Archives: Writing

Writing Observations: Backstory

I finished reading a slim, hardboiled novel the other day of 142 pages and marveled again about how much story these good writers from the ’50s could cram into a tiny space.

One of the things I liked best was that the backstory wasn’t front loaded into the plot. I think a lot of modern writers would have spun it out twice as long and shown us a bunch of scenes of the youthful years of the character as he experienced the things that shaped him. Instead, the story starts with Jake Wade’s new identity already established, then the threat to that identity is introduced. The story is in motion from the very start and anything we don’t know acts as an enticement to find out the secrets behind it all. Boy do I love that style more.

I wonder if it says something about the era in which I grew up, where as a boy I admired and emulated men who had still waters that run deep, and didn’t talk about problems. Not that I was successful, because I tend to wear my heart on my sleeve, but I aspired to be more like that. Those were the models I saw around me and those are the models I saw on television and in the movies. Of course those models had some things wrong with them, too — the inability to communicate, for instance — but I still admire the habit of not spewing your problems and backstory over everybody you meet. Maybe the tendency to do that in some modern fiction is a backlash against being too closed in.

Anyway, two thumbs up for The Law and Jake Wade, and I’m looking forward to seeing the movie now, which is supposed to be a pretty strong old western.

It’s not until page 134 (of those 142) where we finally get a little window into how a man who’s good now ended up running with a bad bunch in the past, because it’s necessary for Jake to try and explain himself to the woman he loves over breakfast before he makes his final goodbye. Here, I’ll excerpt this text from Marvin Albert’s book:

Celebration

Robert E. Howard

I’ve written of the power of Robert E. Howard’s prose any number of times, and I’m sure that there’s more that could be said, and that will be said. Today on his birthday, though, I’ll merely reflect again on what I’ve written in the past, and this evening hoist a drink to one of my favorite writers while reading one of my favorite stories by him.

Over the weekend I finished the last of the Marvel collections that assembled all of the Roy Thomas Conan run. I’m not sure I’d recommend running out and buying that particular collection, unless you’re a completist. On the whole, the earlier phase of Thomas on Conan was better. Let me provide another shout out for the Thomas 12 issue arc for Dark Horse, collected in two graphic novels. (Those are volumes 11 and 12, The Road of Kings and Throne of Aquilonia, and they are two of only three volumes from the Dark Horse run that I’ve bothered to keep hold of.)

I’ve been told that story arc really isn’t very popular and I can’t for the life of me figure out why that is. The storytelling was top notch and Conan sounded and behaved like Conan… and the world felt right, too, which is something that doesn’t seem to be appreciated enough by some readers, who only care about whether or not Conan’s muscles are the size they think appropriate. In issues written by other hands there’s too much of the supernatural, so that it almost feels common place, or the plotting is off, or, worst of all, Conan isn’t right.

Roy Thomas gets Conan and what his world is like more than nearly any other pastiche writer, and consistently got him better than any other comic pastiche writer, period. That’s not to say that there weren’t some great issues and arcs written by others, but Thomas usually got it right. Even in a lesser story, Conan still acted like himself. And that’s a lot more complicated that it seems, or there’d be a lot more good pastiche out there.

Agent Aid

Sometimes writing can be a real slog. You know what needs to be done because you have the outline, but you’re feeling your way along or think there’s something missing, or what have you. Sometimes you’re wrong and your test readers tell you you’ve just revised it too many times and lost touch with it.

But sometimes you learn that maybe that one astute beta reader was right about something not quite working in a scene or chapter. Recently my editor was looking over book 1 and discovered some issues in the third act that left me scratching my head. I got to thinking he was right and wondering why didn’t I pay attention to the observations of that clever lady I live with.

There were two or three problems that really left me feeling stuck in a box. And then I spoke to my agent, Bob Mecoy, and he improvised the way out of every single one of them. Brilliantly.

I read people giving advice about agents. Some write that they don’t need them, saying that they can negotiate their own contracts and handle their own business. Maybe they’re skilled enough, or have taught themselves enough, that they’re right. I don’t want to learn the business side anymore than necessary to understand my contracts, though, and I’m lucky enough to have someone who’s had years of experience not with that aspect of it, but other business matters as well.

For The Killing of Kings

So here’s the official cover copy being used to promote the new book on B&N and Amazon and numerous other places. I have several months yet and can still ask for it to be tweaked. What do you think?

A cross between Zelazny’s Chronicles of Amber and The Three MusketeersFor the Killing of Kings is the first in a new fantasy trilogy

Their peace was a fragile thing, but it had endured for seven years, mostly because the people of Darassus and the king of the Naor hordes believed his doom was foretold upon the edge of the great sword hung in the hall of champions. Unruly Naor clans might raid across the border, but the king himself would never lead his people to war so long as the blade remained in the hands of his enemies.

But when squire Elenai’s aging mentor uncovers evidence that the sword in their hall is a forgery she’s forced to flee Darassus for her life, her only ally the reckless, disillusioned Kyrkenall the archer. Framed for murder and treason, pursued by the greatest heroes of the realm, they race to recover the real sword, only to stumble into a conspiracy that leads all the way back to the Darassan queen and her secretive advisors. They must find a way to clear their names and set things right, all while dodging friends determined to kill them – and the Naor hordes, invading at last with a new and deadly weapon.

Howard Andrew Jones’ powerful world-building brings this epic fantasy to life in this first book of his new adventure-filled trilogy.

Victory!

I did it. I got to the end of the first draft of the second novel of my new series. Approximately half of it is in near final shape already, which will certainly save me time later.

Not only that, but I wrapped up the second secret project of the year, which suddenly came back to life right in the final week of writing madly to make today’s deadline. No matter — I got THAT done as well, and hope to reveal details about it soon.

Deadlines

I heard from Joseph Hoopman yesterday that there was an essay that mentioned The Desert of Souls over on Tor.com, and lo and behold, there was. It pleased me mightily to hear nice things said about my book, both in the main article and in the comments section. It also saddens me a little, because on some shadow Earth Howard is hard at work on the fifth or sixth novel in the sequence. There were going to be nine, and multiple short stories in between.

There will definitely be more short stories, and perhaps, if the fates are kind, I can publish a few more on my own in between the books I’m writing for my publishers.

The essay was written by S.A. Chakraborty, whose own Arabian historical fantasy, The City of Brass, debuted just yesterday. I’ll be adding that to the TBR pile and wishing her far better luck than my own brave Arabians had in the publishing world.

The Grand Finale

Usually when my wife heads off to one of her work conferences I get a lot of work done in the hotel room but I also explore a bit. This time, while she was in Washington, I was only a few minutes walk from a Metro line, but I did hardly any exploring at all. Comes of being under deadline. I saw an awful lot of my hotel room walls and occasional glimpses of the lobby.

I did get my first ever in-person look at various Washington D.C. monuments, but only from a distance as we strolled along the capital mall on our last evening before we left, prior to going out to an awesome Peruvian/Chinese fusion restaurant.

We’re nearing the end of the Kickstarter, so if you’re wanting to see some great new sword-and-sorcery stories I hope you’ve already signed on.

You Can’t Live Forever

I’m still on assignment, writing today from a lounge in a fabulous haunted mansion. The Beatles once stayed in this very location, and it’s easy to imagine them striding confidently down the main stairs to my left, wisecracking all the way. If I hadn’t accidentally left my time dilator in Albuquerque I’d jot back and watch their entrance and listen in on the Liverpudlian humor.

In case you missed it, John O’Neill at Black Gate held an interview with me and Joseph Goodman and the Magician’s Skull himself.

You might not have seen this, though. Nerdy Jobs invited me over for a chat about my writing, the new magazine, and gaming. If you want to hear me nattering on about all those things and a few more, now’s your chance. (My wife hears me nattering on about that stuff all the time and probably won’t bother.)

Undisclosed Location

I’m writing from an undisclosed location, in the midst of a secret mission. Most of the assignment involves writing copiously every day, but I must also infiltrate fine dining establishments every evening and order the most excellent of their menu items. I’m occasionally in the company of a beautiful and wicked enchantress, but otherwise I’m ensconced in a haunted mansion, drafting prose.

As I was aware that there would be several transdimensional migrations during my journey here, I packed some old paperbacks to read. I like having short old novels to read during planar shifts. You can pack several little ones into your carry-ons, and if there are interruptions or you’re just plain tired it’s easier to keep track of short and therefore less convoluted plot lines.

First up was the first Brian Garfield western I’ve read, part of an Ace double, and incidentally the first of his six Jeremy Six novels, starring a laconic western marshall. And I have to say, after that first one I’ll be reading the rest. I’d heard he was a good writer and it seems it’s true. This was Mr. Sixgun. As with a lot of these old westerns and mysteries, don’t be deceived by the art or cover advertising. Also, like a lot of writers active in the ’60s and earlier, Garfield wrote under a bunch of pseudonyms, like the one shown here. He’s best known for the Death Wish novel and its sequels that spawned the movies.

Writing Tests

Jake Parker "A Fireside Story"

Jake Parker “A Fireside Story”

A while back I talked about one of the questions I ask myself to make sure I’m on the right track, and that’s the Doctor McCoy test. 

Sometimes I think about another one, though, and that’s the “Grandparent at the Fireside” test. The idea is that the grandparent is at the fireside telling a story. As he or she is telling the story, there will be questions from young listeners. Sometimes, of course, young listeners have an agenda or want to take over the story, so for the sake of the test I pretend that the questions are coming from an intelligent listener.