Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Review - Old Man's War by John Scalzi

For my August selection for the 2011 Speculative Fiction Reading Challenge, hosted by the review blog Floor to Ceiling Books, I read John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War, a military science fiction novel in the tradition of Robert A. Heinlein.

Before I get into the book, I wanted to let you know that NPR recently released their reader’s poll for the 100 Best Science Fiction and Fantasy Books. Old Man’s War is ranked #74 (Heinlein’s works are at #17 Stranger in a Strange Land, #31 Starship Troopers, and #34 The Moon is a Harsh Mistress). Sunshine, another book I’ve reviewed for this challenge made an appearance on the list too at #92.

Old Man’s War is set in a future where people who turn 75 have the option to enlist in the Colonial Defense Forces and extend their life as a super solider instead of dying of old age on Earth. John Perry decides to enlist in the CDF, a military organization wholly dedicated to ensuring humans stand a chance in a universe where other alien races are far more advanced than the people of Earth ever thought.

Perry becomes bigger, faster, stronger than he ever was thanks to genetic engineering. He is also issued a BrainPal, an implant that provides him with information, logistics support, and a means to communicate instantaneously with his fellow soldiers.

I must confess that this book was my first foray into military science fiction. Old Man’s War took a unique concept and managed to balance developing a main character while plunging him into an impossibly huge milieu.

There was a good bit of action and I appreciated the fact that each fight scene had a different character to it to keep things from getting repetitive: ambush, one-on-one, ground attacks. Despite all the gee-whiz technology, people still got hurt, still got killed.

And I kept turning the pages. The writing was tight and largely unadorned. But I’m still left feeling a bit underwhelmed. I don’t think this is the book’s fault – more my lack of connection with the subgenre.

But Old Man’s War is still worth reading for anyone wanting to immerse themselves in science fiction. There are two more books in the series The Ghost Brigades and The Last Colony. For those of you who have read the trilogy, is worth reading on?

Be sure to check out other August reviews for the Speculative Fiction Reading Challenge.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

My First Rewrite Request

I sent off a short story to an anthology in recent months. My first anthology submission.

In the past, I’ve shied away from such things. Sometimes the calls are simply too vague. Other times they are so specific, I wonder how the editors can get anyone to write a story for them let alone a whole book full.

Plus, when you write a story for an anthology on spec, you automatically reduce the appeal of that story to other markets. If you get rejected, that’s it. (Don’t believe me? Clarkesworld Magazine specifically lists "stories originally intended for someone's upcoming theme anthology or issue" as something they are NOT seeking in their submission guidelines.) That and we’ve all heard horror stories about anthologies that never materialize despite best efforts on all sides.

So writing a story worth writing for an anthology can be a risky proposition. But this case* was different. Within a few days of seeing the call, I had a story idea. And then I was writing said idea. And the next thing I knew, I had a fully realized story I was proud of. So I figured, why not?

I tinkered a bit, and then as the clock ticked down on the deadline, I sent it off. And I was fairly optimistic. I was pleased with how the story turned out and I knew the story was flexible enough I could rework it for another market if it was passed over. And best of all, by submitting, I was pushing myself to do something different. I was showing up to work, so to speak. I was taking my writing seriously.

A few weeks went by and then I received an email that my story had been shortlisted for the anthology – not a sure thing, but it was welcome news nonetheless.The only caveat was the editor wanted revisions.

I stared at my computer screen and blinked. Revisions… I had already shifted gears and was working on another project, and now he wanted me to go back? My story was fine as it was…wasn’t it?

He told me he loved the story concept and my character’s voice, but he wanted more. Especially at the end when the story just sort of stopped without a clear resolution.Ambiguous endings are kind of my thing, didn’t he know that? Maybe he fell into the camp that thinks ambiguous endings are a copout. Maybe they are…

I didn’t know what to do. I wanted another publication credit so bad, I thought I would do anything to get it. But how could I expand a story I thought was complete? How could I not?

Just like everything else with writing, a rewrite request can shake the foundation of your self-confidence. As writer Wendy Wagner describes in her Rewrite Request post for Inkpunks:
Getting a request for revision scares the crap out of me. On one hand, it’s wonderful to hear that your story has caught the attention of an editor. The things that are good about your piece are clearly working. But then you’re challenged to go beyond your original concept and make changes. I always worry that in fixing the problems (or shifting the concept, in the case of one piece), I might destroy all the good stuff by accident. And I also worry that I just don’t have the talent or intelligence to solve a problem I clearly missed on my own.
I was seriously considering writing back to the editor and saying I couldn’t make the changes he wanted, that it would change the vision I had of my story. And that’s when it hit me. How to expand the story in a way that would flesh out some of the things he was concerned about but stay true to my original concept.

And as I dug in and made the changes, I realized he was right –- there was more to tell, and my story only got stronger. After seeking reassurance from some writing friends, I sent if off a second time. This time I got a firm acceptance, and needless to say I’m thrilled.*

I still shudder when I think I almost withdrew my submission when faced with a rewrite. I could have gotten precious about my "art" and refused to make changes, but I didn’t. And I’m glad because it:
  • Resulted in stronger story
  • Forced me to look at my work in a new way
  • Gave me the confidence that my work and abilities are strong enough to handle bumps like this
  • Gave me a taste of what professional writers deal with regularly
  • Resulted in another publication credit
How can you argue with that? Have any of you faced similar problems? How did you negotiate changes with the editor?

*I have declined to name the anthology since the editors have not yet made the formal announcement as to which authors are included. When they do, I will be sure to share the details. Anyone with a burning desire to know may email me.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Writer's Platform Building Campaign

Just a quick note to tell you about the Third Writer's Platform Building Campaign, hosted by Rachael Harrie of Rach Writes.

The goal is to connect bloggers with one another to foster networking and genuine connections between writers in similar areas. The Campaign will run from August 22nd to October 31st, with campaign challenges scheduled over the next few months. There's even a twitter hashtag for the group: #writecampaign

To learn more about the campaign, go HERE.

To sign up to be a campaigner, fill out this FORM.

Whether you choose to join the campaign or not, happy writing!

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Get Thee to WriteOnCon

What, you actually expected a post today with actual content? During Day 2 of WriteOnCon 2011? Silly human.

In case you don’t know (somehow), WriteOnCon is a free online conference put on by Kidlit authors, agents, and editors. It is the place to be if you write picture books, middle grade, or young adult.

The full schedule is here.

You can register here to post in the forums and potentially have your work critiqued by ninja agents.

There’s also a forum dedicated to matching up critique partners.

Missed yesterday? Lydia Sharp has a post with the highlights of Day 1.

And if you want to start at the beginning, read my 2010 Write On Con Recap covering the best content from last year.

Happy Writing!

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Description and Your Characters' Lens

I’m in what I think is the final round of revisions for my historical romance. I’ve said this before, but hopefully, it’s true this time.

I’ve been incorporating feedback from my critique partners, trying to eradicate nefarious narrative distance, and have found a group of local writers to serve as betas as I get closer and closer to the finish line (the finish line in this scenario is the querying phase).

One thing that came up after my betas read the first section of my novel was the need for more physical description of place and character – something both my CPs alluded to as well. Admittedly, description is tough for me – I find long passages of description boring as a reader and tend to keep the description in my own writing as concise and functional as possible. Especially in my historical romance, where many details are the result of conjecture despite the research I’ve done. Basically I'm terrified of getting my wrists slapped by a history buff for any assumptions I've made about the time period.

This is complicated by the fact that my heroine is already well versed in my story’s setting, so it doesn’t make sense for her to spend her “stage time” waxing on about the castle where she lives, the people she interacts with. They just are to her. Familiar. Taken for granted. A given.

But to my hero (and newcomer to this world), these things are worth mentioning as he takes in the sights and sounds and passes judgment on them.

Therefore I’ve created a rule for myself: In a character’s POV, the description is going to emphasize primarily new information.

Character ------> New Information

So, in my story, my characters will be focusing on different things in their POV scenes:

Heroine ----> hero and his men
(since she is already familiar with the setting)

Hero -------> heroine and setting
(since he is already familiar with his men)

What’s left over is context, exposition, backstory. As well as character's thoughts, emotion, and physical markers of emotion, which to me is different from physical descriptions of characters and setting -- the type of description I'm focusing on for this post.

Unlike a story in first-person, where all the information must reach the reader through one perspective, in dual-POV stories (like most romances published today) the choice of what is described, when, and by whom, can not only move the story forward but speak to character as well.

As I revise and look for places to reduce narrative distance and add description, I’m trying to keep in mind the notion that my characters will be more aware of others’ actions and their surroundings, and place less importance on their own actions:

Therefore, when I’m writing a scene from my hero’s POV, he might acknowledge the fact he smiles to some comment another character makes and leave it at that. But when the heroine smiles, he’ll pass judgment on that action, no matter how slight. Does her lip curl up? Can he see her teeth? Does it remind him of the kiss they shared the scene before?

Not only does this help me vary physical cues, but enhances my hero’s perspective (and by extension his character) and give me an opportunity to flesh out parts of my novel that need more description.

This is a subtle shift, but an important one for someone like me who tends to let the reader’s imagination do the heavy lifting in terms of fully visualizing scenes.

What ways do you use your characters’ lens to pass on information to the reader?

Friday, August 5, 2011

Liebster Blog Award

Thanks to Caitlin Vincent at Musings of an Ordinary Mind for bestowing upon me the Liebster Blog Award. Liebster means "friend" in German.

This award is intended to connect bloggers, specifically those with less than 200 followers. In accepting the award, I must:
  • Show my thanks to the blogger who gave me the award by linking back to them.
  • Reveal me top 5 picks and let them know by leaving a comment on their blog.
  • Post the award on my blog.
  • Bask in the love from the most supportive people on the internet—other writers.
  • And best of all – have fun and spread the karma.
And behold. Here are my blogging buddies I am happy to share this award with:

1) Anonymeet of By Anonymous Writer
2) Jen McConnel at Carolina Yankee
3) Sophia Chang at Sophia the Writer
4) K.B.Owen, Mystery Writer
5) M.E. at Sticking to the Story

Have a good weekend and happy writing!

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

And Now for Something Completely Different

That’s what I did this weekend: Something different.

The husband of a friend of mine was asked to teach a self-defense class at the local Y, aimed at women starting their first year of college. Since he never taught this type of class before, he asked me, his sister, his wife, and a couple of her friends to come over to their house to practice the class. He’d get a chance to troubleshoot the material while we learned how to defend ourselves.

Now, I have never taken a self-defense course in my life. I’m at the taller end of the spectrum and athletic in the sense that I played sports in high school and still do stuff to stay in shape. I’d like to think I’m not an easy target, which is probably why I’ve never been in a situation where I’ve needed to “defend” myself.

But it just so happens that I put a lot of my female characters in situations where they need to defend themselves, and until this weekend, I only had my imagination to guide me in crafting those scenes.

The class had a presentation component and then a hands-on part where we practiced kicks, punches, and techniques to maim opponents. It was surprisingly fun and hugely informative – especially for that writing part of my brain.

For example, personal attacks are usually power-based crimes, where the offender is seeking control over another person (sex is only part of the equation). And it is essential that they win the confrontation. In the attacker’s frame of mind, they must be justified in attacking, there must be no other alternatives, the benefits of the attack outweigh any consequences, and they must have the ability to attack. Without all these factors, they will choose another victim or opportunity to strike.

There are certain behaviors that can signal trouble:

Forced teaming – where the attacker will align themselves with you in a certain situation to gain trust and receive preferential treatment.

Charm – a learned social skill directed at you to receive preferential treatment

Too many details – the attacker creates a story to gain your trust but includes too many details to create illusion of authenticity

Typecasting – the attacker fits you into a social group you don’t want to be a part of so that you react against it and behave in the manner the attacker wants.

Loansharking – the attacker gives you something you didn’t ask for so you feel indebted to them

Unsolicited promise – The attacker says, “I’m just going to do x, and that’s it. I promise.” You believe them and let down your guard.

People who discount the word “No” – You say no. The attacker presses the issue, and you say, “Well, ok.” Cycle continues, chipping away at your consistency so that when you say no and mean it, the attacker disbelieves you.

Many of these behaviors are also found during the courtship and seduction of characters in romance novels as well. I’m not sure what the lesson there is, but it’s something to think about…

I also got a review of flight-or-fight behaviors:
  • Tunnel vision
  • Acceleration of heart and lungs
  • Constriction of blood vessels to unneeded parts of the body
  • Dilation of blood vessels to muscles
  • Shakiness
  • Degradation of fine muscle control
Some of these behaviors show up in my actions scenes, and some of them I’ll be sure to include for that extra punch of authenticity.

Also – and I can’t stress this enough – doing the actual punches and kicks and whatnot opened up a whole mess of sensory impressions I can use in my fight scenes. Before, I would envision a scene and write it down, relying primarily on visual impressions. I thought that was enough. I was wrong.

Now I know the proper techniques of some moves and can better explain them. I know what it feels like to be that close to another person with your hand on their windpipe or your knuckles knotted in their hair. It makes a huge difference, and if you can add those details to your story, it will certainly kick things up a notch.

Have you ever done something on a lark and had the experience enrich your writing abilities?
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