Saturday, April 28, 2012

SPECIAL GUEST BLOG: Katharine Kerr on Good Prose

Writers and readers both love to discuss, and maybe argue about, what constitutes "good" prose. From the readers' points of view, the definition really comes down to a matter of taste -- at least, that’s the conclusion I usually end up drawing from these discussions.

Some people enjoy complex sentences and unusual words. Some people hate them. Some people hate short sentences and basic vocabulary. Others like them. And so on.

It occurred to me that we might look at the problem from the other side: the writer's point of view. What constitutes good prose? Prose that has the effect upon the reader that the writer intended it to have.

Does the writer want the reader to zip through the story and enjoy it as an entertainment? That will require one style of prose. Does the writer want the reader to experience the story as an immersion into a strange and foreign place and time? That will require another. Is an incident supposed to be funny? Humor demands a certain choice of words. Is the incident supposed to make the reader get all teary-eyed? Then the writer had better avoid that distanced, ironic humor.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Career "Roadbumps"

A couple of years ago, YA writer Janni Lee Simner put out a call for the sharing of writerly tribulations and triumphs: So I'm putting out a call for writers--at all stages of their careers--to talk about the roadbumps, the setbacks, the rough times. Because we all need to see that too, and too often we don't. And if we all do this at the same time, maybe admitting to having imperfect careers will be less daunting, too.

Here's what I wrote: I sold my first professional short story in 1982, when my first child was small. It went to an anthology, that turned into an annual event, and the editor really liked my work, so for the next chunk of years, I'd write 2 or 3 shorts and a novel, would sell most of the shorts to that same editor, zilch on the novels.

Then several things happened. I realized I was in danger of becoming a one-editor writer for a fairly specialized market. I joined a local writers group that had a bunch of Clarion grads and other critique-skillful people. I'd networked enough at cons to set a strategy for getting an agent: make up a dream list, get an offer, call the agent at the top of the list.

The critique group tore apart my current attempt at a novel. I went home, cried, screamed, set aside my pride, came back, asked for one-syllable-word explanations, worked my tail off on craft. Eventually, that book (the 6th or 7th I'd written, depending on how you count partials/rewrites) became my first sale. Got the offer (after a 2-year wait), called the agent of my dreams -- hooray! Seems my writer friends had been telling him about me and he'd been waiting for me to have a project he could represent. In the meanwhile, I started selling shorts to top markets like ASIMOV'S, F & SF, the second STAR WARS antho, and others. In other words, I'd broken out of the one-editor trap.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Thoughts on "The Baggage of Language in Fantasy"

The topic of "Travelling Fantasy Round Table" this month centers on the use and misuse of language in fantasy. Here's my essay. Do check out the others!

This topic brings two things to mind. One is the level of diction in fantasy prose, the other the role of language and languages in fantasy stories.

Once upon a time – and you see right away that this phrase conveys a host of expectations about what follows – “fantasy” conveyed images of far-off lands, usually exotic, times-gone-by, and heroes of courage, dignity, and high rank. Whether fairy tales for children or the Arthurian cycle, these stories often (although not always) centered around royal or at least aristocratic characters. Even those who weren’t (the poor woodcutter, the third son off to make his fortune) partook of the same elevated language. The works of E. R. Eddison and J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings did much to cement this association in the mind of the reader.

The subsequent explosion of Tolkienesque fantasy stories varied tremendously in the skillfulness with which prose language was handled. We can undoubtedly all come up with examples of laughably inept examples that stem from lack of research or incomplete understanding of diction.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

THE FEATHERED EDGE - "Outlander" - to listen to, as well!

Now for your listening delight: Samantha Henderson's story, "Outlander," is now available as an audio version from Podcastle.

I have been greatly remiss in my progress through the anthology, telling the "stories behind the stories." Samantha's is the last story in the anthology, because it ends on exactly the right note, a tale of swordplay and romance and not a little humor. Oh, and libraries. And masks. Some of them, feathered. You have to read it (or, now, listen to it) to see what I mean.

If this makes you want to read more, here are linkies:
Barnes & Noble
Powells Online (independent bookstore): 

Monday, April 23, 2012

I Love Escapism

Ursula K. Le Guin points out: As for the charge of escapism, what does “escape” mean?  Escape from real life, responsibility, order, duty, piety, is what the charge implies.  But nobody, except the most criminally irresponsible or pitifully incompetent, escapes to jail.  The direction of escape is toward freedom.  So what is “escapism” an accusation of?... Upholders and defenders of a status quo, political, social, economic, religious, or literary, may denigrate or diabolize or dismiss imaginative literature, because it is — more than any other kind of writing — subversive by nature. It has proved, over many centuries, a useful instrument of resistance to oppression.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

GUEST BLOG: In Which Sarah Zettel Reveals The Culinary Secrets of Vampires

Hello. My name is Sarah Zettel. And I’m a science fiction writer (Hi, Sarah). The thing is, I’m a science fiction writer who is currently writing mysteries. About vampires. And food.

I wish I could take credit for the idea of the vampire chef, but I can’t. The idea itself came from the late, great publisher and editor, Marty Greenberg, and I was just lucky enough to be an author with time enough to take on the project (truth was, I was out of work when the chance came). The first thing I did — after contacting a food critic friend and buying KITCHEN CONFIDENTIAL — was start reading every vampire-starring book I could get my hands on. I was not really a reader of the modern vampire before this, and I needed to know what I was talking about before I settled into making jokes about it.

Thing is, as I’m a science fiction writer by nature, there was no way I was going to be able to write about vampires in Manhattan without going into the history of vampires, and the world of vampires “real” and literary. And there was no way all the results of that research were going into the books. Nor was there anyway all of it should.

This used to be a problem for authors. We had reams of research and strange ideas we had to squirrel away in our mental attics, and sometimes our real attics. Fortunately, in the 21st century, we have blogs.

So, with the kind indulgence of our hostess, I give you, dear readers, a history of the literary vampire, in dialogue form.


[In which the author is discovered standing at her front door behind a pile of rice, holding her crucifix and holy water and calling out sacred names. Soundlessly, a silhouette slips up to the window, a pale hand is laid on the glass, and a rich voice, impossibly old and dangerously young at the same time begins to speak]
            “Hey, can I come in? ‘Cause, like, the sun’s comin’ up and I’m gonna start sparkling any minute here.”
            “Yeah. Can you, like, let me in, please?”

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Writing, Healing, Telling the Truth

I frequently recommend Louise DeSalvo's wonderful book, Writing as a Way of Healing: How Telling Our Stories Transforms Our Lives (Beacon Press, 2000). Now, there are a lot of books about journaling as either therapy or spiritual development, or just plain self expression. This books tackles a much tougher issue: how writing can help us heal from major trauma, from unendurable abuse. Not just any free form writing, but a very specific way of honoring and integrating what happened and how we felt. Benefits are supported by research -- not only psychological but physical as well.

If this sounds all very well, consider this paragraph, which really went zing for me: DeSalvo writes about all the things she did not know, growing up, about what it means to be a writer:

I didn't know that if you want to write, you must follow your desire to write. And that your writing will help you unravel the knots in your heart. ... I didn't know that if you want to write and don't, because you don't feel worthy enough or able enough, not writing will eventually begin to erase who you are.

Erase who you are. Yes, it will, it can and it does. I sat there, in that shiver that says This Is The Absolute Truth.

I am not sure I am called to write in the particular way DeSalvo describes, but this I know. Unless I write the stories that are in my heart and unless I write them true, then I will slowly lose myself.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

GUEST BLOG: Sue Bolich on "Finding Magic in Weeds"

We are, each one of us, full of magic.

Ha! That got your attention, didn't it?

Finding "magical" ideas isn't a matter of sitting in front of the blank page thinking up cool magic systems. I could sit around all day trying to dream up ideas and get absolutely nowhere. Ideas ambush me. They fall out of pine trees on my head during daily walks, hit me while I'm filling the dishwasher, or rise up and scream at me while I'm working on another writing project altogether.

Where do they come from? Why, from our own lives. Finding the magic within is a matter of opening yourself to the possibility of ideas.

Yes, I know, that is much easier said than done. Begin by simply allowing yourself to be inspired. Creative people hear in the wind the lilt of a new melody...or the whisper of ghosts wanting attention. They see in the sunset the finger paints of a playful god...or the ominous portent of prophecy looming at the cusp of fulfillment. It's all in the imagination, which, if you are going to write or paint or make music, must be allowed to romp freely without the deadly inhibitions of reality thrown at you by well-meaning but magic-challenged friends: "That's silly." "It's just moving air. There's no magic in Coriolis forces."

No magic? Balderdash. I found magic in weeds./;;'>>>>/.

Friday, April 13, 2012

The next "Darkover" novel...

The Children of Kings, has been scheduled for March 2013, from DAW Books. I'll post more details as I learnthem.

Meanwhile, here are some earlier posts about the writing process, including two snippets.

Changing Gears: Downshift to Beginner's Mind (May 2011)

Race to the Finish (June 2011) (includes snippet)

RevisionLand; Or, Aliens/Robots/Dry-Towners/Mad-Scientists Ate My Brains (July 2011)

The Children of Kings (is finished) (August 2011)

Progress on The Children of Kings (September 2011) (includes snippet)

You can also read a rough draft of the opening chapter here: Please note that my editor has not made me tear it apart and put it back together again, so it may change. It will change.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

When A Story Isn't Ready Yet

Most writers who have been at it for any length of time have the experience of a story not being truly finished. It may come to an end, but it has not yet come into itself. My version of this usually involves my initial concept being wrong. I will start with an idea in what I call the "front part" of my brain--a notion, a conceit, an image from some visual medium (painting, film) and spin it into a plot. I labor under the delusion that this is what the story "is about." More often than not, I'm wrong.

I'm wrong because I'm going for the glitz, the superficial attraction. The truth is, I'm a better writer than that when I listen to what's underneath the glitz. That's where the emotional juice is, the deeper resonances, the Deborah-vision.

The symptoms of this mis-step are many: characters that refuse to follow the pre-arranged script, story elements that just won't come together, plot idiocies that are not just holes but dead-end canyons. I've learned to rip all that stuff out (leaving chunks of bleeding, burning manuscript strewn about) and dig deep into the core. That's part of my revision (re-vision, right?) process, and although with time (read: decades of practice), I've gotten better at writing first drafts that are less superficial and more true, I still value this process. Throw away the chaff; be ruthless; seek the nuggets of treasure and bring them into the light.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

When Writing Friends Aren’t: Sabotage and Self-Image

We can encounter destructive relationships in every area of our lives, but when it comes to our creativity, they can be particularly nasty.

Some people write in isolation. Either they aren’t naturally sociable or they find that critical feedback simply isn’t helpful. Most of us, however, create some type of support system at some stage of our careers. Often it’s early on, when we’re struggling to learn the craft. We may find a face-to-face group or an online workshop or other network of fellow novices. The internet provides a wealth of opportunities to meet such people, as do conventions. (When I was starting out, there was a wonderful workshop-by-mail run by Kathleen Dalton-Woodbury; I’m still friends with some of the writers I met by exchanging letters and written critiques.)

Most of the time, beginning writers are honestly trying to help one another. We may make mistakes as we learn how to give useful critical feedback or make idiotic suggestions about marketing, but the basic relationship is one of good will and support. Success, however small the sale, becomes an occasion for celebration. When one member improves, we all feel encouraged.

Trust is a crucial element in such groups. We work hard to learn to accept criticism, to not be defensive, to take time to think through the comments. While this vulnerability makes us more teachable, it also leaves us open to manipulation and abuse.

Sadly, sometimes the people we thought were our friends and supporters, our colleagues and conspirators in the adventure of creating and publishing stories, turn out to be our most insidious adversaries. Sometimes, the alarm comes in the form of a sinking feeling, a sense that verges toward futility, after a discussion with a particular person. Other times, we realize that once again, we have been lured away from the precious time in which we intended to work. Often we have no idea how that happened. We want to think well of our friends; we believe their words even when their actions speak differently.

Friday, April 6, 2012

Robert Silverberg on learning to write

Another wonderful article from SF Signal is this interview with Robert Silverberg bu . Silverberg talks about specific works (like Lord Valentine's Castle) and that's interesting, but for me the prize was what he says about learning to write. He encapsulates my experience as well:

I never have taken a writing course, and don’t recommend them.  Occasionally I would read a book about writing, like Thomas Uzzell’s Narrative Technique, but usually came away baffled.  I learned my craft by reading an infinite amount of fiction and trying to discover how the authors achieved their effects.  Where to begin a story?  How does one end one?  How much dialog should be mixed with exposition?  I figured it all out by the time I was sixteen or so.  I was a quick learner.   The problem was not so much to learn the craft of telling a story as to learn enough about the real world so that one had stories to tell.

I, on the other hand, am a slow learner, and I'm still working on figuring it out. But knowing how to put down one word after another is only the mechanics of the craft. If I were to give advice to a young writer, I'd say, Don't study writing. Take classes in history, anthropology, religion, astronomy, biology, economics, sculpture, physics. Play a musical instrument, even if badly. Volunteer at a soup kitchen. Go hiking in the highest mountains you can find. Learn a new language, preferably one that uses a different alphabet. Talk to people with whom you disagree, and listen to them, to the experiences behind the rhetoric. Study calligraphy and the history of writing. Dance under the stars. Fall in love, and get your heart broken. Learn to ride a horse (or a camel, or an elephant). In other words, Have something to write about. And read. Read widely and exuberantly. Read stuff that makes you furious and exhilarated and bored and sorrowful - and examine the why and how.

It would be a fascinating exercise to read Silverberg's novels in the order they were written, to watch the development of his craft. And besides, he loves museums and dinosaurs, so what more can one want?

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Celebrating George R. R. Martin

John DeNardo posts on Kirkus Reviews about the books George R. R. Martin wrote before "Game of Thrones." He points out, quite rightly, that Martin was already an established author and editor, respected in science fiction, well before his work broke big. I won't repeat this list of his achievements here -- you can go read DeNardo. My personal revelation after reading the article was, "Oh thank goodness, I'm not the only one who loved Martin's work, gave up on "Game of Thrones," and hope Martin returns to writing stuff I can read." Not that DeNardo said that (he didn't), but that I no longer feel I have to justify myself.

I think the first of Martin's books I read was Windhaven (1981), co-written with the amazing and wonderful Lisa Tuttle. (And if you don't know her work, you should immediately seek it out.) It was good solid science fiction, full of action yet thoughtful, and as a woman reading it in the early 1980s, the heroine who wanted to fly spoke right to me. The book marked both authors as "look out for their work." Then followed (not in publication order, in reading order) was Fevre Dream. Steamboats and suitably scary vampires, not the current angsty sparkly kind. Think gothic, think Mississippi River in late 1850s, think seriously creepy.

I've read other work by Martin, but the one that lingers in my mind was his first published book, Dying of the Light (1977).

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Let's Hear It For Short Stories!

I grew up with a love-hate relationship with short fiction. Having to read short stories in school almost ruined them for me. Actually, the reading was fine; it was the having to answer the brain-dead, pointless, intellectually insulting questions about those stories that made me want to throw the books across the classroom. I had no idea what criteria the textbook authors were using, but if this was what short fiction was about, I could not understand why anyone would voluntarily read it.

And yet, as soon as I got a library card, I checked out volume after volume of Groff Conklin's anthologies. I read the few digest magazines in my possession so many times, I wore them out. I could almost recite some of those stories word for word. I decided that the field of short fiction was divided into two parts: the dry, tedious stuff that no one in her right mind would have anything to do with; and the cool stuff - the stories that grabbed me right away and swept me into worlds filled with surprises, nifty ideas, and no-holds-barred excitement. I could indulge myself for an entire afternoon, or sneak in one of my favorites and still have time to finish my homework. Although the prose was not of the elevated literary sort (a good thing, in my opinion) and the characters might be cardboard supporting actors for the above-mentioned Incredibly Nifty Ideas And Situations (I didn't care), these stories got the most important things right. They didn't muck around with showing off the author's vocabulary; the "point" wasn't dreary and obscure. They were complete stories, single-minded of purpose, with well-defined beginnings, middles, and ends, and the characters had actual goals and perils. These were stories I wanted to read, and hence they were what I attempted to write.

Two academic degrees and a kid later, I embarked upon a serious writing career. The conventional wisdom of that time, still held by many, was that you began by writing short fiction and then "graduated" to novels. This was supposed to teach you the fundamentals of writing. Short fiction, you understand, contains all the necessary elements, only in condensed form, like literary Campbell's Soup. Why anyone thinks it's easier to make every sentence accomplish three things when in a novel-length work it has to do only one, I don't know. In this case, short does not equal simplified. In addition, at that time there were quite a few markets for short fiction, and new ones popping up all the time (and disappearing, so it behooved the beginning writer to keep track of current listings, an art in itself).
It turned out, however, that short stories were no more difficult for me than those of any other length. It was easier to send off a short story for critique than an entire novel, not to mention the savings in copying and postage. Having to create a new world for each story gave me lots of practice. The clincher came when Marion Zimmer Bradley, with whom I'd been corresponding, told me she was going to edit an anthology of women's sword and sorcery and would I like to send her a story, no promises. My fate as a short fiction writer was sealed.

Print markets for short fiction have come and gone, editors have come and gone, and yet people persist in reading the darned things. Clearly, I'm not alone in loving good short fiction. But one of the enduring challenges has been the ephemeral nature of most magazine publications. The issue comes out one month and all is rapture and celebration. A few short weeks later, that issue has been replaced by the next, and the availability of back issues shrivels rapidly. Unless a story is reprinted in an anthology, it may be impossible to find (or to find at a price one can afford for a collector's copy) a decade or two hence. Those anthologies I loved contained reprints, "The Best Of...", but these have largely given way largely to originals. (Not that I'm complaining. I've had the pleasure of editing a number of original anthologies.)

I think that electronic publishing may be the best thing to happen to short fiction in a long while. Most of your favorite authors have backlists of those ephemeral stories. (I say most because some writers are natural novelists, and they are no less wonderful, they just don't have long bibliographies of shorter work.) Epublishing is a great way to make these available again. Shorts are usually priced so a reader can pick up one or four to explore an author's work without having to invest a great deal of money.
And shorts still offer the advantage that you can read a whole story in one sitting. In the airport or doctor's office, on your lunch break, at bedtime. Just load up a couple of dozen on your ereader and you're set. Sometimes you want the length and complexity of a novel, to spend hundreds of pages exploring a world and hanging out with characters who have become your friends. But other times, you want to jump into a story and jump out again with the full satisfaction and sense of completeness that a short story can bring.

At Book View Café, I'm embarking on an experiment in short fiction publication. Today, I offer you not one but four for your delectation. Three are fantasy, and one is science fiction. I had a wonderful time writing each of them, and I hope you'll enjoy reading them, too.

"Take two, they're small." And only $0.99 each.