Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Tuesday Thoughts

My ambition to make this Anthology April, alas, didn't appear, but I did want to acknowledge the alliteration with a list of some recommended anthologies:

This Is My Funniest (Mike Resnick):  I'm a sucker for humor, but what distinguishes this anthology is that the stories are chosen by what the author deems is their funniest - and it includes offerings from writers that aren't traditionally thought of as humorists.  I think this anthology starts off weak, so stick with it:  the stories get steadily better as the pages progress.

I, Alien (Mike Resnick):  Alien encounter stories from the first-person perspective of the alien.  There are a few truly moving tales in this one, and the closing piece is just delightfully clever.

Murder By Magic (Rosemary Edghill):  The requirements for this anthology were that the story had to have a murder and a fantastic element, and the writers are chosen from both the fantasy camp and the mystery camp.  The results are wonderful, and surprisingly, some of the worldbuilding comes from the mystery writers.  If you are planning on reading Laura Resnick's novel Doppelgangster, skip her short story herein:  it's the basis from which the novel was fleshed out.

Sword & Sorceress XVII (Marion Zimmer Bradley):  It may take some searching to find this particular older volume, but it's probably the strongest in the series.  Full review here.

The Book of Kings (Richard Gilliam, Martin H. Greenberg):  A thought-provoking, imaginative anthology of kings based in both history and fantasy.  Full review here

Fantastic Companions (Julie E. Czerneda):  This anthology frames itself as being about the animal companions of humans, and this isn't really accurate - but ignoring the drift from theme, this is full of entertaining, varied and surprising stories.  From cats and dragons to more imaginative creatures, well worth the read.  Full review here.

Tuesday, April 08, 2014

Tuesday Thoughts

... and they all lived unhappily ever after.

There was a time in my writing career when, by both choice and compulsion, I wasn't capable of writing anything but a happy ending.  I killed off a character in a novel, only to suddenly find myself stumbling across a way to resurrect him.  I took a short story class and was asked to write a story with an unhappy ending.  When the instructor read it, he commented that the characters weren't very sympathetic.

Well, of course, I thought.  Who would want to read about sympathetic characters failing?

Over the years, I've slowly relaxed my position on unhappy endings, though I'm more prone to bittersweet, and the "yes, but ..." is still my favorite ending.  I suppose in most cases, my bittersweet *is* a "yes, but ...":  the character gets what they want, but at a high price, or they find that it wasn't what they wanted, after all.  I can't give examples without spoilers, of course.

For me, there's an emotional toll quota in a story.  I don't want to read a depressing story with a depressing ending - I just feel wrung out and unsatisfied.  To "earn" an unhappy ending, the story has to have enough hope and levity that the reader doesn't enter the last paragraphs already exhausted.  Conversely, you can batter the character with unrelenting darkness ... if there's light at the end of the tunnel.

I think the first time I wrote what I'd call a bittersweet element in an ending was in The Sintellyn Medallion.  There were multiple romantic attractions in the story; some of them were mutually exclusive as far as happy endings might go.  One of them was a mutual attraction that broke off because one character had to choose between career and romance - that's another theme and strongly held belief of mine.  In any case, it doesn't end well for everyone, and there's several wistful notes in the concluding chapter.

Since then, I've dabbled further ... but I still find that my instinct is for a happy ending.  I can't remember which story it was any more, but I'd planned a hope-is-lost sort of ending ... and as I approached writing it, I realized that it wanted to keep going, and that another half page completely changed the tone of the ending.  So I suppose I'm still resurrecting the dead, moving heaven and earth to give my characters success ...

... but at what cost?

Sunday, April 06, 2014

GoodReads Review: Sword & Sorceress XIII

Sword and Sorceress XIIISword and Sorceress XIII by Marion Zimmer Bradley
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A solid anthology of stories featuring female protagonists who conquer the odds, this volume didn't strike me as being as strong as some of the others ... it had some weaker stories, and fewer "wow" moments. That said, there were some strong tales, in particular Leslie Ann Miller's "Sun Dancer" - and both Marella Sand's "Tortoise Weeps" and Diana L. Paxson's "Twilight" came to life with their well-researched, deftly incorporated historical settings.

I think what struck me about this anthology is that, in contrast to later volumes - even XVII, only four years later - it had a particular emphasis on the idea of women facing barriers because inferior men wouldn't listen to them, or men traditionally inherit, etc ... and the male side of it comes off as something of a straw-man. Nowadays, if fiction portrays this scenario as so black and white, we're prone to respond with skepticism or, "Now tell me something new." Gender inequality is still very real, but (in most cases) it's somewhat subtler, and readers want more variation and nuance when the idea is explored.

This anthology is certainly worth reading, but not as strong as some other volumes.

View all my reviews

Thursday, April 03, 2014

Thursday Thoughts

First lines!  I'm fairly sure I've blogged about this before, but it's been long enough that I figure the topic is due another inspection.

I spend a lot of energy on my first lines, even for novels - the leaping-off point is very important to me.  As a general rule of thumb, the hook for a short story needs to be snappier and more immediate than for a novel, simply because you have less room to run.

For me, even the most slow-burn opening sentence of a novel has to fulfill one criteria:  it has to make the reader ask at least one question.  It may be an immediate punch of a question or simply something that catches the attention.  There can be more than one implicit question; one is simply the entry requirement.  One fun way to do this is with something that seems contradictory on the surface - it provokes a, "What do you mean XYZ?  That makes no sense!" reaction from a reader.  These tend to need to be explained quickly, though.

If this bears some similarity to my discussion of book titles, it's no accident:  there is definitely some overlap in tactics and purpose.

I've mentioned before that my favorite first line from a published novel is in Jasper Fforde's The Eyre Affair, which is:  

My father had a father that could stop a clock.

What's beautiful about this line, of course, is the answer to this inverts expectations:  you expect "stop a clock" to be a figurative expression, of ugliness or maybe a stern expression ... and it turns out to be literal.

Another question I like to pose is to use a term or description that makes a reader wonder, "What is that?"  I'm sure there are punchier, more interesting lines, but my personal favorite from my works is:

The Houseless were drunk on the veranda.

What is a Houseless?  The word would imply some kind of dispossession, which perhaps explains why they are on the narrator's veranda ... there's actually two or three questions here, elaborated upon in the sentences that follow.

There's one more aspect to a first sentence that is important:  it should be the first building block to establishing tone.  A comic story shouldn't start with a weighty paragraph (unless the sudden inversion is part of the humor).  A serious, sober story shouldn't start with slapstick.  (Usually.  There are exceptions to everything.)  Who Wants To Be A Hero? starts thusly:

Ioweyn stood in the Waiting Chamber of the Gods and tried not to fidget.   

Which I'll grant is not immediately funny, but it has some quirk of humor to it.

A few other random beginnings:

Being shipwrecked, the thought rose to the surface of Miayde’s mind, had a dismaying impact on her dignity.  (Butterfly's Poison)

Time is more important to me than it is to anyone else.   (Stolen Moments)

Every soldier in the Pitharian army waited on the command of their captain – but every soldier also kept half an eye out for the sorceress, watching her wend across the battlefield even if they could not see her.  (The Heat of Battle)

Rosh always wore the shoes when she killed.  (In These Shoes)

The dragon’s harsh breath beat down on my face, with the decaying sweetness of fear and anxiety.  (Nesting Instinct)

Anyone got any favorite lines - their own or another writer's - they want to share?