Monday, October 31, 2011

Blood Music by Greg Bear

Greg Bear stresses the science in science fiction. To the detriment of his characters, I think.

I have to admit to skimming over the very technical bits, which I'm sure made the book for some people. But the characters were flat. They're just there to be acted upon. I had no feeling for them when they were in danger. And the technical stuff was so far over my head that I really didn't understand where the author was going with the ending.

Definitely outside my entertainment zone.
(This review was originally posted in Goodreads)

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Speculative Fiction

There was an old rule of thumb that you could tell science fiction from fantsy by the book cover. One had a rocket ship and one had a tree.

Then someone put forth the definition that science fiction made the improbable possible and fantasy made the impossible probable.

Lately it seems that that line is even fuzzier than before.

Look at Marion Zimmer Bradley's Darkover series. It happens on another planet and deals with telepaths. There's a spaceport, so it could have a rocket ship on the cover. But it is a primitive planet with people who have pretty magical skills, so the tree applies, also.

I am reading Terry Brooks' Armageddon's Children series. It's post apocalyptical and the survivors meet elves. So that might be science fiction/fantasy/horror. The second book has a dragon on the cover. But that might be so that his fantasy fans didn't get scared away.

I think Ursula LeGuin's Left Hand of Darkness would fall into the same murky category.

I'm seeing the category Speculative Fiction as a genre in a few places. But we need to better identify our subgenres. I read a lot of fantasy and yet I rarely read any Sword and Sorcery stuff. Nor do I read anything that requires massive battles and lots of blood and gore. There are so many types of fantasy and science fiction out there, that I think we need to create new categories for the new breed of ebook buyers.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Telling a story

I have a friend who cannot tell a story. I'm not sure if it's her concern for veracity, or if she doesn't fully know the point of her story. For example, let's say she wants to tell me that her coworker Mary told her about a new restaurant.

She'll start out with: "Last Tuesday Mary told me, no wait, Mary doesn't work on Tuesday, maybe it was Monday. No, I wore the pink blouse on Monday, it must have been Wednesday." And we spend 15 minutes figuring out what day of the week Mary told her about the restaurant.

"She went there with her husband and son. No, wait her son is at college. It must have been her daughter, but I thought she was on a class trip." Then we have to spend some time figuring out who was actually there. "It's on Main street just south of the McDonalds, no maybe it's the Burger King." And more time is spent trying to remember the location.

I see this a lot with new writers. They need to tell everyone's story at once. The main character goes to a restaurant and the waitress is crying because her mother/father/boyfriend is sick or has fought with her. and she brings the wrong food or spills a drink. Now this might be information the writer needs, but what has it got to do with the main character's story? Is she/he affected? Does it move the story forward? Does it tie into the plot?

Unfortunately, very often the answer is no. It's just a little tangent story and we never see them again. I've found myself doing it. I get all caught up in the drama of the minute and realize I've built a life for a walk-on role.

Oops.

Well, save that character for her own story and trim it all out. It will make the story cleaner and clearer. Now I need to go check on my own waitresses.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

What makes a book not work?

I just finished reading a book that didn't click for me.

Sometimes it's easy to figure out when I don't like a book - too violent, too gory, too bland. But this one is tricky. I think it was a combination of fantasy, alternate history and romance. I found the romance annoying, almost grafted on. Alternate history always makes me strain a little to try to catch what the change/twist is.

The author repeated several times the basic history of the story and I have to say my brain glossed over it. A mention of Romans, Carthage and old battles and my brain goes to jelly.

But I guess what it all comes down to is the main character. I just didn't love her. This is the first book in a series and I will say no to the rest of them because I don't care what happens. Which is a really bad thing in my opinion. She was 20 years old, but acted a lot younger. I'd like to blame it on the age group it was aimed at, but I've read and loved a lot of YA.

I'm not sure what it was that kept me at arm's length.

Maybe it was the combination of hapless heroine with the budding magical skills and secret spy skills underneath. She could sword fight with the best and disappear behind a veil but sputtered and blundered and floundered. Maybe I'm disappointed in her.

A big portion of the book is days of walking in the bitter cold. Maybe that turned me off because I really hate to be cold. And I couldn't tell where this novel was going. I think there was some sort of political intrigue in the background, but the main character doesn't react all that strongly to it. And, again it had words like worker's rights and revolution and my brain skimmed because I wanted to stay with the magical world.

Well, done and gone. On to the next one.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Money - the bane of my existence

I used to say that all the time when I was a freelance scenic artist. You never know how much is coming in. You can't make a financial plan. Arts are always on the cusp of losing funding. One year I worked regularly. Then the state cut arts funding and my regular clients closed down. I had to scramble for work.

Too stressful.

And now I find myself in that position again. My recession-proof job is proving to be not so proof any more. I may have to break down and get a regular job. Working from home has been great. It gives me time to work in the garden and write. But those nasty bills still need to be paid. So, I need to make a plan to increase my income. Which may mean less time for writing. Bummer.

I've read all the self-help books on money. The wish-yourself-rich kind and the live-within-your-means kinds. Not much help.

The wishing hasn't worked.

And for the other kind - I've lived as a starving artist for so long that I couldn't trim my expenses any harder. They always make me laugh when they list the incidental purchases that can eat up your discretionary income. I don't buy newspapers or magazines. I rarely eat out. I buy clothes when the old ones fall apart. I don't spend money without being aware. I count my pennies. I keep the thermostat low and turn out lights when I leave a room.

I'm just not good with earning money. When it comes down to it, I'd rather take a fun, low paying job than a high-stress, high-stakes, high-paying job. And I'm an empathetic dope when it comes to employers telling me they can't afford to pay me more.

I have to admit it. This is my fault. And this is a bad time to be in such a condition. Maybe 2012 will have to be a year of 9-5-ing it for me. It's been awhile. But it's definitely time to put some nuts away for the winter.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Learning new skills.

Who knew that one of the skills I would need for writing would be graphic arts?


Sheesh.

Over the past few days I've spent most of my writing time figuring out a new graphics program. It's not something that you can just pick up by poking around. It really stressed me out. I found a couple of tutorials and tried to follow along, but somehow I never came up with the same product. Aggravating.

I finally made some progress and came up with an adequate cover for my illustrated flash.

Book covers are the sort of thing that I would very much like to be in control of. They are unrealistically influential on the buyer. Me included! There's a series that I started reading because the book cover was so luscious. The story was NOT my cup of tea. But every time I am in the bookstore I find myself picking up that series. Then I remember and put it back, but that's how powerful a good cover can be.

And I admit when scanning through the hundreds of e-book titles out there, a professional looking cover makes a big difference as to whether I'll give it a look. That and the blurb. I've seen a few too many poorly written blurbs. Another skill to acquire before I am ready to self-e-pub.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

The more you do, the more you can do.

That used to be my philosophy toward exercise. But now I see that it's true for a lot of other things, too.

You start out as a couch potato, no energy and no initiative. But then you start walking or working in the garden and suddenly, you're getting a lot more done. Energy is that magical negative thing - you have to use it up to get more of it. And you realize that the more you do - walking, weeding, writing or anything, the more you can do.

More exercise gives you more energy. More writing gives you new skills and the confidence to tackle new things. It's like sports. The more you practice, the better you get at it.

It took me a long time to get that one. I always avoided sports because I was never good at them. There was the occasional game of softball with coworkers to prove the point. No one ever told me that if I practiced, I'd get better. Sports was always some mystical gift that some people had and others didn't. It wasn't until I learned to ski that I realized anyone can learn a skill adequately. You won't be Olympic material, but you can participate and enjoy it.

The same is true for writing. The more you practice the better you get. My Tai Chi teacher talked about muscle memory. He said that if you keep practicing the basics, eventually your muscles remember the sequence and your mind can disengage. If you practice writing enough, grammar, vocabulary and structure become second nature. Then you can start looking at the flow, character depth, plot twists and all that fun stuff.

The more you do, the more you can do.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Art Starts with Learning the Craft

I'm noticing a lot of similarities between painting and writing.

First of all, you need to know your materials, like watercolors, and supports, like paper, which translate to vocabulary and grammar. Sure, there are the singular geniuses that create brilliant works without a single lesson, but I think those people just know the craft intuitively. Most of us have to learn it through rote until we can feel it that way.

An artist learns that highlight and shadow gives depth and that you can't give everything the same attention or the eye won't move through the image. That was my big mistake in my first novel and I am seeing it in other new writers. You can't write eveybody's story at the same time. If everything is clamoring for the attention of the audience, nothing stands out.

What is the point of the story? And for me, a lot of paintings are stories.

It is important for the writer to know his characters. Even the minor ones. But some of that information needs to stay in the notebook and not go into the story.

When the detective takes a cab to the crime scene we don't need the cab driver's life story unless it contributes to the story. Maybe he was the last one to see the victim alive, maybe he saw the killer. Paint him him in lightly and let the eye wander back from the boldly drawn detective to the driver. Let the audience wonder - what part does he play?

However, if he doesn't play a part and the audience is left wondering about him, the story will be unsatisfactory. Maybe you rendered him so well, that you can't bear to lose him. You know his family, the sick mother and child with a handicap, the aging relatives he visits on the weekend. Either give him a place in the story or let him go. Save all that luscious detail for another story. Because it's dimming the main character's spotlight, (oops, just stumbled into a theatre metaphor, but I think you know what I mean.)

God forbid all your characters are so well drawn. How will the audience know which one to care about?

Being a good artist is all about learning to see in color and shape and negative space. The writer needs to think in plot and pace and overall arcs.

Monday, October 3, 2011

The Sword-Edged Blonde by Alex Bledsoe

I went back and read the first book of the Eddie LaCrosse Series. What a lot of fun!

It's a very fast read. That makes a book even more enjoyable for me. It has a good flow. I don't think I hit any point where the story lagged.

It has nibbles of folklore and anachronistic dialog and coy little pokes at pop culture. But the core of it is a closed room mystery, which he solves quite handily. All the loose ends are neatly tied up at the end. No nasty cliff-hangers here. I like that.

Kudos, Alex!