I love words. I collected them like a raven collects shiny bits of things. I horde them, secreting them away to pull out on cold winter nights to look at and savor, to enrich myself with the depth of meaning, the foreign feeling, the difference they offer my life. I love words that are not common, but once were. In fact, I mourn the fact that so many wonderful words have left us to be replaced. For example—zounds as a swear word—once considered out on the edge, it means “by the wounds of God”. Now, just an out of date boring word.
That love of words carries over into my daily life. I love to hear different words, and while I am definitely not adept at learning foreign languages, I do love to have a few little words, small coins in my purse to pull out and trade when I am out of the country. I know how to say thank you in eight or nine languages, hello in seven or eight. And then the odd word that is utterly useless. I know how to say badger in Danish. Which is very useful in almost no conversation ever.
It’s odd, though, that my favorite writers, those that I idolize have very few… “big” words. What I mean is that they write with a simplicity of language, a parcity of words that makes what they have created so much more that mere type on a page. These writers have not fallen into the trap that bigger is better, or even that longer is better. They use a few short phrases and suddenly the beauty or horror, the love or hate they are expressing hits me in the gut and I am there.
One of my idols, Patrick O’Brian, wrote the magnificent Aubrey/Maturin books. The first bookMaster and Commander lacks something, and I know why. He had fallen into the trap he frees himself of later. By book three HMS Surprise, his language is beautiful. Those are books I read as much for the words as I do for the story. I love Jack and Stephen, but the writing is what I truly love. There is a moment in the book where he says “the winds had changed, the song in the rigging dropped by a full octave.” I have no doubt that should I ever sail on a ship is circumstances like that I will know that precise moment. And he does it so simply, so elegantly. No long words, no overblown waxing on. Only fourteen words and you know in your bones what it feels like, what it would be like to be there.
That simplicity is being lost. Of course, there have always been writers that overwrite, but the great writers really don’t. Even during the height of the florid Victorian era, the great writers don’t give you more than you need. Too much sugar ruins the dough, as does too much salt. The balance is difficult.
It’s getting harder for writers to find that balance today. We don’t value words. In a world that blithely accepts words shortened for texting, then allowing them into every day written language we are put to a test. And then we are further faced with the onslaught of new words. Words created merely because someone didn’t know that there was a fabulous word for what they are describing that already existed.
How does this affect me as a writer? It challenges me every time I sit down to write. I want my words to be beautiful. I want the scenes I create to live on, and I want someone to be in a moment and think “this is just like [fill in the blank]”. Will I ever be Patrick O’Brian? Maybe when I am ninety, when I have written hundreds of books and used my “instrument” of writing for many more years, I still doubt it.
Simplicity. As I write I stop myself many times and think “do I really need that word?” I don’t know if it comes from years of writing news and being held to a strict word count, or years of reading O’Brian, Twain, Christie and others, but I look at my work and question every word, every scene. Have I overwritten? Under or over-described? Can a simple word work? And then the biggie—did I just use that word to show off that I know that word whatever it is? For example “mellifluous” do I need to use that word? Or can I say “His voice was like the best chocolate.” It depends, and I need to search myself and decide if I want to use the word for its sake or to show off.
Easy to say, harder to write, but worth the effort every time.
I honestly think that to be any kind of a writer, good or back, fiction or non-fiction—even news, you must first be a reader. It would seem obvious, to write you must read, but I have been surprised by how few writers read beyond the scope of their field. Fantasy writers read fantasy, mystery writers read mystery, paleontologists read dinosaur books. That never really made sense to me. I am a voracious reader and like a kid presented with a new food, I am willing to try almost anything once.
It’s someplace where many writers fall down. They get stuck in their own genre and see themselves as only compared to Joe Guy the greatest Fill In The Blank Author on earth. There is danger there. First, maybe Joe is awesome, maybe you adore his writing and want to write like him. But, he is not to everyone’s tastes, so focusing totally on him might be a mistake. Secondly, you run the risk of ending up in an epic rut that is hard to write your way out of. Then there is the third problem, if you read only in one genre, you tend to think everyone gets it, and will understand you when you reference it; that is not always the case, particularly in genres that are on the outer edges of the fringe.
Actually, I think you should read four books outside whatever genre you write in for every one in your genre you read. For example—you write classic science fiction, and awesome it is, but you shouldn’t just read sci fi. Try a mystery, maybe a romance, perhaps a fantasy and toss in something off-the-wall. Wander into the non-fiction area of the library (or Kindle store in the free section) and get something way out of your usual comfort zone. How about Myth, Ritual and Religion by Andrew Lang available free from Kindle? Or a personal favorite The Hunting of the Snarkby Lewis Carroll, also free on Kindle.
So what did I mean about “aware reading”?
For me, every book I read brings me something new, even just a tiny turn of phrase or a new word. (I love to collect words, even if I never use them.) Whether a novel or a non-fiction, there is something there that adds to my awareness of my own craft. I admit sometimes it is an awareness of something I don’t want to do, or don’t like, but that is a valuable lesson as well.
So what am I talking about? First go out and find something you wouldn’t usually read. Novel, short story, poem, or a book on String Theory, find something. Read it. Then think about it for a minute. While you think, ask yourself:
How does this affect my sense of my writing? Or does it?
Is there something here that I can use?
Does the prose flow in a way I like?
Do I like the words, the very bare bones of the work?
I know that feels a bit like a college class, and it will at first. But after you become aware of reading this way, you will realize you have been reading that way all along; pulling in bits and savoring them, keeping some discarding others. Maybe a scene was particularly vivid because of the way it was described and you unconsciously mimic it in your next work. Perhaps there was a fantastic word, that was just the word for your latest blog, story or article.
Whatever it is, it is there waiting. Just hop out and give it a chance.
I’ve been asked more than once where I find inspiration for my writing. It’s the question I think writers hear the most, and for many it’s the hardest to explain. In the realm of fantasy and science fiction it’s probably even harder, since so much of what we write is outside the pale. Monsters, spaceships, flying beyond the earth or manipulating reality with magic fill our works, but where are those lurking in our world?
I find my “writing self” is always on. When I walk into a store and see the people’s faces, I wonder who they are, what they’ve seen. I imagine their backstory. The cars parked outside the store are also filled with stories, the families that fill them, the dog waiting patiently on the seat. They all have a story waiting to be told.
Yesterday something wonderful arrived in the mail. Something I have wanted for years. A set of RAF sweetheart wings, a real pair from World War II. When the box arrived, I knew what was in it; I knew the brooch was there. I opened the box, pulled away the bubble wrap and carefully unrolled the plastic it had been shipped in and then… Suddenly…
It was a story.
Because who the person who had originally worn these wings? Was she a mother? Sister? Girlfriend or wife? As I held them the story became more. Who was the man who had given them? Was he a Spitfire pilot? Maybe he was a Mosquito pilot in the Pathfinder service? A whole story formed in my head, the handsome pilot standing quietly, the brooch in his hand, waiting for his sweetheart to arrive. Pinning it on her sweater, then gently kissing her cheek before he left to return to his base. I wonder about him now, if he lived, and about her. I wonder how those wings ended up for auction on ebay.
There could be a fantasy story there, or steampunk, or even science fiction because, for example our pilot might have been part of a top secret project…
Inspiration comes from everywhere, even in the mail.
Note: Originally posted 22-November-2011
Anne McCaffrey 1 April 1926 – 21 November 2011
My writing life began when I was six, it grew steadily over the years, then one day I found something that was magic, something that let me know that the things in my head were special too. That thing was a book by one of the most amazing women writers of the modern age—Anne McCaffrey—the book was Dragonflight. I remember seeing the book sitting on the round table in the upstairs hallway. I walked past it for several days before I finally picked it up—and I was transported to a new world. I remember devouring Dragonquest as soon as I could get to the library. Her magnificent Harper Hall books actually convinced me to practice the piano and my scales for voice lessons. The Ship Who Sang encouraged me further.
Most of all, she encouraged me, the writer.
In a world populated by many women writers in science fiction and fantasy, we forget that not so very long ago, there were a few brave pioneers and Anne McCaffrey was one of them with her first novel Restoree. She literally opened worlds for women writers to venture where they had not gone before and along the way brought some of the best-loved books of the genre into existence.The Dragonriders of Pern should be, perhaps, dropped into the same box with Tolkien and Lewis. Middle Earth, Narnia, Pern. These are three places that truly live for so many people. I don’t know how many times I have spoken with someone about Robinton’s death, or the Jump Lessa made… Pern ties people together as surely as those other great writers’ worlds.
Of course she is not limited to that one world. Her Ship Who Sang was a universe that was stunning, and when she tied it together in the Crystal Singer universe it was like a hot fudge sundae. The best of two (literally) worlds. From Pegasus in Flight to The Tower and the Hive, she had an ability to let us understand and believe things that were truly out of the scope of the everyday world.
Less well-known are her romances. I have dabbled in romance writing because of those stories. I have read The Lady enough to know something about horses. I know that an Arran Sweater is hard to knit, thanks to Stitch in Snow, and I understand the choices the heart makes for the family because of The Year of the Lucy.
Anne McCaffrey was one of the first major influences on my writing. In fact my second work of what would be fanfic (although I don’t think the term had been coined back then) was a Pern story. I still remember it. F’lar and F’nor had a sister who was Master Healer of Pern. (Hey, I was young, Mary Sue’s are allowed when you are young!) That little story cemented the love of writing into my heart.
In fact, if I had never picked that book up off the round table in the shadowy hallway and entered into the world of Pern, my worlds might never have existed.
How can I possible say thank you for that? And now, sadly it is too late. I hope she knows how much her writing meant to all of us, and I hope she will forever fly with the dragons of Pern.
I love fantasy. It was something that caught my imagination when I was young and, with science fiction, made up the bulk of my reading for many years. Back then, days in the park were full of dragons and knights, dark wizards and heroic journeys. Of course, living in the Pacific Northwest, with its forested areas close to the city, made for a perfect setting because, let’s face it—fantasy happened out there. What do I mean? Fantasy always had a medieval setting, forests and castles, bogs and moors, the cityscape was completely removed from that world. Even C.S. Lewis moved from this world into another. The fantastic just doesn’t happen in a world ruled by science, a world full of cars and airplanes, coffee and computers.
There seem to be vampires and werewolves popping up everywhere. Angst-ridden teens write long sighing love poems and plucky (or hard-boiled) detectives hunt down the denizens of the night. Oh, there might be more than a vampire or two out there, but still it is a world that is primarily paranormal rather than one of fantasy. Somehow we have come through the ages with our belief that the undead (and a few other things) still walk amongst us, but other things were just figments of our ancestors’ superstitious imaginings and have no place in a modern setting.
And we are back at the why in the whole equation.
What is it that keeps us from diving headlong into that world of epic fantasy—only in today’s world? As I sit here mulling the question, I wonder if it’s one better answered by a cultural psychologist. It is a rather interesting idea, why do we readily accept one and not the other?
I have often wondered why those things fell away. Once the world was full of monsters, creatures of light and dark, dragons coursing through the sky, a physical reality that could be altered by a magical presence. Is it a question of rationality? Humanity has grown up, and as adults we no longer need childish things. We see only the facts of the world, the grind of daily life and if something of the other world should cross our path it is a creature of passion or violence—symbolic of a desire to recapture a lost part of ourselves. Other than that, it is dismissed.
But is it gone?
There is a line in the Merlin books by Mary Stewart, where he (Merlin) speaks of the old gods, and how they are still there in the hollow hills, under the ground, in the streams and wells, just no longer acknowledged. They wait, forgotten, until they are remembered again. It’s an elegant notion, and one I think applies to the idea of the elements of fantasy in the modern world. They are all out there. In the forests, the parks, the dark canyons of the wilds and the deep shadows of the cities. All waiting until we see them again.
It’s not childish, I think, to see a dragon lurking in the clouds, or find the fae in the dappled light of a forest grove. With the eye of science firmly in hand, we are unwilling to believe and let these aspects become part of out world. I think it’s the tendency to believe that rationality conquers all. The problem is—we really don’t believe that. Which is why vampires and werewolves still creep into the urban world.
The time has come to embrace it all. Bring fantasy into the modern world—if a vampire can stalk downtown, a dragon can fly overhead. The challenge is to create the world in such a way that the reader can willingly dive into this reality and can accept that their next walk in the park may be filled with something magical, something out of the depths of myth, something truly epic.
As I prepare the final touches on the next piece in the Custodes Noctis series, I have been thinking a lot about where they came from, and what it was that led me to create this world with these characters and the complex equation that brings them together.
The idea of a group of warriors raised to a specific task is a very old one—it can be found in the histories and myths of many cultures, and it was there I found my first inspiration. Once that tiny seed was planted it began to take root. There needed to be more, something personal, familial, and there the Custodes Noctis were born. A family that is trained to fight.
Of course there is far more to their world than just that, but that was the beginning.
Once upon a time, things that we readily dismiss as unreal were very much a part of the human landscape, part of daily life and a very real part of the fears that bound communities together or tore them apart. The night was a place of terror, full of things that yanked away human life with the ease of a hot knife through butter. The waking world was full of evil—violence, warfare and the unseen evil of plague. We have since explained away much of this with science. Complacent in the germ theory of illness and knowing that the things in the night are just creatures that “the people back then” had no weapons against.
But what if that was only half true? What if there were things out there that lurked in the night, things that ripped through society and left it bloody and filled with death? We would need protection against those things, the things that even the evil feared. As I began to research further, digging into old histories and Sagas, I began to put together the picture of what would become the Custodes Noctis. The Keepers of the Night. Literally guardians of the night.
Of course, if they were to battle this evil, they would need to be special, and magic had to enter the arena. Referring to that once upon a time again, magic was just part of life. Later fear of this would lead to great tragedies throughout Europe but in the beginning, people had their healers, their shaman, those that could fight evil in the physical world and the worlds that are unseen. When I made the choice to have brothers, tied by a special bond, I was thinking of some of the Mythical Heroes, tied magically to their siblings giving them more power and a greater chance of survival in battle. I’ve added my own twist to this, giving each brother their own Gifts as well, and as the series expands and we meet other members of the Custodes Noctis, not just the Emrys clan, the way those Gifts manifest will be explored as well.
Building up the world of my main characters has led me into the world of the Sagas, I’ve spent hours pouring over the Sagas of Iceland and other parts of Northern Europe. There is a wealth of magic, of epic there that is untapped. Along with that, I have brought in my own research and knowledge of herbs. The history of healing is a personal passion and I have added much of that to the world of Galen and Rob Emrys.
The trick to it all is mixing it into the modern world. Bringing the idea of the mythic warrior forward and handing him not only a sword but a cell phone. The bond I created between the brothers has proven to be a challenge too, it’s an odd thing to play with, and sometimes leads me to an interesting situation when dealing with my characters. As I have added people and places, I have tried to stay true to the oldest possible version of the myths. For example in The Hunt when I decided to bring the fae into the story I dug into the old, old stories. Fairies were not nice creatures. They were terrifying. And as I move forward I will keep this up.
In the new entry to the series The Summoning out October 31, just in time for the traditional Emrys birthday, I will be bringing one more ancient Saga to light…
I’ve been asked over the years where I find inspiration for technique and style in my writing. Yes, I served time in the trenches so to speak—writing news, features and academic papers, but I try and seek out ideas everywhere I go. In my upcoming blogs I will share some of these. A few are from what might be unexpected sources.
One of the most influential off-the-wall sources has been music. I don’t mean just listening to music as I write, no I mean gaining insight into my writing through the techniques use by musicians. I’ve been lucky enough to attend a great many musical performances of all kinds and I’ve gained a lot of insight.
In a way writing is more like music than anything else. Writers, like musicians, must practice our craft. If a writer or musician takes a class, that does not excuse them from practice. There is never improvement without practice. I’ve heard it mentioned time and time again that this is particularly true for those musician (and writers!) that are gifted. It is easy to fall back on that gift and not push into a place that is more challenging, and in order to improve, to embrace writing, you must. Musicians do scales, we write small pieces that no one sees, but challenge some part of our skill. A character study, a scene, something small, to warm up before we attempt a larger piece. Once the larger pieces become part of out repertoire, then it’s time to push and try something new. A different style, a new point of view, a new genre.
It’s from musicians I’ve gotten some of the inspiration for my own style as well. I have a passion for polyphony—that magnificent music that showcases the human voice in all its glory. More complex than Gregorian chant, it reached its peak with the genius of Palestrina. For me, I find the Fourteenth Century master Machaut amazing.
A few years ago, I not only had the chance to hear the Tallis Scholars perform, but managed to attend a lecture beforehand. It was an eye-opening experience. One of the things I found most interesting was the discussion of vibrato. Most modern singers (opera/choral) use vibrato when they sing, but in order to sing polyphony you can’t. The notes are designed to be steady, held pure on that single note and any vibration will “muddy” (his word) the sound.
Now, what does that mean for writing? How does a writer use vibrato? For me, I think this is the tendency to use that extra word that’s really not needed. What I love about polyphony is the purity of the music. Writing should be the same. Even with a very complex sentence, paragraph or idea, there is no need to “muddy” the waters with that extra “vibration” that could very well ruin the purity of the thought.
On 21-April 2010, I had the privilege to audit a master class with the classical guitarist David Russell. It was an amazing experience, hearing a master speaking about his art and craft. As I was listening, it occurred to me that so much of what he was saying applies not just to the guitar—or music in general—it also applies to writing and other arts. I came back from the master class as inspired as the guitarists who were there, and excited to apply Russell’s lessons to writing. I thought I would share some of these with my ideas on what they meant to me.
The greatest connection you have with your audience is your rhythm. Writing does have a rhythm. I can’t count the number of times I’ve been talking about a book or story and said “I love their rhythm” or “their story is good, but I don’t like the rhythm.” It is something that writers tend to forget, that our words have an ebb and a flow, a musicality, even if they are not intended as the spoken word. We need to be aware of those things and think, when we are writing, about the things that affect our rhythm.
Don’t let them hear your difficulty. The reader can sense that, when a writer fights their story. We have to learn to keep on going. Move on through the scene, then if it is still rough, return to it, but let the story go on.
When you are always dark, you lose the sparkle. This is so true! Unrelenting darkness can really make or break a story. Think about those books or TV shows or movies that are completely without a “lightness”. It takes away from the “real” feeling of the story and lessens the dark moment when you need it most.
Find places where we [the audience] can breathe with you. Taking a moment to pause, even in the middle of an intense action scene, lets the reader appreciate what is going on, lets them catch up and latch onto what is happening. A moment of comfort, a laugh, even a short description to set a scene up, it is part of the rhythm of the words.
The idea is that even though you are under pressure you can make beautiful phrases. Writing isperformance on a public scale, just like getting on a stage and playing a Bach Concerto. I know that sometimes I get so caught up in the nerves of “performing” or the pressure to finish a chapter, an article or even a book, I lose track of what I am writing and focus only on the race to wrap it up.
Don’t let the accompaniment overpower the top note [melody]. This might be one of the biggest failings of writers, getting so caught up in everything else that is going on that we lose sight of our storyline. Descriptive phrases, adjectives and adverbs are all wonderful in their place, but staying aware of our melody is the most important thing, without a clear melody [storyline], all the accompaniment in the world will accomplish nothing.
[Speed, volume] are like a weapon, if we use them too often they become too much, if we always use them the same way our opponent, or audience, will know what is coming. Another one of those huge problems writers have. Instead of speed or volume, it can be a particular turn of phrase, a certain word or setting. Used every so often they can be wonderful, but all the time and they become either overwhelming or banal.
Let the resolution be the resolution. When you reach the end, there is no need to draw it out, when you find that moment of closure, let it be, don’t keep poking at it until the moment is lost.
Little intervals have meaning to our subconscious. How many times have you read something and one small moment struck you and stayed with you? It is something that we need to be aware of as writers, but we also need to remember that the “little interval” is not always one of our choosing, we need to be aware of the totality of a piece as well as the rhythm of the small parts.
We fight so long to get legato we forget staccato. As a writer, I looked at this as the fight for vocabulary. As our vocabulary improves, the tendency to want to use the ever increasingly complex words—and hence sentences—can become overwhelming, maybe even intoxicating. Take a pause and look at a piece and think does that word really work? Or that sentence? Or could I convey what I want in simpler terms and keep the rhythm of my piece?
Don’t let the feeling be lost in the struggle. I think sometimes we can lose the awareness of our story, fighting so hard to create a chapter or a paragraph we forget the feeling and emotions we want to convey.
Don’t sacrifice the beauty of the phrase for the beauty of a moment. That happens sometimes, doesn’t it? Reading along and all of a sudden we, the writer, get so caught up in describing a single moment the that other moments around it are lost.
I find it’s an idea I return to again and again. Writer as musician. I’m not sure if it’s because of my own early training in music, or because of my vast love of both disciplines, but to me, they are to tied together that if you follow the rules of one, you will find a resonance in the other.
I have been thinking a lot about fanfiction lately. I know I have been asked how I feel about it. Personally? I love fanfiction. The idea that someone loves something I have created so much that they want to play in that world is intoxicating. It’s flattering and amazing, and even a writer goes some place I may not have seen with a character, it is their vision. I still write the canon, but I love what other writers can add, what depth they can bring, and occasionally insight they bring me about my own creations.
It seems odd, but the world at large is just discovering something that we, ahem, geeks have been aware of for years. My first “fanfiction” wasn’t even that—it was just a way to read more stories in a series I loved (I was eight, reading the Hardy Boys) and I had run out of books. Later, I dove into more serious stuff, starting with—of course—Star Trek. It was the beginning point for many writers, not just fans.
Over the years, I kept that awareness and love of “fanfiction”. It was always for just myself, or for a friend or two, never out there in public. The internet changed that, and suddenly the closet writers of fanfiction were out. Maybe not loud and proud, but out and sharing their stories on a larger stage.
This altered the world in subtle ways. No longer were the writers a few, quietly trading photocopies at cons—no they were posting in a very public way and that is both good and bad. It’s good because it allows writers from around the world to share their stories, their love of a particular universe with like-minded readers and writers. It’s bad because it has polarized fandoms, created the idea that fanfiction can be “canon” and at it’s worst, can lead to ugliness. Which is sad, somewhere along the way, people forget that it’s all about love.
I will always love fanfiction, whether it is playing in someone else’s world or reading what someone has done in a world I have created. What makes me happy is that the world is becoming aware of it, I just wish the awareness had a more positive cast.
After a discussion with a friend yesterday, I’ve been thinking about world building a lot. It’s the single most vital thing we do when we embark on a novel (or story or film). It is that first vital step that leads to everything else. If you don’t have a solid world, where can your characters, no matter how well drawn, exist?
Of course, with world building comes a host of problems. Once the world is built, if you play fair, you can’t decide to alter it because it has become inconvenient. It seems obvious, but it’s hard to do. I know that I have run flat up against some of the rules I created in the world of the Custodes Noctis and have spent some time wondering if I could ethically (well for me) just tweak the world a bit.
But then, that’s cheating.
I’ve created this world, and as much as I can’t change the world I live in to conveniently work for me—if I could I would own a Ferrari or Bugatti, my house would overlook the sea and I would not have to get up to go to work every day. Sadly, I can’t do that, and in all fairness doing it in a place I have created through writing is just the same. It’s cheating myself and more importantly my readers. It’s something you always have to consider when setting out, and as I look forward to different worlds and different series, I am eying the underlying structure of those worlds very carefully, because once in place, I can’t move them.
And I have to admit, I have a problem with writers that do just change things when they become inconvenient. It is cheating. You can’t have a world that (for a bizarre example) the sun rises in the west and all of a sudden go “well, that’s not working” and flipflop it without some reason, and some major event that actually alters the structure of the world. Just changing it is laziness, cheating, and it’s breaking every rule in the, pardon the expression, book.
I have been a writing all my life and have been published in newspapers, magazines and books. Recently, I have started working with writers helping them to learn to love their writing, and how we, as writers can learn from musicians and their techniques.