Archive for the ‘Writing’ Category

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:  BZZZZ.  BZZZ.  WOOF. WOOF.

JANE: MEOW!

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

Organization: The Philosophical

August 9, 2017

For those of you who only wander by periodically, I should mention that today’s Wander is Part Two.  Last week, “Organization: The Practical” is Part One.  You can read it here.

“Breaking the Wall” Stuff

This paradoxically rambling discussion started when a friend of mine who is writing a historical Fantasy novel asked me the following question: “How do you organize all the material associated with writing a novel (outline, notes, questions, character descriptions, timelines, research, snippets, relevant quotes, etc. etc.) so that it’s easily accessible as you write?”

She went on to talk about how she had “so many computer files, in addition to notebooks, all full of background information and research and actual bits of writing I want to use.  The files themselves are fairly well-organized, but they are unwieldy, and honestly I don’t always remember which folder I filed some specific piece of information in and I spend a couple valuable minutes clicking or flipping between documents or notebooks in an attempt to remind myself of a certain characteristic, or plot point, or relevant fact.” 

Last week I talked about notebooks, computer programs, and other physical things you can use to organize your materials.  Today I’m going to talk about the philosophical foundations that underlie how you decide what to organize.  This discussion is going to touch on both research and world-building, since for me the issues are inextricably intertwined.

So here’s the key question.  How much research do you need?  How much of your world needs to be in place before you start telling your story?

Start by reminding yourself why you started writing this story in the first place.  Write down  that thought that hit you one day and made you all excited about writing the book.  This is not a plot summary.  It’s “I wonder how the events in Lord of the Rings would look if you were one of the dwarves?”  (Dennis McKiernan’s ”Iron Tower” books.)   It’s “What happens after a child raised by wolves enters human society?”  It’s “What if mah-jong wasn’t just a game, but building a universe?”

Write this down in a very few sentences, then use it as a talisman to guide how much research and world-building you need.

My experience is that most novices err on the side of too much of both.  They painstakingly draw maps of entire continents or entire worlds when their story isn’t going to go beyond a single area of one small city.  Unless the story is about world politics, a handful of place names and the like will carry the story forward.  Even if the story is about world politics and culture clashes, you don’t need perfect maps.  Through Wolf’s Eyes is a good example of this.  There’s a lot of political intrigue in that novel, but the only map I had was scribbled on the back of an envelope.

I know several people who still have not completed their Great Novel because they keep getting caught up in research.  I’m not immune to the temptation to immerse myself in research.  When I was researching the “Breaking the Wall” books, I read seven books related to mah-jong.  I reach about Chinese writing styles, culture, clothing through the ages, and breeds of dogs.   In addition to my “big binder,” I ended up getting a multi-pocket file folder to stow various bits of additional information related to Chinese myth, legend, magic, symbolism, and the like.

For me, research is usually driven by two impulses.  One is the fear I’ll miss some essential element.  When I realize I’m simply trying to cover all aspects of a topic for no other reason than they are there to be learned about, then I force myself to stop.

The second impulse toward research is more subtly seductive.  It’s that wonderful feeling that hits when you discover something really, really cool.  This leads to the desire to keep researching not so much for information as in hope of getting that “oh, cool!” buzz again.  Beware!

If, like my friend, you’ve been researching your novel for years – a process which, for her, is complicated by the fact that she’s setting her tale in a real city and building the story around actual events (think of the works of Tim Powers) – the question “How much information do I need in order to tell my story?” can be a useful organizational guideline.

After you ask yourself that question, set up a new computer file (or files) or a fresh new ring-binder or both.  Then start transferring to these only the material you need for the story in process.  Not the series.  This one novel.  Focus on characters, crucial settings, and crucial world-building elements.

A reverse outline (if you already have a text) can be of great help with this process.  As you reverse outline each chapter, put the information about the characters, settings, etcetera into the appropriate file.  This will keep you from including material you don’t need.  An added bonus is that by the time you’re done, you’ll have a plot outline.  Given that the three key elements of a novel are plot, characters, and setting, you’ll have all three in a neatly organized fashion.  Tah-dah!

Don’t have a manuscript to outline?  Start writing!  As you discover points that you need to research, make a note of elements.  If the element is something that will stop you from moving the plot forward, then you have a research guideline.  Find that data, move it to your new file, and get back to writing.

If the element you’re missing is something minor (I once had a friend admit she blew an entire day she could have been writing researching the style of hat a character would be wearing), skip it and write!  If you love research, then use researching that hat or weapon style or the name of that grocery store chain as your reward.

Please note, a preliminary outline will not serve you as well as a reverse outline in organizing your research materials.  It’s too easy to start thinking everything and anything is going to be of use.  I strongly suggest you start writing and discover as you write what you actually need.

The rest of your accumulated research and world-building material doesn’t need to be thrown away.  Remember, too much is as useless as too little.  Information hoarding is like physical hoarding.  If you get to the point that you can’t find something, then you might as well not have it, right?

As I hope you agree, the question of organization has nothing to do with whether you use a computer program, a ring-binder, a bunch of file cards, or a Ouija board.  It has to do with organizing your thoughts, then finding the tools that will help you achieve a finished novel.

Now, I’m off to write…  Later I’m going to be doing a lot of both research and organizing of world-building materials, but I’ll have the story to guide me along the way.

TT: Twisting Together Language and Story

August 3, 2017

ALAN: Last time you were telling me about your brain snakes – or at least the ones connected with language and culture. Speaking as a confirmed ophidiophobe, I must confess that I was pleasantly surprised by their bright colours and friendly natures, though I did find them to be most unpleasantly wriggly and hard to pin down. Fortunately, they were not at all venomous.

Doing the Conlang Conga

But you dropped a big hint that other brain snakes were lying in wait. Would you care to describe them to me so that I can avoid any ambushes that they might be planning to set?

JANE: You’re an ophidiophobe?  Interesting.  This actually ties into our discussion of language.  I’m more familiar with that particular phobia under the term “ophiophobia.”  Another interesting linguistic twist!

ALAN: Wikipedia informs me that both words are used to describe the condition, but it has nothing to say about why both words exist. Curious…

JANE: Yep…  And such curiosities are at the heart of languages and why conlanging is a lot more difficult than is often imagined.  Here’s another difficulty.   As I mentioned a few weeks ago, lately many of the more popular conlangs have been designed for visual media.  Klingon is a good example.

ALAN: And don’t forget Vulcan, also from the Star Trek universe, Dothraki as used in Game of Thrones, Na’vi in Avatar, and Parseltongue, the language of snakes, in Harry Potter. Do you speak to your brain snakes in Parseltongue?

JANE: No, but maybe I should try.

One great advantage visual media has over print media is that the conlang can be presented via subtitles.  So Klingons can speak actual Klingon, not English with a funny accent.

Writers of print media can’t use that gimmick.  They can use footnotes but even Terry Pratchett – who is my favorite user of footnotes – knows that readers will only tolerate a certain amount of this before they get frustrated.

ALAN: Perhaps I’m an untypical reader, but I love footnotes.  I always consider a Jack Vance novel to be incomplete if it doesn’t have footnotes in it. And as a bonus, Vance’s footnotes are sardonic, pointed and often even funnier than Pterry’s. And let’s not forget Susanna Clarke whose Jonathan Strange And Mr Norrell has entire short stories buried in the footnotes. You can’t get more footnotey than that!

JANE: Abuse of footnotes may be a reason why I could never get into Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell… but that would be too much of a tangent for here.

When an author of print media is at work, even magical or high tech translating devices only go so far.

ALAN: You mean like Douglas Adams’ babel fish? I thought that one solved the problem beautifully!

JANE: It’s been a long time since I read the “Hitchhiker’s Guide” books, but that is basically what I mean.  Can you remind me how babel fish work?

ALAN: I can do no better than quote Douglas Adams’ own words:

The Babel fish is small, yellow, leech-like, and probably the oddest thing in the universe. It feeds on brain wave energy, absorbing all unconscious frequencies and then excreting telepathically a matrix formed from the conscious frequencies and nerve signals picked up from the speech centres of the brain, the practical upshot of which is that if you stick one in your ear, you can instantly understand anything said to you in any form of language: the speech you hear decodes the brain wave matrix.

I think that describes it perfectly.

JANE: That is indeed a clear and concise description. However, as a translation device, it’s rather facile.  “Understanding anything said to you” only goes so far.  What happens if someone doesn’t have a frame of reference for something – for example, a Neanderthal hearing someone refer to an automobile?  What happens then?

How did Douglas Adams deal with this?  Did Arthur Dent receive full descriptions or did he just hear a nonsense word?

ALAN: I’m not sure that Adams ever thought of that aspect. Facile it may be, but his babel fish just worked.

JANE: So, Arthur Dent never encounters a concept he doesn’t immediately understand?

Curious.  It’s been a long while since I read those books. If Arthur Dent does understand everything he hears, then this isn’t translation.  It’s telepathy combined with an immediate and copious information dump.

ALAN: That’s a good way of thinking of it. It’s a long time since I read the books as well, and without a massive re-read I’m hard put to address the question directly. My google-fu hasn’t worked any too well either. But it seems that Adams had different literary uses for his translation device – he gives us a delightfully casuistical argument which demonstrates that the existence of the babel fish proves the non-existence of God.

However Adams does remark that the perfect communication between species and races provided by the babel fish has been the cause of more and bloodier wars than anything else in creation. That side effect, it seems to me, is at least a partial answer to your question.

JANE: It absolutely is…  So often war is blamed on misunderstanding, but without the white lies of diplomacy where would we be?

Nonetheless – again, maybe it’s me being plagued by brain snakes – I worry about communications issues that I’m not sure a translation device could handle.

ALAN: Why don’t you tell me about it next time…  I may not be able to tame the snakes for you, but maybe talking about it will make you feel better.

Organization: The Practical

August 2, 2017

Last week a friend of mine who is writing a historical Fantasy novel asked me the following question:

Wolf Section

“How do you organize all the material associated with writing a novel (outline, notes, questions, character descriptions, timelines, research, snippets, relevant quotes, etc. etc.) so that it’s easily accessible as you write?

“I think this is a practical question as well as a philosophical one, maybe, and I’m interested in the answer to both implied questions.  How do you keep track of things?  Books like the Wolf series must generate a huge amount of background material and etc. that you need to access to keep consistency over time, at the very least, so I’m wondering: what works for you?”

There’s quite a lot here, so I’m going to start with a basic, practical reply, then move to the philosophical

First, let me clear away an element that I suspect many of you are waiting for me to mention.  There are novel writing computer programs out there – the one I’ve heard mentioned the most often is called Scrivener – that apparently contain all sorts of tools that promise to make organizing a novel and associated materials simple and easy.

I’ve never used any of those programs, so I can’t say from experience whether they would help me or not.  I’ll save whether or not I’d be tempted to use such a program personally for the “philosophical” side of this discussion.  However, I encourage those of you with direct knowledge of programs such as Scrivener to talk about them in the Comments.  As I see it, the more information the better!

Now, turning to my personal experience…Back in the days when I was starting “the Wolf series” (aka the “Firekeeper Saga”), programs like Scrivener did not exist.  In fact, word processing programs contained far fewer bells and whistles than they do today.  Spellcheck was the one everyone was excited about, but even that was slow and the internal dictionaries were small and easily confused.

Searching the document was possible but, especially if the document was large, such searches were slow and cumbersome.  Many novelists I knew broke their documents into multiple files, some chapter by chapter, to make searches useful.  I tended to go with roughly hundred-page blocks, shaped around complete chapters.

These days, breaking up the manuscript isn’t necessary.  However, having a novel’s text all in one file doesn’t remove the need for some sort of organization for related materials – the outlines, notes, character descriptions etcetera that my friend mentioned above.

When I started writing novels, I scribbled down my notes in whatever sort of blank book I had available.  However, I rapidly realized that a notebook with any sort of binding restricted me because it was impossible to shift materials around.  Also, there was no place to put visual materials, such as photographs and maps.

Therefore, when I signed the contract for the Firekeeper novels and knew I would be writing a series (as opposed to Changer, which started as a stand-alone and only later acquired a sequel), I decided that I would need a tool to help me keep my materials in order.  Jim and I went to an arts and crafts store, and there I purchased a very large, very heavy scrapbooking binder.

The one I selected met my two main requirements.  First, the ring binding meant that I could shift materials around as needed.  Second, the oversized cover meant that I could include visual materials that were larger than the size of a standard sheet of paper.  A bonus was that the notebook itself was very solidly made, complete with metal thingies on the cover to keep it from coming apart.

I then bought dividers and set them up for different sections.  Sometimes those sections (such as Characters) duplicated a computer file.  That didn’t matter, nor did it matter that these print materials could become outdated.  Sometimes I skim more efficiently when I am not looking at a computer screen.   Using the ring binder also meant that I could include my scribbled notes.  While these were often superseded when I started writing, those scribbled bits often reminded me of trains of thought that I might want to return to someday.

Areas such as “Wolves” included not only research notes on wolves, but also photos taken from a wide variety of sources: calendars, cards, flyers, and such could all be accommodated.  I glued smaller pictures onto a sheet of paper to minimize the number of tiny scraps floating around.

“Timeline” included not only my reverse outlines – see here if you want to know what I mean by “reverse outline” – but lists with things like names for months in various regions, and a timeline with various significant dates in the history preceding the events chronicled by the novels.

“Reviews” has nothing to do with reviews of the books, but my reviews of various research materials I had read, whether I owned them or had borrowed them and, if so, from where, in case I wanted them again.  This saved me more than once from re-reading a book I already had read or hunting for a book I had borrowed.

“History” included printouts of documents I had written as background for the series, including a treatise on inheritance law (crucial to Through Wolf’s Eyes) and related materials.  I also included proposals for novels in the series, so I could refer to them as I wrote and reassure myself I hadn’t lost my sense of purpose.

“Maps” included maps, both visual and verbal.  “Words” included interesting words or turns of phrase, especially idiomatic expressions or the like that caught my fancy and might be used to stimulate a frazzled brain.  “Places” ended up subsumed into “Maps.”  If and when I write another Firekeeper novel, I’ll probably get rid of this section and use it for something else.

“Miscellaneous” proved to be a valuable section, containing everything from a “relationship chart” my genealogist aunt sent me, to details about odd types of currency (including bricks of tea) or the typical staff to be found in a wealthy person’s household.

Why bother with all of this, especially in hard copy, when computer files are easier to update and can be electronically searched?  I’ll leave that for the “Philosophical” section next week.

Time Management

July 26, 2017

It’s summer vacation and you have all the time in the world.  Or you’ve just retired.  Ditto.  Or the kids will be going to camp (or back to school).  Ditto.

Time: Not Waiting in the Wings

I’m here to share a dark and evil secret.

There is no such thing as “All the time in the world.”  As soon as those around you perceive you as “free,” they’re going to find uses for your “spare” time.   Forget about that novel you were going to finish or short story you were going to start or comic you were going to draw.

A couple of weeks ago, a writer friend of mine, recently retired from teaching full-time at UNM, asked if we could meet up.  She wanted to consult me regarding  how I managed my time and remained a productive writer.

I agreed to meet with her.  However, in a weird way, my agreement also contained my first answer to her question.  I was already booked for that week.  And the week after, I was taking care of my friend’s cats, so I wasn’t available.  And the week after that (that’s last week), my first free day was Thursday.

Wait!  Haven’t I said I’m self-employed?  Doesn’t that mean I don’t have anyone to answer to?  Deadlines are flexible.  Haven’t famous writers who shall remain nameless proven that?  And what if – like my recently retired friend – you don’t have any deadline that’s not self-imposed?  How can you possibly be “booked”?

Well, the difference is how you view being self-employed.

For me, being self-employed means I have the toughest boss there is.  My boss insists that the majority of my work day is spent doing something related to my job.  Writing new material is crucial, but there are additional writing-related activities like social media (such as this WW I’m writing right now), proofreading, editing, exploring markets, and various tasks related to getting my backlist (and some original fiction) self-published.

My boss does not accept “I’ll get around to it, I guess, but I need to read just one more chapter in this great novel” as an excuse.  Or, “I’m tired.  I’ll just play this video game for a while.”  Unreasonable?  Well,  no.  If I had a “real” boss, I can’t imagine that those would be considered acceptable excuses.

My number one time management tool is limiting my extracurricular activities to one per day.  That means if I know I’m taking a cat to the vet, I don’t schedule having lunch with a friend.  If I’ve scheduled a phone date with someone, I don’t also plan to go out and run a bunch of errands.  I belong to exactly one club, and that club meets once a month.

Remember the phone dates?  That’s another time management tool.  Several of my closest friends live out of state.  We schedule times to talk, just as we would set aside time if we were going to meet for lunch.   Furthermore, phone dates often double as chore time for me, because I can talk on a headset and take care of filing or chopping up veggies for dinner or other mindless tasks.

When I was taking care of my friend’s cats, that ate my free time for an entire week.  That was even with my taking work over to his house so that I could proofread while giving Alfie and Dexter the reassurance that there were humans available to cuddle them.

My newly–retired friend was surprised at how fiercely I protect my time.  She wanted to know how much of that time was spent actually writing.  I couldn’t give her a clear answer.  Either I write a couple of hours a day five days a week, or I write twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week.  The latter is actually closer to the truth.  I’ve fussed over a section of a story for hours, only to have the ideas come clear as I’m getting ready for bed.

What’s important is that I have time to think, time to muse, time to slide the bits around until everything tumbles so perfectly into place that it seems incredible I didn’t see how the story was developing from the first.

Does the level to which I preserve my time sound draconian?  It wouldn’t if I had a “real” job, and was at someone else’s beck and call nine to five, Monday to Friday.  Well, guess what?  I do have a real job.  Accepting that, and accepting my right to manage my work day to make sure that job gets done is the first and most important time management tool I know.

Try, Try Again

July 19, 2017

This week began on a very positive note.  My short story, “Unexpected Flowers,” was accepted by Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine.  This is the first time I’ve sold a story to that magazine, so I’m very pleased to have finally achieved that particular personal goal.

Unexpected Flowers

I don’t know which issue it will be in, but I promise to let you know as soon as I do.

“Unexpected Flowers” was written late this February.  It’s not very long: only about 1,400 words.   For that reason, I can’t tell you much about it without providing too much in the way of spoilers.  I will say that it’s a very mathematical story…

In case you’re wondering, “Unexpected Flowers” was not accepted the first time I sent it out.  Or the second.  Or the third…

Or the fourth.

This was my fifth attempt.

If you think that rejections hurt less when you’re an old professional (which I guess I am, although there are times I feel as if I’m still just getting started), the answer is “No.”  Honestly, I wanted to give up after that first rejection, but I did like the story, so I kept trying.

Submitting stories to short fiction magazines has changed quite a bit since I started in this field.  In some ways it’s easier.  Most magazines actually prefer electronic submissions, so there’s no need to go to the post office.  There’s no need to enclose a self-addressed stamped envelope with correct postage if you want your manuscript back.  (I started writing in the dark ages, in the days before disposable manuscripts.)

On the other hand, in some ways it’s harder.  One of the ways it’s harder is that most magazines request that you only submit one story at a time.  This means that if a magazine has a long waiting list – Asimov’s took three months to get back to me – then you’re not only tying up that story for a considerable time period, you’re also closing the door to that market if you come up with another story you think might suit it.

It also seems to me that there are fewer “professional” markets out there.  However, I haven’t sat down and done a studied comparison and contrast, so I can’t say for sure.

When I was first going to conventions with Roger Zelazny, a question I heard him asked over and over was “What do you think is the single most important thing for someone who wants to be a professional writer?”

His answer was always the same: “Persistence.  Keep writing.  Keep sending things out.  But most of all, keep writing.”

I kept this in mind as the rejections were coming in, went back to the market lists, reviewed my options.  I wrote a few more short stories, then a novel came and swallowed me.  I’m still mucking around in its gullet.

I also kept reminding myself of something so obvious that it might seem ridiculous: If you try, you have a chance of succeeding, but if you don’t try, you have no chance at all.

That’s cold comfort when the rejections are coming in, but when the acceptance happens, it’s really very sweet.  Now, off to do some more persisting!

Wrist Twists Insists

July 5, 2017

Last week was rather exciting.  On the good side, we harvested our first tomatoes, some interesting carrots, and enough eggplant to make a vegetable curry.

Deep Red Carrot

A week ago – making me glad that I had already posted the WW – we also had five blackouts in one day, with the grand finale coming on Thursday morning.  Happily, because I tend to obsessively back up as I work (a relic of days when computers didn’t do so automatically), I didn’t lose any writing.  However, it did mean time when I didn’t want to work on my computer (I use a desktop), so I settled in my kitchen and drew maps.

Another interesting development is a slight twist to my wrist.  This was probably acquired when wrestling Kwahe’e the cat, who does not like getting his tri-weekly dose of subcutaneous fluids.  Not one bit…

We’re giving fluids to two cats right now, staving off the worst impact of kidney failure.  Ogapoge is fairly patient as long as I tell him a story.  He likes stories, and has had a bedtime story for quite a long time.  Jim is the usual bedtime storyteller and over the years has created a vast cast of characters, drawn from books, television shows, and from the regular inhabitants of our yard.

As soon as Ogapoge hears the familiar words, “Once upon a time, in a cold dark place, there lived a little kitten, who came from outer space,” he snuggles down and more or less resigns himself to having a needle between his shoulders for the next ten minutes or so.

A story does not work for Kwahe’e.  He needs to be sung to, and the song has to change periodically.  For a long time, a sort of “counting song” that encouraging him to “get it done in one” worked.  Then we segued into a chant, with a nice Native American-inspired refrain of “hey-yah, hey-yah, hey-yah.”  But it’s looking as if I’m going to need to come up with something else.

Anyhow, my wrist is okay once it loosens up, as long as I don’t do anything too stupid.  I can even type without any difficulty.

I’ve been writing vigorously over the past couple of weeks, averaging about thirty pages a week, more or less.  What started out in my mind as a relatively simply story is getting more complex.  Not last week, but sometime the week before, two characters decided to react completely differently than I had imagined.  This threw the entire plot into loops and whirls.

The thing is, they were good loops and whirls, so I went with them.  People always talk about writing as if it’s a calm, measured activity.  Honestly, for me it’s more like one of those giant waterslides, the type that are shaped like huge hamster tubes, where you rush along, going upside down and around, before eventually splashing down.

So, I’m off to do more of that…  The characters who were being so difficult have been left behind, but now it turns out that someone who I thought was going to be left behind is insisting on coming along, at least part of the way.

I wonder what’s going to happen next?

Default World-Building

June 21, 2017

My brother, Graydon, attended college in Tucson, Arizona.  My dad went to visit him one time, and was fascinated by how lizards were everywhere, much as squirrels were in D.C.  Dad did a great “lizard on a wall” imitation, popping his eyes and rhythmically puffing out his cheeks.  This would make my brother (who had become jaded regarding lizards, orange trees, cacti, and the other exotic elements of his environment) cringe and roll his eyes.

Treasured Visitors

My brother was still living “out west” when I finished graduate school and moved to Lynchburg, a small town in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia.  One time, when he was visiting me, our route took us over one of the myriad creeks that sliced through the town’s seven major and many minor hills.

“What’s that called?” Gray asked.

“I don’t think it has a name,” I said, “except that it’s part of the Blackwater Creek system.”

“Where I live,” he said, “that would have a name.  At every bridge, there would be a large sign announcing the name.  And, much of the year, the creek or river or whatever they called it probably wouldn’t have any water in it.”

It’s all in what you’re used to, right?

I was thinking about that this past week as June in Albuquerque, New Mexico, did its usual thing.  Temperatures shot up over 100 degrees every day.  A couple of times we were treated to a 50-degree temperature shift: 50 to 100 on day; 55 to 106 another.  (Yes, I know the latter is actually a 51-degree shift.)  Albuquerque is a mile high, which means we tend toward lower nighttime temperatures.  You bake during the day and pull up the blankets at night.

This morning, as I was walking into my office, I heard quail peeping out front.  A male and female Gambel quail were chatting as they foraged around the seed block we have in the shade of our ash tree.  A lizard raced across the driveway, off to hunt bugs in the sage.

A typical June…

Other things I’ve grown accustomed to in my twenty-some years living in New Mexico: June is not the gentle lead-in into summer.  June is the brutally hot, horribly dry month.  June is the month during which plants are trying to leaf out and flower before they cook.  June isn’t as windy as March or April, but it can be windy: a hot, desiccating wind that sucks the moisture out of anything, including humans.

June.  This is reality.

Except I’ve noticed that most Fantasy (and some SF) world-building defaults to a typical East Coast to Midwest seasonal pattern.  Spring is pale green unfolding to the music of gentle rains.  Summer temperatures gradually grow warmer, building to the “dog days” of August.  Both seasons are wet, humid, clinging.

Where I live, June is almost always the hottest month.  The plants that survive welcome the monsoon rains that – if we’re lucky – start in mid-July and taper off in August, returning in mid-September.  The indigenous peoples learned to plant in zones that would accommodate these cycles.  They crafted pots that were meant to preserve the moisture in the seeds they saved to plant the next year.

June is our Fire Season, when wildfires take out hundreds, often thousands, of acres.  That’s part of “normal,” too.

Normal includes lizards, quail, long-eared jack rabbits, coyotes, hawks, and vultures.  And, of course, rattlesnakes, tarantulas, and black widow spiders.  Native plants have a lot of stickers.  Or they poison the ground around them so that nothing else can steal their water.  Or both.

Here’s the problem with world-building based on my normal, rather than the normal that “everyone” knows.  You need to explain it.  The other is the default template, reinforced by hundreds, if not thousands of stories that use the same template.  The climate had better be crucial to the story (think Dune) or you’re just slowing down the story.

A pity, I think…

The Revenge of Mega Radish!

June 14, 2017

Yep.  That’s a radish.  And the thing Jim put in the photo for scale is about the size of a standard baseball – that is, about nine inches in circumference.  It doesn’t look real, does it?   We should have used a ruler.

Mega Radish!

That’s not the only radish that size we’ve gotten, although it is the most pleasingly symmetrical.  For those of you who take interest in such things, no, these weren’t seeds intended to grow giant radishes.  They were standard Easter Egg radishes.

So, what else (besides giant radishes) is going on here?

There’s the mystery of the missing cucumber and chard seedlings.  (Solution: probably snails.)

Or maybe not…   We haven’t seen any snails lately.  I wonder why?

Join me now and we shall delve more deeply into the mystery.

Darkness has fallen.  One by one, the lights in the surrounding houses go out.  In the tiny ornamental pond, toads gather among the stems of the blue pickerel weed and aquatic plantain, soaking up moisture before going on the prowl.  They are the great night hunters of this urban garden, confident in their supremacy.

But, as the toads are about to heave themselves from their refreshing bath, a peculiar vibration ripples through the sandy soil.  The toads sink below the water so only their tiny eyes protrude above the surface.  Doubtless this saves them.  For, at that moment, from the garden bed west of the pond it comes, moving with astonishing lightness on tiny rootlets, leafy greenery towering above, sensing the least motion in its surroundings: Mega-Radish has arisen…

Forth it stalks, seeking what?  The toads do not know.  They only bubble sighs of relief as the gargantuan vegetable passes by the pond, and vanishes from sight.  But the hawk moths, large as hummingbirds, deep drinkers of the nectar of the sacred datura, are awake, dreaming on the wing, believing at first that what they see is a result of imbibing too much potent pollen.

Moving on many minute rippling rootlets Mega Radish races around the shed, down the path, to a small plot where infant seedlings of Swiss Chard and Armenian cucumbers tremble, rooted in fear, unable to move as the slime trailing terrors, the horrid garden snails, emerge from their daytime sanctuary within the tangle of Virginia Creeper, prepared to engulf the tender leaves of the infant plants.

Night after night this horrid slaughter has been repeated.  Night after night the seedlings have been helpless, but tonight the cry for help has been heard.  Mega Radish, hero of the garden, has ripped itself from its vegetative torpor and come to save the day.

Red and round, it launches!  It rolls!  Beneath its incarnadined rind it smashes the snails.  They are demolished so completely that their shells become naught but flakes of calcium to feed the soil, their slimy bodies return moisture to the ground.  The seedling cucumbers and chard wave their thanks.  The arugula – too spicy for the snails, but nonetheless terrified – joins the chorus.

Mega Radish takes a bow and then, on twinkling rootlets, vanishes into the darkness…

Well, maybe not.  But it’s a fun idea.

Have a lovely day.  May Mega Radish watch over you!

TT: A Question of Identity

June 8, 2017

JANE: Last time you said you had an obvious question for me.

ALAN: Yes – I have three, actually.

JANE: Three?  I begin to feel as if we’re entering a fairytale – or at least a Monty Python sketch.

A Character in Amber

Prithee, sir knight, what is your first question?

ALAN:  The first concerns Roger Zelazny. I hope I’m not betraying a confidence, but you told me once that Roger had put himself into one of the Amber books. Can you tell me about that?

JANE: Oh…  Roger’s cameo is hardly a secret.  It happens in The Hand of Oberon, the fourth Amber novel.  In it, Corwin, one of the Nine Princes of Amber whose tale is told in these novels, ventures into the dungeons and has a short chat with one of the guards.

Is this ringing a bell for you?

ALAN: No, not at all. It’s many years since I last read the book and my memories of it are very hazy.

JANE: The scene is short, so let me quote it in full:

“Good evening, Lord Corwin,” said the lean, cadaverous figure who rested against a storage rack, smoking his pipe, grinning around it.

“Good evening, Roger. How are things in the nether world?”

“A rat, a bat, a spider. Nothing much else astir. Peaceful.”

“You enjoy this duty?”

He nodded.

“I am writing a philosophical romance shot through with elements of horror and morbidity. I work on those parts down here.”

“Fitting, fitting,” I said. “I’ll be needing a lantern.”

He took one from the rack, brought it to flame from his candle.

“Will it have a happy ending?” I inquired.

He shrugged.

“I’ll be happy.”

“I mean, does good triumph and hero bed heroine? Or do you kill everybody off?”

“That’s hardly fair,” he said.

“Never mind. Maybe I’ll read it one day.”

“Maybe,” he said.

 ALAN: Oh, that’s nice. As you know, I’ve met Roger and I had several conversations with him. The dialogue in that piece is pure Roger. I can so easily imagine him saying those things. He captured his own wry, sardonic humour perfectly.

Alfred Hitchcock and Peter Jackson always have a cameo in their own films. How good to see a writer following that tradition in prose.

JANE: Yes.  But it really doesn’t capture Roger…  He wasn’t only wry and sardonic.  He could also be ridiculously silly.  When we lived together, he used to sing nonsense songs to the cats.  He could be sweetly sentimental.  When our guinea pig had babies, he was the one who wanted to keep all of them.  (We did.)

You don’t need to take my word for these aspects of his personality.  The forthcoming anthology Shadows and Reflections includes a final, non-fiction piece by his daughter, Shannon, who was a high school student when she lost her dad.  It’s very moving and, of the many tributes to Roger that I’ve read, it comes closest to capturing the man I knew and loved.

ALAN: I’ll definitely have to buy that when it comes out. I only saw Roger’s public face, of course, but I can easily imagine him being all those things.

JANE: What gets me is how many people want Roger not to be Roger but to be one of his characters.  The most common are Sam (from Lord of Light) or Corwin (from the Amber novels); a runner-up seems to be Conrad from This Immortal.  These people support the contention that these characters “were” him by showing similarities in skills or life experiences, creating the false syllogism that “if this is true, then so must the rest be.”

It’s a long-standing issue, going back to some of the earliest literary criticism written about Roger’s works (interestingly enough, his childhood friend, and literary biographer Carl Yoke is the least likely to make the equation), but one that persists to the diminishment of the multi-dimensional human he was.  I’ll stop there lest I begin to rant…

ALAN: That’s actually a very good rant. It generally makes no sense to go that far. You might just as well say that David Copperfield (the hero of the novel, not the stage magician) is Charles Dickens – after all, they are both novelists!

Have any other writers of your acquaintance put themselves into their books?

JANE: Well, yes and no.  I can’t think of examples off the cuff, but I certainly know writers who perpetually return to the same themes because they are working out their personal issues.  I don’t want to go further than that.

ALAN: Perhaps that’s wise.

I know you quite well, and I’ve read most of your published fiction, but there is nobody in any of your novels that I could point to and say “That’s Jane.” How much of that is deliberate?

JANE: Probably quite a lot.  I was very influenced as a Lit student by how some of my professors seemed to want to dwell less on the literary work of an author and more on his or her life.  Yeats’s obsession with Maud Gonne.  T.S. Eliot’s nervous breakdown.  D.H. Lawrence’s various entanglements.  On and on…  Sure, some of that was in the work, but there was always more, a whole lot more, but much of that was treated as if it had only been created as a disguise for the author “really” writing autobiography.

At the same time, I read T.S. Eliot’s essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent” and was very hit by his discussion of how the artist transmutes life experiences into art.   It’s in the second section, if you want to read all of it, but the final sentence captures some of his argument.

“…but the more perfect the artist, the more completely separate in him will be the man who suffers and the mind which creates; the more perfectly will the mind digest and transmute the passions which are its material.”

ALAN: I think natural human curiosity makes a reader want to know more about a writer that they admire, if only to try and understand what makes the writer approach their art in the way that they do.

I think I told you that I used to live in Eastwood, the Nottinghamshire village where Lawrence was brought up. There were still people in the village who remembered him and I’m sure that if he’d ever come back to the village they’d have hanged, drawn and quartered him. Even forty years after Lawrence’s death, there was still a lot of residual anger about the way he’d portrayed them. I’m sure that says something about the literary choices he made, though I confess I’m not sure exactly what.

Cases as blatant as Kingsley Amis, who we discussed last time, are actually quite rare. But nevertheless there’s a very famous SF writer who some people think put a lot of himself into his books. Shall we talk about him next time?

JANE: Absolutely!