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Adrian, a spy for the King, sees a nobleman murder a servant. His desire for truth is pitted against the dangers of a high-stakes political game. When his friend Draken insists on pursuing justice, Adrian must protect those he cares about as the political games of powerful men alter the lives of everyone around him.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Logic, Math and Lingusitics: John's Pet Peeves Number 4

Okay, you're probably going to think this is just too picky, but that makes you wrong. These things really bug me, and should bug all right-thinking rational people everywhere.

"One of the only"

Let's be clear headed here. It's either "one of" or "the only," and never both. the first case is when there are more than one and the item in question is one of them. The second is if there is only one and the one you have is it. You can't have more than one and exactly one of something because that is a logical contradiction.

Now that you've read this, you have been infected, and you'll see and hear this everywhere. It's like buying a white Kia, then discovering the city has thousands of them being driven around. You don't notice until something like that is pointed out, then you can't un-notice it.

"Three times less"

Really? Come on, guys. This is simple math. "Three times" means you are multiplying something by three. What can you multiply by three to get one third of something (which is what the writer or speaker probably meant to say)? Math says that in this example you get one third by multiplying one ninth by three. So to generalize, for "N times less," you're somehow talking about some mysterious property that is 1 / (n x n) of the original. That's just wrong. Stop it!

Now be aware that it's perfectly normal if you're talking about percentages to say "twenty five percent less" because you're clearly talking about something in relation to the whole, so you meant seventy five percent. No brain damaging weird inverse square calculations needed. Even "one third less" or "one third of" are cool because they also refer to a portion of the whole.

You can also say "three times more" with no problem, because that also refers to the whole thing and not some bizarre fractional component required to make the math work.

I'm glad we had this little chat. If you're going to ignore me and keep using these perverse expressions, have mercy and don't do it where I can hear.

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Salt Lake Comic Con 2015 Day 3

It's been a very long but fun three days. I was able to get to four panels, all related to writing in one way or another. Also I managed to bring my "writing notes" notebook with me, so I didn't have to take notes on my phone, or borrow my wife's notebook.
Me and Kelly steam punking
My wife and I actually had costumes that went together for day three.  Day one, she was Rapunzel and I had my lab coat. Day two, she was steampunk, and I wore a Pinkie and the Brain shirt. Finaly, we go together.

Jodi and Joe Milner
Jodi Milner and her husband stopped by the Xchyler author table to say hi. She's in one of the anthologies we had for sale at our table. They were merciless and didn't stay to help at the table. :)

The First Five Pages: How to Hook you Readers Instantly
with your Novel or Screenplay
I took more notes at this panel than from any other the whole week. We learned a lot of what editors look for and what will get a story dropped for not starting out well. If you haven't given the editor a reason to care by page three, then you don't have much chance for success.

Some of the good points to cover are to generate detailed questions in the reader's mind with the problems you pose. Start out with something happening, which I've heard multiple times as starting on the day that's different. Avoid having a character wake up at the start of the story (unless it is really important and plays into the story somehow).

While the conflict, setting, and voice are important, the characters are critical because that's how you snare the reader's interest.

The biggest part of my notes related to the question, how do you learn the craft? Rather than just ways to learn, the list contained things to learn as well.

  • Read and analyze good stories (books and movies) as you would a textbook.
  • Get into a good critique group and find alpha readers who will be tough and honest.
  • Are you blocked or bogged down? Just write through it with whatever you can do and come back to edit later.
  • Listen to critiques, but more in aggregate than as individual messages. You'll never please everyone, but if 80% of your alpha readers dislike something, you should probably fix it.
  • Identify when someone else's book is good by noticing when your internal editor goes quiet.
  • Read the first page or two of every story in an anthology. Identify why some are more interesting.
  • After you finish something, write something new before going back to edit. It's sort of a palate cleanser.
  • Read lots of story beginnings. Identify what the good ones have in common. Do this in genres you don't normally read.
  • Promise a good character, theme or setting up front.
  • Promise conflict in page 1 or 2, then keep piling it on.
  • Scenes are new openings. Treat them as you would a story opening.
  • Editors need to see the author's confidence by how you write.
  • Don't start by pulling all the stops, because you won't have anywhere to go that's more extreme later.
  • Don't kill characters until the reader cares about them.
So that's the panel's list of advice.

Writing MG/YA Fantasy
 Similar to one of yesterday's panels, they covered ages for mid grade and young adult. MG is typically 10-13, while YA is 13+. The difference is that MG is often about belonging and finding your place in the world filled with external pressures. YA is more about individuality and finding yourself, with internal pressures.

James Dashner told about a horrible romance scene that was cut from Maze Runner. It's fun to hear about some of the things which end up on the cutting room floor.

They all agreed that you should not change the way you write based on the audience. Things like altering vocabulary and style don't do what you would expect for younger kids. Vocab and style are not the things that make it YA or MG.

James A. Owen talked about pigeon holes authors could get stuck into in the past, making them forever YA, or MG, or some other category or genre. That's not nearly the problem it used to be, and lots of authors do cross-overs to other areas these days.

This panel's list of advice: (as with all advice, some things may conflict, and some won't apply the way you expect.)

  • Find a favorite book. Highlight favorite scenes. Break it down and analyze it.
  • Don't write based on market analysis. Use your own voice and preferences.
  • Don't end the writing day at an end point like a complete chapter. Leave it where it's easy to pick back up.
  • Enhanced dumb ideas are no longer dumb ideas. You don't need to start with pure genius.
  • Sometimes the ideas you think are scary or hard are the best choice because they stretch your abilities.
  • You must make the kid be the hero in MG and YA. Don't ever send the adult to fix the problem or the story fails.
  • On a series, don't start book 2 until book 1 sells, because you may end up with serious editing passes which may invalidate anything you do.

Creating Good Characters
I heard some new things here when talking about creating good characters. Rather than just being sympathetic, good characters are fun, interesting, intriguing, and cool. There should be layers to what makes them tick, and those layers should be revealed over time. If you write your character true to all their layers but reveal them slowly, your reader will have "aha!" moments.

Good characters will take action rather than respond to it. Reacting is weak, while acting is strong. Their actions must matter to themselves.

The difficult balance is to make them imperfect so they have room to grow or make mistakes, because their ability to lose is important to the reader. If the reader believes a character can't be hurt, no amount of peril will make a difference.

Whether hero, villain, or side character, they're the hero of their own story. The real hero of your story just gets more attention from you as the author. One of the few differences is that villains often will have certainty where your hero is conflicted.

Characters need to have different voice, humor and attitudes so they don't all end up sounding the same.
Urban Fantasy
Like Friday, I ended the day with a heavy hitter panel full of successful urban fantasy authors. There was a lot of overlap between this one and last night's panelists. They were (left to right) Shawn Speakman, J, R. Johansson, Larry Correia, Terry Brooks, Jim Butcher, and Kevin Hearne.

One theme they covered is that normal is boring. Jim Butcher's Harry Dresden character was built to be unusual. He's six feet nine inches tall, and has a mixed bag of really odd traits.

For every fantastic thing you add to urban fantasy, a good rule of thumb is to add two normal things to balance things out and make it not be all weird and new, which can lose a reader's interest.

The panelists described their favorite characters, monsters, and other writers that they liked. Nope, Jim didn't choose the T-Rex. The skin walker won that contest.

Now it's time to prop the feet up for a bit of rest and recovery and a day at church before the day job calls me back to the real world on Monday.

Friday, September 25, 2015

Salt Lake Comic Con 2015 Day 2

The vendor floor opened earlier Friday, so I was there to help get our table set up. I spent time at our table on and off all day between the various panels, but had a good chance to get to some really fun ones.

Me with Tracy Hickman
I got "Lincoln's Wizard" signed by Tracy Hickman and Dan Willis. It should be good for a nice steampunk fix.

Killing Your Darlings: When Authors Turn Homicidal
The panelists talked about murderous authors from two viewpoints. First, you must kill the parts of your story that aren't working as well as they could. Second, there was a lot of discussion about characters who die, and the purposes of those deaths. There must always be some reason for the death, even if it is just to point out that a character is a sociopath.

Writing Action: Fisticuffs, Guns & Things that Blow Up Real Good
This was a really fun panel.There was a lot of talk about if you're going to put details in, get it right. Larry Correia said that the only fans that will come down on you harder than gun nuts for a mistake (like for blunders such as writing about the non-existent safety on a Glock) are the horse lovers. They're not hay-powered motorcycles.

If you're not an expert at something, find one, or gloss over the details you don't know. It should be pretty easy to send action scenes past a friend who knows martial arts or boxing, is in the military, or is a police officer. There was a conversation about being able to tell a difference between an author who has been punched in the face and one who hasn't.

Other interesting bits are that the character's perception of violence is critical. Are they an emotional iceberg, or do they freak out? Their response to violence tells a lot. Action scenes typically should come down to a person making a mistake that costs them a fight. The interesting part is to identify why the mistake happened.

Pacing and Plotting in YA Fiction
It was actually difficult for the panelists to identify the specific differences in YA plotting and pacing, since there is such a wide variety of successful YA titles. Most of it comes down to YA relies upon characters and their identity, finding out who they are. For contrast, mid grade tends to concentrate more upon the discovery of independence.

Plotting related to identity can look a lot like plotting for other things, so the concepts behind it are the same. Some of the differences, however, are the details such as what an identity crisis looks like before smart phones and Internet vs. after.

From MST3K to Invader Zim: Adventures in Television With TV's Frank
I hadn't planned to attend this one, but caught the last half. I'm a fan of MST3K, but mostly just wanted to post this picture of Frank Conniff to make my friend Bryan jealous. It was fun to listen to him talk about bringing in the tape for Manos: The Hands of Fate. He also talked about how some movies were just to horrible to be able to give them the MST3K treatment.

Then there was my favorite panel of the day, Writing Fantasy: An Inside Look at the Art of Creating the Fantastic. It was loaded with the heavy hitters at the convention, as shown below.

Terry Brooks

Jessica Day George

R. A. Salvatore

David Farland

Jim Butcher

James A. Owen
Shawn Speakman (moderator)
Yeah, this was a lot of fun as you might suspect, and most of it was pure entertainment value with bits of cool advice tossed in. There was some initial discussion about what fantasy consisted of, like having a quest, a band of heroes, conflict of good vs. evil, and magic. There are rewards for right choices, and penalties for bad choices.

Character is more important than plot, but that's not limited to fantasy by any means.

Jim Butcher told about how he and a writing teacher disagreed at a fundamental level on a lot of things. She had sold forty-some-odd books, but he was a lit major! He decided to prove her wrong by following every single piece of her advice to prove how bad the book would end up. It was the first Harry Dresden novel, and he learned that she knew what she was doing, and that he could write successfully and enjoy what he did in an genre that he hadn't planned on.

They all seemed to agree that you should let the reader take part in the creation of the story. Rather than spell everything out, leave room for imagination because the reader may be able to imagine something better than you can write because it's tailored to them.

So there's Day 2. One more to go!

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Salt Lake Comic Con 2015 Day 1

It took a few texts and wandering around before all the passes were in the right hands to get in to set up the Xchyler Publishing author's table. (Not an official table for the publisher, but a bunch of their authors getting together since we're mostly locals.)

Here's Jay Barnson manning our table, photobombing himself.
We were next to the Curiosity Quills and Space Balrogs folks, so we had several book-laden tables in a row. I was able to get away from the table for a few panel discussions, which is always fun. I was rushing from one thing to another, so I didn't get as much time to talk to people as I would like.

Writing Advice: The Good, The Bad & The Very Ugly
It was fun to hear several people describe the best and worst writing advise they've received. Michaelbrent Collings is a strict and disciplined moderator, and helped things move along smoothly. One thing in particular which came out is that any time someone expresses an opinion on how to write with "always" or "never" they are most likely wrong.

Outlining Vs. Discovery Writing
Outline vs. Discovery is also known as Plotter vs. Pantser. Do you outline everything, or do you write by the seat of your pants? It turns out that it's more of a broad spectrum with those two cases being the extremes. Professional authors tend to do more plotting since they have deadlines and schedules, and need to be able to write to deadlines. Newer authors tend to do more free-form writing. Neither is an absolute though, and everyone tends to do a mix of some kind.

Creating Horror: How to Scare the Crap out of People
I'm writing a short horror story, so I figured I'd spend some time listening to successful scary story writers. Michaelbrent Collings is a complete loose cannon when not moderating, and is loads of fun to listen to. :) You tend to need to write about what scares you personally, and to broaden it out from there to take in the fears of more than just yourself. Most of these authors claim a Stephen King book as the scariest they've ever read, but I don't think they doubled up on any single book.

Writing a Book Series
Dave Farland (AKA Dave Wolverton) moderated this one. Writing and pitching books as a series can save a lot of time once you've built a reputation up to where you can approach agents and publishers that way. If you have the reputation for dependability, a series can keep you going on a project for a lot longer than single books can. It's not quite so good as a first entry out of the chute if you're a new author, just because it's hard for a publisher to trust someone that's an unknown.

Now I'm looking forward to Friday and Saturday. Today I forgot to take a notebook so I had to run from memories jogged by my pictures. Tomorrow will be better.

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Realistic Physics: John's Pet Peeves Number 3

I saw an article in the newspaper this past week about a school bus which went off the edge of an overpass. It was a horrible tragedy where people died. Things like that happen in the real world. Physics is not on your side when you disagree with reality.

I'm all for the thrilling chase in fiction, don't get me wrong. I just believe there should be some justification when someone drops thirty feet onto concrete and doesn't end up in a hospital, or jumps a car over a river without busting all axles when it lands. At least in the James Bond movies, the boats they use for special effects use jets instead of props, so there's nothing to scrape off as the boat scoots along the ground.

When writing fiction with significant action scenes where physics plays a role, I'd recommend consulting an actual fan or student of physics. Consultants are great in lots of areas, and physics is one that can make or break a scene.

There's a lot of middle ground between having a car made of indestructible super-stuff that never scratches, and having it made of explodium. Mind you, parody is great. I've seen a Chevy Nova turn into a giant fireball when something touched its bumper, and it was great! But if your goal is realism and not yoinking your reader out of the story, you need to pay attention to the little things. Odds are pretty good that you'll have a reader that remembers high school physics, and will complain if you do it wrong.

You may need to know, for instance, which way precession will turn a space station if you turn on rockets to change it's spin axis before stopping the spin. If you don't know anyone to ask, get out a bicycle tire and give it a try. Interestingly enough, the rotation axis can align with the thrust vector of the rocket. If that doesn't make sense, that's why you need consultants and proof readers.

You might need to know how far a car really can drop before the engine mounts just won't take any more, or what can blow out shocks or tires. How do crumple zones work? I have no idea of the details, so I would have to ask someone who does bodywork on cars. What are the odds of needing to cut someone out of a car with the jaws of life if their car gets squished between to semis? What speed of collision would likely make the question moot? How does ablative shielding work on reentry for space vehicles, and how long does it last?

Here's an example from my short story Revolutionary. I needed to know how long it would take to reach the ground skydiving from 30,000 feet, so I looked up the terminal velocity of a human body and did the math. If math isn't your friend, find a consultant (preferably a good friend) who likes math. You can thank them in your dedication. Knowing terminal velocity gave me hard limits on the length of a fight scene where there were three people and two parachutes. At two thousand feet, how much longer did they have? What does it take to steer, and to change your rate of descent? If I'd got any of that wrong, anyone who knows skydiving would likely launch the book through the air rather than finish the story.

In summary, do what you can to write a fun story, then for all those details that you might not know off the top of your head, verify them. Your readers will thank you.

Thursday, September 3, 2015

Not-So-Hard Science Fiction: John's Pet Peeves Number 2

I've seen some pretty odd things praised for their realism in science fiction, and I'm sure you have, too. There are a lot of goofy details that just get ignored as well.

Hard SF by its nature takes our current universe, moves it to a futuristic setting, and will generally grab one or two fantastic elements and declare them to be science for purposes of the story. This could be faster than light travel, time machines, wormholes you can travel through, or other story elements that don't work like they do in the real world.

My pet peeve is when it's done inconsistently. I'm going to pick on a movie this time instead of picking just on writing. I haven't read the novelization of Interstellar, so I will stick with what I know.

Take relativity and time dialation for instance. If you're going close enough to an event horizon to get a 1000:1 or greater time dialation ratio by going from orbit to a planet, no planet is going to survive the shear effects and no ship is going to hang in the same spot "in orbit" and never get closer to the event horizon.

Also, if you need a full Saturn-V-sized rocket to get off the earth's surface the first time, I would not believe a ship the size of a Star Trek shuttle can just hop between surface and orbit multiple times.

Consistency will buy you a lot of "suspension of disbelief." Rewriting a rule is normal, Just make everything follow that new rule. Consider the consequences and ramifications of having changed a rule. Is space travel simple and fast? It had better be the same every time it's used.Are you using relativistic slower-than-light travel? You'd better bone up on time dialation and use it consistently everywhere. Don't forge orbital mechanics, either. As a different sort of example (and one that doesn't poke fun at Interstellar), do you want to arm your soldiers with swords? You'd better have a consistent reason why long range guns won't get the job done, because they replaced older tools for a reason.

Sorry if I've ruined the movie Interstellar for you now by raising an eyebrow at everyone who praised its accuracy. But just so you know, I've watched it twice. On purpose. Just don't expect me to praise it for its science, or for its consistency.