Monday, March 28, 2022

How I Wrote A Star Wars Story (and got paid for it)

One of the most fun writing projects I ever participated in was the second Star Wars anthology,

Tales From Jabba's Palace. At the time I was invited, my first novel, Jaydium, had recently been released and I had a handful of professional-market short story sales to my credit; I was writing then as Deborah Wheeler. I met the editor, Kevin J. Anderson, at a convention.

Kevin had just started reading Jaydium and was impressed enough to think, "Aha! This is just the writer I'm looking for to fill one of the remaining anthology slots." Once he explained that this would be work-for-hire and subject to the approval of Paramount Studios and I'd signed a bunch of forms, we got to work.

Kevin wanted a "braided" anthology, with stories intersecting and overlapping as much as possible. Each author got a different minor character who worked or lurked in Jabba's Palace. Some were described in "the bible" from the movie, but a few were original (like Barbara Hambly's cook, for every gangster needs his own chef). Every story had to include a scene from the movie, as well. We were each asked to circulate an outline of our story to all the other authors and then to correspond with one another on details.

Since I joined the anthology team late, I didn't have much choice of character. I got "Ree-Yees," the three-eyed, goat-headed fellow hovering around the opening scenes. The reference materials said he was not very bright and usually drunk. Okay, I thought, I can have fun with that. Kevin suggested that, in addition to the usual scheming and rivalry among Jabba's underlings, the Empire itself might have reason to get rid of Ree-Yees.

Here's what I sent to the other writers:

Friday, March 25, 2022

Short Book Reviews: A sweet, sexy love story for three

Something Perfect
, by Laura Anne Gilman (Faery Cat Press)

Laura Anne Gilman's sweet, sexy novella is a romance between a long-married couple, Jenny and Nic, who feel more complete with a third person. Luck hasn’t favored them so far, as triads or throuples aren’t for everyone. Polyamory requires excellent communication skills, integrity, and generosity of heart. Frustrated with having their hearts broken from yet another breakup, Jenny asks Nic to use his scrying talent to find their perfect partner.

“When you see the curve of their face reflected in glass and moonlight,” goes his reading. “The city shining on their skin. When you see that, you’ll know.”

Years go by, until Jenny attends an exclusive party in New York City and spots Amy sitting alone on the moonlit patio. Jenny knows she’s “the one.” Courtship is difficult enough, but between three people it’s a real challenge, especially when one of them is as insecure as Amy, who’s convinced she “isn’t good at sex” and will never find the right partner. Nic’s “Seeing” may have started the ball rolling, but it takes more than magic to forge strong, resilient relationships.

There was so much I loved in this story, and it’s all beautifully rendered: the strength and clarity of Jenny and Nic’s marriage and their ability to communicate in a loving, nonjudgmental fashion; the absence of plot stupidities and misunderstandings that serve no other purpose than to draw out tension, when a simple conversation would resolve them; the positive portrayal of sex and multiple relationships, one that trusts the reader’s intelligence; and most of all, a thread of gold running through the story, the importance of consent. Asking for it, giving it, checking in, taking it back, celebrating it. And the wonderfully juicy erotic bits are great, too.

Friday, March 18, 2022

Short Book Reviews: A Queer Fantasy Role Playing Club Love Story

The Cleveland Heights LGBTQ Sci-Fi and Fantasy Role Playing Club
, by Doug Henderson (University of Iowa Press)

To begin with a disclaimer: I’m not a gamer, although I appreciate both the imagination and the community-building involved. I found the idea of a queer (in the most inclusive meaning) D & D club appealing. I wondered how would this be any different from a mainstream (cis/het) club. The answer turned out to be both not so much and a lot.

The players at the Readmore Comix and Games store’s weekly game include both out and closeted gays, a transgender dungeon master, and a confused maybe-bisexual. The group has become too small for a great adventure, so when a new guy joins, sensitive, lonely Ben is instantly smitten. That is, until his character is killed in the game, the boyfriend of the closeted banker is accosted on the street, and the connections and parallels between the game and real life become even stronger. The game characters, situations, and humor reflect the changing worlds of the players.

Since I’m not a gamer, I didn’t connect with much of the game action. I kept thinking I’d never write a plot line like that, while I tried to keep in mind that games have a different story structure. What mattered to me were the reactions and interactions of the players. I suspect that the intended audience, queerfolk who are also gamers, would love the campy atmosphere and the burgeoning sexual tension between Ben and the new guy.

In the end, though, I found the resolution too pat, the problems too easily overcome, and too many questions left unanswered. But for all that, it’s a sweet gay-gamer-geeky love story sure to bring a smile to many readers’ faces.

Monday, March 14, 2022

Cross Training For Writers

Cross-training is a concept I snagged from athletics. It's a way of improving fitness for one particular sport (or art) by practicing another. The idea is that the body adapts to repetitive exercises and, by becoming more efficient, shows slower progress.

Over the years, I've noticed that if I'm stuck on a story and can't figure out how to even think my way toward a solution, one of the most helpful things I can do is to listen to other storytellers talk about their work. In particular, I'd put on one of those bonus material discs from a favorite movie and listen to directors and screenplay writers discuss their approaches. (My favorites are Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh, and Philippa Boyens talking about how they adapted The Lord of the Rings into film, how they decided what to leave out, what to expand or re-arrange, that sort of thing; because I know the books so well, I can follow their interpretive process.) I come away re-charged because the story-telling is similar enough and yet different enough from what I do in prose. I've also gotten much good perspective from books on screenplay writing for much the same reason. I don't want to write a script for a movie or a play, but I do benefit from that particular way of looking at story, character, dialog, and action.

Friday, March 11, 2022

Short Book Reviews: Noir Gangsters in 1970s Mexico City

Velvet Was the Night, by Silvia Moreno-Garcia (Del Rey)

The historical setting for Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s noir novel, Velvet Was the Night, is the violent suppression of a student uprising in Mexico City in the late 1960s, and that part was fascinating. The characters, an idealistic youth drawn into the world of gang brutality, and an insecure secretary, find themselves drawn into the mysterious disappearance of an art student who may be in possession of incriminating photographs related to the uprising. For most of the book, Maite and Elvis go about their separate lives, slowly spiraling toward one another.

I loved the novels of Silvia Morena-Garcia previously reviewed here (Gods of Jade and Shadow, The Beautiful Ones, Mexican Gothic, and Certain Dark Things). For me, however, this gritty novel never found its center, either dramatically or morally. I found both central characters ambivalent enough to be unsettling. I kept waiting for them to grow up, but they never did. Elvis becomes a casual murderer and torturer, without empathy for his victims even when he himself becomes one. Maite’s a thief, consumed with envy, living vicariously through the treasures she makes off with. Sure, they’re anti-heroes, but I like a little redemptive virtue and a reason to connect emotionally with my anti-heroes. The only characters I cared about were minor and didn’t stay around for the ending. The background, while intriguing, seemed to belong to a different story. Added to this, I’m profoundly uninterested in gangsters and their culture, and would not have picked up this book were it not for the author’s other, luminously creative works. I applaud her courage in tackling new subject material. All experiments run a risk, and the edgier the territory, the trickier the high-wire act. Other readers may gobble this one up but for me, even with Moreno-Garcia’s storytelling skill that kept me in the story until the end, the result was more “meh” than “magical!”


Monday, March 7, 2022

Guest Post: Jane Lindskold on Changing Your Mind

Finches Consider Their Options

It’s okay to change your mind about something you’re writing. That’s what I’ve recently done with a plotline of a novel I started late last summer, and recently returned to working on. 

My life has changed a lot in many ways over the last six months. In large part due to these changes, a major plotline that seemed very compelling back when I started the piece in August of 2021 not only no longer held my attention, I was actively opposed to working on it. Since this did not apply to other plotlines in the same piece, which were developing easily and held my interest, I gave myself permission to let this plotline go.

Does this mean that prior effort was “wasted”? Not at all. The plotline may still come into the book at a later point. Or it may be the heart of a later book.  Or it may simply have been a wrong turn.

I’ll know when I finish writing what I’m now happily working on.

One of the great freedoms to writing something on spec is that you don’t need to answer to anyone except your Muse when creating a story.

Sure, you can still change your mind, but there’s an extra step if you have sold or placed the piece based upon a proposal. It’s not right to drop, say, a twisted romance on an anthology to which you’ve promised a dark fantasy sword and sorcery adventure. Not only would the editor have every right to reject the new take, you’ll probably have seriously damaged any reputation you had for reliability or professionalism.

Nor, of course, if you’re writing in a series can you suddenly change established elements from prior published works. Firekeeper will never have been raised by giraffes, for example.

In fact, the longer the series, the more restrictions develop.  Finding good stories that fit into the established material is simply one of the challenges of writing a series. If you can’t find a good story, take a breather from that series.

I’ve watched so many writers push and push to keep working on a story that has lost its “zing.”  They seem to have forgotten that part of writing well is writing about something that has your full enthusiasm.

Or so I feel, at least. As always, I’m happy to hear arguments to the contrary or examples of where an author managed the reverse.

Meanwhile, I’ll go wander off and get back to writing. I can’t wait to find out what’s next.

Jane Lindskold is the award-winning, New York Times best-selling author of more than twenty-five novels, including Library of the Sapphire Wind and Aurora Borealis Bridge, the six-volume Firekeeper Saga (aka “The Wolf Books”), the two athanor novels (Changer and Changer’s Daughter), the three volumes of the Breaking the Wall series, the Artemis Awakening series, and many more. Lindskold has also written in collaboration with David Weber (Fire Season and Treecat Wars) and Roger Zelazny (Donnerjack and Lord Demon). When she’s not writing or reading, she’s likely being ordered around by a variety of small animals. Lindskold lives in New Mexico. 

I've been enoying Library of the Sapphire Wind -- women of "a certain age" (meaning gray-haired and juicy with wisdom) get to have adventures in a world of anthropomorphic races. Plus I love it when a librarian, an archaeologist, and an unrepentant hippy grandmother team up.

Here's the skinny: Instead of mentors, they got monsters . . . That’s what Xerak, Vereez, and Grunwold think when three strange creatures shimmer into being within the circle of Hettua Shrine. Their conclusion is reasonable enough. After all, they’ve never seen humans before.

As for Margaret Blake, Peg Gallegos, and Tessa Brown—more usually known as Meg, Peg, and Teg—they’re equally astonished but, oddly enough, better prepared. Age and experience have accustomed them to surprises. A widely varied course of reading material has intellectually prepared them for the idea that other worlds, even worlds where people with traits more commonly ascribed to “animals” may exist.

Then there is the mysterious verse that Teg speaks as they arrive, words that seem to indicate that the Shrine must have been at least partially responding to the request made of it.

Despite doubts on all sides, the three unlikely mentors join forces with the three young “inquisitors” and venture out into the world Peg dubs “Over Where.” First they must find the Library of the Sapphire Wind, destroyed years before.

Will they find answers there, or is this only the first stage in their search?

Friday, March 4, 2022

Short Book Reviews: Creating Alien Community

The Galaxy, and the Ground Within,
by Becky Chambers (Harper Voyager)

Set on an uninhabitable planet whose only value is as a stopover for other worlds, this story explores what happens when members of very different species and histories are forced into community when they are temporarily cut off from contact with the larger Galactic Commons. Three of these strangers are guests at the overwhelmingly hospitable Five-Hop One-Stop version of a spacer’s truck stop when a freak accident halts all traffic and communications. At first glance, they have little in common: an exiled artist with an urgent, perhaps redemptive appointment to keep, a cargo runner with a military history at a personal crossroads, and a mysterious individual who cannot leave her space suit but is doing her best to help those on the fringes. Add to this odd grouping, their host and her teenager, furred quadrupeds that reminded me repeatedly of space otters. Most of all, though, this book is about how people who are initially not only diverse but at odds with one another can bridge those differences through understanding and shared experiences to form friendships and, ultimately, community.