“The Mask” is one of the stories from my collection The Last Ereph and Other Stories. It’s about a guy, a girl, and the creepy titular mask. Now you can hear it via the Flash Fiction Podcast. They’ve done a great job with it (aside from not getting my last name right!). Click here to check it out on their site, or check out the YouTube version below:
Years ago I wrote a review of an album by an obscure (even by prog standards) band. It was a middling album and I gave it a middling review. Fairly soon after I got a hateful email from one of the band members taking issue with the review. Aside from one factual thing I got wrong (which I changed) the rest was an odd mix of special pleading and attempts at sympathy. They put themselves out there, shouldn’t that count for something? Didn’t I care that another band member had just died and wasn’t it a shitty thing to do to write a less than positive review at that time (as if the obituary made it outside the band’s local area). It was an interesting experience.
And an understandable one. After all, once a creative person looses something on the world it’s inevitable that somebody, somewhere isn’t going to completely fall in love with it. Dealing with negative opinions of your work is just par for the course. If you can’t handle that, don’t publish books, release albums, or put your paintings on display for all to see.
Given that, the general wisdom in the writing world is that a writer absolutely, should not, never under any circumstances, respond to a review. Down that path lies madness. Even if there’s a clear error in there somewhere, it’s better to just let it go than be perceived as some thin-skinned artist whose feelings have been hurt. Because guess what? Nobody cares – unless they care enough to laugh at you.
Naturally, there’s an exception to that rule. At least if your Martin Scorsese.
Scorsese’s last film, Silence, wasn’t the critical darling and commercial success I’m sure he’d hoped for (full confession – haven’t seen the move, read the book a long time ago). In particular, a review in the Times Literary Supplement in the UK caught his eye. Scorsese decided to respond, both to correct a factual inaccuracy and to take issue with something the reviewer said.
“Bad move!” you cry! Not quite – as a result of Scorsese’s letter to the editor, he was invited to write an entire column unpacking the philosophical issue in the review he’d taken issue with. And, verily, there was no storm of shit produced by it. So how did he get away with violating this golden rule?
For one thing, he’s Martin Scorsese. He’s entitled to a little bit of leeway. Having said that, fame doesn’t prevent things going wrong, so there must be something else.
And it’s this – although Scorsese responded to a review, he didn’t complain about the review’s verdict of his work. He made two discreet points – one factual and irrelevant to the film’s merits, one philosophical that dealt with issues well beyond whether Silence was a good movie or not. In other words, he actually engaged, constructively, with what the critic said. He didn’t get defensive.
As I’ve said more than a few times – reaction to art is personal and nobody’s opinion of a piece of art can really be “wrong.” So it’s pointless to take negative reactions personally. Constructive engagement is one thing – hair-on-fire literary retaliation is entirely different.
Still, there’s a reason that the rule about responding to reviews is one that almost everyone can agree with. Think of it this way – if you’re tempted to write something about a negative review of your work, ask yourself, “am I Martin Scorsese?” Chances are, you aren’t. Act accordingly.
Well have I got some news for you, dear readers.
For the past couple of years the eBook versions of all my books have been available exclusively through Amazon (including via Kindle Unlimited). I’ve decided to try something different and expand my reach a bit, so I’m happy to announce that starting right now, everything – The Water Road trilogy, Moore Hollow, even The Last Ereph and Other Stories – is now available all across the Internet at places like Barnes & Noble, iBooks, and Scribd.
So if you’re a non-Kindle eBook fan, here’s where to get everything:
The Water Road Trilogy
The Water Road
The Endless Hills
The Bay of Sins
The Last Ereph and Other Stories
In addition, if you buy any of my books in paperback, you’ll get a Kindle version absolutely free!
As for the inspiration for the title of this post – take it away Nick!
This time we head all the way down under to talk with urban fantasist Brhi Stokes.
Who are you? Where are you? What kind of stuff do you write?
My name is Brhi Stokes, I’m an Australian author with an upcoming novel to be released within the next month or two. I write short stories and novels, predominately.
Tell us about your most recent book, story, or other project.
I am currently finalizing a novel for release, Caligation.
Caligation follows the story of Ripley Mason, university dropout and newly-fledged hitchhiker, as he travels north from his home. When he awakens after a car accident, he find himself in a strange city filled with horrific beasts and a population of people with strange abilities. In a desperate attempt to figure out where he is or how he can find his way home, he becomes embroiled in the dealings of the Cavanetti mob; an organization of dangerous men and women with preternatural powers. He quickly finds himself in over his head and his search for home becomes a race against time.
In what genre do you primarily write? Why did you choose that one?
My favourite genres are sci-fi and fantasy, both modern and traditional, and I’ve written stories that fill both. I definitely have a soft spot for urban fantasy and thoroughly enjoy writing it; the idea that there’s something hidden away in our mundane world absolutely fascinates me. However, I have also been dabbling in young adult fantasy (a more traditional medieval-style fantasy setting) lately, as well.
Tell us briefly about your writing process, from once you’ve got an idea down to having a finished product ready for publication.
I’ve tried several different writing processes. My first novel-length work was written from scratch and I found it very difficult to go back through edits without a guide. Caligation was a setting I had in my head for years and had been struggling to find a proper narrative for. Eventually, I came up with the idea and made use of the Snowflake method, so that I had everything ready to go (including an excel spreadsheet of every ‘scene’ before I tried writing it). I found that I quite like this method as you start small (at one sentence) and work your way up so that, by the end of your process, you already have your summary and blurb.
For my latest endeavour, however, I used a combination (and I think this is my preferred method). I put pen to paper and wrote out the first few scenes, letting ideas form naturally as I wrote. Then, I began to jot down a few ideas I had for the world in a separate document. As I wrote, more ideas for plot came to me so I had, essentially, two documents to work on simultaneously: the story itself, and a separate file with information. In the information file, I wrote down a brief summary of every scene as I wrote it, along with the plan for the plot. That way, it was much easier to re-arrange scenes, figure out what was going on and generally be able to keep track of a plot outline.
I go through several editing phases, preferring them to take a year or longer as I find that taking long breaks from a finished work really helps my editing process. I usually do a general read-through for plot and consistency, then a line edit (for style and form), and then a copy edit (for grammar and spelling errors). Then I hold off for a bit, maybe a month or so. After that, I re-read and see if it’s still up to par and ensure every line sounds perfect. Then, I get other authors and readers to give it a read-through (ideally, one general read for cohesion and plot, and then a copy edit). There’s a few more of those edits (me, then other, then me, etc) until I’m completely satisfied.
That’s when I start organizing publication.
What is the “Snowflake method”? I’ve seen that referenced a couple of times here and there but never gotten a good explanation.
The snowflake method was developed by a man named Randy Ingermanson. The basic concept is that you write it out like a snowflake – you start with a very small idea and you grow and expand it out in each direction until you have a completed work. It consists of ten steps where you start very simply: step 1 tells you to write out a one-sentence summary of your book, for example. Then, as the steps progress, you add to that. You build on the sentence until you have a paragraph, that moves into three paragraphs with each detailing the classic “problem, characters make problem worse, characters resolve problem” dynamic as it suggests. I found it interesting because you really end up with a well-planned book – one of the steps involves making an excel file of every ‘scene’ in the book that you use when writing. It also suggests character-building exercises and so on. It’s a hard topic to delve into without me explaining the entire process, but I hope that helps clear it up a little.
I probably won’t use the entire method again, myself, and it definitely doesn’t work for everyone. However, it is a great place to start if you’re completely lost, and I will definitely incorporate some of its method in my future book-planning.
You mention having the setting of Caligation for a while before you found a proper narrative for it. I think that’s a common issue with sci-fi/fantasy writers – you come up with a nifty idea for a world to set a story in but no actual story. Is the story you wound up writing for Caligation something that you decided to stick in that world or did it derive from the world itself that you had built?
I had to alter the setting a bit to work as a book, rather than a roleplay site, but I definitely ended up making a story for Caligation, rather than making a story to insert into Caligation. I actually struggled a little bit at times because I would use the main character, Ripley, too much as a vehicle for showing off the world, rather than engaging with his emotions and feelings. It took a lot of thought and editing of the first draft to remedy this, but I am definitely glad I recognized the problem early on.
It was a difficult task, trying to make a compelling story that fit into the world and interacted with it in a meaningful way. Originally, I was thinking of just having a story in the world, but then I didn’t get to explore some of the stranger aspects of the place, because a character in the world would be used to them. It was a lot of fun having someone unfamiliar with the world there and able to question it, and I think it serves to assist the reader in answering questions that never would have been answered if the main character was from Caligation.
Who is the favorite character you’ve created? Why?
This is tricky question. A lot of the characters I have in Caligation were based on an old role-playing site I created (and from where the idea formed) so a few of them have been sitting in my head for eight or nine years.
I’d say at the moment, though, I’m having the most fun with one of the characters in the YA fantasy I’m playing around with. The story follows a young woman who is placed in the tutelage of one of the five masters of the magical domains: Master Adimai. Adimai is a cold, stern and generally rather unfriendly man with a dark sense of humour. He fits into your general haughty, jerk mage trope and I’m very fond of writing him. The story is from the perspective of the young woman so I have a lot of fun writing their interactions because a lot of what Adimai says and does is not really very well understood by her. Having a bit more insight into his mind, for me, makes it very amusing when she gets the wrong idea, or is generally just confused or upset by him. Plus, writing jerks is fun.
I’m intrigued by the city of Caligation. Since you mention urban fantasy I’m assuming it’s a modern place? Or is it a kind of “lost city” in the middle of the outback? Or is it in some other place completely?
As the tagline on my site describes, Caligation is “…a city where spiraling gothic towers meet modern glass monoliths. Where the slums of the South are stalked by indescribable beasts.” Ripley notices that it seems to shift from being reminiscent of the 20s, to the Victorian era. It’s a wild mix of both, with technology not quite as advanced as ours and strange fashion. Modern towers mingle alongside old factories and gothic churches, while cars drive down cobbled streets and rotary phones hang in old street boxes.
It’s unclear to Ripley where the city is, but he seems to realize quite quickly that it’s not in his homeland. He actually considers it being some ancient, lost city in the outback (as you queried) but dismisses the thought.
What’s the weirdest subject you’ve had to research as a writer that you never would have otherwise?
Nothing too exciting, I don’t think. A lot of anatomy stuff for the things I wrote when younger. Nothing out of the ordinary, I’m afraid.
What’s the one thing you’ve learned, the hard way, as a writer that you’d share to help others avoid?
Don’t be afraid to put down a piece of writing you’ve spent years on and just let it go. It sucks, and it’s hard, but sometimes you just need to move on from it and start again with something new. I did that with my first novel, one I’d written as a teenager (and gotten halfway through the sequel). I tried very hard to beat that dead horse, to the extent that I rewrote the entire 100,000+ word book to try and fix it. It didn’t work and, in the end, I had to move on. I actually stopped writing for a few years after that, but I’m back into it, now. So, that: learn when to let go and don’t let it put you off writing.
If you won $1 million (tax free, to keep the numbers round and juicy), how would it change your writing life?
To be honest, I’d probably keep doing what I’m doing as far as work and writing amount goes. I’d get a little more experience in publishing then probably use the funds to set up an indie publishing company. I love editing other people’s work, so I’d probably offer those sorts of services, too.
What’s the last great book you read or new author you discovered?
I love anything by Neil Gaiman, and I recently finished Norse Mythology, which I would definitely recommend. But if you’re looking for an urban fantasy that’s not quite as well known, I would definitely recommend the Watch series by Sergei Lukyanenko. He’s a Russian author with a fantastically translated writing style and a great setting.
What do you think you’re next project will be?
I smashed out about 30,000 words at the end of last year in the space of about a month (the YA fantasy). It’s not my usual genre, and certainly not something I had expected to write, but I would love to be able to get back into it and finish it. If it does end up being published and becoming a series, it will focus on five young men and women who have recently graduated from the royal university of their kingdom and are placed in the tutelage of the five masters of the magical domains. Unfortunately for the young graduates, their plans are sent awry when the king decrees that they will be taught by the master of their weakest domain, instead. Neither masters nor students are particularly happy with the arrangement and the year of study will be both a trial and a great learning experience.
Ideally, each of the five books will focus on a different student, master and domain. So far, I’ve been writing book one: The Element of Chaos which follows Seraphine as she struggles to hone her acuity with the chaotic domain, under the teachings of Master Adimai.
Visit Brhi online here.
It was big news this week that 7 percent of Americans think chocolate milk comes from brown cows. However, as Ilya Somin points out over at The Volokh Conspiracy, 7% really isn’t that bad. All surveys suffer from communication issues – people don’t understand the question, people fuck with the pollster, etc. – which is why they all have margins of error. Besides, check out the other dumb shit many more Americans believe:
Sadly, there are numerous far worse examples of public ignorance out there, including many about far more consequential issues. The 7 percent figure pales in comparison with the 25 percent who don’t know the earth orbits the sun, the 66 percent who can’t name the three branches of government, and – my personal favorite – the 80 percent who support mandatory labeling of food containing DNA. I cover these examples and many others like them in my book on political ignorance .
I particularly like the one about DNA. But how about these whoppers:
More than twice as many (18%) thought the sun revolved around the Earth (the numbers were similar in Germany and the UK)
Way more than that (42%) believe God created humans as they are today and the Earth is only around 10,000 years old – we’re not talking about “Genesis as metaphor” here, this is hard-core young-earth creationism.
Somin’s take on all this (as it is with so many things) is that people are rationally ignorant about them because either they don’t really matter (who cares where chocolate milk comes from so long as it keeps showing up on store shelves?) or there’s nothing to be gained from acting on them (one vote is a piss in a stiff wind, so why bother taking time to educate yourself before casting it?). I think there’s another possibility – that however far we think we progress as a species, we really haven’t improved all that much. As Frank Zappa said, we are “dumb all over, and maybe even a little ugly on the side).
Apologies also to Zappa for riffing on a line from this for the title.
A while back over at Electric Lit, Lincoln Michel wrote a lengthy article called “Against Worldbuilding,”* in which he argues that authors and readers are so enamored by the details of literary worlds that they lose focus on the actual story being told. What he says isn’t wrong so much as it is a game of definitional Léger de main. Along the way, Michel engages in some low-key genre bashing.
Let’s get out of the way what Michel gets absolutely right – some writers get so wrapped up in the worlds they create, in the details and minutiae of them, that the story, characters, and all the other important stuff kind of disappear in a puff of imagination. This happens, no doubt (although I wonder how many writers follow the advice of one person Michel links to who thinks it’s important what shapes the tables are in a given world). The problem isn’t an overbuilt world per se, it’s the fact that, as Michel puts it, things turn out like “they were producing an encyclopedia instead of a story.”
Where Michel goes wrong is in deciding that such deep diving and navel gazing is what “worldbuilding” is. Also, that it’s something that’s limited to certain particularly pulpy genres like science fiction and fantasy.
But the fact is that every author – even writers of non-fiction – have to build worlds with their words. Hell, I have to do it when I write legal briefs, much less when I write fiction. That’s because unless you’re writing for the small subset of people who know exactly what you’re talking about you have to do some foundational work of explaining the place where your tale is taking place. As I said several years ago in a review of the first season of Mad Men:
What is more fascinating to me about Mad Men is the world these characters live in. When people talk about world building they usually are talking about sci-fi or fantasy writers, who build new universes and worlds from the ground up. But the truth is, every writer of fiction (whether on the page or screen) has to pay attention to world building. Thus, just because Mad Men is set in a real time and place from our recent past doesn’t mean the creators can shirk on the details that lend the world depth and credibility.
Another example that springs to mind is Karen Connelly’s The Lizard Cage. It’s a story about a political prisoner in Burma and what he has to do to survive. It’s not a translation – it was not originally written in Burmese. It was written in English, presumably for an audience in the English-speaking world. A world that, most likely, isn’t familiar with the horrors of a Burmese prison camp or the kind of Buddhist rituals that might help a person stay sane in such a place. There’s lots of worldbuilding going on there, there has to be if the story Connelly tells is going to have any kind of resonance. By contrast, I just started Liu Cixin’s The Three Body Problem and it drops you right in the middle of the Cultural Revolution without any worldbuilding at all – but it was originally written in Chinese, so I expect that audience didn’t need any of that heavy lifting.
Perhaps aware of this fact, Michel performs a little magic. He walls off “worldbuilding” in the genre ghetto and instead says what literary writers do is “worldconjuring.” That is:
Worldconjuring does not attempt to construct a scale model in the reader’s bedroom. Worldconjuring uses hints and literary magic to create the illusion of a world, with the reader working to fill in the gaps. Worldbuilding imposes, worldconjuring collaborates.
In other words, worldconjuring . . . builds worlds, it just does a better job of them. This is linguistic slipperiness not seen outside of Earthforce:
What Michel has done is taken something that is definitional and turned it into a qualitative judgment – it’s the same thing as people who say “rap isn’t really music” when what they really mean is “I don’t like rap.” Fair enough, but whether you like something or not doesn’t change what it actually is (see, also, the infamous Roger Ebert v. video games dust up or any endless circle jerk on what “prog” is). All Michel has done is give what he perceives as “good” worldbuilding a different name. It doesn’t change the fact that it’s the same damned thing.
As I said at the beginning, Michel’s real point is solid – for some writers (and readers), worldbuilding runs roughshod over everything else. That sucks. But when it doesn’t and it’s transporting and wondrous and visceral – it’s still worldbuilding. It’s just worldbuilding done write. Everybody who picks up a pen to tell a tale has to do it – here’s hoping we get it right more than we get it wrong.
* NOTE: Word really wants “worldbuilding” to be two words, but since that’s how Michel spelled it I’ll keep it that way.
One of my favorite Monty Python sketches – a “deep track,” if you will – is one where the whole crew (even Neil Innes) engage in suitably breathless election result reporting. Along the way we learn the fates of the Sensible party, the Silly party, and, eventually, the Very Silly party:
I’ve always assumed that was just satire about the pointlessness of politics. Little did I know that this was closer to a situation of art imitating life than I could imagine.
In the wake of the recent British elections, Christa over at Lawyers, Guns & Money tells us the tale of Lord Buckethead, occasional candidate for parliament. Lord Buckethead comes from a low-rent rip off of Star Wars and looks about like you’d expect a generic Darth Vader with a bucket on his head to look like. Freed from the service of that second-rate narrative, Lord Buckethead has run for Parliament three times since 1987 – all against Tory Prime Ministers.
Now, you might be thinking that even in the United States we have our share of nutty candidates who file papers. What’s different is that in this country we make sure nobody actually sees them during the process. By contrast, in the UK, Lord Buckethead (and whoever the Very Silly party is running) get to be on stage with the “real” candidates when the results are announced. As a result, things like this happen:
How would Lord Buckethead fare in American politics? Hard to say, but he’d at least have to find a different name. We’ve already got a strange guy with a bucket on his head – and he’ll shred all over that stove-pipe motherfucker’s ass:
A couple of weeks ago a pair of generally reliable box office draws – Johnny Depp & Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson – opened big, summer, popcorn movies. Their offerings – Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales and Baywatch – did not do great box office business (about $63 million on a $100 million budget and $28 million on $60 million, respectively). Perhaps that’s not surprising, if you look to the review aggregator site Rotten Tomatoes, which currently gives each film a “freshness” rating of 29% and 20%, respectively.
One might think this would lead to some serious analysis on the part of the studios involved, searching for what the problems were with these two movies. Well, they’ve analyzed and they’ve found the problem, all right:
At least that’s the way this Slate piece spins the spin coming out of Hollywood. It highlights the argument that those movies (and your other typical summer blockbusters) “aren’t built for critics but rather general audiences.”
This is almost certainly true. Critics see movies in bunches and absorb more cinema in a year than most people will in a lifetime. The tropes, story beats, and such that show up in lots of movies have to wear on someone who watches so many. By contrast, somebody who goes to the movies every now and then has different expectations. A couple of hours of entertainment, sealed away from the troubles of the world, is a fine enough thing. More than that, in the era of streaming where you can watch a movie at home for a lot less than going to the theater the reduced cost of entry might lower expectations (I’ll catch something on Netflix I’d never pay $10 to see in the theater).
What’s funny is that just a couple of years ago critics were the ones worrying about the disconnect between themselves and audiences.
While I agree with the Slate piece that it’s silly for studios to single out Rotten Tomatoes as the cause of their problems – and float the idea of doing away with advance critic screenings in the process – that article overlooks an important bit of context from the original Deadline story upon which it’s riffing:
In the case of Pirates 5, I hear that the movie had the highest test scores in the history of the series. Once audiences get into the movie, they seem to be enjoying it with an A- CinemaScore, higher than the B+ of On Stranger Tides and in line with the second title Dead Man’s Chest and At World’s End, and an 82% positive score. The franchise is still fresh abroad, and given its glorious overseas opening, the movie will certainly be profitable for Disney with an anticipated final global haul of $800M-$900M.
Meanwhile, Baywatch tested over a 91 three times.
In other words, it seems like the issue is the same thing critics worried about years ago – the disconnect between those writing the reviews and those watching the movies for fun. Which, although it’s a thing, isn’t an iron clad law. After all, the critics love Wonder Woman (93% fresh) and have previously shown love for such crowd-pleasing fare as Deadpool (84%), Rogue One (85%), Moana (96%), and Star Trek Beyond (84%). Furthermore, even movies that aren’t critically praised are rarely as panned as Baywatch and the new Pirates. So, maybe, if people stay away from big popcorn movies that are poorly reviewed it’s for a good reason.
Look, review aggregators aren’t the most subtle of instruments (I disagree with the Slate piece that they’re a “boring and ugly way to think about art,” however). At best they give you an idea of what the general critical consensus is about something, at least at the extremes. But they lack the nuance of actual reviews. It’s often more important to the ultimate decision (should I spend my time/money on this entertainment?) why a critic does or doesn’t like a movie than the simple thumbs up or down verdict. That’s why I recommend reading the same few critics regularly, even about movies you don’t think you’re interested in, to learn their likes and dislikes.
Like it or not, review aggregators are here to stay. They’re a fact of life in the modern world. Blaming Rotten Tomatoes (or Metacritic or whatever) is easy scapegoating. But it’s just that. Trying to keep the public at large from knowing what other people think of your movies before they buy a ticket is the height of arrogance.
Over Memorial Day weekend I got to participate in a con for the first time.
No, not this kind of con.
Specifically, Vandalia-Con up in Parkersburg, which is specifically a steampunk-themed con.*
“But wait,” you say, “you don’t really do steampunk, do you?”
Well, actually: (1) I have; (2) I’m getting ready to do it again (details coming!); and (3) I figured that steampunk fans might be interested in gunpowder fantasy like The Water Road. At the very least, it would be an interesting fact finding mission. So what did I learn?
First, before I go any further, I want to say that everyone I interacted with at Vandalia-Con – from the organizers to the attendees to the other vendors – were great, friendly, fun people. As a clear outsider (a DC United jersey does not constitute steampunk cosplay) and newbie at all this I couldn’t have felt more at home.
To my eyes, this con was mostly about embracing the steampunk “lifestyle,” as opposed to the celebration of any particular work of steampunk fiction. Most of the other vendors were selling clothes, jewelry, and the like. Aside from a couple of presenters who also had some books for sale the only other person selling “content” was a small publisher of sci-fi and fantasy books.
And, oh, the fashion. I was impressed by the wide variety of detail applied to different costumes. Guys seem to have it easier than women. A vest and top hat will suffice for the fellas, while the ladies seem doomed to bustiers and bustles (and very tiny hats – for some reason). To each their own, I guess, but it looks very uncomfortable from where I’m sitting. But as I said – that was while in a not-at-all-chic DC United jersey (although it did get some love from one of the hotel staff, even if he is a Crew fan).
But the primary reason I was there was to try and sell some books and drive some people to my mailing list. On that front, the con didn’t really meet my expectations. As I said, I think most people there weren’t really interested in consuming content, but having fun dressing up and what not. Which is totally cool – but it’s not a great setup for an author trying to move some copies. I did sell a few (one woman – complete in bustier and bustle – bought a complete set of The Water Road trilogy) and got some mailing list sign ups, but not enough to offset the investment (hotel costs, mostly). But when considering what kind of event you’re going to, it’s worth trying to figure out what the audience of regular attendees is like – you may have brilliant widgets for sale, but if nobody’s really interested in widgets it won’t make much difference.
Unfortunately, that’s the kind of mercenary mentality I have to have these days. Which is a shame, because the weekend was a lot of (expensive) fun. Thanks for being my first, Vandalia-Con!
* Note that none of these photos – even the first one – were actually taken at Vandalia-Con. I can’t find any of those online and my phone pics didn’t turn out well enough to use. All images via Wikimedia Commons.