Thursday, November 28, 2013

Future Published #1: The Love Song of Numo and Hammerfist

"Future Published" is a series of interviews devoted to fabulous unpublished authors whose work I have been blessed to read, and believe is good enough to deserve professional publication.

Today's interviewee is Reilly McCann, author of The Love Song of Numo and Hammerfist. In this case, I read Reilly's wonderfully off-beat query letter, which appeals to my love of strange and curious things. If I were an agent, I'd be requesting pages!

But enough about me. Thank you, Reilly, for journeying all the way to Elflandia!

Why don't you tell us a bit about your book?

Reilly: It's a speculative novel--a love story about two homunculus-slaves who, in my head, look like a potato with limbs and a werebadger, respectively. ...Crap, that's a really bad logline. I haven't quite worked out the logline yet. But it's sort of like Spartacus made snugglebunnies with Wall-E on a mattress made of Alchemy and Shit I Made Up and produced a big fat baby.

I notice there's a revolution in your book. Was it inspired by any thoughts about real revolutions?

Reilly: The revolution in the book is, at the outset, built on the general notion of a slave rebellion. But it turns into something bigger. The characters all have their own agendas and use the revolution for their own purposes, so it kind of snowballs...

I don't think I was aware of any specific thoughts I had on the business of revolutions. Which is a really boring answer. But it's sort of a backdrop against the question of freedom, which is a significant issue for all of the main characters. Numo, the MC, starts off having no idea what a revolution is and no concept of being "free," really, or why it would be a good thing. The story, for him, is all about the evolution of his own thoughts on the matter, and ends with his own personal rebellion, which involves stabbing people in the face and using a dead whale as a weapon.

Are politics a big part of the book, or is it basically apolitical?

Reilly: Oddly, yes, I made it kind of political, but not on purpose, and it's all fantasy politics. I don't mean to make any statements about real-world government with it, if that's what you mean. But it really surprised me when my stupid little love story ended up also being about overthrowing the (imaginary) government and gender divisions and stuff. I suspect all that will either go very well for me or very very badly.

What inspired you to write this story?

Reilly: I have no idea what inspires me to write anything. I just seem to do it, like farting, but it takes a lot more time and effort.

But as to how this specific story came out...There was some idea about messing with common tropes. Insta-love and lovers-not-meant-to-be and the like. Trying to turn those things into something fresh; facing their typical failings head-on.

And I'm pretty sure the subconscious influence of Winnie-the-Pooh had a lot to do with it. I fucking love Winnie-the-Pooh.

Who was your favorite character to write?

Reilly: Numo, the main character. Hammerfist, his love interest, has given me a hell of a time because her mental state fluctuates so much. Both of them are difficult, actually, because they're unreliable narrators to some extent. The third POV character has been "easiest," because she is human and actually knows what the hell is going on in her world. But Numo's my favorite because he's cray-cray adorbs.

Do you ever kill characters? (You don't have to answer that!)

Ever? Yes. I'm a violent heartless dickface.

Tell us a little about yourself. What are you reading these days?

Reilly: This is a weird time for me because I've just finished three years of internships at literary agencies. So I've been reading a lot of unpublished manuscripts that are all over the map, with very little time for pleasure reading, which is awful of me. But now I have time. And I have a huge fucking reading list. I'm working on Fade to Black right now. Next on the list are Sacre Bleu because I love Christopher Moore, Lone Survivors because I'm a dilettante anthro dweeb, and Divergent, because I haven't read nearly enough YA and someone told me I should read it. I'm very susceptible to suggestion.

What do think of dragons?

Reilly: Most of them are far too nice to humans. I appreciate a dragon who knows how to throw down. Although, I have to say, if I could have my own pet Toothless, I'd piss myself with glee pretty regularly.

What are you working on, now? Do you have a sequel planned, or something new?

Reilly: Right now I'm still working on this is currently pretty rough, and the ending is the literary equivalent of a toddler's smeared-poop painting on the kitchen wall. After I deal with this one, I plan to go back and try to salvage my first two manuscripts, which might be too stupid to work.

I don't have a sequel planned for this book. I'm honestly kind of awed by people who can think up sequels to things. It's an amazing gift that I might not possess. Yet, anyway.

I have an idea for a new story. Something about a professional jellyfish-stabber and a cannibal who eats her legs. A romantic comedy, in other words.

...I'm not quite sure about it yet.

It's my observation that books seem to reflect their writers. What aspect of you is reflected in your book?

Reilly: I'm told that it's weird. Or that it sounds weird, anyway. I suspect people are right, even though it seems to me like it's the least weird manuscript I've ever written. But I guess I'm predisposed to the ridiculous in any case. ;) I might be a ridiculous person.

Would you like to leave us with a quote from your book/query?

The query:
"Numo, if he is to think anything, should only think of his masters’ needs. It is only proper, after all, that a slave and homunculus devote what little his fatty brain can offer to their service, especially for two of the most esteemed alchemists in the city.

But instead, he can't stop thinking about Hammerfist.

Hammerfist, a lady battle-homunculus, has eyes like the purest embers, a mane like a sea of moon-glitter, and a horrible brain disease that is slowly eroding her sanity. The pain of squishing other slaves' heads the arena is a most ponderous weight to bear, and if she snaps, her owner will cut off her legs and dump her in the woods. Numo desperately wants to help, but presents of flowers and tree sap aren’t enough. She needs a way to get out of the arena. She needs a revolution.

Numo only wishes he knew what a revolution was.

But it doesn’t matter. If it will save Hammerfist, he’ll do anything to help. Except, of course, the things he’s too stupid to do. Things like keeping the plans for the revolution a secret from his masters.

THE LOVE SONG OF NUMO AND HAMMERFIST is a [word count] fantasy. Thank you for your time."

A quote from the book:
"The smell of the master struck him first, and the sight was equally odoriferous. Balbus was the sort of man who looked like he slept in a barrel of brine and kept company with rogues, scoundrels, and harlots. Numo did not know what a harlot was, but he often heard the word in association with things like knaves and stinkards, and he imagined that it was some sort of dirty animal that carried diseases and squirted men with milk from its poisonous bosoms."

Thanks for everything!

Lyta and the Avocado

Drawing someone cringing back in horror from what they think is a rotten egg but is actually an avocado is harder than I thought it would be. Jasper is not really complaining, though. His hair looks odd because this is the 1700s, when men powdered their hair white or wore wigs, and he has to cover up the green somehow.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Here There Be Dragons

Picture from a 17th century book, Khavarnama, about the legendary deeds of Ali. From Punjab, 1686.
The whole painting:

The Little Ice Age and Revolution

An interesting climactic observation fromNASA: "A cold period that lasted from about A.D. 1550 to about A.D. 1850 in Europe, North America, and Asia. This period was marked by rapid expansion of mountain glaciers, especially in the Alps, Norway, Ireland, and Alaska. There were three maxima, beginning about 1650, about 1770, and 1850, each separated by slight warming intervals."

Charles I of England was executed in January, 1649, after which Oliver Cromwell rose to power.
The Americans signed their Declaration of Independence in 1776.
The French got a late start in 1789, but a couple decades of crop failures and food shortages are undoubtedly to blame.
Revolutions and political upheavals swept Europe in 1848. " It remains the most widespread revolutionary wave in European history... The revolutionary wave began in France in February, and immediately spread to most of Europe and parts of Latin America. Over 50 countries were affected..."

The Russian Revolution, of course, was also prompted by suffering, death, and starvation, thought most likely due to World War I, rather than climate.

Some of these revolutions turned out well. Some turned out terribly. The Americans were quite lucky to have George Washington, and the Russians terribly unlucky to have Lenin and Stalin. But the Americans also had better access to land to feed their families, and no reactionary counter-revolution to deal with. The leaders of the French Revolution took advantage of the instability to reform the state, but (as far as I can tell,) could do little about the country's biggest problem, lack of food. The new government never had a chance. (As for the English, well, I don't know enough about the 1600s to really comment.)

When man is starving, the political order loses legitimacy and the wealthy--the folks with food--become his first targets.

Monday, November 25, 2013

New Projects

I have two new projects:

A sequel to A Midwinter Night's Revolution (title TBD), unsurprisingly, following the course of the revolutions as they unfold in France and Elfland.

A middle grade boys' adventure novel tentatively titled Quest for the Karkadann, about a young Pakistani boy who crosses the Eurasian steppe in search of a karkadann, or unicorn, the only payment the soldiers who've taken his family in war will accept for their freedom. He's robbed by a band of pirates and abandoned near a Sami village in Finland. A blind Sami boy befriends him, and together they hunt down a narwhal--but as they journey back across the continent, kings, wizards, and thieves pursue them, all wanting the horn for themselves. (Note: Finland and Pakistan are modern country names that probably didn't exist in the book's time, and ae only used here for convenience.)

The sequel is my main project right now, for obvious reasons. But I'm excited about both.

Sunday, November 24, 2013


I went through this phase a while back when I was doodling a lot of bird-people, and a lot of bird masks, and so occasionally bird-people wearing bird masks. I also had a habit of working exclusively in extremely fine point pen, which was probably not such a great idea, as the details just don't scan very well. The result here is a lot of texture, but it's fairly evenly distributed. This needs more tone. The background should be dark (I tried, but it just didn't quite work,) and the foreground should also be dark (not as dark as the background. The bird person should be highlighted, though perhaps only parts of him.

Well, I still like it, anyway.

Friday, November 22, 2013

The Most Beautiful Thing I've Seen All Year

The Court Of Gayumars, from The Shahnama Of Shah Tahmasp, by Sultan Muhammad
Click to make it big, or visit the Aga Khan Museum where I found it.

Here are some details for you:

A painting so rich and vibrant, it spills out of its frame, unconstrained, filled with jewel-toned stones and incredibly detailed plants, curling trees reminiscent of Japanese bonsais, people and animals in peaceful harmony.

The Court Of Gayumars was painted in Persia (modern-day Iran) around 1522-25, as an illustration for a book (an illuminated manuscript.) I wish I had a higher-quality picture. The original measures 47 by 32 cm, or 18.5 by 12.5 inches, so it's not a very big painting. It now resides in the Aga Khan Museum in Toronto, Canada (or will as soon as the building is finished.) In the meanwhile, the museum's exhibits are touring around other museums, and since many of them are also lovely, I recommend going to see them if they visit your city.

From the description on the website:
"...It depicts the first king, Gayumars, enthroned before his community - its members clad in leopard furs and skins - his son Siyamak seated to his left, and grandson Hushang standing to his right. Though the composition implies the just succession between father and son, signified by the spatial position between them (where left is favored), we know that this will never take place, emphasizing the inherent tragedy of the tale.

"...Though the painting lacks a signature, it is one of very few mentioned by a contemporary. In his treatise on art history, written in 1544-45 CE, Dust Muhammad praises Sultan Muhammad for his creations, calling him “the rarity of the age,” and singles out “The court of Gayumars” as a painting that humbles all artists who see it."

What a fabulous painting!

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Look What I Found: The Manafi' Al-Hayawan Of Ibn Bukhtishu: The Shiqraq, Or Green Magpie

That's right, a Medieval Persian copy of an Arabian (I think) bestiary. Well, one page of it, anyway.

From the description on the Aga Khan Museum website:

"Ibn Bukhtishu (d. 1085 CE) composed his bestiary, the Manafi' al-hayawan (Usefulness of Animals) around the middle of the eleventh century, describing the entire range of species from humans to insects, including their characteristics and medicinal properties. The original Arabic text was then translated into Persian by 'Abd al-Hadi ibn Muhammad ibn Mahmud ibn Ibrahim al-Maraghi... The illustration on this folio corresponds to the heading painted in blue, and reads, “Concerning the uses of the shiqraq”, or magpie. The text that follows describes the habits and qualities of the green magpie, which perpetually seeks flies for food. It also explains that the droppings of the shiqraq, when boiled in fat with gall, will darken white hair, and that the carat value of gold will increase if warmed up under the bird. The text above the heading belongs to a preceding discussion about the properties of the khuttal, or swallow." Read more!

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Obscure Question

I'm looking for information about Medieval bestiaries from the Middle East/Muslim world circa 900 CE. I've found lots of information about the European bestiary tradition, but for obvious reasons, not much about Middle Eastern ones. The European ones are largely descended from a Greek/Egyptian manuscript written in Alexandria around the 4th century, the Physiologus. It was apparently an extremely popular book. Some copies went west, others went east. I've found references to Syrian copies, for example, but no actual descriptions of what they contain. Since the European descendents tend to be very religiously didactic, I'm curious about the way the Muslim varieties evolved. Anybody got any leads?

Click for the big version to see the details of this lovely piece.

This is a painting of the explorer Ibn Battuta's visit to the Persian-Mongol city of Tabriz in 1327. (Painted in the late 1400s.)


The magic peridens tree, keeper of the birds.

The one on the left is supposed to be from a 12th century English illuminated manuscript, the Aberdeen Bestiary; the one below is probably from a closely-related copy.

The text reads:

"The perindens is a tree in India. Its fruit is sweet throughout and exceedingly pleasant; doves delight in it and live in the tree, feeding on it. The dragon is the dove's enemy; it fears the tree and its shadow, in which the doves dwell; and it cannot approach either the tree or its shadow. If the shadow lies towards the west the dragon flees to the east, and if the shadow falls towards the east, the dragon flees to the west. If it should happen that a dove is caught out of the tree or its shadow, the dragon kills it...." (The rest of the text explains the religious metaphor.)


A unicorn and a bear from the Ashmole Bestiary, created in the 12th or early 13th century in England.

The bestiary also has this to say, on "Fire-Bearing Stones":

"On a certain mountain in the east [note: this may mean east of Alexandria, Egypt, as the Medieval bestiaries appear to derive from a text written in Alexandria, the Physiologus], there are fire-bearing stones which are called in Greek terrobolem; they are male and female. When they are far from each other, the fire within them does not ignite. But when by chance the female draws near to the male, the fire is at once kindled, with the result that everything around the mountain burns."

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Query Peeves #9: The Choice That Ain't.

"Faced with overwhelming obstacles, Mona must chose between a soul-sucking life with her abusive boyfriend Steve, or riding rainbow glittercorns with super-gorgeous manhunk Sven."

The choice that ain't is exactly that: not a real choice. Oh, sure, it's been dressed up like a choice, perhaps with a little frock coat and some new shoes, but we all know there's no way in hell that Mona's sticking with Steve. When one side of the choice is awful, the other is awesome, and there are no consequence besides the obvious, that's not a choice, it's just a change of plans.

The choice that's not a choice can also show up as two choices which are equally good, eg, "Mona must decide whether to become the fairy princess of Elfland, or the dragon princess of Dragonia." Maybe that's a hard decision for Mona, but unless something awful hangs in the balance, the outcome is still going to be Happily Ever After (or whatever) no matter what Mona picks, so who cares?

And "Who cares?" is definitely not what you want anyone to think about your query.

Here's an example of a real choice: "The clock is running out. Bob can follow the crazy old man's clues to try to find his sister before the terrorists kill her, or he can try to warn the officials that the bridge is about to blow up in the middle of rush hour." No matter what Bob does, someone's going to die. His sister is more important to him than a bunch of strangers, but his sister's only one person, and there are a bunch of them. That's a choice that matters.

Friday, November 15, 2013

I've found the Muffin Man

Drury Lane is real!

Query Peeve #8: Protagonist Does Diddly Squat

You might think this one was obvious, but the main character in a query needs to actually do things. (And please oh please, the character also has to do things in the novel.) And yet, one of the most common mistake I see query-writers make is to focus on everyone and everything but the MC. In an extreme but not to rare case, the MC was the subject of exactly one sentence in the entire query. In another, the query contained no named characters.

Even when the focus is on the MC, they can still be passive. Beware of verbs like "learns," "decides," "thinks," and of course, "researches" (see Peeve #6: The Research Montage). Be also wary of "must." It may sound strong, but it actually tells me that your MC is a puppet.

None of these is terrible, and I certainly wouldn't command you to banish them from your query forever, but I do recommend caution. Your MC may be the subject of these sentences, but they still aren't being active--all of these verbs can be accomplished while sitting on the sofa in your underwear. What we want to see in a query is what your MC does to accomplish their goal, and that means action.

And if the MC doesn't have a goal to accomplish, you've got a problem.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Query Peeve #7: The List o' Wacky Sidekicks

"The MC then hooks up with a vegetarian werewolf, a stripper with Tourette's, and a sentient tomato."
(NB: I made up this example. I'm not trying to pick on any actual queries!)

"Look at me!" cries the list. "I'm wacky! My book is so much fun!"

Unfortunately, since I don't know any of the characters in the list of wacky sidekicks, I don't care about them. The effect isn't "fun" so much as "Did you use Mad Libs to write your outline?"

Ditch the list.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Query Peeve #6: The Research Montage

The research montage takes many forms, from tracking license plates to reading the contents of the enemy's file cabinet, from Googling folks to "being informed" by all and sundry. The research montage takes the place of your plot, devouring whole paragraphs of a query and pooping them out as images of your protagonist spending 2/3 of the book sitting on their butt, reading Wikipedia.

In case you are still unconvinced, here are some more reasons why the Research Montage should be banned from your query:
1. It tends to be very passive. Characters are often just given the information by other characters, or find it somewhat by happenstance. Some of that is fine for a story, but queries are short, and need to be active.
2. Research is boring. It may be necessary, it may be the mark of hard work and dedication, but it sure ain't interesting, not unless you're researching something fascinating/horrifying, or are going about it in some super-interesting way.
3. Most research is done on your butt. I know, because I do a lot of it. Now, if your character does research by torturing people, or breaking into their offices, or sending out armies of lawn gnomes to abduct their knickers, well, I'm not sure what kind of research would involve people's knickers, but it's probably a lot more interesting than watching me read a book about the Russian Revolution.
4. We generally don't care about the information in the montage, anyway. I mean, look, would you describe Harry Potter by telling us that Harry goes to a magic school where he has to write essays about the history of magic, make potions, and chart horoscopes? Or would you tell us that it's about a Dark Wizard who's trying to take over the world, and the boy who has the power to stop him? We don't read Harry Potter to learn how to care for blast-ended skrewts, but for the epic story of good verses evil and the bit about ordinary kids going to a really cool magic school.
5. Most research montages can be summarized in a single line or left out entirely. "Character learns X," and then move on to the exciting bits.

Happy querying!

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Armistice Day

Query Peeve #5

Regurgitating other people's language to almost say what you want, but not quite.

This is not the same as merely using cliches--a cliche may actually express exactly what you mean, even though you can instantly pick it out as cliche.

This is subtler. This is a language that sounds correct when you skim, but if you actually read it, falls apart into bits and phrases that don't work together and don't say what the author seems to want to say. It is as though, in an attempt to "sound like a writer", the author has abandoned their own words and phrases, and is attempting to cobble together the words and phrases of others, stitching them together in a Frankenstein's Monster with two left hands and poor fine-motor skills.

I'll give an example from my own life:
When I started middle school, the academic expectations shifted dramatically. In 6th grade, a "book report" was little more than a shoe-box diorama of a scene from the story. The summer before 7th grade, I had to write a real, multi-page book report, using actual words to explain things like what I liked about the book and why.

One term I ended up using in pretty much every middle school book report was "imagery." I claimed to like the particular book because I liked the author's use of "imagery," (which then gave me an opportunity to take up a few lines of text with a quote from the book, of course,) even though I actually didn't understand what this term means, nor did my examples reliably demonstrate the use of it. "Imagery" just happened to be an intelligent-sounding word which I interpreted as "the author uses words which make pictures in my head," which of course describes any book I like. What I could not do, what I perhaps did not have the words or training or skill to do, was to actually differentiate between and write coherently about the many different ways authors make pictures appear in my brain. Is the writing sparse, heavily slanted toward verbs and action? Or are there long, lyrical descriptions? Are the characters vibrant and fun, or are they meant to be more realistic? What of the pacing, action, or development of moral conflicts?

In the end, I did fine and made As, because cobbling together six (or was it twelve?) pages of something that sounds like English is generally good enough for school (especially given the high emphasis on regurgitating what you've learned.) Imitating others is a fine way to learn, one step on the road to truly absorbing the material and being able to truly use it. But ultimately, we do have to absorb, to make the language our own, to master its nuances and not just use words because they sound good in our heads, but because they actually say what we want them to say.

Good luck!

Friday, November 8, 2013

Too Much Revolution

All of the earth-ponies tremble beneath the IRON HOOF of STALIN PONY.

Um. Maybe I shouldn't try to research and watch MLP at the same time?

Query Peeve #4

Too many words.

Your Friends Are Incapable of Critiquing Your Writing

Almost everything that comes out of your friends' mouths about your writing is completely and utterly useless, for two simple reasons:

1. Your friends are liars.
2. Your friends cannot critique in the first place.

No, I don't mean that your friend are depraved sinners who are trying to deceive you in some nefarious scheme of writing-related ego-inflation. Your friends lie because they like you. Sure, your book is dry as a rock and has serious POV issues and they never made it past page twenty, but they would never, under any circumstance, say that to your face.

The rare friend who actually gives you real feedback on your writing is probably about to be your ex-friend for being a meanie pants who makes up horrible things because you know your writing is fantastic because all of your real friends said so. And since your friends don't want to be your ex-friends, if they have any sense in their heads, they'll keep saying nice things about your writing.

I have been known to lack this sense.

Second, even if your friends (family, or loved ones) genuinely want to help and have a relationship with you where they can actually speak freely of any issues they say in your work, chances are they're no better at writing than you are, much less critiquing. Critiquing is itself a skill--something I've learned the hard way, by slowly struggling to get better at it. A person (even a person with some skill at writing,) may look at a pair of books and say, "I liked this one better than that one," but still not be able to articulate why. Likewise, they may be able to read something you've written and have a vague sense of its position between "BURN IT" and "I'm going to marry your book," but exactly where and why it falls there--much less how to improve things--is far more obtuse. And even relatively good critiquers can fall into the trap of applying their own genre and stylistic preferences to a work that happens to be a different sort of narrative beast.

The best thing I have found, so far, is to find a good group of people (they can even be your friends, if you're lucky!) who can give you good, honest feedback, and learn to listen to that feedback without getting offended, and then take and use what works for you and what helps you achieve the vision you have for your particular work, and leave the rest.

And then, critique in turn, because not only do critique circles not work if people merely take from others but never give, but also because explicitly working out what does and doesn't work in another's piece is a very good way to eventually have the same thoughts penetrate your noggin re: your own work.

Good luck!

Query Peeves #3

Your character's a sociopath.

Murders are happening, and your character is thrilled, because shiny personal reason. Parents die, and character goes on as if nothing happened. Mass suffering, and the MC is just concerned with her crush. Character does objectively terrible thing to other character, without any indication that the character is supposed to be a sociopath. Character seeks revenge on someone far in excess of described sins.

These are usually just query-writing mishaps. It is very easy, especially when trying to compress and simplify a whole novel's worth of complicated morals and reasonings, to end up with something that just doesn't read quite the way you intended it to. I know because I've done it. :)

This is why it is so important to get feedback on your work! (Not from friends. Your friends + family are almost guaranteed to be completely incapable of giving useful feedback.) Other people are very useful for telling you if you've accidentally said something you didn't mean, and for telling you when you've fixed it. Not everyone likes or wants or needs a lot of feedback, and one must of course be wary of falling into the trap of trying to please everyone (which is impossible and will just make your work terrible,) but it is still good to have at least the occasional real bit of feedback.

Reflections on History in Response to a Friend's Comments

You're correct; history is a social construct which is ultimately forced to lie. To explain is to simplify, and to simplify is to lie. We pick the particular narratives we wish to tell (or accept our narratives from the structures and information around us,) and then pick the events which fall into our narrative tales.

And yet babies, bathwater: there are broad trends, changes, things that come and go; the Roman Empire was once a thing, and now is not; we can speak of the spread of technological innovations across continents and the planet; etc. To ignore broad trends simply because of outliers is also a lie. There are fairly discreet waves of human migration which show up in archaeological, historic, and genetic records. The Vikings, IMO, are simply outliers in the European record; they were not part of a broader European social movement, but a local Viking one. Their exploits in Greenland and North America were not known much (if at all) outside of their colonies, did not inspire any wider action, and ultimately failed. The Age of Exploration, by contrast (symbolically kicked-off by Columbus,) represents a massive global population migration.

The European migration is not really exceptional as a migration per se, except that technological advances allowed it to happen rapidly, and that it was recent and involved many of our ancestors. (Original comment was directed toward a European-descended person living in a former European colony.) But in the history of migrations it is just that, and it is over, and other migrations are now happening, and the population of the world is always changing and re-combining and we are all the products of a great many different folks who've come before us.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Query Peeves #2

Part of my ongoing observations from the query trenches.

#2: Punctuation errors.

I don't mean the occasional typo. I mean three missing commas in one sentence.

When I was a kid, if I handed my mother work I hadn't proofread myself, and she found an error, I was in for a scolding and then sent back upstairs to re-do it. "Read it out loud!" she'd holler after me. It was not fun. I grumbled. I put my head on my desk. What a tyrant! But to her, to give her something with obvious errors which I could have caught myself was lazy and rude. I was wasting her time instead of doing the best job I could.

Thankfully, the lesson eventually sank in.

When I see a query riddled with punctuation errors, I consider two options: either the poster didn't bother to check their own work, or the poster actually does not know how to punctuate. Either way, this is a bad sign for a manuscript, because no matter how brilliant the story, there's absolutely no way I am going to wade through hundreds of pages of comma errors. I've done it, and it's soul-suckingly awful unless you're getting paid for it. Which your agent isn't.

If you're having trouble with punctuation, I strongly recommend the time-honored tradition my mother taught me of reading your work out loud. If this doesn't work, buy/borrow a grammar workbook and work through it, and then read your work out loud. If that doesn't work, hire an editor. :)

Remember, we all lose the occasional comma. But when it comes to queries, you've really got to put your best foot forward!

Still reading 1917...

Goddamn, Lenin, goddamn.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Query Letter Pet Peeves #1

A couple of months down in the trenches reading queries and poking queries and trying to write queries and critiquing queries has left me with a lot of random thoughts about queries. So I thought I'd do a series on them, in no particular order.

Query pet peeve #1: Normal character's motivation given as, "Just wants to be normal."

This only works if your character is not normal to start with, and the thing that's making them not normal is unpleasant. For example, "James just wants to go to prom like all of the normal kids, but he lives in a giant bubble because he has no immune system and dancing with Polly Stevensen could give him a cold that would kill him. But when Pretty Polly asks him to dance, James decides to ditch his bubble and risk death for a normal life."

Alas, every query I've seen where the character is described as "just wants to be normal," does not meet this standard. (Sometimes there is something abnormal about the main character, but it's something awesome, which just leaves me scratching my head. I mean, who wouldn't want to have superpowers? Isn't that the whole reason we read these things, for vicarious wish-fulfillment?) Instead, "Wants to be normal" is usually a hand-wavy way of saying, "Has no particular motivations, doesn't want anything, and is just going along with life," which translates in my head to, "BORING BORING BORING."

Look, even BORING people have real motivations. Maybe they want to get an A on their test so Mom won't yell at them. Maybe they want to find the perfect ice cream cone. Maybe they're trying to avoid their nagging spouse. Or maybe they want to sprout wings and develop telepathy and running off with a super-hot elf prince to become nomadic Mongol warriors, let's not judge, some people have slightly more ambitious dreams than others.

Point is, everyone has dreams, goals, and motivations, so PUT THEM IN YOUR QUERY. And if your character really, truly has no motivations, GO BACK AND REWRITE.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Ebu Gogo

So, you know those "hobbits" they found over on the island of Flores, Indonesia? Turns out there's a better name for them: Ebu Gogo.

Yes, just like practically everyone, as far as I can tell, the folks who live on Flores tell tales of diminutive people running around in the woods. In England they're elves and fairies, in Germany goblins and dwarves, in Flores, we have Ebu Gogo.

Ebu Gogo is more of a traditional goblin than a dwarf--noted for stealing food, including human babies, and not being terribly intelligent or using language (though of course unfamiliar languages often sound like gibberish if you've never heard one before.) Humans supposedly got pissed off due to the baby-eating and decided to wipe out the Ebu Gobo some time ago, though it's not clear when, or if some survived in the jungles.

While the Flores "hobbit" matches Ebu Gogo pretty well, at least in terms of stature, I'm not exactly convinced by the argument that Ebu Gogo actually represents a 12,000 yr old folk memory of the little folks (assuming, also, that the Hobbits aren't just humans who happen to have had some kind of unfortunate condition.) We humans seem pretty bad at remembering crucial bits of information like "Vitamin C or die!" and the first time my husband attempted to tell the story of The Three Little Pigs, it became a garbled mess involving overly-pushy insurance salesmen.

It seems far more likely that the stories were either made up completely, or reflect more recent interactions with other people or creatures in the forest, like monkeys, feral children, or the short-statured humans (pygmies) who still live in the area. Likewise, stories of goblins, dwarves, hobbits, elves, etc., do not seem to reflect any ancient European folk memories (no tiny skeletons have been uncovered in European caves, despite plenty of effort expended in search of skeletons,) though they could have been inspired by interactions with regular humans who happen to be short.

Still, all that aside, it seems more appropriate to name the probable new hominin after the local creature, rather than a British one. (Though one might argue that this method does avoid confusion with/support for the 'folk memory' hypothesis.)

Monday, November 4, 2013


A MIDWINTER NIGHT'S REVOLUTION is a 95,000 word YA Fantasy Romance that questions the divine right of kings and the idea that any "race" deserves to be oppressed, set on the eve of the French Revolution and the Declaration of the Rights of Man.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Goblin X

"There are two kinds of goblins in this world, the field goblin and the hobgoblin. The hobgoblin serves the nobles. He eats the leftovers from their tables and says, 'What a fine city we have. What fine buildings we are building.' The field goblin works for himself. The field goblin is wild and free and that's why the fae hate him."
--Baku Nin, A Midwinter Night's Revolution.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

The Fabulous Eurasian (or Asianeuro) Steppe

So much of history as experienced in the US is American and Western European-focused, with the occasional nod toward Egyptian pyramids and a vague sense that China and Japan exist way over there, on the far rim of the continent. Africa is often mistaken for a country, the Middle East is some kind of camel-filled no-man's land in the middle, and fuck if we can find India--isn't that a continent or something? And Latin America, whatevs, man.

But hey, I had two whole years of Texas history in school; surely that makes up for it!

Anyway, it turns out that there actually are people who live in the middle of Eurasia, not just its fringes (who knew!) Millions of people, whose cultures and empires spanned thousands of years and thousands of miles, creating an amazing (to me, anyway) intersections and cultural encounters.

For example, see Ortu Kan's article, "The Qagan of Rus and Viking Muslims in Volga Bulgaria". The title alone should be enough, but here's a quick excerpt, "The Khazars’ power could hardly have failed to make an impression on those from the Nordic world who joined with indigenous populations of the eastern lands in a common quest for silver, and in fact the head of their first recorded polity to the east of the Baltic sported the same title as that of the Khazar ruler, chaganus or kagan." (It is from "Rus" that we get "Russia"; kagan means "great khan," as in Genghis (Chengis) Khagan.) Of course there is the possibility of someone here simply using the term simply to aid in translation, not because it was actually in use among the Vikings at the time. But still, it's an intriguing possibility, and at any rate, it indicates that the Mongol term was better known or prefered in Eastern Europe at the time than the local European, Norwegian, or Arabic terms. Which gives some impression of the power and vastness of the Mongol Empire.

A snapshop of 7th-century Kashgar

I know nothing about Kashgar or the Tocharians potentially discussed in the post, but clearly I ought to.

Indian subcontinental gene flow into aboriginal Australia c. 4200 years ago? "We also detect a signal indicative of substantial gene flow between the Indian populations and Australia well before European contact, contrary to the prevailing view that there was no contact between Australia and the rest of the world."

People move around. A lot!

Slave-raids in Republican China. " Throughout the Thirties and Forties the Yi moved at will over southern Sichuan, terrorizing the Han Chinese populace and even raiding the outskirts of large Chinese towns in order to rob and take slaves. Observers report that at the first sound of gunfire, terrified Chinese peasants would huddle in their houses, not daring to help their neighbors and hoping only that they would not be attacked next. In some places Yi raids were a nightly occurrence."

And back to the Russian/Mongolian border: Russo-Buryat warfare, 17th century and Going Native on the Buriatic Steppe. "The original inhabitants of this Russian-Mongolian borderland were a Mongol people, the Buryat. ...they were the first formidable nationality, after the Tatars, the Russians encountered on their march across Siberia."

I'm still not sure how Russia got to be so big, but I guess that's a research topic for another day. In the meanwhile, I still want to write a book set among all of this movement.

If only we had no copyright laws...

11 Amazing Fake 'Harry Potter' Books Written In China

"...the author took the text of J.R.R. Tolkien's "The Hobbit" and replaced the character names with names from the Harry Potter universe. Except for Gandalf -- he remains and joins forces with the Potter crew." --Sam Greenspan

Friday, November 1, 2013

Trying to learn about everything at once leaves me with a lot of tabs I want to post about... And not a lot of time.

The History of the World in a Single Chart

This just made my day:

Beautiful, isn't it? (My only complaint is that the three shades of red are difficult to differentiate.)

The colors represent what you might call genetic lineages, that is, genes of people who are closely related. Humans over the millenia have moved around, and isolated groups soon possess their own distinct genetic profile. In time, the groups reunited and mixed back up, producing a world of genetic mixture. I'm not going to bore you by babbling on at length about everythign in it, but if something's unclear, feel free to ask and I'll do my best to answer. :)

Here's the handout it came from:

(It's mostly just a summary of the project.)