Author Archives: Theophania Elliott

Voracious reader. Proto-author. History buff.

Up above the world so high…

Coming in to land

When other girls wanted to be teachers or models or nurses, I wanted to be an airline pilot. I loved the idea of learning to fly, and when I went on my first holiday flight, it was magical. Then real life happened. I realised that I wasn’t the sort of person who would be happy living out of a suitcase, and also that flying lessons were expensive. So I gave up the idea. It got a bit of a poke when I went to university: one of the first people I met was a qualified pilot. Her parents had bought her a flying lesson for her sixteenth birthday, and she’d loved it so much that they’d let her carry on learning. She didn’t have a driving licence, but she was qualified to fly for hire!

Once I got my first real job, I thought, “this time I’ll really do it”… only it never happened. I was sensible and got a mortgage instead.

But yesterday, I finally lived the dream – a half-hour ‘trial’ flight in a microlight.

A microlight is basically a very small aircraft. There are two sorts: flexwing and fixed wing. Fixed wing microlights are teeny, tiny little aeroplanes – less than 450kg fully loaded with fuel, pilot and passenger, maximum of two seats. The flexwing type are what most people think of as microlights: the unholy union of a pushchair and a hang-glider.

I went up in a flexwing.

When I first saw it, I more or less knew what to expect, but wasn’t prepared for quite how little there was of it. I was expecting higher sides on the buggy, at least! For someone who doesn’t even like changing lightbulbs, getting into an aircraft which is mostly not there with the intention of going several thousand feet up in the air was definitely nerve-wracking.

For flying in flexwing, one wears a warm flying suit, warm gloves, a helmet with a visor, and an intercom – which in this case worked through a sort of umbilical cord – so that pilot and passenger can speak to each other. I was given the choice of holding onto either the sides of the microlight, or onto the instructor’s shoulders – I chose the former, as I didn’t think the poor man would appreciate bruises.

Take-off was brilliant: in a flexwing, you get the wind in your face, and you trundle down the field at increasing speed until you suddenly rise into the air. I was surprised by how much I didn’t want to scream and beg to be let down. Not, as we climbed up to 2,000+ feet, that I was entirely comfortable. In fact, I spent the first twenty minutes of a half-hour flight with pretty much every muscle tensed, gripping onto the sides of the microlight like grim death. Exhilarating and terrifying at the same time!

One steers a flexwing microlight like a hang-glider: with a triangular bar coming down from the wing. The person in the front side usually does the steering, although the microlight I was in was modified so that someone could also steer from the back – which meant that two D-shaped loops had been welded onto the diagonal downward parts of the triangle to make rudimentary handles. It’s really designed so that an instructor in the back seat can take control if a student screws up – but in my case was used to give me a taste of steering myself!

Steering with the instructor’s handles, from the backseat, is much more difficult – you have less leverage because you’re holding the bars further up, nearer to the wing, and – especially in my case, since I’m short – reaching out at almost full extension, so I was using my upper arm muscles instead of my abdominal muscles. I have to say, it felt like I was trying to drag the wing around by main force! Apparently, if you’re steering from the front seat – the real pilot’s seat – you can steer with your fingertips.

I hope so, because, writing this a day later, my upper arms ache!

Flying 2000+ feet up in a microlight, feeling the wind buffeting against you, and knowing that there is nothing between you and the ground below is an amazing experience. Scary. But amazing.

From the fear perspective, I found I could handle level flight quite well – but going up or down made my stomach slide back and forth. However, I am proud to be able to say that when given a choice between the ‘boring’ way of losing height (a gentle slope down) and the ‘fun’ way (a relatively steep downward spiral), I chose the fun way. And I didn’t scream or clutch anything on the way down. But the instructor was right – it was fun!

 

As an experience, it was everything I had hoped it would be. I’ve never done anything like it – even though being that high up with nothing between me and splat was pretty scary, it wasn’t as paralysingly terrifying as I had feared it would be. It’s hard to describe it as anything other than amazing.

And I’m going to do it again next weekend – this time for an hour, a proper lesson. If the fear-quotient goes down further, who knows? I might carry on and get my licence!

Review: Bound

Bound
Bound by Benedict Jacka
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is the eighth book in the Alex Verus series, and I’m glad to find that Alex is finally realising that he has to do something other than just deal with today’s problem then sit back and wait for tomorrow’s. He’s starting to think ahead, and this gives the potential for more interesting developments in the future.

Although the action takes place over several months – rather than the more typical several days – it moves quickly enough that this book felt shorter than the 416 pages Amazon says it is; I read it over the course of a single day. Alex is now working – against his will – for Morden the Dark Mage. Personally, I would have liked more on-page time for Morden: he’s intelligent and sneaky, and it’s nice to get hints of humanity rather than him simply being yet another interchangeable baddie. Of course, the Light Mages, who are supposed to be the goodies, are pretty interchangeable with the baddies too, so it’s particularly satisfying to see Morden (reportedly, at least) being pretty decent to work for – which gives Alex something to think about. It does make me wonder where Jacka is going with that.

Most of the action centres on Alex (obviously), but Luna is also developing and starting to think of her future; this rounds her out more as a character as it means she’s starting to become more of her own person rather than just someone who is connected to Alex. We also learn a little more about Richard Drakh, and it’s particularly good have him move into the ranks of actual characters rather than off-stage bogeymen. He’s interesting, and I hope he gets more page-time in future.

Plot-wise, Bound definitely moves things along: not only is Alex being more proactive, but we get unmistakable signs that there is something in the works, and future books are (hopefully) less likely to be simply more people trying to kill Alex for stuff that happened ages ago/stuff they think he’s going to do/just stuff. There are certainly enough changes in characters’ attitudes, abilities, and situations that book 9 should be very interesting indeed – and I’m looking forward to reading it. 🙂

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Products: success and failure

We’re surrounded by products, day in and day out. The world is full of things to buy – not all of which are books. Personally, I’m a sucker for high-end tech. Some people buy designer jeans or expensive cars; I wear army surplus combats, drive a car that’s so small and fuel-efficient that I don’t have to pay road tax, and spend my hard-earned cash on personal tech with specs higher than I will ever need.

I’m not an IT professional – or even a particularly skilled amateur – but I love finding a new bit of tech that makes my life easier or more fun. Some women buy new clothes; I buy new apps.

Product Failures

So I find it interesting to look at what products succeed, and which ones fail. This article describes four products that failed:

  • The Ford Edsel – the only other time I’ve heard of this is in one of the Herbie films where an Edsel gets cut up and made into sculpture. A classic example of trying to be all things to all men and ending up not pleasing anybody. Plus, if you add all those knobs and whistles, they’d better work. Plus, not look weird.
  • The Microsoft Zune – Microsoft’s answer to the iPod, which I vaguely remember. Failed because it didn’t do anything new, or better than the iPod, and additionally had the square, clunky Microsoft design aesthetic. Might appeal to today’s hipsters, but back in the day, it was just uncool.
  • McDonald’s Arch Deluxe – ‘grown-up’ burger. The thing is, you don’t go to Macky-D’s for grown-up culture. You go for food that is fast and cheap.
  • The Google Glass. Apparently, released onto the market (and to journalists) before it was an entirely finished product. Prototypes are often less-than-stunning – and that was the Google Glass.

The last is the most interesting for me. It reminded me a lot of this article about care robots in Japan – and how Japan’s interest in robotics in the care industry has met with an unenthusiastic response from prospective users. At least in 2011, Japanese people wanted to be cared for by human beings, not robots – no matter how good the robot was.

Part of the failure of the Google Glass seemed to be an emotional adverse reaction from potential customers – just as elderly people in Japan didn’t want a humanoid robot caring for them (although non-humanoid robotic tools appear to be less of a problem), people found the Google Glass creepy, scary, and threatening – even to the level of assaulting the wearer, or ejecting him from shops simply for wearing a set. I wonder how much of this has a parallel with the Western fear of Muslim women wearing the face-covering niqab – culturally, we place great importance on being able to see people’s faces. We’re used to spectacles – since they’ve been around for about 750 years – but any other face-covering is weird and scary.

Another part of the failure of the Google Glass, I think, is that it was a cool bit of tech that did a job that very few people needed done. While having instant access to email and weather reports sounds cool – it’s actually not what most people either need or want. For the majority of the population, having your mail on your phone is quite enough. Apparently, Google Glass hasn’t gone away – but I predict that when it returns, it will be directed towards the sector of the population that really does have a need for it: e.g. police and security personnel, surgeons, on-location reporters. It seems unlikely that, culturally, society at large will be willing to accept Google Glass as personal tech for some time to come.

Apple: Product Success

Our household is a Mac household: Macs, iPads, iPhones, Apple Watches. My husband and I both like the Apple ecosystem – it’s reliable, efficient, and viruses are less of a problem (though my husband’s Mac still managed to catch one).

But one thing I notice about Apple is that they are very careful about what new products and features they introduce:

  • iPod/iPhone: kicked off serious changes to the music industry. Then – with the introduction of the app store – the rise of customisation of personal tech by enabling the consumer to buy little tiny programs that did a limited set of things, rather than a one-size-fits all big-program approach.
  • NFC technology: much whining about how Apple was falling behind because Android phones had NFC before the iPhone – but when Apple put NFC into the iPhone, it was coupled with the launch of Apple Pay, which revolutionised the way we pay for things. Either that, or they timed their market entry perfectly to catch a significant uptick in contactless technology adoption.
  • Apple Watch: latecomer to the smartwatch market, but I see Apple’s market share is now about half of the smartwatch market.

And this summer, we’re hearing much sneering about how Apple is missing a trick on the home automation market, with Google Home and Amazon Echo busily carving up the market between them. Personally, I think we’ll see – as predicted – the Apple entrant into the market next month, and I’ll be surprised if it isn’t something special. Apple’s strategy seems to be to wait until the technology available enables the manufacture of a product really worth having, rather than just a tech toy, before they enter that market themselves. More cynically, one might say that they wait for other people to make the mistakes, then swoop in with a beautiful, finished product that doesn’t have any embarrassing gaffes attached to it.

The Apple product philosophy seems to be, “Forget what’s cool, or what we can do – what can we make that is useful?” Then, of course, they make the useful product cool.

Back to Books

And, to relate this back to books and publishing…

Firstly, many of the same rules apply to books as to other products:

  • Don’t try to be all things to all men: figure out who your target demographic is, and write the book they want to read. Even if the target demographic is people exactly like the author, the market might be small, but they’ll be really happy. The more different people you try to please, the less chance you’ll please anybody.
  • Steer away from just mashing together as many genre conventions as you can, in the hope that this will increase popularity. It won’t: it’s more likely to look like parody. Or just silly.
  • If you’re going to offer something similar to what is already out there, you’ll have your best success if you add something new and interesting, something that is uniquely you. Otherwise, people will just stick with the market leaders, or at best you’ll have to fight everyone else for your share of the pie.
  • Know what people want from your kind of book. And give them that thing. You might give them other things as well, but you need to give them what they came for. People read romances for the happily-ever-after; they don’t read it for the hero and heroine to die tragically in the last chapter.

And when it comes to the book, the item itself? People want to read. E-books have taken off because they give people what they want – the author’s words – in a format that is convenient and fits into today’s busy lifestyles. Likewise, audiobooks are on the rise because they’re downloadable now, and they enable people to ‘read’ while they’re doing activities that otherwise make reading dangerous (like driving, or ironing).

Will electronic books ever include ‘expanded content’ like video, or background tracks? Well, maybe. But I wonder if those things come under the heading of ‘cool but ultimately useless’ because even though they’re possible (and people are already doing it) they’re just not what people come to (fiction) books for. I expect sound and video will become very much a part of textbooks, where they can be truly useful – but fiction is a different landscape, and like Google Glass as personal tech, I don’t think they’re what readers really want.

Of course… I might be wrong!

What do you think?

Productivity

I’m uneasily conscious that I haven’t blogged in far too long. I’d say it’s been the month from hell, but it’s more like the year from hell. However, there’s only so long you can exist in an endless round of work-eat-sleep before you have to do something about it. Even if that something is to acknowledge that you’re stuck with it for the foreseeable future.

When it comes to writing, I’m not a member of the lucky tribe that smugly says, “if you want it enough, you’ll make time,” as if wanting time to write will magically make two hours of commuting (by road, so not writing time!) disappear, or reduce your dayjob workload so that it’s possible to do it all without bringing anything home. Some of us just aren’t that lucky.

Sometimes, you just have to acknowledge that unless something changes – you move house closer to work, you get a different job, whatever – writing time isn’t going to happen. And if that’s the case, put the writing away until you do have time instead of torturing yourself with guilt that somehow you’re inadequate because you can somehow magic up the time.

But sometimes, there are tweaks you can do.

My husband and I have recently started getting up half an hour earlier. It saves a few minutes on travel because there’s less traffic on the motorway at 6.15am, but mostly it means we’ve both got more time at our respective workplaces before the day gets into its evil stride. Until recently, I was using that time for writing (until this month, when workload meant that I had to use it for, well, work) and he was using it for work. It was working out for both of us – I had been trying to write in the evenings, but by the time I’d made the dinner, cleared up, and gone for a run, I was too exhausted to think, let alone write. My husband was bringing a lot of work home; he’s finding that he’s more efficient if he does it in the morning – more work is getting done in less time, and for the first time in ages, he’s having some evenings off.

So, just rearranging our schedules a little bit – getting up earlier, going to bed earlier – has made us more productive.

I’ve also made a couple of other resolutions:

  • I’m going to try to do the GTD stuff – keep my to-do list up to date, and actually do the things on it instead of procrastinating and
  • Journaling. People say you ought to do it, and there’s a certain attractiveness to the idea of having somewhere to dump all the whining and complaints (other than into my darling husband’s ears). Plus, a place to just think in print.
    • And, following from the idea of journaling… recording achievements. It’s so easy to go from day to day, always busy, but never thinking about what you’ve actually achieved through all that busyness. What, during the day, did you do that you were proud of? I’ve decided to record my Achievements in my journal.

And where, in all this efficiency and productivity, is the actual novel, I hear you ask?

Well, it’s progressing. Faster, hopefully, when I’ve got a handle on the dayjob workload and I can have my morning writing time back.

However – and this is an important point – I’ve learned a hell of a lot about writing over the last couple of years. I can certainly see why so many authors say that they’re embarrassed by their first finished (but unpublished) novel. I’d be embarrassed by mine if I’d finished it two years ago, and I haven’t even finished the thing yet.

However, I do have a finished short story which will be coming out in a New Street Authors anthology at some point soon. It’s urban fantasy set in Birmingham (UK).

Review: Demonyka

Demonyka
Demonyka by Mark Huntley-James
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Disclaimer: I received a free copy of this book for review. I wasn’t given any other inducements, but fortunately, the book is an inducement all on its own.

Huntley-James writes with verve: from the first page, the reader is swept along by the energy of the writing; it flows and it bubbles – a bit like white-water rafting, but less damp.

The main character, Paul Moore, is a broker of demon contracts; this is definitely Dark Arts, and Paul is pretty much an anti-hero. Along with Paul, there is a host of other ‘interesting’ characters – the other demon-summoners in the town (how many practitioners of the Dark Arts can one small English town hold? A lot, apparently); Paul’s employees, Stacey (skinny [or not] and goth [or not]) and Billy (a man with hidden depths). Many of the characters are a bit wacky, but they all have that spark of life – they feel alive, not just constructs the author put together because he needed a character to do a certain thing. And like living people, they often do unexpected things, or turn out not to be quite who you thought they were.

Then, of course, there is the lovely Simone, witch, who has her own plans, which may or may not include Paul, living or dead.

The action starts immediately, and it doesn’t let up. At all. Several times, I caught myself thinking “in any other book, this would be the final action sequence”; not so here. Things explode (sometimes), catch fire (frequently), run out of control (occasionally) or get stolen (nearly all the time). People die (or not) in a variety of interesting ways; Huntley-James is not afraid to kill off his characters.

I burned through this in two sittings, but that was only because I have to sleep at some point. It was fun.

If I were to do the ‘what other books is this book like’, I’d say, Sandman Slim or Dead Things rather than Storm Front. However, it’s lighter (despite all the death and destruction) than either of those – distinctly reminiscent of the The Stainless Steel Rat (and Simone reminds me a lot of Angelina, the beautiful super-criminal who steals Slippery Jim diGriz’ heart… and other things).

Glad I read it – and I’ll be looking out for the sequel. 🙂

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Why are male UF protagonists badass and female protagonists… not?

I have been noticing this for a while. Although we have all these ‘strong female protagonists’ in urban fantasy – to the level that an author friend of mine said it was nearly impossible to get a publisher interested in a book with a male protagonist – I’ve noticed a disturbing theme.

Giving the protagonist a personal stake in solving the problem is a recognised way of upping the tension in the book: you, the reader, care about what happens to the protagonist. If they are in personal danger, rather than simply solving an interesting intellectual puzzle, this makes the book more exciting.

So, when you look at Book 1 (and often later books too) in an urban fantasy series, you often find that the first problem the protagonist has to solve has some kind of personal element to it, or something from the protagonist’s past is going to come back to bite them (sometimes, in urban fantasy, literally).

So, let’s have a look at who we’ve got.

Men

  • Harry Dresden. Badass wizard. His problem: he killed his evil black-wizard foster-father/mentor (Justin DuMorne) with magic in a fair fight and then killed the monster DuMorne sent after him. Killing people with magic is against the Laws of the Magic, so the White Council is after him even though it was self-defence.
  • Alex Verus. Badass wizard. His problem: he killed his evil black-wizard fellow-apprentice and escaped from his black-wizard evil teacher. Now he just wants to be left alone to run a magic shop, but nobody believes he isn’t a black wizard himself (even though he isn’t), so he’s fair game.
  • Atticus O’Sullivan. Last of the Druids. Seriously badass. Currently running an occult shop (there’s a lot of that going around) and protecting a magic sword. Practically the first thing he does in Book 1 is to see off a whole bunch of attackers without much trouble.
  • Lucian (Lucy) Colt. Badass debt collector with an MA in Art History. Ends up even more badass when given a demon heart transplant, the alternative being death.
  • John Charming. Monster-hunter – until he got turned into a werewolf. Badass. Now runs a bar.

Women

  • Owl. Gets kicked off a PhD programme for talking about the supernatural, and then offends some vampires, thus needing to accept a job from a badass dragon in exchange for his protection, thus Book 1.
  • Elena Michaels. Werewolf… and trying to pretend to herself that she isn’t one.
  • Rachel Morgan. Starts the series with a price on her head because she breaks her employment contract without having the money to pay it off. Continually has to be rescued from the consequences of her own screw-ups by her co-workers.
  • Georgina Kincaid. Bottom-of-the-pecking-order succubus. Moons after male character, allegedly-sexy Seth, because she can’t have sex with him without ripping out his life force. (So I didn’t find Seth sexy at all. So sue me.)
  • Kitty Norville. Bottom-of-the-pecking-order werewolf. Although Kitty seriously improves over the series.
  • Luna Wilder. “Tough-as-nails” werewolf police officer… who can’t control herself around her chief suspect.
  • Meg Corbyn. Sweet, but needs protecting from everything.
  • Anita Blake. Necromancer with more ‘issues’ than the National Geographic.
  • Samantha Martin. Imp. Book 1 happens because she can’t control her hellhound and gets blackmailed into helping track a killer. Because, of course, nobody would do that unless forced to.
  • Alex Craft. She’s the family embarrassment. Has to be rescued from certain death by… Death.
  • Jade Crow. She’s on the run from a powerful sorcerer, and only wants to be safe and have a quiet life. Only gets involved in the plot because she is accused of dark magic and has to clear her name before she is executed.

Is it only me that thinks that these supposedly ‘strong’ female protagonists are often… not? They may be able to kick ass, but a common theme seems to be that they have got into the situation through their own stupidity and/or carelessness, or complications arise because of their lack of ability to control either their emotions, their hormones, or their power. They also frequently need rescuing by other characters, often (though not always) male.

Their motive for getting involved in the plot also tends to be self-protection: they’re threatened, blackmailed, or otherwise forced into it. Conversely, the men are more likely to act of their own volition to protect others.

Compare this to most of the male protagonists, who most definitely have their shit together. If they’re ‘outsiders’, it’s usually because they’ve Done The Right Thing, and the authorities are corrupt/blind/ignorant/stupid/all of the above. They don’t tend to need to be rescued by anyone else, and if they have issues, they don’t whine about them.

Don’t get me wrong – I actually enjoyed a lot of the series above with female protagonists; Kelley Armstrong, particularly, is one of my favourite authors (and for seriously badass, see Casey Duncan in City of the Lost). It’s just that I would really, really like to see a few more heroines who don’t need to be rescued, who don’t get themselves into stupid situations through their own idiocy/carelessness, aren’t running away from their problems, and who actually have their shit together. Why is that so hard?

What do you think? Is this an observer effect, or is it real? Is there something about female characters that makes authors – mostly female! – want to write them as less badass and more vulnerable than the men?

Addendum:

Jane Yellowrock, in Faith Hunter’s Skinwalker series. Definitely doesn’t need to be rescued. 🙂

Addendum 2:

Carro (see comments below) has noted Joanne Walker of the Urban Shaman books – an Irish/Cherokee cop and mechanic (and shaman, obviously) as another heroine who doesn’t have to be dragged into the plot at gunpoint. Proactivity rules! 🙂

Review: Roaring Blood

Roaring Blood
Roaring Blood by Ambrose Ibsen
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I thoroughly enjoyed this book, which is the second in the Demon-Hearted series.

Lucy (Lucian) Colt is back, and starting to learn a bit more about the side effects of his demon heart-transplant. He’s also convinced he can kick serious necromancer ass without any of that wishy-washy teamwork stuff. And you just know how that’s going to go.

If you want a main character who’s an all-round good guy, who’s nice to old ladies and upright and honest and all that, go and read a different book. Lucy reminds me of no-one so much as Flashman (a la George MacDonald Fraser), except with arrogance and recklessness instead of cowardice. What saves him as a protagonist, though, is that Lucy – like Flashman – is shatteringly honest about his own shortcomings. Lucy’s voice as the protagonist-narrator is what makes these books. He’s like that guy who you want to smack a lot of the time, but you still can’t help liking him.

Plotwise, I thought the first book in the series (Raw Power) suffered from a bit of pacing problem. Ibsen has definitely sorted that out for this one: the action starts early and doesn’t let up. There’s lots of zombies, lots of violence and mayhem, right up till the very end. Admittedly, you won’t find much in the way of complexity here, but sometimes, that’s not what you want from a book. Sometimes, you want a likeable (sort of) protagonist and lots of zombie-killing, and that is precisely what this book delivers.

I picked up this series for something to read while waiting for Jim Butcher’s Peace Talks to come out: I really needed some urban fantasy that didn’t have any hints of romance, and Roaring Blood fills that hole admirably. Not only is there no hint of romance, but poor Lucy’s love life has got to be even worse than Harry Dresden’s.

Demon-Hearted has something of the feel of the Dresden Files, which may be due to the first-person narration by a main character who is saved from being someone you want to kick in the nuts by his self-deprecating sense of humour. I like a flawed protagonist; both Harry and Lucy screw up (big time, in Lucy’s case), but they admit it, and they learn from it (slowly, in both cases). I do wonder where Ibsen will take Lucy; he needs to move on, and I think the events of Roaring Blood indicate that he is starting to do so. I also wonder whether Ibsen will do what Butcher has, and widen his world – one of the strengths of the Dresden Files is the cast of supporting characters. There is at least one character introduced in Roaring Blood that I’d like to see again.

I’ll definitely be reading the next book – Happy End of the World.

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What makes a good story?

BooksI spend more time reading than I probably should. There are many other things I ought to be doing: laundry, ironing, writing… I console myself with the thought that somebody-or-other said that to be good at writing, you should spend a lot of time reading.

This month, I haven’t been having much luck with books. I’ve started reading several, and ended up just not feeling the love. One book was so not-feeling-the-love that I gave up completely after 15% and resolved never to read anything by that author again (at least, until someone tells me he’s stopped doing the really annoying thing he’d started doing that has made me abandon a series six books in). Another, I kind of enjoyed, but couldn’t get into, and found myself distracted by something else.

Luckily, someone recommended that I read Radiance, by Grace Draven. I burned through that in a day or so and reviewed it. It was like being thrown a lifeline: suddenly, I was reading something that I enjoyed. All my mind was on the characters, and their predicament(s), not on how much left there was in the book, and how long it was going to take, and whether I really ought to go and do some ironing instead. And when the ironing starts sounding like a good bet, you know you’re not enjoying the book.

It did, however, make me start thinking about what makes a good story for me, personally.

  • Characters. Personally, I don’t like characters who are too nice. Maybe that’s because I’m just not a very nice person myself, but give me a character who’s at least a bit grey. I particularly loathe good, self-sacrificing heroines. A heroine I particularly like at the moment is Kim Harrison’s Peri Reed: Peri is a materialist. She likes expensive cars and expensive tech. She likes having a job that gives her power and influence, and she’s not into self-sacrifice. Personally, I think we have a few too many heroines who – regardless of how ‘kick ass’ they’re marketed – still go all goody-two-shoes and self-sacrificing at the drop of a hat. I think it’s because there’s still a lot of social conditioning over what ‘nice girls’ do and don’t do – and admitting to materialistic impulses (except when it comes to clothes and shoes) is a no-no.
  • Relationships. I like a romance story every now and then, but that’s not really what I’m talking about. One author I’m continually banging on about how brilliant he is, is Jim Butcher. His Dresden Files is one series I’d hate to give up – and one of the reasons the series is so good is because of the relationships Harry Dresden has with the supporting characters. The poor guy almost never gets laid, but Butcher has surrounded his MC with a circle of friends, enemies, acquaintances, and others who are all fully fleshed-out characters in their own right. This makes the stories much more  complex and multi-layered (insofar as a series based on noir detective fiction can be complex and multilayered). Benedict Jacka’s Alex Verus series is touted as the London equivalent of the Dresden Files, and I can see why. But – despite the fact that Alex Verus is English – I still much prefer Butcher’s books. The reason, I think, is that Alex, despite several books in the series, is pretty much still a lone wolf. It limits the stories, and besides, I find myself thinking that anybody with any sense who gets attacked as often as Alex Verus does should start building his own power bloc out of self-preservation if nothing else. But the lack of people in Alex’s life really makes the books feel a bit flat.
  • Emotional connection. I like a book where I feel I know the main character – their personality, their motivations. I abandoned a very well-regarded book recently because I just couldn’t connect to the main character. It was very well written and everything, and I could see why it gets such good reviews – but I just found myself not caring what happened. Book abandoned. On the other hand, Jim Butcher (again!) is great at emotional connection. Harry Dresden is definitely a bit of a prat at times (a lot of times in the earlier books!) but he’s very easy to make a connection with, even if you’d like that connection to be your fist and his teeth. Crucially, though, Butcher himself manages to write the books through Harry’s eyes, and still show Harry as being a bit of a prat whose prattishness makes him lose out to the less testosterone-poisoned persons around him. You may sometimes want to punch Harry, but you always care what happens to him.
  • Plot. To be fair, this is a bit of a strange one. For me, I think the characters are the most important thing. Adrian Tchaikovsky’s Guns of the Dawn doesn’t have what I’d call a plot so much as it has a character arc, but I still really enjoyed the book. But whatever it is, it has to be coherent, and it has to make sense. If people do things, those things should be believable (bearing in mind that people are not always logical in real life). Also, don’t dangle things in front of the reader then fail to follow up. One of the things I disliked in The Late Scholar was the mention of a couple of land law/tax concepts that made me think there was going to be a really cool land-law/tax mystery. Then there just wasn’t. Those mentions were just left dangling, as if the author had thought of doing a cool land-law-tax mystery, then found the research to be too difficult/boring and given up.
  • Meta-plot. I’ve come to the conclusion that there are two types of series: ones with a metaplot and ones without. The Dresden Files is one of those with a metaplot. Every book (after maybe the first one or two) advance the metaplot to some kind of conclusion that Butcher already has planned. One of the things that make the Dresden Files so brilliant is that you can see that Butcher has carefully plotted the route to the final destination. You read one of the later books, and you can see ideas and plot points that were carefully seeded several books earlier; seemingly minor events suddenly turn out to have been important. The alternative is the non-metaplot type, where the hero’s situation generally does a sort of reset-to-start between books: the classic example is the noir detective who is always poor, always on the brink of bankruptcy, and always single – if he ever gets the girl, she leaves him or dies. Both – metaplot or no metaplot – are valid options, although I prefer the former. However, if you are going to have a metaplot, you need to advance it. You can have a book where the metaplot takes a back seat (or appears to), but in general, each book should take the plot a measurable step towards resolution. Otherwise, readers start getting impatient and wondering what the hell is going on. Likewise, it’s useful if your readers can tell what the metaplot is. If you just appear to have all this stuff going on, people start to get confused.
  • Not stopping the story to add a sex scene/sermon. This is a deal-breaker for me. Sex scenes irritate me much less than being preached at, whatever that says about me. But if you’re going to add a sex scene, make it mean something. Otherwise, I will just skip it (because unless I’m in the mood for a sex scene, it will bore me), and you wrote all those words for nothing. And other readers might end up skipping the whole book, or even all your books. People are funny about sex that way. However, preaching is to me what explicit BDSM-orgy-erotica is to the Clean Romance reading market. If I detect it, not only will I skip that part, I will skip the entire rest of the book, rest of the series, and quite possibly the rest of the author’s work for the rest of my life. One of my favourite authors is Terry Pratchett, and at his height, he was a master at including political and social concepts in his books. But – at his height (he got a bit obvious later on) – he never preached. The message came through the plot, and through the characters’ actions, and was far more powerful for it. I cry every time I read the passage in Going Postal about John Dearheart’s name being kept alive in the overhead. I’ve never forgotten the way he laid out the unpleasantness of Jingoism and false nationalism in JingoNor his skewering of racism in Thud! and, to a lesser extent, SnuffNight Watch deals with the revolutions, and the hypocrisy of revolutionaries who find that they have not only the wrong kind of government, but also the wrong kind of People. I could go on and on about the important political and social concepts dealt with in Pratchett’s Discworld books. Many authors who wish to make a social or political point should go and read Pratchett, and realise that the best way to make an impression on your readers is not to harangue them, or preach at them, but instead to show them – through the actions and reactions of your characters – what you mean, and why it’s important.

So, there we go. I’m going to go back to reading The Death of the Necromancer, which I first read years ago. I just found out it was really cheap on Amazon Kindle, so I’ve got myself a Kindle copy. And it’s just as good now as it was then.

What do you think?

Review: Penric’s Mission

Penric’s Mission
Penric’s Mission by Lois McMaster Bujold
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This was written by Lois McMaster Bujold. To a great extent, this is all you need to know.

Penric and Desdemona are back – Penric is thirty now, and has been dispatched on a secret mission by the Duke of Adria. If everything went right, it wouldn’t be much of a story – and things go wrong almost immediately. But how? And why?

In this story, we get more information about how demon magic works, the advantages, the perils and the pitfalls, and a few tantalising hints about what Penric and Desdemona have been doing in the years since Penric and the Shaman. But really, as with all of Bujold’s work, the characters make the story – they leap off the page (not literally: even Amazon hasn’t managed that yet) and present themselves, three-dimensional and real.

The feeling I get from the Penric books is always a rather gentle amusement – I think this is greatly due to the relationship between Penric and Desdemona: somewhere between best friends, older sister/younger brother, and conjoined twins. The strong bond between them is the foundation for all of the novellas, and one has the feeling that if that endures – and it will – then they will get through anything. Together. Until finally, Desdemona has to go on alone – but only when she must.

These novellas don’t put you through the emotional wringer, but they do provide an escape into an ever-more-detailed world with fascinating, complex characters.

The ending is rather sudden – however, I rather liked it. But I hope we will have another novella; although I’m perfectly capable of making up my own after I would prefer to read Bujold’s.

And, reading this one, I realised that Desdemona sounds a lot like Lois McMaster Bujold herself. 🙂

View all my reviews

Writing Women in Traditionally Male Roles

Thankfully, we’ve got beyond the idea that a woman’s place in literature is to be the hero’s (prospective) love interest, and to scream and break her ankle a lot. However, I don’t think we’re quite at the stage where we’ve got it right yet – this is not surprising. What gets written in books reflects (at least in part) the author’s experiences – whether experiences in life, or what they’ve learned through deliberate research. And society has not yet figured out gender equality. To be fair, this is a pretty big ask, given how many thousands of years has been spent on the patriarchal model. It’s a bit much to expect all of that to be binned in a few decades. We’ve made a lot of progress since my grandmother’s day, when women were expected to give up their jobs when they got married, and it was normal to have the “women’s pay scale” (less) and the “men’s pay scale” (more) for the same job. We can recognise how far we’ve come, while still acknowledging that we’ve some way to go yet.

One of the less obvious issues is, what do we mean by equality?

Some kinds of equality are easy to define: women should get paid the same as men for doing the same job; men should be allowed to be midwives, and women should be allowed to be soldiers. More subtle are things like the value we put on different job roles, and different personal qualities. Traditionally female/caring roles tend to be valued less than traditionally male/aggressive roles. Personal qualities seen as traditionally “feminine”, like being caring, or diplomatic, are seen as less valuable or praiseworthy than traditionally “masculine” characteristics like aggression. When we look at literature, where there is currently an emphasis on “strong female” protagonists, especially female characters who adopt traditionally male roles (e.g. warrior/soldier) it’s interesting to note that these women are often written with so many “male” characteristics, that the impression is (quoting from someone else) “a man without a cock”.

Now, how much of this is just gender-bias, and how much is true? Is there really a psychological difference between males and females which should be written into a character?

Partly, this depends on how much of gender differences in behaviour are genetically determined, and how much is social. If we believe that there is no real psychological difference between men and women, and that all apparent differences are due to social conditioning (which a character may ignore or overcome), this has two consequences:

  1. Homo sapiens would be just about the only species that doesn’t have differential gender roles. Just about every animal species I can think of has differential gender roles between the sexes – whatever those roles might be. Since animals presumably act mostly on instinct, this must mean that in the majority of cases, females have different instincts to males.
  2. Gender dysphoria/transgenderism could not exist. You cannot simultaneously declare that there is no difference, psychologically, between males and females and then say that it’s possible for a person to be physically male and psychologically female (or the other way around). The most you can say is that you have a person of one gender who expresses the characteristics demanded of the gender role of the other gender, and societally-dictated roles are so iron-clad that it’s easier for that person to declare themselves to be the other gender, than to say that they are gender A but prefer the things that gender B is supposed to prefer.

So, yes, there’s a lot of societally-determined gender role enforcement going on – but I don’t think that we can say that there is no real psychological difference between men and women.

So, if we accept that men and women are fundamentally different, psychologically, then what does that mean for writing?

For instance, I attended a fantasy convention this year where in all seriousness one of the panel discussions was “Can a female character be an anti-hero?” I think that – given the context – the organisers were doing the “women are nice and good and moral, and men are base beasts controlled by their lusts” angle, but what this actually means is “Do women have the full range of moral and emotional responses that men do?”

Another example of rampant sexism is this article in Writers’ Digest, which defines male anti-heroes by what they do, and what their morality is, and female anti-heroes by their appearance (smudged lipstick), who they have sex with (men she doesn’t know well), and an inability to fit into traditionally female roles. Admittedly, this was published in 2008, but seriously…!

However, sexist these two examples may be, but they do have one thing right: men and women are psychologically different (just not in the way these examples assume). It’s obviously a sliding scale in both cases, with some overlap – but writing a female character does not mean taking the “easy way out” and writing a male character then adding something stereotypically female, like an obsession with shoes. Or crippling self-doubt about her looks or attractiveness. Jack Reacher and James Bond don’t have problems with self-doubt, so why should your heroine? If we accept that women and men are psychologically different, writing a female character who is essentially male (or is a caricature) can be just as sexist as writing only female characters who scream and break their ankles a lot. Equality is not achieved if the result is to obliterate femininity, or present a one-dimensional view of it.

So, how do you write a character who is female, yet does traditionally “male” things, without making her into a caricature, or just “a man without a cock”?

Furthermore, if we accept that women and men are psychologically different, this will affect how they respond to the situations they encounter, and how they relate to the other characters in the book. What is it like to be female when most of your co-workers are male? What are the characteristics of women choose to move into traditionally male roles/jobs?

To be fair, I don’t have the answer to this. My mother would be the first to tell people that I never got the hang of femininity myself, so I’m hardly in a position to explain it to anybody else. My advice would be to go and talk to women who do things similar to your “strong female” protagonist. Or if you don’t know anyone like that, read words written by those women and listen to interviews. At the very least, read about such women – what problems did they encounter, how did they handle it, how does history see them? How did their contemporaries see them?

Here are some suggestions:

Women working in traditionally male roles

Diaries and Memoirs

Women who dressed as men

Diaries & Memoirs

Other Non-Fiction

Women who have worked in traditionally male roles (personal experience) and are now authors

Women who have researched women in traditionally male roles

  • Mary Gentle. Did an MA in War Studies at the University of London, looking at the roles of women in combat/war. Wrote Ash: A Secret Historywhich is a sort of weird alternate-history/fantasy/sci-fi novel/series about a female mercenary, starting in 15th century Europe.

Fiction written by men or women who have not performed those roles, about women in traditionally male roles

These authors don’t have personal experience (as far as I know) of being a woman in a traditionally male role, but either I’ve read their stuff and I think it’s well done, or someone else has mentioned it as being good.

I intend to add to this list, as and when I can. If you have additions you would like to suggest, please comment!