Tag Archives: fantasy fiction

471. Sunshine Blogger Award (2)

JM Williams nominated AWL for the Sunshine Blogger Award, which he and I both consider a chance to give a shout out to bloggers we follow. I started on Monday, and ran long, so here is the rest of the story.

There are four rules to the SBA. I took care of two of them on Monday. The remaining are:

Answer the 11 questions sent by the person who nominated you.
Nominate 11 new blogs to receive the award and write them 11 new questions.

I only nominated four blogs, and only wrote three questions. Michael, Thomas, Joaquin and James, the questions are at the bottom, should you chose to accept. (There is no penalty if you don’t. This post will not self destruct.)

 JM Williams’ questions to me were:

1. When did you start writing?   In the early seventies I started by writing a few articles for magazines. I started writing fiction in 1975. not counting the answer to question five.

2. Which genre do you prefer to write? To read?  Fantasy for both.

3. Which genre do you actually write most often? It is about equal between fantasy and science fiction, with a few contemporary novels as well, but only SF seems to sell.

4. What is your favorite piece of work and why? By other writers, A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula Le Guin. From my own work, a short story The Prince of Exile. Of everything I’ve written, that was the only story in which I had no idea where it came from, nor where it was going while I was writing it. On the inspiration-perspiration continuum, it was way to the left.

5. Where is the most interesting place you came up with a story idea? This is not so much a where as a how.

A couple of years before I started writing fiction, I was with my wife in the stacks of a library. I had finished for the night and she was still working, so I took down something to read. The only tolerable book in the area was Beowulf. I flipped it open to a random page and read, “All that lonely winter . . .”

A vision exploded in my head, of a young boy, at an open wind hole in a castle, looking out over a snowy scene. He was living with relatives who had taken him in after his father was killed. They expected him to grow up and avenge his father’s death, but he had no interest in revenge. He just wanted to be left alone.

I saw him and his situation with instant and absolute clarity.

The next day I wrote the first chapter of the novel the incident called out, then put it away. Four years later, it became my third novel, but it remained unfinished for decades. Now it has grown into a three book series, and if I ever find a publisher, I’ll announce it here.

6. If you could win any writing award, which would it be? The Nebula, of course. A Hugo wouldn’t be bad either. I can’t hope for a Nobel Prize since I can’t sing, play guitar, and blow harmonica at the same time.

7. Do you associate with other writers? Are they at the same level as you? My level  is totally weird. I have been published since 1978, but I went unpublished (and unknown) for a long time after, and now am published again. I work strictly alone. I loved meeting writers at Westercon this year, and I love meeting them on the internet, but there is a huge generational gap.

8. What’s one of your writing goals for 2018? I have two actually. I want to see my recently finished steampunk novel find a publisher, and finish the second steampunk novel I am working on now.

9. Are you a plodder or a plotter? 100% plod. I outline very little. When I was a teacher, I was always in trouble because I refused to write lesson plans. I carried everything in my head, and that scared the principal half to death.

10. Where do you currently live, where are you originally from, and have you ever lived in a foreign country? I live in the foothills of central California, on three acres with wild turkeys and bobcats. I grew up on a farm in Oklahoma. In between, I lived in cities and hated it. When I became a teacher, and finally had a dollar in my pocket and summers off, my wife and I spent six summers living in a tent and subsisting on bread and apples, four in Europe and two in Australia. You can go far on little, if you want to badly enough.

11. If you could travel anywhere in the Universe, where would it be and why?   If?  What do you mean if?  I travel everywhere in the Universe I want to. Why else would I be a writer?

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Now the questions for my nominees. Three instead of eleven, and loosely organized at that.

1. List your favorite authors. Length of list is your choice. A reason for the choices would be nice as well.
2. List your favorite books (That’s not the same question, since it it quite possible to have a favorite book by someone with only one great book.) Again, reasons would be nice.
3. List your favorite genres (or sub-genres, if you that works better for you) and tell what you look for as a sign of quality in that particular genre.

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I had a great time doing this exercise, but my nominees may not feel the same way. If they don’t respond, no problem. The reviewers in particular have a tightly formatted product that might not work well with the Sunshine Blogger Award.

The main idea is to send them some new customers.


470. Sunshine Blogger Award (1)

The logo above is for the Sunshine Blogger Award, for which JM Williams just nominated A Writing Life. It’s not a HUGO, but a way for bloggers to give a shout out to other bloggers. Thanks JM. I appreciate it.

The rules of the contest (if that’s the right word for it) are:

1.) Thank the person who nominated you in a blog post and link back to their blog.
2.) Answer the 11 questions sent by the person who nominated you.
3.) Nominate 11 new blogs to receive the award and write them 11 new questions.
4.) List the rules and display the Sunshine Blogger Award logo in your post and/or on your blog.

Okay, I’ve done 4 and I’ll do 2 and part of 3 on Thursday. Here come 1 and the rest of 3, all mangled together.

JM Williams who nominated AWL, is a writer with a long list of stories, mostly published electronically, and one anthology of flash fiction, The Adventures of Iric. I mentioned Iric recently in a post about author’s names, and reviewed it positively on Amazon. JW Williams has a new website, and an old one that you might still fall into if you are using a search engine, along with an author page on Amazon.

Our connection came when he liked one of my posts, some time ago. I don’t formally follow any blogs, since my time is limited, but every time someone likes one of my posts, I drop in to their site and look them over. I get a lot of newbies, and a lot of people who are working out problems in the semi-public sphere of the internet.  I like that. I hope this doesn’t sound smart-ass, but it seems to me that baring your soul to the universe, without telling anyone your home address, is a safe way to both vent and find support. I also get likes from a lot of new and would-be authors, and every time I post a poem, I snare a lot of poets.

I end up reading a lot of poetry and fiction and occasionally something really grabs my attention. JM Williams and Iric did that. I have also found a lot of useful information on the world of e-publishing on his site. I’ve been in this game a long time, but the “e” side of publishing is something I’m just learning about. So thanks for shared interests and information. I’m glad we’ve met. I liked Iric and I’m anxious to read your novel when it comes out.

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I’m only going to nominate four new blogs, one by an author and three by reviewers.

Michael Tierney was another whom I discovered when he liked one of my posts and I backtracked him. His blog, Airship Flamel, is largely devoted to steampunk and victoriana, and to publicizing his writing. That makes him a man after my own heart. I enjoy his blog, but this is primarily a shout out for his novel. I bought, read, and reviewed To Rule the Skies. I recommend it as a very British romp.

The remaining nominees are reviewers of novels that they consider really old — but which I read when they first came out.

Thomas Anderson is the voice of Schlock Value, which is the only blog I read without fail every week. His subtitle, Reading cheap literature so you don’t have to, is probably all you need to know in order to understand his perspective.

I found him in an odd way. About the time I was starting my blog, I googled myself. Strictly business, you understand, and I found a review of Jandrax, my first novel. It had been out of print for forty years, and here was a review dated 2014. Did I read it? Does Donald comb his hair funny?

Thomas didn’t love Jandrax, but his review was fair. More important, compared to the reviews it got when it came out, he had obviously read it closely.  I went to the contact me section and sent him a letter, saying something like, “Since you review books that came out forty years ago, you probably never expected one of the authors to respond, but here I am.” We’ve been going back and forth ever since.

Thomas likes to review schlocky books, and he has a talent for finding them, skewering them, and still finding something worthwhile in most of them. It’s an odd approach, but I really like it.

I discovered Joachim Boaz (actual name unknown to me) and his site Science Fiction and Other Suspect Ruminations via Schlock Value. He reviews book of the same era, but takes them all on, the good, the bad, and the weird, and with a more serious demeanor. If you check out one of his many indexes you will be amazed at the breadth of his coverage. If you are curious about an old SF book, this should be your go-to site.

James Nicholl  of James Nicholl Reviews also came to my attention when he reviewed one of my old novels. His site covers publications over a wider time scale, and anybody who has review categories like 50 Nortons in 50 Weeks and The Great Heinlein Juveniles (Plus The Other Two) has something worthwhile going on. I have read a dozen or so reviews so far, which means I have just scratched the surface. This is going to be fun.

Okay, I’m up to a thousand words and I haven’t started answering questions yet. It looks like this post is going to roll over into Thursday.

Ursula K. Le Guin

January 23, 7 PM.    The post I promised you, regarding how I organize my writing, is postponed until tomorrow.

I just learned that Ursula K. Le Guin died yesterday. It occurs to me, given how young the people who read this blog tend to be, that you may not know her. That would be a shame.

My years teaching middle school also leads me to a suspicion, that she may have passed into that limbo of forced reading. If a teacher makes you read it, it must be dull, right?

I have no power to tell you what to read, but I can make two suggestions.

Ursula Le Guin was the greatest fantasy writer in the history of fantasy. No exceptions.
A Wizard of Earthsea is her masterpiece.

Of all the writers who moved me, inspired me, and taught me how to write by example, Le Guin is the one I most would have loved to bump into at a convention just to say hello, and thank you. That it didn’t happen, is one of my regrets.


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):


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.


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.