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.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Shameless Plug: Windrider is Here!

Ta ta dah! Sound the fanfare. Windrider is here! Be warned that this is a shameless plug for my second book. :) Horses in Fiction will resume on Friday.

Windrider, the sequel to Firedancer, is now available pretty much everywhere in ebook form, and I just this second finished the galleys for the print edition and sent them back to the publisher. You'll soon be able to obtain it in whatever form your heart desires.

Windrider continues the story begun in Firedancer, as our heroes find the mystery of the elementals deepening. Why are they rebelling against Earth Mother and the magic that has bound them for so long? What do they want? First Fire broke the bounds of the Firedance; now Wind's angry sister, the Hag, has begun a rampage through the inner plains of Metrenna. The Storm Council, the ruling elders of the Windrider clans, sends a summons to Annam Vale for Clan Heshth to leave their self-imposed exile and join the fight. For Sheshan ak'Kal, that means a painful parting from the peace he has only just found, and a return to much less pleasant places he has tried to forget. In one rebellious moment, he attracts the Hag's attention...and now she pursues him, keening a note only he can hear. For a Windrider who has lost his own song, the powerful windsong that connects him to Earth Mother and helps him bind the power of the winds, the lure of that note--and the awful, uncontrollable anger that goes with it--may prove fatal.

Come find out what it's like to weave living wind in your hands and hear the songs of storms. It's an inside look at another of the talented clans, and a steal at just $3.99. You can find it here:

Barnes and Noble

There are undoubtedly other places you can obtain it, but these three cover pretty much every ebook format.

This was a difficult book to write but I like the way it came out. I hope you do, too. Enjoy!

S. A. Bolich