Archive for the 'Margaret Ronald' Category


Post With Four!

(No relation to Game With Four, as you can probably tell from the language.  Serious posts will follow eventually; sorry to be so fluffy of late.)

Four books that always make me cry:

  • Doomsday Book, by Connie Willis
  • Nation, by Terry Pratchett
  • The Innkeeper’s Song, by Peter S. Beagle
  • Busman’s Honeymoon, by Dorothy Sayers

Four elements I’ve always wanted to work into a story and haven’t (yet):

  • Locks. Not in the sense of keys and locks, but in the sense of canal locks. I don’t know nearly enough about the dynamics of them, but something about them appeals to my sense of Grand Metaphor. It may be for the best that I’ve never written about them.
  • A conspiracy theory as a pernicious and harmful (and potentially sentient) meme or a curse.
  • Figured bass notation. At least once every ten months I’ll get this Gene-Wilder-in-Young Frankenstein look, yell “IT COULD WORK!!!” and scratch out an outline for a story about this, then realize that it’s either so bogged down in infodump or too flimsy to go anywhere and junk the whole thing.
  • Surrealist art — specifically, Max Ernst’ collages. I know this is triggered by a story I read some time ago involving these collages, but I can’t remember the author or title or even the anthology. I had a big long outline worked out for a novel along these lines, and even a rough first draft, but it collapsed under its own symbolism.

Four books for which I’ve wanted Cliff’s Notes:

  • Vellum, by Hal Duncan
  • The Mistborn series, by Brandon Sanderson (Luckily, I think notes for these exist; I’ve just been lazy in finding them)
  • The Urth of the New Sun, by Gene Wolfe
  • Infinite Jest (oh GOD Infinite Jest) by David Foster Wallace

Four scenes for which my internal soundtrack involves far too many overwrought guitar riffs:

  • Temeraire and the Divine Wind.
  • The battle at the end of The Book of Three.
  • “No living man am I.” YEAH.
  • The last climactic scene of Wild Hunt. I refuse to feel bad about this.

Comment with four?


The book as an object

I’m not a bibliophile of the first order by any means.  I may be perpetually running out of shelf space, but having seen houses where the stacks of books dictated where you could walk, sit, or sleep, I know I’m not even close to that level of book hoarding.  My library’s a mess, organized by what will fit where rather than any real system. (I visited a friend’s house recently and had an attack of book envy when I learned that not only did they have separate rooms for fiction and nonfiction, but that the nonfiction was arranged by Library of Congress rules.)  And with some exceptions, I don’t treat my books well.  Paperbacks get bent, creased, rained on, used to hold recipes in place, bled on, and used to prop up furniture, though hardcovers work better for that purpose.

But I still assign a certain power to books, and a certain quality that’s entirely independent from their contents. I have real trouble throwing away or recycling a book, no matter how bad it is or how unlikely I am to ever read it again.  I feel better carrying a book around with me, just for the knowledge that if I’m stuck somewhere, I’ll have reading material.  There’s almost a talismanic quality to them.

Which is what makes it so weird to open a book and realize that the words in it were words I strung together.  It’s as if there’s a block between the first perception of the book and the story that I wrote.  I can’t quite match one to the other, and whenever I read something of mine in print, there’s always this strange disconnect, as if I’m reading through a mask or as if someone else is reading the words in my ear.  It’s like one last separation between me and the text.

I recently received my ARCs for Wild Hunt and my contributor’s copies of Best Horror of the Year 1, and that’s what’s driving this particular line of thought.  (That, and having handed over my draft of the third novel to BRAWL, I’m in that scattered, vacant state of thought perhaps best expressed in Edward Gorey’s The Unstrung Harp.  Concentrating on anything more than a short story is a little difficult at the moment.)  It’s very strange to have worked on something for so long to bring it to this point and then be unable to recognize it.

I don’t know if this is just one of those weird author neuroses.  (Lord knows I’ve got my own complement of those.)  And of course, this is all changing now with the advent of the Kindle and other e-book readers.  I haven’t yet used one of these, so I have no idea how I’ll react to text in this new format.  (I don’t have quite the same reaction reading work online; maybe it’s just that I’m used to reading my work off a screen.)

Does anyone else have this weird talismanic relationship to books, or the same reaction to seeing their work in print?  Or can I just add this to the list of strange reactions to writing?


Aural stories

The aliens are invading, and they’re coming for your parking space.

Okay, so that’s a silly way of looking at this weekend’s upcoming radio play in Somerville.  I’m not even tangentially involved with the production, but I’ve watched some parts of it come together, and it’s got me thinking about storytelling that doesn’t touch either the screen or the printed page.  (Incidentally, if you’re in the area, come see the show.  Aliens!  Coffee syrup!  A stationary marching band!)

Radio plays and audio fiction are media I know very little about.  I’ve seen a couple of radio plays performed — and that I say I’ve seen them tells you something about how my perception of them is a little skewed — but I don’t often listen to them, nor do I often listen to podcast fiction, despite the many good sources for it.  And that’s a shame, because stories told this way play on the audience’s attention in entirely different ways.

Audio fiction isn’t quite the same, but there are some shared elements — you have only the description as it’s read, and to follow the story you have to be willing to concentrate.  I can almost fall more easily into an author’s world when I’m listening than when I’m reading, simply because I have to stop and pay attention.  I can’t just scan the page, looking for the next clue to the plot or the clue that I missed on my first read.  Done well, it can be enchanting: one of my favorite Christmas traditions is to listen to Christopher Plummer reading E.T.A. Hoffman’s The Nutcracker (the whole, trippy thing, not the chopped-up version in most retellings).

I have mixed reactions depending on how the reader voices different characters; I got sick of one audio novel because all of the villains had the same nasty nasal tone.  (One friend of mine says that she’s never heard any author read their own work well.  I have to admit I take that as a challenge.)  And like radio plays, there’s the possibility that the intensity of emotion won’t carry over well, becoming laughable or just strange.  I always feel a little silly when reading big dramatic scenes aloud, just because I’m skittish about whether they sound as good outside my head.

So this is, again, my way of asking the great wide internet for recommendations: What podcasts or radio plays would you recommend? Are there certain stories that just work better when read aloud?  What doesn’t work so well in this medium — either through poor performance or the source itself?  And does putting a folding chair out really keep the aliens from your parking space, or does it just draw the wrath of public works?


Warning: Extended metaphor ahead

I’ve climbed Mount Monadnock several times since I was a kid, enough that I’m not really sure how many times I’ve actually made it to the summit.  I’ve been up on days so clear that we could see Boston from the top, and on gray rainy drizzly days that, in hindsight, would have been much better spent at home.  It’s been enough of a family tradition that we have long-running jokes about it (particularly the nonexistent lemonade stand at the top).

And every time, once I’ve reached the top, I tell myself that going down will be easier.

Experienced hikers are probably shaking their heads and smiling at this.  I have no explanation for my continuing delusion on this point, beyond lightheadedness and the ease of old patterns of thought.  Going down isn’t easier; it’s still rough and slow and, occasionally, painful.  But what comes to mind now is the part of the trail past Falcon Spring, where it’s no longer nearly as steep and the trail’s wide enough to accommodate many people.  And for some reason, this is the part of the trip that just. drags. on.

Maybe it’s because of memories of the first few hikes up the mountain, when I couldn’t wait to be back down again so that I could go home and jump in the lake.  Maybe it’s because the only bathrooms are at the end of the trail, and that probably made an impression on the younger me as well.  And maybe it’s because at this point, the hike is mostly over, and I’ve got my sights set on what comes next.  For whatever reason, this is the part of the hike that should be easiest, but it’s where I get either so impatient I want to run the rest or so weary I can barely manage it.

In not unrelated news, I’m at the very end of a draft right now.

Each time through, I tell myself that “as soon as I hit X point, it’ll be smooth sailing.” As soon as I reach the museum scene.  As soon as I get to the big fight.  As soon as I get to the burning building.  And each milestone just shows that there’s so much left to go and so much more to fix.

This ought to be the home stretch, right?  I ought to be able to just zip through these last few chapters and have it done, right?  But that last bit of the hike, the last couple of chapters, are somehow the worst to work through, regardless of how much needs to be done.  It can be maddening.

But going by past experience, at some point in the next few pages, I’ll hit my stride, and when I reach the point where I dropped down two lines and wrote “THE END,” I’ll stare at my screen for a moment, blinded like a hiker coming out of the woods into full sunlight, unable to quite believe it’s done.

And then I’ll go jump in a lake.


Dream logic

I’m currently scrambling to get a draft finished so I can send it to my writers’ group and not have them point and laugh at me in the street, so I haven’t really had the brainspace to come up with a good post for this week.  I’d been thinking of posting from a reader’s perspective rather than a writer’s, maybe asking about romance subplots, what makes some fulfilling while others seem tacked-on.

And then last night my subconscious took over and presented me with one of those creepy as hell dreams that make complete sense even as they’re giving me the cold shivers (seriously, a raft of severed heads floating down a river?  What the hell, subconscious?), and I woke up thinking about dreams and stories just so I wouldn’t have to follow that particular dream image.  Romance will have to wait.

As I’ve mentioned before, I get zombie nightmares (not to be confused with Zombie Nightmare), and a lot of my dreams have some basic story structure to them.   I suspect that a lot of this is because my brain confabulates details in that semiconscious stage just before waking, patching in cause and effect and rationalizations to explain just why I and the cast of Firefly are on a mission to replace the Pope with a robot double.

But dreams don’t make good stories, no matter how detailed and clear (and, in some cases, incredibly fucking creepy) they are.  I’ve had only one story that came directly out of a dream, and even then it changed so much from first draft on that only two paragraphs remain from that original tangled outline. Dream-logic isn’t the same as plot-logic, and trying to make one fit the other usually results in plots that need so much external scaffolding to stand that they might as well not be there.  I can think of a few writers who handle dream-logic much better, particularly in works that refuse to explain their logic to the reader and thus force them to accept it.  But it’s not something I do well.

What I do get from the double handful of muck dredged up from my subconscious is images.  One or two potent images that may, in time, accrete a plot around them.  A group of refugees in the snow.  A woman on a tower speaking to a cloud.  A smiling man whose skin doesn’t quite fit.  (It’s probably no surprise that many of these images are closer to horror than fantasy, given that nightmares linger more than dreams.)

I’m curious as to whether this is something other writers do, or just how my own process works.  Do you find that dream-images make it into your writing?  Or if you’re reading something and dream of it, does that affect how you read it from then on?


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.


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.)


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’


Genre dilettante

Even though I’ve been out of it this last week (sorry about that), I’ve been thinking a lot about Nora’s and Rachel’s posts on the boom in urban fantasy and the benefits of Twilight’s or Harry Potter’s popularity.

Spiral Hunt is pretty solidly urban fantasy.  And, if I think about how it got started, there’s a very good case to be made that I was chasing a new boom in the genre.  I remember reading a few of the urban fantasy novels that were out a while back and thinking “huh, that was fun, I wonder if I can do something similar.”  Eventually, the setting and the characters came together, but I wonder if I’d have written it without that first reaction.

Did I write it hoping to cash in on a new fad?  No — not consciously, at least.  But that doesn’t make a difference once the book’s out, and if interest in urban fantasy suddenly dwindles, those intentions won’t matter.

However, when I write short stories, I write in a number of different subgenres, and I don’t think I can bring myself to settle down in just one.  I like writing high secondary-world fantasy, pseudo-science fiction, historical fantasy, fairy tales . . . and often, I’ll be interested in these styles because I’ve been reading a lot of them lately.  The boom triggers interest, which triggers an idea, which shapes the story, etc., etc.  And not all of those subgenres are the kind that stay popular for a long time.

So how do I know that when I’m dabbling in a new subgenre whether it’ll be worth it when I’m done?  Will the steampunk story be finished only after steampunk has burnt itself out?  At what point — if there is one –do I become an urban fantasy author and stop being a writer in many different genres (and if that happens, how easy is it to change?)?

(This is also something that I notice now more than usual, because I’ve hit the dark night of the revision again, and there’s a substantial part of my brain that wants to be working on something other than this novel. ANYTHING. And that’s when all those other, shiny subgenres start looking awfully fun to play in . . .)

If I look at it as a writer, the basic answer — just write — is helpful for the matters at hand, but as Nora pointed out, I do have to think about the greater implications.  If I think about it as a reader, though, a whole new array of questions comes up.  When I’m reading a book by an author I’m familiar with, I’ll inevitably have a preconception of what sort of book it’ll be. And sometimes that gets in the way — sometimes even before I pick up the new book.  (“What?  Author X has written a military science fiction epic?  But he writes fluffy fantasy!  Is this just going to be unicorns in space?” and so on.  No, I didn’t say this was a rational reaction.)

The thing is, at some point I can’t let myself worry about this. How an author perceives the genre of their work may be completely at odds with how either the reader or the publisher sees it. I might convince myself that I’m writing a noir pastiche, only to find that it’s read as high fantasy, or attempt to set a contemporary fantasy in a trailer park and discover later on that I’ve written horror. If my track record of judging my own work’s genre is anything to go by, then I shouldn’t worry about whether my maneating squid story will be too late for the SquidLit Manifesto, because chances are it’s actually a period romance.

I’m afraid this is a pretty disjointed post, but what I’m getting at (I think) is this: how much does an author’s prior work influence how you read their new work?  I know it’s possible to compartmentalize — I can’t think of The Curse of Chalion in the same headspace as Shards of Honor, much as I like both, and the same goes for “Sandkings” and A Game of Thrones.   But I also know that it does have an effect on how I buy books.

And is it possible to keep steampunk alive at least till I finish the girl-and-her-stamping-press story?



I have a weird habit when reading or watching something for the first time, and I’m not sure if it’s a common reaction to fiction or if it’s just me. So, obviously, I’m going to the Internet to find out.

After I finish a book, even if I’ve disliked some parts of it, even if I can tell there are going to be unfortunate questions bothering me later, there’s a period right after I close the cover where I’m still suspended in the author’s world. Later on, I’ll be able to regard the book’s flaws and judge them, and maybe I’ll decide that it wasn’t worth such a reaction — but that doesn’t lessen the first flush of enjoyment.

(There are a few times when this doesn’t happen, either because I’ve already fallen out of the book or for other reasons I can’t pin down. But that afterglow feeling is frequent enough that I think it’s just part of how my brain’s wired with regard to fiction.)

It’s the same thing with television or movies — after the credits roll, I want a minute or two where I’m still uncritically enjoying what I saw. (Actually, I first noticed this with movies, because many of my friends have the habit of picking something apart while the credits are rolling, and it irritated me to no end.) This has resulted in one or two movie nights that ended up with me trying to defend, something like the third Matrix movie, even though in the morning I’d realize that yes, that one fumbled everything. And I still remember coming home from the theater after seeing The Phantom Menace, trying to justify that it was entertaining, really, and Jar-Jar . . . well, you could just ignore Jar-Jar, right?

Yeah.  Right.

You can see why I don’t think this is a good thing. Trying to hold on to that high, that sense of being in another world, can blind me to valid criticisms of the work later on. It’s also a little embarrassing — if a book has a mawkish, incredibly sentimental ending and I’m still reduced to outright sobbing by it (as happened at least once in high school), then that doesn’t speak highly of my taste. And it’s certainly not helpful to be the one person saying “guys, shut up, I liked it!” when my friends are happily analyzing the storyline.

In a broad sense, I think this may be what the creators of those stories intend — for the reader or viewer to be caught up so strongly in the story that they don’t yet see any problem. But it’s also part of the point of fiction in general, and I don’t know if there’s something skewed in how I respond to it.

Does this happen to anyone else? Am I privileging that first reading over later analysis? Or am I just a sucker for fiction?