Here’s something keen —

Something I regret about the pre-Worldcon thing is that I never took the time to look at samples of art for the artists up for the Hugo.

So I appreciate this link, which gives a retrospective for all the artist Hugo winners through history.

Naturally I really really REALLY love Michael Whelan, who was doing lots of cover art during the era where I paid a whole lot more attention to artists. Thirteen Hugos, wow! Didn’t he withdraw his name from consideration eventually, to let others have a turn? So a classy guy as well as a fabulous artist. His Little Fuzzy covers . . . and the ones he did for Cherryh’s Chanur books . . . and his covers for the Pern books? Absolutely definitive.

A lot of great artists at the link, though, well worth scanning through the whole list.

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Recent “reading”

Actually listening. I just finished (finally) an audiobook I was listening to on the drive to Chicago and back — ONE OF OUR THURSDAYS IS MISSING by Fford.

I have to mention this, because it may be the cleverest book I ever read and I hereby declare you all must go read it.

The main character is the “written Thursday”, who is the protagonist in the books about the “real Thursday” (who was introduced in Fford’s first book, THE EYRE AFFAIR, which involves somebody kidnapping Jane Eyre from her book and holding her hostage, in an alternate world where people take their literature VERY seriously. Did you follow all that?)

So, the written Thursday lives, obviously, in the Book World, which contains all the settings and characters ever written. I just don’t know how to describe the Book World. I mean, there are islands for speculative fiction and racy novels and so on, in a sea of phonemes.

There’s quite a bit of interplay between the real world and the Book World. The real Thursday vanished when visiting the Book World, and now the written Thursday is trying to track her down while all kinds of things complicate matters.

At one point the written Thursday visits the real world, and that part may have some of my favorite touches, as for example Thursday is so amazed by visual detail because in the book world only important things are clearly seen, with washes of indistinct magenta between.

Just all kinds of extremely clever details, far too many to even begin to mention, plus this beautiful touch right at the end where we finally find out where the real Thursday is (it makes so much sense! And is so funny!).

So, anyway, if you see a copy sitting around, grab it! You totally do not need to read the earlier ones in the series, go right ahead and start with this one, it stands alone perfectly.

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I see my TBR pile expanding . . .

What with the fall releases that are about to hit the shelves.

I thought of this because of this:

Although the only one on this list I’d add to mine is THE DAYS OF BLOOD AND STARLIGHT by Lani Taylor. I haven’t actually read the first book of this series — DAUGHTER OF SMOKE AND BONE — yet, so this is not on the very top of my must-have list. But I’ve heard so much about DAUGHTER that I’m pretty sure I’m going to need the second book, too.

Now, mind you, I like Into The Hall Of Books well enough to look up any of her most-anticipated list; maybe I’ll decide to try them, too. Because, hey, when your TBR pile falls below fifty, maybe it’s time to stock up on new titles, right?

Anyway, I then saw a similar list here., at Love Is Not A Triangle, which may be my favorite book-blog title EVER. I am not nearly so into romance — this probably doesn’t surprise you — and definitely appreciate a blog that rates books on “triangleness”, because I am not very keen on Teenage Angst and Love Triangles and all that.

And on this list? Look! THE RAVEN BOYS by Stiefvater! Now THAT is definitely on the very top of my must-have-it list, because THE SCORPIO RACES was one of my favorite books of the year. And I hadn’t known about it till I saw it here.

What else is on my Fall Must-Buy list?

CROWN OF EMBERS by Rae Carson, because I really loved GIRL OF FIRE AND THORNS

Lois McMaster Bujold’s new one, whatever that’s called.

THE BLINDING KNIFE by Brent Weeks, because I really enjoyed the first one in the series.

The third one in Martha Wells’ THE CLOUD ROADS trilogy.

And I’d love a bunch of titles that have already been released, but that I’ve been putting off buying. But these are the ones that are actually due out shortly that I MUST HAVE.

What’s on your Fall Must Have list?

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Back to work, plus the world’s most beautiful costume

It turns out that it takes kind of a long time, after nearly a week off, to get back into cutting mode. Good thing it’s just easy cutting. If I had to think much about plot or characterization, that’d be harder. Probably I’ll arrive at that part sometime next week, but by then hopefully I’ll be back in the mood.

Meanwhile, I’m totally in the mood to read books I bought at Chicon. I read TIASSA by Brust last night. Meh. I liked the previous one, IORICH, much better. MUCH MUCH better.

What makes the difference? Easy: IORICH sticks to Vlad’s pov and voice; TIASSA jumps all over the place in pov and half of it is written in the longwinded PHOENIX GUARDS style. Which I like fine, but not in a Vlad story!

So, meh. You know what I want? Bujold’s new one. Months to go yet.

However, speaking of Chicon, you MUST follow this link and look at this costume:

www.flickr.com/photos/infinitepixels/7918556266/in/set-72157631377634390

and if you want to see more costumes, some of which are also very impressive, try this link:

www.flickr.com/photos/infinitepixels/sets/72157631377634390/

If the links don’t go live in the post, I bet you can cut and paste them with no trouble. Since I just did. You should definitely look at the second to last, the guy with the wings. That was an amazing costume! He made those wings fold up and stretch out — I have no idea how.

And thanks, Mike! A real camera makes such a difference!

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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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You call that a masquerade?

There were only 27 entries and two didn’t show up. That was a surprise. The masquerade at the much smaller Archon in St Louis last year was the first I’ve ever gone to, and I guess there must be an unusually big costuming group in St L, because there were probably twice as many entries there, and a lot more at higher levels than novice. This masquerade here was kind of a disappointment. Though some of the costumes were excellent. My brother’s friend Mike had a fantastic camera, so when I get home, I’ll ask him to send me a couple and then post them here. My personal favorite was this ice-queen-like Lady in the Lake costume in the master category . . . never mind, I’ll wait till I have pictures.

Saturday was overall a much calmer day for me. Lots of time where there wasn’t a panel that really interested me, so I spent a lot of time in the dealer’s room and (I’m sure this will amaze you) bought a lot of books. Steven Brust’s latest is out, TIASSA. I really enjoyed the one that came out last year, whichever that was — the one with the lawyer and legal system entanglements. And I got the second Abigail Adams mystery by Barbara “Hamilton”, which I’d been thinking of for a while but kept forgetting to actually get. And Dan Wells has a new one out! I didn’t realize. THE HOLLOW CITY. The protagonist is a shizophrenic? If anybody can pull this off, it’ll be Wells. And I picked up some used books. I’ll have to unpack them later and see what all is in the pile.

Oh, and I’ll be picking up a few of those unique non-book items you sometimes find at cons, too. I’ve already grabbed a calendar for next year, one of the ones by Daio, tiger unicorns and stuff like this:

Snow leopard, for example

Staying with my brother gives me this possibly dangerous feeling that of course I can spend money, look how much I’m saving by not staying at the hotel.

I really will have stuff to say about my panels later! Because they were all interesting and they all went well and they were all blessed by having good moderators! And I will have to tie it in to my recent reading, because I have now met all kinds of people whose books I read in the last week or so, since I knew they’d be on one panel or another with me. So I will tell you about their books at the same time. One of those is definitely on my Top Ten list for 2012, no question, and then I and the author, Martha Wells, turn out to be, like, seperated at birth — we write in a very similar manner, it turns out.

Anyway, more about that later, probably tomorrow while I’m waiting for rush hour traffic to thin out before leaving. Right now, again, gotta get ready to zip back downtown.

Oh! Newsflash! Downtown Chicago has polluted air! My eyes keep tearing whenever I’m outside. I guess if I lived here I’d adjust? But I will be glad to be back in the country tomorrow evening.

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Looong days at Chicon!

And I don’t even like coffee!

I think Friday may turn out to be the best day for me; loads of panels that were interesting, my first real sweep through the dealer’s room — it may surprise you to know that I bought BOOKS. I know, right?

Actually, I carefully went through all the tables of dealers who carry new books rather than used, and since only Larry Smith had ample copies of MY books, I bought books from him. That seems fair, right? And signed the copies of mine that he had, of course. I got this new one by Dan Wells that I don’t remember the title of . . . just a second . . . here it is: THE HOLLOW CITY. I didn’t even read the inside flap, just bought it because for me Dan Wells is an insta-buy. After I bought it, I saw that the main character is a paranoid schizophrenic. Well, if anybody can handle that in a serious, sympathetic way, Wells can. I have his book PARTIALS on my TBR pile at home, too.

And I got the second book of Martha Wells’ in-progress trilogy THE SERPENT SEA. (I know, it looks like I’m on a kick to buy books by anybody named Wells.) THe first book, THE CLOUD ROADS, is fabulous, I just finished it a few days ago, I was going to comment on that in a different post. And I got the second of Barbara “Hamilton”s Abigail Adams murder mysteries because I was sort of thinking about getting it recently, but kept forgetting, and then there it was! So I picked it up. Later I saw a different dealer had TIASSA by Steven Brust out. I want that. I need to go see if Larry Smith has it.

There’s this one dealer who has these great vertical jigsaw puzzles of unicorns and griffins and carousel animals and dogs — the dogs are represented with amazing accuracy, you can tell the Portuguese Water Dog from the Poodle and the Akita from the Shiba Inu. I may go back and buy a griffin. I think that’s pretty likely. Unless I go for a dragon.

And I think I NEED some cloisonne bat earrings for October. Right? Of course.

First panel I went to on Friday was on plotting. Turned out to be interesting but not helpful, because ALL of the panelists do VERY DETAILED OUTLINES. I can’t even imagine. I do sketchy outlines and I do them when I’m halfway through the book and trying to figure out how to get to the end. And then I change those. No post-its scattered around, no corkboard hanging with notecards, no synopsis — do you know, someone said she writes the back cover copy first and then the synopsis and then the novel? She says it focuses the novel. Well, yes, if that were even imaginable I guess it would have that effect.

If I tried to create such a detailed outline? I think it would kill the book dead. Why write it if you already know everything?

And somebody said she writes the climax and conclusion first because she loves that part best. I was like, what, really? I mean, I love that part, too, but if I did it first, what would be the reward for slogging through the middle?

So, interesting to see how very differently people write, but I hope aspiring authors in the audience don’t take away the idea that everybody needs to have this vastly detailed outline.

Oh! One good suggestion after all, which in fact I do sometimes do: outline after the book is finished. You do that to think about flow, of course. That can be a good thing to do. And now that I think about it, I think someone suggested outlining your favorite books to see how their plots work. I think that could be a really interesting and helpful thing to do. I don’t know that I’ll ever do it, but really, that’s a neat idea. And one great little catchphrase that sticks in my head: “Frontload your cool.” Put the neatest stuff in right away so the reader can see and enjoy it, don’t hold it back as a great prize for getting to chapter 17. I thought that sounded right and it’s a great phrase. And then someone else said, “But don’t frontload your world,” which of course means don’t do all this infodumping of history and worldbuilding in some vast prologue, and WOW IS THAT TRUE DON’T DO THAT. That’s why people skip prologues!

Then I went to a panel on YA trends. It sort of degenerated into a panel on the IMPORTANCE OF DIVERSITY IN YA which I am sooooo bored with that whole topic, can we talk about something else for a while? But I was very pleased that someone did say that just throwing in The Gay Friend or The Black Friend to show how progressive and forward-thinking you are is not going to work, which is SO TRUE and extremely obvious when an author does it, which is one reason I’m tired of the whole topic.

And I went to this fabulous panel on designing a cover for your self-published book. I always forget how much I enjoy art panels. I took lots of notes because I’ll probably self-publish a book in the next few years just to see how it goes. Lots of good stuff about composition and contrast and making the title pop and how to make your book stand out even when all the potential buyer can see is the thumbnail on their phone or the spine on the shelf. Great panelists. Really great panel. Someone said green covers don’t work and I said What? and gave the panelists a copy of HOUSE OF SHADOWS and they thought it was a great example of how green covers CAN work, as long as the focal point is actually in a warm color, which of course the girl and peony are warm peaches and pinks, so that was fun to have them comment on my own book.

And I know I should be telling you who the panelists were and who said what, but I’d hardly heard of anybody and I was too far away to see name tags. Okay, looking it up in the program: the plotting one was Julia Mandala, Valerie Estelle Frankel, Diana Rowland, Betsy Dornbusch, and Melinda Snodgrass. All right, I have heard of Melinda Snodgrass.

The YA Trends panel was Bryce Moore, Aurora Celeste, Gwenda Bond, Leigh Bardugo, and Emily Jiang.

The cover design panel was Mark Ferrari, who was the moderator and a great panelist, Maurine Starkey, David Malki and Alan Beck. And two women were there, who aren’t listed and must have been added after the program was printed, but I don’t have the corrections sheet with me.

Okay! I had two panels, too, but MORE ABOUT ThEM LATER. It is time to go have breakfast so we can get back to the convention hotel well before my 9:00 panel starts. I HATE being late for things.

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Chicon 7

Everybody is emphasizing the “Chicon 7” name rather than saying “WorldCon Whatever.” In fact as you can see I have forgotten the WorldCon number. Did you know the first Chicon was in . . . wait for it . . . 1940? And that one of the guys who organized that first Chicon is actually here as a guest of honor? (Sorry, but I don’t remember his name and he doesn’t appear to be listed as a guest of honor in the program, though he was certainly treated as a guest of honor at the opening ceremonies). I started counting decades and gave up in disbelief. He looks very spry for a guy who has to be in his nineties. I told my brother I would say I hope to look that good at ninety, only this is an SF convention and actually I hope to look roughly like I just turned thirty when I’m ninety. Where’s that anti-aging medical miracle? Hello? I’m waiting . . .

Okay! The only panel I went to on Thursday was on researching and writing Alternate History and I went to it because a) It’s moderately interesting to me, b) it’s definitely interesting to my brother, Craig, c) my brother’s friend Ken Hite was on the panel. Craig and Ken and Mike Schiffer wrote a couple of alternate history gaming supplements, which are well worth reading just for the sidebars about the alternate histories, even though I have never been into gaming. Funniest comment: Ken said, “When you ask yourself, How would this be different if this guy was a vampire? And then you start researching what would have happened . . . halfway through you’re suddenly like, “My God, this guy WAS a vampire!” : ) Can’t you just see that happening?

Mary Robinette Kowal was also on that panel. She wrote SHADES OF MILK AND HONEY, which I’ve sort of meant to look up for a long time. She said she had been reading epic fantasy, and then she was re-reading PERSUASION, and she thought: Is it possible to write an intimate family drama that is also fantasy? She said she hopes she isn’t giving away too many spoilers if she says that at the end of the book, PEOPLE GET MARRIED. She was a great panelist, so I went ahead and dropped that one on my wish list so I won’t forget about it. I mean, I love Jane Austin. It’s just tough for someone to write in-the-style-of because being compared to Jane Austin? Tough row to hoe. You know what else Kowal wrote? THIS, whichis hilarious. Also, just a reminder in case that name sorta-kinda rings a bell: She wrote “Kiss Me Twice”, one of the very good novellas that made that category such a challenge to vote for for the Hugo.

Also! Just mentioning: of course I’m sure a lot of us are foodies by inclination, but not by opportunity or budget. I mean, there aren’t any foodie restaurants within eighty miles of my house, and if there were, I couldn’t afford to eat at them very darn often. But of course Chicago is quite a foodie town and it seemed like too good an opportunity to miss, so Craig and I and Mike and his wife Linda all went out to this place called Vermilion? Which advertises itself as “Indian-Latin fusion”? (Just try to imagine that, right?) We all ordered one or another of the tasting menus. Mine included:

Blue Corn Crusted Scallop with Calabasa Goat Cheese Puree
Kerala Shrimp Patty with (a VERY sharp) Cucumber
Duck Vindaloo on Arapa with Pomegranate Molassas
Mysore Lamb Chop with Minty Red Onions
Street Bombay Chaat with Mint Cilantro Water
Lobster Portuguese (this turned out to be in a very nice coconut-milk sauce) with Coconut Rice
Kadai Sweet Potatoes (with fenugreek and other spices)
Chimichurri New Your Strip Steak
Mango Flan
A pudding-cake type of thing with pistachios
A death-by-chocolate type of thing with strawberries

It was amazing and very Indian with a little Portuguese and stuff. The waiters were wonderful and explained every dish with great enthusiasm and whisked the dishes away and brought clean silver in a surprisingly unnoticable way. It was quite spicy, but not TOO spicy. The flavor combinations were so complex! Araene from THE FLOATING ISLANDS would have loved it even more than I did. But it would definitely not be for, say, my mother, who would have needed way milder flavors.

So, my first panel’s not till ten thirty this morning (Friday), but we’re going to try to get back to the convention hotel by nine. Stuff to do, places to go, huge huge huge dealer’s room to explore . . .

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Writing Dialogue —

So, you have two choices when you’re writing dialogue. No, wait, three.

a) You can write good dialogue.
b) You can write bad dialogue.

I bet that seems like it exhausts the possibilities, doesn’t it? But no, because

c) You can write dialogue incorrectly.

Starting with the most trivial case, one you don’t see all that often actually in print, unless maybe this kind of thing is more common in self-published books, which seems possible:

c) Incorrect dialogue.

“You can’t really think that’s likely?” She asked. “I mean, considering what we know about his pet vampire pterodactyls?”

I see this in student narrative essays sometimes. Even if a student gets how and when to demote periods inside quote marks to commas, it’s less obvious that when you use a question mark inside quote marks, but followed by a dialogue tag, it is also demoted to comma status, sort of. ANYWAY, it doesn’t end the sentence. The dialogue tag ends the sentence, so that tidbit should go like this:

“You can’t really think that’s likely?” she asked. “I mean, considering what we know about his pet vampire pterodactyls?”

I trust you see the lower-case “she”, right?

Any book published by an ordinarily competent publisher should be free of this kind of error, which is why you can pick any book off your bookshelves to see how to punctuate dialogue correctly. But look at this:

“You don’t have to retire,” Von protested.
“I do,” Eva rejected the compliment. “And if Liege Monitum doesn’t make me an offer soon, I will have to retire here.” She smiled. “You would keep me?”

And also this:

She took his face in her hands. “Promise me that you will be here? Promise me that you will dance with me?”
“I don’t know, Eva,” Von squirmed. “Liege Monitum may not want that.”

Do you see what’s wrong with these tidbits? Eva rejected the compliment and Von squirmed cannot in any way be substituted for Eva said or Von said. They are complete actions, not dialogue tags, but they are being used as dialogue tags. This is wrong. This is incorrect dialogue. In both these cases, there should have been a period rather than a comma inside the quote marks.

Unlike the vampire pterodactyls, I didn’t make these tidbits of dialogue up. This is from THE COURTESAN PRINCE, by Lynda Williams, which I’m reading now. There are things I like about this book, and I think I will finish it (I don’t finish any book unless I really do like it), but I already know I won’t keep it. Dialogue errors is one of the main reasons. Even though there aren’t a lot of errors, I keep mentally rolling my eyes when I hit things like the above and this is not conducive to a smooth reading experience.

b) correct but bad dialogue, type one

I’m a big fan of adverbs, compared to anybody who thinks NEVER USE ADVERBS EVER EVER EVER THIS MEANS YOU is a rule to live by. I think adverbs are a perfectly respectable part of speech, thank you. But here is a bit of dialogue which shows why so many writers turn against adverbs:

“I know we can’t do anything right for you, Ann,” he said, “by definition. But there is something I want to be sure you know before you go.”
“Flying is bad for my health,” Ann said sarcastically.
“Of course, but I didn’t mean that.” He looked down into his big, gentle hands.

This is from the same book by Williams. Actually, this doesn’t bother me if you only see it now and then. But if characters are always saying things sarcastically or hastily or nervously or whatever, probably the author should go through and strip at least two thirds of those dialogue-tag adverbs out of the novel. Three quarters. Nine tenths, maybe.

You want to beware of adverbs in dialogue tags where the dialogue itself or the situation makes it plain that somebody’s sarcastic or hasty or nervous. If a car blows up, you don’t have to say it blew up suddenly. Because, hello? That is the nature of explosions? To be sudden?

Where the dialogue and/or situation don’t indicate how a line is spoken, though, you can reasonably have somebody say something gently or sharply or harshly or whatever will draw the right picture for the reader.

Also, when combined with another error, too much variety in dialogue tags, overuse of dialog-tag adverbs really stands out. On just one page of this book, we have characters who:

Pleaded
Asked
Said
Countered
Volunteered
Exclaimed
Demanded
Pointed out

And the only two invisible tags in this list are “asked” and “said”. Any one of the others would be fine, even any two, but because there are so many different words used as tags, they start to catch the eye. And once the reader notices that there are too many different words being used as substitutes for the invisible “said”, this sounds more and more ridiculous.

This particular book is actually not horrible in this respect. It’s actually not horrible at all, which is why I may go on and finish it. But I was thinking about dialogue and so relatively mild overuse of different tags kinda stood out.

b) grammatically correct but bad dialogue, type two

Boring dialogue is just as bad as overuse of creative tags. There are heaps of books with boring dialogue out there, but I don’t keep them, so it’s hard for me to come up with a good example. I’m talking about the kind of dialogue where every line is predictable, where every line serves to convey information but nothing about it surprises or engages or entertains the reader.

Sometimes this kind of dialogue is just used to dump info, where you aren’t having a conversation but a series of monologues, but that’s not necessarily the case. You can have what should be a quick, light conversation and yet every line said is boring and predictable and clichéd.

Info-dumpy or not, this is the kind of writing where you find yourself skimming ahead to see what happens, but you aren’t really engaged in the story or interested in the characters. I personally seem to see this a lot in contemporary mysteries when I’m trying to find a new author my mother will like, which is hard because the old-time mystery writers were SO GOOD stylistically (Rex Stout, Emma Lathen, Ngaio Marsh) that it’s hard for contemporary writers to compete.

Next! The fun part! Want to see brilliant dialogue? There’s so much great writing out there!

a) Fabulous non-use of dialogue tags by Lois McMaster Bujold.

If you’re looking for an example of how to minimize use of dialogue tags, you could hardly do better than Bujold. Just take any of her books off the shelf, flip it open randomly, and you get something like this:

Miles sank into his seat with a groan. “Some bodyguard you are,” he said to Elli. “Why didn’t you protect me from that interviewer?”

“She wasn’t trying to shoot you. Besides, I’d just got there. I couldn’t tell her what had been going on.”

“But you’re far more photogenic. It would have improved the image of the Dendarii Fleet.”

“Holovids make me tongue-tied. But you sounded calm enough.”

“I was trying to downplay it all. ‘Boys will be boys,’ chuckles Admiral Naismith, while in the background his troops burn down London . . .”

Elli grinned. “’Sides, they weren’t interested I me. I wasn’t the hero who’d dashed into a burning building – by the gods, when you came rolling out all on fire –”

“You saw that?” Miles was vaguely cheered. “Did it look good in the long shots? Maybe it’ll make up for Danio and his jolly crew, in the minds of our host city.”

“It looked properly terrifying.” She shuddered appreciation. “I’m surprised you’re not more badly burned.”

Miles twitched singed eyebrows and tucked his blistered left hand unobtrusively under his right arm. “It was nothing. Protective clothing. I’m glad not all our equipment design is faulty.”

“I don’t know. To tell you the truth, I’ve been shy of fire ever since . . .” her hand touched her face.

Okay, he says five lines and she says five. How many actual dialogue tags are in this passage? Not ten. We have “said” once to get the conversational ball rolling. After that, there are no dialogue tags at all. But we aren’t allowed to get lost in who-said-what? confusion, because every time we need a reminder about who’s speaking, we get a movement tag. Elli grinned. Miles was vaguely cheered. She shuddered appreciation. He twitched singed eyebrows. She touched her face. That’s four lines of dialogue with no tag at all and five with a movement tag, and zero confusion.

Plus! Notice the adverb “vaguely”? See how great that adverb is? “Vaguely cheered” is so not the same as “cheered” – we get a way better idea of Miles’ state of mind because of this adverb. And in the next line, Elli declares that the picture of Miles on fire was “properly” terrifying. Then Miles tucks his hand “unobtrusively” under his other arm. See how good writers aren’t the least bit shy of using adverbs? But mostly don’t in dialogue tags.

Nobody I know of does dialogue better than Bujold. The rest of us could only improve by studying her dialogue and trying to consciously apply techniques that I bet she just uses by feel. That was from BROTHERS IN ARMS, btw, but I expect you all recognized it?

a) Snappy, fun, unexpected dialogue by Dean Koontz

The reason I was actually thinking about dialogue is that I just finished the latest Odd Thomas book by Dean Koontz, and this made me go back and re-read all the other ones in the series.

There are five now, incidentally, and the latest one doesn’t resolve any of the big, HUGE questions that are raised by the fourth book, in case you wondered; it’s an interlude rather than any kind of resolution. Just a warning in case you rush out to get the fifth book because you expect a resolution: No. Doesn’t happen. I’m not persuaded Koontz actually knows where he’s going, actually. But the fifth book is still good, though.

Now, one of the reasons I like Koontz is that he is kinda horror-light, if you know what I mean. Things turn out happily in his books. The characters you become particularly attached to never get killed, whereas when the bad guys get eaten by mountain lions (or whatever), they are bad enough you can cheer their deaths. If there’s a dog? It won’t get killed, either. You can just absolutely trust all this, which I deeply appreciate because I really am not a hard-core horror fan.

But the Odd Thomas books are really good, a definite step up from most of his other books imho, and the wit of his protagonist is one big thing that contributes to this. (So is the moral character of the protagonist, but let’s stick to the subject, which is dialogue.)

Listen to this, from BROTHER ODD, the third book in the series. This is [part of] a conversation between Rodion Romanovich, who is supposed to be a librarian from Indianapolis but certainly isn’t, and the protagonist.

The kitchen offers stools here and there at counters, where you can have a cup of coffee or eat without being underfoot. I sought one of these – and came across Rodion Romanovich.

The bearish Russian was working at a long counter on which stood ten sheet cakes in long pans. He was icing them.

Next to him on the granite counter lay the volume about poison and famous poisoners in history. I noticed a bookmark inserted at about page fifty.

When he saw me, he glowered and indicated a stool near him.

Because I’m an amiable fellow and loath to insult anyone, I find it awkward to decline an invitation, even if it comes from a possibly homicidal Russian with too much curiosity about my reasons for being a guest of the abbey.

“How is your spiritual revitalization proceeding?” Romanovich asked.

“Slow but sure.”

[. . . . .]

With his attention devoted to the application of icing to the first of the ten cakes, he said, “I myself find that baking calms the mind and allows for contemplation.”

“So you made the cakes, not just the icing?”

“That is correct. This is my best recipe . . . orange-and-almond cake with dark chocolate frosting.”

“Sounds delicious. So to date, how many people have you killed with it?”

“I long ago lost count, Mr. Thomas. But they all died happy.”

[. . . . .]

Romanovich’s brow seemed to include a hydraulic mechanism that allowed it to beetle farther over his deep-set eyes when his mood darkened. “I am usually suspicious of people who are universally liked.”

“In addition to being an imposing figure,” I said, “you’re surprisingly solemn for a Hoosier.”

“I am a Russian by birth. We are sometimes a solemn people.”

“I keep forgetting your Russian background. You’ve lost so much of your accent, people might think you’re Jamaican.”

“You may be surprised that I have never been mistaken for one.” He finished frosting the first cake, slid it aside, and pulled another pan in front of him.

I said, “You do know what a Hoosier is, don’t you?”

“A Hoosier is a person who is a native of or an inhabitant of the state of Indiana.”

“I’ll bet the definition reads that way word for word in the dictionary.”

He said nothing. He just frosted.

“Since you’re a native Russian and not currently an inhabitant of Indiana, you’re not at the moment really a Hoosier.”

“I am an expatriate Hoosier, Mr. Thomas. When in time I return to Indianapolis, I will once more be a full and complete Hoosier.”

“Once a Hoosier, always a Hoosier.”

“That is correct.”

The pickle had a nice crunch. I wondered if Romanovich had added a few drops of anything lethal to the brine in the pickle jar. Well, too late. I took another bite of the dill.

Okay, I hope everybody finds that as much fun as I do, but since I’ve read the whole book and know what’s really going on with Romanovich, and also remember all the great exchanges between him and Odd Thomas, I have advantages. Trust me, though, the interplay between these two characters adds such pizazz to this book!

You can also see that out of nineteen lines in which somebody speaks, there are only four real dialogue tags – three using a plain “said” and the other an equally plain and invisible “asked”; none using adverbs. There are also two movement tags. The other thirteen lines I’ve quoted don’t use tags at all, but it’s always crystal clear who’s speaking. Partly this because of grammatical conventions – ie, switching paragraphs between speakers – and partly it’s because the two characters’ voices are so utterly different.

Not only are the voices distinct and distinctive, but also very little in this exchange is predictable and boring. Anybody see that line about Jamaicans coming?

Personally, I loved the bit where Romanovich says “I will once more be a full and complete Hoosier.” He’s a great character with a wonderful voice. Plus, hey, cake! Which I will just remove some of the suspense and assure you that the cakes are not poisoned.

Okay! That’s enough, I’m sure! Go forth and pay attention to dialogue! Me, I’m going to go re-read something by Lois McMaster Bujold now.

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So, this time next week? WorldCon!

Or should I call it Chicon? Frankly I find it confusing to have two different legitimate names for this convention.

Anyway! WorldCon is in Chicago which is SO CONVENIENT because it is a) within driving distance and b) my twin brother lives in Chicago and will be attending also, which will be great!

So, I’m on three panels:

1) Designing Fantasy Animals and Monsters — Friday at 10:30 AM. I asked to be on this panel because, and I know this doesn’t come across in my writing, but I have a master’s in animal behavior and evolutionary theory. So I will enjoy this panel very much! Plus I could easily just go gaze at my personal library and note down 20 or so books on the behavior of various animals that are both good and also intended for a general audience, so I hope panel attendees will find that helpful.

SO MANY BAD FANTASY WOLVES, I CAN’T STAND IT! I actually don’t mind a writer using symbolic wolves, but when an author thinks he or she knows what wolves are like (or wolf-dog hybrids) but actually doesn’t, it drives me batty.

In case you’re curious: wolf-dog hybrids usually don’t have nearly as much wolf in them as they’re advertised as having, but the more wolf a hybrid has in it, the more likely it is to be: extremely skittish and shy, extremely traumatized by being re-homed or subjected to a new environment; extremely difficult for strangers to handle; extremely difficult to train; extremely prey-driven; extremely dominance-driven; extremely unpredictable; and quite dangerous. All of these traits are likely to be worse if one of the parents was a German shepherd, which is NOT AT ALL LIKE A WOLF behaviorally. (An actual pure wolf is much more predictable and much safer to handle, but still very shy, very hard to re-home, very prey-driven, very dominance-driven, and very difficult to train.)

Now, how much does that sound like the wolf-dog hybrid in RA MacAvoy’s latest book DEATH AND RESURRECTION? Or the wolf-dog hybrid in SM Stirling’s DIES THE FIRE series? Why, not at all! Because people have absolutely no idea at all what real wolf-dog hybrids are like! Which I am used to, but detest.

Excellent wolves are shown in Kelly Armstrong’s werewolf books, btw. Several of my friends from grad school independently commented about how good her wolves are, how much like real wolves here werewolves are when they change shape. They’re such a pleasure to read about!

So, off that soapbox!

I’m also in a panel on Essential Worldbuilding at 7:30 PM on Friday night. I felt like I had something to say about this because I really do know pretty much what my worldbuilding influences were for my more recent books. Got some writers I really admire on that panel, too!

And the last one I’m on is a panel on Write What You Don’t Know — the panel description includes: “We’ll discuss how a little research and common sense can give you just enough background to really write what you don’t know.” I read that and thought: A little research, exactly! No need to spend a year reading everything ever written about China if you want to write a book set in China! So I have suggestions about what to do instead.

I did feel curious enough about the other panelists on my panels that I ordered several books by ’em. Don’t know if I’ll have time to read them real fast before WorldCon, but I’ll try. Some of them sound pretty good — I’ll let you know how they are when I read ’em.

I already know I love Jacqueline Carey’s books, though I haven’t read them all by any means. And I have read DESERT OF SOULS by Howard Andrew Jones, which is set in a fantasy Baghdad and which I quite liked. But I now also have DRUIDS by Barbara Galler-Smith; THE CLOUD ROADS by Martha Wells, about which I’ve heard excellent things; and THE COURTESAN PRINCE by Lynda Williams.

Plus there are other authors I know who will be there. If I get a chance, I want to swing by one of Sharon Shinn’s appearances and at least, you know, wave.

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