Tiny updates

* Still no cover yet. Don’t fret: you’ll be the first to know, once it’s official and I’m allowed to shove the artwork in everyone’s face, crying, “Look! Looooook!” So really, enjoy the quiet while you’ve still got it.

* I started reading Enchanted Glass yesterday, Diana Wynne Jones’s last novel (unless there’s something posthumous up the sleeve of her estate)(ooh, the Wikipedia page makes it sound like there is another one, or part of another one anyway). It’s proven extremely easy to slip into so far, as if she wrote flannel pajamas instead of books. Very comfy. Maybe not earth-shattering, but you can do worse than soft pajamas on a chilly morning.

* It is a great sadness to me that she died before I could give her my book. I suspect the moral of the story is that we ought to thank the people who have a profound influence on our work – thank them directly in a letter, I mean – rather than waiting for the work itself to be our subtler thanks. Because you really do never know!

* Well, okay, she was 76 and had lung cancer. I suppose I could have guessed that time was fleeting.

* I got to meet Lloyd Alexander eight years ago, before we left Philadelphia. He very graciously let me and my friend Sarah come to his house and talk to him for an hour. I gave him a two-page comic story I’d done about him for an anthology called Spark Generators (where cartoonists talked about their influences; mine was one of the few stories about a prose-fiction writer). Anyway, I consider myself lucky to have had that opportunity.

* There are so many people we can never thank, or never thank adequately. Sometimes all we can do is hope our work holds a candle for the next generation in turn.

* How did I get all somber, here? This was going to be a series of amusing vignettes, ending with a coy allusion to the fact that I have received a couple  nice blurbs from real, not-dead, also-beloved authors. I hadn’t realized that the process of questing after blurbs would require me to write letters, but it has and I’m very glad of it. Even when nothing blurblike comes of it, I’ve been given opportunities to thank people whose work has been invaluable to me, and I really appreciate that.

* But ah, Ms. Jones, I regret having missed my chance with you.


Symphony

I have always written to music.

It started when I was eleven or twelve. I’d curl up on the old brown couch with a spiral notebook across my knees, put on the huge, archaic headphones, and shut out the world. I sometimes suspect the “writing*” was just an excuse to wrap myself in music and ignore everything else.

* Not that I wasn’t writing. My fantasy and SF novels comprised many spiral notebooks of vibrantly dreadful prose. Let it never be said I didn’t produce.

I listened to records in those days. My parents had an idiosyncratic collection — lots of classical mixed in with a few strange relics from the sixties (Smothers Brothers, Tijuana Brass), some kids’ stuff (Muppet Show Album, disco Star Wars), and a shocking amount of Barry Manilow. In a fit of uncharacteristic good taste, I went for the classical.

Romantic symphonies fit my needs best. They were bursting with drama and passion, alternately epic and intimate in scope, just like I hoped my writing might be. My favourites were Brahms’s 4th and Shostakovitch’s 5th, which was written in a later era but has a very Romantic feel to it, so I think it counts. Certainly my twelve-year-old self found a lot of commonality between the two works.

The first movement of the Brahms was unquestionably the ocean, restless and mighty; the beginning of the Shostakovitch was a storm gathering above waves of nodding prairie grasses. My head was already full of wilderness; I’d spent my childhood vacations staring out the car window at the moving landscapes. Those were the scenes these symphonies conjured up for me: red canyons, impenetrable forests, sand hills, clouds making high drama out of of sunlight. And always moving, traveling, questing. I had just read Tolkien at that age, and I think that got mashed together with the music also.

I still love that Brahms. In high school, our youth symphony performed it and I got to experience it from the cello section. Performing a piece almost always solidifies it in my esteem. The Shostakovitch I haven’t listened to in years, but writing this is making me nostalgic for it. In the first movement, if I recall, there was a call-and-response between solo flute and French horn, which struck me (at twelve) as the single most beautiful moment in all of music ever. I wonder how it would sound to me now.

One reason I wonder is that I was reading up on Shostakovitch’s 5th  in preparation for writing this (because that’s how I roll, baby: nerdy), and it turns out the piece has an interesting and complicated history. In 1936, Shostakovitch was in hot water with Soviet leadership because his music didn’t conform to ideals of “socialist realism”. He came back with the 5th symphony, to great acclaim from the Party and the people. But one can’t escape the impression that parts of the piece are slyly subversive, that he’s thumbing his nose even as he appears to be capitulating. The extent of this slyness is still a matter for debate.

I’ve moved away from symphonic music over the years. One reason is that my tastes have broadened a lot; it turns out there’s a lot more music in the world than classical and disco Star Wars. Who knew? Another is that symphonies are complex and deep enough that they require a lot of attention. I’m not good at simply letting a symphony be background noise; I want to stop what I’m doing and let myself be carried off into the ever-shifting landscape of my mind.

You’d think that would still be useful for writing, but it’s not. My writing needs have evolved over time; it’s not just an elaborate escape into daydream anymore. It’s work.


Epic fail

* My friend Rich brought this article to my attention yesterday: The perils and pleasures of long-running fantasy series. It’s about what (if anything) writers of vast, volume-and-decade spanning epics owe their readers, and whether it’s inevitable that books of such unbridled magnitude will break your heart.

* As someone who’s left people hanging on the cliff, I sympathize. I can only imagine how much George R. R. Martin has changed as a person since beginning A Song of Ice and Fire, or how many new ideas he’s had that he can never implement because of all the thousands of pages already committed to print. How such a series may eventually feel like an albatross around the author’s neck.

* Speaking of which, I bought Game of Thrones last week to read on the airplane. It worked superbly for that purpose, making a long travel day seem shorter (except for the part where my son got irritated with me for reading instead of paying attention to him). But when I got home I didn’t pick it up again. I tried reading some more today, but I dunno. I’m finding it both engrossing and aggravating, and sometimes the latter outweighs the former.

* (Trigger/mature subject warning, after the fold) (Also, spoiler warning) (Also, also, sarcastic Rachel warning)

Read the rest of this entry »


Only you, Mary Sue

I was looking at Ellen Kushner’s blog, as I sometimes do, and I followed a link to another interesting blog post (by Holly Black) about Mary Sues. Not about identifying Mary Sues in literature – which has become quite the sport lately – but about the sport of identification itself. About the fact that “Mary Sue” is coming to mean “that female character I dislike”.

Dilution of a useful term? Maybe. I’m not that convinced it was a useful term, with any meaning beyond the world of fanfiction and self-insertion fantasies. Not that I’ve never used it in a review. I believe I once called the protagonist of Twilight a Mary Sue, which was probably mean of me. But what Black points out is that some of the “Mary Sue” qualities people rail about in reviews are merely features of being the protagonist. Yes, she’s smart and resourceful and able to save the day: she’s the protagonist. It’s what they do.

Anyway, interesting discussion.


Impromptu

Over the weekend I watched movie Impromptu, about George Sand and Chopin at the beginning of their celebrated 10-year relationship. A friend had been shoving me toward it for years, but I hadn’t felt particularly compelled to try it: I’ve never read any Sand, and I’m not that enamoured of Chopin’s music (piano music often leaves me cold, and I’m not sure why). However, recent discussions my friend and I have had – about being scary, being judged, genre and the idea of branding oneself – led me to think that ok, maybe it was time to watch this movie.

It was wonderful, and exactly what I needed to watch right now.

George Sand, in addition to taking a masculine pseudonym, used to dress in men’s clothing. It was utterly fascinating to see the people around her react with everything from amusement to envy to horror. Chopin, a timid, nervous sort, is utterly terrified of her at first. She falls in love with his music and decides she must also be in love with the man who created the music. She pursues him relentlessly (on the bad advice of an envious friend), which scares and intrigues him (but mostly scares). Only when she puts on a dress and uses her aristocratic title is he able to listen to her — and just barely, at that. She gives up and leaves Paris, but that brief moment of listening has planted a seed in his mind. It’s his turn to pursue her, which he does by looking for her books. They finally meet again, having connected with each other’s art, and it’s STILL difficult. She still scares him; he still shies away from her. There’s some painful fits and starts and negotiation that has to happen before they can meet in the middle, Sand finding a way to moderate her exuberance*, Chopin taking some halting steps toward boldness.

* She’s back in trousers by the end, never fear! And that’s the beauty of it: they’re not giving themselves up, but learning empathy and how to take each other into account.

It’s rare for me to be moved by movie romance (or book romance, alas), but I found this really lovely. And I’m leaving out all the funny parts! Emma Thompson is hilarious as a young noblewoman who fills her house with artists in hopes that some culture will rub off on her, Mandy Patinkin is present in full beardy glory, and then there’s Sand’s children, leading a scion of nobility astray. It was good fun all the way through.


Seraphina: Origins III

In about 2006, I read several books on Sensory Processing Disorder. It turned out to be irrelevant to the real-life challenges I was facing at the time, but I still found the literature fascinating. I had already started thinking about brains; this gave me another angle for consideration.

Sensory Processing Disorder is, in essence, a difference in brain function, but it’s more complicated than I’m going to make it sound. I’m giving you the parts that interested me most. I encourage you to read more about it on your own. Knowledge is good!

The brain receives far more sensory stimulus than it can meaningfully handle. Right now, all your senses are potentially stimulated; there’s street noise in the background, the feel of your body in your clothing, an odd smell coming from somewhere behind the sofa, the decaying taste of whatever you last ate, and the position of yourself in space (proprioception). If you were intensely aware of all of these things all the time, it would be too much. In order for you to function in the world, your brain has to decide what’s relevant to you right now and what isn’t. Your brain rejects certain inputs as unimportant.

SPD brains prioritize differently. In the case of hypersensitivity, the sensory information is felt very intensely and won’t turn off. Think of the itchiest sweater you ever wore; now imagine that you were always aware of all the clothing on your body, and found it just that irritating. It can happen with any of the senses. Conversely, a brain with SPD might have hyposensitivity, wherein the brain doesn’t let much input at all get through. Sometimes kids with hyposensitivity will be stimulus seekers, making lots of loud noise, for example. Sometimes they’ll appear inattentive; sometimes they’ll fall out of chairs because they’re not aware of where their bodies are.

Any of these brain differences can be so extreme as to be debilitating and require theraputic interventions, but the intensity may fall anywhere along a spectrum. One can be hypersensitive in one area and hyposensitive in another.

I saw myself in these descriptions. I remembered being unable to look people in the eye as a child (a common symptom of visual hypersensitivity). The best analogy I can give you is that looking at faces was like stepping from darkness into a bright sunny day; it was so intense I could barely force my eyes open. I would sneak glimpses little by little until my eyes adjusted, and then I was ok. Conversely, I had terrible proprioception, and was always falling over and scraping my knees. My ability to walk in a straight line is due entirely to years of ballet lessons, where I finally learned how to keep track of all my limbs at once.

I suspect we all have sensory differences, that no one is entirely neurotypical, but we live in our own heads and have nothing to compare our experience with. My high school friends and I used to debate things like, “Do you think the colour blue looks exactly the same to me as it does to you?” We considered ourselves quite the philosophers. We could get a lot of mileage out of a question like that because we thought there was no way to answer it, short of literally seeing blue through someone else’s eyes. The existence of sensory processing differences, however, suggests to me that maybe we do each see our own blue – and I find the idea exciting.

And that brings us – of course! – to the question of dragons’ brains. If dragons acquire human senses when they take human form, what differences will they experience? That question is like a massive taproot; a thousand more questions sprout from it. I’m going to have to stop right there; this subject sees a lot of play in the book, and I don’t want to spoil it. But I encourage you to notice yourself noticing — and not noticing. It’s an interesting exercise.


No cover

I had hoped there would be cover art to show you this week, but alas the cover is undergoing another round of possible revision. This is actually good news: it means the book is already garnering enough positive attention that Random House wants to get the cover exactly right.

That doesn’t mean I’m not feeling impatient. Fortunately, I have plenty to keep me occupied.

You, on the other hand, look bored. Have some Hanggai. It’s on the house.

There!  Isn’t that better? Don’t you reckon you could ride your pony across the steppe? Me too!

Someday I am going to learn throat singing and make everyone sorry.


Generic

At a book site I visit, someone posed a question to the site members at large. How does one prepare oneself to write in an unfamiliar genre? Lots of answers had already been given by the time I got there, and yet they were all exactly the same answer: research! Read a hundred books in that genre! Learn the genre inside and out!

Because I am contrarian by nature, my first thought was Why on earth would anyone research a genre?

My knee-jerk incredulity aside, of course there are reasons to research genre. Perhaps one is a scholar of the genre and wants to write a dissertation on its conventions, history, or subclassifications. That seems like a very fine reason to me. Or maybe you want to deliberately learn the tropes so you can subvert and manipulate them to your own nefarious ends. Fair enough. It’s not a goal of mine, but I can understand it.

But I dunno, all the research answers seemed (to my ear) to carry an undertone of “so you can be sure you’re doing it right”.

Doing what right, exactly? Fantasy? Western? Is there a right? Bearing in mind that I have a slight anarchic bent, particularly when it comes to art, I think genre is something imposed upon literature from outside, rather than something integral to the work itself. As I wrote to a friend recently: What about “books where the author is transparently preoccupied with epistemology”? That can’t be a genre? I suppose that’s too much of a mouthful for retailers, and the acronym is no better.

I realize there are strict guidelines set by Romance publishers — when the protagonists should have their first kiss, how many sex scenes there should be, how unambiguously happy the ending should be — and yes, you would have to research the guidelines to get published by a particular publisher, but that’s the exception. In almost any other case, surely the work itself must come first. If you set out to write “A Western” first and foremost, there’s a good chance the effort will ring hollow. Write the story that’s burning a hole in you, and genre can fend for its sorry self.

I saw Maurice Sendak speak, back when I was in college, and he said (according to my totally infallible memory), “People ask me why I write children’s books. I don’t write children’s books. It’s not my fault that booksellers shelve my books in the children’s section, instead of next to Chaim Potok.” Hearing that was a formative moment in my philosophy, I suppose.

Now, because I am a bit of a Socratic, I cannot in good conscience fail to tell you that what I just told you is wrong. (Did you follow that?) Because I followed my own advice and I wrote exactly what my heart dictated, and I ended up with a very quiet fantasy novel. Ibsen (or Austen, once I cheered it up a bit) with dragons. And I was told, “This is very sweet, but Fantasy Readers have genre expectations. They’re going to want a bigger story with higher stakes and more action. They’re going to want to see more of this wonderful world you’ve created, not just parlor drama.”

“Huh. How about that,” I said, my outward calm masking my inner chafing at the Tyranny of Genre.

Aha, you’re thinking. Should’ve done that research after all, eh little missy?

Yeah, but here’s the thing: fantasy was and always has been my preferred genre. If “fantasy research” means reading a lot of fantasy, I’m not sure what more I could have done in that regard. The heart of my book was good; no one ever asked me to change anything that was really important to me. From my perspective, changes made for the sake of genre are surface changes.

I think some of it comes down to which aspects of the work take precedence for the individual writer. To borrow a metaphor from Scott McCloud, the work is like an apple: there’s the core of the book, the meaning at its heart, and there’s the polished skin of genre on the outside (and other layers, such as craft, in between). I write – wrote, have always written – from the centre outward. If I don’t have a solid core of feeling and idea, I’ve got nothing. I’m not interested. For other writers, though, maybe it’s easiest to start with the shiny surface. To start with genre, make it all pretty and “right”, and then fill in the big gaping hollow at the centre. That’s a perfectly valid way of working as well.

Just don’t forget to fill that big hollow space. It would be easy to do, since that shiny surface is mighty pleasing to the eye.

As I work on the outline for the sequel to Seraphina, I’m finding that I do have a better generic understanding now, as well as a better understanding of myself and what it takes to get me interested in the work. I can beat on plots all day, but I’m never going to get anywhere unless I’ve found my core, the idea that sets my head on fire and gives me a reason to write.

OK, then! So what have we learned? Rachel knows nothing! Rachel argues one thing, then argues its opposite, then says, “Hey, I’m Socratic, so it’s ok!” But seriously, it is ok. There’s never just one way to go forward, and I take great comfort in that.


Cold War flashbacks

Hello darlings! I am back from my Tropical Ontario Vacation. I think it can pretty much be summed up in two words: The Diefenbunker. It’s a little bit sobering to see objects you remember from your childhood – rotary phones, overhead projectors, hydrogen bombs, IBM mainframes the size of a small car with less memory than an iPod – in a museum. But more shocking, I think, to realize you’d forgotten what it was like to use them.

You’re wondering whether I ever actually used a hydrogen bomb. I’m just going to let you wonder.

At the Canadian War Museum (which we also visited; we’re martial sorts, apparently) there was a listening station where you could hear popular songs from the Cold War ABOUT the Cold War. Y’know, old classics like “99 Luftbalons” and “Russians” by Sting. I don’t remember all the songs listed; I didn’t recognize several of them, and there was at least one — U2′s “Bloody Sunday” — which I didn’t think pertained to the Cold War at all, for all that it was a protest song from the 80s.

Music really brings back that special Cold War feeling, more than the rotary phones, even.

Anyway, I mention this because during our tour of the Diefenbunker, they mentioned the Distant Early Warning system that Canada had put in place in hopes of getting 15 minutes’ warning if Soviet nukes were coming at us over the pole. “Distant Early Warning”, I realized with a start, is also a song by Rush.  It wasn’t on the list at the other museum, though. Clearly an incomplete list, and they left off a Canadian song, no less. Maybe it’s too obscure.

Those were frightening times, and yet we somehow managed not to blow ourselves to bits. I choose to take that as an optimistic sign, that rationality and cool heads can in fact prevail.

Anyway, nothing profound in all this. I’m just musing aloud, feeling thoughtful. More interesting stuff tomorrow, maybe, if I’m feeling interesting.


Going Postal

I just finished re-reading Terry Pratchett’s Going Postal. That’s a rare treat for me, anymore. I used to be a great re-reader; I’ve read War and Peace 2.5 times (the .5 is because the first time through, I skipped all the war parts). I don’t even remember how many times I’ve read Pride and Prejudice; I only know that three of those times were out loud to other people. That’s the kind of hard core re-reader I was. Not just meekly re-reading to myself, no, I had to stick it in other people’s ears.

It’s a rare luxury for me now, though. I feel lucky to get to read books once.

Something prompted me to pick up Going Postal again, however. It was the first Pratchett novel I loved — in fact, it kind of blew my mind the first time I read it. It’s about a con man, Moist Von Lipwig, who’s spared the hangman’s noose on the condition that he become the next postmaster of Ankh-Morpork. It turns out his special brand of lying razzle-dazzle showmanship is just what the post office needs to get back in business again.

Like many Terry Pratchett books, it’s a book about belief; like the best of them, it’s also about a protagonist who knows himself to be fundamentally defective*, and who finds the way to redeem his defect and turn it into a strength.

* My masculine pronoun notwithstanding, I’d include Tiffany Aching in this category. Vimes, of course. Mau from Nation. Not included: Susan Sto Helit, Granny Weatherwax. I think he’s prone to make his women a bit too good (by which I mean morally righteous), even when they’re ornery.

I know Moist isn’t everyone’s favourite (the name certainly doesn’t help), but I have a particular soft spot for him. He’s a liar and a manipulator, and he despises himself for it. But people are so easy to fool, they practically fool themselves, all he has to do is put on a little show. He’s a performer, an artist, and maybe that’s where I feel the connection. Art also involves making things up and manipulating people, making them see the glass as diamond through the force of your conviction.

And of course, the woman he loves is the one person he can’t fool, the one who really sees him — and he wants her to see him, warts and all. Ah, the skeptical love interest, blowing smoke rings in his face! She’s a breath of fresh air, she is.

What struck me this time through was the repetition. I’d read some reviews complaining that Pratchett’s later work is obvious and overstated. Personally, I prefer the later works; the early ones I sometimes find to be so dense with jokes that it’s hard to see the author underneath. I like my authors out where I can see them, I guess. One thing that could be contributing to readers finding it “overstated”, however, is that he does like to repeat phrases. I think, however, that the repetition is really intended as a kind of shorthand. He talks about the glass/diamond ring several times, for example, and each mention is a little briefer until he needs only say “diamond” and we know what he’s trying to say about the situation at hand. And each time he brings it up is different, right? He’s pointing out something else that people are habitually fooled by: money, government, religion, courtship, statistics.

It’s theme and variation. I don’t find it tedious, though I see how one could.

Later books have hit me deeper – Nation, Thud, the Tiffany Aching books – but this was my first, the first time I saw clearly what he was up to and said to myself, “There is a human being there, and we have seen many of the same things.” It remains a sentimental favourite, even if I didn’t find it quite as complex this time through.


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