Archive for August, 2017

TT: The Thin Line Between Fact and Fiction

August 31, 2017

JANE: All right, Alan.  Last time you tantalized me with the promise of creative non-fiction that works – and when it crosses the line into pure fiction.  Even better, you promised that your examples would come from the works of the same writer.

Fact or Fiction?

Go for it!

ALAN: Here I go…

I think Hunter S. Thompson was particularly good at creative non-fiction. Hells Angels is a brilliant piece of non-fiction about the eponymous gangs, and I am also rather fond of Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72 which is a superb analysis of the political environment in America during the 1972 Presidential campaign. Both books contain elements that might be regarded as fictional by a purist, but they are never intrusive and Thompson never loses sight of what he is trying to achieve.

JANE: Could you give me an example?

ALAN: Some of the dialogue in the Hells Angels book flows so smoothly and illustrates the points that Thompson wants to make so well that I can’t help thinking that he’s made it up (at least a little bit). But I may be doing him a disservice here – the whole thing may well be accurate reportage; it’s very hard to tell. Certainly it reads well, it presents itself as journalism, and it tells you everything that you need to know (and probably a bit more than you wanted to know) about the Angels.

JANE: Okay…  I can see why you’d consider this a good use of creative non-fiction techniques.  What about the other one?

ALAN: The campaign book is a bit easier to analyse. Thompson’s style had relaxed a lot by then. “When a man gives up drugs he wants big fires in his life—all night long, every night…”

At one point, worried about the possibility of being mugged, Thompson notes that “I immediately called Colorado and had another Doberman shipped in”. This I seriously doubt. How many spare Dobermans does a man keep on the off chance that he might need to ship one across country at a moment’s notice and at vast expense? Nevertheless it’s a very effective image that perfectly conveys the paranoia of the time and place.

JANE: But he’s not putting words or thoughts in anyone else’s mind, so I don’t think he’s straying beyond the borders of non-fiction.  In fact, I’d guess he probably meant this as a metaphor.

ALAN: It’s definitely not a metaphor – earlier in the book he has a section about his Dobermans. They are very real and fully equipped with teeth.

JANE: I cheerfully surrender to your superior knowledge!

ALAN: On the other hand, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is almost pure fiction masquerading as fact and should be taken with the last pinch of salt that you didn’t put in your stew for fear of spoiling it…

JANE: Ah! I wonder how many people knew to draw the line or if, because they were conditioned by the previous books, they took Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas as factual as well.

ALAN: Anyone who believes that a man can ingest that quantity of drugs without killing himself probably isn’t living in the real world anyway. The book does contain real people and real incidents, but they are buried so deeply in the tissue of lies that he surrounds them with that they may as well not be there at all – for example, Hunter’s Samoan attorney, though not mentioned by name in the book, was actually the Spanish-American lawyer Oscar Zacosta and Hunter’s characterisation of him was not quite as exaggerated as you might at first suppose… If you are curious, you can look him up on Wikipedia.

But really it’s best to just relax and read the book as a novel – it’s certainly one of the funniest stories I’ve ever read.

JANE: It’s interesting that your examples are from what, at the time they were written, would be considered contemporary material.  By the purest coincidence, there is an article in the Summer 2017 Author’s Guild Bulletin titled “What Every Writer Needs to Know About Defamation.”  In this, two lawyers and author Susan Cheever (who has made her mark writing biographies and memoirs, as well as novels) talked about what can happen when you put words in other people’s mouths.

It’s a long article, full of legal detail, so I won’t attempt to summarize it.  What I will say is that, if I were tempted to write creative non-fiction, especially about people who are still alive or still have immediate family alive, I would be extremely cautious about putting words in their mouths or thoughts in their heads.

ALAN: Probably that’s good advice – though America is notoriously litigious. In the UK (and here in New Zealand as well), you can get away with a lot of things that might cause problems in the US.

JANE: Actually…  but no.  I won’t go into it.  That would involve too much summarizing of the article.  Let’s just say, you’d be surprised at the stringency of the legal code outside of the U.S.  Many European nations protect the rights of the dead as well as of the living.

That’s why I’d be careful about putting words into the mouth of someone – even if that person is no longer alive and therefore could be thought to be beyond defamation of character.

ALAN: The British author Michael Dobbs has written a trilogy of novels about Winston Churchill set just before, and during, WWII. I recommend them highly. They don’t always paint a flattering portrait of Churchill, and they are stuffed full of imaginary dialogue between real people. Clearly the books don’t step over the line into defamation (the novels are well thought of, and there has never been even a whisper of legal proceedings) but nevertheless, in light of what you say, I imagine that they must sail very close to it. So clearly there is a lot of leeway to play with…

JANE: Churchill didn’t always paint a flattering picture of Churchill – and I’m sure his family was aware of this, and knew what might come up if a lawsuit for defamation was raised.

As I said, I’d be careful.  I didn’t say no one should ever try it!

ALAN: I wonder if any of the comments will take the form of an imaginary dialogue between you and me?

JANE: That would be amusing!


Running the Rat Race

August 30, 2017

As I mentioned last week, this past weekend was Bubonicon.  I’m happy to report that it was an intense weekend, but a very good one.

My Third Panel of Bubonicon

For those of you who don’t know Bubonicon, I should mention that the mascots are Perry and Terry Rodent, so the reference to rats in the title of this piece is not in any way derogatory to the convention – far from it!

I had two panels on Friday.  This may not sound like much until you fill in that the first one was at 5:00 pm (Is the Stand-Alone Novel Dead?). This was followed by the Opening Ceremonies, which are a major event at Bubonicon, and not to be missed if at all possible.  I then had a dinner meeting before racing off to my second panel (Facts Behind the Fantasy: Research Impact) at 7:30 pm.

The panels were fun, and the meeting productive.  I have now met Linda Caldwell, who did the cover design for the new e-books of Smoke and Mirrors and When the Gods Are Silent.  Along with Emily Mah Tippetts, who is my e-pub guru, we discussed a host of future projects, both reprints and original fiction.

Then we went home to discover the pump on our little pond had stopped working…  But it was too late and too dark to fix it, so we admired the toads who were enjoying the still water and went to bed.

Saturday I was on the first panel of the day (Felines and Feline Aliens in SF/F).  This was very exciting for me, because I had my fan moment being on a panel with C.J. Cherryh, whose innovative aliens and alien civilizations are a seminal influence on the field.  I also had the chance to be on a panel with Ursula Vernon, who was back at Bubonicon, this time as Toastmaster.  And I meowed my introduction, which probably showed that I was already punchy!

Then Jim and I had lunch with writers (and dear friends) Steve (S.M. Stirling) and Janet Stirling.  Steve is amusing that early in the day (11:00 a.m. is early for Steve and thanks to an alarm clock error he’d been awakened at 10:00.)  After Steve toddled sleepily off to do his noon reading, Jim and I had a chance to tour the Art Show and a bit of the Dealer’s Room before my reading at 1:15.

This was very well attended.  Thanks to all of you who stayed to shiver in that very cold room!  I read my yet-unpublished short story “Can’t Live,” and took a few questions.  At that time, I revealed for the first time that forthcoming projects will include a new, self-published, Firekeeper novel…

(Did you read far enough to learn that?)

First, however, will come Asphodel, probably early in 2018, featuring cover art by Rowan Derrick, who also did the cover for my short story collection, Curiosities.  More on forthcoming projects in future Wanderings!

Fairly soon after my reading, Jim took off to buy a new impeller for our pump.  He was reassured that, given the number of plants thriving in the pond, the fish should be okay.

He returned in time to go with me to my next panel, SnackWrites: Writing Exercises. Moderated by Josh Gentry, host of the SnackReads site, this panel provided me, Robert (Bob) Vardeman, and M.T. (Matt) Reiten the challenge of having five minutes to show what we could write in response to a set prompt that we had not seen in advance.  The audience was encouraged to participate, and many did.  We had lots of fun and proved that five minutes is enough to get some decent writing done.


We chatted with a few people after, then raced off to catch the second part of Artist Guest of Honor Elizabeth Leggett’s excellent presentation.  I always learn something about the creative process when I go to these – far more, honestly, than I do from most writer’s panels, given that I’ve been writing professionally now for some twenty-five years.  In her panel, Elizabeth offered a bonus lesson on perseverance as she showed just how many revisions she did on just one piece.

After that, it was time for the Mass Signing, followed by dinner with our much-missed friends, Mike and Yvonne (who moved to Virginia several years ago).  We added Ursula Vernon and her husband, Kevin Sonney, at the last minute.  However, as I had hoped, the group chemistry was great and I think a good time was had by all.  I certainly had a blast.

Sunday morning, Jim fixed the pond pump.  The fish were grateful.  I picked a lot of string beans and eggplant…  Gardens do not understand that you’re at a convention.  They keep growing.

Sunday, once again, I was on the first panel of the day (Pros Who Game: Gamemastering &Writing).  Then we went to the excellent interview of the two guests of honor (Sherwood Smith and C.J. Cherryh) by Ursula Vernon.  We had to leave a little before the end to get upstairs to help set up and run the Afternoon Tea.

The Tea was, as always, delightful.  This was my first attempt at judging the “hats and gloves” – a sort of friendly “hall costume” show, for which we give prizes donated by the Tea Team.  Betsy James was a good coach, and I think I’d enjoy doing it again.

After Tea clean-up, we stayed for closing ceremonies, and then stayed to chat for about 45 minutes with Mike and Yvonne.  Thus endth Bubonicon for another year…

On Monday, we discovered that Ursula and Kevin couldn’t get home because their flight is through Houston, so we picked them up at noon and went out to show them something of Albuquerque.  We hit the Rattlesnake Museum, then several shops in Old Town.  After that, we went by the zoo, where the much-desired the wombats and Tasmanian devils cooperated by being out and active.

Now it’s back to the “normal” week of writing.  On Friday, I left my characters about to discover some rather world-changing information.  Time to find out what they think of it.


FF: Pugs, Princesses, and War

August 25, 2017

Bubonicon starts this weekend, so on top of everything else, I’m preparing for my panels.

Battlecat Meets Battlepug

For those of you just discovering this feature, the Friday Fragments lists what I’ve read over the past week.  Most of the time I don’t include details of either short fiction (unless part of a book-length collection) or magazines.

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 bit of description or a few opinions tossed in.

Recently Completed:

How Much For Just the Planet? by John M. Ford.  A completely insane Star Trek novel about a planet that doesn’t want to join either the Federation or the Klingon Empire.  I’ve laughed out loud so many times that Jim has put dibs on this for when I’m done.

The Princess in Black by Shannon Hale.  Audiobook.  Pretty good, but really didn’t hold up without the illustrations.

Battlepug, volume 1-5, by Mike Norton, Allen Passalaqua, and Chris Crank.  Graphic novel.  I came for the quirky concept of a classic Conanesque hero riding a giant pug and stayed for the story.  Really liked!

In Progress:

A Dangerous Place by Jaqueline Winspear.  Audiobook.  Masie Dobbs and the Spanish Civil War.

Fairytale by Hiro Mashima.  Manga.  Volumes 1-2.  During a recent visit to Texas, my nephews mentioned this.  As it’s the only one of the “big four” (as they called them) that I hadn’t read at least some, I decided to give it a shot.


I’m writing every spare moment I can find, which isn’t giving much time for “also”!

TT: Fiction or Not?

August 24, 2017

JANE: So, Alan.  I have a difficult question for you.  I apologize in advance if I end up offending you.

ALAN: Ask away! I promise not to be offended.

Literary Spices: Use With Care

JANE: When I read your short story “Rag Week,” I really enjoyed the story.  When I read your comments, I learned that it was “based on a true story,” and that you’d made a deliberate choice to write it in first person.

If anyone wants the details of why you wrote the story that way, they can check out our discussion from last week.  My question is whether you consider “Rag Week” fiction or non-fiction.

ALAN: It’s definitely fiction. It was deliberately planned and structured as a story. There were several bits of it that I just made up and at least one incident that wasn’t connected to the story at all in real life, but which sounded as though it should have been, and so I shoehorned it in.

If anyone ever comes to write the definitive history of The Campus City Jazzmen, I really hope that they don’t use my story – there are far too many “errors” in it.

JANE: Whew!  I’m relieved.  The reason I asked is that more and more these days I’m hearing writers claim that what they’re writing isn’t fiction but “creative non-fiction” or “narrative non-fiction.”  These people get really upset if you call their work “fiction.”

Have you ever heard of creative non-fiction?

ALAN: No, I haven’t. Hang about – I’ll go and look it up…

I’m back. It seems that creative non-fiction uses literary techniques to communicate facts. So the piece reads like a story but provides information like a piece of journalism.

JANE: That’s the stuff.  I first encountered the term at a writer’s meeting.  One of our members asked if anyone knew much about it, saying that an agent had suggested to her that she re-draft her non-fiction historical project as “creative non-fiction.”  She then explained what this was and immediately heads around the table began to shake in the negative.

“That’s fiction,” said the award-winning historian.

“That’s fiction,” said the reporter-turned-mystery-writer.

“That’s fiction,” said former academic me.  “If you’re making up dialogue, not quoting from letters or other documents, imagining scenes, that’s fiction.”

But, there are people who think otherwise.  What’s your reaction to the concept of creative or narrative non-fiction?

ALAN: I have mixed feelings. Generally I’d agree with all the people you quoted who said that it was fiction. As I said before, I’d categorise my “Rag Week” story as fiction. But if all the information in the piece is factually accurate, then I suppose that creative non-fiction could be a valid concept. The literary techniques that are brought to bear can be thought of as being a bit like the herbs and spices that you use when cooking. They can add some zing to something that might otherwise be a bit bland.

But just as you shouldn’t over-spice your food, so too you shouldn’t over-fictionalise your non-fiction.

JANE: I agree.  By the way, I really like your spice analogy.

As we saw back when we compared the historical events upon which Shakespeare based his “History Plays” to the actual historical people and events, the problem with putting words into people’s mouths is that, after enough time has passed, the fictional presentation can be mistaken for or even –  as in the case of King Richard III – come to replace fact.

ALAN: And as a result, the debate has never gone away. Richard III died at the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485, but his body was not found until 2012, buried beneath a Council car park in the city of Leicester. This caused great excitement, and the whole story was re-examined again and again in the weeks following the discovery.

We discussed Shakespeare’s history plays over several weeks. If anyone missed them, the first piece in the series is here.

JANE: Maybe I’m too deeply ingrained in my academic background, but the difference between a direct quote, a paraphrase (still fact, because it’s rewording a quotation without altering the essentials), a summary (which is condensing, but not changing, the material), and making something up is the line between non-fiction and fiction.

This applies especially to making up conversations.  Even if, for example, the author had a copy of a letter Thomas Jefferson wrote to George Washington that said, “Thank you for talking with me about my difficulties with your vice president,” and even if the author knew as a historical fact that Thomas Jefferson and John Adams were opposed both politically and personally at this time, I think making up the discussion between Thomas Jefferson and George Washington about John Adams moves into the realm of fiction.

But maybe I’m being too stodgy.  Can you give me an example of what you’d consider good creative non-fiction?   Or, if you can’t, how about when what has been presented as non-fiction crosses the line into fiction?

ALAN: Yes, I can – how about we go into the specifics next time?  As a teaser, I’ll promise you examples of both. And what’s more, I’ll take them from the works of the same writer!

JANE: This sounds intriguing.  I can hardly wait!

Life’s Peachy!

August 23, 2017

This week as we lead up to Bubonicon, New Mexico’s annual SF convention, I’m pulled in about three different – all very enjoyable – directions.

Sweet Bounty!

Let’s start with the convention.  Bubonicon is always a great show, and this year it’s extra interesting for me.  One of the Guests of Honor is C.J. Cherryh, whose works I first encountered in college.  Now I’m actually going to be on a panel (“Felines and Feline Aliens in SF: The Cat’s Meow”) with her – and as a participating author.  I wish I could go back in time and tell my eighteen-year-old self that!

She wouldn’t believe me, though.

Still, maybe I’ll get the chance, since the Bubonicon theme this year is “time travel.”  Perhaps someone there will have a working time machine I can borrow.

I’m on a bunch of panels at Bubonicon, including one on short writing exercises that I’m wondering if I’ll screw up.  I’ve never been a “writer in the window” sort of person.  Still, this one is hosted by Josh Gentry, host of the “Snack Read/Snack Writes” website.  I couldn’t pass up the temptation.

On Saturday, I’ll also be giving a reading, probably from an unpublished short story.   And on Sunday (after a panel and my chance to be a fan girl watching the GOH’s get interviewed by none other than the marvelous Ursula Vernon), I’ll be helping out with the Afternoon Tea.

For the Tea, I’m making a new (for me, at least) savory cheese cookie.  My test group loved the first batch, and I’m looking forward to sharing with a larger group.  Tea hosts this year will include Diana Gabaldon and Sherwood Smith.  Remember that those who wear hats and gloves (creative, elegant, just plain silly) are eligible for special prizes!   Sign up in advance, since spaces at the tea are limited, and we’re only doing two sessions this year.

Additional Bubonicon coolness includes…  Elizabeth Leggett, with whom I had a great time last year on the David Bowie panel, is going to be Artist GOH – hot on the heels of her Hugo win as Best Fan Artist.  Two other 2017 Hugo Winners will be attending as well: Ursula Vernon and Daniel Abraham (who is half of James S.A. Corey, of The Expanse).  The Bubonicon committee members clearly know how to pick their guests!

Bubonicon launches my personal public appearances cycle.  In late September, I’ll be one of the presenters at the Southwest Festival of the Written Word in Silver City, New Mexico.  It looks like a fascinating event and, as a bonus for me, will be my first trip to Silver City.

In late October, I’m one of the Guests of Honor at MileHiCon in Denver, Colorado.   More on that as we get closer.

Finally, in November, I’ll be supporting the Albuquerque Museum by participating in the “am Author Fest” on November 11th.   Come and get a head start on your Christmas shopping, while supporting the museum and hanging out with local authors.

So…  Public appearances is one direction my life is pulled in.  Another is writing.  I’m working intensely on a new novel, which topped 120,000 words last week.  No title, but I’m very much enjoying.  Also, I’m nearly done with one reprint-related project, and beginning to set up the schedule for my first self-published original novel.

Then, as if that isn’t enough, the harvest is coming in.   The monsoon rains are helping a great deal, and my garden is producing a bumper crop of eggplant, peppers, tomatoes, and string beans, as well as various herbs.  We’re trying an experiment with our summer squash this year, and are hoping for a solid late harvest.  We’re waiting to see if the cukes do more than flowers.

Additionally, our friend Samantha Thompson has gifted us with some of her home orchard’s bounty.  I currently have a dishpan full of peaches waiting to be processed (as well as some to be eaten immediately).  Next to that dishpan is a bag containing an utterly astonishing amount of seedless grapes, many of which will graduate into raisins.  There’s a bowl of miniature Bartlett pears on top of the fridge.

So…  There you have it: public appearances, writing, and dealing with produce.  Three directions, all quite a lot of fun.  Basically, life’s peachy!

Hope to see you at Bubonicon!

FF: Laughter and Art

August 18, 2017

During a week where the news has been very stressful, I’ve turned to comedy for relief and balance.

Wow! Horned Toads Aren’t Toads!

For those of you just discovering this feature, the Friday Fragments lists what I’ve read over the past week.  Most of the time I don’t include details of either short fiction (unless part of a book-length collection) or magazines.

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 bit of description or a few opinions tossed in.

Recently Completed:

The Goose Girl by Shannon HaleAudiobook.  Bonus on the audio is a very short interview with Ms. Hale talking about some of her considerations when writing this novel.

Creatures, Critters, and Crawlers of the Southwest by April Kopp.  New Mexico has six of the seven “life zones.”  The only one we don’t have is “tropical.”  Lovely photos a bonus, although I wish the rule I was taught back in high school that you don’t “gutter” a photo in layout was still adhered to!

In Progress:

How Much For Just the Planet? by John M. Ford.  A completely insane Star Trek novel about a planet that doesn’t want to join either the Federation or the Klingon Empire.  I’ve laughed out loud so many times that Jim has put dibs on this for when I’m done.

The Princess in Black by Shannon Hale.  Audiobook.  Just started.  I’ve read the first of the stories included in a charming illustrated children’s book.  I’m curious how the words will hold up without the pictures.

Battlepug, volume 2 by Mike Norton, Allen Passalaqua, and Chris Crank.  Graphic novel.  I saw this one the library shelf and immediately thought of my friend Dominique’s pug Merlin. The story’s so quirky I’ve ordered the other volumes.


As I gear up to the next stage in self-publishing my very odd original novel Asphodel, I’m spending a lot of time reviewing works on illustration, looking for just the right cover art approach.  I never thought I’d find myself working as an art director, but there it is.

TT: The Rag Week Rag

August 17, 2017

JANE: As some of our readers may remember, you made several resolutions when you retired.  One of these was to get a dog.

ALAN: His name is Jake. He’s a Huntaway (a New Zealand breed) and he’s a very gentle giant.

Ain’t They Sweet?

JANE: Another goal was to finally pursue your long-held goal of writing a novel.  You haven’t finished the novel, but you did join a writer’s group and have been honing your skills with regular writing exercises.

I really enjoyed your most recent one, which turned into a short story called “Rag Week.”

What was the assignment?

ALAN: We were set a homework task to write a story about supporting or donating to a cause or charity. I remembered a jazz band that some university friends of mine were in. They originally formed specifically to collect money for charity. I decided to write a story around that. So, in the immortal words of Hollywood, it was “based on a true story”. I’m sure that phrase will be very useful when I finally sell the film rights…

JANE: Very!  Your topic a great twist on what could be a very dull, even overly pious topic.

For the amusement of our readers, I’d like to quote the first few paragraphs.  I’d really like to include the whole story but if I did there wouldn’t be any space left to talk to each other.

ALAN: If anyone wants to read the whole thing, they can find it at this link.

JANE: But don’t click on Alan’s link until you’ve read this part!  Otherwise, you’re going to get a spoiler and ruin the rest of this Tangent.  I couldn’t bear that.  Okay…  Here are the opening paragraphs of Alan’s short story “Rag Week.”

“Have you ever noticed that after three pints of Guinness everything sounds like a good idea?

“We were sitting in the pub trying to decide what we could do for rag week. Rag week, of course, is just an excuse for university students to dress up and do silly things in order to persuade people to donate money to charity. What could be more fun than that?

“The third pint of Guinness inspired me to say, ‘Why don’t we pretend to be a Dixieland jazz band? I’ve got a double bass, Nick plays clarinet, and Paul almost plays the trumpet. I’m sure we can get a few other people as well.’”

First of all, I want to praise you for a great narrative hook.

ALAN: (blushing) Thank you.

JANE: However, as much as the English prof who always lingers in the back of my brain wants to discuss the many excellent things you did with this opening – the line “Paul almost plays the trumpet” is priceless and worthy of P.G. Wodehouse – what I’d really like to talk about is something you mention in your introduction to the story.

If I may quote again…  No, that’s silly.  Why don’t you explain it in your own words how you came to write this story in first person.

ALAN: OK, I will. All the events in the story did actually take place, more or less. But even though the piece is narrated in the first person, they didn’t happen to me. The double bass player for The Campus City Jazzmen was a friend of mine, and therefore I felt comfortable in his skin, which is why I chose him as the narrator. But I wasn’t directly involved in the band myself, so I had to use my imagination and make up a few things in order to make the story flow properly. Originally I wrote the piece in the third person, but I felt that it lacked immediacy. There was a distancing effect that I didn’t like. So I re-wrote it in the first person, and lo and behold, it came back to life!

JANE: Cool!  Why do you think the story came to life after you shifted to first person?

ALAN: Originally the third person narrator was a spectator who was watching the band playing its marathon gig in Slab Square. But that didn’t work because it forced me to start the story too late – the band was already playing when the spectator came across them so there wasn’t any way for me to talk about its formation other than through a flashback, or by having a conversation between the spectator and a band member, and both of those made the story sound as though it was being narrated by a Greek chorus that was telling the audience what had happened off stage. Also it was hard for me to find a convincing reason for having the narrator stay there for the whole of the gig. But of course he had to stay there so that I could finish the story properly. It all got too difficult.

So I tried again. I went back in time and started with the formation of the band. I told the story in a third person omniscient voice, but I couldn’t make that work either. The story was far too short for an omniscient narrator to make much of an impact on the reader. The events of the story started to feel too distant, as if I was looking at them through the wrong end of a telescope. The omniscient, god-like narrator simply wasn’t involved in what was going on. The story fell flat.

JANE: Fascinating…  So we’re up to two attempts already.  This is becoming a story in itself.  Go on!

ALAN: I decided that the narrator really should be someone who was actually in the band so that there was a consistent (and much closer) point of view all the way through. I was still hung up on a third-person narrator (because, after all, I hadn’t been a member of the band).

The double bass player was the only band member I had known well, so I made him the third-person viewpoint character. That was a lot better, but it still wasn’t right. I found myself sometimes resorting to reported speech and the passive voice, and those two devices continued to give the story a feeling of distance.

Finally I bit the bullet and re-wrote it in the first person. This gave me an immediacy that I really liked. The passive voice disappeared and, because the narrator was properly inside the story looking out, there was a feeling of intimacy to it that simply hadn’t been there before.

At last I was happy with it.

JANE: Terrific!  Four major attempts and certainly lots of writing and re-writing with each draft.  I agree that you made the right choice.

I’ve just looked at the clock, and I need to run.   Next time, I have another question for you…  I just hope it doesn’t offend you.

Tiny But Amazing (Toad)

August 16, 2017

Life lately has definitely been a celebration of the microcosm.  The little guy in the picture is a New Mexico Spade Foot Toad.  He’s taken up residence in the alyssum bordering our patio; his entire realm measures about four inches wide by eight feet long.

Tiny Toad

Some of the bricks in the wall against which the alyssum grows are beginning to crumble.  One has a hollow in it.  When he’s startled (as when we start to water the alyssum), the tiny toad jumps up and takes residence in the hollow.  When he does this, he looks rather like an amphibian variant on a Mesa Verde or Puye cliff dweller.

In addition to tiny toad, we have numerous first-year lizards (both blue tails and fence) racing around the yard.  They don’t hold still long enough for pictures.  Speed versus stillness as defense mechanisms.

The baby birds are now mostly fledged out and are learning how to be birds.  It’s a good thing that the monsoon rains have started, because we have plenty of grass seed and bugs for them.

Tiny Toad in Cliff Dwelling

After an unusually hot early summer, we’ve settled into high nineties, with the high temperatures remaining at their peak for a much shorter duration.  That’s a relief both for me and for the garden.  This year I discovered that when the temperatures go about about 106, thinking becomes a real challenge.

And I have been thinking, researching, and even writing.  I made significant progress on a few reprint projects over the last few weeks, including reaching a new stage in the production of Asphodel, the novel that is in line to be my first self-published original novel.

After a couple of very stressful weeks – including the phone company accidentally disconnecting our phone and internet for four days (which, when you run your own business out of your home, is not trivial) – I’m hoping to settle in and get more writing done.

In fact, much as I enjoy chatting with all of you, that’s what I’m going to do now.


FF: Reading on the Road

August 11, 2017

Last weekend, we went to Texas to visit Jim’s family.  The only thing I like about air travel these days is that I have a lot of time to read!

So That’s What the Cats Are Up To!

For those of you just discovering this feature, the Friday Fragments lists what I’ve read over the past week.  Most of the time I don’t include details of either short fiction (unless part of a book-length collection) or magazines.

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 bit of description or a few opinions tossed in.

Recently Completed:

Monstress: The Blood by Marjorie Liu and Sana TakedaVolume Two of the graphic novel.  Lovely art with some of the best depictions of animal-human hybrids I’ve ever seen.  Story is pretty good, although somewhat predictable.  The most interesting character thus far is Kippa, although I like the protagonist Maika well enough to care about her search.

Every Heart a Doorway by Seanan McGuire.  This novella has been getting lots of attention on award ballots this year.  I found it a good read with some lovely prose.  Best of all, there was a reason that so many of the characters were a bit outside of the mainstream.  I’d love to have the backstory on some of the ostensibly “normal” types who went to the “rainbows and unicorns” worlds.

Cat-a-lyst by Alan Dean Foster.  On the light side, but given some heft and a liberal sprinkle of irony by the fact that the reader knows a lot the characters do not.  Excellent descriptions of the Peruvian jungle add to the pleasure.

In Progress:

The Goose Girl by Shannon HaleAudiobook.  I always thought this was a dark tale, and Ms. Hale’s version isn’t making it any prettier!

Creatures, Critters, and Crawlers of the Southwest by April Kopp.  New Mexico has six of the seven “life zones.”  The only one we don’t have is “tropical.”  This means that the range of critters featured in this book is pretty amazing.


Lots of magazine articles.  I always enjoy the Southwest Airlines magazine because it’s a window into a completely alien world.

TT: Brain Snake Therapy

August 10, 2017

ALAN: OK! Time to see if we can tame last week’s brain snakes. Tell me more about your thoughts.

Feet Up, Eyes Closed

JANE (putting her feet up on the couch and closing her eyes):  Thanks, Alan.  I really appreciate your willingness to talk to me.  These things keep me up at night.

Puns or word plays are one area where, when I’m writing a story that involves created languages (conlangs, for those of you who are coming late to this discussion), I find myself getting snarled up in the coils of brains snakes.

I know that word play provides a real challenge for “real life” translators as well.  This is because not only is there a play on words, the play on words isn’t just a matter of sound but a matter of cultural context.  Without both, you don’t have a good joke.

ALAN: That’s the difference between idiom and literalism, of course. I have an example from real life, but I’m sure that exactly the same difficulty arises in made up languages.

In both American and British English, someone who falls for a prank on 1st of April is an April Fool. But in France, that person is a Poisson D’Avril – literally an April Fish. But anyone translating that phrase into English would, I hope, always choose the idiomatic version. A literal translation would simply puzzle anyone who came across it…

JANE: I agree.  In the case of April Fish versus April Fool, a literal translation would make no sense at all.

When I’m writing, if I can’t resist a clever bit of phrasing, I’ll let myself provide the word play and hope my readers understand that I’m more or less “translating.”  However, many more times, I’ll just re-write and, sorrowfully, eliminate the word play.

Another area where working in a conlang becomes difficult is when a translation is very culturally specific.  These happen even between types of English.  For example, the breed of dog I’d call a German Shepherd, you’d call an Alsatian.

ALAN: That’s another good example of “two nations separated by a common language”, as the saying goes. You and I originally started these Tangents so that we could talk about the kinds of linguistic and cultural differences that separated us. It has taken us a long time to explore that topic and we definitely haven’t finished with it yet. We still keep finding things that astonish us both.

JANE: Absolutely!  If people knew the number of times I need to ask you what an idiomatic expression means…  But I tangent off.  Back to my German Shepherd (your Alsatian).

What would a translation device do in this case?  Certainly the babel fish wouldn’t have an issue, but what about a mechanical translation device or a spell that provides not a telepathic “save” but an actual sound?

What sound would the Universal Translator pick?  Would it assess the number of American English speakers versus the number of British English speakers and choose based on that?  Would each person hear a slightly different translation in his or her earbud?

ALAN: If I had to choose, I’d choose the latter. At least that way I’d hear something I had a good chance of understanding. The first choice has the potential to flummox me with unfamiliar “English” constructions.

JANE: But if there isn’t an earbud, then that’s not going to work.  What if the translation is coming over a conference call or because the Big Evil Alien is making demands over the ship-to-ship communicator?

Ah, but English to English or even Earth Language to Earth Language is a relatively easy problem.  What do you do when a translation would involve creatures, concepts, or actions that don’t have a “match” in one of the cultures involved?

Let’s say we’re on an alien planet.  I’m talking through a mechanical translator to Noram the Alien.  I say, “I’m looking for my dog.  He’s a German Shepherd.”  Well, Noram has never seen a dog, a German, or a shepherd.

ALAN: But does Noram have the concept of “animal companion”? If “he” does, then perhaps analogies can be drawn that would get the idea across, albeit perhaps somewhat crudely. Only if no analogies exist would we probably see the communication completely break down.

JANE: Even if Noram has the concept of an animal companion, the opportunities for communication chaos are vast.  Even “looking for” could be problematic, since it involves vision.  What if Noram doesn’t have eyes but “sees” via tentacles that perceive radiation wave lengths?  What if Noram is from an asexual race and the concept of “he” or “she” isn’t in its/hier concept range?

Noram might hear: “I am seeking my BZZZZ.  BZZZ.  BZZZ. BZZZ.”

Or the translator might attempt description: “I am [visually] seeking my quadrupedal semi-intelligent omnivorous but primarily carnivorous companion creature.  It provides one half of the necessary sexual equation to reproduce its species.  Its species is associated with one small geographic region of the planet of origin [see map] and was originally bred to guard and guide other creatures.”

There’s just SO much to language, to communication, to conlanging that there are times I’m not surprised that many writers never stray from our world, our culture, and, well, just write vampire romance novels.

ALAN: Or they could take the path of least resistance and make the aliens just like us both linguistically and culturally, except of course that the aliens have green skin or lumpy foreheads.

JANE: (hums the classic Star Trek theme).

ALAN: (patiently continuing):  However, assuming that there is some common ground, some degree of communication is always possible.

My dog Jake communicates primarily by smell, but despite that he and I can still exchange ideas, some of them quite complex. He definitely hears “BZZZZ.  BZZZ.  BZZZ. BZZZ.” when I speak, and I hear variations on “WOOF” when he speaks. But nevertheless we understand each other. He can tell me when he needs to go outside and when he needs to come back in. He can tell me when he really, really wants a treat.  He will happily play tug-o-war with a rope if I suggest it.

But I agree that he will never understand that I don’t want to walk in that particular direction because it’s damp and my boots leak. He understands neither boots (except as things that are nice to chew) nor leaks.

JANE: I absolutely, positively agree with you that it’s possible to communicate with aliens.  I do so daily with my cats, guinea pigs, and husband (actually, I’m sure he feels the same about communicating with me).

The difficulty is how does a writer get these complex communications issues across while keeping the story moving?  How does the writer preserve the plot and not get bogged down in what is essentially a detail of setting?



ALAN: I couldn’t have said it better myself.