My Black Pages

One of the little bits of world building for the Unari Empire books that I had fun with was thinking through the newspaper situation in Cye. Given the steampunk(ish) setting, it’s the most plausible form of mass media and how it’s regulated says interesting things about the world. Hence, the “real” newspapers are known by how closely aligned they are with the Imperial regime, since to officially publish they need a literal seal approval.

When it came time to write Widows of the Empire I needed to expand my thinking a bit and figure what underground papers might look like and what they might be called. I settled on small papers crammed with type, so much that each page looked nearly black. Naturally, characters refer to them as the “black pages.”

This is not an accident.

Readers of The Water Road and its sequels know that I use a lot of musical references in my books. Lots of places in that series are named after musicians, the more obscure the better! The “black pages” are no different, as I’ve stolen the name from a song (or a few) by Frank Zappa.

Frank originally wrote “The Black Page” as a percussion feature, kind of on a dare. After an orchestral session, drummer Terry Bozio related that some of those players talked about the fear of facing “the black page,” prompting Frank to write his own. The song evolved from a short piece for drums and percussion into a song for a full band, in various guises.

In this video, musician Doug Helvering works through the first two versions of the song, with excerpts from the score to prove the that the song was well named:

A decade after that second version, the song morphed again, into a “New Age Version” that was performed on Zappa’s final tour:

Even laid back, it’s kind of a bear.

Names can be tricky for fantasy and science fiction writers. My suggestion – take inspiration wherever you can, even if it’s in an insanely complex song.

Why Not Just Write Fantasy?

Over the winter my wife and I discovered The Great*, the Hulu series about (very loosely) the early reign of Russian empress Catherine the Great.

While I’m not certain the series quite lives up to the title, it is very entertaining and, in spots, riotously funny. What it definitely lives up to is the little asterisk the end of the title (as displayed in the opening credits, at least), which notes it is either “An Occasionally True Story” (season one) or “An Almost Entirely Untrue Story” (season two).

This post is very much not going to take the show’s creators to task for playing fast and loose with history, particularly since they admit it up front. Truth is, literature and theater and film/TV is full of examples of historical persons or events remolded for dramatic purposes. I know Salieri didn’t really work Mozart to death (they were pretty good buds!), but I still love Amadeus. Dollars to donvts Julius Caesar did not turn to Brutus and “et tu, Brute?” him in real life, but Shakespeare makes it work.

But as a writer, I wonder about the choices other writers made when playing with history. History is full of lots of interesting story fuel, after all. I’ve used some of it myself. I’ve said before that the idea for the basic arc of The Water Road trilogy came from seeing an “on this day” thing on Wikipedia about the anniversary of Napoleon’s return from exile to start the Hundred Days. I thought that sounded like something out of a fantasy series – a vanquished foe returning to the world to wreak further havoc – and wheels started turning in my head.

What never occurred to me was the make the story about Napoleon. I didn’t want to tell his story, but another one that might have echoes of his. Being a fantasy writer that’s not an issue, but with more traditional fiction things can get complicated. After all, a made up character doing made up things is the grist of fiction – sometimes everything even happens in made up places. But a made up town or neighborhood is one thing, what about a made up country?

I got to thinking about this again due to this piece in the New York Times about the recent glut of true-crime limited series that are all over streaming services. Things like Netflix’s Inventing Anna and Hulu’s The Dropout (both pretty good, though I’d go with the latter) are telling true-crime stories of recent vintage that, in most cases, have been thoroughly aired in other settings (Inventing Anna came out of a long-form magazine piece, The Dropout from a podcast of the same name). I don’t agree that just because these stories have been told in other mediums means the fictionalized TV versions are superfluous (not everybody consumes podcasts), but the author makes an interesting point:

Now, it is absolutely true that real life does not always give you neat “Rosebud” explanations; real people are often simply jumbles of unresolved contradictions. But that’s one reason we have drama: to make emotional, if not literal, sense of this kind of figure. (Hence Orson Welles reimagined William Randolph Hearst as Charles Foster Kane.)

Indeed, it seems much easier if you want to tell a story about a particular kind of person to do it with a fictional character rather than a real-life one. Legal issues aside, it allows you to mold and shape the story as dramatic (or comedic!) stakes dictate, without worrying about people complaining that you’re not “getting it right.” After all, fantasy only has to be compelling, not accurate.

So why not, if you want to tell a story that pretty much set in a fantastic version of a historical place, why not make it fantasy? What’s the pull of using a historical figure whose actual history you’re going to discard anyway? I suppose it’s easier to market a series about Catherine the Great (who’s not that well know in the US, anyway) with an ahistorical twist than it is to sell a bloody, bawdy, fantasy series nobody’s heard of before.

As I said, it’s silly to get bent out of shape about The Great’s lack of rigorous historicity. They’re doing something much more fun and not even hiding the fact. Nonetheless, it does make you think.

Come, join us in our fantasy worlds. The water’s fine – unless that’s not what you want! Huzzah!

What Makes A Compelling Main Character?

Last week I started a book. The two main characters were from a different race and were essentially vampires, although they weren’t called that. It was kind of a romance, kind of coming of age, but it involved a lot of sex and murder, without any hint of conscience or consequence. Nor was there any other character trying to put a stop to it.

I didn’t finish the book.

I decided to bail because I couldn’t get into either of the main characters at all. It wasn’t that they were bad or did evil things – I don’t need the protagonist of every book to be a flawless hero (read The Water Road if you don’t believe me). But there has to be something there and it made me start to think about what we expect, as readers, from our main characters.

Stories are all about characters. Regardless of how inventive the world building or how labyrinthine the plot, if the people who are living in that world and doing those things don’t connect with readers than it’s kind of a wasted exercise.

Do main characters have to be good heroes who strive to do right and seem like really fun/nice people to be around? That’s certainly one way to go. Having your main character be someone who’s easy to root for makes it easy for readers to be swept away in their story. Those kinds of characters tend to be kind of dull, though, since they’re always doing the right things for the right reasons. Still, people generally want good to triumph over evil, so it’s one approach to take.

A more subtle approach would be to have a main character who has flaws and sometimes makes bad decisions, but who’s heart is basically in the right place. This is where most main characters fall, I think. Since I referenced The Water Road before I’d say that’s where Antrey belongs. She does a horrible thing, but spends the rest of the trilogy trying to make up for it and learn from it.

But what about bad guys? Anti-heroes? Can’t people identify with main characters who are generally doing wrong? Of course! It’s a much trickier situation.

One of my favorite main characters I’ve come across recently (and who I’ve mentioned recently) is Johannes Cabal, necromancer and start of the series that bears his name. Nobody would accuse Cabal of being a good guy – in fact, a lot of his troubles come from the fact that he’s fundamentally involved in wicked shit (when your first book involves making a second deal with the devil, you’re working overtime). Why do I like him? For one thing, he’s funny. He gives very few fucks about the people he comes across. That, I think, is key to having a main character who’s a bad guy – if they’re fun to watch do what they do, even if it’s evil, it’s easier to be on their side, so to speak. Also, deep down in Cabal’s core, he’s trying to do a good thing – cure the human race of the disease of death. It’s a laudable goal, even if the only way to get there is to slog through darkness.

Another way you can make a main character who does bad thing someone to root for is make their antagonist even worse. The wife and I stumbled across Freaks this weekend on Netflix. Neither a remake of the Tod Browning classic or an adaptation of the Marillion tune, it’s about a little girl with powers and a father trying to protect her. Not “evil,” particularly, but since the kid has no idea of her powers or personal boundaries she does some seriously bad things. That said, the government agency charged with hunting these people down was even worse. It’s easy to wish for a bad, but perhaps redeemable, character against someone who just wants to exterminate them.

I suppose the bottom line for any main character (or any character, really) is that readers have to be interested in them. Maybe not love them, but at least be curious about them and where they’re going. It’s easy to buy in with heroes and people trying to do good. But even people wandering around doing evil have to be interesting. If they’re not, why waste your time reading about them?

BondCat

Fantasy Doesn’t Have to Be “Accurate,” It Just Has to Be Compelling

A while back I wrote about how research can be important, and idea-provoking, when it comes to writing fantasy. The gut reaction might be that writing fantasy means you can just make everything up as you go along. It’s not that simple, but one of the joys of writing fantasy is the freedom it gives you to mold the world your story is set in to the needs of the story itself. That’s why questions like this bug me:

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That’s from one of the fantasy author Facebook groups I’m in. I chimed in asking for more information about what kind of time period we’re talking about, since the kind of rigorous border regulation we know today is a fairly recent invention. But more than that, I asked what the writer’s story needed? After all, it’s fantasy, so why be bound to mundane reality?

I think that when it comes to worrying about research in fantasy it comes in two flavors. One is research for inspiration – you’re not looking to see how things are or were done in order to have your characters do the same thing, but you’re trying to spark your own creativity. The most obvious case of this is reading history, which is full of bizarre and compelling story fuel that can be molded to fit just about whatever world your telling your story in.

An example of this is one I’ve mentioned before – the basic arc of The Water Road trilogy was inspired by reading about Napoleon’s 100 Days and thinking about how he was handled – exiled only to return – sounded like something that would happen to the bad guy in a fantasy series. What actually takes place in The Water Road is very different, but the bones of it are still there.

The other situation is the one where I think people get hung up sometimes, that is doing research about the right or correct or “accurate” way to do something. That’s a situation where you need to have a character do something or have something happen to the character and you want to make sure it feels right. That kind of research is good and necessary – you can’t really write fantasy without any research (including as “research” here knowledge you’ve already obtained) – but it’s important not to let the reality overwhelm the story.

As an example, the world of Gods of the Empire includes steam-powered autocars (of course it does, it’s steampunk!), but they’re mostly toys of the rich. So as part of his travels Aton gets to ride in one and I wanted to have a scene where he observed the startup of one of these things, to capture the kind of Rube Goldberg beasts that they are. I did some scrounging and found a very good video of someone going through the startup for an restored Stanley Steamer, originally built around 1911:

Cool, huh? It provided some great details that I was able to put into that part of the book, but I didn’t just take down what the guy did in the video and transport it to the book. Why? For one, while providing a glimpse of the startup routine is a nice way of deepening the world building it’s a grace note on the overall story, not a subplot – I didn’t want to divert for that long. For another, the character in my book wasn’t starting a Stanley Steamer, but rather a similar vehicle in a different world with differing technologies. In other words, I was only concerned about being accurate to my world, not the real world.

Research while writing fantasy is kind of like the old saw about knowing the rules of writing (or any artistic endeavor). It’s not important to know the rules to slavishly follow them, but it is important to know them so that when you break them you can think of why you’re breaking them and to what effect.

Say, for example, you want to have a two-feet-tall sprite in your story wield a long steel broadsword. Physics tell you that in the real world (assume a real world with sprites, people) that wouldn’t work – the sword is too big and too heavy for the sprite to pick up, much less wield. Does that mean it can’t happen because it would not be “accurate.” No! This is fantasy – anything can happen, if you want it to, but you need to figure out how, in your world, such a thing is possible. Maybe the sword is enchanted and can be wielded by anyone who is worthy? Maybe sprites are supernaturally for some cool reason in your world? It doesn’t matter, so long as you realize that some fanstaticking is going to have to happen.

Which, after all, is the point, right? One different between science fiction and fantasy is that fantasy is really only limited by your imagination. Sci-fi, at least in theory, is tethered to the realities of the real world, however much one can extrapolate from them. Fantasy not only lets you think outside the box, but blow up the box completely. It’s a great power to have, being able to mold the world to fit your story – why shouldn’t you use it every chance you get?

Wonka

On Judging A Book By Its Cover

The old saw is that you shouldn’t just a book by its cover. That’s a good rule of thumb when you’re dealing with people or if your presented with new ideas, but when it comes to actual books it’s kind of silly. Truth is a cover can often be someone’s first impression of a book and it can say several things about its contents, from the level of professionalism involved to the genre to particular aspects of the story or characters a reader might find intriguing.

Take, for example, the cover of The Water Road:

TWR Cover

That cover, I hope, tells you several things. Most notably, that this is the first book in a trilogy, so it’s part of an epic story. The background image and script mark it as fantasy, but the crossed muskets mark it as a different kind of fantasy – this isn’t your traditional sword and sorcery story. Without reading word one, you’ve got some idea of what to expect going in.

I don’t always pay that much attention to covers as a reader, since I do most of my reading via Audible listening and I rarely have the full-sized book in my hand. Not that covers never make a difference – one of my recent reads, Johannes Cabal: Necromancer, I got purely because the cover on the shelf at the bookstore drew me in (it was darkly funny – highly recommended). So, anyway, the blurb usually controls, as it did for Autonomous, by Annalee Newitz. Here’s the first half:

Autonomous features a rakish female pharmaceutical pirate named Jack who traverses the world in her own submarine. A notorious anti-patent scientist who has styled herself as a Robin Hood heroine fighting to bring cheap drugs to the poor, Jack’s latest drug is leaving a trail of lethal overdoses across what used to be North America—a drug that compels people to become addicted to their work.

Pretty cool, huh? I loved the idea of a rogue drug maker slipping through the high seas like a 21st-century Captain Nemo. But here’s the cover for Autonomous:

Autonomous_Design by Will Staehle

Does that really match the blurb? It doesn’t and, turns out, for good reason. Autonomous (which is pretty good – I recommend it) really isn’t about Jack so much as it is the beings in her orbit, particularly the robots and other enhanced beings. The book is really about their place in the world and what it means to really be free (or not). Hence the title. Hence the mechanical arm in chains. Hence some of my disappointment with the book itself.

Which is to say that covers can be tricky things. We, as authors, want people to judge our books by them – judge them as worthy of picking up, of clicking on, of reading. But they’re also a first impression, something you only get one chance to make. The right cover is a high wire act, one that most of us aren’t comfortable performing without a net.

At Long Last, the Entire Saga of The Water Road In One Handy Package

Very happy to announce that how, instead of buying three separate books to digest the entire story of Antrey, Strefer, and The Water Road, you can now get them in one convenient package. Presenting The Complete Water Road Trilogy box set:

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This is the series readers have called “magnificent,” “excellent,” “exciting,” and “engrossing.”

This version is only available in eBook format. And for April, it’s on sale for just 99 cents! Get one in your preferred format at the links below.

Amazon
Barnes & Noble
Kobo
iBooks
Scribd

Writing Resolutions for 2018

Happy New Year, everybody!

Happy-New-Year-Memes

I figured now was as good a time as ever, and this as good a place as any, to set out some goals for the 2018 writing year. I’ve done the same in the past in private and it’s a good way to crystallize my plans, even if they don’t all come off in the end. So, what’s on the agenda for this year?

The Water Road Box Set

Now that The Water Road trilogy is complete, it only makes sense to put together an omnibus version that combines all three books in one convenient package.

2017-525 Front Page Box Set

The plan is to make the box set a Kindle exclusive, thus returning The Water Road trilogy to Kindle Unlimited. The individual books would still be available from Amazon and all other outlets.

Interviews

Last year I decided to try and do some interviews with other writers. I’ve done a few and thought they were fun and interesting and wanted to see if I could repay the favor. I wound up doing 19 interviews with all kinds of writers from all over the world. It was such a rewarding experience that I’m going to do more this year. I’ve already got about a half dozen people lined up.

More Short Stories

I’ve got a couple of finished short stories that need to find homes, so I’ll keep trying to shop those around. I’ve also got a pretty decent backlog of short story ideas, so while I’m polishing longer works I’m planning to knock out a few new short stories. Someday, down the road, there will be enough to make releasing a second collection of short stories a reality. It will include a couple of stories set in the universe of The Water Road.

Speaking of collections, look for The Last Ereph and Other Stories to get a spiffy new cover (done by someone who is not me) sometime this year, too.

Orb of Triska Polishing

Last year, you’ll recall, I finished the first draft of a novel in a new series, The Orb of Triska. My main job for 2018 will be getting that polished up and finished. Once that happens, I’m not quite sure what the next step will be. I may get it ready for publishing, with an eye toward releasing it in 2019. I may sit on it until another book or two (of the planned seven) is done. Or I may shop it around to see if any agents/publishers are interested. A lot will depend on when it’s “done” and how I’m feeling about it then.

Write The Scepter of Maril

Regardless of what becomes of The Orb of Triska one goal for later in the year is to start work on the second book in the Empire Falls series, The Scepter of Maril. If all goes well, it should be my NaNo project for 2018.

I think that about covers it. If you’re wondering about a certain other project I’ve talked about before – I’ll have some info about that in a couple of days.

All 99-cents All Month!

To celebrate the successful end of NaNoWriMo, and in an attempt to spread a little bit of holiday cheer, I’ve lowered prices on all my books to 99 cents across all platorms for the entire month of December!

That includes Moore Hollow, the entire The Water Road trilogy, and even my short story collection, The Last Ereph and Other Stories.

Get ‘em for a friend, get ‘em for yourself!

100 Books – Only 99 Cents Each – This Weekend Only

If you’re a fan of science fiction and fantasy and are looking for your next favorite read, head right on over here:

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That’s right, 100 books, just 99 cents each. Many (including The Water Road) are available across multiple platforms, including Kindle, Nook, and iBooks. There’s something for every taste, from space opera and steampunk to epic fantasy and horror. There’s even a collection of sci-fi and fantasy for younger readers.

This deal only lasts until the end of this weekend – so get over there and get clicking!