Saturday, March 29, 2014

My Ad Astra 2014 Schedule

Since it appears the schedule for this year's Ad Astra is pretty much set I'm going to post mine. Any changes or updates I'll post on my Twitter, @KWRamsey.

10:00 PM Friday - Feminism and The Rise Of Slash Flick
K.W. Ramsey, Leah Petersen, Sam Burmudzija, Sunny Hope - See more at: http://ad-astra.shdlr.com/grid#sthash.wbapbu6Y.dpuf
K.W. Ramsey, Leah Petersen, Sam Burmudzija, Sunny Hope - See more at: http://ad-astra.shdlr.com/grid#sthash.wbapbu6Y.dpuf
11:00 AM Saturday - Swords: More Than Just the Pointy End
10:00 PM Saturday - The Adventures of Icabod Crane In The 21st Century
12:00 PM Sunday - War and Genre
2:00 PM Sunday - Sci-Fi Classics: Fact or Fallacy?

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Mythological Tech Support 1

-Thank you for calling the Yggdrasill Support Desk. You've reached Knute. May I have your name please?
-Okay, and how do you spell that? O-D-I-N. Uh huh, and have you called before?
-Hmm… not coming up in the system, might it be under another name?
-And that's spelled W-O-T-A-N. Okay, I've found it now. How can I help.
-You're waiting for a download. Of what?
-Wisdom. I see. Let me just find the order for that. Ah here it is. It was just submitted yesterday.
-Yes sir, I understand it's important you get this, but you'll have to hang on one moment while I check the estimated delivery date.
-What's that? Oh, you're literally hanging from the the Yggdrasill by a rope around your neck. Well that is standard for these downloads sir, can't be changed.
-Yes sir, I understand you're a busy man, but it can't be helped. You'll just have to wait another…twenty days for the download.
-Sir, I'm going to have to ask you not use such language with me. I can't speed up the delivery.
-Is there a shortcut? Well, we're not supposed to say anything, but have you visited the Well of Mimir.
-Oh, you have. And it cost you an eye. I see.
-No sir, that wasn't a joke at your expense.
-Yes sir, I understand it would be quite painful to lose an eye.
-Yes sir, I sure you handled it manfully and can take pain. I brought up the Well because since you drank from it we can can escalate this request and provide quick processing. You'll have your wisdom in eight days, but there is a catch. You need to be pierced by a spear.
-Yes sir, a spear.
-No, a splinter won't suffice. It needs to have a spearhead and everything.
-I know it sounds crazy sir, but it's what the manual says and I have to go by that.
-Oh, you have a spear handy? Good. If you could just pierce yourself.
-Excellent. Thank you sir. I've escalated your request. Is there anything else we can help you with?
-Sorry sir, the download doesn't include a list of busty tavern wench jokes. Anything else?
-You have a good day as well sir.

Monday, October 21, 2013

The Dork Review: Fall From Earth

The title for Mathew Johnson's book Fall From Earth has always puzzled me. The book's been out for a few years now, so I've had time to consider it even if I'm a little bit late in reading it. How does one fall from Earth? I know you can fall to Earth, fall to the ground, or even fall under the earth if there's a quake, but how does one fall from Earth?

Hmmm... maybe I'll ask the aliens in this book, but how do I know I can trust them? Are they playing a game with me, using me against the Borderless Empire, or are they really as altruistic as they seem?

These are the questions that drive Fall From Earth. The main character, Jin, the leader of a failed rebellion and exiled criminal, must grapple with them and ultimately find a way through them in order to decide the fate of an empire.

It's a intriguing tale told from many different viewpoints with a decidedly Chinese flavor, especially relevant to anyone who's studied a bit of East Asian history. The world that Johnson creates in this far too short novel is well realized and oddly believable, especially to anyone who's worked in a bureaucracy. Chilling indeed.

The number of viewpoints can be a bit daunting at first, varied as they are, and the book could be longer so that we have more time with each of them. Really, that's my only problem with Fall From Earth. It's too short. I would like to have seen more time spent on the conflict between Jin, the Borderless Empire, and the aliens, nevermind all the other conflicts that arise from the multiple viewpoints presented. It may be that Fall From Earth's sin is to try to do too much in too little space.

Still, that sin aside this book is a wonderful example of worldbuilding and has a twisty plot that many could enjoy. I recommend you go and pick it up.

The Dork Review: Hapax

Can an entire universe be born out of just one word, a word that is never spoken again? According to K.T. Bryski's Hapax it can.

In fact, that's the central McGuffin of this book.

Oh don't worry. I'm not giving away any spoilers. It's all right there in the book's title. Hapax refers to Hapax legomenon a word that, according to Wikipedia "occurs only once within a context, either in the written record of an entire language, in the works of an author, or in a single text". So we know right from the beginning that words, or rather a Word, will play a vital role in the story.

And really, that's the core idea behind Miss Bryski's novel. Words matter, whether spoken or written, whether provided by a priest to give comfort or recorded for posterity and held in a library. They matter and they can bring either destruction or salvation.

Hapax starts from this base idea and crafts a world on the brink of ending unless the Word can be found and gives us characters we can care about; the compassionate priest, the orphan, the young magician, and the artificial girl learning to feel. All of them are archetypes but none of them are cardboard cutouts.

The book is also good for showing both sides of religious belief, the compassionate and the judgmental, the soft and the hard, the loving chaos and the harsh order. The forms the central conflict of Hapax, resonating throughout the novel, and affecting all of the characters.

K.T. has done a marvelous job with her first novel, and I look forward to see what else she can produce. Still, the book is not perfect. One quibble would be, it was too short. It felt as if the conflict was only really starting and then, bang, the book's done. Extending the length would also provide a chance to develop the villains a bit more. After finishing the book it felt as if they didn't get as much screentime as they could have.

Still, those minor bits aside this is a good book, well worth taking the time to read. Get in on the ground floor and start reading K.T. Bryski now so you can be all hipster and tell your friends you've been reading her for years before she hits it big.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Refocusing

It's time to refocus my writing projects.

For the last year and a half I've been working on a novel between shorter projects, and from the I've discovered two things:

1. I can write novel length fiction, even if it takes me a damn long time right now.

2. I still have a long way to go before I can write GOOD novel length fiction.

This isn't to say what I've got so far is bad...no, wait, that's exactly what I'm saying!

To be fair this is still early days, and unlike some of my writer friends I've only been seriously writing for the last four years. In the grand scheme of a writer's career that's barely any time at all. Yes, I wrote before then but not with serious dedication or consistency. I'm still discovering my voice, still learning about creating memorable and interesting characters.

I'm still in the infancy of my writing career, and the novel I'm working on is suffering for it.

That being said, I've decided to refocus on shorter fiction for the near future. Recent experience has shown that I can develop faster by writing short pieces and getting good feedback from people I trust, people who's critical opinions I respect. People who I can make mistakes in front of and not worry about the bruising my ego will take.

So here's the plan; for the next year I want to write at least one new short each month. At the very least I want a new first draft each month. On top of this I'm going to get more serious about submitting my work in as many markets as possible, something I've been slacking on for the last few months.

The other half of the plan is more blog posts, and not just book reviews. Heck, I started this blog to keep my honest and it's time I started using it for it's intended purpose.

So there it is. Let the year of shorts begin!

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Lessons Learned From The Wheel Of Time

If you follow this blog you may have wondered why there was an unannounced hiatus this summer. The truth is I decided to read The Wheel Of Time from start to finish, and if you're not familiar with the series it's fourteen books and each one is a door-stopper. Honestly, I think a short book in the series would be 700 pages long. Between reading that and my own writing The Left Hand of Dorkness got the short end of the stick. Sorry.

So to make up for it I've decided to share with you all the lessons I learned as a writer from the reading the series. Fair warming, there may be SPOILERS.

Still here? Okay, let's do this.

As I said, The Wheel Of Time is a massive series with multiple viewpoint characters. It's also a story with a definite ending laid out from the very beginning. The "main character" (I'll explain the quotes in a moment) Rand al'Thor is destined to fight the Last Battle against The Dark One. It's all there in the manual, or rather the epic glossary necessary at the end of each book if the reader has a hope in hell of keeping things straight.

It was also started and mostly written by Robert Jordan and finished off by Brandon Sanderson, both writers of epic fiction (at least in length).

Having the end goal stated early on is both a good and bad thing. It's good in that it gives the reader a goal to get to, so what when the series begins to lag (boy does it do that - more later on this as well) a dedicated reader can make it through knowing he or she has an epic battle to look forward to later on. It also allows the writer, or writers in The Wheel Of Time's case, a chance to setup expectations and then subvert them.

This is the series' greatest accomplishment. Going into the Last Battle we know what has to happen, Rand has to defeat the Dark One and lock him back up in his prison outside of creation in order for the Wheel of Time to keep on spinning, and that every prophecy indicates this will require him to die. What we don't know is how he will do this, or if what the prophecies say about him dying is really true. As I said, this allows Sanderson, working from Jordan's notes, to twist around the reader's expectations and show them what the entire series was all about.

Subversion is an important lesson every writer needs to learn, especially genre writers. A lot of the tropes we rely upon are well worn, some even threadbare. There are times to play them straight, times to subvert them, and times to fake out a subversion. It all depends upon the story you want to tell. The Wheel Of Time manages to accomplish all three by showing the price being The Chosen One takes on Rand, and how ultimately he has to both accept and refute his role, how he has to remain true to himself instead of becoming just the tool of destiny.

The way this all plays out is extremely satisfying, especially after the terrible lull in the middle of the series.

And that is the next thing to discuss. As I said earlier, both Jordan and Sanderson are writers of fiction that is epic in both length and scope. I think it takes both of them ten thousands words just to say hello in most of their stories. This isn't a bad thing at all, if the readers interest can be maintained, and both authors have the ability to do this.

The first Wheel book, The Eye Of The World, starts with a prime example. It takes over six chapters to introduce the main characters and get them out of their home village. Six! However, there's plenty that actually does happen in those chapters. They could almost stand on their own as a story of a young man and his friends discovering that the myths they always thought were nonsense were actually true.

This pattern continues on a greater level with most of the books in the series. The first few are nearly completely self contained, especially the first. In fact, a little bit of editing and The Eye Of The World could become the one and only book in the series.

It's only later in the series that this pattern breaks. The worst offender is Crossroads Of Twilight, the tenth book in the series. The majority of that book is reactions to the end of the last book, namely where Rand cleansed the source of magic available to male magic users of a taint that was causing them to go mad. It's a huge moment and with the way magic works in Wheel it's blatantly obvious to every magic user across a continent what's going on. Yes, there are other things that happen in Crossroads, but the majority of it is reaction shots and if there was ever a book that you could skip in this series that's it.

This is another important lesson for writers, especially those of us who want to write epic fantasy. Every book in your series should be self-contained to certain degree. Yes, events from previous books should influence the next in the series, otherwise how can you have character development, but no book should consist mainly of reaction shots while moving a few minor plot-lines along. At the point of Crossroads I will fully admit I was hate-reading just to get through to the end of the series.

The next lesson The Wheel Of Time imparts is to keep your characters and plot-lines well trimmed. When I called Rand al'Thor the main character I had to qualify that statement because there are easily three main characters in the series if not eight. Hell, even the minor characters could become the hero of their own stories. The Wheel Of Time is overflowing and abundant with characters, and the viewpoints to go along with that.

Now having multiple viewpoint characters isn't a bad thing, just look at The Song Of Ice And Fire (Game of Thrones for you HBO fanatics) by George R.R. Martin, but it there needs to be a limit. As Wheel progresses the number of minor characters who get a viewpoint scene becomes ridiculous, to the point they start to overshadow the main characters.

In some of the books in the series we barely see Rand at all. Sometimes this is a good thing and builds suspense, especially in the third book where we know where he had to go and what he had to do so the focus can be on other characters who are pursuing him or dealing with their own issues. The problem is when the focus is on too minor of characters for too long it starts to become a slog to read through.

In any series there are going to be characters each reader likes and dislikes. For me the worst offender was Elayne, a princess and future queen. To be honest, I found most of her scenes trite and expected and oh so boring. There is very little I find interesting in her story, and to be honest she's a grating character most of the times we see her. In my opinion most of her scenes could be dropped with very little loss.

The lesson here isn't that annoying characters should be dropped or that they shouldn't have viewpoints, it's that there needs to be a balance in how much visible time they get. Every writer has their pet characters, and I believe Elayne was one for Jordan. My reasoning for this is that as soon as Sanderson took over the series we saw a lot less of her (thank goodness).

In summary, let me say that I really did enjoy The Wheel Of Time. For all it's flaws and excessive length it does pay off in the end with a series of emotional moment/payoffs. For anyone who wants to write epic fantasy it is a must read. It's also a good read for anyone who wants to understand the writer's voice, because the contrast between Jordan and Sanderson is noticeable, even though the latter was attempting to channel the former while finishing the series.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

The Dork Review: Hero Is A Four Letter Word

One thing I never expected when I started on the path of becoming a published author was how many awesome relative unknowns I would meet. I fully expected to run into a whole gaggle of writers like myself; eager but clumsy and wanting desperately to see our words on paper if nowhere near good enough for that to happen. But those hidden gems, those diamonds that should be held up to the light for everyone to enjoy, that I didn't expect.

J.M. Frey is one of those diamonds and Hero Is A Four Letter Word a shining example of why.

The book is a collection of three of her shorts (stories that is). Two I've already read in previous anthologies, but it was indeed a pleasure to read them again. One of them, Maddening Science, has one of my favorite lines of all time: “Heroes can save the world. But villains can change it, Rachel.”

I still get goosebumps when I read that. It captures the essence of the superhero/villain paradigm with crystal clarity.

The other old tale is The Once and Now-ish King, a look at what would happen if King Arthur were resurrected fully aware in the body of an infant. It is wonderfully daft and fun.

The new story, Another Four Letter Word, is classic J.M. Frey. It has a distinct British flavor over top of a modern Canadian sensibility, both mixed together deliciously. It takes a very classic story archetype and twists it around. I don't want to give away spoilers, so let me just say that you will never look at fairy-tales quite the same after reading it.

Now all three of these stories sound fantastical and out there, but at their core they are all about people. This is what makes J.M. such a jewel and why she needs to be read by more people. The emotions the characters are raw and visceral, like an exposed nerve that someone keeps flicking. They inform and shape the stories as much as the outlandish ideas or classical mythologies that J.M. draws upon. They crackle and spark with anger and humor, with simple joys and complex passions.

J.M. Frey continues to surprise me. With each new story of her's I read I think there's no way she can exceed this, she's hit the top, but then she knocks it out of the park and I sit around stunned at what I just read. Pick up Hero Is A Four Letter Word and found out for yourself.