Tag Archives: Baen Books

Success or Death – Making Every Character Count

An interview with Sonia Orin Lyris.

Our theme this month is memorable characters and that makes it a great opportunity to interview Sonia Orin Lyris about her debut novel, THE SEER.

Layout 1In creating the Arunkel Empire, Lyris blends the realities of being a commoner and the ruling classes, the complex politics of the Houses vying for the Palaces attention amidst rebellion, treason, and treachery. It is this world that Amarta the Seer must successfully navigate not only to save her sister and baby nephew, but to realize that as she predicts the future, she can create it.  

Not only has Lyris created a truly memorable world, but there is a ring of truth about her characters which resonates long after the book is done. (Be warned: some mild spoilers are included in the questions and answers below.)

The seer, Amarta, is introduced as a young child who has a rare talent. Being the child, shes too young to understand it except to know that the things which she sees happen and theyre not pleasant. As she grows into young adulthood she and others pays heavy prices as she tries to evade pursuers who covet her talent. Im curious about starting with such young child, for thats rarely done, and what her talent and her journey mean to you.

As an author, I have a particular responsibility when writing a coming-of-age story, like THE SEER. I have an obligation to neither dumb-down the child Amarta nor to overestimate her abilities.

When the door opens in chapter one, we meet a child who has already had a difficult life, yet she’s been sheltered and is naive in many ways, knowing little of the greater world in which intrigue and treason is occurring. Her visions tell her things she can’t possibly understand yet, but she must try to, if she is to survive.

I wanted Amarta to be a whole person. Even as young as she is, she’s not simple. She has a family she loves. There is loss and pain in her past. She is struggling to understand what she is.

Who would she become, I wanted to know. Who must she become, to be able to take on the great power that she has come to hold?

The story starts with her so young because the challenges these questions raise start early. These challenges are the seeds of her journey.

There are mages in the novel. Mage live long, are capable of many powerful things. When we meet Maris, we quickly learn that there is a great cost to become a mage, paid not only by her parents, but also by her during her training. Unlike most other novels where the wizard or mage talent is taken for granted, you address the cost of becoming a mage as well as the cost, both personal and indebtedness, of taking on a contract.

Yes, mages pay dearly for their power and status. In Maris’s case, her parents paid a price as well.

You know the old adage that great responsibility comes with great power? This is a moral stance that the very powerful must come to understand out of their experience because no one can force them to take it. I wanted to explore the cost of achieving such power, and examine the consequent responsibility.

The contract Maris takes on to undergo the transformation into mage — her apprenticeship contract — is one that typically ends in success or in death. High stakes, over many years. It’s not a pretty business, and Maris’s personal experience of that is very much part of her journey.

At one point in the story, Maris is talking about what it would mean for someone to become a mage. She thinks: “It would break him, rip his world to shreds. Change everything he thought he knew.”

I wanted to know more about her journey. Where had she come from? Where would she go? Would she resolve her bitterness at the cost she had paid?

An interesting parallel exists between the struggles of royalty and the commoner. Im thinking of Cern, the kings daughter who becomes queen because of her betrotheds treachery, and Amarta, the seer. Both have responsibilities due to fate. Both are forced into roles they dont choose and their actions or inactions have profound effects on a kingdom. Yet, their character arcs are so different.

Yes, both Amarta and Cern are both thrust into responsibility without choice, and their arcs are very much about this unchosen power. Cern has every advantage of education and wealth, but she struggles with an isolated and loveless familial existence that shapes her every step toward the throne. Amarta has the very wealth that Cern lacks — family and true loyalty — but lacks the rest.

What they share, perhaps ironically, is that they are both living under dire threat, and neither is safe in the world, except as they learn to make themselves so.

To what lengths would I go to have power? I found myself asking that question because of Innel, a commoner who is raised in the Palaces Cohort group. Hell do anything to please the King, to earn his respect so he can have a chance at marrying the princess Cern. He is, at once, fascinating and terrifying, and this balance is hard to achieve for many writers. Can you share with us how you so deftly managed to create Innel and what is it about him that made you want to write him?

Power is so interesting. The more you have, the more it has you.

As the story opens, we see this forceful, wealthy man show up at the door, intent on lethal answers from Amarta. In chapter two we find out more: who he is, what he’s done. Then the consequences of his earlier actions begin to unroll.

I had to do more than say Innel was ambitious and close to the throne. He had to make sense in the context of his history and culture, all the way back to childhood. We see more about this childhood in “Touchstone”, a tie-in story available for free on the Baen website, where we find out how he and his brother came to the Cohort.

I wanted to go deep into Innel’s journey in the novel because he balances Amarta’s journey. What, I wondered, had happened in his past that drove him to the circumstances of chapter one? What was it like for him to stand so dizzyingly close to such monarchical power?

Again, it’s about making him a whole person, with all the conflicts and convictions that someone in his position might actually have. What is he afraid of? What does he want?

And how far will he go to get it?

Heres the where did you get the idea? question. The hidden city of Kusan where the slave race, the Emendi, live is brilliant. I found myself wanting to visit this tangle of warrens in the hills and to learn their secret language. What inspired you to create this society?

As it happens, you can visit Kusan – or nearly so — because Kusan is based on the underground city at Derinkuyu, Turkey, a subterranean city thousands of years old that descends many levels. The actual city is big enough to house thousands of people, along with their livestock and supplies. Highly defensible, the entrances could be sealed with huge stone doors. It had underground wells of fresh water, ventilation ducts, and an extensive network of rooms and stairs and tunnels. Across its history, the underground city at Derinkuyu many times served as a refuge.

When I heard about this underground city, I knew at once that it was my hidden city, the novel’s Emendi haven. The Emendi were long ago abducted from across the waters, brought back, and forced into slavery. Emendi are blond, and there is a long-standing folktale that the gold of their hair implies pure gold inside their bodies as well. In the face of this story, is dangerous for them to be in the open.

And yet, over many years, some managed to escape. Kusan — the Hidden City — is where they found refuge, and now live, quietly and safely.

But again, we’re talking about real people, with complicated motivations beyond freedom and survival. The Emendi have created their own hidden culture in the subterranean city of Kusan. They have a signing language, one they developed in the halls of their captors, and keep alive so that they never forget where they came from, or forget the family they left behind, who are still enslaved. They have traditions of stealth and caution. They are especially cautious about their oppressors, the Arunkel people, who live above ground all around them.

Want to see what Kusan looks like? Here is a collection of photos of the underground city at Derinkuyu, in Turkey:


And one final question: Youve created a world which feels very real and with it a full complement of memorable characters. Do you have any advice on creating memorable characters?

There many ways to create memorable characters. Lots of techniques. The scope of them can be daunting, especially if a writer does not naturally tend toward the character-oriented approach.

But rather than hand over a fish, let me tell you about my pole and bait.

In a story of memorable characters, each character is the protagonist of their own tale. Even the least consequential of them has a past, a family, a culture, just like the flesh-and-blood people around us.

So I ask myself: what does the world look like from their point of view? Where are their joys, their terrors? What do they care about?

I’m not suggesting a writer must describe all that, but do have a feel for it. Just as the people around us have personalities, so do story characters. To get better at understanding this, I recommend studying good examples, such as the flesh-and-blood characters around us.

What makes them tick? What makes them joyful? What pisses them off? How do they explain themselves? What is the story they tell themselves about who they are and what they are doing in the world?

If you listen well, with compassion and curiosity, people will talk plenty. As they do, imagine what they must feel like inside. Step into their shirts and shoes. Wiggle your fingers and toes. How does it feel to be there? What is this person about?

Then do the same with your characters.

A hearty thank you to Sonia Orin Lyris for this interview. For a copy of THE SEER, check with your favorite bookstore or find it online at Baen or Amazon. Gain deeper insight into the Arunkel Empire and the significance of its coinage by reading her guest blog for us titled Will Build Worlds for Spare Change.

Sonia Orin Lyris is the author of The Seer (http://bit.ly/seersaga), a high fantasy novel from Baen Books (http://www.baen.com/). Her published fiction includes fantasy, science fiction, horror, mainstream, and more, and may be found at lyris.org/fiction . Follow her on Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/authorlyris/) or Twitter (https://twitter.com/slyris). You can also read her blog at Noise and Signal.

Four Lords of the Diamond

Jack L. CFour Lords of the Diamondhalker was a pretty well-known author, so I’ve found it surprising that very few of the writers I’ve interacted with are familiar with his Four Lords of the Diamond series. In all honesty, when I picked up the first book I wasn’t much of a science fiction fan. I gravitated more to fantasy and didn’t usually have much to do with stories involving science and technology. What truly intrigued me in Chalker’s work was the psychology aspect.  There aren’t many books I remember from over twenty years ago, but these have stuck with me. Here’s why:

The premise of the story centers around a government agent, an assassin, who has his mind replicated. Four convicts destined for four separate prison planets are mind-wiped to be replaced with the agent’s replications. Each of them has an assignment to assassinate some prominent public figure for the cause of the  intergalactic government. As they carry out their assignments, their minds are connected to the original agent. He watches as their new genetic make-up, along with their various environments, changes them. In the process, it changes him.  This study of genetics and environment’s influence on behavior, as  portrayed through this one man, fascinated me.

After all these years, I can’t tell you what they did on each planet, only that each story caused me to look deep within myself. I analyzed the influences in my life and carefully considered my goals. I identified some of the hurdles in my way, both genetic and environmental, and I decided how to overcome them. I don’t think I did this consciously, but I thought so much about what I had read that at some unconscious level I formed a resolve.

Some books have a lasting effect in our lives. It doesn’t happen with everything we read, and sometimes we find our own meanings within a story, but oftentimes the storyline is lost in memory because the deeper meaning is so profound. That’s how it was for me with Four Lords of the Diamond. Maybe it was my age. Maybe it was my mindset while reading a particular volume. Maybe it was just random happenstance. Whatever the reason, whenever you ask me about science fiction to make you think, this will top my list. If this is a series you’ve read, I’d love to hear your impressions. Let me know if it affected you as much as it affected me.

What’s In A Genre?

Guest Post by Sarah A. Hoyt

Sarah 2So you’ve written a novel – but do you know in what genre?

According to Kris Rusch and Dean Wesley Smith, whom I have no reason to doubt, you probably don’t.  The reason for this is simple.  We writers tend to work from the idea out.  If we have – say – this neat idea where you use a machine to perform magic, we go ahead and write it that way.  And then we send it out to agents or editors who are likely to run in circles, screaming.  (Well, mine did, when I did just that.)

Genre is largely a marketing category.  This means that no story fits it exactly.  Take the story idea above, and throw in a hot magical engineer and the girl who loves him.  Then have her father murdered for trying to market the machine.

Is that novel science fiction, fantasy, mystery or romance?

The answer is “yes.”

In general all novels, no matter how much they are science fiction have a hint of mystery and some romance.  (Okay, some novels from the pulp era didn’t.)  There is something that must be solved, and someone the character is attracted to.

What used to happen – in the bad old days when your only choice for publication was traditional houses mostly via agents – is that you’d take the book to your agent, and after she ran in circles, screaming, she might tell you “Look, you’re known as a fantasy writer.  Knock off with the machine stuff, and emphasize the magic more.”  Or “You’re a romance writer, just pump up the romance and wooing scenes and we’ll sell it as a quirky futuristic romance.”

Of course, sometimes they told you they just didn’t know what to do with it.  Or they’d tell you what you thought was military SF was actually YA SF, because at the time it was easier to sell as YA and your character was seventeen.

What about now?  Well, now it’s all about the tags.  One of the things I’ve noticed, when I put up my back list short stories, sarah 1is that those I can possibly tag romance (not all shorts have a romance element strong enough to mention!) sell better.  But the idea is to tag them or list them with all the genres you think you can get away with.  Oh, by all means, tag it for the main idea.  For instance, the one above I’d class as fantasy, but then in the description and the tags include the other genres.

As for writing…  Well, I tend to write stories as I read them, and I started reading long before I was aware of genres or the idea of genre.  I gravitated, mostly, to science fiction and fantasy – but I also read a good bit of mystery because my dad belonged to a mystery book club and it was my sworn duty (I thought) to read every book that came in the house.

I didn’t read Romance until I was in my thirties.  Not unless you consider my cousin’s collection of romances, which was in the house and therefore must be read.  But those were Portuguese Romances (I was born in Portugal and lived there till 22.  My family still lives there.  English is my third language, and if you heard me speak you’d believe it.  Or maybe not.  You’d probably think I was Russian.  No I don’t know why.  Stop being nosy.)  Portuguese Romances all seem to be based on Romeo and Juliet.  In the perfect Romance, both die for love, but if you’re very lucky, the girl survives and mourns her boyfriend forever.

Anyway, so by the time I read Romance, I was aware of genre conventions, and how they work, so the book didn’t go against the wall the first time.

See, the thing you have to be aware of, when writing any genre, or tagging the story as a genre, is “genre conventions.”

These are normally invisible to the fan of any given genre, but you do know when they’re violated.  They’re simply “the way things are done.”  What they do in most cases is get around the awkwardness of telling the story.  You know that new machine, in your sf story?  You might know how everything works, but you don’t describe it in detail over 40 pages.  That’s not the story.  You tell us about things it does/is that are relevant to the story.  In a Romance, you don’t spend half the book making sure the characters REALLY know one another, before they fall in love.  You show instant attraction (usually.  Or its polar opposite) and then hints that there’s more in it.  In a Mystery, you don’t have the character go “yeah, okay, he’s dead.  Big deal.  Now, this machine-“ not your main character, at least.

So before you write cross-genre, you need to be aware of what readers of each genre expect.  This is best achieved by reading both (all three?) genres you’re crossing, so you’re aware of what the readers expect from each.  And hey, once you’re aware of it, you can give the readers special “genre cookies” which will make each of them very happy.  For instance, my Darkship Thieves, winner of the Prometheus Award for 2011, has science fiction, romance, and definitely a mystery element.  It also happens to be told in the style of Urban Fantasy.  The fans of each of these will swear it belongs solely to them.  While the Urban Fantasy elements are somewhat mitigated in Darkship Renegades and A Few Good Men, the sequel and not-so-sequel (it’s complicated) it’s still there.

In fact, at this point, I have so many fans from different genres, I have to make sure to put in cookies for all genres every single time.


Sarah A. Hoyt has sold over 23 novels and 100 short stories in science fiction, fantasy, mystery, horror and romance. She not only couldn’t confine herself to a single genre, but trying might break her permanently. Her science fiction — the Darkship series and the Earth Revolution sister series — and her Shifter series are published by Baen books. Her mystery, historic mystery, romance, historical fantasy, or whatever she might take in her head to write tomorrow, will be available from Goldport Press or Naked Reader Press (mostly and for now).

Sail To Success – a unique Writing Workshop

Any of you trying to decide whether to take that cruise to the Bahamas or attend a writing workshop?  Well, now you can do both!  The Sail to Success writing workshop combines the awesome vacation experience of a Bahamas cruise with a professional level writing workshop.

I attended this year’s first-ever workshop, and it was well worth the cost, which was higher than some other venues, given that we combined a vacation with a small group workshop with top talent.

When I heard about the Sail to Success writing workshop, I had to go. Not only was the venue uniquely enticing (I’d never cruised before), but the line-up of faculty presenting to the small group was outstanding. Presenters included:

Wow. And the reality lived up to the expectation.

The workshop proved extremely productive, although being on a cruise ship proved to be a challenge as well as a great benefit.  It was a little difficult to focus on class time while the ship was docked in Freeport or Nassau.

The class schedule was intensive: from 8 AM to noon, and from 6 PM to midnight most nights. We managed to slip ashore in the afternoons, but lacked the time for extensive excursions like scuba diving (we had to return to the ship by 4:30). Luckily, my wife came along since the purchase included cruise for two, and she vacationed for both of us while I sat in class.

I didn’t mind. The classes were excellent. Not only did we receive excellent instruction on craft from Nancy Kress, but we learned from these long-time, successful professionals about the nuts and bolts of the publishing business.

The highlights of the class were the critique sessions from Nancy Kress and Toni Weiskopf. Nancy reviewed samples of our writing from an editor’s perspective, and provided wonderful feedback. Toni reviewed other samples from her perspective as a purchasing editor. What a rare opportunity to sit with a publisher and see exactly how they look at your work. It proved enlightening, and a little scary.

Toni receives over a thousand manuscript submissions per month. When she considers those submissions, she’s not looking for reasons to like a manuscript. She’s looking for any excuse to stop reading, and to give that submission the dreaded “red mark of doom’. It might come in the first paragraph if she sees it’s not the type of story they’re looking for, or it might come on page two when she finds herself confused, or sees too many grammatical mistakes. If she can’t find a reason to throw the manuscript away quickly, then it just might be a work she’d consider reading further.  Of the fifteen students in the class, only three of us earned that distinction, which was a rare moment of validation.

The only complaint about those critique sessions was the lack of time. Given the time constraints, feedback was limited to 7-10 minutes per manuscript. It just wasn’t enough time.  However, in 2013 the program will be structured slightly different.  Each student will select if they want a critique from Nancy or from Toni, not both, although all students will get to sit in on both critique sessions and hear the reviews of all of the submitted works.  That should allow for more time per submitted work.

So overall, this workshop proved well worth the investment in time and money, and I strongly recommend it to anyone who’s a serious aspiring writer.