Friday, December 31, 2010

Year's End: Hopes

So, reading back, Wednesday's post was kind of awful, wasn't it? Rambling and slightly depressing. I'm sorry. I don't know what I was thinking. Though it is true that I'm not looking forward to next year more than any other year, and that I'm not holding out hope for awesome things. This is largely, I think, because I prefer awesome things to happen on their own because my hopes get dashed otherwise. I've been burned a few times with the WIP, for instance, going "okay, now it's done!" and then it isn't. At all.

That said, here are the things I want to happen next year:
  • Finish the WIP. 
  • Start on the Gnostic Urban Fantasy in earnest.
  • Query agents.
  • Get an agent.
I'd also like to say "get a book deal", but think that might be pushing it. I'm probably pushing it as it is. 

I have no goals for reality. Reality is marvelously stable and awesome and I want it to stay that way.

The other thing everyone in the writing community seems to be doing these days is a reading tally. I've been wanting to join in that, because for the first year in five years, I've kept a list of everything I've read and it's the longest it's every been. I attribute the higher rate to working in a bookstore and having a decently long commute.

So without further ado:
  • 55 books read for the first time
  • 2 re-read books (both in the Vorkosigan Saga)
  • 2 books started in 2009 and finished in 2010
  • 2 books started in 2010 and not yet finished
Out of the 55, because including the re-read novels would skew things:

  • Best Urban Fantasy: Poltergeist (Greywalker, book two)
  • Best Non-Urban Fantasy: Beguilement (The Sharing Knife, book one)
  • Best Science Fiction: Quicksilver (The Baroque Cycle, volume one)
  • Best Mystery: Grave Goods (Adelia Aguilar novels, book three)
  • Best Non-Genre Adult Fiction: Jane Eyre
  • Best YA Fiction: The Book Thief
  • Best Non-Fiction: The Years of Extermination
  • Most Original Urban Fantasy: Moonshine (because it wasn't quite as thrilling as Poltergeist, but I still couldn't stop reading, and it gets definite points for being set in the 1920s)
I've chosen these books because they either blew me away or made me not want to stop reading or both. Great hooks, solid writing, phenomenal research, emotional punch… These books have them all and I totally recommend them. Which is not to say that Seanan McGuire's novels aren't excellent, or Gail Carriger's, or Lois McMaster Bujold's, or any number of other books I read this year, because they are too. There were a few misses, a few books that could've been better or were quite good but I wasn't the right audience, but those are always going to crop up, I think. And the list is skewed a little in that I only read … six? non-fiction books this year, seven YAs, and three mysteries that weren't urban fantasy. The rest all falls under the speculative fiction heading.

I just realized I only read one non-genre adult novel this year. Eep. I shall try to do better in the new year. It's not like my TBR list is wanting in that department. I'm also going to try to read more than that, but I'm betting that's about where I top out.

What are your plans for the next year?

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

A Summary of My Year

The end of the year is fast approaching and I feel like I should say something to that effect. Something about what I've learned this year, what I've accomplished, what I plan to do next year. It's what all the other kids seem to be doing—that, or predictions for the future. I'm not even going there.

Thing is, I don't feel like I've accomplished much in the past year. I finished a draft of my WIP. I sent it to betas. It came back with red ink all over it, setting my querying plans back I don't know how long. It's frustrating, because I'd had hopes of emailing agents at the start of the new year, and now I don't know when this will happen. And because of the way my brain works, I can't really work on anything else while I'm revising my WIP, so in the writing department, I'm pretty much racking up a negative achievement.* I've got another year of non-publication ahead of me, I suspect.

On the Earth life front, I'm barely ahead of where I was at the start of the year. I'm in the same job and the same accommodations. In the last three months, I've met five more people I can go out and do things with, except that three of them are more friends-of-friends and I'd never contact them on my own. I haven't managed to get together with the other two yet. Maybe soon? Also there's more money in the bank and I continue to accumulate books faster than I can read them, so like I said, slight win, reality-wise.

I'm doing well in the cyber world. My blog's getting more hits. I've made good friends on Twitter. My Science in My Fiction articles keep ending up on io9. I've learned more about the publishing biz, about where my WIP fits into the subgenre puzzle, about what to do and what not to do. I've also learned that if I follow multiple agent blogs and multiple agent/editor Twitter feeds, that I'll get depressed and anxious and paralyzed because I Am Doing It Wrong By Existing And Dreaming. So I've stopped doing that, and things are better now. I've definitely come out ahead in this realm, though what does it say about me that my biggest achievements of the year have been on the internet?

At the end of each year, I always want to have big achievements to revel in. I've had some in the past: graduated from university, started writing, got an awesome job, moved away from The Roommate. But this year? Nope, not really. I want next year to have multiple big achievements (finished MS, dream agent, MS going to auction, fame, glory, etc.) but … yeah. I suspect I'll be posting this same thing next year, too.

And now that I've completely killed your mood (and mine), I'm going to go away now and hope the rest of my day cheers me up again. I wanted achievements, darn it… Where has the year gone?

* Yes, I know I'm actually one step closer to publication now, but try telling that to my brain and getting it to believe you.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Things I Got For Christmas

It's traditional to do a loot post after Christmas, right? I got just about everything I asked for and some things I didn't. This made it difficult to get everything home even though I budgeted space when packing. And I swear I'm not spoiled, really. 

The "downside" of the loot is that my TBR pile just got higher and I'm going to be in candy for a month. 

How'd everyone else do? Anyone read the books I got and want to comment on them?

The Material Goods

  • Shine: An Anthology of Near-Future Optimistic Science Fiction, ed. Jetse de Vries — because I like SF and want to read more near-future works, but I don't like doom and gloom all the time
  • Unshapely Things, by Mark del Franco — because it sounds like a cool world
  • The Girl With Glass Feet, by Ali Shaw — totally hooked on the concept
  • The Devil You Know, by Mike Carey — because this has been recommended about a million times with words like "hooked", "like Supernatural", and "must-read"
  • Masked: An Awe-Inspiring Anthology of All-Original Superhero Fiction, ed. Lou Anders — research
  • Wild Cards I: The Book That Started It All, ed. George R. R. Martin — research, and from friends pre-Christmas
  • Unholy Ghosts, by Stacia Kane — because it sounds like a cool world and I'm intrigued by the take on magic
  • A duvet cover and sheet set — because I've had the old ones for years
  • A kettle, a tea pot, and two mugs — I think my parents got fed up with my water-in-pot setup
  • $150 split between two grandparents — they never know what to give me now that I'm an adult
  • Mozartkugeln because they're perfect
  • The original three Indiana Jones films on DVD — because I'm slowly collecting the seminal films from my childhood
  • A laptop bag
  • An enameled metal reindeer ornament from Germany — because I get an ornament in my stocking every year
  • A device to turn any bag into a pour spout
  • A cookie tin of homemade Christmas cookies and chocolate, plus a small ziplock bag of same, because they didn't all fit in the tin
  • Two lottery tickets that didn't win
  • Five flavoured honey sticks
  • Ten miniature gourmet chocolate bars 
  • Two milk chocolates covered in Christmas-themed foil
  • Three pouches of gourmet hot chocolate
  • A potato masher — because Dad got a new one and I didn't have one; technically not a Christmas present

The Non-Material Goods

  • Talking to my sister, which hasn't happened since … last Christmas? She's on another continent right now.
  • Hearing my maternal grandfather sound happy. 
  • Visiting with my paternal grandparents, which is a mixed blessing
  • Being praised for holding my own against my paternal grandfather
  • Not coming last in a board game, because I do for about 90% of all board games
  • Winning rummy
  • Seeing my parents
  • Getting decent photos of the family pets (see below)
  • Getting a chunk more editing done on the WIP
Charles, a shelter cat who's been with us for a year

Winston, the Akita-Newfoundland-German Shepherd, on square-foot tile

Friday, December 24, 2010

Merry Christmas

Merry Christmas, everyone who celebrates it, and happy holidays to those who don't! I'm heading home to the family today. The family dinner and gift exchange is tonight, and I'm excited. Food! Festivities! Family! Pets! Loot! We'll hope I can haul everything I need to back with me, and in time for work too. Luckily, the parentals have wireless internet, so I won't be going into withdrawal or anything.

This post is short today, because I've got another post at Science in My Fiction. You know that Santa Vs. Physic e-mail that makes the rounds every December? Yeah. I deconstruct that. Check it out and leave comments if the content moves you. (It'd make a good Christmas present for me and my co-bloggers.)

See you on Monday!

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Eight Things Writers Can Learn From Tron Legacy

I went to Tron Legacy with friends last night, for the yearly Do Something Before Christmas event. It was an enjoyable film. Not the worst I've ever seen, but definitely not the best either. Pretty standard Hollywood action movie fare. That said, three things really made the film for me: the peanut gallery of young men behind us; the fact that it was shot locally and I could ID a number of buildings; and the fact that the plot was so average it allowed me to notice the writing and storytelling. So here's what I think we can all take away from Tron Legacy, along with a pseudo-review and some possible vague spoilers.
  1. Predictable stories aren't really a good thing. When your audience can identify the ending (or love interest, or number of fight scenes) within the first five minutes, you can do better.
  2. You can (mostly) get away with a really predictable story if you have lots of shiny. For instance, neon lights on everything, and explosions.
  3. Women are not just sex symbols. Dressing them in skintight outfits and giving them monosyllabic lines does not characterization make. Plus you'll get a lot of feminists angry.
  4. It's possible for a minor character to steal the show. Try not to let this happen. Minor characters should be awesome, but no more so than your main characters.
  5. Setting is important and can make or break the story. Setting should have mood and a specific kind of look, both of which play into the plot and the action of the scene. Neon lights in darkness is good, because it's iconic and shows good vs. evil well, but generic street scenes add nothing to anything. Especially when the audience is left wondering which city those streets are meant to be in.
  6. Try not to be obvious or over the top about your religious metaphors. It's fine to have them, but when a character is portrayed as peaceful and kind, resist the desire to have him raise his arms as if crucified or to shine white light on him.
  7. Exposition should not be obvious. The main purpose of a scene should not be to give the main characters information they need (or if it is, you need to have other things going on to distract the audience).
  8. Resist the trend. Just because everyone else is writing a vampire novel (or has zombies, or 3D graphics), doesn't mean you also have to. There's a good chance it'll cheapen your story.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Christmas Superstitions and Plot Bunnies

Last weekend's #UFChat on Twitter was, understandably, Christmas themed. There was discussion of the Yule Lads, the Yuletide Cat, Krampus, ghosts, the reasons for light festivals, and a link to this interesting article about Christmas superstitions. It's a wealth of cool trivia and story ideas, and I suggest reading it before continuing with this post.

The superstition in that list that really grabbed me?
Some also believe that those who are born on Christmas Eve turn into ghosts on that day every year while they sleep.
 This sparked the following ideas:

  • A protagonist who is thrown into the paranormal world every Christmas, against their will. (Good paranormal YA idea?)
  • An antagonist who gleefully accepts their temporary ghosthood, becoming a thief or spy, or terrorizing families.
  • Someone who's thrown into the paranormal world, and then one year slips up and stays there (and/or requires rescue from the protagonist).
I'd say any of these have potential. You're welcome to them, because I'd rather write stories about Santa facing off with Krampus, Krampus kidnapping children, a world where the Yule Lads truly exist, and a world where the various winter light festivals have actual importance.* 

Anyone have story ideas they want to put up for grabs? Anyone know of other cool Christmas/winter traditions? … Anyone want to take my bunnies?

* And then there are the non-Christmas plot bunnies, at least three of which will require insane levels of research and probably won't happen. 

Friday, December 17, 2010

A Hodgepodge of Things

A big, hearty thank you to everyone who commented on Wednesday's post! I've got some ideas now about how to fix the problem, thanks to you. And I promise I will respond to your comments, because I feel I owe you that much. Sometime this weekend, maybe?

 In other news, I have now seen The King's Speech and will be rooting for Firth and Rush and Best Adapted Screenplay come Oscar season. Excellent film. Also, a friend made me a Castiel ornament, which is naturally sitting on the top of my tree, and I have cookies! Which are nearly gone, but still.

I've been at work for three Christmases now and am still enjoying it. No retail grinch me! I am delighting in getting people to buy my favourite books for people.

Brooke Johnson has been doing a series of posts on the Hero's Journey recently. She's nearly done and I highly recommend checking them out as someone who's trying to fit her WIP into the Journey more. I'm finding them helpful and informative, and clearer than the more academic explanations (like Campbell, who I couldn't get through). Plus she uses Harry Potter and Star Wars as examples!

I am possibly having too much fun with Google's ngrams. Here's one for historical terms for Canada. Here's Star Wars vs. Star Trek.

I have another Science In My Fiction post due next week. Stay tuned!

Monday, December 13, 2010

Trying Something New - #UFChat Recap

Saturdays on Twitter there's a writer/reader chat, #UFChat, that's all about urban fantasy. The latest chat was about death, dying, and resurrection. Because there was also a guest author, the chat didn't go into as much depth as it normally does, but some good discussion came out of it all the same.

It seems like there are only three kinds of death in urban fantasy: undeath, violent death, and natural death. Very few instances of natural death came up, and some of the ones that did I'd have actually called violent, just not murder. A car accident, for instance.

Undeath definitely prevails in UF, of course. There are vampires, werewolves, zombies, and ghosts in spades, as well as revenants and dhampirs and what have you. Violent death is also unsurprisingly high, given that so many UF plots revolve around murders and dead bodies, and given that so many UF protagonists have dead family members that fuel the plot on various levels. And while I know I said "three kinds of death"right now, but that's only partially true. There's a fourth kind that bridges "undeath" and "violent death", and that's the case with protagonists like Harper Blaine, Charlie Madigan, and Evangeline Stone, who die violently and are brought back to life as humans, often with supernatural powers.

An interesting point came up during the discussion. When vampires, werewolves, and the other undead monsters first appeared back in the days of folk tales, they were representations of our fear of death and were meant to be scary. Now they're almost the opposite, being generally used to extend life and give people immortality. They're a good thing, though not often a great thing. Bloodlust and decay will do that to a body.

I think in a way the classic monsters still represent our fear of death, though that fear's been transmuted from "fear of Other, fear of disease, fear of being forgotten" into "fear of Other, fear of decay, fear of life ending". We (or American culture) are terrified of getting old and getting weak, so much so that plastic surgeons and makers of skin cream make a killing. Yes, that's largely because the beauty industry has convinced us that getting old and weak is a bad thing, so there's kind of a circular argument here. I get that. But I do see parallels between "our cream takes twenty years off" and "vampires make you young forever", between "getting old means getting weak" and "undead people are strong", and between "wrinkles are ugly" and "zombies are gross". If zombies are now cool, will wrinkles be? I hope so.

I'd like to see more natural deaths (or, frankly, more stories where there weren't dead people), since they're the underdogs of the genre and I have a Thing about under-represented plot elements.* I think there isn't all the much difference, motivation-wise, between a Beloved Family Member making a request on their natural death bed, and a Beloved Family Member making a request on violent death bed. And natural deaths (disease, old age, heart attacks) open up a whole line of stories based on wills and emptying attics and family secrets. Also, there's the idea I had while responding to the chat questions, that there could be parallels between epic heros like Odysseus and Beowulf, whose cultures dictated warriors die in battle, and the various kinds of monster slayers that pop up in urban fantasy. What if those slayers also had a culture of having to die in battle? What if one of them was so good that they died of old age surrounded by family? Would their ghost manifest as a result? Would a relation take up the sword (or gun) and go fight the fight in the Beloved Family Member's memory?

All kinds of cool stuff could happen. Why doesn't it? Or does it, but the books haven't been published yet (or I haven't seen them)?

* You may have noticed.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Repetitive Character Names

I used to have a character named Cathy. She was Cathy for two drafts, and then I changed her name. I don't like using clichés if I can avoid them, and variations of "Catherine" for a strong woman are certainly cliché.

Don't believe me?

  • Kitty Norville (Carrie Vaughn's novels)
  • Kate Beckett (Castle)
  • Ekaterin Vorkosigan (the Vorkosigan saga)
  • Katnis Everdeen (Hunger Games)
  • Catherine Earnshaw (Wuthering Heights)
  • Catherine Willows (CSI)
  • Kate Austen (Lost)
  • Kate Lockley (Angel)
  • Kate (Taming of the Shrew)
  • Kat Stratford (10 Things I Hate About You)
I'm sure there are many, many more but that's all I can think of right now. It's nearly as bad as leading women with red hair.

Of course, male characters don't escape the naming convention thing either. Remember than Jack is a diminutive of John, and…
  • Jack O'Neill (Stargate SG-1 and other)
  • John Sheppard (Stargate Atlantis)
  • Jack Harkness (Torchwood)
  • John Winchester (Supernatural)
  • Jack Sparrow (Pirates of the Caribbean)
  • John Locke (Lost)
  • Jack Spratt (Jasper Fforde's novels, though he's alluding to nursery rhymes and probably doesn't count)
  • Ianto Jones (Torchwood)
  • Ivan Vorpatril (the Vorkosigan saga)
  • Johnny Mnemonic (movie of the same name) 
And again, I'm sure I'm forgetting people. Anyone want to weigh in with more characters? Other names this happens with? Or an explanation of why we get so many repeated names?

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Contest winners!

The contest is over! I've tallied the points, and have come up with the following:

First place, with 18 points, is NerdyGirl, who not only loved Mistress of the Art of Death, which is a great book, but also loves the dragons in the Pern novels. I'm more a firelizard girl myself, but like the dragons too.

Second place, with 16 points, is NRWick, who loved The Summoning and loves mermaids. I haven't read many mermaid books. Maybe I should?

Third place, with 14 points, is Shannon, who enjoyed Towers of Midnight and likes pegasus(-es? -i?). I wonder if she's read Robin McKinley's latest.

Sorry to the rest of you and thanks for playing! There were a lot more entries than I thought there would be, and everyone racked up a lot of points! I was worried there'd be ties. I'm sure I'll be doing more giveaways so if you didn't win, there's always next time.

I'll be contacting the winners today and tomorrow, in order. I think I've actually got all their emails on hand already, so no need to post them here where they'll be public. (I say tomorrow because today is Christmas Shopping Day and I'll be away from email until late.)

My answers, because it's not fair if I don't give them too:

Best book read this year: This is tough, because I've read a lot of good books. I'm split between my reread of Bujold's Memory, and the first-time read of Stephenson's Quicksilver.

Favourite creature: Dragons! Just like a lot of you, apparently. There are all kinds of dragons, in all kinds of cultures, and they're deadly beautiful, breathe fire (sometimes), and are highly intelligent (usually). What's not to like?

Favourite blog post: Copping out on this one. I like too many of them, and I'm biased. But if you click on the "mad science" or "writing" tags, you'll see some of what I consider my best.

Monday, December 6, 2010

The Pathway to Writerhood

First of all: Giveaway! I'd originally put the cut-off as "Wednesday" which is not only vague and therefore cruel, but is also the day I'm going to be posting the results. I've now put the cut-off as "Tuesday the 7th, 11:59 pm PST" which should still, theoretically, give y'all plenty of time to enter. There are now six contestants. Go forth!

Second: I realized about half an hour ago that if fairies are repelled and/or damaged permanently by iron, then they can't have iron in their blood. If they don't have iron in their blood, their blood cannot be red. The way my mind works, the logical conclusion is that Spock is not Vulcan, he's fae. He's even got the pointed ears to prove it.

Third: My actual topic. If this feels rushed, that's because it is. I have to leave for work in half an hour.

As long-time readers may have figured out, my dad's a writer. I grew up in a house full of books, multiple drafts scribbled on in blue ink and left on flat surfaces, long phone calls with editors, and a parent who might be in the height of inspiration as easily as he might be in the depths of depression. Sometimes in the course of a week. But I never considered following in his footsteps, even though I was (apparently) really good at writing, even in elementary school. I was going to be anything but a writer, though that makes it sound like I made a conscious decision not to be like him, and I didn't.

Skip forward until just after Grade 10. I'm at jazz band camp for the second time, and hating every minute of it. I'm a small town girl in the big city with kids who've been studying with pro musicians for 10 years. I'm out of my league. It's all I can do to keep my head above the water. Also there are people who want to talk to me and I can't really cope with that, and then we're all forced to attend a dance because what teen doesn't like dancing? Fortunately, I brought a Penguin translation of The Canterbury Tales to camp (and the dance). I fell in love with the language, the cadences, the old words, the raunchy stories—and this coming from a girl who'd been reading Shakespeare for fun for three years.* The camp was a turning point. I had wanted to be a jazz musician. Now I wanted to study English. Words were awesome!

But when it came time for me to choose a university and start thinking about what programs I might like to be in, I realized that English was, in fact, boring. I'd spent years becoming less and less happy with English classes in school, because of the dry books and the prescription and the Only One Right Interpretation attitude, and as far as I could tell, university English classes were exactly the same as what I'd been doing. No way was I subjecting myself to another four years of that, especially not when nobody seemed to teach fantasy or science fiction. Victorian novels? Ergh.**

But then I found the perfect school. Not only could you major in English Language instead of Lit, but you could also study linguistics, which sounded cool and played into my sciency, analytical half. And, and, and! there was this first-year program that wasn't like those boring English classes but still gave you credit for English. I applied. I got in. I loved it, more or less. The first couple essays I got back were devastating, mostly because I'd gotten Bs.***

I majored in linguistics, minored in English Language because it turned out that most of the interesting electives in third and fourth year counted towards the minor. I learned a lot about how we understand language, how language is put together, and how style and rhetoric work. I became a better writer because of it.

Most importantly, though, one of my third-year roommates got me into fanfic. Yes, I know, I know. But I wrote it for a good year or so and got a massive confidence boost from the feedback. I realized I loved to tell stories. I loved to entertain people. And I knew how to put words together to achieve just about any effect I wanted, because I'd spent 3.5 years and counting learning how to do that.

And then came the end of fourth year, the time when all Arts degree holders have to figure out how they're actually going to get a job. I realized that I wasn't half-bad at editing either, so I'd do that, and I'd continue to tell stories (in my own worlds) in my spare time.

The editing thing hasn't really panned out — yet, I still want to someday — but the writing thing has. I'm telling stories in my own worlds, and I'm having fun doing it. I haven't sold a story — yet — but that doesn't matter. I know I will.

What I'm saying with all this, I guess, is that I wasn't one of those kids who knew they were destined to be writers. I wasn't in writing clubs. I didn't write fiction except for assignments. I don't have a lit degree or a BFA. I've come at this my own way, on my own time, and I'm still a writer for all that.

* There is a reason I couldn't cope with people talking to me.
** I've recently read some for the first time. They're not nearly as bad as they were then.
*** This should tell you a lot about me.

Friday, December 3, 2010

O Christmas Tree

Because I am lazy and can't be bothered to write a long post, and because I'm getting in the Christmas spirit, you're getting photos of my Christmas decorations, such as they are.

This is my artificial Christmas tree. It is now a year old.

This is Candle Thief, one of Iceland's Yule Lads. He came all the way from Iceland to grace my tree this year.

This is … a Jayne Hat.

This is the first ornament I ever received. It's got "Baby's first Christmas" written on it.

And this the Advent calendar Mom sewed for me five years ago. So far I've gotten a noisemaker from Germany, a piece of chocolate, and an eraser that doubles as a clothespin. 

Sorry for the horrible quality of the photographs. Lighting in this apartment is not the best for photographers. 

Don't forget to enter my blogiversary/Christmas giveaway! Only three entrants so far, which isn't much of a contest if you ask me.

What are your Christmas decorations? Do you have any favourite ornaments?

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Blogiversary! (And Obligatory Giveaway)

I started this blog a year ago tomorrow, with this post on vat-grown meat. I can't believe it's been a year since that post. I can't believe how little we've heard about that story since, though I can kind of believe why it's not on the shelves yet.

I'd like to think I've come a long way since then. I've joined Twitter. I've finished another draft of my WIP. I've made friends, read books, seen movies. I'm more savvy about the publishing world, and more confident in my abilities as a writer.

To celebrate all that, and the beginning of December*, I'm giving away books! Four of them, to be exact, and three of which are pre-read but in good condition.

Vanished, by Kat Richardson - Fourth in the series. Harper Blaine, the Seattle P.I. who can see ghosts after a temporary death, is prompted by the ghost of a dead friend to delve into her family history, but is interrupted by Seattle's top vampire, who wants her to go to London for him. And the cases seem to be connected…. This is the unread book. Sorry for the dark photo. I tried, I really did.

The Better Part of Darkness, by Kelly Gay - First in the series. Charlie Madigan, divorced mom and cop in an Atlanta inhabited by angel-like and demon-like beings as well as humans, must find the distributors of ash before another teen overdoses. And if that wasn't hard enough, she's getting strange nightmares and showing signs of magic she never knew she had.

Dying Bites, by D.D. Barant - First in the series. FBI profiler Jace Valchek is taken to a world where humans are nearly extinct, and more of the population is pire, lycan, or golem. Reason? They've got a crazed human murderer on the loose and no experience with mental illness to help them track him down.  Oh, and he continent hops.

Magic to the Bone, by Devon Monk - First in the series. Allie Beckstom tracks down magical criminals for a living, so when she finds a boy dying from her estranged father's Offloaded magic, she only sees one option. Unfortunately, three things are against her: her father is a high-powered businessman, she loses memories whenever she performs magic, and somebody's trying to kill her.

First prize: Two books of your choice.
Second prize: One of the remaining books.
Third prize: The last book.

To enter, please leave a comment mentioning as much or little of the following as you want. Winners will be determined by the number of points accrued. (You can leave multiple comments, if you want, but they'll be counted together.)
  • Leave a comment(s) - +1
  • Current blog follower (Google FriendConnect, or a feed reader; honor system) - +2
  • Current Twitter follower (provide handle) - +2
  • New blog follower (see above) - +1
  • New Twitter follower (see above) - +1 
  • Tweet or retweet about the contest (be sure to include @AnassaRh so I can track them) - +1 each
  • Mention the contest on your blog (link me) - +2
  • Tell me about the best book you've read this year - +3
  • Tell me your favourite mythological creature - +2
  • Tell me which of my blog posts is your favourite - +4

Contest is open to US and Canada only, because 1) I'm cheap/broke and 2) there's a chance the books will arrive by Christmas this way. Contest closes Tuesday, Dec. 7, at 11:59 pm PST.

* which means I'm allowing myself to turn on carols and put up the tree

Friday, November 26, 2010

Science Makes Life Magical

I don't have the mental cast to be a scientist—I'm too impatient—but I have the right cast to appreciate science and understand scientific discoveries and facts. I like knowing them, too, because they give me a cool way of looking at the world. There's just something about how the most minute, invisible processes can achieve big, visible, and varied results, and something about how even the most mundane parts of daily life are actually kind of neat when you know what's going on.

To wit, my day so far:

  • I finished my sleep cycle with a revitalized brain and body, which will serve me well for the 14-16 hours I'll be active today. I don't remember anything that took place during the REM period, but I rarely do. I was pleasantly warm thanks to my quilt trapping my body heat and the excited gas molecules coming through the vents.
  • I rolled over and looked at a series of light-emitting diodes arranged in a pattern that goes back hundreds of years and conveys numerical information. Conventionally, this information on this device indicates time of day, which is somewhat arbitrary and somewhat based on the periods of light caused by the tilt of the Earth's axis and the Earth's rotation. The units of time are arranged in base-60, a practice that goes back to one of the world's first civilizations, Babylon.
  • I got out of bed with the aid of a number of muscles and walked to a wall where I pushed on a piece of metal covered in plastic. This action opened an electrical circuit and led to a chemical reaction in a glass container screwed into the ceiling. This reaction released photons so I could see where I was going. I repeated this process with my desk lamp.
  • I pressed a button to generate the electrical signal that would turn my computer on. A bunch of complicated electrical things I don't quite understand happened, which resulted in photons which, once my eyes received the information and sent it to my brain for processing, displayed several sophisticated pieces of coding, several of which allow me to "connect" to the Internet and get news, updates on friends, and other sorts of information that are important to me. I spent a while processing the information received thusly, by moving my eyes across the lit-up area and doing a number of computational and higher-brain-function kinds of things to the signals they sent my brain. (I can go into more detail than that, but I won't bore you.)
  • I walked into another room and opened a circuit that would allow water to flow from a perforated spout near the ceiling. I used a lye-fat compound to remove grease and dirt from my body while standing the water so it would wash the compounds away.
  • I then used heated water to soften the seeds of a semi-aquatic grass. I also used heat to denature the proteins found in chicken eggs and those found in processed curdled milk (with bonus orange dye).
  • I ingested the grass seeds and protein, which will be broken down by stomach acids (and then other chemicals in the small intestine) and get absorbed into my blood stream over the next 24 hours.
  • I did complicated electrical things on my computer again, which resulted in this blog post.
Sounds better than "woke up, looked at the clock, got up, checked the internet, showered, cooked, ate, and wrote a blog post", doesn't it? And that doesn't even begin to get into what I'm doing for the rest of my day… Go science!

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Things I'm Thankful For

Tomorrow is American Thanksgiving, and while I'm Canadian and therefore celebrated Thanksgiving over a month ago, I didn't post about what I was thankful for. So I'm going to do that now and not worry too much about "selling out" to American culture.

I am thankful for good writers and the way they pull me into a story so deeply I want to do nothing but read.

I am thankful for a day job that's both fun and a living wage.

I am thankful for the internet writing community, and especially for the supportive people I've met in it, who keep me positive and sane and energized.

I am thankful for editors who improve my writing, even if I never am after I get drafts back.

I am thankful for good television and good movies, and sometimes for the bad stuff too, when they teach me how not to tell stories.

I am thankful for knowing who I am and being able to be myself on a daily basis.

I am thankful for my family, for too many things to list. I am thankful for my friends, for the same.

I am thankful for junk food and comfort food, for being there when I need it (and sometimes when I don't).

What are you thankful for this year?

Monday, November 22, 2010

How Science Fiction is Like Jazz

A couple weeks ago, Hannah Bowman posted an essay about improvisation in music and how it relates to pantsing manuscripts*. It's a good metaphor and definitely worth checking out, but the reason I mention it is that Hannah inspired me to revisit my own music-writing analogy and I wanted to give context.

It occurred to me a while back that two great, influential, highly creative forms of expression arose at about the same time in the 20th century—jazz and science fiction. They both took off rapidly, though I think one's much cooler than the other these days from a general cultural standpoint. Personally, I love them equally.

The first jazz recordings are Dixieland, from 1917, but Dixie was around for at least a decade or so before that. It's a very raw form of jazz, with every instrument playing a different melody, and it was criticized then (and now) for being a lot of noise. Of course, Dixieland and jazz didn't come out of a vacuum. There's evidence that cakewalk music, blues and proto-blues, ragtime, New Orleans funeral bands, and some other types of music I'm forgetting and am too lazy to look up, all contributed to it.

Unlike jazz, science fiction started in the middle of the 19th century with Verne and Wells and Doyle, but again there were precursors. Lots of 'em. In some ways, the genre sprang up fully formed with its creative applications and extrapolations of technology, its tropes, its social commentary and escapism, but the early work is slower, more Victorian, and is thus somewhat heavy-handed and purple. The early SF writers were figuring it out as they went along, just as the Dixieland bands were.

And then the 1920s hit, with King Oliver, Louis Armstrong, Paul Whiteman, the Chicago jazz club scene, and hot jazz. Jazz was loudly slammed in the media (still just a lot of noise) but it was beginning to be recognized and cool. We start to get more definite melodies and lead instruments. We start to get vocals and scat singing. Jazz becomes much more recognizable, and people start to dance to it.

At the same time, we began to see pulp magazines and science fiction began to take a recognizable shape. There began to be a little more variation in the stories told, a little more exploration and genuine science. Sci-fi readership began to grow.

From the late '20s through to the early '40s, the dance bands really, really came into the fore, thanks in large part to the Great Depression. They were one of the major forms of entertainment for the masses, with radio shows, touring bands, and dance halls in every major city. Hot jazz had become swing. There was much more formula and structure, with every song following the pattern of melody-secondary melody-solos-melody. Even the solos were scripted. And for the first time, a lot of the musicians were white and the music was reaching a white audience. (Also, the tunes are just plain fun.)

As Wikipedia says: "In the 1920s and 30s writers entirely unconnected with science fiction were exploring new ways of telling a story and new ways of treating time, space and experience in the narrative form." More people were playing with the ideas, seeing what was possible. The big name authors (Clarke, Asimov, Heinlein, Pohl…) began to take the stage, just as big name musicians began to rise in the swing bands (Ella Fitzgerald, Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Glenn Miller, Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, Dizzy Gillespie). Science fiction fandom arose.

After the swing era, jazz started fragmenting. Bebop was the first "subgenre" to spin off. It was meant to be listened to, not danced to, and was faster, more complicated, and more challenging for the musicians and audience. Then the jazz singers largely shifted into a) movie musicals b) pop songs c) both. And then a bunch of crazy musicians like Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly, Elvis Presley, and Bill Haley showed up, writing horrible music that was "noise" and degenerate and was going to poison the minds of children.**

Then over a 40-year period came modal jazz, free jazz, Latin jazz, post bop, soul jazz, jazz fusion, jazz funk, and experimental jazz. This is about where the timelines of jazz and SF start deviating, because science fiction's expansion into multiple subgenres doesn't line up neatly with the jazz subgenres. And jazz is almost entirely intellectual these days, while science fiction is still growing in popularity. I won't be surprised if there's a bebop-like backlash to that popularity, because there is already a faction of people claiming there isn't enough science and drive for social change in science fiction and SF writers need to return to their pulp roots.*** Cyberpunk was like that when it first appeared, but we're due for another game-changer. It's been 30 years.

Personally, I'm a huge swing fan and a great believer in science fiction as entertainment first, intellectual second. I don't mind thinking about what I read, but the science and commentary had better support the story or form the background for it. But I also like the freneticness of bebop and cyberpunk, the simplicity of hot jazz and Golden Age, the charm of Dixieland and Victorian SF. I have no jazz comparisons for space opera or military SF, but on occasion I like those too.

How does the analogy hold up in your eyes? Are there similarities I've missed? Differences? And which types of jazz and SF do you like?

* a.k.a. writing without much of a plot outline
** Also, jive dancing is a direct descendant of swing dancing.
*** Okay, the science thing might be true. Depends on how you define hard SF, I think.

Friday, November 19, 2010

I Went to Deathly Hallows

And as a result, I slept through the morning and now don't have time (or quite enough coherence) to write an actual blog post. But I enjoyed the movie and it snowed very briefly yesterday, so that's all good. See you back here Monday!

Monday, November 15, 2010

Alien Guest Post and European Video

I have another post up at Science in My Fiction today, so there isn't going to be a long, intelligent one up here as well. I'm saving up my brains for Wednesday, when there'll be a rant, of sorts. Hopefully. Maybe.

I should mention that the SciInMyFi post is a reworked version of something I posted on this blog back in January. I … may have lost track of time. But the new version is much, much better than the original, so that's good, right?

But because I'm loathe to post anything that doesn't have some new content… a video! Of European history! I didn't realize there were so many states in central Europe back in the day.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Appropriate Levels of Research

I've been researching my new WIP lately, and this has naturally led to me thinking about researching novels in general. How much research is enough? How much knowledge of a particular subject does an author need in order for their book to be realistic? When is it acceptable to fudge facts or make things up entirely?

I'm of the opinion that the answer depends on how important the subject is to the story. There's a sliding scale. On one end are the subjects that you absolutely need to know to write the story, and on the other end are the fun details that most people who aren't experts or nerds won't even notice you got wrong.

The Sliding Scale of Research

  1. The book can't be written without an in-depth knowledge of bananas. Assuming the book is fiction, you don't have to get a Ph.D in bananaology to write it, but reading a couple books on the evolution, economy, diseases, and harvesting of bananas will be necessary. You may want to talk to a bananaology or a banana farmer too.
  2. One of the characters knows an awful lot about bananas without being a bananaologist. Again, reading a book or two is a good idea. Holding a banana tasting party may or may not be going too far. It depends on how much of a connoisseur your character is.
  3. The book is set somewhere there are banana trees. You occasionally make references to the number of leaves, the amount of fruit, and possibly a secondary or minor character works as a banana picker. You'll need to know the growth cycle of the tree so that it's not producing fruit at the wrong time of year, and you'll need to know what it takes to harvest bananas. A couple magazine articles might be all you need.
  4. One of your characters eats a banana. You need to know what a banana looks like, and you need to know how it tastes. The simplest solution is to go to a grocery store and buy one, then eat it.
  5. The book is set in a fantasy world where bananas don't exist, but something very like them does. Again, you need to know the look and feel and taste of a banana, but only so you can mess around with them for your fantasy fruit.
For the previous WIP, I spent a fair bit of time researching electricity. I didn't read physics papers or talk to a physicist, since the book's fantasy and I'm allowed to be not exact, for the sake of the story. I did, however, look into how much electricity it would take to kill someone, and what electrical burns look like. I also looked into energy weapons, space drives, forcefields, hydroponics, and the Great Depression (though admittedly not much on that one). I have online Mandarin and Japanese dictionaries bookmarked, and I spent a couple hours looking at Chinese and Japanese art styles. I still need to find somebody with a Tesla coil, and I need to schedule a meeting with the local police department. That last one is insanely important, but since the police bits aren't finalized, I don't have all my questions yet so am putting it off.

For the current WIP, I've been reading up on gnosticism because it's heavily going to influence the world-building and climax. I'll need to read various mythologies as well, starting with Trickster myths and then heading into anything that has a secondary world. Beyond that, I think pretty much everything is fudgeable because magic isn't real and the settings I've picked are either mundane towns or magical communities. It's modern day, so my characters have cell phones, cars, coffee shops, airplanes, and the like. I may have to look into blade weapons, though. I don't know yet.

What have you researched? For the book you're working on, what do you still need to? What's the most glaring lack of research you've encountered?

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Placeholder Post, More or Less

I am a list-maker. Even though I generally remember everything I need to buy or do, I still make lists because I've forgotten a key ingredient or action until it's too late. So I list.

Today's list is:

  • continue with my research into gnosticism
  • take a look at some short stories Dad sent me
  • house-keeping stuff
  • finish watching Supernatural
  • get groceries
  • possibly rearrange some things in my desk area
It's not a writing day, obviously. Unless I get massively inspired, it won't be. The research and short stories have to take priority, because the library wants the books soon and Dad wants my thoughts. Fortunately, this all counts as being productive and the gnosticism ties directly into the new WIP, so yay. 

In other news, I've now read 52 books so far this year, not including the two I reread. This is the most books I've ever read in a year (yes, I've been making lists for this, too), and I'm rather proud. It's barely even November!

Monday, November 8, 2010

Music! or Why I Write in Silence

I love music. If I hadn't had an epiphany after Grade 10 that I didn't want to go pro, I'd probably be playing jazz trumpet somewhere right now. Some day I'd love to have time to join an amateur symphony or big band, because creating music is such a joy, especially when you play brass. You get all these great lines and solos…

I've read a number of things recently, on blogs and on Twitter, that got me thinking, "I should write a music post". Last night was kind of the clincher—I copied my baroque trumpet, renaissance, and medieval music CDs onto my laptop because for some reason I've had this computer for a year and haven't done that yet. Don't worry, it was only seven discs.

I love music for several reasons. Anything that falls under the colloquial meaning of "classical music" (Baroque through 20th Century) has all these harmonies and interwoven melodies, and there is absolutely nothing better for portraying emotions. The final movement of Beethoven's Symphony No. 9 is the purest joy I've ever heard. The second movement of Vivaldi's Winter has no rivals for sadness. There are unconstrained parties, passionate romance, character sketches, and fantastic dance music. In addition, Handel's Fireworks Music, Mozart's piano sonatas, and Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier make excellent background music for editing and studying. (I love pre-Baroque music because I can hear how it evolved into the later stuff, and there are some pretty catchy tunes.)

Jazz is dance music and singing music. I love everything from dixieland through bebop, and a smattering of later pieces though most house jazz, cool jazz, and acid jazz leaves me cold. I go for the classic stuff. They knew how to write melodies you could dance to back then, and melodies that would follow you home. They knew how to write lyrics, too, and how to sing. My favourite vocalists are Ella Fitzgerald and Bing Crosby. The most romantic songs I know are all jazz standards, like "They Can't Take That Away From Me" and "You're the Top". I can't listen to jazz without dancing or humming along.

Early rock (1950s and 1960s) is just fun. A lot of the songs are covers of jazz standards or blues songs, and even when they're not, the lyrics are enjoyable and the music has a beat. Early rock is all about dancing. My favourite bands are the Beatles and Rolling Stones, though they're by no means the only artists from the era in my collection. I'm also a fan of Chuck Berry and Joni Mitchell.

Classic rock and heavy metal are for lip syncing and playing air guitar. Sorry, but it's true. There's so much enthusiasm and so much LOUD that again, I can't help it. I sing along. I act it out. Classic rock is housecleaning music. Again, the Beatles and Stones are at the top of my list, but I've got soft spots for Creedance Clearwater Revival, Deep Purple, and Queen. "Hotel California" is genius.

The 1980s are by and large a guilty pleasure, as is ABBA. There's so much cheese, so much glam, so much synthesizer and drum machine… What's not to love? I like early Madonna. I love Springsteen. I mostly have the greatest hits of everyone else, and seriously need to own some Bowie. But again, it's fun, it's danceable, and yes, I sing along. (It's not blackmail material if I openly admit it.) Then there's Leonard Cohen and Neil Diamond, who I guess are really 70s through 90s…

I don't have much knowledge about the 1990s, apart from the odd Top 40/Greatest Hit that made it through my social obliviousness and imprinted. So yeah, that includes Backstreet Boys and Spice Girls. But not much, I swear! My favourite 1990s group (who're still producing, by the way) is the Barenaked Ladies. There's such whimsy and Canadianness and … difference to their music. I love their sound. (There's also Great Big Sea.)

I'm not going to go into folk music too much, except to say that if it's Celtic or British or comes from those traditions, I am so there, and if my mom listened to it while I was growing up, those artists are in my collection too.

You'll have noticed a trend by now. I go for the music I can sing and dance to, and I go for sounds, melodies, and harmonies. This is why I only put music on when I'm not writing, because if I have both going at the same time, the music's going to win.  Power to everyone who can listen and write at the same time, but they're not me. It doesn't matter if it's Mozart or Philip Glass or Buddy Holly. My brain is going to fix itself on the music to the detriment of everything else. (I had to stop writing this blog to listen to those jazz videos I linked to.)

Sadly, I don't know very many people who share the same level of music geekery. I love recommending pieces and I love talking music theory and music history. I think sometimes I scare people, actually. Anyone out there who's the same? Anyone have favourite bands or composers to share? Anyone who also can't write with music on? Anyone want to explain how they can write with music? Let's get some discussion going!

Friday, November 5, 2010

Writing Other Genres

As I'm stumped again for a topic, I'm going back to another question posed to me on Twitter.* I'm expanding it slightly to give it more scope: "Can writing in one genre or medium help you or allow you to write in others?"

Yes and no. And bear in mind these are the words on an unpublished (and some would say inexperienced as a result) writer, and may therefore be entirely wrong and ignorant. If they are, please don't yell too loudly.

Writing in one genre will help you improve your writing, which in theory will allow you to do better when trying out different genres. You'll be better at dialogue, plot structure, pacing, description… and that will aid you. It can't not.

However, there's a limit to how much developing skills in, for a random example, urban fantasy, will help you if you decide to write a different genre. High fantasy, science fiction, and mystery are probably all fairly simple segues because the world building, the pacing, and the imagination are similar. Possibly also romance. But literary fiction? Memoirs? Political commentary? Those require vastly different techniques and approaches to what constitutes "book" and "research" and there's only so much writing knowledge that will carry over.** And someone who's really good at writing pop history will probably struggle with romance, at least initially.

And that's just if we stay with prose. Would writing prose help you write a stage play, a screenplay, or poetry? Again, with the plays I think there'll be a bit of crossover with characterization, but they're much more dialogue focussed and they have to keep the audience's attention, so writers really have to think about every line. It's a very different technique. And poetry's also difficult to do well. I can't even begin to talk about how different poetry is.

Can a poet write prose? Yes. Of course. It's been done. Can a playwright write prose? Again, of course they can, and do. And prose writers write plays and poems all the time. But it's going to take them a bit of work to do it well, unless they're a verified literary genius, and they'll likely get as much help from reading their second genre as they'll get from having written in their first. I also suspect that approaching prose from a play background will yield sparser, tighter stories, and a poetry background will yield more lyrical prose.

This is not to say that prose writers don't cross over, or that they don't do it well. Nora Roberts is a shining example. Janet Evanovich has an urban fantasy out. Everyone seems to be trying their hand at young adult and picture books. And I know of midlist authors who are old hands at both fiction and non-fiction. I think once you reach a certain level of skill, you can write just about any genre/medium you want and do well at it. Certainly, if you reach a certain level of fame, you can write anything you want to and no one will stop you because the books will still sell.

This is also not to say that writers shouldn't muck about in other genres. Each genre has different techniques which will carry over to all the others, and you'll improve as a writer by learning them. But should you try to excel at everything? In my view (and it's just my view), you'll probably be mediocre in everything. Better to specialize in one or two forms or genres, and you can dabble later once you've proven yourself.

So could I sit down and write a screenplay or a book of poems or a memoir? Yes. Would it be anywhere near publishable? No. I'm too new, too raw, and in the case of the memoir, too boring. Can you do all that? Of course, and power to you!

* By @worldofhiglet, again.
** I can see exceptions in people who've done intensive writing courses (BFA, MFA) in literary fiction or creative non-fiction, chose to write urban fantasy instead, and then decide to go back to their roots.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Plot Problems in Castle

For the last year, my guilty pleasure TV has been Castle. For those of you who don't know, it's a police comedy-drama set in New York, about a snarky female homicide detective, Becket, and the easily distracted writer, Castle, who tags along on her cases for "research". It's light and goofy and plays fast and loose with forensics and police procedure, but I'm okay with that because it's fun. And it stars Nathan Fillion, of Firefly fame.

But. I've watched the show from its beginning and I've noticed this pattern with the B-plots that's really starting to bug me. See, Castle has a teenage daughter, Alexis. She's smart, pretty, outgoing, community active, and is involved in all kinds of extracurriculars. She's also grounded and take-charge, which comes from Castle's parenting techniques and from having to parent Castle in his more distracted moments. This saves her from being a Mary Sue, though it's still close sometimes.

The vast majority of B-plots focus on Alexis, and Castle's worries about whatever her activity du jour is. While this is cute and sweet, it's done enough that it's getting cloying, and, to top it off, the writers keep tying the Alexis stuff in with the homicide of the day. The case is about a stalker? Alexis gets a boyfriend for Castle to get paranoid about. The victim is a pop singer? She just happens to be Alexis' favourite. The case is about an actor, like it was on Monday? Alexis tries out for Grease. However, with a few exceptions where Alexis will provide fuel for Castle's eleventh hour realization, the B-plots never have an impact on the A-plot.

That's bad writing in my books. I may be fairly new to this writing thing, but I feel like two intertwined plots should have some kind of impact on each other at worst, and parallel each other to provide a deeper meaning at best. CSI does this pretty well, or did while I was watching it with any consistency. Supernatural does this well, with the B-plot normally being about family or the series arc, keeping the themes of the show alive. Even Bones has its moments with B-plots focusing around important issues like racism or battered women, though most of the time they're relationship plots that add comic relief.

Another bit of bad writing in Castle? I'm getting peeved that, while Alexis is doing all these cool activities, we never get any of them carried over to other episodes. If she becomes, say, the editor of her school paper, are we ever going to see her working on an issue at home, or going to interview someone? No. If she gets into painting, are we going to see her painting after that one episode? No, she's have conveniently decided not to pursue it as a hobby. And she's dating now, but we've only seen the guy once, and whatever happened to the guy she was with for the season premiere?

I actually watch Castle for the bad writing. And the one-liners. And the romantic tension between Becket and Castle. And Nathan Fillion. Like I said, it's a total guilty pleasure show. One hundred percent. So obviously I don't really mind the flaws, but I'm definitely aware of them and I want the writers to step up to the plate and try to blend the plots better. There's part of me that wants the Alexis plot to result in her being kidnapped or otherwise threatened by the criminal of the day. I think not only would that be one of the best written episodes, but it would also force the cast to act to a higher level. That can never be a bad thing.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Monster Dreams

Something woke me. I lay there for a moment, confused, disoriented. What had I heard? My dad making tea to deal with insomnia? My sister, tossing and turning in the next room? One of the cats padding across the driveway in search of mice?

When whatever had happened didn't happen again, I tried convincing myself I'd woken from a bad dream, that it had been a one-time noise, that I could go back to sleep without worrying. But everything that should've calmed me only got me more worried. There was something out there I needed to be concerned about. I just didn't know what.

I pulled back my covers and walked to the window. I pulled the Venetian blinds up carefully, scared of waking my family, and looked down on the back yard. I was just tall enough to look out without having to stand on tiptoe. Moonlight lit up the driveway, the vegetable gardens, Dad's car, the neighbours' yard. It must've been two or three in the morning. There was nothing out there that could've woken me. 

Okay, I thought. It's okay. Back to bed. It was nothing. Probably the cat.

And then came the distinctive sound of someone stepping on gravel. Crunch, crunch. Someone was at the top of the driveway, where the trees blocked my view! I had to see who before running down the hall to my parents. If it was the guy across the street and I cried burglar…

So I waited, hearing footfall after footfall until the figure came into view. Tall, shadowy, male. I couldn't see more than that. I waited some more, as my heart started pounding in my chest. Every step the figure took raised my anxiety. Should I get my parents now? Now?

Finally the figure reached the widest part of the driveway, the part we used to turn the cars around or park guests. It looked up at my window, straight at me, with a face covered in hair, barely human, and a body too tall and naked and hairy. My heart stopped beating. 


It lowered its head again, purposefully, and walked straight to the boot room door. It was coming inside! It was going to find me! Kill me, then my sister, then my parents! It was—

I was ten or eleven, and yes, this was just a dream. Cliché, I know, to end a story that way.

The story properly begins with a cliché too—"But Mom! I'm nearly done this story! Can't I stay up a few minutes later?" I'd been reading a book of real-life Sasquatch encounters, signed out from the town library. The story in question was about a group of Sasquatch in Oregon, who'd taken offense at a group of hunters and had started rock-bombing their cabin in the middle of the night.

In hindsight, it's not really surprising that I had a nightmare.

I spent much of my pre-teen years reading books from the paranormal/unexplained section. The Cottingley fairies. Hauntings. Unsolved mysteries. Mummies of all shapes and sizes. Roswell and other close encounters. Loch Ness. Monsters and fairies from around the world. Verified hoaxes. Urban legends. I couldn't get enough of the stuff. My parents took it more or less in stride, bless them.

I drifted out of the phase once I hit high school, but I'm starting to get back into those stories thanks to urban fantasy. I love seeing folklore, myths, legends, and fantasy creatures transplanted into the modern world, even if it tends to be the same root stories again and again — vampires, werewolves, demons, witches, the odd ghost or fairy. There's a lot more out there to play with, though, and I hope we'll get to see books about them as the trend continues.
  • human vs. an angry brownie
  • human vs. god
  • a detective who takes Nessie or Bigfoot on as a client
  • a PR rep who's contacted by (insert folkloric creature here)
  • mummies (as hero or villain or sidekick) and not just the Egyptian ones either
  • human vs. haunted house
  • the phantom hitchhiker
  • any other urban legend re-enacted
  • stories based on documented cases of possession, haunting, etc.
I know there are probably stories like this out there already. If you're reading this and know of any, let me know.

But to bring things back to Sasquatch, because they're one of my all-time favourite monsters—why haven't they shown up in a big way? They're primarily a Pacific Northwest monster, but have been sighted through much of North America. (The Pacific Northwest of course being known for its rainy, foggy atmosphere and collection of urban fantasy authors.) Sasquatch lurk at the edges of our world, in the forests, like so many other monsters. The Native legends are often of boogiemen—don't go into the forest or they'll carry you off. Like the Oregon hunter story that set off my nightmare, there are documented cases of Sasquatch aggression, though generally they seem shy and peaceful. It's not an Old World monster like vampires and werewolves, though there are wildmen stories there, too. 

For one possible take on the modern-day Bigfoot story:

For another: someone's publishing his memoirs.

With such a host of legend and evidence, and such a range of possible settings, I'm surprised no one has taken Sasquatch on as a topic, yet. For that matter, I'm surprised no one's tackled cryptids or other legendary creatures in a big way yet. But today, I want Sasquatch! Give me Sasquatch! I'm not going to have to write this myself, am I?

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

In Defense of Reading Bad Writing

You cannot be a good writer unless you read. This is pretty much a given, yes? You need to know how other people write so you can 1) learn from the pros and 2) figure out your genre/market. It's very much an osmotic kind of process—you'll absorb a lot of information about craft and style without really realizing it. Or at least I did.

But I'm of the opinion that you can't just read the good stuff. Sorry, but you can't. You have to read crap as well, and by "crap" I don't mean "trashy books". There are a lot of well-written trashy books. You need craft to write fluff novels, weekend reads, romances, and off-the-rack thrillers, just as much as you need it for literary fiction, commercial fiction, and the like. It's a different style, yes, but it's still craft.

No, what I mean by "crap" is anything containing purple prose, talking heads, repetitive sentences, clichés, and anything else that makes brains leak out of ears, eyes start skimming, and publishing professionals post "don't do this" blogs. It's the kind of stuff amateurs write, the kind of stuff you find pages of on, the kind of stuff we all write at some point. And reading it can be very educational.

If you* read a badly written book while unaware of what constitutes Bad Writing, you may or may not notice. At the very least, you might not realize why you've started skimming, why you don't want to pick the book back up again, why you're confused, and why you're left unsatisfied at the end.

If you read several badly written books while unaware of what constitutes Bad Writing, you'll start to see the trends. You'll notice the technical mistakes (clichés, dialogue tags, etc.) and you'll notice the plotting weaknesses (climax comes on too suddenly, Chekov's Gun is missing in the first act, etc.), and, I hope at least, you'll notice where you're doing similar stuff in your own work. You'll probably even have some ideas about how to fix the problems, because you'll start thinking things like, "Why didn't Bob hint about Immensely Important Plot Point instead of just springing it on us?", "Where the heck did Josephina come from?", and "This would read so much better if there weren't all these adverbs."

If you read a badly written book while aware of Bad Writing, you'll be more attuned to the errors, you'll likely notice more of them quicker, and you'll be thinking of solutions (or possibly saying, "I could do this better!" That's also good.). Reading several bad books while aware of Bad Writing is not particularly advisable for your sanity. You'll know when you should stop—and I by all means advise mixing Good and Bad, emphasizing the Good by a long shot.

Something else I've found helpful in terms of learning from Bad Writing? Editing it. It's one thing to read a book and think of fixes for a problem, and another thing to read a book and have to fix the problem. Or at least suggest fixes for the writer. I find I learn more … concretely when I have to write my ideas up, knowing that my ideas might be accepted and used, so they'd better be good. Also, I may not always be aware of, say, my adverbs, but I'm definitely aware of somebody else's, and editing them makes editing me easier.

Of course, "crap" is a subjective term. You may find even the best written "trashy novel" to be absolutely horrible, and that's fine. You're probably not intending to write that kind of book. You're destined for other things. Or you might spend years gladly, willingly, enjoyingly reading what I call "crap" and not care, not notice, not want to change your habits. That's also fine. We'll agree to disagree. But (and this is my main point, take notice): if you want to improve your own writing, reading flawed writing of any sort** will help.

* And by "you" I probably mean "I". I'm extrapolating, generalizing… I know this, and if my ideas don't fit your reality, my apologies.
** I know, I didn't mention short stories, screenplays, stage plays, blog posts, or fanfiction, but they also count.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Writing Influences

@hannahnpbowman challenged me to write about ideas from my favourite books that have influenced my writing.* That was on Friday. I've spent bits of the weekend thinking about the subject, and pretty much drawing a blank. I've probably lifted something at some point, but honestly, I try not to do anything bigger than allude to something. There are certainly tropes that I have in common with other writers, but that's because they're tropes and half the writers** out there use the same ones.

Books that have inspired me in more general ways, however? Those I can write about. Observe.

Most of the books that have inspired me have inspired my theory of magic—what it is, how it acts, what it does. A lot of books went into the theory, but a big one was The Golden Compass. There was something about Dust that seemed magical to me when I first read it (and still seems magical today). My idea that magic is a sort of particle that's attracted to belief stems directly from that story.

Another book with a great sense of magic (though there may not actually be magic in it) is The Secret Garden. I cannot tell you how many times I read that growing up, but enough that the cover's pretty damaged—and I never damage covers if I can help it. There's such a sense of natural beauty and presence and life coming back to people and places …. That's how magic feels, to me.

Other books I read a lot as a kid: The Hobbit, and most of the "true" paranormal, cryptid, and UFO stories in the town library. I credit Hobbit with getting me into fantasy (and I think it might've been the first novel I read on my own), and I credit the "true" stories with fueling my fascination with the macabre and creepy. They didn't start the fascination—I'm not sure what did, possibly the Egyptian Mummy phase—but they definitely spurred it along.

There are a lot of more scattered influences (urban fantasy novels in general, for example) but I want to close on this note: I really, really want to write as awesomely as Neil Gaiman and Lois McMaster Bujold, and would dearly love to be half as funny as Terry Pratchett. Honestly. I covet Gaiman's imagination and penchant for eerieness, Bujold's … everything but mostly her characterization, and Pratchett's satire and dialogue. Then again, if I ever to reach their level of craft and someone tells me this, I might explode from happiness and that would be bad.

Who's influenced you?

* Yes, another Twitter topic.
** If not more.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Creating Characters

Sometimes topics for blog posts come to me. Sometimes they're easy to think up. And sometimes, topics have to be solicited on Twitter.

Fortunately, the people who follow me are obliging and give me good ideas for multiple posts so that I'll have stuff to talk about next week, too. Today's topic comes from @worldofhiglet. Got to give credit where it's due.

She suggested talking about my characterization techniques. I'm taking that to mean two things: how I create my main characters before I start writing, and how I show who they are when I'm putting words on the page.

Creating My Characters

Creating characters is the first thing I do after I know the basic plot of the story. Knowing who the characters are determines how they're going to react in any given situation, and their reactions fuel the plot points between "bad thing that kicks off the story" and "epic battle fight thingy", so I need to know who my main characters are before I can start what passes on this computer as a plot outline.

The first things I write down are physical descriptions, jobs, and whatever parts of their personalities the characters have chosen to share up to that point. From there, I start digging deeper based on what I know. What are their hobbies? Their favourite TV shows, movies, and music? What are their pet peeves? Their relationships to other characters? How was their childhood and family life? I also flesh out appearances, from "tall, blonde, overweight" to include "oily skin, thick and damaged hair, small nose, big smile, piano hands".

By this point, names have come into play. I generally come up with first names first, either based on gut feeling or baby name databases. If I know X is of a particular heritage, or has a certain kind of parent, then I'll go looking for names that would fit the heritage/parents and choose one that also works for the character's personality—or one that totally doesn't work but necessitates a nickname that does. Last names can be tricky, depending on what I know about the character's background. Naming average Americans is harder than naming people of a particular background, because there are so many more names to choose from and I try to pick non-Anglo-Saxon names, for variety.

Then I go deeper still, by applying psychology and playing characters off each other.

  • If Susanne spends a lot of time with Gary, gets annoyed whenever someone puts their feet on chairs, and needs to have conflict with Gary… then Gary's the kind of guy who puts his feet on chairs. 
  • If Martha has a domineering father, how will that affect how she sees men, and what will it do to her love life? 
  • If Kelly and Joe are married, what is it about their personalities that allow them to remain so (or not)? 
  • If Wilbur works in construction, what does he think about his job? What kind of person would he have to be to enjoy the work?

Eventually I reach a point with a character's bio where I feel I really know who they are, or that I don't need to go further. Main characters get about a page, single spaced, point form. Secondary characters get about half a page. Supporting characters, if they're important enough to need a bio at all, get a paragraph or so.

Writing My Characters

My main characterization trick is to let the characters do what they want. I have enough of a sense of who they are that they just kind of come through when I'm writing. I channel them. So the ways they move, and talk, and react, and gesture … they go down on paper without my really having to think much about it.

Occasionally I have to step back and ask myself, "Okay, how is she going to react to what she just heard?" or "How does his body language change when he's angry?" I revisit the mental version of the bio and try to picture them doing whatever. Sometimes I even act it out, stand up, move around, say the lines, and see what happens. And sometimes, I skip the questions and acting and pick whichever option is going to screw things up for the characters down the line.

A lot about someone can be gleaned from how they move and how they talk. I've spent a lot of my life listening to people rather than participating in conversations (shy, introvert, linguistics major). As a result, I've got an ear for dialogue* and can write each characters' words distinctly**, usually based on their background or perception of themselves. In the WIP that's out for beta, I've got one character who drops subjects and articles like you wouldn't believe, another character who doesn't have a great relationship with verb conjugation, and a third who uses "man" way too often. Fortunately, that last guy only has one scene, or I might throttle him.

I slip motion and movement in wherever I can. Everyone has a nervous gesture of some sort. Lots of people have difficulty with empty hands (where do we put them?). People have to go places and do things all the time, and whenever it seems appropriate, I say what they're doing. For instance, driving. If a story's set today, there are going to be cars and people are going to be in them. Do they turn the wheel gently? Do they stomp on the gas? Do they flinch every time someone tries to pass them?

One other thing I think needs mentioning: For me, these two steps (bio and writing) are a feedback loop. I learn things about the characters from the way they talk and move, which then influences further actions. When I gave into the character who drops subjects and let him do it, I learned a whole lot about his personality that I hadn't known before.

How do you create characters? Same or similar method, or something vastly different? Share! I'd love to hear what you do.

* apparently
** I hope

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Lessons in Creativity

When I was 8 or 9 or so, my parents decided I wasn't getting enough stimulation in the classroom. They probably decided this because I was almost always bored and never had homework. My school didn't have much of a gifted program, so my parents hit on the next best thing: Odyssey of the Mind. I credit that program, and Destination ImagiNation, which spun out of it later on, for the bulk of my creativity.

Both programs follow the same model: Get a group of kids together, get them to choose a "challenge" from a list, and then have them solve that challenge before a certain date, when they'll present their work and maybe move to a higher level of competition. Each challenge is essentially a short play based around a statement like "Music can tell a story" or "Travel is a constant theme in fiction". Challenges come with a set of requirements that vary each year (don't set it in your country, don't use verbal communication, build something that moves across the stage, write a song) and requirements that never change (one challenge always involves building a vehicle, another always involves building a structure that'll hold weight, all challenges have a budget). "Solutions", as they're called, get scored on creativity, and there are few enough constraints on the teams that they can do pretty much anything they want to. There's also a secondary challenge that's much more spur-of-the-moment, and again, creativity will get you extra points.

The emphasis on creativity is paired with an emphasis on independence. Adults aren't allowed to contribute to the solution, though they're allowed to teach and supervise so the kids don't, say, cut themselves with a saw or spill glue on the carpet. Everything else, from choosing a setting to designing a set, from making costumes to writing a play, has to be done by the team, and the team's aware that they'll be scored on creativity in all areas.

I did OM and DI at least five times (memories of elementary school are a tad fuzzy). I came away with the ability to brainstorm on the fly, which has helped me solve plotting problems more times than I can count; the mantra of, "If they don't say I can't do something, I can"; and a tendency to combine the above so that I'm almost, but not quite, breaking the rules. For instance, nobody ever said we couldn't make a set out of empty boxes….

I highly recommend reading up on these programs, their philosophy, and the challenges. The "instant" or "short term" challenges are especially good for teaching brainstorming skills, if you can get your hands on some. Try them with friends, or your family, or your writing group, and you'll see improvement pretty quickly. (Or I suspect you will. No promises.)

And definitely get your kids involved in one of these programs, if you can. They'll probably hate you at the time, but thank you later. The lowest competition level is kindergarten. The highest level is university. If you don't have kids, volunteer! Teams need managers. Competitions need appraisers, organizers, and people to compile scores or set up sound systems. There are probably more jobs as well.

This is a completely unpaid advertisement, by the way. It's not what I was intending to focus on at all. I was going to focus on the "me being creative" aspects, but … those weren't really as interesting as I thought, so there you go. Plugging. I do this sometimes.