Archive for February, 2009


The little story that never quite could

Today for a short Sunday blurb, I thought I’d take a break from talking about the novel that did make it, and remember for a moment that one that never quite got itself together. Like pretty much every novelist under the sun, I have a few novels who never saw that sun. I have literally dozens of novels I started and never finished, but one novel stands above all the rest, the very first novel I ever finished.

It was called Anna and the Duchess, and it was an epic YA fantasy clocking in at just over 260,000 words. Those of you who’ve mailed a query letter can guess how well that flew… bricks didn’t have shit on my book.  Still I got several bites for partials, but only one full from a brand new agent who was one of those beautiful souls willing to take a chance. I don’t blame any of these agents for rejecting poor little Anna. Looking back two years and several hard lessons down the line, my first book was such a wreck. It was long winded, the main character was milquetoast, and the pacing was accidental when it happened at all (this was before I thought about things like pacing).

As a novel it was a miserable failure. But, that’s kind of the job of first novels. Despite two false starts (I queried a heavily edited version about a year later, which failed slightly less, but not by much) Anna and the Duchess taught me all those little things, like the importance of daily writing no matter what, or how to deal with broken characters in broken scenes, that only the act of actually writing  a novel can teach you.  For that, I am very gratefu, and, looking back, there were parts of the novel that were pretty damn good. 

So, for your amusement, here’s my favorite scene out of the whole novel, where two religious zealots with very different views on how their now kingless country should be run decide what to do next.

Continue reading ‘The little story that never quite could’


The cutting room

I’ve put the bulk of this post behind a cut since it’s fairly graphic in parts. (You have now been officially warned!)

This description of an autopsy is drawn from my personal experiences as a forensic photographer and morgue tech. Other Coroner or Medical Examiner’s offices may have different procedures or methods. This is also a very “basic” description, just to give a general idea of what happens in an autopsy. Autopsies for homicides or suspicious deaths are much more detailed and complex; there are specific methodologies for investigating gunshot wounds, strangulations, blunt force injury, etc. If you intend to write an autopsy into a story, I highly recommend speaking with a Coroner/Medical Examiner to get specific information. For more basic details, I’m willing to answer questions to the best of my ability.

 Also, I have to state my absolute pet peeve: a morgue cooler is NOT a freezer. (Think about how hard it would be to autopsy a frozen slab of meat!) Morgue coolers are just that–coolers, set at about 34-36 degrees. And, remember, meat still spoils in a cooler, and bodies still decompose. Autopsies are seldom delayed more than a few days, simply because doing an autopsy on a decomposed body is a)far less revealing, and b) gross.)

And now: The Cutting Room.

–Diana Rowland


Creating depth in fantasy worlds: Let your people be people

As a reader, I have a three sided structure for liking novels. One wall is writing, one is plot, and one is character. If a novel has two out of three, chances are I’ll forgive it the third. Good characters and a great plot can carry mediocre writing, for example. Or interesting characters and great writing can make up for a Swiss cheese plot. Good novels often do two of the three very well, and are reasonably passable on the third. Fantastic novels do all three well. Those are my keepers.

But for Fantasy and SciFi, my rubric is slightly different, because when you’re dealing with invented places, the world itself becomes a dimension of the story. If plot, character, and craft are the three walls of my novel-liking pyramid, then the world is the floor that holds the whole thing up. Take China Meiville’s Perdido Street Station, for example. The plot was fairly ridiculous, and, with a few exceptions, the characters weren’t really likeable. The writing was transcendent, but that alone isn’t enough. By my pyramid scale, Perdido Street Station was propped on one, beautiful written but teetering leg, poised for collapse into mediocrity. Yet, I love that novel. LOVE it. Read it three times. Why? The world. The world of Bas-Lag is so amazing, so deep and colored and wretched and desperate and infinitely interesting, I could read about it forever.

This is a rather extreme example of the power a strong, imaginary world can bring to a story. This is why writing (and reading) fantasy is so much fun for me. With other genres, you really only get three dimensions standing on the solid but boring platform of our mutual reality. With Fantasy, you can rip that sucker out and lay down a whole new reality. But, of course, the danger in messing with anything this fundamental is the possibility of royally screwing things up. Just as a fantastic, interesting, absorbing world can carry a lacking story, so can a poorly thought out, inconsistent world doom even the best fiction.

 Now, if you’re an author, the internet is full of resources to help you with world building (Holly Lisle has some good stuff, the wonderful Patricia C. Wrede has more). These are very useful for a bottom up, nuts and bolts approach to creating a new world. But for me, in writing and reading, there’s only one real test, I call it ‘letting people be people.’

 “But Rachel,” you say, “that doesn’t apply to me. I’m writing about a world of sentient otters!”

Fine, you’re not writing about humans, but you’re still writing about people.

Now when I say ‘people,’ I’m not really talking about characters. A character is a person, but your world is filled with people, and I think Agent K said it best: “A person is smart. People are dumb, panicky dangerous animals and you know it.”

One person can be wildly different from another, but people all share some fundamental traits. For example, people are lazy. They’re ingenious in their laziness, though, and always looking for ways to better their situation, whether through innovation, or killing the innovators and taking their stuff. Some of our greatest inventions were made because we didn’t want to have to walk everywhere, or make a fire whenever we wanted to cook our food.

People want power, all the power. People who already have power want more, and people without power will stomp on those with even less until you reach the point of rebellion. To see an example, just look at all of human history.

People mess stuff up. They act in their own self interest, even when it’s horrible in the long term. They focus on meeting their needs and the needs of their loved ones, even if that screws over a lot of other people. They might feel bad about it, but they’ll still do it.

I could go on, but I’m sure you’ve got the point. As humans living on earth (which I think accounts for most readers of this blog), we all know, deep down, how people act. We know that there’s no such thing as a thousand years of uninterrupted peace. We know that civilizations don’t stay static, especially not for the kind of epic timelines you see all over fantasy as a genre.

Readers swallow these inconsistencies because people are also adaptable, and if you’re already suspending your disbelief to allow magic, it’s not too hard to stretch it a little further and believe that an Empire could stand unchanged for five thousand years. But when you make a reader do that, you’re cheating them, and your story, out of a world of depth. This doesn’t mean you can’t have ancient Empires in your novel to great effect, it just means that you have to make them real, and you do that by letting people be people. If your Empire has been around for five thousand years, it’s only going to have the scarcest resemblance to the government it was in the beginning, or at the two thousand year mark, because people are constantly messing with things. There will have been wars. Maybe distant, maybe at your gates, but violence and upheaval will have occurred. If there’s an ancient prophesy about a lost king, people will have tried to fake it. Maybe one of them was even king for a while before he was found out. Once you start digging into all of that, you find story after story, all interesting and varied and unique, and none of which existed before when all you had was a static, five thousand year of Empire.

This is what happens when the people in your world stop acting like a back drop and start acting like people. All of the other parts of world building, creating ecosystems and believable terrain and maps, these are cool, but secondary, the little touches of fine craftsmanship. But the real depth, the thing that will actually ruin your reader’s suspension of disbelief if you do it wrong, comes from people. Not just your characters, but the actions and lives of imaginary people who may have died thousands of years before your cast was born. You already know how those people acted. We all do. Use that knowledge, make your people act like people, and you’ll have a world I’ll want to read.  



Did that get your attention?

There’s romance in my novels, and it often culminates in sex. Not all of them, but many of them. I’m told this is still an unusual thing in the fantasy genre — an almost entirely new development centered around the popularity of urban fantasy (UF) and paranormal romance (PR), and the publishing industry’s desire to attract women readers. I’m not sure why this is such a new thing, given that romance (especially romance with an erotic component) is the biggest-selling category in genre fiction, and given that women have been about half the human population for oh, awhile now. Seems odd that fantasy has only recently started trying to attract them. Nevertheless, not so long ago, used to be that fantasy, like other speculative fiction, shied away from anything deemed sufficiently girly, and romantic subplots are about as girly as it gets.

Sex, note, was never off the fantasy table. From the comparatively mild sexual silliness of Piers Anthony’s Xanth series to the “is this legal?” master-slave ethos of John Norman’s Gor books, the fantasy genre has never been prudish. But this take on fantasy sex has usually been oriented towards a specific demographic: male readers, probably young or at least adolescent in their sensibilities, and probably heterosexual. This demographic has made up the bulk of the fantasy audience for the past few decades, and even with the advent of PR and UF, it’s still probably a very large percentage of the readership.

Particularly in epic fantasy, which is what I write. Which puts me in a bit of a quandry. How does a female epic fantasy writer, whose audience will include many or mostly male readers, handle the delicate matter of sex? Do I write sex in a way that appeals to me as a modern, postfeminist woman? Or do I write the kind of sex that sells, and has sold well in the past?

This is more than a sales issue. This is about my values, my complicity in perpetuating problematic genre conventions, my career reputation. This is srius bizns, yo.

So I give serious thought to the sex. I often ask myself whether I should include it at all — and sometimes the answer is no, I shouldn’t. So I don’t. But when I do, I have to consider how to include it. “Fade to black” or explicit? Stylistically depicted or plain straightforward language? If I’m writing a third-person narrative with multiple PoVs, should the sex scene be written from the hero’s perspective or the heroine’s? (And since I sometimes include gay characters, hero 1 or hero 2?) Given societal reactions to sexually assertive women, how will readers react if my heroine initiates the sex, or controls it? Given the male-centric history of sex in fantasy, is it good or bad if my male character is into bondage? What if the core romance is a threesome? How far can I push the envelope, and still make both myself and my readers happy?

It’s a delicate balancing act. Too realistic and the sex feels gratuitous. Too stylized/symbolic and it becomes laughable, or incomprehensible. If I follow the genre’s conventions too much, I run the risk of repeating the problems and cliches that have repelled me from other fantasy novels. If I get too avant garde, I risk alienating my traditional-fantasy audience.

This balancing act is not unique to me, note. I think most fantasy authors do it to some degree, especially the women. Quoting here from Dr. Debra Doyle, one of my instructors from Viable Paradise and an award-winning established fantasy author herself, in her hilarious essay, “The Girl Cooties Theory of Genre Literature”:

It’s possible to include sex (as distinct from romance) without adding girl cooties, but it’s risky. There’s always the chance that the hero might take a few minutes to talk to the girl afterward, and that gets you perilously close to cootie territory.

I think UF and PR have successfully proven that girl cootie-infested fiction can sell like hotcakes. But can it sell beyond these categories? That’s still up in the air. I hope to become one of the authors that proves it.

But y’know? In spite of all this talk about sales, those aren’t my first consideration. In general, I tend to opt for what makes me happy first. But then I always show my first draft to others — my writing group, or my agent, or friends who are willing to give me an honest second opinion. Then I rachet down, or up, depending on how they react. (And yeah, it’s sometimes weird giving sex scenes to friends; I do wonder what they think of me! But I usually hope they’ll apply the same fiction-reading standards to sex stuff that they do to any of my other writing. Writing about serial killers doesn’t make me one, and writing about characters who are into Sexual Kink #475 doesn’t mean I am.) This input is invaluable, and often keeps me from making mistakes.

For example — there’s a scene in The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms that you’ll never see, or at least not as it existed in its original form. In this scene, a woman makes love to a god whose appearance varies depending on his viewer’s perceptions and expectations, even on a subconscious level. So although she wills him to look like the man of her dreams, there’s some slippage: at one point he manifests distinctly feminine characteristics. (Yes, I mean that.) I’m a psychologist in dayjob life, so I’m aware of concepts like the Kinsey Scale, and the relative rarity of people who fall into the “exclusive” extremes of this scale. This woman’s heterosexual, but not exclusively so, and her lover reacts accordingly.

When I showed this draft to pre-readers, however, those who mentioned it reacted strongly in the negative. It was squicky, they said; it made the scene completely non-erotic. One person said it “took her into primordial Id territory”; this was not a compliment. Worse (IMO), it was too obvious that I was trying to make a statement about human sexuality and my beliefs; this turned the scene from one of pivotal, climactic character development into an authorial soapbox.

This proved to be the clincher for me, so I modified the scene, removing the variable-gender bit. I can make statements anytime, after all — but with this novel, my job is to entertain my readers. I think pushing the envelope and challenging dominant paradigms can be entertaining, but it has to be done in a way that doesn’t make readers run screaming from the Message ™.

So now I’m curious. What novels have you read in fantasy that handled sex well, and what did those authors do that made it work for you?

(Sex sex sex sex sex! Does that make you want to comment?)


I put on my robe and wizard hat

Right.  I’d planned to have a thoughtful, serious post for my first regular Wednesday post, maybe start a monthly look at source material and where to find new inspiration, possibly even pull down my copy of On Fairy-Stories and talk a little about the “cauldron of story” in an age where we’re bombarded with input from all sides.  

But then I spent half of Monday sleeping and the other half plowing through edits, and thus the tasks meant for Monday got moved, and . . . well, for a number of reasons, I’m now writing this Tuesday night and trying to think of something that’s relevant to The Magic District.  I suspect this will not be the last time I do this.

So let’s talk about magic. Specifically, magicians and how they use their power.

There are a lot of ways of showing magic in fantasy, ranging from the point-and-zap thaumaturgy that seems to be the general procedure for Harry Potter to the uncanny, archetypal forces at work of Last Call.  I’ve just finished reading Territory, and the magic there is different still, much more subtle and evident mainly in the intersections of what’s done and said.  

I think that showing magic in these different ways automatically makes a statement about the story itself, changing the mood of the story to match the magic.  A setting in which magic is carried out by careful ritual is going to be a little different from one in which it can be triggered solely by the hero’s exertion of will — and if both exist in the same setting, then there’s bound to be some tension between them.  (One of the things that really struck me about Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell was how English magic was on the one hand this dry, text-bound, academic matter and on the other a chaos of ravens and storms — and how neither side ever canceled the other out.)  In Spiral Hunt, while I show a few “magic spells” in action, I wanted to give the impression that they were as much a matter of craft as of knowledge.  I’m not yet sure that I succeeded with this, but I hope that the ways I show magic work within the context of the novel.

 There seems to be some possible distinction to be made between the different kinds of magic — hereditary, gnostic, elemental, etc.  But every time I try to sort them out, I keep running up against examples that don’t want to stay in one category, as well as the question of whether I’m sorting them by source of magic or how it’s applied.  So, of course, I turn to the Internet and ask for knowledge.

What kinds of magic work for you when you’re reading a story?  What kinds seem better suited to certain subgenres — hereditary magic in a high fantasy setting, for example, or gnostic magic in a secret history?  What kinds are we even talking about to begin with?


The Long and the Short of It

I could talk about my novel Spell Games and how awesome it is and how much fun it was to write and about all the great caper and con artist and heist stories that inspired it, but I think I’ll save that for a couple of weeks, when the thing actually comes out, and you can respond to my enthusiasm by rushing out and buying a copy. (I got my author copies a few days ago. It’s pretty.)

Instead I’ll talk about writing short stories after not writing short stories for a couple of years.

I’ve always been a short story kind of guy. Don’t get me wrong — I love novels, the great baggy imperfect dawdling glorious things — but short fiction is my first love, and I’ve written hundreds of the things (and published… a fraction of them. They weren’t all good, after all). A few years ago, though, I got lucky and sold four books in an open-ended series. The publisher wanted to release the books at six-month intervals. Cool, right? Except only the first one was written, which meant I had to write three novels in two years.

This rather deeply enmeshed me in the world of novels. A world of long-arc plotting. A world of breadcrumb-dropping foreshadowing. A world of gradual character development. A world where pace and rhythm could be both more complex and more languid. A world where the accumulation of detail over a hundred thousand words or so was more important than coming up with just one single perfect detail. A world, in short, very different from the more focused, sharp-edged, compressed world of short stories.

I didn’t entirely abandon short fiction — I wrote a couple in the weeks between novel projects — but I fell out of my usual short fiction rhythm. And last year, when I turned in my last book under contract, and tried to go back to short stories… I couldn’t remember how. Fortunately I had an idea for a middle grade science fantasy adventure novel, so I wrote that instead. But this past December I decided I needed to start writing stories again, lest those muscles of brevity permanently atrophy.

I started working on a novelette called “Troublesolving” about an omnicompetent woman who doesn’t do violence (as a conscious break from my novel series, about a very violent woman — I wanted to force myself to solve plot problems differently). It was rough. I initially had way too many characters. I had subplots. I had to pare down, pare down, and ended up with a novelette anyway! (The story will be coming out in Subterranean magazine sometime in the future, so you can see how I did.) I was still thinking like a novelist. The result works, but it was rough going.

So I decided to aim for greater brevity. In January I wrote an epic fantasy — in about 4,000 words — called “Another End of the Empire.” That was more like it — I had a cast of five major characters, and a whole invented world, but I concentrated on telling details for characterization, on brief illuminating moments to convey crucial information. (That story will be in Strange Horizons this summer.)

Not bad, but by then I was on a compression kick, so I wrote “A Programmatic Approach to Perfect Happiness,” about brain-altering plagues and kinky robot sex and a vast secret conspiracy… all in under 3,000 words. (That one’s not sold yet, but I’ll let you know.)

I couldn’t help but note that, if my trend continued, my next short story would be shorter than a greeting card, so I took a little break. By then I felt like I’d gotten my mojo back, though, and I revised a couple of older deeply flawed stories, and managed to fix them — “Over There,” my epic fantasy infidelity story (which will be in Intergalactic Medicine Show later this year), and “Origin Story,” a superhero monologue (which will be done as an audio original on Escape Pod soon). Suddenly I feel like a short story writer again, and the pump is primed; ideas keep coming, more than I can keep up with. Which is great.

Until the time comes in a few months to write another novel, at which point, I’m sure I won’t remember how to produce long-form work anymore. You learn lots of things as a writer. Some of them, you have to learn over and over again.


First Stab

The thought of writing a novel combining contemporary fantasy with Norse mythology first occurred to me a long time ago, way back in the 1990’s, when Netscape was cool.  I would spend many a lunch hour walking the blazing sidewalks of Scottsdale, Arizona, talking out my ideas into a little tape recorder. In retrospect, it was probably more about trying to get away from my co-workers and desk than about trying to write a book.

And I never did write that novel (quite a bit later, I wrote a different novel combining contemporary fantasy with North mythology instead) because novels were too big and complicated and scary for me to tackle. In fact, they still are, but now I write them anyway, because I haven’t figured out how to get them written without writing them. I wish I had a robot that would compose my novels for me, like a Roomba that writes books instead of vacuuming floors. Or better yet, one that writes books and vacuums floors, because housework sucks.


I did at least get a short story out of those shoe-melting suburban hikes, Wolves Till the World Goes Down, and I even managed to sell it to the anthology, Starlight 3, my first professional sale.

Wolves Till the World Goes Down features some situations and characters that eventually ended up in Norse Code, but they’re rather different stories, with different versions of characters and different outcomes.

So, Wolves Till the World Goes Down isn’t a shorter or compressed or alternate version of Norse Code, but the story might deliver a taste of something that came from the same kitchen.

Ideomancer reprinted Wolves online, and if you’d like, you can read it here: Wolves Till the World Goes Down.


Diana’s Sunday Quickie

I have an awesomely cool writing workspace!

A little over a year ago, my husband and I were house shopping. I won’t go into what a nightmare that ended up being, but one of the 456, 793 houses that we looked at (okay, maybe it just felt like it was that many) was a house with a separate building behind it.  For a variety of reasons we decided to put an offer in on a different house, but when that contract blew up in our face, we went right back to the house with the out-building.  And, immediately wondered what the hell we were thinking by going for the other house over this one!

As you can probably guess by now, we bought that house, and I immediately claimed the out-building as MINE MINE MINE ALL MINE!!!!


The upstairs has a really great view of the third fairway of the golf course:


And the coolest thing?  The only way to get to the upstairs is by climbing a ladder:



I looooooooove my writing lair!


Tim’s Sunday Quickie

My workspace is wherever the baby can’t reach me, or, occasionally, a notebook on my lap that I hope the baby doesn’t notice. When one has a running-climbing-cackling 15-month-old in the house, one can’t be too picky. Ideally I work at my desk, with my big widescreen computer monitor and my well-loaded iTunes and a chair that I like, with cool artwork on the walls (including a big print of the cover art from my book Poison Sleep). But I also write on a laptop on the couch or in a notebook on the back deck at work (I favor Moleskines — they’re durable and such a good size!). I’ve tried to be careful not to get too attached to any particular workspace, so I can continue to work anywhere. Arguably, the shower is an important workspace, as I do a lot of plotting and pondering in there.


Margaret’s Sunday Quickie

What does my workspace look like?  A mess, usually.  I lack a digital camera, so I’ll try to describe it instead.

We have a tiny study about the size of a closet, and the resident organist and I have divided it up into our respective workspaces.  I’ve got the spot by the window, so most of the time when I’m writing I have a view of the street just to my right.  It’s only really distracting in summer, when I have the window open and the buses are running frequently.  We have a number of artworks up on the walls: an Alan Lee print of Olwen daughter of Ysbaddaden, a quilt square, a pair of masks, a watercolor of birches in fog, an old poster from Williams College advertising a debate.  

I work on a Mac laptop on a cheap desk that’s been disassembled and reassembled a few too many times.  To the right of the computer is a stack of papers that really need to be dealt with or filed at some point; to the left is the manuscript for Wild Hunt, thick with little tags where I need to go back over some edits.  This means that the desk is a bit more tidy than usual — when I’m just drafting, rather than revising, both sides of the desk clutter up at about the same rate.  Usually I have a cup of something warm to drink while I’m working; coffee, cocoa, hot Tang, etc.

On the door to the study hang two signs. One warns, in Russian, against standing too near the electrical box.   The other is an old sign that used to hang on the door to the room I shared with my twin.  For reasons I can’t fathom, my parents framed it and sent it up to me after I sold my first story.  In straggling, crayon letters, it reads “RYTERZ RUME.” I don’t remember why we made the sign in the first place, but I refuse to take it down.