Spell/Sword Explanation

“Okay, let me play this song for you first.”

Aragorn sighed and hopped up on the desk. He folded his paws underneath his grand orange and white chest and surveyed me with stern iceberg-disdain.” I just wanted to know what your book is about. Why are you playing me a song? Why can’t you just answer the question?”

Aragorn
Aragorn

Maybe I should have put on pants first. When you’re trying to get an audience to follow you on a train of thought it helps to up your Dignity Quotient. I clicked around on the laptop for a moment before I finally found the song I was looking for.

“It’s a metaphysical thing! This song makes me feel Spell/Sword, makes me feel the long journey of Jonas and Rime. If you’ll just listen…”

“Not going to happen,” the orange cat said.

“Aw, c’mon. It’s this fascinating acoustic piece from the 60’s. It’s not very long,  just give…”

“Look, human. I have other things to do. Important cat things.  My interest in this project only extends so far as my dinner bowl. If you market this book successfully that will lead to an increase in your income. This will lead to an increase in the quality and amount of the food that I am provided with. A new mousey would be pleasant, as well. I don’t want to hold your pitiful human paw and gaze soulfully into your eyes. Just tell me what the book is about and why people should buy it.”

“Damn, Aragorn.” I leaned back in my chair. “Damn.”

The cat lashed his tail. “Who are Jonas and Rime?”

“I can’t just leap into it like that! You have to understand the context of the fantasy genre, and why they are interesting subversions of pre-existing tropes.” I began to list of details on my fingers. “You see, for most genre conventions–”

Aragorn stood up suddenly, and tilted his head to the left. The cat stretched out and stared intently at his dinner bowl. “Hmm. All that doesn’t seem to be putting any exotic meals in my dish.”

“Fine.” I threw my hands up. ” The book is about a boy and a girl. They don’t get along, then they do. Friendship triumphs. The End.”

The cat seemed amused. “Come now, don’t be petulant.”

“Can I just put a little English Major frosting on this explanation? It really helps me to get going.” I begged.

Aragorn began to groom his right paw. I took that as tacit assent.

” There are two tropes in fantasy that I’m trying to subvert.  The All-Powerful Wizard and the Young Hero. I won’t name any examples, I promise.” The cat stopped grooming for a moment and shot me an appreciative look. ” The All-Powerful Wizard can topple kingdoms with a thought, summon dragons from thin air, knows the answer to every question, undoes the riddles of an age. The Young Hero is the gifted one, the child of legend with shining sword in his fist, he rises from obscurity to shake the pillars of destiny.”

“Merlin and Arthur. I get it.  You’re not the only one who’s read Joseph Campbell.”

“Right.” I was a little taken aback. The cat who lives in my house is surprisingly well read. “Rime is my Semi-Powerful Wizard and Jonas is the Young Idiot.”

“Losing interest…” Aragorn muttered, rising.

Jonas and Rime
Jonas and Rime

” Rime is a wild mage – an abomination that breaks all the rules of magic! She can do anything, everything — bend the forces of reality to her whim. But then she burns out -her body goes unconscious, loses use of her limbs, nosebleeds, headaches – really bad headaches! And on top of that she knows that all wild mages eventually go insane and use their power to butcher as many people as possible in the most creative way their madness can devise.” I gesticulated with desperation.

“Okay. That sounds half-way engaging,” the orange cat settled back down to listen. “And the boy?”

“Jonas is a kid with a sword. And he gets the crap kicked out of him most of the time. He’s not handsome and he’s not all that skilled and he’s not particularly bright. ”

“Hmm. That doesn’t sound as engaging. Why is he in this story?”

“Because.”

“You’re getting petulant again, human.”

“Aragorn, please.” I walked into the closet to gather my thoughts and some bottom-wear. I grabbed a pair of reasonably un-frayed khakis and pulled them on.

“The problem with the original tropes is when they are introduced the reader automatically recognizes the shape. They know how this character will act and, more importantly, they know how the story will end. Success is guaranteed for the Hero and the Wizard. It will be an interesting journey, but the reader knows the end of the tale.  The golden, shining end.” I yelled back into the bedroom, zipping up my pants. “And I find that boring. I want Jonas and Rime to have some serious weaknesses, that way you can’t be sure whether or not they will succeed. There’s actually a large chance they will fail.”

“People like Superman for a reason, human.” Aragorn’s bored voice came from the bedroom. “People don’t want stories about losers, or stories about failure. There’s enough of that in the real world.”

“But they don’t fail! They succeed and they become friends. And it’s that much more meaningful because they actually had to work for it.” I walked out of the closet, my Dignity Quotient through the roof.

“Does the book have a happy ending?” Aragorn was unimpressed by my rockin’ DQ.

“Define ‘happy ending’.” I said.

The orange cat splayed his claws and hissed. Aragorn is not a small cat, and when he puffs up he can be quite intimidating.

“I cannot believe this. How can you expect people to buy the book if it doesn’t even have a happy ending.” Aragorn’s eyes pulsed with feline rage.

“But it does.” I quailed. “Friendship triumphs, remember? The end of this book is good for Jonas and Rime, very good! Please calm down.”

The orange cat did not. “You’re dancing around the subject. What aren’t you telling me?

“Nothing. I don’t want to spoil it for you is all…”

A claw lanced out, narrowly missing my hand.

“..it’s the very end that’s bad! Not the end of this book, but the very end of the story! It’s bad, okay — it’s very, very bad!”

Aragorn seemed to calm slightly. “So you’re going to write more books, then?”

“Yes! That’s the true subversion of the trope. If instead of victory, the heroes are doomed to failure. To a pre-destined fall. It’s actually an older trope, most commonly seen in Greek tragedy and…”

“I’m bored now.” The orange cat hopped down off the desk. “I’m going to go bask in the sun, and pray that many monomyth and genre convention enthusiasts buy your book. Clearly we’re never going to see any sort of Hunger Games money, so I’ll just hope for a small trickle of improved finances coming to our household.”

I sighed and sat down at the desk. I watched his orange tail slink around the corner and disappear. Maybe I should have told him about all the fun things. The ridiculous encounters, the dance-lock, the dinosaur battle, the frogs on roller skates. But those are just trappings, my little sally against the pomposity of Fantasy. Somewhere along the way we all decided that Orcs and Elves and Dragons aren’t silly. But they are. They are silly. And glorious.

“That’s what I think about, when you ask me what Spell/Sword is about.” I said to no one. ” The long journey into the dark. The long journey of Jonas and Rime.”

I clicked ‘Play’ on the song I’d pulled up earlier, and listened to the heart of the tale.

If you read this far- it's the titular track on Harry Taussig's hidden masterwork - 'Fate Is Only Once'
If you read this far- it’s the titular track on Harry Taussig’s hidden masterwork – ‘Fate Is Only Once’
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The Pitch

An act of salesmanship is never an act of truth.

That’s not to say that it is a falsehood, or a pure fabrication. Certainly there are many who call themselves salesmen that deal in outright deceit, but they’re just liars. Plain ordinary liars.

No, salesmanship is all about awareness. Complete knowledge of the product: it’s particulars, benefits, problems, logistics and idiosyncrasies  and your most reliable perception of the character of your customer. Everything you say, everything you withhold is an attempt to calmly weave the product into the customer’s needs and desires. You concentrate on what you know about the product, and carefully present only the parts that you intuit will be attractive to your mark. You are creating a narrative, a workaday tale — a story with purpose. To make the sale. To win.

This is antithetical to the creation of art. An act of art should always be an act of truth. Individual truth — the opening of the inner eye and allowing the energy of your private whirlwind to express into your medium:something. Anything. As long as it’s true. Or real. Or important.

I’m still a ways from publishing Spell/Sword — but I’m already thinking about how I am going to sell it. The plan remains to self-publish, then grassroots my ass up the zeitgeist to something more than a blip. Financially and culturally. So I need to be able to sell the book. To other artists, to family, to friends, to total strangers, to people who love fantasy, to people who hate it, to people who never read. But every time I approach the problem in my head, I feel this enormous lassitude. It feels wrong.

In my day job, I am a salesman. I’m extremely good at it. But the key seems to be my total lack of concern. Apathy towards the product, and disinterest in actually making the sale. It allows you to be dispassionate and objective — truly focused on reading the situation and the customer. But with the book, where I’m hopelessly invested in the product and emotionally overwraught in the sale – it’s much more difficult.

It doesn’t help that I’m specifically trying to find my own little niche in the genre. It feels cheap to say “Oh, it’s just like ‘X’ and nothing like ‘Y’, and if you like ‘Z’ then buy, buy, buy!” But when I try to pitch it on its own terms, it just sounds hollow and uninteresting.

There’s a guy, and he has a sword. And there’s a girl and she’s got magic. They don’t like each other, then some shit happens and then they do. Also: hi-jinks.

I could do a laundry list of the random things in the book.

Electric-Eel Powered Jukebox. Prescience. Dwarven ghosts. Lesbian bards. Sweaty wyverns. Hangovers. Friendship. Mailboxes. A devil-spawned assassin. Fairy tales. Horse euthanasia. Wizard duels. Mysterious backstories. Prophetic dreams. Cheese. Plot-holes. Garden plots. Sorcerer bondage. Magic swords. An ogre with red boots. A blue fish. A white bridge. A first kiss. A last breath. Hyper-intelligent frogs with steam-powered roller skates. Banter.

Okay, I wound up kind of liking that one.  But still, the problem remains. All that sounds fun, but I don’t know how convincing it is. Part of me wants to sell the book the same way that I wrote it. Honestly, with great love and with no artifice. Well, maybe a teensy bit of artifice.

This is important. This is true. This book is real. It matters. Or at the very least, I need it to matter.

So, yeah. Buy it or whatever.

Oh, my. This question is in bold. On WordPress, that’s like a Tumblr post dissing Doctor Who — it demands a response. What do you look for on the back of the book, or in a sales pitch for a book, when you’re considering reading something from an unknown author?

Space Invaders

Where do ideas come from?

Certainly they can be built inside the human mind, but at least in my experience, they often come from elsewhere. The ether, if you will. Often when thinking of a character name, or a detail I just make a space in my head and let the idea pop in. I have total faith in these moments, even though I couldn’t explain the rationale if I had a gun to my head.

Admittedly, this may just be a justification for an unwillingness to slog. An idea presents itself, complete and shiny — why go through all the work of outlines and planning and research, just tune in the radio station and let it blare.

But, I am intrigued with the physical precense of ideas — that they could have an origin…and a purpose. With the past few stories I’ve been working on, I’m rolling around the concept of an Evil Idea. A malevolent entity that travels in the heads of mortals, infecting them like a virus. As weird as that piece was, I guess ‘The Option’ is a good enough name for my Big Bad as any.

This is a bit of a re-tread of Inception’s philosophical themes, the power of an idea — the immortality of an idea.  Same goes for the V for Vendetta memes flooding the internet yesterday, you can’t kill an idea. People live and die for ideas, the course of entire civilizations turn on one or two great ideas.

That sounds like a great villain to me.

Is this too esoteric to support some fiction? Just too weird? Thoughts? Can’t you see that this question is in bold?!?!?

Throw Up My Skirts

A recurring complaint from my Alpha Readers — and now one of my Beta Readers, is that I don’t tell them enough. They want more details about the world, more about the history of the characters.

I have two main characters, and I sort of summarily dump them into the plot together. They both have Dark Pasts and Important Backstories [tm], but…and this is the crux, their backstory doesn’t have anything to do with the plot du jour.  The amorphous goals that I am moving Spell/Sword towards are pace, energy, and involvement. I don’t want to put any woolgathering or world history navel gazing — just accept the tropes and characters as presented, and show me a little trust.   Epic fantasy tends to frontload all of the exposition and world detail, I just want the reader to strap in and go along for the ride. This is episodic structure, not an epic trilogy.

A good example of this would be the pilot episode of Firefly. Admittedly, not a perfect example — that’s a vast ensemble. You’re only shown enough about the world and the character to serve the plot of the episode.

Okay, it’s in space. Mal was in a battle, his side lost. Okay, time passed. Oh, it’s the Civil War. I get it. Hmmm, Asian influences have become culturally dominant. Evil Empire, band of mercenaries and thieves. Okay, Mal’s a rogue with a conscience, Zoe’s a devoted soldier, Wash is comic-relief — oh hey, he and Zoe are married. Jane’s a thug, Kaylee’s an innocent mechanic, Inara’s a diplomatic courtesan, Book’s a priest, Simon is a rich kid doctor on the run, and River’s nuts. Oh, she’s super powerful/insane/government project — the empire is going to hunt her the entire show, hook set for the arc of the first season. Ooh, Reapers are nasty. 

You don’t get the description of every major location in the ‘Verse. You don’t learn anything about the actual setup of the Alliance government, or the name of it’s ruling body. You don’t know how Mal got from being a defeated solider to captain of Serenity, you don’t know anything about Zoe and Wash’s courtship. Book has about eighteen arrows pointing towards him that say MYSTERIOUS SECRET — but, none of that resolves in the first episode. Whedon throws all these tropes into a ship, lets them rattle around a little, then unmasks the sleeper agent who tries to capture River. The character and world exposition always takes a backseat to the action of each scene — and more importantly, the character relationships. The family dynamic of the crew and the budding connections between the new passengers — and their reaction to the imminent danger at hand is what makes that episode work.

We all know right off the bat that Book used to be an assassin. That’s a trope, the holy man who put down the sword. It appears again and again. Whedon could have spent 10 minutes explaining about the Alliance Death Squad and their memorable exploits, but that’s now what makes a work of fiction interesting or memorable. What makes Book more than a trope is his relationships — his seeking out of wisdom from Inara, his antagonistic mentoring of Mal, his almost paternal relationship with Jane.

That’s how I’m trying to view this first book. It’s the first episode. Here’s my wacky duo, here’s their powers, here’s a little sniff of their past, here’s some action, here’s some villains, here’s some crazy, there’s some weird, and hey, book’s over.

One of my favorite episodic novels. The Dresden Files is a good example. I almost stopped reading after the first one, because so many pages were devoted to explaining exactly who Harry was, the various supernatural forces around Chicago, how magic worked, how making potions worked, the backstory of his cat, the backstory of his car,etc. etc. — only when I picked up book two, and all of those details were read did the kick-assery truly begin.

So — to sum up. My goal is to write my very first book and have it be just as good as Firefly and Book Two of The Dresden Files. And I’m going to self-publish. And this doesn’t sound very likely does it?

I have been listening to my Alpha Readers — there was a significant increase/clarification of world and character information in the Beta Draft. But, there’s got to be a line. There is an argument to be made that leaving my readers wanting to know more is a good thing — but I’m a little terrified of leaving them annoyed, instead of motivated.

I am courting my readers, dammit. And I’m just not the sort of girl to throw up my skirts on the first date.

Ultimately, I’m in the weird position of being beholden to no one as a self-publisher. I don’t have an agent or a publishing house demanding that I add more romantic tension between the main characters, or insisting that I cut out the Steam-Skating Frogs as nonsensical. But I also don’t have the advantage of their experience either. I can write it however I want, and no one can stop me from spending a few days on Amazon putting it into print.

Man, it must be relaxing to have an editor.

I’m just starting to get weary of eighteenth-guessing everything in the book. I have a legitimate fear of totally abandoning my own judgement and just cramming in every possible thing into the book that anyone could ever want to see. And winding up with a big ungainly, craven mess. OR not doing that, and putting out an austere, confusing desert.

To the Crew of the Lodestar: Don’t Stop.

Seriously. Don’t.

Don’t stop writing. Don’t stop telling stories.

You are in the enviable position of having formed a habit that most aspiring writers would kill to obtain. Or pay untold amounts of money on tuition for Creative Writing degrees, or workshops, or storytelling camps.

For the past two years, you have written, on average, 1374 words every week. Rain, shine, babies, heartbreak, plays, shows, gigs, arguments, new games, new books, new lives….every week. That means each of you wrote 142,896 words. Three novels or one massive tome.

Just by not stopping. By continuing to go.

For most humans, it takes 10 weeks of uninterrupted routine to form a habit. The habit is there. Don’t break it.

Right now, like me, you’re starting to feel the itch. A vague restlessness, an unease.  A vacancy.

I have Spell/Sword to work on. What are you working on?

Open a Word Doc. Open a Google Doc. Open a notepad. Open napkin. Open your phone and email it to yourself.

Today, not tomorrow. Now, not later.

And start. Don’t stop.

It helped me to have a schedule. It helped me to have this blog. It helped me [eventually] to own the task, to admit to myself what I was making. Do all of those things, or none.

Just don’t stop.

Because, as unbelievable as it may sound. No one but us will truly ever read Lodestar. No one will ever hear your voices.

Unless you keep singing.

I can hear them. I have heard them for two years. It would be a great loss for them to fall silent.

Write. Tell stories. Write a book.

Because you already have. Three times.

Write another one.

And then don’t stop.

With friends like these…

Two more of my Alpha Readers gave me their criticism on the book, and I’m still picking the shrapnel out of my ego. I picked my first readers well — they’re good enough friends to call me on my shit. And called it was indeed. INDEED.

Beyond the psyche-bruising, all this feedback is making me really excited to get back to work on editing. So far, all of my readers have overall enjoyed the book — and the problems they’ve called my attention to are concrete. Maybe not easy to fix — but definitely doable. I can see multiple ways to change things to evade their criticism, but I’m going to let all of it settle a while longer. I’m still waiting on feedback from a third of my readers, and I don’t want to over-react to the first criticism I’ve received.

Admittedly, a fair amount of the criticism are ‘no-argument’ types. Grammar flubs, word repetition, confusing passages, jokes that didn’t work, etc. Those will be fixed — -it’s the things that deal more with overall structure and style that I’ll need to carefully ruminate on.

Sorry I can’t be more specific yet! Still drafts out in the wild.

Alpha Readers Responding: 4 out of 12