Category Archives: On writing

Horses and space ships – woohoo

Copenhage, Denmark – November 05, 2017: Group of horse riders at the annual Hubrertus fox hunt event

When we talk about Science Fiction – at least when I do – I immediately think of space ships. Having established (for me) that given, SF seems to be a comfortable home for just about anything else. Romance, shape-shifters like werewolves, vampires, weird creepy things. As long as whatever it is can be explained scientifically (even if the science is beyond our current comprehension) it’s okay in SF. Vampires and shape-shifters could be aliens, weird creepy things could be alien weird creepy things – as long as it’s not magic or fantasy.

I guess one of the last things I expected to find in a space ships book was a strong story arc about a woman riding in fox hunts, much as depicted in the phtot at the head of this post. But I have, and I thoroughly enjoyed Elizabeth Moon’s Hunting Party.

For Heris Serrano, nothing gave her life as much meaning as serving the ruling Familias Regnant in the Regular Space Service. But after defying a vindictive superior officer in order to save the lives of her men—she’s cast off from the crew and finds herself struggling to retain her sense of purpose.

Now, she finds herself in the civilian world and at the helm of the ‘Sweet Delight’—an opulent interstellar space yacht owned by the wealthy, powerful and irascible matriarch Lady Cecilia de Marktos. After a disciplined life in the Service, Heris doesn’t anticipate having many problems captaining a flying pleasure palace.

But she didn’t count on her crew comprising some of the most incompetent degenerates she’s ever had the displeasure of commanding. Or that her predecessor had been using the ‘Sweet Delight’ for criminal enterprises…or that their final destination will bring Heris face-to-face with the man who ended her career.

This isn’t an action-packed story with danger at every turn – although the danger does happen further down the track. There’s no space battle. It’s very much character driven, with lots of extra interest as we wonder why Heris resigned from the Regular Space Service. She’s a member of a powerful military family, often referred to as the Serrano Admiralty and whatever she did has finished her career. She certainly hadn’t seen herself ending up captaining a rich old lady’s yacht.

Cecelia Marktos, having sacked her previous captain for making her late, isn’t one to accept Heris’s rules and regs approach to captaincy lying down. It’s fascinating to watch Heris and Cecelia move from mutual disdain through to respect and even friendship. Having lost a wager, Heris agrees to learn how to ride a horse using Lady Cecelia’s simulator and later ride in a hunt with her. In return, Cecelia learns about her ship, how it works, and how her previous captain and crew had taken advantage of her hands-off approach.

There’s lots of technical detail as Heris checks out the ship’s hydroponics and environmental systems, which have been allowed to deteriorate to a dangerous condition. Her investigations lead to animosity with some of the crew. Her insistence on holding emergency drills which involve Lady Cecelia and her four spoiled rich kid passengers creates animosity with the twenty-something lads and lasses – though not with Cecelia, who has been lumbered with them against her will. Ronnie, in particular, decides to pit himself against Cecelia’s ‘little captain’. There’s also lots of technical detail as Heris learns to ride, first on Cecelia’s very realistic simulator, then on real horses at Lord Thornbuckle’s property. The hunt is very much copied from traditional hunts held at aristocratic properties on Old Earth, which gives a hint at the politics of the Familias Regnant world,s dominated by well-bred, wealthy families.

Not being keen on hunting, Ronnie, George, Bubbles and Raffa sneak off in one of Lord Thornbuckle’s flitters for a jaunt to the islands where they used to camp as children. Things don’t go as planned and the four young people are forced to grow up – fast.

What makes this a compelling read is the characters and the unanswered questions. Why did Heris resign? The explanation comes out in dribs and drabs, in realistic discussions as the two senior women get to know each other. We learn more about Cecelia, too, an unmarried aristocrat who decided to make her own way against her family’s wishes. She’s the crazy, eccentric aunt who used to be a champion horsewoman and is now facing old age.

The four spoiled rich kids go on a journey, too. At first it’s easy to despise them. What is there to say about a young man whose favourite expression appears to be, “it’s not fair”? How can anyone take a girl with the name ‘Bubbles’ seriously? How can they survive when there’s no one to help them?

The story comes to a satisfying conclusion and the promise of a second book about Heris and Cecelia. Following the vaguely horsey tone, it’s called Sporting Chance’.

I’m off for a re-read.

 

Children’s books aren’t necessarily just for children

Some books are without a doubt aimed only at children. They’re short, the printing is often larger, the language is simple, and they’re not full of sex and violence. But even books like the immortal Winnie the Pooh can be enjoyed by adults. Winnie the Pooh is full of humour that would zip over a lot of kids’ heads. There are plenty of books aimed at younger readers that are just as attractive to older readers in the same way that quite young kids can enjoy books meant for an older audience.

Many adults don’t care that much about labels. I believe one of the biggest audiences for Twilight, a book about a senior high school student being stalked by a hundred-year-old fellow student vampire, was middle-aged women. It’s an excellent example of ‘whatever floats your boat’.

Now before anybody thinks I’m acting all superior and flounces off in a huff, rest assured I’m not being judgmental. I have several confessions of my own to make. I’m a huge Harry Potter fan – and let’s face it, the first book (HP and the Philosopher’s Stone) was a kid’s book aimed at eleven or twelve-year-olds.

Enough has been said about Mister Potter, though, so this post is about a wonderful mash of fantasy and science fiction, all mixed up in a ‘children’s’ book. Mind you, it was written by Sir T. Prachett and I’d read a shopping list if he wrote it.

Three books – Truckers, Diggers, and Wings, together make up the Bromeliad trilogy. Sir Terry is famous for his many Discworld novels but this story is set right here on Earth in fairly recent England. Imagine a large department store like Marks & Spencers in a country town. It’s been around for years but it’s out of date and management have other plans for the site, which will impact a community they don’t even know about.

In a world whose seasons are defined by Christmas sales and Spring Fashions, hundreds of tiny nomes live in the corners and crannies of a human-run department store. They have made their homes beneath the floorboards for generations and no longer remember — or even believe in — life beyond the Store walls.

Until the day a small band of nomes arrives at the Store from the Outside. Led by a young nome named Masklin, the Outsiders carry a mysterious black box (called the Thing), and they deliver devastating news: In twenty-one days, the Store will be destroyed.

Now all the nomes must learn to work together, and they must learn to think — and to think BIG.

Part satire, part parable, and part adventure story par excellence, master storyteller Terry Pratchett’s engaging trilogy traces the nomes’ flight and search for safety, a search that leads them to discover their own astonishing origins and takes them beyond their wildest dreams.

Please understand that ‘nomes’ is not a typo. The nomes are not the gnomes of human fantasy although there is a superficial resemblance. They are about four inches high, very fast and very strong. Humans for them are vast and slow and unintelligible, much like one of the larger herbivore dinosaurs would be to us. The humans don’t see them, don’t know the tiny nomes exist, so they live their lives quite separately, even having minor wars between the inhabitants of various store departments.

When Masklin and his small band arrive in the Store it’s hard to know who is more surprised – the store nomes or the ‘wild’ nomes. There’s much consternation and suspicion about the refugees but eventually Masklin and some of the younger nomes come up with a remarkable plan to escape the Store before it is destroyed.

In the first book, Truckers:

Imagine that all around you, hidden from sight, there are thousands of tiny people.
They are four inches tall, brave, stubborn and resourceful.
They are the nomes.

The nomes in this story live under the floorboards of a large Department Store and have never been Outside. In fact, they don’t even believe in Outside. But new nomes arrive, from – where else? – and they bring with them terrifying news: the Store is closing down and Everything Must Go . . .

And the adventure carries on from there. Although the nomes manage to escape and setup house in a quarry, they’re still not safe. That story is the plot of Diggers.

This is the story of Jekub, the Dragon in the Hill with great big teeth and a great loud voice.

(Well, that’s according to the nomes, but they are only four inches tall.)

When humans threaten their new home in the quarry, the natural thing would be to run and hide. But the nomes have got the wild idea that they should fight back. After all, everyone knows that nomes are faster and smarter than humans, and now they have a secret weapon . . .

Of course the nomes survive but they’re getting sick of running, so we move on to the last book, Wings.

When you’re four inches high in a world full of giant people, things never go very well for long.

After running into trouble at the quarry, the nomes want to go home. The problem is, ‘home’ is somewhere up in the stars, in some sort of Ship.

Masklin must find a way to get to the ‘launch’ of a ‘communications satellite’ (whatever that is).

And so begins an incredible journey, filled with peril, planes, honking geese . . . and a walking sandwich.

I can imagine some of you wondering what bromeliads have to do with it? Well, in the stories you’ll hear about a tiny, tiny frog that lives in the little pool of water inside a bromeliad perched high on a tree in the Amazonian rain forest. The little frog’s entire galaxy is inside that pool. But if the little frog wants to know if there’s a wider universe out there, it will have to leave its safe pool.

Hey gosh! It sounds like us humans and Mars! Maybe.

By the way, that’s a photo of a small native toad sitting in one of my bromeliads, just to give you a taste for what I’m talking about. The frog in the Amazon is much smaller and the bromeliad is much larger.

The three books are full of delightful jokes and snide parallels. Here’s a quote from Truckers. The store nomes have taken surnames based on which department they live in and the text is taken from The Book of Nome (there’s always a Holy Book).

“I. Woe unto you, Ironmongri and Haberdasheri; woe unto you, Millineri and Del Icatessen; woe unto you, Young Fashions, and unto you, you the bandits of Corsetry. And even unto you, Stationeri.
II. For the Store is but a Place inside the Outside.
III. Woe unto you, for Arnold Bros (est. 1905) has opened the Last Sale. Everything Must Go.
IV. But they mocked him and said, You are an Outsider, You don’t even Exist.

From The Book of Nome, Goods Inward v.I-IV”
― Terry Pratchett, Truckers

Yes, it’s a book for younger readers – as well as for older ones with a sense of humour. The nomes are forced out of their comfort zone and have to learn to live in a hostile world – so hostile it doesn’t even know they exist. And you know, maybe aliens aren’t necessarily human-sized creatures with bulbous heads, huge eyes and no hair…

There’s a thought.

 

 

 

Covers are important – in more ways than one

I used to haunt bookshops. I loved them, aiming invariably for the fantasy and science fiction aisles and maybe the crime aisles. Oh, and the cookbooks. And anything else that took my fancy. I’d pick up anything that attracted my interest and read the blurb, then maybe a few pages before I decided whether to spend my hard-earned readies on that particular book.

How did I decide whether to pick up a book and look more closely?

The first thing was often the author’s name. If I’d read their work before and enjoyed it, I’d certainly look for other titles. Terry Pratchett (may he rest in piece) was an auto-buy for me. Another factor might be that I’d seen an ad that looked interesting, or had a book recommended. Those aside, I’d look at covers.

My process for buying an e-book is no different. Except that maybe the cover is even more important. In a bookshop most of the books are arranged spine out because there isn’t room to do anything else. In an e-book store, it’s covers all the way. The covers have to attract the right sort of readers and tell a little story in their own right. For example, if you’re looking at Romance books in any sub-genre, images displaying a heap of ripped abs and powerful pecs are likely to be at least steamy. If that’s not your reading taste, move on. That’s not a hard-and-fast rule. Fifty Shades of Grey et al didn’t have steamy covers but if you didn’t know that was what you were buying, you must have just lifted that rock off your head.

But this post isn’t about what elements you should use in your covers, it’s more about how they’re portrayed. I’ve recently discovered a website called Covervault. The owner has created some great free templates that people familiar with Photoshop CC can use to create 3D book cover images and posters. I’ve had a wonderful time messing about with them, pretending it was ‘work’.

3D images are very important for boxed sets because they show the customer what they’ll get for their money.

Here’s an example. The 2D version tells you you’ll get three stories – but the 3D version shows you and gives the names. It’s a classic example of ‘show don’t tell’.

 

When I publish my books I deal direct with Amazon, but distribute to Kobo, Barnes & Noble, and iBooks through Draft to Digital (D2D). After I’d created my nifty 3D boxed set covers I loaded them up to Amazon and D2D. A day later I got a message from D2D saying that Apple would not accept a 3D cover. Frankly, I thought that was crazy. Amazon was happy with the 3D version. I wrote to D2D asking if the other stores would not accept a 3D cover, and if there was a way of submitting both versions of a cover.

D2D offers great support. I received a response that only Apple will not use 3D covers. I was asked to provide 2D versions for the boxed sets which D2D would manually switch for the listing at iBooks. That’s great customer service and a large raspberry for Apple. You’d think they’d be interested in giving their customers the best information available.

Here are some of the posters I’ve created. I hope they tell you a bit more about the books, which is, of course, the idea. If you’d like to know more, click on the poster.

The Rules of Writing

Facebook has a fun little feature called ‘memories’ which shows people posts they made years ago on that day of the year. I go through mine because it’s fun to look at stuff that was important enough to post about in the past. This morning I came across a note I was tagged in by a writer friend nine years ago.

Toby Neal, a very successful author of mysteries set in Hawaii, posted this article by Elmore Leonard which first appeared in The Guardian newspaper. (I’d never heard of him, either. Read his bio here.) (BTW, if you like crime stories, do look at Toby’s work. They’re good. Click on the link on her name.)

Leonard Elmore

Using adverbs is a mortal sin (ME: I don’t know why this was on its own, I suppose because it is a MORTAL sin, whereas the other rules will only send you to purgatory.)

1 Never open a book with weather. If it’s only to create atmosphere, and not a charac­ter’s reaction to the weather, you don’t want to go on too long. The reader is apt to leaf ahead look­ing for people. There are exceptions. If you happen to be Barry Lopez, who has more ways than an Eskimo to describe ice and snow in his book Arctic Dreams, you can do all the weather reporting you want.

2 Avoid prologues: they can be ­annoying, especially a prologue ­following an introduction that comes after a foreword. But these are ordinarily found in non-fiction. A prologue in a novel is backstory, and you can drop it in anywhere you want. There is a prologue in John Steinbeck’s Sweet Thursday, but it’s OK because a character in the book makes the point of what my rules are all about. He says: “I like a lot of talk in a book and I don’t like to have nobody tell me what the guy that’s talking looks like. I want to figure out what he looks like from the way he talks.”

3 Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue. The line of dialogue belongs to the character; the verb is the writer sticking his nose in. But “said” is far less intrusive than “grumbled”, “gasped”, “cautioned”, “lied”. I once noticed Mary McCarthy ending a line of dialogue with “she asseverated” and had to stop reading and go to the dictionary.

4 Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said” . . . he admonished gravely. To use an adverb this way (or almost any way) is a mortal sin. The writer is now exposing himself in earnest, using a word that distracts and can interrupt the rhythm of the exchange. I have a character in one of my books tell how she used to write historical romances “full of rape and adverbs”.

5 Keep your exclamation points ­under control. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose. If you have the knack of playing with exclaimers the way Tom Wolfe does, you can throw them in by the handful.

6 Never use the words “suddenly” or “all hell broke loose”. This rule doesn’t require an explanation. I have noticed that writers who use “suddenly” tend to exercise less control in the application of exclamation points.

7 Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly. Once you start spelling words in dialogue phonetically and loading the page with apos­trophes, you won’t be able to stop. Notice the way Annie Proulx captures the flavour of Wyoming voices in her book of short stories Close Range.

8 Avoid detailed descriptions of characters, which Steinbeck covered. In Ernest Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants”, what do the “Ameri­can and the girl with him” look like? “She had taken off her hat and put it on the table.” That’s the only reference to a physical description in the story.

9 Don’t go into great detail describing places and things, unless you’re ­Margaret Atwood and can paint scenes with language. You don’t want descriptions that bring the action, the flow of the story, to a standstill.

10 Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip. Think of what you skip reading a novel: thick paragraphs of prose you can see have too many words in them.

My most important rule is one that sums up the 10: if it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.

ME:

It all sounds good, doesn’t it? Yes? The general consensus was that as guidelines, Leonard’s ‘rules’ are worth considering. But not everybody agreed. Especially the late MM Bennets, who was a historian, author, and professional literary critic among many other things. She was a great help to me when I wrote To Die a Dry Death. I’ve condensed the comments on the post to make a more coherent narrative but I’ve not changed the words.

MM Bennets: Those are tremendous if and only if you wish to write like Elmore Leonard. I don’t. At all.

Whenever I read daft rules like Leonard’s, I think of the Sayer’s novel, The Nine Tailors, where she uses the weather of the fens as a metaphor for the roiling shared guilt that has destroyed this small community. It’s a monumental book…or think how Conrad used it as metaphor and almost as a character in some of his work…

I have to say this. Why are writers are desperately keen to subscribe to some fellow’s Rules of Writing. Why? Why won’t they read what they like, analyse those authors, or even the work of authors whose styles they don’t like, and then come up with what works for them? All of these rules by other writers are little more than literary straight jackets that don’t even fit right. It’s the literary equivalent of putting a straight-jacket made for Hagrid on Frankie Dettori.

I’ve just been thinking about this post while I made more tea. And Leonard’s advice contains some fundamental flaws. We all, when we go about our daily lives, are constantly taking in our surroundings. And the weather. This is a constant feed to our brains. If we desire to write books so that the reader is inside the head of a character or at the very least in the room with them, some of this information is essential. So that the reader is seeing what the character sees, and therefore can empathise. (If you want to be Albert Camus when you grow up–obviously, this is not the method for you.) The thing about the weather–that has to be dated. Because if you look at the most popular and fascinating of police work today, that’s the forensic work and a lot of that, much of it very detailed, is about weather conditions or the where it happened determining how it happened. So setting has become if anything more important.

Just read rule nine. Which is complete crock. What would Jane Eyre or Wuthering Heights be without the moors? How well would Doctor Zhivago work without the snow? And I don’t even want to contemplate A Tale of Two Cities without the taverns, the guillotine, the prison…Or Miss Garnet’s Angel without Venice? Please…

Before Toby sends me to stand in the corner, I just want to ask why are writers setting their sights so low? Why are they not looking to Dickens, Austen, Bronte, Fitzgerald, Zola, Tolstoi, Cather, Twain, Wodehouse…these are the authors whose work has lasted, so why aren’t we asking ourselves how did they do it? What were their rules?

Judith Kinghorn is another successful author. She said:  There are a few obvious rules included here, but if we try to adhere to each and every list of writing rules – and get too hung up on them – what becomes of our voice?

I think prologues can and often do work: it depends on the story and how well the prologue is written! The weather: some of the very best and most evocative writing in the English language opens with the a description of the weather.

Almost everthing is a cliche, because almost everything has been said before…our struggle is to try and say it differently, and in the context of a new story. My advice is – read these lists of rules, but don’t necessarily adhere to all they say. Writers should, I think, break rules and create new boundaries all the time.

Garalt Canton, (yes, another author) came up with his own set or sules based upon Elmore Leonard’s.

Gary Canton’s 10 Rules…er..guidelines of Writing in response to Elmore Leonard’s stab.

1 – Opening a book is a physical act and a leap of faith. ‘It was a dark and stormy night…’ spoken in Highland Scots will only close that book again and quickly. Weather is relevant only if it is relevant to the character you are writing about or to the narrative you are writing.

2 – Prologues: If it is back story I’d advise splitting up the back story over the entire novel but if you are setting the scene or creating the world of the novel you might like to keep it short and relevant to the story.

3 – People talk to one another and so they say things. However, unless your novel is populated by speak and spell machines and Stephen Hawking you might like to include tones of voice – a warning – try to keep your actors keeping it real and not shouting, wailing, declaring and hissing at one another (unless you’re PG Woodhouse, that is). ‘Said’ works most of the time if you have a gift for dialogue but if not, and you have no plans to write in iambic pentameter, you may need to inject some tone of voice into your dialogue.

4 – Avoid tautologies in adverbs after speech actions”he shouted loudly”, “she whispered softly”. “I cooed cooingly” – You get it. In fact, avoid tautologies in all verbs: “He stabbed violently”, “she screamed hysterically”, “they ran quickly” etc.

5 – Kids love excalmation marks – ‘Nuff said.

6 – Actually what does all hell breaking loose look like, feel like, smell like, sound like? We’d like to know. – Suddenly – actually delays the action by three syllables so its not that sudden is it?

7 – Patois: regional accents or in my case translated Occitan: If both characters are speaking the same patois, English is fine. If one character is speaking unintelligible gibberish to another, why spend hours and hours spelling that out – just say it’s largely gibberish and pick out the important bits for the reader. Otherwise, think about writing poetry instead.

8 – The Dan Brown Trap! He is handsome and intelligent, she is beautiful and smart, even sassy. They both look like Hollywood stars and their vital statistics are as follows….Yawn Your characters lose audience the more definite they have been described. Proof? Where in the bible is Jesus described physically? Exactly!

9 – This is contentious – Are you Sir Peter Hall or are you Franco Zeferelli? Dogme works if you have done a LOT of work on your characters. Detail works if you have strong characters that stand out from the backdrop. The prisoner sat a cell. The prisoner shivered from the damp halflight that drifted down from the sole crack in the lichen covered walls. Both work. Describe that which we have never seen before.
But no need to focus on the intricacies of the traffic light – we’ve all seen one.

10 – Read a book – where did you feel longueurs? Did you feel naughty and skip forward to see how much more of this guff you need to wade through? Does anything change in the next three paragraphs? No? You can cut them if you like. The story won’t suffer. Do we learn something more about the character from the next three paragraphs? No? Red pen.

Oh – by the way, enjoy what you’re writing and write YOUR story.

ME: I’ve just finished re-reading Terry Pratchett’s Wee Free Men and I’m now reading the next book, A Hat Full of Sky. Pratchett doesn’t respect anybody’s rules and he completely ignores Leonard’s Rule 7. The Feegles always, always, always speak in broad, essentially Scots, dialect which does sometimes require a re-read. And he uses footnotes, such a basic no-no in fiction that Elmore doesn’t even mention it. As they say, ‘rules are meant to be broken’.

Or, to put it another way, make up your own damn rules.

Amazon is a corporate bully

JusticeThere are a number of reasons why I’m not so prolific in my fiction writing than I was. One of them (a very large ONE) is the problem of getting noticed in a crowded marketplace. We’ve been told, we authors, that getting people to review our books is the way to attract attention – but we can’t pay for reviews, or swap reviews, or get family and close friends to review. And fair enough, you might say. But Amazon is a bully with a big stick.

Please read the experience of my good friend Nya Rawlyns and  do please read about the lucrative scheme netting millions from the Zon.

Seems to me Nya has become collateral damage for a giant flailing around looking for someone to hit.

It stinks.

I’m giving up on Romance

(c) StockUnlimited Image ID : 1510419

(c) StockUnlimited Image ID : 1510419

I’m giving up on Romance. Not romance as in boy meets girl and love blossoms (or boy meets boy, girl meets girl – I don’t give a rats what happens in other peoples’ bedrooms) I mean Romance as in genre. It’s pure and simple escapist fantasy. Which is probably one of the reasons I never read much of it.

To each his/her own of course. If Romance is your thing, that’s fine. I know it’s the biggest selling genre out there, I know it’s not rubbish, I know it’s not easy to write. This is not a ‘take-down’ of the Romance genre, it’s a statement of why it doesn’t work for me as a writer. And really, that’s all about the tropes. By the way, if you think you’ll find that offensive, thanks for coming, but you’d better leave now.

I cannot believe that a multi-billionaire who has no doubt left a trail of girlfriends behind is suddenly going to fall so head-over -heels in love with the new PA or secretary or whatever, that he never even looks at another woman. <cough> Trump. Same with sheikhs (maybe even more so). But I can certainly believe that people in rocky marriages, far from home, might find themselves falling in love with someone else. Call it adultery if you will. It’s normal, common behaviour.

I do believe in ‘love at first sight’ – I know of too many instances where it has happened.  Sure, it usually starts as lust at first sight, but if it evolves into the real thing, so what?

Which brings us to the ‘happy for now’ or ‘happy ever after’ upbeat endings. This is a requirement of Romance. That’s fine, if everybody agrees it’s not about realism. The fact is an awful lot of marriages end in divorce. Fairy tales fall apart. Just look at the cover headlines on the women’s magazines while you’re waiting to go through the checkout.

Now as it happens, my books always have an upbeat ending because the world is bad enough without me adding to the misery even in a tiny way. That’s why I don’t read (or watch) horror. Despite my love of SF, I have not and will not watch the Alien movies. I have never seen a single episode of Game of Thrones. Same deal. I read to escape.

Having said that, I don’t have a problem with adultery, or mistresses, or even casual sex within the context of a novel. In The Iron Admiral books, Allysha commits adultery. So does her ne’er do well husband. In Morgan’s Choice, Ravindra goes through women like changes of underwear. It’s not a big deal, but I make it plain that’s how it goes – even after he has a relationship with Morgan. But that’s just sex, you see, and within his society, quite normal. He had been married off to a suitable woman at a young age, which is exactly what happened on our little planet in the past, and in fact what still happens right now. Imagine being a princess, married off as an infant to some royal prince, to cement the relationship between the two kings? I can understand a woman running away to escape being married off in just such a way, and that’s the plot of A Matter of Trust. But I expect the story would have been unacceptable to Romance if Amira was married, and trying to escape a loveless or abusive relationship.

So I suppose what I’m saying is that, because I don’t really understand the Romance trope, I write about romance the way I see it in the world – messy, up and down, evolving. Ergo, I don’t write Romance.

I guess I’d better remove all my books from the ‘science fiction romance’ category, and stick with space opera. I won’t win, though, because all the SF die-hards will moan about the soppy bits.

Just as well I don’t do this writing thing to try to earn a living.

And a photo, because I’m hoping you’ve come to expect them. This is the dawning of a new day. Singularly appropriate if you ask me.

(c) Greta van der Rol

(c) Greta van der Rol

What’s the opposite of writer’s block?

1239877Writer’s insomnia. That state when you’re on a roll, the story is flowing – but there are holes and questions (there are always holes and questions) and ‘oh hey’ moments and ‘is that plausible’ moments. And they all get together in your head and shake you awake at 2am. You think you’re getting up for a wee and a drink of water. But no. They ambush you, make you listen, pour words in your ears.

It’s fabulous. I LOVE this story. (It’s still called WIP – that’s Work in Progress for those not in the circle.)

Meanwhile, a huge storm built up to the south of us, complete with mammary clouds, thunder and lightning. Fortunately, we got to enjoy the spectacle at sunset – but didn’t have to face the fury of the storm.

Impressive, it was. Share photos, I will.

sky3

Sky1

sky

It’s always subjective (even when you think it can’t be)

1282745If you’re reading this you’ll know I write books and take photographs, not necessarily in that order. And although they’re both creative, they’re very different pursuits. In this day of Indie publishing, the exhausting task of trying to interest an agent or publisher in one’s work is no longer an issue. And just as well, too. I’m too old for that shit. Besides, agents always only consider what they think will sell. Which, I suppose, is fair enough. In the past publishers were willing to work with an author to hone a rough diamond into a polished gem – always assuming they recognised the rough diamond. It’s a subjective process, you see. Agent/publisher – author interaction, agent/publisher perception of what will sell, agent/publisher perception of how much work (money) would be needed to rework and polish.

The business of accepting a photo for sale on a stock photo site is a little bit different. Certainly  the aim of these sites is to collect images that people will want to buy, so sites like Dreamstime explain that they have lots of sunsets and sunrises. They’re pretty, but one can have too much a good thing. And that’s understandable and completely in line with the bookseller’s perspective of “will it sell?” On top of that there’s the privacy and proprietary concerns. No images of (recognisable) people without a model release. No picture of inanimate objects with some sort of proprietary identification, such as really famous buildings, sculptures, logos and even one stand-out house boat in a canal in Amsterdam.

However, photographs are required to have a high level of technical quality. No blurry images, no grainy textures where the photographer should have used a longer exposure or a lower ISO. Visible scratches or dirt marks. Overuse of filters or Photoshop fixes. Or any number of other perfectly legitimate issues with quality. The big stock photo sites can’t afford to have below par photos for sale. I’ve been selling pictures for about four years now, and I’ve learned what they’ll accept and what they won’t. A picture can look great on Facebook even if the focus isn’t quite right – but don’t bother submitting to a stock photo site.

Seems pretty obvious, doesn’t it? So you’d think that if one site is happy with the quality of a photo, another site will be, too. Actually, that’s not the case. I sell my photos on Dreamstime and on Canstock. Both sites have refused photos on technical grounds that the other has accepted.

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You can buy this on Dreamstime – but not on Canstock

You can buy this one from Canstock but not Dreamstime

You can buy this one from Canstock but not Dreamstime

It’s very, very easy to be over critical of one’s own work. I found fault with this one, for example, and it was literally years after I took it that I thought, “what the hell?” Both sites accepted it.

Wildflowers brighten the Pilbara landscape

Wildflowers brighten the Pilbara landscape

The other day, on the premise that if you don’t ask you don’t get, I sent Dreamstime three of my sunrise photos. Four years ago, they’d rejected a couple I thought were nice on the basis that they had plenty like that, only better. I was expecting more of the same, but to my eternal astonishment, they accepted all three. Here’s one.

A person takes the dogs out on the tidal flats as the eastern sky brightens

A person takes the dogs out on the tidal flats as the eastern sky brightens

 

So what should you take home from all this? Very often a judgement is an opinion, nothing more, nothing less. Don’t give up just because one person says it’s not what they’re after. Don’t take every one-star review to heart. And stop beating yourself up. There are plenty of people out there eager to do that for you.

 

What The Battle of 5 Armies taught me about writing

"The Hobbit - The Battle of the Five Armies" by Source. Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:The_Hobbit_-_The_Battle_of_the_Five_Armies.jpg#/media/File:The_Hobbit_-_The_Battle_of_the_Five_Armies.jpg

“The Hobbit – The Battle of the Five Armies” by Source.

I’m always keen to see the extended edition of movies that take my fancy. The Hobbit trilogy is one such. And I have to say, the extra 20 minutes shown in the movie did not, in my opinion, add much. In fact, a few times I caught myself thinking, “I can see why he cut that”. So I’ll leave it to you, dear reader, to come to your own conclusion in that respect.

I will, however, talk about the appendices.

I LOVE the ‘making of’ stuff. This collection of appendices is second to none. The script writers talk about what inspiration they obtained from Tolkien’s books and where (and why) they varied from the story. There are shorts about how particular characters like Thranduil and Dain were fleshed out, how the sets for Erebor, Dale, and Dol Guldur were created. And of course the way digital technology was used.

I loved the books, and I loved the movies. Part of that was that I understand and accept that the books and movies are inherently different media, and especially when you’re trying to translate a kid’s book to take its place as part of the Lord of the Rings saga. Because that’s what Peter Jackson and his people did. And that’s why it is three movies, not one. But I digress. I learnt a lot – as a writer – from watching those appendices.

1. Detail matters

In every single one of the movies’ locations the scenery, sets and props were absolutely convincing. Each race had its own culture, all exquisitely detailed. One of the best examples of that attention to detail came in the section about Dale, the city near the gates of Erebor which Smaug destroyed. Jackson’s props people built a real and beautiful town which was shown on film for at best a few minutes in the opening section of the first movie. Then they proceeded to destroy it for the scenes from the rest of the movies. Because the place was so real, we could relate to what had been lost. That’s even more important in the written word.

2. Secondary characters should be real

It was fascinating listening to the script writers talk about the characters in the kid’s book.  If you’ve read it you will recall that most of the dwarfs are not much more than two dimensional sketches, distinguished mainly by the colour of their hats. Thorin, of course, is filled out a little more. But in the Hobbit movie, every one of the dwarfs was fleshed out as an individual, each with his own eccentricities, his own costume, his own behaviour.  They, of course, are the main characters in the movies. But this attention to detail (see above) went into the secondary characters, too. Particularly fascinating was Thranduil, Legolas’s father. In the book, Thranduil isn’t named at all. He’s just the elvenking. We learn his name in Lord of the Rings, where we meet Legolas. As an aside, given that Legolas is Thranduil’s son, it would have been quite odd if he had not appeared in the Hobbit. But back to Thranduil. The script writers fleshed out his back story, made him cold, arrogant and distant. Gave him a reason to attack the Lonely Mountain and by the end of the movie, he had grown and changed. Bloody brilliant.

3. Not everything has to be explained

Thranduil is probably my most favourite character from the movies because of his complexity. And because I find men like him – handsome, distant, positively arrogant in their self-assurance – attractive. Thranduil didn’t need a crown. He was the king. End of story. But there was something else about him, something about his obsession with the white gems that were heirlooms of his people. Although we are never told at any stage what that was about, over time we are given hints, sufficient to work out our own theories on what has caused Thranduil to put up those barriers. It keeps the man interesting. And in the appendices my theory was confirmed.

4. Not everything has to work the first time

Costume designers start working on a costume before an actor is chosen. The she-elf, Tauriel, isn’t in the book, so she was a clean sheet. Richard Taylor, the chief of Weta Workshop, the company which created the props for the films, came across a designer who did some wonderful things with chain mail and thought the effect would be perfect for Tauriel. The costume was made – long, painstaking work – the actor put it on and it looked terrible. Scrub that, start again. The prosthetics used for Dain, played by Billy Connolly, were changed several times so that we could still see the man behind the makeup. Whole scenes were shot and then cut completely because they didn’t contribute to the plot. That’s like writing the first draft, or the second edit. And that’s okay. You can go back and make changes – until you publish. And all a writer has to change is a scene here, a few words there…

5. The villain has to be powerful

There are a number of villains in the Hobbit movies. One of them is Smaug, played and voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch. Smaug may be a digital image, but he’s absolutely arrogant, sure of his power, clever and vindictive. Him landing on the rooftops of Lake town and advancing on Bard matched the dragon’s character. Playing with his food, so to speak. And so much better visually than in the book, where someone who is just a name shoots the beast down.

Then there’s Azog. If you’re a Tolkien tragic you will know he actually died at the gates of Moria, slain by none other than Dain Ironfoot. Be that as it may, the screen writers kept him alive as an adversary for Thorin and the company, and reserved Bolg for Legolas. And over the top of all this, we have the Necromancer/Sauron. All of these villains were necessary. Gandalf was faced with something greater than himself, a story which fitted into the Lord of the Rings. That’s an important lesson for writers of series. We should always remember that the Hobbit is the prequel for LOTR and what happens in that little book leads on to greater things. The enmity between dwarfs and elves  is clearly established and doesn’t waiver until they are faced with the common, hated foe. And the orcs are no push-over, assisted as they are by wargs and trolls. It’s a real battle, all the way. Each battle is personal – Thorin vs Azog, Gandalf vs Sauron, Bard vs Smaug, Legolas vs Bolg. We have an investment in the struggle, even if we know how it will end.

6. You can get away with things in film that you can’t in words

In the movie, Azog sets up a command post on Ravenhill, above the gates of Erebor, from which to direct his battle. He stands up there and uses a semaphore system to direct his commanders. Not only does that show the audience that the orcs are more than mindless fighters, it gives the script writers the opportunity to set up a confrontation between Thorin and Azog. It works exceedingly well and we’re so caught up in the battle of five armies (which Tolkien covered in a couple of sentences in his book) that we don’t even think about the elephant in the room. How did Azog and his boys get up there and set up a semaphore system without anybody noticing? The other issue, how did Thorin, Fili and Kili – and Bilbo, get up there with an army of orcs in the way, is addressed, especially in the extra footage. I confess I hadn’t thought about how the command post was set up. The battle scenes are so fast-paced and so absorbing I didn’t notice. But if you’re going to pull something like that in a book, you’d better have thought it through.

7. Consider your audience

I’m adding this for the one thing that I believe was not a success. Sorry, but a love story between a dwarf and an elf – especially one that happen so quickly – doesn’t work for me. I have no objection to adding Tauriel to the cast. She was great as a fighter, and as an elf with a different view of the world from Thranduil and his son. I can kinda see what the writers were trying to do and in the appendices reference is made back to Gimli and Galadriel, but that wasn’t a love story. Not to me, anyway, and I know I’m not alone. Millions of people have read and loved the Hobbit and LOTR. They have their own ideas about how the races interacted. Tolkien himself described several instances of marriages between men and elves, but never dwarfs – and any other race, really. So that’s about reader expectation. Some things perhaps you can’t, or shouldn’t, do.

Anything you’d like to add? Please share your wisdom.

Poster Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:The_Hobbit_-_The_Battle_of_the_Five_Armies.jpg#/media/File:The_Hobbit_-_The_Battle_of_the_Five_Armies.jpg

 

RIP Authonomy

Pile of books

Somebody told me on Facebook today that Harper Collins is shutting down its online slushpile, Authonomy,  on 30th September 2015.

Authonomy. That brought back some memories.

Harper Collins started the site in 2007/8 and soon thousands of aspiring hopefuls swelled the ranks of members. Authonomy expected you to load up at least ten thousand words of your manuscript to enable other members to read and review your work. If they liked it, they would place the book on their virtual bookshelf, effectively one vote. The idea was that the five books which had accumulated the most votes as at the end of a month would be awarded a gold star, and would receive a ‘professional’ review from the HC editors, with a possible view to getting an HC contract. You can see why we all signed up with stars in our eyes.

At first, it was a wonderful website. I met many of my writer friends there. The late MM Bennetts was one. She helped me to hone my historical novel, To Die a Dry Death – and wrote the sonnet for Jeronimus, that being beyond my skill. Although she has left the planet, her wonderful wit, wisdom and knowledge of history stay with us at her website. Do take a look.

Diane Nelson was another. She published my first science fiction romance, The Iron Admiral: Conspiracy, through her now defunct publishing house. She’s now my good friend and editor – as well as being a talented writer  under the pen name Nya Rawlyns. I met and worked with Gemi Sasson Brickson, author of a wonderful Robert the Bruce trilogy and a heap of other books since then. Elspeth Cooper, who has been runner up for the David Gemmell fantasy award, was another.

I never won the gold star. But then I don’t think it ever did anyone any good. Sure, HC published a few books plucked from the slushpile. But I pretty quickly came to the conclusion that by the time you got into the top ten of any genre (which I did), the talent scouts would have had a look. Winning the gold star wouldn’t make any difference. At first, the race for the leader board was polite. I’ll never forget one memorable month when Pete Morin (Boston lawyer) and Charles Utley (London lawyer) both had their books hovering on the fifth spot. Each supported the other in a sportsmanlike manner, urging their own followers to vote for the others’ book. In the end, I think Pete’s got the gong first. The next month it was Charles’s turn. Or the other way around. But it didn’t matter – neither received an HC contract.

But it was too good to last. Pretty soon the gamers moved in. They realised before the rest of us that for HC it was never about the quality, always about which book was most likely to sell. People began to trade shelves. “I’ll back your book if you back mine.” Actually reading the book was an optional extra. One fellow clearly watched the screen showing who had just joined. He would soon “review” and back their book. The thing was he never read more than the blurb. I suspected as much when he reviewed To Dry a Dry Death, mentioning things that never appeared in the book, but are alluded to in the blurb. He was caught out when somebody wrote a blurb on a book that contained nothing but a few words, repeated over and over and over. One woman went even further -she backed the book as soon as it was loaded, and sent a message saying she would review later. Of course, both these people sent messages reminding you if you didn’t reciprocate quickly. The messages feature became an inbox for spam, with people offering swaps, or urging members to ‘back their books’. The forums, which had been lively places to exchange views and have some fun (while doing a bit of marketing)  became a bear pit of accusations, vitriol and back-stabbing.

The final straw, for me and many others of the old guard, came when a REAL gamer joined Authonomy. This fellow had a following of thousands in the online gaming community. He had also written a book. He created a Youtube video, explaining to his game followers how to join the website, and how to then back his book. His book soared into the top contenders virtually overnight. We were scandalised. Most people reached the top of the tree through real hard work, reading and reviewing at least the first chapter of hundreds of books to increase visibility in the hope people would reciprocate. (Mind you, as people neared the top, it was known for some to back every book they opened. After all, the prize was in sight.) Quite a few of us, muttering oaths about ‘fairness’, resigned then and there, and repaired to Facebook to lick our wounds. Many of us, now bitter and twisted, signed up with small presses, or self-published. Really, looking back, we were naive. The race was always about popularity, never about quality.

Still and all, I enjoyed my time on Authonomy. I met many friends all around the world who are still my friends, and I became a better writer. I learned a few lessons, such as don’t take advice from everyone, especially people who do not read your genre. Even then, beware of false praise. And beware of people who can do nothing more than spruik the “rules of writing”. I cringe when I think of some of the “advice” I offered. It was all with the best of intentions, of course. But nowadays I think advice is a bit like magic – given sparingly, if at all. There are other sites around. I joined a few, but none were ever like the Authonomy of old. These days I meet my friends on Facebook. If I need a critique, I ask a few trusted friends whose opinions I value.

Thanks for the memories, Authonomy. It was fun – but I won’t miss you.