Friday, April 20, 2012

The Tropes: Essential Elements of Fantasy

     Today’s e-mail brought the “Barnes & Noble Review” with its thoughtful and informative analysis by Paul Di Filippo, discussing A Wrinkle in Time, the famous YA science-fiction novel by Madeleine L’Engle.

     Wrinkle was among my favorite books as a girl. I remember being utterly enchanted, caught up in the tale as though it were real life. Intending to reread the story and its sequels, I purchased the Science Fiction Book Club’s 2003 edition of “The Time Quartet,” which includes A Wrinkle in Time as well as A Wind in the Door, A Swiftly Tilting Planet, and Many Waters.

     Since 2003, I’ve been too deep into my own novels—the WATERSPELL fantasy trilogy—to reread Wrinkle. But now it’s “time” (pardon the pun). My novels are published. For the first time in a decade, I actually have time to do something other than write, revise, and edit.

     Paul Di Filippo’s review of A Wrinkle in Time is fascinating reading. Here’s one passage that particularly caught my eye:

     “Her [L’Engle’s] fairy-tale tropes -- abducted parent; arrival of the Gandalfian stranger(s) initiating a quest; far-voyaging; realms under a spell; well-met comrades; exotic vistas -- are superbly arrayed yet never programmatic.”

     This list practically demands that I analyze my own work to see how these elements figure in WATERSPELL.


     First, a definition of the word “trope,” a term that is often used in discussions of speculative and genre fiction: A trope is a common or familiar theme or device.

     Here are the tropes that Di Filippo identifies, with a brief summary of how they appear in WATERSPELL.

Abducted parent. In my story, it’s the child (Carin) who is abducted. But her parents have gone missing too.

Arrival of the Gandalfian stranger. This is an interesting one. It requires thought to determine which of my characters is THE “Gandalfian stranger.” Carin herself is a stranger in a strange land. So is Megella, the wisewoman who acts as the “herald,” the player who brings a message or otherwise acts to set the events into motion. Verek is also a “Gandalfian stranger.” Like Megella (and Gandalf), he possesses knowledge and capabilities that are superior to those of the protagonist, Carin. But also like Gandalf, Verek requires assistance: he cannot succeed alone. Another candidate for this role is the monk Welwyn, who provides additional support to Carin in her quest. I must conclude that my novels brim with enigmatic “Gandalfian strangers.”

Initiating a quest. Megella initiates a quest by sending Carin off to find her place in the world. Even earlier, however, Carin was launched on her quest amidst circumstances that I cannot discuss here without spilling the beans. :-) This idea of questing, which is central to all types of heroic literature, is illustrated by a diagram I created to show the underlying structure of WATERSPELL:

Far-voyaging. For sure, there’s plenty of far-voyaging in WATERSPELL. Again, it would be a spoiler for me to reveal details of the places to which my characters travel. I’ll let a reviewer sum up this aspect. Tahlia Newland commented: “I enjoyed the second in this series even more than the first. The end of it takes us somewhere completely different …” Book 1 begins with a road trip, but Books 2 and 3 are road trips.

Realms under a spell. That’s kind of self-evident from the series title: WATERSPELL. In my fantasy world(s), spells wreathe mountains, meadows, gardens, oceans … all of the bewitchments different, all placed for different purposes by different practitioners of the art magick.

Well-met comrades. Carin meets a wisewoman, a woodsprite, a housekeeper, a gardener, and a wizardly monk, each well-disposed toward her, or at least not actively hostile. She makes deadly enemies too. But it’s her relationship with the warlock, Verek, that raises the central question: Is he a well-met friend or a manipulative foe? Is he good or evil? Hero or villain? Do we root for him or against him?

Exotic vistas. WATERSPELL’s far-voyaging characters move through many an exotic landscape. Their travels take them to mountains, prairies, woodlands, valleys, rivers, seashores, sea cliffs: such lands and climes as I’ve encountered in my own travels, or read about, or invented in flights of fancy. One of the perks of writing fiction is the freedom to set one’s story against wild and dramatic backdrops, whether natural or made-up.

     I did not deliberately set out to incorporate into WATERSPELL these tropes of the fantasy genre. The story grew around them, or they grew into the story, as inevitably as a plant roots into soil. Years of reading fantasy and science fiction planted these elements within me. When the time was right, when I was ready to write the kind of story I love to read, the essentials were there, all set to serve me as they have served generations of storytellers.

     Whew! Thank you for reading this far. Paul Di Filippo’s list of “tropes” so inspired me, I had to pause and chew on them awhile. :-)

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

"The six kinds of Indie published books"

Here's a sharp analysis by author Tahlia Newland of Awesome Indies. She has her finger on the pulse of independent publishing. I learn a great deal from reading Tahlia's excellent blog.

The six kinds of Indie published books

By Tahlia Newland
Posted on April 17, 2012

     It seems to me that there are six kinds of Indie Published books. Out of these six, only the last fits the idea that many people have that Indie books are of inferior quality. The number of books in the first five categories are growing, and I believe that the numbers of books in the last category will shrink as it becomes clear that readers won’t pay for poorly written books, especially as more blogsites appear that list ones of quality.

     Previously published authors’ backlists – you’ll find no surprises here. These books are exactly the same as what you’ll find in any bookstore. They were on the bookshelves years ago, but not now. The copyright has returned to the authors, so they’re putting them back in the market. They usually have an established reader base and many of their more recently acquired fans haven’t read their older books, so they’re snapping them up. Many of these authors are earning more than they ever did with the traditional system, and as other authors realise the viability of going Indie, the number of books in this category will grow.

     Agented authors books – these authors’ work is good enough to get an agent, but the agent didn’t score a publishing deal. Sometimes the author got sick of trying; sometimes they ran out of options and sometimes they just decided that going Indie was a better deal in the long run. A traditional publisher would most likely have published such books 5 or more years ago – agents only take books they think are good enough to sell – but they missed out because of the shrinking traditional publishing industry. Sometimes this is simply because they didn’t find the right publisher at the right time; sometimes it’s because they are a little different from the present fashion in the genre. For example, traditional publishers are favoring dark, brutal, often depressing stories for young adults. If you want something without that flavour, you’re likely to find it in Indie published books.

     Mainstream books by skilled authors who have decided against the traditional route – These books are similar to books produced by major publishers. They fit the genre and the fashion of the day and are professionally produced. The author has simply chosen Indie publishing because it suits them to take control of their own work.

     Books that are too short for traditional publishers to consider – In this category, we have novellas, novelettes and short story collections. Electronic books give authors the freedom to write stories to their natural length. They don’t have to pad something out to an acceptable length to make it salable in paperback. Shorter works work well on ereaders because they are so easy to carry around. You can read a short story while waiting for the doctor and you can read a novella while the rest of the family watch a b-grade movie on TV. There’s a lot of excellent books in this category, in fact all the short Indie fiction I’ve read has been excellent.

     Quality books that are different / alternative / outside the box – Books in this category are of a professional standard but are too different for a traditional publisher to risk taking on. Big publishers have to feel sure that they can sell a book to large enough numbers of readers to pay their huge overheads and make a profit. That means that they are limited to the demands of the present market as they perceive them to be. This is the most exciting category, because this is where you’ll find the real alternative to the mainstream. This is where new trends will emerge, where you’ll find talented new authors and books for niche markets or that break new ground.

     Books by unskilled authors without the skills to be published any other way – These books languish in the free or 99c categories of ebook – the good ones are usually only there for a short time, or they’re the first in a series, or a short work as a sample of an author’s work. You can avoid poor quality books by choosing titles from the Awesome Indies listing. As time goes on, these authors will either improve or give up. There are excellent books in the free and 99c bins, (especially the short ones) but don’t expect them all to be good and you won’t be disappointed.

     The last category is the one that gives Indie publishing a bad name, but the important thing to understand is that they are only one category of what you’ll find in Indie published books. Don’t let a few poor experiences turn you off the whole scene, it’s called throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

     Does this sound like a reasonable categorization to you? have I missed anything?

     Written by Tahlia Newland. If you enjoyed this blog post and would like to read more, you can subscribe to new content delivered by email or RSS feed. You can also follow Tahlia on Facebook and/or on Twitter.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Why Talented Writers Go Indie

       Mark Coker, the founder of Smashwords, recently wrote the following in an opinion piece for

            Big publishers “price their books too high while most of their authors earn poverty wages. They take 12 to 18 months to publish a book -- an anachronism in today’s world of instant self-publishing. They often reject talented writers who don’t offer the celebrity platforms of more marketable ‘authors’ such as Snooki or Justin Bieber.
            “… the self-inflicted wounds of large publishers have already begun to render their businesses less relevant to the future of publishing. Authors are beginning to turn their backs on traditional publishers in favor of self-publishing. Authors are now hiring their own editors, cover designers and marketing consultants. By assuming responsibility for the roles once played by publishers, authors are earning up to 70% of the list price as their e-book royalty versus the 17.5% paid by traditional publishers. They’re publishing low-cost e-books that are hitting all the bestseller lists. The all-important access to distribution -- once exclusively controlled by publishers -- is now available to all self-publishing authors.”

The Department of Justice Lawsuit

       Mark’s April 15, 2012, post, titled “A dark day for the future of books,” deals mainly with the Department of Justice’s wrongheaded legal action against Apple and five large book publishers for allegedly conspiring to raise e-book prices. When in fact, what publishers wanted to do was to protect their right to set the prices for their products: something I favor, since I’m a small publisher. I believe I should be free to set my own prices, and not have Amazon or anyone else dictate the retail price of the books I publish.

        Mark’s post is worth reading in its entirety. If you’re an author or a small publisher who is selling most of your titles through Amazon (as I am), you may think there’s nothing wrong with Amazon gaining complete market dominance. But to be healthy, the book business needs competitive players. If a single entity (Amazon) gains complete control, all will suffer: readers, writers, publishers, retailers, and device makers.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

A Writer Learns How to Combine JPG Images and Create PDFs

      This week I’ve learned a new skill. I found a way to pull together the covers of my three fantasy novels into a single image for posting on Facebook and other social media.

      For the techy-minded among you, creating a book-cover-collage JPG would be easy, I’m sure. But I had to logic through the steps, using the software that was available to me: much of it old, or free. These are the tools I used:

            WordPerfect 9.0 (copyright 1996–1999 Corel Corporation)
            PrimoPDF 5.1 (copyright 1997–2009 by Nitro PDF)
            Neevia Document Converter (copyright 1999–2012 by Neevia)
            ZoomBrowser EX 5.0 (copyright 1996–2004 by Canon Inc.)

      I’ve never learned to manipulate images in Microsoft Word, but in WordPerfect it’s easy. To make my Facebook author page banner (what Facebook calls a “cover”), I began with a beautiful sunset-on-the-beach photo, a JPG that I borrowed from a Facebook friend. After opening the beach photo in WordPerfect, I opened each cover image for the WATERSPELL trilogy. WordPerfect let me position each book cover, side by side on top of the beach photo, all three books shifted slightly to the right to leave a space for my Facebook profile picture or icon.

      The resulting four-element image (three book covers against background photo), I saved as a WordPerfect document (.wpd). Then I “printed” it, choosing PrimoPDF as the “printer” in place of the laser or inkjet printer that I use for most of my print-outs. “Printing” the WordPerfect document with PrimoPDF had the effect of creating a PDF file.

      Next step: I used the Neevia Document Converter online to convert the PDF file to a JPG.

      After downloading the finished JPG, I used ZoomBrowser EX 5.0 (software that came with the Canon digital camera I got for Christmas 2005) to crop the image to the proper dimensions for a Facebook banner or cover: 851 pixels wide by 315 pixels high. The JPG image I was working from was more than twice the size that I needed for my Facebook banner, so I cropped the JPG to roughly 1750 x 650 pixels, knowing that Facebook would shrink it as needed to fit the space they allow for the “cover photo.”

      From there, it was simply a matter of uploading my newly made three-book banner to use as my Facebook page’s cover photo. I think it turned out great. And I did it all with old software that I’d owned for years, augmented by free software I found online. Not a penny was spent out of pocket.

      You techy types may howl with laughter. But as a writer who doesn’t generally work with images, I am proud of myself for figuring out a way to combine the three book covers of my WATERSPELL trilogy into a single, correctly proportioned image to use on Facebook and elsewhere. Digital publishing is teaching me (forcing me to acquire) many new computer skills. I love it. ☺

Thursday, April 5, 2012

An Interview: Intriguing Questions About WATERSPELL

Book blogger Brandi Kosiner interviewed me this week about WATERSPELL and other writerly topics. She asked intriguing questions, such as: “If a fairy godmother told you your life could be like a favorite book for 24 hours, which book would you pick and why?”

Brandi is a passionate reader, writer, and book blogger. She mainly focuses on young adult books, especially paranormal romance and fantasy.

Being interviewed was fun. Brandi’s questions made me think. How, exactly, did I get the idea for WATERSPELL? The story has been percolating within me for so long, I really had to think about my answer, going back all the way to my own teen years.

The interview is in conjunction with a giveaway. Readers may enter to win a free copy of WATERSPELL Book 1: The Warlock. The international winner gets an e-book, while the U.S. winner may choose either an e-book or a paperback.

Shipping paperback review copies is prohibitively expensive. I’ve done it only once, to a reviewer in the Philippines. At this point I’m not sure the books ever reached her, or ever will. From now on, reviewers outside the U.S. get the e-book. E-delivery is much cheaper, and far more certain to actually arrive.

The giveaway at Brandi’s blog ends April 12. My interview should remain available there for a while, however. I hope you’ll take a look. :-)