How to Give a Book Reading

This post isn’t based on my experience as a writer giving a reading. I’ve never done one. It’s based on my experience as a member of the audience listening to writers give readings.

What is wrong with the last sentence of the above paragraph? I was a member of an audience at a live event, and I was listening. Not watching. Not participating. Nope. That is what is wrong with it, and with 95% of the readings I’ve attended. As a graduate student, I attended many readings, from well known writers to fairly prolific poets. With one exception, they were all boring! That one exception was Sherman Alexie.

My thinking today is that if I share my observations with you, they will be more a part of myself when it’s time for my first reading.

You’ve no doubt attended concerts. Which was more worth your time: the one where the band stood on stage and essentially played the album as it was recorded, or the one that lasted for hours, the band changed the songs a bit, and the members told you stories and engaged with you? Probably the last type of concert. It is the same with a book reading or poetry reading. The people in the audience spent money on you, or they will. They keep food on your table. You owe them. More than that, they all spent time out of their day to come hear you. So, give them the best you that you can. Make it worth their time to be there, and make sure they keep talking about your reading for months to come. In good ways, of course.

I heard Sherman Alexie in 2012, and I’m still talking about him.

The other writers and poets I heard all did the same thing. First, they stood behind a podium. That immediately separated them from us. They came across as professors delivering a lecture. They simply read from their books, with no gestures or inflections or change of voice in dialogue. They read for a mere thirty minutes, then vanished to the cocktail parties. I could have stayed home and read the book for that.

Not Sherman Alexie. He stalked the stage. He acted out the scenes. He told jokes. He told stories from his past. He made himself relatable, vulnerable, and connected with us as a person. And he did it for three hours! I was the last one in that long line for his autograph, and he still found time to stand up, shake my hand, and tell me a funny story.

Granted, Sherman Alexie has experience as a standup comedian. And granted, if we writers wanted to speak in public, we’d be actors. But neither is any excuse for us to not give the audience the best we can give and make it worth their time to hear us.

I do have experience in dramatic interpretation of stories, poetry, and plays. It isn’t the same as a book reading, but it should be. Think of a radio drama, in which one person portrays all the characters. That is what we did in my college forensics team (public address, not criminal pathology). It’s easy to apply the same techniques to a book reading. Here’s how:

You wrote the book. You know how it should sound. Don’t just read it. Act it out. Let your voice rise and fall with the sentences. Speed it up and get loud for action. Slow it down for pastoral moments. For women’s voices in dialogue, raise yours. For men’s, lower yours. If you can’t maintain an accent, don’t try. Until then, listen to accents on Youtube and practice copying them. For a good example of how to present a reading, listen to this: it’s Neil Gaiman reading Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol,” from Dicken’s own public reading copy.

Don’t remain anchored to one spot. Get out from behind that podium. Buy a 6×9 three ring binder, and print out what you’re going to read to fit it. Make it 14 point double spaced Times New Roman so you can read it at arm’s length. Then, do what Charles Dickens did. The copy that Gaiman read was heavily annotated by Dickens, reminding him of pronunciation, emphasis, inflection, and even gestures. So, don’t just rely on your memory. Now, with the binder in one hand, your other hand is free to gesticulate. Have fun with this. The more fun you have, the more fun the audience will have.

Heck, if you’re brave, get off the stage and wander around the audience. Use a prop or two if they fit.

That brings me to the next part. You. Mostly, what to wear.

In Your Book, Your Brand by Dana Kaye (as many times as I refer to that book, you really ought to go buy it, you know), suggests dressing for your genre. Sounds reasonable to me, so I’ll stick with her recommendations. Essentially, her recommendations are to appear to be a member of your audience, but also an authority for them without ever being an authority over them. The exception is Young Adult.

Literary Fiction/Historical Fiction: You probably have an academic background, and so does your audience. So, dress like it. You want to come across as intelligent, but not stuffy. This is a good place for a tweed or corduroy jacket. Jeans or slacks. Women can wear dresses; not too colorful but also not to dour. A good genre for earth tones. Forget the suit and tie.

Mystery/Suspense/Thriller: You want to exude cool and confident, as if you just stopped that nasty cabal from taking over the world. Most writers in this genre, men and women, wear jeans and a sports jacket over either a tee shirt or button down. Dark colors, no patterns. Again, forget the suit and tie, although it would be so tempting to wear a Tom Ford suit like James Bond’s.

Romance: Most romance writers are women and most of the audience is women. This is the place to be elegant. You want to look like you are the goddess of love. Wear colors, patterns, and different styles. Feel free to break out the lace. If you write dark romance, I think this is a good place for a velvet dress with angel sleeves. If you write Victorian, wear Victorian. If you write erotica, how about a touch of dominatrix? Just a touch. No need to be arrested here.

Science Fiction/Fantasy/Horror: The audience is full of geeks. We’re geeks. Let’s have some fun! Moreso than the other genres, writers of speculative fiction do not ever want to appear as being above their readers. We are just as fanboy and fangirl to other writers, so let it out. This is the place for uniforms. We all know if we see George R.R. Martin, he’ll be wearing his driver’s cap and suspenders, and that Jim Butcher will be in black. Heck, why not a touch of cosplay? If you write steampunk, wear Victorian garb. Writers of supernatural stories can get Gothy. Chainmail might be over the top.

Western: Ms. Kaye doesn’t address Western, but I will. It does still exist as a genre, and will probably make a comeback. If you write Western, dress western. Don’t look like Gene Autry in rhinestones or J.R. Ewing in a suit with a yoke back jacket. Dress like you know how to ride a horse. Jeans, ranch style shirt, and cowboy boots for both men and women. For women who prefer skirts, the broomstick skirt would be optimal. Of course, a nice Stetson, but remember to take it off indoors.

Young Adult: Ms. Kaye says this genre is tricky. It’s easy to see why. Most of the audience will be in junior high or high school. You want to gain their respect. Do not try to dress as cool as they do, or they won’t respect you. Besides, what is cool to a 16 year old girl is not cool to her 14 year old brother, so you’ll go mad with all those costume changes. You want to be an authority figure, but not as distant or unapproachable as their teachers. Strike a balance in between the kids and the teachers. That will change from year to year, and even location to location. Ms. Kaye recommends one or two items, like a particular ring, that you wear all the time as identifying emblems.

Going back to Sherman Alexie and the other writers I’ve heard. Mr. Alexie wore jeans, a button down shirt, and a blue sports jacket. He looked like most of my English professors. It fit for the literary fiction genre in which he writes. The others all dressed formally, in full suits, pants suits, or dresses. They appeared a bit distant to us students. We were en route to being peers with them. Yet, the feeling I got was a slight cold shoulder. It’s understandable. Most people who write literary fiction and poetry do not make enough from their writing to live on their writing. So, they teach college classes to pay their bills. As teachers, they develop the boundary and separation required between them and the classroom. These other writers probably couldn’t make the transition from classroom to audience, from educating to edifying.

Don’t make that same mistake. The audience is made up of your peers. Dress like it. Act like it. Read like it.

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Language in Fantasy Fiction

Recently, I read a blog post by a fantasy fan, in which the person lambasted the Sword of Shannara TV series for its language. The writer said it was too modern. No one talked like that in the middle ages. Harrumph!

The blogger had a point. One. The rest was actually off the mark, historically. According to the blogger, all fantasy should be written in J.R.R. Tolkein’s formal English, especially the dialogue. Sorry, blogging fan, but that’s just wrong.

People in the past did not use perfect diction. They did not speak in formal language. They peppered their sentences with as many slang terms, colloquialisms, sentence fragments, and clichés as we do. The only people who spoke in formal language were nobles, priests, and scholars. Soldiers, farmers, merchants, and everyone else who made up the bulk of society jived like the rest of us today.

Here is a case in point. If you want to understand the English Renaissance, read William Shakespeare’s tavern scenes, especially in Henry IV, Part One. Many mavens of old lamented those scenes, wishing Shakespeare had stuck to the courts. As my Shakespeare professor said, “If one king says the crown weighs heavy upon my head, they all say it.” No, Shakespeare lived in taverns. That was his world. Those scenes are alive! His tavern scenes are chock full of common slang and clichés from the times. In fact, Shakespeare made up his own.

If that was the Renaissance, the era of Elizabeth I and James I, then why wouldn’t the times of Charlemagne and William the Conqueror be the same? Or any other era commonly used in fantasy stories? Egyptians, Babylonians, Greeks, Chinese, Hittites, Huns, Anglo-Saxons, and Vikings were every bit as prone to slang, sentence fragments, and vulgarities as we are today.

When Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl was first released in English, the editors thought the subject was too important and heavy to leave in its original language. It was translated into formal English. In doing so, the story lost its energy, and even the true point-of-view of a teenaged girl. Recently, it was re-translated, just as Anne Frank wrote it. Now, it is alive and vibrant, full of the hopes and dreams, fears and anxiety, of a teenager in harrowing times. The blogger may not have intended this, but his view of language in fantasy would create stories like the original version of Anne Frank; lifeless and stilted. We readers want the second edition, with all its raw life and energy.

The blogger was correct, though, about one thing. It is important. That is the use of our contemporary slang and word usage. This is not correct: “You’re a wizard. Not!” This is better: “You’re a wizard. I don’t think so!” Using our 20th and 21st Century phrases is an issue. Using slang, colloquialisms, and contractions is not.

With the exception of urban fantasy, most fantasy stories are set in alternative worlds. Do you mean to tell me that all alternative worlds follow the linguistic patterns of the Earth we live upon? Now, that isn’t fantasy. It’s delusion! An alternative world will develop its own linguistic patterns from ours, as much as Japan is different from France. In fact, we see it within languages. Compare Great Britain to the United States and Australia. They speak the same language? Well, technically, all three speak English, but at this point, Canadians walk away shaking their heads and New Zealanders are overjoyed to live in the isolation of their islands. If the speakers of the same language use different linguistic patterns from each other, why would we expect less from the speakers in Middle Earth, the Four Lands, and the D’Haran Empire.

At its best, fantasy encourages the reader to change the world. While the reader may not have Aragorn’s steel or Gandalf’s magic, he or she does have Frodo’s courage, Sam’s loyalty, Merry’s intelligence, and Pippin’s optimism. Fantasy helps the reader realize that he or she can use those to change the world, if only the world immediately around the reader. Often, that is enough. At the least, fantasy diverts the reader from the angst of the evening news. Such stories need to be as alive as possible. This is modern myth-telling, and myth conveys deep truths in the form of enchanting tales. There is no room for formal language, if that formal language stifles the energy.

Something the blogger did not mention is the use of words that obviously belong to a particular language, other than the one in which the story is written. That is a common trap. A case in point is the word mercenary. It is blatantly French. That word belongs to our Earth, and not in a story set in an alternative world. Oh, you can get away with it, but it may be glaring. George R.R. Martin uses the word sellsword, meaning a sword for hire instead of one sworn to a lord. I use the term free lance. It’s the actual origin of our contemporary word freelancer. It means a knight whose lance does not bear the banner of any particular lord. In other words, a mercenary, by another word. Other words are solstice and equinox. Many fantasy writers use them, but I find them a bit too Greek and Latin for my tastes. That is a personal choice. It isn’t as jarring as using the word guerilla.

Other examples are plants and stones. An emerald is an emerald. It’s universally understood. No need to change it. Amazonite, however, is named for the Amazon River, and not likely to be found on any other world or planet by that term. The same with Icelandic Spar. Lapis lazuli stands between those two extremes. Lapis is Latin for stone, and lazuli comes from the Arabic for the place where it is mined. In classical literature, such as the Bible, lapis was called sapphire. The problem with using that word is we now have an entirely different gem named sapphire. If you’re writing sandalpunk, you might want to use it. For the rest of us, that would cause too much confusion. Despite being Latin, the word lapis is common enough to use, but it is probably a good idea to just call it lapis. Readers will understand. A rose is a rose. By any other name. Belladonna, however, is a blatant Spanish word. It means beautiful lady. Science fiction writers can use it, because Spanish is likely to be taken to other planets in the future. We fantasy guys can’t get away with it, unless we’re writing urban fantasy set in 21st Century Topeka. It’s better to change the name to sorcerer’s nightshade.

There is a movement called Anglish. It’s goal is to eliminate all non-English words from the English language. It’s an experiment, mostly. I thought writing A Path of Stones in Anglish would not only be interesting, it would be more accurate. It’s too bloody difficult! Even though I have a master’s degree in English, I had no idea just how many of our words are French, Latin, Greek, or Asian. Not only that, but the old Saxons didn’t have words for some of our contemporary concepts. The concepts themselves come from Romantic, Slavic, or Asian nations, and bear their names. Try removing those and see what remains. One chapter was enough to convince me to abandon the idea. Besides, I approach the story as if I’m translating it from Aura’s Ayrdish into our English. The effort did, however, coach me in catching foreign words that could be a slap in the face to the reader.

 

Genre Fiction in a Nutshell

Fantasy — 1,000 pages of people walking to God knows where.

Western — 450 pages of people riding horses to God knows where.

Science Fiction — 650 pages of people taking spaceships to God knows where.

Horror — 450 pages of psychopathic clowns eating people in God knows where.

Mystery — 450 pages of dead bodies bleeding all over God knows where.

Suspense — 750 pages of Jason Bourne pretending to be James Bond in about twelve different locations of God knows where.

Romance — 450 pages of “Oh, Myy!”

A Tribute to Robert E. Howard

Robert E. Howard and I share a birthday. We also share a passion for fantasy stories. Although this is three days late, I thought it a perfect opportunity to pay tribute to one of my three icons.

To call Robert E. Howard an icon is an understatement. Like Frank Frazetta and J.R.R. Tolkien, he is the reason I write fantasy fiction today. Also, like Frazetta and Tolkien, I discovered Howard courtesy of a tenth grade English assignment. To read about that, check out my post on Frazetta.

For those of you who don’t know, Robert Howard created Conan the Barbarian and Solomon Kane, and is credited with creating Red Sonja (although the Sonja we know is a composite of his characters Red Sonya and Black Agnes by Roy Thomas and Barry Windsor-Smith). He is considered the father of barbarian and sword-and-sorcery fantasy. In a career spanning a brief decade, he published 800 stories, mostly in the pulp magazines of his time. Howard wrote in every genre of his day: fantasy, science-fiction, romance, adventure, horror, western (his personal favorite), and even contributed a few entries to his friend H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos.

As a writer of sword-and-sorcery stories, I see Howard not just as the founder of my sub-genre, but as someone whose character types are desperately needed in our jaded times. His protagonists were good guys and gals. They stood for something. They fought against overwhelming obstacles, sometimes within themselves, and often lost. But they kept trying. I emulate that basic archetype within my own stories. If I wanted to write about protagonists who were indiscernible from the antagonists, and acted with less moral certitude — in other words, the style that has overtaken the fantasy genre today — I would simply transcribe the evening news. That is not to say that Howard’s characters are nice. I would not want Solomon Kane for a next door neighbor!

Despite Hollywood’s portrayal, Conan was not just a slab of beef. He solved his problems more with his brains than his brawn. He feared only one thing — poets. He was a barbarian simply because he was an outsider to the various civilizations he visited. Yeah, I can relate to that.

My interest in Howard is much deeper than his stature as a writer and an icon in my craft. We share a number of eerie similarities.

We were both born on January 22. An Aquarian born on the cusp with Capricorn explains much.

He died in 1936, and I was born in 1963.

We are both only children.

We both suffer from chronic depression.

We are both notorious coffee addicts.

We both grew up and lived in small towns we despised, although I got out.

We both have overly protective mothers with too much of a Fundamentalist Christian bent.

We both revere the old Saxons, Celts, and Germans, and think “barbarians” are much better people than the so-called “civilized” folk.

There is a divot in my skull at about the spot where Howard placed the barrel of a pistol.

I now live 100 miles from his home in Texas.

It’s almost enough to make me believe in reincarnation, except for the differences. Howard shot himself at age 30. At age 52, I’m still going strong, despite days when the chronic depression becomes physically painful. He died an unmarried virgin. I just celebrated my 28th wedding anniversary, and no, we do not have a celibate marriage. He published 800 stories by his 30th year. I have … uh … one to my credit. Finally, why on this green Earth would I want to try it again! Besides, there have not been enough celebrities or people of fame throughout history to provide reincarnated souls for the sheer number of folk claiming to be them right now. Out there somewhere are probably at least twelve people claiming to have been Robert E. Howard. I will leave his reincarnation to the realm of Weird Tales, and to overdoses of mescaline.

The following photograph is still one of my favorites. It was taken on June 12, 2011.

Howards Desk

That is me, sitting in Robert E. Howard’s room in his house, now a museum in Cross Plains, Texas. The docent was kind enough to let me inside the roped off room, which was a rare opportunity. Sorry for the bluriness of the photograph. It was hard to focus my Nikon in that light. That is Howard’s desk, although not his typewriter. I swear, I could hear the tromp of Conan’s boots, see the sun glint off Red Sonja’s chain mail, and feel the righteous indignation of Solomon Kane in that room. Howard’s room had once been the sleeping porch, walled in by his father to give him his own bedroom. Howard wrote 800 short stories and one novel in this room. This proves that one can write anywhere, even in a space no larger than most apartment kitchens.

When we visited Howard’s grave in 2011, someone left a paperback book as tribute. It was a copy of Conan the Adventurer, the very book that started me on the path I now find myself. If we are still in Texas this coming June, we shall have to pay another visit to Robert E. Howard Days (Cross Plains’ annual celebration of his life), and visit his grave again. This time, I will leave my own tribute. Perhaps a coin. Perhaps a stone. Perhaps a small picture of Aura Lockhaven. Just a way of saying thank you to one of the three men who started it all for me.

Remembering Frank Frazetta for Samhain

Merry Samhain! For those of us with a decidedly esoteric mindset and belief, October 31 and November 1 are more than a time to dress up in cool clothes and gorge on chocolate. For us, it is the end of the old year, and the beginning of the new. The veil, or the barrier between our world and that of spirit, is thinnest. We toss out the past year’s garbage and snuff the old hearth fire, ready to reach forward into the new. It is also a time to reflect on one’s ancestors, be they of blood or of spirit. This year, I am thinking of one ancestor in particular, one in my craft of writing, which is odd because he was an artist, not a writer. Frank Frazetta, however, is the main reason I am a writer of fantasy today.

Frank Frazetta (1928 – 2010) was perhaps the most famous fantasy artist of all time. Many would say he was just an illustrator, but I’m not sure there is such a thing as just an illustrator. Besides, Frazetta painted art. He told stories through the medium of oil. If not the most famous, then he certainly was the most influential, inspiring those who are the reigning kings and queens today. He gave the world the iconic images of Conan the Barbarian, John Carter and Dejah Thoris, and Tarzan. He pretty much created the look we associate with barbarian and sword and sorcery fantasy. Frazetta put action on the covers of novels during a time when many of his contemporaries focused on landscapes. If not for this one man, I would no doubt be writing something completely different, if I were writing at all.

I was in tenth grade in the year 1978. My mother was at the zenith of her Charismatic fervor that year. That meant, that anything related to magic, role playing games, sexuality, or anything else not officially approved by our independent Charismatic shepherding church, was automatically “of the devil.” That included J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit. Unfortunately for her, my tenth grade English teacher assigned it as a class reading project, so there was nothing she could do except stay up all night praying in tongues that I did not fall into Satanic temptation. Naturally, if our church so adamantly disapproved of The Hobbit, then it was the one book I was determined to read that year, with great relish. And read it I did! I was smitten. When my teacher offered us the option to read The Fellowship of the Ring as extra credit, I seized upon it. Mom never did know that it was optional, but by the time she died, she had forsworn the church, spending many a night watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer with me, and enjoying every second of a one night marathon of all three (extended) parts of The Lord of the Rings.

Anyway, back to 1978. We had to buy our own copies of both The Hobbit and Fellowship. The high school bookstore sold The Hobbit, but not Fellowship. So, to get my copy, I went to The Family Bookstore in DeLand, perhaps the finest second hand bookstore I have ever known. On this particular day, my grandfather took me to the store as he wanted to pick up some more hardboiled detective novels. Now, I had never been in the fantasy section of the store before. This was a new area for me. I found it, and found my copy of Fellowship readily enough, but then my eyes were snared by a book turned out to reveal its cover.

Conan the Adventurer, a collection of short stories by Robert E. Howard, and illustrated on the cover with a painting by Frank Frazetta.

conan the adventurer

I didn’t know what a Conan was. In fact, I pronounced the name like con-man (it’s pronounced Coh-nan). But I didn’t care about the title or the stories. I wanted that cover! If featured a naked woman. My exposure to the earthy side of life was almost non-existent, a living hell for a flesh-and-blood American boy of 15. Remember, sex and the human body was “of the devil.” So was even dating a girl. This book’s cover was my first real exposure to the glory of woman. So, I grabbed that book, and Fellowship, gave Judy my fifty cents, and took them home. To make sure I could continue to look at that cover, I hid Conan the Adventurer behind my battleship models, and next to my James Bond novels (Mom didn’t know about them, either).

A few weeks later, I decided to crack the cover and check out the stories. By the end of that year, I had split the book in half from three readings. I was, and still am, hooked. Robert E. Howard and J.R.R. Tolkien are my other two professional ancestors, and I can trace them back to that same era. For today, however, I pay tribute to Frank Frazetta.

It didn’t take long for me to become a confirmed fan of fantasy literature. Lord Foul’s Bane and The Sword of Shannara made their appearances within that year. Being a little more bold, I checked them out from the library. I also became a fan of fantasy art. I took every opportunity to peruse the collection of Frank Frazetta’s art at the mall’s Waldenbooks. In my junior year of high school, I discovered Boris Vallejo, another great fantasy artist. Over the years, my interest in them grew from merely wanting to look at their nude women to studying the stories they told in every painting. I always preferred the eroticism and anatomical perfection of Vallejo, but everything else about Frazetta. First, his men looked plausibly muscular, and his women were full-figured. These people could exist. Second, everything in his scenes is in motion, even if the characters stand still. You can hear Conan’s hand squeaking on the leather of the sword in the above painting. You can hear the woman breathe. You can smell the blood and the sweat. Third, every image tells a story, even his self-portrait. There is no question that Frazetta painted himself in a moment of rage; it’s all over his face. All of Frazetta’s art is like that. I always wanted to make my own art like his, but my drawing skills are minimal, and my eyes have strange lighting issues leading my paintings to be oversaturated with color. Then, in 2008, I discovered DAZ Studio, a 3D art program (look back in my recent archives for more about DAZ). I could make my own Frazetta-esque art, without having to fight my terrible eyesight.

After playing with DAZ Studio for two years, I made a series of renders I called “Miss Barbarian,” essentially nude barbarian women, much in the style of Frank Frazetta and Boris Vallejo. This was one of them:

Aura 2010 - 4

That one render became Aura Lockhaven. I think most of you know by now that Aura is the centerpiece and queen of my fictional world. I discuss the evolution from render to planned ten novel series in my post “Those Crazy Ideas!” In that particular post, you can also see the two renders that ultimately led to the creation of the Sarethian Seven, and the character I now call Jenny Killingsworth (“Leopard Girl”). All were inspired by Frank Frazetta, and ultimately, that one cover back in 1978. So, essentially, 85% of my current fiction plans can all be traced to one painting, “Conan the Adventurer,” painted by Frank Frazetta. In fact, The Sword of Moradacus, my epic (and the one story that did not begin as a 3D render), could be said to be the child of that one painting, because I doubt I would write fantasy today if not for seeing Frazetta’s work so long ago.

So, I can essentially blame my life today on one man! This is all Frank Frazetta’s fault! I wish I could have met him, shaken his hand, and told him what one of his paintings inspired. One day, I hope a print of “Conan the Adventurer” graces the walls of my library. Until then, I have the hardcover trilogy of his work; Legacy, Testament, and Icon.

Aura Lockhaven, Manfred Rowanwand, John Drake, Mina Darkmoon, Tracenda Talbot, Clyff Hawken, Jenny Killingsworth, Sam Hallasee, Iryndelle, Lunambyra, Coravanne, Noishante, Enorra, Tannerra, Yveramore, and Ferchane. I lay their names at the feet of Frank Frazetta, who poked me in the eyes 36 years ago and said “Follow me through the door into high adventure.”

Thank you, Mr. Frank Frazetta, for your life, your talent, your great gift that you shared with us mere mortals. Thank you for inspiring one rebellious nerd so long ago to reach out into a bigger world.

frank_frazettaFRANK FRAZETTA

February 9, 1928 – May 10, 2010

The Misery of Non-Standard English (and the Lack Thereof)

Thanks to Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, I am at war with cliches. I’ve never much cared for them, but his character Shadow makes such a fuss out of cliches, and how much he hates them, that I began listening to myself. Oops. I use far too much non-standard English for someone who makes his living crafting words and who holds a master’s degree in creative writing. That led me to examine my written narrative, and try to eliminate as many cliches as possible. In the aftermath of that assault on my own grammar and sentence structure, a larger problem appeared.

Simply for the ease of discussing non-standard English, I want to separate it into four categories. There is a difference between these four subsets, and they are important, at least from a narrative point of view. These qualify as commonplaces, words or phrases that are immediately understood by an audience, so the speaker or writer does not have to launch into lengthy explanation. Unfortunately, some are so overused as to be annoying.

Colloquialism — The specific language of a region. Every region, some as small as urban neighborhoods, has its own words and phrases that help unite locals. I know Southern colloquialisms well. Who else says “that stinks worse than a skunk in heat” or “can’t beat that with a stick.” We all know to duck when we hear “Hold my beer and watch this.” Yes, it is said, and yes, it does result in carnage, bless their hearts.

Slang — The language of a specific group of people. High school students (of any generation), surfers, Star Wars geeks, evangelical Christians, neopagans, or any other group you can think of, have their own languages. The most famous is perhaps that of old jazz musicians, who gave us words like “cool,” “groovy,” and “man,” as in hey, man. The origin of the last one is fascinating. Louis Armstrong created it because, as a black man from New Orleans, he was fed up with being called “boy.” He began addressing his other fellow jazz players as “man” to build their self-esteem. These words often enter the popular culture and end up as everyone’s pet slang words. Eventually, we forget that they’re slang. Nifty, huh?

Jargon — The language of a profession. There probably isn’t much difference between slang and jargon, but I differentiate them for my own purposes. Slang seems to have cultural origins while jargon originates within an industry. For instance, the word hack means something completely different to a computer programmer at work than it does when he’s trimming the hedges at home. We think IT people play with animals when they mention gnus and pythons. My wife works for a law firm and sometimes I have to remind her that I don’t know a quid from a habeas. Speaking of jargon, I forced the English major term “commonplace” upon you, poor reader.

Cliches — Words or phrases that may have been slang or jargon or just popular, but are overused to the point of nauseating some of us. I think most are quotations from movies, television, and music, although they probably originate wherever they wish. When used in the proper context, and with the proper timing, such cliches can often add levity to a conversation, or serve as appropriate metaphors. Unfortunately, far too many are used simply because we are too lazy to form our own sentences. The ones guaranteed to set my teeth on edge are the all-too-popular-at-the-moment “thrown under the bus,” “I see what you did there,” and “because [insert favorite noun here].” That last one isn’t even a sentence fragment! “That’s what I’m talking about” is almost as annoying. At least “we’re talking [insert favorite subject here],” “alrighty then,” and “show me the money” have faded. Writers invoke their own cliches, often without realizing it. Just count the number of times George R. R. Martin writes “truth be told” in the course of A Song of Ice and Fire. These cliches are blatant. They can often be more insidious, however.

I’ve done my best to expunge popular cultural references from my vocabulary. I will never say “King Tut” and “T-Rex.” They are Tutankhamen and Tyrannosaurus Rex, a king and a predator worthy of their full names. However, despite my strident vendetta against cliches, far too may trite turns of phrases still exist in my speech and writing. An example is “splitting hairs.” Why can’t I say “there’s no difference?” Here’s another one to whet your appetite. “There’s something rotten in Denmark.” How would I know? I’ve never been to Denmark. Did you also catch the cliche in the sentence that preceded the comment about Denmark? I grew up with these words and phrases, and they stuck in my subconscious mind without permission. I say them without realizing just how overused they are.

To be fair to the four categories above, in the framework of the subject of writing, non-standard English can set a story in a time or place. If a story occurs in the 1920s, nothing establishes it better than the slang of the Jazz Age. If a story is set in the South, someone best say a colloquialism or two. Mechanics bowling in San Francisco should talk like mechanics from San Francisco, not lawyers from Boston playing golf. As I pointed out in the first paragraph, Neil Gaiman wrote an entire novel with cliches as a subtheme. Non-standard English also helps establish characterization; imagine dialogue between someone who uses standard English but peppered with colloquialism, another who invokes numerous movie quotations, and a third who uses words specific to the medical industry. That tells the reader quite a bit about the personalities of the characters.

Expunging colloquialisms, slang, jargon, and cliches from my writing has created an opposite, but defiantly unequal, problem. In fact, the aftermath may be worse. My narrative now sounds stilted and all too formal. As the story is set in the third person singular point of view, I am often in my protagonist’s head, revealing her thoughts and feelings. No twenty-one year old, at any time, has ever thought to herself in the language of a college professor giving a lecture on Kantian philosophy. I doubt if college professors think to themselves like college professors giving a lecture on Kantian philosophy. Real people just don’t do that. Why bother with “I am offended at the inferior quality of this tawdry morning” when “Today sucks” will suffice?

The solution is to restore colloquialism, slang, and jargon to the story, but not those of 21st Century America. I need to create them for 11th Century Ayrdland. My character, Aura Lockhaven, comes from a time when at least 90 percent of all culture was local. If such a thing as popular culture existed, it entered a village through the traveling minstrel, the parish priest, or someone returning from a visit to another village. The exceptions might be the priesthood and nobility, who had easier access to each other, although even that was limited to the speed of a horse over unpaved roads. Hence, Aura should invoke colloquialisms specific to her village and shire. That would just be natural for her. As an enchantress, she should spew jargon common to magicians in her order (they know what they mean and really don’t care if the alchemists understand or not). I will have to create these, of course, and a thorough perusal of Chaucer and Shakespeare ought to get the creative juices flowing (ARGH! I invoked another cliche!). Aura already has a verbal tick. A few more spread out among the characters, along with appropriate colloquialisms, slang, and jargon, and the story will sound like normal people engaged in normal thoughts and normal conversations.

I will need to remember to limit the use of non-standard English (non-standard Ayrdish?) to when I’m in Aura’s head, and not when I’m the raven perched on her shoulder taking notes. Even as the corvidal secretary, I need to remind myself to write a bit more lyrically, and save the highfalutin vocabulary for a treatise on Robert Howard in a formal journal.

I’m not sure what I will do if in the future, I’m in the local tavern for a beer and hear someone utter Aura’s verbal tick as part of a conversation. I reckon I’ll just roll my eyes and say, “Dog my cats.”

 

Shadows Behind the Characters

A backstory is almost as important as the main story itself. In fact, I would argue that it may be more important. Its presence can change the main story in profound ways.

I recently returned to The Adventures of Aura Lockhaven following a six month vacation, during which I worked on an epic fantasy arc.

For the epic, I wrote a backstory. Epics require backstories of, well, epic proportions. They have to explain the rise of empires, the clashes of kingdoms, and include sweeping curses and unavoidable prophecies. Otherwise, they just don’t satisfy. That backstory ended up being a twenty page journal of one of the original participants, explaining a war within a war within a war.

When I returned to Aura, I realized that her story did not have a backstory. She had a backstory, and so did her country, but her magical order just existed. I decided to change that.

As the Aura Lockhaven series is a set of standalone adventures centered around one character, the backstory for the Order of Enchanters needed to be more intimate than that of an epic. I decided on a generational clash within a family that affected her entire order, eventually affecting her. A mere three pages did the job.

That one backstory changed the tone of the first novel, and the entire planned series. Before, The Valley of the Mystic Moon was a charming romp, in which Aura undergoes nine tests to become an enchantress. Now, with that backstory in place, it’s far more somber and dark. The Order of Enchanters is listless and dissolute. The rest of Ayrdland believes the enchanters are extinct because they’re too busy drinking, humping, and fighting each other to bother with the outside world, all because of that family squabble. Aura really doesn’t want to become involved with them, but they can help her achieve her goal of being a better magician for her village. Now, I have some genuine conflict, other than a duel with the villain and fleeing from trolls. The nine tests structure no longer works. In its place, a new one is rising. In the process, the other characters changed to fit. Some became more serious. Others became more humorous. Others became more diabolical. Still others moved from far in the background to up front.

In other words, it is a far better book now, all because of that little three page backstory.

Those Crazy Ideas!

Writers of speculative fiction are often asked where they find their ideas. Pull up a chair, and I’ll tell you where I found mine. They say a picture is worth a thousand words. In my case, a picture may be worth 100,000 words.

At the moment, I have four series planned: The Chronicles of Aura Lockhaven, The Geilltiad, Tales of the Sarethian Seven, and one that I’m calling Jenny and Sam. Three of the four began as 3D art renders that I made for entirely different purposes.

Aura was the first, and she still reigns supreme as the queen of my fictional universe. She began as this:

Aura 2010 - 4

I called this one “Miss Barbarian, July, 2010.” Yep, she was supposed to be a centerfold from a barbarian magazine. Obviously, I did not know what I was doing with DAZ Studio at the time, because this render sucks. Yet, of all the ones I’ve done, this one is my favorite because of what happened immediately after it finished baking on screen. As I looked at it, I had this little mental conversation with myself:

“What makes a woman dance nude in a forest on fire?”

“Well, she’s an enchantress.”

“What does that mean!”

“She’s a sex magician.”

“Oh.”

It made perfect sense to me. Yes, I talk to myself. When I answer myself, wonderful things happen.

Within minutes, I named this enchantress Aura Lockhaven; Aura because it’s mysterious and ethereal, and Lockhaven for Loch Haven Park, one of my favorite places in Orlando. Within an hour, I began work on a graphic novel, which I ended up shelving a year later to concentrate on graduate school. That graphic novel provided the foundation for the written series that is underway. One and a half novels later, I have outlines for an additional ten stories, spanning Aura’s first years as an enchantress.

The Chronicles of Aura Lockhaven is based on this one primitive render. The render inspired the character. Once I had the character of Aura, I followed Stephen King’s method of throwing her into an interesting situation and listening to her tell me what she did from that point forward. Aura is still telling me about her adventures.

The Geilltiad is a trilogy that I plan as a spin-off of Aura to provide a backstory for her country. When I transferred Aura from England to the fictional country of Ayrdland, I lost all of that wonderful English history and myth. I had to write my own. Ayrdland was once the Island of Geilltia, and its fall to my version of the Romans is dark enough to warrant a tragic fantasy. It will be my tribute to George R. R. Martin: people will die. Of my four series, this is the only one that has any sort of traditional inspiration.

Like Aura, Tales of the Sarethian Seven began as a render, but this one was more involved and more advanced:

barbarian wall

I called it “Barbarian Wall.” The more I looked at it, the more I liked it. I fell in love with these four barbarian warrior women who protected a queen in a strange land. As a fan of The Magnificent Seven, I decided to add three more characters to the team of barbarians, resulting in “The Rat Hunt”:

rat hunt

For the heck of it, I sat down one morning to write the characters’ biographies, just in case I rendered a few more pictures. I spent more time creating their names than I did on any other project, save the creation of Ayrdland and the continent of Sareth. You can read about naming the Sarethian Seven here. One week later, I had an almost 200 page book of tales about their lives and adventures. I named it Tales of the Sarethian Seven.

I decided to place the Sarethian Seven in Aura’s world, but 1,000 years earlier. I wrote the stories as if told by Henry Lockhaven to his eight year old daughter Aura. The tales inspired her to keep trying when her world turned dark. Tales of the Sarethian Seven is on the shelf at the moment. When I need a break from my big projects, I write another tale. Eventually, I will publish it. I’m not sure if I’m going to leave it as a one volume collection of tales, or break a few out into novels.

The final series, which is filed under the working title of Jenny and Sam, had an even more bizarre origin. It, too, was inspired by a single 3D render:

leopard girl

This one is titled “Leopard Girl.” Originally, the character of Jane Syren (the woman in the render) was a model I developed solely to test different skin textures under different lighting conditions. One day, for a lark, I put her in the Jungle Girl outfit. The result left me howling, “She looks like something out of a B-movie!” Click! I added the temple setting, the giant python, and the gorilla with the machine gun. YES! It needed more, and the result can be seen in the final render above. I made it simply to do something funny. You can read the original concept here.

Once again, a story oozed out of the render. The render quickly became a publicity still from the B-movie Leopard Girl. Who were these people? Not the characters in the scene, but the actors playing the characters in the scene. Jane Syren proved to be the central character. I began writing what I thought was a tongue-in-cheek comedy, but Jane had other ideas. I listen to my characters; they know more about their stories than I do. So, Jane’s tale quickly evolved into a dark fantasy with shades of horror. I am writing the novelized movie script, as a pulp magazine series. It fits within the framework of the rest of the novel, as a story within a story. The main story is about latent hereditary witch Jenny (Jane’s real name), a shaman, a sorcerer, and a demon, all at odds with each other on location with the cast and crew of a movie. Yes, I am keeping the gorilla with the machine gun. As an homage to those wonderful drive-in popcorn movies of the 1950s, I’m calling this novel Leopard Girl. This is turning into an urban fantasy, if it can be called urban in rural Florida in 1957.

Leopard Girl has shot to the top of my project pile. Aura is still the queen of my characters, but I want to give her more time to tell me her story. I’m still not sure Jenny’s life warrants a series, although the character of Sam (the shaman) is my first male character interesting enough to carry his own story. We shall see.

I will not be creating any new original renders in the foreseeable future. I do not need a fifth series in my stack of projects! Instead, I will be “illustrating” the stories I have, mostly for the fun of it. That often helps me design a costume or check a character’s appearance based on how I wrote it. I will leave you with a render showing how that works. Besides, Aura insists. The following render is Aura’s portrait, based on how I describe her in the book. The costume isn’t accurate, but I have not learned the knack of designing clothes for 3D art. It’s close enough. Hey, Aura is an enchantress — she can get away with wearing that. She is a far cry from that original at the top of this post, both as a render and as a character.

aura for picture frame

All names, characters, situations, and artwork are copyright Nathan Boutwell. Don’t even think about it. I have lawyers.

 

 

 

 

 

What Have You Done to Me, Ernest Hemingway?

Miroslav Penkov, my fiction writing professor at UNT, once said, “Ernest Hemingway ruined more writers than whiskey did.”

He was right!

I am a third of the way through writing the first draft of book two, and have bogged down over the same issue that held up book one. My narrative prose sucks! The characters, especially Aura, are three dimensional. My dialogue is good. The story is excellent. The action scenes work and flow well, and the descriptive moments are word poems. The narrative that holds it all together is flat. It’s far too much subject-verb-object. Far too choppy. Far too Hemingwayesque! I don’t mean sound word choice, or the avoidance of passive structure. I mean my narrative falls into the rhythm of a staccato drum beat, not the rise and fall of a lute and fiddle.

Sigh. That’s what I get for reading all that Hemingway. As Stephen King once said, “Even when he was drunk on his ass, he was a fucking genius.” He was hypnotic. He was beautiful! His style just seeps into the bones of any writer. Once it has settled into the vocabulary of a writer, the Hemingway style is difficult to break. It almost seems a sin to try.

While I love the crispness of Hemingway’s terse, staccato beat, that does not belong in a fantasy novel. It works well for a hard boiled detective story, but fantasy begs for the lilt and cadence of lyricism. True, I’m writing a sword-and-sorcery adventure, so it does not ask for the formal treatment of epic fantasy. Still, it is based on mead hall songs, and should have that sense of musical flow. It should sound like that lute and fiddle.

I successfully wrote that kind of lyricism in one chapter. It had the cadence of a dance. Ironically enough, that chapter was about a Beltane festival, full of drinking, dancing, and music. Now, how to maintain that flow elsewhere!

It’s time to dig out Robert Jordan, Terry Goodkind, and Terry Brooks. Let me see how they handled narrative. It’s always good to draw inspiration and examples from someone other than the one who caused the problem to begin with! Either that, or I stick with writing travelogues about fire festivals in fantasy realms.

Continuity Conundrums!

Well over a year ago, I wrote a post about the importance of bibles, those character dossiers full of background information and outlined stories that help prevent continuity issues. I wrote three nice thick ones on all my characters. Unfortunately, I wrote nothing about the magical realm they inhabit from time to time.

That almost chomped my posteriors!

In the The Valley of the Mystic Moon (the first Aura Lockhaven book), I mentioned that the valley is 200 feet deep. I know, that isn’t much of a valley, but the setting is southern England, and they don’t have Grand Canyons there, so I thought it was deep enough. In The Fires of Tollenburgh Hall, the second book and the one I’m currently writing, I describe Aura’s tour of the Citadel, the capital of her new magical order. The spire is 200 feet tall. That’s as tall as the whole valley! That’s what I get for drawing a map, and not writing a three dimensional description! Fortunately, the first book is still baking and undergoing a final revision, so I can change the valley’s depth to 1,000 feet. If I had already submitted the first book to the publisher, I would have either been stuck with an oversized drainage ditch for a magical realm, or been forced to commit a deliberate breach of continuity.

So, I reiterate. Bibles are important! Don’t forget an in depth description of your fictional realm! It is probably a good idea to include dossiers of armor, weapons, animals, and anything else you can think of, too.