An interview, alternate history, reading, & Anne McCaffrey

Over at The Ranting Dragon site & forum, an interview with me just went up.

Among other things, I talk about some aspects of the world building of the Spiritwalker books;

Additionally, the legal system in the world is not the same as in ours. There is no English common law here; law is based on a rough amalgamation of Roman civil law, what we know of Celtic law, and some very basic elements drawn from reconstructions of the famous Mali charter called the Kurukan Fuga. I also made an attempt to show family structures as they might have evolved out of different culture traditions. In book two, I try very imperfectly to portray a conception of rights that is more community-based rather than individually-based because of the differing nature of community and relationship in West African and indigenous Native American societies.

I also answer the questions if I prefer to read female writers (over male writers) and why I value diversity in genre fiction. And more! Much more!

I have struggled to think of what I might say about Anne McCaffrey’s work. I read the first Dragonflight trilogy, the Dragonsinger trilogy, the first Crystal Singer book, Restoree, and The Ship Who Sang. If I read other of her books or stories I don’t recall, as the ones I list are the ones that stayed with me. I’ve not re-read them.

It’s really difficult for me to quantify what the books meant to me, harder than I thought it would be because her death has forced me to consider the part her novels played in my development as a writer. I never met Anne McCaffrey, and I never wrote to her. But she is one of the women who made my career possible because she helped forge that path.

These were the books in which girls got to have sfnal adventures. I think it’s easy to ignore how revolutionary they were — but they were.

If I had rebooted Star Trek

I hear rumors they’ll be starting to film the second rebooted Star Trek film in January.

I watched the original Star Trek (the classic edition) as a child, mostly on afternoon repeats. Bones was my favorite, but as a girl, watching Uhura every week be an officer on a starship meant a huge amount to me because it meant I wasn’t crazy to think that was something I could dream about.

In later years I watched The Next Generation and what came to be my favorite of the Treks, Deep Space Nine. I even watched as much Voyager as I could stand, although I’ve never seen Enterprise. I’ve also watched all of the films. But of course the original Trek had the greatest impact on me because it was unusual in its day. It pushed the envelope.

So you can imagine my disappointment when “rebooting” Star Trek really didn’t mean rebooting the vision. It just meant most of the same 20th century conceptions only with young actors, better CGI, and a plot that didn’t quite hold up.

Did I really reach this age and be forced to watch the young James Kirk as a rebellious, impulsive boy racing a car in a chase scene down a road? Seriously? That’s it? That’s my reboot?

I wish they had let ME reboot Star Trek.

Let me start with my fantasy cast.


Ensign Jamie Kirk should obviously be played by someone young, smart, kickass, tough, and hot. A bit of a rebel. Yeah, like this.


(Zoe Saldana)


Spock is always a difficult choice, and in this case older than the others, but that’s okay as the most important qualification is present: She’s Jewish.


(Sophie Okonedo)


Given Hollywood’s evident belief in the interchangeable nature of Asian-Americans, I thought for Sulu it would be okay to go for a Korean-American with some martial arts experience.


(Jamie Chung)


As for Scotty, since no one can really replace James Doohan in that role, I felt the best bet would be to insist the person actually be Scots, to get the accent right.


(Katie Leung)


As I mentioned above, Bones (L. McCoy) was my favorite character. Who should play the doctor?


(Freema Agyeman)


That leaves us with the iconic Uhura, a name taken (according to Wikipedia, so correct me if I’m wrong) from the Swahili word for freedom, Uhuru. I loved Nichelle Nichols in that ground-breaking role. So I’d like to make sure that the role is played by someone the writers will give a lot of screen time to, so the role isn’t given short-shrift or downplayed as a love interest. Uhuru it is.



(Chris Pine)


You’ve noticed I’m missing Chekhov (Walter Koenig was so safely CUTE to my pre-teen eyes). Probably because the whole OMG-they-have-a-Russian-guy-on-the-same-ship-despite-the-Cold-War vibe isn’t quite so startling now.

That’s where you come in. Whom would you cast as Chekhov? And why? Or would you change out Chekhov for a different character? And if so, why?

Inspiration for a novel can come from the strangest places (Spiritwalker)

Last Friday my sister told me that one of the reasons she liked the Spiritwalker books so much was that the banter reminded her of 30s screwball comedies.

I have to say that this was not a comparison that would have leaped to my mind, nor is it one that had ever occurred to me.

She went on to explain that what she loved about the banter in 30s screwball comedies (and their related cousins, 30s musicals of the kind in which we might see Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers) is that the banter between the romantic couple highlights the the equality of the pair both in intelligence and strength of will. That sort of banter only works if it is going both ways, and if both characters engage in it in equal measure.

Before Spiritwalker, I would have told you that I could not write fiction that was funny. There may be occasional amusing bits in my other books (some more than others) but mostly my epic fantasy is Big Ticket Serious (and emotional and exciting, one hopes, but nevertheless serious). I can’t pun or write jokes. And I have never possessed the right form of cleverness to write witty fantasy-of-manners type repartee, in which the characters are exceedingly clever and droll.

But I watched a lot of 30s screwball comedy when I was in my 20s because it appealed to me so much, I think because of that sense of equality between the lead couple my sister discussed. Hepburn and Grant, Fred and Ginger: It works because the scripts treat them as equals.

I guess the lesson here is twofold.

One, you never know and cannot predict what readers are going to see in your books.

Two, you never know what is filtering down through the layers of the mind and how or when things will emerge or in what transmuted form.

Will we ever be able to fathom the mystery of how the mind turns experience into story?

Fiction as Inspiration: “It’s like getting a crush on a book.”

I ‘m sometimes asked in interviews, “What book {that you didn’t write but loved or admired] do you wish you had written?”

I always answer: None.

When I fall in love with a novel that I haven’t written, one of the reasons I fall in love with it is exactly that I couldn’t have written it. If I could have, I guess I would have. Instead, I’m so thrilled and even grateful to read a story I wouldn’t have told, and therefore could never have encountered if there hadn’t been another writer there to write it with that person’s unique vision and sensibility.

There’s a flip side to that question.

I know a number of writers who got serious about writing after they read a story or book they considered so poorly done that they said to themselves, “I can do better than this.”

I don’t specifically recall having one of those moments, either.

But if you take those two questions, mash them together, something does emerge about fiction as inspiration.

Every good novel I read is an inspiration, and I’ve read a lot of good novels in my time (or at least novels that worked for me, regardless of whether other readers might have thought them good).

Sometimes I read a novel that is both good and which also just hits all my sweet spots. It may or may not be better than other books I’ve read, but it gets up under my ribs and straight into my heart.

I just finished reading an unpublished (and not under contract) novel that involved me so deeply with a subject matter and approach that I don’t see often but which really hit home for me, that the pleasure and thrill of reading story overtook me, made my heart race, made me stay up way too late. Made me smile with the pure joy of falling so hard.

It’s like getting a crush on a book.

When that happens, I get excited all over again about writing. I remember how wonderful it is to be on the reading end of a story that captures me that strongly. Remembering that makes me able to dive back in with renewed excitement and vigor to my own writing. Reading a novel that takes me in that manner makes me want to write, not as competition, but as celebration.

It can happen! It’s there! It’s awesome!

That’s inspiration.

APEC comes to Hawaii

We’re avoiding town (what those of us in the exurbs of Honolulu call Honolulu) because of the APEC conference which has so far involved much road closure and gridlock. There have been other signs of the conference here as well: long overdue improvements and beautification put into the airport; rousting homeless and moving them out of any place where they might be seen and thus diminish the allure of paradise; the killing of a local man by a federal security official here for APEC, a bizarrely disturbing situation in which very little information has been released about the incident in contrast to how much information we would usually know given that shooting deaths are quite rare here. Also, Iolani Palace has been closed for the duration of the conference because of security concerns about Hawaiian Sovereignty protestors. Let me know if you’ve read about any of these elements; I’d be curious to know if they are being reported outside the local area.

Tomorrow we will drive into town but will as always avoid Waikiki. Should be interesting.

The One True Method

As NaNoWriMo trundles on, with greater and lesser success for the many involved, and as other writers simply write, because that’s what they do, I reflect on the statement I would most like to repeat to aspiring writers. And to myself, because it never gets obsolete and yet I do need to remind myself periodically that it is true and bears repeating (although most of you already know).

There is no One True Method or one Best Method or Preferred Method.

There is just the method that works best for you.

And furthermore, the method that works best for you on Project A may not be the method that works best for you on Project B, because different projects may demand different methods.

Talking about process and method is valuable because it helps me/you/us think about how and why I/you/we write. It creates a sense of community, and shared difficulty and triumph. It helps unveil tricks and methods and processes that may work for you, or may help resolve your own realization that you do (or do not) have a process that is working well for you.

Writing is a constant pattern of learning and re-nogotiating with creativity, of challenge, retreat, doubt, and those times when the flow runs unimpeded.

The secret is not in learning what works for others. It’s in learning what works for you.

Outtake Monday: from Cold Magic

As an occasional series, I’m going to post outtakes from my novels. These will be paragraphs and snippets that did not make it into the final volume. I will try not to include major spoilers.

Here are some reasons I cut scenes and paragraphs:

1) The world building needed to be trimmed to allow the narrative to focus on character and plot

2) I changed my mind about the direction the scene was taking

3) It is excess verbiage not germane to the forward push of the narrative (see also #1 above)

4) A change elsewhere in the text made the exchange, scene, or description obsolete

5) I just didn’t want it there any more


This outtake is from Cold Magic.

Andevai and Cat are bickering by the campfire of the djelimuso Lucia Kante, in the spirit world. I cut this exchange because I decided it wasn’t necessary to move the plot forward, although I like what it reveals about Andevai’s knowledge of the spirit world.


    “I could sit right here until winter solstice, and the mansa could not reach me.”

He laughed sharply.  “Could you?  So let me ask you.  How will you know when enough days and weeks have passed that you may safely cross back over?  And while you linger here, how will you eat and drink?”

Those difficulties had not, in fact, occurred to me.  “There’s water in the well.”

“Will you go hunting, and with what instruments?  Eat the carrion these cats pull down, and hope they do not forget themselves and eat you, while they are hungry and blooded?  Will you gather fruits and roots, and hope those you try are not poisonous, as such things are in the spirit world?  That which is beautiful may be deadly, and that which is ugly may be your friend.  How can you tell the difference?  Born and bred in the city as you so obviously are, do you even know how to find food except at the market?  If so, at what markets may you shop?  With what payment will you purchase that which you need to live?  You know nothing about the spirit world.”

“You have made your point.”

Writing Character: Details

Each character will have an individual way of reacting to and observing the world.  These are the details you as the writer can use to reveal both your world and your character.

The details any character will notice depend on that character’s personality, interests, needs, relationship with other characters, and their cultural landscape, the way they look at the world.

If Cat is hungry (and she’s always hungry), she will notice food, describe food, and be interested in the presence or absence of food.  If Mai is shopping, she will notice silk, its quality and weave and its color and the quality of its dye.  Anji will always be aware of where people are standing in relation to him and his people, and whether those others present a threat.

Another character may not notice those very same things even if they are at the first character’s side, or they may register them in the most cursory sense.

Another character might be more of a listener, attuned to sounds.  Another might only really notice people and their reactions rather than noticing space and setting.  Another might not notice much of anything, being more involved in their own thoughts.  A character who lives within a culture will notice different things about what’s going on around them than a traveler new to the culture.

When you as the writer start thinking about filtering details through the characters’ point of view, it becomes easier to decide which details are necessary to the story and which you don’t need.

Women and Fantasy

Sherwood Smith has posted about the panel I was on at WFC San Diego (2011), “The Crystal Ceiling.” (an unfortunate title, if I must say so, and I must)

The Crystal Ceiling: Is there still a distinction between “women’s” and “men’s” fantasy and horror?

I found it interesting, and disappointing, that the panel was all women: Kate Elliott, Charlaine Harris, Nancy Kilpatrick, Jane Kindred, and Malinda Lo.I don’t know how many men volunteered, who picked the panelists, whether it was a man or a woman, but when I walked into that panel and saw all women getting up on the podium, I thought “Here’s our conclusion before a word is spoken.”

An interesting discussion follows in the comments. ETA: Juliet McKenna and Aliette deBodard also weigh in.

Charles Tan at Bibliophile Stalker has put up an audio file of the panel because he is awesome. Scroll down for the link; there are many other excellent links in this roundup post of World Fantasy Con/San Diego 2011.

I don’t have much yet to say about the panel beyond that the other panelists (Charlaine Harris, Malinda Lo, Nancy Kirkpatrick, & Jane Kindred) were fabulous and I thought the dynamic between panelists and between panel and audience went well — we all agreed we wanted to take a lot of questions and comments from the audience, and the audience had plenty of good things to say.

I’ll have more to expound upon about The Female Gaze vs. The Male Gaze in SFF, but I’m still working on that post. Suffice to say that I am not an essentialist: When I say Female and Male Gaze I’m talking about cultural gender issues and ways of seeing.

I very much appreciated how Charlaine Harris came right out and said she and other mystery & crime writers had experienced marginalization, and how they formed Sisters in Crime to combat their second class status. I often feel that too frequently when women writers and artists make such a statement that they are criticized for it, so I was impressed that Harris, in her powerful position as a New York Times #1 bestseller with besides that a hit tv show based on her books, was not only willing to but ready to speak out.

She later said to me, when we were outside briefly discussing how the panel had gotten onto the topic of Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight series: “I love to see women writers succeed.”

I do not think that gender plays no role in how writers’ works are assessed. This doesn’t mean gender always plays a role, but the thing about making any such statement for or against is that it is difficult if not impossible to prove that gender never plays a role or always plays a role in the way a reader may approach a work or judge it. Furthermore, the action of bringing up the possibility is itself fraught and political, moreso, I think, if a woman mentions it than if a man does.

One of the things I said on the panel was to paraphrase an provocative comment made in, I believe, Cheryl Morgan’s blog by Susan Loyal. I don’t recall the actual post. Discussing the question of how the work of women is received, she pointed out that in her experience of reading reviews and reader blogs, that work by men could be flawed AND still important, while work by women, if flawed, could therefore not be important.

Furthermore, back in March 2011, Niall Harrison on Strange Horizons did a breakdown of gender balance at book review venues in the sff field. Male writers receive a disproportionate share of review space. In the new age of social media where visibility plays a crucial role in determining success for a writer (in terms of being read), such a discrepancy should startle us, but unfortunately it seems all too familiar.

What this means, surely, is that VISIBILITY is the first obstacle or, if we combine visibility with Loyal’s statement about flaws and importance, it may be suggested that male writers are routinely judged to be more worthy of reviewing OR they may simply be the ones who are noticed and picked up to be reviewed while others are ignored, dismissed, or never seen at all.

Obviously many writers, both male and female, do not get the visibility we would wish for them to have. I note also that there are now a huge number of book blogs that specifically target the Young Adult, Romance, and Urban Fantasy/Paranormal readers, often read and written by women. I think it is not a coincidence that these genres have strong sales by taking women seriously and granting them importance as readers, as writers, and as characters. At the same time I see admiration for the books and sales numbers, I do also sometimes see a fair bit of hostility directed at these genres from outside.

Let me just suggest that issues of disparity remain an overall problem (see also this study of income disparity in the creative fields), and turn my attention specifically back to the sff field.

Are some readers inclined to be more critical of a book simply if the writer is a woman? Out of conscious bias, or perhaps subconscious bias? I don’t know, and I’m not sure how we can really tell.

Is there an issue with some women, as writers, not filtering their stories in a way that fits the perceived defaults within the male gaze? Smith defines the male gaze this way:

the male gaze is still the default cultural point of view. That means, whenever men look at is important, from persons to politics to entertainment. It is important for everybody. Whatever women look at is for women, of lesser significance.

A story may be seen as intrinsically flawed when it is more properly described as not being written from the male gaze. In such a case, it may be the female gaze that informs the story that is being denigrated. Such a reader may simply be unable see a story told from a different perspective than the male gaze as having the same intrinsic worth; it may be seen as badly written or plotted, or as problematic because it is not of interest to such a reader , or as lacking importance. A standard if cliched example might be that a story in which swords or guns are described in detail as a means to enhance character and action would be seen as exciting and meaningful while one that highlighted descriptions of midwifery or sewing and clothing as a way to enhance character and action might be described as dull or wordy or tangential or, worst, girly.

An argument can also be made, however, that mixed or bad reviews given women writers are no different from mixed and bad reviews given to male writers within our field in the same way that a good review is a good review regardless of the gender of the reviewer, reader, and writer.

How do the statistical discrepancies fit into this? I don’t know. But if women writers are being reviewed less than men writers, except in fields designated as “female driven,” then I submit there may be a problem that can only be fixed by recognition that there are discrepancies and by conscious effort to acknowledge gender bias and work to change the ways we look at what matters and what is worthy of inclusion in the stories we think are important enough to pay attention to.

Songs That Go With Books

In the wake of the release of Cold Fire, two different readers have (independently) written to me with songs they felt captured the emotion of the often tumultuous relationship between Cat and Andevai. One, in California, suggested I listen to “White Blank Page” by Mumford & Sons. An Aussie recommended “Draw Your Swords” by Angus & Julia Stone. Not only do I think both songs work in terms of emotional resonance, but I also like both (and now have them on my computer so I can listen to them over and over again).

I do have an extensive playlist of music to create mood as I write. And I realize that not all writers can or wish to write with music on, nor should they need to; that’s not what I’m discussing here.

I’m interested in songs whose lyrics or tonal qualities evoke a moment or emotion or relationship from a book.

Is there a song or are there songs that specifically create that feeling for you? For one of your own books? Or for books (and characters) you’ve read? And if so, in what way or for what aspect?


Cold Steel: 445 — Short of goal, but I also now know how to fix the sequence I’m writing, which I’ll start rewriting tomorrow.

Secondary Project #2: 793 — I’m poking at several secondary projects; I’ve had a really hard year and I’m experimenting with writing a selection of opening sequences in different styles and approaches to get my flow back.

Project List: 564 — Not fiction but synopses for three projects.

That’s just shy of my overall goal of 2000 words, but I’ll take it.