Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Tuesday Thoughts

I'd like to take a break from writerly musings to share some of the most frequent conversations I have as a player of the traditional lever harp.  These come up again and again at gigs, and I've developed rehearsed responses to them:

Them:  So you're a harpist, right?

Me:  Actually, I'm a harper.  Harpist refers to the pedal harp - the big golden thing with the pillar.  Harp-player works, too.

(This distinction is important to me.  I'd prefer not to be called a harpist.)

Them:  Is this is a Celtic harp?  (Sometimes they pronounce the C like an S.)

Me:  Yes; to be more accurate, it's a traditional lever harp because it has these levers (Vanna White gesture here) instead of the pedals on an orchestral harp.

Them:  Are you Irish?

Me:  Nope.  I'm Scottish and Welsh, though.

Them:  Is this a small harp?

Me (what I'd like to say):  You try carrying it.

Me (what I actually say):  This is a traditional harp.  It's the predecessor of the big harp you see in orchestras.

Them:  How long have you been playing?

Oh, how much easier it became when I could just say "over a decade" and stop counting every time.

I work through a fair number of misconceptions.  It seems to confuse people that I don't also play with an orchestra; similarly, they seem a bit taken aback when I tell them I studied privately (instead at a university, presumably).  Then there's this conversation:

Them:  Can I help you carry something?

Me:  Could you carry my chair?

They look at me, probably a bit like I'm crazy.  They look at the massive instrument. 

Me:  I'm balanced, but I have to carry the chair in a way that makes it hard to walk.  It would really help.

I have gotten "such a little thing with such a big instrument!" more than once, which always makes me laugh:  I'm about 5'7" with strong shoulders.  Besides the Scots, I've got German and Italian in me.  I'm not heavy - thank you, 20+ hours of running around a kitchen this past quarter - but I am not a delicate flower.

I think possibly my favorite question, though, came from a guitarist.  First of all, some background:  my harp has 36 strings, one for every note.  Each individual string has to be tuned.  When a string breaks, the replacement has to "settle" before it will hold.  This usually involves, as a ballpark, 50 - 60 retunings.  So the following ensued:

Him:  How often do you change the strings?  Every few weeks?

Me (horrified look):  Only when I have to.

Harps are notoriously finicky for responding to every shift in temperature and pressure.  In fact, that leads to one of my favorite harp jokes, which I got from the Welsh triple harpist (he is a harpist - the Welsh harp is much closer to the classic instrument) Robin Huw Bowen:

Q:  How long does it take to tune a harp?

A:  No one knows.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Tuesday Thoughts

One of the most important facets of my writing process is that I'm an incubator.  I don't usually tackle ideas right away:  instead, I put them on the backburner of my brain to simmer, develop, resolve problems and fuse with other thoughts.  This process occurs under the surface - occasionally, something will occur in the front of my brain and I'll drop it in the pot, as it were, but most of the time, it's neither active nor conscious.

I think this is part of the reason why I tend to do extensive world and character building before I start writing:  it gives my mind time to turn over possibilities and permutations and actively brings them to the fore.  It also explains why I often have trouble simply diving into a story as soon as the idea strikes me - I can't develop it on the fly, nor can I rush the process.  Oddly (or not?), this also applies to me and arranging music on the harp.

So I've learned to listen to my writer brain and determine when reluctance is laziness or procrastination, and when it's my subconscious telling me the idea hasn't had enough time to brew.  I've learned to be kind to myself when I fall down on my writing goals - within reason - because my brain never stops.  It's all there, waiting for me.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Anatomy of an Idea: Polestar

Polestar is now available in the current issue of Plasma Frequency - check it out!  Here's an account of how it came about, as spoiler-free as I can make it.

This story was written as a several-years-later sequel to First Contact, which was published in the now-defunct Golden Visions.  It is in First Contact that many of the elements in Polestar were developed, so a flashback to that story is in order.  

First Contact was written for a Fantasy-Writers.org monthly challenge on the subject of first contact.  When I take on these challenges, I always like to add an additional interpretation or twist on the topic.  In this case, I decided to take "first contact" in two ways:  both in the traditional sense of the meeting of two peoples, and in the sense of physical touch.  I decided to make my main character a girl who was being kept "pure" by being forbidden to touch anything for herself.  I also had a quote from Much Ado About Nothing rattling about my head:  but then there was a star danced, and under that was I born.

It was this line that inspired the idea of the Lthieryn, the living stars, and the character of Eridanus.  Eridanus is the being with whom Adiarwen makes her first contact, in both senses ... and in Polestar (remember the story we were talking about originally?  Here we are again), he becomes the narrator.  He has been her fast friend and traveling companion over the intervening years, but yearns for more.  At the time of writing this story, I was full of myself enough to want to use another Shakespeare quote, and I chose Sonnet 116 ("Love is not love which alters when it alteration finds").  The later line, "It is the star to every wandering bark," inspired the title, Polestar.

And when someone becomes the center of your life, your guiding light, the consequences can be terrible ...

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Tuesday Thoughts

Still working on editing marks for Who Wants To Be A Hero? so I have humor on the brain.  Lately, I've been chewing on another aspect of how humor manifests in stories:  who finds it funny?

First, there are the elements that both the reader and the characters find humorous.  This is the kind of humor you find almost everywhere:  even (especially) in the most tense of situations, people throw off quips and one-liners.  It's probably the most appropriate to stories that aren't intended to be comedic, a moment of tension release.  Personally, for me the tricky part is balancing the reactions of the other characters - to have them ignore such humor seems peculiar, but on the other hand, I don't want their reactions to be too broad.  That ends up somewhere between self-congratulatory and a sitcom laugh track.

Second, there are elements that the reader finds funny, but the characters do not - whether because it references an anachronism / bit of modern culture, it involves in-story knowledge that the reader has but the character does not, or simply that it's something you can only laugh at with distance.  I do a lot of this in Hero - though I'm always cautious with the pop culture references, because I know they may be incomprehensible a few years down the road.  Still, there's a mild dig at creationism that I think has some life yet to it ...

Third, there are elements that the characters find funny, but the reader does not.  This is probably not really humor so much as worldbuilding:  it points to ingrained stereotypes and shorthand in the characters' culture(s).  And it can be built up into the other kinds of humor:  if character X makes cracks about culture Y's love for beer, you can already anticipate what's about to happen when a native from that land shows up ...

It's this last that I haven't played with much - about the closest I've come is that there's a certain understanding that songs from Evinnen are very much like classic Celtic tunes:  depressing and full of woe.  That leads to the following exchange, which also touches upon the second kind of humor in drawing a parallel to another genre of music in our contemporary world:

“Matheus, Matheus!”  The inventor Valchem’s face lit with a child’s enthusiasm.  “What happens if you take a traditional Evinneni song and play it backwards?”

“You get your life back, you get your health back, you get your true love back?” the hero hazarded.

In any case, it's definitely something I want to work with more.  Obviously, characters laughing at something the reader doesn't "get" can become tiresome fast, but it's a nice level for worldbuilding.  Anyone have any nice examples of this?

Wednesday, June 04, 2014

GoodReads Review: Unsympathetic Magic

Unsympathetic Magic (Esther Diamond, #3)Unsympathetic Magic by Laura Resnick
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Struggling actress Esther Diamond is back as the calamities of her everyday life collide headlong with the rising of the dead. This book does an excellent job of introducing new threads and interweaving old ones, all with a riotous humor that had me laughing out loud - and I'm a tough sell for audible laughter. Esther's escapades pile atop each other and play out in a convincing and engaging fashion, and it all feels like the inevitable - if hilarious - result of what came before.

Only two things kept me from giving this book full stars. First, Resnick's research is showing: the story grinds to a halt to discuss the finer points of vodou (and similar spellings, etc), the associated religion, the spirits ... it's interesting information, but it stops the plot dead with its bulk. Second, three books in, the barriers between Esther and Lopez are beginning to feel well-worn, the same clich├ęs I hate in romantic comedies. There's still much to enjoy in their relationship, but my patience with the contrivances is wearing thin.

Overall, though, this book comes highly recommended. It was quite simply a blast to read.

View all my reviews

Tuesday, June 03, 2014

Tuesday Thoughts

This will be roughly two parts life rant, one part writing rant.  So you have been warned.

I've watched a number of reality shows where the contestants are vying for the opportunity to start their own businesses, and one thing that has always annoyed me about popular media seems to come to the fore in these shows:  if you have passion, you have to wear it on your sleeve.  If you are devoted, you have to be visibly emotional.  If you are controlled and collected, then the judges seem to think you are apathetic.

In some way, this makes sense:  not being in someone else's head, we can only judge by what they demonstrate, and that goes doubly for the home viewer, who is only seeing selectively edited clips.  But to me, the assumption that people who are less emotive, or uncomfortable with loud displays, somehow have less fire than the rest of us ... it grates on my nerves.  There is a type of person for whom these outbursts are unnatural.  Trying to force it would be farce.

As you might have guessed, I am this type of person.  Under stress and pressure, things may bubble up, but otherwise, I keep quiet and internalize my emotions.  And that's all right with me.  I don't enjoy when the moment gets the best of me.  I prefer to stay composed.  The people around me don't need to be burdened with my emotional minutiae.  Does that mean I don't feel as much as someone who is more vocal?  Definitely not.  The inside of my head can be a powder keg.

I promised there would be writing talk in this post, so here it is:  I sometimes (though not exclusively) write characters whose reactions come from that same, reserved place, and I find that reviewers will pick upon certain character reactions as being too mild or detached.  Sometimes, this is because I haven't properly illuminated the thoughts bottled up behind the outward calm, which I then set about correcting, but other times, it's simply the reaction itself that provokes this critique.

So I strengthen the mental underpinnings, but I'm not budging on the outward quality of reserve.  Because even if this sort of person is unusual, they do exist.  Hi!  I'm pleased to meet you.