Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The Drawbacks of Peace

The book I am currently writing is set eight hundred years prior to the events in The Shard (my first fantasy novel). It begins with the event that destroys a peace that has been magically enforced upon the major civilized realm for more than five thousand years. This gives me the opportunity to explore some interesting ideas concerning this enforced peace.

The Peace Spire was a monument built to bring the races back together at the end of a terrible war. In this war, the races of elf and dwarf were tricked by an evil wizard (who nobody yet knew had gone bad) into going to war with each other. They went at each other with a vengeance until the evil wizard struck them with his armies of orcs, trolls, and goblins. The elves and dwarves belatedly realized they had been duped, but they put aside their enmity to join together to fight back, and eventually after years of bloody conflict they prevailed.

The council of wizards felt that something was needed to help heal the wounds of the war, so they helped the elves and dwarves construct an enormous spire, and on the top they placed a huge crystal that they imbued with powerful magic. The magic could look into the hearts of all living beings within its area of effect and see whether they were basically good or evil (since these are artificial constructs, it actually had a complex means of looking at various vices and emotions, such as empathy, jealousy, hatred, love, etc.). If one was good then at times of great need (when one's pulse raced, or as modern people would see it, when adrenaline was pumping) the person would gain courage and strength, while those with evil in their hearts would despair and feel weak.
The consequences of this are obvious. Anyone who was basically bad could not stomach living under such conditions and migrated to towns and cities that sprang up beyond the area of effect of the spire. Those who were good began, over time, to no longer choose on their own to be good, but were conditioned to be so.

So, what happens when the Peace Spire is destroyed? That's the big idea for this new book, and I am relishing the challenge. Can people conditioned to only peaceful thoughts and feelings defend themselves from evil? Naturally those on the fringes will gleefully take advantage of the situation. This is going on too long, so I'll reserve space to tell about the actual story line for the next post.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Tension and Conflict

Tension and Conflict are arguably the most critical elements for maintaining reader interest in a fantasy story. Sadly, this appears to be my biggest weakness as a writer. For my book's first hundred pages or so the conflict never becomes dire and always seems remote. Well, that's because it is remote. I tell the story using close 3rd, which means I can't show what's happening if the character is not there to see it.

My epic fantasy basically follows this model:

1. Life changing event happens for a character
2. The character must journey to the place where the action is
3. The character arrives and the action really starts

My weakness is in number 2, the journey to where the action begins. Now, writers have always used little plot events to make journeys more entertaining. Tolkien threw in black riders to give real menace to the journey of Frodo and company, and he added in all kinds of waypoints such as Tom Bombadil. My problem is that I absolutely loathe contrived action. I don't like throwing in a band of robbers along the road or other such things, unless it can feel like an authentic part of the story. Also, a band of robbers is just a tiny event along the way and doesn't lend itself to maintaining tension. Black riders who continue to hound you all along your journey do keep this tension, but it's already been done before. For the life of me I can't come up with a similar plot device to maintain tension throughout the journeys of each of my POV characters. I do have little events that happen to them, but as I explained above, they don't maintain tension if they don't follow the characters along their road.

I suppose this is just a weakness I'll have to spend a lot of time working on. My action really takes off once the characters arrive at their destinations, but that does no good if the readers don't read that far. How do you deal with this issue?

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Home Run Books

I keep reading various articles and blogs talking about how these days the major publishing houses have moved to a model where they are seeking to publish fewer books while selling larger amounts of the ones they do publish. Rather than remain diverse in what they sell, they are looking for more 'home run' books that sell mega-amounts.

This is really depressing for most of us, I think. I am writing books that I wish to read, and I don't think my primary tastes fall into the category of what makes up a home run book. I didn't much care for The DaVinci Code or Twilight. I did like Harry Potter, and that has spawned a whole Young Adult phase that is also killing off writers like me who do adult speculative fiction. I have nothing against Young Adult books. I just wish all the agents and publishers weren't jumping on the YA bandwagon so heavily that many of them specifically ask only for YA on their websites these days.

Sure, they are selling a lot of YA today. But that can blind them to tomorrow's trends. I see A Game of Thrones HBO series being produced and building up a tremendous amount of excitement because it looks like they may be doing it right (the way that Peter Jackson finally did a fantasy the right way after decades of pathetic fantasy efforts). I see the two Hobbit movies coming out in the next few years. The Hobbit may technically be YA, but it doesn't have that feel. It feels more like epic fantasy, and A Game of Thrones is completely adult fantasy. Any half smart publishing exec looking for home run books right now should be thinking about this.

Another thing to keep in mind is that the vast majority of epic fantasy lovers already purchased the Tolkien books because of the Lord of the Rings movies. They will be looking for something new once the above shows come out.

The problem remains that most epic fantasy novels are not so huge that they make it into the 'home run' category. They can do very well, as The Sword of Shannara demonstrated and A Game of Thrones also, but still they don't sell the tens of millions of copies that we saw with Harry Potter or DaVinci Code. If publishers insist on only going after home run books, it means that it will continue to be nearly impossible for writers like me to get published.

My hope is that some very smart small publishers will recognize the void and step in to snatch up books like mine. So far I don't see this happening. A couple months ago I looked up a big list of small publishers for fantasy. I went to each of their sites. Almost all of them were either closed to submissions or were looking for only YA or urban or paranormal fantasies. I found no one I could submit my books to.

So, I am writing my second novel right now. I wish I could write it in the same adult style that I used for the first. However, I keep fighting myself on this, thinking that if I just tailored it to the YA audience it would give me a much better shot at being published. I really don't want to go that route, but I can't stop thinking that I may have little choice, since I do wish to be a published writer.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

The Iron Druid Chronicles

Blogging buddy and all around good guy Kevin Hearne is living the dream right now with not one but all three of his first novels on pre-order through Amazon. Anyone who likes urban fantasy should at least check out the first book!

Monday, November 15, 2010

Missing Link

I know I haven't been blogging much. Sorry. Part of it is that my brain was hijacked by a new story idea. I was already writing a prequel to my first novel, but this new idea hit me like the proverbial freight train and I haven't been able to let it go.

I haven't been able to start typing out the story yet. The reason is that there is something missing. I have the characters. I know a whole bunch of great plot points. But I need something to tie it all up in a way that seems fresh and new. I don't want to simply look at the motivations of each character along with the chaos sown by the plot points and logically write out what happens next. Why? Because what happens next -- if done logically -- would probably sound an awful lot like any number of other past stories. This is the problem. I need something that is both logical but shockingly different.

I have several ideas for the best starting point, but each of them has certain drawbacks. Thus I can't get myself to begin until my mind can come up with a solution to these drawbacks.

Agh! My last book was so much easier, because I had no idea I was ever going to write it. The story evolved over more than twenty years and it was basically complete by the time I did decide to write it. This new story is killing me. It's been almost two months now since it hit and I still can't figure out the whole path.

Monday, November 8, 2010

It's Good to Feel Wanted

Life at a crossroads. We've all been there. You know those times in life when you have a big choice to make, and you hope that the choice you go with is the right one? Do you go to Stanford or to Princeton? (Ha, we should all be so lucky as to have a choice like that!)

In the Foreign Service we get these big choices every few years. A posting can be anywhere from two to four years long (actually three years is the max, but in certain positions one can extend for a fourth year). This means that we are continuously having to push for a new position, and often we end up having to choose between offerings. The choices are sometimes not hard to make, as one will be clearly nicer than another. Other times you get more than one offer that you like, so you have to pick one.

The State Department rates posts by level of hardship based upon lots of different criteria. I have had five hardship-level postings in a row, ranging from the harder posts like Baku, Moscow, and Beijing, to the mild hardships like Zagreb and Reykjavik. My family wanted a break from this; we wanted a non-hardship posting this time around.

So, I bid on nothing but nice posts this time. This can backfire on you, because these types of posts tend to have a large number of bidders for each position, so there is nothing to say you will actually be offered any of these nice positions. If you end up with no offers, you can end up with the truly unsavory posts because that may be all that is left. There is a huge difference between competing for a job in, say, Bamako, with a mere three bidders versus trying to get a nice job in London or Prague with more than thirty bidders.

I ended up being very lucky this cycle. I got to choose from among several really nice positions, because I was selected as the top choice for each of them. There is a drawback, however (even if it is a nice one to have, so I am not complaining!), and that is that we can only choose one. How sad to have to turn down Paris, Vancouver, and Brussels. My family would have loved all of those places. My wife and I honeymooned in Paris, so we knew we would love it there, and I have always wanted to check out Vancouver and Brussels.
Budapest at Night
We simply could not turn down Budapest, though. My wife and I both love Budapest. I have been there twice before, including this past July. It is a lovely city with tons to do. One of my favorite hobbies is chess, and Budapest is perhaps the best city in the world in which to pursue this hobby. One can participate in high-level professional chess tournaments each and every month of the year there!

There is also a good school for our children, which is another of the most important criteria for us. Also, it is very easy to travel to many amazing places close to Budapest, such as Vienna, Prague, Bratislava, Zagreb, and so many others. It isn't hard to take the train or drive into Italy, Austria, Germany and so forth.
Budapest at Night
Lastly, I am so starved for my favorite American foods. In many of my postings I have had to survive on local foods and a smattering of what I can order through the mail, which isn't enough. In Budapest we have the ability to order food from our bases in Germany. Yay, I will finally be able to have a broader range of dinners!

I have been dreaming of being posted to Budapest for years, but an appropriate position has never been available in my previous bidding cycles. When I saw it open this time, I held out little hope of getting such a highly sought after job. I feel so fortune right now, and my family is excited. We should finish up here in Baku by next June and arrive in Hungary in either July or August.