Archive for June, 2015

FF: Trying is Worth It!

June 26, 2015

This week, two of the novels I read tried to be more than they were – but I enjoyed them both, even though I felt there were stumbles.  I also liked how they caused me to do a lot of thinking about writing as a craft.

Book Chat, Two Cats

Book Chat, Two Cats

New to this feature?  The Friday Fragments lists what I’ve read over the past week.  Most of the time I don’t include either short fiction or magazine articles.

The Fragments are not meant to be a recommendation list.  If you’re interested in a not-at-all-inclusive recommendation list, you can look on my website under Neat Stuff.

Once again, this is not a book review column.  It’s just a list with, maybe, a few opinions tossed in.

Recently Completed:

Bone Gap by Laura Ruby.  Audiobook.  Saying this is YA fantasy is like saying a slice of bread with a slice of tomato and another of American cheese is pizza.  I understand reviewers are calling this “magical realism.”  I wouldn’t go that far, but the author did strive hard.  Definitely liked the characters.  Vivid and engaging.

Unnatural Death by Dorothy L. Sayers.  I’ve read this before, but it still hooked me in.  The murder might have been “perfect,” but the murderer could not leave well enough alone – especially after Peter Wimsey pokes his long, aristocratic nose in.

The Documents in the Case by Dorothy L. Sayers, with Robert Eustace.  This is not a Peter Wimsey novel.  It violates Show, Don’t Tell in a very interesting fashion.  If you like the idea of reading other people’s mail, you’ll like this novel.  Does a lot with how people see each other, and themselves.  Perhaps not wholly successful but, worth the attempt.  Robert Eustace provided medical and chemical background.  Very unusual that he was given cover credit!

In Progress:

The Change: Tales of Downfall and Rebirth, edited by S.M. Stirling.  Last time I did an event for this book, I was at a great disadvantage in that I’d only read my own story.  Since there’s another event this Saturday, I decided to see how much of that I could remedy.

So You Want to Be a Wizard by Diane Duane.  Audiobook.  Although this book is clearly intended for the junior high set, it doesn’t pull any punches with vocabulary or breaking the rules in world building.  If you read it wanting Harry Potter, you’re going to be disappointed.  If you read it with no expectations, there’s a lot to like.


I’m still reading Island Dreams by Gerald Hausman.  A poetry collection spanning many years and many places. It’s rich enough that I’m reading a little at a time.


TT: Alan Redesigns the New Zealand Flag

June 25, 2015

JANE: Before we unveil your design for the New Zealand flag, perhaps you can tell us a little about what considerations you took into account when putting your design together.

Wearing the Flag

Wearing the Flag

ALAN: I was mulling over the question that you asked last time about the purpose served by a flag. It seems to me that we need something that unambiguously identifies us at a glance. It can appear as a logo on trade goods for our international markets, and it is also a symbol that can be used to unite us on important (and sometimes solemn) occasions, such as memorial services and international sporting events.

JANE: Those sound like good criteria.  Tell me how you’d manage this.

ALAN: My own personal preference is for a very simple design. (I don’t like clutter.) I decided to start with a solid black background because black is very much our national colour. It is always worn by our athletes at the Olympic and Commonwealth games and it was the colour of our yacht that won the America’s Cup. Our rugby team is always referred to as the “All Blacks”, (and those who play at the junior level are referred to as the “Small Blacks”). Our basketball team is known as the “Tall Blacks,” our hockey team is called the “Black Sticks,” our ice hockey team is nicknamed the “Ice Blacks,” our softball team is the “Black Sox,” and our cricket team is known as the “Black Caps.”  Not that we are obsessive about it, you understand.

JANE: Perhaps you should change your national anthem to the Rolling Stones song “Paint It Black”…

ALAN: Good idea! Maybe we could incorporate a discussion about that into the flag debate, and then we could kill two birds with one stone in the referendum.

Anyway, superimposed on the black background, in a contrasting colour, I’d like to see a symbol that is unique to us such as the kiwi or the koru (a spiral representing the unfurling of a fern frond. You can see a stylised koru in the livery of Air New Zealand planes.)

Such a design would be simple, elegant, attractive and effective. I think that kind of approach works the best. Japan’s rising sun and Canada’s maple leaf are inspired examples of similar thinking and, in my opinion, they work brilliantly.

JANE: I like your idea.  You could even have both a koru and a kiwi: black background, stylized koru, and then the kiwi framed by the koru.  Why don’t you compose this and submit it?

ALAN: My skills in this area are non-existent. At art class in school I never progressed beyond drawing stick men. Trust me, any design I submitted would look as if it had been put together by a drunken, blindfolded pre-schooler who had drawn it with a crayon clasped in his left foot. And that’s on a good day!

JANE: Hmm…  I know some people I could enlist.  We may see a visual of your design yet.

Tell me the sort of places I’d be likely to see the new flag (with your wonderful design on it) if I came back to New Zealand.

ALAN: Flags fly on government buildings (and they fly at half-mast when someone important dies). However, you seldom see flags anywhere but government buildings. Though having said that, there is a chap at the bottom of our street who has a flagpole in his garden and the NZ flag flies there all the time. Everyone else on the street regards that as rather eccentric and a little bit embarrassing. It definitely lowers the tone of the neighbourhood.

JANE: At least where I live, most people don’t routinely fly a flag either.  However, some people do put them out for the Fourth of July or Memorial Day or similar occasions.

ALAN: I think identifying yourself with a national symbol like a flag is very important, psychologically speaking. When I became a New Zealand citizen I had to swear allegiance to Queen Elizabeth the Queen of New Zealand (and, by implication at least, swear allegiance to the NZ flag). My citizenship application coincided with a government economy drive so there was no actual ceremony as such. All I did was sign a piece of paper. Formal citizenship ceremonies have now been reinstated and I’ve been to several because Robin used to sing in a Kapa Haka group that performed at them. I found the ceremonies quite moving and I’m really rather sad that I never got to take part in one.

JANE: I can understand why.  Ceremonies are a form of ritual magic and you missed out!

ALAN: Though having said all that, I don’t think a flag necessarily has to be considered sacrosanct. Nothing is so serious that you can’t have a bit of fun with it. I got quite a kick out of seeing David Bowie dressing himself in a suit made out of the Union Jack. Do you remember that?

JANE:  Of course I do…  I believe Alexander McQueen designed the coat.  It was featured on the cover of Bowie’s album Earthling.  Uh, not that I’m a fan or anything.

ALAN: Perish the thought.

JANE: What was the general reaction (if any) to that coat?  Did anyone find it disrespectful?

ALAN: No, not in the slightest. I think the major response was “Nice coat, David.”  I also remember that back in the “swinging sixties,” girls used to wear Union Jack knickers. Nobody thought anything of that either. I even vaguely recall some rock star painting his car to look like a Union Jack.

The current design of the New Zealand flag is so tremendously dull (not to say asymmetric) that I really can’t conceive of anybody wearing it when they go to the pub of an evening. I think it would be lovely if we could choose a new flag that would look nice on a T-shirt or a jumper.

JANE: I agree, actually.  The U.S. flag reproduces beautifully on clothing.  I’m sure someone has done the equivalent of panties, and I’m equally sure there are some who would find that disrespectful.  However, no one I know has a problem with flags on shirts, jewelry, or other such images where it can be considered a representation of the national symbol in another form rather than as a banner.

Last week you mentioned that the Maori Sovereignty movement Tino rangatiratanga has its own flag.  That got me thinking about our own state flags and other semi-official flags.  Maybe we can discuss this next time.

The Four P’s

June 24, 2015

We had the ash tree in our front yard pruned this week.

On Monday, as I was watching the tree guys at work, I found myself thinking that gardeners often make good writers.  The two crafts have a lot in common.  For my amusement – and yours, hopefully – I thought I’d talk about the four P’s that gardening and writing have in common.

Last Year's Thriving Squash

Last Year’s Thriving Squash

Before I do, I want to clarify that I’m talking about gardeners in the literal sense of people who tend plants.  Over the last couple of years, I became aware of a bit of writing jargon that classifies writers as either “Gardeners” or “Architects.”  Gardeners are those who start writing and see how the story grows.  Architects plan the story in advance, sometimes in great detail.

Other terms for these types of writers are “Pantsers” (as in writing “by the seat of the pants”) and “Planners.”  I originally heard them defined as “Intuitive Plotters” and “Outliners.”  And, no, the divisions are not absolute.  Even the most intuitive of Gardeners has times she needs to plan something out in advance.  Even the most ardent Outliner enthuses about when inspiration hits, and he realizes that his architectural design will be improved by reshaping the original plan.

So, what are the Four P’s that gardeners and writers have in common?  Preparation,  Patience,  Pleasure, and Pruning.

Preparation is key to being a good gardener – and is one of the reasons that I think calling an intuitive plotter a “Gardener” is deceptive, because to non-gardeners this implies a story that “just grows” without any effort.

A real gardener knows that nothing “just grows” without preparation.  Soil needs to be prepared before a single seed or plant goes into the ground.  This isn’t as simple as tossing on fertilizer, either.  The first step if figuring out what sort of soil you have – or if you even have soil at all.

When I moved into my current house, I did not have soil.  I had sand.  Pure sand.  That’s great for drainage, but lousy for nutrients.  I had to make my own soil, which I did by hauling a lot of horse manure, leaves, and other organic matter, then digging it in.

The writerly equivalent of this is soaking in lots of different material – both related and unrelated to any specific project.  Read lots of stuff, not just within your comfort zone.  Watch your favorite TV shows or movies – but not passively.  Think hard about why these pieces touch you while others leave you cold.  Watch people, places, things…  Go do something new.   Teach someone something you’re good at.  All of these will enrich your personal soil.

Patience is necessary to real gardening – and by this I mean something other than going to your local big box and buying plants already in flower and popping them in the ground.  That ain’t gardening.  That’s decorating

Gardening patience involves staying involved.  It’s remembering to water even though the seeds won’t germinate for two weeks.  It’s replanting when seeds fail to germinate.  It’s weeding, so that the plants you want aren’t choked out by the plants you don’t want.

Writing patience is very similar.  Too many non-writers or beginning writers think that every moment is going to be full of great excitement or, at the very least, a rich, spiritual satisfaction in being creative.  Nope.  Sometimes writing involves just keeping moving forward, working your way into the story, trusting that those “seeds” are going to be beautiful flowers one day.

Pleasure, whether in gardening or writing, is closely tied to patience.  One of the best ways to take pleasure in a garden is delighting in all the little stages along the way.  “Look!  The squash has sprouted!”  “Look!  They’ve got their first ‘true leaves.’”  “Look at all the squash blossoms!  They’re so pretty.”  “Look!  Fruit has set.  Wow…  We’ve got yellow squash, green squash, and one that has stripes!”

Writing pleasure is like that.  Some writers join work groups so that they can share their work along the way.  I don’t workshop, but I do keep a journal wherein – especially when I’m working on a longer project, like a novel – I note each day how much I have written.  This keeps me from falling into the belief that I’m “getting nowhere.”  I also note when I stop to research or when life gets in the way of being able to write – like having to stop to do proofs for another project.

Pruning is very important to a healthy garden, whether on the large scale, where branches need to be thinned and old wood taken off, or on the small scale, where dead flowers need to be pinched off so that new ones will form.  This process, by the by, is called “deadheading.”

Most new gardeners do not like to prune.  Either they’re scared they’ll kill or maim the plant or they believe that more is better than less.  I know I was in a near panic the first time I had to prune a tree but, as it was pretty clear that my little apple tree was not thriving, I had to try something.  I was rewarded when the tree not only didn’t die; it did (and continues to do) better than before.

As for more being better than less…  Two puny apples are not better than one three times the size of the two combined.  One large, healthy rose is better than a bunch of small, scrubby blossoms.  Yeah, it’s hard to remove potential fruit, but once you learn how to do so, you’ll be happy with the end results and your plant will be healthier, too.

(Reminds me.  I need to look at my Elberta peach tree.)

Most new writers worry about cutting from their work.   Either they worry they’ll lose something vital or they have an unjustifiably high opinion of their prose and view every word as sacred or golden, not to be tampered with.

In the first instance, if you’re really worried you’ll cut something vital, you can save it in another file and rescue it later.  But at least try cutting and see if it helps the flow.

In the second case, no one’s words are always golden.  Period.  But you’ve heard professional writers say they don’t rewrite.  That’s because when experienced writers talk about rewriting, they mean something completely different.

Roger Zelazny often spoke of himself as “not rewriting.”  Then he made me a gift of a novella typescript.  (To the end of his life, he composed either longhand or on a typewriter.)  To my surprise, the typescript was full of little cross-outs and changes.  I said, “I’ve heard you say you don’t rewrite!”  Roger was astonished.  “But this is just polishing.  When I say ‘rewriting,’ I mean the type of redrafting I’ve heard other writers talk about, where they change entire scenes or eliminate entire plots.”

So, whether they cut out whole limbs or merely “deadhead,”  writers prune.  I pruned about 500 words (or two or so pages) from this essay…  But they were worth writing, because they got me to where I needed to be.

FF: Great Contrasts

June 19, 2015

This week my reading varied widely, but was richer for the contrasts, sort of the way a patchwork quilt made from seemingly random bits of fabric makes each bit more distinctive.

I didn't see the camera...

I didn’t see the camera…

Just in case you’re new to this feature, The Friday Fragments lists what I’ve read over the past week.  Most of the time I don’t include either short fiction or magazine articles.

The Fragments are not meant to be a recommendation list.  If you’re interested in a not-at-all-inclusive recommendation list, you can look on my website under Neat Stuff.

Once again, this is not a book review column.  It’s just a list with, maybe, a few opinions tossed in.

Recently Completed:

Philip K. Dick is Dead, Alas by Michael Bishop.  An odd yet completely absorbing novel.  Surely a more unlikely group of heroes has never been gathered under a more unlikely leader.  Their goal?   Overthrow a totalitarian government headed by fourth term president Richard Nixon by means that even their leader — the possibly resurrected Philip K. Dick — is not completely certain will work. Note: Bishop’s rewritten version of the original 1987 Tor novel, The Secret Ascension, will be out later this year.

Lord of Runes, “Pathfinder Tales,” by David Gross.  A good sword and sorcery novel, built around a mystery, but with plenty for the action junkies who can’t wait for a rousing fight scene.  Although the novel is set in the Pathfinder gaming universe and is the fourth featuring Radovan and the Count, enough background is supplied (without ever falling into info dump territory) that I had no problem picking up the story at this point.

In Progress:

Island Dreams by Gerald Hausman.  A poetry collection spanning many years and many places.  It’s rich enough that I’m reading a little at a time.  I asked Grery if I could share “Zelazny’s Advice” with you.  He gave me permission. The spacing between lines is off.  Wordpress would not cooperate!

Zelazny’s Advice

“After a while

you get good at this.”

“Then why does it get harder?”

“You’re getting better.”

Bone Gap by Laura Ruby.  Audiobook.  Saying this is YA fantasy is like saying a slice of bread with a slice of tomato and another of American cheese is pizza.  But that’s all I can say right now, except that I like the characters.  Also, non-linear narrative seems to becoming a trend in YA.  I like it.  Reflects the continual process of discovery that’s key to coming of age.

Unnatural Death by Dorothy L. Sayers.  I felt like visiting an old friend.  No apologies!


I think that’s it…

TT: Redesigning the Flag

June 18, 2015

JANE: So, Alan, I read on-line that New Zealand is considering redesigning its flag.  Is that true?

Flag of All Nations

Flag of All Nations

ALAN: Yes, that’s true. Quite out of the blue, our government has decided that the country needs a new flag. There will be a referendum in 2016 so that we can all vote for the flag of our choice. Not long ago, the first of a series of public meetings was held to discuss the choices so far. Somewhat to the government’s embarrassment, nobody turned up to this meeting and the delegates were left to speak to an empty room.

As time goes on, there will be more of these meetings held in all the major, and some of the minor, centres. If the turnout continues to be so abysmally low, there will be a lot of egg left on a lot of government faces!

JANE:  As I see it, nobody turning up to the meeting is an indication that the public does not feel the flag needs to be changed.  Have the politicians taken the hint?

ALAN: No politicians will ever admit that they made a mistake, so they’ve just waffled a bit about inadequate publicity for the hui.  (Hui is Maori for meeting, and the two words are used interchangeably – the news broadcasts that described the fiasco used both words, probably to avoid having to repeat themselves.)

JANE: What does the New Zealand flag look like anyhow?

ALAN: It has a blue background with a small union jack in one corner and a set of stars to represent the Southern Cross.

JANE: That sounds nice.  Wait…  Let me Google for an image.  Yes.  It does look nice.  So why does anyone think it needs to be changed?

ALAN: Why does it need to be changed? The Union Jack is considered to be a symbol of the colonial past. The flag is (almost) identical to the Australian flag – the two are often confused. And of course there is nothing on it to indicate any Maori influence or heritage.

JANE: I can see why there might be a problem with the flag being confused with the Australian flag, but what’s wrong with a colonial past?  I mean, it’s part of your history, right?

ALAN: Indeed it is, and personally I can’t see anything wrong with having the Union Jack on the flag for exactly that reason. I suspect a lot of people feel the same – it may well be the reason for the poor turnout at the first hui.

JANE: Yes.  I see your point, but you were born in England, so some might say you have a different point of view.  Someone must see a problem with representing New Zealand’s colonial past on the flag or this wouldn’t have come up.  Can you clarify that for me?

ALAN: That’s a complex question – on the one hand, we are very proud of our independence and colonialism is a reminder of the shackles that once bound us. On the other hand, Maori are naturally somewhat resentful of the ills that colonialism brought them and they don’t look kindly upon it. Reparations have been made (and continue to be made) but some ill-feeling remains. Indeed there is a Maori Sovereignty movement called  Tino rangatiratanga which actually has a flag of its own!

And on the gripping hand, these days a significant proportion of our population are of neither Maori nor British descent and therefore the history of colonialism is of little significance to them. We are starting to think of ourselves as multi-cultural, and consequently there is a feeling that we should look forwards to the future rather than backwards to the past.

JANE: That’s really interesting.

Maybe New Zealand could take inspiration from the U.S. flag.  The colors (red, white, and blue) are the same as the British Union Jack, but they’ve been rearranged so that, while still serving as a nod to the past, they take on new meaning.

As you may know, the red and white stripes represent the original thirteen colonies, while the stars stand for each of the fifty states.  Every so often, there’s talk about adding another state or two, and then there’s a discussion of how to add another star or so in an attractive fashion.

ALAN: Yes, I can imagine that it must be getting harder and harder to stop the design from looking crowded. I remember that there was a lot of discussion about it when Hawaii became a state in 1959. Back then I was just old enough to have started taking an interest in the world at large and Hawaii’s statehood was a topic on the English news broadcasts of the time. That was when I first realised what the stars symbolised, and I remember feeling quite smug that I had it figured out!

JANE: I bet you did feel smug.  It’s like solving a code…

What sort of designs have been suggested for the New Zealand flag?

ALAN: Again, the government opened a real can of worms for themselves with this – anyone at all is allowed to submit a design to the committee overseeing the process and the committee is obliged to take every submission seriously, and make it available for discussion. Consequently a lot of people have been having a lot of fun with the idea – my favourites at the moment are a kiwi that is farting a rainbow, and a kiwi that is shooting laser beams out of its eyes (because it can!).

The irreverent clown in me really hopes that something like that does get chosen in the referendum…

The web site has all the submitted designs to date. Last time I looked, there were 3,212 of them!

You can see the farting kiwi and one or two other amusing suggestions here.

JANE:  I like some of the ones that look like drawings by schoolchildren.  You know, maybe in working out a new design, some thought should be put into what purpose a flag serves.

ALAN: That’s a very good question. Let me think about that and I’ll get back to you next time…

JANE: I shall eagerly await!

New Story! “The Button Witch”

June 17, 2015

My most recent short story is now available on-line at Urban Fantasy Magazine.  It’s called “The Button Witch,” and is urban fantasy in the original mode – that is a fantasy story that not only takes place in a contemporary urban setting, but in which the fact that the

A Magical Assortment

A Magical Assortment

setting is urban is somehow important to the story.

“The Button Witch” does not feature vampires, werewolves, or somewhat generic “fey folk.”  It is not a thinly disguised romance story.  It’s a story about what happens when a young woman named Penn decides to seek out an urban myth called the Button Witch and ask for a button wish.

But does the Button Witch even exist?  And what the heck is a button wish?

Well, I wrote the story to find out…  Now you can, too.  Hopefully, you’ll enjoy what you discover.

Keep your eyes open.  You never know what you might see.

Wandering off to another point entirely…

Last Sunday, when my gaming group was settling down, Dominique looked at me and said: “Oh!  Jane’s wearing her shirt.”

She then paused, laughed and said, “Wow!  Does that ever show how important emphasis is!”

Here’s some backstory for those of you who are now wondering if I usually run my games topless.

What Dominique actually said was: “Oh! Jane’s wearing her shirt.”

This was a reference to the week before, when Jim had been wearing a really interesting tye-dye tee shirt in which the pattern resembles the lovely marbled paper you sometimes see inside the covers of old books.  Jim’s shirt is predominantly blue, with white and black marbling.

When he was complimented on it, he mentioned that he’d gotten me a similar shirt except that the colors are light purples, marbling into blue and pink.  I decided to show it off the following week, thus Dominque’s comment.

The emphasis indicated that I was wearing my version of the shirt that Jim had worn the week before: Her shirt, rather than his shirt.

Anyhow, Dominique’s comment led to general silliness.  “Jane is wearing her shirt” would seem to indicate that usually I do something else with shirts.  (Wave them around my head, maybe?)

“Jane is wearing her shirt” would indicate that Jane usually doesn’t, in fact, wear a shirt, rather like those toddlers who decide that pants are optional.  I suppose that would be one way to distract my gamers.

Jane is wearing her shirt” would indicate that the wearing of the given shirt is something that is done by a variety of people.   In this case, the “her” would probably refer to another person whose shirt has somehow become common currency.

This raises a question that writers often face… What to do if a sentence leaves unclear where the emphasis should go.  Happily, most of the time context will provide the clarification.  However, there are times that it does not.

Certainly, one thing a writer can do is use italics to indicate which word should be emphasized.  I usually reserve this for those times when rephrasing would be awkward or clunky.  Too many italicized words in a sentence, or even paragraph, create a weird cadence, like Valley Girl speak, where words are stretched and elongated for emphasis.

My usual preference is to rephrase.  If I was putting Dominique’s comment into a story, I’d probably write something like, “Oh!  Jane’s wearing the marbleized shirt Jim gave her.”  Since, presumably the readers of the story would recall the prior discussion and know which shirt this was.  If there could be any doubt, I might have her add something like “I like the purple and blue, but I think Jim’s was better for him.”

There you are…  And just to make perfectly clear, I do wear a shirt when I’m running a game.   I don’t need special effects to put my players off-balance!

FF: What is Sane?

June 12, 2015

When I thought about it, many of the books I’ve read recently have touched on the question of perception and sanity.  Even the otherwise “real world” The Penderwicks in Spring shows how much perception matters.

Kwahe'e Considers Max Evans

Kwahe’e Considers Max Evans

Just in case you’re new to this feature, The Friday Fragments features lists of what I’ve read over the past week.  Most of the time I don’t include either short fiction or magazine articles.

The Fragments are not meant to be a recommendation list.  If you’re interested in a not-at-all-inclusive list, you can look on my website under Neat Stuff.

Once again, this is not a book review column.  It’s just a list with, maybe, a few opinions tossed in.

Recently Completed:

Authority by Jeff Vandemeer.  Audiobook.  Part two of the much-discussed “Southern Reach” trilogy.  Lovecraft meets conspiracy theory meets spy thriller.  Introduces more characters and more complications without losing touch with the original problem.

The Penderwicks in Spring by Jean Birdsall.  Keeps the series solidly “middle grade” by focusing on three younger Penderwicks: Batty, Ben, and Lydia.  Alternately grippingly sad and funny.  (I actually finished this one late last week and forgot to include it!)

In Progress:

Philip K. Dick is Dead, Alas by Michael Bishop.  A “fairly thorough revision” of the author’s 1987 Tor hardcover, The Secret Ascension.  I’m about three-quarters done.  This is the first novel I’ve read on our Kindle.  Not bad, but I definitely prefer print.

Island Dreams by Gerald Hausman.  A poetry collection spanning many years and many places.  I was touched to find a short poem called “Zelazny’s Advice” that perfectly captured his voice.


Various articles, including a bittersweet one in Smithsonian about jet packs.

TT: The Most Complex Race on Middle Earth

June 11, 2015

JANE: One of the things I thought made Middle Earth particularly rich was that we get glimpses of different well-developed human cultures.  There are the Dunedain, the Men of Gondor, the Men of Arnor, the Black Numenoreans, the Cosairs of Umbar, the Haradrim , the Easterlings, and the Woses.

A Wide Variety of Humans

A Wide Variety of Humans

ALAN: In other words, the social and political divisions within Middle Earth are just as confusing and messy as they are in the real world.

JANE:  Yep!   As one comes to expect with Tolkien, the same people/culture may have many names, which can be confusing.  For example, the Dunedain and the Numenoreans are different names for the same people.

ALAN: Tolkien did this all the time – I am firmly convinced that it was a conscious literary device that he used in order to add verisimilitude to his story. We’ve already seen how place names in the real world work like that, but so too do the names of tribes and nations.

I was born in the UK so therefore I am British. But I was actually born in England, so it would be equally legitimate to call me English. However, I tend to think of myself as a Yorkshireman, and Yorkshire people often refer to themselves as Tykes. In another context, you could also consider me to be European. On the other hand, I’ve legally changed my nationality, and I no longer use a UK passport because now I’m a New Zealander. So I’d be happy to have you refer to me as a Kiwi or, depending on the circumstances, a Pakeha.

Do you have a theory as to why Tolkien used such a plethora of names for the various humans of Middle Earth?

JANE: Before I answer your question, I just need to say “Wow!”  I love your example of how one person can have many cultural identities – and how all can be perfectly correct.

Going back to Tolkien.  Tolkien often dates the development of a new sub-group to some historical event.  For example, Gondor and Arnor are both descended from the survivors of the destruction of Numenor, so new names develop for a changing peoples.

ALAN: I think Tolkien is deliberately drawing literary parallels here. Just as Gondor was founded by those who survived the fall of Numenor, so too was Rome founded by those who fled from the destruction of Troy, and a whole new world-dominating culture arose from that disaster! Virgil wrote an epic poem about it (the Aeniad). The legend of Aeneas was so important to the mythology of Rome that Julius Caesar claimed to be directly descended from him.

JANE: And through Aeneas to the goddess Venus, please remember.  Julius Caesar could claim a pedigree worthy of a hero out of myth…


Indulge me in a small sketch of how Tolkien worked through his histories.  The Numenoreans were called so because of where they lived: the island of Numenor.  They were also called the Dunedain, which means Men of the West.

A small aside…  Many of Tolkien’s races had a “directional” name.  The Haradrim are also called the “Southrons.”  Sauron’s human forces are the “Easterlings.”

ALAN: I wonder why we never hear of the heroic deeds performed by the Northeast-by-North-erlings? And what about those villainous Southwest-by-South-erners?

JANE: Evil!  True evil is in bad jokes…

But you bring up something that has always bothered me about these directional names.  They’re relative to where you live.  For the first part of my life, Texas was emblematic of the American West.  Now that I live in New Mexico, it’s just another eastern state.  <grin>

Getting back to Tolkien’s history…  Numenor was sunk into the sea for reasons that boil down to the Elves thinking them uppity for wanting to be immortal, too.  (Imagine!)  Some of the Numenoreans who had not challenged the Right Way (which was that Men die and Elves don’t) survived.  They founded Gondor and Arnor.

The people of Gondor and Arnor in turn intermarried with various other groups, creating new cultures.  To pick one at random, Jim is particularly addicted to the Riders of Rohan.

ALAN: Oh yes! I vividly remember when I first read the books, I was sitting alone in a room. My parents were in the next room watching something on the television, but I was so immersed in the books that I left them to it. And just as the fellowship arrived in Rohan, my father came in and insisted that I go to bed because it was late. Oh, no! I was devastated!

Guess what I read by torchlight under the sheets that night?

I’ve had a very soft spot for the Rohirrim ever since, and I think it says something about the impact that the Riders had on me that more than fifty years later I still vividly remember the emotion of that moment.

JANE: I also like the Riders of Rohan a great deal.  For one, they’re the only culture in the entire massive block of print to produce a female main character: Eowen.

That aside, they remind me of all the good things about Vikings, without the random looting, pillaging, and such.  If you can have idealized Vikings, then the Rohirrim are they.

Are there any other human cultures you like in particular?

ALAN: Well we can’t leave a discussion about the Races of Men without talking about one man – Aragorn, the King who returned in the last book of the tale. Tolkien talks a lot about Aragorn’s lineage (Aragorn, son of Arathorn… blah, blah, blah) and it’s certainly one of the many reasons why he was able to reclaim the title of King.

JANE: I’d go further than that.  I’d say that this heritage – and the powers Aragorn inherited with it – are the reason everyone is supposed to accept him as king.  It is to Tolkien’s credit that he created such a fine character that we all want Aragorn to win the throne, rather than wondering why a guy who has spent most of his life wandering around in disguise should be expected to be able to run a massive empire.

ALAN: Again this heritage is a reflection of how things used to work in the actual world we live in. Boris Johnson, the Mayor of London, can legitimately trace his family back to William the Conqueror and there is a medieval manuscript in the archives that details William’s descent from God. So Boris would seem to have impeccable credentials, if you happen to believe in the Divine Right of Kings…

JANE: But we don’t – and as you and I earlier discussed – the behavior of monarchs, modern and otherwise, contributes a great deal to our lack of faith in the divine right of kings.

ALAN: And quite right too.

Although Aragorn was of the race of Men, he always seemed a bit Elvish to me. While he was certainly not immortal, he was very long-lived and there was a grace, dignity and nobility about him that was very Elvish.

JANE: In a sense, Aragorn is sort of Elvish, since the Elves granted magical powers and long life to the Dunedain after they sided with the Elves in an earlier Really Big War Against Evil. See above as to what happened when the Dunedain (now also Numenoreans) decided this wasn’t enough.

Before we close here, I’d like to take a brief look at one of the most overlooked human races in the novels: the Woses who, by the way, are also – confusingly – called the Druedain.

ALAN: I must confess I draw a blank here. I don’t recall the Woses at all. Can you enlighten me?

JANE: Okay… Think back to when the Riders of Rohan have finally finished squabbling and are racing to aid Gondor.  They are halted by a terrifically huge group of Orcs.  All seems lost until arrows come from nowhere, felling the Orcs.

The source of those arrows was the people the Riders had contemptuously called “Woses” and had hunted as annoying beasts.

That the Druedain (or Drughu as they call themselves) would have come to the rescue of people who had treated them so badly shows their intelligence and awareness of the bigger picture – an awareness the ostensibly more sophisticated Riders had been slow to accept.

In fact, the only reason the Riders of Rohan arrive in time at the Battle of Pelennor Fields is because of the Woses.  And the only reason Sauron’s forces are defeated is because the Riders arrive in time.  So one could argue that the Woses – short, ugly, twisted, and primitive as they are – are the twig that turns the flood.

Once again, Tolkien makes the point that those who are not obvious heroes have an important role to play.

And you forgot them…

ALAN: To my sorrow, so I did. I promise that it won’t happen again.

JANE: As was mentioned in the comments when we started this discussion with Hobbits, Hobbits can be considered one of the human races – one that, like the Woses,  has taken a wildly divergent path.  So, in a sense, we have come full circle…  Perhaps this is a good place to close.

Seriously Thinking About Series

June 10, 2015

News Flash: Contest Announcement

Artemis Invaded will be released at the end of June.  To celebrate, I’m giving out three ARCs of the novel via Goodreads.  Check out the contest details here.

A Selection of Series

A Selection of Series

Wish you could have learned about the contest sooner?  Sign up for my mailing list for notifications of contests, author events, and new releases.

News Flash: Interviews

Last week, I was asked to do a couple of interviews.

In the first, Alyx Dellmonica asks a few questions about how early literary heroines shaped my characters. It should go up sometime today here.

The second interview comes from the folks at the Goodreads space opera community.  Treecat Wars is one of their featured titles this month, but they wanted to know about a lot more than just the treecats.  You can check out their questions here.

News Flash: Change of Venue for The Change

Last week, I mentioned that I’ll be part of a launch even for S.M. Stirling’s anthology The Change on June 15th at 7:00 p.m.  The location for this has been changed to the Violet Crown Cinema, 1606 Alcadesa Street, Santa Fe, New Mexico.

And now to our regularly scheduled Wander…

A couple weeks ago, in “Avoid or Anticipate?: The Problem of Series,” (WW 5-27-15), I talked a bit about the mixed reactions that series books (and the writers who write them) receive.  At the end, I encourage readers to ask any questions they had about the complexities involved in writing a series.   I had quite a few questions, both on the site and from my shy “ghosts.”  To avoid repetition, I’ve condensed and rephrased where necessary.

The questions were split between creative considerations and business considerations.  I’m going to start with the creative aspects, then move on from there.

The first question addresses, very rightly, the point when a series becomes a series –  when you start writing the second or third book.

Q: How do you treat a series book? Do you write a treatise at the beginning of each book saying what happened in the preceding book?

A: No treatises, please!  A series novel is still a novel and an “info-dump” is still an info-dump.

Sure, in current television or old movie serials, it’s not uncommon for a new episode to begin with a short clip from the previous one, but the key here is short.  Moreover, these mostly happen in circumstances where the previous episode ended on a cliffhanger, especially an action cliffhanger.  Therefore, rather than dulling the viewer’s interest, these recaps get the blood pumping again: “Oh,yeah.  That’s right.  Last week we left Dark Ranger fighting with Evil Elf, unaware that Blood Armadillo was about to stab him in the back.”

But a novel is not a television show.  Moreover, the purpose of a short recap and a treatise is different.  Those clips are meant to re-familiarize a viewer with the prior chapter.  They are not meant to re-introduce characters, setting, past action, and all the rest.

Q: Can you start out with reminders of the important characters by doing several short scenes as to “what they’re doing now”?

Yes, you can, but this is still an info-dump and info-dumps can be deadly dull.  Readers who already know the characters are frustrated  because after the initial “Oh, yeah, right. Smitty!  I remember Smitty,” they’re going to feel, well, dumped on.

New readers are not going to be hooked by a bunch of scenes showing characters going about their day-to-day business.  And narrative hooks are no less important in series novels than in stand-alone novels.

My tendency is to go right into the story I’m currently telling and find a way to re-introduce background material in context.  How you find that context will depend on the story you’re telling.  It might be conversation: “I can’t believe it’s only six months since we first met, after we’d both been swallowed by the Utterly Enormous Sea Monster.”  “Yeah, and don’t forget, if I hadn’t been there, you’d have been nothing but sugar in a monster’s bloodstream, not the High Priestess of Deep Oceans.”

 Or it can be in a character’s thought.  “As she hung onto Cargo’s increasingly slippery fingers, Angel Momma thought, ‘Was it only six months ago that Cargo nearly broke my hand as he tried to keep me from sliding into the Sea Monster’s colon?’”

Or, if you’re a fan of omniscient narrative voice (not one of my favorites, but some people are good at it), the backstory might take the form of something like: “No one looking down at the slime-covered pair desperately struggling against the tentacles of Mega-Squid would have guessed they’d known each other a mere six months, so intensely did their bond to each other show.”

Q: That’s stuff’s great for smaller things like the passage of time, but how about the deeper, more complicated elements, like that Angel Momma feels a lot of guilt about how Shorts (Cargo’s twin brother) died saving her life?

A: Once again, work it into the story.  If this is really such a key event in Angel Mama’s life, she’s going to think about or talk to someone about it.  If you need to struggle to bring it up, then you’re not sufficiently in touch with your characters.

Q: Any thoughts on what to do when the story requires a regular or semi-regular be phased out of the main focus? They had their role, and readers are attached to them, but now they must take a lesser role, which may become almost or completely nothing. Something like that could irk quite a few readers.

A: Many a good novel (or TV series, for that matter) has been destroyed by been burdened by characters who should have been retired to the sidelines.  It’s the writer’s job to make the story move along.  Does that mean you can never mention those other characters?  Not at all!

If they really were important to your protagonist, your protagonist is going to try to stay in touch.  A short passage with a letter from Absent Friend wouldn’t be out of line.  However, you can handle the matter more gracefully by incorporating news about Absent Friend into the action.  Here’s an example:

“As he drank the mug of thin, weak, yet still astonishing bitter coffee Crab Crocheter had handed him, Cargo wistfully recalled Angel Mama’s deft hand with a fireside percolator.  But Angel Mama wouldn’t be joining him on the road ever again.  Together they had won the proofs that she was indeed the High Priestess of Deep Oceans.  The last time he’d seen her, she was handing out prayers as if she’d been doing it all her life, although all that sitting in a temple had put a bit of weight on her once slender form.”

That said, there comes a point in a series where the author needs to decide who the audience for the next book is.  When talking about decisions that had to be made before he could complete Robert Jordan’s monumental  “Wheel of Time” series, Brandon Sandersen said (and I paraphrase):  There comes a point where it’s impossible to write a book that will make both the long-time readers of the series happy and provide a point of entry for new readers.  With the “Wheel of Time” the decision was made to write for the fans of the series.  Even so, especially with a very long, complex series, it’s impossible to bring everyone’s favorite character back, even for a cameo, without turning the books into nothing but a sentimental journey.

This provides a nice transition to the more business-oriented questions.

Q: When selling a series to a publisher, do you have to know how it’s going to end? And if you tell the publisher “5 books with ending A” and you need to change to 4 books … or 7 books … or ending B, can you?

A: No.  You don’t need to know.  If you’ve contracted for five books and try to get away with only four, then you’d better be ready to pay the publisher back part of the advance.

You can expand the series.  However, whether the publisher will encourage you to do so will have a lot to do with sales figures.  It’s easier for a “Wheel of Time” or “Game of Thrones” to expand beyond the originally projected number of volumes because they’re making everyone a lot of money.

Q: When writing a series, how do you deal with a new editor who might not have read all of the previous books, and who doesn’t understand why character A can’t fall in love with (or kill) character B?

A: You explain the situation politely.

Q: Is there even a major publisher who WANTS to publish a stand-alone novel these days? Or are they all looking for novels with “series potential,” even if they haven’t bought it as a series?

A: Of course there are publishers who want stand-alone novels!  As I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, stand-alone novels still get most of the award nods and critical acclaim, so they have appeal for publishers.

“Series potential” might be attractive, but it’s not as easy as some make it sound.  If you’re going to try this game, make sure you really could open up a can of worms you’ve tightly sealed at the end of Book One.

That’s the last question.  I hope these answers were of some help.  If they raised other questions, feel free to bring them on!

FF: Finishing and Moving On

June 5, 2015

This week I finished a lot of unfinished reading

A reminder… The Friday Fragments feature lists of what I’ve read over the past week.  Most of the time I don’t include either short fiction or magazine articles.

Ogapoge Reads About Giraffes

Ogapoge Reads About Giraffes

The Fragments are not meant to be a recommendation list.  If you’re interested in a not-at-all-inclusive list, you can look on my website under Neat Stuff.

Once again, this is not a book review column.  It’s just a list with, maybe, a few opinions tossed in.

Recently Completed:

Bluefeather Fellini by Max Evans.  Episodic journeys from mid-1930’s to post WWII, mostly in New Mexico and Colorado.  The bits of mysticism and larger than life characters somehow make the book more real.  It’s not a “fast” book, but it’s a filling one.

Children of Dune by Frank Herbert.  Done.  I may read the next one, but not right yet.

Conrad’s Fate by Diana Wynne Jones.  Audiobook.  I very much enjoyed.  Conrad’s determination to believe he has an evil Fate hanging over him is equal parts frustrating and funny – and very wise, when we remember how easily adults can “program” children’s expectations for them.

The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater.  Audiobook.  Jim immediately put the sequel, The Dream Thieves on his reading shelf for as soon as he finishes his current reads (a book on Neanderthal and Cro-Magnon,  and Patrick O’Brien’s The Ionian Adventure.

In Progress:

Authority by Jeff Vandemeer.  Audiobook.  Part two of the much-discussed “Southern Reach” trilogy.  Lovecraft meets conspiracy theory meets spy thriller.  Waiting to see if it adds up to more.

Philip K. Dick is Dead, Alas by Michael Bishop.  A “fairly thorough revision” of the author’s 1987 Tor hardcover The Secret Ascension.  Just started but, between this and Vandemeer, I’m going to have really odd dreams.


Re-reading some of the Stephanie Harrington material as I work on a short story that might turn into a novelette for the next Honorverse anthology.