Sunday, May 30, 2010

Fantasy by Definition: Part 4

4). The last category of Heroic Fantasy that I’ll discuss in detail is the Heroic Historical. The story here is about a somewhat larger than life hero who exists within a recognizable period of history, such as the Greek, the Roman, or the Viking period. The main character is usually (though not always) fictional, but the historical period is generally drawn with accuracy. In other words, you will usually not see anachronisms and will not be asked to accept the common existence of phenomena that violate what we know of the history and physical laws of Earth. For example, there won't regularly be flying dragons, flying galleons, flying horses, or flying humans. (My borrowed illustration this time is another Frazetta, showing a recognizable Knight.)

Supernatural forces sometimes play a small part in Heroic Historicals, but nothing like in Sword & Sorcery or High Fantasy. The setting is Earth during a recognizable historical period, so magic is not going to be a mainstay.

Heroic Historical is a very broad field that often crosses and blurs typical genre lines. That means it’s much harder to determine the basic “rules” of the genre, as I’ve done with the other three subtypes of Heroic Fantasy. Make the setting conform generally to the Earth we know, depict the time period accurately, and feature heroes with swords and similar weapons. That’s it.

The Iliad and The Odyssey are probably best classified as Heroic Historicals, although they reflect the beliefs of their time and certainly allow for more “fantastic” actions than would be acceptable in the modern genre. Ivanhoe is a much later example of this kind of story, and closer to the modern form. I’ve read all the way from Heroic Historical mysteries to Heroic Historical romances. The first supposedly “romance” book I ever read was The Wolf and the Dove by Kathleen Woodiwiss, and I enjoyed it thoroughly. Definitely an Heroic Historical.

Robert E. Howard wrote this kind of fantasy on occasion, and once said he preferred it to any other type of writing. His collection called The Sowers of the Thunder gives us four of these stories, and is actually my favorite of Howard’s works. My next favorite writer in this genre is Poul Anderson. He wrote several books set in Viking times and featuring actual historical figures, including Hrolf Kraki’s Saga and the Last Viking series about Harald Hardrede. He has several other books set in the Roman period.

Kenneth Bulmer, who I’ve mentioned before in this series of posts, wrote Heroic Historicals under the names Neil Langholm and Andrew Quiller. Another enjoyable series is the “Falcon” books by Mark Ramsay. The most popular modern writer of this kind of book is probably Bernard Cornwell.

Many other well loved classics might be fitted under the Heroic Historical umbrella. The Three Musketeers perhaps. Captain Blood. Richard Adams’ Shardik. There are also Heroic Historicals written about cultures other than the European one, but I’ve not read many of those so I can’t speak confidently about them.

Although I enjoy reading them, I’ve never written a true Heroic Historical. It could be that I don’t have the discipline to do the research, but I prefer to think it’s because I like to play around with the kind of fantastic elements that historical fiction doesn’t really allow for, such as flying mounts and flying battleships, and sorcery. The closest I’ve come to an Heroic Historical is the story “Sundered Man,” from Bitter Steel. Here’s a piece of that story which reflects that kind of quality.

“The heroes rode four abreast through the open portcullis of the castle and dismounted in the narrow courtyard. They were dressed in plate armor of polished steel, with helms that hid their faces but which bore the crests of famous families. Their bronzen shields had been ground to a high shine, but by this time the sun was well down and the shields did not burn so brightly as before. By this time, also, Kellan was on the rampart above the heroes, crouched in shadow behind the crenalated wall where he could not be seen.”

NOTE: There'll be one more post in this series, in two days. It'll close out the discussion.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Fantasy by Definition: Part 3

3). The third category of Heroic Fantasy is “High Fantasy.” The emphasis in this type of work is on a Mythic adventure, either a quest or a large scale (often world spanning) conflict between the powers of Light and Dark. The hero is usually not bigger than life. In fact, he, or she, is often rather small and weak physically, though there is usually a tight knit band of followers or friends who help the hero. The heroes are generally chosen for their role by some greater power and usually do not know how strong they really are at the beginning of the story. However, the hero usually grows into his or her role as the work progresses.

Supernatural forces are integral to High Fantasy, and there are almost always magical items such as rings, or swords, or enchanted armor that can help or hinder the heroes in their quests. There is also much less emphasis on individual physical combat than in Sword and Sorcery or Sword and Planet fiction. The High Fantasy setting is a mythic world, usually an ancient Earth, that is populated by elves, dwarves, dragons, goblins, or recognizable variants of these. Dragons seem particularly indispensable.

J. R. R. Tolkien is the writer who established the tropes of High Fantasy and his Lord of the Rings trilogy is still probably the best example of it. (My illustration this time is of a Tolkien scene, but not done by Frazetta.) Dennis L. McKiernan essentially retold the whole Tolkien trilogy in his own trilogy, The Iron Tower. Stephen R. Donaldson told an even larger story than Tolkien with his Thomas Covenant series. Other popular writers in the field have been Piers Anthony with his Xanth series, and Robert Jordan with his Wheel of Time series. The blogosphere’s own Bret Funk is working in this field with his Path of Glory series. I would also claim that the Harry Potter series falls into this category, although the edged weapons are minimized and the setting is more modern.

There is a larger percentage of women writers in this genre than in any other type of Heroic Fantasy. Patricia McKillip, Anne McCaffrey (perhaps), Joy Chant, Darlene Bolesny, Margaret Weis, and J. K. Rowling are just some of the many women writers who have enriched the genre. It also seems to attract more women readers than either S and S or S and P, and that may be because the potential roles for women characters are broader in High Fantasy than in the other two.

One difference between these three subgenres is in the level of good versus evil that exists in them. In High Fantasy, we generally need to speak of EVIL in all caps because it is often a Satanic inspired, soul-destroying force that wants to bring darkness to the whole world. In Sword and Sorcery, the Evil is not so all powerful, although it may well be equally nasty. In Sword and Planet fiction, the evil is generally far more human than in either of the other types. Vohanna, the villain in my Talera novels, is more an S and S type villain than a standard S and P type.

High Fantasy is currently the most popular form of Heroic Fantasy and is the only one of the three we’ve discussed so far that is being widely published by major publishers today. I think there are two main reasons. First, the “growth” of the hero across the course of the books is an attractive quality to many readers. They like to see the character gain strength, perhaps because it offers hope that they, too, can grow. Second, I think the fact that High Fantasy appeals more to women than the other two types is a big plus as far as publishers are concerned.

There are two more differences between the three subgenres that I’d like to mention. One, while S and S works well in short stories, and S and P works well in a series of short novels, High Fantasy’s natural form seems to be the trilogy and beyond, and not the kind of short 70,000 word novels that characterize S and P. High Fantasy novels are often “big.” Two, High Fantasy lends itself better to humor than the other types. Sword and Sorcery is most often very grim. Sword and Planet fiction often does have some humor but it seldom plays a prominent role. High Fantasy, perhaps because of its ensemble cast of characters, allows more opportunities for humor to occur.

There are a couple of stories in Bitter Steel that fit within the High Fantasy subgenre. Both are humorous pieces, “Worms in the Earth,” and “Mirthgar.” They are not really typical of the genre—for that you should read some Tolkien—but here is a sample from “Mirthgar.”

“But it was in the first days of iron winter that the worst news came. A ravening band of Oinks was seen in the northern mountains and as far south as Mirthwood. Outlying farmsteads were deliberately infected by the Oinks with voracious termites, and settlements along the Mirth River stirred uneasily behind their wooden walls. At night, the winds snuffled blackly outside the doors of men, and in the cold skies were heard the howls of Wereagons and their Hobblen riders.”

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Fantasy by Definition: Part 2

2). The second category of Heroic Fantasy is Sword and Planet (S and P) fiction, which is often called Interplanetary Adventure. My Talera novels fall largely into this category, although there is only one poem in Bitter Steel that is S and P. In S and P, the basic story is about an Earthman (never an Earth woman as far as I can tell) who is transported to another world where he must use his wits, his muscles, and his edged weapons (almost always a sword) against a host of human and nonhuman foes.

Unlike with Sword and Sorcery, any supernatural forces present in Sword and Planet fiction play only a minor role, and when they do appear they usually turn out to be examples of super science rather than truly supernatural. Also, the S and P hero is generally not a barbarian, but, in fact, is most often quite chivalrous. The setting for S and P is not earth but an exotic alien world, often with multiple suns or multiple moons, and is populated by a variety of strange plants, animals, and intelligent beings. The intelligent aliens are usually humanoid (the better to sword fight with), but they will have some exotic elements such as extra limbs, beaks, feathers, etc. (Not unlike Star Trek come to think of it.)

Another difference between these two subgenres is that Sword and Sorcery often works best at short story length, while that is seldom true for Sword and Planet fiction. S and P short stories are pretty rare, although I’ve recently tried my hand at one. I think the reason is that S and P typically has a larger scale plot. The problem to be dealt with may even be world spanning, while with S & S the story often takes place in a relatively isolated valley or ruined city against a more local evil. This may, in part, be due to the different technologies seen in the two subgenres. In S and P, there is some form of air travel in open craft, sort of like sky-going yachts, while S and S is most often limited to the area that can be covered by horses and sea-going vessels.

Edgar Rice Burroughs, who was an influence on Robert E. Howard, is the father of Sword and Planet fiction. His John Carter of Mars books established the basic pattern. (Today’s illustration is borrowed from Frank Frazetta and shows John Carter and Dejah Thoris.) A contemporary of ERB, Otis Adelbert Kline, also wrote some good early S & P stories, and he was the agent for Robert E. Howard. Kline apparently persuaded Howard to try an S and P novel, and the result was Almuric, which broke the mold in a number of ways, particularly by adding anti-hero characteristics to the protagonist.

Some other examples of S & P fiction include the Michael Kane books by Michael Moorcock, the Alan Morgan books by Gardner F. Fox, and the Kaldar stories of Edmond Hamilton. Lin Carter wrote a lot of these books in his Green Star and Callisto series’. To my mind, however, the best post-ERB practitioner of S & P was Kenneth Bulmer, who wrote a long series about a character named Dray Prescot under the pseudonym Alan Burt Akers.

My first Talera novel, Swords of Talera is pure S and P, but the sequels, Wings Over Talera and Witch of Talera brought, I believe, some of the characteristics of Sword and Sorcery into the S & P format. I also added some horror elements, particularly to the third book.

Unfortunately, Sword and Planet fiction is even rarer today than Sword & Sorcery. There are writers who labor in the S and P vineyards, but they are, like me, relatively unknown. Yet, I know of quite a few readers who still pine for such grand adventures. To end part 2 of my Heroic Fantasy series of posts, here’s a sample from Swords of Talera that I hopes illustrates the basic themes I’ve been discussing.

“The gates started to open. I did not see the massive counterweights and pulleys that must have been necessary to move those tons of bronze. Nor did I hear them. In eerie silence the great doors opened outward, like some monstrous raptor spreading its wings.

Then the hair crawled to life on my neck. Something black, of awesome size, moved amidst the darkness behind the gates. Shadows billowed. The shape came forward, as black as a night on which all the moons had fallen.”

Monday, May 24, 2010

Fantasy by Definition: Part 1

The stories in Bitter Steel fall into a genre that I call Heroic Fantasy. But what does that mean? Well, I thought for my next few posts I’d tell you how I define Heroic Fantasy and give lots of examples. Discussion and disagreement are welcome. Half the fun of defining genres is arguing over the boundaries.

To me, Heroic Fantasy is a type of fiction in which a heroic (usually bigger than life) figure uses a combination of physical strength and edged weapons (Swords, Axes, Spears) to face bigger than life foes. The hero may be either male or female, but the focus is primarily on personal conflict between the hero and villain. Frank Frazetta's painting of his "Death Dealer" character, which I've borrowed here, illustrates the "feel" of this kind of fiction very well. I divide Heroic Fantasy into four categories: Sword and Sorcery, Sword and Planet, High Fantasy, and Heroic Historical. (I’m not quite sure how “Urban Fantasy” fits into this scheme but I’ll have some thoughts along the way.)

The first of these categories is Sword and Sorcery (S and S), and that’s my theme for this post. Most of the stories in Bitter Steel fall into this sub-genre, but not all. The emphasis in S and S is on up close and personal conflict between the hero and supernatural forces such as gods, demons, or sorcerers, although a story might occasionally deal with a monster or some survivor of an elder race. Most of these stories could not exist if the supernatural elements were removed. In Bitter Steel, the stories called “The Evening Rider” and “In the Memory of Ruins,” which were the first two Thal Kyrin stories I wrote, fit this mold to a “T.” In some of my later S and S stories I tried to play down the supernatural element in favor of human against human conflict.

The hero in Sword and Sorcery is usually of the "barbaric" type, although he or she may also, very rarely, possess sorcerous powers. If sorcerous powers exist in the hero, they are never prominently featured. Generally, the hero also has some anti-hero characteristics. He or she is not a villain per se, but they often do engage in some shady activities. Robert E. Howard’s Conan is the prototype here. He’s been a thief, a pirate, and a mercenary, but he also has a code of justice that leads him most often to take a hand on the side of good as opposed to evil. Most of the heroes in Bitter Steel don’t quite fit here. They certainly have plenty of barbaric qualities, but most did not originally come from barbaric environments like Conan. Thal Kyrin was a prince before events drove him from his home. Jedess is a queen when her story begins. The heroes in Bitter Steel also have relatively few anti-hero qualities, although Thal has been a mercenary.

The setting for S and S is most often a recognizable version of Earth, either in the distant past or the far future. The Thal Kyrin stories in Bitter Steel take place on a world called “Thanos,” which is Earth in the future after an alien race conquered the planet, knocked human civilization back to the stone age, and then left humanity to claw its way up the ladder again.

I consider Robert E. Howard to be the founder of Sword and Sorcery, although elements of the genre can certainly be found in earlier works. Howard was the first person to put the whole package together, though. His Kull stories were the first, followed by his Conan tales. The Kane stories of Karl Edward Wagner, the Druss the Legend works of David Gemmell, the Brak tales of John Jakes, the Death Dealer books of James Silke, and the Kyrik and Kothar books of Gardner F. Fox all fit into this mold. I also include here the Elric, Corum, Hawkmoon, and Castle Brass series’ of stories by Michael Moorcock, though they stretch the definition a little. Female variations include the Raven series by Richard Kirk (a pseudonym for more than one author), and the Red Sonja series by David C. Smith and Richard L. Tierney. Charles Saunders wrote a notable series featuring a black S and S hero named Imaro.

I want to mention two prominent fantasy writers who are often shoehorned into the S and S field but who I think are not a perfect match. The first is C. L. Moore with her Jirel of Joiry stories. Moore was a contemporary of Howard’s and her tales of the female hero Jirel have a haunting and lyrical power while being no less brutal than Howard’s own work. But the first Jirel stories take place in a fantasy version of medieval France and are thus not quite true to the standard S and S format. Later Jirel stories move more firmly in that direction. The second writer is another of Howard’s contemporaries, Fritz Leiber, who created the Fafhrd and Gray Mouser tales. The blond Fafhrd is very much a Conan type hero, but the Gray Mouser is completely different from any examples I mentioned above. And, Sword and Sorcery almost always features a “lone” hero. I actually think that Leiber’s Fafhrd and Gray Mouser stories may be one of the roots for modern Urban Fantasy.

Sword and Sorcery is not nearly as popular today as it was in the 1960s and 1970s, and I’d like to change that, although I have no delusions that Bitter Steel will turn the tide. Still, it’s a genre I love to read and I sure wish there were more good books in the field being written today. To end with, here’s a passage from Bitter Steel that I hope captures the flavor of what I’ve been talking about. It comes from a story called “Coin and Steel.”

“‘They’ll call this place, Bloody Ground,’" Thal Kyrin said, and his horsemen nodded and seated their lances for the charge. In another moment the battle-horns sounded and the men moved forward in answer, hawk pennons snapping silver and black, dirt rising under the hooves of their war-horses. Thal Kyrin led them from a walk, to a trot, to a gallop, and they were five hundred Iron Riders when they struck the enemy lines, bowed them in, and rolled them back. And like a tide behind, the Dayne phalanxes came. The left wing of the Evranoire army ceased to be.”

Friday, May 21, 2010

Bitter Steel Published

Gilgamesh, Odysseus, Achilles, Beowulf! Kull, Conan, Kane!

Heroes are born, but they never die. They become legends; they become myths. Bitter Steel is a collection of new myths, new heroic adventures told in the ancient tradition.

So come! Gather with me around the fire where the smoke stings our eyes. We’ll listen to the drums beat in time with our hearts. We’ll drink from the common bowl as it passes among us. The darkness whispers outside our camp, but we have no fear. There are heroes among us. Let us hear their tales.

--- --- --- --- --- ---

I’m very happy to say that Bitter Steel has now been published. This is a collection of my heroic fantasy and sword and sorcery stories, along with some fantasy poems on the same themes. Most of these have been previously published in small magazines in and out of the States, but many of those have also been revised for this book, and there are new pieces that have never before seen print.

The top of this post is the back cover blurb for the book, and for those who aren’t familiar with the genre, “Conan,” “Kull,” and “Solomon Kane” are sword and sorcery heroes created by the writer Robert E. Howard. The stories in this book are in that same Howard tradition, and Howard himself wrote in the tradition of The Odyssey, the Iliad, and the Norse Sagas.

These are the kinds of stories that Frank Frazetta, the very fine artist who just recently died, did his most famous cover paintings for. If you’d like to see more Frazetta art, check out the Unofficial Frank Frazetta Fantasy Art Gallery. The ones below I borrowed from there.

At the moment, Bitter Steel is only available on Amazon, but it should be available at Borders and Barnes & Noble soon, as well as at Wildside Press. I’ll be posting more about the book over the next few days.

Thanks for listening.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Summer Writing, Summer Books

These days, I find sitting in one place for long periods of time really gets to my legs and back so I like to switch between the desktop and laptop across the course of the day as I’m working. The laptop has not necessarily been a godsend, however. Until now. The Lovely Lana bought me a lap desk to use with the laptop and it’s been very nice. It provides a more stable purchase for the machine and, best of all, keeps the heat the machine generates off my legs. I’ve been able to work much more comfortably with the laptop for this past week and it’s paid off in greater productivity.

Unfortunately, not a lot of that work has been done on the deck. Just as I got set to work on the deck on Monday it began to rain hard, and with a wind that blew the rain in under the roof. I don’t mind a little dampness myself but figured it wouldn’t do the electronics any good so I went in. Tuesday, I managed about half an hour on the deck, but though my legs didn’t get hot from the laptop, the temperature was in the high 80s with the humidity much higher and I started to get uncomfortable eventually. I did get in a nice hour in the late evening as the temperature began to cool.

The other nice thing about summer is that I finally get my fix of reading. I finished V for Vendetta, the graphic novel upon which the movie was based. I liked both movie and book and thought each had strengths and weaknesses. In a very unusual situation for me, I actually liked the movie slightly better. I read a The Louis L’Amour Companion a book of essays and checklists about the western author, which was put together by Robert Weinberg. I found it very enjoyable.

I’ve read a couple of books by folks I know in the blogosphere, Arkansas Smith, a western by Jack Martin, and Pallid Light, a zombie novel by William Jones. Both were excellent books. I’ve reviewed all these more extensively over on Goodreads by the way.

I’m currently enjoying an SF book called The Return, by William Shatner, with Judith and Garfield Reeves-Stevens. This tells the story of Kirk being resurrected after death by Romulans to be used as a weapon against the Federation and Jean-Luc Picard. I’m about a quarter of the way into it and really enjoying it so far.

I just loving having time to read. How about you?


Monday, May 17, 2010

Half a Krapp of Something Abbatt (=3.33)

NOTE: I've been told by a couple of folks now that the original title of this post, which came to me in a dream, is insulting to Jewish people. I had absolutely no intention of insulting anyone, and I have great respect for the strength and courage of the Jews down through history. I would not willingly give offense to them, and so I've changed the title.

The title of my post today came from last night’s dream. I dreamt I was reading a book and found this line. I thought to myself in the dream that it made no sense. But across the day it’s grown on me. I think it’s going to become one of my “sayings.” Aren’t you all happy for me?

I’ve also rediscovered something the last few days that I knew but wasn’t applying. I’ve been writing longer hours but often finding my concentration fading in and out. I’d try to focus, only to find my mind wandering again a moment later. When my concentration waned I’d click over to my email window to see if I’d gotten anything interesting. Then it occurred to me. Half a krapp of something abbatt, what was I doing with my email open while I was trying to write?

The mind doesn’t much like to work and will seek any way it can to get out of it. You can’t give it an easy escape. I shut down all my windows except the word processing one, and, amazingly, the work started to flow much better! Who’d a thunk it?

I shouldn’t have to remind myself of such things, but it’s a habit I pick up while school is in session. My days at work are constantly interrupted, many times by emails that require immediate (or near immediate) attention. That’s a habit I just broke as I move into full summer writing mode.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Writers and Storytellers

“By and large, I think writers are the best company in the world, but if they talk together too much they begin either writing the same stories, or writing for each other. A writer should write for people, not critics or other writers.” -- Louis L’Amour

I’m reading a book called The Louis L’Amour Companion, which is edited by Robert Weinberg. The opening quote is attributed to L’Amour in that book. This is something I’ve been thinking about quite a lot lately, and it was a thought underlying my “Showing versus Telling” post. Most writers are also readers, but I think we forget sometimes that most readers aren’t writers.

I know in my own work that I want the respect of other writers. I suppose that’s true in just about any career path. I imagine plumbers want to be respected by other plumbers because it lets them know that they know their stuff. But there’s a difference. Good “writing” is not necessarily the same as good “storytelling.” Good plumbing is probably pretty much the same everywhere.

In another place in the Weinberg book he points out that L’Amour never wanted to be called a novelist or an author. He wanted to be known as a storyteller. Now, I actually respect L’Amour as a “writer.” I think he could turn a neat phrase and his descriptions of the land, especially, often have some poetry in them. But it’s not for the poetry that I’ve read 99 percent of everything L’Amour ever wrote. It was the story. Often simply plotted, with stark contrasts made between good and bad, L’Amour’s western novels suck you in from word one and compel you through page after page to find out what happens next.

Consider: 1) “It was Indian country, and when our wheel busted, none of them would stop. They just rolled on by and left us setting there, my pap and me.” 2) “It is given to few people in this world to disappear twice but, as he had succeeded once, the man known as James T. Kettleman was about to make his second attempt.” 3) “He was asleep and then he was awake. His eyes flared wide and he held himself still, staring into the darkness, his ears reaching for sound.” These opening lines are from three of L’Amour’s best books, To Tame a Land (the Kindle edition is shown below, courtesy of Amazon), Flint, and Utah Blaine. But they aren’t just three of L’Amour’s best. They’re three of the best pure stories I’ve ever read, in any genre. Yet, only the last of the three is also what I consider to be good "writing" per se.

Good “writers” receive the praise of other writers and of critics. They are often loved by a devoted following. Good storytellers are often poorly received by critics but they are loved by millions of pure readers. Perhaps needlessly to say, good storytellers make far more money.

I don’t believe that good storytelling and good writing are mutually exclusive. My favorite books, like those of L’Amour, combine both elements. They are well written, with good language and poetry, and they tell an amazing story. I do think, though, that writers sometimes confuse these two skills and that we’d do well to remember that they are different, and that neither skill is inherently better. Each has its role to play in a fully realized work of fiction.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Creating and Selling

I got a lot done today but only a little of it was actual writing. When I sat down to do some revisions my mind began to mimic a glacier. Sometimes it happens. On those days you push through it and I did finally make some progress. Some days that’s all you can hope for.

I also spent some time trying to think of marketing ideas. Lately, the sales of all my books have been stagnant, and no copies of Cold in the Light were sold last year through any venue. I’m not sure if any used copies were sold; the royalty statements don’t indicate those since publishers and authors get no money from such sales.

Sometimes I’ve had good luck with personal appearances. Other times not. I sold almost 20 copies of Write With Fire at a library talk I gave. But at Babel Con this year I sold only one copy of anything. I thought at first that it was because Babel Con was small this year, but I know a fantasy writer who said she sold almost 30 copies of her novel. Of course, she is 1) very attractive, 2) very outgoing, and 3) is either comfortable with pushing her own work or at least gives the appearance of being so. I’ve never been very comfortable selling things to people. I don’t want anyone to feel like they’re getting their arm twisted. I don’t like having mine twisted.

I’ve probably had the best luck at selling my work online, through this blog primarily. But there’s only so many copies you can sell to your friends. I like to think I’m a creative person, but being creative in ways that generate book sales does not seem to be my forte.

Maybe the summer will give me the time to think and dream up some ideas. It’s so much easier to create than to sell what you create. I think the reason is simple. I need only myself to create. I can control my own emotions. Most of the time. I can discipline my own work habits. Most of the time. But to cross that gap between one’s self and another is a vast gulf that is not easily spanned.

Sunday, May 09, 2010

Show versus Tell: The Plot Thickens

I finished reading Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King a while back and enjoyed it. I found much food-for-thought, which I’ll share along the way, and some points I feel the need to debate. Here’s an example of the latter, and I hope you’ll weigh in with your thoughts.

On page 16, Browne and King write: “You don’t want to give your readers information. You want to give them experiences.”

My first reaction to that was: “perfect!” That’s exactly what fiction writers want to do.

Except! It doesn’t appear to be what readers always want fiction writers to do.

Have you read The Da Vinci Code? The biggest blockbuster novel of our age is full of mini-lectures, and I’ve heard plenty of readers say they loved having the chance to learn some stuff along with being entertained. (Whether what they learned was accurate or not is a different issue.) Those readers were saying they wanted the “information” that Browne and King are saying not to give them, and they were perfectly happy getting it in info-dump form without having it dramatized.

If it were just Dan Brown writing like this, we might put the readers’ reactions down to a fluke. But I’ve seen the same kind of “information-heavy” prose in a lot of popular novels, from modern thrillers to historicals. The readers aren’t always on the same “page” with the writers on show versus tell, and it’s starting to make me rethink that whole debate.

It’s beginning to seem to me that the whole “Show don’t tell” axiom in writing is so incredibly oversimplified as to be virtually useless. At best, the axiom should be: “Show don’t Tell the dramatic important scenes.” But if you’re merely moving people from spot to spot, tell it and get it over with so you can get to the next important scene. And as for information dumps, there’s a lot of gray area there as well. It seems that writers lean more toward the showing side for this sort of thing while readers are perfectly happy with info dumps, as long as they convey interesting information and don’t completely disrupt the flow of the narrative.

If we were doing mythbusters I’d have to declare “Show don’t Tell” busted. What do you think?

Thursday, May 06, 2010

Bitter Steel Revisited

Thanks everyone for the excellent feedback on my last post. Most folks did not like the first paragraph of the possible back cover blurb. The blurb, btw, is for a collection of my short heroic fantasy stories called Bitter Steel. I’ve talked about it before, back when I was putting together the introduction and organizing the contents of the volume. I think the points made on my post were good ones and that the opening paragraph sounded more like something for an introduction rather than a back cover “come hither.” I’ve revised that while leaving the second paragraph largely the same. Thanks everyone.

In other news, I just got my latest shipment in from this new fangled inter-net thingie. I’m now the proud owner of three books that readers of this blog may recognize. First up is Arkansas Smith, by Jack Martin. How could I pass up a western novel named after my home state? Second we have Pallid Light by William Jones. I’ve been looking to read about a good zombie holocaust. Third, there is Heroes of the Fallen by David J. West. This is heroic fantasy, in the same vein as the stories in Bitter Steel. It’s obviously a genre I love very much.

Much as I would love to read and review all three of my new acquisitions tonight, that will not be happening. Although I did not want the blogosphere to find this out, I am only human. My reading card is pretty full. Unlike my dance card, which is limited just to the Lovely Lana.

I did actually finish a book by some blogsphere friends. This was Then Comes the Child by Christopher Fulbright and Angeline Hawkes. Wow, it rocked! This is the true horror, the down and dirty stuff. If you’ve got a strong stomach and like your gore with style, you’ll love it.

Tuesday, May 04, 2010

Bitter Steel

So, tell me please, if you read the following two paragraphs on the back cover of a book, what would you think? Would you recognize the genre? Do you find it at all intriguing? Does it sound too "over the top?" Any feedback would be appreciated! Thanks.


Heroic fantasy is often called the oldest form of literature. Homer told such tales. Virgil did. Beowulf and the Norse sagas related them. In a more modern age, we find the voices of Robert E. Howard, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Harold Lamb, Karl Edward Wagner, and David Gemmell. Critics sometimes deride stories of heroes and heroines. That’s because they lack imagination. If you’re human, these kinds of stories are your legacy.

So come! Gather with me around the fire where the smoke stings our eyes. We’ll listen to the drums with our hearts and drink from the common bowl as it passes among us. The darkness whispers outside our camp, but we have no fear. There are heroes among us. Let us hear their tales.


Saturday, May 01, 2010

More Problem Words and Such from Bill Bryson

Here’s some more things from Bill Bryson's book that I either didn’t know or wasn’t completely clear on.

1. “Strictly speaking, paper clips and pencils are stationery.” Apparently, the term applies to all office materials, not just paper and envelopes. I actually vaguely remember this fact from long, long ago, although I wouldn’t have recalled it without Bryson’s help.

2. Split infinitives are not grammatical errors and are not routinely condemned by writing authorities. They usually occur when infinitives and adverbs are used together. Here’s an example from Bryson. “He proceeded to climb the ladder.” “To climb” is the infinitive. “He slowly climbed the ladder.” “Slowly” is the adverb. Now you put them together, “He proceeded to slowly climb the ladder.” The elements of the infinitive are split by “slowly.”

3. The belt that is worn diagonally across the chest, as seen in various westerns, is called a “Sam Browne.”

4. “To the manner born” is the correct version of the quote from Hamlet, not “To the Manor born,” which I pretty much assumed it was.

5. “Plenitude,” not “plentitude,” is the correct spelling of this word, which means abundance. I think I’ve messed that one up more than once.

6. The correct quote from Tennyson’s “Charge of the Light Brigade” is: “Their’s not to reason why / Their’s but to do and die.” I’ve often heard it as “do or die” at the end, which is a completely different meaning.

7. Remember “Music has charms to soothe the savage beast?” That’s not the way the original quote went. It was “Music hath charms to soothe a savage breast.” I could have sworn it was “beast” instead of “breast.” I know I’ve heard it said as “beast.”

Finally, here’s a quiz I put together from information in Bryson’s book. Can you tell me what is wrong with the following sentences? (The first two are exact quotes that Bryson used as examples; the others have been modified for this exercise.)

1. “Now throw in two tablespoons full of chopped parsley and cook ten minutes more.”

2. “The yacht was doing about nine knots an hour, according to Mr. Starr.”

3. “Instead of in years, their progress should have been measured in light-years.”

4. “I accused him of libel for the things he said about me behind my back.”

5. “Laying on his back, James pointed out some cloud formations that resembled faces.”