Archive for November, 2016

What to Do?

November 9, 2016

Last week, I handed Jim a copy of the expanded manuscript of a novel I wrote on-spec, and then turned my mind to other projects.  One of these involved climbing up into the crawlspace over our library and moving boxes around until I found the copy-edited manuscripts of a couple of my earlier novels.

(Many thanks to Cale Mims who sacrificed part of his day off, got scruffy dirty, and helped me move boxes up and down and down and up so I could get to the boxes at the very back.)

Nix Example

Nix Example

In any case, the project I mentioned a few weeks ago is underway – getting some of my early novels released as e-books.

(By the way, I still have a few copies of some of these available in the original mass market paperbacks.  Chad Merkley scored the last one of Pipes of Orpheus.  Consider taking advantage of these while I still have them, either for yourself or as unique holiday gifts.  Unlike sports and movie stars, I don’t charge extra for signing and personalization.  Take a look at my website bookstore at  If you don’t see what you’re hoping to find, feel free to query.  I may be able to work with you.)

Preparing the manuscripts is only part of the job and the one I feel most equipped to do.  The one that I’d love to solicit your input on is the importance of cover art, branding, and other elements of the general “package.”  On and off over the years, we’ve chatted about cover art, so many of you know that I find the whole question of what goes into the visual presentation fascinating.

However, fascination doesn’t mean I consider myself an expert.  It’s more along the lines of “I know what I like when I see it.”

Anyhow, it’s been suggested to me that while I’m at it, I should consider “branding” my work.  What’s “branding,” you may ask?  (I did.)

Branding has a lot of different meanings, but the one that applies here is that of designing a visual presentation that simultaneously serves two purposes.  The first is presenting the work in a fashion that will convince the reader to at least take a look at the book.  The second is sending the message “This is by that writer you like.”

A good example of effective branding has been used by the publishers of Mercedes Lackey.  Whatever she’s writing, the same font is used for her name and the book title.

Another good example is when many years ago Roger Zelazny’s work was re-released with covers that played off the same theme: black background, “mandala” art, with the cover dominated overall by the author’s name and the book’s title is white.

Branding is very common for series.  It signals the reader “Here’s another book in that series you liked.”  The challenge with branding for an author’s work – especially when that author (like me) writes all sorts of different types of stories, even within the same genres – is finding an approach that can encompass a wide variety of types of stories.

It’s been very interesting to see the different approaches.  One that caught my eye was a relatively recent re-release of Agatha Christie’s work that used her signature for the author’s name, and a relatively simple font for the title.  The cover art was also minimal.

Cover art and font can be very important.  I can think of at least two authors I discovered because the cover art made me pause and pick up the book.  One of these was Tamora Pierce’s “Protector of the Small” series.

The other was Garth Nix’s “Old Kingdom” series.  I remember that one in particular because the cover of Sabriel literally made me stop in mid-step on my way down an aisle in the library and take a closer look.  When I picked up the book, I remembered that my friend Rowan Derrick had raved about this series.  But, even without that, I might have tried them anyhow.

Recently,  Nix restarted the series, first with the release of the prequel Clariel.  Then, this October, with Goldenhand, which carries the story that ended with Abhorsen forward.  When I bought Clariel, I was disappointed to see that the package had changed.  The same font was used, although in a slightly more cursive mode, but gone were the iconic depictions of the characters.  They’re dramatic covers, certainly, but would they have stopped me in mid-stride?

No.  In fact, to me, these are covers that are selling an established series to the established fans of the series.  If you know the “Old Kingdom” series (previously called “the Abhorsen trilogy”), then you know the enigmatic markings that dominate the covers are charter marks, the basis for the mysterious magic used by those who do not practice dangerous “free magic.”  If you don’t, they’re just doodles.  The tiny band of illustration at the bottom did nothing for me.

What is cool is how Garth Nix’s name has been turned into a sort of icon in a box, perfectly suited for a wax seal or branding iron.  I really like how it looks!

So what to do?   I’d like to come up with an interesting and provocative way to present my novels, works that range from science fiction to fantasy, and are all over the place within those two diverse genres.

Is author branding something that you find appealing?  What sort of branding approaches have worked for you?  Which haven’t?  Have any turned you off?

I’d love to hear!  Your answers will help me make some major decisions in the months to come.


FF: Embarrassment of Riches

November 4, 2016

I’m in the middle of four or five different fictional works and loving it!

For those of you just discovering this feature, the Friday Fragments lists what I’ve read over the past week.  Most of the time I don’t include details of either short fiction (unless part of a book-length collection) or magazine articles.

Kel Wonders Why a Man Would Be in a Tree

Kel Wonders Why a Man Would Be in a Tree

The Fragments are not meant to be a recommendation list.  If you’re interested in a not-at-all-inclusive recommendation list, you can look on my website under Neat Stuff.

Once again, this is not a book review column.  It’s just a list with, maybe, a bit of description or a few opinions tossed in.

Recently Completed:

The Long Earth by Stephen Baxter and Terry Pratchett.  Audiobook.  More a travelogue through possible worlds with short stories tossed in than a usual novel.  I’ll take a break but at least nibble the start of the next one.

Parsifal’s Page by Gerald Morris.  I enjoyed and will continue the series when time permits.

In Progress:

The Man in the Tree by Sage Walker.  Advanced Bound Manuscript of forthcoming release.

Goldenhand by Garth Nix.  The first novel to carry the excellent “Old Kingdom” series forward since Abhorsen.  Much anticipated.

The Beasts of Tarzan by Edgar Rice Burroughs.  Audiobook.  I haven’t read this one is decades so it’s going to almost be a like a new book.


Finished the “Commercial Suicide” story arc of The Wicked and the Divine graphic novel last week.  Now dipping in to material that will move the story forward, rather than do some (much enjoyed) fleshing out of characters.

TT: Time for a Change

November 3, 2016

JANE: So, we’ve been chattering away about perennial SF/F themes.  Last week we were talking about time travel and, of course, did not have sufficient time to do justice to a complex topic.

I believe you were going to tell me about your favorite accidental time travel story.

Time for Halloween

Time for Halloween

ALAN: The very best accidental time travel story is L. Sprague de Camp’s novel Lest Darkness Fall. Martin Padway, a twentieth century archeologist, is struck by lightning and transported back to the dying days of the Roman Empire. He survives by introducing (or in some cases failing to introduce) twentieth century ideas to the society. The story is similar to Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, but it hangs together much better and, despite having been published in 1939, it hasn’t dated at all. It’s still a marvellous story.

JANE: I’ve read it and enjoyed it.  It’s definitely more a “tech” story, while A Connecticut Yankee is more a social commentary story.  Can you think of other “accidental time travel” stories?  I’m drawing a blank.

ALAN: Yes – there’re quite a few. The Ship That Sailed the Time Stream by G. C. Edmondson tells the story of a US Navy battleship equipped with some complex electronics designed to detect submarines. After being caught in a freak storm, the next thing the crew notices is a Viking longboat off the port bow…

Gerald Kersh’s short story “The Brighton Monster” is the harrowing tale of a man caught in the blast of the Hiroshima atomic bomb who is transported 200 years into the past. In a similar vein, David I. Masson’s “A Two Timer” is the story of a 17th Century man’s revulsion at the modern, 20th Century world he is transported to. This story is a little linguistic gem – it is told entirely in the vocabulary and idiom of the late seventeenth century!

But probably the most famous is Eric Flint’s 1632 (and its many, many, many sequels by other writers) in which a modern American community is stranded lock, stock and barrel in seventeenth-century Germany during the Thirty Years’ War.

JANE: Sheesh!  How could I forget?  S.M. Stirling’s Island in the Sea of Time is an accidental time travel story, and one I really love.  In this case, the entire island of Nantucket and those boats close by end up in the exact same location, but in the Bronze Age.  Unlike the “Emberverse” series, to which it is related by shared disaster, this series only goes for three volumes, each of which packs a lot of punch.

ALAN: I’m glad I could jog your memory!

JANE: So, once travel in time becomes more than an experiment, tourism is a likely development – and, as I mentioned last time, that tourism may have vast ramifications.  Still, let’s start with those stories built around simple touring.

ALAN: Plundering other times or using them for tourism is best exemplified by Robert Silverberg’s Hawksbill Station, and his hilarious (and sometimes quite dirty) Up the Line. Rather more seriously, Michael Moorcock’s Behold the Man sends an observer to the crucifixion of Jesus with unexpected results…

JANE: I keep meaning to – and forgetting – to read Behold the Man.  I wonder if some time traveler is messing with my memory.

Once people start being about to tour in time, there will be those who will wish to exploit the past – no matter how dangerous their ventures will be to others, both in the past and present.  For that reason, “time police” were a logical development.  Do you have any favorites?

ALAN: The best “time police” stories are what is arguably Isaac Asimov’s finest novel, The End of Eternity and Poul Anderson’s Guardians of Time, a fix-up novel first published in 1955. I was addicted to the Anderson stories in my childhood and I read them countless times. Baen Books republished the book (and retitled it as Time Patrol) in 2006 with some extra stories added.  I was pleased to see that it still read very well.

JANE: I can’t remember if I’ve read The End of Eternity, but I’m very fond of the “Time Patrol” tales.  I’ve often thought that they would make a great framework for a role-playing game or theme anthology because different people could run the games or write the stories within the same framework, but without the awkward problems of shared terrain.

I wonder if anyone has ever done either of these?

ALAN: I don’t know. Certainly I can’t remember any such anthologies.  I’m not a gamer, so I’m not well informed about that aspect. I wonder if any of our readers know?

JANE: Hopefully, they’ll weigh in if they do.

Now, as I recall, you separated out “wars across time” from “time police.”   Can you explain why these are different?  After all, many a modern war has developed when police action is not enough.

ALAN: I agree that they do tend to merge into each other, but I think of “time police” stories as being concerned with efforts to maintain the “real” time stream (whatever that means – the reality that is being preserved may not always be one that we recognise as our own). In other words the time police are charged with preventing actions that may change the course of history. Time wars, on the other hand, have no such concerns. Indeed, changing history may well be a deliberate tactic used by the warring sides in order to obtain a strategic advantage.

JANE: That’s an excellent differentiation.  Of course, for any of these to work, the author needs to figure out a way around what has become a very common explanation as to what would actually happen if someone played around with time.  This is that the original timeline wouldn’t change, rather an alternate would be created.

ALAN: Once you start delving too deeply into that particular aspect of time travel, you are only a teensy, weensy step away from a full-blown Alternate History story. The one segues imperceptibly into the other. Indeed, you could argue that novels such as L. Sprague de Camp’s Lest Darkness Fall are just as much Alternate History stories as they are time travel stories, and if you did, I don’t think I’d disagree with you too strongly.

Mind you, these days Alternate History stories are largely moribund because Harry Turtledove bestrides the field like a colossus and so he has the whole theme to himself.

JANE: There is some truth to that…  Still, can you recommend Time War story?

ALAN: Absolutely, but first, I just thought of another great Time Police story. John Brunner’s Times Without Number features a Society of Time that struggles hard to preserve a historical framework in which the Spanish Armada successfully invaded and occupied England. I’ve often felt that the Spanish Armada is to British SF what the Battle of Gettysburg is to American SF…

Wars across time are perhaps best exemplified by Fritz Leiber’s Change War stories. Probably the most well-known of these is his novel The Big Time.

JANE: I’ve read The Big Time, but it’s been a while.  I don’t think I realized Lieber had done other stories within that framework.

ALAN: In addition to the novel, there’s a collection of linked short stories that was published as The Change War.

JANE: Thanks!  We’ve had a lot of fun with this, but I think it’s time we turned to the Big Question…  How about next time?

Bringing the Pieces Together

November 2, 2016

This past weekend, Jim and I went to a “Space Station” themed Halloween party.  Probably because I’ve written stories for so many theme anthologies, I couldn’t resist the challenge of coming up with a costume that would fit the theme.

Tatter D'MaLeon

Tatter D’MaLeon

What I didn’t realize was how much the process of designing my costume would be similar to how I write a story.  Since “Where Do You Get Your Ideas?” is the question writers get asked most frequently, I thought I’d take you through the journey.

When I started designing my costume, almost immediately I thought of a Chinese-style brocade tunic that my friend Kathy Hedges (wife of author Walter Jon Williams) had given to me some years ago.  The tunic is lovely, but the fabric is beginning to perish.  No sooner did I have the torn hem fixed than I noticed that the back of one shoulder was ripping out.  Still, damaged or not, I couldn’t bring myself to throw the tunic out.  Now it would provide the perfect foundation for my costume.

The tunic also gave me the beginnings of a theme.  I wouldn’t try to hide the tears or fraying elements.  I’d celebrate them.  “Tatterdemalion” is a word that means “ragged or disreputable.”  I adapted it, and my yet incomplete character became “Tatter D’MaLeon.”

Next I needed something to wear on my legs.  A trip to a thrift store supplied me with a magnificent pair of metallic bronze trousers.  Many years ago – possibly long enough ago that my hosts had not yet been born – I’d indulged in a pair a fringed leather moccasin boots.  The cats had chewed the laces, so I took this as inspiration to replace them with a silvery grey parachute cord that contrasted nicely with the pale, shimmery gold of the tunic.

I decided that this party was the excuse I’d been waiting for to decorate a mask.  I’d already purchased a form from a craft store.  Now I pulled out some permanent markers and started ornamenting the surface, beginning around the eyes and working outwards.  I deliberately went for asymmetry to further develop the evolving theme of mismatched elements.

As I was working on the mask and contemplating what jewelry might go with the costume, I remembered some charms I’d purchased on clearance at an arts and crafts store.  I sewed three of these onto the tunic, then carefully drew the same shapes onto one cheek of the mask.  I highlighted these with faux gemstones, placing just a few others here and there.  While the “gems” that ornamented the charms were colored, the others were in an aurora borealis finish that highlighted, without distracting from, the other decorations on the mask.

So, as is so often is the case when I’m writing a story, various elements – some completely unanticipated at the time – came together to create a working whole: an old tunic , an even older pair of boots, a set of charms picked up on impulse.  The desire to decorate a mask created a character who would inherently be mysterious.  My friends’ space station theme (itself owing not a little to hostess Rowan Derrick’s desire to wear a particularly fetching alien costume) gave me the setting.

Since my character was original, I provided myself with a badge announcing: “Tatter D’MaLeon.  Your problem isn’t mine… Unless you want me to make it so.”

Ah, but the final part was yet to come, the twist that can make or break a story.   As anyone who has ever worn a costume based around a full-face mask knows, there is a problem with such masks.  You can’t eat or drink without considerable effort.  (Cale Mims, who came as the Scarecrow of Batman comics notoriety, drank his wine through a straw for part of the evening.)   Full-faced masks can also get hot (something we amended with the judicious use of a drill to create a pattern of air holes) and make it hard to be heard when you talk.   However, if the mask is removed, much of the costume’s effectiveness is lost.

I really didn’t want to drink my coffee (provided by Melissa “Wonder Woman” Jackson) through a straw, so I planned ahead.  I found a set of temporary tattoos built around the “tribal” theme that is quite popular.  Most were a dark greenish-black, although a few were accented with color.  With these tattoos, I constructed a secondary mask directly on my face.  I very much liked the contrast of these dark tattoos to the bright colors on the original mask.

I wore the full-face mask until most of the guests had arrived.  Then, when Melissa reminded me she had made me coffee, I removed the first mask and revealed the second.  The response was more than I could have hoped.  The best part was having Kibeth (the family dog, named for the character from the Garth Nix “Old Kingdom” novels) sit and study my face, trying to find my eyes within the twisting patterns.

And, yes, a story is evolving, a story about a mysterious figure who can be found on certain space stations or even on the deserted decks of ships sailing the void.  If you have a problem you can’t solve, you may appeal to her.  But beware the consequences.  You may get more than you bargained for…