Archive for July, 2013

One Step Closer: Treecat Wars

July 31, 2013

This Saturday, the postman came to the door with a big, fat package.  Inside were advanced review copies of Treecat Wars, my latest collaboration with David Weber.

The Star Kingdom Novels

The Star Kingdom Novels

I’d seen a jpeg of the cover art, but I’ll admit I liked it even more when I held the book in my hot little hands and looked at it without the intermediary of a computer screen.  It didn’t hurt that the dominant color is one of my favorite shades of blue.  I’m getting really tired of cover art – especially for YA fiction – in shades of sepia.

I also liked how Daniel Dos Santos added depth and interest to the piece by his clever use of reflections.  The young lady on the cover is Stephanie Harrington, looking down at the planet she is leaving behind.  Her treecat companion, Lionheart (aka Climbs Quickly), looks amazingly serene given that he is the first of his kind to travel by spaceship, but that reaction makes sense given that his link with Stephanie would reassure him that, however peculiar this journey will be, it’s within the range of what she thinks of as “normal.”

This is probably the least dynamic of the three covers in the series.  I admit a sneaking fondness for the cover of A Beautiful Friendship.  Stephanie looks very fierce with her drawn vibroblade.  Indeed, in attitude (not appearance), she looks much as I envisioned the young Firekeeper in my “Wolf Books.”

I like the cover of Fire Season, too.  The ash greys and burnt oranges in the color scheme really catch the feeling of the forest fires that dominate the action.  Then, too, I was pleased that Jessica Pherris, one of the characters I created for the series, was featured.   Her anguish and protectiveness for the alien she holds cradled in her arms is eloquent in her posture.  Close by, Climbs Quickly stands watch, his green eyes transformed to orange by the raging flames surrounding them.

Let me reassure you that, despite the apparent tranquility of the cover, Treecat Wars is anything but a tranquil tale.  The aftermath of the forest fires have created problems for the treecats, problems that may only be solved by war – a particularly horrible alternative for a race that is not only telepathic, but tele-emphatic as well.  Even more than in Fire Season, this story takes the reader into the culture of the treecats.  Far too often, “first contact” stories focus mostly on the reactions of humans encountering aliens.  Even in most of the Honorverse novels, the treecat point of view has been represented by treecats who know – and almost always like – humans.  To Keen Eyes, humans are an unpredictable factor and one whose spreading presence may lead to the destruction of his fire-battered clan.

Interpersonal relationships take a big jump in Treecat Wars as well.    Stephanie’s chance to leave Sphinx to study on Manticore forces her and Anders to take an honest look at what it means to be in love with someone who lives on another planet.  Stephanie’s absence pushes Jessica into the role of liaison with a new group of xenoanthropologists…

Ah…  But I’ll stop here.  Treecat Wars hard cover release date is October of 2013.  Those of you who can’t wait – and have e-readers – can check out the Baen Books website for e-book options.  The countdown to launch is underway!

TT: Even More Buffy Fic

July 25, 2013

Looking for the Wednesday Wandering?  Just page back to where I discuss the values of Reverse Outlining.  Then join me and Alan as we continue our examination of the latest variation on urban fantasy.

Buffy Fic -- and influence?

Buffy Fic — and influence?

JANE: Okay, Alan.  I know you have another Buffy Fic author you’re eager to talk  about.  (For those of you who weren’t with us last week, take a quick look at last week’s Tangent if you want to know exactly how we define “Buffy Fic.”)  Come to think of it, I have a couple to mention, too!

ALAN: I think Buffy Fic really came into its own for me with Charlaine Harris’s Sookie Stackhouse novels. I’ve admired her work for a long time. She’s a very prolific writer in a lot of genres, but these novels are the ones that brought her fame and fortune.

JANE: I fear I haven’t read the books, so I can’t respond except to say that you’re not the only one who seems to have enjoyed them.  I sat next to Ms. Harris at a World Fantasy mass signing just as her star was rising and got to listen to her readers gush.   What made the Sookie Stackhouse novels work for you?

ALAN: Sookie was a very appealing character – I admired her feistiness – and the premise that there are vampires among us was introduced very well with, initially at least, a very sympathetic vampire character.  However, you can have too much of a good thing. The early novels are engrossing but, as the series progressed, I found myself becoming quite disenchanted with it.

One of the strengths of urban fantasy is the contrast between the mundane world and the magic world and the influences creatures of faerie have on the way that our world works. The Sookie Stackhouse novels certainly started out like that but, as the series progressed, more and more supernatural entities were introduced (werewolves and the like) and the stories moved away from their contemporary setting and turned into dull and unconvincing discourses on vampire politics and the like. In my opinion, she over-salted her stew. We got less and less reality and more and more fantasy, and I lost patience with it. I suspect she might have realised this herself because she recently announced that her next novel will be the last in the series; a decision I applaud.

JANE: Yes, I agree that focusing on the politics of the hidden world, rather than our world with supernatural world revealed (as in  de Lint, Bull, Windling etc.), can lead to a sense of a world completely cut off from our own.

In my Changer, for example, there are hidden politics, yes, but they’re tied to the real world.  One plot thread deals with sasquatches and fauns wanting to have some say in environmental policy and resenting that the “humanform” supernaturals want the non-humanform kept hidden because if humanity learns that monsters are real…

ALAN: Well, it seems that we agree about structures that work and structures that don’t. Do you have any authors who you think have managed to do this kind of thing convincingly?

JANE: Well, let’s see.  Jim got me to read the first couple novels in was Andrew Fox’s “Fat White Vampire” series.  (The first book is Fat White Vampire Blues.)  They’re set in New Orleans and the gimmick is that this time the person turned isn’t cool, handsome, or even particularly socially ept.  In fact, Jules Duchon is a loser.  Being turned into a vampire doesn’t make him any better.  The only bright idea he has is that now he can be a superhero.  The books have some clever touches – including the contrast with Anne Rice’s elegantly vampire-haunted New Orleans and the fact that Jules has not lost his taste for New Orlean’s style cooking.  When he drinks someone’s blood, he seeks traces of the food he loves and will never again be able to eat.

ALAN: I’ve not heard of them before. They sound like enormous fun – obviously I need to add them to my reading list.

JANE: Moving back to Buffy Fic, something that concerns me about this particular variation on urban fantasy is that, in addition to the disconnect from our own world, there is a certain formulaic nature.  I’ve come across more than one series that starts with vampires, moves to vampires and werewolves, then includes mages, then includes the fairy folk (often in a “fey light” mode), then moves to include ghosts.

I can’t help but be reminded of the sequencing of a certain series of gaming books put out by White Wolf in the 1980’s: Vampire the Masquerade, Werewolf the Apocalypse, etc.  There seems to be a lack of imagination here.

ALAN: Indeed so – it’s all too easy to fall into cliché when imagination fails and I suspect that’s what we’re seeing here.

JANE: When I tried Jim Butcher’s wildly popular “Harry Dresden” series, part of what turned me off was the sense of that I’d seen this all before.  Another was that Harry seemed too dumb to have survived to this point in his life.  Have you read any of these novels?

ALAN: Oh goodness me! You are so right, they are completely unreadable! Harry is such a moron.  I just want to reach into the page and shake some sense into him. I gave up after about three books. I couldn’t stand his stupidity any more

JANE: You got further than I did – and this despite the fact that there were times Butcher really impressed me with his descriptive ability.  Unlike many of the “follow the trend” writers of Buffy Fic, he has skill.  I just couldn’t find myself caring about what he chose to do with it.

A variation you sometimes get in Buffy Fic  is angels and demons in addition to all the movie monsters.  I’ve also found this presented as a separate subset, where demons replace vampires and angels take the roll of the fairy folk.  It’s as if, instead of the basic inspiration being movie monsters (since most of the vampires etc. owe more to film than to folklore), it’s a watered-downed Judeo-Christian myth.

ALAN: Well, we’re all familiar, to some extent, with the  Judeo-Christian myths so there’s absolutely no reason why they can’t form the basis of novels like these. Indeed, there’s a New Zealand writer who makes a very successful living out of writing exactly these kinds of books. Her name is Nalini Singh (she’s of Indian descent). I’ve met her several times and spoken to her about her books. For a long time she just wrote straight romance novels – the Mills and Boon kind of thing.

JANE: Alan?  What’s a Mills and Boon?

ALAN: Aha! We’ve stumbled over another one of those cultural differences that caused us to start writing these tangents in the first place! Let me go off on yet another brief tangent…

Mills and Boon are British publishers of romantic fiction. I think they are similar to Harlequin in America. Because they only publish romance their name has become synonymous with romance, and British people tend to talk about Mills and Boon books rather than romance books. Mills and Boon publish a huge number of novels and they have a huge stable of writers, all of whom have female names. I use that phrase advisedly – I know someone who writes for Mills and Boon as a hobby. He is about six feet tall and six feet broad with enormous muscles. In his day job, he is a policeman. Nevertheless, as far as his readers are concerned, he is a delicate female with a very romantic view of the world…

JANE: Lovely!  I hope he carries this over into his personal life.  His partner would be very lucky indeed.

ALAN: Meanwhile, back to Nalini Singh – she found that she couldn’t make a living by writing just pure romance.

Then one day she had a brainwave; why not combine a romance novel with a fantasy plot? And she’s never looked back. She’s a regular on the New York Times Bestseller lists and she makes quite a comfortable living from her writing.

She has two major series on the go: “Psy-Changeling” (which is vaguely science fictional) and the “Guild Hunter” series which is the kind of thing we’ve just been discussing: stories that are full of sexy angels, archangels and the like. The stories get quite raunchy at times as well, which is an added bonus!

They’re not really my cup of tea (I’m not all that fond of romance as a genre), but I’ve read several of Nalini’s books and there’s no question about it, they are beautifully written page turners. She’s a skilful writer and, if you like that kind of thing, I promise you won’t be disappointed.

JANE: A similar but different take on the use of Judeo Christian tropes in Buffy Fic are Darynda Jones’ “Charley Davidson” books.  (The first book is First Grave on the Right.)

Charley is the Grim Reaper – what this means is defined in the series and it’s too complex to go into here.  Her mundane life is as a private investigator – a profession in which it can be very useful to be able to talk to people who have died but have unfinished business.

The books are light and breezy, full of sexual allusions and the occasional hot sex scene.  There’s an on-going romance, too, although a very odd one.  Charlie is a likeable character, who genuinely cares about the people – living and dead – with whom her life becomes intertwined.  I save the books for times when I want a light read that isn’t shallow.  That’s often hard to find.

And, as a plus, no vampires!

ALAN: Big plus!

JANE: I’m sure our readers will want to fill us in on the good Buffy Fic we’ve missed.   I hope they’ll feel invited to do so!

Reverse Outlining

July 24, 2013

Not much rain since last time.  Lots of veggies.  (I’ve picked at least ten ichiban eggplant, about a gallon of string beans, and three monster zucchini since Monday.  Oh, and another mystery squash and a few tomatoes.)  And this week’s writing task is…

Reverse Outline: Treecat Wars

Reverse Outline: Treecat Wars

Reverse outlining the 30,000 plus word manuscript I have of “Artemis Awakening 2.”

Reverse outlining?  What are you talking about?  And, hey, wait!  Aren’t you always saying you don’t outline your novels?

You’re right.  I do say that and I hold to it.  I don’t outline a novel before writing it – which is what most people mean when they talk about outlining – but I do outline as I write.  Often I start when I have a chapter or two in place. This time the novel took fire so quickly that, until I was interrupted by the need to do the page proofs for Treecat Wars, I neglected this essential step.

Why would you bother to outline what you’ve already written?  I mean, isn’t it wasted effort?  Don’t you have the manuscript there in front of you?

I do have it and, no, it’s not wasted effort.  In fact, I find reverse outlining the absolutely best way for me to keep track of my plot, characters, and the general flow of the action in an evolving novel.  So, how does reverse outlining work?

First, I pull out a sheaf of nice, white lined paper.  Yes.  I could do this on a computer, but I’m one of those people who remember things better if I write them down by hand.  Since part of the goal of a reverse outline is to serve as an aid to memory, I write mine by hand.

Next, I pull out a sheaf of brightly colored pens.  I assign one color to each point of view character and another to be used for chapter headings.   I also pull out a pencil.  The last preparatory step is to pull the manuscript file up on my computer screen.

Since my reverse outline isn’t for anyone except me, I don’t worry about writing down everything that happens in a particular section.  I focus in on events that will jog my memory when questions crop up like “When exactly did they arrive in Spirit Bay?” or “When did that mugging happen?” or “How many days have elapsed since….”

In the side margin I use the pencil to note what day a given event happened.  I use pencil because sometimes dates shift, especially if I end up going and adding something later on.  If the book has a precise starting date, I use that.  Otherwise, I simply label each day as Day One, Day Two, etc.  Later on, I can always add a notation as to calendar date, if that will be important.  I also make notations as to season since time of year can affect anything from length of days to temperature.  I also note the phase of the moon if that will be important.

What do I do if the action skips ahead several days?  I make a note of that as well.  More importantly, I note why those days were skipped.  Maybe there was uneventful travel or maybe time needed to heal from a wound or maybe the characters were waiting for some information.  Especially in the case of travel time, these details can come in really useful, making sure that journeys between points take about the same amount of time.

I recently finished reading a fantasy novel in which I never could feel the terrain was at all real since travel time between points seemed to shift according to the needs of the plot.  Most of the time, the characters seemed to slog along, step by step.  However, when the climax required a last minute arrival of the Good Guys, they showed up, a bit sweaty and all, but certainly faster than I could believe.  It took some of the fun out of the climax for me to feel that there was a deus ex machina, when the plot was going out of its way to eliminate deus or machina.

Yes, I do realize that, especially when a book is set in a low tech setting, travel times can vary widely.  If so, why not make a note of the reason?   You don’t need to write that long slog through the snow unless that slog is important, but you can note that getting from point A to point B took longer (or shorter) because of weather conditions.

But reverse outlining is useful for more than just consistent geography.  It can help with characterization, too.  Characters can marvel that they’ve known each other only a few days, but feel bonded.  Or, conversely, that they’ve been together for weeks but, after a short time, the friendship ceased to progress beyond initial introductions.

Why do I color code my point of view characters?  (Well, beyond the fact that it gives me an excuse to play with colored pens, which I love?)  I do this because it enables me to see at a glance whether the story has gotten out of balance.  Certainly, there are times when one character has more to do than another.  However, it is also true that a writer can become deeply drawn into one plot thread at the expense of another.  If this isn’t deliberate, then some rebalancing is in order.

So, time to pull out the colored pens and get back to it…

TT: Modern Twist to Urban Fantasy

July 18, 2013

Looking for the Wednesday Wandering?  Just page back one.  Maybe you can tell me what’s growing in my garden.  You’ll also learn why, no matter how busy I am, I never skip page proofs.  Then come back and join me and Alan as we take a look at the newest evolution in urban fantasy: Buffy Fic!

Buffy Fic: It's Not All Like This...

Buffy Fic: It’s Not All Like This…

JANE: As we mentioned a few weeks ago, the term urban fantasy has recently expanded to incorporate what used to be the monsters of horror, presented in a less monstrous, often romantic, context.  Since it seemed to me that this sort of urban fantasy blossomed forth as the Buffy the Vampire Slayer television series grew in popularity, I’ve tended to term it “Buffy Fic.”

ALAN: And that’s a name that seemed so appropriate the first time I heard you use it, that I’ve been using it ever since. But “Buffy” was a TV show. I suspect that the huge popularity of Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight novels has also had a lot of influence on the growth of this kind of thing as a literary genre.

JANE: Now, I’ll admit, as a reader I have an aversion to fiction focused around vampires— although I have read all the “Twilight” books, mostly so I could find out what the fuss was about.  Anyhow, to me, it doesn’t matter if the vampires are the good guys or the villains or both.  It’s just not my flavor.  Therefore, I’m hardly an expert on this particular variation of urban fantasy.  Perhaps you could mention some authors or titles you have enjoyed.

ALAN: I rather like vampires. Can I tangent off our tangent for a moment so that I can talk about vampires?

JANE: Go for it…  I’m always hoping to figure out what possible appeal vampires could have.

ALAN: The archetypal example of the genre would be Anne Rice’s work – Interview With The Vampire et al, but I must confess I always found them rather turgid.

JANE: Whoa!  I remember when Anne Rice’s work was omnipresent.  Wasn’t it considered horror?

ALAN: I think that’s the slot that many readers and reviewers put it in, but I was never completely convinced.  Anne Rice always presented the vampire Lestat in a very romantic light. He was handsome and sexy as well as dangerous. I’m sure you could make a very good case that Buffy Fic draws at least as much inspiration from Anne Rice’s work as it does from anything else. After all, the prevailing characteristic of Buffy Fic is that feeling of slightly dangerous romance.

JANE:  I really think that one of the biggest differences between Buffy Fic and Horror is that in Buffy Fic romance is crucial.  It also lacks the “darkness” that prominent horror editor, Ellen Datlow, mentioned is key.

It’s worth re-quoting her: “To me, horror is less a distinct genre than a tone that develops from the approach writers take to their material.  It’s the darkness, always the darkness that prevails.  Even when the protagonist survives, the darkness is never left entirely behind.  Things are not ‘ok’ in the world (which is why most of what is today called ‘urban fantasy’ is not horror).”

ALAN: That’s quite true.

But, sticking just to vampires for the moment, I’ve greatly enjoyed Mike Resnick’s approach in Stalking The Vampire which is a sort of hard-boiled private detective novel with vampires and jokes. He’s written several books in this series and they are all a lot of light-hearted fun, played strictly for laughs.

Christopher Moore has also written a trilogy of vampire novels which I think are some of the funniest books I’ve ever read – I was literally crying with laughter when I was reading them. The novels are: Blood Sucking Fiends, You Suck and Bite Me. I think the puns are obvious…

Then there’s Kim Newman and his Anno Dracula series. The premise here is that Dracula triumphed over his enemies – Jonathan Harker and Van Helsing were soundly defeated. Dracula wooed, won and married Queen Victoria, as a result of which vampirism became very fashionable and it wasn’t long before everybody who was anybody at all in high society was turned into a vampire…

Newman’s stories are not precisely played for laughs; there’s a grim subtext. But nevertheless there is a lightness of tone which makes them really rather a lot of fun.

Books like these straddle the line between horror and Buffy Fic.

And, to be more serious for a moment, Octavia Butler’s last novel Fledgling uses the vampire as a metaphor for the outsider and her novel, while it’s a brilliant straightforward vampire story on the surface, is also an examination of racial and sexual prejudice underneath the surface. Vampires definitely have their literary uses!

JANE: Well…  Let’s just say that I don’t feel any desire to add these to my reading list.

You know, you still really haven’t given an example of Buffy Fic…  How about one?

ALAN: OK – back to Buffy Fic. I’ve really enjoyed the Rachel Morgan novels by Kim Harrison. The premise is that most of the human race has been destroyed in a world wide pandemic caused by genetically modified tomatoes and now the supernatural entities (who weren’t affected by the pandemic) can slot themselves neatly into the organisational structure of society. There’s still an uneasy relationship between the humans and the supernaturals but nevertheless there is a relationship.

Rachel Morgan herself is a witch and a detective. Her cases involve both the mundane and the supernatural and much of the strength of the series comes from the impact of her relationships, both romantic and otherwise, with her clients and partners. The titles of the novels are wonderfully clever puns on Hollywood movies – for example Dead Witch Walking, and The Good, the Bad, and the Undead.

JANE: Oh!  I’m giggling madly!  Genetically modified tomatoes?  Funny!  But, actually, it’s also a nice reference to the rising fear of genetically engineered crops.

Now It’s my turn.

My husband, Jim, is usually my gateway into any book with vampires.  He really likes Carrie Vaughn’s “Kitty” books.  Kitty is a radio talk show host who is assaulted by a werewolf and becomes one herself.  Initially, she is a very convincing wreck.  However, she finds her strength in becoming a voice for the voiceless.  I’ve only read a few of the books, but I’ve liked what I’ve read.  Jim is positively hooked.

One thing that makes the Kitty books work for me is that – although there is a fair dose of hidden politics –  there are real world issues, too.  Kitty’s mother gets breast cancer and Kitty needs to figure out how to visit her mother with dangerous enemies on her tail.  In Kitty Goes to Washington, Kitty has to testify before Congress regarding the reality of supernatural entities.

Best if all, not all the vampires are powerbrokers.  One of my favorite scenes is the one where a young man calls into Kitty’s show.  He was “turned” and now the only work he can get is in a late night stop and shop.  He’s not cool.  He’s not powerful.  And he’s trapped this way for all eternity.  It’s a bit of nice balance.

ALAN: I’m not familiar with those books. Perhaps we should take a break here while both of us go and do some reading…

JANE: And I go do some writing!  Spoiler warning for our readers…  We’re not done yet!  Hurry back next week for more of the best of Buffy Fic.

Fragments: Rain, Page Proofs, and Vegetables

July 17, 2013

We had rain this week.   Sunday night was particularly memorable.  We got over half an inch.  Most of that fell within an hour.  The rest drizzled down over the next few hours.  Male and female rain, as I’ve been told our Navajo neighbors would term it.  We just call it good weather.

Mystery Squash (about five inches, top to bottom)

Mystery Squash (about five inches, top to bottom)

Several times Sunday evening, Jim dashed out between the raindrop to check our fancy digital rain gauge (a very useful tool when most rainfall is under an inch), finally returning to announce triumphantly, “We just hit exactly half an inch!”

I may not have been born a “child of a rainless year” as was Mira, the protagonist of my novel of that name but, during the nineteen years I’ve lived in New Mexico, I’ve really come to appreciate rain.  These last couple of years, when we’ve been in drought conditions, every rainfall is a reason for celebration.

Living here has really reversed how I see rainy days.  “Back East” where I grew up, a rainy day mood meant feeling gloomy.  Remember Joe Btfsplk, the character in the cartoon Li’l Abner, the one who had a raincloud hanging over his head all the time?    No one needed to be told that he was perpetually down. The symbolism just doesn’t work here.

Soon after I moved to New Mexico, I read a newspaper column by Jim Belshaw in which he commented that New Mexico was the only place he’d ever lived where when it rained people just got up from their desks, stood by the window to watch it rain a while, and went back to work – and no one thought this at all strange.

When Jim and I went to ride our bikes on Monday morning after the big rain, the skies were still overcast, but everyone we passed was smiling broadly.  “Great weather!” more than one person called out.  “60% chance of more today!” someone shouted.  Yeah…  Live in the desert long enough and all your symbols get screwed up. It’s pretty fun, actually, since it makes you take a fresh look at all your preconceptions – never a bad thing for a writer.

Speaking of being a writer…  The page proofs for Treecat Wars, my second collaboration with David Weber, came in on Saturday.  Page proofs are the pages of the book set up pretty much as they’ll be printed.  Reviewing proofs is the last stage in an author’s work on a book.  I never skip proofs.  Most of the time, everything is great, but there was the time I found that the first paragraph in every chapter of The Buried Pyramid had been left out.  I’ve found some other weird errors.  Most have crept in during production, usually the result of some odd keystroke globally changing the spelling of a word to some other word.

So, even in these days of computers – maybe especially in these days of computers – I don’t skip the proofs.  Yeah, I’d rather be writing on the sequel to Artemis Awakening, (still AA2, though I’m trying out different titles), but duty calls.  My plan is to do new writing in the morning and proofs in the afternoon.  Plans rarely work out, but, hey, you gotta have a plan, right?

I’ve come to think that every writer should have a garden, because gardens are a wonderful reminder that planning only goes so far.  After a slow start, our garden is taking off.  Monday morning I picked nine small ichiban eggplant and a substantial zucchini.  Jim picked about two cups of string beans.  We had stir fry for dinner.   I’m guessing we’ll have it again sometime around Thursday.  But I can only guess…  Zucchini, in particular, seem to go from “Nice, pick that in a few days” to “Holy cow!” faster than even a long-time gardener can predict.

Sunday we had a salad with our first tomato of the season as well as our own Swiss chard and radishes.  Cucumbers are behind schedule – but since when have we been able to predict them?  Some years they take over.  Some, like this, they poke along.

And then there are the mystery squash.  We couldn’t resist planting some squash seeds that came in fund raiser packet.  The package showed a variety of types – both summer and winter – that I recognized.  These don’t match any of the pictures.  Jim has been taking photos in to his office and consulting both the ethnobotanist and various other colleagues. The best advice so far has been, “Hmm…  Looks like a winter squash variety.  Sometimes those are better when picked young, before the rind gets too hard.  Why not just try one?”

So, we probably will…

It’s all very amusing.  Life is like that.  Rain to celebrate.  Symbolism to contemplate.  Jobs to do.  Gardens to enjoy.  Oh, yeah, and writing…  Always and forever, writing.  It’s what I do, and a large part of who I am.

TT: London’s Shadow Side

July 11, 2013

Looking for the Wednesday Wandering?  Just page back one and wander with me through the wending ways of book titles.  Then grab your flashlight (or torch) and join me and Alan as we take a step in the the urban fantasy side of London.

Anything is Possible on the Shadow Side

Anything is Possible on the Shadow Side

ALAN: One of the striking things about Neverwhere was that Gaiman’s characters were actually personifications of the city of London itself, an interesting conceit which has also been embraced by another British writer, Ben Aaronovitch.

Aaronovitch has written a series of semi-comic novels about Peter Grant, a young constable in the Metropolitan Police who, following an encounter with a ghost, becomes the first official apprentice police wizard in fifty years. In the first novel (Rivers of London) Grant has to deal with personifications of the actual London rivers (Thames, Fleet, etc.). All the novels are structured as police procedurals but they are nevertheless urban fantasies in the sense that we’ve been using the term. And it helps that they are very, very funny.

JANE: These sound good.  I may need to give them a try.

ALAN: I’ve also been very impressed with a series of novels by Simon Green. He’s mostly known as a hack writer of fairly trashy fantasies (many of them with bad puns in the title), but he’s also written a brilliant series of gritty urban fantasies featuring John Taylor, a classic pulp fiction private investigator who is based in the Nightside – an avatar of London where it is always 3:00 a.m. The Nightside itself is definitely a small area of the real London, yet it is clearly much larger than London itself.

The Nightside books are very dark and cynical (in the best hardboiled detective tradition). They are often funny, even when dealing with tragic circumstances and they are full of SF/F tropes with lots of mythological references. They are like nothing else I’ve ever read and I love them.

JANE: Now that’s  really interesting.  I must admit, I was only familiar with Simon Green’s work from the fantasies you mention.  These sound much more to my taste.  Can you give me the title of the first one?

ALAN: The first book is Something From The Nightside. I’m sure you’d love them. However, you should be aware that the series has twelve books in it and it is absolutely essential to read them in order. A friend of mine started with book number six, didn’t understand a word of it and gave up completely…

However, don’t worry – there may be twelve books in the series, but each is quite short (at least by modern standards) so reading them is not an onerous task at all.

JANE: (Scribbling down titles with mad haste…)  Go on!

ALAN: I’m also very fond of a trilogy of remarkably subversive YA novels by Michael de Larrabeiti. They are known as the Borrible trilogy – and the first novel is simply titled The Borribles. The eponymous borribles are runaway children living rough on the streets of present day London. However the city absorbs, adopts and protects them. Eventually, by some never properly explained mysterious process, they are “borribled” and their ears become long and pointed. Borribles are constantly battling the forces of law and order and if they are captured by the police they will have their ears clipped, which presumably turns them back into normal children again.

Borribles appear to live forever, barring physical catastrophe, but they continue to look like children for the whole of their lives. One borrible remarks in passing that he remembers the old queen – it’s not clear whether he is referring to Victoria or to Elizabeth I, but in either case, he’s obviously very, very old.

JANE: Subversive?  Why?

ALAN: The books deride the safe and somewhat dull adult world, and they glorify the wild, scruffy and rather anarchic world of the Borribles. Materialism is constantly being sneered at. The Borribles lead very fulfilling lives even though they have no significant material possessions at all. Adults, who crave material wealth, are always presented as the enemy. The borribles value comradeship and cooperation above all else, and whatever they have is available to anyone. Borribles live a very extreme left wing lifestyle and I can easily imagine Karl Marx giving them a high five! The books also deal with some uncomfortably mature themes, such as trying to decide which causes are noble enough to die for and which are not.

JANE: Reminds me, actually, of some of the early Charles de Lint urban fantasy, particularly  the short stories.  Prompted by our earlier discussion, I started re-reading Dreams Underfoot, and the same themes of mutual caring and anti-materialism are dominant there.   Jilly repeatedly states variations on, “On the streets, we look after our own.”

As de Lint has ventured into YA, he seems to have abandoned this earlier sensibility.  I’ve wondered if he fears promoting a “subversive” lifestyle that in reality would not be nearly as enchanting as it is in his stories.   I mean, even in the stories where a kid on the street gets in trouble, the fairy folk come to the rescue in the eleventh hour.  That makes for a satisfying story, but…

Do you have any other suggestions for Old World urban fantasy I might add to my list?

ALAN: Michael Moorcock published Mother London in 1988. It was presented as a mainstream novel (indeed it won the Whitbread Prize, a prestigious literary award) but it flirted with urban fantasy as it told the story of the city of London in a series of vignettes from some very unreliable narrators – three outpatients from a mental hospital who may be psychic and who may be hearing the voice of the city as it tells its story through them. Some people might describe the story as magic realism rather than urban fantasy – but I’m a huge Moorcock fan, so let’s give him the benefit of the doubt.

JANE: Perhaps in this case one person’s magical realism is another’s urban fantasy?  Surely the city telling its story is about as “urban” as the fantastic can get.

ALAN: 1988 was a good year for London. In that same year, Christopher Fowler published his first novel, Roofworld. High above the city, those discontented with the dehumanized existence of urban life below have joined an alternative society that has thrived in the skies since at least the 1920s.  Currently it is under the leadership of former physician Nathaniel Zalian. But now the existence of Roofworld is threatened by Chymes: madman, necromancer, and leader of a gang of drug addicts and skinheads.

JANE: Sounds both creepy and interesting.  I may need to give Roofworld a try, though I must admit, I’m more familiar with Fowler as a writer of horror.  I don’t usually read horror because if it’s good – well, it scares me!  I have enough nightmares without help.

ALAN: Yes indeed – Fowler went on to carve out a very successful career as a writer of horror novels (though his short story collection City Jitters has many elements of urban fantasy). However, for the last few years, he has been writing a superb series of urban fantasy detective novels about Arthur Bryant and John May who are employed by Scotland Yard’s Peculiar Crimes Unit.

Bryant and May (there’s a lovely pun there for British eyes) have been working together for many years and they are close friends despite their different approaches to the cases they work on. Bryant is very much an alternative lifestyle man. He gains his insights by consulting witches and psychics, and by reading arcane books about everything from ancient religions to the history of forgotten London landmarks. May, on the other hand, is a modern man who likes to play with his gadgets. He is very pragmatic and has little time for all that magic nonsense, though he can’t argue with the results!

JANE: That sounds rather like team in the X-Files.  If I remember correctly, one was a believer and the other solidly materialistic.  I could be wrong…  I mostly heard about the show second hand.

ALAN: Me too! I don’t think I’ve ever seen an episode of the X-Files. What a lot you and I have in common!

JANE:  Well, I hope one of our readers will fill us in.  Now, I’m going to have to ask you to interpret that pun about Bryant and May…

ALAN: The firm of Bryant and May was founded in the nineteenth century (by Francis May and William Bryant) to manufacture safety matches. For generations of British smokers, the words “matches” and “Bryant and May” were almost synonyms. There was a definite feeling that if it wasn’t manufactured by Bryant and May, it wasn’t really a proper match. Sadly, the company no longer exists. It became a casualty of both the decline in the popularity of smoking, and various company mergers.

JANE: Great pun… and a lovely cultural window.  Thanks!

As we’ve been having this discussion, I’ve thought of something that I should have put in my earlier definition of urban fantasy.  The city in question should be contemporary —  not a flirtation with the past.  For example, Emma Bull’s War for the Oaks is definitely urban fantasy, but her Territory, which is set in the Old American West, is not.  Urban fantasy should be entwined in the here and now of the author, not in once upon a time.

ALAN: That’s a good insight and I definitely agree with it. Now that you’ve reminded me of the title, I find that I do actually have Territory on my shelves and I remember reading and enjoying it. But I never once thought of it as urban fantasy, so I suspect I must have subconsciously come to the same conclusion that you’ve come to. Thank you for putting it into words – I think it’s an important distinction to make.

JANE: Now…  With that in mind, let’s move on to discussing the new urban fantasy – aka Buffy Fic!

Titles Meant?

July 10, 2013

This past week I finished three volumes of the Lumaterre Chronicles by Melina Marchetta.  It’s a pretty good series.  I have quibbles, but I certainly am glad I took the time to read the books.  The thing is, I never would have even picked the books up if my friend Julie hadn’t mentioned really liking them.

Mis-Titled?

Mis-Titled?

The titles certainly never would have caught my attention.  The first is Finnikin of the Rock.  What’s a “Finnikin”?   It turns out to be a person’s name, but (based on the cover photo) it could as easily be a sword.  (A young man’s face and a sword are all that is pictured on the cover.) And what’s the ‘rock’?  A band?  A group or nation?  A place?  (It turns out to be a place.)   Not exactly captivating.

The second book in the series is Froi of the Exiles, and the third Quintana of Charyn.   As titles, these have a little more going for them, but only if you’ve read the first book and know who Froi and Quintana are.  “Exiles” has a certain emotive ring to it but, coupled with the nonsense word “Froi,” it’s not exactly a hook.  (And the covers repeat the same motif – a face and a bladed weapon – so they’re not exactly a help.)

I had the same complaint about the title for another of Marchetta’s novels, Jellicoe Road.  I adored Jellicoe Road.  As was my custom when trying a new author, I first took the book out from the library.  As soon as I finished it, I went out and bought a copy.  However, the title certainly would never have caught my attention.

Titles, it seems to me, are pretty important.  A good title might draw a new reader in.  A poor title might push a reader away.

My favorite example of this comes from Tim Power’s novel Drawing of the Dark.  I’d already read and enjoyed some of Power’s novels, but when I saw a friend reading this one, I flinched away.  The title reminded me of dozens of carbon copy Tolkienesque fantasy novels in which some Dark Lord is doing Bad Things because if he wasn’t there wouldn’t be a novel.  Happily for me, the friend told me I was an idiot and loaned me the novel.  I loved it.  (The “dark” of the title turns out to be beer.)  I own a copy.

Lots of elements can go into creating an effective title.  One possibility is to use a word or words that are freighted with emotion or symbolism.  “Twilight” is one of these.  As a title, this tells a reader nothing, but as a word it packs a wallop.  Game of Thrones is a really good title.  “Game” is active.  “Thrones” tells you what the prize is and something about the setting.  In combination, there is even a hint of irony, since the passage of a throne should never be a game.  All good.

Moonheart is a great title.  Both “moon” and “heart” are words that hold a lot of emotion and symbolic impact.  Charles de Lint could have chosen to call the book “Lorcalon,” which is the actual name given to the “heart of the moon” song his protagonist uses to call upon her inner power, but he had the sense to see that  “lorcalon” would mean nothing and might turn readers way, rather than drawing them in.

How the first “Harry Potter” book ended up with two titles is an interesting tale.  The original British title was Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone.  However, when the book was released in the U.S., the title was changed to Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone because of the general belief that 1) American readers would not know what a philosopher’s stone was; 2) that the word “philosopher” would be a turn-off .   This second title does work within the context of the book.  The stone in question was created and owned by a sorcerer.  However, the act of retitling says a lot about how important titles are in making sure a book finds its audience.

I personally think that for titles to do their best, they need to make sense.  The publishers who decided to retitle this “Harry Potter” novel clearly had this in mind.  If you know what a philosopher’s stone is, really, this is a very intriguing title.  If you don’t, it’s just misleading nonsense.

It also helps if titles within a series indicate they are part of a series.  Sometimes, as with the Melina Marchetta books, structure is enough to show the connection.  Sometimes a repeated word helps: Harry Potter and….  Sometimes a series title catches on, as with Robert Jordan’s “Wheel of Time.”  More often though, the series tends to be referred to by the title of the first book.  Game of Thrones is not the series title.  That’s “The Song of Ice and Fire.”

 

Of course, the author does not always have control of the title.   I learned this the hard way when some anonymous higher up at Avon Books decided that the sequel to Changer could not be Changer’s Daughter.  After working through a long list of possible alternatives, my editor and I finally arrived at Legends Walking.  However, to this day I encounter people who say “You mean there’s a sequel to Changer?  I never realized it!”  That’s why, despite possible confusion, I gave Legends Walking back its original title when I re-released it as an e-book and POD.

The series title for my “Firekeeper Saga” never caught on.  Even at Tor Books, the series tended to be referred to as “the wolf books.”  Therefore, imagine the confusion when the third book came out with a title that didn’t have “wolf” in it.  The Dragon of Despair was my working title for the manuscript, but I always assumed we’d come up with another title – one with “wolf” in it.  However, some anonymous person at Tor told my editor, “Oh, no!  We like that.  Books with ‘dragon’ in the title sell well.”  Maybe so, but when The Dragon of Despair was released, Tor had several other “dragon” books in the catalog…  I think that probably only led to confusion.

So, what do you think about titles?  Any examples of a great book doomed by a poor or generic or misrepresentational title?  Any great titles that made you pluck a book off a shelf?

 

TT: Gambolling with Gaiman

July 4, 2013

Happy Independence Day — both here in the U.S. and in many other nations.

Looking for the Wednesday Wandering?  Just page back one to find out why weeding my garden makes me think about writing.  Then come and join me and Alan as we continue our look at urban fantasy with a focus on some of the works of Neil Gaiman.

Some of Gaiman's Take on Urban Fantasy

Some of Gaiman’s Take on Urban Fantasy

ALAN: Whenever Urban Fantasy is mentioned, sooner or later Neil Gaiman comes into the discussion. His early novel Neverwhere exemplifies this brilliantly, though most of his books can be categorised as urban fantasies.

JANE: Oh, yes!  I first encountered Gaiman’s work when Roger Zelazny turned me on to Sandman.  At that point, Sandman wasn’t yet finished, but was increasingly popular.  Both Roger and I were living in relatively small cities (me in Lynchburg, VA; he in Santa Fe, NM).  We fell into the habit of each buying two copies of each issue and mailing them to the other.  That way, if Sandman sold out at our local store we wouldn’t miss a part.

Sandman is convoluted, complex, and ultimately completely satisfying.  If it had been written as a novel, rather than helping give rise to the now abused term “graphic novel,” it certainly would have been classified as urban fantasy.

ALAN: I’ve never read Sandman. My first exposure to Neil Gaiman was Neverwhere and I only read that because I was absolutely entranced by the television series. I read the book and was immediately converted into a Gaiman fan, but even so I never went looking for Sandman – I have a bias against comics/graphic novels. I simply don’t know how to read them and they bewilder me. I don’t understand the continuity (probably because I don’t have a very visual imagination and pictures don’t really speak to me at all).

JANE: It’s a shame you don’t respond to visual storytelling, because Sandman is what a graphic novel should be.  These days the term tends to be applied to any collection of comic books bound into a trade paperback volume.  Sandman is an episodic novel.  Gaiman was permitted to suggest what artist would illustrate which part of the story.  (Believe me, this is not common, as I know from my limited experience with that industry.)   Gaiman would pick an artist whose style he felt worked well with the story.   We chatted once about Charles Vess’ illustrations for the “Midsummer Night’s Dream” sequence and Neil commented, “No one does fairies like Charlie.”

There was other attention to detail that helped take Sandman beyond the usual run of “comic books.”  Word balloons and the lettering of text varied with the speaker, for example.  This made it seem as if the characters had individual voices.   The work became more like a performance, not merely an illustrated story.

ALAN: That’s a clever idea!

JANE: In any case, returning to Gaiman’s novels…  I’ve never seen the Neverwhere television show.  I encountered the novel first when Jim and I went to Neil’s reading at a World Fantasy Convention.  He’s an excellent reader and we enjoyed ourselves very much.  After, we were standing outside the room chatting with our friend, Andy Miller.  Neil came out, paused, thrust a heap of print-out into my hands and said something like: “I was going to give you the book I was reading from but X took it from me.  I printed this out in case there wasn’t a copy of the book here.  Would you like it?”

Needless to say, I did!  Neil really is a very nice person, one of the handful of Roger’s friends who I felt went out of his way to make sure I knew he considered me a friend, too.

ALAN: Oh yes – Neil is a truly lovely person. Once he was a guest at an Australian convention and Robin was appointed to be his minder, to make sure that he was always at the right place at the right time. Naturally she fell in love with him and even today, many years later, she gets a really soppy smile on her face whenever she talks about him

JANE:  I’ve talked to other of Neil’s “minders,” and they all have the same reaction!

Despite my inclination to really, really want to love Neverwhere, I felt it fell short – rather as if the novel was waiting for someone to come along and illustrate it or perform it.  Don’t get me wrong, I liked Neverwhere a lot.  There was just something lacking.

It wasn’t until American Gods came out that I felt that Neil had hit his stride as a novelist.   Although it could have been illustrated or performed, it didn’t need the visual collaborator to make it work.  I got caught up in the story from the first.  I’ve re-read it several times since and enjoy the story every time.

ALAN: I could never get to grips with American Gods, probably because it was telling far too large a story and was about far too many important things. One of the things I’ve always enjoyed about Neil’s books is his lightness of touch, his humour and I found that missing in American Gods. The style was too serious (dare I say ponderous?) and I bounced right off it. However, he redeemed himself in the sequel. Anansi Boys is a delight – the lightness of tone is back and I absolutely loved it. Of course it helps that Anansi is the trickster god, the joker…

JANE: Ah…  Here is where we differ.  Perhaps since I encountered Neil’s work in Sandman (which despite being a “comic book” is anything but light), I have never thought of his work primarily in terms of humor or lightness.  That isn’t to say there isn’t any humor in Sandman, but that isn’t what I think of first when I think of  a Neil Gaiman tale.

I’ll be honest.  I was very disappointed by Anansi Boys.  Perhaps because of my familiarity with both mythology and literary fiction, I was able to predict the plot from about chapter two.  In fact, eventually, I gave a quick verbal sketch of what I thought was coming for Jim and every bit of it came true.  There were some nice touches in the prose, but I’ve read the story of two brothers who are rivals but need to bond to face a common problem so often that even the supernatural touches could not redeem it from a feeling of “same old, same old” for me.

Ah, well…

ALAN: Yes, that’s certainly true. But, as we’ve seen before, I tend to be a bit more forgiving of such plotting defects than you are. For me, exuberant prose can always rescue a tired plot. Neil was having fun telling his tale, and I was having fun reading it. I can’t argue with your analysis because it’s perfectly correct, but in the end I found that it didn’t really make any difference to my enjoyment of the story.

I also loved The Graveyard Book which is a novel built up of short stories. It describes episodes in the life of a child called Jack who is brought up by the ghosts in a graveyard. Structurally it owes a lot to Kipling’s stories about Mowgli in The Jungle Book (a debt Gaiman freely acknowledges) and it is a joy to read. And it is a brilliant urban fantasy as well, in the sense that you and I have been using the term. Again, of course, I’m biased. Kipling was a huge influence on me when I was a child.

JANE: You know I’m a Kipling fan…  I think that’s why I wasn’t crazy about The Graveyard Book.  If I want to read The Jungle Book, well, I’ll read it.  I also found myself thinking that the story really wasn’t about Jack.  It was about Jack’s parents learning to give Jack up – to let him grow up.  I found this odd in a book ostensibly for younger people.

I thought the opening was amazing, though.  I’m sure it gave many young readers nightmares!  Since it was intended to be scary, that’s just fine.

Oh!  You mentioned that The Graveyard Book is a novel built up from short stories.  Given Neil’s long history of work in comics, I think this is a natural form for him and he’s very smart to know he should use it.

ALAN: I think that’s very true – I’ve heard Terry Pratchett talking about Good Omens (the novel that he and Neil Gaiman collaborated on) and Pterry says that one of the things he brought to the project was control over the structure. He says that Neil seemed to have problems with the idea of a long, continuous narrative. Perhaps they were ideally suited to each other – Pterry himself has written almost no short fiction, and claims that he hates doing it. So each of them complemented the other and the whole was greater than the sum of the parts!

JANE: Oh!  I loved Good Omens.  That novel was a great combination of the strengths of two wonderful and talented writers.  So often collaboration dilutes, rather than enhances, but Good Omens was an exemplar of the best collaboration can be.

ALAN: Neil has just published a new novel called The Ocean At The End Of The Lane. It’s a semi-autobiographical novel about a young English boy, slightly socially inept, who spends much of his life lost in books. At the end of the lane where he lives is a farm where three generations of women live. The youngest, Lettie, is eleven years old – there are hints that she’s been eleven years old for a long time, possibly centuries. On the farm is a pond which Lettie says is an ocean. And who is to say that she’s wrong? The women befriend the young boy and when a malevolent spirit slips into the world and seduces his father, the women, and the ocean, play a large part in saving him. It’s a wonderful book. I loved it!

JANE: I haven’t read it yet, but I certainly plan to do so.

Come to think of it…  The new book also sounds like an urban – or should I say farmland? – fantasy!  I can see we’re far from done with this topic, but I’m off to write, so we’ll need to wait until next week.

Weeding and Writing

July 3, 2013

I’ve been very restrained this year.  It’s already July and I haven’t talked about my garden yet.  I’ll admit, part of the reason is because it was a very hot, very dry spring and the official start of summer wasn’t a lot better.  I wasn’t quite certain I  was going to have a garden to talk about.

Lilies and Trumpet Vine

Lilies and Trumpet Vine

However, a couple nights ago, we got our first measurable rain since May 10th.  True, it was only four hundredths of an inch.  (Yes.  That’s correct.)   However, it was rain.  Also, last Friday, we picked our first vegetable: a couple of red radishes.  Tuesday we picked our first couple of zucchinis and four ichiban eggplant.  I think we officially have a garden.

This isn’t to say we haven’t had a hard time of it.  We’ve lost three out of our eight tomato plants.  However, with the sort of whimsy only known to the garden goddess, we have quite a few volunteer tomato plants coming up in the narrow strip by our front sidewalk, probably from seeds that were in the grey water I watered with last year.  If this week cools off as predicted, I’ll transplant a few of these tomato plants elsewhere.  I just might leave a few more out front and see what they’ll do.  After all, last year, as some of you may remember, we ended up successfully raising cantaloupe there.  (See WW 8-08-13, if you’re interested in how this unlikely situation came about.)

We’ve also been struggling with our cucumbers and chard…  The catnip and Italian parsley seeds never did germinate…  However, that means I do have someplace to transplant some of my sweet and cinnamon basil seedlings.  These are coming up nicely, but the area they’re in is being shaded by a combination of desert four o’clock and oriental lilies.  These latter seem to think they’re supposed to be trees…

And, of course, there are weeds.  New Mexico specializes in wind, so even if we didn’t fertilize with manure and other organic material that contains seeds, we’d still have weeds.  This year, perhaps because their less fortunate relatives are not germinating at all (the majority of our yard – where we don’t water – looks like a sandbox), the weeds in our garden beds are sprouting with rare vigor. And that means weeding.

Sandy soil means that weeding is relatively easy.  Additionally, our guinea pigs like some of the weeds (grass, young tumbleweed, and wild portulaca are all favorites), so there’s an added incentive.  Nonetheless, I end up feeling a bit sorry for the weeds.

And so, to distract myself, I find myself thinking about writing and how writing is very much like gardening.  For one, as I have noted elsewhere (WW 1-27-10 and WW 5-16-12), preparing the foundation is important, otherwise, your story is not going to grow strong.

Then, as with my volunteer tomato plants, you need to be open to ideas that sprout up where you didn’t plan for them to go.  Maybe they’re just fine where they are.  Maybe they need to be transplanted.  Either way, they shouldn’t be ignored or destroyed simply because they weren’t part of your original plan.  Sometimes the best ideas are volunteers.

And then there is weeding…  Sometimes, hard as it is, you need to get rid of things that don’t belong in the story at all.  Often, as with weeds in a garden, these ideas may be lush and strong, but they may also be choking to death the rest of the tale, stealing water and nutrients that are needed by what you started out to grow in the first place.

Worse, some weeds look a whole lot like the plants they’re competing with.  This morning I pulled a lot of wild mallow.  Especially in the early stages, these look so much like hollyhocks that I’ve heard them called “wild hollyhocks.”  But, if you’re hoping to grow hollyhocks, mallow won’t do.  It’s strong and tough, and it’s going to kill the rest of your story…  I mean, the rest of your plants.

Learning to tell what’s a valuable volunteer and what’s a strangling weed takes practice, both in gardening and in writing.  Sometimes the only difference is whether or not that plant (or idea) is what you need, where you need it.  Figuring this out often requires going back to your original vision and deciding how far from that plan you want to deviate.

And remember, hard as it may be to pull those weeds, when you’re looking at your strong, well-focused, and dynamic story, you’re not going to regret it in the least.

So is it silver bells and cockles shells and pretty maids all in a row?  What do you writers and readers like in your garden of prose?