Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Science Fiction eBook Market Under the Microscope – Indies Dominate

Interesting article on the state of e-book publishing in the Science Fiction market.

Science Fiction eBook Market Under the Microscope – Indies Dominate

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Tales of Caution - Second Person Narrative

A writer has three choices for grammatical person in telling a story: first, second or third person. Which “person” you choose determines which pronouns you use. In general terms a first person narrative is told to the reader by a narrator and uses “I”, “me” or “mine”. Second person uses “you” or “your.” Third person, the most common form for contemporary fiction, uses “he”, “she” or “it” and all the related permutations. For a detailed review of these narrative styles, see Grammar Girl’s excellent podcast on them.
When writing in second person. the writer often breaks the fourth wall, and talks directly to the reader. It works well for blog posts since I am talking directly to you. Writing second person fiction, on the other hand, is a risk. Modern readers aren’t use to it. When done well
in fiction – like in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off - it’s a powerful tool, and forges an instant connection between the reader and the main character. Done poorly, this technique is a disaster.
Recently, we had a few second person stories come through the submitted to Flash Fiction Online. Second person narrative fiction stories are hard to sell. I don’t reject them just for being second person. I want to see another Ferris Bueller's Day Off. But I don’t want to filter the thoughts of a serial killer as if they were my own, which is what second person does. I don’t want to be told “you draw the knife over the milky white throat. Warm blood spurts from the severed vein and coats you.” Yuck.
If your main character is vile or does vile things, you might not want to tell his story in the second person. I read and loved Dan Wells’ I Am Not A Serial Killer series about a teenage boy, John Cleaver, who is trying not to become a serial killer. John does some bad things, and some very bad things for good reasons. I worried about him. I wanted John not to slide down that very slippery slope. Dan told John’s story in the third person. Similarly, the main character in the Dexter series by Jeff Lindsay is a serial killer. The series is very popular, has a strong cult following, and has spawned a related television series. Dexter is written in first person.
But please don’t tell me a pedophile’s, murderer’s or rapist’s story in second person. I WILL reject it. But I might not reject the same work of fiction if the same story is told with some distance between me and the main character – in other words, third person or, even, first person. Good writing means knowing the “rules” and deciding whether the price you’ll pay for breaking them is worth the cost. Before you write fiction in second person, think about who your main character is and whether your reader wants to identify that closely with him. If not, you might better serve your story (and reader) by using a different voice.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Six Questions For . . .: Six Questions for Celina Summers, Editorial Direct...

Recently, Celina Summers, the Editorial Director for Penumbra eZine and founder of Musa Publishing commented on what she's looking for when reading rhrough submissions. Her interview is well worth for anyone who wants to be published.

Six Questions For . . .: Six Questions for Celina Summers, Editorial Direct...: " Penumbra publishes speculative fiction that always culminates in something unexpected - a flash of humor in the darkest tale or a fantasy...

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Starting a Story

One of the hardest things to decide is where to start your story. One piece of advice is to start the story with action. Another piece of conventional wisdom is to start a story at the point just before your main character’s life changes. Like most writing maxims, these pieces of advice are only helpful to a point. Followed blindly, these pieces of wisdom can ensure you start in the wrong point.

Bullets flying around the main character’s head can make for an exciting scene. However, if the story starts with those same bullets flying, the story might fall flat. The same thing can happen if the story starts with the moment the main character gets superpowers. Why?

When you drop a reader into physical action in the beginning, the tension starts to build before a reader has a chance to connect with a character. Similarly, if the story starts too close to the life changing event the reader might not understand the full extent of the change. In both scenarios, the reader doesn’t care about the character yet, and won’t worry about whether the character survives (in the action setting) or chooses another path (in the life changing setup). Also, if you start with pure action, it’s likely that you’ll have to flashback or have “maid and butler” type dialog to fill in the relevant details for the reader. On the other hand, if you start too far away from the event, you might lose the reader to boredom before the story starts.

So what’s the answer?

Each story will have its own feel, and starting point. Remember, action means more
than bullets flying. Dialog is action. Motion is action. So you can heed the directive to start with action by doing something other than opening with a fight scene. Ideally, the story will flow organically without the need to interrupt it to fill in details. If you find yourself stopping the action to tell the reader something she needs to know to understand what’s happening, you’ve
probably started too late.

Somepeople have an inherent sense of where to start. I say inherent, but most of those people have spent years developing that sense. It’s a lot like taking a decade to become an overnight success. If you aren’t one of those people who “know” where a story should start, you might need to write many different openings to find the one that feels right. Feedback from a good writing group is invaluable. (I’ll talk about what makes a good writing group in a later post). Listen to what your writing group or beta readers have to say about the opening. They aren’t always right, but if multiple people make the same comment, you should revisit your story with an eye to seeing what they did.

Finding the right opening is somewhat like finding that perfect partner. It takes work,
but is worth all the effort.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Framing Stories - Do They Work?

SPOILER ALERT for Diane Gabaldon's Outlander series.
According to Dictionary.com a "frame story" is "a secondary story or stories embedded in the main story." It's a literary device that has fallen somewhat out of favor, but you can still find examples. Marion Zimmer Bradley's 1987 novel The Firebrand has traditional framing story. A bard arrives to tell the tale of Troy. Sadly, he has it wrong, and an old woman, who happens to be Kassandra, sets him straight. The bard's visit is the frame.
The second book in Diane Gabaldon's Outlander series, A Dragonfly in Amber, uses a modified frame story. A brief word about Outlander to put the next novel in context. Claire passes through a stone circle and finds herself a bit over two hundred years in the past - in 1743.
THIS IS WHERE THE SPOILERS START . . . read on at your own risk.
Claire finds love in 1743, in the form of Jamie Frazier. Together they try to stop a war, and fail. At the end of Outlander, Claire returns to 1946 (her own time), and Jamie is off to battle at Culloden, where most of the Scottish army will die.
A Dragonfly in Amber starts in 1968. Claire has returned to Scotland to tell her daughter about her true father, Jamie, and learn what happened to Jamie after she left him in 1746. She learns that Jamie didn't die at Culloden as they both presumed he would. As Claire uncovers the historical records that allow her to piece together Jamie's life, the reader travels back in time to live those events with Jamie.
Could the story have been told without a frame? Of course. Ms. Gabaldon could have followed Jamie through the twenty years of separation and then surprised him (and the reader) when Claire returned. She could have told Jamie's story through the historical records Claire unearthed without taking us back to that timeline. She chose to show us both time lines through to the point where they intersected. In doing so, a framing story was probably her best literary device.
Before I get flamed for criticizing the story, I think Ms. Gabaldon's series, including Dragonfly in Amber, is excellent. She writes about characters you can love, and a few you can really hate. I recommend that you read them, if you haven't already. But, the reason the framing story in Dragonfly didn't work for me was because it resolved the major question from Outlander (whether Jamie survived Culloden) far too early. The driving question for the first half of the book then became "would Claire go back to him?" It too had an obvious answer. So, for me, the frame became a distraction to the main story - what happens when they get back together.
Framing stories can work, but you always give away some of the tension by using one. In The Firebrand the reader doesn't worry about whether Kassandra survives returning home with Agamemnon. We know she does at the outset of the story because she's telling it. In Dragonfly in Amber, the reader knows Jamie survived Culloden because Claire finds the record showing he did.
Before you decide to use one, ask yourself what you are giving up. If the price is too high, you might want to reconsider your approach.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

What's In A Name?

I’ve recently become a slush pile reader for Flash Fiction Online ("FFO"). FFO publishes short stories of no more than 1,000 words. I've just finished my first round of "slush" - stories submitted in the hope FFO will publish them. Good Flash is hard to write, and I thought I'd pass on my thoughts on what does and doesn't make good Flash.
One of the "mistakes" I've seen in the submissions is something I doubt the writer would do in a novel-length story - not name his character. I put "mistake" in quotes because not naming a character is a pet peeve of mine, and probably not a technical mistake. In my opinion, it’s the rare occasion when a character should be nameless. Humans name things. If we don’t know what something’s called, we’ll make up a label to identify it. It’s unnatural for us not to. Even when an "evil overlord" is trying to dehumanize someone, he'll refer to that person by some label, Javert refers to Jean Valjean by his prison number in Les Miserables.
So what's in a name?
By giving a character a name, you give me a way to connect with him. The main character's not a generic "he", he's Bob, or Jose, or Raj, or Apollo. Each name puts a different image in my head, and draws me further into the story.
When I've pointed this out to the writer, I always hear the argument that by withholding information, including even the gender of the main character, the writer is creating mystery. Occasionally, I'll hear the "any man" defense, but by far the "mystery" defense is the most recited.
It doesn't work, at least for me. You might gain a bit of mystery by not telling me the character’s name, but you lose one reason for me to care what happens in your story. It doesn't seem like a wise trade off.
There are times when a character might not have a name: she has amnesia, doesn't know it, and doesn't have anyone else to interact with who will give her a name. Another time not naming the character might work is when she's other-than-human and its culture doesn't have "names" as we do. But those times when this device is used should be few and far between.
Before you submit a story with an unnamed character, ask yourself why. If your reason is to "build mystery", you might want to reconsider that decision. If the immortal bard thought names were important, be certain you have a good reason to ignore his teachings.


Musa Publishing contracted my short story, Through the Stone Circle , for publication for an upcoming anthology. We don't have a publication date yet, but it will likely be before Halloween 2012.