Thursday, September 30, 2010

Sex and romance

What I've learned most is that if I'm writing a young adult fantasy novel, these books are not relevant, because of their unrelenting dystopic perspectives, the third-person point of view, and the seemingly obligatory graphic sex scenes. The latest one -- which I put down after about 100 pages -- was Glimmering by Elizabeth Hand, which I'm sure many people liked a lot. In fact, there's a lot to like. But there's a lot not to care so much about either. First, there's the two or three male anti-heroes who are not really likeable. After 100 pages I didn't care one way of the other about them. And I gathered that they were the good guys, since their "nemesis" (and seducer) was a really unattractive character. The main main character, a Christian rock star, kept getting unsolicited blow jobs which had the effect of destroying his faith. The premise of the book was promising, and the "end of the world" as we know it was interesting. But the third person subjective viewpoint seems rather dusty and ponderous much of the time, more literary and polished and less stylized than many popular novels, but not so literary or imaginative to suggest "writing for writing's sake." One might predict that this middle ground would be a good place to tell a story from, but for this reader, I either wanted someone who moved things along like Elmore Leonard, or someone who can REALLY write. Ian MacDonald can really write, and River of Gods is for the most part a really fascinating read, but it never seems to decide whether it wants to be action-adventure, soft porn, of high theory sci fi. There's so many characters and such a great machinery of plot and idea behind the scenes to keep them converging ... I wondered if it was all at the expense of telling a story, and creating characters that were memorable. The Krishna Cop and his wife from the country, with her romance with her gardener around cricket, were quite memorable, but there's several others who got equal space on the page who I can hardly remember at all. I did like Tal, the transgendered character. And the world they all lived in seemed so totally unattractive in every way, just like Elizabeth Hand's world, and Paolo Baciagulpa's futuristic Bangkok. Aside from being sort of depressing, it doesn't seem like good futurism to predict that everything bad about our current world will persist, and nothing of the good.

So I dropped all that and this morning started reading Skybreaker by Keith Oppel (I read the first volume a couple years ago) which I guess is some sort of steampunk, as the main characters run around the world in zeppelin-like airships. There's romance between Matt and Kate that's always just at the brink of sex, there's high adventure, colorful characters, lots of great settings and gadgets, and the action is unrelenting. So it's probably completely unsuitable for a grown man, but I can't get enough, and this is exactly the kind of book I'd like to write. Maybe my narrators will be a little less pure-of-heart and sincere than Matt and Kate, but still the reader will like them, and I'll like them too. I get the feeling that many of these characters in the adult sci fi are unloved and unloveable. I think back to Ursula LeGuin's Ged, who she obviously adored, and to Sabriel and Lirael, who are sufficiently complex, but who you would never think of not rooting for. Harry Potter, well sometimes you'd just like to see him fall off the broom. The key might be the certainty of a happy ending, or heroism, or good prevailing over evil, all that stuff. Whereas, the best you can do with the adult novels is what happens at the end of Earth Abides, which is that the main character dies but with the knowledge that things go on.

So I will make you love both Havel and Bloehm.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

I'm not dead yet

That's all I have to say. That despite my silence in these here parts, I have not gone away and I have not succumbed. Though I am sore afflicted by those who would take my time, my mind -- and I am chief among the assailants, spawning new open commitments on the basis of a moment's thought, beating dead horses, bailing boats already sunk.

But I have been reading, and perhaps even reading what I ought to be reading! The Forest of Hands and Teeth, Earth abides, and now something called The Glimmering. And I made several pages of world-building kind of notes, based partly on what I've been reading. It seems that I am not taking the full apocalypse route, convenient as it is a premise, wiping the slate clean that way. Mine is more of a future history, or the post-decline, with local catastrophe, probably as similar to historical fiction as to science fiction. In the history of Europe and the world there have been many moments of collapse, abrupt change, but never has the effect or the locale been global. To imagine a completely global catastrophe is somewhat grandiose, I think. Even a nuclear war is more likely to produce great gaping holes in the world, and less than optimum conditions everywhere, but life for most will go on, however altered, and forgetfulness and the grind of evolution and planetary history will continue.

So my world offers me the opportunity to imagine a number of outcomes to global and more localized processes. The end of oil, it seems to me, will have its most traumatic effects at the centers of global commerce, and on the mechanisms of globalism itself, travel and telecommunication. Climactic and geological catastrophe are likely to have very different effects in different places, and these effects are likely to be transitory, in the big picture. So that, for instance, in my world a geological event (super-volcano or something) in the context of global warming, could produce floods and famine in one part of the earth, and drought in another, and intemperate temperance in others. My flood-prone Danubian world might go under water -- as it has before, and transportation to and communication with the Karpathian region could become greatly limited, but the weather could be different in a small degree that makes a big difference, and differences in terrain, fauna and flora, could also make for a very different development. At the same time, a small ice age in Poland might occur. (As a writer of fiction, there's only so much scientific credibility to be responsible for). There might also be overlaid some pestilence -- in fact, disease is a likely companion of flood and being cut off from medical supplies, particularly in an age of genetic and other kinds of experimentation. In a little story by Stephen King, the side-effects of a "calmative" turns out to be senility, and when applied globally, results in the stupidification and disappearance of humans. In order to account for the hostility toward the Misabled, we only need to make a connection between pharmaceutical and genetic innovations that resulted in both misability and some kind of plague, or some of the misabled themselves became culpable in producing the plague, but poisoning the water system or engaging in biological terrorism or something like that.

This last idea I like and will incorporate.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Complexity of adult and young adult language

Or it is the difference between the first person and the third person? Just finished Canticle by Ken Scholes which is third person adult and have now started reading Forest of Hands and Teeth by Carrie Ryan, first person young adult. Two of the six or eight main characters of Canticle are young adults, and the rest of adult adults. Those parts that are about the two young adult characters -- Neb and Winters -- would be very much at home in a young adult novel. In fact, I often wished the novel were just about them. The third-person limited POV was not so far from first person, though it allows for a more expansive, elaborate narrative voice than would have been the case with a first person narrative. Carrie Ryan's narrator (Mary) tells her story in much more simple, though still subtly complex, poetic language. There seems to be no particular reason why the first person young adult narrator cannot feature in an adult book: I'm sure I could find many examples. All of my big three of YA fantasy novels -- LOTR, His Dark Materials, and HP -- have a subjective third person pov, though Pulliam stays pretty close to his two young protagonists. Mrs. Coulter's behaviors and actions are seen only through Lyra. LOTR is not a young adult novel at all, it's just a favorite of many young adults. Does that make it a young adult novel?

For my own little project, I've chose alternating first person, though I may use a subjective third person in the last volume. The language of my characters must be different, and I can see no reason why these characters can't make careful observations or use language in inventive ways. Who would want to read it if they didn't?

Thursday, September 09, 2010


Bloehm in flight

I wrote the first page of the part of the book about Bloehm and the words just flowed, and a voice was created. It's important I think that I work on the two narrative simultaneously because it's essential that I make their voices and viewpoints distinctive, and that I coordinate the action. Bloehm and Havel share the curse of being Misabled: he can teleport others, and perhaps himself, she can fly, though neither knows the extent of their ability or how to exercise it at the beginning. It is thus potentially dangerous to themselves and others. As Misabled, they are subject to apprehension by the Bounty Hunters (Polyovniky). What I hope is that the juxtaposition/alternation of these two converging narratives will provide impetus for the story, keep the "romance" alive even during the long separation of the characters, and also provide some suspense because each narrative can be left "on the brink" to pick up the other. The first section of Havel's Bridge leaves him on the river, nearly in the clutches of the Polyovniky. The story then moves to Bloem, and her first section leaves her also apprehended by authority figures. I've a good deal more to do to fill out the story for that one: now I have only a shape. Given my own anti-authority bent, it is probably inevitable that my main characters will find themselves in conflict with the powers-that-be. I want to have some parallelism between the two stories, but I will try to avoid mirror images.

The process of writing -- aside from its vulnerability to being pre-empted by work and other stuff, like our taxes -- jumps for me from one things to another. I am finding it very important to write the actual prose before all the world-building and planning is done, but then to stop the writing to resume world-building and planning. When just writing, I imagine a world more fully that when I focus on the task of just imagining a world, or a character. But then, I find myself in corners and not quite knowing where I am going, so it's necessary to go back to laying foundations and roughing out some walls and doors and windows.

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Welcome back!

School started, my health went to hell, and I stopped working on my writing project. Go figure.

But I have evened the keel somewhat with respect to my professional work, and now find that I have my Tuesday mostly free to write. This requires much more discipline about my time than I am used to exercising. Now I must get all, or almost all, my work for Wednesday done on Monday. It also means consciously not making work for myself in my classes. Today I am also going to send a story off to a magazine, because I must start thinking of myself as a writer, not just a college professor with a hobby. It is similar to convincing my student teachers to stop thinking of themselves as students, without any real responsibilities) and start thinking of themselves as teachers, with real responsibilities.

I want to write about what I have learned from reading Ken Scholes' Lamentation, and now, Canticle. First, Scholes sticks to the Vonnegut principle of offering only sentences that advance the action or reveal character. In fact, I think he follows nearly all the rules pretty faithfully, except that he keeps a lot of information from the characters and from the readers, which mystery is what gives the story its its impetus. There are a lot of major characters, and you can root for just about all of them, and those who are not attractive are always interesting. There are a few characters, particularly the secondary bad guys who are a bit cartoonish -- their actions are very important but they are not perhaps well-enough developed to squeeze the most out of their involvement. Sethbert, a man without good qualities, could have been made less odious and more complex to the benefit of the story. But there are a whole bunch of other interesting and engaging characters. The book is written in consistent third person, with constant switches between focus on the five or six main characters; occasionally I found myself wishing for a little less back and forth, but the changes from character to character (and place to place) serves as a major way of moving the story forward. The world and its history are very fully imagined -- at heart, this is in the tradition of the post-apocalyptic, though the apocalypse happened a long time from the present action -- and there is a great combination of magic, old-fashioned Medieval world, and technology that does not actually belong to the world. There is also an undercurrent of philosophical/religious speculation that makes it all seem relevant, juxtaposed to action, sex, intrigue, etc. For me, the most interesting characters are the two teenagers, Neb and Winters, who I believe will turn out to be the central characters as I get closer to the end. This brings me to ask who this book is actually for, or what fantasy/sci-fi readers are. The presence of these two young people at the center of the narrative, plus the magic and the steampunk technology, marks the book as interesting for a young adult audience (which includes a lot of grownups who like happy endings), and there is not so much adult material to turn anyone away or to make it inappropriate for a younger reader. In this way, I am reminded of Ursula LeGuin and Philip Pullman.

For me, this serves as a reminder that I can generally think of my project as "young adult" but not write down in any way. The sort of violence, sexuality, and philosophical gravity of some of the science fiction books I've read recently is not what I want to write anyway, though I like reading it well enough. In the end, I'm probably more of a PG-13 kind of guy, doing my best to avoid reality not to make it more intense or unpleasant than it already is. But for my narrative, this means that I do not need to shy away from developing full adult characters, evoking "big ideas," or a creative and expansive use of language. Since I have chosen one very typically young adult tool, the first-person narrative, rather than the third-person which seems dominant in so-called adult fantasy/sci-fi, the scope of my narrative is limited by the identity of my narrator, in this case, adolescents. But adolescents have more vivid ideas and feelings than they are represented as having in most third-person adult narratives, where they tend to be represented as somewhat more innocent and wondrous than the adult characters. I may have to read some more non-fantasy young adult fiction to remind myself of the range of personality and experience I might allow myself. Much wider than maybe I'm imagining.

In any case, today there will be words on the page. And a map too, because every good fantasy book has a map.