Monday, April 29, 2013

Mom's Mondays in May

In honor of Mother's Day, every Monday in May, I'll be posting an excerpt from one of my works that features mothers and talking a bit about personal experiences ... though it's certainly true my mother never battled evil, sentient trees for me.  (Evil, non-sentient trees is a matter of interpretation.)  I invite people to share their own thoughts.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Sunday Snippet

It's been a while since I posted any kind of excerpt, and I thought it was high time to break that streak.  Here's a piece of the beginning of the novella (or so) I've just started, Nesting Instinct - about a blind investigator assigned to discover who stole a highly coveted dragon's egg ...

"Cinny," I called, "tell me what has been disturbed."

She scampered over, her footsteps slowing as she circled the nest.  "Almost nothing.  There are no drag-marks or bootprints in the sand."  Her voice quavered with nerves.

I caught a whiff of perfume, a lingering trace:  lilac, rose, jasmine - and something odd and citrus that did not immediately register.  "Almost nothing is not nothing."

"The indent around the egg is - no, there are little gouges in the sand, but whoever moved it must have been very careful."

"And very strong," I agreed.  "What sort of gouges?"

Cinny described the nest to me, including the other two eggs:  ivory and mottled pale blue.  I measured them with my hands - they would have come up to my shoulder and certainly dwarfed Cinny, who was a half-head shorter than most women.   The faint traces of passage in the sand were not distinct enough to suggest shoe or step, and might in any case have come from authorized visitors.

"Kehler lime," I murmured.

"Ilwen?" Cinny wondered.  Even after I signed her writ of freedom, it had taken almost a year to train her out of the habit of calling me mistress.  Two years later, she thought nothing of it.

"The last scent of the perfume.  Let's inspect the elevator," I said.

She took my arm and walked me across the sands.  I was surprised to feel a quiver in my ankles.  I had taken important cases before in three years working with the captain of the guard, but nothing like this, and I worried what the consequences would be for failure.  And a missing dragon?  It would almost certainly be a dead dragon, if not recovered.  Would there be ransom?  What was a dragon worth?  A hundred times more than any slave.

"Ilwen?" Cinny leaned in close, her breath tickling my ear.  "What if someone stole the egg to keep it?"

I shook my head.  "The imperials would never allow someone not of the emperor's choosing to bond with a dragon.  It would upset the balance of power - and anyone with enough knowledge of dragons to accomplish this theft would know as much."

"Never allow?  But once the bond is formed ..." Cinny trailed off.  "They'd kill them both over politics?"  Her voice muffled; she had turned her head to look behind her.  "The Mother would allow it?"

"Politics is more important than you imagine.  It shouldn't be -" I had felt her protest "- but there's no way to escape it.  The Mother has a great deal of influence, especially since Nerina fell ill … but I do not think she could protect a thief, even if she chose."

"None of this is right," Cinny whispered.

It astonished me how a girl who had been born a slave could have such faith in the world.  "We will do our best to make it right," I said.

Friday, April 26, 2013

Thursday Thoughts

This post is a day late, I know.  It was started on Thursday - that's what counts, right?  I'm also too darned lazy to try alliteration for Friday.

Today, I wanted to talk about character age and social ties in fantasy.

The classic fantasy hero is the young farmboy, the orphan, the wizard's apprentice - a teen or twenty-something at the beginning of life's journey.  The genre has gone many different directions from there, but it remains a popular staple ... including in works of humor that lampoon this familiar archetype.  This type of character is particularly prevalent in quest narratives.  If I can hazard a reason why, it's two-fold:  first of all, such characters don't have ties that would make it difficult for them to set forth into the world; and second of all, without the molding of long history, these youngsters can grow and change readily within the span of a story.  The quest becomes the Hero's Journey becomes a Coming of Age narrative.  All these things in a neat little package.

But that's not the only kind of story that can be written, especially (though certainly not only) if you get away from the quest narrative.  I had a personal epiphany on this when I started working on Butterfly's Poison.  The events occur about a decade after a failed imperial rebellion where the current emperor's sister disagreed vehemently with her father's choice of succession.  The chosen heir was a teenager at the time - which meant for me to have main characters who were involved in the rebellion, they needed to be older.  (Not "old," thank you - just outside the callow farmboy age range.)  Miayde, my first protagonist, was thirty-seven (no, that wasn't a deliberate Monty Python reference), with Treddian being a few years older - and he had a daughter in her mid-teens.

I had so much fun with the history, personal ties and responsibilities that connected the characters.  It helped that the story was more political intrigue, of course - but the amount of material I had to play with got me excited about writing characters rooted in their social sphere.  If they have more resources (possibly another reason why the young hero is so popular - they can't rely as much upon outside help), they also have more complications and restrictions upon their movements.  How they deal with these strictures while still moving towards their goal tells the reader a lot about the character.  It can be argued that more mature characters don't change as readily, but the impact of that change may be more significant.

And, of course - as I posted earlier - a character in this age bracket often has a wider array of family matters to deal with, and that has its own archetypal power.  He or she also has a longer backstory, which can be an infodump pitfall, but can also enrich a reader's understanding of character and world at the same time.  It increases that feeling I love that a story isn't in a void:  it's one point on a continuum, and life continues before and after.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Thursday Thoughts

I think every writer develops tics - habits that don't (usually) affect the content of their writing, but become an integral part of the process.  These become necessary ritual, prelude, part and parcel - a mental signal that writing is afoot.  Here are some of mine:

Before starting a story, I have to choose a font.  I have a group of maybe six fonts I use commonly, and which font I'll choose depends on the "feel" of a story.  A Trebuchet MS story is not an Arial story.  I've written some epistolary stories, and I used to insist on using Monotype Corsiva (it looks like good handwriting).

I always stop writing (and hence start writing) in the middle of a sentence.  Yes, this means occasionally I come back to it and I don't know where I was going or decide the sentence should go in another direction.

It has to be blazingly bright.  I don't like a dim space; I don't even like a semi-lit space.  I have no fewer than three lamps around my desk, and at night, all of them are on.

I (almost) never close a story file while in progress.  Word remains open all the time.

If I'm writing while multi-tasking (that is, during the day while working), I stop at set inches down the page to swap tasks.

This doesn't get into tics that actually affect the content, such as the fact that I generally won't start writing until I have a title.

So ... if you are a writer or know a writer, tell me about your / their tics.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Thursday Thoughts

Today, the question on my mind is one of tone, primarily the axis between ridiculous humor and the most unrelenting of serious works.  As to the far ends of that axis, I know virtually nothing of it - I find shallow, silly comedy unappealing as a reader, much less a writer, and there's only so much grimness I can take before I feel the urge to lighten it up.

But there are a lot of gradients in between, as well as variants in the style of humor (and the style of serious, too - but humor is more fun to talk about).  Even a dark, hopeless story may have moments of unexpected laughter.  Many a tale that cannot be classified as comedy nonetheless has a running thread of character banter.  And then, of course, I feel that you can't write a truly entertaining comedy without real stakes, real emotion ... a reason to read beyond just waiting for the next joke.

As far as my own writing, most of the time I fall towards the serious end of the spectrum, livened up by character commentary and the occasional oddity in the setting.  Even assuming a "normal" world with no comic premise, there are always bizarre, funny and entertaining moments - and their very rareness helps them stand out.  A bumbling official, a bizarre law, an unfortunate mishap ... all fair game without altering the tone of the story.

When I indulge in humor, it's most often a somewhat subtle, snarky brand of it, and it frequently sneaks into the style of the prose.  The phrasing and choice of metaphor brings the humor as much as the content.  When I write comedy, I look at the world slightly askew, exaggerating assumptions and starting from places that are - mostly - logical ... then take them just a bit further.

To repeat a point above, my favorite kind of humor is character-based humor because it can thrive regardless of the story's tone.  Whether the characters themselves make jokes or the humor comes from the anticipation of how X will react to an event barreling down the pike, it has a lot of applicability.

At the same time, I love comedy that starts with a humorous premise and takes it as far as it can go:  Thursday Next, much of Pratchett's work (I am thinking particularly of Going Postal here, which examines the entire concept of the postal service under a ludicrous microscope) and I have to point out Patrick Weekes' The Palace Job, which does the heist movie as a fantasy novel.  What separates great comedy from an entertaining read to me is this ability to extrapolate even further - the worldbuilding of it, as it were.  My personal foray into this field is "Who Wants To Be A Hero?" which is basically what would happen if the Greek gods had invented reality television competition to amuse themselves.

But once you've started with a crazy premise, it colors the overall tone of the work.  That doesn't mean it can't be dramatic, exciting and even heartbreaking - take a look at Laura Resnick's Esther Diamond novels for a fantastic job of this; Doppelgangster is probably the only book that made me howl out loud and tear up, both of which are extremely rare occurrences on their own - but it does make it difficult to do anything that doesn't hang out its shingle as a comedy.

There was once a challenge on to write either a serious story in a silly manner or a silly story in a serious manner ... oh, you can guess which I tried and which was insanely hard.  I ended up deciding to go back and plug humor into it again, but discovered even that was difficult once I'd started in a serious vein ...

This whole topic comes up in my mind because the still-untitled story I'm finishing up has a rather light (if not silly) premise:  a royal competition for hairdressers.  I'm writing it rather straight, but there's character banter and a lot of snark in the narrative / descriptive passages.  My hope is that it comes off humorous without being in-your-face funny ... we'll see.

Thursday, April 04, 2013

Thursday Thoughts

Still in the wilderness of rewriting with the story I mentioned last week - had a lot else on my plate, much of which has sapped the energy with which I use to operate my brain.  So the Humvee of my creative process has been stranded in the jungle of ... let's just stop that metaphor right there.

In reviewing the story for its new beginning, I was astonished by the fact that I had merely glossed over some of the backdrop elements.  In the story, I have a competition hosted by a king as an elaborate hospitality gesture to the nobility of ten nations conquered by a vaguely defined rampaging horde.  This is primarily the hook for the character's story goal - to win one facet of the competition - but there's so many other implications I'm shocked I didn't develop further.

For instance, this celebration / competition is supposed to be an escape from the grimness of the war ... but I didn't do much to show its effect on the victims.  Some of the captured nations resent the frivolity, and I did use that as a plot point ... but it was one note in the story and especially with the ending, deserves more attention.

If I extended all the implications here to their furthest reaches, I could probably write a whole novel around this one competition - or at least a 20-30k word novella.  I don't want to do that, but the original story exists in so much of a vacuum that it startled me to think I was such a thoughtless writer ... especially because my usual tendency is the exact opposite:  I include way too much flavor, background and culture in all but the shortest works. 

For me, though, it's those brilliant flashes that make a short story sing:  that beautiful sense of the iceberg beneath.

Wednesday, April 03, 2013

GoodReads Review: I'm Just Here For More Food

I'm Just Here for More Food: Food x Mixing + Heat = BakingI'm Just Here for More Food: Food x Mixing + Heat = Baking by Alton Brown
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Mad kitchen scientist Alton Brown is back for another installment, this time looking at the process of baking and the chemical compositions that make it work. He divides his recipes into mixing method because it determines the consistency and texture of the final product. This makes a lot of sense for this book and also for anyone anxious to pick out the patterns in a wide variety of recipes. Every section provides examples of the type.

For my money, I thought this book was a little better than the first, though some of the metaphors / illustrations are stretched a mite too thin. Maybe it's because baking is more precise and scientific, so Alton's exacting methodology has less tendency to seem like overkill; maybe it's purely personal, because baking is my favored arena. Regardless, I also found the recipes in this book less basic and more generally interesting - this is a book that lends itself to being used as a recipe book.

However, the way the recipes are laid out and printed significantly hampers this. I always photocopy recipes so I can hang them up in my kitchen and not damage the book - well, several of the recipes are 4-5 pages with illustrations and wide spacing. Even if this isn't your habit and you prefer to have the book on hand, that's a lot of flipping, propping, etc to refresh yourself of the steps. I would have preferred the detailed explanation and then a separate page with the compact recipe. (I can't really complain about the flaps with the Mixing Methods rather than repeating it in every recipe, since Brown's intention is for you to memorize them instead of continuously referring back. It's a good idea ... though I pulled the flaps forward for my photocopies anyhow. I'll get there.)

But the rest of the book is entertaining and clever. It starts with the building blocks of baking and examines their composition and their purpose in baking - whether they strengthen, leaven, weaken, etc. It's a delicate balance ... but one gets the feeling that by deeper review and perhaps some additional information (for instance, what ratio of X to Y would balance out?), you could alter recipes in a more complicated manner than simple 1:1 substitution - and that's invaluable.

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