Sunday, September 11, 2016

Writing A Good Ending

I don't re-read books with depressing endings, or endings that leave me irritated, or frustrated, or simply unsatisfied. Cliff-hangers are acceptable, if I think the author plans to continue the story. But stories where the good guys gets the shaft, or the wrong people end up together, where injustice triumphs and there's nothing anyone can do about it piss me off. This is why I spend so much time and attention on trying to make sure that my books are neither depressing, nor disappointing. Maybe I'm a slave to the happy ending. I can live with that.

There's more than enough painful injustice to go around out here in the real world, thank you. When I read a book I am looking to escape. I want someone to tell me a bedtime story about people who overcame obstacles and prevailed, to give me a feeling of hope that maybe, just maybe, some of us out here might be able to to the same thing. At least sometimes.

It's not enough to kill the villain, either. Sometimes there isn't a clear villain, and sometimes the so-called heroes are just as bad or worse. There are several books and series where by the time the author is done I, as Twain said, wish that they would all go off and get drowned together.

Game of Thrones for instance. Is there anyone in that series who doesn't need hanging besides the children that they like to murder? The writing is well done. The characters are assholes. In Wheel of Time. I couldn't really force myself to cheer for Satan, but I was sorely tempted. By the end of it I wasn't merely wishing that all three of the supposedly godlike heroes would go get drowned, I was wishing someone would come and drown me.

Even the Harry Potter series, which is one of my personal favorites, fell into that trap. By the last book the only character I gave a damn about was the little elf guy, Dobby. When he bought it I just skimmed the rest of the book. I continued on long enough to see that Granger did, in fact, let her poor self-esteem drive her into an abusive relationship with Weasley (an appropriate name at least). Then I closed the book and stuck it back on the shelf. Moby Dick is supposed to be a classic, but I will never read it again, that's for sure. My main complaint is that the narrator is the sole survivor. What makes him so special? Would it have killed that blasted whale to turn around and give just one more lousy tail slap?  Movies and tv can be just as bad.

Granted. Injustice, hypocrisy, cruelty, disloyalty, and plain stupidity happen all the time in real life. I. Don't. Care. I don't like reading about it prevailing.

Arthur Conan Doyle's books are true classics, and I have read every one of them multiple times. Louis L'Amour. Robert E. Howard. Rex Stout, Edgar Rice Burroughs. The immortal Terry Pratchett. The even more immortal Mark Twain. These authors wrote books that I cherish and savor. Why? Because after I read one of them I feel better, not worse. I put the book down feeling relaxed, sometimes even refreshed.

There's a reason that the Robin Hood stories have been passed down the centuries. He is a victim of injustice, but he doesn't sit on his hands and take it. He kicks ass. There is an equally good reason that the King Arthur legend has stood the test of time. King Arthur dies tragically, but for a time at least, honor and justice ruled the land. It shows a higher standard to reach for, and the legend ends on a note of hope.

Not to say that the protagonists in those books are necessarily good people. Many of them are deeply flawed in various ways. A lot of the authors wrote in a time that had a barbaric moral code. But even if their beliefs are politically incorrect by modern standards, all of them had something greater than themselves that they were willing to stand for. And at the end of the book evil is defeated and the backstabbers go down.

Above all else a character has to be sympathetic. The reader/audience must care about the characters. One thing worthy of note about fan fiction is that people write fan fiction to fix things. Either they think the author screwed something up, or they think the story isn't done, or they want to know what happened about a detail that was left hanging. In other words, the ending was unsatisfying.

You have to make people close the book wishing that it was just a little bit longer. Otherwise you have failed as a storyteller.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Songs of Chaos

My first series set in the Portals universe, Songs of Chaos, is proceeding surprisingly well. The first drafts of books 1-3 are undergoing content editing, with book 4 under preliminary construction.

Unlike The Unfortunate Woods, my Portals universe will include a selection of free standing books, short stories (possibly), and at least one ongoing series. Originally I had envisioned Songs of Chaos as a single free-standing novel. The problem with that is too many plot lines, too many fascinating characters I wanted to meet and get acquainted with, too much world to wander around in. It finally hit my solid bone head that no one was limiting my choices but me. So I pulled the original book and started re-writing.

Book One - Gathering Thunder 
Tom Forester was old and grieving for his wife, old friends, and years gone by. He decided to make a final visit to the land of his birth before settling down with his family in Michigan to quietly fade away like the old soldier he was. Minor problem. His homeland was on the other side of reality.

Book Two - Tempest
When you rip open the underlying the fabric of reality and hurl yourself across the face of the multiverse, unexpected things can happen. It didn't help that the Vianri Council considered unauthorized portal transport a capital crime.

Book Three - Eye of the Storm
After fighting free of the nuclear barrenlands, and establishing an alliance with the Vianri Council's two most powerful rivals, Ben and Dar were hoping to get a chance to rest. Fateful words.

Book Four - Backlash
Heat rays and particle beam weapons are impressive, granted. But a nine millimeter still has much to recommend it.

Book Five - Battle Lines 
The slavers are going down. If the Vianri want to fight each other over it, that's fine too.

Book Six - Crossing Blades
Fifteen thousand years. What were they thinking? They had to know it would come to this someday.

Additional books in the series are possible. 

Thursday, August 4, 2016

Talking to the Human Heart

Authors and tv producers need to stay focused on a few basic principles that sometimes seem to get shuffled aside in the excitement. I don't know why. Maybe spending so much time trying to get the plot to work causes folks to lose track of the fact that The_Story_Is_About_The_Character(s). It isn't about the plot. If the story is about the plot, then what you are writing is a news broadcast. Or a history book.

The reader/audience needs to understand the characters. Protagonists need to be sympathetic. The reader/audience doesn't always have to agree with them, they don't even have to like the protagonist. But they have to be able to think 'there but for the grace of my deity goes I'. They need to understand how the protagonist got into this mess, and have a feeling for how they might try to get out of it if it was them. Antagonists need to stay human. They can be vile, miserable spawns of (fill in the blank) but they need to be comprehensible. And it doesn't hurt if they can be made a touch sympathetic too. Like a murdering thief who started snitching bread and fruit from vendors in the marketplace to feed his baby sister, and never learned how to stop stealing. Something like that.

What gripes me all out of proportion is when the book's author, or a show's producer, lets the plot dictate that, say, the protagonist must behave in a way that is A) a notable departure from their previously established behavior patterns, and B) yanks my sympathy away and makes me suddenly start to dislike or disdain a character that I had previously started to cheer for.

Case in point. A show I watched a while back. It was one of those stockpiled shows where you save up and watch the whole series all at once over snacks. Anyway, there were multiple protagonists. One of them was a woman who had been dragged away from her home and family because of a deus ex machina that doesn't have anything to do with this rant. She had spent two seasons displaying honor, dignity, courage, and loyalty to her people, her family, her husband, and her lost child that she missed terribly. Suddenly, in the third season, she says what the hell and starts sleeping with three different men, telling one of them that the time she spent with her half grown kid was in the past and it was time to move on.

Now, there are several things wrong with that. I won't go into all of them. Hopefully anyone reading this will see exactly what I mean, and if you don't I can't help. I watched a few more episodes just to see if maybe she was drugged, or an imposter, or possessed by an alien, or maybe she went crazy from the stress. But no, she was completely sane and cold-blooded.

Oddly, the series was canceled after that season. I can't imagine why.

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Opening Scene of Book Four in the World of Kulhn

Working title = Lertolia (subject to change)
No estimated release date yet. It will be done when it's done.

Unedited. If typos offend thee, depart now lest my many iniquities wring tears of pain from thy tender sensibilities. But here's the beginning of the new story cycle.

Lertolian Empire: Imperial City

The courtier knelt and bowed low until his forehead touched the marble floor. "Oh great and mighty lord, whose surpassing wisdom shines as a beacon into the darkness of our humble-."

"Cut the crap, Rolos," the emperor growled. "It's too blasted early for your mockery. Get your rotted nose up off the floor and deliver the rancid report. Then haul ass down to the kitchen and tell whoever is on duty that if my tea comes up here this cold again, I'm going to personally go down there and boil a few cooks."

"As you command, oh great and glorious one," the young man bounced to his feet. "The last dispatches from Kulhn came in yesterday, uncle."

"Well, at least this one should be mildly interesting." The emperor yawned and took another bite of toast. "What's the latest east of the mountains?"

The courtier told him, "It looks like the earth and fire temples are just going to have to eat shit and like it. Lokenberg is still in no shape to tackle a kingdom full of battle trained witches, and Uleirand is too busy bickering with everybody and their sister to coordinate dinner, much less an attack. Aroglin and Sheerlio are doing fine, though. The water temple is rolling in donations, and eight tenths of Kulhn's army follow the air goddess. Tothran is, well, Tothran. King Peteros turned his new general loose and they already own the northern third of the place. King Lonsel is suing for terms and praying that they let him keep his favorite boots."

"The cursed forest?" The emperor swung his feet to the floor and reached for his robe.

"Reports indicate that Peteros and his enchanting lady..." The kid waited expectantly and his uncle snorted.

"Seriously? His queen is a fire witch and that's the best you can do? I should put you to work herding pigs." The emperor picked up the pillow that he had shoved off in the night and tossed it back on the bed. Then he got up and yawned again before shuffling over to the washstand. "The wash water is only lukewarm. Since Bilina retired this place has gone to the jakes. I am definitely going to vent my wrath on someone. Pass the word."

The young man looked chagrined. "Sorry, uncle. Anyway, they have seriously depleted the supply of darkhunters all over the kingdom, to the dismay of the temple hardheads who had preached doom and desolation. Even the southern forest is running out of vampires and werewolves. Not completely bare, but getting scarcer. Witch teams are combing the place, along with armored men carrying silver blades, garlic, wolfsbane and stakes."

"How's the general level of discontent?" the emperor asked. He damped a washcloth and wrung it out.

"Among the common people," his nephew said, "The general attitude seems to approach bliss. They honestly believe that King Peteros is the fulfillment of their ancient prophecy. The average peasant thinks he's the original Agrahain reborn, and in their eyes he can do no wrong. Queen Jessera displayed so much power during the war that they are making up songs about her being an emissary of Hohdwan sent to punish the temples for their arrogance."

The emperor stopped to stare. "A woman as an emissary of the fire god?"

The young man took a deep breath. "This is the part I was leading up to. A new heresy is starting to spring up. Some people are saying that the former handmaidens are consecrated to the service of the gods just as much as any priest. Just because they took their collars off and can use their magic now, doesn't make them evil. So there is no reason that a handmaiden can't conduct a religious service."

The emperor clapped a hand over his face and dragged it down. "By Duchess Mirood's ox-wide ass. They do love wars, don't they?"

"There are petitions from the central temples of both Hohdwan and Egainot waiting on your desk, uncle," the kid said apologetically.

"Go mislay them somewhere," the emperor said. "I don't care where. Just make sure that they end up in some inappropriate location that will delay their arrival for a day or so. I need time to think." 

"As you command, beneficent master," the courtier bowed. "Want me to take the tray as I go?" His uncle gestured impatiently. 

Saturday, July 23, 2016

Story Length

One of the disadvantages of submitting a story to someone else for publication is the fact that you are forced to comply with their requirements for length. It can't be longer, or shorter, than they think is appropriate. Or than they need it to be in order to cram it into their publication.

This is perfectly understandable, albeit a pain in the rump, when dealing with print media. It costs money to print things. So what you end up with is a publisher telling the author 'edit it down, make it shorter, compact it, trim the fat' and so forth. What they are really saying is 'weaken the story and take out the details, flatten the characters, minimize the world building, and keep the immersion to a minimum because we can't afford to put quality story telling first'. The more you spend on printing, the smaller your profit margin. For the print publishers, the ideal situation would be a one page book that they could sell for $250.

But for electronic publications it makes about as much sense as those computer RPGs that still use pen and paper game mechanics.

Simultaneously, one of the advantages of writing for self-publication is the ability to let the story set its own length. My latest book is a bit longer than I expected, but not outrageously so. I doubt that a print publisher would touch it, no matter what they thought of the quality of the writing, simply because of the length. Along the same vein, I submitted several short stories a few years ago to some online magazines. Some of them were crap, and I freely admit it. Some of them were pretty good, but they were too long.

You see, when I write a science fiction or fantasy story, I like to make sure that the reader has at least a superficial idea of what I'm talking about. So when I describe a place, I don't just say that the character went somewhere imaginary. I say, it had cobblestones, or the roof was slate and leaked a little at the north end, or whatever. This, unfortunately, requires space. The way some editors go on and on, you would have thought they had to pay for pixels at double the price of ink.

This is all leading up to me digging out some old stories and looking them over. At least one of them is going back onto the workbench. I still like it. So I'm going to fix it the way I originally intended it to be and publish it here. If no one reads it, so what? At least it will be done.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Weaving A Tapestry From Chains

I'm working on the rewrite of my first "Portals" series novel, titled The Songs of Chaos. Right now I'm in the process of aggravating myself into a state of frustration. The problem is my own lack of ability to make up my mind.

Everyone uses a different method to create stories. Some people use a rigid outline. Some people are pantsers. I use a modified systems that kinda sorta splits the difference. I think of a plot as a series of scenes, like links in a chain. Each book consists of at least one main plot, along with supplemental minor plots and supporting scenes that flesh out the story. I read advice from Holly Lisle that suggested this approach when I first got started. But she recommended using index cards and physically sorting them. The idea being, I guess, that having the scenes in front of you all at once would help you keep it all straight.

My problem with that? I lose things. I am a slob. My desk has to be seen to be believed. So I do it all on the word processor and keep them sorted by using a different font color for each scene, or each plot, depending on what kind of sorting I am doing.

How does this relate to the book I was talking about when I started this rambling? I am using this method on The Songs of Chaos right now. It's working fine. The issue is me. I have a critical conflict point I am developing. I know how it is supposed to go. I know how it will get resolved in general terms. But I CAN'T MAKE UP MY CURSED MIND about the right approach for the protagonist to take. And it's critically important, because how this gets handled will not only affect the rest of the book. It will have repercussion throughout the series.

Argh.

Saturday, July 16, 2016

Recompense (Book 3 of My Trilogy) Is Live On Amazon

Published the final version last night just about sunrise. New covers for every book in the trilogy. I may tweak the author bio and teasers in the other two books a bit when I have had some more sleep. The only thing left to do now is adapt the layout for Createspace. I have been dreading that and putting it off until all three books were done. Anyway, Recompense is about 50% larger than Wrath. According to my beta readers it's the best work I have ever done, for which I give devout thanks. It was also the most painful work I have ever done. I hope you all like it. I'm going back to bed.