Timing

If there is one thing worse than being sick it is being sick on the weekend.  There go all your plans, out the window at the speed of vomit.  All those precious hours of ‘me’ time become shivering, pain-filled hours of misery.  No Saturday morning at the coffee shop writing.  No bike ride.  No pool side reading, no floating about with a can of beer in utter relaxation.

Now, sickness does free up some time for reading, but a pounding headache limits concentration and diminishes enjoyment.  And don’t even think about writing – well, think about it if you like, but once you’ve got the keyboard in your lap the viral ravaging of your digestive processes will put a stop to any serious attempt at stringing together coherent sentences.

There are writers who continue to work even while dealing with serious, chronic, or terminal illness, not simply my trifling 48-hour bug.  I will stagger to my feet, find a hat, and then doff it to them.  Because, seriously, finding the concentration to write through pain and medication is an inspiring display of willpower.

But I think my headache has subsided enough to allow a stretch of focused reading.  So enough.  I’m sure I will be well by Monday, just in time to get back to the office.  Of course.  But I’ve kvetched sufficiently.  There’s always next weekend.  

Oregon Brewers Festival

Assembled from the notes taken yesterday.

I’ve been attending the Oregon Brewers Festival since – oh, since before I was of legal drinking age.  I believe my first OBF was the second or third year of the event.  I have a cupboard full of plastic festival mugs to prove it, much to the dismay of the Mrs.  (This year the OBF switched to glass.  We’ll see how that goes.)

My wife does not care for the throng, finding the noise, the press, the dust, etc. oppressive.  Hard to blame her, really, but I find the beer sufficient compensation so long as I arrive early and leave before the crush reaches its peak.  So, this year I attended solo, biking down from home.  In the past this has been an occasion to congregate with friends and usually bump into people I’ve not seen for a few years.  But this year the usual gang of idiots had previous engagements, work-related or otherwise.  A sign of maturity, or aging anyways.  It becomes harder and harder to justify scheduling a day dedicated to sampling craft brews.  I understand that all too well.  Does youth fade or does it simply get buried beneath the ever mounting pile of responsibility?

This year, then, I brought just the one friend.

We’ll see how many chapters I can get through and if the OBF’s notorious and frequent spontaneous yelling that fills the tents will impair my reading more than the alcohol.

Now, time for another taster.

The people watching is, as usual, top-shelf.  Jack Sparrow just strolled by.  Bald, bearded Elvis strummed his guitar outside the fence for awhile before being upstaged by Darth Vader playing the bagpipes while riding a unicycle.

Report: I was terrified that a beer from Ohio – Ohio, of all places – would top my list.  Of course I handicapped the competition, skipping the local Portland beers.  I can get them anytime.  Thankfully my last taster was Bogart IPA from Fire Mountain Brewery of nearby Carlton, Oregon.  That dethroned Ohio Brewing Company’s O’Hoppy Ale IPA.

At about that point of the day the crowd of the OBF surpassed my comfort level.  And 6-plus miles uphill on the bicycle eliminated the (minimal) blood-alcohol level.  I deem this OBF a success.  I sampled some new beers and I’m pretty sure my caloric intake and expenditure was a net positive on the expenditure side of the balance sheet.

And how was your Saturday?

It's a Girl!

I bought a crib yesterday. And a changing table. And other assorted items deemed indispensable for a newborn. The reality is still sinking in. Slowly: the density and relatively non-porous nature of my thick head renders comprehension a glacial process. But it is undeniable. I am going to be a father.

I’ve extended my adolescence longer than most, I suppose. Time to take a stab at adulthood. Any advice? I’m not, honestly, overly concerned. I’ve muddled my way through life with some degree of success, making it up as I went along. Less qualified people than I have become perfectly serviceable parents. I can do this. Right?

I still intend to make time for writing. I will continue to reach my word count. Plug away at the work-in-progress until it is finished, then move on to the next. Only now I have that much more incentive. My daughter deserves the best from me.

OK, there. I think that was a twinge of anxiety. Or maybe just hunger. Yeah, probably just hunger. Time for lunch.

Argosy

Argosy

The writing savants instruct that we not employ a ten-dollar word when a nickel’s worth will suffice.  You will lose the reader if he is forced to consult a dictionary.  You risk appearing pretentious.

This is no doubt sound advice.  And yet I struggle with it.  I like archaic terms, obscure, little-used words and expressions.  I enjoy encountering a new word, even if it means heaving open my brobdingnagian 1920’s era dictionary, or hopping onto the web for a quick search.  I loved it even as a kid.  A new word was a precious find.  I hoarded them like gems.  Reading L. Sprague de Camp was like a treasure hunt.  I’d roll “yclept” about like a shining jewel.  An archaism that I valued precisely due to its rarity.

I like the baroque stylings of a Jack Vance, or the dense, lush lyricism of E.R. Eddings just as much as the more approachable, breezy prose of Elmore Leonard.

So I find myself torn.  I do err on the side of caution, many of my jewels not surviving the culling of the first draft.  Of course infrequency causes the remainder to stand out, and a word that stands out can lead to the very problems the wise and experienced writing gurus warn about.  Thus I weed out even more – the story itself being more important than one of my beloved treasures.

But sometimes the nature of the story allows me to indulge.  And I do.

What are your thoughts?  Does it diminish your enjoyment of a story to stumble across an unfamiliar word?

Naming Characters

“What’s in a name? That which we call a  rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”  Well, sure, Juliet, but books communicate only through words, not smells.  The names chosen often must be capable of more than simply differentiating one character from another, they must be able to convey certain information, whether about the character or about the world the author has created.

And creating worlds is what speculative fiction authors do.  The aliens, elves, planets, or kingdoms invented need names.  There are many approaches to naming conventions.  Glen Cook, in his “Black Company” series employs common English words: “Opal,” “Juniper.”  Or relatively uncommon but still familiar names: “Elmo”, “Otto.”  Some readers, perhaps conditioned to expect that fantasy will adhere to certain conventions, find this hinders suspension of disbelief.  It works for me, however; it helps ground the stories, provides a sense of gritty reality.

Another option is to become a philologist, invent several languages, and provide appropriate names from word roots or compounds of those invented languages.  This option works best if your name is Tolkien.

Other writers seem to peck randomly at the keyboard and then go back and insert an apostrophe.  These writers don’t, apparently, attempt to pronounce the names or quite grasp what an apostrophe within a word is supposed to accomplish.  Vide “the Apostropocalypse” in Neal Stephenson’s “Reamde.”  His takedown of this particular naming convention is quite clever, as one would expect.

In my first novel – that has been consigned to a box in the closet, never to see the light of day – I resorted to the atlas.  Characters from certain invented lands were assigned countries from the atlas and I selected place names from the respective countries (e.g., Estonia) to repurpose as character names, ensuring a consistency, a sense of commonality among characters within the discrete lands.  At least that was the intent.  No one will ever know if I succeeded.

My second novel, “Reunion” (to be released by Twilight Times Books this October) is essentially a contemporary piece, so names presented little difficulty.  However, a couple of characters did require some thought.  For reasons that – I hope – make perfect sense to those who read the book, I modified ancient Babylonian names to tag these two characters with.

I am faced with a different challenge in the novel I am currently writing.  I want the names of the alien race to exemplify their language.  Thus most of the names feature ch, k, or g to indicate that the alien speech consists largely of gutturals and harsh consonants.

Names can help establish a sense of place, of verisimilitude.  They can also, of course, be allegorical or symbolic, if the author wants to go down that path.  Something to consider before assigning a moniker.

What’s in a name?  Maybe quite a bit.

The “Malazan” Novels: An Appreciation

The “Malazan” Novels: An Appreciation

Steven Erikson and Ian Esselmont managed a rare feat: they transformed their role-playing game campaign into a series of interesting and readable novels.  It’s a trick worthy of remark.  Some of the novels Steven Brust and of China Mieville show evidence of a similar exploit of literary legerdemain.  But given that most role-playing games are, by nature, a distillation of existing tropes, a deliberate homogenization, it is truly impressive to see something unique emerge, a story that doesn’t appear to be the equivalent of a fourth or fifth generation photocopy.

The seams do on occasion show through in Erikson and Esselmont’s books.  While they’ve rebranded the demi-human races as laid down by the Ur-RPG, Dungeons & Dragons, an observant reader can get glimpses of the original product beneath.  “Edur” instead of “Eldar” (or elf.)  “Trell” instead of “Troll” (or some form of ogre/half-ogre.)  The clues are there, though in fairness they’ve rendered such archeology a pointless exercise; their creations are essentially sui generis.

The magical systems are fresh, showing no evidence of derivation from the Vancian system employed by D&D.  But at least one character wears his class openly on his sleeve.  Karsa is quite clearly Erikson’s effort to explore the Barbarian class as well as taking Robert E. Howard’s ruminations on barbarism versus civilization out for an extended exploration.

The books provide plenty of evidence to refute those who still claim that fantasy is “merely”* escapist fiction, with no greater merit.  The books explore philosophy, archaeology, historiography, religion, politics, war, psychology.  In fact the very depth, and the fact that the two writers show no hesitation to throw the reader deep into the woods without map or compass, dissuades some readers from tackling the pile of doorstops that comprise the still-ongoing series.

Well, I’m not dissuaded.  I may not agree with the Erikson or Esselmont on certain points of politics or the ideal aesthetic of the female figure, but I’m sold on these novels and I’m in for the long haul.  In fact, after writing this, I need to return to “Blood & Bones.”

Happy reading.

*See J.R.R. Tolkien’s famous remarks on escapism.

Victoria, British Columbia

Victoria, British Columbia

I drove off the ferry in Victoria and was struck by the odd feeling that I’d driven all this way only to find that Portland had been scooped up and relocated here on Vancouver Island.  I suppose a certain similarity of look and vibe should not be a surprise.  Cities of the Northwest region of North America are bound to possess certain qualities in common.  Portland, Seattle, Vancouver, Victoria, all rose at roughly the same time.  All are port cities with resource extraction based economies.  The architecture, demographics, even the cuisine inevitably developed along similar lines.

Reading the preceding sentence it appears I’m grousing about it.  I’m not.  Yes, on the one hand travel can be about experiencing the alien, the unfamiliar.  And I enjoy that.  But travel can also be celebration of variations on a theme.  Sure, the high-ceiling, exposed brick brewpub here in Victoria could just as easily be in any other Northwest craft brewing center.  But it is here, and the flavors I sample from the tasting tray provide subtly different takes on the same beer styles I’ve tried elsewhere throughout the West.  It is OK if travel is occasionally familiar and comforting.

And of course no two places are identical.  From the balcony of my hotel room I can see the British Columbia parliament building.  I can nearly spit into the harbor from here.  The buildings downtown, though of familiar style, are still aesthetically pleasing and new to me.

We’re about to take a drive outside the city and I’m looking forward to seeing what the island countryside has to offer.  I hope your weekend was equally full of possibility.

Appendix N Part 1.

Appendix N Part 1.

This is the first in an irregular series of posts on the books of Appendix N. To illuminate those not in the know, Appendix N appeared in the appendices of “The Advanced Dungeons & Dragons “Dungeon Master’s Guide.” It is a partial listing of the books and authors that influenced Gary Gygax’s contribution to the creation of the game. It is a solid, if incomplete, source of recommended works of pulp fiction.

In this installment I’ll consider the first entry of Appendix N: Poul Anderson’s “Three Hearts and Three Lions,” “The Broken Sword,” and “The High Crusade.”

Poul Anderson’s fingerprints smudge all components of D&D. “Three Hearts and Three Lions” directly informed the D&D version of the Troll and the Paladin character class, to provide a couple examples. The book describes the adventures of Holger Carlsen, a World War II solider who finds himself in a quasi-medieval fantasy realm of dwarfs and faeries and magicians and monsters along with knights, Christians, and Saracens.

“The Broken Sword” is Nordic rather than high medieval fantasy. Think elves and vikings. It features the doomed adventures of Skafloc, a changeling raised in the halls of Imric the elf. Where “Three Hearts” is light in tone and swashbuckling “The Broken Sword” is grim and lyrical, full of the ‘northern thing,’ fatalistic and tragic.

Arguably these two books were more directly influential to D&D’s conception of elves than Professor Tolkien’s writings. Anderson’s faerie-folk were soulless, distinctly non-Christian; amoral when not actively malevolent; seductive and sexual creatures. Tolkien acknowledged this folkloric tradition in”Smith of Wooton Major” and to some extent in “The Silmarillion” but the elves of Middle Earth must necessarily be perceived in a more heroic light than Anderson’s.

“The High Crusade” is a romp. An alien space ship lands near the castle of an English baron. The baron, Sir Roger, captures the ship, commandeering it for transport to France, but is instead taken to the stars where he begins a campaign of interstellar conquest. There are players of Dungeons & Dragons who grumble at the intrusion of science fiction elements into ‘pure’ fantasy. But the pulp literature predating the game did this as a matter of course. If one is to make the not unreasonable assumption that the books listed in Appendix N inspired not only the game itself but also the manner and type of scenarios the game’s creators played, then the sort of hybrid represented by “The High Crusade” is encoded in the very DNA of D&D.

I give all three books a high recommendation, allowing a slight personal preference for “Three Hearts and Three Lions.”

Anthologies

Anthologies

I like anthologies. There, I admitted it. Feels good to get that off my chest.

Currently I’m re-reading “World’s Best Science Fiction 1969.” A good year for science fiction, 1969. A couple other notable events occurred that year as well: Man set foot on the moon and I was born. The order of importance is debatable.

A glance at my book cases reveals all sorts of anthologies. There is “Best Short Stories of the Modern Age.” Then there is “100 Wild Little Weird Tales.” “Flashing Swords#3.” And more. There are easily a dozen taking up shelf space, probably more. I’m gradually occupying a shelf with my own published works (today the book shelf, tomorrow the book case, bwah hah hah) and I count four anthologies.

What I like about anthologies is their approachability.

You can dive right in at any point. Start with the last story in the book if you want to, it makes no difference. If you set the book down after finishing the first couple of stories, you can pick it up years later, right where you left off.

If you don’t care for a story, you can move on to the next; your appreciation of it won’t be hampered by unfamiliarity with the previous.

Anthologies more readily accommodate multiple readings than full-length novels. Not everyone likes to read the same novel over again. I do for certain works and certain writers. But some novels I will pick up for a re-read, read the first paragraph and put the book back on the shelf. Too soon, too familiar. (Of course with other books the familiarity is the attraction. Like your favorite restaurant: You know the menu and that’s the point – you are getting the exact meal you want.) I find that not every story in an anthology makes a lasting impression, so I can pick up the collection sooner than I could a novel, and the experience feels fresher.

Anthologies are like a buffet You pay about the same price you would for an entree, but you get to sample a wider variety of flavors.

As of this writing I’m waiting on my author copies of yet another anthology, “The Big Bad: An Anthology of Evil.” I’m eager to graze the buffet I’ll skip my own story though, I’ve read it so often it would be like filling up on bread.

Role Playing Games: Gaming and Story telling.

I enjoy role playing games for the mental challenge, for the puzzles, the satisfaction of overcoming obstacles, the creative utilization of resources. I don’t play for the story telling. I appreciate that other people derive pleasure partly – or even entirely – from the interactive story telling aspect. Fair enough. It would be a dull world if everyone viewed it exactly as I do. Some excellent books have grown from such games. But for me the enjoyment lies in the game play rather than in the amateur theatrics. (I don’t use the expression in any derogatory sense; I think it is an accurate description of the style of dialogue and dialect employed by gamers – whether an actor by trade or not – committed to the active role playing of a character.) I can get into character when circumstances indicate I should, I just do so as a means to an end rather than for its own sake. I’m interested in completing the challenge, triumphing over the next encounter, leveling up. If I need to pretend I’m actually conversing with some savage, demi-human chieftain in order to achieve the current goal then so be it. But I do so to achieve the goal, not to become a participant in a narrative.

I prefer story telling as a unidirectional activity; either creating or experiencing. While playing a game I’m not greatly interested in helping steer someone else’s story (or being trapped on the rails of someone else’s story, unerringly directed toward a set conclusion.) And if I’m running the game instead of playing I may strew it with plot-like elements but with no intention of shoe-horning player characters into the role of Characters performing functions essential to the narration of my story.

Stories I prefer to get from stories. Not to say that fiction doesn’t influence my gaming (my sadly infrequent gaming.) I may base my PC upon a fictional character or throw in elements of a story I’ve just read in into the adventure I’ve sketched (and boy are my RPG adventures sketchy.)

Of course if a story happens to grow organically by the culmination of the adventure who am I to complain?

Do you play games as a means of group story telling?