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Archive for May, 2011

Alternate History

Sometimes it can be a little challenging to come up with blog topics while in the middle of revisions. After all, there’s only so much you can say about the revision process without boring everyone. Even I sometimes get a little bored during revisions. And when that happens, I look ahead to my next project.

My next project, an expansion of my short story “The Bard’s Gift”, will most likely be alternate history. (I could choose to just make it second world and make everything up to suit myself, but I don’t think I will). That means that my next task, which I can start now, is research.

This story will be young adult alternate history. Hey, if Scott Westerfeld can do it with LEVIATHAN and BEHEMOTH (which I loved. Can’t wait for GOLIATH to come out this fall), why not?

Alternate history changes some events from history, but not everything. So, I need to research how my characters would live–what kind of dwelling would they live in, what kind of food would they eat, what kind of clothes would they wear, and so on.  I also need to know the real history, so I can make rational choices about the events that I’m changing.

Another thing I’ll be researching is events occurring elsewhere in the world at about the same time, because I just might choose to bring in a couple of those things, too, as part of my plot.

Ideally, the more things I learn in this research, the more ideas I’ll get to add depth and conflict to the story.  I’ve done some research already, but I’m going to need to start a research file to organize all of it.

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First off, and apropos of today’s topic, for those who may have tried the link in my post about Agents Day and wondered what I was talking about: Agent Natalie M. Fischer published her speech from Agents Day about revisions on her blog this week. Some interesting tips. Check it out.

Revisions. I’m surrounded by them at the moment. Finalizing revisions on MAGE STORM before I send it off. Working on the second draft of SEVEN STARS so I can have it ready for alpha readers in July. Making revisions based on the latest critique of BLOOD WILL TELL. Oh, and I need to make revisions to my Writer’s of the Future entry for this quarter. AND, if I can find the time, there’s another story I’d like to take a crack at for a writing challenge on Hatrack River Writers Workshop. (The original version of the story didn’t really work, but the premise is perfect for the challenge.) So, it looks like the next month or so is going to be pretty much dedicated to revisions.  Good thing I don’t mind.

I actually enjoy the second draft process. It’s almost like doing a first draft at times because I generally add so much new material. A story usually grows by about a third during the second draft. I’m in the middle of a new scene in SEVEN STARS right now.

Along about July, while SEVEN STARS is out to first readers, I expect to start taking a serious look at my alternate history story THE BARD’S GIFT (novelization of my short story of the same title). Still a lot of research to do for that one, as well as laying out the basic plot. I’ve never done alternate history. It should be fun.

Now back to that scene. Tiaran’s third battle and second failure. Got to rattle his confidence a bit. Can’t let your characters get to cocky–or too comfortable.

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Backstory is an important part of world building for speculative fiction. It’s the history of how your world and your characters got to be where they are when the story opens. Some stories have a lot of backstory, like Tolkien’s LORD OF THE RINGS. Others have less. But all have some.

The real question isn’t how much backstory you have, but how much you actually put into the novel. Some things, it’s important for me to know but may never be important enough to tell the reader. Too much, unless you’re Tolkien, can drag the story down and kill the pace. But too little backstory can be just as big a problem because you can leave the reader without enough information to undertand the world and what’s happening in it.

How much and where to introduce the backstory is another issue. Trying to avoid the dreaded infodump or an “as you know, Bob” bit of dialog can be tricky. I try to reveal the world in a learn-as-you-go fashion in my stories, so I’m wrestling a bit with exactly where and how much–and how–to reveal backstory in three of my novels right now. Internal monologue can do some of it, especially if I can combine it with some inner conflict of the point-of-view character.

  1. MAGE STORM may need just a little more of the recent history brought out, but I want to be very careful not to slow the pace too much. It’s a delicate balance.
  2. According to at least one reader of BLOOD WILL TELL, a part of the backstory that I expunged in an earlier draft may need to be brought back in. (You can see that bit under Worlds/Chimeria). I could just put that back, but I’m trying to find a better way to ease the information in.
  3. The first draft of SEVEN STARS also has a few lengthy bits of dialog. At least, it’s not “as you know, Bob” because two characters from very different backgrounds are explaining things the other doesn’t know. Of course, first drafts are only meant to get the story down so I can fix it later. I’m going to have to look for a better way to get some of it out as I work through the revisions.

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After Agents Day, I switched my focus back to MAGE STORM, naturally. I’ve just completed a read through with minor revisions. I didn’t find too much that needed changing to meet the agent’s questions from the synopsis. I did try to bring out a couple of things a little more and trimmed a little from the middle. I want to go over that middle section again and then suck in a deep breath and send it off.

I still need to go over the new query again and take a serious look at that synopsis.

Then, I need to get back to my priorities from before Agents Day, mainly the second draft of SEVEN STARS and a revision to my quarter three Writers of the Future entry, if I can get it done in time. I’ve got some serious brainstorming to do on that one. I need to find a way to make the magic system a little more new and unique, if I can. Oh, and there are revisions to BLOOD WILL TELL, too.

And critiques to do, as usual.

Well, whatever else happens, I’m not going to be bored.

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So, I spent all day yesterday at the Agents Day put on by the Orange County chapter of the Society of Chilren’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI). It was a fascinating, informative, exciting, and exhausting day.

Five different agents spoke to a group of ninety writers.

  1. Natalie M. Fischer of Bradford Literary Agency talked about how to successfully re-envision and revise. The text of her talk should be available on her blog: www.adventuresinagentland.blogspot.com. She had several interesting and useful suggestions, so I recommend taking a look.
  2. Rosemary Stimola of Stimola Literary Studio talked about the importance of finding the right agent and creating a career-long relationship.
  3. Edward Necarsulmer of McIntosh and Otis talked about the various kinds of things agents do during a day to help their clients.
  4. Anna Webman of Curtis Brown, Ltd. talked about the kinds of things authors can do to help generate their own publicity and help sell their books.
  5. Stephanie von Borstel of Full Circle Literary talked about her agency’s approach and brought one of the authors she represents, Rene Colato Lainez to talk about the author’s experience of working with an agent.

A lot of learning about the business crammed into one day and I’m not sure I’ve completely processed all of it, yet.

After the presentations, we broke into five smaller groups. The agents rotated among those groups for about fifteen minutes each so that we could have a chance to talk to them and ask questions.

Most exciting, MAGE STORM attracted the interest of the agent who read the first chapter for a critique. Now I have some revising to do, based on her suggestions, and send it on.

If you get a chance at one of these types of events, I would definitely recommend it.

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I’ve been thinking more about the subject of my last post–world building. I realized something interesting. This is important stuff to understand, especially for a writer of speculative fiction.

One of the things that bothered me most about the story that got me thinking about this in the first place isn’t actually uncommon. I’ve seen the exact same thing in at least two other stories where it didn’t bother me at all. So what makes this one different?

I’ve come to the conclusion that the difference is that I’d already started to question the world building before I stumbled on this particular facet. My trust in the author was already wavering so everything was open to question.

When you ask a reader to suspend disbelief and accept your story, the writer’s side of that deal is trust. The reader puts their trust in you to keep that suspension of disbelief possible. When the trust is breached, even a little, so is the willing suspension of disbelief.

The detail that first made me question this story is a small one, really totally unimportant in the story. But it was the first thing (at least the first I can put my finger on) that made me say “What?!” and come out of the story for a moment to consider–and doubt–the implications of that detail.

The moral is, every detail has to be believable and consistent in order to hold the reader.

My next post will be about SCBWI’s Agents Day. Excitement is building.

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This is something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately, in part because of what I’m reading, not what I’m writing. (No, I’m not going to say what that is. The policy of this blog is not to name other writers or books unless I can do so in a positive way.)

When you write any type of speculative fiction (science fiction, fantasy, or horror), even if it’s urban fantasy or near-future science fiction, the writer is responsible for creating at least some aspects of the world in which the story takes place. If you write an urban fantasy about werewolves and vampires, it’s up to you to set up and then adhere to the rules by which those creatures operate. In second-world fantasy, of course, there’s a lot more world building–maps, political systems, history, all the details of daily life.

The important things are:

  1. You have to create a system that holds together. It has to make sense. People living on a plain devoid of trees can’t build wood houses and probably don’t eat fish on Fridays–or any other days.
  2. And you have to stick to the rules you create. You can’t go around making exceptions. (Now, that doesn’t mean that things can’t seem to be exceptions if your characters have an imperfect understanding of the rules. But somehow or other you’re going to have to let readers know that.)

These things are important to keep the readers immersed in the story. You, as a writer, have asked them to suspend disbelief. It then becomes your job to make sure you never make them sit back in their chairs and say “What?! That doesn’t make any sense.”

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