Archive for June, 2013

TT: Urban Fantasy, the First Time Around

June 27, 2013

Looking for the Wednesday Wandering?  Just page back to come and play in the center of the galaxy where new stars – oops! I mean “words” – are born.  Then join me and Alan as we pull out our machetes and venture a few steps into the complex jungle that is urban fantasy.

Gateways into the Urban Fantasic

Gateways into the Urban Fantasic

JANE: I’m eager to continue our exploration of urban fantasy with what might be termed “classic” urban fantasy.  Where would you like to start?

ALAN: Well, to begin at the very beginning, I suspect that the story that probably best defines the genre is Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. It has all the elements we’ve highlighted as important – the city and the people in it loom large and are the most important of the story. But the supernatural elements (the ghosts) have a large part to play in tying together the threads of the plot and bringing it to a satisfactory conclusion. The one could not happen without the other and that, I think, is the whole secret of a successful urban fantasy.

JANE: Interesting!  I don’t think I would ever have thought of A Christmas Carol, but I certainly see your point.

I first became aware of the term urban fantasy in the days when my novel Changer was written, but not yet published.  Editors and such like kept referring to Changer as urban fantasy.  I had to ask what they meant.  The inevitable answer was “You know, like Charles de Lint’s stuff.”  And so I finally read de Lint and immediately became a fan.

Now you see why your comment last week made me grin.

ALAN: Indeed I do. And now I’m grinning…

JANE: If I had to pull one of  de Lint’s novels out of the many I’ve read as a favorite, it would be Someplace to Be Flying, but that doesn’t mean I don’t like the rest.   I’m very fond of the Crow Girls, for one…  For another, the cosmic level de Lint was able to take his plot without losing the very human element really impressed me.

ALAN: My first de Lint novel was Moonheart which is set in the city of Ottawa. As with some of the other books we’ve discussed, it draws heavily on mythology (Celtic and Native American in this case) but it is set firmly in the modern city and tells the story through modern eyes and modern perceptions. I’d never read anything quite like it before and I was blown away by it.

JANE: De Lint also has the gift of writing short stories that tie into each other so that they become more than a single story but something other than a novel.  I got Jim hooked on his work with the collection Dreams Underfoot – and Jim is not usually a short fiction reader!

ALAN: For me, and for a lot of people, de Lint’s most impressive work is an on-going series of novels and stories known collectively as the Newford stories. They are set in a fictional city (the eponymous Newford). Many characters (both natural and supernatural),appear again and again in the books, sometimes in major roles and sometimes as minor players and you can dip into the series almost anywhere (always a good thing about a long series). However, there is a trilogy somewhere in the middle which tells the tale of Jilly Coppercorn – an artist who has a significant role to play in the stories of some of the other Newford characters.

Everyone (including me) is a little bit in love with Jilly, but in Promises to Keep, The Onion Girl, and Widdershins, we learn some of her backstory. It’s harrowing. Newford is not a real city and the supernatural elements are pure fiction but nevertheless the stories are firmly rooted in reality and Jilly’s story epitomises this. The words “Charles de Lint” and “Newford” on the cover of a book mean that I have to buy the book immediately and everything else stops until I’ve read it all the way through.

JANE: Ah…  Jilly!  Yes.  She’s a great character and her personal history, although harrowing at times,  is a survivor’s tale.  I sat up all night reading Onion Girl when my beloved elderly cat, Gwydion, died suddenly.  Far from the dark elements of Jilly’s story making it harder for me to read, her determination was a balm for my grief.

Shifting (reluctantly) away from de Lint…

One of my personal favorite  urban fantasy novels is War for the Oaks, by Emma Bull.  The opening didn’t grab me, so, despite many recommendations, I didn’t read it for the longest time.  Then David Weber jumped up and down and said: “So skip the opening!  I promise you, you will love this book.”  So I did and he was right.

In War for the Oaks, the fairy folk are warring for a park in Minneapolis.  For reasons too complicated to go into here, the members of a local band are drawn into the conflict.  Although the point of conflict may be a park, the setting is very urban: bars, rock and roll, motorcycles…

ALAN: I also recall that you mentioned the name Terri Windling when we were chatting. That’s not a name I’m familiar with – can you tell me a little more about her?

JANE: Terri Windling is a very high profile editor.  She’s less prolific these days, but for quite a long time she edited The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror anthologies with Ellen Datlow.   Windling also was the editor for a lot of the early urban fantasy authors.  I believe she edited both Charles de Lint and Emma Bull.  Additionally, she was the editor for the urban fantasy Borderland anthologies.  She has a fondness for both myth and fairy tales as themes and has been responsible for a lot of the best work in those areas for many years.

As a writer of fiction, Windling isn’t very prolific, but her novel  The Wood Wife is an excellent urban fantasy piece.  Unlike much that had been done to that point, it’s set in the American southwest, near Tucson, Arizona.  Although a great deal of the action is set in the desert, there’s a distinct urban fantasy vibe to the piece.

ALAN: Interesting. I wonder how she slipped underneath my radar?  Obviously I need to add her to my reading list.

Although the urban fantasy that we’ve been discussing here has come out of the New World, Dickens isn’t the only Old World author to write urban fantasy. There’s quite a lot of it that comes from the UK.

JANE: Absolutely!  Let’s touch on some of these next time.  Right now, I’d better get to work.  I hear a puma screaming my name!


Bridezillas, Sci-Fi, and “-gate”

June 26, 2013

This past weekend, when some friends dropped by, conversation turned to a wedding in which one of the young ladies had been a bridesmaid the day before.  She apologized for being a bit short of sleep.  Apparently, the bride had wanted a say on every little detail – but had also left getting those details arranged until the last minute.

A Bridezilla

A Bridezilla

“Oh,” said another member of our little group sympathetically.  “A Bridezilla.”

Now, I believe that word has been popularized by a television show, but I’ll admit, not only did I immediately understand the term, I knew it would stick in my head because of its appropriateness.  An image of the Japanese movie monster Godzilla clad in a wedding gown, complete with train and veil, rampaged into my imagination.  Instead of roaring, I heard, the monster bellowing: “No!  You can’t wear your hair that way!  It will look all wrong!”  “No!  Hold the flowers like this!  Gracefully.  Don’t strangle them!”

Because I love words, I started thinking about why “Bridezilla” works so well.  I realized that sound is key.  Both “God” and “Bride” end in a strong “d” sound.  They are also single syllables, so although the words are not at all visually similar, they scan alike.

Now that “Bridezilla” has been popularized, “Groomzilla” also might enter the language, but it never could have done so on its own because, without the sound link, it is dependent on “Bridezilla” to “sound right.”

This got me thinking about how many neologisms (neo = new; logism from “logos” meaning “word”) depend on this sort of sound link to catch on and enter the general vocabulary for more than a very short time.

A term near and dear to our genre is “Sci-Fi.”  SF Fan lore credits the origin of this word to the late Forrest J Ackerman who deliberately coined it to echo another term popular at the time: “Hi-Fi” (short for “high fidelity,” which was the “high definition” of its day).

When I was getting more involved in the SF/F field back in the 1980’s, saying “Sci-Fi” rather than “SF” was considered just a little déclassé.  I have no idea if the same prejudice, especially with the popularity of the “SyFy” channel, still holds.

In a catalog, recently, I came across a listing for a “fandex.”  This was a collection of cards fastened together at the bottom, so that they could be consulted without the need to shuffle through the cards.  The source for this word was pretty obvious: fan + index, condensed into “fandex.”  Will the word gain ground and enter the general vocabulary?  Hard to say, but it does have the advantage of being neatly descriptive.

Sometimes, neologisms evolve to such an extent that the original source becomes lost.  The Watergate political scandal created a trend for dubbing first any political scandal, then any scandal at all, with a word ending in “gate.”  This trend seems to have finally fallen out of use (I hope?), possibly because the association became so attenuated with time that it lost its impact.  After all, the original Watergate was nothing more than a complex that combined residential apartments and the business offices where the break-in was committed.  Unlike the “ zilla” in “Bridezilla,” which alludes to a monster out of control and so has come to have a meaning of its own, “gate” doesn’t have the same associational impact.

For those of us who create imaginary worlds – and sometimes imaginary languages to go with them – what it takes to make a successful neologism is worth considering.  Even for those who don’t,  neologisms are just plain fun.

I hope you’ll share your favorite neologisms.  Let’s journey through the winding maze that is a living language!

TT: The Mean Streets of Urban Fantasy

June 20, 2013

Looking for the Wednesday Wandering?  Rev your engine and take a spin around the Unser Racing Museum with me.  Then join me and Alan as we venture into the mystic streets of urban fantasy.

Wonder Doesn't Stop

Wonder Doesn’t Stop

JANE: A few weeks ago, Alan, you referred to “Buffy/Twilight urban fantasy rubbish.” (TT Roger Zelazny: Master of Odd Twists.)

This, of course, triggered a desire in me to make urban fantasy in its various incarnations our next topic.  Shall we?

ALAN: Yes, let’s.

JANE: Even before we get into discussing specific writers, the term “urban fantasy” provides a fruitful ground for discussion.  Compared to some of the sub-sections of fantasy we’ve discussed, “urban fantasy” – as a distinct term – is relatively new.

Do you know when the term came commonly into use?

ALAN: This is purely anecdotal, but I think I first became aware of it in the early 1990s, and the stories that brought it to my attention were mainly by Charles de Lint.

JANE: I smile…  You’ll see why eventually, but I want to try out a definition of urban fantasy first.

As I see it, one of the major elements of urban fantasy is that the fantasy story takes place in an urban environment. This is a great contrast to much fantasy, which is pastoral in nature.  Indeed, in a great deal of traditional fantasy, cities are considered non-magical places, even antithetical to magic.

Although in urban fantasy the setting is usually contemporary, many of the magical elements draw on myth and folklore, or use traditional magical elements.   Even more importantly, in urban fantasy, the magic belongs in the city.  Magic isn’t reserved for a single odd shop selling magical curiosities or a cabal in hiding.  In urban fantasy, the faerie folk, to cite one commonly used trope, continue live among humanity as they always have.  They’ve just adapted.

ALAN: You’ve hit the nail right on the head – in urban fantasy, the fantastical elements are tightly integrated into the story. They are perceived as normal and open, part of everyday life (initially they might take some of the characters by surprise, but acceptance soon follows).

JANE: I mentioned above that I was rather late even being aware there was something called urban fantasy.  You can imagine my confusion when, some years ago, I became aware that the types of story the term referred to had expanded.

I’d been peripherally aware that once again there was a resurgence of interest in fiction about vampires and werewolves – often in a softer, more romantic mode than they had been presented in the Horror boom of the 1980’s.  The term by which these stories were called initially was usually “paranormal romance.”   There may have been another…  Supernatural something?  If so, it slips my mind.

I’ll admit, I’m not much interested in either vampires or romance as the driving elements of a plot, so I pretty much gave these a pass. Since it seemed to me that many of those writing this new “urban fantasy” were influenced by the Buffy television show, I tended to refer to these stories as “Buffy Fic.”

ALAN: Lovely phrase. It’s very descriptive. The first time I heard you use it, I immediately filed the serial numbers off and started using it myself.

JANE: That’s cool!

ALAN: It’s this tendency to throw the supernatural kitchen sink into the mixture and, at the same time, to de-emphasise the role that our contemporary society plays in the events of the story that makes me sneer at this kind of story. I think the strength of the genre lies in its contemporary real world setting and the fantasy elements should have a part to play in the contemporary real world problems of the characters. The further away you get from that, the more the supernatural is emphasised over the more mundane, the less convincing the story becomes.

Though having said that, all is not hopeless and there are some examples of Buffy Fic that I’ve enjoyed a lot.

JANE: Me, too.  Well, since there seem to be two related but distinct types of fiction both being referred to as urban fantasy, maybe we can start by discussing the older variation, then move to the newer one.

However, as usual, I need to go write!  Let’s save this discussion for next time.

The Unser Racing Museum

June 19, 2013

Sometimes, the best thing a writer can do is push outside of his or her comfort zone and try something completely new.

Automobile racing is one of many things that I’m aware exists but know almost nothing about.  However, when Michael Wester suggested that we go check out the Unser Racing Museum here in Albuquerque, I was willing to give it a try.

Built for Speed

Built for Speed

I first heard about the Unser family when I moved to Albuquerque and asked what Unser Boulevard was named for.  That was when I learned that New Mexico was home to a racing dynasty that had been notable in the sport for going on four generations.  Even then, my only thought was that the name explained the way some people drove down that particular road – as if they were in a race.

As for the Unsers,  before our trip, I couldn’t have named a single Unser, although “Al” and “Bobby” swirled up out of my subconscious as possibilities.  Our visit began with Jim taking pictures of a couple of cars — one antique, one ultramodern – on display outside.  We then progressed to the double door that led into the museum proper, the handles of which were shaped like a steering wheel, split down the middle.

The main museum is round with six “spokes” off a central hub.  The central hub is designated the Winner’s Circle and features a brilliant yellow racing car – one of those that won the Indie 500.

The first spoke contains the gift shop and some small displays, including a family tree of four generations of Unsers.  Flags designate those who have been involved in auto racing.  There is also a magnificent piece of stained glass that I found myself thinking I wouldn’t mind having, even if the subject was a racing car.  The first hub has a few displays, but most are reserved for the other five hubs.

The displays in the first hub center around the Pike’s Peak race.  This is the race that infused the Unser family members with their enthusiasm for racing.  Rather than going around and around a track, this race goes up a very steep mountain and features some hairpin curves that nearly double back onto themselves.  As if this isn’t terrifying enough, until recently, the track was dirt.

The Unsers have won this race so many times that in racing circles Pike’s Peak is often called “Unser’s Mountain.”  Nor do they always compete in the same type of car or class of race.  One of the more recent victories was by Jeri Unser (a fourth generation and the only female to take up racing) in an electric car.  Her time was so good that she beat many gas-fueled vehicles.

The second spoke was devoted to the Indianapolis 500.  What was really cool about this room was that it didn’t just focus on the race, it focused on the technology of the cars.  It’s one thing to look at a low slung, smooth-tired car and admire its lines.  It’s much more fun when there are displays (and all the displays at the Unser Museum were excellent) to explain why the cars are built that way and what advances have been made over time.  An added flourish for a novice like myself was an explanation of what pit crews do and how crucial their contributions are to success or failure in the race.

The third spoke was called Jerry’s Garage.  When the Unsers first came to New Mexico, they ran a gas station and garage.   This garage is where the “boys” not only learned to drive, but often built their own cars.  I was really impressed to find out that many of the Unser drivers were also mechanics and engineers, so they understood their cars from the tires up.   In one anecdote, am Unser associate talked about seeing the flash of a diamond Indie ring on the finger of the Unser who was, at that moment, helping him grub through the engine of his car.

Throughout the displays, there had been a lot of stress laid on the competitive spirit of the Unsers, both with other drivers and with members of their own family.  It was rather nice to see this balanced by some less competitive qualities as well.

The fourth spoke was devoted to racing fans.  The walls were lined with handmade quilts, and the displays included gifts made by fans and given to the Unsers.  Particularly flashy was a black and white checked guitar from Nashville.  However, just in case you forget that this museum is all about cars, a Model A Ford in beautiful condition dominated the center of the room.

The fifth centered around some very cool educational displays, including an array of engines with explanations about how they worked.  There were interactive touch screens on which you could quiz yourself on race car lore – including how the tracks are set up, the technology, and even the role played by the weather.  The crown jewel of this room was a high class racing simulator, realistic enough that I found myself jumping whenever the car got a little too close to the walls or another vehicle.

After Jim and Michael both had a chance at the racing simulator, we went over to Unser Two.  This building contains a selection of both racing and antique cars.   I haven’t mentioned something really special about this museum.  The vehicles aren’t behind ropes.  You can walk right up to them and peer inside the cabs.  Visitors are asked not to touch the cars – which are polished to a perfect gloss.  Given the lack of fingerprints, I think this wish was respected.

Unser Two also contained a display room containing hundreds of racing trophies – and these were only some of those earned by the members of the Unser family.  In addition to the usual cups and engraved plaques, there were some beautiful works of art, including a miniature Japanese samurai helmet and race cars sculpted from what looked like gold wire.  There were a selection of champagne bottles and a milk bottle…  This last would have puzzled me greatly, but I’d learned that a bottle of buttermilk is traditionally presented to the winner of the Indie 500.

There was also a small gallery of racing related art, some of which was surprisingly good.  I think my favorite there was a painting with repeated renditions of the Indie “Marlboro” car that made me think of folded origami figures, rather than automobiles.

After we left, we all agreed that the museum had been a lot more fun than any of us had anticipated.  I found myself wanting to read a book about the Unsers and wishing that I’d had energy to stand and read some of the longer touch screen presentations.  As a writer, I was reminded how good it is to push my limits.  Too often it’s easy to only do things you know in advance you’ll enjoy.  Far more creatively stimulating is pushing your horizons.  Maybe what you learn won’t show up in a story right away, but someday it will, making you very glad you made the effort.

TT: Roger Zelazny – A Look at Some of the Rest

June 13, 2013

Looking for the Wednesday Wandering?  Page back one and get my point of view on, well… Point of View.  Then come and join me and Alan as we conclude our discussion of the novels of Roger Zelazny.

By the way, tonight (Thursday, June 13th, 6:30 pm), I’m doing a book signing at Alamosa Books here in Albuquerque with Darynda Jones and Shea Berkeley.  Hope to see some of you there!

Doorways to Strange Places

Doorways to Strange Places

JANE: Well, Alan, in the best tradition of these Tangents, we’ve tangented off our discussion of various sub‑genres of Fantasy into a discussion of Roger Zelanzy, a writer of Fantasy and Science Fiction whose work we both enjoyed.

Where shall we go next?

ALAN: What about Roger’s Dilvish stories? I could never really come to grips with them. I’ve tried reading them several times but they always strike me as straight down the middle of the road fantasy novels with nothing especially outstanding or original about them. I’ve never managed to get more than two or three chapters into them. It seems to me that this world would have been an ideal place for Roger to explore his mythological themes from a less technological point of view, but I never saw any sign of that at all ‑ or indeed of anything else either. On the other hand, it may well be that I’m missing something important here. Roger was always a subtle writer, so perhaps I just haven’t spotted whatever it was he was trying to say.

JANE: I like the Dilvish stories, but I don’t think I ever took them as anything more than some light sword and sorcery.  Dilvish reminds me rather of the Grey Mouser from Fritz Lieber’s tales.  However, those stories have a firm following.  After Roger’s death, they were among those I was most often asked about.

ALAN: Strange. They never attracted me at all.

Mythologies are closely tied to histories, of course, and Roger explored the way that history might work in another of my favourite novels, Roadmarks. Again it’s oddly constructed. It only has two chapters ‑ “One” and “Two” and we swap between them. Each happens (for want of a better word) in a different time and place and the very first chapter of the book is “Two.”

There’s a road that runs through time rather than through space and the travellers on can take exits to various historical periods. But history is mutable, and changes to it simply produce extra forks in the road, so there’s always something new to see.

It’s full of Roger’s trademark humour. I love the idea of Hitler driving furiously up and down the road looking for the places where he won. And what about Mondamay, the futuristic but malfunctioning warrior robot whose major hobby and interest is pottery. And the cybernetic incarnations of Baudelaire’s “Flowers Of Evil” and Whitman’s “Leaves Of Grass” which talk and argue with the protagonist(s), constantly quoting from themselves.

JANE: I liked Roadmarks quite a bit, although I never could quite believe Roger’s claim that the chapters that take place in various historical settings were arranged at random.  They sure seem to have a logical development to me.  However, maybe that’s a logic superimposed by this reader’s mind.

Another of Roger’s odder books is Doorways in the Sand.  It’s an amusing book.  I especially liked the aliens.  What do you think of it?

 ALAN: Oh, I love Doorways in the Sand. It’s an untypical Zelazny novel in that it is an overt comedy with elements of farce. Fred Cassidy is a perpetual student (he has a guaranteed income until he graduates, so he makes sure he never graduates). Then Fred is accused of stealing the star‑stone, an interplanetary artifact which came to Earth in a trade for the Mona Lisa and the British Crown Jewels. He is pursued by telepathic psychologists, extraterrestrial hoodlums, and galactic police in disguise.  The star‑stone (which he didn’t steal but which has designs of its own) flips him through multiple realities and alien perspectives, through the many doorways in the sand. He even graduates. It’s very surreal. Here’s a quote:

“I was not completely surprised when I raised my head and saw a six‑foot‑plus kangaroo standing beside the wombat. It considered me through a pair of dark glasses as it removed a sandwich from its pouch. ‘Peanut butter is rich in protein,’ it said.”

JANE: I agree…  Lovely stuff.

ALAN: Fred’s hobby is climbing buildings. He loves high places. They soothe and comfort him when he is upset or worried. And, anyway, he finds climbing fun. It’s an odd sort of hobby to have. Did Roger have any personal connection with climbing or climbers?

JANE: Not professionally or anything, but I’ve heard that back when Roger lived in the Baltimore area he’d often escape crowded parties by going out on a roof ‑ say where a porch jutted out and the roof could be reached by a second story window ‑ and sit there, smoking a cigarette and seeing what would happen.  Often someone would join him and they’d chat.

Jay Haldeman (brother to Joe and author under the name of Jack C. Haldeman) was one of the people who’d often join Roger on the rooftops.  Since Jay was in many ways the model for Fred Cassidy ‑ he also spent a long time studying before taking his degree ‑ this connection seems pretty obvious.

When Roger died, Jay came out to New Mexico for the memorial service.  He was a lovely man, like Roger in that his seeming quiet held a lively intellect and a fine sense of humor.  He said he’d dreamed of Roger on the night he died…  I liked Jay a lot.  His death a few years later was a real loss.

ALAN: One day in a bookshop, I spotted a novel by Roger called Jack of Shadows. The title fooled me. I thought it was another Amber book (because of the reference to shadow) and so I bought it on the strength of that.

In point of fact Jack of Shadows has nothing whatsoever to do with Amber. It is a pure fantasy novel (with a brief bow to “science” in that it takes place on an Earth that keeps one face constantly towards its sun). Magic rules and Jack of Shadows, Shadowjack the Thief, has broken the compact and duped the Lord of High Dudgeon (how does Roger consistently get away with such terrible jokes?). I never regretted my decision to buy it ‑ it is a wonderful book. Jack shines so brightly. He leaps off the page and demands that you hear his story. From the Dung Pits of Glyve (where the dead are regenerated) to the search for Kolwynia, The‑Key‑That‑Was‑Lost the inventiveness never flags. I think Jack of Shadows is my most serendipitous mistaken buy.

 JANE: I liked it, too.  It could have gone the same route as the lighter “Dilvish” stories, but manages to have a bit more depth.  Roger told me that he had a vivid image of the World Machine and not much else when he started the book, but he was confident there was a story there and went after it.

What do you think of Damnation Alley?  I know that many people prefer the novella, but I actually like the novel better.  The character development is stronger and the story feels less like a string of verbal special effects.  Hell Tanner is an interesting character, especially in contrast to what most think of as the “typical” Zelazny hero.  He lacks the poise of so many of Roger’s characters but ‑ perhaps for that reason ‑ has a lot more “heart.”

ALAN: I didn’t realise there was a novella. I’ve only seen it as a novel. I thought it worked brilliantly.

Didn’t they make a movie of it?

JANE: They did, but it’s a movie I’ve never seen.  Roger asked very little of me by way of restrictions, but once he jokingly asked me to never watch that movie, so I never have.  A few years ago, I gave the VCR tape I had of it to Roger’s son, Trent, so I couldn’t give into temptation.

ALAN: Probably a wise decision.

I know we’re both fans and therefore biased, but I think that Roger’s books all stand the test of time very well indeed. The stories written by many of his contemporaries sometimes seem clunky and a little old fashioned to modern eyes. But Roger’s stories are just as fresh and as bright as ever they were. What do you think?

JANE: Occasionally, as in elements of the setting of Doorways in the Sand, I do find the novels become dated.  However, overall, I think they have held up very well.

A few years ago, when the Chronicles of Amber were released as an omnibus, one of the most frequent comments I heard was a variation on “Those characters sure do smoke a lot.”  At the time the stories were first released, social smoking was a part of the landscape.  However, as I noted in the biography of Roger that I wrote back in the mid‑nineties, he never stopped  growing and stretching as a writer, adapting to the world as it changed around him.

Somehow, I feel certain that if he’d written another Amber novel, some character would have commented, “Man!  Did we ever smoke a lot back then.”

But, sadly, he never got the chance…  I’m happy that what he did write remains stories I can recommend to newer readers.

Next time, let’s return to the sub‑genres of Fantasy.  Something you said a while back has given me an idea where I’d like to go.

How Many Points of View?

June 12, 2013

A wander from my Wandering before I even get into it.  Tomorrow evening (6:30, Thursday, June 13th), I’m doing a book signing at Alamosa Books here in Albuquerque with Darynda Jones and Shea Berkley. Although the official focus will be our various YA projects, I’m sure other works will be discussed as well.  I hope some of you will be able to drop by.

Point and Views

Point and Views

As I mentioned last week, I’ve finally found my way into the sequel to Artemis Awakening (to be released May of 2014).   First, without giving any spoilers, I can safely state that Artemis Awakening has two point of view characters.  As I worked my way into the sequel, I realized that this book demanded a third.  Why?

If I tell the honest truth and say because it “felt right,” you’d be justified in wanting to roll your eyes in frustration.  So, although that’s perfectly true – I have been writing for publication for over twenty years now, and decisions I used to work my way through have become reflex – I’m going to try to explain a little about the criteria I use to decide how many points of view a book needs.

The first element to consider is what narrative voice I’m using to write.  If it’s first person (“I”), then I usually stick with one point of view.  I have read books that work with two or more “I” narrators, but usually that’s not a choice I make.  One of the reasons I write first person is I want to be locked into one point of view.  If I feel the book needs more than one point of view, then I shift to third person.

When I was starting Through Wolf’s Eyes, I considered writing it in first person.  I stopped after a relatively short time.  Firekeeper’s way of seeing the world is so peculiar that I realized that an entire book told solely from her point of view would be maddening.  Therefore, I added Derian’s point of view.  He knew what horses and tents and stew pots and all sorts of other things were, which was very helpful.  As the book progressed and more action started taking place in the royal court – a social sphere nearly as alien to Derian as human society in general was to Firekeeper – Elise stepped in.  And so on…

I think of this as a “fan” structure, because as the plot unfolds, so does the number of point of view characters.  Too often, authors introduce all the point of view characters in the first few chapters, whether or not they’re needed.  This can keep the reader from getting involved with the story, because of all the skipping around for no apparent reason.

Q: So, how many point of view characters does a novel need?

A: As many as it needs.  Seriously…  Some stories need only one point of view character.  My novel Child of a Rainless Year does just fine with only Mira’s POV.  (Although her aunt’s journal entries could be considered another point of view, I suppose.)  So does Brother to Dragons, Companion to Owls.  However, it was suggested to me that Marks of our Brothers (my second published novel) might have benefited from an additional POV, that the tension could have been heightened if the reader – although not necessarily the characters – had a better idea what the bad guys were plotting.

Maybe so…  Certainly, David Weber gets a lot of mileage out of giving the reader both sides of a conflict, so that the reader knows who is planning what and what errors each side is about to make because of ignorance regarding the complexities of the situation.  There’s definitely an advantage to this choice if building tension important to the story.

Another reason for more than one POV is to permit “showing” rather than “telling” about various events.  A good example of this is Tolkien’s novel The Two Towers, where events separated by distance are told each as their own story, rather than having one set reported upon at some later date.

However, for me, distance alone is not enough reason for adding another point of view.  What I really enjoy is becoming immersed in the different ways two people who might be within touching distance perceive the same event or other characters.

Here’s a great exercise if you want to explore the impact of point of view  on a story.  Take a section from a book you know well, then retell the action from the different points of view.

Let’s use the journey through the Mines of Moria from Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring.  Tolkien tells this mostly from the point of view of an omniscient narrator, although occasionally he dips into Frodo’s POV, usually when he wants to add some emotion.  Now, sink yourself into each character and tell that section from the different point of view.

Gimli would be initially optimistic, then apprehensive, then what?  Frightened?  Vengeful?   His point of view of current events would be colored by “I remember when…”  “I had hoped…” with every step, every new piece of information.

Gandalf…  Does he sense the evil still lurking?  Does he realize that they are in a death trap – a death trap that he suggested they enter?  How does this color his reactions to the place?  Remember, he’s also the leader, so he’s going to be worried about his followers, not just himself.

Legolas?  Go beyond the cliché “elves and dwarves don’t get along.”  He’s seen the carved door with its hints of old friendship between the races.  Would he mull over how time has changed relations?  Is this, perhaps, the turning point in his own relationship with Gimli?

How about the humans?  How do they feel about these dwarven tunnels?  Cramped?  Claustrophobic?  Do they feel their relative youth as a race?  Would Boromir and Aragorn think the same way?  Why not?  How would these differences color how they see what is precisely the same place?

The Hobbits would probably be delighted to be underground, yet frightened by the death and destruction surrounding them.   Again, would Frodo, with his greater education and sense of history, see things differently from the younger hobbits?  How would Sam’s soul – so romantic, yet so practical – color his view of the place?  How about Merry and Pippin?  Does their reaction go beyond relief at being out of the snow?  Do they differ from each other in any way?

These differences are among the reasons I usually prefer writing from the point of view of one or more characters, rather than from that of an omniscient narrator.   Point of view can add richness and spice.  It can add character to events that otherwise could become nothing more than plodding plot.  Like any spice, point of view should be handled with precision and care but, without it, I find that the most exciting story can become bland.

Now… Off to find out what my newly added point of view character has to say…  He’s a bit creepy, but I think it’s going to be interesting to see what’s going on inside his head.

TT: Tangenting for Two Years

June 6, 2013

Looking for the Wednesday Wandering?  Just page back one to where I explore the peculiar convolutions that me led to starting my current novel.  Then come back here and

A Toast to Two Years!

A Toast to Two Years!

join Alan and me as we celebrate two years of nattering on about anything and everything.

ALAN: Well, Jane, we’ve been exploring tangents for two years now. I don’t know about you, but I’m still having lots of fun.

JANE: Oh, I agree.  Every time we think we’ve run out of things to talk about, something new comes up.  I’ve gotten to the point that I’d seriously miss these discussions.

ALAN: One of the more surreal aspects of writing these things is that, although you and I haven’t met in person for eighteen years or so, we still find it so very easy to talk to each other. Scarcely a day goes by without an exchange of emails.

JANE: I agree about this relationship being rather surreal.  I was saying to Jim the other day that I wouldn’t know the sound of your voice and, since you’re as camera shy as I am, I could probably walk past you at a convention without knowing you.  However, our chats ‑ both those that become Tangents and those on other matters ‑ have become pulse points in my day.

ALAN: I’m the one who keeps winning the George R. R. Martin look‑alike competition. You’re the one with the wolf and the ecstatic expression. Easy!

JANE: I still see problems.  I know George fairly well, so I probably wouldn’t mistake you for him…  And I never have a wolf with me at conventions.  I fear we’d be ships passing in the night.

Another oddity is that, although we exchange e‑mails on a nearly daily basis, those days are  often not the same day.  If I’m writing you in the afternoon, especially, the 18 hour time difference means that even when your reply comes within moments, you’re writing me on the next day.  I feel as if I’m corresponding with the future.

ALAN: Ah! But that gives me a huge advantage. Because it’s always tomorrow here, I know what happens! Now I have these lottery results that you might be interested in…

JANE: If you can figure out the results for the lottery here, I’m all for it.  I’d even split the take with you and Robin!

I will admit, although you’ve been a very good influence on me overall, you have played havoc with my already challenged spelling.  I keep fighting an urge to add “u” to words like “humor” and “favor.”  My computer’s spell check is constantly trying to get me to Americanize your spelling, but I refuse.

Paul Dellinger, who proofs for us, is very patient in preserving the differences in our spelling and punctuation, something I like because it provides a tacit reminder of our different cultures.

ALAN: Well, since you don’t need to use ‘u’ very often, would you care to send me some? You must have a lot to spare, and I’m starting to run out.

On a more serious note, one of the things I’ve really appreciated about what we’ve been doing is the insight you’ve given me about the way your “foreign” society works. We have a lot of similarities, as you might expect because of our shared European roots, but we also have a lot of differences as well.  Pinning these down has been truly fascinating.

JANE: Yes!  That’s something I’ve enjoyed as well.  Although often our topics have been light ‑ two years ago, we started with names for items of clothing ‑ we’ve managed to tackle some serious subjects as well: voting practices, medical care, and education systems all  spring to mind immediately.

ALAN: And naked ladies. Don’t forget the naked ladies!

Of course we’ve also spoken a lot about books; our mutual obsession. That’s been useful as well as fun in that you’ve introduced me to writers who I might not otherwise have stumbled upon. I read The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett so I could discuss the Yorkshire aspects of it with you. I enjoyed it a lot more than I expected to. Excellent book! You also introduced me to Jacqueline Winspear’s “Maisie Dobbs” novels, which I absolutely loved.

JANE: The same for me… I spent a happy week or so immersed in the complexities of James Blish’s Cities in Flight based on your enthusiasm.   And I read Jack Vance’s Space Opera.  Most recently, I read Harry Harrison’s The Technicolor Time Machine, because you mentioned it.

ALAN: Technicolor ‑ amusingly the British edition retained the American spelling on the cover.  But the audio book, which was produced by an American company, used the British spelling – “technicolour.” How weird is that?

JANE: Oh, it’s not weird at all.  They probably just got a good deal on the letter “u.”

ALAN: A question that I know both of us have been asked is whether or not these tangents are real discussions. And of course the answer is yes. They derive quite naturally from email conversations that we have. We certainly edit and polish and rearrange the bits and pieces, but even as we are writing them, the early drafts are full of gaps where the other person can make a contribution. And sometimes that contribution sends the conversation off in all kinds of unexpected directions. Just like in real life.

JANE: Yes.  Over time, I think we’ve found that the subsequent piece stays most spontaneous if we trade the evolving essay back and forth repeatedly.  This also tends to lead to new topics…

In fact, we often have so much to say on a given topic that we need to sub‑divide, which is why one topic may stretch out over several weeks.

Really, it’s been a tremendous amount of fun.

In fact, too much fun…  I’ve turned the revised Artemis Awakening in to my editor and I really should be working on the sequel.  So, until next time…

And We’re Off!

June 5, 2013

This past week I started the sequel to Artemis Awakening.    This is a big deal, an event to be celebrated with ice cream, preferably chocolate.

Awakened by Eyes Like Leaves

Awakened by Eyes Like Leaves

At least for me, starting a novel never seems to get any easier.  This is true even if – as with this book – I am already acquainted with many of the main characters, have some idea of the setting, and even have a sense of what some of the major plot elements will be.  Maybe even because of all these things, there’s this dreadful point where the characters simply aren’t talking to me.  (See “Advice from Agatha” WW 1-26-11 for a bit more on this particular stage in writing a novel.)

This novel – untitled as of  yet, so let’s call it  AA2 – was particularly cursed by circumstances.  Literally the day after I got the re-write of Artemis Awakening done and turned in to Claire Eddy at Tor and was walking out the door to go the airport to pick up my mom, who was coming for a Mother’s Day weekend visit, my phone rang.  It was an ebullient David Weber, wanting to tell me that he’d finished debugging a timeline problem in our collaborative novel Treecat Wars (don’t ask; it’s fixed; we both love it) and he’d e-mailed me the manuscript and would I re-read it right away…

I told him I couldn’t right away because I was going to visit with my mom, but I’d get to it first thing on Monday.  Except, when Monday came, I couldn’t, because my new computer was acting weird and had to be unhooked and sent back to the shop.  (They fixed it.)  So Weber expressed me a hard copy of the manuscript and I re-read it.  Then (figuring out all the new programs on my newly returned computer), I sent him a long letter debugging the bugs that had crept in through the seams.  (He stepped on them; they’re dead.)

But, by then, a couple of weeks had gone by, weeks that I’d spent in another universe with other people.  That didn’t exactly make it easier to “hear” Adara and Griffin and Terrell and Sand Shadow, nor to “see” their world and their particular situation.  I kept trying, but nothing was coming forth.  Alan and I wrote back and forth a lot about other people’s stories, so I wasn’t exactly unproductive, but AA2 still was more theoretical than a reality.

As I’ve mentioned a few times, I’m a subconscious plotter.  I don’t outline.  If I try, all that happens is that inspiration rolls over and dies, like a butterfly with a  pin through its heart.   This can be frustrating but, after 22 published novels and 60 some short stories, I’ve learned not to fight it.

What gave me my breakthrough?

Well,  the novel I’m currently reading is Eyes Like Leaves, by Charles de Lint.  It’s an odd book because, although it was written sometime in 1980, it was not published until 2012.  (If you want to know why, go read Charles’ excellent introduction to the novel.  It’s worth it, especially as a window into the conflicting and complementary forces of market and art.)  Charles says he did not heavily revise that long-ago manuscript, but he did polish.  His biggest change was rewriting the opening chapter.  He included the original version as an “extra” at the end.

It was in de Lint’s short introduction to this “extra” that I found the key to open my mental door.

I quote: “I wasn’t enjoying the first chapter.  It just seemed to go on and on with back story, when all I wanted was for the book to start.  Then I remembered a piece of advice from mystery writer Lawrence Block.  He said that one should go ahead and write one’s novel, but when you’re done, just throw the first chapter away.  Too many newer writers (such as I was when I wrote this book) feel they have to cram all this unnecessary information into the beginning pages of the book instead of just getting on with things.”

When I read this, I found myself getting all excited.  Remember how I said that maybe it was because I had so many ideas about AA2 and where it was going that I was having trouble starting?  Maybe I was trying to put too much in?  Certainly, because I’d spent much of the last couple of months mostly in editorial mode (both with Artemis Awakening and Treecat Wars), rather than in creative mode, I was thinking in a very pragmatic fashion.  I decided that, instead of thinking about foundations, I should go to where the story started.  Almost as soon as I made that decision, I heard my characters talking.

“Forbidden, you say?  That sounds promising.”

The conversation tumbled on, almost faster than I could scribble.  The opening may not be precisely like this when the book is done, but that doesn’t matter.  I’m there…  The story has started.   We’re on our way to places forbidden…

So, thank you, Charles, and thank you, Lawrence Block.   And thank you, Griffin and Terrell and Adara.  I can’t wait to see where we’re going next.