Tag Archives: George R R Martin

#amwriting: creating religion within the context of the tale

Assunta, by Titian, 1516-1518, via Wikimedia Commons

Assunta, by Titian, 1516-1518, via Wikimedia Commons

One thing we fantasy authors must occasionally deal with is developing religions within the context of the tale.

Most of what we will discuss here won’t actually make it into the written pages of your tale, but if you don’t have a good understanding of what you are writing about, you will inadvertently introduce discrepancies into your tale.

First, ask yourself “why does this religion matter?”  If it doesn’t matter, it doesn’t belong in your tale.

However, when you have a heavenly power-struggle, you have some intriguing opportunities for mayhem.

Are there many gods and goddesses? What is their relationship with each other and how does it play into your story?

If you choose to create a religion as a key plot point, here are some questions to ask:

  1. How central to the life of the protagonist or antagonist is religion? Is the protagonist a member of the priestly class, perhaps a priestess or priest of a particular god or goddess?
  2. What does the protagonist gain from following this deity?
  3. How jealous is this deity?
  4. What is the protagonist/antagonist willing to do for their faith? Will they die for their deity or is it a more abstract religion?
  5. The priesthood—who can join?
  6. Can only the nobility rise in the priesthood, or can anyone with the ability to learn gain power within the organization?
  7. How do the nobility and the priestly class get along? Do they have a good accord or are they jostling for power?
  8. And within that religious organization, who has the most power?
  9. What does that person do with their power?

How important is your religion politically? In Rome, the church was central to their government, in some cases having more power than the ruling nobility. During the Middle Ages, Rome slowly fell under the political control of the Papacy, which had settled in the city since the 1st century AD. In the 8th century, Rome became the capital of the Papal States, which lasted until 1870.

You don’t have to re-invent the wheel here–history is full of great ideas to draw upon.

A_Glass_of_Wine_with_Caesar_Borgia_-_John_Collier

Painting by John Collier, “A glass of wine with Caesar Borgia” via Wikimedia Commons

Consider the Borgias–Wikipedia, the fount of all knowledge says this about them: Especially during the reign of Alexander VI, they were suspected of many crimes, including adultery, incest, simony, theft, bribery, and murder (especially murder by arsenic poisoning). Because of their grasping for power, they made enemies of the Medici, the Sforza, and the Dominican friar Savonarola, among others. They were also patrons of the arts who contributed to the Renaissance.

See? Even George R.R. Martin knows that the renaissance offers great opportunity for good plot twists in your fantasy project.

Now let’s examine the political environments of the medieval city-states of Venice, Milan, Florence, Genoa, Pisa, Siena, Lucca, and CremonaRodney Stark, an American sociologist of religion, proposes that the city-state was a ‘marriage of responsive government, Christianity, and the birth of capitalism’ as we know it. He argues that these states were mostly republics, unlike the great European monarchies of France and Spain, where absolute power was vested in rulers who could and did stifle commerce.

It has been suggested (in Wikipedia, the fount of all knowledge) that by keeping both direct Church control and imperial power at arm’s length, the independent city republics of medieval Italy prospered because their commerce was based on early capitalist principles. The church was still involved in their daily lives, but this slight, deliberate separation of church and state ultimately created the societal conditions that brought about the artistic and intellectual flowering of the renaissance.

And for you, the author, understanding the commerce and economics of your fantasy society is extremely important, so that inconsistencies don’t get introduced. The reader won’t care, and doesn’t want the background info, but you need to know it.

If your protagonists are poor, why are they poor? Is poverty widespread, or is it only the one family? Where is all the money–is it in the hands of the church or is it in the hands of the middle-class? If it’s in the hands of the church–you’ve a good plot-point to work with.

Thus if religion of some sort is an integral part of your work, you as the author must have a good knowledge of what the influence of that institution is, the structure of the priesthood, the power they wield in society at large, how (or if) they control the economy, and how this organization is viewed by the ordinary citizen.

St. George and the Dragon, Raphael via Wikimedia Commons

St. George and the Dragon, Raphael via Wikimedia Commons

Many authors avoid this altogether, by having only a vague mention of religion, simply mentioning a connection with a particular deity as the reason for the ability to use and control magic.

Others make religion and opposing religions the foundation of their works. How you handle religion in your manuscript is up to you, but if you make it a central part of your tale, I suggest you create a document in which you establish the basics of your religion(s) clearly. Update it as the rules evolve, which they certainly will do over the first two drafts of your novel. During your writing process, refer back to this document regularly.

The reader doesn’t care about those details, and will put the book down if they are included. But if you don’t know what you are writing about, can’t remember what you wrote three chapter ago, and contradict yourself too often, your reader will lose the ability to suspend his disbelief.

Keeping the reader immersed in the tale, forgetting that it is only a fiction is the primary goal every author wants to achieve.

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The harsh truth, and cold comfort

GRRM Meme 2Authors are not really great at social stuff. On top of that, we tend to be horribly insecure about our work, but it’s all we can think of to talk about.

We are thin-skinned and bleed profusely when you cut our work to shreds. Some of us handle that with grace and dignity, and others go ballistic and make an uncomfortable situation worse.

Now we come to a problem affecting a friend who lives far way from me–authors undercutting authors. She has left her writing group and will not be going back because one new member is harsh and unfair in the way they critique this author’s work–under the arrogant pretense of “just telling the truth.”

The new member is published, an indie, and seems to be selling a fair amount of books. She was invited to join a group of authors who are not not yet published, but who all hope to be. Each member is in various stages of courting agents and editors. An editor for a respected mid-sized press has shown interest in my friend’s manuscript. The new member started out friendly enough, but began by making belittling remarks about the way the group had been doing things, implying they were just playing at being authors. Then, suddenly feeling inferior and hoping to be more “legitimate,” the group allowed her to take charge. Things went downhill from there, with the new queen-bee as the center of attention.

quarrabtine symbol

Now I don’t know if my friend will ever write again. I do know she won’t join another group, which is sad, because MOST groups are not like that. Yes, they dig deep, and work on structural issues, but they don’t phrase their comments in a deliberately cruel manner. She knew her work wasn’t ready for publication, but she didn’t know it was “crap.”

And it isn’t crap.

I hate that she has put aside the makings of what could someday be a great novel, all because a person she respected as an author belittled her attempts in such a way that she is now afraid to share that most intimate part of her soul–her creativity.

But this is a problem that affects authors of all stations, not just indies and hopefuls. People feel its acceptable to say the most disparaging things, especially if an author has become successful, as if that author’s success negatively affects their own chances. And they seem to to take it beyond criticizing their work–they get personal about it.

Indie authors need to help each other advance, not tear each other down. The world is full of readers, so there is room for everyone, and if we ridicule each other and make disparaging, mocking remarks about the quality of others’ work just because we don’t care for their style of writing, shame on us.  There is an ocean of difference between badly crafted work, and work that is written in a style you don’t care for. I read many things written in a style I don’t care for, but if it is well-crafted and written with some attention to the aspects that make a good tale, I will give it a decent review, and I refuse say negative things about the author who wrote it, no matter how popular it may be to do so.

Successful author bashing has become an acceptable topic at parties due in part, I think, to the fact that with the rise of ebooks and Amazon’s eagerness for buyer reviews, any reader can become a critic, regardless of the quality of their “review.” This is both good and bad, because you do sometimes get a real-world view of what readers think of a book. But conversely an illiterate review that gives only one star and just says (in misspelled words) that they hated it and didn’t read the book doesn’t help help anyone.

Neil Gaiman quote 3

Trolling and internet bullying has become an addiction for some people, and it’s apparent that their anonymity gives them a sense of power. To be able to destroy a person with a few well-chosen words–they see themselves as king-breakers, and they like that.

Even mega-successful authors like George R.R. Martin deal with an avalanche of poison and angst from trolls–I hope that what he deals with is not typical of what successful authors must endure, although Stephanie Meyer, E.L. James, and J.K. Rowling have all endured this sort of spew. Of course George’s TV series is the source of most of his grief, but still–these people show so little respect for a kind, decent man who sincerely cares about his craft and whose work has provided them with countless hours of entertainment.

GRRM Meme 3All that aside, NO author, no matter how famous, crafts perfect work that resonates with every reader, every time. We sometimes hit a pure note with one particular piece, but we will spend the rest of our writing lives trying to live up to the potential that piece had, with varying degrees of success. And when we were writing that story, perhaps it didn’t go the way the reader thought it should, and someone had to die.

That happens all the time, because the READER DOES NOT WRITE THE BOOK.  Readers who want to write the book badly enough become authors and DO it, instead of whining about it.

So we authors try to develop a thick skin and continue doing what we do. We keep learning. We keep working on the craft, and we never stop striving to be just a little better with our next short story or novel. And if, when you are in a writing group and another author makes cutting remarks in regard to your writing style, ask yourself why they feel that your style deserves harsh criticism. Don’t feel badly about walking away from that group before it gets to the level that my friend experienced, even if you like a few of the people who remain–because you won’t gain anything by staying around for more humiliation.

JK Rowling MemeMy friend–there will be other groups, and with a little checking around, you will find the one that welcomes you and your work.

Or maybe you need to go solo for a while.

That is cold comfort if someone you once respected has trashed your work and humiliated you, I know. But keep learning and keep writing. Rise above the naysayers and don’t let them steal the joy you have in your craft.

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Conventions: Hawking your books vs attending the convention

Lee French at Norwescon 2015 in NIWA Booth

Lee French at Norwescon 2015 in NIWA Booth

Going Indie means going it alone, and doing it the hard way. However–there are now small bands of indies coming together to help each other, and in the process, help themselves.

One such organization is Northwest Independent Writers Association, an organization of indie and small-press authors based in Western Oregon and Western Washington. We seem to be situated along the I-5 corridor from south of the Portland area north through the Seattle area.

This last week I attended Norwescon, carpooling the first day with fellow Myrddin Publishing Group author, Lee French. She is an awesome person, as well as a wonderful, creative author.

My book, Huw the Bard, was in the rack at the NIWA table, and I met some of the most wonderful people: Angela Korra’ti, Madison Keller, Jake Elliot, and Luna Lindsey were all there, manning the table and helping each person who stopped to find a book that fit them, regardless of if it was their own book or not–we were selling each others’ books as well as our own.

I ran into my good friend, fellow NIWA  member, Thomas Gondolfi , who was working his own booth.

Saturday night, Lee, Jake, Angela and I had dinner with fellow NIWA member, steampunk author, Jeffrey Cook.

Huw the Bard at NorwesconMy feet are killing me–today, I am not sure I will do it again, but I am glad I did this time.  My view will likely change as I begin to feel rested again.

Huw the Bard was not a good fit for that venue–they were more into fairies and steampunk, which Huw is obviously not. However, I think he would do well at a ren-fair, as the people who were interested in him were all ren-fair people.  Most likely my best books for a gaming venue will be my World of Neveyah series, as it is RPG game-based, and gaming of all varieties is what Norwescon is all about.

Standing in the booth for most of 4 days did me in, I do confess.  I also was somewhat of a 5th wheel, in that the booth was too small for the number of authors who were there and willing to contribute their time and energy to the project. There was only room for 1 chair, and so we stood. I felt a bit unnecessary, at times, which is not a good way to feel, but they very kindly tolerated me.

Angela Korra’ti has a knack for selling her books, and I tried to learn as much as I could from her. Jake Elliot and Lee French seemed to know what they were doing too–there is definitely a learning curve to pitching your book live and in person.

norwesconBeing an indie author, or being published by a small press means you are on your own as far as getting the word out about your books.  This means if you want your books seen at a convention, you have to pay for the table, buy your stock, and get the word out, because no one else will.

It also means you must spend the convention in the dealers’ room at your booth, pitching your product to strangers, rather than taking in the panels and hearing speakers like George R. R.  Martin. But I did see him in the lobby while I was getting coffee, and I saw many, many people who really love his work, far more than I do–and they stood for hours to get to see him.

I would have loved to hear George speak, but I had books of my own to hawk. I never thought I would live long enough to be able to say that.

This is where you discover that going indie means honing an elevator pitch that will sell your book in thirty seconds. That will be my next trick.

cashbox 3This is also where you discover that the Sparco cash-box you bought, and  that was not cheap, is nearly impossible to unlock, but it makes an awesome weapon if you are ever mugged on the way back to your hotel. Which I wasn’t, but I’m an author, and that’s how I think.

It’s also where you discover that your target audience was not at that convention.

Most importantly, this is where you realize that your poor old feet are  just not up to you spending 10 hours a day standing on them.

I understand there is some controversy regarding the Hugo award nominations–but I didn’t hear them announced, as I was trying to sell books. I suppose a shakeup is inevitable, and I will have to do some reading to find out for myself what the problem is, in the eyes of the reading world.  That will be interesting–accusations of blocks of special interest groups gaming the outcome and such intrigue me, and I will definitely want to get to the bottom of that!

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Norwescon 2015

NorWesCon 2015 - 1This weekend I am at Norwescon in Seattle, Washington, along with fellow Myrddin Publishing Group author, Lee French. This is where I get to do both the work and the fun stuff that goes along with being an author–AND Huw the Bard will be offered on the NIWA table!  How cool is that?

Norwescon is a gamer-scifi-fantasy addict’s paradise.  The guests of honor are George R. R. Martin (Author), Julie Dillon (Artist), Amy Mainzer (Science), and Random House (Spotlight Publisher) represented by Anne Groell and Tricia Narwani.

Plus, there will be a large number number of seminars and special events: Thursday, Friday, and Saturday night each feature a DJ’d dance in the grand ballrooms, and Lazer Tag and many other games. Friday features an 18-and-over special event. And, don’t forget the Masquerade, complete with Children’s Masquerade. Holy cosplay!

Michael Tinker Pearce came by our booth on Thursday,  and I have to say I loved his work, Diaries of a Dwarven Rifleman. I really enjoyed meeting him–he’s a charming man.

000510Of course, food is tricky–the vegan must provide for herself while on the road. One can only hope that the room she ordered at her hotel that is within walking distance of the event will have the kitchenette as she had requested. Otherwise she will be downstairs at the breakfast area using the microwave at all hours.

Feeding myself at these events is always a challenge, even at conventions where they claim to provide for “special” dietary needs.  How hard is it to bake a damned potato and garnish it with a little guacamole, and some veggies sauteed in olive oil?  Apparently impossible, as proven by my annual PNWA conference dietary fiasco at the Hilton. I look forward to seeing how they manage to screw up “special” needs every year. Last year I was literally the last person to be served at the banquet, and the food arrived cold and inedible–and my table mates had long since finished theirs when mine was delivered.

Being glared at by the servers for wistfully hoping to eventually see a plate of food was also to be expected–after all, “special dietary needs” are a selfish fad designed to draw attention to ones self, don’t you know.

But Norwescon will be different. It’s far less expensive to attend, less than 1/5 the cost of PNWA (indies pay their own way, you know) and they proved snacks but you aren’t tied to their menu.

The difference is this: PNWA is a writer-focused event with seminars, agent, and editors attending and presenting seminars. I’ve found the writers who give the seminars there to be really entertaining and THAT is why I attend. It is an awesome, inspiring conference that recharges me.

Julie Dillon will be speaking at Norwescon, and as a wannabe artist myself, I’m quite intrigued by her work. The covers art she does for mainstream fantasy authors is just as high a quality as that of the legendary Michael Whelan.

George R. R. Martin photoSo I get to hang out in the dealers area with my friends from NIWA, buy a new T shirt or two designed by some crazy-gifted people, and I will get to hear George R.R. Martin speak on Sunday morning. Don’t love his work, but I adore him as a man and as a speaker.

If I am really crafty, I can get my pristine, barely-been-read first edition of A Game of Thrones signed during one of George’s 3 scheduled signing events–wowsers.

During the hippie era, of which I was a late entry to, most hippies did not refer to themselves as hippies as that was really term used when our parents were complaining about us. Mostly we referred to ourselves as freaks, since the mainstream society considered our willful desire for world peace to be aberrant. But out of that culture grew some of the best scifi and fantasy authors and artists of all time.

And so I say, it’s good to be a freak in a land where freaks really know how to freak! Norwescon will be an adventure for sure!

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Comfort Books, the main course: The Wheel of Time, by Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson

The Eye Of The WorldFor the main course of this three course meal I’ve chosen a hearty 14-book trilogy. I warned you that many of the books I love and turn to when I need a good book are NOT comforting in any way, and for many people the incredibly long, epic series, the Wheel of Time, definitely falls into the UNcomfortable category. This is for a variety of reasons.

The Eye of the World was the opening volley in what would ultimately become one of the most controversial series in epic fantasy. Written by Robert Jordan and first published in 1990, this series of books has polarized the most dedicated fans of true fantasy into two groups: the lovers and the haters.  No reader walks away from this series unscathed.

WoT05_TheFiresOfHeavenThe story begins in the exceedingly rural village of  Emond’s Field. They are so rural that they have no concept that they are still considered to be a part of a larger country. The village is suddenly attacked by Trollocs (the antagonist’s soldiers) and a Myrddraal (the undead-like officer commanding the Trollocs).  These creatures are intent on capturing the three protagonists, Rand al’Thor, Matrim (Mat) Cauthon, Perrin Aybara, although why they are being hunted is not revealed at first. To save their village from further attacks, Rand, Mat, Perrin, and Egwene (Rand’s first love interest) flee the village, accompanied by the Aes Sedai Moiraine Damodred, her Warder, Al’Lan Mandragoran, and gleeman, Thom Merrilin.They are later joined by Nynaeve al’Meara, who is their village’s medicine woman.

WoT03_TheDragonRebornThis huge range of characters and the many, many threads that weave an incredibly tangled plot are what polarizes the reading community over this series of books. Originally intended to be a trilogy, it eventually expanded to encompass fourteen LARGE, long books.

Robert Jordan passed away in 2007 while working on the final book, leaving the series uncompleted, but he left the rough draft and enough notes behind that Brandon Sanderson was able to finish the series, eventually breaking that final volume into three very large  books, and bringing the story to a satisfying conclusion.

WoT10_CrossroadsOfTwilightSo what is the basis for the plot’s tension, what conflict could possibly draw the reader in and keep them reading for such a long, drawn out process? It’s Robert Jordan, folks–the eternal quest for power, and dominance through violence, religion and politics is the core of this tale. According to Wikipedia, the Fount of All Knowledge: The series draws on numerous elements of both European and Asian mythology, most notably the cyclical nature of time found in Buddhism and Hinduism, the metaphysical concepts of balance and duality, and a respect for nature found in Daoism. Additionally, its creation story has similarities to Christianity’s “Creator” (Light) and Shai’tan, “The Dark One” (Shaytan is an Arabic word which in religious contexts is used as a name for the Devil). It was also partly inspired by Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace (1869).”

300px-WoT08_ThePathOfDaggersI loved the first three books in this series. I both enjoyed and endured the next three, hoping Robert Jordan would get to the point and finish the damned series. I had become a little irritated with book eight, Path of Daggers, but by the time Winter’s Heart came out, I was resigned to never seeing an end to it, and was back to simply enjoying each strange plot twist and new random thread for what it was–just a great tale.

When Robert Jordan died, I was thrilled that Brandon Sanderson was the author tapped to finally bring that unwieldy mess together. There were so many different stories within the greater story that the task of winding up each thread must have been incredibly daunting, and he did it magnificently.

The reason so many devoted fans abandoned the series somewhere around book six , Lord of Chaos, was that Rand al’Thor’s story ( and Mat’s and Perrin’s) stalled, and Jordan was sent way off track by the stories of Egwene, Nynaeve, and Elaine Trakand. In fantasy, there is a large contingent of readers who want instant gratification are not going to wait around for eight more books. They proved it by jumping ship and trash-talking his work.

TheGatheringStormUSCoverThroughout the series, the quality of the writing never faltered. The depth of story and the intensely alive characters whose stories graced those pages never failed to intrigue me. The fact that it felt like the conflict would never be resolved was, at times, upsetting to me as a reader, and is a lesson authors should take to heart with their own work.

To write a story that is so compelling that readers become so violently polarized over it is quite an accomplishment.  I see this happening with George R.R. Martin‘s fans right now. Although I adore him as a person, I’ve never cared much for his style of writing, as he jumps around too much even for me. Have patience, people! It looks like George has a large story there too, so it may take him a while.

Towers_of_Midnight_hardcoverFor Brandon Sanderson to step into the wasps’ nest of controversy that was the Wheel of Time and complete the series with such grace and finesse is nothing short of amazing, and I am glad I stuck with it to the end. Brandon Sanderson has become one of my favorite authors because of what he did to wind up this epic series.

In the end, the final resolution was satisfying, and was well worth the journey.  I have gotten rid of most of my hard copies, and am down to only one room’s worth of hardbound books at our house. I don’t buy too many hard copies of books, being a fan of the Kindle, and  but I did make an exception for this book.   For me, some books need to be in hard copy form and the Wheel of Time Series is one of them, as are the Harry Potter books. There was a large contingent of people who were upset that the epub edition wasn’t released until 4 months after the paperbook, but this was a choice made by Robert Jordan’s widow and her publisher, TOR. It was a strange one in my opinion, but it was their choice.

A_Memory_of_Light_coverAmazon’s early reviews of the later books in this series were rife with trolls and naysayers who couldn’t wait to emerge from the woodwork and have their say. Apparently very few of these people purchased the book, much less read it. That is the price of success and these days it’s almost an honor to have so many haters just spoiling to knock you down. But their strident caws and self-important rants should have no effect on the true fans of WoT. In my humble opinion these works are masterpieces and Brandon Sanderson’s three books are a triumphant finish to the series.

I love Brandon Sanderson’s handling of this series finale, and feel I more than got my money’s worth from this series of book, as I will definitely read it again and again–in my opinion it’s that good. If you love this series, you will love the way it ends!

The original cover artist for these amazing books was none other than the late Darrell K. Sweet, who was just as amazing a fantasy artist as is Michael Whelan. The newer covers are nice, but for me they lack the power of Sweet’s brilliant paintings.

And as we all know, I buy most books for their covers, even epubs, and then fall in love with the tale.

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My Writing Toolbox

xcg65LacAApparently, I think visually. Actually, I come from a family who, while we are quite verbal, all tend to think visually.

We are musicians, artists, engineers and authors. These are occupations where we create images and think in terms of a whole picture.

I recently read an article, written by Gerald Grow of the School of Journalism at Florida A&M University in Tallahassee. I was intrigued by his theory on how the type of thinker we are influences the way we write. He says, “Visual thinking produces whole, patterned expressions such as maps, symbols, and pictures. Verbal activity leads to sequences such as narratives and explanations.”  He goes on to say that visual thinkers tend to write briefly-evoked scenes about one another with little connective explanation. I don’t necessarily agree with him, but it’s a good topic to ponder.

AGameOfThronesIndeed, a lot of what I read in genre fiction is written in 30-second sound-bytes, and it is because 3 generations of our society have become dependent on visual entertainment delivered in short segments–small pictures if you will. Reading is not as popular as it was, since many people think it’s much less work to watch A Game of Thrones than it is to read it.

I disagree–getting lost in a great book is not work at all! That reminds me, I should probably read that book. I own it, I started reading it in 1996, but had a hard time following the way it jumped around. I put it aside and never got back to it. But now I’m curious as to why folks are so crazy for it.

Anyway—

Gerald Grow also writes, “Since everything tends to happens at once and in present time to visual thinkers, they tend to choose static verbs, the passive voice, and heavily depend on forms of the verb ‘to be.’” 

When we first start out in this craft  we tend to write weak sentences. This is because we are approaching it from the point of view of the story-teller. We sit down and tell the story, and that is quite verbal when you think about it. I think it has more to do with lack of experience than how a brain visualizes, because we all seem to start out that way.

Weak narrative happens when, as story-tellers, we are separated from the moment by words that block our intimacy with the action:

wak vs strong table

Many of us do not have an education in journalism, and yet we choose to write. As we grow in the craft, if we want our work to be enjoyed by many people, we train ourselves to craft stronger sentences.

We write short stories, and send them off. Sometimes they are rejected, and sometimes not. We write longer short stories, novellas. We write novels, sometimes with WAY too many words. Our writing groups give us support and good, honest critiques. We know they will not tell us our work is awesome, if it stinks like Bubba’s socks.

They may tear it apart. But we grow from this experience. We learn that opinions are subjective, and writers are opinionated prima donnas–and we will do anything to never have that experience again.

Learning the craft of writing  is like learning the craft of carpentry–if you want to craft beautiful work, you must choose to learn what the proper tools for the job are and how to use them. My toolbox contains:

  1. MS Word
  2. The Chicago Manual of Style
  3. The Oxford A-Z of Grammar & Punctuation
  4. The Olympia Writers Co-Op
  5. NaNoWriMo Write-Ins
  6. Trusted, knowledgeable beta-readers
  7. Good, well recommended editors
  8. online writing classes
  9. regularly attending seminars
  10. reading in my genre

nano_12_new_Come_Write_In_Logo1What is in your toolbox? You might be surprised at just what you have acquired in the line of tools for advancing in this craft. Whether you are a visual thinker or a verbal thinker, you have the ability to express your ideas.

It takes a lot of work to rise from apprentice to journeyman to master in any craft. I don’t know if I will ever achieve that status as an author, but I will keep working and learning. and above all, I will keep reading.

 

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Dial-a-Plot

No matter how careful I am when building my outline, there is always a point where I am writing by the seat of my pants.  As I am normally rather a linear plotter, this can really change the direction a tale goes in.

I hear people whining all the time about this character or that one dying right and left in Game of Thrones. I don’t have HBO, so I’ve never seen it, but I have friends who seem to find this distressing.  I suspect that winging it and writing to a deadline is why people die  so frequently in George R.R. Martin’s world–it’s certainly how they meet a messy end in my world.

But how do we fly freely with our narrative, and yet not destroy the awesome story arc we have created? How do we avoid having to hide the mangled corpses of our beloved characters when they might be useful later?

Enter my home-made Dial-a-Plot (sustainably powered by dark matter).  It’s just your standard circular thingy that can be printed out and taped to your desk.  Whenever you have lost your way writing your epic fantasy, rather than resort to a sudden influx of something as far-fetched as cannibal fairies, feel free to refer back to this little gadget to remind you of those elements that really drive a plot.

Dial-a-Plot

When your writing mind has temporarily lost its momentum and you are stretching the boundaries of common sense, it can’t hurt to take some time to consider the central themes that inject true tension into the story, to keep the action moving and the heroes swinging their swords.

Hopefully you won’t have to resort to killing anyone you might need later, and cannibal fairies won’t take your tale in a direction you can’t recover gracefully from…unless…heh heh…Cannibal FAiries

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What I’ve learned from George R.R. Martin

George R. R. Martin photoI’m not a fan of George R.R. Martin’s style of writing, but I adore the man as a person. He has the courage to say out loud what many people would sweep under the rug.

Recently George R.R.  Martin told journalist Dave Itzkoff of the New York Times that although his books are epic fantasy, they are based on history. He said,  “Rape and sexual violence have been a part of every war ever fought, from the ancient Sumerians to our present day.” 

“To omit them from a narrative centered on war and power would have been fundamentally false and dishonest, and would have undermined one of the themes of the books: that the true horrors of human history derive not from orcs and Dark Lords, but from ourselves. We are the monsters. (And the heroes too.) Each of us has within himself the capacity for great good, and great evil,” Martin said.

According to Martin, “History is written in blood, and although Westeros – the fictional continent where the series is set – is ‘not the Disneyland Middle Ages,’ it is “no darker nor more depraved than our own world. The atrocities in A Song of Ice and Fire, sexual and otherwise, pale in comparison to what can be found in any good history book,” he said. (End of quoted text.)

George is right, and he is not advocating or glorifying rape, in fact just the opposite. If you want to inject realism into a work of fantasy you must address uncomfortable realities that human history has shown to exist. The worst aspects of human nature are portrayed in our everyday life—things I could never dream up. Society at large is blasé about it—unless it affects one personally, it may as well not exist.  Rape in the military is a fact, friends, not a myth, and that is just within our own forces. Not only does she live in a danger zone while in the military, a  woman soldier also knows she faces rape and torture if she is captured by the enemy—that is the first step in breaking her. Many men also suffer sexual assault and torture for the same reasons, whether we wish to acknowledge their pain or not.

Image courtesy of CBS News, and Getty

Image courtesy of CBS News, and Getty

Consider this disgusting item of current news that only rarely makes it onto the nightly newscast in our town: To be a young girl in Borno, Nigeria is an invitation to be kidnapped and sold into sexual slavery. More than 200 young girls are living this nightmare right now, because an extremist group, Boko Haram, who is against educating women, goes door to door, breaking into their homes and boarding schools and taking the girls from their beds. This is done as a way to maintain political control and  keep their fathers in line. The families of the stolen children are powerless against these brutal thugs.

Do you think these schoolgirls are not being raped and tortured?  If so, you are living in a dream. The leader of these radicals publicly flaunts their intentions to sell or marry all of them, bragging to all the media that they do it because God told them to.  They loudly proclaim that they will sell all of these girls, and believe me, the world is full of buyers just waiting for such an opportunity. So far, 20 lucky girls have escaped their captors.

If I was writing modern literary fiction or political potboilers, I would have tossed out such an unbelievable plot–it would have seemed completely unrealistic–I mean, a religious cult of pedophiles and rapists systematically kidnapping 200 girls, claiming divine privilege, and no one is able to stop them? Come on, get real.

A 19th-century depiction of Galileo before the Holy Office, by Joseph-Nicolas Robert-Fleury image courtesy Wikipedia

A 19th-century depiction of Galileo before the Holy Office, by Joseph-Nicolas Robert-Fleury image courtesy Wikipedia

I suspect God would prefer we  humans didn’t give him the credit for our evil, thank you very much.

So what have I actually learned from George R.R. Martin? I have learned to be true to reality in my writing or my story will never hold water.  Draw from history, mash it up all you want, but don’t deny the roots and don’t turn away from the ugly truth. Also, we must  never forget that there is as much beauty to draw from as there is pain, for it is that contrast that makes an intense story compelling.

No work of fiction will ever be more horrific or glorious than the true history of our humanity and inhumanity. We authors will only scratch the surface, and if that small scratch makes a reader slightly uncomfortable, the reader can easily retreat to their ivory tower and read bland romance novels written by someone other than me or George R.R. Martin, where everything is rainbow perfect and happy endings are guaranteed.

If you were privileged to be allowed to learn to read, that is.

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Madcap Moments of Literary Mayhem

My Coffee Cup © cjjasp 2013This weekend I saw a hilarious post on Facebook, one pointing to an article at NYDaily.com that details the fatal-flaws in the eBook version of George R.R. Martin’s  book,  A Feast for Crows.

Now, I just want to say at the outset, the only book of his I’ve read was the book, A Game of Thrones. But that was a long time ago, when it first came out as a Science Fiction Book Club book of the month. I was not really that impressed with it. I found the book distinctly hard to follow, and nearly quit reading it several times.

But just because I don’t find his work to my taste does not mean I consider him to be a hack! On the contrary, Mr. Martin deserves every one of his many awards and good for him! This is a rough business, and I love it when people succeed as authors. There are many fine, popular authors out there whose books don’t ring my bells. My own work is certainly not to everyone’s taste, although I am sure it should be. (Insert Shameless Plug Here: buy my books, please.) (The buy-links are to the right, clearly labeled.) (Just sayin’.)

Needless to say, Mr. Martin’s publisher is one of the Big Boys (Bantam Books) and one would think  SOMEONE would have caught these wonderful bloopers.  The  author put his faith in the publisher, and the publisher let him down.

George R.R.Martin formatting issue 3 via book blog page views, margaret eby

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George R.R.Martin formatting issue 1 via book blog page views, margaret eby

There is the remote possibility these moments of literary mayhem could have been caused by a last-minute global change to the manuscript. If so, it is a good example of why we should never click “Replace All” when we discover a particular word we need to change. Instead we should take the time to see each appearance of the word, and determine whether or not to make that change individually.

But in this case, I don’t think that is the problem. There doesn’t seem to be any pattern to the words the blooper replaces.  I think it is an OCR error (see number 5 below.)

George R.R.Martin bormatting issue 2 via book blog page views, margaret eby

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George R.R.Martin bormatting issue 4 via book blog page views, margaret eby

What these images of the book from the NY Daily tell me is that formatting issues are common and are a hurdle the indie must overcome. If the big boys have problems with this, then formatting is a real skill set that we must develop, because we all compete on the same field, only we indies have fewer advantages.

There are a few simple ways we can avoid some of the more common issues:

1. Do not put extra empty spaces between your paragraphs. If it is a section break, make sure to put something there to indicate it:  ***  centered in the empty space will do the task of indicating the section break, and will not look ugly.

2. Make sure your page breaks are “hard” i.e. NOT made by repeatedly hitting the “enter” key. You must limit those empty spaces to less than three, preferably only one. Go to the ribbon at the top of your WORD page and use the “Insert” tab. With the cursor next to your chapter heading, click on “Insert Page Break”.

3. Do Not Use Drop Caps to begin your first paragraph, no matter how pretty they look in the print edition. They screw the heck out of eBook formatting, causing all the paragraph indents to go away, making the book nothing but a WALL of words.

4. Stick to standard serif fonts like Times New Roman, and make it a decent size, like 11 pt. Use NOTHING larger than 16 pt. and use that only for chapter headings.

5. Random inexplicable letter changes can be caused by Optical Character Recognition (OCR) errors when the uploader for Kindle or Smashwords converts the manuscript to PDF format. Converting it to PDF yourself first does not help, because the errors are hidden in the PDF. Thus you may find  all the “p”s converted to ‘bl’s. (people becomes bleople.)  I am not very knowledgeable about the WHY of this, but I have learned how to avoid it:

I always save my eBook ms in Rich Text Format (.rtf) and I NEVER upload a manuscript to eBook  format that contains headers or footers. Remove the headers and footer BEFORE you upload to Kindle, Nook or Smashwords. I think this is what happened to A Feast of Crows. Headers and footers use OCR elements and this confuses the uploader program. My theory is: someone at Bantam forgot to remove the header before it was uploaded. But I could be wrong– this whole formatting thing is magic after all, and magic is an iffy science at best.

6. Comb your eBook ms for extra spaces at the end of paragraphs and remove them. I’ve been told this will eliminate the random “Words     Spread     Across     The    Page”  problem.

7. DO NOT USE THE TAB key to indent your paragraphs!!!  DON’T DO IT!  Go to the ribbon at the top of the page and use the paragraph formatting option. Set the indent to 3 or 5 pt.  But 3 is the optimal for me as a frequent eBook reader.

The bottom line is this:  the indie must spend many long hours combing the ms for the random extra spaces, removing all the possible error producing elements before we upload it. THEN you must use the option Kindle and Nook both provide and spend more time seeing what the book actually looks like BEFORE you hit the publish button.

Unlike George R.R. Martin, you won’t be able to blame the big-name publisher if your book looks like the dog’s dinner when your friends buy their downloads. This is our curse. We indies only have ourselves to blame for our less than perfect efforts.

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