the name’s the thing

Well, so I’ve talked about linguistics, now I guess it’s time to talk about names. Or rather, how names matter. This time, we’ll be scrutinizing Tolkien’s Silmarillion.

When I was in middle school I bragged about reading the dictionary for fun, I think mostly to establish my nerd cred. A sham, naturally. I think I was still mainlining EragonRedwallArtemis Fowl, and Harry Potter instead of actually studying anything. (Probably reading the books under my desk, too. Actually I think I did get in trouble for that in my ninth grade biology class. Whoops.) But the dictionary my parents have – not the huge, unabridged, old one with pages so yellowed they’re orange, but the slightly new-ish one with the gray cover – has a section in the back with male and female names, alphabetized, and their name meanings, and that I did read.

Buddy, that name section of the dictionary was like heroin for my little developing writer brain. I went on a streak, in middle school, where I spent nearly every day after school feverishly typing at my dad’s old Dell desktop, and I crammed it full of half-finished drafts with heroes called Danae and Romulus and all sorts of things. I’ve posted a few of those half-finished ideas before – I don’t have any of the files saved, un/happily, but some of them stuck in my brain quite vividly. Rest in peace, Tess and James, my Pirates of the Caribbean rip-off. I’ll never forget how I had one of you climb up to the crow’s nest of the ship and then jump off and land on the main deck, upright, without breaking a single bone in your body. Truly it was a miracle of illogic.

Anyway! Even if you don’t painstakingly curate the names of your characters the way twelve-year-old me did, the names of characters matter. A Jim and a James and a Jamie might have the same base name, but James is more formal, and Jamie is more gender neutral, and Jim is solidly masculine, possibly even lumberjack-like.

And if a character goes by James, but his mom keeps calling him Jamie even after he’s repeatedly asked her not to, that right there matters – especially if the author treats that as a symptom of a bigger plot point. A coming-of-age story is the first thing that comes to my mind with that example. But there are any number of other possibilities you could explore.

And when a character changes their name … or someone else gives them a new name … then it gets even more interesting.

Continue reading “the name’s the thing”

oh, the horror

Full disclaimer: I’m not, nor have I ever much been in my life, a horror fan. Coraline and Over the Garden Wall is about as spooky as I get, and that’s mild-kiddie-Halloween level. Just like the occasional sprinkling of paprika is about as spicy as I get: it’s not spicy in any way that actually counts.

Gore? Humungously not my thing. Jump scares? Nope. Psychological shenanigans? If it’s got cannibals/incest/people turning into mindless monsters and losing all their humanity? Yeah, that’s a no.

Hey, I watch Game of Thrones for the politics, not … that other stuff. And I can always plug my ears and take off my glasses when the going gets grody. But I won’t read Poe’s “The Black Cat” more than once, and there’s an episode of Doctor Who that I will not watch because of the whole humans-losing-humanity-unwillingly thing. Yeah, the water on Mars one. That one. Awful. Does it technically count as horror? Maybe not to veterans of the horror genre, but it gives mid-twenties me the same willies that a cartoon brain-eating alien gave seven-year-old me.

Actually, that brain-eating alien still gives me the willies.

So take what I say with a big old honking grain of salt.

On the other hand, I freakin’ love the Resurgam trilogy by Joan Frances Turner, which is from the point of view of a zombie and absolutely involves the whole cannibalism thing, and goes into meticulous and nearly poetic detail about the process of corpse decay. It even has the personification of death as this eldritch non-being that is everywhere and everything, and – spoiler alert – is about to swallow the entire planet into nothingness.

But despite the whole zombies-and-existential-dread thing, I don’t think that DustFrail, and Grave count as horror books. Because even with the apocalyptic setting, there’s always a shred of hope, and – spoiler alert – the characters we care most about make it out unscathed. Or, if not unscathed, at least scathed in a way they can accept.

In the horror panel at LTUE, they talked about the horror genre as a loss of control, as something horrible and irrevocable happening, as fear being present and inescapable throughout the story.

In a horror story, even victory counts as a failure. It is impossible to win.

… Huh. I guess that one Doctor Who episode does count as horror after all.

But all of that only means that the dressing of the story, the setting and the species and the time period, are very nice and indeed important things to pay attention to — and must be integrated with the plot — but they do not drive the plot. The Resurgam trilogy takes place in a world where mind-numbing hunger razed society to shreds, but it is never hopeless, and the characters’ victories matter. Zombies and all, they cannot be horror books.

Meanwhile, a story with no supernatural trappings whatsoever can be the worst living hell a body can imagine. Have you looked at the battered women statistics recently?

Horror lives wherever it can. It isn’t where and when you are that counts — it’s what you do.

LTUE 2k18 recap

Life, The Universe, and Everything at Provo, UT is over now — yesterday was spent entirely in transit, and the jet lag has been properly dealt with. I attended for all three days, and my editor/cover designer buddy came with for days two and three. This was my first proper con, let alone writers’ con, and I think I’ve been stuffed so full of new ideas they’re coming out of my ears.

It was amazing.

As advertised, this was a con (or symposium) for the craft and business of writing, as opposed to a con designed for fandom. Indie distribution, school visits, construction of ancient languages, the tips and tricks of writing mystery … I learned something new at every single panel I attended. I have so many notes to write up.

And I have a long list of things to read, too. Research of course, and novels written by panelists and people I met at the book signing. Between new things to read and my own writing projects, I think I’ll have enough to keep me busy until Thanksgiving at least — at which point the word “audiobook” comes into the conversation. (And wouldn’t you know, there was an LTUE panel on audiobooks, too.)

Most of all, it was just awesome to be around fellow writers for three solid days. I can’t wait to do it all again next year.

countdown to the end

Or:

A teaser for Cliff’s Edge, the last of the Callan books in the Iron Gentry series.


The forest rolled across this part of the country like a thick green blanket, covering the northern sprawl of mountains down through a spread of flat land, where the only things that interrupted the green were the patchwork brown of farms and the massive gray clutter of a city. In the swath of land between mountains and civilization, take a magnifying glass and look closer at the forest there. The road was relatively narrow, compared to the greater thoroughfare on the southern end, and the trees were just beginning to be tinged with the gold and scarlet of autumn.

A meandering half hour’s walk away from the city, among the gray and brown tree trunks, there was a flicker of something that could only be seen by the right eyes.

The wrong kind of eyes — or rather, a person with the wrong kind of eyes — squinted against the setting sun. The light filtered through the multicolored trees and turned the road into a dappled kaleidoscope of emerald and amber, alternately searing into his vision and leaving him in sudden darkness. The air was crisp and cool, but not unpleasantly so; what leaves that had already fallen crunched gently under his boots; it was the kind of evening that promised to get darker very quickly, but that would be no less benign when the sun had finished setting.

Therefore when the traveler heard a rustle, behind him on the right side, at first he thought it must be a squirrel or a rabbit. And when he turned, and could not find the source of the sound, he shrugged and put it down to the stillness and camouflage that prey animals often employ.

Then a shiver went down his spine, like someone had very lightly traced a finger down the middle of his back. But those shivers happened sometimes for no reason, didn’t they. “Someone walked over my grave,” he muttered to himself, and shook his head.

Close by, something laughed. Only it wasn’t what you’d call a laugh, exactly — it was closer to a snicker, the kind of sound you stifle behind your hands when you’re about to pull an awful prank on someone.

It wasn’t the kind of sound the traveler liked to hear, even on a sunset-dappled road not too far from home.

“Who’s there?”

The trees, innocent in the whole affair, remained silent and immobile.

“All right, come on out, I won’t whup you if you don’t deserve it,” the traveler said, using the same stern tone that he took with his oldest children. “You leave me alone, and I’ll leave you alone. That’s the end of it.”

Something else rustled behind him, and he spun on his heel to find the source of the sound, and now it was beginning to unsettle him that he still couldn’t see it. Whatever or whoever it was, it wasn’t possible to move that quickly, was it? Unless there were more than one …

“You stop that nonsense right now,” he said sharply.

“Or what?” said a rusty voice behind him.

This time he knew that it was a finger tracing down his spine, and he couldn’t suppress the automatic shudder of revulsion.

“Or what?” the voice repeated. “Tell us.”

He whipped around again, and he still couldn’t see the owner of that voice, and his own cracked automatically. “Show yourself!”

“If it please thee,” said a second voice, slyly, and he shuddered again.

Suddenly before him there were two feathery silhouettes. One of them turned to snicker at the other, and he saw the thick, sharp shape of a crow’s beak.

“What, thou wilt not speak, now?” said the other. It drew closer, its scaled clawed hands flexing at its sides. “Seelie got thy tongue?”

The first one laughed again, nastily.

“What are you?” he croaked.

“Stop talking,” said the second. With a click of its beak and a wave of its hand, suddenly the man felt his jaw glue shut. Instinctively he yelped with surprise, but only a muffled sound came out; and when he then tried to shout, he was just as unsuccessful. This, more than anything else, made his heart beat wildly against his ribcage. He stumbled backwards; his breath came fast and hard; he felt as though he were breathing through a straw, and wanted desperately to throw up, to scream, to do anything. He wanted to run, and knew that he would only fall over if he tried, because he couldn’t breathe; and he couldn’t, he couldn’t fall down around these things. He might be frozen stiff with fright, but at least he was upright.

“This one en’t putting up no fight,” said the first creature to the second. “Recall the last one?”

“Oh aye,” said the second. It sniggered. The creatures’ clawed feet made the leaves rustle as they approached, circled around him slowly once, and came back to stand before him. “Then again, the last one had somethin’ goin’ for it. This one? Not so much.”

“Still,” said the first. It stepped close to him — uncomfortably close, and he smelled the fug of decay on its glossy black feathers and gagged — and with its neat clawed hand, it prodded sharply at his shoulder.

Its bright black eyes glittered with cruel amusement.

“There now, human man, let’s see how fast thou can run.”

He didn’t need telling twice. But it wasn’t long (in fact it wasn’t much longer than a minute’s worth of reedy panicked breaths) before he tripped, and went down, and they caught up to him with their wicked-sharp claws.

And it wasn’t until the next day, around mid-morning, that a different traveler on a wagon found a mute, terrified, mutilated man by the side of the forest road.

“You’re lucky to be alive,” said the second man to the first, but bundled him up in his spare cloak to keep off the autumn chill and helped him onto the wagon …

… And never knew, or never understood, the haunted look in the first man’s eyes that told him he knew exactly how lucky (or unlucky) he had been.

2018 reboot

Recalculating …

“New year, new me,” she proclaimed, and then proceeded to act the same as always.

2017 was the year I finally got off my butt and started writing things I wanted to publish – and publish I did. Not as many as I’d aimed for (yes, IG book 3 is still pending), but 2 books published is still yonks better than none. I’d say 2017 was a vast improvement over 2016, personally speaking. As to the rest of the world, well, let’s leave that alone, shall we.

In preparation for the new year kick-off I spent most of NYE and NYD making lists. Astoundingly exciting, yes, I know. What can I say. I enjoy making lists. It helps me calm down instead of worrying my head off. And if I have a list to stick to, a schedule to follow, then I don’t spend my time faffing around and not getting anything done.

First item on the agenda: write more.

Write more here, specifically. I’ve been pretty bad about posting here lately, and I want to fix that. So hand-in-hand with sticking to an exercise schedule of 5 days a week, I’ll also be writing here 5 days a week. Now, whether they’ll be posts about writing, or movies, or flash fiction, that all depends – and if you tell me there’s something you’d like to see, I’ll try to provide more of it. But having a more constant presence on here is the main thing.

And writing more fiction is the other big thing, of course. I want to try to hit the 10-book mark in 2018, and have them be longer books, too, not just 50k novellas. Along with that, I’d like to try my hand at short stories so I can have some free reading material for y’all to peruse. Hopefully, along with the novels, I’ll be able to put up one short story every other month, and in different genres, too.

Second item on the agenda: get out and about more.

It’s really flarking cold outside, but I found an exercise schedule that I think I can persuade my suspicious lazy lizard brain to actually agree with. This pairs nicely with the “blog more” goal; if I already have to spend 20 minutes sitting down trying to stop sweating, I might as well put that time to good use on WordPress. And this way, when the local HEMA longsword class starts up in February, I’ll be in enough of a shape (besides “round”) that whacking people with pointy bits of metal will be something that doesn’t leave me wheezing after the first ten minutes.

(Longsword class is something I wanted to do not just because it’s cool (it is very cool), but because, hey, I’m writing a series about fairies with iron swords. Maybe I should learn how to actually fight with one of those.)

And the other fun thing that’s happening in February: I’m going to LTUE! Cue the pterodactyl shrieking – Larry Correia and Sarah Hoyt will both be there (two giants in the indie writing world, and Mad Geniuses, too), along with a whole slew of amazing panels and workshops. My editor/cover artist/all around renaissance friend will be there too, and we are gonna take Provo by storm. I can hardly wait.

There are other things that I want to do in 2018 as well, but those are the main things. I’m not going to say “here’s hoping I can make them all happen”, because I know I can, and hoping never did diddly squat. As Sir Terry himself said in The Wee Free Men:

“If you trust in yourself … and believe in your dreams … and follow your star … you’ll still get beaten by people who spent their time working hard and learning things and weren’t so lazy.”

Words to live by.

attack the (writer’s) block

The yearly review for the day job is coming up, and I’ve been doing some evaluating of my own. There are some things that I hoped to accomplish this year that I haven’t, but one pretty big thing that I have accomplished is – well, is getting published. If this time last year – or two years ago – someone had told me I’d have published two novellas and be working on the third by December 2017, I’d probably have laughed. Which is silly; it isn’t the easiest thing that I’ve ever done, but it’s not the most difficult, either. Indie publishing is the comfortable-chair epitome of DIY. It’s not making my own furniture, but it’s pretty darn satisfying.

I’ve not finished the draft of Cliff yet, but hoping to get that finished by the end of the week so I can get all the edits (& the finished product) out of the way before the holiday break. I’m slower at cranking out drafts than I had hoped, but this is still my first year at this – and if I keep practicing, I should get faster. I have to keep reminding myself that writer’s block is a state of mind rather than an actual obstacle. Especially when I’m tossing all these other words at these other projects I’m doing with my friends.

So writer’s block isn’t about “I can’t figure out what to do next.” There’s always another idea of what to do next; and when you’ve got the plot mapped out, you know exactly where to go, so the issue is just how to get there. And the issue isn’t necessarily “I can’t figure out how to get from A to B” either, though that can sometimes throw a handy wrench into the scrolling cinema behind your eyes (or my eyes at least). Because even if you don’t know how to get there, if you want to get there then you’ll find a way.

Writer’s block is about wanting to get there. It’s about wanting to tell the story, and the tangible feel of unrolling the story in realtime.

You can’t force yourself to want to do things. You can force yourself to do them, and achieve a result, but I know my editor can tell when I’ve been dragging my feet and when I’m actually enthusiastic. (The difference is whether I have to rewrite the entire chapter or not. This isn’t me complaining about my editor, you understand; this is simply awareness of the way we work through a draft.)

In the spirit of finding a way to make myself want to finish telling the story instead of slogging through an awkward ending, I’ll be conducting an experiment this evening on the commute home. Instead of listening to music, for a solid half hour I’ll be monologuing about the current draft in progress and recording it with my phone. Hopefully the act of talking about it out loud for an uninterrupted half hour will do me some good, and having a record of it will mean that any ideas I come up with will be preserved in their entirety. If it doesn’t work, that half hour wasn’t wasted because I would have been driving home anyway. If it does work, it means I’m on to something I can use with future projects.

old ideas

Since today is a kind of a braindead day – must be Tuesday – and seeing other people’s writing can sometimes lead to feelings of inadequacy (especially when Autocorrect has to come to the rescue), let’s go down memory lane and see what sort of things I was up to in middle school. That’s always good for a laugh.

In no particular order:

  • A pair of middle school kids get possessed by ghosts who live in the garnet studs on their glasses (green garnet for the boy, red garnet for the girl) and magically fall in love.
  • A blind seer accidentally kidnaps a man who wandered, injured, into her cave, and who subsequently gets captured by evil villagers and has to be rescued.
  • The Pirate Story, lovingly ripped off from Pirates of the Caribbean and a romance book I read in sixth grade, with a highly amusing misunderstanding of the way drunkenness works and a gunner named Romulus. Rampant abuse of the Stockholm Syndrome trope. Also the first story I’d ever written (and finished) that made it past fifty pages.
  • A girl magically travels through time for no apparent reason and, through her intense nerdery and love of Ancient Egypt, learns to decipher spoken Ancient Egyptian and falls in love with Thutmose III.
  • A princess in a fantastical pseudo-medieval court named Aiden disguises herself as a boy named Aidenof and … I don’t really remember, but I think there were dragons involved. I mostly just remember that her nom de guerre was created through an unfortunate accident of “add to dictionary” and I decided I liked it.
  • Two high school kids (a Jock Boy and a Nerd Girl) magically fall through, uh, a portal in the air? And enter this alternate universe, again with a fantastical pseudo-medieval theme. The boy becomes a … knight? I think? And the girl becomes a bar maid, and they live in this world for a solid five years or so before … banding together to defeat … somebody? An evil prince? Something like that. And then they fall in love, yadda yadda, they get married, and they both fall back through the portal to the same homecoming dance they had left, only a split second having passed in the real world. I remember writing extensive notes and snippets on this universe and then not writing a lick more of actual scenes.

Dang. Some of these would actually be pretty cool if I revisited them now and took the time to work out the plot holes and characterization.

Maybe I should start writing romance novels?

this is why I don’t kill my characters

Redemption arcs seem to go one of two ways: either the character dies, or the character lives. Sometimes their dying acts are the ones that redeem them – sometimes the only possible thing that can redeem them is death – sometimes they die immediately after having redeemed themselves, just when things have started looking up again. It all depends on how much you want your readers to yell at the book.

It seems to me that a dead-but-redeemed character is – well, not lazy per se. It definitely has an emotional impact on the other characters, and can throw a nice wrench into the plot. But in terms of character development, there’s not much you can do with a dead person unless you reanimate them somehow. Ghosts, zombies, someone from their past ready to rain bloody vengeance on them, a long lost child, et cetera – a little far-fetched, maybe, but you get the gist. It’s still possible to influence how a character is perceived if you have secrets ready to be revealed at a plot-convenient point. Cough, JKR, cough. But even then, what’s mostly happening is the changed perception of a character – Dumbledore can’t exactly react to having his secrets revealed. Oh no, he used to be Very Good Friends with Wizard Hitler back when they were teenagers. That’s … some loaded information right there, but the guy is dead. Harry can’t confront him about it. No one can. Unless you’re doing a prequel (where the dude is alive), it’s essentially an “oh that’s nice, but what does it have to do with the plot?”

Whereas a redeemed character that lives – now that’s where it gets nice and messy.

Because the thing about redemption is that it isn’t a one-and-done deal. You can’t take a villain, or an anti-hero who’s done some messed up things, and then wave a magic wand and say that everything is fine now because he Had a Change Of Heart. Okay, again, that’s nice, but why did he have a change of heart? How did he take that change and use it to affect the world around him? How are the other characters reacting to this change?

You can’t wring your hands and say “oh I’m terrible” and then just keep doing the destructive things you were doing before. Or, you can (and people often do), but it has to have consequences, and also it doesn’t count as redemption.

Roll your eyes all you like, but the best example I can find of a redemption arc is in Avatar: The Last Airbender. Zuko has a few false starts, and they matter to the plot and the other characters. He’s forced to confront his mistakes and how they affected the world around him. He acknowledges what made him the way he was, and he takes responsibility for his actions, and he actively works to heal the damage he’s done. He develops friendships with the people he once considered enemies. He reconciles with his uncle. He overcomes his rotten family – confronts their toxic behavior – and at the end of the series, he’s grown as a character and become an actual good guy. Yes, it’s a kids’ show that aired on Nickelodeon, but it goes over some really important themes, and it shows that goodness and kindness are things that you do, and traits that you can practice. The show never took it easy on Zuko. He wasn’t handed redemption on a silver platter. He had to work for it, and it made his characterization a hell of a lot stronger.

It’s easy to die for a cause. It’s harder to live for one.

transliterate

Let’s talk about translations.

If you’ve read Cyrano de Bergerac in English, or seen the filmed version with Gerard Depardieu that has yellow English subtitles, that’s one thing. It’s a tragic story about unrequited love, and assumptions, and carefully constructed perceptions of other people, and also two guys willfully deceiving a woman for a ridiculously long period of time. Neat. I kind of want to yell at everyone in that play, but for a lot of French literature that’s par for the course.

If you’ve read Cyrano de Bergerac in French, you very quickly realize that the entire play is written in rhyming couplets.

Now – speaking as someone who’s performed a bit of Shakespeare – if you act in a show that has rhyming verse, and you recite it to emphasize that rhyming verse, pretty soon everything sounds like a nursery rhyme and you want to bash your head against a wall, and so does the audience. It’s much easier, both for the audience and the actors, to pretend that the rhymes don’t exist until you decide to emphasize them for dramatic effect. Great! Spectacular.

The fact remains that Shakespeare, one of the greatest poets in the English language, didn’t write everything in rhymes. There’s a lot of blank verse in there, with some prose tossed in for the peasant characters to remind us that they’re the salt of the earth etc. etc. Shakespeare used rhymes pretty sparingly, specifically for dramatic effect.

Edmond Rostand, who wrote Cyrano de Bergerac – that guy wrote the entire play in rhymes, line for line.

Mind you, French can be a lot easier to rhyme than English, but it’s still impressive.

But it is impossible to translate the entire play from French and still keep all of those rhymes as well as the sense. At some point, you either sacrifice the literal meaning for the aesthetic of the rhyme scheme, or you sacrifice the rhyme scheme. Maybe sometimes they can coincide, but for an entire play that’s nearly 80,000 words long? Yikes. I can respect the man as a poet, that takes some serious chops, but I don’t think even the best translators would be able to preserve 80k worth of pristine rhymes.

Which is … I don’t know if it’s sad or not. In translation theory, there’s the ethnographic which includes connotation and historical context, as well as the literal and the aesthetic. There are some linguistic things that you can only truly get the sense of, by encountering them in their native languages. There are some things that are elegant in one language but that become clunky in another. There are some things that will always be lost in translation, because it’s impossible to convey every connotation of every word without a billion footnotes. And that’s – weird, really, because there are so many works of literature that we wouldn’t have if they hadn’t been translated. How much smaller, how much poorer would our culture be without shared literature from other cultures? Can you imagine a France without the influence of the American Declaration of Independence? Can you imagine a Europe without the influence of Voltaire, or Marx, or Martin Luther? I know I can’t.

Good excuse to push for a multilingual society, I guess. English as the lingua franca is convenient for those of us who learn it from the cradle, but it engenders a complacency that to me feels stagnant, if not toxic. That stereotype about French people gossiping about American tourists is absolutely true – and, look, we get mad when other people refuse to speak English, so why wouldn’t they be mad when we don’t even try to learn French, or Spanish, or any other language? I absolutely get that it’s hard for some people the way math is hard for me – but again, it’s a skill that can be practiced rather than solely a talent to be born with. It means that no matter where we go, we can find a way to communicate with the people around us.

zoom zoom

I really like to travel. I mean, I stay at home a lot, because a) The Day Job and b) traveling means throwing money at things like transportation and a place to rest my head at night and also food. And when I was in France, I didn’t really do any day trips out to places – when I went out, I went for a week or for two weeks at a time. Unless I’m already familiar with a place, I want to spend at least two days there to explore it a bit. I’m kind of useless at navigating without constantly checking the map every three seconds, but I like to get the feel of a place. And once I’ve gone from Point A to Point B with a map, I can pretty much retrace my steps without a map without very much trouble.

Unless we’re talking the Green Belt metro. Don’t Talk To Me About the Green Belt Metro.

Thank God for GPS, that’s all I can say.

It helps to take pictures, and it helps to write it down. I can press memories into a page like a dried flower, and the words help me to remember those places almost as vividly as the first time I experienced them. I’ve been putting them into my fiction, too, along with my little black book. What’s the point of recording something if I’m not going to share it with others? (As for the little black books – maybe after I’m dead. There are some things, especially in the older ones, that are a bit too embarrassing to have other people read while I’m still alive.) I put Arras into Singing in Key, and I put Arches National Park into The Wayward Changeling, and what’s cool is having people who have also been in those places recognize them in my writing. There are some places I’ve never been that I’ve experienced through books, and I’d like to be able to do that with my own writing, too.