Friday, February 27, 2015

Saturday: Seattle, 1 pm, Search for Meaning Book Festival

If you're in Seattle or environs come to Seattle University tomorrow, Saturday, 28 February, where I'll be taking part in the day-long Search for Meaning Book Festival. Room 103 in the Pigott building, 1 - 2 pm, with signing afterwards.

See you there!

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Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Some thoughts occasioned by recent 1-star reviews

Every now and again I listen to a fellow writer ranting about bad reviews, or telling a funny story about bad reviews, or just rolling her eyes at the mention of same, depending on where they are on the recovery curve. Because all writers get bad reviews, and we're all stung by them.1 Oh, perhaps not a high percentage of them, and perhaps not for long—it takes three or four minutes to get past my indignation, usually—but the more skilled the reviewer, or the more clearly they have laboured maliciously over their work, or the wider their audience, the more it stings.2

This recent 1-star reviews of Hild on sent my blood pressure up for five whole minutes. It's very carefully constructed and only just (maybe) skirts ad hominem attack:

Reading Hild is a lot like being cornered at a party by someone who has just finished listening to a bunch of educational podcasts, and they're going to tell you everything they know. Problem is, they refuse to make eye contact and thus never detect the increasingly panicked expression on your face as you wonder if a cocktail weenie is useful in a murder/suicide kind of situation.
The amount of research that went into this book had to have been staggering, but a good writer would have made that nearly invisible in service to the story. Instead, I spent the whole time cornered at that party, wishing Nicola Griffith would go away and let me enjoy myself. [, no verified purchase]
Note that he did not even have a verified purchase, a fact which added 30 seconds to my indignation: he didn't even pay for it! So then I couldn't resist taking a look at other 1-stars for comparison, and was struck by this one, which made me sigh for them:
This book, while based in historical fact, is laborious and dull. I slogged all the way through it, and have little more knowledge of early Irish history than I had before I began! [, verified purchase]
And then I was struck by how both stuck doggedly to the book: 124 pages and 535 respectively. That seems like a lot of leeway to give to a book you don't like. Far more than I'd give. (I tend to abandon books that aren't working for me by page 2—whether I've paid for them or not—because life is short and the TBR list long.) Perhaps because of that both reviewers came across (to me) as readers yearning for a particular kind of book and resent the author when she doesn't reward their persistence by giving them what they want.3

That made me wonder if this might be a cultural thing, so I checked
I'd love to read this book, but the price which its publisher/author have chosen for it has put it way outside my reach ... what's happened to the pricing of kindle books, Amazon? Very sad when money gets in the way of the accessibility of promising literature. [, no verified purchase]
Hmmn, I thought (after I'd finished rolling my eyes). Here's a review of a book the customer didn't even buy: no dogged persistence in evidence (though evidence points to them not knowing much about the publishing industry). I pondered.4 Is this a UK vs. US cultural response, or one based simply on the different signals sent by the book's packaging (which, of course, is itself based on publishers' knowledge of their book-buying culture)?

To answer this, I checked two other English-speaking countries, Australia (selling the UK/Blackfriars version) and Canada (US/FSG and Picador editions).5

In Australia, where sales until recently have been brisk, there are zero reviews. In Canada there are three reviews, all of them 5-star.

What does this means? Let me muse on this for a while. (In our house Kelley calls this telling myself a story: at it's best I think of it as serious play, a kind of exploration. Others might consider it spin and plain old bullshit. You've been warned.)

The story I tell myself based on this flimsiest of evidence is that the 1-star review behaviour is all down to culture. Americans (don't forget I am one now) feel entitled to vent our spleen against a person we don't know. Why? Because we're used to space, and less diversity (I've never lived anywhere so segregated—in terms of class, colour, religion, age, sexuality etc), and less community, and so fewer immediate consequences for antisocial behaviour. Also, those of a certain age attended schools where they were rewarded for things like attendance or tidiness, and, if they pestered their parents enough to make everyone's life (especially the teacher's) miserable, got themselves an inflated grade. They were raised to think everyone's opinion is of equal worth, especially theirs.

Britons are willing to let rip, too, but only against the publisher or retailer: the faceless corporation whom the community finds acceptable to gang up against. Why? Because we're raised with an Us v. Them attitude that's rooted in class.

Canadians are apparently (I am not a citizen) willing to say only nice things. Why? I don't know. Perhaps because they're, well, nice (hey, all the Canadians I've met are lovely people). Hurtling up the ladder of assumption, this might be because it's a big country, sparsely populated, and you never know when you're going to need your neighbour.

Australia is big, too. But there the citizens seem (again, I'm not one; I'm just making shit up) have either no time or no urge to discuss such things. Why? Well, maybe (if you believe their movies) they're too busy enjoying the great outdoors, or battling crocodiles and wildfires, to bother with anything less exciting. 

As I say, I'm just telling myself a story (having fun with cliché, basically). Gotta do something when I'm on break from the seventh century...

1 If we read them. I have met writers who will not read, listen, or watch a single comment about their work, in person or via mass media. Sometimes I marvel--the time they must save!--but more often I shake my head: there are times when it's a real rush to read a review, times when the praise is heady, or I learn something about my work, or--joy of joys--both. I always read my reviews, as many as I can find.
2 This stuff is not rational. The oddest things get through what (for me at least) is now a very thick skin. I don't review anymore because of that and the power differential. Relatively Famous Name dismembers Beginner's work is not a dynamic I want to involve myself in. It feels like hitting a fly with a sledgehammer: overkill, not to mention mean. (I would never set out to demolish another writer's work but, as I say, writers' response is not always rational, and some writers--not me, of course--are insanely touchy. There are writers whose work I admire but wouldn't write even an adulatory review of because they will find something in it to get angry about.) I'm just as uninterested in pissing off someone with seriously more heft than me. Once you're a published author with an established readership, you're between a rock and a hard place. So I just don't review. These days when I like something, I tend to mention it here.
3 I am of course making myriad assumptions here, just so we're clear. Something like a Bernard Cornwell novel: historically accurate adventure fiction with predictable outcomes and straight-forward prose. I am not knocking Cornwell here--I've bought and read all his Uhtred books and enjoy them hugely. But if you're expecting Uhtred, Hild might be a bit of a shock.
4 Why, yes, now that you mention it, this deliberation probably is avoidance behaviour; in my defence, a writer can't live in the 7th C all the time...
5 I stuck to English because seemed less like comparing apples and oranges than, hmm, apples and pears.
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Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Character density in fiction

In 1988 one of my teachers at Clarion was Samuel R Delany. One of the things he taught that week was the three kinds of actions performed by fictional characters: purposeful, habitual, and gratuitous. He explained which was which, but, frankly, I forget and I didn't keep notes. (I was too busy falling in love, surviving 105-degree heat and Midwestern humidity without air-conditioning, and starving half to death—you try being a vegetarian who is allergic to cheese on an 80s campus in Middle America). 

However, with the hindsight and experience (and food, and air conditioning) of twenty-six years, I would guess (operative word: guess) that what he meant was, respectively, actions that are plot-oriented (doing something that moves the story along: the bad guy kidnaps the hero’s husband), characteristic (the hero has this habit of complaining just before she digs deep and does what must be done), and generic (endless scenes with characters pushing cups of coffee one way or another, nodding, tapping their fingers).

Let me repeat: I’m guessing what Delany means by this. My interpretation could be quite wrong. My apologies to Chip.

Clichéd fiction (often some variety of genre churned out too fast to meet terrible deadlines) traffics in clichéd characters; it leans heavily on a person's quirky characteristics or habits (they stutter, blink before they stab an innocent, or talk to their pampered cat in a girlish voice) and generic behaviours (they pout, or slam the door, or smirk—or grimace, or any of another twenty annoying and over-used to the point of meaninglessness verbs). So-called no-nonsense fiction, such as action-heavy thrillers, rely largely on purposeful actions: the hero kills the bad guys; the detective puts together the clues; the traveller survives the storm at sea. No time or motion is 'wasted'. Fiction that is stereotyped in some other way—treats a particular class of person as less than a whole human being—tends to use only one or two of the three behavioural modes. It dates fast. When the culture moves on, Gone With the Wind, or the Gor books are left behind; unless they become teaching tools, the same will be true of coming out stories and other We're Just Like You! fiction.

But a great story or novel—oh, a great story is dense. The characters' actions are plot-driving and characteristic and specific. These people are fully human, the kind of people we would recognise this year, last century, tomorrow. In this fiction, the writer is almost profligate in her generosity: we know a lot about the protagonist just by the way he flips his hair, just by the speed with which they blinks before they kill someone. No one in the book or story--protagonist, antagonist, or secondary character--flips or blinks the same way; you could never swap one character for another. (Even comic characters should be distinguished one from the other.) In a perfect world you wouldn’t need dialogue tags: the vocabulary would be so characteristic of whoever was speaking the reader would never get confused.

The protagonist's relationships with others are unique. And if the protagonist is unique, so is her story. (This is always true. Even if you agree with one of the many arguments about the number of basic plots,* story and plot are different beasties.)

Great fiction doesn't traffic in stereotype of any kind. In great fiction there are no generic queer people or women or people of colour or cripples; even the secondary characters and the antagonists are three-dimensional. And there are no cliched phrases, because in great fiction even the prose is alive. The people, their prose, place, and story are fresh and familiar, unexpected and inevitable—because everything that happens is set up early; the more subtly the better. Because great fiction is subtle, too.

In the end, though, what carries a novel is it's cast. It doesn't matter how beautiful your prose is, if you can't bring your reader inside the people, you have failed. Make your characters alive, supple to the needs of their own situation rather than the exigencies of your plot, and make them dense.

* There are as many opinions about this as there are writers. We could argue for years over whether, according Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, there are seven—and that the world revolves around Man; or we follow Joseph Campbell's assertion that there's only one, the Monomyth; or, more recently, agree with Christopher Booker, who also thinks there are seven, though they're different.
Quiller-Couch's are:
  • Man vs. Man
  • Man vs. Nature
  • Man vs. Himself
  • Man vs. God
  • Man vs. Society
  • Man caught in the Middle
  • Man & Woman
Campbell's monomyth is:
  • The Hero's Journey
and Booker prefers:
  • Overcoming the Monster
  • Rags to Riches
  • The Quest
  • Voyage and Return
  • Comedy
  • Tragedy
  • Rebirth 
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Thursday, February 12, 2015

Third Place Books on Thursday, February 19, 7 pm

If you’re in the Seattle area on Thursday night, February 19, come to Third Place Books (Lake Forest Park), and join me as I admire Kelley in conversation with author and playwright Robert Levy about his first novel The Glittering World.

As Kelley says:

It'll be fun! Robert is smart and charming, and his book has already garnered praise from Kelly Link, Elizabeth Hand, Christopher Barzak, and many more.

What's the book about? I'm so glad you asked:

When Michael "Blue" Whitley — a former party boy turned up-and-coming Brooklyn chef — returns with three friends to the remote Canadian commune of his birth, he discovers that his entire life has been a carefully orchestrated lie. He is in fact someone else altogether, a replacement for a local child who disappeared twenty-five years earlier. He is something not quite human.

Only now it’s Blue's turn to vanish, leaving his friends to unravel the mystery of his abduction. Soon, psychology and skepticism collide with old-world folklore and superstition, revealing the secret history of the commune as well as that of an ancient race of beings that inhabits the hidden corners of the land.

Set among the artisans, burnouts, and New Age mystics of rural Cape Breton, The Glittering World is a dark and modern fairy tale, a novel of self-identity and supernatural suspense.

New Yorkers can help Robert celebrate the launch of the book Tuesday, Feb 10 at the release party at BookCourt in Brooklyn. Robert also has bookstore appearances in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Westfield NJ, as well as an appearance at Seattle’s Mythic Worlds convention.
Kelley is very good at this, and Robert—a forensic psychologist in real life—has some interesting things to say. Join us.
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Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Writing a novel: where to enter

From: Jane

In the NYT today, I read a piece by Roger Cohen, quoting an Israeli author named Amos Oz.  I thought you’d like it:

TEL AVIV — Here is Amos Oz on writing a novel: "It is like reconstructing the whole of Paris from Lego bricks. It’s about three-quarters-of-a-million small decisions. It’s not about who will live and who will die and who will go to bed with whom. Those are the easy ones. It’s about choosing adjectives and adverbs and punctuation. These are molecular decisions that you have to take and nobody will appreciate, for the same reason that nobody ever pays attention to a single note in a symphony in a concert hall, except when the note is false. So you have to work very hard in order for your readers not to note a single false note. That is the business of three-quarters-of-a-million decisions."
I was rather startled to find that by the time I got around to responding to this, the article is over a month old. My excuse? To use Oz's terminology, I've been lost in Legoland.

Except my Legoland is not the same as his. For me, choosing the right words is the easy part. When I'm in full flow, the words and their carriages—the punctuation—arrive without struggle or thought. Yes, it can all be tightened and tidied when I rewrite, but generally the words and sentences are the ones I want. The real work lies in getting to that state of flow.

To begin, I need to start in the right place.* Where the protagonist begins helps determine where she ends, and that beginning-to-end is the emotional arc of the story. That emotional arc is all about how and why the main character changes; it's about her choices and their consequences. For me, the ringing truth of a novel rests on its people. 

I have to know my people. What they do and how they think. How they feel and where they're from. Landscape is central; for me as a writer, people are their places. I have to understand what they notice about the world and how easily they move through it. I need to know, deep down, what metaphors they use to talk to others or to themselves.

All this takes time and active work. A lot of that work looks like doing nothing in particular: lounging about eating chocolate, sitting in the pub drinking beer, surfing the web for interesting PhD theses or blog posts. Some of it looks remarkably like daydreaming over a cup of tea, and sometimes, I admit, I am just loafing about. But mostly I'm working: I'm feeding the black box in my brain the raw material to make magic.**

Some of the work is much more obvious: creating charts and spreadsheets and maps. (Making maps gives me vast pleasure, too, which means—inevitably—that it sometimes devolves into making pretties and not really progressing with the work at hand. But that's balanced out by the fact that I loathe and detest spreadsheets.)

If this all sounds as though I'm one of those writers who sit around and wait for inspiration to strike then I'm doing a poor job of explaining. I work hard, many hours a day, it's just that I'm not always increasing word count. Sometimes I'm frantically researching climate, or trees—what species blossoms when, what fruits when, how tall do each grow, how easy is the wood to carve?—or tides or trying to work out travel times which means figuring out what state of repair the Roman roads or Iron Age tracks would be in, which in turn depends on how they were getting there, which of course rests on what time of year is it...and what trees are blossoming in what weather.

But all that, believe it or not, is secondary. They are the container in which I put the people and then watch. The question I ask myself most often is: Yes, it's very cool, but, really, would she do that? You wouldn't believe how many gorgeous, gorgeous scenes I threw away in the writing of Hild because, really, she wouldn't do that.

And now I'm working on Hild II. Which is more complicated in some ways but which I am determined will be shorter, even though it covers as much narrative time (about fifteen years). In every single scene I aim to cut to the heart: begin as late as humanly possible and end as early as possible—while appearing unhurried.

The false notes I've hit always come when I don't know, when I'm thinking with my fingers instead of coming to the desk with a bone-deep certainty of who, what, where, when, why, how: the smells and sounds, the dreams and disappointments. And, most importantly, where and when to enter. And in this I agree with Oz: readers always hear a false note. If you don't know, they will notice. But if you do know they won't even see the words, only your people, only your place. They will live in the world you built alongside the people you brought to life. It's worth a little work.

* For more on this see Hauser and Reich's, Notes on Directing. It is very short, and in the form of numbered rules for directing a stage play ("Never, never, never bully actors," "movement will always draw an audience's eye.") The book began as twelve pages of notes handed by Hauser (an English director who has directed the royalty of the stage: Judy Dench, Ian McKellan, Lawrence Olivier) to Reich (at the time an American neophyte) with the murmured words, "You might find these helpful." In addition to being a fascinating window onto a world I'm not familiar with, it is wickedly funny in places, and thought-provoking for anyone whose business is narrative. What I took away from it has been very useful: if a scene is going wrong, you entered in the wrong place. Too early, too late, or just the wrong scene at the wrong time. Then, of course, you have to figure why...
** The Language of Hild, an essay for Farrar, Straus and Giroux's Work in Progress. I'm only talking about one aspect of the work in this piece but it's relevant to the discussion at hand.
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Thursday, February 5, 2015

Generosity economy, feudalism in Hild, women's agency, and more

From: Robert

Just wanted to email you and let you know that I just finished reading Hild and I absolutely loved it.  Just to give credit for the recommendation, I went to an event at Kepler’s in Menlo Park, CA and watched a panel discussion with several science fiction/fantasy authors, and two of them had read Hild and raved about it, so I bought it rather than any of their books.  Personally, I blame them - they made your book sound so good, I really didn’t have an option.  If they had wanted to sell their own books they should have hyped their own books, rather than yours.  One of the panelists said it wasn’t just the best fantasy (if that’s what it is) book they read in 2014, but the best book period, and now that I’ve finished it, I have to agree.

The research you did was evident, but it was immersive rather than intrusive.  I also think you did a great job balancing how much and when you explicitly described major plot points and how much you left to the reader to figure out through context and later events.  In my experience as a reader that is a difficult balance to achieve, but you handled it perfectly.  I also really appreciated getting what seems to me a more accurate and balanced view of the role that women had in feudal (if that’s the right word) society.  It is all too common for fantasy authors to pretend that women in those types of societies were oppressed and largely powerless, and so it’s a sign of authenticity when they replicate that oppression and lack of agency in their own worlds.  I’ve never agreed with that view.  It always struck me, at best, as a lack of imagination and research, and at worst as a justification for their own biases and ignorance.  I was really pleased to see that you handled things differently.  In a sense you kind of had too, given the subject of the book, but you didn’t have to pick Hild as the subject, and you could have written a bad novel. 

I’m holding out hope that you will be traveling for some book signings or other events when the sequel is published so I can get my copy signed.  It seems like publishers don’t send authors out on traditional book signing tours too much anymore, I guess that’s just one of the many ways the industry has changed, but I do see other kinds of events like the panel discussion I attended at Kepler’s in San Mateo.  Borderlands in San Francisco also holds similar events, just in case you were wondering. (Feel free to take that as a polite and hopeful suggestion.)  Maybe I will be able to say hi and thanks in person one of these days.   

Thanks for writing such a compelling novel; I can’t wait to read the sequel. 
Well, bless those authors! Art is a precarious existence, sometimes, and what makes it work is mutual generosity--the generosity economy; it sounds as though they were generous. If you feel so inclined I'd love to hear their names so I can thank them in person.

I haven't had much opportunity for that kind of generosity--recommending others' work--lately because I haven't had time to read much fiction. And then, sadly, the fiction I do read is distorted by my focus on Hild II: I'm finding fault with everything. It makes appreciation difficult. For the last year or so my generosity has mostly been geared towards practical help for other writers--joint appearances to boost attendance, sharing behind-the-scenes contacts, advising on cover letters, that sort of thing. My own reading has been largely Hild-related research, and poetry. (Which, unhappily, I also seem to be unable to properly appreciate at the moment. Huh.)

Some old fiction standbys have helped: listening to Lord of the Rings, reading Watership Down aloud, and spending many happy hours talking about what worked, and why, and how.

So, anyway, I'm delighted you liked Hild but, no, I won't be travelling for a while. However, given that I haven't a clue when Hild II will be out, it's entirely possible I'll be travelling by then. I wrote a recent blog post about what goes into accepting/declining invitations, and how people might best go about it.

I wouldn't call Hild's age feudal. As there are more definitions of feudal than you can shake a stick at, I'm not going to parse it too closely. But--if we accept the term at all--it seems to me to be an institution requiring a certain level of literacy, clarity of legal roles and responsibilities, and social stratification--not to mentlon size of the state, and stability at the top. The early seventh century in the north of Britiain fails on all counts. There were groups living under different world views, using different languages, with zero literacy. Might was right: law was the edge of a blade. Kings were ousted with extreme prejudice sometimes on an annual basis. No king of Hild's youth (or none I can think of offhand) died of old age.

That will have started to change by the end of Hild's life. But the operative phrase here is started to... 

Women and agency in fiction. Ah, yes. One day I really will write an essay about this. But today is not that day. Let me just say that it infuriates me when writers treat women as chattel. Women, as I've said a hundred times before, as I've been saying since my very first novel, are human, we are people first and always have been, in every era.

Perhaps it's a conversation we'll continue one day when we meet in person at some bookshop or other when there's another Hild book in the world.
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Monday, February 2, 2015

Hild one of ALA's "Best Reads" of 2014, and Clarkesworld

Two things.

The American Library Association has announced its official list of Notable Books 2014, selected by the Reading List Council. They picked a winner and four runners up in each category. Hild is on the list for Historical Fiction. The winner is Bitter Greens by Kate Forsyth (Thomas Dunne), and the four runners up are:

Flight of the Sparrow by Amy Belding Brown (NAL)
Hild by Nicola Griffith (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
Wayfaring Stranger by James Lee Burke (Simon & Schuster)
The Wife, the Maid and the Mistress by Ariel Lawhon (Doubleday)

The whole list is worth looking at; you'll see many names you recognise. And you could do a lot, lot worse than use it as a basis for ordering books from the library or your friendly independent bookseller.

Also "It Takes Two" has been reprinted again, this time in Clarkesworld. Go take a look.

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