Archive for April, 2013

TT: Riding into History with Haggard

April 25, 2013

Welcome to the 100th Thursday Tangent!   Interested in having the whole set – for free?  Alan has set the Tangents up as an e-book.  Go to for your free download.

Oh!  And if you’re looking for the Wednesday Wandering, just page back one for a look at where you might start when preparing for a career as a professional writer.  Then join me and Alan as we explore the secret realms of H. Rider Haggard.

She and her sequels

She and Her Sequels

JANE: Last time, I mentioned that it was interesting that sword and sorcery fiction often presents itself as a prehistory of our modern world.   For example, the final scene of Moorcock’s Elric novels could be interpreted as the beginning of our world – complete with the entry of Evil into Eden, or at least Chaos into Order.

There is a whole rich crop of Fantasy fiction that expands upon recorded history and myth, often adding dimension to both.  Being a myth junkie, I’m very fond of these sort of stories. (I talked about this a bit in my WW 3-09-11.)  From other discussions we’ve had, I know that one particular author who wrote in this area was your gateway into SF/F.

ALAN: That was Henry Rider Haggard. I was only about 11 years old when I first discovered him. I can still remember the incredible thrill I got the first time I read She – I recently re-read it for the umpteenth time and it thrilled me all over again! Some magic never goes away.

Anyway – I’d read the classical myths of course (Greek mainly) but to me they were just stories.

JANE: You mean, they were all Greek to you?

ALAN: Groan! Yes, that’s exactly what they were.

So because the myths were no more than stories to me, I’d never really appreciated the  power and influence that they had on contemporary culture. However, Ayesha (She-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed) was 2000 years old when the events of the novel took place and she’d grown up with the Greek (and Egyptian) myths as a very real embodiment of the world she was living in. Even at the end of the nineteenth century, when the events of the novel took place,  they were still tremendously influential on her point of view. Somehow Haggard brought that home to me and one of the reasons that 11 year old me loved the book so much was because, for the very first time, I’d truly learned to appreciate the power of myth as reality. I doubt I phrased it that explicitly to myself back then (I wasn’t that precocious), but, nevertheless, that’s what it amounted to.

JANE: Myth was my gateway to Fantasy and SF.  Somehow, it all seemed very real to me.   I knew all the Greek gods (and their Roman alternates), the Norse, a good chunk of the Egyptian when I was still in single digits.  I remember being deeply disappointed when a girl named “Diana” was chosen to do the report on Artemis when I was about ten, because I’d already adopted Artemis/Diana as one of my favorites.

You know, I think it’s interesting that “She-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed” has become mythic – or at least proverbial – because the phrase is used by people who have never heard of the original novel and its fascinating central character.

I believe Haggard used mythology in more than just his tales of Ayesha, didn’t he?

ALAN: Yes indeed.  Later I read the series of novels that Haggard wrote about Allan Quatermain’s early years – Quatermain was the hero of many Haggard novels, but the ones I’m specifically thinking about here are the trilogy made up of Marie, Child of Storm, and Finished. On the surface they are simply Quatermain’s autobiography of his adolescence and “obviously” he’s the “hero” of his own narrative. But it soon becomes clear that the power behind the events of the novels is a Zulu witch doctor called Zikali (the Thing-That-Should-Never-Have-Been-Born) and the narrative is soaked through with Zulu spirituality and myth. This of course was completely new to me – I’d had no previous exposure to the Zulu world view at all and again the power of myth and the use that Zikali makes of what is, to him, the reality of the world was overwhelming. To me, these three books are much more Zikali’s story than they are Quatermain’s.

JANE: That’s wonderful!  Now I want to read these.  I didn’t, probably because – as with Conan – the pop culture adaptations gave me a distorted view.

How well grounded was Haggard in his material or does Zulu simply stand in for “exotic Africa”?

ALAN: Haggard  spent a lot of time living in that part of the world and he was intimately familiar with the Zulu people so he was definitely writing from knowledge, not from ignorance. He actually wrote a non-fiction book called Cetewayo and His White Neighbours which was about the social and political problems of integrating Zulu culture with that of the Europeans. So he certainly was not making the mythology up as he went along.

However, I wouldn’t be at all surprised to learn that he watered it down  a bit for the sake of his audience who, of course, would probably be largely ignorant of the culture and who would need something at least semi-familiar to grasp onto. I’ve seen both views expressed and I don’t know enough about it to have a firm opinion either way. But of course that doesn’t really matter; the important thing is the effect the material has upon the reader – and to me it was a hammer blow between the eyes.

JANE: And a powerful one, indeed.  Thanks!

ALAN: Haggard explored the Zulu theme in many other novels – Nada The Lily is a particularly good one, but he also returned again and again to Egyptian, Greek and even Buddhist world views, mixing and matching as it suited his story. Consequently, I’ve been convinced from a very early age that the believability of a fantasy world goes hand in hand with the strength of the mythology and history that it is built upon. Without it, the world seems thin and unconvincing – and the extruded fantasy product we sneered at a while back doesn’t work because it doesn’t have these firm foundations. A puff of skeptical wind and it all falls down into ruins.

JANE: I wholeheartedly agree…  Even when the religious traditions aren’t key to a story – as, for example, they weren’t in my early Firekeeper (aka “wolf”) books – I still try to make it clear that my characters have a spiritual side and that their culture provides expression for it.

ALAN: Yes – it’s very important to be clear that people don’t do things for arbitrary reasons, which is something that EFP (see TT 4-03-13 if you wonder what “EFP” stands for) writers often forget.

But I see I’ve got a bit carried away with my enthusiasm for one of my favorite writers.  I don’t think we’ve come anywhere near close to exhausting all the wonderful fiction that draws on myth and history.  Shall we continue with it next time?

JANE: Absolutely!


Where to Start?

April 24, 2013

Last week I wrote about things a new writer – in this case defined as someone who had a novel finished or nearly finished and was wondering about what to do next – might want to know.

Living Creatively

Living Creatively

The following question came to me via e-mail: “I really liked what you wrote but, what is your advice for someone who is serious about writing professionally, but doesn’t know quite where to start?  Should I take courses on writing?  How about workshops?”

I thought I’d offer an answer here, since even those writers who are beyond this point might know someone who would benefit.  In fact, the more I think about it, how to become a writer is a question most writers get asked a lot.

Q: What is your advice for someone who is serious about writing professionally, but doesn’t quite know where to start?

A: First make sure you really like to write – not just like the idea of having written.  It’s much easier to talk about your great story idea than it is to actually get the idea down on the page.

Next, consider what you’re going to do to make a living until you start making enough money to give up your “day job.”  I strongly recommend not taking up a profession that involves a lot of writing – even if writing is what you’re best at.

My experience – and I’ve heard this from other writers as well – is that each person has only a certain amount of writing in them on any given day.  If you use that all up in your day job, then you’re not going to have it when you come home in the evening and want to work on your novel.  Even the difference between writing non-fiction and fiction is sometimes not enough to stop your brain and creativity from drying up.

Q: Should I take courses on writing?

A: Certainly you should take courses if you wish.   Just don’t major in creative writing!

Alternately, if you already have a career path, don’t fool yourself into believing that taking courses on creative writing will suddenly make you publishable.  In my experience, the only thing that numerous courses on creative writing – especially the type taught at most colleges – are good for is to give you the credentials to teach other people about creative writing.

Yes.  A course or two can be useful, if for no other reason than that, if you take them seriously, they’re going to teach you about writing to a deadline (always useful for a professional) and how to structure your day so that you make time to write.  However, writing – a lot of writing – is what you need to do to refine your skills so that you can become a “pro.”

Q: What about workshops?

A: Workshops can be very useful.   Many workshops address “genre” or “popular” fiction – a topic that is, sadly, anathema in many college courses.  Therefore, if you’re interested in writing mysteries or romance or science fiction or fantasy or thrillers or any other of the many forms of popular fiction, writing workshops may be of greater use to you than college courses.

There are workshops specifically focused on specific genres.  However, even workshops that aren’t as tightly focused will offer lectures on subjects such as narrative hooks, researching, characterization, and keeping the plot moving – all of which you can apply to your own writing.

Writing workshops also often include lectures on the business side of writing.  This can be very valuable, even if all you learn at first is the vocabulary of the trade.  (You’d be amazed at how many would-be writers I’ve met who don’t know the difference between a publisher and an editor, an agent and a publicist.)  Especially during the more intensive workshops, you will have the opportunity to network, thereby making contacts with writers and other professionals that may be valuable for years to come.

Since writer’s workshops can be expensive, both in time (some run several weeks) and in money, research your potential options before signing up.   Take a look at the schedule before attending and map out those lectures you want to attend.

Some workshops offer an opportunity for attendees to sign up for a short interview with an agent or editor.  I wouldn’t recommend attending a workshop in the hopes that this will be your big break.  However, such pitch sessions are something you’ll rarely find as part of a college course.

Q: If I shouldn’t major – or take lots of courses – about writing, then what should I do to prepare myself to be a professional writer?

A: First, train for a day job that you’ll either like or that at least won’t drain away your creative energy while you work on your writing.   Even better, consider a job that will stimulate your creativity.  Just in sampling our New Mexico writers, I know an environmental engineer, a physicist, several lawyers, a couple journalists, myriad computer geeks, a doctor, and a couple of teachers.  All of them have, at one time or another, drawn on their professions in their fiction.

Second, consider taking a course or two on subjects like contracts and accounting.  Yes.  I’m serious.

From the minute you sell your first story – even a short story for half a cent a word – you’re going to be signing contracts.  At the beginning of their career, many writers don’t have an agent to advise them on what to sign and what not to sign, so it’s a good idea to be familiar with the basic form of contracts.  Did you know you’re not required to accept everything in a contract?  However, knowing what is negotiable and what in non-negotiable will be a matter of learning your profession.

Why take courses in accounting?  First, you’re going to need to declare any income you make from writing.  That means no more EZ tax forms.  If you’re going to itemize your deductions, you’ll need to file various additional forms.  It also helps to know what you can deduct and under what circumstances.  Yes.  You can pay an accountant to prepare your tax forms.  (I do.)  However, you’re still required to supply the accountant with the basic information.  Since most accountants charge based upon the time they need to do the job, the better prepared you are in advance, the more money you’ll save.

Many people think the life of a writer is filled with creativity and imagination.  It is.  However, if you want to sell what you write you need to accept that writing is also a business and educate yourself accordingly.  I’ve known a couple of writers who didn’t bother to do so and they’re paying the piper for their ignorance, either in lost rights or in cold, hard cash.

Q: That’s a lot to think about.  Anything else?

A: Yes.  Although courses and workshops may help you, the only way to become a professional writer is to write, to submit what you write, and to keep doing so until you finally “make it.”    (See last week if you want my views on the self-publishing option.)

Recognize that writing as a career – rather than as an art or hobby – involves more than knowing how to tell a good tale.   I promise, you won’t regret it!

TT: Sword and Sorcery

April 18, 2013

Looking for the Wednesday Wandering?  Page back and take a look at my advice to new writers.  Then join me and Alan as we strap on our swords, pick up our magic wands, and head into the mysterious realms of Sword and Sorcery.

Selection of Sword and Sorcery

Selection of Sword and Sorcery

JANE: Alan, last time you mentioned that Robert Howard’s original Conan books had all become unavailable until Lin Carter and L. Sprague de Camp brought them back into print.  I’m really glad they brought them back, since I think that was when the stories reached a new level of popularity.

As you noted last time, the stories are very smart, the world-building is strong, and the characters widely varied.  Ironically, the Conan stories were much imitated by writers who diluted the material to the barest minimum.  I didn’t read them for the longest time, because “everyone” knew Conan was just a dumb barbarian.

ALAN: Yes – the idea of Conan the Cimmerian as a barbarian sword swinger rapidly turned into a cliché, and was much satirised. John Jakes (who wrote a lot of fantasy stories before he found fame and fortune as a historical novelist) wrote a very funny book called Mention My Name In Atlantis about the adventures of one Conax the Chimerical. He also wrote a whole series of rather more “serious” novels about Brak the Barbarian. The derivation is obvious I think.

JANE:  Jim was a great fan of the Conan series and convinced me to try them.  I found myself fascinated by Conan’s story arc as he moves from a thief and scoundrel to something of a hero and finally to a king, saddened by all he has seen, but determined to do his best for his people.

ALAN: Conan the Barbarian – undoubtedly he was a great man. But perhaps not as great as Colin the Librarian whose swash-buckling adventures are chronicled in a series of novels by Tony Keaveny and Rich Parsons. Yes, really! Would I lie to you?

JANE: Never…

Before we go much further into this, I’d like to try and define what makes sword and sorcery different from other sorts of Fantasy fiction.  In some sense, the words sum it up.  There should be flashing swords, dashing heroes (and heroines), and not just magic, but sorcery – often of the deepest, blackest form, used by mysterious figures for quite possibly nefarious reasons.

Sword and sorcery novels also usually involve traveling to exotic locations, something I highly prefer over the rather claustrophobic settings of some EFPs, which seem shackled both by location and by the weight of accumulated  history.

ALAN: That seems like a perfect definition to me.

JANE: Wonderful!  Are there other sword and sorcery tales – in addition to Conan – that you have enjoyed?

ALAN: At the same time that he was working with the Conan material, Lin Carter was also writing novels of his own. He had a series about Thongor of Lemuria. There was nothing really outstanding about Thongor – he was a typical sword swinger – but one aspect of the novels that I found vastly entertaining was that Thongor travelled to his adventures in a spring powered flying car (I seem to recall that it was developed for him  by a friendly magician). It had two powerful springs, one of which turned the propeller and also tightened the tension on the other spring at the same time. When the first spring wound down, Thongor simply switched over to the second one which continued to propel the craft and also re-tensioned the first spring again. Rinse, lather, repeat. Thongor was ever so pleased that he never had to refuel. Refuelling stations were few and far between in the barbarian hinterlands of Lemuria…

JANE: Funny story about Thongor…  When Jim was quite young, he read a bunch of the Thongor stories.  When a bit later, he came upon Conan, he was quite indignant that someone had copied Thongor.  Later, still, he realized it went the other way around – but despite his liking Conan quite a lot, he retains a sneaking fondness for Thongor, flying machine and all.

ALAN: That’s an opinion we share. I never cared much for Carter’s other novels, but I do have a soft spot for Thongor.

JANE: I must admit, probably my favorite sword and sorcery stories are those that Michael Moorcock wrote about Elric of Melnibone.

Elric is the last king of a decadent race, a sorcerer by both heritage and through his studies in the mystic arts.  Unlike Conan and his associates, Elric is not physically strong.  He’s an albino who must take a variety of exotic drugs to maintain his vitality.  Because his early years are spent in relative quietude, Elric has become something of a scholar as well – something that will serve him well later.

When Elric’s beloved is taken from him, he lashes out, eventually acquiring the sentient soul-drinking sword Stormbringer and the curses that go with it…  Oh!  The stories become quite intricate, with goals above and beyond merely gaining treasure and avenging wrongs.  I re-read them recently and found I loved them just as much.

ALAN: At the same time that Moorcock was writing his Elric stories, he also had several other sword and sorcery series on the boil. He freely admitted that most of these early novels were written at white heat over the course of a weekend and they do tend to read rather like novels that were patched together in a hurry. Nevertheless they have their fans.

I myself am rather fond of six novels (two trilogies, naturally) that he wrote about Corum Jhaelen Irsei, the Prince in the Scarlet Robe. They are very dark novels, which I think is what gives them their power. Corum is the last survivor of the Vadagh folk, an elf-like race with some small ability to do magic. A group of men raid his castle, killing his family and horribly mutilating Corum himself. After that, things go from bad to worse as he seeks his revenge…

JANE:   I read some of the Corum novels, too.  I liked them, though Corum didn’t resonate with me in the same way as Elric did.

Another sword and sorcery series I liked quite a lot were Fritz Leiber’s stories of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser.  Fafhrd is a big, brawling barbarian along the Conan model.  The Gray Mouser is more of a thief.  They go on amazing quests, have peculiar sorcerers for patrons, and seem to have a lot of fun as they get into huge amounts of trouble.

ALAN: You’re right – I absolutely loved the Fafhrd and Gray Mouser stories. Leiber added to the series all his life long and it’s interesting to read the series in publication order – you can actually see Leiber maturing as a writer. The stories get significantly more thoughtful and more subtle as they progress, but they never lose their delightful wit. As with all the great stories, it’s not so much the adventures themselves that give the stories their strength, rather it’s the way the characters react to those situations. Fafhrd and the Mouser had very distinct (and distinctly different) personalities and Leiber really brought them alive on the page. These stories are sword and sorcery at its very, very best.

JANE: Sword and sorcery had a huge impact on role-playing games – possibly the only other form of Fantasy that had as great an impact was Tolkien and his imitators.   Much of the debt is obvious – brawling fighters, subtle thieves, intriguing mages – but some is more about tone.

Early  AD&D had character “alignments” (an effort to make players think about how their characters would behave in various situations).  The basic divisions “Order,” “Chaos,” and “Neutral” owe a lot to Moorcock’s sword and sorcery multiverse, for which these were the lines upon which epic rivalries were drawn and by which magic was ruled.

I haven’t played any of the AD&D franchise for many years, nor newer fantasy games like Pathfinder, but I bet that even if the terms have died out, the influence remains.

ALAN: I played D&D when it first appeared and I was very conscious of the influences that you noted. But I’ve not been a role player for many years now. I prefer reading books!

JANE: To me, the best games are rather like interactively writing books – something of which I am very fond.

Thinking over what we’ve discussed, I have thought of another trait that recurs in sword and sorcery novels – often the events are presented as pre-histories of our current day.  So, it seems to me that a fun type of Fantasy for us to discuss next is that which uses actual history and mythology as a foundation.

How about it?

ALAN: That seems like a good idea. As always, I have opinions…

What’s a New Writer to Do?

April 17, 2013

More often than you might imagine, I get e-mails from unpublished novelists asking me for advice about the publishing business.  I will admit, I take these queries most seriously when the person writing me has a project that is completed or nearly completed.  Worrying about where to get an unwritten novel published just isn’t practical.  Even at the best of times, industry standards change.  Lately, publishing seems to be changing on a monthly, if not weekly, basis.

My first, reissue and original versions

My first, reissue and original versions

Still, I’d like to help out if I can.  When I was starting my own quest to get published, I was lucky to have a good friend – Roger Zelazny – who tutored me on the business.   However, with hindsight, I realize I might have done better to also talk with someone who wasn’t quite as established.  Things had changed since Roger started out….  Although much of his advice was very good, some was distinctly dated.

So, here’s what I’m going to do.  I’m going to offer some advice meant to help those writers who have finished manuscripts in hand – manuscripts that are as polished and as perfect as their writers can make them.  However, I’m going to invite – even encourage – those of you reading this to update my assumptions.

Obviously, I can’t cover everything, so, who knows?  There might be a sequel.

Q: What’s an advance?  How much can I expect to get for my novel?

A: “Advance” is short for “advance against royalties.”  This is what a publisher pays you for the right to publish your book.  The money is yours, free and clear.  However, you don’t get any additional money until the book has earned enough for the publisher to make back what they have advanced you.  Royalties are based on a percentage of the cover price of the novel.  Since these percentages vary from publisher to publisher, I won’t go into that.

Brace yourself…  The basic beginner’s advance has not changed much in years.  Usually, it is under $5,000.00, often much less.  This is usually paid out in at least three segments: on-signing of the contract; on delivery and acceptance of the manuscript (this means the revised manuscript – after the editor has given you notes and you have addressed them in a satisfactory fashion); and on publication of the manuscript.   Publishers are notorious for not being prompt in making these payments.  You might sign the contract in April and not see the “on-signing” check until June.

The reason those million dollar advances make news is that they are rare occurrences.

Q: Should I try for one of the big publishers or would a small “boutique” publisher be better for me?

A: It depends on what you want.  A big publisher will have a larger distribution network.   That means they can get your books into all the chain stores.  They have sales reps out there, telling all the independent book sellers about your book.  They have a staff of editors, copy editors, art directors, and publicists in place.  However, you won’t be your editor’s only concern.   She (my last three editors have been female) will be working with other authors and other books at the same time as she is working with yours.

If you sell to a smaller publisher, you might get more personalized attention.  On the other hand, that’s not automatic.  If this smaller publisher doesn’t have a large staff, then your editor might be as over-worked as at a larger publisher.  Try and learn what sort of attention you can expect before signing with a smaller publisher.  Also, try to find out what sort of distribution and promotional network they have in place.

Always be careful of “publishers” who want you to pay them to publish you…

Q: Do I even need a publisher?

A: That’s a huge and controversial question.  My answer would be that whether or not you need a publisher depends on the type of person you are.  If you like self-promotion, enjoy spending lots of time on everything from formatting your own manuscript for publication, to art design, to promoting the work (a job that takes a lot of time), then self-publishing may be a good route for you.

If you can’t do any one of those jobs, then you’re going to need to pay someone to do it for you.

Although I’ve brought back into print a few of my out-of-print stories, I’m far from an expert on this area.  It’s also probably the fastest evolving part of publishing so No One, no matter what anyone tells you, is an expert.  If you’re considering the self-publishing route, make sure you get many opinions.

Also, make sure that at least some of your opinions are from writers who do not already have a publication record or following.  Seriously…  It’s easier to succeed in self-publishing if people already read your works.  Many of the articles I’ve read raving about self-publishing as the next wave of the future have been written by writers who already have long track records.  A couple of them have been major award winners.   Last year I was on a panel with a fellow who has done very well in self-publishing.  However, he had a following from his work in comics.  Either way, he might have been proudly showing us his first published novel – but it was far from his first publication (and he was the first to admit it).

Q: I’m beginning to feel overwhelmed!   Where do I look for current information on publishing?

A: If you want current, you want to look on the web.  However, make sure you’re getting a balanced presentation.  There are lots of people who have strong opinions one way or another about everything.  However, writers (because writing is what they do) are more likely to write these opinions down and put them where other people can find them.   This doesn’t mean that they’re right.

Consider looking into professional writer’s organizations.   Joining a professional organization can be beneficial.   These organizations will often have places on their websites where members can learn about publishers and new trends in publishing.   There are organizations for many different genres – science fiction and fantasy, westerns, horror, romance, mystery.  Consider joining more than one for wider exposure to opinions.

Yes.  You can join, even if you’re not yet published.  Look for information on “associate” memberships.

Many areas have regional writers’ groups.  I’m most familiar with Southwest Writers, here in New Mexico.  These groups can be great for beginners.  There are usually monthly meetings with guest speakers – usually published professionals.  Often there is an annual conference or contest, both interesting ways to learn more about the business or to find out how your work measures up.

If you’re interested in science fiction, fantasy, or horror, don’t overlook your local SF convention.  Often there is track of writing-related programming that most expensive writer’s conferences would envy.

Finally, come in to your research on publishing with an open mind.  A few years ago, I was on a panel at an academic writer’s conference.  One of the audience members asked about self-publishing.  He clearly did not like the answers he received.  Afterwards, I heard him ranting to someone in the corridor.  Turns out he had self-published.  He had expected to hear he was on the fast and easy road to big bucks and mega-success.  Hearing that he was going to have to work hard had not sat well with him.  In his opinion, the panel of five published authors were all idiots…

In other words, you can only learn how to succeed in publishing if you’re willing to listen, to weigh advice, and to formulate a plan that works to your goals and to your strengths.

Once again, I invite readers to provide added information on these or related topics.  I’m willing to listen!

TT: The Impact of the Ballantine Reprints

April 11, 2013

Want to know the release date for Artemis Awakening?  Then don’t miss this week’s Wednesday Wandering!  When you’ve learned the date and considered the connection between citrus fruit and faeryland, then come back and join Alan and me as we look at a very influential Fantasy line.

Characteristic Ballantine Reprints

Characteristic Ballantine Reprints

JANE: So, Alan, last time we talked about some of the common tropes in Fantasy fiction.  Those tropes had to come from somewhere.  While a certain amount of source material goes back  to the myths and fairy tales that may be the oldest form of Fantasy, there is a long tradition of Fantasy fiction before the current boom – or even the first boom, in the 1970’s.

ALAN: That became very clear to me in the 1960s and 1970s when Lin Carter edited a series of classic fantasy for Ballantine Books. He brought back into print a lot of stuff that had been unobtainable for years. That was my first real exposure to many of the books that lay at the roots of the genre, and it introduced me to some magnificent stories.

JANE: Me, too!  I particularly loved Evangeline Walton’s four novels that expanded the Welsh Mabinogi.   I never would have found them without Lin Carter’s advocacy.

Which were your favorites?

ALAN: Lud-In-The-Mist by Hope Mirrlees was an oddly quirky novel from 1926. Neil Gaiman has called it “one of the finest [fantasy novels] in the English language. . . . It is a little golden miracle of a book.” And I’m certainly not going to argue with an authority as eminent as that! In 2009 Michael Swanwick published a biography of Hope Mirrlees. It was called Hope-In-The-Mist and it was nominated for a Hugo Award.

JANE: I haven’t read that.  I’ll definitely put it on my list.  Any others?

ALAN: The stories of Lord Dunsany and E. R. Eddison were also eye openers for me. I must admit that I struggled through Eddison’s The Worm Ouroboros. I didn’t really like it and I found it overwritten. I think I might have enjoyed it if it had been a lot shorter, but the interminable descriptions of ornate castles and enormous battles soon got dull. I tried his other novels, but found them quite impenetrable. I have no idea what Eddison was trying to do with them.

JANE: My reaction to The Worm Ouroboros was similar.  The ending really annoyed me.  However, there’s no doubt that it was a seminal work.

For Dunsany, I’ve only read The King of Elfland’s Daughter (marvelous title!).  While I wasn’t turned off, I didn’t find myself looking for other works.  What did you think of his work?

ALAN:  Dunsany was stylistically similar to Eddison in the sense that the prose of his early tales was very elaborate and decorative. But he restricted that style to short stories (some of them very short indeed) which made it possible to appreciate the story before boredom set in. It was noticeable that in his novel length work (such as The King Of Elfland’s Daughter), his prose became much less baroque. I enjoyed Dunsany’s work a lot.

JANE: Oh, dear…  If the short fiction is more ornate, I might not make it.

How do you feel about James Branch Cabell?  He wrote in that general time period as well.  Many of his novels appeared in the Ballantine series.

ALAN: Ah – James Branch Cabell was the cream of the jesting crop (that’s a Cabell joke and it’s the sort of thing he did all the time in his books). Probably his most famous novel was Jurgen, a book so full of overt phallic symbolism that, when it was first published in 1919, the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice attempted to have it banned on the grounds of obscenity.

Naturally, it immediately shot to the top of the best seller lists. I can’t help but feel that its readers must have been quite disappointed. It isn’t in the slightest bit obscene, but it is very funny in its own slightly dirty way. It pokes a lot of fun at Arthurian mythology and has a few sly digs at Dante as well.

JANE: Ah, the lure of the dirty book.  I did my dissertation on D.H. Lawrence and had a lot of people look at me sidelong because, even today, some people still think he wrote “dirty” books.   Yet, really, by modern standards, even Lady Chatterly’s Lover is very mild.

ALAN: Did you know that both Robert Heinlein and James Blish were Cabell fans?

JANE: No, I didn’t.  That’s surprising, given that both of them are best known for their SF.

ALAN: Heinlein mentions Cabell very respectfully in many of the letters published posthumously in Grumbles From The Grave. He claims that both Stranger In A Strange Land and Glory Road were directly inspired by Cabell. His novel Job shared a sub-title with Jurgen (A Comedy Of Justice), and several of the characters from Jurgen make an appearance in the story.

The Cabell Society publishes a journal called Kalki and for many years James Blish was its editor.

By the way, Michael Swanwick (the biographer of Hope Mirrlees) is also a Cabell scholar.  In 2007, he published What Can Be Saved From The Wreckage, a critical study of Cabell’s works. Believe it or not, it has a preface by Barry Humphries (better known as Dame Edna Everage) who is, presumably, a fan. Isn’t it strange how all these things are connected?

JANE: Actually, I’ve never heard of Dame Edna Everage…    Can you fill this poor American in?

ALAN: Barry Humphries is an Australian comedian and actor – he plays the Great Goblin in Peter Jackson’s movie of The Hobbit. He almost never appears on stage as himself. Invariably he is disguised as one of his many alter egos of whom the most well known is Dame Edna Everage, housewife and superstar. She has an inexplicable fondness for gladioli. She’s world-famous in England. And in Australia and New Zealand and…

I was pleased to discover that Dame Edna’s alter ego Barry Humphries is a fantasy fan.

JANE: Revelation!  Thank you.   Any other Ballantine reprints you want to touch on?

ALAN: Not directly, no. But at about the same time that the Ballantine books were appearing,  L. Sprague de Camp and, to a lesser extent, Lin Carter were bringing Robert E. Howard’s Conan stories back into print for Lancer books, and later (when Lancer went out of business) for Ace. Sprague de Camp and Carter completed some fragments that Howard had left behind as well as republishing Howard’s original material. Conan was a surprisingly subtle character and Howard’s world was well constructed with a complete and convincing history and mythology (even the geography was well thought out). Conan has not been well served by the movie and comic-book adaptations which make him out to be a lot less than he was.

JANE: I had no idea that Conan had been let fall out of print.  By the time I started reading SF/F, he was omnipresent.

This gives me a great idea.  How about we take a closer look at sword and sorcery – the sub-genre of Fantasy to which the Conan stories belong – in our next Tangent?

Artemis and Citrus

April 10, 2013

Warning!  This is going to be a more wandery Wandering than usual.

Artemis in Faeryland

Artemis in Faeryland

I have news regarding Artemis Awakening, my forthcoming novel from Tor.  Last week, I chatted with my editor, Claire Eddy.   We have an official release date of May 2014!  Claire had some good comments on the manuscript, so  I’m currently deep into putting a final polish.  Needless to say, I’m pretty excited!

If you’re new to these Wanderings, you might want to check out my post for 8-22-12.  In it, I talk about Artemis Awakening and even provide a glimpse at the original proposal.

Okay, that’s the Artemis.  What about the citrus?

Well, at the end of March we went out to Arizona.  Talk about visiting an alien world!   The area where we live in Albuquerque is classified as high altitude grasslands.  Our climate is pretty dry – in a good year we get seven and a half inches of rain and we haven’t had that in a couple years.  By contrast, Arizona makes us look positively lush.

Well, at least most of the time it does…  This time it was the reverse.

Our part of New Mexico is  barely into Spring, while Arizona is moving into summer.   As we moved further west and the roadsides greened up and began brightening with wildflowers, I felt like a time traveler .  I noticed mallow and other wild flowers that we won’t see for months.  The bark on the palo verde trees was vividly green with fresh spring color.   My mom had tomato plants thriving in her yard.  Her fava beans were setting pods and her herbs were lush.  Here we’re worrying about whether we lost all the peach blossoms to a frost a few weeks ago and waiting to see what plants made it through the very dry winter.

It’s amazing what something over four hundred miles and a downward shift in altitude can do.

In this case, I could argue it took us into a rather peculiar version of faeryland.  Seriously, one of the most common motifs of faeryland is that it’s a place where trees bear both fruit and flower at the same time.  Well, lots of citrus fruit is grown in the Phoenix area and guess what?  Yep!  Citrus bears both fruit and flower at the same time.

The night of our arrival we went outside and the air was heavy with the perfume of flowering lemon, orange, and grapefruit trees.  (Probably limes and kumquats, too, but I didn’t see any personally.)  On the day before our departure, we went and picked several hundred grapefruit and about as many lemons.  It really was rather wonderful, pulling off these shining yellow fruit while filling our lungs with the scent of the flowers.

I’ll make most of the grapefruit into juice – I love grapefruit juice and it’s easier to store than the whole fruit.  Some of the lemons will stay here, but many will go to friends who will turn them into luxuries like lemon curd and lemon marmalade.  Bottles of this then make their way back to us…

Talk about wondrous transformations!

So, it’s been a good time.   This week I’m back to work on Artemis Awakening, with the delightful prospect of getting to expand the story when I start the second book.  Now, if we only knew for sure that we’re going to get peaches…

TT: EFPs and Quests

April 4, 2013

Looking for the Wednesday Wandering?  Page back one and wade into the YA pool.  Then come back and join me and Alan as we look into the mysterious realm of the EFP.

EFP Quest

EFP Quest

JANE: On and off for the last couple of months, we’ve been discussing the genres and sub-genres that make up the speculative fiction literary realm.

We’ve gone through a whole bunch of sub-sections of Science Fiction, taken a look at Horror, and now it seems time to begin on Fantasy.

ALAN: Righto. The last of the big three genre types.

JANE: Back when we were defining what makes SF different from Fantasy, we decided the basic difference was that Fantasy had magic.

ALAN:  Yes – that was on 13th  December 2012. The Tangent was called “So, What’s SF? What’s Fantasy?”

JANE: You have a much better memory than I do!  Thanks.

One thing that hit me as we ventured through SF is that there’s  a difference in how the terms evolved in each genre.  In SF, the terms for the sub-genres often had to do with what type of technology was being extrapolated.  For Fantasy, the terms seem to have more to do with a combination of the setting and the roots.

ALAN: Quite right.  There are fantasy stories that have a firm basis in accepted mythologies, and then there are stories that seem to bear little or no resemblance at all to the roots of our own culture. Any or all of these may have a vast range of settings in terms of time and place, even to the extent of being set in the modern day and age (so called urban fantasy).  It’s a very flexible genre. Unfortunately, there’s a lot of it I don’t like.

JANE: What sort don’t you like?

ALAN: One thing that annoys me is that so many novels seem to be built up from fantasy cliches. The bookshop shelves are groaning under the weight of fantasy trilogies (or greater), all of which seem quite indistinguishable from each other.

They are full of quests and magical artifacts and low born commoners who play a large and important role in the medieval, semi-feudal society of the cardboard world of the novel. There are swords, and often the swords have names.

Somebody in a discussion group once coined the term Extruded Fantasy Product (EFP) to describe this stuff and I’m in full agreement with that. I detest EFP, but I continue to like fantasy stories with some degree of originality to them.

JANE: Do you want to risk controversy by naming a few authors and titles?

ALAN: I’m probably going to ruffle a few feathers here, but in my opinion the very worst practitioners are George R. R. Martin with his “Song Of Ice And Fire” novels and Robert Jordan with the “Wheel Of Time” books. I started both series with high hopes because I knew and respected earlier work from both authors. But I found the books to be interminably dull and predictable, and it wasn’t very long before I said the Eight Deadly Words, and abandoned them.

JANE: Eight deadly words?

ALAN: “I don’t care what happens to these people.”

JANE: Ouch!  I haven’t followed either of these series, so I can’t really comment.  However, I firmly agree that if a writer can’t make me care about the characters in the story I certainly don’t want to continue reading it.

ALAN: You’ve written a lot of fantasy novels without falling into the EFP trap. How aware are you of the genre cliches and how do you avoid them?

JANE:  I appreciate your comment because I’ve worked very hard – twenty-two published novels and counting – to avoid genre cliches.   Part of the reason is that I’m just not attracted to anything anyone has ever done before.  That means I don’t have a longing to write my version of Lord of the Rings  or whatever.

I also don’t have a desire to write my own books to show everyone how someone else should have done it “right.”  I know of at least two authors (and I suspect there are many more) who have written their version of Twilight.  Power to them, if reaction is inspiration, but that’s not how my brain works.

Even when I do want to use recognized tropes  – certainly I didn’t invent the idea of a woman raised by wolves – I tend to research from the ground up and invent my own take on the idea.  I’m astonished how many budding writers do their research from other novels or from films and never go to the roots.

ALAN: How do you feel about quests?

JANE: Quests…  If I do one, it’s so interwoven into a complicated plot that it’s just one element of a larger picture.  If I have a simple quest plot, I use it as the core of the plot when I run a roleplaying game.  That’s more fun for everyone.

ALAN: That’s fine, as long as the book doesn’t turn into a novelisation of a role-playing game (which, to be fair, yours don’t). Raymond Feist’s novels started life that way and I’m afraid that they read like EFP to me. However, he has written an utterly brilliant and very dark urban fantasy called Faerie Tale. If I was feeling cynical, I might say that the reason it is so good is because it isn’t a novelisation of a role playing game…

JANE: Actually, there is some very original fiction based on role-playing games.  The problem is that many RPGs are based on EFP, and that contributes to the generic element.

Going back to quests, possibly the only “straight” quest story I’ve done was for the inside out quest novel in four parts Forever After that Roger Zelazny put together toward the end of his life.  (And for which I was uncredited co-editor.)   That can hardly be called a “straight” quest, since the goal was to put back items that had been gathered…

But I have diverted the stream of conversation.  Let’s get back to the roots of Fantasy fiction as we know and love it. Meanwhile, I need to go and write more non-cliched fiction, so let’s dive in next time.

YA: What Does That Mean?

April 3, 2013

Over the years, I’ve had many e-mails from parents asking me if my novels are suitable for young readers.  Sometimes the e-mails are from kids asking me some version of the same question, because their parents told them to do so.  Although I think this question could be better answered by skimming the novel in question, I do my best to answer it.

Acceptable YA Reading?

Acceptable YA Reading?

Usually, my answer is some version of this: “Not knowing your child, I cannot really answer this question.  I have received fan mail from readers as young as eleven and as old as eighty-nine.  I have been told my books satisfy both long-time readers of SF/F, and those for whom a particular one of my novels is their first encounter.

“If you are specifically concerned about sex and violence, I can tell you that your child is likely to encounter more of both on prime-time television.  However, the novels do contain both, as frequently as I deem appropriate to the story.”

But I’ve never felt satisfied with that answer.

I was particularly troubled when one younger reader (who proudly told me he read at college level, even though he was not yet in college) told me his dad had been concerned about one sex scene in Through Wolf’s Eyes.  Well, that sex scene – although adulterous – is between consenting adults.  It isn’t even particularly graphic.  I didn’t think it was a very big deal, not for a generation that can see as much or more any day on the afternoon soaps.

Moreover, this young man’s screen name gave away that he is a fan of the manga/anime Naruto.  I read Naruto. (I haven’t seen the anime.)  The stories regularly feature blood, violence, torture (psychological and physical), and sly sex humor.  Why was this not worrying this young man’s dad?  Was it because the story was told in illustrated form?  Maybe so.

After all, both violence and sex are more intimate when you’re in the character’s heads.  I remember one friend who looked up from reading an early David Weber novel and commented: “If he kills one more person while I’m in their head, I’m throwing this book across the room.”  I had watched both movies and television with this young man, and he had never reacted in the same way to visual depictions of scores of deaths.

Okay.  So maybe books are different.  If so, how to define the line between what is Young Adult (YA) fiction and what is not?

I decided to consult my friend, Julie.  She’s a librarian who specializes in YA.  Moreover, she has regularly judged awards for YA works in various categories.  I figured there must be a definition used to define what was YA and what was not.

Julie’s response was so complex and so interesting I’m tempted to include it all here, but I’ll settle for the high points.  She began: “I don’t believe there is any definitive definition of YA literature, probably in part because the field continues to expand and morph.”
Julie then listed a few common definitions: books written specifically for a younger audience; any books young adults read for fun; any book with a young protagonist, dealing specifically with teen issues.  She noted that for awards, often the publisher’s designation is what mattered.  (Note the power of that spine imprint!)

She went on that, for her personally, the age of the protagonist or the spine imprint simply were not enough to designate a book YA: “For me, YA literature is distinguished by change, evolution, development, the search for identity, and/or the search for self.”

I liked this last definition quite a bit.  It explains why over the last several decades YA literature has expanded to deal with more and more complex issues.  After all, the world our young adults face is more and more complex, as electronic communication exposes young readers to things that once would have been kept behind closed doors.  However, this last definition still allows for the older style of works to be included.

I’m not sure any of this solves my personal dilemma, but it gives me a broader base for thought.

I hope if you have anything to add, you’ll feel free to contribute.  Maybe somewhere I’ll find the perfect answer!

(Note: A version of this piece appeared on in 2008.)