. . . is an ongoing series that John Ottinger over at Grasping for the Wind created and runs. As I mentioned, he reviewed MIRRORED HEAVENS earlier this week; he also was kind enough to invite me to appear on This Writing Life, and here I am! Tune in to find out all about my approach to space war, as well as the Autumn Rain/Al-Qaeda analogy, and a couple of other random tidbits too. Thanks a ton, John! And of course the mass-market is available at Amazon and other fine bookstores. . . featuring new stuff like secret agent dossiers and all sorts of other skulduggery . . .
Archive for January, 2009
Ok, so the book’s done well, and sales are generally strong—but MIRRORED HEAVENS remains a long way from battling its way out of the midlist. And I have to rationally grapple with this fact, because I need to figure out how to market the upcoming mass-market (not to mention the rest of the series). I’ll have a post shortly on stuff I did to market the trade paperback (released last summer), kinda like what my pal David Edelman did here. But in the meantime, I need to think deep.
I need to STRATEGIZE.
And in the hopes this will be helpful to others, I intend to be totally transparent about this.
And here’s what I’ve noticed, going back over the negative reviews (incredibly, there were some!). You’ve got some people who say the book is just pure “combat porn”, with “little to no plot”, and then some people who say the plot was too complex, and they didn’t understand it. Clearly, these directly contradict each other, which I find fascinating, and which leads me to believe that I have a larger challenge. The core military SF audience at whom Bantam aimed the book has yet to entirely embrace MIRRORED HEAVENS; I suspect this is partially because it’s not as Manichean as that audience is used to (there’s no clear line between good guys and bad guys), and also because some of them might be getting lost in the thicket of unfolding conspiracies (because the book is in many ways a spy thriller). At the same time, a lot of folks in the non-mil SF world haven’t looked past the shoot-outs, I suspect, and have been quick to dismiss it as just another kill-crazy action-fest.
So where does that leave me? It leaves me all the more resolved to come up with a marketing strategy that will find a way to crack the lucrative n’ large military SF market, while simultaneously positioning MIRRORED HEAVENS for a breakout into the mainstream/Tom Clancy audiences. Hell, Stephen Baxter himself invoked Clancy’s name in describing the book, and my agent sold it as LeCarre on SF crack, so there’s gotta be a way to crack this code. More on this later—
First the good news. From John Ottinger of Grasping for the Wind’s review of MIRRORED HEAVENS: “Very few books have ever lived up to overused description of a “non-stop thrill ride”. The Mirrored Heavens is one of those few.” He goes on to say that its “vision of a dark and terrible political future and constant and significant plot twists make this novel a book you could read twice, each time with a wholly new perspective.” I particularly appreciated his insight that in many ways the book’s more of a spy thriller than a traditional SF read; of special note is his discussion about whether it veers closer to James Bond or Jason Bourne (in the course of which he becomes the first reviewer to spot the underwater volcano homage, but that’s worth a whole ‘nother post. . .)
With a review like that, you know the karmic balance has to be evened up somewhere; credit here goes to Tia Nevitt at Fantasy Debut, who notes that the book is meant to be a “can’t put it down thriller” but that it took her months and months to read, so that’s clearly not what it is. She also finds my editor’s favorite character, Linehan, to be “repugnant”, which I’m guessing probably has something to do with his penchant for delivering one-liners while committing acts of mass-murder. And then the inimitable Claire Haskell is compared to R2D2, which I gotta admit I’m still scratching my head over. But hey, Tia, as long as you don’t invoke the Star Wars Xmas Special, I think we can still be friends.
Anyway, never mind the critics: some will like it, some will hate it, but only YOU can decide. Did I mention the mass-market is available HERE?
My post of last week on the writing process generated some follow-up questions; one of them centered on how much editing occurred to MIRRORED HEAVENS. Well, I was lucky to have an activist editor; I hear a lot of stories these days about how editors have hardly any time/bandwidth for editing, but I was fortunate in that Juliet Ulman of Bantam Spectra was nothing short of spectacular. There were two principal fixes she suggested to MIRRORED HEAVENS.
1. Front-load the exposition. Frankly, I made the reverse of the mistake that many first-time writers make. Wanting to avoid stuff like “as you know, Bob, the United States has been locked in a second cold war with the Eurasian Coalition for several decades, which has pretty much completely militarized America and created something that in name is a republic but in practice is essentially a military dictatorship in which the president (who we colloquially call “the Throne”) is supported by an Inner Cabinet composed of the heads of the various military commands who incessantly scheme/maneuver for power, and oh by the way, there’s lots of secret agents, and the ones who hack the zone are called razors, and the ones who kick down doors are called mechs, and by the way, the handlers mess with their memories, and the U.S. has occupied Latin America because space has been weaponized and equatorial launch real-estate is at a premium and did I mention–“. . well, I think you get the point. A novice would have stuck that in there; a novice like me who thought he was being clever would toss a few clues in there, but nowhere near enough, and the reader would be going WTF. Though my example above is more than a little exaggerated, striking that balance is tougher than it looks. But Juliet helped me to develop a # of smarter ways to do the exposition so that the necessary information is front-loaded (an obvious example: put the Treaty of Zurich at the very front of the book).
And I’ve got a lot more to say on this, and I haven’t even got to Juliet’s other major change/feedback on the original manuscript—but it’s now a quarter to eleven, and the manuscript to book three is calling. . . . feed me. . . .feed me . . . (in which respect it resembles my cat, who I might add has been itching to make an appearance in this blog for some time, and is unlikely to be denied for much longer.) More later.
Dashpunk.com has been an integral part of online fandom for a decade now; late to the party as ever, I’m just getting introduced to them. They’ve just released a new manifesto to articulate their goals and beliefs; particularly interesting is their approach to copyright issues—an attempt to redefine the current IP rights debate within a larger context.
What’s also of interest, though, is the network they’ve built up at Project Shadow: HQ. I’ve signed up, and am liking what I see: a dedicated group of folks talking passionately about the culture they love. Plus there’s lots of cool videos too, including the (gasp) missing Star Wars rap archives—and it looks like somebody there is a metal fan too, as there’s more than a little Roadrunner concert footage. I’ve always argued that science fiction and heavy metal have something in common; maybe now I’ll be more than just a voice in the wilderness. . .
The last of the January interviews: esteemed colleague Sam Butler, and fellow refugee from the corporate galleys . . . enjoy . . .
S.C. Butler is a former Wall Street bond trader who always preferred Middle-earth to the Chicago Board of Trade. Currently he lives in Brooklyn with his wife and a whippet. His website is www.valingstoneways.com.
1) What was your inspiration for writing [the book]? Queen Ferris is the second book in my Stoneways trilogy, which includes Reiffen’s Choice, and the third book, The Magicians’ Daughter, due out in April. The trilogy’s name says it all. I always liked Dwarves more than Elves, so I decided to write a book that way. With caves.
2) Who are your favorite authors now and when you were growing up? My favorite authors are Heinlein, Trollope, Tolkien, Lewis, Austen, Flaubert, Van Vogt, Vonnegut, Niven…
3) What is it about fantasy/science fiction that attracts you? Fantasy and science fiction interest me for different reasons. I read fantasy for the story and the characters – it’s not that much different from why I read any sort of book. Science fiction is different, however. Science fiction I read for cool ideas and a sense of Wow!.
4) Why did you decide to make Reiffen a Mage? Because the Stoneways trilogy is a story about power, and what’s more powerful, in any tradition and at any time, than a magician?
5) What sort of research did you do to write this book? Since it’s a fantasy, I did very little research. I checked out a few technologies to see if they were appropriate to the level of some of the cultures – in Queen Ferris, different cultures have different technological levels. The Dwarves, for example, have gas filled airships for traveling beneath the bottom of the world. The humans don’t.
6) Reiffen and his friends and love maple candy. Is that your favorite too? Nope. Just syrup on waffles.
7) What are you writing now? A story in which one of the main characters from Queen Ferris comes to our world. The working title is Avender in America.
8) Did you always want to write? Or did you stumble into it? I always wanted to write. My earliest juvenilia dates back to when I was about ten years old. (Boy, is that stuff awful.) But it took me a long time to sell anything. 28 years from my first submission to my first sale. Of course, that will happen when you only write novels and get busy with a job and family. The job and my family were always my first priority.
9) What does a typical writing day look like for you? How long do you write, that sort of thing? My typical writing day depends on what part of the wip I’m working on. If it’s rough draft time, I try to write a minimum of 1200 words a day, which can take anything from two to ten hours, depending on my mood, how well I’ve imagined the scene, or whether I’ve burned myself out writing too much the day before. Rewrites, however, tend to be more predictably productive, running about four to six hours of work. I find writing to be exhausting.
10) Where do you write? At home at my desk, on my laptop, with anything from punk to classical on my boom box. However I get many of my ideas while taking long walks, and often write a book’s songs and poetry while walking as well.
11) What is easiest/hardest for you as a writer? It’s all hard. The only easy part is being done.
12) What is the purpose of fantasy/science fiction, if any? In my opinion, it’s the same as any other fiction: for readers to enjoy. Readers can enjoy books in many ways, from the cerebral and intellectual to the escapist and just plain fun. The point is in the enjoyment.
Both Reiffen’s Choice and Queen Ferris are available in hardcover and mass market paperback from Tor books. You can find them at most bookstores specializing in spec fic, or at Amazon and Barnes & Noble.
I was wondering if you could write a little bit more about HOW you go about writing. Do you outline the chapters first with a general idea of what u want to write about within a chapter. Or just shoot from the hip and figure it out later?
And I’m glad he asked it, because this is something I feel pretty strongly about. I plan it all out, and I’m firmly convinced that one of the biggest mistakes new/aspiring writers make is that they don’t. To some degree, I think this is because they get terrible advice from the senior/pro writers. I’ve been struck by how many professional writers who should know better proudly tell neophytes about how they write novels by “just diving in”, not knowing where the whole thing was going, and often having no clue whatsoever about the ending. And this may not be such a bad approach . . if you’re a seasoned writer with several books under your belt, and you’ve got well-honed instincts and a well-trained subconscious that’s used to bailing you out of tough situations.
My subconscious, on the other hand, hits the rip-cord when the going gets tough (thanks dude). And I don’t have time or resources to plow 40,000 words into something and then realize that it’s not going anywhere. To me, not planning out what you’re writing is about as irresponsible as a Hollywood director hauling a million dollars worth of cameras into the desert without having a fucking script. Writing is painstaking, and I’ve got to have maximum assurance (it can never be total) that the hours I’m spending writing a page are well-spent. Which is why I map everything out at a several levels, and I never, EVER write a scene without knowing (a) how I’m getting in, (b) how I’m getting out, and (c), most critically of all, what’s the center of gravity of that sequence.
To be clear: I’m not saying there’s no room for spontaneity. I’m just saying there’s plenty of room for good planning. In fact, I’ll go out on a limb here and define writer’s block as being fundamentally about the failure of the planning process. My formula in four words is brainstorm hard, write easy. Even though writing never is . . .
Guest interview today is my esteemed colleague Jim C. Hines; I’m totally heads down trying to make up for not getting requisite word-count in yesterday, so in the meantime, enjoy!:
Last year, Jim C. Hines finished his humorous goblin trilogy with GOBLIN WAR, which made the Locus Bestseller list the month it came out. January 6 marks the release of THE STEPSISTER SCHEME, the first in a new series of butt-kicking princess tales. This one has earned advance praise from the likes of Esther Friesner and Jane Yolen, and was a January Top Pick from Romantic Times. Jim is currently in full book-release freakout mode, but took some time to answer a few questions about the new series.
Q) Tell us about THE STEPSISTER SCHEME.
A) I think just about every author does a fairy tale retelling at some point. It’s a membership requirement or something. But the thing about fairy tales and so many of the retellings is that our heroines often end up being symbols rather than fully developed characters. I wanted to make my three princesses real people, with strengths and flaws and depth and personality. I’ve described the book as Charlie’s Angels crossed with fairy tale princesses, but more than that; it’s a story of three women learning to work as a team to save a prince, fight evil, and generally kick ass. Also, it’s got the best use of silverware in hand-to-hand combat of any book I’ve ever seen.
Q) Can you introduce us to these characters?
A) Danielle Whiteshore (Cinderella) is our viewpoint character. She’s a little overwhelmed by all the changes in her life since she married Prince Armand. She’s in heaven with a loving husband and a family who doesn’t treat her like a slave … even if the palace staff look at her a little funny for chatting with the doves and the rats. Talia (Sleeping Beauty) and Snow (White) both came to serve Queen Beatrice after fleeing their respective homelands. Snow is a bit of a flirt as well as a bookworm. She inherited her mother’s gift for magic, as well as the magic mirror, making her quite the powerful magician. Talia is the fighter of the group, both physically and emotionally. She’s learned to use her fairy gifts of grace and dancing to become one of the deadliest warriors in the kingdom.
Q) What sort of research did you do to write this book?
A) Mostly I read a lot of fairy tales. There are so many versions of the different stories, which allowed me to pick and choose elements from each when building my characters and their backstories. Then there were all the details: castle blueprints, wardrobes, medieval glassmaking, how far a horse can travel in a day, fairy myths, weapons, 16th century houses, hazel trees, and everything else you don’t think of until you’re midway through a scene and realize you have absolutely no idea how to describe what your characters are seeing.
Q) Are there any interesting scenes or ideas that didn’t make it into the final book?
A) Snow White wears a choker of gold wire and small glass mirrors. In her original incarnation, Snow was blind and used those mirrors as her eyes. To be totally honest, I don’t remember exactly why I changed that, except that it just didn’t feel right for her character. I posted a deleted scene on my web site that shows Snow as she was in that first draft.
Q) What’s next for your princesses?
A) I turned in the revisions for book two, THE MERMAID’S MADNESS, a month or so back. If you read the Hans Christian Anderson story “The Little Mermaid,” the mermaid’s prince chooses another, and she’s faced with a choice: either allow the sea witch’s spell to kill her, or take her prince’s life to save her own. In the Anderson story, the mermaid oh-so-nobly gives up her life for her prince. My mermaid makes a different choice. I’m currently working on the third book in the series, RED HOOD’S REVENGE.
Q) What do you really think about “happily ever after”?
A) In real life, your story doesn’t end until you’re dead. Even then, your actions and your life continue to influence other people’s stories. The idea that these three women could go through what they did, with murderous mothers (and why is it always the mothers?) and curses and poisons and betrayals, but then they have a good night at the ball and suddenly everything is happy from then on? That’s the real fairy tale.
Q) Who is your favorite author?
A) The answer changes from day to day, depending on my mood and what I’ve been reading. Today, I think I’m going to say … Snoopy. His prose isn’t always the greatest, but he’s quite the inspirational little beagle. He never lets rejection slow him down, and he knows the most important thing is to drag that typewriter back onto the doghouse and just keep writing.
Q) Any closing thoughts?
A) Thanks to everyone who read this far! I hope folks will take a look at the preview, or at the very least, check out the cover art Scott Fischer did for the book. I absolutely love the image he came up with. I have a larger copy at http://www.sff.net/people/jchines/Covers/Stepsister%20-%20Full.jpg Scott actually used my daughter as a model for Talia, the princess on the right. Best. Cover. Ever!
Read the first chapter of THE STEPSISTER SCHEME at http://www.sff.net/people/jchines/SS%20Preview.pdf
Jim’s blog: http://jimhines.livejournal.com
Jim’s home page: http://www.jimchines.com
Purchase link: http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0756405327/
They broke out the drinks and had themselves a roundtable discussion over at SFF.world about everybody’s “top five” 2008 SF books, and MIRRORED HEAVENS got mentioned not once but twice, by Graeme Flory and by Pat at Fantasy Hotlist. Plus I also got on the scoreboard with John Ottinger over at Grasping for the Wind, who gives me the prize for most surreal read of the year. I find this to be the most gratifying review yet. . .
And don’t forget, MIRRORED HEAVENS is getting released in mass-market paperback on January 27th. Why not beat the rush and pre-order?
The first post of the year goes to a guest-interview with friend and fellow scribe Joshua Palmatier, who continues one of the best series in fantasy now going with The Vacant Throne . . .
1) What was your inspiration for writing The Vacant Throne?
Well, The Vacant Throne is the sequel to The Skewed Throne and The Cracked Throne, so part of the inspiration was to continue the story already begun. But the main idea behind The Vacant Throne—that there’s a second magical throne out there, one that’s twin to the Skewed Throne seen in the first two books—actually came out of discussions between me and my editor while we were discussing the revisions to the first book. I’d already written about the existence of a second throne at the end of the first book, and my editor began asking me about particulars regarding that throne: Where is it? What is it for? How does it relate to the Skewed Throne? She got my mind working on the back story of the second throne, and that back story ended up giving me the setup for the plot behind The Vacant Throne.
2) Who are your favorite authors and books now and when you were growing up?
My favority authors while growing up were Andre Norton (who was my introduction to fantasy and science fiction), Terry Brooks, and Katherine Kurtz. I didn’t have a particular book from either of them that I’d rate as a favorite. I loved Brooks’ “Elfstones of Shannara” and the Camber books by Kurtz. Currently, I’d say my favorite authors are Tad Williams, Guy Gavriel Kay, and Stephen King.
3) What is it about fantasy/science fiction that attracts you?
I think it’s the boundlessness of it all. In fantasy and science fiction, you can do anything. There are no limits. You can push and push the bounds of believability, and then you can push it some more. Of course, you have to structure the fantasy or science fiction so that the reader is willing to push along with you or you won’t have any readers, but that’s part of the challenge. I think that an excellent writer can craft any story, no matter how unbelievable, so that the majority of readers WILL take that trip with them, and I think that most writers in SF and F are trying to become such an excellent writer.
4) Why did you decide to make Varis an assassin?
The initial vision for The Skewed Throne had Varis on a boat in the harbor of the city of Amenkor, a common person, someone living the ordinary life, and suddenly this mysterious White Fire—obviously magical in nature—sweeps out of the west and touches her. However, when I sat down to write the book, I’d started thinking about Varis, about her situation and where she came from, and realized that she needed to be in more dire straits if I was going to make her story believable. At that point, she became someone trapped in the slums of Amenkor—like many others in the city—and fighting to survive, fighting to find a way out. Her desperation to escape her situation is what drives her to become an assassin when given the chance, and it’s what pushes her to do things that she wouldn’t normally do, perhaps. Her being an assassin was also a way to take a common person in the society and get them involved in the world events—the politics and maneuverings—that are going on at the same time. Also, I’ve always wanted to write about an assassin; one that actually kills people during the course of the book. *grin*
5) What (besides writing) do you do for fun?
Besides writing and reading, I also teach a spinning class at my local gym and take other spinning classes as a way to keep fit and get some exercise (something writers don’t have a tendency to do as part of their job). I also collect crackle glass and go to numerous flea markets and antique shows looking for cool and interesting pieces, mostly related to the 1950s and the Art Deco era. And for real fun, I try to get friends together to play board games such as Ticket to Ride, Settlers of Catan, and Alhambra. Puzzles can also be fun.
6) What sort of research did you do to write this book?/What kind of preparation do you do when you are writing?
I generally don’t do any research ahead of time for my novels . . . but that’s because I don’t know what I need to research yet. The way I write novel s is more or less by the seat of my pants. When I start, I have a vague idea of what I think the book is going to be about. This usually amounts to one or two scenes scattered throughout the book, including something near the end and a scene or two in between. (I always have the initial scene in mind.) Then I start writing. I keep notes along the way, and write down things I need to research as I go. Sometimes, if I hit something that’s important to the plot, I’ll pause in the writing and do research on that at the time, but most of the time I save the research until the book is finished and I’m getting ready to do the revisions. So the amount of research varies with each book, and depends on where the book decides to take itself. In The Vacant Throne, most of my research involved ships and in particular, how ships fought while at sea.
7) Varis loves her knife. Is that your favorite thing too?
Um . . . no. For Varis, having her knife close at hand is a security issue. She feels safer when touching the knife, knowing that with it handy she can protect herself. It comes from living in the slums of the city and knowing that at any moment someone or something bad could happen. I (thankfully) don’t live in that kind of world and so I don’t feel the need to have a knife handy. *grin*
8) If you were a character in The Vacant Throne and had the option of touching one of the thrones (and thus gaining access to its power), would you do it?
I don’t think so. Obviously it would depend on the need for that power at the moment. If there is no dire need, then why would I want to accept the power along with all of its consequences? For example, if you touch one of the thrones, then you’re tied to the throne, which means that you can never leave the city (or at least never pass outside the influence of the throne itself). That’s a fairly strong restriction, and I don’t think I could handle being tied to one place like that. There are other consequences of touching the throne that I couldn’t live it as well. So, assuming no dire need, I think I’d pass on having access to all of its power.
9) What are you writing now?
I’ve handed in the first book—called Well of Sorrows—that’s the start of a new trilogy set in the same world as the Throne of Amenkor books, but at a different time period and involving different characters. The new series will eventually connect up with Varis’ storyline, although how it will connect up won’t be obvious in the first book. So I’ve got the two sequels to that new series that I’m working on. I’ve also started the first book in another fantasy trilogy that’s not associated to the Throne of Amenkor books and hope to have the proposal for that finished (and hopefully sold) in 2009.
10) Did you always want to write? Or did you stumble into it? How did you get where you are now?
I’ve wanted to be a writer since the eighth grade, when an English teacher wrote on a short story that the story was good and I should continue writing. That was the first moment that I realized that all of those books I’d been reading were actually written by someone. And that someone could be me! From that point on, I started working on short stories and eventually started a novel. The first draft of that novel was HORRIBLE, but it taught me how to be a writer and I hope that it will eventually see print (although a completely revised version of course). As to how I got to where I am now . . . lots of hard work, numerous drafts, lots of rejection, and a metric ton of persistence.
11) What does a typical writing day look like for you? How long do you write, that sort of thing?
My writing days fall into two categories: days when I have to work (I teach mathematics at a local college), and days when I don’t. On Days when I teach, I usually only get an hour or two maximum to work on writing, if I get any time at all. Basically, I sit down and write for that hour, usually brand new material, without looking at the old material, because my time is limited. On days when I don’t have to teach, I start writing in the morning and reread the old material, making minor changes/revisions, and then get on with new stuff. I break for lunch, and write after lunch until I have to head to the gym. On these days, I get in about six hours of writing. If I have errands to run or other writerly activities (such as answering interview questions, emails, talking to my agent, talking to my editor, etc) then I try to get at least four hours of writing in.
12) Where do you write?
I write on my laptop at a desk with a notebook to one side for writing down any plot thoughts that strike me, as well as to keep track of names of characters, places, things, etc. I also have a stack of CDs that are “writer friendly,” meaning I can play them without the music interrupting the writing flow. Other than that and a glass of water, there’s not much else in my writer space.
13) What is easiest/hardest for you as a writer?
The hardest part of writing is just getting myself to sit down and write, damn it! *grin* Seriously. Once I’m writing, the hardest part is to work in the emotions of the characters without those emotions sounding stilted or fake or over the top. I also have to work very hard at the dialogue, since it has to sound real, and yet it can’t actually BE real, since if you listen to most conversations, they’re long and boring with lots of unnecessary wordage. The easiest part of the writing for me is probably the world itself. I can sink myself into the character and their situation enough that the descriptions take little effort, yet still get across the effect of having the reader there, living that particular scene.
14) This isn’t your first book; tell us a little bit about what else is out there?
I have three books out and available in stores at the moment, all in both hardcover and paperback. They comprise the Throne of Amenkor series which consists of, in order, The Skewed Throne, The Cracked Throne, and The Vacant Throne. The new novel, Well of Sorrows, which starts a new trilogy, will be released sometime in late 2009, although I don’t have a set release date yet.
15) What is the purpose of fantasy/science fiction, if any?
I think the purpose of fantasy and science fiction is to keep our imaginations alive. In order to keep advancing scientifically, you have to be able to dream and the SF and F field allows writers and readers alike to dream big, to dream the impossible. Some may think this only applies to science fiction, but I think it’s true for fantasy as well, since both ask the reader to open their minds and consider other possibilities, other alternatives, even those that might not initially make sense, and that ability is necessary to keep ourselves from falling into the same rut.
To summarize, GO FORTH AND BUY THE VACANT THRONE! *grin* The entire “Throne of Amenkor” trilogy is now complete in paperback, so go check it out and see if it’s something you might like. It’s full of assassins and thieves, murder and mayhem, cats and dogs living together . . . er, well you get the picture. There’s blue people and magic and insane furniture. But most of all it’s a series of rousing stories in a world full of danger where everyone is simply trying to survive, some at the expense of others. Here are the links for Amazon.com for all three books:
For excerpts from Chapter One from each book, and other information about the series, check out my website at www.joshuapalmatier.com and for entertaining tidbits about the author and his life, check out his blog at jpsorrow.livejournal.com