Monday, August 15, 2016

How About that Weather?

I was reading a piece of writing advice the other day about five clichés that ruin openings. I agreed with four of them, but either I don’t understand the fifth cliché the author was describing, or it’s simple wrong advice. The gist was, “don’t begin with the weather because no one gives a crap about the weather.”

First, I’m not sure that weather can actually be a cliché in the way “it was all a dream” is. I mean, weather is only a cliché in the sense that it’s always there. It’s reality rather than cliché. Second, maybe it’s because I grew up on a farm but I do indeed give a crap about the weather. In fact, almost everyone does and that would explain why it’s one of the major topics of conversation. Third, unless your story takes place fully inside a place with complete environmental controls and no windows, such as a spaceship, weather will be a part of a realistic story. Fifth, quite a few of my favorite opening sequences in literature incorporate weather. Give a listen:

“In the late summer of that year we lived in a house in a village that looked across the river and the plain to the mountains. In the bed of the river there were pebbles and boulders, dry and white in the sun, and the water was clear and swiftly moving and blue in the channels. Troops went by the house and down the road and the dust they raised powdered the leaves of the trees. The trunks of the trees too were dusty and the leaves fell early that year and we saw the troops marching along the road and the dust rising and leaves, stirred by the breeze, falling and the soldiers marching and afterward the road bare and white except for the leaves.” Hemingway—A Farewell to Arms.

“October Country . . . that country where it is always turning late in the year. That country where the hills are fog and the rivers are mist; where noons go quickly, dusks and twilights linger, and mid-nights stay. That country composed in the main of cellars, sub-cellars, coal-bins, closets, attics, and pantries faced away from the sun. That country whose people are autumn people, thinking only autumn thoughts. Whose people passing at night on the empty walks sound like rain. . . .” Ray Bradbury—The October Country.

Or: “Heat beat down on my shoulders, my face cloth. My armor dragged at the riding sores underneath. Little sparkles danced behind my eyelids, and the strain in my joints were cramping to knots in my muscles. It had been a long ride. A grating call made my shoulders twitch. The carrion crows, who glided after us day after day, were waiting.” Heather Gladney—Teot’s War.

I stopped with these three in order to keep this post to a manageable length. There are many other examples I could give. Now, if the opening were ‘only’ a lengthy description of the weather, I would want the writer to move on. But, what I need from a story is to be immediately, or at least very quickly, “grounded.” I want to know “who” and “where.” If the story is taking place outside, a huge part of “where” is likely to involve weather.

As a reader, the surest way for a writer to lose me is to open with talking heads in a vacuum. Now there is truly something I don’t give a crap about. I’d rather it were all a dream.

Friday, August 12, 2016

Forgotten Books Friday: The Barbarian Swordsmen

The Barbarian Swordsmen, Edited by Sean Richards, 1981, Star Books, 172 pages.

This is another collection of sword and sorcery tales that I somehow missed over the years. It was a British only publication so that’s probably the reason. Not a lot of such books made it to Arkansas when I was living there. It’s a fine collection, though, and well worth picking up.

The editor of the work is Sean Richards, and there’s an introduction by him that talks about the stories. Some of this would have been new to me in 1981. Not anymore. I wasn’t able to find anything more about Mr. Richards.

The stories including are:
The War of Fire, by J. H. Rosny. This is an exciting excerpt from The Quest for Fire, which was also made into a fine movie. J. H. Rosny was actually a pseudonym, often used by two brothers, Joseph Henri Boex, and Justin Boex. However, from what I understand, Quest for Fire was written solely by the elder brother, Joseph. I’ve read the whole book and the movie does a good job of distilling it, but the book is enjoyable.  We have a primitive cave man named Naoh, probably what we’d call a Cro-magnon, whose tribe loses its fire. Since they can’t make fire, only maintain it, they have to seek out fire from some other tribe, and Naoh and his companions have many adventures in doing so, including a battle with Neanderthals. It is that piece which is featured in this book.

The Sword of Welleran, by Lord Dunsany.  Lord Dunsany, an Irishman, is well known to fans of sword and sorcery. His fantasy work certainly skated the edge of that genre and he helped develop some of the tropes that later became important. He is said to have influenced Tolkien. His work is rather slowly pace and turgid for modern readers but I find it enjoyable. “The Sword of Welleran” is one of his most approachable tales. 

The Tower of the Elephant, by Robert E. Howard.  I consider this the strangest of the Conan stories. It certainly breaks ranks with most of the other tales of the Cimmerian in that there is a strong SF element at its core. I was much taken with it when I first read it, years ago.

Brachan the Kelt, by Robert E. Howard. Howard wrote a number of stories involving reincarnation, and several of these featured the character James Allison, who is a modern man capable of remembering his past lives. He then relates these tales from his memories. This is a short piece and definitely not fully developed, but it shows the power of Howard’s prose. Allison remembers being a wandering warrior from a time before history was recorded, when the first white-skinned tribes were entering Europe. As Brachan, he must defeat a beast that makes one think of the yeti.

Jirel Meets Magic, by C. L. Moore. Catherine Moore was just a superb writer and her stories of Jirel of Joiry are outstanding tales of sword and sorcery. They are beautifully written and emotionally charged. Jirel is one of the very first fire-tressed female warriors of fantasy fiction. This is not my favorite of the Jirel stories but it’s close. Moore was influenced by Howard, although it seems to me that most of the influence was in subject matter rather than story effects.

Spawn of Dagon, by Henry Kuttner. Kuttner married C. L. Moore and after that they mostly wrote as a team. I think that Moore was the better writer but Kuttner was more prolific and very professional. Kuttner alone wrote a series of tales about Elak, a prince of Atlantis, and this is one of the best of those tales. Elak was certainly influenced by Howard’s Conan, but is his own character.

The Thief of Forthe, by Clifford Ball. Ball was another writer who was strongly influenced by Howard. That influence can be clearly seen in this story, but I thought it was well written and enjoyable. Apparently, Ball created an earlier character who was essentially a pastiche Conan, but “Rald,” the “Thief of Forthe” shows some originality. I haven't read much of Ball's work but am gong to seek out more.

The Two Best Thieves in Lankhmar, by Fritz Leiber. Leiber is another writer who was influenced by Howard as to subject matter, but who in no way appears to be a clone of Howard. His characters and settings are unique and there is a lot more humor in Leiber’s tales than in the Conan stories of Howard. Leiber’s characters are Fafhrd, a giant of a man, a barbarian warrior, and the Gray Mouser, a dark and slender thief. They are unlikely friends but friends they are. All of these stories are enjoyable.

Appendix is: The Man Who Influenced Robert E. Howard. This is an excerpt from a letter written from Robert Howard to H. P. Lovecraft in which Howard indicates his admiration for the poetry of Alfred Noyes. 

Monday, August 08, 2016

How Social Media has Shrunk My Reading List

I’m hoping this post won’t lose me any readers but it’s about something that has been bothering me lately. It’s about how social media causes some writers to forfeit potential places on my reading list.  In the past two days, for example, I’ve discovered two writers, new to me, whose books and stories will almost certainly never have a chance to make it onto my TBR pile. These two are only the latest in what is becoming a fairly long “unlikely to read” list by now. I’m sorry to see it happen. One of my great joys has always been to find new writers whose work I can fall in love with.

The first of the two I’m talking about here posted the details of an interaction he had with a female literary agent at a conference. He didn’t get the contract he was clearly hoping for, and proceeded to trash the agent, by name, and insult her physical appearance in the process. This is in spite of the fact that his own description of the interaction indicated that the woman was just not interested in his project. It happens, you know. Not everyone will be wowed by an idea that you love. And there simply is no place in this kind of interaction for personal attacks, on physical appearance, no less. It makes me wonder, too, what kind of female characters this author creates. Will his women characters be people I can empathize with  or nothing but window dressing and plot contrivances?

The second of the two was a female author who described all “Bernie or Bust” people as folks who got awarded trophies for just participating when they were kids, meaning, I took it, that such folks don’t know what it’s like to have it tough. The author, of course, indicated how her life had been different. She went on to suggest that it was white males who were the main issue in the Bernie or Bust crowd. I’m not a Bernie or Buster and this individual’s opinion on the political process itself isn’t my issue. My question is whether or not a writer who throws out such sweeping generalizations understands enough of the nuances of human interaction to be able to create realistic characters in fiction. Without such characters, I’m not likely to find myself emotionally involved in a story.

Some of the previous folks who have made my “unlikely to read” list include a woman who stated publically that all men are supporters of rape culture, a man who offered an ad hominem attack on my political views and then proceeded to tell me what his IQ was and how many books he’d written as evidence of his correctness, and a fellow who made mean-spirited fun of gay people.

Don’t get me wrong, I read plenty of work by people who have said things I disagree with. My “do read” list is much, much longer than my “unlikely to read” one. What bothers me is the “one size fits all” approach to interacting with and categorizing people. All liberals are this way. All Republicans are another way. Gay people are this. White males are that. Women are….

If I’ve been reading a writer’s books for a long time and he or she says something that  crosses the line, I’ll generally give that author the benefit of the doubt. I know from their work that they are nuanced. But imagine that I’ve just recently friended a writer on facebook. I think that I might want to try something by them. And then I see a post like the ones I’ve described above. Will I pull the trigger on purchasing one of their books when it goes on sale? Or will I click past that sale to another new writer? For me, it’ll be the latter.

I know that writers are people too. I’m both myself, a writer and people. We have opinions. We get angry. But anyone who has made a study of how people act knows that no one can be absolutely categorized by a single characteristic such as gender, skin color, ethnicity, etc. Humans are walking, talking contradictions. Seems to me that an author, in particular, should be aware of this.  And those authors are the most likely to make my “definitely read” list. Since I love reading, that's where I hope every new writer I meet ends up.