Monday, April 30, 2012

When is Enough, Enough?

This week's guest blogger is Hadley Rille Books' own Mark Nelson, author of The Poets of Pevana--a man and book near and dear to my heart. I pulled Mark's book out of the slush last summer, and got past what has now gone down in HRB history as "the worst query letter of all time" to discover a true gem. I'm proud to claim this discovery, to be his editor, and now, after months of working together, I am honored to call him my friend. Thanks for being here, Mark!

First I would like to thank the ladies of Heroines of Fantasy for granting me the space to air some thoughts on a few things about something all of us who call ourselves writers have strong feelings about: story.  Some of the characters in my first book, The Poets of Pevana, hold story-telling as a sacred trust.  Poetry is a part of their livelihoods and their faith. Simply put: it is serious business and not to be taken lightly.

Homer knew his business, as did the host of ancient oral tradition versifiers who related their tales across the campfires and feast halls of antiquity. One thing that always came clear to me when I encountered some of those great stories was their innate, intrinsic rhythm, pace and depth—as if somehow made perfect through time and repetition. I am reminded of Kipling’s short fiction that my grandmother owned: Just So Stories.

Just so: what a great way to describe things that were just long enough to hold all the magic necessary to enthrall a young mind—or any mind for that matter.  The story-teller had to hold his audience with the power of his spoken word. He had to weave description, setting, tone, character—all the biggies that perplex high school students who still have to wade through generic literature anthologies as part of their required English courses—and KEEP them focused purely by the quality of his delivery.

Those ancients knew when they reached just so. They must have had amazing control of their idioms, knowledge of their subject and their audience.  I suspect the relationship in those former times was much more intensely intimate than what we generally experience today.  We read these great old tales as printed translations, and I am not so sure that Gutenberg’s amazing invention wasn’t a double edged sword. We can now preserve almost everything from the oral tradition, but something is still lost.  I think it might be, at least in part, that connection between speaker and subject, that special knowledge of just so.

What all the verbosity above adds up to is a question that has perplexed me in recent years as I observe the world of modern letters: when is enough, enough? Fantasy and Science Fiction have increasingly become ‘series centric’ genres.  I see a similar effect in Historical Fiction was well, but my issues there are less troubling.  Cornwell has been reshaping the facts of history throughout twenty one volumes in his Sharpe Series alone, and he writes very few stand alone novels. But again, I can see reasons for making an allowance there.

My main concerns are with authors who lose control of their stories in Science Fiction and Fantasy.  Please understand, there are many, many vibrant multi-volume stories out there pleasing a horde of dedicated book-buying fans.  And yet I wonder if “more and more and more” has a potentially negative impact on ‘just so.’

Tolkien lamented the LOTR was too short. Cherryh is on her 13th or 14th volume in her Foreigner series and seems intent on more. I have three drafted and a fourth planned for my Pevana project, so I might be guilty of my own accusation!  But I have encountered a number of projects where I felt the author really lost touch with their tale and began selling books rather than telling a story. I thought Twilight might have had a good book or two worth of material that really suffered by being stretched over four.  Jordan’s Wheel of Time had such a huge beginning with its first four volumes, but by the time I reached Winter’s Heart I had to give up. Nine hundred pages where nothing happened seemed almost insulting. Those early books had passion, power, politics, flawed heroes, epic quests, relevant good and evil. So good, but it needed to end.

I think Jordan stopped telling a story and started selling books. I think the best stories are those that manage to make a happy compromise between both goals: enrich the audience and enrich the author. I also think there is a responsibility inherent there on the part of the author, the publishing house and those that create the marketing model pushing the story to the reading public: don’t insult the intelligence of your patrons. 

So, to end this first ever rant: What are your thoughts on ‘story’? What do you think is ‘enough’ or ‘just so’?  Have you ever encountered stand alone novels or books in a series that ‘work’, that retain that freshness of the skald’s voice over the campfire?  Have you also met up with a text that seemed to lose that connection? Have you persevered through a series only to find that it lost you halfway through?

I would like to know why so many of them seem to find their way onto best seller lists…

Mark Nelson is a career educator and happily married to his best friend and fellow educator. Together they have raised three beautiful daughters and one semi-retired cat. Words, music, food and parenting serve as a constant source for inspiration, challenge and reward. To temper such unremitting joy, Mark plays golf: an addiction that provides a healthy dose of humility.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Swords, Stays and Sesame Ice Cream

Please join us in welcoming this week's guest, Alison GoodmanAlison's most recent novel is EONA which is the sequel to EON (aka The Two Pearls of Wisdom) and the conclusion of the EON duology. EON won the 2008 Aurealis Award for Best Fantasy Novel, and recently it was listed as a 2010 American Library Association Best Young Adult Book, a James Tiptree Jr. Award Honour Book and a C.B.C.A Notable Book.

Alison's first novel was Singing The Dogstar Blues, a science-fiction comedy thriller, which won an Aurealis Award for Best Young Adult Novel, and was listed as a C.B.C..A. Notable Book and an A.L.A. Best Young Adult book of 2004. It has recently been re-jacketed and re-released in Australia. Her second novel, Killing the Rabbit, is a crime/thriller for adults published in the U.S. by Bantam Books and shortlisted for the Davitt Award.

I can now say with authority that a boned short stay – a kind of early 19th century corset – is not very comfortable. Especially when you are dancing a quadrille for thirty minutes with a lot of skipping and twirling and whooping involved. I know this because I have just returned from four days of living in Regency dresses and bonnets and the aforesaid stays, learning how to dance like Jane Austen. That’s me in the photo in full Regency regalia at the Jane Austen Festival Australia. It was all in aid of research for my new historical/adventure/supernatural trilogy set in the early 1800’s, and it is only the start of my sensory research journey.

Whenever I start a new series, I try and recreate – as closely as possible – some of the skills and experiences my characters would have in my novels. I call it experiential research, although a good friend jokingly calls it method writing. I always hit the books and primary resources as well – that is an essential part of research – but to create a full and rich sensory world for my reader, I also try to walk for a while in my main character’s shoes. Literally.

For my fantasy duology, EON and EONA, I learned how to fight with Chinese swords. I wasn’t very good at it, but after taking some lessons I was able to describe how it felt to hit something with a blade at full force, when and where the tendons and muscles of a body were strained during a fight, and how the weight of each sword affected the swings and blocks. All of that information appears in the battle scenes in EON and EONA, bringing the reader closer to the experience of fighting with two long curved swords.

Another part of my experiential research process is to gather as much sensory information as I can from a place that is similar to the world that I am creating in my novels. I haven’t always been able to do it – travel is expensive – but when I can, I jump at the opportunity.

For EON and EONA, I was lucky enough to be able to visit Japan, Hong Kong and Singapore. I did the usual research visits to museums and libraries. But I also walked down dark, narrow streets strung with flags and washing, and listened to snatches of conversation. I visited markets and smelled unusual fruits and spices, and touched lengths of smooth silk that slid through my fingers. I tasted delicious doughy buns filled with red bean paste, and ate delicate black sesame ice cream in an old Geisha laneway lit with red lamps. Everything that I experienced got logged in my internal bank of sensory information, and a lot of it made its way into my descriptions of the Imperial City and the villages in EON and EONA.  

Every time I sit down to write, it is one of my aims to take my readers deep into my imaginary world through their five senses. When I read a book, I love to feel like I am walking alongside the main character, living every moment in a place that is bright with sights and sounds, smells and textures and, of course, wonderful tastes. That is what I hope to achieve in my own novels.

For my new series, I am off to England, and on the day this blog is posted, I will be in Mayfair where my main character, Lady Helen, lives in a Georgian townhouse in the heart of fashionable Regency London. In fact, I will be staying at her exact address: 12 Half Moon Street. The townhouse is now part of a hotel, and so I will be able to wake up in a room much like her own, wander the streets where she would have shopped and promenaded, and see some of the sights she would have seen; places like Rotten Row in Hyde Park and Regent Street. Of course, 21st century London is not the same as 19th century London, but there are enough traces of that mad and grand time left to jump-start my imagination.

So when Lady Helen finally makes her debut on to the bookshelves, I invite you to live a while in Regency London. Smell the smoky coal on the air, taste the nutty char of roast chestnuts, and feel the tight hold of your stays as you dance a quadrille opposite a man who may just be a little more demonic than you expected.

Alison lives in Melbourne, Australia, with her husband, Ron, and their Machiavellian Jack Russell Terrier, Xander. She was a D.J. O'Hearn Memorial Fellow at Melbourne University, holds a Master of Arts, and has taught creative writing at postgraduate level. Alison is currently working on a new fiction series, and professionally mentors a small number of writers on their book-length projects.
For news about the Lady Helen series, keep an eye on Alison’s website at, or her Facebook page at

The Firebird paperback edition of the New York Times Bestseller EONA, the sequel to EON, has just been released in the USA. Alison’s award winning first novel, Singing The Dogstar Blues, has also just been reissued with a great new cover and extras including a continuation of Joss and Mav’s adventures in a bonus short story.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

I'm Late! I'm Late!

"… nor did Alice think it so very much out of the way to hear the Rabbit say to itself, `Oh dear! Oh dear! I shall be late!' (when she thought it over afterwards, it occurred to her that she ought to have wondered at this, but at the time it all seemed quite natural); but when the Rabbit actually took a watch out of its waistcoat- pocket, and looked at it, and then hurried on, Alice started to her feet, for it flashed across her mind that she had never before seen a rabbit with either a waistcoat-pocket, or a watch to take out of it, and burning with curiosity, she ran across the field after it, and fortunately was just in time to see it pop down a large rabbit-hole under the hedge."

As you may have noticed, gentle readers, this week’s Heroines of Fantasy post is up late. I didn’t remember until yesterday, when I was chatting on the phone with Terri-Lynne and running late to my office hours, that I had also fallen behind in putting together this week’s post. Oops!

Fortunately, my tardiness gave me an excellent topic for this week’s post. As much as we dislike tardiness, whether we are embarrassed for being late or we are frustrated by someone else’s lack of time management, the raw reality is that inevitably, at some point, we fall behind. We lose track of time. Or, some just choose not to follow the social constraints and obligations that require us to be timely. And sometimes, missing that plane that went down in the harbor or for work on September 11, 2001 could even save our lives.

In literature, tardiness causes all sorts of delicious problems. What if the White Rabbit had not been late? Would Alice still have discovered the rabbit hole? What if Frodo and Sam had reached Mt. Doom after the defeat of Aragorn and the last army of men? Late reinforcements to a key battle or the arrival of a messenger just in the nick of time could make or break a story, yet we don’t often pause to consider the full impact of tardiness on the problem at hand.

Being late causes all sorts of other ancillary problems. If a character is perennially late, whether to a battle or a ball, his or her peers must make hard choices about whether or not to depend on or trust that character, and their decision could determine the fate of individuals or kingdoms. And why is that character (or legion) late? Is he a drunk or did he sleep late? Was he attacked on the road by bandits or was he eaten by wild dogs? Did the commander refuse to dispatch the army or were they delayed by bad weather or rough seas? And if that character is late for an important rendezvous, what happens next? Do the other characters continue on without him, or do they delay to wait for him, and how does that decision affect the rest of the events in the story?

It’s a small thing, being late, but timing is everything in fiction, as in life. What examples can you recall of instances in which tardiness significantly affects a story? Discuss!

Meanwhile, I’m off to review my calendar… and locate my watch!

~Kim Vandervort

Monday, April 9, 2012

Eternal Forest

This post is a follow up to TheLandscape of my Imagination, and part of the Andrews Forest Writers Residency series begun on my blog for Eolyn during May, June and July of 2011.  My decision to revisit the topic of forest and landscape in fantasy is in part a recognition of Earth Day, coming up on April 22. 


This thousand-year-old oak resides in the forest
that inspired the South Woods.
Last night we went to see the movie The Hunger Games, in which twenty-four teenagers are chosen at random and obligated to kill each other – or die themselves – while struggling to survive in a mountain wilderness. 

I could devote this blog to yet another analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of the film, but there's plenty of that going on elsewhere in the internet.  So for the moment I'd rather talk about wilderness, how by the end of the film Hunger Games, I was contemplating, once again, the importance of setting in science fiction and fantasy.

The presence of wilderness, and particularly forested wilderness, is often considered a standard trope for classic epic fantasy.  Anything written in the tradition of Tolkien is expected to have at least one uncharted forest, beautiful and deadly, filled with magical creatures and dangerous mysteries.

I’ve often thought of modern fantasy, and especially science fiction, as eschewing this trope and being bound more to the urban landscape of a contemporary-style world.  Yet last night The Hunger Games challenged this impression.  After all, the most intense part of Kat’s journey is undertaken in the deep forest.  And when you think about it, hers is not the only example of forest in modern fantasy and science fiction. 
Where would fantasy be without the Ents?
In the Twilight series, the vampire Edward reveals his sparkly nature to Bella in a shaft of light breaking through ancient trees.  J.K. Rowling built Harry Potter’s beloved academy of magick not in downtown London, but in a scarcely populated rural area, with a healthy forest in the backyard. In addition, the forest provides Harry refuge in the days before his final confrontation with Voldemort.  And of course, one must only mention the word Avatar to inspire images of Home Tree, along with the vast and exhuberant ecosystem in which it lives. 

If these titans of modern fantasy are any indication, the landscapes of our imagination have not been as deforested as I once thought.  The deep woods are still a place of exploration, mystery, adventure and danger.  Whether or not we ourselves have been to a forest, we like to see our characters go into that living maze, and we like to see them come out awed by beauty, harried by experience and transformed by truth.

During my week at Andrews Experimental Forest last summer, I had the opportunity to contemplate the meaning of forest from both a biological and literary standpoint.  I came to the conclusion – admittedly based more on personal experience than statistical data – that the encounter with wilderness can have a unique and important impact on the imagination. Old growth forest, in particular, stretches our understanding of reality, inspires images of the fantastic, and challenges us to relate to the world and to each other in ways that are both novel and unexpected.
Andrews Experimental Forest: home to one
of the last remnants of Old Growth in Oregon. 

As a fantasy author, I’ve discovered I have a special gift. When I write stories, I can bring the experience of being in the forest to life for my reader. 

But no matter how immersed readers feel in Eolyn's forested world, it is impossible for me to capture the full essence of Forest with words. 
More importantly, whatever small piece of wilderness I’ve been able to bring to my readers has depended entirely on the fact that there are still old growth forests out there that have welcomed me into their verdant depths, then sent me back to my computer with new ideas and fresh plots.

So as Earth Day approaches, I am going to ask something of you, fantasy readers and fans.  I ask you to remember Old Growth Forest.  This is not just a place in the pages of our books – not yet, anyway.  Forest is a living entity in our world, an active partaker in the art of storytelling.  And it is under threat, in the tropics, in the temperate latitudes, in the great expanses of the boreal north. 

Educate yourselves about the reasons we are losing old growth forest.  Learn what you can do to help, and do it. Our stories are not born out of thin air; they are part and parcel of the organic world in which we live. So if you like your fantasy worlds to have ancient forests, make sure the real world you live in has them as well. 
-  posted by Karin Rita Gastreich

The forests of Middle Earth were inspired by old growth European
deciduous forests of which only small pieces
 remain, like this one in Montenegro.

Monday, April 2, 2012

The Written World

In October of 2006, I attended the Viable Paradise Workshop for Science Fiction and Fantasy writers. I knew it would change my life as a writer, but I had no idea just how tremendously it would do so. I had attended workshops before; in fact, I'd become a devoted "dollbaby" years earlier, through a now-defunct workshop called Side Trips for Women. While it had opened up my solitary world of writing in a void, it wasn't life-changing. Having writer-friends was a huge thing for me, but writing fantasy among mainstream fiction writers is like being the duck in a room full of chickens. We all had feathers, but we were different birds.

Then came Viable Paradise*.

I was an X-man, it being the tenth year of the workshop. The mentors that year were Teresa Neilsen Hayden, Patrick Neilsen Hayden, James Macdonald, Debra Doyle, Steven Gould, Laura Mixon, James Patrick Kelly, and Cory Doctorow. Quite the lineup of superstars in the field--one and all. That was also the year Steve's Jumper was being made into a movie, and Cory was winning, or had already won, every honor his peers had to bestow. I was nervous, but excited. Not just a week with such mentors, but with peers! Fantasy and science fiction writing peers.

It made all the difference. I was a duck with other ducks! I didn't have to explain why worldbuilding was necessary to the story, or that suspension of belief is part of the game. We truly were birds of a feather. The friends I made there remain dear to me now. Bonds made in battle are the bonds that stay strong--yes, I said battle. Not as foes, but as comrades; for something, not against anything.

That path continued unwinding in new and amazing ways. Because of VP, I met sister in Heroines of Fantasy, Kim Vandervort (who attended VP the year after I did.) And because I met Kim, I became aware of Hadley Rille Books. And because of her experience with Eric Reynolds, I knew HRB was the place for me. I wrote Finder knowing I would send it to Hadley Rille. I did. Eric accepted it. It was a wild ride! And in November of 2010, my book released out into the world.

Further along that path, and several months after releasing my book with HRB, Eric asked if I would be one of his editors. I'd already sub-edited four novels for him. "Let's make this official," he said, and we did. I've been one of the fantasy editors with Hadley Rille books for a little over a year. My first solo edit, The Poets of Pevana, releases in June, 2012. I have two more books I'm helping into the world for 2012; and my second novel, A Time Never Lived releases in May. Busy me.

I've sat on panels at conventions. I've done book signings, and spoken to writers' groups. I've pulled some excellent novels out of the slush, and had to reject more than I'd like to admit. I've met some of my favorite authors, and after blathering nonsensically, was treated as a peer, not a wannabe. I am imbued with all sorts of writerly goodness. And, as it all started with Viable Paradise, it's only fitting that it comes full circle--I'll be heading up to Martha's Vineyard this October to work as staff for the workshop, carting, cooking, and generally working myself to exhaustion, and I will love every moment of it.

The written world is an amazing one, but one that requires action. It doesn't just happen, but it can feel that way when the right steps are taken. And take them you must! My journey certainly isn't typical. I don't claim to be a superstar of the genre; but I do have a place in my own small corner of this written world, and it's exactly where I want to be.

How about you? Are you there yet? Are you ready to leap onto your path? It begins when you take that first step. Ready. Set. Go.

*Viable Paradise is now open for submissions, and closes at the end of June.