Absolutes in writing aren’t so absolute.

Yesterday I brought up something I’ve begun to notice when attending writing panels at conventions. Many aspiring writers attend because they want to ask the panelist specific questions concerning their own work. Generally they are looking for a couple of things — reassurance that they are on the right path and guidance on how to be a better writer. And I’m sure there is a bit of hope that the author will find their idea intriguing.

More often than not I hear a variation on, what I’m going to call, The Response from these writers. “Well, that’s not really a good idea. It’s not what’s done in the industry. Yes, Author X has gotten away with it. But that’s because they are Author X and you are not.” I used to nod my head in agreement. But as time passed by, and I started to give some critical thought to The Response, the more I realized how bad of an answer it is. I’ll break down why I think that is.

Author X broke the norms before they were Author X.

Convention stifles creativity. And many of the famous authors we love broke convention and tread their own way, blazing through norms. To me, this is how you establish your voice as an author. Let’s use George R. R. Martin as an example. To my knowledge he’s done something unique (or is the first to really become famous for it). He has a massive amount of viewpoints that change from chapter to chapter and jump continents. I’ve heard established authors tell aspiring ones that they can’t do that. Sure, Martin can get away with it because he’s Martin, but you can’t.

Why can’t that aspiring author get away with it? Before Martin did it, it wasn’t normal. And have you read their manuscript? There is no way of knowing their ability to handle multiple viewpoints until we read something of theirs. Here, that answer has crushed someone before they have even had a chance to try. Which leads me to how…

That response tears down, instead of builds up, aspiring writers.

It’s my belief that established authors have a responsibility to be honest about writing, but also to help build up aspiring writers. But The Response kills. You were once like them, looking for help and trying to find your way through the sticky woods of writing. How much more would an encouraging response have meant to you? It would have nurtured your creativity and sent you out with renewed vigor to keep plugging away.

Instead The Response cuts that person off at the heels. As writers we already suffer from enough self-doubt. Now we get to add on-top of that being told we can’t do something because it’s just not done that way. Congratulations on heaping more anxiety on top of the mountain.

The absolutes tend to not be so absolute.

So many panels speak in absolutes. You can’t do X, Y, or Z. Even though we can find plenty of examples of X, Y, and Z being done in successful books. I’d like to see a panelist be clear. There are no absolutes in writing. We can advise against some choices. They may not be the best ideas and we want to caution that the choice will make things difficult. But ultimately, it can’t be said if something will work or not. It’s all up in the air. There will always be an author that will break the mold and make something truly unique. And they may be that author.

The Caution

With all that said, there is also the responsibility to caution the aspiring writer. Send them forth to try new things, but let them know that it could fail. And fail miserably. Encourage them to try their hand at a book with thirteen viewpoints, but let them know it’s going to take a lot of work, that it’s going to be hard, they will need to do it well, and if they don’t do it well it will fall flat on its face. But failure is good. Failure is the greatest teacher. How can an aspiring author find their voice if they don’t try different things?

With permission and a caution, us aspiring authors can go out and try some really radical things, that may fall flat on their face. But we will learn and hone our voice.

And ultimately, don’t we want other authors to try different things? If we continue to put limitations and absolutes onto each other, we will continue to churn out the same types of books over and over. What a terrible world that would be.

So I say go and try out any idea you have, with the caveat that it has to be done well. And if done well, it will rock the world.

JordanCon VI 2014 wrapup

This past weekend I attended JordanCon for the first time. Talk about an interesting experience. Right now I should come clean about something, I’m not a fan of the series. Believe me, I know, at that convention I probably would have been murdered if I had said something. It’s not that I don’t appreciate the talent behind the books, it’s that I couldn’t get into them. I’ve tried several times but just couldn’t do it.

It made for a very awkward opening ceremony, as my friend and I had no clue what all the jokes were about. Especially considering the fact that everyone there seemed to know one another.

Aside from that the rest of the weekend was an enjoyable experience. I’ll hit the highlights.

Flawed Worlds in Fantasy – Patrick Rothfuss and Deliah S. Dawson

After attending many writing panels over the years you begin to hear the same things over and over. However, some really funny stuff came out of this one. During the Q&A someone asked Patrick Rothfuss if he’d grown up with musically inclined parents because of the beginning of “The Name of the Wind.” Patrick’s response was very simple, “I make shit up for a living.” It pretty much set the room to laughing, though I did have to feel bad for the guy asking the question. Ultimately what Rothfuss was trying to get across is that not everything is from a writers personal experience. A lot of the times we just dream and consider what it would be like in those situations and make good guesses.

Kaffeeklatsch with Patrick Rothfuss

I was very excited that I made it in time to sign up for this. There were only ten slots and his filled up quickly, with me coming in at #8. This is my favorite thing with these writing cons, having the chance to sit in a more intimate situation with a writer you respect and getting to ask some more pointed questions. For this one I had a singular goal. Get him to sign my copy of the anthology I’m in — my first paid publication — that he wrote the foreward to. It was a huge honor to have that connection with him.

Whether or not he actually read my short is up in the air, but I’d like to keep that knowledge a secret. Ha!

30 Second Pitch — Brandon Sanderson, Harriet McDougal, Paul Stevens, and another gentlemen who’s name I don’t remember.

Apparently this is something they do every year. You bring your thirty second pitch and give it to the panel. They’ll tear it a part and give you some good feedback. When we got there, the panel mentioned a good pitch should be about a minute.

Wait a minute, I only have 30 seconds. I’ve been practicing 30 seconds.

Not being prepared to give anything longer, I went with what I had, fearing that if I kept going I’d start to ramble. The large consensus was that I didn’t have enough details, it was too generic. I felt it came across that way because of the time limit. I wanted to hit some general big points to grab interest.  But I can see where I could drop in some good details.

My one suggestion for next year is that they speak briefly on what makes good pitch. Half of the time was taken up with explaining pitches, rather than taking them. I felt that if we had a chance to hear more pitches and critiques of them, we would have gotten a bit more out of it.

While my pitch was only, OK, what happened during the panel critique of it was much more important. I was able to let them know that I have an agent and it’s already being shopped around, and in fact, is currently at the slush pile at TOR where one of the panelists is an editor. From their comment, I gathered that another TOR agent is currently looking for YA with a male protagonist. Well look there, I have a male protagonist! After the panel was over I approached them to get that name and talk a bit more about the book. After a brief conversation I was able to make a good contact and get my book that much further into the system.

I know you’re wondering why I’m not using their name. Call me overly cautious, but I feel like they may appreciate a bit of anonymity.

Overall I felt the convention was a great one. Even if you’re not necessarily a fan of the book series, there is plenty of geekdom floating around. If you’re a SciFi/Fantasy writer, it’s another great place to meet with like minded people and talk shop. What more could a little writer ask for?

For my next blog I’m going to talk about writer’s responses on panels like above, and their (and hopefully one day our) responsibility to encourage new writers to take chances, rather than tearing them down.

The Second Book

Some of you are aware that last year I finished writing my first book. In addition to that I was very fortunate enough to find an agent willing to represent the book. Ultimately I’ve been hesitant to say much about the book or series in general. At most I’ve posted a few sketches of the main characters and made a few references to it here and there. If you look into my archive hard enough, you’ll actually find the flash fiction that kick started the entire idea.

All that said, I’d sent off the final draft to my agent who has been shopping it around to different publishers. This leaves us in the waiting game. Which, with the larger publishers, could mean months before we hear anything. And I’m fine with waiting. I really believe in this book and this series and I’m willing to see it done right.

So I’d been waiting, trying to determine what I should do next. General advice I’d read has been to never write the second book in the series until it’s been picked up. “It’s a waste of time if you can only sell the one. Write a different book for the time being.” Taking that advice I’d started looking into some of my other ideas. I’d even started on one during NaNoWriMo. What I learned is that I can’t write under that kind of pressure. I’d also learned that I hated the main character I was writing for that particular book — probably not a good thing, that.

That’s when my agent, Meredith Brown, swooped in and made a proposal.

Write the second book.

I’ll admit I was hesitant at first. Internet advice kept spinning through my noggin. But Meredith brought up her own good point, we want to be able to demonstrate how long it takes me to write a novel as well as show that I’m not just a one-hit wonder. She had a great saying, “You have all the time in the world to write the first one.”

Not wanting to let her down, I jumped on the outline. It blazed past. I was really amazed at how quickly I was able to put it together. Knowing the characters really helped, as well as having already figured out the entire series arc.

Then came time to start writing.

I’ve written the opening paragraph five times.

I’m still trying to write it.

It’s funny how all the things I’d learned with the first book are still giving me problems. Chiefly, that even though I’m having a hard time, I should just put something to paper and keep moving forward. I can always edit it later. But there is this clawing notion in the back of my head that I need to get this beginning right before I can continue. That it is going to set the tone for the entire book and if it’s off then everything after will be terrible.

You know what, I need to be fine with terrible. I need to be fine with everything being a mess. Because – as I’ve said to others before – you can fix a mess, you can’t fix nothing.

Get to writing you slackers!

And my slackers, I mean me.

Star Wars and the Shared Universe

The other day I was chatting with my agent recently, going over our strategy of which publishers to contact for my new book, and she mentioned Disney Hyperion. This of course led us down the trail of how Disney has been buying up a lot of IPs recently and our fears of what may happen to Star Wars. Of course, as I pointed out to her, I’m not sure they can do anymore damage than what Lucas has already done.

Now, let’s step back for a moment and consider how weird that thought really is. Lucas, in the eyes of the fans, damaged the Star Wars brand. How can that be? It’s his creation and we’re all along for the ride. Who are we to dictate to him what is and is not good for Star Wars? Certainly we have the right to not like it and we can disagree with his creative choice, but in the end it’s all his vision.

But is it really?

In the writing community there is a concept of the Shared Universe. It is where several authors get together and co-develop a universe and then go off to write individual stories within it. They’ll confer with one another to make sure things stay consistent — character names, dates, and the like. It is my belief that Star Wars, after RotJ ballooned into such a massive force (ha!) that it became a shared universe without Lucas’s realizing.

There is so much in the Expanded Universe. So much in fact a close friend of mine has several bookshelves dedicated to just Star Wars novels. And within those novels is The Thrawn Trilogy. Which many consider to be episodes 7, 8, and 9. Think on that for a moment. A book series written by another author is elevated to the point of being on par with the original films. That’s saying a lot. In my opinion, that series was the tipping point, moving Star Wars from being George Lucas’s world, to being a shared universe among the fans themselves. It grew bigger than him, and unfortunately people forgot to tell him.

Of course that movement started well before the books with The Empire Strikes Back. Don’t believe me? Hit up IMDB and take a gander at the writer/director for A New Hope. Yeah, as we would expect it’s George Lucas. Now jump over to The Empire Strikes Back and you get a very different picture. There, in the late seventies it had already begun — the transference from a single man’s vision to a shared universe. A new director, new writers, and a sense of co-development between them all.

Which ultimately brings me to the bigger question, what’s a creator to do when their creation becomes bigger than themselves? It’s your work, something you’ve spent years and potentially decades developing, and now a mass of people are telling you what it all means and how it should go. The collective fan base will stamp their feet and yell foul if you take a direction they don’t feel is right. But who are they to dictate that to you, the creator?

It’s a sticky question. Because what is art — in this case Star Wars — without an audience? Without them, it doesn’t mean a thing. So we could argue that the audience does have some amount of ownership. And with that comes a sense that they should have a say in it’s direction. After all, it’s their experience and they want the most out of it.

I wish I had an answer to all of this. With luck, my own series will reach a tenth of Star War’s success. What artist wouldn’t want their work enjoyed on that kind of level?

As for Lucas, well all I know is that he came back to the Star Wars franchise in the 90s and made some terrible fanfiction. So come on Disney, we’re all in this shared universe together, let’s bring back the magic … er … Force.

Book Review: Mary Shelley’s FRANKENSTEIN

There are classics that require reading. And I have gone too long without reading them. Recently Barnes & Noble have been putting out these great hard backed copies of a ton of classics for fairly cheap. So for the past birthdays and Christmases I’ve been getting them as presents. As it stands I now own the works of Ray Bradbury, Isaac Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy, the complete works of H.P. Lovecraft and Edgar Allen Poe, The Grimm’s Fairytales, and finally Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein.”

I had built up quite a backlog of books, but decided to jump into the classic Science Fiction Horror novel.

Man, I can see why this has stayed the test of time. Mary Shelley weaves a fantastic story where she explores the nature of man. In both Frankenstein and his creature, we both sympathize with their plight and shake our heads at their misfortune. Each man fights for what they believe to be true and just, only to find themselves at odds with one another. And you can understand both their points of view. If only the creature had not resorted to vengeance and murder, he would have had his ultimate desire of companionship. If only Frankenstein had stayed true to his word and given the creature a companion, then perhaps he would have lived a happy life.

As I read through her masterful prose, I couldn’t help but become incensed by how Hollywood has twisted her story. They miss the point entirely. Yes, there is a theme that man should not attempt to play god. But there is so much more to this story. Frankenstein’s monster is a vastly intelligent and eloquently spoken being. His tale of despair and longing haunt you. Shunned by the world, he fights to fit in, to find acceptance. but his ghastly appearance sends people fleeing in terror. Who of us has not felt out of place and judged before having the chance to show who we really are?

Please, please read this book if you haven’t. Don’t let the idea of when it was written distract you.

And if any screenwriter in Hollywood happens to read this, let’s get together and write a real script based on the novel. None of this Igor, Bride of Frankenstein, and “It’s alive!” nonsense. Let’s write a script based on real life horrors, of being cast aside by society with no companionship. Of losing your soul and everything you love in the pursuit of a dream, that haunts you for the rest of your days.

Book Review: “The Way of Shadows” by Brent Weeks.

At the recommendation of my agent Meredith Brown I picked up a copy of “The Way of Shadows” by Brent Weeks. Like most fantasy books these days it’s a fat book, pushing up to 600 pages. So I got cozy and settled into another realm, ready to see the world of assassin’s as envisioned by the author.

Book Cover

“What of Shadows”

The Good

The world Brent Weeks presented was a lot of fun to get to know. It was at once a familiar fantasy setting, but different enough that I didn’t dismiss it or grow bored. He drew me into the world of wetboys, the term for elite assassins. Wetboys are almost more than human as they blend their skills of stealth, traps, and magic to become feared killers in the dark. And it’s how Brent Weeks handles introducing us to this world that I really enjoyed. Azoth, an eleven year old orphan of the Warrens, sees that life as his only way out of the filth and grime of his life.

Cutting to the chase, Azoth apprentices with the best wetboy in the city — Durzo Blint. In my opinion, Durzo shines in this book. You can tell Brent Weeks had a grand time writing this character. There are times that Durzo drifts toward Mary Sue-dom, but Weeks does a masterful job of keeping this character on his toes and giving him a hard time. It’s a load of fun reading about a master assassin — excuse me, wetboy — who tests his young apprentice to the limits. I enjoyed how Brent Weeks used Durzo’s personality and training methods to show us Azoth’s growth as a character.

In the first two-thirds of the book we get these great characters and personal struggles. And then, the rest of the book happens.

The Bad

Once Brent Weeks kicks into gear with the political intrigue of the book, everything goes off the rails. It’s a twisting mess of gotchas and — gasp! — big reveals that feel shallow. Many chapters toward the end I found myself skimming through the battles to just find out who lived and who died as I’d lost interest. As I read through the final 100 pages I saw the influence of George R. R. Martin in the gutters. It’s whole-sale slaughter chapter after chapter. Unlike Martin, however, I didn’t care. Most of the character deaths were of people that had barely a scene or two. Characters, I came to realize, that Brent Weeks considered major, despite having little impact or presence in the book.

After finishing the book I read the little questionnaire in the back. Sure enough Brent Weeks mentioned Martin as an influence, stating that he learned from Martin that if you maim or kill a major character then any character is up for grabs. Unfortunately I feel Brent Weeks missed  a crucial element to make it work. You have to make the reader care about the characters first. What Martin did over three books, Weeks crammed into 200 pages.

[SPOILER] I believe I was supposed to feel dismayed at the slaughter of Lord Regnus Gyre and the Queen. But when Regnus only has three to four small scenes with little character development and the Queen having been introduced in the last several hundred pages with — at most — a few paragraphs, I found it hard to care. [/SPOILER]

For me, the strength of the story was more about the relationship between Durzo and Azoth, master and apprentice, killer and savior. What should have been a climactic final conflict between the two, was mired in a twisting, bloated siege of a city.

But, in the end, the series is a New York Times best seller and you can’t argue with that. So I tip my hat to you Brent Weeks. May I have half as much success as you.

The Desolation of Agency

Like many of you I went to see “The Desolation of Smaug” this weekend. My reaction to “An Unexpected Journey” was luke warm. I felt several scenes could have been cut to have a tighter film overall. But for the most part I felt that it captured the sense of adventure and wonder that was “The Hobbit.”

For this film, I was mostly there to see Smaug. We’ve reached an era in CG that finally we could do dragons justice. Not that movies like “Dragon Heart” were bad — I remember being blown away by how awesome it was back then — but this is Smaug. He is THE dragon. And man did they nail it. I can agree with Martin Freeman, he was Smaug the Stupendous.

I wish I could say as much for other parts of the film. Sure, the Barrel Ride was a lot of fun. I’d say it captured the perfect essence of adventure. A bit ridiculous? Sure. But I laughed with mirth and enjoyed every moment of it. If only Legolas and the completely-made-up Tauriel could have been left in Mirkwood.

What a dreadful inclusion to the story. I can understand showing Legolas. He lives there, it makes sense he’d show up, and I enjoyed the little moment between him and Gloin. A little wink to fans of the series. But why invent a brand new character and insert a love triangle? If we’re looking for relationships, why are we not focusing on the growing bond and eventual betrayal between Thorin and Bilbo. Is it because Hollywood believes American audiences can’t handle platonic male relationships? Probably. And I can see where that fear comes from. Just look at all the jokes/memes between Sam and Frodo being lovers. On some level, was Jackson trying to head that off?

Ultimately, the inclusion of Legolas and Tauriel robbed the dwarves of their agency. What were moments for the dwarves to shine and demonstrate their martial prowess, are robbed by elven ninjary. Back to the Barrel Ride, we do get some great moments with the dwarves. We get to see how well they work together to overcome their foe — tossing weapons around and chopping down tree trunk bridges. Jackson even gave us one of the most spectacular moments of Barrel Bowling and Dwarven Beserker Barrage! I loved it so much that I’ll forgive the magically empty barrel out of nowhere.

But in the third act it all falls apart. Orcs descend upon Lake Town, Kili lay dying from an orcish arrow, while those that stayed behind fight to save his life. Instead of giving us a scene where the dwarves win against all odds, using their surroundings to defeat their foe AND save the life of their friend, we have to be saved by the elves. Jackson even set us up for that moment. Bard gives them “weapons” of smith hammers and fishing hooks that the dwarves scoff at. What a great gun on the wall moment! In the fight to save their lives, the dwarves pick up the make-shift weapons and go to town!

It’s sad to see the dwarves pushed aside in their own story. What should be their moment to shine, turns into the Legolas Action Hour. The dwarves should not be looking to Smaug as their ultimate enemy, but Peter Jackson.

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