Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Book Review: So Shelley by Ty Roth

Wow I’m behind on this Debut YA challenge.

I think part of the reason is that it took me a very long time to finish So Shelley. This isn’t because it’s a bad book by any matter of means. Actually, I found it rather enjoyable. It’s just that it wasn’t the sort of good that made me want to pick it up again and again.

For me, there are two kinds of good books: the really exciting, really good ones that drag me away from my work and make me want to read them because I can’t wait to see what happens next; and the good ones that I’m very happy to have on a long plane trip or family vacation. So Shelley is in a later category, and the problem was that I didn’t have plane trip to read it on.

So Shelley is probably the most obvious YA literary fiction novel that I’ve ever seen – in both a figurative marketing and an oddly literal sense. The main characters are romantic poets and famous friends John Keats, Lord Byron, and Percy Bysshe Shelley as modern-day teenagers. At first, that sounds...well, kind of like a bad fan fiction, doesn't it? But it's really not. It's facinating.

So Shelley is good on all fronts: it's well-written, the characters are strong, and the story – in which Keats and Gordon (Byron) steal Shelley’s ashes to fulfill her final wish – is intriguing. The prose can be a little clumsy and adverb-heavy sometimes, but it is not bad by any matter of means. I think the strongest point is the characters, since they're interesting enough to even make the long flashbacks to the obnoxious back story of Gordon Byron entertaining.

But once I put the book down, I had very little drive to go back to it. It is definitely not the sort of fast-passed action book that drags you back night after night; rather, it has a slow, leisurely pace that is very satisfying when taken in large chunks. That’s really the only way you can absorb all of the heavy themes and characters involved.

It’s not perfect by any matter of means, but really, any criticism I’d try to give at this point would just be knit picking. So Shelley can be a very fulfilling book, if you’re looking for that sort of thing, and if you have the patience to take it on.

My advice for reading this book: settle down with it over a comfortable weekend and take the time to be immersed in it. At the very least, you’ll come away with a few new thoughts in mind and a relatively satisfying experience.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Gender Blender

Allow me to state the obvious: I am a woman.

Allow me to state the not-so-obvious: I write a lot of male protagonists.

By “protagonist” I mean, the primary focal character. In works with several “main” characters, the protagonist is the big hero, the point of view character, the “PC” in video-game terms. The one you could pick out and say, “Yes, this is his story,” if you really had to.

Three out of four stories on my Works page have a male protagonist. When you take in the WIP’s that I’d rather keep to myself for now, that ration rises to four out of six. Adding in ren’py games makes it five out of eight. There’s no particular reason for it, mind you – this is just how the stories come out in my mind.

Apparently, this is a problem.

See, I’ve had more than a few of fellow YA nuts – including a panel of agents at DFW Con – tell me that selling YA fiction with a male protagonist is hard, because most YA readers are young women. And that, well, baffles me.

Allow me to re-state the obvious: I am a woman. I am also young. I am also a huge YA fan. And I read lots of books with male protagonists.

Admittedly, this might be a little skewed. After all, I mostly read (and write) the sort of books that would fall under Barnes & Noble’s “YA Fantasy and Adventure” section. Plus, I really, really hate YA paranormal romance right now. Yes I know it’s the big seller. No I don’t care.

But when I look over the list of my favorite YA protagonists, I find a decent mix of heroes and heroines – from Harry Potter and Katniss Everdeen to Quentin Jacobson and Margaret Simon.

So I don’t really get where this bit of advice is coming from.

I’ve heard people throw around the statistic that teenage boys don’t read. I’ve also heard the statistic the college kids don’t read, which is why you never see the high school-to-college transition and why there’s this huge gap between graduating college and becoming a “real person” that never gets addressed.

What I dislike about this is that I never actually see any data on the subject. It’s all based on implications and general sweeps of logic; i.e. “It’s hard for me to get my teenage boy to read, so teenage boys must not read.” You never get any hard data or pie graphs on the subject. And I need pie graphs if I’m going to take a study seriously.

In addition – as Justine Larbalestier points out in this excellent blog post – what people mean when they say “boys don’t read” is that boys don’t read novels. They read comics and non-fiction and sports guides and video game magazines and online news feeds. Which is equally baffling because, uh, it’s still reading, people.

Plus, who’s to say that if you write a novel that includes aspects that they like about those things – like a genuinely good superhero novel, which I’m sadly yet to find – that they won’t pick those up, too?

But of course, the real problem in some people’s minds is that I am (to state the obvious yet again) a woman writing books about boys. Which is apparently ridiculous because I don’t have the experience to understand what boys are really like, just like male authors can’t write about women.

Frankly: that’s bullshit. See: Harry Potter, again. Also the Animorphs series. Also the Uglies trilogy, the Midnighters, and all of Deryn’s scenes in Leviathan.

And you the best thing about all of those books? They’re not written “for boys” just because they have a male protagonist. Hunger Games wasn’t written “for girls” just because it had a female protagonist. Good books in general aren’t written “for” the gender of their lead character. They’re written to appeal to people who like reading good fiction.

That’s what’s really important, I think.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Attempting a transition

I think I'm going to leave the World-Building Questions where they are for now. I could add more, but frankly, I think I've drawn it on long enough as it is and nobody really seems to be interested. So for now I'm going to wrap them up and let people wander through the ideas as they so please. Besides, I have other things I want to talk about.

Consider this a transition post - wrapping up the World-Building Questions without really wrapping it all up. If you've got something you'd like to ask about that subject, go ahead and ask. If you've got something you'd like to hear me ramble about for a while, go ahead and ask that as well. Or if you're just along for the ride, well, I'll have something else up here eventually.

For now, I have a job interview. Wish me luck.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

World-Building Questions #4 - Religion, Faith or Lack thereof

Introduction to the series found here.

Okay, quick disclaimer: When I say “religion,” I mean all varieties of faith and belief including atheism and agnosticism. Like it or not (and trust me, between the Bible belt and the internet, I’ve met plenty of people on both sides of the argument) belief is a part of human existence. Even if it’s not the focus of your story, it can go a long way to defining your characters, their values, and the nature of the world they live in.

When establishing the religious beliefs of your world, consider the following questions:

What sort of religion is it? Monotheistic? Polytheistic? Undefined?

Is it unified, or are there many branches? How well do these branches get along? Why did they separate? What are the differences between them?

What or who is being worshiped? If it’s an abstract figure, such as an omnipotent deity, how is represented in the physical world?

What is the origin story of your religion’s deities, teachers, or founding mythology? What other stories are significant to the religion’s core?

What is the source of the religion’s teachings? What sort of holy books or rules exist, and how are they passed down? Are they readily available to all devotees, or are they limited?

What virtues and societal rules does this religion hold dear? How are they enforced? What is the worst sin a devotee could commit?

What is the punishment (physical and/or spiritual) for breaking the rules? What is the reward (physical and/or spiritual) for following them?

Give an example of the very best sort of person this religion could produce, the most virtuous of them all. Make sure they’re a genuinely good person – even if your argument is that religion is evil. It’s important to understand both aspects.

Give an example of the very worst sort of person this religion could produce, the one who uses their faith as a weapon. Make sure that they’re faithful, but genuinely despicable – even if your argument is that religion is good. It’s important to understand both aspects.

If there is no centralized or defined religion, what values are upheld instead? How are they enforced?

How did your society come to be without religion – did they reject it, or did such things never occur to them? If the latter is true, how would they react upon meeting a separate, religious culture?

Again, keep in mind that these are just questions to get you started. The most fun religious portrayals I’ve seen are those that play with peoples’ expectations.

Real-life Example:
Christianity is a monotheistic religion worshipping an omnipotent god as defined by the teachings of Jesus, identified as the Son of God. It began as a centralized church but has since branched into many different sects, each with their own interpretations of the Bible. In broad strokes, Christian faith is based on forgiveness, redemption, and devotion. The most virtuous Christians are humble, charitable people willing to go the extra mile to help someone in need. The most corrupt persecute those who don’t live up to their personal standards.

Fictional Example:
In the webcomic Order of the Stick – which plays with traditional role-playing game tropes and D&D settings – there is no doubt that the gods exist, because they interact with divine-class characters on a regular basis. The gods are divided into four pantheons, each worshiped by roughly a fourth of the world; though some cultures separate from the mainstream, such as elves, have created their own gods. Each pantheon has their own rules and religious texts but, for the most part, they’re all devoted to upholding the balance between Good, Evil, Lawful, and Chaotic.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

World-Building Questions #3: Family, Daily Life, and Childhood

An important thing to keep in mind with this series of questions: Not all of them need to be answered, necessarily. But at the same time, just because you’re writing YA (for example) doesn’t mean you should ignore the questions that aren’t about teenagers. To state the obvious, culture is complicated, and there are many aspects to consider:

What is the standard age range to be considered a “child”? When do they become teenagers? When do they become adults?

Are there any ceremonies, parties, or rites of passage found at any stage of development? What do they include? Are they religious, governmental, or tradition-based?

What is considered the ‘traditional’ family structure? How many children does an “average” family have?

How common are variations to this structure? How are they received by society?

What sort of work is available? How hard is it to make a living in one job compared to another?
(Naturally, the above ties back into economics)

What’s the education system like? When do children start school? When do they stop? What are they capable of doing once they’re done?

When is an acceptable age for a child to start work? When is the average age?

What does a standard work/school day look like for an “average” adult? An average teen? An average child? How does your protagonist’s standard work/school day compare?

Once a child has graduated, are they expected to stay close to home or leave?

What do kids do for fun? What do adults do for fun? What do teens do for fun?

About what age do people start dating? Get engaged? Get married?

When they do start dating, how serious is it? Is it treated as social experience, or is it with the intent of finding a potential marriage partner?

What sort of marriage rituals are there? Have they basis in religion?
(Note: Religion is a whole other kettle of fish, and it’s covered in the next list)

What sort of transportation is used to get around? What sort of obstacles (established by your geography) must be overcome?

What sort of vacation plans are common? Do people go on long trips, or do they stay close to home?

What is important to the community here? What is their singular most significant value? What do they fear? What do they despise?

Real World Examples:
The traditional family structure for modern America is a mother, a father, and a few children. Variations to this structure – such as single, divorced, or homosexual parents – are common, but some communities look down on them.

Coming-of-age rituals in various cultures include bar mitzvahs, quinceaneras, debutant balls, graduation, and receiving your driver’s license.

In one Columbian mountain community, children commute to school by riding a zip line 1200 feet above the ground. A second line wrenches the people back up the mountain; and very young children are placed in potato sacks while their older siblings steer the line.

Fantasy Examples:
In Scott Westerfeld’s Uglies trilogy, littlie children are consider Uglies until their 16th birthdays, when they receive radical surgeries to transform them into Pretties. The stages of their life are clearly defined and named accordingly.

In that same world, the “traditional” family of our time is mostly broken up. Parents (all of whom are “Middle-Pretties”) still get married and have children; but those children are sent to boarding schools when they’re fairly young and remain there until they become Pretty and enter New Pretty Town.

It’s stated in Hunger Games and Catching Fire that several of the Panem districts put their children to work at a young age, teaching them about their homes’ respective industries. However, because coal mining is dangerous work, the children in District 12 don’t work until they’re almost adults. Katniss realizes that this gives them a disadvantage in the Games.

Continue to Part 4: Religion, Faith or Lack thereof

Monday, March 7, 2011

World-Building Questions #2: Geography

You know how fantasy artists often have maps in the front of their books showing what their amazing world looks like? This is kind of like that, except that you don’t actually have to draw anything and/or hire an artist to draw anything. This is also general information that’s good to know even if you’re using a real-life location as your setting. In fact, that makes it all the easier, since all you have to do is google the info.


What sort of climate does your location have? Arid, tropical, subarctic, or something all new?

How does the climate change while traveling over the area your story covers?

What’s the average weather like?

How much rain do they get every year? How much snow?

What are the average high and low temperatures?

What are the all-times?

When is it the warmest? When is it coldest?

How long does the day last during the summer? During the winter?

What is the elevation above sea level? (Hey, it’s important to know if they have to use the special preparation times to bake cakes!)

What geographic features (lakes, mountains, deserts, forests, etc.) are there?

What effect, if any, do they have on the story, setting, or characters?

What is the ecosystem like?

What sort of plant life can be found? What sort of animals?

Possibly the most important of all: Why did people choose to settle there in the first place? Why did they stay? How does the geography affect their lives?

Again, you may not ever use this information in your story, but it’s still important to know. Otherwise you get a “never been to Forks, and shows” situation that harms your credibility.

Real-World Example:
My home town of Odessa, TX, is located in a flat, semi-arid basin. On a clear day, the land is so flat that you can see for roughly 100 miles in all directions. There are no visible mountains or hills, the dirt is primarily composed of red clay, and there’s arsenic in the ground water.

The average temperature is between 77 and 50 ˚F. It’s the hottest in June, when the record high is 116 ˚F. It’s coldest in February, when the record low is -11 ˚F. It receives less than 15 inches of precipitation, on average per year; burn bans are regularly in effect and snow is almost unheard of.

Common plant life includes mesquite bushes, cacti, and the occasional yucca; locals know that the mesquite bush will never bloom early, so once it flowers, it’s finally spring. Animal life includes jack rabbits, coyotes, various poisonous snakes, buzzards, and a whole lot of the nastiest bugs you’ll meet outside of Australia.

People originally settled in the region because the land was dirt-cheap and they were either too dumb or too desperate to realize why. Community sprung up because nearby Midland was a good mid-way point for the railroads. Civilization finally came to exist due to oil; and that’s still the primary reason people stick around.

Fictional Example:
Kurôzu-cho, the site of Junji Ito’s horror manga Uzumaki, is a small village isolated on one of Japan’s many small islands. The island in question is mountainous, and the mountains are covered in a lush conifer forest, indicating the sort of humid continental climate indicative of Japan’s northern and north-western regions. The islands’ mountains serve as an extra level of isolation from the mainland – perfect for a horror story.

Besides the coniferous trees, the most common and significant plant life shown are grasses that grow into spirals. Animal life shown includes an infestation of snails and snakes that twist their bodies around each other to make love. The normal weather is temperate, but soon dissolves into chaos as endless supernatural hurricanes and tornadoes seal the village off altogether.

The primary geographic feature, besides the mountains and the coastlines that define its isolation, is Dragonfly Lake in the very heart of the city.

People don’t choose to live in Kurôzu-cho. They are drawn there by an unknown force embodied by the eternal spiral, which awakens every hundred, thousand, or ten thousand years to build a new Kurôzu-cho upon the ruins of the old and destroy it all over again.

Part 3: Family, Daily Life, and Childhood

Sunday, March 6, 2011

World-Building Questions #1 - Economics

Like it or not (and I certainly don’t) economics is an important force in any society. It can be a great place to start building your world because it’s based around values, desires, and ways of life. Give something a value, and you give your protagonist a reason to want it. That’s a story in and of itself.

That said, I don’t think economics is as important as a lot of people try to make it. No matter what crazy kind of financial system you come up with, if you can answer the following questions, you’ll have your economics down and will be able to move on to more interesting things.

What resource has value in your world?

Why is it valuable?

How is this resource obtained?

Where does it come from?

What jobs are involved in procuring it?

Who has large quantities of this resource already? How did they get it?

How is it exchanged? How can someone acquired more, physically or symbolically? What sort of money system does your world have, and how does it relate to the valuable resource?

Real World Example:
The following is oversimplified for the sake of argument: gold has value because people like it, but it’s scarce enough that not everyone can own it. It comes from the earth and is obtained through mining; different methods of mining require different kinds and numbers of works. For the most part, the ruling class and federal governments own the most gold. It can be exchanged in small quantities; but more usually paper money is exchanged in its place, which each note representing a given value of gold.

(That’s how the paper money system was originally envisioned; but you can go have an argument on the further development of that somewhere else on the internet.)

Fictional Example:
In Suzanne Collins’s Hunger Games trilogy, the Twelve Districts of Panem are each built around the development or acquirement of a particular resource. Coal is mined in District 12, textiles are created in District 8, and fish are harvested in District 4, etc. These resources are valuable because they support the lavish lifestyle of the Capitol who, in hording the nation’s resources and military power, are the clear ruling class. The life of each person living in the Districts is built around acquiring their given resource, because that is the way they acquire food for themselves and their families.

Part 2: Geography

World-Building Questions: An Introduction

Watch out guys, I’m on another kick.

So last Friday, the topic for #steampunkchat was world building. I love world building. I think it’s the best damn part of speculative fiction, and it’s why I love a lot of my favorite book. Building an engaging and interesting world is one of those things that I – and hopefully, lots of others like me – strive for.

But: world-building is tough. Really tough. I mean, tough enough that I kind of file it in the “intermediate to advanced” level of fiction writing. If that makes any sense.

To me, beginner level stuff is the advice you get everywhere; the character, plot, craft, and scene advice; all that bread-and-butter foundation that you have to know if you’re ever going to get anywhere with this whole writer thing. You find hundreds of books on that, because everybody has at least one of those problems at some point in their writing lives.

However, when you get to the intermediate level, people start to specialize. It’s kind of like how all pre-med students are pre-med until they actually get to medical school, and then they’re on track to becoming neurosurgeons or pediatricians or biomechanical engineers or whatever other special medical thing they wanted to do.

In short: Not everybody needs world building. Not every story needs it. Hell, if you're writing Harlequin romances or gritty modern-day cop dramas, it'll probably just bog you down. But if you do need it, well, you really, really need it.

But, since the demand is so much smaller, there isn’t as much info out there to help people with world-building as there is for beginner-level stuff. What's more, most world-building advice is genre-specific, playing off of established tropes. The best I've found is this article from the SFWA and a couple of sci-fi books on literally building new planets.

Both of those resources are great; but they’re also a little overwhelming, especially if you’re not working with the established genre tropes. Books on setting are also less than helpful, since it’s mostly about description and scene settings.

At the same time, discussion of world-building online – like the one on #steampunkchat – tend to focus on only one aspect, which is equally frustrating, because there isn't one aspect to world-building. There are many different factors and they can be tackled from many different angles.

Hence the upcoming series of posts.

What I’ve done here is try to boil down all the different aspects of world building to a few simple, generic questions that can be used with any genre, setting, and/or high concept.

They’re divided into several loose categories (I’m not sure how many) that can be tackled in any order. I’ve also included both real-world and fictional examples of these aspects put to work.

Will all this information necessarily make it into your novel? No. Is it important for you to know anyway? Hell yeah. Being able to answer these questions at the drop of a hat keeps your world consistent. They’re not binding – if you get an awesome idea, you can always readjust the world to fit it in – but they are important to know if you want to build a rich, realistic, and engaging fictional world.

So...stick with me, everybody; and as always, feedback is appreciated. I have no idea what I'm getting into with this, but I hope somebody out there will find it helpful.

Part One: Economics

Friday, March 4, 2011

I've been told I have confidence. Herein is the truth.

As has been stated before, I have an enormous ego. This should not surprise you. I am a writer. What’s more, I am a writer of fiction. I believe that you people should literally buy into my blatant lies, preferably with cold hard cash and fawning devotion.

And yet today I find that my ego is even more vast and secure in its vastness than I had previously assumed. For you see, I have never once doubted that, someday, I will be published. Traditionally published. Agents, gatekeepers, industry mafia, and all.

Oh sure, sometimes I awaken in the dead of night, my heart seized by the terrifying possibility that the last ten years have been a lie, that in fact I am a pathetic no-talent hack clutching at delusions, that I’ve wasted my life chasing after something that can never be realized.

But then I turn on the light and get my glasses settled and replace a bit more of my blood with Dr. Pepper, and I remember that my writing is fantastic and there’s no way I won’t be published someday. Maybe it won’t be for this particular project. Heck, maybe I won’t hit The One until I’ve been living in my parents’ non-existent basement for another 20 years. But it will happen. I have no doubt.

It’s tricky, because my friends doubt their own potential sometimes, and I try to talk them out of it without really knowing what to say. I have no doubt that they’ll be published as well, and I tell them so. But I imagine the words seem shallow, stock phrases to be dispensed on command, the sort of support a parrot could offer if bribed with sufficiently fancy crackers.

And perhaps that’s the truth, and I’m just so delusional and self-absorbed that I’ve convinced myself otherwise. But I don’t think so. For one thing, I’ve met people who are delusion and self-absorbed, and they are far more obnoxious than an anti-social weirdo like me could ever hope to be.

So I sit down at my computer and continue to plod away, even on those days when I hate the world and everyone in it. And I’m not entirely bothered by the fact that I don’t have a day job; because I don’t really want a day job. This is the only work that feels right for me to do, so I do it.

After all, whom am I to argue with a sure thing?

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

First of the Month Update - March 2011

Hello, ladies and gents. It’s first-of-the-month update time again.

This last weekend, I went to the DFW Writers Conference here in the metroplex, and it was awesome. I mean really awesome. It was without a doubt one of the best investments I’ve ever made for my writing. Just between the Gong Show and Jessica Sinsheimer’s panel, I got so much insight on the publishing industry and the agent side of things. And everyone was so friendly; it was a lot of fun.

Plus, it was a huge confidence boost. My query letter for A House Divided was read at the Gong Show the second day, and it was the only one that they essentially got all the way through. (Two agents gonged in during it, saying it was too long; but the third only chimed in because reading the credentials paragraph would’ve been a waste of everyone’s time.)

I’m not gonna lie, that felt good. And the several requests I got for partial submissions on various projects – especially the request from the agent I pitched to, who is the coolest nerd ever and shares a brain frequency with me – felt good too. Not to mention the requests and suggestions that my friends got for *their* projects, which left me excited by association.

Time will have to tell how much impact this weekend had in the long run, but right now, I feel like my career’s been bumped up a good year ahead of where it was before. Thank you, DFW Con. It was a amazing.

In more general news: I am still without a day job. 6 months until my lease runs out. Contemplating applying to a bakery or candy shop. And by ‘applying’ I mean ‘walk in with a tray of samples and hope they like them enough to give me a shot.’