Witchy Writer: An Interview With Dave Butler

Today on The Logoccentric Orbit, I am interviewing Dave Butler, author of the groundbreaking Witchy War series. I won the first book, Witchy Eye, at DragonCon last year in hardcover for being a complete sci-fi nerd, and beating the tar out of my fellow panelists at Sci-Fi trivia. It is one of the best book prizes I have ever won. I strongly recommend it, and am now about halfway through the second book, Witchy Winter, which my wife and I are reading together. This led me to invite Dave Butler to do the first author interview I’ve ever hosted on my blog.

One of the things I love about the Witchy War universe is that it is incredibly detailed, with a rich history. How much research did you do for this series before writing the first book?

I tend not to do very much research specifically for my books. For these books, I did a lot of reading, but I didn’t think of it as research at the time. Let me tell you about how I came to write Witchy Eye as an example. Several things I was reading at the time came together, and from those I concocted the basic stew of this story. One of them was a work of historical anthropology called Albion’s Seed, which is a classic work of history by David Hackett Fisher. The basic argument is that we think of the immigrants [that founded the US] as being from England, but there are at least four distinct waves of immigration coming from different parts of England, each with their different dialects and cultures. Now, I didn’t read that as research, I just read it. And then, as I was trying to think of a book to write, I was reading the Brothers Grimm to my kids. And at the same time, I was reading a history of the Thirty Years’ War and realized, embarrassingly late, that the setting of the Brothers Grimm, this whimsical setting full of lords mayor and bishops who are also princes, is early modern Germany. So what eventually became the Witchy War series started out as an idea to retell the Brothers Grimm in early America. While I tend not to research specifically for a book, what I read very much informs what I write.

Hmmm. And here I was trying to figure out how NOT to ask the dreaded commonplace: “Where did you get the idea for this book?” and yet you’ve answered it anyway. How cool is that?

Along those lines, let me throw out one more piece at you. The heroine of Witchy Eye is a character named Sarah, who is 15 years old. She has one eye that has never opened, which has become a festering wound in her head, and she is called, by various characters, ‘The Witchy Eye.” My second child, when she was four months old, my brother was visiting us and noticed that her eyes were dilated to different diameters. And it turns out it was not a sign of concussion, but was in fact a harmless neurological condition in which some people’s eyes dilate at different rates. And so, from the age of four months, I have called her my witchy-eyed child.
Also, my son was born with one ear folded flat against his skull, because in utero his head was pressed up against the uterine wall. And my third child has a recessive gene on my wife’s side for very curly hair. So she has this extremely curled, white-girl ‘fro.
So these three facts about my kids are part of the basic inspiration for this story, which is fundamentally about three siblings who come to learn of each other’s existence, and each of them is marked from birth—one with a disfigured eye, one with a strange ear, and one with strange hair—because of the inheritance they have from their dead wizard father.

That’s awesome. Now, as a history teacher, I have to ask some questions stemming from my own professional geekiness, so here goes: You have created a universe, here, in which the Enlightenment never really happened. Was there anything in particular that led you to that concept?

Well, these books are often called alternate history, which is a fair thing to call them, but they’re not alternate history in the sense in which that term is usually used. In the Harry Turtledove sense, that usually means taking a moment in history I regard as pivotal, changing the outcome of that moment, and then writing a story exploring how things might have been different as a result. And that’s not this. In a way, it’s more of a cartoon. It’s rewriting the world as it is to make a lampoon of it. I try to show some things about the world that I think are interesting or important. And if there is at a moment at which the timeline diverges, it’s pretty much in the Garden of Eden. The word ‘human’ doesn’t even appear, but there are several species of human around, and one of the major themes is the struggle among them. So it wasn’t that I wanted to erase the Enlightenment, but I did want to give the Thirty Years’ War and the English Civil War a different significance. And doing so meant that Protestantism got written out…

Because those got replaced by the Serpentwars, correct?

Yes. So there are movements in the Witchy War universe that are Protestant-like, but no Protestantism, but many of those historical figures still have roles to play, such as Calvin and Robespierre showing up as lawyers, for example.

I laughed out loud when I came across “St. Thomas Paine,” as a holy figure of the Catholic Church.

I find it difficult to write pure humor, but neither can I write books that are purely humorless, so the books have a number of jokes baked into them, and some are kind of “highbrow” and some are fairly broad pop-cultural jokes.

And you just anticipated another of my questions, which was what the chief point of divergence that differentiates the Witchy War universe from our own. But I noticed that of the major figures of the Enlightenment, Newton perhaps being the sole exception, most of them have been pretty evil: Cromwell the Necromancer, the Sorcerer Robert Hooke, and so on. Was there anything about Cromwell that made you choose him as an avatar of evil? Or drove you to select Newton as the good wizard that opposed him?

Well, Newton was interested in many things that we today would call occult, and in fact when he proposed the laws of gravity, many of his peers, who were steeped in Aristotelian science, said, well, that’s action at a distance and is therefore occult. And it didn’t help that Isaac couldn’t explain WHY there was gravity, only that there was. So it’s kind of a truth to say that Isaac was one of the last great wizards in history.
As far as Cromwell goes, we tend to look at him as a force of progress, a democrat who is moving toward universal suffrage. But there are other lenses through which to see him, especially when you consider the idea of the Divine Right of Kings, which says that the king is God’s representative on the Earth. From that point of view, Oliver Cromwell is a kind of cosmic villain. He is the man willing to raise his hand to strike down the Lord’s anointed. So I wanted to use Cromwell as a cosmic figure, relating to one of the book’s themes.

In the second book, I actually use a term from Classical Egyptian, djet er nekhekh, which means “enduringly and repeatingly.” For the Egyptians, there were two kinds of eternity—that which continues indefinitely, and that which disappears, but then returns. (By the way, I make the suggestion in the books that this is an idea that comes from astronomy—in the northern hemisphere, we see some stars that never go away, and some that go away and return. So that’s my great contribution to Egyptology. We’ll see if anyone notices.) One of the themes of the books is that there are differing views of eternal life. Cromwell believes that eternal life means you never die. But some of the other forces believe that it means recurrence. Cromwell is science standing against death.

Which leads to another question: Are you going to get around to explaining the theology behind this world at any point? Like, why God might have made a different decision regarding an Earth with MANY sentient species and usable magic, as opposed to our world, in which we have a Christian theology that forbids magic entirely? And with which most readers are familiar with, at least in passing?

I don’t think I mean that to be forever a mystery. Most of the gods in this series are in fact things people could be familiar with from our world, such as pagan beliefs and Vodun. So this universe is polytheistic in that sense, but I think ultimately what you will see by the end is the ecology of a God that is rooted in the Bible but that includes not just a single God, but includes a triad of gods: Father, Mother and Child and how that includes many creatures, some of my own devising.

And are the Heron King, Peter Plowshare and Simon Sword, completely your own creations, or do those have a basis in history of which I am not aware?

No, those are my own creation.

Since we’re talking about religions, here’s a question at least partly from ignorance: You’re a practicing Mormon, and as I understand, Mormon religious tradition involves the story that the prophet Nephi led his people to establish a civilization in the New World. On the back of Witchy Winter is a site designated Na’avu. I know that in the TV series The Expanse the Mormons called the interstellar colony ship they were building the Nauvoo. I don’t know the significance of that term in the Mormon faith. How much, if any, did your Mormon faith inform your construction of the world of the Witchy War?

Well, Nauvoo is Hebrew for “beautiful,” and it appears in the Song of Songs in the Old Testament. The only real significance of the name is that the Mormons built a settlement in Illinois during their migration westward, and called it Nauvoo the beautiful. For me that name is one of several jokes or call-outs that some people will catch.

Am I trying to write a re-written version of Mormon history, the way Orson Scott Card did with his Seventh Son series? No.

Am I trying to influence people to think a certain way about Mormons or Mormonism? No.

Does Mormonism influence what I write? Of course. I am a practicing Mormon, I live in Utah. I’m not just a little Mormon, so of course it does influence my writing. The books are theological: not in the sense of wanting to preach or teach anything, but in the sense of exploring ideas in a context of faith. I consider myself a seeker in my faith.

There’s a lot of Bible in these books—the characters take their vocabulary from it, and their ideas about order, and their magic. I’m trying to find the soul of America as it exists for me, and many Americans have seen and still do see themselves as living out the epic of the Bible. Mormons do, certainly, but so do others. I think you can’t tell a true story about America and what it means if the Bible is not somehow involved. So as I tell this story, it’s inevitable that my Mormonism is part of the equation. But it’s not an allegory or a missionary tract.
One more thought, which I’m afraid is sort of grandiose, but I’ll say it anyway. Tolkien wrote to a Jesuit friend that he was afraid nobody would like The Lord of The Rings because it was too Catholic. T.A. Shippey, who followed Tolkien in his chair at Oxford, commenting on this letter said frankly he had no idea what Tolkien was talking about. And that’s funny, because it’s obvious that you can look at Tolkien and see Christianity and Catholicism. To give just one example, Sauron falls on March 25th, and that becomes the new year of Gondor. And Tolkien the medievalist knew that March 25th was believed by medieval Christians to be the date of the crucifixion. What was Tolkien doing? Trying to build a mythology for his native land, in which his Catholicism inevitably shines through. And I am trying to do the same thing for America. So it will have a lot of idiosyncratic stuff in it, including my Mormonism.  

Now I’d like to ask some questions about the series in general. Is magic in this universe something that anyone can do? Or only certain people?

Both. Some people have the talent to practice magic at a high, theoretical level, called gramarye. Firstborn tend to have more of that gift. Most people, however, practice magic through a sort of hedge-wizarding tradition, using the rituals of actual magical traditions.

One of the things I’m very curious about is this: Sarah is child of a union between the firstborn AND what would we would think of as “normal human?” She thinks of herself as firstborn by the time she knows her heritage. Are the firstborn traits “dominant” in any sense?

That’s an interesting question, and not one I’m sure will ever definitively answer. Even among the characters in the books, there’s not always a sharp dividing line. It’s possible I will write stories exploring this in the future.

Aside from what happens to the soul at the moment of death, what is the difference between a purely human-looking Firstborn and what we would think of as an ordinary human?

It’s possible you wouldn’t be able to tell. You could tell if they came into contact with silver, because there’s something in their blood that reacts badly to it. It will cause them pain if they contact it, and injury if the contact is prolonged.

How did you come to sell Witchy Eye to Baen?

I went to WorldCon in Reno in 2011, trying to make contacts. Among others, I noticed that Toni Weisskopf was there doing a “Strolling With the Stars” event, in which you could meet famous people by going on a walk with them. So I went and discussed Witchy Eye with Toni, and shortly after that my agent at the time dumped me. So I sent the book to Toni on my own in February 2012, and her first response was, “Hey, this might not be the best fit for us.” So you have to be smart when you talk to editors—you don’t want to crowd them, and you also don’t want to let the connection go cold. So I’d wait for good news, drop her a line, and say, “Hey, congratulations that your author won such-and-such, and I look forward to hearing from you when you’ve had a chance to read my book.” In the meantime I got a new agent, and my first sale was a three-book deal to Random House.  So I mentioned Witchy Eye to my agent, and then went to Sasquan and told her that I was going there to talk to editors about having her send them this book. She was more of a children’s literature agent, so she didn’t know a lot of these people directly. I said, I will give you the contacts and you can submit to them. So I went up and connected with 4-5 editors, including Toni, who had not yet read the book, and then had my agent submit to them. Including Toni. So in 2016, Toni came back and made me an offer. So my experience wasn’t nearly the straight line you hope for, as a beginning author. And I got very lucky, because I passed up a number of opportunities that would have seen it published if I had been willing to rewrite it in ways I didn’t really want to. And the moral, here, by the way is not, “Hold fast to your vision, you will succeed in the end.” The moral is, I got lucky.

So you’ve just delivered Book 3, Witchy Kingdom, to Baen. Do you know how much further the series goes, or is this the end?

It’s planned for six. The second half will have a different naming convention, so it’s kind of two soft trilogies. I have other projects in the works that I can talk about. The Cunning Man, which I co-wrote with Aaron Michael Ritchey, is coming out in November from Baen. It’s set in 1935, about a beet farmer who learned traditional lore from his grandmother, and uses his magic to fight the evils of the Great Depression.
I also have hopes to sell a book entitled The Palace of Sorrow and Joy, which is a kind of a sword and sorcery noir about two thinking-men down on their luck, working as thugs, who end up getting targeted as patsies in an insurance fraud scheme involving murder. I’m also hoping to publish a middle-grade series, sort of an Encyclopedia Brown/Dr. Doolittle style set of books called The Tarantula Thief, which is about a boy who talks to animals and uses that skill to fight evil in his school and neighborhood, and I’m in about 4-5 anthologies coming out this fall.

Tell me about what winning the Whitney Award means to you.

There are two Mormon literary awards, the Association for Mormon Letters Award and the Whitney Award, and Witchy Winter won them both. I’ve seen that winning awards has almost no effect on sales, but awards do mean that someone read your book and thought it was good. For years, I got used to being an also ran—I was a finalist for the Dragon Awards and the Whitneys and the AML before—so from a morale standpoint, it’s awesome to finally win.

I’d just like to take a moment at the end to thank Dave for being a great guest on the blog, and for being very approachable and helpful both online and at DragonCon last year. For those of you intrigued by the series, you can buy the first book on Amazon right here.

Newsletter Launch! With FREE (small) BOOK!

So for a long time, now, I’ve had a CONTACT THE AUTHOR page set up on my blog. And now it’s time to kick that into high gear, because it’s time for a NEWSLETTER LAUNCH!

That’s right, I’m finally going to do what so many awesome authors are doing: send out a monthly update on all my fiction news!

And just as an incentive to get people to sign up, AND to give everyone a little taste of what’s coming, everyone who signs up gets a free copy of the DOCTOR TO DRAGONS ebook!

So come on! What have you got to lose besides your minds? To sign up, go to the CONTACT THE AUTHOR section and send me a note, making sure to check the box saying that you’d like to be added to a mailing list. And by next week, you will have your FREE ebook!

Critiques And Stories!

I don’t want to make this blog into a marketing machine, but I haven’t written about my Patreon account for about a year, and I just made some changes to it, so today I’m going to let you know what all of you could get if you choose to patronize me.

Um, maybe I should rephrase that.

Okay, so starting at the $2 reward level, I will start writing you your own personalized story at the low, semi-pro rate of $0.03 a word. The longer you support me, the longer your story goes.

At $10 of support, I will provide a detailed critique of a single work of fiction/poetry of 6k words or less. I’m a runner-up with about 20 short stories published: it’s a good deal.

At $25 or more per month, I’ll offer a second critique, only this one will be good for up to 10k words. Yes, you can get 2 critiques per month.

Finally, $40 of support gets you a single piece of flash fiction that I will write just for you, on whatever subject you wish.

Try out some of these rewards and watch your writing improve. Or just enjoy some great fiction. Thanks for your support!

This Blog Pre-empted By The Muse.

You know, I’ll be the first to say that people who spout the line, “I can only write when I’m inspired” are likely wannabe hobbyists who will publish very little. Unless they’ve practiced and honed their craft to the point that they are inspired just about every damn day, in which case, I can only say I envy them.

But don;t ever let anyone tell you that those storms of inspiration don’t happen. They do, and they’re awesome. And I’m in the middle of one now, so I don’t have time to blog. By the way, my Patreon supporters already have a hint of what’s coming. Please consider supporting me if you think it’s worth knowing.

Fantasy Rant: Why I Hate Fairies

I was thinking yesterday about why it is that fairy tales repel me.

No, not things like Snow White or Beauty and the Beast. Those stories don’t have fairies in them. I’m not even opposed to those stories that do have fairies in them, like Cinderella or Sleeping Beauty. But for a long time, I’ve found myself turned completely off by stories centered on fairies. Fae. The spirits that show up in rings of mushrooms and live in another dimension where it’s dangerous for mortals to go. But I’ve never figured out why I dislike them so much. Well, aside from the fact that when people write about fairies, one inevitably winds up talking about the Seelie and Unseelie Courts, and I just can’t take seriously any story in which the good fairies all remind me of mattress commercials.

And then yesterday I finally figured it out. Basically, fairies, when they’re portrayed authentically (as far as I can tell) are spirits or beings that pretty much just exist to fuck with people. And that’s it. They aren’t ever really portrayed as having any needs, of themselves. They are immortal. The Fairy Kingdom (or whatever we’re calling it this week) provides them with endless food and drink. Their major problem seems to be that they get bored, and when they get bored, they decide to go fuck with each other, or to fuck with people.

Now, the good fairies amuse themselves by occasionally doing helpful things for people, but honestly a lot of their “help” comes with a price, such as Rumplestiltskin might provide. Hey, you didn’t really need that kid, did you? Or they’ll put conditions on their help such that you half kill yourself jumping through hoops to “earn” it. The bad fairies, on the other hand, amuse themselves by straight-up torturing your ass to death.

In other words, fairies are not so much fairies, but trolls. Bored little soulless beings who delight in making misery for people and each other. And the entire human world is their Internet. They dive into it looking for troubled people to torment for shits and giggles. If you engage them, you always get the worst of the bargain. The really bad ones will actively hunt you down and try to drive you to ruin or suicide. And if you dive into their realm, they’ll suck your life away. It’s almost impossible to hurt them. And why do I want to read about miserable creatures like that?

All Things Huge And Hideous

I am incredibly happy to be able to make this announcement: ALL THINGS HUGE AND HIDEOUS, the novel-length expansion to DOCTOR TO DRAGONS will be published by Superversive Press later this year.

This is the first novel that I have written from scratch to be accepted for publication.

I’d like to thank so many fellow writers that encouraged me and helped with this. Among them must be included Larry Correia, Jim Hines, Cedar Sanderson, and of course my editor Jason Rennie.

I’m afraid this blog post does have to be brief, because along with this good news, I have a nasty stomach bug. But thank you all for reading, and I hope you will enjoy it.

The Lord Of The Rings, Forgotten Conversations

Sometime around Bilbo’s fiftieth birthday.
Gandalf: “Hey, can you save me and a dozen idiot dwarves and a hobbit from wolves and orcs?”
Gwaihir: “Sure.”

A few months later.
Gandalf: “Hey, can you save a dozen idiot dwarves and a hobbit from wolves and orcs despite the fact that the morons wouldn’t be in this situation if they’d just split off some treasure for some folks who frankly earned it by slaying the dragon they stirred up?”
Gwaihir: “Sure.”

About eighty years later
Gandalf: “Hey, can you save me from the tower of an evil wizard powerful enough to lock me up in it?”
Gwaihir: “No problem.”
Gandalf: “Hey, while we’re on the subject, can you save the entire continent from literally the most evil being on the planet? The only thing he has that can fly are on horses hundreds of leagues west of here. You just have to drop us off at the big mountain.”
Gwaihir: “Fuck, dude, we’re not your taxi service.”
Gandalf: “Okay. If I call you in about a year, can you pick up a couple of hobbits for me out of Mordor?”
Gwaihir: “Sure.”

The Hopeless Defense Of Susan Pevensie

If there is one thing I have learned in my life about arguments — and would that I had learned it sooner — it’s that there are some where you’re just not going to win. The issue has long since been decided before you ever entered the room. In fact, you’re not even witnessing an argument so much as the self-congratulatory talk after the argument has been decided against you. And you are as welcome in such venues as a drunken Rams player would be trying to get the Patriots’ defense to line up for one more play while Tom Brady is holding the Vince Lombardi trophy.

The only possible reason to keep arguing in such a case is if enough undecided observers are present that they might be swayed: Internet arguing is a spectator sport. But if the vast majority of spectators are Patriots fans, then you might as well not bother.

It’s a cheat, of course, because unlike sports games, there’s no timer. And the people involved in such arguments always want to appear as if they are fair-minded and brilliant, annihilating their opponents with superior knowledge, while in fact they are simply guarding their preferred outcome. To do this, they will characterize their opponents’ arguments in emotional terms and then admit the proper half of the facts into evidence while denying the other half. They will then congratulate themselves on their subtlety and insight, while mocking you. As I’m sure you’ve gathered, I got into the edges of one of these earlier this week and quickly showed myself the door.

The issue in this case was a defense of Susan Pevensie as the true hero/victim of the Narnia chronicles, because she was the only one who grew up and told the tyrant-king Aslan where to stick it. I suppose it shouldn’t be surprising that one could read Narnia this way: people have been reading their pet philosophies into works of literature since Blake and Shelley declared Satan to be the true hero of Paradise Lost.

I could tell I was on the wrong team when I made an observation that Susan Pevensie had given up on Narnia and was immediately told that this read of Susan’s character had made the respondent furious. This was also the first indication I had that there was even going to be an argument. It was immediately supplemented by others’ contentions that a) Susan had not given up on Narnia, but had rather been kicked out of Narnia for growing up and becoming a contemporary young woman and that b) Aslan was a God who didn’t want anyone in heaven who had grown up, and that c) she had gotten kicked out for discovering lipstick and stockings and courtship and marriage and d) because of that had her entire family taken away from her.

Of course, the only way you can get to this reading is to believe that everyone else in Narnia is a complete and utter liar who hates Susan from the outset. Such a thing may be true, I suppose, but it very much involves reading that into the text rather than reading any part of the text itself.

Firstly, any reading of the text will show you immediately that “growing up” was no bar to a final re-entry to Narnia/Heaven. Professor Kirke and Aunt Polly were both there, and had, by any reasonable standards, “grown up.” So were the Pevensie parents, who as far as we know, never had heard of Narnia. So the simple process of aging is by no means a bar to entry into Narnia. In fact, when Jill says “She was always a jolly sight too keen on being grown-up,” Polly (the old lady) responds, “Grown-up indeed. I wish she would grow up… her whole idea is to race on to the silliest time of one’s life as quick as she can and then stop there as long as she can.” Susan’s fault is not in growing up, but in embracing a false notion of what ‘growing up’ means. The only way this equates to becoming a contemporary young woman is if we admit that such women are defined by their acceptance a false notion of adulthood. Hardly a flattering notion

Did Aslan, then, bar Susan from re-entry to Narnia/Heaven simply for being a young woman who liked the idea of looking pretty and getting married? Again, not at all. Susan’s real fault is that she has decided that Narnia was merely a game. According to Eustace, when Narnia is brought up, she says, “Fancy your still thinking about all those funny games we used to play when we were children.” Susan simply no longer believed. And since she no longer believed, she could not be brought into Heaven, any more than could the dwarfs who would not be taken in. By contrast, the rest of the Friends of Narnia believed and took action on behalf of Narnia in the real world, by mounting an expedition to get the traveling rings.

Finally, did Aslan take away everyone from Susan? In a sense, I suppose He did. On the other hand, her absence from the rest was very much her choice, so I suppose that everyone was “taken away from her” in much the same sense that a high-school dropout by choice “loses all his friends” when they graduate and go off to college and the professional world and never contact him again. It’s more the result of his choices and the way life naturally works. Remember that Susan is the only one still “alive” at the end of the books. Everyone else is “dead.” The argument the defenders of Susan are making is that if Aslan really loved her He ought to have killed her along with everyone else, regardless of what she wanted! In a sense, all the characters got what they really wanted, and what they believed in. Just like Ebenezer Scrooge got all the money he wanted.

I really would like to believe that Susan, like Ebenezer Scrooge, got a second chance somewhere down the line. But to attempt a defense of her as she behaves in the seventh book is like defending Scrooge as he behaves in the beginning. It requires one to ignore all of the text explored above. It is replacing what is in the text with what is not in the text. It requires one to believe that Susan alone is honest, and her relatives, friends and God are judgmental liars. That there are people are eager to do this, of course, surprises me not at all. They are on Susan’s side, and not Aslan’s, and there is no changing their minds.

It’s probably a bad habit to tack a coda onto the end of the essay, but I will, lest a misunderstanding arise. Justifying the treatment of Susan Pevensie who made the decisions Lewis tells us she made, is completely different, of course, from saying “I don’t like that Lewis made her make those decisions.” That, of course, is completely a fair statement, and one I might even agree with. From an author/theologian’s point of view, I think Lewis was presenting the question of whether one can turn away from grace. His answer is that one can deliberately do so. Then who should have been his example of this? Peter the High King, Edmund the redeemed, and Lucy dearest to Aslan’s heart all would have been more heartbreaking and would have undercut the story more. Eustace and Jill were integral parts of the action in the novel Lewis had just finished. Polly, perhaps, would have been a less heart-breaking option, but also one of much lesser consequence to us. Susan, I sometimes feel, got elected by default.

How Not To Pace Your Fiction

So, as I mentioned earlier, last year I got to spend most of the fall semester teaching a group of high school students the basics of fiction writing. I want to talk about the story of a particular young lady I’m going to call BR. BR is a very talented young writer, far ahead of the curve for being a senior in high school, certainly one of the two best in the class. She decided to try her hand at high fantasy. She wrote a D&D-esque story about a young girl, the tribal chief’s daughter, who goes out to slay a bear for her rite of passage.

Firstly, I was very impressed by the consistency of character and the beautiful, clear prose she used. I truly wish I had been that good in high school.

But at the very beginning, I was convinced that I was about to read the story of a Mary Sue who easily annihilated every foe before her. It took me almost to the climax to realize that I was wrong about this, and it took me even longer to realize why I had been so misled. Because it wasn’t a flaw in the character. It was a flaw in the pacing.

Like many young writers, BR had decided to establish her character early on in the reader’s mind. But the way she did this was to have the protagonist’s father organize this huge send-off for her while everyone on the tribe cheered her on. This had two unfortunate effects that BR did not intend:
1) It exaggerated her protagonist’s virtues. And we couldn’t know this, because we had no way of knowing that her father was blinded by his own pride in her.
2) For about the first two pages, nothing happened except the cheering, so the story seemed very static.

BR had fallen into the trap of trying to describe her character and the setting all at once. She knew that she needed to show this rather than tell it, but she used so much dialogue that she ended up more or less “telling” anyway. Note that nothing in her technique was necessarily unrealistic. But the technique set us up with false (and bad)  expectations anyway. She killed the story in the mind of the reader. Just being realistic is never enough to establish your story. You have to do it so that it grabs the reader’s interests. On top of this, BR was so focused on her dialogue that she ignored other parts of the story. For example, before she leaves, the protagonist is blessed by an orc shaman. And as a result, I wondered throughout the story whether she was an orc (which she was not).

Now the way to fix this would have been to cut down the dialogue and have a respectful silence while, say, the orc shaman was blessing the protagonist. Then, BR could have used some quick description and the protag’s thoughts to contrast with the exaggerated praise being heaped upon her and to establish the makeup of the tribe. Then, the protagonist leaves,and we’re right into the action. Probably even better would have been to do the intro in flashback and to start the story “hot:” with her tracking or fighting, or running from the bear. This would have the effect of bringing the readers right into the story until they were interested enough to read through the intro.

It’s a very typical error to make, and one I made often myself. I hope BR keeps writing, as I have.

Writing Roundup 2018: The Bad, The Good, and The Beautiful

Well, for the last blog entry of the year, it’s time for 2018’s Writing Roundup. I’ll start with the bad news.

2018 was my worst year for short story sales since 2014. I was only able to sell two stories to new markets, though I am proud of both sales. “Iron Out Of Vulcan,” about a strange apocalypse that spared only the disabled, appeared in the anthology Battling In All Her Finery, and “In The Republic Of The Blind,” a military Space Opera originally written for (of all things) an anthology on Space Marine Midwives (which as far as I know never launched) sold to Amazing Stories. Of course, it is always nice to crack a new pro magazine market, so that is the silver lining.

However, 2018 was also my best year for actually writing, possibly in my life. The first part of the year was taken up by receiving my very first novel contract, which takes a bit of the sting out of the aforementioned short fiction sales slump, from Digital Fiction Pub, for a 53,000-word middle-grade science-fiction adventure on the moon with the tentative title of The Girl Who Wasn’t There. This should be released in 2019.
The next major project that I tackled was the rewriting (at the request of a Publisher-Who-Cannot-Be-Named) of a manuscript I had previously submitted, tentatively titled Beneath The Verdant Tide.
And finally, I finished the draft of the full novel-length version of A Doctor To Dragons, which is tentatively titled All Things Huge and Hideous. I hope to have this released in early 2019, but if you want an early look, the chapters are being released each month to my Patreon backers.

My first novel manuscript took me five years to finish. This year I knocked out two while revising a third, so I’d say that this represents a major leap forward in my production, including the discovery of the fact that I am indeed capable of writing a novel LESS than 125,000 words in length.

All in all, a good year, and I can’t wait for the next one. I hope all my readers feel the same. May the New Year bring you all the best.

Scott Huggins