Rachel Neumeier

Fantasy and Young Adult Fantasy Author


Okay! More or less the last Chicon post, probably, plus Recent Reading because it’s relevant

Which will make for a long post, but hey.

First let me just say that I was happy with the way the Hugos went. I only voted for the print categories because I didn’t know enough about the other categories, but next year maybe I’ll take more time and listen to all the podcasts, even. E Lily Yu was very charming as she accepted the Hugo for Best New Writer, and judging by her speech, Betsy Wollheim really deserved Best Editor Long Form. Evidently her writers really pushed for her to win, always a good sign! Best Short Story was The Paper Menagerie, which I voted for; Best Novelette was Six Months Three Days, which I TOTALLY voted for; Best Novella was The Man Who Bridged the Mist, which I LOVED and definitely need to read again, plus I really must look up Kij Johnson’s other work. Best Novel was AMONG OTHERS, which was my second choice and certainly not a surprise.

Arguing about and voting for the Hugos was a suprisingly fun thing and I think maybe next year I will buy a voting membership, even though I doubt very much that I’ll go.

Working backwards chronologically:

Here’s an idea for a moderator! If I ever moderate a panel, I’ll keep this technique in mind: Louise Marley (THE BRAHMS DECEPTION etc) noted down every panelist’s info and introduced everyone in order, thus getting the job done efficiently and subtly establishing her control of the panel. Clever! I am not so much into music as all that, but apparently her first career was in music. I’m thinking of picking up one of her books, though I didn’t before the con. Other panelists besides me on “Write What You Don’t Know” were Lynda Williams, Howard Andrew Jones, and Jack Skillingstead.

Now, MY opinion is that the minimal amount of research you can do to ground your story is: read other people’s novels. I mean, if you want to write a book set in an alternate China? How about UNDER HEAVEN by Kay, BRIDGE OF BIRDS by Hughart, etc. That’ll give you the flavor of the setting without a ton of research, right?

Of course, Marley writes these historical fantasies! And Howard Jones’ first book is set in an alternate Baghdad that is supposed to be very closely based on The Arabian Nights. So it won’t suprise you to know that they both do a TON more research than that, to the point of Jones’ learning Arabic, though he says he’s slow to learn it, but wow.

Both of them really emphasize going back to primary sources, not so much to get details of architecture etc (although that, too), but to get patterns of speech and things like that, which no secondary source will give you. That sounds like a great idea but I don’t plan EVER to write a book where I need to do that much work! Much less learn Arabic!

Jones’ book DESERT OF SOULS is one I just read, though, since I knew he would be on this panel. It’s quite good. We had this fun discussion afterward about his two main characters and my brother commented, “So it’s like pairing Sherlock Holms with Archie Goodwin, then,” which made everyone laugh because it was really very apt. I’m looking forward to the sequel because obviously the girl CANNOT have married the guy she was promised to, don’t tell ME that actually happened. So although mostly self-contained, important elements did not get tied up in the first book.

Now, Jack Skellingstead and Lynda Williams are a little more like me, except they both write SF rather than F. But they also both totally do casual handwaving to make their science fit the needs of their stories, so they talked about that, about how to put in a little real science or (more important) make fake science sound plausible, or sound cool enough no one cares whether it’s real or not.

I haven’t read anything by Skellingstead because most of it’s been short and I read almost no short stories. He does have a novel out, but I’m afraid I didn’t read that either. I did read the first book of Lynda Williams’ HUGE Okal Rel saga, which apparently has quite the fan base and other people writing stories in it. Really that’s a good series to go look at if you want to study a series that inspires a cult following.

The first book is THE COURTESAN PRINCE, as you may recall from an earlier post. It is not flawless, but it is one that draws you in. For me it was a slow starter, largely because the first protagonist we meet, Ann, is rather a twit. Impulsive, volatile, emotional, hormone-driven, maybe a bit dim, Ann is exactly the kind of person who makes me roll my eyes. But as the book went on, I have to say, I got kinda caught up in the story and wound up really involved in her plotline with Von more than the other main plotline.

Most interesting about the Okal Rel universe, and it is very interesting, is that the two main cultural branches are so very much a contrast. Williams apparently started building this culture when she was quite young and didn’t realize that she was really building TWO dystopias, not one violent culture with questionable attitudes (to put it lightly) toward killing and slavery plus one very very very nice culture where your own special virtual social worker will hover over you night and day to make sure you never do anything to hurt anybody else or yourself. Given a choice, I’d choose to live in . . . uh . . .

So the book is sort of interesting just for that, I mean just for considering what makes a dystopia and what makes a utopia. It would be REALLY interesting to poll the evidently huge Okal Rel fanbase and ask: Is the Reetian culture a dystopia or a utopia? With a forced-choice question so no one can pick “neither”. I would be fascinated to see what people thought and whether and how the response broke down geographically. Also I’d like to know how old fans were when they discovered the series; I’d be willing to bet that this is a series that grabs you harder if you’re younger when you read the first book.

Which raises questions about YA vs adult, but hey, this post is going to be long enough, so maybe later.

The panel on Essential Worldbuilding was kind of repetitious for me because it was in some ways similar to Write What You Don’t Know. THere were some great writers on the panel: Jacqueline Carey, whom unfortunately I didn’t get a chance to tell her how much I love her books; Valerie Estelle Frankel, who mostly writes nonfiction which I haven’t read; Roberta Rogow, who writes alternate history mysteries; Jean Johnson, who wrote A SOLDIERS DUTY etc, which I haven’t read yet; and Martha Wells, who sat next to me, which was great because I DID get a chance to tell her how much I loved HER latest book, THE CLOUD ROADS.

Seriously, YOU MUST READ THE CLOUD ROADS. It’s a wonderful book! With a great world! That is exactly the sort of world I would create! Which is not surprising because Martha Wells and I turn out to have been separated at birth. The panel went like this: Jacqueline Carey: I do all this research; Jean Jackson: I do this huge story bible and work everything out about the world; Rogow: Of course I have to work things out in detail first because I’m writing mysteries; me: I totally don’t do any of that; Wells: Me, either. [We look at each other: They do what? Really?]

Constantly during the panel, Carey (the moderator) would ask a question about worldbuilding and Jean Johnson would want to go into great detail about how she works out every single element of every kind that could possibly be relevant, and Martha Wells and I would look at each other: Really?

I was all like: If you are spending all your time on worldbuilding, you need to cut it out and move forward with writing. And Martha Wells was all like: Yeah, that. Or vice versa, I don’t remember who said what exactly, but seriously, I’m sure that’s why Wells’ book feels so much like one of mine, because neither of us feels the slightest need to figure everything out and explain it all to the reader, we just throw in details and move on with no explanations of why there’s a city sitting in the mountains on a huge turning wheel or who built it there. It’s just there, move on. We’ll figure out the why part only if explaining that is necessary to the story.

Mind you, Wells’ protagonist can fly. Her character isn’t human, I don’t think anybody in her world is really human (they act human enough the reader’s involvement with the characters isn’t challenged, but the details of body language and stuff are different). I mean, take a look at this:

This is the protagonist, Moon. Wouldn’t you love to be one of his people for a bit? Wings! So cool! Great story, great plot, great characters, great writing, go grab a copy. The second book is out now but I may not read it yet because the third doesn’t come out till December.

And Essential Worldbuilding? Do it however works for you. What works for me is: take a real culture, strip away most of the physical details, keep the societal attitutes, and presto: a culture with depth and consistency. Plus I would add, the details of daily life matter and need to be consistent with the environment surrounding your society. Is it a really cold land? Because in that case you may want to have your people eating barley or buckwheat rather than wheat. Details like that. And Martha Wells does what I would do for a nonhuman species: takes the mannerisms of a real species and spins them around a little and give them to her people. Poof! Nonhuman body language that feels real.

What does not work for me, or for Wells: if you are buiding a world, that’s a hobby and it can be fun, but every hour you spend drawing detailed maps of the other continent and working out what was happening is an hour you are not moving forward with your book. I’d say: pick one, worldbuilding or writing, and be aware there’s only so many hours in the day.

Okay! One more and I’ll be done: Designing Fantasy Animals. That was Howard Taylor, Daio (artist, unicorns), Barbara Galler-Smith, and Jean Johnson. And me. Nobody else had my level of expertise in the subject, but everybody on the panel turned out to have a reason to know and care about correctness in fantasy animals. Daio has horses, Galler-Smith emphasized animal behavior in college, stuff like that. We all agreed that wrong details drive us crazy, especially if the animal is being presented as accurate but is actually totally wrong. And we all agreed that an alien species or a fantasy nonhuman sentient shouldn’t speak and think just like a human. Actually, a lot of agreement all the way around on this topic.

A great way to build an alien species that feels right and consistent? Take a real species and base the behavior of yours on that. I don’t mean the details; I mean the deep instincts and broad patterns. Like if you want a species where females are dominant to males? Read about spotted hyena behavior, about marmosets and tamarins, about dwarf mongooses, about coatis, about bonobos. You’ve just about hit all the mammal species where females are in fact dominant to males. Pick one and base your species on that. It wouldn’t hurt to think about what ecological and behavioral factors lead to female dominance and make sure that’s consistent with your species. Like in marmosets: females have got to have priority for food resources because otherwise they won’t get enough food to lactate adequately. So a typical troop is one female who has twins, two or three males who carry the babies for her and give her priority access to food, and that’s it.

Or in spotted hyenas, the males are quite likely to attack and eat cubs if they get the chance, so females keep the males away from the dens; also the cubs dig the dens so the farther back in the tunnels you go, the smaller they get, so that only the smallest cubs can fit into them, which means the males can’t. Plus other stuff is going on, it’s a fascinating species.

Or in bonobos, females act as though they’re related even when they’re not and form alliances, and males don’t, which is why females can gang up on males and beat them up and wind up dominant. It’s completely the other way around in common chimps, where males form alliances and females don’t — if you’re a girl, you totally want to be a bonobo.

I handed out a reference list with lots of well-written popular books about lots of social animals. I’ll post that if anybody’s interested? Obviously it’s a totally fascinating subject, right?

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1 Comment Okay! More or less the last Chicon post, probably, plus Recent Reading because it’s relevant

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