Monday, February 28, 2011

Indie Author and Kindle Publishing

http://www.novelr.com/2011/02/27/rich-indie-writer

This is apparently a writer who's made non-traditional publishing work for her. She's both young and prolific, and has been optioned for a film. You go, indie author girl.

Friday, February 25, 2011

War Elephants

Some fabulous French Medieval Illuminations, including these stunning depictions of war elephants:




Thursday, February 24, 2011

Bankrupt Nihilism

A quick summary of events so far as I understand them:

Self-proclaimed conservative blogger Leo Grin wrote a post entitled "The Bankrupt Nihilism of our Fallen Fantasists", in which he lauds Robert E. Howard's Conan and Tolkien's Lord of the Rings as champion examples of both inspiring prose and a grand, optimistic mythic tradition. (Equating the two strikes me as weird, since they seem to be very different works, but I suppose both have scruffy guys from the far North country who eventually become the kings of great civilizations. I would argue that misses the point of both works, though). He goes on to criticize the execrable work of modern cynical fantasists, who don't have real heroes anymore, just a sad cavalcade of failure and feces that pretends laughably to sophistication by rejecting the old order in any hateful way possible.

Joe Abercrombie (one of the writers specifically listed) wrote a very charming blog post back, in which he argued the old order was not destroyed but merely added to, and that he quite liked Tolkien, but figured J.R.R. had done it well enough the first time that it didn't need to be endlessly repeated.

Adam Whitehead pointed out that Tolkien and Howard both have quite a dark, cynical, and salacious streak in their writing (he points a lot of fingers at the Silmarillion).

And Magemanda points out there are loads of books out there keeping a mythic tradition well alive, it's just that they're written by girls, and she wonders if Mr. Grin is aware there are also female authors.

I do recommend the posts (and the others I'm sure have been written about this). I don't know how much new I have to say. Like many of the later commenters, I think Howard and Tolkien have some profound philosophical opposition to each other, with Conan being a story about how a mighty savage man comes into a decadent and degraded society (as, indeed, all societies must be when they begin to measure men by any metric other than their raw will and strength), and puts to work his cunning and his heroic strength as a thief, a pirate, a murderer, and a mercenary before eventually building the fame (and conspicuous body count) to rule as king over lesser men; and Tolkien being the story of how the decline from a more civilized and cultured age was slowed (but not stopped) due to the cooperation between peoples of the free nations, the inherent resilience to the corruption of power by simple people who wanted nothing more than a lazy, amicable six-meal-a-day life, and by a simple act of mercy against someone who deserved by all objective measure to die.

If the above makes it sound like I don't like Conan, that's really not accurate. I do, but I take it with more than one grain of salt.

I'm at the disadvantage of not having read Mr. Abercrombie's books, though they've all been recommended to me highly by friends I trust.

Mr. Grin writes: "What I actually cherish is something far more rare: the elevated prose poetry, mythopoeic subcreation, and thematic richness that only the best fantasy achieves, and that echoes in important particulars the myths and fables of old." Which, I have to admit, evokes to me stuff I think Mr. Grin would very likely hate: Kelly Link and her mad, postmodern fairy tale retellings; Neil Gaiman and Tim Pratt's fabulous takes on the Greek furies, immortality, and the mythic cycle; Hell, that's pretty much an exact description of Catherynne M. Valente's "13 Ways of Looking at Space/Time".

But (and forgive my speculation here if it's not accurate) I don't think Mr. Grin would actually like any of those. I think he's hoping more specifically for fiction revolving around Guys with Swords, in which Evil is uncomplicated and Good is strong and virtuous. I'm only making fun of him a little when I say that, because I quite like having those stories in the mix too. Too many stories without hope, or without characters who seem to struggle toward an ideal rather than merely scrape out an existence, can build up a kind of sludge in you that makes even something well written feel more hollow and depressing than it would alone. And while you can argue (with easy success) that "good guy defeats scheming, irredeemable bad guy and saves helpless interchangeable semi-naked girl" is a format that can get tedious, I'd argue Howard, for example (and Leiber after him) can pull it off with enough variety to keep it interesting many a time (though, again, I'd argue none of those characters are what you would call "upstanding" or "morally pure").

This is an argument I see over and over again amongst people who like fantasy- wherein a subgroup of people which is predominantly, though not exclusively, conservative white males bemoans that fantasy isn't as good as it used to be in the old days of high adventure that didn't have to mean something more than a thrilling yarn or be weighted down with postmodern politically correct guilt (again, stop me if I've misrepresented that stance). I'm not sure how reconcilable it is, except, as Mr. Grin does say, that I can read what I like and he can read what pleases him. I don't personally see the various types of fantasy out there as mutually exclusive, but I certainly know lady readers who feel completely unwelcome and excluded in the types of stories Mr. Grin is lauding, and I suspect he would feel offended and marginalized in theirs.

As I said, I don't know how to reconcile it, or if it's even possible.



(PS: I do apologize to Mr. Grin if I've misrepresented him at any point. I did my best to capture the spirit of it, and I hope I've not put words into his mouth.)

PPS: A few more blog posts about it, here (this one includes the words "possibility bong") and here.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Series

Writing a series of books, especially a long series, is an idea that, at best, fills me with pants-knotting terror. The Robert Jordan model- that is, spending over 20 years of my life on a single narrative project that grows progressively more detailed with each work- is frankly my idea of Hell. And yet, I recognize that if I want to be a successful genre author in the long form, somebody's going to want at least a trilogy out of me.

And yet, as a reader, there's certainly series I like, and would pick up a new book in their succession rather than something completely new. The same holds even more true for serial formats like TV and comics. I did a quick, sloppy tally, and I'm pretty sure I've read more series books than non-series books throughout my life, and not all of them with the excuse of being 14 (though that accounts for a lot of it). That said, I have two favorites that have been in a series: The Lord of the Rings (which was written as one book, albeit a sequel) and Ursula LeGuin's The Dispossessed, which has only the barest links to the other books in its series. It's set in the same universe, and they invent a technology that other books make a passing mention of. All of the other books I can think of that I'll rave about are self-contained*. Which isn't to say I didn't enjoy Harry Potter, or Discworld, or Song of Ice and Fire, just that with the exception of my friends who have come to me specifically looking for series, I've never pushed them at anyone and gone "you have to read this!"

I think a lot of the appeal of series in fantasy and science fiction is that you only have to surmount the steep learning curve of the world once. After that you know how things work, and you can fill nearly the whole book with story, much the way you could in a novel set in the real world.

Then too, there are particular strong characters you'll want to hang a series off of: Hercule Poirot, James Bond, and what have you. Batman. Sherlock Holmes, Conan, Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser.

On the flip side, it's been my experience that the longer the form, the less excited I tend to get about it, which may in part just be me. Several of my friends know from experience that if I find a short story I enjoy, there will be links to it in their inboxes within a few hours of me reading it, and I'll often grin like an idiot throughout the whole of something short that I enjoy. I have that same reaction to scenes within a novel, but very rarely am I making a happy face the whole way through (Tom Robbins and Nabakov have both come close for me though). I guess it's sort of the equivalent of getting an undeserved ice cream sundae vs. getting an ice cream sundae after you've eaten all your vegetables. The latter perhaps has a greater sense of accomplishment and is certainly the clear nutritional champion, but you've still got broccoli in your teeth and the ice cream doesn't give you that sweet filling sensation because you've already got a stomach full of plant matter. This dilution is multiplied across a series.

Series also seem to fall prey to two very particular and obnoxious traps. The first is selective amnesia, where in the previous book the characters come to some amicable agreement on what had been a major problem. Lessons are learned, people grow, relationships are strengthened, and it's been put to bed with a happy ending. Then you open the next book and the exact same problem (or some very minor twist thereof) pops up with the characters behaving as if they've not matured in the slightest since about the middle of the previous book. Anything with a romantic element is particularly bad about this, though it's also a problem for books whose main character has some sort of defining emotional hurdle.

The other trap is shark-jumping. As each new threat has to be bigger than the last, characters get blown out of proportion, or reduced to caricatures of themselves, ninjas begin to kick in doors just for something to do, passages begin to feel like nothing but stalling for time and money, and (and, oh how I detest this) the characters who have for the last six books been "just the regular guy" are suddenly and without any advanced warning, revealed to have scarring tragic backstories or kung fu training they failed until now to mention. Stories, like pole dancers' careers, have a natural end point beyond which their efforts get kind of painful to watch unless you came specifically for a cruel point and laugh.

I know there are people (quite a lot of them) who are planning seven and eight book epics from the get go. It's always boggled my mind. I wish I had that kind of zeal about any one story I've ever tried to tell, but really, past about seven thousand words, I'm already making eyes at the next handsome bit of short fiction walking by.

Maybe it's just me.



(* Edit: It occurs to me Ender's Game was eventually part of a series, but I never read the rest of it. I heard it went a bit off the rails. I would still call the initial book self-contained.)

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Mythic Fidelity

One of my favorite complaints people make about the Twilight series is: "that's not how real vampires are!" I giggle every time someone brings it up. Twilight's vampires are still far outside of my personal tastes for the undead, but I recognize the vampire legend is pretty mutable, even if Ms. (Mrs?) Meyers does seem intent on neutering them.

That said, I get an involuntary eye twitch at the word "wereleopard". Data supports that if you just called them something different, rather than using a specifically northern European term for it ("wer" for man, also related to terms like "wergeld" for what you had to pay for having killed someone) I have far less problem. All sorts of societies have shapeshifters who take on animal form, and they generally have native, non-germanic names for them. (As another etymological nitpick, I'm bothered by the shortened term "lycan" as it splits the root word "-anthropos" (again, man) rather than dividing on the sensible break between the two).

My point was that I believe if you put everybody who cares at all about legends and myths in a straight line, could make a continuum of where one author or another has diverged too far from the source material for the work to be pleasurable for them. I know one writer who cringes every time someone talks about plural minotaurs as if a mommy and daddy minotaur get together and make baby bull headed monstrosities, rather than it being a very specific curse from the gods. His Dark Materials and Anne Rice's Memnoch the Devil played way too fast and loose with their Christian source material for me. I've been witness to mind numbingly passionate discussions about how fairies ought to be depicted (nevermind spelled! "faerie" indeed.).

Though by the same token, some of my favorite works ever include a re-imagining of seven world myths in terms of physics, a book where Pan has a conversation with Tarzan, a series in which Ishtar the goddess of lust works at a strip club and Orpheus' dismembered head is a character, a story in which very real angelic miracles are a common and well known occurrence that lends no more understanding or meaning to the lives of people, and one where the Greek muses are alzheimer's patients in southern California. And Tolkien, which has several convenient lifts from a number of European mythological sources.

I think how you deal with well-documented outside source material is especially important in a short story, where your reader's enjoyment of the piece may rest heavily on their familiarity not only with the original myths and legends, but the subsequent debates and controversies surrounding them. (In one of my favorite books, in utter frustration, a wizard says "or maybe I could turn you into a rhinocerous, which is how this whole stupid unicorn myth got started anyway." The character he says it to is, in fact, a unicorn). Being able to drop a single name, or a precise phrase, and have it conjure in your readers minds a wealth of myth, culture, and drama is a beautiful thing (Try the word "Ragnarok" and see how much pops into your head).

But if you want just the classics, the place to go is the actual classics. The difficult trick is to put a new spin on something that summons that wealth of story, keeping it familiar enough to feel like you haven't cheaply stolen a name or face for your own nefarious agenda, but also keeping it fresh and new enough that a reader who knows the legend can still be surprised and delighted.

It's a thin tightrope at the best of times, and the terrible truth of it is, each reader's rope will be in a different place that you won't be able to judge until you've already put your weight on the forward foot, and there's either a rope there, or there isn't.

Anyway, those are my scattered thoughts for the moment.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Photo Journalism

We live in a beautiful, terrible, strange world.

World Press Photography Winners.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Your Editings

My dear friend Johnathan S. Pembrook mentioned that his edits were not quite like one I posted in the last entry, so I wanted to put it out to whomever is out there reading in blog land:

How do you go about editing?

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Anatomy of an Edit

It's always bothered me that there aren't more resources online regarding editing stories. There seems to be a pyramid, at the base of which are near limitless numbers of articles and resources for planning and starting fiction. There are many, but noticeably fewer resources for getting out of a stuck point int he middle and keeping on task. There are a handful of resources on wrapping everything up, and then there seem to be a scant number of available helpful guides about how to edit once you get there.

It was pointed out to me- and I think my friend is correct in this- that part of the reason it's hard to do a general guide is that every story requires something different.

That said, the following is a case study of an edit I've been working on.

Phase one: read through and identify serious structural problems. In this case I had a beginning that was very heavy on exposition, and an ending in which the characters did not have as much agency as I would have liked. I decided the beginning needed to be character driven dialogue and tweaked the end a bit so that it came because of deliberate character actions.

Phase two: I took a moment to step back and decide what kind of story I was trying to tell. The story in question was built around an image of tiny people riding war rabbits, and it kind of straddled that line between being something goofy and adorable, and being something sort of weird and dark. After thinking on it, I decided to go with the latter.

Phase three: I wrote myself a little four sentence summary of the plot, which I found helpful as a guide for pacing, since each one marked an important point in the story.

Phase four: I wrote out what I saw as the main conflicts of the story, and tried to decide what I could change to best address those. I decided to elevate a bit character as a foil to the main character in order to externalize one of the main conflicts. I wrote up a quick set of points I needed this new character to accomplish.

Phase five: I went in to rewrite the beginning and quickly realized that the pace had changed and while the middle was mostly alright, I wasn't just going to be able to tack it on. The story needed a top to bottom rewrite, which I had hoped to avoid. Still, it's a much better story now.

Phase six: More or less satisfied with the structural level, I took a long break, then came back to the story on the level of word choice, sentence structure, grammar, and style. I tweaked a lot of the dialogue to make characters stand out from each other more. Cleaned up a lot of repetition, though less than there was in the first run through, which I guess is an advantage of the rewrite.

Phase seven: going to send it off to a beta reader (is it still beta at this point?) and once I get the okay, I'll start sending it out.

This story was really more work than I was expecting. It was a lot of fun when I wrote it, and I was expecting it to stand up better to close inspection than it did. But it was the one on the list, so you do what you've got to.

Anyway, have a lovely week, all of you out there in blog land.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Great Lecture On Short Structure

By Bruce Holland Rogers, presented as part of the Odyssey Workshop Podcasts.

Here are parts One and Two.

It's funny, it wasn't until I was listening to his lecture that I realized how many stories of Mr. Rogers' I'd encountered and loved to pieces.

The subscription service on his website looks very worthwhile, and I encourage buying in.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Ted Chiang

I want to be Ted Chiang. Ted Chiang has written twelve short stories and novelettes, and between those twelve, he has won:

Four Nebulas
The John W. Campbell Award for best new writer
The Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award
A Sidewise Award
Two Locus Awards
Three Hugo Awards
British Science Fiction Association Award

He was also nominated for a fourth Hugo Award, but declined the nomination because he wasn't as happy as he could be with the story. That's how much pride this guy is taking in what he puts out.

His stories Hell is the Absence of God and Exhalation are two of the most heartbreakingly smart stories I've ever read, and ones that resonated with hopes and fears and just the general gooey nougat of what it means to be alive.

I can't recommend him highly enough. This is what the short form is all about.

You can find his anthology, Stories of Your Life and Others, here on Amazon.