Thursday, June 30, 2011

Open Here

Nathan Bransford recently blogged on 5 openings to think carefully about using. He specifically did not say you cannot create an effective beginning with them, only that they pose particular challenges. This is a good thing, because my reaction to "never" and "can't" is "I love a challenge! I'll show you!" Here's his list of "Beware Beginnings:"

1. A character waking up.
2. A character looking in a mirror.
3. Extended dialog with insufficient grounding.
4. Action with insufficient grounding.
5. Character does X and by the way, they're dead. (I have never wanted to open a story this way, but I suppose there's a macabre, gotcha, Twilight Zone appeal to it, but it's really a stupid trick to play on the reader and as a reader, I would not give that author a second chance.)

The first two are variations of the "white room syndrome." A character wakes up in a white room (and looks in a mirror). The white room or the empty room represents the blankness of the writer's mind. So instead of staring at a blank computer screen or sheet of paper, we stare at an opening setting. The mirror also serves as a metaphor for the writer having no idea who this character, where he is or what he is doing.

Here's the thing: I think these are perfectly good ways to begin a draft. Some writers are obsessive about working out every scene before they put it into words. They agonize over every sentence as they create it. Their first drafts are marvels of planning and precision.

I'm not one of them.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Race to the Finish

Today's blog has been pre-empted by what we call an Attack Chapter. In this case, it happens to be the last movement of the climax sequence of The Children of Kings. Here you go (subject to ruthless revision).


    The rapport faded, slowly at first, like the light from the twilit western sky, before fragmenting into the individual minds of the chieri.
    She felt the confines of her own mind grow stronger and more solid, a familiar prison. Although she might and undoubtedly would merge into the rapport of a circle, it would never be the same as what she had experienced. Like the passing of the chieri themselves, this transcendent unity had come to an end.
    Under her, the bench was hard and smooth. The room had gone chill. She ought to call for someone to stir the fire to life and bring her hot food. In a moment, she would do so.
    For now, however, she would honor what had been given, what had been lost, what had been won, what had been sacrificed.
    What she had become, what she would never be again. What had been taken from her.
    What remained forever.


Next up: wrapping-up-ends chapter... and revisions!

Westercon Schedule

In case you know the way to San Jose, here's where I'll be at Westercon 64:

Book View Café Friday 16:00 - 17:30 Crystal

Fantasy Houses with SF Furniture in Them Saturday 10:00 - 11:30 Regency Ballroom 2
Autographing Session Saturday 14:30 - 16:00 Imperial Ballroom
Reading - Science Fiction Saturday 16:00 - 17:30 Imperial Ballroom Reading Area

Perils and Joys of Series Writing Sunday 14:30 - 16:00 Gold
Will the Anthology Market Come Back? Sunday 16:00 - 17:30 Regency Ballroom 2

Future Histories of Medicine Monday 10:00 - 11:30 Gold
The Future of Small Press Publishing Monday 13:00 - 14:30 Regency Ballroom 2

Monday, June 27, 2011

Darkover Characters: Yours, Mine, and Ours

One of the most challenging aspects of continuing Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Darkover series--or any world invented by another author, for that matter--has been the portrayal of characters that are not my own. Most were created by Marion herself, but some came from one or another of the writers she had worked with before me. A case in point is Marguerida Alton, who began as a small child in Marion’s books but was brought to adult life, much to the delight of many readers, in the Darkover novels written by Adrienne Martine-Barnes.

To begin with, writing someone else’s characters is a no-win situation. No matter how carefully you, the new writer, study what has been done before, pouring through notes and out-takes and letters as well as published material, you’re going to get something wrong. Or perhaps not wrong but different. This is primarily because we are all individuals. Each creative vision, each way of working with characters, is unique. Add to that, the variations inherent in each story.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

When You Wish Upon A Star - Launch Pad 2011 - Prologue

I've always wanted to take a class in astronomy. I got star-struck at an early age, reading picture books with paintings of views from other planets, of how the solar system formed out of dust, (not to mention dinosaurs, but that's another topic). Of course, back in the 50s, these pictures were not only few and far between but were based on pre-spaceflight observations and a lot of conjecture. But cool they were.

So, life goes on. Neither high school nor college physics satisfies that "amazing cosmos" itch. More life, including a writing career in which I get to make this stuff up, what I don't scrounge from my own pitiful research or pick out of the brains of assorted aerospace engineers, of whom quite a number pass through my world. Somehow, in the back of my mind, lay the thought that someday I'd get a chance to study this properly. With someone who could also answer my questions about specific situations or plot-unfoldments or world designs. Life was not cooperating; the nearest community college is a 45 minute drive each way, I don't do well late at night, and my eyes focus in a somewhat-less-than-spectacularly fashion. Amateur telescopes did not appear to be in my future.

So when I heard about this crash course in college-level astronomy just for science fiction writers, I felt more than a bit envious. I filled out the application, trying not to sound too fangirl squee-ish. Inside, I thought, They'll never pick me. In past years, they've chosen only a dozen or so.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Cross Training For Writers

Cross-training is a concept I snagged from athletics. It's a way of improving fitness for one particular sport (or art) by practicing another. The idea is that the body adapts to repetitive exercises and, by becoming more efficient, shows slower progress.

Over the years, I've noticed that if I'm stuck on a story and can't figure out how to even think my way toward a solution, one of the most helpful things I can do is to listen to other storytellers talk about their work. In particular, I'd put on one of those bonus material discs from a favorite movie and listen to directors and screenplay writers discuss their approaches. (My favorites are Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens talking about how they adapted The Lord of the Rings into film, how they decided what to leave out, what to expand or re-arrange, that sort of thing; because I know the books so well, I can follow their interpretive process.) I come away re-charged because the story-telling is similar enough and yet different enough from what I do in prose. I've also gotten much good perspective from books on screenplay writing for much the same reason. I don't want to write a script for a movie or a play, but I do benefit from that particular way of looking at story, character, dialog, and action.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Getting Started In Writing

Writing a story -- say it's your first -- has some fundamental differences with beginning other creative endeavors. At least, that's been my experience. I've never assumed that because I've seen an oil painting, I should automatically know how to paint one, or because I've heard a symphony, I can just sit down and compose one of my own. Yet just about all of us carry the expectation that we already know how to write a story.

After all, we're taught to "write" in school, so by the time the idea of putting our own stories down on paper occurs to us, we've had years of practice, or so we have been led to believe. We've learned to put pencil to paper and end up with something resembling recognizable words. We've put down sentence after sentence on such stimulating topics as "What I Did For My Summer Vacation," not to mention book reports, history reports, science reports, essays on current events, and so forth.

We get exposed to visual art -- painting, sculpture, graphic design and the like -- music, and storytelling from an early age. Even if we are not fortunate enough to experience these in live forms, we get bombarded by their images in television, films, and the internet. I suspect the difference between writing (prose narrative) and other art forms is that we also use the same motions for other purposes. Going out on a limb here -- I'd propose that if we sculpted or scored our grocery lists for full orchestra, we might approach chiseling marble statues or composing a concerto for bassoon and orchestra with the same expectations of facility that we do when embarking upon our first novel. We've also most likely read -- or had read to us -- many, many stories. We've turned in all those school papers. How hard can it be to write a story?

Monday, June 20, 2011

Writing Fears

Tonight I had a brief conversation with a friend, touching on the social pressure to participate in an activity she found overwhelmingly frightening. This has got me thinking not only about what are my own "hot button" fears in general, but in my writing. We all have our individual crazy places, things about which we are not rational, things that create instant flip-out certifiably nuts adrenalin overload. I've made my peace with how difficult some issues are for me. Over the years, with a lot of help from my friends, most of these have loosened their hold on me. I've come to believe that "courage is fear that has said its prayers," and know myself capable of a great deal despite those fears.

But what about writing? This is the new part. Are there things about writing in general, publishing, career, my own work, that intimidate me? Are there things I do or don't do because of fear? A few obvious fears I can cross off my list. I'm not afraid:
  • Of having a book or a story rejected.
  • Of receiving a harsh review.
  • Of making a fool of myself on a convention panel.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Why Write Long?

According to Harry Turtledove, novels teach the writer what to put in, and short stories teach what to take out. This makes it sound like a whole lot more work to write novels. Why slave over the completion of 100,000 words, a year-long project for many of us, when you could be done in a month's mere 5,000?

The obvious answer is that novels and short stories aren't interchangeable.

Most of the authors I know, myself including, have misjudged the "weight" of a story idea from time to time. Occasionally, I'll start work on a novel only to have it fizzle in a chapter or three when I realized I've already said everything there was to say, and in far too many words. That central-core idea simply wouldn't support chapter after chapter, no matter how many secondary characters, narrative descriptions, or turns-of-fortune I stuck in. Likewise, I've found myself in the middle of what I believed to be a short story, when it felt like someone exploded the walls of my house and I'm floating in the middle of a galaxy -- the world got suddenly much, much bigger.

Way back in my newbie days, a wise friend likened the process to finding the right type of wood for a sculpture. Balsa is soft and light, great for toy airplanes (like a short-short). Then there's pine, a bit more sturdy, and so forth, moving through oak and maple to teak and mahogany and ebony. Those latter types are the ones you want for a novel -- dense, intricately patterned, durable.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Why Write Short?

The facile answer is, "That's the length of the stories that the Idea Fairy leaves under my pillow." The question is a whole lot more complex than that, for both writers and readers.

The perennial conventional wisdom is that a new writer ought to learn to write short stories before tackling a novel. The theory goes that working on shorter lengths will allow you to master various aspects of prose and storytelling craft while giving you the satisfaction of actually completing a story in a reasonable amount of time. We all need those gold stars, right? the more so when we're struggling to learn something new.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Heroic Fantasy According To Deborah

Two thoughts collided in a snowy wood...

One, the notion of heroic fantasy, arose from a brief exchange with Cynthia Ward on Facebook. She'd pointed to an article by Howard Andrew Jones on the definition of "sword and sorcery." The article takes a historical perspective, with quotes and references to such distinguished figures as Fritz Leiber, L. Sprague de Camp, Robert E. Howard. Lin Carter describes "a story...which pits a stalwart warrior in direct conflict with the forces of supernatural evil." Yep, sounds like Conan the Infinitely Sequelized. Adventure-horror-bulging muscles-brass bikinis. (By the way, I'm not interested in arguing about the exact definition or whether the author is right. I'm happy to concede to greater erudition on the subject. It may well be that the best way to describe the subgenre is historically, but I don't see any benefit in playing "my definition is better than yours.")

By these measures, however, I have never written a sword and sorcery story, yet my work has appeared in just about every volume of Marion Zimmer Bradley's Sword and Sorceress. I've featured swordswomen, wise women, sorceresses of many different types, even ordinary characters with extraordinary wit going up against greater might/magic. I wonder whether those anthologies are really "sword and sorcery" or just happened to have a similar title-theme, and what Marion's role was in shaping them the way she did. Marion said she specifically did not want stories featuring "Conan in drag." She wanted stories of physical courage, of magic and wonder and adventure, with strong women characters.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Meeting Marion

I frequently am asked how I came to work with Marion Zimmer Bradley and to continue her Darkover series after her death. Senior author-junior author dual-bylines are not unusual these days, but each partnership has its own story. In this case, the answer centers around our long-established professional relationship. That in itself would be insufficient to produce a smooth collaboration, but it was how she knew my natural literary voice would match hers and why she trusted my understanding and love for her special world. In addition, I had respectable publication credentials in my own right, both novels and short fiction, and was not using the collaboration to establish my career; I was already a working professional writer.

To begin with, I met Marion by writing her a letter. This was back in 1980 and I had no idea fandom existed, but I felt so moved by her work that I wanted to let her know. Having been on the receiving end of such letters, I now appreciate what a thrill they are for an author. We hurl our creations into the void, send our literary children forth without any clue as to where they will end up; to learn that we have touched the hearts of our readers or helped them through a difficult time is wonderful beyond words.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Cats and Writers

I've been thinking (how many blog posts have I begun with those very words?) about how many writers have cats for pets. Or, you could point out, how many cats have writers for pets. Of course, not all writers have cats; some have dogs, others have turtles or geckos or goldfish, and still others have no pets at all. But if there is in fact a particular affinity between story-tellers and feline pets, I wonder why that is.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Something New on "Read A Story"

This month's story is "Poisoned Dreams," from Sword & Sorceress XI. It's one of my darker, more twisted tales, with an embittered, crippled fay and a princess willing to do anything, pay any price, to earn her father's love. Click "Read A Story." Enjoy!

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Creative Jealousy

How many times have we heard some say -- or said ourselves -- that we were jealous of a successful writer? A blogpost on The Rumpus begins:

I’m jealous of people who succeed at what I do (write literary fiction). I’m jealous of them even if I love them or like them or respect them. Even when I pretend to be happy when my writer friends get good news, the truth is I feel like I swallowed a spoonful of battery acid. For days afterwards I go around feeling queasy and sad, silently thinking why not me?   

I have several problems with this. One is how destructive it is -- to our relationships, to our peace of mind, even to our creativity. (Yes, I recognize that the writer above knows this and is demonstrating a fair amount of courage in admitting to jealousy so frankly.) It focuses our attention on something utterly beyond our control and puts enormous pressure on us to write for a certain result...instead of to write what is in our hearts, the very best and most authentic stories we can tell. By concentrating on another writer's success as an indication of our own failure, we are comparing their "outsides" -- what the world thinks of them -- with our "insides" -- how we see ourselves. We may never know what it is like to be them inside, to struggle with their doubts, their disappointments and self-inflicted agonies. All we see is the face they show to the world, and by judging them on that basis, we risk losing compassion not only for them but for ourselves.

The Fan As Hero

We love heroes in part, I think, because we want to believe that one person can make a difference. That we can make a difference. No matter how "ordinary" and humble our lives, we are each individuals with a capacity for great love and great dreams and perhaps, therefore, great deeds. Yet every day, the media scream at us that some lives are more important and interesting, and some people are more significant than others. If our days are spent doing someone else's work, or work that has nothing to do with our inner passions, if we are restless and restive, bored or depressed, if we see no hope for becoming the heroes of our own lives, then it's easy to concede to the verdict. We must be of lesser worth; otherwise, why would we be so miserable?


The Talmud teaches us that whoever saves a single life has saved an entire world. Each of us is that entire world, however buried under dehumanizing, oppressive circumstances.