Wednesday, March 23, 2011


First of all, congratulations to my blogger friend Hart Johnson for making the second round cut in the YA category!

I was a little proud to make it through the first cut of the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Awards, even if I pretty much knew I should given that my query had worked on several really great agents. That cut was just the pitch alone. The second round had two reviewers look at an excerpt of the beginning of the novel, which for me was the prologue and two chapters.

Looking through the ABNA forum, there appears to have been a pretty severe problem with one of the reviewers this year, as some writers received reviews that are simply unacceptable. Some wrote to ABNA and received apologies. I'm not sure if I got one of those reviewers, but I do feel that I got at least slightly shafted. Here are my two reviews:

Review 1:
What is the strongest aspect of this excerpt?

I liked the character of Midas a lot. Midas is a more interesting and conflicted warrior/leader then (sic) many that I have read about in the past. The background we get on him is satisfying. The loss of his eldest son, Miros, during a troll-hunt has shattered his spirit. He has two remaining son's left to raise with his withdrawn and sullen wife Rina, who only wants to go back to her homeland to be with her family. She seems to have retreated into herself since her son's death almost more then her husband. Midas was the best part of the story because you could feel the stress of ruling over his land taking a toll on him since his son's death. It was played out very realistically for a fantasy genre entry.

I like this because it shows she really got what I was after with Midas and his wife.

I liked the mystery surrounding the elven arrows and the slain peasants outside the bordering Laithtaris (the Elven wood) which is a protected area of woods specifically preserved for the Elves. Why were the men found dead with elven arrows imbedded in them?

The author crafted enough mystery and suspense to keep us on edge and to get us reading more. I really enjoyed this entry.

What aspect needs the most work?

I wish there had been just a bit more female perspective in the novel. The only female character we are given a glimpse into was Rina and she is a saddened, lifeless character. She felt a little wooden to me and I couldn't quite wrap my head around her. I don't like when fantasy plays into the atypical stereotype of making a female character a damsal in distress of a mindless side-character who has no true role in the action and that is what I felt from Rina. I wanted more feminine energy in the story, as strange as that sounds. There was a lot of masculinity to the story with the fighting and Midas and his son's activities. The wizard Xax's character could have been made into a Sorceress to add some estrogen to the tale and I would have liked it a bit more. I am being nitpicky though!

Not too bad, except that this was just the prologue and two small chapters. I do have a very strong female character in the book, but she comes in a few chapters later. Also, Rina may seem wooden, but to me that is a realistic portrayal of a woman devestated by the loss of her first-born child. Also, my book is mainly a masculine story, given that it is a medieval war story and the truth of medieval war is that it is primarily a masculine pursuit. However, the strong female lead that I use is the best warrior in the book and is the one who slays the dragon. I have a nice chapter where there is a conversation between the typically medieval female Rina and the warrior elf Alvanaria, which gives me a great chance to highlight the differences between the two races' expectations for women.

What is your overall opinion of this excerpt?

I really enjoyed this fantasy entry. I haven't read a lot of fantasy lately that has compelled me and kept me intrigued enough to keep reading. This was definitely a keeper. I would have kept reading well into the night with this one. I liked the author's way with words and how he started out of the gates with something as unexpected as the death of a young boy. I was NOT expecting young Miros to be killed by that troll and I found that very, very gripping and shocking. It was a nice jolt to the system.

I felt like the segment with Xax and his magical communication with the kestrel was a bit strange but it only made me want to learn more about him. Does he have something to do with the elven arrows that were found in the murdered peasants? Is he good or evil? I couldn't quite tell but I liked that there was a mystery surrounding him. I really wanted to read more and see where the characters went in this tale. I really enjoyed it.

This is nice. The chapter with Xax is purposely kept very short and mysterious, because that is what is needed with him at this point. When he returns to the story, much is made clear.

ABNA Expert Reviewer It's too bad that it is the 'Expert' reviewer that seems to me to fall short...

What is the strongest aspect of this excerpt?

Assuming Miros isn't really dead, "killing" him off at the beginning is quite a compelling hook. The writing is smooth.

I can't tell if the person read my excerpt or not. If he had read it all, he would already know that Miros is certainly dead.

What aspect needs the most work?

The pacing jumps around too much. First we're with Miros. He dies. Then we're with Xax in the wood, not having a clue what's going on, then we're with Midas and his sons, then his wife in a family crisis, then another crisis.

I get the feeling from this complaint that this person much prefers stories with a straightforward single POV plotline. Perhaps he doesn't like the very successful books that use many POV threads, such as George R. R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire series? Martin uses dozens of POV characters, while I use only four. Is four really too many?

Oh, and again, did the guy just skim? He says Xax is in a wood, when the text makes it very clear that he is on a flat grassy plain.

What is your overall opinion of this excerpt?

It is well-written and there are the stirrings of a plot, but it is hard to tell the trajectory (and therefore the strength) of the book from the excerpt.

This really bothers me. My book is an epic fantasy. It has around a hundred chapters and is 140,000 words long. He saw a short prologue and a short chapter followed by one meaty chapter. I don't believe I am doing my job properly with my plot if you can tell what it is all about already at this point. I give loads of hints and clues and mysteries. I don't get the feeling that this reviewer took his job seriously enough.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Diplomacy in Trouble

I don't write much about my work as a diplomat in the US Foreign Service, mainly because we have heavy restrictions placed upon us as to what we may and may not publicly discuss, and though much of what I could say is okay, it is too easy to accidentally cross the line. However, diplomacy is as critical today as it has ever been for our country, yet with no natural constituency at home Congress views us as the easiest piece of the budget to slash given that few in the US will notice or raise a cry. Congress is trying to cripple US diplomacy right now, and I strongly urge all Americans to stand up to them. Please read these terrific defenses of diplomacy (from democratic Senator Patrick Leahy and republican Senator Lindsey Graham), and then if you have a moment, write to your senators and representatives in both the Senate and House and let them know your opinion.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Great John Scalzi Post

I feel it is generally best to avoid discussing religion here, even though I really love doing so, because the subject offends too many people and that isn't my purpose in writing this blog. However, a writer that I really admire wrote a great post on the subject and I would feel remiss if I failed to point it out to those who might have missed it. John Scalzi is a great writer who did one of my favorite sci-fi novels, Old Man's War. He seems to have nearly the exact same set of beliefs as I do, and I was quick to send this link off to my own kids (since I always love discussing such things with them!).

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Stewing on Fantasy

If you've spent a good amount of time researching fantasy writing online then you have no doubt come across any number of posts about clichés in fantasy. One of the big no-no’s according to the various lists is having the characters on a road trip make stew. Yes, making stew seems to be quite popular in fantasy novels, and a good number of readers apparently take exception to this given how long it takes for a good stew to actually cook. Personally, I think they forget how hard it is to cook at all on the road (not to mention how sick and tired one would get of roasted rabbit), so tossing some things into a pot to boil for awhile is not exactly the end of the world.

Anyhow, I was reminded of this cliché by John Scalzi's review of The Name of the Wind. I love Scalzi and Rothfuss, so the review is worth checking out.

I had a point early in my fantasy novel where some characters needed to take a break early from their travels. I thought it would be a good point to poke fun at both the cliché and those who like to jump on it. Here is an excerpt:

Valgorn decided they’d camp early, just where the road left the woods.  When Geldrath asked why they were stopping so early, Valgorn responded, “Do you know how long it takes to cook stew?  Don’t get used to it."

Oddly enough, I have had a good number of readers actually try to tell me that I was doing something wrong here and didn't I know that having stew was wrong in a fantasy? Is it truly not apparent to these readers that I did this on purpose?

Friday, March 4, 2011

Artwork for the Book

Since yesterday's post gave a spoiler about the great dragon being dead, here is artwork I commissioned from Shane Tyree that depicts the dead dragon in a scene from the book. The group reaches a point in the mountain caverns where they believe they should be hearing, smelling, and seeing signs of the dragon, but there is only silence. The elf Alvanaria silently creeps into the pitch black lair, and the man who has begun to fall in love with her, Lord Midas, blindly follows her. When Alvanaria realizes the dragon is dead, she lights a torch, nearly frightening poor Midas to death.
The painting would work fine as interior artwork for the book, but it isn't suitable for the cover, both because the layout doesn't work for cover sizes and also because the art gives away a plot point.

Have you ever or do you think you might ever commission art for your book?

Thursday, March 3, 2011

It's History, Baby!

**spoiler alert - that means you Matt Rush!**

I've had comments here and there from readers of my first fantasy novel who say that I shouldn't lead readers on with things such as the big war against the elves that threatens to break out during the first quarter of the book only to be overcome by bigger events, or the buildup of dread toward the eventual encounter with the horrible dragon only to find that it has died of old age. They say this is a letdown for readers. For me it is history.

I know that seems irrational. For you it is fiction, and thus the writer could simply change the plot. For me, my fantasy world has existed for around a quarter of a century. I know it almost as well as I know the real world. It is real for me. Its history is real for me. And like real history, events cannot simply be changed at a whim to be more appropriate to your needs (unless you are the FOX Propaganda Channel). History is messy, so I find it unbelievable when events in fantasy books always fall like dominos along a perfect plotline. Real stories should be messy (at least to a degree), just like real history.

The war with elves is something that almost happened and then didn't. Sorry, but that's the history. The prince tried to touch off that war, because he had designs on their land. The war would have happened if my main character hadn't acted to sabotage the prince's plans along with everyone learning about an impending invasion by a never-before-heard-of race. Some readers can call that a letdown. I call it realistic.

I suppose it is because I have been a historian by nature all of my life. The first book I ever asked for, when I was five, was the Illustrated History of the World. When I got into grade school, I read every history book in the library, and when I was done I reread them. I would have majored in history in college except that I have never wanted to be a teacher and I couldn't see any good careers available otherwise. I did still minor in history, though.

I fully understand why readers would be baffled by my attitude. I should be able to change anything and everything. I get it. I just can't do it. The history of my universe is as real to me as the Silmarillion for Middle Earth is for Tolkien. I can change the details revolving about the characters, but I can't change the events that have occurred within the world. If a publisher ever came to me and said my book was close, but I need to change this one event, well then I would have to think hard about it.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

The Clash of Readers Versus Professionals

It feels like every day that I read another professional -- whether an agent, writer, publisher, or editor -- complaining about too much fantasy being derivative of other works. One today was from Paul Goat Allen and it went, "As a full-time book reviewer, I’ve read a lot of fantasy over the last few decades – and a sizable percentage of it is derivative (...) imitation.", this coming just after Patrick Rothfuss said, "...more and more people are finally realizing that there's more to fantasy stories than elves and wizards and goblin armies."

Now I totally understand why many if not most pros feel this way (though I do believe they are exaggerating on at least Tolkienesque fantasies; I have blogged in the past about how few Tolkienesque fantasy books there are to be found if one actually looks for them). My objection comes from the fact that publishing is supposed to be about making money. It shouldn't matter one bit whether every publishing pro in the world (as well as many readers) hates derivative fantasy; as long as there are lots of fantasy readers who do love it then it should be published. The problem is that I think the pros are screening out a ton of such fantasy that readers like myself wish to read.

My advice to these publishing pros: go ahead and look down your nose at it, but stop rejecting derivative fantasy just because you dislike it. Derivative fantasy can still be great, such as the Iron Tower trilogy by McKiernan, and there are far more fans of it out here than you realize. A whole bunch of us happen to love elves and wizards and goblin armies.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

A Couple of Goodbyes

This past weekend two family members passed away. Though it is always sad, both of them had very long and very good lives. My grandmother on my father's side was 92. I'll mourn her privately, but the second family member was more public, so I think I can talk a little about him here.

Perhaps you saw recent news articles about him? His name was Frank Buckles and at 110 he was the last surviving American WWI veteran. My grandmother on my mother's side had the maiden name of Buckles, and Frank was her uncle. So, I think that makes him my great great uncle. My mom calls him Uncle Woodruff, so I think he went by his middle name. I am sad that I never got to meet him.

Goodbye Grandma Cross. I'll miss you. And goodbye Great Great Uncle Woodruff. I wish I could have met you.