During quarantine, my daily routine has been fairly fixed. Mornings are for writing, editing, and blogging. Afternoons are for reading or other work. Evenings are for movie/tv time with the boyfriend. And late evenings are for videogames and podcasts after he goes to bed.
But with that said, I ran out of episodes on the podcasts I follow, and it struck me that I could attempt — cue dramatic drum effect — an audiobook! I have always been resistant to the idea, but the reality of the fact is, I had no rational reason for that resistance. So I went and downloaded something I thought might be a good gateway, and a book I hadn’t read: John Scalzi’s Redshirts, narrated by Will Wheaton.
Well, about halfway in, I have to say I am loving it! I do get characters confused here and there, and the “[name] said” tags are profoundly visible in this format. It has, if not limitations, then certainly a learning curve, but I had no trouble maintaining attention, and I couldn’t stop listening. Of course, it does help that the actual book is really good. I will definitely not be “switching” to audio from now on, but as an addition to my reading, it is certainly not nearly as awful as I expected.
As an aside, this project features TWO people that have been given the “KHAAAAAAN!” approach — both Will Wheaton in The Big Bang Theory, and Scalzi himself, in early seasons of Writing Excuses, where he was, for a time, Brandon Sanderson’s “nemesis”.
As for the title of this post… I know. I’m sorry. I will see myself out.
This week’s exercise is a little different. Last Friday, I participated in an online course from Clarion West, titled Writing While Blocked, with Eileen Gunn. Part of the exercise was to write for 5 minutes a stream of consciousness, based on a picture. It is something a lot of people do, but I never had, and I quite enjoyed it. I am adding the picture, so you can judge for yourself how well it fits with your idea of it (if at all).
He walks, the smell of rust his only companion, even as the Mood tries to force his attention on it. It hovers above him, like tied to a string, always blocking the light, although – what light is there in the rust corridors? Corroded metal and anger have made the sunlight flinch and recoil. It is too pure for the filth of this place, too innocent for its anger.
He walks, the wind blowing torn shreds of story around him, as if it too wants to add entropy to this place that is already devoid of order or meaning. Whose story was this? Did they care for it? Did they fight the wind as it tore it from their hand, their desk, their drawer? Did they curse it as it snatched the story and tore it apart with malice?
He walks, and he wonders at the stale air, at the nonsense of it, at the wind that should make it fresh, and the Mood’s fuzzy pollen-covered wings that should make it fragrant. He wonders, most of all, at himself, and why he does not wonder. He is angry, but he does not wonder why, or at whom. Is he angry at himself, for this walk that never ends? Is he angry at the Mood? Is the Mood his own anger, or his sense of wonder, taken flight and warped by the rust of this place, but the absence of light, or by the cruel wind that takes stories from people and tears them apart?
He walks, and the walk has no end, but he does not care, for his anger sustains him, as it sustains the walk itself. Was there a beginning? Was there rust when he started?
I stumbled onto a tweet by an indie writer recently. They were advertising their novel, and it went something like this:
If you like Lord of the Rings, Game of Thrones, The Hunger Games, Outlander, The Hobbit, or Harry Potter, [BOOK TITLE] is for you!
Now, I don’t usually try to write professional advice on here, because I don’t have the credentials to be telling anyone what to do. With that said, the problems with this tweet were so glaring, and hit me on such a visceral level, that I realized something: this is a subject where one’s credentials as a reader are actually more relevant than those as a published writer. So, here are my thoughts on comp titles.
First, what is a comp title? “Comparison titles” are works similar to yours. They are usually used when you are trying to sell said work to agents or editors, and occasionally — directly to readers. There are several formats traditionally used for the purpose:
(Disclaimer: I came up with the examples on the spot, I accept that people might not agree with them. Which would kind of make my point later.)
[TITLE] in/on/with [TYPE OF CHARACTER]/[PLACE]/[GENRE]. These are trying to tell whoever you are pitching, that your work is very similar to another work, but with one particular difference, be it the character(s), location, genre, or some twist in the story. Example comp: Mistborn is “Ocean’s Eleven, set in an epic fantasy world”. Or The Lion King is “Hamlet, but with lions.”
[TITLE] meets [SECOND TITLE]. Now you are telling whoever is in the elevator, that your work is a mixture of two other works. This doesn’t imply equal parts – your project might take the plot of one title, and place it into the world of the other, or have characters similar to one, but placed in a story, similar to the other. Example Comp: The Hunger Games is “Battle Royale meets 1984.”
[TITLE] meets [TITLE] in/on/with[TYPE OF CHARACTER]/[PLACE]/[GENRE]. An obvious amalgamation of the previous two.
Of course, there are plenty of other ways to do comp titles, because a smart writer/agent will think of the best way to sell theirparticular work, rather than be slave to templates. But overall, the goal of a comp title is to make people think of more famous works in relation to yours. If this already seems like a risky proposition, I would like to direct your attention back to the tweet that started this.
First and, well, blatantly obvious rule of comp titles is that they should actually fit with your work. If you are writing fantasy and your comp title uses 2001: A Space Odyssey, you are obviously misleading people, and it will take them one confused page into your work to find that out. On this level, the comp from the tweet is ridiculous, because let’s be real here. The only thing Lord of the Rings, Game of Thrones, The Hunger Games, Outlander, The Hobbit, or Harry Potter have in common, is that they are all speculative fiction. They aren’t even for the same target groups — half of those books have been written for adults, and half fall in the Young Adult or Middle Grade fields.
But there is another major risk, when picking your perfect comp title: using massive bestsellers. Here, the issue is one of finding the middle ground. There is no point in using a comparison that nobody has ever heard of. You want to use a famous title that will resonate with whoever you are pitching. But you NEVER want to use the absolute outliers. Because once you start comparing your work to Game of Thrones or Harry Potter, you aren’t telling me that you’ve written an epic fantasy full of political intrigue, or a fantastical adventure in a magic school. Instead, what you are now telling me, is that your thing has the same potential for success.
For obvious reasons, everyone is going to be skeptical of such a claim. Not only agents and editors, but also readers, most of whom have a highly tuned bullshit detector, not to mention have usually read a lot of works in the genre you are writing in. They already know your work is not the next Harry Potter, because NO WORK is the next Harry Potter. If you end up becoming an outlying success (and statistically speaking, chances are you won’t), your creation will be just as unique and incomparable to others, as Harry Potter is.
In the end, to get back to that indie writer and his tweet, I get it. I really do. Self-publishing is brutally difficult, platform and outreach are critically important. All of those titles were written as hashtags, so as to draw people that might be browsing them. But your book is not Donald Trump. When it comes to fiction — and especially in such a small and tight-knit community as the SFF genres — there most certainly IS such a thing as bad advertising. You never want to be the author with the overblown claims of his own work, because, well, nobody believes that author.
Comp titles are amazingly useful shortcuts in trying to get someone interested in what you’ve created. But they are a first step, and the second inevitably involves your actual creation. Which has to fit the way you advertised it, because there are several more steps before you reach your intended audience. So if you start with unrealistic claims or outright lies, you won’t get far.
It is profound and triumphant, and makes the discoveries of irrigation, electricity, and vaccines not just pale in comparison, but appear truly embarrassing and pedestrian. It is a discovery of such magnitude, in fact, that I am offended that I have not been given the Nobel Peace Prize for it yet.
Here it goes:
You can — and I hope you are sitting down for this — read short stories from anthologies without committing to the entire anthology! Boom! You. Are. Welcome.
While we are on the subject of “duh”, I have to admit it is truly impressive how well your mind can hide the obvious from you, when it sets its… um… will toward that goal. My resolution to read at least three short story collections this year has been in armed conflict with my ARC pile, and my “squirrel!” random reads, and I was beginning to worry that a third into the year, I have not read a single word in short form. But then it dawned on me — with the aforementioned “duh” — that I could just read one story here and there, instead of dedicating days to going through an entire collection.
So, little by little, I am now making my way through The Mythic Dream, so far enjoying every story I have read from it. And I don’t have to pause on my novel reading to do it.
The Collapsing Empire trilogy holds a special place in my heart, as does John Scalzi himself. The eponymous first book was the catalyst for my decision to finally pursue my lifelong dream of becoming a writer. Not because of any one specific thing in it — though it’s certainly an awesome space opera — and perhaps I was already looking for something to give me the final push. But the fact remains that it was Scalzi and his story of a galactic society, built on corporate monopolies and controlled comfort, that made me want to do this myself (I am referring, of course, to contorlling society through corporate monopolies).
The trilogy is finally done. And the whole thing worked!
(Obviously, SPOILERS to follow — this is the third part in a series after all.)
The Last Emperox begins where The Consuming Fire left us: Cardenia Wu-Patrick, a.k.a. Emperox Grayland II, has just thwarted another attempted coup by her now full-on nemesis Nadashe Nohamapetan. And in the process, she has arrested both Nadashe’s mother, and nearly a third of the nobility of the Interdependency, for treason. But that hasn’t stopped the plots, and she knows that her time is running out — both the time she has before her relentless enemy succeeds in her attempts to off her, and the precious years left before the Flow collapses entirely, dooming the billions of citizens of her empire to die a slow and miserable death cut off from vital resources.
Using this wonderful setup, Scalzi does what he did in the previous two books — uses smug post-modern omniscience to entertain, and does it brilliantly. The Last Emperox reads like something Terry Pratchett might have written, had he been an American, and probably a very different type of human. The narrative moves between a tight third person, and detached authorial observations, both of which never fail to win you through sheer coolness-factor. Scalzi knows how to do humor, but he also knows how to do tension and drama. This book is light on the former, unlike the previous two, but pretty stable on the latter, as the story draws to its inevitable conclusions.
What I found pretty interesting about The Last Emperox — and really, about the entire trilogy — is that it tells two parallel stories, and it breaks some pretty well-established conventions in telling one of them. On one hand are the characters, each of them with their own POV chapters: Cardenia/Grayland, Marce Claremont, Kiva Lagos, Nadashe Nohamapetan. They all play their parts in the great drama of the collapse, and yet their stories feel largely pre-determined. Like the pieces of a puzzle that could have only ever turn out one way. These stories combine with no really big surprises, and are often resolved through Deus Ex Machina.
In a lesser story, this would have bothered me. Not here.
Because The Collapsing Empire trilogy is not the story of Cardenia and co. It is the story of — wait for it — the collapsing empire. The story of the Interdependency as a society. That is the story we have really tuned in for, eve if the personal experiences of the characters living through this catastrophe are what makes it personal enough for us to care. And that story is anything but easily resolved. Where Scalzi is not afraid to descend from the skies and fix his heroes’ lives (or end them, as the case might be), he takes no easy paths to the resolution of the grander tragedy unfolding around them.
In this sense, the trilogy ends with a bang, the conclusion meant to both give us a sense of many stories still to come, and a firm ending. This universe is wider than the Interdependency, and there are plenty of adventures to be had in it. Personally, I am more than satisfied with the The Collapsing Empire as a complete work, but I would love to return to its worlds (well, ok — habitats) in a different time or place. Meanwhile, it’s a flawless work of science fiction, and a massive recommendation from me.
After last Friday’s post, a friend reached out to tell me that she understood my point, but loved fanfics too much to agree with me. It made me realize that I had never actually talked about fan fiction in that post, and that made me question why.
The first and obvious reason is that I don’t really read fanfics. I know a lot of people who do, I am aware that there exists some great literature in that community, and I am familiar with the tales of great commercial success that originated as fan fiction (though, sadly, when the first example that comes to mind is 50 Shades of Gray, I struggle to feel very appreciative about it).
However, it has just never interested me. To me, the “canon” is always what the creator of the work says, and nothing else. Even in superhero comic books, where there are so many authors and artists working on the same characters, I will still almost never read “what if” or alternative reality stories, because they just detract from the “real” thing (please, don’t take this as snobbishness, it’s far more obsessive-compulsive than it is pretentious, I promise).
With that said, fan fiction has also never bothered me, and I do see a firm distinction between that and author tweets or fan theories. See, fan fiction is actual fiction. Good, bad, brilliant, or atrocious, it is a dramatized experience of the characters of a given work. A story. It treats them the same way the original author does – as creations to be put through their paces in an isolated frame.
Fanfics don’t treat people or events as any more “real” than the work that inspired them. And this is why, while not for me, I have great appreciation for the form. In the end, fans want more or different adventures (or, yunno, crazy naked sex) for the characters they love, so they create them, or go read the works of others who have created them. It is ultimately a positive and constructive act on both the creative and reading end.
Tweets about the characters, providing “information” about them that does not exist in any kind of work, be it original or fan-made, are not the same thing. Neither are theories that presume material that does not yet/will never exist. And, as I said last week, I am not in any position of authority – legal, moral, or otherwise – to tell you how to enjoy the things you enjoy.
But if I am going to learn about pooping wizards, I want to learn it from a work of fiction, not social media. You are not your characters’ town crier. You are their creator. And as far as I am concerned, you should always act like it.
So, here’s the thing. Reading has always been a huge part of my life. Growing up, I never didn’t have a book I was currently on, and it impacted every aspect of my existence. My hobbies, my first freelance work, things I have been doing for literal decades (reviewing), and things I have only been doing for a short time now (writing).
But something happened around the time when I left home and came to study in America. For the first time in my life, I was living alone, had a personal laptop (don’t @ me, I’m Eastern European, and old), and then — not long after — came out as gay. Life changed, and reading was kind of left by the wayside. It’s not that I stopped reading, exactly, but I went long periods of time without a book by my bedside.
Last year, I decided to do something about it. I was already doing much better, but I wanted to get ambitious (for me). So I set a Goodreads (by the way, follow me!) goal of 52 books in 2019. A nice, weekly number. The only problem? I set that goal in late September. What’s a boy to do?
Desperately trying to catch up (I had not read over 30 books by that point), I turned to the venerable literary form of the novella. And realized that I had been an idiot, because that is, as far as my scientific analysis shows, fiction in its most perfect form. The “condensed novel” is a brilliant medium, and I discovered a metric fuckton of writers I would have otherwise ignored — some who write long form as well, and some for whom this is as long as they get.
Needless to say, I have leaned heavily on novellas for my 2020 reading challenge as well. Maybe this time I will go higher than 52. But either way, I will have read so much great fiction, that I won’t care.
Moral of this confession — cheat often, you never know what will come out of it!
A fairly straightforward exercise from The 3 A.M. Epiphany: to write a short scene centered around a memorable article of clothing. The goal is to focus on the ways clothing describes the people that wear it — their class and status, profession, goals, awareness of self. For all that it is a simple idea, it is also a profound one, as clothing exists in 99.99% of fiction, in one form or another, and it always says something, be it about the characters, or the author.
The vest was beautiful. In the crowded street market, under the din of merchants hawking their wares, and customers arguing, it was hard to focus on anything. But this piece, placed on a stand most of the people walking the street could not afford to shop at, had caught Valen’s eye immediately, and held it. Dark blue, the color of Ocean’s mists, embroidered with glimmering golden thread. No pockets, no clasps. It was meant to be worn open, over a bare chest – a symbol of status and bravery.
He could appreciate the intent, though he knew how the nobility wore such clothing. They had no understanding of the subtlety that a tailor put into such simplicity. He had seen countless men buying vests like this one, and covering it up with chains of precious metals. They saw themselves as grand only when their wealth was on shameless display.
They couldn’t understand, because they’d never known poverty.
Valen looked down at his own vest. Simple, unembroidered. Good quality which said that it wasn’t handed down, but bought from a merchant with actual gemshards. Not shabby, for sure, but not exquisite either. A thief could not afford to dress gaudy, but neither could they afford to look like street vermin. Presenting as a beggar had its uses from time to time, but usually it closed as many doors, as the eyebrows that rich clothing raised.
If one wanted to be good at that profession, standing out for any reason was out of the question. Valen was a master at walking the middle road.
Still, his eyes lingered on the vest. He was no tailor, but he appreciated craftsmanship. And he remembered a childhood not nearly long enough ago, when any clothing had been a luxury. Doubly so, if it was bug-free. When roofs over your head were not a given, and a piece of sturdy cloth was the next best thing. The boy he had been back then had dreamed of palaces and riches, and the clothing to show it all off. He had probably lacked sufficient amounts of taste, that he would have draped all the precious metal and gems he could find all over himself, if he could.
Valen of today smiled. That had been before the gift of the leviathan. Before riches had become easy to acquire. More an excuse for the life he led, rather than its purpose. It was the challenge he now craved, and with that challenge came appreciation for the simple and understated. The craftsmanship of straight lines and bold cuts. It applied to the clothes he wore, as much as it did to anything else.
The merchant across the stall took his smile as encouragement, and launched into a sermon extolling the virtues of the cloth and skill that had gone into the tailoring of his wares. It was a prelude to asking for an exuberant price, of course, and Valen ignored it entirely. He had no use for this vest, could hardly imagine an occasion that would call for its understated elegance. And he had work to do.
In the end, he cut the man short, apologized for taking his time, and moved out of the way of another customer, this one actually interested in buying something. By the time he had made two steps into the thick crowd, he had been forgotten.
Which was just as well.
Thin tendrils of blue light – light only someone with Valen’s gift would see, and only if they were to look for them in the crowded market – wrapped themselves around the piece of clothing on the table behind him. He kept walking, but his senses were entangled with the manifestation of his power, and he could feel the smooth silk sliding against other vests and jackets, ignored by merchant, client, and passersby alike. The tendrils carried it between legs and flailing arms, passing it to each other through the crowd as they flared in and out of existence.
All the way to Valen’s waiting hands.
He wouldn’t get much use out of it. But he remembered that young boy, and how much he had wanted such a vest.
Disclaimer: This is going to get opinionated. I want to preface it with saying that I am a massive fan of Harry Potter, and I utterly adore Bonds of Brass. What I am about to say should be taken as a broad commentary about the nature of fiction, rather than dissing either work, or its author.
There is something that has been chewing on the sides of my brain ever since I wrote my review of Bonds of Brass.
No, just kidding (kind of). It was Emily Skrutskie’s tweet (and comments in other places), stating that the two main characters of the book were bisexual, when they were not coded as such in the book itself. I have been trying to examine why this statement bugged me so much, and I realized it has nothing to do with identity.
Instead, it’s about what is on the page, and what isn’t.
Now, if the title hasn’t forced your mind in that direction, let me just remind the world that, at present, J.K. Rowling is the undisputed champion in extra-literary revisions. With every new tweet about the Wizarding World, she erodes our love for her books a tiny bit more, but it goes further than that — she adds information that was never part of the narrative of those books. That is not a problem for some people, but it is a massive issue for others.
I think there are two fundamental approaches to perceiving fiction (just kidding, there are a million. But stay with me on this one). You can treat it as an alternate reality that you are viewing form the window of the book/screen/whatever; or you can treat it as a work of art, with its internal rules and limitations — a sort of fourth-wall approach, in which you are aware of your role as a spectator. The two are not mutually exclusive, of course. In fact, I think they always intertwine to an extent. But in their extremes, they lead to different perceptions of the reality of the work.
If you see the fictional story as something real and independent of your perception, you can easily incorporate any piece of external information into the work. Such as — you guessed it! — Dumbledore being gay. It’s not in the Harry Potter books. It’s not hinted at, it’s not implied. There is literally nothing you can even retrospectively point at, and say “This codes Dumbledore’s sexuality”. If anything, he is the quintessential ace character — a wise old mentor archetype with no sexuality whatsoever.
But if you think of him as a real person, existing independently of the books that tell his story, he could easily be gay. The narrative isn’t about his personal life, after all, right? It’s plausible that it wouldn’t come up.
I don’t think in those terms. And I won’t claim that my approach is “the right one”, because hey — who am I, really, to tell you how to enjoy fiction? But I have always been on the opposite end of the spectrum. I hate fan theories with a fiery passion. I avoid forums that discuss ongoing fantasy series like the plague. No, Tyler, Daenerys is NOT secretly Tyrion’s niece. Jaime didn’t kill his mother. Arya doesn’t have a secret Braavosi lover.
You know why? Because they don’t exist.
These people are made up. Their experiences only ever occur in the fiction that features them. They don’t have independent life outside of it. I will not speculate as to the secret thoughts and actions of non-existent people, because the writer can, at any point, choose to take them in any direction they please. Sometimes — sadly — they do it specifically to subvert the expectations of fan speculation.
This is why the bisexuality of the Bonds of Brass boys bugged me so much. Because that is a story based around romance, and that romance is same-sex. That’s what is presented inside the book, and that’s all that exists of these two entities. Claiming otherwise, even as the writer, implies that they have a life outside of the work, that there are further dimensions to them that I am not privy to. And for all I know, maybe future books in the trilogy will blast their bisexuality in my face. I won’t love those two disasters any less for it.
But in the mean time, I believe that the work is the work, and only the work is canon. It doesn’t matter whether my story is about any particular kind of identity or circumstance. If it matters to me that my readers perceive my characters in any specific way, it is the simplest thing in the world to code them that way, without ever making it a focus of the narrative. A stray thought. A random line of dialogue. Someone casually noticing the attractiveness of someone else.
We are writers. The world of our own work is our butt-monkey. There is nothing we can’t make known to the reader, if we so choose.
In the actual real world that we live in, labels are still important, and identity is the nexus of social and political fights that have defined generations. Hetero is still the norm. Same-sex relationships still read “gay” or “lesbian”. Therefore, if we want to paint our characters in more complex colors (even when we are placing them in a post-identity world), we have to code them as such within the work.
I shouldn’t have to read J.K.’s tweets in order to know something so profound about one of her series’ most important characters. But BOOOOY would I love some hot and steamy prequel story about young Albus getting it on with another dude!
If self-quarantine is good for one thing, it is curbing my “squirrel!” instinct of going to bookstores, allowing random books to catch my eye, and deciding I MUST read them IMMEDIATELY. Staying home and only making the occasional online purchase, I have been able to keep up with my reading goals. I am nearly done with “political non-fiction book 1/3” (as per my previously stated plan): Un-Trumping America by Dan Pfeiffer of Pod Save America (and, yunno, the Obama Administration) fame. It is giving me exactly what I need in these grueling times when we have malicious mobster toddlers at the helm — a systematic analysis of our current political reality, with proposed pathways to get out of it and stay out. It’s mostly things I am already aware of, as an avid PSA listener, but it is weirdly calming just the same.
Meanwhile, my pile of ARCs (the only ones I am likely to ever get, since apparently the outside world has been abolished) is slowly melting. I have arranged them by release date, and I plan on reviewing most of them when they are about to come out. I am, of course, open to requests and recommendations.
And in the mean time, happy reading, and stay home!