Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Suspension of Disbelief

The suspension of disbelief is something every writer hopes to instill in his or her readers. Writers are liars by trade. They invent people, places and situations that never existed (and in some cases, never could exist) and strive to make total strangers care about them. Fortunately, there are plenty of people out there who are looking to do just that. Still, it's possible to fall flat. And even the most successful writers won't please everyone on every front.

People who write stories set in the "real world" have a particularly difficult task, because there are so many little details to keep straight. And some authors (evidently) don't even bother. My mom recently told me about a mystery she stopped reading because the protagonist had a close encounter with a shark that was so completely un-sharklike (it displayed almost human intelligence and seemed to be able to breathe with its head out of the water), that she started giggling.

I tend to get annoyed by books or movies that portray science inaccurately or that perpetuate myths or stereotypes that I despair of (like that stupid idea that we only use 10% of our brain). Some people would say I'm not picky about these issues. But my military history buff friends are far more likely than I am to get knocked out of disbelief by a scene that incorrectly portrays military ranks or organization, or has the wrong type of planes appearing in the Battle of Midway.

I write fantasy, and so in some ways my job is easier than an author who writes realistic novels set in the so-called real world. Fantasy readers are coming to the table with an expectation that at least some of the things in the books they read will be, well, fantastic. There's usually a huge leap of faith you have to make when you pick up a fantasy novel. We all "know" magic doesn't exist and there are no such thing as werewolves or dragons or parallel worlds that exist beneath the streets of London, but we're prepared to believe for a while--so long as the writer creates an interesting premise and compelling characters.

Still, a fantasy writer doesn't have free reign. When I create a setting for my story, I can decide what type of world it's going to be and how its rules will differ from the so-called real world. If I want to take a page out of CS Lewis's book and make my world flat (and only a few thousand years old), that gives me more latitude if I want to do something like, say, make the moon and sun go around the world and turn stars into sentient humanoid beings. But if I create a fantasy world that is essentially Earthlike, except for the presence of magic, I have to be a bit more careful when I describe the physical workings of that world.

I ran into a suspension of disbelief issue when reading one of my favorite authors. Her world is very Earthlike (one sun, one moon, evidently round) and seems to have the same basic laws of physics as we do, with a few exceptions made for magic. But for some reason, the moon always rises at dusk and sets at dawn, no matter what phase it is in. I can't think of a way for this to be possible. A solar eclipse is a major event in one of this writer's books, but on the morning of the eclipse the moon was setting at dawn. If the moon is setting at dawn, it's not going to be in the sky during the day to get exactly between the sun and the Earth (to cause an eclipse). This knocked me out of disbelief.

But I didn't stop reading, and I still enjoyed the book. Except for the moon thing, her writing is very well informed and I love her plots, world building and characters. She has, in essence, earned my trust as a reader, so I am able to forgive that small slip (one that many readers probably don't even notice).

The fact is, no matter what a writer does and no matter how carefully he or she researches things, there will be some mistakes or omissions. I notice little unlikely things in books all the time (and undoubtedly miss countless others). George RR Martin had a character tossing hay bales around in Game of Thrones, for instance, even though it's unlikely something akin to the 1930's era pickup baler would exist in his medieval-ish world. It was a very minor thing, however, and I still enjoyed his books. I don't think the plot ever hinged on the presence or absence of hay bales.

And sometimes an author has to fudge something to make a story work. I know that something the size of a dragon can't possibly fly (without magic), but I was able to set that knowledge aside and enjoy Anne McCaffrey's Pern books (which are actually science fiction and not fantasy). At some point, a writer has to set things up as best he or she can and tell the story.

Ultimately, readers all have certain tropes or situations they are more willing to accept than others. For example, there are all kinds of "realistic" reasons why women in pre-industrial societies did not (generally) pursue lives of adventure. But I like to read fantasy novels set in sword and sorcery style settings that are "unrealistically" egalitarian. This is an example of a trope (swashbuckling female adventurers/heroes) that has become pretty commonplace in modern fantasy and is acceptable to a large number of modern readers. But 50 years ago, novels with a sexually integrated military (even in futuristic settings) and sword-wielding female heroes that were portrayed as everyday, normal occurrences, probably would have knocked many more readers out of disbelief than they do today.

Of course, even in a modern novel, there are ways of portraying this integration of male and female roles that will be perceived as more or less realistic to some readers. For instance, an understanding of the frictions and issues that can arise in heavily co-ed settings, even in our relatively enlightened times, can make a scenario seem more realistic.

In the end, readers will be inclined to accept or reject certain things, based on their past reading habits and personal knowledge or inclinations. But the fact that a story takes place in a fantasy world does not abrogate a writer from doing some research and creating a set of internally consistent rules. If the writer does this, readers are much more likely to be forgiving when he or she does fudge something--whether it's by omission or design.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Cats and Writing

It's no secret that many famous writers were and are fond of cats. Sites such as this one ( are only scratching the surface. I assume writers (famous and otherwise) often like cats because, like them, we tend to be independent creatures. And their soothing, undemanding company can be very inspiring to the creative process.

I'm a night person by nature, and tend to do a lot of my writing in the wee hours, after most of the world (and most of its distractions) are safely tucked away for the night. There's a definite changing of the guard that occurs around the time my husband goes to bed each night (sometime between 11-12 usually). The dogs go to bed with him, and the cats, who have been sleeping for most of the day and evening, become active.

Leo, Oberon and Merlin usually announce their presence by using one of the litter boxes. I won't elaborate, but this generally requires me to don a gas mask and scoop the thing so I can go back to work. Okay, stinky cat bombs are not inspiring, unless I'm writing about miasmatic clouds or noisome dungeons.

After emptying their intestinal tracts, the boys will proceed to gallop in circles for a while. Oberon is a tiny little thing (8 pounds dripping wet), but Merlin and Leo are much more amply proportioned (14.5 and 16.5 pounds, respectively). When they get to playing, it sounds like a chorus line of hippos are performing in the hallway outside my study. It's not too hard to tune it out, unless something smashes to the floor  in the kitchen, or one of them decides to leap up into the window behind my desk. Leo, in particular, has been known to come crashing down onto my keyboard when he does this.

Leo awakening

Merlin's a bit too large for the bathroom sink

Oberon thinks it would be incredibly rude for me to actually print anything.
Sometime around 1 AM or so, they start demanding their late-night snack. This consists of a few kibbles, dutifully doled out sometime before my own bedtime. This (theoretically) prevents the cats from waking us too early in the morning.

Recently, I discovered that the cats have an even better scam going than we thought. Doug has informed me that he always gives the cats their pre-bedtime snack before he goes to bed in the evening. So their innocent, wide-eyed assertions of hunger a couple of hours later is ... somewhat exaggerated. This explains why Leo's girth is not decreasing, in spite of our cutting back on the size of their portions.

I have tried to cut out this second "bedtime snack," but Leo now expects it. If I haven't scooped the kibble into his bowl by 2 AM, he starts rearing up and patting me on the wrist. If this fails to get my attention, he'll bite me sharply on the ankle. I've taken to keeping a squirt bottle by the computer.

This continues until I run out of steam by around 3 AM and fall into an exhausted sleep (occasionally interrupted by one or another large, furry presence on my pillow). There's no question that my writing would be far less productive without "the boys."

Saturday, October 20, 2012


Bob said, "I am going to go and find out what we will be doing tomorrow. Then I will tell Marjorie that she will have to come with us."

"Let us do that," answered Beth. "She has always been helpful."

What's missing from this dialog (besides anything interesting)? Contractions! Nearly all of us use them (or 'em) when we talk. Most of us use them when we write as well. But there still seems to be a lot of misunderstanding surrounding the actual appropriateness/acceptability of their use.

It always seemed like a no-brainer to me to use contractions in dialog, since people use them when they speak. I tend to use them in narrative as well, unless I'm shooting for a very formal tone. I tend to write my stories in first or limited (tending towards deep) third person, so my narrative is written (or at least attempts to be) written in the pov character's voice. Unless there is a reason the pov character wouldn't use contractions, their absence feels a bit strange to me.

But budding writers often avoid their use, even in dialog. Some say it's because their grammar checkers have trained them not to use contractions. Others explain that their English teachers place their use on the same moral level as the torture of puppies. Still others claim they've heard that editors will summarily reject any fiction manuscript with contractions.

The grammar checker argument is easy to set aside, since grammar checkers are clearly designed by rabid squirrel monkeys who want to derail the human race's use of language. As for the English teacher argument, one must remember that teachers are training students to write very formal non fiction, and students tend to interpret the guidelines given in that context as immutable rules (even though, as stated above, these rules are changing, even in formal writing).

The comment that fiction editors hate the use of contractions is the only argument that bears investigation. I haven't had any conversations with professional editors on this topic, so I pulled several of my favorite fantasy books from my shelves and looked at their dialog. I found tons of contractions (and some in the narrative as well). Still, it's possible that the books on my shelf are an atypical subset of the population of published works.

So, I went to the web and did a little research. As it turns out, it's becoming increasingly acceptable to use the common English contractions in business correspondence and in technical writing, so long as they improve the flow and rhythm of the writing and convey the desired tone and voice ( ; ;

This does not mean, of course, that different editors or publications don't have their own preferences or in-house styles (or that all readers will find a business letter with contractions more readable and friendly), but it does suggest that there is no hard and fast rule against using them anymore, even in formal writing.

So what about fiction? I did some more searching and found two different opinions about what the "rules" are, though all of these writers/editors agreed that rules in writing are often broken to good effect.

1. They're desirable in spoken and internal dialog, but not in narrative.

2. They're desirable in spoken and internal dialog and entirely permissible in narrative as well, so long as it suits the voice and style of the writer or pov character.

I suspect the differences in opinion over whether it's appropriate to use contractions in third person narrative are probably influenced by one's attitude towards a truly deep/immersive third person pov and the use of a more causal authorial voice in modern writing. It is entirely possible that editors have different opinions here.

But in spite of what many newer writers claim, it doesn't seem like there's any controversy over contraction use in dialog. As a rule, dialog will sound stilted and formal without them, so unless you are intentionally creating a context where a character is not using them for a clear reason, sprinkle in the standard English contractions.

Colloquial contractions (such as ain't) can also be used in dialog, of course, if  it's appropriate for the character and setting.

Sometimes an author may use a situational or made-up contraction to indicate that a speaker is hurried or being careless in his speech. gonna, 'fraid, etc. are examples of these. Be sure these are being used in a way that's appropriate and are not overused to the point of rendering the character's speech incomprehensible or annoying to read.

When should contractions be avoided?

1. When they actually make the sentence more cumbersome to read/speak.

2. Faux historic speech that is not well-researched and actually appropriate for the overall setting or voice for the characters or narrative.

3. When there's a plausible reason a character wouldn't be using contractions. I can think of two books I've read in recent months that avoid contraction use in at least some contexts, and both of them worked quite well. But they are the exception to the rule.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

What is High Fantasy Anyway?

I thought of my novel as high fantasy (though not necessarily epic fantasy) before I even started writing it. Although the world is basically Earth like (it's round, follows most of the laws of physics and biogeography), it is clearly separate from ours, has its own history and cultures, a number of species that don't exist in ours (though no elves or dwarves), and magic plays a prominent role in the story.

Now that I'm at the stage where I'm starting to formulate agent queries, I've tossed a few samples I've written up in fantasy writers' forums. One reader commented that there was nothing in my query that made him think my novel really was high fantasy. Well, a query has to focus on the plot and characterization, not world building. When I told him this, he said that doesn't matter, because high fantasy isn't about the world building or conflicts, but about the voice and tone of the novel. This engendered much disagreement and a lively discussion about what HF "really" is. Some of the (competing and complementary) definitions people tossed out:

--there has to be elves, dragons, dwarves etc.
-- high fantasy is concerned with world-level wars and conflicts
--there need to be active supernatural entities involved in the story (aka gods)
--the laws of physics and nature must be very different from the real world (I guess that means a flat world, or floating cities that must be reached by winged mounts)
--the setting has to be largely medieval, both in terms of culture and technology
--the setting should be pre-industrial, though not necessarily medieval
--the struggle between good and evil must be central
--the tale needs to involve some kind of heroic quest that takes the characters to various locales within their world
--the main protagonist needs to be larger than life in some way, and preferably royal
--destiny needs to play a major role in the story (aka the protagonist is a chosen one)
--magic must be central to the plot
--there need to be at least some sort of non-human race or culture

My story fits some of these, but not others. When I mentioned my confusion over this on a different fantasy writer's forum, a fan of my novel commented that she didn't think it was HF because my magic system was too scientific and my healing too advanced (the nature of my world's magic allows healers to visualize and manipulate the workings of the body to some extent, so they're not mucking around with the degree of ignorance exhibited by "real-life" Medieval and Renaissance era physicians, nor are they merely waving their hands and allowing a god to do the "real" healing).

 In desperation, I turned to wikipedia, and found a very broad definition of HF.

"High fantasy is defined as fantasy fiction set in an alternative, entirely fictional ("secondary") world, rather than the real, or "primary" world. The secondary world is usually internally consistent but its rules differ in some way(s) from those of the primary world." (

In addition to well known examples, such as Tolkien's and Robert Jordan's works, the site included novels by authors such as J.K. Rowling, Piers Anthony and Phillip Pullman as examples of the genre.

By this definition, my novel is probably High Fantasy.

But a quick perusal of other web sites that define/discuss HF lead to more confusion. Some people claim high fantasy is the same as epic or heroic fantasy (, while others make a distinction ( Adding to my confusion are the plethora of different definitions of the terms "low fantasy," "heroic fantasy," and "sword and sorcery."

According to Fantasy Faction's entry on the subject (, George RR Martin's work is epic fantasy, but not high (not sure why not). If they are correct, my novel would not be high fantasy. And there seems to be some disagreement about whether high and low fantasy are differentiated by the setting, the role magic plays in the story or the nobility of the characters ( ; ;

I guess the take-home message here is that there is no consensus about what high fantasy, or the other fantasy subgenres, really are. Some definitions exclude even classic works usually cited as examples of the genre, such as Lord of the Rings, from the category of HF.

I suppose I can just query my novel as a work of fantasy and let an agent or editor define it. Most bookstores lump all adult fantasy and SF together anyway, and many agents simply say they take fantasy, without defining specific subgenres.

My main concern is that I've researched a few agents who say they take SF and fantasy but stipulate, "No high fantasy." Since there is no "set" definition of what HF is, I'm not clear whether they'd be interested in my MS or not. If they are simply saying they don't like works set in faux-medieval societies with stereotyped fantasy races and tropes (told in that old-fashioned, stilted language), then I'm probably okay. But if they're saying they don't want anything taking place in a separate world with its own history where magic plays an important role, then I'm not.

I guess there's no harm in submitting when in doubt. I'm going to rack up a ton of rejections, no matter what. It's the nature of the business.

Monday, October 8, 2012

The Next Big Thing

I’ve been tagged by Erik Larson to talk about the novel I have in progress in his Next Big Thing blog post. The Next Big Thing is where a writer answers ten questions about a novel he or she is working on, and then tags other authors to answer the same questions. 

1. What is the title of your Work in Progress?

Umbral Heretic

2. Where did the idea come from for the book?
I think these characters have been rattling around in my head in one form or another for well over a decade. I got the idea for one scene in my novel (the one where my healer character finds the protagonist beaten up and devoid of his memories) when I was walking my dog along Boulder Creek back when I was in grad school in Colorado. The idea sort of shuffled to the back of my brain, but it popped up from time to time, and I gradually fleshed it out over the years.

3. What genre does your book fall under?
I've been thinking of it as adult high fantasy, but  I'm not sure everyone agrees with my definition of the genre. I'll probably query it simply as fantasy.

4. Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?
This is a tough question for me, as I don't spend a lot of time following celebrities, so most of my favorite actors are older now ... way too old to be playing characters in their twenties.
Both Jarrod and Tesk are reasonably tall (Jarrod around 6' and Tesk around 5'9"-5'10") and have brownish eyes and hair and are active, strong people. Most of the young actresses out there today seem to be little slips of things. Of course, Hollywood has always been good at manipulating camera angles and so forth.
Maybe for Tesk, someone who looks like Jewel Staite (though taller and more muscular). or Siebil Kekili from Game of Thrones, though both of these gals are over thirty. For Jarrod ... hmmm. Seems like most of the young actors are too pretty or too smarmy, so no one's leaping out at me.

5. What is a one-sentence synopsis of the book?
A magically damaged exile must master his rogue talent and defeat a network of dark wizards who seek to return the world to a time of chaos and terror.

6. Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?
I hope to find an agent.

7. How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?
It took about a year to get a complete manuscript with no gaps in it.
I am an on the fly reviser, though, so by the time I got to the end of the manuscript, I'd rewritten parts of the first 1/2-2/3 of the book several times. The "first" draft is really more like a second draft for this reason.

8. What other books would you compare this story to in your genre?
Well, some of my favorite contemporary fantasy and sci fi writers include Lynn Flewelling, Mercedes Lackey, Robin Hobb, CJ Cherryh, Anne McCaffrey and  Glenda Larke. I think It would be arrogant to compare myself to these writers, but it is certainly true that various aspects of their narrative style, characterization and world building have influenced me more than old style fantasy writers like Tolkien, Norton or Leiber (who I also enjoy as authors).

9. Who or what inspired you to write this book?
I've been wanting to write since I was a kid and have been taking abortive forays into writing for my entire life. Aside from a couple of short stories I wrote for a class back in college, though, I never finished anything. I'm not sure why I finally got the wherewithal to finish a draft of a novel length work (and a few short stories) at last. I think I just got sort of addicted to writing for the sake of writing. It helped finding a good online writing community as well, as I've never had much luck finding a local writers' group that focuses on speculative fiction.

10. What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?
I feel that the book is definitely character driven, but it's set in a world that blends elements of traditional high fantasy with some newer approaches to world building. Although the story is character driven and the plot centers around intrigue and conflict between characters, there is some sword and sorcery style action and even a little romance.

It takes place in a world where the naturalistic nature of magic has informed and enhanced people's knowledge in some ways and held it back in others. It is probably about halfway along the spectrum of idealized to gritty in that it takes place in a world with plenty of unpleasantness, but most people are striving (with varying degrees of competence and success) to do the right thing and move things forward. I hope it appeals to people who like conflicted and flawed characters and a dose of realism but have grown a bit tired of fantasy and sci fi worlds that take place in very dystopian societies where no one (including the protagonists) give a damn about anything except for gaining power over others or exacting revenge.

The protagonist (Jarrod) has several apparently conflicting goals and faces plenty of external obstacles and adversaries throughout the book, but ultimately, his largest adversary may be himself. I hope some readers may find that relatable as well.

Oh yes, and there's a dog....

Include the link of who tagged you and this explanation for the people you have tagged.

Erik Larson tagged me.

I tagged Nick Mena: