Saturday, March 29, 2014

A Literary/Historical Mystery

I recently read two books at the same time. One of them was a 1280 page history about a powerful man who lived during the first half of the twentieth century. The other was a twenty-five-hour-long audio book about a powerful man who lived during the last half of the twentieth century. The two men, I could not help but notice, had some things in common. See if you can recognize them.

As a young man, he has floppy dark hair and an intense, unblinking stare. He is extremely intelligent and creative, but his personal grooming habits are lacking . He does not appear to have control over his temper, although he learns to use his temper tantrums to frighten and bully people into doing things for him. Early on, he wanted to be an artist, but soon became interested in building a large, powerful organization. He is a vegetarian.

Using his considerable powers of persuasion, he convinces several marginal and eccentric young men to join him. He has an instinct for what motivates people, and he knows how to use their fears and weaknesses to drive them to accomplish more than they could dream of on their own. He is fearless and unhesitating in approaching powerful, established business leaders and asking for money or assistance, even when he knows it is not in that business person’s best interest.

Although he soon becomes wealthy and powerful, he is not very interested in physical comforts—he works constantly in pursuit of his larger goals. He has no loyalty—when a friend is no longer useful to him, he drops him. He is regarded by most of his associates as a ruthless bully, but they continue to follow him because they are in awe of his passion, his intelligence, and his vision. He never loses focus of the big picture—he knows what he wants to accomplish. He is impatient, but when his plans go awry, he does not give up.

He died at age fifty-six.

Can you guess which two historical figures I read about?

Here’s a clue: One is the most reviled figure from the twentieth century. The other is one of the most admired. 

Here are links to the two books: Book one. Book two.

Update: I now find I'm not the only person to compare these two figures. Go here. And here.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Eight Free, Easy, and Legal Ways to Support Your Favorite Author

Everybody knows that buying copies of his or her book is the best way to support an author. But if you have a lot of favorite authors (or friends who are authors) buying all those hardcovers can become a financial burden. I mean, if I bought the hardcover edition of every book by every author I know and like, it would cost me several thousand dollars a year. I love my author friends, but there’s a limit.

Still, there are things you can do that take only a few seconds and will make your favorite author deliriously happy.

1. Give the book a good rating on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Goodreads, etc.
Believe it or not, those stars make a difference. Four stars will do. Five stars is better. A rave review is awesome.

2. Face the book out in bookstores.
Face out books make authors feel wonderful, which guarantees HUGE positive karma. If the bookstore doesn’t have the book, suggest that they order it. And be nice to that clerk. It’s not his fault.

3. Read the book in public…
…or put the dust jacket over that copy of 50 Shades of Grey, thereby giving your favored author a boost while preserving your own dignity.
4. “Like” the author’s fan page on Facebook.
One click and you’re done. Everybody likes to be liked.

5. Check the book out of the library.
Or reserve a copy if it’s checked out.

6. If you are on Twitter, retweet.
Your favorite author’s pithy remarks deserve a wider audience.

7. Talk about the book, in person and on social media.
“Speaking of cats, I know this author who wrote a book that has a cat in it. It’s pretty good.”

8. Send chocolate.
Okay, this one isn’t free, but chocolate is always a good idea.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Ignorant Cretins are People Too

I just read an interview Chuck Wendig and Sam Sykes, two talented* SF/F authors who spend a lot of time (where do they find it?) blogging about the writing process and related topics. The whole interview is worth reading, but I was struck by Sykes’ final comment. They were talking about criticism—particularly writers critiquing early drafts of another writer’s work.
Most developing writers have had the experience of writing a “perfect” scene or chapter or story, sharing it with a friend or workshop member, and receiving negative feedback. And most writers will, at one time or another, react with pain, bewilderment, anger, and/or disbelief. “How can you not like it? It’s perfect!”

And maybe that injured writer will slink off and sulk and undertake a search for a more receptive reader. Or maybe he or she will simply decide that the universe sucks and to hell with everybody. Or maybe not.

Here’s what Sam Sykes says about that:

I think that's the true test of a writer, because everyone will go, "What are you talking about? It's perfect the way it is." You don't want to look at something huge you've just done and have someone say, "Alright, now tear it down and start over." I think the writers that never get anywhere are the ones that continually get angry for not recognizing how genius this is. And the real writers will rage about it and cool down before saying, "Well how am I going to make this work." That's an attitude that helps you immensely: How do I make this work? So that's just the attitude I've taken and novels have kept getting better.

He is correct. Some of the most elegant, incisive, insightful writing I have ever done has hit the trash because it didn’t work. There were hundreds of moments in my (now defunct) critique group when I listened to some criticism of my work and thought, “You are an idiot. How can you not get this? Are you blind to beauty? Christ, I can’t believe I’m sitting here listening to this moron!”

But I said nothing, because that was the number one rule in our group: Shut Up and Listen. Later, reviewing my notes, I might say, “Well, so-and-so may be an ignorant cretin, but ignorant cretins read books too. How am I going to fix this?”

And so I do.

*I’ve read a couple of Chuck Wendig’s books, and can attest to the excellence of his writing. I’ll be picking up one of Sam Sykes’s books soon.

Monday, March 3, 2014

Archetypes Happen

Last night I watched “Thor: The Dark World.” Not bad, although I missed the banter-driven humor of the “The Avengers,” or even the first (2011) Thor movie. The story is engaging, and as we have come to expect, the effects are excellent. It was worth the five bucks I paid to stream it.
The story is comic book simple. Evil Elves set out to destroy the Universe; Thor and company must stop them. The elves, we learn midway through the film, come from a dark scary world called Svartalfheim.
I just about fell off my chair when I saw that. Svartalfheim?
Six years ago I began work on an alternate history novel with the working title “The Elements of Magic.” It is about, among other things, a race of evil humanoid creatures who call themselves “elves,” and who claim to be from a world called Swartlehymn.
I remember typing the word Swartlehymn the first time. I was looking for a word that sounded somewhat Germanic and a little bit silly. A word that was fun to say, and easy to mispronounce. I first typed Swarthammer, but that sounded too British, so I went with Swartlehymn. It was, so far as I knew, a nonsense word with no literary or historical reference. It was my word, and for the past few years I’ve been working on this book, building the elvish world known as Swartlehymn.
I now find that Svartalfheim is the anglicanization of Svart√°lfaheimr, the dwelling of the Svalt√°lfr, a race of dark elves mentioned in the Prose Edda. The Marvel Comics version of Thor features the “Dark Elves.”
I have not read a Thor comic since the 1960s. And aside from bumping into a few pop culture references, I am unfamiliar with Norse mythology. But somehow I came up with the word Swartlehymn, and used it to describe a world populated by evil elves. 
It’s Magic.