Monday, March 30, 2009

Five great first sentences

1. Gone with the Wind, by Margaret Mitchell

Scarlett O'Hara was not beautiful, but men seldom realized it when caught by her charm as the Tarleton twins were.

Few books start out describing the heroine as “not beautiful”. What’s just as interesting, though, is that this particular heroine has clearly found a way around her handicap. She’s learned to snag not one but two men, despite her lack of beauty. Who could resist reading more?

2. The Last Unicorn, by Peter S. Beagle

The unicorn lived in a lilac wood, and she lived all alone.

It’s difficult to analyze The Last Unicorn’s style because I keep being caught up in it. The alliteration and assonance in the first sentence alone makes it flow and lilt like spring water. It’s music in prose.

3. The Fountainhead, by Ayn Rand

Howard Roark laughed.

I’ve always liked opening lines which introduced the reader to the main character, but what struck me about the start of The Fountainhead was the simplicity and joie d’vivre of it. The story takes some grim turns later, and there are scenes that are painful to read (both in a good and a bad way). But it begins with a character enjoying life, and that’s how it ends, drawing the book together in a circle.

4. Ender’s Game, by Orson Scott Card

“I’ve watched through his eyes, I’ve listened through his ears, and I tell you he’s the one.”

This sentence neatly spikes the cliché of the Chosen One by hinting to the reader that the Chosen One isn’t going to have a nice easy time of it. He’s being spied on by someone – spied on in a strange, intrusive way. What more are they going to do to him?

5. The Hobbit, by J. R. R. Tolkien

In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.

A simple but intriguing start that goes on to assure the reader that hobbits, despite living on the same level as moles, are nothing like them and make full use of the creature comforts of life. It’s the best kind of description – easy to remember, specific, unusual, and written in a let-me-tell-you-a-story style that draws the reader along.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Sex and fantasy worlds

While sexual practices in fantasy worlds can’t be too outre (readers can take only so much novelty in this respect), they shouldn’t be white-bread either. For a default race, one that’s physically or mentally very similar to humans, you could get away with heterosexuality or monogamy being the norm. But a more alien species should have equally alien sexual customs – and here are a few.


I don’t intend to portray these as alien forms of sex, but a very high degree of acceptance of homosexuality or bisexuality (or, for that matter, a requirement of these) can often make a society seem unusual.

In Suzy McKee Charnas’s Walk to the End of the World, men and women are all but different species, so for them, what’s normal is to mate with one’s own kind. In Robert J. Sawyer’s Hominids, each Neanderthal has both a male and a female mate. Just make sure that if any one way is idealized or preferred, it’s the characters who are doing this rather than the writer, and it’s in their personalities or mindsets to do so.


In Vonda N. McIntyre’s Dreamsnake, people and dreamsnakes alike mate in threes, and that was the premise of a Star Trek: Enterprise episode as well. The Tenctonese in Alien Nation also require a third person to prepare a female for reproduction. Additionally, depending on the world, successful reproduction may require genetic material from three donors, hence the threesome.

Another reason for triplex pairings would be if there’s a shortage of either gender. For instance, in a race which normally produces more male than female offspring, a male/male/female pairing might be normal. Better that than have half the males permanently denied the opportunity to marry and reproduce.

One caveat is that these shouldn’t be eternal triangles. If everyone in the society accepts that such a marriage is normal, there might occasionally be some light competition, but it shouldn’t be with the end goal of having a two-person-only situation.


This field has a lot of landmines in it. I was all right with the brother-sister scene(s) in A Song of Ice and Fire - that kind of arrangement worked for the ancient Egyptians as well. It was difficult to read about Craster’s polygamous family, though, since Craster turns his daughters into wives when they’re old enough. I’d probably find this even more difficult to read after that case in Austria.

But other cultures will have sexual attitudes and customs we don’t like, and vice versa. They might even have sexual arrangements we’ve never even considered. And that’s part of the challenge – and the fun - of writing them.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Fantasy and realism

On one of the Absolute Write forums, a writer asked whether fantasies had to be realistic.

"I also think sticking by rules limits the imagination if writing, for example sci fi of fantasy and to say either of these needs to be realistic doesn't make sense."

Realism as grounding and a foil

If you paint a picture full of exploding supernovae and Technicolor comets, and add a small flying saucer to it, the UFO will not stand out. It’ll be part of the general wildness and vividity of the whole, and while that’s not entirely a bad thing, no one will pay it any special attention.

But if you paint a picture of a quiet countryside, detailed to the last blade of grass and the cows grazing, and then add the UFO… that’s different.*

To me, that sums up the relationship between realism and fantasy. The countryside isn’t boring in comparison to the alien spacecraft; it’s as beautiful, in its own way, and as necessary.

Portraying the realistic and doing so well lets the audience know you’ll do as good a job with the unrealistic. And more importantly, it tells the audience that you know the difference between the two. If everything is fantastic, nothing is special. But the realistic elements ground the story and serve as a foil to the fantastic, making them stand out that much more.

Realism as part of communication

A fantasy world (or a SF one) has to operate with some level of realism no matter how much magic or technology permeates it. If a character rides a horse at a gallop for days on end, the story has to either explain how this happens – and make that explanation good – or risk losing readers.

Why would readers lose interest, when they know they’re reading a fantasy? Well, partly because there’s an unstated contract made between reader and writer. The writer says, “Here’s a world that’s normal except that werewolves exist” or “Here’s a medieval city where golems do much of the manual labor, various guilds operate and the City Watch tries to keep order”.

It’s difficult to go beyond the bounds of the contract later – to say, “Oh, the world also includes magic horses which never get tired” – and still keep the reader’s confidence. Since the reader’s default assumption is of normality, the fantastic elements have to be added to that normality, and the latter can never be ignored in favor of the former.

*I actually did that once in an art class where we were supposed to paint a meadow. My picture showed a meadow in the foreground and the Starship Enterprise in one corner.

It didn’t get an A.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

The eyes have it

What do your characters’ eyes look like?

This is one reason I like speculative fiction. With any other genre, your characters’ eyes will be the normal colors – blue, green, hazel, brown, grey, black. Maybe violet, if you’re writing romance or women’s fiction, and I’ve seen mismatched eyes once in a thriller. But with SF, the sky’s the limit.


There needs to be some reason for a character’s eyes being unusual, though, other than the coolness factor. For instance, Phedre in Jacqueline Carey’s Kushiel’s Dart has a speck of red in one eye because that’s a sign of her being chosen by a god – struck by Kushiel’s dart. I have a character who’s able to change her appearance and who alters her eyes to be permanently orange (the color of flames) after she’s forced to watch her son’s execution by fire.

Eye color can also be an indication of race, such as the blue-on-blue eyes of the Fremen. Just one caveat here, though – avoid giving an evil race red eyes. That’s been done so many times already (drow, vampires, etc.) that I really want to see characters with red eyes who aren’t automatically the villains. Red eyes can be pretty too – just make them look like star rubies.


I love the augmentations made to Molly in William Gibson’s Neuromancer.

…she has in fact had her eye sockets sealed with vision-enhancing mirrored lenses that were surgically attached to her face.

A character in a fantasy could have something similar – perhaps through a symbiote attached to one eye or simply because their unique biology gives their eyes unusual abilities (e.g. seeing in the dark).


This is where you replace the eyes with something else entirely, which can be very disturbing. Or what about having no eyes at all?

If eyes are the windows to the soul, what do you make of creatures which have no eyes? Wayne Barlowe’s Expedition is a detailed and illustrated description of a journey to another planet where none of the species evolved the ability to see. As a result, they appear – and are – incredibly alien.

A similar thing can be done with fantasy races. I have humanoid races whose eyes are replaced by glass, bubbling liquid mud or clusters of small tentacles, though unfortunately these races tend to be hostile. And I’d love to mention a person (or an animal) with a rose blossoming in each eye socket as well. That would be nicely creepy.

In Mark Smith’s and Jamie Thomson’s role-playing gamebook series The Way of the Tiger, the main character has a magical gem inserted into an empty eye socket. And while this isn’t exactly a substitution, Elle Driver from Kill Bill just wouldn’t the same without that eyepatch.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Collapse of Distinction

I wanted to see how accessible a book like Scott McKain’s Collapse of Distinction would be to someone who didn’t know a great deal about business, so I requested this book from Thomas Nelson to review.

Short answer : quite.

Long answer : here are a few points that can help businesses and laypeople (and writers) alike.

McKain’s argument is that as businesses compete, they often become more alike, especially if they imitate what their competitors do in an effort to attract customers. This doesn’t always work. Firstly, customers can tell when one business apes another – for instance, when a small-town burger place tries to out-McDonalds McDonalds. Secondly, if a business loses points of distinction, how can it differentiate itself from its competitors?

The same concern would apply to the writers leaping on the Twilight bandwagon (or the Da Vinci Code one before it). Agents and editors get tired of seeing the same thing over and over, and this doesn’t help a particular query or manuscript to stand out from the pack.

A more productive strategy would be to focus on, develop and communicate what makes one different. Getting back to the small-town burger place, it won’t be as cheap as McDonalds. But it can compensate with a personal touch, winning points with better customer satisfaction.

A business should also not attempt to be All Things to All Customers, especially if it is best known for some area of specialization and its newer efforts undermine that. For instance, when Mercedes-Benz introduced the more economical A-Class, the prestige of the brand was affected – because the whole point of the luxury car or the black credit card is that most people can’t afford one.

As an example of a successful integration of points of difference, clarity of message, effective communication and the personal touch, the book describes Barack Obama’s presidential campaign. That was fascinating, even though I’m not usually interested in politics (or business). So I enjoyed learning about both, and found Collapse of Distinction both user-friendly and informative.


On a personal note, I've won two things this week. :)

First is the Proximidade Award from GypsyScarlett at Writing the Victorian Gothic, which is a time machine as well as a blog. It takes me back to other centuries.

And the second was a prize of four autographed copies of Liz Carlyle's books One Little Sin, Two Little Lies, Three Little Secrets and The Devil to Pay from a contest at All About Romance, which I've been reading for three or four years now. Haven't read any of the books, though, so I'm looking forward to that.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Five names that don't work for me

(This one does, by the way)

1. The Unknown Warrior
from Dawnthief, by James Barclay

The Unknown Warrior’s mysterious past forms a subplot of this novel, but I found it impossible to take the character seriously with a name like that (and the other characters calling him “Unknown” didn’t help).

A humorous fantasy might have pulled this off, but then his spouse and child would probably have been called the Unknown Wife and the Unknown Baby.

2. Roque Mayo
from Marry A Man Who Will Dance, by Ann Major

Are you able to tell Roque Mayo’s gender from the name? I wasn’t. I have no idea how to pronounce the first name, and the second makes me think of either a clinic or a condiment. If you’re curious, click here.

3. Faraday
from The Wayfarer Redemption, by Sara Douglass

To me, Faraday is the famous physicist Michael Faraday, not the teenaged heroine of a medieval fantasy. It doesn’t matter how diligently the story works to make such a character convincing if they’re stuck with a name that has too much weight and connotations.

4. Angel Clare
from Tess of the d’Urbervilles, by Thomas Hardy

Even given that this book was first published in 1891, when the name “Angel” could conceivably have been applied to a masculine candidate for the heroine’s affections, coupling it with the last name “Clare” is like a double dose of estrogen. I know Alec D’Urberville is the antagonist, but at least his name doesn’t bother me.

5. Ael t’Rllallieu
from My Enemy, My Ally, by Diane Duane

The Romulans are my favorite race in Star Trek, and I enjoy those novels of Diane Duane’s which flesh out their history and culture.

That being said, when I try to pronounce Ael’s name I sound like I'm gargling. Maybe it’s the Romulan version of “She sells sea shells on the sea shore”, and if you can pronounce it correctly, you’re from their world.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Thoughts on princesses

Why are princesses so popular in fantasy?

Well, a lot of us start out watching Disney movies - or reading fairytales - in which the heroine is a princess of some kind. For me, it was a little-known cartoon called Galtar and the Golden Lance (the picture is from that cartoon). Writer see, writer do. Besides, the princesses in these stories are usually presented as beautiful, powerful, special or the focus of popular/romantic attention, so it’s normal to imitate that when we first start to write.

There’s also something iconic about princesses, the same way there is about unicorns and dragons. Mention that your heroine is the Princess of High Zalon, and right away you’ve not only established the story as a high fantasy, but you’re drawing on the positive associations a lot of readers have with princesses. You’re tapping into the mythos.

Scratching the surface, though, there are some reasons why a heroine might be a princess rather than, say, a farmer’s wife. The princess is likely to have a better quality of life and more free time, since she isn’t preoccupied with survival. She doesn’t have to grow her own food, cook it or make her own clothes.

Instead, she can study history and politics, meaning she recognizes a subtle but growing threat to the land. She can ride out hawking, meaning she stumbles across a dragon and actually lives to tell the tale, since her horse is faster than the poor farmer’s wife who got eaten by the dragon. In other words, such a character has more opportunities to get involved in conflict that will interest the readers, and more power to affect events than someone lower down on the ladder.

On the other hand, there are many ways in which princesses can be done badly. I’’ve covered some of those in my post about cliches of royalty, but there are a few specific to princesses.

Physically perfect in every way

I could count the number of unattractive princesses I’ve read about on the fingers of one… finger. That would be Shireen from A Song of Ice and Fire, since she’s facially scarred by a disease. I’ve read a lot of fantasy novels and no one else comes to mind. Even if the princesses aren’t conventionally beautiful (e.g. they have red hair and freckles), the writer doesn’t step over a certain line.

From my own manuscripts, Rakhel in Empire of Glass is lovely in a white-skinned, blue-haired Fairfellan kind of way. On the other hand, the Lady of Sulphur in Dracolytes has such deep knife-scars on her face that she never shows any change in expression. I’m pleased about that. :)

Let’s see more disabilities and physical imperfections. Even just one strategically placed scar. You could go the whole hog and give the princess blindness or smallpox scars, or you could make up a disease or condition.

Always the heroine

If there’s only piece of advice I could give to young fantasy writers (as young as I was when I penned my first story) on this topic, it would be: write a story where the princess isn’t the heroine.

She could be a secondary character. She could be the antagonist. But once she’s not the heroine, it frees the writer up to take risks with her personality as well as with her appearance. She can be vengeful and sadistic (Asineth in Orson Scott Card’s Hart’s Hope), spacey (Myste in The Mirror of her Dreams) or ambitious (Asha in A Feast for Crows).


I like strong characters. I like women who can hold their own, mentally or physically.

What I don’t like is the story bending over backward to show that women aren’t just equal, but tougher, more powerful and better at being in charge. Getting down to the character level, this would be the princess, raised in a patriarchal system, who believes that she has just as much of a right to the throne as her three older brothers. Or who refuses an arranged marriage despite this being the way things are done in her land. She is Womyn, hear me snore.

I’d like to see why the princess believes that a woman is fit to rule, if everyone else tells her differently. I’d also like realistic consequences for her actions when she refuses to do what society expects her to do. When Arya learns swordplay in A Game of Thrones, no one praises her for going against the norm, and her practice sessions inadvertently lead to the deaths of two innocent characters (although she sticks people with the pointy end pretty damn well later on).


This isn’t a cliché, just a response to Kami’s comment to a previous post.

“…I still wanted to rename their titles. But that leads to explanations that lead the audience to think why is she calling a rabbit a smeerp?”

I think it’s possible to use different titles, but these have to be well-chosen. As Kami pointed out, just changing the titles might not work. Dubbing someone “High Princess” would make me wonder how this was different from a simple “Princess”. On the other hand, I read of a fantasy novel where titles were the same for both men and women – i.e. a woman could be called Duke This or Prince That. I liked the gender-neutrality, though it might be a little confusing at times.

Giving siblings different titles to distinguish them would also be interesting. Perhaps the eldest princess gets the “High” sobriquet. Or they might get other titles which see more common use – Duchess of York, Beloved of Isis, what have you.

I think one reason the crown princess of Karne (in my manuscript Dracolytes) is called the Lady of Sulphur isn’t only because her seat of power is the city Sulphur. It’s because “princess”, to me, sounds like a young and potentially good character – and the Lady is neither of those.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Questions about fanfiction

“Now, Harry,” said Voldemort, “it is time to reveal the secret of my power!”

(Author’s Note : I don’t feel like writing what that is, so you can make up something)
From a Harry Potter fanfic

The first stories I ever wrote were fanfics, though this was back in the Middle East and it never occurred to me to put them up on the web. Later I moved to the States, discovered Star Trek and wrote a few stories set in the Trekiverse but featuring races and characters of my own – which made me realize that I might as well create my own universe to go along with them.

I kept reading fanfics, though, because there are some good ones out there. For instance, there’s a hilarious Harry Potter fic which begins when all the professors draw straws to decide who teaches the sex ed lesson (and Snape gets the shortest, much to his displeasure). On the other hand, I’ve been reading through some of Lee Goldberg’s posts on this topic and they’ve made me wonder a few things.

1. Authorial consent?

Some authors (e.g. Anne McCaffrey) have made it clear that they don’t want fanfiction based on their characters or their worlds. Some authors have made it clear that they have no problems with this. But for those authors who haven’t said anything (yet), can consent be assumed? Or should fanfic writers contact those authors for permission first?

I think that lot of writers would be reluctant to do so given that it’s not easy to get authors to respond to you if they’re extremely famous and/or busy. Plus, some characters or worlds aren’t owned by any one person, making it even more unlikely that the writers would get an answer.

What do you think, though? Should fanfic writers have to get the explicit consent of authors first?

2. What stories are permissible?

There’s a series of humorous Star Trek fics based on how many crew members from each series it would take to change a light bulb. There’s the equally amusing Very Secret Diaries. I’ve read fanfics that were so well-written and moving that they brought tears to my eyes.

I’ve also read – or backpedaled out of – stories that were utter rubbish. Or in worst case scenarios, illegal and/or creepy to boot (e.g. Real Person Fiction). I was a member of God Awful Fan Fiction before it closed down, and if you were too, one word: Celebrian. So there’s a lot of distinctly unpleasant fanfiction out there.

Should such stories be removed, or not written at all? The problem is that one person’s trash is another person’s treasure; fanfics, like fiction, can be subjective in value. I don’t buy the argument that RPF is an expression of one’s love and respect for a celebrity, but when it comes to a realistically depicted relationship between characters, this is more of a grey area for me.

What’s your take on this? Should certain types of stories (e.g. non-consensual, male pregnancy, etc) be off-limits?

3. Fanfic for your own work?

Finally, let’s turn it around. How would you feel if people wrote fics based on your work, or if there was a category for your work on Or, for that matter, on Adult Fanfiction and other such sites?

I’ve seen this question asked before, and many writers respond that they would be flattered, or at least would not mind. Though for some, this is copyright violation and not acceptable. Personally, I wouldn’t like this done with any of my major characters unless I could be sure the fanfic writer would keep them in character and wouldn’t do anything I wouldn’t do with them. Which is kind of a controlling requirement, so it might as well be a no.

How would you feel about fanfics for your work? Copyright violation, or an example of a fan showing their appreciation for your creation?

Thanks in advance for commenting!

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Exaggerated descriptions

I came across an unusual description of a heroine from a fantasy novel called Silk and Steel published in 1992 (by a real publisher). Here's a small excerpt.

Her face had the fragrance of a gibbous moon. The scent of fresh snow. Her eyes were dark birds in fresh snow. They were the birds' shadows, they were mirrors; they were the legends on old charts. They were antique armor and the tears of dragons.

“Wubbuh?” I said after reading the entire thing. Fortunately I recovered some coherency and settled down to write about this.

There are two interesting things about that description. The first is that a few of the metaphors do work – eyes can be compared to dark birds in fresh snow, and I like the description of hair as “the cowl of… the cobra” (the alliteration is good as well).

The second thing is that occasional fragments of the stream-of-consciousness are evocative, especially “the hot, careful winds that stroke the veldt, the winds that taste of clay and seed and blood; the winds that dreamed of tawny, lean animals”. Except for the winds being described as “careful” and further anthropomorphized by their dreaming of animals, this isn’t bad. I like poetry like e. e. cummings’s, which uses elaborate figures of speech that aren’t easy to grasp at first, so this aspect of the description was somewhat similar.

There are a few well-expressed images, in other words. But they’re drowned in a great sea of prose so purple as to be ultraviolet, and with the thousand other descriptions and comparisons, they go more or less unnoticed.

And the overall effect doesn’t work either. I think the writer was trying to express how everything the heroine was – not just beautiful but so magnificent that she combines the best features of everything in the known world. But it doesn’t work. It’s too much for any reader to process, much less believe in. If you grasp at everything, you achieve nothing.

Someone compared this to the Song of Solomon, but I think that does the Song of Solomon a disservice. Although that book uses a lot of figures of speech, they have a unifying theme – they’re all objects or creatures or plants that ancient nomadic or farming people would have found beautiful or sweet.

The same can’t be said for the descriptions in Silk and Steel. There’s no common thread to them. They jump from snails to dragon tears to semaphore, spinning like a mad merry-go-round. And ultimately they just come off as self-indulgent. A stream-of-consciousness has to be just as much under the writer’s control and directed to a purpose as any other part of the story.

And a description has to leave an image of some kind in the writer’s mind (not a thousand different and self-contradictory images). It reminds me of a review I read, by James Blish writing as William Atheling, Jr. Such reviews were sometimes snarky and always informative. Here’s the quote* he commented on.

She was love. She was first love, old love, all love. She was doubt and ache and hope, fusing now into fury, because she was love.

Blish wrote that comparisons work when they’re abstract-to-concrete – for instance, “Patience on a monument, smiling at grief”. That takes something difficult to imagine in a material way, the concept of patience, and makes it into a sculpture, which is easier to grasp.

But concrete-to-abstract doesn’t work so well. Try to imagine a person as love. Now try to imagine them as doubt, ache, hope and fury as well. At best, such a description might make readers believe it is grand and important somehow, but it won’t create a memorable and clear image of a character in their minds. At worst it will make them laugh.

Which is not such a bad thing, of course, unless you’re the writer.

*Not exact, since I don’t have the publication with me, but I can more or less remember it.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Character redemption

I love stories where characters redeem themselves and make up for what they’ve done in the past. The worse the crimes, the greater the conflict and the harder the characters have to work to win even a little peace of mind for themselves and acceptance from others.

That being said, there are a few caveats about writing redemption stories.

Through a single event

Inspiration fiction is probably the only genre where redemption through a single event could convincingly work – for instance, something similar to Saul’s experience on the road to Damascus. In other genres, it would be more difficult to pull off.

At the risk of invoking Godwin’s, imagine a Nazi officer whose life is saved by a kindly Jew. While this is a stirring event, it’s unlikely to make the officer come to the sudden realization that everything he’s been taught about Jews is wrong. He’s more likely to think that perhaps one or two Jews aren’t as bad as the rest of their ilk – which is probably what the Jew would have thought too, were their positions reversed.

A single event is rarely powerful enough to overcome years or decades of conditioning. The powerful shift in mindset that leads to redemption is something that usually happens over a period of time, rather than in a moment of enlightenment (although the latter is more dramatic to portray).

Through love

This isn’t easy to pull off, though it worked for Sydney Carton in A Tale of Two Cities. However, if a character repents of his past ways and reforms solely due to his love for someone else, that’s going to lead to some thorny questions.

Is he redeeming himself because he genuinely believes he was wrong or because he’s hoping to win his love interest over? And what if the love interest doesn’t or can’t return his affection? Perhaps that’s one reason Sydney Carton’s story arc had to end where it did; not only was it wrenching and dramatic, but there wasn’t much else he could do.

Through amnesia

I have a soft spot for this plot because I wrote a fantasy based on it, but amnesia has been overused in genre writing and redemption through this particular plot device isn’t new either. I’ve come across romance novels, SF and even a Star Trek episode which use a similar setup.

Still, it’s all in the execution. Part of the appeal of this premise is that you can have a relatively quick change in a character’s personality or mindset when they start out with a tabula rasa. Be careful, though, that the rest of the world isn’t too quick to accept the amnesia story – for all they know, the character’s faking it to avoid having to take responsibility for past crimes. And if the character really can’t remember what he did in the past, it’s going to be easy for others to pin crimes that he didn’t actually commit on him. Lots of story possibilities, in other words.

Redemption, through whatever form it occurs, should never be given too easily to a character, and they shouldn’t make a 180 degree turnaround either. However far they progress in an ethical or moral direction, there should be moments of regression, times when they show hints or more of their old selves. Because redemption doesn’t mean erasing the past, just rising above it, and continuing to climb no matter how many times you fall.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

This is your brain on joy

I requested a copy of This is Your Brain on Joy from Thomas Nelson partly because I love the cover design and partly because I’m interested in all aspects of psychology. This is Your Brain on Joy, by Dr Earl Henslin, offers a great deal of advice on dealing with mood disorders and the underlying neurological causes.

The first interesting thing about this book is that it’s not a Christians-only read. There’s an emphasis on spirituality and the last chapter deals with the Paul’s letter to the Philippians in-depth. But the book is filled with references to secular media and people, including a quote from the agnostic orator Robert Ingersoll, and the author even recommends that people watch movies like Titanic to lift their spirits. That was refreshing. I’d rather jump off the Titanic than watch the film again, but it’s the thought that counts.

The book also mentions a fascinating follow-up to an experiment where rats were given access to addictive drugs. Ignoring food and rest, they proceeded to dope themselves up until they died. However, in the follow-up research, an experimenter provided them with drugs but also gave them access to toys, mazes and other rats. The addiction rates were nowhere near as high that time, a result which has some interesting implications for humans as well.

The third thing I like is the healthy attitude towards altered states of mind and emotion, whether these are grief, depression or ADD. Rather than claiming that these are due to demons or that Christians don’t grieve (both of which I’ve heard before), Dr Henslin makes it clear that everyone faces these kinds of problems.

However, I wasn’t comfortable with the book’s emphasis on SPECT (3D brain scans) and drugs/herbal supplements. If the author didn’t financially benefit from either of these, I’d be less skeptical. There’s nothing wrong with taking fish-oil supplements, but this book recommends far too many types of medication, and in one case they correct a man’s lifelong anger problem in 48 hours. It’s a bit too good to be true.

So I’d take that aspect of the book with another great chemical supplement – a grain of salt. But other than that, it’s worth reading.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Thoughts on colors

One of my favorite blogs, the Bookshelf Muse, has started a new set of thesaurus entries on colors. I’m looking forward to reading more – Angela and Becca have more examples than Roget’s – but that also inspired me to write a bit about the use of colors.

Describing colors generally works better when there aren’t too many of them. Sentences like the following can be distracting.

The sunset sky was a fiery red, though the trees on the horizon were black as ink spatters and the pearl-white unicorn tossed its head uneasily at the sight of them.

This leads to the Crayola effect, where the readers aren’t immersed in the story because they’re watching out for the next color description (burnt sienna? raw umber?). Unless it’s unavoidable – for instance, the story has to include a description of something multi-colored, it would be better to pick just one or two shades and bring those out fully. Readers are more likely to remember that as well.

Describing colors in full could also involve giving them an emotional dimension. I’ve come across lots of examples of red – ruby, madder, congealed blood – but one of the most original descriptions I’ve ever encountered was in a fanfic which said that if hatred could be made into a color, it would be that specific shade of red.

The fanfic spent literal paragraphs on colors, and yet all of it was vivid, imbued with emotion and connected to the characters and their personalities. As a result, I enjoyed reading it as I’ve never enjoyed descriptions like “Containing three greens in striation – apple-green, jade-green, celadon – the girl’s eyes were beseeching.” (from Dean Koontz’s The Taking).

That’s also an example of what not to do when describing – if the readers pause to wonder what colors cochineal, corbeau or chrysoprase are, then they’re not reading. I’d rather my audience be caught up in my story than reaching for their dictionaries.

Colors are often used to describe more than material objects, but they can be applied to almost anything. Moods would be next, but there are others – for instance, “the pale minutes before sunrise” or “His thoughts were red thoughts” (from “Sredni Vashtar”, by Hector Hugh Munroe). Finally, here’s a fascinating post about the descriptions of colors and the history behind hues.

Happy coloring!

Friday, March 6, 2009

Five animal fantasies

1. Watership Down, by Richard Adams

My favorite fantasy novel, this is the story of a group of rabbits who leave a doomed warren and set out to find a new home. The worldbuilding is excellent. The rabbits have their own culture, which includes stories of their god, the trickster El-ahrairah. I love these, since El-ahrairah always goes up against far more powerful opponents and beats them with his quick wits.

And the rabbits themselves are wonderful characters. There’s Fiver the mystic, Blackberry the thinker, Bigwig the fighter and Hazel the nobody who slowly develops into the leader who can hold them all together and get them out of danger. The antagonists, from Cowslip to General Woundwort, are just as well-written and distinctive. It’s a book I’d recommend to anyone.

2. Duncton Wood, by William Horwood

The characters of Duncton Wood are moles, although they’re much more anthropomorphic than the rabbits – they smile and cry, for instance. The story is also much more complex, focusing on three generations of moles who worship the Stone but who are threatened by followers of the Word.

Most of the characters are great. Mandrake and Rune are one-dimensionally evil, but they’re disturbingly evil. And there’s a strong theme of redemption in the story. My favorite character is Mayweed, a mole who’s scarred in mind as well as in body, but who’s got the guts and heart to make up for both. When he finally falls for another mole and she turns out to be working for the other side… well, I won’t spoil the story.

Much more detailed review of Duncton Wood here.

3. Tailchaser’s Song, by Tad Williams

When his friend Hushpad disappears, a young cat called Tailchaser sets out to find her – a quest that will lead him into cat councils and twisted nightmares alike. And the reason for that admittedly vague summary is that I honestly don’t remember much of the plot.

Not that Tailchaser’s Song is a bad book – I’d give a copy to any cat lovers - but while the climax is tense and gruesome, it also depends on a deus ex machina. One of Tailchaser’s companions (Redlegs) sheds his guise of senile babbler and reveals himself as a cat god (Firefoot), except that I spotted that from the name already.

The rest of the cats, though, are mostly fun, and if you liked the stories of El-ahrairah’s trickery in Watership Down, you’ll love the one where Firefoot “helps” a tribe of dogs.

4. Kine, by A. R. Lloyd

If you ever get tired of weasels being the sneaky, cowardly bad guys in The Wind in the Willows, this is the book for you. It’s been reprinted as Marshworld - the sequels are Witchwood and Dragon Pond - but I like the original title.

Kine is a handsome, boastful weasel who fears nothing and guards his territory fiercely, but there are two intruders whom he can’t keep out. One is Kia, a female who eventually becomes his mate, and the other are a tribe of savage mink who have escaped from a fur farm. After the leader of the mink slaughters Kia and nearly all of her litter, Kine leads a pack of weasels against the much larger predators.

The descriptions of the English countryside are even more lyrical in this book than they are in Watership Down, though the battles in field and hedgerow are just as intense.

5. The Plague Dogs, by Richard Adams

Loving Watership Down as I do, I was very eager to read this, but it’s not the same kind of book. The Plague Dogs is about two dogs who escape from a research facility and try to find safety as they’re hunted down for fear that they may be infected with plague.

The opening scene – where one dog is being slowly and deliberately drowned – sets the grim tone of the book, and is only the first of two dozen different ways to inform readers that tests done on animals are wrong wrong wrong. Still, the two dogs are sympathetic characters when the book focuses on them. One has had experimental brain surgery, which means he’s not altogether in touch with reality, but this gives him a chance at the Fiver role that Adams pulled off so well in Watership Down. And there’s a happy ending.

The best parts for me, though, were the songs that the dog hears throughout the book. These are beautifully written, and sum up his situation as he searches for the master he lost when he was illegally sold to the facility.

From Warsaw and from Babylon
The ghosts will not release the lives.
A weary burden falls upon
The groping remnant that survives.
So this distracted beast contrives
His hopeless search as best he can.
Beyond the notebooks and the knives,
A lost dog seeks a vanished man.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Cliches of royalty

So much of fantasy features royalty that it’s inevitable some setups and characters have now become cliches. I found an article about those here, and decided to expand on a few of them further in this post.

Uncle Usurper

Wherein the royal person (or that person’s father) has been usurped by a scheming uncle.

Unless it’s obvious that the story is based on Hamlet, and equally obvious that it’s bringing something new to the table, a la The Lion King, this is going to come off as a huge cliché. And it’s not going to do much for the character of the uncle either.

That’s one reason I like Macbeth – the play makes you care about the usurper, at least at the start.

Man of the People

Wherein the royal person is beloved by the populace.

George R. R. Martin handled this very well in A Feast for Crows. Queen Margaery deliberately sets out to win the affection of the commoners in a city not her own by talking to them, tossing them trifles and generally making herself an attractive, approachable sight. As a result, when she’s arrested, the people start shouting for her release.

In other stories, unfortunately, the people love the princess because she’s the heroine. And she never manipulates them towards a goal as Margaery does.

Remind me why advisors exist?

Wherein the royal person ignores ministers and advisors.

The council scenes in the film Dungeons and Dragons are a great example of this. The empress is young and idealistic, while her ministers are old and cynical. Guess who we're supposed to cheer for?

I don’t mind this when it’s evident that the royal character knows better or at least has an alternative course of action that makes some sense. It’s also not bad when the royal character eventually crashes and burns as a result of their ignoring advice. But the readers need more than just the empress saying something like “I feel in my heart that all are equal” to cheer for her – and the ministers aren’t wrong simply for being cynical either.

Born great = good. Achieving greatness = evil

Wherein the royal person having power is good and right, but the vizier planning to achieve such power is evil and wrong.

There has to be a good reason for why this is wrong – for instance, the vizier plans to plunge the land into war. Otherwise, the mere fact that the subordinate has ambitions isn’t evil in and of itself. He might even be better at the job than the king is – there’s certainly historical precedent for prime ministers doing more for countries than kings have done (Churchill, for one).

Royal without a cause

Wherein the royal line has nothing going for it.

If a royal family has nothing but tradition behind it, then they’re at risk of either being toppled or being figureheads (unless the population is composed of drone workers, perhaps). They need some way to keep their power and defend their positions.

Finances and ties to other powerful families help secure the position of the Lannisters in A Song of Ice and Fire. Magical ability is another such way. If there’s some powerful skill that only the royal family has, it’s easier to see how they keep their place – and it’s also going to be interesting to see inter-family rivalries.

Freedom of speech

Wherein the royal person tolerates backtalk.

A king who allowed his subordinates to argue with him in public (or worse, show open contempt, which I’ve seen in a story presented for critique) would become a laughing-stock. Even if these subordinates are advisors, mentors, counselors or ministers, there’s a time and a place for disagreement and it has to be couched in reasoned, diplomatic terms when it’s proceeding from inferior to superior.

And with some royals, the reader should really get the impression that they’re condescendingly allowing the disagreement on this one occasion, much like someone allowing their dog a treat from the dinner table just this once. After that, doggy goes back to the corner and the bowl of kibble.

Monday, March 2, 2009


“Adios, Esposito.”
“Adios, Sarge. Say a prayer for Surf Boy… wherever he is.”
“Semper fi, soldier. Semper fi.”
”Sic transit gloria. Maybe we’ll meet again some day, when the fighting stops.”
From “Heaven and Hell”, a play by Max Fischer

Rushmore is an odd film.

I enjoyed it, but it’s definitely not the kind of film that can be summed up in a single sentence. It’s about a fifteen-year-old and a middle-aged multimillionaire who both fall for the same woman, but it’s also a coming-of-age story, a drama with comic overtones, an oddball take on obsession and romance and death. Like I said, it’s unusual and not without flaws.

But the main character of Rushmore pulled me in right away, and if a character makes me care, I can put up with anything. Max Fischer is a precocious student at the exclusive Rushmore Academy, which he loves. Unfortunately he’s failing in every subject, mostly because of the dozen or more clubs and societies he runs or has founded. A movie critic wrote that Max could be very good at something if he wasn’t trying to do everything, and that’s a perfect description.

Max isn’t an attractive character, but he’s compelling. He’s a charismatic control freak, combining an adult’s intellect with a teenager’s inability to see anyone else’s point of view. His enthusiasm leads to a friendship with Herman Blume, an alumnus of Rushmore. Blume survived Vietnam and is now extremely rich, but his wife has no interest in him and he feels purposeless.

The point of the triangle is Ms Cross, a widowed teacher at Rushmore. Max fixates on her with all his usual drive, not particularly dissuaded by the Mary Kay Letourneau overtones of the situation. This, coupled with his poor academic record, is too much and he’s expelled from Rushmore. Blume takes a written apology from Max to Ms Cross and becomes interested in her himself. Max finds out and does everything in his power to get revenge.

One thing I like about Rushmore is that it’s never evident where the story’s going to end up. Max’s expulsion, the escalating revenge games, the resolution of the romance… none of this is predictable. The characters proceed under their own power rather than following a pattern a writer has laid out for them in advance (Part 1: Boy meets Girl, Part 2: Boy loses Girl, Part 3: Boy gets Girl back).

On the other hand, this might come off as meandering, and this isn’t a fast-paced movie that will keep you on the edge of your seat. The revenge games, for instance, don’t end in a cathartic climax – instead, Max realizes that no matter what he does, he isn’t going to have Ms Cross. Then he has to decide what to do with his life, having lost both of his obsessions. I like the ending, since it features a play and a far more appropriate love interest, but I don’t think it would work for everyone.

The supporting cast are well-written. Ms Cross is intelligent and beautiful, but she also wants what she can’t have – her husband, who drowned a year ago. She keeps her dignity in the face of Max’s admittedly puerile advances, getting him in an armlock when he tries to kiss her and making him run for cover. Then there’s Dirk Calloway, who is a friend/secretary/pupil to Max, and roughneck Magnus Buchan.

“I always wanted to be in one of your fuckin’ plays.”
Magnus Buchan, after Max resolves their rivalry by giving him a script and a part.

Rushmore features an evocative soundtrack and shoutouts to movies such as Reservoir Dogs, but my favorite part is the play at the end – written and directed by Max – which touches on the movie’s themes of friendship, romance and death in the context of the Vietnam War. I love it. Granted, that’s because there’s dynamite, fire, model planes in the background and two people training guns on each other while proposing marriage. But hey, nothing wrong with alternating the contemplative with the explosive. All’s fair in love and war.