Sunday, August 25, 2013

Saga, Series, and Just Plain Long Books, by Katharine Kerr

Please welcome this month's guest blogger, Katharine Kerr.  Ms. Kerr spent her childhood in a Great Lakes industrial city and her adolescence in Southern California, from whence she fled to the San Francisco Bay Area, where she has remained to this day.  She’s written over 20 novels, including the Deverry series of historical fantasies(or fantastical histories, depending on your point of view), the Nola O’Grady novels, and her most recently published book, SORCERER’S LUCK. She lives near San Francisco with her husband of many years, a cat, and a part-time opossum. For more information about the Deverry series, please visit her website

There is nothing an author today has to guard himself more carefully against than the Saga Habit.  The least slackening of vigilance and the thing has gripped him.
            -- P.G. Wodehouse, writing in 1935

How little things change!  I too am a victim of the Saga Habit.  Fifteen Deverry books, four Nola O’Gradys -- and I haven’t even finished the Nola series!  Now SORCERER’S LUCK, which I meant to be a stand-alone, is insisting that it’s only the first volume of  a “Runemaster trilogy”.  Over the years, a number of people have asked me why I tend to write at this great length.  I’ve put some thought into the answer, and it can be boiled down one word: consequences.  Well, maybe two words: consequences and characters.  Or perhaps, consequences, characters, and the subconscious mind, above all the subconscious mind.  You see what I mean?  These things multiply by themselves.

Not all series books are sagas.  Some are shaped more like beads on a string, separate episodes held together by a set of characters, who may or may not grow and change as the series continues.  Many mystery novels fall into the episode category, Sherlock Holmes, for example, or James Bond.  Other series start out as episodics, but saga creeps up on them as minor characters bring depth to a plot and demand stories of their own, for instance, in Lois McMaster Bujold’s Miles Vorkosigan series or Ian Rankin’s detective novels.  What determines the difference in these examples comes back to the idea of consequences.

James Bond can kill people, blow up large portions of real estate, see yet another girlfriend die horribly -- and have nothing in particular happen as a consequence, at least, not that the reader or viewer ever learns.  I’ve always imagined that a large, well-financed insurance team comes along after him, squaring everything with the locals, but we never see that.  Consider, too, Hercule Poirot or other classic detectives in the crime novel category.  They do not grow and change because they’re a collection of tics and habits.  I don’t mean to imply that there’s something wrong with this, or that episodic works are somehow inferior to sagas.  I’m merely pointing out the difference.

An actual saga demands change, both in its characters and its world.  Often the innocent writer starts out by thinking she’s going to write some simple, stand-alone story, set maybe in a familiar world, only to find the big guns -- consequence, character, and the subconscious -- aimed directly at her.  Sagas hijack the writer.  At least they do me.

A good example is the Deverry series.  Back in 1982, I decided to write a fantasy short story about a woman warrior in an imaginary country.   It turned into a novella before I finished a first draft.  It was also awful -- badly written, undeveloped, pompous.  The main character came across as a cardboard gaming figure.  She wanted revenge for the death of her family.  Somehow she’d managed to learn how to fight with a broadsword.  That was all I knew.  Who had trained her?  Why?  What pushed her to seek a bloody vengeance?  What was going to happen to her after she got it?

The ultimate answer: like most cardboard, she tore apart.  Pieces of her life appear in the Deverry sequence, but she herself is gone, too shallow to live.  But her passing spawned a great many other characters, both female and male.

Her actions had only the most minimal consequence.  She killed the murderer -- consequences for him, sure -- but he was a nobleman.  What would his death mean to his family?  His land holdings?  The political hierarchy of which he was a part?  Come to think of it, what was the political hierarchy in his corner of the fantasy world?  Everyone had Celtic names.  Their political world would not be a standard English-French feudal society.  People still worshipped the pagan gods, too.  Why weren’t they Christianized?

The ultimate answer: they weren’t in Europe.  They’d gone elsewhere.  A very large elsewhere, as it turned out.  And then, of course, I had to ask: how did they get there?

Now, some people, more sensible than I am, would have sat down with a couple of notebooks and rationally figured out the answers to all these questions.  They would have taken their decisions, possibly based on research, back to the original novella and revised and rewrote until they had a nice short novel.  Those of us addicted to sagas, however, are not sensible people.  Instead of notes and charts, I wrote more fiction.

Here’s where the subconscious mind comes in.  Each question a writer asks herself can be answered in two different ways, with a dry, rational note, or a chunk of story.  When she goes for the story option, the saga takes over.  To continue my novella example, I wrote the scene where the dead lord’s body comes back to his castle, which promptly told me it was a dun, not a castle, thereby filling in a bit more of the background.  In the scene of mourning, other noble lords were already plotting to get hold of his land, maybe by appealing to an overlord, maybe by marrying off his widow to a younger son.   The story possibilities in that were too good to ignore. 

You can see their ultimate expression in Books Three and Four of the Deverry saga with the hassle over the re-assignment of Dun Bruddlyn.  It just took me a while to get there.  The woman warrior, complete with motivation and several past lives’ worth of  history, appears in the saga as Jill, Cullyn of Cerrmor’s daughter, but she is not the same person as that first piece of cardboard, not at all.  The opening of the original novella, when a woman dressed as a boy sees a pair of silver daggers eating in an innyard, does appear in a different context with different characters in Book Six, when Carra meets Rhodry and Yraen.  Rather than revenge, however, she’s seeking the father of her unborn child.

More story brings more questions.   The writer’s mind works on story, not “information”.   Pieces of information can act as the gateways that open into stories and lead the writer into a saga.  Tolkien started his vast saga by noticing some odd discrepancies in the vocabulary of Old Norse.  Sounds dull, doesn’t it?  But he made something exciting out of it.  The difference between varg and ulf was just a gate, an innocent little opening leading to a vast life’s work.

Not every writer works in the same way, of course.  Many writers make an outline, draw up character sheets, plan the structure of the book to be, and then stick to their original decisions.  Often they turn out good books that way, too.  I don’t understand how, but they do.  I personally am a “discovery writer”, as we’re termed, someone who plans the book by writing it and then revising the entire thing.  When it comes to saga, this means writing large chunks of prose before any of it coalesces into a book.  I never finished any of the first drafts of these chunks.  Later I did, when I was fitting them into the overall series.

(Someone like Tolkien, who had a family and a day job, may never get to finish all of his early explorations of the material.  Such is one risk of saga.  Readers who criticize him and his heirs for all those “unfinished tales” need to understand where the tales came from.  Anything beyond a mere jotting belongs to the saga.)

Another risk: the writer can put a lot of energy into a character or tale only to see that it doesn’t belong and must be scrapped.  When I was trying to turn the original ghastly novella into DAGGERSPELL, the first Deverry novel, the most important dweomerman was an apothecary named Liddyn, a nice fellow, not real interesting though.  My subconscious created a friend of his, a very minor character, who appeared in one small scene, digging herbs by the side of the road.   When the friend insisted on turning up in a later scene, I named him Nevyn.  If I’d stuck to my original plan, that would have been it for Nevyn.  As soon as I asked myself, “but who is this guy?” I realized what he was bringing with him: the entire theme of past lives.  Until that moment, reincarnation had nothing to do with this saga.

Liddyn shrank to one mention in one of the later books.  Nevyn took over.

The past lives appeared when I asked myself how this new strange character got to be a four hundred year old master of magic.  What was his motivation?  How and why did he study dweomer?  These questions bring us right back to the idea of consequences.  As a young man Nevyn made a bad mistake out of simple arrogance.  The consequences were dire for the woman who loved him and her clan, and over the years these consequences spiraled out of control until they led ultimately to a civil war.  The saga had gotten longer but deeper, and I hope richer.  Had I ignored these consequences, I would have been left with an interesting episode, isolated, a little thin, perhaps at best backstory.

The term “backstory” always implies a “frontstory”, of course, the main action, the most important part of a book.  Some readers get impatient if they feel there’s too much of this mysterious substance, backstory, in a given book or movie.   They want to know what they’re getting, where the story is going, and in particular, what kind of story it is, front and center.  Sagas, however, can’t be divided into back and front.   Is the Trojan War less important than Odysseus’s wanderings?  The one is not “backstory” to the other. 

The saga has much in common with the literary form critics call the “roman fleuve,” the river-system novel.  A great many stories flow together in one of these, like the tributaries that together make up a mighty river meandering across a plain.  The classic example is Balzac’s Comedie Humaine.  Romans fleuve follow a wide cast of characters over a stretch of time, just as true sagas do.  None of the stories are less important than any other.

The past and present of the created world together produce the last essential element of a saga: the feeling of change, of movement forward in time of the saga’s world.  In a true saga something always passes away, but at the same time, something new arrives.  The elves leave Middle Earth, but the Fourth Age begins.  True sagas, in short, include a future.

And that future often calls the writer back to the saga.  Sometimes the damn things won’t leave us alone.  Which is why I find myself contemplating a return to Deverry for a novel that takes place hundreds of years after the main saga.  It should be a stand-alone, I think.  But I’m not betting on that.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Wit, and a Round Table

In a blog entitled Heroines of Fantasy, I imagine that your first instinct is to think King Arthur; but I'm talking about the Algonquin Round Table--those famous wits who gathered at the Algonquin Hotel in NYC from about 1919-1929. Dorothy Parker is always the first to spring to mind. But I'm getting ahead of myself...

While chatting with my eldest daughter the other day, I told her she'd have been a marvelous addition to the Algonquin Round Table; she had no idea what I was talking about. How is that possible? She is a well-read, well-educated woman. She writes for a living, in NYC. It astounded me, and I had to acknowledge that many probably have no idea of what it was, and the way the internet is now a very large, very bicker-ish Round Table--one often lacking the wit.

It all started as a joke, with a group that had a few names ("The Viscous Circle" is my favorite) before it settled on The Algonquin Round Table, so dubbed for the hotel they gathered in. It was all about who could be wittiest--often in a very scathing way--who could out-do the rest. As many of the members were also journalists with national by-lines, these luncheons were reported, and became quite famous both nationally and internationally.

Left to right: Art Samuels, Charles MacArthur, Harpo Marx, Dorothy Parker, and Alexander Woollcott
The group that would become The Round Table began meeting in June 1919. Theatrical agent John Peter Toohey, annoyed by drama critic Alexander Woollcott's refusal to plug one of Toohey's clients in his column, decided to play a rather mean practical joke. He organized a luncheon, supposedly to welcome Woollcott back from WW1 (he was there as a correspondent for Stars and Stripes) but instead of a welcome home, he got roasted by the attendees. Woollcott rather enjoyed the joke. The event turned out to be a huge success, so much so that the group decided a daily luncheon to poke fun at one another, outwit one another, generally harrass one another was a grand idea.

And it was.

I could go on and on about the members, the history, the pranks and the games they played--recreating the Algonquin Round Table has always been an aspiration of mine. It has been emulated over the years, but never duplicated. It was a Camelot of Wits, and a definite result of right place, right time, right people. There is no duplicating it.

So why am I writing about the Algonquin Round Table, anyway? Because while it is forever gone, shades of it still do exist in various places--especially on the internet. Remember those old chatrooms so popular back in the 1990s? Facebook, blogs, discussion boards--flamewars aren't quite the same, but there are shades of the A.R.T. once in a while.

And in small press world,* where there is a sense of camaraderie and good-natured competition. (I am remembering the Hadley Rille Books vs. Yard Dog Press game of charades during ConQuest 2012. Hilarious fun.) Everyone knows everyone, or at least of everyone. When gathered in the same place at the same time--as often happens at conventions--you can often catch "rival" houses sitting together, poking fun at one another, sharing ideas and experiences, collaborating on projects. There is usually a lot of laughter. Among my own Hadley Rille Books family members, we share inside jokes, tease one another incessantly, and on the rare occassion when there are several of us gathered in the same place, the absolute joy of being in one another's company is palpable. Maybe I'm just too in love with my HRB family, but I'm pretty sure it's true outside of it.

Whether the internet or small press world, it's not quite the wit of The Algonquin Round Table, but it is the kinship and fun I always imagined existed among its members. Truly, I'm ever the mother of any group I happen to be part of; my tongue is not sharp enough to have been one of the Vicious Circle. I suppose my dream of ressurecting the entity is like my love for pirates--it's the notion of them I fancy, not the reality.

*I can't comment on big press, as that is not my experience. I imagine it's quite the same, on a bigger scale.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Step aside, Lord Martin. The Queen has arrived.

Say what you will about the series, Rebbecca
Fergusen gives a stellar performance as
the bold yet innocent Elizabeth Woodville
I got the luck of the draw this month, with the first Monday post after the season premier of The White Queen in the United States. 

The series, based on six novels by the incomparable Philippa Gregory, ran over the summer in the UK, where it was apparently not well received.  But who cares?  That was then, this is now.  We colonials have gotten so accustomed to CableTV and Hollywood botching up history that we've come to prefer our history botched up.  And why fuss about anachronistic details like period-specific hygiene and zippered dresses, as long as the sex scenes are good?  So bring it on, The White Queen!  We are ready to love you, no matter what your flaws. 

Those of you who have followed my posts in different places may know by now that I am an avid fan of Philippa Gregory.  I have read many of her historical fiction novels, most recently The Lady of the Rivers, the story of Jaquetta Woodville, the mother of Elizabeth Woodville, the White Queen.  I have not, unfortunately, read any of the other novels on which the current series is based.  Though The Red Queen, a recent birthday gift, is waiting on my shelf, and seems to be calling me at this very moment. 

My most recent favorite
from Philippa Gregory
Gregory has probably influenced my own journey as a writer more than any other author.  I have the deepest admiration for her commitment to using fiction as a tool for reconstructing women's history.  Her stories are often devoted to figures about whom we might not have heard otherwise:  Jacquetta Woodville in The Lady of the Rivers, Mary Boleyn in The Other Boleyn Girl, and Jane Rochford in The Boleyn Inheritance, to name a few.  Gregory is vivid in her prose, capable of bringing diverse characters and distant times to life.  She crafts complex, admirable (and sometimes not-so-admirable) women; strong historical figures who lived in times of great uncertainty and made daily decisions upon which their lives and the lives of many others depended. 

So when I sat down to begin my own journey as a novelist, I did not think "I want to write like J.R.R. Tolkien".  As much as I admire the master's work, and as much as I recognize the many seeds of inspiration he has given me, I wanted to do something different. 

Nor did I think, "I want to write like George R.R. Martin," because quite frankly, I didn't even know who he was back then. 

But I did want to write like Philippa Gregory and many other authors of historical fiction who had inspired my imagination by weaving stories with strong women protagonists. 

I wanted to write woman-centered stories like they did, but I wanted to do it in the genre of fantasy. 

The last time I saw Gregory's work translated into a screenplay was the film interpretation of The Other Boleyn Girl. This was sore disappointment that managed to butcher all the most important elements of the original novel, despite the potentially great cast. 

Great actresses, beautiful costumes, awful movie.
I guess two out of three ain't bad.
There is always greater hope when a book is translated to a 10-part series as opposed to a 2-hour movie. There's more flexibility here, more time to indulge in the details. (Although with The White Queen, we are talking six novels squeezed into a single 10-part series, which. . . Well, you do the math.)

With only one episode under our belts, it's too early to tell whether The White Queen will fulfill that hope.  There were some things I didn't like about the first episode.  For example, the overriding emphasis on romantic elements to the detriment of, say, building the political context or filling out some of the more interesting characters such as Warwick.

But to be fair, episode one was all about Elizabeth in love; the sort of starry-eyed, innocent manner in which she embarked upon her secret marriage with the York King. This innocence was well grounded by the more pragmatic approach of her mother, the marvelous Jacquetta. It also sets us up for what could be a very interesting transformation in the life and character of Elizabeth herself. 

Personally, I can't wait to see what happens next.

And that is all you really need to know in order to call it a good story.

P.S. ~ Mark, let me just add that if you're still looking for a novel that centers on a long-term, stable and loving relationship, I highly recommend The Lady of the Rivers. 

posted by Karin Rita Gastreich

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Just Press “Play”

Emma's 16th birthday beach party
August is here, the kids are starting back to school, and the summer is rocketing toward its inevitable conclusion. As always, I’m sitting here wondering where the time went.

More specifically, I’m kicking myself for all of the projects I didn’t finish.

As usual, I loaded up my “free time” with work: Two books to edit for other authors. Finish the last round of edits on the novel due out in September. Finish the rough draft of my long overdue co-authored project. Outline the third novel in my Song series (before my fans—and my friends—lynch me). Maybe write a short story or two.

Oh, and also? Spend time with my family and my friends. And read books.

Piece of cake to get all that done in 2 ½ months… right?

Yeah. That’s what I thought, too.

Here’s the deal: I did get a good portion of my work ticked off of my to-do list, and I still have some summer left to make more progress. But I won’t finish everything.

Why? Because I played.

What is this word, “play?” See, this is a word we used to know well. When we were little, we went outside at dawn and turned up back home again after the street lights turned on. In the time between, we rode bikes, made dirt castles, explored “forbidden” areas (like the new homes being built down the street—sssh!) and did all sorts of fun things. We played games, swam, hung out at the movie theater, cruised around town. We let the summer days grow long and enjoyed the buzz of bloated June bugs on warm evenings. We lay down on the driveway and looked up at the stars, wondering.

Dad and Zoe, engaging in a little Cubs vs. Angels rivalry
When my kids were toddlers, they “learned through play,” which meant that they went on nature walks and checked out interesting bugs. They discovered colors and textures and cool sounds by touching and squeezing and throwing their toys. They experienced the world by enjoying it, by smelling the flowers and petting bunnies.

I think I did those things, too. But somewhere along the way, I forgot the word “play” and learned the word “work.” Everything became work, and life became organized into little lists with check boxes (I’m looking at one now: “write HoF post”). Even “take girls to beach” took up a line on my list. And every night became a guiltfest as I reviewed the list and bemoaned all of the list items without checks.

So finally, I did something not on the list: I threw the list away.

I took my girls to the beach. We shopped. We lounged in our pajamas. I slept in a lot. I stayed up late. I played way too much Candy Crush. I visited with my friends. I watched softball and baseball games that none of my kids even played. I cheered for the Angels AND the Cubs. We visited a college, Sedona and the Grand Canyon in two days. I spent quality time with my parents.

As it turns out, everything I did (or didn’t do) was really important. Not only do I feel more grounded and connected, more in charge of my life, I also feel like I can tackle the rest of my edits and finish off the rough draft of that novel, no problem. I am looking forward to writing again rather than feeling like it’s such a chore that I can barely force myself to sit down.

Breaks, as I regularly tell my students when they want to fill their summers with school, really are important.

I’m so glad I finally took my own advice.

How, you may ask, does this relate to reading and/ or writing?

Emma at the Grand Canyon
Because I’m guessing that, if you’re reading this, you’re taking a quick break. Maybe you’re sneaking that break. Maybe you feel a little guilty, because you’re really supposed to be doing something else. Or maybe you’re fine with reading this post, but you just don’t have the time to pick up that novel you’ve been wanting to finish reading, or you just can’t find the time to write.

Just do it. You’ll be glad you did.

On that note, gentle readers, I am signing off as a poster for the next three months. But I’ll be back in December… just in time for another break.

See you then!

~Kim Vandervort