Archive for September, 2009


Laughing at the magic

(Apologies for the late post; my day job is eating into my blogging time.  Oh, the horror.)

I’ve been rereading Tolkien’s “On Fairy-Stories” in preparation for a post on sub-creation and secondary worlds next week (see!   I do prepare, sometimes!) and while I’d originally intended today’s post to be along those lines, something early on in the essay caught my attention.  Tolkien brings up Faerie as Magic, with one particular note:

There is one proviso: if there is any satire present in the tale, one thing must not be made fun of, the magic itself. That must in that story be taken seriously, neither laughed at nor explained away.

Tolkien later points out that “enchantment” is a much more appropriate word for the effect he’s describing, the creation of a story which causes not just suspension of disbelief but wholehearted immersion in the world of the story.  But I’d like to look at this remark out of context (because that’s what the Internet is for!) and at how laughter or overexplained magic affects a fantasy.

A lot of fantasy does, in fact, explain away the magic to some degree (if it gets to the “3d4 damage per magic missile, you know it’s gone way overboard), at least to the point where it’s plausible.  And a lot of fantasy uses humor, if not based right on the magic then using it in some way.  (Frozen turkeys, anyone?)  And yet there’s still something that makes it fantasy — something beyond pointy ears stuck on the side characters and a magical widget instead of a doomsday device.

In Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels, for example, the habits of the wizards (or Wizzard) are subject to much mockery, as are the witches’ lives and the lives of anyone touched by incidental magic. But when you get down to it, the soul and center of the magic itself isn’t a target.  People’s reactions to it are, as are people’s difficulties with it, but not the magic itself.  Even the most wisecracking urban fantasy sleuth has some point where he or she won’t make a joke.

I think that, for me at least, a lot of it has to do with mystery rather than Faerie. I don’t mean these in genre terms; whether a story has to do with the Fair Folk or with a locked-room murder — or both — isn’t quite what I’m talking about here.  If a story carefully dissects its magic or mocks it, then the mystery has to be located somewhere else — in the motivations of the characters, for example, or in the setting itself.  I think that might be part of what defines fantasy: some mystery that is not explained, that the reader must accept to follow the rest of the story.

This is a pretty broad definition, though, and one non-fantasy example that comes to mind is an episode of The Middleman, where for reasons that do not bear going into, the Middleman HQ is suddenly under lockdown.  Because of this lockdown, the building now has air ducts large enough to crawl through. The characters even draw attention to this fact, and yet by poking fun at it, they don’t dent the weirdness, the mystery of it — maybe because the Middleman himself takes everything so damn seriously, maybe because the inner workings of this particular world are the mystery that fuels the rest of the show.  (Which reminds me; I need to pick up the DVD set so I can have some idea of that last episode…anyway.)  The Nakatomi Protocol is probably much farther from Faerie than Tolkien ever expected, but I think his argument still applies to it, in some blog-mangled way.

Have I got this completely wrong?  I suspect that I’m forgetting some works that openly mock their magic or that analyze it to the last thaum, but my brain’s fried from overtime and so not up to coming up with a better example.  Does a story that mocks its magic but keeps the setting mysterious follow the same rules as the kind of fantasy I’ve described?  Or is this far too wide a net (especially if it means I can put The Middleman and Tolkien in the same post)?

Next week, sub-creation, secondary worlds, and where to find some fantastic secondary world fiction.


What I’ll be doing this week

Page proofs for Blood of the Demon arrived last Friday!  And, in much better condition than my page proofs for Mark of the Demon!

And, just in case I wasn’t sure what was in the box, it even came with a helpful label!

Ooh, and I even get a page telling people I wrote something else!

Plus a page combining the wonderfulness of the title AND my name!

And now I get to go through every single page, line by line, looking for typos, errors, and stuff that don’t make sense. This is my very last chance to make changes, and I’m not even allowed to make big changes.  Agonizing and wonderful, all in one.


In an unrelated note, I still have yet to hear from two of the winners of last week’s contest.  Juniper and Melissa, please email me at diana (at) dianarowland (dot) com!


“If the people aren’t doing anything cool the book is dumb.”

The quote in the title actually comes from here and is truly one of those “out of the mouths of babes” moments. Spoken, I’m sure, in tones of disgusted superiority by an irate third grader. It’s now going up on my list of writing quotes I keep on my desk, right under Hemmingway’s “Those who say they want to be writers, and aren’t writing, don’t,” bringing my list of writing quotes to… two.

But I couldn’t not add it, because it’s simply too true to ignore. Books where the characters aren’t doing something cool, suck! They’re boring, and boring, more than bad writing, annoying characters, or thin world building, is the death of a novel.

Now, of course, cool means different things to different people, or different things to the same person through different books. One person may think explosions are awesome, another may think startling and numinous revelations about the tangled knot of family life are the bee’s knees, but it doesn’t really matter.  Cool is cool, you’ll know it when you see it. Cool is, basically, what keeps people interested in writing – the imaginative touches, the scenes you have to tell your friends about, the things that make you put down the book and go “damn, that was cool.”

When I first wrote the novel that became The Spirit Thief, the main complaint was that it was too thin. People liked the characters and the action, but there just wasn’t enough there. So, bit by stumbling bit, I started adding things that I hoped would make people cackle, or go “OOOOOH!” Looking back, I was adding cool. Sure I did other things, I ratcheted up the tension and took out some navel gazing, but mostly I was stuffing the novel full of cool happenings like a thanksgiving turkey. The more I added, the more people liked my book, and the more I liked my book.

For sure, a novel is more than coolness. You need all that other stuff like plot and characters and whatnot. But I’ve put down so many books that were well written simply because I got bored. It wasn’t the story’s fault, it was going along just fine, but there just wasn’t enough cool to keep me interested. Cool is like salt. No one wants to eat straight salt, but even the most delicious food is bland without it (and quickly ruined gratuitous overuse).

Maybe I have a short attention span, to give up on decent books because I get bored, but I’m not too different from your average reader in that, I think. When I read, I want to be entertained. I want to read about cool people doing cool things. I want to be excited, to call my husband and read him a passage over the phone because it was SO COOL. Of course, a book doesn’t have to have that level of cool for me to like it a lot, but it has to have some, or else it’s just people doing stuff.

Still, books that overflow with coolness are the books that stay on my shelf and never get resold. Those are the books I tell my friends about, and those are the books I try to write. I don’t know if I succeed, as I said, cool is a pretty subjective thing. But, then again, if there was a solid recipe for cool I could share on this blog, we’d all be millionaires. All we can do is keep trying to make our books as interesting and cool as possible, and hopefully, other people will agree.


Why I, Perhaps Stupidly, Continue To Live in New York

Like Rachel, I’ve sought and gotten a lot of sound business advice from established writers in the year or so since my book deal happened. Most of that advice has been excellent — no, essential, and I’m grateful for all of it. But there’s one piece of advice I’ve been hearing again and again from various quarters, and it’s starting to chafe. Namely, that I shouldn’t live in New York.
Continue reading ‘Why I, Perhaps Stupidly, Continue To Live in New York’


Not-so-required for writing

Writers tend to have weird habits when it comes to their work.  Most of them make sense, like writing early in the morning before work begins/the kids wake up/the highway traffic outside gets heavy and your writing soundtrack consists solely of honk honk HEY JACKASS LEARN TO DRIVE honk. Or writing longhand so that you can work on the subway and transcribe everything later. Or going into the one room where the wireless internet can’t reach and closing the door. All of those habits are, ultimately, pretty rational and obviously the sort of thing that needs to be done in order to get any writing done.

However, there are the habits that seem to make no sense. The ones that don’t have anything to do with practical considerations, but have somehow become such a part of the writing process that it’s hard to extricate them.  The notebooks that have to be spiral-bound and exactly the right shade of blue (college-ruled; wide-ruled pages are anathema to the muse).  That one evocative song that has to be playing as you start work.  The particular brand of chocolate that has to be on hand after finishing a chapter.  Or the lack of any of these — and the lack of pants while writing.  Yes, they’re part of the stereotype of the Weird Writer — and I’m probably contributing to that stereotype right now — but they’ve got some faint basis in reality.

For me it’s the coffee. A big cup of hot coffee (or, more often, a cup of “what’s-the-point”; one-serving bad coffee with skim and artificial sweetener) is what I need to start work in the mornings.

Obviously, it’s the caffeine, right?  I need the coffee to function in the mornings, therefore this actually makes some sense, right? No. I can write just as well with a cup of hot cocoa, hot tea, hot Tang — hell, even plain hot water is fine. The caffeine content of whatever I’m drinking makes no difference, so long as it’s warm.  And it doesn’t matter what the temperature is outside. It can be 97 degrees with a humidity of ohgodmakeitstop, and I’ll still have my cup of hot coffee, even as my body curses its exothermic nature. Sadly, the reverse effect doesn’t quite work, though I’ve occasionally had some luck sparking ideas just by sitting down with a notebook and a cup of cocoa.

One of the things that I learned at Viable Paradise was that this can easily happen by accident — you associate a certain tic or action with writing, and your brain seizes on the connection. The trouble is when you want to quit the habit but keep writing; say you have a cigarette before sitting down to write. What happens when you quit smoking?  I’m not sure if this works as a way around that particular dilemma, but I’ve found that it helps to write in all kinds of situations — outside, inside, around lots of people, on my own, with or (sigh) without coffee. I can still write, and there’s no discernible difference in the result. But I still feel more comfortable with that hot mug of something close to hand.  Which makes me careful about what other habits I start to fall into when working.

I suppose that at some level, every superficially nonsensical habit does have some reason behind it. Nabokov’s method of writing on index cards seems completely bonkers to me, but it helped him think non-sequentially, and that was vital to his work.  Maybe the blue college-ruled spiral-bound notebooks act as a mnemonic jumpstart, same as that one song.  And there’s no real point in quibbling over what gets someone working, because so long as it does, it’s ultimately useful.

What are your writing tics? Papers all lined up first? Sparkly gel pens in six different colors for revising? Turn round three times before writing while singing the theme song to Tongan Ninja? (Actually, I might have to try that one.)


Idea Jar: The winners!

Hurray!  I have puh-lenty of material and prompts and ideas to get me through months and months of blog posts! 

This was tougher to judge than I expected, and I want to shout out huge thanks to everyone who posted ideas.  You all put a lot of thought and effort into your responses, and I really appreciate the effort.

But, I finally managed to narrow down the winners:




Congrats!!  Please drop me an email at diana (at) dianarowland (dot) com, and let me know your snail mail address and whether you want Mark of the Demon or if you’re willing to wait for Blood of the Demon!

Thanks again!!


Say Uncle (Sam) – A Cautionary Tale

My brain has weird compartments when it comes to writing professionally.  Some stuff I got right off the bat – writing every day, holding myself accountable to deadlines, etc. But other parts of writing as a job seemed to be in an entirely different dimension so far as I thought about them, things like, say, money. This is weird because I’m a pretty mercenary person in my non-writing life. My husband and I were poor college students long after we left college, and so our financial teeth are pretty well cut – we keep our affairs in general good order, never pay full price, and use things until they explode. (Hello, microwave! Why, you say your display doesn’t work? Eh, you still heat food (kind of), keep going!) (My kitchen is like a Siberian prison, we work them till they die).

Anyway, all of this goes out the window when it comes to money I get for writing.

The story goes like this. When you get an agent and your agent sells your book and your new editor accepts your book, you will receive (at some point in the future) a check for whatever part of your advance is currently owed to you, less your agent’s cut. Question: What do you do now? Continue reading ‘Say Uncle (Sam) – A Cautionary Tale’


Formative Fantasy: Ariel

Whoopsie, just realized I didn’t post last week. No excuse; I just forgot. Will try not to do it again, sorry.

This week, though, I’ve been re-reading the fantasy novel that had the most significant influence on my tween writing career: Steven R. Boyett’s Ariel. It’s been re-released recently, after decades out of print; it was originally published in 1983. I would’ve been eleven at that time, though I don’t think I read it ’til I was 13. Probably just as well.

See, when I was thirteen, I actually didn’t like fantasy. I’d tried Tolkien at the time, and bounced off it; too old-fashioned, too British. I’d absorbed the science fiction genre’s disdain for “that made-up stuff”; fantasy wasn’t about Real Science ™, it was about silly impossibilities like wizards and fairies. (But my favorite books at the time, in my smug superiority, were Anne McCaffrey’s “Dragonriders of Pern”.) There was a gendered element to it too; as a self-avowed tomboy who’d internalized a whole lotta sexism, I wasn’t interested in anything girly, which I at the time perceived fantasy to be. (McCaffrey wasn’t girly. Her dragons were big muscular COMBAT STEEDS. With FIRE. Andsomeromancebutnotmuchsothatwasokay. Plus, FIRE.) So when I finally decided to give fantasy another shot, naturally it was going to be something I perceived as rough, tough, macho stuff. Hard core, with explosions and stuff. And maybe a fairy. As the mascot.

So I picked up Ariel. All the crucial signs of toughness were there: written by a man (grunt), starring a man (grunt), about hard-core stuff like survival after an apocalyptic event (grunt grunt). There were swords! A showdown with a necromancer! Stuff! Blowing!! Up!!!1! It helped that the story was at least partially set in New York, which held a kind of mythical power for me at the time; yeah, bankrupt crumbling NYC of the 1980s was my Camelot back then. What can I say? Growing up in the ‘burbs had bored me to tears. So I was willing to overlook the presence of a unicorn on the then cover. All these macho characters needed something to ride, right? And unicorns could probably kick serious ass with those horns, in battle.

(OK, look, everybody’s a little messed-up at thirteen, a’ight? I grew out of all this, thank every god in creation.)

Alas, the marketing completely fooled me. Sure, there were explosions and stuff, but the book turned out to be the most beautiful love story I’d ever read. All that action was sandwiched between poignant human dramas: people just trying to get by after a traumatic event, children growing up in a hurry, loss and grief. There was a ton of magic in the book, but the best was the kind that isn’t “made up” — the magic of eerily beautiful landscapes and surreal cityscapes; of lonely people and hopeless dreams. I finished the book and cried. Then I read it again. And again, and again, until my copy literally fell apart. Then I taped it together and read it some more.

I had begun writing by that point, so as a further sign of my admiration, I tried to incorporate what I’d learned from the book into my own work. I started chapters with quotes from poetry or Shakespeare, as Boyett had done. (This, of course, forced me to read poetry and Shakespeare, which I then grew to love. Sneaky, Boyett. Sneaky.) I made my characters angsty and gave them snappy dialogue. (If I’d been born ten years later, I’d probably have written Buffy fanfic. Thank goodness I’m a Seventies child.) I — cautiously — began adding romance and female characters to my stories, as an experiment (because at the time I’d somehow absorbed the notion that girls couldn’t be heroes in SF/F). I started trying to subvert the tropes of fantasy that had so repelled me; Boyett had given me a unicorn who swore like a sailor, so maybe I could write freaky fairies and monster angels and so on. I realized fantasy can be set anywhere; modern-day America works just as well as medieval Europe, and it can incorporate elements of SF. And I realized the best story elements aren’t necessarily the explosions, but the quiet moments of people just being people.

Basically, I read this book and grew up a little.

Re-reading it now, at 36, has been interesting. Boyett himself acknowledges the weirdness of reading an Eighties novel now, in the Naughties; the Twin Towers still stand in New York, and the characters mention TV but not cellphones or computers. I know a bit of lit theory now, so I know what to call this kind of story: a standard bildungsroman, though beautifully done. I’m a bit more widely-read too, so I can see the works that influenced Boyett in the bones of this tale. I’m noticing the flaws I didn’t back then — a few Handwavium ™ moments in the plot, and I’m laughing my butt off at all the white male characters oh-so-Seriously pretending to be samurai. (Boyett does offer a tongue-in-cheek explanation: after the mysterious Change in this world that causes technology to stop working and medieval-style weapons to make a comeback, all the people in the Society for Creative Anachronism suddenly jump several notches on the socioeconomic scale.)

But these are minor flaws, all things considered. I met Boyett at Worldcon this year; cool guy. He noted that he was 21 (!!) when this book got published, which impressed me even further. When I was 21, I was writing crap. So I’m willing to forgive him a few blips, considering the whole is so timelessly well done.

So I’m wholeheartedly recommending this book once again. And I can’t wait for its sequel, due out soon, called Elegy Beach.

Oh — and this is my own dip into the idea jar, as Diana put it. Periodically I’m going to review fantasies that I read during my “formative years” as a writer, which I’ll be tagging as, duh, “formative fantasy”. I’m curious to know other peoples’ formative fantasies, too, because I kind of get the impression I took a less-traveled road into this genre. Feel free to mention yours in the comments. In the meantime, go buy Ariel.


Getting through the bad patches

At some point it’ll happen. Your characters act in ways that make no sense, your plot is a hopeless heap of spaghetti that goes all over the place as soon as you start trying to bundle it together, your prose is leaden and flat, and either the idea that seemed so bright and shiny and wonderful has now been revealed as the worst idea in history or it’s still bright and shiny and wonderful but there’s no way you’ll ever be able to capture that with your pitiful scratchings.  And more importantly, it’s not fun any more.  Either this project or writing as a whole — the spark has gone out of it.

A nasty version of this often hits if you’re just learning some of the details of the craft, or after an intense critique. You’ve got all these new and shiny tools with which to attack your story — and all you can see is the glaring flaw that you didn’t even know was there two weeks ago.  For me, something like this happens at least twice per draft. More, if it’s been a bad month or if there are other pressures. And yet, somehow, at the end of it I still have a completed draft, and it’s often a pretty good one.

Writing is, for me, a balancing act between believing that my work is good enough that it deserves to be out in the world in its best form possible and believing that my work is so terrible that I need to revise it immediately and fix all the glaring flaws. This may not be the healthiest approach — the seesawing back and forth is nasty .  And when my mind’s firmly set in the “my writing sucks” mode, it becomes very, very difficult to continue.  As Rachel pointed out in her post, I forget about this stage every time I start something new, and I get blindsided by it every time.

Trouble is, I’ve got to keep writing.  Even if I didn’t have a deadline looming (for several different values of “looming”), I’d have to keep writing.  It defines too much of me to stop.

So here are a few things I’ve learned about writing even when every fiber of your being is telling you to pack it all in: Continue reading ‘Getting through the bad patches’



I’m solo parenting this week while my wife Heather Shaw is off at the beautiful Blue Heaven writers’ workshop in Kelleys Island, Ohio, getting her fill of both critiques and beer (she’s there along with Magic District contributor Greg “The Keg” van Eeekhout, among others). My wife and I usually take turns getting up when the baby wakes, so we only have to risk a pre-dawn waking every other day. But with her out of town, I’ve been on my own, and the baby’s been getting up on the early side of his range, so after three days of rising before the sun I’m feeling pretty sleep-deprived. (Perhaps if I went to bed earlier… nah, it’d never work.) So I’m just going to drop in a couple of links here, in lieu of any original content:

Jon Armstrong (author of the weird and wonderful fashionpunk novel Grey) has a podcast called “If You’re Just Joining Us” (he interviewed me there once), and the latest installment features the wit and wisdom of literary agent Ginger Clark, who represents me (and Jon, for that matter). Much of the interview is given over to confirming or denying various myths about agents, and it’s a funny, fun interview.

I have a new story online today, written when I was less sleep-deprived and overall more lucid, so maybe go read that, it’s pretty short: “Silver Linings”, which is my first (but I hope not my last) publication at Great illustration by Thom Tenery, too; I can see why SF authors like writing about airships so much, when you get pictures like that! There’s also audio of me reading the story, which (let’s put this politely) privileges authenticity over polish.

Also, my online serial novella Bone Shop, um, accidentally became a novel this week, crossing the magical threshold of 40,000 words that (according to SFWA) separates very long stories from very short books. It’ll be another 15 or 20 thousand words before I’m finished, too, firmly in novel territory, which means I’ve still never written a novella, damn it. I thought I’d finally accomplish that. Sigh. Apparently if you let me get longer than a novelette I just can’t rein myself in, though in my defense the story turned out to be bigger than I originally expected.

Well, get going. Nothing more for you here, unless you like seeing a grown man fall asleep in his chair while a baby throws chunks of watermelon at him.