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Take It Like a Man

(Content warning: I, uh, talk about violence in this. Rather a lot. Not in gory detail, but if the discussion of traumatic and/or sexual violence bothers you, you may not want to read onward.)

My husband and I recently went to see Tomb Raider (short form: it’s ridiculous, but if it weren’t ridiculous it would be doing it wrong, and it has more to enjoy in the first ten minutes than I remember in the entirety of the Angelina Jolie version), and it’s freshened up some thoughts that have been percolating in my mind for a while now about violence and gender in media.

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Big news at Book View Cafe

Y’all, I have been sitting on this for months. You have no idea how good I’ve been, not even hinting at it before now.

Book View Cafe Signs Deal with Audible

This thing is huge. More than a hundred titles, and that’s just the beginning; I can’t divulge details, but we’re going to continue working with Audible going forward, creating audio adaptations for more of our catalogue. (So while neither Lies and Prophecy nor Deeds of Men are part of this deal, there might be news about them at some point in the future. Maybe. <cough cough>)

And honestly, this is only the most publicly visible awesome thing that’s been happening at BVC. We have partnerships with places like Overdrive, which supplies ebooks to libraries, and are even looking into selling foreign rights. Day by day — thanks to the efforts of my fellow members — the organization is growing into something really amazing.

(Oh, and check out our spiffy new front page while you’re at it. Isn’t it shiny?)

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short stories and my brain

My father is the kind of guy who makes charts and graphs of everything that doesn’t run away fast enough. I am not that bad . . . but I, er, may have inherited some of the tendency.

Longtime readers of this journal know that I have lamented repeatedly over the years my failure to write more short stories. I’ve done four this year, and have ambitions for more, which on the one hand feels like a lot and on the other feels like very little at all: even if I make it up to six, that’s not very many, right? Obviously not that many compared to my friends who are Short Story Writers in the more active sense, but also not very many compared to my own efforts in ye olden days.

But I was curious. So I sat down and I graphed how many stories I’ve had published in each year, and how many I’ve written. And then I did some math.

My average short story production, since the year I figured out how to write short stories, has been slightly more than 5.

Okay, that number is skewed. I’ve been less productive lately, after all. On the other hand, I might as well say it’s skewed in the other direction: there were three years (2001, 2002, and 2004) where I wrote way more. Ten stories, nine stories, sixteen stories.

All stories are not created equal. Of those sixteen, six were flash. Two others barely cleared a thousand words. A couple of the actual short stories weren’t good enough to be published; one wasn’t even good enough to submit anywhere. Compare with 2011, where I only wrote three pieces of short fiction, but one was a novelette, one was a novella, and all three of them have been published.

I am not a sixteen-story-a-year writer. 2004 is the true outlier. Unit uantity may have declined since then, but quality has increased. I’d still like to get my rate up, of course; it would be nice if my average were six stories a year. But six would not be me slacking off. Six would be a good, solid rate of production.

***

Which is as good a time as any to say that I’m trying to finish either “A River Flowing Nowhere” or “Fate, Hope, Friendship, Foe,” or (the dark-horse candidate) “The Unquiet Grave.” So what does my brain hand me? Ideas for the untitled ghost-princes story, of course, and also the weird Snow White retelling.

Brains. I tell ya.

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Storytelling in Treble Clef

I don’t know what it was — my early education in piano; natural sense of pitch; heck, maybe even the ballet training — but something apparently wired my brain to closely associate music with stories. And over the last ten years or so, I’ve taken that tendency and made it foundational to how I work.

I’ve been thinking about this because I finally, after a variety of false starts, have figured out the “sound” for the Dragon Age game [profile] kniedzw and I are running. I realized that Ramin Djawadi’s music for Game of Thrones fit really well, so I went looking for more of his work, and simultaneously started browsing through the scores for other shows in the genre John Perich dubbed Blood, Tits, and Scowling. Trevor Morris’ work on The Tudors and The Borgias falls into precisely the tone I’m looking for. So I’m slowly acquiring music and building out playlists for various moods — creepy scenes, grand scenes, battle scenes, etc. And as I do so, the game coheres in my head.

This is why I was asking for Polynesian music earlier (and by all means, bring on more recommendations!). It isn’t that I can’t write a book without building playlists for it . . . at least, I don’t think so? I used to do it all the time. I’d have one or two “theme songs,” and that was all I needed. But now, figuring out the sound of a story is part of my process. And it isn’t just cat-vacuuming, I promise! In order to pick music, I need to know the feel I’m going for — so picking music helps me decide on a feel. When I make an actual soundtrack, with track titles and everything, I make decisions about what the important parts of the story are, and what their shape is or should be. It’s a musical outline.

Approaching it this way gets me thinking about the story from a new angle, with a different part of my brain. Music can route around all the fiddly little details and get to the heart of it, the mood and response I’m trying to evoke. Sometimes it even creates the story.

So if you’ll pardon me, I need to go check out the soundtrack to Rome.

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Signal-boosting for various things

SF Signal is giving away two copies of Clockwork Phoenix 4 (which, you may recall, includes my Anglish story “What Still Abides”). Trade paperbacks, and all you have to do is send in an e-mail to enter.

Daily Science Fiction is running a fundraising drive via Kickstarter, to cover a year and a half of publication costs. They’re two-thirds of the way there, with eleven days to go; take a look, both at the project and the site itself, and if you like what you see, give ’em a bit of love.

Laura Anne Gilman has a new book out, Heart of Briar, which is loosely based on “Tam Lin.” And you know how I loves me some “Tam Lin” retellings . . . .

And finally, just for grins, “The Devil Came Up to Boston.”

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Books read, July 2013

I forgot to record books this month until nearly the end of the month, which has left me with the nagging feeling that I missed one (or maybe more than one). But I can’t remember what it would have been, so if there is indeed something missing, then clearly it wasn’t very memorable to begin with.

(Except that possibly the thing I was forgetting was The Tropic of Serpents, which I just remembered to add. Um. Please disregard above statement about my own book not being very memorable. Please.)

The Tropic of Serpents, Marie Brennan. My own books don’t count, of course, but they get listed anyway. This was copy-editing, aka What I Did With My Early July.

The Riddle of the Labyrinth: The Quest to Crack an Ancient Code, Margalit Fox. Very readable nonfiction about the decipherment of Linear B in the early-mid twentieth century. Its specific argument has to do with the significance of Alice Kober to that process, and more to the point, how Alice Kober’s contribution has not been sufficiently recognized (in large part because apparently her papers weren’t available until quite recently). It gets a bit depressing toward the end, because a) you know from the beginning of the book that Kober died before she could finish the job, so you’re sitting there watching the clock tick down and b) it’s the 1940s, so you get to watch her being jerked around by Penn professors pretending that no, no, the fact that she’s a woman has nothing to do with them questioning whether they want to hire her for a cool job, and for bonus frustration the guy who’s trying to finally publish all of Evans’ Linear B inscriptions is basically using Kober as his transatlantic secretary and wasting vast quantities of her time — time that could have been spent cracking the code. But anyway. If you like reading about extremely nerdy people (and oh, the nerds in this book), and the mechanics of deciphering a script when you don’t recognize either it or the language it’s being used to write, this is a fun read.

The Book of Fire. The most recent L5R release, and the first one for which I was an official freelancer (though my part in here is very minor). Not the sort of thing anybody will pick up who isn’t looking to play L5R, but I will say that the sections on sword-smithing and glass-blowing and poetry were quite nifty. (No, those aren’t the parts I wrote.)

The Magic Circle, Jenny Davidson. A novel I picked up at Writers with Drinks, because Davidson was one of the other people reading, and she billed this as a book about LARPs and the Bacchae and how could I say no to that? Alas, the book itself isn’t what I’d been hoping. The early part is more about ARGs than LARPs, and even the latter isn’t the kind of LARPing I’m used to. Furthermore, the characters and the story never really cohered for me.

Daily Life in Ottoman Turkey, Raphaela Lewis. One of the installments in that Dorset Books series — you know the ones I mean, with the solid-color covers and the little box with an image on the front. (Er, some of you know the ones I mean.) This was published in 1971, so take it with appropriate grains of salt, but on the whole it did what I needed it to, which was to give me a starting image of the society. And that’s pretty much what books like this exist for.

Secrets of the Empire. I bookended my month with proofreading. This book (another one for L5R) hasn’t been released yet, but as a freelancer I can and have signed up to proofread things before they go to press. It looks like it will be very shiny, but my NDA says I can’t say anything more about it. 😛

a thought on racebending and genderbending

Which is to say, casting female performers for characters who are canonically male, or actors of color for characters who are canonically white.

Look at Hollywood. Look at TV. Look at how frequently they remake or reboot or sequelize existing narrative properties (for a host of reasons, not all of them terrible, but we won’t get into that here). For crying out loud, we’ve got three separate Sherlock Holmes franchises in progress right now.

If you don’t turn Starbuck female — if you don’t cast Lucy Liu as Watson — if you don’t make Idris Elba Heimdall — if you don’t break the mold of those existing texts in ways that will let in under-represented groups — then your opportunities for having those groups on the screen in the first place drop substantially. You’re basically left making them minor new characters, or else cracking the story open to stick in a major new minority character (and people will complain about that, too). Because all those stories we keep retelling? They’re mostly about straight white guys. And the stories that are new, the ones that aren’t being retold from one or more previous texts, can’t pick up all the slack on their own. You make Perry White black, or you make a Superman movie with no black people in it above the level of tertiary character.

Which isn’t automatically a problem when it’s one movie. But it isn’t one movie: it’s a whole mass of them. Including most of our blockbusters.

So either we chuck out the old stuff wholesale (and as a folklorist, I entirely understand why we don’t do that), or we rewrite it to suit our times. (And as a folklorist, I entirely understand that too — and I cheer it on. Go, folk process, go!)

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screw subtlety

I’m running another role-playing game right now, and several times of late I’ve found myself saying the same thing:

“Screw subtlety.”

It happens because I’ll be planning some kind of plot, and chasing my own tail trying to figure out how to introduce a new element without making the player-characters suspicious. This is difficult when the PCs are being run by players — people very familiar with narrative conventions. When I told one of them the prospective fiancée for his nobleman was a meek, sheltered girl, his reply was “Gamer brain calls bullshit. I expect she has twenty-five skeletons and four fresh corpses in her closet.”

In a novel, you can get away with a higher degree of subtlety, because you control your characters’ thoughts. They don’t know they’re in a story (not unless you’re writing something very metafictional), so they won’t reflect on things the same way a player will. And while the same thing is theoretically true of a PC, any time you ask the player to ignore something that’s obvious to them out-of-character, you create a disjunct. Sometimes this can be fun, but other times it’s frustrating, because they have to role-play their character being blind to an idea they can see. Looping back around to novels, again, the same thing can be true of a reader — but since the reader isn’t actively participating in the story, the frustration is usually less severe. If you write your characters well, the reader will go along for the ride, blind spots and all.

So this is why I keep saying “screw subtlety.” Rather than bending over backwards attempting to make something not suspicious, embrace the suspicion! Why yes, this is weird; you have every reason to give it the side-eye. Knowing that up front doesn’t tell you what’s really going on. You’ll have to work to get the rest.

Doing that is surprisingly liberating. I think it’s a cousin to the notion of “burning plot” — making the cool stuff happen now, and letting it generate more cool stuff later, rather than trying to save it and have the lead-up be flat and boring as a result. Instead of making plot out of the characters figuring out there’s something weird with X, let them know that from the start, and move on from there. It doesn’t work in all situations or for all kinds of stories, but where it does, the result can be a lot of energy and momentum.

Which is why this is something I try to keep in mind for novels as well as games. Am I better off trying to come up with a plausible cover story for a given narrative element, or should I just let it show its face to the world?

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