Balance and the In-Between Bits

It’s sometimes tempting to me as a writer to continue the thread of a chapter organically–to follow a bell curve of sorts, with rising action, a climax, and falling action.  In other words, when Karthanas the Lesser fights escapes the disaster at the Akkian Mass, my instinct is to follow him out the door, down the path, into the woods, to his campsite…you get the picture.  Obviously the stronger decision at this point would be to cut the action off sooner rather than later.  After all, does how your protagonist gets from one place to another really matter that much?  Does it move the plot forward?  Sometimes it does.  Road stories, river stories, quest tales…those are about the adventures the characters have along the way as much as they’re about the end goal.  But most of the time it doesn’t matter how your characters get from Point A to Point B.

One of the hardest lessons to learn for me has been that you can and should edit your novel in the same way that a film editor edits a film.  I studied the Modernists a lot in college–Hemingway, Faulker, Joyce.  I often feel an ingrained literary tendency to focus on the mundane, even when the story isn’t, strictly speaking, a “literary” one.  Even writing in the third person, I often begin to follow an inadvertently stream-of-consciousness pattern if I get too distracted.  This isn’t always a bad thing: sometimes it produces a pretty turn of phrase or a useful insight into the emotions of the character.  But most of the time I find myself writing about the irrelevant quotidian activities of the character in question–the to’s and fro’s, the in-between bits.  What they did before and after the big fight, the romantic interlude, the startling realization.  Leopold Bloom takes a shit in his outhouse.  That sort of thing.

This sort of indulgence is both overdone and extremely hard to do well, so while it isn’t something to dismiss entirely, it is a habit to be aware of and use sparingly, especially when you’re writing fiction primarily intended to entertain.  There’s a fine line between exciting sword and sorcery with an existential tone and a mind-numbing navel-gaze that happens to feature swords.

The readers who are apt to find the misadventures of Karthanas of Lanthea interesting are unlikely to be terribly interested in a detailed exploration of his private thoughts while trimming his fingernails.  They want–and I want, at the end of the day–action.  Tension.  Drama.  Violence.  Desperate last stands.  And they want them strung fairly close together, with maybe a few quiet moments in between.  You’ve got to earn that moment where your antihero looks out over the desolate ruins of a forgotten city and thinks about the cycle of history, or the futility of progress.

The best video games (the Half-Life series comes to mind, particularly Half-Life 2 and its episodes) tell their story through a balance of action (usually combat) and downtime (usually solo roaming adventure).  Both types of content are engaging, and the downtime content is necessary to give the player a break from the relentless adrenaline.  But if I had to put a ratio to that balance, I’d say that what you’re looking for is 70/30 action to downtime.  Keep in mind that “action,” in the context of a novel, can mean spirited dialogue, dynamic plot revelations, and major decisions made as well as something obvious like combat.

Oddly enough, I do find that the slower moments are often my favorite: I’m one of the few people I’ve known who actually likes the first third of The Fellowship of the Ring.  I like build-ups.  But you still need that balance.  Adventure?  Excitement?  A Jedi craves not these things.  Except when she does.

Will the New Twitter Algorithm Make It Less Useful to Writers?

ios_homescreen_iconTwitter recently implemented a new algorithm in its code that selectively includes content from users you don’t follow into your timeline.  This change has caused a lot of backlash in the Twitterverse, for relatively obvious reasons.  TechCrunch reports on the changes:

The specific change in how your Twitter timeline operates allows for the company to inject additional content into your feed from other users you don’t follow. This is in addition to promoted tweet advertising content — you still get that thrust into your feed too.

So basically this change means tweets from people you’re not interested in may now show up in your Twitter feed. And judging by the popularity reference, at least some of the content being algorithmically injected is exactly the sort of mainstream trivia that makes Facebook so uninteresting to a large swathe of Twitter users (myself included). And indeed the sort of content that populates Twitter’s Discover feed — aka ‘the feed that no-one reads’. Except now some of that crap is being thrust in front of your eyeballs, mingled with the tweets you did want to read.

Twitter’s focus on popularity as a selection criteria for injecting tweets evidently also means that tweets marked as favorites by other users can now appear in your timeline — a change that has already triggered a backlash of complaints, as noted by an earlier Guardian report.

This is troubling to me as a writer, because I use Twitter as my primary social media tool.  I use it for marketing, networking, and interacting socially with friends and acquaintances.  A big part of the appeal of Twitter (aside from the fact that it’s still primarily text-based) is the fact that I can curate a news feed that is tailored precisely to my interests and field.  The idea of Twitter changing their app to deliberately interfere with that functionality irks me.

It seems fairly obvious to me that this is part of a larger effort to monetize the service and therefore increase corporate profits.  Yes, they already have advertising in the form of promoted tweets, but the more power Twitter has over your timeline the more opportunity they have to fill it with irrelevant, mainstream, commercialized crap (which, as the TechCrunch article notes, is exactly what has happened to Facebook).

Last Day to Get ‘Exile: The Book of Ever’ Free on Kindle

The free promotion for Exile, part one of The Book of Ever, ends tonight at midnight.  Download it now for Kindle while it’s free!

Exile is post-apocalyptic science fiction for adults of all ages, featuring a strong female protagonist and a gripping, fast-paced story.  If you liked The Hunger Games or Ann Aguirre’s Enclave series, you’ll probably like The Book of Ever.  If you like dystopian themes and religious and romantic tension in a post-apocalyptic setting, you’ll definitely like Exile.

‘Exile: The Book of Ever’ Free August 17 – 21, 2014

Exile by James CormierThe Kindle version of my first novel, Exile: Part One of The Book of Ever, will be free on Amazon starting tomorrow, Sunday, August 17th, until Thursday, August 21st.  Now’s your chance to read the first part of The Book of Ever, my young adult science fiction series.

You can also read the first five chapters of Exile free right here on my website.

Centuries after the Fall, the United States has been wiped away. The crumbling remains of the great American empire are home now only to savage, lawless tribes and packs of ravening Damned—the twisted children of the apocalypse. Most of those few who survived humanity’s destruction spend their short lives in a violent struggle for survival. But some light still flickers in the darkness: the Blessed of Bountiful live in seclusion, relying on walls both physical and spiritual to protect them from the Desolation that their world has become. Among them are the Saints, those few men and women born with superhuman abilities that the Blessed see as gifts from God.

The violent apostate tribes of the Northeast Kingdom have always been a danger, but up until recently its small size and the vigilance of its people have made Bountiful an unappealing target. As attacks on the community grow harsher and more frequent, however, even the steadfast Blessed are forced to start preparing for the worst.

With her home’s very existence threatened, seventeen year old Ever Oaks, a Saint with the power to heal, is forced to make a difficult choice, one that may come to define her people’s future…


The Fourth Day – Second Rewrite

I’m working on a short story called The Fourth Day, rewriting it for the second time.  Here’s some of it:

Dawn grew on the horizon, sunslight streaking golden across the downs. The soldier stood at the forest’s edge, looking down on the battlefield. The grass of the plain swept upwards to the red eaves of the wood, waving in the gentle wind that blew in from the sea. He stood transfixed, one arm wrapped around the slender trunk of a young tree, watching his friends die.

He saw them fall in the russet grass, one-two-three, as the dark archers on the far berm loosed their last volley. He saw them, in a perfect line, horn bows to the heavens, the sun in his eyes when the arrows hit. He saw the prosecutors rally from the flank and heard the cry of a segan as a dart took him through the throat. The time seemed to stretch. He watched the small figures below him struggle, like valorous ants on a rotten log.

He set his teeth and waited, the distance between them lending a feeling of unreality to the fighting. From time to time he looked up through the red leaves and let the sunslight warm his face.

It’s a choice, Kashen had said. A choice you make.

He tried not to lie to himself. He tried to look at it honestly, tried to watch it happen, take it as it came. You could accept anything, if you let yourself. He had accepted worse.

Standing there in the shade, his spear still in his hand, his greaves still wet with morning dew, he found that he could accept this, too. It’s a choice. He stared, the fray coming in and out of focus as his eyes wandered. He felt a brief moment of shock when he realized his unit was gone. The battle had moved on. Time had passed. The suns stood together in a robin’s egg sky.

He could see bodies matting the grass, a stippled rash of gleaming bronze on the reddish plain. The wounded had been trampled under the enemy horsemen as they broke the line, the remaining officers caught suddenly by the knives of the sneaking Jida clan. He had watched their assassins stealing the flanks. A banner, still vibrant in black and white, jutted haphazardly from a pile of dead. The Great Conquest had finally been blooded.

Why You Should Back Our Kickstarter

P.J. Fox Writes

Our Kickstarter is live.  So what are we raising money for?  A book that will help you, the aspiring writer (or, indeed, previously published writer) transform your dreams of a writing life into an actual, meaningful career.  Our self publishing guide is about more than how to produce a book; it’s about how to earn a living from the proceeds of your work, and on your own terms, while maintaining the integrity of your own goals, dreams, and values.

To which you might be wondering, so?  How does this benefit me?  Why should I care?

Oh, I’m so glad you asked…

  1. Helping us reach our goal will benefit your career.  Are you a writer?  Are you thinking of one day becoming a writer?  Are you either considering self publishing right off the bat, and wondering if it’s a worthwhile idea to pursue–or are you a traditionally published writer, thinking…

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The “Self-Publishing Is For Losers” Kickstarter Is Live!

Self-Publishing Is For Losers by P.J. FoxNow’s your chance to get behind a great book designed to help indie / self-published authors not only publish their work but achieve the writing career of their dreams.  Written by P.J. Fox, author of the bestselling The Price of Desire and The Demon of Darkling ReachSelf-Publishing Is For Losers: The Evil Toad Press Guide to Self-Publishing cuts through all the BS that’s out there about self-publishing and tells you what you need to hear to make it as an indie author.

The unfortunate truth is that as many strides as self-publishing has made, there are still many out there who deride it as a license for mediocrity–hence the ironic title, Self-Publishing Is For Losers.  That’s what traditional publishing wants you to think, whether they admit it or not.  This book teaches you how to put that thinking aside and focus on building a business and career of being a professional writer.

This isn’t a technical guide on how to design your ebook in a particular file format or a primer on the step-by-step details (i.e., which button to click) of publishing a book with Kindle Direct Publishing, but rather a big picture look at the work ethic and business skills you’ll need to get your work out there and selling.  Self-Publishing Is For Losers operates under the presumption that your book is polished and good, and gives you the skill set to take it from Word document to finished product.

It offers a wealth of nuts and bolts advice on business and marketing, but more importantly it also helps you identify when it’s time to step back and hire a professional.  If you chose the self-publishing route affirmatively, because you believe in keeping control over your own work and taking control of your own career, this is the book for you.  If you want your book to look, feel, and read like a traditionally published volume you might pick up in any Barnes & Noble, this is the book for you.  If you want brutal honesty and no-nonsense advice, then you need to help us publish Self-Publishing Is For Losers–and in return, you stand to get some awesome rewards.

“Self-Publishing Is For Losers”

When I’m not doing my own writing, I’m also a co-founder of Evil Toad Press, an indie publishing company that offers a variety of editing, design, and marketing services related to self-publishing.  We’ve written a self-publishing guide called Self-Publishing Is For Losers: The Evil Toad Press Guide to Self-Publishing, and are in the process of prepping a Kickstarter to fund its production.  For now, however, you can watch our kickass book trailer:

Kindle Version of ‘Exile: The Book of Ever’ Available Now

Exile by James CormierI’m thrilled to announce that the Kindle version of my first novel, Exile, part one of The Book of Ever, is available now for $2.99 on Amazon.

Exile is young adult post-apocalyptic science fiction, a story of survival, faith, and power set in the ruins of the United States:

Centuries after the Fall, the United States has been wiped away.  The crumbling remains of the great American empire are home now only to savage, lawless tribes and packs of ravening Damned—the twisted children of the apocalypse.  Most of those few who survived humanity’s destruction spend their short lives in a violent struggle for survival.  But some light still flickers in the darkness: the Blessed of Bountiful live in seclusion, relying on walls both physical and spiritual to protect them from the Desolation that their world has become.  Among them are the Saints, those few men and women born with superhuman abilities that the Blessed see as gifts from God.

The violent apostate tribes of the Northeast Kingdom have always been a danger, but up until recently its small size and the vigilance of its people have made Bountiful an unappealing target.  As attacks on the community grow harsher and more frequent, however, even the steadfast Blessed are forced to start preparing for the worst.

With her home’s very existence threatened, seventeen year old Ever Oaks, a Saint with the power to heal, is forced to make a difficult choice, one that may come to define her people’s future…

You can read the prologue and first five chapters for free right here.

The paperback version of Exile comes out later this month.  You can also get it through KindleUnlimited or borrow it from the Amazon Prime Kindle Lending Library.

Why Didn’t the Eagles Take the Ring to Mordor?

lotr eagles memeThere’s been a rather silly meme going around on Facebook over the last few days that purports to offer an explanation (based entirely on the films) for why Gandalf didn’t simply call the Great Eagles in to carry the One Ring all the way from the Shire (or Rivendell) directly to Mount Doom.

There was a solid response on the Lord of the Rings subreddit by user Uluithiad that took the matter point by point.  It’s worth a read in its entirety, but to summarize, the points Uluithiad makes are:

  • Tolkien did not ignore or disregard the Eagles as a method of getting the Ring to Mordor; they were never a consideration for that task.  The books make clear that any open assault or entry into the Black Land would have been fruitless, as Sauron’s military might was too great.
  • Gwaihir (the lord of the Eagles) was already en route to bring news to Gandalf when he found that he needed rescuing on the pinnacle of Orthanc; Gandalf, Radagast, and Gwaihir had designed this plan previously.
  • The idea that the flying Nazgul were at all a consideration at this point in the story is simply wrong: Sauron had not yet revealed them; did not, in fact, until well after the Nine were first defeated at the Ford of Bruinen and the War of the Ring started in earnest.  The protagonists, Gandalf included, had no knowledge of the existence of the Nazgul’s flying mounts.
  • The idea that Saruman somehow caused the storms on Caradhras is an invention of the films; the snows they encounter on the Redhorn Pass are just that: snows.  There is some indication that the mountain itself might have it out for them, but Saruman was neither aware of their route nor responsible for slowing them with weather.
  • “Fly” simply means “flee.”

These are all excellent and accurate points, but I think there’s more to be said.

J.R.R. Tolkien was a man of faith–specifically, he was a Roman Catholic.  The themes and worldbuilding of his work reflect that viewpoint: the world of The Lord of the Rings, also known as Arda, is the creation of one true God known as Eru Illuvatar.  Many lesser powers (essentially, angelic beings) known as the Valar and the Maiar serve the One and act as local (for lack of a better term) “gods,” overseeing the unfolding of God’s Creation.  It was they who sent the Istari (the Wizards) to aid the peoples of Middle-Earth.

It would be a mistake to consider the question of the Eagles’ involvement with the Fellowship’s quest solely within the bounds of the immediate plot; there are higher-order reasons for why things happen in the story as they do.

First and foremost, Uluithiad is right to suggest that even if they were willing to do so, a plan based on the Eagles flying the One Ring into Morder simply wouldn’t have worked.  Sauron would likely have become aware of it almost immediately, and the idea that with all his power, both spiritual and physical, he couldn’t take down a few eagles is a bit silly.

But taking it from an entirely in-world standpoint, the meme-poster appears ignorant of the fact that Gwaihir (the Eagle who saved Gandalf) and his Eagles are servants of Manwe, High King of Arda, highest of the Valar, and lord of the air.  The Eagles are his creatures, essentially, and report to him directly, bringing him news from all parts of the world.

Which is to say, the Eagles are essentially divine messengers.  They’re servants of God (or servants of the servants of God, if you want to get technical).  They don’t often intervene directly because God and the Valar don’t often intervene directly.  Without getting into too much detail (you could, and Tolkien did, write several books on this subject alone), the Valar long ago left Middle-Earth to its own devices.  Sauron’s rise to power was in large part due to the aid and manipulation of Men and Elves, and the Valar figured that since they made their bed they could lie in it.  They didn’t leave them completely in the lurch–hence the wizards (Gandalf himself is, in truth, a Maia, one of the lower choirs of angelic beings)–but essentially, from the point of view of the Undying Lands (where the Valar dwell), Sauron was Middle-Earth’s problem.  Once the Ringbearer had completed his quest, the Eagles assisted Gandalf in saving Frodo and Sam from a fiery death.

This is consistent with the idea of agency, from a religious standpoint: God helps those who help themselves.  Mortal life, from a Christian perspective, is intended to be a learning experience.  Having God essentially do the hard part for you entirely misses the point.

Secondly, from a meta-textual point of view, the meme-poster also fails to recognize the author’s own insight and intentions into the Eagles and their purpose.

Tolkien was well aware that the Eagles were, in effect, a literary device; his collected letters contain references to this fact.  In a letter to Forrest J. Ackerman in June of 1958, in which Tolkien was commenting on a film treatment of The Lord of the Rings, he said:

The Eagles are a dangerous “machine.” I have used them sparingly, and that is the absolute limit of their credibility or usefulness.  The alighting of a Great Eagle of the Misty Mountains in the Shire is absurd; it also makes the later capture of G[andalf] by Saruman incredible, and spoils the account of his escape.

Apparently the film treatment, by a man named Morton Grady Zimmerman for an American film company interested in making an animated film of Rings, was not to Tolkien’s liking, for a variety of reasons that he enumerated in this letter.  One of those reasons was Zimmerman’s persistent over-use of the Eagles:

At the bottom of the page, the Eagles are again introduced.  I feel this to be a wholly unacceptable tampering with the tale. [Emphasis in the original.]  “Nine Walkers” and they immediately go up in the air!  The intrusion achieves nothing but incredibility, and the staling of the device of the Eagles when at last they are really needed.

If you read between the lines, it seems likely that the film company (whose treatment Tolkien referred to as treating his work “carelessly in general, in places recklessly, and with no evident signs of any appreciation of what it is all about….”) was asking the same question: why shouldn’t the Eagles take them the whole way, and why not rewrite it so that they do?

As we can see from his comments, Tolkien thought of the Eagles’ involvement in the story as being very limited.  He recognized them as a “machine,” and a “dangerous” one: meaning that he was aware of the potential for just this sort of speculation and had no patience for it.  His comment about an Eagle landing in the Shire indicates his in-world conception of the suggestion: to Tolkien, the idea of an Eagle of the Misty Mountains condescending to land in a place as foreign and simple as the Shire was ridiculous.  It seems that to him, the suggestion that the Eagles should serve as chauffeurs for the Fellowship was similar to suggesting that Gandalf ought to go around the Shire using his innate wizardly powers to light the hobbits’ hearth fires for them.

It’s dangerous, in general, to apply too much modern reasoning to The Lord of the Rings.  Not only is the work itself, in its published form, almost 60 years old, it was also deliberately created it in archaic form.  Tolkien’s stated intention in writing The Silmarillion and The Lord of the Rings was, in part, to bring an element of mythology to English history that he found lacking.  Growing up reading the Norse Eddas and such, Tolkien was disappointed in the comparative lack of English myth.  As such, he wrote The Lord of the Rings in the style of an epic saga, an ancient song or ballad: neither the pacing, the structure, or much of the story is intended in any way to be “real” or “believable” in the modern sense.  There’s a reason that he didn’t, for instance, intercut the point of view chapters in The Two Towers: because unlike a modern novel, he wasn’t interested in building false suspense in the same way.  He told Aragorn, Gimli, and Legolas’ story, then he told Frodo and Sam’s.  It was an accounting, a saga, a quest story, not a thriller.

Tolkien realized that the Eagles were, in effect, deus ex machina–almost literally–and he intended it that way.  Thematically speaking, it would be more correct to characterize the Eagles’ assistance in the beginning of the story as the kind of limited, non-interventionary guidance that the powers of the world were willing to give, and their rescue of Frodo and Sam at the very end as something of a divine reward for their struggle and self-sacrifice.

This is all academic, of course, as the poster clearly hasn’t read the books.  Read the books!

P.S.: All quotations are taken from The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, edited by Humphrey Carpenter, pp. 271-273.  I could spend hours citing each and every one of my other assertions regarding the world and characters of Tolkien’s Legendarium, but I don’t have that kind of time.  It’s all there for the finding if you look.