Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Recommended Reading: Libriomancer by Jim C. Hines

No, I'm not turning this into a review blog.  :P  I am, however, shot for blog post ideas this week, so I thought I'd talk about a book I think you all should read.

Libriomancer by Jim C. Hines, first in the Magic ex Libris series, is an urban fantasy tale with a magic system that's every book geek's dream: the titular libriomancers are able to pull items out of books and use them in the real world.  The main character, Isaac, is of course both a libriomancer and a massive geek, so you can imagine the sheer joy he gets from doing this.  And that's what drew me in so much about this book, and why I love this series so much.

There's a kind of magic in the written word.  As writers, I think we know this; whether we see it in our own work is up for debate because we know everything that goes into it, but I think it's safe to say we've all seen it in our favorite books.  That's part of what makes Libriomancer so good - it makes that magic real, and takes you along for the ride with its infinite possibilities.

The sheer joy of reading also comes into how Isaac and others like him work magic, and that's actually how part of the magic works.  The more readers love a book, the more they believe it could be real, the more powerful it can be.  It's a unique and interesting magic system, and there's a good deal more to it than Isaac knows.  Learning about it over the course of the story was fascinating.

And there's the part where Isaac gears up by putting on a long brown coat that has dozens of pockets inside, and he fills those pockets with books from his library, pages marked with rubberbands so he can get what he needs quickly.  I've read a lot of "preparing for battle" scenes, but that's the only one that had me looking at my bookshelf and wondering how well I could arm myself.

If you're considering your own bookshelf right now, then yes, you should read this book.

The series itself also moves quite quickly.  The second book, Codex Born, came out earlier this year, and shows that there may be no status quo - the changes that happen are the sort of things I'd expect in the fifth or sixth book of a long-running series, serious shake-ups.  The third book comes out in January, and I have no idea what's going to happen.

Also, since Mr. Hines has shown himself to be a big proponent of diversity, that's there in this book as well.  Not everyone's white, not everyone's straight, not everyone's male.  The main woman character is Lena, who's not only strong and capable and has interesting magic of her own, but she's based on an ancient Greek ideal of beauty (long story (literally)).  She's distinctly not the modern cultural ideal of what a woman should look like, but Isaac has absolutely no problem with that.

I hate to say I hope this series doesn't ever get made into a movie or TV show, but I kind of do, only because I know they wouldn't cast Lena right.

So, yes.  If you like reading (and if you don't, why are you here?), and think you'd enjoy a tale with vampires of various breeds and dryads on motorcycles and mysterious magic and characters who do the kinds of things you've probably dreamed about while reading, you should check this book out.  The first chapter is available through Mr. Hines's website, linked above.  Share and enjoy.

Next week: IWSG.  Keep it secret, keep it safe.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014


I know I'm supposed to be working on things that aren't a TAW fix and/or another Shiloh & Alexi story.  And for the most part, I have been, I swear.  But I was on a walk during one of my breaks at work when, just for the hell of it, I decided to think on what I could change in TAW to make it work.  And that helped me realize a serious problem that I somehow missed throughout the entire creation process:

The book lacks a good, solid antagonist.

It's one of those things I would deny if I hadn't realized it myself.  But it's true.  The Big Bad makes two appearances, and we get little of its motivation.  (Yes, it's an it.  Demons in this world don't have genders.)  Other than that, there are the demon's nameless minions, two minor demons, a powerful minion with a name whom I only brought in because he was going to be significant in the sequel, and ████████, who becomes the surprise antagonist right at the end.

So, since the antagonist's part is both weak and spread among too many beings, the entire story comes off as an excuse for the two main characters to go on a journey and end up together.  There's nothing wrong with that, but it's not what I was going for.

I think this is part of a larger problem for me.  I write characters I like, and I want to see them do well.  Hell, I want them to be awesome.  So it's a lot easier for me to write them doing great things rather than being in direct or indirect conflict with a main antagonist.  Too many of my plots have the heroes and the Big Bad come into conflict only right at the beginning and at the end, with the main characters simply achieving various goals all throughout the middle.

I realize this structure is exceedingly common.  Yet somehow it doesn't quite feel right.

It's kind of a given that the antagonist has to have more power and resources than the heroes, otherwise it's not much of a conflict.  The trick is finding ways to keep both sides involved without either overcoming the other until the end of the story.  (Ways that make sense, of course.  If the antagonist is a political manipulator type, it's hard to justify them as behind the carnivorous badgers that dog the heroes' every step.)

The other side of this is risking the antagonist becoming a cartoon villain.  If the main adversary has reason to kill the main characters, they can't encounter said antagonist every few chapters, or it turns into "I'll get you next time, Gadget!" after the third or fourth time.  (Or you run out of main characters halfway through the book.)  If the antagonist wants to capture them, it's easy to assume they'll always escape, until the story's final act.  A variant of this is when the antagonist sends mooks of subsequently greater power after the heroes, all of whom end up defeated, leaving the heroes stronger and the reader wondering why the Big Bad didn't send the strongest mooks right at the start.

I think the Empire from the original three 'Star Wars' movies is probably one of the best examples of how to do this right.  They bring about conflict both personal and galaxy-spanning.  They're more powerful than the heroes, yet still the heroes can both achieve major victories and suffer significant defeats without either side being brought down.  Lastly, their final conflict is orchestrated on multiple levels, and it couldn't have happened at any other point in the story.

So, question time: what sort of antagonists do you like the most?  What sort do you like to write?  Have you also struggled with making sure they work as they should?  And if so, how did you fix them?

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Keep Coming Back.

Today's blog entry is brought to you by the music that accompanies the dancing Groot.  I know it's a stretch, but hey, dancing Groot.

I'd like to think of this as the "good twin" to my Been There, Done That entry.  I want to talk about the stories and ideas we keep coming back to, the themes that keep showing up in our writing, all that sort of thing.  This is about both what and why, as I think it's important to ask ourselves why we write what we do.

Even it's just "Because I think it's cool", which is a perfectly legit answer.

First thing that I keep coming back to: people with powers.  I don't mean just magic or the like, I mean people with specific abilities that are unique to them.  This comes from reading a bunch of X-Men comics when I was younger, especially 'Generation X', which featured a cast of young mutants dealing with their newly-discovered powers.  Thanks to those, I think I'm forever set on writing stories that have people coming into some kind of new abilities and learning how to use them.

The fun part is, that sort of thing is both character development and plot device all in one, so it tends to work really well in stories.  I just think it's endlessly fascinating to watch people learn how to deal with something strange and new that could get them into all kinds of trouble, which leads into the next thing I keep coming back to: people gaining power from gods.

The first book I ever wrote had people receiving power from their gods to go forth and undo some sort of magic that was turning the world's dragons against just about everyone.  I don't remember all the details because I started the thing in 1998, finished it in 2001, and it was a terrible book that I've largely tried to forget.  But the theme of gaining power from gods is something I'm still incorporating into my plots.  I read a bunch of Greek mythology growing up, but I never found the gods as interesting as I did the mortals who were born from them.  Those stories featured people with abilities mere mortals were never meant to have, which brought about their own new and dangerous set of problems.

Back then, I didn't quite understand that throwing an endless stream of problems at your main characters was a key factor in writing a book, but hey, live and learn.  At least my little obsessions make for decent plots.

The last thing I keep coming back to is something I've touched on before: I like writing non-traditional relationships.  Writing fantasy makes this easy, thankfully.  Have races other than humans?  Excellent, start hooking people up.  ^_^  I don't know that I have any great reasoning or motivation behind this, I just think the standard boy-meets-girl stuff is boring and has been done to death.  The urban fantasy series I once wrote went through thirty-one parts - its entire first series - before it had a couple comprised of two humans.  So you might say I'm a fan of this sort of thing.

I know this can, of course, be seen as a metaphor for non-traditional relationships here on Earth.  And sometimes I do see it like that.  But most of the time, it's just seeing how characters bounce off each other during plotting and hoping things work out in this direction, especially if they're two very different people.  Hell, I still want to write a beauty-and-beast style relationship where the woman's the beastly one and the guy thinks it's awesome.

So, your turn.  What sorts of things keep showing up in your stories?  Why do you keep writing them?  And if you don't, why not?

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Single or Series?

There's a reason I have two full bookshelves and am working on a third: I read a lot of series.  Looking at my main bookshelf, I'd say 75-80% of the books on it are parts of a trilogy or more, including the ones where I only have part one because the rest of the series hasn't been published yet.

Some of these books are so thick that one volume is longer than entire trilogies.  I like big books and I cannot lie.*

So naturally, this leads me to think of how this affects my writing.  I've talked before about how I don't like writing short stories - I have real trouble coming up with ideas that I can fully express and do justice to in a few thousand words.  Granted, I did have one short story published, but that was ~7500 words, which is pretty long for what's considered a short story.  The only stories shorter than that I've written and thought were good enough to share were all fanfic.

Oh, like you've never written fanfic.  Don't look at me like that.

Thanks to this, when it comes time to plot, I often have to force myself to focus on just one book.  THE ACCIDENTAL WARLOCK was going to be the first of a trilogy.  There was even a time when I had grandiose plans to not only write three different series spanning three different worlds within a multiverse, but to bring all three of those series together in this amazing trilogy where everyone got to meet and take down some threat that had significance behind the scenes in all three series.  I dubbed the plotting document for this "THE EVERYTHING PLAN" - yes, I used all caps - and it's been gathering dust on my hard drive for over two years.

So it's safe to say that big plans don't always pan out.  Yet I very rarely have a story idea that will be just one book. Even when I'm working on something and I honestly don't know what the second book would involve, I'm still thinking ahead, considering what it could be.  I generally think this is a good thing, but it does have me wondering if I'll ever write a novel and have no intent of visiting that world or those characters again.

Granted, I could blow up the world at the end to make sure that happens, but that seems a bit drastic.

I know that I'm not supposed to think about the publishing attempt stage for books I haven't written yet, but it's hard not to, when I find myself thinking ahead.  Will it be easier to sell a book when I can say it's going to be part of a series?  I know no one can count on getting a multi-book contract right from the start, so that's something to keep in mind.  Is it better to just say that I have sequels planned, and be ready with them if the best happens?  That was my intent with TAW, but the less said about that right now, the better.

This is all just speculation, of course, but with three series I really enjoy having new books coming out in January (all on the same day, how awesome is that?), it got me thinking.  So, what about the rest of you?  Do you prefer your books one-shot, or do you like series?  How long can a series go before you lose interest?  Do you plan to write one-shot books, series, both, or something else?  And am I the only one who loves hearing that a series by a favorite author will be really, really long?  Dresden Files and Stormlight Archive, I'm looking at you . . . and eagerly awaiting the next volumes.  Bwa ha ha.

*Yes, this entire entry was an excuse to use that line.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

IWSG: Embrace the Fear.

Before I start, I want to thank everyone for the kind words and helpful advice on last week's post.  Because of that, y'all get a post about dealing with fear, not just suffering from it.

This one comes from Quanie Miller's blog, and oddly enough, her IWSG post from last month.  In that entry, she talked about fear of completion, and I commented that I have a fear of starting.  This fear comes from a simple place:

I'm afraid it's going to suck.

This is a stupid fear, and I know it, and yet here I am writing a blog post about it to make sure I remember how to never have it bother me again.

I think part of the problem is that what I write will never be as awesome as what I see in my head.  I think we all deal with this.  There's nothing quite like going over a first draft, then looking back at the plot, and giving the quizzical head-tilt at how different the two are.  Even if you're aware that first drafts are supposed to suck (which you should be, because they are), it can be incredibly discouraging.  And it's far too easy to say forget it, this is horrible, I can't believe I wrote it and I'm not going to touch it again.

From that point, it's even easier to feel this stupid fear, and say, why even bother to start, if the end product sucks?  The answer to this is simple: if you don't write it, you can't fix it.  And that means you have to write it.

So the next question is, of course, how do you overcome this fear?  I'd love to say just ignore it, but fear is buried so deep in the human psyche that it's not that easy.  We're descendants of the cave-dwellers who were smart enough to stay in the cave when they were scared.  Their fearless fellows are now fossilized poop.

Oddly enough, I've found that one of the best ways to deal with fear comes from Peter V. Brett's books.  (If you like your fantasy dark and your magic atypical, check him out, seriously good stuff.)  The lead characters in his series spend their nights fighting demons, so naturally, they have various ways to overcome their fear.  The way that seems most successful?  Don't fight it.  Don't struggle against it.  But don't give into it either.  Embrace it, let it pass through you, and carry on in its wake.

It's a method reminiscent of the litany against fear from Frank Herbert's Dune, and unlike many fiction-inspired methods of handling one's problems, I've found that it works really well.  I recognize the fear I'm feeling, and instead of dwelling on it or letting it keep me from working, I remember the people who fight demons in the desert maze, and let that fear pass over me.  I have to remind myself of this from time to time, which is part of why I'm writing this.  Because everything seems more real once it's written down.

So, yes.  Whatever fear you have about your writing, embrace it, and find a way to let it pass through you, instead of wrestling with it.  Breathe deep.  Dance.  Recite the litany against fear.  Recite the litany against beer.  Listen to music so happy your speakers start spewing out smiley faces.  Get a stuffed animal, write "FEAR" across its face, and beat it against a wall.

But do what it takes to get you past the fear and in front of your keyboard.