Friday, August 10, 2012

I'm at a new blog!

Hey there. I've decided to start fresh with my blogging. I've made a Wordpress account and I'm going to discuss my worldbuilding in more focus. Thanks to those of you who read this blog -- you can follow the new one here.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Render update, and a hiatus

I haven't talked about my writing progess lately, have I? Well, let's fix that.

Render wordcount: 17 715
Biggest edit in this draft so far: Removing Syril of Reyardine from Chapter 2. He's way too distracting to be in the story that early.

Writing a novel-length story is, for me, a matter of trial and error. First, I figure out the basic problem and its basic resolution. A starting point and an ending point, more or less. In this case, the starting point is Aloftway village's struggle for prosperity while under wolf attack, and the ending point is discovering the root of the wolf-attack problem. (The discovery is less "they're hungry", more "but why are they hungry?".)

Once I know my Points A and B, I pick some rough character archetypes and decide their role in the whole thing. Development of the story swings back and forth between the scenario and the characters, trying to make everything match up to my satisfaction. And along the way, I stumble across parallels and throwbacks and cool details.

Efficient? Oh my, no. But I like it better than following formulas. I get to do some wandering and discovering before I pass the experience on to my readers.

Since I first wrote a scene with Rue and Felixi in 2010, there's been a lot of fiddling with pieces and premises. Characters have changed gender, personality, occupation and significance. The landscape around Aloftway village has suffered the tectonic shifting of my whims. But each run at the project has gotten me a bit closer and put some more pieces together -- so I'm fairly sure I'll get a solid whole out of this draft.

With this hope, I'm going to take a hiatus from this blog. Going to see if I can figure out this story and refresh my blogging mind.

I'll report back when I have a shinier Render to tell you about! Subscribe by email if you'd like to be informed of my next post: the Follow By Email form is at the top right of this page.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Realizing that I wrote something literary

I've had a hard time defining my book Remedy in three words or less. Fantasy drama, maybe? Some kind of family saga? Definition difficulty is to be expected when you go out of your way to write an atypical story, but still. Fantasy works can be tricky to label in general.

After reading this definition, I've come to the realization that Remedy is literary fantasy. Like Gregory Maguire's Wicked, which I definitely agree is a thought-provoking read. Literary fantasy. Hmm.

I'm not sure why this is a surprise for me. When I was first querying literary agents five years ago, I felt that Remedy was a literary-ish story and I described it as such. Strictly speaking, Remedy is about a plague outbreak and an old guy deciding whether to abandon his aide/daughter/friend. But Remedy is really about people discovering their roles in life, rediscovering themselves, and defining their families. It's about what happens when people try to do the right thing and those noble actions have unfortunate side effects. I intended Remedy to make the reader think about our world and our values as much as they're thinking about this fantasy world and its values.

So what happened? Why did I second-guess myself and stop thinking of Remedy as literary? The only motivation I can think of is the time I met with a Professional Editor in New York City. This meeting was auctioned off as part of a charity raffle and, at that time, I really wanted someone to tell me why I was getting nothing but form rejections for Remedy. Part of the promised meeting would be Editor looking over a few pages of my work. Squee and excitement! Someone actually reading Remedy instead of just rejecting its query letter!

It turned out that Editor's advice had a lot of narrow-mindedness in it. Remedy is about non-human characters, she said? Then it's for children or young adults. It simply is. If I market Remedy to adults, no one will want to buy it. And also, I should make it more like Brian Jacques's Redwall series. My work will only sell if I make it strongly similar to an existing best-seller, or at least tell people "it's like Redwall".
On some level, I knew I was going to hear these things and I knew I disagreed with them. I was already thinking about the growing viability of self-publishing. Mostly, I wanted to hear New York's side of the matter, instead of just getting some Dear Writer letters and jumping to conclusions. But while I sat there trying to describe my intent to Editor, I mentioned that I was trying for something literary.
She paused for about five seconds to read my first page.
"No," she said, after reading maybe three sentences tops. "This isn't literary." And that seemed to be that.

Maybe she meant that the writing wasn't heavily stylized and flowery? Or that those three sentences of draft manuscript didn't question the cosmos enough? Or maybe Editor already believed that "animal people" can't have any real meaning for grown adults? I have no idea why she said what she did. But in the next few days, even as I threw out my thoughts of traditional publishing and started making plans to edit and self-publish, I somehow accepted that my work wasn't literary. I didn't know which label it was, but it wasn't literary.

It's weird how unevenly we absorb messages. How a human mind can work so hard against some ideas that other ideas sneak by unquestioned. "Literary" is a misunderstood and misused term, but still, I think I should have known better. Oh, well. I'm just glad I figured it out eventually.

Remedy is the development-focused piece I wanted it to be. And when it finds well-matched readers, those readers seem to enjoy thinking and wondering about the characters and their themes. So that means that my stories of Aligare are literary fantasy, and that strikes a chord in me that I'm quite happy with.

My work on Render continues.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Lots of links

Where've I been? Off foraging for interesting links! (That's my story and I'm sticking to it.)

--Bad Opinion Generator Click to see actual short-sighted comments made by people well respected in their time. This includes such gems as "Louis Pasteur's theory of germs is a ridiculous fiction" and "Men will never fly, because flying is reserved for angels". Great reading material when you're feeling discouraged.

--What happens in an Internet minute? A lot.

--We all know that bacterial develop an antibiotic resistance when humans misuse their medications, right? Well, it turns out that bacteria isolated in ancient caves also resist our most common antibiotics. So, it's an example of parallel evolution. It's just a shame this premise would seem incredibly contrived in fiction. "Some new germ has never encountered humans but it happens to resist all our bioweapons? Pfff, yeah right." You know what they say: reality is stranger.

--Emojicons is a site that archives emoticons in a copy-and-pasteable format. It's amazing how many images and emotions can be represented when you get creative with ASCII characters! Emoticons are also an important part of Internet culture, since it can be tricky to express a particular tone with text alone. Heck, even when I'm talking to people in person, I'll use the term "flip a table" to evoke a mental image of amusing frustration.

--Lichtenberg figures (or lightning flowers) are a type of scar seen in lightning strike victims, caused by the electricity rupturing capillaries in the person's skin. I can't find info on whether these marks are permanent scars, but hey, at least it'd be a cool-looking scar. (First person to write about a lightning mage character with Lichtenberg scars gets a batch of cookies from me!)

--Doctor Who in the style of a 16-bit video game. Beware of spoilers for recent-ish Who! I do love tongue-in-cheek recaps of things, and this video's pixel art and MIDI music are well-done, too.

--A blind lady wrote 26 pages of her novel by hand, only to be told that her pen was dry all along. This is the part where all writers feel a touch of sympathetic agony, am I right? But don't worry, there's a happy ending: the local police force used their forensics equipment to read the pen indentations and transcribe all that work.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Accurate night sky in James Cameron's Titanic

Let it never be said that the little things don't matter! An astrophysicist has called James Cameron out on the inaccurate night sky seen in the movie Titanic. So that detail is being corrected in the 3D release.

Right after my last bloggish thoughts on factual accuracy, and here's another great example! If you don't check your references, you might just get that one audience member with a very specific education who spots your mistakes and loses all respect for the story. Particularly in a historical story based on real events.

Granted, I think Cameron is doing pretty well as a moviemaker if his most grievous mistake is incorrect 1912 astronomy. The visible stars didn't play any role at all in the plot. Even if the Titanic's crew were using the stars to navigate, they didn't tell the audience about it; they crashed into an iceberg and that's all we need to know.

But that outspoken astrophysicist probably would have been very happy if he had watched Titanic and seen an accurate 1912 star field. He could have stayed immersed in the story, instead of remembering that the story is a creation of (imperfect) human beings.

Is it worth spending hours searching out obscure information just to make that one picky viewer happy? Is it worth altering a well-loved movie? Hard to say. But it sounds worthwhile to me.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Making the berries make sense: biological predicent in SF/F

So, I went to see the Hunger Games movie. Found it well-done, although I haven't read the books (and I'm not sure they'd appeal to me, given my dislike of typical YA tone and focus.) Because I saw the movie with my roommate (who also hasn't read the books), we discussed a lot of what we saw on the movie screen. Questioning science fiction is one of our favourite pastimes, actually!

"If nightlock berries actually kill you in a minute," I wondered after the movie, "then shouldn't you get sick just from handling them?" It certainly looked like Katniss and Peeta got berry juice on their bare hands.
Roommate Andrew took some university biochemistry, so he usually has a ready answer for questions like this. He said something very intelligent about how the berries' harmful elements might be inert until they meet with a catalyst in the human digestive system.
"Ah, so they wouldn't actually be toxic until they combined with stomach acid," I thought out loud.

Makes sense to me. There are real-world plants that are only highly toxic once they're metabolized, like the cyanide compounds in apricot kernels or bitter almond. You could rub them on your skin all day without ill effects. I don't know if that's actually the way nightlock berries work, or if the Hunger Games books go into more detail on how the berries affect the human body. But because the movie's berries seem to fit a real-world precedent, I found them believable. I didn't have to wonder if they were bioengineered berries, or wonder if the writing/editing needed work.

This is why I hold SF/F to high standards of life science. Playing off of real Earth plants and animals is a great way to add legitimacy to invented elements and make them easier to believe. The fantastic elements can borrow from real elements without becoming any less fantastic. And really, if the story is set on a recognizable version of Earth, there's no excuse not to at least acknowledge Earth rules. Nowadays, everyone can research a basic point of biochemistry with five minutes of Internet browsing. And a bit of research while writing can make for a really satisfying piece of fiction that holds up to all sorts of audience scrutiny.

Of course, it gets a bit messier when the story isn't set on Earth, or when it's set on a version of Earth heavily altered by science and/or magic. I definitely don't think all planets should be held to modern Earth standards. But an Earth-like planet will make the reader expect Earth rules -- and that expectation needs to be either confirmed or denied. I used Earth plants and wildlife in my Aligare world so that the stories would have a familiar element to them, a neutral base for all the magic and non-human peoples I was introducing. There's no need to question the mint Rose Tellig uses. It functions exactly like the mint growing in Earth gardens. And unless I mention an exception -- such as rue leaves being an effective medicine for ferrin -- then the reader can go ahead and apply everything they know to be true about Earth plants. And double-check it on Wikipedia if they want!

Some SF/F isn't intended to be taken this seriously. And that's okay. There's room in the genre for "just go with it" scenarios and random inexplicable things. But personally, I find it incredibly satisfying to question a story and not have the whole thing crumble into plot holes. The real world can help a fantastic story, instead of just killing its buzz.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Female armour in fantasy

Interesting blog post here on the dilemma of making functional plate armour for women.

It's definitely an interesting connundrum. Fantasy loves its scenes of improbable awesomeness -- and some people like the genre exclusively for that sense of flipping off the rules while doing cool things. But when you ignore too many points of realism, the whole thing can become too ludicrous to support its own weight. I don't think anything sums this up better than a chain mail bikini. Looking feminine and being well-armoured are two very difficult concepts to marry. Historical examples of practical female armour are basically non-existant, so our escapist fantasy media took the path of least resistance. And now we have a lot of female fighter characters who make people think, "Um. Aren't you cold?".

Personally, I find scantily clad female warriors too absurd to get offended over. Yes, yes, go to battle in your titanium pasties and thong, have fun with that. But I do like to play devil's advocate with ideas like this. If I were given the character design of Lady Cheesecake McSexalot the Deadly Warrior and asked to write her backstory, well, I'd find a way to make it make sense. Maybe magic is based on emotions in her world, so that distracting her enemies with bare skin is a method of incapacitating them. Battle bikinis are only stupid when they're expected to follow the same rules as real Earth armour.

Fantasy is always, always capable of more. If the existing rules are too confining, we can make up new rules. And if we can't make a concept work, it's because we haven't approached it from the right angle yet.