Books I Read: Elantris

Title: Elantris
Author: Brandon Sanderson
Genre: Fantasy
Published: 2006
Content Rating: R for action violence

It used to be that men and women were transformed, seemingly randomly, into nigh-immortal, magical beings. When this happened, they and their families moved to Elantris, the city of the gods. Ten years ago, the magic died. Elantrians lost their power and beauty, becoming like the living dead--unable to heal, enduring pain and hunger so severe that most succumbed to insanity.

When Raoden, beloved prince of the kingdom, becomes one of the fallen Elantrians, his father covers it up, telling the kingdom he has died. Sarene, his bride from another land, arrives in her new home a widow. Meanwhile Hrathen, high priest of the enemy's religion, intends to convert the entire kingdom, because if he doesn't, his god will annihilate them all.

The book alternates between the viewpoints of the three main characters. I admit, I wasn't always interested in all three points of view (most of the time I found Raoden's the most interesting, though the political and religious tension were usually on Sarene and Hrathen's side). Also the novel felt like it started slow to me, but then it's epic fantasy. I understand Sanderson has a world he needs to reveal (and it wasn't infodump-slow, just slower than I wanted).

But by the end, I loved it. One of my favorite things about Sanderson (having read two of his worlds now) is how he reveals the complexities of his world through the story. Not by hiding things from the reader, but by revealing secrets as the characters figure them out. In both Elantris and Mistborn, the characters initially believe the world works a certain way. As they try to save their world, however, they discover there is much to it than they thought possible.

It's that aspect of Sanderson's fantasy that is starting to make him my new Orson Scott Card (no disrespect to Card--Ender's Game is still my favorite novel of all time). If you like fantasy, and you've already read the Mistborn trilogy, try this one out. You might like it.

Is that your Fantasy Trope Smashed and Bleeding on the Floor?

Today is the day! (Well, yesterday, actually, but you get the point). Cindy Pon's novel, FURY OF THE PHOENIX, is out in the world, and to celebrate I'm giving away two copies here today.

The first copy, by random drawing, goes to....

J.J. Debenedictis!

And the best bad dialog--winner of both FURY OF THE PHOENIX and the prequel, SILVER PHOENIX--is the one that not only mocked As You Know, Bob sequel dialog, but it tore apart every single fantasy trope at the same time.

Seriously. I have to rethink my own WIP now.
        "Let's go. We must hurry to Mount Sin."
        "Varen, you mean so we can find out you if you are not really the son of your father who is a farmer but may in fact have royal lineage flowing in your veins, and your mother died because she kept you secret because the evil Lord Goranthianolian received a prophecy from a wandering gypsy who said a child with a glaring star birthmark on their forehead is the only thing that could destroy his evil empire at the solar eclipse sixteen years hence, which just happens to be this summer, but your fake mother, who is actually your mother's nurse maid who ran away with you on your real mother's order to save your life kept this great secret from you for unknown reasons until now, and we only know about it because of Moira, who we thought was a boy but is a girl who was dressed as a boy so she could avenge her father's death and whose death may be from the hands of Lord Goranthianolian's most trusted war leader and chief commander, Tim, and is only exceeded in evil by the great lord himself, and for a little bit we thought she was related to you, but that turned out to not be true, which is a good thing for you, and now we have to travel across hundred of miles to Mount Sin and seek the wisdom of an old shaman woman who lives on a volcano for no apparent reason and see if you truly are the star child of the great prophecy, and we have to do it before the month wears out so we still have time to assemble an army, make new friends, probably pick up a talking cat, and a couple of side quests along the way to deter us, oh, and Moira will probably be kidnapped at some point as well and we will have to rescue her, and do it all in a logistically impossible short amount of time, and save the world?"
        "Yes, exactly. Saying it like that makes it sound horrible. Please don't ever say it like that again."
        "Yes, young possible lord."

It also may be the single longest sentence in the history of bad dialog. Anyway, congratulations Heather Zundel! If the winners could e-mail me at with a shipping address, I'll have their prizes shipped straight away.

As for the rest of you, are you sad you didn't win? A bit jealous, maybe? Well get your own copy! You know you want to.

Quick and Dirty World Building

They say you should spend a lot of time crafting your world--the history, traditions, cultures, language. I think that's true. The more detailed your world is, the more it will feel real. But do you really have to flesh out everything?

The correct answer is yes. Yes, you should. So don't tell anybody that I sometimes use the following tricks to speed up my world-building process.

Have you ever noticed how fractal geography is? You can zoom in on any part, and it generally looks like any other bit of land. To use this to your advantage, go to Google Maps, find a relatively obscure bit of geography (i.e. don't use Long Island or the SF Bay Area, or anything) and zoom in until it looks like something you can use. Take a screenshot, change the scale, and voila! One fantasy continent.

If you can tell me where in the world these maps are from, you win a custom sketch. Not even joking.

It turns out history is just as fractal as geography: zoom in on any point, and you can find something to use for your world. Need a war? Take your pick. How about a revolution or a realistic-but-obscure form of government? Wikipedia (and the internet in general) is full of stuff like this. Just change the names and dates, perhaps a few key details here and there, and you've got your own semi-original history.

The same thing applies to creating a civilization. Do a little research on some unknown people group, then mix and match their traditions and values with some other culture you're into. Choose a technology level, flesh it out by asking how, why, and what result, and pretty soon you have a viable society with relatively little work.

Does this sound unoriginal? Like plagiarism? It's not, really. Stealing from our own world's history, geography, and cultures is no different than creating characters by mixing and matching attributes from yourself and the people you know. Just like making up fantasy languages, the trick is obscuring your sources.

And I'm not suggesting you build your entire world this way. Use this as the foundation, then tweak and twist things as you go. Ultimately the parts you care most about will be the parts that are most originally you, while the rest of the world still feels fleshed out because it has a strong, realistic base behind it.

Anyone have any other quick-and-dirty tips on building a world? I'd love to hear them.

Dear Hollywood: Asians are Cool

Dear Hollywood,

It has come to my attention that a live-action version of Akira is being made (YAY!) starring white actors (BOO!).

Look, I don't have anything against white actors. I love them. But if you're going to adapt one of the most well-known (in America) anime movies of the past 20 years, AND you're going to give the characters Japanese names, shouldn't they also LOOK Japanese?

Now, I didn't say anything when you made Dragonball, and I had different problems with The Last Airbender. But this is getting ridiculous. From 2000-09, you released like 1,000 movies. Of those, 13 had Asian leads. There are 13.8 million Asian Americans in the US, and over half of those live in your state. I know they're not all computer programmers. Surely some of them are actors?

My friend Emmet asked me, quite appropriately, "Aside from Jet Li and Rain (Ninja Assassin), who would you have cast in Akira?"

My first answer was I didn't know. And I didn't know because YOU NEVER CAST ANY, HOLLYWOOD. Google wasn't a lot of help either (fair or not, I blame you again for that), but I managed to find/remember a few.

So here are some Asian American actors for you to cast in lead roles. If not in Akira, how about Ghost in the Shell, Escaflowne, or Evangelion? You know you're going to remake those eventually!

John Cho, most recently appeared as Sulu in the new Star Trek.

Sung Kang, appeared in Fast & Furious and War.

Ken Leung, appeared in Lost and X-Men 3.

Dante Basco, best known as the voice of Zuko on the good version of the Last Airbender, but I saw Take the Lead. He can act too.

And even though he's not American, I'd like to suggest Ken Watanabe for all your older Asian role needs. Because basically, I can't get enough of this guy.

So come on, Hollywood. Asians are cool! Can you please stop pretending America doesn't have any?

Your friend (for now),
Adam Heine

PS: These are just a few examples. I'm sure my friends will have more suggestions for you in the comments.

PPS: It's not directly related, but Keanu Reeves as Spike? Seriously?

Fury of the Phoenix Giveaway!

Cindy Pon's latest book, Fury of the Phoenix, is due to come out next week. I love the ancient-China-like world Cindy has created, and I really want to know what happens after Silver Phoenix! From the website:
When Ai Ling leaves her home and family to accompany Chen Yong on his quest to find his father, haunted by the ancient evil she thought she had banished to the underworld, she must use her growing supernatural powers to save Chen Yong from the curses that follow her. Part supernatural page-turner, part love story, and altogether stirring, Fury of the Phoenix further heralds the arrival of Cindy Pon as a stellar author of paranormal romance and fantasy.
Want a copy of this book? Here's what you have to do.

TO WIN 2 BOOKS: Fury of the Phoenix and it's prequel, Silver Phoenix, you must write some bad sequel dialog in the comments. See, when an author writes a sequel, they have to somehow catch new readers up on what came before. Clearly the best way is to have the characters talk about the prequel for the reader's sake. For example:*

     "You remember that time the evil Dr. Shiv nearly killed us all with his plan to clone razor-toothed marsupials?"
     "Oh yeah! We would be his slaves now if you hadn't discovered your latent ability to cause animal shedding just by singing Bad Romance. Thanks, by the way."
     "No problem. It's too bad I never figured out who I love more: you or your twin brother."
     "I know, right? I was meaning to ask you about-- Hey, is that Dr. Shiv on the news?"

The one I deem funniest will win. Length is unimportant (though you know: brevity, wit, etc). The sequel in question can be fake, as above, or for an actual novel, whether a true sequel exists or not. Heck, even for a movie, I don't care.**

Alternatively, TO WIN A COPY OF Fury of the Phoenix, all you have to do is comment on this post, and I will randomly choose a winner.

Winners will be announced next Wednesday, March 30. An entry to the 2-book package is automatically an entry to the random drawing (though you can't win both). Contest is open internationally. Spreading news of the contest is encouraged, but not required.

I can answer any other questions in the comments. Have fun!

* The nature of this contest is in no way related to actual Fury of the Phoenix dialog (I haven't even read it yet!). I just thought it would be funny.

** If you do write fake dialog for an actual sequel, keep in mind that I might not have read the books in question. I'd hate for a great joke to be wasted just because I never read Pride and Prejudice or something.

Space Travel for Writers

Five basic rules for space travel in science fiction. Sci-fi writers probably know these already, but I'm still surprised how often they're ignored.

(The NRI, or Nerd Rage Indicator, is an estimate of how likely you are to get flak for breaking a given rule. 1 is the least likely (e.g. that guy who runs your local comic shop cares, and only that guy). 5 is the most likely (e.g. Wil Wheaton and John Scalzi publicly destroy your sci-fi cred)).

RULE #1: There is no sound in space. Sound means fluid (air, water, etc.) vibrating against your ear drum. No air, no vibrations, no sound. This happens more in movies than novels, but you should still be aware of it before describing that "bone-shaking explosion that ripped the skies."
NRI: 1 (as important as it is, most people don't notice until it's brought to their attention, especially in prose).

RULE #2: Astral objects are really, really, really far away from each other. The moon is 384 megameters (it's a thing!) away. At our very fastest, it takes us 10 hours to get there. Not so bad? Try Mars. At the same speed, it would take 2 months to get there at best. Jupiter? Almost 2 years. The nearest star system (which may not even have planets)? More than a century. Mostly this means your spaceships either need fuel and provisions for the whole trip, or they have to go really, really fast. The latter, though, raises other considerations (see Rules #3 and #4).
NRI: 5.

RULE #3: Spaceships can't travel faster than the speed of light, no matter how much we want them to. Unless science is wrong, it would take an infinite amount of energy to accelerate an object to the speed of light. There are ways you can mess with this (see Rule #5), but you should at least give a nod to the rule before doing away with it.
NRI: 4 (I figure Wil Wheaton can't complain too much since the biggest violation of this rule is Star Trek's "warp speed").

RULE #4: If you travel fast enough, you have to deal with the weirder effects of special relativity. In particular: time dilation. Effectively, the closer you get to light speed, the slower time moves for you. So if you fly to Jupiter so fast it only takes you 2 days, then decades will have passed back on Earth (and probably faster spaceships will have been built, which is pretty interesting in itself).
NRI: 3 (Star Trek totally ignored it, and most people have a hard time getting their heads around it. I'd say you're 50/50 for getting flak on it).

RULE #5: You can bend the rules, even make them up, but you must be consistent. Wormholes, hyperspace, jumpgates, folding space--these are all viable (and mostly-scientific) methods of faster-than-light travel. The details are entirely up to you, but once you make up the rules, don't break them. If you use a jump gate to get from Earth to Epsilon Eridani in five minutes, you can't say later, "It'll only take three hours for the Eridanis fleet to come through that gate and destroy us all!"
NRI: 5.

A lot has been done already in science fiction, which actually makes things easier for you. You don't have to explain jumpgates or wormholes much to include them. But even if you don't explain them to the reader, you need to know what's behind them. Not the science, necessarily, but the rules that govern it.

Are there any rules I missed? To the comments!

What is Your Work Worth?

There's an interesting article here on why Zoe Winters upped her self-published e-book prices from 99 cents to $4.95. The bottom line (though you should read the whole thing) was she felt the low price attracted readers she didn't want--readers who expected low-or-no prices, and who weren't really the kind of loyal fanbase that grow a career.

Personally I think this is a smart move, but there's been some debate. The arguments seem to be of two general camps: (1) Don't you want to sell as many copies as possible? (2) Don't you want to get your work to as many readers as possible? Both sound reasonable, but let's take a closer look.

Makes sense, right? The more copies you sell, the more money you make. Well, anyone who's taken a HS economics course can tell you that's not exactly true. By that logic, you should sell your books for a penny apiece (or free!), but you'd have to sell 500 copies just to buy a Happy Meal. If you managed to sell 10,000 copies a month, it might cover your electric bill. It is easier to sell more copies at lower prices, but there is a point below which it's not worth doing.

Zoe mentions this in the article:
When I sold 6,500 ebooks in June 2010, that was around $2,300. Well, most people can’t live on that, especially after you take out Uncle Sam’s cut.

I’m not saying that everybody or even most indies will be able to make a living anyway, but if it’s your goal, 99 cents might not be the way to go. You only have to sell 677 ebooks in a month to make that same $2,300 if you are selling at $4.95. . . . the math just doesn’t favor 99 cent ebooks for anyone hoping to make a living.

But what if your goal isn't money? What if you want to reach readers? What if you want to build that ever-elusive platform, so you can sell more books later?

It reminds me a lot of a debate about a year ago when John Scalzi blasted a magazine for paying fiction writers 1/5 of a cent per word. A lot of people felt like he was shutting down "the little guy's markets." As though aspiring writers needed low-or-no-pay markets to break in, work our way up, and build us a platform.

Scalzi's response (paraphrased): If your work is good, then it's worth good money. If your work isn't good, then giving it away for cheap isn't going to make it better, nor will anybody notice.

In the original article, Zoe noted that the 99-cent buyers were largely people looking for bargains, or who hoarded books intending to read them "later." These buyers placed as much value on the books as they had paid for them. Because they paid little, they also paid little attention. These are not readers who will remember you, who will watch for your latest novel in the Kindle store, who will tell their friends they have to pick up your book.

But what if they do? What if your book is so good it rivals Dan Brown and J.A. Konrath, regardless of the price? If that's the case, why the heck are you selling it for 99 cents?! Seriously, if your work is that good, isn't it worth more than that?

I'm assuming, of course, that what matters to you is earning a living. If you write for the love of writing, then sell for whatever the heck you want.* Otherwise, you have to ask yourself what your work is worth to you. There may be a point at which 99 cents makes economic sense, but I'm not sure.

It takes me a year or more to finish a novel. If people don't want them (and so far, they haven't), I'd rather figure out why and get better, not spend my time promoting a mediocre work for a couple hundred bucks. My opinion: if $4.95 a book isn't selling very much, write better, not cheaper. Don't settle. Your time is worth more than you think.

* Though if you write just for the love of it, why are you selling at all?