Thursday, May 26, 2011

Thursday Thoughts

Word count tracker is suspended for this past week and next week. I'm sure everyone is heartbroken, devestated, defenestrated! ... wait.

A running thread over on has made me ponder a first sentences exercise, which I've decided to do ... as of writing this sentence, in fact. Hmm ... appropriate? In any case, I'm going to try and write a zinger of a first sentence a day for at least two weeks and, when I reach the end, scan for the cream of the crop.

This comes up because some people have claimed that you have to hook an editor by the first sentence. Even though this seems excessive to me (who could even physically stop themselves from reading more than one sentence?), I try to put a fair amount of attention into a punchy, usually short opening line that makes the reader ask questions. How much time and attention do you put into first sentences? Do you often change / rewrite them later?

Still trying to figure out my point of entrance on writing anew, but next week, I will definitely be seeking out critique on the early chapters of Scylla and Charybdis.

Be well, all!

Sunday, May 22, 2011

A Writers' Guide To Harp: Part Three (Misconceptions)

One more point about the physical construction of the harp most people miss until they get up close: hey, look, colored strings! I’ve heard stories of people asking if these are training strings. N…o. The red strings are Cs, blue strings are Fs. All other strings are white. So, no, you’re not just staring at a sea of unmarked strings.

Since a harper’s mouth isn’t obviously occupied as a flutist’s is, most people imagine that we can carry on a conversation freely. Unfortunately – or is that fortunately? – it doesn’t work that way. I’m not exactly sure why; my theory is that speaking and playing attempt to use the same region of the brain. It is possible to train yourself to talk and play at the same time, but it took me years to learn the small repertoire of, “Yes,” “No,” and, “Thank you.” Now, after over a decade of playing, I can answer simple questions if I am playing a slow tune I know frontwards and backwards. I can say with some confidence that carrying on a full conversation whilst playing? Not going to happen.

But what about bardic storytelling? you might wonder. From what I’ve seen of it, the music and the speaking don’t occur simultaneously, apart from simple patterns that serve as sound effects. Instead, they alternate and augment each other.

And yes … it is “harper.” This applies to anyone who plays the traditional lever instrument. Harp-player is also correct. Harpist refers to the pedal harp – “the big tall thing with the gold pillar” – and is not correct in this context.

Reminders from the previous posts: those playing wire harps need nails; those playing gut-strung harps will need to go without.

Harp strings do not (or almost never) break due to pressure applied during play. They simply break when tightened too far. This can happen by accident when tuning or with sudden temperature shifts. Cold weather causes the wood to contract, potentially breaking a string. (Some wood instruments work differently, I know, so: harps go sharp with the cold, flat with the heat.)

The big joke amongst harpers is, “A harp-player spends half his time tuning, and half his time playing out of tune.” They are sensitive instruments. It doesn’t take much to knock them out of tune, and the range of the harp doesn’t go out of tune consistently. Every harp is a little bit different, but for instance, with mine: my base strings go sharp, the two strings above that stay almost perfectly in tune continuously, the mid-range goes flat, and some portions of the upper range go sharp again.

Assuming a fully levered, 36 string floor harp, there are approximately two million permutations of ways you could set your levers.

The above posts apply to the “mainstream” traditional harp, but there are other harps. Here are a couple I’m familiar with:

Latin American harps are lighter strung, which allows the use of the pinky (normally too weak to play). They’re also strung with blue Cs and red Fs.

The Welsh triple harp has not just one but three rows of strings and no levers. To get accidentals (sharps and flats), the harper dips their fingers through the outer row(s) to the inner row. The double row strings for standard play allows a number of overlapping techniques, including one unique to Welsh harp playing where the melody is played in both hands a split second apart. This creates a mesmerizing echo effect. Welsh players also usually rest the harp on the left shoulder and play melody with left hand, accompaniment with right.

You can actually hear the influence of the triple harp in a lot of Welsh music. These tunes have a running theme of a single accidental, often with a rather rapid switch back to the regular note.

And finally, if you want to hurt your brain, check out the
cross-strung harp, the only harp in the world on which it is possible to play “Flight of the Bumblebee.”

Friday, May 20, 2011

A Writers' Guide To Harp: Part Two (Playing)

The basics of how to play ...

Harp rests against the right shoulder, with the right hand on the upper ranges for melody and the left hand on the lower ranges for accompaniment. Thumb and first three fingers are used – no pinky. Elbows are out and raised – not parallel to the floor like a chicken, but elevated to aid in maintaining proper hand position. Thumbs up, fingers down, and palm facing the strings. A properly played note brings the finger straight back to connect with the palm.

Nylon or gut-strung harps are played with the pads of the fingers; wire harps are played with the fingernail. (Difference #2!) Corrolary to this, nails make gut/nylon-strung more difficult – they can even catch on adjacent strings, if they’re long enough. So if your harper is playing a gut-strung harp, they’re not going to have pretty, sculpted nails.

Instrument range: the usual base range for a floor harp is somewhere between 1.5 to 2 octaves below middle C. Some will run down to the A below that. The upper range is typically 3 octaves up from middle C – again with some variation. The usual base range for a lap harp is somewhere between 1 to 1.5 (ie, stopping at G or F) octaves below middle C. The upper range is typically 2.5 to 3 octaves up from middle C. You’re looking at floor harps usually maxing out at 36 strings. Lap harps are rarely less than 22, though I’ve seen a few, and that 22 – 26 string range is the sweet spot for a nice, portable lap harp.

Okay … break from all the numbers. Why this is important is the range for accompaniment on a lap harp is very small, and it can even become cramped on a floor harp, depending on the range of the melody. So single note or simple chord accompaniments are common. Disclaimer: musician paragraph next.

Due to the resonance of the harp, it is easy for accompaniment to sound muddy. Thus, most chord patterns use the 1st and the 5th note, optionally with the octave. The 3rd is usually eliminated in the accompaniment. When it will be included is in inversions, or with another note omitted just to create a different sound – but it would be rare to hear all three notes together because of the sustain.

It is possible to mute notes – a single note can be muted by re-placing the finger, and a range of them can be muted with the flat of the hand. You can get a jazzy, staccato sound this way (which isn’t terribly traditional, though it’s used in modern Celtic music).

Everything stated about resonance goes multifold for wire harp. Wire strings ring – and keep ringing – until muted. That means that accompaniments tend to be more sparse, and there is more emphasis on muting by re-placing the finger. I don’t play wire-strung harp, so I can’t speak further to the style, but that’s the main distinction. (Differences #3 through – take your pick.)

Harpers develop calluses, at the very least on the thumbs and index fingers, but what people don’t realize is that extended play is also rough on the shoulders. Sit there with your elbows out for a few minutes and you’ll see what I mean. Then add the weight of an instrument on one side.

That’s getting into misconceptions, the last stop …

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Thursday Thoughts

I am ninety percent sure that I am actually asleep right now and typing this post as part of a lucid dream. Unfortunately, if I pinch myself, I'll lose my train of thought, so ... onwards!

It's been a wild and crazy week, and consequently not as much writing time as I would like. However, I've spent quality time reading one of my manuscripts - which is going to need a frightful amount of editing - and exchanging private critiques with some members of for submissions to their anthology. They aren't paying the authors; instead, all proceeds go towards maintenance of the site. A very worthy cause. The topic is the line "Waking to the light of the last day," and, of course, I couldn't resist playing around with some structural malarky ...

Still trying to gauge when it's "safe" to jump back into the novel writing pool. I have a whole bunch of old free writes that want finishing; maybe I'll at least close out 2009 (yes, I really do have them that far back) before I move on to long form. After the current story I'm writing, there's only one more opening from '09.

5/12 - 5/18
Word count: 3,813

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

A Writers' Guide To Harp: Part One (The Body)

So the post in which I promised to do a fantasy writer's guide to the harp is ... still not back up yet, but I'm going to do it. This will be three posts, the other two to show up over the next few days, breaking down some information I hope writers can take and use in their fiction. First up is the physical characteristics of the instruments, then a basic "how to play" orientation, and finally, misconceptions and other cool harp information.

Minstrels, court musicians and bards – if your fantasy character plays a harp, they probably play the traditional harp (otherwise known as the folk or Celtic style harp), an instrument that’s been around in some form or another since ancient Sumeria. The modern pedal harp (“the big tall thing with the gold pillar” as I describe it in technical terms) is a much later invention – possibly appropriate for later period and Victorian settings, but outside of this discussion.

For a traveling musician, a traditional harp is the only way to go due to size and weight. Pedal harps have to be larger and heavier to incorporate the mechanical aspects of the pedals. Even at that, traditional harps aren’t necessarily small: my harp (an Aberdeen Meadows from William Rees Instruments) is almost five feet tall. The Aberdeen has what is known nowadays as concert spacing (because I have big hands!), so floor harps can and do run smaller, but it’s not typically going to be something your character can just toss over their back. Lap harps, on the other hand, are made for this kind of portability.

I hope I don’t have to explain floor harp versus lap harp, but just in the case – the former rests on the floor and is played from a chair, and the latter either rests in the lap or sets up on a stool.

The three main parts of the harp are the soundboard, which rests against the body while playing; the pillar, which is the vertical support on the outside of the instrument; and the neck, which runs between them and serves as a support for the strings, bridge pins and levers. The strings are made of four materials: wire, gut or nylon, or carbon fiber. I separate these out because wire harps are a different beast from gut or nylon, and carbon fiber is a newer experiment. Let’s assume that in most fantasy settings, you probably wouldn’t have nylon strings, but the sound from gut strings is essentially the same.

For the past few centuries, traditional harps have had levers, mechanisms that allow the pitch of an individual string to be adjusted a half-step, functioning like the black keys on the piano. For instance, it will turn your F into an F sharp. The lever only has two positions: up or down. If you’re not a musician, you can skip the next paragraph. Just understand that levers don’t mean you can play anything. Traditional music is generally fine (and not just Celtic – I’ve played a Korean piece), but classic / orchestral music may be problematic.

Sharps and flats on the harp: if you want a flat, you tune the string down to the flat (for instance, Bb), and then when the lever is engaged, you get the natural (B). This means that traditional harps have a limited number of practical keys. My harp is tuned to Eb Major, which means I have the option of 3 flats (E, A, B) and four sharps (C, D, F, G). Each lever also controls only the actual string it is placed above. That means if you want to change keys from G to D, you have to flip every single C on the instrument. (This differs from the pedal harp, where the pedal engages every note.)

Levers can be flipped during play, but it’s difficult to do. Your accompaniment hand has to come off the instrument and all the way up to the neck to flip the lever.

Without levers, every time you want to change keys, you have to stop and retune the instrument. Just personally, while historically, levers were only developed a short while before pedals, I consider that the portability of a lever instrument and the technical know-how required to construct levers means that there’s no compelling reason for a fantasy society not to have them. But … musicians played for centuries without them.

None of this applies to wire harps. Wire harps do not use levers. (Difference #1 – count ‘em!)

More soon!

Thursday Thoughts

(This is my Thursday post from last week, finally restored by Blogger. I can't figure out how to backdate it, so we'll leave that.)

I wish I had the gift of brevity: that short story I mentioned a few days ago is already over 4k, and looks to come in about twice that. But ... it was never meant to be a tight, plot-heavy yarn. Rather, I was going for a leisurely exploration, an examination of relationships, an inward push-me-pull-you about when it's okay to invade someone else's privacy - not a statement piece, but focused on the main character's struggle over this.

I've decided that I am going to start reading my "Who Wants To Be A Hero?" manuscript - two "chapters" a day. (I put chapters in quotes because they're not, really - each chapter represents an episode in the imaginary reality show.) That means it will take me about a week, which is a slow but reasonable reading speed ... but I will have time to read "real" books (again the quotes!), which is something I've been lacking.

It occurs to me that it might be worth posting a "harp playing for fantasy writers," so I will try to do that over the next week. The instrument I play is probably what you would normally see in most fantasy settings.

5/5 - 5/11
Word Count: 4,564 (not counting character work)

Friday, May 13, 2011

So ... uh ...

... Blogger, when do I get my Thursday post back?

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Friendly Reminder

I don't know if it was anyone following my blog, but a quick note: if you want to purchase my CD, please don't do so through Amazon! They take a huge surcharge - plus, I have to ship new CDs to them one at a time. Instead, use the Paypal link off my main website and I will happily mail to you. If you don't mind having the shrinkwrap off, I can sign it, too (though what value that is, I dunno ...).

GoodReads Review: The Sunflower

The Sunflower: On the Possibilities and Limits of Forgiveness (Newly Expanded Paperback Edition)The Sunflower: On the Possibilities and Limits of Forgiveness by Simon Wiesenthal

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Deceptively simple, thought-provoking and sometimes chilling, The Sunflower is both a story and an invitation to explore what seems (on the face) a straightforward question ... but as its situational, moral and emotional layers peel away, becomes anything but. The book is comprised of two parts: first, the account of how the author, a Jewish man in a concentration camp, is called to the side of a dying Nazi soldier who begs forgiveness for his crimes; second, a collection of essays written in response.

I had read this book before, but I was surprised again how brief the encounter itself is. Using language that is straightforward but often poetic, realistic without becoming laden with melodrama, Wiesenthal builds a picture of his life and the mental state of his fellow prisoners and discusses the history of the high school in which he finds himself ... before he is called to the side of the SS man. The pages that form the purpose of this book disappear so swiftly ... and then the reader is drawn on to deal with Wiesenthal's fall-out, the conversations with fellow prisoners, and finally, a secondary confrontation years later with the SS man's mother. As a story - a novella, if you will - this account is satisfying in itself.

The essays that follow are hit and miss. Some are harsh, some merciful; some prosaic, some poetic and beautiful. Some present angles of the situation that a reader may never have considered, and you may come away richer for it. In my mind, however, there is perhaps more than a critical mass of essays here ... and some of them are incomplete, off-point - the author launching from the actual question to discuss a related topic of personal investment - or maddeningly reductionist. I can accept starting from the religious stance that is impossible to forgive someone who has not harmed you personally: I cannot accept ending with that stance without further exploration. Religion is not the only source of morality. I don't recognize a lot of the authors' names, I confess, and I wonder if some of the essays were included less because of merit or balance than because they were written by a "big name" individual.

That said, this book is definitely worth a read, worth thought ... worth attempting the exploration at its heart: what would I have done?

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Tuesday, May 10, 2011

More Manuscript-age

Had some errands which required me to run up to Kinko's - okay, FedEx Office, but I never think of it that way - so I decided to bite the bullet and print out my manuscript for "Who Wants To Be A Hero?" even though I have no idea when I'm actually going to work on it. I want to do a straight read-through - taking no notes unless something really leaps out at me, just to get an overall impression - and I may do that soon, then let it set for a while ... we'll see.

The true irony is, here I'm setting up my next novel writing projects and, despite seeing the editing overload / uncertainty / angst these two are causing me - I fully recognize that what I'm planning on doing will probably land me in the same situation next year ...

My learning curve is inverse.

Monday, May 09, 2011

On Being Edited ...

Interesting post on another blog:

He said, she objected

My feelings exactly.

Back In The Saddle

I've been editing or doing worldwork for almost a month now, and I had forgotten how good the actual writing side of things really feels. I dashed out a flash fiction story on Friday night, and am now working on a leisurely character piece set in an old novel world ... and the act of spinning it on the page, the slow build of backstory, description, emotion and the loose-leaf plot - sheer joy.

This makes me more determined to start writing on another novel ...

Thursday, May 05, 2011

Another Sale!

Another story sale, this one to Kaleidotrope!

Due out ... sometime next year. I am waiting to hear whether winter means "Jan / Feb" or "Nov / Dec" ...

The story is entitled "Voices," and is set in the same world as "Journal of the Dead" - almost prehistory, if you will.

This is actually my second publication in Kaleidotrope, and I happened to get curious about whether or not Tangent ever reviewed this ezine. I found this whopper of a review of my previous story:

In this issue’s first story, “Remember,” Lindsey Duncan crafts lyrical prose as nimbly as a skilled glassblower might work a parison. Duncan’s sculpted passages bring to the fore a tale in which an emissary from a drought-stricken village must overcome the rigors of harsh terrains, including and especially desert and mountains, in order to call forth energies capable of transforming his arid homeland into a fertile valley; the main character must summon the “Storm-bringers.” The cost of intruding on such powerful beings is his sanity, but the only way for him to return home is for him to keep a little bit of his head. In the least, the protagonist is conflicted.

At first glance, this piece is a prose poem about overcoming adversity. Read closer, though, this story sets up the relative cost of choices and questions whether or not it is worthwhile to sacrifice one’s self to serve the greater good. Sagaciously, Duncan posits that either response brings secondary problems and that in most cases, no matter the route we follow, we will remain unable to know our choice’s merit.

No. 7, October 2009 print, if you want to check it out.

Thursday Thoughts

It has been a week of triumphs writing-wise: the story sale, something else which I'm not divulging until I have details in hand, and ... I finished my editing pass of Scylla and Charybdis!

I'm still very unsure about the change I made near the end; looking again at how I set up the ending, it may actually be overkill. But it performs a nice, circular loop to the events of the beginning, which reflects the novel's overall shape.

I'm still in love with my characters, too. That probably means they're terrible.

I will probably let the novel rest for a bit, then start looking for reads on at least the opening chapters. I might be brave enough to have someone read the whole book, but I certainly couldn't do it as one big chunk: waiting for that would kill me. Multiple times, potentially (I'm a Highlander).

Because word count reduction was a concern of mine, I started at 161,124 and ended at 153,325. That means I've still got to trim. Most of my cuts were necessary, unneeded verbiage or dialogue exchanges that were weird / clumsy and actually best fixed by simply excising them; I may have to make some tough choices before I get down into reasonable range. Note that I didn't just cut things: I also added, some emotional cues, some references to a new concept, and a new scene. So probably I cut more like ten to twelve thousand words and added a few thousand.

Not sure where I'm going from here. Still plinking around on worldbuilding, but I still have an entire second novel which has been finished for about two months and needs editing ... don't know how to handle that.

4/28 - 5/4
Pages Edited: 30

Tuesday, May 03, 2011

"Burning The Midnight Oil" to!

I just got an acceptance for my story "Burning The Midnight Oil" from New Myths! This story started out as an FWO challenge to write about an oddly matched couple. It was initially titled "A Lovely Light" (a reference to the Edna St. Vincent Millay poem), but before I started submitting it, I decided this title better conveyed the sense of flame / work ethic, both of which are central to the story.

... actually, now that I think it over, it was submitted to 2-3 venues as "All Work, No Play," until an editor criticized the title, I looked at it, and went, "Oy. They're right. What was I thinking?" Only then did I light on (heh) the current title.

It should be coming out in their December 2011 issue. There's also a mini-interview, which I haven't sent back yet as I'm waiting for clarification on one of the questions.

Sunday, May 01, 2011

GoodReads Review: The Dragon of Despair

The Dragon of Despair (Firekeeper Saga, #3)The Dragon of Despair by Jane Lindskold

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The fact that this was a very long read has nothing to do with the quality of the book, because as with the first two volumes, this is a solid, engaging fantasy. Lindskold's world is not an unusual one, although New Kelvinese society becomes more intriguing on further inspection and the Royal Beasts continue to provide interesting wrinkles and an evolving multi-book conflict. Rather, the pleasure is in the characters and their adventures.

The book begins with one plot and continues with another (which isn't as disjointed as it sounds, but the first plot is obviously intended to set up for book four). Firekeeper, raised by Royal Beasts but now a member of Hawk Haven noble society - almost - must deal with the conflict between the animal kin who raised her and Hawk Haven settlers moving onto their turf. The ambivalence that Firekeeper feels throughout these interactions is compelling, and as ever, Lindskold's animal societies are well-rounded. I particularly appreciate the fact that she pays attention to the social aspects of wolves, often drawing parallels between their manueverings and those of human society. This kind of subtlety I find is lacking sometimes even in werewolf stories, where the participants are in theory even more human.

The second plot picks up with the mental illness of young Citrine, abandoned by her sorcerous mother Melina but still in her thrall. A handpicked group heads into New Kelvin to bring about a confrontation between the two and hopefully free Citrine from her mother's domination. Again, Citrine's evolution is compelling here. It's dysfunction well portrayed. Lindskold gets deep inside her devotion, and it's a mildly creepy place to be.

Unfortunately, I think the weight of the previous two volumes got in the way of this one: the book is slow off the mark, taking a long time to get past some minor info-dumping (not too bad, but certainly not as well done as in previous volumes) and a lot of characters meeting other characters and talking to each other. It's good dialogue, but there's a lot of it. The middle sections of the story progress steadily, laying groundwork for the future without feeling unfinished.

Then, later on, it gets uneven again. Now, in fairness, I was having some issues making myself read (not a reflection on the book, just an expression of my headspace) at the time, so perhaps how I was reading the book exacerbated it, but it seemed like large chunks of in-story time passed with nothing happening, which - while it was quick to read; Lindskold doesn't waste time in filler - felt disjointed and strange. It was hard to credit the characters would just sit there. I really wanted to know a bit more about what was going on that got glossed. That is a tribute to how fun they are to follow, though!

As we approach the end, some plot points aren't properly foreshadowed. This isn't a huge deal - it's not deus ex machina, just details - but it's one of my pet peeves.

On the other hand (paw!), Firekeeper's dreams build nicely throughout, culminating in an explanation of their true nature that is very satisfying. Early in the book, I had issues with the fact that Firekeeper's evolution as a human - deftly handled in the first two books, neither slow nor fast - seemed to have stagnated. This isn't unrealistic, of course - people hit plateaus - but it was frustrating not to see her progress further in her understanding of the human world around her. However, by the end of the book, I would have to say that I feel this objection was met. Firekeeper may not have come out and realized the moral of the story, but I as a reader felt its impact.

This one gets four stars as a continuation, but I might only give it 3.5 stars as a standalone book. It's still very readable that way (which is quite a feat, given how much happened in those books!), but the flaws become more objectionable. If you've not read them, pick up Through Wolf's Eyes and Wolf's Head, Wolf's Heart first.

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