Saturday, January 30, 2016

Teeth, Door Knobs, and Chandaliers

Take my teeth—NOW!
A few years back, when Porter’s first loose tooth started to wiggle, he became incredibly nervous.  It makes sense.  Something as solid as defined as your teeth, that you worked so hard and so painfully for through the infant/toddler stage, shouldn’t just fall out!

That’s insane!

Also, Porter is a bit of a worrier.  He’s always been a good rule-follower, wants to be on-time (or early) to everything, and he’s still the teacher’s helper.

Yeah, he’s that kid.

He was still worried when the tooth finally fell out.  There was a lot of tears and comforting him.  There was more concern when he told him his other teeth would come out as well.  This kid was working himself up to an early ulcer!

Writers write.  It’s not always the solution—although Jane Austen would tell you otherwise—but it can be a solution.  Also, by the time Porter’s first tooth started to wiggle, I had two younger boys.  There was an opportunity here to set some expectations about losing your teeth that might not just ease the process for Porter, but for his younger brothers as well!

I took a pen in hand and wrote on a blank, unlined piece of paper a letter from the “Tooth Fairy”. 
Yep, it's gone!

Dearest Porter,

I was so excited when I heard that you were about to lose your tooth.  Your first tooth is incredibly special, and I have had big plans for it.  I will take it away to my castle and it will become the doorknob on my front door.

Thank you so much for sharing your tooth with me!


The Tooth Fairy

I crumpled the page repeatedly until the paper became soft like tissue, and then baked it so that it took on a parchment-like color.  The note accompanied the requisite coins, something like a dollar in loose change and the whole package went under Porter’s pillow—mostly standard practice.

There’s probably a cautionary note here that children will believe pretty much anything you tell them—good and bad.  In this case, everything worked like a charm.  Porter was extremely thrilled by his note, and more so by the silver coins he received.  A big win.

But the biggest win was still several years in the making.  A few days ago, Tristan’s first tooth started to come loose.  As nervous as Porter can be, he’s still extremely logical about things.  Tristan is a kid who wears his emotions on his sleeves and sticks his arms into open flames!  Tears started early, and even when he was comforted, there was a note of fear in his voice about the whole process. Until I remembered the seed I’d planted.

“Porter,” I said, “tell Tristan about the letter you got from the Tooth Fairy!”

The Tooth is Out There!
Porter recounted the entire event, including that his tooth was now a doorknob at the Tooth Fairy’s castle.  Tristan’s eyes couldn’t have been wider with wonder.  Not all of his concern went away, but excitement replaced most of the fear.  The tooth has now fallen out, and the Tooth Fairy has already prepared her letter for tonight’s leaving.  I have it on good authority that Tristan’s tooth will become the center of chandelier in Tooth Fairy’s Great Hall.

I expect my youngest son, Xavier, might start trying to pull his teeth out.

One problem at a time! ;)

Friday, January 29, 2016

The Shadow Portal - Interview

Angels without the punk, just aren't punk enough for me!
I'm delighted to have R.A. McCandless on the blog today as I love his Flames of Perdition books. I can happily recommend them to anyone who enjoys Urban Fantasy.

Tell us about the book you want to talk about today.

Angels should be a human’s worst nightmare. Del didn’t think there was anything worse than angels, or their fallen kin, demons. She and her partner Marrin helped to keep the world safe from the horrors of escaped demons for generations. But when Del’s daughter is kidnapped by a shadowy group, Del will find that the world is even more dangerous than she suspected.

There are worse things than angels and demons.

Give us an insight into your main character.

In the past, the children of angels and humans, the Nephilim, were allowed to lead their lives as they willed.  But they proved too strong, too ambitious, and too cunning for their own good.  They became warlords, conquerors and emperors, causing war and strife until the Throne stepped in and forced them to submit to Its will, or die.  Unlike most of her fellows, Del, one of the first Nephilim, had no interest in conquest and domination.  Del unwillingly works for the Throne, obeying the commands of the angel Ahadiel.  She helps to keep the world safe from the horrors of escaped demons.  At the same time, she keeps herself in the Throne’s good graces.  Whenever a rogue demon breaks free from Hell, she and her partner, Marrin, another Nephilim, work together to banish it.

Self-pub.  Small press.  I'm the one with the gun.
What genre are your books?

Urban fantasy

Did you self-publish or publish traditionally and why?

I’m a small press author with Wild Child Publishing.  Wild Child picked me up and dusted me off, they saw something special in what I was doing, and provided me with a guide.  My editor is great, and I’m so glad to work with her on a near daily basis.  I’ve become such a better author from the first book Tears of Heaven to this book Hell Becomes Her.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Smaller, Grainy and Awesome

There’s a 41” flatscreen TV to the immediate left of this picture which all three know how to operate, and yet this is the scene I came out to this morning.

Second-hand Kindle for the WIN!

On the other hand, I spent about thirty minutes yesterday trying to get a new app to feed to my Chromecast with minimal success.  I could have achieved the same end by simply using the computer we’ve had hooked up to the flatscreen for the past ten years.  This is probably a case of “newer is better” syndrome.

Or maybe just “boys and their toys”.

Monday, January 25, 2016

Interview on Litzophreniacs3!

It’s a new year and a new guest author interview! Today, we’d like to introduce you to fantasy and historical author, R.A. McCandless. R.A. has just released the second book in his Flames of Perdition trilogy, Hell Becomes Her. His first novel in the series, Tears of Heaven, won Best Science Fiction and Fantasy in the Preditors and Editors Readers’ Poll and was also a finalist in EPIC’s 2015 eBook Awards. In addition to his two novels, R.A. has contributed to a number of anthologies. Currently, R.A. is working on the third installment in his Flames of Perdition trilogy.

1. Tell us a bit about yourself and how your books came about.

Telling a good story well and hitting some epic high note moments is where each Flames of Perdition—Tears of Heaven and Hell Becomes Her—book has come from. It’s hard to not to get carried away into the unrealistic of, say, a sword fight or a gun battle—shooting with precision over distance and while under fire, or slicing a an arm or a leg clean off with a used weapon.  Keeping the physics of actions and reactions on target is where Del and her world came from.  I wanted answers to questions like—What would an angel actually be like?  What would living in a world that contains these super-powerful creatures require?  Answering these questions, with some degree of reality baked into the crust was important.  It’s especially enjoyable when readers catch the effort that went into making the world, albeit with the supernatural conceits, exciting and wondrous, but still within the realm of the real. That’s magic right there.

2. What helped you the most in writing your books?

Research, research and more research.  Between the internet and my historian brother, I can get lost tracing down a single thread that might earn a line or two, maybe no more than a mention, within my books.  I’ve had to scrap full sections on ancient coins because it leant nothing to the story—but I have it.  That degree of background, for me at least, is what makes the world I’m writing in feel real.  I love to reach out to experts and pick their brains for bits and pieces of a story I’m working on.

3. Are you planning more writing projects after your trilogy is complete, and if so, will you stick with the same genre?

As Robert Jordan once quipped, I plan to write until they nail shut my coffin.  The Flames of Perdition series doesn’t need to end with the next book.  There are a lot of stories to be told, and not just about Del.  I have a few concepts for other characters to tell stories within the same world.  Outside of that, I have a steampunk series The Constable of Aqualinne and a fantasy series that I’ve written at least a book for each.  Those are worlds that I also want to share.

Friday, January 22, 2016

Probably the Best Review Ever

Captain Awesome approves!
What is this “criticism” of which you speak?  All who read my books love them and despair!

There isn’t an aspect of my writing that hasn’t been criticized.  The first time and the first hundred times pretty much hit the same way.  The difference is how an author takes that criticism.  You can’t please all the people all the time, so you write for a particular audience, and hope that anyone who crosses a genre line also enjoys the work. 

The latest review was one of the best to date.  I loved it:

Gripping storyline, don't read while cooking, you will burn your potatoes.

There ya have it.  A story that hit on all cylinders for the reviewer and the cooking burned.  Sorry about the potatoes, Amazon Customer, but thanks for reading the books.  Most especially, thanks for writing the review.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

I Smell Elf!

I'm sorry, but we appeared on the cover, so we must fight.
There’s very little genre fiction, especially fantasy, I won’t read, provided the writing is good. I have a strong love any world where a dragon can make an appearance.  The scaly beastie doesn’t have to actually show up, but the fact that one can—please and thank you!

That said, some authors worry about relying too much on genre tropes.  Gripes have been offered that werewolves and vampires and dragons and elves have all been overused.

That’s racist!

Elves, dragons, wizards, etc., should all get an initial pass because that's the genre that you’re reading—something of that nature is at least anticipated, if not expected. Except unicorns because screw unicorns! That expectation is especially true if the cover on the book includes and elf fighting a dragon. Then, they damn well better appear, and they’d better throw down in an epic fight that crosses miles of land and scorches hundreds of homes!

Pelves—Like elves, but with gravity-defying breasts!
On the other hand, if an author is writing about a species that we'll call "Pelves", and goes on about their pointy ears, lithe and willowy bodies, ancient wisdom, etc., then I tend to get a touch annoyed. The author is clearly trying to avoid a trope, but only by changing the name, not the fundamentals.

If you’re worried about racial tropes, then give your readers a new take on a classic. Say what you will about Stephanie Meyers, she at least provided a well thought out concept of her Sparkly Vampires that was different.  After all, it’s not necessarily what the character’s background is, so much as who is the character.  Likeable, smarmy, with a side of sarcasm goes a long way no matter which forest kingdom she hails.

So go on, write that elf v. dwarf epic that’s been crawling around your brain—just make certain your characters, dialogue, and plot are all solid.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Chivalry Isn't Dead

May I hold the door for you?
A brief, and interesting, view of chivalry for fantasy writers and fun.

The original qualities of chivalry, even the idealization of them, were based on notions that are still very much alive today—the strong should defend the weak, keep their word, and be generous to everyone. The idea was that a chivalric knight was essentially a warrior-priest.  Some of the orders even took priestly vows of abstinence and poverty, like the Knights Hospitallar and the Knights Templar.

Now, of course, that doesn't take into account some of the darker parts of the chivalric code, which were very much a part of the time and place they grew out of (Europe under Charlemagne), including—fighting and killing “the infidel” (Muslims) wherever they existed, and upholding the Roman Catholic Church at all times.  Defending the faith against all-comers was a real thing, and considered very “honorable” at the time.

But the thing about “chivalry” is that it never existed as a single institution at any one time—not so that we could say it was “alive” or “dead” per se. Don Quixote very premise based on this notion, and although the “knight” strives for a better world based on chivalry, he only finds people being people.

Look, there's some Chivalry right over there!
So what we really have is a notion, an ideal, that is chivalry, in the same way that Arthur was a king—it’s a myth.  The concept was good on paper, but in practice, people with power tend to lord if over others—in the case of chivalry, literally.  The feudal system established a class of nobility partially based on their ability to provide knights, who were armed and armored off the hard work of serfs.

On the other hand, being friendly to other people, giving to charity, and basically not being a jerk have never gone out of fashion—though they sometimes feel like they're myths!

Friday, January 15, 2016

Making an Ass out of Assumption

Nice ass!
My question is, do you think the ansible needs any explanation within the story itself? We do live in the golden age of information, so it's not hard for someone to Google what the word means if they're curious, but I try not to assume too much on the part of my readers.

Ursula K. Le Guin coined the name “ansible” as a corruption of "answerable" for the communication devices in her science fiction.  There is actually no end of similar concepts, whether borrowed from Le Guin or thought up originally to solve the problem.  Star Trek uses “subspace communication”.  Jack Williamson wrote about “rhodomagnetic waves”.  Babylon 5 used “tachyon relays”. I worked on a similar concept before I’d even read Le Guin, that used “locus stones” for centers of communication in a fantasy story.

But to answer the question of describing a device—any technological/magical solution—you can go several ways.  On the one hand, you can toss out a term, like ultrapowerosium, and if the reader can figure it out from context, then you're good to go. On the other hand, your world, your universe should exist.  It should seem real.  People don't say, "Hey, let's use the wireless, quantum entanglement ferret, otherwise called the w-Qec, to call your mom!"  TV and movies tend to use this kind of exposition dialogue to explain to the audience what two (or more) characters either already know or should know.  That doesn’t work in the really real world, unless one of the characters has been living under a rock, and has to squinch up their face and admit ignorance.
Reach out and touch someone!

Now, all that said, unlike TV/movies this is writing.  Writers have a good deal of room for the character to consider the ultrapowerosium, and its impact within the narrative unverside, without resorting to awkward and shoehorned dialogue.  A quick and dirty, or even slightly detailed explanation, can be had without slowing down the narrative.  With one caveat—it must serve the story.  Like Chekov’s Gun, you don’t necessarily want to get into the details of how ultrapowerosium was discovered, by whom, and so forth if it doesn’t serve the plot.  It’s nice that you figured out how your magic system works on a I Ching mapping system, but if you’re going into vast detail now, it had better come back into play later.

With all that said, less is more.  I used to worry and stress and maintain huge reams of information on descriptions and explanations of every kind for magic, technology, weaponry—everything.  I was so worried that the readers wouldn't know what a character looked like, down to the eglets on their boots that the stories I was telling became vast deserts of exposition.  Readers will build in their own version of your characters and the world that surrounds them without much assistance.  A character doesn't have to be five-foot-two-and-a-half-inches flat footed, but five-foot-three-and-three-quarters when wearing her Zombie Ass Kicking boots.  She can simply be short.  She can be tall if everyone else is a Hobbit.  It's all relative.  As the author, you should be able to answer a three-deep question about anything in
Mk IV locked and loaded!
your world. 

Who is your hero?
Keira Perfectknightley
What kind of weapon does she carry? 
A Mk IV handpistol in the 30-watt range. 
What powers it?
Ultrapowerosium, of course.

It’s not important for readers to know that the Mk IV is made by Ultradyne Dyanmics, a competitor of Chuck Corp who is currently in a bitter rivalry for the Lazarianian military contracts.  Unless that’s part of the story, those are just details you might keep in a file on your computer for later reference—usually your own.  It’s good to have that for part seven of your thirteen volume opus, but in book one, the focus is probably going to be on your hero—and blowing the frell out of the Gorbags.

Those damn Gorbags.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

In Which I Attempt to Explain Everything

Step 1—Do everything!
What's a good launch strategy for a fantasy ebook? Stick to Amazon? Open wide on amazon and smashwords? I'm reading article after article, several books, too. I can't decide. Keep in mind that I only have the one book. It's going to be remain in my editor's hands for a month or so longer, and i want to be prepared, have a plan ready.

Wow!  This is like asking, “How do I write a book?”  In fact, this is what the entire publishing world is all about—launch and sell strategy.  It’s why you get an agent to help you sell to a publishing house, and why you get a publishing house to help you sell to the rest of the world.  It’s why you go to conventions and book signings give away advanced reader copies and cozy up to reviewers.

So let’s start small, shall we?

Decisions, decisions, decisions!
Format only matters when considering how it will limit your audience.  If you only go with Amazon (and really, if you're going to pick just one, they're it) then understand that you cut out all the Kobo and Nook readers.  There are some benefits to only going with Amazon, because they’re building a publishing world that answers to their whims.  As the author/owner/publisher you can take advantage of free days to build readership, and then maintain a low price ($0.99 or $1.99) to maintain that momentum and make a little beer money.

Unless, of course, you're also offering your book in print—but then price for a self-pub can become a barrier to purchase.  Most print-on-demand shops will charge you a reasonable amount for binding a paperback book, somewhere in the neighborhood of $9 to $12 per book.  That is literally a fair amount for clear, full-bleed, color cover art and your story printed to decent acid-free paper all bound together professionally and ready for your shelf.  The big publishers manage this themselves or outsource at a discount, operating on an economy of scale.  If you’re buying ten-thousand copies, it’s easy to come down a dollar or three per book.  Still, a paperback book today will run about $7 to $8 and a trade paperback about $12, with the profit margin added.  So be aware that your novel will likely need to be somewhere just north of $10 to $12 to make any kind of profit in a self-published market.

Big and Bigger Considerations
Don't worry.  I've lit the Ab-Signal!
Format is actually one of the easier questions to answer.  The 8 million ton elephant in the room is how you market the book.  Getting the word out is such a big job that it can become a full-time job in itself.  I could probably write an entire book about this alone.  Others certainly have.  Please keep in mind that I'm a small press author, not indie.  A lot of the responsibilities/efforts are the same, but I do get some help here and there.  Here's a few tips:

1- Consider what your monthly budget for marketing is (and yes, monthly) and then start looking into both the free places to advertise, the discount places, and the premium.  Have a strategy built around at least a year of marketing your book until it can walk (or stumble or run) on its own.
2 - Build your base as big and fast as you can.  Get a blog, an author Facebook page, get on Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, etc., and start marketing.  I've found that HootSuite provides a pretty decent platform to handle tweets and blog posts.  Start building an email list for reviewers and fans.
3 - Work it every day, and every day work it.  Yeah, redundant there, but it's true.  You need to do a little (or a lot) of work every day.  Have business cards and bookmarks printed up with buy links, get on interviews, reach out to bloggers, submit for contests, build up your review counts, etc.

There's more and so much more!

Location, Location, Location
Just keep swimming!
The publishing industry hasn’t just exploded—it’s Big Bang Level 13 on a stellar scale.  There are, literally, millions of self-published authors now competing for eyes and wallets, and you are, at best, a little fish in that vast, uncharted, stormy sea.  Consider that there is something like 32 million books currently in print, and more being added every day.  While there is potentially an infinite number of stories, there is a finite number of readers, and a finite number of books that can be read by those readers.  Even putting in the time and effort, won’t see immediate or vast returns.  Be very prepared for disappointment if you think you can move 10,000 copies in the first year.

Keep Writing
Finally, your first book is likely not going to be your first best-seller.  If it is, congrats and I hate you!  Nor is the second book.  Again, same sentiment, you lucky bastard!  But barring that kind of fortunate exposure, you'll get more traction each time you release another book, and life will get a little easier.  Your base will grow organically, but you'll still need to keep at it, which can overshadow the real effort—KEEP WRITING.  While marketing is certainly part of the job, you're still the talent. 

People want to read what you write, so keep writing it.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Giving Up

Clearly, George made a deal with the Devil!
This getting old thing is dumb.  Someone should have warned me.  Over vacation, doing nothing but relaxing with my family, sitting by warm fires and watching crap TV all day, I would wake up in the morning sore.  Not just a little sore, but full on, work-out-five-hours-a-day-grunt-lifting-the-heavy-weights-while-beefcakes-yell-encouragement sore!

Yeah, that a thing.

Part of the problem might have been the complete sedentary lifestyle I adopted over the past two months while working on TO BE NAMED book three of the Flames of Perdition series.  No matter the flu shots and the multi-vitamins and the happy thoughts, I tend to pick up whatever the boys get, and multiple it by 10.5.

Why 10.5—because I care.

My everything is sore!
The other part, and this is the part that’s is 45% amusing and 55% depressing, is that I’m getting old(er).  Bank tellers still (pretend) to flirt with me and say I’m only in my 30s on my birthday, and that’s nice enough in a semi-creepy, Big Brother kinna way.  While Indiana Jones hits the nail on the head—it’s not the years, it’s the mileage—the fact of the matter is more years tend to make more mileage harder to take.

So it’s now or never (or next week).  Cardio-kickboxing in the morning, just like the old days.  Running in the afternoon, as I’ve been doing 87% of the year.  Yoga in the evenings.  Or, as Toby Keith put it—I ain't as good as I once was / But I'm as good once as I ever was.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

On Something?!

I received a lovely review for Tears of Heaven over the weekend.

I wasn't thinking and started at book two!!! But will definitely go back and read book 1!
Great read, great characters, and great story!!

I was able to follow along and even as a writer/reader of a different genre, I enjoyed it immensely.

The characters were believable, and the descriptions of the world were unquestionable.

R.A. McCandless is onto something here!

Not certain what I’m onto.  Probably something illegal, but hey, it’s worked so far!

Monday, January 11, 2016

He was poisoned, stabbed, shot, hung, stretched,
disemboweled, drawn AND quartered!
Sequels, second installments, book two.  There are a lot of things to be said about a follow-up—most of them tend to be negative.  The second book is often like the sequel to a popular film—it tries to capitalize on the success of the first, maintain the same qualities and, most importantly, pave the way for the crescendo of the finale.  Unless you’re George R.R. Martin and then screw you!  Don’t believe me?  Check out Ghostbusters II.

As a reader, I’m always willing to forgive the sophomore slumps that can accompany a successful book or movie—especially if the third (or more) in the series delivers and reinvigorates.  There are some rare cases where the second book or movie is so much more and better than the first—Patrick Rothfuss’ The Wise Man’s Fear—but in general they pay too much fan service, trying to cash in on the original success.

That’s not always the case, of course.  In some instances, money isn’t the millstone hanging around a second installment’s neck.  If a third book or movie is planned, the second might simply act as a bridge that moves the characters from one side of the stage to the other.  No one is interested overly much in what happens between, but we know they have to get to the other side.

See how slumped they all look?
How do you avoid the dreaded “sophomore slump”.  Here’s a few tips.

For Everything—Turn, Turn, Turn
Obviously, the first best way is to avoid self-mimicry.  There will, of course, be readers who will clamor for more of the same, but remember that you’re both growing, as readers and writers (and if you’re not a reader,you should be).  This is even truer for your characters.  They should grow as the world is growing just as you and I are growing.

Free Your Mind
Mindset is one of the most important things for a writer.  You should have a time, a place, and a method for your writing.  Even if that time is “all the time” and that place is “everywhere” so long as that’s your writing style, writer that way.  For the rest of us, a quiet
Sequel like the first book? To the Bog of Eternal Stench!
place, with the warm, steady hum of an internal processor, internet access, the mythic tones of David Bowie and a nice bottle of Scotch are musts.  Get in the mindset that your job is to write, and to write well.  Not every day at your job is going to be stellar, but you still have to do your job.

Six Ps
Proper planning and preparation prevent poor performance.  It’s not enough to have mapped out your books (although that’s a really good place to start).  It’s also important to map out time for yourself as the artist to let ideas and inspiration come naturally.  Don’t feel like your second book must be completed within a certain time frame to be successful.  False deadlines will force you into a panic that might have worked in college while writing a paper due the next day for your Organizational Comm class (sorry Dr. Ashmore!), but that won’t create the art that your readers, and more importantly you, are searching for.

It’s not always easy being the talent, but remember that you have that first book out already.  You have people who enjoyed that book, and who are interested in more.  Get behind the controls of a big machine.  Go big, or go home.

Friday, January 8, 2016

McGuffins. McGuffins Everywhere!

Have I got a warehouse for you!
An online discussion about McGuffins prompted this article.

What’s a McGuffin?  McGuffins are the things that makes the characters do things.  The late, great, Sir Alfred Hitchcock, who popularized the term, defined it as such:

It might be a Scottish name, taken from a story about two men on a train. One man says, "What's that package up there in the baggage rack?" And the other answers, "Oh, that's a MacGuffin". The first one asks, "What's a MacGuffin?" "Well," the other man says, "it's an apparatus for trapping lions in the Scottish Highlands." The first man says, "But there are no lions in the Scottish Highlands," and the other one answers, "Well then, that's no MacGuffin!" So you see that a MacGuffin is actually nothing at all.

Hey!  How'd that McGuffin get up there?
One of the classic McGuffins that have ever been is the Maltese Falcon in the movie The Maltese Falcon.  While central to the overall plot, at least as the impetus for Humphrey Bogart and his merry band of fellow actors to all do the things they do, the titular Falcon itself is a thing that does nothing and is actually never in the film. It’s, as Bogart so eloquently states, “The stuff that dreams are made of.” It could easily be replaced by a chest of gold, a large diamond, or a tesseract.

McGuffin this!
Speaking of tesseracts, even if the McGuffin has some power, it can still be a plot device that makes people do things for “reasons”.  The reasons don’t have to be specified, but it can be as simple as WORLD DOMINATION or the power of love—1.21 gigawatts, anyone?  Essentially, the bad guys want the McGuffin because of power, or greed, or revenge or what have you.  Insert the Deadly Sin of your choice.  The good guys want to stop the bad guys, and thus must get the McGuffin, beat the bad guys, or both.

It should be understood that McGuffin isn't necessarily a derogatory term.  It can be applied that way, and often is, but most plots center on the getting or the destroying of the McGuffin.  This provides the characters, good and bad, with one of the reasons they’re doing what they’re doing.  The term itself is simply a means of describing an item that provides the characters’ motivation.

McGuffin’s aren’t just a good thing, they’re often necessary.

The trick to a good McGuffin is to make it something realistic enough for the world of the characters, a Sword of Truth, the Book of Eli, or the Lost Sankara Stones—what the thing is isn’t so important as how the characters all relate to it.  To quote Hitchcock again, “[It’s] what everybody on the screen is looking for, but the audience don’t care.”

Thursday, January 7, 2016

O' Shannara! Where Art Thou?

Please sir, may I have another magic sword?
Right after I read Tolkien’s seminal work, The Lord of the Rings, I immediately ran down to my local B. Dalton bookstore to try to find something, anything, that was even remotely similar.  My hands stumbled upon Terry Brooks’ The Sword of Shannara.  The book had me at the cover, with an elf, a dwarf and a human all staring at a magical sword.

The fact that two of them were archers was sauce for the goose!

What I hadn’t realized was that The Sword of Shannara was actually a Tolkien-clone.  I saw the parallels with Lord of the Rings immediately, with Shady Vale standing in for the Shire and unsuspecting, pure-of-heart main characters driven from their quiet lives to play major roles in important events.  There was even a “fellowship” consisting of nine additional characters—new and improved with more elven archers!  But I assumed this was how fantasy books were written.  Having only been exposed to two series, I figured this was a winning formula—swords, magic, dark lords, elves and a bit with a dwarf!

I loved it!

When The Elfstones of Shannara and The Wishsong of Shannara were released, I snatched them up as well, devouring them as only an impassioned reader can.

Quick!  Look dramatic and yet . . . fantastical!
Thus, despite some mockery and scornful word-of-mouth reviews, I wanted desperately to like MTV’s adaptation The Shannara Chronicles.  I set out to watch the first two episodes (available for free on YouTube) with as much hope and trepidation as Shea Ohmsford leaving the Vale for the first time.  The story kicks off with Elfstones, which Brooks has said is a better place to begin.  Being an author myself, and sometimes cringing when I have to re-read my first novel for reference, I can understand this.  The riff on LOTR was decent enough to earn Brooks a place at the table, but Elfstones is where he proved he could pass the mustard without spilling it on the nice table cloth.

Alas, Shanarra is not the next Game of Thrones.  It is good enough for what it is—MTV’s attempt at getting in the game of gritty fantasy—but Shanarra misses the point of everything that is great about HBO’s hit series.  It immediately tries to cover too much ground, exchanging character development for “exciting action”.  Maybe this will pay off in the next few episodes (the season is 10 episodes total) but don’t hold your breath.  I certainly don’t mind all the pretty elf and half-elf faces—that’s how elves should be.  But the willing suspension of disbelief is brought crashing down several times as the dialogue uses anachronistic language to try to create some of the humor that underlies much of Game of Thrones.

Is this dark and brooding enough for you?
Most of the characters are fairly well adapted, although Austin Butler’s Wil Ohmsford, seems perpetually lost and confused.  Poppy Drayton is lovely as Amberle Elessedil, a nicely updated character from the original text who can now hold her own in the Four Lands world—but for some reason still needs to have a shower scene in a waterfall.  John Rhys-Davies is wonderful as Eventine Elessedil, pulling off the aged Elven king with surprising grace.

The real treat here, though is, Manu Bennett’s Allanon.  He’s always been a fan favorite-character—a combination Gandalf and Aragorn. Bennett, stellar as Crixus in Starz Spartacus, pulls off  the mysterious druid so very well.  His presence alone immediately conveys the capable lone wanderer, a man who passes through dangerous lands on a mission to keep them safe.  Allanon is not a guy you want to meet in a dark alley, but if you have to go down that alley, he's the guy you want leading.  Bennett makes the character his own and almost (almost) wholly new.

Some of this makes up for the stumbles in the first two episodes, although it’s hard to forgive characters who live in a fantasy world, but scoff at belief in the fantastical.  This is meant to lend drama to the character drama, but in truth it makes me cringe in disbelief and wish I could fast-forward.  I'm very willing to give this series at least another two episodes, and that alone might carry me through the entire set of ten.  Granted, it’s been years since I last read Brooks’ Shannara series, so nostalgia might be carrying me along some distance.  But viewers looking for the next big thing in fantasy television may only find what critics complained of with Brooks’ first book—a Lord of the Rings clone.

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Danish, and the Danes Who Speak It

Peering deeply doesn't help me understand.
So there’s this scene in this book, Hell Becomes Her, and the writer wanted to create a sense of confusion in the point-of-view (POV) character, Del.  Two other characters are speaking Danish while Del, who doesn’t speak Danish, is listening.  Important information is being conveyed through Del picking up a word here or there, but mostly not understanding.

And it worked.

Readers were confused.

So confused, they actually went on Google Translate to figure out what was being said.

The writer, I’m told, had intended to include a translation of the conversation at the end of the book, but . . . forgot.  No other excuse.  He simply didn’t remember to do it.

He then decided to spare readers the continued confusion and effort and provide the conversation from the book.  Here it is in two columns with translations.

“Er du fra Danmark?”

“Are you from Denmark?”

“Oprindeligt ja, men det var længe siden, hvordan kunne du vide det?”

“I am originally, but that was a long time ago.  How could you tell?”

“Du har lidt af en accent, det har jeg sikkert også”

“There’s still a hint of the accent.  I’m sure I have it too.”

“Jeg kan desværre ikke høre det. Ikke med mindre man taler sådan her. Er du også fra Danmark?”

“I’m afraid I can’t hear home anymore, not unless it’s spoken like this.  You’re from there?”

“Der omkring. Navnene har allesammen forandret sig.”

“There abouts.  The names have all changed.”

“Det har de tendenser til. Det betyder ikke at vi er venner, det ved du vel?”

“They tend to do that.  This doesn’t make us friends, you know?”

“Hvad med at være venlig?”

“How about friendly?”

“Måske, hvis du kan holde din tiger i snor.”

“Perhaps, if you can put a leash on that tiger of yours.”

“Hun tilhører ikke nogen. Det er en del af problemet.”

“She’s no one’s.  That’s part of the problem.”

“Det siger mænd altid om stærke kvinder. Ja vel, jeg skal nok være . . . sød, hvis hun er.”

“Men always say that about strong women.  Alright, I’ll play . . . nicer.  But only if she will.”

There you have it.  The conversation, as provided to me . . . I mean the author by my wonderful expert Jan Christensen.

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Be Aggressive, B-E Aggressive

. . . and then everyone dies!
Write what you know.

That’s the old saw young, aspiring writers are given when they’re first starting out.  But writing about washing dishes, or folding laundry, or driving a car only gets you so far.  Eventually, you want your character to put down the TV remote, strap on a pair of SIG .45s and go toe-to-toe with a Big Bad Badass straight from the deepest pits of Hell.

Or maybe that’s just me.

The problem is, of course, that very few of us have real world experience with hand guns in combat situations, tactical training scenarios, or well, even demons—unless you met my last girlfriend.

Research can smooth over some of those rough edges in your writing knowledge, but even that will only get you so far.  This is where an expert comes into play.

You can trust me.  I'm an Expert!
I love experts.  Sword experts.  Knife experts.  Experts who climb on rocks!  Tell them you’re a writer working on a particular scene, and they get all warm and squishy inside, ready to share not just the knowledge you need, but paragraphs of information on how Hollywood and TV get it wrong, how writers fail 99.44% of the time, and how in the really-real world it would never happen that way.

Don’t get mad at an expert.  They’re like a cocker spaniel puppy—so happy and eager to help, but complete devoid of the tools to show it.  Here are six tips for working with an expert to really polish that scene or shine up that bit of dialogue to give a realistic feel to your writing.

Talk in Person
The interwebs and the Facebooks and the Tweeters are all great tools for communication . . . until they’re not.  Talking on the phone or better yet face-to-face is still the best way to get and receive information.  First, your expert will be flattered, especially if you lubricate the situation with a drink or three, or a nice steak dinner.  It’s a few bucks out of your pocket that goes some distance to showing how much you respect your expert’s time and information.  Also, the expert is less likely to start a whole rant if they can see “that look” on your face when the conversation starts to go off the rails.

Full Disclosure
There’s nothing worse than giving a bare bones description of scene, your particular writing problem and then hoping your expert understands.  There’s a reason your character is where she is, why she’s doing what she’s doing, and why the scene needs to play out the way it’s playing out.  That’s not what the expert is there for.  You’ll figuratively shoot yourself in the foot if you allow your expert to make assumptions which you’ll later need to correct.  It’s much, much better to pre-load your question with a little too much information, than leave your soon-to-be-former-friend guessing at aspects of plot and scene which will lead to frustration for both of you.

The Whole System is Out of Order
Don’t—I repeat DO NOT—argue with your expert.  Just say no.  It’s hot to not!  Arguing is
Yelling always makes an argument more compelling.
whack!  This should go without saying, and yet sweet and innocent authors will make the mistake of thinking that the world is one way, when actually it’s another.  Physics is physics, and science if science.  You can’t beat it no matter how good your rationale or how many times you try.  The MythBusters have made an entire career out of showing us that the rules are the rules, and what seems like “common sense” is often not.  If your story finds itself at odds with an expert’s advice, there’s no point in getting in a heated argument with them.  First, it’s disrespectful of the expert who has given you their time and effort.  But second, and most importantly, you’ll lose that expert outright, and, if it’s a forum discussion, you might turn off others from helping you in the future.  You’re not just a writer.  You’re THE writer.  If the real world doesn’t suit you, you change it.  Nod, smile and thank your expert for their opinion—then ignore it.  But it ignore it privately, within the confines of your writing.

Don’t I Know You From Roanoke Island?
About a year ago, Nathan Fillion and Alan Tudyk launched a crowdfunding campaign for their web series Con Man.  Watch one of these episodes and at the end you’ll see a stream of names, in alphabetical order, of the hundreds of folk who contributed to make the series happen.  Slow it down in the “McCandless” section and you’ll even see my name.  It’s that simple.  So simple, a cave man could do it.  Recognition is so easy.  Anyone who contributes
We're happy because of happiness.
to your writing, even in a small way, should get a quick mention.  Author acknowledgements are almost universally overlooked by readers—unless their name appears.  I actually read the acknowledgements, which are generally rife with inside jokes, and undecipherable personal asides.  The author has taken the time to give a shout out to show their gratitude and respect for those who provided assistance, and I like to honor that.  That’s just me though.  There’s no need to put yourself through the torture.  The thing to remember is to start an “Acknowledgements” file alongside your manuscript, and add to it when someone provides content.

Buy Their Love
For those experts who went the extra mile, be sure you do as well.  A signed copy of the book when it releases with a personal note is simple and classy.  If you’re not aiming for class though, feel free to include some alcohol in the package (especially if you’re sending it to me).  Beta team members should include, or at least be considered, experts.  They went above and beyond, so you should as well.

If you put it altogether, with your expert inputs woven into your story, those spiffy, shiny
All for me!/
details may get you a compliment like the one I received yesterday:

I enjoy the way McCandless . . . actually knows how guns work and how they should be used, and has characters who understand small group tactics. There's reason police use SWAT teams of 4 to 6 people to clear a house. We got a good lesson one tactical weekend when 36 of us, including several SWAT team members, used simulation and tried to clear a house with one shooter in it with one of us going in at a time. End of the day, shooter 36, the rest of us zero. Del was right to be nervous about trying to clear a place with a team of 3.

If a guy who knows what he’s talking about says that you do to, then you win!