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?