Swan Tower

Mar. 19th, 2014

01:15 pm - The Value of Travel

I originally posted this as a reply to John Scalzi here, but it occurred to me that it was something that might be of interest to my local audience — especially since I’m posting all these photos from trips I’ve taken. :-)

In discussing his own feelings about travel, Scalzi said:

The fact of the matter is I’m not hugely motivated by travel. This is not to say that I don’t enjoy it when I do it, nor that there are not places I would like to visit, but the fact of the matter is that for me, given the choice between visiting places and visiting people, I tend to want to visit people — a fact that means that my destinations are less about the locale than the company. I’d rather go to Spokane than Venice, in other words, if Spokane has people I like in it, and all Venice has is a bunch of buildings which are cool but which I will be able to see better in pictures.

To which I said:

I like seeing people, sure — but the second half of the comment is boggling to me, because it’s so radically different from my own view, in two respects.

First of all, seeing is only part of the experience. Looking at a picture is flat, whereas being there is a full-body surround-sound sensory experience. There’s sound, smell, the feeling of space or lack thereof, the process of walking through. Highgate Cemetery was more than its headstones; it was the blustery autumn day with the wind rushing through the trees raining leaves down on us and the tip of my nose going cold. Point Lobos is more than the cypresses; it’s the smell of the cypresses and the feel of the dirt under my feet and the distant barking of the sea lions. Furthermore, pictures will never show me even everything from the visual channel: they may show me the nave of the church, but usually not the ceiling, nor the floor with its worn grave slabs. They will show me the garden, but not the autumn leaf caught in the spider web between two trees. I would have to look at hundreds of pictures from Malbork Castle to capture what I saw there. (Heck, I took hundreds of pictures there!)

Second, the most memorable part to me is usually the bit I wouldn’t have thought to go looking for if I weren’t there. The first time I went to Japan, my sister and I went to see the famous temple of Ginkakuji, which I loved — but I loved even better the tiny shrine off to the left outside Ginkakuji, whose name I still don’t know. Or when I was in Winchester, and she and I walked to St. Cross outside of town; we went for the porter’s dole (old medieval tradition: even now — or at least in 1998 — if you walk up to the gate and ask for the dole, they will give you bread and water), but stayed for the courtyard with the enormous tree and the most amazingly plush grass I have ever flung myself full-length in. I can look at pictures of famous buildings in Venice, but I’m unlikely to see pictures of the stuff I wouldn’t think to look for.

I write all of this in the full awareness that I have been extremely fortunate in my travel opportunities. My father’s work has often taken him abroad, so he has a giant pile of frequent flyer miles, and both in childhood and now I’ve been able to afford trips to other countries: British Virgin Islands, Costa Rica, England, Scotland, Ireland, Wales, Israel, Japan, India, Poland, Greece, Italy, Turkey, France, the Bahamas. It’s created a positive feedback loop: these trips have led me to really enjoy travel and the different experiences I have when I go places, so as a result I arrange more trips when I can. As a replacement, pictures don’t even begin to cut it.

Not part of my comment to Scalzi, but I will add two further observations:

1) Clearly I do see value in pictures, though, or I wouldn’t take so damn many of them. :-P

2) What it says about my sociability that I am liable to travel to places rather than to people is left as an exercise for the reader.

Originally published at Swan Tower. You can comment here or there.

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Mar. 17th, 2014

11:47 am - Automated Processes

This is apropos of my recent post on cooking vs. driving. It seemed easier to make a new post than to respond individually to the multiple people who made related points. :-)

When I talked about the “attention” either task requires, what I’m really referring to is the extent to which certain processes are automated or not. If you think back to when you first started driving, changing lanes involved something like the following steps:

  1. Look for a suitable gap
  2. Put on turn signal
  3. Check blind spot
  4. Move into gap
  5. End turn signal

(Or some variant thereof.)

Once you’ve been driving for a while, though, the process of changing lanes looks something more like this:

  1. Change lanes

All the smaller steps that go into the act are sufficiently automated that you don’t have to think about them, not to the degree that you did before.

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Jul. 31st, 2013

10:11 pm - a thought on racebending and genderbending

Which is to say, casting female performers for characters who are canonically male, or actors of color for characters who are canonically white.

Look at Hollywood. Look at TV. Look at how frequently they remake or reboot or sequelize existing narrative properties (for a host of reasons, not all of them terrible, but we won't get into that here). For crying out loud, we've got three separate Sherlock Holmes franchises in progress right now.

If you don't turn Starbuck female -- if you don't cast Lucy Liu as Watson -- if you don't make Idris Elba Heimdall -- if you don't break the mold of those existing texts in ways that will let in under-represented groups -- then your opportunities for having those groups on the screen in the first place drop substantially. You're basically left making them minor new characters, or else cracking the story open to stick in a major new minority character (and people will complain about that, too). Because all those stories we keep retelling? They're mostly about straight white guys. And the stories that are new, the ones that aren't being retold from one or more previous texts, can't pick up all the slack on their own. You make Perry White black, or you make a Superman movie with no black people in it above the level of tertiary character.

Which isn't automatically a problem when it's one movie. But it isn't one movie: it's a whole mass of them. Including most of our blockbusters.

So either we chuck out the old stuff wholesale (and as a folklorist, I entirely understand why we don't do that), or we rewrite it to suit our times. (And as a folklorist, I entirely understand that too -- and I cheer it on. Go, folk process, go!)

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Jul. 30th, 2013

03:30 pm - screw subtlety

I'm running another role-playing game right now, and several times of late I've found myself saying the same thing:

"Screw subtlety."

It happens because I'll be planning some kind of plot, and chasing my own tail trying to figure out how to introduce a new element without making the player-characters suspicious. This is difficult when the PCs are being run by players -- people very familiar with narrative conventions. When I told one of them the prospective fiancée for his nobleman was a meek, sheltered girl, his reply was "Gamer brain calls bullshit. I expect she has twenty-five skeletons and four fresh corpses in her closet."

In a novel, you can get away with a higher degree of subtlety, because you control your characters' thoughts. They don't know they're in a story (not unless you're writing something very metafictional), so they won't reflect on things the same way a player will. And while the same thing is theoretically true of a PC, any time you ask the player to ignore something that's obvious to them out-of-character, you create a disjunct. Sometimes this can be fun, but other times it's frustrating, because they have to role-play their character being blind to an idea they can see. Looping back around to novels, again, the same thing can be true of a reader -- but since the reader isn't actively participating in the story, the frustration is usually less severe. If you write your characters well, the reader will go along for the ride, blind spots and all.

So this is why I keep saying "screw subtlety." Rather than bending over backwards attempting to make something not suspicious, embrace the suspicion! Why yes, this is weird; you have every reason to give it the side-eye. Knowing that up front doesn't tell you what's really going on. You'll have to work to get the rest.

Doing that is surprisingly liberating. I think it's a cousin to the notion of "burning plot" -- making the cool stuff happen now, and letting it generate more cool stuff later, rather than trying to save it and have the lead-up be flat and boring as a result. Instead of making plot out of the characters figuring out there's something weird with X, let them know that from the start, and move on from there. It doesn't work in all situations or for all kinds of stories, but where it does, the result can be a lot of energy and momentum.

Which is why this is something I try to keep in mind for novels as well as games. Am I better off trying to come up with a plausible cover story for a given narrative element, or should I just let it show its face to the world?

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Apr. 16th, 2013

05:21 pm - I don't have to work on anything right now, so I'm procrastinating with a meme

Several of my fanfic-writing friends have been doing a meme wherein they post the first lines of their last twenty-one fics. Because I don't feel like doing anything more mentally taxing right now than faffing around on the computer listening to music, and also because that's a lie and Anthropologist Brain is having thinky thoughts but doesn't mind listening to music while faffing around collating stuff, I'm going to do this twice: once with fanfic, and then once with my original short stories. I want to see how they compare.

Fanfic first!Collapse )

Next, the original stories.Collapse )

And now, thoughts on how they compare.

I am not surprised in the slightest to discover that in fanfic, I am vastly more likely to pull the trick of not introducing the character(s) right away, but just referring to them with pronouns. Where I do the same thing in original fiction, odds are good that I'm retelling some existing story or bit of history. In other words, that's a stunt that works best when you have a certainty or at least decent chance of your reader knowing the character already. They don't need to know that person is the one referred to; sometimes you can get a good effect from briefly hiding the character's identity. (Or permanently. In some of these stories, like "Footprints," I never give a name at all: you can tell it's Cinderella gone wrong.) But the technique only works when there's a shared familiarity there. I have no reason at all to withhold Noirin's name (to pick one example); it means nothing to the reader, and so treating it as a revelation is not only pointless but counterproductive.

I am also not surprised in the slightest to discover that while I may begin my short stories with description or other forms of scene-setting, I almost never do the same with fanfic. They begin with characters, not context. This is because a) context is often unnecessary -- the fanfic reader already knows what the world is like, and b) character may be what the fanfic reader has shown up to the story for in the first place. To continue using "Remembering Light" as my example: I can't give you Noirin's conflict right away, because you don't know who she is (and therefore have no reason to care), and her conflict also depends on me first establishing the environment of Driftwood. But I don't have to tell the reader that Aviendha is a warrior recently forced to put aside her weapons; they already know that, and I can jump right into her dealing with an intruder.

What's interesting to me is that I don't feel like I had to learn to approach the stories differently, when I first waded into Yuletide a couple of years ago. Looking at those first fics (which haven't made it into this list), the only one that starts at all like an original story is also the one that starts from the perspective of an original character. It seems to have been natural for me to follow the structure of a fanfic, where you don't have to establish context to the same degree. Is that because it's somewhat like jumping to an interesting scene in a novel? Or something else? I don't know. The next question, of course, is whether fanfic has changed the way I start my short stories . . . but really, if I'm going to blame anything for a difference there, it's going to be all the time I've spent writing in a vaguely eighteenth- or nineteenth-century voice. (Man, is that hard to get rid of.)

This is good stuff for me to think about, though, because I'm going to be teaching a three-week writing course this summer (more on that later), and my students, who will be twelve and thirteen years old, may very well have written fanfic. So I'll want to watch out for the habits of that genre, where they may shortchange some of the work an independent short story has to do.

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Mar. 26th, 2013

11:51 am - three conversations at once

I have other things I should be doing, but wshaffer made a very good point in the comments to my last post, so I'm back for another round. And at this point I've made a tag for the grimdark discussion, because I've said enough that you might want to be able to track it all down.

To quote wshaffer:

The thing that strikes me about the grimdark discussion is that there are multiple different-but-interlocking conversations going on at once. One is an argument about whether "realism" is grounds for granting a work a higher degree of artistic merit. Another is an argument about to what extent realism actually requires focusing on the darker and more unpleasant aspects of life. And the third is: supposing that we grant that the historical prevalence of misogyny and rape requires that they be addressed in realistic fiction, are there ways of portraying them that do no themselves reinforce misogyny and rape culture?


I love things like this, because they simultaneously clear up a bunch of confusion in my head, and make it possible to see things I couldn't before. Let's take her questions one at a time.

Read more...Collapse )

So my take on these multiple conversations would be to toss the "realism = superior" thing out the window, to decouple realism/grittiness/etc from grimdarkness (as per my last post), and then to have a more focused discussion about the specific portrayal of negative issues, and where the line is between depicting those things to critique them and depicting them out of habit, or for the shock value. Which is a situation where you're mostly going to benefit from analyzing specific texts, before you try to make statements about trends -- and that, I will admit, is where I probably have to step out, because I don't have the data to argue my point. I haven't read Martin since A Feast for Crows was released, got only halfway through Abercrombie's first book, and so on with the rest of the key names in this debate. I know I don't agree with every criticism I've seen of Martin (nor every defense), but I also know I should re-familiarize myself with the text before I try to debate it.

I doubt we'll be able to get the debate to focus on that third question, because this is the internet. The conversation is going on in two dozen places, not all of which are aware of one another, and it's sliding in new directions with each post. But I do think it helps to bear in mind that the question exists, and isn't coterminous with the other things we're talking about.

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Mar. 25th, 2013

08:14 pm - gritty vs. grimdark

Yeah, I'm still thinking about this topic. Partly because of Cora Buhlert's recent roundup. The digression onto Deathstalker mostly went over my head, since I haven't read it, but she brings up a number of good points and also links to several posts I hadn't seen. (Though I use the term "post" generously. I have to say, when the only response you make to this debate is "meh" followed by links to people who already agree with you, you might as well not bother. All you're doing is patting yourself on the back in public.)

So I'm thinking about our terminology -- "gritty" and "grimdark" and so on. What do we mean by "grit," anyway? The abrasive parts of life, I guess; the stuff that's hard and unpleasant. Logistics and consequences and that sort of thing, the little stony details that other books might gloss over. It's adjacent to, or maybe our new replacement for, "low fantasy" -- the stories in which magic is relatively rare, and characters have to do things the hard way, just like us. Hence laying claim to the term "realism": those kinds of details that can ground a story in reality.

But that isn't the same thing as "grimdark," is it? That describes a mood, and you can just as easily tell a story in which everything is horrible and doomed without those little details as with. (As indeed some authors do.) Hence, of course, the counter-arguments that grimdark fantasy is just as selective in its "realism" as lighter fare: if you're writing about a war and all the women are threatened with sexual violence but none of the men are, then you're cherry-picking your grit.

What interests me, though, are the books which I might call gritty, but not grimdark. I mentioned this a while ago, when I read Tamora Pierce's second Beka Cooper book, Bloodhound. The central conflict in that book is counterfeiting, and Pierce is very realistic about what fake coinage can do to a kingdom. She also delves into the nuts and bolts of early police work, including police corruption . . . I'd call that grit. Of course it's mitigated by the fact that her story is set in Tortall, which began in a decidedly less gritty manner; one of the things I noticed in the Beka Cooper books was how Pierce worked to deconstruct some of her earlier, more romantic notions, like the Court of the Rogue. But still: counterfeiting, a collapse in monetary policy, police corruption of a realistic sort, etc. Those are the kinds of details a lot of books would gloss over.

Or an example closer to home: With Fate Conspire. I was discussing it over e-mail recently, and it occurred to me that I put a lot of unpleasantness into that book. Off the cuff, it includes betrayal, slavery, slavery of children, imprisonment, torture, horrible disease, poverty, racism, terrorism, massive amounts of class privilege and the lack thereof, rape (alluded to), pollution, fecal matter, and an abundance of swearing. All of which is the kind of stuff grimdark fantasy revels in . . . yet I have not seen a single person attach that label to the novel. Nor "gritty," for that matter, but I would argue that word, at least, should indeed apply. A great deal of that story grinds its way through the hard, unpleasant details of being lower-class in Victorian London. Realistic details, at that.

Of course, the book has a happy ending (albeit one with various price tags attached). Which makes it not grimdark -- and also not gritty? Or maybe it's that I was writing historical fiction, not the secondary-world fantasy that seems to be the locus of the term. Or, y'know, it might be that I'm a woman. One of the posts Buhlert links to is from [personal profile] matociquala, who -- unusually for this debate -- names some female authors as having produced gritty work, and Buhlert takes that point further. This is a highly gendered debate, not just where the sexual abuse of characters is concerned, and if we don't acknowledge that, we're only looking at a fraction of the issue.

I'm sort of wandering at this point, because there's no tidy conclusion to draw. You can have grit without being grimdark, and you can be grimdark without grit, but doing either while being female is rare? Not very tidy, but something to keep in mind. I think I'd be interested in reading more gritty-but-not-grimdark fantasy, from either gender. Recommendations welcome.

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11:27 am - Chickens and eggs

mrissa has posted her Minicon schedule, with a panel on which comes first: the story or the setting. To quote the description,

Which Came First

The chicken or the egg? The story or the world? Does the story you want to tell determine the setting, or does your chosen setting demand a certain kind of story to be told in it? Are there some types of stories that simply cannot be told in a particular setting? How do creators balance these seemingly opposing forces in imagining their tales?

Which has gotten me reflecting on that question and how I would answer it. Off the cuff, I thought I probably start more with the setting -- hi, anthropology, yeah. But does that hold up when I actually look at the data?

(For simplicity's sake, I'm going to keep this to novels, but I will include unpublished novels in the list. It's probably a different ballgame if I look at short stories; that, however, would require more time than I want to devote to this right now, and a refresher course as to what the heck I've written.)

Cut for length; I have more novels than you guys know about.Collapse )

Final tally: seven for setting, seven-ish for story, two for character, and three that don't classify easily (two that were both setting and story as a package, and one that was a thematic argument). It's noteworthy that four of the seven counted as story-first are later books in a series. In one sense you would think sequels would be setting first, since the milieu is already fixed; but I'd argue they're more likely to be story first, since the books I counted that way are born not from their world, but from me having another plot I wanted to explore. For contrast, I can offer up one I forgot to include in the list, namely the second of Isabella's memoirs: that one came about via "okay, now I want her to go to a West African kind of place," with the plot built around it. It's a distinctly different trajectory for me than when the setting is just lying there, and I think up a plot.

Unsurprisingly, the prime failure mode for my projects appears to be when there's a big lag time between those two components -- one shows up without the other close behind. The end-of-the-world thing has a plot, but only vague sketches of a setting; ditto the epic fantasy one. The dream piece and the pirate one have cool settings, but I'm not quite sure where the story is going. All of those have been sitting around for years, going nowhere. Of the other unfinished projects -- the lady knights and the Japanese one -- both of those are just waiting for their moment, i.e. me to get a contract. I could write either in a heartbeat.

As for the novels that got written, but not well, I don't think there's a clear pattern, except that their disparate elements never came together like they should. It doesn't seem to have anything to do with their starting points.

<looks at the last two questions in the panel description> Nah, not gonna touch those. The answer to the first is "yes," and the latter presupposes one agrees that setting and story are "opposing forces." Ah, panel blurbs -- you say the silliest things, even for good topics.

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Mar. 21st, 2013

02:10 pm - Batman had it easy

Only just now remembering to link to it, but this months' SF Novelists post is "Welcome to the Desert of the Real," in which I challenge the notion that so-called "gritty" fantasy is a) realistic and b) superior on account of its realism.

(Both that post and the rest of this one discuss sexual violence -- quelle surprise, given the obsession gritty fantasy has with that topic -- so if you don't want to read about them, click away now.)

This is part of a much larger discussion floating around the internet right now, which I keep encountering in unexpected corners. The most recent of those is "The Rape of James Bond," which makes a lot of good points; toward the end, McDougall talks about her own decision-making process where fictional sexual violence is concerned, and whether you agree with her decisions or not, her questions are good ones.

But the part I found the most striking was where she talked about reactions to Skyfall and the first encounter between Silva and Bond.

Cut in case you haven't seen the movie and want to avoid a spoiler.Collapse )

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Mar. 7th, 2013

03:28 pm - more thoughts on the epic fantasy thing

My post on writing a long epic fantasy has been generating some interesting discussion in a variety of places: the comment thread, Twitter, etc. I wanted to come back to it long enough to highlight a few lengthier responses that I think make very good points.

The first comes from C.E. Petit at Scrivener's Error; scroll down to the third bit to find his thoughts. I tend not to talk about "theme" because the word has been so badly treated by high school English classes, but his point is a sound one, and can provide guidance as to how the author might gauge whether their story has begun to grow out of control. Are you diluting your thematic message by adding in all these other subplots? Or, conversely, are you hammering your reader too energetically with that message, by playing through sixteen variations on the motif? (Which is not, of course, to say that the work will have only one thematic message, especially if it stretches to four books or more. But a central line is still vital.)

The second, or rather the second and third, is Patricia C. Wrede's two-part response to my own argument, which digs further into the question of why authors fall into these traps, and what they can do about them. I want to say that she is 100% right about the arbitrariness of your opening structural decision: even if you base it around some kind of pattern (as she suggests in the second post), ultimately that's a framework you then try to pour your story into, rather than a natural outgrowth of the story itself. You don't set out to write seven books because that's precisely how much character and plot and so on you have to tell; you write seven books because you decided to build each one thematically around the seven deadly sins or chronologically around the years Harry will be in school, and then you try to scale everything else to match.

Note that we do this all the time in fantasy: it's called a trilogy. You sign a contract for three books, okay, and so you plan your story based around that arbitrary decision. I'd venture to say that the vast majority of series that are planned as trilogies end up as exactly that. There are exceptions (Terry Goodkind, as discussed in Zeno's Mountains; George R.R. Martin; the Hitchhiker's series), but it seems that most of us are capable of sticking to three books when that's what we said we'd do. It's only when we go beyond three that our control seems so liable to slip -- because we have so few models for how to do it right, and because one more book is much less expansion when it's ten instead of nine than when it's four instead of three. And, maybe, because if you're selling well enough for your publisher to support nine books, they're eager for you to make it ten instead.

But we manage it with trilogies, and TV writers manage it almost without fail when they write shows with season-long arc plots. Absent the network jerking them around, they finish their story in twenty-two episodes of X minutes each, period, the end, no "please just one more ep" or "sorry, this one ran twelve minutes long."

Is that kind of discipline detrimental to the story? Sure, sometimes. But so, manifestly, is allowing one's discipline to falter. And I say -- with the spotless virtue of an author who has never yet had a publisher throw stacks of money at her, begging for a bestselling series to continue -- that I would rather make myself find a way to tell my story more efficiently, with fewer digressions and wasted words, and end it while people are still in love with the tale, than risk losing sight of the original vision in a swamp of less productive byways.

("You either die a hero, or live long enough to see yourself become a villain." Speaking of tales planned as trilogies, and delivered that way, and in my opinion all the better for it.)

It isn't easy. As Wrede points out, it requires frequent check-ins with your plan, however you may have built said plan. It may require you to murder some very beloved darlings. But just as a sonnet's structure can force you to make really good use of your fourteen allotted lines, so can a fixed length to your series.

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