Prosaic Analysis Paralysis

In which I think aloud for a few paragraphs… pardon the navel gazing.

The burden of words. It’s quite something, I tell you. And at the moment I’m finding it to be on the verge of utterly overwhelming. I have all these stories, all these books and novels and ideas, and instead of a calm, steady stream (the way I’ve written for the better part of the last five years) it’s a frozen lake. A frozen lake filled with strange faces and whispers under the icy surface, all jumbled together, staring at me, challenging me.

And I’ve got analysis paralysis. I have too much to work on, so much so that I just don’t know what to write. Those ideas, all frozen there beneath the surface, they taunt me. Snippets of one story, the challenge of another, the feeling that I don’t want to abandon this one or that one. I can’t call it writer’s block, because it certainly isn’t that I have nothing to write. It’s the entire opposite. I have a glut of words and possibilities and I just don’t know what the heck to do. The noise of it all is intense.

Glassmere was supposed to be my focus. Working full time instead of freelance has changed my writing habits, but not that much; I’ve always been an evening writer, though those evenings are shorter than they used to be. Time isn’t my problem. Brain noise and the challenge of this book is. Glassmere is very personal, and for that reason it’s very hard to write, and I keep wondering if I’m just not up for the challenge of it, if it’s not yet time for me to write it. I want the story to be told, but so far it’s been something like 15,000 words of writing and rewriting, and I’m tired of trying to wrestle it into submission. It’s honestly exhausting.

Then there’s Indigo & Ink. I have to rewrite the whole thing. The. Whole. Thing. There’s just no way around it, and I have to admit my pride has been shaken in this instance. While I was writing it I really thought it was The Best Thing Ever. But now, after other eyes have seen it and I’ve had a chance to go through it, all I see is where it’s lacking, wanting.

Its cousin, The Ward of the Rose is the sequel to The Aldersgate. But this is problematic twofold. I want to revise The Aldersgate, and I can’t finish Ward until it’s revised and fixed. I wouldn’t even be considering revising The Aldersgate if it hadn’t been for a bunch of folks stumbling upon my podcast and demanding the sequel (nicely). I should have written the second book a long time ago, but well, you’ve already heard that saga.

Which is all not to mention other books prickling at the back of my mind. Heroic fantasy, Arthurian re-tellings. Finished books, in those two cases, but also in need of revision like whoa. And that’s not even to talk about Herald of the Morn, the sequel to Pilgrim of the Sky which is, basically, candy and easy to write and, in general, makes me feel guilty because I have so many unfinished things I should be working on. Or, also, The Gnome and the Necromancer which is decent for YA, and is also a candy book.

I know I’m not perfect. I’m acutely aware of my shortcomings as a writer, as I think we all must be in order to improve. But for some reason in the last few months I’ve felt as if the wind has gone out of my sails in terms of my own confidence. I’m thinking way too much about what I’m writing (whether it’s a period piece and I’m freaking out about language, fashion, and culture, or it’s a secondary world and I’m freaking out about pacing and style and magic). I wrote about confidence before, but I thought I had a handle on it. Yet the word count for the year tells me otherwise. The magic of previous years just isn’t there right now, and I know 90% of it is totally me.

So these are my questions I’ve been asking. Because at this point, I’ve got to dig deeper than prose. I’ve got to go ice fishing in this freezing lake and see what bites, what takes hold, and ultimately what ends up a meal, not a long day of sitting and waiting.

What makes most sense to work on from a “career” standpoint? Well, clearly Herald of the Morn is a book that’s a followup to something that’s actually being published. So, that sounds pretty smart. However, it’s a sequel and that assumes a certain amount of audience participation across the board, and that’s all risky. Gnome is definitely the most marketable (UF, YA), but is it me? No clear answer there.

What do I want to write the most? I keep telling myself that Glassmere is that answer, but I think the water’s too murky in this case. I’m exceptionally self-conscious as I write this. Wharton-influenced manor house “through the lookinglass” fantasy? Yes, absolutely I want to read this book. This is the sort of book I would love to read. But will anyone else give a crap? So even though the answer is clear on that count, I’m not sure it’s the best decision.

What do other people want me to write? Success wise I’ve reached more people with The Aldersgate than anything. And I keep getting reminders that people want to read it and its followup.

What makes me happy? Writing makes me happy. Falling in love makes me happy. Falling in love with the world and the characters and the story. Being so wrapped up in the story that the whole world vibrates with it, that every whisper and strain of music takes you there. I had that with Indigo & Ink, due in no small part to the fact that I’m a little in love with Ash Malcom and I do think with some restructuring he can really hold up the majority of the book.

Seriously, I’m almost at the point where I just want to chart all this crap out and CHOOSE SOMETHING. Because my approach for the last few weeks of writing 500-1000 words in any one of these projects and bouncing around is really not going to be good for the long haul.

Wondering if any of you out there have had similar experiences. Little time, lots of words. What helped you get through? What got your mojo back? A few considerations include: getting some readers for one of these projects and promising to keep up with revised/new work (read: accountability), tossing everything out and starting a new project, submitting a few things so at least I don’t think about them for a while, or possibly taking a break and just working on short stories for a while.

The Perils of Early Success: Or, Writing With the Pointy End

So I started blogging “as a real writer” at the very beginning of 2008 in order to share a draft of my novel, The Aldersgate, with the world at large. I had already written two drafts, and then decided to start again and record the new chapters and launch them out into the world for feedback. It’s a steampunk western sort of fantasy story, with low magic and high politics and many point of views. You know; as you will.

While I commenced blogging in that first year or so, I had pretty immediate success with my short story writing and network building, and I felt like I was on top of the world. I was writing very unfettered, gamboling around in precious little Snowflake land (though I’d never have admitted it).

I was simply sharing my story. And I honestly believed that everything would fall into place. Having listened to a bit of Cory Doctorow I felt that, as long as what I was putting out there was good (which I was convinced it was) someone would find it, and I’d ride that golden pegasus out into the sunset and become a True Published Author.

People did come, it turns out. Wonderful readers, writer friends. And wouldn’t you know, but a year and a half later after I’d just about finished the entire podcast of the novel (and attracted quite a few positive responses which made me feel Truly Awesome) I was approached by an editor at Ace/Roc who wanted to listen to my story and read the manuscript. At first, I was entirely sure that the whole thing was a hoax and that someone was trying to mess with me. But no, she was totally legit. So in a state of utter glee and terror, I sent the manuscript to her, expecting to hear back in a few months. I knew that publishing was slow, so I didn’t expect a fast turnaround from a very busy editor. I was willing to wait for glory… or rejection. Either way, I prepared to wait.

No, I didn’t commit the first sin of writing. I didn’t stop writing. In fact, I wrote a few more novels: Pilgrim of the Sky, Peter of Windbourne, Indigo & Ink, and Queen of None. But the entire time I waited, I froze as a writer in many ways. To be honest with you (and me!) I don’t think I thought I had much room for improvement. After all, my book was with a Big Publisher. While I was realistic with myself, even preparing for rejection, I got lazy. Everything seemed to live in the shadow of that hope.

It’s been two years, now. And since you haven’t heard me jumping up and down and shrieking about a contract with a big publisher, you can imagine the result. Actually, I never heard back at all. I pinged the editor a few times, but never heard so much as a peep. Just… silence.

It takes a long time for hope to die. I can still tell you that I sent that manuscript out on June 23, 2009. For the first year, every 23rd was like a new mile-marker bringing me ever closer to the possible answer: yes or no. But by the 18th month, I was starting to doubt that it was ever going to happen at all. (I don’t even think about the editor and that hope these days, albeit in a passing, wistful sort of way.)

The thing is, well, life went on. Life got hard. And as life got hard, writing got harder. And it got harder to look at my own writing and be absolutely honest with myself, even after I stopped believing in the muse!

It’s funny how much something like this can impact one’s entire writing approach. Writing The Aldersgate was a mighty powerful experience. I was smitten with words, high on storytelling. And I think that comes through in the draft that’s out there on the internets (I’m not ashamed; the story has a lot going for it). People seemed to love the characters*, but the nuts and bolts of the story really need work. Work that for the last two years I haven’t given it. (Even though, on occasion, I tried.)

But I’ve always been someone who worked best with tough love. I was smart, but lazy, during school. I never pushed myself until teachers pushed back. “Any other student would have gotten an A on this project, but this isn’t your best work.” Even a resounding rejection of the manuscript would have most likely lit a fire under me.

But nothing? NOTHING? Nothing left too much room for hope.

Hey, I have lots of excuses why things have not gone as well as they did in the magical year of 2008, writing-wise. I have enough excuses to fill a damned book. But the only real reason that I didn’t grow as a writer is because I wasn’t honest with myself. I let hope cloud my better judgement.

Sure, I spent a lot of time editing and rewriting. But rewriting isn’t editing. Rewriting isn’t taking a cold, hard look at the way you write, which is the only route toward improvement and, well, success by extention. (Thankfully I’ve had the pleasure of working with some fantastic editors in preparation for Pilgrim of the Sky’s publication that really wonderfully helped in that respect, as well as advice from a seasoned pro writer friend that helps toward this rather jarring realization on my part, but that’s another post…) Rewriting is simply making another draft. Granted, it’s practice, and practice is part of the improving part, but editing is essential. You know, those fancy book editors don’t rewrite your book. They tweak it.

And that’s not to say that being a taskmaster is the only way to go. It’s got to be a combination. The successful, holistic approach to writing, revising, and editing, is a balance of fact and fancy. The fancy drives it, but the fact improves it. To use a martial simile: Your arm is the fancy, the creative drive, the raw excitement and energy and thought–but fact is your sword, cutting and shaping and ultimately turning your strength into something more. They work together, y’see? (It takes practice, but soon you’re carving through like a Braavosi.)

There is no easy path, it turns out. Would I trade early success for early struggle? I don’t know. But the thing is that early success can be maddening and counter-productive in its own right. (I’m admittedly  still a baby about rejections, probably because I didn’t get enough early on!).

My only hope for myself is that I achieve balance, and, more than anything that I find fancy again. Since I started work in December, fancy has been hard to come by; the muscles have gone weak. Fancy has to come first, before fact, otherwise progress can never be made. But it doesn’t always linger in familiar places. Sometimes you have to summon it up.

We all know that writing books is hard. Finishing books is harder. But the hardest part of all comes after all that. It’s being honest about the draft. And that honesty will usher in growth. For without growth, in any career or creative endeavor, nothing magic can happen.

* Much of this post was inspired by finding a trove of “pending” comments in the Aldersgate blog. For all my lack of growth, the experience of reaching readers who really felt a connection my story is not something I take lightly. I will finish the story.

Coming out in Character

For Coming Out Day, 2009

Peter was “born” sometime in the second half of 1999, likely toward winter. I remember that first scene very vividly. I saw him wrapped in a brown cloak, his hands wrapped around a staff, a tuft of his sandy hair protruding from the hood. He was standing by enormous bronze gates, cast in the torchlight, keeping watch: yes, my first original protagonist of my first original (non-collaborative) novel, then titled, The Gatekeeper. He started out as the savior of the world and ended up its doombringer.

Yes, much about Peter has changed in ten years, and since then his world has become home to The Aldersgate and The Ward of the Rose (albeit a Great Collision and 400 years later). But as of last April, though I’d finished a (fourth… fifth?) draft of his book, Peter of Windbourne, I was not happy with it. Something was bubbling somewhere under the surface that I couldn’t root out, couldn’t figure out. And so, instead of flogging a dead horse of the manuscript, I abandoned his story for a while and moved forward in the timeline, beginning The Aldersgate.

I had honestly given up on Peter, thinking his story to be that dusty tome of a novel never meant to see the light of day. Except, as I started work on The Ward of the Rose, his story started once again to surface… in my dreams, in my writing. I realized there were questions I had left unanswered that directly related to the story of The Ward of the Rose and, to finish that book off, I had to revisit Peter again. Which meant another ground-up rewrite; which I’d done countless times already.

I won’t pretend that Peter’s story is particularly unusual. It’s heroic fantasy, though without Elves and Dwarves and “easy” magic. There are swords and prophecies, alliances and sworn enemies. It’s about family and friendship, belief and blasphemy, outside and inside. But, all that aside, the relationships in the book, the characters, are always what made the story move for me. And yet for all my writing and rewriting, there was a note off in the chord that took me years to decipher.

And then I realized part of the problem. Peter didn’t like girls at all.

I remember mulling about the house after I realized this. No, it wasn’t the first time a queer character made their way into my writing. But it was the first time that the sole-POV did. It made for some challenges but…

What struck me most clearly was how unimportant it seemed in relationship to everything else, and yet (paradoxically) how much of an impact it had on Peter as a character. As I rewrote again, the story arc didn’t change; Peter was still working in the same capacity as before. Except his motivations changed. His reasoning behind things changed. The intensity of his emotions had to change, the way he viewed other people. Once I had figured out his sexuality, a great deal more about him became more obvious to me, much of which I had abandoned in earlier drafts for a stock lead character.

The result is that the last draft of Peter of Windbourne has a very different leading man. Seeds of the same character exist, but Peter and I have a connection that even ten years of working through couldn’t account for. I finally have his entire motivation boiled down into one sentence: Peter wants love and knowledge. The shades of those two desires change throughout the course of the book, and at times, writing it has been far more emotionally draining than anything else to date. But it’s far better for it.

No, writing a gay character doesn’t give me any kind of real-world cred. It doesn’t mean I know what it’s like. But it gives me a window into a soul, however contrived, and I think it brings me closer to knowing, to imagining what it would be like. That’s the beauty of writing, isn’t it? Exploring what cannot be explored in this world. The story is more complete now that I have a full view of my character. Whether I wasn’t brave enough before to go with what was clearly there from the beginning, I don’t know. It’s a journey and, technically speaking, the longest writing journey I’ve ever been on (the island on which the story’s set technically appeared in ’92).

But I’m glad for it. It’s the story as it should be, as it was meant to be.

“Be patient, keep writing” and other things I tell myself.

Pacientia_or_PatienceLast night I finished chapter 20 of Peter of Windbourne, and am now approaching the part in the book in which a series of Very Bad Things happen. The draft is sitting at 101,122 words at this moment, with hopefully no more than five or six chapters remaining (generally my chapters hover between 4-5K). It’s a blind rewrite, as I’ve mentioned, so I’m giving myself some extra wiggle room. I know it’ll be edited down a bit next. I’ve got until November to get it done, because I’ve promised to do NaNoWriMo again this year.

This chapter has been particularly difficult, mostly due to the influx of freelance work that’s come in. When I was in business writing full-time, progress was slow like sorghum, and I’m definitely feeling a bit of that strain. Coupled with the fact that this week has been one endless succession of death and ill-health, ugh. Yeah. Hard to concentrate.

Which is all not to mention other exterior forces that are involved in my writing that I can’t control. I feel a bit stagnant at the moment, as far as The Writing Career is concerned, but there’s really nothing to be done for it. So instead, I’ve crafted a new mantra for myself: “Be patient, keep writing.” I started drafting an email to an expert in the field, and then realized, if I had sent it out, that’s what she would have told me to do. So I saved the virtual ink.  I also keep telling myself: “You’re only 28. You have time. You’ll only get better as a writer in that time. Shut up, and work on other stuff.”

That’s the cool thing about writing and remaining unpublished, something I believe lots of fledglings like me take for granted. I’m at the point where I can write whatever the hell I want, as much as I want, and whenever I want. I don’t have deadlines, I don’t have people telling me what’s selling and what’s not. I’m completely free. If I want to write about a bunch of female steampunk knights chasing around arcane arachnids and lightning worms, I can. And I will.

Falling in (and out of) love with fantasy

Épinal_-_L’Oiseau_bleu_09Occasionally, I still have moments where I look at a scrap of dialogue or a descriptive phrase, and I feel a little self-conscious, writing what I’m writing. It’s fantasy, sure. It is epic? Sometimes. It is heroic? Yeah, a bit. Does it have magic and all that? Of course. Am I way hung up on defining it? Not really. Okay, maybe a little.

But it’s also not a lot of things. There are no elves, dwarves or, really, even wizards. Magic is… ordered, in a way. Effectively I’ve written out a great deal of the things that define the genre for other people, and even for me. Sometimes I forget I’m writing fantasy altogether. The times that I’ve ever written anything remotely realistic have been utter failures. My brain, apparently, just doesn’t function in such a manner. But nor does it require orcs, apparently.

I say I love the fantasy genre, and I do. But I’m also revoltingly critical about it. I will reject a book based on a thousand things without hesitation. And I go back and forth, in my own head, about the balance in my own book. Sometimes it’s a little maddening.

My original drafts of Peter of Windbourne were not self-conscious. The characters did things and acted as they were supposed to. Swords were bequeathed, hearts were won, and the story finished with a horrendous James Bond villain-esque ending scene. I had no self-consciousness, though; I seriously just wrote for fun. In some ways, I suppose that was really freeing, but it was also what did the draft in, as it were.

This time, though, with a blind rewrite, everything is different. I don’t want the cliche, but I understand some of it has to be there. If not for me, for readers. Because I’m conscious of my genre, as a writer. I want to write not just for me, but for an intended audience. Last night, as I wrote an important farewell scene, I was contemplating the last draft of that scene. In it, the protagonist is granted a historical family sword by his mother. At first I thought I was just going to write through it, and then I stopped, took off my headphones, and consulted the characters again.

No, in this version, that would not happen. There are not going to be any named swords. It didn’t fit. It would throw the balance off in regards to some of the other decisions I’ve made, and so, I removed it. Peter’s relationship with his mother is so much more uncomfortable and complex in this rewrite, and her coming and giving him a sword was just… hackneyed and unnecessary.

I’ve moved further and further from D&D-esque fantasy with this book (thankfully), which the first was very much besotted with. More than anything, the book has become an exploration of power and relationships, and it happens to be a fantasy novel, rather than the other way around. Unlike the first draft, where Peter was tossed around, useless and clueless, here he has wants and needs. To the age old question of “What does your main character want?” (something I would not have been able to answer before) I’d say simply: knowledge and love. Those are Peter’s motivations in everything he does.

I digress a bit.

From time to time, people who know me ask what I write. In some ways, the steampunk stuff is easier to explain. I feel so much less self-conscious when I can talk about Gothic and Victorian inspirations. When it comes down to fantasy, and the dreaded M-word, there follows a very slippery slope. The only fantasy most non-fantasy readers know is The Lord of the Rings. And yes, there are echoes. I love Tolkien, and I would be an idiot to proclaim that he’s not influenced me a bit (this book owes more to him than any others, likely because I started it fresh off the Middle Earth high).

But, but, but. It’s fantasy with consequences and, above bloody all, no good guy/bad guy dichotomy in the way that it’s supposed to be. It’s fantasy writing inspired by the world around me, hoping to refashion in with a little more feathers and pixie dust. I’m trying to avoid what I see so often in fantasy writing, which is a complete refusal to be different.

… This post got absurdly long rather fast. Apologies. I’ve been on a bit of a word binge of late, and I see that such prolonged forays into my little fantasy world have clearly addled my rather fragile brain cells.

To sum up: Fantasy literature is like a big daisy, from which I pluck petals. Do I love it? Or love it not? Sometimes both. It’s still a daisy, even if I pick all the petals off and stomp on them. I can’t avoid the daisy. It is my daisy, and the only flower I really care about in the first place (seriously, screw those rhododendrons and peonies). So, that’s my book: a big daisy with no petals, that’s kind of bent in the middle…

By all that is holy, I really should have stopped writing this post about four paragraphs back…

So, that finally happened…

If you follow my Twitter feed, you’ll know I was on something of a writing binge this weekend. Every few months this happens. It’s like my own personal NaNoWriMo, where the book I’m writing takes on an absolutely powerful life of its own, and I’m kind of strung along. While it sounds kind of cool, and in some ways it is, it’s also quite exhausting. Usually, it means I can’t sleep, and every spare moment is at the MacBook, clacking away. Time slips, stars move, and I remain rooted to the keyboard.

At any rate, after clocking just about 13K in a day and a half or so, my mind feels a little like mush. Trying to sleep last night was darn near impossible, as even though I left the computer the part of writing that happens in my brain didn’t want to stop.

What was particularly interesting for me, however, was the progression of events within the book. I’m about 2/3 finished at this point. Actually, exactly 2/3 through (83K of a planned 120K). And these little bridge chapters are the backbone of the book, right before all the Really Big Shit happens. But, from a character perspective, for Peter–the main character–a whole lot just happened.

He finally had sex.

I don’t want to get weird about this, but sex scenes have been on my mind of late, not the least of which is because Peter is, well, gay. So. There’s that. My heroic fantasy lead is a gay male. I didn’t intend for it to happen like this. In the first three drafts of this story (I’ve been trying to write this story since I was 18… ) he always crushed on a girl. But it never ceased to feel odd. Forced, strange. It took me almost ten years to figure out that Peter didn’t like girls to begin with.

Part of me realizes that I totally pulled a Stephen King. i.e.–in The Stand, he makes sure Nick Andros doesn’t die a virgin, because I believe he thought that would be a fate worse than death. While I promise I’m not sending Peter off to his death, his sexual realization was actually intrinsic to the plot. There is so much more about sexuality than the actual sex, especially in his situation. And I thought a great deal about the scene before I wrote it, even if thinking doesn’t mean planning.

What surprised me is, writing as a woman, how powerful and emotional the scene was as I sat down to finally put it to paper. It didn’t need to be gratuitous, but it was very much about these two men seeking comfort and love, about learning to accept who they are, and definitely a bit of a rite of passage.

I talked to a few people about the scene before I wrote it. Some suggested simply writing “like a woman”–just taking the scene as I would. Others suggested not making it too graphic. I didn’t want it to feel disingenuine, you know? Or, ill-informed. Or whatever.

Ultimately, I let Peter lead me. I mean, he’s a character, a person, regardless of his sexual orientation. It’s emotion, it’s passion; these are all things I understand. The story is third-person limited, very much his story. And approaching this scene together… somehow that felt right. I let the character do the talking, in a way, and I realized how absolutely important the scene was for his own journey. I didn’t want gender and sexuality issues to define the book, but be part of his struggle to fit in, to come into his own. (I also didn’t want the scene to feel spliced in, which is the case in so many fantasy books.)

So, that finally happened. I feel like I can move on now. So much of what happens in the last third of this book is tied to The Aldersgate, and it’s giving me a bit of performance anxiety. Hopefully in the next week I can really get the gears moving. I can finally see the full draft taking shape (again) and it’s definitely… heartening.

Nothing to see here, move right along.

Yeah, haven’t been posting much. I just have this thing, see, where I like to be interesting when I post, and honestly, I don’t have a lot of interesting stuff to say at this particular juncture. I’ve started and stopped a handful of posts, and they all just feel rife with ‘eh’ to me. Having been blogging about writing for the better part of 18 months or so, I fear I’m repeating myself occasionally…

I sincerely don’t mean for this to sound whiny. It’s not. It’s just sometimes, I think, people get quiet for a bit. I’m trying to focus on writing Peter of Windbourne right now, and even I understand how boring and often unsatisfying lots of excerpts are. So, I’ll refrain from that. Unless something really cool happens.

At any rate. I’ll be posting more, hopefully, come September, or at least posting more meaningfully! With gusto. And vim and vigor!

(re)writing blind

I’m in the process of a complete rewrite, the most extensive I’ve ever done. It’s true, first novels aren’t the best novels. And my first novel was written three times before I put it away for a while. But it kept pestering me until I realized that the characters, the story, and the plot (if tweaked considerably) were still worth the trouble. The exact trouble is rewriting a 75K exceptionally mediocre story into something around 120K that has a lot more grit and substance.

What I’ve done is written blind. I didn’t even read the last draft, completed some three or four years ago. Oh, it’s still around, and occasionally I’ve had to consult it. But scenes are, by and large, constructed from what I remember. And if I can’t remember? I re-create.

The most amusing side-effect is the similarity some of the passages have, in spite of the fact that I’ve not re-read. Today I was writing one of my favorite scenes, where Peter meets three very important characters, called The Three, in the great hall of Lyos (HELLO epic fantasy!). There are a few bits I actually like about the old version, but all in all I’m happier with the rewrite (though it’s a bit on the long side!).

For your amusement, the scenes are below. The original is in italics.

The doors opened inward, and Peter straightened his tunic again.  He wished that Tengel were around to help him know what to say. Nonetheless, he proceeded into the main hall of Lyos, his footsteps echoing against the black marble floor.  The hall was even higher than the entrance, structured like a colonnade.  There were leaded windows in each bay to the side, and a few statues—mostly carved of wood and painted—as well.  At the very end was a dais of sorts, with three great oak chairs carved with ornate designs.  Three figures were seated there, facing toward him.

The center figure was the one that took Peter’s attention fully.  She was a small, wizened creature, delicate and old beyond reckoning.  Her long white hair fell down her shoulders, plaited here and there, and ended by her elbows.  Her garb was light blue, which matched her eyes.  A pair of wrinkled lips were lengthened in a soft smile.  She gestured to a chair set below the dias.

To the woman’s right was an older gentleman, but compared to the center figure, he seemed youthful.  His beard was steely gray, black shot with white here and there.  Although he was tall, he sat straight, and Peter noticed the man’s large hands with exceptionally long fingers.  His skin was swart, as if from frequent travel in the sun, and his eyes large and brown.  He had a kind face, and wore a long robe of dark green.

On the other side of the woman was an even younger man who was dressed solely in grey.  His coloring reminded him of Harmon—his beard was red-gold and his eyes light grey, though squinted toward him.  Unlike the other two, he did not smile.  Instead, he regarded Peter intensely.  He was very strongly built, and Peter wouldn’t be surprised to find out he was some kind of soldier.  His square jaw gave him a handsome if not slightly harsh look.

Peter nodded, and Beryl curtsied, bowing her head low so her hair fell across her face for a moment. She did not smile again, but turned and opened the doors that led to the hall.

Immediately, Peter’s eyes were drawn up and up—then further still. Though the beams were not living trees, they had been carved to look so. The wood was lighter than the roofing, a honey-wheat hue, and each limb and branch curled and reached higher than the next. Here and there were glass leaves and birds, affixed to the beams, reflecting the light from the large glass windows, set high above their heads.

Peter had been led from a side door, and he followed Beryl across the smooth tiled floor—tiles so black they gave the appearance of still water—toward the center of the room. Peter was aware of statues poised along the sides of the room, but stopped short when he noticed the three figures sitting in chairs on the dias.

Peter’s eyes were drawn to the the woman in the center; she commanded attention in spite of her remarkably small frame and advanced age. Peter did not think he had ever seen a woman so old, and yet so beautiful. She was perched at the edge of her seat, her tiny hands encircling a cane, her long white hair plaited on each side and spilling far past her waist. The ends were tied with silver thread that reflected the glimmering rings on her hand and the bangles on her sagging ears. She wore a simple white robe, and yet it was a marvel in its plainness and purity. Her face was round and set with deep, dark eyes, and she gazed at Peter with a look of both surprise and amusement. When he caught her eye, she smiled, and her face set with a thousand wrinkles in her fair white skin.

To the woman’s right was a wizened man, though he was far from elderly in comparison to the woman. His beard and hair were the color of steel, both trimmed and straight. His bright green eyes stood out against his dark skin, lined with wrinkles and dark lashes. He wore brown, and was quite tall, but carried no staff or cane. From the way he sat Peter guessed him to be rather fit; his posture was impeccable. Something in the angle of his head and the sharpness of his nose reminded Peter of a bird of prey, however, and he did not smile. He simply turned his heavy-lidded eyes to Peter and raised one brow.

And the third figure Peter saw was familiar in that he bore a striking resemblance to his brother Harmon. In fact, the similarity was such that Peter knew at once they had to be twins. Leofris was slightly sturdier than Harmon, but just as tall. His hair was cropped short, the curls clinging to his brow. He had a small beard, mostly about his chin, and wore a dark red tunic with a brilliant clasp keeping his cloak to his shoulder in the shape of a silver stag. When he saw Peter, Leofris’s mouth fell open ever so slightly, and he was the first to speak.

The self-conscious fantasy epic.

AnneauUniqueThis morning I read a piece in the Guardian called When the Lord of the Rings doesn’t cut it: Confessions of a fantasy junkie, and found it rather amusing. In particular this bit (which makes us all sound a bit like Gollum, I think):

I understand the pain of the addict. At the turn of a page, weeks of total immersion in a fantasy world come to an end and mundane reality is waiting. Fantasy is epic because that is how we like it. But like any narcotic substance, fantasy operates on the law of diminishing returns. Once you’ve see a few dozen dragons, you’ve seen them all. The fantasy fan is on an eternal quest to recapture that first taste of magic. Eventually, the doorstoppers don’t cut it anymore. And then we are forced to go underground.

I’ve written on this topic a few times, and it certainly hit home for me. As someone weaned on Tolkien and Lewis, I know the feeling well. I remember trying to hide my undying love for Middle-Earth, and failing miserably when my book report gushing to the world was read aloud in class by my teacher. My school was small enough at the time that there weren’t any D&D groups to join, and the only person I know who also read fantasy read Terry Brooks. And I did not.

Anyway, it didn’t get easier or better for me as I got older. I’m now convinced that my time in both undergraduate and graduate school studying Middle English was only in an effort to study the roots of fantasy literature. It was cheating a little, because all that chivalric literature really isn’t any different than fantasy, save in language and occasional subject. (I should argue that plenty of medieval stuff is even more revolutionary than today’s contemporary fantasy–read Silence for a cross-dressing heroine, for example!) I found quite a few friends in graduate school, however, who loved fantasy, and that was certainly a help.

But my roundabout point is, in spite of coming to grips with liking to read fantasy epic, it’s taken even longer for me to accept writing it. Why? Because it’s a genre that breeds self-consciousness. It’s practically made of cliche and stereotype. Saying you write fantasy literature to some people is no different than admitting a penchant for furries, or a LARPer. I know, I’ve gotten the looks before. Eyebrows up, mouth agape–they struggle for things to say, but the fact is, even if the book was on the Bestseller list, they’d likely never read it. And if they did, it’d probably make them laugh hysterically.

Anyway, currently I am writing a fantasy epic. True fantasy. No steampunk, no time-travel, no squids. And I find that I’m incredibly self-conscious about it some days, and completely revel in it on other days. I have moments where I ask myself, “Is this too fantasy epic?” and others when I think I’m really on to something different. Truly, it must strike a balance to be good, and I’ve never had such a set of demons on my shoulder arguing it out over a book. I love the genre to bits, and I am indeed still reaching to capture that magic–but doing it with my own wand, as it were, is another spell all together.

I wrote a sequel to The Lord of the Rings when I was fourteen. It was about Merry and Pippin meeting up together in old age and making a trip across Middle Earth to Gondor, and their final days there with Aragorn. I wish I had a bit to share, because it is quite amusing. Regardless, I have always expressed my love in writing. I scarcely know how else to do it. I even re-wrote half of The Stand once…  And while I am a bit self-conscious about this particular endeavor (and… well, thankfully not plagiarising) it’s still done with joy. Part of me is very much that same fourteen year old with the ugly sweater and wire-rimmed glasses hunkering down at my Aptiva and composing everything in Footlight.

And thankfully, at long last, I don’t care who knows. I only hope I can do it well enough.

Notes on the woman warrior, fantasy literature style

The first woman warrior I remember reading was Eowyn in The Lord of the Rings. That image of her standing before the Nazgul Witch-King, her sword brandished, her blond hair spilling down her shoulders and catching in the wind is probably one of the most vivid early memories I have of fantasy literature. And I remember feeling a swell of pride, too, that this woman had done something so remarkable in a world so dominated by men.

Just the other day, my husband remarked to me how surprising it was that Tolkien chose to have Eowyn act so. On the surface it sure seems that way; she’s a rare spot of feminine power in the books, and certainly the only one with martial abilities. Was he showing feminst leanings? I don’t think so. Firstly, he was writing from the Germanic lore tradition, in which there were many shield-maidens. The concept was a bit romanticized, honestly, and I think he liked the idea of a kind of Valkyrie figure. But more than anything, Eowyn’s presence served to fulfil one of Tolkien’s favorite literary mechanisms: the riddle. The Witch-King of Angmar can, of course, be killed by no man. And she is, well, no man. I think the cleverness of that scene is what drove Tolkien to do it, rather than any feminist sympathies (because, as much as I love LoTR, I don’t believe his intention was to rally the cry of repressed women).

Though certainly there are moments in the text that Eowyn gives glimpses into her desire to be treated as her brother (“Too often have I heard of duty. But am I not of the House of Eorl, a shieldmaiden and not a dry-nurse? I have waited on faltering feet long enough. Since they falter no longer, it seems, may I not now spend my life as I will?”) in the end, she marries and is taken care of, and quite quietly fades into the background. She is a lone woman in the texts–Peter Jackson, of course, had to beef up Arwen’s role in the film to make another engaging character.

There have been many other female warriors in fantasy fiction since Tolkien, of course, and many weild martial power and prowess. But few, I think, have real complexity. I’m thinking of Brienne of Tarth in George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series, in particular, as she’s the clearest woman warrior in the bunch. She’s complex, in some ways, but her sense of duty and simpleness make her a little grating. I like that’s she’s not the sexiest chick on the block, but she just always felt like one of the flattest characters in the series to me. In some ways, she’s not that different from a guy, I guess.

Of course, there’s also the whole gorgeous, leather-clad, bodice-squeezed warriors we know and love, like the Mord Sith in Terry Goodkind’s books. While powerful, and certainly complex from a psychological standpoint, it always irked me that they were “rescued” by Richard. Okay, lots about Richard irked me in general, not the least of which was his instent chatting and feeding forest animals, but that’s another rant for another day.

I should mention that my critique doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy these books. I have, and I will again. The role of the woman, and anyone who’s not a classic male hero, is changing. What’s difficult for me is that so many women are portrayed as either mannish or sexpots. And there’s got to be some middle ground. Women happen to be warriors, or warriors that happen to be women. Sometimes just writing a character means stripping away ideas of gender, and simply writing them the way they are.

Maybe what the issue here is a desire for more complexity from a society perspective. Anyone who chooses voilence as a means of action in life has reasons, and those reasons are often deep-seeded in politics and societal norms. When fantasy leans too much on the shock value of a female warrior, or the “just because” aspect or, the dreaded “I was abused by a man” trope, it lends a flatness to characters. Fantasy societies have the chance to be truly spectacular, and so many fall short. (I poke holes in my own stuff all the time, and don’t exclude my stuff from the list, I should point out. It’s my pet peeve with, um, myself… However, someone who I think does this particularly well is Joss Whedon, especially in the case of River Tam.)

At any rate, the concept of female warrior has been heavy on my mind as of late, as I have two in Peter of Windbourne who could not be more different. One is a warrior of martial power soley, and the other is a little more complicated than that. As secondary characters to the main POV, it’s a tricky trying to convey the depth of character I want. I suppose, at a point, there’s only so much you can do.

Part of the problem is that readers like the sexy ladies in chain mail, and especially mainstream fantasy–or, big-selling fantasy anyway–is reluctant to piss off their fan base. I don’t blame them, in a way. It’s business. You need only wander in to WoW or any convention to see sex sells, and the skimpier the armor, the more attention.

I wonder if the recession will push writers to challenge or to conform. Time will tell, I suppose. I’m intrigued as to what kind of woman warriors this generation will create.