Friday, August 28, 2009
Joe again. Those of you who know me are probably wondering why I'm posting two serious comments in a row, albeit weeks apart. I dunno. I'll come up with something snarky eventually, but for now, we stick with the side of me that doesn't inspire laughter. Or fear. Or both. Mainly fear that you'll laugh.
I do have a very strong opinion on blogs and the creepy people you don't know who start following you. Nathan Bransford must sit in his bedroom with a shotgun and a flashlight, jumping at every sound. Someday I'll post that opinion on blogging in full.
For today, a book review: I Am Legend, by Richard Matheson. I will come right out and say I liked the Wil Smith movie better. Incidentally, that was the most recent of three film adaptations.
The book was disappointing...from a reader's perspective. From a writer's perspective, I'm going to insist on it being a must read. It really is a marvelously weaved bit of storytelling.
Therein lies the conundrum. I don't pull novels off the shelf to learn technique. I like to be entertained. I hate when my inner editor chimes in.
"Do you see what David Drake did there?"
"Yeah, dude shot an alien in the chest and then stabbed the other alien in the eyeball. Go away and let me read."
Okay, schizophrenic leanings aside, on with the review. Yeah, I know, finally.
Bearing in mind the book was written in the '50s, I was a little surprised by how much the MC wanted to get it on with the female monsters (in the book, they're vampires, which is different from the vampirish/zombie-ish/too-many-days-in-a-tanning-bedish freaks in the movie) beating on his door every night.
The stories are very dissimilar between the movie and the book, by the way. There is a dog in both, a barricaded house, non-human former humans, and that's about it.
Matheson was indeed born a gifted writer. Also, he looked like a nerdy Willie Nelson. Look at the picture. I dare you to argue.
He takes the mundane and makes you read it. You're not enthralled, but he makes every scene seem like it's setting up something bigger. Sometimes, they were just mundane scenes.
As a writer, Matheson was a ground breaker. He brought the non-spiritistic vampire to the mainstream, and also the shock ending.
This is where he lost me as a reader. You sit, reading and wondering how it's all going to turn out, and then after a plot twist that explodes out of nowhere, it all crashes into an abrupt shock ending. I found it unsatisfying and didn't like it.
It is within that shock ending, though, that we can all learn a thing or two about writing. Namely his last line: I am legend.
Once you read that line, you take a pensive look back at the rest of the story. You realize how all of those mundane things the MC was doing made him a legend.
Matheson totally set you up for something huge, then let you down, then made you go, "Dude! That was brilliant!" Like the fireworks scene in Coneheads.
I'm laying even money all comments (if any) on this post will be about Coneheads. Someone's going to mention the high dive, then the golf club scene, consume mass quantities...
In short (haha, Joe, too late for THAT!), the ending comes so quick after the whirlwind plot twist, it's a little irritating. But his closing sentence is quite possibly one of most profound endings in literature. Like Ali's "anchor punch" on Liston in '64, it was short and didn't look like much, but it still rocked an ending.
Thursday, August 27, 2009
This is generally accepted as normal by SF readers today. But…a quick aside on this (because it's not really the main focus of this post, but it's worth mentioning), if you're going to have other human-inhabited planets in your made-up universe (other than Earth, that is), it wouldn't hurt to include a quick mention near the beginning of the story of how those humans got to be there…perhaps they'd always been there (in the same sense that we've "always" been on Earth), or perhaps, as is the case with my novel, humans from Earth had colonized the planet once they'd discovered it, or whatever your reason happens to be. This may seem insignificant, but trust me, your readers will be curious. Even if it's just a single sentence about the topic, it will make a difference.
All right, now that we've got that out of the way, on to the aliens.
2) What planet is your alien from?
Every sentient being has to live somewhere, and the most likely choice is a planet. The definition of alien, according to Webster's, is: (adj, first definition) foreign; (n, third definition) a hypothetical being from outer space. Since we haven't discovered true aliens among the stars yet, everything we write about is quite hypothetical, which means you could, in theory, have an alien race that lives on a comet. But where's the fun in that? Aside from being able to surf its life away through the galaxy, there's not much creativity involved.
However, creating an entirely new world--a whole planet--can really bring out your imagination. Again, though, the alien has to fit the planet you force it to live on.
So you've already decided on a good or bad alien, in relation to your human characters. And from that, you've most likely come up with some defining physical traits. Those characteristics are what you need to keep in mind when creating the aliens' home. Here are a few things to consider:
Atmospheric conditions: How does the alien breathe? Does it need oxygen, like we do, or can it breathe other gases? Does it even breathe at all (in the way that we think of breathing)? Hmm…
Land to water ratio and elemental details: Earth is (unofficial stats here) about 75% water, and, not surprisingly, our bodies are about 65% water. What elements, minerals, chemicals, etc, are important to the vital functions of your aliens' bodies? This would include the food they eat, or whatever it is they use to gain the needed energy for survival.
Planetary position and details of its star system: This is more important than some (who aren't nerds like me) may think. The reason Earth is the only planet in our solar system with vast amounts of plant and animal life is because of its distance from the sun AND its axial tilt. A while back, I had posted a snippet on the Writer's Digest Sci-Fi/Fantasy forum about the planet Venus. Interesting planet, to say the least. If you ever have time to research it, I highly recommend doing so, for the sole reason that it proves my point here. There are very good reasons why humans (and, I would think, most living things) don't exist on Venus, even though it is very similar to Earth in its size. Venus has been termed "Earth's twin", but it's so, so NOT that at all.
Every planet has to be part of a star system (our sun is star, in case anyone forgot). They are what make up our galaxy as we know it, and no doubt, the whole universe. There are some things that you just can't make up, even in fiction, especially if you want to be taken seriously.
Another aside: Please remember, unless you're writing Star Wars fan fic, it takes longer than ten minutes to travel between planets.
All these aspects of what makes up your alien planet will require a good amount of research, unless you're already a professional in any field of science. But don't dread the research. Embrace it. Once you get going, it really doesn't feel like work. Just keep reminding yourself why you're doing it (uh…that would be…YOU'VE GOT AN AWESOME STORY TO WRITE…yeah, that's it), and you'll be fine.
Tuesday, August 25, 2009
Joe has been revising and editing his science fiction short story, Runners, in pretty much all of his spare time during the past week. This particular piece has been difficult for him, to say the least. But he has earned my respect for not giving up on it.
Two of my short stories are out on submission to magazines. My fantasy short, The Blade of Tears, is being considered by an online publication, and my science fiction short, The Missing Link, is being considered by a print publication.
Hunted, my fantasy novella, has been quite stubborn this past week. I've tried two different versions of the next scene, and I'm not happy with either. I'm so close to finishing that one...frustrating.
Editing on Web of Deceit, my first science fiction novel, is going well. I'm currently working through chapter 23, which means I have (including this one) only eight more chapters to go. The novel should be ready by November, which was my goal (yay!). It's amazing how much you can accomplish just by doing a little bit every day.
Venom of Life, the sequel to the above novel, has three chapters complete in the first draft. But I've recently decided to hold off on that one for a bit, and work on my other science fiction novel, Mirra. The reason is not because the ideas aren't there, or that the story isn't flowing, or anything like that. Far from it. I'd like to work on a fresh story world and characters, though, 1) To take a break from the Web universe...it's been my LIFE for the past year, and 2) To prove to myself, and others, that I can do something new.
Mirra has been brewing in my head since December of 2008, so it's about time I gave it some attention. Up until yesterday, I had only written one scene...guessing it would fall somewhere in the vicinity of chapter three. Last night I started chapter one (finally!). Needless to say, it took me some time to figure out exactly where the story should start, even though the whole plotline is pretty clear in my mind.
I also made an important decision regarding viewpoint, just two days ago. I'd originally planned to write the novel in third person limited, which is my comfort zone, and shuffle between Mirra's point of view and Nathan's point of view, the two main characters. Then I'd later decided to write the whole novel from a single viewpoint, Mirra's. This past Sunday, while brainstorming some details about Mirra's character arc for the story, I thought I'd try writing a scene in first person, just to see how it felt.
And it felt perfect. Big smiles.
So Mirra is going to be my first attempt at writing a novel in first person (I've written short stories in first person, but nothing even close to novel-length). A little scary, trying something new, but I think it will be worth it.
That's all for now, friends. Back to cleaning. Grumble, grumble...
Sunday, August 23, 2009
Reality check. I will have to work there much longer. Most writers don't earn enough from their work for it to be the sole financial support.
One co-worker was bold enough to ask how much I made from that story sale, to which I answered, "Semi-pro payment, by the word."
"So...like a dollar per word?" she said.
(Ha! I wish! That would be three grand!)
"No," I said. "Enough to buy me a nice dinner. Once."
Her face scrunched up. "You better get to writing more stories then!"
Sadly, there isn't much money to be made for short story writers. Which is why most, if not all of us, eventually write novels. And only a small percentage of published novelists achieve the grandeur of household names like J.K. Rowling, Stephenie Meyer, Stephen King, Michael Crichton, Nora Roberts, Danielle Steele, Dean Koontz, etc. The list may seem long, but in comparison to how many "unknowns" are out there, it's really quite short.
The average advance for a new author's novel, specifically, in the science fiction genre, is only $7,000. You have to wait about a year, or more, before you see that book in print. Then wait even longer before you get any kind of return on the sales, if any. And don't forget about setting a chunk of that money aside for taxes.
Seven thousand dollars doesn't go as far as it used to. If that's the only money you've made for an entire year, consider yourself at poverty level.
So, while it might be tempting to say, "Take this job and shove it," once you can officially call yourself a "published author", remember that a regular paycheck, no matter how small, is still quite valuable.
Don't quit your day job, night job, second job, or third job. And in between all that, keep writing.
Thursday, August 20, 2009
1) Is this a good alien or a bad alien?
Well-structured science fiction always has a human element, otherwise the reader can't relate, and ultimately, won't care what your story is about. So deciding whether the alien is "good" or "bad" will have a profound effect on the human connection to your story.
For example, in a typical alien invasion movie like Independence Day, any other-world-sentient that wants to take over Earth in a violent way is considered hostile (go figure) and therefore, a bad alien. Same goes for the aliens in a movie like Aliens, even though it was the humans that invaded their territory. They didn't exactly lay out the welcome mat. So the humans in these types of stories have a singular goal: survival.
This makes for entertainment that is dual-classified as science fiction and thriller/action-adventure. And personally, it's my favorite. The more explosions, and maybe a little blood spillage, the better.
On the other side of the coin, if you have a good alien, one that is peaceful with the human race either by non-involvement or by offering assistance in some way, you have a much different story. You also have a completely different audience. Take, for example, the movie Contact. We don't get to meet the actual alien(s) until the end, but their presence was there from the beginning, watching from a distance, waiting for humankind to figure things out and make their move. The story is meant to make you think about your purpose in life and other philosophical debates, such as whether or not God exists.
Which seems to be the general theme of stories with good aliens. They take on more human qualities than the bad alien (making them less alien, really), and making the story more boring, in my opinion (aside from this scene in Contact, the rest was quite yawn-worthy). These can be dual-classified as science fiction and drama.
The physical traits of the alien mirror the concept of "good or bad."
Bad aliens include one or more of the following: slime, claws, big teeth, spiked body parts (usually a tail), acidic blood or spit or other bodily fluids, serpentine qualities like scales or a forked tongue, and any other thoroughly un-human appearance. The bad guys are purposely made to look as unlike "us" as they possibly can, so the reader/viewer is disconnected emotionally, making it easier for them to justify any skepticism or hostility toward them by the human characters. Is that PC? Absolutely not. But it's basic human nature, so it works.
The good alien will have either a closely "human" appearance or perhaps something angelic in nature. They have musical voices, a soft glow, maybe feathered wings, childlike features, slow and flowing movements. And if you think about any of the wildly successful Star Trek spinoff series, the alien species that had allied agreements with humans would have only one or two physical traits that set them apart, and those were usually on the face. For example, the Bajorans had a distinctly ridged nose. Other than that, no difference.
In short, you must first decide what kind of relationship your alien will ultimately have with your human characters before creating the physical traits, and then do so accordingly. Portray an image that fits. Of course, there are exceptions to this that can and have been done effectively. But in general, bad = caustic, and good = favorable.
Tuesday, August 18, 2009
Yesterday, I officially sold a Fantasy short story to Pill Hill Press for their upcoming anthology, Shadows & Light: Tales of Lost Kingdoms (more details on that will be posted as they occur).
The story is titled The Keeper of Secrets, which I'd originally wrote from a picture prompt (yes, that would be the image I posted above).
After six previous rejections over a period of eight months, it was quite a relief to get an acceptance and contract only one day after submitting to Pill Hill Press. And this is where I need to insert a big thanks to the publisher for buying the story, and another big thanks to Duotrope's Digest for being such an awesomely helpful resource. Highly recommended. See the link in the sidebar. Also, a big thanks (and unlimited access to the chocolate bath in the Writer's Lounge) to everyone on the Writer's Digest Sci-Fi/Fantasy Critique Forum who helped me polish up the rough edges.
And (not that I am against online magazines or Kindle or reading off your iPhone) I am uber-excited to see my story in print, bound in a book. But that's just me. I like paper and ink.
Saturday, August 15, 2009
Every writer loves a cliche', no? Of course not. I used to work for the CIA, tracking down and making cliches "disappear".
Some are effective, though, in certain situations. In writing, we are searching for the proverbial Gold Mine. How so?
Think of your favorite song. We all have a bevy of them. But your favorite song is such for a reason. Not the melody, rhythm, singing, etc. It's our favorite because of the images it invokes. Maybe it's a wedding. What was playing when we had our first kiss. On the overhead speakers at our first baseball game with Dad. It was the favorite of a relative who has passed on.
Whatever it is, it invokes in us memories. 99.91456% of the time (as proven by my calculations using an abacus and a box of Crayolas), the lyrics have nothing to do with those images. But those images and memories are so Golden.
A nugget pulled from The Gold Mine is nothing but a shiny rock, really. But the elation felt--this is GOLD!!--transcends the mineral itself. To us, it's a story/song/poem that we nailed, a whole greater than the sum of its words.
But to the ultimate owner, it is something else. A necklace. A watch. A wedding band. A creepy little statue they made of the cat they are leaving their riches to. Some of those little flakes in Goldschlager. Each nugget is molded to something the purchaser or reader desires, holding only value in common.
That's what we try to do. We can't put the helpless maiden or strapping hero or ray gun or mythical sword in their hands, but we can get them to The Gold Mine and let them pan for what they will take from it.
Some of us hit an entire vein. Some of us find one little nugget the size of a tic-tac, while yet others have a dull coin given to them by their grandfather. But all of it is valued.
Because it's Gold.
Thursday, August 13, 2009
Today's post was the fourth in an eight part series regarding genre-specific sales. It's nice to know that science fiction isn't suffering as badly as some other genres in the overall downturn of the economy. In particular, military SF (among some other sub-genres mentioned) is on the rise. That's good news for Joe and I, since many of our SF stories can be classified as such. This is not really surprising, though, when you think about the current popularity of military SF games like Halo and Mass Effect.
On a similar topic, although not as positive, Jim Baen's Universe has announced that the April 2010 issue will be their last. This news saddened me quite a bit. Baen stories (either in book form or magazine) have a very distinct quality that Joe and I both enjoy. To see this publication go under is like having your cat die (sort of...no offense to anyone who recently lost a cat because I've been there, several times). It hurts, but you get over it. And eventually, you get a new cat.
Monday, August 10, 2009
Hard. To. Swallow.
Whenever I open my e-mail, I hold my breath, wondering what new messages I'm going to find. If there are none, I let that breath out. If there is one (or more), I suck in even more air, and probably turn a very unattractive shade of red or purple.
Today, I had exactly one new message. I stared at the little icon for about thirty seconds, then clicked. And my heart did a flip-flop. The message was from the assistant editor of the magazine that has had my short story, The Missing Link, for the past 14 weeks. Again, I stared at the icon for a bit (longer this time).
I clicked. I read the two-sentence form rejection. I wanted to cry, but didn't.
Not sure why this one was so much harder to take than the others. Maybe because they had it for so long? Maybe because I really thought that particular market would go ga-ga over that particular story and all I got in return was, "You're free to send this elsewhere"? Maybe because the thought of being an "almost published" writer for the rest of my life is incredibly unappealing?
Yeah. That last one. Definitely.
On a similarly squeamish note, Joe and I did something over the weekend that we will soon regret, I'm sure. Abyss & Apex opened for short fiction submissions in the month of August. We each happened to have one story that was ready for submission and also fit the guidelines for that market.
So what do we do? Well, naturally, we both submit a short story to the same place for the same reading period. Why pass up the opportunity? Uh . . . perhaps that wasn't the smartest choice. After the damage was already done, we looked at each other, eyes wide, realizing that this could end up very badly for one or both of us.
"If they take your story over mine," I said, "I promise I won't be mad."
"They're not going to take mine," he said. "Yours is better. By far. Don't worry about it."
But I am worried about it. Slightly. Okay . . . more than slightly. Let the nail-biting ensue.
Saturday, August 8, 2009
Unfortunately, I found myself skimming a Nebula winner for best novel, Seeker by Jack McDevitt (Ace Science Fiction, 2005). Go ahead and boo me, if you must.
The story started out good. The sci-fi elements were outstanding, in fact, and many of the social concepts were not what you typically find in this genre. Also, the writing was clever, especially the way some of the dialogue was presented. The book is more about solving a mystery than anything else, which is fine . . . until you feel the need to skim.
Of 360 pages, I made it to 90-something, just shy of chapter eight. The book has 35 chapters, so I can't really blame it on a sagging middle. I didn't get that far. For me, it just started to drag. And I felt zero emotion from the characters. None. There isn't much else I can point to for reason. It just didn't hold my interest.
The only thing that truly bothered me was that I didn't realize the viewpoint character was female until well into chapter four. It's written in first person, which makes it somewhat difficult to clarify gender right off the bat, but even so, it bothered me. I'm not one to promote long and detailed descriptions of physical traits, but at the very least, in the beginning of any story (by the end of chapter one for a novel), I want to know the name and gender of the character I'll be following through the pages.
I had mistakenly assumed the viewpoint character was male and had to take a break from reading when it was made clear that she wasn't. Really threw me off. My whole inner vision had to be re-vamped. And I kind of felt stupid for it. Feeling stupid is not my idea of entertainment.
But I got over it and kept reading . . . only to stop again three chapters later.
Thursday, August 6, 2009
Joe walks in the door at 5pm, wondering what's for dinner and asking to use the 'puter. No problem. I've had it to myself all day. I shut down my tabs and windows, the last of which is a blinking cursor on a blank screen. Where's my story? Oh right...still in my head. Oops.
Tick tock, tick tock, tick tock...
Point blank, I hadn't been producing enough pages. So at least one good thing has come from this flub: I've returned to my previous strict writing habits, and a couple of projects that had been taking way to long to complete, should both be done by the end of next month.
July marked the one year anniversary of when I started my first novel, and it got me thinking about how much I've written in the last twelve months. When I stick to a routine and write a decent amount of story-telling every day...(Quick aside: When assessing your word count/page count for any give day, writing blogs and forum posts DO NOT count toward that. Period)...I can produce quite a bit.
In three months, I finished the first draft of my first novel. Granted, I'm still editing that novel a year later. But that is only because much of what I'd written needed to be "fixed." I foresee future novel-editing going much smoother. Always learning...
I completed Blade of Tears (from first idea to polished and ready-to-go) in one month. Keeper of Secrets was the same. For some people, that might seem long. For others, unbelievably short. For me, it's average.
There is one story of mine that I don't think I'll ever top, The Missing Link. This is how it went for that little project:
The idea just popped in my head one day. No forethought, no nothing. Just, "Hi, I'm your next story. Please write me." Okay. Sure. I was at work (uh...I mean...my day job...) so I jotted down a few notes on my break before the spark went away. The next day, I sat down to my laptop, and 3 hours later I had a complete story.
Quickest. Story. Ever.
I spent the next week editing (but actually didn't change much) and got some feedback from a few trusted readers. It's been out for submission ever since, at the same place, for the last 13 weeks.
Not only is that the quickest story I've ever completed, but it has also garnered my longest wait to hear back from an editor. Two personal records on the same piece of work. Amazing.
One of the writing goals I made at the beginning of 2009 was to complete 6 works of short fiction, in addition to finishing up my novel. We are little more than half-way through the year, and I'm about half-way toward accomplishing that goal. I currently have three short stories (all written this year) going through rounds of submissions. Another short story and a novella are actively in-progress, meaning, I've been working on them every day. Like I should be.
Thanks to my lack of internet, and sticking to a writing routine, I think that goal is attainable.
Tuesday, August 4, 2009
Fellow SF writer, Jenn Lidster, recently blogged about her first rejection. It's something that every aspiring writer fears, no matter how much they say it doesn't bother them. Rejection is not fun. Period. It gets under your skin. It makes you question your skills, your talent, your creativity...it takes a punch at your self-esteem and makes you wonder if all this time and effort you've put into writing is worth it.
But there isn't a single writer out there, professional or otherwise, that hasn't been rejected. Multiple times. Before you go any further, read the current Quote-Worthy quote by Richard Bach in the sidebar. "A professional writer is an amateur that didn't quit." Let that sink in for a minute.
There's a reason why Robert Heinlein made this one of his five rules: You must keep your story on the market until it has sold. He understood that even good stories get rejected. Success in this business is reliant on the opinions of others.
For example, a particular rejection letter I received had specific comments from the editor about why he didn't accept the story. Writing is excellent, he said. Good character development. Unique story world. But...I don't really like stories that involve a fulfillment of prophecy. Thanks, but no thanks.
Note to self: So-and-so doesn't want "prophecy" stories.
With every rejection you learn something. Take a deep breath. Have some chocolate. If you were lucky enough to receive personal feedback, look at your piece again. See if any suggested changes would make it stronger. And then send it out to someone else as quickly as possible. Don't wait around. Don't sulk.
If you need a good laugh to help you along the road to rejection recovery, click here. (Many thanks to fellow writer and friend, Brad Leslie, for the priceless YouTube link)
In Noah Lukeman's The First Five Pages: A Writer's Guide to Staying Out of the Rejection Pile, he quotes Joseph Hansen on page 119: "I have never had a book, story or poem rejected that was not later published. If you know what you are doing, eventually you will run into an editor who knows what he/she is doing."
Keep submitting. Never give up.
Sunday, August 2, 2009
Here's a few upcoming films we're hoping we can afford to see in a theater:
District 9 Coming August 14. (Click here) Aliens. Explosions. What more do you need?
Whiteout Coming September 11. (Click here) Stars Kate Beckinsale, so...'nuff said.
Toy Story 3 Coming September 25. (Click here) Uh...who isn't excited about this one? Plus it's in 3D. Sweet.
Planet 51 Coming November 20. (Click here) A funny twist on alien invasion. Another one for family night.
Daybreakers Coming January 8. (Click here) What a vampire movie should be. Seriously.
This last one will have to wait for a DVD release. Joe doesn't share my enthusiasm for it, mostly because he's anti-Johnny Depp. But I've always enjoyed this story, and the new adaptation looks much more exciting than previous versions.
Alice in Wonderland Coming in March. (Click here)
Quick update on our internet situation: still sporadically unavailable. Thanks for stopping by in our absence.