Friday Links to Chew On

So I had a couple links I wanted to pass on before they grew stale.  But they didn’t fit the theme of the occassional series I do on “Tidbits of Inspiration”.  And then I remembered I’d done a pretty large link-dump recently, and I realized that I had a good name for an occassional series of posts in which I dump links on your poor, unsuspecting readers.  And so, I give you a small helping of “Links to Chew On”:

  • Author Myke Cole shares some of the rules of writing that he’s learned: He’s got 18 rules in all, and covers writing habits, style, genre, promotions and publishing.  The rules are pretty amusing, and you should check them out.  I’d say they’re a pretty complete set of rules, and if you’re a writer you’d do well to consider them.
  • Author Brandon Sanderson is Self-Publishing: And… it looks like big news, sure.  A major epic fantasy best-seller, the author who is finishing acclaimed author Robert Jordan’s magnum opus, is eschewing traditional publishing for self-publishing!  The End Is Nigh!  Except, well, not really.  When you actually read the news, you’ll find that it’s not quite that earth-shattering.  All Sanderson is doing is taking a couple novela-length stories he’s written and published elsewhere and binding them up in a single volume.  And after reflecting on it, I recalled that a lot of traditionally-published authors (though few as big-named as Sanderson) have been doing similar experiments.  Still, it is worthy of note because Sanderson is such a big name.
  • Pre-reject your own work: It saves time and heartbreak.  And it’s fun!
  • Respect Your Fans: An interesting article that makes what I think is an important point: if you want loyal readers, then you need to respect your fans.  The article explores some of the history of Sci-Fi and Fantasy fandom and how connected and engaged those fans are – and how that connection and engagement feeds back into the development of the genre.  There are some interesting counterpoints to this idea that aren’t fully explored in the article but discussed somewhat in the comments, too.  Anyway, worth the read.
  • Speaking of Fans… Here’s a pair of articles about setting up and using a facebook fan page.  I, myself, do not have one, and I won’t bother with one until I have published some fiction in a professional market or instead decided to self-publish and thereafter earned more than the sales I could count on two hands.  But hey… if you’re already down those rabbit holes, maybe you could use a fan page?

Anyway, there are some links for you this Friday…  Have fun!

Diabolus Ex Machina, Sanderson’s First Law, and the Watkins Corollaries

Today, I’m going to attempt to make a useful contribution to the lexicon and learning of the writing craft – it’s all in the headline of today’s post.  Perhaps it’s a bit presumptuous of me – an undiscovered author with as-yet little by way of writing cachet – but I had some realizations this week that I think are potentially useful.

Over the past few weeks, I’d written extensively about what I perceived as the problematic ending to Lev Grossman’s novel The Magicians.  By and large I found the books well-written and well-crafted – right up until the ending when a number of unexplained plot holes derailed things a bit.  Then it occurred to me this week that the problem with the ending of the book relates, in a way, to a violation of Sanderson’s First Law of Magic.

Sanderson’s First Law goes thusly:

An author’s ability to [satisfactorily] solve conflict with magic is DIRECTLY PROPORTIONAL to how well the reader understands said magic.

On the face of things, The Magicians doesn’t appear to break this “law” because the problem with the ending isn’t with how the author solves conflict with magic – the actual resolution to the main conflict is appropriately foreshadowed to some degree – but about how that conflict intensifies because of magic.  You can, perhaps, see where I’m going with this. 

Sanderson’s First Law, as stated, is incomplete.  In the article on his site about the First Law, he says this about “Soft Magic” systems, in which the reader has little or no understanding of the way magic works:

So, if you want to write soft magic systems, I suggest you hold yourself to NOT letting your magic solve problems for your characters. If the characters try to use the magic, it shouldn’t do what they expect it to—as the reader doesn’t know what to expect either. Use the magic for visuals and for ambiance, but not for plot. (Unless it’s there to screw up things for the characters. That’s always okay.)

And therein lies the problem: it’s always okay to have something unexpected and unexplained and incomprehensible come along and screw things up for the characters?  Really?

Yes.  That law is incomplete.  But never fear.  Along come the Watkins Corollaries to resolve this conflict, and once again set right in the land that which has been made wrong. Continue reading

Finding What to Read (Part 1)…

Being Part the First:

In Which I Declare My Official “To Read” List

During the past three years of grad school, I did very little writing and very little reading.  I finished one novelette-length short story.  I read two novels (both “Wheel of Time” books, and actually only half of the second), half of another novel and a few small volumes of short stories.

Since graduating a few months ago, I’ve upped the amps on my writing.  But my reading is still continuing at roughly the same pace.  Largely, I’d felt so deprived of writing while I worked on grad school that I wanted to focus my free time on writing, at least until I was in the thick of my novel and making solid progress (i.e. at least until I had actual draft wordcount on the novel, and not just background stuff).  But my slow reading these past few years hasn’t stopped a tsunami of excellent fiction from exploding into my consciousness.  It’s for that reason that my “To Read” list has grown into something of an unmanageable behemoth, and an unstoppable juggernaut.  To make anything like a dent in that list I’d have to take a few months off from work and dedicate a lot of time exclusively to reading.  Which… ain’t gonna happen.

At some point, I’m going to pivot some of my time to reading a little more again.  Because it’s not like other writers are going to stop writing awesome books just because I haven’t had time to read them.  And if I don’t read those awesome books, I might die unfulfilled.

Right now, my “To Read” list is broken into four parts, and looks like this:

I. Books I Own

A Clash of Kings* by George R. R. Martin

Mistborn: The Final Empire¹ by Brandon Sanderson

Elantris by Brandon Sanderson

The Way of Kings¹ (signed) by Brandon Sanderson

The Children of Amarid¹ (signed) by David B. Coe

The Name of the Wind¹ by Patrick Rothfuss

A Storm of Swords by George R. R. Martin

A Feast for Crows by George R. R. Martin

The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction by Philip Athans with introduction by R. A. Salvatore

The Writer’s Digest Guide to Science Fiction & Fantasy by Orson Scott Card and the Editors of Writer’s Digest with introduction by Terry Brooks (this is a combo volume of Orson Scott Card’s How to Write Science Fiction & Fantasy and Writer’s Digest’s The Writer’s Complete Fantasy Reference) Continue reading

Worldbuilding & Relevance

I’ve been doing a good amount of writing this week so far (we’ll see how things go in my weekly writing recap).  Since finishing the first draft of the short story I’m working on, all of my wordcount has been on worldbuilding for “The Book of M”.  And so I got to thinking about the subject of worldbuilding this week.

As I’ve reported previously, the topic of worldbuilding came up during author Brandon Sanderson’s Fantasy Writing Crash Course Q&A at JordanCon 2011.  The relevant question related to avoiding “Worldbuilder’s Disease”.  If you lean toward the “Planner” end of the Planning-Pantsing spectrum (or we can call it the “Architect” end of the “Architect-Gardener spectrum”), you likely know what that means: endlessly tooling around with the background world details – the history, the magic system, the cosmologies and religions, the languages, and so on – without ever reaching an end-point and saying “I have enough now to write the actual book”.  It’s really quite common, and I’ve felt that urge.  Brandon’s advice was to focus on the key elements of the conflict of your story, and worldbuild out from there.  As your worldbuilding gets less and less relevant to the conflict and the plot, you stop worldbuilding and focus on writing the story.

What, then, is relevant?  How do you find that line where the worldbuilding you’re doing becomes irrelevant? Continue reading

The Point of No Return

You read, and sometimes enjoy, books.  That’s a given, here.  And so, here’s a question for you:

Have you ever been reading and enjoying a book at your own leisurely pace when you reached a point when the book started to demand your attention?  A point where putting the book down caused you anxiety?  A point where you needed to keep reading?

Not every book has one of these, to be sure, though I’d wager any given writer would pay his or her own weight in gold to bottle that something magical and soak their manuscripts in it.

Well, I reached that point in The Towers of Midnight by Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson last week.  I was probably about a third of the way through the book when I realized I’d reached it.  I’ve now less than a quarter to go.  (I’m so far behind when other “Wheel of Time” fans have already read the book because I was on a major reading hiatus throughout most of Grad School.)

This isn’t a review, and I won’t say what happened, or what’s happening, or anything like that.  If you’ve read it, you recall about what was going on during this part of the book.  If you haven’t, you don’t want to start with Towers, you’ll want to start at the beginning, with The Eye of the World.  Or, if you’re someone who’s read part-way through “The Wheel of Time” series but gave up for some reason or another, then I offer this: pick the books up and start reading again.  Because if you keep going, through whatever it was that made you put the books down, and read through to these latest books, you’ll find it was worth it.  The Gathering Storm was good. Towers, I think, is better (or maybe seems better only because of the recency bias, but whatever, they’re both unquestionably very good).  And the end, the final for-really-true end is in sight.

When this magnum opus is finally complete sometime next year, it will be milestone not easily surpassed.  Flawed in ways that are at times vexing and frustrating, but nonetheless great, a magnificent accomplishment that will not easily be surpassed, even by writers aware of and careful to avoid the flaws.  Continue reading

At the Feet of Masters: The Writing Track at JordanCon 2011 (Part 3 of 3)

Wherein I shall conclude the elucidation of the mysteries revealed unto me whilst attending the Writing Track at JordanCon 2011Part 1 here and Part 2 here.

Today’s post will conclude with my thoughts on the last two panels, including the marquee “JordanCon’s Got Talent”, and I’ll wrap up with my main take-away lesson from this whole experience.

Rewriting History

This was the panel that was probably of least interest to me – primarily because I write very little alternate history.  It was still an enjoyable panel – with a fun discussion about whether or not it’s okay to write historically real people in such a way as to portray them very differently than what we understand to be the historical truth of those people.  Can you, for instance, write a story in which Abraham Lincoln is a lying bastard?  Is that any worse than writing a story in which Abraham Lincoln is a Vampire Hunter?  If so, why?

We never really answered the question definitively.  But it was an enjoyable aside.  I sort of came away from this part thinking of alternate histories as “fan fiction for real-world history”…

For my part, I did ask a question in this panel: this time in reference to my story, “PFTETD”.  When I had my first rewritten draft out to readers (all two of them) in early 2010, the feedback I got was strangely consistent: the readers were intrigued by the world I had created.  The world was, basically, real world modern-day but with a certain fantastical element inserted, which element has been with humanity for all of its history.  Sort of the basic premise of half of urban fantasy.  (Although, I don’t consider it an urban fantasy – there’s no “urban” to it, as it takes place in a rural setting – so I call it “contemporary fantasy” instead, meaning it takes place in a contemporary setting.  At least Wikipedia recognizes that as the genre in which Urban Fantasy is contained, but I rarely see reference to it out in the wild.)  What my readers wanted was to see more of this world, and learn more about how this fantastical element has changed the course of human history, making this world simultaneously familiar and different.

Except, the problem was, this was meant to be a short story that had already ballooned to novelette length. Continue reading

At the Feet of Masters: The Writing Track at JordanCon 2011 (Part 1 of 3)

Wherein I share and elucidate the mysteries revealed unto me whilst attending the Writing Track at JordanCon 2011.

The main panelists for the writing track were Guest of Honor David B. Coe, Eugie Foster, Jana Oliver, and Brandon Sanderson.  (The details of who taught what are in my blow-by-blow account linked above.)  Attending the writing track was definitely valuable for me, as an aspiring fantasy author.  But what was surprising, in some ways, was how little I learned about the craft of writing as compared to what else I learned by attending these panels. 

Which is not to say I didn’t learn quite a lot about writing during these panels.  I suppose I was expecting to learn more about the craft.  But what I did learn, I believe, will be enough to push me up another level – or so I hope.  But let me save the big, revelatory take-aways for the end, and let’s start with an account of what I learned along the way.  Which is a long account, so expect this to go on for several posts – this is considerably more detailed and thorough than my pictorial blow-by-blow.

Writing for Younger Readers

The first bit of craft advice I learned when I ducked into the Writing for Young Readers panel a little late.  The panelists agreed that you should write your protagonist at an age one or two years older than your target audience – specifically when targeting younger readers.  This is because younger readers are aspirational – they are interested in what people older than they are think and do.  However, the older YA readers tend to read more and more like adults, so the lines get blurred considerably.  They also pointed out that mushy stuff like romance: kids totally go in for that, whatever you may think.  Yes, even the boys.  Continue reading

JordanCon 2011 – A Pictorial Blow-by-blow

Well, JordanCon was certainly a fun time.  I definitely recommend attending a con to other budding speculative fiction writers – if for no other reason than the fact that you will enjoy yourself!

The jungle in the hotel lobby where JordanCon III was held

The jungle in the hotel lobby where JordanCon III was held

Before I go into detail about what I learned about writing during this convention, I wanted to do a short recap of what I did – complete with pictures!  (Alas, I am in none of the pictures, as I always faced my camera away from myself, not thinking that it would be good to be in them.)

The hotel where JordanCon was held this year was pretty swanky.  As evidence of my assertion I offer a picture of the hotel lobby.  I’ve been in a few very nice hotels before.  None of them have had a jungle in their lobbies.  This is my new measure of what it means to be a swanky hotel.  Obviously, it impressed me enough to warrant taking a picture, and I offer this in lieu of a “view from the hotel room”.

Signing with Brandon Sanderson and Harriet McDougal at JordanCon 2011

Signing with Brandon Sanderson and Harriet McDougal at JordanCon 2011

My first stop on Friday was a signing with author Brandon Sanderson and editor Harriet McDougal.  Brandon Sanderson, as most by now know, is the author chosen to finish highly popular “The Wheel of Time” series that was begun by Robert Jordan but left unfinished by his untimely passing.  Harriet was his editor at Tor Books, and his wife.  Brandon has done a fantastic job with the final volumes in Jordan’s books.  And of course, in part thanks to this assignment and in part thanks to his own talents and skills, Brandon has become one of the Big Names in the field of fantasy fiction – especially Epic Fantasy, of course. Continue reading

Convention, Convocation, Conference & Me

To date, I’ve never been to a con, before.  I always figured, things being what they are, that they’d be a bit out of reach for me: the cost of attendance, travel-time, possibly time off of work as they usually spill over from the weekend on Fridays or Mondays.  Plus, of course, time away from the family.  So, honestly… while I know the potential value of going to conventions (Or does “con” stand for “conference”?  “Convocation”?  Whatever, you know what I mean.) I’d almost written off my ability to go to them, at least in the near-term.  Someday, I figured, I’d go to them, but it wouldn’t be soon.  I hadn’t even mentioned the possibility to Dear Wife.

Well, I’m graduating soon, aren’t I, and it is a time of festivity! 

Still, imagine my surprise when Dear Wife decides to give me, as a gift, attendance at an upcoming convention!  I was so flabbergasted that, well, my excited face didn’t work right.

So, a week from today, I’ll be attending JordanCon, my first convention, ever.  Continue reading

A Writer’s Christmas

Image of The Towers of Midnight

My Shiney new copy of the latest in the Wheel of Time series

Last year after Christmas, I talked about all the wonderful books I got as gifts for Christmas.  Last time I managed to do this within a few days of Christmas… but I was on a blog-free binge for the holidays this year.  Still, I wanted to talk about some of the things I got this year, because they’re very exciting!

Unfortunately, of the four books I got as gifts last year, I only had sufficient free time to read one of them.  And this year, I only got one novel to read for Christmas.  But it’s a doozy.
Get this: Dear Wife knew that The Towers of Midnight, the latest in the ongoing Wheel of Time saga, a book series of which I’ve been a great fan, was coming out a month or two before Christmas.  So I wouldn’t have been surprised to get this book for Christmas – especially considering I’d utterly failed to provide my wife with a viable wish list, this was one of the few things I knew she’d be aware of. 

But that’s not the half of it.  Somehow, Dear Wife was also aware that although the author, Brandon Sanderson, would not be visiting our own neck of the woods any time soon, he would in fact be stopping on book tour near her old stomping ground, where her parents still live.  And so, my Dear, blessed, wonderful Wife somehow convinces her father to stand in line at a bookstore near him for something on the order of two hours to get a copy of this book signed.

And thus it was signed.  To me.  With a message wishing me good luck with my writing.  And I have photographic evidence.  Behold: 

Signed & Personalized Copy of Towers of Midnight

It's signed to me. 🙂

It reads “For Stephen – Keep writing!  You can do it!”  Now, I know that Mr. Sanderson doesn’t know me from Adam, but still, the sentiment was very cool.  And even if Sanderson doesn’t really know me enought to care whether I succeed or fail at writing, the signed book is in its way a wondeful way to motivate me to keep working towards that goal.  

Additional Signatures in my copy of The Towers of Midnight

Harriet and the Mystery Signer, also starring My Thumb!

But wait!  There’s more!  It’s also signed by Harriet McDougal, the widow and editor of series author Robert Jordan, and still a third signature by who I am told is Robert Jordan’s daughter (but I’ve been unable to independently confirm this; in fact my attempts to verify it suggest rather that this signature may belong to Melissa Craib the founder of the Wheel of Time fan community called Tar Valon.net).  A cool gift?  You bet!

Of course, I immediately abandonned other books I’d been slowly working through in my little spare time to dive into this new shiney – knowing, as I did, that with the start of the new (and final) semester coming my reading time would drop to virtually zero very soon.

But Dear Wife wasn’t done with me, yet.  She also knows well that I carry around with me, nearly everywhere that I go, a small notebook in which I record ideas and thougts for stories as the occur to me.  I’ve filled several of these over the years, and the current edition is a spiral-bound Mead Five-Star notebook that’s about a third full.  Apparently, Dear Wife believes that my thoughts are worth more than mere spiral-binding, because her next gift was a fabulous-looking hand-tooled leather-bound journal book featuring an image of the Tree of Life embossed on the cover.  What’s more, this fabulous leather-binding is interchangeable: once the notebook is filled, I can purchase replacement notebooks to slip into the leather cover.  Very soon… I’ll be taking my notes in real style.  As you can see, this thing is a real beauty.

My new, embossed cover leather-bound journal featuring an image of the Tree of Life

Now that's a stylish-looking Notebook!

I’m still contemplating how I want to use this, actually.  My current notebook, as I said, is only a third full.  But I really want to start using this awesome notebook.  Still… I don’t want to leave off in my current notebook with so many pages empty.  That’s not an efficient use of space.  So I’ve toyed with the idea of starting something tangential in this book – like perhaps a narrated history of the world of my long-gestating novel.  Or… I’ll just wait until I fill my current notebook and then make the switch.  I’m just not sure yet.

I also got a couple more book-and-writing related gifts from family that I thought I’d share: one is The Writer’s Digest Guide to Science Fiction and Fantasy, a book that’s kind of a mash-up of Orson Scott Card’s How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy and Terry Brooks’ The Writer’s Complete Fantasy Reference – at least if the Amazon description is to be believed.  I perused the table of contents, and it looks to be a rather interesting guidebook.  Many of the suggestions and details are things I’d already thought a lot about (being afflicted, as I am, with Worldbuilder’s disease) but there were some ideas in there that I hadn’t considered noted in the table of contents that I’ll have to peruse more carefully.  Regardless, this is a handsome book that I look forward to delving into (after I get more time to read and write, again, after graduation).  It looks pretty useful, and fun to read, besides.

Finally, I also got another writing book, The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction by Philip Athans.  Content-wise, there’s a lot of overlap with the Writer’s Digest guide book.  But this book also includes two features that make it useful in its own right, I think.  The first is a section on the business-side of writing fantasy and science fiction for a living.  It’s not a long section (and probably therefore not a deep section) but I hope to find some useful advice for an aspiring speculative fiction author there.  The second is a short story by R. A. Salvatore, of Drizzt fame.  This story’s not a Drizzt story (I’ve sneaked enough of a peak to know that), and it’s included as an example of something a little more “non-traditional” in the fantasy and science-fiction genres.  Which is kind of a good idea; they say the best way to learn how to write great fantasy and science fiction is to read great fantasy and science fiction.

So, all in all, a very productive, and very writerly Christmas for me.  There’s something in the wind for 2011… I can feel it.

How about you… did Santa bring you any wonderful books to read or anything fun and supportive of your writing?