Writing and Other Afflictions

"If it was easy, everyone would do it." –Jimmy Dugan, "A League of Their Own"

Monthly Archives: May 2008

Different Kinds of Writing

On Reporting vs. Journalism, some–okay, a lot of–very insightful words by one of this blog’s favorite writers-at-large, the guy with the gay porn star name, Lance Mannion.

There’s no real ‘money line,’ but here’s a good one for writers to keep in mind:

And journalists, real journalists, don’t go out into the world just to talk to people. They go out to see how the world is working. They have to collect data. Writers and poets and painters and most other people call this data the details that God is in. Journalists have to see the landscape, they have to see and be able to identify the flowers and weeds dotting the landscape. They have to observe processes and understand how those processes function to the point where they can explain them as well as any expert but in language non-experts can follow (and there’s some of the writer’s work that has to be done even before sitting down at the keyboard; gathering the details precisely requires finding the right words on the fly), they have to know so they can describe it later, as Hemingway said they had to be able to, how the weather was, the weather being both a metaphorical and a literal fact.

Getting published

I did a panel at the recent Rocky Mountain Fur Con called “From Writer To Author: Getting Published,” which went okay. At least, it generated good discussion and I ended up rambling on about character wants and stuff. I thought I’d post my notes here for interested people. It includes a rather long quote from the fangs_fur_fey LJ community, because I’m lazy and didn’t want to take the time to say it myself.

The problems most people have with getting published–by a moderated, edited press or journal, as opposed to a “throw whatever online” site–come down to two large areas:

1. Make your writing better
2. Figure out how to submit

So here’s my thoughts on those two:

Making your writing better
1. Learn to read with a critical eye.
2. Read a story twice, first to get the feel of the story, the second time to read it critically and pick out what the author is doing and how it contributes to the overall tone of the story.
As an exercise: pick two of your favorite books/stories from the past year. List three things you really liked about each one. This can be anything—a character, a setting, a twist of the story, the way the author uses language, whatever. Now, for each of those things, take some time to figure out why you liked it. Don’t just say, “because it was cool.” Try to figure out what the author did that made that particular character, setting, language stand out for you. Look at other books with similar stories, similar characters, and compare. Why does one appeal to you more than another? Take those lessons and apply them to your own writing.
3. Read your work out loud to a friend. Reading out loud forces you to consider every word, to hear them rather than letting your mind skim over them.
4. Join a workshop or form a workshop group. Get critiques from people who are actually interested in critiquing, not in either tearing you down without being helpful or building you up without being critical. Learn how to critique: this will help you look at your own work more critically.

How to submit
1. Do some basic research on the publication. Make sure your submission fits their profile and guidelines.
2. Read what else is being published in the field. Your work is going to be read in that context, so you need to understand the context too. This doesn’t mean you have to write something that’s exactly like everything else, or completely different from everything else. Ideally, you should be in the ballpark, but distinctive enough to make an editor sit up and notice.
3. Format your submission properly and follow all submission guidelines. When you think your submission is ready, go back and read the guidelines again with a fine-toothed comb to make sure.

On that topic, a comment on author-editor relationships from Phil Brucato, in the fangs_fur_fey LJ community:

As a professional author, an occasional publisher, a writing professor, and an editor for over five years, I think I can answer your question… though my response might not be the answer you want.
Editors receive massive numbers of manuscripts. In order to process even a fraction of them, they (and/or their assistants) must scan copious submissions, applying a number of criteria(*) to see whether or not the submission in question warrants deeper consideration. This is not an elitist power-trip, but an absolute necessity. After all, even editors need to eat and sleep, and there’s far more to an editor’s job than simply scanning, reviewing and polishing manuscripts!
From my own experience, I can say that barely 15% of submissions get beyond this stage. The majority of submissions are poorly written, grammatically appalling, stylistically unsound, unproofed, badly-printed (if printed at all!), or otherwise violate basic publishing standards. I have no idea whether or not your manuscript fit any of those categories, but the overall rule is usually “If it violates Standard A, B or C, I’m not reading past page 1.” Again, this is simple practicality. An editor simply does not have the time to make personal in-depth evaluations of everything s/he receives. There isn’t time or energy enough to do so!
Beyond that, an editor must judge submissions by other criteria: whether or not the author(s) meet the promise of their premise; whether or not the project holds that reader’s interest; whether or not the proposal fits the plans, needs, identity or limitations of the publishing company; whether or not a similar project is already in the works or on the schedule; whether or not the book is likely to exceed the H-U-G-E costs involved in producing, printing, stocking, shipping, marketing and producing said book; and finally, whether or not the editor enjoys, agrees with or believes in the proposal at all. Any or all of these considerations may derail a book during the reading stage – and believe me, an editor is too busy to keep detailed records about each element of every project that crosses his/her desk, especially at a major publishing house!

MythAdventures Remembered

I met Bob Asprin while I was in college working for the science fiction magazine. We wanted to do interviews with authors, an initiative that lasted exactly two authors, but if they’d all been like Bob, we would never have stopped. He was friendly and accommodating, talked a mile a minute, and was as entertaining as his stories, if not more. We followed up and he was extremely helpful in editing the interview and allowing us to go to press with it. There are plenty of nice people in the science fiction community, but he was more than nice.

I remember picking up the Myth-Adventures series and loving the balance he struck between fun and a serious story, something I’ve never been able to quite get to my satisfaction in my own work. He slung puns with the best of them, but never lost sight of the heart of his story. His characters, larger than life, remained true to it throughout, or at least as much as you can in a fantasy world.

After the interview and perhaps during the same time as the interview, which was longer ago than I care to remember, he was dealing with other issues that took his energy away from writing. I heard through the grapevine recently that he was working on projects again and was delighted.

Today I heard that he passed away.

His MythAdventures books stay on the shelves, published and republished through Meisha Merlin and others. They’re perennial favorites and have now, I think, become firmly cemented as a part of essential fantasy reading.

They’ll always be a fondly treasured part of my own reading memories. I can still remember sitting in the room, thanking the heavens for the tape recorder that was capturing everything he said, because my pen couldn’t keep up. And I’ll remember the conversations afterwards, a young fan being treated like a professional, the way he treated his stories: with humor and respect. Thanks, Bob.


Anyone who’s in Denver over Memorial Day weekend, come by Rocky Mountain Fur Con and attend one of my two panels. The first, Saturday at 2, is “From Writer to Author: Getting Published.” The second, on Sunday tentatively at 2 (I had to rearrange the schedule I got from them only a week ago) is “Building Furry Worlds,” about creating an engaging setting for your anthropomorphic characters. I’ll also be around the Sofawolf Press table, so swing by and say hi!

Review: City of Ashes

City of Ashes, by Cassandra Clare
7.5/10, a worthy and exciting sequel to “City of Bones

SPOILERS for “City of Bones” contained herein…

In “City of Bones,” Clary, a teenaged girl growing up in New York, spots what appears to be a brutal murder in the back room of a dance club. The three teenagers involved are surprised that she’s seen them, and lead her into a world of demons and angels, werewolves and vampires. More shocking than that is the realization that she herself is a part of this world, more intimately than she knows.

“City of Ashes” picks up right where “Bones” left off, with Clary’s mother in a coma and herself torn between feeling not romantic enough about her best friend Simon, and too romantic about her newly-revealed brother, the Shadowhunter (demon slayer) Jace. Meanwhile, her–and Jace’s–father, Valentine, has stolen one of the Mortal Instruments that will allow him to overturn the rule of the Shadowhunters, and has designs on a second one.

Clary, Jace, and Simon get tossed right into the action, fighting not only Valentine, but also demons, werewolves, vampires, the faerie court, and other Shadowhunters. “Ashes” does what every good fantasy sequel should: keeps the story racing along while expanding the world. We get to meet Valentine for the first time, see the world of the Downworlders (werewolves and vampires) more in depth, meet more Shadowhunters, and witness an existential argument between a werewolf and a vampire over who is more human. Clare’s prose carries the story well, building rich, vivid descriptions and terrifically bright characters.

The characters are one of the strongest points of “Ashes.” Clary is a pretty typical teen, as is Simon, and the secondary characters in their world have the distinctive palette of a good supporting cast. Especially entertaining are the gay warlock Magnus Bane and the Queen of the Seelie Court. The weakest point is Jace, who is flip and sarcastic almost to the point of being a caricature, even when his life is threatened, his father confronts him, and he’s trying to reconcile his love for his sister. But his sarcasm is at least amusing, and it really balances Clary’s serious nature. To be honest, I have a bias against all-powerful pretty-boys (see Aiken Drum from the Saga of Pliocene Exile), so that might be coloring my perception. Certainly I’m not the primary audience for the book.

The book is a fast, fun read, and if the plot occasionally hinges on a character’s stubborn refusal to listen to advice, it never stretches believability to do so. By the end of it, as is appropriate for the middle book of a fantasy trilogy, things look pretty dire, both for the characters’ personal lives and for the world at large. If you like urban fantasy, this is one of the best examples of the genre–the major strike against it being that you’ll have to wait a year or two for the third book.

Review: Webmage

Webmage, by Kelly McCullough
8/10, a solid, fun adventure in urban fantasy with surprising depth

Disclaimer: I read Kelly’s writings over at Wyrdsmiths and have corresponded with him.
In fact, I picked up “Webmage” at a book signing and feel bad it’s taken me so long to read it!

I can’t really complain about the modern fantasy market being dominated by cookie-cutter Dragonlance adventures, because I only read fantasy that’s come with pretty good recommendations, or else authors I know and trust (like Tim Powers, who could not by any stretch of the imagination be called “cookie-cutter,” unless you happen to have a trans-dimensional cookie-cutter, and even then it would have to be shaped like an ancient god or something). That said, I picked up Webmage largely on the strength of having read some of McCullough’s short works–and attending his book signing.

The big hook of Webmage is that it melds classical mythology-based fantasy with modern technology (hence the title). Ravirn, the protagonist, is a descendant of Lachesis, one of the three Fates (Clotho and Atropos are the others). He and his family stand for Order, in opposition to the goddesses of Chaos. He’s an expert hacker–not as good at coding spells, but great at digging into them.

The problem he faces is that one of his aunts has gone a bit too far. She wants to impose a lot more order on the universe–namely, getting rid of that pesky free will that knots up her threads. Her spell doesn’t quite work, however, and that’s where she’s tried to rope him in. Ravirn doesn’t like the sound of the spell, and goes about trying to expose his aunt to the other Fates.

Webmage keeps the reader involved with some great chases, problems, and characters. Ravirn, though clever and resourceful, relies heavily on the assistance of others, most frequently his snarky laptop/familiar Melchior. Even though the “familiar with attitude” is a fairly common modern fantasy archetype, it works wonderfully here. Mel is a great complement to Ravirn; together they can muddle through lots of situations, and other characters show up to help when they can’t.

In the end, the hook is really little more than an entertaining magic system, but it adds enough originality to the book to elevate it above the traditional fantasy. McCullough has a great touch with character, description, and action, but beyond that, the question of free will is woven nicely into the book in a way that makes it more than just an adventure. I love mythology-based fantasy and Webmage did not disappoint. Having attended the U of M (Minnesota), I particularly enjoyed following Ravirn through its campus (and in one scene in which he breaks into the hated Weisman art museum, I was cheering for him to do more damage).

If you’re looking for something that stands out from traditional dragon-fighting medieval quests, or just for a good story, Webmage is a fun, engaging read.

Good Writing

You want good writing? You want a great story? You want a lesson in how to build up your readers’ expectations, build tension, give them way more than they thought they were getting?

You want Gene Weingarten. You want the Great Zucchini.

(It’s a couple years old, but this is the first time I’ve seen it.)