Advice Column: Grammatical License in Writing

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Hey there, guys. Looks like I’ve got some interest in this advice column thing! It’s fun, so we’re going to keep doing it.

As always, if you have a question about writing, self-publishing, or, well, whatever you feel like asking me, post an anonymous comment anywhere on The Blawg, or send me an email at efrussel@gmail.com. A note: I won’t moderate your comment as public where you post it, so if you’re worried about something connected to that, don’t be. The only place you’ll see it again will be in the post where I answer it.

This question comes from a reader who’s seen me around Goodreads:

Hey I saw on GoodReads that you’re doing an advice column. I’ve read your stuff and it seems descent so, I thought I’d ask your opinion.

I recently got involved in a group of authors that do review swaps (but carefully so Amazon won’t get all hot, and bothered). Anyway one of the other authors dinged me a star, on my review. She said I had too many copyedit errors. When I asked her to point out one or too, she sent back a reply listing five and said that was only for the first too pages of my novel! Many of her comments were around comma use (except for the ones about hyphens). I don’t agree with her entirely re. the use of commas, would think there is some licence here. After all what do readers know, about grammar? Tell me I’m right. I can’t wait to wave your column under her nose.

JC

Dear JC,

I hate to say it, but there might not be any column-waving this time. Readers frequently know just as much, if not more, about grammar as we do–especially readers who are also authors. 🙂

That being said, I don’t know your novel, I don’t know her, and I don’t know the errors, so for all I know, she’s wrong on all five counts.

But whether she is or isn’t–there actually ARE some hard and fast rules of comma usage, though you’d never know it to listen to a lot of grammatical conversations. You don’t just use a comma ‘whenever there’s a pause for a breath in the sentence’– one of those popular phrases that’s been getting under my skin for years. I mean, if you did that, a death scene would be nothing, but, commas. Ending in one long, neverending trail of commas.

So if you want to check up and see who has the upper hand gramatically, here’s a pretty good list of all those times you should use a comma (and some of the times you shouldn’t). I disagree with them on the subject of the Oxford comma–while it IS standard in Americanized English, this doesn’t mean it’s a hard and fast rule–but otherwise, the advice there is gold.

But here’s the thing. There are times when I’d say you have some license with grammar when writing a novel. But these are times when there’s a distinct purpose to using poor grammar–I always think of Kaye Gibbons’s Ellen Foster when I think about this, probably just because it’s the first book I ever read that did use grammar as a stylistic tool. Ellen Foster is the story of a child, told by that child, and expressed as a child with little education would express it. Therefore, Gibbons’s grammar isn’t always good.

So. A writer does have some grammatical license in a story–as long as that license is being used, knowingly, to fulfill a purpose. The sort of character who would say ‘ain’t’, in other words, should say ‘ain’t’, even though it isn’t technically correct. If a story is told first person by a nine year old girl, ‘whom’ probably isn’t going to appear very frequently in it, even when it should. So, if your story is of this sort–if your misplacement of commas (assuming it is misplacement in the first place) is done deliberately, for fairly obvious purposes of mood setting or character voice–then the point may well be yours.

Just for fun, here’s a list of some long-held grammatical rules that perhaps aren’t really hard and fast rules, and are now considered okay for a writer to break in fictional writing. The first thing she talks about is another answer to your comma question–though I actually disagree with her there (or think, at least, it’s a device that should be employed VERY carefully), it’s what you were looking for in print. Even if she uses that phrase I hate. Hope it helps!

Yours,
Emily

My New Blog Feature: Writerly Advice Column!

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Photo by Klaus Post at freeimages.com, uglified by moi.

I received an anonymous comment a few post back, and dad GUM if it didn’t give me the best fricking idea EVER.

We’re going to do an advice column. Because…well, why the hell not? It’s super fun. My advice is occasionally good. And this tickled me to tears. So.

If you have any questions you’d like me to answer in a post, feel free to add an anonymous comment to any post, or send me an email at efrussel@gmail.com. I prefer writerly questions, but hell, I’ll take your day-to-day too. Do I have credentials? No. Aw, hell no. But I have opinions in spades.

Dear Emily,

A writer friend told me I could count on you for advice about a sticky writerly situation. I’m up a creek; I’m dancing in the frying pan contemplating the fire; I’m caught between the devil and the deep blue sea (not that I’m particularly religious). I’m… well… wordless!

When I named my lead, I gave him a common name anyone would recognize. But then I gave him a shortened nickname that he prefers to be called–and no one knows how to pronounce it! Not only do my beta readers get it wrong when they talk to me, someone posted a review on AMAZON with INCORRECT PHONETIC PRONUNCIATION!!! Now EVERYONE says it wrong! (Okay… at least the ten people who bought the book get it wrong.)

What should I do?? Slap my beta readers around? Send a pipe bomb to the reviewer? Add a pronunciation guide to the start of each book? (Ew, he’s the lead in a SERIES! On the other hand, now that Amazon pays for lends by the word…)

Could you please reply on your blog, maybe dedicate a column to the care and feeding of readers? (I wouldn’t want friends or family to see the mail in my account while they’re violating my privacy.)

Thanks,
Embarrassed in Edenton

Dear Embarrassed in Edenton, (Changed your location, in case of beloved close-to-home privacy violators. Hope that’s okay!)

There may be questions in life to which pipe bombs are not the answer. However–they’re questions I never want to ask.
Pipe bombs aside–after all, internet stalking an Amazon reviewer can get tricky and downright tiresome, once you’re over the initial gonna-get-you thrill–I’d say you have a few choices.

First off–if people you know are mispronouncing the name, kindly and politely correct them. They won’t mind–after all, how would they know? This way, you at least don’t have to hear it all the time. That’s probably the worst part of it–just hearing it. Trust me, I just wrote a story called The King’s Might, and the main character, Jalith–his name is pronounced Hay-LEETHE. Of course, no one other than me really knows that, so, you know. I walk around all day, EVERY day, with the heavy knowledge of that (doubtless global) mispronunciation, JAYlith, like the burden of Atlas on my shoulders.

But Jalith is how I see it.

So, Atlaslike, I wander the earth.

That’s the thing, though. After those inital few people you talk to have been slapped into sensibility, you have to decide: just how important is the correct pronunciation of this nickname to you?

Because, even if you put a giant bold note in the front of the book, people are still going to mispronounce it. It’s just one of the failures of written communication. I didn’t understand that the name Telemachus, the son of Odysseus in the Odyssey, wasn’t pronounced ‘telly-machus’ until I was about sixteen, and happened to hear the name pronounced for the first time in high school English. In SPITE of the fact that my copy of Edith Hamilton’s Mythology had a glossary (with phonetic pronunciations!) in the back. In SPITE of the fact (and this one is amazing, I know) that I took Greek. At least, I’m pretty sure I’d taken Greek by that point. But you get it, anyway.

If it bothers you deeply, check and see if there’s somewhere you could write in a scene in which the pronunciation of the character’s name matters. Maybe a barista calls his name to get a coffee and he has to correct her, someone makes up a rhyme about him, he’s picking up an order left under his name, something similar–I don’t know your story, so it’s hard to say exactly what this might be, but you get the idea. People are far more likely to notice something IN the actual story than a note or aside. People tend to skip those.

Of course, you should only do this if you can do it without forcing it too terribly. But if you can, it’s probably the best way.

If you can’t, and you want to at least stake a claim on the right pronunciation, a glossary or a forward note does sound like your only other option. Of course, it sounds like you’ve already published, so precisely how much work you’re willing to go through for this is up to you. It wouldn’t affect your novel negatively, I don’t think, so there’s no harm in adding it. After all, it didn’t ruin Tolkien.

My point is, though–in the long run, people will mispronounce. They’re just going to do it. And you’re right, probably more now that someone had laid the turds of mispronunciation all over your Amazon page (pipe bombs and a reply are both, sadly, not a recommended solution). But, if I were you, I wouldn’t let it keep me up too late at night–these folks still enjoyed your story. And, if they check out your blog or twitter or whatnot as well, you might have some side opportunities to school them on it as well.

Yours,
Emily

Writing What You Damn Well Please

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WRITING: Writing Whatever You Damn Well Please

That’s right, you guys get a ranty-rant this week. I’ve got one other post coming up (a request post, woo!) but it might be an hour or two until then. So, in the mean time.

I wanted to talk about something I’ve gotten very tired–very, verrrry tired–of seeing around the internet this week.

I can’t say it’s a trend. I’ve seen a lot of these articles (particularly about women–there’s something intrinsically wrong with a post titled ‘How to Write a Female Character’), over a long span of time. But this week, for some reason, I keep running into them–and every time I do, whatever the subject, I feel that special little twist in my cackly heartmuscle that means I’m going to go motherfucking crazy soon, so I should probably post a rant.

There are a lot of people, on all sides of the political spectrum, all of them well-meaning, who seem to feel your characters should be a certain way, say certain things, react certain ways. Your female characters should be more assertive, your black characters more liberal, your male characters more masculine, your priests less stereotypically mild, take your pick. I’m not kidding. Pick a way you want your character to be, and someone’s written an article about how incorrect it is to portray a character that way, or how unpopular it now is, and how you ‘should’ do this, this, and this, or people will be offended/no one will ever read your story.

Guess what, guys?

It’s a story. It’s a motherfucking story. It’s fiction.

Not only that, it’s my story. You’re welcome to approve or disapprove of the way I’ve written a character. Of course you are–it’s a free country. But if you don’t like it, the answer might be, instead of telling me to write differently, to read someone else’s book.

There are assertive ladies out there, yes. There are also timid ladies. There are assertive men and there are timid men. There are mild priests, sanctimonious priests, raucous priests, blasphemous priests (if you don’t believe me on the last one, cut one off in traffic). There are gentle and kind Muslim men. There are Muslim men who’re real assholes. There are Muslim women who have been helped and healed by their religion, and Muslim women who have been hurt and repressed by it.

We’re all writers here. Why is it–why the hell is it–we can’t seem to understand that a character is just a character, and a story is just a story?

If I write a story about (just for example) a Muslim woman who takes strength and courage from her belief in Islam, I am by no means saying all Muslim women are happy with Islam. If I wrote the opposite story–the story of a woman oppressed and beaten down by her own faith–I would by no means be saying all women are. If I wrote either one of
these stories about a Christian, Buddhist, Pagan, take-your-pick woman–the same goes.

You see, here’s the thing. We don’t exist in a saran-wrapped bubble of our own little economic/racial/religious/gender-based identity. I don’t, for instance, only interact with and write about straight white atheist liberal women.

But, if you do or don’t–you’re damned whatever you do. I go into writing knowing that. I’m encouraging cishet cultural norms if I don’t write a few queer characters, I’m misrepresenting queer people if I do. Some people are thrilled I’ve chosen to write about a queer character at all. All of which is fascinating to me as, you know, I write fantasy, and therefore don’t represent anyone on this earth particularly.

But that’s the nature of the beast. Some people are going to love what you’ve done and some aren’t. That’s how it is, and that’s fine.

Just don’t try and tell me how to write, and I won’t try and tell you how to review.

This person is in my story because my story needs them. They have many other characteristics than the one I’m apparently portraying incorrectly. A green person in a story might be a part of green minority culture, but he’s also a loyal man, good to animals, generous to his family, a pretty mean cook. Who knows? You do, because you wrote it.

We are all–all of us–part of a very big, very complicated, and very multilayered world. Our characters, whether you write literary fiction (whatever the hell THAT is precisely) or F/SF, are based on the voices of our world. You should always remember that each voice is different, and the color of our skin, our gender, our sexual orientation, etc., has nothing to do with that. Our voices would all be different even if we were all green, four hundred pounds, and female.

So write the voice you hear.

Don’t write the voice you think is truest to you belief system, or closest to what Donald Trump says it should be, or is most politically correct (is it sad that Item B was what I thought of as ‘precise opposite of Item C’ in forming that sentence?).Or, the saddest yet perhaps the most common–don’t write the voice you think is most popular. If your character is a shy and timid girl, don’t write her brash and assertive because that’s how women are ‘supposed’ to be now. Women aren’t ‘supposed’ to be shit.

Write the voice you hear.

Let me repeat it, to make sure you understand this:

Write the goddamn voice you goddamn well hear.

And all that stuff people might say afterwards?

Fuck ’em.

You wrote your story, and now you’re going to reap the benefits (or punishments) of doing so. And that’s just how it is–writing is open to interpretation, and people are going to interpret. You can’t stop ’em–nor should you.

But don’t let them (or fear of them) stop you.

I say it over and over on this blog, but I’m going to say it again.

Write whatever you damn well please.

It’s the only thing you can do.

ZOMG.

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So. My book just came out, and you can get it free here, or for .99 on Amazon, if you just MUST spend a dollar today. It’s real good. I promise.

Unfortunately, this means I’m too busy to blog today. Instead of abandoning you guys totally, here’s a cheap lumpy filler graph detailing the delicate ins and outs of my extremely self involved creative process. Enjoy.

Writing: Your Antihero

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Writing Yourself a Likeable Asshole: The Classic Anti-Hero

So me and the Definitely Not Dave were watching TV last night. Specifically, we were watching Nextflix. And guess which show they had every last episode of?

If you looked at the title, that’s probably all you need to guess what I’m talking about. They had House, people.

House was a great show, especially the first few seasons. The reason is simple: House had House, and you hadn’t gotten tired of him yet. And House is this era’s perfect example of the likeable asshole.

A lot of people struggle with this character type–often referring to him, somewhat gustily, as ‘the antihero’, which is one of those compound phrases (much like ‘reverse racism’) that doesn’t at all mean what it sounds like it should mean. (Doesn’t reverse racism sound like it should mean treating someone with a different skin color very, very nicely? Doesn’t it? Why the hell doesn’t it mean that? Anyway.)

It’s okay, boo boo. I’m here to help you. Because it’s one I’m pretty good at (see: every main character I’ve had ever).

A brief look at The (Anti)Hero’s Journey:

1) Character does Good Thing for Wrong Reasons.
2) As action rises, Character must struggle to come to terms with pain in past, and stop self-destructive actions. Character begins making progress towards redemption.
3) It’s too much: Character does something Really, Really Shitty.
4) Milksop ‘nice guy’ other characters stop supporting Central Character’s behavior.
5) Character does Good Thing for Right Reasons.
6) We All Skip Happily off into Sunset. Rainbows, Glitter, Other Bullshit Happens.

Five points, to help you on your journey:

1) Balance This Asshole.

Not on a high beam or a tightrope. This is very hard to do, especially with make-believe people.

Balance this person’s essential assholeness with a sweetheart or two by his side. House has his team, all of whom tolerate (sometimes barely) his bullshit, and are fairly nice people comparatively. He has the puppylike Wilson. These people are around House to provide contrast, true: they’re also there to show what should be done, by a normal non-assholeish person. You might think your audience knows this instinctively, and in a just universe you’re probably right. However, your audience also needs to know that you know this–that this person’s assholian qualities are a fictional tool, and not just, you know, what you think is par for the course.

Another important thing–these non-assholes, though they can be irritated by your asshole’s antics, needs to fundamentally like him. It gives your audience an excuse to. After all, if these nice people like this emotional cripple, there’s got to be a reason, right? Which leads into:

2) This Asshole Needs to do Good.

House does plenty of good. You know, saving people and stuff. The problem isn’t with what he does–it’s how, and why.

And this is the main paradox of the anti-hero. If this person doesn’t do good, he’s just an ass. If he doesn’t do it for the wrong reasons, he’s just a hero. Of course, since the anti-hero usually redeems himself by the end of the story, he has to be aware of the wrongness and come to terms with it. An example:

–Your hero takes two children of a banished royal line under his wing. He does it for the ransom money, but of course he knows if he turns them in they’ll probably be killed. In the end, he doesn’t turn them in.

Because his conscience gets the better of him, see? Though he might not say it–he might say the current ruling party isn’t offering him enough money, or he feels like it’ll just get him in more trouble when the current ruling party is itself deposed. But by that point, you know this asshole well enough to know it’s just bluster. He’s doing it because he doesn’t want to kill children. And in some way, by the end, he acknowledges this–more on that later.

3) Your Asshole Needs Some Damage.

Which, out of context, just sounds x-rated and weird. But here’s the thing–your asshole needs some kind of excuse to be an asshole. House has his leg, and the painkiller addiction (which we’ll talk about in Four).

But here’s the thing–that excuse isn’t enough, and it shouldn’t be.

House kind of likes the pain. He likes it because it gives him an excuse to be what he is. An asshole like House isn’t necessarily pandering for pity–House wouldn’t tell you his sobby-sob life story if you bought him a beer at a bar–but he expects it to mitigate his actions, to let him skate by without the trouble and toil of becoming a better person. He’s got a cane and a limp and part of the narrative reason he does is so people make instant judgement calls based on them. He’s disabled. You’re taught to make extra allowances for the disabled.

But how many?

So. What happened to your character? Did he lose his wife to the raiders, get cursed by an angry wizard? Was he always teased in school? Whatever it is, make sure the pain is real–but moderate. His wife died fifteen years ago. The angry wizard’s curse was permanent heartburn. Getting teased in school isn’t an excuse for fricking anything anyway. You get it.

4) Some of This Asshole’s Damage is Self-Inflicted.

You might hear something like this come out of the mouth of a supporting character, in the wife-killed-by-raiders thing:

‘Harry was a great guy until the raiders came and decapitated Rena. After that, he sort of went downhill. He did a lot of drinking, lost his house, lost the kids. Now he just sits in the bar, night after night.’

You feel bad for him. Yeah, someone decapitated his wife, and that’s tragic. But the drinking, like House’s painkillers, is on him. And so is all the shit that happened to him because of it. It’s an understandable vice–I mean, raiders decapitate your wife, you’re going to drink for a while–but he’s taken it too far and, at least in the beginning of the story, it doesn’t look like he’s willing to make it better himself.

So, items three and four are related. You need damage–but then you need self-inflicted damage. The anti-hero (asshero? Asshelo? Herass?) needs to carry on the pattern of destruction and damage on his own, without outside help. Because this bastard isn’t sympathetic.

5) Your Asshole Needs to Change.

In every antihero type story, the main focus is the redemption–change–of the main character. Hell, House got like fifty billion seasons out of this one idea alone (and, let’s be honest, by the end of that show we were all so fricking ready for it). But in the end, even House makes a change for the better.

And this is where the hero part comes in. By the end of the story, your main character has to’ve done at least one thing that is truly, incontrovertably, good. And, furthermore, the character has to know why he did this thing, and welcome it, and admit it.

Why? Because character development. Because, if you’ve built your tension right, the audience is yearning for your asshole-hero to acknowledge the good in himself, and you occasionally have to give your audience what they want, or they’ll stop being your audience. (A note here: part of the reason this storyline works so well in House is because the show is, ostensibly, about something else. You can’t write a whole novel based just one one person’s search for redemption. Gimme something else along with it: House finds nifty weird diseases. Maybe there’s a war in your novel, or a trek cross-country, or what have you. But in a character arc like this, just remember: there has to be a plotline, some other action, for your asshole character to happen to.)

There you go: classic anti-hero stuff, with the help of Gregory House. Now go off and diagnose some weird diseases, kids. Go. Have fun. Because you’re all doctors now.

Yeeeees. Sure y’are.

The King’s Might: Excerpt

Here y’go, first part of TKM for you. In case you’re blind or you don’t usually follow me, this story will be available on Amazon, Smashwords, Kobo, and All Those Other Places very soon (7/21/15). It’ll be free to start out with through Smashwords, and .99 on Amazon until I can make it free there as well. Hrmmhrmmm. My gift to you.

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*PROLOGUE*

The girl had been down in the earth for a long, long time.

She had once–weeks ago, months ago, maybe even years ago–been a bright and chubby little thing, full of laughter and smiles. But they had been traveling through the Mountains of Vigilance–her parents had turned away, for just a moment, to consider the crossing–and she had fallen, playing on an outcropping of stone.

She had fallen into a ravine. She had fallen father, deeper. She had fallen into this place, this sunken city, cold and dark and lonely. There had been dead brush, to save her from the worst injuries, but there had also been silence, and limitless dark.

She didn’t know if they had tried to find her. They probably had–she had been well loved.

There were mushrooms and lichens to eat, glowing faintly in the dead libraries and bedchambers of the swallowed city. There were pools of water, dripping from cracks in the wall and forming in buckets and plates from long ago. There was a constant filth, a mixture of soot and new soil that wouldn’t scrub off. There was the sound of her own voice, echoing down the endless stone halls.

There was nobody else.

She was sure of it. Looking and calling had been the first things she had done. Her mother had taught her this, to look and call if she got lost. No one will hurt you, her mother had said. You’re only a child. They will help you find the way back to us.

The little girl remembered her mama, and her papa, and in this dark place, lit only by phosphorescent fungus and the eyes of sightless creatures, she wept.

There was nobody else, and no way out. All the paths curved downward. All the doors led downward.

She didn’t know how many tons of rock were over her head. She had walked down many hallways here in the dark, gone down many flights of stairs. She could feel the weight of it all above her–crushing weight, impossible to lift or navigate.

All paths led down.

Even when she tried to turn around, go back the way she had come, all paths led down. 

Which is why, when she woke in this dark place at some unspecific time–it could have been midday, for all she knew, and she could have slept a hundred years–she was surprised to hear voices.

They were indistinct, these voices. Gauzy shreds of whispers. Barely real. She had to strain her ears to catch them, and her hearing had become very keen indeed.

But they were voices. Up ahead.

She ran. She left her tattered cloak and the handful of mushrooms she had planned for breakfast behind her.

Down, down, down. All the paths went down, but the rock overhead didn’t seem quite so crushing, the place quite so airless.

Voices!

And, like her mama had taught her, she called. Her own voice seemed deafening in the darkness, a thing meant for the world of light and movement.

“I’m here!” she screamed. “I’m here! Here!”

The echo came back to her: here, here, here.

The voices–were they louder now? Sibilant whispers. They might have scared her, if she hadn’t been scared for so long already.

“I’m here!”

Here, here.

Her little boots were loud against the paving stones, flap flap flap. She ran through what must have once been a great hall, its ceiling extending neverendingly up into the darkness, ornate columns receding with each footstep to her right and left. She passed through a meaner hall, its columns plain, its ceiling low.

The voices were almost deafening now, hissing, whining, cajoling.

There was a door in the hall. There was frieze on the door, a hunting scene, figures so worn they were barely visible. The voices came from behind the door.

“I’M HERE,” the girl shouted, with all her might.

From below–though how there could be more below, with all she had traveled, she was not sure–there were cracks and scrapings, as though something vast had stirred from its sleep.

The door creaked open.

Inside, in a room that was dark but not quite as dark as it should have been, it was very cold. The girl wished instantly for her forgotten cloak, for the stout fur vest that existed somewhere above with her parents. Frost coated the walls and the flooring, turned the few furnishings remaining into half-visible lumps.

There was a man in the room, lying on one of the tables. She thought he was asleep, until she crept closer–though he lay very still, his eyes were open. They were the color of old blood. His breath–so shallow it might have almost been her imagination he breathed at all–let wisps of white frost into the air.

She might have been afraid of him, in the world up above. He lay so very still, and the face underneath his long pale hair was as cold as the room around him. Here, he was the only other person she had seen.

She jumped into his arms, buried herself in the ancient blanket someone had wrapped around him. He blinked, once, twice. He raised himself a little off the table. His movements were slow, careful, and filled with terrible certainty.

“Hello, child,” he whispered. “Are you, then, the one the earth powers have chosen to wake me?”

“Help me,” she said. “You’ve got to help me. We were going through the pass–through the mountains. I fell. I can’t find mama. You’ve got to help me find my mama.”

“Shh,” the man said. “Shhh.”

There was calm to him. Terrible calm. Though she should have felt comforted, should have been overjoyed, she felt only lightness, only unending cold. His hand twisted through her hair–a hand nearly skeletal, white as frost, thin and long-fingered. She didn’t want him to touch her, but it had been so long since anyone had held her, had comforted her.

“I’m looking for someone, too,” he said. “A boy. He’d be–about your age, perhaps a little younger. A golden-haired boy.”

“I want my mama,” said the girl.

The man smiled. It was not a comforting smile, and there was little pity in it.

“Your mama is long gone,” he said. “There is no time, in these deep places. There is only the earth.”

She began to cry. She had forgotten why, precisely–she had forgotten why she was unhappy. The tears froze to her cheeks. The pale man picked them off, his spiderlike hands gentle.

“Your home is here now,” he said. “You are the Waker, and for you to be the Waker there must be something of the old powers in you. Did you hear the voices, little one? Did the earth speak to you, as it speaks to me?”

She nodded. She remembered, vaguely, thinking the voices were something else–human voices. The memory was tinged with white, as though seen through a thin sheet of ice. It was silly, to have thought they were human voices.

They were the voices of the earth–of the hefenta, of the deep powers of earth. And this man–this man was their creature. She knew it, somehow, though she did not know why or what precisely it was she now knew: the earth was a part of her people, the Norchladil people. The cold was in the bones and the blood.

She shuddered.

The man wrapped the blanket around her. She noticed, distantly, how very old it was–the threads breaking with the gentlest touch, something staining it that may, long ago, have been blood. The man’s robes were stained as well, their style ancient. Even as she watched he drew the robes closer to him, and they brightened and whitened, as though touched by frost.

“Who are you?” she asked. Though she knew the answer–though her bones, and the ancestral memories inside them, knew the answer.

“I’m a magician,” the man said. His mouth twitched. “A Northmage. A relic of a time long before. A ghost. The worst sort of ghost–a ghost that knows your name.”

And, bending to adjust the blanket–bending so his cold breath blew right in her ear–he whispered it to her, in the old language of blood and death and the angry earth.

And she was no longer what she had once been.

Some things are that simple.

“Come,” the man said, standing and stretching his ancient bones. “If we’re to find the boy, we’ve much work to do–and you’ve much to learn. Macher tanith ii, they will call you–she who is servant of the dark world.”

Twisted up in his hair, a white comb winkled–the warrior’s comb, malat ma’a. The man withdrew it, held it out to her–its teeth were sharp and long, and its weight was cold and deadly in her hand.

“You shall hold this, for a time,” he said. “You shall learn of its power. But don’t grow used to it, for it must go to the boy. We shall pass it along, when the time comes for me to deploy you.”

He was almost handsome, creature of ice and frost that he was. His hair like white silk, his eyes the same blood burgundy as the eyes of the carving on the comb.

She could almost love him, almost. After all, who else did she have to love?

“Papa,” she whispered. The word died unheard in the airless dark. The man had turned, begun to walk. He didn’t turn around or even pause to witness its death.

Her last thought, as the final pieces of her mind that belonged to her dissolved, came to her in a strange woman’s voice, a voice she no longer recognized or cared for.

No one will hurt you. You’re only a child.

Writing: The King’s Might

Hay there, honey boo boos.

That’s right, I just collectively referred to you guys as that dumpling-shaped little blonde child on TLC. Now that I have television, I’m picking up pop culture references faster than a hoover picks up dirt on hardwood floors. We’re up to about 2013 in pop culture. Soon I’ll be able to make jokes about current things, like…like…

…well, we’re not there yet. But I have faith.

Anyway. I’m here to make exciting brand-new announcements!

My next novel, The King’s Might, is coming out in a week or so (7/21/15, but don’t quote me on that). It’s a story I’ve had kicking around in my head for ten years or so, and I’m sooper dooper excited to have it all finished up and committed to paper. I’m EVEN MORE EXCITED because…

…it’s gonna be free. Totally free.

I’ll warn you–the fancy paths you have to walk to make an Amazon novel permafree means it might take a while to appear as such on Amazon. But it’ll happen eventually, and it’ll be across the board. I know I’m putting it up on Smashwords and Kobo too, but there might be other places. Why the hell not, right?

Anyway, here’s the cover. Isn’t that an awesome cover? Isn’t that ice stuff cool and serious-looking? The skilled graphic designer behind it, whose identity will remain a mystery (if she doesn’t comment about it on here…HI MOM) has totally outdone herself. I love it.

If the cover doesn’t clue you in, The King’s Might is unrelated to Aurian and Jin…it’s epic fantasy still, don’t worry, but it’s a little more serious, a little more epic, a little more fairy tale and legend. It’s about the importance of knowing who you are, and accepting what you are regardless of how unpopular what you are might be–and, of course, it’s about magic and danger and war and friendship and all that fun slushy stuff. Oh, and putting someone’s eye out with a comb. It’s definitely about putting someone’s eye out with a comb, too.

God, I know how to make things sound good.

Anyay, blurb and cover, go buy it zomg. Wednesday’s post will be the first section, so get excited already.

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In the deepest parts of the earth a magician sleeps, dreaming of a deadly white peace.

A young orphan, yellow-haired in a country of dark people, must take on the burden of Kingship, and accept his fate as an unwelcome heir to the Southern throne.

Journey with Jalith Silverhanded, First Prince in the Southern House of Heirs, as he travels the civilized South and the cold and mysterious north in search of his heritage, and a chance to end a war his country was unprepared for. As he travels deeper and deeper into the land of his birth, however, he must ask an important question–which land, North or South, does he belong to?

Before coming into his own Jalith must learn to accept himself for what he is, and discover the secret of The King’s Might.

WRITING: Book Advertising For Broke Slackers

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Book Advertising For Broke Slackers

Let me start this off by saying: I don’t advertise often enough. I’m terrible at it, I have a job, life, family, etc. So if I ever start giving you in-depth marketing strategies, run for the hills. I don’t know what I’m talking about, and, frankly, I find the ‘paste your novel everywhere’ card a little annoying. I mean, I’m sure it’s effective–sheer numbers suggest it has to be, right? But damn.

But there are a few common-sense type things I do that everyone should at least try once. And the best part: they’re for lazy broke people, like me. So, if you don’t have the time and money to launch a proper campaign, here are some things to do.

1) A link in every blog post.

Sure, I forget occasionally. But for the most part, I have a discreet link to Aurian and Jin embedded in everything I write here (d’you see that? See it? Discreet. Totally.).

As much as we’d all like to think new readers see your posts in their blog feed, are immediately awed by your versatility and eloquence, and go straight for the ‘about’ page, this isn’t true. Most people aren’t going to go further than that one post, or maybe your home page.

So make sure you drop a link in the place they’re looking. Make it EASY for them to find your story. And you can do it again and again and again, a new link with every post–increasing your visibility with very little effort. Almost every time I do this, I get at least one click on that damn link–which might not sound like much, but hell, it’s better than not doing it.

Best part is, it’s a nice and non-invasive way to do it. You aren’t bothering your fans and frequent readers, who’ve already read it/know about it. And keeping these folks happy is sooper dooper important, right? HI FREQUENT READERS, I LOVE YOU.

On a related note: SHARE YOUR BLOG POSTS. Twitter, Facebook, StumbleUpon, whatever you’ve got an account on. Hit that ‘autoshare’ button if you have to, just do it. This way you’re giving folks information and not just a static link to your novel–and well, there’s a link in that information too, if they want to click it.

2) Let your buddies help you.

Sounds basic, right? But the best advertising is word of mouth, and your friends and family can’t tell everybody about this great book Johnny at the bar wrote if they don’t know about it.

So make sure your friends know. They’re your friends–they’ll be super proud of you. Don’t pressure them into reading it–your friend Li who hasn’t cracked a book since high school probably isn’t going to give two shits about the fineries of your plot development–but your friends will be proud of you, and those of them who’re interested in that sort of thing will probably read it just because it’s you. And even the ones who don’t have friends who do, and they’ll likely mention it to them. And those friends’ll mention it to their friends, etc., on and on. A lot of my readers who’ve talked to me have some weird six degrees from Kevin Bacon style relation to me– they’re friends with the mechanic who fixes my aunt’s car, children of the substitute teacher who once taught my friend AP English, etc. It’s fun to figure it out, and it starts a neat conversation.

3) Make your visibility count.

I know we’ve all seen the ‘you need an online presence to sell books’ sort of posts. And it’s true, don’t get me wrong. You need someone to see your link for people to click on it.

But quality over volume every time, people. If you can manage both, go you–but not all of us have a job where we can sit there checking the phone every time it beeps in a Twitterward fashion.

So be pithy. Be clever, be funny, be sweet. Make the time you spend on the internet look like YOU–not just a collection of links, retweets, and jumbled characters. Fill out the ‘about’ sections on profiles when you have one, and make it funny and/or informative. Show your personality, not just your product. This does the dual task of warning away possible haters (‘well, I don’t like what this person has to say, so I probably won’t like this book they wrote’) and inviting possible fans to the table (‘Haha, that was funny! I wonder if this book here is just as funny.’)
Again, it seems basic. But judging from my Twitter feed, we could use this reminder.

4) RESPOND. RESPOND. RESPOND.

Has someone messaged you? Commented on your post? Sent you an email?

For the sweet and salty love of Jesus Cashew-crunching Christ, RESPOND TO IT. How would you feel if you plucked up the courage to send a note to a stranger, and it totally never got responded to? This is alienating behavior, and nobody who wants a fan base should engage in it. Especially if, like me, you only have like five fans.

People like attention. Of course we do, we’re needy bastards and our emotional lives are complex and fraught with peril. And it takes so little, little effort to recognize somebody. Just a simple ‘so glad you enjoyed’ goes miles, and takes half a second to type. If someone has a complaint or a question, answer honestly and non-violently. You’ll get a happy person out of it, possibly a fan, someone likely to remember you and pass the remembrance on to others.

If they reviewed your book–even if it wasn’t a positive review–well, don’t respond. That’s kind of bad manners. But on Amazon, you can always click ‘yes’ on the ‘was this review helpful to you?’ question. A sort of tacit acknowledgement that you noticed the review and you appreciate the time it took, without getting into the nasty territory of responding to reviewers.

AAAAND–

5) Free books, baby.

I’ve already written a post about KDP Select and how I feel about it here, so I won’t trouble you with more of the same. You’ll either do Select or you won’t, and there’re legitimate gripes about it amongst Amazon authors. I happen to love it, and I see a sales spike every time I do a free giveaway.

That being said–nothing gets you advertisement quite like the word ‘free’. Just as an experiment, I did a cold-sell style KDP giveaway a few months ago–even though I did absolutely nothing to advertise it, except (I think) mention it on Twitter, I still gave away about 300 copies in one day, and sold quite a few the day after (I think it was, like, nine. Not one hundred percent sure).

I’ll be honest, the thing I like most about KDP Select free giveaways is my ability to get a spike and some oomph for very little work.

I’d like to repeat: these things won’t make you an instant best-seller. They won’t catapult you to the Top 100 Paid section on Amazon. But, for very little work and no money, they’ll give you positive results. If you want breathtaking results, the sad fact of the matter is you need to put time and money into selling your book. Which some of us don’t have. So. Priorities.

Much love.

Writing: Villains and the Subjective Nature of Evil

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For the Greater Good: What About Your Villain?

Your story has a hero. Now it has to have a villain.

Right?

…right?

I’ll share something with you, kids. I’m not, nor have I ever been, a big supporter of the classic Good vs. Evil thing. Nor am I, for that matter, a fan of the anti-hero, the noble villain, etc.–we’re not playing D&D here. There is no chaotic good, no lawful evil. These archetypes, useful though they might be in summing up a character in a few words, do not actually exist.

You’ve considered your plot carefully. You know all the holes in your literary poke cake, and you know precisely which ones needs to get filled with the blueberry pie mix of villainry, the lemon custards of heroism. You know, in short, that you need a hero.

However, ask yourself this question first:

What do your characters think about all this?

People, in the rare microscopic amount of time they spend thinking about whether they’re on the side of good or evil, usually go with good (yes, even the worst people). Even those sensitive bitter bastards who call themselves anti-heroes and think they’re all rough and tumble do things for reasons they consider worthwhile. If they, for some reason, don’t think of the reason as worthwhile, there’s a human tendency to justify however hard you need to to remain the hero of your own story.

Consider: a man leaves his family one day without a word of warning. He never sees his young child or wife again.

Despicable, no?

And yet plenty of people have done it. They might lie awake at night thinking about it, but not everyone does. And even those who do have to get coffee in the morning, wash up, give big work presentations, deal, in short, with the day-to-day. There are photographs of this man in which he’s smiling, photographs with his friends, who probably think he’s a pretty good guy. (This concept is called the banality of evil, and if you’re interested you should totes mcgoats google that).

Note: this doesn’t mean evil doesn’t exist. Oh, buddy, it does. There’s plenty of evil in this world–but where you see it depends on who you are, and where you’re looking.

In short: the nice barista who slides you a medium even though you asked for a small might beat his wife. Your favorite professor might not’ve paid taxes in fifteen years. The pleasant German gentleman you met on a cruise in 1968 might have been a member of the Nazi party during the second world war.

These people have done evil things–but you might not see them. Evil isn’t universal, and it isn’t glaringly apparent to everyone around. And these people might justify their actions in pretty convincing ways–the former Partei member was just doing what a good patriotic German would do. The wife-beating barista has a really mean wife. Your tax-evading professor reads a lot of Thoreau. Everybody has reasons for doing the things they do–reasons for being the people they are.

Whether or not this person is a hero or a villain depends largely on how your main character sees them. And how ‘good’ your main character is, of course, relies on how they react to the evil thing suddenly exposed–is your MC horrified, upon finding out that sweet old Dr. Zimmer was in the SS? What does your MC do about it? Does Dr. Zimmer regret his actions, try to atone for them? Does this change your MC’s view of that character?

Either way, a character who commits an ‘evil’ action will do these things, just like the good guys:

1) Try to justify the action. Hitler probably had some pretty good reasons for doing what he did. At least: they seemed good, if you were Hitler. Hitler did some good things for the German economy, and it made a lot of hungry and war-torn Germans all right with his, erm, less nice ideas. A lot of people a lot more qualified than me have written books about the how and why of the Third Reich, so I won’t attempt to go into that here, but you can see how personal interest can justify a lot of truly evil things.
2) Have friends and be nice to people. You don’t get very far in the world if you’re shitty to everybody. Even Hitler had friends and a lady who loved him. Give these people justifications and your story is halfway to rolling already.
3) Do the occasional non-shitty thing. A person who time after time takes the evil road is just as boring as a milksop hero who always takes the good. Besides, people don’t work that way–if you keep a character on one path of justification, his actions are eventually going to benefit somebody. Again: Hitler’s crazy ass did some good things for certain segments of the German population. Does this make him any less of a villain? No. But he wasn’t a villain to everybody all the time. Nobody is.

I want to make it perfectly clear: I am not, in any way shape or form, saying evil doesn’t exist. If evil hasn’t touched your life, you’re a lucky person. But it always does to remember: evil, just like anything else in life, is terrifyingly subjective. What might’ve been a low dark blow to you may benefit someone else. The oncoming horde of dark barbarians is someone else’s noble army. Their merciless general is someone’s dad. Their evil sorceress queen in her fortress of darkness keeps their tax rates pretty low, and the constant wars keep her citizens wealthy and well fed.

So, what makes a villain different from a hero?

Viewpoint.

And that’s about it.

It’s an uncomfortable truth, I know, but it’s a rather important one in writing. You are, after all, the manwomanperson with the silver tongue–your characters are, almost exclusively, what you portray them as being. Never take this power lightly. Jesus, it’s one of the most terrifying things about writing.

For more thought-provocation on the matter, try googling why people don’t tip. (A note, if you aren’t American: American servers by and large make far less than minimum wage, and are expected to make up the difference in tips at the end of the night). You’ll get some great examples of justification there.
 
And, last thing, a writing exercise for you:

Write a story, any length, in which your main villain is the hero of the story. Note–not just the viewpoint character. Make me root for her. Make me want her to win. Tell me, in short, why this character does what she does.

Thank you, and good night.

Cute Paintings of Monsters.

Well, hey there, boys and girls.

I had this whole plan where I elegantly introduced my art and showed you large, high-quality photos, but it looks like the buttfuck combination of WordPress and my tablet aren’t going to allow me to do that. So, as the image quality of my pictures had been summarized, so shall I.

Here are some shitty phone photos, combined into one image because this stupid tablet is apparently such a stone age piece of equipment that it can’t process multiple photos on a freaking page, of my artwork. I’ve been doing monster paintings lately. Some of them (can you even tell here?) are vomiting or bleeding glitter. Because we like it when things vomit or bleed glitter. For the most part, these are 5×7 on cheap canvas panel, with some tiny little canvases (bought at a craft store because AWWW CUTE) for the monster eyes.

That pencil drawing is a HUGE drawing I started a little while ago of Jin. Thought I’d toss it in because some readers might enjoy it. Once I get it a little closer to finished and there’s some shading in there I’ll fight my tablet for a more detailed image, okay?

Again, I’m not like a super talented genius type artist, nor do I do manga characters or watercolors of flowers, so I’m well aware I won’t ever make a living, but hey. Thought you guys might enjoy.

Don’t freak out, you’ll get a writing post either tomorrow or Friday at the latest. I just wanted variety.

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The little guy top right is unfinished, but whatever. Glittervom.