Declaring My Ignorance in the New Year

“You know, you talk a lot about writing for someone who doesn’t know much about it.”

That thought comes to me at least once a year; sometimes more, and here in the New Year the thought came early, and why not?  It’s always true. Yes, I talk about it a lot. No, I don’t know much about it. You’d think perhaps I would by now, but no. I don’t know if it’s simple Zen as in “It’s always the first time” or an even more simple inability to learn. Maybe some of both. But then, I wasn’t the first to notice that “No one knows how to write a novel. They only know how to write the last one.” Well, maybe Stephen King.  Isaac Asimov probably did, and Andre Norton is likely. There have to be exceptions. I’m definitely not one of them. In general, you learn to write the one you’re doing—if you’re lucky—and hope for the same on the next one.

There. Everything I know about writing a novel. Not much, is it? Short stories are about the same, just shorter and there are usually more of them. Which explains why I have so many false starts and almosts and not quites littering my hard disk. Some stories I haven’t yet learned how to write. Some I likely won’t live long enough to finish, and that’s just the way it is.

Sorry about the introspection; I get that way sometimes, and in the turning of the year doubly so. I think this was triggered by an incident at the last Flash Writer’s meeting, where someone, feeling a little less than confident, referred to a few of us present as “natural writers.”  I have to beg to differ. For a start, I’m not a “natural” anything. I’ve only been writing thirty years in order to pass for one, and a polished story says nothing about how it got there, or that in order to complete a 500 word assignment I had to write 750 words and then cut out the ones that didn’t fit. Sort of like growing the birch tree before you attempt a canoe.

On that “natural” thing, I will admit to one exception: I can recognize a plot when I see one. Not as in “The Gunpowder” plot, but a narrative plot. At about age ten or so I had my grandmother convinced that I was psychic, all because I could watch a television show I’d never seen before and tell her what was going to happen before it did. It wasn’t paranormal, I just recognized the story plot, and most of the ones used on TV at the time weren’t that complicated. I was surprised that everyone couldn’t do it. Which does not mean I can necessarily plot well or easily, only that, after the fact, I’m reasonably sure that a piece has one.

So, on the first day of 2018, here’s me explaining, mostly to myself, what little I understand of the process. Clearly, I have a lot to learn. I hope to learn some of it in this New Year. I hope your New Year’s wishes fare better than mine are likely to do.

Heroes: R.A. MacAvoy

TeaWithTheBlackDragonWriting heroes attain that status in my very subjective opinion for various reasons. Sometimes it’s for a body of work, but just as often it is for a very specific work, a work that shows you something you didn’t understand before, or even shows you something you didn’t know existed before. Last time I talked about Andre Norton’s influence in general, but specifically about Perilous Dreams and how its tone and approach informed A Warrior of Dreams. I use the term “informed” rather than simply “influenced,” to make a subtle but very real distinction. Lots of things influence a writer from time to time and day to day. I’ve read books—or in some cases attempted to read books—as I’m sure you have as well, whose main effect was to make you swear to never, ever publish anything that lame with your name on it. So in that sense they were important influences. No, “inform” is another level altogether. While anyone who reads both would know one is not a pastiche of the other, I have no trouble admitting that AWOD would have been a very different book, indeed may never have been written in the first place, if I hadn’t read Perilous Dreams first.

The very same dynamic exists between R(Roberta). A(Ann). MacAvoy’s classic Tea With the Black Dragon and what is one of my favorites of my own books, All the Gates of Hell. Continue reading

Heroes: Andre Norton

Perilous-Dreams-AndreNortonWhere the heck was I? Oh, right. Heroes.

Andre Norton. For those too young or otherwise disadvantaged to know, Andre Norton was a prolific science fiction & fantasy writer who started publishing in the 1930s and continued to do so into the next century (at the moment, this one). I’m not going to even attempt to summarize her career, since this is about one of my writing heroes, and therefore this is Andre Norton in relation to me. If you’re curious, and you should be, a decent place to start is her entry in the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction.

Now then, here was the situation—I grew up in a very small southern town, and I was a reader. This was a problem for many reasons, not least of which being there was no bookstore within twenty miles and little money for buying books in the first place, and no library. Well, okay, the local school I attended had a library…only, for the first few years of its existence, students weren’t allowed to use it. And no, you don’t need to tell me how &%%# crazy that was. I know. In my one glorious term as a member of the Student Council, I complained about this in our very first meeting. The principal thanked us, and never called another meeting. He learned his lesson and I learned mine. The problem remained.

My only salvation was the county library eight miles away. Every week they sent out a bookmobile to the less fortunate towns in the county, mine included, and there…

Robert Heinlein

Isaac Asimov

Andre Norton

Ray Bradbury

Those were the top four authors I first discovered in the Newton County Bookmobile, so for better or worse, that mobile library is part of the reason I am the way I am. That’s a debate for another day. Yet as much as I enjoyed Heinlein and Asimov and especially Ray Bradbury, it was Andre Norton’s work that resonated the most with me at that time and place, at least partially because there was so much more of it.

I’m not really sure when I discovered that Andre Norton was born Alice Mary Norton. It’s not as if I was plugged into sf fandom or even knew it existed, but it was well before I graduated High School. I don’t even remember for certain which of her many, many books I read first. I believe it was either Galactic Derelict or The Time Traders. Not that it particularly matters. I got my hands on every single one of her books I possibly could, but to this day I have read barely a fraction of her work. So I’d like to talk about one in particular—Perilous Dreams.

This was from a time I was in college and buying my own books, when DAW Books was the place to be for the type of work I was looking for. John Brunner. Tanith Lee. Thomas Burnett Swann, for heaven’s sake. Those yellow spines and George Barr illustrations were practically a trademark. Perilous Dreams was a book about a woman who could move between worlds through dream. It wasn’t so much a novel as a series of linked novellas, given a handwave of genetic dispositions and technology, but basically pure fantasy and I read it that way.

This was a key book, and what I mean by that is this book was one of the ones that opened the door between the reader I was and the writer I was going to be. It resonated, as did The Gods Abide, Lord of the Rings and The Earthsea Trilogy a little later. It was one of the books that made me think about being a writer. Why? If I could explain that I’d be a lot smarter and wiser than I know I am. It wasn’t a perfect book by any means. Perhaps overly romantic, a bit disjointed. Don’t care and didn’t matter. Anyone who’d read both would know that my own A Warrior of Dreams, while certainly different, is me paying tribute to Perilous Dreams. You assimilate your influences and move on, sure, but it serves one best to understand what they are and who they are.

Andre Norton is one of mine.

Brief Update: Yesterday I passed the 60,000 word mark in Yamada Monogatari: The Emperor in Shadow, so I’m about 2/3 done, if I’m right about what’s left to tell, and I think I am.

Talking to Myself and Feeling Old

Sometime back in the mid-nineties, just a year or two after I’d started publishing regularly, I was asked to write a profile. I don’t remember by whom. I don’t even remember what for. But I stumbled upon it a while back. Most of it is out of date, other parts are simply overblown and embarrassing, and show just how full of myself I was at the time(Which makes me wonder how much has really changed). But as a document of where I was and what was passing for reflection in my feeble excuse for a brain at the time, I found it interesting. I can’t see how anyone else would but, hey, tough noogies. This is my blog and I feel like sharing. Or in the words of past philosophers– “I’ve suffered for my art. Now it’s your turn.” Continue reading

Witches: Wicked, Wild, and Wonderful

Somehow I let the publication date on this one slip by me. 

Prime Books, March 2012 ed. by Paula Guran

“Surrounded by the aura of magic, witches have captured our imaginations for millennia and fascinate us now more than ever. No longer confined to the image of a hexing old crone, witches can be kindly healers and protectors, tough modern urban heroines, holders of forbidden knowledge, sweetly domestic spellcasters, darkly domineering, sexy enchantresses, ancient sorceresses, modern Wiccans, empowered or persecuted, possessors of supernatural abilities that can be used for good or evil—or perhaps only perceived as such. Welcome to the world of witchery in many guises: wicked, wild, and wonderful. Includes two original, never-published stories.”

Content (alphabetically by author):
“The Cold Blacksmith” by Elizabeth Bear
“The Ground Whereon She Stands” by Lean Bobet
“The Witch’s Headstone” by Neil Gaiman
“Lessons with Miss Gray” by Theodora Goss
“The Only Way to Fly” by Nancy Holder
“Basement Magic” by Ellen Klages
“Nightside” by Mercedes Lackey
“April in Paris” by Ursula K. Le Guin
“The Goosle” by Margo Lanagan
“Mirage and Magia” by Tanith Lee
“Poor Little Saturday” by Madeleine L’Engle
“Catskin” by Kelly Link
“Bloodlines” by Silvia Moreno-Garcia
“The Way Wind” by Andre Norton
“Skin Deep” by Richard Parks
“Ill Met in Ulthar” by T.A. Pratt (original)
“Marlboros & Magic” by Linda Robertson (original)
“Walpurgis Afternoon” by Delia Sherman
“The World Is Cruel, My Daughter” by Cory Skerry
“The Robbery” by Cynthia Ward
“Afterward” by Don Webb
“Magic Carpets” by Leslie What
“Boris Chernevsky’s Hands” by Jane Yolen(less)