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Vick's Vultures

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

The Dark Beyond the Stars and Women in Science Fiction

I was recently involved in a discussion regarding the recent controversy surround a review of the Dark Beyond the Stars, a science fiction anthology by an all-female cast of authors.

The controversy revolved around a low-scoring review posted for the anthology that amounted to "Women can't and shouldn't write science fiction or space opera". The perpetrator of this controversy shall remain nameless, and I'd discourage anyone reading this from further investigating his identity, because quite frankly he doesn't deserve the attention, and invariably any publicity is good publicity(So why indulge him?).

Still, knowing my own personal bias trending towards reading male authors, I decided to tackle the anthology myself. I wanted to decide whether or not the low score was justified, even if the anti-women rant was certainly not. After all, a collection written by a group of women does not automatically mean that it will be good, and the same applies to an all-male authored anthology. Amazon tends to be an echo chamber of reviews, readers tend to only buy the books they are certain to enjoy, and are more likely to review one they either really liked or disliked.

With the review in the back of my mind I began reading a story a night until I'd conquered the whole anthology. I found a wildly varried approach to science fiction, no two stories alike or touching on exactly the same themes. In my opinion, a few of the stories were lacking in quality, or felt more like first chapters or pitches than fully contained shorts. The anthology classifies itself as space opera, which in my opinion the majority of it is not. Space opera has always been a nebulous description, with everyone holding a slightly different definition.

Despite its faults, over half of the stories were captivating and entertaining, which is all you can really ask. One or two were downright amazing, especially the first which set a high bar. Together these stories explore the concepts of sentience, self-discovery, loss, determination, perserverence, greed, hopelessness, change, motherhood, and strife. So to answer the question, can women write science fiction? Well, these particular women can, I can't speak for the ones I haven't read.

But I definitely can, in good conscience, recommend the Dark Beyond the Stars to sci-fi fans. Even if every story in it is not for you (as many were not to my personal taste) the themes and subjects are so varied that you're sure to find something you'll enjoy.

-Scott Warren

Sunday, June 7, 2015

5 Things I learned about myself when writing Sorcerous Crimes Division: Devilbone

This is a post I've been meaning to write for over a year. I see lots of articles and blog posts about what new authors learned about writing while penning their first novel, but very few articles on self-assessment after the fact. While I was writing Devilbone I greedily devoured writing advice, knowledge, and strategies for crafting my novel. I was reading fantasy, and writing fantasy, and suffocating on the second floor of a house with no AC in August. But the most important lessons about writing were the ones I learned about myself, and so they may not apply to you as well, but hopefully you'll get something out of it.

1. Being able to identify mistakes in others' work did not stop me from making the same mistakes.

Love triangles, chosen ones, wishy-washy morality lectures, infodumps, and a hundred other tropes and cliches. They stick out like a sore thumb when you're reading a book, but when I sat down and started typing I realized that even aware of them, some writing pitfalls were extremely easy to fall into, and hard to climb back out of. Sometimes I just didn't see a way to accomplish something that wasn't terrible. A lot of time was spent in the re-writes simply removing huge sections and redoing them to try to avoid pitfalls, but I lacked the experience to remove them all.

2. The biggest key to finishing was a working habit I built as an artist.

As part of a behavioral experiment before I ever began outlining a novel, I had long resolved to spend at least one hour per day (for me between 11:00PM and Midnight) working on creative pursuits, regardless of other obligations. To this day as the clock starts creeping towards 10:30 I start wrapping up whatever I'm doing to prepare for my creative hour. When I started Devilbone, the creative hour became an hour in which I could do nothing but write. This rule had two caveats for me. Sunday would be a rest day, and if I spent an extra hour on one day I could 'bank' that hour to miss another day.

Many first-time authors hit stumbling points when they attempt to write, start off with a whole bunch out outlining and worldbuilding, and then burn themselves out in the first 50 pages. By preparing yourself for hard work and extended projects you better acclimate yourself to writing. Patience is just as important as fervor. Even writing an hour a night, or 3-4 pages, so long as you write every night you will have a completed rough draft in 3-4 months. The biggest key to maintaining this discipline is this: Do not skip a day of writing. If you skip a day for a good reason, next time you'll do it for a bad reason, and the next time you won't need a reason. Miss three days in a row, and you've essentially lost the habit and have to start over.

3. All the outlining in the world goes out the window when the narrative demands it.

When I started writing Devilbone, I had a beginning, an ending, and then I started to figure out what would span the gap. I went chapter-by-chapter on the outline, and quickly realized that the approach simply wasn't working for me at all. No plan survives first contact with the enemy.

4. The media I consumed did not inform the Fantasy books I would write.

Devilbone ended up very different than I imagined it would. I thought reading would make me well equipped to emulate several of my favorite authors, but this turned out to be far from the truth. I read Game of Thrones, but had no head for medieval politics or the shenanigans of the noble classes. I read Malazan, but lacked the sense of scope for continent-spanning conflicts, enormous casts, and living worlds. I watched The Wire, but had no grasp on creating intricate investigative efforts and portraying a crime-riddled city. I read 

Once I stepped away from these and began to find my own style I was much happier. The Sorcerous Crimes Division ended up being something completely and wholly different from any of my several influences. And in the end it was better for it. One of the most common things I hear is that Devilbone nails the exact things for which my influences are not typically known. The world is familiar, yet unique, the story is a police/detective procedural that feels completely at home in a medieval fantasy setting, and the pacing is solid despite being half the length of the 500 page meganovels I spend my evenings reading.

5. My decision to self-publish was driven by my personality, not by any discreet plan.

I am a shy person, by nature. I'm sure many writers are. When it came down to deciding whether to self-publish or begin soliciting agents? Well, one route was a great deal less stressful and more immediate. I could never be a salesman, I have a hard time imagining myself trying to push a product on an unsuspecting agent and standing out among hundreds of others. The idea of sending personal letters to dozens of prospective agents terrified me. Self-publishing was a lot of work, but it felt safe and sure.

If you are like me, but decide to commit to the traditional route, you will have to overcome these feelings. Be ready for them, expect them, and hopefully you are able to overcome them. When I decide Vick's Vultures is ready, I may try to pursue a more traditional route, but I feel as though continuing to self-publish will be my go-to path.

Hopefully this list gave any first-time authors some insight into how to self-evaluate their own processes. If you would like to check out some of my work, The Sorcerous Crimes Division is available on Amazon.

-Scott Warren

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

The Problem with Prophecy

There's no way around it. Prophecy is a pet peeve of mine, and of many Fantasy readers. Chosen Ones and preordained destinies crop up everywhere, and few things kill my interest faster. Reading the words It was foretold in regards to a character, to me, reduces the impact of every decision that character has made within the narrative up to that point.

The primary issue is that once prophecy is introduced in a story, all but three resolutions are typically eliminated.

1) The Chosen One strives to fulfill the prophecy
2) The Chosen One strives to break from the prophecy, but fulfills it unwittingly
3) The Chosen One breaks from the path of the prophecy.

In any case, the prophecy is problematic. It subverts the character agency of the Chosen One, reducing the impact of his/her personal goals and values, motivation, and aspects of the self-concept that typically drive character development. In essence, the prophecy becomes the main character and the Chosen One becomes a vessel for the prophecy to effect its change on the world. In the case of numbers 2 and 3, the character's motivation becomes breaking from the prophecy. And then he either does or doesn't, but it becomes the focus of the story. Usually a story we've all heard before.

In the Wheel of Time, Rand initially rejects his part in the prophecy, then later embraces it and begins to strive to complete it. His fate is never in question, nor is he ever in real danger because of his part in the prophecy of the final battle. Some characters literally cannot die and lose the fear of death because other other characters foresee them living through certain events. It is the ultimate plot armor. The story suffers for it.

Occasionally this trope gets subverted to good effect. In the Discworld we have Carrot, possibly the last king of Ankh Morpork. To him the prophecy of which he is the chosen one is little more than a passing thought to him, one fulcrum upon which the weight of one decision swings, and he makes his choice with an abrupt finality.

Mistborn spoilers ahead:

Another example of excellent subversion is the Mistborn Trilogy. In Mistborn, prophecy and history are one and the same as the main characters attempt to recreate the circumstances leading to the Hero of Ages. The chosen one is thought to be no less than 3 different characters, and a final, fantastically maneuvered twist reveals that it was a fourth all along. I am, unfortunately, the Hero of Ages. In this case the characters still have the faculty of driving the prophecy, and in fact the trope is subverted further by the big bad actively changing the prophecy in an attempt to manipulate the text of the prophecy to suit his needs.

Any other thoughts on prophecy? Feel free to post them here or email me with them.

Friday, May 1, 2015

Peter Newman's The Vagrant, and Negative Prepurchase Amazon Reviews.

I have not been updating this blog with the frequency I would have liked to maintain. But this issue is something I feel warrants a position.

Right now there is a controversy. In essence, Harper Collins released the debut fantasy novel by Peter Newman with a $15 hardcover price. The conflict arises when you navigate to the kindle side and realize the E-book is $20. That's right, the digital version is five dollars more than the physical version, which requires printing, binding, and shipping.

Needless to say, people are pissed. And rightfully so. The second part of the controversy is in how they're handling it. Already several 1 star reviews have cropped up, citing the price as justification even having not read the book, and in a way I agree with the reasoning. Price should absolutely be factored into a review, and at a $20 cost of admission I will likely never read it because I read books almost exclusively on my Kindle. In essence, the book is unacceptable in its current state, and the most effective and direct (and convenient) way to voice that would be to leave a 1-star review and cite the price, as others have done. I have not done that, nor will I. And here's why.

I decided to self-publish Sorcerous Crimes Division for a variety of reasons, namely because I was terrified of the prospect of soliciting dozens of people, in hopes for them to again solicit dozens of people in hopes the book might some day see a publisher. That's a gauntlet of blood, sweat, and tears that I just wasn't prepared to take. So I pulled up my sleeves,  painted my own cover, and pushed Tanner and Vulfort on an unsuspecting populous to a modest, but positive reception.

But If

If I had chosen to go with traditional publishing for my first fantasy novel. And if the publisher decided to use my precious work, and my blood sweat and tears on (what looks to be) some sort of e-book pricing gambit to drive potential buyers to hardcover sales, and if people responded by flooding the page with 1-star reviews... Well, I would be absolutely crushed. It's not hard to imagine my book, sitting at 4.5 stars, dropped to 1.5 or 2 stars because of someone else's actions, and I know that I, as an author, would be devastated. I probably would not have continued to write, and I wouldn't be finishing my second book now and beginning my third.

So please, think before you post a 1-star review that will follow that author just because you're upset with a publisher decision instead. An email to the publisher can make your feelings just as clear without harming Peter Newman's chances as an author.

-Scott Warren

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Alternate Paths of Technological Advancement in Fantasy.

I came across an interesting idea, a suggestion that without stars human advancement would be nonexistent due to a lack of astral navigation, which for great swaths of history was our only means of navigation. Without astral navigation, there is no trade, and without trade there is no exchange of information, ideas and technology. And without this exchange, no advancement.

I fundamentally disagree with this. It's my reasoning that a lack of astral navigation would have stunted sea trade, particularly with regards to deep-water navigation in which ships were beyond the horizon from any land. It certainly would have greatly delayed the discovery of the Americas. But I also feel that it would have spurred alternate forms of navigation and transportation in established civilizations. The first magnetic compasses began to appear approximately 200 BC, but it wasn't until 1,200 years later that the Chinese began using them for overland navigation, and maritime navigation followed soon after. I am by no means a history buff, so I can't comment on why the Chinese had compasses for over a millennium before their use became widespread.

"But Scott, you're getting away from the point," you might say. To which I would posit the question: Would that gap still have existed if trade and navigation demanded an alternate form of advancement in order to further the goals of the early Chinese?

Let's pose another hypothetical. In a world without stars, all sea travel is eliminated. Gone. It doesn't exist. But all people are connected through borders, and traders will always find ways to cross those borders to make a profit. Without sea travel, over-land trade continues to be the dominant form of goods exchange throughout Europe, Africa, China, and India. The trade routes are hard, and incredibly dangerous, and it discourages trade. With no alternative on the horizon, leaders who desire these goods and ideas, and the tariffs that come with trade have only one option to increase traffic through their territory: Improve the conditions of overland merchants.

This begins a boom of creating and maintaining an infrastructure of roads, highways, canals, and perhaps even rail to support overland trade between the early seats of civilization. Traders naturally gravitate towards the safest, easiest routes, and so leaders strive to have the most well maintained and well-guarded roads in order to stimulate trade. Imagine if Baghdad and Beijing had been connected by a single, safe, well-maintained trade road. Or if the Roman road network had eventually extended all the way to India. Better still, what if necessity had produced the steam locomotive in 1500 instead of 1800 to replace the Age of Sail with the Age of Rail where a train could take you, as well as several tons of trade goods from Beijing to France, or Italy?

It's an interesting thread of ideas to follow when building a world for your fantasy novel. The level of technology, as well as the cause for its advent based on eccentricities of the world and the necessity of its service can go a long way in making a fictional universe believable.

Lastly, just for fun, I'll leave off with an example of an existing universe, in which (to my knowledge) no maritime navigation exists at all: The Mistborn Trilogy by Brandon Sanderson.

In Mistborn, the defining features of the world are a desolate, ash-swept badlands broken up into several Dominances, and Ash Mounts (semi-active volcanoes) that pump great clouds of debris into the air in order to dull the power of a too-hot sun that might otherwise scour the planet of all life.

The nobles in Mistborn are allowed to engage in trade with each other for textiles, building material, weapons, and metals. These goods are transported over land, often by road, but more likely by a highly developed system of canals that crosses the entire domain of the Lord Ruler. Without the aid of a coastline to ease the burden of carrying vast quantities of goods, and with travel by road made impractical by constant drifts of ash, the people of this world instead developed canal technology, and began to ferry goods and people up and down them on great barges. And presumably, they did all of this without the aid of astral navigation, because ash mounts to block the heat of the sun would almost certainly also block the comparatively diminutive light from any stars in the sky. A lack of astral navigation and sea travel instead drove the civilization to find alternative ways to transport goods over great distances.

As a final point, and a lesson in world building, Brandon Sanderson includes another method of transportation infrastructure that is only useful as a result of Allomancy, the Mistborn version of magic. Some Allomancers are able to push metal objects away from them, or if the metal is anchored, push themselves away from it. Between the major cities in Mistborn are a system of spikes driven into the ground at regular intervals, which allow these Allomancers the fastest travel possible within the context of the story. In this case, the system of magic within the story drove the development of the Spikeways, and offered the Allomancers a distinct advantage in the world of Mistborn.

Thanks for reading. Hopefully it gave you something to think about as you're reading your next Fantasy novel. Feel free to chime in with other examples of worldbuilding driving alternative technological advancement in fiction.