Recent blog entries
Gratefully turning coffee into fiction since the previous century.
“The Color of Paradox”
Writing is, to a great degree, learned through trial and error. But errors can be hard to identify – especially as a writer starts to be pretty good at the basics. Once things start to go subtly wrong with a person’s work, it becomes obvious there’s no single right answer as to how to fix a given challenge within a manuscript.
Part of the answer, of course, is to find a group of peers with good reading skills and the same need to have outside eyes laid on their work. People with goodwill, a story in progress, and an understanding that half of critiquing is about helping the author fix their work and the other half is about cultivating your own critical sense so you can better address your own.
With short story critique groups, there’s a rhythm that can work quite well: new writers submit a story to a workshop, everyone critiques it, and then everyone goes home to hopefully rewrite the piece before sending it to market. When they return, it’s generally with another piece. There’s a fresh start. This is how Clarion and Odyssey and a number of other workshops are configured. (There’s an article in Wired about the SF workshops this week, by the way. I found it a bit shallow, and the comments thread may make you blind with rage, but some of the actual interview responses are interesting.)
With novel workshops, the logistics get much trickier. If you submit your first three chapters, and get a bunch of feedback, do you then revise those chapters? If you do, do you submit them again to make sure they’re working? If they’re not, do you revise and resubmit them again? That’s just an ornate way of never getting the book finished.
On the other hand, it can feel very weird to submit chapter one, get feedback, try then to use that feedback to write a better chapter two. (Next you submit that, and try to use the next round of feedback to inform chapters three and four.) This gets your novel done–and I am a huge fan of done! But drawback can be that if you are truly improving your craft as you go, the last chapters of the book may be significantly better-written than the opening ones. This leaves you to discover, four or five hundred pages later, whether you’re up to the task of revising. You are drafting better, which is great, but can you raise something you wrote six months ago to the level of what you’re creating now?
Additionally, the plunge-forward system doesn’t address any huge structural changes you decide to make along the way. When you turn the guy who was formerly the love interest into the main character’s brother, around about chapter five, the question arises again… do you go back and tweak this before moving forward?
Okay, so what if you got a dozen writers together and they all managed to submit a completed novel draft on the same day… make it November 30th. You could then set some kind of reading period–one book every two or three weeks–and trade off so that each participant was getting one critique during each round. But how to get a dozen writers to all finish their book on the same day? I chose November 30th because it’s the end of Nanowrimo, but most Nanowrimo projects would require considerable massaging before they were workshop-ready.
There are other logistical challenges with novel-in-progress workshops, but these are some of the things I’m mulling right now.
Has any of you been in a novel group that worked? How was it structured?
In 1995, I went to the Clarion West writing workshop, where Gardner Dozois made a passing remark about how many fantasy and SF worlds created by newer writers, were comparatively simple, politically. He was describing a one planet, one government, one language, one culture kind of formula. He used a phrase like “failure to fully imagine a settomg…”
It was an observation, not a rant or a lecture; I doubt more than one breath went into it. But it set me back on my heels a little. There was a “Oh, yeah!” moment. Since then, I’ve taken that throwaway remark as license to write complicated, messy worlds filled with different tribes, factions and languages.
Pick an Island, Add Magic
There are about 250 island nations on Stormwrack, so I thought I’d start with Erinth. (At some future point, if you’re all interested, I’ll do entries on Verdanni and Sylvanna. Not until after the book’s out, though, when it’s less spoilery.)
A lot of us get our early image of spellcasting and magic from depictions of warty, cackling crones over a cauldron, dumping eye of newt and fillet of a fenny snake into a cauldron as they chant, “Bubble babble, toil and trouble, let’s trick MacBeth into making some bad choices. Evil Magic Soup FTW!”
I wanted Stormwrack to have a wisp of this–specifically, the eye of fenny snake element–in its magic system. Each of those 250 island nations has its own microclimate, and the specific types of newt, toad and creeping kudzu available to a people determines what kind of spells they can work with it. In one archipelago, you might have five islands with seven variations of newt and seven completely different resulting magical effects.
To this foodie-influenced cooking element, I added contract law. The spellscribe has an intention, you see. They want to make you beautiful or restore your lost hearing or give you angel wings or help you do lightning-fast calculations in your head or cause you to keel over dead. They cook up their ingredients, usually following a recipe set out by earlier researchers. They write the precise text of the spell, using a magical language with its own magical alphabet. The spellscrip has been imagined here by cover artist, Karla Ortiz–there’s some on the sails of Nightjar, on the Child of a Hidden Sea cover.
The spell must be written with specific materials, on other specific materials. It’s an exercise in perfection. Get it wrong–imprecise materials, flawed writing surface, misform a letter wrong as you’re engaged in calligraphy–and nothing happens. That newt died for nothing. Get it just right, though, and you have a form of magical contract. The nature of reality is changed…
… for as long as the physical artifact, the inscription, remains intact.
That’s right. Spells are, on Stormwrack, things you can literally break. Destroy the contract, the spell doesn’t necessarily fizzle. Reality reasserts itself as best as it can. If you had a magical appendectomy twenty years ago and somebody rips up your scroll, you might get your appendix back, inflamed and ready to pop. Then again, if the appendix has been sitting pickled in a jar for twenty years, you might get that, formaldehyde and all.
Tame a volcano? What could go wrong?
This brings us to Erinth. One of my earliest notes on Stormwrack was a long list of possible spells, which said, “there’s an island that uses magic to hold the local Santorini-like volcano in check…”
Say you’re the Conto of an island whose population is tired of having the neighborhood volcano wipe out the capital city, or a substantial portion thereof, every sixty years or so? Say you set all the magicians you can afford on researching a way to write an intention that will calm the mountain down.
Cindria, Erinth’s capital, lives in the shadow of a volcano calmed by such an intention. It’s described here, in “The Ugly Woman of Castello di Putti.”
“See for yourself.” Tonio swept out an arm as they reached the cliff top, and Parrish saw the figure of a woman, sculpted in rose marble and fully fifty feet high. Clad in a modest robe, hair bound at the nape of her neck, she stood on the inland lip of the caldera, hands out in a soothing gesture, the hushing pose of a mother calming a child in its cradle.
Ice-blue spellscrip glimmered on her arms and hands, written from shoulder to fingertip.
In the shadow of those big stone hands, the molten stone churned like a pot aboil. Beyond it, the flow of lava seemed orderly and civilized.
One obvious inspiration here, then, is nature in the form of my favorite volcanos: Mount Saint Helens, or Santorini, to name two.
I had already decided this much about Erinth before a trip to Italy in 2012. Since I was going, I went to Catania to see black lava buildings, not to mention Mount Etna. I went to Naples to see Vesuvius and one of the cities, Herculaneum, that it destroyed in 79.
Erinthians live in the shadow of a killer mountain, and they know that when something finally happens to their Lady, all the stored energy from all those becalmed eruptions will come bursting forth in spectacular fashion. They deal with this reality in a very human way–by posting guards around the statue and hoping for the best. If it weren’t for the time honored concept best articulated by the phrase of “La la la, I can’t hear youuuuu,” most of us would spend all our waking hours in the fetal position.
Having taken a bit of inspiration from the landscape of Italy and the history of Santorini, I married the terrain to another of my early notes on politics, which read “…there’s an island a bit like Florence under the Medicis.”
You might say my approach to worldbuilding is additive. I’m not quite as much of an extrapolator: “If this happens, then naturally the people will worship this kind of god and develop that kind of technology…” I admire people who do that and make it seem effortless. I’m more of a pinch of this, dash of that, see how it tastes, add something else kind of writer. I’ve got the magic figured out? Yay! Now I’ll add the volcano. Got the volcano tamed? Let’s add some Renaissance Florence! How does that all work? Oh, there’s some extrapolating, I suppose. They’ve got the tame volcano, so maybe there’s a local industry in volcanic glass. And pumice. Maybe pumice figures into beauty spells?
As I write this, there is just over a month days before Child of a Hidden Sea‘s release date. I don’t think it’s much of a spoiler to say we’ll be going back to Erinth for awhile over the course of the novel. It’s one of Gale Feliachild’s favorite places, a place where she feels truly at home. Naturally, I hope all of you enjoy being there and getting to meet the older versions of Tonio, Secco and some of the other characters from the above-mentioned story.
Saturday was our fiftieth day here in the big city, and I am definitely beginning to have a sense of things having settled. The apartment is squared away and I’m finding some satisfying routines. I’m starting to feel, for Downward Dog, the first wisps of the deep affection I felt for Open Door Yoga in Vancouver.
The landscapes are still incredibly new, of course. There is no place I can go where I’ve seen and noticed everything. By chance we spent both this past Saturday and the one before walking north up Bathhurst Street . . . and on the most recent jaunt, I saw this, which I’d totally missed the first time.
I’m building up my mental maps of the neighborhood, but there’s an enormous novelty factor. It’s exciting, because there’s always something new to see. Touristy, you know? But it also means there’s rarely a moment where I can lapse into walking on auto-pilot.
In other news, my latest session of Creating Universes, Building Worlds has opened up at the UCLA Writers’ Extension Program. (I didn’t announce registration this time simply because class filled so quickly.) I’m looking forward to meeting a new crop of writers and seeing what they write this summer.
Finally, and on a related topic, I’m not doing the Clarion West Write-a-Thon. I love this event, but the things I need to accomplish right now don’t lend themselves well to a Thon.
I admit I was hoping to break 60K by the end of today, but to do that I’d have to be self-abusive and willing to write what–even by my lax first-draft standards–would be unsalvagable drivel. Pages upon pages of “And then McReporterpants did the thingie with the watchamacallit. Theodolite? Look this up later.”
So – today, words that are better than the above:
July 27 2,308 for a grand total of 58,378 words. Here’s what they looked like before I typed them:
I had a look at the outline and I’m not as far from the end of the plot as I would have guessed. Maybe another 15,000 words until the thing’s Frankensteined together? I’ve never been good at making these kind of guesstimates.
What I did today to celebrate the end of the Write-A-Thon was go to the Urban Tea Merchant and spend two and a half hours imbibing Royal Darjeerling tea, little sandwiches and luxurious baked goodies while scribbling the above words. It was a very enjoyable wrap-up to the whole Write-A-Thon ritual; I commend it to you all.
I plan to keep up the current pace, of course, until I finish the draft. And then go back and rewrite, and rewrite some more, and then some more.
I’m a bit squeezed at the moment, which is why no writing essay yesterday. But here is a link to the latest Buffy rewatch, on Dopplegangland. Go join the fray!
For those of you still considering whether to enter the Stormwrack Name-An-Island contest, which is my giveaway for the Clarion West Write-a-thon, you can walk away with the naming rights to an island nation for a cool $35. Here’s a snippet about Isle of Gold.
“Here we go,” she said. “Isle of Gold.”
“What’s it say?” Bram asked. He had picked up her videocamera and was using it to shoot all the opened books he’d set out.
She read: “Isle of Gold is one of five nations formerly known as the Piracy–”
“Of course. They would have pirates here.”
“A barren rock unfit for agriculture and without much of a fishery, its difficult-to-navigate coastal waters and dense military fortifications led to its becoming the treasury of a shifting alliance of thieves, smugglers and raiders during the decades of warfare that plagued the seas… okay, from the looks of it, a bunch of countries put together a fleet–”
“The Fleet, presumably.”
July 24 1,150 for a total of 54,054
July 23 1,260 for a total of 52,904
July 22 411 for a total of 51,644
July 21 899 for a total of 51,233
July 20 777 for a total of 50,324
July 19 898 for a total of 49,547
July 18 1,192 for a total of 48,649
Full disclosure: I am about two thirds of the way through the book… I’ll hit 60,000 words before the Write-a-Thon is over, but I won’t have it quite drafted. I’m still pleased with how it’s gone, and planning to hold the same pace until I’ve got the draft done.