Earthsea revisited and visited anew

I mentioned a while back that I was embarking on a reread of Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea novels. It was, in fact, only a part reread. There are six Earthsea books, that Le Guin likes to refer to as either the Earthsea Cycle, or the two Earthsea trilogies. Until now I’d only read the first trilogy. (There are also two short stories in the collection The Wind’s Twelve Quarters, but I’m not including those. I’ve got that collection and will get around to it at some point.)

EarthseaI came across the first trilogy – A Wizard of Earthsea, The Tombs of Atuan and The Farthest Shore – when I was 10 or 11 years old. I devoured them and absolutely adored them. They bent my tiny mind and I read them over and over again. I had no idea there were more books in the series (back then, there weren’t). The next trilogy – Tehanu, Tales of Earthsea and The Other Wind – came out much later. The first trilogy was published in 1968, 1971 and 1972. The second in 1990, 2001 and 2001, respectively. Having loved the first trilogy so much, it’s amazing it took me this long to get around to the second, but there you go. So I recently reread the first three and then went on to the “new” three.

Even though I’d read them so many times, it’s been a long time since I last read the original trilogy. I was desperately hoping it wouldn’t turn out to be a disappointment. Within a few pages, my fears were quashed and I was back in Earthsea and remembering just why I loved it so much. The writing is beautiful, so poetic and lyrical, evoking such a fantastic sense of place and character. Yet it’s also tight and spare, no flowering dissertations on every aspect of the story. These are 200 or 300 page novels that could easily be 500 page novels if Le Guin was prone to the “big fat fantasy” style so common today. But she’s not and it’s one of the things I like so much about these books. They’re perfectly sized stories, perfectly written. And the tales themselves are just as enchanting now I’m in my 40s as they were before I hit my teens. I can’t wait until my son is old enough to read them.

So then I was set to embark on the second trilogy for the first time. Would these disappoint? Could I be as charmed by a revisit to those classic novels? Well, yes, I could. In all honestly, I think I enjoyed the first of the new three, Tehanu, more than the others. But the set of six as a whole does a wonderful job of telling a huge story. Especially as Tales From Earthsea is a collection of short stories and novellas, all designed to fill in history and backstory of the bigger arc, yet all wonderful stories in their own right.

One of the most interesting things for me was an afterword by Le Guin in the last book, where she talks about the time spent writing these six novels and how she thinks it’s finished now, but never say never. Perhaps the most interesting part of that for me was that she didn’t really recognise the theme of the whole series until she was writing the last book. She realised what she was fundamentally writing about when she’d finished, not when she started. She began telling stories she was compelled to tell and let the underlying theme of her work worry about itself. I think that’s a great lesson for writers – don’t stress about what you’re trying to do or trying to say, as then you might focus too much on the message and lose the magic. Just tell your stories, and trust that whatever thematic form is squirming in your subconscious will find its way out over time.

Either way, I loved my return to Earthsea and it still stands as one of my favourite series of all time. Six wonderful books that I’m sure I’ll visit again and again.

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Great Inspiration – guest post from Jason Nahrung

Last week I posted about the time, back in 1989, when I met Neil Gaiman and got a signed copy of Sandman #1, with no idea at the time of the significance of the event. You can see that post here. At the end of the post I said I would put the call out to my writerly friends and see if any of them had similar inspirations in their lives they might like to share. The wonderful Thoraiya Dyer got back to me with this excellent post and Martin Livings wrote me this great post. Now I have a little something from Jason Nahrung:

When art and circumstance collide.

It was back in 2011 when I’d been to an exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria about the Secessionist movement — Gustav Klimt is probably the most famous of them. But it was a painting by Oskar Kokoschka, of a Count Verona, and the enigmatic personality of seamstress and muse Emilie Floge that really got under my skin.

Lo, the very next day, an email arrived announcing a new anthology, Tales from the Bell Club (KnightWatch Press, 2012), looking for stories set in a time period that included the Secessionists. A little more research about Verona and the group, and ‘The Kiss’ was born, incorporating Emilie and Gustav and Oskar, a tuberculosis clinic and a cult led by another enigmatic figure, the Comte de St Germain (under one of his nom de plumes).

One of those wonderful moments when arts and circumstances collided, and I got to be an Austrian suffragette of the early 1900s.

Thanks to Amazon’s Look Inside feature, you can read (and buy) the end product here.

This is the Verona painting:

verona-web

And here’s Emilie:

emilie-web

Jason Nahrung is a Ballarat-based writer and editor. His latest novel is Blood and Dust, an outback vampire adventure melding Mad Max and Anne Rice. www.jasonnahrung.com

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Great Inspiration – guest post from Thoraiya Dyer

Last week I posted about the time, back in 1989, when I met Neil Gaiman and got a signed copy of Sandman #1, with no idea at the time of the significance of the event. You can see that post here. At the end of the post I said I would put the call out to my writerly friends and see if any of them had similar inspirations in their lives they might like to share. The wonderful Thoraiya Dyer got back to me with this excellent post:

Inspirational things – The Empire Trilogy by Feist and Wurts

daughterDaughter of the Empire, by Raymond E. Feist and Janny Wurts, was published in 1987.

I didn’t read it until 1992. That year, the third book in the series came out; I saw my mother actually go without food so that she could buy the book and find out the fate of Mara, Lady of the Acoma.

Meanwhile, I was just starting high school. Daughter of the Empire had a turreted, cathedral-looking castle and a blonde with a broadsword on the cover. Yet the first line was: “The priest struck the gong.” I’d sure never seen a gong in a cathedral.

I hadn’t heard of whitewashing in 1992 but soon lost myself in a story devoid of blondes. There were no turrets. There weren’t even any broadswords. The fascinating tale of a teenage girl inheriting the leadership of a once-mighty feudal family and battling with her wits to keep from being crushed by her rivals kept me absolutely riveted to the very last page.

Along the way there were honour-bound Tsurani warriors that sounded suspiciously like samurai. Grey warriors that might have been ronin. There were wood-framed palaces with paper screens instead of solid walls. There were spies who did not brawl like James Bond but infiltrated like ninjas.

Later, I discovered that Feist and Wurts had used Korea and Ancient Rome as their inspiration, but by then, barking up the wrong tree, I’d already delved into all things Japanese.

I took Japanese for my language elective that year. When Mum asked if I wanted to do netball or soccer, I told her I wanted to do karate. I read Zen Flesh, Zen Bones and The Book of Five Rings. I set my alarm for 3am to get up and watch inappropriately classified and poorly dubbed anime while drinking green tea. Pre-internet, I sent physical letters to the Japanese pen pal I later met on my first amazing trip to Japan.

I learned enough about this other culture that when older Australians with hangovers from World War II told me that the Japanese were a cruel and inhuman race, I could set them straight in no uncertain terms.

The cultural diversity to be found in today’s SFF is an absolute joy to me but I’ll never forget where I found it first. The vivid fantasy world of the fictional Empire was not Japan, not Korea and not Ancient Rome. Some might argue, today, that the borrowed elements of it were not Feist’s or Wurts’ to borrow, but what they did, while they were borrowing it, was wave it in my young, impressionable face and say, “Look! How incredibly cool is this? People can live lives that are completely different to yours, so different that you’ll never be able to look at your own culture the same way again, and yet just as rich, just as dangerous, just as colourful, just as gut-wrenching, just as meaningful and just as true.”

I’ll owe them a debt forever, because of that.

I’ve borrowed many places and people in my short fiction that didn’t belong to me. I’ve set stories in Nepal, Scotland, the Caribbean and New South Wales pre-colonisation. I’ve written Spaniards and South Americans, Quakers and Christian Saints.

When I make mistakes, I’m very sorry for it, I feel inadequacy and terrible remorse, but I hope that for every person offended by my ignorance, five more will be inspired to go to the source, to museums or the internet, to film, art, fiction or non-fiction made or written by people who are of that culture or to meet and speak with those people, and become immersed, drinking up all the detail I could not give them, because all I was really doing, all I was trying to do, was shout out to my readers, “Look! How incredibly cool is this?”

Thoraiya Dyer is an Australian writer who lives online at http://www.thoraiyadyer.com . Her four-story collection, Asymmetry, is available at Amazon (http://www.amazon.com/Asymmetry-Twelve-Planets-ebook/dp/B00BWWK94W ), Wizard’s Tower (http://www.wizardstowerbooks.com/products/asymmetry-thoraiya-dyer ) or direct from Twelfth Planet Press (http://www.twelfthplanetpress.com/products/paperbacks/asymmetry ). The naginata, or Japanese halberd, a women’s weapon of feudal times, features in one of the stories.

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On Word Frequency Analysis and Advanced Procrastination for Writers by Ian McHugh

Ian McHugh is a fellow member of the CSFG and we were having a discussing on the mailing list the other day about this strange thing Ian had discovered in terms of word frequency in fiction. So I asked him if he’d consider writing up his findings and guest posting here for me. After all, that saves me having to write up what he found and it’s his baby anyway. He was foolish kind enough to agree. So, many thanks to Ian and hopefully you guys might find some of this quite interesting.

On Word Frequency Analysis and Advanced Procrastination for Writers

by Ian McHugh (ianmchugh.wordpress.com)

A few weeks ago, fellow CSFG member Phill Berrie wrote a post about word frequency analysis, a tool he uses in his work as an editor. In his post, Phill included a link to a free online word frequency analyser. Plug the text of your story in and it spits out:

  • the total word count of the story
  • how many different unique words you’ve used (a, few, weeks, ago, etc)
  • and how many times you’ve used them (a=36, few=5, weeks=2, ago=2)

Since I had set aside that weekend for working on the final draft of my novel, I decided instead (see “advanced procrastination”, above) to plug a few of my stories into the online analyser and see what the results were. After plugging all of my stories into the analyser, it told me a bunch of stuff that I already pretty well knew:

  • I’m using less adjectives and adverbs than I used to.
  • I have developed a habit of overusing the word as to join two clauses in a sentence.
  • I somehow don’t write stories between 3,000 and 4,000 words long. Like, ever.

What it also showed, that I hadn’t realised before, was that the number of different unique words that I use has fallen by about 20-25% since I first started writing. For stories over 6,000 words, my number of unique words per thousand has dropped from up near 300 to under 230.

So, why?

I had a couple of hypotheses:

Hypothesis #1
My vocabulary is shrinking. No, seriously. I had to look up synonyms for theory to find hypothesis. Then I had to look up like to find synonym. I was very hard on my brain in my late teens and early twenties – like, “I can’t really remember 1991 to 1994″ kind of hard on my brain. I flunked out of art school because I was too stoned and drunk. Art school. That’s like flunking out of rock’n’roll for doing too much cocaine, only less cool. These days when I’m speaking, I often lose my words in mid-sentence. Maybe I’m using less words because I’m losing my words?

Hypothesis #2
Or, given that I’m using less adjectives and adverbs in my stories, maybe I’m just cutting out the crap?

So I wondered what the unique word counts would be for writers operating at a higher level than me. I just happened to have a softcopy of Kaaron Warren’s first short story collection, The Grinding House, so I plugged a few of Kaaron’s old stories into the analyser. Casting about, I also had a softcopy of a longish Lucius Shepard story from Issue 1 of Crowded Magazine. In both cases, I found that the unique word counts were down around 200 per 1,000 words.

Interesting!

Then I went to Tor.com and grabbed a few stories by authors who I immediately recognised as famous, award-winners, working novelists etc, and plugged those in. There was a wider range, but most of the unique word counts were still at or below the low end of my own stories.

So, does this mean that better writers use less words, but use them better? It’s an appealing idea. Had I cracked the secret code to being a better writer?

Yeah, no.

Nice idea, but it holds water about as well as… as one of them thingies that you wash lettuce in… like a bowl, but with holes in it… eh, nevermind.

When I threw a wider net (this was still my novel-editing weekend, mind you – advanced procrastination, remember) and looked at a larger sample of stories from online SFWA pro-markets (including more stories from Tor.com and stories from Apex, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Clarkesworld, Lightspeed and Strange Horizons) the unique word counts were all over the place. Including from some of the same authors I’d looked at in the first sample. So much so that it’s not even meaningful to talk about any kind of mean or median.

If anything, many of them were opposite to where my stories have been headed, with unique word counts above my high early average.

So where does this leave me? Back at Hypothesis #1? Was Kaaron also hard on her brain in her youth?

Is there maybe some superficial similarity between my writing style and Kaaron’s writing style? Or at least, Kaaron Warren circa 1994 to 2003? Hell, I’d take that, any day.

Colander!

In all honesty, I wouldn’t say that my writing style really is like Kaaron’s in any way you’d notice, but if I have lifted something from her work and incorporated it into my own, it wouldn’t be at all surprising. The Grinding House was a book that made a big impression on me in the early part of my writing career. (Kaaron still uses a quote from my review of it.)

Similarly, if there’s any single story that most influenced me as a new writer, it was Tony Daniel’s “A Dry Quiet War”. Because of that story, I wrote ““Bitter Dreams”, which is probably still my best story, and have kept on writing Westerns since then. “A Dry Quiet War” has a unique word count under 200 per thousand words.

Shepard was another early influence. While he does write elaborate fantasy stories (the Dragon Graiule tales, for example), he’s also written knuckle-dragging, hairy-backed manly stories for Playboy, with protagonists who are terse like the love-child of Clint Eastwood and Conan the Barbarian.

Maybe there’s a clue there. I tend to write in a close third-person or, occasionally, first-person point of view. A lot of my recent stories have featured protagonists who are in some way “simple” – mentally simple, children, from simple socio-cultural settings, or just plain terse. It follows that, with a close point-of-view, the narrative voice for a simple character should also be simple.

Simple character = simple language = lower unique word count.

And a lot of my more complex and elaborate stories are ones with higher unique word counts.

That seems like one of those revelations that’s bleeding obvious once you see it. “Well, of course I knew that!” I think there’s a lesson there, though, in terms of writing consciously for your character’s voice.

And another thing I found? One of the sweet spots for story length for (at least the) SFWA pro markets (I looked at) seems to be between 3,000 and 4,000 words long.

Sigh.

Another sweet spot seems to be between 5,000 and 6,000 words – in which range my stories have, overall, been noticeably less successful than they have over 6,000 words or under 3,000.

Well, I guess if nothing else I found out what I need to work on.

And I did also write/edit nearly 10,000 words of the final draft of my novel that weekend.

Advanced procrastination.

Speaking of which: You should be writing! So go find your character’s voice, and get back to work!

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Emma Newman and Between Two Thorns

If you’re a regular here, the name Emma Newman probably rings some bells. It should, because she’s a mighty talented person and I’ve talked about her a bit. I was lucky enough to be asked by her publisher to pre-review and blurb her short fiction collection, From Dark Places. You can see that review here. I was also happy to host one of her Split Worlds stories here last year.

Well, now the Split Worlds has expanded into the first of a series of novels, published by Angry Robot Books, called Between Two Thorns. And the reason I’m talking about it now is because there’s a sweet little pre-order special offer happening.

Between Two Thorns is an urban fantasy novel. Here’s the blurb:

Something is wrong in Aquae Sulis, Bath’s secret mirror city.

The new season is starting and the Master of Ceremonies is missing. Max, an Arbiter of the Split Worlds Treaty, is assigned with the task of finding him with no one to help but a dislocated soul and a mad sorcerer.

There is a witness but his memories have been bound by magical chains only the enemy can break. A rebellious woman trying to escape her family may prove to be the ally Max needs.

But can she be trusted? And why does she want to give up eternal youth and the life of privilege she’s been born into?

Sound interesting? Well, here’s the offer:

Pre-order a copy of Between Two Thorns for a chance to win a great prize!

BetweenTwoThorns-COVER1-e1355137730189Pre-order a copy of Between Two Thorns and you’ll be entered into a prize draw. If you win, you’ll have a character named after you in All Is Fair – the third Split Worlds novel (released October 2013) – and a special mention at the end of the book.

You have to admit, that’s a pretty cool prize.

How to Enter

Pre-order a copy of the book from your favourite retailer (if you pre-order from Forbidden Planet you’ll get a signed copy).

If you order from Forbidden Planet or robottradingcompany.com (for ebooks) you don’t need to do anything else – Angry Robot will take care of your entry for you. If you pre-order from anywhere else you’ll need to email a copy of your order confirmation to: thorns AT angryrobotbooks.com and they’ll assign a number to you.

Here are links to all the places you can pre-order:

Forbidden Planet (signed paperback) http://forbiddenplanet.com/97907-between-two-thorns/

Angry Robot Trading company – for DRM-free ebook http://www.robottradingcompany.com/between-two-thorns-emma-newman.html

Amazon (paperback) UK http://www.amazon.co.uk/Between-Two-Thorns-Split-World/dp/0857663194/

US http://www.amazon.com/Between-Two-Thorns-Emma-Newman/dp/0857663208/

The Book depository (Worldwide free postage)

UK Edition http://www.bookdepository.co.uk/Between-Two-Thorns-Emma-Newman/9780857663191

US Edition (bigger) http://www.bookdepository.co.uk/Between-Two-Thorns-Emma-Newman/9780857663207

There are two UK launches and an international one using the magic of telephone conferencing. All the details are here: http://www.enewman.co.uk/real-world-adventures/between-two-thorns-launches-prizes-and-parties

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