Friday, August 31, 2012

Jaydium, Chapter 9


by Deborah J. Ross, writing as Deborah Wheeler

Chapter 9

Eril unfolded Kithri's micropore emergency blanket and spread out their meager supplies while she went in search of dead wood for a fire. He added the contents of his own pack to the pile and sat back to contemplate the situation. The food supply was meager, just the lunch leftovers and emergency rations, his and Kithri's. They could find water in the forest but they had no purification unit or anything to hunt with, except the force whip and stungun. Prudently, they should return to their own Stayman tomorrow. Given that he didn't know exactly how to get there, they ought to be trying right now instead of preparing for a camp-out.

Just one night won't hurt anything, Eril told himself, knowing full well that he was rationalizing. The truth was that he wanted the city to himself for a little longer, before it swarmed with Federation scientists.

Lennart hunkered down beside him, looked over the assembled gear and said something incomprehensible. Eril pointed to the variable-insulation fabric. "Blanket."

"Bee-ann." Lennart nodded and grinned.

"No, no, you're saying it all wrong. The word has an L and a K. Blan-ket. Say it, Blan-ket."

Kithri dropped a double armful of fallen wood next to them. It rattled like dry bones as it hit a patch of bare earth. She scowled. "Don't patronize him."

"I was just--"

"He's not an idiot. He knows what you mean." She brushed off her hands and set them on her hips.

"We've got to understand each other better," Eril said. "Since there's two of us and one of him, it makes more sense for him to learn our dialect."

"Sokay, pal," said Lennart. "Doanfi vermee. Telps f'yoo tak slow, buh nawso bad. I gih the gennel driff."

Kithri turned her back on both of them and began making the campfire.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

On Revising Books In Print

Over on SF Signal's Mind Meld, various authors (including me!) hold forth on the subject of revising books that are already in print, and revision in general. Here's my response.

I've seen a number of instances of revising books after publication recently, and I sometimes suspect the phenomenon is akin to the endless rewrites that some beginning writers inflict on their maiden projects. It's easy in today's self-publishing climate to push a book to market before it's ready (or too flawed to reach the professional-publication threshold). Even if the original version went through the traditional editorial process, it may fail to meet the author's expectations and vision. Some years later, it's tempting to want to go back, armed with whatever improvement in skills and critical ability that have taken place in the interim.

Obviously, each case has its own circumstances, but most of the time, I think this is a mistake. One exception is when an author has begun a long-running series early in her career and inconsistencies have crept in as that world and characters have developed, so she decides to make the first novels congruent with the later ones. Revising these works is not necessarily wrong, but it does place the author in a backward-facing position instead of moving forward to his or her cutting edge.

Creating a novel is more than putting text on a page, fleshing out characters, and polishing dialog. It involves the scope and soundness of the original conception. The process of turning an idea into a book is like carving wood. You take a block of lumber and you assess its density and strength, the fineness of its grain, its ability to withstand torsional stresses. If you're starting out with a soft wood like balsa or pine, it won't support a lot of elaborate ornamentation -- you'd be better off with a short story or a "fun and fluffy" longer piece. For a novel that involves complex world-building and multiple point of view characters, nuance and interwoven themes, teak or mahogany or even oak is required to "bear the weight."

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Gatekeeping in the World of Ebooks

In this day, when social media are saturated with writers touting their self-published novels, it seems that anyone can write a book. Anyone with any talent or ambition, that is. Certainly, anyone willing to plug along and generate 80K or 100K words can do so.

On the other hand, so many of those who want to write never follow through, and of those, many never complete their project. To have finished a novel is an achievement, regardless of its quality or marketability. I think that's worth taking a moment to appreciate. We lose sight of how extraordinary this is, and miss out on the benefit of taking a moment to savor this accomplishment as a cause for celebration and pride in itself. Instead, we turn to publication as a source of validation. Sometimes there are intermediate steps, such as feedback from a workshop or critique group, or the search for an agent. But all too often, the next step is to format the book, slap it up on the internet, and voilĂ , one instantly becomes a "published author."

The very ease of self-publication removes the gatekeeper function formerly performed by editors and agents. This is not entirely a bad thing. Both have been wrong in the past, and marvelous works -- particularly those that are "too difficult" or "too controversial" or simply do not fit into current marketing niches have had a difficult time finding a publishing home. (Case in point: A Wrinkle In Time by Madeleine L'Engle, which received 26 rejections.)

Monday, August 27, 2012

From: LGBT Issues in Fantasy Round Table

The Great Traveling Round Table is over at Warren Rochelle's place this month, tackling the question of gay characters and issues in fantasy. There's quite a range of perspective, from historical attitudes to personal biases and coming-out stories. Here's what I had to say:

Gay Characters in Fantasy: A Personal Journey

In my experience, the community of science fiction and fantasy readers and writers has been one of the most tolerant of, and welcoming to, those who don't fit into the mainstream. This includes queer (non-strictly-heterosexual) and gender-queer (non-strictly-male-or-female-assigned-gender) folks as well. My own introduction included stimulating discussions of sexuality, gender identification, and sexual orientation. I remember reading Theodore Sturgeon's Venus Plus X (1960, one of the earliest science fiction stories to challenge gender-role stereotypes), The Left Hand of Darkness (1969) by Ursula K. Le Guin, and Marion Zimmer Bradley's The World Wreckers (1971). Four years later, Marion published The Heritage of Hastur, in which she created a sympathetic and heroic gay protagonist. The World Wreckers impressed me because one of the characters falls in love with a member of a hermaphroditic race and must confront his own feelings about homosexuality and his identity as a man. I had never read anything like it, and it opened my eyes to the question of who we are, apart from our plumbing and hormones. This led the way to the understanding that sexual orientation is not just about which body part fits where, but about the people who are the focus of our hearts: romance as well as hormones.

In general, the works I read during the 60s and 70s were serious and courageous treatments of gender, gender roles, and sexual orientation, well ahead of popular media. But popular media caught up, although perhaps not in the formats its creators intended.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Jaydium, Chapter 8


by Deborah J. Ross, writing as Deborah Wheeler

Chapter 8

They dragged the spaceman from Brushwacker=s hold and laid him under a massive tree whose branches spread out like an umbrella from its knotted trunk. Although the spaceman was still unconscious, his breath came in hoarse grunts as he jerked his head from side to side. Eril knelt beside him. The shade felt cool and damp after the sun=s brassy heat and the crushed grass gave off a sweet, earthy smell.

Kithri touched the side of the man=s neck. "His pulse is faster. Skin temperature feels okay. Shouldn=t we do something for him, like get him out of his suit?"

"I don=t think so," Eril said. If this suit was anything like the extravehicular gear he knew, it had its own life support function. It might be safer not to tamper with it.

Kithri gave him an exasperated look. "We can=t just sit here like a pair of brainless sand-hens! We=ve got to do something! Look, I=ve got some more water in stores. How about if we bathe his face? That can=t hurt, can it?"

The spaceman quieted as she wiped a damp cloth across his cheeks and brow. Slowly his breathing deepened, and the color of his skin changed from waxen to pink. His eyes moved behind his closed lids and suddenly jerked open.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

For today's post, I'm a guest of Open Alliance friend Kyell Gold, and talk about Lace and Blade, Marion Zimmer Bradley, and my newest anthology, The Feathered Edge: Tales of Magic, Love, and Daring.

On "Adventures in Queer-Friendly Editing:"

I’d worked with Marion Zimmer Bradley, as an author she edited as well as a personal friend, for long enough to know that the narrower the scope of an anthology and the more rigid the guidelines, the deeper into the slush pile you have to dig. The stories that can hit a tiny target and offer excellent quality are few and far between. Marion was a personal inspiration to me as well, in the fearlessness with which she tackled controversial topics (like sexual orientation) at a time before such things were acceptable in genre publishing. I remember reading her ground-breaking novel, The Heritage of Hastur (1972, in which she deliberately set out to portray a heroic, sympathetic gay character), and bursting into tears at the struggles of this character to accept himself — both as a gay man and as the heir to enormous, soul-crushing responsibility. (In the final year of her life, Marion began work on another story about Regis Hastur and his lover, Danilo Syrtis, and I had the privilege of finishing it and seeing it in print: Hastur Lord, DAW, 2010). She taught me that it was possible — and morally imperative — to tell compelling stories about human problems — power, sex, jealousy, self-sacrifice, and most of all, love — and that gay people must be included in those stories. I knew that this is what I wanted to do as an editor.


We’re all different in what delights and inspires us, not just as queer/straight and male/female, but as individuals. At the same time, it is also important that there be a “place for us,” whether it be a specifically gay-themed anthology or one in which love stories between men or between women are portrayed with the same respect and rapture as those of the straight couples.

I have long believed that what is wrong with this world is not too much love, but too little. I hope to play a small part in creating a world in which no one feels invisible or excluded, and all expressions of who we are are celebrated.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Jaydium, Chapter 7


by Deborah J. Ross, writing as Deborah Wheeler

Chapter 7

As they continued across the massive forest, shipbrain sketched details of a variety of animals--insects, amphibians in the rivers and ponds, and reptiles, some of them the size of wolves. There seemed to be no recognizable primates or felines. Shipbrain continued to report nothing on the radio frequencies except natural background noise.

So much for my woodmen.

Without checking the scrubjet=s chronometer, Eril couldn=t be sure how long they=d been flying, watching and scanning. It felt like forever, suspended between forest below and equally endless sky above. Kithri said nothing about the flower field and very little about anything else.

The novelty of the planet quickly wore thin on Eril. He found himself itching for something--anything--to happen. This couldn=t be all there was--a few tantalizing mysteries and then nothing but hours on end of unremitting pastoral peacefulness.

He signaled shipbrain to pipe the radio scans to his headset. Maybe there was something out there after all and the dumb machine was too limited to recognize it. 
He listened, hearing nothing but uncommunicative noise.

Eril=s thoughts turned to the unconscious man in the hold. Maybe they should find some place to set down and try to rouse him, find out who he was and where he=d come from. The stranger might even be from this world, peacefully exploring the tunnel when he and Kithri jolted out of nowhere. Eril instantly discarded the notion. For one thing, they=d been in their own Stayman--a normal jaydium tunnel of it anyway--when the spacer appeared. For another, the suit was clearly designed for work in space. Who in their right mind would go exploring a tunnel in extra-vehicular gear? Boredom must be corroding his brain, to even think of it.

Squawk!--BURST--bzzz--BURST-- Squawk! came shrieking over the headset. Eril nearly leapt out of his seat.

"What the hell was that?" Kithri demanded.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

GUEST BLOG: Kyell Gold on Writing From The Heart

I had to become someone else to write the things that were important to me.

Let me back up a little. You’ll hear this phrase, “write from the heart,” a fair amount as you navigate the world of writing advice. When I suggested the topic to Deborah, she immediately pointed me to a podcast in which Betsy Wollheim of DAW spent fifteen minutes giving just that advice. So I want to talk a little about why it’s important, why many people don’t do it, and how you can.

Writing from the heart is scary. It means exposing yourself to the world. In a way, it’s like having an intimate conversation with hundreds or thousands or (if you’re lucky) millions of strangers. It’s talking about the pain of breaking up, the fear of not having enough to eat, the loneliness of losing a parent, the depressing reality of falling short. It’s talking about falling in love, about the joy of discovery, about those words your mother said when you were six that you carried with you all your life. It can mean describing your journey from realizing you’re different to realizing that that’s okay.

If this scares you or disturbs you (in an emotional sense rather than a horror sense), that’s good. Tap into a place where you’re not comfortable: those are the raw places from which powerful writing comes. You guard them because they are important to you. And when they are important to you, that passion comes across in your writing. When you put yourself on the page, the reader can feel that, because your characters reactions feel authentic.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Jaydium, Chapter 6


by Deborah J. Ross, writing as Deborah Wheeler

Chapter 6

"What=s happened?" Kithri gasped. "Where the bloody hell are we?"

Eril didn=t answer. For the moment, he had no ready answers. Adrenalin thrilled through his veins, bringing his vision into sharp focus--every instrument on the scrubjet=s panel, every tone of green filling the endless Plain, every brilliant mote of sunlight.

Silently they circled back and brought Brushwacker to a halt on the wide, wind-scoured ledge. In contrast to the debris-strewn entrance they=d flown into, here they found ample room here to land. Otherwise, the treeless purple-gray mountainside looked just like the one they=d left, but that was the only familiar feature of the landscape.

Kithri yanked the door open and jumped out, Eril at her heels. "The Plain, the dust--it=s gone, all gone!" she cried. "Where--oh god, where did all those trees come from? Even the sky looks different, it=s..." Her voice trailed off into a whisper. "It=s so beautiful..."

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Deborah Holds Forth on Point of View

SF Signal's MIND MELD just concluded a two-part discussion on Point of View (that's POV to the acronym-enabled), hosted by the wonderful Paul Weimer. Yesterday, I strewed links to it about the intarwebs, with snippets of my favorite parts. Today, I'm sticking my own oar in.

First of all, I'm struck by how every writer I know has an opinion about POV, and a personal preference as well. It's rare to hear someone say she enjoys writing ominiscent third every bit as much as first person. We've all got our quirks, shaped by our personalities, our experiences as readers, and what books on writing we've read or teachers we've studied with or editors we've worked with.

Second, I loved that the writers did not agree with one another. There is no "party line," no singular truth about "which is better." (See my first point.) The obvious explanation is that different POVs are better suited to different types of stories. Sure thing. The less obvious explanation is that POVs are subject to cycles of popularity. Today the publishing world values the 3 i's: immediacy, intensity, and intimacy. This hasn't always been so, and may not continue to be so. The Victorian writers embraced omniscient third, and saying that their work was therefore inferior is a bit like saying Baroque music isn't as good as Romantic because it has more ornamentation.

So here's my take on the issue. Far too many beginning writers fall in love with first person.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

The Writer's Life: Listening

Whenever I hear of a friend or relative -- or a stranger, I'm not picky! -- in distress, I want to jump in and fix their lives. It's so much easier dealing with someone else's problems than my own. Besides, I am at times the world's authority on everything (things and times being variable). So, I do my best to keep my mouth shut.

I'm long since realized what a disservice I do to those I care about by butting in with unasked-for advice. It doesn't matter whether my perspective is correct and my facts accurate, or that what I suggest would work a whole lot better than what they're doing. What matters is that these are my facts, my solutions, and I have usurped the resourcefulness of the other person and denied them the dignity and the growth of finding their own way through a problem.

Not only that, and more importantly for the purposes of a writerly blog, I haven't listened. By filling my mind with problem-solving instead of attending to experience and emotion, I've cheated myself out of a priceless opportunity to glimpse life through someone else's eyes. I've also deprived them of perhaps the most precious gift a friend can offer, a compassionate and undemanding ear.

Some time ago, a writer friend who was going through a difficult divorce told me that her therapist had been amazed at her ability to understand and empathize with her spouse's point of view. She was puzzled by this response. As writers, we cultivate our creative imagination, the insight that gives us a window into characters very unlike ourselves. While I'm not suggesting that things told to us in confidence should be fodder for the creative grist mills, I do believe that careful listening, deep listening, can make us better writers as well as better friends.

Painting "Friends" by Jerry Weiss, 2003; licensed under Creative Commons.

Monday, August 6, 2012

GUEST BLOG: Sherwood Smith on Monarchy in Fantasy

What is it with fantasy stories and monarchies? Isn't there any other form of government?

Two words, power and privilege.

What’s not to like?

What’s not to hate?

Whatever those words evoke to us, it’s usually not boredom. Human beings are hierarchical. You take any group, no matter how determined they are to interact with sensitivity and equality, and a leader somehow emerges. That’s in situations that have the luxury of safety. In emergencies or danger, people turn desperately to anyone who can show them the way out, whether it’s by fighting or fleeing. The successful commander who becomes monarch is as old as history.

Monarchs make government personal, and most readers want stories about people more than they want stories about the function of politico-economic theory, for pretty much the same reason people at work gossip about the boss’s likes, dislikes, and private life. The doings of people in power are interesting, especially when they can impact you, but even when they won’t. Look at all the celebrity chasers busily reporting on the often fatuous actions, opinions, marriages and breakups of our king-substitutes, actors.

W moderns seem to prefer stories about kings and queens from the days when monarchs were colorful figures in preference to today’s reclusive royalty who, wearing business suits like everyone else, appear only for photo ops and ribbon-snipping. The old kings had more power, but they also had to generate their own PR by looking like kings: when they traveled past you, with outriders and banner snapping and horses caparisoned to a fare-thee-well, you knew a king was passing.

Friday, August 3, 2012

Jaydium, Chapter 5


by Deborah J. Ross, writing as Deborah Wheeler

Chapter 5

For a moment Eril considered telling her the truth, that he had as much chance of getting into the Corps without her as she had getting off Stayman without him. In the mood she was in, she=d probably tell him to stuff a comet up his pitouchee. The only thing to do was to keep his mouth shut and wait for another opening. He hoped he=d get one.

Kithri picked up the water bottle, took a long swallow and then dropped it, sputtering. She pointed down the tunnel.

As he followed her gesture, Eril=s mouth went electrically dry. The last time he=d looked, the tunnel had been empty except for the two of them and the scrubjet. Now a man-shaped mist hovered in the middle of the >hole, one moment diaphanous, then condensing into near solidity. In stark contrast to the rosy glow of the partly-sealed jaydium, it was a clear, untinted gray. Eril made out a bulbous head, two arms, and two splayed-out legs. He thought he saw markings on the head section, but they faded so quickly he could not be sure.

"What the hell is that?" Kithri whispered. "I=ve been running these tunnels for years, and I=ve never seen anything like it."

"Space ghost," he said, dredging his memory. "They=re sighted along the old interstellar routes. There are only about six or seven documented cases known, never this close to a planet. By our best guess, they=re relics of early attempts to exceed the speed of light. Residues of energy that just happen to be shaped like humans. They probably don=t actually exist in three-space."