Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Thanks, Anne McCaffrey, and Genre Boundaries

Reposted from Book View Cafe blog:

Anne McCaffrey’s death, and all the reminiscences and tributes offered in her memory, intersected with what-I-am-thankful-for. Many people, writers and readers both, have described the ways they are thankful for her work and her personal presence in their lives. They’ve said it far better than I, but each memory is personal and hence, unique. Writer Juliette Wade blogged on how McCaffrey’s “Pern” set an example for her own work by blurring the borderlines between fantasy and science fiction.

One of the things about McCaffrey’s work that left a deep impression on me was not so much the “blurring” of genre lines as how she combined story elements in interesting ways. More than that, when I read everything of McCaffrey’s I could get my hands on, I was astonished at how many genres she wrote in. I saw her telling stories in whatever form they needed to take; I saw that she, like me, was interested in a lot of different things and she was fearless in pursuing them.

Certainly, it’s become much more difficult for anyone but a Big Name Writer to switch around from fantasy to science fiction to something in between to romance/women’s fiction, and so forth. The bean-counters and marketing departments hold the purse strings. Many of us have found, to our sorrow, that such limitations are not lightly flaunted. “Marketing says they can’t place this,” is too often a death knell.
Even while we wrestle with the practicalities of trying to earn a living by writing, we should not — we must not — allow such forces to hedge in our imaginations. About the time I sold my first novel, I remember people talking about how important that debut was because it was the book you’d be re-writing for the rest of your career. I was appalled, for much as I loved the story, the characters, the world of Jaydium, there were many other stories, characters and worlds screaming at me — pleading with me, haunting my dreams — to write them. That’s one of the glories of short fiction, which allows me to play in diverse and alien sandboxes, with no computers tracking my sales figures to determine if my next novel will be marketable.

I don’t expect I will ever get to the point where a publisher will gladly bring out my next book, regardless of genre. But I never, ever want to stop dreaming in more than one color!

Thanks, Anne, for this and much more.

Award Nominations Are A Wonderful Start to the Day

Hastur Lord was nominated for the 2011 Gaylactic Spectrum Award! It didn't win, but it's in some very fine company. Since the core of the novel was a partial manuscript Marion wrote during the final year of her life, and since it continued the characters and relationships she'd established in The Heritage of Hastur, focusing on a heroic and sympathetic gay protagonist, one that appeals to a wide range of readers, I am especially pleased. I think Marion would have been, too.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Howard Jones on The Roots of Arabian Fantasy (on SF Signal)

Awhile back, I wrote about my experience moderating a panel on "Islamic fantasy" at World Fantasy Convention. On of the panelists was Howard Andrew Jones, whom I had not met before but whose name I recognized from the small amount of research I was able to do in preparation. Howard was a delight (actually, all the panelists were wonderful, but in different ways) and his knowledge of Middle Eastern folklore and the traditions of written literature of the Muslim world were a wonderful resource for the panel. I especially enjoyed how he would offer some bit of fascinating scholarly background and then apologize, with genuine modesty, for going on in such detail -- when the rest of us were going, More! More! I wished I could have taped or transcribed the whole thing to share with you.

Now Howard's article on Arabian fantasy is up on SF Signal here: so you can get a taste of the discussion, and an eensy bit of the benefit of his knowledge. Here's an excerpt:

[The] version of the 1001 Nights we have today is not the same as the version from the 10th century, or the 15th century. More and more layers were added by succeeding storytellers. A few generations after the 8th century when they lived, Haroun al-Rashid and his best friend and vizier, Jafar, were dropped into the story mix, sometimes adventuring in Baghdad in disguise at night. In later centuries, characters and place names from Muslim Egypt were added. When Antoine Galland assembled his collection of Arabian Nights in the 1700s and launched a sensation, he used some stories that he claimed came from a Syrian Christian. They're probably of Middle-Eastern origin, but perhaps it shouldn't really matter. (I'm not really troubled by this sort of "cultural appropriation" because it strikes me as essentially good natured. I liken it to someone excitedly joining a game that is already under way. Should that person be excluded because they lack the appropriate ethnicity? Should the Indians have excluded the Persians, and then the Persians the Arabs, from joining in the fun? Why then should we dismiss Antoine Galland because he is an 18th century Frenchman, even if he invented rather than found Ali Baba and Aladdin? All of the tales were created by someone, some time, and Galland's "discoveries" are pretty nifty.)

Doesn't that make you want to click over to SF Signal and read the whole thing? And then rush out and get Howard's books? It does to me!

Monday, November 21, 2011

On Naive Prose

Photo by Pauline Eccles
"What did you think of (self-published first novel)?" I asked my husband, fellow writer Dave Trowbridge.

He paused for a moment. "The ideas were interesting, and the sentences grammatically correct..."

I waited, since he was so clearly trying to identify what bothered him. Finally, he added, "but the prose was naive."

Now that's a description you don't often hear. I'd read the first few pages out of curiosity after I was on a panel with the author. My initial reaction had been that I understood why the book hadn't sold to a traditional publisher. I wouldn't say the prose was awful or unintelligent, only that it didn't feel professional. And yet even in those few pages, I was able to discern enough of a "hook" to suggest an actual story. You know the phrase, "You can't get there from here"? This was a case of, "You can't get there by this method."

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Percolation and Writing Goals, thanks to Linda Nagata

Linda Nagata (who incidentally is a terrific writer, and you can find her work in ebook form at Book View Cafe) offers some thoughts on writing goals versus "Percolation" here.

The problem with the word-count-per-day goal — that is, swearing to oneself to write a thousand or two-thousand words everyday — is that to be successful you have to have a pretty good idea of what happens next in your story.
It’s pretty clear that, for me at least, ideas need to percolate. I wish it weren’t so. I wish I could sit down and know what comes next, and write it, and then move on to another project. I wish I didn’t squander so much time that could be put to productive use doing other things. But it is what it is, and I’ve been dealing with the process long enough that, despite the frustrations, I can remain fairly confident that the words will eventually come.

I suspect that even those of us who are not participating in NaNoWriMo are thinking about the process of "just writing."

Here's my response: We think very much alike on this. It's so easy to fall into quantifying creative output -- so many words per day, so many pages per week. Goals are good, but creating a story involves so much more than those final words.

I'm a revision-based writer, so I do push myself to draft quickly when the story is flowing. But I'm experienced enough to realize when it isn't, when it's time to step back, go off and do something else, and get my mind derailed from the oncoming train wreck. If the bones of the story are sound, even if they aren't all there, I have what I need to work with.

I wonder if this is why NaNoWriMo doesn't appeal to me, but I've done well with shorter length/time challenges. Novels are too complex to barrel through in a month.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Sailing the Seas With Horatio

Today's blog, on reading the C. S. Forester "Hornblower" books (after watching the A & E series with Ioan Gruffudd) appears on Book View Cafe. Here's the beginning...

I’ve been reading the C. S. Forester “Horatio Hornblower” novels, one after the other. It’s really my husband’s fault. He’s usually extraordinarily recalcitrant about watching movies, whether at home or in a theater. One Friday night, he indicated his willingness to consider it, so we looked over the DVD collection and embarked upon the A & E “Hornblower” series at the sedate pace of one-episode-per-week. (Of course, we did not stop there, but proceeded to Master and Commander and the 1951 Hornblower movie with Gregory Peck and Virginia Mayo.) For those who have not had the pleasure of reading these stories, Horatio Hornblower is a fictional naval officer during the Napoleonic Wars. Actual events and personages are woven into the tales, although Forester takes care that the exploits of his hero do not alter history.

As visually appealing as the films are, we immediately reached for the books. I’d read a few of them many years ago, but never had the experience of moving from one adventure to the next, watching the maturation not only of the titular character but of the author.

C. S. Forester must have been quite a character. After writing propaganda for Britain during WW II, he came to Hollywood to write the script for a pirate film. Before he could finish it, the Errol Flynn movie Captain Blood came out, effectively stealing the thunder from Forester’s project. To make matters worse, Forester was facing an impending paternity suit (I am not making this up — it’s from the biographical notes at the end of the Back Bay Press editions), so he “jumped aboard a freighter bound for England.” He spend the voyage outlining the first of the Hornblower novels, Beat to Quarters (The Happy Return), which was published in 1937.

.... for more, click on over to the Book View Cafe blog...

Friday, November 11, 2011

GUEST BLOG: Steve Harper on Writing Steampunk

THE SPEED OF STEAM, by Steve Harper

A couple weeks ago on a Friday afternoon, a file landed in my email. Big one. It was the copyedited manuscript for THE IMPOSSIBLE CUBE, the sequel to THE DOOMSDAY VAULT (which is now on sale and has mad scientists and zombies in it). Could I go through the manuscript and pop it back within ten days?


A number of writing blogs have already commented on the speed of writing these days, how just a few years ago, I would have received a big pile of paper in the mail with red marks all over it, and after I went though it, I would have had to make a trip to the post office. Now I read and upload a file, yada yada yada.

I just want to add that it feels wrong.  For steampunk, I mean.

See, I think part of steampunk's appeal is the way it slows us down. Steampunk puts us in a world before telephones and jet planes. When communicating with someone on the other side of town meant dashing off a postcard. When newspapers lived by the telegraph wire. When international travelers went by train or ship or even dirigible, and going around the world took eighty days instead of eighty hours. When a new advancement in processing speed meant the Royal Mail had worked out a more efficient sorting system. Our world goes so fast, it's nice to take a break in a place in which everything goes a little slower.

As a result, it feels like all steampunk should be written at a rolltop desk on a big, clunky typewriter with a sticky H and a crooked M while a Victrola plays scratchy music in the background.  Manuscripts should be bundled into boxes tied with brown string.  Letters to one's editor should be scribbled with a fountain pen and dropped into the afternoon post.

And yet, I flip words into a 2-terrabyte computer with dual-core processor hooked up to the Internet via high-speed DSL cable modem while four speakers croon a mix by Danny Elfman, and I toss letters to my editor into the aether of the Internet  It makes me feel out of sorts and wrong.

Not wrong enough to make write the long way, mind. Anachronism does have its limits.

But I'm a writer with a good imagination. So when I write steampunk, in my head my computer becomes a typewriter and my contact lenses become spectacles. My sweatshirt becomes a tweed jacket and my study with central heat becomes a drafty garret. My dog and my pot of tea become . . .

Well. I suppose not everything has to change.

Steven Harper usually lives at http://www.theclockworkempire.com . His steampunk novel THE DOOMSDAY VAULT, first in the Clockwork Empire series, hits the stores in print and electronic format November 1.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Critiquing Vs. Editing

Renoir, 1889
Editor Jessica Faust at BookEnds Literary Agency blogged on "How I Edit," ending with these words:

As far as I'm concerned you can run with my suggestions or you can ignore them altogether and go off in your own way. I don't care how you want to fix the problems I see, I just care that when I read it the next time those problems/my concerns are gone.

This inspired some thoughts on the differences between critiquing and editing. Both involve handing your precious manuscript, child of your dreams, the darling of your creative muse, to another person and asking what they think of it. In other words, even as we cringe inwardly at the prospect, we have granted permission for them to say things we aren't going to like about it. Of course, we want to hear how much they loved it and all the things we did brilliantly. The point of the exercise, though, is to improve the story.

The most useful things I find in critiques are reader reactions, comments like, "I'm confused," or "This doesn't make sense," or "I don't believe this character would act this way." Or, simply, "Huh? You've got to be kidding!" Snarkiness aside, such comments tell me where there is a problem. The reader may be right about what the problem is, or what they object to may be the tip of an iceberg and the true problem lies elsewhere.

In critique format, I really, really don't want to be told how to fix those problems, and I don't know any writers who do.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Today's blog... Connections — convention panels, knitting, and Afghanistan

is over at Book View Cafe here. An excerpt:

Now comes the interesting part. At breakfast, I noticed a group of women wearing hijabs (head-scarves) sitting together at a table. Clearly, they were not attending the convention. I greeted them, explaining that I was to moderate a panel on Islamic fantasy and asking if they had opinions about how Muslims are portrayed in contemporary literature, who gets it right, what they find offensive. Only one of the women spoke English, and she referred me to their (male) translator, who was quite willing to speak with me, but only about the purpose of the group. 

It turns out that this was a group of Afghan women, traveling in the United States to heighten consciousness of the plight of women under the resurgent Taliban. “Do not forget Afghanistan,” he told me. “Do not forget these brave women,” and went on to describe how they had, at great cost and danger to themselves, set up schools and businesses.

It turns out that one of my charitable causes is afghans for Afghans, which sends hand-knit and crocheted blankets and sweaters, vests, hats, mittens, and socks to the beleaguered people of Afghanistan.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Delicious lines

The Spangled Pandemonium
Is missing from the zoo.
He bent the bars the barest bit,
And slithered glibly through.

from the poem by that name by Palmer Brown

Why didn't I think of "Spangled Pandemonium"? It's so wonderful!

Twitterview tomorrow!

Monday, November 7th, at 10 am PST, I'll be interviewed on Twitter. Just follow the hashtag #twitterview and join in!

Saturday, November 5, 2011

World Fantasy Convention - Re-entry

H. Bosch, c. 1480
I don't know if the 12-hour drive home was a good thing or a bad thing. Certainly, it was tiring when we were already saturated with meetings and ideas, too many parallel tracks of sensory input, too much intellectual and creative stimulation and not nearly enough sleep. But also, it gave us time to make the transition from con-world to mundane-world. Via Denny's, which is neither here nor there except that we know the senior menu by heart, so it requires no functioning neurons to order.

It can be jarring, to say the least, to go from a community in which it's okay/expected to meet the eyes of anyone else wearing a badge, to smile, to feel free to introduce yourself, to assume that you have something in common, to discover that not only you do but that it's deeper and more delightful complex than you anticipated. Etc., etc., all the reasons we love conventions. We go from there to the world of freeway road rage, to knowing ourselves to be isolated geeks, and environments in which it is definitely unsafe to make eye contact with strangers, especially if we are female.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Q & A On NaNoWri Mo (borrowed from Jim C. Hines)

Horace Scudder, 1903
Jim C. Hines posted an interview with himself on the national write-a-novel-in-a-month challenge, with such wonderful questions I've borrowed them and supplied my own answers. 

What are you doing National Novel Writing Month this year, Deborah?
Cheering on my friends. I'll be starting the first round of editorial revisions for my fantasy trilogy, The Seven-Petaled Shield. Revising is a very different process from drafting. I find that drafting goes better when I do it quickly, so I don't get caught in second-guessing myself or editing as I write. Both are recipes for disaster and paralysis. Revising, on the other hand, does not reliably produce any measurable result in terms of pages or words. I dive into it and call it quits every day when my brain won't function any longer.

How does NaNoWriMo compare to real writing?
Writing is writing, as Jim pointed out (you have read his post, haven't you?) Every writer does it a little differently, and I think most of us change from project to project and also over the course of our careers. Challenges, whether novel-length or short-length, can be fun or oppressive, pointless or a marvelous way to jump-start a new story.

Doesn’t it bother you when hundreds of thousands of people every year turn your career, the dream job you’ve worked at for 16 years, into some kind of game?
You say "game" as if it's a bad thing. If some aspect of writing isn't fun -- and there are wonderful professional writers who hate to write but love to have written -- then why do it? The community-building that happens during NaNoWriMo is one of its more attractive aspects. Writing is a solitary activity, so it's wonderful to have those "hundreds of thousands" of compadres cheering you on.

Sorry. Do you think it’s possible to write a good novel in 30 days?
Yes and no. Some writers can produce a solid first draft in a month, so that's the yes part.On the other hand, I'm skeptical of any first draft, no matter how long it takes, being "a good novel." I suppose some writers do so much planning and so much reflection on each sentence that their first drafts-on-paper are really third-drafts-in-the-mind. In the end, though, the goal is not to produce a good novel but to write quickly and and consistently and to push through to the end.

Isn’t the emphasis on quantity over quality a bad thing, teaching participants to write crap?
Most writers don't need to be taught how to write crap. We do that very nicely all on our own, thank you. However, writing challenges can teach us to get the story down on paper (or phosphors), which is a necessary first step to a polished final draft. The rewards of actually finishing a novel draft, no matter how much revision it will need, should not be underestimated. Even if that novel is indeed crap, it is finished -- the writer now knows that he or she is capable of completing it. That in itself is worth celebrating.

Another thought on crap. If you aren't writing it and you never have, you aren't doing your job. You aren't taking chances or pushing edges or just splatting out what's in the back of your semi-conscious mind. You are allowing your inner critic to silence your creative spirit.

Eric Rosenfield says NaNoWriMo’s whole attitude is “repugnant, and pollutes the world with volumes upon volumes of one-off novels by people who don’t really care about novel writing.
I seriously doubt that what is wrong with this world is the surfeit of aspiring novelists. And I can't imagine why anyone would put herself through NaNoWriMo if she didn't 'care about novel writing.' Good grief, if you want to be irate about Bad Things In The World, there are plenty of issues out there, things that actually impact people's health, liberty, and lives. Too many one-off novels is not one of them.
  Well, what about Keith DeCandido’s post, wherein he says NaNoWriMo has nothing to do with storytelling; it teaches professionalism and deadlines, and the importance of butt in chair?
Can storytelling be taught? I'm not sure. Yep to the other parts.

Fine, what do you think NaNoWriMo is about?
Why is it about anything than a community of people hell-bent on crash'n'burning their way through a short novel in a month? That makes more sense than it being a nefarious conspiracy.

Any last words of advice, Ms. Very Important Author?
I'd love there to be a parallel track for those of us who have other deadlines, such as revisions or finishing in-progress novels. Certainly FiMyDaNo (Finish My Damned Novel) fits the bill, and I encourage anyone in mid-draft to jump in. Revisions, at least mine, mean taking notes, cogitating, making flow charts of structure, correcting maps, ripping out chunks and shoving them around, not to mention generating piles of new prose. These all count. The thing with revisions is that sometimes a lot of thinking and a small amount of actual wordage change -- if it's the right change -- counts for a solid day's work. It's exhausting, too. So maybe the goal is, "I will think about my revisions every day this month." 

Okay, Ms. Interviewer, if you're not doing NaNoWriMo, what are your goals for this month?

Thursday, November 3, 2011

World Fantasy Convention, Part the Fourth - Immortality and Fangirl Squee!

"Aften ved kysten" by Amaldus Nielsen
I've found that attending a convention alone and attending as part of a couple are quite different experiences. Although I relax and socialize, I'm mostly there as a working author. I interact with fans, network with writers and booksellers, and -- depending on the size of the convention -- meet with editors or those writers I edit. Some of this is scheduled, but other parts arise spontaneously. This makes it difficult to plan ahead -- mealtimes or panels I'm not on, for instance -- or to take into account anyone else's daily rhythms but my own. Over the years, my husband -- writer Dave Trowbridge -- and I have figured out some strategies, given the differences in our tolerance for crowds and our needs for meals, when and what kind. It is an amazing pleasure to touch base during a hectic day with someone who understands you well, someone in whom you find a haven of peace. It is also a delight to sit in the audience and bask in your spouse's participation in a panel.

For me, this was doubly true because I'd finished with my own panel and was just beginning to "wind down" from moderator-hood and also from lunch-with-editor. Dave's panel was on Immortality. I took a few notes, but make no claim for their accuracy.

Immortality isn't necessarily the same thing as agelessness;

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

World Fantasy Convention Report, Part the Third - Showtime!

Painting by Hendrik Vroom, 1628
Saturday was my "scheduled" day, meaning I had made commitments of various kinds. Of course, they all happened on the same day.

Dawn -- or as close thereto as made no functional difference -- found me trying to find the room in which the SFWA (Science Fiction/Fantasy Writers of America) Business Meeting was to be held. The convention center, where the panels and other official events were held, was closed up, and the few bleary-eyed souls there had no idea. I found out later that there indeed had been "signage" -- in 12 point font. The con suite offered me orange juice but no information, and this is a good place to say what a splendid job those folks did in supplying real food -- tasty and sustaining -- on a regular basis. Eventually, someone suggested I check out the building aptly named "Meeting House" and indeed this proved to be the right place. I arrived in time for tea, yogurt, fresh fruit, and various business stuff. If you're a SFWA member, you can read about it in the official report; if you're not, I'm not supposed to divulge the secret handshake. I hung around afterwards for g/o/s/s/i/p professional conversation. The reason the meeting had to be so early was that under the rules of World Fantasy conventions, "outside" organizations may use the facilities only "outside" convention hours, which meant we had to be done by 10.

Then came the high point of the convention for me -- lunch with my editor! It's always lovely to be treated to a nice meal and even nicer to hear that the person into whose care you have entrusted the precious child of your creative spirit is as excited about it as you are. Mutual appreciation ensued.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

World Fantasy Convention Report Part The Second - First Daze

Sailing the Seas of Imagination
(A Disclaimer: Part of me is kicking the other part for not having taken better notes, but the other part insists that Friday, my first day of convention participation, was so saturated in conversation, in meetings and greetings and reunions, that it wouldn't have mattered anyway.)

World Fantasy Convention differs from smaller regional cons in several important ways. For one thing, everyone pays for their membership (this is true for WorldCon as well), and this has the effect of placing readers and writers, newbies and big names alike on an equal footing. Second, participants get one panel or a reading. This nicely gets around the "he got 12 panels and I got only 2" hierarchies and resentments. The exceptions, of course, are the Guests of Honor, Toastmaster, etc. As a consequence, perhaps, panelists really focus on doing a good job. (Another difference is that publishers and sometimes authors donate piles of books, which are stuffed into bookbags for each attender.) There's no masquerade and I didn't see a single costume, Klingon, brass bikini or otherwise. This is a serious reader/writer gathering. And the conversations and informal gatherings are glorious!

When I studied the program, I kept going, "I want to hear this! And this! And this!" And made it to only a few, because whenever I tried to walk anywhere (and the venue this year was a sprawling "resort" with many mini-environments and long distances Between Things), I'd meet so many old friends, writers I desperately wanted to meet, or people who desperately wanted to meet me. I've long since given up any expectations that I will actually make it to any panel besides the one I'm on.