Friday, April 29, 2011

Fantasy Schmantasy

There’s been a huge kerfuffle on the interwebs recently about two reviews of HBO’s fantasy series Game of Thrones. One, by New York Times reviewer Ginia Bellafante, has caused the most outrage, as she pretty much dismisses the entire population of female fantasy fans as, well, fantasy, and implies that we girls would much rather read a book stamped by Oprah than a book with filled with swords and medieval political machinations. Whatever. I won’t try your patience; many folks out there in the interworld have very eloquently told Ms. Bellafante what for in that respect. What is stuck in my craw is that both she and Slate’s reviewer, Troy Patterson, dismiss the fantasy genre as not worth reviewing in a serious manner, while they’re reviewing it. Bellafante gets her facts shockingly wrong, and also says that the show, because of its content, does not belong on the venerated HBO. Patterson admits he dislikes the genre, and only kinda-sorta actually reviews the show.

Fortunately, we have Matt Zoller Seitz at to set them straight: all you fantasy geeks out there, just try not to fist punch the air as he takes these two on.

Times Review

Salon Review

The whole hurly-burly, however, has gotten me thinking, and I realize that I’ve encountered more than my fair share of disdain for liking speculative fiction as an adult.

I love Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and I’m so not alone in this, and yet, when it comes up in conversation – Them: “What’s your favorite show?” Me: “Buffy.” I’ve gotten many blantant reactions of eye-rolling disbelief, from sneers to “Reallys?” Okay, right. Unlike Game of Thrones, Buffy the Vampire Slayer isn’t graced with a name that reeks of gravitas: so, those who haven’t seen it might lump it in a category with Sabrina the Teenage Witch, or, I don’t know, Small Wonder.

We’ve said it before on this blog, and we’ll say it again: Buffy is an incredibly well written, well acted, dramatic, creative and humorous show, full of characters who grow and change (okay, yes, sometimes into a werewolf, but still). And you know what? Some people just don’t like sci fi/fantasy, and that’s okay. I have a good friend who, because she loves me, watches episodes of Buffy with me. She generally only watches serious, realistic dramas, but she sticks with Buffy because A) There are moments of truly stellar drama in the series, and B) David Boreanaz is hot. That said, she could take or leave your standard “Monster of the Week” episodes, whereas for me, the Hellmouth is half the fun. The thing to note here is she’s not dismissive of the genre; it’s just not her favorite. Whereas many folks look upon we speculative fiction fans as childish, regressive, socially inept losers. Why is that? Really?

Another story: A coworker of mine blew the ending of the sixth Harry Potter book for me. I’m crazy about J.K. Rowling, and I think those books are brilliant – I believe they will go down in history as great classics. The coworker in question was talking about Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince, a book, it should be noted, that he hadn’t himself read, nor had he read any of the series – but his wife had finished it over the weekend and told him what happened. After repeated requests for him to stop talking about it, as I hadn’t finished the book, he looked me straight in the eye with an irate look on his face, and blurted out the ending.

I was furious and hurt. I’d been waiting breathlessly for over a year for the book to come out, I was looking forward to going home and savoring a few more chapters that night, and although he didn’t ruin the book for me, he certainly stole away one of the biggest surprises of the series. When I confronted him, his response was, “I don’t know what the big deal is. It’s only a kids’ book.”

Interesting. There was almost envy in that statement, as though he didn’t, as a Grown Up, allow himself to go there - to a fantasyland of magic and monsters - and the fact that I and many others could extract childlike wonder from the experience made him spiteful and mean. I picture him now: a grounded child sitting in his living room, palms and nose pressed against the front picture window, as unicorns and fairies and elves and wizards frolic around his yard.

What’s very weird is the idea that sci fi/fantasy, comics, magic and swords are childish, and if someone continues to enjoy these things into adulthood, it’s because they’re somehow damaged: they’re geeks and dorks, living on the fringes of society, holed up in their basement playrooms with their pewter orc figurines and dungeon maps. (Okay, well, those people do exist, too: fair’s fair.) Yet, hmm. Superheroes. Elves. Dwarves. Vampires. Wizards. Giant robots. Aliens. These are the heroes and villains of some of the biggest movie blockbusters of the last 15 years.

Perhaps it is okay to love the unreal as long as you have a bag of popcorn in your lap. Mighty Odin forbid you get your fantasy kick from a book or any other lauded medium.

Friday, April 22, 2011


In my last post, I wrote about killer endings for chapters.

Another thing I've been trying to pay attention to in my own reading is how authors start their chapters and what techniques really pull me in.

I noticed a great one while reading To Kill a Mockingbird this past winter. (For the first time!) Now, TKaM exemplifies many writerly skills to engage the reader, not the least among them, create characters who are real, flawed, and who you can't help cherishing. But for now, I'm just concentrating on this one thing that really stood out for me: you don't have to start a chapter at the beginning. Instead you can start it after some action is already underway.

That's counterintuitive to me as a writer-funny, how so many of my lessons in learning to become a better writer have to do with throwing out what initially makes sense. Case in point: it doesn't make sense to confuse your readers. This is true, and so you might then think: Well, I should start at the beginning; if I throw the reader into a scene that has already begun, they won't know where they are or who's there with them. They'll be lost; being lost is scary; they'll be angry at the one who got them all confused, frightened, and lost-like; they'll throw the book across the room and let the cats gnaw on the corners.
But, it turns out, sometimes plunking your reader abruptly into a scene can work. And work brilliantly.

Here are a nice example from the start of chapter 9:

"You can just take that back, boy!"
This order, given by me to Cecil Jacobs, was the beginning of a rather thin time for Jem and me. My fists were clenched and I was ready to let fly. Atticus had promised me he would wear me out if he ever heard of me fighting any more; I was far too old and too big for such childish things, and the sooner I learned to hold in , the better off everybody would be. I soon forgot.
Cecil Jacobs made me forget.

We know hardly anything about the setting. Are Scout and Cecil inside or outside? Are they alone or surrounded by other children? Maybe there are adults there too? And most importantly, we don't know what Cecil has said that's pissed Scout off. And that not-knowing is a large part of the force that drives the reader on. (So much the better that Harper Lee's also got the humor-drive and the Scout-drive going at the same time.) Had Lee explained it all chronologically, it would have been flat in comparison.

Lee only uses this particular method of pulling the reader in a couple other times in the book. Which probably speaks to not overusing any one technique. Significantly, she employs it in the first chapter:

When he was nearly thirteen, my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow. ...
When enough years had gone by to enable us to look back on them, we sometimes discussed the events leading to his accident. I maintain that the Ewells started it all, but Jem, who was four years my senior, said it started long before that. He said it began the summer Dill came to us, when Dill first gave us the idea of making Boo Radley come out.

And right off the bat we have mystery: what happened? how did it start? who's Dill? making Boo Radley come out from where, and who is Boo anyway? That's a lot of questions for the first two paragraphs, but those lot of questions motivate us to keep reading so we get the answers.

My own opening raises a lot of questions as well. And many of my writing workshop readers haven't liked that. My guess is that if the writing is good enough, and you start answering some of those questions right away, they'll stick around. So, in the end, I'm suggesting we provoke questions, but have our characters, language, setting strong enough that those questions create reader-quests, rather than reader-confusion.

And now I'm off to make my writing good enough for the questions I want to raise.

Friday, April 15, 2011

How to Pitch Your Story

I’m a firm believer in taking advantage of opportunities as they arise. And what could be better than an opportunity to sit down across the table from someone who has the potential to make your dreams come true and take your shot?

That’s exactly what I did last weekend at the Madison Writer’s Institute

Part of this conference, like many writing conferences out there, were optional “pitch” sessions with a half-dozen literary agents. These sessions cost extra ($15 each) for the 8-minute session you got to spend with each respective agent. During registration you were limited to only two such sessions—which from the sounds of it filled up early.

Prep Work

Before the conference I had done my best to have some materials ready for the agents I was going to talk with. I spent hours trying to whittle down my synopsis to only a couple pages (epic fail), tried to have a page that explained my book’s concept, my bio and next project, and also brought a sample chapter along. I think all of this was good prep work, and it was nice to have something for me to refer to during the pitch sessions, but for the purposes of the agents I could have left it all behind. The agents didn’t want it—their preference was to receive everything by e-mail.

When is a Manuscript Done?

I heard the story recently of American writer, David Guterson, sitting around his house doing edits on his printed/published book Snow Falling on Cedars—just toying with it, seeing if there was anything that could be improved—for his own purposes. I just completed my 3rd edition of my novel BLACKHEART, and immediately I’m ready to do revision 4. Before ever signing up for this conference I asked myself if my book was ready to be seen by agents. I decided “yes.” That doesn’t mean that revision 4 still won’t happen…

A Sleepless Night

I had signed up for the pitch sessions months before when I signed up for the conference—and I hadn’t felt nervous about them at all consciously—until the night before they were scheduled. At about 3:30AM I woke up, realizing that I was going over specific plot points of my novel BLACKHEART in my head, preparing, preparing, preparing. My mind kept going over each great part of my book that I wanted to share—and also the parts I did not want to bring up (multiple POV, a couple chapters that still need tightening, etc). I would have preferred a good night’s sleep.

Important advice: Know your agent(s).

When I signed up for these agent pitch sessions I had done my best to pick the couple that seemed most likely to handle the type of work that I want to sell. My novel is “horror” so I definitely wanted to talk with agents who handled genre fiction. Imagine my disappointment during the conferences opening introductions when I heard one of the agents I was scheduled to meet later that day say, “I sell everything but horror.” L

Batter up…

There were two rooms dedicated to “pitching.” When I arrived a young woman with a timer and a checklist stood between the two rooms acting as gatekeeper. “They’re running a couple minutes behind,” I was informed. I gave her my name and waited with the other half-dozen or so authors all milling around nervously, waiting for their turns. We compared notes: What is your book about? Who are you meeting with? Is this your first pitch session? And so on and so on. As we waited other authors came out of the rooms, showing a variety of emotions: relief, disappointment, elation.

“You can go in,” I was told.

Eight Minutes in Heaven

Agent A was very upfront when I asked him to clarify if he carried horror. “No. And I’ll tell you the reason why. I only have two or three places I can try to sell it—then I’m out of options.” I asked if he minded me trying my pitch on him. “Go for it,” he said, but clarified, arms crossed, “But no matter how good it is I won’t be able to represent you.” I gave it my best shot.

What I learned about the opening to my novel BLACKHEART is that it is awesome to adapt for a dramatic pitch. When the book opens my main character Clay is seated at a bloody table between two corpses—across from him, peering out of the darkness is the hulking and horribly scarred badass Blackheart. As I gave my pitch I lay my head on the table, explained how Clay wakes up, how he’s handcuffed to the chair, how his gun sits on the table just out of reach, how the SWAT team is beating on the doors and windows that won’t be broken down on this creepy little home, how Clay has to kill Blackheart or watch his friend get gunned down. In many ways I was able to act the part of Clay to the agent’s Blackheart, each of us across the pitching table from each other. It was fun, and no pressure. After all, the guy had already told me he couldn’t represent me.

“So, what do you think?” I asked Agent A.

“It sounds like a great story—but I can’t sell it,” he said.

“Do you know anyone who can?” I asked.

“Get out a pen,” Agent A said. He gave me the name of one of his associates who he thinks might like a story like mine. He said I should use his name. Awesome.

Eight (no make that ten) Minutes in Hell

About an hour later I was back at the pitching room door, loitering outside with the other authors, comparing notes on previous sessions. The timer sounded, gatekeeper girl told me to go inside.

Agent B and I shook hands. She said she enjoyed meeting writers—most of her 20+ clients she has right now from all over the world she has never met. Agent B was also kind enough to clarify for me that she did agent horror. Woo hoo! This pitch session was off to a much better start.

I one again acted out the opening scene and the shootout between Clay and Blackheart. I realized this time I was a bit more nervous, that I was omitting some subtle details I’d done a better job telling in pitch session 1. No matter… time was ticking away. Agent B listened intently, leaning across the table, wide eyed, nodding her head. Occasionally she’d ask a question. “What happens next?” “How does it end?” “We’re actually out of time… but go on.” I went through each turning point as best I could, grossly over-simplifying my 450 page book. When it was over I asked her, “So do you want to see more?” “Yes,” said Agent B. “E-mail me your first three chapters.” J

So did I get my $30 worth of agent time? Hell yeah. I got to explain my book to two literary agents who are in the business of selling fiction—with positive feedback. I also had a request to see more of my manuscript from one agent, and a lead I can pursue in the future from the other. Will these meetings ultimately help me sell my manuscript? That remains to be seen. But I definitely enjoyed the experience and the whole process definitely put me in a mind frame to understand my story better, from the perspective of someone who might want to buy it.

Advice for Pitching Your Story?

From my experience all I can say is have your manuscript as complete as it can be, know your story as well as you can, rehearse if you have the time, and try to meet with agents who sell your genre of material. After that I like to just think it’s either meant to be or it’s not.

Happy Writing.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Book Review: Joe Abercrombie's The Heroes

They say Black Dow’s killed more men than winter, and clawed his way to the throne of the North up a hill of skulls. The King of the Union, ever a jealous neighbour, is not about to stand smiling by while he claws his way any higher. The orders have been given and the armies are toiling through the northern mud. Thousands of men are converging on a forgotten ring of stones, on a worthless hill, in an unimportant valley, and they’ve brought a lot of sharpened metal with them.

Bremer dan Gorst, disgraced master swordsman, has sworn to reclaim his stolen honour on the battlefield. Obsessed with redemption and addicted to violence, he’s far past caring how much blood gets spilled in the attempt. Even if it’s his own.

Prince Calder isn’t interested in honour, and still less in getting himself killed. All he wants is power, and he’ll tell any lie, use any trick, and betray any friend to get it. Just as long as he doesn’t have to fight for it himself.

Curnden Craw, the last honest man in the North, has gained nothing from a life of warfare but swollen knees and frayed nerves. He hardly even cares who wins any more, he just wants to do the right thing. But can he even tell what that is with the world burning down around him?

Over three bloody days of battle, the fate of the North will be decided. But with both sides riddled by intrigues, follies, feuds and petty jealousies, it is unlikely to be the noblest hearts, or even the strongest arms that prevail…

Three men. One battle. No Heroes.

            - Joe Abercrombie’s The Heroes

I had grown tired of Fantasy.

After all the long years, I just couldn’t do it anymore. I was done. Finished. I was over it. This was sad, because I had grown up on Tolkien, on Lewis, on White, on Alexander. Jack Vance’s Lyonesse is still one of my favorite books, but the truth was undeniable, and that was, barring a few notable and well deserved exceptions, if I never read about another wistful elf maid in a flowing gossamer gown staring longingly out her moon-lit tower window again, that would be just fine with me.

The problem was I still really liked bits of the genre. Big bits. Dungeons. Dragons. Knights. Kings and castles. All that. I wanted it, but I didn’t want the lame Ren Faire bullshit that came with. I couldn’t take that “forsooth” crap anymore. No, thank you. And the next portly asswipe in goatee and curling moustaches that says “Have at thee!” at me is getting a boot to the nuts.

I was done.

But I didn’t go easily. I still trolled the fantasy section at the bookstore from time to time, but… meh. I tried Jordon’s Wheel of Time series, and for a time that was alright, but well, we all know how that worked out, or didn’t. Then I found George R. R. Martin. The Game of Thrones and the rest of the Songs of Ice and Fire series that followed were like a well deserved and long anticipated homecoming. Fantastic, yet real. Noble, yet brutal. A grand and sweeping multiple POV fantasy masterpiece, brilliantly realized. Incredible. Amazing. And the HBO show looks like it’s going to be even more amazing than one has a right to expect. I consider him and Tolkien as bookends to modern fantasy. Unfortunately, while it’s true that George R. R. Martin is not my bitch, and despite the fact that the latest novel is coming out in a few weeks (allegedly), it has been almost six years since the last one.

Six years?

Six years!

I met my wife and got married in the time since the last one, which, let's be honest, was just treading water to appease the fans anyway, and George, baby, in the time since… I have strayed.

And that’s when I found Joe Abercrombie.

And up they came indeed. Four of them. New recruits, fresh off the boat from Midderland by their looks. Seen off at the docks with kisses from mummy or sweetheart or both. New uniforms pressed, straps polished, buckles gleaming and ready for the noble soldiering life, indeed. Forest gestured towards Tunny like a showman towards his freak, and trotted out that same little address he always gave.
“Boys, this here is the famous Corporal Tunny, one of the longest serving non-commissioned officers in General Jalenhorm’s division. A veteran of the Starikland rebellion, the Gurkish war, the last Northern war, the siege of Adua, this current unpleasantness, and a quantity of peacetime soldiering that would have bored a keener mind to death. He has survived the runs, the rot, the grip, the autumn shudders, the caresses of Northern winds, the buffets of Southern women, thousands of miles of marching, many years of his Majesty’s rations and even a tiny bit of actual fighting to stand – or sit – before you now. He has four times been Sergeant Tunny, once even Colour Sergeant Tunny, but always, like a homing pigeon to its humble cage, returned to his current station. He now holds the exalted post of standard bearer of his August Majesty’s indomitable First regiment of cavalry. That gives him responsibility—” Tunny groaned at the mere mention of the word. “—for the regimental riders, tasked with carrying messages to and from our much admired commanding officer, Colonel Vallimir. Which is where you boys come in.”
“Oh, bloody hell, Forest.”
“Oh, bloody hell, Tunny.”

The Heroes is Abercrombie’s fifth book, all of which take place in the same world, but you don’t have to have read the previous four to appreciate this one. Yes, the First Law trilogy (starting with The Blade itself) is a trilogy, but Best Served Cold stands alone and so does The Heroes. However, reading all five in order will give you the bigger picture of the world and add some weight to the familiar names that occasionally stroll through the various tomes.

Abercrombie’s world is one that at once resembles our own and yet is fundamentally different. He uses that old trick of brushing up against familiar cultures and countries and lands, drawing a quick sketch, and then skipping away again into new territory, so the reader will be comfortable settling in at first and yet enough of a stranger in a strange land to require the hand of a skilled guide to get around, a position Abercrombie excels at.

Some Background:
There were once three brothers. Juvens (the father of magic or High Art, as it’s called), Kanedias (or The Maker, a kind of scientist-magician and creator of technology, whose ancient House of the Maker is a looming and featureless giant gray mass of stone still rising over the capital city of the Union), and Bedesh (the one who famously destroyed the Old Empire—an ancient Rome like country now lost to antiquity and a near nuclear holocaust level of destruction). Eventually, Juvens and Kanedias warred and Juvens was killed, which caused his students—the Magi—to kill The Maker in revenge. But are the stories true? Is that how it all really went? History is written by the victor, after all. Now, thousands of years later, the Magi still haunt this world, and through their myriad of agents and spies, apprentices and puppet armies, they are locked in eternal struggle.

Quickly now:
The three major countries involved in the near constant series of hot and cold wars are:
1. The Union, a large kingdom similar to Europe made up of a handful of formerly independent states and now governed by a King and Senate. It is the plaything of Bayaz, First of the Magi.
2. The Gurkish Empire, similar in set up to middle eastern empires of old, run by an Emperor and more importantly, Khalul, The Prophet, Second of the Magi, and his Hundred Words, a troop of half demon/half human vampire-esque warriors.
3. The North, a rough alliance of tribes patterned on Vikings and Celts and Huns and other barbarian cultures of old. They are a harsh people where warriors become recognized as Named Men (kind of like officers, but more generally regarded as bad ass) after proving themselves on the field of battle.

There are more nations, of course, like the Mediterranean-esque island nation of Talins, which is run by the Snake of Talins herself, Monzcarro Murcatto (the main character of Best Served Cold) for instance, but they do not feature as prominently in this specific book, so I will refrain from going into further detail...

No, this book focuses on a three day battle in an unremarkable valley in the North and two armies: Bayaz and the Unions’ red-coated masses on one side and the hardened warriors of the North backed by an agent of the Prophet, moved by the fingers of Khalul, on the other. More so, it’s about a handful of people on both sides, who they are and why they fight and their struggle to stay alive, to survive.

And that is how this book fits in with the others, in the larger story sense. And that’s part of what makes them such a great all together read; the story is about the continuing war between two opposing and opposite and inhuman forces, but it's never told from the grand heights. Bayaz, Khalul, they are unknowable things; they're dangerous, monsters in human skin. This story is about the people on the ground, the ones struggling in the wake of the giants that stride amongst them, and down there, it's never black and white. It's never good versus evil. It's all shades of gray and the only Heroes that ever appear in this story are the ancient ring of stones standing atop a useless hill in that unimportant valley.

Dark and grim, but funny and insightful, full of mud and blood and steel and death, but brimming with real life and honest characters, Abercrombie writes the type prose that draws you in and moves you along; the kind of prose that tells a great yarn in a grand way. It’s big and it’s bold and yet it's quietly human too and all in a story that is too damn good a time to put down.

I love it.

Conside me a fan.

Great settings:
“The place was a maze of sluggish channels of brown water, streaked on the surface with multi-coloured oil, with rotten leaves, with smelly froth, ill-looking rushes scattered at random. If you put down your foot and it only squelched in to the ankle, you counted yourself lucky. Here and there some species of hell-tree had wormed its leathery roots deep enough to stay upright and hang out a few lank leaves, festooned with beards of brown creeper and sprouting with outsize mushrooms. There was a persistent croaking that seemed to come from everywhere and nowhere. Some cursed variety of bird, or frog, or insect, but Tunny couldn't see any of the three. Maybe it was just the bog itself, laughing at them.”

Great characters:
“When it came to hatred, Brodd Tenways had a bottomless supply. He was one of those bastards who can't even breathe quietly, ugly as incest and always delighted to push it in your face, leering from the shadows like the village pervert at a passing milkmaid. Foul-mouthed, foul-toothed, foul-smelling, and with some kind of hideous rash patching his twisted face he gave every sign of taking great pride in.”

Great times,