Small Miracles of Great Beauty

This morning when I went to check on the butterfly pupae that are hanging from a Christmas cactus on the room divider just beside my back door, I discovered that a butterfly had emerged. Usually the emerging butterfly grasps and clings to the sides of its now empty chrysalis and hangs there while its wings dry. Unfortunately, this butterfly had lost its grip and fallen. It lay on its back, a sight I hate to see, because if the wings dry while folded or crushed, they will never straighten and the butterfly will die. I put my finger where the butterfly’s feet were feebly waving in the air. They grasped my finger, and I lifted the butterfly, its wings still not descended, and let it cling to a branch of the milkweed plant just behind the Christmas cactus. I left it there, having little hope for its survival. I checked on it ten or fifteen minutes later and discovered that its wings had descended just as they should! Apparently I had found it only minutes after its emergence and fall, and the wings had not begun to dry. The descent of the wings had allowed it to become a beautiful, perfect monarch butterfly.

I first became interested in monarch butterflies after seeing photos of the area in Mexico to which huge numbers of monarch butterflies migrate and reading articles about their endangered status due to pesticides and habitat loss from encroaching development that threatens that migratory area. Also, in the U.S. the milkweed on which the monarch caterpillars live is becoming scarce due to urban development. To preserve the butterfly, people are urged to plant milkweed, a flowering plant so called because when a leaf is plucked or a branch broken, a milky liquid oozes from the place of the break. Also known as butterfly weed, the proper name for the plant is asclepia. There are many different varieties of asclepias, but they all have in common that they are the only food source for monarch butterfly larvae, or caterpillars.

I bought some potted milkweed plants and set them in my side yard. Sure enough, I began seeing monarch butterflies come to the plants, and then I began to see the caterpillars, small ones at first and then larger ones. But I soon learned that many of the caterpillars did not survive, either because they consumed all the leaves on the plant and then had nothing more to eat or because they fell prey to predators such as wasps, which carry the caterpillars off to their nests to provide food for their own larvae. According to Wikipedia, commonly fewer than 10% of monarch eggs and caterpillars survive.*

To improve those odds a bit, I began bringing one or two potted plants into the house and putting them on top of the bookcase room divider by my backdoor. On those plants I put caterpillars I find on the outside milkweed plants. And yes, it’s messy, since all caterpillars do is eat and poop. I put large sheets of plastic under the pots to catch the droppings. I also have a Christmas cactus on that bookcase, and it has proved to be an ideal place for the caterpillars to pupate.

I got into this hobby to further the conservation of the monarch butterfly, but I soon became utterly fascinated by the life cycle of the insects. It strikes me as one of nature’s most miraculous processes. The butterfly lays its eggs usually on the underside of the leaves of the milkweed plant. The eggs are tiny white spheres no larger than the head of a pin. From the egg the caterpillar emerges as a tiny green worm. It immediately begins to eat—first, its egg case and then the leaf on which it was born. It is scarcely recognizable as a caterpillar in this stage. It will go through four more stages, molting after each stage. After the first molt it is recognizable as a caterpillar, is banded, but of a uniformly yellow color. After the second molt it is larger and its bands are now alternating yellow and black. It becomes considerably larger after the third molt, and after the fourth it is not only larger but shiny, almost appearing ceramic. I find it quite pretty at this stage.

It is after this fifth stage that the amazing miracle occurs. The caterpillar stops eating and becomes restless, searching for a place to pupate. It wanders about, its instinct leading it to look for a place safe from predators. It is not always easy for me to persuade it to pupate on the Christmas cactus. One does get away from time to time, and I’ve had a caterpiller pupate on the underside of a chair or table. But for the most part they do eventually settle on the Christmas cactus and form their “J.” That is, they spin a silk pad, the “legs” on their hindmost segment fuse into a sturdy “stem,” and they hang upside down with their head end curving upward. They may hang in this position for several hours or close to a day. Then a green liquid oozes from the head and pushes the head and skin before it as it creeps over the body of the caterpillar. The caterpillar writhes and twists until the head and skin are a black bundle at the very top of what is now a lime green globule. That bundle falls off, and the pupa takes shape, becoming a beautiful green ornament with a row of gold dots toward the top and two slightly larger gold dots at the bottom. This is the chrysalis, actually a transparent case enclosing the liquefied green remains of the caterpillar. After nearly two weeks during which this pupa hangs like a lovely Christmas ornament, a shadow appears at the top of the green globe, and then the green becomes cloudy, taking on a milky appearance. If you look closely you can see that the milky color is wings forming within the chrysalis, and the shadowy portion is the body of the butterfly-to-be.  A day after this becomes apparent, the chrysalis turns dark. The butterfly has acquired its coloration, and as it is squeezed within the chrysalis, that coloration looks dark red, almost black. The nascent butterfly awakes, pushes, and the chrysalis splits. The butterfly squirms out of the now transparent shell, its legs grasping and, if all goes well, clinging to the sides of the shell. In about two weeks the liquefied insides of the caterpillar have reformed into an entirely different creature with beautiful orange and black patterned wings and a black head and body adorned with stylish white spots. This wonderful transformation never ceases to fascinate me, and I am always awed by the intricate and mysterious process that transpires within the chrysalis, unseen by human eyes. To think that I am privileged to witness such a miracle in my own kitchen!

Oh, and the butterfly that came out this morning? It was a very dark and rainy morning, so I left it inside as long as I dared. When I saw it exercising its wings, I knew I had to take it outside. As rain was still falling, I took the butterfly out the front door under the covered walkway to my carport. Right beside the carport I have potted milkweed. I got a flowering milkweed plant, put it in the carport, and put the butterfly on it. It climbed up onto the flower (actually a cluster of small flowers) and there it stayed most of the day. new butterfly feedingLate in the afternoon, long after the rain had stopped and the trees were no longer dripping, I moved the plant it was on out of the carport and back into its place. The butterfly flew off, onto a chain-link fence and then over it and onto the lantana I have growing there. I had witnessed its first flight! I guess it got a meal from the nectar in the lantana blossoms, as it lingered on the flowers for some time. Then it flew off, stronger now, soaring high above the roof of the neighboring house, circling, and then flying into the neighbor’s oak tree, where it could find a safe resting place for the night—and leaving me with a sense of satisfaction and pleasure from having witnessed this beautiful creature’s entrance into the world.

*https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Monarch_butterfly

 

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Not a Harry Potter Knockoff

SCHOOL compMy novel A School for Sorcery was published in hard cover in 2002 and came out in trade paperback as part of Tor’s Starscape series of fantasy and science fiction novels for teens in August 2003. Given those publication dates, it’s no wonder that many readers and some reviewers saw the book as having been written to appeal to fans of Harry Potter. In the Amazon reviews you’ll find these statements: “It is clearly inspired by Harry Potter,” “It seems that everyone is trying to out-Potter each other,” “This novel is a teenage Potter-like tale, “ It ends up retreading a lot of the same territory as the Harry Potter and “College of Magics” books,” and (I love this one!) “a thrilling novel about what happened if Harry Potter was female, a few years older, and in a completely different world.”

I can’t criticize readers for coming to these conclusions, given the publication dates of schoolpbk2the hard cover and paperback editions of the book. However, the truth is that I wrote A School for Sorcery well before the appearance of the Harry Potter books and also before the publication of A College of Magics, by Caroline Stevermer,  published in 1994. Whatever resemblance it may bear to the Harry Potter books, and, if any, to A College of Magics, is purely accidental. Unfortunately, A School for Sorcery languished in manuscript form until Tor bought the manuscript in 2000 for its newly launched Starscape line. There is no question that the YA line was launched by Tor in response to the popularity of the Harry Potter books, but that doesn’t mean that the books published in that line were written after Harry’s appearance on the scene.

In the case of my novel, I wrote it in 1991-92 for the specific purpose of submitting it to Andre Norton’s Gryphon Award competition for the best unpublished novel by a new woman fantasy writer. (This is not the same as the present day Andre Norton Award, which, according to Wikipedia, “is an annual award presented by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America [SFWA] to the author of the best young adult or middle grade science fiction or fantasy book published in the United States in the preceding year.” That award began in 2006 as a memorial to Andre Norton, who died in 2005.) The earlier award, sponsored by Andre Norton, offered, along with a monetary prize, a reading by an editor from a major publishing house. I won the award in 1992, and my manuscript did get readings not from just one but from at least three editors of major houses. Gryphon Award 1992.jpgHowever, they all had the same reaction: they liked the work, but the manuscript was too long for a book for teens. At that time the thinking was that a novel for teens should be no longer than 60,000 words. That thinking changed as a result of the Harry Potter books; the major publishing houses added teen fantasy and science fiction lines, and my novel was bought by Tor.

A School for Sorcery did quite well. It earned out its advance, was named to the list of best books for teens in 2003 by the New York City Public Library system, and was translated into two European languages, Dutch and Romanian. I received many emails from fans, some of whom still keep in touch. Although the print editions are no longer available, the book is still available in electronic form for the Kindle and the Nook, and I’m still receiving royalties for it. It’s a book I’m still proud of, although I’m sure if I were writing it today, there are many things I’d write differently. But its message is still current.

Tria, the book’s protagonist, has always been a good daughter and a good student, obeying rules at home and at school. She’s excited to receive an invitation to attend a special school, the Leslie Simonton School for the Magically Gifted, glowingly described in the brochure accompanying the invitation. While her parents are aware that she has special abilities, they have forbidden her to use those abilities and she has obeyed. But when she shows her mother the invitation, her mother reveals that she too has special abilities, which she has stifled throughout her life. She does not want her daughter to be forced to do the same, so she persuades her husband to allow their daughter to attend if they can find the money for tuition. Tria’s father no doubt feels safe in making this concession, since he knows of no way they could come up with the amount of money required. However, he has been tricked. Tria’s mother has a hidden cache of money she has saved through the years and kept secret from her husband. Tria’s father grudgingly agrees to keep his word and let Tria go to the school, though he warns her that the invitation is almost certainly a scam.

Little notice is made in the book of the mother’s deception, but in a sense it underlies all that follows. When Tria arrives at the school, she is greatly disappointed to find it nothing resembling what the brochure had depicted. Tria’s initial interview with the headmistress is unsettling, and ensuing events convince Tria that her father was right—the school is a scam. But she resolves to stay rather than return home and admit that she and her mother have been played for fools. Thus she enters into the deception. But the school is not a fraud. Its dilapidated appearance is another deception. Even Headmistress’s stern demeanor and harsh treatment of Tria is a deception, intended to test Tria’s mettle.

This is a coming-of-age story, in which Tria must peel away the layers of deception and discover truth, if in fact truth is to be found. Along with learning to distinguish truth from falsehood, she must also learn when to follow rules, even ones that make no apparent sense, and when to rebel against authority and follow her own instincts. Does Tria ever succeed in peeling away all the layers of deception? Are the rules she breaks rules that should be broken, and how can she truly know, since the results aren’t always immediately apparent? The book’s conclusion does not definitively answer these questions, because these are questions that require a lifetime to answer fully, if they can be answered at all.

I tried to tell a good story, one that has plenty of action and intrigue and that anyone who is or has ever been a student in a school that is somewhat less than perfect (which is pretty much any school) can relate to. At the same time, the story offers the astute reader an exploration of existentialism and situational ethics. It’s a book that can be read on various levels, one that I hope will stimulate the imagination and also provide food for thought. Indeed, I am always delighted when a reader finds some bit of meaning that I never intentionally put there. It is often said that a writer cannot interpret his or her own work, and there is truth in that saying. A reader brings to a book his or her own personal experiences and interprets the book according to those experiences, which will of course differ from those of the author.

If you haven’t read A School for Sorcery, I hope you will, and will let me know what you find in it.

Find it at Barnes & Noble or at Amazon.com.

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Wearing My Editor Hat

As some of you know, I am a free-lance editor. I’ve been doing a big editing job for the Sarasota County Department of Health, an affiliate of the Florida Department of Health, so I have my “editor’s hat” on. For that reason I thought this would be a good time to blog about editing—what editors do and what they do not do.

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All authors need their work edited. It doesn’t matter how well the author knows grammar, punctuation, sentence structure, etc., typos and misspellings will creep in. And when an author goes over his or her own work, it’s easy to miss such things as a missing period or quotation mark, a misspelled word not caught by the spell checker because the error creates a different but correctly spelled word, like defective instead of detective. When the author reviews her own work, because she’s so familiar with it, her eyes can easily glide over such errors without noticing them. That has happened to me many times. I recall having edited a story several times without noticing that I had a character wearing a shirt of course material. I certainly know the difference between course and coarse, but no matter how many times I’d reviewed that page, it took someone else reading it to point out the error to me.

Here’s what an editor does not do. A good editor will never impose his or her style on the writing he’s editing. I’ve had authors express concern that an editor will change the style of their writing. That is not an editor’s job, and a good editor will not do that. Nor will an editor rewrite a manuscript for the author. If the author feels inadequate to write the story he wants to tell and wants someone to rewrite and rework his attempt, he needs to hire a ghost writer or perhaps find a collaborator. An editor works on a manuscript that has been completed.

An editor may do no more than check the spelling, punctuation, capitalization, and grammar. Or an editor may do content editing as well, pointing out where characterization is not consistent, where there are plot holes or the plot is not believable, where the setting isn’t clear or is insufficiently developed, or where perhaps more or clearer character description is needed. In such cases, what the editor generally does isn’t fix the problem herself but point it out to the author so that the author can fix it himself. The editor may suggest possible fixes, but the author may prefer another way of correcting the problem, more in line with the author’s vision of the book.

When I’m editing, I indicate any place where the grammar or punctuation is incorrect, but since I use Word’s tracking function, the author always has the choice of accepting or rejecting the correction. This is important, because an author who knows the rules will break them deliberately on occasion. An editor is not a mind reader. I can’t know, though I may guess, when an author has broken a rule deliberately. So even if I think that may be the case, I make the correction and leave it to the author to reject the change if that is his preference.

For example, the rule for punctuating a compound sentence—one consisting of two independent clauses—is that those clauses are to be separated by a semicolon or by a comma preceding a coordinating conjunction (and, but, or, nor). Semicolons should be used sparingly. It’s often better to separate the compound sentence into two simple sentences. A common error is to use the conjunction but omit the comma that should precede it. A comma indicates a pause, allowing the reader to take a breath when reading aloud or just to slow down a bit when reading silently. But the author may not want the reader to pause. The sentence may be part of a tense, fast-moving action scene in which the author wants the reader to get a sense of breathlessness. So the author leaves out the comma in order to produce that effect. That author would, of course, reject the correction.

Bad grammar can be used in dialog to show either that a character is poorly educated or simply has careless speech habits. I don’t correct grammar in dialog where it is obviously used intentionally. But consider this line of dialog, spoken by a backwoodsman. “I figger that bear ain’t gonna show it’s ugly face around here no more.” Clearly, figger and gonna are intentional misspellings to show the speakers manner of speaking. The use of ain’t and the double negative likewise indicate the man’s characteristic speech. The editor would not correct those errors. However, the spelling of its as it’s has to be the author’s mistake, since he’s recording the man’s spoken words, and there is no difference in the pronunciation of the two words. We can hope that it is merely a careless typo on the author’s part, since every writer should know the difference between the possessive its and the contraction it’s. In that type of sentence it’s easy to overlook the misspelling while concentrating on the dialect.

Occasions also arise when an author wants to convey that a speaker is foreign and is speaking heavily accented English. This is tricky, because if overdone it can get tiresome and annoy the reader. The fine line between enough and too much is easily crossed. An editor in a publishing house might insist that the author tone down the use of misspellings and tortured syntax, but as a freelance editor, I would put in a comment that I believe the foreign accent is distracting to the reader and needs to be toned down. I might well suggest changes, but it would be the author’s decision as to whether or not to make them.

In a similar vein, if the author wants the reader to be aware that although she is reading the dialog in English, the speakers are not speaking English, the author may sprinkle words and phrases from the language being spoken into the dialog. This, too, must be handled with care. It is awkward to use a word in another language and then immediately translate it into English. The author may find ways of using a foreign word in a context that makes its meaning obvious. Here again, as an editor I would state whether in my opinion it would be wise to restrict the use of foreign words. On some occasions my advice might be to use them more often as reminders to the reader that the conversation is not in English.

In content editing the editor may come across a narrative section that stops the action and has little or no bearing on the plot. Again, as a freelance editor, I would not take it upon myself to remove such a section, but would put in a comment strongly recommending its removal and giving my reasons.

So in conclusion, a good editor will recommend corrections, removals and additions, and sometimes the rearranging of words, sentences, or whole sections, but will leave it up to the author to accept or reject all changes. It is the author’s responsibility to consider carefully the editor’s suggestions and decide which to follow and which to ignore. If you have an editor whom you trust, that should not be difficult.

To view my editing business web site, go to www.arucadienterprises.com

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Description Conundrum

Today’s blog raises a question I don’t have an answer for: How much description is too much, and how little description is too little?

 When I write, I tend to be spare in regard to description. I think it’s largely due to the fact that when I read, I prefer to use my imagination to visualize a character’s appearance and dress. Also, I don’t like reading a story that pauses the action to give lengthy descriptions unless those descriptions are vital to the plot. In some stories the setting plays such a vital part that it must be described in detail. In all stories some sense of place is necessary, but the amount of description needed to provide that sense of place varies according to the type of story it is.

cover artIn my book Seduction of the Scepter, I set the novel in a fictitious country, but I located that country in our world in a specific historical time and in a specific region of the world: eastern Europe in the mid 1700s. Although using a fictitious country allowed me latitude to invent the political system and certain customs, those had to at least fit into the time period. Although I used no actual historical events or personages, I researched the styles of dress and hair, the popular foods, the music and dance, the religious and social customs of the era and drew on that research to make the story believable. When Lara, my protagonist, attended a ball, I had to describe the ball gowns worn by the women and the formal dress of the men in a manner consistent with the time and general setting. What was served at a court banquet had to be courses and dishes that would be available and popular in Europe in that time period. So I used more complete descriptions than I tend to use in novels set in wholly fictitious worlds. Also, since the novel is in first person, told entirely through journal entries written by Lara, giving detailed description in her journal is consistent with her character, which also required including more description than I normally do.

 In my Arucadi novels, which are set in a wholly imaginary world, I needed a good bit of description of place to give the reader indication in the early novels (Mistress of the Wind, Bringers of Magic, A Mix of Magics) that the world is not medieval but is at the start of the industrial age, with trains, hand-operated sewing machines (important to the plot), bicycles, but as yet no cars and certainly no airplanes. The conflict between magic and machines is vital to the plot, especially in the first two novels. In A Perilous Power, set in the same world but in a later time period, the technology is more advanced. Buses provide transportation in towns, and cars are starting to appear in the large cities but are still unknown in rural areas. A School for Sorcery, When the Beast Ravens, and Bryte’s Ascent are set in a slightly later period, approximately equivalent to the 1920s in America, with cars, telephones, and electricity more commonplace. However, unlike our world, air travel is still unknown in Arucadi. In these novels, all told in third person, while I describe settings in some detail, I am more spare in describing dress and personal appearance. Possibly too much so. When A Perilous Power was going through the editing process, framedhcmy editor asked me for a description the cover artist could use in depicting Trevor, my protagonist. Only at that point did I realize I had never described Trevor, though I had described his best friend and sidekick, Les, and other characters to at least some degree. I had to go back to the manuscript and include Trevor’s physical description before complying with my editor’s request. Even then I didn’t describe clothing in much detail, which may be why the cover artist of the hard cover book depicted Trevor in modern jeans and shirt instead of clothing appropriate to a period equivalent to our late 19th century. (The cover artist for the later appearing paperback got the clothing right.)

 One of my beta readers for The Twisted Towers, the novel I have currently nearly ready for publication, has said I need more physical description of places, people, and apparel. I probably do, but the novel is already quite long, and I’m loath to add much more to it. So I’m back to the question with which I started this blog: How much description is too much, and how little description is too little?

 Like the Arucadi novels, the new novel, a stand-alone epic fantasy, is set in an early industrial period in which recently invented “horseless carriages” run on steam engines, and electricity provides lighting in public buildings and the homes of the wealthy, but is still not available to the lower classes. The setting is the capital city of a country added by conquest to an extensive empire. The plot involves a commoner citizen of that conquered nation who weds the crown prince of the empire but is so resented by the imperial nobility that her marriage is in danger, her hope of helping her people is thwarted, and assassination attempts threaten her life. Clearly, the reader needs a sense of place and of the general time period, but how much physical description of characters and clothing is needed? The novel has a large cast of characters, and I go into the viewpoints of seven of the leading characters. How detailed would you readers want the descriptions of the physical appearance and dress of these and other characters?

 I’d like to hear the opinions of readers and of writers as to the extent and type of description you prefer. What characteristics must be included, and what can be left to the reader’s imagination? Please share your thoughts.

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Grammar Still Matters

In this age of social media, when people post everything from what they ate at their most recent meal to political and social commentary, often in haste and with little regard to spelling and grammar, we may well conclude that grammar no longer matters. Some errors occur with such frequency that people no longer regard them as errors but as accepted usage. Language is constantly changing. Is this true of grammar as well?

Certainly some grammatical errors have become so commonplace that they have replaced the correct forms at least in speech and in informal writing such as what we see in email and on the many social media sites. Have those of us who are bothered by incorrect grammar reduced to throwing up our hands in surrender? Have the incorrect forms become the norm?

I don’t know the answer to that question with regard to casual writing, but I do say emphatically that to writers, grammar still matters. Or at least, it should. Professional writers should and generally do still care about grammar. Professional publishing houses have editors and proofreaders who correct errors. Many conscientious self-published authors pay editors to check their work and remove errors of spelling, capitalization, punctuation, and usage or have their work vetted by beta readers who, though their primary purpose is judging the content, also catch many errors in the course of their reading. I was so fortunate to have an excellent editor for my books published by Tor. He was quick to make me aware of anything I was careless about. For example, like so many, I did not distinguish between the words anxious and eager. I had written something about the boys in A Perilous Power being anxious to reach the city of Port-of-Lords. My editor asked whether I meant they were worried about possibly not reaching it. If so, anxious would be correct, but he suspected that what I meant was that they were eager to reach Port-of-Lords. I agreed that that was what I meant, and since then I am careful to use the two words correctly. I also recall that a short story I submitted to George Scithers, who was a wonderful editor but is, alas, no longer with us, was rejected but was returned to me with editorial corrections. I have always considered myself a good speller, but, to my embarrassment I had misspelled the word minuscule as miniscule. That is a common spelling error, but not one I will ever make again. I’m sure I have made and will make others, and I never take offense when these are pointed out to me. Rather, I’m grateful, because I want my work to appear as professional as possible.

Errors of word usage and spelling can creep into any writer’s work, but they should never abound in a work. Writers should know and use the correct forms of the verbs lay and lie, for example. A writer may use the incorrect forms of these verbs in dialog, to indicate that the speaker is grammatically challenged, but never in narrative or in dialog when the speaker is a well-educated person. No writer should confuse its and it’s, an error I just saw used repeatedly in an article in a publication put out by a professional organization. A writer should never misuse the case of a pronoun by writing something like between him and I, yet just recently I came across this sentence, I needed to clear up the misunderstanding that had arisen between my father and I.

An error that I see frequently is in the use of the word whomever. The forms whom and whomever are probably on their way out, at least in speech and in informal writing. Few readers would notice the use of who or whoever where whom or whomever would be grammatically correct. For that reason, I would advise anyone unsure of when to use whom or whomever to stick with who and whoever under all circumstances. This is especially true when trying to use whomever in a clause used as a direct object or object of a preposition. This sentence illustrates a frequent error: The prize will be awarded to whomever answers the next question correctly. Here whomever is incorrect because the object of the preposition to is not whomever, but the entire clause that follows it. The subject of that clause is, correctly, whoever. Compare these two sentences:

The prize will be awarded to whoever answers the next question correctly.

The prize will be awarded to whomever the judges choose.

In the second sentence, the object of the preposition to is again the entire clause, whomever the judges choose, but in this case whomever is correct because it is the direct object of the verb choose. If you understand this distinction, great! But if you are confused, unless you are doing formal or academic writing, just use whoever in either sentence, and very few readers will realize that the word should be whomever.

For a more detailed discussion of this topic and clarification on many other often confused words, I recommend the book Common Errors in English Usage, by Paul Brians.

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On Writing Across Genres

Cross-genre works have become increasingly popular in recent years. They’ve always been around; they aren’t a new phenomenon. However, in the past it often proved difficult to get a cross-genre work published. That was not due to any fault in the work but rather to the simple fact that bookstores didn’t like them because they didn’t know where to shelve them. Should a mystery with fantasy elements be shelved with mysteries or with fantasy? How about a book that combined a sports story with science fiction? Or a literary work that had a science fictional setting? I remember when I was trying to find the fifth and final book in Doris Lessing’s Canopus in Argos Archives. I went into a large bookstore and asked for it. “It’s science fiction,” I said, trying to be helpful, as the clerk didn’t seem to be familiar with the work. He shook his head. “Doris Lessing doesn’t write science fiction,” he informed me. “She’s a literary writer.” Well, yes, she was a literary writer, and the five books in the Canopus in Argos Archives are literary science fiction. So bookstores, I found, generally shelved the series with literary works, not with science fiction, making it difficult for science fiction readers to discover her work, though of course many have. 

Now that books are so frequently purchased on line, the shelving of them is nMurdergoroundo longer a major concern. Cross-genre works have advantages. They are a way of drawing in new readers. An example is a book I recently reviewed: Murder Go Round, by Carol J. Perry. It is a mystery and appeals to avid mystery readers. But its paranormal aspects may encourage mystery readers to try other works of urban fantasy, while at the same time they draw in fantasy readers like me.

 

When I tell people I write fantasy novels, I frequently get the response, “Oh, I don’t read fantasy.” But many do read historical novels. So I tell them about my novel Seduction of the Scepter, in cover artwhich the fantasy element consists of the story being set in a fictitious eastern European country with a political system of my invention, and the main character, a noblewoman, occasionally mentally receives a thought from someone nearby. She cannot control this ability, does not want it, and it mostly just upsets her, because she can’t be certain whose thought she’s received and rarely knows why that thought has come to her. But the novel is set in a definite historical period, the mid-1700s. It isn’t historical in the sense of dealing with actual historical events or personages, but it is historical in the broader sense of reflecting the customs, mores, and outlook of that era. Calling it cross-genre may be a bit of a stretch, but I have had many readers tell me they really enjoyed it despite not being fantasy readers. And as historical fantasy is a subgenre of fantasy, fantasy readers have no problem with it except perhaps for those who may have wanted more fantastic elements in it.

 My book When the Beast Ravens is out and out fantasy, but it is also a murder mystery. My novel Deathright is a time travel story. Time travel is generally considered science fiction, but it can also be used in fantasy, and I have done so in that novel. Beast RavensMany science fiction writers have mixed a bit of fantasy in with science fiction, some very successfully, and others less so. And of course there’s paranormal romance, a very popular subgenre of fantasy, loved by both fantasy readers and romance readers. So writers, if you want to mix genres, go for it! If you do it well, it can enrich your novel and attract more readers.

Find my books on my Amazon page.

 

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On Letting Go

In my previous blog I wrote about books so enjoyable that you don’t want them to end. Now I must confess that writers sometimes feel that way about a book they are writing. We tend to fall in love with our characters and with the story. It’s not that we think it so wonderful, but that because we love the characters and the story we’ve put them into, we want it to be our very best work. Sometimes we complete a manuscript but can’t leave it alone. We want to do more character development, put in more details, maybe add another plot twist. Or maybe we wonder whether we’ve made a situation clear enough. Will the reader understand what we mean here? Does this part need to be better explained?

Even when a book gets sent off to an editor and proofs returned for checking, it’s easy to spot places where the writing can be improved. This is not a matter of correcting an error but of wanting to elaborate a bit here or maybe take some words out there because now you see that the sentence is better, stronger without them. They aren’t wrong, just not needed. And after a book is published, I suspect that many of us, in looking over the finished work, wish we could change something, do a bit of rewriting here and there to make the book better. I know I’m guilty of these feelings, and I suspect I’m not the only author to have them.

I’m sure I’m not the only writer who finds it hard to let a manuscript go. Maybe there are ways I can improve on it. Are there parts I could make clearer? Could I add details to make the writing more vivid?

cover artMaybe I could. Maybe I should. But more likely I shouldn’t. If I’m sending the book to a publisher, my editor will let me know if something isn’t clear and needs some amplification, or, more likely, that something is unnecessary and needs to be removed. When my editor for Seduction of the Scepter marked a large portion of dialog for removal, I objected strenuously. It was a dialog between my protagonist and her instructor regarding the political necessity of arranged marriages in the rather complex political situation in her country. “That information is essential to the plot,” I argued. “It makes clear to the reader what my protagonist must come to accept.” But the editor was adamant, assuring me that the removed material was not necessary, that the reader would understand the situation perfectly well without it. And of course she was absolutely right. Most likely had the material been included, the reader would have skipped over it anyway to get to more interesting material.

This morning I awoke well before the time I needed to get up, and I lay there thinking about my completed manuscript of The Twisted Towers. The towers of the title each correspond to one of the five major gods of Selveen, a country that has been conquered and made a part of an empire where the Selveen gods are not recognized. But the Selveen people continue to worship their gods in underground shrines devoted to them. In addition to the five major gods, three minor gods are mentioned in the story, two only cursorily while the third plays a larger role. My thoughts turned to the minor gods. Of course there are more than three minor gods, but I haven’t mentioned any others. Perhaps I should add a couple of brief mentions, just enough to make the reader aware that other minor gods occupy the Selveen pantheon. I have a character who is very familiar with the Lower Level passages onto which the shrines open. Why not have her comment to another character whom she’s leading through those passages, “This small shrine that we’re passing honors Munji, goddess of thought. I rarely see worshippers come there now. It seems the Selveen people have no use for thought in these difficult times.” With that short bit of dialog, I could introduce a fourth minor god and also make a statement about the condition of the Selveen people. A simple fix. And in another place I could introduce Ligassi, goddess of marriage. I have a scene in which a distraught princess, alone in her garden, shreds the petals of roses as she ponders her unhappy marriage. I could have her reminded later that roses are sacred to Ligassi and have her fear that in shredding them she has offended the goddess, and her marriage is surely doomed. Both wonderful ideas, I concluded. But later, in the bright light of day, I realized that these additions, brief though they would be, are not needed. They contribute nothing new to the plot. They simply represent my reluctance to leave the world I’ve created and the characters to whom I’ve given life.

scissors

As an author who is currently publishing my own novels, I must guard against that tendency to embellish my work with unneeded fribbles and frills. And I must pay close heed to comments from those who read my novel in manuscript form before its publication. If they point out a section that is too long, too wordy, or simply isn’t needed, I know I must be willing to revise and cut—no matter how much it hurts. And then I must let go of my manuscript and send it out, warts and all, to make its own way in the world.

[Check out Seduction of the Scepter. Find it on amazon.com]

 

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