Sunday, 30 December 2012

Navel gazing: What is your novel about, anyway?

  What is it all about?

  That's a good question. Behind the Ruins is about a belief – that good minimalist writing allows more reader involvement and appreciation of characters and their emotions than thickly descriptive genre-standard writing.

  Hemingway was famous for advising writers to write true things, simply. It’s an interesting mix to strive for that brightly-lit clarity with characters that react as real people would in a patently unreal environment. I mean, the world of Behind the Ruins has lost every piece of electronics more complex than a vacuum tube or a dry cell thanks to wave after wave of meteor strikes in the earth’s upper atmosphere. That series of strikes would push our tech-savvy civilization straight into utter chaos – no phones, no computers, no power, no vehicles, hospitals that had no working equipment. In a matter of a few weeks or months of repeated strikes, the world would be back at a technologic level very close to that of the Victorian era. Surviving the initial spiral of famine, disease and disorder would be horrifying, but what interested me more than the nuts and bolts of the wheels falling off the world was the effect it would have on the survivors. What would they have done to live through the first decade or so, and how would they survive their own memories as the world began to heal again?

  Big meteors and the destruction of the post-industrial world are dramatic, but the real drama, to me at least, is to be found in the people that continue on, and the choices they make.

  The novel is about survival, warfare and conflict, but the real meat lies in concepts like guilt, redemption and change.

  Which should be true of any story.

Friday, 28 December 2012

Writing tips: Adverbs

  Adverbs are poisonous little creatures related to arachnids. They sneak into your prose, multiply and choke out literary thought, forcing readers to listen to the narrator rather than feel the narration. In almost every case they can be removed, and should be.

   A lot of self-published fiction available online is adverb-heavy, and it's a shame. It weakens what could be interesting, moving stories and makes them unreadable. I sometimes wonder if the prevalence of adverbs has to do with new authors' fears over manuscript length? Don't ever be worried that a story is too short, or will be if you cut out the horde of -ly adverbs. Cutting almost never spoils a story. If you can make a cut and the story remains, you didn't want what you cut.

  "I'm glad to see you," Sally said warmly.

   Why use warmly? Or sadly, zestfully, irritably or whatever adverb has latched onto your otherwise faultless prose? Your reader will know from context what mood Sally is in. If they don't, then you need to establish that through dialogue, discription or inference of some sort.

    Even in areas outside dialogue attribution - where adverbs seem to breed by choice - there are few reasons to use them.

    It was summer and the breeze blew fitfully across the mown field.

    Not terrible but not great, either.

    A summer breeze played across the mown field.


   Editing for grammar and voice is what will make your work stand out in a sea of poorly edited labors of love. When you edit, do it with an eye to trimming the work. Make it tighter, leaner and more readable.

   Shorter is better.

Wednesday, 26 December 2012

Behind the Ruins is out!

       You can get your copy at Amazon (link opens in a new window) and at Smashwords. Both an exciting adventure in a post-apocalyptic world and the saga of a man coming to terms with that most difficult of enemies; his own past.

From the virtual jacket:
The world didn’t end when the meteors came; it changed.

We meet Grey in the process of killing three people intent on robbing and murdering him. The deaths solve nothing; instead, what he finds on one of the bodies leads to a bloody trip through the wreckage of a world scarred by a near-apocalypse, and inward through his own memories. In the process he becomes involved in a plan that could mean the return of the world he knew as a child, in the time before the Fall.

During his trek from British Columbia into the former United States he must overcome both his own bleak memories and the murderous forces of an old friend. The lessons he takes away and the decisions he makes will determine not only if he has a future, but whether civilization does.
Follow me on Twitter (right column) for updates and news, and to be annoyed at silly posts.


Well, the submissions are in, the book should be available by the new year. Now onto the joys of marketing until my eyes bleed.


    Stop with the zombies and vampires already.
    No, really, stop it.
    The undead are the new cardboard-thin character- and plot-props formerly crafted to look like cowboys and indians, or gangsters and G-men. Unless you have something unique to add to the concept of the undead, or a story that can only be done with the shambling deaders DON'T USE THEM.
    If your character doesn't seem strong enough as a human, making them a vampire won't fix the underlying issue - that you've written a weak character.
     The saddest stories are otherwise good fiction saddled with the mouldering undead for no reason, discouraging serious readers from accessing an otherwise entertaining  story. Would Moby Dick have been improved by a ship of zombie whalers? No.
     Write your story, make it all it can be, and avoid the lazy temptation to insert overdone, tired genre conventions in it.

Friday, 21 December 2012

A Bit of Christmas Strunk

      I thought it might be nice to visit William Strunk in a little more depth, as his Elements of Style is still an insanely valuable book for any writer, despite its age; Strunk published it in 1935, if memory serves. Rule 11, using positive forms, is something every writer should remember. If you choose to disregard it, you do so at your peril. Positive, muscular prose will offset a plethora of other sins.


   This excerpt courtesy of Project Gutenberg, since Elements is out of copyright.

11. Put statements in positive form.

     Make definite assertions. Avoid tame, colorless, hesitating, non-committal language. Use the word not as a means of denial or in antithesis, never as a means of evasion.

He was not very often on time.
He usually came late.
He did not think that studying Latin was much use.
He thought the study of Latin useless.
The Taming of the Shrew is rather weak in spots. Shakespeare does not portray Katharine as a very admirable character, nor does Bianca remain long in memory as an important character in Shakespeare's works.
The women in The Taming of the Shrew are unattractive. Katharine is disagreeable, Bianca insignificant.


     The last example, before correction, is indefinite as well as negative. The corrected version, consequently, is simply a guess at the writer's intention.

     All three examples show the weakness inherent in the word not. Consciously or unconsciously, the reader is dissatisfied with being told only what is not; he wishes to be told what is. Hence, as a rule, it is better to express even a negative in positive form.

not honest
not important
did not remember
did not pay any attention to
did not have much confidence in


     The antithesis of negative and positive is strong:

Not charity, but simple justice.

Not that I loved Caesar less, but Rome the more.


(edit: as of 2012 I do find transparent use of antithesis to seem dated and needlessly theatric. If softened or disguised in dialogue, it’s still a great construction, but if done openly your prose sounds like a lawyer’s closing argument, or something from CSI: Miami.)


     Negative words other than not are usually strong:

The sun never sets upon the British flag.


That’s all for today, Merry Christmas and have a happy Winter Solstice!

Tuesday, 18 December 2012

Snow day

It’s snowing outside, and the pasture is gleaming, except where the horses have decided to paint it green-brown. Winter in Canada paints everything in black and white, so even the smear of manure is a welcome touch of color. I suppose there’s an analogy there, but I’ll leave it alone.

There are interesting and horrible things occurring throughout the world, but today I’m more interested in watching the snow. Snow is patient. It visits every winter, content in the knowledge that, come the next ice age, it will get to hang around for another ten millennia. Something about that reassures me.

Art outlives flesh, but even art is temporary. Enjoy your day for what it is. Enjoy your art for what it is. Tell the truth, and listen for it in return.

Think about the snow.


Monday, 17 December 2012

On my writing style

Words I try to live by. On some days I do better than others.

    In writing fiction, the more fantastic the tale, the plainer the prose should be. Don’t ask your readers to admire your words when you want them to believe your story. 
-- Ben Bova

   If a writer knows enough about what he is writing about, he may omit things that he knows. The dignity of movement of an iceberg is due to only one ninth of it being above water.
-- Ernest Hemingway
   Omit needless words.
-- Oliver Strunk
While you're at it, go read Strunk here. It's excellent advice.

Saturday, 15 December 2012

The joys of editing - also Tabletop

    Making headway. Initial readers are returning drafts and that means the sweaty anguish of the main editing pass on Behind the Ruins. On the plus side that means there should be a January publication, which will be nice.
   Working on a short that's creeping past 7000 words now, so not as short as I'd like, nor is it going where I want it to, but that's one of the interesting things about writing; the stories tell themselves. Sometimes not in a way you like, but hey, that's what you get.
   If you have time tomorrow, drop in on Tabletop's online Q&A at  6pm pst. Game fun with the always excellent Wil Wheaton and the folks at Geek & Sundry.

Friday, 14 December 2012


   Just watching the feeds from Connecticut.
   While everyone will tell you as an author not to get political on your blog, screw that.
   I live in Canada now, a country with stringent handgun controls that watches pistols roll across the border into gang hands constantly, and grew up a hunter in the US. I also lived in Japan, a country with near-total gun control, so I'm uniquely equipped to give a relative opinion. It's this: Gun control can help mitigate mass murder, in that it's far more difficult to have a high body count without assault weapons or high-capacity handguns. A working mental health system would be preferable, of course, but I don't expect the States to manage that.
    Even in nations with extreme gun control (e.g. Japan) it's possible to own and use a hunting rifle for sport; sport being the only valid reason to own a gun in the vast majority of civilized nations.
   If you are buying high-capacity semiautomatic pistols or military grade semiauto rifles, you're not thinking about hunting, you're thinking about shooting people. It's that simple. I've hunted big game, and in all situations a quality bolt-action rifle is infinitely superior to a piece of military assault gear. I've handgun hunted big game - and you don't use a Glock or a Sig for that, you use a heavy revolver, usually scoped or with an extended barrel for accuracy.
   The US needs to lose its bizarre fetish for murder toys and legislate guns sensibly. There are sensible guns, and those are fine and dandy, but no one needs military grade gear for personal use.
   Unless you're hoping to kill lots of people.

Edit: Stunned to see calls among the talking heads on Twitter for arming schoolteachers in the US. Do these people even understand the level of insanity needed to propose that as a solution for a violence-ridden culture? If your underlying worry is that you need the guns to overthrow your own government, maybe you should try voting, or running for office yourself, instead. I have to suspect that the real reason is simple misanthropic hatred and the vicarious dream of shooting an 'intruder'. I think this circles back to the whole mental health issue. It's tremendously depressing to see how entrenched the insanity has become.

Thursday, 13 December 2012

Tracing roots - HPL and WHH

    It's always interesting to hunt down authors' inspirations. One of the largest influences underlying Howard Phillips Lovecraft's work - at least as far as his mythos works are concerned - seems to me to have been William Hope Hodgson's The Night Land; a book you have to work to find.
   Well, unless you go to Project Gutenberg and just click.
    HPL is important because of his influence on modern horror, fantasy and speculative fiction. He's remembered for his imagination and world-building, and has become a popular target for charges of racism and misogeny (to which historians can only point mutely to the 20s in the United States and ask if accusers have any knowledge of how deeply racist and sexist the US was at that time).
   Hodgson is important because he influenced Lovecraft heavily. The Night Land doesn't just hint at the Cthulhu Mythos of HPL's works, it does a very good job of trotting out the final Mythos story wherein the Great Old Ones are back and looking for lunch.
   I'm not going to offer a scholarly discussion of the book, other than to warn that it, like Lovecraft's fiction, is written in a dense and difficult manner (Hodgson wanted to force a strange pseudo-archaism in the book's style, and it requires some effort to read); rather, I suggest you fight your way through it and learn a bit about the inspirations for the works that went on to inspire authors and filmmakers whose works you read, or watch, today.
   Besides, there's an interesting story in there, set in a world so post-apocalyptic it make Mad Max look like Anne of Green Gables.

Saturday, 8 December 2012

Thursday, 6 December 2012

Cover blurb for Behind the Ruins

Here's a draft of the dreaded back cover copy. It's always painful to try and summarize 400 pages on a recipe card.

     We meet Grey in the process of murdering three people intent on robbing and killing him. The deaths solve nothing; instead, what he finds on one of the bodies leads to a bloody trip through a world recovering from the shambles left by a near-apocalyptic event. In the process he becomes involved in a plan that could mean the return of the world he knew as a child, before the Fall changed everything.

      During the trip from British Columbia into the former United States he is forced to overcome both his own bleak memories and the murderous forces of an old friend. The lessons he takes away will determine not only if he has a future, but whether civilization does.

     Behind the Ruins examines how people use violence as a tool, and how it uses them in return.

Wednesday, 5 December 2012

Another Behind the Ruins tease

Beyond the Ruins - Copyright 2012, Michael Lane, All Rights Reserved

Another little snippet from the second draft.

  Nights were getting colder still, and in the slanting morning sun the mountaintop trees were faded to ghosts with a layer of frost. He’d turned north again, climbing the circling hills around the brick ruins of a small town, when he saw movement.

  Grey settled behind a fallen tree, and checked to make sure the sun was at a safe angle before peeking through his rifle’s scope. He twisted the magnification to maximum and sought the flicker of motion that had caught his eye.

  The town had been built on a long straight main street, probably the old highway, and was crossed by a handful of side streets. Trees and hedges had run rampant over the years and many of the streets were choked with foliage going autumn-yellow and brown. Near the center of the town another road came in from the west, and a concrete traffic circle marked the intersection with the old highway. It took him a moment to spot the men sitting at ease in the circle, enjoying the afternoon sun.

  Even with the telescopic sight, it was too far to make out much detail. There were eight or ten people he could see, all adults. They wore a mix of clothes; most had hooded jackets, at least wore a deerskin duster not unlike Grey’s. They had horses, too, he realized after a minute. They were tethered to a longline back under the branches of some crowded cottonwood trees. Two chocolate brown dogs circulated, and Grey discarded the notion of finding a closer vantage point.

  If they’d had a few hundred cattle with them, he’d have written them off as drovers; maybe gone down to see if they had trade to do. There weren’t any cattle, though.

  Grey watched until the sun set and darkness rose up the walls of the valley. Below, campfires began to glow; five of them. The fires pinpointed groups he hadn’t seen for the trees, and he realized there were probably two dozen men, maybe more, camped in the ruins.

  The temperature fell as dusk passed and full dark came. Grey unrolled his blanket and draped it around his shoulders, then settled to watch and nap. Overhead, bolides drew hairline ghosts in the night.

  The predawn sky was pale rose when the distant rattle of hooves and the single bark of a dog woke Grey. The men below were packing up. The watcher shifted a bit, settling sore legs into a different position. He left his rifle propped against the log, and watched the hurried scramble of a camp getting ready to move out.

  By the time the sun had cleared the far mountains, the group was making its way south, six or so horsemen leaving every fifteen minutes. He could hear raised voices as each group departed, but the distance was too great to make out what was said. The dogs went with the first group. Grey squinted at the sun, riding into a faultless blue sky, and stayed in his cover. The ruins were quiet within two hours. Grey made his way down the hill an hour later.

  He moved through the ruins, staying in the thick brush of yards gone to seed. The streets were still in fair shape. They had been frost-heaved into swells and sudden dips, but much of the pavement remained. The first yellow leaves lay drifted atop the mulch of past years in the gutters.

  Calling crows led him to an old garage. Three corpses, a man, a woman and a little girl, were piled inside, the bodies nude and a pale blue-white. Their eyes were gone, and each had a section of electrical wire twisted into the flesh of their throats. Their hands had been bound behind them with more wire. The bodies bore the marks of other abuse, but Grey didn’t pause to study them.

  He found each of the fires he’d seen. The riders had camped in buildings that were still roofed and built their fires in the streets before them, leaving charred circles. He moved through each of the campsites. Most had been homes; some still had a few sticks of furniture. All smelled of rodent piss. One group had camped in the stone shell of an old store. Empty shelves lay tipped like dominoes within, but the counters at the front had been cleared to make space for bedrolls. An old jam jar sat on the floor near the store’s entrance, a scrap of paper tucked into it. Grey grunted to himself, walked around the jar once, then stooped and picked it up. He spun off the lid and fished the paper out. He scanned the note, stopping and re-reading it several times. He unzipped his coat and tucked the paper into a shirt pocket.

  "Well, shit," he murmured. He heard the crow's rusty complaints begin again in the garage down the street.

  He left the shop and headed north.


25-pound Editing Cat is fatigued by the monkey's insistence on posting rough second draft hunks of a thriller, and refuses to let him post any interesting bits. So he's going to nap until it hits late third draft.

   Songs you might enjoy while reading Behind the Ruins one of these days. I don't recommend all the YouTube videos, just the songs. Which you should buy. And yes, each (in my mind at least) fits best with a specific character at some point in their arc.
   I was going to provide YouTube links but EMI scares me, so:
Cage The Elephant: No Rest for the Wicked
Snake River Conspiracy: Oh Well
Steve Earle: Copperhead Road
Death Cab For Cutie: I Will Follow You Into The Dark
Creedence Clearwater Revival: Have You Seen the Rain



Tuesday, 4 December 2012

Guest blog editing fun

   Visit Jae Blakney's blog and listen to me drone on about editing. There's some useful stuff in there, and besides, Jae's blog is cool. Go ye and read. The link will open in a new window.

   Check out Jae's An Analysis of the Cardassian Language, too. You can read the first chapter, and it's good stuff. Be prepared to want more.

  Archived copy of the article here

Snippet from Ch 1 of Behind the Ruins

   Just a quick note on the fly - buried in second draft rewrites and trying to be a good boy and cut rather than add.
   Here's a slightly rough teaser - a bit of chapter one in draft to give you a taste.

Excerpt from chapter one, Behind the Ruins

Copyright Michael Lane November 2012
All Rights Reserved


Grey watched the men working his back trail. He lay concealed under a clump of juniper bushes halfway up the slope of a brushy gorge, and the bitter smell of the plant would mask his scent. The trio below didn't seem to have a dog, but he took the precaution anyway. Crickets chirred in the dry bunchgrass that tufted between the blocks of peach shale and birds whistled in the larger clumps of vegetation.
The trio moved quietly up the path that Grey had descended an hour ago. They took their time, and the birds continued to warble, unbothered by their progress.
Grey had glimpsed the three when they crossed his trail in the foothills and looped back at a cautious jog to see if they'd try to backtrack him. He frowned and rolled his head to the right, onto the stock of his old rifle.
He studied each through the telescopic sight. The man in the lead was thin to the point of emaciation; muscles moved like bundled wire under the sunburnt skin of his neck and arms. He wore ragged, filthy jeans, a colorless canvas jacket with a hood pulled up and a pair of heavy boots. He carried a shotgun and moved in a crouch, eyes constantly flicking from the ground to the walls of the gorge and back.
The other two wore clothing equally dirty and hard-used, but they also wore packs and carried folded hides for bedrolls and the greenish cylinders of rolled tarps. They were both heavily armed, with belt knives, pistols and long guns. The heavier, blonde-bearded man in the middle of the tiny column carried a black assault rifle across a crooked elbow.
The gully took a sharp turn just below the hidden watcher; it was a blind corner and Grey expected the three to pause there, unless they were fools. They weren't, and they did. The men were close enough for him to smell them on the warm updraft; rancid grease, sweat and badly cured hides. The rocky walls of the gorge funneled sound to him, and he could hear each pebble their feet dislodged.
The scout spoke, and the watcher realized he'd been mistaken. The skeletal tracker was a woman.
"This is stupid," she said. "We should just lay up on the hill here. We can get him when he comes back through." She pointed the hillside where Grey lay watching.
That would be smart, he mused. Smarter if you had just gone away.
Beard shook his head, glancing where she had indicated for a bare second.
"I'm not crawling up a hundred feet of rock and brush when we can find his camp, get comfy there and pop him when he comes back. Besides, he might not come back this way."
"Why are you so set on killing him?" the tracker asked, straightening and rubbing the small of her back. She propped the shotgun across her shoulder while she kneaded with her left hand. "We're just supposed to be mapping and keeping quiet. You remember what Harris said."
Beard spat. "I want his rifle, Ang." His brow crinkled and a dull cunning settled on his features. "Harris don’t need anybody running around with sniper rifles when we come back."
Grey sighed and slipped the rifle's safety off.
It's not a sniper rifle, you idiot, he thought as he watched the three argue. It's a deer rifle.
The man in back cursed and turned away, fumbling at his fly.
"You got a bitch?" Beard called, his voice ugly. The other man rooted around in his layers of clothing. Fishing for his dick, Grey thought with a thin smile.
"Naw I just need to piss. You're the boss, boss."
"Don't fucking forget it," Beard said. "Hurry up and let’s get moving."
The problem, Grey reflected, was that his camp wasn't at the end of this particular trail. He never left anything important at his hunting camps, anyway. At the end of this trail, about three miles further on, was Doc's cabin, and these three weren't the sort of visitors Doc needed.
   So be it, he thought.

 If you assume something bad happens from here, Editing Cat says you're right.

Sunday, 2 December 2012

Cover for Behind the Ruins is up

Happy December darkness to all - these short days are a bugger.

  Progess is being made in fits and starts. Here's a small copy of the cover for my novel Behind the Ruins. Crafted lovingly in Gimp using my own photos and bits of public domain goodness. Needless to say, I've retained copyright for it.
  The first person to correctly identify the mountains in the background wins a free copy. See, I can be fun.

   If you hate it, please send all input to the 25-pound editing cat, below. He'll get right on your issues.


     Ah, the joy and terror of facing a blank blog page. I don't know about you, but I find it hard to say anything terribly clever in a welcome post, so I'll keep it short.
     This blog is going to be home for my writing, including a soon-to-be-released novel still in search of a title, short fiction, reviews of indie authors, clever things I find on the internet and the ocassional rant.
     I'll try to keep it clean and nice, but I'm innately profane, so be aware that anything you're reading may veer into a NC-17 rating quite quickly.

    I'll try to be a good boy and get a teaser for chapter one up as soon as the second rewrite is finished. Until then, enjoy some words of wisdom from the always interesting Alan Moore chatting about comics, culture, the Occupy movement and literature. It'll open in a new window, so no worries.