Monday, April 30, 2012

Z: Zygomatic arch

Has anyone complimented your zygomatic arches?

They're your cheekbones. And they're further back than you'd think -- when you put your fingers on the upper part of your cheek, most of that bone there is actually the lower part of the eye socket (the zygomatic bone.) The arch connects that bone to the temporal bone, which is a patch of your skull just above your ear.

Cheekbones are one of several qualities of the face that contribute to that thing called "beauty"... so a few thoughts about characters, beauty, and describing your characters' zygomatic arches.

Writers want their characters to be attractive to readers and at first thought, physical appearance is part of that. Whether you simply say your character is good-looking or go into great detail about eyes, lips, and cheekbones, your aim is to hold the reader's interest. Does beauty always hold the reader's interest, though?

Most people are not at one extreme or the other -- not beautiful, not ugly. They're ordinary. On the cute side, maybe, or on the unattractive side. Describing someone who can't be rubber-stamped as pretty or ugly can take more words, actually, to go over the ups and downs of their appearance. And while I think it's a good idea to not have all your characters be drop-dead gorgeous, you also don't want to bog down your story in long descriptions.

Excepting those genres where it's expected, of course.

So maybe you just sketch your characters and hit the highlights. The nice smile. The hair. The calloused hands. The weak chin or the hairy warts, if you're going for a less attractive package. Those are quick and you can mention them more than once so they stick in the reader's mind. Maybe you assume the rest of the character is ordinary, or maybe you assume the rest is ripped muscles and generous bosoms -- again, genre comes into play.

There's an interesting argument put forward by Scott McCloud in Understanding Comics (it was my U entry) with regards to characters with distinctive, detailed appearances vs. a non-specific appearance. You really should read the book, but here's the gist of it: a non-specific appearance encourages the reader to place themselves in the character's shoes.

McCloud's talking specifically about comics, a more directly visual media than fiction... but it's a valid point, and I suspect it carries over. How closely I identify with a fiction character has very little to do with their appearance -- in fact, the only physical detail that would draw me in would be obesity. But that's a different post.

Writers want their characters to be attractive to the readers. Is physical appearance important?

What do you think?

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Y: Yoga

I do yoga. I've been doing yoga three times a week for several years now.

I started doing yoga because I was sick and tired of my awful balance (I was the sort who could just be standing there and I'd lose my balance,) my lack of flexibility, and my general wimpy-ness. Why not go to a gym? I don't like them. I don't want a TV babbling at me, I don't want strangers around me while I'm exercising (or friends, for that matter,) and I'm not paying money for the "opportunity" to break a sweat.

Where Down Dog Is Man's Best Friend
Enter the free video podcast Yogamazing, hosted by Chaz Rough. I did have to buy a yoga mat, and I did also buy a yoga brick but I don't need it anymore. Total $$ invested: 20, maybe? I don't have to leave the house. I don't have to "answer" to a trainer or compete, however subconsciously, with the student next to me.

Gained: balance, flexibility, muscles... stamina, focus, confidence, and a truce with my fat body for the first time in my life. Lost: two pant sizes, though not any actual pounds. Whatever. I've made peace with the fat and that's worth far more than trying to fit into somebody's height/weight chart.

(Amusingly, once the truce was established the pounds did begin to slink away slowly. Again, whatever. I'm still fat and I will not violate the truce. There are studies about the role of cortisol (a hormone produced when you're under stress, maybe because you're haranguing yourself for being fat) in retaining fat.)

First time I tried Down Dog, I thought I was going to die. Now, it's almost a resting pose. Used to be that Hero's Pose felt a lot like my feet were going to snap off at the instep. Boat Pose? Are you kidding?  Not anymore...

Namaste, Chaz. From the bottom of my heart.

If you're catching up with A to Z posts, swing by my W post and ask a question.

Friday, April 27, 2012

X: Signature for the illiterate

Legally, a simple X can still be the signature of a person that cannot write their name. It needs to be witnessed, since such a thing is so easy to forge, but it's still legit. Some places substitute an inked fingerprint, which is quite reasonable too.

Illiteracy is the default state in my fantasy story -- not surprising, I'm sure. Peasants have more important and time-consuming survival skills to teach their children than reading and writing. Most of them would sign with an X if they needed to sign something.

Unexpectedly, this also came up in my science fiction when a truce needed to be signed. The universe I built -- the Jovian Frontier -- is so hooked up, wireless and otherwise computer-driven that I suddenly realized that it had been 150,000 words and nobody had even typed anything, never mind held a pen and written something on a piece of paper.

(a piece of what? the stuff you blow your nose on?)

So I was wrapping up the end of the second book and suddenly I looked over at Maggie and asked, Can you sign your name? 

She said she'd practice for it, since this treaty was important. But it made me think about hand-writing and how it's slowly but steadily fading from the world. Would it ever become so unusual that one would need to practice one's signature for a special event?

What would that special event be?

If computers become good enough to take dictation and read text to us, will reading fall by the wayside too?

Perish the thought...

Thursday, April 26, 2012

W: What do YOU want to know?

Moody Writing opened the floor to questions for Q day with the option of not getting any questions and taking a day off... well, W is the last letter I need an entry for and I'm getting burned out, so I am going to do the same.

Pick my brains. Go ahead. I dare you.

I will answer questions, or engage suggested topics, on Tuesday, May 1 -- which would normally be a blog posting day for me, but after a whole April of posting I'm a bit short on topics.

Or I will take the day off, if nobody comments on this.

Thank you to everyone who's commented so far. If you've got a question, post it!

I can do more than one answer session if I need to.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

V: Voice

I recently finished Part III of my fantasy monstrosity, Disciple, which included a full revision of Part II... all of which comes to about 100k words over a few months so I was well steeped in my fantasy-writing voice.

Then I tried to write a character interview with Neal, one of my science fiction characters. The change in voice was kinda like downshifting too far and I felt that whump the engine does, then heard it rev painfully high... well, if you drive a stick shift you know what I'm talking about.

Voice is difficult to pin down. You know it when you see it (like porn.) In thinking about it, I remembered that I have two scenes of somebody watching somebody seducing somebody else. So I thought I'd compare voices.

No context, yeah, but what's going on doesn't matter right now. I'm looking at word choices and sentence structures.


I was given the smallest of the guest rooms as my own and the men shared the others. My boots had hardly been off in two days, and when I sat on the mattress and unlaced them it took some two-handed wiggling to get them loose and then some peeling for the wool socks. The floor was chilly under bare feet, but no worse than my dormitory room at the Order. The baron's daughter had said she’d return with a hot water bladder for my bed.

My toes drying, I got up to shut my door. Glancing down the hall — I was at the end — I saw her, lamp in hand, leaning against the wall opposite Sir Anders. They spoke too quietly to hear, but she laughed at something he said and played at sassing back with one fist on her generous hip. That made him laugh in return.

Sir Anders shifted to put his hand to the wall beside her and lean on it. She turned her nose away, haughty, but spoiled the effect with a smile. He caught her chin with two fingers and turned her back for a kiss.

I felt a blush rise on my face. I pushed the door shut but couldn’t help lingering with one eye at the shrinking crack.

The baron's daughter stepped around him and he turned, leaned against the wall where she’d been. She took a few steps, looked back, and then kept walking. After a moment, Sir Anders followed.

I never did get that hot water bladder. 

Science fiction: 

Maggie, leaning past Neal to watch, saw Shen’s dark eyes sharpen on Glenna. His casual hug turned into a tighter grip. The corner of a grin slipped around her face as they hovered, noses almost touching, eyes locked. Maggie’s pulse shuddered in her chest, turning cold. Shen’s hand on Glenna’s back, long fingers splayed, caught on the edge of her corset as his grip tightened.

And Shen kissed her sister.

Glenna raked her fingers into [his] dark green hair and his hand was sliding down toward her butt. A bit of a twist and she was slithering onto his lap, wedged against the lip of the bar.

A squeeze bottle broke Maggie’s line of sight and she blinked. Neal flipped the nozzle open and hesitated, noticing her. He was blurring fast as her eyes filled up. And behind him, where the vague glimpses of green and…

“Psst!” Jezebel snapped and pointed toward the open door at the end of the bar. “Get a room!”

Maggie blinked and tears clung to her lashes. Got a glimpse of Glenna the moment Shen pinned her up against the door sill, her arms inside his unzipped jumpsuit. Maggie squeezed her eyes shut. Her sister’s giggles faded down the hallway past the door.

“Hey, hey.” Neal’s arm wrapped around her, put her face to his shoulder. “Don’t cry.”

In the interests of keeping this short, just looking at the verbs illustrates pretty well how much softer and slower my fantasy voice is.

was given      shared      had been      sat      unlaced      took      wiggling      peeling      was      had said      drying      got      glancing      was      saw      leaning      spoke      laughed      said      played      made      felt      rise      pushed      couldn't      lingering      shrinking      stepped      turned      leaned      'd been      took      looked      kept      followed      get

Science fiction:
leaning      watch      saw      sharpen      turned      slipped      hovered      shuddered      turning      caught      tightened      kissed      raked      was sliding      slithering      broke      blinked      flipped      hesitated      blurring      filled      snapped      pointed      blinked      clung      got      pinned      squeezed      faded      wrapped      put     cry

Why wasn't kiss a verb in the fantasy seduction? was the first thing I saw when I made those lists. What do you see?

Want to read more? My writing samples: Fantasy, Science fiction.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

U: Understanding Comics

Understanding Comics, by Scott McCloud, is an amazing book about storytelling in "comic books" -- "sequential art," more accurately.

I found it useful because I'm the sort of writer who's following a mental movie as I write. There's a lot here that boils down to being a better director, in the sense of guiding the reader's eye. Which you do, as a writer, even more than a comic book artist or a movie director. Your words are the only window into your world.

Four chapters in particular were very useful to me.

Chapter 3 discusses different types of transitions between image frames. Chapter 4 discusses sequences of events and covers timing in the process. Both of these are just as important to prose as to sequential art.

McCloud speaks in terms of image frames, since that is the basic unit of information for sequential art. In prose, one could think in units of a paragraph or even a sentence.* The relationship between one sentence/paragraph and the next falls into one of six types and those relationships have a direct impact on one's voice, timing and pacing.

Chapter 6 discusses the interplay between image and text -- and prose is limited to just text, but consider: the interplay between descriptive paragraphs and dialogue/action.

Chapter 7 is more abstract. It tackles McCloud's theory of "art" and the development of artists. He takes a very broad definition of art -- which, in later years, he took a few steps away from -- and that's his opinion. I found his presentation on the six layers of art persuasive, though.

The rest of it is fun, too, looking at the power of icons and visual media. I was especially struck by his pointing out that characters with a generic appearance invite the reader to place themselves in that character's shoes, and I wondered how that applied to prose characters as well. I thought of reviewing Understanding Comics, in fact, while writing my entry for Z... which tipped over into a discussion of beauty. Stay tuned for that.

* I've heard it argued that the paragraph is the basic unit of information in prose, not the sentence. And they may have a point, since a sentence can tell you something but a paragraph also provides context. And we know how much of meaning in English rides on context... most of it, it seems like. 

Monday, April 23, 2012

T: Target - self-publishing?

Getting published. That's been my target for a long time. These days, of course, that target is moving and splitting into a couple dozen targets: "legacy" publishers, small press publishers, self-publishing... what to aim at?

There's been a lot of blogging about the ups and downs of self-publishing. A lot of it is persuasive, too. It's made me ask myself what parts of "being published" make it my target.
  • Craving the validation. Which is foolish, yes, because for every one person who likes my writing, there will be at least one other who doesn't care for it.
  • Earn money. I'll admit to wanting that.
  • Wanting to entertain people. It kinda surprises me to say this.
  • Craving the validation. Yeah, twice. 
It seems to me that if a traditional (legacy?) publisher agreed to publish one of my novels, there are some risks involved:
  • Little or no promotion for the book results in it vanishing into the horde of other published titles.
  • Screw-ups in the production process result in a book that misrepresents me and/or angers the readers. 
  • Production/promotion/reception of my book gets sabotaged by forces beyond my control, making it DOA.
Then again, these are the same risks I face with a small press or as a self-publisher... but if I do it myself, I retain control of more of my rights. My sales will be small, but I'll get a larger cut of them. I could hire an editor and a proofreader, rather than rely on luck. I've got enough graphic design, prepress/production and HTML coding experience to do my own layout. The only catch is marketing, as I see it. Technically, I could hire a little marketing firm too.

I could go over to and commit to handing out all kinds of goodies if people were willing to help. Put together an estimate of editing and production costs, make a trailer video... it's a thought. I've done stupider things.

How has all the talk about self-publishing influenced you?

Saturday, April 21, 2012

S: Soundtracks

I use the playlist function on iTunes to create background music for writing. I put songs into playlists according to what sort of energy they invoke, how "high-profile" they are (some songs just attract more of my attention when they play) and how appropriate they are to a given story.

I have quiet, contemplative playlists for quiet scenes. Tense, anguished playlists for drama. Story-specific lists full of songs the characters have pointed out to me. I mix and match these playlists too. Most of Disciple, Part III was written, for example, with my ambient/melancholy/smooth-electronica/Disciple-specific blend playing in the background. (combined length of those lists is about 2 days and 3 hours.)

Except for the combat portions of the story (of which there are many) which require something very different. Crafting a playlist specifically for writing combat has proven tricky, for me. I've been working on it since I was writing Orbital Shifts (which had a fair amount of ship-to-ship science fiction combat) over the summer last year.

Here's what I've got so far -- I call this playlist "Heavy" to distinguish it from the "Fast Electronica" and the "Grungy/Dark" playlists. The full list is currently 70 tracks but not all of them are available on (I collect a lot of small bands' and DJs' music, because a lot of it is free.) I found about half of them and made a public list for you all.

Needless to say, Caution: loud, angry stuff here. I generally cut this playlist with "Fast Electronica," "Melancholy," and the story-specific playlist to keep my blood pressure under control.

Get a playlist! Standalone player Get Ringtones

Friday, April 20, 2012

R: Resuscitating lapsed ideas

Everybody has some manuscripts languishing in a comatose state, don't they? I'm talking about full drafts, or at least mostly-done, that suddenly manifested some deep flaw that drained out the spark of life. So you wrapped it up for long-term storage in your mental non-intensive care unit and figured you'd get back to it at some point.

Sometimes these stories resuscitate themselves. Sometimes it takes work. Sometimes you work them over with the shock paddles and mainline hormones through the IV and it still won't twitch.

I've got two in mind: a short story and a novel. Both SF, both Jovian Frontier stories. There are a lot of reasons why stories can lapse into comas, so I'll only talk about why these particular two did.

Wrong MC
I came to the realization that the main character arc in the novel was too muddy. What do I mean by that? My novels tend to include a main action arc -- a sequence of (exciting?) events -- and at least one character arc -- a sequence of (interesting?) changes the MC goes through. The two of them have a relationship, but how closely twined they are varies from story to story.

In this novel, the MC I had settled on did not have a clear objective. She was pulled into a situation and decided to take advantage of it, but why was not sufficiently clear and she made some choices that weren't... all that sensible, which always puts me off a character. This echoed into the main action arc and resulted in some serious "why are we doing this?" moments.

Fatal flaws. I threw it in the drawer (electronically speaking) and let it collect dust.

Then I went to the Viable Paradise workshop and listened to Elizabeth Bear's lecture on plot structure (among other wonderful lectures.) A couple weeks later, I was eating breakfast (I kid you not) and Bear (well, her voice) re-framed the novel's plot in terms of the other major character, whose objectives are far simpler, clearer, and are complicated by the female MC in (amusing?) ways.

My gut's verdict: this will work. I haven't done it yet, but I wrote down the notes.

Non sequitor
The main thing keeping the short story on life support is a pretty good sequence where a small team is working its way through a ghost ship. Its problem is that the character arc has very little to do with the action arc. This makes the character's changes seem to come out of left field and had (more than one) beta asking "What?"

No signs of life in this one. I might cannibalize out that one sequence if it can be used elsewhere. That's a perfectly good use of comatose stories, IMO. Organ harvest.

Why did that story of yours lapse into a coma?

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Q: St. Qadeem

The few betas who have been beta reading Disciple, Parts I - III (sample of Part I in the page tabs above) can confirm that I am not pulling this out of my butt just to cover the dreaded Q entry for A to Z. My side of this Character Conversation is in italics. (There are more of these under the "character development" tag.)

Saints, in my fantasy monstrosity, are people who have attained godlike powers. They can be killed, but not by ordinary means -- and the death of a saint is disastrous for the people who have aligned themselves with him/her. 

My fantasy kingdom has three saints, who've formed something of a pact and work together to protect -- and be protected by -- the kingdom. Two of the saints were locally grown, as it were, and have blood ties to the kingdom. I wanted the third to be an outsider. Someone who, even though he's been part of the pact for a long time now, will never quite fit in. Thus, my kingdom is largely pasty-white-and-blond by ethnicity and Saint Qadeem... is not. 

Naveen Andrews - I believe this is from his stint on Lost?
Reference photo (yum): 

The very first thing I wrote about the three saints was: War saint, Craft saint, Nerd saint. I never had any doubt which one was the outsider. 

A saint of knowledge would be the outsider even in his homeland.

You've been quite mum about why you came to this little back-woods kingdom.  

There's been no hiding that I traveled much of the world before finding my place here.

Your place, or just a place? 

When one is an outsider, it's a fine shade of difference.

Were you running from something? (he only shrugs, with a smile) In assigning you an ethnicity that can be shorthanded as "Arabic" I wanted to invoke the intellectual and scientific prowess that pre-dates the fundamentalist, isolationist persona that dominates the Muslim world nowadays. 

In addition, warmer climes and richer lands allow people more leeway for learning rather than farming. Hardly any one kingdom's fault if its soil is cold and thin, requiring much labor to feed one's family. Why-ever I came to this mountain kingdom, I stayed for being welcomed by its people as well as its saints. 

But you haven't, shall we say, contributed to the gene pool here.

There are consequences to long life. When one knows the full spectrum of what a family will require of you, one's perspective changes.

That's something I've seen addressed now and then with other immortal beings, such as vampires. It's always interested me. (See my entry for I: Immortals)

Near all saints have descendants. The question is, how many generations can one reasonably maintain involvement with? Or does one begin a new family whenever one wishes -- take a new wife, watch her grow old, hold babes in your arms and follow them from cradle to grave?

One could certainly have a favorite great-great-grandchild. 

As Saint Woden does, in the kingdom's royal family. Surely a swath of the people could trace kinship to one or the other of their saints, after so many generations. They can hardly befriend them all, though. They are the saints of the land.

Which is a full-time job.

And deadly, as well.

I'll end the conversation here, though I'm itching to talk about what qualifies one to be the "saint of nerds" in a high-fantasy setting; all the saints are magic-users, first and foremost, not scientists. 

What role have cultural outsiders played in your fantasy stories?

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

P: Pages (of my writing)

I have a few writing samples scattered around, but maybe it's time for something bigger. You've listened to my blathering about my science fiction and my fantasy, so I should post some. Put my pen where my mouth is, as it were.

They're in the Page tabs above. Links below, too.

SF: Course Corrections query

Maggie McBride lost five years laying low, nursing her anger. She was just a kid when Jupiter’s police force cracked down on the McBrides’ independence movement. Maggie escaped, but the void took most of her family. Her one surviving cousin got arrested and packed off for realignment “treatments” to fix those obviously faulty thinking patterns.

Now Maggie’s hacking together a team — the few who survived the rebellion, a couple sympathizers, a chuck who just needs the money — with the skills to break into the remote asteroid Correctional Facility where her cousin’s being “treated.” To get the cash for all this, Maggie signs a contract with a vicious old pirate, selling her future into slavery if she fails.

It’s millions of kilometers to the little rock, across open space with nowhere to hide. But she’s going to get her cousin back.

COURSE CORRECTIONS is a 79,000-word hard science fiction adventure.

Read the first scene here. (~700 words)

Fantasy: Disciple, Part I query

The saints favor her, else-wise a peasant girl like Kate Carpenter would never be apprenticed to the kingdom’s master healer. But her patron saint also marks her ready for the duty of tending to a mission that must cross the ice-bound mountains. Their little kingdom faces invasion by a vast empire and desperately needs allies; across the snow-filled pass, through the deathly thin air, is a country that’s held off the empire and may be willing to lend an army.

Kate knows about frostbite and the everyday injuries of wilderness travel. She can heal those.

She’s not ready for the attentions of a ne’er-do-well knight and the kingdom’s only prince, though.

And she isn’t ready for the monsters that harry them night and day, picking off their archers first, wearing the party to exhaustion, pushing Kate beyond the limits her healing abilities.

She must keep them alive, or her blood will be on the snow too.

DISCIPLE, PART I: FOR WANT OF A PIGLET is a 42,000-word gritty fantasy, the first part of an epic in progress. (3 parts of a projected 6 written, 160k and counting...)

Read the first scene here. (~900 words) (NOTE: This link now leads to my book blog for Disciple)

Going to hide in a corner because I left comments open on the pages...

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

O: On Killing

"We sleep soundly in our beds at night because rough men stand ready to do violence on our behalf." -- Winston Churchill
When it comes to committing violence, most of us are "virgins studying sex." And just as virgins can write about sex, we can write about violence without ever having done it -- and we're far less likely to be called on any mistakes we make in the portrayal than a virgin is for writing unrealistic sex scenes.

It's my opinion that we owe it to those who serve in uniform to portray violence, and the toll it takes, as honestly as possible.

Lt. Col. Dave Grossman wrote On Killing in the mid-90s, and when I read it (pre-9/11) war was a far-away thing. I read it because I thought it would help me in creating my fantasy-world knights. It did that, but the book is so thorough, readable, and brutally honest that it was a bit like throwing myself in the deep end of the pool to learn how to swim.

Grossman covers all aspects of institutionalized violence: the deep-rooted instincts that prevent men from killing (yes, we're wired to be violent but deliberate killing is not part of the deal), how factors like physical distance and psychological distance contribute, the role of training/re-programming, the even more important role of group social dynamics, and the psychological trauma that 98% have to work with  -- successfully or not. It turns out that about 2% of the population is capable of killing without the usual difficulties, interestingly enough.

What I took away from On Killing was that I was asking my knights to engage in the most mentally difficult form of violence -- short-range, face-to-face slashing and stabbing -- and that what would let them sleep at night was their ability to define those they killed as sub-human, monsters, or otherwise unworthy of living, and the support and approval of both the people in authority over them and those they loved.

Once you look at it that way, a lot of things about soldiers, propaganda and veterans change their meaning.

Grossman also wrote a follow-up: On Combat, which goes into great detail about the physical effects of combat-related adrenaline rushes, panic, and the importance of training. He also goes on at length on his opinion of violent video games, which was less useful from a writer's POV but the rest of the information is well worth it. I blogged about On Combat here.

Monday, April 16, 2012

N: Neal McBride

My reference photo for Neal McBride: Paul Bettany
I chat with my characters to learn about them and their part in the story -- and to work out some aspects of world-building. (My side of the conversation is in italics)

Neal McBride is one of the POV characters in my sci-fi novel Course Corrections

He was part of a gang -- whether terrorists or freedom fighters depends on who you ask -- that was captured, some of them killed, a few escaped. Neal stood trial and was sentenced to prison and Parathena "therapy" to re-shape his personality into something more "acceptable."

I wrote about some of these ideas in this post here and this post on SiMF.

The concept behind the Parathena therapy was using drugs to manipulate the emotional content of your memories. 

Stripped out the anger that drove me. Once the "McBride Terror" got rolling, we fed off each other. Glenna's anger, mine, Maggie's, everyone who joined our team. Remembering all that would've kept me going for years.

And if they were able to biochemically pinpoint the emotions triggered by those memories and replace them with...

Sadness. Emptiness.

But they didn't erase the memories entirely. 

Year's worth of lost memories would be strange. Something I could wonder about, try to find out what happened, then get angry all over that it was taken away. 

And you would've known who erased the memories, because you remember the sentencing, the imprisonment. 

Maybe erase those too. Though how to explain many years gone from my head, then?

You were in a coma for years? 

Living out on Jupiter's moons, and there are still mysterious comas that last years? Who'd have paid for my upkeep all that time?

True, Maggie was gone. 

And Glenna's dead.

Are you angry about that, still? 

(He shakes his head.) They took my anger.

Stay tuned for the P entry, when I'll post the first scene from Course Corrections (and my fantasy monstrosity, Disciple) so you can see a little of what happened to Neal.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

M: Money

In fantasy
You can create your monetary system from scratch, which has its ups and downs. Do you go the easy gold-silver-copper route, or put in the work to build something as complicated as the old British system? Go with exotic coins made of electrum or mithril?

Either way, consider:
  • What does the coin represent? For a long time, the American dollar represented a certain amount of gold. In theory, you could go to the bank and get your gold whenever you wanted. Maybe a silver coin is equal to a bushel of wheat, in your fantasy kingdom. Or maybe money is a scrap of paper that's worth something because everybody believes it's worth something.
  • Who claims the authority to make currency? In some times and places, it was issued by banks to represent deposited wealth - not governments. Do people melt down their jewelry to make new coins? Do they melt coins to make jewelry? Is there quality control? 
  • On the heels of that, do people trust the money to be worth something? This is part of why precious metals are a no-brainer for coins. They'll always be worth something, right? (or will they?)

In science fiction
Up to a point, you have the option of simply using the existing monetary system. You could use "credits" or some equally generic term. Or maybe money has gone completely electronic and it's handled by your personal AI so it's rarely mentioned.
  • Are there still multiple currencies - dollars, euros, yen - or has that all been scrapped in favor of one unit? 
  • Did some other currency unseat the dollar and become the dominant currency?
  • Does hard currency still exist? (I suspect it will last longer than expected. People like to hold things.)
If you're going far into the future or inventing alien cultures, the fantasy questions come back into play.

Is money a headache you'd rather not worry about, in a story, or did you wrestle with some of these questions?

Friday, April 13, 2012

L: The 48 Laws of Power

Because "48" isn't a letter and F was already taken...

This is another book from my Reference Shelf of Honor. It's a massive collection of brief, historical stories illustrating the 48 "laws" as formulated by the author -- some stories illustrating the law properly observed, some illustrating the price of failure. (If nothing else, consider it a treasure trove of plot ideas.)

The 48 Laws of Power, by Robert Greene, goes into far more depth than Machiavelli's The Prince (though you should read that) and Sun Tzu's Art of War (read that too.) In some ways, I suspect 48 might be more laws than is necessary -- some of them overlap each other noticeably. And some do seem difficult to reconcile to each other, if not downright contradictory.

That's not as much a problem as one might think, as the idea that nobody can observe all these laws perfectly and therefore be the perfect leader (dictator, con man, etc.)... is rather reassuring, actually.

On the whole, though, the weight of so many examples is persuasive. While I recommend this book for anybody who wants their characters to be successful leaders, I do NOT recommend plowing through the whole book all at once. Doing that contributed noticeably to my jaded, pessimistic and manipulative side.

On the other hand, it did make me a lot more comfortable with letting my kings, empresses, and rebel leaders pull the gloves off and get stuff done. When Maggie McBride, my rebel leader, had to address the fact that one of her staunchest supporters had screwed up, gone behind her back to try to fix it and made things worse... I checked this book before writing the confrontation. It confirmed that she had to take him down a peg and challenge him to make it right, while making it clear she trusted he would.

Leaders are difficult to write, when you're a shy person. This book has helped me a lot.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

K: Knitting

I'm a knitter.

Which is not all that unusual for a writer, actually -- at Viable Paradise, we knitters circled up and stitched while we chatted.

It's long been known that simple, repetitive tasks can ease one into a meditative state. Meditation has a long history, of course, and is held up by both mystically inclined people and a growing number of researchers as a way to reduce stress and maintain health. One's brain waves shift, while meditating, from task-oriented beta waves to the relaxed, attentive theta and alpha waves.

IME (and I'm sure I'm not alone) this is where creativity flows easily. It's a free-associative stream of thought where my characters can speak freely and we can try out ideas and their consequences. Thoughts bump up against each other, merge, and split up in new ways.

When it comes down to it, all the writing "crutches" that I have (music, alcohol, my starting-to-write habits) are geared toward dropping me into that theta and alpha state where I can see the story and hear the characters. And like crutches, or training wheels, with long practice I've gotten better about dropping into that state with less help. This is why writers have a reputation of being absent-minded and distracted, I suppose.

We all know what it feels like when you can't get to that theta-wave state.

Once you're good enough at knitting (or crochet -- I do that too) that your autopilot can do most of the stitching, it's a good inducer of that meditative state. I keep small projects by my computer and work on them when I need to resolve some sticky point.

I have a surplus of potholders, hand towels and lap blankets around the house, but hey...

What are your creative inducers?

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

J: Jupiter

What else would I be doing for J? :)

My science fiction universe, which I call the Jovian Frontier, took root around this giant planet for several reasons. One was the deep influence that the movie 2010 had on my young brain. (I blogged about that.) Another is the size and inherent challenges of the system. Jupiter seems to have an endless supply of moons, it's separated from the inner planets by the asteroid belt, and it's too far from the sun to even pretend to do any farming. It requires true independence from Earth's resources if you're going to set up a homestead here.

Jupiter itself was the fun part. It taught me some important things about getting around using real-world physics -- because I wanted this universe to be as hard-SF as possible. Let me try to explain one of those things by talking about some of Jupiter's moons.

The four biggest moons
Jupiter's four biggest moons are all found close to its equatorial plane -- they orbit more or less in line with the planet's equator. These are the moons you've probably heard of: Io, Europa, Ganymede and Callisto. They're a natural target for colonization (and fighting over) because they're large and relatively easy to get to because their orbits are nice, neat circles around the middle of the planet.

The prograde moons
Outside of the four biggest moons, there are six prograde (orbiting in the same direction Jupiter turns) moons. Four of them orbit at an angle of about thirty degrees relative to Jupiter's equatorial plane. The other two are off doing their own thing.

The retrograde moons
Outside of the six prograde moons, there's a wild array of retrograde (orbiting opposite to Jupiter's turning) moons. Most of them are less than 10 kilometers in diameter, and they're generally grouped by their angle of inclination relative to Jupiter's equatorial plane. These angles are numbers like 150, 165, and 140.

The "Seven Sisters" (as I call them)
The seven largest moons outside of the inner four are: Himalia, Lysithea, Elara, Carme, Ananke, Pasiphae, and Sinope. Leda gets an honorable mention. That's everything that's more than 10 kilometers across, outside of the inner four. The first three plus Leda are the prograde moons at a thirty degree angle that I mentioned. The others are large members of their similar-angle groups.

Why am I going on about angles?
Because traveling further than you have to, in space, is expensive. And dangerous.

All of the planets in our solar system orbit the sun within a fairly tight plane -- which is to say that when the planets "line up" there's one a little "higher," one a little "lower" but they're all fairly close to each other. Therefore all the places you want to travel to and from do not require angling yourself too dramatically away from everything else.

Which means, by extension, that when spaceships are coming and going from the entire Jupiter system, they're going to approach it along a fairly tight band of vectors that line up pretty well with its own equator.

Which means that the equatorial plane -- and the moons convenient to it -- are where the traffic is going to be. Where there's money to be made. It's also where the four biggest moons are, the ones that can give a ship the most help with slingshot acceleration or braking. (Free acceleration? Hell yes.)

The other moons can be expensive to get to, depending on where they are in their orbit -- you'll have to burn all the way out there and brake on your own. The seven sisters can help a little with that, but the rest of the dinky rocks are even worse.

This told me a few things about the Jupiter system: where the center of town is, where the boondocks are -- though even the boondocks get their turn close to the equatorial plane, it should be noted -- and the importance of location, location, location.

How does ease of travel (or difficulty) impact your story?

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

I: Immortals

Vampires are the most common variety of immortal being one comes across in fiction, but there have been others. Extremely long life can verge on immortality, as with classic-style elves. In science fiction, immortality can come by way of downloading minds into vat-grown replacement bodies.

Immortality brings some unusual factors into play, some of which have been addressed well and extensively in novels. The importance of long-term relationships -- and how they can sour -- in Anne Rice's vampire novels, for example. Grudges that go on for centuries. The loss of humanity (and questioning what humanity is) and the scarring effect of doing monstrous things to survive. Good stuff, all of it, as the popularity of vampires attests.

But there are some recurring facets of immortals that I question, too.  

They're rich
Up until 1933, if a bank failed in the United States the account holders usually got nothing. Their money was gone. For centuries, if your house burned to the ground you had nothing. If a lynch mob came after you with torches and pitchforks, you'd be lucky to escape with what's in your pockets. When an economy tanked, inflation would go through the roof and your horde of treasure isn't worth much anymore. 

So you spread out your assets, goes the logic. You invest in commodities like gold and jewels and hope you can hide them well enough that they'll still be there when you need them. (Really? Your staff is that trustworthy?) Invest in a widely varied portfolio and hope something pans out somewhere. One of these companies will be the next Microsoft, right? And it won't crash like Enron, of course. 

I'd love to read a story about a 700-year-old vampire who's poor. In fact I'm claiming that idea, I may need to write that myself. Can you imagine working shit jobs for hundreds of years?

They're out of the gene pool
Balancing long life with a low reproductive rate is reasonable for world-building purposes. However, it does leave out some interesting possibilities. I had a chance to think about them in the course of my current fantasy monstrosity.

If one's immortality is acquired, not inherent, then one could still have a "normal" family with one major difference: you're going to outlive them all. Not just your spouse but your children too. And your grandchildren.

How long do you remain involved in their lives? What's your role? Can you afford to be emotionally invested?

This was touched on a little in Highlander, except that the immortals couldn't have children. If anyone knows of other stories that addressed this, please mention them in comments.

They have "refined tastes"
Or are they just jaded due to having seen it all, done it all, and there's only so many ways you can do a thing anyway. It doesn't matter if the thing in question is sex, murder, cuisine or high fashion. Novelty is a dead end, on the grand scale of things.

At what point in immortality are you just so damn bored that you can't stand it anymore?

Just some thoughts. What aspect of vampires sticks in your craw? (aside from the sparkly part, LOL)

This is a topic that will come up in a character conversation later in the A-to-Z run. I'll link to it here afterwards.

Monday, April 9, 2012

H: Hull breach

An important consideration in any hard science fiction story. Some of my betas did bring up the question of whether my characters ought to be waving guns around in spaceships, given how deadly a hull breach would be.

Photo by Ivan Freaner, at
The speed at which a bullet leaves a gun (its muzzle velocity, in feet/sec or meters/sec) can range from 680 - 1300 f/s (207 - 396 m/s) in pistols ranging from .32s to .45s. Consider that here-and-now bullet-proof glass, steel doors, and protective vests can maintain integrity even when hit by higher-velocity weapons, getting into the 2000 - 2500 f/s (609 - 762 m/s) range.

Can damaged bullet-proof glass stand up to normal air pressure against a hard vacuum on the other side? I don't know. But I don't think it's unreasonable to say that such a thing could be built, right here, with today's technology.

It's probably expensive. It's probably heavy. Those are both problems when you're trying to put ships into space, but it's a good thing science fiction isn't limited to today's technology.

There's a good reason that you wouldn't want to go into space in anything that wasn't a minimum of bullet-proof, though: micro-meteorites. These are small rocks, generally less than a gram (smaller than bullets) but they travel at anything from one to eighty kilometers a second (0.6 to almost 50 miles a second, so even the slow ones are doing over 3100 f/s).

Ordinary meteoroids are up to one meter (about a yard) in diameter and have been recorded at speeds of up to 26 miles/s (42 km/s). You could run into one of those moving at bullet velocities, certainly.

Getting back to gunpowder weapons, though, I think they're reasonable enough on a spaceship once you take these factors into account. One could go to the trouble to invent a laser gun or some kind of energy blaster, but consider:
  • Handheld gunpowder weapons already have a good 400 years of technological development behind them and a proven track record of efficient killing. The science and physics are well understood.
  • Yes, gunpowder will burn in a vacuum. The oxygen it needs is already bound up in the molecules.
  • Yes, automatics can be modified to function in zero gravity.
  • Recoil can be minimized, or (I would guess) managed in such a way to distribute the force and cancel itself out. As much as possible. I've tried to have my characters "use" the generated force to their advantage. 
  • They make loud noises and are scary. Yes, that sounds dumb but the intimidation factor should never be overlooked. It's why pistols in television shootouts are loud as shotgun blasts.
  • And to address a pet peeve: they are far easier to use than a knife or, God forbid, a sword. A four-year-old can kill someone with a gun. Swords take years to master, and whenever one gets pulled in science fiction I roll my eyes.
But I'm a hard sci-fi aficionado, and I'm not going to deny anyone the use of a good blaster or a dramatic lightsaber if that's what they want in a story. What would you arm your sci-fi characters with?

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Sunday Round-up

These are a few of the blogs where I've been enjoying A to Z posts:

Music at Through The Looking Glass
Superheroes at Sommer Leigh
Swearing at A Daft Scots Lass
Egyptian mythology at this and that...

Recommend your favorites to me!

Saturday, April 7, 2012

G: Gut

The writer's gut is a vital tool. Your gut tells you what works and what doesn't. It says this sentence sounds right and that one doesn't. Your characters have their roots down in your gut, and they're one avenue for your gut to get its message to you. It's the subconscious side of your writing ability, and it can't always put into words the things it needs to tell you.
When it can't put it into words,
my gut uses anti-aircraft fire

Your talent is in your gut, IMO. Regardless of how much you've got in there, your gut needs to be trained and trusted.

Read, read, read. And then be a five-year-old and ask why about everything. Why did this scene bore me? When did the asshole character turn into a good guy? How many loose ends are "okay" in a story? Why did I know the surprise twist was coming?

Don't limit yourself to "your" genres, either. Read everything and subject it to the same level of scrutiny. Especially stuff you  thought was lame, ineffective or dull.

Literature classes are great, but I have to admit I don't think they're a requirement. Maybe because I didn't take many myself. Movies are also great for studying a lot of techniques relatively quickly -- but books are not movies.

The purpose of training is to show your gut how to express itself by exposing it to both good and bad expressions. Then you have to let it express itself.

This is the tough part. Personally, I wanted some proof my gut had a clue about what it kept insisting is "right."

This is why betas are priceless. They can tell you if your gut is pointing you in the right direction. They can tell you what your gut is good at and what it's not so good at. Where you can trust it and where you need to go back with your brain and revise the story to work better.

Because you're going to find that your brain and your gut are at odds, often. But antagonism is dynamic, so let 'em fight it out.

Those things that your betas keep bringing up, keep asking for more of, are the things your gut needs to work on. Maybe you're not letting your gut speak freely. Maybe your gut's strengths are in other places. Maybe your gut is having trouble finding the right words and mechanisms to express itself (as in, it needs more training.)

Personally, my readers keep asking for more of my characters' thoughts and emotions to get onto the page. They want that subjective voice, and they're happy when my gut produces it. For whatever reason, objective voice comes easily to me. It's part of why I gravitate toward science fiction -- that voice is more acceptable in that genre. When I write fantasy, it's something of a problem.

Is my Talent lacking? Am I just holding my gut back? (shrugs) Learning is a continuous process. I'll keep working at it, either way.

Friday, April 6, 2012

F: The Foxfire Books

The Foxfire Book series is the collected works of a mid-1960s high school magazine in which the students went up into the Appalachians and collected information on folk crafts, lore and wisdom before it died out. Bless them.

I'm a crafter, and in addition I just like to know things, so I bought several of the volumes. But as I was working my way through them, I began to ask myself how much these skills would have changed since medieval times and how applicable they would be to your average fantasy world.

Certainly there has been some impact of scientific knowledge -- where exactly is hard to say, since a lot of this stuff is very basic chemistry, physics and math. The chemical reaction that creates soap hasn't changed since it was discovered. What did change was where the fat and the lye came from -- and these books are basic enough that they talk about creating lye from (alkaline) wood ash and water. That hasn't changed in a thousand years, I would bet.

Other things like weaving baskets or building log cabins change with the availability of materials or the needs of those using them, but the underlying principles are the same whether you're in Appalachia or Gondor.

How much bearing these things have on a fantasy story depends on the characters, of course. Princesses and knights probably won't be churning butter or building chairs from scratch very often. I'll confess that I've always taken an interest in the more common folk, in fantasy worlds. The ones that do all the work in the background so that the noble-born main characters can eat a hot meal, get a good night's sleep and a jump on a fresh horse in the morning.

There are many books in this series, and they've been collected and re-collected with different themes -- cookbooks, wine making, etc. -- so they are not difficult to find. I bought the ones that were of most relevance to me (#1, 2, 5 and 8) and they have a place of honor on my reference shelves.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

E: Erotica

...and the Problem of Erotica. The eternal "Why?"

(This isn't a rant so much as a ramble.)

Plot, character, world-building, dialogue, etc., should be just as much of an issue in erotica as in any story. There exists a general perception that these things tend to get shorted in erotica and they're "allowed" to slide because... well... are we reading this for the story, or for the sex?

"Both!" everybody says... because otherwise it'll all slide into PWP crapola, right? Erotica packs far more punch when you're invested in the characters, but the development of that investment is not done via erotica. (is it? could it be?) 

How "long" are you willing to go in an erotica without any action?

When I tried writing erotica, I started to hear a heckler in the back row yelling "Take it off!" (or something more salty) in the middle of my dramatic scenes. I began to run into questions like "Why are these two fooling around on-stage?" and the more problematic "Is this really relevant?"

Many better writers than I have tackled the relevance of explicit sex to a given story. Better writers than I have succeeded in making sex important to their plotline. Personally, I think one can make a case for using a sexual scene to develop character, raise tension and, yes, titillate the reader.

It's a hook. Use it properly.

But to get back to the eternal "Why?" -- why does the reader "need" to see this explicit scene? "Because they want to see it" is a valid answer, IMO. But here's the twist: given the work you put into an erotica story -- equal to the work you'd put into any story -- why limit your audience to only those who want to read explicit scenes?

Since e-books are taking off so well, I think it would be interesting if they started featuring "extras" for those who want... more. Just a little icon at the end of a bedroom scene -- where it ends for those who don't want to know the details -- that a reader could tap to see the steamy stuff. Has anyone done this yet?

If you'd like to comment on any of the questions above, I'd be glad to hear your thoughts. If you'd like to recommend  your favorite science fiction or fantasy erotica author, I'd be glad to hear that too. I'm badly out-of-date with the erotica world.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

D: Dame Aleksandra

I wanted female knights in my fantasy kingdom, so I built it into the culture. Dame is the female equivalent of Sir. To be sure they were seen, I made the captain of the king's personal guard a woman. Thus, Dame Aleksandra Rytsarova. Dame Aleks, if you dare.

Putting women in powerful positions is still, sadly, something of a balancing act. Female characters seem to take guff from all directions -- being "too" feminine or "too" masculine. It's the same pressure to be Perfect that any working woman gets, I suppose. Perfect Worker, Perfect Leader, Perfect Mom, Perfect Housekeeper, all at once. 

Not a reference photo for Dame Aleks. Wrong
hair color, wrong armor, there's no way this is her.
But an awesome photo! Her name's Virginia Hankins.
I wanted to interview Dame Aleks about all those problems of being a strong woman and "one of the guys" because she taps into all my personal insecurities about being an unromantic, no-frills, sure-I'll-disscet-the-frog-in-biology-lab woman myself. 

(If you're new here, there are more character interviews grouped under the "character development" tag. My side of the conversation is in italics.)

To have reached Captain of the Guard, you must be a capable fighter and leader. I don't think I need to prove your toughness to the readers the way I would have had to a few decades ago.  Rather, I feel a certain pressure to prove you're female. The usual accusation is that you're just a guy with tits if you aren't "feminine enough." 

If I've borne children, does that prove me a woman? If I'm Captain of the Guard, how good a mother can I be?

Not a feminine one, certainly.

Mother forbid I fail to teach my girls to be girls.

So how are you not a guy with tits? Do you ever wear a dress? 

Each time I'm off duty, surely.

...and Captain of the Guard is 24/7 (lol)...

Prince Kiefan, perhaps, is how I prove my gentler side. I was on the King's Guard already, and a mother as well, when he was born. As beautiful a son as one could wish for, full of smiles and sunlight. I could resist him no more than any woman on the castle staff.

But you also squired him when he was old enough. 

And it was an honor to train the crown prince. He'd never thought of me as a knight, though. His father had put the first sword in his hand, and women were only those he could charm for treats.

How many ass-beatings did it take to change that? 

I would not have kept him on, had it taken more than one. He's never been a fool, and he takes discipline well.

How complicated is it to mother a boy you're sworn to serve and protect?

The housemistress was more a mother, perhaps -- she held him when he cried, told him stories at bed-time. I hope I showed him how to use one's gentleness in leading, rather than forget it in being a warrior. That will both serve and protect him as a king.

If you're a writer, how do you balance "masculine" and "feminine" traits in your female leaders? How do you define those traits?

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

C: Crops

I'm using "crops" as a shorthand for "salable goods/services produced domestically." What crops is your fantasy kingdom (or science fiction space station) focused on producing?

I built a small fantasy kingdom with a New England-ish climate and it needs to be able to both sustain itself and trade a bit with the neighbors. You don't have to understand farming or economics in detail, but it's good to at least sketch these things out and think about them when you're world-building. It's going to affect what's on the table when people sit down to eat, what they're wearing, which craftsmen/guilds have more clout in society, and plenty of other things.

I'm not an economic expert, so I'm going to do this in very vague terms. I'll try to keep this "short." 

Grains: mostly oats, due to climate, but wheat too. Hay.

Fruits, Vegetables: cabbage, potatoes, beets, peas, squash, spinach and lettuce. Rhubarb. Fruit will include apples and maybe pears, maybe cherries... raspberries and blueberries, yes. Concord grapes, or the equivalent.

Livestock: Sheep are a multipurpose critter: milk, meat, and wool. All of them very trade-able. Also, cows for milk, beef, and leather. Pigs, chickens, etc.

Photo by Melissa R. Addison
Horses: This is probably the closest thing to a luxury my kingdom produces: warhorses. The knights you put in the saddle are a luxury item too, but we're not going to be exporting those.

Salt: This can be tough (I recommend Mark Kurlansky's book for reasearch), but vital to the economy. My kingdom does have a northern coastline where one could produce sea salt via either evaporation or freezing. I doubt they'll make enough to export -- might need to import some, in fact.

Cheese: Very consumable and very exportable, both sheep and cow varieties. 

Beer: Since I'm fond of beer, I give free rein to all kinds of beer and ale and the seasonal varieties thereof. 

Lumber: You need to make beer barrels out of something, after all.

What does all this mean
The productivity of a land speaks directly to its ability to support a population of people who don't have to farm for a living and can instead spend all their time weaving cloth, carving wood, learning to wield a sword or, perhaps, reading books and thinking. Historically speaking, one can make a living off farming in a New England-ish climate. But the fact that all of New England has, since its colony days, had only one major city to speak of (Boston) gives one an idea that it's not that rich of a living.

My little kingdom may be short on the finer things in life, like education or high culture, but they can keep their children fed and warm, and they produce enough to sell raw materials and transportable food to that big empire to their south. Unfortunately, that was also what drew the empire's attention and made them worth trying to conquer. But that's a different story...

Monday, April 2, 2012

B: Braies

Braies (with hose) on the man in blue, and just braies
on the man to the left of the pillar
There are many (many) terms out there for underwear, and I eventually settled on braies for men's underwear in my fantasy monstrosity -- mostly because it fits the language style I wanted (antiquated but not intimidatingly so) and it's another thing for me to argue with SpellCheck about (not that I needed help with that.)

Costume research is one of those things that looks like it should be simple, but turns out to be complex because there is so much information out there and much of it is contradictory or misinformed by the heavy influence of Hollywood and modern sensibilities. When it comes to medieval-style clothing, I've found serious re-enactors and SCAers to be a good resource (though it can take a lot of slogging through bad links.) They can also offer insights into sewing, wearing and working in the outfits. 

As an example of tricky research: medieval women's underwear. There's near-universal agreement that women wore a shift/chemise under their dresses, which was essentially a lightweight dress itself. Over time, it evolved into the slip (and who wears slips anymore?) But that's where agreement ends.

Eventually, I had to conclude that there's no solid evidence either way on the question of whether medieval women wore underpants/panties at all. There's no solid evidence of breast-supporting devices until corsets came along, either, though binding (in the form of a bandage-like wrapping) does get mentioned now and then.

So I actually went with the slightly scandalous option of my women wearing a shift under their dresses and nothing else unless it was that time of month (because good Lord, what a mess if they didn't.) They'd wear woolen hose when it's cold -- that's just being sensible.

How do you dress your fantasy characters?

Sunday, April 1, 2012

A: The Art of Fiction

The Art of Fiction, by John Gardner. This book has been a big influence on me. Fitting to begin my A to Z Challenge month. (Note: I don't have a specific theme for this month -- it'll be more of the same.)

I have a history with this book. I've been writing since I was a kid, and my father bought me this book in a fit of ambitiousness on my behalf (he does that) when I was far too young to fully understand it. Middle school, maybe (it's copyrighted '83; I could have been twelve when this was handed to me.) I tried to read it, dutifully, but couldn't.

Picked it up again, read some more, put it down. I did that several times, through high school, each time getting a little further, starting to grasp what Gardner was saying a little more. My brain finally blossomed a few years after college (which was a weird thing in itself, maybe I'll blog about it sometime) and I tore through The Art of Fiction wondering how I'd failed to understand any of this before. Maybe because it already had its roots in me, the book easily slipped into the role of gospel.

Over on Goodreads, reviews of this book point out that it's pompous, haughty, maybe snobby about what "literature" is... true. The man not only isn't afraid of long, complex sentences, he embraces them with gusto and will easily pummel the unprepared reader into the ground with long strings of clauses; dreaded semicolons; asides nearly as complex as the original sentence that probably deserved a paragraph of their own; and then slip back to his original point assuming that you've had the focus to follow all of this with the same clarity and level of interest.

But if you can machete your way through the language and assume that these rules apply equally to all fiction (which he does say, it's just buried in the semicolons) then you can carry away some thought-provoking things from this book. If you only read one chapter of this book, read "Common Errors" in Part II. Part I is the densest of the "snobby" stuff. Part II is concrete advice on sentence-building, word choice, plotting, etc. Gardner gets right down into the cadence of words in a sentence and those parts intimidate me to this day -- some people have a natural ear for that sort of thing (we call them "poets," IIRC) but I don't.

This book and Gardner's On Becoming a Novelist (the single most encouraging thing to happen to my writing before Viable Paradise) constitute everything I know about him, strangely enough. I did try to read Grendel at one point, but it was as awkward as meeting your teacher at the grocery store. Or, worse, at a strip club. That's probably just me, though.
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