come.

It gets worse.

So you see, this is a man’s movie. To be fair, that’s not unusual for Guy Ritchie, is it? His movie’s are men’s movies, movies where women exist only peripherally if at all, movies where men do manly things in a manly, violent way. And I’ve always been fine with that previously, mostly because I always had the sense that there was a keen sense of self-mockery going on. Guy Ritchie having a bit a laugh at all the toxic masculinity. Look, his previous movies always seemed to say: here’s a bunch of men behaving like men, oh and also being total idiots.

But this isn’t a movie where that sort of gritty buffoonery is appropriate, and it’s highlighted this fatal flaw. The women, Guy. What the fuck is your deal with women?

You see, very few of the female characters in this film are even dignified with a name, even though Arthur makes a point of introducing every single member of his all male crew. There are no women in his crew. Oh, that’s not quite true. He’s pimping the whores who raised him. And that’s what the vast majority of women are in this movie: whores. Whores or princesses or serving girls. Which honestly wouldn’t be a problem for me (I have no problem with any of those occupations) except that in this particular instance, whores or princesses or serving girls all seem to be synonyms for victim, for plot device, for that which must be sacrificed or endangered to move the story forward. Women rarely have agency of their own. They are there to be abused and rescued, or placed in peril and not rescued, or kidnapped and held for ransom, or…you get the idea.

There are two half-hearted exceptions to this: Maggie, a serving girl who is spying on the evil King Vortigern and The Mage, a mysterious French woman who has been sent by Merlin to help see Arthur made king. In Maggie’s case, she’s found out by Vortigern, who gloats that she is an excellent tool he will use her for his own ends (Hey, at least Vortigern lampshades his objectification. +10 points to Slitherin for refreshing honesty) before throwing her into a dungeon so everyone can forget about her for the rest of the movie.

The Mage is even worse, because even though she is a complete bad-ass who can control or summon multiple animals at once and cause all sorts of havoc and calamity when she’s rescuing Arthur, she becomes meek and vulnerable the moment one of the enemy soldiers brandishes a sharp knife in her vicinity. While I’m not against the idea of leaving her nameless (if the next movie doesn’t reveal that her real name is Guinevere, I’m going to be VERY surprised,) such a lack of name would be an appropriate contrast in a movie full of women who are ARE named, which is not the case here. Women were named in the credits, but other than Maggie and Lucy, I can’t remember who any of them were. Catia? Elsa? Kay? Maria?

I got nothing.

I wonder if those names belonged to King Vortigern’s wife and daughters, who were the most literal examples of objectification — you see, King Vortigern’s infernal power requires a sacrifice of something he loves, so he’s been rationing off the female members of his family as needed to feed a dark Cthulhian evil that is itself female and unnamed (in the credits they’re just called The Sirens.) And since Jude Law plays the part, and Jude Law is AMAZING, you can really FEEL the pain he’s going through, how much it hurts him. Oh, his tears! We’re supposed to feel sympathy you see…

Ugh.

So…to put it gently, I have mixed feelings about this film. There was a lot about it that I really loved, but sadly I’m not sure it’s enough to overcome the specter of the movie it might have been if it had remembered that women exist to be more than pawns.

That movie would have been awesome.

Photo credit: Dim Horizons Studio

Everything Changes

While this won’t be much of a surprised to the more experienced, time moves slowly in the publishing world.

Right up until time moves fast.

And that was last month. A few weeks ago I signed with an agent, and I assumed–given the time it’s taken to get to this point, the years of work–that it would probably be months before I had any real news, that it would be a slow but steady knocking on doors as he tried to find a good fit for my manuscript. I couldn’t have been more mistaken.

Today, I have a book deal.

Now, to give you a little bit of background on this, if you had asked me to name the one publishing company that I wanted to work with the most, my answer would have been Tor. I wouldn’t have hesitated. Tor.

And if you had sat me down with a list of editors that I could work with, and let me chose (and I admit that I didn’t really follow editors before this, so I would have had to do some digging) I would have noticed that there was one editor in particular who had worked with some of my very favorite authors, people like N.K. Jemisin, Kate Elliott, and Gail Carriger. Devi Pillai would have immediately gone to the top of my wishlist.

And then I would told myself to settle down, because that would just never happen. Never happen. She’s the associate publisher of Tor, after all. She handles some of the biggest names in fantasy and science fiction.

Well I’m pinching myself, because I just signed a five-book deal with Devi Pillai at Tor.

Fuck me. It still doesn’t seem real.

I feel so incredibly grateful and fortunate. Just the luckiest person in the world, honestly.

And now I need to get back to writing.

Mirror, Mirror

So I turned myself to face me
But I’ve never caught a glimpse
Of how the others must see the faker
I’m much too fast to take that test.

-Changes, David Bowie

Now that I’ve talked about how you shouldn’t try to make everyone happy, let’s talk for a minute about criticism. Now, I don’t mean reviews, although certainly reviews may contain criticism. Usually reviews are just critical, which isn’t the same at all. When I say ‘criticism’ I mean an honest appraisal of one’s work, made early enough to actually do something with the information. When an author sends a book off to a beta reader or a story editor, they are looking for critical feedback. This is about that, especially when someone tries to skip that step.

We tear ourselves down all the time, don’t we? We succumb to the tiny goblin voices whispering insecurities into the dark corners of our souls. Writing is about ignoring that voice, and pressing on regardless. The problem with teaching yourself not to listen to that goblin who constantly tells you that you’ll never be good enough, never finish anything, never succeed, etc., is that you can deafen yourself to a smaller voice that tells you when something genuinely needs refinement. This may be hard to hear, but sometimes, what we create really isn’t good enough. If that idea doesn’t scare you, well, you’re lucky.

It scares the hell out of me.

After many years as an illustrator, now a writer, I know that voice is effectively gagged when I’ve finished a piece, the murmur too soft to be heard over the shouts of triumph and that giddy intoxication that comes with completion. (This is why we’re all told to put that piece in a drawer and not look at it for six weeks — it gives that critical, editorial voice a chance to be heard.) It’s an unpleasant but unshakable truth: most of us (I count myself in this group) are incapable of judging our own work while we’re in the middle of it. We’re too close to it. It’s the whole reason writers have editors and artists have art directors, because we need someone to step in and tell us to make it better.

So this, then, is the trap of the freelancer, whether that be artist or writer. Criticism — good criticism — is a skill, and we rarely have access to someone else who has that skill. Everyone has opinions, but that’s not the same thing. One of my friends on Facebook might tell me they don’t like something I’ve written, but they can’t necessarily express why. As an artist, I show my work to other artists, because they will not only be able to tell me what I’ve missed in a piece, but how to fix it. This is why every writer is told to find an editor. I have to agree with that advice. There must be someone who can critique your work, and whose advice you feel is sound enough to follow.

Okay, so what am I dancing around? Just this: I think it’s easy for people to blind themselves to the genuine flaws in their own creations. I do it. I darn well know others do it. And the only fix I’ve ever seen is find someone you trust, someone who will be honest, someone with some expertise, and let them be your mirror. Don’t try to look in that mirror yourself (you’ll turn yourself to stone, I swear) — let them do it for you. You don’t have to follow everything that person says, but I think being forced to defend your choices is ultimately good. You will learn something.

Okay? Okay.

The whole world is going to see your work eventually. There’s no sense to not getting a little feedback early.

I don’t know about you, but I’ve known a couple of people in my life who fall into a category I shall call Dorian Grays (because I’m all literary like that). A Dorian Gray doesn’t try to look into a mirror and they don’t have friends who look into a mirror for them. They instead hide all their flaws under a sheet in the attic and metaphorically kill anyone who tries to suggest said flaws might exist. They won’t listen to criticism and they won’t take advice. Why are you harshing on them? Their work is perfect! It’s the opposite of being crippled by anxiety. It’s being crippled by narcissism, a totally inability to realistically appraise their own work or listen to anyone who might be able to do so for them. And personally, I find this attitude both incredibly frustrating and well-nigh incomprehensible, being as I am so often crippled by my own anxieties that my work isn’t good enough. Frankly, so is every author I know who’s doing this professionally, so I’m always a little guarded around anyone who asks me for feedback and then refuses to listen when I take the time to give it.

This has happened more than just once or twice.

I’m increasingly convinced that the really good writers not only allow for criticism, but actively seek it out, cultivating a garden of trusted editors, friends, and beta readers. Not all advice will be listened to (nor should it) but they don’t just throw up their arms and scoff when someone suggests, ‘hey, this story has a problem.’

Criticism is an opportunity to level up, to ‘git gud,’ to hone your craft.

Don’t shy from that opportunity. Embrace it.

 

Being Pulled in Too Many Directions

As I make friends with more and more writers, I am often left appalled by the stories they have shared with me of their experiences, and how often they have been beaten down by the well-intentioned (or perhaps not at all well-intentioned) advice of people theoretically helping them perfect their craft. Sometimes friends, sometimes critique partners, etc. Everyone has an opinion on how your work would be better written:

  • Your writing has too much exposition (your writing needs more description.)
  • Your writing  is too dark and unsettling (your writing is too bland and nice.)
  • Your characters should be nicer (your characters have no conflict.)
  • There’s not enough action (there’s not enough discussion.)
  • etc., etc.

It’s exhausting, isn’t it? How many people are telling us that we’re doing it wrong? And I watch, I watch as people who really want to be better writers twist and contort to please these critical voices, only to scream in frustration as someone else comes along and tells them that they should do exactly the opposite. I watch as people follow instruction after instruction until they are left with a tangled mess of a manuscript that doesn’t work on any level because it’s trying to please too many masters, all at once.

I will share a hard lesson I have learned: not everyone is going to love your book.

While one can argue that you’re only writing a book for yourself, that’s probably not true. Most writers want to share their stories. On some level, we have an idea of the sort of people who might enjoy our work, even if it’s just as vague as, ‘someone like me.’ For example: I don’t expect that an MRA red pill dudebro is probably going to like my Godslayer Cycle series. Sure, it’s epic fantasy, but it has some strong ideas about toxic masculinity and consent. I didn’t write the book for them.

Let’s put this in a different context. A lot of relationship advice says that in a strong relationship, one partner doesn’t try to change the other to suit their own preferences, but encourages their partner to grow into the best person they can be. I feel this is also true of writers. A good critique partner tries to help you become the best writer you can be, not change how you write to suit their own whims.

I don’t need or even want my friends to write like I do.

I want them to write like themselves–to be the best of their ability.

 

How to Find an Agent in 4 Easy Steps

So here’s how to find an agent, as far as I’ve been able to piece together:

Step 1: Write a book. No, don’t just start writing a book. Finish it. Revise it. Edit the hell out of it. Then start on the NEXT book, because this whole process is going to take a while. Keep writing while you search.

Step 2: Craft an excellent query letter and send it out to agents who would be a good fit to your work.

Step 3: …

Step 4: Land an agent!

Okay, okay, so I admit it:  I have no idea.

Really, I don’t. I know the first two steps are important, but I haven’t a clue what step 3 looks like.

The fun plot twist? I now have an agent. So I should know. Right? RIGHT?

I find the whole thing especially funny because I’d pretty much given up on the idea of finding an agent. I have on several occasions described the process of landing an agent as being akin to trying to find a date for the prom using only encrypted postcards sent to other cities, blindfolded. Handcuffed.

I asked anyone I knew who had an agent their secret and pretty much unanimously they shrugged or politely smiled and suggested I hang out over at queryshark.com and keep trying. I remember being pretty frustrated.

It never occurred to me that maybe they didn’t know the secret. Maybe there is no secret.

But no! There has to be, right? I sent off emails and waited on responses and while those responses were polite enough, nothing ever clicked. I memorized Query Shark. I entered a bunch of twitter pitch fests. I also made some classic mistakes, including my personal favorite: getting into an argument with an agent because I felt her stated reason for rejecting my submission was invalid. (I won’t go into details, but let’s just say it doesn’t matter why an agent is saying no — once you’ve reached that stage, it’s done. Walk away.) I became comfortable with the idea I was going to be indie-publishing or self-publishing forever and ever.

Thank god for my friends. They kept pushing. “What’s the harm in sending out a few queries?” one told me. And I smiled and agreed and mostly ignored their excellent advice.

Then one of my friends decided to play matchmaker. She sent me a link to the web page of an agent named Sam Morgan (at the time he was at Jabberwocky) and said, “This is the one! This is it! He’s perfect for you!”

I laughed and read his description of the sort of work he was seeking and…stopped laughing.

Because honestly, he did sound kind of perfect for me. We liked the same sort of books and the same sort of humor and both of us had a deep love for insanely detailed fantasy novels (which was exactly what I was pitching.) So the first thing I did was read everything I could find on Sam Morgan, from his blog to any mentions of him on any forum I could find (apparently finding an agent is a bit like stalking,) and the second thing I did was throw out my standard form query letter, the one I’d been sending to everyone minus a name change and a few personalized touches to prove I didn’t have a standard query form letter.

I wrote Sam’s query letter from scratch, and he is the only agent who has ever received it. I broke all sorts of rules on writing queries: this was irreverent and informal and possibly the most honest and authentically ‘me’ query letter I’ve ever sent out. (Note that I broke all kinds of rules except the ones that Sam himself stipulated for query submissions. THOSE rules I obeyed.)

Looking back, I think the authentic part was important. I was very honest. Too honest? Maybe…but normally, I would expect to hear back in a few weeks or even months.

Sam wrote back within FIVE MINUTES to ask for more, and then again the next morning to ask for the full manuscript. And when he wrote back to me about that (which took longer) it was to ask for a phone conference.

…at which point, he asked me to rewrite the entire manuscript. THE ENTIRE MANUSCRIPT. Do you feel that scream in your soul? I did.

Ugh. Was he going to sign me? No. Not yet. He wouldn’t sign me until the manuscript was ready, and he felt it needed work. He warned me that it might take two or even three years to get it right.

My friends were appalled. Horrified. I mean, you do hear stories, you know? People who rewrite their work at an agent’s request only to have the agent decide they weren’t really interested after all. A lot of people asked me if it was a deal-breaker. And maybe with a different agent and a different request, it might have been.

The thing was: Sam’s reason for wanting rewrites–his advice on how to tighten up the story–was amazing. Great, fantastic critiquing. Every point he brought up was insightful and helpful constructive criticism. If I walked away from that, I’d be walking away from the best chance I had ever had to take my work to the next level.

So I rolled up my sleeves and rewrote the manuscript.

And then I did it again, because Sam insisted it could be better still.

Of course, he was right.

And the third time, he called to say he wanted to sign me.

But you see the problem, right? How do I translate that into four easy steps? How do I translate that into useful advice at all? What worked for Sam probably wouldn’t have worked for any other agent in the entire universe, and it was mostly chance and insouciance that lead me to send him the query letter I did. (Not such would have mattered if he hadn’t liked my writing.)

So here’s my advice: write. Keep writing. And while you’re sending your book out, write more books. Pay attention to the rules of querying, but also know that there may be times and places where you’ll want to break those rules.

Which really makes it a lot like writing the book itself.

 

 

 

On the Selling of Shovels

In any gold rush, it’s not the prospectors who make the most money: it’s the people selling the picks and shovels.

Writing scams are nothing new. Before I was even born, Jessica Mitford famously (and finally–it was years before she could find a magazine that would take the story) was able to publish her expose on Famous Writers School, a very much for profit institution that treated eager would-be-authors as a revenue stream and bilked thousands. Even besides that case, vanity presses had a well deserved reputation for leaving an author stranded with a thousand copies of a book they couldn’t sell sitting in their garage. The end result was the same: the author wasn’t the client or even the commodity. The author was the customer, the end of the sales chain.

Once you’ve sold the prospector his supplies, what do you care if he strikes gold?

One of the more recent forces of this type has been (formerly) Penguin Random House owned Author Solutions, which has an astonishing track record in this regard. They basically list as number one of Writer Beware’s list of publishers to be avoided at all costs, and for very good reason. The list of unnecessary or overpriced services that this company offers makes it very clear that they’re not interested in selling an author’s books nearly as much as they’re interesting in selling TO the author. Recently this article came to my attention. For those who don’t want to follow the link, it basically details how Barnes & Nobles’ Nook Press is subcontracted out to Author Solutions — and forwards its customers to them for the big marketing sales pitch.

More shovels. More picks.

Want to know who really struck gold in the Alaska Gold Rush? The fellow who set up a hot coffee stand on the trail up to the claim sites. HE ended up rich as Midas.

There’s a famous saying about this industry: money should always flow to a writer, not away from them. The emphasis on that is traditional publishing centered. Self-published authors know that’s all but impossible. Everyone wants their cut. Everyone is offering some indispensable service. People will tear you apart if your book isn’t edited and proofed to perfection, never mind that most Big Published books aren’t either. The cover isn’t amazing? Get out of here and stop wasting our time. There’s incredible pressure on indie authors to buy services to make themselves look professional. A better cover, a pass from a really good editor (story editor, line editor, proofreader). The costs add up fast. Then your first book doesn’t sell as well as you’d hoped and when some group like Author Solutions comes along and promises sales, you start to think that maybe that’s a good idea. You have to spend money to make money, right. Right?

It’s not a good idea. It will never be a good idea.

Stay away.

Want to know who made their first millions with the California Gold Rush?

Levis.

Cover Reveal: Fractured Days

When I asked to help out with the cover reveal for the new book by Rebecca Roland (one of my fellow writers at World Weaver Press) I thought: absolutely! Rebecca’s a sweetheart, as well as an amazing talent.

So a little about the new book:

Malia returns home the hero of a war she can’t remember. The valley burning under the Maddion’s invasion, the fate of her late husband, the way she resolved the long-time distrust between the Taakwa people and the wolfish, winged Jegudun creatures–all of it has been erased from her memory. Malia hopes to resume training as her village’s next clan mother, but when the symbiotic magic that she and the Jeguduns used to repair the valley’s protective barrier starts to consume more and more of her mind, she’s faced with the threat of losing herself completely.

A powerful being known as “the changer” might hold the solution to her vanishing memories. But the Maddion’s new leader, Muvumo, also seeks the changer, hoping the being will cure them of the mysterious illness killing off his people. Meanwhile, Muvumo’s bride hopes the changer can bring about a new era, one in which she and the other Maddion women no longer need to hold onto their greatest secret.

I must admit, that sounds like some pretty bad-ass world-building right there.

Ready for the cover? Here goes!

fractured days

Fractured Days will be available in trade paperback and ebook via Amazon.com, Barnesandnoble.com, Kobo.com, WorldWeaverPress.com, and other online retailers, and for wholesale through Ingram. You can also find Fractured Days on Goodreads.