Tag Archives: fantasy fiction

451. The Blurb

Every writer hates blurbs. If the term blurb is unfamiliar to you, it refers to the written material on the outside of a paperback novel that ostensibly tells the reader what the story inside is  about. It is supposed to be a way for the reader to judge quickly whether or not to make a purchase.

However publishers have no intention of telling you why you shouldn’t buy one of their books, so looking for an accurate blurb is a bit like Diogenes looking for an honest man. Thomas Anderson of Schlock Value, whose quirky reviews I never miss, wages an ongoing war against dishonest blurbs.

Yesterday I ran across Robert Bloch’s The Opener of the Way in a used bookstore. I’m not a fan of Bloch, nor of horror, but I bought it because I had to have a copy of the back blurb. I’ve reproduced the top half of it in the scan above. The bottom half, in extreme fine print, says:

(Actually, the Opener of the Way is a first-rate collection of ten terrifying tales of horror and the macabre, including some of the finest ever written about Ancient Egyptian curses, vampires, pacts with the Devil and others. We hope you ‘enjoy’ them . . .)

The fine print was more honest than most and the top part was downright clever. It isn’t usually that way. For example, the blurb on the back of my first novel Jandrax says:

As a scout he’d tamed four planets — and more women than most men ever see . . .

Now in truth, there is only one sentence in the novel that mentions, in passing, that first-in scouts are famous for being rowdy when between assignments.

The back blurb on Jandrax is in three parts, each flamboyant in the style you would find on old westerns. Setting aside the gosh-wow tone, the first and third section are accurate enough in content, but that middle section makes Jandrax sound like astro-porn.

There are two problems with this. Anyone who buys the book expecting a sexy, racy delight, will be terribly disappointed. And anyone who wants a serious portrayal of how space exploration might actually look will probably turn away. Based on the phrase more women than most men ever see, I wouldn’t buy the book myself.

True cliché: You only get one chance to make a first impression. The blurb is where authors make their first impression, and if the publisher blows it, authors are the ones who suffer. 

My second novel A Fond Farewell to Dying has a front blurb that says (in all caps):

WHAT PRICE LIFE? SURRENDER YOUR BODY! GIVE UP YOUR SOUL!

Yech! Sorry folks, that also has nothing to do with the story inside. Neither does the angel blowing the last trump over four zombies in boxes, but bad cover art is a subject for another post. FFTD is about an atheist who tries to come up with a mechanical version of immortality, and succeeds without the universe taking revenge on him for hubris. The front cover, both art and blurb, gives a very different impression. In fact, I saw FFTD for sale on a spinner rack of Christian paperbacks in a supermarket. Someone there certainly got a surprise.

The back blurb was lengthy, given in three paragraphs. The first two were reasonably accurate, but the third was wildly misleading. That inaccuracy irritated me no end, but most blurbs are much worse. They often look like they were mixed up and placed on the wrong book.

I challenge you to take a handful of science fiction paperback novels which you have already read, look at the blurbs, and decide if they have anything to do with the novel as you remember it. If you get one match out of five tries you’ve probably won the jackpot.

Still, the opening statement in this post may be an overstatement. Perhaps every long-time writer used to hate blurbs would be more accurate. When Cyan was being prepared for publication, the folks at EDGE asked me to write my own blurb, and I have to admit that compressing a novel into a sentence or two is hard. I appreciated the chance, but now I have no one to blame.

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442. Life is a Tunnel

Every once in a while, a phrase appears, demanding to be used. Sometimes it fits into whatever is being written at the time. Sometimes it hangs around for years before it fits. Sometimes, it just hangs around.

The phrase at the top came to me when I was considering a sequel to Raven’s Run. There were several stories on audition, and none were chosen. I don’t even remember which sequel this was supposed to go with. I do remember the scene it was to be part of.

Iain Gunn was looking out a second story window at an urban street. South San Francisco, I think. It was just beginning to rain. A girl with long black hair had just gotten out of a car. She was wearing a tight, short dress, and she was, of course, lovely. Gunn was waiting for someone to come along who was connected with the business he was just getting involved in, and this girl certainly was not that person, but she caught his attention.

She hunched her shoulders when the rain first hit her, but then she straightened her back and looked up. She raised her hands to the rain and smiled. No dancing around — she was a serious and sophisticated person — but she accepted the rain and appreciated the moment. She stood for a few more moments, facing Gunn but unaware of his presence. Her hair began to flatten against her head and Gunn could see beads of moisture trickling down her face. Then she turned and walked purposefully away. For her the moment was over, but it would remain with Gunn.

Life is a tunnel, three feet wide and seventy years long. The phrase hits Gunn (as it had hit me). She is just another of the million people he will nearly meet, nearly have some kind of relation with, one whom he could perhaps come to hate, or perhaps fall in love with. But he will never know.

If this were cliche #472 in the detective story handbook, he would meet her again and this would just be a foreshadowing of things to come. Meeting her again would be expected by the reader.

It is not meeting her that will make the incident meaningful. She will now become a symbol for all the things we miss as we live our random lives.

It’s not a new idea, and not the first time I’ve used it. These words in the opening paragraphs of Valley of the Menhir set the stage for what is to come:

Out there in the night that stretches away from us all — there where consciousness ends; where experience missed sets an iron boundary on our lives — there is a land of red sky and green sea, Poinaith, and another land where the gray sky leans down to lock hands with the sliver elfin forest.

Experience missed sets an iron boundary on our lives. Another phrase that jumped into my head, but in this case, just as I needed it.

We all live lives of found and missed opportunities. Our lives are a path from birth to death, as wide as our shoulders and as long as we last. We see so much, but if we were to turn three feet to either side, there are a thousand other lives we could live instead.

I’m satisfied with my life so far and I’m glad I was wrong about its length. I have more things to do, and more books to write. These last seventy years have been great, but I‘m not done.

435. Looking for Louis L’Amour

To revise or not to revise, that is the question. Actually, the question is how much to revise.

There are legendary writers who write rapidly, never revise, and turn out books like Hershey’s turns out chocolate bars. I recently read a third hand account of a writer who churned out a (very bad) science fiction novel over a long weekend. It was published, although probably it should not have been.

And then there’s Walt Whitman who was still changing parts of Leaves of Grass long after it was published. I guess I must be in the latter camp, since I’ve written three paragraphs of this post so far, and I have already changed three dozen words.

All this makes me remember the words of Luther Perkins, guitarist for Johnny Cash. He was famous for playing essentially the same riff on every song, and it always sounded great. Other guitarist were flying all over the fretboard at blinding speed, and being as quickly forgotten. Perkins said, “They’re looking for it. I’ve found it.”

I guess once you’ve found it, it gets easier. After four decades, I’m still searching. And rewriting. And revising, And polishing. It’s actually very soothing, but it is slow.

Louis L’Amour found it relatively early in his career. I became something of an expert on him during the seventies and eighties by reading and rereading his novels while taking breaks from my own writing. As a young writer, I could write a few paragraphs or even a half page, then I had to look at the ceiling for a while, waiting for the next thought to come.

Take heart, new writers; after four decades, things come a lot faster.

There were times, lots of times, when I had to do something to get my conscious mind off what I was writing so my subconscious could do its work. And not science fiction or fantasy; that is what I was trying to get away from. I needed something soothing and predictable, but written with a professional touch.

That’s a definition of the works of Louis L’Amour.

If my taste for L’Amour seems out of character for a science fiction and fantasy writer, remember I grew up on an Oklahoma farm in the fifties when every hero on TV rode a horse. I worked cattle every day, myself — but they were dairy cows and I was on foot. Everybody wore Stetsons and cowboy boots, and every farmer out on his John Deere tractor was a cowboy on a horse in his secret heart.

Go listen to some country western music; you’ll get the idea.

A single word description of L’Amour’s westerns would be consistent. A few were weak, a few were superb, most were strong examples of a type. His excellence was within a limited canvas. His historicals were weak and his one fantasy was a total dog.

Over a couple of decades, I read all his novels multiple times while waiting to find out what I was going to say next. (Except for The Haunted Mesa (1987); I could never get through that one a second time.) The same characteristic phrases appear at frequent intervals.

If you have written a long chunk of text, novel or not, finished or not, try this test. Choose a phrase that seems characteristic of you. Use the find function. If that phrase shows up fifty-seven times, you might want to think about that.

L’Amour’s moral and political positions are simple, firm, and unvarying — much like Heinlein, actually. An unsympathetic critic would say he wrote the same book fifty times. I think that pushes criticism of consistency too far. It would be better to say that he had a consistent moral position that channeled him into a certain type of story.

Personally, I tend to see both sides of every argument, whether in life or in my writing. Given a certain fictional situation, L’Amour would solve it in a certain characteristic way. I would see a hundred ways to solve it, and then go searching for solution number one hundred and one. It makes for slow writing.

L’Amour did not revise. I discovered that the first time I read Reilly’s Luck (1970). Early in the book the hero meets Wild Bill Hickok; when they part, L’Amour says that he never saw Hickok again. Forty pages later, Hickok and the hero meet up a second time, and Hickok loans him a gun.

You couldn’t make that kind of an error if you did even the most cursory revising. But that isn’t really surprising, considering how many books L’Amour’ wrote. He knocked them out like a chicken laying eggs. He couldn’t have done that if he had agonized over every book.

The two different styles of writing lead to two different approaches to revising. As writers, I don’t think we get to choose which camp we fall into. It’s a blessing or curse you are just born with.

426. The Five Plots of Time

It is a dubious tradition to produce articles like The Three Basic Plots of Fiction, or The Four Kinds of Traditional Hero. I’ll add my bit, even though I’m dubious myself.

The Five Master Plots of Time Travel Stories

This grouping came out as I was thinking about The Map of Time. Time travel has a long and tortured history as a set of concepts hung uncomfortably between science fiction and fantasy. None of it makes much scientific sense, although I do read a lot of actual (?) scientific theory which demonstrates that even scientists can waste their lives reading too much SF. It would make more sense to simply call all time travel stories fantasy, but they always requires a time machine, so they must be science fiction — more or less.

Then again, Einstein would hate FTL stories. They violate relativity, but that doesn’t keep me from reading and writing them.

Let’s just tackle this mess in the spirit of fun.

Master plot #1.     A man tries to change history and fails. He is doomed to failure, no matter what, because the past can’t be changed. The entertainment in this kind of story is in making the reader think the hero will succeed, and fouling him up at the last minute in some clever way.

Master plot #2.     A man tries to change the past in some logically forbidden way. The classic form would be that our hero goes back to kill his father before our hero is born. The stars go out; the universe ends.

I am not fond of this form. It’s too much too simple. Perhaps a good writer could make it work if we know that the victim-to-be is the hero’s father, but the hero does not. (Shades of Oedipus!) Then we would anticipate that this is a type one story, and be taken by surprise when the hero succeeds and the stars go out. That might work, but I doubt it.

Master plot #3.     This is a variation on 2 and 3. A man tries to fix a tragedy by going back in time, but instead makes things worse. This is just a variation on the notion that, “You can’t make the world better, and you shouldn’t try. Just accept your fate.” Literature is filled with this Christianity based defeatism, epitomized by The Monkey’s Fist.

The Greeks called it hubris. I don’t buy it. For me, a man without hubris isn’t much of a man.

Master plot #4.     A man is in a world different from ours. He tries to change the past, succeeds, and his world morphs into the “real” world, i. e. ours. If the reader accepts that he is reading an alternate timeline story, and is taken by surprise by the ending, it can work. Brunner used this bit in Times Without Number, but that novel had enough quality to succeed even with a different ending. Zelazny did a beautiful variation in the short story The Game of Blood and Dust.

Master plot #5.     A man tries to change history, but instead creates a new timeline, or crosses over into an existing alternate timeline. This isn’t a trope; it’s a genre. Alternate timelines can be wonderful, but they are often cheap knock-offs, based on the notion that you don’t have to create anything, you just rearrange what already exists.

They aren’t even time travel stories, unless someone moves from one timeline to another. Pavane is an alternate timeline novel, but not a time travel story, since every actor in the novel remains tied to his own timeline throughout, and is never even aware of the existence of any other.

Okay, I will admit that any bright twelve year old could invent more plots, or could knock holes in these. I present them merely as a mental exercise — a fourth dimensional Rubik’s cube — for your amusement.

Have fun arguing.

425. Goodreads as Textbook

I bought The Key of Time several years ago from E. R. Hamilton’s, my favorite purveyor of remaindered books. It looked and sounded good, but so did the half dozen others that came in the same order. I put Key aside and it stayed in my to-read pile until I became immersed in Steampunk. It seemed to ooze Steampunk, so I dove in.

I planned to review it in this blog. You saw the results on Monday in post 423. 85 Pages: a review, so named because I couldn’t get past page 85.

That got me thinking about Goodreads. I’ve only been involved with Goodreads for about a year and a half, but I am impressed by the intelligence of most of the reviews. Since I discovered it, I have treated Goodreads almost like a textbook on what intelligent readers want.

Here are Goodreads’ stats on The Key of Time by Felix J. Palma, translated by Nick Caisto:

10289 ratings                2127 reviews                rating 3.37 out of  5

That’s a lot of ratings and reviews. Many Goodreads books have almost none. The 3.37 rating is fairly normal. It’s hard to find a book on Goodreads that doesn’t garner mixed reactions.

I decided to pick a few Goodreads reviewers who agreed and disagreed with my take. Here are some examples — or rather excerpts, for the sake of space and so I don’t step on anybody’s copyright.

Traci said, It was amazing.

. . . Do you enjoy magic tricks even though it’s all sleight of hand? . . . I loved every moment I spent with this new and talented author.  . . . one of my favorites, of the year. Beautifully written.

Did Palma get his act together after page 86? Were the last 524 pages better than what I read?Did I miss something?

Frances seemed to think so, with some reservations.

Frances said, (I) really liked it.

. . . I was beginning to wonder if I wanted to continue. At times I groaned (but it). . . . soon became compelling enough to finish. When I finally read the last page . . . I (was) . . .  pleased to have read such a creative and unique book.

I have to admit that I also felt compelled to continue as well, despite the insipid “hero” and glacial pace. It reminded me of all the times I’ve tried to read Dickens’ longer books. But this isn’t Dickens. It’s more like pretend-Dickens. For me it was finally more irritating than intriguing.

Velma said, (I) did not like it. and recommended the book for “someone willing to edit it, heavily.”

Time travel! Jack the Ripper! Automatons! What’s not to love?!? Well, as it turns out, almost everything. . . . it took every ounce of stick-to-it-iveness I could muster to get through this convoluted, interminable literary maze. WHERE, I ask you, was the EDITOR in this hot mess? . . . (Palma is) a decent, if grandiose, storyteller and he mimics to perfection the florid style of the period he set this novel in . . . But come on, Félix, enough with the meandering, the inconsistencies, the convenient last-minute reprieves . . . I was all set to love this book, what with it being about the re-writing of the history of the earliest science fiction and all, but it wasn’t to be . . .

Velma pretty much sums up my reaction. If you look at her whole review on Goodreads, she is even angrier than this excerpt shows.

What is the takeaway? About Goodreads, that is. I’ve had my say on Palma.

Goodreads won’t tell you if a book is good. It will tell you all the different things readers think about it. And that is its value — many looks from many directions. I will continue to check it out, after I read something. Whether I love a book or hate it, I always learn something from Goodreads reviews, even it is is just public taste.

423. 85 Pages: a review

This was supposed to be a review of The Map of Time, by Felix J.  Palma, a book of 609 pages. Instead, it is a review of the first 85 pages because I am going to bail, give up, leave; because life is short and Time is precious.

Mind you, there is some quality in this book. If it were irremediably terrible, I wouldn’t waste a post on it.

Heinlein did time travel, often and occasionally well. Let me retrodict (retrodict: neologism, the opposite of predict) how Heinlein would have written the first 85 pages of this story in, say, 1955.

A___ stood over the torn body of his lover, heartbroken, feeling that his life was over. Then C___, his cousin said, “You can fix this. Just go back in time and kill her killer before he can kill her.

That, folks, is the entire thrust of the fist 85 pages of The Map of Time.

And that’s not all. We already knew exactly what was going to happen by the second or third page. How? Because Palma spends most of his pages foreshadowing events. And, since he calls in every cliché known to Victorian England — Jack the Ripper, ruthless rich father, cowardly wimp of an heir, H. G . Wells and his Time Machine, a hero who thinks he is sensitive but is actually just a clod chasing whores in Whitechapel — we know from the start where this story is going.

The only surprise along the way is that there wasn’t one single surprise along the way.

The writing style is Victorian appropriate. The “hero” never becomes quite so bad that we don’t think he might be salvaged. The “Dear Reader” asides are cleverly handled. The description of London carries the story well. These are all the reasons I stayed around as long as I did. I thought it might get better. I thought something would eventually reward me for my perseverance.

No luck. I’m out of here.

Did I leave just before the story got good? I’ll never know.

If you stuck with The Map of Time all the way through, and you think I’m wrong, tell me. But, spoiler alert, I’ll be hard to convince.

416. Steampunk I II III

If you go to Amazon, select books, and type in Steampunk, you will get a supposed 100 pages of 16 entries each. No, I didn’t tap through all of them.

In the novel I am presently working on, I had cause to quote Samuel Johnson’s A man who is tired of London, is tired of life. I think I could paraphrase that as a man who is tired of steampunk is tired of reading. Steampunk seems to encompass everything, which makes it a little hard to throw a rope around.

I have been reading proto-steampunk all my life, but the genre (if it is a genre) has only been identified as such since about 1980. What is it, other than everything? I feel a little like a wild kid in a permissive household; how can I be a rebel if I can’t find any boundaries?

Following that train of thought, I recently got hold of the 2008 anthology Steampunk by Ann and Jeff Vandermeer. There are also a Steampunk II and a Steampunk III, hence the post title, but I haven’t seen them. Let me start by quoting from their preface:

In this anthology, we’ve tried to provide a blend of the traditional and idiosyncratic, the new and the old, while remaining true to the idea of steampunk as dark pseudo-Victorian fun. You’ll find stories about mechanistic golems, infernal machines, the characters of Jules Verne, and, of course, airships

The anthology Steampunk consist of thirteen excerpts and short stories, and three essays tackling history and definition of steampunk. I read only bits and pieces of the thirteen, and that needs explaining. I generally don’t like short fiction. I read tons of it when I was growing up and some of it was superb, but generally it is long on the clever and short on humanity.

Perhaps if someone had held my feet to the fire and required that I finish them, I would have found more to like in these short stories. Probably not. I skipped Moorcock because I had read the novel from which the excerpt was taken. I skipped Blaylock because I am reading one of his novels now. Both authors are excellent.

Many of the other stories left me cold. They were strings of events happening to people I could not care about. Also, the stories seemed universally dark. That is a valid anthologist’s choice, but I don’t care for horror and I outgrew dystopias thirty years ago. Life is a mixture of light and dark, and literature has to mirror that if it is going to hold my attention.

Mind you, most of what I sampled was reasonably well written. It didn’t fail for lack of skill, but there did seem to be a lot of throwing ideas around without linking them together. Short stories can sometimes get away with that. The steampunk novels I am presently reading all seem far better structured.

However, there was one shining light. Jess Nevins’ introduction: The 19th-Century Roots of Steampunk was a superb explanation of steampunk’s precursors. I learned a lot from Nevins.