Monday, June 29, 2015

Queen of Cinders Trilogy Complete

I'm pleased to announce that the long-simmering first drafts of the Queen of Cinders trilogy are now all complete.  Emphasis on first drafts!

As I come to grips with having such a big project reach such an important milestone, it occurred to me what a strange journey this has been.  I pre-planned this project pretty carefully, but wasn't too surprised that the plan was often off-track by the time it came to write the events themselves.  Characters mature as you write them, and deepen.  Their motivations become far more nuanced and the themes you didn't anticipate have come to dominate.

Another notable tendency is that the need to highlight and emphasize is very different while writing than it appears during planning.  The writing so so much brighter and detailed than the plan, that the need to bring certain traits forward falls away.  they've already emphasized themselves.  As a flipside to this, new connections you could never have planned have sprung up, becoming so fundamental that I would sometimes wonder how I was planning to write to book without the link between two characters, or a cause and another effect.

Similarly, I used a lot of what I call "event compression" in these books.  I would have the character ruminating on something that has just occurred "off camera" while they deal with events in their scene.  This inner world not only lets the character sort their thoughts out where we can hear them, but also allows me, the writer, to effectively write two scenes at once.  It also shows how hectic things are for the characters.  Before they fully process one event, the next is upon them.  This speeds the pace, and, during the climax, I stop doing this, making the endings feel all the more immediate.

So, I'm happy to be done, and move on to some well deserved polish.  I've already got a list of alterations for the second draft, but some of this was details I knew I was getting wrong, but didn't want to interrupt the flow to go and check.  I do have to make two major changes to this second draft, though, one to change how two characters relate to each other in the third book, and the other to adjust the timing of a key event in the second book.

Also, my note-keeping suffered a severe dislocation during this trilogy, and I need to change my system.  No more notes for each individual book, as this created real headaches for me to check on small details between the volumes.  There are a number of towns whose names appear as XXXX in the text, ready to be replaced once I get my notes all together.  And one major character has a mid-book change to their last name due to poor organization on my part,  Sorry!  Ah, live and learn!

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

A Good Question

My daughter AgentT and I were talking on the way home from her school.

"If you had to choose," she asked, "which would you pick?  Would you want everyone to like you, or have superpowers?"

My first instinct was to go with having people like me but I hesitated.  It was a much better question than it appeared at first glance.  Be an accepted member of the group, or stand apart but wield more power?  Was the gentle, continuous influence of friendship more or less powerful than the spectacular influence of superpowers?  I have to put The Watchmen on AgentT's reading list.  Even at seven, she's got the questions right.

I still don't have a clear answer for her.

Friday, April 10, 2015

I The Jury: Cinderella

The Charges: Unwanted corporate navel-gazing evoking a long-dead Golden Age, shot-by-shot remake, evidence of creative bankruptcy.

The Verdict: Not Guilty!

The Findings: This movie snuck up on me. Suddenly, there was this new version of Cinderella coming out, which was no surprise, lately. But another Cinderella by Disney? The company that made the definitive version decades ago? Why would Disney make another? Was it going to compete? Be a simple remake? A reboot? Does that even make sense? The idea that this version wouldn't be compared the the previous Disney version was ludicrous, so how does it compare?

Very well, actually.

The opening moments of the film are a somewhat strained, since everything is so very perfect, it's hard to relate to. But soon the tone settles down, and the characters begin to carry their own weight.

You heard that: this movie has characters. Actual fictional personages. It takes some doing, when dealing with a story everyone already knows, to establish the cast as anything other than placeholders and milestones in the plot. Not everyone gets this careful treatment (we'll get to that in a moment), but, in general, the main players are very well drawn.

Hats off, as always, to Cate Blanchett, whose turn as the Stepmother is truly great. She lets her beauty be part of how evil she is, and the story hints at more depth than her role usually receives. And the greater sophistication of the storyline lets her character do additional scheming, making her realistically selfish and manipulative, not simply mean, mean, mean for no reason. From her first introductory shot to the final image of her in defeat, Blanchett's looks are perfectly framed, allowing her acting abilities to carry a lot more power than I was expecting from this movie. The final shot of her on the staircase is so classically lit and saturated with color, it's almost unearthly how well the movie evokes film-making from another age, and Kate Blanchett is one of the few modern actors able to pull that off.

Lily James, too, puts in a surprising turn. Her look in this movie is strictly pretty, without trying for the supernatural perfection Snow White and the Huntsman tried (and, it must be stressed, failed (badly)) to imbue Kristen Stewart with. The writing, here, is also well tuned, allowing Ella to be kind without being so schmaltzy and saccharine you wish bad things upon her. The story is actually satisfying to watch because of the level-headed kindness of Ella, and the writing allows that to happen, and Kenneth Branaugh's direction allows James to just be a person. I was surprised by this, girding myself for a cinematic death-by-a-thousand-cuts of over-done niceties.

But all is not well in fairy-tale-land. The mice, thankfully sans clothes in this version (a change directors should apply to a great many future characters), are nestled just within the uncanny valley. They look real enough, and move about as you'd expect a mouse to do, and yet they are pretty distracting, as they are just too stage-directed, somehow.

And now for the bad news. The Fairy Godmother. Sigh.

Why must Hollywood insist on aging actors to look like super-old people? It never works. Hey, makeup artists: IT DOESN'T WORK. EVER.

Simply making young actors all spotty and wrinkly doesn't evoke age. It evokes layers of makeup. The Uncanny Valley has a whole village inhabited by actors trying to look older than their age through makeup. Are there no old actors? Oh, wait, we need someone who is comically super-old, for some reason. And an genuinely aged actor would demand more respect than the one minute the aged Godmother receives before transforming back into her true form, which is that of the slightly addled beauty that is Helena Bonham Carter.

Now, the sequence with the Godmother lends the story a needed dose of the whimsical, and she doesn't overstay her welcome, doing her duty and vanishing as quickly as she arrived. Once she's young and hot again, the Godmother moves the story along well, but I can't help but think that the feel was partly relief that the god-awful aging-makeup effects were over.

The character of the Prince is another minefield. I mean, having a male character be sensitive and good without coming off as entirely unbelievable and unlikable is not easy. Kit, as he's named here, somehow allows himself to be a nice guy and still be believably heterosexual. Wait, did I just write that? Yep. Huh.

As another strange aside, this movie also makes is seem as if adult humans often just weaken and die without visible cause, as the bodies hit the floor with alarming regularity. I count three people who keel over without obvious cause (one off screen, and allowed a sudden illness to waft them to a better place). I suppose it serves the purposes of the story, but it seems odd that a person can be talking one second and fade away the next. But that's the benefit of living in a fairy tale: death is as it should be. Either that, or the kingdom employs a standardized euthanasia program for the mildly ill.

In the end, this retelling of Cinderella makes use of the skills of the actors, the talents of the writers, and the intelligence of the audience, and that's worth a lot. It's a genuinely good movie that had a lot of tripwires to avoid, and does so while making it look easy. But it's also easy to see how badly it could have gone. This movie manages to avoid traumatizing a generation of children, damaging dozens of Hollywood careers, and embarrassing, annoying, and/or insulting and angering thousands of adults.

Now that's magic.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Welcome back, writing time!

After a five-month stint of doing cover paintings, I'm back in the writing saddle here in my new digs in Durham, England.  Yeah, that England!

After such a protracted lapse, I expected to have a few days of warming up before being able to drop back into the story.  I was pleasantly surprised when that didn't prove necessary.  So, if all goes well, I can get Book 3 of Queen of Cinders in the can by the end of the month.  Man, that would be great!  This trilogy wasn't supposed to take this long to write, but I'm pretty happy with it, being a first draft and all.

I'm more looking forward to doing a second draft of Book 1, actually, since it's been years since I wrote it, and I haven't read it since.  That's a long time to settle, for a first draft.  Wait, looking forward to editing?  Strange but true.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Maps of Fantasy worlds

This is a large-scale map of my fantasy setting, Malduan, the home of Gloren Avericci and Yr Neh.  When I was younger, I used to love the maps that were commonly in the front of many fantasy novels.  They allowed me to really stay grounded in the setting as the characters moved over the landscape.  When done well, and used well, maps can add a lot to a story by keeping the setting grounded (heh, I punned).  But there are potential downsides to having a map.

First, they can give the impression that the story you're about the read has a scope that needs a map.  Have you ever read a book, and then struggled to find where the heck on the map it takes place, only to discover that it all happens on the remote corner?  Why does this story need a map?  Far from impressing readers with the level of world-building, a map in this case sets up false expectations, and ends up doing more harm than good.

Secondly, they encourage some writers to name-drop far-off locations in the text, with the knowledge that the readers have a map, and perhaps with the expectation they will refer to it.  Again, this is doing the story a disservice.  Do we really want the reader to stop reading and consult a map?

Third, they give the impression that the reader needs to have a broad knowledge of the setting.  Usually, this involves a number of kingdoms and their relationship to each other.  If the story is on a geopolitical scale, maybe this will be helpful.  But in the real world, very, very few people can generate anything like an accurate map of even their own country and its immediate neighbors.  Having a map may give the characters hyper-accurate reckoning skills when thinking about the distances between places.  The writer may, even subconsciously, always use the proper distances between places, thinking that having the characters be wrong when they talk to each other (or plan for travel) will be seen as a mistake on their part.  In truth, people think about travel in terms of time, not distance.  People will usually say how far away the grocery store is in terms of travel times.  Places are five minutes away, not three miles.  So writing a story with a map means you have to think about travel times, not distances, and that's sometimes hard to remember.  Have you ever read a story where the characters casually mention the exact distance to a destination, but never the travel time they expect?  Yeah, me too, and that's just not the way it works, especially in a fantasy setting, where foot travel is usually the order of the day.

So, is it all downside, having a map?  Obviously not!

A good map in a fantasy story must do these things in order to be beneficial:

First, it must be clearly drawn.  Blurry rendering, tiny lettering, obscure fonts, or crowded landscapes all make your map a chore to peruse.

Second, the map must be relevant to the story.  It must have useful locations marked on it, which means it must be of a useful scale.  Giving a world map for a story that takes place in a single city might not be so useful.  The locations given can even include locations from the story itself that wouldn't be marked on most maps, such as an important ford in a river, a character's home, or the route taken in the text.

Third, maps need to relate some information that is not in the story, to put the events into context.  Sometimes, just knowing the characters are starting out on the west coast of a place, and travelling east, makes reading the story easier, but maps can help supply the reasoning for jogging to the south for a while (like mountains, or some other hazard).  I've read very popular books whose maps showed a basically empty landscape with just a few towns and other locations marked, and lo and behold, those were the places we visited in the story.  No other locations were marked, nor mentioned in the novel, making the landscape seem entirely empty save for those few places.  Without a map, this would not have been an issue.

Lastly, maps must be based in reality, even for fantasy worlds.  Generally, landscapes are shaped by different natural processes, and cities develop and grow in other ways.  Unless your landscape is entirely fantastical, and your cities completely artificial, you need to be aware of these patterns, so that your maps will read as being a real place.  Having coastlines and mountains and rivers all mashed together without reason, cities dotting the landscape in no particular place, these sorts of maps do a setting no good at all.  They falsify rather than reinforce.

I'll be talking more about how to create realistic fantasy maps in a later post, so stay tuned!

Thursday, January 1, 2015

A soft spot for 2015

With the champagne corks mounded high on every side, I'd like to get my Goals post out of the way.  Posting it is, after all, my first goal of every year.

Given my dismal failure to meet goals in 2014 up to a point where I could cross them off my list so they could actually get counted, I'm going to do a lot more tracking of what the heck else I'm doing that isn't on-task.  So, to assist me, a sort of resolution:  300 hours of "me" time for 2016.  That includes reading, and anything else I do to chill out that doesn't involve family.  There's no limit on family time, of course.

So, kids, don't worry.  I'm still going to make dinner.

With that out of the way, the goals:

Production (New Stuff)

  • Finish Book 3 of Queen of Cinders
  • 4 Short Stories
  • 10 paintings on commission.  These can be covers, or whatever.


  • Internal stuff for the Gallery Hunters Anthology, including maps, missing illustrations for the new stories, as well as formatting, a cover, and so on.
  • A new draft of Firewatcher for sending out to agents.
  • A new draft of the completed Queen of Cinders trilogy.  Normally I wait a year before doing new drafts of novels, but it's been more than enough for books 1 and 2, and by the time I get through them, I'll be mentally ready to edit book 3.
  • Game apps:  I've listed this before, but now am going to try less collaboration with coders, since they're hard to keep on-task on small projects, and tend to wander off to newer shiny objects.

12 short story sendouts.  Every time I meet with John O'Niel, I'm reminded of how little I'm sending out, recently.  I need to get off the pot, and get those stories rolling to publishers again.
Querying Firewatcher and, perhaps, Queen of Cinders, if I can get some beta eyes on it first.
Gallery Hunter trailer.  This is the real elephant in my marketing room, at the moment.  This is a massive project, but I still can't help but feel it's doable.
Blogging at least once a week.  Is this marketing?  I'm not sure where else to put social media efforts, and need to account for the time it takes, so I'm putting it here.

And that's the lot of it, and the estimated times for all of this is over a thousand hours!  Time to get cracking!

Monday, December 29, 2014

A firm handshake to 2014 as I show it the door

Well, here we are again.  The end of the year.  As usual, I want to review what I did, and what I thought I would do.  This is usually a painful process.

If I were to simply tally up my goals (10), and compare to my successes in meeting those goals (2), I would look like a loser.  So I'm not going to do that.

Instead, I'm going to justify my lack of progress on a case-by-case basis, on the theory that this will make me look better.  So far, I have no evidence this theory is correct, but here goes:

Novel Writing
Planned: 1  Achieved: 0
In fairness, I'm about three-fourths of the way through Book Three of Queen of Cinders, and I had a good reason to stop writing (see Painting, below).  But with two days to go in the year, I can't see myself pumping out 100 pages or so.  Given that, this goal was a big fat FAIL.  Still, I plan on whacking out the remainder fairly quickly next year (see my Goals post early next year for further pro-procrastination rhetoric).

Planned:  1  Achieved:  0
Considering that the stories for the Gallery Hunters Anthology are all completed, this is a mysterious one.  I need to finish all of the stuff that is going to go around them however, such as maps, and illustrations.  That's all well and good, but time's ticking on these, as they were published fairly recently, and the iron is still hot.  I need to get cracking on getting the anthology out the door, and a lot of that is reconsidering the planned animated trailer.   But I'm stubborn about my projects, so this is unlikely to die (see below for more attempts at justifying my stubbornness).

Self Promotion
Planned: 1 Achieved: 0
This is the trailer I was referring to above.  My initial push to learn all the different software I'd need, and do concept work, was largely derailed, but I think I can do a better job of getting others on board, if I make a real go of it.  Next year, this will be a far larger priority for me.  Teamwork, that's the new key to getting this one done.  After all, there are specialists who do this stuff all the time, right?  Right!  Calling all specialists!

Agent Hunt
Achieved:  No
Literary Agents heard exactly nothing from me this year.  What can I say?  I hope to do better in 2015, but it's a lot of work, and was a lower priority.  I'm not too broken up about this one, but its an important step on a long road, so I should change my thinking, here.

Planned: 5 cover paintings  Achieved: 4
My Goals 2014 post said 6, but my planner only had 5 covers listed as goals, so I only fell one painting short.  Given my switch to new software (and my current reconsideration of that switch), this wasn't bad output.  I need to up my game, here, though, in 2015, and not allow myself to backslide.

The big story for 2014, though, was how few hours I actually put toward my goals.  Considering how hectic my year turned out to be, I shouldn't surprise me that I only put in about five hundred hours toward my plans.  A lot by some standards, given that this is all in addition to taking care pf the kiddoes and related things, but still, only about half of what I'd planned.

So, next year I'm going to be looking hard at where I'm spending my time when not working toward my goals, and not just when I am working toward them.  What the heck am I doing?  How to do this is a question I'm thinking about.  I don't want to turn into a neurotic freak, after all.  Unless it would make me more productive, in which case, bring on the neuroses!