Thursday, March 27, 2014

Thursday Thoughts

Breaking news!  Since I have two 4.5 hour lab classes on Thursday next quarter, this may become Tuesday Thoughts for the interim.

Now that everyone has recovered from the shock ...

And the sarcasm ...

I've finally taken some action towards editing Who Wants To Be A Hero? - a novel which I like to describe as, "What if a pantheon of Greco-Roman deities invented reality television competitions?"  For me, it was a fun project, combining my shameful enjoyment of shows like Top Chef, Project Runway and America's Next Top Model (... yes ... really ... I've admitted it ...) with my lifelong love of mythology.  The challenges for becoming a hero are inspired both by the traditional Greek hero arc and by more modern ideas like roleplaying games - for instance, there's a challenge that can only be described as a dungeon-crawl.

The fun part for me was that the results of the episodes were quasi-random.  I gave each character a score in various aptitudes (1-10) and decided which aptitude(s) each challenge used.  If a challenge had multiple aptitudes that might apply, the contestant could "choose" to focus on one or the other.  They could also potentially use an unsuitable aptitude at a penalty.  Then I rolled a die (a ten-sided die, to be specific) and added the two numbers together to determine how well the character was going to do.  The three highest would be up to win; the three lowest would be up for elimination.

... none of this actually showed up in the manuscript, mind.  Instead, it informed the way I wrote the episode and the characters' attempts.  I let my feeling of how the scene had played out influence which of the top three won ... and tried to stick with the numbers as to who had the lowest score and would go home.  This was intended to imitate that moment in a reality show where someone you really expected to go all the way slips up and has a bad moment.  I didn't want my preconceptions to create the straightest, most obvious route.  I also hope that if I genuinely didn't know who was going to win until very near the end, that the reader won't, either ...

So editing this book is going to have some advantages - the plot structure is built in - and some disadvantages - there's going to be some untidiness where I set up elements with characters who then were eliminated.  On the whole, I don't think I'll totally cut out the latter.  A bit of red herring can be good for a story ...

Thursday, March 20, 2014

GoodReads Review: The Dragon Done It

The Dragon Done ItThe Dragon Done It by Mike Resnick
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Fantasy-mystery crossovers have enjoyed increasing popularity, and I had high hopes for this anthology of short stories, advertised as humorous in nature. This is a solid but not remarkable anthology; there aren't any real duds, but none of the stories stand out in my mind as especially memorable, though Esther Friesner, as ever, delivers a highlight with twists upon twists ("Gunsel and Gretel").

There is definitely a bias towards noir here, especially in the first half of the book, which is specific enough that the stories start to feel a bit repetitive. I wonder why the noir offerings weren't spread out more evenly, because we also get some entertaining Sherlock Holmes takes - I'm particularly fond of "The Adventure of the Pearly Gates" by Mike Resnick, which is set in heaven - and some well-realized historical tales. Another unusual offering is "Fox Tails" by Richard Park, which features an eastern setting.

Overall, this collection was decent, but not exceptional. Some of the stories, I wouldn't classify as mysteries. Some of the humor was of the broad, silly type I have trouble with - it takes me out of any tension. Other examples were quite clever, though, but this isn't a humorous anthology as a whole. Worth reading, but don't run out to get it.

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Thursday Thoughts

The fact that I've been writing, with ambitions of books in print, since I was very small, combined with the fact I've been a professional harp performer for close to fifteen years, has had an odd effect on my relationship with the creative process.  Often (though not always), I feel at a loss when I try to create something that won't become a product for sale.  This has influenced my forays into photography and fractal generation ... not so much the drawing I've done, possibly because I can comfortably say there's no way anyone would buy my rudimentary portraiture.  I finish working on something and think ... now what? ... and gradually, that "now what?" has crept into my brain before I even start.

That's not to say I don't "play" with my creative outlets.  I learn tunes that no one is going to recognize for me and me alone; I challenge myself with unusual arrangements when something more simple would be perfectly appropriate for a background gig.  I've spent a lot of time with roleplaying games, a tremendous investment of time and energy that will never be sent to a publisher.  And even when it's work, it's fun:  it just happens to be fun I signed myself up for.  I couldn't stop any more than I could stop breathing.

But in those other creative arenas, I feel at a loss.  What if I become a good photographer?  How would I know?  What constitutes a good piece of abstract art?  When do I stop playing with a fractal?  What do I do with all these pictures, short of filling up a tiny fraction of my hard drive?

I suppose for me, creative process has become bound up with creative product.  The act of creation itself isn't enough:  I need to see it through to completion, which isn't necessarily publication or sale, but at least a state of polish and perfection.  When I play or goof off, I'm practicing my craft.  When it comes to the creative arts I've only dabbled in, I don't know how to tell when I've reached that level of completion.  Is it finding that one perfect photo out of a thousand?  Cropping and editing?  But some photographers will tell you that they never alter the picture as it was taken ...

I have neither answers nor conclusions here, really.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Thursday Thoughts

Occasionally, the topic arises of how to write a male or female character authentically when the author is of the opposite gender - and the inevitable (and ultimately, accurate - if simplified) retort is, "Don't write a gender:  write a person."  And this is all well and good; it helps break those grating stereotypes we're all tired of seeing.  However, there's one aspect in which you can't ignore gender, unless you're writing about a very exotic society with a culture structure at odds with ours:  how other people react to them.

This comes to mind because I'm re-editing "Traveling By Starlight:  A Journey of Two Ways" ... a story of mine with two alternate (and mutually exclusive) endings.  In one conclusion (this is only a minor spoiler!) the first-person narrator is female; in the other ending, the details of the story are seen in another light, and the narrator is male.  

When I put this story up for critique initially, I asked readers what gender they thought the narrator was (before the divided endings) and why.  Most of them pegged Verel as female not due to anything the character said or did, but due to how the love interest (male, which probably also contributed, though no one said as much) interacted with the character.  Verel gets a minor injury, and in the original draft, the love interest was worried about it.  I ended up rewriting his reaction and dialing back a few other comments throughout.

So again, unless your society has been radically restructured or gender simply doesn't exist, it's going to be hard to avoid tackling the topic of how other characters treat someone of male or female gender.  This sometimes leads to obnoxious extremes, where secondary characters pound the reader over the head with, "Oh, wow, a girl isn't supposed to do that!  How shocking / awesome / unusual!"  Done right, though, society's mirror is a key facet of depicting male-or-female ... even when the individual defies all conventions.

Sunday, March 09, 2014

Operation: Anthology

I've decided that I want to do an Anthology April series on my blog, talking about my personal favorite source for short story reading - the anthology.  And I want to hear from you ... all of you!

I'm looking for book reviews and recommendations:  what are your favorite anthologies?  Why?  What are the highlights?  Please note, I'm not talking about plugging anthologies you have stories in ... but!  There's room for that, too.  I just want to distinguish between book suggestions and advertisements (though I want both).

On the other hand, also please write about your personal experience with anthologies - did a topic inspire a story that you might not have otherwise written?  If you ended up with a specialty story and it didn't sell, what was its fate?  If you've edited or otherwise helped put together an anthology, what was the experience like?  How did you balance theme adherence and overall (subjective, of course!) story quality?

I'm looking for full posts here, say at least 150 words, however long as the mood takes you after that.  Links gleefully encouraged.

On the other hand, if you have specific ideas for concepts that you would love to see as an anthology, send them to me, too.  I'd love to compile a long list (credited, of course) for folks to enjoy.  For instance, as I'm sure I've mentioned before, I've always wanted to see an anthology of humorous secondary world stories involving the afterlife entitled, Things To Do In Fantasyland When You're Dead.

Got an idea?  Email me at and I'll (almost certainly) give you the thumbs-up, a sanity deadline, and maybe a request or two.  :-)  Hope folks are willing to give this a shot! 

Friday, March 07, 2014

GoodReads Review: Sword and Sorceress XVII

Sword and Sorceress XVIISword and Sorceress XVII by Marion Zimmer Bradley
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The tradition of the Sword & Sorceress anthologies is evident here, a mix of stories that deal with the deeply personal conflicts of female characters in fantasy. Many of the tales have a strong emotional component, and a few hit me hard. The quality is generally high: there is only one real miss, though there are a few of what I would call "beginner" stories - they hit you over the head with their plot points, resolution, description, etc. The two flash fiction pieces are easily among the best, though I really wanted a full-length tale from the humorous one (“Weapons at War” by Charles Laing). Length does a few of these tales a disservice: they would have been much stronger if allowed to breathe. On the converse side, “Memories Traced In Snow” by Dave Smeds would probably be better served by being about a third shorter.

Far and and away my favorite story here is “Luz” by Patricia Duffy Novak, a tale I simply could not put down until its conclusion … and it takes the ending a step further into something thought-provoking and a little unsettling. I also really liked “Nor Iron Bars a Cage” by Deborah Wheeler for the ‘magic’ used within and the development of its narrator. The opening and closing stories are both well-chosen; they’re shorter, deceptively simple, and with emotional impact.

On the flip side, I simply didn’t get “Caelqua’s Spring” by Vera Nazarian. It just felt like flowery, opaque language for the sake of it. “Demon Calling” by ElizaBeth Gilligan has the opposite problem – there’s not enough specificity to the story to be that compelling.

One thing I loved about the collection, too, was how many of the stories were inspired by history and mythology. And it was obvious that the authors loved their source material, more than just a casual encounter: it came through vividly. I’d definitely recommend this volume.

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Thursday, March 06, 2014

Thursday Thoughts

I was finishing up an assignment for my Purchasing course a few days ago and I had a surprising realization:  my method for coming up with dishes to cook may just be very similar to the way I come up with stories.  

My Purchasing course is an accelerated five and a half week course, and the final assignment of each week builds on the concept of an imaginary business.  I decided to have fun with it and get a bit pie-in-the-sky, so I developed a catering concept meant for Virginia wine country that features dishes that highlight or pair with local vintages.

Step back a week or two to my Baking and Pastry lab class, where I had a bizarre amount of difficulty mastering crepes, so I asked the chef for some other ideas of fillings I could make.  One of the things she said was, "curry" and I thought ... wow, that's a really neat pairing.  So when I started to compose my imaginary menu for Purchasing, I put down Chicken Korma Crepes.  All right, but two problems:  1) they need to be served with something; and 2) there's no wine element.

Indian dishes like this are usually served with pilaf.  What's a rice dish that incorporates wine?  Risotto, of course.  So the first "draft" of the dish was Chicken Korma Crepes with Viognier Risotto.  Assignment #2 was to actually write out and calculate the cost of the recipe, so I went hunting in my files for a korma.  I stumbled across Green Chicken Biryani and noticed that the pilaf it served with had a lot of flavor profile very similar to classic cuisine, so I tweaked the menu item.

So what I ended up with was a blended dish for two or three very disparate sources that fused together into a (hopefully) harmonious whole.  And ... wait a second, that's one of my favorite strategies for concocting fiction.  I enjoy taking two elements that seem to be part of completely different worlds and fusing them together so they make sense.

Maybe the kitchen and the keyboard aren't as far apart as I'd thought ...