Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Calling It Quits

How do you know when to throw in the towel? I've been working on this particular manuscript (a prequel to a completed manuscript) for over 2 years now. Granted, one year of that time was spent writing my chick lit novel. And another half year was spent trying to type a word here, a paragraph there. I've come to the conclusion that the reason this story is no longer flowing for me is because it's flawed. And rather than spend the next 10 years trying to complete it, it's time to close the folder and move onto a different story. Maybe in 10 years, when I'm a better writer, I'll be able to come back to this manuscript and fix it so that it works, but I don't have the skill to do that now and it's time I realize that and stop staring at the blank screen wondering if I'm cut out to be a writer. I know I am. I've finished two novels. So if it's not me, it's got to be the story. Part of the problem could be the fact that I've been working in this world since I was 12 and, as I'm significantly older than 12 now, it's time for me to do something different, something fresh. Another concern is that the more I learn about writing and sales and the more I read other people's novels the more cliched my ideas for that world sound. I did come up with the ideas for it when I was younger, so while they have evolved over time they're certainly dated. As I said, it's a flawed manuscript. But it's hard to just throw out a year of your life. I spent a lot of time on that manuscript. I love the characters. I did some fun things. I have some great passages. But is it worth stagnating over? No. So it's time to move on.

Thursday, October 30, 2008


Yesterday I put up a logo on this page that I designed last year for my business cards. Unfortunately, in my haste to try something new, I posted the WRONG image (an earlier attempt at my logo that I didn't like as much). Seen here:

Notice the tail is a bit stubby and the image is choppy. The writing is uneven and slightly unclear. Though I did get the appostrophe tongue, which I liked, the image is less than stellar.

The image I should have had up was this one, which is a bit wider than tall, and better defined. I figured out how to type the words rather than free hand them, so they look much clearer and are level. Given my lack of skill in using my imaging program it's also less dark than I'd have liked, but I couldn't figure out how to make it black. And when it printed I got little bluish dots around the letters, as the background wasn't perfectly white and the image not as crisp as it should have been.

It's unfortunate that I had the wrong image up because my boyfriend, who is much better at computer graphics than I am, therefore took the worse of my two images to touch up into the beauty that's displayed on this blog. Here's one verson of his finished image in gradiated black, and a second in red. He added a shadow effect that I think looks pretty cool and made the background transparent so it wouldn't interfere with the background colour of the blog.
If I'd realized my error earlier I could have made this process easier on him by giving him a better image to start with. Instead, without complaint, he spent a fair bit of time reworking the image I didn't particularly like - and making it into an awesome logo.

I have the best boyfriend in the world. :D

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Thinking Time vs Writing Time

I think one of the problems with writing the middle of a novel is that the beginning and end come in so clear (for me anyway) - almost like you're watching them on TV - while the middle doesn't. The middle requires more thought to know where the action is headed and what events must occur in what order to get to the end. And that requires sitting down and actually plotting the novel.

Now, I tend to do this before I start writing, put down a tentative outline of what needs to happen and when. I don't put in too much detail, because the outline tends to change with the writing anyway, as I get new ideas (generally better ideas) and become aware of inconsistencies and problems that need to be worked out. Which requres a lot of sitting down, after the book has been started, and organizing my thoughts and ideas so that I can keep writing. The problem is, that thinking and planning time doesn't feel like work because you can't see WRITTEN PROGRESS. And yet, without careful planning and thought you get a worse book (just stuff happening that isn't necessarily requred to tell the story you set out to tell - you know, like that scene in the movie that LOOKS cool but makes you ask, "Is there a point to all this?").

So I've had to revise my writing schedule to allow for planning time. That is, time when I'm in my comfy chair with a pad of paper and a pen, jotting down ideas and hashing out the problems rather than at my computer trying to write a scene that just isn't coming (because I haven't decided where it needs to go).

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Be Careful What You Blog - And Where

I have two blogs. One is professional (scififanletter) for all things SF/Fantasy related, and one is for personal thoughts and non-SF book reviews, etc. Today I wrote what I consider one of my non-professional posts designed for this blog. Unfortunately I forgot to check which blog I was on and posted it to the wrong one by mistake. I was able to delete the post and post it here, with corrections, as I'd intended. End of story, or so I thought.

I subscribe to Google Reader, which carefully tracks websites that have interesting articles and blog posts. When I checked my reader, after posting my erroneous message, I discovered that the reader kept it - even though the actual post had been erased. In fact, it's still there, on my reader, after I've tried other tricks to get rid of it. Which means other people, subscribed to my professional blog, have just been subjected to my rather more personal thoughts. Oops.

Now that's not to say the post was in any way embarrassing or unprofessional. It's just not a post I'd intended for that particular site.

Just goes to show that once something's on the internet it really is there to stay. Be careful what you type - and where you type it...

The Hardest Part of Writing a Novel

Openings come easily to me. As do endings. I always know where my book will begin and where it's going. Things can change, of course. Nothing's ever set in stone, until it's published that is (and even then, some authors create 'difinitive editions of their work, reediting long after it's been read by multitudes of people).

For me though, the middle is hard. I know where I want my characters to go, I've got a generalized outline of my novel, but somehow, in the middle, things get bogged down. That's where I am right now in the fantasy novel I'm writing. I've got the first several chapters written and the ending's pretty clear in my mind. There's just ALL THE STUFF IN THE MIDDLE to go. And it's not going.

This happened in the last fantasy novel I wrote. That time I got over it by simply plowing ahead, writing whatever seemed to fit and editing it later so that it really DID fit. This time... I took a break by writing another novel in between, something completely different (ie not fantasy) that took about a year and 'cleared my mind'. Cleared it a little too much, I fear. Now I'm back to working on it and try as I might it just isn't coming. I've tried forcing myself to sit at my computer and type - until something else 'important' comes up and I have to go do THAT instead.

One of the authors I interviewed for my other blog ( mentioned that the middle often causes authors to doubt. They doubt themselves. They doubt their story. They doubt that anyone will publish it someday. Apparently it's the middle that causes a lot of wannabe writers to give up, deciding they just don't 'have what it takes'.

I guess I am lucky in that I know I 'have what it takes'. I've finished two novels. Nothing's published yet, but I'm comfident that's only a matter of time. I'm planning to have this new book done in time for Book Expo America next year so I can shop them around to the agents in attendence.

That requires getting past this 'mid book block' and completing the book. Which requires determination and dedication. Ah, it's easier to READ a book than write one. Though not half as satisfying!

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Into The Void

Writing is a very solitary endeavor. You sit in a room, with a computer (or pen & paper), and write. No one else is necessary. Other aspects of writing are also solitary. Like figuring out which publisher to query and sending them a letter to test their interest. You then sit at home, wondering when (or if) you'll hear back. I used to run an email newsletter. Every month I'd send that newsletter to dozens of people and hear... silence. No one ever wrote back saying they appreciated the work I put into it. No one gave feedback, kudos or complaints, so I could alternately feel good about myself or improve the newsletter. Did anyone get the newsletter and read it? Or did they simply delete it when it arrived?

Blogging is much the same. I write a post and send it into the void... wondering if it will be read, wondering if anyone is out there at all...

My blog has a counter on it so I can see how many people visit the site. But what does that mean? Do they read through my posts? Are they interested in my life and writings? Are they just passing through looking for some specific piece of information they thought might be found here and isn't? When no one leaves comments how can you tell?

That's why having blogging buddies is so important. You know at leas ONE person has read your post, and maybe put a comment up. Or perhaps they bring it up the next time you chat. At least you know the VOID that is the internet does contain at least one other human being. Or rather, one human being who is interested in your life and thoughts.

So I will cast this post into the void and wonder, if a blog is written and no reads it, does it exist?

Writing's a very solitary endeavor. But that doesn't mean it has to be a lonely one. :P :)

Monday, October 20, 2008

Skipping Books From a Bookseller's Perspective

Since the issue of whether or not bookstores should stock all SFF books has been going around recently, I figured I'd add my 2 cents worth as a bookseller.

Author Gregory Frost mentioned in "the Wild River Review" that Borders isn't stocking his newest novel, Lord Tophet.

His response to this is for people to buy books from independent bookstores rather than chain stores like Borders citing that they have a better selection and more knowledgeable staff.

I beg to differ. While I happen to work at a store that has the best selection in the country for SFF (and every other topic) unless I'm at a Bakka Phoenix books in Toronto, I've yet to see an independent that carried a prodigious amount of Sci-Fi or Fantasy. Yes, most chain stores carry the same selection (or a variation thereon) but that doesn't mean the independents carry more. Indeed, considering the fact that they have the same problems associated with stocking books (only a certain amount of money to spend on new titles, shelf space, sales data) their selection is probably going to be lower than a chain store unless you're lucky enough to find one that specializes in SFF.

And as for knowledgeable staff, I find the insinuation that chain workers don't know books rather insulting. The majority of people I've worked with decided to work at a bookstore because they love books. Does that mean each bookseller will love YOUR genre and know everything about it? No. Does that mean independent booksellers will all know about SFF and be better able to help you pick a book? No.

I'm great with the SFF section because that's what I love and read. Mysteries? Don't ask me, I haven't got a clue. I can show you books and give you an idea of what to expect from them, but I can't say 'you'll love it' because I haven't read it. And I'm not you so my tastes will differ.

And if you're going to boycot your chain store, you might as well cut out everyone and just buy from Amazon, something I generally don't push as it means people like me, who ARE knowledgeable, are slowly losing our jobs. Those discounts they give? They undercut the market so all stores - and that includes your independent bookstores, can't compete. And no, we can't give the same discounts. Why not? Because we have a building with stock that Amazon doesn't have. That building requires heating/AC, electricity, security, computers, cashiers, managers and - amazing thing here - customer service reps to help you find your books. People like me. People who have bills to pay and require that our company make a 'profit' so that we can get paid. Because let's not forget that bookselling is a BUSINESS. Nasty word, I know. But if we go out of business no one's going to find your books on the shelf because there won't be a shelf. And I personally like holding a book and reading a few pages when I buy one, so having to buy online does not appeal to me.

And people may not realize this but unlike with things like food and clothing the markup on books is not very high. Which means that the profit margin is already low, so discounting books makes it that much harder for bookstores to stay in the black.

Tobias Buckell's post made me glad I work at the store I do. I had no idea individual Borders stores could not modify their stock to match their demographic. The WBB is rather exceptional in that while most Chapters/Indigo stores get stocked by head office we have a buyer for our store exclusively (because we have so much extra space and therefore more ability to stock a larger selection of books). And our current management want to carry the widest variety we can - so if we hear about a book we can suggest it and, provided we're allowed to carry it, we'll get it in.

"Allowed to carry it?" You ask. That's right. There are many reasons why bookstores don't carry titles. Here is another post that made me feel a bookseller's perspective on the issue of skipping could be informative. The writer of this blog makes the comment that sales staff LIE about the availability of books, citing all sorts of fictitious reasons why they can't order books into their store. While it's possible the bookseller's don't know the reason and are therefore giving vagaries, the truth is that we're generally not told why books can't be ordered in (and this is from someone who has specifically ordered in hundreds of books). It's possible that smaller stores simply aren't allowed to order in stock for their stores and that is an explanation in itself. If head office won't let you there's nothing you can do. For my store, here are some other reasons why stock can't be ordered:

Out of print - that's what the screen will say. What does that mean? Any one of the following (and perhaps more). The point is, we're not told for sure so anything we say will be an educated guess.

- publisher pulled the book due to lousy sales (this happens faster than you'd expect)
- book went to a different format (from hardcover to softcover so hardcover isn't being printed anymore)
- book is being reprinted so no copies are currently available for order
- book does not have north american rights (yes, rights are sold by country, so not everything available in Africa will be sold in Canada - much to people's surprise. And this goes for things like Da Vinci Code coming out in paperback in England while it was still in hardcover in Canada/US)
- publisher went out of business
- publisher uses a distributer we don't deal with (aren't reliable for getting stock, don't have a high enough discount rate so we can sell books at a discount to customers, aren't returnable, etc.)

I'm sure I've missed a few reasons. At any rate, there are lots of reasons why a particular book won't be stocked. And right now here's a big one in Canada:
People are complaining about the exchange rate and the printed cost difference between books being sold in Canada and the US, making them not want to buy hard cover or trade paperback books (trades are the larger paperbacks that traditionally cost around $15-25). Our head office has stopped ordering a lot of midlist hardcover and trades because NO ONE WANTS TO SPEND THE MONEY right now. So we simply don't stock them unless someone asks at which point we'll request the book (and my guess is the smaller stores don't stock them even if someone asks). Ultimately, there are only so many books that can be stocked, and buying trends make a difference in what gets stocked and what doesn't. And if the company feels books are getting too expensive, it will cut back on the books by newer and midlist authors and stock more high selling titles and authors.

Another problem is with the order system itself. Take a title like Good Omens. It's a perennial best seller. The problem is, it's always in reprints. We get a bunch into the store, they sell out in a few weeks, and then we have to wait half a year to get it in again. By this time our computer system has decided it's not worth stocking the book because IT HASN'T SOLD IN SEVERAL MONTHS. So unless you've got a bookseller who recognizes the problem and puts in an order, the book stays gone. Now that's not the most common problem, the most common problem is an original order number that's too low so the book appears to sell less than it would otherwise have (ie, get in 10, sell out and when your 30 arrive everyone's already got it from Amazon or nearby stores - so it looks like the title doesn't sell as much and gets stocked at a lower count). Bookselling is not an exact science. It's hard to guess how well certain things will sell. Some books get a lot of copies ordered and don't sell at all. Other books are constantly in demand while still others are constantly out of stock.

Of all the posts on this issue, the one by G.B.H. Hornswoggler is the best that I've seen. He's in publishing on the marketing side, and therefore knows what he's talking from from a business perspective.

Things he mentions:

-stores aren't obliged to carry every book published (here here, though we do try), they have to pick and choose

"But bookstores are businesses, not public conveniences. No store has the responsibility to carry every book published -- although, to be honest, that's a straw-man argument, since no one is asking for that. (They're just wishing that their books, the books they like, and the books by their friends be spared the chopping block.) I market books for a living, so I can tell you an unpleasant truth: the order for any book, from any account, starts at zero. The publisher's sales rep walks in the door with tipsheets and covers, past sales figures and promotional plans, to convince that bookseller's buyer to buy that book. In many categories -- SFF is still one of them -- the chain buyers say "yes" the overwhelming majority of the time. But not all the time. Sometimes, that buyer is not convinced, and the order stays at zero."

THANK YOU. In addition to being a very clear, readable post, I also learned several new things about the book business.

There are more posts on the issue but I think this post is long enough. Bookselling is a business. To stay in business bookstores need to make a profit. That means being selective about what they carry. Which means, unfortunately, that some books get skipped. I'll finish by quoting a reader comment from Hornswaggler's post:
The Brillig Blogger said...

This is just about one of the best posts on this subject I've ever seen. The comments about indies are spot on; as an agent I was amazed when the beloved Shakespeare & Co. had their bye-bye sale on the upper west side to see what books of mine they had quantity of that everyone else had returned, or in DC just this past month where Olsson's went out of business after years of having a very strange sf section. Always be glad there are two chains, since they tend not to screw up with the same books and authors. Borders skipped SLY MONGOOSE but has reordered the RAGAMUFFIN paperback, while a B&N that sells out of RAGAMUFFIN has seen the last of it. Borders carries Jim Hines, B&N does not. B&N spent 7 years loving Sookie Stackhouse more than Borders but since True Blood is out has fallen behind. For Elizabeth Moon, you want THE DEED OF PAKSENARRION in trade paperback go to Borders, you want the BRC trade paperback of THE SPEED OF DARK go to B&N and check the Fiction section. We need both of them. And both at and have features that allow you to plug in any zip code and check store availability nearby. Use that sucker; both chains have good and bad sf/fantasy stores and maybe you can drive five more minutes and actually find the book you want instead of bemoaning its absence.

Competition is the best thing for all businesses. If you're an author, send people to the stores that stock your book - chain or independent, to keep it stocked and reward the store for stocking you.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Change of Pace

I've discovered if writing is going badly or if I'm working on a scene that doesn't seem to do what I want it to the best thing to do is leave it alone and work on something else. Forcing writing works sometimes (it's called discipline) but there are times when words simply won't be forced out or when everything you write sounds like drivel (and while it sometimes happens that drivel leads to good writing, if that's all you're getting it's not worth continuing for a long period of time).

I'm not one of those writers who can write a novel from start to finish, going from chapter one until the conclusion. I write best when I'm excited about each particular scene. And sometimes I'm not in the mood to write about something. So I tend to jump around. The most interesting scenes get written first, followed by the next interesting scenes and ending with the scenes that are necessary to push the plot forward but which aren't that fun to read, or write. It means I do more editing than people who can write sequentially (as I typically forget what's already been written, sometimes writing the same scene twice by mistake). But as I enjoy editing I don't consider this a problem. And it means I can jump scenes if I need to.

I've heard of some authors who can flip between projects when they get bored of one. I tried that for a while and it sort of worked, but then I got engrosed in one project and found it easier just to finish that one. The problem of working on two separate novels at the same time is that each time you switch you have to remind yourself where you are in your writing and what the characters have just done and what they're going to do next. Contrary to popular belief, it's not that easy to remember all the details of a novel, even if you are making everything up yourself.

Monday, October 06, 2008

Making Yourself Write

One of the hardest things about being a writer - at least a fledgling writer - is learning how to put other tasks aside and actually find the time, and motivation, to write.

First: time. There are lots of good books that teach you how to prioritize tasks so that you can achieve your goal. So the first task is to make writing a higher priority than say, doing the laundry. It's not higher than your bill-paying job, as you'd probably like to see some money and you won't be seeing any from your writing for quite some time even if you get a novel published today. But one of the biggest mistakes a writer can make is treating their writing like a hobby rather than a carreer. Writing is work. It's not something you 'tinker' with occasionally as the mood hits you. It's something you need to work on day after day, until you have a novel complete, edited and ready to roll. Even then you're not done. You still need to find an agent or editor willing to work on your behalf to get the book published.

You can find time anywhere - if you plan for it and use it when it rears its head. You can write on the subway, on your lunch break, in the morning or evening. Even if you can only write for 10 minutes a day you'll be writing and you'll be amazed at how much you have at the end of a month.

Stop waiting for the elusive 'perfect day'. You know the one I mean. That day when you'll have no chores to do, no friends calling on the phone, no part-time (or full-time) job calling you in on your day off, no distractions from neighbouring apartments or noisy traffic outside. No kids asking for help with their homework or if they can have a cookie. No spouse demanding time and affection. That day when you'll sit at your computer for 8 hours and simply write. All day. No exceptions. Because naturally when this day comes you won't want to eat. You'll have no need to figit in the computer chair you've just realized isn't as comfortable after 10 minutes as you thought. No desire to get a cup of tea or a snack or a smoke. Nope. You'll be sitting in that chair on your perfect day writing up a storm without interuption.

Well, some people may be able to accomplish that. It's certainly a goal to work towards - one where you can spend the day writing without being disturbed by the vagaries of life. But for the majority of us, this day simply doesn't exist outside or imaginations.

Which brings up point 2: motivation. It's easy to use the above perfect day as an excuse not to write. It's one of the best procrastination methods since that day will never come. At some point you'll realize this and then have to decide how to really get your novel written.

At Ad Astra this year a self-employed comic book writer explained a great way to do this. PLAN. Plan your time. Plan it so that everything you need to do gets covered. Need time with the kids? Plan it in. Need time to make dinner, work, meet with friends, snuggle on the couch? Plan it in. Just so long as you also plan in writing time it's all good. And plan the writing time second (after your 'real' job). It's a priority, remember. And if it's in your schedule you'll be amazed at how easy it is to keep to it, and get some good writing done. And it's fascinating how much time the day really holds - when it's used wisely. There are so many ways to waste time nowadays. Plan your week wisely and you'll see that you can do it all.

Friday, October 03, 2008

Why I DON'T write.

It seems that for every reason I can come up with for writing there's several reasons why I shouldn't. First the 'physical'. It's often hard to find time to write. So many other things need to be done in the day - things that seem more important, or at least, more immediate than writing. Things like laundry and cooking. But also things like checking emails and reading other people's books. It's very easy to procrastinate when it comes to writing. If you're writing at a coffee shop you can order more coffee, people watch, etc. If you're at home you tend to aim for that elusive (read non-existant) several hours worth of utter silence without distractions. And for me at least, everything else that comes up 'needs' to be done before my 'hobby', ie writing. I guess one of the problems with being a writer is that, unless you're freelance or have books on contract, there's no deadline. No one's waiting for my next book to be completed so I can take my time with it. Tinker with it. It doesn't feel like a job. And therein lies the true power of procrastination. You can always do it later. Oddly enough, later never seems to arrive.

Then there's the other reasons not to write. Until you have a book published no one takes you seriously. "Writing a book, are you? What a co-incidence, so am I." And they walk off laughing. Unless you get paid for writing you're not considered a 'professional'. So instead of working on your novel you write short stories and articles in the hopes of getting some publications to your name, all the while knowing it's novels you're good at and novels you want to write.

And of course the money issue. If you want to get rich don't become a writer. Yes, some people get extremely lucky and make the bestseller's list with their first novel along with all that entails. But let's face it, how often does that happen? Most 'overnight sucesses' take 10 years or more to create. Dan Brown wasn't an overnight success. He wrote several novels before the Da Vinci Code bumped him into the limelight.

Which is where that 'compunction' I wrote about yesterday comes in. Most writers I know write because they must. The desire to tell stories is ingrained in them. I guess somewhere down the line you learn the self-discipline to sit in that chair and write that novel. Or you don't and your novels never become more than ideas in your head. Tomorrow I'll post some ideas on how to make yourself sit down and write, ignoring all of the other 'needs'.

Thursday, October 02, 2008

Why I write.

There are several reasons people write. It's fun, they're hoping to get rich (and don't understand the reality of writing and publishing), they've got lots of time and nothing else to do.

Well, ok, I doubt that last one would come up. I know my time gets filled pretty quickly with necessary tasks (and fun tasks).

So why do I write? I guess like many authors who decided to start writing as a child I simply can't NOT write. I tried once. It didn't work. There are stories to be told and I'm the lucky one who has access to these stories. I guess that means that even if I never get published I will still write, because the stories want to be told. Even if it's just to me. And I love editing. I love changing around words on a page. I love seeing them join together in new ways, better than before.

And despite the amount of books out there and the number I've read there are still stories I'd like to see that no one else is writing. For quite some time while shelving chick lits I've read the descriptions on the backs of them, wanting to find one that I'd actually enjoy. I've even skimmed a few and gotten frustrated as the main character is similar to me in some ways but always has a high fashion sense (which I don't), and a high profile job (which I don't), and sleeps with every man who offers (which I don't). So to aleviate my desire to read a chick lit that I can relate to I wrote one. Which, now that it's finished, I've discovered is harder to sell than I thought. I doubt this is because there are no other tom boy style women who work retail and who don't think casual affairs lead to worthwhile relationships. But the publishing industry is set up to cater to those genres already selling. When something new comes along they're afraid of it because "how will it sell?". Which ulitmately is a valid point.

But I digress. I write because I like to. I write because I feel compelled to. And I write because I know no one else will write the stories I want to tell.

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Elven Races in Fantasy Novels

Someone posted recently (can't remember where I saw it or I'd link to it to be sure I'm not misrepresenting their comments - so if someone can find it, I'd be obliged) that fantasy worlds should better represent real life. Not be modern or anything like that, but have more variety within races (there are quite a number of different shades and cultures of humans on earth, why aren't there that number of elves or dwarves, etc). It's a good question. One I've never asked before. Why aren't there several shades of elves? And are they necessary?

Races in fantasy sprang originally from fairy tales. Coming from European backgrounds, these races tended, like Europeans at the time, to be uniform. Tolkien 'updated' some of these races (making Elves human height for instance) but left other things the same, mainly their general uniformity (I did mention in my last post that he had more than one type of Elf - forest Elves that pop up in the Hobbit and are disliked by their more cultured cousins from the Lord of the Rings). But for the most part there is little distinction.

I imagine, like me, most authors stick with the classics. Why invent new monsters and races when mythology is chock full of copywriteless creatures? And they can be used in so many ways, tailored to fit each world's individual needs. Want your elves to be taller than humans? Shorter? Live 500 years? 5000? Only 50? Have pointed ears with lobes? Without lobes? 'Not much variation' you think? Well, consider that each creature, each world, each character and each plot has variations and the number of books you can get from them are endless. Some of these ideas are so standard as to be almost cliche - like the members in the questing band (the thief, the warrior, the magician,...). But you can get some pretty original ideas as well.

Even with worlds like Forgotten Realms, the traditional ideas were not tinkered with too much. There are surface (happy, good, white skinned) Elves and the Drow (dark skinned, evil Elves that live underground). Why did they only create 2 kinds and why are they using what must be (nowadays - remember this idea is over 15 years old) considered racist? Is it the simplistic 'white hats' vs 'black hats' mentality that created this? I don't know and for my purposes here it doesn't matter except to say that a lot of novelists have followed their lead and having 2 races of Elves is now an almost traditional element in it's own right. In terms of dealing with racism in the books they've used their races to good purpose. Most notably in the character of Drizzt Do'Urden, the drow warrior who forsakes his dark kin and lives on the surface. In each of the books he has to overcome racial prejudice. But I digress.

This doesn't explain why more modern fantasy doesn't include more varied subraces. One idea (and probably mine, as I've only got one race of Elves in the books I write) is that there's simply no time. There's no time to explain why you have so many subraces. There's only so much space in a book. If I have to explain the world, the history, the characters and tell the plot I don't have room to explain the entire evolutionary background or introduce dozens of smaller tribes - unless doing so adds something to the novel. In other words, keeping to a few standard races allows for differences without bogging a book down with too much explanation (now, there are authors who can accomplish all of this, and I take my hat off to them, but I understand why the majority don't bother).

Another possibility is that many books take place in a small geographical area. Given the traditional medieval setting (which not everyone uses but enough do for me to emply that in my example) travel is difficult and touring the world likely unrealistic. So encountering a few new races and varied cultures is understandable, encountering dozens, probably less so (unless you end up a central trading post where people from all over the world congregate or something).

What I'm saying here is the complaint is valid but there are equally valid reasons for why we're not seeing it addressed. Maybe people will address the point in the future. Maybe they won't. So long as people keep writing good fantasy I'll keep reading it, whether they use 1 race of Elves, 20, or none.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

What is Fantasy?

I've been seeing a lot of posts and articles recently complaining that fantasy keeps doing the same thing over and over again and that people would like to see something different. "Don't give me quest stories", "Don't have an older mentor figure", "Have more beta main characters who stay beta characters", "Make the worlds more realistic by adding more diverse subraces to the races involved (ie, several shades of elves)".

So I've decided to ask, what is fantasy? Why do people still read Tolkien if they don't like quests or mentors or one race of elves (there's actually more than one, indicating that these people didn't read Tolkien very closely anyway)?

The obvious response is the people complaining are only a small group of readers, people who like the idea of the genre but don't actually LIKE the genre. It's sort of like me with romance novels. I like romance, I like the idea of romance, I just don't like romance novels. Why? Because they're too fake. They all end happily. The characters go out of their way to cause problems. They never tell the truth, they never discuss issues that might become problems, they never clarify their meanings so their partner understands the real issue/emotion being discribed, they never ... you get the picture. But what's a romance novel without the twists and turns brought out by the lies and miscommunications? What's a romance novel without the happy ending? General fiction.

Fantasy is the modern fairy tale. I don't read it as escapism. I don't read it because nifty things happen to interesting people (though that's always a bonus). I read it because it makes me think about life and the issues brought up by life that everyone must face. Coming of age, falling in love, learning to depend on yourself, learning to depend on others, facing trials and overcoming them. These are the things myths did for people of the past (and remember that in the past what we term myths were considered religion). Myths explained why people act the way they do, helped people overcome difficulties, gave people hope. That's what fantasy does today. At least, that's what good fantasy today does for me.

The best fantasy in my mind is the type that makes me think. It has philosophical messages about life that are worked into the plot by means of the characters development rather than preached forcefully. Terry Brooks did an excellent job of this in The Sword of Shannara, the book that caused me to fall in love with the genre. It's a 'traditional, epic fantasy'. Quest - check. Elderly mentor - check. Magic - check. A diverse group of questors (meaning, an elf - well, half-elf in this case, a dwarf, various humans) - check. Does the novel still sell? - check. Which means that despite the fact that it's older than I am, this kind of fantasy is still popular (especially considering the second book in the series, The Elfstones of Shannara, has been optioned for a movie). And look at Eragon. I won't explain why I disliked the book here, suffice it to say, here's a traditional quest story using all the elements (minus the mixed group) that has done exceedingly well. And it wasn't even well written! So obviously there is a market for traditional fantasy.

Now I'm not saying that it isn't refreshing to read something different every now and then. And there are several excellent authors who are reinventing the genre. Nor am I saying that having more diverse subraces is a bad thing (though I do think the person who posted that should read more fantasy as I can name authors who do use more than one type of elf for example). What I am saying is a lot of us like traditional fantasy. We like our stories set in a medieval European feudalistic system. We like knowing that the main character is learning from a mentor (don't we all want a mentor who will guide us along life's path? - and it's hard to be mentored by someone younger than you, and even harder to learn everything on your own). We like seeing main characters who can make tough decisions, knowing they might not like the consequences but accepting that as a necessary evil (as opposed to 'beta' characters who, let's face it, will always be asking the other characters for advice as they won't know what to choose or want to take responsibility for those choices, or whining about how they don't want to do the quest at all for most of the novel). We want happy endings, or at least endings that allow us to believe brighter days are coming (if an author ends the novel negatively I might think it was a good ending that matched the story but I probably won't pick up their next book).

These are the elements that make up fantasy. Yes, you can leave some elements out. No, you don't have to have lots of philosophy in your book to have a good read. The beauty of fantasy is that it embraces so many subgenres and allows for a lot of diverse interpretations.

My point? Saying you want a fantasy without the fantasy elements that have always made up the genre is like saying you want a romance without, well, the romance. It might work for some people but the rest of us like our genre. That's why we keep reading (and writing) it.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Shut up, I'm Talking - Book Review

This is the first biography I've reviewed, and possibly the only non-school related one I've ever read. And it was a good place to start. Mr. Levey tells the most impossibly hilarious stories, made that much more amusing because they're all true.

A Canadian citizen, he worked as a speech writer for the Israeli delegation to the United Nations in New York while, ostensibly, getting his law degree. He later did a stint in Israel working at the Prime Minister's office during a very turbulent time in Israeli politics.

The book tries not to be political, and succeeds for the most part. You get a glimpse of a foreign govenment peppered with amusing anecdotes from his personal life.

Good for anyone looking for something different yet amusing.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Spain 9

I was still a bit tired of seeing stuff. The museum I most wanted to see (military) was closed so I was out of luck on that. I didn't feel like paying to see the Prado so I went in the evenings when it was free. The Caixa Forum had a free Alphonse Mucha exhibit. The building next to it had one wall completely covered in plants. This was the day I splurged and had a traditional Spanish treat: chocolate con churros. Very tasty deep fried pastry dipped in strong but delicious hot chocolate (I think it was made in an espresso machine from actual cocoa beans).
I just happened to be in town for the San Isidore festival, so I caught a parade one day and Naumagia, a display of lights and fountains, one night. I had a great seat for that and got some nice pictures of it.

I also went to the Atoch train station on a tip from a friend. The center of the station has been made into a tropical garden. And the city is filled with all sorts of fountains, like this Neptune fountain.
I also found two rose gardens in full bloom. One in the park where the Naumagia display was held, the other near my hostel, where (since I had to carry my backpack) I spent my last day in Spain. It had this gorgeous statue of a woman putting a flower in her hair. It was set back in the trees and stood in a fountain.

And of course, who am I without books? I'd read the two I brought and wanted something else to read. I didn't find anything, but I did stumble on a fantasy and SF bookstore. Unfortunately it was closed, but I got photos of the displays in the windows.

I also came close to buying the astrolabe I've wanted for years. But 100 euro seemed too expensive (as did the 60 euro one I found later). I got a postcard with a cut out fully working astrolabe for 5 euro instead!

I spent the last night in the airport as my flight left at 6 am. I tried to sleep but without any luck. With the 6 hour layover I had in Amsterdam, and the two flights, by the time I got to Canada I was pretty tired. I didn't get home until 6pm though my plane landed at 4.

It was a great trip but I'm glad to be home. Now it's time to start writing again. I've got lots of ideas for my fantasy novels. Little details and tidbits that don't usually come up. It's one thing to imagine things, another to do them. Experience truly is the best teacher.
As I said, I have lots more photos. If you want to see more, just tell me.

Spain 8


Of all the cities I visited this was my favourite. Because I bought my swords there? Perhaps. It was also the most medieval of all the cities I visited. The city is built on on a hill surrounded by a river. That means no real changes can be made to the structures. All the streets are narrow and windy (I ended up trapped in the same court for about half an hour, trying different roads out that all looped me back). I originally ignored my map and decided to wander around. Once I decided to get somewhere things got frustrating. It didn't matter how many times I checked the map and the name of the street I thought I was on, I ended up going the wrong way. By this time I was rather sick of sightseeing, so while I walked by the cathedral and took some photos, I didn't go inside. I was going to see the Synagogues, but ended up not doing those either.

 Instead I wandered and checked out sword shops. They were everywhere and had the most incredible selections. Some were very expensive, but you could get a good sword for very little money. Or better yet, a practice sword. I ended up getting 3 swords, a Lord of the Rings replica with a sheath and two brass handled traditional Spanish blades. They weren't the cheaper blades I was originally going to get

but as I bought 2 I got a deal.

Oh, and the hostel I stayed at, it's the castle. (Top of the first picture.) The picture beside it is the Alcazar, across a valley and in the city proper.

Ok, here are the pictures of the city. I discovered I had an extra day since I did some of the other cities faster than anticipated. I spent an extra day in Toledo, walking around the outside of the city, first on the city side then opposite it. That walk included a wonderful viewing platform.
That night I walked part of the route again to get a few pictures.

Spain 7

The Alhambra

Here's the view from St. Nicholas's church, the best view in the city. It took 3 photos, as the complex is large and sprawls across the mountain top.

I'll describe the buildings as I visited them, from right to left.

I started with the Alcazaba, the military complex. It was basically a set of buildings (now gone, though you can see the foundations where there were several towers, and the view from them was, well, there's a photo. You tell me.) I didn't have much time here, as my ticket for the Palacios Nazarines, was for 10 and I got to the Alhambra complex around 9 (I lined up at 6:30 to get my ticket - as they stop selling once they reach a certain number of visitors). They also limit the number of people in the middle complex at any given time to keep the monument in good repair.
I spent more time there, though not as much as I would have liked. The walls and ceilings were all carved and patterned. Here's a view from the windows (also carved). The picture beside it is of one of the interior courtyards. This one looks onto the room where the Sultan met with his subjects. The pools are designed so the buildings seem to disappear into them (it's the technique used at the Taj Mahal). The picture beside that is the room itself. The sultan would sit in one of the alcoves, back lit by stained glass windows.

The next section was the 'lion's fountain' courtyard. The fountain is being restored so the centre of the courtyard's all boarded up. The king's chamber was also closed for repairs. I've got lots of pictures of this side of the courtyard. Again, amazing carvings in everything. The close up shows you some of the detail. I also added a detail of one of the stalactite ceilings. Not all of the ceilings were like this, many were wooden, but the work here was incredible.
The complex ended with another courtyard and a garden.

From there it was a long walk around one curve of the mountain to reach the Generalife garden complex. It was designed as a heavenly garden on earth. Once you reach it the garden takes up most of the hilltop on this side. You can see orchards and other gardens inaccessible to tourists. The buildings here enclose other gardens. Another interesting feature was the water staircase. (There were fountains at each landing and the handrail was a water runway.)

I'd gone through a different entrance than the one my guide book suggested, so I passed through that one on my way out. The Moors had an eye towards defense. They planned the main gate so that you couldn't move directly from the the outside to the inside, you had to go around corners making an attacking army easier to halt. There were also murder holes in the ceiling for defenders to take out more attackers.
Outside this gate and down the hill a little was a fountain.

On the path in front of it was a mosaic done in stones. I've put the photo in here not because this was unique, but because a lot of the roads and paths were done this way. Not necessarily with mosaics, but with rocks set inside cement.

Spain 6

Someone has asked for extra photos of the Alhambra so I'll do that in a separate post. I took a 'night' bus. The trip was only 5 hours, so I didn't get much if any sleep. It didn't help that the driver played the radio and stopped to let people off to use the washroom in a way station half way through the trip. Granada was surprisingly cold. I was hoping for one day where I could wear shorts but no luck. It was cloudy pretty much the whole time I was there but never really rained. I checked into my hostel which HAD KITCHEN FACILITIES. Finally, hot food again (I was getting pretty tired of bread, cheese and soup by this point - yes, I eat lousily on vacation, leaves more money for travelling).
I started in the Albaycin (the old Moorish quarter - a 'maze of streets', which was surprisingly easy to navigate for the most part). It's on one of the mountains, so it's a mass of narrow streets and stairs. I took the picture to the side because I couldn't figure out how the owner got the motorcycle there (it was stairs up and down). I guess he/she could have ridden it, people were pretty crazy. Drivers had to go slowly because there wasn't actually enough room in a lot of places to drive by walkers, let alone other cars (walkers had to stand in doorways to let cars pass). Motorcyclists however whipped by at speeds I thought were suicidal. Lots of the walls were graffiti'd, some with nice photos, some with, well, graffiti.
I went to Sacramonte next, a mountain that overlooks the Alhambra. It's famous for its cave houses. (The Alhambra is partially on the left - it's a huge complex of buildings, Sacramonte is on the right. The city is in the centre, at the end of that forested valley.)
On my 3rd day in the city I went to the museum and had a glimpse of how people lived. The ceilings were pretty low for the most part, but the houses were quite cozy. Lots of stuff hanging on hooks from the ceiling or walls and little nooks and crannies everywhere. The view of the Alhambra and the city were great. The bazaar near the cathedral had all sorts of items, as seen in the photo here. Gelato stores were everywhere too. They had the yummiest displays. But it was soooo expensive (generally 2 euro for a tiny scoop). The last photo is a cool ad I saw on the way to the bus station.