Archive for February, 2018

Fear of the Wrong Thing

February 28, 2018

This past week, I was asked a couple of thoughtful questions on my Facebook page.  I’m answering them here, where I have the leisure to provide more than a “sound bite” response.

Me, Brenda Drake, and Gabi Stevens

First though a bit of news!

To celebrate the release of Asphodel, I took part in Marshal Zeringue’s Campaign for the American Reader.  In the Page 69 Test, we dive inside Asphodel to answer the question: “If you were in a bookstore and randomly opened to page sixty-nine, would you be hooked?”  For Writer’s Read, I talk about some of what I’ve been reading.  Even if you regularly read my Friday Fragments, you’ll find something new here.

The Page 69 Test: Asphodel

Writers Read: Jane Lindskold

Now to those questions (which I tightened up a bit here):

Tish Kemper asked: “How do you move past the fear of writing the wrong thing? I have this story inside me, and I can’t really start to write because each time I try the fear of ‘the wrong thing’ keeps me going back and dismantling everything.”

Jen Keats added: “I always worry what I write isn’t going to be ‘good enough.’ I see all these authors making intricate worlds and characters…  Does that all happen the first time around or is there a ton of editing and research etc. Does one have to use a thesaurus/dictionary to get it that good, or is it just that I’m not a very good writer?”

The simple answer, which someone actually was kind enough to post to my Facebook page by way of encouragement, boils down to: “Just write.  You can polish later.”

I agree with that, but I’d like to go into some of the issues more deeply.

Tish says “I have this story inside me.”  That’s good.  That’s great.  The first question to ask yourself is “Who is my intended audience for this story?”

This past weekend, when I did a book event at Page One Books, one of the questions we were asked was “Why did you start writing?”  Both Gabi Stevens and I had the same answer.  We started writing to create the stories we wanted to read, but couldn’t quite find.  For both of us, then, our first audience is always ourselves.  This is one reason I write my first draft rough and without worrying too much about the finer points.  I’m finding out what the story is.

If, on one level, you’re just writing the story because it’s inside you and you’d like to see it, then there is no way you can tell it wrong.  Writing is always communication, but maybe this story is you talking to yourself, telling that fairy tale you always wanted to read or putting into firmer shape some of your best daydreams.  Or maybe you’re looking for a way through some personal issue.

If you’re looking to share that story with a larger audience, then you’ve set yourself a tougher challenge.  Remember, writing is communication.    Let’s say you’ve written that rough first draft just for you.  Now you think it’s a story you might want to share with other people.  At this point, your task is to make sure the language says what you want it to say.

Here’s where Jen’s question fits in.  She asked: “Does that all happen the first time around or is there a ton of editing and research etc. Does one have to use a thesaurus/dictionary to get it that good, or is it just that I’m not a very good writer?”

My answer is: No.  It doesn’t happen the first time around.  It doesn’t even happen the first book around.  Most writers have a bunch of short stories or a novel or two that they wrote as they were learning their craft.  Sometimes they come back and use what they learned along the way to make that early effort better.  That’s what I did with my novel The Pipes of Orpheus.  So don’t despair if your first effort isn’t as good as you want it to be.   Put it aside and come back later.

And, no, you don’t need to use a thesaurus or dictionary.  In fact, if you are repeatedly using either of these tools, you’re just being artificial.

Does this mean you don’t need a wide vocabulary or knowledge of grammar?  Absolutely not!  You need both.  But as far as I can tell, writing is the only craft where people think they can skip the basics and move right onto professional quality work.  Sorry, but just as if you wanted to be a painter, you’d need to learn something about brush strokes and blending colors and perspective, so if you want to write professionally, you’re going to need to learn the skills.

There’s no quick way around this.

Because writing is communication, at some point in the process, you’re going to need to share the story with someone else.  Some people join writers’ groups.  Some people have “beta readers.”  (The assumption is that the writer is the “alpha” reader.)  When I wrote Asphodel, I not only asked my usual “beta readers” to take a look at it, I deliberately asked some people who I wasn’t sure would get into the story to take a look.  The fact that a widely varied set of readers found something to like in Asphodel gave me confidence that I had communicated my vision.

This Wandering is getting long, so let me add that my book Wanderings on Writing contains a bunch of essays about writing.  These range from basics, such as narrative hooks and research strategies, up to and including more global themes such as heroes and antiheroes or world-building.  The essays were adapted from my Wednesday Wanderings.  If you poke around the site archive, you can find some of the same material.

I hope these answers will help not only Tish and Jen, but other would-be writers as well.  Any other questions?

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FF: Considerations

February 23, 2018

Reminder!  Tomorrow, Saturday, February 24that 4:00 pm: Fantasy Fiction Spectacular at Page One.  I’ll be signing my latest, Asphodel, along with authors Brenda Drake and Gabi Stevens, who will be signing their own works.  For more details go to www.page1book.com.

Ogapoge Reads

For those of you just discovering this part of my blog, 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 Ship of the Dead (Magnus Chase and the Gods of Asgard Book Three) by Rick Riordan.  Audiobook.  Just started.

Giant Trouble (Hamster Princess 4) by Ursula Vernon.  I loved the “harpster.”  Twisted!

Attack of the Ninja Frogs (Dragonbreath 2) by Ursula Vernon.  Makes for weirdly excellent dreams.

Curse of the Were-Wiener (Dragonbreath 3) by Ursula Vernon.

Lair of the Bat Monster (Dragonbreath 4) by Ursula Vernon.

Squire (Protector of the Small, book 3) by Tamora Pierce.   Audiobook.   I wish real-world leaders had to face the Chamber of the Ordeal before taking office.

In Progress:

The Book of Lost Things by John Connolly.  This is one I can’t read before bedtime.  The portrayal of the inwardness landscape created by fear and grief was too well-done.  I ended up dreaming about my own father’s slow death, and others.

Lady Knight (Protector of the Small, Book 4) by Tamora Pierce.  Audiobook.  Just starting.  Pierce may be unique among YA authors in that she takes her characters beyond school age concerns.  Refreshing.

Also:

Wolf Captured by Jane Lindskold.  Nearly done.  As I re-read this series, I’m coming to realize that many of the Firekeeper novels are actually two books.  In today’s market, that’s how they would have been published.  Something I am considering for Wolf’s Search.

TT: Political Commentator

February 22, 2018

JANE: Last time you said there was another aspect to Ursula Le Guin’s writing that you wanted to explore.

ALAN: Yes – I’ve really always regarded her as a political commentator first and a feminist writer second. Hence, I suppose, my admiration for The Disposessed, which I mentioned a few weeks ago.

Stories With a Message

Politics was a theme she explored again in her novella/novel The Word for World Is Forest, though this time the ideas related more directly to contemporary America. The story was originally published in Harlan Ellison’s collection Again, Dangerous Visions so I’m sure she thought her subject matter was, to some degree, controversial. Among other things, The World for World Is Forest was a direct commentary on the Vietnam war. Le Guin never made any secret of her opposition to America’s involvement in that conflict and the story’s anti-militaristic theme makes that perfectly clear.

JANE: The first time I read the book, I was too young to catch that I wasn’t reading just a novel but political commentary.  In fact, the book quite turned me off, especially how the humans referred to the natives as “creechies” and how many remained closeminded even when presented with evidence that the native population was – in its own way – quite sophisticated.  Sadly, even when I read the book later, I never could get around that initial aversion.

ALAN: Sometimes it’s hard to overcome first impressions when you re-visit a story and try to read it with different eyes.

Have you read the series of stories (and one novel) that she set in a fictional central European country called Orsinia? We learn from the stories that the country was once an independent kingdom which was absorbed into the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Orsinia sent an army to the First World War. After that conflict ended, Orsinia briefly regained its independence. However, after the Second World War, it became part of the Soviet bloc. At the end of the 1980s, following the fall of the Soviet Union, the country again became self-governing. In other words the country has a history typical of the place and times.

Le Guin invented Orsinia when she was in her teens.  As she said in her introduction to The Complete Orsinia (The Library of America, 2016):

Most of the people I really wished I could write like were foreign, or dead, or both. Most of what I read drew me to write about Europe; but I knew it was foolhardy to write fiction set in Europe if I’d never been there.

At last it occurred to me that I might get away with it by writing about a part of Europe where nobody had been but me.

She wrote stories set in Orsinia throughout her career and they directly reflect her reactions to the various events that defined the political and social history of Europe and, by extension, of the world at large.

The later stories were sophisticated and thoughtful, but I found the only novel set in Orsinia (Malafrena) to be rather weak. Probably that was because she had been tinkering with it for thirty years or more before it was finally published in 1979. It reads like a nineteenth century novel of manners, and it never really comes alive. The other Orsinian Tales, though, are well worth seeking out.

JANE: Thanks for letting me know.  I must admit, I haven’t read those stories, and when I heard they were based on her juvenilia, I wasn’t particularly interested.  You make them sound much more appealing.

Tell me, have you read Le Guin’s Always Coming Home?

ALAN: No, not in any formal sense. I doubt that anybody has. The book presents itself as a description of the life and culture of the Kesh people who live at some indeterminate future time in California. It’s a ragbag collection of a book that consists of songs, poems, recipes, anthropological notes and anything else that she felt like tossing into the mixture. It doesn’t tell a linear story (though there is a story there if you look closely). Instead it tries to present a whole culture, a gestalt if you will. It’s a book to dip into rather than to read from start to finish.

JANE: Okay, folks!  Tell us, have any of you read Always Coming Home in a linear fashion?

I’ll admit, I haven’t.  The edition I have includes notes that tell you where to go if you want to pick up the more narrative portion of the book, but I’ll be honest.  Stone Telling’s tale didn’t grip me.  I think the reason is encompassed in the second part of her name.  “Telling” isn’t appealing to me.  Nor, honestly, was she.  Even in the sections where she is a small child, I felt implicitly lectured, and I don’t enjoy that.

Once I decided I didn’t like Stone Telling, I dipped into various portions, enjoyed a poem or two, contemplated a recipe, read some of the other bits, but that was it.

ALAN: John Scalzi greatly admires Always Coming Home. He praises it very highly in the obituary he wrote for Ursula Le Guin.

JANE: Thanks!  I went and looked at his piece.  He makes a persuasive argument, but it’s not one that applies to me.  By the time I picked up Always Coming Home, as an English major with an interest in what was then called “Modern Literature,” I was already familiar with non-linear storytelling, and so form alone was not enough to intrigue me – and certainly not to provide an influence.

Non-linear storytelling wasn’t even all that new to SF/F, since many of the New Wave writers – including Roger Zelazny, whose work I had read extensively – had dabbled in these waters.   Creatures of Light and Darkness, published in 1969, immediately comes to mind.

ALAN: I tend to agree with you. I think it’s one of her less approachable works. But despite her occasional failures, she was an important and influential writer. I will miss her now that she is gone.

JANE: Me, too.  She gave me pleasure as a reader, helped me grow as a writer.  Two tremendous gifts.

Looking From the Inside Out

February 21, 2018

News Flash! February 24, 2018, 4:00 pm: Fantasy Fiction Spectacular at Page One.  I’ll be signing my latest, Asphodel, along with authors Brenda Drake and Gabi Stevens.  For more details go to www.page1book.com.

The last week or so, I’ve been reviewing what I have written on Wolf’s Search, the forthcoming seventh Firekeeper novel.

What’s in a Description?

Side Note:  There is no set release date for Wolf’s Search.  The novel will come out when I’m finished, and it’s as good as I can make it.  Because of how I write, I can’t tell you what it’s going to be about. All I can do is reassure you that this isn’t going to be one of those new novels in a series that jumps to the next generation. Okay?

One of the things I’ve been doing as I review is fill out characters’ physical descriptions.

“What?” you say “You mean you don’t work those out in advance?”

Not always.  Not usually, even.  Unless what a character looks like is important to some element of the plot, I often wait to get to know the characters before worrying about what they look like.  Adara in Artemis Awakening and Artemis Invaded is a good example of a character whose physical description I needed to work out in advance, both because of how it would influence Griffin’s first reaction to her, then because of her unusual genetic background.

In my “Breaking the Wall” novels (beginning with Thirteen Orphans) all the main characters have at least one Chinese ancestor.  How strongly the Chinese physical traits show was something I carefully worked out, basing it on how old the character was (therefore, how many generations closer to their Chinese ancestor), the ethnic background of their other forbearers, and a few other factors.  Even in the same family, different combinations come out, so I had some leeway.

I know that lots of writers “cast” their characters using movie and television actors.  Possibly because I don’t watch a lot of television or movies, this doesn’t work for me.  The closest I come is paging through magazines, focusing especially on advertisements.

Honestly, though, I don’t think the fact that I don’t watch much in the way of movies or television is why I don’t use visual aides to design my characters.  I think it’s because I write my characters from the inside out.  That means how they look isn’t very important.  Who they are is what is important.  From there, what elements of their physical description best show who they are tend to naturally come into focus.

Firekeeper is a good example.  When you think about it, she’s incredibly ordinary.  Average height.  Average build.  Brown hair, slightly curly.  Dark brown eyes.  What’s interesting are the things her life has done to her, especially the scars.  Her eyes draw a lot of attention, too.  People tend to see them as darker than they actually are.  For me, this is a result of her inhuman way of looking.  Unless it’s necessary for her to focus down tightly, Firekeeper keeps a wide focus, alert as any wild animal to changes in her environment.  Her body language is also subtly “wrong,” again a result of her upbringing among wolves.

In my newly-published novel, Asphodel, I took this tendency to not describe my characters to a new extreme.  The narrator (I can’t give you her name without a spoiler) not only doesn’t know what she looks like, she’s afraid to find out.  In Asphodel, characters change appearances repeatedly, but you – and they – always know who they are.

There are definitely times when a character’s physical appearan

ce plays into the story.  Blind Seer will always be a bit of an outlier because blue eyes are rare among wolves.  Sometimes a character’s physical description isn’t an issue at the time the character is introduced, but becomes so later on.  Derian Carter is considered relatively ordinary in the first three Firekeeper books, but in book four (Wolf Captured), his red hair causes him to really stand out.  He’s also tall and used to being so, so when he encounters people much taller than him, he’s always startled.

Remembering things like that is part of the fun.  And it’s definitely one of the reasons that I enjoy writing physical descriptions after I get to know the characters, rather than in advance.

FF: Variety!

February 16, 2018

For those of you just discovering this part of my blog, 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.

Kel Reads

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:

Luck in the Shadows by Lynn Flewelling.  Good adventure fantasy with enthusiastic world-building.

Ratpunzel (Hamster Princess, Book Three) by Ursula Vernon.  Charmed.

Attack of the Ninja Frogs (Dragonbreath 2) by Ursula Vernon.  I wonder if my nephew has read these?

The Ship of the Dead (Magnus Chase and the Gods of Asgard Book Three) by Rick Riordan.  Audiobook.  Resolved a three book plot arc.

In Progress:

The Book of Lost Things by John Connolly.  Just started.

Squire (Protector of the Small, Book 3) by Tamora Pierce.  Audiobook.  Re-read, but not re-listen!

Also:

Wolf Captured by Jane Lindskold.  About halfway.

TT: A Wizard of Change

February 15, 2018

JANE: Last time you mentioned that the first of Ursula K. Le Guin’s  novels you read was A Wizard of Earthsea.  That was certainly the first of her novels I read.  By the time I read it, all three of the first books in the sequence were out, so I don’t so much think of “Earthsea” as consisting of three novels as one.   I was probably in my early double digits at the time, the exact target audience for the series.

Ged’s Story

It worked for me very well.  I was swept up not only by the mythic feeling of the story, but because Ged’s grand journey is so deeply rooted in reality.  For all its dragons and wizards, Earthsea felt distinctly real.  This ability to make unreal places real is something that I would continue to admire in Le Guin’s work.

ALAN: I had much the same reaction as you, though I was older than you (in my twenties) when I first read the books. It’s probably worth mentioning that fantasy novels were few and far between in those days, and any new addition to the canon was always met with glad cries of glee, no matter how good or bad it was – but the Earthsea books were clearly something special and, in later years when sprawling, derivative fantasy doorstop novels seemed to be everywhere, it became more and more obvious just how special and how well-crafted Le Guin’s fantasies were.

My copies of the books were published by Puffin, which was an imprint that Penguin used for children’s books. So officially, I suppose, I was far too old to be reading that childish rubbish. But I couldn’t see that it mattered. A good book is a good book, and there was a depth and a maturity to the Earthsea stories, as there is to all the best “Young Adult” fiction, which transcended categories.

JANE: I agree!  What’s great about the Earthsea books is that they grow with the reader.  A kid might be caught up in Ged’s quest.  An older reader starts wondering about the consequences of impulsive actions.  And so on…

The Earthsea books also contributed to an element of my mental landscape as a writer.  This happened when LeGuin’s fourth novel in the sequence, Tehanu: The Last Book of Earthsea was published in 1990.  Tehanu was published with much fanfare as a work in which the writer who – by then – had become a feminist icon made amends for having been so sexist in her earlier works.

ALAN: If I remember rightly, Le Guin’s protagonists up to that point had mostly been male. But I’m not sure that’s inherently sexist in and of itself. Can you elaborate?

JANE: I agree with you that male protagonists alone were not enough to make Le Guin’s books sexist.  Indeed, “male as protagonist” was still a major part of the landscape in the late 1960’s.  Even when I started writing many years later, I automatically envisioned my protagonists as male.

For example, Sarah in Brother to Dragons, Companion to Owls started out as Sam.  I made a conscious choice to write women – and women as I know them to be – which has led to me being identified as a writer of “strong female characters.”

ALAN: Perhaps I’m in a minority here, but I have no problem identifying with the protagonist of a story, be they men or be they women. So I consider both you and Ursula Le Guin to be writers of “strong characters”. For me, the adjective is not necessary.

JANE: I’m like you in that.  No one was more surprised than I to be praised for creating “strong female characters.”  I just wanted to include more characters who were female.

But the problem Le Guin created in Earthsea was more complicated than having her protagonist be male.

Le Guin’s lack of respect for the feminine went further than putting her women in the background.  Phrases such as “Weak as a woman’s magic” and/or “Wicked as a woman’s magic” occur in the Earthsea books.   Ged’s first teacher is a woman, and she leads him and his considerable magical talent astray by her manner of teaching.

Le Guin’s admission that she had basically been blind to her own cultural biases had a huge impact on me.  I’d already begun to write more female characters.  (Once again, I must remind our readers that publication date and writing date are not the same; although my first novel would not come out until 1994, I was already absorbed in writing.)  Le Guin’s admission made me wonder what my own blind spots might be.

ALAN: A question that worries me as well. I’m sure I must have them, but I don’t know what they are…

I do remember the fanfare that greeted the publication of Tehanu but I never wholly agreed with it. Certainly Le Guin’s view of women in the world of Earthsea did perhaps leave something to be desired, but she didn’t impose that point of view on her other literary worlds.

In 1969, only a year after the publication of A Wizard of Earthsea, she published The Left Hand of Darkness, a novel that was deeply preoccupied with gender issues and the societal roles played by men and women.  So in light of that, the claims made for Tehanu were perhaps a little disingenuous.

JANE: I agree with you – and I felt so at the time.  Nonetheless, I’m grateful to Le Guin’s admission because it set me questing for what I might be blind to and led me to write more varied characters and situations as a result.

ALAN: And it seems to me that the quest was successful – a lot of your characters and situations have stuck in my mind for years. If that’s the result of Le Guin’s influence on your writing, then good on her!

But there is another aspect of her work that I think we ought to talk about. Next week, perhaps?

Love and Writing

February 14, 2018

This week I have good news to share.  My short story, “Can’t Live,” has been accepted for publication by Lightspeed Magazine.  I’ll definitely let you know when it’s available.

Pretty Persistent

I’ll come back to “Can’t Live” in a moment.

First I’d like to mention that a piece by me is featured in  Lawrence M. Schoen’s “Eating Author’s” blog.  In this regular feature, he invites authors to talk about memorable meals.  Since Lawrence has a wide view of what makes a meal “memorable,” I decided to talk about teaching Roger Zelazny to cook crepes – as well as a few other things that happened during the year we lived together in Santa Fe.  If you’re interested, the full piece is here.

Those of you who are regular readers of my Friday Fragments, where I list what I’m currently reading, may recognize Lawrence M. Schoen as the author of Barsk: The Elephant’s Graveyard, which I finished a week or so ago.   Barsk shares the same line between hard science fiction and sociological science fiction occupied by works such as Dune, where precognition and the question of what would happen if people could reliably foretell the future play a central role.  However, Barsk takes the concept in a complete different direction – for one thing, some characters can talk to the dead – providing an interesting read.

Since today is Valentine’s Day, I’d like to talk about love – in this case the love an author feels for a story – and how that love is tested when the author sends the story out into the world with the intention of placing it in a commercial marketplace

I’d love to brag that “Can’t Live” sold the very first time I sent it out.  Instead, I’ll note that the story was completed on December 2, 2016, sent out immediately, and whenever it came back, it went out as soon as I could manage.  I finally sold it on February 9, 2018 – some fourteen months later.  Along the way, “Can’t Live” had several near-misses, mostly of the “I love this but it doesn’t quite fit our needs” type.  It also suffered from a perception by some editors that it was horror, while purely horror editors did not see it as such.

I felt confident that “Can’t Live” worked.  Did this mean I didn’t feel doubt when it was repeatedly rejected?  I did.  At one point, after several rejections,  I sent “Can’t Live” to a friend who admitted she didn’t get what I thought was an obvious reference.  I considered her comment, then added a sentence to clarify.

I didn’t want to, but I did because her comment reminded me that writing is about communication, not about showing off how clever you are.

In August of 2017, when “Can’t Live” still hadn’t found a home, I decided to make it my reading at Bubonicon.  To my relief, the response was not only enthusiastic but spontaneous, generating a lot of discussion.  If you were in that audience, let me offer my sincere thanks.

At this point, this Wandering is probably looking like an object lesson in persistence.  Write.  Send out.  Send out again.  Eventually, you’ll find the right editor.  Happy ending.  And you’re probably wondering why I included a picture of a hawk.

(Other than that it’s cool, which it is.)

Persistence is not what I want to talk about.  What I want to talk about is how love can be blind.  Persistence is not a virtue if a writer refuses to think that her precious darling of a story is anything but flawless.  I’ve met far too many people – and not just writers – who think that pushing toward their dreams is in and of itself a virtue.  They love the dream, not the reality.

The best love you can give your dream balances a solid dose of realistic assessment against persistence toward a goal.  Don’t abuse your dream by refusing to see that maybe you need to make a change, add a sentence, cut a clever phrase.

Be like a Cooper’s Hawk that hunts not only by the classic soaring associated with hawks, but also by diving into bushes and shrubs, and even stalking on foot along the ground.  (We watched the hawk in the photo do all of these things in the yard right outside the office window.)

Love doesn’t mean never having to say you’re sorry.   Love means being adaptable.  Love means doing the very best you can.

FF: Hamster Heroines, Norse Gods, and More!

February 9, 2018

It’s been insanely busy…  but reading helps!

Starlight is Enraptured

For those of you just discovering this part of my blog, 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:

Evil Chasing Way by Gerald Hausman.

Barsk: The Elephant’s Graveyard by Lawrence M. Schoen.  Audiobook.

Harriet the Invincible and Of Mice and Magic  (Hamster Princess One and Two) by Ursula Vernon.  Smart, sassy, turn them on their ear illustrated re-tellings of “Sleeping Beauty” and “The Twelve Dancing Princesses.”  Highly recommended.

In Progress:

The Ship of the Dead (Magnus Chase and the Gods of Asgard Book Three) by Rick Riordan.  Audiobook.  Just started.

Also:

Wolf Captured by Jane Lindskold.

TT: Creative Encounter

February 8, 2018

JANE: Last time I mentioned how fandom can provide connections that never would happen any other way.  I’d like to tell you how my long ago visit to New Zealand led to my meeting a legend once I was home again in New Mexico.

Alan’s Favorite!

ALAN: I never knew that, after I took you to the airport so you could fly home, it would result in you meeting someone famous! Tell me all about it.

JANE: As I’m certain you recall, the co-Guest of Honor that year (along with Roger Zelazny) was Vonda McIntyre.  Vonda proved to be a wonderful person.  She shared her cup of noodle soup with us when Roger felt a little unwell.  When Roger wasn’t up to going touristing, she encouraged me to stop hovering and, instead, go out and see a bit of New Zealand with her and whichever local fan had taken time to serve as a tour guide.

ALAN: That was me! I remember that I took you both to explore Auckland and you were astonished that the traffic lights controlling the crossroad in the city centre went red for all four roads at once so that pedestrians could cross in every direction. I remember that you were a bit nervous about crossing the street diagonally. You’d never done that before…

JANE: I remember that outing.  Other fans took us around on other days.  You guys were so amazingly nice.

Vonda and I stayed in touch after that trip.  When, in, I think 1996, she visited New Mexico with some friends, she got in touch and asked me if I wanted to go to lunch with her.

I agreed with enthusiasm, and told her that, although I didn’t know Albuquerque very well yet (I’d only moved there a few months before), I did know which restaurant the locals said served the best New Mexican style food.   When I knocked at the door of Vonda’s motel room (in a charmingly retro place along Route 66), she greeted me as if we’d seen each other just a few days before.

Then she said: “When I told the friends I’m travelling with that we were going to have lunch at a place that the locals said served the best New Mexican food, they asked if they could come along.”

I agreed, and Vonda said, “Great!  Charles and Ursula’s room is over here…”

And to my astonishment, a few moments later, I discovered I was going to have lunch with Ursula K. Le Guin.

ALAN: In a word, wow! I always wanted to meet Ursula Le Guin. She was high on my list of favourite authors. But sadly, our paths never crossed. What was she like as a lunch guest? I’ve always found that her non-fiction is often quite funny (as well as being erudite and informative) and I’ve always imagined that she would be a warm, chatty and amusing person to have a conversation with. Am I right in that assumption?

JANE: She was so down-to-earth and real that after a while I wasn’t sure I’d heard her name right.  I mean, she looked like pictures I’d seen of The Famous Le Guin, but she wanted to chat about the differences in types of southwestern cooking.  She also wasn’t overly talkative – not at all a showoff.

To put this in perspective, remember, I’d shared a home with another famous writer of her generation: Roger Zelazny.  You’d think I’d be beyond this sort of reaction.  But I wasn’t.  In fact, I was a bit too awed to ask as many questions as I might have done.

After lunch, we went out to a local independent bookstore.  Did she try to be recognized?  Have a fuss made over her?  Sign stock?  Nope.  She just wanted to look at books.  Her husband, Charles, was also very friendly and approachable.  It was a good day.

Which of Ursula Le Guin’s books made her one of your favorite authors?

ALAN: That’s an easy question to answer. The Disposessed is by far and away my favourite of her books. It was some time in the early 1970s and I’d just graduated from university. As a student, I’d been surrounded by political discussion of one sort and another, because that’s what students do. The debate was mostly from a left wing point of view and sometimes it seemed to involve a lot of hair splitting on points of doctrine. I couldn’t make any sense of it and I felt a bit uneasy about the practicality of some the things that were being said. And then The Disposessed turned up in the local bookshop. I’d already read A Wizard of Earthsea and The Left Hand of Darkness and rather enjoyed them, so I looked forward to reading this new book.

JANE: It’s been a long time since I’ve read The Dispossessed, but I remember it as a story that made me think.

ALAN: It’s definitely that – but it tells a great story as well. Quite simply, it blew me away. For the first time some of the ideas (and ideals) that I’d been grappling with so unsuccessfully started to make sense. It was clear from the book that no society could be perfect – the political and social systems that Le Guin presented in her novel worked, to a certain extent, but they also had their faults and their failures. And that was the missing ingredient that had so puzzled me before. My socialist friends were all so sure that they had the recipe for a perfect society. Le Guin embraced many of their ideas and, in addition, showed me that perfection was impossible. Doctrine can only take you so far. The book has often been described as an ambiguous utopia and I think that’s a perfect way to sum it up.

I just absolutely love that book to bits.

JANE: Those aspects of The Dispossessed are precisely why I think it will always remain worth reading.  So much socially-oriented SF stops at the level of your college-aged discussions – idealistic solutions.  Le Guin encourages a more adult level of discourse, even if it’s far less comforting.

ALAN: What about you? What’s your favourite Le Guin book?

JANE: For me it’s less a book than a process, and a process is difficult to explain in a few words.  Perhaps we can save it for next time.

Very Much a Fox

February 7, 2018

“The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.”  This saying is credited to Archiliochus, a Greek who was born sometime around 714 B.C.  The one “big thing” a hedgehog knows is, of course, how to roll into a ball, prickly side out, and thereby keep itself from getting eaten.  This is certainly a very big thing indeed.

Wild Horse!

I, however, am definitely a fox.  That’s why today’s WW is illustrated with a photo of one of my recent craft projects – one that, superficially, has nothing to do with my life as a writer.

Not all writers are foxes.  Some are very happy being hedgehogs.   Particular themes or settings or character types call to them, begging to be re-examined.

I remember one novelist I first encountered through her fictional re-telling of a certain fairy tale.  I was devoted to this book.  Later, she got a lot of buzz for a new novel.  As I read it, I came up short.  The setting was different.  So were the characters.  But it was that same fairy tale all over again.  When, later still, I was given a copy of her then newest novel.  I discovered that, for all the change in setting and time period, for all ostensible difference in plot, it was the same fairy tale all over again.  I found myself wondering what called to her so strongly about that particular story.

As a reader – especially in my younger years – I often became attached to one particular novel or series by a particular author.  When I was very young, I wouldn’t even try something else by that writer.  A good example of this is Kipling.  I first became aware of him through the Mowgli stories.  When I later learned these were part of the larger tapestry of the “Jungle Books,” I read those tales with suspicion.  They couldn’t possibly be as good as Mowgli.  I didn’t read Kim, a novel I now love dearly, for years and years because of some vestigial loyalty to my first love.

I think the tendency to choose one thing over all others comes out of our society’s constant desire to rank and rate things.  I’ve been part of heated discussions where I’ve been asked to defend my preference for Edgar Rice Burrough’s Tarzan stories rather than his John Carter of Mars.   It’s as if a reader’s preferences are a sort of psychology test.  These days, this is constantly reinforced by seller sites that tell you, “If you liked THIS, then you’ll like THAT.”

I’m a dark chocolate person, a coffee drinker, a reader of SF/F.  Does this mean I never eat milk chocolate, drink tea, read biographies?  Hardly!

Happily, I got over a desire to make an author be one thing and one thing only.  It happened gradually, helped by the fact that I often read according to recommendations given by friends, rather than author name.  Nonetheless, I remember a seminal moment.  I was in the library, looking for something that I hadn’t read by Patricia McKillip.  I’d “met” her work through the Riddlemaster of Hed and its sequels.  I’d gone on to enjoy her standalone fantasy novels.  But when I pulled a McKillip novel called Fool’s Run off the shelf and I saw it was SF, I started to put it back.  McKillip and SF?  Then I thought.  But it’s McKillip.  And I read it, and it is now among my favorite of her works.

I think readers are often shaped to view who and what a writer is by the first piece we read by that writer.  For example, the first book I read by Maggie Stiefvater was The Scorpio Races.  I followed this with her different but similar “Raven Cycle.”  When I realized that her new novel, All the Crooked Saints, was going off in a completely different direction, I hesitated.  Then I gave it a try.  It turned out to be worth the read.

But for all that I had tunnel vision as a young reader, as a writer, I’ve never wanted to write the same thing or even the same way.  Indeed, a desire to write different ways, about different sorts of people, using different styles, was one of the bonds between me and the late Roger Zelazny.  In an essay about the impact of the works of Henry Kuttner on him as a boy, Roger said: “Even then, I wanted to write, and I decided that it would be something of a virtue to possess that sort of versatility.”

Here, Roger was talking about style, but the same applied to his content.  He wrote far future SF, near future SF, high Fantasy, swashbuckling sword and sorcery, stories that could make you weep, stories that could make you laugh aloud.  Definitely a fox.

And thank goodness that fox never got shut in a box.  Late in life, Roger wrote a novel called A Night in the Lonesome October.  If he’d been restricted to Amber or to the short stories that garnered him most of his awards, we would have missed a novel that every year – over twenty years after his death – I still get notes from people who need to tell me that that it’s October and they’re reading it again.

Making a fox be a hedgehog only makes for a very bad hedgehog.

And I am definitely a fox.  I write fantasy about wolves but I write other things, too.  Even far future SF.  Even questing Fantasy.  Even contemporary tales of gods among us.  And sometimes I stop and paint myself a horse, then adorn it with shining gemstones.