The Art of Plotting, Part I - The Tall Tale

Aight.  We've established that I have no idea what I'm doing here, right?  Right.  Okay, let's move on.

So ....

What makes up a plot?

This isn't the kind of lecture where I say a plot has elements A, B, and C.  I'd rather say that these are some anecdotes I've learned about plotting over my writing time.  For what they are worth, these are just my experiences and your mileage may vary.  On the other hand, who's to say I am not great and smart and right about this?

(Muse:  If you were, you would have sold more books by now.)

Uhm, yes, very well.  Anyway, here we go:

- A story has a beginning, middle, and end:  See my previous post for rantings about baby shoes.  In the movie Bull Durham, the world-weary but seasoned player tells the young upstart, "You have fungus on your shower shoes.  When you win 20 games in The Show [the major leagues], you can have fungus on your shower shoes and the press will say you're colorful.  Until then, it just means you're a slob."  None of us are Hemingway yet.  When we are filthy rich from writing (as opposed to just filthy-minded), we can write whatever we want and call it a story.  Until then, we should make sure it has a clearly-defined start and finish.

- Originality is good; consistency is more important:  By that, I mean, "consistency within the established rules of that universe."  Things happening for no reason, or no apparent reason, are very frustrating to the reader.  If suddenly, at the Battle of Pelennor Fields (in front of Minas Tirith, in Return of the King) , half a dozen A-10s had appeared over the field and strafed the orcs, most people would have been scratching their heads, thinking, "WTF?"  Yes, it would have been original.  It would have made no sense in the context of the story.  This applies to characters, too.  Why do characters suddenly act out of character - or out of line with their established abilities?  This is so common that the
TV Tropes site has a section developed to it:  New Powers as the Plot Demands.  Have serfs been forbidden to own weapons for centuries?  Then why does the farmboy protagonist show a sudden mastership of a heavy bladed weapon?  I'm not saying these things can't happen - but they need to happen for a reason that is consistent in the framework of the story.  My underlying point is that original doesn't automatically mean good; after all, eight-legged goats are pretty rare, but aside from a few fetishists, no one is clamoring for them.  Make sure your plot events make sense in context.

- Setting flavors the plot, not vice versa:  I think a lot of authors make the mistake of saying, "Well, I want my plot to be x, so setting doesn't matter, I'll just tie it in afterwards."  On the contrary, brother.  Per my previous point, I think setting is integral to the plot and exerts a great deal of influence.  The Star Wars movies are often called a space opera.  But how much sense would the epic battle have been at the end of Episode IV if it had been several dozen log rafts sallying out to face down an aircraft carrier?  It would necessitate a substantial change to the ending of the story.  Better yet, take
Sleepless in Seattle and move it to the Middle Ages.  By the time Tom Hanks's second message - via horse, I guess - reached Meg Ryan, she would have been married off to some feudal lord and would be on her second child.  I've read a lot of submission guidelines for spec fiction.  They almost always say the speculative elements need to be essential to the plot - i.e., "If I can extract the speculative elements without changing the story, it's not speculative," is a common phrasing.  Folks are not taking their setting into account.

- Conflict is not plot; meaningful conflict is:  Okay, so the hero gets in a fight with three clods and beats them all.  Then What Happened?  Were they ancient enemies?  Does their beat-down/death mean something to the antagonist?  Does the character feel remorse?  Slip a little towards the dark side because of it?  Is there *any* character advancement?  Is there *any* plot advancement?  Does anyone care?  That's what I'm getting at; when there is conflict, it should be for a reason.  Writing conflict is easy.  And on that note, even though I am certain offender, blow-by-blow fight scenes are best used sparingly - and the more of them there are, the less meaningful they become.  I also think this true of, uhm, blow-by-blow scene description for that other subject.  (That pun was fully intentional.  "And visions of smut danced through their heads....")  The conflict doesn't have to be driven by the protagonist, either.  Bad guys do bad things for various reasons, but I'll cover that in a later installment.  Bottom line:  make the struggle mean something to someone other than the author's bloodlust or just regular lust.

- Don't lose yourself in the message:  I'm closer to Ayn Rand's political view than many in the spec fiction reading sphere.  But
Atlas Shrugged is all but unreadable because it devolves into lengthy diatribes based on the author's viewpoints.  Heinlein gets close in places.  And lest something think I am picking only on my conservative homies, Pullman's anti-Catholic rants leap off the page in the Dark Materials series.  And some people thought A Handmaid's Tale was subtle.  I thought it was overbearing and yawn-inducing.

(Muse:  Get to the damn point, you put half your audience asleep and you can't afford to lose two readers!)

My point is this:  if you want to involve politics, be subtle.  Don't put your characters on a soapbox; let the reader finish, sit back and digest the tale and figure out for themselves what message was intended.  I don't think a message is worth wrecking the plot over.  I mean, if you want to write about politics, there are lots of political journals.  I read newspapers, news websites, and said journals when I want to deal with the real world.  I don't mind some politics in my fiction but it should be secondary.

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Okay, is everyone worn out?  Me too.  But I will be back in a few days with the next installment.  Hopefully, y'all will tune in again.

If not, please do something fun with your time.

Ciao!

The Art of Plotting - Preface

Okay, folks:  this is where my ego gets really out of control.  (Muse:  You mean it wasn't already?  Me:  Quiet, you slut!  SMACK!)

There's some debate (meaning, I took a random internet thread and inflated it in my mind to encompass the entire writing-o-sphere) over whether certain authors are in fact writers, or storytellers.  The idea of telling an engrossing, compelling story is by no means the same as having a knack for tying together a string of delightful words, that tantalize the reader.  There's a lot to love about both skills and a lot to dislike about the lack of either skill.  A lot of authors seem to be able to do one without doing the other well.  Some are accused of not being able to do either.

Maybe it's just anecdotal but it seems to me that the storytellers favor novels and those with magic syntax favor the short story.  I have my own nasty opinions about why that is but without being a complete snot by saying it outright, I think the respective lengths play to those strengths.  A longer story allows for a more complex, more in-depth plot.  A shorter story can make use of dazzling imagery, evoking some captivating thought in the reader that would probably be diluted in a longer work.

Sure, sure, there are exceptions.  Nabokov demonstrated outstanding control of his language through the entire length of Lolita.  Though I may be the lone voice in the wilderness here, I thought the plot was basically dumb and Humbert a completely unlikeable douchebag (I'll cover characters a few installments from now).  Yes, yes, I get the concept of unreliable narrators.  Still hated it, despite the pretty wording, which I agree was of enviable quality.  And I see some short stories with incredible plots - plots that haunt me from the dark bowers of night as I try to decode and absorb them.  To me, these are the exceptions that prove the rule.

If I had to categorize myself, I think I am certainly in the vein of being a storyteller more than a literary writer.  Fancy command of the language is impressive and I wish I could do it better.  But to me, the essence of a story is "Then what happened?"  Without that, is it a cohesive story - or is it just a vignette?  A character study?  An exercise in mental masturbation?  (Or if reading Laurell K Hamilton, the real thing?)  Nobody is going to remember my writing skill - and those that do, will question my intelligence, sanity, and probably bladder control.  But I would like someone, somewhere, to read one of stories and yell, "Now that's entertainment, baby!"

A story has a beginning, middle, and end.  I've had people throw that Hemingway nonsense about baby shoes at me, as an example of a story.  If you don't know the anecdote, Hemingway responded to a challenge of writing a story in under ten words.  He puked out, "Baby shoes for sale.  Never worn."  And the women swooned, and the poets gnashed their teeth at Papa's genius.  Rubbish, says I.  That's no story.  There are more questions than answers, there are no characters, and there is no context.  For crying out loud, the old chestnut about combining religion, sex, mystery and royalty into a concise story was 10x more entertaining ("My God, I'm pregnant," said the Queen.  "Who's the father?")  If you disagree with me on this, then please press ALT + F4 now.  No, seriously, don't .... but do beat yourself in the head with a whiffle bat for a few minutes.  I want to read  why Character X has a problem, how they cope with it, and Then What Happened.

(Did anyone really beat themselves with a whiffle bat?  I hope not ... but I would still have to laugh.)

In one of my peer groups, I recently reviewed a story that was everything a literary writer could hope for.  The imagery was brilliant.  The emotions were raw and incredible.  The heavy context of the characters' fates was palpable.  But it had plot holes one could push a manatee through - plot holes akin to suggesting that mankind had doomed itself by forgetting two thousand years of science overnight, without any attempted explanation as to why.  When I wrote as much to the author, the response I got was (no shit) , "Thank you for your review.  But I disagree; this story doesn't need a stronger plot."

Words fail me.  For once, my smart mouth had no response.  As The Man said, a complete failure to communicate.

Anyway ....

This is the start of my series on how to construct a meaningful plot.  I can hear you thinking, "What makes you qualified to do so?"  Not a damn thing, so take it all with a grain of salt.  Take it with a shaker of salt, as you should with all my blog posts.

This doesn't have to be a one-way conversation.  If I am in error or taking a narrow view of this, tell me.  Tell me I'm wrong.  Tell me I'm high.  Tell me I'm a Nazi tool.  Tell me Humbert was a Nazi tool (please do).  Whatever, just tell me what you think ... persuade me through the power of, er, persuasion.

Next up, Part One - The Plot itself.  It'll be up later this week, pending my motivation and the aforementioned bladder control.

(By the way, as I write this, I 'm listening to parts of George Harrison's album Gone Troppo.  Golden Earring and Eagles on deck.  Sigh.  Today's music is so much sluice through the waste disposal grate.)

Blade and powder


Bravus the Knight leaned back in the saddle as his charger Equus cantered through the trees.  Though his back ached and his hands were blistered, it had been a good day.  The local peasants had burned the chapel and market in protest, and risen against their Lord - but Bravus had not been deterred.  Unarmored men armed with farming implements had been no match for the strength of his steel, his years of training, and boundless courage.  Now their bodies mingled with the ashes of their village, providing warning to any serfs foolish enough to defy the natural order in the future.

Yes, it had been a good day. 

The bushes rustled just ahead and a man emerged.  Equus nickered and hesitated, setting his barding a-jingle.  Bravus's hand went to his sword.  The man appeared as any other peasant, clad in filthy rags and thin-boned.  Bravus narrowed his eyes.  The peasant did not carry a weapon - at least, Bravus thought it was no weapon.  The man hefted an odd device of black metal, about three feet long.  Various flanges protruded from the device, which looked like nothing more than a metal stick.  If the peasant had not been cradling the device as a man might hold a crossbow, Bravus would have dismissed it altogether.

"Going somewhere, Lord Bravus?"  The man's voice was mocking.


Bravus felt his temper flare.  He drew his sword from scabbard with a steely whistle - a sound that always inflamed his bloodlust.  "You dare speak so to me, the Lord of this land?  Out of my way, worm."

The peasant raised his device - again, to Bravus's mind, like a crossbow - and a trickle of unease entered his mind.  When the peasant spoke again, all traces of mocking were gone, replaced by barely-controlled anger.  "The Lord God sayeth that vengeance is his.  That is so .... but it is my task to speed you on that meeting."

Bravus moved to click his spurs but a great flash of light and a loud clang sounded, as if someone had dropped a lead-filled chest from the battlement of his castle.  Then another, and another.  A pair of hammerblows struck Bravus in the chest.  Sudden cold gripped his body, save a steady warmth flowing over his back and abdomen.  He cast his eyes down.  Two mangled holes gaped in the metal of his cuirass - a cuirass produced at great cost by the finest smiths in the land.

His limbs leadened and a wooziness filled his brain.  Bravus toppled from his horse.  He barely felt the impact with the ground.  His consciousness flickered out as his heart ceased beating.  His last thought was of the peasant's device. 

Bravus wondered if he would be the last noble to feel its gentle touch.

******************

So .....

will finish Omega Mage, one way or the other; Mrs. Axe will see to it, even if she has to resort to daily beatings.  I owe it to her to finish, as she has been my #1 supporter and cheerleader.  So I will complete it.

But what then?  Back to writing short stories?  Not exclusively.  I think the novel is my future.  But ... about what?  Well, I gots ideas - many, many ideas.

I was considering going with something of a more alternate history of Earth, and braching off at one point, to see what happens.  One of the hurdles I ran into, early on in the conception, was the concept of firearms in the hands of the peasantry.  And that of course, got me thinking (which is always trouble).

I read quite a bit of discussion on the sword vs. firearm argument - most of it from the internet perspective of "who wins in a fight?"  I think the concept is a little deeper than that.  The way I see it, one is a tool of elitists, the other is not.

Swords - or at least good swords - were a status symbol among the wealthy of the middle ages, feudal japan, and other societies.  Commoners often had to make do with polearms, spears, hatchets, and other less metal-heavy devices.  I've read in places that for a knight to have a good quality battle-sword, it would cost in the vicinity of $25K of today's dollars.  Not an insignificant amount.  And a sword is a weapon that requires years of training.  It's a complex skill to master and it's as easy to injure yourself as it is your target if you don't know what you're doing.  Add in the same factors (cost and time to learn) to the armor, the shield, a good horse and riding techniques and you see that only the very wealthy could afford high-quality weapons.  On top of that, such factors as strength and size of the opponents are certainly in play in a swordfight.  This is not to say that swords are worthless, but I think their worth was always out of proportion to their following. as an awesome tool of war.  After all, I'd bet money that far more people were killed by the bow and arrow than by the sword.

Now consider guns.  By comparison, they are relatively cheap and easy to manufacture.  Guns are easy to use; even using older blackpowder techniques, a user can become proficient in a matter of weeks.  Guns are an equalizer, in terms of the opponent's size and strength - and a knight's armor would no more stop the bullet from a modern rifle than a t-shirt would.

What's my point?  I guess that guns are much more egalitarian.  An armored knight, with years of training, carefully-honed skills, and hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of equipment ... can be destroyed in the blink of an eye, from a distance at which the knight cannot retaliate, by an illiterate peasant armed with a $300 rifle, and a few weeks of practice.  And not discount the value of human life, but rifles and peasants are easier to replace than knights.

No wonder the samurai banned the possession of firearms from the peasantry in the 1600s (or 1500s, or whenever it was).  They had to maintain that grip on lethal death-dealing, lest anyone realize they were just as fragile and expendable as the rest of us.

So, my quandary is this:  if I have a large semi-oppressed people, who suddenly have the means to overthrow the people against them - and the impetus - why would they not do it?  How would the overlords keep them focused on an external threat?   It's a major plot hang-up but I would rather resolve it before I wrote the story, as I don't want people looking back in ten years and saying, "Can you believe this crap was published with this huge plot hole?  Dan Brown did better than this."

(Muse:  You really think people are going to be discussing your stories in ten years?  Good God, you are full of yourself.)


Sigh.

Daily Update #17

Ah, to where doth the hours depart?  Already, two months down in 2011.  Be 2012 in no time.  Anyway, the updates:

- Omega Mage is proceeding nicely.  I had to take a hiatus for about four weeks but I've cranked out some decent words in the last two weekends - around 7.5K the first time and maybe half that this last weekend.  I re-read part of what I wrote and I think it's holding up very well.

- For those that doubt the power of e-publishing, check this out:  
The Very Rich Indie Writer.  Nice story and gives all of us lone lunatics hope.  (Hat tip to Lesli Wilder for the link; in addition to being a better writer than me, she seems to be better at finding interesting links.  I'm still better at loafing.)

- My story "The King of Belmer" is now out in e-print, from
Rymfire books.  The name of the anthology is "State of Horror: Louisiana".  Rather obviously, all of the stories are set in the Pelican State.  It's small press but a sale is a sale - and we should support small press if they make good product.  Not saying that what I wrote is good but you know what I mean.  You can find it at the Rymfire site, or at Lulu, or Amazon...

- Is it wrong to say I had a smile on my face when seeing my name on Amazon, even in such a small capacity?  Well, I 'm gonna smile anyway.

- ... and my story "A Mother's Joy" should be out in the next issue of Golden Visions (in April).  GV's website is
here.

- And I reshuffled some links on the left margin.  There is another link I would like to add but I need to wait on something (oh, I know that is just killing some of you....)

- Finally, I just realized that I have had this blog up for thirteen months now.  In that time, I've made 69 posts before this one, or an average of one every five days or so.  (I should do better than that.)  Has it helped me?  Hurt me?  No idea on either count but it's been fun.  So here's to the next thirteen months.  Cheers!

Inspire Me

Gary Larson once said the most common question he was asked was, "Where do you get your ideas?"  (A close second was, "Why do you get your ideas?")  Larson said the question tickled him; every time he heard it, he had a mental picture of himself sifting through his grandparents' dusty attic, opening a creaking chest and blowing a thick layer of dust away from a heavy tome titled, "A Thousand and One Weird Cartoon Ideas."

I wish it was that simple.  The reality for most writers is that  inspiration is much more complicated and prosaic.

Inspiration can strike anywhere and any-when.  It's sometimes personified as a damnable muse, a tantalizing whisper that echoes in ones ear, triggering a story.  (My own muse is just a symbol of my guilty conscience, yelling at me when I am goofing off instead of writing.  She doesn't help at all.)  Others describe inspiration as a lightning bolt through the brain, where the story practically writes itself before the thought is even complete.

I can't speak for any of my fellow writers but I like to take my inspiration from any number of real-life sources ... which is odd, because almost all of my work is speculative and at least 2/3 of it is set off-Earth.  I don't write much about the the real world, because I don't like it (see my last post) but it is an incredibly fertile ground for story ideas.

Popular media.  I love song lyrics.  At times, the words sing to me (pun intended) and just find a home.  Consider these stanzas:

I wanna love you but I better not touch
I wanna hold you but my senses tell me to stop
I wanna kiss you but I want it too much
I want to taste you but your lips are venomous poison


and

And in the streets: the children screamed,
The lovers cried, and the poets dreamed.
But not a word was spoken;
The church bells all were broken.


Two different songs with disparate meanings and styles but both of them give me an idea for a story.  Lines in movies and books work the same way.

Listening to other people.  In the stairwell today, I overheard the following clip of conversation:

Person A:  The package is ready but it's been at the Pentagon for weeks.
Person B:  This is going to get messy.


How delightful.  You can take this any number of directions.  People-watching accomplishes the same goal.

Read a Newspaper.  Or, since we are in the 21st century, read their websites.  Below are the headlines from some major news web sites at the moment I type this:

CNN - Live:  Shuttle Discovery's Final Launch

Interesting ... how about the final launch of a scarred, veteran ship into battle, or a desperate voyage to save the world?
Fox News - Senate Dems Eye Cuts as Budget Shutdown Looms
Ohhh, any number of gov't intrigue plots would work.  What about the rationing of magic power between hostile factions?
MSNBC - Despite 9/11, U.S. increased visas to Saudi students
Thoughts of inter-cultural clashes leap to mind.  Racial scapgoating for the dwarves among elves ... or a culture's blindness to obvious infiltration?  It doesn't have to be political, just good storytelling.
New York Times - Qadafi Strikes Back as Rebels Close in on Capital
Civil war always makes a good story.  Galactic rebellion against a tyrant (Star Wars)?  Or two leaders want to take the country's rare dragons in different directions (exploitation vs. cooperation) and have enough followers to throw down.
ABC News - Jennifer Lopez Explains Break Down
That didn't give me an idea, just a little jolt of schadenfreude.  :p

Go to the well.  If all that fails, take something that works and spin it.  What else is Pride and Prejudice and Zombies?  I re-wrote Snow White from the Queen's POV.  I took some pieces of the Disney version, some piece from the old Germanic tale, and added elements of my own.  It was a blast and I encourage everyone to try it.  Snag an old obscure Grimm Brothers story, an Uncle Remus tale, the theme from one of the Little Golden Books we read as kids (you were deprived if you didn't).  Give it a shot.

Okay kids:  did any of you have an idea?  A thought?  A pulse through your tingly bits?  I love coming up with ideas and I find them around me every day.  It's fun.  Getting them on paper:  that is the hard part.  Getting them on paper and doing it well ... well, now that's even harder.  Thus are separated the good from the great.

Okay, enough chit-chat.  Get out there and get inspired.  Go now!

Aren't women just people too?


So.....

I survived my week-long agony at work.  Big conference, with many attendees and I was the Johnny-on-the-spot to put it all together.  Fortunately, it went very well and the big bosses were happy.  Today is the first day in two weeks I have not been in the office so I fully intend to enjoy it by goofing off before getting back to work writing tomorrow.

I had to delay my trip to the local grocery until this weekend.  I normally shop in the evening after work, and for good reason.  Everywhere, teeming masses of shoppers.  Old folks trundling along with their carts.  Families squabbling over brand preference.  Two old friends who had not seen each other chatting in the middle of the aisle. 

I'm an in-an-out shopper (keep your naughty jokes to yourself).  I go in to get what I come for and leave - no lingering, no strolling every square foot of the store.  Everywhere I turned, some other doofus was in my way.  All that kept going through my head was the following
Simpsons dialogue:

Mr. Burns:  Before you  begin, let me make one thing clear to you.  I want your legal advice.  I even pay for it.  But to me, you're all vipers.  You live on personal injury, you live on divorces, you live on pain and misery!  But, I'm rambling.  Coffee anyone?

Lawyer:  I'll have some coffee.

Mr. Burns:  Want it black, don't you?  Black like your heart!  It's so hard for me to listen to you, I HATE YOU ALL SO MUCH!


It's enough to make you want to order grocery delivery.

{Break.}

Sometime in the past few weeks, I shared some of my writing with a secretary at work.  She read it, more to humor me than anything, I think.  The first story she read was The King of Belmer, my sole venture into Lovecraftian-horror.  (It will, by the way, be appearing in an e-book anthology called State of Terror: Louisiana, by Rymfire e-Books.  It should be out ... sometime.)  The story concerns a somewhat annoying couple and their bayou adventure - and subsequent bad things that happen to one of them.  This secretary also read another of my stories.  Afterward, I asked her what I thought.  Her response?

"You don't like women, do you?"

(This wouldn't precisely come as a shock to Mrs. Axe, who has hinted that I harbor such sentiments.)

I never really thought about it.  My stories feature a lot of bad things happening to women.  A lot of bad things happen to the men, too.  I've written some heroic fiction - you know, white knight, paragon of virtue, that sort of thing - but it never resonates with me as well as the darker stuff.  Most of my protagonists are basically good / moral but have a lot of rough edges, and a lot of horrible things happen to good people - and bad people, and all kinds of people.  Why?

{Merge Break}

I did the best I could.  I tried to be calm but my patience snapped.  One lady had her damn cart turned sideways, blocking the entire aisle while she poked around in the spaghetti sauce.  My fingers clenched the handlebar until my knuckles were white.  I waited about two seconds for her to look up and see me there ....  then I pushed my cart into hers, knocking hers out of the way.  She glared at me but I ignored her.  Why?

Simple.  I don't hate women.

I hate everyone.

Not a misogynist, sports fans.  A misanthrope. 
Okay, I agree, "hate" is a strong word.  Too much energy tied up in that active emotion.  And most people aren't worth that kind of effort.  Humanity is to be feared, distrusted, and when possible, ignored.

The Matrix is a good movie but the more I watch it, the more I start to agree with Agent Smith's point-of-view.  Not that humans are viruses in some hippie, humans-are-a-cancer ecological silliness, but that humanity as a whole has not advanced very far from the jungle; we're still the same greedy, narcissistic, selfish bastards we were when were still competing with the other chimps for control of the tribe. 

I can get along great with individuals.  People, as a group?  Uhm, when is the end of the world coming again?  I weep for an individual's pain and suffering.  When aliens drop out of the sky and destroy our race as a threat to the good order of the universe, they would be right to do so.

I let someone else (not the same woman) read my Sheyla stories, which feature a female protagonist, who is bright, self-confident, and thinks before using her sword arm.  Many (but not all) of the men in that universe - those with whom Sheyla interacts - are stupid brutes, sexual deviants, or cowards.  Sheyla was my attempt at having a Conan-type character in a similarly amoral, unscrupulous world but with the extra challenge of being female (in a time & place where women were second-tier citizens).  The response?

"Seems like kind of a feminist tract."

You can't please everyone.  Sometimes, you can't please anyone.  I think I should move to a ranch in the western highlands where I don't have any neighbors and can do my writing and woodworking, and live in peace....

Oh wait.  I still have to go to town and get groceries.

Dang.

If anyone would like to weigh in on my anti-woman leanings, feel free.

Glarg!

Sorry, just drowning under work stuff right now.  Big project coming up week after next, which will consume my entire next two weeks.

I am sooooooo ready to move on.

Anyway, not likely to be any updates before then.  Heck, there won't be much writing until this is over.  Next weekend will be spent at the office. 

Thanks for the suggestions for fantasy art.  It's not for a project or for cover art, just something I've been thinking about for a while - that is, having a piece of said artwork in my living room.  I'm familiar with Luis Royo's art; it's pretty good but tends a tad more towards cheesecake than I prefer.

Looking for fantasy art

To all -

I am still looking for a good website that sells fantasy art.  I really don't care if it is print, poster, or actual paintings.  I know a lot of artists maintain their own sites but I'd like a broad brush and not have to wade through a billion sites.

Specifically, I'd like something that depicts women in a strong manner.  They can be in battle, in positions of power (not bondage-type power), or whatever.  Sexy or not.  I'd prefer realistic proportions versus unrealistic buxomness but I know what most art depicts, so whatever. 
Stjepan Sejic does AWESOME work but his DeviantArt profile doesn't have prints for sale and I have not found any other sites that do.  At some point, I am just going to bite the bullet and commission something from him.  Anyway, that would give you an idea.

Feel free to ask questions and if you have any ideas, please comment below.

Omega Mage Progress

So ....

Anyone who reads this blog routinely - both of you - knows I am writing a novel.

To be honest with you, it's harder than I ever would have thought. I have ... I dunno, maybe 75-80 short stories of various length (between 500 and 20K words).  Short stories aren't easy to write either, since you have to cram your entire story in fewer words - but they do have the benefit of having a quick beginning, middle, and end.  When you write 2000 words, it's pretty easy to edit in a single sitting.  Hell, it's easy to write in a single sitting.

A novel, though, is harder.  Target novel length (according to publishers) for new authors is 80-120K words.  That shows that you can sustain a story but not so long that readers may give it an unknown factor a chance.  In other words, readers may slog through The Stand, because Stephen King is a known entity, whereas Jonathan Pembroke being a new writer, they may not chance an 800-page novel - but will chance a 250-300 page book.

Don't get me wrong; I am making progress.  I think I registered around 5K words this week.  So the story is moving.  But there is an exhaustion factor there I never felt in short stories.  In most short stories, I told the thing and then was done with it, whatever the length.  Now, I have to make it go .... and go, and go .... etc.

I know some folks that are terrified of writing a novel.  I understand it.  But if I can get it finished in good order...what an accomplishment that would be.

Enough bitching, on to the good stuff:

- As stated, I did about 5000 words this week.  Good progress, plus I have this afternoon to add to it.  I am starting to get to where the story really turns and sends the main character off in an unexpected direction.  Unexpected for him and - I hope - the reader.

- I have a page full of notes for revision.  I think I might have diluted the bad-guy pool a little much so subsequent edits will shake that out.  Of course, once finished, I will be looking for beta-readers (hintity-hint-hint).

- I also have some revisions for the world writ at large.  I mentioned in another blog post that world-building is not my forte but I think this one is coming together nicely.  The meshing of technology and magic is always tricky; I even have a steampunk-ish flavor to some of the contraptions here.  I think it works; readership will tell me one way or the other.

- Still searching for a title.  "Omega Mage" isn't a good enough one.

Okay, back to work.  I did manage to get a rewrite request (separate project) in this morning, so fingers crossed.

Advice to Writers

Every once in a while, I get asked for advice on how to get started writing.  Mostly, this comes from friends and coworkers, who have an interest in writing and since I love to talk about it, they ask questions.  I try to offer good advice, based on my own experiences and research.

Anyway, here's a version (edited to protect any names) of what I tell them.  Comments are welcome; am I giving good advice?  Should I just shut up?  (Yeah, right.)

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Your concern is a very real one and frankly, there's no sure method to avoid it.  [JP: When they state they are concerned they may work hard and get nothing back from it.]  This business is as much about the luck of the draw as anything - of catching the editor/publisher on just the right day, when your work really connects with them.  You might end up with something that you can't sell.  But would it be a waste of time?  A lot of people start writing a book.  Very few finish.  It's an accomplishment.

How serious is this dream of yours?  A lot of the memoirs by published authors state that they work on their writing 4-6 hours a day.  Stephen King said that "Amateurs wake up and wait for inspiration, professionals get up and get to work."  I don't say this to discourage you, only to present the reality.  Being a writer is a job, like any other and there is a lot of work involved - work that may not pay off right away, if ever.

Here are a couple of pointers:

1) Read voraciously.  Read like you're a death inmate and books are your last meal.  Books, short stories, journal articles....  Reading a lot does several things for you:
- One, it exposes you to a lot of different styles and author word choices. 
- Two, if you read in the genre which you're writing in, you get a good sense of what's hot and not in the market.  Some established authors, like Brown and Clancy, can write about anything and be good to go.  But when trying to break in, it helps to know what's being read.  For example, if you want to write chick-lit, writing something about vampires (a la the Twilight series) might be helpful.  You'd think that market was saturated but it's not quite there yet.
- Three, read books on how to write.  You may not agree with everything but there is a lot of good advice and gets you to consider a lot of pointers.

2) Join a critiquing group.  I'm part of several online critiquing groups, where I can submit my work and get other people's reactions to it.  That helps tell if my characters are realistic, if my plot is non-sensical, or if I am using the same word too often (something I've done a few times).  Also, while they can be a terrible time sink, discussion boards on writing provide good info.  Some groups require you review other people's writing before you can post your own - or that you review a minimum amount of other work, so it is a cost-benefit analysis for you.  I find it useful.  I write speculative fiction (sci-fi, fantasy, & horror), so I don't know the critiquing groups for your genre - but they must exist.  Troll the web - or even look around locally for a live version.

3) Consider professional editing - but carefully. 
There are professional editing services out there that can - for a hefty sum - review your book and provide you a critique from a "professional."  This can be quite costly ($500-$1000 for a novel is not uncommon).  For your payment, they will do any number of things, from copy editing to offering ideas on character development and tying up loose plot elements, and usually you can buy these services a la carte.  This is slightly different than what I discuss in #6 below, as editing is a precursor to submitting to the publishing house.  I only bring this up because you may run into it during your writing forays.  For myself, I have never used one and cannot see myself ever using one, other than maybe copy editing (grammar, punctuation, etc.), as I never catch my own typos.  I see a lot of these editing sites push their services but to me, the product is a complete unknown.  Many claim to be professional but there is no certification and very few credentials on such a thing - so what makes them an expert?  If they say your main character is un-engaging, that's only their opinion and you just paid $1K to get it.  You can get a 90% solution from a review site per above.  The opinion isn't as refined, but you can get multiple views for free (or for a time investment).  I'm not saying it's useless but consider it carefully, and only after research.  It's not a requirement to be published, even though some of the services present their product as it were.

4) Know your markets.  Don't submit romance to a publishing company specializing in kid's books and don't submit a techno-thriller to Harlequin Romance novels.  You can buy a Writer's Market guide, or check one out from the library - but I prefer just to look up things online.  The Market is good but gets outdated way too quickly, as publishers change their requirements or even wants.  When you go to the bookstore, note the publishers and Google their names.  Most major book companies have blurbs about what kind of fiction they publish and what they're looking for.  Also, you can consider online publishers and e-books.  It's not an enormous market yet but it is going to get bigger. 

5) Follow submission instructions to the letter.   If I could only offer one piece of advice, this would be it.  Nothing will get your manuscript ash-canned faster than failing to obey the publisher's directions for submissions.  You can find submission guidelines on every publisher's website.  Some only accept agented submissions (see #6).  Some only want a page-long synopsis and will request the rest later if interested.  Some want the whole thing.  Some ask for electronic submissions, some want it via snail-mail.  There are font, margin, and page-numbering variations.  Follow ... them ... all.

The way the process works in all but the smallest publishing houses is via something called the slush pile.  Manuscripts come in and go to the slush pile.  Then, they pass through a pre-reader, who is looking to see if you followed the guidelines and can spell and punctuate properly.  Having been a slush reader for about a year for an e-book publisher, I can tell you that you would be shocked at just how many manuscripts are rejected on this basis - a good third, I bet.  Then it will go to several other readers.  If it does not get a pass from enough of them (or all of them), it never makes it to the final editor.  If it makes it that far, the final editor will take a look and make a decision.  For short stories, the final acceptance rate can be anywhere from 10% to less than 1%.  That includes the 33% bounced for not doing something as simple as following directions. 

If you want the publisher to pay you, make sure you give the publisher precisely what they want.  Double-spaced 12-pt Courier, with one-inch margins and your name/title/page number in the header may feel like a pain in the ass to format but it is the industry standard.  Oh, and don't right-justify text unless they specifically want it.  I have never seen a publisher that does but almost all warn against it, so enough people must do it.  They want ragged right margins.

6) Money always flows to the author.  If you need to get an agent, the process is a lot like finding a publisher:  find out their interest/wants, and follow their guidelines explicitly.  The benefit of an agent (to a publisher) is that they are a BS-filter for the publisher, and the publisher doesn't pay for it.  You do, kind of.  An agent can be a great boom in getting you published.  They know the markets and often personally know the publishers.  But they take a percentage of your royalties - usually 10-15%.  Read that closely:  they take royalties, not a fee.  So if they don't sell your book, they don't get paid - so it is in their interest to sell to the biggest publisher possible, which translates to more sales, and thus more money for them.  You don't have to wait; you can get submit to an agent even if your target publisher doesn't require it.  The agent may be helpful in identifying your ideal market. 

There is one kind of agent to avoid:  the one that requests a fee to get your novel published.  99% of the time, these people are scammers.  They have no incentive to get you published once you've paid them.  Legitimate agents, like legitimate realtors, never take money up front.  The phrase "money always flows to the author" is all you need to remember.  Research, research, research an agent before you submit to them or sign anything.



Recognize that most of the advice I gave has little to do with writing a book.  It's like any other product:  salesmanship gets it sold.  If you read Crichton, Brown, Clancy, Patterson, and Cussler, then you know what kind of story gets sold.  Writing it and getting in good shape is just the first step.  As you go through this, you will get a lot advice from a lot of people.  Take it all with a grain of salt - including everything I just told you.  It's advice, not the holy word.  The closest thing I would say to an absolute is #5.  Be flexible, be optimistic.

Once you start submitting, you will get rejections.  It's inevitable.  Don't fold, and don't give up, regardless of what happens.  Keep a stiff upper lip and stay positive.  I get about fifteen rejections for every short story I sell.

Hope that was helpful.  If you have any more specific questions, I will try to answer them.

G'luck!