Saturday, November 28, 2009

The End and The Editing

La la la, oh, sorry. Caught me in the middle of the NaNo/Thanksgiving happy dance. Fifty thousand words and 131 pages (double-spaced) later, I'm finally catching up on my reading. I think writing wrings it out of me and, like a dehydrated runner, I'm gulping down the sentences and chapters of the books that have been waiting by the desk. This week it was Blue Diablo by Ann Aguirre and Rosemary and Rue by Seanan McGuire. Both books centered on a female character for whom the particular mystery in each book was not their first rodeo. One could draw other similarities, but they would be endemic to the genre.

Blue Diablo had a unique urban setting and voice for it's protagonist, Corine Solomon. Despite a frenetic storyline, her voice was never less than assured with humor cracking beneath. She was vulnerable enough to elicit empathy and strong enough to drive the story forward with her choices. Since the story hewed closely to the Texas/Mexico border, the descriptions and concerns felt both new in terms of my reading and familiar in terms of the politics and concerns of living in Texas. Rosemary and Rue shared the same frenetic pacing, but it played more like a movie such as Crank or Speed, in that motion seemed to be the entire goal of the plot and at times I felt I was being shoved forward through yet another door with the story shredding around me as I tried to keep up. Not that the story wasn't interesting or that I didn't enjoy it--I enjoyed both books and will look for the second in each series.

However, I am wondering when the pendulum will swing back from the action every second plotting that marks so much contemporary fantasy and back into the slower but for me more enjoyable action, breathing space, action, breathing space pacing that marks some older works. I dislike finding myself at the end of a book relieved that I don't have to suffer through the character's insane life anymore. Each time I pick up a new book, I'm hopeful that it will represent an author that I'm going to want to follow over the course of several books, someone who is going to show me something different, not shake me through a series of creative trope-tweaks while he or she whips the characters into pulp, occasionally rewarding them with cheap sex or a resolution that gives them extra-narrative breathing (gasping, rather) room.

I think part of me will never enjoy the pulp fiction elements in any genre. It's a worry of mine, because it seems like something that other people enjoy and that I as a writer (and human being) should master. What I miss, though, is wonder. Even dark tales can contain their elements of amazement and discovery, but when you're moving at 80 miles an hour down your plot track, it's easy to miss those moments or just flat out mow them down. Why can't adult fiction aspire to the gasp and awe of children's literature?

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

It's Still November

So we're dealing with NaNo guilt. Because it's not just your friends and family who are eager to over-obligate you . . .your imagination is would like to do so as well. Am I actually reading anything else in November? Not really.

Instead, I'm trying to work out what is becoming a four-part novel that bears little resemblance to anything that I've written and is instead covered with snake and dragon and fire imagery. It's like some other book bled copiously into my narrative. I've quit several times, only to have this feeling of guilt creep up on me. Who else is going to tell this story (who will care?!?)--it's almost like the main character is tugging at me to keep telling its story. This confirms my theory that guilt has a gravitational aspect, since the main character is a sentient planet who is learning to be an individual through first contact with a gaggle of spacefaring humans. Since this is a fantasy masquerading as science fiction, everything feels just a little off.

I start other stories but am drawn back to this one. Who will tell the story of this little corner of the universe and the struggle of a planet to transform itself from an insular paradise into a connected part of the universe without becoming deranged? In at least 50,000 words before the end of November? Anyone?

Sunday, November 8, 2009

And Then There Was Silence...And Crickets

It's November, so I'm NaNoing in another universe and unable to pick up the blog right now. Actually, my novel and I are having a completely dysfunctional relationship and cordially resenting each other. I quit for a day, deleted my word count and my summary from the NaNoWriMo site and growled at everyone who came near. I'm picking that up from Varda, who is quite a talker when you get her going. She's also been sneaking my stress putty to use as gum, so there is a decreasing amount on my desk just when I need it most.

Since it's just a NaNo novel (I have several sitting around gathering dust), it probably shouldn't matter that I'm having such a hard time with it, or that I have several weeks of novel classes shouting in my head while I'm trying to write it, or that I'm hating exactly the things I would have otherwise liked in it. Disillusionment with "how to write" shibboleths is setting in. Aren't we all glad that I've found another medium within which to bitch? Why don't I just go read a good book?

Fortunately, there are lots of good ones lying around and I'm looking forward to working through them during my increasingly extended NaNo breaks. Stashed in various locations are The Mermaid's Madness (by Jim Hines), Ice (by Sarah Durst), and The Sun, The Moon, and The Stars (by Steven Brust). Yea!! Stuff to read!! On a side note, it's time to put romance novels back on the shelf with other romance novels. Yes, putting in the Fantasy section will sometimes fool me. Yes, I will sometimes buy one. No, I will not be happy. More than likely, I won't finish something that's about little more than how devastating it is to be away from the pretty wolf-boy demon elf thief while actually having to--gasp--live your life! Stuff it, cupcake, and get on with the story.

ooooooooo. No more posts while on NaNo. Cue the crickets! Here cricket, cricket, cricket. . .

Sunday, October 11, 2009


I'm still not quite ready for the synthesis of Surfside and fairy tales. I approach it, draft it, and leave the carcass on the beach. While casting it aside, I continue to march grimly through Cultural Amnesia. I can't stop reading this book. It feels like sitting in a library in an Ivy League college when you're not really there for the education, but you like the idea of the way it smells and looks for the few moments you're there. Worlds pass in the comings and goings of the books.

As you might imagine from the paragraph above, worlds that barely touch anything other than my imagination. It is unlikely that I will even do myself the favor of picking out some of the recommended German texts and try to recover my college German in words that are a beginner's way into the tongue. The idea startles me with the effort involved--learning a language for no reason other than the beauty of the thoughts contained therein. I couldn't learn one when I thought my grades and future employment depended on it. But then, so much of that education was posited as a financial investment that so far hasn't paid off in more than the momentary double-take of a temporary agency staffer in that degree being listed on the otherwise clerical resume.

I won't be picking up German again because I never had a good understanding of more than a few words in the first place. Even my mother retained enough of her French to be able to read in it decades after her last exam. She loved the language to the extent that she could sing in it and read it to us when we were little. While this is probably due to her own proclivities, one wonders if it was also that she learned enough of it to be able to do as the author of these essays that I'm reading suggests--she knew it well enough to pick up a book written in the language and puzzle her way through it.

Another question that occurs to me as I go through this book is why I was never introduced to the essay in school. We wrote them for grades for years, yet we never studied the ones that were written in the journals of our time or any previous ones. Why didn't we study a form that we were supposed to write? Why didn't we study criticism in addition to literature? Journalism in addition to fiction? Why was my English education limited to a poor selection of classical fiction? It gave me the idea that there was room for an extra book; that I might be able to contribute to a thin stream of literature that skipped from great book to great book like a frog traversing a pond?

Please don't take these remarks to be directed at teachers, who are looking for competence in state-directed areas (less so when I was in school, thank goodness). They are more directed at the areas chosen by the faceless nameless who decided that I should learn to write an essay without the benefit of ever learning to what uses they could be put. It's also directed at myself for never asking the questions until now.

And, of course, the forecast is for didactic reading to continue through the next several weeks. Per a chance comment encountered earlier, I'm also thinking about seeing if I can finish War and Peace in a week. Anyone out there a fan who'd like to offer encouragement? Favorite scenes? Favorite character?

Thursday, October 8, 2009


Submerged in Clive James' Cultural Amnesia, I feel as if I'm walking on the bottom of the ocean on the ashes of civilization--remnants of good and evil alike rolled like a palate beneath the ceaseless muttering of a haunted sea. So far, this is a book an edifice, a beautiful tomb of an education that must have died before reaching the practical university from which I took my degree.

It shocks me how these tiny vignettes can render a day pointless and yet remind one that remaining engaged may be the only meaning one can hope to find in it. I need to slow down, to restrict myself to just a few names a week.

Despite the negativity it engenders, it forms part of the bulwhark against the nattering of the story-formation lecturers; the ideas present both argue against allowing authority to assume to itself knowledge that is absolute-beyond-question and of forgetting that writing is a conversation and not a string of sensational events dragged from the eyes through the nervous system at speed.

There are better things to gain from the book. So far, I've carefully packed away regrets: I speak only one language; I have such a tenuous understanding of world history that famous names float on nothing but fame on a foam of diffidence; I would be one of those people turning away from hard things, I turn away now; and I find only stasis in the terrible stories.

I look forward to going back to the shallows with the next book on the agenda (which I won't name, since I'm bad about picking up yet other books) and exploring the possibility that our world is the safe one, it's the other that is dangerous.

Saturday, September 26, 2009


From the first time I came down into the little carpeted viewing cave to watch them, years ago on my honeymoon in Galveston, sitting in the dimness looking up into the lower section of the seal tank in Moody Gardens and watching the seals twisting in the water act upon my imagination like a gas jet upon a hot air balloon. Heaviness spreads open in a gasp and grace replaces all the foot-pounds of atmosphere standing on my skin.

To see the seals is to remember a time when focus reached outward. Water does more than forgive a shape that land makes awkward, it blesses it with agile speed. The seals spinning and diving remind me of summers going from pool to pool with a desire to be in the middle of the water so that I could imagine myself once more free of each anchor. Leaning against the glass, I let the anchors rest and watch the seals flash by. Do we seem ghosts to the seals? Movement somehow beyond the reflections of themselves? Do they feel the heat of the bodies standing just on the other side of the glass or are we so well masked that we are invisible?

I've set myself a task as a writer, one that displaces the game of literary conformity. This task is to find a way to perform the seals' transformation in prose, to give a reader the chance to be just such an agile component of my language pool that they flash and dive with the characters. This is what I hope for in a good story and what I would strive for (if I could separate the ego-gratification of status or money from my drives) in terms of success. Because they give me a better goal than I would have come up with on my own, the seals get this entry in the blog.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Once upon a title...

Some times we take a blow to that squishy entity known as one's ego. Such a blow fell recently just as I was preparing a new post for this blog. I had thought that I was well-read, particularly in fantasy. Then, I picked up a compilation that I thought was about fantasy art (book covers, magazine covers) through the years. Instead, I found myself being introduced to or reminded of authors that I had a passing familiarity with but whom I had never read or even seen to sneak out of the drawer in the laundry room under the dust rags where dad kept his fiction stash.

So why should this present a blow to my ego? It's a little like comparing what I've read in school to what others have read--generally, people who went to school somewhere north of me have read more than I have. And, since I live close to the Texas coast...there's plenty of north. What this has sometimes led to, oddly enough, is vanity. I think that there are only a few variations on a story so I should never stoop to plot recycling. And yet, a wider reading would have let me know that stories are new in so many ways other than plot. It also means that my understanding of fantasy and an enjoyable read is heavily inflected toward a particular literary style. My reading (and writing) is missing some of the excitement and wonder purveyed by authors working in other styles.

I have a treasure hunt before me. Many of the books I'll be looking for will be out of print or uncommon in current bookstores, so I will have an instant excuse to investigate all kinds of used bookstores and antique stores to hunt for classics. Avast, and keep an eye out for the flag of the tattered pages!

But, dear reader, what does this mean for this blog? Why the title change? There never seemed to be much fantastic fiction that took place in or around water, at least in my limited reading. Drowned cities, giant creatures beneath the waves, and mermaids have fascinated me for a long time. An expanded reading list will hopefully allow me to concentrate on those stories and perhaps on some natural history (guest bloggers?) that explore the mysterious marine.

What will come up from these pools?

Thursday, September 10, 2009


Although it's not presented as a fictional story, I'm going to mention that I've been re-reading Susan Faludi's Backlash lately. I was on a high school memorabilia kick and decided to snap myself out of it by raiding my college bookshelf. As I'm silently cheering to myself as Faludi dismantles certain "trends" and misuse of statistics, I realize that this is a interesting delineation of opposing needs and the misunderstandings that can arise from them--something that I can use when designing manipulative characters and institutions in my own writing and something I should be carefully observing in the stories that I read.

For example, let's consider magazine ad revenue. Magazine stories that portray trends that support their own advertisers are supporting their bottom line. However, the average reader glancing through probably doesn't analyze (except for the really glaring examples) each story for the relevance to keeping advertisers happy versus accurate reporting and in some cases ('in' colors for paining this fall?) it probably doesn't matter as much. What matters is the accepted basis for these trends, such as "a few people think," or "it seems that in the future." Needless to say, these are gentle but accurate ways to say "we just made this up" or "the guy making mohair booties in Poughkeepsie would like it if..."

The pressure of the idea that "everyone is doing it" or "forward-thinking people are doing it" is internalized, becomes a motivation that seems to arise internally but was carefully and subtly (or not so subtly if you're more sceptically inclined that I am--working on it, not there yet) planted. This seems like a good lesson for looking for the more delicate pressure points of characters and for ways to manipulate characters in my own writing. I'm sure forward-thinking writers are doing this already. ;)

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Happy Holiday, First of Fall

Well, it's another comic-book-weekend for one of us and that it makes it another used bookstore weekend for me. The next two weeks will be King of the Sea, by Derek Bickerton and Resume with Monsters, by William Browning Spencer. I've just read a page or two of each and I'm not sure which one should come first, although I suspect the Spencer book should, in case of any horror tropes that need banishing by another story. :)

Meanwhile, I'm back reading Tolkien's essay on fairy stories. I never get very far (shades of Ivanhoe); however, that tends to be because I read a few sentences and just want to crawl from the margins into the type and burrow in for a few days. It must be a form of besottedness, one that responds to concepts and diction instead of voice and form. Voice, in the form of a British accent, would only make it worse (I get that from my mom, who has always disliked Texas, Southern speech patterns, and lazy word choices--an anti-heritage kind of heritage, but what can you do?).

There is a specificity in some academic writing, a clarity of line that I've always enjoyed. This doesn't mean an easiness of reading, rather it is the appearance of a well-formed idea from what was just a related series of sentences. When you respond to a poem, it is this emergence of the idea--language given a chance to rummage around in your head, pull out your sensory memories and threadbare understanding, and create in you a new image, a new idea, a new string of plausibility--that is amazing, a synthesis of possibilities into solidity.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

September Fever: Classes and Excuses

We're working our way through a series of classes in my writer's group generously given by a member who is a workshop veteran and an excellent writer. These classes are interesting and very likely giving me good information (and introducing me to otherwise unknown short stories and ideas); however, I find that they are somewhat inimical to my own writing. I'm afraid of my own foolishness...which is something that won't go away by ignoring it.

Writing is a combination of falling in love with an idea or story, breaking it out of its imagined perfection, assembling the pieces while still holding tight to your desire for the original, and then reworking it into something useful (understandable, enjoyable, publishable). In this respect, you're constantly moving on a continuum of emotional attachment and critical detachment that is sometimes disorienting. The important part of this, however, is that you can only continue to move along this continuum if your writing practice is continual and you have a strong commitment to your own voice. Otherwise, the effort will break your own commitment to the task(think midnight donut binge, only in this case it's a midnight bonfire of drafts).

I'm comfortable with lessons and theories--they can be fun to dissect and argue over. It's fall and I'm happy to curl up and discuss them amongst ourselves. But...the more classes, the more areas to think about, the easier it is to not write. This is probably my lesson. Write. Keep writing. Uncork the ferment of the effort and let it carry you onward.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Planning for Fall

A friend recently suggested that I read Mythago Wood, by Robert Holdstock. We had a copy and I curled up with for three days, reading through the main character's journey from a life lived unstructured into a life lived within a mythic archetype. Along the way, he encounters a father figure grown monstrous with time. Until the deus ex machina encountered late in the novel, the story was compelling: a hungry forest that gives back our fears and dreams, from the first human propiation of the forest to the more recent legends (well...recent as the first world war). The pacing followed the main character's reluctance to begin his journey and then his gradual absorption into the story--normal until his arrival at his birthplace, then slow until he comes to an active role in his own story.

The story is set in that comfortably mythic England--my favorite fantasy land--with old and crumbling houses, wildwoods, and isolated characters who don't care too much about the world tumbling forward around them. It reminded me that part of what I enjoy about fantasy is having someone pull the reins and slow time down, to have the ability to appreciate the creep of the day from dawn to afternoon to evening because you've wedged yourself into a comfortable reading space and have dropped down into your own pocket of space.

Fortunately, there are several interesting books on the schedule for this month, particularly as I slot some older stories in as research for some of the things that I'm working on. I'm thinking about starting to look for three books to take me through these next three seasons -- Halloween, Thanksgiving, and Christmas. Maybe I'll move Ivanhoe to the Thanksgiving slot. I am determined to finish this novel this time. So far, I'm not even past the introductory letter to Dr. Dryasdust. You'd think this would be a favorite, but I never make it all the way through.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Whom Do You Love?

In talking to my family recently, I realized that I've made one of those assumptions that reveal some of our opinions for the asinine craziness they are. This assumption was about what reading is--that it involves reading fiction (preferably fantastic fiction) for fun and that everyone should be doing this. That readers who like nonfiction aren't 'real' readers. What an idiot I am and what an opportunity I've missed to share interests with someone rather than hector them.

My bookshelves have classics, natural history, fantasy, science fiction, biography...many genres and many time periods. They are a reflection of my interests and I am well-read to the extent that money and time offer me the opportunity to be so. However, that doesn't make me the "typical" reader, the "right kind" of reader, or a "scholar." It makes me a reader.

As my writer's group discusses different ways to become better writers, we begin to touch on the assumptions that are the basis of our judgment calls and our writing. I can attest that this can be difficult, as I seek to break down firmly established opinions about fantasy and writing and come out with a better, more entrancing story. Learning the difference between the writer's skill comment and the reader's preference comment is still one of the hardest challenges of belonging to a group. After all, I, too, tend to offer opinions on the 'right' way to approach a character or story and find myself sometimes peeved that the author and I don't share a closer basis for our fictional architecture. I'll be running at this wall until I break through and I be interested in hearing from others who've made it to the other side. How did you come to trust in your writing or music or art or whatever?

Friday, August 21, 2009

And We're Reading, Reading

The past few posts have been general and it might seem that the proverbial nightstand has been empty; rather, I've been reading a few longer things that didn't move as quickly as expected. One is Silverlock, which is an interesting trip deftly negotiated but one that begs you to keep looking up references and breaking out of the story to chase another rabbit. It verifies that I'm nowhere near as well-read as I need to why am I reading this novel? Aside from the fun of finding signposts for new books and following the good-humored guide and narrator through their mix of plots and periods, that is.

I'm excited about next month's review for Supernatural Fairy Tales, as well. The book we've chosen is a great read and had me hooked from the first few chapters. It was a fun detour between the serious stacks on writing and the thick fantasy puzzles still on the nightstand.

Books on poetic myth are the other side of this stack and those are just starting to filter slowly down in the back of my brain. These are the concepts that are mean to be fed deep into the understory of understanding, the things that give the symbols shape and the themes a familiar chime when you run them around the glass. Right now, it's Robert Graves but I'm thinking that next it should be something Celtic and oakey in honor of Renfest and Fall.

That does it for the sweets, here are the sours: Is anyone actually editing Realms of Fantasy?! The first story in the current edition had so many typing errors I felt as if I was reading something intended as a lesson for markups. Clashing, clanging words that were spelled correctly (thanks, SpellCheck!!) but didn't belong in their sentences. I didn't bother with the second story, although I'm sure that I'll go back to it. It didn't help that the stories seem to be continuing in the dark fantasy tradition that is seeping up and clutching the neck of the entire genre. Grumpiness ensues. Fortunately, I've got a few other magazines to peruse, including the new-to-me The Black Gate. Grumpiness abates. :)

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Avoiding The Desk

After attending a spectacular class given by a member of our writing group last night, I came to the intimidating conclusion that I should throw out all of the material I'd worked up on the novel I'm currently writing. Fortunately, it's our week to clean up the house, so all of it is being shuffled into a folder and crammed at the back of my already full writing drawer. Tomorrow, starting over from word 1 (outline level one, actually).

So, now that I'm in the mood for analysis, I've been thinking about conflict. Specifically, why I'm so bad at getting my characters into serious trouble. Part of this is that I enjoy meandering and looking at stuff, so that characteristic tends to pop up in my writing. Part of it, though, is that I'm realizing that I prefer a kind of ultimate stability, the kind of temperate grace that Tolkien, Susan Cooper, Madeleine L'Engle, Robert Silverberg, and early Anne McCaffery portrayed in their societies and use of magic. One might go through a thunderstorm, but one was relatively sure that the grass would be softer for it. I prefer to read it, but I don't yet understand how to write it. Or if it's something that I still believe in.

Even when I worked in the city and the pigeons were crying from the dumpster lip, I was imagining fairies with 20's finery, fashion bruised green and purple from it's brush with modernity but still enchanting. Shifts in taste have brought us to a landscape in which urban decay, madness, lust, and the last reserve of humanity lash about, loving and killing the monsters that stalk through the stories. Plots revved ever higher squeal past in sequel after sequel. This isn't my headspace, although that does not bless or condemn it. Fantastic fiction has become a new city for me.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Twinkie Dense

Remember when novels came in different lengths? When 200 pages could contain a fascinating story? Why are fantasy novels so long now? Are they denser...and denser how? World-building, gravitational rotation of character development dense or filler dense (twinkie dense)? Lately I've been feeling that more of what I read contains a certain amount of flash-bang expansion of this twinkie density: grotesque fight scenes, diary-quality character rumination, and desperately high stakes that eventually peter off into stratospheric incomprehensibility.

As I've been haunting used bookstores looking for Brittle Innings and am taken by the number of fantasy novels from years (or decades) ago that accomplish all of the intensity, character building, and world building in a much smaller space. Longer novels seem to be solely about a great confligration that flickers, ignites, and steadily consumes the characters. So many actions and reactions fall into the fire that evenutally only the great theme--survival--emerges. In a smaller novel, there is time to see some of the smaller actions and thoughts loom larger and, for me, this means that I can enjoy the arc of a well-told story in a way that I can't with a larger tale.

This doesn't mean I'm ready to sweep away any novel longer than 200 pages. What it does mean is that I'd like to see good stories in miniature--not novelizations that gloss a movie or tiny stories that cram in all the flash-bang twinkie grandiosity and none of the interest. Focused stories are much more common in fiction aimed at younger readers; but I don't believe that I've lost my interest in a good story as I've gotten older. I just don't always have the time or patience for the long version of the History of the Fifty Fiefdoms of Planet Huge and Perilous. I'd like to know what happened on the one day that the eldest daughter of the smallest fiefdom visited her cousin in the forest of the largest fiefdom and why it mattered. Maybe tomorrow I'll be ready for the epic.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Couch-Bound, Waiting For the Resolution

What are we reading today? Well, despite a few recent disappointments with urban fantasy, particularly as it plays pin-ball with thriller, romance, and science fiction, I found my copy of Magic Bites, by Ilona Andrews and have been hovering over the page, waiting to see how it turns out.

The story is lithe and drew me further and further in, while questions regarding who the main character is, what is going on with her world, etc. kept me picking through the details for more clues. Laying on the couch and poking my toes under the snarfling dogs, I enjoyed the unfamiliar setting (Atlanta) and the idea of an ebb and flow of magic, which gave a lovely visual and kinetic mood to the story (think of gazing into a snowglobe and letting your imagination drift with each shake). Since this is a darker urban fantasy, there were parts that I would have preferred to skim regarding the tortuous progress of the villian, but I was glad that the twists didn't telegraph themselves quickly nor did the main character seem to be half a person searching for her other half. Instead, her determination and professionalism bristled around her. I found that the narrative voice didn't function as distinctively as I could have wished...perhaps a bit too much bravado and sabre-rattling and not enough local flavor? She was fun to read but somewhat opaque (well in keeping with her established persona) and I suppose that I wanted a little more--not sure of what, exactly. Could be something as simple as a little more specific information on what the parameters of this world are. Maybe in the next book?

Time to snag the Pesky and get back to the rest of the book.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Who Was Supposed to Bring the Stakes?

What is fantasy? How comprehensible is the "fate of the world?" Yesterday, all I could do was keep reading Fair Peril, Nancy Springer's fascinating trip through the idea of frog kings and the perils of love's fantasy. As I was thinking about the book after I was through, I realized that my definition of fantasy was congealing.

This could be dangerous, since a definition already formed may not admit of other examples that don't adhere to a previous rigid standard. Yet, I need some way to explain, at least for myself, why something speaks to me and another work doesn't. Yesterday, fear made sense as something that is often missing. And it is, along with the idea that we are hazarding something more than ourselves in a fantasy novel.

Fantasy is the acceptance that our experience is far from a solid state rational evaluation of rules and needs. Fantasy that contains that risk of transformation (whether into a new creature or into a new state of understanding) will contain an element of fear, a familiar dread of things that are currently navigable (whether they are good or bad or a mix) being drowned in a new set of experiences that are less so. This is much different from a simple story of discovering a talent that one then exploits or putting a character in physical danger over and over again until he or she is a patched rag doll of a hero. Stakes are more than what happens to our bodies and what punishment we take changes our perceptions.

Transformative stories give the character the chance to be something different--no longer a child, no longer a neutral force in the world, no longer a recognizable part of this village. Part of my dissatisfaction with certain series is that the characters only risk harm, they don't risk change. They can't move, they can't get a new circle of friends, they can't truly risk transformation. It's not the "in" monster, the "in" metaphor. It's the character who is willing to take the chance that he or she will be something different at the end of the book.

As I was composing this, a friend posted an interview with an author regarding her new werewolf novel. The interview is interesting and the book sounds like a story that moves into the areas that I've discussed above--a true fantasy about negotiating and surviving a transformation, the willingness to make a difficult choices and risk not just oneself but also one's society. Check it out and let me know how you define fantasy and what you look for in a good story.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Fear and the Fantastic

Recently I've been reading The Face in the Frost by John Bellairs and Fair Peril by Nancy Springer and they've both helped me to reconnect with something that I had been missing in other works of fantasy--the dread of the unknown and a sense of sadness for things that pass through our lives. When I was reading Tolkien as a child, giant pony-eating goblins were frightening, as were spiders large enough to carry off small children. The bright passages were stunning and the dark ones were chill, but this is something that I see less of now than I did then.

It could be that fantasists don't write about bright and dark the same way, but it could also be harder for me to find the wonder that I did then or corral my anxieties into fear for a work of fiction; yet, these authors brought me into their worlds and populated them with that pleasant unease that makes you creep toward the door behind which is a faint banging...

Perhaps its just that at the turn of the year I'm looking for a good ghost story, something to shiver me out of the drought my tiny bit of Texas is undergoing (and over which rain clouds with a mean sense of humor linger and then fade). It's this sense of unease and possibly outright fear that feeds the stakes of a fantasy novel and it's something that is difficult to do well if you're focusing on a fantastic escape or a fantastic romance. So far, both of these books are charming me deeper down the hallway. The banging is still faint, but I'm thinking it may become louder very shortly.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Lead Me Not Unto Distraction

The only thing I can hear in my head is "The Sound of Silence" playing over and over as a familiar darkness crawls through me. However, I know that this is just a symptom of a more immediate letdown--that of finishing Ted Kooser's "The Poetry Home Repair Manual." It's rare to find a book on writing that inspires me to put pen to paper and blue moon/hen's tooth amazing to find one that inspires me to revise.

Kooser's work isn't about a set of publish-your-bestseller-now rules, it's a manual of close observation, of vocabulary in all its farmer's market glory, fresh, ripe, and meaningful to the dish. His examples prove his points and his deconstruction of those examples into less polished imagined drafts seem painfully familiar. I've made these mistakes! But, thankfully, I now understand the ways they break the structure or undermine the meaning.

This insight is what I look for in books about writing. I understand how to put a sentence together and I am familiar with story forms, but I get impatient and I hurry and I skip drafts that I shouldn't. Kooser reminds me that I should take the same care and joy in the crafting that I did in putting together a set of procedures. He calms a little of the I'm-getting-old, everyone-else-is-better fear and reminds me to focus.

If you've ever picked up a writing guide, you may have come across the breathless insistence on simplification, formulas just obscured enough to get by, and general treatment of writing and just another way to make another disposable product in everyone's hand today and pitched for the next one tomorrow. If you treat it like a distraction, it will be nothing more, something screaming from the sidelines and sliding away from you like sweat. The Poetry Home Repair Manual is about works that are the towel that helps you see more clearly, despite the distractions and the effort of the day (a million apologies for the graceless metaphor).

Friday, July 17, 2009

The Artifacts of My Future

There it went, the future in a Reynold's wrap. The delicate, wood grain console future, with its primary-colored lights blinking behind opaque plastic and humming with an internal, transistorized focus: my future, the one rumored with professions of competence, even if it was only competence in weilding the machines that would allow me to keep house. Maybe this seems old-fashioned, the kind of inanity that allowed the SciFi channel to bastardize its acronym in the hopes of a better trademark--we look forward in hope and back in silliness.

Oddly enough, the latest art exhibit at the MFAH (Museum of Fine Arts Houston) focusing on the existing Latin American art collection, seemed redolent of that future. Color and transparent glass, wire work hanging in a graceful suspension of shadow and breeze, and the dream of pods floating above a city, naked to its gaze. Not the silliness (although there was humor), but the best kind of vision where your eye is given over to the artist, to play in a different outlook.

What I remember from the imagined futures of the past is that I didn't expect to be here, online, connected...educated and yet not able to understand the new futures that proliferate daily. The exhibit gave back my expected future and in doing so gave back some of the joy that I had taken in anticipating it. It broke a logjam I hadn't realized inside.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Looking for a Good Book

First, there was the recommendation: Brittle Innings, by Michael Bishop. Then there was the long Sunday and looking it up on the 'net, finding the cover picture that promised a different but welcome tale, followed by the realization that a book published in 1994 could be thoroughly out of print, absent from the local used bookstores, and relatively (though not completely) unobtainable.

Now, the crash. A good book from a previous decade gone as if it had never been, flushed away from the shelves by mixed formula genres, extended role playing tie-ins, and several shelves of an imported genre into which I've yet to find my way. Not that I need another book--every flat surface around here is piled with them, including a different title by Michael Bishop, the aforementioned mixed formula books, and not a few role-playing tie-ins.

At this point, however, I'm going to regret the better books that get away. Reading is no longer a slightly subversive immersion, sinking into different perceptions while watching the world go by, it is the thing that I have five minutes to catch in a waiting room, a self-selected commercial break, twenty minutes away from the tottering list of chores before my house slips into Gormenghast territory. Better books make that immersion possible, even in short periods of time, whereas other books slip past with the speed of the present.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Working in the Mythos

In keeping with yesterday's topic and because I'm still not adjusted to my new schedule and not reading much, today is about everyday mythology. Recently, I attended a convention that included panels on using mythology in fiction, which were evenly divided between "use what works, however it works" and "do your research, know your sources." These aren't mutually exclusive in fact, but may be in outcome.

As a reader, I tend to fall into the first category. I've had the privilege of reading works done by friends that updated or used the bones of existing stories and made of them something newly compelling; not for their adherence to origins or use of ornamentation, but because of the characters through whom we see the story. What these characters experienced and how they acted had nothing to do with the way someone would have perceived the world 300 years ago or even 50 years ago, nor did it have anything to do with an official, academic understanding of a myth or fairy tale. Instead, they told an interesting story. For a brief moment, one was able to slip through the soap-slick boundary of the story and suspend oneself within for the entirety of the reading of it, without piercing that boundary and melting one's concentration with spikey aggregates of uncoalesced detail.

On the other hand, I would expect a story that sets itself firmly in the realm of existing mythologies to have a recognizable relationship to our existing understanding of such mythologies. Since I don't have a degree in this area, I wouldn't read such a book looking for this type of inaccuracy anyway. Fiction is the circumventing of our actual chain-of-event reality and cuts many corners to achieve this (eating, elimination, POV shifts, setting, etc.) and adherence to existing ideas, research, or cultural accuracy may be one of these corners. What struck me as interesting in the discussion, however, was the notion of respecting a culture through research. What does this mean?

We live in a society and time when there is a tremendous amount of information lurking in our stream of consciousness; where we could find leprechauns used as bathroom gender markers, thunderbirds scrawled across motorcycle chassis, and crosses dangling from the breasts of rockers and celebrities. What kind of respect is due in a story that arises from this mix? Is respect itself even a responsible goal for fiction? Whom are we respecting? In avoiding cliche, one might avoid stereotyping and the like; however, in writing a fictional acount of a fictional world, what responsibility does the author have to assess and include current and existing myths and folklore? If my thunderbird rises from the back of a motorcycle and swallows a couple of Norse-speaking ravens, is that disrespectful? If she then gives birth to a cat that senses the snarls of North American magic and untangles it so that a mage arises who begins a new tradition, is that disrepectful?

How should we be working in the mythos? What is considered disrepectful and why?

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Density Intensity

Are fairy tales expanded or fairy tales updated anything other than an excuse for ornamentation? Since many of these tales are short in their "original" form, are longer versions necessary?

For me, the answer lies in whether the writer is using the bones of the story as an excuse for ever more outre or thickening detail or whether they are being used as a subtle guide for a plot that runs of its own accord, not slowing down to admire itself in the mirror as it passes. As a writer, I am in love with detail, with the single image and the way words ring together or perpetuate a discord through a paragraph. As a reader, I prefer a story in which each part (action, description, characters) become an indivisible whole. Even freakishly detailed pieces can accomplish this, provided the author is aware that details serve the story.

Lately, I've encountered a few stories in which the opposite occured. These were fairy tales that were expanded like taffy, impossibly rich narratives in which the plot gave way beneath you, slowing you down and smothering you. The fact that I "knew" the story in each case made me impatient for the plot to move forward. Why linger on the side of the road staring at the magic-laden bushes when there is an evil sorceress after you? Why spend time nattering on about your wedding night, the color of the carpet, or the rude staff when your husband is the equivalent of a murdering pirate? Although some of the phrases are beautiful and the images arresting, the rest of the work is the equivalent of a slog through muddy paths leading to the next camera-ready view.

Short stories typically have an easier time merging the details with the action and miss most of the over-indulgency of the longer works.

Where do you stand on reworked fairy tales? Any favorites that I might have overlooked?

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Crushed Kibble

The vet provided Merlin with a puppy kit for large dogs, the only one available at our appointment. The kibble is gargantuan, compared to Merlin's mouth. He's managed to scatter it all over the house, since he scoops up mouthfuls of it and runs around, dropping some on his pile of toys, some behind the chair, some in the kitchen in anticipation of other treats. This morning I crushed piece of it to dust trying to navigate around the sink while looking at Merlin. Within seconds, that piece of kibble had been inhaled by the dog.

It didn't seem surprising at the time; however, just having read Joyce's "The Dead," I was in a mood to see it as a metaphor--an example of the way that some things must be reduced in order to be consumed or recognized. Some stories are able to do this, to crumble enough of your perceptions together with those of the characters to give you and insight or a change of perspective.

It's not an uncommon thought or a particularly insightful realization, more of a reminder of the way that literature can work.

I remember reading stories in school and not having the life experience to understand them and I remember taken some of them in directly, but I don't remember much of what was read, except that we were reading for a purpose, which gives you leave to ignore everything but that purpose. Reading for theme? Pick one (or invent one) and tag as much as possible so that you can write five paragraphs on it later. I've been relearning how to read ever since.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

And In MY World

A friend loaned me a small book yesterday (Lee Killough's Checking on Culture) on building realistic structures of culture and ecology in a created world. The author had several suggestions for further reading, but provided an excellent checklist for cultural components, everything from law to cosmetics. There were brief examples scattered throughout the text, many of which were reminders about the variations in human culture through societies. Some examples were taken from the author's work, but these were relevant and gave an author's eye viewpoint that tended to encourage one's own interest in how or why to include a component. On the whole, a handy overview with a checklist that I'm looking forward to using.

I was disappointed by the lack of an editorial hand in the text's grammar, however. The author used several sentence fragments, along with several "..." that could have been better converted to other structures. While I don't feel this takes away from the information presented in the text, it does make it read more awkwardly and is distracting. I've gotten over feeling like ogre saying that grammar and proper editing is important--if it reads like unpolished English, then the reader is not only distracted by the errors but is also cheated of the casual confirmation of existing grammatical structures that reinforce his or her grammatical understanding.

While grammar may be a luxury at this point, the information provided in the text is something that will improve my own understanding of stories that I'm reading. When I have the opportunity, I'm going to pick up a copy of Checking on Culture for my own reference shelf (rapidly expanding into several shelves).

Friday, May 8, 2009

Live Long

We are all thinking about napping, even I, with my nose in a book of essays on The Lord of the Rings, can feel my eyelids slipping slower across my eyes. Each essay gives a different version of encountering Tolkien; i.e, being bought off by family, needing a place to escape family, etc. The essays remind me of the passages that I've forgotten and of reading in my bedroom as a child and what it was to have no space of my own but the book I'd fallen into.

Reading is the furnishing of the space of my own, the charting and plotting of my own imagination. Since not every book that I read will become something I remember or think of, I can't say that I'm charting the author's vision, exactly. More accurately, I've been given a map and have been left to find the seas and the islands on my own.

As I grow older, my mind is less flexible and I am spoiled by the physical realities of a home of my own. The space that I charted is less accessible, the ideals fainter and the edges of the old charts burned, torn, and ragged. I can hear my knees creak as I try to twist around the edge of the laundry totem tent (otherwise known as the drying rack)and keep an eye on the tussling puppy. It's too easy to sit in front of the tv and let it dream for me.

The essays don't let me off the hook for this. I'm reminded that Tolkien spent decades in creating and refining and writing, that if I'm willing to outsource my imagination now, I'm letting the degradation begin--of the language, the ideas, the morality, the will--that will cause my carefully charted self to become a landfill of flash and emotion and reflexive need for stuff. Of course, I still want books--but I need to remember that I want to create and chart a space that is consonant with what I judge to be good, not with the echoes of emptiness and formula.

And yet, good is often found in unexpected places. At the movies today, I found myself getting chills from the narration at the end of the latest Star Trek movie. Somehow, the calm intonation of Spock filling a theater upon which the stars and planets swerved brought me to tears--in this, too, I at one time believed, that through exploration we are saved and that logic and a strong team were the appogee of the adult world.

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Nom Nom Nom, Chomp

Writing with a puppy on my lap, attached to the desk, and a retriever circling for attention. I have a scrape running for about 8 inches down my neck and collarbone, running the course of the necklace that the puppy was attached to previously. Heat and humidity prevent open windows, but the books are still open.

Lately, I've been doing lots of reading about reading and writing (and puppies), but my favorite so far has been Francine Prose's "Reading Like a Writer." Her writing is conversational in the sense that she reads more deeply than I do and comes up with insights and understanding like a good friend waving from the middle of a pond with an interesting new find from the bottom. Even if you're not as strong a swimmer, you're still happy to sit on the dock and listen to her talk about what she's found below.

I've discovered that my favorite "how-to" books share this sense of enthusiasm, this acceptance of the crafting and submersion in the same that certain books on writing ignore. These books shout at the reader--you can write a bestseller!! Cut to the chase!! Ignore everything but the action!! These are the same writers who fail to understand the difference in the experience of reading and the experience of playing a videogame or watching a movie. Oddly enough, I'm not sure that the suggestions are very different, but the understanding is.

I believe the puppy just learned that chewing on an unbalanced object, like chewing on the retirever, is a mistake. Sometimes the gate you're chewing on falls on you with a clatter. He moves like a ballet dancer enpointe when he's trying to get past the secure puppy gate. I'm sure that soon his ability to leap will surpass the gate's ability to stretch. At this point, the retreiver won't be able to snooze by the gate and watch the show without risking the show jumping straight upon his head.

The next book on my list is "Words Overflow by Stars," in between "Spindle's End" and two Tolkien books, one discussion of his use of light imagery and one a series of essays by authors whose experience of the LOTR trilogy brought them to writing or to SciFi & fantasy. Again, it's a conversational and quick book, something that one doesn't necessarily admits to reading, but does for the reassurance that Actual WritersTM worry about measuring up but that they fling themselves upon the barricades willingly and without fear. Kinda like Merlin and the puppy gate.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Top Five

I've been reading lots of writing books lately, seeing similar examples of well-judged writing over and over, most of which are excerpted from works I haven't yet read. Touchstone fiction, the examples that you turn to when you're looking for an example in a conversation or when you're looking for something to review to remember what lured you into reading and then writing and then, possibly, teaching. Having taking a different path, my top five, the books that I turn to when I'm sick or anxious or want to take a vacation back into their certainities, don't appear in the examples.

How did I get here? To this stew of writing and working and caring for the dichotomous dogs of attention and sleep? The signposts at which I turned are:

1. The Hobbit. My dad kept a stash of books in a chipped white chest of drawers in the laundry room--the Xanth novels, the Hoka novels--books that were not for the kids to read. There was a barrel-riding hobbit in the middle of grey river on the cover of this one, and it was the first one that he let me read.

2. The Lord of the Rings. Afternoon, morning, weekend, on and on, resting on my bed under my window and trying to osmose the loyalty, faith, and inborn nobility of the characters, not to mention learn how to be as creative and unworldly as the elves. Again, it was the pale covers and the archaic world that entranced me initially.

3. Gaudy Night. Mom gave me this fascination with the British detective novel. Although some of them became series in which repetive descriptions dulled the experience, Dorothy Sayers' Peter Wimsey books didn't. I've purchased more than one copy of this book as the re-reading gradually results in missing covers and pages missing triangles from their upper corners.

4. The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe. Lucy's tea in the middle of a winter forest was just as entrancing to a Texas girl as the story itself.

5. This last space is reserved for a book that I read as a child, but the name of which I've forgotten. I remember the story had a moon-faced witch who's cat was lost and the witch and a girl looked for the cat underground, in the tunnels of gnomes and in, I believe, pirate galleys. When they found the cat, she had slipped away to have kittens, one of which the girl was able to have to care for. The illustrations, washes of color that seemed as if the book itself dreamed them, are the reason that it takes this place. That and the prosaic need of the cat as contrasted to the vivid fantasy of the search for her.

What signposts beguiled you?

Sunday, April 19, 2009


An Open Window and An Open Book is the best way to spend the cool, transitional seasons for a reader living close enough to the Texas coast to have a hurricane plan. After the dogs and I have a had a chance to go run off the work week or the energy of a few extra slices of bread, we're ready for napping, reading, and contemplational sleep. :)

Instead of letting it filter out and away in the normal course of the day, I'm going to bring the ideas and challenges that I find in the books that I'm reading to this blog. One day, I would love to open a bookstore called The Cave, carrying only sci-fi/fantasy books on wooden shelves like an old library, with chairs in alcoves and blind book alleys and conversation murmuring indiscretely from the debates regarding magic systems, fantastic creatures, and the logic behind leaving the fields we know, losing ourselves in the cool afternoon, just having opened that window.

Come along, come along.