karenmiller (karenmiller) wrote,
karenmiller
karenmiller

Lois McMaster Bujold (part the 3rd)

And now for the conclusion ...

14. What are your future writing plans?

Finish the fourth Sharing Knife volume, rest up, get surgery (again!) on my right ear to repair the non-working stapes etc. bones, read and watch a great deal of new material utterly at random, and work up notions for a new Miles book contracted to Baen Books. Somewhere in there will fall the Worldcon GoH gig -- I’ll have to write a speech, oh dear. Have promised an essay to my Chinese publisher and another foreword to Baen for the next omnibus, too.

After that, I don’t know, but after that, we’re talking about 2009. I’ll deal with the next decade *later*...
I’m done with reading for self-improvement for a while, though. It’s self-indulgence for me now, I swear. Or would be, if I could turn off all the meta-analysis.

15. What’s the one book you think all aspiring spec fic writers should read?

Again; they shouldn’t read just one. They should read thousands. That way, at least the books will have a chance of counteracting each other.

16. Finally: Spend a little time talking about your books and writing -- the themes you gravitate towards, why you've written these particular stories, why your characters are the people they are, and how they reflect elements of yourself. What is it you hope your readers will gain/experience from reading your books?

Well, mainly, I hope they gain a good read. “This island is full of sounds, sweet airs, that give delight, and hurt not...” To give delight and hurt not seems sufficient ambition to me.

Time tonight does not permit answering this properly, i.e., as asked, but here are some reflections on, and from, my most recent work:

The initial idea for The Sharing Knife came to me out on my back deck, on a fine summer day in June of 2004. I had lately sent the submission draft of The Hallowed Hunt off to my editor at Eos, and was enjoying a sort of blank space while waiting for revision requests to come back on the tide, and so was officially off-duty for writing. I had been feeling especially dead-brained, as I tend to after finishing a novel, when the idea of even looking at more prose, let alone writing any, makes me faintly nauseated. But it was a beautiful sunny warm day in Minnesota, which is not a gift to be wasted, so I went outside to soak up the sun and not be anyone at all for a few hours.

(That turn of phrase, by the way, comes from the play Arsenic and Old Lace, when the dotty aunts try to persuade the crazy cousin to be some other president than Teddy Roosevelt, just for a change, “But he stayed under the bed all day and wouldn’t be anyone at all!” I have days I feel like that.)

Anyway, I started thinking up a tale to entertain just myself, with no considerations of commercial viability or even artistic merit. Just stuff *I* liked. And, rather to my own surprise, my imagination started working again, spinning out this unlikely romance. This first version had little resemblance to the final, although Dag was even then a one-handed older soldier, and Fawn was a young, short, and troubled runaway. Their world and the sharing knives were not even a gleam in my eye yet. And a couple of happy hours went by, I absorbed my dose of needed sunlight (I don’t think I have seasonal affective disorder, but I do like my light), and that was that.

As is not unusual, I found myself explaining the tale to my friend Pat as we went off to dinner, and all the reasons I couldn’t make it a real novel, even though I’d enjoyed it immensely. I mean, writers are supposed to enjoy their work, but surely not this much? And she said -- shortened considerably -- “Of course you could.” And I started thinking about it. And sure enough, she was right. (She often is.)

There followed about two months of intense world-building around my characters and their plot. A lot of fantasy writers start with their world, and then make up their characters and story so as to explore it; I more typically assemble it all in reverse. My worlds are created as the characters and story move through them, and don’t pre-exist in huge detail. (The plot is often very malleable as well, which means that at some phases things are shifting and mutating all over the place. Which makes me rather nervous to sell a book on proposal, because what if the book turns out to be something altogether else than what the publisher thought it was paying for?) But some things have to be settled before a tale can even begin.

My first key world-building invention was the malices, or blight bogles as my book’s farmers dub them. They had two sources; one was a meditation, on one of my walks, about the sad lack of Dark Lords in my tales to date, and about the nature of such beings leading to fantasy novel (or trilogy) scenarios of a War To End Wars, which is not how the world in my observation operates; it’s really just one damn war after another. And the other was being writer guest at Balticon in June of 2004, when they were having the 17-year-cicada outbreak. Big gaudy bewildered insects raining down from the sky like sleet... which triggered, at length, the notion of a fantasy war that constantly hatches anew, just like the real ones. The next key invention was of course the malice-slaying sharing knives, which are a sort of canned human sacrifice, and then the culture that had to exist to support them. The notion of the knives came first; I more-or-less reasoned backward to many other aspects of the Lakewalkers.

And the opening scene presented itself to my mind’s eye, and I was off. Although not running, but walking; a lot of the story development took place during my extended walks in local parks. I’d been trying to increase my exercise to fight the effects of middle age on my fasting blood sugar; I hadn’t expected it to also increase my writing productivity, but it did.

Another place The Sharing Knife came from was out of reaction to prior book projects of mine, most immediately The Hallowed Hunt, but also others.

Now, The Hallowed Hunt had started out, in its original conception, to be mainly a romance. But the book was hijacked from the heroine by the antagonist and carted off in another direction altogether. (You do understand by now that I make up a lot of this stuff as I go along.)

This turn of events also happened in part because of my early decision to make HH single viewpoint to its hero Ingrey, rather than splitting the viewpoint between Ingrey and heroine Ijada or making it multiple viewpoint. My point-of-view characters have a distressingly strong tendency to wrap the developing plot around their own concerns, and so of all the early structural decisions I make, who gets the viewpoint -- whose head the story is shown through and in -- has the most profound impact on the ultimate story shape. If Ijada had owned a viewpoint, Earl Horseriver would have found the story much harder to take away from her.

Some wag once remarked that literary fiction is about love and death, and genre fiction is about sex and violence. (*Snrch*, I say, which is a useful internet phrase indicating a snigger.) When the most important relationship in the book turned out to be not between the hero and the heroine, but between the hero and the villain, the book became a lot more about death and a lot less about love than I’d originally planned. (And we never even got to the sex, drat it.)

Which led me to wonder in turn if that’s one of the salient differences between men’s adventure fiction and women’s romance fiction. In an adventure tale, the most important relationship is between the hero/ine and the villain (or antagonist, in the case of villain-less conflicts such as man-against-nature); in a romance, the most important relationship is between the heroine and the hero. Combining the two story types can lead to a sort of hierarchy-of-values problem. If two characters struggling for their very lives stop in the middle to smooch, it risks looking not romantic, but stupid. And villains have their ways of insisting that everyone pay attention to them. So in all my prior adventure tales, the romance, often my favorite aspect, inevitably ended up relegated to a mere sub-plot. Was it structurally possible to write an intelligent fantasy-adventure in which the romance stayed central?

The Sharing Knife was, in part, my attempt to find out. Some very interesting -- to me, at least -- things happened to the two structures when blended; a lot of important events don’t occur at quite the places where experienced readers of either genre expect them to, for one. Due to the place where the long tale was split into two volumes, the mid-book breather of the whole arc is doubling for the climax of the first volume, Beguilement. That it’s a sufficiently lively breather to do so says something.

And some of the quietest scenes will have the most important consequences; I could tell even when I was first writing them, before I ever knew how the rest of the book would play out, when it all went “myffic, with extra myff”, as Nanny Ogg from Terry Pratchett’s Discworld books once said. “One spins the thread, one measures it, and one cuts it off.” Ah. Oh.

None of these observations were available to me in advance, mind you, only in retrospect. When I’m writing, mostly what’s out ahead is murk. My structure and pacing happen mainly by gut-feel. I have to write my way into the light, sentence by sentence and scene by scene, and just hope it will all add up to something worth a reader’s money and time by the end.

The second half, Legacy, starts at a rather unexpected place too; it’s not meant to be read as a stand-alone, but inevitably some readers will -- although enough about the prior events get rounded up in the first three or four chapters that I think they won’t sink. I’ll be fascinated by the reader-response from that group.

Like many other writers, I sometimes find that music supplies inspiration for work in progress, either triggering ideas, or coming along to support them. At one time or another all sorts of music has worked this way for me -- instrumental, classical, rock, folk -- an old Steeleye Span song, “King Henry and the Grisley Ghost”, updated to SFnal terms, once supplied a character and entire subplot for a novella.

Thinking back, there are several songs that triggered ideas for Dag and Fawn, or supplied as it were theme songs or anthems for them, that somehow (in my mind, likely in my mind alone) seemed deeply associated with their salient characteristics or emotions. Dag, being at times an angsty sort of fellow, especially seemed to attach himself to music, and music and singing do feature, if briefly (but pivotally) in Beguilement.

One of the first songs to attach itself to Dag was by a now defunct group (but it has descendants) called October Project, and titled “Paths of Desire”. Along about the same time, I belatedly discovered the work of the late Dave Carter with Tracy Grammer, who supplied not only some wonderful songs, but very American voices that somehow tied in with my tale. From their album Tanglewood Tree I found songs for each of my protagonists, “Tanglewood Tree” for Dag and “The Mountain” for Fawn, and from When I Go, yet another for Dag, a natural titled “Annie’s Lover”. Dag seems to have the lion’s share, here, but that may be deceptive, since “The Mountain” is such a powerful song.

If ever The Sharing Knife becomes an audio book, I’m going to send the narrator to listen to Dave and Tracy, to get the cadence of the voices for my duo. Dag’s voice is deeper than the singer’s, but it still has that Western-Midwestern drawl to it.

I don’t, be it noted, listen to music while I’m actually writing; I need silence for that. My brain doesn’t multi-task especially well. Music is a sporadic interest. At some times I’ll be open and actively searching out new stuff. At others I’ll be shut down for weeks on end, as I also shut off movies and other books, while I’m listening to -- or for -- my own inner voice.

I should also mention I have no musical talent myself, and could not carry a tune in a bucket. I am happily dependent on other artists to bring it to me. Seems fair.

More than in any other book I’ve ever written, its landscapes are important to The Sharing Knife. Patricia McKillip says she regularly starts with landscape -- they’re like the emotional music of the book for her -- but for me, that was a bit of a departure (as are many other aspects of TSK.) Because with TSK, I’m mining down to some of the deepest layers of my own experience: the farms, woods, lakes, rivers, animals, plants, insects, people, and weather of my Ohio childhood.

Tolkien and Pratchett are two other writers who, notably, have come the long way around to get home: the landscapes of Tolkien’s own late 19th Century childhood informing aspects of his tales, Pratchett most recently with the Chalk, home turf of Tiffany Aching and himself. And not just home ground: it’s the lost place, the refuge of distant memory.

Like so many other Americans, for me that vanished landscape is engulfed by various sorts of change or urban sprawl, and is now recoverable only in the mind, as inaccessible to daylight reach as any faerie realm. My childhood has been paved. Many of its people are dead. The land has gone to the use of other more present lives, and no ghosts dwell there for them, nor even guesses of what went before. It’s not an American experience only, to be sure, but it’s an immensely common one for us. And the world of The Sharing Knife is a deliberately American landscape, not only physically but socially: no kings, no lords, no gods, no state religion, bottom-up rather than top-down political structures, all very much under local control.

One of the members of my chat list, Ohio librarian Mary Piero Carey, is from my home region, and she wrote in response to Beguilement:

“I have this landscape in my bones, and Lois, you NAILED it. The heat, the trees, the critters, the way the roads run, the Amish/German influenced farming community food. For those of you who don't live around here, yes, indeedy, this what our neck of the woods feels like. Lots of Indiana & Illinois is very like this as well. The pride & delight in early industrial achievements amongst the glass & brick makers in S.E. Ohio. (You just can't imagine the utter GLEE involved unless you read some of the early glass & brick industry history, especially once they figured out how to do it with natural gas.) The deep preoccupation of the farming mindset with LAND. The nearly simultaneous stupidity & brilliance of horses...”

This is not to encourage a sort of Easter-egg hunt for one-to-one correspondences between Oleana or Raintree and some road map of Midwestern states so beloved of a certain type of mind. (Well, unless you find it a fun party game, in which case, go ahead, but don’t look to me to keep score.) The correspondences run to a different fit, because the geography of the book is ultimately an internal one.

***

And that's it! Isn't she amazing? If you're not already a fan of this fabulous woman's work, then run, do not walk, to your nearest bookshop and start reading! You'll never be the same again, I swear ...

So, what's really exciting is that The Sharing Knife Vol. 2: Legacy is now out and about. It's available in-store across the US, plus from the specialist booksellers here in Australia, as well as the usual on-line bookselling outlets. For more information on the book itself you can go to: http://www.harpercollins.com/books/9780061139055/The_Sharing_Knife_Volume_Two/index.aspx?HCHP=TB_The+Sharing+Knife+Volume+Two

Sample chapters are online at: http://www.harpercollins.com/books/9780061139055/The_Sharing_Knife_Volume_Two/excerpt.aspx

If you're interested in checking out the first book first, go to: http://www.harpercollins.com/books/9780061137587/The_Sharing_Knife_Volume_One/excerpt.aspx
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