Me, read short stories?

I am not a short story kind of person. I don’t generally write ’em, and I don’t ordinarily read ’em. I just don’t.

An anthology now and then, yes. Or very occasionally I’ll track down a short story by a friend or one that was recommended. But basically, I read novels.

But I read quite a few short stories in February and March so I could have a couple to nominate for the WF award. My basic criterion was simple: I read only stories that were available online, and only stories written in 2010 so they’d be eligible to be nominated.

And I found two I loved! Along with a story I LOATHED but have to admit was very effectively written, plus lots that I liked pretty well, but not enough to nominate. Here are the two that I nominated:

Peter Watts’ “The Things”


Nikki Alfar’s “Bearing Fruit”

The former is an extremely clever riff on “Who Goes There?”, which is a great novella by John W Campbell that even I had read.

The latter is a delightful fairy-tale kind of story told in this really engaging second-person voice.

I loved them both, and now, hey, I actually care about which 2010 short story wins major awards!

But don’t blame me if you read Ponies and then have nightmares. I’m not kidding.

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2011 is a third over and it’s not even warm yet

May Day! With a low of 42 degrees. Everything’s green and lush and the rugosa roses are flowering like mad and can I get out to admire everything? No, I cannot, because it is raining AGAIN.

I’d say this is the coldest spring ever, except we’ve kept records for the past ten or so years and therefore I know that actually 2008 was just like this. Difficult to get the tomatoes and peppers out in a spring where the cold lingers and lingers, impossible to plant shrubs and trees when the whole landscape turns to marshlands.

Well, my tomatoes are bumping their heads against the lights and I can’t raise the lights any farther, so they’ll go out this week, cold or not. They won’t be happy and they’ll get off to a slow start, but tough: they are big plants now and they will just have to cope.

Meanwhile, moving the eggplants up to larger pots because they really *can’t* cope.

Well, at least the rain gave me a good excuse to mostly stay in. All that weeding to do! But it will have to wait, again. Even though I have a dog show next weekend. I will be driving back and forth to this show, which is a lot of trouble, but maybe I can weed the herb garden around the edges. A ridiculous little one-point show: only five female Cavaliers entered, counting mine. What a disappointing entry! Maybe the rain has depressed everyone.

I could just stay home and write off the entry fees as a loss, but hey, the show is close by and actually the young half-sisters (Dara and Kenya) can use points even if they earn them one at a time. Adora can stay home, poor baby — she’d love to go, but one-point shows are totally useless to her and taking fewer dogs makes it easier for me. Also, I’ll go just because I want to put Dara and Kenya head to head and see what the judges do.

Here’s what Frank Kane said about Kenya, btw — he wrote his critiques up super-fast, which I really appreciate:

“Lovely-bodied bitch who moves soundly. Good head type. Shows a little white in one eye but convincing winner of this class, holding a very good topline and tail carriage.”

Go, Kenya! But the last AKC show, Dara beat Kenya, so we’ll see what happens.

It’s so interesting keeping track of the books I’ve bought and read this year! I did this last year for the first time, and now this year now that I’m in the habit of noting down books as they arrive. Since I was stuck inside and didn’t want to do anything actually useful, I took a look at the list so far:

In the first four months of 2011, I’ve bought 47 books and read 48, which seems amazingly balanced, except that only half of the books I’ve read this year are books I also bought this year.

In January, I bought 25 books, including 15 fantasy, 1 SF, 1 history, 1 dog book (Bones Would Rain from the Sky), 2 books on writing, and 5 cookbooks.

I read 17 books in January, including a mere 4 of the ones I bought. The rest I took off my TBR pile — some books have been on that pile for five years or more (not kidding).

The best books I read in January were The Sky is Everywhere by Nelson, which is an awesome contemporary YA and also has an awesome title (titles are really hard for me!), and The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms and The Broken Kingdoms, by Jemisin. I (along with no doubt lots of other people) nominated The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms for the Nebula and the WF award. I was glad to see it made the ballot, and I hope it wins. Another awesome book, in a completely different way. I also loved The Black Prism, by Brent Weeks. Those four were the highlights for January.

In February, I bought 10 books, including six novels by Nina Kiriki Hoffman and one anthology (Firebirds Soaring) that featured a novella by Hoffman. From this you can probably guess that I read my first couple of Hoffman books in February, which would be true.

I read a total of 17 books in February, of which I most admired The King’s Last Song by Ryman but most enjoyed the above-mentioned Hoffman novels, especially A Fistful of Sky. They both had lovely covers, but that’s just coincidence, I swear!

Also in February I read Joe Abercrombe’s The Blade Itself trilogy and also his fourth book, Best Served Cold. These followed Lowachee’s The Gaslight Dogs, which I read in January, so I have now officially OVERDOSED on decent-characters-turn-evil, bad-guys-win plots and will do my utmost to avoid ANY PLOT EVEN REMOTELY LIKE THIS for the rest of the year.

In March I bought a whopping 1 book and read 2 — you may correctly surmise from this that I was working on a project of my own in March. The one book I bought was River Marked, by Patricia Briggs, and it was also the first book of the year that I sat down and read THE VERY DAY IT ARRIVED. My very favorite Urban Fantasy series and author! Can’t wait for Briggs’ next installment of her Alpha-and-Omega series, which unfortunately I will actually have to wait for because it isn’t scheduled to hit the shelves until next January.

In April I bought 10 books and read 13. 2 in April fell into the category of “read them instantly” — Dan Well’s I don’t Want to Kill You, finishing up his outstanding trilogy — I do think there’s room for more in this series, though he says he’s done with it — and CJ Cherryh’s Betrayer, which was the 12th in *that* series. Personally I think there’s at least three more books coming in Cherryh’s series, but I haven’t looked to see if there’s anything official about that.

Now . . . here we are in May! The Spring semester ends in the middle of May and the summer session doesn’t start for three weeks, if I recall correctly, so I expect to work on my current Work In Progress in between. Despite dog shows and gardening! Or at least, around the edges of dog shows and gardening!

But for the next week or so, I still have guilt-free playtime! How far down can I whittle my TBR pile in a week or ten days? And can I resist adding to the pile in the meantime? [Hint: not that far, because no, I can’t.]

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How to Stop Traffic in April

You know what I would do if I had a nice pristine corner of a yard that had nothing in it but grass? Let’s say you might do this if you had a corner that you would look straight into from your kitchen window, but that would also be nicely visible from at least one road. And let’s say, while we’re setting it up, that your yard also has just enough of a slope that you could put in a six-to-twelve-inch terrace about twenty feet or so from the edge of your property.

First, I would pace off the distances and put in the terrace and fill in behind it with a nice, light soil mix that would drain well.

Then I would plant three or so old-fashioned Vanhoutte spirea along one edge of the corner, remembering that Vanhoutte spirea get huge (say, twelve feet wide).

Then, along the other edge of the corner, I would plant one doublefile viburnum (Viburnum plicatum tometosum ‘Shasta’):

Or you could plant three ‘Shastas’ and one spirea instead, whatever you like. The viburnum is a great shrub, but it’s not going to bloom as quick as the spirea, by the way. The spirea is easy from cuttings and will bloom in one or two years; the viburnum is actually also pretty easy from cuttings, but it takes five or six years to bloom so you may want to buy some that are already a decent size.

And if there was lots of room, you might add a rugosa rose such as Rosaraie de l’Hay, which by the way has a very strong clove fragrance.

Then I would come forward about fifteen feet and plant one ordinary white-flowering dogwood. Not a pink, probably, though that would work, I suppose. Having admired my dogwood-spirea combo this weekend . . . no, stick to white. Pink dogwoods aren’t a clear pink, but a pink with some blue in it, but the other pinks I’m suggesting here are also on the blue side, so they shouldn’t clash. But even so, stick with white: that’s my official advice for how to stop traffic. Don’t use a Kousa dogwood, though those are wonderful, because that would bloom too late most years to match everything else.

Then I would plant the whole area under the dogwood with Narcissus ‘Actaea’

which is a very late flowering, small-cupped, fragrant narcissus that naturalizes well. And I’d add about five clumps of any decent late-flowering pink tulip, and I’d also add hostas if the area got afternoon shade or daylilies if it was a full-sun area, because I want something to hide the bulb foliage later.

Then, along the edge of the terrace, I’d put in candytuft (Iberis sempervivens) and / or snow-in-summer (Cerastium), or possibly both:

Iberis has bright green foliage
Cerastium has silvery foliage and spreads widely and self-seeds

And I would also add one of the Dianthus varieties, probably ‘Firewitch’, along the edge too. Also very fragrant, also clove-scented, and the foliage is nice after the flowers are gone:

Keeping in mind that Dianthus SERIOUSLY hates wet feet, so don’t put it in unless you have a terrace! Six inches of height is plenty!

And then, in a year like this year, where cool weather has kept the dogwoods going longer than usual, everything would overlap in bloom and it WOULD KNOCK YOUR SOCKS OFF. In any spring, lots of these plants would overlap, just not necessarily everything all at once.

I have all these beauties, but alas, not all gathered together in one spot. Still beautiful! But the traffic, what there is of it past my house, only slows down rather than skidding to a halt.

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Protagonists with disabilities —

Five Flavors of Dumb is a contemporary YA, which as I said below is not a category to which I usually give a second look. In Five Flavors, the protagonist, Piper, makes herself into the manager for a wannabe band (Dumb). Adding an ironic twist to this aspect of the plot, Piper is deaf.

I haven’t read this book yet, but it’s on my To Be Read pile (now down to only 50 books! It’s rare I whittle the pile down that far.).

It’s Ana’s review (linked below) which caught me, and the one line of the Kirkus review Ana quoted: It’s not that Piper is a Great Deaf Character, but that Piper is a great character who is deaf. I’m instantly hooked: What can Piper and her family show me about the world of the deaf? I don’t want to be preached at by a Great Deaf Character, but I’m interested in Piper and her world.

It’s rare for a genre author to hand a protagonist a real handicap, a disability in the sense we usually mean the term today. There’s Piper, and another who springs to mind is Miles Vorkosigan, who isn’t merely short (not quite five feet, I think), but also has brittle bones that break at the least little thing — as I’m sure you know. (You haven’t read Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan books? Well, run, don’t walk, to your nearest computer or bookstore and buy them all, this minute.)

Even rarer is a protagonist whose disability is mental rather than physical, and here I can think of a couple, but the one I’m thinking of *particularly* is Lou Arrendale, in Elizabeth Moon’s incomparable The Speed of Dark.

If you’re thinking of Elizabeth Moon as the author of the Paksenarrion books plus quite a lot of space opera, well, yes. Also no.

It’s not that The Speed of Dark defines Moon as a writer — it’s quite a departure. But this one is just a masterpiece. It won the Nebula, which it richly deserved because it is truly one of the great books of the decade.

Lou Arrendale is an autistic person, see, inhabiting a very near-future world, and there’s an incredible feeling of authenticity to his first-person narrative. Moon does such an awesome job capturing his point of view — sort of sideways to the rest of us. Here’s a sample passage:

“The floor in the hall is tile, each tile treaked with two shades of green on beige. The tiles are twelve-inch squares; the hall is five squares wide and forty-five and a half squares long. The person who laid the tiles laid them so that the streaks are crosswise to each other — each tile is laid so that the streaks are facing ninety degrees to the tile next to it. Most of the tiles are laid in one of two ways, but eight of them are laid upside down to the other tiles in the same orientation.

I like to look at this hall and think about having those eight tiles. What pattern could be completed by having those eight tiles laid in reverse? So far I have come up with three possible patterns. I tried to tell Tom about it once, but he was not able to see the pattern in his head the way I can . . .

I look for the places where the line between the tiles can go up the wall and over the ceiling and back around without stopping. There is one place in this hall where the line almost makes it, but not quite. I used to think if the hall were twice as long there would be two places, but that’s not how it works. When I really look at it, I can tell that the hall would have to be five and a third times as long for all the lines to match exactly twice.”

There’s also this delightful bit:

“The next page [of the book] has the title, the authors’ names — Betsy R Cego and Malcolm R Clinton. I wonder if the R stands for the same middle name in both and if that is why they wrote the book together.”

I laughed out loud! What a perfect tidbit to show how differently Lou interprets normal trivial details he encounters.

Now, that kind of thing is like reading an alien’s point of view, and actually it’s also like reading Gillian Bradshaw’s The Sand Reckoner, where Archimedes is the main character and keep drifting off on mathematical tangents (it’s a great book!). Writing really good aliens is certainly a challenge and so is writing geniuses. I certainly did tons of research on materials science when writing my genius-protagonist, Tehre Amnachudran (The Griffin Mage, Book II). And actually, Lou is kind of a genius with some kinds of math, so Moon is doing several hard things at the same time.

But what she does is more than that. Both harder and more meaningful. Moon really brings the reader into the emotional and philosophical world of her autistic protagonist.

For example, though an important secondary character has a grudge against Lou, Lou has enormous trouble first perceiving and then acknowledging that the man is not is friend:

“When I think of the people who know my car by sight and then the people who know where I go on Wednesday nights, the possibilities contract. The evidence sucks in to a point, dragging along a name. It is an impossible name. It is a friend’s name. Friends do not break the windshields of friends. And he has no reason to be angry with me, even if he is angry with Tom and Lucia.”

Every stylistic choice Moon makes as a writer — choices of sentence length and structure, of Lou’s diction and for that matter the diction of all the autistic character, of using first person for Lou’s point of view and third for occasional dips into other character’s points of view — are so perfect for the story. Check out the style here, for example:

“I want to go home now,” Eric says. Dr. Fornum would want me to ask if he is upset. I know he is not upset. If he goes home now he will see his favorite TV program. We say goodbye because we are in public and we all know you are supposed to say goodbye in public.”

And behind all those stylistic details, Moon also addresses all these big questions — about what ‘normal’ is and about the difference between what we conventionally pretend normal people do and feel vs. what normal people *really* do and feel; about what we consider appropriate behavior for ourselves vs. what we think is appropriate behavior from others — the whole idea of the double standard re-interpreted through the lens of autism. The Speed of Dark is really about identity and about the degree to which we choose who we are.

As Kirkus said about Piper in Five Flavors of Dumb, it’s not that Lou Arrendale is a Great Autistic Character. He’s a great character who is autistic.

The Speed of Dark is a beautiful book. Honestly, when I took it off the shelf, I meant to just look up one or two passages, but I re-read the whole thing instead. I loved it the first time and now I love it even more. Plus, having written a good handful of books of my own, I can now really appreciate the skill as well as the passion that went into a novel that should, if the fates are just, be a classic for the ages.

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Somehow when it’s raining —

I like dishes that are really meant for fall, even if it’s April. Plus a few days ago I got down my second-to-the-newest arrival to the cookbook shelves, Urban Italian, by Andrew Carmellini, and lo! What did I find? This great-looking recipe involving orzo and mushrooms, a very warm-sounding dish for which I had virtually everything, including the odd ingredients.

I may love Indian food the best, but Italian is great, too! And Urban Italian is a pretty neat book, with lots of great stories in the front and entertaining comments about each recipe as you go. This recipe was very easy and worked great:

1/2 broken-up dried porcini pieces
4 1/2 C. water
2 Tbsp olive oil
1/2 onion, chopped
4 oz mushrooms, sliced (I used regular button mushrooms, and I used 8 oz)
1 1/2 tsp salt
Coarsely ground pepper
2 Tbsp vermouth (I left it out, that’s the item I didn’t have)
1 1/2 C. orzo
2 Tbsp butter
1/4 C. grated Parmesan
1 tsp white truffle oil (Had some! You can get it at Viviano’s on The Hill, which is this great Italian grocery store I get to too seldom).

Add the porcini to the water and bring to a boil; remove from the heat and set aside. Meanwhile, heat the oil in a medium saucepan. Saute the onion 3 minutes. Add the mushrooms and saute 1 minute. Add the salt and pepper and saute 5 minutes or so. Add the vermouth, if you happen to have some, and stir 1 minute or so. Add the orzo and stir a minute or so. Add the porcinis with their liquid. Bring to a boil, reduce heat, and simmer until the orzo is tender — about 12 minutes, but your mileage may vary. You don’t want quite all the liquid to be absorbed. Remove from heat and stir in first the butter and then the Parmesan and then the truffle oil.

There! I’m not too keen on the term “comfort food”, but, well, this is.

Tonight, I’m making a veeerrrry 70s kind of dish where you make choux pastry, drop it in mounds around the edge of a round pie plate, bake it, and then serve it with a creamy sauce of ham and asparagus in the middle. What can I say? I’m in the mood, it’ll probably be very good, and I’ve got lots of asparagus coming out of the garden right now.

Though you have to slosh through the marshes to get it. The rain can stop now!

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Surrender vs. Culling

Here’s an excellent article at by Linda Holms.

Surrender, she says, is what you do when you realize that you will never, ever be able to read more than a tiny fraction of the books you would love, and you accept this fact.

Culling is what you do when you declare that all romances / westerns / fantasies / vampire novels are trash and therefore you’re not missing anything when you ignore them. Culling is a psychological trick that protects you from having to acknowledge how much you’re inevitably going to miss.

And Holms says she kind of wonders whether these days there might be a strengthening tendency toward culling:

“What I’ve observed in recent years is that many people, in cultural conversations, are far more interested in culling than in surrender. And they want to cull as aggressively as they can. After all, you can eliminate a lot of discernment you’d otherwise have to apply to your choices of books if you say, “All genre fiction is trash.” You have just massively reduced your effective surrender load, because you’ve thrown out so much at once.”

Well, of course, when *I* cull, it works, because all romances really *are* trash.

Kidding! Kidding!

Of course you can’t read everything, or even a significant minority of everything, and naturally it’s helpful to narrow your attention down to those chunks of everything in which you’re more likely to find things you really do love . . . but there’s no question that every single time you declare a genre or subgenre not-of-interest and ignore it, you’re setting yourself up to miss those parts of it you really would love.

I do think that this is the exact problem — the problem of finding things you’d love when they’re in genres you’re not focused on — that online book review sites such as The Book Smugglers address, and that the need for great (and prolific) reviewers will become more and more important as self-publishing rises and the enormous pool of books we’d love becomes ever more diluted by the far more immense ocean of books we’d hate.

It’s true I almost never read contemporary YA — just YA fantasy and SF. And I seldom read romances, YA or otherwise. But I bought The Sky is Everywhere and Five Flavors of Dumb because of Ana’s reviews at The Book Smugglers blog, and I haven’t read Five Flavors yet, but The Sky is Everywhere is utterly fantastic and definitely one of my favorite books of those I’ve read this year.

And I wouldn’t have ever noticed either if I’d declared contemporary YA and YA romances uninteresting — as Holms puts it, if I’d culled those categories. So put me down on the side of just surrendering to the knowledge that it’s impossible to read everything I’d love. But I’ll try! And focused book reviewers whose taste agree with mine are to my mind the single most important aid for the attempt.

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Quite an Easter —

If you like rain. And severe thunderstorms. And more rain. And yet more thunderstorms. Poor Adora has been afraid of thunder ever since the big hailstorm a few years ago, which to be fair really did sound extremely dramatic. Now when we have thunder, she climbs on me and cowers. At night, if the thunder is really bad, she crawls under the covers, which is not normally something I permit any dog to do. Poor baby. Here’s my favorite picture of Adora:

Adora, eight weeks old

Of course, she is a good deal older than that, now. She is from the first litter of puppies I ever bred. Nearly four years old now. How time flies.

More storms tonight, I hear. Well, at least no other dog of mine is afraid of thunder, which is just as well or it would get pretty crowded in the bed on stormy nights.

You know what else rain does? Makes it impossible to plant new shrubs and perennials outdoors. I spent my Easter transplanting three winterberry hollies, a Calycanthus ‘Venus’, and a pearlbush up into large containers. If I can’t plant fairly soon, I’ll have to pot up the Echinacea, Solidago (goldenrod), and various other perennials up as well. A lot of extra work which would be totally unnecessary if it would just quit raining!

Also got two baby pawpaw trees this spring — those’ll be interesting. Luckily I enjoy watching babies grow up, otherwise I’d probably not bother planting something that will take five or six years to bear when I don’t even know if anybody will like the fruit. But they’ll be interesting, and if we all turn out to hate the fruit, I’m sure the raccoons will eat it.

Odd year for the real fruit trees! I sloshed through the orchard this morning and took a look at every tree. Of course, every year is odd in some way, but I’m stunned that the apricots have some fruit on them, even after our low of 27 degrees when they were flowering. Who would have guessed? The peaches made it through the cold, too, but the Japanese plums aren’t going to bear this year. The European plums will, I think, but honestly I like the Japanese plums better.

Plenty of cherries this year for Dad! No one else in my family likes cherries, so just one tree.

This year, it looks like the Fuji, the Pink Lady, the Goldrush, and the Honeycrisp are going to bear well. Not the Hokuto, but you can’t have everything, and after all it bore last year. Even the pear is going to have fruit, even though its partner was replaced last year and the new replacement isn’t big enough to flower. The neighbor’s kieffer pear must have provided enough pollen for limited fruit set, even though the kieffer is 100 yards away at least.

Always exciting watching the trees come along in the spring!

But I would be delighted if we didn’t get ANY rain in May.

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Creating voice

First, happy Good Friday! A day off is always welcome, even if it is cold, rainy, windy, and thoroughly unpleasant (did I mention cold?) AND my mail-order plants just arrived and it is going to be really difficult to get them in the ground in this weather because you just cannot dig in wet clay-based soils (it destroys the soil structure and makes it very tough for your poor babies to get off to a decent start).

I think I will pot up the container-grown ones in larger pots and put them under lights to wait; and the bare-root things can go in the extremely well-drained nursery bed or else in the vegetable garden, or maybe in VERY LARGE containers. I’ll get that done tomorrow, at least the bare-root shrubs, because I hate to let them sit around for any length of time. Then everything wait for the soil to dry out a little.


I finished my werewolf short story this morning (not super-short; wound up 9500 words, just about what I expected). It’s a prequel to the (as yet unsold, but it’s early days yet) werewolf book. The book’s working title, btw, is Black Dog, which I think I had better mention because I keep refering to it and it’s getting to be a pain to do that without calling it by name. The story’s working title is Betrayal. Turned out pretty well, I think, but I’m not a hundred percent sure I like the ending sentence. Not sure it does what I want it to.

I think I’ll send it to a friend of mine, see what she thinks. Then in a week or so I’ll read over it again, do any revision that seems called for, and send it to my agent. Heaven knows what she’ll want to do with it. Have me send it to short fiction markets? Hold onto it until Black Dog sells and then see if it fits an Urban Fantasy somebody’s putting together? There sure seems to be a lot of UF anthologies out there. Not a pressing question just yet, I suppose.

Anyway, thinking the other day about the way authors write the voice of child characters got me thinking about other kinds of voices in genre fiction. One technique that works extremely well depends on really getting the rhythm of language and also getting when and how to break grammar rules.

Here’s a sample of entertaining dialogue — take a look:

“Only once, really, but that was because I scared them and it was really Prothvar’s fault because I asked him to teach me and he wouldn’t teach me he just laughed and said I couldn’t but I knew I could so I did it to show him I could but he didn’t know I could and then he got scared and they got angry and that’s when I got scolded. But it was really Prothvar’s fault.”

How about that? The comma-before-conjunction rule totally ignored, plus one actual run on (find it?). Doesn’t that work beautifully to give a rushed feel to this speech? That’s Jaenelle from Anne Bishop’s Black Jewel’s trilogy; she was about eight years old. Doesn’t the one-pronoun-after-another thing really do the job of making Jaenelle sound like a young child? It’s all getting the rhythm of the language, plus breaking rules effectively.

Here’s another one:

“By the by, I think you, and, for that matter, Dick, are wrong about David, because you do not realize that he is an honest man, and of more importance, he is a man looking for the Truth, rather than, as you seem to think, one convinced he has found it, though, to be sure, he sometimes thinks he has found a large piece of it, and that makes him annoying, if not downright dangerous, but I do not think this happens as often as you think, and soon enough he is himself again, in which state he is less belligerent than you pretend, until you or Dick light his train, as you are wont to do.”

That’s Kitty from Freedom and Necessity, an amazing, complicated, historical epistilary novel with very slight fantasy trimmings around the edges, by Steven Brust and Emma Bull. Three different interesting things are going on here, all of which give Kitty a tremendously engaging and individual voice. Obviously there’s the super-long sentences (118 words!). Despite its length, this sentence is grammatically correct, which with this kind of sentence is a statement in itself. Also, of course,we’ve got a lack of contractions, which normally makes the writer sound like she’s doing a bad Mr. Spock imitation, plus the word choices of an educated adult (“to be sure”, “belligerent”). Plus the period slang (“light his train”). Kitty’s letters also have a LOT of italicized words in them, though that passage didn’t happen to have any.

The combination of the italicized words and the long sentences with the correct grammar, the formal word choice and the lack of contractions really produces a fascinating voice: an impulsive, breezy woman who writes a highly individualilzed version of the 1800’s educated-person’s style. Historical “feel” and personal “voice” all in one.

One more example of long, fast-paced sentences creating voice:

“He isn’t going to walk, he’s going to climb, which is quite different, besides being much safer than staying out here where he can’t really do much. Of course, there are a great many people who don’t do much and who are quite safe, though perhaps a bit boring; still, I’m afraid Eltiron isn’t one of them, which is probably just as well since most people don’t like being bored.”

And a page later, same character:

“I don’t believe I said he was a sorcerer, though it’s quite possible. Not, of course, a good sorcerer, or I doubt he’d have gotten into such a predicament. . . . It’s really quite fortunate you were here; it would have been very inconvenient to have the Matholych in Leshiya. Rather like having a basilisk in one’s cellar, which would be extremely awkward for practically anyone.”

This is Amberglas, a sorceress from Patricia Wrede’s early novel, The Seven Towers. Every word Amberglas speaks is so delightful it’s hard to stop quoting her:

“I haven’t the least objection to your making oaths and promises for yourself, though of course what you were suggesting does sound a bit extreme. But binding other people for all time is an exceedingly dangerous thing to do, particularly when they aren’t there, no matter how justified it seems, and frequently has rather unpleasant consequences for everyone. So I’d rather you didn’t, though it’s extremely good of you to offer.”

Isn’t that fabulous? It’s the free association and unexpected analogies which “make” the voice for this wonderful character.

Which is easier to read, the almost comma-free style of young Jaenelle, Kitty’s extremely comma-intense style, or the in-between comma usage + periods we see from Amberglas? Each gives a different effect, each is wonderfully suited to the character who uses it, and there’s no possible way you could give any of these character’s one of the other styles without totally changing how she ‘feels’ to the reader.

Here’s a completely different reason to use long sentences — this isn’t a character speaking, but a description of ongoing action:

“The stairs twisted and they ran onto a portico half-opened to the night, then over the high, covered walkway above Horda’s Garden, the night crisp and bright around them and Crise, below, rummaging with a Bec shadi for the small winter roses that lived, bright and chilly, under the mantle of snow. Lyeth scooped a handful of snow from one embrasure and, as she passed the next, aimed and let fly.”

The 53 words in the first sentence of that passage won’t beat out Kitty’s 118 any time soon, but it’s still pretty long! The scene this comes from involves a race. One of the ways the author (Marta Randell; this is her very good novel The Sword of Winter) speeds up the action during the race is by suddenly using a lot of long sentences and dropping some of the standard punctuation. Notice the lack of commas before two conjuctions that would normally have them. The change this gives the rhythm of the sentence is marked, even if a reader wouldn’t normally notice how that chance contributes to the “feel” of the scene.

So, long sentences! Takes me back to when I was writing my Master’s thesis and my advisor kept trying to take out by semi-colons! (I kept them, as I recall).

Now, what effects do short sentences produce? In dialogue and in description? Pay attention to a hard-boiled detective novel: that’s one place you see that kind of prose. Also, I just read my first Spenser novel (by Robert Parker, I must be the only person my age who likes genre fiction but had never read one). The AVERAGE sentence length on one random page of that novel was 7.73. Quite a difference! Admittedly, there was a lot of dialogue on that page, but then, there’s a lot of dialogue on lots of the pages of that book.

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Child protagonists

Ever thought of writing a child protagonist? I really admire an author who pulls this off, but so far I haven’t tried it — I mean, yes, young protagonists when I’m writing YA, but not really children.

Trei, in The Floating Islands, is my youngest protagonist. He’s fourteen, and a pretty mature fourteen at that, what with all he’s gone through. Obviously there are hordes of kids about the same age in YA genre fiction, and it really is fascinating to watch how different authors handle their young protagonists. Some ‘feel’ so young (Tamora Pierce’s earlier books), and some ‘feel’ so much more mature (Robin McKinley’s Dragonhaven, for example, to my mind features one of the all-time great fifteen-year-old-boy ‘voices’, but not (to me) a very ‘young’ fifteen.

Another great and very unusual fifteen-year-old protagonist is John Wayne Cleaver, in Dan Wells’ I Am Not A Serial Killer. Totally unlike any other fifteen-year-old protagonist anywhere! In fact, I just bought the third book of the trilogy and read it the same day it arrived, which very seldom happens.

But what’s really interesting and poses altogether different challenges, it seems to me, is to write a child protagonist.

One delightful example is Jaenelle in Anne Bishop’s Black Jewels trilogy. Jaenelle is a little girl of about eight or so when she first appears, and her ‘voice’ is just wonderful! I wouldn’t say the trilogy is flawless, but for me the books are ‘catchy’ — I wind up reading bits of them over and over. One of the reasons for that is the young Jaenelle and the interaction between Janelle and her foster-father Saetan.

Anne Bishop uses a really interesting technique with Jaenelle — if I run into Anne again at a convention this year, I’ll have to ask if she did this on purpose — when Jaenelle thinks she might be in trouble, she starts to talk quickly and in run-on sentences. This is vastly entertaining if you are the sort of reader who notices technique! It works VERY well.

Even more impressive is the four-year old protagonist in Dogland, by Will Shetterly.

It took me about fifteen years to read this book because the idea of a dog zoo is so utterly, totally, completely repulsive to me! I can’t begin to express how strongly I believe that dogs should be kept as pets: not on chains, not in solitary confinement in the back yard, and definitely not in a zoo! I mean, check this out, and you will see that I am not likely to fall in love with the background setting of Dogland. Though the historical setting is another thing, I loved that plenty!

Dogland is actually a really impressive book, and the dog zoo background is handled in a way that makes it as non-repulsive as possible, I guess, and when the book opens, the protagonist is four years old! Four! With a first-person narrative! There’s a gutsy move by the author. Naturally, Chris, the protagonist, misses so much that the reader picks up on. It’s a brilliant book.

I should add here, in case anyone rushes out, buys this book, and agrees with me, that the sequel is MUCH less good and reads like Shetterly jammed the front half of a possible sequel together with the back half of a completely different work set in an entirely different world, and it Does Not Work at all, at least not for me. Sorry, but my advice is, read the first book, skip the second. But truly, if you want to see a wonderful job handling a great child point of view, you really need to toss Dogland on your To Be Read pile.

Now: which would be more difficult to write, do you think — a child protagonist, a protagonist with an unusual handicap, or a genius protagonist? Any other categories of really unusual, particularly difficult protagonists I’ve missed?

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You have got to be kidding —

Standardized language is all very well, but

“So you dealed with the farmer.”

instead of

“So you dealt with the farmer.” ???

I agree with Gary that the “standardized” version lacks punch and that it alters the rhythm of the sentence, but that isn’t why I hate it. Well, it is, but it’s not the biggest reason. The real problem is, it SOUNDS INCREDIBLY STUPID to any literate speaker of English.

I am happy to say that my copy editors have either never tried to do this to me, or else have always be cooperative in letting me Stet the verb back to the irregular form.

I also use “knelt” rather than “kneeled.” In fact, “kneeled” got underlined in red for me when I typed it just now. And again, no problem with my copy editors (who do a great job, seriously, I can’t believe they can spot that something on page 247 is inconsistent with something on page 17, but they do). But here I mean, I have never had a copy editor try to change “knelt” to “kneeled,” that I can recall.

I think Gary may be facing the (occasionally) dreaded “house style”, where the publishing house insists on some particular grammatical or stylistic trick which you happen to hate.

Top stylistic detail I dislike about a house style I’ve had to accept: capitalization of the first word after a colon. I like it the way I did it above and the way I’m doing it here: no capital letter, even if the preceding clause is a complete sentence. I get the rule, but usually it looks wrong to me. But whatever! Not that important.

Top stylistic detail I dislike about the writing of otherwise excellent writers: “All right” is TWO WORDS. TWO. WORDS. It is not “Alright.” That is important. I DON’T CARE if the dictionary has knuckled under to the barbarians. “All right” is ALWAYS two words.

And if you’re writing a book and you happen to disagree, well, do keep in mind what happens to me if I’m reading a book and I’ve fallen into the story and Our Hero fights off the giant furry white snake and then The Love Interest cries in horror, “Oh my God, are you alright?”

I flinch and fall out of the story, that’s what happens. And so does everyone who agrees with me, which is a lot of people, including many many people you probably hope will enjoy your book. Just guessing, but that is probably not what you want to have happening in the middle of the action.

And since everyone seems to agree that “All right” is fine and those who don’t mind “Alright” don’t actually object to “All right,” can we just please agree to always use the two-word version so that we can all be happy? Would that be all right with you?

All right, then. Good.

And no dealing playing cards when you really need to have dealt with that pesky farmer, either.

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