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.