Monday, November 21, 2011

Perspective is Everything

Why is it that "slow" months are never slow? I dropped Windrider to my writers' critique group at the end of October, anticipating some leisure time to do a little catch-up critiquing, some short story revision, even--gasp!--find time to reduce the stack of to-be-read books beside my couch.

Sigh. None of those things have happened, except the critiques (sort of). I did some really intense critiques for the Orycon writers' workshop, which I hope were helpful to the authors involved, then plunged immediately into critiquing a novel on my workshop for another member. That is now finished, and I at last, three weeks into November, have a little time to think about my own writing.

By wonderful coincidence, a full crit of Windrider arrived on the list yesterday, plus a friend has been providing her chapter-by-chapter impressions, which I today finally got a chance to read. It is always interesting to see how your characters come through to other people, what the critter missed in the read, what you forgot to put there, and what ideas spark in your mind as you absorb that feedback.

Perspective truly is everything, which is why I always recommend that a writer put a finished work away for anywhere from two weeks to two months before revising it. I suppose most writers have a vague idea of problems in the story structure or characterization or worldbuilding that they take away from the finished draft. Windrider was no different. I knew parts of it dragged and was afraid my hero was a little too angst-ridden and might seem wimpy. He is not the macho kick-butt action hero, but a rather quiet, steady guy who finds himself coping with crap that has arrived through no fault of his own. Typical Joe Everyman forced to discover what lies within.

Now that I've had three weeks of NOT thinking about Windrider, I find the slow stirrings of story trudging around in the back of my head again. I see fixes for stuff I hammered my head against the wall over in the drafting. I see depths to characters that I didn't before, and ways to make them more meaningful to the story. I see their actual roles in the story better, which clarifies how to use them and get the most out of them. (Yes, they are characters, not real people. I can manipulate them however I want and they can't object. So there. :) )

Best of all, I see ways to make the story richer and more memorable. This slow evolution taking place in my subconscious has delivered conclusions not greatly different from the impressions I'm seeing from these two first readers, which is both somewhat humbling, and a great relief. It does tend to take the sting out of crits when you secretly agree with assessments that might be less than flattering. Experience counts, as well. Newbies tend to panic or sulk when criticism seems negative instead of the joyful positives they may have expected. After being involved with the critique process from both ends long enough, one tends to let the "ouchy" stuff bounce off and focus on the fact that something is not working.

I hope that the finished version of Windrider will remain true to what I want for it while strengthening the weak elements pointed out by my readers. Anyone who is not in a workshop or critique group and wondering if such a group is worthwhile, my answer is yes! A thousand times, yes. Hie thee to the nearest suitable group and dip a toe in. And by suitable, I mean one that is open to and experienced with your genre, whatever it is. Mainstream folks are sometimes not great at critiquing spec fic, and vice versa, but a variety of viewpoints can be invaluable. If you're looking for a good, long-established genre workshop, the one I belong to, Other Worlds Writers' Workshop, is a good one (and yes, I'm a moderator of it, so I can vouch for the unusually high standards of critiques given).

Perspective is the most valuable gift a writer can give to herself. Whether through stepping away physically, seeking out others' opinions, or both, it is the only way we can get outside the story long enough to see that it's not perfect, and why. Just don't let it sit so long the urgency goes away, and the lure of something new leaves it languishing in the drawer. (Been there, done that.)

I look forward to revising Windrider next month, and I hope the end result comes close to my vision for a satisfying story. I guess you guys will tell me if it doesn't!

Don't forget to check out Firedancer, the first book in this series, to see how well Windrider stacks up. You can read the first chapter here.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Reality Skimming or skimming reality?

Heh. Orycon was wonderful. I do love science fiction conventions.

A great little interview with me and with my characters is up at Reality Skimming for their series on continuing characters. Since my characters do appear from book to book, beginning in Firedancer and progressing through Windrider and soon, Seaborn, they definitely qualify as continuing characters.

However, I switched the viewpoint characters, which was unexpectedly difficult despite the fact that I am a big fan of switching POVs within a novel and do it all the time. However, these were single-viewpoint books and suddenly I had to get inside a new perspective to see how a main character looked to someone who formerly had been a secondary character.

Anyway, it's all over at Reality Skimming today. Go have a look at what Jetta and Sheshan have to say for themselves.

And if you want to read Firedancer in its entirety, it's both cheap (.99) and available pretty much wherever ebooks are sold, starting at Amazon. Windrider will be out in April.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

S. A. Bolich Orycon Schedule

I'll be at Orycon in Portland, Oregon November 11-13. I am busily reading and critiquing manuscripts for the writers' workshop, and I'll be on several panels. Plus, I'll be reading from Firedancer and other works on Saturday morning.

Here's the complete schedule:

Friday 2-3 p.m., The Real Middle Ages, Oregon room
Friday 5-6, Group 5 Science Fiction Short Story/Novel workshop, WW2
Saturday 11-11:30, Reading, Grant room
Saturday 12-1, The Structure of Writing, Madison room
Saturday 5-6, Historical Figures in Action, Jefferson/Adams
Sunday 10-11, My House Isn't a Castle, Madison
Sunday 11-12, Broad Universe Readings, Grant
Sunday 12-1, Anachronistic Morality in Fiction, Madison
Sunday 1-2, How to Write a Series, Jefferson/Adams


Hope to see you there! Bring your great questions!

Monday, October 31, 2011

New S. A. Bolich website

My new website is up and running today at You will recognize the background! This one I did not design, which means it's more interesting in the code. Yeah, interpret "interesting" however you want, but while I am a fan of style sheets, I use them a bit differently. And for some reason there is one element I absolutely cannot get to center! I'll send a free copy of Firedancer to the first person to identify which one it is. :)

Nonetheless, I love the look of the site. The designer was really easy to work with and I'm really happy with it overall. Let me know what you think, and please tell me if you find weirdness or errors.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Horses in Fiction: The Frightened Horse (and Terrified Rider)

One thing that bugs me a lot about Hollywood is how the riders (especially the females, because gur-lls just can't stick on, you know) are always so easily dislodged from their mount. For dramatic effect, of course, but still. Let the horse raise both front hooves off the ground together, and plop goes the rider with a loud "eek!" and the horse jets off into the sunset.

Oh, please.

There is nothing difficult about riding a horse that rears. They go up, you lean forward a little and squeeze a little harder with your legs, and that's that. Unless he staggers and goes over backward, or starts plunging forward, or does something else spectacular, any decent rider is going to stay on unless he was totally asleep in the saddle.

On the other hand, the unexpected bucking fit, the two-leap jump to the side when surprised, and the sudden bolt are all genuine rider challenges. Most riders will stick with the first leap, but being surprised and perhaps off balance over the shoulder or to one side, the second leap sideways will often finish them. Down goes the rider, off goes the horse.

Remember that a horse's first instinct when faced with the unexpected or frightening is to run, not fight. Very few will stick around to investigate a threat. The wonderful loyal horse bravely stomping the rattlesnake to death? Eh, not so much. I watched the reaction of our horses the first time they heard a rattler, and it was "tuck the tail and get me out of here!" That dry buzz was creepy and the horses wanted no part of it.

When surprised from the front or side, most will do a spin and bolt (or attempt to bolt); from the rear, a sudden acceleration forward. Well-trained horses will leap sideways (sometimes spin in place), and stop, answering the rider's tug on the reins. Really scared ones will fight you for the bit, which can lead to interesting circles and a lot of backing up as he tries to get away from the rein or the pressure of the bit in his mouth. He will keep it up in direct proportion to the perceived size of the threat. If the bird flies off he may quit pretty quickly; if the bear or whatever remains, he may really panic, especially if the rider shows signs of being frightened as well. Bear in mind that it doesn't take boogey-men to set him off. Crossing water or mud or a hollow-sounding bridge can be really scary for him. In water he can't see his footing; when he feels himself sinking in a bog he will start to plunge, often ending up over the trail or in the brush or across a log or wherever. He doesn't care. He just wants out of there.

Panic in a rider induces panic in the horse. The calmest old nag gets upset with a rider up top going "Ooh! Ooh, stop, horse, stop!" every two seconds. The constant unfair yanking on the reins will set him prancing and sidling and eventually bucking or running trying to get away from the pain. It is in direct contradiction to what he has been taught, so he's confused, and the rider is making it worse. My neighbor got dumped by every horse she rode until she finally gave up riding altogether, even her husband's staid 30-year-old gelding who was so stiff it was surprising he could muster a buck. But buck he did, and she would never believe it was because she was so scared she had his head cranked back into his chest. His mouth was hanging wide open in an attempt to get rid of the pressure, and no amount of coaching her to lighten up on the rein would get her to turn loose of her death grip. When the old guy dumped her, she finally gave it up, to my relief and no doubt to the relief of all their horses.

Many horsey wrecks are the result of the horse and rider at cross purposes. Either the rider miscues the horse or he's trying to brute force his way to control and the horse quite naturally takes exception. Sometimes a cagey horse is the instigator, resisting whatever the rider is doing, which may be nothing objectionable at all. His back may be sore; he may not feel good; or he'd just as soon not do another damned circle in the arena or face one more jump, thank you. Horses do get sour doing the same stuff over and over, and the war can become intense if the rider is insensitive enough not to recognize the signs and vary the routine.

A truly frightened horse will plow through anything on his way to Anywhere Not Here. I had an excitable 4-year-old Thoroughbred rip a rail off a fence and then bolt through a 3-wire fence, snapping a steel T-post off at the ground on the way. I doubt he ever saw it, he was so panicked. The one time they will reliably run over a person is if they are really scared; the rest of the time they will try to avoid you. A horse that trusts you may respond to your voice, but keep it calm! Shout to get his attention and then sweet-talk him down. Continuing to shout at him just gets him more upset.

Much plot mayhem can come from a single horse that is either frightened or badly managed by a rider. C.J. Cherryh gets this right in her Foreigner series, when the main character must learn to manage his horse-like mecheita. Incorrect tugging on the rein snarls the whole group and greatly embarrasses the rider. Now, imagine the mess when a pack string that is roped together has one animal encounter something nasty. A leap sideways could take the whole string over a cliff, or snarl them up in thorough fashion. One out-of-control horse can plow through a whole traveling group without regard for who else gets rammed or dumped, and trust me, you will see horses scatter to the winds when that happens, quite on their own, startling their own riders. Civil War soldiers wrote that the surest thing to get exhausted troops up off the ground was when the cry "Loose horse!" went up.

Bear in mind the fact that most horsemen and women of earlier ages spent a lot of time in the saddle. Beginners were prone to the same mistakes as today, but experienced riders were and are far less likely to be surprised onto the ground by anything their horse does, if they are paying the least bit of attention. So, don't go the Hollywood route and assume that any little twitch is sufficient to unhorse your lady fair or the warrior who grew up in the saddle. Make the surprise spectacular! What a fun scene you will get out of it.

Until next time.

Do check out my novel Firedancer (alas, horse-free, I fear, but a 5-star alternate world fantasy, according to the reviews).

All content and photos on this blog copyright S. A. Bolich. Use by permission only.

Guest Author Karina Fabian: Zombie Exterminator

For something a bit different today, and just in time for Halloween, which, yes, I confess is a favorite holiday of mine, here is award-winning horror author Karina Fabian talking about her life as a full-time writer. Karina's latest offering is Neeta Lyffe Zombie Exterminator, and if we know Karina, it is going to be a fast-paced romp. What better stress reliever could there be than whacking zombies in the near future...that might just be coming?

Neeta Lyffe Zombie ExterminatorKarina says:
When I first dropped writing nonfiction to concentrate on my fiction in 2003, the thought was that I'd free up some time and cut down on my stress because I wouldn't be dealing with deadlines, finding markets, etc. to the degree that I would when writing novels. Eight years later, I can tell you I was so naïve!

Writing fiction has proven to be a greater commitment than magazine writing ever was. Now, I have to keep a regular writing schedule on my novel, work on the pitch materials for conferences or queries to agents and publishers, edit books that are already written and work with editors for those accepted, and make promotional materials for those already published. Add to that book tours, signings, conferences, chatting up bookstores and readers and all the other publicity stuff you do to draw attention to your work in this flooded market, and it's a 40-hour job.

The worst of it for me is that now that I've given myself over to my muse, the ideas won't stop! I have written two and a half books this year and am starting a fourth while I wait on critical information I need for the third (even with fiction, I still need sources!). I'm working on collaboration with my very patient friend, and have another that I need to revise. Nonetheless, my brain is processing three more novels, my computer holds the notes for a couple more on top of that, and in addition to that are others that are ideas or suggestions, but are not much more than a "I'd like to write…" I'd like to clone myself now, please!

The upside is, I adore what I do. I am excited every morning for what my imagination will bring. Even when I'm overwhelmed by the amount of stuff I have to do, each task brings its own energy--and getting them done is always satisfying. I often have to remind myself to prioritize and relax, but there's nothing better for your health than loving your job. And for me, writing novels is the best job in the world.

And this is how Karina entertains herself all day:

By the 2040s, the shambling dead have become and international problem. While governments and special interest groups vie for the most environmentally-friendly way to rid the world of zombies, a new breed of exterminator has risen: The Zombie Exterminator. When zombie exterminator Neeta Lyffe gets sued because a zombie she set afire stumbles onto a lawyer's back porch, she needs money, fast. So she agrees to train apprentice exterminators in a reality TV show that makes Survivor look like a game of tag. But that's nothing compared to having to deal with crazy directors, bickering contestants and paparazzi. Can she keep her ratings up, her bills paid and her apprentices alive and still keep her sanity?

Here's an excerpt:

The workout room had a weights set and an elliptical in one corner, but Neeta ignored them. She needed more vigorous exercise than that if she wanted to burn off her emotional funk.

None of the plebes had done the routine she'd just set for herself. It didn't really reflect the reality of zombie movements, either. Although the crew had designed the targets to look much like actual undead, they moved too quickly, changed direction too suddenly, lunged and retreated in ways zombies couldn't imitate. They zigged and zaggged, dropped from the ceiling to zoom back up, flung themselves from the ground to trip the unwary. For once, this wasn't about training.

Neeta steeled herself, found an opening and dove in with a roar. She swung high, tagging the first zombie with the edge of her blade just as it got within her reach.

This was about reflexes,

She jumped over the arm that sprung up in front of her, doing the splits as she brought down her chainsaw to slice the hand off at the wrist.

…about burning aggression,

She spun a full circle, moving the saw in a sine wave. She took one target out at the knees, sliced another sideways across the chest, beheaded a third.

…about moving beyond thought and planning and negotiations with writers and directors and people who cared more for ratings than lives,

She lunged, spun, kicked and swung, her battle cries a perfect accompaniment to the pounding music.

A buzzer sounded, and the lights brightened and steadied. The targets stopped their frenetic motions and presented themselves for her to examine. She dropped the saw where she stood and braced her hands against her knees to catch her breath. Her arms felt like lead. A good feeling. She moved among the grimacing targets, noting the strikes that would have severed limbs, the ones that would have beheaded... When she came to the long-haired one with the pot belly, she gave a feral grin.

She's landed the blade in perfect position to slice Dave's manic smile right off his face.

From zombie exterminators to dragon detectives to nuns in space, Karina Fabian's universes make readers laugh, cry and think. Winner of the 2007 EPPIE Award for best sci-fi and the 2010 INDIE Award for best fantasy, she lets her characters take her where they will and is never disappointed. Karina Fabian is married to Colonel Robert Fabian. They and their four kids call home wherever the Air Force sends them. Learn more at

Friday, October 21, 2011

Horses in Fiction: We Love Our Warhorses, Yes We Do!

Let's face it. Fiction and Hollywood love a warhorse. That big (preferably black or snowy white) beast, champing and shaking his head so fearsomely, tossing his mane in wild allure like Justin Bieber on crack.... Oh, yeah. We all want one of those.

Except...except those are mostly a figment of Hollywood's imagination, and hence, many writers'. The massive, 17-hand destrier never existed. "Great horses" were a little bigger, a little stouter, than the average beast ridden by the lowly man-at-arms. Even as late as the 16th century, King Henry VIII found the state of horse breeding aimed at producing very large horses in England dismal enough that he actually issued a decree that all horses under 14.2 hands should be destroyed. Fortunately, it was widely disobeyed, or we would not have Shetlands and Welsh ponies and a good many other native UK breeds.

What is true is that horses, especially those large enough to create an intimidating war platform, have always been cherished by the warrior, from the Scythians on the steppes right through to the 1940s when the last cavalry units in major armies saw action. You will still find irregular cavalry going into action in some places of the world even today. The horse gives a tremendous advantage in weight and speed over even a determined mass of charging infantry, and one-on-one the guy on the ground better have lots of nerve and be really good with his weapons to score on the horseman. The archer and crossbowman have it all over the poor guy with just a sword, but the pikeman can defend himself so long as he is not outnumbered. As noted previously, horses are not keen on impaling themselves.

Horses of all types were cherished because they were expensive, and the warhorse even more so. English armies were careful to note every single animal shipped on campaign by size, color, and sex so that the owner could be properly compensated if it got killed. The average horse ridden by the man-at-arms was well broken to saddle and responsive to the rider but was not a destrier, a knight's mount. This beast's training was lengthy and specialized, so the knight who lost in the tournament took a huge hit by having to hand over his horse and armor to the winner. He knew this horse. The horse knew him. They were a team. It had been trained to fight, to ram another horse, to savage a man on foot. Its temper might not be sweet but its rider loved it anyway. From the way that medieval epics tend to associate named horses with heroes, we know that a) the nag was appreciated, b) was considered an integral part of the warrior's persona, and c) was usually a character in its own right, with attributes and qualities that gave it some advantage and made its rider genuinely mourn its loss.

As with all horse/rider relationships, the warhorse served best when he had learned to trust his rider, so why is it the Bad Guy is always portrayed as a brute? Yes, he can force his animal with whip and very nasty spurs into the thick of the fight against its will, but the willing horse will charge in there with him and fight for him on its own, leaving him free to concentrate on the real enemy. Smart Evil Overlords understand that trained horses don't fall off trees and that his chances of survival are much, much better if he doesn't alienate the beast he's on. Trust me, even the most cowed beast will find a way to dump you at an inopportune time if he is frightened and/or miserable enough.

Cherishing the horse for its value does not mean it was coddled, historically. However, as early as Xenophon 2400 years ago, military men appreciated the need for taking decent care of their equines. As horses grew more common and more military tactics depended upon their use, their care and feeding became highly codified. BUT - they were still expendable. This is one thing that many, many writers get wrong. The hero always rides the same horse through the entire epic, charging at high speed cross-country, or plodding relentlessly on for weeks and weeks. Or, the cavalry makes some epic journey...and never loses a nag. Never do they have a horse break a leg, founder, colic, develop saddle sores or even throw a shoe. Clearly, these writers have never heard the term "remount" nor given a single thought to the logistics of keeping a large group of large animals fed, watered, healthy, and sound.

In reality, the military went through horses like three-year-olds through candy. It is dreadful to think of entire transport ships full of helpless horses lost at sea, of countless millions of horses sacrificed like the mounts of the Light Brigade that charged into the valley of death and died with their riders. Mules and draft horses were conscripted and died in equal or greater numbers; artillery horses had especially short lives. But the men who rode and drove them loved them nonetheless, despite their often casual attitude toward life in general. The cavalry horse made a mounted warrior special; it gave him advantage; it saved his life on many occasions. It gave its all, and it was not unappreciated, or the mystique would never have survived for thousands of years to populate our literature.

Be careful with your warhorses, but remember they had a purpose, grim and focused. And, oh yeah, most of them were short, shaggy, and surly. Forget Shadowfax if you want to be realistic. Lovely beasts undoubtedly were sought after and highly prized, but much less common than the rest. Prince Charming and the Evil Overlord might ride one, but the troops - heh, they rode what the lord could afford.

'Til next time.


Check out my novel Firedancer if you are looking for fantasy fiction with a whole different perspective.

All pictures and text on this blog copyright S. A. Bolich. Use by permission only.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

New website coming!

Heh, heh, heh. Note the new background of this blog! It's a sneak peek at my new web site which I hope will be up very soon. The designer has been oh so patient and great to work with. I can't wait until it's all finished. Now, if I could just force Blogger to stop repeating it down the page...

Can you tell I write fantasy? :)

Just had to drop a note to ease the shock and let you know that, yes, you're still on the right blog. We return to our regularly scheduled horse posts tomorrow.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Horses in Fiction: Making Your Horse a Character

As promised, it's time to talk about how to really entwine your fictional horses into your story as genuine characters in their own right. This does not mean they need to talk, act human, or be anything but what they are--equine critters with their own instincts, needs, desires, and habits.

There has been a lively discussion over at Broad Universe of late, sparked by this blog, about taking fantasy horses into new territory such as making them carnivorous. That would really leave the realm of being an equine, so I am sticking here to real horses, or at least, to creatures that act like horses.

Real horse characters need to act "real." Imagine that. As much as we long to be able to talk to our beasts and have them talk to us (Damn it, where does your leg really hurt??), that's only going to happen in fantasy, and then you had better have a really good evolutionary pattern for giving your world a horse with such abilities. Or else, really really potent magic.

Every horse is an individual. Some are bold, some are timid, some aggressive, some curious. Depending on the situation, they can be all of the above. They are herd animals; they don't like being separated from other equines and will stand as close to the ones they can see as they can, even if those horses are two pastures over. They are not predators, but prey, and nature equipped them with speed to get away from danger. Thus they will jump and turn away from an unexpected threat, and often bolt in panic, or at least take two or three big jumps before the rider can regain control. This often puts said rider on the ground, entailing lots of plot mayhem.

Horses need to graze constantly by nature, so they are always thinking about food. They will poop on the fly but must stop to urinate. Their hides itch when shedding winter or summer hair or after you've unsaddled, so the first thing they want to do is roll. Sometimes they won't wait for you to get off. That bridle is itchy, man! They will rub on anything to relieve that itch, including their own front leg, a post, or you. I used to hold my hand out, palm flat, to Kalup (described below) and he would do the rest. A horse's head is mostly bone, and it's hard, so a persistent and ill-mannered nag can do damage in his single-minded quest for relief.

A horseman can tell a horse's mood instantly. Really. Horsey body language shows up most clearly in:
  • Ears: Forward is alert, back is trouble. One cocked forward means they're paying attention but not worried; both ears up can indicate eager attention (Where's the food, Mom?) or wary assessment on the way to departing at high speed. You will always see the lead horse in a group with his ears up while the rest shamble along half asleep. The one in the lead absolutely knows something around the next bend is likely to get him. He never stops paying attention. Beau here wanted very much to see what was in my hand, hoping for food, but wasn't sure it wouldn't eat him.
  • Eyes: Horses sleep standing up but with their eyes half-lidded or shut. This is relaxation. Of course, the white-rimmed eye-rolling is obvious fear or distress, and crusted eyes indicate illness, bad dust, or something in the eye. If they don't respond when you touch them they're either deeply asleep or ill.
  • Lips: Beware the curled upper lip of a horse in a rotten mood. Compressed lips mean he's nursing a bad day or a grudge, and when he's angry that lip literally curls in defiance. It's very sensitive to smell, so you will often see foals and stallions with their head up and their lip curled up, smelling other horses. And if you rub a horse's belly or scratch hard at his withers or neck, he will curl his lip out in vast pleasure.
  • Legs: A horse standing "hip-shot" resting a hind foot is very relaxed, bored, and likely asleep. If his hind legs are tucked far under his body, call the vet; he's hurting either in his back, his belly, or his hooves. If he's holding a front foot up, something hurts. The trick is finding out whether it's the hoof or the leg.
  • Stance: A horse that won't look at you is one that doesn't trust you or doesn't want to work. If he turns his hindquarters to you, he really doesn't want to be bothered. Watch out.
  • Tail: A whipping tail is evidence of a horse under duress. It reflects his every mood, from lazy switching at flies to "wringing" his tail, an intense shivering reflecting his resistance to what he's being asked to do.
As with reading human body language, the writer can incorporate all of this onto the horses in the story to indicate one that is about to blow up, a friendly creature, or one in pain who must be taken care of before the group can get on with the day.

To illustrate how different horses can be, let me "show" you some horses I have personally known, loved, and occasionally sworn at with great feeling:
  • Vixen: The mare I grew up on was a full-blooded Saddlebred. I watched her being born and owned her until she died. She was sensitive and stubborn and oh-so-loyal. She put a foot through a wire fence and cut it badly, yet, when turned out to heal up, she hobbled in on my heels from the pasture when I walked out to catch another horse to ride. She was game for anything I asked her to do, but she was so excitable that she once ran me into a post and removed most of the skin on my upper arm for me. She would completely ignore me if I went out and sat in the corral (her half-sister Lightfoot, on the other hand, would come shove her head in my lap in sympathy if I was in tears at the moment). Yet when I went out to sketch her anatomy from life, Vixen came and stood over me. I have incredible close-ups of her front legs.
  • Kalup: Vixen's firstborn son. Oh. My. God. He is still a legend among everyone who knew him. This picture is him to the life (He's the one in the background behind the fence, fiddling with a string and unhappy because he's been blocked from where he wants to go. The mare is Vixen, the colt in the foreground Kalup's full brother.) He got up off the ground when he was born, got his wobbly legs under him, and immediately struck at my mother who was trying to take his picture. He wasn't frightened; he was showing her who was boss. An alpha male to the max, he did not even have to lay his ears back at other horses to have them kowtow to him on sight. It was the most amazing thing to watch loose horses charge up to challenge the newcomer, get to about 20 feet away, slam on the brakes, and slowly back away, acknowledging his vast superiority. He took poorly to discipline but absolutely loved trashing everything in sight. He was a fiddler, which means he knew how to untie himself, open gates, and loved open doors. Nothing was sacred to him, and he was fearlessly competitive. A mountain horse, I taught him to jump and evented him, but he would never jump into water with elan, because he knew from long experience there would be big nasty rocks under the surface. Geez, he was a pain, but oh, man, he was a great horse.
  • Beau: Another Saddlebred (yes, my favorite breed). He stood 16.3 at the withers, taller than I am, so people always asked how I was going to get on him. Fortunately, I'm really limber and just stepped up. Also fortunately, he had wonderful manners and just stood there. He was gorgeous and gentle but had lots of life, loved kids and would go anywhere you asked him to go. He would stand with perfect patience while wee ones wandered between his legs, but get between him and his food and he got quite pushy. When he got hungry enough, he would calmly dismantle the fence and head for the hay pile. And unlike Mr. I Am God Kalup, Beau instantly made friends with every horse in sight. They never laid their ears back at him; he would reach over (or down) and nibble on their mane, and I never saw even a crabby one object to him. Horses read body language very, very well, both yours and that of other equines.
  • Gypsy: My sister's horse when were kids was a 14.3 grade (no particular breed) mare with one interesting quirk: she hated cows. That was a born cowhorse. All my sister had to do was point her at our cows and Gypsy would lay her ears back and instantly give chase, expertly cutting them out on her own.
  • Nellie: My Thoroughbred mare is a sweet and gentle creature--on the ground. She spent years in a brood mare pasture before I bought her, among 100 other mares, so she had never been alone. She was and is the most herdbound creature I've ever owned, though vastly better than when I bought her. She panics if left alone, and the first two days in my corral she pined so intensely for her old owner I wanted to cry. She would perk up when I walked out to pet her, see who it was, and instantly droop and look away. I am "hers" now, and she's happy again, but wow. Being sold is a traumatic experience even for a horse if they have been long in a certain place, with familiar people.
Once again, I could run on for days, but hopefully this gives a little foundation for fleshing out your horsey "characters" without making them human. They're not, and they're always going to act like horses, even if they can talk. It's instinct, and you can't take that out and still have a horse.

Until next time!

Do check out my novel Firedancer if you get the chance.

All content and pictures on this site copyright 2011 S. A. Bolich. Please use by permission only.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Horses in Fiction: How Far Can I Travel?

The response to last week's post was so excellent that I've decided to continue with the series on horses in fiction and how to make them more authentic even if you are not blessed with a horse out your back door to study.

A question I hear a lot is "How far can a horse travel in a day?" Oh, my, do you want the dissertation or the short answer? Since this is a blog, here is a short list of questions to ask yourself about your characters and their horses in trying to decide how fast your group can really travel:
  • How large is the group?
    The larger the group, the greater the logistical problems and the slower you are likely to travel over sustained distances. The abilities of the horses will vary, and the slowest horse sets the pace, or dies trying to keep up.
  • How fit are the horses?
    You CANNOT let a horse stand for weeks and months and then leap on him and ride away into the sunset (or even 20 miles) without risking serious consequences to the poor beast. His back muscles need to be conditioned, his wind needs to be built up, and generally all the rules of conditioning human athletes apply to him. Well-conditioned animals, like well-conditioned humans, can go farther and likely faster, but of course they cannot sustain it indefinitely without rest even when perfectly fit.
  • How fit are the riders?
    Hoo, boy, this one's fun. Even fit riders will feel a long day in the saddle. Fitness, in this case, doesn't necessarily mean conditioned to ride, however, but also how well they ride. A fit rider who doesn't know how to help his horse, or who slumps in the saddle like a sack of grain, will create a sore-backed animal or possibly contribute to a disaster on the trail that might not have happened if he'd had a clue about riding.
  • How well trained are the horses?
    Are your horses "trail broke" or stable-pampered dandies? Do you have any "green" horses just barely broken to ride? Are you likely to incur bucking, balking, panic, or bolting at every slightly weird situation you encounter? This does not have to be fairy tale monsters; this can be a cow ambling out of nowhere or a small creek running across the road. Good trail horses don't just happen; they result from many, many miles in many different circumstances. The rider can try beating his horse over the obstacle. He may even win. Until the horse gets tired of it, pitches him, and leaves him stranded. I do recall vividly approaching the last jump of a cross-country course and having my horse suddenly start to panic at sight of a herd of distant cows he could see on the other side. His very first cows, and it had to be right there...
  • What is the availability of grass and water?
    No, it is not logistically possible to carry enough feed with you to sustain a group of horses, or even a lone mount, for more than a few days. The pack animals have to eat, too, leading straight to the law of diminishing returns. Grain is dead weight, and you can't carry enough to sustain an animal that eats 10 pounds of it a day. Plus, grain alone does not give the horse what it needs from a dietary standpoint. He is a grazing animal, accustomed to eating often and consuming lots of roughage, plus he drinks 10 gallons a day on average, more when it's very cold or very hot. Your travelers must take time out to graze their animals. They will get full after an hour on good grass, up to 2 or more if the feed value is low, so there's 2-4 hours of traveling time shot right there, because at a minimum you need to allow them to graze twice a day. Leaving them loose all night risks waking up to find the whole bunch departed for more interesting places come morning. It is well to keep one tied or picketed. Use it to look for the rest.
  • What is the terrain like?
    You can travel much faster on flat, grassy ground than over steep hills, rocks, and through mud. In the mountains, 20 miles is a loooong day. On the flat, you can average perhaps 30 if the horses are really fit, but you can't keep that up indefinitely on the same horse. If the trail looks like this one (Cascade Mountains), you are going to be moving a whole lot slower. It took us all day to go 7 miles on this trail, between the rocks and the deadfalls.
  • What is the weather?
    Snow, mud and rain all made the generally poor roads of history even worse. A horse cannot slog through snow up to his knees without wearing out really fast, and slipping and straining through mud is a killer. Ice risks the horse's legs. Hot sun means dehydration. Horses can go a couple of days without water but you're not going to get far, especially if you're asking for an all-out sustained effort.
  • How much weight is the horse carrying?
    The rider, the saddle, all his junk, and where it's positioned on the horse's back all make a big difference to the rate of travel. Even a light rider has to factor in his food, water, whatever's in his saddlebags, his blankets, pots, weapons, clothes.... You get the picture. The horse has to carry all that, in front of or behind the saddle or draped over the rider. Some will be dead weight.
  • How fast does he need to get where he's going?
    The Pony Express covered 2,000 miles in 10 days, changing horses every few miles and traveling very light. A letter could travel 250 miles a day over terrain without roads, but the system was in place to achieve that. Your rider cannot ride a single horse that far in a day, or even a significant fraction of it, at a gallop (and he's going to be very sore himself if he travels that whole distance, in a day or two, at a dead run). By varying the gait between walk and fast trot you can cover a lot of ground, but once again, it is not a sustainable effort over the long term.
  • Do you have wagons?
    Your rate of travel just dropped from 30 miles a day to 15 or so, unless the roads are very good and the weather is fine. Coaches changed teams pretty often to sustain any decent mileage per day. A merchant trundling his goods from market to market likely only had a couple of horses and had to use them carefully, which meant a plodding pace that slowed to a turtle's crawl in mud. Pioneer wagon trains averaged 10 miles a day. Long baggage trains for armies managed about the same.
Our ancestors (those accustomed to traveling by horseback) were, in general, much fitter and rode animals accustomed to long days under saddle. They were still constrained by the limitations of the animal and the availability of replacements, so factor that into your fictional journeying. Err on the slow side if you don't want your knowledgeable audience hooting and rolling their eyes at your impossible distances traveled, with horses that never break a sweat and riders that never look frazzled, or smell of horse sweat, or need to stop and pee.

'Til next time!


Check out Firedancer, my quite un-horsey first novel!

All contents (text and pictures) of this blog copyright S. A. Bolich. Use by permission only.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Horses in Fiction--What Writers Get Wrong

Where to start with this topic? As someone who grew up with horses (yes, that's me in the saddle, oh so long ago), horses have been a continuing part of my life and generally figure prominently in my fantasy fiction. I have done everything from teaching a horse to joust to packing into the wilderness for days at a time to 3-day eventing and dressage. I rode in a mounted drill team as a teenager, performing at rodeos and parades, and did 4-H and playdays and horse shows and everything in between. I rode bareback until I was big enough to hoist a saddle up onto my 16-hand mare. As an adult I was a DC and regional vice supervisor for the United States Pony Clubs, took up jumping, and still own 2 Thoroughbreds. I tell you this to establish the fact that I have indeed been there and done that when it comes to riding, horsemanship, and stable management and horse care. And why am I doing that? Because so much fantasy is set in pseudo-medieval worlds where horses are used--and because so many times the writer has clearly never touched a live horse and has no clue how to write them with any authenticity.

I have begun suggesting horse-related panels at conventions of late and I've been delighted to see several take me up on it. There are a lot of fantasy writers who do know their stuff when it comes to equines, like Patricia Briggs and Sara Mueller and C.J. Cherryh. Unfortunately, I see egregious Hollywood stereotypes creep into fantasy fiction all the time. Here are some of the worst:
  • The horse is a machine. It never requires feed, water, or unsaddling. It can go forever without rest, leap from the stable at a dead run and never strain anything, and its back will never, ever be sore from packing a couple of hundred pounds of rider, armor, and gear all day. Check.
  • The rider is never sore (Cherryh, notably, gets this one right in her Foreigner series). You think you can jump on a horse and ride for miles without being abysmally sore and literally chafed raw in sensitive spots? Think again. The wrong clothes (too thin, too loose) can rub painful sores on legs and derrier, your knees will scream, and your thighs will be ungodly sore from stretching muscles in directions they don't normally stretch. The broader the barrel of the horse you're riding, the worse it is. Give me a lean-built nag any day.
  • The group rides from sunup to sunset, ties the horses to trees, and goes to sleep. Oh, please. The horses need to be turned out to graze or picketed for a couple of hours at least, morning and evening, because in most fiction the rider never carries any rations for the poor beast he's riding. Even if he carries grain, that is dead weight and he can't carry much of it. So if he's depending on grain alone to keep his horse going, he's going to be walking in a few days. You camp before dark, in a place with feed, and you keep close guard on your beasts so they don't wander off and leave you stranded.
  • The horse will go anywhere it's pointed. I cringe whenever I watch Peter Jackson's "The Two Towers" because of the dramatic scene toward the end when Gandalf leaps Shadowfax into the teeth of orc spears. Horses are somewhat dim-witted but not entirely suicidal. Those pointy things in their face? Huh-uh, boss, not me, I ain't impaling myself on those. There is a perfectly valid reason why infantry formed square in the days of cavalry and pointed bayonets at the charging beasts. Very few infantry squares were ever broken, and it wasn't by a horse leaping bravely onto the bayonets, because few horses will ever trust a rider to that extent. Nor would most cavalrymen who wanted to live waste their mounts like that.
  • The horse is always obedient. I have to laugh whenever a fiction writer rides his horse into danger and it never flinches or shies. Well-trained animals will indeed brave things that their wild counterparts will not, including charging into the teeth of cannon. However, a good deal of that comes from herd instinct, and if the whole mob charges they will mainly stay together. One can never discount the unexpected, as you are riding a live creature with a brain and survival instincts of its own. Ergo, the unexpected appearance of a predator on the trail, a bird bursting from a bush, or even someone flapping a hand in the face of an equine half asleep while plodding down the trail can evoke unexpected and deadly problems. Imagine what will happen on this trail if the horse goes gaga (and this is actually a very good trail). Also note that the lead horse has already stepped through his reins while his rider got off to take the picture. Add bear. Watch the mayhem. Writers severely under-utilize the potential of the horse as plot device.
I could go on and on and on, and likely will in future posts. I am thinking of shifting the focus of this blog to talk about the perils and potentials of horses as characters and props in fiction. Anyone want to weigh in on whether this is a good focus?

Wouldn't you know, my first published novel, Firedancer hasn't a horse in sight? Check it out anyway if you're curious about my writing. Until next time!

All contents (text and pictures) of this blog copyright S. A. Bolich. Use by permission only.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Character Building in Fantasy

I will be giving a copy of my novel Firedancer (electronic version in the format of your choice) to a commenter chosen at random from those who comment on this post before September 30. Please stay on topic and keep it clean. I am genuinely interested in other writers' processes for building characters, and hope we can all share and glean some insights.

I hate talking about myself and screaming "buy my book!" all the time, though I am (ahem) proud of the reviews Firedancer has gotten thus far. I would far rather talk about the writing process and share some of the painfully-won knowledge that has shaken out of my own writing journey.

Characters, of course, are what make or break any fiction effort. The worldbuilding in fantasy better be plausible, but the characters in any fiction had better be even more so. I just saw a discussion about Mary Sue characters on a science fiction forum, and oh yes, this is a stage that most beginning writers go through. The Mary Sue is, basically, you, but better. Prettier, stronger, cooler, kick-ass dangerous, competent, never breaks a fingernail or a sweat.... Oh, yeah, that person we'd all like to be deep down, and who doesn't actually exist. That gorgeous girl? She has insecurities, trust me. "Am I a trophy date? Am I getting fat? Will my friends drop me like dog doo if I don't know what's 'hot' this week?" And that guy who seems to just have everything going for him? He really can't walk on water, so get over it.

Then there is the opposite of the Mary Sue, the guy who can't do anything right, or the guy with no redeeming qualities whatsoever that we just love to hate. Can you spell boring? Even the most inept guy is right occasionally, or loves his dog, or has some unexpected spark of courage that can shame the hero. And the Evil Overlord? Boring! Hannibal Lector fascinates us because he has a history, and is barking mad besides. The guy who just kills or tortures for fun, baby, is not someone most of us want to read about, and is too one-dimensional to drive an interesting plot. Even Darth Vader had issues, and inconvenient offspring.

Fantasy is full of stock characters, from the dogged hero who will not quit before he/she saves the world to the dark wizard who wants to enslave the world to the collection of magical or bumbling sidekicks. The heroine of Firedancer is, I suppose, the damaged hero, the one who wants to walk away but can't, and brings everything she has left to the fight. And Settak, her companion? Oh, yes, he has issues with competence and confidence, but stubborn? Hoo boy, he could teach rocks how to defy rain. But it is these qualities, and others, that will lead them to succeed or fail, because it is characterization and the choices each character makes that ultimately drive a good plot.

It's actually hard to get away from recognizable fantasy character tropes, because a great part of the charm in fantasy comes from these guys. You know what to expect. You want the hero to win. It's how you construct them within the boxes that makes them different, and interesting, and, hopefully, memorable.

I talked in an earlier post about the matrix I've begun to construct for my characters. Over time, I've discovered the 3 most important questions in it are:
  1. What is his/her most appealing quality?
  2. What is his/her least appealing quality?
  3. What is his/her immutable quality?
We all need our characters to be appealing in some way or no one will want to stick with them for several hundred pages. And for them to be well-rounded and "human" (even if they're not) they need a darker side. Even saints probably pitched fits now and again, and your character needs quirks, dirty little secrets, bad habits, temper tantrums, and plausible (and sometimes unfortunate) reactions to the unexpected in order to come across as real.

Then we come to the last one. The immutable quality. Here is the gold. Here is the one that tells you how your character will react when a ten-foot Snarkian jax rises up in his face. Will he run? Try to talk to it? Stop long enough to find out if it's dangerous? Attempt to feed it cookies? Take its picture? Complain to the authorities because it pooped on his lawn? We all know people who might react in one of these ways. The immutable character trait is how your character will react when confronted by a stronger personality, a subordinate, a threat, an opportunity. Some people will show compassion even in the direst circumstances; others will turn their backs and look out for #1. Some will always back down from confrontation; others will wade in, from pride or stubbornness or the brains to know that backing down will make it worse.

I recently had to change the matrix for a secondary character I'm building in Windrider, the sequel to Firedancer. I thought he was a coward, but no. His ruling quality is simply self-interest. Despite his dearly-held opinions, he will not defend them when it looks like someone with more power disagrees. Nor will he let them go, so he is a seething mess of frustration likely to pop at an awkward time. He is physically brave, and will argue with people he thinks he can dominate, but he will always duck, dodge, and slide to make himself look better and keep himself out of trouble, until at some point he will have to choose. And trust me, he will always choose in the name of self-interest, whatever that is at the moment.

Fantasy characters are people with all the same basic needs, flaws, and potentials as any person in the "real" world. But they have that extra factor to contend with, the magic, the unreal, the threat that will never confront your average New York cab driver or French schoolteacher. Before you equip them to deal with that added layer of complication, make sure they are plausible people first.

Happy writing!

Thursday, September 15, 2011

5-Star Reviews for Firedancer

"Reading on my commute, I nearly missed my stop. ...Marvelous fantasy adventure, outside the usual boxes."

"The story kept pulling me back to pick it [up] and read more, even when I had other things to do."

"Firedancer almost caused me a sleepless night. I just had to go on reading about what happens to Jetta and the friends she finds..."

The reviews of Firedancer are starting to come in, and thus far I am blushing. I try to reserve 5 stars for really exceptional books, and I hope these readers do too, because easy praise is worth so much less than that well earned. Thus far all the reviews have been 4 or 5 stars, and I am personally thrilled that people find it such a page-turner.

The most gratifying thing for any author is to know that others like your work. It is difficult to throw a book out to the wide world, after all the effort, joy, sweat and time that went into its creation. It is a part of you, an expression of talent and passion and creativity unique to your experiences and worldview and vision. That passion and vision will not always resonate with people; if you are lucky, it will please more than it will offend.

Reviews are a necessary part of book promotion. You send the book to reviewers and hope they will a) find time to actually read it and b) like it enough to give it a good review. The beauty (and drawback) of Amazon and other places like Goodreads and Library Thing is that the reviews come from readers. They are unfiltered expressions of reader likes and dislikes, hopefully tendered without bias or agenda.

That last is not always the case; every author has horror stories of trolls who take violent exception to something about their work and persist in rating it as low as they can, as often as they can, and dragging the book and the author through the mud. This is a sad type of personality and one can only hope the rest of the audience recognizes them for what they are. Then there are the "paid" reviewers who receive all manner of cool stuff from publishers and authors, including free books, in hopes that they will turn in a positive review. This corrupts the system, because most people are basically honest and feel obligated for the gifts. Ergo, the plethora of highly-ranked books that maybe weren't so good.

It is hard to know whether a book is really as good or bad as touted until you read it for yourself, but it is good to know that Firedancer has not yet caused anyone to sit down and write a flaming review trashing it. My heartfelt thanks to those readers who have liked it enough to take time out of their day and share their reaction for others.

I hope you will check out Firedancer at Amazon or Barnes and Noble or Smashwords, and let me know what you think. And thank you!

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Show vs. Tell: Tips for Telling the Difference

This is an ancient subject with regard to "good" writing. Opinions will always differ as to what constitutes good writing, with some readers wanting the stripped-down starkness of pure story speeding along to a conclusion, and others wanting rich scenery along the way. Show vs. Tell remains a bottomless pit of mystery to most, if not all, beginning writers. Critiques scream at them for passive writing and boring descriptions without ever really "showing" them how to get out of that trap.

So, Sue's tip for the day:

This is a Tell:
She sat down.
This is a Show:
She settled herself onto the faded brocade of a chair that looked entirely too fragile to take her weight, her frayed skirts settling around her with soft sighs of relief.
They both get the job done. The reader knows a woman sat down. But the first example unfairly relies upon the reader's imagination to conjure up a generic image of a female person sitting in a chair. What the chair looks like, we have no idea. What the woman looks like, we have no idea. The second example tells you the chair is an upholstered thing past its better days, and the woman is heavy enough to threaten the integrity of the poor chair.

How much nicer is that than stating baldly, "The fat woman sat down"?

As I was zooming along today drafting on Windrider, this nearly made it onto the page:
Ayesh was silent a moment.
Oh, ick. Not only a Tell, but passive to boot! (Passive writing most often involves the use of any form of the verb "to be". Shoot all instances of "was," "were," or "is" on sight whenever possible.)

Here is what this initial thought changed to pretty much as soon as I became aware it had hit the page:
Ayesh sat very still for a moment with silence gathering around him like thickening fog.
This is a bit prettier, yes? A bit more lyrical, evoking a mood as well as telling us that this character is having a moment of introspection.

Writers who claim they cannot stretch a story to the minimum 80,000 words of a novel either truly don't have enough plot...or aren't taking advantage of the beauty of the language to evoke clear pictures of the characters and their surroundings, or to draw an emotional response from the reader. If your writing is stuffed with passives and seems a bit utilitarian, you could be doing more Telling than Showing.

More on this subject in future blog posts, with more examples of how to cure it.

'Til then...

Thursday, September 8, 2011

The Writer's Nightmare

So here we are , Week 1 post-release of Firedancer. I am faithfully refraining from checking its stats every hour (though I must say they were quite fine for awhile, at least) because rankings on Amazon will drive you crazy if you let them. But the promotion work continues, which is, for every writer I know, the thing they like least about this business.

For the happy extrovert who loves people, the fact that most book publishers not only expect, but demand, that authors do all or most of their own promotion is not a problem. They like people, they like the events, they don't mind blowing their own horns. I had to laugh at Worldcon, however, as a group of us authors were standing around catching up on all the news, when the subject turned (as it always does) to the state of the industry and the dreaded P word.

"I'm shy," was the refrain. "I hate this." "I'm a writer, not a marketer." "How are the publishers going to get new books if nobody has time to write?" And, "There are only x number of days in my lifetime to write the stories I can tell. Why should I have to waste them doing what I'm not good at?"

Over and over, I heard the same thing. Successful authors will snort and tell you to get over it; this is the state of the world and you need to just grit your teeth and do it. Yes. This is true.

It does not, however, make it more fun, or magically bestow the gift of self-promotion upon people who would far rather be holed up in a cubbyhole somewhere with a blank page and a pen.

The industry has always set the rules; it is a dreary fact of life. The current rule is "Thou shalt be thy own marketer. Don't look at us; we're broke." Authors are expected to arrange their own book or blog tours, show up at cons and book signings on their own dime, and in many cases, design and print their own marketing materials and generally carry the entire load of getting the word out. The house might help you with getting reviews and certainly will help with distribution, but marketing? That's your problem.

And we all hate it.

The advantage of an ebook, however, is that it has an infinite shelf life. Print books must be heavily promoted up front, with huge demands on the author's time, in order to stave off the dreaded strip and return death as the book stores heave out your book to make way for one that may or may not sell better. The ebook, however, is parked on Amazon pretty much forever, which gives you a chance to build a continuing campaign that does not demand you drop all your current projects (even those contracted, with deadlines) to promote the book that just came out. You do have to promote your book up front, but you can also build an audience over time if you are still learning the ropes, and adjust your marketing as you learn what works. Ebook publication provides some balance for the poor author who just wants to write, but needs that last book to sell.

The ebook, however, also has its drawbacks. You won't find it on the supermarket shelves, or in Costco or Walmart. It's much more difficult to arrange signings without a physical object in hand to sell and sign. And many people just don't want ebooks. But you still have to do the marketing.

And that still means being your own promoter, on the internet instead of tramping all over the country. It's still hard, you have to ask favors of friends, break all the taboos about screaming "Look at me!" your mother told you constituted bad manners, and generally be what you're not--the front man.

We're introverts. We admit it. But, like Mom shoving Junior out the door to check out the grass instead of the video games, we'll heave a martyred sigh and go do it. Because if we don't, no one will.

The thought of your book never being found or read is a powerful motivator. So don't hit me when I yack, yack, yack about Firedancer and all its brethren. I'm a writer. And I want to keep writing.

So lead me (reluctantly) to the promotion....

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Firedancer is Out!

Woohoo! Firedancer, my first published novel (not the first written, but the first to find its way into print) is now out! It's available as an ebook at Amazon, Smashwords, and soon will be downloadable to Barnes and Noble's Nook, Sony and Apple e-readers, and pretty much anywhere else ebooks are available.

It is awfully strange to see your work out in the big world, defenseless to unkind reviewers and the averted eyes of friends who may not have liked it. I do confess to some trepidation, but even if everyone hates it, I daresay it will not detract from the pleasure I derived in writing it. This was a fun book to write because it departed from so many comfort zones for me. It has a female protagonist (I usually write men). It has not a horse or a sword in sight (I like epic fantasy). It uses an other-world setting that is not Earth in any way (I'm a history major. I like grounding my stories somewhere in time). In other words it is different--which is good! If I have to read one more cover blurb about dragons I'll start throwing things. And I don't want to write the same story over and over.

Firedancer is about a woman battling an enemy she knows can never ultimately be defeated, only fought to a standstill. Like evil, the Ancient, the elemental fire at the heart of her world, will always be there. But is the Ancient evil, or merely desperate, a thinking creature confined to a stony prison who desperately wants out? Who has a right to exist the same as all other creatures created by Earth Mother? But how can the Fire Clans--or anyone--make standing room for a creature that must destroy to exist?

Fantasy fiction is often pooh-poohed by the mainstream as fluff, but fantasy just takes the very real issues that face us all and places them in more interesting settings than the mundane everyday world around us. What Jetta learns in the course of her long fight scars her, changes her, makes her reassess everything she thinks she knows--just as good fiction of every type makes the central character think and grow. She is forced to painful choices, the kind that may face us all unexpectedly, because each of us may be thrust without warning into the sort of life or death decisions that define our character. If a car flips over in front of you and starts to burn, do you rush to save the driver, or prudently keep out of danger? Which of three badly hurt people do you work on first? If a crisis hits, where do you focus your energy? Jetta faces such decisions in the context of her responsibility to the village she is tasked to protect.

And as the danger begins to grow intense, so too her personal life grows more complex and vexing, until she finally realizes that the two cannot be separated--answers to everything lie in how she approaches those around her. Isn't that real life in a nutshell?

I hope you'll check out Firedancer's possibilities. Edited by Irene Radford and published by Sky Warrior Books, it is both affordable and available--and a decent read, if I do say so myself. You can preview the first chapter right here and buy the entire book here.

Happy reading!

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Taming the Internal Editor

As I struggle to bring Windrider into being, whilst eagerly awaiting the publication of Firedancer (September 1st! Less than a week!) I find myself fighting the oldest trap of all--endless revision. One of the hardest things about slogging through writing a new novel is the constant urge to keep circling back to "fix" previous scenes, to make everything perfect before gritting your teeth and resuming the tough job of pulling words out of nothing. The constant nagging of the muse, like the monotone whining of a small child demanding attention, is so damned effective that the desire to give in is well nigh overpowering. And seductive. And so, so much easier than facing the blank page every day.

Don't go there.

Constant fiddling is death to forward progress. Some writers become so obsessed with perfection they never finish anything. Ergo, these people are not people you've ever heard of. They are not published. They are not really even writers, because writers finish things. They tell the story--the whole story. All of it, beginning, middle, and end. In other words, they keep writing, suppressing all the whining of the Muse to go fix that and that and oooh, just that one little thing, pleeeease??


For those of you caught in this quicksand, here are a few quick tips for getting the upper hand on revisionitis:
  1. Note down the things you want to change as they occur to you. This relieves the anxiety to remember them, and ensures you capture the idea while it's hot. Do NOT make a separate file, which drags you away into the seductive trap of expanding on your notes, ignoring the draft. Put those notes on the first page of the manuscript, right in front of the title. You cannot fail to see them when you start back through on the revision, but they are well away from where you're working. Out of sight, out of mind.
  2. Pretend you made the changes earlier on, and continue writing new material as if it were grounded in the envisioned rewrite. Go ahead and give your character that funny accent halfway through, or add a quirk to a sidekick as it occurs to you, or shift your capital city from the mountains to the seaside because it works for the plot. Smoothing out the inconsistencies is a task of revision, not drafting. Note it, save it, work on it later.
  3. Give in gloriously to the urge to write stuff out of order. If that scene is burning in your head, write it! Append it to the end of the draft if the plot has not advanced that far yet, and feel the wonderful boost when you do battle your way up to it and discover 5 or 50 finished pages awaiting you. Or plug it into the previous material and utterly resist the urge to sand away around the edges to make it fit seamlessly. It. Will. Be. There. Revision after draft, remember?
  4. Read only the previous five pages of the manuscript when you sit down to work (or everything you wrote yesterday, if you absolutely must). Constantly rereading the previous stuff is just an excuse for not writing new stuff. Refresh your memory and start typing, bucko. It's the only way to finish.
  5. Stop each day with the next sentence in your head. This is a natural lead-in to the next day's writing, and encourages forward progress. If you write until the words dry up every day, it is much harder to jump start the story. Leave the Muse champing at the bit to get going again, and you will remain eager to write rather than revise.
Like probably every other writer in the known universe, I keep a notebook beside the bed, and attempt to not spend all night writing the book in my head. And when I'm stuck, and the words won't come, I write anyway, because word processors are so wonderful with their cut/paste and delete functions. No actual trees die while I put drivel onto the screen attempting to blow up the figurative log jam. And from that drivel often comes the foundation for real scenes and powerful insights that revive the story and get me excited to write it again.

All novels stick in the middle, just about, as the first enthusiasm wears off and the writing becomes work instead of inspired pleasure. It's just the way it is. The only way to finish is to write new material, every time you sit down to work on the book. So turn off your internal editor and just get on with it. Hopefully these few tips will help, or you'll develop your own system of bribery and blackmail to get yours under control. Chocolate....yeah. Lead me to it!

Monday, August 22, 2011

The Road to Worldcon

I traveled to my first Worldcon last week and got home yesterday. It was big, it was fun, I sold some books, gave away a lot of promos, talked to a lot of people and renewed acquaintances with friends. But it was the road trip that I enjoyed as much or more than the con itself, for reasons that go way back in my personal history.

I chose to drive the 800 miles to Reno rather than fly because a) I needed a road trip to clear out my head and b) I loathe TSA, boring layovers, and being stuffed into a flying sausage like a fourth-rate condiment. The Pacific Northwest offers some of the most beautiful and varied scenery on earth, and it had been a long time since I got to see parts of it. I drove on Tuesday morning, southwest into Oregon to run down the eastern side of the Cascades.

I avoided the main roads for the most part, because back roads are so much more interesting. I love all those little towns where the altitude is 10 times the population. I love the freewheeling names awarded by our pioneer ancestors or drawn from Native American words, and the myriad historical markers that deal in the best kind of trivia for this history major. All those isolated little farms and ranches out in the middle of nowhere remind me how tough my ancestors were...and how tough Americans still are, deep down.

My great-great-grandmother came across the Plains in a covered wagon in 1864, all the way from Iowa to Oregon, which meant she passed through some of the very same country I drove through on the way to Reno and on the return. I looked at all those rocky, rough hills of central and eastern Oregon, the unforgiving sagebrush flats, the dust and the hot, dry gullies the wagons had to cross, and I don't wonder why they could only make 10-12 miles a day. For the first wagon trains through, who broke trail and found the routes, it must have been one hellish frustration after another.

Much of the route I drove on the way home shows little to no sign of man's meddling on the landscape, so it was easy to imagine the country as she must have seen it. I passed Farewell Bend, where the wagons left the good water and lush grass along the Snake and turned northwestward again into the harsher going toward the Columbia and the float downriver to the Willamette Valley that was their destination. I passed the grave of Sacajawea's son, who was born during the Lewis and Clark expedition as his parents guided them west, and served as a symbol of peace to suspicious tribes along the way. He ended up traveling the world, only to die in the middle of nowhere on his way to a gold strike in Montana. Perhaps it was natural he had itchy feet, a born traveling man.

I appreciate my ancestors who built a country--a great country. I fervently wish they had not been so focused on their own goals that they eliminated the native cultures who came before, but people who condemn them conveniently forget that migration and upheaval are the true constants of history. The Ojibwa pushed the Sioux out of the Great Lakes onto the Plains; the Comanches practiced slavery and torture and themselves cut a swathe southward from Wyoming to Texas; the Crows made constant war on other tribes. No culture is perfect or free from human vices, so dare I be politically incorrect and salute the courage of people who simply wanted a better life, and had the gumption to endure hardship and uncertainty to get it? Their generation was horrified by the excesses of the Reformation from which their ancestors had fled, as ours is horrified by the pioneers' indifference to people they considered of less worth than themselves. Our grandchildren will be horrified by things we do routinely and thoughtlessly. It behooves us to quit imposing our values on people who never heard of them and simply accept our ancestors as they were.

I know that those landscapes will wend their way into my writing. The smell of sage and the lazy wind blowing dust along the horizon will populate my pages. The shy green in the bottom of a draw and the empty vastness of the sky catching the snowy heads of the Cascades will delight my memory. I hope my characters end up with the same fortitude and inner steel found in my great-great-grandmother's generation. Egad...I hope I do.

'Til next time.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

The Endless Cycle of Worldbuilding

Writing fantasy is easy. Writing good fantasy is hard. A lot of writers don't really get how much work it is to build a believable world that is not Earth, Earth-normal, or based on "real" history, however skewed. The tired tropes of medieval worlds populated with pre-industrial tech, lords, ladies, petulant princesses and evil overlords are well-trodden, so much so that when you say "fantasy," that is what a lot of the prospective audience instantly thinks of.

I deliberately set out to make Firedancer, coming in September from Sky Warrior Books, something outside all those tropes. It is an alternate world fantasy, which means it isn't set on any version of "Earth" and the only thing familiar is that the people are human. Sort of. I greatly admire writers like C.J. Cherryh who can create wonderful non-human protagonists and make us not only sympathize with them but believe every word. I'm not quite up for creating truly alien protags, but I did create a fantasy world without the usual governing structures, no history of war as we know it, and not a horse, sword, dragon, elf, orc, or evil overlord in sight. The enemies of these people are elementals: Fire, Wind, Water. These human clans have no time to fight each other because their planet is trying to kill them. Constantly. Endlessly. Hungrily.

And that, oh that, is the wonder/beauty/thrill of writing fantasy, because you get to make it up. accordance with the rules of plausibility and believability. I sort of got lucky in Firedancer because the location of the main action allows the setting to be quite Earthlike, with certain vivid exceptions. But the next novel, Windrider, set in an entirely different part of this world, forced me to delve immediately into the intricacies of ecology and evolution required to sustain life here. What special protective traits would the plants and animals evolve? How would they survive the constant influx of fire or the killing winds and storms? What customs evolve designed to keep our human inhabitants from quickly becoming extinct? Studying earth critters only gets me so far. After that it's up to the imagination.

Fascinating stuff, worldbuilding. Beginners have no clue how important it is to understand not only what the trees look like, but what the coinage looks like and how food is produced and transported and how law and order functions. In short, they usually fail to construct any sort of believable world because they fail to look around at how our own functions and translate the necessary bits into their made-up universe. Form follows function in everything from the design of tools, furniture, and transport to the shape of a beast's horns. Thus is it with "making up" worlds as well. The more fantasy you write, the more you realize the devil is in the details, and those details are why a lot of readers tune in. Not to be hit in the face with them, but to fall easily and painlessly into a place that feels real even as they are escaping "reality."

I foresee much research coming my way, but it's all to the good! Lead me to those adaptive traits, those strange trees, those interesting houses. Every one of them helps shape my world, and thereby my characters who exist in that world and are adapted to it. Heh heh. It's not every day you get to play God, is it?

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Giving Scenes More Meaning

I am on the downhill slide of revisions for Firedancer, fine-tuning the major stuff I added, looking for places to tighten and cut. With the whole book slightly different and characters having acquired new facets, I took an hour to do something I never used to think about. I looked at every major scene from the perspective of "yes, but" and "no, and" to see if each scene really was integral to the plot. And guess what? It unlocked some new depths I had not previously suspected.

Being an organic writer, letting the story flow as it will onto the page, has the advantage of maintaining excitement about the writing process itself, as I find out as I go along what the story's about and what the characters' adventures are, just as a reader would. But the huge drawback to this method is that you risk having an action-oriented plot with few layers and no great planning to discover the meaning in each scene. I admire people who can outline to that level in advance; I really do. I just can't do it up front, so the work now must come after. As I progress as a writer, I discover myself looking more and more to such methods to enrich my work.

So, what did I discover? I created a table with one question at the top: Did the protagonist accomplish what she set out to do? I listed each major scene down the left side, plotted against "yes, but" and "no, and" to see what fell out of each. Most fell into the "yes, but" category. A few showed up weak, with little to no "but" consequences arising from the accomplishment. Strong plots need strong and continuing tension, which means nothing along the way can be an unqualified success. The two "no, and" answers really were enlightening, leading directly to greater character development in secondary characters affected by the scene. That was exciting, and really satisfying. It lent depths to the plot I didn't know it had.

Overall, every scene got richer in some way because of this exercise, and I am so grateful for the panel I sat in on at Radcon where I learned it. Never stop learning! Never stop pushing yourself as a writer. Adding 84 layers of meaning just to do it is pointless, but hunting for the real richness in every scene is a worthwhile exercise I highly recommend. Try it!

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Thoughts on No Man's Land

The No Man's Land anthology is out at last, and I've been reading the other stories appearing along with my "Falling to Eternity." It is interesting to note how many ways there are to take "military science fiction with women protagonists" as a theme. All the stories I've read thus far are action-oriented (not unexpected) but there is a rich mix of occupations and settings and underlying technology. And there is a distinctly different flavor to the outcomes.

SF has been such a "man's world" for so long that one wonders if there will ever be a true equality in the reader's mind, or if women will stop debating early in their careers whether to publish under their initials or just go for broke and put a female name on the cover. It is unfortunate that the bias is still there, no matter how enlightened we think we are. Yet I wonder how many readers are shocked--shocked!--to discover that Andre Norton, C.J. Cherryh, Leigh Brackett, D.C. Fontana (of so many wonderful Star Trek episodes), James Tiptree, and so many other "male" SF writers are really women.

Why do we even have to go to such lengths to have our work judged fairly on its merits? I know that to many, the name doesn't matter, yet there are those to whom it does, and I wonder where such expectations of lower quality or foofoo stories come from. And I wonder if women think they must inevitably use a "kickass" female heroine to overcome these notions. Most women (and men) are neither action heroes nor crybabies, but that middle-of-the-road ordinary Jane and Joe who somehow rise to the occasion. They react differently in bad moments, is all, and their creative solutions to problems may be profoundly different to counteract physical limitations or to accommodate the normal male/female differences in worldview.

To me, that makes for interesting stories. To others, it may wave red flags emblazoned with "Tears and bitching ahead!" Personally, I like stoic, stiff-upper lip heroes . . . but I also like the ones who scream and throw things and have private meltdowns--and then get on with the job.

Thank you, Dark Quest Books and Mike McPhail for publishing such a bold anthology, and many thanks to David Weber for the kind and thoughtful introduction to it. He's right. All of these stores are worth reading. I hope a whole lotta people actually do.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Firedancer Due Out in September!

I have been quiet for far too long, but with excellent reason. I was approached at Radcon back in February by a small press publisher who really, REALLY wanted to see some of my work. (Yes, short stories do get you noticed.)

She wanted a series; all of mine need work. I dug around in the drawer instead and dusted off an old standalone moldering in there called Firedancer. She loved the concept: there are no swords here; the enemy is elemental fire lurking at the heart of the world, battled by the Fire Clans through the medium of the Firedance. But our heroine, Jetta, lost her last battle with the Ancient, Old Man Fire, and with it, the village under her charge--and her lifemate. Now she has been ordered to another village by her clan, where she must find the courage, and the means, to fight an enemy that seems to have grown far more clever, and no longer responds to the Dance as it should.

Long story short, after a frantic 10 days completely overhauling the second half of the book, I send it off. An hour later I got a phone call with an offer for a three-book contract. So now this standalone is about to become a series, and I'm busy trying to figure out where the story is going next.

All good! But that's on top of editing someone else's novel, doing 4 intensive critiques for Norwescon, writing a new story in the Firedancer universe for an anthology, and trying to keep up with client work and my workshop duties for Other Worlds. Oh, and cleaning up still another, much longer, MS for another publisher altogether (also by request). Were March and April busy? You could say that!

So that's my sob story (well, not really, I'm pretty jazzed) as to why I haven't been blogging. Now I'm off to finish that story...

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

4 Steps to Advancing Your Writing Career

I'm feeling a bit odd tonight. After years and years of writing for fun, I made a decision a couple of years ago to get serious about subbing and selling my work. And lo and behold, it started to sell (imagine that!).

Getting an editor to buy your work is Step 1 in getting your spec fi writing career past scribbling in the dark. Step 2 is getting the editor of a pro market, as recognized by SFWA, to buy your work. Step 3 is getting nominated and/or winning recognized awards for your work, which opens many doors.

I have arrived at Step 3.

My story, "Kraken's Honor," published in Issue 31 of Beneath Ceaseless Skies, was my first professional sale and made me eligible for the John W. Campbell last year and this year. I missed the boat last year because I had no idea I was even eligible. This year, a kind friend, Swapna Kishore, pointed it out (someone who is also eligible, bless her heart).

Thus begins Step 4 of the writing career: self aggrandizement.

This is the part every writer hates. Few people really enjoy blowing their own horn; it feels boorish and rude to be waving your hand yelling "look at me!" all the time, in exact opposition to what your mother told you when you were a kid. Not to mention that every minute you spend promoting your work is a minute you don't get to spend writing new stories. Yet, to be successful, you must get your work noticed. That means tooting ye olde horn.

So, since the Campbell award is given on the basis of votes received, I find myself now tooting my horn whenever and wherever I can. Dang it. People attending Worldcon 2011 (Renovation) are eligible both to nominate and vote for the Campbell and Hugo awards (my story "An Infinity of Moments," published in On Spec, Fall 2010, makes me eligible for the Hugo as well).

If y'all are so inclined, check them out. Then go vote if the story touches you, or check out some of the other worthy folks with stories in contention. We want you to read spec fi. So go read, and then vote.

Meantime, I'll go on trying to get the hang of this self promotion thingy.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Taming a Complicated Plot

I'm still plugging away at the new project, which is slowly coalescing far back in the deepest caves in my mind. Since spelunking is not my thing I have to wait for the plot pieces to crawl slowly out into the daylight on their own, which is not my usual process. I am, however, developing patience, and having some fun doing things I haven't done before to help the pieces crawl out faster.

Two tools have fallen out of all this cogitation that I think I may use again in future projects. One is a scene matrix and the other an impact grid. Being a little anal and very visual, these have been very helpful in seeing how the pieces all fit together to drive a logical conclusion.

I know some people spend hours upon hours plotting out their novels. I never have. It usually just flows, one piece leading inexorably to the next. This one is reasonably complicated, however, with four main factions interacting and impacting each other. As one is attacked or makes a move on another, the other two get drawn in and take collateral damage that no one connects to the overt moves until close to the end of the book. The impact grid is simply four parallel, vertical lines with arrows pointing to each faction that is affected by a particular move. I see my plot progressing and inexorably driving the conclusion through each of those arrows. The good guys shift from getting hammered to hammering in turn, while moves that seem crazy turn out to make good sense. Very interesting stuff.

Drawing a matrix of how each scene contributes to every plot/subplot is also kinda fun. List every scene, by chapter, and draw a line out and down from each scene to the ones farther on that are directly driven by it. You will soon isolate the orphans that have no actual bearing on anything. Don't start whacking text immediately, however. Those may be important world-building or foreshadowing or characterization scenes, perhaps introducing characters. It is always best, of course, to ensure that even those scenes drive the plot, but sometimes that conversation is simply presenting information and its only direct connection is to the characters' knowledge that will ultimately help them resolve the plot. They don't present, in themselves, a direct action producing another scene.

So far all this plotting and drawing reveals a very clear driving thread and three or four interesting subplots with no clear resolution, but then, the book is only half written. Day by day, however, the pieces are fitting more tightly together and the "big picture" is becoming clear. Best of all, the grid, especially, has helped me figure out who the bad guys really are and how their moves will spin out the resolution.

Bottom line: when just gritting your teeth and writing something every day isn't getting you there, help your muse out with a creative end run around the blocks. It's amazing what you can do with a pencil and a blank piece of paper!

Friday, January 7, 2011

Writing Resolutely

I like plants, though I cannot claim a green thumb. The poor hibiscus in my bathroom needs re-potting badly, but it struggles along from year to year despite me. It delights me on a regular basis by shaping one of its beautiful flowers in slow motion, the bud swelling day by slow day until one morning I get up and lo! There it is, this glorious thing nodding over the bathtub. It doesn't matter that it lasts less than a day. The result is wondrous.

My newest novel project is reminding me more and more of that hibiscus. It's proceeding at snail's pace, swelling slowly word by slow word after a slam-bang start in November. It's a bit frustrating but I am slogging ahead, albeit in unaccustomed fashion. I am used to banging out multiple thousands of words a day. Of late, I'm grateful for a thousand. But a thousand really good words.

Like the hibiscus, I'm letting this thing develop slowly, tossing to the winds my usual admonition to just get the dang thing on paper and polish it later. It doesn't want to come out that way. For one thing, it's far different from anything I've attempted before, which hopefully is good, an exercise in pushing myself as a writer. For another, it wants to be perfect when it arrives, and who am I to argue? I think that somewhere deep down, this story knows what it wants to be even though I am not entirely sure yet.

So . . . the keyword for me this new year is resolute, not resolution. Day by day, sentence by sentence, I am resolutely sticking to the plan to get this thing done not by forcing it, but by letting it develop in its own time. Forget the internal deadlines and quash the progress anxieties. With resolution, it will get done.

I will embrace the journey, and hope for a flower at the end.