Tuesday, July 30, 2013


"Hotel" is a sci-fi novelette by Suzanne Palmer published in the January issue of Asimov's.  It seemed to match its publisher's style perfectly.  The time-span is too long to make an accurate statement, but I believe this was my favorite story out of this issue.

Setting is, as most people know, important in sci-fi.  This story is set on Mars.  While not entirely unique, the localized setting was fresh and intriguing.  I won't give too much away.  As the story suggests, most of the action takes place in a hotel.  The hotel is also sort of a character (a simulated intelligence), bringing new meaning to "setting as a character".

There were a lot of characters in this story.  I like that.  A lot of people feel that a novelette should have very few characters.  I don't think that's necessarily the case.  However, you have to be a talented writer to get it right.  Ms. Palmer did a great job with this story.  I connected with the characters, could tell them apart 95% of the time, and found them to be quite cool.  As a bonus, two of the characters were aliens!  The characters had many secrets to be discovered over the course of the novelette.  Which is, of course, a plot device.

The plot had an awesome feel to it.  It ranged from high-action to suspenseful to almost mystery at different points.  Tension was always there, something ever story should have to keep the readers' chests a little tight.  One tiny section at the end could have been shortened even further, but it had to be mentioned anyway, so I can live with a few paragraphs spent on it.  Every problem presented was resolved, typical for a short fiction piece.  The resolutions were satisfying, all except for the death of one character.  It was foreshadowed passably, but felt a little far-fetched and slightly like a "deus ex machina".

I recommend this story to anyone who likes sci-fi, especially in the style of Asimov's.  It gets a 94% from me.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Under the Apple Tree

(Note: This first appeared as a comment on one of the 1000th Monkey's Friday Flash posts.)

     We found it under the apple tree in Jake Wilson's yard. It squirmed, crawled, excreted slimy orange fluid. One of its three eyes blinked at us, the iris blood red. A second eye opened, this one gold. A narrow beam of light shot out of the pupil.
     "Ow," my brother, Michael, said. He shook a scorched forefinger.
     I took a step back as it opened its final eye. Nothing happened.
     "Wow, it's so green," Michael said. He sucked on his finger.
     "I think we should tell Mr. Wilson about this..." I trailed.
     "No," came a voice. I looked around, pivoting. Nothing.
     Michael's face turned snow white. "I...I think that thing talked."
     "But it doesn't even have a mouth."
     "Why yes, I do, and quite a large one," said the voice. "All the better to eat you with."

Thursday, July 25, 2013

The Glacier of Speculative Fiction

You've probably heard of the two writing principles that I'm combining in my lovely Paint illustration.  The first is The Triangle of the Familiar and the Strange.  The second is a mostly-hidden glacier (of triangular shape, to make this work).

The Triangle of the Familiar and the Strange is a visual rule-of-thumb for descriptions in speculative fiction.  You don't want to include too many fantastical elements in your story, especially early on (I'll talk about learning curves soon).  A purely secondary world leads to mass confusion.  It is the small, constant details that remind you of our own world that keeps things from turning into mindless chaos.  Typically, most varieties of flora and fauna are the same in speculative worlds as they are in ours, with a few new ones thrown in for flavor.  Measurements almost have to be based upon our own, with exceptions based on human anatomy (arm-lengths, paces, literal feet, etc.)  However, a speculative setting is not complete without magic or high-technology, utopias or dystopias.  A good balance is tough to achieve, yet far from impossible.

Only about ten percent of every well-written story makes it onto the page.  The rest lurks beneath the surface, sometimes acting as sub-text, other times as strategically omitted information.  As a writer, you should know some of the glacier's lower region---you don't want to go out like the Titanic.  Good authors hint at the ninety percent of their stories that go unpenned.  If you mention a great warrior who died at a particular milestone in a travelogue, readers will know that a battle probably took place there, an irrelevant but satisfying detail.  Some authors take years developing the ninety percent you don't see, most notably J.R.R. Tolkien.  Figuring out too much of it manifests as a case of World-Builders' Disease.  While The Triangle of the Strange and Familiar has a fairly consistent ratio across speculative fiction, the ratio of strange to familiar in the lower ninety percent varies greatly depending upon the story.

These two writing principles work hand-in-hand to form The Glacier of Speculative Fiction.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction

I've only read four stories from this magazine, but from those readings I've detected some unique qualities for speculative fiction of today.  They're written in 3rd-narrative.  Not limited.  And yet they're quite good.  The latest story I read, "The Heartsmith's Daughter", seems to be my favorite.  It appears to be a fairy tale (and is), but there is depth and grit to support the suave narration.  Asimov's, and even Analog, have some of the same types of stories, sort of Howl's Moving Castle for readers a few years older.  The Magazine of F&SF operates at about the same level, with its own eclectic style.

Lovers of fantasy and science fiction will almost certainly love one of the three mentioned magazines, and at the least make it to the end of stories in the others.  I love all three.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

There Is Time Left Yet

     Kiyoshi didn't consider himself a superstitious man, but when a third crow landed on his mailbox, he felt led to reevaluate his thoughts on the matter.  Worse was the single green feather on each wing of the last carrion bird: the mark of the Shade.
     He tore into his house, throwing open door after door to his late father's private chapel.  A circle of stones lay prepared for rites, unbroken despite years of disuse.  He hefted a pot of ash from the corner and covered the fine mahogany floor boards contained in the circle.  With two fingers, he drew the divine symbol for protection, so far as he could remember it.  His heart rate slowed.  He took a deep breath.
     The sound of splintering wood erupted from the other end of the house.  Kiyoshi's hands darted to the holster at his hip.  He pulled out the revolver, clutched it close to his newly thumping chest.  The temperature dropped, at first just a few degrees, but in moments the air turned frigid.  Kiyoshi shook.
     A low, grating voice whispered, "Come to me.  Feed the darkness."
     "I," Kiyoshi choked, "follow the light."  He held his firearm out, aimed at the door.
     "All light must fade in the darkness."
     The door rocked.  Both hinges bent, then cracked.  Kiyoshi opened fire as it tumbled to the floor.  A black figure stretched phantom arms toward him.  The bullets did nothing to slow its approach.
     The Shade bent over him, perched to join him with the darkness.  Its fingers stopped centimeters from his body.  The whole silhouette shone white, flickered, stilled.  A voice came from it, saying, "I will save you this time, Kiyoshi, but know this: 'Without light there can be only darkness'."
     Kiyoshi fell to his knees.  "My Lord!  My savior!  How long have I lived outside the light?  My years of sin have surely cursed my soul."
     "Rise," said the voice.  "You are forgiven.  Go out and preach my ministry as your father did before you.  There is time left yet."

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Estimating Story Length From An Idea

I recently added two elements to a Word doc I have called "Story Starters".  Under each story start (ranging from one sentence to three paragraphs) are several notes to myself.  These include: where (as in where I originally recorded the start), genre, general assessment, use, and estimated word count.  In determining the last of these, I found that I only needed four sentences of text (and my other notes) to feel comfortable estimating word counts.  Since I haven't written them yet, I cannot guarantee accuracy, but I believe most of them will end up pretty close.

The cast of "Writing Excuses" seems to have some trouble getting a good estimate for their ideas.  This is typically larger scale, as in novel vs. novella vs. short, but the same principles apply.  Mary Robinette Kowal has a rule-of-thumb for herself: each character or scenic location adds 500-1000 words, although she didn't sound too sure of herself when she mentioned it on the podcast.

In order to estimate story length from an idea, you have to really know your own writing.  The same idea for me will probably generate a story of a different word count than someone else.  Each writer has his/her own style.  Mine tends to be abrupt.  I try to have my conflict evident in the first paragraph, preferably the first sentence.  Some are subtle like my opening to "Xenicena": "Xenicena darted to her left".  Others lay things on the table like the first paragraph of "All-Natural Warfare".  From these openings and my knowledge of how I write, I could give decent estimations right away of my length.  Of course, I suppose attention-span has something to do with it too...

Are you skilled at estimating the length of your stories from rough ideas?

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Smith of Wootton Major

(Aside: Today is my sixteenth birthday.  I don't refer to my age a whole lot on here, but I suppose it's fair to note it from time to time.)

A lot of people probably don't know that J.R.R. Tolkien actually wrote more than just The Hobbit, LoTR, and related works.  He wrote an assortment of short fiction, typically fantasy stories for children.  One of the stories (a novella) is titled Smith of Wootton Major.  In short, I liked it.

The plot of this story puzzled me at first.  The smith doesn't even enter until about the halfway mark.  Everything prior is set-up.  It could have been faster, but the narrative voice was intriguing enough to hold the story together.  From that point on, the plot progressed sort of like an episodic fairy tale, which was Tolkien's clear intention.

The characters were a bit flat by today's standards, although they fit the story.  Each one had one defining emotion, a crutch in longer works, yet passable here.  Alf had a mystery about him that made him cool to read about, especially once I began suspecting his secret (you have to read it to understand).

Tolkien didn't overdescribe the setting.  That is definitely a plus.  It was as serene and majestic as you would hope based upon the nature of the story.

Overall, Smith of Wooton Major gets a 88%.  It didn't lose me too much.  The lost percentage points are mostly from slow build-up and none-too-stunning characters.  All in all, it's still a worthy read for fantasy fans.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Another Night-Light Night

     Light faded outside Melinda’s window.  The moon edged just above the horizon of trees.  A narrow moonbeam illuminated a patch of her pink carpet, the rest shrouded in darkness.  She blinked a few times, eyelids starting to get heavy despite how much she wanted to stay awake.  The owls would be out any minute now.  This was the only time of day she could hear her “pet” owl, Holly.
     A single hoot emerged, breaking the silent night.  Two more joined it, their calls gruffer, the first almost singsong.  Melinda smiled.  She could pick out Holly’s hoot from the others.
     The owls’ tempo rose, a flurry of sweet sound.  From time to time the flap of a wing or the rustling of leaves managed to edge its way to her ear. 
     She closed her eyes tight, said a prayer, and bid her owl a “good night”.  A smile drew across her face.  Then she heard a different sort of noise, a low rumbling growl.  She drew her covers close.
     “A midnight snack, perhaps,” she thought she heard.  Her heart skipped a beat.  Breath caught in her throat.  She tried to scream, but it came out as a whimper.
     “I am so very hungry,” came the voice.  Her mouth went dry.  She gulped hard, easing the knot in her windpipe.  The rumbling returned and she managed a piercing yell.
     Footsteps thundered from the hallway.  Her door opened, letting in a triangle of light.  “What’s the matter?” her father asked, adjusting his nightcap.
     “I heard a monster,” said Melinda.  “Under my bed.”
     Her father nodded, rubbing his eyes.  “Monsters, of course.  Let me take care of them for you.”
     Melinda’s eyes widened.  “But it’ll eat you,” she said.  “It said it was very hungry.”
     “It did?” said her father.  He picked up a purple flashlight from atop Melinda’s dresser.  “Come over here.”
     Melinda paused a moment, her pulse still fast.  She dropped down out of bed and moved to her father as fast as she could.
     “There, no more monsters,” her father said, pulling up a corner of her comforter to shine the light in.  “This flashlight scared them away.”
     “Thank you, Daddy,” said Melinda.  She stepped back into bed as her father turned to leave.  “Before you go, could you please plug in my night-light, one last time?”
     “I thought you said you didn’t need a night-light anymore?”  Her father cocked his head a little to the side, switching out the flashlight for a tiara-shaped night-light.
     “Oh, I don’t need it,” said Melinda.  Her owl hooted outside.  “I’m just afraid Holly will get scared.”

Thursday, July 11, 2013


One of my favorite plot structures is the travelogue.  The characters need to go from Point A to Point B.  As with most plots, the antagonists, various events, or simply nature try to keep them from getting there.  Usually, things unravel episodically, with scenes of action punctuated by dialogue, world-building, etc.  Character arcs build throughout.

Epic fantasy is loaded with travelogues.  The Lord of the Rings and The Eye of the World are just two examples.  The inclusion of magic makes travelogues fun, although somewhat difficult to write at points.  If you can cast a transportation spell on yourself, there cannot be a travelogue plot.  Those things need to be limited (and should be anyway, according to Sanderson's Second Law) to use the structure.  However, being able to move magically the last few miles past an evil Overlord's blockade can be foreshadowed well enough to work, proving how intelligent your magic-users are and showing a dimmer side to your antagonist.

Visual aid I made on Paint

Other roadblocks should appear frequently, with less ease of escape.  Conflict is, of course, the fuel that makes the metaphorical train of plot run.  An inn fire or bandit strike can help create tension and develop characters.  You can really go crazy with this if you have multiple groups or a scout up ahead who can find themselves in a dire situation that the other characters must help them out of---at the very last moment.

Travelogues can get annoying in places, if not done perfectly.  Most people don't want to actually read a chapter of your characters leading their horses down a road, then over the river and through the woods to...you get the point.  J.R.R. Tolkien walked the line early on in The Lord of the Rings.  Luckily, time lapses due to chapter or scene breaks or POV switches are quick fixes.
Because of my generally short form, I haven't actually finished any travelogues that I can remember, although a novelette/short story I'm working on now is a pseudo-travelogue.  More specifically it's a milieu story (part of Orson Scott Card's M.I.C.E. Quotient) with several stops along the loop.

Have you ever written a travelogue?

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Howl's Moving Castle (Full Analysis)

(Warning: Some moderate spoilers)

The last eighty or so pages of Howl's Moving Castle were incredible.  A dozen different things were finally revealed, relationships changed, realizations struck.  Even if the first 80% was only "good", I must say that the book as a whole is "excellent".  It gets a 93% in my book.

The character arcs were made spectacular by the nature of the tale's narrator.  He never gave a nod at the changes, and in some cases left no hints whatsoever, so the arcs had to be discerned and implied from reading.  While Sophie and Howl's relationship arc jumped more than it probably should have at the end, it was almost inevitable in hindsight.  I suspected it more and more as the book went on, which eludes to hidden pieces of arc that I picked up on.  The MG elements and air of the novel kept things from getting too dense to pick up on.

Howl's Moving Castle has a splendid setting.  It's basically our world in the near past plus magic.  Everything feels more serene than reality, and truly it is.  It's one tiny step toward utopian, just enough for a "feel good" atmosphere.

The plot felt quite episodic in places, which it sort of was in a few cases, but everything tied together well enough.  Various ingredients went into the pot slowly, then came to a simmer at the three-quarters mark, to end at a full boil.  It made for some nice stew.

If you like MG fantasy, I strongly recommend you pick up Howl's Moving Castle.  Keep in mind, there are two sequels.  I wish I had known that earlier...

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Zento Off-Duty

This is the sixth of my flash fiction pieces featuring Zento, a space opera mercenary.  There are a few recurring elements, so for full understanding you may want to read they others.  They're necessarily short.  You can find all of them through my new Zento label.

     Zento sat stock-still.  He steadied his loaded crossbow.  Took a breath.  Fired.  Swore.  Two brown figures darted out of view.  “Missed again,” he hissed through his teeth.  “How is it that I kill my political targets on the first shot nine times in ten, yet can’t hit a Goran stag for my life?”
     A patch of mossy undergrowth rustled in the corner of Zento’s eye at the peak of a nearby rise.  He twisted to get a better look.  The foliage stirred again.  This time a dot of yellow horn poked up.  He smiled.
     As several minutes drifted by, movement became more and more frequent.  Zento scanned the rest of the surrounding woodland, pausing with each pass on the spot.  He stopped a yawn at his lips.
     The wind picked up, sending a chill down his spine.  He clenched his teeth to keep them from chattering.  A dark square rose above the moss hilltop.  He went for the trigger, but removed the finger when it sunk back down as fast as it came.  “Take your time,” he murmured.
     His communicator crackled.  He sneered down at it, slipped one hand from his crossbow to block out the buzzing.  The tip of his weapon dipped down from its aimed position in time for another appearance.  This time he fired.  The bolt struck what he had feared at the very last moment: the moss before the stag’s cloven hooves.  It looked up from the projectile in Zento’s direction.  He did a quick count of the points on its wide antlers.  Three dozen.  A beauty.
     Zento drew a hand back into his quiver and pulled out another bolt.  It slid clean into its slot on the yirthal crossbow, the string engaging.  He took a breath.  Let it out.  Took in a second breath.  Let it out.
     A voice shattered the silence.  “Zento, we need you to come in for a black market investigation on Incubar.  Are you there?”  Zento punched his communicator.
     The stag tore down the slope, its curled white tail flopping.  “So much for being off-duty,” he muttered.  “I’ll be there in a few, Carmel-Eyes.”

Thursday, July 4, 2013


I don't typically listen to music while I write.  It distracts me too much.  However, something as simple and short as this post (due to the fact that I'm on vacation) can be written while listening to a song.  At the moment I'm listening to A Thousand Years by Christina Perri on my Pandora app (I'm typing on my iPad mini).

I see where listening to music can aid some people's writing.  The expression of emotion through song is powerful, allowing you to transfer those emotions into your prose.  Sometimes.  If you're good at it.  Unfortunately, my writing suffers when I'm exposed to too much emotion.  I learned that the ideas I typically get while watching movies are best left as an outline until I've let the ideas simmer for at least a night.  That, coupled with the noise, is why I don't tend to write while listening to music?

How about you?  Music?

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Howl's Moving Castle (Partial Analysis)

Howl's Moving Castle has been pretty good so far.  I'm about three-quarters of the way through it and nothing has been exceedingly disappointing so far.  I originally thought this was a YA novel, but by page one it was clear that it's more so MG.  That isn't a problem.  The style flows nice and reads fast, which I appreciate.  Omnicient POV was appropriate here.
The characters are well-developed for MG.  They could be deeper, although I think simple was a better choice in this case.  Each character has a few defining features.  None of the characters were dry or startlingly flat.
The settings are typically basic large-scale, with some intimated detail zoomed-in.  That is the best approach for such a wide POV, in my opinion.

Anyone who likes whimsical fantasy may want to check it out.  I give it about an 89% thus far, all things considered.