Monthly Archives: July 2013

7 Writing Lessons from Scott Westerfeld

Cover of Uglies by Scott WesterfeldAs a writer, I’m always reading. When I can slow down enough to appreciate the art behind the book, I take mental notes. Here are some that made it out of my head…

Scott Westerfeld writes SF&F for a YA audience. His stories are fast-paced, action-focused, and very YA-minded — not at all like what I write, and not what I read most of the time. Which means they have something to teach me. So I’ve just finished reading one of his SF series — Uglies, Pretties, and Specials. (Yes, I know about Extras. More about that later.) Here’s what I learned.

(I’ll flag any major spoilers, but not minor ones.)

1. Start late, end early.

Westerfeld will often start a scene by jumping right into a conversation or an activity. The reader has to wait for a page or two to learn how his POV character, Tally, got there from the last scene or what happened in between the two. I tend to include transitions at the beginning and/or end of scenes to orient the reader, but now I see they’re not always necessary. And he’s careful to make the scenes emotionally engaging right from the beginning, so the reader is swept along instead of trying to puzzle out what just happened.

2. Use ALL the senses.

You’ve heard this before — don’t rely just on sight and sound if you want to create a vivid scene. Westerfeld is really good at this, especially touch. He’s always describing the experience of heat or cold, aching muscles, or the feel of wind against Tally’s skin. That makes each scene and setting come alive.

3. To speed up pacing, try writing scenes that span multiple (short) chapters.

You try putting a book down in the middle of a scene — it’s almost impossible. So writing chapter-spanning scenes makes a book fly by. Other tips from Westerfeld’s writing: minimize internalization and description, write short paragraphs, and of course, don’t forget the power of cliffhanger chapter endings.

4. When writing SF or F, don’t forget the “wow, that’s cool” moments and details.

Early in Uglies, we’re introduced to hoverboards — basically flying skateboards — and crash bracelets, which stop you from getting hurt if you fall off (by slowing your momentum). They’re just plain fun to read about. But Westerfeld doesn’t stop there. Hoverboards and crash bracelets come back over and over throughout the series, for different purposes and with different resonances. He gets a lot of mileage out of those two devices. At the same time, each book in the series introduces new technology to get excited about.

5. Make sure conflict has consequences.

#4 is important, but books are about characters, not cool details. Westerfeld is good at this too. (SPOILERS…) He makes Tally choose between her community or clique (represented by a friend, such as Peris or Shay) and her boyfriend, over and over again. The boyfriend usually represents the “right” choice, the moral one, the hard one. But whichever side she chooses, there are big consequences for her relationship with the other. The result is that by the end of Specials, we really feel like we’ve come a long way along with Tally.

6. Give your POV character a relatable, immediate goal, especially if there’s a reason your readers might dislike them.

(SPOILERS…) In Pretties, Tally has been brainwashed to be stupid, but she’s still worried about fitting in and being accepted as part of the group, and she keeps saying the wrong thing and being awkward — all very relatable problems. (It helps that the audience knows something Tally doesn’t: that she’s actually undercover and waiting to be rescued by the Smokies — a great example of dramatic irony.) There’s a similar setup in Specials, to great effect.

7. Know when to stop.

I mentioned earlier that I didn’t read the fourth book in the series, Extras. Why? Several reasons. (SPOILERS…) First, the end of Specials felt so final, so perfect and complete, I didn’t really want to disturb that feeling. Second, I peeked at the beginning of Extras, and it introduces a new POV character  sneaking out of her dorm, just like Tally in Uglies…and I feel like I’ve been there and grown out of that already, like Tally. Third, the situations and technologies in the first chapter seem like they’re going to revolve around different themes than the first three books, and they’re not themes that float my personal boat (YMMV). So, possible lesson here: know when to end a series (or a book). Though I will readily admit I might have stopped too soon…

(And, Extras notwithstanding, you can bet I’ve got Westerfeld’s steampunk series — Leviathan, Behemoth, and Goliath — on my TBR list!)

Your turn! Have you read Scott Westerfeld? What did you take away from his writing? Should I rethink my decision not to read Extras?

If you liked this post, you might also like 7 Writing Lessons from George R.R. Martin.

Why Do I Have Royal Baby Fever?

I’ve got royal baby fever.

There, I said it.

I’ve been following the saga of Will and Kate since their engagement, caught up in the pomp and pageantry of their wedding, admiring her fashion sense, wondering who Prince Harry will finally settle down with. When Kate went into hospital to deliver the baby we now know is named Prince George Alexander Louis, I was on pins and needles all day.

That’s a little embarrassing to admit, but it’s not unique.

Why are we so fascinated by these royals? Why am I so fascinated?

I think it’s a combination of factors. When I was a preteen, I loved anything with a whiff of the Middle Ages, and my current love of A Game of Thrones proves that I never really grew out of that stage. Queens and princes and princesses could hardly be more medieval, despite their continued existence in the world.

But also…I’m a writer. Unanswered questions about people fascinate me.

I want to know what it’s like to grow up as the heir to the throne, especially in a day and age when royalty has gone out of fashion. I want to know what it’s like to be the heir’s younger brother and know you’ll never be king unless your only sibling dies.

I want to know what they do with their days — not just the royal family but anyone in that English high society class. Do they work? How do they find meaning in their days? What’s it like to cling to all those traditions and move in such limited circles?

Of course, those circles aren’t so limited anymore. Back in 2001, when I was visiting Norway (my first trip overseas!), the Norwegian crown prince got married to a commoner, a single mother. I heard some mutterings about that, but it certainly didn’t stop a massive crowd — which I was lucky enough to be a part of — from gathering outside the cathedral in Oslo and cheering wildly as they wed.

But I wonder about the people. About Kate, who comes from a middle-class background and yet learned the upper-class role so well that she married a prince; her accent is impeccable, she always has the right fascinator, she and Will attend high society weddings. But it must be strange for her, and even more so for her parents. And I expect a lot of “old families” are, or were, infuriated to find the prince picking “new money” over their own precious marriage-aged daughters.

And of course, being a royal comes with even more stringent rules and limitations and scrutiny. What’s it like having Queen Elizabeth for a grandmother? Is she a stickler for tradition? Do the choices that Will and Kate make shock her? Does Charles stand up for them? Or have I got the family dynamics all wrong?

I’ll never know the answers to most of these questions. So I hang on the news stories, and soak up what I can, and wonder.

Your turn! Are you a royal-watcher? Why do you think so many people are fascinated by them?


If You Liked… Neil Gaiman

US cover

US cover

If you’re an SF&F reader, you just might have heard that Neil Gaiman has a new book out. The Ocean at the End of the Lane is being given critical acclaim, both from reviewers and from Gaiman himself.

Sadly, I haven’t read it yet. But to celebrate its release, here’s my (personalized, human-driven) version of Amazon’s “If You Liked…” algorithm.

If your favourite Neil Gaiman book is…

  • Neverwhere. Urban British fantasy featuring a parallel “pocket universe” that exists close to our own? Try China Miéville’s debut novel, King Rat. If you’ve read other Miéville novels, you won’t be surprised to learn that it’s weirder than Neverwhere, focusing on London’s rave scene, but the vibe is similar.
  • Stardust. The land of Faerie reimagined, with its dark and dangerous undercurrent intact? Try Elizabeth Bear’s Blood and Iron. It’s set in the present day, whereas Stardust is period fantasy, but it features changelings and Dark and Light faerie courts and human mages. Bonus? There are sequels.
  • American Gods and Anansi Boys. Contemporary fantasy exploring the nature of mythology and mythical beings in a North American setting? Try pretty much anything by Charles de Lint. I’ve read Mulengro (horror-ish) and Someplace to Be Flying (more urban fantasy) and recommend them both.
  • Coraline. YA portal fantasy that plays on the fear of losing one’s parents and dares to be creepy? Try Half World by Canadian author Hiromi Goto. This one has a sequel too.
  • The Graveyard Book. YA episodic fantasy about a young boy far out of his element and being raised by strange beings? Well, The Graveyard Book is an homage to Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book. You may have seen the Disney movie, but have you read the original?
  • Smoke and Mirrors and Fragile Things. Short story collections featuring a wide variety of dark and thoughtful and sometimes creepy stories? Try The Hair Wreath by Canadian author Halli Villegas.
  • The Ocean at the End of the Lane. Big disclaimer: as mentioned, I haven’t read this yet. But some of the reviews I’ve read make me think that Jo Walton’s Among Others might be a good companion book.

Your turn! Have you read, or are you planning to read, The Ocean at the End of the Lane? What books/authors do you recommend for fans of Neil Gaiman?

If you liked this post, you might also enjoy If You Liked… A Game of Thrones.

Long-Term Travel: 8 Ways to Mix Independent Travel and Guided Tours

Welcome to another edition of “long-term travel how-tos”! I’m sharing wisdom gained from my 12-week trip through Asia and two previous multi-month trips.

This week we’re talking about independent travel vs. guided tours. Often these are talked about as two opposing and incompatible methods of travel. But they don’t have to be.

I’m a hosteller/backpacker from way back, and my preferred mode is still to go indie, but I always incorporate a few mini-tours along the way. Here’s why…and how.

Last time I told you to identify your travel style. But after many weeks of travel, you might want a break from planning everything yourself. Or maybe you’ll find it more relaxing to vary your style of travel as you go. That’s okay!

Here are some ways to incorporate guided tourism into your independent-traveller itinerary…

1. City Tours

Longtail boat in Thonburi, across the river from Bangkok

Longtail boat in Thonburi, across the river from Bangkok

Even if you’re the most budget-minded of backpackers, taking a day tour of a city when you first get there can be an effective and inexpensive way to get a feel for a new place. Plus, it’s an efficient way to check off all the major sights so you can spend the rest of your time soaking up the ambiance and discovering lesser-known gems.

Many cities offer hop-on, hop-off tourist buses that do a circuit of the biggest tourist draws. Sure, they’re more expensive than public transit, but they’re also more direct, and there’s a guide telling you interesting tidbits as you drive. And you can still wander around the actual sights at your own pace.

How I’ve used it: hopping on and off the famous red double-decker buses of London and the tourist ferries of Bangkok; taking a longtail boat cruise in Bangkok

2. Taxi for the Day

Auto-rickshaw in Agra, India

Auto-rickshaw in Agra, India

If you just want transport between sights and minimal guiding, consider hiring a taxi (or tuktuk, or auto-rickshaw) for the day. It’ll save you having to haggle repeatedly over fares, it gives you more autonomy than #1, and you’ll probably still get some good info from your driver.

Like #1, it gets you point-to-point transport and you don’t have to worry about public transit (or walking, in a pedestrian-unfriendly city). You can even use it for far-flung sights that may be in the outskirts or beyond the city borders.

How I’ve used it: hiring auto-rickshaws in and around New Delhi, Agra, and Jaipur, all in India (stay tuned for more about my India adventures!)

3. Adventure Tourism

Your intrepid correspondent in the Thar Desert

Your intrepid correspondent in the Thar Desert

If you’re at a destination that’s known for adventure tourism, sign up for a day or half-day or even an overnight tour. They’ll transport you to the location (usually outside the city), look after you (hopefully…do your research!), and give you an experience you won’t soon forget. Then you can go back to doing your own thing the rest of the time.

How I’ve used it: ziplining in Chiang Mai, Thailand; overnight camel trip in the Thar Desert, India (with Saraha Travels)

4. Specialty Mini-Tours

Bird's nest fern in Cameron Highlands

Bird’s nest fern spotted on a botany walk in the Cameron Highlands

If you have a special interest, check your guidebook or ask your place of accommodation (or the local tourist office, if there’s a good one) if they can hook you up with a small-group or customized tour.

For example, look for an urban walking tour that matches your interests – a ghost tour, an architecture walk, and so on. Or, if you’re outside the city, maybe you can find a guide for the day who specializes in birding, botany, or the like.

How I’ve used it: guided hiking in the Cameron Highlands, Malaysia

5. Day Tours Outside Cities

Tea plantation in the Cameron Highlands

Tea plantation in the Cameron Highlands

Depending on your destination, you may not want to risk renting a car and braving the traffic. But you do want to go places and see sights that public transportation won’t take you to easily.

If you don’t hire your own transport (see #2), consider joining a tour for the day. You’ll get a guide to interpret the sights for you, and they may even feed you lunch or show you things you can’t see without a guide. And like a city tour (#1), it can be an efficient way to see several destinations in one day.

How I’ve used it: touring Connemara, Ireland; sightseeing around the Cameron Highlands; visiting Wat Prathat Doi Suthep and the ruined city of Wiang Kum Kam outside Chiang Mai, Thailand; visiting Ayutthaya, Thailand

6. Transport Outside and Between Cities

Tour van on the way to the Malaysian jungle

Tour van on the way to the Malaysian jungle

Maybe you don’t want a tour; you just want to get from Point A to Point B and maybe Point C after that. But again, public transport is limited or a little less comfortable than you’d like. What to do?

In some countries, when you hire a car, you’re also hiring a driver…and it’s not prohibitively expensive, especially if you’re travelling with a few others and can split the cost. Worth looking into in Asia.

You may also be able to find a tour company that sells not only full tours, but also just seats on their tour buses or vans. They’ll get you where you want to go, but you won’t have to do all the activities…or maybe you can sign up for just the ones you want.

How I’ve used it: hiring a driver to travel between cities in India when trains were booked; taking a tour van and a boat to Taman Negara National Park, Malaysia (with Han Travel)

7. Backpacker Tours

When you think of a multi-city tour, do you picture giant buses and bland hotels? Think again. Some companies cater to young backpacker types. They’ll take you from city to city in small groups, put you up for the night at hostels, and may let you tailor the itinerary or pick and choose the activities you want.

Some also offer hop-on, hop-off services — take the van to a place you want to visit, hop off, and stay there for a few days until the next van comes along. Again, this is a great way to see a big area in a short amount of time, and make some friends while you’re doing it.

How I’ve used it: Touring in Cape Breton and Prince Edward Island, Canada, and in Northern Ireland

8. Tailored Touring

Himalayan panorama in the Annapurna Region, Nepal

Himalayan panorama in the Annapurna Region, Nepal

A little anecdote is in order here. After 3 countries and 10 weeks of mostly independent travel, we were about to hit Nepal. I was burned out on travel planning and learning to navigate new countries. Plus, we wanted to go trekking, but were worried about our abilities.

So we did some research and threw ourselves on the mercy of a tour company, Friends in High Places…and they were fabulous. They arranged our whole stay in Nepal, from hotels to a Kathmandu day tour to an amazing six-day trek with guide and porter (and just the two of us!) in the Annapurna Sanctuary region. They took all the worry away. Much as I love being in control of my own travel, and flying by the seat of my pants when I can, I have to say that having those 10 days in Nepal all planned for me was a huge relief…and totally worth it!

How I’ve used it: Trekking in Nepal; self-guided walking tour in the Cotswolds, England

Your turn! What’s your travel style? Have you combined independent and guided travel?

Women in SF and Fantasy: Book Recommendations

Cover of Fey Touched by Erin ZarroI read a lot of SF&F written by female authors and/or starring women. Sometimes I forget that other people don’t. And then something happens to remind me — a friend asks for suggestions, or some sexist kerfuffle blows up in the world of SF&F conventions or fandom.

So here are my recommendations for SF&F starring strong female characters. Most of the authors are female themselves, but not all.

(What exactly is a “strong female character”? She doesn’t have to literally kick ass. There are many kinds of strength….)

Elizabeth Bear — Hammered

A prolific writer who likes to explore all corners of SF&F, Bear has written everything from contemporary fantasy about Faerie (Blood and Iron) to a sort of allegory crossed with generation ships (Dust). Her latest series (starting with Range of Ghosts) is epic fantasy in Mongolia.

My recommendation, though, is the trilogy starting with Hammered — starring an aging female ex-soldier, half cyborg, who’s dragged kicking and screaming back into a military program. Cynical? Yes…but there’s also hard-won hope and a good dose of sense-of-wonder.

Lois McMaster Bujold — Paladin of Souls

Picture this: an epic fantasy novel where the main character is an older noblewoman going on a quest and having adventures…yet she’s acting within social constraints that are true to the medieval setting. Doesn’t sound possible? Read Paladin of Souls. It’s one of my very favourite secondary-world fantasy novels, and that’s saying a lot.

Bujold is also the author of the Vorkosigan Saga, which stars strong women like Cordelia and Ekaterin. Or so I’ve heard…I’m just getting into the series, and looking forward to more.

Mike Carey, Linda Carey, and Louise Carey — The Steel Seraglio

Mike Carey works in comics, and Linda Carey has written fantasy under the name A.J. Lake. But together with Louise Carey, they wrote a lovely novel called The Steel Seraglio. It’s the story of a harem of women whose sultan is deposed by a religious zealot. They’re sent into the desert to die…but they won’t give up so easily. I’ll have more to say about this one in a future post.

Gail Carriger — Soulless

This light, fun steampunk series wasn’t quite my cup of tea, but lots of people love it. It’s got vampires, werewolves, mad science, and a fearless Victorian woman protagonist who’s ready to take on anything and anyone.

Kelley Eskridge — Solitaire

A hard SF novel where the science in question is psychology. The young woman of colour in this story has been born and raised for a role of corporate leadership, but as the story begins, she’s just been told that it’s all a lie. The fallout leads her into solitary confinement, where she confronts everything she’s done and everything she knows about herself. The writing is some of the most psychologically astute I’ve ever read.

Phil and Kaja Foglio — Girl Genius

I’ve talked about this steampunk graphic novel/webcomic series before. The spunky engineer heroine gets up to all sorts of shenanigans involving airships, robots and mechanical constructs of all sizes, a mad scientist out to kill her, the mad scientist’s handsome son, and much, much more. Her adventures are way too much fun, and full of spectacular visuals to boot.

Nicola Griffith — Slow River

This gritty SF novel follows an heiress who is forced into hiding, with no way to prove her identity. Her (female) rescuer is a street-savvy tech criminal. They begin a dangerous romance, and the rich girl finds herself changing…but she must decide who she ultimately wants to become.

KD Sarge — Captain’s Boy

KD Sarge is one of our Turtleduck Press authors. She usually writes SF about male characters, but Captain’s Boy features one of each gender. The young woman is a fiery, prickly type who gets along with nobody in the universe…except for a young man battling internal demons. When the unlikely duo sets out to rescue a boy stolen by interstellar slavers, they both have some hard learning and changing ahead.

Jo Walton — Among Others

Remember what I said about different kind of strengths? The teenage girl in this story isn’t going to kick anybody’s ass. She was crippled, and her twin sister killed, while stopping their evil mother from doing black magic. That’s all backstory.

Now she has to go on with her life — an ordinary life involving English boarding school, where there is no magic. There, looking for something to connect with, she discovers the SF&F section of the library…and a reader is born. This is a love letter to SF&F as much as anything else.

Erin Zarro — Fey Touched

Zarro is another Turtleduck Press author (coincidence? not likely…). This science fantasy novel features two sisters on opposite sides of a raging conflict. One is a genetically engineered Fey, the other a Hunter of Fey, both fierce and determined to fight for their people. But when family and community collide, only one loyalty can prevail.

Honorable Mention: Jennifer Crusie and Bob Mayer — Agnes and the Hitman

This isn’t speculative fiction, it’s romantic comedy/action, but it had to be mentioned anyway because it is awesome. Agnes is a food columnist with anger problems; Shane is a hitman hired to protect her. They fight crime! And solve mysteries, and spout wisecracks, and reluctantly fall in love. Oh, just go read it. You’ll love it, I swear.

Your turn! Who are your favourite female authors and/or characters in adult science fiction and fantasy?

If you liked this post, you might also like Women in A Game of Thrones.

10 Ways to Follow Your Passion Without Quitting Your Day Job

This week, I went back to work full-time after a six-month sabbatical. It’s going to be tough re-adjusting to the work schedule while still making time to do the things outside of work that are important to me.

Writing fiction is the biggest of these for me. I have other hobbies, but writing is my passion.

So I’m making a plan. Here’s what I’m telling myself…

Vancouver Island road. Copyright Siri Paulson 2013.

1. Cut yourself some slack.

I’m going to be exhausted — especially at first, but there will continue to be exhausting days when one job is all I’m good for. That’s okay. My tendency to beat myself up is not the best way to get results, no matter what my Inner Critic thinks.

2. Set SMART goals.

SMART stands for Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Time-Bound. (Read more at Wikipedia.)

I want to highlight two of them and what they mean to me.

  • Attainable means realistic. See #1. My Inner Critic has entirely unrealistic expectations about what I “should” be able to achieve. But she’s not the one in charge — I am. It’s okay to start small and ramp up slowly.
  • Relevant means identifying what’s important. Networking and marketing — Twitter, Facebook, even blogging — are all good, but they’re only supporting what’s really important: the writing.

3. Build habits.

Way back, before last year happened with its home-buying and trip-planning and other good stuff, I had a habit. 9 PM to 11 PM were my writing hours. Even if I didn’t write for the full two hours, I usually wrote sometime during that period. I want to get back to that.

I also had a coffee-shop-writing habit. It’s taken several different forms over the years — sometimes Friday nights, sometimes lunch hours. The more, the better.

4. Know your rhythms.

I’ve already mentioned my 9-to-11 evening writing times. I’m a bit of a night owl, but I know exactly when my brain cuts out.

As well, I’ve been experimenting with timed writing and editing — everything from 10-minute sprints to half-hour Twitter challenges (look for #wordmongering and #editmongering) to 3-hour writing marathons (incidentally, that’s about the length a laptop battery lasts at a coffee shop).

I’m still working on identifying the optimal length of a writing session for me. Right now I’m leaning towards 90 minutes.

5. Know your weaknesses.

The Internet is mine. So I’ve been trying out Freedom, a software program that locks you out of your Internet for whatever length of time you specify. It’s great…at least when I remember to turn it on! Amazingly, when I know I can’t just check that one site, the craving completely disappears.

I also avoid getting online at coffee shops, because I know what will happen. So I compartmentalize and pretend there’s no wifi anywhere except at home. Surprisingly, it works. The brain is susceptible to being tricked…and I’m not above doing so.

6. Find the time.

We all have busy lives. But there are plenty of corners in mine that aren’t being used for anything in particular. I’ve already mentioned writing while on lunch hour. (Though I won’t do it every lunch hour, because my body needs some time off, too!)

When I do NaNoWriMo, I spend my public transit time scribbling notes and outlines in a notebook so I don’t have to spend precious keyboard time thinking.

7. Remember that baby steps add up.

As I mentioned earlier, my Inner Critic thinks anything less than a superhuman effort is doomed to failure.

However, my Inner Critic chooses not to remember that I’ve already written several novels…some during the mass marathon that is NaNoWriMo, others during perfectly ordinary months. I’ve written, edited, and published more than a few short stories. I’m the editor and co-founder of Turtleduck Press. And so on.

All while, amazingly enough, not being superhuman.

I have a feeling that, to really get my writing career going, I’ll need more than baby steps…but then again, my Inner Critic has been wrong before.

8. Just keep swimming.

Yes, that’s a Finding Nemo quote.

What does it mean here? Keep moving forward. Keep doing something, even if it’s small (see #7). Do it again the next day. If I don’t have the brain to write one day, maybe I have the brain to do something related (though see #2 — anything except writing is ancillary).

9. Find a community.

I always wanted to Be A Writer, but I didn’t really buckle down until I discovered NaNoWriMo in 2005. The hard deadline helped immensely, but that was only part of the reason. The other part was the people. I met writers that year who are still friends today.

Since then, I’ve met a lot more writers. I have a group born out of that year at NaNoWriMo, a real-life critique group, a close-knit group on Facebook, and a variety of loose-knit groups on Twitter. All of them help keep me accountable and help me nurture my passion in various ways.

10. Listen to Joss Whedon.

Wait, what? Yes, that’s what I said. Go read this. I’ll wait.

Your turn! What are your best tips for following your passion while also meeting the demands of Real Life?

Your Turn: Tell Me About Your Favourite YA SF and Fantasy

Just a quick post today, because (a) it’s my first day back at work after a six-month sabbatical, and (b) we had a huge rainstorm and I got caught in it on my way home, so I’m wiped!

You may have noticed that I post regularly about children’s and YA fiction…but it’s all older stuff. That’s because I’m recalling it from my own days as a young reader. Nowadays I gravitate towards adult SF&F.

But I keep hearing that this is an exciting time in YA SF&F — boundaries are being pushed, topical themes are being explored, and an awful lot of high-quality books are hitting the shelves. YA isn’t just for teens anymore (if it ever was).

I’ve read a little bit of the new and improved YA:

But that list barely scratches the surface. I’d like to read more.

Here’s where you come in. What are your favourite YA SF&F novels from the last five years?