Sunday, October 2, 2016

It's a matter of perspective

Caught in the middle of an intergalactic war, Earth is conquered in a matter of hours by an alien species with no concept of family, culture, humor, or art-- or hope.  In the face of superior alien technology capable of cutting holes in stone and metal without explosives, and overcoming the most basic forces of gravity, the human race is forcibly resettled into densely-packed communities in Australia while this invading race occupies every other continent but the frozen Antartica.

Before long, the war that chased this alien race to Earth catches up to them.  The conquering Boov flee their enemies, leaving humans to stand alone against the destructive forces of the Gorg, who are determined to destroy the planet.

Sound like my next NaNo? It's not, actually.  My daughter is currently obsessed with the movie Home, a feel-good story of a little girl who makes friends with an outcast Boov named "Oh."  It has a happy ending with dancing and music, and every time she puts it on, I'm inspired to write a sci-if horror novel.

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

World Building

Danielle asked on Facebook:

You have created spectacular worlds and I completely admire how you have blended them into one much larger universe that spans space and time. It doesn't matter which book of yours I pick up to reread (I've lost track of how many times) it always seems effortless. So I was wondering if you had any advice about world building for those who aspire to create their own?
By the time I had finished my 5-comment reply to this frequently-asked-question, I realized the blog might be a better place for it. X-posted.

My first piece of advice is to write (that's usually the first advice I give to any writing-related question). If you check out the 4th "Days of Maeve" post, I talk about the Ebony Series there. In a way, that entire series could be considered a world-building exercise. I've never more than idly considered publishing it, but all the development of those hundreds of thousands of words went into the Den of Shadows, Kiesha'ra and Maeve'ra trilogy.

Second (or honestly, while you're doing the first), research your tail off. Even if you're writing fantasy, it helps to have a basis. Maeve'ra is set at the beginning of the 19th century, but then my characters have access to knowledge and therefore potential technology from places like the Roman, Egyptian and Aztec empires (as evidenced in their plumbing and sanitation, which was barely mentioned in the books because Vance took it for granted and none of the others lived in Midnight, but would have been very impressive for an average human at the time).

The Mancer books take place in an entirely different world, but I use real world knowledge as a base. The country of Kavet, for example, has roughly the climate of the state of Maine, which I take into account whenever I'm considering seasons and farming and available foods. Ocean-travel and related technology is analogous to roughly the late 1800s. That said, iron- which in our world is plentiful and played a huge role in the development of modern technology- is a scarce and highly regulated resource in most of that world, so I have to consider that whenever I'm working. For example, it drastically changes the social position of a farmer if only a wealthy individual can afford an iron plow-blade, and a steel one- well, that's a family treasure.

Do both of those things- research and write- until the information feels natural and it slips out while you're writing without your needing to stop and really think about it. I always end up info-dumping in my first drafts, spreading it out a little in my second drafts/rewrite as I determine what actually NEEDS to be known when, and then cutting and smoothing it out as I go.

It helps if you can do some exploration through the eyes of what the head of my writing group calls a "hobbit" - a character who's new to the world. As I said before, there's no reason Vance would stop and talk about how incredible it is that Midnight has running water and advanced sanitation, but when I wrote though the eyes of someone like Gabriel or Jaguar coming to Midnight for the first time in the 1600s... well, that was quite different.

I personally love book research and world building.  It's why I spent two decades in Nyeusigrube (I first started working in that world in 1995!) and why I've been working on Castrili (the world in which Mancer takes place) since the early 2000s and only publishing now.  It's finally ready.

Monday, March 21, 2016

Another way to be a "rebel"

(Trigger warning: contains frank discussions of gender, sexuality and homophobia in fiction- nothing explicit, but I know it's a topic that can be distressing for some.)

Last night, a reader on Twitter asked me, "Asexual Kadee? Y/n?" It wasn't a question I had been asked before, so I gave it some thought.  It took me three Tweets to answer, because I wanted to give more information than I could fit in 120 characters.

(Kadee narrates the second book of the Maeve'ra Trilogy, Bloodkin
and "The Rebel," a stand-along short e-story related to the series)

After I replied, the reader commented, "I've been debating it on tumblr for months."  I was glad I had taken then time to say more than, "No, well, maybe, too young to know."  I didn't want to ever imply that 15 is too young to be fully aware of your sexuality, whether you identify as straight, gay, bisexual, or one of the many, many variations that exist in the human population but receive less acknowledgement and understanding- such as asexual.

Kadee, specifically, lives in a culture that is seen from the outside as sensually and sexually free but is in many ways quite limiting.  Among the serpiente, passion is seen as a gift from the goddess Anhamirak.  While a person always has the right to say no in any specific moment, a person with no interest in sex may be seen as odd, "broken" even, in the same way that too many people in the modern human world view GLBTQIA+ (did I forget a letter? I'm sure I did.  If I forgot you, I apologize!) It's a troubling aspect of serpiente society that is often overlooked (like their belief in capital punishment, and some crimes that don't get trials, among other things.  No, folks, it is not a perfect society).

Kadee is 15, and has lived a traumatic life that has shifted her from one very controlling view of sexuality to another, equally controlling but opposite view.  She hasn't had time to safely explore her sexuality.  By serpiente standards, yes, she's asexual, but she would tell you she is too young to know yet.  While in the meantime she would say that she is not accepting the serpiente view that there's something wrong with her because (gasp!) she is 15 and she isn't ready for a lover, she can't help but internalize a little bit of that stigma.  Just as a person grappling with the looming cultural presence of homophobia may be more likely to delay deciding* they're* gay (I speak from my own personal experience here; everyone's story is different), Kadee faces pressure in her society, even in the Obsidian guild, that make it hard for her to know at this age.

Maybe one day she'll decide, yes, she is asexual; maybe she will decide she identifies more with one of the other many labels that won't exist in English for a very long time (remember, Maeve'ra takes place in 1803-1804).  As the author who has known Kadee since I first wrote her in 2001 as part of the novel Aureate, I suspect demisexual would be the best term, but like Kadee, I'm in no hurry to decide.

* I'm using the word "decide" here to mean "consider everything she feels and knows and determine that's the best label."  I am not of the opinion that human beings choose their sexuality.  I'm using the word "they" as a non-gendered singular pronoun because English needs a better word for this kind of context.

Whew! That's why I had so much trouble answering on Twitter.  140 characters.   What's the point?

I was going to go into the disproportionate representation of cis/hetero characters in fiction, even in my own work, and how cultural pressures affected me as I was writing (including an unfortunate teacher remark while reading The Color Purple as a freshman in high school that I think caused me to self-censor GLB themes for a long time)... I guess I'll save that blog post for another day.  To be continued!

Friday, March 18, 2016

On Revision

What is revision?

I'm always surprised (though by now I shouldn't be) that I need to define this not just once but many times for my language arts classes each school year.  Somehow, many of us are taught that if we get to be good enough writers, we'll no longer have to revise.  We'll get it right the first time, and won't need to fix anything except maybe a few commas.

It's been almost exactly 18 years since I was offered my first publishing contract (on my birthday, April 16, 1998), and 8 years since I started teaching, and now abruptly I feel very old- no, that's not what I was going to say.  In those years, what I've learned is that, as you become a better writer, instead of revising less, you revise more.

I love writing first drafts.  They're fun.  I make a few notes, do just enough research to get me through, and then I fly by the seat of my pants.  I get to know the characters and figure out their story as if I were putting together a puzzle.  If I'm lucky, I find the edge pieces first, but there are always a few bits I put together because I see them and they're there, even if I have no idea yet how they attach.

Sometimes I get partway through a first draft and go, "This is boring," and walk away.  Sometimes I lose pieces and never quite finish the puzzle, though it nags at me.  Sometimes though, I finish, look at the final product (50, 60, 70 or 100,000 words) and think, "Oo, that's a good idea.  I should turn that into a novel."

 I should write that book.

A manuscript, and first notes on bright orange Sticky notes
The current state of Mancer II: Of the Divine
So I do.  These days, my first step in revision is quite often to throw out the first draft.  I keep a copy of the file, of course, and I use it as reference, but I've reached a stage in my writing career where the idea of re-writing 100,000 words just makes more sense than anything else.

I start with paper.  I read the first draft, not bothering to correct spelling or grammar or continuity, but recording big events, relationships, facts and people.  I make an outline of the novel I first wrote, usually on Sticky notes.

Then I ask myself the big questions:

  • What does the reader need to know up front? I like to get all important world information and introduce all key characters in the first 1/5th of the book.  If it's something particularly confusing, something contrary to the reader's expectations that they're going to assume is different, I need to take particular care in how it is introduced.
  • What information can wait? My worlds are vast and complex, and my characters have detailed histories.  A reader does not need every single detail right away, and if you give it to them, they will be bored and overwhelmed.  It's too much, and leaves no space for plot.
  • What is the big plot? What are the sub-plots? How are they introduced? You'd be amazed how often I don't even know what the big plot of a story is until halfway into the first draft.  That needs to be fixed in a rewrite.
Then I go to my outline, and I begin moving things around.  What can actually be kept? What needs to be changed?

In Mancer 2: Of the Divine, my current project, one major change is that I have a character who was 17 and therefore a dependent of her parents in the first draft.  She took on a different role as I continued to write, to the point where her being 17 is patently ridiculous.  She needs to be older by several years.  That changes everything about her interactions with other characters.

One of my other notes is, "These people have lived across the street from each other for 10 years.  How are they only just meeting?" Their relationship needs to be long-standing.  If that's the case, what has changed recently to set these events in motion?

Another note: "WTF? How does this timeline even make sense? Where is she from?" Oops, I never figured that out.  I have someone simultaneously growing up in this country and somehow inexplicably also having important events in her life happen somewhere else she had no reason to be.  Huh.  Guess I should fix that.

Crazy charts and other notesI make a lot of notes.  I write on paper at this point.  I use print-outs and slews of Sticky notes.  I draft-write best by typing, but I plan best with a pen in my hands, when I can physically rearrange text.  I'm a kinesthetic learner and a visual thinker.  I build plot structures and examine their shapes geometrically, and for that I need something physical, not just a computer screen.

At this point, I also do extensive research.  I talk to beta readers, writing group members, and sometimes total strangers.  I consider ideas, sleep on them, throw them out, pick them out of the trash, reconsider them, and sometimes throw them out again.

Finally, I'm ready for the next step: 

I start a new file, and I stare at the blank page.  It's time to begin writing a book.

MS Word file saying Chapter 1 (then blank except a cursor)

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Research nostalgia

I'm going to make myself seem old now (I'm only 30!).

When I first started seriously writing in 1995 or so, the Internet existed, but for me it might as well not have.  In 1996 or 1997 we got dial-up AOL (With a 1400 bps modem!) but it was mostly useful for talking to strangers in chat rooms.  In case your parents have ever warned you, "Don't trust anyone you meet online! You don't know who they are!" I am in a way the person they warned you about, though in this case I was a 14 year old girl pretending to be older people, not older creepy people pretending to be a 14 year old girl.

Back on subject: For me, the Internet was useless for research until some point in high school, and with the resources I had available, it wasn't really helpful until college (2002 if you're paying attention).

I had a set of World Book Encyclopedias, as many Time Life series as I could afford (What Life Was Like, etc.), and any book I happened to find at the Concord Bookstore (no Amazon yet) that looked useful.  I rarely used the library for research.  I was intimidated by it, and since I was a self-conscious adolescent/teenager, I felt stupid asking for help to find something.  I was an adult before I realized most librarians are thrilled when a teenager comes in and politely asks for help to find a book.

When I wanted to describe what a character in Ancient Rome was wearing on her feet, it was a headache to find.  What kind of instrument might Kaleo have been able to play in France in 1000 AD? Did France exist? Where else might I put him? What was going on at 1000 AD? Crusade, Inquisition, famine, plague? How did people live? Any one of those questions might take hours or even days to answer.

Today I wanted to know what to call a group of ducks.  It's a simple question.  Back in 1997, I would have gone with "flock" because a passing reference is not worth a trip to the bookstore for a book on ducks, and if it's not in the Encyclopedia I wouldn't know where else to look.

Today, I wrote a quick Tweet because I thought it was an amusing question and then Googled.  My first responses said what a group of ducks is called in the air or on water, but my ducks were on land, so I had to do about 2 minutes more work.  Once I picked a word I liked, I Googled that too, just to make sure my first source was correct (it turns out "sord" is only used for mallards).

For anyone curious, you can visit this site:

I still do paper research when I want a lot of detail on a subject, though these days I have a car so I can go to stores or libraries when I want, or I can go on Amazon and find specific sources, which usually have reviews saying things like "this is a really useful, well-researched book" or "this author is full of crap and no one should trust anything s/he says."  In between, there's Google, and the millions of sites on the Internet that are available for a researcher with some common sense and education on how to pick a source.

Now excuse me, I need to get back to my waddling of ducks.

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Rereading Harry Potter

My commute each day is forty minutes to an hour long.  Most of the time, I fill the drive by listening to audiobooks through Audible.  As a single mother of a toddler, I don't have a lot of time to sit down with any book more complex than Goodnight Moon, but I appreciate still being able to consume good books by listening.

On my Goodreads account, I have a shelf for "three formats."  These are my absolute favorite books, the ones I have hard-copies for, e-books, and audiobooks.

One of my favorite three-format reads is Stephen King's Dark Tower Series, which I've read multiple times on paper and listened all the way through on Audible at least twice.  Others include the Feed trilogy by Mira Grant, City of Bones by Martha Wells, The Bourne Identity by Robert Ludlum, Stephen King's The Stand and the Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins.

Lately, though, my daughter has gained enough language comprehension to make me uncomfortable listening to Stephen King books in the car with her.  Because he is so successful, his books are generally performed by excellent readers, and even if Becks can't understand the plot yet, she can understand tone very well, and his books often use language I would rather she not hear at 15 months old.  There's time for her to learn the C-word when she is old enough to know why we never use it.

So, a compromise.  The Harry Potter books just came to Audible, so we've been reading those (interspersed with Discovery of Witches, which I may blog about another time, and an old favorite from childhood, The Thief of Always).  While I continue to enjoy these books- this post should not be taken as a criticism of the stories- this is my first time sitting down with them since I became a full-time teacher, and I have to say I am deeply concerned by the quality of education at Hogwarts.

(Disclaimer: Clearly, many of the details I critique below are there for entertainment purposes.  My rant is meant in a similar vein. The downside of audio books is that I end up overthinking them, which is why I stopped ever listening to medical thrillers.)

First off, Neville Longbottom clearly requires special education services.  He is a competent boy who we all know is ultimately very successful after he receives small-group, specialized instruction ("Dumbledore's Army"), but at my current place in Goblet of Fire, he is still terrified of most of his classes, frequently ridiculed by students and teachers alike for his failures, and even subjected to physical assault (usually in potions) due to his learning disability.

In fact, the entire Hogwarts school needs a serious overhaul for ADA and IDEA compliance.  How is someone with a physical disability going to navigate those moving staircases? Do they have adaptive quills for students with motor issues?

Moving on to the quality of the classes.  First off, there seems to be no qualification requirement for Hogwarts teachers.  Divination is taught by a woman widely regarded to be a fraud except for one (later two) genuine prophecies, care of magical creatures is mostly taught by a man with no teaching experience or instruction, and defense against the dark arts... seriously, don't get me started.  The teachers show blatant favoritism across the board, from academics to sports.

There are no classes for studying literature, math (except artihmancy, which is optional and seen as a "nerd" subject) or science.  This school pumps out wizards who can't function outside the exclusively wizarding world, which we were just reminded in Goblet is actually only one ally (Diagon) and one town; Hogsmeade is described as the only wizard-only town in the country.  Wizards aren't supposed to reveal themselves to muggles, but most of them don't understand muggle clothing and can't use muggle money or transportation.  Do they just stay in their houses all the time unless the go to platform 9 3/4 or Hogsmeade? No wonder they were all excited to gather for the Quiddich World Cup!

There are also no art or music electives- or, as far as I can tell, extracurricular ones.  The only after-school possibility is Quiddich, which admits only seven people (mostly boys) from the student body.

In fact, and this may be a genuine critique of the series, boys as a whole do more and are presented in a more positive light than girls.  Hermione is somewhat of an exception since she is very competent and goes on adventures with them, but even she's seen as a worry-wort who is often more concerned with the rules and getting in trouble than anything else.  She is also the only one whose physical appearance is frequently critiques.  Three boys and one girl enter the Tri-Wizard Tournament; I haven't reread that part yet, but as I recall, the girl is the only one who needs help to complete at least one of the challenges.  Among the adult men, there are powerful characters like Dumbledore, Lupin, Mad-Eye, Snape, Sirius, etc; the women have McGonagall, while most of the other female professors are either sidelined or described as batty and incompetent.

Mr. Weasley works; Mrs. Weasley stays home and worries.  The Weasley boys get up to fantastic adventures; Ginny, the only girl, is rescued, protected and eventually a love-interest.  James Potter earns notoriety as one of the marauders, while Lily's claim to fame is her eyes, being a bone of contention between James and Snape, and eventually dying to protect her son.

I could go on, but I won't, because I actually do like the series and I don't want to overthink this issue even more... just point it out.

Let's conclude with, I enjoy reading the books, but I think if Becks receives an invitation to Hogwarts, I might encourage one of the other wizarding schools instead.

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

A whole new world...

I can show you the world- shining, shimmering... wait, that's Aladdin.*

I cannot express how excited I am to finally be able to announce that my first adult novel has been purchased by Harper Voyager Impulse- part of Harper Collins- and will be on sale August 30!

Those of you who are long-time readers may know I've been working on the Mancer trilogy since my first NaNoWriMo in 2006, where I fell in love (or possibly obsession) with another world.  Message board veterans may even remember some drabbles and a Reality: Nyeusigrube appearance by Umber and Hansa, characters from the first novel, Of the Abyss.

Mancer takes my mature readers out of Nyeusigrube, to a world filled with illegal sorcery, double-edged power, corrupt politics and sexy demons.

In honor of the publication of Of the Abyss, as well as the upcoming conclusion of the young adult Maeve'ra Trilogy with "The Prophet" (March 15) and Bloodtraitor (April 12), I've done a little construction on the site:
  • The Den of Shadows page now features an introduction to the series, and a list of all titles (including the related Kiesha'ra and Maeve'ra series and all short stories) in the order of publication.
  • The Mancer page gives a more complete introduction to the new adult series.
  • By reader demand, my site now has a Store, powered by Amazon, to help you in finding all my titles! Hopefully it is organized in a way that is logical to someone other than me.  I like the concept, but I'm hoping Amazon is still improving its store interface.

* Thank you, Robin, for correcting my Little Mermaid/Aladdin mix-up.  How embarrassing!

I know it's one of the many Disney movies now criticized for its incredibly sexists messages to young girls, but Little Mermaid was one of my favorites when I was a kid.  I remember getting together with my friend Sarita, watching it in her living room and singing along with all the songs.  I loved Aladdin when it came along too (I was in second or third grade by then), but Little Mermaid is the earliest Disney movie I have vivid memories of.