Archive for the 'Recommendations' Category


getting it right vs. getting it done

/* Special note! I just got my copy of Nora’s The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms and it is awesome! The book is beautiful and the story is fantastic so far. If you aren’t reading it already, do yourself a favor and check it out! You won’t be sorry, promise! */

I just recently turned in edits for the second book in my series for Orbit. When I first got the manuscript back from my editor, I estimated it would take about 2 weeks to go through and get the book into publishable shape. Boy, was I wrong. The deeper I got into the text, the more I realized the text had problems. Nothing huge, but there were lots of small discrepancies, little matters of timing, congruency, and continuity that had to be adjusted. As I worked I was very aware of my approaching deadlines. I had a third book to get out, after all. I couldn’t afford to be sitting here nitpicking timelines on a book that was otherwise completely fine.

And yet… I couldn’t just be sloppy. This was my book. This was going to be purchased by my fans (I’d assume, since they would have had to have read the first book and liked it to care about the second), they deserved a good story, the best I could give them. So these two needs go back and forth, getting the book right vs. getting it done, finally coming to a head in a scene towards the end of the book.

First off, it was a pivotal scene for one of my favorite characters, one that I’d been thinking of for a long, long time. I could not afford for this scene to suck. I’d thought I’d gotten it good enough, but rereading it, I realized it wasn’t what it needed to be. And yet, it was just one scene, a thousand words, and I was so close to finished and pushing my deadlines already. So I sat there, going one way, then the other until, finally I gave in and rewrote the stupid thing. It took me 2 days to get it right. Two days! For a thousand words! But I got it right this time, or as close to right as I could get.

This constant tug-of-war between getting the book finished and getting it right is actually good for both book and writer. If it was all about getting it done, my books would be sloppy and dull. If it was all about getting it right, I’d never finish anything. Between the constant pulling I end up with a book that’s good, not perfect (let’s face it, there will always be things I’d wish I’d done differently), but good enough that I’m proud to put my name on it and delivered to the publisher in a timely fashion so people can actually read the sucker, because that’s what this is all about.

Now that I’m finished editing and the novel is turned in, I can sit back and revel in the feeling that I’ve written the best book I could have written. Not the best book I’ll ever write (because how depressing would that be? Peaking this early in my life), but a book that I’m proud of and that was delivered within the appropriate amount of time. I feel I’ve created something worth reading, and even if it isn’t perfect, I couldn’t be happier. This time I won on all fronts, I got it done and got it right, and that’s good enough for me.


Question for the audience

So it is gift giving time again and I am stuck with an interesting conundrum. I have 2 teenage boys and 1 eleven year old boy on my list, and I’d like to get them books for Christmas. Trouble is, I don’t read a lot of YA or know what’s cool (nor am I seen as being particularly cool). One of the teenagers and the eleven year old both read well above their level, I don’t know about the other teenager (other than he likes XBox and BMX racing).

SO, if you, lovely, well read readers, can suggest books boys would like and not just shove under their beds, I would be ecstatic.  I’d really love some good SciFi, since all 3 like that sort of thing, but I’ll take whatever recommendations you think up! Thank you in advance for helping me save Christmas!


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.


no one poops in fantasy

So, like I do every year, I’ve been rereading Diana Wynne Jones The Tough Guide to Fantasyland (if you have not read it, go and do amazon’s free sample, you won’t be disapointed) and, as usual, feeling deeply ashamed of myself. Aside from my usual crimes of color coding (what… bad guys like wearing black… right?) and footwear that not only never wears out, but never smells and never gets waterlogged until plot appropriate. And, as always happens when I’m ruminating on things I got wrong, I always come back to what I see as my worse crime as a writer, which is something both simpler and far more sinister than impossibly convenient footwear.

My characters, simply put, are not human. Over the course of 2 books, I have fed my primary cast of 4 healthy adults the following:

  • a sandwich
  • a handful of fruit tarts
  • one scrawny rabbit
  • a loaf of bread
  • a bottle of wine, which no one got the chance to drink
  • a bowl of stew

Forget final confrontations, my characters will die of starvation before they even reach the climatic battle. Also, as the title would suggest, I haven’t had so much as a mention of a restroom, out house, or latrine pit in almost 150,000 words. Realistic characters eat and sweat and poop just like people, right? I’m a bad writer, a hack, woe woe!

Then I stop woeing and think. How many people – scratch that, how would I like to read a fantasy where people eat regular meals and use the restroom… on screen, so to speak? Sounds like a weird mix of gross and boring. I mean, there’s still no excuse for not feeding my characters a little more realistically, but no one reads fantasy novels looking for a real life SIM. They read them for magic, larger than life characters, and engrossing world building.

This is the lesson I relearn with every novel. In the end, I’m not writing a realistic novel, I’m writing a fantastical novel. While details like stones in shoes and a love of fresh bread help make characters real, there’s such a thing as TMI, even in novels. We know people have biological needs, but we’re reading the book to see how the hero’s going to get out of this mess, not to see what he’s having for dinner.

In the end, the dragon is way more exciting, right?


Stubbornness and recommendations

Stop me if you’ve been through this before: A friend raves about a book to you, and you mentally add it to your to-read list. Then another friend mentions it, and instead of making it a higher priority, you push it back a little further. Even when more favorable reviews come in, some perverse impulse makes you more determined not to read it. It’s not that you don’t trust the opinions of those who recommended the book, it’s just that . . . you don’t wanna.

And then, for whatever reason, you pick it up later on and . . . hey, they were right. And not just right; this book was just what you needed! You’ve got to tell someone about this . . . dammit, all the people you’d tell are the ones who recommended it in the first place.

For example, I’ve just recently finished Gentlemen of the Road by Michael Chabon, and I had no good reason for waiting so long. It’s a rich and fun story with swashbuckling to spare, and I sank into it completely. It was the first of his books I’d read, despite multiple recommendations, and I’m going to have to concede that yes, I probably should be reading more of his work.

So why is it that recommendations, even well-meant and accurate ones, sometimes have the opposite effect on me? And does this happen to everyone, or is it just a juvenile reaction on my part?

I know my father’s book recommendations were, for a while, the kiss of death as far as I was concerned; anything he liked, I stayed the hell away from. That’s passed as I’ve gotten older, for the most part, and while we’ll never have identical tastes, there’s enough overlap that I no longer treat books he recommends as if they were made out of nettles.

Some of it probably has to do with the initial recommendation — being told that I “have to see/read/hear this” irritates me for some reason, and if I’ve first heard of a work in an unfavorable light, it’ll take a while to shake that first impression, no matter how inaccurate it is. Another factor, for me at least, is reverse snobbery; I have a bad habit of ignoring “mainstream” or “literary” works out of some misplaced genre loyalty. And another part is just plain laziness — after the last few months of planning, I’ve been craving old favorites, comfort reading, over new and winding stories.

Whatever the reason, if it’s keeping me from more swashbuckling, then I really need to get over it.

Any recommendations that pushed you in the opposite direction?  What happened when you finally read the book?  And, uh, how do you go about admitting gracefully that you were wrong?


Ideas Between the Lines

Went to see “Twelfth Night” last night, as part of New York City’s Shakespeare in the Park theater productions. It was wonderful — Anne Hathaway did a phenomenal job as Viola/Cesario, the music was beautiful, and the whole production was side-splittingly hilarious. Considering that I had to get in line at 5 a.m. that morning to get tickets, and then didn’t get home ’til 2 a.m. after the play that night, the production was very much worth the lost sleep.

That said, though… as I watched the play, I found myself wanting to know more about the characters and their relationships — both the ones depicted and the ones that weren’t. What were Sebastian and Antonio up to all that time they were together after his rescue? Why did Duke Orsino take so quickly to the idea of Viola as a lover — even while she still looked enough like Sebastian to pass? Was Lady Olivia really fooled by Viola’s crossdressing, or was she genuinely interested in Viola as a boyish-looking woman? And poor Malvolio; what would’ve happened if Olivia had wanted him, given their differences in station?

Yeah, that’s right: I’ve got a hankering for Shakespeare fanfic.

Uh-oh; I’ve invoked the dreaded f-word. I’ve been a reader and writer of fanfiction for many years now, though most of mine was done waaaaay back in the 20th century, in fandoms that most Westerners have never heard of (Japanese anime, manga, and video games). I’m aware of the controversies regarding fanfiction in the English-language pro-writer sphere; a lot of professional authors regard fanfic as a threat to their copyrights, trademarks, etc., and have been quite vocal in denouncing it. And yeah, I’ve heard the cautionary tales, which are frequently raised whenever the f-word debate rolls around. Legal troubles are a legitimate danger — but then, there’s always danger of something like that in our litigious society. I could get sued for the way I spell a character’s name; it’s not likely to get very far in court, but I’d still be out a few grand in lawyers’ fees. No way to avoid that, so I’m not going to spend all my time looking over my shoulder.

My views on fanfic are pretty much in line with those of the OTW; I think derivative works of a certain nature — a fannish nature — are fair use. And more than that, I think they’re beneficial. If readers write fanfic based on my work, that means they’ll probably read my work. If they get it from a library or a bookstore, that means more money for me. And sure, they might get it by borrowing a book from a friend, buying it used, or downloading an illegal copy from somewhere, none of which nets me any income. But for every person who does that to write their fanfic, there will be others who are inspired — possibly by that fanfic, or simply by the existence of a fandom — to go and buy my book. It’s free publicity that will last long beyond any marketing push by my publisher, or the most successful self promotion I might do. It could help keep my book in print longer. It could make me a bestseller, or at least keep me out of the midlist death-spiral. I won’t ever read those fanfics (can’t avoid lawsuits, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to paste a target on my forehead) but I do hope readers write material based on my work. Frankly, I’d be flattered.

Because my own experience with fanfiction is that it grows out of particularly vivid characterization, worldbuilding, and/or plot development by the canonical author. The canon isn’t always Shakespearean in quality — frequently the exact opposite — but there’s still something compelling enough about the source material that it leaves readers hungering for more. Dreaming about it. Babbling to friends about what they would do if they lived in that world, or met those characters, or ended up in a situation like my plot. And yeah, the really compelling stuff isn’t always in the canon overtly, but instead appears as subtext — reading between the lines, so to speak. The stuff that’s hinted-at but not there. There’s no guarantee that any fan interpreting this subtext will come up with the same explanations for it that the original author would; their interpretation might actually annoy the hell out of the author. But that’s OK. Because the fan wonders, and cares enough to speculate, and thinks deeply enough about the material to come up with a plausible answer to that speculation.

The egogasm I would get from knowing readers are that caught up in my stuff would probably make me explode.

Unfortunately, I won’t find out whether my novel is compelling enough to inspire fanfic for quite a few months. In the meantime, I’m going to need to keep busy. So, uh, anybody got any good Shakespeare ‘fic recs? Send privately if you’re embarrassed. I won’t tell!


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, 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:

…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!


rachel’s sunday quickie – humble beginnings

The question this week is: ” What book (or show, or movie) got you started reading fantasy and/or science fiction?”

For me, this question took some thinking. I grew up as a little geekling in a geeky house. Both my parents read Darkover and Pern books and my dad read me Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy before I was old enough to get any of the jokes. Fantasy and SciFi were just a part of my life, which was awesome, because I loved them, so pinning an exact moment is hard. But, if I had to pick just one, just one work that set me on my current path more than anything else, it was probably the Ralph Manheim translation of Grimm’s Fairy Tales. These were the original stories, full of bloody magic and horrible death and princesses who made their lovers cut off their own heads as a sign of faithfulness. I ate these things up. This is the first book I can remember reading. We had the enormous, bible-sized hard cover version, and I know every story in there backwards and forwards, rolling cheeses, glass mountains, little blue dwarves and all. 

Lots of other works had a deep impact on me, especially the Last Unicorn and Patrica Wrede’s Enchanted Forest series, and Le Mort d’Arthur (I loved that as a kid), but it was the world of Grimm’s Fairy Tales that really set the stage for all future fantasy in my mind.  Seriously, if an traditional fantasy author doesn’t set their setting, they get stuck with little German villages for a backdrop in my head. Let this be a warning!


Greg’s Sunday quickie – Characters

I’ll forgive a writer many things, but if I don’t get along with their protagonist, it’s over. It’s kind of like embarking on a long road trip with a stranger. Say we start out on Santa Monica Beach and head east. If we’ve reached Las Vegas and they’ve got their feet on the dashboard, picking their toes while singing along with Toby Keith, I’m booting them out in front of Treasure Island.

I always hope I’ll love the protagonist. I hope the way they approach problems makes sense to me. Or surprises me, and not because I’m surprised at how stupid they are. They don’t have to be perfect people, but they have to have enough admirable qualities that I won’t want to impale them on a cactus by the time we hit the Grand Canyon.

I recently made the acquaintance of Mau, the only survivor of a devastating tidal wave in Terry Pratchett’s Nation.  I came late to Pratchett. Not being a great fan of comic fantasy, I was pleasantly surprised to discover in him a writer who is not only funny, but also humane and wise. Through Mau, Pratchett tells the story of what it might be like if everything you knew and loved were literally swept away, and you had to reassemble your world one piece at a time. You had to learn to survive open seas. You had to figure out how to overcome the cruel indifference of nature and the unnecessary evil of other people. You had to rediscover not just what you believed, but what deserved your belief.

Watching Mau courageously face these challenges was a pleasure. I liked him, and I’m glad we met.


Greg’s Sunday quickie — My favorite fantasy novel that isn’t a fantasy novel

One of my all-time favorite fantasy novels involves a dark magician who gathered around him a small cabal of talented, like-minded specialists and led them in a pact with demonic forces in exchange for great power, wealth, and notoriety. What followed was a meteoric rise to the pinnacles of influence. They strode across the world like gods. Denied nothing, they freely indulged any depraved amusement they could dream up. And for a time, they were rewarded for it.

But, as these things go, there came a cost. One of them lost his child. Another, his life. And the dark master magician himself found his sanity and health drifting away. Only the fourth of their brotherhood, the least flamboyant among them, who alone refused to enter into the pact, emerged largely unscathed. This one would go on to enjoy quiet satisfactions, such as arranging the strings on REM’s Automatic for the People album. He was called John Paul Jones, and he’s still a great bass player.

And that’s pretty much Hammer of the Gods: The Led Zeppelin Saga, by Stephen Davis. I consider it the rock bio equivalent of the Matter of Britain. Only with more urine.