Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Bigotry 101 Primer

I'm proud to say I never even heard of the show "Duck Dynasty" until the latest incident of celebrity bigotry hit the fan. Maybe it's because, politics aside, the subject matter (I'm guessing the show revolves around guns and hunting) is not remotely interesting to me. Or maybe it's because A&E has been a network I've been flipping past for decades. I remember, vaguely, that it once showed reruns of Blackadder and other British shows I liked, but that was a long time ago. There hasn't been much on it I've considered either artsy or entertaining in recent years.

Seems like every time there's an incident of celebrity "foot in mouth" disease, the web starts screaming about free speech and censorship and liberal intolerance and OMG reverse discrimination against white people and Christians.

This blog pretty much sums up anything I could have said on the matter.


As always, read the comments at your own peril (and have plenty of brain bleach handy).

Saturday, December 21, 2013

What Kind of World?

There are many different subgenres of fantasy fiction, but in my experience, one of the major divisions is whether the stories take place in something that is recognizably our own world, or a secondary (made up) world. Real-world fantasy can take place in contemporary settings (as do most works of urban fantasy), historic settings or mythic settings (like Arthurian Britain or Olympian Greece), and of course different writers embrace these settings with different degrees of historic rigor or realism. There are also portal worlds, which are secondary but connected to our own in some way (as the Chronicles of Narnia) and "Wainscot" worlds, where a hidden magical society with its own rules is tucked away, hidden from the perceptions of the non magical (The Harry Potter books  and Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere are examples of this).

But for many readers, the epitome of fantasy lies in secondary worlds that are not connected to our own. In these tales, the protagonists are born, live and die with no knowledge of the Earth and its history or gods. When I decided I wanted to get serious about fantasy writing a few years ago, it never occurred to me to write anything else. Many of my favorite fantasy novels were of this type, and the concept of making up my own world, with its own history, culture and rules was too exciting to pass up.

My current projects take place in a secondary world. The task creating a fleshed-out and internally consistent world with cultures, geography, religions, government, magic systems, ecology and technology that don't feel like they were drawn randomly from an epic fantasy hat is harder than it looks, however. As I try to polish my first novel for submission and smooth out the rough edges, I'm having a lot of those "if I only knew such and such when I started" moments.

One thing I've been thinking about lately is where my world actually came from. I'm not a fan of the old convention of writing a long, info-dumpy prologue that details the origins and history of my world. I also don't like those long "omniscient" outtakes that some writers insert into narrative. My story is written in limited third, and I'm being strict with it in that I'm not telling or showing the reader anything my pov characters don't know or wouldn't think.

But this doesn't mean that I shouldn't know why things are the way they are. Even if my characters have no idea about their world's true history, or even have wrong assumptions about it, the nature of their world will shape their views and perceptions in some way. And there will be little hints about the origins and history of their world in various aspects of its biology and geography.

I've been thinking about the different ways a world can (in a fantasy sense) come to exist, and I've come up with three broad categories.

1. A naturalistic or evolved world like our own. Such a world (if reasonably Earthlike) would be billions of years old and would have a history of complex life that goes back hundreds of millions of years. There may be magic and gods and fantastic creatures or beings, but they're aspects of this natural world. If a god or gods created it, they'd be like the deist's god--setting things up at the beginning and letting them run according to the rules. Perhaps the gods even evolve and change with the world. The people who live in the world may well be unaware of its true nature (just as we were unaware of the true nature of our own for much of its history, and indeed, many still are). They may believe in gods that don't exist, or completely misunderstand the god or gods that do exist.

There are certain things that one expects to see in an evolved world: fossils and fossil fuels (like coal), homologies between the body parts of different types of organism, sensible biogeographical distribution of plants and animals, ethnicities and cultures that fit in with what we understand about the effects of biogeography on human micro-evolution. Of course, if your world isn't very much like Earth, things can get interesting here. But in general, the author might approach things more the way a science fiction writer might, though the presence of magic and interactive gods does make it possible for some bizarre incongruities to exist (say dragons exist and were created by a long-ago wizard as a bioweapon).

2. A created world. This is a world where the reality is as many myths and legends from our own history have asserted--there is a god or gods who made the world, probably just a few thousand years ago, though it could be older, and it hasn't changed much since (barring god-created or magical cataclysms). The world doesn't "have" to be made by gods, of course. It could be the creation of technology or magic wielded by mortals. But it's implicit somehow that there really is a creator and that humans (and other intelligent and non-intelligent species) have been around in pretty much their present form all along.

While the people in an evolved world might believe they live in a created world, there will be some things one with a more scientific mind set might expect to see in a created world that would not be present in a naturalistic one. Most notably, there would be matters of geography, species distribution and homologies between different kinds of creatures (fantastic and otherwise). In a created world, there's no reason why fantastic creatures would need to have internal structures that made it clear they evolved from the same ancestors as other animals with backbones. There is also no need for there to be fossils, there likely wouldn't be coal or petroleum (although the gods might have something analogous that they gifted people with) and so on.

3. An invaded world. In essence a portal world where someone or something came from somewhere else in the recent or distant past and either mostly supplanted the original denizens of either an evolved or created world, or are a thorn in the side of said denizens. This can be the "real" reason there are mixtures of fantastic and mundane creatures and beings where some seem to follow predicable evolutionary patterns and others don't. This is a portal world, maybe, where the portal is now closed or vanished.

I think most traditional fantasy falls into the second category. A god or gods *really* did create the world, and this reality is reflected in the beliefs of at least one group of people on the world (though possible through a glass, darkly). Tolkien's and Lewis's worlds are certainly like this, and it was strongly implied that Earthsea was (Ged knew that Segoy raised the islands from the sea and created the dragons first, though we never learn how Ged knew this).

Often it's not completely clear which of these models the author had in mind, unless some unambiguous "truth" is revealed to the characters. In fantasy, it's not necessary to really understand all the whys and wherefores. Indeed, trying to drop them into a story can be klunky or heavy handed. As a reader, I don't know why George RR Martin's world, for instance, has its strange seasonal cycle (though I've wondered if it's because it has a really bizarre axial wobble paired with a very active and varied sunspot cycle). I don't really need to know why to enjoy the story.
However, if you know the reason for things being the way they are, you can incorporate this knowledge in ways that will make your world building more internally consistent. Even if my readers (and characters) never know for sure where their world came from, I do.

Happy Longest Night to everyone, and I hope everyone has a wonderful Christmas (or Yuletide, or Solstice, or winter holiday).

Monday, December 9, 2013

Books I've especially enjoyed this year.

One of the things that kind of sucks about writing is I don't read as much as I used to. This isn't because I don't love reading as much as I ever did. I do, and in fact, I wish I could read more. I really do think reading is vital to writing, and whatever skill I may possess as a writer is at least partially down to the prodigious amount of reading I did as a kid, young adult and beyond. However, there are only so many hours in a day, and reading has been pushed into those times when writing's not really possible--when I'm at the gym, between classes at work, in doctor's waiting rooms, and a quick chapter or two before turning off the light to sleep.

 I've got a stack of books teetering on my nightstand, and more on my nook reader. I've got no hope of finishing all of them, and in fact, I probably won't even try. One side-effect of having so many books to read is that I've grown pickier about what I read. I'm focusing more on the genre I write in (fantasy, though an occasional SF title sneaks in), and I've been gravitating towards povs and narratives that are more relevant to my own writing--limited third and first. I've also been reading relatively recent books by newer authors and not revisiting my old favorites the way I once did (except I pull them down sometimes for reference).

Even so, there are a lot of misses. If a book doesn't grab me by the end of the last chapter, I tend to put it down and not pick it back up again.

I don't want to talk about the books I didn't like very much or why. I appreciate the amount of work that goes into writing a book, and I also appreciate that tastes vary, and something I think is "meh," may be someone else's best read ever. There's really no right or wrong. I know how icky it feels to be talking about some book or author you love and to have some else lay into them, or worse yet, lay into you for liking them. Writers can be particularly critical or scathing about what they don't like. We all try so hard to polish our prose, and we're all well versed in the shoulds and shouldnts of narrative and pov. Sometimes we can get a bit catty when we run across a book where the author was seemingly unaware of the perils of excessive use of passive voice, or filtering, or adverbs or whatever.

I'm just going to list a few of the novels (not counting works in progress I've helped crit) I read this year that I really enjoyed and recommend to my fellow fantasy readers and writers. These are authors I plan on reading more in the future. I may provide a more in-depth evaluation of some of these later.

Fade to Black by Francis Knight: A fantasy noir that takes place in an intriguing and non-traditional second world setting. A flawed but relatable protagonist with a clear, strong voice, and I just love the magic system. I've read book 2 in the trilogy and am starting the third. It's also one of the first fantasy novels I've read since the Wizard of Earthsea where the "default" character appearance is not white.

The Blade Itself by Joe Abercrombie: I didn't think I'd get pulled into this one, as I tend to like slightly more optimistic takes on the human condition. But I thought I'd give it a read as the author is writing with a multiple third-person pov. I found his characters fascinating. I don't think any of them are the kinds of people I'd want to hang out with in real life, but he's done a great job of pulling me into their world and perceptions and of making their actions and values believable and relatable. I look forward to reading the rest of the First Law books and to his other titles as well.

Havemercy by Jaida Jones and Danielle Bennett: Interesting story with four different first person point of view characters. These authors also did a good job of making a character (Rook) who was initially unsympathetic into an interesting and relatable person and of weaving four separate stories into an integrated whole. The only disappointment, perhaps, was the lack of female characters.

Green by Jay Lake: An intriguing protagonist and story set in a fantasy world that is far from generic. There is some really nice writing here, and the author does a great job of getting inside the head of a young girl who refuses to become a tool and will zig just when you expect her to zag.

The Alchemist of Souls by Anne Lyle: This is set in an Elizabethan England that's not quite like the ones in the history books. She's done a good job of bringing the setting alive and populating it with interesting people who have interesting problems in spite of their Tudor-era sensibilities. The third installment in this trilogy just came out, so I'll be reading it soon.

I haven't read widely enough to really be able to comment on trends in fantasy in general, but a few things I've noticed--first person points of view are becoming quite common, and more stories have gay and lesbian characters in them than in the old days. Or perhaps this merely reflects on my tastes and the kinds of stories I enjoy reading. Three of the five books on this list are written by British writers as well. I've been fond of British fantasy writers, of course, since my mom first read me the Hobbit.

In the upcoming year, I'm going to try and branch out more and read more novels written by (and starring) people who are not white.

Thursday, December 5, 2013


Ahh, a Yuletide tradition of getting drunk, dressing up as demons, and running through the streets hitting kids with sticks. What can go wrong?


Sunday, November 10, 2013

I've been quiet lately, mainly because I'm alternating between bouts of grading, revising my own novel, and trying to catch up with some critiquing obligations.

I entered my young dog, Flick, in her first agility trial this weekend, and we actually Q'd our first-ever run (touch n go). She ran very smoothly, actually beating Wiley's elite qualifying time (and on the same course). Fortunately, he's not a human to be demoralized by being beaten by his kid sister.

We didn't Q again that weekend, as the subsequent courses and the more distracting environment of an agility trial took their toll, but there were some very good bits in each of our runs together. Once she gets used to the fact that there are these strange people (pole setters) sitting out on the course, and once I get my timing right, she has a lot of promise, and is lots of fun to run. When she was holding her 2-on, 2-off A-frame contact, she decided it would be fun to reach over with her nose and nudge the number cone and tip it over. I have no idea why, but it was pretty cute.

Wiley and I did well on Friday afternoon, but on Saturday, I was a wreck (got very little sleep, so my head, feet and back hurt all day, and my brain was sluggish), and he really picks up on that. My Saturdays tend to be terrible, as I just can't fall asleep early enough to get a good night's sleep when I have to get up at 5:30. If I'm in bed at 11, I still lie awake until 2 or later. When I enter on Sunday as well, it's a bit better, since I'm exhausted enough to drop off a bit earlier (usually). As I get older, I find a bad night's sleep really tears me up in a way it didn't when I was younger. Agility is a terrible sport for a night owl like me.

Wish I had a picture of Flick on course, but unfortunately, the photographers don't come out to our local NADAC trials as often as they once did. I think I'm going to have to enter Flick in some CPE if I want pro photos and videos of some of her runs. And of course, get her to where I trust her outside in the grass arena (which is less enclosed and safe than the dirt one).

I don't completely trust her not to take off in the outside arena if she sees some dog that fascinates her, though she's much more reliable than she was when we started training.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Forwarded Article: Rich People Just Care Less


This article, by psychologist Daniel Goleman, was fascinating, and it discusses something that's been bugging me a lot over the past few years: the inability of some people to empathize at all with the misfortune of others. It seems like our culture is evolving into one where a lack of empathy is seen as a strength, and reasonably well-off people who are concerned about the poor, or about the concerns of less empowered groups are dismissed as "PC" or "bleeding-hearts."

I've known for a long time that members of privileged groups generally tend to know (and care) less about the concerns and inner workings of members of less privileged groups. I always assumed it was because it was a survival tactic to know how the ones who have power over you think and feel, and I think there's truth in this.

But this article also raises the interesting fact that less empowered people express more empathy for people who are their social equals than better-off people do. The hypothesis that poorer people are more dependent on social contracts between friends, neighbors and family members certainly makes sense. As reasonably comfortable middle-aged folks, if my husband and I go on vacation, I can hire someone to take care of my dogs. I don't need to trade favors with a friend or neighbor.

 I also remember reading something years ago back in animal behavior class about Imo, a young, female Japanese macaque, who had discovered a way of washing sweet potatoes from a feeding station. As I recall, the female and juvenile monkeys learned the trick by observing her, but the adult males (who are socially dominant in that species) did not. Evidently, the tendency to ignore those below you in the social hierarchy is a more generalized primate, maybe even mammalian, trait.

It's an interesting thing to think about. Maybe it's because I teach for a living, or maybe it's part of the reason I became a writer, but I think people learn as much from those "below" us in the social hierarchy as people can learn from those "above" them. Sometimes the hardest thing to remember as a teacher is to just shut up and listen to one's students sometimes. When we stop caring about, or being able to imagine what it is like to be, those less fortunate or empowered than ourselves, we lose some of what it is to be human.

This article discusses how having friendships with people from different groups helps to decrease the empathy gap. Not surprisingly, having friendships with members from different cultural groups is a strong predictor of decreased prejudice against other members of those groups. I've often wondered if increasing acceptance of people with LGBT orientations among younger straight cisgender people stems from more of them growing up in a world where one is more likely to have friends and relatives who are openly of differing orientations from oneself. It's a lot harder to oppose marriage equality laws if someone you care about is negatively impacted by "one man, one woman" legislation. I know personally, friendships I had in college were pivotal in making me examine the prejudices I had absorbed growing up in a time and place where heteronormative, even homophobic, attitudes were commonplace.

This got me to wondering, though, about the persistence of sexism and misogyny. Why doesn't the experience of growing up in the same household with a mother and sisters, and eventually developing friendships and romantic attachments to women, provide an empathy inoculation for many men? Why do so many men hold so many negative stereotypes about women, even dislike them?  Is sexual disdain a special case, one men are hard-wired to have? If so, one wouldn't expect to find as many men who are free of it as one does. Are there some household situations that are less likely to raise sons that are dismissive of and contemptuous towards women than others?

If I were a social psychologist, I'd so want to investigate this.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Fun With Campaign Cartographer

When I started writing fantasy again a couple of years ago, I purchased a mapping program called Campaign Cartographer. It's a very complicated program with a pretty steep learning curve. If you follow their basic tutorial, you'll learn to make a basic map, but many of the things about their interface, including much of the terminology for different components of the program, are non intuitive for someone like me (no background in graphic design or anything).

Still, it's loads of fun, and there's a pretty helpful online forum where you can get advice about various aspects of the program. The things that are still stymieing me are the issue related to scaling. I'd love to have a fairly non-detailed world level map where I could zoom into various portions to create more detailed landscapes. But this has eluded me thus far. Also, the city builder module has been a challenge. I purchased this because I thought it would be cool to make more zoomed in maps of a couple of the cities in my world.

It's probably overkill for a writer who just wants some to-scale maps of places in her world, such as what one often sees inset inside the first pages of a fantasy novel. I think the program is more designed for gamers (as the name suggests).

There's also the problem with world building being a potential source of procrastination, and world building being about far more than mapping. I don't agree with some writers who say mapping's a complete waste of time. I'm a visual person, and it is pretty helpful for me to have a sense for how long it will take to travel somewhere, or for what the terrain and landscape might be like in a given region. I've created the nations of Tarkilem (where most of Umbral Heretic occurs) and Andur with a given history and cultures in mind, but the act of setting them down on a map tells me where places need to be within each place in order to allow the story to unfold the way it does. I'll likely need to get some more details down for the countries called Minua and Zeryah and for the continent and lands within Sunabera to the south for the rest of what I currently envision for the series. There's another continent (Roksana) which is mentioned in passing during a scene in the novel.

However, unlike Tolkien, who had his whole world its history so completely in place by the time he wrote Lord of the Rings, that he knew where and what every single reference in his story (save the cats of Queen Berúthiel) fit into the whole, I've left a lot blank for the time being. Actually, I don't want to rope myself, or any future stories I might want to tell in this world, into anything too firmly. I know all too well the kind of flack writers can get when even little things that were hinted at or revealed in earlier books are contradicted in later ones.

So this map represents Northern Tarkilem, the part that is home to the North Hills (Tesk's home village is called Hallerby as it stands right now) and Sa Tarkil (the capital and where much of the story takes place). Another couple hundred miles to the south lies Andur, Jarrod's homeland, and to the East over the mountains lies Zeryah, Ruu's homeland. Tundenholme lies to the north of the North Hills, though this place doesn't come into the story. I'm still tweaking place names to try to get them a bit more aligned with some coherent linguistics. I don't have the expertise in languages to make up my own conlangs and have them sound like anything but random and strange, so I'm borrowing patterns and names from existing languages.

Still working on getting all the fonts large enough to read when the map is smaller than it appears in the program itself.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Personality Assessment and Writing

People have pondering about the nature of personality and temperament for millennia. I don't have children of my own, but my friends and relatives who do have all commented that it amazes them how quickly babies start to show signs of their individuality. Some are fussy, some are quiet. Some are cuddlers, some are more aloof. Some are shy, some are sociable. Some are highly organized and seek structure, others are more free flowing. Of course, many (probably most) people fall somewhere in between on many traits.

There have been many ways people have tried, largely unsuccessfully, to assess personality in people up front: phrenology, Rorschach ink blot tests,  handwriting analysis, humoral personality theories. It would be so handy if there was a way of simply and easily predicting what kind of education, career, social life, partner, hobbies, lifestyle etc. that would best suit an individual. In fact, some employers require prospective workers to take tests, such as the Myers-Briggs personality inventory, in order to determine if they are suited for a particular job.

The problem with personality assessment is that it is attempting to quantify or compartmentalize something that falls along a continuum. Once you coin a term, like introversion, creativity, intelligence, leadership, it takes on a life of its own. People assume it is a unitary and immutable trait. Most of the more scientific versions of personality tests, like Myers-Briggs, tend to rely on dichotomies. They ask either or (or yes no) questions. Some of the fancier versions have scales where you can use a number to indicate how strongly a particular statement applies (or doesn't apply to you). They then assign percentages for given traits.

But even so, many of the ways a person can respond to a question are highly situational. One of the "standard" personality survey questions focuses on whether or not one prefers to plan things in advance or just jump in. How I personally choose to answer this question may depend on what aspect of my life I am thinking about at the time. As a writer, I'm pretty much a pantser. I work best with a minimal (or no) outline. But if I'm planning a vacation, I'm not going to just buy an airplane ticket to some far-away place the day before, hop on, and hope I can find lodging and see all the interesting sights when I get there. So if I'm thinking of writing when I answer this question, I'll likely say I'm not a planner. But if I'm thinking about travel, lab work, or something where the consequences of not planning may result in my endangering myself or misspending a lot of money, I'm a lot less spontaneous.

For most life decisions, I like to do my homework, research the pros and cons of different courses of actions, get my ducks in a row. But when it comes time to make the final decision (which I've set up and structured), once I've narrowed everything down, I often go with my gut.

So one can see the dangers associated with trying to hem a person into a certain temperament or personality. There's no reason why a person can't be thinking in one situation and feeling in another. Or even be both at the same time. Even introversion and extroversion, which people tend to strongly self identify with (most of the writers I know claim to be introverted), can be situational. I'm pretty sure I trend towards introversion, and seem to be getting more so as I get older. But I still need contact with people sometimes. And I actually enjoy parties and social chitchat if I can get myself into the correct frame of mind first. In fact, I often tend to talk too much and too enthusiastically about things.

I teach for a living, which means I need to interact with people and be the center of attention on a regular basis. If someone told me I shouldn't teach because I score as a moderate introvert on a personality test, then well, I'd be out of a job. Honestly, aside from writing (which few earn a living at), I can't think of many careers that don't entail interaction with people on a regular basis.

So what does this have to do with writing? Well, writers create characters, and the best characters are complicated, multilayered and conflicted. They have personalities, quirks, wants and needs. Sometimes these things conflict with one another , both within and between characters. If they didn't, it would make for a dull story.

I think personality surveys should be taken with a grain (or entire shaker) of salt. But I  still thought it would be fun to run myself and my novel's four major characters through an online Myers-Briggs survey to see where they came out. Since I am taking it multiple times (answering for each of my characters), I decided not to use one of the services that asks for contact information so they can send a detailed report. I'm a bit leery of giving my e-mail to strangers online anyway. I sort of assume they're going to try to find a way to get money out of me, or at least target me for advertising or nag me about career counseling. I decided to go with this version, though of course, it may not be the most comprehensive or accurate test.

Myself: INTP

Introverted (I) 56.41% Extroverted (E) 43.59%
Intuitive (N) 54.05% Sensing (S) 45.95%
Thinking (T) 52.63% Feeling (F) 47.37%
Perceiving (P) 61.29% Judging (J) 38.71%

This is consistent with results I've gotten on other tests, except I flop back and forth on the thinking/feeling axis a lot. But this version does show me as being very close to the middle of the T/F "dichotomy."

My Protagonist (current name Jarrod): INFP

Introverted (I) 83.87% Extroverted (E) 16.13%
Intuitive (N) 52.63% Sensing (S) 47.37%
Feeling (F) 57.14% Thinking (T) 42.86%
Perceiving (P) 56.25% Judging (J) 43.75%

This actually sums him up well. He's moody, even melancholic at times, and rather idealistic. He's a softie, though he thinks of it as a weakness. He doesn't give his trust easily and will tend to mull things over, almost to the point of paralysis, but then make explosive and irrevocable decisions based more on his feelings than logic.

My Secondary Protagonist (Tesk): ISTJ

Introverted (I) 58.82% Extroverted (E) 41.18%
Sensing (S) 54.05% Intuitive (N) 45.95%
Thinking (T) 52.78% Feeling (F) 47.22%
Judging (J) 53.33% Perceiving (P) 46.67%

An interesting outcome. As I see the character, she's introverted, though less so than Jarrod. So this is pretty accurate. She does tend to value logic and evidence over hunches and emotions, though part of her arc as a character is to learn to trust her gut in at least some situations and to stop thinking of her softer emotions as a weakness. She is actually a very kind, compassionate person, though she's afraid this means she'll be taken advantage of and that it will affect her objectivity as a healer and force her to be more of a caregiver than someone who discovers new treatments for disease.

The third pov character (Ruu): ENFP

Extroverted (E) 58.33% Introverted (I) 41.67%
Intuitive (N) 52.78% Sensing (S) 47.22%
Feeling (F) 59.38% Thinking (T) 40.63%
Perceiving (P) 55.88% Judging (J) 44.12%

Ruu is more outgoing than either Jarrod or Tesk, so the E rings true to me. He looks like an even split between intuitive and sensing, like my other two characters. He is more spontaneous and go with your gut than Tesk is, though he's more okay with that aspect of himself than Jarrod is. His main conflict in the story is his loyalty to his guild and his own desire to redeem himself so he can return home. But then his guild asks him to step outside his sense of what is right. This really is the core conflict all three of my sympathetic characters face in one way or another.

The antagonist (Danior): ESTJ

Extroverted (E) 64.52% Introverted (I) 35.48%
Sensing (S) 68.75% Intuitive (N) 31.25%
Thinking (T) 85.71% Feeling (F) 14.29%
Judging (J) 70.59% Perceiving (P) 29.41%

He is supposed to be Jarrod's mirror, so his turning out to be the opposite on all axis is rather predictable. They were best friends once, because their various traits complemented one another. Like Jarrod, Dan is a very fearful person. Unlike Jarrod, he's not terribly introspective, and he avoids thinking about things that make him uncomfortable or unhappy. So he's not really aware of his own fear much of the time, and when he is, his reaction is to defeat what makes him afraid, rather than understand where it's coming from. He is a leader, rather charismatic and an organizer, or he wouldn't be able to lead the umbral circle. It's important to note that his less than admirable qualities do not stem from his personality traits so much as his personality traits determine how his less admirable qualities will manifest.

This is something to think about when interpreting a Myers-Briggs result. All of the 16 basic "personalities" are described in terms of strengths. This may be why people will so proudly proclaim that they're an ESTJ or whatever. It's popular to (retroactively, I'd guess) designate historic or literary figures as one of the 16, so it can be exciting to find out you're "the same" as Marie Curie, or Lincoln, or Samuel Clemens, or whomever. Interesting that no really wants to know which personality type Stalin, or Aaron Burr, or John Hinckley Jr. Might be.

Some personality tests put things differently. I took a big five test, which asked some similar questions as the Myers-Briggs, but scored them differently. It basically told me I have a lousy personality, or at least, it emphasized the potential negatives that come with my alleged personality traits, rather than the potential positives. It didn't make me feel too good, even though I don't take these things too seriously.

May be why the Myers-Briggs test is so popular.

Someone asked me today whether or not I thought using a test like this might be beneficial for someone who is coming up with characters for a novel they're about to start writing. I wouldn't myself, since I'm a pantser (my messy, disorganized nature) and tend to "discover" things about people as I write about them. But like anything else in writing, if it works for you, then go for it.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Ten Writing Rules to Take With a Grain of Salt

Pretty much every budding writer has that moment of sick uncertainty that's triggered when someone tells them that they're breaking one of the cardinal rules of writing. The internet makes this an almost everyday occurrence for those of us who frequent writer's forums. Never before has so much free advice been at humanity's fingertips.

But there's a downside. Everyone and their dog has a blog (including yours truly), but not everyone's opinions are well informed. Some of the so-called rules are good general advice or guidelines, but even so, they have exceptions. Others simply leave me scratching my head. Guidelines are good. It's important to know where they came from and why they exist. If you choose to break them, it should be done with a clear purpose in mind, and you should solicit feedback from people you trust to tell you whether you've done so effectively. But you don't want them to become a narrative albatross around your neck.

Here's a rundown of some of them.

1. Never start a story with someone waking up. I think the truth behind this one is that novice writers will sometimes start a story with their protagonist getting out of bed and going through the boring routine of getting ready for work, all leading up to that moment when the boss says "You're fired!" or they have an accident that throws them into another dimension or find a magic frog or whatever. But unfortunately, many writers take this advice to meant that you can't ever have a story start with someone waking up, even if they're waking up to something very interesting.

2. Never show dreams in stories. Like the waking up thing, dreams can be used in a clichéd or boring manner. One of the worst is the scene that the reader thinks is  an exciting (and real) event that turns out to be a dream. Dreams are rarely mistaken for real life when they're described to someone who isn't asleep (if I'm telling you how my cat turned into a racehorse last night, then  perched upside down from my ceiling, it might clue you in that I'm telling you about a dream). But if a trip into the dreamscape advances the plot or reveals something important about a character, then it may work well. And of course in fantasy or magical realism novels, dreams can be real, or at least have real consequences for a character. There are plenty of stories where dreams figure prominently. Lathe of Heaven, for instance.

3. Never use flashbacks. Like dreams, flashbacks can be overused or clichéd. Writers fall in love with their back story and sometimes make the error of thinking that their readers need a detailed picture of every traumatic event that ever happened to their protagonist. But when used properly, flashbacks are a legitimate literary device, and one that appears in many classic and contemporary novels.

4. No contractions in the narrative. I seriously don't know where this one comes from. It's probably something people remember from their college composition classes (though I don't remember my teachers ever forbidding them in all circumstances). This used to be the rule for formal, non-fiction and technical writing, though it's one that's been relaxed, even in those contexts. It hasn't been a norm to leave contractions out of fictional narrative since at least the middle part of the 20th century. Don't believe me? Pull a stack of contemporary novels down from your shelves. Unless your taste runs to omniscient pov novels written in a very formal and old-fashioned voice, you'll find plenty of contractions.

5. Write what you know. This quote has been variously attributed to Mark Twain, Hemingway and other prominent writers of yore. It's meant to be applied to emotional experience, and as such it is good advice. If you've never been terrified of anything, it's probably going to be pretty hard to describe what fear feels like. But it's all too often taken by budding writers to mean you shouldn't write about any activity or event you haven't experienced directly. I've even seen people say they're afraid to write opposite-sex characters because they're only supposed to "write what you know." Think of all the great works of fiction that never would have come into being if writers took this literally.

6. Always show, never tell. A good writer knows when to provide those little details. It's particularly easy to filter over emotions, to say, "she felt angry," rather than describing what her anger feels like and what she does and thinks as a consequence of her anger. But there's a place for summarizing and taking shortcuts in writing too. Sometimes it's all right for a character's eyes to scan a crowded tavern without describing every battered oak table and smoky beam. You want your reader to see and notice the details your pov character would see and notice and to skim over the things the pov character would skim over.

7. Never use adverbs and adjectives; never use passive voice; never use to-be verbs or participle phrases and all those other rules about specific sentence constructs. Lazy or careless overuse of any of these weakens your writing. Each of these has traps that a writer can fall into. But each of these forms is a part of the English language for a reason. A quick perusal of pretty much any published novel will find all of these sentence structures. Some use them quite a lot. We can quibble about whether or not the author in question had to do it that way, or whether changing their style would make their work more enjoyable. But it's clearly not stopping them from selling novels.

8. Don't ever use clichés. Obviously, you don't want to lace your novel with trite and thoughtless turns of phrase. But some clichés are widely used for a good reason--they evoke a clear image and can establish a frame of reference, and possibly voice. And of course, anything that's written "in character" may contain clichés if they're true to that character's voice and experience. If your pov character is the kind of person who would say that someone is slippery as an eel, then including it will reveal something about that character. And there's nothing more painful than a simile or metaphor that feels forced because the writer is struggling not to use a cliché.

9. Never use any verb but said to tag dialog. Said should be the default dialog tag. It's also all right to occasionally have characters ask or answer. These words tend to be invisible to the reader. But more descriptive tags do have a place. If you need to call attention to the fact that your character is shouting above the clamor of a battle, or that she's leaning in and murmuring something to the person sitting next to her, then it's perfectly all right to do so. What you don't want to do is to use "colorful" tags frequently (as some newer writers do in the mistaken assumption that said becomes repetitive). Another mistake is when writers use actions that occur right before or after something is said as tags. People rarely cough, laugh or snort words.

10. Never use exclamation marks. We're often told that the words or associated descriptions should let the reader know if something is being said emphatically. But they're a valid form of punctuation, and it's perfectly all right to use them in dialog, and even in deeper pov narrative. The problem is when they're used so frequently that they lose their punch or start to look like a pair of teenaged girls are texting one another (of course, if your story is trying to depict two teenaged girls texting one another, this may be just fine).

Monday, August 26, 2013

The Dog Days of (rapidly disappearing) Summer

One of the benefits of teaching for a living is summer vacation. I expect a certain amount of envy over this. Disapproval too. In these economic times, people who are fortunate enough to have steady work at all tend to work long hours and get very little time off. The reaction that always takes me by surprise, though, is bafflement. Some people actually look at me in amazement and ask, "Aren't you bored going almost three months without going to work? What do you do?"

While I enjoy my job, I can honestly say that my answer is no. I don't get bored, and summer vacation flies by. I wish long vacations were the norm for all professions in our society.

This Sunday, we took our dogs down to the American River for a walk and a swim. At 13.5, Roxy still manages to keep up with us and enjoy outings like this, but I'm all too aware that this could change at any time. It's a reminder not to squander the opportunities we are given to relax and enjoy our lives.

Roxy still loves coming down here

Roxy is still beautiful at 13.5

Wiley is bone dry because he won't go in the water


Flick, on the other hand, would swim all day

She is very focused on her stick

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Article About Dog Training and Behavior

 Dogs and dog training are two of my real-life passions. I majored in zoology in college (and took a ton of psychology courses as well) and got my grad degree in organismic biology and comparative physiology, and I've often been appalled by the stuff that people still say about dog training and behavior. This is a great article (by Prescott Breeden) about dog training, animal behavior, the actual science behind dominance, and about why so many animal behaviorists and professional dog trainers decry the training methods espoused by shows like The Dog Whisperer.


Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Guest Blog by Erik Larson

Today, I'm posting a piece by W.E. Larson, one of my critting buddies over on FWO. Erik is a software engineer by day and a fantasy writer by night, and he's currently working with his agent to get his first novel, COG (a MG steampunk novel) polished for submission. Erik's characterization, storytelling and world building are fantastic, and his writing process fascinates me because it is almost the polar opposite of mine. I'm an inveterate pantser whose creative gears really don't get turning (aside from having a sense of the characters and their general problems) until I start writing a story. He is a planner who works best from a detailed outline. Erik's day job gives him some perspectives into the creative process.

Creative Writing and Coding

 By trade, I'm a software engineer. I'd really like to say writing code is like writing fiction. It's pithy, and it makes it sound like my working life somehow provides a hint of credentials for my writing. Hey doesn't Wordpress say that code is poetry?
 However, I can't really say it is, but there are some virtues that apply to both. Creativity is essential at a conceptual level. The best fiction has a creative concept that brings something fresh to the reader. In much the same way, the best software brings something new to the user. There's a place for stories that follow an existing formula and software that doesn't do anything new, but they won't win any awards or make the user/reader go "Wow!"
 At a lower level, both fiction and software need to be understandable. If a story’s writing is an impenetrable wall of opaque metaphors and pretentious phrasing, then the reader is likely to give up rather than admire the author's cleverness. This is like the user-interface of a piece of software. The UI might be clever and efficient, but if the user can't understand it then it's useless. There will be some readers or users that will take the time to penetrate the writing or UI, but should they have to do that?
 Once you get to the words or code, then the mediums get really different. Here's the thing, good computer code should be boring. There's actually a concept in software engineering called "Design Patterns" where you use well-established solutions to particular problems. I have a book filled with these patterns that I can refer to when I run into common problems that need to be solved. It's like a writer having a book of clichés that he or she pulls out to resolve plot points. Good if you have code that needs to be understood by others, bad if you're reading for entertainment. Likewise, a clever turn of phrase can be entertaining in a novel, but a major headache in software. If a software engineer writes code that isn't easily understood, he or she is not going to have fun when annual review time rolls along.
 So, writing code isn't all that much like writing fiction--being a software engineer isn't going to give you some sort of credentials as a writer. But when you get above the code and into concepts, maybe there is some synergy (that's right I used a buzzword, wanna make something of it). In a sense, software is about telling a story of what a user does and what that action accomplishes. In fact, there's a software creating process called "Agile" in which software actions are actually called stories. Obviously fiction is about telling a story. If that fictional or software story isn't any good, then there are no words or code that will make it good.
 In software or fiction, it's the tale that counts the most. To misquote Shakespeare, "The story's the thing."

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Infinite Critting Loops

Writing has a strongly subjective element, obviously, and it's particularly hard to be completely objective about something you've written. You know what you're trying to say, so it can be really tough to spot even basic typos and grammar errors when you re-read. When issue with your prose move into the realms of opinion, it can get even harder. Putting something down and coming back to it can be beneficial, but here you can run into the opposite problem. Now, everything has gone from being lovely, flowing prose to impossibly clunky crap.

Soliciting feedback from reviewers can be invaluable once you get to this stage of your writing. But when you ask for criticism, you'll get it. Even if there really is nothing wrong with your writing, and a lot right with it, reviewers will be falling all over themselves to find something that could be improved. Everyone has preferences, of course, but there's also just that desire to be helpful. So sometimes people will hold their critting partners to a higher standard that they do the books they read for fun. Sometimes sharing something you've written can feel like you're getting this treatment:

And sometimes you feel like you've gotten stuck in an endless loop where fixing one issue creates another, and another, and another...


You write: She frowned. Critter 1 says: "Booooring. Doesn't evoke anything. There are so many ways someone can frown. Also, you have too many sentences starting with he or she in that chapter.

So you write: Her frown was doubtful. Critter 2 says: "Now you're using a "to be" verb. Horrors."

So you write: She frowned doubtfully. Critter 3 says: "Aiyeeee, an adverb. Kill it!"

So you write: She gave him a doubtful frown. Critter 4 says: "How can someone give another person a frown? That image is pretty hilarious, actually, because it makes me think of someone extending her hands, offering a frowning mouth.

So you write, A doubtful frown twisted her features. Critter 5 says, "Ack! Disembodied action. No!"

So you try, He noticed her doubtful frown. Critter 6 says: "Ew, filtering! And anyway, what's a doubtful frown look like anyway? Show me, don't tell me."

So you try: Head cocked to the side, she frowned, lips at that precise angle that suggested doubt and not anger. Critter 7 says: "Now you're giving me too many details! You don't need an exposition.

So you try your passage without the frowning in it at all, and someone says: "Your passage is too 'talking heads.' You need a beat or action tag to break up the dialog here and to show some description.

So you write: She frowned.

At the end of the day, there's no approach to writing something that will appeal to everyone, so all you can do is weigh all the criticism carefully and then respond in the way that seems best, knowing that you'll never write anything that all readers will think is flawless.

And don't forget to breathe now and again and to read some books by authors you like to see how they handle various things. Chances are, you'll find plenty of sentences that the critting puppies would nibble to bits.

Monday, July 1, 2013

Guest Blog on Writing Communities

Online writing communities can be a useful to connect with other writers and gain useful feedback while sharpening your own critiquing skills. But there are potential pitfalls as well.

I've done a guest blog on online writing communities for my critiquing buddy Erik Larson. It's posted on his site. Head on over and check it out, and maybe stay to browse some of his own posts.


Sunday, June 30, 2013

Why Do We Hate it When the Dog (or Cat or Horse) Dies?

Why is it that so many readers are particularly upset when an animal dies in a story? And I'm not talking about partially anthropomorphized animals in stories where the animals are actual pov or focal characters, though these deaths can be upsetting too. I'm talking about the death of realistically portrayed pet, working or companion animals.

Probably one of the most famous examples is Fred Gipson's Old Yeller, which was adapted into a Disney movie. I hope this is not a spoiler for anyone, but at the climax of the story, the protagonist Travis must put his beloved dog down because Yeller saved the family from a rabid wolf, thus exposing himself to the fatal and highly dangerous disease. This sacrifice is what transforms the boy into a man, but even though it was a necessary loss to make the coming of age arc complete for Travis, I always found it terribly upsetting, as if there was a complete lack of narrative justice. There are plenty of other stories that follow this same basic premise. There are also a number of lighter-hearted tales where an animal passes away after living a long and full life. This is less unsettling, perhaps, but I still have a hell of a time not crying  when I reach the end of a book such as John Grogan's Marley and Me, which was also made into a successful movie.

On a different note, there are also a lot of stories where the bond with, and ultimate loss of an animal is not the point of the story, but animal carnage still ensues. To a certain extent, this is realistic. When a man is fighting in a war, the last thing you can logically expect him to worry about is whether or not he has to shoot some horses out from under the charging enemy. Yet I still find myself being annoyed when this happens, especially if the character who does this doesn't experience any stress or conflict. We live in a world where most of us still use animals for food (and medical research, which even the strictest vegans benefit from) and where we kill millions of dogs, cats and horses every year because there are no homes for them. So it does seem strange, even hypocritical, for me to be annoyed with the protagonist in a book like Brandon Sanderson's excellent Mistborn trilogy when she [spoiler alert here--am changing font color to white so anyone who does not want to read this can skip it and anyone who does can highlight the text to read]

purchases and kills a dog so that her shape shifter servant can steal its body instead of occupying a human corpse. Honestly, as gruesome as animating an already-dead human corpse, I found the prospect of killing a dog worse.

But logical or not, my own emotional response seems to be fairly common. I even know a number of people who swear they'll put a book down or refuse to read it at all if they know this is going to occur.

In fact, that there's a web site for movie fans called "Does the Dog Die," which lists hundreds of movies where an animal or animals feature prominently in the plot. It's a three tiered rating system: a crying doggie symbol for movies where a pet dies; a worried doggie for movies where a pet is injured or appears to be dead, but ultimately lives; and a happy doggie for movies where the pet/pets all live.

I'm not a psychologist, so I'm not absolutely sure why the death of animals in books and movies is so upsetting to so many people. I'm guessing that several factors may be at work here.

1. The phenomenon of triggering. In its usual sense, this is used to when a real life or fictitious event triggers traumatic flashbacks in vulnerable people (such as people who suffer from PTSD). Though I doubt most people experience anything akin to traumatic flashbacks when they read about a pet dying, most animal lovers have experienced the grief of losing an animal companion at least a few times in their life. For many of us, the loss of an animal friend was the first significant loss we experienced as a child or young adult, and it's one we know we will experience again. I can only know about myself for sure, but for some reason, I empathize more with a character who loses an animal, or even with the animal itself, than I do with one who loses a spouse, sibling, parent or friend. I'm not sure why, because the loss of my own father was devastating. But for whatever reason, the way fathers usually die in books and movies does not "remind" me of my own loss in the same way.

2. Animals are often child surrogates. We're supposed to care for them and protect them. This doesn't mean that most of us think animals are more important than children. If I had to choose between saving my dog or cat from a burning building and some strange child I didn't know at all, I'd save the child. But I'd still mourn the dog or cat deeply and probably feel a great deal of guilt. Why? Because my animal friends rely on me and trust me to care for them and protect them. Allowing an animal to die, particularly one I'm invested in emotionally, feels like a violation of that trust. I've lost several animals in my life, and some have passed prematurely. But only one died in a manner that could be termed accidental (one of my childhood cats, Lyle, was poisoned). Decades later, it is this loss that still haunts me the most.

3. Animals are innocent. Like children again, they are uncomprehending victims of the choices humans/grown ups make. Their death often lacks any sense of narrative justice.

4. For the above reasons, their deaths often feel milked or set up, as if the author or director was  intentionally creating conflict, tension or pathos by killing or threatening an animal. Even when you see it coming as a reader, or perhaps, especially if you see it coming, you may resent it, or just find it really anxiety provoking.. I remember that when I watched the movie Alien, some of the tension I felt was worry over whether or not Jones the cat would survive.

There are probably other reasons why the death of animals (particularly ones we think of as companions or pets) is so upsetting in fiction. If anyone else has any ideas about this, I'd love to hear your comments. Are there any books or movies where the death of an animal was especially emotionally moving or evocative for you (in either a good or bad way).

                       Simon: our own Old Yeller look alike, though he lived a much longer life.
                                            Astra: even after 17 years, her loss was a blow.
                                                        Oscar: a superb cat, taken too soon.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Link to Article About Medieval Pet Names

This was a cool article about names people gave animals in the middle ages. I've been thinking lately about the changes in the way animals have been regarded throughout history, and about their appearance in literature that is not animal focused lately. I always have a tough time feeling sympathetic towards a character who is cruel to animals in a story, or who mindlessly accepts things like dog fighting etc., even if it is plausible for him or her to do so in the context of his or her culture. I know it's a bit hypocritical, perhaps, like a vegan reader who hates characters because they eat meat, cheese or eggs or wear wool or leather in a pre-industrial culture. But it can be hard to set one's sensibilities completely aside when reading.

This is an amusing reminder that the human-animal bond is nothing new in history.


Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Link to Article About Male Gaze and PoV violations in Fantasy

I just ran across this issue on male gaze and pov (written by Kate Elliot) from a SFF fanzine.
Anyone who's read very many of my entries by now knows that I'm interested in gender issues as they pertain to writing. I'm also interested in point of view in fiction and in the ways authors use (and sometimes abuse) it. Kate Elliot refers to the problem of "omniscient breasts," which is what happens when the male gaze creeps into a point of view that is supposed to be female. Thought it was interesting, as it sums up something that I probably don't notice quite as often as I should, but that still jars me out of a story's narrative sometimes: a female character, written in limited third pov who seems just a little too consciously aware of certain parts of her own body.

I strongly suspect that writers of both sexes are often unaware of the fact that they're doing this. The most interesting part of the article was one male's interpretation of her writing when it was truly written from a female pov.

I remember reading a passage in GoT where one of the female characters seemed to be oddly aware of the size and shape of her own breasts, and of the way they jiggled beneath her vest. It made me roll my eyes a bit, because if a woman wrote a male pov along those lines (he felt his firm, tight you know whats jiggling inside his breeks as he walked across the room), I think many male readers would throw the book down in panic.


Thursday, June 13, 2013

Gender Essentialism and Writing in Science Fiction and Fantasy

Those of us who are fans of speculative fiction and don't live under an internet rock are probably aware of the storm that's been raging over at the SFWA this week. I am not a member of SFWA, (though qualifying for membership is a long-term goal of mine) and a lot has been said about the issue. I don't think I can really add much more to the exchange, but if anyone wants to know what I'm talking about or needs access to some links about this controversy, AW has a thread, and this blog also contains some good links. This link also.

But this whole thing got me thinking about sex, gender and writing and how my favorite genres (SF and F) have long been regarded as male bastions. Yet there is an increasing number of women writing in these genres, and there are an awful lot of female fans. It is oh so seductive to think that this means that sexism is behind us, but sadly, it's not true.

I participate in some online writing forums, and now and again someone will comment that they just don't like fantasy or SF books by women writers as a rule. When pressed for an explanation, they state that women "write differently" than men, and will usually couch their arguments in terms of the "men and women are just different" position.

Well, we all have our own tastes, and if you have read the majority of female authors in the genre and the majority of males, then I suppose you may have a basis for making such a judgement. It is certainly possible that there are overall difference in the themes the two sexes prefer to write and in their approach to characterization, conflict, description or narrative or whatever. But it seems to me that there is still going to be a lot of variation within each group and overlap between them. But inevitably, it seems, these threads drift into a discussion about sex and gender differences, and at some point, the specter of gender essentialism will be trotted out.

For the uninitiated, gender essentialism is the notion that most or all of the differences between the sexes are driven by biology and that the biological differences between the sexes are absolute and immutable with no (or only a very small)  area of overlap between the two sexes. It is, in essence, an attempt to refute the concept of gender being a social construct.

In short, gender essentialist seem to purport that most traits that vary by gender look like this:

If you challenge them on this notion, they will usually start talking about sex hormones and brain structures and yin and yang and sociobiology etc., as if there was anything approaching a scientific consensus about these issues and about the relative importance of experience and biological variables in shaping a person's personality, talents and interests.

But to some extent, these arguments can be used as a red herring. Why? Because even traits that do have a very strong biological component almost never fit the pattern depicted in the graph above.

For example: on average, men are physically taller than women.  As a person with biology training, I know that sex hormones play an important role in these differences, and that there is probably a reason that humans (and many, but by no means all, mammal species) evolved with size dimorphism.

But, this does not mean that all men are taller than all women. Nor does it mean that shorter men or taller women are abnormal, unnatural or biologically unfit in most situations.

Height varies around a median. In fact, there is a large area of overlap between the male and female "bell curves" with regards to height.

Like height, very few qualities that we possess as human beings are all or nothing. Traits (assuming they can be reliably and repeatedly quantified at all) nearly always vary around a mean.

So even if one's approach to writing is strongly influenced by biology, making a comment like, "Women just write differently than men" makes about as much sense as saying "Woman are just shorter than men." Even if it's true in a statistical sense, the exceptions are almost as numerous as the rule.

Or to look at it another way: men differ almost as much from one another in height as men and women do. So why wouldn't something like writing style have a similarly large area of overlap? Most writers will fall somewhere in that purple zone in the middle, with only a relatively small number (maybe just a handful) falling in the "tails" of the distribution. You may, in fact, prefer writers who lie in one or another of these tails. But if this is the case, you can't really say you "like male writers" or "like female writers." Rather, you like a fairly extreme and atypical approach to storytelling that is not the norm for either gender.

And if you do, this is fine. I'm not judging your taste. In fact, our personal tastes in fiction are all driven by factors that probably vary around different means, and we probably all like some things that are outliers in some way. I'm just saying that equating the style you prefer with a given gender is simplistic.

So who cares?

Even when it's well intentioned, I think gender essentialism has the potential for serious abuse. One problem is that we often end up pathologizing people who fall away from the mean for their sex/gender in some regard. An example of this is the issue of unusually short men or unusually tall women being perceived as unattractive or poor examples of their sex. Think of all the ways people who deviate "too far" from the perceived median or average for their sex can be ridiculed or marginalized. Especially when the trait in question is regarded as an important determinant of femininity or masculinity in our culture.

In fact, there are very few of us who do not deviate from the mean for our biological sex or social gender with regards to at least some traits. When was the last time you met someone who was right on the median in every possible way?

I think this is something people should keep in mind when they're discussing whether or not they "like" writers of a given gender. If you use the gender the author as a primary criteria for determining who you are going to read, you may be missing some stuff you will like.

In another vein that is beyond the scope of this already too-long entry, I also think it's something to keep in mind when creating characters in fiction.


Iris Vander Pluym, perrystreetpalace.com

Friday, June 7, 2013

Short Story Submission Advice: Cross Post

This is a nice post about the how-tos short story submissions over on one of my critiquing buddies (Erik Larson's) blog site. It's written by Nyki Blatchley, another critiquing boddy, and has some good advice about a process that is often baffling to new authors.


Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Female Warriors in Fantasy

Linking this interesting article on the social conditions that might lead to a fantasy society that has a greater proportion of female warriors than our own history has produced. With my own worldbuilding I went with the relatively ubiquitous (if limited) magic approach and took the tack that healing talent led to lower infant and maternal mortality rates, so women in general were not as tied to the role of childbearing for their entire adult lives.

The author of this article discusses this, along with some other approaches, that could also work for setting up a more egalitarian society.


Sunday, June 2, 2013

Whither the Stand-Alone Fantasy Novel?

Fantasy is a genre that lends itself to sweeping sagas that extend beyond the confines of a single book. A lot of work goes into creating the mainstays of fantasy: a separate world or universe, an internally-consistent magic system, a pantheon of gods and a history. Most of the fantasy writers I've met personally enjoy this aspect of their work, and it's not uncommon for aspiring writers to get so caught up in world building that they "forget" to actually write their stories.

The trilogy is a staple in second world fantasy, and there are many reasons for this besides the success of Lord of the Rings. At the most basic level, stories often have clearly demarcated beginnings, middles and endings, and so breaking a long story into three makes sense.

Series are also increasingly popular. It's not unusual for a writer to keep writing stories about his or her characters. Some of the early classics of fantasy, such as the Conan books, come to mind.

Overall, this is just fine with me. When I fall in love with a world, universe or character, I want to keep revisiting them, and of course seeing them continue to evolve and change is a lot of fun. One small peeve I and some others sometimes have is the fact that second world fantasy settings are often stuck indefinitely in a sort of nebulous medieval era, but the concept of worlds evolving and changing is something I've seen other writers address recently.

But what if a story is complete in of itself and doesn't need to be revisited? What if the author doesn't want to disrupt a protagonist's happily ever after? What if the writer prefers to move on to a new world, setting or magic system? Does the current market actually force authors to keep writing about the same worlds and characters, even if they become old or stale?

There does seem to be a general shortage of fantasy, particularly in recent years, that is both completely stand alone as a tale and the only novel about a particular world or characters. Often, singletons represent early novels by authors, or novels by authors whose careers never took off. This is a shame, because sometimes it's fun to explore a world or setting without necessarily committing to them, even as a reader.

Here are a list of some stand alone fantasy books I've enjoyed.

The Hob's Bargain by Patricia Briggs. Better known for her contemporary fantasy (Mercy Thompson and Alpha and Omega novels), this author has also published some second world fantasy novels.

The Wizard's Shadow by Susan Dexter. This tale of posthumous revenge combines elements of romance and humor. It's not clear if this book is set in the same world as her Warhorse of Esdragon books or one that is similar, but there is no overlap between the stories and characters.

Elantris by Brandon Sanderson. This was his debut novel, and it took place in a different world than his later works. Sanderson is very good at coming up with interesting and unusual magic systems, so he is an example of an author who might be hampered if he set all his novels in the same "universe."

Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman. Gaiman is possibly the master of modern stand-alone fantasy novels. This particular title is on my short list of all time favorites.

Watership Down. Many don't think of this when they think of fantasy, since Richard Adams's work is marketed to the "mainstream" fiction market. But this tale about heroic rabbits is a classic, and aside from the intelligent animals aspect, it contained elements of true prophecy and the supernatural.

The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley. This retelling of the Arthur legend was unusual for its time, as it focused on the points of view and perspectives of the female characters, most notably Morgan La Fey. I believe she did eventually write another novel about Avalon that was set in the same "universe," but this book stood alone for many years and did not need a sequel or prequel.

Animist by Eve Forward. This book could have led to sequels, but it appears to be the last novel this writer has published. It's a shame, because the magic system and world she introduced in this story were intriguing, and her writing was a pleasure to read. Her only other novel was called Villains by Necessity.

The Princess Bride by William Goldman. This book dates back to an era where the "sequelitis" craze had not taken off yet. Just as well, because why spoil Buttercup and Wesley's happily ever after by continuing to toss villains at them?

The Last Unicorn by Peter S Beagle. Likewise for this book. One wonders if, were it written in the modern market, whether there would be an extended array of unicorn adventures, or whether Schmendrick's heroic transformation would continue in future volumes.

Stranger at the Wedding by Barbara Hambley. This is set in the same world as her Silicon Mage series, but it involves characters that don't appear elsewhere, and the story is completely separate. It is often cited as an example of a fantasy style called mannerpunk/fantasy of manners.

Anyone else have any candidates?