Monday, March 25, 2013

What it means to be a 'Beta'

    Hello folks, Mark here! Today I would like to introduce a dear friend and colleague, Jessica Carter.  Jessica teaches Spanish at our school and was one of my first readers. Jessica heads a book club in town, and I thought it might be nice to get a fan's point of view about what they look for in their reading choices, what it is like to be a first line audience and the joy (or curse) of developing a unique relationship with literary artists. Jessica has read practically every word I have written in my Pevana stories. She has been a great sounding board, critic, fan and friend for many years now. She has seen every draft from earliest ramblings to finished product. And despite the egregious errors in those early drafts, she never lost patience with me.  She and a few others constitute my first audience, and for that they have my eternal thanks. Some of the things she says below caught me off guard, made me blush, and reminded me yet again about the sacred responsibility the story-teller has towards his audience.

     Ladies and gentleman, Jessica Carter.
 What it means to be a beta...
I grew up as the middle child of homesteaders who were doing the whole hippie “back to the land” thing in the 1970’s. We lived 20 miles from the nearest town (population 890) and our closest neighbors were more than a mile away.  Living in the middle of nowhere without electricity lead to adventures that would make any Pippi Longstocking wanna-be jealous. I have incredible memories of those days, and my brothers and I had more fantastic experiences than any other kids we went to school with. Being an advanced reader brought me right back to those halcyon days of exploration and adventure because the two experiences share so much in the sense of new wonders,  life changing moments, and scenes that alter how you see the world around you.

I remember one time my brothers and I came across a crater in the forest with a fallen redwood tree embedded in its walls. We spent weeks pretending that it was a ruby mine, and every time we dug up a new chunk of the scarlet wood we imagined it was a huge, priceless gem we added to our treasure chest. As a reader I was transported back to that ruby mine of my childhood. Each time I read a new version of Mark’s draft I would come across a new ruby or two that I added to my treasure chest of images he had created in my mind. I would open the text thinking I knew what it held, thinking it would be familiar and then I would find a new metaphor shining in the words, or I would reread a scene that he had polished into something new and wondrous. Each rewrite of the poetry would reveal a new facet of emotion that caused me to examine my own thoughts as if under a jeweler’s loupe.

Since our land was located in Western Oregon, rain was abundant and rivers, streams, and lakes were everywhere. Again, as I read and reread drafts of Mark’s works, these aspects echoed back from my past. Every single hot day of the summer we kids would swim in the river near our house.  One of my first big moments as a kid was the time when I finally swam all the way across the river. It required endurance, and when I hit the current in the middle I had to fight extra hard to get through it without being swept downstream. The very first draft of an author’s work is similar. It can be a challenge to sort through the characters, and you might get swept up in parts of the plot, but you keep reading until you work through the first draft and the sense of accomplishment for yourself and for the author is elating. Once you conquer the first draft, you can spend your time exploring subsequent versions. Once I crossed the river, I would swim it daily. On days I didn’t attempt a crossing I would put on a snorkel and mask and examine the life under the surface, or I’d jump into the white water section and ride the rapids down to the calm pools of the swimming hole. After I completed a first reading of any of Mark’s works, I could spend time exploring the depths of his images or get swept away by new action sequences. Examining and watching a specific character was like exploring a unique rock found on the bottom of the river. Instead of examining beautiful mineral striations or crazy shapes carved by the river’s current, I would explore a character’s motivations and thoughts; all those things that set him or her apart and made that individual interesting.

Hollywood seems to be the antithesis of homesteading, but I have to admit that today I am a total sucker for the trashy tabloids that tout the daily minutiae of celebrity life. I have no desire to live in the big city or live the flashy lifestyle that I read about in Star and People, but sometimes I enjoy vicariously the experiences that million dollar salaries can buy. Being an advance reader holds some of that same exclusivity and VIP status those movie stars, sports icons and other celebs are granted. When I am handed a copy of a text that no one else has seen, it feels like I am going up to the velvet ropes of a club opening ,and the bouncer lets me enter when all others have to stand in line envious of my good fortune. I get to enjoy the newest thoughts, poetry, and word magic woven by the author and very few other lucky souls are granted such an opportunity.

Another element of Hollywood that aligns with the life of an advance reader is the focus on change. To keep in the press if you are a celebrity, you must constantly push the envelope, do something wacky or weird, or in some other way completely alter who you are or what you do. As an advance reader I get swept up in that same fluidity. When you read from draft to draft things are constantly in flux. Characters change their opinions, their motivations, sometimes their appearance.  From day to day in the world of the stars, I don’t know if Britney Spears is going to be blonde or brunette, if Taylor Swift is going to be writing a song about her most recent breakup, or whose marriage is imploding. From draft to draft in the world of Pevana, I don’t know if Talyior’s reasons for actions have changed, if Donari’s physical appearance is altered, or if Roderran has planned some sort of dramatic dictatorial action that will wipe out entire towns.

As far removed as the hippie lifestyle and the hip-hop lifestyle are from each other, they still both have aspects that embody the privileges enjoyed by an advance reader. I am so glad that I grew up with the alternative lifestyle my parents provided me, and I guiltily devour trashy magazines today that have nothing in common with my all natural upbringing, yet both ends of that spectrum are touched upon when I read for Mark. My sense of adventure and exploration is reawakened when I get a new draft, but at the same time, my current events inspired ADHD is satisfied as I see new plotlines develop and unexpected events unfold. Not everyone can be fortunate enough to know a real, live author and that is too bad because there is nothing like the experience of watching a new work grow. I look forward to immersing myself in Mark’s next work and exploring the world under the surface while keeping current on changes he makes as he goes through the process.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Old Hobbit, New Hobbit

This post was inspired, somewhat tangentially, by my post Old Pope, New Pope on the blog for Eolyn

I wasn't really sure why my musings over the election of Pope Francis have led me to discuss the film interpretation of Tolkien's classic story The Hobbit.  There doesn't seem to be much of a connection there, except maybe that Tolkien was Catholic. He even once described his epic masterpiece The Lord of the Rings as a "fundamentally religious and Catholic work" (Faith and Fantasy: Tolkien the Catholic).

But beyond that, why the appearance Pope Francis would have reminded me of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey was a mystery to me, until a review of a couple of salient images helped solve the puzzle.

To show you what I mean, I give you this image from the balcony of St. Peter's on March 13, 2013:

And this image from the publicity campaign for the first installment of Peter Jackson's The Hobbit trilogy:

Does anyone see what these two images have in common?  What, pray tell, is missing from both? 

Anyone? Anyone? Beuhler?

I think you get the point.  And if you don't, that's okay.  Just keep reading. 

I want to apologize up front to all of you who are avid fans of the movie The Hobbit.  It's not my intention to detract from your enjoyment of the movie; certainly it is not my intention to call into question your taste in fantasy adventure. 

But as someone who found her Hobbit experience less than fulfilling, I have for a while (a couple months now, actually) been craving a space in which to share my impressions.  Since almost anything goes on Heroines of Fantasy, I've decided to follow Thorin Oakenshield's brave example, and go out on a virtual limb. 

Let me start by saying that I love Tolkien's work; anyone who has followed me on blogs and Facebook for even a brief while will know that by now.  I thoroughly enjoyed The Hobbit when I read it years and years ago, and the story continues to inspire me to this day.  Peter Jackson's interpretation of The Lord of the Rings trilogy, while a disappointment for some Tolkien purists, is at the top of my personal list of all time favorite films. 

I did not, of course, expect a Lord of the Rings experience when I went to see The Hobbit.  For one thing, I knew The Hobbit was not an epic tale in the same sense of LotR.  It's a wonderful, charming fantasy adventure complete with a wizard, a band of feisty dwarves, and a dragon.  It does not need to be more than that; and it would not have been fair to expect anything from The Hobbit -- except maybe the scenery -- to be quite on par with what Jackson so artfully gave us in LotR. 

But I did expect to be entertained, and I did not expect to be bored. I was disappointed on both counts.

It wasn't really about the lack of women characters perse. Indeed, one could argue that the artificial insertion of female characters would have violated Tolkien's original vision in unacceptable ways.  (I have heard we are in for a female character in the second film, and already some Tolkien fans are up in arms. . .)

But all those stocky adventure-seeking fellas in The Hobbit fell flat somehow -- with the dependable exception of Gandalf and Gollum.  More than halfway through the movie, I had yet to become invested in the fate of anyone, even Bilbo, with whom I should have identified as a character of noble qualities -- strengths, and weakness that anyone, man or woman, could relate to. 

The disappointing experience of The Hobbit left me reflecting on the magic achieved with the LotR films:

How Sam instantly became someone who could have been my friend, too;

How Merry and Pippin were just the kind of guys I'd like to stop by the tavern and share a pint with;

How Boromir's failure in his struggle against the Ring reflected my own shortcomings and weaknesses;

How Eowyn's noble spirit and courage was something I could aspire to. 

The list goes on and on. There was not a character in the film interpretation of LotR with whom I did not identify on some level -- not a character whose ultimate fate I did not have an investment in -- no matter what their role or gender. 

So now it's your chance to tell me:  What was missing from The Hobbit?  Am I onto something here, or am I just being over critical?

I will say there was one scene in the movie that almost made it worth sitting through the whole thing:  The riddle game between Bilbo and Gollum was absolutely brilliant.

Then again, Gollum carried that scene.  Between you and me (and the rest of the internet), I was secretly hoping he would win, so he'd get to keep his Precious and eat his hobbitses.   

Posted by Karin Rita Gastreich

Monday, March 11, 2013

Epic Fantasy isn't Dead: Reader Preference and the Changing Publishing World

I have always been a huge fan of epic fantasy: sweeping tales, set in well-built worlds, with characters who embody the more “traditional” values of honor, chivalry and grace. So it’s really no surprise that this is the genre I turned to when I started writing. What DOES surprise me are the bold assertions by editors, agents and publishing houses that the genre is dead. Unfortunately, these assertions say more about the power of the industry over what we read rather than indicate the actual health of a genre.

Back in 2006, I attended a writer’s conference where I had the privilege of, along with a handful of other writers, lunching with a very cool, very lovely Tor editor. She assured me, along with every other aspiring novelist at the table, that the days of the epic fantasy series were over. Publishing could not afford to take chances on multi-book contracts for newer writers, and readers were no longer interested in “door-stoppers.” The implication was: 1) readers don’t have the attention span/ time/ interest; 2) epic fantasy is too outdated; and 3) the production, both short-term and long-term, of epic series is too expensive in today’s market. And ultimately, epic fantasy is “too cliché.” A map at the beginning of the novel? So passe! Readers and publishers alike are bored by the Euro-centric quest fantasy, she told us; they want urban fantasy, not swords and sorcery. 

My experiences with several agents over the years also backed her claim. At writer’s conferences, they actively sought paranormal/ urban fantasy. Vampires were all the rage, then werewolves, then zombies. Some indicated that they might read and represent “more traditional” fantasy, but they didn’t prefer it and weren’t sure they could sell it. I received very kind, personalized rejection letters praising the quality of my writing, characters, and story, but they all ultimately passed on representation. Epic fantasy, they told me, wasn’t selling—unless it was wildly different. In other words, to sell, an epic fantasy novel would only sell if it were void of all the typical fantasy tropes—the very same tropes that define it as a genre.

Fast forward a few years. The Lord of the Rings is one of the most popular movie series of all time, and The Hobbit series begins, exposing another generation to Tolkien's work. A Game of Thrones is now a wildly popular HBO miniseries. Tor not only picked up Brandon Sanderson to complete the late Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series, but also published his personal fantasy series. Morgan Rhodes’ Falling Kingdoms, quite possibly one of the worst fantasy novels I have ever read, is touted as a Young Adult George R. R. Martin, firmly stamping the novel as epic fantasy and attempting to bring up another generation of fantasy readers. Whatever my personal feelings about the novel, I am both stunned and excited that publishing is starting to once more acknowledge that people actually like epic fantasy.

Still, it is difficult to find a fantastic new epic fantasy series on the shelves. Rhodes’ novel cobbles together the worst in epic fantasy; while many readers are just thrilled to have ANY epic fantasy on the shelves, I fear publishers will see any bad reviews or low sales of the novel as a reflection of the popularity of the genre as a whole and ditch plans to publish any more epic fantasy. Hadley Rille Books has made a business out of publishing this genre, yet can’t get the books onto the shelves of brick-and-mortar bookstores (bookseller snobbery on the part of big and small booksellers alike is a discussion for another time). We know there are epic fantasy readers out there; the problem is getting quality books in front of them. The balance of power between big and small publishers makes this an intimidating, at times impossible task, and the victims are the readers.

Ultimately, this points to a disconnect between readers and publishers, a disconnect that will only grow as independent publishing and e-books gain popularity. Publishers and agents think they know what readers want. Meanwhile, readers aren’t hitting the bookstores like they used to, and with a wider variety of ebooks to choose from at 1970’s book prices, chances are good that agents and publishers will have less idea of what readers actually want. The advent of kickstarter adds another level, as readers can actually directly support and take an active role in the creation of any project they desire, removing the publisher and the agent from the process entirely.

HRB's latest fantastic fantasy
What does this mean for epic fantasy? My guess is that public awareness of the smaller publishers—such as Hadley Rille Books—and the independent authors writing and publishing good fantasy will increase as people vote with their dollar. Perhaps more awareness will force big publishers, agents and organizations like SFWA to acknowledge that quality novels do come from small press, and that a good portion of the reading public actually likes traditional epic fantasy. Eventually, the industry will shift altogether, making more room for the indie presses and offering more choice to the readers.

At least, I hope for change. I, for one, am tired of others declaring an entire genre flatlined based on publishing standards and measures that are just about dead. Choice is good. I want to see lots of books on the shelves—epic fantasy, dystopian, urban fantasy, comedic fantasy, steampunk, cyberpunk—along with writers whose work is so difficult to pigeonhole that agents and publishers don’t even bother trying. We, as readers and writers, should not have to wait for the industry to tell us which books to read, or dictate what we like.

Despite all attempts to the contrary, the epic fantasy genre isn’t dead. We may have to work a little harder to find the books and authors we like, but until then, they will be right there, waiting to be discovered.

Kim Vandervort

Sunday, March 3, 2013

What do you read?

March 3, 2013

What do you read?

I’m taking a bit of a side track from some of my usual blog topics today. I have a keen interest in story, but I find I don’t gravitate to short pieces. I don’t have tons of story ideas in folders and files waiting further attention, but I have a goodly handful I hope to commit to as I continue to explore Pevana and the regions and cultures I have found there.  I like short stories; I read them, use them to teach and they figured prominently in my courses of study as an undergrad and later as a graduate student. I still have all the volumes of Lin’s Carter’s early series The Year’s Best Fantasies. In fact, Carter’s collections introduced me to several of my favorite writers: CJ Cherryh and Patricia McKillip. I have been collecting and consuming their long and short fiction the bulk of my reading life. I admire them both for the quality of their prose and for how prolific they have been.  I sense a control to their output, dedication to the craft and professional discipline in how they go about creating their tales.  They are committed in ways I know I will never achieve. I follow Cherryh on her blog, and the scope of the woman’s knowledge and interests is truly impressive. I consider her one of the greatest artificers of our age, and yet she doesn’t eat, sleep and dream the genre. She delves into ancestry, gene history, follows current astronomical developments, finds time to ice skate, cook, go to cons and go blotto with video games and great historical movies. Her blog reminds me of Gatsby’s house, “full of interesting people doing interesting things.” In short, the woman has used to bulk her days to foster and explore all the things that speak to her talents, and I find that truly inspiring.

I think many of us share similar experiences. I still feel energized by being in the classroom, and that will likely always be a first focus for “what I have to say.”  One of the nicest, surprising by-products of becoming a published author is how much more authority I bring to the classroom. I have always been the “word guy” throughout my career; that oddball who actually knows the MLA style manual, the comma-counter, king of symbolism, and reading quiz Nazi.  These last few years have really spiced up the interactions in class, and even though I know the odd brave kid will ask about “the books” in order to deflect me away from the topic at hand, the talks that ensue usually create sublime communicative moments. My students surprise and impress me in those moments. Digressions can be fruitful. One habit I have developed over my career is to always bring a personal book to school. I don’t feel quite right if the bag doesn’t have that balancing presence. Along with my Fitzgerald and Lee or Orwell and Kafka, I have to have my current down-time favorite. I steal a few minutes every day during lunch or prep to read a page or two. I find it helps me. I have also been fortunate enough to turn a few kids each year on to the joys of some pretty great books.

My question for those of you who read this blog and my writer friends and associates is simply this: What do you read? I write fantasy because it suits my temperament and skills. I love science fiction, but I doubt my technical knowledge and language command. I fear sounding false, so I stick to swords and spears and bowls of stirrabout. I have always been intrigued by Roman Britain and the “dark” years after Rome withdrew. Arthur, Ambrosius, Uther and the rest of the real or mythical cast periodically claim me. I blame Suitcliff for that. I was fortunate as a young man to find a great library in my junior high school that stocked all of her novels. I recall looking for a refuge from the hormonal soup that was my school and developed a fondness for heather choked hills and heroes that spoke to me from the shadows of the past: The Lantern Bearers, Dawn Wind, The Sword at Sunset, The Eagle of the Ninth. Great stuff. I have enjoyed collecting her works as an adult.

Rome’s history intrigued me. We tend to extol its engineering virtues, but Gibbon gives a different perspective. I’ve actually read some Tacitus. As a kid I lived in Germany, and woven amongst the long drives in the country were snippets of Wagner, references to the Holy Roman Empire and all that it wasn’t. A visit to Waterloo sent me careening down the Napoleonic Era and a lifelong love affair with Forester’s Hornblower Saga and later an addiction to Cornwell’s Sharpe novels. Much later down the time line a colleague introduced me to Shelby Foote and his epic Civil War tomes…and my sense of the sentence has never been the same.  Historians like Tuchman, Ambrose and their like have punctuated my reading life. I just finished The Age of Wonder, an examination of the scientific advancements that took place between the years 1770 and 1830 and the relationship between the scientists and the romantic poets that shared the world stage during those years. Again, ripping stuff. There are many others, of course, but my intention was just to share a smattering of the different kinds of works that framed my youth and continue to impact my writing. I’ve had a good ride so far. What about you?

And what am I reading now? After seeing the first Hobbit film, LOTR claimed me once again. My sixth grade teacher read the book to my class. I still hear her voice doing Bilbo… Middle Earth claimed me when I was twelve and I have been taking hikes with Frodo almost yearly ever since. And yet this time, I will admit to having a slightly different experience, and I blame my wonderful editor for the insight. I now know the source of all those over the top epic sentences she had me excise or change. Plus, has anybody else noticed how much the dear old Professor used passive voice? But that is a topic for another time.

So, peers and readers, what do you read? What are your favorites that you find yourself revisiting from time to time? I would welcome any additions to my “to be read file.”

Happy reading!

Mark Nelson