Editing Update: Originality in heroic fantasy? ...

... and a second draft I've been looking forward to for a while.

I'm about to start working on the first book of C Ryan Bymaster's Echoes of Power series. Bymaster's English flows very readily, and is a pleasure to read, although his diction gets a little experimental in places and his grasp of paragraph breaks, especially in direct speech is, like the rest of you, nonexistent.

What I like about what I've read so far is that he has hit upon an original* magic system that is also pleasingly intuitive, and therefore probably requires even less explanation than he has actually given.

In addition, Jarmila Zaricka sent me the second draft of her unusual, philosophical, novel of self-realization. I haven't so much as glanced at it yet as I want to save the treat for when I can sit in my cozy armchair and really savor it.

* for a given value of Frank Herbert. Nothing is ever original, and the magic system owes various debts in various places, but in the setting, it's pretty innovative.


In which I try and fail to review a book ...

... and end up generally rambling on, as usual.

A few weeks a go, I worked for the first time with (yet another) Florida Keys Noir Crime writer Jessica Argyle. It's okay. I love that stuff. And Jessica's book is as close to proper literary fiction as self-conscious modern genre fiction gets. No Name Key is part history, part crime, part sweaty-insect-bitten-marooned-in-the-everglades drama. It may be a little retro, but it is also shouting for the core of the women's movement.

Not really shouting, actually. It's more that kind of throaty growl of a she-wolf hidden in a thicket that means "we both know you know I'm here; don't make me come out there."

No Name Key is a damn fine book and I'm impatient for its publication.

Anyway, when my authors go to the trouble of recommending a book to me, I generally have a damn good go at actually reading it, and Jessica suggested I read Miami Purity by Vicki Hendricks.

This is where I try to review it.

I'm going to start with the cover. I don't usually bother talking about covers of published books, but I really hate this cover, so I'm going to talk about it. The type face (font) is a disaster. It makes it look like this is classic noir, and it just isn't. I'm expecting all women in long dresses and guys stuffed into dinner suits and some plot that turns around a laundry ticket for a coat that has some incriminating evidence in the pocket. Some run of the mill retro rich white folks and private dicks.

That ain't it. The cover needs to scream, sex, betrayal, and weird, skewed, awkwardness. It shouldn't be slick.

See here, Miami Purity, about which I'm going to say something like "I really wanted to like it, and in the end I kind of did", is a book about the way that just being at the extreme end of one of the various scales of being human can make your life a weird-arse awful mess.

I had to really fight with this book to get to the end though, because the story, such as it is, doesn't keep pace with the characters. It doesn't know where to go. Partly this is because there are three clearly identifiable places where the author has said to herself: "that's a big damn crime fiction cliché right there. I'm not going there" and by not going there has kind of gone nowhere, and then on one of them, played a cliché right back by retconning a hidden twist. (All right, it might not have been a retcon, but it was painfully opportunistic and obvious. (I'm talking about the way in which Payne deals with his "rival for Sherri's affections".))

What I think goes wrong with the story is that the author loses confidence in the characters, starts to worry that they can't manage on their own, and eventually lampshades the fact that it's the characters who are driving the story, but not through what they have done so far, just through their personal character flaws. ("I told you, she'll fuck up and leave. She'll fuck herself with her drinking.")

In the end, I think that the author should have taken the risk, done the clichés and watch the fun as unexpectedly convincing nymphomaniac, exhibitionist alcoholic Sherri stumbles from one screw up to another.

Some reviewers will, I'm sure, have complained that there was too much sex. Well there was, for the story, but not for the character of Sherri. The saturation level shagging is essential. It's the only way to get across to the reader just what it is like to be like that. It isn't erotic. It isn't even funny. Sometimes Sherri gets what she's desperate for, and it's a very brief relief. That is good, daring, successful writing.

What I'd like to see from this author is a simpler, less original story, a lot more awareness of her own themes so that she can explore, inform and entertain, and push the originality and believability of the characters towards and beyond the limits of what readers will readily accept.


new release: The Sanity Paradox

I hope J. William Latimer will forgive tardiness of this announcement.

His debut novel, an international conspiracy thriller, The Sanity Paradox, was released on October 15.

Here's an extract from the blurb:

When famed author Samuel Grayson finally sobered up, he gave up more than blackouts and bouts of
depression—he lost the voice of the fictional undercover cop that made him a household name. In a desperate bid to save his career, Grayson agrees to meet with a secretive publishing firm aboard a popular Niagara Falls tourist boat. But restoring his prominence in the crime fiction business isn't his only motive. The potential publisher had repeated three simple words that have haunted Grayson for decades—three words no one should have ever known.

I really enjoyed working on this book; it has all the usual elements of the conspiracy thriller: charismatic gurus, secret cyphers, Ivy League intellectuals, bewildered blue-collar law enforcement professionals, international travel and twists galore.

What I think sets it apart is that Latimer has a really strong underlying professional knowledge of his subject matter, which enables him to use it with the very structure of the narrative, and provides, by the end, an original twist on the meaning and purpose of a literary protagonist.


It's not about the breasts.

So, yesterday's post got a ludicrous number of hits, and a small minority of the visitors stayed to actually read what I said.

Which was nice.

But looking at the two comments I got (and some "behind the scenes" feedback) I think I may have shot myself in the foot with that title. The first commenter thought that I was offended by the size of Monica's breasts and the second thought I was objecting to it or complaining about it.

Paul Taylor sent me a brief and polite email where he seemed a lot more interested in my criticism of his slightly disjointed storytelling than of his use of visual cues. Which is fair enough.

I happen to be a fan of Taylor's work. My daughter has a poster of this image on her wall. I wanted her to have it because I think it both showcases Taylor's talent for composition and colour and for the distinctiveness of his style, and is a terrific representation of female body confidence. Somehow he has painted two young women who are sexy, not because they are suggesting that they are available, but because the make me want to get to know them.

If it's not about the breasts, what is it about? It's about symbolism. As usual, I'm going to try and fail to avoid being pompous and intellectual.

In 1957 the French critic and literary theorist Roland Barthes published an influential and important book, Mythologies. The central thesis of Mythologies is that in visual media (he concentrates in particular on cinema) there is an established language of visual cues that he calls "signs". I have already mentioned this in another post. Russian theatrical experimenter Vsevolod Meyerhold developed a system for actors intented to make them hyper aware of their every movement and gesture, because, he maintained, everything the audience can see has meaning for them. Therefore, actors should not even move unintentionally, knowing that every movement will mean something to someone watching. By extension, movement and gesture can then become a means of active and deliberate communication.

These are two examples of visual language.

In textual fiction (novels, novellas, short stories, epic poetry, etc), visual language also exists. It is present in obvious forms such as simile, metaphor and emblem. But it is also present in a more pervasive and less obvious form: symbolism. Imagine a Regency novel about the rise and subsequent fall of a country gentleman. All the major events in the story take place in and around a water mill. The reader gradually builds up a mental picture of the mill, and through careful writing, the author ensures that the wheel becomes more and more dominant in that mental picture. The wheel is of course a symbolic representation of the medieval idea of the "Wheel of Fortune" - an idea that is still a resilient element of our culture.

Comics and graphic novels are a mixed medium. The use both text and pictures - and many of them use both textual and visual examples of visual language.

So getting back to Wapsi Square. In my opinion, and he can object if he wants to, Paul Taylor is creating art. If I feel that at the moment his visual talent is more developed than his storytelling talent, it isn't to say that there isn't clear evidence that both are improving and developing. And I feel that his style is now doing a disservice to his message in some cases.

Let me contrast this with another webcomic, where the creator keeps his symbolism simpler, but is, in a way, delivering the same general message.

Consider J.E. Draft's Zona. Draft is properly unashamed about his adulation for the female body, but his artistic style is derived from his medium. In my opinion he has made his own life very difficult by chusing to use Poser to create scenes and then adding detail, effects and subtlety to them in a (sometimes complex and time-consuming) post production phase. However, using Poser gives an impression of realism.

Draft is also a good story teller. Zona moves forward at a generally even pace, it has solid plot construction and steady internal coherence. One thing that comes across very strongly is that the worlds (there are two) in which it is set are well thought out, and highly detailed. It has it's weaknesses, but they aren't germane.

Probably the first thing you will notice, however, is that the central characters undermine the standard male
 fantasy archetypes - while still playing along. It's a clever piece of tightrope walking that I suspect comes naturally to Draft. The two main characters are the titular Zona and Mentl.

They are a loving and affectionate couple, and Draft is not afraid of showing it. Zona is extremely buxom, but it is she who is tall, muscular and powerful - she even has a big, masculine jaw. Mentl is short, a little on the skinny side, and has a face that is very far from being "conventionally handsome". Indeed, all of Mentl's attractiveness is in his personality. He is non-confrontational, sensitive, honest, kind, loyal. The third regular character is Zona's sister, Tula. Also drawn as an "Amazon", she isn't nearly as tall and muscular as Zona. But Tula is the smart one. Indeed, Tula is a genius.

In other words, the major characteristics of the male power fantasy archetype, physical and mental prowess, have been given to the main female protagonists. One might argue that characteristics that are stereotypically (for which read, "not always true") female have been assigned to the male protagonist.

Are the women sexualized? Yes, but. And it is a big but and you have to read the whole comic to realize why. The culture that Zona and Tula come from is one where many human interactions are sexualized. It is a culture that is completely without sexual reserve of any kind, which occasionally makes Mentl uncomfortable.

So, does Draft take that to its logical conclusion?

Draft's message is simple and plain: people's good qualities are complementary. Match the right people with the right variety of qualities and they can achieve great things. And most of all: you can't tell because of someone's gender what qualities they will possess.

In exactly the same way as Taylor, Draft is telling his reader that prejudice is of very little practical use.

Draft and Taylor take different approaches in artistic technique, and in their use of visual language.

Draft's apparent realism means that there is little risk that his visual language will be misconstrued. However his celebration of sexuality may offend some people, and the pleasure he takes in representing semi-naked women may lead those who don't read his comic to believe that he is just another Neanderthal.

Taylor's stylization leads him to a completely different risk. That his visual cues may be dissonant with his message. It's a difficult target to hit, especially when he is sometimes aiming to be dissonant.


I'm still not completely confident that I will have managed to make myself understood. But remember, this blog is supposed to be for writers, to make them more sensitive to technique, so that they can better understand and improve their craft.

And finally, thank you to both commenters. Noone should ever feel that they daren't voice their honest reaction.


"Monica's boobs are getting on my tits."

First, I apologize for the title of this post; I was careful to put it in scare quotes, but understand that in spite of the impression you might have got of me from my recent interview on Rocking Self-Publishing, the title of this post is an accurate representation of how I really talk.

I know I have already intimated that I am a regular reader of webcomics, and I may even have listed my regulars somewhere.

Among those is the generally excellent Wapsi Square. Wapsi went from being a carefully* drawn casual webcomic about a "small group of twenty-somethings getting up to hijinx with obligatory supernatural mascot" to a beautifully and distinctively drawn comic with a sense of humour that regularly deals with serious subject matter through supernatural (and increasingly allegorical) storylines that occasionally seem to retcon the only medium that can't be convincingly retconned. As such, you have to keep up to date or you can find yourself in big trouble.

If you don't keep up to date, and decide to go on an archive binge, you have to be prepared for the following repeated WTF moments:

  • I remember him/her/it/that... whatever became of him/her/it/that?
  • wait, she has super powers now?
  • wait, she has super powers too?
  • How old did you say you were?
  • Oh, now she's indestructible.
  • No, wait, just immune to bullets.
  • No, really indestructible... 
  • and so on
In a way, all this is par for the course. Certain long running webcomics, of which I guess one of the major grand daddies is Sluggy Freelance, shows that you can not only continually reinvent certain characters (provided other characters develop in a more conventional way), but you can (and probably should) lampshade the fact (warning: that last link was to TV Tropes. Only follow it if you have time to kill. ). Aylee the alien regularly changes appearance and personality throughout the first few years of the comic.

Somehow, we accept plotting oddities, incursions from other fictional worlds and total overhauls in webcomics that would be utterly unacceptable in other media.

Wapsi Square makes up for its oddities with some strong and compelling central characters (Monica, Shelley, Tina, Katherine, Phix), and Wapsi's creator Paul Taylor even pulls off the improbably coup of giving the impression that we the readers are still just beginning to get to know those characters, familiar though they have become.

As with all long running webcomics, Wapsi has also seen a significant transformation in the artistic style, as Paul Taylor has developed from a newb comic scribbler into, let's face it, an artist.

His style looks slapdash... a lot less careful than those early strips. But he seems to have discovered how to cram all the necessary emotion onto the faces of his characters exaggerated eyes and teeth notwithstanding.

So... to the boobs.

Dig a little in the archive and the forums, and you will discover that there is a sensible-ish reason why Monica's boobs are so disproportionately huge. And indeed, the disadvantages to her distinctive distinguishing anatomical feature are explored honestly (though not without a little humour). Having said this, as Taylor's style has become more and more individual and differentiating, it has developed into a style that emphasizes details of characters' appearance. As a result, Monica's boobs have got bigger and bigger.

Now, there are times where a little exaggeration goes a long way, and not just for comic effect. And Taylor also draws what I think are joyous and liberated old school pin-ups of his main character where the exaggeration is also ... forgivable.

And those boobs can also be useful for leaving us in no doubt that even transformed into an embodiment of righteous rage, this is still Monica.


Increasingly often, Monica's physique is distracting to the point of undermining an otherwise liberal, equal, empowered treatment of women**, both in terms of character portrayal and in the underlying symbolism of the stories.

In today's comic (pictured above), the distraction is underlined because Tina's torso is much more natural than Monica's. This is true of pretty much all the other characters. They look like cartoony exaggerations of realistic physiques - even the supernatural ones. Whereas Monica has become increasingly "impossible".

The scare quotes around "impossible" are there because there absolutely are real women who have a petite figure and impractically large breasts, and all the risks, problems, prejudice and stigma that go along with that. So if there are people in real life who have that physique, surely it's fine?

It isn't fine, though, because a webcomic is a story, and stories are about what it means to be human, and visual media in particular, communicate their cultural message visually as well as through words and stories.

Cephalopod Monica (see footnotes) does not create a problem. Whereas sharp-toothed Monica (in Taylor's style of today) creates a visual dissonance with the emotional subject manner that is undermining rather than unsettling.

In my opinion, Taylor could dial back Monica's boobage just a little, and the original sense of a character whose personality, intelligence and personal empowerment is entirely contrary to the expectations imposed by an excessively sexualizing culture will be recovered.

Ahem. That's one of those sentences again. Let me try again.

Monica is drawn and written as a contradiction. This is good. She is drawn in way that makes her look as if sexuality is her primary characteristic. She is written in a way that shows that it is not. This exposes our culture's visual prejudice towards women. This is an important message but it can't be the ONLY ONE. The current mini arc (obscure though it may be) is not about this. It's about rape. And the boobage is undermining the message (that treating a woman only as a means of sexual gratification is not acceptable).

Mini disclaimer:

Most women, I hope, don't need to be told about this particular message, and I'm sure the many women who read and enjoy this webcomic are much less distracted from the message by the boobs. What I'm saying here is that I am. And I suspect I'm not the only male who is.

* I had a hard time coming up with the right word here. Sometimes those early strips seem to be populated with jello-people. "Sally's Bar" is really the first place where you discover that Taylor can draw people rather than cephalopods.
**I'm trying to avoid a particular word. Can you guess what it is?


Minor Website update with Potentially major consequences...

I remembered that Microsoft Internet Explorer doesn't like unbracketed side effects:


This statement states that either the variable width has been initialized and contains a value, or its value should be set to "width:400px".

Without the brackets, it looks a but mad but Firefox, Chrome, Opera and Safari don't seem to mind. IE however stops all scripting on the page and looks at you in a funny way. So I rewrote it as:


Anyone looking at my site should now see it as it should be. If you usually use IE you may discover that there's a lot more content there than you thought. Sorry about that.

Visit my website here: http://www.densewords.com


Rocking Self Publishing Podcast Interview

Simon Whistler interviewed me for his excellent weekly podcast, which was broadcast two weeks ago. You can go listen to it here: http://rockingselfpublishing.com/episode-12-effective-editing-harry-dewulf

I just got around to listening to it myself.

I never knew I was that posh!

But I sound a lot better than I thought I would. Probably because of the distortion from my cheap crappy microphone.



"Metz" Mirabelles
It is that time of year where we in Lorraine start to collect ripe fruit and turn it into other things. People who follow me on twitter will know that I make Jam whenever possible, though I seldom eat Jam. Much of our Jam is given away to people who, we hope, eat Jam more often than we eat Jam, but many of them, I suspect, find that Jam is as adequate an  unexpected gift as we do. And pass it on.

Recently I sent a parcel of Jam to someone in England. But I suspect he might actually eat some of it. Or at least try one pot and then give the other one to a friend who, he has reason to suppose, likes Jam.
"Nancy" Mirabelles

One year in three or so, we have a very large crop of Mirabelles. The Mirabelle Plum (Prunus domestica subsp. syriaca) is the Patron Fruit of Lorraine. There are two main types, the Metz (which is sweeter and smaller) and the Nancy (which as it ripens develops an attractive "blush") on the yellow skin. We have two trees of the Nancy type. This year there were so many that several branches broke.

So I made Jam. Quite a lot of Jam, actually. And there were still far too many mirabelles left. I wasn't going to make more jam, though. Too much like hard work. Making Jam is bad for my back. Only those who have made Jam will understand this. But I always make it while I can.

I can't stand seeing good food go to waste, however, so in order to get at least some small benefit from the rest of the mirabelles, I filled up two 30 litre barrels with fruit, crushed it a little, and then sealed it up to let it ferment.

Fermentation, like the Doppler Effect, is fabulously* simple. This is one of the reasons, along with preservation and, of course, alcohol, that fermentation is a source of joy.

Plums ferment very readily, and will start fermenting as long as some (about half is more than enough) of the fruit are broken or damaged. What's wonderfully simple about fermentation is that all the ingredients are already there, on, in and about a single plum. Water, sugar, cellulose and yeast. If it's warm enough (we've had a couple of very mild weeks) it gets started on its own without any prompting. And what it does is magical in a number of ways.

Everyone knows that it turns sugar into alcohol and for many that is understandably enough.

But there are two byproducts of fermentation, and the other is carbon dioxide. CO2. Yes indeed, that most fashionable of world-eating industrial waste is produced in the creation of the one substance that reliably stops us worrying about it. However, CO2  is special because of two of its very simple qualities. It is heavier than air, and it suffocates all sorts of unwanted organisms. Consequently, it forms a layer on top of whatever is fermenting. This not only prevents mould, but it also suffocates small (and large**) insects and other invertebrates (there's a larval worm that gets into plums), and kills off all but the hardiest (and least harmful) bacteria. Yeast, in fact, creates an environment in which only it can thrive, by the very act of thriving in it.

The major consequence for me is that my mirabelles are preserved in delicious drinkable and slightly intoxicating form. I do my best to regulate the alcohol to somewhere between 12% and about 18% but it's largely guesswork.

Fermentation therefore magically and simply turns one thing into another; it takes fruit in which all kind of nasties may be living and turns it into a nutritious source of clean, safe water which has an impressively long shelf life. And mirabelle wine can be used as an alternative to white wine in cooking for a couple of years after it is no longer any good for drinking.

If you are a student of medieval history you almost certainly already know that in the Middle Ages, beer was the only safe drink you could get in northern Europe. Wars were won and lost as a result of someone controlling the supply of beer.

But dig down a little into the biochemistry of even a highly simplified model of fermentation and you soon find it is fiddly, complex and messy. It seems to follow a few basic principles, but the science behind those principles is annoyingly difficult to comprehend without a degree in biology.

Thankfully, you don't need one to be able to make plum wine.

This is where the tenuous link to writing is to be found.

Everyone's best writing seems to come from a process much like a well established fermentation; once the writer is in full flow, it is much like the yeast creating ideal conditions for itself by profiting from ideal conditions; it's self perpetuating. When your writing is flowing well, you don't need to know all those grammar rules; you don't need to have your desk cluttered with plot diagrams and character development outlines, you don't need CMS open in front of you. When you're writing at your freest and fastest is also when you're writing at your best, and when your writing is the most you.

You get the best fermentation, though, when you start from a very few ingredients that inevitably include everything needed to start a good fermentation, like a ripe plum.

You can, you see, use various additives to start off, or to boost, fermentation. From one year to the next the size and sugar content of the plums can vary; changing atmospheric conditions can contribute to the amount of naturally occurring yeasts on the skins. The ambient temperature may be too low (or in some countries, too high). With a little study, you can compensate for this, and the fermentation will get started and proceed well.

Sometimes, though, the end result is still undrinkably bitter or acidic.

And sometimes, the only way you can correct this is by calling in a brewing expert who knows all about those horrible fiddly details in the biochemistry, and will tell you to, perhaps, mix two varieties of plum, or combine the natural yeasts with some shop bought freeze dried yeast of a particular variety in specific proportions.

If you decide to sell your wine commercially, then you definitely need to call in an expert.

But I didn't intend this as a post about how essential it is to get an editor. You all know that, anyway.

What interests me is those sections of a book where I can see as I am reading that the writer has got the fermentation conditions just right; where she has been writing quickly but without rushing; where she has been playing with the language and having fun with vocabulary without it becoming awkward, pretentious or annoying; where there is a turn of phrase that somehow harmonizes with the actions, the themes, the symbolism.

There is a special coincidence of ingredients that creates this kind of writing, and for me it is one of the things that distinguishes a writer from, for example, a story editor like myself. I can tell you what's wrong when it isn't working and I can tell you why it works when it does. And I can also help with the initial mix of ingredients that will lend itself to healthy, self-perpetuating fermentation. It distinguishes the writer because the writer is the person who can turn those ingredients into page after page of great writing.

* regular readers may guess that I am using this word VERY precisely.
** e.g. wasps. Quite a few of them end up in the barrel.