Archive for November, 2008

Frody Bagger and the Terrible Ring of You-Know-Whom

November 28, 2008

Lest this blog be accused of taking itself too seriously, the following posting is entirely silly.

The other day, some friends and I were toying with the utterly frivolous question of “What if H.P. Lovecraft had written Jaws?” (If you survive this posting, maybe I’ll subject you to my answer to that question next time around.) (This is the sort of thing writers do when they should be doing more responsible things like meeting the deadline on the chunk of the grammar dictionary they’re supposed to be editing.)

So gather ’round, Gentle Readers, and before you drop off to sleep tonight, I’ll read you a little story. The question before us is, What if J.R.R. Tolkien and J.K. Rowling had been collaborators? What if, instead of the works they’re most famous for, they put their talents together and came up with the epic romance suggested by the title of this posting? [Writer’s note: in light of some of the responses I’ve been getting, I feel it’s necessary to say here that the following is a loving sendup of two writers whose work I greatly admire. It’s not intended as an attack on either one of them. I hope fans of either or both will find a lot they recognize here, perhaps with a twist or two that may induce laughter.]

Here we go, then — here’s what might have resulted. We pick it up in medias res:

Frody Bagger and the Terrible Ring of You-Know-Whom

When everyone had settled down after the excitement, Gandalf clinked his pipe on his water-bottle for silence.

“Hsst! Frody!” whispered Merry. “Have you heard the one about the traveling salesman from the Westfarthing?”

“Shush!” said Legolas, scowling as darkly as his fair countenance would allow. “Gandalf’s going to speak.”

Gandalf cleared his throat and looked solemn. “Before we begin the next phase of our journey — which I think, given the lateness of the hour, shall involve resting first — I regret to inform you that the doors of Moria are now firmly closed behind us, and we have no choice but to go forward into the dark.”

Groans passed throughout the Fellowship. Boromir caught Frody’s eye and shook his head. “I told you all we should have made for the Gap of Rohan, but noooo.”

“Shush!” said Legolas.

“I think we are all tired,” Gandalf finished, “so I shall conclude my remarks with the advice that we all get a good night’s sleep. Moria is not to be trifled with, and many of your parents are already concerned that this Quest is dangerous.”

“Parents? Concerned?” murmured Merry. “Mum thought this would be good for us. Whose parents have got their shorts in a knot?”

“Don’t look at me,” Frody hissed back. “My parents drowned.”

He was still feeling peevish from his soaking in the pool outside the gate. While Sam spread the bedrolls, Frody wrung out his shirt. “Sam,” he said under his breath, “why d’you suppose that tentacly thing singled me out? D’you suppose it has something to do with this burden I bear?”

“Oh, go on there, Mr. Frody. Everybody turns fifty sooner or later. It’s not so bad. Why, look at Mr. Gandalf. . . .”

“I meant the ring, Sam.”

“Oh! That I wouldn’t know nothin’ about.”

Across the camp, Gimli scrunched his brows, appraising Legolas’s bow. “Well now, Leg’las,” he said, “How did yer know ter use arrows agains’ that Thing in the water?”

The elf rolled his eyes. “If you’d read the Quest Manual, you’d know there’s a whole section on ‘Attacking Enemies From a Distance.’ It tells all about the bow and arrow. Tsk! Honestly, do any of Durin’s folk ever crack a book?”

Gimli patted the head of his war axe. “We c’n crack purty much anythin’, Master Elf, if yer take my meanin’.” Gimli was a stout and formidable warrior — a Giant Dwarf, which made him exactly 5’10” in height: precisely as Ralph Bakshi had portrayed him.

Legolas threw up his hands and stalked away to his own space.

Frody and Sam sat awake for a short while in the Common Area of the camp, beside the fire.

“Here, then, Mr. Frody,” Sam said. “Have a cup of pumpkin juice and a bite o’ these conies and taters. Things’ll be better once we’re through this dark — you’ll see.”

“You’re a bonzer friend, Sam, and an amazing hobbit. Where would I be without you?”

“Oh, go on, Mr. Frody.”

“No, it’s true, Sam. When the pony was making all that fuss earlier, you knew he needed feeding.”

“You’re makin’ me embarrassed, Mr. Frody. You know that was just because I took that there seminar Master Elrond arranged for us — that there ‘Care of Ordinary Creatures.’ Sharp folks, them elves, if you ask me. Knowin’ just what — crikey, Mr. Frody, what’s that?

They sprang to their feet as a pair of luminous round eyes flashed in the dark. Frody checked his new sword, the Sting 2009, but it wasn’t glowing blue, as it did when goblins and such were about. It did, however, launch into the current time and temperature until he re-sheathed it.

“Oh, relax,” said Frody, taking a second look into the spooky shadows of Moria. “It’s just Golly.”

Whining and wringing his bony hands, Golly slinked into view and sidled up to the fire.

Sam growled, and Frody sighed heavily. “Hullo, Golly,” said Frody.

Golly rolled onto his back with an ecstatic shriek, kicking his gangly feet in the air. “Aaiiieee! Golly is tremendously honored that Mr. Frody Bagger deigns to speak to him! Oh, fortunate, fortunate Golly! But Golly is undeserving, Sir! Golly would prefer Mr. Frody Bagger’s fist against his jaw. Golly’s teeth should fly! Mr. Frody Bagger should hold Golly in the fire until he scorches, Sir!”

Golly had followed the Fellowship for many leagues. He had originally called himself a House Elf until Legolas had asked to see his Elf Card. Having none — nor pockets to carry a card in — Golly immediately declared himself a House Golem.

“Golly, please!” cried Frody. Golly had seized Frody’s ankle and was using Frody’s foot to kick himself in the stomach.

“Mr. Frody Bagger –” said Golly, between gasping retches as the boot pummeled him — “must not — go into the Wild. Must not — go anywhere — but to Cirith Ungol. Yes! Straight Stair, Winding Stair! He is safe there, is Mr. Frody Bagger. Panic room is there. Lead-lined vault, full of provisions. Pipe leaf, yes! DVD player! Hole up for the duration of nasty war! Keep the Precious safe! Golly comes to lead Mr. Frody Bagger there!”

Boromir’s horn sailed through the air and beaned Golly on the noggin.

“Ooooh!” squealed Golly. “Golly is thanking you, Sir!”

“If we can’t go to Gondor,” grumped Boromir, “we’re not going to your ‘Cirith Ungol,’ wherever that is.”

“Tsk!” called Legolas. “Some of us are trying to sleep!”

As Golly carried on, returning the horn to Boromir and offering his head as a target, enthusiastically inviting a second shot, the hobbit twins sneaked up behind him. Laying hold of the sinewy creature, one lifted him bodily and dropped him into an open well at the chamber’s corner. Golly’s piteous scream faded into the depths. Somewhere far below, an ominous drum began to beat. Doom . . . doom . . . doom. . . .

“Fool of a Took!” snarled Gandalf. “Throw yourself in next time!” The wizard disentangled himself from his bedding, and as he stood, he seemed to grow taller and darker in his anger. (It was rumored that at meetings of the White Council, the Wise had “Get Momentarily Scary” contests. Gandalf and Galadriel generally traded off the trophy back and forth, year by year, throughout the Third Age.)

“Ah, ha, ha, ha!” laughed the other twin, slapping his knee. “He’s not Pippin! I’m Pippin!” But seeing the stormy shadow pass across Gandalf’s face, seeing the wizard’s eyes blaze with wrath, the hobbit changed his tune. “Just kidding. He’s Pippin.”

Slowly, the drum beats faded to silence.

“Likely they was just practicin’,” said Gimli. “Or horsin’ aroun’ wi’ an ol’ kettle drum. Our folk always carry aroun’ their music’l ins’ruments. Bass viols, an’ such. Bombur prolly left some percussion stuff set up down there.”

“Regardless,” said Legolas, “it was foolish, Master Took. Like that time you threw all our chocolate at the troll.”

“How was I to know,” said Pippin, “that chocolate only works against the Wraiths of the Land of Serious Black?”

“Right!” added Merry. “And chocolate sort of worked against that horrible thing with the one wheel — that wheelbarrow-wight.”

“At any rate,” said Legolas huffily, “we’re without chocolate until we get another package from your mum.”

Boromir was looking forlornly at his horn, which had broken in two after its impact with Golly’s head. It lay now in two neat halves, as if it had been cloven with a blade. “So much for that,” he said with a sigh, tossing the pieces into a sewer that drained into the Great River Anduin. “Hope my dad doesn’t find out.”

“Ahem!” said Gandalf. “Bed? More questing early tomorrow? Do I have to come over there?”

Everyone lay down again except Legolas, who sat reading the Quest Manual, and Frody and Sam, who returned to the fire.

“Gandalf?” called Pippin meekly in the dark. “How d’you figure on getting us out of these mines?”

“Not to worry,” said the wizard soothingly. “We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it. Now do try to sleep.”

Again, when all was quiet, Frody sighed. “I wish Aragorn were here. I have so many questions for him.”

Sam looked wistful. “Strider — your godfather, yes. He’s a good feller to have on your side in a scrape, an’ no mistake. Can’t say as I trusted him at our first meetin’, though.”

“Sam, I know he looks foul. But he can’t come in out of the Wild and wash his hair, because the Ministry of Stewardship is still after him. They don’t like this business of ‘Heir to the Throne.'”

“Why don’t you write him a letter, Mr. Frody?”

“Crikey, Sam! That’s brilliant! You’re a genius!”

“Oh, go on then, Mr. Frody. Don’t be makin’ fun.”

Smoothing out a piece of parchment, Frody uncapped his ink bottle, dipped his quill, and began to write.

Dear Aragorn,

Our Quest is going well. I miss you and wish you were here. Join us when you’re able. We are now at 35 degrees 7 minutes east longitude, 40 degrees 3 minutes south latitude, and doing our best to stay hidden. Secrecy is of the utmost importance, Gandalf says.

By the way, in case you’re worried, I still have It safe — you know, the Thing I’m carrying that You-Know-Who wants.

Hope to see you soon.


Sam read it over Frody’s shoulder. “That’s perfect, Mr. Frody, but how are you going to get it to Strider?”

“I think I can just throw it out that window,” said Frody, pointing to an aperture in the stone wall. “Aragorn’s all over the Wild. He’s the guy out there. If something’s in the Wild, he’ll find it.”

“Right!” agreed Sam.

Tiptoeing to the window so as not to wake the others, they peered out into the night beyond the walls of Moria. Frody flung his letter into the breeze, and it zigzagged toward the ground — until a huge, black, reptilian shape swooped out of the clouds, and a cowled figure on the monster’s back snatched the parchment in a skeletal hand.

“What d’you suppose that was, Mr. Frody?” asked Sam, sounding a little worried.

“A friend of Aragorn’s, I expect,” said Frody. “He’s got many friends.”

“And many names,” added Sam.

“He says that’s to stay ahead of the bill collectors.”

“He is so cool,” said Sam.

Their gazes drifted downward to the winding path leading up to Moria’s side entrance. A red carpet lay unrolled on it, and along this carpet trooped a host of shadowy figures — mythical creatures, all having come to make gratuitous cameo appearances in the story, so that an entire generation of readers might grow up believing they had appeared here first. Frody and Sam stared in wonder at centaurs, gargoyles, griffins, hippogriffs, Ki-Rin, fauns, platypi, talking beavers, Daleks, and mermaids flipping and thrashing, dragging themselves forward with their hands. There were owlbears, wyverns, sphinxes, a couple of Shoggoths, banthas, Jawas, Untowards, chupacabras, and a Sasquatch.

All these fabulous beings were emerging from an endless line of arriving limousine carriages powered by invisible engines — or so one could only surmise. There were misty, empty spaces above the front wheels, where the motors and bonnets ought to be.

Paparazzi sprang now from the bushes — the fell paparazzi of the Misty Mountains, a strain of their vile kind that You-Know-Who had cross-bred with Men, that they might go about in daylight and march over great distance beneath the weight of camera bags. Their cameras flashed now, lighting the forest with an eerie radiance like a false dawn.

More mythical celebrities arrived on the carpet. Scylla and Charybdis had obviously tried to outdo each other with their off-the-shoulder evening gowns. Nosferatu sprang up end-ways out of his hearse-bed limo. Pan waved to the crowds, looking chic in his designer shades, a fur-draped chimaera on his arm. Her breath incinerated one of the paparazzi who got too close. Dr. Zaius, with distinguished silver highlights in his orange mane, was obviously playing the elder statesman.

“Mr. Frody! Is that . . . can it be. . . .?”

“Yes, Sam,” said Frody with a smile. “That’s Grendel.”

“Oh, I’ve always dearly wanted to see Grendel! But — but who’s that he’s with?” Sam’s face contorted in revulsion. “Oh, that would be gross, an’ no mistake!”

In the light of the moon and the flashes, they saw that Grendel was escorting Medusa. When she lifted her own shades to glare meaningfully at a cameraman, he promptly turned to stone, camera and all. She was wearing high-heeled feet, which were all the rage since Angelina had worn them in Beowulf.

“She’s put on quite a few pounds,” said Frody. “And can you believe that? — Botox for every one of her snakes.”

“And that dress, Mr. Frody. That’d be just wrong in my book, if you take my meanin’. ‘Mutton dressed as lamb,’ as my old Gaffer always says.”


When at last they pulled themselves away from the view of the bizarre menagerie, they discovered Gandalf sitting at the divergence of two corridors, one descending to the left, the other climbing away to the right. He was clearly confounded.

“Hmm,” he said broodingly. “If only I’d brought along the Hallway-Sorting Hat.”

Merry sat up, yawning. “Maybe you should try saying ‘Friend’ again.”

Pippin high-fived him from the adjacent bedroll.

“Tsk!” said Legolas.

“I have it!” cried Gandalf, bounding to his feet with a laugh. “Gandalf, you old fool! I have the solution to everything!”

“What is it?” they all cried, gathering close behind him.

“There are too many adults here!” He danced from foot to foot, rubbing his hands together in glee. “We’ll never advance the plot that way! These books always start to move when you young folks are left to your own devices. Hobbits, take the descending path.” He clutched Frody’s shoulder soberly and patted the ring through Frody’s shirt. “Keep it secret. Keep it safe.” Then he brightened. “The rest of us will go this way, up this tunnel marked ‘EXIT.’ We’ll be back for the denouement — to thump you on the backs, make some pithy philosophical comments about life, devotion, and friendship, and tell you ‘Well done, but now things are going to get darker.'”

“Sounds like a plan,” said Legolas.

“But –” Frody began.

“Gimli,” said Gandalf, “you’d better go with the kids.”

Gloin’s son blustered. “Yer hadn’t ought ter send me away, Mr. Gandalf!”

“Ooo,” said Legolas — “short-tempered, are we?”

“Now, now,” said the wizard, “enough talk. Everybody, do your thing. We’ll see you on the beach. Let’s do some good.”


A World of Shadows

November 18, 2008

“He watched the moon sink toward the sharp treetops. Its radiance, and every sound of the night — the sighing wind, the songs of insects, the yowling things that had no identity — all these were the same, yet somehow different. He’d learned that nightmares had doors and windows that were not always shut in the daytime.

“That knowledge changed the way light fell on the land. It made the world dimmer, more shadowy, and infinitely wider.”

from “Shadowbender,” by Yours Truly (Watch for this story in Issue #8 of Ozment’s House of Twilight — see the blogroll at the right for the URL.)

“As mankind understands more and more about the world, the number of ‘monsters’ becomes smaller and smaller. . . . In a way, mankind has lost something important.”

–Isaac Asimov

It would have been a lot scarier to have lived in the pre-industrial age, before the advent of the electric light. Think about it: no streetlights, no houselights, no flickering TVs behind the living-room windows of houses on your block. No neon. No jumping into the safe cubicle of your car and flicking on the headlights. The night beyond your hearth, beyond your candle, was a well of blackness. Who knew what lurked out there, where the bandogs howled?

Ten or more years ago, I read an article by a scholar named Roger Ekirch, who seemed to be making something of a career of researching the pre-industrial night. There’s far more to the subject than you’d expect: the lack of abundant artificial light gave rise to significantly different patterns of thought and ways of spending the dark hours. (Have you heard of “the first sleep” and “the second sleep”? If you’d lived back then, you would have.) The article promised a forthcoming book, but I’ve never been able to find it. If anyone knows of such a book, I’d love to hear about it.

Anyway, to my point: monsters and shadows. (That’s generally always my point, if you look hard enough. Heh, heh!) Even in our sanitized, well-lighted world, the shadows are there, always pooling, always ready to come creeping back; and we writers of horror and speculative fiction are usually looking out for them with hopeful gazes. So I’ve got three stories for you — three stories from the edges of the dusk — three sort-of near wishful encounters with monsters.

1. Just tonight (hence, the inspiration for this posting), I was walking back to my place from the home of nearby friends at a little past midnight. It’s a November night in northern Japan — rain sluicing down at times in the cruel wind, everything shiny and wet. I timed my short journey to shoot home between squalls. As I passed the mouth of the Lavender Path (a long pathway like an alley where cars can’t pass — a place for walkers and cyclists between the backs of buildings and a little park on the right, lined on both sides by bushes and flowers in season — and yes, lots of lavender), I saw, about 20 or so feet away from me, something.

The thing was so incongruous that it stopped me in my tracks. I actually backed up a few steps to peer down the pathway and squint into the dark. “What is that?” I wondered. It was so black that I thought at first it was just a shadow; there were no details visible. But it was out in the middle of the path, where no shadows of anything else fell. And the more I stared, the more I was sure it was some substantial, upright object.

The mouth of the Lavender Path, with my bike at about the point at which I saw the "thing."

The mouth of the Lavender Path, with my bike at about the point at which I saw the

It was about the size of a large dog, but the oddest thing was that I had the impression of kangaroo-like feet or legs. That is, the oval-shaped, featureless bulk of the thing seemed raised at an angle, supported by a base of some kind that my imagination could easily construe as dog-like feet. I watched for perhaps 15 or 20 seconds, but the shape didn’t move at all. I’m fairly sure it was some mundane object blown out into the path by the fierce winds. But then again, it was about the right size and posture for a chupacabras, so I was not inclined to set foot on the Lavender Path (which I frequent in the daytime) for a closer view. I’ll try to remember tomorrow to glance that way as I pass, and we’ll see if the cloud-masked sun can shed any light on the mystery.

2. Not long after seeing M. Night Shyamalan’s The Village, a friend and I were walking to the local cineplex to see a late-night movie. The road we were taking had houses and buildings on one side and rice fields on the other. Ahead of us in the darkness, just at the edge of the rice fields, hunched a thing that looked for all the world like one of the cloaked creatures in The Village. We both had exactly the same impression: a vaguely humanoid shape stooping far forward, covered by a long cloak and a hood.

Of course, being adults and men (yeah, my friend was a guy — boring story, I know), we couldn’t allow ourselves to be too scared, but I’m pretty sure our steps slowed a little as we commented on it. We had to walk right past it (left past it) to get to the theater, so we did. It turned out to be black plastic draped over some rice-field-related implement, but even at quite close range, it looked like a hooded creature.

3. This one is in broad daylight. After some torrential rains a few years ago, I was crossing a bridge called Honsen Oohashi at the point where the Sekiya Canal branches off from the Shinano, Japan’s longest river. As I glanced down into the turbulent gray water, I saw what looked like a shiny, black, serpentine body rising up in an arch that just cleared the surface. It plunged back under, then re-emerged . . . then sank again, then reappeared . . . undulating, swimming in the central channel toward the sea. The thing was about 8 or 10 inches in diameter, at least. If I’d been looking down into Loch Ness, I would have been excited, let me tell you!

As I watched, though, I figured out what I was seeing. Either a car tire or the inner tube of a tire was floating on end (that is, upright, as if rolling), “bouncing” away down the river, now half into the air, now underwater. Shiny . . . black . . . the perfect sea monster! (As my old college friend Julie F. later said, “That’s an illustration of how a person sees what he wants to see.” Well, yeah. The Cervantes character in The Man of La Mancha says, “Poets select from reality.” I’d add that speculative fiction writers select, then reach out and give their selections a good, hearty twist.)

And you thought Hallowe’en was over!

So, my call to you, dear readers, is this: Does anyone have a similar story? Have you seen anything that might, in the pre-industrial night, have been a card-carrying monster? Let us hear of your shadowy walks and hair-raising glimpses. And if anyone has a bona fide monster story, well, you betcherboots that’s welcome, too!

I’d tell you about our monster-hunting club in gradeschool, but that’s a whole ‘n’other post!

Note to all: If you enjoy this sort of talk, be sure to read the comments on this post (below). People are writing in with some fascinating stories! Why don’t you be one of them?

Wisdom from World Fantasy

November 12, 2008

As promised, here’s a little tour through my notebook — stuff that I wrote down while listening to panels at the World Fantasy Convention 2008 in Calgary.

David Morrell, one of this year’s Guests of Honor, the creator of Rambo in his novel First Blood (1972), has a book out on writing that I’d love to read: The Successful Novelist (2008).

He says the keys to writing success are talent, discipline, hard work, and luck. (No real surprises there, but I thought it was worth writing down, because it’s true. Or rather, mostly true: it depends on your own interpretation of the “luck” part. As Obi-Wan says, “In my experience, there’s no such thing as luck.” Again and again in my own writer’s path, things have happened that, to many, would seem like sheer dumb luck. The right thing is written on the silliest whim at the right time, sent to the right editor at precisely the right time, etc. — my own interpretation is that there’s an overarching plan — yes, it’s my blog and I’ll say what I want. I believe that God works things out, opening doors at just the right moments. But certainly the parts about talent, hard work, and discipline are indisputable.)

David Morrell says that, because of who we are and the life experiences we’ve had, we all have a dominant emotion. He compares it to a ferret — a ferret that lives inside us, trying to get out. Our task as writers is to identify the ferret. Figure out what it is you’re supposed to be writing. It may take a lot of trial and error, but keep listening, keep trying to sight the ferret, so that you know what it is.

It’s the daydreams that lead us. Your ferret will likely identify himself most readily when you’re not thinking about him. Be aware of your daydreams — of the things that come up and come out again and again in your writing. In a sense, your body knows what it should be writing.

David Morrell: “Be a first-rate version of the person you are, instead of a second-rate version of someone you’re not.” That one’s good. We should all think hard about that one. I spent a few years stewing over how I could be “like J.K. Rowling.” But I’m not like her, and I shouldn’t be. There are other stories that I’m meant to tell. I’ve got a ferret of my own. [This analogy is particularly funny to me because there is an actual ferret living in my house in the U.S. — an old ferret that sleeps most of the time, kept by my cousin, who’s renting that house from me. I hope my inner ferret is more active than that one! But at least I know what a ferret looks like. . . .]

Morrell again: “Serve the story. It will tell us what’s important.”

Morrell: “It’s the journey that’s important. All we have is the moment. Enjoy every day that you’re doing what you’re doing.” That’s profound, isn’t it? My dad used to say, “Having is never as good as wanting.” I’ve had some heady, wonderful moments as a writer, for sure. But I’ve come far enough on the path to feel the truth of this quote. If I didn’t enjoy the creation of the story — the daily setting of words on paper, of shaping a tale where one didn’t exist before — of striving to make it better through revision — then there would be no point to this. There are far more efficient ways to make money. The wonderful thing about being a writer is that I get to be a writer. And sometimes people like what I write, and that’s icing on the cake! And sometimes people pay me for writing, and that’s icing on the icing. But it’s the journey . . . that’s what it’s all about. “How can I solve this plot problem?” . . . ” Wouldn’t it be cool if. . . .?”

Frank Sinatra reportedly had this sign on his door: “If you’re going to knock on this door, be sure you have a damn good reason.” Yay, Frank! I didn’t realize we had so much in common! I thought it was just the blue eyes.

Morrell recommends these writers, important in the history of horror: Richard Matheson, Jack Finney, Ira Levin, and Thomas Tryon’s The Other and Harvest Home. He says Dracula is one of the best novels ever (Bram Stoker).

A ballet dancer on one of the panels used a ballet model of writing: a story is like the High 5th Position in ballet (arms arched high over your head, fingers of your two hands pointing toward each other): the story starts at your left elbow. Your head is at the center, between your arms. The story goes up one arm and comes down the other, ending at the other elbow. That is to say, you don’t want to dump too much into the story at the beginning. Let it start small and build — let it climb — the main stuff happens in the middle (your head) — and also there shouldn’t be too much overwhelming stuff at the end. Let the story diminish to its graceful conclusion at your other elbow. The dancer didn’t say this, but remember the “lady” on the Monty Python episode who had the theory about the brontosaurus? “The brontosaurus is thin on one end, gets very thick in the middle, and is thin again on the other end.” Take your pick: ballet or brontosauri.

From (I think) a young-adult fiction panel: If something is done extremely well, it doesn’t have to be startlingly new. As Fujiwara no Teika said long, long ago: “Don’t strain for novelty.” Stories that have been done a thousand times have been done a thousand times for a reason: the pattern works. But characters and the details you bring to the story are infinite and unique. You alone see the world through your own filter. The book you write will be different from the book anyone else writes, even if the plot, examined on a lab table, isn’t anything Earth-shakingly original.

People reread and reread Tolkien. Write books that people will reread. I’m never happier than when a fan tells me s/he rereads Dragonfly every October. And one of my favorite fan letters for “The Star Shard” in Cricket was one saying this was a story the reader would curl up with on a rainy day no matter how many times she’d read it before.

Today, there’s a huge focus on plot at the expense of the characters and the richness & atmosphere that makes people reread a book. We’ve all seen this, right? Many movies nowadays are made with about three or four different surprise plot twists at the end — I suspect many books are the same — writers are clawing desperately to find “surprising” plots. But if plot is all you’ve got going on, people will read the book once. If you build a rich world, people will come back again and again, because they’ll want to live there.

You have to nail the pacing. Keep it moving, especially young-adult fiction. Keep things happening.

Terry Pratchett says writing/plotting a novel is like looking down into a valley full of mist. You can see a treetop here and there, and maybe you can see the exit to the valley, but you can’t see all the stuff in between, down below the shroud of the mist. You have to discover that as you go along. I have certainly experienced that! Things become clear at the time they’re supposed to. Writing is a journey of discovery.

My agent says January is a good time to submit manuscripts. So is “back-to-school” time in September. The worst times are December and August, when people are out of their offices.

“The French language is of critical and sometimes disproportionate importance to the French.” — Barbara Hambly

Dave Grossman has two books titled On Combat and On Killing. David Morrell and David Drake made the point that one mistake frequently made in thriller fiction is that an ordinary person, when faced with a life-threatening situation, is suddenly able to kill like a soldier. In fact, humans have a kind of shield in their minds that prevents them from killing. Our instinct and tendency is to preserve life. It’s wired into us for the preservation of our species. Long ago, the Army used to train soldiers in marksmanship. But they found that even soldiers who could consistently peg the bullseye of a target wouldn’t fire their weapons in combat. [I’ve heard findings about how owning a gun for self-defense doesn’t usually work out. What happens most often is that a criminal, breaking into a person’s house, uses the defensive homeowner’s gun against him/her.] Now the Army trains soldiers to kill — to kill instinctively. It uses video games — you see an enemy, and you react. People who haven’t been trained in that way have an awfully hard time shooting or stabbing another human being. Our instinct is to preserve life. Our brains sabotage our deadly force. The chilling flip-side of that coin is: What about the generation of kids who are being trained by video games to see enemies and react?

Sharyn November makes the point that writers have an internal age they gravitate towards. “It’s interesting to see what people’s internal age is.”

Garth Nix says it’s all about an emotional connection. That’s why some books are successful. Readers make an easy emotional connection with the characters. That is quite profound — don’t gloss over this idea. How can we create that connection in our writing? That’s worth thinking long and hard about.

Peter Pan is a beautiful book, says David Morrell. So is The Prestige.

Emotional honesty. Dickens’s Bleak House. “The man could write,” says Morrell.

He also says, “God rewards the brave.”

Hollywood: “Against a backdrop of war, they fell in love.” Fantasy fiction: “They fell in love, but in the meantime, they had the dark lord to defeat.” Characters in fantasy are revealed through how they deal with some external thing.

A character who’s a stranger to the fantastic context allows you to describe it. An indigenous character doesn’t give the fantastic context a second thought. Boy, do I wish I’d thought of that before all those drafts of The Fires of the Deep!

Argument is manipulation.

Lovecraft’s stories are all: “A certain family are probably descended from monsters.” Heh, heh, heh! But look back up there to a point made earlier: Lovecraft could do that plot again and again, because his ominous atmospheres are so much fun to experience: all those sagging gambrel roofs and narrow alleyways, those tombstones thrusting up through the soil like the bleached claws of some enormous buried hand, those weird swamps with preternatural glows, that non-Euclidian geometry. . . .

I want to track down a poem about two corbies (ravens) talking about going to feast upon a dead knight in a field: “Where shall we go and dine today?” It sounds wonderful.

Someone asked Stephen King, “Why do you write horror?” He replied, “What makes you think I have a choice?”

“Horror is a genre of tone.” — Barbara Hambly

I was SO RELIEVED to hear Barbara Hambly say that when she’s writing, she doesn’t have the time or the emotional energy to read fiction. Thank you, Barbara! People act like reading fiction is easy. I love it, but for me, it takes focus and energy. I’ve always felt like a cretin for not reading more. Hambly says what she’s working with is the memory of those genres before she started writing professionally. There may be hope for me yet! That’s so refreshing and inspiring to hear, after hearing so many writers who say, “Oh, yes (yawn): I read ten novels a day. I just can’t help it.”

Let a book be what it wants to be. Don’t try to force a particular genre on it. Write it, and then worry about where it fits in.

Vampire fiction: now that the religious aspects are essentially gone, vampire novels are romances. That’s pretty much all that’s left.

And cycling back to David Morrell: “The destination is not nearly as important as the voyage.” It’s worth saying twice!

World Fantasy Convention 2008

November 8, 2008

(Before I get started, I’d encourage anyone interested to go back for one more look at the comments on the previous post, the one about Hallowe’en. There were a few comments awaiting moderation that didn’t get moderated until I was back from World Fantasy — so if you were one of those commenters, my apologies, and thanks for your patience! If you like reading the comments, be advised that there may be a couple new ones that you’ve missed. Thanks to all of you who kept right on commenting well after Hallowe’en! Again, I’m glad so many people rang in. This blog is always more fun when it’s an “us”!)

So, I’m back from Calgary, and this year’s World Fantasy Convention was outstanding! Five days in Heaven — wonderful people, fascinating panels, great readings, a wagonload of books to bring home, and free-range buffalo sausage for breakfast. And gravy on the fries, because it was Canada, eh?

Highlights (not a complete list, by any means):

1. Flying over the Canadian Rockies. Awesome, dramatic peaks glistening in the sun, the perfect threshold to cross on the way to a fantasy convention! And then they just end right before you get to Calgary. One minute, you might be over the Himalayas, where all the world is vertical; the next, you might be over the U.S. Midwest, with flat fields stretching to the horizon — though the mountain wall is still visible behind you; you didn’t dream it.

2. The blessed Chinook winds that warmed Calgary for the week of the con. Calgarians told me they often have snow at this time of year. But the whole time I was there, the skies were a dazzling blue and the air was almost balmy. I was perfectly comfortable in my tweed or corduroy jackets, even at night. “Chinook,” according to the dictionary, is a native American term meaning “Snow-Eater,” because these winds (a phenomenon created by the fantasy-map wall of the Rockies) can melt a foot of snow in a matter of hours, and dry out the ground where the snow lay!

100_020913. My enormous hotel room, which I kid you not was bigger than my whole apartment in Japan. Unlike last year’s con, at which I got 2 to 3 hours of sleep a night — and unlike the con two years ago, when I had the 24-hour flu — at this con, I sank into a peaceful and uninterrupted sleep every night, up on the 29th floor of the International Hotel.

4. Meeting Christina R. and Julia K. on the shuttle from the airport — a talented writer and a talented artist, respectively — the friend-making began before I even reached the convention!

5. Dinner at the James Joyce Irish Pub. Excellent fare!100_0211

6. The meet-and-greet on the first evening, with a concert by The Plaid-Tongued Devils. I reconnected with some old friends and met some new ones, including Michelle M. and “Skippy,” two more kindred spirits with whom I spent a lot of delightful time!

7. Attending a reading by Tad Williams.

8. Hearing a workshop given by David Morrell, author of First Blood — creator of Rambo — excellent and inspiring speaker.

9. Hanging out with Ella B., a fine writer who knows about enchantment and the ways of sea monsters; having lunch with her in the park, laughing, and discussing the writing life.

10. Reconnecting with Darrell S., “Dealer in Bargain-Rate Antiquities.”

11. Getting together with a group of Tolkien fans to discuss the finer points of characters from The Lord of the Rings, to swap stories about how we discovered Tolkien’s world and our early impressions of it; reciting the poem in Elvish that begins “A Elbereth Gilthoniel….”; hearing selections from the Buffy the Vampire Slayer meets The Lord of the Rings musical “Once More, with Hobbits.”

100_021412. Getting to meet my agent face-to-face for the first time and doing lunch. (Okay, okay, I was dying to write that. I feel so much better now!)

13. Having Gordon Van Gelder flag me down in the hallway to introduce me to Shawna McCarthy, editor of Realms of Fantasy.

14. Attending Will Hubbell’s reading from his latest book (as Morgan Howell), A Woman Worth Ten Coppers. Read it, everybody!

15. Doing my OWN reading from my story “Seawall”! With an audience and everything! (Thanks, guys!)

16. Being taken out to dinner by the agency that represents me and getting to meet some of my fellow representees.

17. Having an unexpected supper on the last night with my friend Evonne T., Nina Kiriki Hoffman, and100_0215 two other nice people whose names I really didn’t catch because the restaurant was so noisy and we were all so tired — but they were nice!

18. Hearing all the panel discussions I could cram in. It’s always fascinating to hear what working writers and editors say at such things. (George R. R. Martin said he disagrees with some of Tolkien’s choices — says he thinks Gandalf should have stayed dead!)

19. Having Ellen Datlow tell me two or three times that “The Bone Man” was a good story! (Allow me to add a few more exclamation marks: !!!!!)

20. Okay, here’s a good final story: I was leaving Calgary on Monday, the convention all over. I had a little time to kill, so I was looking through the airport bookstore, and I came across Guy Gavriel Kay’s book Ysabel. Now, even at last year’s World Fantasy they were raving about what a good book this is, and I’d been curious about it ever since. At this year’s con, the book won the World Fantasy Award for Best Novel. So I debated with myself — I have a ton of books waiting to be read. I was lugging home a ton of books from the convention. (You get a whole tote bag of them free, just for attending!) I had no business buying another book. But wouldn’t it be cool, I thought, to be able to say I’d bought my copy of Ysabel when I was in Calgary for the WFC? So, after putting it down three or four times, I finally picked it up again and bought it. So then I went to my gate, A-11, and waited for my flight. We boarded. Then we UN-boarded. The pilot told us to get off the plane, because the on-board computer needed fixing. So, as I was waiting at the gate to see what would happen, who should come walking down the terminal but — Guy Gavriel Kay?! He sat down outside A-12 to wait for his flight to Toronto. I hurried over with my copy of Ysabel and my pen, and he very graciously signed my book. It wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t bought the book on a whim, or if my flight had left like it was supposed to.

Strange and serendipitous things do happen. The paths we walk in life cross at the oddest — at the rightest — times. I think that’s probably why I’m drawn to the fantasy genre: why I read it, and why I write it. Life is an experience of wonder.

In my next posting, I’m going to open up my notebook to you: I’m going to tell you about the things I heard at the WFC that seemed significant to me. So come back soon!