Sunday, November 24, 2013

It's Been a Grand Weekend

Especially for Whovians. Also those still mourning the passing of John Fitzgerald Kennedy--now that's a morbid cosmic coincidence. And somewhere between joy and tragedy lie the Hobbit fans, with the Battle of Five Armies also falling on November 23rd (warning: may be spoilers through the wikia link).

For me, it's also been the culmination of several weeks of intense labor, interspersed with perhaps more procrastination than strictly speaking necessary. And also with my awesome part-time internship blogging for Amani DC, including this announcement of our new local job skills training program, a piece I've felt especially proud of. Unfortunately, in blogging for them I'm afraid blogging for myself has sometimes slipped my mind.

I've also found little to blog about, and, again, haven't had a lot of time for it--all because these past weeks have been filled by my last push to finish the Starter Guide for Professional Writers. And, as of this weekend, I've done it!

This is much, much later than I expected or would have preferred to finish it, although there's a reason even for that. As I wrote the second draft, I expanded in a lot of areas, not least to include my lessons from running crowdfunding campaigns and preparing to self-publish through CreateSpace and Smashwords. The Starter Guide is more than twice as long as I planned--90,000 words instead of 40,000! Hopefully this means it will have even more useful information for writers on finishing, editing, publishing, and promoting their stories!

It still needs to undergo a final copyedit and  formatting, but I assume I will be able to release and distribute it not longer after I return from Thanksgiving. I'll be visiting my family after a particularly rough summer, so we'll see how that goes. There are many people back in Wisconsin that I miss--and I'll also be meeting some fellow Whovian friends at the Chicago TARDIS convention the weekend of December 1st. Paul McGann will be there, and so, of course, will Plushie Eighth Doctor (for non-Whovians, that's McGann's character).

(That's the little guy sitting on the shoulder of the woman in the picture. As for that woman, um, I'm not quite sure who she is, but she's wearing a devilishly stylish shirred tunic from One Mango Tree, Fair Trade apparel carried in the Amani DC store. I need to do a fashion post someday, although being ~fashionable is quite the new experience for me.)

Once publishing the Starter Guide is out of the way, I'll be devoting my energy to more systematically approaching my job search. In the meantime, I'm also seeking more freelance editing gigs, and you can find me on Fiverr and Elance. I admit, I'm pretty delighted to score in the top 5% for Creative Writing testers on Elance.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Review: "Collegium Sorcerorum: Thaddeus of Beewicke" by Louis Sauvain

Another prize from the LibraryThing giveaways program, this one even came with a courteous letter from the author himself. I'm always one to be impressed by presentation, and the presentation of this book was fine indeed: I was especially impressed by the dozen or so illustrations by Sean Bodley scattered throughout the text. The back matter was also quite impressive: 40 pages of Dramatis Personae (not as excessive as it first appears if these characters continue to play a part in this 9-book planned series) and another 10 pages of glossary that, while not necessary to understand most of the book, will prove helpful if you need to brush up on your Latin.

The full title at the least should prepare you for the Latin and the epic scale. Although my favorite bit is Beewicke. It's just adorable. Don't tell Thaddeus, though--he hails from the village of Beewicke, appropriately renowed for its honey, and he is highly sick of hearing about it (a running gag that just managed to not annoy the reader as much as it does Thad).

Collegium Sorcerorum: Thaddeus of Beewicke

For all its epic promise, though, this first story of the saga is smaller in scale. Its focus lies mainly on young Thaddeus, a boy who shows promise in magic; his new teacher Master Silvestrus, and his fellow apprentices Anders (a likeable bookworm) and Rolland (a redheaded thief who has quite a bit of character development to undergo, and, with the help of his travelling companions and a few amusing hijinks, does). Plus the talking mule, Asullus. The mere fact of a talking animal doesn't bother me much, and Asullus actually has plenty of sound advice for the new wizards, but his Scottish (mulish?) accent is transcribed, and that becomes painful after hundreds of pages (and he does talk for pages upon pages of this 500-page book). The Redwall series did the same thing, but being children's books they were more concise.

There's also a steady stream of other characters--again, see the 40 page Dramatis Personae. At once I liked the young courtesan Ethne, whose affectionate but not passionate relationship with her patron was sympathetically drawn and who is revealed to have both a kind heart and a good head on her shoulders. I didn't quite understand her attraction to the much younger Thaddeus, who does little but gape at her from the moment they're introduced (to be fair, he's recovering after a bandit attack). Bella the dog was almost sinister in her ability to enchant everyone around--trust me, this works quite well in context. The characters who were least fleshed out, honestly, were the 3 female apprentices and their teacher, who the travelling students and Silvestrus encounter in the second half of the novel. Three boys, three girls--they're inevitably paired off, but though the dynamics of the groups as a whole play out well, the individual young ladies were never very fleshed out. This is especially a problem as Thad seems to have chosen one for his life partner, and she gives Thaddeus a gift that surprises everyone and suggests she has intelligence and powers beyond the norm--but it's never really explained. Perhaps in book two.

For all I was occasionally surprised or baffled, not much of this story felt like a surprise. The plot exchanges a firm handshake with genre conventions and takes them along on the journey. A prophecy is in play, although this topic is lightly lampshaded (playing with a trope by admitting it's there, and yes, it is a trope, but let's make use of it anyway--the term is from TV Tropes, which I will not link you to because you will never emerge and I'll feel bad). Our thief is even a redhead. While tension arises from temporary problems--like the attack from Rolland's fellow thieves--these problems are quickly cleared away within a chapter. Like many journey stories, it moves linearly: start at Beewicke, end at the Collegium Sorcerorum. On the way Thaddeus has met many people and learned many things, and the fact that the things he's learned haven't proven relevant in this story suggests they'll be crucial in the sequels. But I'm just taking that on faith. Payoff does come in the fast-moving final chapters, which among other things explain Ethne's motive for getting so close to Thad (I would read a novel completely about her, just saying) as well as fleshing out most of the other female characters (except the three students) in one fell swoop. Proper epic scale is very nearly reached. But honestly, I wonder if this isn't a series better begun on Book 2, with the relatively staid Thaddeus of Beewicke serving as a sort of prologue.

Compared to other epic fantasy novelists like Tad Williams or Patrick Rothfuss, Sauvain's great girth of spine derives less from busyness (Williams has stuffed so many side quests into a book that I've actually become furious with him) and more longwindedness. I dare say's and As I was saying's and With not a moment to spare's abound. And sometimes characters are downright redundant:

"...that does not mean I have a liking for yanking and overgrown boy half a mille passe because I'm enjoying the experience!"

My high school English teacher used to give her students an M&M for every word they cut form their essays. The habit has gotten deep in me; I was wondering if have a liking for or because I'm enjoying the experience would earn me more candy-coated chocolately treats.

Some of the garrulousness is clearly meant to make the dialogue more realistically historically flavored. Speaking of history, although there is plenty of Latin (which adds an appropriate level of authority and epicness to the proceedings, without hampering the understanding of any reader either already versed in the language or willing to look back in the glossary), this clearly takes place in a secondary world rather than the actual European Dark Ages.

There is one last topic I'd like to address: sorcery being connected to sexual intimacy. I was a little nervous when I read this on the back cover copy, because it sounds like a trashy porn setup (as opposed to an intellecutal and tasteful porn setup--ahem, ahem) and/or give me flashbacks to the reverse system in Andre Norton's Witch World, where you could conveniently disempower an enemy sorceress by assaulting her. I have...issues with Norton's worldbuilding choices. However, the Collegium Sorcerorum system is far more thoughtful, including offering a loophole system for female wizards to make use of (if, among other things, they'd like to put off pregnancy). A little tough, still, for ugly or asexual male wizards. Not tough at all for Thaddeus, though. Given his womanizing-as-a-teenager tendencies I appreciated the nuanced writing of most female characters. They may fall into tropes, but no more and no worse than the male ones, and the sexism of several male characters is called out in ways more playful than anvilicious. Thaddeus never White Knights or takes credit for simply seeing women as people, and the men who do hold less-than-ideal attitudes are not mustache twirling professional misogynists, just everyday people with a blind spot. A blind spot that may get their egos smacked upside the head, to badly mix my metaphors.

Also, I caught the Hound of the Baskervilles reference on page 303 to Lord Basker who keeps hounds and lives on the moors. Although that's another strong argument against this one taking place in the actual dark ages.

Amazon (Print)
Barnes & Noble

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Review: Serving Time by Nadine Ducca

For this review, another thank you is in order to the LibraryThing giveaways program, and of course Nadine Ducca herself for offering the first volume of her Timekeepers trilogy. I'm a winner once again!


Although I was often confused over what was going on, the original mythological background  of Serving Time was strong from the beginning. The author has clearly spent time developing this mythology and shows it by demonstrating her characters' familiarity with its workings. I found Robert, the wizard who figured out how to blackmail Time, a fascinating character. He didn't play a major part until the end, though, as there is a wide cast of characters scattered across multiple planets, satellites, and outposts. And as for the story's mythology, it's far from comforting. After the Angels meant to guide souls through their many incarnations have fled, the demonic powers, kept barely in line by a frazzled Time, try to pick up the task. Nobody is particularly happy about this. Not Time, who has her own concerns. Nor the demons, who are meant to devour souls, not look after them! And who must contend with the ever-present threat of clerical work.

Things are no more comfortable on the mortal plane, where big businesses now run pretty much everything with no sense of corporate social responsibility. It forms an interesting parallel with the bureaucracy on the mythological plane. Our protagonist's Tristan's opening scene, which shows a day in his life as a hired assassin dogged by robots ready to clean up after his "job," was pulpy goodness worthy of Blade Runner, or perhaps The Fifth Element.

The demands of being a killer for hire have driven Tristan to a breakdown, making him less than useful to his bosses, who sell his contract cheap to another corporation even more lacking in concern for employee welfare. Meanwhile, Tristan's brother Eneld is visited by a demon who gives him a warning: it's his task to look after his brother's soul in this, Tristan's final incarnation before he's damned to the Respository (hell in this setting) as damaged metaphysical goods. Although the brothers may be less than convinced by this vision, they clearly have pressing problems as Tristan is pursued by his new bosses, who he's trying to escape.

The prose and tone of the story varies widely. I admit I have nitpicks--like when the Goddess Time is described as a "fifteen foot" colossus on a limitless plain. The exact number makes her size ever so slightly less impressive (I like to think most mortals won't whip out a yardstick on their first confrontation with a deity). But the dialogue is plausible and mostly snappy. There are also points where the prose becomes playfully visible-"It was on the verge of hyperventilating, if soul dew could ventilate in any way." Fun and fitting with the bizarro tone. And yet in other cases I just couldn't figure out where the author was coming from. What does it mean that Time has strands of hair "like honeyed spiderwebs"? And another thing that puzzles me, and makes me wonder how seriously the science-fiction worldbuilding is being taken: why is Tristan's drug run for his corporate overlords done under cover of an interplanetary shipment of tiramisu? Glad as I am to know we'll still be eating tiramisu centuries from now, wouldn't it be a thousand times faster and cheaper to bake it on-planet? Did nobody find this sort of suspicious?

Speaking of baked goods in the future, fruitcake and Christmas are still going strong, even as the Sagrada Familia cathedral in Barcelona has not only been completed but also fallen into ruin again (I see what Ducca did there, and it amuses me, not least because of the sense of scale it gives). All the homey anachronisms could probably be excused in the end, although I always like to see spec fic writers dream a little weirder. But the tone never quite recovered from the revelation that the highly laid-back population of the Stone Cloud spaceship call themselves "Stoners". I love puns from the likes of Peirs Anthony, but I felt rather offended on behalf of my sense of humor at that one (reminds me of cowboy romance talent Diana Palmer's first venture into sci-fi, where she thought she'd be clever by having the alien race of the Centauri system be named the Cehn-Tahr*). How much danger in Tristan's soul really in, and how much should I fear for him, in a world built with puns?

Puns aside, a sort of wordplay does go into the mythology-building of this story too, at least for fans of Madeline L'Engle. Over the ages, Time has developed quite a few wrinkles, and is displeased twice over when various galactic species start exploiting them for time travel--plus the apparently unforgiveable indignity of being a female deity who does not look like a teenager. I mean, Lucifer certainly isn't worried about his looks. Then again, Lucifer doesn't have the problem of being a gorgeous young woman everyone pictures as a white-bearded Father, so I guess I can cut Time some slack here. Mythological figures being irritated by mortals' mistaken impressions of them is a trope I usually enjoy, but I enjoy them because of the surprise factor; a female character being caught up in her looks is, alas, not much of a surprise. In any event, Time's vanity is assuaged by Robert's offer of a cure, in exchange for perks like power and immortality. But Time has another favorite human: Tristan, who in a past life was Time's good friend Alexia. Perhaps I only dreamed the lesbian subtext between those two, but they were certainly very close--Alexia medicated Time's vanity just as Robert does in the present, but they also went on adventures together literally to hell and back. The sweet girlfriendship plot, and Time's tendency to call Tristan "Alexia" even when he's romancing her, redeemed the otherwise disappointing representation of female characters. I warmed to Eneld only very slowly after his intro shows him in bed with a woman who he calls a slut (granted, logical thinking is never his strong point, but why is this supposed to be attractive in the character who serves as the moral center? Tristan's much more screwed up, in that he actually kills people for a living, but he's very upfront and equal-opportunity in his screwedupness). Jim Kirk spoiled me; I expect the 23rd century to be a touch more progressive, to say nothing of free love.

This story ends on a definite cliffhanger, but its resolution centers more around Robert than Tristan in my mind. This is fine, except Tristan has been the more central character, and winds up nothing but a pawn for the last chapters. His story will be continued in the sequels (Serving Time is the first of the Timekeepers Trilogy). Overall, while this story has an entertaining setup and I appreciate the devil-may-care attitude blending mythology and gritty science fiction, the sometimes corny tone and lackluster character development made it hard to lose myself in. Readers more used to irreverence in their stories (use the "Stoners" pun as a guideline) might even love it. 

Barnes and Noble

*I discovered the MST3K-style running commentary I made for the first few chapters of Palmer's Morcai Battalion, and if you think I'm snarky now, you should have seen me then. Although since I've become a writer myself I try to nicer to my fellows, I think I was also being defensive of my genre. Nobody's an interloper in sci-fi, I don't want to be a gatekeeper, but neither do I like to see such careless writing. It gives the impression Palmer thinks all sci-fi writers are so careless, or that her publisher thinks all sci-fi readers are heedless of the quality of their reading material. Even as a teenager I was eager to prove them wrong.  

Friday, November 1, 2013

Happy National Novel Writing Month!

For several hundred thousand writers, the great challenge of the year has just launched: for the next 30 days, they will be scrambling to maintain a semi-functional life while also producing 1,667 words per day, to end with a 50,000 word story on December 1st.

I wish them luck.

While I can't deny the glories of a creative adrenaline surge, I have never managed to get more than 35,000 words in November, and have several times had to step back and let the challenge go before I had a nervous breakdown (or at least it certainly felt that way at the time). It doesn't help that November is the month of Thanksgiving, Final Exams, and in one particularily memorable year my grandmother's passing away at 102. This only makes my admiration stronger for anyone who has managed to complete NaNoWriMo.

In their honor, and in honor of all the brave souls about to begin their tribulation--and with all due respect to Tom Lehrer--I have composed a ballad. It accurately, if with some exaggeration, captures my feelings about NaNoWriMo madness...and perhaps writing in general some days. As Thomas Mann put it, "A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people."

To be sung to something like the tune of National Brotherhood Week:
Oh writers like to clean stuff
And writers like to make stuff
To do anything but to write stuff
Is our old established rule
But during National Novel Writing Month, National Novel Writing Month
Write sixteen hundred words before you do any other stuff
It’s time to eulogize
The plot that you despise,
As long as you just get the d*mn thing down.
Oh, writers sure like to cook things
And to talk about movies that we’ve seen
And good god do writers love blog-ging,
But write novels? We’d rather die.

But during National Novel Writing Month, National Novel Writing Month
Without six thousand words by this weekend you’re sunk
Step up and write a chapter
Whose completion you’ve been after
You know that you can do it if you try!
Oh, how I hate writing adverbs
And I keep choosing weak nouns and bad verbs
My participles are less than superb
And my character’s a Mary Sue

But during National Novel Writing Month, National Novel Writing Month
It’s National Ignore-this-pencil-that-I’m-biting Month.
Keep your butt in the chair
And get some words done there
It’s only for a month, so have no fear.
Be grateful that it doesn’t last all year!