Don't Shake the Flask

Because you don't know if it'll explode

Category: blogging

Songs and Other Ephemera

It’s been a long time since I’ve written a proper blog post and I think it pretty much boils down to not having enough time and having other priorities which I have to attend to. Looking back at it, I had a lot of extra time when I was younger–enough that I could post regularly to this blog and actually do some background research for those blog posts at the same time. And now–well, as I’ve told someone recently, I feel like I’m being pulled in multiple directions at the same time. If it isn’t one MUST NEED TO DO CRISIS, it’s another. And this holiday season? Definitely not letting up. 

Anyways, this weekend, I have taken a few hours here and there to not do any work or deal with other obligations. On one of the forums I read, someone started a thread asking “What’s your favorite Christmas song?” Normally, this is something I don’t think about because no one asks me this question in real life, but for some reason, I did stop for more than a few moments and tried to think about this and I didn’t come up with anything.

I’m not religious and I think of myself as more agnostic than anything else, but I did grow up having to go to church every Sunday. At the time, to me at least, it was something that people had to do every Sunday. I didn’t have any friends at church–it was all very cliquey and no one seemed to be practicing what they preached. I didn’t view any of the adults as particularly kind–they were all too busy comparing whose kid was better or smarter than the others. Too much bragging about whose son or daughter ended up going to medical school, I guess. On an intellectual level, I understand there are a lot of people who get spiritual comfort from religion. But on a practical level, it just seemed like the problems of society magnified in a situation where arbitrary rules held sway.

As for the Christmas songs–I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s my own psychological hang-ups that prevent me from naming any “favorite” songs. It probably started when I was four or five and my parents put me into the choir to sing for Christmas. I remember being very confused and not knowing any of the lyrics–at the time, my grasp of English was  probably still very shaky. I still suck at lyrics. I can’t recall any unless a song has been playing non-stop for months and even then, I’ll still forget. I think subconsciously, I know memorizing lyrics is a bullshit activity that won’t benefit me one whit, so why bother.

Related to that are Christmas piano recitals. I enjoy playing the piano and my parents would have never sprung for piano lessons if I hadn’t asked for them. But man, piano recitals are the worst because it’s always expected that the performer memorizes the pieces. While there is a certain source of anxiety involved in, say, playing Mozart or Brahms–unless most of the audience are absolute classical fanatics, it’s easy to gloss over mistakes without anyone being the wiser. Christmas songs, though, everyone knows. And if you forget–EVERYONE WILL KNOW IMMEDIATELY. And not only do I suck at memorizing lyrics, I also suck at memorizing music in general so you can imagine how nerve wracking recitals were even though I tried to hide this from everyone.

So, that’s why I don’t have a favorite Christmas song. I don’t hate them, because it’s not the songs’ fault, but I don’t have a particular love of them either. I try to avoid places that play Christmas music too early and I do not listen to Christmas music in my spare time either except for maybe on Christmas Day in very small doses. These days, calm meditation-like music has a better effect on my mood than anything else.

A New Year, A New Decade

I prefer to call my occasional posting to this blog as intermittent notes while on hiatus. Life is busy and who knows what the future will bring. I also think that resolutions will never work, but there are a few things I’d like to do more of this year:

  • Post more to this blog.
  • Post more consistently to my postcard blog.
  • Write more regularly (instead of just binge writing during NaNoWriMo events).
  • Submit stories to places more often.
  • Read more books (and reduce the size of my to-be-read pile).

Will any of this actually happen? Who knows. We’ll see.

 

A New Hobby (Sorta)

New year resolutions are silly because almost no one ends up keeping their promises. People want to do something to improve their lives, but then they fall back on their old habits. That’s why I never make new year resolutions. It’s bound to end in disappointment and the same-old same-old.

At one point last year, I was regularly posting on this blog again because I had taken up the hobby of exchanging postcards. But then that ended abruptly when some overly obsessive postcard enthusiasts threw a fit, so I’ve been trying to think about what else to post to keep the blog going. I suppose I could write about writing. But I consider myself a rank amateur and I’m generally not chatty about my own stories unless there’s something like NaNoWriMo going on at the same time.

Recently, I saw a documentary on minimalism and I found myself agreeing with many of their points. Our lives are basically filled with too much stuff and I’ve generally found it a lot more easier to manage when I’ve migrated it online. I used to keep paper planners about to help me organize my day, but in the past couple years, I’ve gone completely to Google Calendar. And I’ve managed to prevent turning my apartment into a book hoard hazard by switching to ebooks (mostly).

However, it’s that “mostly” that’s the sticking point. Because I still have a lot of physical books. Probably about half of them are in the “to-be-read” (TBR) pile. And I know not all of them are keepers. Simply put, I need to buckle down and read them to determine which ones I’ll keep and which ones I’ll give away or sell. So, here’s what I’m going to do for this year:

  • Only read books from the TBR pile.
  • Write a blog post/review about the book after I finished it.
    • Exception: the book is so bad that finishing it would be a waste of time.
  • To keep me from temptation, I am not allowed to buy new books unless:
    • I’m gifting them to someone else
    • Three or more people have personally recommended a book to me
    • Or it is no longer 2017.

Of course, book reviewing isn’t without the risk of stirring the wrath of the crazy either, but we’ll see. If an author or their fans threaten to sue and/or kill me because I’m not all sparkly rainbows and sunshine about the story, I’ll probably stop this experiment. You and I will know that scenario is ridiculous, but I don’t have the money, time, or spoons to deal with the crazy–so if it happens, it’ll just be easier to discontinue.

Anyways, here we go. I’m starting this with Sixty-One Nails by Mike Shevdon, the 2009 US paperback edition. Why? Because it was the first book on the nearest bookshelf. Feel free to let me know how you liked (or hated) it.

Mid-Month Update

Mostly, I’m posting this to see if this “sharing” thing to Twitter is going to work. But it’s also a brief update.

Camp NaNoWriMo is in full swing this month. As of this post, I’m up to 40k. The reason why I’m writing like crazy now and not pacing myself is because I’m trying to finish before I go on vacation. If I can’t get 10k done between now and Friday morning, I’ll probably keep writing while I’m waiting around in airports. Otherwise, well, I don’t plan on doing any fiction writing while on vacation.

I’ll probably do quite a bit of travel writing though. I don’t know if I’ll be able to post any of it while I’m abroad. It depends on whether or not there will be an internet connection around.

For those of you who follow my Twitter account, I’ve probably dropped enough hints in the last couple of months for you to know where I’m headed. And for those of you who have the sense to abstain from scouring through most of my (admittedly inane) tweets for the clues, I’ll leave my itinerary as a surprise.

Notes from MisCon 27, Part 1

(To see all my posts on MisCon, including last year’s notes, go here.)

I wasn’t sure whether or not I would have been able to make MisCon this year, but happily I was able to see some of the panels. And yes, I took some notes. I managed to lose my pen at the second panel I attended on Saturday (if you were sitting next to me and were irritated that I was rummaging through my bag like mad for a writing utensil, sorry!), but I was fortunate enough to bump into a friend and bum a pen from her.

In the panel transcriptions, I’m mostly paraphrasing what the panelists said. If there are any errors, they’re mine and mine alone. For any corrections, just drop me a note.

Panel title: Authors, Readers, and Social Media
Panel members: C.J. Cherryh, Jane Fancher, J.A. Pitts, Peter Wacks
Panel description: Let’s discuss social media. What can it do for writers? Readers? What do you expect from your favorite authors on social media? How do new writers learn the best ways to take advantage of social media? Will this trend continue or do you see something new coming along?

JAP: Publishers don’t do marketing. You have to do your own marketing.

JF: Social media has allowed me to meet some of my most supportive fans. The publishers haven’t ever done marketing for me. So you have to do anything you can. The Internet is one way.

Q: What would you prefer–a blog with a few die-hard fans or silence? Sometimes it can become a popularity contest.

JF: If you have a lot of “friends”, sales can go through the roof. It is a popularity contest so in some cases it doesn’t matter if you publish crap.

Q: I’ve posted an average review of a book and the author’s rabid fans down-voted my review to oblivion. It was an average book, so I was open to trying the author’s other books. But the fan base ran me off.

CJC: I’ve seen that operate and it’s not pretty. It also depends on the writing. A certain type of writing will attract a certain type of reader. If it becomes self-exclusive and waterproof, it will seal out any other viewpoint. I don’t like flame wars so I try to avoid politics, religion, etc.

JF: On Amazon, writers can’t post reviews.

JAP: Actually, I’ve been able to post on Amazon. Amazon doesn’t apply it consistently.

PW: If you have a hard core fan base, you should try to shape them. Have them run a Twitter or Tumblr account for you.

JAP: It’s not how many fans you have but who likes your books. You write books to garner more fans.

Q: Do you have a fan page to talk to other fans?

CJC: I have a blog, but I don’t go into the discussion to stifle them. Otherwise if I do say anything, it will become canon and it makes it harder to converse.

PW: Find friends to recruit to help you grow.

CJC: But you have to be careful who you choose. Choose someone who is polite, sensible, good-hearted, and knows what they’re doing.

Q: What’s your impression of the Amazon/Kindle issue?

CJC: I wrote a book on the care of fish and put it on Amazon because my SF base is too small. I haven’t put out my SF stuff because they change the rules all the time. For some projects it’s good. But you still need to get someone to edit your stuff.

JF: I use Amazon to sell my backlist. The worst thing that could happen is if you self-publish a book that is rife with errors. You’ll never live down that reputation if you don’t edit. And don’t rely on your own editing.

JAP: Amazon just bought Goodreads. Which means you can by stuff in people’s recommendations on Goodreads. Reviews will be bleeding from Goodreads to Amazon.

Q: With community building and interacting with the community, have you had any gaffes?

JAP: If it’s on the internet, it’s public. With Facebook, they change policies all the time so what was once private could suddenly become public. Be careful what you post. I post because people seem to like it. And it’s a powerful tool because you can reach people all over the country.

JF: I’m extremely open on my blog. It’s about honesty. My books are about honesty, so if you like me then you might like my books.

CJC: Don’t put anything down that you won’t be willing to face in court. Be kind and circumspect. I wait twenty-four hours before I decide to post anything that I’ve written when angry. But if the fans are behaving badly, you should get on them.

JF: When I was on Compuserve, I once posted a comment on an author’s message board. The fans jumped on me and the author just fanned the flames.

JAP: Some people who do social media right are John Scalzi and Cory Doctorow.

JW: I’ve managed to avoid gaffes. But some really stupid things can be pushed and you have to wonder, why?

Q: Do you ever use social media as a focus group to help you write?

Entire panel: No.

CJC: I don’t use social media for my creative process. I would rather spin my own wheels. There will be loonies out there who would say that you stole their idea.

JF: Only a very special person could help me with the creative process.

PW: Fans don’t want to see how their ideas get written.

JAP: You could open yourself up to lawsuits. It might give me ideas for further research, though.

Q (Deby Fredericks): I do a podcast instead of self-publishing. But the only way I knew people were listening was when someone sent me a response that I posted the wrong link.

JF: We just want to know that someone is reading us. Just come and say, “Hi!” We have statistics to prove that someone is visiting the site.

Q: Tell writers that you enjoy their work.

Q: If I’m the only one to comment, am I being a nuisance?

Entire panel: No.

JF: It tells me that I’m not dead yet.

Q: I think people should only comment when they have something important to say. Otherwise it would devolve into YouTube comments.

JF: You could stop them, but then there are e-mails.

JAP: I once didn’t post for five days because I was really busy. But I got a fan comment wondering if I was okay.

CJC: There are a lot of regulars who visit but don’t necessarily comment. They always check the site to touch base with “family.”

Q: Authors seem to use social media in reverse compared to businesses.

PW: There’s no model for authors to use. Businesses use the broadcaster model. Authors, however, need to interact. The trick is to be honest in your communications. I have 17,000 fans, but I feel it’s a waste. I’ve managed to sell a book without help from social media.

JAP: It’s a time sink.

JF: E-books are convenient, but now they are hard to find among everything else out there.

Q: Someone can write a really insightful blog, but I feel “eh” about it. I would rather watch interviews. Have you done video podcasts?

JW: I’ve done videocasts (not necessarily interviews). With podcasts, once you mention an author, sales spike.

JAP: I have a hater on Twitter. But whenever this person rants about my books, I get a sales spike. I’ve done interview podcasts live. There’s Between the Sheets and Skiffy and Fanty. Someone in Norway once invited me to do a blog post on craft. Someone read that blog post and it led to an invitation to a conference. If you put it out there, assume that someone will read it.

Q: What’s the most important platform?

JAP: Anything you’re comfortable with.

Mid-Month Meanderings

Update on Camp NaNoWriMo progress: I am behind. Extremely behind. By 20,000 words. So I’m going to have to really kick it up a notch for this second half of the month. As to whether or not I’ll be able to reach the 50k goal–maybe. But I have other things that have more priority at the moment, like preparing for the ASM general meeting next month.

And speaking of ASM, sure it’s kind of stressful if you’re going to be presenting anything there, but it’s fun, too. If you’re a microbiologist or want to become one, I highly recommend attending the conference at least once. And even if you’re not, there are plenty of interesting talks. (I saw that they had a cool workshop for do-it-yourself whole genome analysis, but it’s already sold out.) Most of the talks can get pretty technical, though, so you might get lost if you’ve never taken any biology courses in college.

* * *

If you’ve followed me on Twitter, you’ll know that my website, gamalei.net, got wiped out last month when the hosting server suffered a catastrophic hardware failure. I wasn’t too worried about this since I had my website backed up elsewhere and otherwise, I’ve never had many problems with the hosting company for the approximate decade I’ve been with them. However, I did take it as an opportunity to streamline the site as it had grown rather labyrinthine.

Among one of the semi-hidden corners of the old site, I had a section titled “Linkrot” where I had stashed a bunch of links that I thought were interesting but not interesting enough to be taking up permanent residence in my browser’s bookmark folder. It was all hand-coded which after a while, got rather tedious.

So, what to do now? Well, I’ve decided to stick all those extra links on Tumblr. Technically, I’ve created two Tumblrs. Textual Curiosities contains cool stuff I’ve found on archive.org. Its sister site, Strange Interlinks, contains everything else. The thing about Tumblr is its simplicity. I can just dump a link into it and tag it to help categorize it rather than spending too much of my time manually adding to my old page. And since it’s now on Tumblr, other people can follow and/or share these links if they wish. Of course, if no one else does, I don’t mind. This is more for my own edification and organization than anything else.

After reading some opinions on Tumblr, I was thinking about how my own views about the blogging platform has changed over time. When I first encountered it, I couldn’t really understand why anyone would have one in addition to a weblog on, say, Blogger or WordPress or LiveJournal. But I think, in some ways, simplicity is a good thing. And it also depends on what sort of project you’re working on and what sort of platform is best suited for it.

When I first started blogging, I had also included random links I’ve discovered on the internet in my posts. Sort of like Kottke.org or Rebecca’s Pocket. But eventually, I ditched that format and concentrated on writing posts that were a little more focused and coherent. So that’s sort of how I view this blog today: a journal-like site containing long content or commentary (in text or in pictures) generated by me. And while Twitter and Tumblr can in some sense also be blogging platforms, they’re both more ephemeral in my mind. I like using Twitter because it’s quite amendable to quick observations (which can be extremely cumbersome on a traditional blog) and it has an instant messaging-like capability that doesn’t quite have as much stress as an actual instant messaging program*. And as for Tumblr, you have the ease of chucking things in there without the worry of moderating comments. And these days, I find that ease has a lot to recommend it.

*Aside: One thing I hate about the electronic age is the expectation of immediacy. Some forms of electronic communication, however, have greater expectations of immediacy than others. Like instant messaging, for instance. I once had instant messaging eons ago, but I am prone to multitasking and getting distracted by more important things than random chitchat. This, of course, pissed off people I was IMing with so I ended up not doing any sort of instant messaging at all. E-mail, on the other hand, is more flexible. I respond fairly quickly if it’s from family or work, but otherwise I can put it off for a couple of days. Or respond not at all. (Or pretend that it got lost in the aether if it’s from someone I don’t really want to talk to.) Twitter is a mix between the two. While I like the IMing aspect of interacting with other people online in a semi-immediate way, I don’t think many people would get really angry with me if I get distracted and respond two hours later.

A Brief Note

As I will be traveling extensively for the next week and due to my, uh, lack of structure with my itinerary, my access to the internet may be sporadic at best. So don’t expect too much posting here until after the new year. However, you can still follow me on Twitter and suggest places for me to visit.

I will continue to write vignettes for the ISADG challenge and will post them when I can. If you’ve missed any of the previous installments, they are all linked here.

Meanwhile, I hope you all are taking (or planning to take) a break from the internet. Just don’t overdose on the eggnog and Christmas music. Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays!

Still Blogging, Apparently

I remembered today that it is this blog’s anniversary. Eleven years. And it’s been through a number of incarnations. I don’t blog as often as I used to as I’m mostly on Twitter now, but this space is still useful, especially if I find that I have something longer to say.

Reflecting on how technology has changed, it will no doubt change again a decade from now. Whether or not this blog still exists then, who knows. But I suppose I’ll still be blathering into the aether (whether it’s the internet or something else) to no one in particular.

A Peek into MisCon 26, Part 18

In the panel transcriptions, I’m mostly paraphrasing what the panelists said. If there are any errors, they’re mine and mine alone. For any corrections, just drop me a note.

Previous posts: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6, Part 7, Part 8, Part 9. Part 10, Part 11, Part 12, Part 13, Part 14, Part 15, Part 16, Part 17

The final panel I attended was called “Lore of Swords” which was presented by Diana Pharaoh Francis, Ruth Frey, George R. R. Martin, and J.A. Pitts. (AQ is an audience question.)


(Left to right: George R. R. Martin, Ruth Frey, J.A. Pitts, Diana Pharaoh Francis)

JAP: Why are people so fascinated with swords? Most of history, you just didn’t want to get killed. So why would you use a sword?

DPF: It’s a good weapon. It needs skill. And you can use it on horses. In urban fantasy, a steel sword is 92% iron. Magical creatures don’t like iron so it works better than shooting with lead.

RF: For the historical aspect, why is there this mystique? Lots of weapons were used historically. One classic is the axe. The axe could be deadly, but you could also use it around the house. Not much metal was used to make it. On the other hand, the sword used a lot of metal. Back in that time, knowledge about metal working was not advanced. A sword was only good for one thing, like Alton Brown’s “uni-tasker.” It was for kings, the aristocracy, and warfare. The technology was very advanced so it would seem that the smiths wielded magic to make them. So there was the mystique, the swords were given names and passed down through the generations. In the 13th and 14th centuries, the common people could afford swords now, but there was still the mystique. If you think of films like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, the mystique crosses cultures.

GRRM: What she said. Swords are cool, man. There are different types of swords–cutlasses, rapiers, broadswords, etc. There are a hundred and one varieties. So you can decide what’s best for what purpose. It’s not like that with other weapons. A spear is a spear. If you found a dead knight, you would take his sword. A sword could do a lot of damage in battle. Is killing thirty-seven men in battle an exaggeration? Maybe not. The knight had armor and sword training while those thirty-seven men just had pointy sticks.

RF: Knights were trained since they were seven years old. While everyone else was just rounded up when it was time to fight.

GRRM: It was good to be a knight, especially in battle. A spear can be potent, but most spearmen were not trained and the spears didn’t have metal points. Swords were a status symbol. It was like a Lamborghini while a spear was a Honda. They had magical sword legends. But no one names their axe. (Who calls their axe ‘Fred’? Maybe I should…) Legends beget legends. Modern science fiction and fantasy also picked up on swords like Excalibur and contribute to the mythology. Like Elric’s Stormbringer. Or the Valyrian Steel sword in my stories.

RF: There’s a nice updating of it in science fiction. An example is the Jedi light saber which is a variant on the sword. The amount of training and variety of techniques you can do contributes to the mystique. If you give an untrained person a sword, he won’t be able to use it. Someone who can use it will seem magical.

JAP: I started my book by picking a sword for a short story. I picked the Norse sword Gram. If you have a powerful sword, it will make your opponent scared.

DPF: I needed to figure out what you couldn’t do with a sword. If it’s a long sword, you don’t put it on your back. If the sword is belted to the waist, it would be difficult to sit and walk with it. It would make it hard to mount a horse. I’m into realistic weaponry. If you have a hand or half sword, then it doesn’t have the sharp edge. In battle, a long sword would be a bad idea since you could cut down your own people. So what are you capable of doing with it? Can you wear it day to day? What’s the maintenance?

GRRM: It will depend on what sword you’re writing about. The type of sword could drastically change your fighting technique and whether you’re wearing armor or other type of clothing. In fencing, the sword against sword is primarily defensive. In medieval times, defense was the shield. I can see film choreography, but it is not realistic. It’s for show not killing. In real life, it’s to kill and they will aim for your leg, not the shield. In film, you seldom see hits on legs. But on Viking battle fields, you will see remains where the wounds were on the legs. It’s not like theatrical shows. Fights are generally short and over in minutes. All it takes is one mistake.

RF: I study the use of weapons as a martial art. But that will bore the audience since technically you want to end the fight quickly. On the battlefield, you might not necessarily want to kill people. You just want to maim in order to neutralize while the others after you will finish them off. Reality is brutal.

JAP: How much on the battlefield relies on luck rather than skill? Is it due to the mystique of the sword?

RF: Probably. Some people buy too much into the mystique. For example, the Agincourt French knights were devastated by the English archers because they thought they were invincible.

GRRM: You’d think by Agincourt, which was eighty years after their defeat at Crecy, they would have learned their lesson. But knights were generally the terror of the battlefield. The mounts were also part of it.

AQ: What length determines a long knife and a short sword?

RF: People argue over it. I would recommend looking at Oakeshott’s Topology of Swords. It’s classified on a spectrum so it’s hard to draw the line.

AQ: Why is there still a mystique for the sword? We have machine guns and atom bombs now.

GRRM: Swords are cool. Replicas are being made of the swords from my books at Valyrian Steel. But there is a mystique about guns. Every night I’ve been in Montana, the dinner conversation inevitably went back to guns. Guns provoke a similar mystique. Is it about killing people? No, because you can kill people with kitchen knives. Are there legends on it? It’s undeniably there. There aren’t many legends on other medieval weapons. And other replicas don’t sell as well. Other weapons don’t have the glamor of the sword. No one names their morning star. Why does magic not attach to some of the other weapons? Well, there’s one example, the warhammer which Thor had named. The warhammer is better in a fight than a sword. Nonetheless…

JAP: But you need strength for the hammer. And swords are superior to guns when fighting against zombies. You don’t need to reload. In D & D, the sword does more damage than the morning star.

AQ: Do you act out fight scenes?

DPF: Yes. Also I can imagine it in my head. There was no penicillin at that time, so you will want to kill your opponent before you get scratched. A cut could kill you.

JAP: I do taekwondo to see how the bodies move while fighting. It’s not what you see in films and comics. You should call the experts.

RF: Definitely make the play physical.

GRRM: No, I don’t act it out. It’s a good way to smash furniture, destroy your house, cut off your fingers, conk your own head, and spray your brains on the wall. I like to watch the TV show Deadliest Warrior, especially the first two seasons. They tested medieval weapons with computer simulations between Spartans and ninjas. With their tests, they used packs filled with gel simulating blood so you could see the damage. There were weapons that could cut through a pig carcass. Defense always wins. One mistake in writing fight scenes, and I’ve been guilty of this, is pitting guys with heavy armor against a quick guy in light armor and having the guy in light armor win. But in reality, he would lose.

RF: One caveat. If you have five or six lightly armored guys against one guy in heavy armor, they can take on the knight.

AQ: There are sword making differences between the east and west. For Japanese swords, two materials in layers were used to make a strong blade. Did the Europeans ever catch on?

RF: The Japanese compensated for the poor materials they had on hand. The Vikings and Norse would also do something similar. But as the technology got better, the metal became good throughout.

GRRM: It did develop independently in the west. Damascus steel, which was brought to Spain by Moorish influences, was highly prized. In recent decades, samurai swords also assumed the mystique while people began discounting western knights as oafs. But that was also martial arts. A samurai blade was sharp because there was no armor. It’s useless against armor. Only magical swords don’t get blunt. If you pit a knight against a samurai, the knight would win.

RF: There are an insane variety of swords, but they’re not all from the same time and place. They’re finely tuned for when and where they were developed. A fight between a knight and a samurai would never happen because they weren’t in the same place.

AQ: What are the best books on swords?

JAP: There are these books by George R. R. Martin….

GRRM: There is a book by John Howe who is a Tolkien artist and a re-enactor.

RF: I would suggest Ewart Oakeshott’s Classification on Swords and Arms and Armor of the Medieval Knight. There are also medieval texts online by classic medieval masters.

JAP: Don’t use Wikipedia, but you can use their sources.

DPF: I do research on swords and fighting in different cultures. I also see how blacksmiths make swords. This will inform how the character will do things.

AQ: How would people wielding great swords, like giants, fare in battle?

GRRM: Most two-handed swords were not used in battle. They were usually used for ceremony and cutting off heads. In battle they were clumsy. However, in post-medieval times, there were large groups of pikemen. Soldiers using those swords were used to break up the pikemen formation so the horsemen could come in. They were not used to fight. But if you write fantasy, you can do this for a superhuman like Hulk but not a normal human.

RF: They did double duty and it was a hazardous job.

AQ: Can a sword made of better material cut through a sword of poor quality?

JAP: Due to the laws of physics, no.

RF: You can break one on impact, but no, you can’t swipe through another sword.

GRRM: It will notch it, but there’s no swiping through unless that sword is made of butter. So what’s your favorite sword fight scene? Mine is the fight between Inigo Montoya and the man in black in The Princess Bride.

RF: The Duellists by Ridley Scott.

JAP: The final Boromir scene in Lord of the Rings.

DPF: Rob Roy.

AQ: How about Errol Flynn?

GRRM: In the original The Adventures of Robin Hood. It’s a classic. But Errol Flynn actually didn’t know what to do. Basil Rathbone had to figure out how to make the idiot look good.

* * *

And then there were the closing ceremonies for MisCon where there was a screening of the MisCon 27 Trailer and the announcement that next year’s guest of honor is Jim Butcher.

A Peek into MisCon 26, Part 17

In the panel transcriptions, I’m mostly paraphrasing what the panelists said. If there are any errors, they’re mine and mine alone. For any corrections, just drop me a note.

Previous posts: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6, Part 7, Part 8, Part 9. Part 10, Part 11, Part 12, Part 13, Part 14, Part 15, Part 16

The “What is Urban Fantasy?” panel was presented by Diana Pharaoh Frances and J.A. Pitts.


(Diana Pharaoh Francis [left] and J.A. Pitts [right])

DPF: I wrote about an ugly vampire who didn’t become pretty after being turned. So what is urban fantasy? A lot of it isn’t so urban now.

JAP: I think of Charles de Lint and Peter S. Beagle. Now paranormal romance has taken over. But urban fantasy has been around for a long time.

DPF: There’s also War of the Oaks.

JAP: Urban fantasy has something magical in the recognizable world. Like Buffy or Harry Potter.

DPF: Sunshine by Robin McKinley had a different world, but it was recognizable from the day-to-day actions. Urban fantasy has a quality in the present or maybe slightly in the future and has real kinds of places like grocery stores.

JAP: And cars. There’s crossover into romance and hard-boiled mystery. Like Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files. There are different flavors. Usually you don’t know until you read it. It’s also marketing.

DPF: There are many contemporary fantasies that are not urban. Lisa Shearin has real stuff in an epic fantasy situation. In Kari Sperring’s Living with Ghosts, it’s not usually urban even though it has cityscapes and is Victorian. There’s an unpacking of mystery.

JAP: If the characters enter a Starbucks, it’s probably urban fantasy. You also have to look at the attitude and morals of the characters. There’s a significant amount of women point of view in urban fantasy. You can see this from all the published books listed in Publishers Weekly.

AQ: Does epic fantasy have to be non-technological with swords and such?

DPF: In my epic fantasy series, I wrote that stuff so I knew it was epic. But you can put it in the present. But you need elements like big battles.

JAP: It’s how they categorize. If you don’t have most of those tropes, they won’t market it as urban fantasy. Christopher Moore is marketed as mainstream even though he has some of those elements. I write urban fantasy because I like it.

DPF: C.E. Murphy has an epic quality in her Shaman series even though it take place in the present day.

JAP: You should worry about your story before figuring out the genre. Don’t come to the wrong conclusion. It’s usually for the editor to decide.

AQ: Can you have an urban fantasy in a non-western setting? Why does everything take place in America?

JAP: It’s because that’s where all the Barnes and Nobles are. But you do see blogs that talk about books that are set outside the US.

DPF: Marjorie Liu is a world traveler and sets her books in different places.

JAP: If it’s not contemporary, they won’t market it as urban fantasy.

AQ: Kylie Chan, an author who lives in Hong Kong, does Chinese contemporary fantasy.

JAP: You need to search out stuff if you want stories outside of America.

AQ: What about Japanese manga getting imported to America?

JAP: Nick Mamatas blogs about it.

DPF: Lauren Beukes does South African fantasy. Nalo Hopkinson’s Brown Girl in the Ring. There are books out there so dig a little bit.

JAP: There are different types of urban fantasy, too. There’s some with alternate histories or hidden histories which don’t alter what we see.

AQ: How do you balance character, setting, and plot in urban fantasy? Is there not as much world building since it take place in the present day?

DPF: I would disagree with that.

JAP: Some people don’t, but I like to do world building.

DPF: You need to add the details to make it vibrant. It’s a different kind of world building. Sometimes it’s all action because readers are impatient. In urban fantasy, it’s very common to have a murder, crime, or major event on the first page. For epic fantasy, you can wait for that later. In urban fantasy, you do the world building at the same time as the action. But sometimes you need to stay focused on the forward motion and mention the details later.

JAP: The number one thing in urban fantasy is character. For the primary character, it’s all about the characterization.

AQ: If the characters go into a different dimension, is it still urban fantasy?

JAP: It depends if they come back.

DPF: In Ilona Andrews’ series The Edge, the characters can cross back and forth between the Broken and the Weird, ordinary and magical dimensions. In Wen Spencer’s Tinker and Wolf Who Rules, the characters go to an alternate plane and come back to Earth. It depends on how it’s handled.

JAP: Does the magic affect the real world? In Andre Norton’s Quag Keep, it doesn’t so it’s not urban fantasy.

AQ: What if you have a story where your character becomes a computer and then comes back?

JAP: That’s probably science fiction. Write it first and then let the editor decide.

AQ: In The Chronicles of Narnia, the characters came back from a magical world, but it’s not urban fantasy.

JAP: That’s a portal story.

AQ: In a lot of urban fantasy, either the character already knows about the magical world or the character is a normal person who finds out about the magical world. Are there challenges in writing either one?

DPF: My characters start out knowing about the magical world, but they have to tell everyone else about it.

JAP: Do you find it easier than the other way?

DPF: I don’t give my characters time to react, even if they don’t know anything about magic. They have to deal with things now and can’t waste time thinking about it. That’s why kick-ass heroines are common in urban fantasy. Because you need action right away. But there’s a danger in putting in an info dump with sidekicks.

JAP: My character doesn’t believe in magic. I find it difficult because of the info dump. It’s past the point of discovery.

AQ: I’ve gone to writing classes where they’ve told me never to write a particular thing. But I viewed it as a challenge.

JAP: Break the rules or it will be boring. My writing group found out there was an editor who didn’t want anyone submitting stories about babies, vampires, or cats. So we all wrote baby vampire cat stories and sent them in. He actually took one of the stories. But then the press went out of business. If you kill a dog, do you have to be the bad guy? You can do anything if you do it right. Don’t be afraid. Practice and write every day.

AQ: Is there a science fiction writer’s group in Missoula?

Panel: You might want to check with your local bookstore or library.

JAP: Look online for writer’s workshops.

AQ: Do you use existing mythologies or something made-up?

DPF: My stuff is mostly from existing mythologies. It’s about magical things that have disappeared. What happened to them? And if they came back, what would they be like? It’s a rich area and I can pick mythologies from all over the world. But there’s nothing wrong with making it up.

JAP: I use Norse mythology, but I screw with it. You can stick enough to it to recognize it, but don’t be afraid to twist it. Is it right for the story? If it’s boring, then don’t write it.

AQ: What about turning D & D gaming stories into novels?

JAP: Lots of editors don’t buy it because it reads like a gaming session. Write to the character.

DPF: In those stories, characters are way to thin.

JAP: Make sure it’s robust.

AQ: How would you categorize Ellen Kushner’s Swordspoint? It reads like fantasy, but there’s no magic.

JAP: It sounds like it’s interstitial.

DPF: Kushner is part of the interstitial movement.

JAP: It’s fantastical but mundane.

DPF: You know it’s fantasy because of the Tom Canty cover. So maybe it’s a story of a magical place that is focused on the people who don’t do magic.

JAP: Where do they shelve it?

DPF: In fantasy.

AQ: Do you have modern good and bad guys in urban fantasy or are there strictly paranormal villains who have nothing to do with real life?

JAP: In the Dresden Files and urban fantasy in general, there’s a mixture of both.

DPF: My character has superpowers so she would easily defeat the ordinary bad guy. So you need a worthy opponent for your character. It’s not interesting if the characters aren’t challenged.

JAP: If there’s a big battle scene, people should die.

AQ: Do you bring in politics to urban fantasy?

JAP: It will date you. Don’t put in specific details to date it. You don’t have to say it to stay contemporary. Unless you want it to be specifically dated. But it’s good in a thriller. Otherwise, steer away from it.

DPF: I agree. You can have place things in the background. But current events will make it seem dated.

AQ: What if it’s based on science?

JAP: Then it’s probably science fiction. Write the story, then market it.

DPF: Read Subject 7 which has magical science and altered DNA.

AQ: It seems like 90% of the urban fantasy heroines are red-headed and wear PVC on the covers. How do you reconcile writing characters and marketing?

DPF: Writers don’t write characters that way. Marketing does it.

JAP: The cover is there to make you pick up the book.

DPF: My husband says that if they put 3D breasts on book covers, men will buy the books without knowing why.

JAP: In urban fantasy, there are women on the cover, but most women don’t pose like that.

DPF: You should check out Jim Hines’ blog where he poses like women on covers.

AQ: How do you write women? Isn’t it hard for a guy to do?

JAP: It’s not true. Women are people (most of the time). I had no men in my life until I was twelve. I trust women more so I write women. I did a lot of research and got an education on privilege, white male privilege. I had good insight from my experiences and good first readers. But it’s like that for all writers. No one writes about characters just like them–unless you’re doing an autobiography. I had fans who were shocked that a woman didn’t write my book.

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Stay tuned for the final part which is all about swords.