I’ve been thoroughly enjoying Laini Taylor’s new book Strange the Dreamer — right up to a few minutes ago. The writing is wonderful, the fantasy premise fresh and vivid, the characters both believable and memorable. But then … but then …

But then I get to the last chapter and it crashes in on me that this isn’t a free-standing novel. It’s the first book in a new series. A trilogy? An endless epic? Who knows?

The thing that chaps my butt is that the book cover DOES NOT TELL YOU YOU’RE READING BOOK ONE OF A FUCKING SERIES. The title page does not tell you. All the time you’re getting fascinated by the story, you DON’T KNOW.

In this book, along with a lot of other stuff that happens, Lazlo falls deeply in love with Sarai, and she with him. There’s more kissing and stroking than I really care for in a novel, so I skimmed those scenes, but it turns out they’re not just fodder for younger readers. There’s a plot reason for them. And now I’m going to spoil the story for you by telling you what the reason is.

At the end of the book, Sarai is dead. Dead. She falls out of this sort of floating palace that I’m not going to bother to describe for you, and her body is impaled on the spikes of a fence, and she’s dead. And that’s not the end of the story, because now she’s a ghost, and ghosts are controlled by Minya, who is evil. Lazlo is good, and has suddenly discovered that he has the powers of a god — but Minya is going to force him to do her evil bidding, because if he doesn’t, she’ll let Sarai’s ghost dissolve into nothingness. Lazlo has fallen so deeply in love with Sarai that he agrees to Minya’s evil bargain. After which, at the bottom of the last page, it says TO BE CONTINUED.

Neglecting to tell your readers that they’re reading Book One of a series isn’t just cruelty incarnate. It’s cheap and manipulative. Readers are suckered into buying the book now rather than wait until the whole series is published.

Yes, I ordered a copy. I got this one from the library. I managed to cancel my order, as it hadn’t shipped yet. I’ll probably get over my snit and order both it and the sequel, which I’m told is due out in October. I’ve also been told that Taylor makes no secret, on Twitter, of the fact that this is the first book in a duology. And of course authors who are being ground to a pulp by the New York publishing empire have zero control over their book covers. Really, I need to direct my wrath at Little, Brown. But I don’t know anybody there, and Taylor does. I think it’s time to send a polite email through her web page, assuming she has something as old-fashioned as a web page.

Posted in fiction, writing | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Vision and Revision

Not sure where I’m going with this — it’s just something I’m noticing. Twice in the past few weeks I’ve been approached by writers about editing their novels. That’s not a lot of potential clients, but I don’t promote my editing services, because I don’t really need or want a lot of clients.

In both instances, after I took a look at the opening chapters and offered some basic comments (for free — that’s so a writer can evaluate my services), the writer retreated rather than hire me.

Both manuscripts were weak, in various ways. Now, I’m not an abusive editor. I don’t tell people, “This is awful!” But I don’t pull any punches either. I might say something like, “You need to visualize your scenes more concretely. The details in this scene are confused.” Or, “Your hero has it too easy dealing with the vampires in your opening scene. This robs the story of urgency.”

I suspect that quite a lot of aspiring writers have no idea at all how weak their work is. They may sense vaguely the need for improvements, but having a pro point out some basic flaws is not just painful — they’re not ready to deal with it.

None of us is as good as we would prefer to think we are, and that includes me! I’m not as good as I think I am. But when someone points out deep problems in your novel, you have to make a choice: Are you going to roll up your sleeves, attack your precious manuscript with hammer and tongs, and become a better writer? Or are you going to hug the manuscript protectively to your chest and back away whimpering?

There are no rules for how to write a good novel, but there are certainly best practices. Most of the problems that I see in manuscripts are due to a failure to understand or apply best practices. Describing a scene physically is important. Understanding and controlling point of view — important. Creating believable characters — vital. Knowing how to insert background information without bogging down the narrative — important. Plausibility of plot — incredibly important. Conflict and rising action — important. A broad familiarity with your chosen genre — essential. Having a reasonably fresh idea for a story — vital. Doing your research in science, history, and culture — essential.

And then there’s knowing the mechanics of prose. Yes, an editor can tidy up the grammar and punctuation for you, but if the material in the scene is incoherent, the editor will be at a loss how to fix problematical sentences. And why haven’t you mastered the mechanics of prose before you let anyone see your manuscript? Let’s face it: A sloppy writer is a sloppy thinker. And sloppy thinkers don’t write good novels.

Capturing your initial glorious vision on the page is only the start of the process. After vision comes revision. If you’re not willing to revise extensively when an editor points out problems, you don’t want an editor, you want a hug from a friend. Your editor is not your friend, and if you have any sense or any hope of becoming a good writer, you don’t want your editor to be your friend.

An editor is not always right. My own experience on the other end of the stick — I hired a developmental editor to read my four-novel fantasy series. I paid her more than $5,000 for the work. And some of her comments were just annoyingly wrong, okay? She was always keen, for example, to know more about the female characters’ emotions, but she never once noticed whether I was showing the male characters’ emotions.

Along the way, she also pointed out some important plot points that I had missed. I have now spent more than a year revising the series using her comments as a springboard.

As a writer, you always have to make your own decisions. You can’t blindly follow an editor’s advice! But in each instance, you need to be willing to weigh the editor’s comment carefully, without getting defensive. Even if you decide, in the end, not to change what you’ve written, you will have learned something.

There’s always more to learn.

Here’s the sad ending, though: Some people are not cut out to be novelists. Some people just plain don’t have what it takes. And they write full-length manuscripts (having perhaps been urged on by NaNoWriMo, a dreadful fad through the heart of which some kind and compassionate person should drive a wooden stake). And then they’re baffled by the response. A few friends may congratulate them and tell them it’s wonderful, and they don’t realize that their friends are being polite, or have no notion of what goes into making a good novel good, or both.

Sensing vaguely that perhaps it could be tidied up a bit, they approach an editor. And the editor takes a look at the opening chapters and thinks, “Oh, dear. There are so very many problems! This is like shooting fish in a barrel. Well, I’ll try to be both honest and polite. Maybe there’s hope for this writer. I doubt it, but you never know.” The editor would like to think that, despite the preponderance of evidence to the contrary, the writer may be a hidden talent, a lovely bud waiting to blossom. The editor does not want to say, “Look — this is hopeless. Take up quilting or bicycle repair. You’ll never be a writer.” So the editor tries to be constructive. Painful feelings ensue.

Posted in fiction, teaching, writing | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Details Do Matter

Once upon a time, there were editors. Or, to quote Cole Porter’s song, “In olden days a glimpse of stocking was looked on as something shocking. Now, heaven knows, anything goes!”

Somebody was raving about a YA fantasy novel by a new writer — Children of Blood and Bone, by Tomi Adeyemi. I like discovering new writers, so I thought I’d have a look.

Before I go on, I have to say, first, that I am thrilled to see young African-American women writing fantasy and science fiction. This is fantastic! Children of Blood and Bone is set in a fantasy version of Africa, and that’s also reason to applaud. Medieval Europe is so very, very overworked as a setting. The book is full of action, so I’m sure teen readers will like it. The conflict between good and evil is a bit stark — not much nuance, at least not in the first hundred pages. And that’s all I plan to read. One can take only so much.

Adeyemi is described on her website as Nigerian-American. I was inclined to cut her a bit of slack as a non-native speaker of English, until I read the next sentence and discovered she has a degree in English literature from Harvard. I’ve been told she’s an American, but quite irrespective of that, by the time you graduate from Harvard, you ought to be able to get it right.

I was drifting along, reading uncritically, until I hit a problem near the top of Chapter 4. Zelie, the main character, and her brother Tzain are riding from their little village, Ilorin, to the capital city on the back of an animal of some sort. (Description of animal: vague.) “…the city of Lagos comes into view. Surrounded by a gate crafted from the heartwood of the jackalberry trees, the capital is everything Ilorin isn’t.” Wait — this is a large city, and it’s surrounded by a gate?

Once upon a time, there were editors.

Or consider this description of Ilorin, from Chapter 2: “Ilorin rises with the sun, bringing our ocean village to life. Waves crash against the wooden pillars that keep our settlement afloat, coating our feet with mist. Like a spider caught in the web of the sea, our village sits on eight legs of lumber all connected in the center.”

Two problems leap up here. The first sentence has a dangling participle. “bringing” is meant to refer to the sun, but that’s not how English grammar works. Since participles usually grab hold of the nearest noun, I’ll build a random sentence constructed similarly to illustrate what’s going on here: “Bob held the dog’s leash tight, keeping the children safe from its fangs.” In this example, the agent of “keeping” is clearly Bob, even though the nearest noun is “leash.” In Adeyemi’s sentence, then, Ilorin is bringing itself to life.

If we replace “our ocean village” with “itself,” the sentence is perhaps not quite so absurd, though a good editor would have suggested simplifying it to “Ilorin comes to life with the rising of the sun.” But the phrase “our ocean village” makes it abundantly clear that Adeyemi thinks “sun” is the agent of “bringing.” It’s not. This is a grammatical error.

The other issue is the words “pillars” and “legs.” Pillars are vertical structures, as are legs. If the village were built on pillars, the pillars would be sunk into the floor of the bay. The village would not be floating! What the author seems to have meant is that the village sits on (or between, her later descriptions of the structure are vague) eight long, floating logs that are joined to one another in a hub at the center.

I’m having a little trouble with the physics here. If the logs are hardwood, the weight of the houses and people will most likely submerge them. They’ll never be seen, and waves won’t crash against them. On the other hand, if the logs are light — pine or balsa — they’re going to get waterlogged, and they’ll probably crumble before long and need frequent replacement. Also, if planks join the logs, providing a flat surface on which homes can be built, the planks will prevent the crashing waves from sending spray up onto people’s feet, and again, nobody will see the logs, because they’ll be underneath the planks.

On the whole, this seems a not very sensible way to build a village, when the land is only a few yards away. Oh, and also, waves won’t be crashing against more than the seaward ends of two or three logs. The landward logs will see very little wave action, because the other logs will be in the way.

Flipping forward to Chapter 9, we get much the same grammatical problem in reverse. “The village sets with the sun, making way for a calm night’s sleep.” What the author seems to mean is that when the sun sets, village activity quickly dies down. The first half of that sentence is an awkward, stilted metaphor, but not flawed if standing on its own. The second part of the sentence turns the metaphor into a disaster. The village makes way for sleep? The natural meaning of “makes way” is “steps aside” or “goes somewhere else,” so here the village itself appears to be getting up and walking away. If she had said, “The village’s hive of activity dissolves in the sunset, making way for a calm night’s sleep,” that would work nicely, because it would be the activity that was making way. The village itself making way? No.

Once upon a time there were editors.

Back to Chapter 2. Shortly we learn that there is a “floating market in the center of Ilorin.” But wait — the center is where those eight logs come together. “Surrounded by a rectangular walkway, the stretch of open sea swells with villagers haggling inside their round coconut boats.” Apparently the logs (pillars?) have disappeared. Also, if the water is surrounded by the walkway, it’s not a stretch of open sea. “Open” is a word that has a meaning. Failure adequately to visualize a setting is a common difficulty among new writers, and there it is, on display. And “open sea” is a cliche. Adeyemi went for a cliche rather than describe the scene carefully.

One might also wonder why these villagers, who live in huts that rest on planks, have bothered to climb into their boats in order to do their marketing. How do they even get the boats into the market area, when the area is surrounded by a walkway of planks? “Market day, honey. Guess me and the boys will have to haul the boats up over the walkway so we can set down in the water there and do our barterin’.” That’s not a quote from the novel; I made it up. But doesn’t her description of the market imply something of the sort?

The coconut boats are mentioned in several scenes. Clearly they’re not made from real coconuts, they’re just round boats — sort of hemispherical, that’s the implication of the phrase. I’m not an expert on nautical craft, but it does seem to me that setting out to go fishing in the open ocean would not be at all efficient in a round boat. It won’t be stable in high seas. Steering will be difficult. If they’re large boats, you won’t have much room for oarsmen, because for too much of the circumference the oars would be banging against the sides of the boat if the oarsman took a long stroke. And why would fishermen go to sea in one-man boats, when they could so easily build larger boats that would hold more catch, using planks carved from those quite evidently available large logs? How will you haul a net full of fish over the gunwale of a hemispherical boat without capsizing?

Still in the opening chapters (the real plot crisis not yet having reared its head), young Zelie’s father Baba, who is somewhat addled, manages to almost drown, but her brother dives in and saves him. Then we get this: “Six minutes. That’s how long Baba thrashed out at sea. How long he fought against the current, how long his lungs ached for air. As we sit in the silence of our empty [hut], I can’t get that number out of my head. The way Baba shivers, I’m convinced those six minutes took ten years off his life.”

The most obvious problem here is that these villagers do not, as far as we can see, have clocks. Why would they even have a concept of “minutes”? They certainly don’t have wristwatches — and even if they did, while Baba was thrashing around in the ocean it’s rather unlikely that Zelie would have bothered to look at her watch to time his distress. No, Adeyemi is trying to crank up the tension by emphasizing that Baba was submerged so long that he almost drowned, but she’s doing it in a modern, anachronistic way.

A more subtle problem is that if he’s thrashing, he’s on the surface. If he’s on the surface, he will have air to breathe. If he’s underwater and his lungs are aching for air, he won’t be thrashing. Jamming the two disparate predicaments together like that in one paragraph is, again, an indication that the author has not truly visualized the scene. She’s gesturing at an emergency rather than showing it to us.

Flipping back to the previous page, we find this description of Baba’s plight: “Almost half a kilometer out at sea, a man flails, his dark hands thrashing in desperation. Powerful waves ram against the poor soul’s head, drowning him with each impact.”

No, I’m not going to complain about “kilometer.” We’re past that. The thing is, I’m pretty sure that’s not actually what happens when you’re out in the open ocean. If you’re on the surface at all, a wave will lift you or perhaps, if it’s a really big wave, roll over you, so you submerge on one side and emerge on the other. It won’t ram against your head, not unless the seas are awfully ferocious — and if the seas are that ferocious, they’re going to be tossing the floating village around so vigorously that the villagers will have more to do than stand around gawking at a man who is flailing away in the water. Also, the word “drowning” is ridiculous here. If one wave drowns him, the next will make no difference; he’ll have been drowned. He’ll be dead.

Two fishermen are rowing toward Baba in their coconut boats (that is, one fisherman per boat, as noted above). “The force of the waves pushes them back. They’ll never reach him in time.” But all is not lost. Zelie’s brother Tzain dives into the sea. He “swims with a frenzy I’ve never seen. Within moments he overtakes the boats. Seconds later he reaches the area where Baba went under and dives down.”

The human body floats. Baba will sink only if he has lead weights tied to his belt. Also, Baba has lived in a fishing village all his life, and certainly knows how to swim. Somehow he has gotten swept half a kilometer out to sea, which I think is rather unlikely. Rip tides will sometimes pull someone out to sea (usually less than half a kilometer, I suspect), but rip tides are found only where there’s surf bringing water in toward the shore. Adeyemi never mentions surf hitting the village. (And she lives in San Diego. I learned about rip tides when I was living in San Diego at the age of ten.) In the absence of rip tides, a current is going to sweep a swimmer laterally along the shore, not directly out to sea.

Setting all that aside — though it’s a lot to set aside — let’s see if we understand this scene. The boats can’t get to Baba because of the waves, yet a swimmer is able to overtake them. Is the swimmer immune to the force of the waves? The book is about magic, but the author gives us no indication that magic is involved in this scene, and indeed magic is presumed to be dead until a later chapter. Also, Baba is, you’ll recall, almost half a kilometer away. Half a kilometer is the length of five football fields. Tzain has swum perhaps 200 or 300 yards “within moments” and reaches Baba “seconds later.” Hell of a swimmer, that young man.

Come to think of it, if there are high waves, how can they even see Baba thrashing around out there? Why didn’t the author think to tell us that Baba was visible sometimes and not visible at other times?

Okay, just one or two more items, and then I’ll go play a game on my iPad. In Chapter 3, we have a different viewpoint character, the princess Amari. A big problem has reared its head in the throne room. Admiral Ebele has brought bad news. “Beads of sweat gather on his bald head as he stares at everything except Father.” How many eyes does the admiral have, that he can stare at everything in the room? Or is his head jerking around rapidly? And really, would an admiral — an admiral! — who has just brought bad news to the king, who can quite casually have him put to death, be so flustered that he would be visibly in a panic, his head jerking around, avoiding eye contact with the king? No. The admiral’s shoulders would be stiff and his jaw set, and he might flinch rather than meet the king’s eyes, but he would not be looking away from the king. He would be striving with all his might to look as if the king can have every confidence in him. The writer is gesturing at a character’s emotion without having considered how the character himself would deal with his emotion.

On the next page the admiral is still rather distraught by his confrontation with the king: “Admiral Ebele all but trembles.” If the admiral were the viewpoint character, this would be weak writing, no worse than that — but this sentence is from the point of view of Amari, who is across the room.

Okay, class — raise your hand if you can imagine what it looks like when someone “all but trembles.” Anybody? No?

Once upon a time there were editors.

Posted in fiction, writing | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Casual Racism

A hundred years ago, racism was common in fiction written by white people. It can be shocking, when reading something by a fine writer like F. Scott Fitzgerald, to see him quite casually refer to a Jewish character using a stereotype. Today, the careful writer will naturally try to do better.

When writing a big-screen fantasy epic, however — a story not set on our Earth — it can be easy to fall into a racist stereotype without realizing it. “Hey, these characters aren’t even human! What do you mean, I’m racist? Don’t be silly.”

Today I finally, belatedly, noticed my own casual racism. Fortunately, Book 4 of my epic is not yet published, so as I’m rewriting I can change some things.

Portions of Book 4 are set in the ruins of a great city. If you imagine Imperial Rome in a warmer, wetter climate, with the ruins of stone buildings sticking up out of a swamp, you’ll see it clearly. When my characters enter this former city, they encounter some little men and women called imps. Terrible name, I know, but the epic includes dragons, elves, wizards, and an ogre, so why not toss in some imps? They’ll make the setting more picturesque, and add some colorful action and suspense!

I reached a point in the rewrite where I’m about to relocate a few thousand refugees (human) to the ruined city, where they will shortly come face to face with the imps. As I asked myself how that encounter would play out — what the imps would do, and how the two races could arrive at an amicable living arrangement — the one-dimensional nature of my imps rose up and smacked me in the face.

How might you detect that you’ve stumbled into a racist stereotype and need to rewrite, when the world you’re writing about isn’t even our Earth? Here are some vital clues:

  • All of the members of the race behave alike. If there are any named individuals, they have the same characteristics as the rest of their crew.
  • They have an odd appearance, often involving skin color or the shape of the eyes.
  • They jabber in an unknown language full of guttural sounds, and they all tend to talk at once.
  • They’re hostile without provocation, attacking in a group. When your good guys attack them, they all panic and run away in a group.
  • Their technology is primitive. Stone spears, wearing loin cloths, living in one-room shacks with thatched grass roofs, that type of thing.
  • They are superstitious, for example believing in spirits that must be placated with sacrifices.
  • They’re sneaky and can’t be trusted. They will agree to do something and then break the agreement.
  • They have nasty habits, such as eating raw meat or chewing vegetable leaves and casually spitting.

Your racist stereotype doesn’t have to have all of these characteristics to qualify as offensive. And note that the stereotype does not necessarily include the race being evil! Probably nobody will object if your elves are all good and kind and noble and beautiful, even though that’s an awful racist stereotype. On the other hand, if your story contrasts the good, kind, noble, beautiful elves with some dirty, conniving, violent, savage, weird-looking orcs, you’re in deep trouble. (Yes, Tolkien was a racist.)

Unhappily, seven of the eight bullet points above describe, in one way or another, the imps in my story. Oh, crap. Without for a moment realizing it, I was using a 19th century white European’s viciously distorted view of Africans. Time to break out the hammer and tongs and start rewriting.

Posted in fiction, writing | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Trouble Ahead, Trouble Behind

Writing a novel is very hard. There are so many ways to go wrong! This week I’ve been looking at an unpublished manuscript by a writer who is thinking of hiring me as an editor. I’m not going to mention his name, nor the name of the book, and I’ll do my best to obfuscate any revealing details about his story — but it occurred to me that some of the observations I made might be useful to other aspiring writers.

Story Focus. A novel has room for one or two subplots, but the writer does need to make sure the reader knows what the main action is. In the manuscript I’ve been looking at, each of the opening five chapters has a different lead character. The characters are in different parts of the world, and they haven’t yet met one another.

Deploying such a scattershot opening is not a smart move. Your readers will get very confused. They won’t know who to care about.

If those characters are all in physical proximity — on a battlefield, let’s say, or in different rooms of a castle — then the reader will trust that the writer will soon bring them together. But in this particular manuscript, that isn’t the case, unless “on Earth” counts as physical proximity. The things one character is doing appear to have very little to do with what another character is doing.

Meanwhile, the main action of the story seems to be happening offstage. The author has provided a few hints that suggest what may be about to happen — and providing hints can be a good technique, if the hints themselves are clear and interesting. But getting the main action onstage quickly is usually considered a good way to tell a story.

I haven’t yet asked the author to send me a plot outline. That will be the next step. I’ll also ask a few pointed questions, such as: Who is your main character? What is that character hoping to achieve? What obstacles will the character face? How will he tackle those obstacles? The answers to those questions are bound to suggest how the story should be ripped apart and glued back together in a different shape.

Details of a Scene. In the opening chapter of this manuscript, a character is doing something that may eventually turn out to be important. (I’ve only read a few chapters, so I don’t know yet.) But the chapter contains almost no visual cues about where the character is. In a room, most likely — but is it a large room or a small room? Is there a view out the window? Is the air fresh, or are there odors? Background sounds? What might the decorations on the walls tell us about this character, or about the world he lives in?

Getting your reader well-grounded in the physical scene is essential. Do not skip this step! You can’t mention every detail, nor should you try. Part of the craft of storytelling is to single out three or four details that are both colorful and meaningful, and bring them to the reader’s attention. The reader’s imagination will fill in the rest, but imagination has to have something to chew on. And you have to remember to do this in every single scene in the book.

I like to think of the process of writing a scene as being a lot like watching a movie. I stare at the wall, imagining the scene in as much detail as I can — the characters’ movements, what they’re wearing, the tone of their voices, the noises from the street, the odors from the kitchen, all of it. Watch the movie, damn it!

Standards of Manuscript Preparation. I’m going to go out on a limb here. I’m going to suggest that anyone who aspires to write fiction ought to sit down and spend a few days learning about the standard ways in which punctuation, dialog tags, and capitalization are used. Yes, you can hire a copy-editor. But the copy-editor’s job should be to catch occasional slips, not to turn your hashed-up mess into publishable paragraphs. If you can’t be bothered to learn this stuff, I’ll tell you straight up: You’re not serious about your writing.

If you’re not serious about your writing, why should anybody be serious about reading what you’ve written?

When it comes to grammar and word usage, the problem is worse. A copy-editor may not be certain what you meant to say in a particular sentence, either because the sentence is structured badly or because you used a word that doesn’t mean what you think it means. As a result, fixing the sentence will require a conversation with the author, and every such conversation takes time. A copy-editor shouldn’t be doing this in any case. If your sentences are shaky, you need a line editor.

Just to pour a little more gasoline on the fire, I should point out that freelance editors are not licensed. Anybody in the world can hang out a shingle and claim to be an editor. The person you hire may not be qualified. They may introduce mistakes into your manuscript while thinking they’re fixing something. They may fail to notice significant problems, which then go uncorrected.

If  your freelance editor’s main qualification is a B.A. in English from some university, even a prestigious university, my advice would be to keep looking. You haven’t found a good editor yet. A degree in English, even with a concentration in creative writing, is nearly useless as a credential. Possibly even worse than useless.

Beta-readers are even less reliable than self-appointed editors. “My beta-readers liked it” is not a sentence that you should ever use as an excuse for not getting it right.

This is why you really do need to take responsibility for learning the skills yourself.

Taking the Long View. The author I’m working with is concerned about the cost of editing. He asked me whether I thought a developmental edit (which I suggested would be wise) would enable him to charge more for the book or sell more copies, so he could break even.

Such a question is unanswerable, of course. The market for self-published fiction is intensely overcrowded, and sales are likely based as much on the author’s marketing skills as on the quality of the book.

I suggested to the author that it’s worthwhile to take the long view. If you aspire to write more than one novel, learning some writing skills now will pay off ten or twenty years in the future, when you have five or ten books to sell. Hoping to break even on your first book — well, that would be wonderful, but there are no guarantees.

Of course, I have enough money in the bank that I don’t have to worry about it. I spent $5,000 on a developmental edit for my own four-novel series, and it was money well spent. Will I ever earn $5,000 on the series? Probably not. But that doesn’t matter to me. What matters to me in my own writing — the only thing that matters, really — is doing the very best job that I can.

If your budget is limited, you’ll face some hard choices. And that’s all the more reason to learn the skills you’ll need. A good book on how to write fiction should cost you no more than $25. You can buy ten books for a fraction of what I would charge to edit your novel. Do yourself a favor: Start by buying the books.

Posted in fiction, writing | Tagged , | Leave a comment

It’s a Marvel

I never read comic books when I was a kid. I read Mad Magazine, but that wasn’t a comic, it was freewheeling satire suitable for the warping of impressionable young minds.

Last week, at the local used book store, I picked up a pristine copy of Against a Dark Background by Iain M. Banks. I’ve never read any of Banks’s work, but I know he’s a successful author. For 50 cents. I figured I’d be foolish not to give it a try.

I’m pretty sure Banks read a lot of comic books when he was a kid. After 85 pages (out of 600), I’m ready to bail out on this one. It’s well written, if you like that sort of thing, but it’s not my cup of tea.

In the Prologue, a woman and her five-year-old daughter are riding a cable car up the side of a mountain. It’s winter. Apparently they’re on their way to a ski resort. The car stops abruptly and is riddled with gunfire; the woman and her bodyguard are both killed, but as the woman is dying she manages to push her daughter out the door onto the snow-covered slope below.

Wow, exciting, huh?

Turning to Chapter 1, we find that the little girl, whose name is Sharrow, is now in her early 20s. She’s filthy rich. Her cousin (also filthy rich) warns her that the people who killed her mother have now been given a hunting permit to assassinate her. More excitement impends!

What’s missing is any description of how a five-year-old girl managed to survive being pushed out of a cable car on the side of a mountain, alone, in the winter. Continuity does not seem to be a high priority for Banks.

So she’s walking on the beach, where her cousin has asked her to meet him (for no apparent reason other than that it’s a nice dramatic setting) in order to warn her. As they converse, Banks sprinkles the pages with the following bits and pieces, none of which has, at that point, any context: The Huhsz. Hunting Passports. The World Court. The Nul Church Council. Stehrin. Llocaran. Lip City. The Lazy Gun. Golter. Fian. Speyr. Trontsephori. Synchroneurobonding. The Universal Principles. (Italics in the original — eventually we’ll learn that this is the title of a book.) Miz. The Log-Jam. The Francks. Regioner. Antiquities contracts. Cenuji Mu. Caltasp Minor. Udeste. Nachtel’s Ghost. Gattse Ensil Kuma. Claäv.

As I said, there’s nothing wrong with Banks’s writing. I’m sure he did this on purpose. The point of it is to grab the reader. For some readers, a scatter of mysterious hints like these will be intriguing. Wow, this is gonna be good! Personally, I find it immensely annoying, but that’s just my own taste. When I’m reading a book, I like to know what’s going on. I’m funny that way.

Sharrow’s cousin hops on his animal and gallops away. Whereupon a robot cleanup machine that has been standing idle on the beach quite suddenly trundles up to Sharrow and starts a conversation. It wants to help her. Not only that, it knows her entire biography in detail. For several pages, Banks fills us in on Sharrow’s life history (not including, unfortunately, how she got down off that mountain when she was five years old) by having Sharrow and the machine alternate paragraphs of dialog. This is Banks’s clever way of giving the reader an info-dump about his lead character without stepping back and doing it in his own voice.

Actually, it isn’t clever, in my opinion. It’s clumsy. But again, it’s not going to be a problem for Banks’s readers. I’m sure they’ll eat it up.

At the end of the chapter, Sharrow refuses the robot machine’s help and hops on her hydrofoil to sail away across the water. At this point the side of the machine pops open — and there’s a man inside. She hasn’t been talking with a machine at all. The man begs her to stop and listen, he has something important to tell her. But she blows him off and sails away without learning who he is or what he’s hoping to accomplish.

This is just stupid. Specifically, Sharrow is being stupid. And as with the little girl freezing on the side of the mountain, we hear no more about the man inside the machine or what he was trying to tell her. She never gives it a moment’s thought! It’s a comic-book panel, and that’s all it is. Man pops out of machine, woman jets away across the sea on her hydrofoil. Zip, bang, moving right along.

In Chapter 2, she’s back in her luxurious home, packing to go on the run from the assassins. Her live-in boyfriend is begging her not to go.

Jyr looked distraught; he had been crying. “How can you just leave?” He threw his arms wide. “I love you!”

That’s his whole argument, right there. She’s being hunted by assassins, but he doesn’t want her to leave because he loves her. Sharrow is supposed to be a strong, intelligent young woman, but she has obviously shacked up with a self-involved idiot. This may tell us something about her that Banks himself didn’t know; or, just as likely, he’s writing every chapter in such a way as to have conflict and action in it, without regard to any deeper considerations of characterization or plot. Long and short of it, Sharrow socks Jyr in the jaw and leaves, and she never gives him another thought either.

The world in which this all takes place is a weird mix of futuristic and old-fashioned. There are electric trolleys on city streets, complete with electric sparks flashing off of the overhead cables. There are tenements with doorways that smell of urine. There’s a street-corner hooker wearing a micro-mini and high heels. There’s also some sort of internet, very like our own in terms of data searching, though we’re at least 9,000 years in the future and not on Earth at all. Admittedly, the book was published in 1993. A lot has changed in the past 25 years. Nonetheless, technology seems to have skidded to a stop at about the point where Banks’s readers will think it’s cool and neat and spiffy and picturesque. The hand-held weapons are futuristic, and the sky is dotted with satellites that are visible from the ground, yet there are also powerful religious institutions that are strictly Medieval.

The plot premise, briefly, is that the Huhsz are trying to kill Sharrow because of something an ancestor of hers did seven generations back. The Huhsz are religious fanatics, and apparently her ancestor kidnapped and raped a temple virgin. Or, depending on who’s telling the story, the two of them ran away together. In the process, apparently, they stole a relic — a terrible weapon called the Lazy Gun. Nobody knows where the Lazy Gun is now, but it seems Sharrow’s grandfather hid an essential clue in the Universal Principles, the book I mentioned earlier. Banks tells us that the book disappeared a thousand years before. Even Sharrow is mystified by how her grandfather could have implanted a cryptic clue in a book that vanished long before he was born. But now she has to find the book in order to track down the Lazy Gun and keep the Huhsz from killing her.

There’s more to it, but I think you’ve got the picture. As a comic book, it’s super. All it lacks are the actual drawings.  If you go for this sort of thing, you know who you are, and you won’t be disappointed. Me, I’m going to push little Sharrow out of the cable car and ride on up the mountain.

Posted in fiction, writing | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Believe It or Not

I really wish I could stop insulting people’s religions. It doesn’t feel good. My fantasy series has a couple of evil religions in it, but they’re fictional — and that’s all you’re going to read in this post about writing. Sometimes I just need to clear the air by thinking out loud. This is one of those times.

If you’re not keen to have your fond ideas about religion challenged, I urge you — STOP READING NOW. I am not going to be nice, okay?

This topic came up because of the current administration’s proposal to enhance the support for religious organizations. Religion has become a hugely divisive issue in the United States.

The Founding Fathers were quite aware of the need to keep government and religion well separated. They knew about the suffering of the Puritans, who had to flee England because they were being persecuted by the main-line Church-of-England Christians, and of the Huguenots, a French Protestant sect that was viciously attacked by the Catholic government. When the government aligns itself with one religion, people of other religions suffer in various ways.

The problem boils down to this: Many or most of the people who belong to one religious denomination or another are firmly convinced that they’re right. Their views are Correct and Good and Approved By God, while other people’s views are in error or even dangerous. This tends to be especially true of the monotheistic religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam in all their varieties), because it’s a tenet of monotheism that there’s only one god. The preacher at your church knows what this “God” approves of or forbids. Those other preachers and rabbis and mullahs and imams and priests and cardinals and whatnot are obviously deluded, right?

There’s no film at 11:00 on this question. There is absolutely no way to figure out who is right (if any of them is) and who’s wrong. It’s all subjectivity and guesswork. But the folks in your church, whatever denomination it happens to be, will deny that it’s guesswork. They know what “God” approves of. Your holy documents are authentic and free of error. Everybody else’s documents — or, if you both use the same documents, everybody else’s interpretations — are mistaken.

Just to be clear, I’m aware that many good, kind people have sincere religious views. I’m also aware that some (though by no means all) of the moral precepts taught by various religions are entirely praiseworthy. More than a few fine and inspiring leaders, such as the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., have been motivated by their religion. Religion can lead to good things.

There are no guarantees, however. Religion can also provoke believers to vicious hatred and various types of appalling cruelty. For every Martin Luther King, we have a Jim Bakker or a Joel Osteen, if not a boatload of them. Come to think of it, King died 50 years ago. Why is he the most recent high-profile example of a religious man who tried to move the world in a positive direction? Jimmy Carter is a very positive guy, but he builds houses and monitors elections — he isn’t fighting for social justice. Meanwhile, we’re being overrun by rabid zealots.

Why is it so easy for rabid, hurtful zealotry to gain a foothold? The difficulty is this: Religion is not fact-based. No fact-checking or error correction is built into the system. You may think your religion is fact-based, but if you think that, you’re just plain wrong. Religion is based entirely on emotion and social agreement.

If your favorite religious leader advises you to do something truly savage — to blow up a building, for instance — it may be very difficult for you even to notice that you’re being given bad advice, because there are no inconvenient facts that would contradict it. Naturally, you (meaning you, whoever is reading this) are certain that your religious leader would never give bad advice or urge you to do anything cruel! But again, there’s no error correction built into the system. Once you’ve signed on for the religion, you have no way of judging what you’re being told. Every religion will assure you that it is right.

Your conscience may whisper otherwise, but for reasons rooted deep in our species’ evolutionary past, the individual conscience often has less traction or sway than group consensus. Religion is all about group consensus, and group consensus is a powerful force. It’s powerful in part because it’s nearly invisible. We all go along to get along. And then our brilliant, active minds make up reasons why the group is right — reasons for why it’s right to be a happy little duckie and follow the leader.

Even the Scientologists are absolutely convinced they’re right, and if there’s a creepier, more dangerous religion than Scientology on the planet today, I haven’t heard of it. Yes, yes, I know — your religion is not nearly as bad as Scientology. Or so you’re going to try to tell me. But how can you be sure of that? You can’t, because religion provides no fact-checking and no error correction.

I don’t care what you believe. Honestly, I don’t. Depending on the content of your beliefs, I may feel mildly amused or I may be desperately angry at what you’re doing to your children, but I can’t save your children from your abusive beliefs. Except in cases of genital mutilation and child marriage, I’m not going to try. And maybe the business of trying to get in the way of gay couples adopting kids. That’s a case where your religion hurts kids who aren’t your own. When a loving and stable couple wants to adopt a kid, what your religion tells you about what the couple does in the privacy of their bedroom is irrelevant. Suck it up.

Here’s where I’m going with this: In order to give everybody religious freedom, government needs to stay out of the religion business. In the interest of personal freedom, government cannot favor one religion over another. Government, that is to say, must remain resolutely secular.

But religious believers tend not to understand secularism. To many of them, secularism is simply another competing belief system — and, in their view, a spectacularly evil one. If you’ve bought into this idea, then a secular government is promoting a belief system. And it’s not your belief system! It’s a false belief system! Secularism denies the “truths” that are proclaimed in your ancient and thoroughly moldy documents. Secularism will lure your children away from the One True Way!

Well, that would be nice. I certainly hope it does. But secularism is not a belief system — it’s the absence of a belief system. Secularism is based on science, and on fairness, and on humility. A secular government says, “Look, we don’t know which of these competing belief systems is right. Could be the Mormons, could be the Muslims, could be the Southern Baptists or the Catholics or the Orthodox Jews, or none of them. You all can believe whatever you like, but in all humility, we’re not going to try to sort that out, because sorting it out is impossible. So we’re going to stay well out of it.”

In Saudi Arabia right now, they’re putting people to death for disrespecting Islam. We don’t do that sort of thing here in the U.S., at least not in such blatant ways, though the rate of gay teenage runaways from conservative religious parents is appallingly high, and some of those kids wind up dead. But you know as well as I do that there are thousands of Christians who would put atheists to death if they could. And the more power they get, the more vigorously they will pursue their agenda.

Religion is capable of doing good, but as a system of human activity, it is undeniably evil. People who get sucked into a religious belief system no longer have a reliable way of perceiving what’s right and what’s wrong, because their judgments are warped by the system of beliefs with which they have been saddled.

To anybody who thinks their religion is the right one and everybody who disagrees with them is wrong, let me say this loud and clear: Fuck your religion. I don’t want to hear about how nice and pleasant your religion is, because the mere fact that you’re a believer means you’re not capable of discerning what parts of it are nice and what parts of it are stupid or dangerous. And if I try to help you figure that out, your religion will slam the doors of your mind shut. You’ll distort everything I say, quite unconscious of the fact that you’re doing it, in order to avoid having your beliefs shaken or shattered.

When you become willing to admit that you don’t know and will never know whether your beliefs have even a shred of validity — when you become willing to admit publicly that your most cherished ideas are just a gossamer of speculation, a tissue of idle fancy, that you may be entirely wrong from top to bottom, and that only a secular scientific process has any hope of revealing the truth and bringing about a world free of injustice and cruelty — then call me. Until then, you can go sit on a sharp stick, because I’m not interested.

Posted in random musings, religion, society & culture | Tagged | Leave a comment