Category Archives: Author’s Perspective

It’s a Book Review! (Fictorian Style)

I love comics.  And one webcomic in particular has hit the top of my list:  Girl Genius, by Phil and Kaja Foglio.  (If you haven’t tried it, go here.  I’ll wait.)

All of which is prelude to this review of the first volume of the novelization of the comic:  Agatha H. and the Airship City, by Phil and Kaja Foglio, published last year by Night Shade Books.  (Note that the authors are the same creative team that produce the webcomic.)



First, what it is:  the whole Girl Genius story universe is a fantasy/steampunk extravaganza, laid in what appears to be an analog of late 19th or early 20th century Europe, if you squint your eyes really hard.  There are all kinds of glorious brassy machines of all sizes, incredible monsters of all descriptions, and mad engineers all filled with the Spark, which enables them to create all of these crazy beasts and contraptions.  So it reads a bit like a three-way mash-up of The Prisoner of Zenda and Jules Verne and The Three Stooges.  Slapstick, oh my.  And Murphy’s Law appears to be a universal constant in this universe also:  whatever can go wrong, will.  And at the worst possible moment.

High hilarity is the result.

Now my experience of novelizations of original visual and graphic works has been very disappointing in the past.  But I finally broke down and read this one, and was very pleasantly surprised.  Perhaps because it was written by the creative team that writes the comic instead of by some outsider “adapting” the comic, it captures the flavor of the comic very well.  It does an astonishingly good job of telling the webcomic story arc that it parallels.  And almost all of the balancing-on-a-high-wire suspense and riding-a-speeding-car-down-the-mountain-road-with-no-brakes pacing makes the transition to text extremely well.

Second, what it isn’t.  It’s not dark, or depressing, or grim.  It gets a little tense from time to time, and it’s a little bloody, but most of the blood is green, so that doesn’t count.  It’s just a lot of fun.  I think we need to be reminded as writers that not everything we write has to be apocryphal, apocalyptic, or tragic.  There’s a place in the market for books like this, and kudos to the Foglios for writing it and to Night Shade Books for publishing it.

There’s not much of a way to tell you more about the story itself without committing major snerks, so let me just say that underneath the fun is some well-plotted writer’s craftsmanship.

Okay, so what did I as a writer find illuminating about the writer’s craft in this book?

First of all, I think it’s an excellent model of how to maintain a high energy breakneck pace in a long story.  It’s 264 pages long in hardback, and when I closed the cover I felt like I’d been on a killer roller coaster ride.  I think we could all get some pointers from that.  The writers just never let up on the pace.

Second, as mentioned above, even missing the mugging and double-takes possible in the comic, it’s still genuinely hilarious.  And it’s consistent in its humor as well, which is much harder to do than you might think, especially in a novel-length work.  I’ll be looking back at it for some hints on how to handle humor, as well.

Third, a negative lesson:  there is a class of characters in the story who are presented to the reader with a heavy generic Eastern European/Russian accent spelled phonetically.  I stumbled over this.  I’d have to stop and sound out the words to figure out what they were saying.  This reinforced in me the teaching I first got from one of L. Sprague deCamp’s essays, that dialect and accents need to be treated very carefully, otherwise it can interfere with the readability of the story.  If they had it to do over again, I would suggest to the Foglios that they lighten up on the dialect.  But with 11 years of producing the comic behind them, it’s a bit late for that.  Nonetheless, that was my only problem, and it wasn’t nearly enough to make me quit reading.

To wrap it up, all in all a well-crafted and enjoyable read, suitable for adults and YA as well.


P.S. – The sequel, Agatha H. and the Clockwork Princess has just been released, also from Night Shade Books.

Can Goldfish Channel Muse?

I’ll tell you  now, if you didn’t figure it out from the title and the picture, this post is a bit silly. Which is kind of sad since we’ve just had two amazing, interesting, and informative posts. And no, it’s not about the band, though I do have “Uprising” as my ringtone.

The thing is, I had my son’s goldfish nearby for quite a while. First, in my study. Then, in his room next door. The water sloshed through the filter creating white noise, the little goldfish swam around as I came in and out of the room, and occasionally I  stopped to give them an extra snack while they kissed at the edge of the glass.

They died.

No, I didn’t overfeed them. My daughter brought home a couple of new fish she’d won at a school fair or something. We put them in with the others.  Buttercup survived her initiation, though she swam sideways for a while. The other wimps didn’t have her evasive abilities. They  failed their mount wannahockaloogie test, and  the rest of the fish ate them. Even Buttercup eventually succumbed. We should have cleaned the tank as soon as I found the first skeleton stuck to the filter’s intake. I was busy, my husband was busy, and my son thought it looked cool. It was like something out of a Fringe episode. Within hours the whole tank was black and all the fish had died.

I had trouble focusing on my writing after that. I liked writing when it was quiet, with no background noise, not even light music. But without the fish tank, it was too quiet. Even the trees waving outside my window didn’t dispel the eerie silence.

I needed my muse back. In the nick of time, summer came, and I discovered a tall floor fan makes great white noise.

But eventually summer will be over– though since I live in southern Arizona it may take a while–and I’ll have to turn the fan off.  Maybe it’s time I had my own pet, instead of the numerous ones my kids take care of.  Or maybe I’ll just set up the tank and forget the fish. Any suggestions?

Oh, and yes, after it went black I put on some gloves and cleaned the tank. My bio-hazard disaster will not be blamed for an upcoming apocalypse, nor will it be a source of a post-apocalyptic story. Although….


You are an Evil Mastermind

Do you know the thing I love the most about being a writer? It’s not the creation of beautiful prose (though, that is a lovely outcome). It’s not the fact that, when I’m finally published and I gain super-author status I will be able to finally stay at home in my PJ’s for a living (hey, it could totally happen).

No, the reason I love writing is because I, with all my inadequacies and failures and social ineptitudes, get to be a villain.

Let’s face it people. From the moment we sit down to craft a story, we become devious creatures. We build human beings of our own devising just to put them through hell for the enjoyment of others. And we do it with a smile on our faces (inherently villainous). We spend days, weeks, and months picking the right words to manipulate the reader into thinking what we want them to (true super-villainy).

My fine friend, the craft of writing is a master class in being an evil mastermind.

Now, you might say that a character isn’t technically a person, so that doesn’t count.

My reply would be that you’ve obviously never been in a room full of Sherrilyn Kenyon fans. To the reader experiencing your story, the characters should always be people. Complex and issue-riddled, they have faults just like the frail flesh and blood variety. The reader has to see them as real people, or they won’t care what happens to them.

So, once the character is complete and real and human, it’s our job to knock them flat, destroy their lives, kill their friends and loved ones, maim them, torture them, and do pretty much whatever we can to make what’s left of their lives as difficult as possible. Then, we become really cruel. We make them figure a way out all by themselves. This paper person must be active, so no shortcuts, no divine providence. Providence, after all, is the realm of gods, and for your story, you are god-a villainous god. And don’t forget, like the arena of old, this is all for entertainment’s sake.

My, my. We are evil, aren’t we?

But the most dastardly part is what we do to the reader. Our entire craft is completely based on manipulation, obfuscation, and downright lying. From the reliance on descriptive word choice and using the active voice, to how characters walk and what’s in their refrigerators, we work to guide the reader’s subconscious perceptions. It’s kinda like when movie theaters used to splice subliminal advertising into their previews to get the audience to go buy things from the concession stand. Done right, the reader never knows they’re being manipulated. But make no mistake. What we’re doing is convincing the reader what to think, how to feel, and when to do both.

I’m feeling a little like Big Brother in an Orwellian kinda way, aren’t you?

Being able to manipulate the reader like this is, of course, a very difficult and delicate kind of manipulation that takes much hard work, years of on the job study, many maligning critiques (yet more proof of my point), and plotting (See? I just made a pun. I must be evil.). It’s not easy, but highly enjoyable when you see all the minions you create who will love you for being the black-hearted creature of darkness you really are.


Sloshing through the Slush Pile ““ Beginner Concerns

You wrote a story and submitted it. Good for you! Pat on the back! It takes courage to not only write but to submit! But, your story wasn’t chosen? That makes me sad, especially after all that effort. So, how do you get your story through the first reading also known as the slush pile? It’s no great mystery. I’ve been a slush pile reader and have judged the Imaginative Fiction Writers Association (IFWA) short story contest and I’m here to share some of the common writing mistakes made by beginning writers.

Actions speak louder than words
There is the saying that actions speak louder than words. For the writer the saying should be reworded to: a character’s actions and reactions, based on his value system, are more revealing than a mere listing of movements and setting. Feelings, actions and reactions, what’s worth fighting for, our successes and failures in that fight and how they affect us – those are the things which move your reader and create your story.

Damn, I hate lectures …
Information dumps are bad any time – back story, setting, telling me what the character is thinking. When I hear the “professor’ lecturing me on what it’s like in space when I want to know how the character will solve a problem, I’m gone ……. and please, stay away from omniscient musings on the human condition!

The sleep inducing setting
Starting a story with a list of items the character sees isn’t exciting. Not even in real life do we note all the details in a room when we enter it. But we do notice things which affect how we feel or cause us to react like a dead body on the floor or the missing captain and the view screen showing the planet’s surface growing larger.

Setting not only sets the time and place for your story but more importantly is used to stimulate the senses; to evoke a feeling for the situation and to provide a context in which your character will react. Yes, some novels start with awesome descriptions of setting. So what makes that work? Setting is used as a character – it evokes a feeling. It’s no mistake that in Twilight, for example, the climate is cold, rainy and generally depressing. Similar, is it not, to how Belle feels about herself?

Writing in first person
Many a good idea was killed by this Point of View. Writing in first person doesn’t mean it’s a free license to explore your grey cells to produce copious ponderings. Writing in first person is difficult because there is only one point of view through which to reveal a world, create drama and to incorporate a story line which is interesting. It can be done. The trick is not to tell, but to show the person actively assessing and responding to his situation. Through his eyes and actions, he must reveal information about the people he interacts with, his surroundings and how he feels. First person can be a great way to get deeply into someone’s psyche, the trick is not to get bogged down in the thinking process. All the rules for a good story arc still apply.

Stories need to be dynamic
Whether they’re dynamic emotionally or action oriented, I don’t care. Have some tension, carry it through to the climax and ending. Actions need reaction. Reactions produce more actions. Show, don’t tell. Don’t list events, or actions, or use empty words like “pondered “which evoke nothing except that the writer didn’t really know how the character felt or how he should react. A story needs a plot and increasing tension with a climax. Writing a descriptive scene isn’t a story.

Proof reading and feedback
Truly, most of us cannot be a good judge of what we write, certainly not in the beginning of our careers. The act of writing is a solitary event insofar as we need to write our story. After that, it’s a collaborative process requiring feedback and revisions. Your manuscript is easily rejected because of poor grammar, spelling and punctuation, clunky dialogue or extensive monologues. Plot problems or character concerns such as inconsistency or believability are things proofreaders can catch.

Keep on writing!