Sunday, March 30, 2014

Germany on Mars in 1889, in The Dream Forge

Anders Blixt in Stockholm Sweden writes a thoughtful and entertaining blog entitled The Dream Forge, covering a wide range of fantasy and science fiction topics, with a heavy emphasis on steampunk/dieselpunk, and frequent articles covering Space 1889 world building. The other day he did a very nice piece on the German colonial venture on Mars. The illustration shows German colonial artillery supporting Schutztruppen in a skirmish with Hill Martians in Western Dioscuria. Here's the link. Check it out.

What I've Learned From The Less-Than-Brilliant (and Sometimes the Brilliant)

I try to read widely and sample a lot of different authors, genres, and styles. Lately I've been off on a different sort of reading jag: I've been reading bad science fiction which sells well.

Now, let me explain that. In my view it isn't really bad if it sells well, because we write these books to entertain, and if lots of people find a book entertaining, it has succeeded in its essential purpose. It has "lived a life worth living." That said, these books do not meet the normal standards for good writing, and I don't just mean for flowery literary fiction; I mean the standards for the genre itself, science fiction. Nevertheless they sell. So what's going on there? That's what I wanted to find out by reading them. I'm not a cynical guy and I have no contempt for my audience, so my baseline assumption here is that they are doing something right which readers recognize but lots of us writers don't.

I believe in reading good writing as an essential way of improving your own writing, and I'm by no means giving up on that. But it occurred to me that when you read an author who does everything right, it's hard to tell which of those brilliantly executed passages are critical to her success and which are pleasing but less essential. But when you read an author who does almost everything poorly, but whose books still find a wide readership, you can be pretty sure that whatever he's doing right is pretty important. And finding it isn't exactly like finding a needle in a haystack.

I won't tell you which authors I read for this experiment because I'm not in the business of running other authors down, even by means of faint praise. I'm not a critic, I'm a writer. But what did I find? Good characters? Absolutely not. At worst they were annoying stereotypes; at best they were skill sets with one quirk thrown in to make them "colorful." Great description? No. Strong sense of theme? Nope. Redemption and a moving character arc? No way. Exciting action scenes? Sometimes, but not always or even most of the time. Imaginative world building? Nuh-uh. Intricate, original plot? Pah!

No, here's what I found those writers were very, very good at: pacing.

The one thing they seem to know well is how to move a story along briskly, scene after scene after scene. They don't lumber the front of the story up with lots of backstory.( Sometimes this is because they don't seem to have thought much about backstory, but that's a different issue.) They don't have long draggy parts in the middle where characters flounder around for pages searching for meaning and fulfillment. Scene follows scene, conflict draws the reader along. They are, in short, "page turners," if nothing else. And to be honest, sometimes they are not much else, but they are at least that.

Coincidentally, not long after I finished that reading project I picked up Harlan Coben's "Tell No One," his very first New York Times best-seller from back in 2001. Coben has become a go-to guy for crime thrillers, a solid and respected genre author, and it was fun to read this early work of his. Man, does he know how to pace a book! Kept me up until 2:30 in the morning finishing it. He has a lot of other things going for him as well, but there are also some thin parts of the plot and some places where character motivation doesn't bear too critical an examination. But the pacing just sweeps you along past those and I mostly didn't notice until I thought more about it afterwards.

So what have we learned today? I am beginning to think pacing may be the single most important determinant of success in mass-market genre fiction, and by success I mean reader satisfaction. It is the beating heart of what keeps a reader reading, what keeps her involved in the story page after page..

And the great thing is that brisk pacing does not exclude any other technique. All the chops you can bring to bear on character, plot, setting, theme, and language don't get in the way of pacing one bit if you do them right. 

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Another Nice Review of How Dark The World Becomes


Here is a link to a nice review of How Dark the World Becomes from Astro Guyz, the science (with a heavy emphasis on astronomy) and science fiction blog by David Dickinson. This review hit last year but for some reason I missed it until just now. I like the fact that he picks up on the book's unique (or at least uncommon) treatment of humans in a multi-species confederation, i.e. we're on the bottom instead of the top.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

The Contest With No Prizes -- Lucky Winners Announced

Alas, there are no lucky winners. No one took me up on my generous offer of no prizes for figuring out the three word plays embedded in the short story "Murder on the Hochflieger Ost." For the curious, here are the answers.

You may recall that I said there were three embedded word plays. One involved an artifact, which I though everyone would get. One involved a location, which I thought would be harder. The last one, involving a character's name, I though would be all but impossible.

The Artifact
When explaining why the plans of the aether battleship are of no use to the French, Renfrew explains that they do not include the plans for the analytic engine which makes the ship so powerful. The analytic engine in question is the Improved Babbage, Model Three Hundred and Sixty.

IBM-360? Nobody caught that? Really?

The Location
Gabrielle's false business card lists the address of her appraisal firm as 13 Rue Madeleine, Le Havre, France. In the 1947 James Cagney World War II espionage film 13 Rue Madeleine, that is the address of Gestapo headquarters in Le Havre.  

The Name
Etienne Villon thinks of Gabrielle Courbiere as having the strength and majesty of a mountain, and when he thinks of her as Mont Courbiere he likes the sound of the name.

Francois Villon is probably the best-remembered French poet of the late middle ages, known probably as much for his remarkably adventurous life as for his writing, and his life formed the inspiration for Bertold Brecht's "Baal" and "Threepenny Opera," the Friml operetta "The Vagabond King", and the novel, play and film "If I Were King." Villon's birth name was probably Francois de Montcorbier.

He liked to sprinkle his poems with hidden jokes.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

The First Ten Pages

Mickey Spillane (an under-rated writer) once said that the first chapter of a book sells it and the last chapter sells the next book. There's a recognition in that as to how important the opening of a book manuscript is. It's not a secret. People have been talking about this through much of the twentieth century, with increasing urgency toward the end. Given the rapidly escalating volume of material turned out by aspiring authors, and the tightening of standards by publishers, getting through the agent and editor gatekeepers became an area of special knowledge all its own.

This has come to mind as I'm preparing (well in advance) to teach an introductory course on writing the novel later this year. This notion of the importance of beginnings may be the single most critical idea to communicate to aspiring authors, and I've been thinking a lot about how to go about it.

One of the books produced over a dozen years ago in response to the narrowing of opportunities for writers trying to break in was The First Five Pages by Noah Lukeman (2000, Simon & Schuster), a treasure-trove of useful no-nonsense advise to any fiction author, written from the perspective of what editors and agents look for as a key to rejecting, rather than accepting manuscripts. His point is simple and clear: most submissions are rejected for specific reasons which are found in the first five pages of the manuscript. Donald Maass in Writing the Breakout Novel (2001, Writer's Digest Books) makes a similar point, although he is prescriptive rather than proscriptive. He emphasizes what has to be established in those critical five pages rather than what has to be avoided.

So when I give craft talks at writers' groups, or sometimes when I critique a manuscript for someone, I'll frequently come back to the importance of a strong opening. Sometimes I get nods, but I can tell the person I'm talking to isn't completely sold. Readers need all this background information (they say, perhaps only to themselves) in order to understand the real story when it comes later. Besides (they say), many best-selling authors take their time getting started. Sure (I tell them) and when you're a best-selling author with a giant fan base, you can too. Until then, this is important.

But how important? Well, I think I finally know how to convince them. I was talking to another author in one of my writers' groups and his agent was telling him of an interesting development in publishing. Now that Barnes & Noble is effectively the only nationwide book chain, large publishers have a hard time making money from a traditionally-produced paper book unless B&N picks it up for their chain. A publisher needs that first big shot to justify the up-front investment in a print run. So at least one major publisher now has office space set aside for readers from B&N who vet manuscripts and give a thumbs-up or -down.

Now here's the really interesting part: they only read the first ten pages.

Before you go crazy with how unfair or unreasonable that sounds, remember that B&N knows how their customers shop. Customers come in to browse, they pick up a book, they read a few pages, and if it doesn't grab them, they return it to the shelf and move on.

I don't think they're crazy to think that. I've done exactly that many, many times. I remember picking up Michael Chabon's The Yiddish Policemen's Union (2007, Harper Collins), reading the first two pages, and immediately going to the checkout lane and buying it.

If anything, by giving authors ten pages instead of five, they are being generous.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Murder on the Hochflieger Ost part 2

Part 2 of the audio version of the short story "Murder on the Hochflieger Ost" is now up and available. Here's the link. It's at the end of the Baen Free Radio Hour, so you can fast forward if you want, but there's always interesting stuff in there you might not want to miss.

The picture to the left is a detail from the cover of The Forever Engine. Gabrielle, of course, did not have her shotgun with her on the Hochflieger Ost, much to her dismay.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Murder on the Hochflieger Ost Audio Podcast Part 1

Baen Books has produced an audio version of "Murder on the Hochflieger Ost," the short story prequel to The Forever Engine. They are serializing it in two parts and the first part is available at this link.  For those of you new to the blog, or just forgetful, "Murder . . ." is the story of the first covert assignment of the French spy Gabrielle Courbiere, the character who plays a very prominent role in The Forever Engine. She's actually my favorite character in the book, in part because she is so unusual. Those of you who have already read the story have an idea of what I mean by that.

When part two is up I'll post a link to it as well.