Saturday, November 26, 2011

The Fantasy Sage Speaks: The Contract

So, last week I started talking about the bits and pieces I've picked up on how to keep readers happy.  Since I'm not all that much closer to finishing the current book on the review list (For the Sake of the Future.  It's big. I'm liking it. Hopefully review next week!) I shall now lay down the wisdom on tip number two: The Contract.

You're writing a book.  You are the master of your own world. Inside the realm of your word processor you are a GOD! You are accountable to no one but your own whims and desires. You can make everything precisely the way you like it, take the tale anywhere, make your characters do anything! BWAHAHAHAHAHA!

Hmmm... Well, okay, this is true, sort of. Or I should say, if you strive to be a good (and by good I mean able to satisfy readers) writer, you stuff the part of your mind that's cackling like an evil scientist into the closet, lock it in there, and throw away the key.

See, there is an unspoken, unwritten contract between you and the reader.  You set the tone of this contract by how you begin your story. By the time you've introduced all the characters and laid out the major plot points your readers expect you to follow through on those plot points and keep those characters in character. This is not to say you can't introduce new plot points or that your characters can't change. You can do both, but you have to satisfy the contract with your readers, which means finishing up those original points and doing the work necessary to take the reader along with the character when they change, if you want to keep happy readers.

In the last Fantasy Sage column I wrote about plot, and how JK Rowling did a fantastic job with building her plot so that by the time the last book came out she had a ravening horde of readers ready to jump over the corpses of their friends just to lay hands on the book. (Or maybe that was just me...*whistles innocently*)

Anyway, what she didn't do was fulfill the contract she set with her readers.  By the end of Half Blood Prince, the readers were expecting a good versus evil showdown wrapped around a high quest fantasy and a final clash between Harry and Voldie.  She did give us the final clash: a muddy,convoluted, confusing, and anti-climactic final showdown, but it was indeed there.  The high quest fantasy, in the hands of even a marginally competent fantasy writer (which I think as of that point in time we all assumed she was) should have been an absolute blast. Instead she gave us moping and camping, filled with bad writing, and worse logic. As for the good versus evil showdown, it's just not there. In an effort to make sure there's no clear good or evil, she purposely makes sure that Harry's casting the only magic ever defined as Dark Arts by the middle of the book.

From my own take on the book, and from several critical reviews I agreed with, I'd have to say the issue was by the time Rowling got to Deathly Hallows she wanted to write one thing (a treatise on the acceptance of the inevitability of death) instead of what she told us she was going to write (a good versus evil battle to the end).  Her part of the contract was not fulfilled, and, though kids still love Harry Potter, she lost a lot of the grown-ups with that book.

Another great example of I-promised-to-write-you-something-and-decided-to-write-something-else-altogether is The His Dark Materials series by Philip Pullman. The first two books were great, but by the time he got 'round to book three he forgot he'd set up an epic clash of faith versus science and decided that introducing a completely new plot point involving unicycling mutant elephants (at least that's how I pictured them) was in order.

Result: unhappy readers.

So my author friends, how do we work with this? How do we not make the same mistakes? Well, if you took the advice of the first column and figured out your plot before you started writing (or at the very least, before you published), you've probably got half the battle taken care of.

Keep that plot in line. If you go astray, and you certainly may decide to do so, give it a really, really careful look, especially if you've already published books in the series. And if you do go astray, wrap up the loose points, no matter what. And do them proper justice. Just because you've gotten bored with the your original set up does not mean your readers have. They want to see the action.  Single biggest complaint about The Amber Spyglass: the big battle everyone was waiting for happens off-screen.

Here's the other advantage of keeping your plot in line: if you do a good job plot wrangling, you're much less likely to find yourself in a situation where you have to dumb down your characters, make them start doing things they wouldn't ordinarily do, or mucking about with them in any other way.  Readers will often forgive a wonky plot. They rarely forgive having a favorite character lobotomized and turned into an idiot puppet by the author.  The most recent example I can think of for this is Dragons of the Hourglass Mage, where for reasons that I can only assume rhyme with honey, Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman decided to resurrect Raistlin, yet again, took the story back twenty years, and tried to fill in a part of Dragons of Spring Dawning that had been kept silent.

And they bombed at it. If, when they wrote Spring Dawning, they had any idea of how Raistlin got to where he was, it was pretty obvious that by the time they wrote Hourglass Mage they had forgotten it. So they started from scratch, apparently deciding that the fans wanted a new, softer, less-sarcastic version of Rasitlin, and they killed his character.

Once again this resulted in unhappy fans.

So, be careful with your set up, be aware of the promises you are making your readers, and fulfill them.  If you're lucky enough to have fans who review your books and discuss them, pay attention to what your fans are expecting. Sure, you don't have to give them what they want, but if you know what they expect, what they think you've promised to tell them, you can do a much better job of keeping them happy.

If you find yourself in love with a totally cool idea, write it down, play with it, but if it doesn't fulfill your contract to your readers, put it in the drawer for the next series. There's always time to write new books with new adventures and new promises later on down the line. Once again, it's much easier to get a happy fan to go and buy that new book and new adventure than it is to woo one back later who you annoyed when you didn't tell him the story you said you would.

Other Fantasy Sage Posts: Magic, Plot, Power Balance

Saturday, November 19, 2011

The Fantasy Sage Speaks: Plot

In addition to being a writer, I'm also a reader.  (Yes, I know you are all deeply shocked, what with the book reviews and all.)  However, I'm also a reader of book reviews.  I hang out on discussion boards where people talk about books. Over the years I feel like I've sucked up some points about what readers, fantasy readers especially, like, what makes them keep coming back, and what annoys them. Which, since I'm nowhere near finishing the next book for review, I, the newly christened Fantasy Sage, shall share with you.

So, here it is, in all it's glory, the first tip:  If you want the sort of fans that are begging for your next book to come out, make sure you've got a set plot arc. 

What do I mean by this?  Fans like knowing there is a set beginning, middle, and end to the story.  Harry Potter and the..., Twilight, Harry Dresden, and Game of Thrones: the thing these books all have in common, besides legions of adoring fans, is the author set up an overarching plot, then wrote each installment in a way that furthered that plot, but also opened up more questions about what would come next.  None of these stories are/were written with the I'll-just-wing-it-and-see-where-the-characters-take-me method.

I know a lot of authors like to sort of just go with it, write whatever comes to mind, and keep the story going forever. But, if you read reviews of The Wheel of Time, Anita Blake Vampire Hunter, or The Southern Vampire Mysteries, you'll notice that many of the bad ones center on a theme of the author has lost the plot, that the later books don't have the same heart, magic, feel, ect... of the first few.

If you'll allow me a bit of comparison... Fans were lining up in droves, spending hours debating what would happen and how for Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. By the time we got to that last book all the main players were in place, the epic battle ready to start, and a new quest set to begin. Many of the old threads had been wrapped up or almost wrapped up. The high quest for the Horcruxes and the final Harry V. Voldie fight was the promised end of the series. No matter what you thought of how J.K. Rowling handled Deathly Hallows, the set up for it had fans salivating over copies of the last book.  Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows was the highest selling opening of a book, ever.

Now, we're two books away from the end of the Sookie Sackhouse (Southern Vampire Mysteries/True Blood) books.  If I understand how the series worked, originally it was a three book deal, then a ten book deal, and now a twelve book deal.  And it shows.  The first three were very solid. They were mysteries, with a decent twist on a pretty basic arc. Then it was a ten book deal, and Harris got lost. 'Round about book seven it became pretty clear that Harris didn't have a larger story she was trying to tell, and worse, she had forgotten she was a mystery writer using fantasy tropes, not a fantasy writer using mysteries to build tension. She lost control of her plot.  By book ten, where everything should have come to a fairly natural end, she was resurrecting dead plot points in an effort to keep it going for two more books.  Unless she's a vastly better writer than we've seen in the last few books, the likelihood is the only question left by the time we get to book twelve is who Sookie ends up with.  I know, having read the first ten, I've got no real interest in what happens in eleven, and I'm fairly sure I can skip it without too much damage in my ability to understand twelve.  And if you read the negative reviews of the Southern Vampire Mysteries, you'll see I'm not the only one who feels this way.

So, how can we as fantasy writers take advantage of this? Plan your story arc!  Or more precisely, know when and where your story ends, and then end it!  We aren't serial mystery writers. (They play by a different set of rules.) Our readers want complete, or at least completable, story lines.  They want to anticipate what comes next.  They want clues, foreshadowing, the ability to look back and feel clever because they caught the clues and had figured out what was coming next.

If you know where your story is going, you can use foreshadowing, parallels, and symbolism to the fullest.  You can build the necessary foundation so you're not whipping out McGuffins or Balognium (Thanks, Red Hen) when you've written yourself into a corner. (If you've got your plot properly wrangled, you aren't writing yourself into corners in the first place.) You can write each novel so that you reveal necessary information and leave some questions dangling to get your reader to come back for the next story.  And that's what readers want.  That's how writing careers are made.   It is vastly easier to get someone to read your next book than it is to get someone to find you in the first place, so make sure that first book hooks them on your story.

Now, this isn't to say you can't use the I'll-wing-it-and-let-the-characters-lead-wherever technique while you are writing, but, if that's what you're going to do, don't publish until you've finished the whole tale. The thing to bear in mind is there's a huge difference between writing a story and publishing a story. When you are writing, you're doing it just for you. When you publish, you are making a promise to tell your reader a certain sort of story (more on this in the next post: The Contract). So, write however you like, but don't publish until you can give your readers the set story arc they desire.

So sayeth the Fantasy Sage.  Now, go write! ;)

Other Fantasy Sage Posts: Magic, Contract, Power Balance

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Guest Review: Nevermore

Today on To Publish or Not To, we've got a guest reviewer.  Cambria Herbert, author of the upcoming Before.  She's treating us to a review of Nevermore.

Title: Nevermore

Author: Kelly Creagh

Publisher: Atheneum, August 31, 2010

Genre: Young Adult paranormal/fantasy

Format: Paperback, hardback, Ebook

ISBN: 1442402008

Isobel is a cheerleader, perky and blond, who is paired with a dark haired “goth” guy for an English assignment. At first she is horrified that she has to work with him. Even more horrified when she tries to talk to him and he is cold and aloof. Then he writes his phone number on her hand in purple ink.

That one act seemed to have sealed their fate.

Even long after Isobel washed away the purple, she still felt the mark. And the more she gets to know Varen, the more drawn into his world she becomes. Unfortunately for Varen that puts a target on his back. Isobel’s possessive (and big fat jerk) boyfriend decided to make Varen’s life hell.

It doesn’t get any better when Isobel breaks up with the jerk. But Varen and Isobel are drawn to one another, despite the worlds they come from. One day, Isobel peaks inside the journal Varen carries with him and finds herself staring into a dream world that he has created.

When strange things begin to happen and things appear that only Isobel can see her world begins to unravel…

And she begins to realize that the power of a dream and written word are far more than she could ever have known. As Varen is slowly consumed by nightmares of his making Isobel must find a way to save him…or lose him forever.

I had heard some good things about this book before I picked it up. The cover art is stunning and I loved the purple writing (which I loved even more after I put the book down). I didn’t know what this book was about when I began reading, I figured I would read and be surprised as I went. I will admit, I really was expecting a vampire book.

I was wrong. There are no vamps in this book. (Yes, a relief to many of you who are sick of the vampire craze). It was a plot like no other I have read. It is an original idea that I could tell the author put a lot of thought and time into.

I really enjoyed this book for that reason. It took me into a whole new world to explore, with characters that were new. Okay, mainly Varen was new to me. The whole cheerleader and football player thing has been done before, but that’s okay, they were still good characters. Anyway, I liked Varen because I thought it was cool that a not so “OMG, that guy is soo hot” guy caught the eye of a “She is so hot” cheerleader”. A lot of the YA books that I read are outcast girl gets hot guy not the other way around. So props to the author for that.

I will say Varen didn’t have me swooning over him, but I did like him. He was a likable character, once given the chance to get to know him. I liked the juxtaposition of him being a goth and also working at a ice cream shop and spooning up flavors like pineapple. He doesn’t seem like a pineapple kind of guy to me. He also drove a cool car.

Nevermore is a long book (over 500 pages), which I like, because it really gave me time to enjoy the book and get into the story. Although, about half way through I started getting antsy to know what the story was, what the book was all about. Up to that point it had mostly been about how Isobel and Varen grew closer and how her ex, Brad, bullied Varen.

The one thing that seemed to bother me was that I felt like I didn’t really know what the book was about. It seemed that Varen held all the answers and he never gave Isobel any. It bothered me. I was reading and reading waiting for his explanations that never came. Now, another character in the book explained a lot of things, and some things Isobel was left to figure out on her own…which I can see how that might be good, because as a reader I really felt like Isobel, identified with her, because I was trying to figure it out alongside her. On the other hand, as a reader, I want to know! I want to discover things, things that maybe even the heroine doesn’t know that way I can gasp then await for his/her reaction upon discovering what was really going on.

In the end I knew what the book was about, I knew what Varen’s “ability” was (for lack of a better term) but I never got to hear his side of the story. If I had been Isobel I would really be angry. Here she is in love with a guy who has one hell of a hobby that she got drug into. A little explanation please??

And to be honest, some things still feel left unexplained, left unsaid.

Yes, there is another book to come out in 2012. Yes, by the end of Nevermore you have a clear picture of what the next book will be about, but still I wanted to know more.

Will I read the next book? Yes. For sure. It is a good story line, unique and I want to know what happens. I am hoping those answers that I look for will be given in book two.

I recommend this book to anyone who likes YA paranormal or fantasy and maybe wants something different, something without vampires and werewolves (why anyone wouldn’t want a werewolf- I will never know).

So there you have it. My opinion.

This review is written by Cambria Hebert, author of the upcoming novella Before.  If' you'd like to learn more about Cambria and her other writings, head over to

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Indie Book Review: A Heart In Sun and Shadow

I'd like to make a confession. Previous to reading this book I had never had a genuine WTF?!? moment. Oh, I've run into things that made absolutely no sense to me.  I'd had experiences where, when talking about them later, I described them as a WTF moment.  But, previous to reading this book, I had never, ever run into something where upon reading it, I actually said, out loud, What the fuck?

Then I read A Heart In Sun and Shadow.

Imagine if you will: I'm sitting in a very crowded Panera, enjoying a lunch of French Onion soup and a baguette.  It's so busy I'm sharing my table with a very sweet old lady.  We've had a bit of nice conversation about my netbook, and how I read books on it to review.  I'm happily reading along, not a single clue that this bomb is coming at me, and then I get to the part where the book turns upside down. Then: What the fuck? And, I say it, out loud.  I didn't realize I had done it until the very sweet old lady begs my pardon.  I blush, swallow my tongue, apologize, and then explain what I just read.  I get the sense she didn't disagree with my assessment, even if she wasn't a fan of my language.

Before I hit the WTF moment, the review I had been writing in my head looked something like this: A Heart in Sun and Shadow is a sweet, gentle romance set in an ancient Wales that never was.  It's the tale of Aine, a wisewoman who falls in love with cursed twin brothers and sets off to free them.  Her adventures deepen her love of them and tests her resolve.  I was planning on writing about how I wasn't entirely sure if this was a YA book or not.  How the writing was a easy and a bit shallow, but the love story is unconventional enough that it's not an easy YA fit.  I was planning on discussing fantasy romance and the tradition of the lovers quest.

That's what I had been planning on writing. 

The sweet and gentle nature of this story is part of why the WTF moment was so shocking.  The fact that it's not even remotely foreshadowed is another reason.

Now, I'm going to tread into major spoiler territory here.  Aine is a wisewoman.  Think of her as a traveling witch/healer.  Her entire code of ethics is help when and where you can and do no harm.  She hunts down the Fairy that cursed her lovers.  Upon finding her, Seren, the Fairy, sends Aine on a series of increasingly difficult tasks in order to collect the tidbits necessary to break the enchantment.  On her travels Aine gets an iron blade that can kill Fey folk, and she learns that she can break a curse by killing the person who cast it.  She also learns that Seren is bound to her grove, and cannot leave it for long periods of time.

She returns to Seren, blade among her things, and allows Seren sends her on one last task.  She has to collect the tears of a tree.  The only way to make the tree cry is to kill it's children.  No, not baby trees.  Child sprites dancing about in the forest.  Child sprites that heal her wounds.  Child sprites that invite her to dance with her.  Imagine three perfect magical symbols of innocence.

So, here's the moment of truth.  Murder the kiddies, collect the tears, give them to the Lady that cursed her lovers, and hope that she really does free them.  (And hope it is, because none of us are certain if Seren is on the up and up.)  Kill the Lady, free her lovers, but if she does that she cannot leave the Fey realm for any extended length of time.  Or go home, tell her loves she tried, but couldn't do it, and live with them.

So, I'm expecting her to kill the Lady, tell her boys what happened, and the three of them live happily ever after in the realm of the Fey.  I'm expecting this because it's in character.  I'm expecting this because the moral framework Aine embraces would lead her in this direction.  Which is why, when she murders the sleeping child sprites, I said, "What the fuck?" out loud.

Sloppy moral thinking is my number one pet peeve in a book.  Breaking character is a close runner up.  This one nailed both.  It's not like there was a gradual, creeping acceptance of moral compromise here.  It's not like she's slowly inching toward this decision.  It's not like she's in an absolute frothing rage when she does it.  She didn't just suddenly find out the children killed her mother or something like that.  She's dancing with them. They get tired and go to sleep. While they slumber, she decides dead fairy kids are worth her getting to go back to her boys for a bit of happily ever after, so she slits their throats.

She bought her happiness with three child corpses.

And at that point I lost any sympathy or interest in Aine.  I finished the book.  There was only 20% of it left, but I was deeply tempted to just put it down.  The hope that there would be some sort of justice or comeuppance or something kept me reading.  It's not there.

Aine and one of the twins turn out to be utterly despicable.  This is not a cute and sweet little romance.  These are deeply greedy people, willing to destroy anyone around them to secure their own happiness.  And they get to ride off into the sunset of happily ever after.  Yeah, maybe in real life you can step over the corpses of the innocent to a life of joy, but part of why people read fiction is because they want some sort of justice.  This was an infuriating and deeply unsatisfying read, all the more so because the first 80% of it is just fine.  A little light maybe, but the story works, is interesting, and fun to read.  Then it suddenly goes way off the rails and I was left wanting to smack Aine upside the head with a two by four.

On Goodreads one star means did not like it.  I'll leave it there.  Though I hated what the characters did and became, most of the book is soundly written, so I can't say I hated the book.  But I really didn't like it.