The Burning Room

I’m a big Michael Connelly fan, so when I had a chance to enter a contest to win a free copy of his newest Harry Bosch book, The Burning Room, I jumped at it, neverburning room figuring I’d actually win.

But I did.

About a week ago, I received my ARC of the book, I was in the middle of another book at the time and had to finish it first (an excellent fantasy called Promise of Blood by Brian McClellan, which you need to read if you like fantasy…or maybe even if you don’t). But as good as Promise of Blood was, I became a little impatient to finish it so I could start on The Burning Room.

For me, Christmas tends to come in November these days, because that’s about the time Mr. Connelly and Robert Crais release their new books (both have new ones out this year).

But, to be honest, the last couple of Harry Bosch books haven’t quite been up to par for me. They were still good, but not great, if you get my meaning, so I was a little leery of his latest. To be fair, his Mickey Haller books, on the other hand, have maintained their quality, if not gotten better with each installment, so it balances out.

But with The Burning Room, Mr. Connelly has returned to form and then some. This book was hard to put down, to say the least.

Harry Bosch is getting closer and closer to mandatory retirement, and he’s been teamed up with a young woman named Lucia “Lucy” Soto, a brand new detective. The idea the brass has is to team up veterans to rookies in order for the veterans to impart their experience to the newcomers.

Their case is a unique one to say the least. Though the crime was committed ten years earlier, the victim has only died in the last couple of days, and his body contains the critical piece of evidence: the bullet. It’s been lodged in his spine all these years in such a way that removing it posed a danger to his life. That life hasn’t been good. He’s lost both legs and an arm to complications from being shot.

Just as interesting as the case is the developing relationship between Harry and Lucy. Harry is leery of her at first, but she proves to be as dedicated to doing her job as he is, and by the end of the book he sees her as something of a protégé, and certainly as his partner, possibly the best one he’s had in his career.

All in all, The Burning Room was hard to put down and, as I neared the end, I didn’t want it to be over while I still wanted to see how the case turned out. For me, that’s the sign of a good book, and this is the best Harry Bosch in a couple of years. And the end will definitely leave you wondering what’s next for the detective.

Go out and get it when it’s released November 4. You won’t be disappointed.


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Experts and Platforms

I used to know a guy who defined the word expert this way: an ex is a has-been and a spurt is a drip under pressure. These days, it seems you can’t swing a cat without einstein experthitting an expert upside the head. And it doesn’t matter what field you’re talking about, either. Just go to the self-help shelf of your local bookstore and you’ll find “experts” on everything from positive thinking to how to lose weight, and writing is no exception (though those books will likely be on a different shelf; apparently we writers don’t rank with other people; or maybe we’re just special).

Problem is, all these folks have differing opinions on what works, so who’s right?

Sometimes I think maybe none of them is.

Take, for instance, the idea of a platform. We’re told by all and sundry that we need a blog, a Facebook page, a Twitter feed, a Pinterest page, a Google+ account, blah and et cetera. Personally, I’m on LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, and I have a WordPress blog.

In fact, I have a personal Facebook page as well as an author page. I’m not sure how many friends I have on my personal page, but I have 357 likes on my author page. Not too shabby, I guess, but here’s the thing: I’m not sure if those likes have translated into any sold books or not. And if they haven’t, what good does it do (from a sales viewpoint) to have all those likes? How many books have I sold as a result of my blog? Or my network on LinkedIn?

one does not simmply publish on amazon2I have no idea. And short of contacting everyone on all these lists personally, and getting answers from them, I don’t know how I could find out.
This knowledge can be important, though. Companies call it metrics, if I remember right. It’s a measure of how well their advertising and online presence is doing. Basically, what are they getting back on their investment?

It’s a good question, and for me there’s no easy answer, except to say, “I don’t know.” Or, to be more accurate, “Don’t have a clue.”

I blog once a week, and those posts are published on LinkedIn, Twitter, and my FB page (I don’t do Pinterest; that seems to be slanted toward women from what I’ve heard). That gives me four outlets for what I’m doing. I’ll admit I don’t have a lot of followers on Twitter, since I’m not one of the Kardashians (and don’t wanna be; how useless to society are you when you’re famous…for being famous?). I’m not sure how many connections I have on LinkedIn, though most of them are authors like me.

But with all this, I’ve sold less than a hundred books, and most of those I’ve sold in person. To people I already know. Or met at a book signing. I think I’ve sold maybe twenty books on Amazon, and I’m not sure how many through my publisher’s website. Probably not that many, judging by my royalty statements.

Who’s to blame?

Nobody, really. Fact is, everybody and his brother wants to be a writer these days. It’s a huge problem on Amazon (in my opinion) because anybody can self-publish on Become-a-writerKindle. And CreateSpace. And probably a hundred thousand other outlets. How does a reader sort the chaff from the wheat when there are so many indie authors out there and there’s no quality control? Independent presses are putting out some good stuff, I won’t argue that. But when you look at a book on Amazon, it can be hard to tell if it’s self-pub or small press…and if it’s any good in either case. Editors are people too. They can let some crap get through. God knows it happens enough at the major presses.

Mostly, on my blog posts, I try to posit a question and then give my answer. In this case, I’m simply throwing the question out there, because I don’t really have an answer. I’ve been tempted to abandon blogging and following and sharing and all that rot. Fellow author M.G. Miller did, and it doesn’t seem to have affected his sales.

So is any of this doing us any good? Can somebody show me where it is doing them some good?

I’d be interested in seeing some real numbers. Otherwise, I’ll just write blog posts for the fun of it when the mood hits me and spend time writing words that’ll pay. And the “experts” can go on being “experts.”



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Change is in the air.sumac

The first yellow leaves have peeked through on the walnut trees, some of the first to turn. Down lower, at the side of the road, a few sumac leaves have turned red, a bright shade that catches your eye even as you speed by.

Overhead, the sky is a lighter blue, a different shade from that of summer when it can turn white from heat. The clouds look like dirty wool, their flat bottoms gray, white on their puffy tops as they tower into the heights. Look off across the hills and their shadows turn the landscape into a fall shadowsstudy in light and dark that makes your heart beat a little faster and brings a smile to your lips.

Higher up yet, the sun shines, its light gentler. It lies on the land like liquid gold, especially in the early and late hours, throwing cool shadows across the road, shadows that move in the cool breeze.

And that breeze feels different, too. It carries a sensation of relief, as if nature is taking a deep, relaxing breath and luxuriating in the release from summer’s brazen heat and merciless sun. Scents waft on that breeze, too, scents of autumn that are hard to name, hard to pin down, but always welcome, scents that are heady as a drink of cool wine but far more satisfying.

Even the grass is getting in on the act. Look out in the hayfields and you see tall stalks with purple at the top, a deep maroon shade that makes the field look like a royal cloak. Some of the weeds have dry seed pods that wave and rattle in the breeze, adding to the birdsong and chorus of crickets going all day and night, a lonely yet comforting sound that speaks of rest and enjoying a good fire of an evening.

At night, the stars shine brighter, turning the trees into gently moving silhouettes that stand out black against the gray of starlight. Out among those trees, you hear the chuckle of a nearby creek, the water trickling and laughing over rocks, carrying the first colored leaves in a gentle voyage to somewhere else.

Magic floats in the air, one that gets in your blood and makes you smile. Squirrels scamper around, storing nuts for the winter, and you get glimpses of deer in the woodsDeer, some of them topped with magnificent antlers, their heads bobbing up and down as they browse acorns from the forest floor, their white tails flashing like lights through the trees.

If you look close, all those trees have begun a subtle change. Where in summer they were a deep, uniform green, now they’re showing variations on a theme, just as they did in the spring, though not so obvious. Some are lighter than others, and the cedars are darker than ever. If you listen closely, you might hear their joyous laughter in the breeze, the kind of laughter you hear among friends of an evening before rest.

Soon, the leaves will fall, the trees will be bare. Geese will honk overhead as they flee the encroaching cold. Birdsong will disappear from the air and the skies will turn gray, feeling that way even on the clearest day. Winter has its unique beauty as well, but it doesn’t hold a candle to that of autumn. From the last songs of summer birds to the echo of a chainsaw deep in the woods as someone stocks up on firewood, from seeing a hawk cruise overhead, fleecy gray clouds for a backdrop, to watching a chipmunk perch on a log surrounded by a riot of fall colors, this is a special time of year like no other.

Oconaluftee-ValleyEnjoy it, revel in it. Autumnlight is far too brief.


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Total Immersion

The Northwest Arkansas Writers Workshop (NWAWW) is a tough place. If you get through what they have to teach you, you’ll be a better writer. I’m not saying they’re perfect—what group of people is?—but I am saying they have a lot to teach, and it’s earned by spending years in the trenches, something they’re trying to keep you from having to do.

One of the Golden Rules at NWAWW is total immersion of your reader with your character. Doesn’t matter if you’re writing first or third person, the idea is to put your reader inside your character’s head(s).

The chief way they teach to do this is by doing away with something we’ve had drilled into us by years of reading: conveying experiences by telling the reader the character is experiencing them.

I know, sounds a bit confusing, but stick with me here.

Think for a moment about the first-person shooter (FPS) video game. Even if you’ve never played one, I’m sure you’ve half-life_2_xbox_screenshot_mutantseen them. They’re the ones where the player runs through the game viewing everything via the avatar’s eyes—quite literally. Generally, these games involve lots of violence, hence lots of weapons, so the default view is one where there’s a pair of hands in the lower portion of the screen, and they’re usually carrying a gun of some sort. Examples of this game are Doom, Half Life, pretty much any combat game a lá Modern Combat. The idea here being that the player is the avatar.

It’s a good model to keep in mind when writing.

I just reread Prince of Thorns by Mark Lawrence. Prince is the kind of fantasy that would have Legolas running off to have a screaming hissy fit. The protagonist of the novel isn’t even good enough really to be called an antihero. As the man who loaned me the book said, “All you’re left with is a villain who’s facing worse villains.”

It’s a really good book, but I’m not here to review it. I’m here to use it as an example.

There’s a scene late in the book where the protagonist—named Jorg (which I think is actually pronounced George)—hasprince of thorns just tricked some soldiers into giving him sanctuary in his enemy’s castle with the idea of taking it over. It’s a long shot, but that’s what Jorg is all about. There was one sentence that stuck out to me, something I’m sure had been happening the entire book, that inspired me to write this post, and it goes like this: I could see squads of soldiers assembling in the great courtyard beyond the gates.

Hah! No spoilers there.

In a way, there’s nothing wrong with this sentence. It tells me what Jorg sees, and it doesn’t waste much time doing it. Notice I said much.

But…this isn’t the way we think to ourselves, is it? We don’t go I can see squads of soldiers blah blah blah. No, it’s more like, Squads of soldiers were assembling in the great courtyard beyond the gates.

Do you see the difference there? More importantly, do you feel the difference?

When I tell you that the character sees/feels/thinks something, I’m holding you out at a bit of distance, say an arm’s length. I’m telling you the character sees/feels/thinks something. But if I just show you that something, the way I did in the edited example, I’m putting you right inside the character’s head.

“But wait a minute,” you say. “I see that in books all the time.”

Yes, you do. Doesn’t make it right. I see politicians doing their level best to put us all in boxes that have nothing to do with us as individuals, but that doesn’t make it right. Just makes them power hungry. And wrong.

Don’t be a power hungry writer. Don’t make us observe from a distance. Let us experience everything first-hand.

Sure, sometimes we have to phrase it that way, such as Even from where I sat, I could see soldiers assembling in the great courtyard beyond the gates. That quantifies something for us, shows us that the character is a long ways off, but he can still see the mass of soldiers. That tells us there are lots of soldiers up there in that there courtyard.

But for the most part, we can just describe what the character sees without saying the character sees it. I think if you’ll pay attention, you’ll see that a lot in books, too. It puts us in something called stream of consciousness. It’s a subtle thing, but it makes all the difference in the world on how much your reader cares for your character.

Don’t tell us the railing felt cold under my hand, tell us the railing was cold under my hand. In fact, if you’re like me, when a character says something felt a certain way, I’m always left with a little bit of doubt: Does it just feel that way, or is it really that way?

This is where writing is better than the movies. In the movies, because of the medium, we’re always viewing the characters from the outside. We have to interpret what the character feels through the actor, and not all of them are good at conveying what they should. I’m often left wondering exactly what I missed in a scene just because an actor gets an expression that leaves him looking vaguely constipated. I know that’s not what he’s supposed to be telling me, but since I’m not sure what he is supposed to be telling me, I’m left wondering if maybe he just needed to visit the nearest restroom but was afraid to in the midst of all this drama.

embarrassedBut in a book, I can have the character say I was confused. Not I felt confused. I was confused. And even that isn’t ideal, because that’s just him telling you he’s confused. That’s like saying I was embarrassed. Why not let us experience that embarrassment? Heat crept up my cheeks and I wanted to look away. Sure, that ups the word count, but isn’t it much richer than I was embarrassed?

Haven’t we all felt that heat on our cheeks—and sometimes on the backs of our necks—when we’ve done something to embarrass ourselves? And doesn’t me showing you what the character feels bring up that sensation in us, if only vicariously? But even if it’s just vicarious, it immerses us in the story deeper, makes us feel what the character feels, live the life the character lives.

And when we finish the book, we’ll feel like we’ve had to leave off from visiting an old friend instead of just closing the cover of another good story. Good stories are always remembered fondly. But old friends…well, we go back and visit them time and time again. And we trust them to introduce us to new friends who may very well become old friends, don’t we?

Something to think about.


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Blog Tour Two

I’ve done this once before, with pretty much the same luck: no one to pass it along to. But Alice White asked me to take part in it, so I thought I’d give it another go. At least it gives me something to write about this week, if nothing else lol.

Seriously, it’s kinda interesting to do this again. I took part in my first blog tour back in March, and it’s gonna be interesting to see how the answers have changed. If they have. In some ways, I think you’ll find they haven’t. On the other hand, there have been some changes, though I wouldn’t say they’re monumental in any way.

Read on and see what I mean.

What am I working on?

In my original answer for this question, I talked about how I was working on A Temporary Thing, the first novel in my Rural Empires series. Well, in an interesting turn, this story will now be going back to what it was originally intended to be: a novella, or perhaps a really short novel of 50,000 words or so that will be given away as a free eBook for promotional purposes, leading up to the release of the actual first novel of the Rural Empires series.

So, I’m gonna sit down and restructure both A Temporary Thing and Startup. In fact, I’m giving serious thought to dropping a couple of characters, or at least one, that I’m having trouble fitting in in a convincing way (at least to me). But who knows what I’ll do at this point?

I just finished a short story called “Cleanup Detail” that was inspired by the Michael Mann movie Collateral (if you haven’t seen it, do so, even if you’re one of those people who doesn’t like Tom Cruise; it’s an excellent movie, and he plays the part perfectly). My story has a twist ending, though.

I’ve also gotten a slow start on a novel with the working title Witnesses that is a coming of age story, this time inspired by the Stephen King novella The Body, basis for the movie Stand By Me. Ever since I read that story I’ve wanted to do my own version of it to see if I could recapture the seventies I grew up in, and I think I finally hit on a plot that’ll let me do that. Stay tuned.

Beyond that, I’m working on at least two websites at any given time, and mulling over WIPs (and future WIPs) when I have time to do so.

How does my work differ from others of its genre?

I don’t think my answer to this one has changed much.

First, there’s the humor. While I don’t intentionally inject humor in my stories (and not all of them have humor in them), it seems to work its way in nonetheless. The reason for this is simple: how many times have you been confronted with a stressful situation of some kind—whether it be the passing of a family member, financial catastrophe, or what have you—and at some point you, or somebody involved in the situation, has made a joke?

It’s a normal thing. We use it for stress relief, if nothing else. Sometimes those jokes come at what seem to be inappropriate times. You’re supposed to be grieving for a beloved family member, but you make a joke about something, maybe the flowers, or the dress someone wore to the funeral (“She looked more like she should be standing on a street corner than sitting in a funeral home.”). And I’m sure we’ve all heard of gallows humor or trench humor. Combat vets can tell you about the black jokes that get told in the heat of conflict.

I put my characters in stressful situations, and since every character a writer creates is an extension of the writer in some way, my characters often react with humor, even if it is very dark humor. And some, like Lyle, are smartasses anyway. Lyle tends to be sarcastic when confronted with bad luck, and he uses humor to break the tension—or at least try to—in bad situations. Many of my other characters are the same way.

And, again, I don’t write about Mafia dons or cartel leaders, at least not as main characters. My people tend to be a lot lower on the totem pole, the guys who could usually make better money if they got a job at McDonald’s, but something in their mental makeup precludes that. They have to live the lifestyle they lead or they get restless. They’re basically compelled to live life on the wrong side of the law, either because there’s something different there, or just missing altogether.

Why do I write what I do?

I’m gonna leave this answer just the same as it was last time. Not because I’m lazy, but because it hasn’t changed.

Because the criminal world has always fascinated me. Why do these folks do what they do? What motivates them? They know their lives will likely be short and violent, so why not do like the rest of us and get a normal job?

I tried for years to write science fiction and fantasy and, as much as I still love those genres from a reading standpoint, I can’t write them. I lose patience with all the world building that’s required because I can’t seem to come up with something new and original, at least not in my opinion. I did manage to finish a couple of fantasies back in the nineties, but they’d take considerable reworking for me to let them see the light of day. And it’s something I’m considering, since the main character was a bounty hunter. Crime fantasy, anyone? We’ll have to see.

How does your writing process work?

Ditto for this one. I still work the same way, though perhaps I’ve come to do a slight—heavy, heavy emphasis on that word—bit of outlining since my original answer. And I have in mind a novel that will involve either a cop or a private eye, and it’ll be a mystery, so I might have to at least outline the placement of clues in that one. My previous answer begins in the next paragraph.

Very mysteriously.

I’m a pantser. By that, I mean I write seat of the pants. I get an idea and mull it over. If it sticks with me, I’ll eventually write it. If it burns in my brain, I’ll write it soon as possible.

But I don’t outline. I tried that one time with a space opera. Used the Marshall Plan for Novel Writing idea and adapted it to my own method. Me and a friend brainstormed over the course of several weekends, putting everything in order and writing down two- and three-sentence synopses of the individual scenes. You know, sorta like an elevator pitch, except we did it scene by scene.

I suspect two problems caused that project to die out. The first is that it wasn’t all mine. Several of the ideas came from my friend, enough so that I would have felt better calling it a co-authored work. But the other was that I knew how it ended. In detail.

When I work, I have a general idea of where I’m going, but I don’t dictate ahead of time how I’m going to get there. And I might not arrive at the end-point in quite the way I originally envisioned. I keep a file of notes for each novel, jotting them down in a notebook and then transferring them to computer, but a lot of those ideas end up falling by the wayside. The main point of them is to get the creative process working.

I have to write a novel as if I’m reading it, and I like that because I often end up getting surprised along the way. If I get surprised, it’s hoped that means the reader will too. It keeps me interested in the book and lets me finish it, rather than losing interest because it’s all mapped out and done already.

As for that eternal question all writers get asked—where do you get your ideas?—the one that’s part of the writing process, I’m a crime fiction writer. I get my ideas by paying attention to the news, for the most part. Or learning about real-life criminals. Spree is, in essence, a modern day Bonnie and Clyde. I write a novel to answer a question. In this case it was: could a couple of people get away with a thirties-style crime spree today? I wrote the novel to see if they could pull it off.

And that’s basically it. Hope you enjoyed it.


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What’s Happening to Science Fiction?

When it came to science fiction, I grew up reading the old masters—many of whom were considered the Grand Masters—of the genre: Robert A. Heinlein, Isaac Asimov,Robert-A.-Heinlein Frederick Pohl, Jack Williamson, Joe Haldeman, to name a few. I’ve read the modern masters as well: Orson Scott Card, Jack McDevitt, EE Knight, Peter F. Hamilton, David Weber, John Ringo, and others.

They all had something in common: they told a good story, and they did it well. They challenged my thinking in some way, and quite often presented me with new and novel concepts in the way of technology or setting or both. Even some of their lesser works were a pleasure to read.

For me, science fiction is sorta like your old alma mater or a favorite aunt: there’ll always be a soft spot in your heart for it. Just looking at some of those names brings back pleasant memories of hours almost literally discovering new life and new civilizations, letting the author take me where no one had gone before.

And the books! Stranger in a Strange Land. The Foundation Trilogy. The Starchild Trilogy. The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. Pebble in the Sky. The Forever War. Starship Troopers. The Night’s Dawn Trilogy. The Honor Harrington Series. The Vampire Earth. Ender’s Game. The list goes on and on, hours and hours immersing myself in other worlds, other peoples’ imaginations. Journeying to new planets, or seeing a new version of this one.

strangerEverything must change, I suppose, but that doesn’t mean I have to like it. I don’t dip into science fiction as much as I used to. Too busy reading crime fiction, keeping up a steady diet of the kind of thing I’m reading. But every now and then I come across a new one in the field that sounds interesting, and I’ll pick it up.

Unfortunately, these days, I’m often disappointed, and it makes me worry for the future of the genre.

Two books in particular—I know, not exactly what you’d call a large scientific sample, but when you pick up two in a row, it makes you wonder—have me worried. The first I’ve mentioned in a previous post: Tomorrow and Tomorrow by Thomas Sweterlitsch. I picked this one up (and the other one I’ll mention as well) because it seemed to promise a mixture of crime and science fiction, something I’m interested in pursuing.

And, from what I read of it, the book seemed to be good, though I had some quibbles about it. For instance, I’m getting really tired of the psychologically scarred hero who can’t quite seem to get over his past trauma. I know we need our protagonists to have flaws, but do they all need to be in therapy, for crying out loud? But on top of that, the author had a literary degree and had to have his own little signature trick of ending pretty much every line of dialogue with an em dash. Irritating as hell. Kept throwing me out of the story because it made it feel like everyone was interrupting everyone else.

Didn’t finish it.

Then there was The Forever Watch by David Ramirez. Again, interesting premise: a serial killer on a generation ship that contains the last remnant of humanity on a thousand-year voyage to a new planet. Generation ships are nothing new to science fiction, nor is the idea of the ship containing the last remnant of humanity. I’m not foreverwatchaware of a story in which a serial killer was on the ship.

It had lots of possibilities, and after I gave up on the book, I turned to the last page. It looked like they might discover the ship was actually constructed by aliens, or at least had an alien presence on board, and that would account for the serial killings, which were of a particularly nasty, brutal nature: the victims were literally torn to pieces and scattered all over the scene. Add in that the government seemed to be covering these deaths up, season with conspiracy theories about the murders, and you had what could have been a tense, appealing story.

Except David Ramirez is a computer programmer (or at least that was one of his jobs), who apparently really loves programming. Especially the concept of hacking.

Now, I got nothing against hacking (as a plot point, that is) or programming. I’m a web programmer. I know or at least have a familiarity with HTML, CSS, JavaScript, JQuery, Visual Basic, PHP, Visual C#, SQL, MySQL, DOM Scripting, Java, Ajax…are your eyes glazing over yet? That’s how I felt reading this book. The protagonist has some talent as a hacker and she devises a program fairly early on to search all the databases on the ship’s network (called the Nth Web for some strange reason) for anything to do with these mysterious murders. Nothing wrong with that. Your character should rely on his strengths to solve his problems.

But when I’d reached something like page 70 or 80, and the protagonist was going on picnics with her ugly love interest (a cop, of course, tall, dark, strong, but not good looking, which was a nice twist) and still refining her searchbots and nothing else is really happening…I don’t have time for that. I’m a programmer. I do this stuff for a living (or I’m trying to), but I don’t want to read about it in my fiction. The reality is—for me, at least—that programming isn’t all that exciting. Sure, I love making a change in my CSS or HTML and seeing the immediate result on the website I’m building. I like writing a program in PHP—a language I’m convinced is the lingua franca of Hell—and getting it to work, even if it’s a simple slide show.

Don’t mean I wanna read about it in my fiction. Not in that much slow, boring detail, anyway.

So I put the book down.

neuromancerWilliam Gibson’s writings about cyberpunks trolling through cyberspace I can read. He makes them exciting (just read his book Neuromancer, the novel pretty much responsible for starting the cyberpunk subgenre, and you’ll see what I mean) by giving us graphic representations of cyber cowboys jacking into a deck and losing themselves inside a not-quite-real-but-still-very-dangerous world. Perhaps Mr. Ramirez could profit from going back and reading some of Mr. Gibson’s work.

I’m hoping these two books are just blips on the radar, that this isn’t the way science fiction is going. There are still books coming out from the likes of Orson Scott Card, David Weber, John Ringo, and EE Knight, so I have hope for it. There are always going to be books in the genre you don’t like, with concepts you just can’t get behind, and science fiction, along with its sister genre fantasy, seems to have that kind pop up more than other genres.

I just hope it’s not going to be the prevailing trend.



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Genre Bending

I started wondering while ago: do we really need genres?

Let’s work this out together.ridgeline

I know of at least three authors who work in more than one genre. Pamela Foster, who has written—or is writing—a literary Western series, contemporary fiction, and even what might be called somewhat speculative fiction, a book called Bigfoot Blues that—you guessed it—has real Bigfoots in it.

Then there’s Velda Brotherton. She writes Western historical romance, contemporary stories about PTSD (her latest, Beyond the Moon, was originally written in the eighties, long before anyone else had PTSD on their radar), a series of mysteries, and she has a forthcoming horror novel.

Then there’s Greg Camp, who writes in two genres predominantly: science fiction and Westerns (they’re not so far apart, if you think about it). And he’s working on a horror short story for an ezine we (Oghma Creative Media) have in the works.

ChangelingFrontCover-200And there’s my friend JE Newman, whose forthcoming novel Changeling is set a couple hundred years in the future after a virus caused a small percentage of the population to become what we call superheroes/villains. But all the superheroes are gone, now, except for one bad guy who’s still around killing people who don’t need killed. Science fiction? Yeah, there’s some of that there. Fantasy? Sure, in the urban sense, what with the supers. But can you pigeonhole it? Not really.

I dare you to tell any of these people they can’t write in multiple genres.

That’s exactly what the major publishing houses will do, though. They argue that your name will come to be known for a certain type of story, and if you write something different, it’ll dilute your audience because they won’t know what to expect from you.

Bull—er, balderdash!

Let me use just one example, and I use him because I’m so familiar with his work: Stephen King.

When you hear his name, what do you think? Oh, he’s that horror writer. And even Mr. King calls himself that.

But I beg to differ.

Yes, almost all of his stories have an element of horror in them, and that’s okay. I could argue with you that even science fiction can have horror in it. What’s more horrible than being trapped in a spacesuit with no way back to a ship or planet? But okay, let’s go with the stipulation that, to be horror, there must be something otherworldly about the story.

FiFirestarter_novelne. Firestarter is about a little girl whose parents partook in some of those (in)famous drug trials college students went through in the sixties. The result is that she has pyrokinesis—the ability to start fires with her mind. That’s straight speculative fiction, with his usual dash of horror thrown in. After all, Charlie—the little girl in the story—has the potential to cause a nuclear reaction, she’s so strong.

Then there’s The Tommyknockers, which involves a crashed UFO full of aliens who have a very bad effect on the humans who discover them. Dreamcatcher has much the same type of monsters. Ditto for Under the Dome, though the aliens in this one are the most appealing to me: they played with the people in the story simply because we were like ants to them. Very realistic, in my opinion (even though I don’t think this is one of his better books, awesome cover notwithstanding).

Then there’s his entire The Dark Tower series, which is so much different from anything else he writes that many of his mainstream fans refuse to read it. Predominantly, it’s dark fantasy, but there’s also the distinct flavor of a Western there, with Roland being a gunslinger. There’s also a dash of Arthurian legend, as well as some rift hopping through dimensional doorways.

Pin that one down, New York Editor!

Want a couple more? Okay, there’s the Low Town series by Daniel Polansky, wherein we have a protagonist who is basically an ex-cop turned drug dealer in a fantasy world who—in the first book, at least—solves a murder. WTF is that? The publisher calls it fantasy, and it mostly is, since the setting is an entire fictional world.

Then there’s Tomorrow and Tomorrow by Thomas Sweterlitsch. It’s set in a future where Philadelphia has been obliterated, and our protagonist works for a company that investigates all the deaths for insurance firms to see which ones they actually have to pay out on. He’s hung up on this one girl he discovered while accessing the Archive, a repository of every camera feed in the city. He uses the Archive to determine the true cause of death, the hope being that it will save insurance companies billions of dollars. The girl he discovered looks to have been murdered.

I’m not finishing this book, even though it has some nice touches of hard-boiled noir to it. It’s a little too literary for my tastes (the author has a literary degree, don’tcha know), and he also has an irritating habit of ending probably 98% of his dialogue with em dashes—as if everybody constant interrupts one another. Probably one of those literary devices that shows he’s A Serious Writer. All it does is throw me out of the story.

Still, there’s a bit of a mishmash going on there, isn’t there?

So…do we really need genres? I think Western author Dusty Richards said it best: “We’re all writing the same thing, we’re just using different costumes.” Heck, most of ushaunted mesa read in more than one genre, so why can’t authors write in more than one? Even Louis L’Amour stepped outside of Westerns by writing some detective stories for the pulps back in the day, and experimenting with other kinds of stories just before he died. The Haunted Mesa is probably best described as magical realism with a touch of horror, while The Last of the Breed is a modern adventure story.

I have found my calling in writing crime fiction, but I’ve been toying for a while now with the idea of a science fiction story set on a tropical planet involving drug smuggling. Sort of a Miami Vice in Space, if you will. I don’t know if it’ll ever get off the ground or not, but it might. I also have my ambitious space opera I’d love to try and finish someday, too.

So, yeah, some of us are comfortable staying inside a niche, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Maybe we have a particular talent for that genre, as I seem to have for crime fiction. And maybe we have no desire to stray outside our genre. That’s fine, too.

But what if we want to? They’re all, at heart, stories, and that’s what we tell as writers: stories. We have to help the reader suspend his disbelief, transport him into the world of the novel, and get him to stay there for the length of our tale. We have to have characters the reader cares about, and we have to put them in a situation the reader can identify with. Everything else is just stage props.

Independent-PublisherI think this is another area where the independent publishers are going to overtake the Big New York Conglomerates: they’re able to think outside the box, and allow their authors to do the same.

Yes, in a sense, we need genres to give us a handle on what we’re getting into. But can’t good authors do just the same, no matter how many genres they choose to write in?


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