Nov 11, 2011

Update and Thoughts on Mind Readers

Time for a bit of an update!  I got my first two (form) rejection letters from this year's round of novel querying.  Rejection is never pleasant, but it's especially hard when you spend years rewriting the 1-page query letter.  Literary agents usually never get past this simple-yet-vitally-important letter.  They get flooded with hundreds of query letters per week, and that's on top of the daily work they need to do for their existing clients.  I'm going to try and keep my complaining online to a minimum.  I'll let you and the rest of the world know if ... ahem, *WHEN*, I land an agent.

Tomorrow, I'm going through a corn maze.  I have also begun to substitute teach a 3D Animation class at the nearby community college.  It's my first time teaching, and I'm pretty stoked about it!

One of the games I've worked on this year is coming to the App store.  If you or your child want a simple and fun way to learn how to hear/play music, check out Tune Hopper.

I just got my shipment of Book 6 in the SmartBoys Club book series, which I've been illustrating.  These are great books for middle grade readers, girls or boys.

Work life:  I continue to freelance from home, using 3D Studio Max, Photoshop, Illustrator, Flash, and a variety of other art programs.  What's next?  Should I start a business in e-learning apps?  Should I make a series of short animated films?  Should I write some silly e-books and sell them?  Should I just concentrate on expanding my current self-employed contract business?

What do you think?  I have exciting ideas for all of the above, but only enough time to focus on one.

Torth series update:  I'm still editing Book 2.  Just one major edit, and it should be done by the end of this year.

Writing topic food for thought:  We no longer have much folklore, but instead have fantasy books.  As a genre writer, are you willing to break with tradition and make a new kind of vampire, elf, zombie, dragon, or whatever?  This is about originality, a topic I feel strongly about.  Many writers seem uncomfortable about inventing their own worlds and aliens.  Even when they do it, they often follow traditions that were laid out by previous writers.  I like to break with tradition.

When it comes to mind readers, they're often treated a certain way in fiction.  Either they are benevolent and kind (Professor X, Deanna Troi), or they are befuddled by their power (Jean Gray, the cop in "Heroes," and many more).  In order to justify this befuddlement, mind readers in fiction often gain their powers late in life, or have very little control over their power, tuning in and out of thoughts at random as the story requires.

I say that's all bull****.  First of all, a lifelong mind reader would damn well know how to use that power effectively.  Whenever I read or watch someone else's telepathic character get befuddled, I feel a strong sense of author manipulation.  It wasn't thought through all the way.  The writer was lazy; rather than actually think about the full spectrum of implications of mind reading--its limitations and possibilities--they try to make it work without a set of rules, forcing it to fill a plot need and glossing over the plot holes it creates.

Second of all, if you are privy to the darkest secrets of your fellow humans, you're not going to be a benevolent sweetheart.  More like cynical and misanthropic.

And if you have the ability to control other people's minds, that is the trump card of all super-powers. It trumps *EVERYTHING* else. Any character who can use a Jedi mind trick is likely to become super-corrupt. I use it sparingly in my fiction ... because much like time travel, it can easily mess up a story unless it's thoroughly thought out.

And that concludes my thoughts on mind readers for the afternoon.

Oct 18, 2011

Writing Topic: Inventing Words

Every week, one of the writing mailing lists I belong to has a discussion topic. I often respond to the list, so I figured, why not post about it to my blog?  Today's topic is about inventing words.   Most fiction writers invent names for people or places, and most SF/F (science fiction/fantasy) writers also invent jargon or slang for their world.  Famous examples include Quidditch, Jedi knights, Unobtainium, grok, Cthulhu, and elves.

It seems to me that a lot of contemporary writers, particularly in SF, overdo the futuristic jargon and slang, which makes it hard for a new reader to get through.  The universe in which my novels take place is ruled by mind readers, who have no use for slang.  Their jargon is utilitarian rather than slang-like.
  • Hoverchair = a floating chair. 
  • Transport = a flying car. 
  • Adaptive skin = photo-sensor cells that can be programmed to imitate a realistic view, or approximate invisibility. 
  • Plasmic polymer = a super strong and flexible building material. 
They use holograms, antimatter, nuclear weapons, FTL engines, and so forth, but I saw no need to invent new words for things we already have words for.  Other than the aforementioned tech gadgets, and aside from names for people or places (Torth are mind readers), I've only invented two words for use in my Torth series.  A Yeresunsa is someone with powers that go beyond mind reading. I didn't want to use Jedi, wizard, warlock, sorcerer, etc, which come with preconceived notions. The etymology of this word has a history in my series.  And Guaht is someone who only judges him/herself and never judges anyone else. In my Torth series, this can be the equivalent of being a saint, although only some people follow the Code of Guaht (which is akin to a philosophic religion, a la Buddhism).

Oct 10, 2011

Query Letter take 2

Dear [insert ideal literary agent],

Thomas has always felt like an alien, too brilliant for his youthful age. When alien mind readers snatch Thomas and four of his acquaintances from their mundane lives on Earth, he learns of his otherworldly heritage, and seizes a chance to join the mighty Torth Empire. The only catch is that Thomas must abandon his human friends to brutal slavery.

While Thomas navigates a world full of technological marvels, the four humans survive in an alien slave ghetto. They can't escape from a city thick with mind readers. When one of the humans is marked for execution, they realize that time is short. Unless Thomas can remember his human loyalties, they must escape on their own . . . which means they must rescue Thomas from the monster he is becoming.

CITY OF SLAVES is complete at 105,000 words ... blah, blah, blah. How does it sound?

Oct 9, 2011

Query Letter for "City of Slaves"

Dear [insert an ideal LITERARY AGENT],

Thomas has always felt like an outsider, too brilliant for his youthful age, victimized by adults and unable to relate to other kids.  His handful of friends are all older than himself, teenagers and adults who also suffer as social outcasts.  But Thomas has a brighter future.  If he agrees to join the Torth Empire, he will win acceptance among the powerful mind readers who rule the known universe.  The only catch is that Thomas must abandon his human friends to slavery and death.

While Thomas navigates a world full of technological marvels, his friends survive in a brutal alien slave ghetto.  Their only hope for long-term survival is escape . . . but in city full of emotionless mind readers, secret plans are impossible.  Their slim hope hinges on Thomas.  If Thomas can't remember his human ethics in time, then his friends must rescue him from the monster he is becoming.

CITY OF SLAVES is complete at 105,000 words, the first in a dark science fiction novel series that explores what it means to be human.  I've completed three sequels, following Thomas and his friends as they lead a slave rebellion against the Torth Empire.  My writing credentials include stories and articles in Fantasy Magazine, Escape Pod, The Internet Review of Science Fiction, and other publications.  I'm a graduate of the Odyssey Writing Workshop and a member of Codex.

So that's my latest query letter.  I know I can tear it apart endlessly and always find flaws, but do you see anything that really turns you off?

I'll start contacting literary agents and editors this coming week. Possibly as soon as Tuesday.  Yikes!  This is a special kind of scary.

Oct 2, 2011

Deer in the neighborhood

Packs of deer rove around my new neighborhood, and they have no fear of people or dogs.  Unfortunately, my dog wants to chase them, and she doesn't seem aware that they're bigger than her.
A few times, I've encountered does and fawns.  The does get protective and act as if they're going to charge at my dog, pawing the ground and grunting.  The fawns frolick and try to get my dog to chase them.  I have to drag her away.  I've also seen stags with antlers, but they tend to be solitary and not as confrontational.

Here's Saphira relaxing in her guard dog pose.  She likes to hang out on the patio or near doorways, facing outward to ward off the forces of evil.

Sep 12, 2011

Disney's Worst Feature Film

I finally got around to watching The Black Cauldron, which is supposedly the worst animated film ever made by Disney Feature Animation.  It was pretty bad (although I would argue that Dinosaur was a bigger flop). As an animator and a writer, I can't help but analyze animated films.  It hurts me to see a disaster like this one, especially knowing how much talent was wasted on it. 

This Slate article gives a history of what was going on at Disney at the time, so I won't repeat that here.  The biggest problems I saw with this film were 1) the writing (both dialogue and story), and 2) the voice acting.  The animation also had problems, and it looked more low-budget than it was, but it could have held together with a good story.  The special FX were classic Disney and looked nice.  

A hero is only as good as his villain is bad, and vice versa.  In this film, both the hero and the villain are rather pathetic.  They're both passive characters, not taking much initiative to get things done.  The villain relies entirely on a lackey with the mentality of a 3-year-old, while the hero accomplishes everything by accident.  He defeats the villain with a weak little kick.  He saves his friend's life by asking the authorities (a trio of witches) to do it for him.  I think I've seen more story tension in an average episode of SpongeBob SquarePants.

This is a perfect illustration of a bad adaptation, and why bad film-making can harm the reputation of the writers and artists involved.  I had no idea that this film was based on a series of fantasy novels by Lloyd Alexander.  Frankly, I'd never heard of him, which says something about what happened to his reputation as a novelist.  In the 1970s, he was appreciated enough for Disney Studios to option his novel series.  I assume that this wretched film discouraged his book sales, and it seems the film also discouraged some young animators at the studio enough so they would leave and look for a future career elsewhere.  Don Bluth, John Lasseter, and Tim Burton were among those who left.

I wrote an article about the bad adaptation effect, Down the Tube, published in the Internet Review of Science Fiction (2006). 

Sep 8, 2011

Bioengineering and The Windup Girl

I just finished reading Paolo Bacigalupi's "The Windup Girl," and I'm a bit pissed off.  Not as pissed off as I was after reading Scott Smith's "The Ruins," but still irked.  Let's set aside the writing for now, and just talk about the premise of the book.  The supposed science doesn't gel.  As a bioengineered "New Person," Emiko moves with a jerky stutter-stop motion (to mark her as a non-human) and has the loyalty and submissiveness of a dog.  In fact, a genetic scientist character remarks that her gene pool comes partially from a Labrador retriever.

Emiko's submissive behavior strains credulity.  Humans have a very similar pack mentality to dogs, and I think the only reason most people are not blindly submissive to authority is because we can think and reason.  As an intelligent human being (she speaks seven languages), Emiko should be able to overcome her submissive genes.  But even when she's gang raped, Emiko can't help but obey commands.  Right.  In creating the character of Emiko, the author created a fantasy female ... yet another sexbot.  She's cute, tiny, submissive, built for good sex, super-powerful, in need of rescue, and ready to drop to the floor and worship the first man who gives her the time of day.  Oh gee, where have I seen this before?  Could it be Freya from "Saturn's Children?"  Or how about Pepper Potts, who was not engineered to be a sexbot, but was just born that way?  There are too many to name.  To me, this character archetype is very transparent as a male fantasy object.

Oh, and how sexy is stutter-stop motion?  I have trouble believing that scientists would bioengineer sex-slaves who move like creaky robots.  They would find some other, much sexier, way to mark them as different.

Now let's talk about the bioengineered mastadons.  In this futuristic novel, climate change has wreaked havoc and the world is starving to death.  People can no longer rely on petroleum.  So in order to power their computers, people rely on spring or windup mechanisms, gas power, or ... mastadons?!  Yes, that's right.  Apparently these enormous bioengineered elephants are very efficient in converting food to power.  I'm not sure I buy this.  If your country is starving to death, would you rather plant a field full of hay (or whatever mastadons eat), or a field full of wheat or corn for human consumption?  A mastadon must eat a lot more than a human.  Honestly, if this is a survival scenario, I think that any government would put its citizens first, and sell or butcher the poor mastadons.

I wanted to like this novel, since it came so highly recommended, and it won the coveted Hugo Award.  But in addition to the issues I mentioned above, I didn't like any of the characters.  This was a difficult book for me to get through.  The only reason I stuck through until the end was a) because I was listening to it as an audio-book, which makes it easier, and b) high quality prose.  Paolo Bacigalupi writes atmosphere and action equally well.  Several times, I was tempted to stop reading, but some clever little hook pulled me through to the next scene.

I kept hoping to warm to the main characters ... or hoping to see them die in some deservedly unpleasant way.  I was partially rewarded in the end.  The characters never redeem themselves, but several of them get served a piece of justice.

This is Highbrow science fiction, with a capital "H."  It's not about fun characters or a fun story.  It's about a Messsage, written in a very elegant, intricate, complex, brutally adult way, so you'll feel smarter for reading it.  I guess I feel a little smarter.  But I can't quite bring myself to recommend this to the average reader.  Go for it if you love Charles Stross, China Meiville, and Neal Stephenson.  They're not bad company.

Sep 7, 2011

Teaching and public speaking

I've been telecommuting from my home office for a while now.  Sure, I get out of the house to do social things, but I figure it's time to try something totally new and different for me: Teaching.  I used to be very uncomfortable speaking in front of people, and I still have trouble overcoming my natural urge to blend into the background ... but self-marketing has become necessary in my career.  I want to continue working on fun animation projects with nice clients.  I want to get literary agents and publishers interested in my novels.  To that end, I want to get more comfortable with public speaking, including being on panels, and teaching.

So I will be teaching 3D Animation at the Austin Community College.  I'm really excited about this, and grateful for the opportunity to teach a subject that I feel comfortable in.

To prepare myself for the act of teaching, I've volunteered to teach a class on Writing: Plot Structure, which is free and open to the public, hosted by HourSchool.  If you live in or near Austin, you're welcome to attend, and I'd appreciate your feedback if you show up.  A minimum number of RSVPs are necessary to make the class happen.  You can sign up here.

I'm also volunteering to speak at local schools.  I gave a talk at UT (the University of Texas) a few months ago, and I may speak at a high school later this week.

If you have questions, or would like to invite me to talk about animation, the game industry, or fiction writing, please contact me through my website.

Aug 11, 2011

Abby Update

It's time for some self-promotion!  If you have an e-reader or a subscription to Fantasy Magazine, you can read my non-fiction article about magical talismans throughout human history in the August 2011 issue.
Fantasy Magazine August 2011 cover
Fantasy Magazine - August 2011
If you're in the mood for a podcast, Comic Dish interviewed me about working as a contract artist in episode #152.

My latest book illustrations can be viewed in the Smartboys Club #5: My Stomach Explodes, available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, iTunes, and more.

I'm designing and animating characters featured for Moon Haven, an MMORPG in BETA stage.

If you own an iPhone, iTouch, or iPad, look for Tune Hopper, a cute musical game featuring a lot of my artwork.

Earlier this year (sorry for some slightly old news), my short story "A Taste of Time" was published in episode 287 of Escape Pod, a podcast magazine of science fiction.

I will be attending Armadillocon in Austin, Texas.  If you're attending, drop me an email or leave a comment here!

In other news:  I'm moving to a condo in a different part of the city, along with my dog.  I look forward to a nice new environment and neighborhood!

Writing update:  I'm beginning to shop around my novel "City of Slaves," Book 1 in the Torth series.  I'm also making some minor edits to Books 2, 3, and 4 in the series, in preparation for writing Book 5.  I'll probably start that project in the fall of this year, and I'm really looking forward to writing a new novel, despite the nerve-wracking uncertainty of having completed more than half of my dark science fiction series without a publisher or agent involved.  The Torth series is projected to end with a total of six books.  I hesitate to set a firm date (it seems silly without a publisher), but it looks like I'll finish writing this series in 2013.

If you'd like to give my series a try, let me know!  I'm giving away free e-books in PDF format.  I also have some old hard copies (printed manuscripts) lying around.  They're an older version, but the same story about mind readers, their alien slaves, and five humans torn from their ordinary lives and forced to survive on another world, where keeping a secret can mean death.

Jul 31, 2011

A Dance with Dragons

This novel is the fifth in an epic dark fantasy series, so I assume that anyone interested in it has read at least one of the previous Game of Thrones novels. You probably don't want spoilers. To read the spoilers, simply highlight the blackened text with your mouse.
"I'm just a young girl, innocent of the ways of war."
"A Lannister always pays his debts."
"Dunsen, Raff the Sweetling, Ser Gregor, Ser Ilyn, Ser Meryn, Queen Cersei."
"The things I do for love."
If you're a fan, like me, you know exactly which character each line above belongs to, and you're eager to pick up their story where it last left off. I pre-ordered A Dance With Dragons and read all 957 pages (from prologue to epilogue, hardcover) in a week. Now I have mixed feelings. Some of the story was very satisfying, especially in regards to Tyrion and Bran. Some of it progressed slowly or stalled. Theon got served a heaping pile of justice, but it went on for too many chapters. Half of this novel follows minor characters through machinations that are only tangential to the overall plot, which made for a frustrating experience, despite the high quality of the writing. I was tempted to flip through pages to get back to a favorite character. My tolerance for over-description is very high, so my impatience worries me. If I was tempted to skip parts, I imagine that some readers will drop the series after this book.

The fourth and fifth books are actually one volume, a fact which in and of itself signals a slower pace.  The new plot developments are interesting and well worth reading, but they're interspersed between myriad rich descriptions of palaces, dungeons, exotic feasts, and outlandish warriors.  Otherworldly descriptions are part of the appeal of fantastic fiction, of course, yet they lose a bit of magic when they fail to propel the plot forward.  Without story tension, the outlandish details become merely a list of curiosities.

The first three books in this series seem fast-paced because each chapter had a situational change, or value change.  Each chapter ended with a new plot development.  By contrast, A Dance With Dragons contains many chapters which only deliver new environmental details without new plot developments.  These areas could have been reduced.  Several chapters contained a single new character insight or plot development, which could have been boiled down to a paragraph of exposition or dialogue.  This is especially true for the scenes taking place in the land of Dorne, and to a lesser extent, the Greyjoy fleet, the city of Meereen, and the Dreadfort/Winterfell.  I don't think it was necessary to go into the point of view of Areo Hotah or Arys Oakheart at all.

The names of minor characters are overwhelming in some places, particularly in the Daenerys chapters.  While the complexity of her political situation is admirably realistic, the names are tedious and hard to remember.  Instead of listing every noble family in Meereen, only the most important one should have been mentioned, with the rest summed up as "noble families."  The same would be true for various sell-sword companies.  Most readers will have enough trouble distinguishing between the Second Sons, the Brazen Beasts, and the Golden Company, let alone remembering the names of multiple officers in each one.

Now let's get into the meat of the story.  I like the implication that Bran might someday be able to communicate to faraway people through talking birds.  Right now, I'm pondering the prophecy of "the dragon has three heads."  If this means three Targaryens, I assume it would have to be Daenerys, Jon Snow, and Aegon.  If this means three wargs who are capable of controlling dragons, it might be Daenerys, Jon Snow, and Bran, or maybe Arya.  Victarion has a horn that can supposedly bind a dragon to his will, which opens up an interesting potential for him to become a powerful antagonist.

Overall, this book sets up a lot of potential bad-ass scenes for the next book.  It hums with possibilities.  Although Jon Snow was stabbed multiple times, he seems too much of a central character to die.  I figure Melisandre is the only one who can save him . . . with blood magic.  She might use Jon to rescue Stannis, or maybe she's decided that he must be Azor Ahai.  The only other possibility I can think of is that Jon will come back as a wight, a la Cold Hands, and become the first undead Lord Commander of the Night's Watch.

The introduction of Aegon Targaryen in this book feels late, since he will presumably play a major role in the final books.  But I understand the need to withhold his existence from the main characters, and I think the surprise works.  His appearance is satisfying in that it answers a number of plot questions, and sets up interesting possibilities for war or peace in the final books.  I'd like to know if Tywin Lannister spared his life, and why.  Just to make sure I have everything straight: Varys and Ilyrio have been working together for years, along with Jon Connington, planning to restore the throne to the boy Aegon Targaryen.  I'm not sure why they're so loyal to the Targaryen family.  Ilyrio claims that he was friends with Varys when they were both street rats; it's possible that Jon Connington or Rhaegar saved their lives in the past.  Maybe they swore to serve House Targaryen in return.

I like the potential for self-revelation that Tyrion has with Penny.  He's unaware of his own hypocrisy; that he's treating Penny exactly how most women treat him, as a disgusting chore, or someone to pity.  But I also find myself losing respect for him.  Tyrion is set up as a clever character, and I have trouble with him remaining self-deluded for an entire book.  Beyond that, I was a bit angered by his lack of remorse for strangling Shae, and his lack of personal responsibility for the gang-rape of his first wife, Tysha.  He believed the lies of his brother over the wife whom he claims to have loved.  I'm still rooting for Tyrion, but less so.  His self-reflection seems overdue.

Bran is being set up to be a greenseer, and Arya is becoming a Faceless assassin.  They have a lot of potential, and I'm excited to see how their characters will play out in the final books.  But neither of them seems worried enough, considering the lessons they're learning.  Bran ought to be worried about losing his body forever, and Arya should be very worried about losing her true identity, her past and her future.  They're both such deep and insightful characters, I was a little bit disappointed by their seemingly blithe attitude.

The Jon Snow chapters particularly frustrated me.  I was impressed by the way he handled the various important people who tried to manipulate him, and he'll remain one of my favorite characters due to his compassion.  However, I foresaw that mutiny from a mile away.  While I read his chapters, I kept mentally yelling at him to keep Mance Rayder close, to let the wildlings at Hardhome die, and so forth.  I understand why he made those decisions--compassion--but I wanted to see him at least think about the consequences.  If I foresaw that mutiny, he should have foreseen it, and kept his wolf nearby.

Queen Daenerys is often shown bathing in her pool or giving commands, repeating the line that she is just an innocent girl who knows nothing of the ways of war.  After so many of these scenes, her concern for suffering people began to ring hollow for me.  I especially had trouble with the way she dismisses her dragons, hardly sparing them a second thought.  How can she pity slaves, yet abuse and neglect her "children"?  She should have made an effort to train them; that should have been high on her priority list.  I had trouble believing her miraculous ability to control Drogon after he attacked people.

I get the uncomfortable sense that George R.R. Martin is losing focus on his epic, shying away from the meat of the overarching story, either out of fear that he won't be able to give it a satisfying wrap-up, or because he's reveling in the rich environment and losing his path in his own creativity.  If the plot spins out of control, buried beneath the weight of subplots, some readers might shrug and say "it's impossible to control an epic."  Other blockbuster and best-selling epics have ended in disappointment.  The Star Wars movie franchise took a nosedive, and many readers would agree that the same tragedy befell the Wheel of Time series and the Dark Tower series.  

I think it's possible for the next Song of Ice and Fire book to match the stride of the first three.  As a writer of an epic (four books completed so far), I understand the temptation to discover and explore new details within my created universe.  Creation is fun.  It's addictive.  Self-editing, on the other hand, is a painful and difficult chore.  Creators want to share every detail of their invention, and set out to impress their audience . . . but sometimes readers are bored by a scene that the author found absolutely riveting.  This is when objective criticism becomes essential.  Right now, I feel fortunate to have two "neo-pro" advantages.  One is that I can get objective criticism.  The other is that I don't have to rush through edits due to deadline pressures from a publishing house.  I keep wondering what obstacles George R.R. Martin is facing, in regards to critiques and deadline expectations. 

Anyway, I'm hooked on this series, and rooting for the sympathetic characters who've managed to survive so many battles and treacheries.  In a dark world where the strong rule and the meek get slaughtered, one can't help but admire Tyrion the dwarf, Bran the cripple, Sam the coward, and ugly Brienne.  Then there's Daenerys, whose brother sold her into slavery, and Arya, who believes herself an orphan among foreigners, and Jon Snow, who believes himself unwanted by the family who raised him.  These characters are far more complex and compelling than the typical heroes of epic fantasy.  George R.R. Martin has a formidable talent for creating unique characters, and a knack for setting up dire situations and then twisting the plot in surprising, unpredictable ways.  

The first three books had me on the edge of my seat, turning pages.  These latest two books are a comfortable return to the world where wights walk and familial schisms lead to global warfare, and they might be connective tissue to an awe-inspiring grand finale.  The first book has practically become a modern classic and inspired a popular HBO miniseries.  If this series ends as strongly as it began, it will earn a place among classics, worthy of study and influential on western culture. 

Jun 18, 2011

Joining the Technorati

Sometimes I hate technology. I'd like to get more readers, which means I want to post more on my blog, which means I need more readers, which means research into blogging publicity, RSS feeds, and social networking, and I really don't have the time or inclination to become an expert, and yet I must ...

I find that computers suck all your free time, like vampires. The more time you put into learning something to improve your self-marketing, the more things you will need to learn.

All right, Technorati: V4R4TTU8P2VG

Jun 16, 2011

Kids Today Read the Darndest Things

I'm going to try to be objective about the Wall Street Journal's Darkness Too Visible article, in which editorialist Meghan Cox Gurdon asserts that modern fiction aimed at the teenage market (Young Adult, or YA fiction) is far more brutal and graphically sexual than it should be. This claim has angered many YA authors. Jay Asher responds here.

The book industry has undergone major changes in the last decade, including the creation of a humongous teenage market. YA did not exist when I was growing up in the 1980s-90s. Now it is a multi-million dollar industry (perhaps multi-billion). Household name authors such as J.K. Rowling, Jim Butcher, and Stephanie Meyers dominate the YA section of each bookstore. Booksellers and publishers have finally learned that a voracious teenage reader will buy as many books as any adult bibliophile--and they advertise accordingly.

This new market is having some side effects on the book industry. For one thing, writers are flocking to YA because it's a hot market. Many books that would have been unquestionably adult ten years ago are now considered crossover, or YA. If Anne Rice or Stephen King were new authors breaking in this year, I suspect they would send query letters to the YA market. That's how hot it is. Contemporary adult-level science fiction/fantasy/horror is a little stagnant right now, so if you happen to be a genre novelist, you will consider YA.

On top of that, publishers are under a lot of pressure to produce best-sellers. Many publishers are hit hard by the recession, and their business model relies entirely on their few best-selling authors. They're going to push the envelope. Teenagers like shock value. The more adult a book seems, the more likely it will garner controversy, and therefore buyers.

So I think Meghan Cox Gurdon makes some valid points. The YA market is swimming with adult books, and perhaps these books should not be marketed towards teens and pre-teens.

However ...

I picked up my first Stephen King book when I was 11 years old. I picked up an Anne Rice book the year after. And I was not the only child reading adult novels in the 1990s. True, I didn't understand the sex scenes or the adult themes, but I enjoyed those books all the same, and it was fun to reread them as an adult and "get" the things I'd missed the first time around. Back then, the books marketed to kids my age were Babysitter's Club titles and R.L. Stine's Fear Street. When I outgrew those books, I turned to the adult section because I was ready for something more challenging.

I would have been thrilled if there was a special teenage section in the bookstore tailored to my reading level. That way, I could read the books I wanted to read while still seeming "cool." And I could discuss those books with more kids my age. Thanks to the YA section, more kids are reading ... and most importantly, they're actually enjoying the experience.

Meghan Cox Gurdon moans: "Whatever happened to fostering a child's happiness, moral development, and tenderness of heart?" She apparently feels that teenagers should restrict themselves to Judy Blume ("objectionable for some parents, but not grotesque") and other tame or outdated authors. She doesn't mind 1970s books that explore puberty, but she's disturbed by modern YA books that deal with drugs, cutting, rape, incest, and other very unfortunate situations. According to her, Suzanne Collins' Hunger Games is "hyper-violent."

Well, those darned kids, readin' stuff they shouldn't. Next thing you know, they'll be turnin' to violent video games and murdering each other in the streets.

Meghan Cox Gurdon writes, "So it may be that the book industry's ever-more-appalling offerings for adolescent readers spring from a desperate desire to keep books relevant for the young." I would have to agree. This is probably at least partly true, and it's at least partly working. I applaud them for it.

Then Cox Gurdon writes, "No family is obliged to acquiesce when publishers use the vehicle of fundamental free-expression principles to try to bulldoze coarseness or misery into their children's lives."

Misery? Really? How does enjoying a good book, relevant to your own situation, equate with misery? I don't think the kids who read The Hunger Games or Shine are sitting there with tears streaming down their faces, asking mommy and daddy, "Why, oh why, did you make me read this? I want to stop!" On the contrary, I think they're eating it up like popcorn.

And that's a good thing. A dark, challenging, twisted, thought-provoking book that deals with real life situations isn't going to transform a good kid into a morally depraved high school drop-out. Instead, it will challenge that kid's inner beliefs. Perhaps that kid will look at the world and the people around him/her in a new way. That's the whole point of reading. And generally, when a book makes a big impact on a kid, he/she will pick up another.

Jun 10, 2011

X-Men and telepaths

First time ever: two posts in one day!

A telepath can't play a fair game of chess. If you play chess against a telepath, he's either training you, or letting you win. Why doesn't this bother anyone (like Erik) playing against Charles Xavier?

A telepath would be a guru on social interaction and psychology. He would tailor manipulative words to suit each person he speaks to, so he'd rarely need to resort to mind control (which gives him an awful lot of power, by the way).

It seems that the writers of "X-Men: First Class" failed to think telepathy through thoroughly. I can think of several things Professor X failed to say to Magneto at the end of the film, and I'm not even a telepath. Like, "Are you trying to create a master race? 'Cause you should have a moral problem with that." If Professor X truly wanted to stop those warheads, he would have said something along those lines. And then Magneto could respond to it with something mind-blowing, and then maybe I would actually believe his sudden character plunge from good-vigilante to tyrant-bent-on-genocide.

Ah well. If believable character development were a priority in Hollywood, this would be a different world.

As for the telepathic diamond lady ... if she has Xavier's power to control minds, she would be the one in charge, not fetching the ice. Sorry, but that's just the way mind control works. It trumps other powers.

FYI for all people reading my blog: I write better telepaths.

"Jumper" and "Reflex," by Steven Gould

I recently reread two highly underrated super-hero novels, "Jumper" and its sequel, "Reflex," by Steven Gould. These books remain among my favorite super-hero stories, and I only wish the movie version had been an actual adaptation, instead of crapping all over the book.

"Jumper" is an engaging hero's journey. Davy doesn't spontaneously decide to put on a costume and fight crime (in fact, he wears ordinary clothing throughout the book). His character develops exactly the way a real 18-year-old with a sudden ability to teleport would develop. He can't find his birth certificate or social security number, and like many young people, he's unaware that he can write to his state department to get a copy--so Davy can't get a job. In need of money, he uses his power to rob a bank. Then he starts messing with bullies, from his thuggish neighbors to his abusive father. He takes creative revenge on people who have hurt him. But even with endless freedom and money, Davy is lonely, without friends or family. In need of someone to share his fortune with, he gets a girlfriend. He finds his long-lost mother. He does good deeds. But he doesn't decide to hunt criminals until a suicide bomber kills his mother.

A timely theme in "Jumper" is about terrorism. When Davy hunts suicide bombers, the U.S. government treats Davy as a lawless vigilante--so they abduct Davy's girlfriend and hold her as a hostage. Outraged, Davy starts jumping agents all over the world, stranding them in dangerous countries. Homeland Security then labels Davy as a terrorist. Davy reacts like most 18-year-olds, with extreme anger. In the end, both Davy and the man in charge at Homeland Security have to reconcile their mistrust of each other, and work together for the people they are both trying to rescue.

Both of these books are short and fast-paced. I will add that "Reflex" is a bit more geared to adult audiences. It takes place ten years after the first novel, so Davy is a married man. He's also gained some very powerful enemies, and one of them is a woman who treats him like her pet dog.

May 21, 2011

Dysfunctional Families

I've been watching HBO's Game of Thrones. They're doing a great job and staying true to the novel, but a couple of the actors don't fit in with the medieval/primitive setting. Jon Snow is a soldier-in-training, but the actor who plays his role looks more like a sultry poet, like if Johnny Depp and Shia LaBeouf had a child. Not how I pictured Jon Snow. And Daenerys is supposed to be a 16-year-old concubine with white-blond hair. The actress in her role looks like a tired 28-year-old with bleached hair, a deep tan, and collagen-injected lips. I doubt the Dothraki horde carries hair bleach and botox with them, so the L.A. look seems a tad silly.

Still, I love these books (you can read my review from 2002). I'm not above bragging that George R.R. Martin read and critiqued the first chapter of my novel, "City of Slaves," while I was at the Odyssey Writing Workshop. This was the chapter that introduced my character of Thomas--and G.R.R. Martin said mind readers are hard to write, and he thought I did a good job. He went on at length about it, and I glowed the whole time. I wish I'd brought a voice recorder to that session.

I've been reading a lot of great fiction lately that involves dysfunctional families. Since I'm kicking around a future novel idea with a horrid family as its centerpiece, I'm comparing these fictional families, and I can't help but study A Game of Thrones. "A Lannister always pays his debts." Heh heh heh ...

Many dysfunctional family stories involve incest. Jamie Lannister feels sorry for the way his sister Cersei is treated. He loves her out of a misguided combination of worship, empathy, and stories of the Targaryens, a fictional royal family who often wed brother to sister--similar to Egyptian pharaohs. Cersei Lannister was unable to choose her husband, and she resents being married to a drunk whom she considers her intellectual inferior. So she chooses her lover--her brother--because she has so much family pride, she can't see anyone else as being good enough for her.

Another popular theme in fictional families is a child struggling to gain the approval/praise of an unworthy parent. Jamie, Cersei, and Tyrion Lannister all try to please their father in various ways. They're willing to kill, lie, commit adultery, and start wars in order to hide an ugly truth from daddy dearest. Yet when the reader finally meets Tywin Lannister, he's as cold as an alligator. He's all about verbal abuse. People admire Tywin because he's clever; he makes money and commands battles with success. But does he truly deserve respect? This is a man who uses people like pawns, including his own children, yet they continue to vye for his love.

Finally, there's the issue of sibling rivalry. A Game of Thrones explores all shades of sibling rivalry. Sansa Stark, the elder daughter, is going through the pressure of what-is-expected-from-a-lady, and terrified that Arya will make her look bad and ruin her future. Arya, the younger daughter, is terrified of losing the freedom that boys have, and being forced to act as fake and demure as Sansa. Every woman in the world has gone through these stages. Every woman with a sister probably remembers the worries and fights caused by seeing an older or younger sister grow to face teenage pressures.

There's Jon Snow and Robb Stark. I find this rivalry especially tantalizing, even though it doesn't turn ugly in the book series. I've always been fascinated by class systems and the disparity between rich and poor. Jon and Robb are the same age and share the same father (so they believe), and they grew up together, with the same servants and everything. But one is a bastard without any rights to a land or a title, and one is the heir to Winterfell and the largest of the seven kingdoms. This sort of treatment would turn any normal stepbrothers into bitter enemies even at a young age, but Jon and Robb both have nice dispositions, so they try REALLY HARD to be friends. Robb never mentions Jon's bastard status, and Jon tells himself over and over that he is devoted to his brother and will never begrudge him. But then stuff happens. Jon endures hardships--the best fate a bastard son can hope for--while he hears distant news that Robb has become a king ... Robb is getting married ... Robb is wallowing in wealth and power. Jon begins to choke on bitterness and has to acknowledge it.

I just read a book called Geek Love, by Katherine Dunn, which was partially inspired by the Jonestown cult. It's also a beautiful examination of a horrifically dysfunctional family taken to extremes. SPOILER ALERT: If you plan to read Geek Love, skip this paragraph. Anyhow ... the sibling rivalry is particularly poignant in this book. Jealousy is what turns the eldest son into a monster. Artie is constantly worried that he's not as good as his siblings. The admirable thing about the little monster is that he is the only character who is fully cognizant of the truth. The twins are more beautiful and talented than he is, his dwarf sister is more normal and compassionate than he is, and the Chick is more powerful and more loved than he is. Artie uses every trick of psychology to prevent them from realizing these facts. He is a sideshow freak, and he repeats the party line his parents fed him (and their many redheaded employees): Freakishness is a wonderful gift. They delight in deformities. But Artie knows that his parents purposely handicapped him in order to use him as a tourist attraction. Artie can't walk or feed himelf; he can't turn the page of a book without help. He is fully reliant on other people, and the only value his parents truly see in him is his ability to draw a crowd. Anyone who can do it better becomes a threat to him. So Artie focuses on manipulating and controlling crowds. When the conjoined twins draw larger crowds with their piano routine, Artie starts his own religious cult to upstage them. When his baby brother shows signs of being a bigger "miracle" than Artie, he tries to smother the baby with a pillow. He cons his siblings, step by step, into doing his bidding, and uses distraction techniques in order to ensure that they won't have enough time or energy to figure out what's really going on. When the conjoined twins start hiring themselves out as expensive prostitutes, Artie feels threatened by their new independent source of revenue, and he has them impregnated and one of them lobotomized. When Artie thinks he's losing his sister to a new boyfriend, he gets the supposed boyfriend murdered. His acts become more desperate and more monstrous, but at every step, it's clear that his fear of his siblings lies at the root of everything he does. And it's pathetically clear that Artie is unaware of his own talent: He is a genius. He's among the most well written evangelist-dictators I've ever seen. He could have used his brains for better things than destroying his siblings and parents. Ah, the tragedy.

Siblings who murder each other. Siblings who marry each other. Siblings who hire thugs to rape or torture each other. It all seems far removed from normal life, but human history is peppered with these sort of rivalries. Byzantine politics was full of murderous, back-stabbing rulers who tortured their own parents or siblings to death. Ancient Egyptian pharaohs and Hapsburg monarchs were all about incest on a grand scale. I imagine that high stakes brew the most atrocious families.

It's good fodder for stories. Everyone recognizes elements of their own family in a fictional one, so there's instant affinity. Dysfunctional families can be exaggerated, pulled apart, and examined through the lens of fiction, which gives us new and fresh ways of looking at families we know in real life.

Apr 23, 2011

Backyard Archeology

On my recent visit to New Hampshire, my parents showed me an old, tarnished, dirt-encrusted pocketwatch that my sister had dug up in the backyard. They'd thrown out the potsherds and given away the arrowheads that she'd dug up, but left the pocketwatch lying around the house. Here it is:
old pocketwatch
Curious, I decided to find out how old it was, and what metal it was made of. The front of the timepiece read "American Waltham Co," which I Googled. I learned that this company had manufactured pocketwatches from 1852 to 1957; our watch might be from any date in between, and it could be cheap nickel plate or sterling silver. The only way to know for sure would be to open the watch and find the serial number.

The pocketwatch was jammed shut. My dad used some tools to pry the case open, and we found a slip of paper sealed inside, protected from who-knows-how-many harsh winters. A name and date were inked on the paper in faded fountainpen ink.
George F. Smith
September 28, 1913
The name and date were too common for a Google search to turn up anything. However, my parents thought to look in an old census for their local town, and found a George F. Smith who was a watch-maker and repairman. Apparently it was common for the watch-maker to leave a receipt inside the watch, so the owner would know when it was last serviced.

We used silver/nickel polish, clarifying the engraved design on the back of the case. But the inner workings and case were corroded with blue oxide, telling us that it was brass or copper.
polished pocketwatch
The serial number was visible, as was "Elgin Navy Watch Co." I looked up the serial number, and discovered that this pocketwatch was manufactured in 1893. The inner workings come from the Elgin Navy Watch Company in Chicago, while the outer case comes from the American Waltham Company in Massachussetts. It was common for people to buy the case separately from the inner movement (workings).

Who dropped or lost this watch near the old stone wall in my parents' backyard? Why were they hiking around (what would have been) rural farmland? How many decades ago was it lost? I assume it was lost or thrown away before my parents' house was built, possibly in the WWI or WWII era, when the plot of land belonged to a farmer.

I'll never know its exact history, but it was fun to find out so much.

Mar 25, 2011

Buy "Bees in My Butt"!

I'm illustrating the Smartboys Club book series, by Rebecca Shelley. Purchase any Smartboys Club book, and you'll see black & white chapter illustrations by Abby Goldsmith!

I'm excited to announced the first ever Smartboys Club Blog Fest to celebrate the release of Bees in My Butt in paperback. Everyone who participates will get the first 4 Smartboys Club books for free as ebooks and a coupon code to buy the paperback Bees in My Butt for only $3 instead of the list price of $6.99. In addition, for every hundred people that join us in the blog fest we'll have a drawing to give away a Kindle.

For details on how to participate, visit the Wonder Realms Books website. I look forward to seeing you there.
Take Monkey, a literary genius with flatulence; Bean, a science and math guru; Vinny, a computer whiz who can't keep her mouth shut; and Art, an artist who can shoot a basketball like a pro, confront them with a mess of fourth grade trouble, and watch the fun explode.

In Bees in My Butt, the first book of the Smartboys Club series, the members of the Smartboys Club use their skills to battle a group of crazed Ninjas that take over the school. And it happens on a day when Monkey has the worst case of flatulence imaginable.

Mar 19, 2011

City of Slaves, v.2011

I'm finished ... again! And I dared to enter the Suvudu Writing Contest.

What do you think of this blurb? Please comment or email.
CITY OF SLAVES: Torth Book 1

Thomas is a mind reader whose friends rely on his advice, unaware that Thomas belongs to an alien race of emotionally stunted slave masters with advanced technology. Thomas himself remains unaware of his heritage--until the Torth abduct him along with four of his friends, subjecting them to brutal slavery. Thomas accepts his birthright of power and privilege, hoping to rescue his human friends. But Thomas can't allow his old loyalties to surface in a society full of mind readers, and while he flounders through repressive laws and unimaginable luxuries, his friends must rely on alien slaves in their daily struggle to survive. They soon realize that they will die as slaves unless they can figure out a way to escape on their own ... and rescue Thomas from the monster he is becoming.
Would you like to test read? This novel is 105,000 words, or approximately 420 paperback pages with relatively large print.

Full disclosure: I'm still not happy with it. I may never be happy with this book. Parts of it look really lame to me now, from my perspective as a more experienced writer versus the person I was ten years ago. I'm convinced the beginning is still a problem, but I did my best. The story remains awesome to me, and I've grown a lot as a writer during this series.

In other news, it's SxSW here in Austin. I made the mistake of walking downtown on St. Patrick's Day during a Strokes concert. Wow. I've never seen so many crazy drunk people wearing green.

Feb 8, 2011

So few readers on my blog!

I wonder if my blog ever gets more than two readers? Looking at the lack of comments, it looks so lonely. But never fear! Someday I will have a fan club, and the most hardcore among them will look back through these old blog entries and fill them with insightful and delightful comments. Yes. It will be awesome.

I wonder if my 600+ friends on Facebook would visit more often if I blogged more often?

I wonder if having 600+ friends on Facebook is lame, or if it's a good start to building a fan base? I swear, they're all people I know. Maybe not WELL, but at least I know where I know them from.

Okay. Time for an Abby Update. Feel free to comment.

- I sold a short story to Escape Pod. No, it isn't out yet. Yes, I'll let everyone know when it comes out. No, I don't know who will narrate the podcast version. Yes, it's a really good e-zine. This story has never been rejected!

- I'm procrastinating on making edits to Torth Book 1: City of Slaves. Here's a very short prologue. What do you think? One thing I'd like to do is post the first few chapters along with a comment box, and see if I get some interactive feedback.

- My employment situation is sketchy right now. I'm feeling a need to get better at self-marketing, and/or start a business, like everyone else my age. Last week, I thought I had three job interviews lined up for this week. I might have contract work tomorrow. I've signed a lot of NDAs lately. Either the perfect storm of jobs will happen, or it will all evaporate and leave me at square one. I hate uncertainty.

- I'd like to make e-learning apps (smaller than games) that are fun (not boring), with appealing characters, and relevant to the target audience. I'm beginning to see some concrete directions to take this business idea, but I would love to find a partner(s) to work with. I wish I could write code. And the whole marketing thing will be daunting. Still, nothing ventured, nothing gained.

- My dating life. Do you really want to know about it? Okay, I'll tell you. I've stopped answering messages on my online dating profile due to the volume. So I'm optimistic this time around. Being single is a drag--and not a state that I intend to stay in forever--but I'm not looking to rush into another relationship that ends after a few years. No rushing. No settling. Pure pickiness. I owe this ability to Austin, which has a high male-to-female ratio. Maybe I'll change my mind in a year ... but right now, I have a nice feeling that: (a) I know what I want, (b) I'll recognize it when I see it, and (c) my next long-term relationship has a chance of becoming something permanent, owing to (a) and (b).

It will be interesting for me to reread this blog entry in a year and see what's changed.