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If You’re Doing It, You’re Doing It Right: The Creative Process

A few months ago, Husband came home from work with a book in hand: “I saw this at the store and thought of you.” The book was Daily Rituals, by Mason Currey; it’s basically the distillation of as many different sources as Currey could find, laying out the creative process for “novelists, poets, playwrights, painters, philosophers, scientists, and mathematicians… who describe how they… get done the work they love to do.”

I suspect that I’m not the only creative type who enjoys hearing about how other people get their creativity flowing, so I was intrigued by this book, but also intimidated. I’m still a little new to this full-time creative life, after all, and also acknowledge my own tendencies to compare myself to others — so when I hear that Stephen King writes 2000 words every day and says that “the first draft of a book—even a long one—should take no more than three months, the length of a season” (from his book On Writing), I get anxious. The first draft of my current project took almost two years; the second draft is shaping up to encompass another year and a half, if I’m lucky. Hearing about wildly productive and successful authors like King (whose books I faithfully read and generally love) makes me feel like I’m doing it wrong.

Turns out what I may have needed is some perspective.

It took me a while to read Currey’s book, over the course of many, many 5-minutes-before-bed stints. There were moments in my perusal when I felt my old comparison anxiety popping back up, like when I read about how Faulkner “often [completed] three thousand words a day and occasionally twice that amount” — but for every section about wildly prolific authors, there was a passage like the one about John Updike, who said that “I’ve never believed that one should wait until one is inspired because I think that the pleasures of not writing are so great that if you ever start indulging them you will never write again.” Joyce Carol Oates said that “Getting the first draft finished is like pushing a peanut with your nose across a very dirty floor.” Ayn Rand got through writer’s block (which she called “the squirms”) by playing solitaire without getting up from her desk; Goethe waited for inspiration, saying that “It is better to fritter away one’s unproductive days and hours, or sleep through them, than to try at such times to write something which will give one no satisfaction later on.”

One thing the book makes abundantly clear is that no two creatives have exactly the same process, and that there’s no “right” way to make art. I found it useful to keep this fact in mind last week, when I was trying to decide whether to go back over a chapter that I knew needed more work or to press on to the next one. As someone whose Lawful Good alignment runs deep, I spent a day or two obsessing over which was the “right” way to do it, before finally making my peace with the fact that there was, in fact, no rule to follow here. In the end, I decided to spend a day laying the groundwork for the new chapter and then as long as it took (as it turned out, about 1 week’s/20 hours’ work) to go over the old one and set it right before I lost track of the threads of plot and character motivation that’d come together at the end of a difficult pass through. It involved three days of really frustrating work on the rougher parts before I got to the “easy bit,” but I was left feeling that the chapter was better and also pleased with myself for managing to get it done in a single fairly condensed time frame. And as Husband keeps reminding me, in the end, I’m not Stephen King or William Faulkner, and my book will take as long as it takes.

In the spirit of writerly disclosures, here are a few things that seem to be part of my “best practices,” as they’ve emerged over almost a year of full-time writing:

  • My best work tends to happen in the morning and early afternoon, between about 10 AM-2 PM (a little earlier if the cat cooperates by settling down and not making a pest of himself)
  • I can usually work between 2.5-3 hours at a stretch; if I’m writing new material and the words are coming easily, I may do two sessions of that length in a day with lunch in between.
  • I’m best off working on my manuscript every day, even if just for a half hour, to keep it fresh at the top of my mind
  • To avoid the temptations of social media while I’m working, the deal I make with myself is that I won’t check Facebook or Twitter until I’ve met my minimum writing goals for the day (typically 1500 words and/or about 400 words an hour)
  • I keep track of both words written and hours worked for the week; this allows me to avoid feeling bad about myself in a week that has more planning and less prose production, and also gives me the satisfying feeling of watching the words and the hours pile up.
  • If I’m feeling blocked, it’s usually a sign that I haven’t thought through some element of the plot or character motivation clearly enough. Going for a walk, and/or sitting down with a notebook (away from the temptations of social media) are my best ways of solving that problem

There are still days when I want to throw the whole thing out the window; but for the most part, I continue to feel deeply fortunate that I get to live this life. And I found this book a useful reality check that whatever works for you, however long it takes you to produce your masterpieces, as long as you’re working and someday your work makes it out into the world, what you’re doing is the right way.


Hugos Review 2015: The Goblin Emperor, by Katherine Addison

When I decided to register as a supporting Hugos member this year, I resolved that I would read all the nominated novels and try to make my best unbiased judgment – but from the start, I suspected that The Goblin Emperor would get my vote. So as I’ve reread it these past few days, I’ve been musing on the qualities that make me deem a book worthy of the Hugo. There’s been a lot of discussion of this in the fan community in the last few months. People have debated the relative merits of a rip-roaring good tale versus well-crafted prose; the value of using a story as a platform to increase the representation of diverse groups in fiction – or to explore real-world social problems; and whether the best stories are those rooted in the characters, worldbuilding, big ideas or plot. And the more I read across the genre, the more I’m coming to peace with the fact that there are no right answers to these questions. SF/F is a big tent with space in it for everybody; the important thing is that we’re here because there are stories in the genre that we love. And if we’re adding our own stories, I suspect that regardless of our other motivations for writing, on some level, we want people out there to love them, too.

So in approaching my Hugos ballet this year, I used a strategy that I hope will serve me well as I approach nominations in the future: read as widely as I can, and then pick out the stories I love best for recognition. This time around, for the 2014 Best Novel category, that’s The Goblin Emperor.

I’ve talked about this book here before, the tale of the biracial prince whose birth was the result of his elven emperor father’s ill-advised and brief political marriage to a goblin princess. Our hero has spent most of his life in exile with only an embittered cousin for company, and the story starts when he’s awakened with the news that there’s been an airship accident, his father and three elder brothers are dead, and he’s now the emperor of the elflands. It’s a book that seems, at a glance, to have all the tackiest qualities that non-fantasy-readers associate with our genre. The setting is quasi-medieval, a nation on the cusp of its industrial revolution. The population’s comprised of elves (with white hair and skin and gray eyes), goblins (with black hair and skin and red eyes), and those of mixed heritage (with skin that comes in varying shades of gray). The characters have long, polysyllabic names that are easy to confuse on a first reading (examples: Beshelar and Berenar; Csevet and Csethiro; Telimezh and Tethimel).

Maybe most of all, the language is vexingly complex, with two forms of address for first and second person (the author uses ‘we’/’I’ and ‘you’/‘thou’ to distinguish them) and different titles for men, married women, and unmarried women, with three different prefixes depending on the bearer’s social standing (a man of average, noble or high noble stature, for instance, would be correctly titled as Mer, Osmer, or Dach’osmer, respectively). In the course of a few pages, the same character might be referred to by personal name, family name (which is actually a stem to which different suffixes are attached depending on the individual’s gender and marital status), and title-plus-family name without blinking an eye. Oh, and did I mention the emperors take imperial names that are even longer?

In spite of all this, when I picked the book up last year, I couldn’t put it down. And I think that’s almost entirely to do with Addison’s crafting of her main character, Maia Drazhar (AKA His Imperial Serenity, Edrehasivar VII. I did warn you about the names). Although Maia’s story is presented to us in third person, it may as well be a first-person account. We see everything through his eyes, which lets Addison craft a classic “stranger comes to town” introduction to her world, and then gloriously subvert the trope by reminding us that this particular stranger doesn’t have the luxury of time to learn his way around. He has a government to run.

I’ve read a number of negative reviews of this book, and those that don’t identify the wordplay as the reason they bounced off the story tend to focus on its slow pace. It’s true that there are whole paragraphs devoted to things like “the emperor is dressed by his stewards; this is what they dress him in; isn’t it odd that an emperor isn’t allowed to dress himself.” There are no swordfights, and very little magic. The “conflict,” such as it is, ostensibly focuses on Maia’s attempts to figure out what happened to his father’s airship, and then unravel various political conspiracies within the court while dodging the efforts of those who want to remove him from power – but as far as I’m concerned, the real story here is about Maia’s journey from becoming the emperor to beginning to be the emperor.

Yes, this book has dense language, and complicated names. But it also has beautiful conversations between Maia and his bodyguards about whether they can also be his friends, about whether an emperor can have friends. It has an eighteen-year-old kid realizing that he will never again in his life have a moment’s solitude. It has him attempting to do the right thing by attending the funeral for the airship crew who died with his father, only to realize that his presence turns that funeral into a spectacle that’s all about him. Maia spends the book trying to figure out how to be Edrehasivar VII while still holding on to some semblance of himself, and that’s the journey that intrigued me.

The other part of my realization that what makes a “good” book is subjective is that one person’s un-put-downable book will leave someone else cold. I know that there are many people who won’t be drawn into this one, and there’s nothing wrong with that; I’ve picked up a number of books on the basis of glowing recommendations and set them down unfinished. But for me, what makes a book grab hold and not let go is the opportunity to delve deeply into a character and a setting; to explore questions about identity and one’s place in the world; and to walk away feeling like I’ve stood in someone else’s shoes for a while. For all these reasons, The Goblin Emperor will get my vote for the Best Novel Hugo this year.

Hugos Review 2015: The Three-Body Problem, by Liu Cixin (Cixin Liu)

If you’re at all tied in to the genre fiction world, you’ll likely have heard of The Three-Body Problem. It was already on my reading list for some time before it was added to the list of Hugo nominees; it’s been getting all kinds of buzz, including being a pick for the io9 book club a few months ago. Annalee Newitz’s review starts with the line “If you love computers, this novel  should be on your must-read list.” This framing made me suspect that I might not be the book’s intended audience, and after having finished it I can confirm that supposition; if not for its Hugo nomination, I might have put it down unfinished. But at the end, I’m glad I read it, and I won’t be at all upset if it takes home the Hugo this year.

A quick summary for those who’ve missed the buzz: The Three-Body Problem is a novel by Chinese science fiction writer Liu Cixin. Liu has won China’s Galaxy Award (China’s highest prize for science fiction) nine times; his first book was published in 1999; and The Three-Body Problem is, as near as I can tell, the first of his works to be translated into English. The translator, Ken Liu (no relation), is a well-respected sci-fi writer in his own right, whose short story “The Paper Menagerie” swept the Hugo, Nebula and World Fantasy awards in 2011. Three-Body Problem is the first in a trilogy, and the other two books are out in China but have not yet been translated.

At its heart, The Three-Body Problem is an idea book. It raises fascinating questions about the salvation (or salvageability) of humanity, the importance of technological progress, and human tribalism, while also exploring complex ideas from math and science, particularly physics (the English language title refers to a term from classical mechanics). It’s most definitely hard science fiction, which isn’t my usual bread and butter. Big chunks of the book are spent explaining complex physics concepts (both real and fictionalized). The characters are also flatter and more peripheral than what I tend to prefer in my reading. That aspect of the book reminded me a bit of Asimov’s Foundation trilogy, which I set down unfinished because I found it too much like a set of political essays presented by talking heads. Liu Cixin has said in interviews that he was inspired by American science fiction authors from the “golden age” (Arthur C. Clarke is one I’ve seen cited in several places) and this book definitely captures the feel of that era — a classic sci-fi story in most any sense of the word, with the possible exception of its location.

When the book opens, we’re in Mao’s China during the Cultural Revolution, where a young woman has just seen her father killed for continuing to teach (and proclaim his belief in) Einstein’s theory of relativity. But most of the story takes place in the near future; the main character, Wang Miao, is a researcher developing a new nanotechnology who starts having strange experiences. Scientists he knows are killing themselves because they say the laws of physics are no longer working as expected. When he takes photos with his fancy new camera, there’s a countdown on the negatives when they’re developed. And when he starts trying to explore possible linkages between these phenomena, he finds himself drawn into a MMORPG called Three Body (the book’s Chinese title) that depicts a world with massively unpredictable seasons and weather, whose people are able to dehydrate themselves to survive great heat and cold, but which has also had to reinvent its civilization from scratch thousands of times when the planet’s been destroyed by natural forces of one kind or another. Wang is fascinated by the game, which he eventually realizes is simulating life in a tri-solar system (where the planet is sometimes in stable orbit around one star, subject at other times to the heat and gravitational pull of two or even all three stars at once, and sometimes thrown far from any of them). But he can’t shake the feeling that there’s something deeper going on…

I struggled with the first half of the book, where Wang is going from place to place and person to person trying to get to the bottom of what’s going on. But once Liu started to tip his hand about what was causing the strange phenomena, I was hooked — at least conceptually, if not always in execution.

Warning: spoilers for the book’s central ideas and plot arc beyond this point.

What Wang and the readers discover in the second half of the book is that the online game, Three Body, is part of a grand movement that’s been organized by the supporters of an alien civilization from Alpha Centauri (which, incidentally, is a binary star system with a third star close enough to influence the orbit of any planets, whose denizens have survived through dehydration methods remarkably similar to those used in the game) who have started the process of invading Earth. Their fleet won’t arrive for four hundred years, but to make sure that humans don’t outstrip them technologically in the meantime, they’ve sent ahead a fleet of sentient, self-replicating protons (the explanation of this aspect of the Big Plot is is the high-powered physics stuff I was alluding to earlier) to mess with the laws of physics as they’re currently understood, and basically stop human scientific advancement in its tracks.

Wang also learns that the aliens first became aware of Earth because the young woman we met in the book’s first chapter, Ye Wenjie, later became involved with China’s search for extraterrestrial intelligence; when she received a response to China’s Voyager-type initial contact message, warning that the aliens who’d received China’s signal would destroy human civilization if they could pinpoint which planet the first contact had come from, she sent word back to the effect that “humans aren’t worth saving. Come take our planet and do better.”

In the decades since, the human supporters of the “Trisolaran” aliens have fragmented into two main groups, those who view the aliens and their world through a quasi-religious lens (and are less inclined to actively work in support of the invasion than in attempting to solve the three-body problem and allow the Trisolarans to live in peace) and those who see them as the ones who will come to rid Earth of the corrupt human influence. This is where my sociologist brain really began to appreciate the story; Liu does some fascinating work with exploring the range of human reactions to the knowledge that another “superior” culture is out there, and that it’s coming to destroy the human world. Several characters offer interesting takes on the idea that human civilization feels worthless now that they know that it’ll all be over in 400 years. There’s a great moment at the very end of the book where a common analogy for advanced civilizations — that Trisolarans are to humans as humans are to bugs — is turned around, and a character points out that humans and bugs have been at war for millennia upon millennia and the bugs aren’t beaten yet.

In his “Big Idea” interview on John Scalzi’s website, Liu suggests that much of Chinese science fiction portrays aliens as inherently noble-minded, and he felt it was more realistic to posit that any civilization advanced enough to enter space would view any other civilization it found there as a threat to its existence. I think this is a fascinating idea, and one that I hadn’t seen in science fiction before. And as you might guess from my summary of the central plot threads, it’s not the only element in the story that made me feel that way.

So if you like hard science fiction and aren’t too bothered by lightly-developed characters, this is almost certainly going to be a home run book for you. And even if you don’t fit that profile (and especially if you read primarily Western authors), I’d still recommend you check it out purely for the uniqueness of the core concepts. This one might not be my kind of book, but it’s still a very worthy contender for the award.

History Through Two Lenses: On Watching Star Trek/TOS

Until very recently, my Star Trek literacy was shockingly low, at least by the standards of my uber-nerdy social group. I had conscientiously watched the two new JJ Abrams movies, more-casually watched two original movies (so casually, in fact, that while I’m sure that I’ve technically seen Wrath of Khan, I couldn’t tell you what the other one was), and caught a scattered handful of episodes from TOS, TNG, DS9 and Voyager. So when Husband and I found ourselves in search of a new show for our weeknight evenings, I suggested we start Star Trek from the beginning. If nothing else, I figured, it’d give us a nice long stretch before we had to worry about choosing another show.

We’re still in the earliest stages at this point, Season One of the original series, and I’ve already noticed my Star Trek literacy increasing. I know what a Vulcan nerve pinch is now; I also feel much better able to appreciate the satire of John Scalzi’s fabulous novel Redshirts. That said, I find that my purest enjoyment of the show is happening on the meta level — in fact, on two different meta levels. Whenever we hit hit one of those inevitable moments that cause people to roll their eyes at TOS, Husband cringes, turns to me and says “I promise it gets better!” And every time, I shrug and say “Sweetheart, I’m a storyteller and a sociologist. I’m fascinated by all of it.”

Some of the conscious liberal philosophy built into the original Star Trek seems to be fairly common knowledge even outside the Trekkie fan base. I already knew, for example, that TOS was the site of TV’s first interracial kiss. I also knew about Roddenberry’s carefully considered decision to make the bridge of the Enterprise a multiracial, multinational place, and I’d heard Nichelle Nichols’ fabulous retelling of her meeting with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., where he talked about the importance of the American people’s seeing a black actress playing something other than “a black role.” But there were other elements of show design and storytelling that I wasn’t aware of until I started watching. In the first pilot episode, which features an almost entirely different crew, we see that Roddenberry originally intended for the Enterprise to have a female first officer who (gasp!) wore the same uniform as the men.That level of equal treatment might not have made it into the later series (I’m looking at you, miniskirts and go-go boots), but there’s still plenty of ideology in TOS that I don’t think was par for the course in 1960s TV. One early episode, “The Arena,” boldly suggests that even “bad guys” rarely see their own actions as evil-for-evil’s-sake. Another, “The Menagerie,” features a character with substantial physical disabilities, who can’t easily communicate with his peers, as one of the judges in a court-martial, implying that his judgment is as sound as anyone else’s. The episode isn’t perfect — there’s some unexamined disabilism elsewhere, and the ending’s  pretty problematic — but coming more than 20 years before the passage of the ADA, it still seems very forward-thinking.

In addition to marking the places where the show was ahead of its time, I’m having fun picking out moments where the attempts at progressivism haven’t aged quite so well, or where it didn’t occur to the creators to question their base assumptions. There’s one episode, “Mudd’s Women,” where the walk-on heroine ends up living happily ever after because she just has to BELIEVE she’s beautiful to be desirable to men. In an era when women were still expected to wear makeup every day, I see what they were trying for, but it looks dated to modern eyes. And don’t even get me started on Kirk’s endless string of nameless love affairs: I’ll just go out on a limb here and guess that even if Majel Barrett‘s first officer had remained a part of the series after the pilot, she would not have been engaging in such “wanton” behavior. As entertaining as the social commentary is, though, what I find most interesting is unpacking the plot tropes.

Unsurprisingly, TVTropes.com has a lot to say about Star Trek, but I found this passage particularly illustrative:

The show’s writing was good, the cast had great chemistry and the characters themselves were very memorable, to the point of creating three new archetypes: The Kirk, The Spock, and The McCoy. In fact, this series created so many new tropes that it has left an unmistakable mark on both television and pop culture ever since. Not to mention inspired a lot of mostly affectionate parodies.

Whenever I’m watching an episode, I can’t help but feel like I’m seeing the norms of sci-fi storytelling developing before my eyes. In the evil twin episode, “The Enemy Within,” when a transporter malfunction basically splits Kirk into id and superego, “evil Kirk” spends most of his energy screaming and attacking people, making him eminently distinguishable from “good Kirk”; it’s only at the end of the episode that we begin to see the writers playing with the idea of not being able to tell them apart. When the Romulans make their first appearance in “Balance of Terror,” where the Enterprise is forced to violate the Romulan “neutral zone” in a presumed act of war and then discovers that the Romulans look a little too much like Vulcans (certainly not an allegory about either the Cold War or the suspicion that fell on Japanese-Americans after Pearl Harbor), after Kirk’s brilliance leads to their successfully outmaneuvering the other ship, the enemy captain blows up his own ship and crew after saying poignantly to Kirk, “You and I are of a kind. In a different reality, I could have called you friend.”

I recently discovered that one of my local nerd cronies is also doing her first TOS watchthrough right now; when we discussed it, she said that the thing she likes best about the show is that the stories don’t turn out the way she expects. Star Trek created so many storytelling tropes, she argued, that contemporary writers seeking to avoid cliches have no choice but to go in a different direction. I agree with this in part, but I also don’t think it’s the only explanation for the change; one recent episode got me thinking about how broader norms for “likeable” characters have changed in the last 50 years.

In the episode, “Court Martial,” Kirk is called to task by Starfleet High Command on charges of negligence causing the death of an Enterprise crewman. For most of the episode, we’re treated to video and computer evidence suggesting that Kirk genuinely made a mistake, pushing the wrong button in a tense situation and flushing the crewman out into space. But in the end, it becomes clear that the crewman faked his own death; blaming Kirk for an earlier incident that derailed his career, he was determined that The Great Hero should meet a similar fate. When we finished the episode, I looked at Husband and said “wouldn’t it be more interesting if Kirk really had made a mistake?” **

Thinking about it later, I remembered a film studies course I took in college where we learned about the New Hollywood movement of the late 1960s and 1970s. The filmmakers from this era, whose famous movies include Bonnie & Clyde, The Godfather and The Graduate, made a point of demonstrating the moral ambiguity of their protagonists, telling stories that weren’t so clearly “black and white”; the change is generally viewed as drawing its inspiration at least in part from the changing American zeitgeist after the Vietnam War.

Contemporary audiences are used to gray heroes. Whether we’re talking about Walter White, Greg House, or Tyrion Lannister, modern characters make complicated choices, and sometimes they do bad things. On purpose. But even though Rick Blaine let the Nazis drag Ugarte away at the beginning of Casablanca, and Rhett Butler slept with ladies of ill repute and ran the Union blockade, both of them ended up clearly on the side of the “good guys” by the ends of their stories. I suspect that earlier audiences weren’t so keen on ambiguity in their heroes.

So all in all, I’m enjoying my Star Trek education so far, and looking forward to seeing what other sci-fi tropes I can trace back to this universe — and for what it’s worth, the experience is confirming my earlier belief that it’s worth our time as storytellers to dig into the history of our genre. If nothing else, knowing what came before will stop you from being like a friend of mine who reportedly got about 100 pages into Lord of the Rings on a first reading and then threw it aside, saying, “This is the most cliched book I’ve ever read.”

Know your book’s genealogy: something can’t be a cliche if it came first. Go forth and read and watch and think, and your writing will be better for it.

**(For the record, Husband’s answer to my question about whether the other way of ending the story would be better was “You’re going to LOVE Next Gen.” I’m looking forward to it.)

2014 Baby Names — The Other Top 100

Another American Mother’s Day weekend, another release of the Social Security Administration’s top 1000 baby names for the previous year, another slightly-off-topic post from me collating the “real” top 100 (combining spellings of soundalike names like Aiden and Aidan, which the Social Security list does not do, and which can result in some pretty dramatic reordering of the most popular names). You can also look at past lists for 2013 and 2012.

I’ll probably have a few more posts about names over the next week or so, including 1 or 2 that are more focused on “how these lists can work for writers.” In the meantime, enjoy!

Boys’ Names.

Name Combined spellings ranking Official ranking
Jackson/Jaxon/Jaxson/Jaxen 1 17
Aiden/Ayden/Aidan/Aden/Adan/Aydin/Aaden/Aydan/Aidyn 2 14
Noah 3 1
Liam 4 2
Mason/Mayson/Maison 5 3
Jacob/Jakob/Jaycob 6 4
Jayden/Jaden/Jaiden/Jaydon/Jadon 7 15
William 8 5
Kayden/Kaiden/Kaden/Cayden/Caden/Caiden/Kaeden 9 90
Ethan 10 6
Michael/Micheal 11 7
Alexander/Alexzander 11 8
James 13 9
Elijah/Alijah 14 11
Daniel 15 10
Lucas/Lukas 16 18
Benjamin 17 12
Logan 18 13
Matthew/Mathew 19 16
Jace/Jase/Jayce/Jayse 20 68
Carter/Karter 21 27
David 22 18
Joseph 23 20
Caleb/Kaleb 24 35
Anthony 25 21
Dylan/Dillon/Dilan 26 29
Andrew 27 22
John/Jon 28 26
Christopher/Kristopher/Cristopher 29 30
Samuel 30 23
Gabriel 31 24
Joshua 32 25
Luke 33 28
Isaac/Issac 34 31
Christian/Cristian/Kristian 35 42
Landon/Landen/Landyn 36 43
Grayson/Greyson/Graysen 37 63
Connor/Conner/Conor/Konnor/Konner 38 52
Jonathan/Johnathan/Jonathon/Johnathon 39 44
Nicholas/Nicolas/Nikolas/Nickolas 40 57
Oliver 41 32
Henry 42 33
Cameron/Kameron/Camron/Kamron/Kamryn/Camren 43 53
Sebastian 44 34
Owen 45 36
Ryan 46 37
Nathan 47 38
Wyatt 48 39
Hunter 49 40
Jack 50 41
Brayden/Braden/Braydon/Braeden/Braiden 51 62
Jason/Jayceon/Jayson 52 75
Isaiah/Izaiah 53 48
Colton/Kolton/Colten/Kolten 54 65
Julian/Julien 55 47
Dominic/Dominick/Dominik/Dominique 56 69
Levi 57 45
Aaron/Aron 58 50
Eli 59 49
Thomas/Tomas 60 54
Charles 61 51
Josiah/Jasiah/Joziah 62 64
Jordan/Jordyn 63 55
Adrian/Adrien 64 59
Gavin/Gavyn 65 60
Jeremiah 66 56
Evan 67 58
Robert 68 61
Austin 69 66
Angel 70 67
Kevin 71 70
Brandon 72 71
Tyler 73 72
Eric/Erick/Erik 74 123
Parker 75 73
Ian/Ean 76 77
Carson/Karson 77 91
Zachary/Zackary 78 82
Chase/Chace 79 78
Jose 80 76
Damian/Damien 81 102
Xavier/Xzavier/Zavier 82 88
Miles/Myles 83 108
Adam 84 79
Camden/Kamden/Camdyn/Kamdyn 85 100
Bryan/Brian 86 148
Hudson 87 80
Nolan 88 81
Bentley/Bentlee 89 89
Easton 90 83
Blake 91 84
Cooper 92 86
Lincoln 93 87
Nathaniel/Nathanael 94 94
Tristan/Tristen/Triston 95 100
Brody/Brodie 96 92
Colin/Collin 97 140
Mateo/Matteo 98 106
Asher 99 93
Steven/Stephen 100 144

Girls’ Names.

Name Combined spellings ranking Official ranking
Sophia/Sofia 1 3
Olivia/Alivia/Alyvia 2 2
Emma 3 1
Ava/Eva/Avah/Ayva 4 5
Isabella/Izabella/Isabela 5 4
Emily/Emely/Emilee/Emilie/Emmalee 6 7
Mia/Miah 7 6
Zoey/Zoe/Zoie 8 22
Aubrey/Aubree/Aubrie/Aubri 9 20
Madison/Maddison/Madisyn/Madyson 10 9
Abigail/Abbigail 11 8
Madelyn/Madeline/Madeleine/Madilyn/Madelynn/Madilynn/Madalynn 11 59
Chloe/Khloe 13 18
Ariana/Arianna/Aryanna/Aryana 14 37
Layla/Laila/Leila/Laylah/Leyla/Lailah 15 29
Amelia/Emilia/Emelia 16 15
Avery/Averie/Averi 17 13
Riley/Rylee/Ryleigh/Rylie 18 47
Charlotte 19 10
Evelyn/Evelynn/Evalyn/Avalynn 20 16
Elizabeth/Elisabeth 21 14
Lily/Lilly/Lillie 22 27
Adalynn/Adalyn/Adelyn/Adeline/Adelynn/Addilyn/Addilynn 23 128
Harper 24 11
Kaylee/Kali/Kayleigh/Kailey/Kaylie/Caylee/Kailee/Kaleigh 25 52
Brooklyn/Brooklynn 26 26
Natalie/Nathalie/Nataly/Nathaly/Natalee 27 23
Ella 28 17
Aria/Arya/Ariah/Ariya/Ariyah 29 31
Hailey/Haley/Haylee/Hayley/Hallie/Halle/Hailee 30 51
Addison/Addyson/Addisyn 31 24
Allison/Alison/Allyson/Alyson/Alisson 32 38
Aaliyah/Aliyah/Aleah/Alia/Aliya 33 45
Mackenzie/Mckenzie/Makenzie 34 69
Victoria 35 19
Grace 36 21
Hannah/Hanna/Hana 37 28
Lillian/Lilian 38 25
Leah/Lia/Leia/Lea 39 35
Maya/Mya/Maia/Myah/Miya 40 74
Peyton/Payton/Paityn 41 56
Anna/Ana 42 34
Scarlett/Scarlet/Scarlette 43 30
Elena/Alaina/Alayna/Elaina 44 121
Kylie/Kylee/Kyleigh/Kiley 45 73
Camila/Camilla/Kamila 46 41
Nora/Norah 47 49
Katherine/Catherine/Kathryn 48 82
Sarah/Sara 49 50
Gabriella/Gabriela 50 43
Annabelle/Annabel/Anabelle/Anabel/Annabell 51 57
Savannah/Savanna 52 39
Kaitlyn/Katelyn/Caitlyn/Caitlin/Katelynn/Kaitlynn 53 158
Skylar/Skyler 54 48
Samantha 55 33
Lyla/Lila/Lilah/Lylah 56 140
Audrey 57 36
Liliana/Lilliana/Lilyana/Lilianna/Lillianna/Lilyanna 58 119
Paisley/Paislee 59 53
Claire/Clare 60 44
Isabelle/Isabel 61 96
London/Londyn 62 93
Brianna/Briana/Breanna/Bryanna 63 85
Kennedy/Kennedi 64 54
Makayla/Mikayla/Michaela/Mikaela/McKayla 65 123
Penelope 66 42
Alyssa/Elisa/Alissa/Alisa 67 76
Eliana/Elliana/Elianna/Aliana/Iliana 68 117
Jasmine/Jazmin/Jazmine/Jasmin 69 100
Mila/Myla 70 72
Sadie 71 46
Juliana/Julianna/Giuliana 72 157
Ellie 73 55
Melanie/Melany 74 79
Bailey/Baylee/Bailee 75 104
Vivian/Vivienne 76 98
Caroline 77 58
Serenity 78 60
Lucy 79 62
Alexa 80 63
Alexis 81 64
Nevaeh 81 64
Stella 83 66
Jordyn/Jordan/Jordynn 84 127
Violet 85 67
Genesis 86 68
Charlie/Charlee/Charley/Charleigh/Charli 87 229
Piper/Pyper 88 75
Bella 89 70
Autumn 90 71
Reagan/Raegan 91 106
Callie/Cali/Kallie 92 186
Jocelyn/Joselyn/Joslyn/Jocelynn 93 114
Taylor 94 77
Eleanor 95 78
Naomi 96 80
Lauren/Lauryn 97 94
Faith 98 81
Lydia 99 84
Hadley/Hadleigh/Hadlee 100 99

Hugos Review 2015: The Dark Between the Stars, by Kevin J. Anderson

This book had some fun moments. I finished it, which is saying something (not always the case for books I read these days). However, I do not think it is award-worthy.

In my last Hugos review, I talked about how Jim Butcher’s Skin Game fell into the category of “a good book, but not for me”; a little too stand-alone, too action-packed, too deeply rooted in the tropes of genres I’m not generally excited about. Anderson’s Dark Between the Stars had a number of elements that should have inclined me toward ranking it higher than Butcher’s book. It’s a huge, sweeping story, the first in a trilogy; it includes interesting worldbuilding and cultural stuff; and it focuses as much on small human moments (where “human” might mean human/human, human/robot, human/alien, or some other sentient-being interaction) as it does on big space battles. And yet, in my opinion, its problems outweighed its strengths.

The basic elements: The Dark Between the Stars seemed to me to be classic space opera, telling a broad, sweeping story through the eyes of what seemed like dozens of narrators (I didn’t actually count). It continues a story from an earlier trilogy, The Saga of Seven Suns, set in a universe where humans have moved out from Earth to colonize a number of planets with the help of alien technology. There’s one major alien race, the Ildirans, who the humans are allied with to the point of interbreeding, and several others (the gas-giant-living hydrogues and extinct, buglike Klikiss) who are or were human enemies; the setting also includes highly advanced robots called “compys,” and at least 2 intelligent elemental-like species, the fiery faeroes and watery wentals. A brief aside: I figured out all of this world-building detail without needing to reference the earlier books, which is a point in Anderson’s favor. Compared to other “related series” that I’ve read, I would say the book stands alone.

The story also seems like classic sci-fi fare to me; there is a new, dark threat in the universe, in this case embodied by literal clouds of darkness that come from nowhere and engulf ships, people, and planets. This threat is particularly terrifying to the Ildirans, because their home planet, in a system with (surprise) seven suns, is never dark; darkness has a weightiness in their culture even stronger than it does in, er, mainstream American culture. Besides this central plot, there are also sidebars touching on everything from the OCD/PTSD of a woman orphaned as a little girl to a disintegrating marriage to the aftereffects of war on the sentient psyche.

I was looking forward to this book, because my tastes generally incline more toward fantasy epics and I was excited about familiarizing myself with how some of the epic tropes look different in a sci-fi setting. But after I finished the first chapter, I had to hand the book to Husband (the sci-fi reader in the house) and ask “so, are all sci-fi epics this clunky and info-dumpy?”

I felt as though Dark Between the Stars had a lot of potential that wasn’t fully realized. The worldbuilding was genuinely interesting, with core concepts elaborated on in novel ways; for instance, because the Ildiran race is linked through low-level telepathy, every individual can always sense the larger collective, and this filters into their culture through details like the fact that almost all Ildirans fear being alone. The diversity representation was also pretty strong; lots of female characters (some likeable, some unlikeable), lots of physical diversity among the human contingent (including many dark-skinned characters and a paraplegic freighter captain), and I even think I may have spotted a same-sex relationship, though it was left somewhat ambiguous. Finally, there were a number of really likeable characters who I wanted to hear more from… and that, regrettably, is where this review will turn away from praise.

Because the book had so many different plot threads and so many different narrators, I felt as though none of the characters reached their full potential. Every time I found myself getting interested in an individual’s narrative arc, I’d be swept away from them to spend half a dozen chapters on other plotlines I wasn’t as invested in. This is always a risk with multiple viewpoints, but Dark Between the Stars seemed to take the problem to an extreme. I finished the book feeling as though I didn’t know any of the characters much better than I had when I first met them. I also found myself not very interested in the A-plot, the looming shadows of darkness. I was much more excited to read about the tensions between the couple fighting over custody of their son, or the young woman whose reaction to her father’s dying from a disease he contracted as an interplanetary explorer was to secret herself away in a sterilized lab where she intended to find cures for all the diseases in the known universe and then hold the cures for her personal use. I certainly don’t object to wide-ranging stories (I read A Song of Ice and Fire, after all), but it seems to me that if your reader’s dragging her feet every time you try to take her back to your central plot backbone, there may be a flaw in your storytelling.

I also felt like the craft on this book needed work. The prose was flat, without much in the way of either wit or poetry (and I say that as someone who regularly skims through flowery prose), and the explanations of the setting and context were thrown out in chunks that didn’t flow with the narrative at all, particularly in the early chapters. In that regard, this book felt like either a first novel (which I know isn’t the case) or one that was rushed through its editing stage.

I know that there’s been a tremendous amount of controversy during this Hugo season about the contrast between “fun books” and “important books,” and I suspect one of the reasons this one made it onto the ballot is because it’s undeniably in the first category. But I would argue that even undeniably “fun” books with no aspirations to literary merit — like Butcher’s Dresden Files, which the author himself describes as “dopey little wizard books,” or Gabaldon’s Outlander books, which she started as “practice” — should still meet a minimum standard for story construction, writing, and craft if they’re going to be seen as exemplars for our field. This book didn’t meet that standard, and for that reason, it will not be getting my Hugo vote.

Hugos Reviews 2015: Skin Game, by Jim Butcher

I’ve signed myself up to vote on the Hugos for the first time this year. If you’re someone who follows nerd news, you’ll likely already know that a lot of people are signing up for the first time because of nerd-politics (if you want a good summary of what’s going on, I’d recommend Kameron Hurley’s Atlantic article here; for a very nuanced and lengthy analysis, check out GRRM’s extended series of posts, starting with this one). I’m not going to discuss the controversy in any depth here; you can probably guess my views from the angle I’ve chosen to present in my linked articles and from other things I’ve posted on this site. What I am going to do — stated now in the presence of witnesses — is read and review here all of this year’s nominees for Best Novel (and possibly some other nominated works, stay tuned).

And so: Skin Game, by Jim Butcher. Book 15 in his series The Dresden Files. My one-sentence review would boil down to something like “I enjoyed reading this book; I admire the craft and research that went into writing it; if it were to win the award, I wouldn’t feel like that win was undeserved; but it’s not really my style, and I don’t think I’ll be voting for it.”

Like most people, I’ve heard the buzz around this series for a long time; I have several friends who are members of the Butcher fan club, and who rave about the Dresden books as the most compulsively readable stuff they’ve encountered in a long time. So I read the first one, Storm Front, a few years back, and was mostly unmoved. And though all the reviews I’ve read say that the series picks up speed in about Book 3 or 4, I wasn’t really interested in following Harry Dresden on his further adventures. I don’t typically get drawn into detective stories, or urban fantasy, or books whose proportions favor action scenes over other stuff (the main reason I also haven’t had much success picking up Butcher’s Codex Alera series), and I generally prefer tightly serialized series like GRRM’s A Song of Ice and Fire to more standalone ones like Pratchett’s Discworld. Although Dresden Files clearly has an overarching plot, this book also had a tightly self-contained story arc.

All that said, if you are a fan of any of the things I list in that last sentence above and you haven’t tried out Dresden Files yet, I’d recommend you drop what you’re doing and give it a shot.

For those even less familiar with the series than I am, I’ll note that it follows the ongoing adventures of Harry Dresden, a wizard living in contemporary Chicago. In the first book, Butcher’s basically giving us private-eye-with-a-supernatural-twist (kind of like where Angel started), but by Book 15, things have gotten considerably more complicated. Dresden’s amassed a whole collection of complex powers, debts and social connections, and there’s no more simple private eye work.

The management of those complexities was one of the things that impressed me most about this book. While I certainly felt my ignorance of the previous books and the past relationships between characters as I read, I wasn’t crippled by it. Butcher did a good job of giving us enough information about each character that I could remember who they were and what their relationship to Dresden was. Trying to imagine someone having a similar experience if they picked up GRRM’s A Storm of Swords without having read the previous books hurts my brain.

In addition to handling the intricacies of a long series, Butcher did a good job with the self-contained plot of this book, too. Basically, because of the web of obligations Dresden’s woven for himself, he’s pulled into a Grand Heist that forces him to temporarily ally himself with a handful of sometime-adversaries who he’s not at all sure he can trust to watch his back. The action sequences are a little more tightly packed together than I usually seek out in my fiction, particularly as things heat up in the second half of the book, but each one is appropriately suspenseful and very well-described. Butcher’s bio in the back of the book describes him as “[a] martial arts enthusiast whose resume includes a long list of skills rendered obsolete at least two hundred years ago,” and his familiarity with the combat side of things definitely shows.

I also enjoyed what seems to be a fairly comprehensive use of magical sources in Butcher’s worldbuilding. The magical forces in Dresden’s world include, among others, Judeo-Christian archangels, medieval European fairies, demons connected to the 40 pieces of silver paid to Judas Iscariot for his betrayal of Christ, Tibetan temple guardians, and the Greek gods. While this certainly doesn’t cover every culture’s magical or mystical elements, I liked the fact that these different systems coexist in the same setting; this aspect of the story reminded me a bit of Gaiman’s American Gods.

In terms of plotting, I liked the fact that the stakes were different from what you might expect for a story that reminded me, in places, of a well-crafted D&D dungeon crawl. Dresden isn’t in this for the money; he’s worried about his family and friends. And as he gains more power and more associated obligations, he’s worried about what’s happening to him in exchange. I like angsty characters, so I appreciated the angst that surfaced from time to time in this one. Butcher also pulls off a few very well-played plot twists, one of which had me paging back through the book to look for examples of “that thing that I’ve been doing all along that you probably didn’t notice.”

There wasn’t anything specific about this book that I didn’t like. Other critical reviewers (3 distinct links) have argued that Butcher’s writing is objectifying to women; I didn’t really feel that here (although I will admit that Dresden does seem to have at least the potential of a romantic relationship with almost every unattached woman he shares a scene with). I might have liked a little more time spent on low-key interactions between characters, but that’s a style/preference thing rather than a criticism. Taken for what it is — a pulpy romp through a fantasy Ocean’s 11 — I’d call this a very fun little book. And if you like this kind of stuff more than I do, by all means, go pick up a few of these and read. I’m told you won’t be disappointed.

History is Written By People: Conclusions on Building Fictional History

I read quite a bit of history, both real and fictional. In the last couple months, the historically oriented books that I’ve read and enjoyed have included (in no particular order) Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series, the edited volume Wastelands 2: More Stories of the Apocalypse, Kim E. Nielsen’s A Disability History of the United States, Bruce Levine’s The Fall of the House of Dixie, N.K. Jemisin’s The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, and the fictionalized history text by George RR Martin, Elio M. Garcia Jr. and Linda Antonsson, The World of Ice & Fire. With all of this stuff floating around my head, and especially after talking about Jemisin and Martin’s work in my book group this weekend, I’ve been reminded of a conclusion that’s good to restate from time to time. That conclusion is this:

History is complicated.

A lot of what I mean by that is encompassed in the expression “history is written by the victors,” that those who come out on top in any conflict usually get the first and/or last say in how that conflict’s framed in official history books. That’s why Christopher Columbus’s arrival in North America is still celebrated in much of the United States despite protests that the holiday commemorates genocide, and it’s why children in Vietnam learn that the United States sent colonialist forces to their country in the ‘60s and ‘70s. But there’s more to the matter than that.

Good historians, like all social scientists, try to understand and present the past as completely and accurately as possible. But when we talk about history, we mean more than just the most accurate account of events; history’s a distillation of the stories a culture tells itself about the world. By its very nature as the collected experiences of individuals, set down by individuals, real history is never completely uniform, and it’s never totally complete.

First off, no official history ever goes completely unchallenged. One hundred and fifty years later, people still occasionally refer to the 19th-century conflict between the US and the Confederacy as “the War of Northern Aggression.” More than 45 years after network TV broadcast Neil Armstrong saying “one small step for man,” people still dispute whether there was ever a moon landing. Even the most authoritarian leaders usually can’t suppress opposing views completely – and even the most information-driven societies can’t be absolutely sure of the truth of everything in their archives. Not to mention the fact that the archives never hold everything.

Every historian’s work is based on analysis of data. The two “real” histories on my list from the first paragraph, Nielsen’s and Levine’s, rely heavily on first-person accounts, journals and letters from the time periods they’re interested in. But if a place or a people is destroyed suddenly (as happens sometimes in history, and is particularly prone to happen in genre fiction, where a god or an asteroid might wipe out a whole continent with no warning), there may not be much left in the way of records to consult. In Charles C. Mann’s 1491, distilling the latest theories about pre-contact American societies, the author makes the point that there’s a great deal that will never be known for sure about these peoples just because their destruction by the Europeans (through intentional and unintentional means) was so complete.

Finally, there’s the fact that those who set down the history are human beings, and as I tell my students in Sociological Research Methods, human beings can never be truly objective. Even a historian who had access to all the possible data on their subject, from all the sides of a conflict, would have to pick and choose what to include, and those choices would inevitably be guided by bias. Social researchers can try to be aware of their biases, and to work around them, but they can never escape them completely.

Having said all that about how I believe real history works, it probably comes as no surprise that I like my fictionalized history to follow these same rules.

George RR Martin is a master of this. Whether you believe A World of Ice and Fire is a worthwhile addition to the universe or a concession to fans chomping at the bit for the next book, you’d be hard-pressed to deny that it’s a marvelously complex and human history that’s right in line with the way Martin is telling his story in the novels. Rather than an uncontested “behind-the-scenes” account of the events Martin’s developed for the history of his world, AWoIaF presents a contradictory account by a few well-intentioned maesters, who are drawing on incomplete data and writing in full knowledge that their work will be reviewed by the current rulers, and so they’d better stay clear of politically incendiary rhetoric (the title “Kingslayer,”  for example, appears nowhere in these pages). The book’s gotten some criticism from fans for not being “the official history of Westeros”; I’d argue that it couldn’t be more official, just as it is.

Another series that does this well is Jemisin’s Inheritance trilogy, of which The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms is the first one. When we enter the setting, we’re given the official version of its history – once there were three gods, but then one was killed, another enslaved. These are, respectively, the traitor and the fiend, while the remaining god rules alone in the heavens and the family that helped him win the gods’ war rule on the earth with wisdom and justice. Upon encountering this setup, I’d guess that any reader familiar with the concept of “mainstream” and “alternative” history will be suspicious from the word go, and Jemisin is quick to validate those suspicions. In a guest post she wrote for John Scalzi’s blog when her first book came out, she notes that the germ of the idea for the Inheritance books came when she read 1491, which made her think about the idea of “hidden history.”

The world of my novels has all kinds of hidden history. The era my hero lives in is (very roughly) something of a Renaissance period for his culture, the first years of peace and renewal after a long war that basically leveled the previous civilization. When I sat down to flesh out my worldbuilding, one of the first things I had to work out was exactly what happened in that war. So I did, and now I know the whole story – more or less – but as I wrote it out, I found myself taking first one perspective and then another. I told one faction’s version of what happened and then countered it with the other’s; I came up with names for what each group called themselves as well as what they called their enemies. And when I reference the war in the novel, a person’s answer to the question of “what happened” varies dramatically depending on their species, their regional origins, their age and other factors. No one person, no one group, has the whole story. I like it better that way.

There are certainly good books that connect their story’s main events to precise, unambiguous history. But the more I read, the more I’m convinced that if a writer wants their fictional world to have the ring of authenticity, they’d best take a little time to think about how that world views its past. What evidence has been preserved for contemporary people to use in understanding the past? What stories do the people in power want taught and highlighted? Who would have the incentives to counter those stories?

That’s why I read so much history; because the real world is wondrously multifaceted and complex, and the story changes depending on who’s telling it. I think the best fictional worlds are those that have this feeling to them, like Martin’s, like Jemisin’s. That’s what I try to do when I tell stories in my world.

Going to the Stacks: A Plug for Old-Fashioned Research Tools

You may have noticed that my presence on this blog has declined in the last month or so; this has been for a couple of reasons, some of which I’ve already discussed here, but one of the good ones that I haven’t crowed about much is that I’m actually starting to make progress on the book at faster-than-a-snail’s-pace (probably to do with having more focused writing time now that my teaching responsibilities are over for a while). In the last few weeks, my writing has been getting between 2 and 4 hours almost every day. Of course, not all of that time is spent putting words on paper; as I’m sure the other writers out there know, no matter how much research you think you’ve done ahead of time, you’ll inevitably find something that needs to be looked up in-the-moment.

I don’t always drop everything to go research; after a long process of trial and error, I’ve learned better than to dive blindly into the Internet and expect to come up for air before I’ve lost the thread of what I was doing. But sometimes, the question is one that’s actually intrinsic to the scene I’m writing. How might this animal behave under these circumstances? What could you do for a person with these injuries if you didn’t have professional help available? What weapons would these people  most likely be carrying?

For an immediate question like that, I find it works much better for me to go to a physical book to find an answer. The distraction potential is far less (there’s no link to Facebook on my bookshelf, for instance, unless my phone happens to be sitting there); I tend to be more familiar with the layout of the source I’m tapping, letting me quickly find the section I’m looking for; and since I’ve evaluated it before adding it to my library I can be more sure of its accuracy.

Of course, I can never be completely sure what I might need to look up on any given day, but here are a few categories of topic that I’ve found myself accumulating books on, that might be worthy additions to other aspiring fantasists’ reference libraries (you’ll find a partial list of titles at the end of the post):

  • Books with photos and drawings of clothing and weapons. This one was particularly important to me after I resolved that the world of my novels would not have a straightforward “faux-European” flavor. I wanted the cultures to feel more original, and so I wanted to make sure I exposed myself to the way things were done in other places besides medieval Europe. So far, I’ve collected three different books on costuming and body adornment, and two different books on weapons; when I bring a new character onto the page, I can sit down and consider the culture they’re coming out of (are they a pastoralist? a city-dweller? someone from a hot climate? a wet climate?), and quickly look at illustrations from a number of real-world cultures with similar elements.
  • Skill-based books. I have a few small clusters of “skill books” (some on falconry; some on sailing; one written for linguists on how to document an unknown language); more recently, I’ve been gathering books on survival in the wilderness. Because I’ve often got characters roaming through uncharted territory in my books, and it’s useful to have a quick guide to things like how to gut a carcass, sharpen knives, start a fire and transport an injured person — as well as stuff like basic nutrition for people living in a non-industrialized setting.
  • Natural history books. If animals play a major part in your story, it’s probably useful for you to have a few books about those animals (I suspect GRRM might have a wolf text or two in his writing room). Raptors have a pretty substantial role in the story I’m telling, so I have books that discuss their anatomy, behavior, and training, as well as a few big coffee table books just for the pictures.
  • Cultural overview books. These, of course, take all sorts of forms. I’ve got an ever-growing collection of compilations of mythology from around the world; I have a book whose authors went around the world taking photos of families with all their worldly possessions piled up in front of their house, and a whole series of coffee table books offering sweeping historical overviews of different parts of the world, plus the obligatory medieval Europe series and about three years of National Geographic back-issues that I can flip through when I’m feeling stuck for imagery. None of it stands on its own as a world-building tool; all of it informs my thinking.

And that’s just the stuff I’ve accumulated so far.

I know that my library will grow and change as my writing career does, but I don’t think I will ever move to an all-digital research approach. The experience of pulling a familiar book from the shelf and cracking it open to the old familiar pictures is just too powerful for me to let it go.

Reference Books I’ve Found Useful:

For weapons, armor, and general attire (all basically coffee table books):

  • The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Knives, Daggers & Bayonets (Dr. Tobias Capwell)
  • The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Swords and Sabres (Harvey J.S. Withers)
  • The Illustrated History of Weaponry: From Flint Axes to Automatic Weapons (Chuck Wills)
  • Warrior: A Visual History of the Fighting Man (R.G. Grant — lots of pictures of weapons and armor from the earliest records to the present day)
  • Costume Worldwide: A Historical Sourcebook (Melissa Leventon, ed — unlike the others, this one draws on paintings as its source material, so may not be quite as accurate, but it’s a good place to start and the broadest book I’ve been able to find so far)

For wilderness/survival skills:

  • SAS Survival Guide (John “Lofty” Wiseman — written by a veteran of the British special forces. Includes everything from how to test the edibility of plants and make your own bow to surviving a shipwreck)
  • Where There Is No Doctor: A Village Health Care Handbook (David Werner, Carol Thuman & Jane Maxwell — mainly focuses on disease prevention and treatment in low-technology settings, but there’s some useful first aid and preventative medicine here too)

For raptor natural history info and photos, and falconry basics

  • Understanding the Bird of Prey (Nick Fox — the bible of falconry management, as far as I can tell; out of print and quite expensive to get a copy of, but I’ve found it worth the hefty pricetag. Includes anatomy and physiology, behavior, training, breeding and most anything else you can think of).
  • Falcons of North America (Kate Davis — a natural history text focused on wild birds, with great pictures)
  • A Falconry Manual (Frank L. Beebe — decent photos and brief overviews of the species used for falconry in North America, as well as the basics of training, housing, etc.)

For cultural stuff:

  • Life in a Medieval Castle (Joseph & Frances Gies)
  • Life in a Medieval City (Joseph & Frances Gies)
  • Life in a Medieval Village (Frances & Joseph Gies — if you’re looking to draw on the medieval-Europe model, these three books cover it pretty comprehensively, and also get a thumbs-up from a real-life medieval historian in my social circle as adequately accurate in their summaries)
  • Favorite Folktales from Around the World (Jane Yolen, ed — this book joined my library when I had to write my story’s first folk tale earlier this year; good representation from around the world and a good overview of the most common types of stories.
  • Material World: A Global Family Portrait (Peter Menzel & Charles C. Mann — the coffee table book illustrating the experiences of different families from around the world; a good reminder that even in the same time frame [mid-90s, in this case] people in different places live dramatically differently)

Believing Impossible Things: Magic and Fantasy, Part I

Quick, now: what makes a fantasy story a fantasy story?

When I’m asked the well-meaning-but-terrifying question “what is your book about,” my shortest and most general answer tends to take a shape kind of like this: “Oh, it’s a big fat fantasy novel. You know, with swords and monsters and magic.”

With these three elements, I like to think I can narrow my story’s scope enough that potential readers will know if they want to hear more. The “swords” part probably suggests that my book’s got some things in common with historical or quasi-historical stories (like GRRM’s A Song of Ice and Fire, or Jacqueline Carey’s Kushiel books); the “monsters” part probably indicates that there will be invented creatures of one kind or another (though it’s certainly not only invented settings that can depict monstrous things). But the part that I suspect most clearly marks the kind of story I’m telling – that I know from experience is most likely to make someone lean in or turn away – is the word “magic.” Because I’m increasingly convinced that magic is the marker of fantasy stories.

But what are we talking about when we talk about magic?

The first definition to come to many people’s minds is the kind of magic showcased in the Harry Potter books and in your average sword-and-sorcery novel or MMORPG. This is the wizard in the D&D party casting Magic Missile: very showy, often involving formal words and gestures, most frequently (though not always) formally taught, and common in the culture it’s a part of. But it’s not the only model out there.

About 6 weeks ago, author Kazuo Ishiguro went on record in an interview with The New York Times expressing his concern that readers of his new novel, The Buried Giant, “are… going to say this is fantasy.” Setting aside the ideological debate that sprung up in the wake of his comments, consider the content of the book in question: according to Goodreads, it follows an elderly couple as they wander around the ruins of their not-quite-British homeland, shrouded in a mist that makes people forget their pasts. Is this magic?

Both Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire and Carey’s Kushiel books are the product of an enormous amount of historical research, although neither is set in the “real world” that readers know. Both series also have elements that are generally accepted not to exist in the real world (in no particular order and without differentiation: dragons, murderous shadows, precognition, and shapeshifting). These elements are seen as generally remarkable by the characters living in the setting, and their existence is not well-understood or explained; but they’re there, and they’ve always been there. Is this magic?

What about the feruchemy and allomancy of Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn books? These powers are openly stated to have a genetic basis, and they’re fairly common in their respective populations, if not completely taken-for-granted. The time travel in Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series seems to follow similar rules: successful time travel has a genetic component, it’s linked to particular places and times, and there are other factors that make it easier to travel safely. Magic? Or science?

What about Star Wars’ the Force? Magic? Does your answer change if you’re considering only the three original movies versus all six extant movies (which offer a pseudo-scientific explanation for it)?

When we hear the word “magic,” what do we expect to see?

This question’s been at the forefront of my mind lately, as the first “really magicky” parts of my novel have come under the knife for revision, but I’ve been thinking about it for a while now. Last April, I read a Locus interview with author Daryl Gregory where he said:

Readers will read something as science fiction if the characters are engaged in the process of science. In fantasy there’s no fiddling with the rules. You pull a sword out of a stone, and that makes you King of England. There’s no, ‘But what if I put a sword into the stone?’ In a science fiction novel, everybody would be trying to figure out how to make more kings by inserting more sharp objects into rocks! A fantasy novel is almost distinguished by not asking those fundamental questions about what is going on. A science fiction novel, no matter what the rules, is always asking those questions.

At the time, this really resonated with me – perhaps because my fantasy-worldbuilding kept being disrupted by sci-fi-loving Husband asking questions like “but where does the magic come from?” – but as I get a little more distance from it, I find myself wondering. I’ve encountered fantasy stories where people attempt to figure out where their magic comes from. It seems to me like the final climax of Buffy the Vampire Slayer is all about taking control of the fundamental processes of magic (and basically inserting sharp objects into rocks). If a character in Harry Potter attempted to ascertain where their magic came from, would that make the story into science fiction? Or would it only be science fiction if it was discovered that the cause was genetic manipulation or radiation?

Arthur C. Clarke’s Third Law states that “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Is the only difference the way that the story frames the unbelievable elements, that “magic” is unbelievable things that come from outside of people, where “technology” is people-derived? When Hermione Granger develops a new spell, is she using magic or technology or both?

A few months ago, I attended a Google Hangout interview with NK Jemisin through the Dive Into Worldbuilding series where she talked both about the new novel she has coming out later this year and about her philosophy on world-building. The two things that struck me most from this conversation were her points about assumptions she tries to avoid in her readers. First, she noted that people generally assume that science and magic don’t coexist, that the practice of science in a fantasy setting (or even the use of scientific language) is a rare commodity. But the thing that really resonated with me was her explanation for why she doesn’t use “magic” as a term in her books. The reason, she explained, was because “magic implies… differentiating between magic and mundanity.”

I think that might be my new favorite explanation: that when people use the word “magic,” they’re drawing a line between what is normal and what is uncanny. This can be different for your setting than for the real world – in fantasy, that’s often the case – and it can change over the course of the story. But “magic” as a concept carries undertones of something rare and precious and bizarre. By that definition, the mysterious stuff of Carey and Martin’s books is undeniably magic. The everyday conveniences of Harry Potter’s world, on the other hand, start to lose their rights to the title. Something that’s common – that’s just part of how the world works – wouldn’t quite be magic, not to the characters. Even if it’s never been seen before by the readers.

Of course, all this musing hasn’t done much to tidy up the definition of magic, or of fantasy — but as I tell the students in my sociology courses, definitions are always problematic, and people get uncomfortable with edge cases (like the Force in Star Wars, or Anne McCaffrey’s Pern books, which are always identified as “technically science fiction”). For most readers, I suspect that Harry Potter-style wizardry falls neatly into a different category than the more pseudo-scientific approach to weird powers taken in Mistborn or Pat Rothfuss’s Kingkiller Chronicle. But are there other distinctions? Does the purported source of uncanny powers matter? George RR Martin offers up both religious and secular magic, some clearly magical creatures and some human mages and some whose nature isn’t entirely clear. Is a dragon always magical? An elf? A dwarf?

I suspect I’ll be thinking about this for a while longer. What do you think? What puts Ishiguro’s allegory about societies recovering from atrocity in the Literature section of Barnes & Noble, while Tolkien’s goes in the Fantasy section?