reading


My heroes do not wear chain mail.

They are not, in most cases, even that physically fit. They are not always beautiful, socially well-adjusted, or friendly.

They are writers, authors, and poets, and while most of them have since shuffled off this mortal coil, there are a handful of living writers that I admire. Writers, to me, are like movie stars to some people. For me, I value imagination above all things, and there’s nothing more that I admire than having my eyes opened to a new world.

I’m not picky by nature, nor am I a critic. And that’s where this post gets difficult. Where, for quite a large contingent of individuals, the internet is a sounding board for their scathing reviews and puerile commentaries on everything from cheese straws to Cheney, I don’t view it as such. I don’t post reviews, I keep them to myself, save them for later, make mental notes. At least, that’s usually the routine.

Except, lately, I’ve had a problem.

I’ve been disappointed.

It started with Greg Keyes, a writer who I’ve often bubbled endlessly about, and cite as a major influence in my latest novel endeavor (both as a steampunk writer, and as an adherent to the multi-POV narrative). I was so excited to be able to finish his most recent series with The Born Queen, and literally couldn’t wait to get my eyes all over it (that’s… a better description, I think). And I blasted through it, absorbing, absorbing, reading, reading, waiting… waiting… I finished, and felt as if I’d missed something. It just didn’t resonate right. The characters had changed drastically since the first book, so much so that in some cases (like Stephen, my favorite) the semblance was nearly unrecognizable. It was as if the magic had just faded.

This feeling of disappointment also happened with Diana Gabaldon, whose books I blasted through until The Fiery Cross, which, cool name aside (and the fact that it takes place in my home state, albeit in the 18th century) I just couldn’t get through. She’d made some choices with her characters and plot that brought the narrative down to absolutely… boring.

That’s not even to mention Stephen King’s Dark Tower series finale. That deserves its own post altogether.

The worst, for me, is the most recent. I gave Neil Gaiman’s Anansi Boys to my husband two years ago and had been waiting, hoarding it since then. I knew, if all else failed, I’d have it. And… at first, it was fine. It was comfortable. I kept saying to myself, as I read, “It’s just so good to read Neil Gaiman’s book. I love Neil Gaiman. I love the simple style, love the ease of language, the playfulness.” But then my inner monologue started to switch. I said, “The two main female love interests are Rosie and Daisy? Really? That’s their names?” and then, “Gosh, Fat Charlie reminds me so much of Richard Mayhew in Neverwhere. Normal guy with normal job and normal apartment has Something Strange and Wonderful Happens… and Rosie’s an awful lot like Jessica, just not quite as selfish,” and then, “Well, surely something Exciting and Unpredictable is going to happen. Oh… no, I guess not. No, he ends up with her after all and… yeah, I guess…”

I don’t believe that every writer is perfect, nor capable of always hitting it out of the ballpark with no exceptions. Some of the greatest writers only had one or two good books, or one series, and that was it, that was all they ever did. As Tolkien famously said, “It is written in my life-blood, such as that is, thick or thin; and I can no other.”

I don’t like the feeling of disappointment, and I’m not sure what it says about me as a writer or as a reader. Heck, I get the same feeling reading my own chapters (you could have done that better, really!). And I don’t fault the authors. They’re writing their stories as best they can in the moment that they’re in. They’re human beings wielding a great power, the power of storytelling.

And sometimes, it doesn’t work right. Sometimes, the story your telling isn’t right to tell, or right for the person you’re sharing it with, or right at all.

I suppose the greatest of heroes are the imperfect ones because they’re so much closer to who we are.

Butterworth funeral home in Seattle - 1900

Butterworth funeral home in Seattle - 1900

It started out innocently enough. I have always loved the Old American West, and wanted to mash it up with fantasy, in some sort of different backgrop other than our own earth. I figured, fantasy writers do it all the time with the Renaissance and Medieval periods, so why not try it with something more recent?

I didn’t have a name for it at first. But I knew the aesthetic–brass, leather, airships, a sort of perfected industrialism that never quite was.

Steampunk.

I can only assume I absorbed the concepts from BoingBoing posts over a period of time, since I’ve been following that blog for over half a decade. And it just seeped right into my writing, struck some kind of chord in me that seemed to make all the right sense.

Soon after I discovered that I was, in fact, writing a steampunk novel, I started snooping around the Internet, searching for inspiration. And boy did I ever find it.

Speaking of the web, chances are you’ve already read Bruce Sterling’s “The Users Guide to Steampunk” on GOGBOT (it’s made the rounds already today from Jake von Slatt as well as BoingBoing, I believe). But the last bit of it really struck me as … well, breathtaking (and especially good props to his mention of Ruskin…).

Steampunk is funereal theater. It’s a pageant. A pageant selectively pumps some life into the parts of the past that can excite us, such as the dandified gear of aristocrats, peculiar brass gadgets, rather stilted personal relationships and elaborate and slightly kinky underwear. Pageants repress the aspects of the past that are dark, gloomy, ugly, foul, shameful and catastrophic. But when you raise the dead, they bring their baggage.

There’s not a lot we can do about the past; but we should never despair of it, because, as Czeslaw Milosz wisely said, the past takes its meaning from whatever we do right now. The past has a way of sticking to us, of sticking around, of just plain sticking. Even if we wrap the past around us like a snow-globe, so as to obscure our many discontents with our dangerous present, that willful act will change our future. Because that’s already been tried. It was tried repeatedly.  Look deep enough, try not to flinch, and it’s all in the record. So: never mock those who went before you unless you have the courage to confront your own illusions.

The past is a kind of future that has already happened.

When I started this blog, I had finished The Aldersgate. The idea was that I’d post the edited chapters, one at a time, and podcast them. Seems like a pretty straight-forward plan, right? The name made sense, the format and structure made sense.

It’s all fine and good, but I realize I painted myself into a funny little corner. As editing has progressed I realized my little novel isn’t so little, nor uncomplicated. The more I edit, the more I discover; the more I discover, the more I change; the more I change, the more the book looks less and less like the first version and more like something new entirely.

And since my pace isn’t anywhere near as fast as I thought it’d be, this blog has become, ultimately, a writer’s blog about a host of subjects, from the process of writing, to trends in steampunk writing and culture, to music and history, to fantasy writing and science fiction.

Ultimately I realize I made a blog for a book, when I should have made a blog for myself as a writer. I suppose in a way it’s comfortable to hide behind something, like a book–but eventually personality wins out. So I’m contemplating renaming the site (not the address, as that’s impossible) and rethinking my approach a little more. The Aldersgate is a well-intended endeavor and, I keep telling myself any, a worthy one. But the more I edit and rewrite, the more I want to challenge myself and get it right. It’s a big story–a huge story, the largest and most ambitious I’ve ever tried to tell. And I don’t want to risk the telling by taking shortcuts.

So, suffice it to say, this blog jumped the gun a bit. Although, in my defense, when I sat down to serialize the novel I really did think it was 90% there. I just found out it was really closer to, oh, 20%. I’ve never been good at math.

To all the readers and friends I’ve made in the last few months, thank you. I’m rapidly approaching 10,000 views (?!?) and am ever amazed and inspired by the people I’ve come to know through this blog. Expect lots more from me as the months pass into the next year, and prepare yourself for new adventures!

KnightsTM

KnightsTM

From what I’ve been reading, people certainly feel as if there’s something amiss with what epic fantasy being published today. Either there isn’t enough of it, it’s dead (or not), it’s dying (or not), or it’s just lacking a je ne sais quoi. Certainly, I feel that perhaps it isn’t as pervasive as it once was, and has, in some cases, become either complete cliche or entirely inaccessible.

Paul Jessup linked to an article from IRoSF this morning on a somewhat unrelated subject, but indicated that sf/f makes up a little over 17% of the market, over $700 million. But if you think about that number, and what it includes, that’s quite a width and breadth.

In the 60s, when fantasy was “new”, fantasy as a genre had yet to be branded. There were no tie-ins yet, no movies, or light-up mugs. Most of the conversation then was fantasy writing and its connection to the myths and legends of bygone eras, more fodder for medievalists than the media.

And now, almost fifty years later, we’re in a very different world. Everyone understands, or so they think, what fantasy writing is. It’s swords, sorcery, sorcerors… usually included in the mix are some brawny dudes, scantily clad lasses, and sidekicks with clever quips. Right?

Well not exactly, of course. Those of us who write and read the genre know that it’s a great deal more complicated than that, and that real epic fantasy doesn’t just rewrite (because that’s important) but it challenges our ideas and preconceptions, too.

What I see in the market that is slightly disturbing to me is the adherence to brands in fantasy literature. This happens in SF too, and to a similar degree–but I don’t think it’s bled into the mainstream as much. There seems to be a great deal of new, exciting, unusual work being done in SF, but seemingly less in fantasy writing.

So, there are approximately 10 million subscribers to WoW (if every WoW subscriber bought one fantasy novel a year, even in paperback, that’d account for nearly the entire statistic above). You’d imagine they’re the perfect folks to get into epic fantasy–clearly they have a thing for armor, quests, etc, ad nauseam. But are they buying new epic fantasy, too? Or are they sticking with more familiar territory, like WoW novels, Forgotten Realms, Dragonlance, that sort of thing? Do the markets coincide much? I know they do, on some level, because I’ve met plenty of intelligent WoWers. But is it a wide enough trend to make a difference? Has fantasy in general become so mainstream that it’s too hard to do seriously any longer?

I just wonder if people are more likely to pick up something familiar, something branded, because it’s comfortable. It won’t challenge, it won’t discomfit, it will just be entertaining. And there isn’t anything wrong with that, if that’s the case, but it does shed some light into an increasingly complex genre.

So, as writers of fantasy, then, do we write what the readers want to read, or do we challenge them? Do we put success higher up in our priorities than telling the stories we feel are most important?

I’m not really sure, when it comes to it. I want to see more epic fantasy that pushes the envelope, that gets everyone talking… just not sure where it’ll come from, or when, or how. Maybe I already missed it? Maybe the Golden Age is passed, and we have to work harder to make the next age as impressive.

I’ve been following Wil Wheaton’s blog posts for the last… um… long time. I don’t know when I started reading, but I know it was sometime in college, which dates me back at least six years (unless I misremember… anyway, it’s been a while). When I first started reading, I was admittedly a fangirl who had a longstanding crush on Gordy Lachance and, later, Wesley Crusher (the sweaters… I swear it was the sweaters).

At any rate. What’s completely awesome about Wil is that he is a consummate geek, which I’m sure is news to no one. And ALSO he’s a writer. I’ve found myself reading his posts about writing with more attention over the years, and consistently surprised and often moved by what I’ve read and learned.

I’ve been mulling about today, discouraging myself at every turn, generally feeling bad for myself that I don’t have enough time to write the ideas in my head, and disappointed in the quality of writing that I’ve actually been doing. It’s a crap place to be, you know?

And here I am, the DNC playing in front of me on mute (I hate rehearsed speeches, but am mildly curious as to what’s going to go down tonight) I open up Google Reader, and note Wil’s last post: i thought i was the only one. And… wow. That post was so exactly what I needed to read. Not only was he talking about the crap we put ourselves through as writers, but he cited some of the coolest, geekiest, most wonderfullest writers around: John Scalzi, Elizabeth Bear, and Cherie Priest.

Not to mention this bit that sounds so much like me lately, it borders on eerie (emphasis mine, and current state):

From time to time, I get creatively exhausted and no matter how hard I try, I can’t put two words togeher. Usually, it happens after I get across a particularly important deadline, like my brain just shuts down and refuses to do anything until I take time off and recover HP. Problem is, I always feel guilty, like I’m being a deadbeat while Anne does real work during these times. Other times, I feel like a ferret on meth, struggling to help my fingers keep up with my brain as it unleashes idea after idea at me.

I don’t know Wil, personally. But it just makes me feel kinda fuzzy to know that the dude I crushed on TNG is one of my kind, one of my peeps. And it’s especially awesome to feel like there’s some great geek writer’s wavelength out there that we can hang on to, and remind ourselves that no, we are not alone. We are, in fact, in it together… just very much engrossed in our own universes and galaxies…

So, thanks, Wil. You are so very full of win.

When I started writing novels, I don’t think I was aware of what I was doing. I certainly didn’t do it for fame or fortune, for notoriety or notice. It was a compulsion, something I simply had to do. That’s hard to explain to people who don’t write, I suppose–but perhaps we all have things in our life that work that way, talents or compulsions or what have you that materialize out of nowhere but stick. It’s a strange habit, and a solitary one (although I did write two books with cowriters when I was really young).

Sometimes, when I feel in the doldrums, or–like recently–I have so many novel ideas sloshing around in my head I can’t make sense of it all, I sit back and think like a kid. You know, when I was twelve and writing, it didn’t matter who liked what I read, or how clever I had to be. I wrote from the deepest, most intensely passionate part of me, without a filter, for the pure, unadulterated joy of it. I was prolific. I was dedicated. I, of course, sucked. But I was telling stories, building worlds, and escaping the harsh realities of my own life into a multicolored palette of sheer fantasy.

And reminding myself of that, well… it helps keep me focused. It helps me to remember that this gift, or what have you, has been with me as long as I could string enough paragraphs together to make a chapter. And even a little of that passion, that drive, and that wonder–well, it goes a long way, doesn’t it?

Photo by John Weir

Photo by John Weir

There is a crisis, as I see it, among the younger generation of girls in our society. Younger and younger, they seem to slough off their identities as children and strive to be the wrong kind of women. Mini skirts, huge sunglasses, hair extensions–these Lindsay Lohan Paris Hiltons often haven’t even hit puberty yet, and are wearing high-heels and carrying around metallic purses.

Where are they getting this from? Well, the media is all over the Britney/Lindsay/Parises of the world, and young girls are certainly listening. Even the Hannah Montana craze is like a slightly toned down version of the whole media message, but nice enough for moms and dads not to mind.

When I was younger, I was annoyed that there weren’t enough good books for me to read. I hated all the babysitter crap, the dewy eyed high-school romance books, and the millions of books about horses. (Why does everyone assume little girls love horses? Clearly, unicorns are far superior.) Most of my friends ate this stuff up, blasting through entire series in the blink of an eye and gushing about the love lives of their favorite fictive babysitters.

And it’s gotten much, much worse. The top selling books these days are, as I heard one bookseller explain, “Sex and the City for kids!”

What’s the solution to this? Geekdom.

Growing up, I had an idea I was a geek, but I didn’t know what to make of myself. If I had someone older help me through, I might have managed a little better and gained a little more confidence. I needed a role model that told me learning about the space-time continuum was cool, that memorizing the lineages of Hobbits was a perfectly respectable past-time and that, yes, unicorns are awesome. As it was, I took the long, hard road.

The thing is, girls need to understand that “girl power” has nothing to do with having a Coach bag and a Blackberry. It’s about being confident, about being strong and smart and beautiful from the inside out. Finding the right book, the right author, the right story, can change a girl’s life forever. I’m confident of that–heck, it happened to me.

For me, Madeline L’Engle was that voice. In the third grade I started with A Wrinkle in Time and the rest is history. L’Engle’s Meg Murry (and consequent other heroines) were role models for me–often slightly geeky girls with glasses who just “didn’t fit in” and yet, in the end, are capable of the near-impossible. L’Engle inspired my imagination, bolstered my confidence, and helped me to see that yes, I could do great things, too. Not to mention that her books helped me realize something else: women can write. We can write beautifully, meaningfully, artistically. We, too, can dream the big dreams.

As parents, teachers, friends, cousins, uncles, aunts… well, we really should do what we can to impact young girls’ lives. People are always willing to criticize the youth of today, but how many of us have been proactive in working to change that? So often, growing up, it’s the things we can’t do that define how we see ourselves (I’ll never be pretty enough, smart enough, skinny enough, fast enough)–showing someone what they can do, well, that’s magic. Real, pure, magic.

Some suggestions to start?

  • Madeline L’Engle
  • J.K. Rowling
  • Garth Nix
  • C.S. Lewis
  • Susan Cooper
  • Patricia C. Wrede
  • Lloyd Alexander

There are dozens and dozens more (there’s a great Amazon list here with some more contemporary titles, too). And how about some graphic novels while you’re at it, too? And hey, if there’s a writer that impacted you, feel free to comment away.

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