What follows is a trip through my notebook pages from this year’s World Fantasy Convention — things I wanted to remember, many of which are authors and the titles of their books and stories, some of which may be misspelled. [I think I’ve noted the spellings I’m not sure of.] The stuff is in no particular order — it’s like a junk drawer dumped out onto the tabletop. It’s a starting point: the place to begin intriguing searches and maybe discussions. Feel free to jump in with corrections, information, comments, or further queries.
It’s from such soup that great ideas might come. (Artist Guest of Honor Lisa Snellings said “You can’t go wrong with a soup analogy. It’s all in there.”)
Poe . . . Stephen King . . . background in poetry.
The Last Unicorn poses a riddle that is never answered in the book: “Why is a raven like a writing desk?” One panelist, frustrated for years, eventually caught up with Peter S. Beagle and asked him for the answer. He allegedly said, “The answer is either ‘Poe wrote on both’ or ‘Both have inky quills.'” Someone in the audience chimed in and suggested a third answer: “Both produce notes that are generally not musical.”
There’s a folkloric connection between ravens and the Tower of London — if ravens cease living in and around the Tower, England’s monarchy will fail; the royal line will break. So even now, there are special attendants who look after the ravens and make sure they’re happy living there.
There’s a curious relationship between wolves and ravens in the real world. They play together. Ravens will swoop down and pull wolves’ tails, and the wolves will snap and chase the ravens. (I’m not at all sure the wolves are “playing”. . . .) They also hunt together, helping each other for mutual benefit. Ravens will scout out likely-looking prey and call the wolves’ attention to it. Wolves will leave leftovers that ravens can eat. Ravens follow wolf packs, and wolf packs follow ravens.
The panelists were somewhat divided on whether the raven is more often a wise, instructive friend to humankind or a treacherous opportunist who is not at all our friend. In The Hobbit, the ravens living on and around the Lonely Mountain are long-term noble friends of the Dwarves. The raven who sits on the bust of Pallas in Poe’s “The Raven” may just be making mindless noise; it may be leading the narrator to consider his situation; or it may be mocking him and/or actively trying to push him over the edge. The panelists talked about the raven who leaves Noah’s ark and doesn’t come back, because it finds what it wants and needs elsewhere; they didn’t mention the ravens that bring Elijah food. (Have I got that right?) I keep coming back to the “Twa Corbies,” who will be making a sweet dinner of the dead knight — feeding on his heart, feeding on his “bonny blue eye,” and using his hair to weave into their nests. One panelist had a very good feeling about ravens she’s actually met; one always felt coldness from their eyes, and the sense that, if she died, they would gladly eat her. At Niigata University, there are abundant black birds — I’m not sure if they’re ravens or big crows — who come and hunt through the garbage and glare at passersby. I often get a very unfriendly feeling from them. There was, however, one early summer a couple years ago when I would often give little pieces of my lunch to a big one who would find me regularly and watch and hop as close as he dared. Of course I don’t think he was my “friend.”
Robert Chambers [I think], The King in Yellow
E.F. Benson, “Negotium Perambulans” (I may have read this years ago, and that’s what inspired me to include that inscription in Dragonfly, above the shaft where the Thanatops lives. It’s a quote from the Psalm, “Negotium perambulans in tenebris” — “The pestilence that walks in darkness.”)
“A Voice in the Night,” by William Hope Hodgson — one panelist said a teacher read this out loud to them in gradeschool, and the room was utterly silent, and the kids were totally freaked out and never forgot it.
The Sun Bird, by Wilbur Smith (an excellent lost race novel)
The Moon Pool, by A. Merritt — Lovecraft loved the novelette but condemned the novelization — which is probably the one I have on my shelf here.
David Hartwell’s The Dark Descent (I gather this is some kind of an overview of weird/horror fiction. Very intriguing.)
These next are all from Lisa Snellings:
It’s best not to write some stuff down. Sometimes when we do, when we capture the idea and put it down on paper, that satisfies us, and we’re done with it. Don’t worry: Good ideas persist. If it keeps coming back to you, it’s probably a good one. [This thought really made me nod in recognition. I agree.]
She says Ray Bradbury told her: “A general direction is better than a plan, because plans rarely work out. Keep working.”
The best ideas ring like a bell. The best ideas make you sweat. You just want to work, and don’t care if your shirt is on inside out. [Again, I recognize the truth of this. I’ve been there, now and then!]
In general, people who are successful work very, very hard.
Lisa Snellings says: “Why I’m never blocked: because I go to work every single day. It’s your job.” [Stephen King says pretty much the same thing in On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft.]
When you’re working or doing some kind of playing that you’re totally into and the rest of the world disappears, you’re in the Zone. For our well-being, our brains need to be in the Zone. It’s like a shower for our brains. She’s in the Zone often when she’s playing video games. But you can get there when you’re working, too — on art, music, writing, etc.
Moving back to general notes:
Garth Nix: “Some books are good enough to survive the most horrendous authors and constant exposure to them.”
He says “Sabriel” with a long a, as in saber.
Ellen Kushner: “Real life is a great impediment to grace and elegance.”
Tim Powers doesn’t read his contemporaries at all. He has a horror of ever being in a writer’s group, because he’d be expected to read the other group members’ manuscripts. (He says not to tell anyone about this; he hopes no one will post it on-line.)
When Ellen Kushner was a little girl and realized some other people didn’t like her, her father said, “Do you like everyone you meet? No? Then why should they all like you?” And she never worried about that again.
Something Garth Nix said that I really identified with: He’s a “story-driven character writer.” He knows very little about the characters as he begins writing. He learns about them as they go through the story, as they face the events and act. So he doesn’t try to figure out all that about the characters before he starts. I find this to be amazingly comforting, because I go at it the same way and always wondered if there was something wrong with my approach. This seems so much more real to me than filling out all those character sheets, writing profiles for them, pretending to walk around talking with them for months before you write your book, etc. I’m so relieved!
Someone asked if the panel was supposed to be 55 minutes or exactly an hour. Ellen Kushner said, “It’s 55 minutes. It’s a therapy hour.”
Ellen Kushner: “We live in an age that devalues the imagination.”
Some writer said: “I am all my characters, but none of them are me.”
Michael Swanwick pointed out how in Lud-in-the-Mist, the conflict is between magic (Faery) and the law. [True! In Lud, the modern people are in denial of the existence of magic, and to say “fairy” is like saying the worst swear-word, and their legal language has euphemisms for magical things.]
Swanwick: “At the heart of fantasy is mystery. The universe is unknowable. In sf, it’s the other way around — the universe is knowable and follows noble rules.”
Swanwick related how William Blake saw ghosts all the time. Blake drew a picture of the ghost of a flea to show people what he was looking at. [And this is me: still one of my favorite Blake-related quotes was from his wife: “I seldom enjoy Mr. Blake’s company. He’s always in Paradise.” Blake was in the Zone!]
Swanwick: The weakness of the “deal with the devil” story is that the very existence of the devil offering the deal proves the existence of the afterlife, testifies to eternal consequences, etc. — so who would take such a deal? [An old first-grade classmate of mine, no longer with us in this world, was a fine writer who actually took that into account in writing a “deal with the devil” story.]
Swanwick: “If it’s said in front of a writer, it belongs to him.” [Fred: By this point, most of my friends know this to be true!]
Guy Gavriel Kay: “If almost anything is done well, it can work.” [Isn’t that also extremely comforting? Your idea doesn’t have to be Earth-shaking. Just tell the tale well. Eight centuries ago, the Japanese poet Fujiwara no Teika (1162-1241) told his writing students: “Do not strain for novelty.”]
Guy Gavriel Kay liked the Emma Thompson film Sense and Sensibility — very good film overall — but he intensely disliked how the filmmakers played the manners of the time for laughs from a modern audience. They pandered to a modern audience. It was almost bad enough to kill his enjoyment of the movie. [At my first-ever writers’ conference — I was in high school — Paul Darcy Boles told me that a good thing about my writing was that I didn’t poke fun at my characters. If we write about people in a different time or culture, we have to let them be who they would be in that time and place.]
Modern readers are very averse to dialect. In the 19th century they loved it when characters spoke in dialect on the page, but not now.
Ellen Kushner made the point that, to represent the language of another era or place, you can use the rhythms of that culture’s language. One skillful writer she cited, to give French characters the “flavor” of speaking French in her English-language books, consciously employed the beats of standard French poetry. And the English lines do somehow give the illusion of being French!
Avoid trendiness in speech patterns. [Note to self: Do not have characters in an epic fantasy say, “Tuh. As if!”]
Deanna Hoak: “Copyediting is like bathing. No one notices it unless you don’t do it.”
Guy Gavriel Kay (on writing dialogue that sounds authentic): “There’s no formula for success, but there are avenues for authenticity. It depends on maintaining a consistent tone.”
[In my Hokkaido days, I was the D.M. for a small group that played Dungeons & Dragons in the parsonage of Asahikawa Lutheran Church. As a non-native speaker of Japanese, I spoke — and still speak — the language at one level of politeness: the standard, safe-in-all-situations level that foreigners are taught in classrooms. But Japanese has a huge range in levels of politeness, each appropriate in a different situation depending on the speaker’s relationship to the listener, their relative ages, genders, statuses, etc. Sometimes my D&D group would burst out laughing because my orcs spoke so politely: “Please drop your weapons. If you do not, this will turn into a fight! — Grrr! Aargh!”]
Everyone says read Mythago Wood, by Robert Holdstock. The direct sequel is Avilion. [I’m not sure about any of those three spellings.]
Lavinia, by Ursula LeGuin, is absolutely amazing.
Little, Big is evidently a great book.
Alice Henderson [sp?] has a really good-sounding horror novel set in Glacier National Park.
The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, by Alan Garner — apparently really excellent — one panelist whom I respected re-reads it every year.
In Cold Blood by Capote is really disturbing, really scary.
Final note: It would be a very good idea to read the World Fantasy Award-winning novels and runners-up each year. The ones that win seem to be highly original, hard to categorize.
And there we have it!
Let us go forth and read, write, love, and live!