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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Here’s a nice article —

About running a workshop on writing, a subject I’ve naturally been thinking about recently, because, as you may know, I get to participate in a workshop in a month or so at Archon.

Now, Amelia Beamer — who, btw, I hadn’t heard of but she has written a zombie novel called THE LOVING DEAD
“I tried hard to balance between encouraging them and giving them a bit of reality about the publishing industry and how much work goes into a writing career, so that they could make realistic goals about their writing and, hopefully, have a better chance of achieving their goals.”

And most of the feedback she got for the workshop was good, but I’m sure no one is surprised to find that one participant thought she was too negative about everybody’s chance for success. And I’m worried about that, too. Because in the abstract, it isn’t kind to let somebody think their work is just this close when it really really isn’t. But in practice, I sure don’t want to be the one to say This Really Isn’t Very Good, because, you know, ouch.

I have a pretty easy time telling a student, “No, you haven’t been doing your homework, because if you had done your homework, you would be able to do this problem. You may have been gazing at your homework and then getting the answer from the study guide, but that isn’t the same as doing your homework.”

But students aren’t, you know, emotionally invested in their homework, or even in their whole grade, the way a writer is invested in a book. So it’s a lot tougher to say, “No, you haven’t written a book, you have just put a lot of words in a row, but that isn’t the same thing.”

Besides, maybe I’d be, you know, completely, totally wrong. I have specific tastes in books — I like character-driven stories, for example, and in fact I generally really dislike stories that aren’t character driven, but plenty of people don’t share this strong preference and that is why there are non-character-driven books that are wildly successful and get nominated for the World Fantasy Award, say, and I’m all like, What is this? (I’m thinking of a particular novel that just left me utterly cold a few years ago.)

Plus then I think about other articles, such as for example this one by Rusch, where she says:

“Anything can be critiqued. Criticizing something is easy. It makes the critiquer feel smart, and just a little bit superior to the writer. But that kind of critique serves no real purpose, because that kind of critique is wrong from the moment the critiquer picks up the story or the manuscript . . . . Often, I tell writers this: Do not touch this story. Mail it. Everyone in the room liked it but me. Therefore what I have to say is irrelevant.”

And, well, there you go. Very important to keep that in mind: Everybody but me might like this.

Beamer says:

“In my defense, I agonized about how to balance between being encouraging and being realistic. I told these writers that I agonized about what to tell them, and I told them I hoped that they would beat the odds.”

That’ll be me, I expect. The agonizing part, I mean.

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Beginning A Novel: A different take on the subject

Just came across this post by Justine Larbalestier, whom you may recognize as the author of LIAR and the MAGIC OR MADNESS* trilogy.

So, in recent posts, I was really talking about the craft involved in beginning a novel, right? In her post, Larbalestier is talking about the impact of, I dunno, personality? Personal quirks? At least, individual variability in the way a particular author approaches a brand new book.

Larbalestier says:

“For the first week or so on a new book it is a major effort for me to look away from whatever online or offline spectacle is calling to me in order to start typing. I’ll have the open scrivener project with the initial idea jotted down. Girl who always lies. And I’ll think, well, do I know enough about lying? Maybe I should look up what recent research there’s been? So I do that. Then I accidentally look at twitter. Or someone’s blog where a flamewar has started. Then my twenty minute break reminder will buzz. So I have to get up and stretch and someone will text me and I’ll realise we haven’t chatted in ages and call them. And as I walk around the flat chatting I’ll realise that I haven’t emptied the dishwasher and once it’s emptied I have to load it with the dirties. And then I’ll be hungry and have to make second breakfast and in doing so I’ll notice that some of the parsley in the garden is going to flower and I’ll pick those bits and kill some bugs and check for weeds and make sure the passionfruit isn’t growing over to our next door neighbour’s deck. And then I’ll realise we need pine nuts for the dinner we’re going to make so I have to up to the shops.

And like that. At which point the sun will be setting and it’s time to down tools and I’ll have written precisely no words of the new novel I swore I’d start that day.”

And this is all very interesting to me, because — and this is the point I want to make, right here — this is SO DIFFERENT from the way I feel when I’m starting a new novel.

I love beginning a new novel! It flows! It sings! It writes itself! The protagonist walks onto the stage and does things and says things! The world builds itself around the protagonist! All of this deserves that clutter of exclamation points because it is just as easy as I am making it sound!

Most of the time, I barely revise the first pages. Lots of the time, I barely revise the first chapters. That part nearly always works just fine, it only gets polished a bit and then a bit more, but it seldom changes much. (I can think of one exception at the moment, where I went back and added a whole ‘nother chapter on the front of a finished book. But even there the first first chapter didn’t change much, it just got turned into the second chapter.)

Where I bog down, ten times out of ten, is the middle. Especially the early-middle part of the middle. Then it usually (not quite always) gets easy and fun again toward the end.

I thought I’d mention this just because, well, I know you are all aware that everyone is different. But sometimes it is a good idea to really make that point clear. Just to be sure that no one thinks they must be doing it wrong if [Insert Author] says they write this particular way but that’s not how you write. There is absolutely nothing whatsoever that every successful writer does or feels. Except put a lot of words in a row at some point, of course.

Larbalestier also says:

“Turns out that what works best for me is to always have more than one novel on the go. Right at this moment I . . . have ten other novels that I’ve started, ranging from the 1930s New York City novel, which is more than 100,000 words long, to a rough idea for a novel of 126 words.”

There we can agree. I have currently five — wait, six — novel beginnings of forty to seventy pages each sitting around. And just like Larbalestier, I sometimes have a really hard time choosing one to work on.

Anyway, just found that post interesting! So there you go.

* By the way, this is the only YA fantasy series I’ve ever read where magic seems to be intrinsically, unavoidably, a bad thing. Bad for you if you practice it. Bad for it if you have it but don’t use it. It really is a choice between magic and madness — either you use magic and die young or don’t use it and go mad, I think those were the choices. Not 100% sure, it’s been a while since I read the series, but definitely two bad choices, no good choice. Magic was definitely bad bad bad. Anybody else know of a magic system where the magic is intrinsically a bad thing? In YA?

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Goals vs plans

See, it was my GOAL to finish the current WIP and cut 100 pp before August 20th (classes started today, see, so back to work!). But that was not a PLAN. ‘Cause a plan is kind of a commitment, whereas a goal is just a goal, see.

So! I’m glad to say that I have indeed finished the current WIP! So far I have cut about 60 pp. More importantly, I have done the hard cutting that involves thinking. I cut chapters 5 and 6 entirely and knitted up the raveled edges, connecting the back of chapter 4 with the front of what used to be chapter 7. This required a certain amount of thought, as you can imagine. But we now get to the exciting part much faster!

I would still like to cut about 15,000 words — about another fifty pages — but a whole lot of that will be at the brainless read-and-cut-words level. Very little actual thought. A few changes will need to be made to be consistent with the stuff I changed in the early part, but not for a while and not too much.

Then I will read it straight through from front to back. That will actually be the first straight read-through. Hopefully I will find I like the ms! Although I will be trying to tighten things up a bit more and be working on characterization, that’s the part where I will actually be concentrating on catching all the inconsistent tidbits and fixing them. I think I have a fair knack at this, luckily.

Finally I will go through and deepen character arcs. Sigh. That is in fact something I always work really hard on, and I always wind up going through multiple times and thinking hard about things like: is this enough of a relationship between these two characters? Really? Does this other character change and grow from the front to the back? Really?

That is the stage at which I get both bored with the ms and unable to judge it; that’s when I finally send it to my agent. Her fresh take on it is SO VALUABLE, I can’t even tell you. Then usually one or sometimes two revisions after that.

Can’t wait to tie this one up with a bow and send it off. I haven’t worked too hard and thus am not feeling like I need a break to whittle down the TBR pile — I’ve been reading fiction right along and actually the TBR pile is amazingly small, only about forty books left on it — but in fact I have another ms I really want to pick up as soon as I’m done with this. So! New goal: to have this one sent off to my agent by the end of the month. Actual plan: to do that not later than the end of September.

If I get started on my other new ms. by the beginning of November . . . maybe I can actually get that one finished over Christmas Break? That would be great! (But it’s not a plan. It’s not even really a goal, till I see how it moves after I pick it up.)

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Quick link —

To a new favorite book review blog!

Naturally, this blog — Into The Hall Of Books — caught my eye because of Asheley’s review of HOUSE OF SHADOWS.

But it’s not just that the review is positive! No! (Though of course it is, or I would hardly link to it, right?) It’s also that it’s splendidly well organized and easy to follow! Which, for a fairly complicated book like H of S, is pretty impressive.

I particularly like the way Asheley underlined the important character and place names, and the way she broke the post up into different sections: The Characters, The Story, The World. And I PARTICULARLY liked the second on The Romance: “There are no swoons in House of Shadows”. Making that clear is a real favor to readers, these days when half of all fantasy (two thirds? Three fourths?) is very, very heavy on the romance.

And I liked the list of tags for Who This Book Would Appeal To at the end.

I’ve been reading other entries in this blog lately, and really, very good thoughtful reviews. Plus entries that made me add books to my wishlist, like I needed to expand that. I’ll definitely be stopping by Into The Hall Of Boooks regularly after this.

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More On Beginning a Novel

While we’re on the subject of beginnings, check out the first page of THE PEACH KEEPER by Sarah Addison Allen:

The day Paxton Osgood took the box of heavy-stock, foil-lined envelopes to the post office, the ones she’d had a professional calligrapher address, it began to rain so hard the air turned as white as bleached cotton. By nightfall, rivers had crested at flood stage and, for the first time since 1936, the mail couldn’t be delivered. When things began to dry out, when basements were pumped free of water and branches were cleared from yards and streets, the invitations were finally delivered, but to all the wrong houses. Neighbors laughed over fences, handling the misdelivered pieces of mail to their rightful owners with comments about the crazy weather and their careless postman. The next day, an unusual number of people showed up at the doctor’s office with infected paper cuts, because the envelopes had sealed, cementlike, from the moisture. Later, the single-card invitations themselves seemed to hide and pop back up at random. Mrs. Jameson’s invitation disappeared for two days, then reappeared in a bird’s nest outside. Harper Rowley’s invitation was found in the church bell tower, Mr. Kingsley’s in his elderly mother’s garden shed.

If anyone had been paying attention to the signs, they would have realized that air turns white when things are about to change, that paper cuts mean there’s more to what’s written on the page than meets the eye, and that birds are always out to protect you from things you don’t see.

But no one was paying attention. Least of all Willa Jackson.

What a charming book this one turned out to be! It’s the first one of Allen’s I’ve ever read, and really delightful, all about friendship and family loyalty and what it means to be adult and the bonds we feel to the past. Especially friendship, an emphasis I always appreciate. I’ve already ordered another of Allen’s books, THE GIRL WHO CHASED THE MOON, because this one was really a pleasure. I think a guest poster over at The Book Smugglers recommended it, but I’m not sure. But I’m grateful for whoever drew it to my attention!

It’s also a story that falls into an unusual category: magical realism. This is a world where the saying that digging up one secret releases others isn’t just a saying, and where you’re not quite sure that the old tale in town about bottles filled with fog couldn’t be literally true. I really enjoy magical realism, which I first encountered in A WINTER’S TALE by Helprin. I loved that book, but Allen’s book is more approachable and has such appeal and charm, not to mention very sweet romances.

Also, not to belabor the point from the previous point, but see how this story starts? So gently and softly, even though the second paragraph sets up tension and also assure you that this book really is fantasy, which isn’t obvious, btw, and I was kind of thinking it was contemporary when I picked it up off the TBR pile, but it’s not, quite; and I thought it might be a mystery, but it’s not that either – quite. One curious little detail is that the protagonists never do find out the truth about the thing that happened in the past and that’s driving the story now – isn’t that interesting? (The reader does find out, but not the protagonists.) But the way the secret stays hidden ties into the theme of friendship and loyalty very nicely.

Also! I just read GUNMETAL MAGIC by Ilona Andrews, and if you like paranormals, you probably already know this, but Ilona Andrews is one of the best in the game. Is, are, whatever – you know that’s a husband-wife team, right?

This one features Kate’s friend Andrea Nash as the protagonist. For snappy dialogue and fun situations and a couple of GREAT practical jokes – I’m so tempted to give away the thing with the purple carpet, but I won’t – anyway, this is a great story. The story also offers a couple of very nice little tidbits about hyena behavior that are actually based on reality. Though that bit about how hyena siblings fight and kill each other, I don’t think that’s accurate, btw. Hans Kruuk never mentioned anything like that, and van Lawick provided anecdotal data which would tend to imply the reverse – strong friendly bonds between siblings. But the thing about hyena cubs digging dens too small for adults to fit into in order to get away from potentially deadly adult males is absolutely true.

Plus besides the stuff about hyenas, we get an Olde English Bulldogge! Nobody even knows that breed exists except me! And Ilona Andrews, apparently! I LOVE the way these authors know their dogs! So unusual!

Anyway, if you’re thinking about picking up a paranormal, this is a great choice. If you’ve never tried paranormals, this series is a good place to start, but I’ll just add that the first book is okay, the second better, and the series really hits its stride after that, so be patient and pick up the first three before you make up your mind. And the other series, the Edge series by the same authors – also quite good.

Plus! GUNMETAL MAGIC itself is long enough you don’t feel cheated, but – and though this is mentioned on the back cover, it was a nice surprise for me – as a bonus there’s also a hundred-page Kate Daniels novella at the back.

Let’s look at how GUNMETAL MAGIC starts:


My head hit the sidewalk. Candy jerked me up by my hair and slammed my face into the asphalt.


So you see, sometimes you really do start in the middle of the action. After my last post, didn’t want to leave everybody with the idea that you never do this. There’s this tiny little prologue, disguised as a couple of paragraphs of a newspaper article and clearly meant to orient new readers, but I think the authors are expecting most readers to be familiar with their world and characters, and I suspect they are right. So they jump right in with a series of action scenes before we start to develop the important personal dilemmas and relationship stuff that form the heart of the story.

On the other hand . . . ever hear how you aren’t supposed to start a novel with your protagonist waking up from a dream? Because actually, the above snippet IS a dream, and then Andrea wakes up. And it’s a great scene, because she’s tucked in the closet and holding a butcher’s knife. Sleepwalking to get a butcher’s knife probably does not count as the sort of dream that bores people! Which of course is why it works to start this book.

I’m very sensitized to beginnings just now, somehow!

Also, btw, just cut chapters five and six in their entirety from my WIP. Wham, there goes 16,000 words in one fell swoop! Not sure how much of it will go back in as I figure out how to connect the two disconnected ends again . . . but I think most of it will stay gone.

Man, this revision stuff. Can I just hire somebody else to do it?

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Beginning your novel

Okay, this is going to be a long post. Hope it’s also interesting!

HOUSE OF SHADOW, as many of you probably know, is my sixth book, by which of course I don’t mean the sixth I’ve written, but the sixth to hit the shelves. Of my published books, it was the . . . um . . . third I wrote. (It went to Orbit in a package deal with the first Griffin Mage book; the other two Griffin Mage books were written afterward even though they were published first).

Of all the books I’ve ever written, HOUSE OF SHADOWS was the tenth. (At this point, I’ve written . . . let me see . . . sixteen books. Wow. I didn’t realize until this minute I’d written so many! More about that in a minute.

I’m going to be helping with a writer’s workshop at a convention this fall, and the entries I’ll be critiquing just arrived in the mail yesterday, and that’s made me think more than usual about the process of learning to write.

At any convention panel, if you ask a roomful of attendees who all is writing a book or thinking of writing a book, most of the hands go up. Today, when it’s so easy to throw a book up on the internet to sink or swim, I think it’s more important than ever to think about learning to write. About the craft of writing. About quality. About what makes a story sing. Which, in my more optimistic moments, I think I have managed to do, now and then.

Like so many other things worth doing, writing is a craft you learn. All the raw native talent in the world won’t let you whip off a great book, or even a publishable book, the first time you open up your laptop and start hitting the keys. Unless you’re Heinlein, and even he didn’t do it with a novel (or a laptop, obviously).

What I got in the mail for the workshop were novel fragments: the first twenty pages of each novel. As it happens, these beginnings of novels are not very good. They do seem to me to show promise, but currently they do not appear to me to be publishable (in the old sense of acceptable to publishers) (and by that I mean that I would not expect them to succeed if they were self-published, either).

What flaws are evident in these beginnings of novels? As it happens, they share exactly the same flaws (which is also interesting, isn’t it?).

It seems to me that there are four major constituents of a story: setting, character, plot, and style (which includes craft). People frequently seem to forget style, but I think it is the foundation on which everything else is built.

What the novel fragments sent to me have, or appear to have, is plot. What they lack is everything else – though it seems to me they could be improved.
After thinking about this, I went down to my own personal library, where I pulled ten books off shelves. These were not my ten personal favorites or what I think are the ten best written or any kind of top-ten list. I chose them because each of them strikes me as similar in setting to one or another of the workshop entries while also illustrating something that seems to me to be lacking in those entries.

Then I typed up the first couple of page of each of these books. In case you’re interested, I chose two books by Steve Parry, one of Tanya Huff’s Valor series, one by Patrick Lee, one by Ilona Andrews, one by Judith Riley, two by Barbara Hambly, two by Gillian Bradshaw, and one by Susanna Clarke. (I may not use all these in the workshop.) (Also, I now see that this is eleven books. Whatever.)

What I want to focus on during the workshop is how experienced authors establish setting and character in their very first pages. I am pretty sure that one piece of (common) advice my workshop attendees have taken to heart is Start by setting something on fire. In other words, start in media res. Start in the middle of the action. Do not, for God’s sake, start with your character waking up, or driving somewhere, or staring into a mirror.

And that may be good advice, generally. But you know how Patrick Lee starts THE BREACH, one of the best SF thrillers I’ve ever read? Like this:


On the first anniversary of his release from prison, Travis Chase woke at four in the morning to bright sunlight framing his window blinds. He put his backpack in his Explorer, left Fairbanks on State Route 2, and an hour later was on the hard-packed gravel of the Dalton Highway, running north toward the Arctic Circle and the Brooks Range beyond. From the crests of the highest hills, he could see the road and the pipeline snaking ahead for miles, over lesser ridges and through valleys blazing with pink fireweed.

The trip was not a celebration. Far from it. It was a deliberation on everything that mattered: where he stood, and where he would go from here.

The console showed an outside temperature of fifty-nine degrees. Travis lowered the windows and let the moist air rush through the vehicle. The height of summer here smelled like springtime back in Minneapolis, the scent of damp grass just freed from snow cover.


Look! Travis woke up and now he is driving somewhere. We are emphatically not in the middle of the action. How much internal dilemma and scenery description does it take before we get a glimmer that something exciting may possibly be on the way? Twelve paragraphs – about four pages. And the first hint of trouble?

He woke with a quickened pulse, aware that something had startled him, but unable to tell what, exactly.

But a storm has come up, and he thinks that’s what woke him up – it might have, too, for all we can tell. There are quite a few more pages before stuff really starts happening.

Then things build and build and build and OMG you have no idea. Starting so quietly only makes it more effective when Lee starts to turn up the pressure. Did I say this is one of the best SF thrillers EVER? It totally is.

But look how Lee does something a beginning writer often seems to have trouble with: he builds his world up around the protagonist, layering in sensory details to draw the reader right into the story. This is totally crucial. And if you’re writing a kind of more out-there SF or a secondary world fantasy? The farther you are from the contemporary world, the more important it is to build the setting.

And look at how Lee’s doing characterization right from the start It’s not a coincidence that Travis is heading to this really deserted, isolated, demanding country, or that he’s planning a route that’s going to avoid any chance of meeting anybody. We know something about the main character just from this choice. Plus, right away we get told this big thing about the main character: he’s been in prison and now he’s trying to figure out where to go with his life. Lee tells us this, but he’s showing us the protagonist’s sense of being stuck and his sense of alienation from normal life through the protagonist’s actions. That’s followed up with paragraphs like this:

What future did he see among [his family]? Even to the few who could understand and forgive what he’d done, he would always be the brother who’d spent half of his twenties and all of his thirties in prison. Twenty years from now, in the eyes of the next generation, he’d be that guy. That uncle. You could only get so free.

Right from the beginning, Lee is showing the reader this guy named Travis who did something – what? – something bad enough to be in prison for fifteen years. We have no clue what, but we know we’ll find out. We’re really interested, we’re drawn in. It doesn’t take an explosion to grab us, we’re already there. We can wait a few pages for the action to start.

But besides that, besides showing us this one character, Lee’s also showing that he understands the way people are, that he gets what it’s like to be that guy, the guy who’s an ex-con. We’re all nodding: Yeah, that’s true, that stuff about you can only get so free, it would really be like that, that’s just how a guy in Travis’s shoes would feel. This story is going to feel real because the author knows how to put real people into a book.

And the writing itself is deft. Lee is showing craftsmanship. It’s not just grammatically correct – though it is – it’s just good. If you read the first few pages carefully, you’ll find a fragment sentence – but you’d never notice it if you weren’t looking, because it fits the rhythm of the writing. And there is a rhythm to it. That’s important. Lee’s prose sounds good to the ear.

Look at the first two paragraphs above. You know how many words are in each sentence in that first paragraph? 24, 37, and 27. Now look at the second paragraph: 5, 3, and 18. Five and three! Look how much impact those short, punchy sentences have after all those long flowing sentences before. You don’t have to stop and analyze the writing to feel the punch, nobody’s going to stop and analyze this! You just feel it.

Style is so important. A feel for the language is so important. And we don’t have to worry about that with Lee. We know that in the first page, we can feel it. We can trust this writer. He’s going to tell us a story and we’re going to relax and let him take on his roller coaster ride.

Now, there are things that can go wrong with a book that starts well, obviously. Plot holes (I had a pretty serious suspension-of-disbelief problem with this very book), characters that are annoying for one reason or another (The woman needs to be rescued again? Really?). Maybe the plot is a bit too predictable. (Now, that’s not a problem with Lee!)

But that sort of thing is definitely not what an aspiring writer should be thinking of when thinking about how to write a novel that works. And definitely not when trying to hook an agent in those first couple of all-important pages. That writer should be thinking about building setting and character. And while it’s important to have a plot that flows from the beginning straight through the end, with good character arcs for the important (and maybe secondary) characters, it’s even more important to think about style and developing a feel for language.

For that last, the hardest and most crucial foundation on which absolutely everything else is going to rest . . . well, you learn to write by reading. And then by writing. I recommend Francine Prose’s book READING LIKE A WRITER, who makes a case for the importance of craft that ought to persuade anybody.

Now, at last, in case you’re interested and in order to illustrate the learning process, here’s the list of novels I’ve personally completed, in chronological order by date written, with comments.

The Ghost Trilogy was a secondary-world adult fantasy that actually, now that I think of it, might actually be YA. (So right from the beginning I was writing right on that border. Huh.) Anyway, while it’s not actually terrible, I have very little inclination to put this trilogy out as it stands. When I went back and looked at it not so long ago, I liked quite a few things about it. But it reads like . . . well, like . . . a first novel.

This trilogy represents roughly 1500 pp (about 500,000 words) of practice and that’s what I want to emphasize: this was great practice, but nothing I’d really want to see on the shelf. Plus it would not have been a good idea to get all ambitious about selling it because it’s long (every book is over 150,000 words and that’s far too long for most first novels) and because the books aren’t self-contained. If I’d really been committed to selling it to a publisher, I would probably have been really disappointed. But I never sent it out, so that was fine.

I learned a huge amount from writing this trilogy. I want to make that crystal clear. I learned how to punctuate dialogue – I remember going to my shelves and taking books off at random to see how punctuation was handled. I learned how to signal the reader about who’s saying what in dialogue. I learned how you can substitute movement for a dialogue tag. I figured out what tags besides “said” work for me. I learned it’s okay to use adverbs if you want to, including vague adverbs like “very,” if you do it right. (I do use fewer now than I used to, but I’m still not shy about using adverbs.)

I learned bigger things. I learned how to compress time: “Three weeks later, she rode at last out of the frozen pass.” I learned how to handle a “crowded room” scene, where more than two people are interacting. I learned that if I’m patient and let the story unroll in my head, suddenly the dots will connect and the plot will emerge. I learned to finish a novel.

There were some things I didn’t learn from writing this trilogy. I didn’t learn correct, standard grammar: I knew that already. (Thanks, Mom!) I didn’t learn that tension needs to ratchet upward: I knew that already, too. (Doesn’t everyone?) I didn’t learn how to describe a scene: description has always been the easy part for me. I didn’t learn how to beat a plot out of thin air when I have a deadline: that came later and was not much fun.

I think that probably every aspiring writer has things he or she is just good at and things he or she needs to learn by actually, deliberately figuring them out. I think you learn to write by reading and then by writing.

Okay! After the fantasy trilogy came an adult SF duology, though again I now see that one important character is more a YA type of character. Anyway, for this one I was playing around with the interaction between instinct and culture and that worked as an SF story, not as a fantasy story. (This is the only thing I’ve ever written that actually draws on my background in animal behavior and evolutionary theory.)

I now think the ideas in it are great and the plot is serviceable and some of the scenes are good, but overall I really don’t think much of it. When I re-read bits of it a few years ago, I was not happy with it. This duology – which I wrote as a single book, but would have had to break in half – it’s 218,000 words, for heaven’s sake – is in my opinion not as good as the fantasy trilogy. I would never put it out without huge, serious revision.

After that I started an adult fantasy novel that really was solidly adult and not YA. It started in this world and moved into a secondary world (it’s a portal fantasy). The pov character is a psychiatrist. I loved the part I wrote, about a novel’s worth of pages. It was ambitious and interesting and I thought it was worth finishing, but it not finished and it was clearly going to be oversized, so I put it aside and wrote –

THE CITY IN THE LAKE. The whole idea was to write something short and self-contained and good enough to sell and in fact really good. CITY succeeded on all counts and is sometimes still my favorite of all my books, depending on my mood. This was the first book with which I seriously tried to hook an agent, at which of course it also succeeded.

I’d read a useful piece of advice in there someplace, which was: The minute you send out your first book, start working on your second. So that was when I wrote –

LORD OF THE CHANGING WINDS, the first Griffin Mage book. The idea was to write a second book that would appeal to the same readership as CITY. (I don’t know how well that succeeded.)

But I still loved the adult fantasy novel I had started back before CITY and I went back and finished it in a huge rush, 250 pp or so in 19 days, the fastest I’ve ever written anything. It was a very intense experience. The revision, which for months I referred to as The Never-ending Revision from Hell, was intense in a different way. The effort yielded the TENAI duology, which, however much I loved it, did not find a place with a publisher. (“The writing is beautiful, but we feel it is too innovative and we’re not sure it will sell . . .”) (Yes, that is an accurate summary of a couple different responses.) This is a duology I will eventually bring out independently, if I have to. I do not, however, want it to be the first book I bring out myself. I love it too much to make it the subject of that kind of fumbling experiment.

Then I wrote HOUSE OF SHADOWS. My YA editor at Knopf didn’t think it was YA – she’d rejected CHANGING WINDS, too – but my agent placed both with Orbit, so that was all right.

Determined to write a story that would unquestionably fall on the YA side of the line, I read a dozen or so YA fantasies and then sat down and wrote THE FLOATING ISLANDS. My Knopf editor loved it, so all was well!

Meanwhile, my editor at Orbit wanted a sequel to CHANGING WINDS, so I wrote fifty pages of two different books and sent them to her and said Pick one. She loved them both, and that’s why the Griffin Mage Trilogy is a trilogy and not a duology. Of course one turned into LAND OF THE BURNING SANDS and the other into LAW OF THE BROKEN EARTH.

And that covers all the books currently on the shelves, right? That makes thirteen novels total. What about the other three? I don’t want to say much about them until I have something solid to announce, but I will say that I do expect all three to be published eventually, including my current WIP, which I just finished in the sense of OMG the revision make it stop.

And that’s the complete list to date. Sixteen. Wow.

So that should add perspective when I say: don’t fall in love with the first book you ever write. If it’s great, that’s splendid! But that’s the exception, not the rule. A million words of practice, that’s the rule. Don’t eat your heart out if your first book doesn’t garner much interest. Maybe you shouldn’t press forward with it. If that first novel was actually just a learning exercise, that’s all right. Focus on setting, character, plot, and most of all the craft of writing. Then write another book. If you have any kind of feel for the language, chances are good it will be so much better. My advice is: wait for that one before you push for publication.

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NPR’s Best Every YA list

You know what I think about NPR’s Best Ever YA list?

1) It was obviously a pure popularity contest, with no consideration for whether some of the hot titles of the past couple of years can possibly hold up over time;
2) Just because kids like something and frequently read something, doesn’t mean it’s YA;
3) Just having a young protagonist doesn’t make something YA.
4) Removing Ender’s Game because it is “too violent” is insane, if you’re going to include The Hunger Games and (God help us) Lord of the Flies.

I argue about points two and three all the time. I’m not saying you’ll never convince me otherwise, but no one’s done it yet.

And regarding the first point, I get that it may be difficult to assess whether a title will hold up over time unless you have a time machine. But, I mean, Twilight? Really? Are we going to argue that Fifty Shades must be great literature because after all it represented 20% of all book sales this year? Porn sells: that’s not news, but it doesn’t mean it’s great literature.

I have to admit that there are a LOT of titles on NPR’s list that I haven’t read. Like, more than half. Wow, who knew? Well, but I never used to read contemporary YA. Plus, of course, when I was a kid, YA wasn’t a category the way it is now and I wasn’t shoved toward YA books particularly.

It strikes me that there are definitely some on the NPR list that aren’t YA. These include:

Lord of the Flies
To Kill a Mockingbird
The Call of the Wild
Dune (I mean, good lord above, who would call DUNE a young adult novel? ???)
The Lord of the Rings
The Princess Bride
Flowers for Algernon (Give me a break!)
Anne of Green Gables (too young; definitely MG rather than YA)
The Uglies (ditto, imho)
And Ender’s Game wasn’t on there, but if it had been, imo, it’s not YA either. (I argue about that all the time.) But not because it’s too violent, whatever that means — because it just isn’t. It’s too slow, too big, too complicated, and does not “feel” YA. It just doesn’t.

Also, obviously some titles that made the list are not, shall we say, of the quality we would hope to maintain on a list of “Best Ever” titles of anything. Twilight is the obvious one here. If there are any other frankly bad books on the list, I don’t know what they are.

Obviously the list is highly and inevitably biased toward titles that everyone has read; ie, really popular titles or titles assigned in high school – and yes, I get that quite a few people must have enjoyed reading Lord of the Flies, for some reason, or it wouldn’t be on the list. But, wow, did a lot of titles get left off that deserved to be far, far above Twilight. !!!

Here are the titles that I totally agree with:

Harry Potter series (Rowling)
Hunger Games series (Collins)
The Dark is Rising series (Cooper)
I Capture the Castle (Smith)
The Last Unicorn (Beagle), which actually I’m not a hundred percent sure I agree it’s YA, but okay, we’ll go with it.
If I Stay (Forman)
The Enchanted Forest series (Wrede)
The Blue Sword and The Hero and the Crown (McKinley)
The Trickster series (Pierce)
The Chrestomanci series (Jones)

Remember that I haven’t read the majority of the titles, though! Nevertheless, in a just universe, the following titles (in no order whatsoever) would certainly have made it onto that list:

Power of Three and Dogsbody (Jones)
Protector of the Small series (Pierce)
Beka Cooper: Terrier (Pierce)
Sorcery and Cecilia (Wrede and Stevermer)
Marelon the Magician (Wrede)
A Certain Slant of Light (Whitcomb)
Girl of Fire and Thorns (Carson)
The Scorpio Races (Stiefvater)
An Alien Music (Johnson)
The Changeover (Mahy)
The Truth Teller’s Tale (Shinn)
The Attolia series (Turner) — are you kidding me? How can this not be on the list?
Tombs of Atuin (Le Guin)
Wrinkle in Time (Le Guin) – did I just miss it? Shocked this isn’t on there.
A Fistful of Sky (Hoffman)
The Sunbird (Wein)
I Am Not a Serial Killer series (Wells) – I know that it’s not usually considered YA, but to me it clearly is.
Tomorrow When the War Began series (Marsden) – again, how can it possibly not be on the list?
Airborn duology (Oppel)
Moonflash (McKillip)

And, for contemporary titles rather than genre, no list can possibly be correct unless it includes:

The Sky is Everywhere (Nelson)
Almost Perfect (Katcher)
Five Flavors of Dumb (John)
Catalog of the Universe (Mahy)

Comments? Any other “MUST INCLUDE” titles?

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Recent Reading

I’ve read quite a few books in the past three weeks or so – more than you’d expect (or at least more than I’d expect!) considering I’ve also been finishing my current WIP. But I didn’t want to kill myself getting it done, and I don’t work many hours during the summer, and it was WAY too hot to work outside or take the dogs hiking, so . . .

EXCALIBUR, by Laubenthal, is a contemporary fantasy with (obviously) an Arthurian focus. Beautiful language, just lovely. Let me open the book randomly and throw a dart at it. Ah, here we go, a random passage:

“And yet, slowly in the back of her mind, the sense of darkness intensified, took form in a nameless awareness that something was wrong. She remembered how she had been oppressed by this place ever since Monday, though she had never been afraid of the cellar in her childhood. No, it was not fear of the place; it was a foreboding, vague as yet but spreading through her mind like dark water, foreboding of something that was waiting for them, in the darkness and like darkness, wakeful and evil. Images, high-colored like those of dreams, floated through the dark of her mind: dragon-guarded apples of the Hesperides, demon-haunted paths to the Grail, the flaming sword at the gates of Eden. Was there any good in the world that was not dear-bought and shadowed with doom? And yet, had she not wanted this? What, she thought with a sense of sinking cold, what have I wanted?”

This book is an automatic keeper for me just because of the poetry of the writing. The characters are just okay for me, the plot is just okay. This book was published in 1973 and to me it does feel distinctly old-fashioned. Oddly, it reminds me a bit of Mary Stewart’s mysteries, though it’s not very much like those in any way I can actually put my finger on. The whole plot turns around religion; the story treats Christianity beautifully and seriously. That’s so rare in fantasy these days, which is, as we all know, simply rife with The Oppressive Church, everybody stamping their own out with the exact same cookie cutter, very tedious and boring.

Okay, moving on! I read ROSEMARY AND RUE and A LOCAL HABITATION by McGuire, which I’ve had on my TBR pile for simply ages. Those are paranormals, of course. The Book Smugglers love them, so I fully expected to love them, too. Plus McGuire also wrote FEED as Myra Grant, and for me while that one had some unbelievable plot elements that really bothered me, the writing and voice were fabulous. But in these paranormals, the main character seemed kind of . . . kind of . . . okay, sorry, kind of dim. She seemed to me to get herself in situations where anybody ought to have seen that there could be trouble, and she never took any sensible precautions in case there was trouble. And she was terribly slow to figure out obvious things, especially in the second book. I’m done with the series, I think.

So, trying again, I got a different paranormal off the stack: LICENSE TO ENSORCELL by Katharine Kerr. I really liked this one! I liked the protagonist (Nola O’Grady), who was much more competent, and I loved the Israeli agent (Ari Nathan) she worked with. I think Kerr was so clever to make the male lead Israeli! That’s new and different in paranormal, and she handled it really well. And I liked that Ari wasn’t a werewolf or a sorcerer or at all comfortable with the magic stuff – just a normal guy. Well, a normal guy with a really unusual childhood background and a lot of guns. I definitely plan to pick up others in this series – the next one might be out by now, since this one came out last year.

The Israeli thing in Kerr’s book put me in the right mood to pick up the Daniel Silva political thriller I had on the TBR pile. Of course Silva’s protagonist is Gabriel Allon, a restorer of fine paintings and an Israeli agent. I’ve read several of his and usually like them very much. This one was THE MESSENGER and for me it was just okay.

I read AMMONITE by Nicola Griffith. At last. I honestly don’t think I ever had before, which means it got lost on my shelves for what, twenty years? Oops. It was all right. Actually, it wasn’t bad at all It features a world where everyone is female, no men. I liked the way Griffith handled this, very matter-of-fact about it. This book could really use a sequel, there are definitely suggestions that a sequel was planned, but I guess it didn’t sell well enough for the publisher to be interested in bringing out sequels – that’s just a guess, could be totally wrong. Anyway, Griffith’s amazing thriller/mystery series, starting with THE BLUE PLACE, does rather blow this earlier SF novel out of the water.

I read DEEP SKY by Patrick Lee (whoa, major thrill ride there – but at the end, did he or didn’t he? I think he did.). I read LOST GIRLS by Kelley. I read THE MISTRESS’S DAUGHTER by Holmes, which is an autobiography, and how did that get on the TBR pile? I almost never read autobiographies or biographies. It was written by a woman whose birth mother tracked her down when she was an adult and it’s about the impact this had on her sense of identity. The birth mother turned out to be emotionally disturbed and the birth father a prize jackass – it was a bit like reading a true crime book without a true crime. Reading it should make almost any adopted kid glad she was adopted.

I read THE SAUCIER’S APPRENTICE: One Long Strange Journey Through the Great Cooking Schools of Europe, by Bob Spitz, which was fascinating and includes some amazing-looking recipes I MUST try. (Nonfiction like this and the autobiography are what I read when I really want to make progress on my own WIP.)

AND! Saving the best for last!

I read IN PURSUIT OF THE GREEN LION, which turns out to be the second book of a trilogy by Judith Merkle Riley. I would never have picked this up if I’d known how great it was going to be – I’d have save it for later, so I could dive into without guilt at putting off my own work.

Where has this author been all my life? The instant I finished this book, which was published back in 1990, I ordered the first and third books of the trilogy.
This an outstanding historical fantasy. So far this year, I haven’t encountered all that many real standouts. Tanya Huff’s Valor series, Rae Carson’s GIRL OF FIRE AND THORNS, Stiefvater’s SCORPIO RACES. Others have been very good, but, I don’t know, I don’t think I’ve read as many truly great books this year as I did last year. And I’ve read 72 books this year so far (I just counted), so it’s disappointing that I’d have trouble coming up with ten that were really fabulous.

Well, this one is. Let me quote most of the prologue for you, and don’t tell me you don’t like prologues, neither do I, but sometimes there are exceptions. This prologue is great:

It was in the Year of Our Lord 1358, in the summertime, just two days before the Feast of Saint Barnabas, that a Voice spoke out of heaven into the ear of my understanding.

“Margaret,” said the Voice, “just what are you doing there?” My pen stopped, and I looked up.

“Surely, You know already,” I said to the still air.

“Of course I do, but I want you to tell Me, and that is entirely different,” the Voice answered.

But to begin in the right place, I must begin with God’s gift of daughters, which is made to mothers as a test and a trial. For on the Day of Judgment when we must answer for all things, what shall we answer if our daughters be too stubborn and impatient for the needle? Thus does God try our souls, and likewise cast out vanity, for the mothers of ungovernable children must always be humble.

Now the day on which the Voice spoke was all fair and warm, and everything was blooming and growing. We had removed our household from London for the summer once again; the disorder in the kitchens at Whitehill Manor had at last been put right, . . . . The air was so fresh, and the green fields so inviting, only a fool would imagine that two little girls as willful as Cecily and Alison would remember their duty. . . . . Still, as I climbed the long outside stairs to peep into the bower up under the eaves, I did not foresee what I would find. Empty! It was clear enough what had happened – two little pairs of shoes tumbled underneath the embroidery frame, a few dozen halfhearted stitches added to the work of months, and on the windowsill, Mother Sarah’s abandoned distaff.

“And she’s no better than they are! How could they?” I called out the window, “Cecily! Alison!” and thought I could hear the answering shriek of children’s laughter from a far-off place. Oh, failed again, I brooded. However will I make them into ladies? And then God will say at the end of the world, “Margaret, you allowed your daughters to become hoydens. Their French knots unravel. And those daisies. Ugh. Exactly like toadstools. Pass on my left, unworthy woman.”

But the silence of the abandoned bower was so inviting. I could feel the wonderful possibilities rising from the floor like mist. Mine, all mind, rejoiced my careless heart. Space, room, and quiet! And before I knew it, I had my paper and ink from the chest, and my writings about housewifery spread about me.

Now you must know that long ago I made a plan to write down all the wisdom Mother Hilde taught me, so that it would not all be lost. And my girls shall have it after me, and so become celebrated for their mastery of the arts of healing and cookery and housewifery. And it is very well that it all be written, even though these are all true secrets, for suppose some grief should come to me – how would they manage then? And this I must say of them, though they are slow at the needle, they are swift at the art of reading, which is most rare among females.

I set the pen at the place I had left off. “To keep the moth from woolens . . .” I had written, all those months ago, in London. How much had happened since then! Their father dead, so much changed. A bright shaft of sunshine from the little window above made a warm puddle of light on the page. Moths. How can keeping the moths off make my girls happy?

“Oh, bother moths! What do I care about moths? What ever possessed me to write about moths anyway?”

“Certainly not Me, Margaret.” The Voice sounded warm and comfortable, as if it were somehow inside the sunlight. I looked up from the paper and inspected the sunbeam carefully. The only thing I could see were thousands of dancing dust motes, all shimmering golden.

“It seemed like such a good idea at the time,” I addressed the sunbeam. “But now it’s all turned into moths and recipes for fish. And I don’t even like fish.”

“Why write about them, then?”

“I thought it was proper.”

“What is proper is what you understand best, Margaret.”

So, of course it was all clear. It wasn’t fish and moths I needed to write about after all. It was about something much more important. And certainly something my girls should know about, for the world tells them nothing but lies, leaving them entirely deluded on the subject.

“Why so busy, and so inky?” asked my lord husband that very evening. “Have you take up that recipe book again? Write about those tasty little fruit things in pastry – they would definitely be a loss to posterity. My future sons-in-law will bless me.”

“I’m writing a love story.”

“Another tale of courtly love to add to the world’s stock of lies? Surely you lead mankind astray. Pastries would be far better.”

“No, I’m not writing about that false, flowery stuff. Jousts, and favors, and lute playing in rose-covered bowers. I’m writing about the happily-ever-after part. I’m writing about true love.”

“Real love? Oh, worse and worse, Margaret. Nobody writes about that. For one thing, it’s not decent. For another, it’s impossibly dull. Now, if you wish to write about love, you must respect the conventions. What interests people is the trying to get, not the getting. Look at Tristan! Look at Lancelot! What kind of romance would it be if they could have had what they wanted? Tristan marries Yseult, and they produce a dozen moon-faced brats! . . . You must face facts, Margaret. You don’t understand anything about writing love stories. Stick to recipes.”

So of course I set to work right away. After all, my lord husband considers himself a great expert on the topic of love, because he has written a number of poems on the subject. But I, I have loved greatly.”


That’s not the whole thing, the prologue goes on a bit more, it’s three pages total, but that line’s a good stopping point, isn’t it?

I fell in love with this book at the “Pass on my left, unworthy woman,” line and wasn’t disappointed. Beautiful writing, wonderful characters, excellent plotting, splendid world-building – you get the feel of the real Middle Ages, which were of course totally dreadful in so many ways, and yet even though she shows you the filth and poverty and casual violence and horrible treatment of women, Riley somehow avoids the dark, gritty feel that can make current modern fantasies so unpleasant to read. I think it’s the protagonist’s pov, which . . . I don’t know. It’s not like Margaret looks at the world through rose-colored glasses, exactly. And I wouldn’t say she’s an innocent. But there’s an optimism and sweetness to her – well, there’s a reason God talks to her – she’s just a very nice person, but without being saccharine or simplistic. I really enjoyed her. All the characters are wonderful, really. The villain’s a bit of a stock villain, but actually I don’t mind that. He’s certainly evil enough you cheer on his downfall with enthusiasm.

And the writing! Obviously it’s fabulous, but it’s also interesting. Look at that prologue: it’s in the first person. Then in the first chapter, the first page is also in the first person. Then there’s a line break and the perspective switches to third person. Four pages later, there’s another line break and we switch back to first person. The rest of the chapter, about 18 pages, is all first person. The first five pages of the second chapter? Still first person. But then there’s a line break and we switch not only to third, but to the pov of Margaret’s new father-in-law! Now, he’s a very interesting character in his own right, but he’s definitely a secondary character, and yet here we are in his pov!

Actually the narrator through this section is omniscient; you don’t really notice when you’re reading it, you’re too caught up in the story, or at least I was. But we are told what the father-in-law thinks and remembers and also what Margaret hears and also what one of Margaret’s daughters is thinking. Looking carefully through this section, I see we are also told what Margaret’s husband is thinking. So it’s definitely an omniscient narrator, even though it’s mostly focused on the father-in-law and Margaret and plenty is left unsaid.

And then, after twelve pages, we switch back to Margaret’s first-person POV for the rest of the chapter. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen anything like it. It definitely works, but it leaves me wondering, did Riley think about what she was doing when she wrote this? Or did she do it by feel? I think the omniscient narrator is so hard to do well. By far the hardest way to tell the story. I bet she did it by feel. I bet it’s impossible to do by reasoning your way through it.

A fascinating and wonderful book. I can’t wait to read the other two.

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