Archive for the 'Fantasy Fiction' Category

Where do you get your ideas?

There’s a great essay at Neil Gaiman’s blog about creativity, and where his ideas come from.  Read it.  It’s terrific.  Then again, I think that almost everything he does is.

It’s reassuring; it’s good to hear a well-established writer talk about the ideas that don’t work, about the ideas that do, about wrestling them into a shape that’s palatable for public consumption.  It’s good to know that having to struggle, sometimes, doesn’t mean that I’m completely unfit to be a writer.

It’s an interesting exercise, too, to try to figure out where and when you get your best ideas.  Mine tend to come when I’m between activities, or trying to work out a problem, or at the edge of sleep.  And, of course, when I’m in the least convenient place to write them down, like driving in heavy traffic, or giving my son a bath, or stir-frying snow peas.  And often, I lose them as quickly as they come.  I’ve taken to repeating a word or two to myself, over and over, as a mnemonic to try to hold onto them just a little longer.

Sometimes I suffer from a dearth of ideas, nothing to say, and no way to say it if I had something. It happens when I’m too stressed out by life, too busy with the mundane details of motherhood, marriage and mortgage, to generally fried to write.  My favorite quote from Gaiman’s essay:

My idea of hell is a blank sheet of paper. Or a blank screen. And me, staring at it, unable to think of a single thing worth saying, a single character that people could believe in, a single story that hasn’t been told before.

It is.  Hell, that is.  But if I force myself to write, to put words on paper, even if they don’t really mean anything, eventually my creative side will become frustrated at being so sullen and puke something out.  And if I keep the creative side happy and busy, it doesn’t stop spewing them out.  Not all of them are good, mind you, but they’re ideas nonetheless.

So.  Where do you get yours?

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Ten Terrific Sites for Speculative Fiction Writers

Some of my favorite speculative fiction websites, listed in no particular order:

1. Ralan’s Webstravaganza: A fairly extensive listing of markets, paying and non-paying for horror, sci-fi, fantasy, etc.

2. Duotrope’s Digest: Another markets database; this one is sortable and includes non-genre markets as well.  Also offers statistics about the markets, such as the acceptance rates, etc.

3. Endicott Studio: If I had to pick a favorite website, this would probably be it. A treasure trove of mythology, folklore, and fairy tales, and information for writers who love them.

4. Writing Science Fiction & Fantasy: Jeffrey Carver’s free online writing course. If you’re an accomplished writer, a lot of this is probably repetition, but some of it probably isn’t, and a refresher never hurt anyone. If you’re just beginning, this site is invaluable.

5. Vision: A Resource for Writers: An online zine dedicated to writers, with all sorts of useful info.

6. Uncle Orson’s Writing Class: Part of Orson Scott Card’s Hatrack River website. Tips, hints and info from one of the masters.

7.  Pitfalls of Writing Science Fiction & Fantasy:  Vonda N. McIntyre’s advice to writers.

8.  David Walton’s Writing Page:  A plethora of advice to spec-fic writers.

9.  Critters Workshop: One of the best writers’ workshops online, and the site includes a number of resources, including market stats.

10. SFWA’s Articles on Writing:  Advice from a number of pros.

This is, of course, far from an extensive list.  If you have any resources you’d like to share, please post them in the comments!

Writing another life

Today, a student I tutor came in with a paper about cultural appropriation in film; I won’t go into what the student said, but it got me thinking.

I’ve seen lots of articles, blog posts and advice about writing from the viewpoint of a culture that is not the author’s own; it’s kind of a touchy topic, and understandably so. Here’s one take on the matter, and here’s another and yet another.

So, here’s my take.

There are times when the use of elements from another’s culture is simply, blatantly wrong; the use of various Native American symbology by non-Native opportunists in order to sell “spiritual enlightenment” for huge profits (none of which usually makes its way into the hands of the people from whom the opportunists are stealing) comes to mind.

But when am I commiting cultural appropriation as a writer?

I write fantasy. Contemporary fantasy, yes, but fantasy all the same, and I think that it’s in the speculative fiction genres that cultural appropriation is the most problematic. I use various elements from various cultures to construct the mythos of the world my characters walk through. As someone of very, very Irish descent, I have long been fascinated by Irish and Celtic stories and faith; when I first began to write seriously, it was from this that I drew most of my fiction’s symbology. These symbols came from my heritage, from my understanding of the culture of my ancestors.

But then I started expanding my horizons; I became extremely interested in Native American faith and spiritual practice, and created a character based on a Navajo spiritual figure.

When I submitted the story to an online group for critique, I was lambasted.

It wasn’t that I’d drawn the character inaccurately; it was that I, a white woman, drew the character at all. Truthfully, nobody in that particular group was of Native descent; they couldn’t say whether or not the character was done accurately or even respectfully, because they didn’t know.

I understand this. There are a lot of people out there for whom the figure that I’d appropriated is a spiritual figure, not just a folktale out of the distant past. The act of using this figure in fiction can very easily be seen as disrespectful. I certainly didn’t intend any disrespect when I wrote the story, but I trashed it after that.

In retrospect, the act of writing that story was disrespectful. I’d approached a holy figure in a way that made him a fantasy, something not true.

I have made use of elements of Native culture in stories since then; some of the stories are more successful than others. But I’m extremely careful now. I research. A lot. I cannot stress how much I research when I start writing at all about a culture that is not my own. And I try to have empathy. I try to imagine the various ways in which my story could be viewed.

Is it still problematic? Most certainly. I’m a child of the majority culture, a white woman, not visibly different from the majority culture at all. I know that I cannot possibly understand what it is like to live the life of any culture but my own. But not to try, I think, only furthers the problem. If every writer of European descent only writes about the culture of descendents of Europeans, their writing becomes stale, and we begin to write with blinders on.  I learn when I write.  I may make mistakes, but I will continue to try.

Great site for writers: DeepGenre

I love this blog. It’s written/maintained a number of authors: Constance Ash, Carol Berg, Barbara Denz, David Louis Edelman, Kate Elliot, Katherine Kerr, Kevin Andrew Murphy, Laura J. Mixon, Sherwood Smith and Lois Tilton.

There’s a lot of info here; discussion on a number of writers’ first novels, 13-line critiques, ins and outs of writing craft and business…I could go on.

So check it out: DeepGenre.

Literary Fantasy/SF/SFF books and authors

In relation to my last post about genre snobbery and people who dismiss entire genres as mind candy, I thought I’d post a list of fantasy and science fiction books (and authors) I consider to be of “literary merit”.  By that, I mean those works that aren’t simply escapist, as many dismiss fantasy/science fiction to be.  This list is by no means exhaustive; feel free to add!

  • Doomsday Book by Connie Willis:  incredibly well-researched; paints a vivid and realistic picture of what  life in the Middle Ages might have been like.  Willis’ short stories are also amazingly good.
  • Anything by Patricia McKillip, particularly The Tower at Stoney Wood, The Changeling Sea and Ombria in Shadow.  Her language is lyrical and poetic, and her characters are complex and compelling.
  • Neverwhere and American Gods by Neil Gaiman.  His other books and stories are great as well, but these two particularly stand out.
  • Tigana, The Lions of Al-Rassan and The Sarantine Mosaic by Guy Gavriel Kay.  The latter two of these three are almost alternate history; he writes about  recognizable historical periods and personae, but tweaks them in such a way that their stories come alive.  His use of language is beautiful as well.
  • Gregory Maguire.  Wicked.  Need I say more?  Actually, Wicked is not my favorite of his novels; Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister is.
  • Some of Clive Barker’s work, especially the story “The Last Will and Testament of Jacqueline Ess.” It’s certainly on the dark side, but well worth reading.  The Thief of Always is also amazing.
  • Deerskin by Robin McKinley.  Beautifully written, compelling and subtle.

And now I’m drawing a blank.  There are so many others, but it’s late and I still have writing to do tonight.  Anyone else care to add?

Genre Snobbery

I recently read a great post that got me thinking about what is considered “literature,” what isn’t, and whether or not we should really care.

As an English major, most of the people that I spend a lot of time with are genre snobs. They might pick up something off the mainstream shelf once in a while, or a mystery if they want something light, but don’t generally browse the fantasy, science fiction, western or romance sections of the bookstore. And heaven forbid that somebody actually might try to write it and be taken seriously.

It irritates me.

I write fantasy. I like to think that my writing is of high quality. I also read fantasy, and I like to think that I’m a reasonably intelligent and discerning person. Why do so many people find the idea of intelligent, quality fantasy to be so impossible?

Yet many of the older works — and some contemporary — that are considered to be “literature” contain elements of the fantastic. Look at Shakespeare, for heaven’s sake! The bard’s works are peppered with fairies, witches, curses, ghosts, spells, etc. All very common, even defining, elements of fantasy. It wasn’t until the Enlightenment, I think, that the fantastic came to be considered childish, not fit for mature thinking. Why? Who knows. The Age of Reason meant that anything not “reasonable” was not fit for intelligent consumption. And for some reason, we’ve carried that into the current age.
There’s a great deal of amazing fantasy literature that gets dismissed by the “educated” public. And it frustrates me that many people are not likely to take my writing as seriously as they would if I didn’t write fiction with fantastic elements.

So why do I persist with the fantastic? Because I think that the “magic” in the fantasy stories is a great tool for touching on things that it’s difficult to approach directly. It’s myth, metaphor, and archetype; it speaks to us on a symbolic level that we understand almost instinctively. I write it because when I read truly excellent fantasy, I see truths about the real world, and about human nature, that I might not have seen before, or I understand them in a different way. That’s my aspiration: to be able to do that in my own writing.

The problem is, there’s probably more really bad fantasy out there than there is good. While this might be true of any genre, or of mainstream or literary fiction, I think it’s especially obvious in fantasy. It seems to me that a lot of novice writers choose to write fantasy because they feel that it’s easier, that since they can make up a world of their own, they don’t really have to pay attention to the details of reality. So what we get is a slew of inconsistency, in plot and setting, and flat cookie-cutter characters with unbelievable motives.
I think that this is changing, though. I think that fantasy readers are demanding, and receiving, better quality fiction. Neil Gaiman springs to mind. There’s really not much of the cliched hack-and-slash type stuff being published these days. There have always been terrific fantasists on the shelves, but I think there are more of them now. Fantasy writers, I think, are much more likely now to see their work in print if they use the fantasy elements as something more than a device to further a plot.

More mainstream literature these days contains fantastic elements as well. While I think that sometimes the mainstream writers don’t use fantasy as well as many fantasy writers, I think that some of the genre snobs should be prepared to have their sensibilities offended more often; as more people read fantastic fiction, more fantastic fiction will be published, and placed in the “literary” and mainstream sections of the bookstores.


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