Saturday, December 29, 2012

Review: Magic, Mensa, and Mayhem

Over the past couple of years I have been making a point of broadening my reading experience, departing from favorite authors to try new folks, both big names and small press and indies. I confess, the big names have mostly disappointed, but I have been pleasantly impressed with a lot of small press books. They offer a cornucopia of stuff that is off the beaten path of what the Big 6 New York houses are competing with each other to publish. And that stuff is starting to all look the same.

Magic, Mensa, and Mayhem by Karian L. Fabian is a sly delight from Swimming Kangaroo Books, and winner of the the 2010 INDIE award for fantasy. Get past the cheesy cover and you have a fun, fast-moving tale told by a dragon, Vern. Vern is a private investigator paired with a nun, both of whom work for the Faerie Catholic Church, though in Vern's case, he was dragooned into it by St. George. He has neither all of his size nor all of the powers he was created with, having to earn them back through good works over the centuries. For an immortal dragon, this is a drag, but Vern bears up well. He is cynical, a punster, and suffers fools not at all. This makes him delightfully blunt, a character I can truly get behind.

In this adventure (there are several Vern books and stories), the bishop sends our duo to Florida to keep an eye on the magical folk who have been invited to attend a Mensa convention along with a bunch of wary mortals. There is, of course, an accompanying mystery for Vern and Grace to solve, though not a strong one. Mostly Vern spends his time dealing with magical incidents caused by his fellow attendees: pixie pranks and the like, while pursuing the uber-clean trail left by brownies rampaging through the guest rooms and trying to figure out what the elves are up to. Fabian's imagination in this regard set me laughing on several occasions. She is very good at taking existing mythology and making it her own.

She also manages to work in a plausible set of problems related to the intersection of Faerie and the "real" world of mortals, and what happens when magic and technology mix in worlds that have never known the other. Ordinary stuff becomes dangerous; the dangerous becomes a trap for the ignorant. I especially liked poor Vern dealing with the obnoxious tourists who thought he was a coin-operated kiddie ride. The underlying plot involving a get-rich scheme in Faerie has appropriate side effects and drawbacks. I could wish this plot thread had been brought out more strongly throughout, as it seems to just appear toward the second half of the book and does not really drive the action.

However, that is my biggest quibble. If you are looking for New York Deep Meaning and polished phrasing, keep looking. This is straightforward, fast storytelling, aimed at laughs that it gets, and does not purport to be anything else. I like that! Fabian's style is eminently readable, and her world is sufficiently different, as is Vern, to offer something to even the most jaded dragon aficionado. She has solid foundations for many tales to come, and I intend to read them.

I recommend Magic, Mensa, and Mayhem to anyone looking for a light read and some laugh-out-loud moments with an offbeat character. A great book for a dreary winter afternoon.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Sci Fi as the Great Equalizer

Today I welcome Anne E. Johnson to my blog, a wonderful writer with a fresh perspective. Here is what she has to say on how science fiction can help us examine the troubling, perennial problem of prejudice:



I was raised to believe―really, truly believe―that all people are created equal. That preconceptions about gender, age, creed, race, or sexual orientation are artificial and simply don’t matter. And I also believe that people can learn, over time, to see the world this way.

When I started to write my first sci-fi novel, Green Light Delivery, I approached it from that standpoint. On the whole, males and females work together equally. (I call them men and women in the novel, although it’s a non-human world.) 

All the different species in my fantastical world get along with each other. Of course, individuals don’t all necessarily adore or even respect each other (where would the conflict be if they did?), but species co-exist in peace and equality. All sexual orientations and sexual identities are accepted without prejudice.

Now, I fully acknowledge that prejudice is a complicated thing, and a world without it is probably unrealistic. Therefore, I allow some of my characters to have preconceived expectations about people different from themselves. And, maybe even more importantly, I allow my characters to doubt themselves. After all, much of the bigotry and bullying in the real world is tolerated or even allowed to flourish because people don’t stand up for themselves and declare it unacceptable. 

Webrid, the main character in Green Light Delivery (and its upcoming sequel, Blue Diamond Delivery) is a species called a Yeril. He’s large and hairy and works pushing a handcart around the city, making deliveries or selling wares on consignment. His mother did that, and so did his grandmother. It comes up often in his dialog and thought that he considers Yerils unintelligent and unambitious. When, a few times in Green Light Delivery, he learns about Yerils who have excelled in intellectual fields or traveled far and wide, he has a lot of trouble believing it.

But he learns. By the end, he realizes that, while he may not be the brainy type, and he really would just prefer to stay home with a bowl of his favorite booze, there are people who look just like him who are ambitious to a fault.

Anne E. Johnson, based in Brooklyn, writes in a variety of genres for both adults and children. Her short fiction has appeared in Drunk Monkeys, Shelter of Daylight, The Future Fire, and elsewhere. Her science fiction novel Green Light Delivery was published in 2012 by Candlemark & Gleam. Its sequel, Blue Diamond Delivery, will be released in June, 2013. Anne also writes novels for tweens. Learn more on her website, http://anneejohnson.com.

Green Light Delivery can be purchased directly from the publisher, on Amazon, and at B&N.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Real-Life Gom Jabbar

I've been really quiet the last month, and I apologize, but I do have an excuse. You know I've been battling back pain all year, and toward the end of October I started to feel very short of breath, no energy, etc. Finally, at about the point of collapse, I went to urgent care, ended up in the hospital, and discovered that the breast cancer I thought I had conquered 10 years ago has reappeared in the bones of my back and probably my lung. So...I've been a bit busy adjusting to a severe leftward turn in my life.

However, being a writer, everything is fodder for the imagination, and I admit it is much-needed therapy to be able to concentrate on other things during certain highly unpleasant episodes of late. It is somewhat ironic that the day after I left the hospital and was staying with my sister, we spent all day watching Dune and Children of Dune, the first of which, of course, includes the iconic scene of the Reverend Mother testing Paul Atreides with the Gom Jabbar to see if he is really human or an instinct-driven animal.

I had occasion to meet my own Gom Jabbar last week and again today. It is really quite amazing how attached your back is to everything else in your body, :), and how lying flat on your back for an extended period can produce intense agony. I underwent a combined CT/PET scan last week, and an MRI today. Both were real tests of "how long can you stand this?" A CT scan usually takes 5-7 minutes, not too bad on the scale when you are in a position pressing on the worst sore spot in your back. The PET scan took about 20, and I confess to severe whimpering by the end. But the thing is, you have to hold still, or it screws up the scan. No squirming, no shifting to a slightly more comfortable position. Just lie and endure. Since my pain med had to be taken with food and I couldn't have food beforehand...it was not nice.

But... BUT! Throughout that horrid 20 minutes, and throughout the equally nasty 45 minutes of the MRI today, I just kept thinking about Gom Jabbars and the fact that if I gave in and moved it would a) screw up the scan and I'd have to start over and b) I really am stronger than the damned pain. I refused to jerk my hand out of the box, so to speak. And I got through, and they don't have to do it again, and tomorrow I will know more than I did today about my condition and what lies ahead. But I do hope I don't have to do it again for quite a long time....

On a lighter note, if you've never had an MRI, it was somewhat entertaining in its own right. The thing is noisy--I mean, really noisy when those magnets start to spin, to the point they give you earplugs to ward it off. It actually helped me get my mind off the pain, because they made such different and weird sounds. I swear the image that came to mind at first was a long line of little round-headed robots all chanting "Yup!" in rhythm. Then it changed to a single, demented, two-note heavy metal chorus of "Baby!" over and over. Then it proliferated into an endless chorus line of little robots chanting in time, reminding me of the dancing silverware in the "Be Our Guest" scene of Disney's Beauty and the Beast. So long as I could focus on that it really did help get my mind out of my back. Let's hear it for noisy magnets and an overactive imagination!

So okay, writers really are weird people, and we don't see things like everyone else. Aren't you glad?

If you're so minded to try some fantasy that is off the beaten track, you can help me offset some of the medical bills by purchasing my books. Firedancer and Windrider are available in print and ebook and I also have stories in several anthologies. You can access them all directly from my website at www.sabolichbooks.com. Thanks so much!

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Firedancer a Finalist for the EPIC award

I just received word this weekend that Firedancer has made the short list for the EPIC eBook Award in the Fantasy category.The Electronic Publishing Industry Coalition is dedicated to advancing e-books as a valid alternative to print. Although Firedancer is available in both print and electronic forms, it was eligible and nominated several months ago. Now it is a finalist for what is arguably the most prestigious award for electronic publishing. Finalists are picked by jury from thousands of nominated works, so to be included on the list is an honor.

I also have the honor of having a nominated story. My short story "Wolf Dreams" is in Wolfsongs 2, a finalist in the anthology category. So, a double whammy!

I won't find out until March who wins, but for now, just being a finalist feels great. I'd like to offer my congratulations to all the other finalists as well.

You can find Firedancer and its sequel, Windrider, at all major book outlets, or go to my website and click through directly. If you've ever wondered what life would be like on a planet where wind, fire, and water are all living, thinking entities with their own agendas, these are the books for you. Seaborn will be out next year to round out the trilogy.


Sunday, October 7, 2012

A Trifecta of a Day

Heh, heh, heh. It has been a good day. Not only is it a gorgeous Indian summer day in my neck of the woods, tinted with gold and crowned with blue, but it has been productive as well. At long, long last I have all the threads of Seaborn in my hands.

This is a bigger victory than you know. This year has been a struggle on the writing front because of the concentration factor caused by my back. I've been trapped in a vicious circle for awhile, of back pain leading to no sleep leading to fuzzy concentration leading to serious drop in productivity leading to anxiety leading to insomnia... You get the picture. I've had the mental acuity of a gnat lately.

Several things clicked today. For one, I actually got a little decent sleep last night, always a plus. For another, all my winter wood is now in the barn, which means I can relax and not worry about the gathering chill at night and the slow creep of the year toward winter. I like heating my house with wood heat, not least because it is proof against power outages, of which there was one memorable 9-day marathon that was...not fun. But it is a yearly adventure getting it in. That's one.

Two, I actually remembered to haul out the ladder and sweep the chimney. I confess it was to avoid sitting on the deck pounding away at Seaborn, which until today was crawling onto the page rather than bounding with the usual exuberance of stories wanting to be told. Some of my novels have poured out like Tigger arriving at a party; Seaborn has sat there like Eeyore, stubbornly refusing to come out and join the gang. But--but!!! Somewhere between putting the ladder away and sitting back down with the laptop, Tigger must have goosed Eeyore, because the second I sat down I wrote a line of dialog that broke the whole dang plot loose.

All of it! At last I know why my sentient elements are doing what they're doing in this book. And it was waaaaaaay better than anything I imagined. Up to this point I only knew that Water was very upset, and making it known in spectacular fashion. I knew what the climactic scene would look like but I was definitely mired in the muddle in the middle trying to figure out how to get there. And I was having a bit of a hard time wrapping in the thread from Windrider that I had envisioned at the end of that book. (Yes, series can be tricky things to write when you had not originally envisioned book 1 as part of a series.) As I am firmly in the make-it-up-as-you-go camp of writers rather than the outliners who plot everything out in advance, this was not unexpected but still somewhat maddening. Usually my subconscious is much better at spinning threads together much faster.

Although each book in the Masters of the Elements series can be read as a standalone novel, independent of the rest, there is a definite overarching storyline that runs through the series, with each book picking up and advancing it. Maintaining the integrity of the story arc, making the action in previous books relevant, yet not giving away the entire plot of those books, is an interesting and complicated balance that must be kept in a series like this. Some authors just plunge ahead with the continuing story and don't give you backstory; others spend half the following book catching you up on the series. I like to ground you without burying you in detail, so that you can savor each book on its own. I am thus very grateful for that line of dialog that will now help me pick up the threads of both the previous books rather effortlessly.

Yep. I definitely hit a trifecta today!

Just from curiosity, how do you, the readers, like your series? Tolkien-fashion, as a continuing story? Dresden fashion, with a loose arc and a stand-alone set of books? Total understanding of the previous action, or just enough to feel like you know what's going on? Drop me a comment. I'd really like to know.

Next time, a Horse in Fiction post. Any suggestions or something you'd really like to know?

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Summer, Short Stories and Writing Motivation

September is down to a few hours, which seems impossible given that yesterday it was June. Or something like that. It has been a lovely summer since it finally quit raining in July, and it seems to want to linger, which I don't mind at all. Because my back is still hurting and I was awake several times last night, I had occasion to note that the air coming through the open bedroom window was not at all cold. This is good! It means I don't have to think about splitting wood for a while longer. It also means I don't have to say goodbye to summer just yet.

I love the change of seasons, though I always hate to see summer go. It always seems so long until the next year and the start of my favorite of all seasons. But this in-between time before the fall rains set in has its charms as well. I appreciate the daylight because it is getting shorter every day. I appreciate the cool evenings to ride in (as do my horses) and the colors starting to burn through the mask of green in the woods. And I appreciate the leisurely feel to autumn, which always seems to slip quietly by, unlike the frenetic summer when we're all trying to seize every moment before it's gone. You resign yourself to autumn being here, and quit worrying about mowing the grass (mine is done for the year), and just sit on the deck and breathe air that is not quite so dusty, a little bit crisp, a little bit laden with the tint of the coming cold. It shakes you out of the August doldrums and reminds you that life is out there, waiting to be captured onto the page.

My writing group, the Other Worlds Writers' Workshop, does a series of Short Story in a Week challenges twice a year, in March and September. The September challenges for this year just finished on Friday, and while I had little time to write for fun this time, I did get four stories in (usually I try for and get eight). Each time they were written on Friday, beginning sometime in the afternoon and finishing usually an hour or two before the midnight deadline. Every week I would look at the mandatory word lists and get...nothing. Only once, in Week 1, did a complete story jam itself into my head full-blown from one of the words (dollhouse). The rest were a matter of staring at the page waiting for an interesting first sentence to shape itself.

That is usually where my short stories come from: the first sentence, which leads to another sentence that intrigues me, which eventually presents a story idea, which eventually resolves itself into a plot and I can see where the story is going. At that point the thing writes itself. Up to that point the story often flounders, however, as sometimes evidenced  by the critiques from the workshop, which complain that the story starts slowly or bogs down somewhere in the middle. Yep, I get that. But sometimes you just have to wait it out, write it, and then figure out where it really starts and which bits are essential to keep.

Once again the challenges reminded me that writers write. Every single week, despite a distinct lack of enthusiasm, as soon as I sat down and said to myself, "I will get a story in", lo and behold, the tap turned on and the words came out. This happens every time I work on Seaborn as well, my current novel WIP. The problem is in wedging writing time in amid work and life obligations, lack of sleep, and the constant, concentration-blowing demand for attention from my back. Writing should not be a matter of inspiration, though it is ever so much more fun to have the words pouring out rather than being dredged up one at a time with a bucket. Motivation is a far bigger determinant as to productivity. Deadlines help. So do fans who let you know they like your books and want to read the next one. But if you don't have those, what gets you going?

For me, it's always been about simply loving to write. I actually love that blank page because it presents endless possibilities. Of late it's harder, though. When you're tired and you hurt all the time, life loses much of its wonder. Working up enthusiasm even for the things you love becomes difficult. I am, therefore, glad of the SSIAW challenges for the reminder that no matter how I feel, the words are still in there. All I have to do is get it done.

And having said that, I think I will take my achy back out onto the deck, into the nice soft chaise, plug in the laptop, and see what my characters in Seaborn are up to today. The stinkbug invasion this year is truly awesome, but the fall days when I can sit outside won't last forever. I will ignore the little monsters crawling on the house and occasionally dive-bombing my head, and write. Motivation. Yeah.

Screw that. Just do.

Seaborn will be the third book in my Masters of the Elements series begun in Firedancer and continued in Windrider Thank you all for the kind reviews thus far! I hope you enjoy Seaborn as well when it comes out next spring.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Horses in Fiction: How Fast Should I Go?

Note, dear writers and readers, that the title of this piece is not "How fast can I go?" but "How fast should I go?" If you can discern why that is crucial at this point, congrats! You've probably given thought to the fact that your poor equine beasties are not machines. If you're scratching your head right now, then read on.

I recently reviewed a decent book that had a good story and, to be fair, was not focused around horsey things, but since it used horses as basic transportation I naturally took note of how well the author did or didn't portray them. Alas, in this case, the author fell straight into the Hollywood trap of the bottomless stamina of the saddle horse. His character had a powerful warhorse (naturally) and never... walked... it... a... step. The poor beast never even trotted in the book. The guy cantered or galloped it everywhere, for miles and miles on end. And the horse never seemed to get tired!

Bleh.

When I pointed this out to the author, he was surprised. To his credit, he was perfectly willing to learn, not being a horse person himself. He said that he had assumed the canter would be easier on the rider and so that's why his character cantered everywhere.

Oh, my. He's right in that the canter is infinitely easier to ride for most people than a trot, especially if you never learned to post (rise from the saddle every other stride in rhythm to the horse's trot). But if you want to get anywhere on horseback and have a horse at the end, the speed is not about the rider but about the horse. Back when shank's mare and the old gray mare were your two basic choices for overland travel, the beast of choice was an ambler, a horse or mule with an easy gait like a pace or what evolved into the running walk or slow gait. Breeds like the Tennessee Walking Horse, American Saddlebred, Paso Fino and Missouri Foxtrotter all evolved through conscious search for easy-gaited animals who could offer a comfortable ride for long days in the saddle. For long journeys or inspections of ye old plantation, comfort was wonderful. But rider comfort is secondary in any situation where the horseman depends on his mount. Getting where you're going with a live, healthy beast is more important than whether you get jounced a little on the way.

Running your horse everywhere gets you exactly as far as you get before the horse drops dead under you, which may or may not be your actual destination. For well-conditioned horses, that's a lot farther than the average backyard beast can manage, but there is still that hard limit. Expecting to ride 50 miles a day endlessly is just so not in the cards. Twenty miles in the mountains is a long day (trust me). For well-conditioned horses and riders on decent roads in not particularly difficult terrain, 30 is a good average and still leaves you time every evening to care for your animals. After that, it gets iffy, because rain, snow, mud, availability of grass, group size, and a hundred other factors start to play into the equation. But speed is the issue here, so let's stick to the conscious decision of the rider, who is, after all, the guy controlling how fast his horse is being made to move.

Extraordinary circumstances, such as a military forced march, may necessitate pushing the stock way past what they can handle--and the commander has to accept the subsequent losses as horses break down and fall out along the wayside. This leaves part of your command on foot and the rest with blown, exhausted horses unable to do much at the far end of the march. In normal circumstances, the pace is always set predicated on what the animals can handle for the day, not on how fast Mr. Imperious Rider wants to get there. It really doesn't matter if the road is good and the grass hasn't all been grazed to nothing by all the travelers who've been this way ahead of you. Your horse is simply incapable of running everywhere under your weight without breaks. Even the Pony Express went flat out for just a few miles, then changed horses and sped on again.

A horse's best traveling gait (and easiest on the rider) is a good long walk. Next is a trot, which many horses can keep up for quite a long time. The trot is, however, much harder to ride. The western "jog", which is a vastly slower trot, is easier to sit but, for me at least, induces a screaming sideache pretty quickly and it's not at all speedy. In a natural trot the horse flows freely and carries himself better, which means his back and legs hold up better over longer distances. The rider can help him enormously by not sitting in the saddle like a sack of potatoes, rump banging away against the saddle seat at every stride. Posting puts the rider's weight in the stirrups, evenly distributed across the horse's back through the saddle tree, every other stride. He "sits" just for a second on the second stride, then rises again. This greatly improves the horse's stamina and it's a lot easier on the rider as well. A rider who learns to post does it naturally and can keep it up pretty much as long as the horse can.

If you're in a hurry, trot a couple of miles, walk a while, trot some more, walk, repeat. You can cover enormous amounts of ground this way, much more than if you tried to gallop the whole distance. Case in point: My father once rode his incomparable Saddlebred, Fox, 42 miles in 28 hours in the Cascade Mountains to find help for my grandfather, whose horse had gone over backward on him and broken his pelvis. Fox, being a Saddlebred, had a wonderful natural extended trot, which Dad used to effect on every foot of ground that wasn't straight up and down, and walked the rest to give Fox a breather. He did it in a western saddle, pretty much standing in the stirrups during the trot phases.

So. If your fictional riders and horses are on the move, ask yourself where they're going and when they have to be there. There is no excuse to needlessly push the horses, and if your heroes are in a hurry for a reason, then remember that their poor ponies are not machines. It doesn't matter if the princess is going to be executed at dawn; put your hero a plausible distance away if you are going to have him run his horse into the ground getting there to save her. I don't care how good the beast is, he's not going to cover 200 miles in a night. Overnight forced marches of 50 miles are on record, however. And even then they weren't running their beasts, but likely traveling a good, steady six miles an hour for 10-12 hours, with rest breaks. For the sake of your horse and your groaning audience, give your poor pooped pony a rest now and then.

One good little overview of historical foot and cavalry "standard" march rates is here along with some "notable" marches made by both.

Until next time! I'll be working on Seaborn in between, which I am pleased to report progresseth apace. If you want to catch up on the series, Firedancer and Windrider are both available in print and as ebooks.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

On Pain and Productivity

You may have noticed this blog has been quiet for a while. Not because I don't want to do it, mind you. I can plead all sorts of excuses, including the need to work on Seaborn (due December 31), revise a drawer-dwelling series my publisher wants, promote Firedancer and Windrider, visits to cons, and life in general. Yeah, all of those things apply, but the biggest thing keeping me away is something I've never had to really deal with before.

Chronic pain.

Back in January I developed a nasty little ache under my left shoulder blade that I took for a tension knot, to which I'm prone from time to time. I did the usual ice/heat thing, expecting it to go away. It didn't. Then I thought, well, maybe it was the fall I took in December while carrying an armload of firewood across my frosty and very slick deck, wherein I landed flat on my back with no chance to catch myself. Since I am allergic to doctors (the last time I knew absolutely that I needed to go I ended up in chemo), and very patient, I resolved to just let it heal. This rather simple philosophy has stood me in good stead over my lifetime. I hate taking pills and a little common sense goes a long way toward helping the body get better fast.

Alas, my expectations were disappointed. Over many months it went from the occasional flare-up of a dull, naggy sort of ache to a maddening, continuous thing I naturally couldn't reach. Every time I thought I really should go see about it, the stars would align or something and the pain would go away for a week or two or three, then return for no particular reason. Over the past couple of months it slowly progressed to where no position was comfortable. Sitting down meant my back was in contact with a chair. I created a standing desk (very good for you anyway) which helped a lot, but there was that pesky bed to be faced every night. My mattress became my enemy. The nagging became jabbing, finally convincing me that yes, pain was created to force you to pay attention.

Part of my reluctance to run to the doctor stemmed from a couple of highly unsatisfactory experiences wherein I got stuck with big bills for absolutely no relief and deer-in-the-headlights reactions from the PAs delegated to my case instead of actual doctors. However, expecting not much, I finally did go to the doc, who did...not much. No x-rays to find any underlying problem, no recommended physical therapy to unlock the muscles. In conversation he was willing to admit there were "adjustments" to be made to the spine but would not do it himself because of the slight chance that cancer might be causing the problem. I got the distinct impression he was willing to let a chiropractor do it but was afraid of a malpractice suit if he did it. While I felt sorry for him I really just wanted answers and a cure. No joy. He gave me some muscle relaxants and a prescription for lidoderm patches (ten bucks apiece!) that naturally the insurance doesn't pay for. He also recommended massage and a chiropractor. Not hoping for much, I reluctantly took the pills and slapped on the patches.

Over the past two weeks the pain got exponentially worse, leading to a desperate trip to a very young chiropractor, who, God bless her, seems to have more than a clue. She started with x-rays showing the beginnings of slight rotation and a non-intrusive test that pinpointed with incredible accuracy the screaming muscles. The second visit erased the pain spreading up to my shoulder and has reduced the by-now sharply jabby knot back to its whining (persistent and teeth-clenching) ache. I have hopes that the next few "adjustments" will get things back to normal. Do I wish I had listened to myself three months ago? Yes, indeed, but the specter of futile service in exchange for a big fat bill had a rather large finger on the scale. As it turned out, that whispering voice turned out to be speaking the truth. Had I listened to my horseshoer back in June I would have gone to the chiropractor first. :)

So, why have I whined about this to you guys? Because I now have a whole new appreciation for people who live with chronic conditions. You can sympathize with the person in the wheelchair, the guy with the white cane, the hearing-impaired, the chronically ill, but you can't really "get it" until you've lived their life even in part, even for a little while. I have been blessed for most of my life with a healthy, supple, agile body that lets me bend, stretch, pull, push, climb, and run however I like. I am accustomed to digging post holes, wrestling with BIG rocks for my landscaping, handling fractious horses, and figuring out how to do difficult physical projects by myself. I actually rejoice in the challenges, because the feeling of accomplishment afterward is wonderful. Letting my body dictate to me is something I just don't do. And like most healthy people, I have, I fear, been somewhat vague in my notions of what true disability really entails. Until now.


In this brief but icky period of my life, my writing output has dropped from 5-6 thousand words a day to a few hundred, all of them forced, and sometimes none. My concentration has been centered in my back instead of on the adventures of my characters in Seaborn. The words simply stopped bubbling up from the endless well in the back of my head, a frightening and depressing reality. For a writer, when the words stop...life stops.

However, adjusting to reality is something we all must do constantly throughout our lives by jettisoning the whining and getting on with what needs to be done. I have always greatly admired people with genuine disabilities who don't let their bodies steal their dreams, but find a way to do what inspires them anyway. One of my favorite movies is "If You Could See What I Hear," based on a real story about a man blind from birth. When I look at a double amputee in the Olympics I can only think, "Wow" and resolve to quit whining about my little backache.

I am jettisoning the excuses today. Yes, my back still hurts, but I am resolved to simply write anyway and resume my life. Hence, this first blog post in a month.

I am grateful for continuing life lessons, however small, however nasty. My encounter with cancer spurred me to put writing to the forefront of my life again. This incident serves as a warning that I need to listen harder to my body--but also as a reminder of how fortunate I really am. 


Monday, July 16, 2012

If a Firedancer and Windrider Get Together...?

Wow, summer certainly slides by fast once it gets here. Between conventions and haying season, my time has been a bit crunched of late. We had a whole wonderful week of excellent weather in which I got the first half of my hay in, only to have the clouds and storms return and the rest got rained on. Sooo...now I get to look for a couple of tons that made it into the barn while the sun was shining. Heh. Now you know what lies behind that old horsey saw, "Make hay while the sun shines." It just isn't any good otherwise.

I do owe another Horses in Fiction post but this time I want to depart a little from the usual. I'm starting a blog tour today for the next month or so, and a lot of the interview questions have got me to thinking about what to share about my world of Metrenna and the characters who inhabit it. I am always afraid of giving spoilers that will ruin the reading experience, as I've never been one to flip to the end first (except for Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, because I had a bet on as to who died. I won. :) ) It's kind of a fine line to walk between talking about the good stuff and giving away the whole plot.

With that said, one thing I do think is fun to talk about is the idea of so many types of distinct magic-wielders in one world. There are four "talented" clans on Metrenna, each tasked with controlling one element: Fire, Water, Wind, and Earth. None of them can do what the others do, and common folk can't wield any of their powers. You are born to the Firedance or you're not, and that's just the end of it.

However (she said)! It appears that in all of time none of the clans has ever produced a Romeo and Juliet determined to marry across the clan divides, mostly because the clans just don't come together that much except in times of exceptional crisis. Well, they're in one now, and extraordinary circumstances make for extraordinary leaps in attitude. So, what would be the result of a Firedancer and a Watermaster getting together? Or a Windrider and a Delver, one born to the heights, one to the depths? Or a Firedancer and a Windrider, those two most dangerously mixed elements of fire and air? The possibilities sort of boggle the mind. Would the mix of talents produce something extraordinary in turn--or cancel each other out and you'd end up with a child unable to wield either of its parents' abilities? This, by the way, is not really a moot question...

I very much like the idea of incompatible magic wielded by people who are not inherently hostile to each other. What about you? Does it spark possibilities or seem to limit the world?

Check out my interview at The Seraphine Muse today, which not only gives some background on The Masters of the Elements series, but an exclusive sneak peek at Seaborn, the upcoming third book in the series. You can also hop out to Goodreads and sign up for a signed first edition print copy of Firedancer, or buy it outright at your favorite book outlet online.

And do leave your thoughts on love, magic, and the permutations thereof in the comments!

Friday, June 29, 2012

On Sharing and Not Sharing

I sometimes get asked why I don't blog more often, or don't talk about my daily life like some writers do. Fact is, my daily life is relatively boring and I can't imagine that anyone would be interested. I have two horses, four cats, a dog, and 20 acres, a big yard, and a house to maintain, which means that in between writing, revising, reading manuscripts to critique for various writers' workshops, and marketing finished stuff...there's not a lot of time for "interesting." Wanna know how to hang 20-foot 2x6 rails by yourself? I could tell you, but honestly, is that really what you want to know?

Let's face it, even I can't make patching fence, mowing grass, and spraying knapweed exciting. Oh, wait. Scratch that latter part. I did, actually, kinda sorta turn destroying knapweed (oh so happily and joyfully) into something exciting. My war on knapweed is the whole underpinning of Firedancer, as I've explained numerous times on guest blogs. My frustration with the pernicious stuff is entirely my character Jetta's frustration with fighting an enemy she knows she can never definitely beat. Talk about fantasy!

On the flip side, I LOVE to talk about horses with anyone I can get to stand still and listen. Or writing. Or history. There are dozen of subjects I like to discuss. Sex, religion and politics are not among them, though I have passionate beliefs about all three. But...I am old-fashioned enough to believe some things don't belong in polite conversation. There are just too, too many other fascinating subjects in the world to get sucked into uncivil flame wars. So let's not go there, eh? Someday, if I get to know you, and you catch me in the right mood at a con, maybe...but not here.

Sometimes the only interesting things that happen in my day are the miserable, unexpected, uncomfortable things, like having to push my dead riding lawnmower up my (very long) driveway. Do you know how much those things weigh? And it's uphill! Pant, pant. I shy away from that stuff, too, because breaking myself of whining about things I can't change is an ongoing process. I remember how, when I had cancer ten years ago, a friend at work immediately tried to sympathize with "I bet you're wondering why me?" I'm not sure she understood when I told her it didn't matter; I just wanted to survive it and move on.

For the same reason, when I was a platoon leader in the Army and later, a project manager for various companies, I never cared about whose fault it was that the project was in a mess when I got there. My focus was on getting it straightened out, not assigning blame. I figured the guilty parties would either seize the opportunity to do better, or backslide and out themselves, and either way the problem would resolve itself.

Don't sweat the small stuff.

That, too, is an ongoing learning process for me, because I am a perfectionist about my work; I like my place to look nice; I want to do right by the various responsibilities in my life. I have had to learn to say "good enough for government work" and walk away when the small stuff really doesn't matter (like when I'm tired and the yard still needs to be weed whipped. Like now.) I have had to learn to let my publisher drag the manuscript out of my resistant fingers and live with the finished product. I try to make sure it's perfect when it goes, and to not kick myself if something got missed. One thing that cancer taught me was to pick my priorities better.

So, now you know why I don't talk much about moi in this space. Which is not to say I never will. If something interesting happens (like me winning a Hugo. Snort.) I'll be sure to let you know. I may even, in a weak moment, regale you with lawnmower tales. Actually, I would rather hear from you guys. What do YOU want to talk about (oh, please keep it clean!)?

Of, course, this is all moot if no one is reading these pages at all!

Thanks for stopping by. I hope to hear from you.

Sue

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Bound for Westercon!

Heh. Just got my schedule for Westercon today. If you're going to be in Seattle July 5-8, stop by the Doubletree next to SeaTac and join me. I have a bunch of panels and other fun things:

Thursday July 5
Reading: 4:00 in Cascade 5
Panel: Bringing Order to Chaos (worldbuilding), 6:00 in Cascade 3-4

Friday July 6
Panel: Line Editing vs. Story Editing, 10:00 in Cascade 7-8
Panel: Inventing Culture (worldbuilding), 12:00 in Cascade 13
Panel: The Series: Why do We Love Them? Why do We Hate Them?, 1:00, Cascade 13
Panel: Teaching Through Imaginary Worlds, 5:00 Cascade 5

Saturday July 7
Panel: Medieval Miscellany, 11:00 Cascade 2
Autograph session: 3:00 Autograph 2

I'll be reading from both Firedancer and Windrider and explaining the background of the series (and taking questions) during my reading on Thursday. And, of course, you can get the books signed at the session on Saturday.

I love meeting new people at cons and being able to answer fan questions face to face. Come on down to the Doubletree if you're in the area and look me up!

Monday, June 18, 2012

Horses in Fiction: The Annoying Horse

Kalup is the pack horse front and center.
He got revenge on all that stuff
Okay, I am an expert on annoying horses. Kalup was in a class all by himself in that regard. He was born a fiddler and never changed, although he had his (very) endearing qualities to keep himself from ending up on the business end of my dad's rifle. He did come close once, at that. Every fall my father went hunting deep in the mountains and used the horses to pack out the game. Kalup did not take kindly to standing around in camp being bored all day. A master at untying himself, he spent all day while everyone was off hunting getting himself loose, then trashed the entire camp, scattering stuff for fifty yards around. Imagine the scenario when everyone returned: Tired hunters. Loaded rifles. Smug horse. Severe temptation.

No matter how much we love our horses, every horse owner experiences times we just want to shoot them and be done. Even the well-mannered ones can forget themselves in the heat of the moment, or when they find themselves bored, tired, hungry, thirsty, or in a scary situation. How does that manifest?

Boredom


Bored older horse cribbing (sucking wind).
Note that the cribbing collar isn't stopping him.
Yes, even animals with small brains can become bored. Very bored. By nature, horses are meant to wander large areas in search of food and water, grazing their way along between water holes. When full, they stand around swishing flies until hungry again, at which point, they graze their way along to the next favorite spot. When confined, however, to small paddocks and stables and restricted to two or three fixed meals a day, they have nothing at all to do the rest of the time but swish flies and be bored. They have all kinds of energy built up by the often very rich food fed to them, and it has to go somewhere. It can manifest as stable vices like chewing wood, weaving (literally rocking back and forth or swinging their heads endlessly), pawing, and wind sucking (grabbing onto the nearest projection and gulping down air). It can also come out in sour attitudes, flattened ears, charging for the stable door or gate whenever it's opened, shoving, running over you to get to the turnout area where horsey can kick up his heels and have some fun, and other dangerous behavior. Sometimes it is just weird. When Kalup was stabled at Ft. Lewis, the woman with the next paddock had white electrical tape strung around the top of her fence to discourage contact between him and her horse. She didn't know Kalup. He calmly timed the electrical pulses and drew crowds to watch him strum his upper lip on the tape--for hours. All of his stable toys were less fascinating to him than risking getting zapped.

The tied horse may occupy himself digging a trench to China, and you will come back to find him standing down by the head, knee-deep in his private hole. The Forest Service does not take kindly to these beasts. He may also investigate the lead rope, and either chew it in half, untie it, or pull back and jerk the knot so tight it takes an hour to undo it. He may tangle himself if you tie him too long, or even hang himself. My nephew's supposedly well-broken horse broke his neck lunging into a tree when he decided he didn't want to be tied up anymore. There are a thousand ways to make camp scenes interesting/dangerous/tragic with your fictional bored horse.


Fatigue

Tired horses quickly become crabby horses and lose their tolerance for the usual run-of-the-mill annoyances. A horse that usually will not take offense at being crowded by another might suddenly haul off and let the offender have it with one or both hind hooves, or whip his neck around like a snake with flattened ears and teeth bared. He may continually try to pull the reins out of the rider's hand and head off in some direction he thinks will get him home faster (he may be right). He might try to lie down. He might start jigging or tossing his head and displaying general signs of impatience with the whole day's program. He may become very balky and refuse to keep going. He may try to rub you off on the nearest tree. He may sidle off the trail in an attempt to get his way. Pushing him in this state is just mean, and your fictional hero had better have a really good reason. At some point the poor beast will just wear out and quit, and no amount of beating will get him going again.

The tired horse is also usually sweaty and itchy. He wants that saddle and bridle off right dang now. The second you dismount, a horse with lousy ground manners will immediately try to rub his itchy head on anything in sight, starting with the fence, progressing to you, and finally to his front leg if all else fails. While he may appreciate all your careful grooming, odds are it will all be ruined two seconds after you turn him loose, because he will instantly flop down in the dirt and roll the itch out. In this regard, Kalup had one endearing habit. He was too well-trained to rub on me or the fence, but he would happily rub his forehead against my outstretched palm for ten minutes at a time, and become blissful when I scratched below his ears.

Hunger/Thirst

Don't get between hungry Horsey and his food. Or between him and the water trough when he is dripping sweat and desperate for a drink. Most horses will wait their turn, but the poorly trained or excited animal will not. His training goes on hold and his brain goes into neutral and he will scramble over pretty much anything in his path, from you to other horses to large boulders and fallen trees to get to the object of his desire. If he is aggressive he will think nothing of walking over the top of you, dragging you with him by the reins, shouldering you aside, even nipping at you to clear a path. He may sidle or run excited rings around you even if you have a firm grip right at the bit, and not be at all fussy where he puts his feet. You may have a very hard time holding him back, especially from water. He can jerk hard enough to give you rope burns, dislocate your shoulder, or send you stumbling along three or four steps before you catch your balance. It is very easy to end up on the ground if he butts you with his nose or shoves you with his shoulder, and if your hero holds onto the reins he/she could end up being trampled or dragged. I can tell you that I don't care how strong the man; a really desperate horse has all the advantages in weight and frenzy, and holding onto him is nearly impossible if he loses it enough to begin striking at you.

One exceptionally annoying habit among some horses is refusing to drink in strange venues. Pilot went thirsty his first two days in the mountains because he would not drink from the only sources--a rushing stream and a bucket that tasted of the plastic holding tank in my horse trailer. He didn't know how to deal with moving water and it scared him to boot until he got thirsty enough to figure it out. Other horses will not drink funny-smelling water from strange troughs (chlorinated or mossy). Some show people get around this by using Kool-Aid to make it all taste the same no matter where they go. It is really true that you can lead a horse to water but you cannot make him drink. A really thirsty horse will drink from a scummy mud puddle, however.

If he is hungry, a mannerless horse is not above taking the food out of your hand, shoving you aside with his nose or thrusting his muzzle into the bucket hard enough to dislodge all the contents and dump the whole thing on the ground (and you, too). You may end up standing in a nice circle of scattered hay he has knocked from your grasp while he runs off with his stolen mouthful. This is especially common in herds where the low guys in the pecking order are really hungry because the more dominant horses have been guarding the food. You can get badly hurt by horses jockeying for position or trying to get at the food as you're distributing it if your horses are not separated into stalls or other feeding areas.

Hungry horses are noisy horses. At any movement in camp or at the stable door they will start up a morning chorus of "Feed me! Now!" There will be lots of whinnying and snorting and hopeful huh-huh-huhing. There will be jostling, laid-back ears, and threatening among the tied beasts, who will happily take out their frustrations on their buddies. Many will start pawing to emphasize that you should hurry (or start in at oh-dark-thirty in hopes of waking you up). They will be sidling impatiently around whatever they're tied to and their heads and ears will be up and straining to spot you coming their way. Don't count on sleeping late when traveling with horses.

Fear

Horsey can become annoying very quickly when he's nervous. Nellie, being herdbound to the max, completely loses it when asked to go somewhere she's not seen before (even reversing a normal route) because then she is uncertain where home lies. At that point she begins fussing with the bit, starts to pull, dances through and over anything in her path, and generally loses her tiny mind. And she's way better now than when I started with her. Sigh.

Very annoying habits of scared equines include leaping without looking (onto the horse ahead, sideways into the brush, or over anything in their path); whirl and run, also without looking; fretting, head-tossing, grabbing at the bit, bulling their way into the bit in hopes of overpowering you, and outright bucking or bolting in an attempt to get rid of you or leave behind whatever is scaring them. They will take giant leaps into water or bogs or anything else if they feel threatened from behind or see themselves being left by the other horses. They take little heed of anything in their way in their departure from the threat zone. This often gets them hurt but they don't actually care until it's all over. You are then stuck patching up the pieces.

There are a million ways for horses to be annoying, from balking at every strange sight on the trail to unlatching gates and pooping in the water bucket. Such habits, however, make for interesting equines in your fiction, a wonderful departure from the usual perfectly trained background beasts.

I invite you to add your pet horsey peeves in the comments! I have barely scratched the surface here, and I know for sure I haven't seen all the ways a horse can aggravate his rider.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

In Search of Character

Eh, no, not my character. I'm afraid I'm rather well stuck with what I have there. As I work on Seaborn, though, Book 3 of my Masters of the Elements series, I am continually bemused by the power of a character to leap off the page in unexpected ways.

I have a couple of personal tools I am using for this book to get into my character's head rather than just let her grow organically off the page like usual. I was somewhat stuck when I first sat down to put fingers to keyboard on this one. The last thing I want is to write a series that uses basically the same plot and character difficulties/personalities. Jetta in Firedancer is a very strong leader type (so much so that she's been nominated as Best Hero in the E-Festival of Words Best of the Independent eBook awards). In Windrider, the hero, Sheshan, is a quiet sort of guy who is not out to save the world until suddenly it becomes imperative that he step up. I didn't know anything about the lead character in Seaborn except that she would be a woman (for ulterior reasons that will be revealed by book's end). But what sort of woman? Young, old, middle-aged? Haughty, shy, very powerful, a beginner? Someone jolted into power or eagerly seeking it? All of these are common tropes and I wanted something more.

Clueless, I turned to my handy-dandy spreadsheet of character traits and began randomly picking things that looked interesting that might attach to this woman. Each of them had a story to tell, but was it the right story? Thin? Is that the body type of all Water Clan folk? How about an unusual voice? Would that be normal, the result of an injury, or what? Is it beautiful, raspy, barely understandable? A limp? How would it affect her and where did it come from? My mind ran down a hundred fruitless tracks, none of them leading to good places insofar as plot and workability and what this character would want or need to achieve in the course of the book.

None of those got used, by the way. The one that actually sparked my "Eureka!" moment was this one: exceptional posture. Oh, my. Suddenly my brain switched on. I pictured a young woman standing very straight, her shoulders stiffly squared, her chin up, her back defiant. Why was she this way? Is she this way all the time? Suddenly I could "hear" the reactions of all my other characters to her clamoring in my mind. I got a good snort out of Settak's. And then I knew that this girl had a story to tell.

No, not girl. A young woman, trapped  by obligation and duty but wanting desperately to be more, see more, do more. What was holding her back? Why the unbending pride? How does it affect her world view? What would it take to shake it? Is she right or wrong, and why? Now I had the beginnings of a story, because I had her motivation and the conflict that arises from it, and that, for those of you paying attention, is one of the most valuable lessons I ever got from a critique of my work long ago. What is each character's motivation? What the heck do they want? Oh, how I love that question from Babylon 5--the essential question, the driving question of the entire series.

The other tool I used to get inside this character's head is unique to this series. It is a document I dubbed "Cultures" and it is only a few pages long. It is not an exhaustive compilation of everything I know or think I know about the peoples of Metrenna. In fact, each culture only has a few paragraphs, but they are written in first person from the perspective of a Firedancer, a Windrider, etc. It puts me squarely into the attitude of these people, what they value, how they see themselves, how they see others and the world around them. Wow, is all I can say. Just...wow. This has been enlightening, to say the least. It certainly dumped out perspectives all unexpectedly that I never had a clue existed in the psyche of each clan. Yet, when I look at them in comparison to their element (water, fire, wind, etc.) it is entirely logical, almost inevitable. So there's another question I'll think about when building characters from now on: Who am I?

Some writers always carefully work out these details before beginning a book. I never have, because I never felt the need, but these books are different. Each character is so closely tied to outside influences and fighting consuming battles against them that they demanded I understand going in more than I generally want to. I don't like feeling straitjacketed when I write (hence, no outlines), as the sheer joy of watching something build on the page is half the fun of writing. Nonetheless, I am excited about what I learned from these two questions, and how I got there. Stay tuned. My young woman, Nes, is still finding herself in my head. I look forward with anticipation and curiosity to discovering what she learns.

Both Firedancer and Windrider, Books 1 and 2 of The Masters of the Elements, are on sale right now until midnight. You get 25% off the cover price of the print versions, and both ebook editions are a flat $1.99. You can't beat that, but the sale ends today. You'll find them here.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Firedancer and Windrider are on sale!

Just a quick announcement to let you know that Sky Warrior Books put its whole catalog on sale until June 12th, which includes both the ebook and print copies of both Firedancer and Windrider. Here's your chance to stock up on your summer reading. The print books are 25% off cover price and the ebooks are all a flat $1.99, so go for it!

Check out the deals at Sky Warrior Books, with lots of titles by Gary Jonas, Laura J. Underwood, Alma Alexander, Michael J. Parry, and of course, yours truly, S. A. Bolich.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Of Cons and Fans and Other Wonderful Things

I just returned from four days at Miscon in Missoula, Montana. What a blast! Miscon is one of the most fun science fiction conventions around, and this year's writing guest of honor was George R. R. Martin, so you can imagine the excitement in the halls. The lines for his book signings stretched around corners and out doors onto the lawn. The rest of us sort of sat there and tried not to look like ants in the land of giants. :) Still, it was nice when he walked in and sat down at my book launch party for Windrider.

For me, going to conventions is a chance to meet fans face to face, to catch up with friends, and to talk about writing, books, publishing, and everything else under the sun in a congenial atmosphere. I get new ideas for stories plucked from the incredible ambiance of costumes, music, and genre-related events, books, posters, and general stuff floating around. The art show is always full of beautiful and original genre-related work, and the masquerade sometimes leaves me in awe of the general level of originality some of the costumers achieve. My feeble costume attempts are limited to an occasional hat (though not for want of desire. A clothes horse I am not.).

Cons give me a wonderful opportunity to learn from my peers and, I hope, to teach through my participation on panels. It gives me great pleasure to share knowledge I've acquired the hard way, because what is the point of knowledge hogged all to oneself? I mourn every time an older member of my family dies, not just because I will miss them as a person, but because of all the things they know that have gone with them. So many memories and experiences and unique bits of knowledge about times past that we can never know--all gone. As a historian, I find that a tragedy, a window into the past that has been forever closed. Therefore, I am happy to sit on panels and talk about things I've learned and that will, hopefully, be of value to the audience.

I also enjoy participating as a pro in the writers' workshops at conventions, where I hope the feedback I give is more helpful than hurtful. Having been on the receiving end of being skewered (often), I know just how it feels to discover your best effort is nowhere near as good as you thought it was. I admire all the brave souls who submit their stories to convention workshops, because it means sitting there face to face with people who have actually managed to persuade cold-hearted editors to part with real money for their work and receive their honest feedback. Those workshop writers have stepped so far beyond most of their aspiring peers just in making that effort that it is pure pleasure to help them advance their writing careers.

Not the least of the pleasures of regional cons in my area is the road trip that goes with it. I adore road trips and don't get to hit the pavement nearly as often as I'd like. With my suitcase and trusty laptop in the back seat and a rollicking CD on the pretty good sound system in my truck, I'm off and rolling, and the drive to Montana is particularly pretty. I can think about current projects or admire the passing scenery, and sing along with the CD in undisturbed privacy (yes, I'm one of those people you see warbling away, seemingly talking to themselves, as you pass me at 80). It blows out the cobwebs in fairly fine style. Too bad they grow back so fast!

At every convention I meet new people who become my friends, and I look forward to seeing them at the next one. That will be Westercon for me, in Seattle, complete with new victims, eh, sacrificial lambs, eh, writers to critique in the Fairwood Writers' Workshop there. I'm off to sharpen my knives now...

I hope I see some of you there. I certainly look forward to it.

Monday, May 21, 2012

The Eternal War: Editors vs. Edited

I have been fortunate in my writing life. I grew up in a school system that was ranked very high academically, and I was blessed with two old (very old) teachers who had actually started out in one-room schoolhouses like Laura Ingalls Wilder. So, okay, I'm dating myself, but those old ladies knew their grammar inside and out and they made sure we did, too. I am appalled by the general state of literacy with regard to the English language in America these days, but that's a whole 'nother blog post.

The upshot of my education and a lifetime of reading is a fundamental grasp of proper grammar and punctuation, etc., which comes out in the fact that in all of the stuff I have had published, the copy edits were minimal: a comma here, a tweak of a sentence there, nothing particularly annoying. I have heard of some writers who defend, practically with loaded shotgun, against any change to their deathless prose. I'm not that way. If you have a good reason for changing it, I'm open.

What I do not accept is changing it to fit some arbitrary notion of the editor's idea of "perfect." Lately there has been a huge brouhaha on the internet over one newbie writer's experience with a totally unprofessional publication and its editor, who rewrote her entire story without telling her and tried to tell her that was what was meant by "editing" in her contract. Oh, puh-lease. Not hardly. But that, too, is another story. My musing was sparked by going through a particular manuscript of mine that I did actually send to a professional editor friend. She wanted to branch out from straight copy editing; I wanted to see if she could give me some insights into a manuscript I like a lot.

The result was enlightening.

Now, granted that the story is a historical fantasy with a very strong voice in a Southern dialect. She took that into account, for the most part, resisting her natural itch to correct everything to be perfect. What she did correct, however, pointed out to me like a two-by-four strategically placed between the eyes the differences between how a writer thinks and how an editor thinks. Or at least, how a copy editor approaches a manuscript.

The copy editor wants perfection in grammar and punctuation. The writer is focused on style. That means the flow of a sentence--how it sounds in the writer's head, and the impact the writer wants to achieve on the page--may be entirely different from how the editor thinks it should flow. This, I noticed, came out rather clearly in how my friend punctuated sentences and how I punctuated them. She wanted commas where I did not and removed them from where I did. I do not say she was wrong (although in some cases I was left scratching my head, as it appeared to violate the actual "rules" of grammar I had learned). What I do say is that her perspective was different than mine.

This, perhaps, is the source of so much infighting between writers and editors. I would defend my changes with spirit where I did choose to ignore her corrections. I accepted probably two-thirds of them without quibbling. She did force me to think about how I used commas, and I discovered from it a bad over-use of certain phrasing that I subsequently corrected. However, in this piece especially, which differs a great deal from past work of mine, I deliberately violated a lot of "rules" to get the tone and flow that I wanted. My character's internal thought process was breathless at times, and that is how the prose is written, ignoring the proper use of commas when describing things like "the old battered hat he wore." While "the old, battered, hat" is proper, it is not what I "hear" when my character is speaking. Likewise, when reading any piece aloud, the placement of commas becomes immediately apparent, especially when they are placed for emphasis to lend weight to a certain phrase. This, I think, is what a copy editor may not take into account when trying to bring a piece into conformance with a particular style manual or the puzzling and variable "rules" of grammar.

Copy editing is a vital part of the publication process. My friend is very, very good at it. I'm glad I had her look at it, as I learned from the process. Not least of the lessons was this illuminating look at the other side of the coin.

I would suggest that any writer troubled by edits they find objectionable take it up with the copy editor in a reasonable, open fashion, presenting their thought process while trying to understand the editor's reasons for making the changes. You, the writer, might be the one in the wrong--or not. It bugs me a lot when an editor knows less about grammar than I do and changes something to a form that is not correct or less clear. That is a fight worth having--diplomatically! And if it is a matter of style, the editor needs to understand and work with you to present the voice of the story in a way that preserves your vision but doesn't leave the reader thinking you're both from the far side of the moon.

Style vs. "proper." Writer vs. editor. It doesn't have to be a war!

I would love to hear your perspectives and experiences. Feel free to comment.

You can discover whether I practice what I preach with regard to writing "rules" in Firedancer and now Windrider, the first two books in my Masters of the Elements series, available now in both print and ebook editions.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Horses in Fiction: The Green Horse

It is amazing to me how most fictional horses are just so, so well broken, perfectly attuned to the rider, and know just what to do in any given situation. This is not true of the majority of horses. There are indeed lovely mounts that would stand quietly while a bomb went off in close proximity. Highly-trained show horses and other "working" animals have to be able to cope with new places, new smells, crowds, noise, movement, and all sorts of funny-looking stuff as a matter of course. They are trained to listen to the rider no matter what and to concentrate on getting the job done. A basic level of trust has been established in these animals that what the rider is asking them to do is not going to get them hurt, which makes them willing to give even the weirdest stuff a go. A warhorse was asked routinely to face up to waving swords, screams in its face, roaring cannons, gunfire and smoke, blood, and squishy bodies underfoot. It is doubtful that the wicked spurs worn by knights were the only reason these beasts could be persuaded to enter the fray. The green horse would take one look and bolt.

This trust in the rider can actually make the well-trained horse astonishingly stupid under saddle, however. When I was a kid our old stallion, Gay Bandit Chief, was a champion five-gaited Saddlebred who had been campaigned everywhere in his youth. He would, literally, charge unhesitatingly off a steep bank or over anything in his path if his rider pointed him at it. Bandit was a nasty-tempered creature but oh, so well trained.

The green horse, on the other hand, knows nothing, nothing! Take them out of familiar surroundings and you cannot predict what they will do. I would just love to see a story where the author's intrepid hero unwittingly got his hands on a barely-broken creature of the type so well portrayed in many Charlie Russell paintings. That "Bronc to Breakfast" was a staple of the cattle drive, when half-broken mustangs were expected to sweetly accept saddle, bridle and rider and go right to work. Check.

"Bronc to Breakfast" by Charles M. Russell
Brute force will only get you so far with the young or inexperienced horse. Letting them "buck it out" is fine if you're a really good rider and enjoy having your spine compressed into your skull every morning. Besides, does your hero have time for this? Is it really a good idea to put up with a bucker or a balker or a flighty, green-broke neophyte in the middle of a crowded market square, or on a mountain trail, or just before a battle with the enemy in sight? There is a definite "oh crap" moment when you settle into the saddle and feel the horse hump up under you (I just reluctantly axed a scene like this from a book I'm revising). What happens after that is a matter of rider skill and horsey sensibility. While I love the possibilities for distraction, running gags, and plot mayhem in these scenarios, practicality demands that we get the horse past this stage as quickly as possible if he is going to be of any use to the hero.

Horses have associative memories, so it is, unfortunately, possible to imprint exactly the wrong thing on them without even trying. Your defensive reaction to his playful grab for the treats he can smell in your pocket (a smart smack across the muzzle instead of the neck), may make him head-shy for a week. Your desperate grab for the reins as he leaps a ditch may make him anxious about approaching the next one, not knowing what he did wrong the first time. There is a huge difference between "training" and "subduing" the horse, and the difference comes out in how the poor beast reacts to strange situations.

The green horse is just...dumb. The rider must pay attention on these creatures. He might flounder his way over a young tree rather than around it because, hey, you pointed him at it and he trusted you to keep him out of trouble. On the other hand, he might decide that the young tree in the trail is from Mars and do a quick, amazingly agile swap of where his head and tail used to be and depart smartly back down the road toward home. You may or may not be with him when he goes.

Horses raised in pastures or in the wild are much smarter about these things, but conversely, they don't know about stalls, stables, wagons, cars, trains, wheelbarrows and other modern conveniences. These things are Monsters lurking to assault Horsey so far as he is concerned, and he will react to them, if only to give them a good, long look as he goes by. The flightier beasts will decide the bucket hanging on the wall over there is actually the portal of doom and refuse to walk by it, or be dragged by it, or be beaten past it by three stout grooms. The power of any given horse to defend itself against what it perceives as danger is immense, and should never be discounted.

So how do you get his attention and/or trust? When do you pick the fight and when do you wait it out? It is sometimes difficult to tell when the horse is truly frightened and when he's just playing head games with you. Patience is always best, but sometimes the horse just doesn't want to cooperate that day, and having won the battle, will remember it for next time. This can lead to much retraining if you don't get the drop on him and put an end to it quickly. Sometimes he will walk past the bucket just fine ninety-nine times, and on the hundredth approach pitch an epic fit. Why? Who knows? Maybe the bucket is swinging ever so slightly in the wind. Maybe somebody hung it up with the logo showing. Maybe this is the first time he actually noticed it, and now his little world is oh my god! DIFFERENT! Whatever. You now have a problem.

This is the time to engage the fight, when you know he knows better. If gentle soothing and sweet talk don't get him past it, find a whip. A gentle tap or two on his hind leg usually readjusts his attitude. If it escalates into a pitched battle, you really do have to win it, which may involve enlisting help, or simply waiting him out until he gets tired and walks past it. The more excited he gets, the worse off you are, as you are now making this a Big Effing Deal in his mind. The more excited you get, the less trust he has in you. The vicious circle in motion.

Welcome to horse training.

Remember that the green horse really doesn't know what you think he should know. His vision is different from yours, his sense of smell and hearing more acute, and he is unaccustomed to not reacting in whatever way he pleases to what he smells, sees, and hears. Your reflexive check of his instinctive reactions could send him into orbit. Nor has he learned the meaning of the confusing signals he's getting from the twitch of the bit in his mouth, the shift of your weight on his back (which he may or may not know how to balance without staggering), the creak of the saddle and the touch of the reins on his neck. He is nervous, anxious to understand what you want him to do (or sullen about the whole affair), and totally unpredictable. He may step over a four-inch pole on the ground or take a mighty leap to the moon. He may stand like a rock when you get on, or nearly fall over on top of you trying to adjust for your weight. He may accept a bird flying up in his face with wonderful equanimity, or have a meltdown over a motionless boulder beside the trail. He is constantly listening and watching for danger (and expecting it, too), with half his attention forever on the strange thing clinging to his back.

Put your hero on a green horse deliberately to create plot tension or to shape a scene around the horse's reactions (or the rider's reaction to the horse). Do not just put your rider on any old horse that comes along and expect it to be perfectly well broken and up to any situation. That is unrealistic, and contrary to how the real horse world works. Riding stables, dude ranches, and liveries might have an entire complement of broke-to-death horses in order not to incur lawsuits. It is doubtful that any large stable, traveling group, or horse dealership was ever stocked that way. Like the rest of us, horses only acquire experience by doing, which means that sometime, somewhere, someone is going to end up on a green one, with all the attendant, and interesting, consequences.

Have fun writing them! As always, I am open to your questions and comments. Please do share your personal experiences. I'd love to hear them.