Author Archives: Sean Golden

About Sean Golden

After a degree in physics, then a 35 year career in Information Technologies, I am now focused on writing. My first epic fantasy series, "The War Chronicles" is available on Amazon.com.

Publishing in the Boondocks

This month’s subject for our Fictorians posts is about small and local publishers.

I’ll just get this out of the way right now. I live in a rural area in Arkansas and the closest significant publisher of sci-fi or fantasy books is far enough away that distance simply isn’t relevant.

So that leaves “small publishers.”

I’m afraid I don’t have any real experience there either.

Well, unless you consider my self-publishing under my own LLC I created to have a separate business unit for publishing. That’s a pretty small publishing company, being just a part-time portion of me.

But here’s the thing. While the concept of being your own publisher was crazy talk two decades ago, it is getting more and more feasible every year. With access to eBook sales platforms like Kindle, Kobo, Smashwords, etc. it is true that a self-published author can reach an arbitrarily large audience. Add in the print on demand services like Amazon’s CreateSpace, and that reach includes people who still want to hold a dead tree in their hands.

The major problem with that sort of self-publishing is the lack of support that a traditional publisher provides. But even that is changing as smaller “traditional” publishers are offering pared down services that may not include the marketing, promotion, printing and editing services they used to offer to all authors. A savvy self-published author can find free-lance services for editing, graphics, proof-reading, etc. Which really leaves promotion as the major area that traditional publishers still offer a major benefit to authors.

But I’m wondering how much longer that will be the case with crowd-sourcing services growing, and social media giving authors a platform with worldwide reach without an agent, a publisher or deep pockets.

I plan on trying one more time with my next book to get a traditional publishing contract. But if that doesn’t work out, I will probably spend the rest of my life self-publishing. At least until I’m so successful at that, that the publishing houses come to me.

I can dream, can’t I?

Setting as Character

This is my second post this month in the “special sauce” category. Last time I talked about research. This post is about writing, and how to add interest to the story.

Writing, as an avocation, is as prone to fads, convention and conformity as pretty much any other human endeavor. If you pay any attention to the reams of “advice” that are thrown at aspiring writers from all corners of the literary world, you will soon see not only the current orthodoxy, you’ll see the currents and tides of changes to convention as one fashion fades and another rises…

For example, the current conventional “wisdom” includes the following “rules:”

  1. Never, ever, ever have a prologue.
  2. Adverbs are the sign of weak writing.
  3. You have to grab the reader by the throat in the first sentence, or you’ll never get to the second.
  4. Passive voice must be avoided like a literary leper.

I could go on.

One of those current conventions is that long, detailed descriptions of places and things are BadWrongWriting of the first order. After all, it violates several of the most important rules. It’s passive. It’s full of adjectives and adverbs. It interrupts the action.

It has been said by many successful editors and writers that it is unlikely that J. R. R. Tolkien could have gotten The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings published in today’s market. Too flowery. Too slow. Too…. boring.

If that is so, it’s a shame. As a writer, part of my joy in writing is in building worlds and bringing them to life for my readers. But reality is what it is, and as much as I personally love that style of writing, I have had to accept that if I want to write stories that are accepted by both editors and readers, I have to respect that convention, even as I hope it fades.

But that doesn’t mean I’ve given up on bringing my worlds to life. Instead I’ve taken another approach, and that approach is what I call “Setting as Character,” meaning I treat the world as a dynamic, interactive part of the story, instead of as a passive stage to move my characters around and through.

Here is an example of what I mean. Suppose you have a setting of a lush jungle and your protagonist has to find a ruined temple to advance the plot. You’ve gone to great trouble to create that jungle in some detail, including deciding the major flora and fauna, the weather cycles, the climate, and some level of history. Having done that you could bring the reader into that jungle like this:

“Dammit!” Joe cursed.

Blood welled up from shallow cuts on his forearm. With a gloved hand, he yanked the tangled, thorny tendrils of devil’s rose free, sending a shower of drops flying, making him blink. The cool water eased the oppressive heat, and he closed his eyes for a moment, enjoying the sensation.

Image result for stock jungle photos

A fibrous root caught his toe, making him stumble as it ripped loose, exposing a length of lichen-studded granite. The ancient rock caught his eye, it seemed out of place compared to the ubiquitous red sandstone of the area. Placing one hand on the thick trunk of a towering fern, he leaned down to study the strange stone…

In other words, make the setting part of the story. Have your characters interact with it, struggle against it, savor it…

Give your world a personality. Show the reader its spirit.

 

Research Until Your Fingers Bleed

This month the Fictorians are focusing on posts about what we, as authors, believe sets our work apart, or at least, what we believe makes our writing more authentic and compelling. In other words, what is our “special sauce?”

I’d like to think there is more than one thing that I do which gives my writing authenticity and makes it worth reading, but there is one thing I have done that seems to surprise most people.

My first epic fantasy series is set in a stone age culture, and the protagonist is in training to become a “flint-knapper” which is a person who creates stone tools. In fact, one of those stone tools, a knife, is one of the most important artifacts in the story. His skill with a bow is also critical to the story line.

When I started writing the story, I rapidly came to realize that I was having trouble writing scenes that revolved around stone age technology. I wanted to bring the reader into those scenes. I wanted those scenes to reveal the protagonist’s persistence, his struggle to master his craft, and eventually his talent and pride in creating the tools that his village needed to survive.

So I did “research.” I searched for every article or paper I could find on the ancient art of flint-knapping. I watched videos. I purchased stone arrowheads and spearheads at flea markets. Like these:

But even after that, I never really felt like my scenes reached that level of authenticity I wanted.

So I set out to learn flint-knapping myself. Luckily there was a little shop on my way home from work that sold rocks. So one day I stopped in and looked around. I got to talking with the owner, and eventually told him that I was an aspiring author who wanted to learn flint-knapping. His eyes lit up, and an hour later I left the store with a cloth sack filled with about twenty pounds of rocks. It turns out that making stone tools requires different kinds of rocks, plus some other tools, like antler tines or something similar. It looked sorta like this:

Then I set to work. I spent an hour or so after work and on weekends for weeks, bashing rocks together on my patio. It was a slow, painful and painstaking process, just to learn how to strike a blank with a hammerstone in the proper way to break off a suitable chunk of obsidian to START to make an arrowhead or spearpoint. And learning that took a toll on my fingers and thighs. Eventally I got some thick pieces of leather to protect my thighs and clothes, but there was really nothing you could do to protect your hands and fingers. If you wanted to make stone tools, especially arrowheads, spearpoints or knives, you were going to cut your fingers and hands.

And the cuts were not simple scrapes or splinters. Obsidian has been used to create scalpels for eye surgery because the result of a well-aimed blow will create an edge that is, literally, sharper than a razor. So those cuts bled copiously. My leather thigh protectors were soon stained with blood. This is a pretty good example of what that looked like:

I won’t pretend that I ever mastered the art of flint-knapping, but I did get decent enough to be able to make functional tools. But more importantly, I learned enough that when I returned to those scenes, the writing came from a natural understanding of the mechanics of the craft, as well as the risks.

“Write what you know” they say. Well, in this case, that’s what I decided to do. And I think it paid off in spades.

So, my fellow authors, when you need to learn something to make your story believable, research it, baby! Research until your fingers bleed!

Mine did.

(No, I didn’t make this. But this is what the knife in the book is modeled on. This was made by a professional flint-knapper, and is an example of what a skilled artisan can do with stone. My wife and daughter had the sheath custom-made for the knife. It’s a pretty cool combo.)

Lies, Damn Lies, and Story Telling

Writing fiction is, at root, an exercise in attempting to expose some deeper truth about life through a filter of things that never happened, people who never lived, and, sometimes, non-existent places. It is a common joke for fiction authors to say they “lie for a living.” (Well, in my case it would be a lie to say I make a living at it, at least so far, but that’s another story…)

But it is important, especially for new authors, to understand that even within the web of “lies” that an author is spinning into a story, it is generally critically important for the author to never lie to their reader.

Wait, how can I “not lie” if my entire story is a “lie” in the first place?

There is an unspoken contract between the person who is telling the story, and the person who is reading the story. That contract goes something like this: “I know this story is all made up out of whole cloth, but I am still willing to read it, with the expectation that the story will be internally consistent, and that within the context of the story itself, the author will not rely on duplicity to deceive me into believing one thing, only to learn that something else is the case.”

While the story itself is a “lie,” if the author breaks that trust in order to create what they consider to be a “twist,” then the reader will view that not as a mere “lie,” instead that will be seen as a “damn lie” and once a reader encounters a “damn lie” in a story, they may never trust that author again.

Today, aspiring authors are frequently told that their story must have a “twist,” or something unexpected and potentially shocking to the reader. Of course, the easiest way to do that, is to spend the entire story making you believe one thing, only to contradict that thing at the end just to create a “gotcha” moment for the author.

I won’t lie, I hate books that do that.

“But wait!” you might be saying. “Isn’t deceiving the reader the entire point for certain stories?”

In a sense that’s true. But usually those stories aren’t about lying to the reader, they are about creating an impression by allowing readers to make certain assumptions, and then (sometimes, gently, sometimes abruptly) guiding the reader to realize, at some point, that their assumptions were wrong.

But, at that point the reader must be able to smack themselves in the head and say: “Oh, yeah! I get it now, the clues were there all along, and I just didn’t put them together.” Because if they don’t, their reaction will be more like “What the frack!? What the heck is this?”

The clues being there all along, and the reader finally putting them together, is the heart of story telling. That’s why story telling is not a one-way activity. For a good book to really reach and speak to a reader, that reader must put some effort into reading it, figuring out what the author is doing, and putting it all together at the end. And no reader wants to put that effort into something, only to discover that the author just broke the unspoken covenant, just for a quick “gotcha.”