The Fictorians

Writing What I Like To Read

21 November 2014 | No Comments » | fictorians

A guest post by Al Onia.

“Write what you know.” One of those pieces of advice intended to get you focused. Or, to keep you from writing. I mainly write speculative fiction, so in my case, it’s “write what you don’t know, but wish.” Then add another layer. I write what I like to read. Sounds simple; but what do I like to read?

What draws me in and what authors do I return to and why? How do I know the experience and invested time will be worthwhile?

I like to be immersed in a world which the author has taken time to know. It doesn’t have to be detailed excruciatingly but one can tell if the author has worked it all out so that the setting, (physical, economic, social, political, etc.) works, in the background. This provides the stimuli for the characters to act and react realistically.

So we begin with a consistent, believable setting. The effort to create this in mystery and even conventional horror genres is different than SF or fantasy. The setting must be no less contradictory to what the reader knows or expects. Now, I’m immersed in the author’s world, my disbelief is suspended, what’s next?

Character and plot arcs which intersect, in conflict. Goals which matter; inaction will be fatal. Big points for originality.

I desire characters who exhibit psychological realism. The protagonist may be flawed, may be damaged beyond retrieval, but I want to see their actions and motivations portrayed believably. Their flaws are often the main reason they are in conflict with their environment. They find themselves in conflict willingly or not, but inevitably. Now the writer shows his or her talent by solving the issue through exploiting the character’s weaknesses but building on their strengths as well. And I believe the protagonist should have some strength, otherwise why should I care about them? Making me care about them is the tough art. Put them in a familiar quandary, something universal for the reader to identify with (broken relationship, loss of a loved one or thing, financial hardship, disease, injury, injustice).

I read for entertainment. I write to entertain. I read to learn, not to be converted. I write to teach, not preach. The best writers let me take away their interpretation of an issue of importance. Not necessarily to convince me, but to stimulate my own thoughts on the subject.

The other lure for me is the book containing a ‘big idea’. Hard to define in absolutes but some authors consistently produce a concept and character(s) which transcend the genre; epic in design and originality. Think “The City and The City” by China Mieville.

So much for ‘critical reading’. Sometimes I read for sheer brain candy. Reading to decompress from life. These are the books with no hidden message but I still have my standards. Natural storytellers (Robert E. Howard, William Campbell Gault, Lester Dent, Walter Gibson) can create a setting and characters in conflict in a dozen strokes of their writer’s brush; like a pen artist creating a portrait or landscape in the simplest of lines. They make it look easy but like the artist, it took many false strokes and many wrong words before it became ‘natural’. They apprenticed under the gun of a penny or less per word in the pulps. They learned quickly because they had to eat. I don’t read them critically, as I would the aforementioned China Mieville, William Gibson or Peter Watts (three of the more consistent and original writers working in spec fic) but I do analyze passages which work well. Again the fewest strokes of the brush technique to paint the picture before getting on with the action, which is why I dropped by in the first place.

Summarizing, I appreciate and look for: a consistent background which functions almost as another character, widening the options for the protagonist’s conflict; psychological realism where the characters behave consistently within their limitations and strengths and use both to resolve the conflicts; and originality. I hope I succeed at some level incorporating these attributes in my own writing.

???????????????????????????????Al Onia is a geophysicist living in Calgary, Canada. His debut novel Javenny was released by Bundoran Press in August 2014. His short fiction has appeared in Ares, Perihelion SF, On Spec, The Speculative Edge, Heroic Fantasy Quarterly, Spinetingler, Marion Zimmer Bradley and the anthologies Casserole Diplomacy, Body-Smith 401, North of Infinity and Warrior Wisewoman 3. Al is a two-time Aurora Award finalist in the short story category. You can visit Al at: http://ajonia.com

 

Clive Cussler, Guy Gavriel Kay and DJ McIntosh are Masters at …

20 November 2014 | No Comments » | Ace Jordyn

… the dreaded, overused, abused and misunderstood prologue.

I’ve never been a fan of prologues. Sometimes prologues create expectations that the book doesn’t meet either in story content or style or it’s an info dump. If it’s designed to foreshadow or tease I read no further because I want to experience that within the context of the story itself. The prologue must signal that it contains important information which can’t be placed elsewhere in the book. Before I buy a book, I’ll skim the prologue and the first chapter to ensure that chapter one is gripping and that the prologue wasn’t added because the first chapter failed to hook.

Sometimes the prologue works well and in the hands of good writers, you know the story wouldn’t be the same without it. The prologue should entertain, read well and provide a set-up that can’t be integrated into the novel proper.

In The Navigator, Clive Cussler and Paul Kemprecos interpret history to create a fast paced action adventure. Set in 900 B.C., the prologue is a well written short story with compelling characters, feuding brothers, interesting detail and contains a mystery that the reader knows will be revealed in the thriller’s modern day setting. Like the novel, the prologue is an action adventure with plot twists and turns. We expect that in Cussler’s books and he delivers.

The prologue in Guy Gavriel Kay’s novel Tigana is set back only 20 years and is a delight to read because although it is set in the time of war, it isn’t an information dump and it skillfully sets the mood and the theme. Unlike Cussler’s story approach, Kay paints only a scene between the court’s sculptor and the prince who are steadfast friends. This scene, in the hours before the hopeless final battle, the sculptor and the prince reflect that, despite knowing that they will lose this battle, their legacies will live on through their children and their work and they will die at the hand of a vengeful sorcerer for they have killed his son. There is also the delicate touch of themes, remembrance, the good and evil in people, the ugliness and beauty of a situation, hope and despair. ‘There was singing on the other side of the river too, he noted, listening to the enemy soldiers north of them. It was curiously hard to impute any absolute sense of evil to those harmonizing voices, or to hate them quite as blindly as being a soldier seemed to require.’ The writing is introspective without being melodramatic. ‘There will be ripples of tomorrow that run down all the years.”

D.J. McIntosh is a historical thriller writer touted as the next Dan Brown. The first book of her series, The Witch of Babylon, is set in 2003, just after the National Museum of Iraq becomes a casualty of war. The prologue is unusual in that it has three vignettes: the first sets the time and place, in the ruins of the museum where a thief after a relic observes a museum archeologist; the second where the American archeologist outsmarts the thief; and the third, where a woman is tortured for information and is left to die in a sandstorm. The intimate nature of these situations is information which can’t be known or revealed later because the story is told in the first person and not by any of these characters. These vignettes are handled deftly for they contain well-paced action and adventure written in vividly descriptive, yet not overdone, prose–just like the rest of the novel. For example: ‘And yet on the ninth day of the month of Nissan, a time well chosen by the invaders to avoid the brutal heat of summer, the city did fall, crushed as easily as the delicate shell of a baby bird.’ and ‘She dreamt of water—the feeling of cool liquid slipping down her throat, reedy pools at the edge of the Tigris, icy moisture on ancient rock walls. She was cracking and she knew it.’

These three authors wrote their prologues in very different ways. Each successfully conveyed information without it being an info dump and promised a story/writing style upon which they delivered. They all made for good and memorable reads: Cussler’s ability to deliver action adventure with an interesting historical twist; Kay’s ability to weave a poignant scene with thematic overtones; and McIntosh’s deft delivery of an action based thriller with roots in ancient and modern history.

Yes, that dreaded, maligned prologue can be a joy to read!

cussler104089McIntosh

SSWS Writing Scholarship: Should YOU Apply?

19 November 2014 | 3 Comments » | Colette

We’re taught in school to always ask the questions: who, what, when, where, why and how. Today, let’s start with why.

job_huntHave you ever wanted to have one-on-one conversations with experienced, best-selling authors and be able to ask them anything? Have you ever wanted to meet a New York editor, an acquiring editor for one of the most successful small presses in the nation, or find qualified indie editors? Have you ever felt like having a larger community of dedicated writers around you might help improve your writing skills and your writing career? Does the business side of writing–working with agents, contracts, hiring artists and editors, marketing, etc–seem a bit overwhelming at times? Could you use information from people who know what they’re doing to help in your writing career?

If you answered yes to any of those questions, then you NEED to apply to the Superstars Writing Seminar (SSWS) scholarship. Here’s the link: http://superstarswriting.com/scholarships/ Seriously, go look at it right now.

2010 SuperstarsOkay, as for the other questions. What is SSWS? The most amazing writing seminar you will ever attend. I’m not just saying that, and no, I’m not being paid to say that. I attended the first SSWS in 2010. If it was mediocre or repetitive, I’d have only gone once. I’ve been three times. I plan on attending again. It is worth every penny, but if you earn the scholarship, your tuition will be free. Here’s what it says on the website: “The only focus at Superstars is to teach you how to have a successful writing career by sharing how those at the top of the industry manage their careers.” Take a look at the past classes, and I can only tell you that each year somehow manages to get even better.

Superstars Presenters April 2010Who? Anyone who hasn’t attended SSWS in past years is eligible to apply for the scholarship. The instructors are Kevin J. Anderson, James A. Owen, Rebecca Moesta, David Farland, and Eric Flint. To list their credentials would take the rest of this post. Guests include Toni Weisskopf (Baen books), Christine Monroe (the US Manager for Self-Publishing and Author Relations at Kobo), Todd McCaffrey, and Jody Lynn Nye. Again, I can’t list all their credentials. It’s just too much. Nope, I’m not done throwing out names. Past and recurring attendees include our very own David Carrico (author of 1636: The Devil’s Opera) and Brad R. Torgersen (multiple award nominee and winner) This is what Brad had to say, “This is not a craft class nor is it a critique workshop. It’s a no-holds-barred crash-course in how to perform and conduct yourself as a professional fiction author.” There are more quotes where those came from and you can find them on youtube, too.

When? The scholarship application is due by November 22nd. That’s this Saturday! The seminar will happen in February. colorado springsThat’s the perfect time so you’re somewhat recovered from Christmas, have your tax refund on its way, and are in need of a short vacation. The exact date for 2015 is February 5-7th.

Where? Apply to the scholarship from the website, but give yourself time to write a short essay and get a couple of referrals. The people involved in making this opportunity take it seriously. They want to give it to you, but you have to show that you really want it and are willing to do the work. The seminar takes place in beautiful Colorado Springs, Colorado. It’s a great place to visit, and airfare is reasonable.

unikarkadan2How? For the full story on how this scholarship came to exist, I encourage you to read the introduction to One Horn to Rule Them All: A Purple Unicorn Anthology. It still gives me a warm feeling every time I scan over the story again. Once the idea took root to fund a scholarship so aspiring writers could attend SSWS, people pitched in. The cover artist, the publisher, the editor, and the famous and not-so-famous writers all volunteered time and work for the sake of helping other writers find their dream. And even though SSWS attendees were competing with one another for slots in the book, we cheered each other on, critiqued stories to help one another, and as often happens with this group, we did all we could to help our writing friends succeed. opportunity knocksThat is a rare camaraderie to have with a group this size, but it’s there and it’s precious.

In conclusion: If you’re serious about writing, take the time, do the work, and apply for this scholarship. Hurry! You’ve only got a few days to change the rest of your life. Opportunity is banging at the door.

Pluck, Pity Parties and Prose – What I Like Best and What Doesn’t Work

18 November 2014 | No Comments » | fictorians

A guest post by James Van Pelt.

By necessity, talking about “likes” explores only the reader’s internal landscape, at least if we talk about published work. Stephen King, for example, said, “Harry Potter is about confronting fears, finding inner strength and doing what is right in the face of adversity. Twilight is about how important it is to have a boyfriend.”

What a great snark! But Twilight has sold over 100 million copies. At least some people disagree with Stephen King.

If we’re talking about what we “like” in work that is published, and then compare it to unpublished work, the lines between the good and bad seem more distinguishable (but hardly written in stone—John Kennedy Toole’s Confederacy of Dunces was rejected numerous times during Toole’s lifetime, and when his mother tried marketing it after his death, it received seven more rejections before being published and then later won the Pulitzer Prize).

So discussions of what one likes best and what doesn’t work is seriously, severely, and irredeemably personal.

That said, I disliked Stephen R. Donaldson’s first book in the Thomas Covenant series, Lord Foul’s Bane. I don’t think it was the level of the prose that bothered me (because prose problems put me off in a hurry—I had the hardest time with Nicholas Sparks’ The Bridges of Madison County), but I really didn’t like Thomas Covenant himself. I couldn’t root for a guy who seemed like a walking pity party, who didn’t believe that the cool stuff that was happening to him was really happening, and who raped the only decent character he met in the book. I had students talk to me about Donaldson’s series who said, “Oh, you have to keep reading. By the time you get to the third book, it starts to get good.”

Sorry, that’s too far for me to go with a character I don’t like.

I had the same problem with Lev Grossman’s The Magicians. Grossman can flat out write, and sentence by sentence he is a wonder, but Quentin Coldwater, his main character lacks any sense of wonder. Amazing things happen to him. In fact, all of his childhood dreams come true, but no matter what happens, his attitude is, “So now what?”

“So now what?” is the killer of ambition. “So now what?” makes all achievement worthless. You can do magic, but so now what? You find the person you love most loves you back, but so now what? You become king, but so now what? As much as I liked the prose, I couldn’t bring myself to read the second book. I told someone that The Magicians felt to me like, as others have pointed out, Catcher in the Rye meets Hogwarts, and Catcher in the Rye didn’t work for me either.

Good prose and great characters work best for me. I loved Jeff Johnston in Connie Willis’ beautifully written Lincoln’s Dreams. I thought Jo Walton created a wonderful character in Mori in Among Others, and Neil Gaiman brought to life Richard Mayhew for Neverwhere.

Good characters go a long way for me. If the character is combined with compelling prose, I’m hooked I can’t put the book down. Jim Nightshade and Will Halloway in Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes are transported by Bradbury’s poetic prose, as is Schmendrick in Peter S. Beagle’s The Last Unicorn, and so is Stephen Huxley in Robert Holdstock’s Mythago Wood.

I was on a panel on characterization at WorldCon with Terry Pratchett once. He said that what most often made characters fail for him as a reader was when they were “pluckless.” Characters should have pluck, he said. They should fight to achieve their dreams and try to maintain their sense of selves, even if they are in hopeless situations. I agree with him.

If the writer can combine characters who strive for themselves with sentences that not only don’t stumble over themselves but soar on their own, then I will be a happy reader.

headshotJames Van Pelt has sold over 100 short stories to many of the major science fiction, fantasy, and horror magazines. His work has appeared in numerous ‘year’s best’ anthologies. He also has been a Nebula and John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer finalist. When he’s not writing, he teaches high school and college English in western Colorado. Read his latest collection short science fiction and fantasy stories, FLYING IN THE HEART OF THE LAFAYETTE ESCADRILLE, or find out more at http://jimvanpelt.livejournal.com

 

 

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