Fantasy for readers who don’t read fantasy


Okay, interesting. I know what I’d recommend, at least I know some things I’d recommend, so I’m curious about this post. Oh, look at this:

Fantasy has always intimidated me. New worlds. Complex societies. Classes of magic I don’t understand. Unfamiliar, extravagant names making up a cast of characters I can’t possibly keep track of.

So this post is written by someone who doesn’t like fantasy, not by someone trying to encourage other readers to try fantasy. That’s interesting. Also a little hard to imagine. I don’t remember ever feeling that way, and in fact I’m slightly puzzled by this feeling. Aren’t fairy tales a type of fantasy? I’d think children could segue from fairy tales to fantasy quite easily.

Granted, some fantasy is a lot less approachable than others. But right away, I’m thinking:

  1. Fantasy retellings of fairy tales
  2. Fantasy that is a fairy tale, but not a retelling
  3. Fantasy that is historical, with only a little magic
  4. Contemporary fantasy so you don’t have to fuss about names.

Personally, I’m delighted by extravagant names. But contemporary fantasy and a lot of historical fantasy completely step around unfamiliar names if that’s a problem.

Let’s see where the post goes:

But then I read a book last year that I later realized was classified as dark fantasy, and I sort of liked it. And another one that was apparently historical fantasy. Also fun. And some works of magical realism. I really liked those, too. Had I just been wrong about an entire genre for 42 years?

Well, yes. That happens when you think “Fantasy is set in a secondary world with a complex magic system laid out in detail and the huge cast of characters who all have weird names.” When you have that kind of restricted idea about a huge genre, naturally you’re mostly wrong. The same thing happens when you think “Romance is slight and silly, with extremely rich handsome guys falling in love with cute, quirky shopkeepers.” You’re noting one subgenre and just not noticing that your conception is the tiny tip of genre iceberg. In this case, the author of the post — as she notes herself — was intimidated by epic fantasy and didn’t notice that there was a lot of fantasy that isn’t in that subgenre. I’m moving past the conflation of epic fantasy and high fantasy without comment. We’ve done that before, several times. This time I’m more interested in seeing what subgenres this particular non-fantasy reader wound up liking. Ah, contemporary fantasy, which she is calling low fantasy, which again I will just move past.

Therefore, her suggestions are contemporary fantasy. I haven’t read them, except Like Water for Chocolate, which I didn’t like. And she’s got Nettle and Bone on her list, because she likes horror and therefore horror-adjacent contemporary fantasy, and yes, I’d certainly suggest T Kingfisher to anyone who likes horror. Especially Cozy Horror, and thanks to whoever suggested the term, because that’s very descriptive and useful.

Lots of other suggestions at the linked post. But here’s what I’d suggest, particularly if someone did not like horror:

A) Fairy tales — you can’t go wrong with Beauty by Robin McKinley.

I think the cover is wrong for the book. Fine for other retellings of Beauty and the Beast, but not great for this one. Anyway, while on the subject, I would then segue to Sunshine by McKinley.

What is with these covers? I would just like to register a protest here. Who’s the publisher? Open Road Media. Well, Open Road, kindly find some other cover artist with a better feel for McKinley’s stories. I’m scared to think what this cover artist might do with Chalice. I see it’s still a bright, sunny cover right now. Good job, Ace!

B) Fairy tales that aren’t retellings. I’d start with The Changeling Sea by McKillip

And then point them at anything else by McKillip … well, not anything, but lots and lots of things .. and also to The City in the Lake.

After that, if the person liked historicals, there’s so much there! But how about:

C) Historicals with almost no magic, such as Walk on Earth a Stranger by Rae Carson

The whole trilogy is good, and there’s only one magical element in the whole thing, as far as I can remember. You could then shift to sometehing with a little more magic, but a very historical feel, such as something by Guy Gavriel Kay. Everyone’s got their favorite, but how about A Song for Arbonne.

There are really a whole lot and this isn’t my favorite, actually. I would probably pick Under Heaven. If someone liked tragedy (for some reason), then there are certainly good options there too.

Does the person think they hate epic fantasy? Because there’s another category of fantasy I hadn’t previously thought of, which could serve to lead a reader into epic fantasy if they thought they didn’t like epic fantasy:

D) Portal fantasy, such as the Fionavar trilogy.

Look, you have protagonists who are from a familiar society and have familiar names; you can travel with them into the epic fantasy and won’t that make the journey easier and more fun? I think it would. Okay, last category:

E) Contemporary fantasy. Again, there’s so much (so, so, so much), but let’s avoid vampires. How about Garden Spells by Sarah Addison Allen?

Such gentle, easy stories. Nice writing, a bit of romance, people getting their lives together, seriously, these are my go-to for magical realism, and no thanks to Like Water for Chocolate.

But there is SO MUCH contemporary fantasy that it’s hard not to suggest more than one. How about Bone Gap by Laura Ruby?

I should re-read that. It’s a great story, and not only that, it pulls us back full circle to fairy tales, because it’s a story that draws on the tale of Persephone.

Okay! What’s a book you might suggest to someone who thought they didn’t like fantasy, but really meant they didn’t like the thought of epic fantasy?

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Check out this Kickstarter

Here’s a kickstarter for a Rook and Rose pattern deck.

This deck of cards is based on cards like tarot cards, but in this case based on cards in the world of Rook and Rose, by Marie Brennan and  Alyc Helms. The link goes to my comments about the first book, which I liked and admired.

I haven’t gone on with the second book solely because this is a high-tension story and I just couldn’t bring myself to go on with it. I think I need to wait for reviews to appear for the third book, which is coming out … ah, in a week! So, right around the corner.

What I basically want is a broad spoiler, something like this:

“It was a pleasure watching everything click into place. These three important characters all realized they were on the same side and worked together to defeat the bad guy, and then they all lived happily ever after.”

That last phrase is optional, but the first book set up two characters to be seriously at odds — three characters — and I like them all and I don’t want to see any of them get destroyed. I want them to all work together, save the city, and wind up better off than they started. Romance acceptable but not necessary, but I want everybody to be friends.

AND! Important tip! If a bad person says, “I’ll give you this thing you need or want, but you need to betray that person over there,” then the appropriate means to handle that situation is to make a chance to say to the person, “Hey, the bad guy offered me this thing to betray you, so I’m going to betray you in this way at this time and you need to be prepared. I figure if you and I work together, this ought to work out for both of us.”

All the stress aside, the reason I’m worried about the characters is because I like them a lot, so, I mean, that’s good. And the worldbuilding in this series is just spectacular. One of the spectacular elements is the two completely different systems of magic, and one of those systems involves cards like tarot cards, and thus we have this kickstarter.

The pattern deck is organized into three suits called threads. The cards of the spinning thread deal with the “inner self,” i.e. the mind and spiritual matters; the cards of the woven thread deal with the “outer self,” i.e. relationships and social institutions; the cards of the cut thread deal with the “physical self,” i.e. the body and the material world. In addition, there are seven clan cards, representing the archetypal personalities of the founding ancestors of the Vraszenian clans.

Each of the three threads consists of twenty cards, twelve regular and four pairs of Faces and Masks. The Faces and Masks represent Vraszenian deities, each of which has a benevolent side (the Face) and a malevolent one (the Mask), and which represent particularly important concepts like truth and lies, peace and war, or life and death. This duality is built into the pattern deck as a whole, such that no card is inherently negative or positive. Fear in the right circumstance is a useful warning; peace can come at the cost of willful disregard for a problem. Which interpretation applies depends on the layout used and where the card appears.

It’s all very cool. I’ve backed it. It just went live, and last I saw, it was about 40% funded.

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The TBR Mountain: Paper edition

So, I mean, why even tease myself? I’m not reading anything right now because the INVICTUS revision is taking longer than I thought it would and I want to get through it asap. And who knows when (if) I will ever choose anything from the physical shelves when I have a million (rough estimate) ebooks sitting her?

On the other hand, writing a post like this might provide just the push I need to actually read something on this list. You know what, let’s start by just listing the titles on the physical shelves, because why not? Might be interesting. These books have been on those shelves anywhere from less than a year to literally over a decade, but I haven’t actually gotten rid of them in one of my intermittent “read a sample and discard” purges.

So, forthwith, the TBR Mountain, a reasonably complete list, starting with nonfiction. I didn’t count these, so however many, here they are. I also didn’t look at the stacks on the floor because I think I’ve probably read most of those and just haven’t got around to putting them back on the shelves or giving them away, whichever. I used to sort of know what was in those piles, but the kittens have disarranged them, so now I pretty much don’t. Anyway, these are actually on the three shelves devoted to unread books:

Gold and Spices: The Rise of Commerce in the Middle Ages, Favier

Servants of the Dynasty: Palace Women in World History, Weatherall

The Invention of Nature, Wulf

Everyday Things in Premodern Japan, Hanley

Ingenious Pursuits, Jardine

The Price of Everything, Roberts

The House with Sixteen Handmade Doors, Petroski

Alien Skies, Plait

Wilkin’s Tooth, DWJ

The Diamond in the Window, Langdon

The Coloured Lands, Chesterton

Bright Smoke, Cold Fire, Hodge

The Ruin of Kings, Lyons

Dragon in Chains, Fox

An Instance of the Fingerposts, Pears

The Tiger’s Daughter, Rivera

Yarrow, deLint

Name of a Shadow, Maxwell

Sword of the Rightful King, Yolen

Sailing to Sarantium, Kay

The Something of Deliverance Dane, Howe

The Garden of Iden, Baker

Summerland, Beagle

Count to a Trillion, Wright

Lifelode, Walton

The Night of the Miraj, Farraris

Evil Genius, Jinks

The Last Boggle, Jinks

The Plum-Rain Scroll, Manley

The Hanging Tree, Aaronovitch

Regenesis, Eckklar

Cold Hillside, Baker

The Goddess Abides, Buck

Bloodline Rising, Moran

The Wolfe Widow, Abbott

The True Meaning of Smekday, Rex

Traitor’s Gate, Elliott

Red Rising, Brown

A Thread of Grace, Russell

Somewhere to Be Flying, deLint

When You Reach Me, Stead

This is Shyness, Hall

Durienna’s Harp, McKenzie

Magonia, Headley

All Fall Down, Carter

The Secrets of Drearcliff Grange School, Newman

Blue Moon Rising, Green

Heartstone, White

Journey Across the Hidden Islands, Durst

The Moon and the Sun, McIntyre

California Bones, van Eekhout

Little, Big, Crowley

The Master of All Desires, Riley

The Deadseekers, Hendee

Everland, Spinale

Eifelheim, Flynn

The Lightning Queen, Resau

Breath of Earth, Cato

Everran’s Bane, Kelso

The Secrets of Jin-Shei, Alexander

Some of those I picked up on a recommendation, some I picked up at one convention or another, some I snagged at a library sale or something like that, a few I picked up because I met the author and wanted to try something of theirs, whatever. Let’s take a look at ten or so, chosen not quite at random.

1. California Bones, Greg van Eekhout

I met the author several times, I tried one of his MG stories – which turned out to be too young for me to really like it – so I picked this one up, and adult fantasy, the year it was published. When was that? Oh, 2014. Okay, ten years. I did say some of these books have been on the TBR shelves a decade, and here we are. I’ve always had kind of a good feeling about it, but I’ve never quite got around to reading it. Let’s take a look at the opening:

Daniel Blackland’s clearest memory of his father was from the day before his sixth birthday, when they walked hand in hand down Santa Monica Beach. That was the day Daniel found the kraken spine in the sand.

It was a slate-gray morning and Daniel shivered without a jacket, but he wouldn’t complain. The soggy air carried roller coaster screams from the pier, and Daniel hoped for a ride. Maybe he and his father would even drive the bumper cars, teaming up to bash other kids and their parents. But then he spotted the bone splinter in the foam of the receding surf, a silvery fragment the length of a knitting needle, rising from the sand like an antenna. Years later, he would wonder if his father had planted it there for him to find, but on this day, he hadn’t yet learned that level of suspicion.

Oh, yes, I remember why I haven’t read this book. This beginning plus the dark cover plus the description makes me suspect the story has a horror vibe; at the very least, it looks like fairly dark fantasy. I have to be in the right mood to want to read dark fantasy or horror, and I’d rather read something by an author with whose work I’m more familiar, like T Kingfisher, say, or Dean Koontz. Also, a lot of dark fantasy and horror has a certain layer of grit over everything, Not that I always find gritty fantasy unreadable, but on the whole, I generally tend to avoid that.


2.  An Instance of the Fingerpost by Ian Pears

This one was recommended by someone at a convention. Maybe it was Jo Walton, I’m not sure. I just remember that the recommendation was made in such glowing terms that I picked up a copy. It’s a really long book, which isn’t necessarily off-putting. It was a NYT bestseller, which frankly is a bit off-putting. Published in 1998, which is getting to be a while ago, I guess. It’s got a laudatory quote from the Boston Globe on the front: “May well be the best ‘historical mystery’ ever written.” That sounds fine. Historical mystery is in quotes, which seems strange. Does the Boston Globe not believe that historical mystery is really a thing or what? It sounds complicated. “Little is as it seems in this gripping novel, which dramatizes the ways in which witnesses can see the same events yet remember them falsely. Each of four narrators … fingers a different culprit.”

I wonder if we find out the real truth at the end?

Anyway, here’s how it opens:

Marco da Cola, gentleman of Venice, respectfully presents his greetings. I wish to recount the journey which I made to England in the year 1663, the events which I witnessed and the people I met, these being, I hope, of some interest to those concerned with curiosity. Equally, I intend my account to expose the lies told by those whom I once numbered, wrongly, amongst my friends. I do not intend to pen a lengthy self-justification, or tell in detail how I was deceived and cheated out of renown which should rightfully be mine. My recital, I believe will speak for itself.

Yes, now I see why I set this is aside as well. This sounds like it’s going to start with unfortunate events or with an unreliable narrator who’s probably something of a jerk, or maybe both. The prose may be good, but this sounds like it’s going to be intellectually interesting, not emotionally engaging. Not my first choice, as a rule.

3. The Secrets of Jin-Shei by Alma Alexander.

I have no idea who might have recommended this book to me or whether I picked it up at a used bookstore or what. Here’s how it opens:

It had been the hottest summer in living memory. The letters that came to the Summer Palace from those left behind to swelter in the Imperial Court in Lihn-an were full of complaints about the heavy, sultry heat that wrapped and stifled them until they gasped for breath, the clouds that built up huge and purple every day against the bleached white sky but never brought anything except dry lightning and a distant threatening rumble of thunder. And it was barely the middle of the month in Chanain. Summer had only just begun.

But there were few left in Lihn-an. At the Summer Palace in the mountains  although it was still hot enough for servants with enormous peacock feather fans to take up posts beside the royal women’s beds until they fell asleep at night, one could raise one’s eyes to the distant white-capped peaks and be comforted with the dream of coolness.

Very nice prose, in an opening that’s a lot more appealing to me than the one by Ian Pears. Also, we’re having weather that’s JUST LIKE THIS, except with huge thunderstorms practically every day. We had the dire drought of 2023 in May and June. The drought lasted exactly long enough for various of my less tolerant shrubs and trees to die because this year I wasn’t watering them, and also for the deer to run out of other things to eat and therefore bite the tops off flowers they usually leave alone, such as butterfly weed. THEN it started raining, and while I’m glad to have rain, let me just note that huge thunderstorms when I’m trying to get the dogs to go out are not convenient, and after the first ten inches of rain, one does wonder if moderation might not be possible.

ANYWAY, the above book is a good example of opening with setting. The first character shows up in the third long paragraph. Without reading further, this is so far WAY more appealing to me than the first two.

Somewhat reluctantly moving on:

4. The Master of All Desires by Judith Merkle Riley

Now, this one I got because I really loved a different series of hers. I know I got this a long time ago! I can’t believe I’ve never read it. There’s a prologue, brief, which I’m skipping for now; and a letter or something – oh an extract from the “Lost Journals of Nostradamus” – I’m skipping that too for the moment. Here’s the opening of chapter one:

“You,” said the stranger in the foreign doctor’s gown and square hat, eyeing me up and down, “you write bad poetry.” He had an annoying eye, and one of those long gray beards that catches crumbs. I did not deem him worthy of an answer. It was not clear to me how he had gained knowledge of my little effusions of the spirit, but I would never think to entertain conversation with such a rude personage in a public place. “You tinkle at the lute, write banal etudes for the virginals, and irritating essays on Nature,” he went on. “A dabbler at everything, who can’t resist prying into other people’s affairs.”

“We have not been introduced,” I said in my most cutting voice.

Ha ha ha! I don’t know that I like the protagonist particularly, but this is certainly a funny opening, and an interesting contrast to the historical mystery by Pears.

5. Journey Across the Hidden Islands by Sarah Beth Durst

Durst is one of those authors who’s a bit hit or miss for me, for reasons which are entirely inexplicable. That is, I didn’t really like Queen of Blood, slogged through it, started the second book, didn’t get that far, put it aside, and never went back to it. Why? What was the problem? No idea. I liked the protagonist, I liked a lot of secondary characters, I thought the world was intriguing, the writing itself was good … the pacing may have been a touch slow, but that’s almost never a problem for me … and I’m left with a shrug. I don’t know. I’ve liked plenty of her other books, including The Lost and Drink Slay Love and I don’t know what all. So, Journey Across the Hidden Lands. It’s MG. The description begins Seika and Ji-Lin always knew that one day a flying lion would deliver them to the dragon of the Hidden Islands, and I mean who doesn’t love that idea? Here’s the opening:

Don’t fall, don’t fall, oh no, I’m going to fall … crouching, Ji-Li raised her sword over her head. She counted to thirty and then straightened to standing, without falling. Slowly, she lifted one foot to her knee. Her other bare foot was planted on the top of a pole, on the roof of the Temple of the Sun, at the top of a mountain.

Sweat tickled the back of her neck, under her braid. She was supposed to be calm, like a bird on a breeze or a leaf in summer or some other very calm nature image she could never quite remember. But she felt jittery, as if all her muscles were vibrating.

A charming opening. I should leave this book upstairs on the coffee table, as a nice MG fantasy may be just right when I want to read something new. Except, I don’t know, kittens. Maybe I better not leave nice-looking hardcovers, which this is, on a table that kittens can get to. The dogs are all aware they shouldn’t touch books on the coffee table, but I have definitely had kittens not quite realize that from time to time.

Okay, let’s see …

6.  Little, Big by John Crowley.

This is another very big, fat book, and yes, sure, I love long novels, but even so, I keep not quite wanting to start this one. It’s supposed to be super impressive, with beautiful prose, and I don’t know if I want to pay that much attention. Here’s how it opens:

On a certain day in June, 19–, a young man was making his way on foot northward from the great City to a town or place called Edgewood, that he had been told of but had never visited. His name was Smoky Barnable, and he was going to Edgewood to get married; the fact that he walked and didn’t ride was one of the conditions placed on his coming there at all.

Though he had left his City room early in the morning, it was nearly noon before he had crossed the huge bridge on a little-used walkway and come out into the named but boundaryless towns on the north side of the river. Through the afternoon he negotiated those Indian-named places, usually unable to take the straight route commanded by the imperious and constant flow of traffic; he went neighborhood to neighborhood, looking down alleys and into stores. He saw few walkers, even indigenous, though there were kids on bikes; he wondered about their lives in these places, which to him seemed gloomily peripheral, though the kids were cheerful enough.

This strikes me as mildly engaging and interesting, but not all that catchy. I think this is the first time I’ve ever looked at the opening. I like it, but I have no immediate urge to go on.

Let me see … how about another one that is also supposed to be poetic:

7.  Someplace to Be Flying by Charles de Lint

I’ve actually never read anything by de Lint. Various people have assured me that this is a ridiculous failure, so I picked up several of his, but I still haven’t actually read any.

The streets were still wet but the storm clouds had moved on as Hank drove south on Yoors waiting for a fare. Inhabited tenements were on his right, the derelict blight of the Tombs on his left, Miles Davis’s muted trumpet snaking around Wayne Shorter’s sax on the tape deck. The old Chev four-door didn’t look like much; painted a flat gray, it blended into the shadows like the ghost car it was.

It wasn’t the kind of cab you flagged down. There was no roof light on top, no meter built into the dash, no license displayed, but if you needed something moved and you had the number of the cell phone, you could do business. Safe business. The windows were bulletproof glass and under the body’s flaking pain and dents, there was so much steel it would take a tank to do it any serious damage. Fast business, too. The rebuilt V-8 under the hood, purring like a contented cat, cold lunge to one hundred miles per hour in seconds. The car didn’t offer much in the way of comfort, but the kinds of fares that used a gypsy cab weren’t exactly hiring it for its comfort.

For some reason, this is more engaging to me than the opening of Little, Big. I wonder why? Just the threat of danger in this one? I don’t know; maybe that’s it. I think the back cover description is interesting; maybe that’s it.

Here’s one I’m picking out because I like the cover:

8. Breath of Earth by Beth Cato

I’ve never read anything by Cato. I’m sure I picked this book up at a convention, maybe World Fantasy, maybe WorldCon, but one convention or another. In 2016, apparently. Alternate history: “In an alternate 1906, the US and Japan have forged a powerful confederation – the United Pacific – in an attempt to dominate the world. Their first target is a vulnerable China.” Well, this sounds interesting, if not very plausible. Assassins, earthquakes, a world trembling on the edge of devastating war … sounds pretty high tension!

Ingrid hated her shoes with the same unholy passion she hated corsets, chewing tobacco, and men who clipped their fingernails in public. It wasn’t that her shoes were ugly or didn’t fit; no, it was the fact she had to wear them at all.

In the meeting chambers of the Earth Wardens Cordilleran Auxiliary, she was the only woman, and the only one in shoes.

Yeah, well, sounds interesting, but not like something I’m likely to read any time soon. It’s only been on the TBR shelves seven years; no need to rush into it.

9. The Secrets of Drearcliff Grange School by Kim Newman

I remember browsing shelves at an actual bookstore with a friend … I don’t know how long ago … and we both thought this one sounded fun and each bought a copy. I expect she’s read hers; looks like this one came out in 2015.

A week after Mother found her sleeping on the ceiling, Amy Thomsett was delivered to her new school. Like a parcel.

When the down train departed from Exeter St Davids, it was crowded with ruddy-faced farmers, tweedy spinsters, and wiry commercial travelers. Nearer the end of the line, Amy had a compartment all to herself.

She first saw Drearcliff Grange through the train’s smuts-spotted windows. Shifting from seat to seat, she kept the school in sight as long as possible.

Amy had hoped the name was misleading. It wasn’t.

I like this, and I like the back cover description, and I’m feeling like I might actually want to read this soon. Another one to leave upstairs rather than putting back downstairs!

Okay, one more. Hmm. How about this one, another school story:

10.  Evil Genius by Jinks

Sounds cute and fun and not very serious. Cadel Piggott’s parents thought he was brilliant … and dangerous. His therapist thought he could rule the world. They were right. That’s from the back cover. Here’s how it opens:

Cadel Piggott was just seven years old when he first met Thaddeus Roth.

Dr. Roth worked in a row house near Sydney Harbor. The house was three stories high, its garden shrouded by a great many damp, dark trees. There was moss growing on its sandstone window ledges. Curtains drawn across all its windows gave it a secretive air. Its front fence was made of iron, with a spike on top of each post; beside the creaking gate was a brass sing bearing Dr. Roth’s name and qualifications.

“That’s it,” said Mrs Piggott. “Number twenty-nine.”

I expect it gets more fun shortly, but right now this seems … a little … boring, maybe. Not very interested at the moment. Lots of great reviews. I’m assuming this is a fun book. All right, skimming ahead … yes, I do think the therapist’s waiting room adds some interest.

Okay! What do you think? Any of these jump out for you? If you’ve read any of them, what did you think?

For that matter, if you’ve got strong opinions about something else on the long list, jump right in! Thumbs up or thumbs down on whatever it is!

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Update: aargh, bored now

Okay, this past weekend, I quite suddenly hit the Bored Now stage of revision for INVICTUS.

I’m close to the end of this round of revision, thankfully, but abruptly working on it is like pulling teeth. Ugh! Tired of it! Don’t want to deal with it! Can I please set it aside and work on something else? And of course I can’t, because it’s up for preorder and there is no possible way to set it aside until it’s polished up.

Well, I shouldn’t complain, I guess. This is a pretty typical stage and I really am closing in on the end of this round of revision. I just don’t expect to enjoy anything to do with this story from this point until I can proofread the final-final-final version. Oddly, I usually like that part, or at least I don’t hate it. Oh, maybe that’s not odd. I think that’s because at that point I can stop being so critical and just read it, and that part is seldom as boring and never as annoying as repeated rounds of revision.


Yes, I’m definitely behind now with starting SILVER CIRCLE, which is annoying and contributing to how fed up I feel with INVICTUS. I still expect to finish a draft of SILVER CIRCLE this year, but I don’t expect it’ll be ready to release till next year. Which is fine, I guess, but it’s annoying. And whose fault is this?

Tuyo World Companion is at fault. Obviously. If I hadn’t put time into that, I’d have finished with INVICTUS long ago. On the other hand, I am now in the final-final-final proofing stage with the TWC and after swearing my way through hours (literally hours) of repeated attempts to figure out how to get the images to work in the paperback version, I did figure that out, so I’ve ordered a final-final-final proofing copy with all the images and rough drafts of the maps. (I don’t have final drafts of the maps). (Soon, I hope!)


I’ve got the following scenes in my head. NONE OF THESE IS SET IN STONE. Just having a scene in my head doesn’t mean that scene is going to appear in a finished story! Sometimes scenes shift and shift again, in pov, and who else is present, and when, and where, and everything, basically. Sometimes these early scenes disappear into the abyss because when I come to it, I write the story a completely different way. I’m just musing! Still, at the moment, I’ve got the following scenes in my head:

–The first chapter of MARAG, from Marag’s pov. There’s a prologue or a first chapter from Sinowa’s pov, which I have written and which I like, but I rather think the main story will start in Marag’s point of view, and then we’ll probably alternate points of view. I’ve got enough of this in my head that I think it’s likely to happen this way.

–The first chapter of RIHASIS, from Rihasi’s pov. I’ve got a chapter written from a different pov, but I rather think I will back up and write the opening chapter from Rihasi’s pov instead, starting a little bit earlier. Not sure, but I think that might be what happens.

–The first chapter of Tano’s next book, from Tano’s pov (of course), starting rather earlier than I expected, just one year after TANO. Not sure I’m going to use this scene at all, but, I mean, maybe. It would be reasonable to start there for a couple of different reasons.

–The first chapter of a story from Tathimi’s pov. That one is definitely set in the future, ten years after TASMAKAT.

–The first scene of a sequel to NO FOREIGN SKY, from Samuel Lockwood’s pov. It’s just a fragment, but it’s funny and I like it, and I think I am almost certain to pull Lockwood forward as a pov character. And most likely a turun character, maybe Aanhk. I’m going to limit myself to three pov — or, at least, that’s what I think I’m going to do — Lockwood, a turun, and Gerstner. Oh, and I have a great ending scene for this book as well, very dramatic and a bit of a cliffhanger. Not a dire cliffhanger, nothing terrible, not having someone abducted by the uut and then stopping right there, nothing like that. But certainly a very clear pointer to a third book, and in fact I have the first scene of THAT book in my head as well.

ALL OF THIS is in my head, plus SILVER CIRCLE, and here I am, stuck in revision. No wonder I’m gritting my teeth. Has anybody developed a magic clone spell yet? Because a couple magic clones would be handy.


Here’s a different version of a BookBub ad I made, on Mona’s suggestion to maybe line up most of the books along the bottom and stick the first book up in an eyecatching position.

I bet the sand-colored boxes would look better with black borders. But maybe I should go ahead and take Gaughran’s advice to use red boxes, more like this.

I haven’t decided what I think of lining smaller books up on the lower edge rather than this distribution:

And, with five days of ads, I suppose I will try both, along with different text, as shown here. To provide the clearest result, I ought not change things up too much — same arrangement with different text; different arrangement with the same text. Well, we’ll see! A couple of weeks to go.

OH! One more important bit of news! The gray kitten is a GIRL! In my defense, sexing five-week-old kittens is honestly rather difficult, and once I decided the three tabbies were all boys, I didn’t think about it again. My vet never takes these things on faith, and therefore the gray kitten, who was briefly Montgomery, is now Magdalene. The orange kitten, Maximilian, is indeed a boy.

Though I would have been fine placing these two in a good home, I also found myself thinking, if I wait fifteen or eighteen years, until I don’t have any dogs … how old will I be at that point? And do I really want to wait till I’m that old before I get kittens, who are also likely to live fifteen to eighteen years? So then I started thinking about names. I feel that a plain tabby needs a fancy name, hence Maximilian and Magdalene.

When they’re bigger — too big to slip right through the trellis that prevents puppies from falling off the deck — I will take a stab at teaching them to stay in the yard. The fence itself is kittenproof, I mean the wire, and there aren’t any gaps along the bottom, but a determined kitten could climb one of the big wooden fenceposts and get out. I don’t think I could ever have kept the tortoiseshell kitten in the yard; she was ridiculously committed to going straight up every vertical surface, but I do hope I might train these kittens that climbing fenceposts is not allowed. I’ve taught cats to stay off the kitchen counters, so … this should be reasonably possible. Plus I’m going to teach them that we get a special, special treat in the evening. I don’t want to have to keep the pet doors closed in nice weather, but I also don’t want to lose a cat to a fox, so we’ll see how it goes. At the moment, the pet doors are not a thing because it is appallingly similar to a sauna outside.

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Commonalities Between Heroes and Villains

From Writers Helping Writers, this post: Five Commonalities Between Heroes and Villains

I am immediately suspicious, as you might imagine. Not that I think there aren’t commonalities. Both hero and villain are probably human. I mean, I can think of exceptions, but that seems likely. I expect both hero and villain have some sort of past that involves, probably, good days and bad days. Possibly both hero and villain might pause to pat a puppy, who can say?

But a post title like this means I suspect the post is going to say something like, “Villains are the heroes of their own stories! We should have sympathy for the villain. Poor guy has a tragic past! You should make your reader feel your villain is understandable. The best villains are just one step away from heroes!”

And so on. I do not agree, or at least I agree only around the edges of this kind of notion, so I’m prepared to be quite critical of this post. But I haven’t read it yet, so maybe I should do that. Here’s how it starts:

It’s been said that the best villains don’t know they’re villains; they think they’re the hero of the story. And this is true because a well-crafted baddie has his own moral code. Compared to the protagonist’s, it’s twisted and corrupt, but it still provides guardrails that guide him through the story. 

Bold and link from the original, and yep, there we go, the villain is the hero of his own story. Well, I don’t care. I’m not interested in the ins and outs of the villain’s twisted moral code. I don’t care about the traumatic childhood that made the villain into the person he is today, and I most certainly do not want to be forced into the villain’s pov to explore any of that.

Because villains are typically evil, it’s easy to fill them up with flaws and forget the positive traits. But good guys aren’t all good and bad guys aren’t all bad, and characters written this way have as much substance as the flimsy cardboard they’re made of.

The statement above draws on both the “villains should be sympathetic” and “the villain is just a step away from the hero” ideas, but actually depends primarily on a ridiculous strawman argument. I mean, you can write a villain who is sympathetic and pats puppies, I’m not saying that can’t work or is a bad thing to do. Like everything else, if you do it well, it’s fine. But there’s little excuse for the strawman above. Good guys aren’t all good, really! Wow, there’s a revelation! Unlike ALL THE BOOKS where the good guy is ALL GOOD, you should take care to write a sophisticated story where the good guys have FLAWS. That would be so different!

Look, there is no need to state a strawman premise like this. You can just say: Your villain will be most persuasive/engaging/complex/human/interesting if he has good traits as well as bad traits. I would still disagree with that — I mean, I would disagree that it’s necessary to strive to make the villain complex, though you can do that if you want to. But at least that kind of statement wouldn’t be based on an assumption that lots of authors haven’t noticed that heroes can have negative traits or villains can have positive traits.

Well, I did mention that the post title put me in critical mode. Maybe I’m being unfair. Let me see where this post is going …

Why are [villains] the way they are? What trauma, genetics, or negative influencers have molded them into their current state? Why are they pursuing their goal—what basic human need is lacking that achieving the goal will satisfy?

Wow, this was a predictable post. That’s not me being hypercritical, it’s just true. I honestly did not read this post before predicting what points it would make, but there they all are.

Fine, you know what, let’s go in a different direction. Not Five Commonalities, but instead:

Five Types of Villains, Some Of Whom Are Not At All Like The Hero:

1) The villain who is the hero of his own story, because sure, sometimes that happens. His priorities are iffy. This would be … hmm. It would be like the villain in Sharon Shinn’s recent book, The Shuddering City. The villain is the sort who’s all about the greatest good for the greatest number, and a spot of human sacrifice here or there is a price he’s willing to pay. Or it would be like the King of Casmantium in The Griffin Mage trilogy, who’s decided that a small war that nets Casmantium a decent harbor is a fine idea if he can pull it off.

2) The villain who is all about getting rich or self-aggrandizement or whatever, and doesn’t care about the mayhem he commits on his way to his goal. The sociopathic type, I guess. This is a villain who won’t go out of his way to torture puppies, but doesn’t care if puppies are getting tortured. Let me think. Okay, I haven’t read these for years, but this is like Edward in the Anita Blake series by Laurel Hamilton. Who isn’t a villain, incidentally, but he’s definitely a sociopath. Who else? Oh, Jamie Lannister in Game of Thrones. Little kid sees you involved incestuously with your sister? Throw the child off a roof, problem solved. (Or it was supposed to be solved, I grant it didn’t work out that way.) Throwing that child off the roof was Jamie’s defining moment, though he certainly got worse from there.

3) The villain who has been forced into evil and has been too weak to prevent that from happening. This may be my very least favorite type of villain. We’re often supposed to sympathize with this villain. I don’t. Worst of all if this is the protagonist, or a protagonist. The Gaslight Dogs by Karin Lowachee offers a character like this: Jarrett, one of the two protagonists, begins the story passive, ineffectual, and callous; but at the end, he is evil. It’s a horrific character arc, a grimdark character arc, and I will never read a novel where this happens except by accident. Extreme Ugh.

4) The creepy villain you don’t understand at all. This is like Lilienne from The City in the Lake or the Wyvern King from The Keeper of the Mist. This kind of villain can work great! You get an uncanny valley feel from this villain, who is not sympathetic, not understandable, has no revealed backstory, and does not resemble the hero or, indeed, any normal person.

5) The sadistic, vicious villain who would torture puppies except he has human playthings instead. This is like Lorellan, obviously. It doesn’t matter that this is arguably not his fault. It doesn’t matter that the curse of sorcery flattened his personality and turned him into this kind of villain. He is not a bit sympathetic and he isn’t mean to be, his backstory is totally unimportant, and look at that, we have a bad guy with no good traits and does that ruin the story? No, it does not. This kind of flat villain is perfectly fine in some stories, and TUYO demonstrates that. In my admittedly biased opinion, but still.

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Common problems with dialogue —

A post at Anne R Allen’s blog: 9 Common Dialogue Problems—And How to Fix Them.

Here’s how this post begins:

What we’re looking for is believable dialogue, not realistic dialogue. In fiction, we’re usually aiming for believability, not realism.

And dialogue tags! Dialogue tags are probably the biggest problem in newbie writing. Is “said” really invisible?” We want to show a little creativity, but avoid the “Tom Swifty” trap

Yes, seems about right. Or maybe not quite, though those two things are certainly THE two things when writing dialogue: we want (a) the dialogue itself to sound good and (b) the dialogue tags to disappear from the reader’s attention. We also want something else, I think — no, two other things: we want the dialogue to establish character and we also want it to pull the reader into the setting. That’s definitely a lot to load onto the dialogue, but we want ALL of that. Let’s take a look at the linked post … okay, we just start by making the typical point, that to make dialogue sound right, it needs to sound real, which means it can’t be too realistic. That part is straightforward.

But the linked post says “we want to show a little creativity” in dialogue tags, but I don’t actually think “creativity” is what we’re going for in dialogue tags. Wait, let me rephrase that. I mean, I don’t think creativity is the aim AT ALL when it comes to dialogue tags; that’s the wrong way to frame it. Everyone’s all concerned about dialogue tags, that part is definitely true, but tension between creativity and “Tom Swifties” is not the reason. The thing with dialogue tags is: we want them to be clear but invisible. That’s why “he said, she said, he said, she said” can be just as obtrusive as “Tom Swifties.” AND we want the dialogue itself to build character, while we want the tags to build setting as the people speaking look or move around.

All right, back to the linked post. Nine common problems. What are these nine problems? Ten are actually given. The last supposedly isn’t a problem, but I think it can be. Let’s take a look:

1) Big Chunks of Dialogue with no Action or Internal Thought

Is that a problem? Yes, it is. Personally, if I think a character’s been speaking for a good while and the reader needs a break, good time to walk across the room and look out the window. Pick up a wine glass. Something. Anything! But yes, break up a big chunk of dialogue with action or — I would say — reaction. If someone’s saying something fraught, someone else ought to react to that. It needn’t be with internal thought, but it should be something.

2) Too Much Realism

Too obvious to bother pointing out. Sure, don’t make dialogue sound the way people really sound.

3) Not Enough Realism

Oh, now I see why we included point (2) — to provide a parallel for point (3), a much more interesting and important bit of advice.

If you use grammar rules for all dialogue, the third-grade dropout will speak as correctly as the lawyer or the librarian. So will the recent immigrant from Uzbekistan and the hairdresser from Queens. They’ll all sound exactly the same, and nobody will make any grammatical mistakes or use any kind of regional colloquialism.

I think of this when someone on Quora asks which is better for writing a novel, Grammarly or Writer Pro. Neither, of course, unless you are able to disregard ALL advice about correct grammar and punctuation when writing everything in general, but dialogue in particular. Grammarly will try to make every character sound like Mr. Spock, only stupider. If you can’t decline advice you know is wrong, or worse if you can’t tell the advice is wrong, prescriptive grammar checkers are going to lead you gently to disaster.

I have literally seen students take advice from a grammar checker to turn “Tourette’s syndrome” into “turrets syndrome,” by the way.

4) Reader-Feeder Dialogue: As-you-know-Bob

I think this is an interesting category, because in fact you can absolutely write good, believable “As you know, Bob,” dialogue. It’s not even hard. You do it like this:

“Forgive me; of course you know all this. I fear I’m a little fretful.”

“Now, I think we all agree thus and so and this and that, right? So then the question is …”

“All right, so let’s make sure we’re all on the same page here …”

And so on. There are zillions of situations in which somebody will explain or comment on something that the other characters already know. That’s not surprising, as in the real world, there are also zillions of situations where that happens, and I don’t mean situations where the office pedant insists on explaining in excruciating detail something everyone already knows. I mean people do this casually all the time, and you can make it sound fine in a novel as well. Not that you should do it for no reason, but if you have a reason to do it, you can do it so smoothly not a single reader will complain. Most won’t even notice, probably.

5) Show-offy Dialogue that Doesn’t Move the Story

Oh, well, I don’t know. I’m kind of a fan of witty, snappy dialogue. I don’t have any great gift for witty banter, I admire that in other people’s novels, and frankly if the banter is sufficiently witty, I’ll appreciate it for itself, even if the character has been quite sufficiently established and even if it doesn’t move the story forward. I’m thinking of Lindsay Buroker here. She can write clunky sentences in non-dialogue prose, but her dialogue is great. Who else does really good, witty banter? Ilona Andrews, especially in later books. Oh, Laura Florand. I was sorry when Laura Florand stopped writing. Hopefully she just turned her attention to other things, because her contemporary romances were the ones that got me reading the genre in the first place.

6) No Dialogue Tags

Yes, I’m sure we’ve all read passages of dialogue where we got lost and had to count up the lines to see who is speaking which part of the dialogue. That’s not great. There should always be enough tags to stop that from happening.

7) Cryptic Dialogue Tags

It is true that “he said” or “she said” tags are mostly invisible to the reader, while “he spat” or “she screamed” draw attention to themselves — often not in a good way. But that doesn’t mean he said/she said tags are the best way to attribute dialogue. Those tags can be boring. They also can withhold essential information.

After reading this section of the linked post, I think this means, basically, that the dialogue isn’t doing anything for characterization. That you know the “he” is a guy, but nothing else. I would add that if the characters aren’t (a) thinking, (b) reacting, or (c) moving, that you have quite likely fallen into a white room and the dialogue is not only failing to do anything for characterization, but also failing to bring the reader into the setting.

8) Improbable Dialogue Tags

I think we can all imagine what this means. This is your Tom Swifty and its cousins. “Hissed hysterically,” and so on.

9) Overloaded Dialogue Tags.

“I hate you,” Bob said, throwing the empty Oreo bag at Stephanie and watching it sail over her head onto the floor by the garbage can.

“I hate you more,” Marlene said, opening the kitchen cupboard and getting her box of Valentine chocolates, which she dumped on the table in front of Bob.

Yes, there’s such a thing as TOO much setting in the dialogue, and the sample provided crosses that line.

This segues to point 10:

10) Sometimes NO Dialogue Tags are the Answer

“I hate you.” Bob threw the empty Oreo bag at Marlene. It sailed over her head and landed on the floor by the trash can.

“I hate you more.” Marlene opened the kitchen cupboard and took out her box of Valentine chocolates. She dumped the contents on the kitchen table in front of Bob.

This is the one that’s supposedly not a problem, but the answer, or I guess an answer.

My reaction here is: Come on. Those are tags — those are movement tags. When it comes to dialogue, movement tags are one of the most useful techniques you can have in your toolbox. These particular movement tags are still overloaded imo, which is why this is not a get-out-of-jail-free card when it comes to dialogue. I agree that it does help to get rid of the “he said she said” part, but you can still pile too much movement into a tag and in this case, this is on the edge of doing that.

Not a bad post, though! I do think it’s better to ask not: What are common problems with dialogue? but instead: What is dialogue for and how can we do those things effectively? Having read this post, I think I would actually identify five different things dialogue can and should do. In no particular order — I started to try to arrange these in order of importance, but they’re all important —

Dialogue should:

  1. Engage the reader’s attention
  2. Convey information
  3. Build characterization
  4. Build the setting
  5. Move the plot forward

And while no particular bit of dialogue HAS to do all five things, I think a whole lot of dialogue DOES do all five.

Okay! Who’s especially great at dialogue? I mentioned three authors earlier, but I have a great appreciation for Lois McMaster Bujold in this regard. I specifically remember opening up one of the Vorkosigan books a long time ago, when I was just starting to write, to see how she handled dialogue. I thought at the time she was great with dialogue and I still think so now. Want to write great dialogue? Do it like that.

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Book Bub Ads: Exploring a new universe

All right, so, I have made my first tentative forays into the world of advertisement this year. I’m not trying to learn all about the Big Three Ad Platforms all at the same time, because (a) I don’t have time, and (b) learning about every aspect of marketing, ugh, please, no. One at a time is all I can tolerate.

I took a cursory look at Amazon ads, Facebook ads, and Bookbub ads and picked the latter to explore first because it looked like the simplest platform. I’ve poked at Facebook ads a little and seriously, ugh. It’s complex: it’s not intuitive AT ALL, as least not for me; it’s actively unpleasant to try to deal with it, and no thanks. I tried one Facebook ad without any particular enthusiasm or success last year and then set that platform aside for the present. Ditto with Amazon ads, except that platform doesn’t look nearly as difficult or unpleasant as Facebook. BookBub looked like the easiest interface.

So I read David Gaughran’s book about BookBub ads, and watched his video about using Canva to create BookBub ads, and looked at ads he says have been successful — all this in between waves of revision and proofreading and whatever else — and finally put together a series of ads I’m going to try out later in August, when I run a sale on the TUYO series.

Wait! You may be saying. A sale on the TUYO series? Should I have waited to get TASMAKAT? If that question occurs to you, the answer is no. I really don’t think it’s fair to early buyers to drop the price dramatically soon after releasing a book, so that’s one thing; plus it’s going to be a good long time before I get over wishing I’d brought it out as three books. I’m going to drop its price by a whopping one dollar and even that is just so Amazon puts a “lowest price in thirty days!” banner on it.

However, I’m going to discount the rest of the series heavily, run an aggressive ad campaign on Book Bub in conjunction with promotion services, and see what happens. Have I followed all of David Gaughran’s advice? No, I have not. I don’t have time to test each and every author whose followers I’m targeting. Would I have had time to do that earlier this year? I mean, maybe, if I’d jammed that kind of thing in with everything else. But I have genuinely been super busy this year, so if the ads don’t work as well as they might, fine. At least I understand the kind of testing he recommends, why he recommends it, and how to do it, so maybe later. For now, I’m skipping that step in the full understanding that this is possibly unwise. I am, however, following a lot of his other advice. Here, if you’re interested, take a look:

And this one

It’s exactly the same except the background is a little more faded. Maybe I should redo them all this way because this does make the book covers pop a little better, doesn’t it? But check out this one:

I have five iterations of this same basic ad, and let me just mention that honestly, Canva really is a great tool. Your image has to be 300×250, which you can specify, and you know what is especially helpful? You can copy a correctly sized template, erase everything you don’t want and add different elements. I did all this over the weekend, and it wasn’t awful. I’m far from a graphic designer, but if I saw some version of this ad, I’d probably click through. The tiger would catch my eye for sure. I’m making it as easy as possible for people to click through by making the first book free, so we’ll see how it goes.

Here’s what Gaughran says:

1) Use a background pulled from your bookcover. Drop the transparency of the background.

I wasn’t sure how far to drop the transparency of the background, so I tried different levels of transparency.

2) Put your actual bookcover on the ad. If you’re doing a series sale, put every single book in the series on the ad.

This seemed like a good idea, and thank you to the cover artist for automatically including 3D images which were perfect for this.

3) Put a big, obvious box on the ad that says “FREE” or “0.99” or “NEW” or whatever. Make the box red with white letters, black with yellow letters, or yellow with black letters. Don’t worry about whether that clashes with the book covers; statistically, ads with those colors of boxes and letters work better.

I couldn’t quite disregard all possible artistic judgment. I could not make myself use neon yellow or red. I tried, but it was really hard to disregard how awful that looks. I guess I should make a version with neon red and try it one day, then this more aesthetically tolerable red a different day.

4) Try different versions of the same ad because tiny tweaks can make a big difference.

BookBub ads are easy to adjust on the fly (says Gaughran). You can switch out the ad image every day, drop more money into the ad if you like, and changes are practically instantaneous.

5) Use Cost Per Thousand Impressions (CPM) rather than Cost Per Click (CPC). Bid high-medium to promote a sale, and bid uneven amounts. That is, if you want to bid $12, don’t, bid $12.06 instead.

I don’t remember the reasoning for the first bit of advice, except it’s supposed to work best if you do author targeting and testing the way he wants you do, which I didn’t. The reasoning for the second bit of advice is obvious: you’ve just outbid everyone who bid $12 even or $12.01 or $12.05.

6) If you’re running a series sale, take out all the automatically generated links to the first book and drop in links to the actual series page. Do that for the US, UK, and maybe CA Amazon pages.

Canada is not included in countdown deals. If you’re going to manually lower the prices, you can include Canada, and now I get why Gaughran spent some time explaining how and why to target different countries that are not the US. Canada is included in free deals — every country is included in free deals.

Either way, targeting the series page is a very good idea! I wouldn’t have realized that was possible, but it’s actually easy.

Final note: What does Gaughran mean by “testing authors?”

When you’re setting up Book Bub ads, you can tell the ad to target readers of fantasy AND you can tell it to target readers who follow, say, Guy Gaviel Kay or Kate Elliot. According to David Gaughran, you should look at Book Bub through the reader interface, not the author (“partner”) interface, and take a quick look at all the authors whose readership should reasonably overlap with yours to see how many followers (not readers) they have. You should then pick out ten to twenty authors, each with 1000 to 20,000 followers, then test each author by dropping your book to $0.99 and running the same exact ad targeted to one author at a time, one day each, dropping $15 or so into each ad. I’m sure the point of this exercise is obvious. What Gaughran says is that once you find out which authors’ followers work best for you, that result tends to remain consistent long-term. That may be, but as I say, I haven’t done this. Maybe later this year, maybe next year. I’m willing to go to the trouble when I have time and attention to spare.

Which authors’ readers ought to overlap with mine? Well, I think Kate Elliot is a good choice, Guy Gaviel Kay, Sharon Shinn, Robin McKinley, CJ Cherryh, maybe Robin Hobb. I came up with twenty names or so, including pulling some by looking to see whose books are recommended on TUYO’s page on Amazon, and dropped a lot of them into the targeting for the ad.

I guess it also makes sense to ask you all, anybody who has read this post: Who are some of your favorite authors? Because maybe I should add them to the upcoming ad targeting.

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Update: SO BUSY, but making progress on everything

All right, so, this past week involved:

A) Proofreading the Tuyo World Companion

B) Listening to the audiobook of TANO and making many, many corrections. Well, probably not that many REALLY, compared to making corrections when actually proofreading, but it probably seemed like a lot to the narrator, alas! He should be loading the corrected files to ACX soon, maybe today, and then I will listen to the full thing again. Which I will enjoy very much. I got a remarkable amount of dusting done while listening to it the first time, a win all the way around.

Comments about the audiobook: To me, this voice sounds right for Tano himself. As has happened with Patrick McCaffery’s Ryo, Aras, Geras, and others, I’m hearing Tano with this voice now. Even more important — and I’m not sure why this strikes me as so utterly crucial — but this narrator (Timothy Little, so if I say “Timothy,” you’ll know who I’m talking about) — anyway, Timothy gets Raga’s cheerful tone exactly right. That seemed to be a serious challenge, as almost no one who auditioned got Raga anywhere close to right, and I guess his voice is so clear to me I couldn’t stand it. He’s cheerful! He’s light-hearted! If he’s got depths (and he does) they’re hidden most of the time!

Timothy also made all four young men sound different from each other, SUCH a challenge, and to my great delight, Sinowa and Marag both sound a LOT like they do in the audiobooks of TUYO and TARASHANA. Ryo sounds a bit different, but fine. Aras sounds different, but acceptable. Did I mention Raga sounds great? Raga sounds great. Getting Tano and Raga both right means that when I pick up these young men again and write the next book from Tano’s pov, I’ll probably be asking Timothy to do that one as well. Timothy does pronounce “inTasiyo” differently than I do, and seemed really stuck on his pronunciation there, and I finally said fine, let it go, and let myself get used to it. I guess I hereby declare that the people that far to the west pronounce some words differently than the people closer to the inGara tribe.

So that will be out soon, and btw the audiobook for SUELEN should be right behind this one; SUELEN’s narrator told me he is also closing in on that one.

C) Lots of progress on this semi-final revision of INVICTUS, and I am now officially tired of this story. I got pretty far with revisions before that happened. I think the problem is not just that I’m impatient to move on to other projects, but that I have been practically experiencing whiplash going back and forth between the world of Tuyo and this world.

However, I’ve made enough progress that the thought of the fast-approaching upload deadline is not quite as terrifying as it was this time last week. I’m still making minor tweaks to CAPTIVE, but I should have that one fully tweaked way before the mid-September deadline, and I got surprisingly close to all the way through CRISIS this weekend considering this is a fairly extensive, thoroughly annoying revision.

Among other things, Mike S pointed out a serious worldbuilding problem — a “why didn’t they?” question involving absolutely crucial backstory — and I will just say, this is the kind of thing I REALLY NEED early readers to spot, so that readers who pick up the final version don’t ask, “But why didn’t they?” about that element. In my experience, practically anything can be made to look sensible and plausible, but only if you realize there’s a plausibility problem before it’s too late. In this case, since I was stuck for a good answer to this question, I called my brother and said, “Craig! Why didn’t they?” and we kicked ideas back and forth and boom, ten minutes later I had two different good answers to this backstory question.

Next step, tweaking CAPTIVE to integrate the answer to the “why didn’t they” question plus resolve other issues early readers have tripped over. Also finishing this round of revision with CRISIS and sending the revised version to early readers. Will I have this done before August? Ha ha ha, sob, not a chance. Will I have it done before August 15th? Wow, I sure hope so. Will I have it done before the deadline? YES.

Take home message: it is IMPOSSIBLE to give yourself too much lead time for revision, especially if you’re not keen on stress.

D) Kittens! Alas, I still have all four.

Can you spot all three kittens?

I’ll be making a real effort to find a place for at least two of them in the next week or so. I don’t want to wait till school starts. That’s a good time, of course, but they’ll be practically teenagers by the end of August, less cute, more difficult to place. If I have to, I’ll take them to a rescue or shelter, if there’s anything in St L or some other decent-sized nearby town that has a place open. But I really, really do not want to drop a tabby kitten into a shelter. I fear he would languish, ignored for any kitten that is not tabby.

The kittens have hit an exploratory period as distinctive and obvious as when puppies hit it. I didn’t know kittens did that! But between one day and the next, they’re exploring downstairs. Guess what’s downstairs? That’s right, the bedroom. The orange tabby spent the night curled right next to my pillow. As far as I can tell, he purred all night. I bet you can surmise which kitten I would most be okay with keeping. I could see myself keeping the orange kitten and a gray tabby brother. None of the boys are as venturesome as the Tortie, or as the female kitten last year. I don’t know whether that’s coincidence or if female kittens are more venturesome in general, which seems weird, but I don’t know. I sort of hope these male kittens might stay in the yard rather than trying to get over the (high) fence. The little Tortie, not a chance. She’d definitely go through or over any possible barrier.

UPDATE: almost as soon as I posted this, I got a response for the two kittens I would most like to place — hopefully by tonight, the Tortie and a gray tabby brother will be settling into a new home!

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Story vs Plot vs Theme

A post at Writers Helping Writers: Story vs. Plot vs. Theme: Know Your 5Ws and H

First reaction: Five Ws, hmm? And an H. Right up front, I’m feeling skeptical. I guess this is what, why, who, when, where, and how, and I think that is not remotely helpful because fiction is not journalism and because, as a discovery writer, I’m going to start off knowing Who and Where in a very limited sense, and that’s it. Also, none of that gets at theme.

Unless I’m wrong and the journalism thing isn’t where this post is going. Let’s take a look!

No, this is totally the journalism thing.

Journalism writing often uses the 5W1H structure. The first few paragraphs of a news article should answer 6 basic questions (which start with 5 Ws and an H): Who, What, When, Where, Why, and How. While fiction writing doesn’t try to cram the essentials into the beginning paragraphs, those same questions are important for our storytelling. In fact, we can use specific questions from that structure to understand the big picture—or essence—of our story, plot, and theme.

Bold in the original, and I have my doubts about whether this is useful, at least for non-outliners.

First, though, we need to understand that our story and our plot are not the same. A story is about our characters’ struggle, while a plot is the events that reveal the characters and choices explored in the story.

There, I agree. Bold is still in the original.

Anyway, we now use the journalism thing to, essentially, rough out an outline. I think this is all useless and annoying, like everything else that involves outlining. But you know when it could be useful? Not before writing the novel; no. I think this could be handy when writing a synopsis, or more particularly when writing a one-sentence summary, a query, or back cover description. That’s when you need to write, essentially:

When ________ faces _______, he must _________ in order to ___________.

And that’s the basic structure of a one-sentence summary. That’s a way of encapsulating character and plot, and it’s very much a who-what-why kind of structure. It doesn’t touch theme, though. Nothing in this touches theme. How does the linked post get to theme? With “Why,” like this:

Why? Why does our character participate in the story (in the big picture)? …. Our Why answers help us narrow down what we’re trying to say with our story, which then helps us define our intended themes. Our protagonist could learn to not take life for granted. Our plot events could present reasons and opportunities for our protagonist to give up, but they believe in the importance of their actions and make choices revealing their persistence. 

I seldom intend themes. Themes, to me, are something that emerge, not something I intend from the beginning. Oh, there’s one Black Dog novella where I realized what at least one important theme was almost at the beginning and deliberately strengthened that theme (family). Usually I notice themes late, or I don’t notice themes at all.

Anyway, I’d do it this way:

Plot is what happens.

Story is how the characters cope with what happens.

Theme is what the story means, not just to the characters, but also to the author and the readers.

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How real are your characters?

At Writer Unboxed, a post by Juliet Marillier: Princess, Washerwoman, Warrior, Goatherd: How Real are Your Characters?

This post caught my eye because, I mean, Juliet Marillier! She’s a wonderful writer! Usually wonderful! Stylistically wonderful, and often a great storyteller; sometimes I love her books and I always love her actual writing. How does she start this post?

In traditional storytelling, especially in fairy tales, the main characters often don’t have names. Instead they are referred to only by their roles: the tailor, the shepherdess, the knight, the princess, the giant. … Legends are different, being almost always associated with a particular location, a notable event that took place (or may have taken place) there, and a person or being: Robin Hood, William Tell, King Arthur. Each of those has some historical basis, but in the cases of Arthur and Robin, the old story has morphed over the years into an elaborate piece of (mostly) fantasy. … Today’s writers, and fantasy writers in particular, have produced some ground-breaking work when re-interpreting well-known, and often well-loved, traditional stories. A case in point is Juliet E McKenna’s The Cleaving ... In this compelling novel, the heroic trappings of the Arthurian story are stripped away, and we are confronted with the gritty reality of the time and culture through the eyes of the women in the tale.

I’m pausing here to react.

AAAAGH no please do not show me the gritty reality of the time and culture! Not through the eyes of the women OR the men! While I wish Juliet McKenna all the luck in the world with her book, I’m also making a firm mental note not to read it myself. No, thank you!

I’m sticking with Mary Stewart’s version. Which, wow, is not available in a Kindle version. Why, why, why do publishers DO this? I had to search multiple times in multiple ways, finally found an audio version, from there I could get to a paperback version, and from THERE finally I could get to series page, which lists a kindle version, except that is not actually available! For crying out loud!

I am debating whether it might be nice to get this series in audio format. The language is beautiful. The pace is slow. Would the beautiful prose make the pace a pleasure rather than otherwise? Not sure. I think I’ll just add the audio version to my wishlist so I don’t totally forget it’s available.

Back to the linked post:

For purposes of this post, I tried giving my current cast of characters names like those in old fairy tales: the Girl; the Goatherd; the Guard; the Adviser; the Ruler; the Bishop; the Commander…. But that kind of name is inadequate for the three-dimenstional human beings I’m trying to create on the page … Each of them with a personal journey to make. Instead I’d have to make some kind of list
A person with a perilous ability
– A person blind to the needs of others
– A person with a secret agenda
– A person who finds it impossible to tell a lie
– A person expert at twisting words to convey a particular message
– A person whose religious beliefs drive their every decision
– A person who believes the end justifies the means, however cruel those means may be
– A person who will do just about anything to salvage their reputation

The next step, of course, is getting inside the head of even the most misguided member of this lineup and understanding why they do what they do. Then crafting each journey. Does that character change along the way? Do they learn anything? Do they become wiser? And how does that come about? With those whose general outlook on life is similar to mine it’s not so difficult. With others it’s super-challenging. But worth it when the words flow and the true individual emerges like a butterfly from the chrysalis, a real person who has well and truly earned their name.

I don’t think I ever try to encapsulate characters in neat little phrases like that. I don’t mean I think that’s a useless thing to do; actually, that sounds like kind of a neat idea. Although sometimes I think if you try to capture someone in a sentence like that, you risk making that character too one-dimensional. I think I would lean more toward

A person whose religious beliefs drive their every decision, until the beliefs they thought they held most dear turn out to be in total opposition to something they know is true or something they have to do, and then they have to reassess everything and reinterpret what they thought they believed.


A person who believes the end justifies the means, however cruel those means may be, until they realize they’re in danger of going too far. Maybe they have gone too far, and now they realize they need to back up and redeem some possibly terrible mistake.

If the character is a protagonist or an important secondary character, then you’re likely to need to keep going into the back half of that kind of encapsulation. Otherwise the character is going to be flat. Some kinds of stories work fine with flat characters; it depends. But saying “A person whose religious beliefs drive their every decision” does not strike me as actually any more detailed than saying “The bishop.” Both look equally simplistic to me.

Marillier winds up her post by asking:

Writers, how well do you know your characters, both major and minor? How do you go about forming them? At what point in the writing process do they become real for you (so that you know subconsciously how they will react in any given situation?) Do their names play any part in the process of character development?

I don’t know. I mean, I don’t think I can exactly tell. I think I know who important characters are, I think they’re real for me, in the first scene. I’m not completely sure about that, because maybe I actually discover who they are (within broad limits) as I write the first couple of scenes. But I think I knew Aras would say kindly, “I think you’re judging yourself much too harshly” before he had reason to say it, and I think I knew Ryo was the kind of person who would knock Aras off his horse and save his life before it happened. Those are the kinds of characters I like to write about, so that’s what my characters are like.

I think I know much less about my villains than about other characters. That’s why reviews sometimes point out that my bad guys are flat. Sometimes that’s because the villain is actually a pretty simple person — the madness really did flatten Lorellan’s character; that was an actual thing. He couldn’t be complex because the madness was driving him. You know, that would be interesting to do sometime — show a sorcerer in this world who is sliding into evil and can tell and still retains individuality and complexity. And comes to Aras for help and the story goes on from there, and yes, one of you here suggested this idea and I do think that’s a great idea. I even have a potential scene from that story in my mind, though I hadn’t thought of that in exactly this way before.

Sometimes my bad guys are flat just because they’re flat. I don’t think I did a lot with the villain in the Death’s Lady series. Ambitious, manipulative, long-range planner, not a nice person, that’s pretty much it. Not particularly well-developed. I wasn’t particularly interested in him and he’s just well-developed enough to play his role in the plot and that’s it.

Antagonists aren’t the same. I like antagonists just fine and they turn into real people for me. I’m thinking of Oressa and Gulien’s father in The Mountain of Kept Memory; he was much more ambiguous than most of my antagonists. Or, maybe the king of Casmantium, the Arobern, in the Griffin Mage trilogy. He’s much more interesting than an actual villain. Oh, side note, looks like Hatchette has put the whole trilogy on sale at $1.99, which they do periodically but unpredictably, so I strongly suggest you pick it up now if you haven’t and think you might someday like to read it.

However, ordinarily, I’m just not very interested in the bad guy, and sometimes that shows. It gives me something to work on, I guess. But there’s zero chance I will ever put as much attention into writing real villains as I do into writing good guys.

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