Archive for May, 2009

30
May
09

Getting away from it all

by Diana

I’m in Erlanger, KY this weekend, as a guest instructor at the Writers Retreat Workshop. I’ll talk more about the workshop itself later on, but the main thing I wanted to talk about is the retreat itself.

The thing is, I’ve been a little stressed out the past few weeks. Just a little. A wee bit. (I’m sure some of the others here know what I’m talking about!) It’s not just the fact that my book comes out in a few weeks. (Okay, that’s a huge major part of it, but still…) It’s also all of the stuff that needs to be done between now and then–the blog posts, the interviews, the postcards and swag, scheduling appearances–in addition to the every day demands of life.

I’d committed to teaching at this workshop several months ago, and in the last couple of weeks I was beginning to wonder if I was stretching myself too thin and whether I was going to be completely exhausted by the end of the weekend. I was up at an ungodly hour this morning–far earlier than planned thanks to a lack of ability to sleep–and by the time my plane landed in KY I was seriously doubting my ability to make it through the next few days.

I was delivered to the retreat center and given the key to my room:

 retreat1

My first thought was. “Wow. Spartan.”

But my second thought was. “Wow. I think this is going to be exactly what I need.”

 

Then I went outside:

 retreat2

And my thought was, “Oh, yeah, this is what I needed.”

 retreat3

I realized that for the next few days I wasn’t going to have to even think about the daily stuff. I could focus on…me. I could catch up on the interviews and blog posts and get back to the other fiction writing that I’d been putting off. I could talk about writing and craft and all of the stuff that I love doing at cons… without the frenetic and exhausting pace of a con.

To be honest, I didn’t realize just how stressed out I was until I began to UNstress. For the first time in many many weeks, I’m starting to feel relaxed. I fly back home on Tuesday, at which time it will be three weeks until the release of Mark of the Demon.

 

I wonder how many massages I can afford between now and then?

29
May
09

Stupid human tricks

My deadlines are looming, and I’ve been hitting the keyboard extra hard the last few weeks (and today, apologies for posting late!). Day job work has also picked up, and so I’ve been chugging along there as well. Things have also been breaking around the house, so I’ve been fixing those. Also, when I have time, I eat, see friends, and, every once in a while, get some sleep.

I’ve never been quite this busy over quite such a long period of time before. My schedule, if I want to get everything done kind of on time, and have it not be a train wreck, and still kick enough ass at the day job that we can eat, is demanding, to put it delicately. Less delicately, my schedule is a ravenous minion of Cthulhu that’s been eating my limbs one by one anytime it catches me slacking.

Since I’m fond of my legs, and I hate typing one handed, this means that procrastination, especially during writing time, CAN NOT be tolerated. To facilitate this, I’ve adopted a number of stupid human tricks to help my monkey mind stay focused on the task at hand.

TRICK 1: Unplug router during writing hours, removing wonderful internet from writing machine. This is so dumb, because the router is right in the other room, I could easily walk over and plug it back in, but I don’t, because while my willpower can lapse long enough to double click the browser icon, it has a hard time staying under for the walk down the hall. Amazing how a barrier to entry, even a small one, can help the brain stay on track.

TRICK 2: Keep goals small. I’m talking really tiny. Every morning, I write out a quick list of what I’m working on. Not even scenes, just “Character must go here, character must talk to this person, foreshadowing X must be revealed,” and so on. Once I get my list, I focus on the first task and I do not get up until it’s done. Not if I have to pee, not if the house is on fire, I am not allowed out of my chair (or think about anything else) until I have finished my tiny task. Come on, it’s only a little, just do it. You can do it, right? And I do, eventually. This system can be really annoying, but I have to admit, it’s amazing how fast things get done when I really have to pee.

TRICK 3: Write before anything else. For my mornings, the only things that come before writing are bathroom, coffee, and letting the dog out. After that, I am in my chair. I don’t do this because I’m a morning person (though I’ve kind of become one because of it), I do this because the early morning is the only time I can work. Any other time, I’m too tired, or too much is going on, or people are doing fun things in other rooms. So I just write first, and I keep myself going with the promise that after this, I can do whatever I want. It’s not true, but sometimes moving forward means lying to yourself like a bad salesman.

There are my tricks, which are mostly me treating my brain like a hyperactive five year old. I hate having to resort to this kind of behavior, but I have to get things done. No time for nice! So what are you stupid human tricks for productivity? I’m always looking for a new act to add to my repertoire. :)

28
May
09

Trilogies

So, I’m writing a trilogy.

Trilogies are a big thing in modern epic fantasy, and I totally get why — from a commercial standpoint, they’re a perfect vehicle for hooking and holding an audience long enough to milk maximum profit for a publisher. For me as a new author, a trilogy is ideal for building my “brand”; over the course of three books I’ll have enough time to show the range of my skill, show my publisher I’m reliable, and hopefully acquire a devoted readership that will follow me to my next book. But never mind all that commercial crap. Since the epic of Gilgamesh and surely before, humankind has always enjoyed big, slow-building stories with a clearly-defined arc. There’s just something intrinsically satisfying about a story arc that keeps you waiting awhile, pent-breathed and tortured by exquisite anticipation, before delivering a finish that makes you want to cry for joy and release — and sorrow that it has to end. This is why even in our fast-paced, short-attention-spanned, micro-blogged society, epics still have a place, and real power.

That said, “epic” does not necessarily equal “gargantuan.” I was telling folks at Wiscon about The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms this past weekend, and on two separate occasions I got looks of astonishment when I mentioned that it was about 120,000 words long. “Wow, no wonder it took you only a year to write!” was one person’s response. (At which I wondered, Only a year?) Apparently my epic fantasy is a baby by epic fantasy standards… but I suspect this may be reflective of a trend, or rather a reaction against a trend. The old “doorstopper” fantasy novel — so called because it’s big enough to rival the phone book, shore up the foundation of a house, maybe serve as a space elevator with a bit of carbon nanotube reinforcement in the binding — seems to be out of fashion, save for those few established fantasy writers who built their careers on such books (and their successors). My contract specifies that the books in my trilogy should be between 125,000 and 150,000 words, and other newbie fantasy writers I’ve talked to have gotten the same from their publishers. I don’t know whether this is a sign of the times (paper is expensive) or maybe newbie status coupled with practicality (doorstoppers aren’t very durable in mass market format — the spines break easily — but readers aren’t likely to buy expensive hardcovers from new authors), but it’s definitely a change. Fortunately, it’s a change that really works for me.

There are two kinds of serial fantasies, as far as I can tell — the ones which continuously follow the adventures of a given character(s), and the ones that follow a specific event or situation. I’ll call them Character-Focused and Situational, just for convenience’s sake. Some serials are a little of both, but still generally more one than the other; for example, I would say that the Lord of the Rings trilogy (and its prequel, The Hobbit) is Situational, because the binding thread in all four books is the One Ring. The ringbearers change in practically every book — Bilbo in the prequel and book 1, Frodo in books 1 and 2, Sam for a chunk of book 3 — but the situation remains the same: get the Ring to Mount Doom. I’ll contrast this with Lynn Flewelling’s Nightrunner books, which I would say are Character-Focused. All four (the fifth is forthcoming) books focus on the exploits of Seregil, Alec, and their eclectic cast of friends and enemies. Whether they’re dealing with a situation (in books 1 and 2, there’s a LotR-ish quest to destroy an evil magical object) or not, the characters we know and love are always there.

Like many Character-Focused fantasies, Flewelling’s books aren’t a trilogy — she emphatically says so in the author’s preface of one of the books — and so the series can, if she so chooses, continue indefinitely. (I hope she does; I like Seregil and Alec!) This doesn’t work as well with Situational fantasies, though; an author can’t keep the MacGuffin of Power from reaching The Place of Significance forever, or readers get annoyed.

The Inheritance Trilogy, which starts with The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, is a Situational trilogy. In theory this is more dangerous for my career, because I’m changing characters in every book and thus may lose readers who got attached to the people in the previous book. But I can’t help it; I prefer Situational fantasies, both to write and to read. I want to know that all the characters I’m meeting are working together, even unconsciously, towards some overarching goal. I do like it when subplots are wrapped up along the way — cliffhangers infuriate me — but in this case it’s the world that fascinates me, from cosmology to politics, and no single character or set of characters is going to carry me through all that satisfactorily.

So it’s a risk. I feel this very keenly as I start book 3, and am making some narrative and setting choices that please me as a writer, but may not please all my readers. But all I can hope is that my writing is strong enough to imbue each new set of characters with enough specialness to win over new and established readers, and to make some of those readers care about the overarching plot too. I’ll guess we’ll find out eventually.

27
May
09

internal/external

I’m sorry, guys. I’ve been racking my brains trying to come up with something either deep and insightful about the last weekend at WisCon (Ellen Klages’ speech about finding her community really struck a chord with me) or something light and entertaining about the same. Unfortunately, while I’ve recovered from the sleep deprivation — staying up late talking with amazing people is no less awesome than it was when I was young, but I no longer have the fortitude for it — my blogging brain hasn’t yet caught up. And my writing brain, though it has created a way to get unstuck since last week (I’ve made a bridge out of gravel, charred timbers, and spit! So to speak), is more concerned with writing that next section. So it’s out of commission as well.

Therefore, in the grand tradition of the Internet, I’m going to make a completely unfounded assertion and see what happens. Disprove me, world!

My theory about brontosauruses is this: stories have an internal and an external arc. The external arc is, simply, what happens during the story: aliens invade Yonkers; Lord Evil Von Nasty plots to kidnap Princess Asskicker; a mild-mannered astronomer becomes Mighty Guy; the Thistle Fairy must recover the Twinklestone; etc. The internal arc is how the characters change: the aliens discover the natural beauty of Yonkers; Princess Asskicker learns that her status as hostage has little effect on her daily life and therefore works to find a new path; Mighty Guy finds love on the far side of the moon; the Thistle Fairy decides that the Twinklestone’s power is best used to overturn the Fairyland monarchy; etc.  Together these two arcs make a plot.

Stories can lack an internal arc and still function. (It’s hard to say that Sherlock Holmes changes much from one mystery to the next, for example.) But these stories run the risk of being all surface, with nothing for a reader to connect to once the explosions stop.

Stories can lack an external arc and still function.  (A lot of experimental stories in particular do this, and sometimes to good effect.)  But these stories run the risk of becoming so introspective that they turn into extended navel-gazing sessions.

Stories that have both can be excellent — and can still screw up. Think of the five minutes of “character development” shoehorned in between action scenes, or the huge, world-shattering events that somehow leave all the characters back in the same unchanged love triangle as before. Fireworks in the background are no substitute for an external arc, and occasional melodrama is no substitute for an internal arc.

Given all that (and assuming that I’m not just talking out of my hinder, which is quite an assumption), how do you decide what kind of story you’re reading?  Reading one with expectations for the other is an exercise in frustration, but discovering an arc you hadn’t expected can be fascinating and illuminating.  And, for writers, how do you decide which to focus on?

26
May
09

Pretending

I have an 18-month-old son, and he’s starting to pretend.

These are not yet the elaborate imagination games that my six-year-old nephew plays (though they largely revolve around off-the-shelf imagination material like superheroes and pokemon cards; I can only hope he’s doing some mental mash-ups, pitting Charmander against Batman as I used to pit my G.I. Joes against my Transformers). I’m no developmental specialist, but I know its probably not yet “playing pretend” as it is conventionally understood; it may instead just be modeling and imitating our behavior. We have an old cell phone with no battery we let him carry around, and he flips it open and holds it to his head and says (I swear) “Blah blah blah blah.” He’ll hold it up to our ears, we’ll pretend chat, and then he’ll take it back. This is proto-pretending, and imitation eventually shifts into invention.

Our son has two identical little stuffed bears (his loveys), and he’ll hold them up and point them at each other and babble, bang them together and throw them in the air and go “whee” — that’s not imitating anything we do, so what can it be but playing pretend? And who knows what he’s pretending? When he was very little we used to watch him sleep, watch his eyes flutter in a dream, and wonder, what is he dreaming about? The joys of milk? The terror of the vacuum cleaner? Now he’s been more places (Hawaii, Indiana, Wisconsin, countless parks), and done many things, and his mental palette is filled with new colors. He will sit and play quietly, absorbed, for relatively long periods. (I hear him rattling things and talking to himself in his quiet nonsense language as I write this.) He is clearly the hero of his own story already, sometimes the blessed prince who rules all he surveys with a vast benevolence, sometimes the oppressed unfortunate who can only throw himself headlong on the grass and bellow about the unfairness of being denied the opportunity to run in traffic or pet mangy stray dogs. He’s interested in everything; he’s putting together the world; he’s learning to make stories with himself at the center. It makes me think about the importance of story. Stories tell us how to live in the world. (Or how not to.) Having him, watching him grow up, is almost like growing up again myself.

I wrote a poem about him, ten months ago, when he was first becoming really very verbal:

“Common Language”

My son sits in his high chair (white
plastic from Ikea), face smeared with organic
summer vegetables in baby-friendly
mashed form, and in between bites he

speaks.

Open-ended vowels, a few
consonants here and there: Ah na
na ma ma mum. He looks very serious but
then he occasionally giggles, and I
wonder if he’s commenting on the quality
of the food (which I sampled; it’s
pretty foul). Eight months old
and already a critic. I think about
how, after a day of unusual excitements
(a plane ride, a book signing, one
of the too many times he’s had surgery
already on his eyes), he shouts and
babbles and grumbles and earnestly
explains. My wife and I always say he’s

telling us about his day. It’s amazing

watching him drink down the world, and is
it any wonder he tries to talk
it over, talk it through, talk to us
the way we talk to each other? He’s trying
to invent a common language from first
principles. He’s unlocking
one of the great secrets of the human
universe here, and kid, believe me,

I’m listening.

25
May
09

A toast

I’m writing this on Memorial Day. Days like this are a somber occasion for many, and a time to give at least a moment’s thought to those individuals who gave their lives to causes that range from good and necessary to evil and insane, and to honor them, and to remember that each life is a network, so that when someone dies, the impact courses through the lives of others.

I was going to write about how this theme of human networks is reflected in my book, and then I thought, naw, maybe not today with the self-promotion so much.

To those who served or are serving now, to those who sacrificed, to those who were used, to civilian casualties of war, and to the loved ones who were left behind, I raise one to you in gratitude and sympathy.

23
May
09

Bitches and Bosoms, oh boy!

I’m doing something a little different here this week. Those of you who’ve followed my posts here for a while know that I have a tendency to rant write about the “ghetto” of science fiction, whether it’s perceived or real, and how much of it is self-created. Well, today I’m mixing things up and interviewing a representative from the neighboring ghetto of Romance fiction. Sarah Wendell is one half of the Smart Bitches at smartbitchestrashybooks.com, and co-author (with fellow Smart Bitch, Candy Tan) of Beyond Heaving Bosoms: The Smart Bitches’ Guide to Romance Novels.  This book is not only a wickedly fun read, but it also gives interesting and thought-provoking insights into the history, the tropes, the future, and the shame of Romance. (I dare anyone who has ever dismissed Romance as being formulaic or shallow to give this book a read. I can definitely say that my eyes were opened on a number of topics!)

DR: Thank you so much for taking the time to answer a few questions for me! Sales of romance novels dominate the book industry. Why do you think it’s such a huge market?

SW: Courtships stories have been part of narrative tradition since someone decided it might be a good idea to have a narrative tradition. It’s the most consistent drama humans face that is most often happy – attraction, arousal, allure, and the commitment that may follow are intensely powerful events for people, no matter how blasé or cool they might seem. So reading about that experience and knowing that it ends happily is a consistent element of storytelling. Plus, just about every other fictional narrative contains a romance element. Whether romance is the main focus or an ancillary element, like Prego, it’s in there.

DR: I’ve blogged before about science fiction and fantasy being a “ghetto” of sorts. Do you think that romance is also a ghetto, albeit a much larger one?

SW: As Candy said in this blog post at Powells: http://www.powells.com/blog/?p=5980

…it’s the genre ghetto’s genre ghetto. Romance is the country music of literature: “at least I don’t like romance novels” will justify admiration of anything that skirts the line of questionable taste.

DR: There are many genre readers who will never venture near the romance section of the bookstore, even though they will gladly pick up books in the SF/F section that clearly have romantic subplots. Is there anything you could think to say to these people to encourage them to dip their toes in the romance pool?

SW: Three words: Lois McMaster Bujold. She will lead you to the light and the truth that the romance, it kicks the ass. From there, the world is your throbbing pink oyster.

DR: There’s a pervasive view that romance readers are just bored housewives, and science fiction/fantasy readers are nerds who live in their mother’s garage. Why do you think these stereotypes still persist even when the genres have clearly moved beyond them?

SW: I think deep down we carry high school with us, and are often afraid of being permanently labeled “uncool” or  being marginalized because we enjoy something off-beat and different. It’s easier to stick with stereotypes than actually ponder the nuances and sophisticated elements at work in your average science fiction/fantasy novel, or romance novel.

DR: How has romance embraced concepts that are near and dear to science fiction and fantasy fans? Are you seeing more crossover?

SW: Oh yessssss. Urban fantasy is often a neat blend of two or all three, as are many of the steampunk novels being published. Just about every sci fi or fantasy novel incorporates some romantic elements, even if there’s no happy ever after for the protagonists — the three are very much intertwined.

DR: Why do you think paranormal romance and urban fantasy have become so popular?

SW: My theory: in a world in which we are constantly reminded of the presence of terror, having a villain who is readily identifiable (hairy in moonlight? Driven to commit acts of exsanguination?) and either vanquished by emotional affirmation or utterly and completely decimated is, to put it simply, reassuring. When the villain in the “real world” is unidentifiable, the obvious “other” is captivating in an entirely new way. As for urban fantasy, the reliance on the Kickass Heroine means that a whole new realm of female autonomy, actualization, and sexual agency can be explored, to which I say, HELL TO THE YES.

DR: How do you feel about Cover Shame, i.e. those lurid or obnoxious covers in both romance and sf/f that are almost embarrassing to have?

SW: Neither the authors nor the readers are responsible, and anything that is THAT absurd is epic comedy win.

DR: You have a book! What do you think Beyond Heaving Bosoms can offer people who are not already readers of romance?

SW: The Bosoms? Creative uses of the word “cuntmonkey.” Examinations of what makes a romance novel cover Extra More Gooder.

Seriously: It’s a guide for anyone who loves romance and is tired of taking crap for it, and for anyone who has ever wondered, “What is it about romance novels?” Since, as I mentioned, every fictional narrative contains romantic elements, the appeal is not exclusive, and neither is our book.

 Beyond Heaving Bosoms

Thanks again to Sarah Wendell for stopping in at the Magic District!




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