31 December 2012

Travelling Fantasy Roundtable : Part 10 : Food in Fantasy

Part 10 of the Travelling Fantasy Round Table, our roaming discussion on aspects of fantasy literature, is up at Sylvia Kelso's blog. This month we're talking about food in fantasy.

26 December 2012

The Hobbit

The dinner scene at the start could have been shortened at little, but otherwise I think this worked very well.  Indeed, having watched it, I wonder if it would have been possible to film it as a single movie.  Or, I expect it would have been possible, but it would have been close to a 'training montage' of a movie.  This is very much a loving, lingering homage but that just means plenty of the visual spectacle which is half the reason I watch such movies.

Radagast's rabbits were way awesome.

Jackson chose to include a few visible dwarvish women in the crowds escaping from the Dwarven city, and there is a very powerful scene from Galadriel, but I think I'm going to continue with my theory that Fili and Kili are actually what female dwarves look like, just to balance the overwhelming levels of Y chromosome.

24 December 2012

Time for Grinching

What's a year without a good, therapeutic session of complaining talking about things which have irked, which have bugged, which have FINGERSDOWNTHECHALKBOARD bothered me?  These are the things I could have done without this year:

Special Australian Prices

Things cost more in Australia.  It's not because of shipping.  It's not taxes.  It's not the exchange rate.  It's Because. 

For example, Redshirts costs just over $11 in the US Kindle store, and over $17 in the same store, if you're Australian.  Publishers (and other manufacturers, such as game companies) are aware that Australians got stuck paying much more back in the 80s when the Australian dollar was worth 60c US and everything was physical, not electronically transmitted.  Once those factors changed, the prices were artificially jacked up because there was an opportunity for money to be made. 

I buy 90% of my books in e-form.  If I hit an artificially inflated price, I usually just lose interest in the book and go buy something else.  [The highest e-book novel price I've encountered was $27.  I've heard tell of much higher.]

Special Australian Release Dates

From The Hobbit (released a week later than the rest of the world) to Doctor Who, to entire series of television, to e-books with Australian release dates of Never.

The Scalzi example above is an interesting one, because he gets quite shirty with people who complain about the prices and availability of his books when he posts about them on his blog. His stance being that he needs to maximise his income and selling by region is one of the ways to do it, so don't complain to him.

Yeah, perfectly justifiable attitude, but, well, I guess I'm no loss to him as a reader.

KDP Select

KDP Select, which Amazon brought in at the end of last year, offers self-publishers advantages (most importantly better treatment by its algorithms) in exchange for exclusivity.  It instantly divided the self-publishing community, and continues to be a large point of contention.

This year Amazon upped by ante by giving favourable royalties to those in Select (in all its newer stores, those in Select get 70% royalty, and the rest of us get 35%).

I hate exclusivity so, even though I don't sell particularly well on the other retailers, I won't go near Select.  But it annoys the heck out of me because (either coincidentally or as a result), my sales momentum dropped considerably when it came in.  I've never again sold in the numbers I managed just prior to Select.


The thing which annoyed me most about all the reviewer bullying dramas this past year is the complete incomprehension of the word "bullying".  Bullying is not having a different opinion from a crowd or an individual.  Bullying is not saying you didn't like something.  Even if you express that opinion harshly, or with funny pictures.

Extra-infuriating was the fact that most of the really over-the-top "bullying" accusations of the year revolved around politely-worded, even-handed reviews which happened to discuss the poor depiction of women.

There's other things which annoyed me over the year (the Australian media's campaign against Julia Gillard for a start), but these are the big ones, so that's it for my Christmas Eve grinch.

What brought out the bah-humbug in you this year?

21 December 2012

The Next Big Thing

Sylvia Kelso tagged me for this meme, and though I'm not usually much of a meme-participant, I thought this one was quite interesting.  [Sylvia, incidentally, is one of the few fantasy and science fiction writers who sets most of her stories in an Australian landscape (though not necessarily Australia).  If you have a taste for compact, poetic prose and characters tortured by impossible circumstances, check her out!]

What is the working title of your next book?


Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?


Where did the idea come from for the book?

I was reading Georgette Heyer's "Regency Buck" and finding it tremendously frustrating.  That story features a girl who thinks she can take care of herself, but so obviously can't, and continually needs rescuing (by a very smug love interest).  So I decided I wanted a story where the girl runs about rescuing all the people all the time.  [She's not quite that bad, but she does a good piece of rescuing, and rarely requires it.]  I was also in the mood for a fantasy murder mystery, and wanted a herbalist to be a character.

What genre does your book fall under?

High fantasy/young adult.

How long does it take to write the first draft of your manuscript?

This varies wildly.  The shortest would have been around three months.  The longest over a year.  "The Touchstone Trilogy" was exactly a year, since I wrote it in "real time" as diary entries.

What other books would you compare this story to within your genre

Well, it's a girl-disguised-as-a-boy book, so any of those.

Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?

No-one springs to mind for Ash (amusingly, if I Google image search for 'androgynous teen actress' the most common result is Justin Bieber, but she doesn't look like him).  I guess Natalie Portman when she was in "V for Vendetta"?  But not so pretty, and much shorter.  [Edit: except apparently Natalie Portman is very short, which I didn't know.]

The next major character, Thornaster, also doesn't have anyone close enough, but if you took Odad Fehr (back in his Ardeth Bay days) added a dash of the Old Spice Guy and a sprinkle of Daniel Day-Lewis, you might get something close?
Who or What inspired you to write this book?


What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?

More neologisms than you can poke a stick at!  Make your head spin trying to remember new words!

What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

Mary Sue, Mary Sue, let me go kick ass with you... 

[Oh, okay.  Ash probably doesn't qualify as a Mary Sue.  She has no special powers for a start.  Just a can-do attitude and a penchant for climbing things.]

Time to tag someone else:  A. C. Fellows met in North Queensland and lived there a long time. For the past eight years they have lived a long way from anyone on the New England Tableland in New South Wales. They have two children, a role-playing system, and any number of worlds, the most well-developed one of which is Tsai. While most of their works are not strictly co-written, they grow out of a tangled mass of stories, characters, and backgrounds that they have generated together.  They'll have a post up about their Next Big Thing forthwith.

20 December 2012

Rise of the Guardians

Saw this with my three year-old nephew and eighteen year-old niece.  Nephew promptly fell asleep, niece liked it.  I liked it too, so all's good.

Extraordinarily beautiful animation, and well worth watching just for that.  Very action packed story, plenty of easy-flowing visual humour, excellent pace.

- I only had a couple of minor issues with it.  As usual, very Western-centric (seriously, the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy are not universal myths that every child in the world believes in).

- The Sandman (cute as he was) is seriously not one of the myths that kids believe in even in Western cultures.  I'd say that far more kids believe in the Boogeyman than believe in the Sandman, which kind of inverts the plot of the story.

- The voice actor for Jack Frost was way too old.  Jack looks about 12.  14 at the most.  A voice actor who sounds mid-twenties was leading to some severe aural dissonance.

But still, well recommended for kids and adults alike.

16 December 2012

Undecorating the tree

Hanging out the clothes this afternoon, I could hear this...gnawing.

Loud gnawing.

Coincidentally, I'd just been playing the opening of the old computer game, The Bard's Tale, which begins with the classic "kill the rats in the inn cellar" quest.  [Not to mention some of the most gratuitous breast shots I've seen since, well, the first time I played The Bard's Tale.]

Eventually, after much confused peering about, I found the source of the noise in the tall evergreen just over the fence.

The birds are Corellas (I think), and they're busy eating the conifer seeds.

A step up from rats!  [Though, hopefully, no giant, fire-breathing corellas show up, since that's where The Bard's Tale quest ended up.]

15 December 2012

Advance Warning on Price Rises and current Status

Just giving advance warning that after Christmas I'll be lifting my prices from $3.99 to $4.99 per book. I don't think I'm ever likely to price my books in the "upper regions" (ie. $6-$10), but there's this interesting 'perception of quality' issue with books below a certain price. Since my sales have been generally sluggish since KDP Select came in (with its preferential promotion of exclusive books), I have some freedom to experiment with the price I originally intended, but kept hesitating on going to.

I've been a complete slacker with the editing of "Hunting" (I'm only about a third of the way through) and will have to light a fire under my tail. I'm actually a little nervous about the book's reception, since it's the 'earliest' of the books which I'm putting out (I wrote it before "Medair", though after about five other books which will never see the light of day) and it does read to me as "young". More straightforward plot, less deconstruction of the fantasy genre. Still, I love Ash, who has no special powers but an entertaining amount of self-belief.

I really don't want to delay the current publication date just because I've been playing too many MMO's, though, so will try to settle down to work.

05 December 2012

Guest Post: A Rough Guide to Diana Wynne Jones

Each year The Book Smugglers host an increasingly epic end-of-year event known as Smugglivus. This year, I was lucky enough to be invited to participate! The topic could be "anything and everything book-related" and though strictly speaking "of the year" may or may not have been in the outline, I plumped to do a retrospective of my favourite author. You can head across to read my Rough Guide to Diana Wynne Jones at The Book Smugglers.

29 November 2012

The Travelling Fantasy Round Table : Part 9 : SFF Greats

Part 9 of the Travelling Fantasy Round Table, our roaming discussion on aspects of fantasy literature, is up at Theresa Crater's blog. This month we're talking about some of the greats of fantasy.

23 November 2012

One Thousand Stars

After two years and two months, nine books and two compilations, I've hit one thousand ratings on Goodreads*!   I consider this a bit of an achievement, since it's no easy task getting people to read a complete unknown self-publisher, though from a trade publishing point of view - when a new release can easily hit a thousand ratings in two months - it's nothing spectacular.  Heck, some books get a thousand ratings before they're even released!

At the same time, I'm still a "slow and steady" sales type.  To give an idea of relative successes, Goodreads recently posted an article about the Goodreads recommendation engine.  The most interesting point was this:
In late April, the Goodreads Recommendation Engine picked up the book. On average, a book needs to have several hundred ratings before it starts to be included by our algorithm. From that point forward, it became the dominant way that Goodreads members discovered the book. That's the blue section you see in the graph.
So even with Stray's 228 ratings, I have a long way to go to even start to be recommended.  The recommendation engines over at Amazon are even more complex (with participation in Select, sadly, being extra helpful).

With And All the Stars only two months into release, it's not really possible for me to say how successful it is or isn't.  It had solid sales on release as my small established audience picked it up and devoured it, and has now settled into a 1-2 books a day sales pattern.

It's very difficult to tell whether the decision to place the book on NetGalley was worth the expense.  I now have many more book blog reviews for And All the Stars than I have for all except Stray, and it's certainly a much more graceful and pain-free way to get the book out there available for reviewers than emailing reviewers individually.  I'm sure I've picked up a few readers thanks to the various reviews I've received (all but a couple of which have been positive or very positive) and there is a chance that the gradual weight of these reviews will combine into genuine "buzz".  But the impact is still absolutely nothing compared to the sales I receive by making Stray free every six months or so,  Periodically making Stray free remains my best way of picking up new readers, with a small fraction of Touchstone readers moving across to my other books.  I probably won't use NetGalley again unless something changes, and just enjoy the smaller amount of reviews I gain naturally.

Hunting is more or less on track to be released in February.  I've changed quite a lot since I wrote this particular book, and in the editing process have so far removed two extraneous characters and spent more time on worldbuilding.  Hunting is actually the first in a series of four books, but I'm in two minds about publishing the rest of them - there's a plot development in book two which some people will hate, book three is only half-written, and book four is this endless sprawling and self-indulgent mass.  So, lots of work if I want to put them out.

Next year will be catching up on sequels to earlier-released fantasy - Bones of the Fair, which is a companion to Champion of the Rose, and focuses on Aspen and a new character.  BotF is almost complete, but needs thorough editing work.  Then The Sleeping Life, which is a sequel to Stained Glass Monsters and about half-done.  I'll also consider whether or not to slot Wellspring (my magic as a non-transportable commodity book) in at this point.

After that I'll be back to writing fresh stuff - Pyramids of London for a start - I've been doing some elaborate mental worldbuilding for that one and am looking forward to getting some of it on the page.  Then another book started thanks to Goodreads - talking about books generally gives me ideas about books, and in this case I ended up deciding I wanted to do some form of Space Opera MMO trapped in a virtual reality novel.  Very over the top space opera with space elves and a beginning section called The Drowned Earth and, well, I'm trying not to think about it all too much because I'll start writing it and throw my schedule out again.

I've actually written quite a bit of space opera/space adventure, but for some reason I always hit a wall and stop around chapter 12.  There's Surrogate, my "space naga smut book".  And Runes, which is rather plainly influenced by Andre Norton's Forerunners - lots of space archeology and ancient working tech.  And Solitary Stars, where a survey pilot gets kidnapped off on a hunt for, again, a Forerunner planet.  And then there's the one which I think I actually called Space Elves, with blue-skinned, pointy-eared people insisting on fighting duels all over the place, much to the dismay of this long-suffering space station cop.

I love non-scientific, over-the-top space adventure, but damned if I ever seem to finish it.

Anyways, here's to the next thousand stars**!

* [26 of these ratings are for a book which I haven't even released yet, but oh well.]
**[Technically it's more like four and a quarter thousand stars, but that's not so catchy a title.] *

12 November 2012

Some of the people some of the time...

I'm occasionally asked whether I would recommend self-publishing, and usually reel off a list of pros and cons, noting that it's not an either-or decision, but an option you can take without longing for the downfall of trade publishing.  I'll point out that it's fairly easy to get the books up from a technical perspective, that there's companies which will do it for you for a flat fee if you're not great with computers, and that there's no obligation to spend any time marketing (nor, indeed, any guarantee that spending any time marketing will impact your sales significantly).

Putting your work up to be either ignored or judged is a different sort of challenge, but not unique to self-publishing.

One thing which is almost guaranteed to come along with the decision to self-publish are two words: Needs Editing.

Rather too many self-publishers type their books out and throw them up raw.  Some self-edit.  Some crowd-source or trade editing with other writers.  Some hire editors, and make sure to list those editors up front and central in the book's metadata.  Sometimes those editors will be capable and talented people, and sometimes (as apparently was the case with Amanda Hocking's hired editors) not so much.

The copy-editing side of this process - eliminating typos and grammar errors and spotting continuity issues - is relatively straightforward (though even then you will find yourself coming up against grammar myths or "spelling errors" based on British/US/Australian English differences).  But it's fairly easy to say that a book has few spelling or grammar issues.*

Developmental editing - consistency of characterisation, issues with pace, recommending changing point of view, boosting the role of a character, gender-flipping the protagonist, or even altering how the book ends to produce a satisfying and powerful reading experience - all those are a little less definitive.

A developmental editor is a highly experienced reader who can push you into seeing how to make your book even better.  In their view.

Here are two reader views of the opening of Stray.

Love love loved the beginning survivalist part! And the worldbuilding was incredible, though I think some of the humor I liked so much, as well as the characterization, got a bit lost in the last half. - Wendy Darling

I really enjoyed this book. It was slow going to get into it but I'm glad I stuck it out. The story picks up momentum almost imperceptibly and after about 100 pages becomes 'unputdownable'. -
So which editor did I get?  The one who thought that beginning survivalist part was brilliant, and wanted more like it, or the one who thought that part was dull, and fell in love with the book later on?

No book is the same from one reader to the next.  No editor can polish your book to be "perfect".  Experience and personal taste will combine to produce advice which will please some of the people some of the time, and maybe even lots of people most of the time, but never ever all of the people all of the time.

This isn't a suggestion to not use editors.  Feedback on your writing is incredibly valuable, allowing you to see the book through different eyes.  But no matter how much editing your books have gone through, you will not please all of the people all of the time, and because you're self-published you will be told that your books Need Editing.

This will be un-fun at times, and possibly the person saying that is simply not one of "your readers", far more interested in action than character development, or vice versa, but it's also useful free feedback, giving you more things to look for when your next novel is going through the editing rounds.

I'll finish this off with two quotes from Diana Wynne Jones about editing.  First a positive one:

On the good side, there are enormously high standards.  None of the editors I have worked with would have accepted much in the way of clichés.  None of them have ever let me get away with any muddle in any plot, nor with any factual inaccuracy; and though some have queried things that struck them as peculiar, they have always been delighted by originality.  This naturally has put me on my mettle.  Knowing that everything I wrote was going to be subjected to extreme and shrewd scrutiny, I take pains to get the finished manuscript right, if I can.

Then a cautionary one:

I hate being edited, because my second draft is as careful as I can get it.  I try to get it absolutely mistake-free, and absolutely as I feel the book needs to be.  Then some editor comes along and says, 'Change Chapter Eight to Chapter Five, take a huge lump out of Chapter Nine, and let's cut Chapter One altogether.'  And you think, No, I'm going to hit the ceiling any moment.  Then I call for my agent before I get my hands round this person's throat.

Editors were very majestic in the days when I first started writing.  There was one who got hold of The Ogre Downstairs, and rewrote the ending entirely in her own purple prose, which was not in the least like mine, and I decided I was going to change publishers.  'No, no, no,' said my agent.  'You mustn't do that. Carry on and see if you can manage to persuade her.'  And of course I couldn't persuade her.  And then Charmed Life: I know by the time I'd done the second draft it was absolutely perfect, it really, really was, I mean just as it is at this moment, you know.  And this woman rang me up and wrote to me and told me exactly this sort of thing: 'You must take out this chunk and that chunk and rewrite this and alter that,' and I was furious.  And I thought surely we can do something about this.  And thank God it was the days before computers.  I said, 'Send me the typescript back and I'll see what I can do.'  So she did, and I cut out the bits she told me to alter, in irregular jagged shapes, then stuck them back in exactly the same place with Sellotape, only crooked, so it looked as if I'd taken pieces out and put new pieces in.  And then I sent it back to her, and she rang up and said, 'Oh, your alterations have made such a difference.'  And I thought, 'Right! Hereafter I will take no notice of anybody who tries to edit my books.' And I don't,  I make a frightful fuss if anybody tries to, now. - Reflections on the Magic of Writing.
An editor can be a very useful person to have on your side.  But they're not a magical guarantee of perfection, and they're not unique to trade publishing.  Always listen to, then weigh and evaluate any feedback on your writing.  And don't let the 'slings and arrows' get you down.  A small press editor once told me that it simply wasn't possible for a self-published book to be as good as a trade published book, but I've yet to hear a believable argument as to why this should be.

* I've never put a book out which didn't have a typo (still waiting for someone to spot one in And All the Stars, but it's sure to come), but I'm at around 99.5% correct and aiming for better.

01 November 2012

The Travelling Fantasy Round Table : Part 8 : Fantasy/Horror Crossover

Part 8 of the Travelling Fantasy Round Table, our roaming discussion on aspects of fantasy literature, is up at Chris Howard's blog.  This month we're looking into the crossover between fantasy and horror.

22 October 2012


I don't usually indulge in the rah-rah-down with gatekeepers blah-de-blah which so many people associate with self-publishing.  Trade publishing has brought me many good books and I hope that it continues to do so.


Reading this discussion about portal fantasy on Rachel Manija Brown's livejournal has made me at least briefly pick up the pom-poms and start cheering.  Ms Brown starts the post out with:
Yesterday there was a fascinating discussion of portal fantasy, in which a character from our world is transported to another world. The classic example of this is Narnia. I can’t link to the post, because it was filtered (the “portal fantasy” discussion was in the comments) but I offered to make a public post on the subject. I invite the participants to copy their comments to it.

There was a Sirens panel in which five agents, who were discussing their slush piles, mentioned that they were getting quite a few portal fantasy submissions. Two of them said those made up about a quarter of their total YA fantasy submissions.

I said, "This intrigues me, because I haven't seen a single one in the last ten years. Is it that editors aren't buying them? Did you pick any up?"

The agents replied that none of them had even requested a full manuscript for a single portal fantasy.

They explained that portal fantasies tend to have no stakes because they're not connected enough to our world. While in theory, a portal fantasy could have the fate of both our world and the other world at stake, in practice, the story is usually just about the fantasy world. The fate of the real world is not affected by the events of the story, and there is no reason for readers to care what happens to a fantasy world.

One agent remarked that if the protagonist didn't fall through the portal, there would be no story.

And, of course, I was thinking Stray.  I never submitted Stray to any publishers or agents, not because it was portal fantasy, but because it was in diary format, deliberately rambly, and written originally in blog form.

I had no idea that the biggest bar against it was that it was portal fantasy.

An entire sub-genre.  A sub-genre which is the basis for some of the most popular and enduring stories we have (from Narnia to Oz).  And both levels of 'gatekeepers' were automatically not interested, had declared the sub-genre dead - and not told anyone.

I've had plenty of opportunity to fully appreciate the frustrations of the submission-go-round, and I'm so glad that this particular bullet is one I dodged.

The Touchstone Trilogy remains my most popular story.  People read it end to end, and start over.  I had one reader tell me it got her into reading science fiction.  She went on from me to McCaffrey!

So, yeah, rah rah self-publishing.  Here's to having multiple options, to that internet-wide hole in the fence beside that gate.

01 October 2012

Time for an apocalypse

"And All the Stars" is now working its way through the internet gateways.

Amazon Kindle (US, UK, France, Germany, Spain, Italy)

This has been a book which set a lot of "firsts" for me:

- First book which began as a Goodreads comment.
- First book set on Earth.
- First book where I could go visit most of the settings.
- First book I've where I've tracked the drafting progress (that was fun!).
- First book I've started and published in the same year.

Hopefully my regular readers will like it! ^^

The winners of the ebook competition should have received their copies by now.  If you're keen for a physical copy, the Goodreads giveaway still has a couple of days before it finalises - though competition is fierce!  That's a side-effect of having the giveaway up for so long.

Goodreads Book Giveaway

And All the Stars by Andrea K. Höst

And All the Stars

by Andrea K. Höst

Giveaway ends October 03, 2012.
See the giveaway details at Goodreads.
Enter to win

27 September 2012

The Travelling Fantasy Round Table : Part 7 : Animals in Fantasy (Pt 1)

Part 7 of the Travelling Fantasy Round Table, our roaming discussion on aspects of fantasy literature, is up at Deborah J Ross' blog. This month is the first of a two-parter looking at animals in fantasy.

14 September 2012

And All the Stars ebook competition

Closed!  Congrats Jen, Jennifer and George - the ebook has gone out to you today.

Just over two weeks out from release day (3 Oct) - sounds like a good time to run a competition for my blog readers.  A nice simple one this time - just email giveaway@andreakhost.com with "And All the Stars competition" in the subject line, and I'll randomly pick a winner or two just before release.

Make sure you include your preferred e-format in the body of the email!

Competition closes last day of September.

12 September 2012

Classic Mystery Primer

I have a guest post up today over at the Readventurer blog, all about Agatha Christie.  There'll be a Part 2 up tomorrow which covers other favourite mystery writers.

04 September 2012

AAtS Word Cloud

First draft of And All the Stars done!  It came in at just over 90,000 words, and involved quite a bit of tearing up during the last chapters.

The word cloud shows the focus on my galmance (my term for the girl version of a bromance), but is not particularly spoilery.

Next step is the end-to-end re-read - during final chapters I usually come to a better understanding of some characters, so on the re-read I'll do a little shading and emphasising certain aspects - as well as spotting typos, pace issues, continuity errors, etc.  Hopefully I'll get that done by the end of the week (though fatigued at the moment because I pushed to get the draft done).

After that, betas - I'm fascinated to know what their first reactions will be.  Then editing passes, copy-editing passes.

Just over eight months for first draft, which isn't bad.

28 August 2012

The Travelling Fantasy Roundtable : Part 6 : LGBT Issues in Fantasy

Part 6 of the Travelling Fantasy Round Table, our roaming discussion on aspects of fantasy literature, is up at Warren Rochelle's blog.  This month we're looking into LGBT issues in fantasy.

17 August 2012

AAtS - Progress and Promotion

Getting toward the end of And All the Stars' first draft - there's around four chapters still to write, which in theory will be done by the end of August.  Since I've been planning a number of these scenes for quite some time, and also because there's a lot of action in the end-game chapters, this should be do-able.  I write action a great deal quicker than transitional and emotional chapters, and conclusions are often more exciting to write (if only because you can see the light at the end of the tunnel).

[Of course, I'm self-sabotaging a little playing a lot of The Secret World, which is a very good MMO indeed.]

After the first draft is done it's an immediate re-read, which is good for identifying changes of tone, and of course massive great inconsistencies and loose ends you've forgotten to tie.  Then beta readers, then editing rounds, copy-editing rounds, I'm sick to death of this book rounds...  In theory I should make my provisional release date of 3 October.

Now that release is getting closer, one of the things I'm turning my mind to is promotion.

I have a comfortably minimalist approach to promotion (ie. it's not something I enjoy so I don't spoil my fun with it).  I've had my Goodreads giveaway ticking away in the background since May, which has at least made the book a blip on some readers' radar.  I ran a single ad on a blog (The Book Smugglers) where I know I gained a few readers, so that any of those readers who don't follow me have a chance to notice it.  I'll run an ebook giveaway on my blog for those who do follow me!

The one thing I'm yet to decide relates to a site called NetGalley.  NetGalley is a review copy distribution site used by many publishers.  It is possible (but rare) for self-publishers to place a book on the site (for a fee of $399 per book), but whether that will translate to any reviews is another question altogether.  It's not something I'd normally consider, but AAtS is definitely the most commercial book I'm likely to write (the female-focused adult high fantasy I usually produce is _not_ a hot genre) and so I'm at least thinking about it.  [It's not that I can't cover the cost - it's that I'm a self-publisher and thus far less likely to get arc requests than the many many many other books available there.]

But, either way, it's exciting to be nearly finished on this one.  I'm very much looking forward to reader reaction to my pure unmitigated authorial evil some of these plot twists.

06 August 2012

Rule Blinkers

Every so often I run across a critique of someone's writing slating the piece for daring to begin sentences with conjunctions (and, but, etc).  And I look at my novels, proudly flourishing buts in every direction, shrug my shoulders, and go on exactly as before.

I write for clarity.  For pace.  For impact.  I will use sentence fragments.  I will gaily lavish any number of adverbs.  I will spit and hiss, answer, whisper, fill the air with said-bookisms.

So long as it works.

On every writing site or forum I've come across different lists of 'rules' - many of them incorrect (look at a few language usage texts and you'll see there's no rule against beginning sentences with 'and' or 'but').  Once you have a basic understanding of the tools you're using to express yourself, it's well worth checking 'received wisdom': too often it doesn't ring true.

Edit to remove ambiguity, to add emotional impact.  Make sure the words flow.  Cut the extraneous.  But don't clunk up your prose keeping to an arbitrary list of what some person on the internet thinks is 'good' writing.

20 July 2012

Playing with gifs...

I don't do much in the way of advertising my books - but it's fun making gifs!

12 July 2012

Opinion, Territory and Perception : the idea of bullying on Goodreads

I sit in two worlds on Goodreads.  I came to the site as a reader, though I used it primarily for looking up information about books. When I self-published, I had my account converted to an author account, ran a few giveaways, and slowly developed a taste for tracking which books I've read.  I joined some groups, though I'm only an occasional poster.  I continue to run giveaways, and occasionally my readers will find me there and friend or follow me, but primarily I use the site as a reader, following the feed of other readers whose reviews entertain me, or who analyse books on points I'm interested in, such as treatment of women.

Just this past week I've particularly felt the "feet in both camps" nature of being both a reader and writer as a site ironically named GRBullies started receiving attention.  This site collects the personal information of various readers who use Goodreads (addresses, photographs) in, it claims, an attempt to name and shame bullies who harass authors on Goodreads.  This site greatly resembles (and also alludes to) an earlier incident where an author had posted a similar collection of information on her blog about a reader (Google "Selection Debacle" for further information).

The end result of that incident was the reader – someone who had posted a very measured, balanced review (of a book which wasn't even the attacking author's book) – stopped using Goodreads for some time.

Links to the GRBullies site have been appearing on various writer forums I read, often followed by a mix of comments from people who have no problem with Goodreads, and people who call it a cess pit.  I've also been watching the discussion direct on Goodreads, because the people named on GRBullies…?  Most of them are readers whose reviews I've been following for the past year or so.

I can't claim to have a thorough knowledge of everything which happens on Goodreads, so I can only state what I've observed about the experience of being an author there:

As an author:

*- There is an emphasis that the site is for readers to track their books and discuss them. There are opportunities as an author to promote, but they are within strict boundaries to prevent promotion from becoming intrusive.  There is a clear message to me that this is reader territory, not author territory.

*- I'm not actively notified of new ratings and reviews, though if I want to read them I can track them down via an author dashboard which shows me total numbers.

*- I have a little over 700 ratings (nearly 200 of which include text commentary), which range from 1 star to 5 star.

*- No-one has called me names.  Not everyone has liked my books.  Some have said what didn't work for them in a blunt or snarktastic manner. Not everyone is polite, or coats their opinion of my writing in syrup, but I have never felt even remotely bullied.

*- The Goodreads administration discourages authors from commenting on their own reviews – a pop-up message appears warning you off when you start, though it still permits you to comment.

Occasionally there have been incidents which I have watched from the sidelines.  The majority of these have involved comments appearing on a review which amounted to "your opinion, you have it wrong".

This is where "territory" is triggered.  Everyone's perception of a book is different.  There are many popular books which one person will love and another will think is dull or boring or sexist.  The review is their own personal opinion of a book, their 'mental territory'.

Comments on reviews, even comments which disagree with the review, aren't automatically treated as bad.  A comment phrased as "I didn't react to that character's treatment in that way, and so ended up liking the book a great deal more than you did.  Do you think the author was trying to deliberately comment on prejudice there?" is a relatively neutral engagement in a conversation while "You're reading it wrong; are you blind?" will be received as an attack, not an engagement to discussion.

Many comments like the latter result in other readers defending the reviewer's right to have their own reaction to the book, even if it doesn't conform to the commenter's.  Sometimes the exchanges escalate and (given that Goodreads has such an enormous number of users) sometimes matters will descend to name-calling.  Some name-calling comes from inexperienced users, who are often corrected by community members.  Sometimes the name-calling stands and matters escalate further.  Usually the dissenting commenter is repeatedly told to go write their own review rather than argue with the first reader's opinion in the first reader's 'territory'.

Who is the bully here?  The person insisting someone's personal reaction to a book is wrong, or various connected readers quick to defend the territory of reader opinions?

One particular point of contention which has developed over the past year is the use of "author behaving badly" shelves to keep track of authors who have engaged in arguments with reader opinion.  As an author I would feel tremendously uncomfortable finding myself on one of those shelves!  So far I've managed to avoid it by remembering three simple points:

*- Goodreads is a place for readers to express their opinions about books. 
*- Not everyone will have the same opinion, even about my favourite books in the whole world.
*- If I respect other people's opinions, they will generally accord me the same courtesy.

There are more than a million people using Goodreads.  They all have their own views on how polite they need to be when expressing their opinions.  I may occasionally be a little blunt expressing my own. But one thing I always manage to remember is that my opinion is only absolutely correct to me – and people are not bullies for insisting they be allowed to have their own.

03 July 2012

AAtS - Research Trip

A photo of the Sydney Spire site (taken from the vantage point of the third major setting in the book).

It amuses me greatly that I will be able to claim lunchtime sightseeing trips on my taxes.

Currently about 56k along.  My characters are, ah, busy chilling out. :)

28 June 2012

The Travelling Fantasy Round Table : Part 4 : Sexuality in Fantasy

Part 4 of the Travelling Fantasy Round Table, our roaming discussion on aspects of fantasy literature, is up at Deborah J Ross' blog.  This month we're looking into sexuality in fantasy.

17 June 2012


No spoilers till marked point.

Brave has many great points.  It's fun, funny, has a wonderful main character who is vivid and alive, and some personal growth going on.  It's also beautiful to look at, lovely music, and quite touching in its conclusion.  It's not without some problematic worldbuilding/issues with its use of women, so it falls down a little when you start to pick at it, but I recommend letting yourself have fun with it, enjoy the story...and pick it apart later. ;)


Okay, so about those problems. 

Brave, as everyone's sure to know by now, is the first Pixar movie featuring a female main character, and it even revolves around the character's relationship with her mother.  Merida, boistrous ball of fiery curls, loves nothing more than archery and racing about having fun and being daring.  Her issues with her mother revolve around her mother wanting her to behave in ways Merida finds boring ('like a princess').  The breaking point of the relationship is a 'tradition' where the sons of the various lords get to compete for the princess's hand in marriage - something which they've neglected to tell Merida about till the last moment.

Merida wins the competition for her own hand, leaves all the lords upset and at each other's throats, has a fight with her mother, slashes a family tapestry her mother has just completed, and races off into the forest, where will-o-wisps lead her to a witch (amusingly pretending to be a woodcarver, because the witching never works out).  Buying a spell "to change her fate by changing her mother", Merida returns with a cake, which she offers to her mother.  Her mother eats it, turns into a bear, and Merida has to race to find a way to undo the spell before either the clans descend to war, or her mother is killed in bear form.

There are some positive sides to bear form, however.  Taking away her mother's ability to speak, and forcing her out into the forest which is Merida's playground, leads to some quality mother-daughter bonding time, and the risk to her mother certainly reminds Merida that she loves her mother.

However - in this female-led story, we have the following women:

- Merida - fantastic at what she does, full of action and adventure, brave and true.

- Merida's mother - loves her family, but completely focused on her idea of how Merida should be as a princess, blinded by some thought of keeping up tradition.

- The Witch - amusing (and not evil) but not exactly a major player (and, of course, incompetently selling spells of the 'careful what you wish for' variety).

- A maid/cook whose only dialogue is to shriek "BEAR!" and is what I think of as a "chicken woman": clucks about, always getting in or out of the way, comedically frightened (and further comedy in her enormous decolletage).

Merida has no female friends - nor any female rivals or enemies.  The three clans which come to vie for Merida's hand bring no women with them.  No women are shown in the feasting hall except for Merida and her mother.  There are 'background women' in the halls - servants primarily - and some women visible in passing at the outside events, but they don't speak and have no impact on the story.  So what we have is an exceptional woman and her Mum story.

The worldbuilding fail is made clear toward the end of the story, when Merida is stepping up into her mother's diplomat/princess role, and stopping the fighting between the clans by reminding them how their kingdom was formed.  And suddenly that whole tradition issue which is a foundation of the plot falls over, because the kingdom was formed a couple of decades ago by Merida's father as one of four clan leaders, who saved each other's lives fighting off a common enemy.  They decided Merida's Dad would make a good king and united to form a kingdom.

So where the hell did this 'tradition' that the clan leaders' sons compete to marry the princess come from?

[Note: an alternate explanation is that Merida's mother was the only child of the previous ruler, and that the decision was not to form a kingdom, but to allow Merida's father to marry Merida's mother.  In either case, the only person seen to care about the tradition is Merida's mother, who actively invites the clan leaders to come compete.]

And, oh look, none of the sons of the clan leaders want the tradition either!  And the clansleaders are big softies who will agree to dumping the 'tradition' after a rousing speech.  This non-tradition must have been something which Merida's father agreed to with his clan leader buddies when his first child was a daughter, not a son.  Merida's father doesn't even seem keen to tell her about it - he's never the bad guy in this ever, never anything but indulgent, while Merida's mother gets to be the disciplinarian.

And there we come to the problem in this story - the only 'bad guy' is Merida's mother.

The only pressure we ever see for Merida to behave "like a princess" is from her mother.  Her father doesn't seem to want to enforce any kind of princessish behaviour on her.  None of the servants/clanspeople show any sign of being distressed or offended or outraged that she races around with arrows.  They're boisterous clanspeople!  One wouldn't be surprised if they cheered at her skills at archery and her ability to ride madcap through the forest!  Even the witch isn't a bad person.  The only person who acts negatively in the entire story (besides a bear) is Merida's mother.

One could argue that Merida also acts negatively - she basically poisons her mother and shows an incredible lack of concern while her mother appears to be poisoned - but Merida's negative actions are entirely a response to her mother's restrictive behaviour.

This is a misnamed movie, really.  Merida - everyone except chicken-woman really - is shown to already be brave, and we don't see Merida overcoming fear in this story, we see her remembering she loves her mother - that there was a time when her mother was much nicer to her, before she got all tight-assed about princessy behaviour.  A more descriptive title for the movie would be: Mum Needs to Lighten Up.  Because that's the big progression - Merida's mother lightens up, corrects her restrictive behaviour, and all is well again.

It wouldn't take much to fix this movie.  Show the father as insisting on the 'tradition' instead of always the good guy.  Show her mother under pressure from the expectations of people about her daughter's bad behaviour.  Make the story not just about the restrictions on Merida, but on other girls.  Give Merida a bunch of little rapscallion girlfriends to race through the forest with - make her a Peter Pan with her own set of Lost Girls.  Show the kingdom is broken because of restrictions not just on Merida, a princess, but on expectations placed on all girls, so that Merida is truly 'brave' going her own way instead of falling in with those expectations.

Instead, this is just a story about an exceptional girl whose Mum finally lightened up.

13 June 2012

Tomb Raider reboot: One Less Game to Play

Back when a Playstation first came into our household, I played a lot of Tomb Raider.  Yes, Lara had silly proportions, but the puzzles were fun, she had unflappable attitude, said cool things in a neat accent, and it was a change to play a female character who could hold her own.  I played her through many different incarnations, and a while back I saw a little animation for a reboot origin story.

And it was kinda skeevy.  Doe-eyed torture porn skeevy.

Wait for the game, I figured.  Probably just a bad clip.  But then this interview surfaces:
But in the upcoming Tomb Raider reboot, things will be different. She hasn't become that woman yet. And executive producer Ron Rosenberg says you'll want to keep her safe.

"When people play Lara, they don't really project themselves into the character," Rosenberg told me at E3 last week when I asked if it was difficult to develop for a female protagonist.

"They're more like 'I want to protect her.' There's this sort of dynamic of 'I'm going to this adventure with her and trying to protect her.'"

So is she still the hero? I asked Rosenberg if we should expect to look at Lara a little bit differently than we have in the past.

"She's definitely the hero but— you're kind of like her helper," he said. "When you see her have to face these challenges, you start to root for her in a way that you might not root for a male character."

The new Lara Croft isn't just less battle-hardened; she's less voluptuous. Gone are her ridiculous proportions and skimpy clothing. This Lara feels more human, more real. That's intentional, Rosenberg says.

"The ability to see her as a human is even more enticing to me than the more sexualized version of yesteryear," he said. "She literally goes from zero to hero... we're sort of building her up and just when she gets confident, we break her down again."

In the new Tomb Raider, Lara Croft will suffer. Her best friend will be kidnapped. She'll get taken prisoner by island scavengers. And then, Rosenberg says, those scavengers will try to rape her.

"She is literally turned into a cornered animal," Rosenberg said. "It's a huge step in her evolution: she's forced to either fight back or die."
This is causing a bit of a furore, and I'm one of the many crossing this game off the play list.  Some say "wait for the game, it mightn't be as bad as it sounds", and to that I offer up a little word substitution game:

"When people play Master Chief, they don't really project themselves into the character," Rosenberg told me at E3 last week when I asked if it was difficult to develop for a male protagonist.

"They're more like 'I want to protect him.' There's this sort of dynamic of 'I'm going to this adventure with him and trying to protect him.'"

So is he still the hero? I asked Rosenberg if we should expect to look at Master Chief a little bit differently than we have in the past.

"He's definitely the hero but— you're kind of like his helper," he said. "When you see him have to face these challenges, you start to root for him in a way that you might not root for a self-reliant character."

The new Master Chief isn't just less battle-hardened; he's less muscled. Gone are his ridiculous proportions and all-covering armor. This Master Chief feels more human, more real. That's intentional, Rosenberg says.

"The ability to see him as a human is even more enticing to me than the more idealized version of yesteryear," he said. "He literally goes from zero to hero... we're sort of building him up and just when he gets confident, we break him down again."

In the new Halo, Master Chief will suffer. His best friend will be kidnapped. He'll get taken prisoner by island scavengers. And then, Rosenberg says, those scavengers will try to rape him.

"He is literally turned into a cornered animal," Rosenberg said. "It's a huge step in his evolution: he's forced to either fight back or die."

Would you wait for that game?  I think I'll pass.  Thanks.

07 June 2012


Spoilers after the second paragraph.

Overall this is a brilliantly filmed, badly plotted story which is beautiful to look at, but fails to make you care about any of the characters, or really produce any noteworthy SF-nal musings.  It's worth watching, but isn't a re-watch movie.

The story focuses on Elizabeth Shaw, whose father (a devout Christian) died of ebola (and whose mother, as usual, was off the scene even earlier).  Shaw appears to be a variety of Raelian (someone who believes that humans were created or uplifted by aliens) and has discovered a series of images from many different cultures across many years showing humans worshipping a larger humanoid, and also what amounts to a star map.  She believes this is an invitation to go visit humanity's creators, and convinces the head of Weyland Corp to fund a scientific expedition.

There's no indication as to why Shaw believes humanity was created by aliens, or why she thinks the creatures pictured being worshipped are aliens instead of gods.  The same configuration of dots does suggest some link between the images (which were created thousands of years apart) but why not as visitors rather than creators?  [Or as actual Prometheans, teaching humanity.]  Tellingly, Shaw wears her father's cross, and when asked about the contradiction of beliefs, remarks that she might believe humans were created by what she called the Engineers, but that does not answer who created the Engineers.  Shaw comes across as a very nice fanatic - hopeful, naive and obsessed.

The story's second protagonist, if it could be said to have one, is David.  The question I expect most viewers will be wondering is whether David is a Bishop or an Ash - good robot or bad robot.  We see him spying on Shaw's dreams while in cryostorage (making us all wonder why the hell she's _dreaming_ in _cryostorage_), (inexplicably) eating a meal he doesn't need, playing basketball on a bicycle, and watching Lawrence of Arabia - clearly modelling himself after Lawrence.  Given Lawrence's story, this may either signal that he considers himself something of an alien among those around him, or that he has divided allegiences.

David fits into the creation story as the creation of the creation.  If the Engineers made humans, humans have then made him.  But he is an imperfect creation, without emotion, as Holloway (Shaw's boyfriend-colleague) insists on rubbing in at every opportunity.  This particular David is referenced by a hologram of Weyland as his son.  David dutifully wakes the humans up and is helpful and yet oddly passive aggressive - constantly making comments which drift through the edges of insult.

Once everyone is woken, we have several distinct groups.  Shaw and Holloway, shiny-eyed idealists.  The Crew (Idris Elba as Captain, and a few other people, just doing their job).  Meredith Vickers, Company Woman, who seems to serve no purpose on the mission beyond being annoyed by it, and hating David.  A Lot.  Two token scientists - a geologist and what I think must have been a biologist.  In the debriefing, it appears that many of these people have never met before, because there's nothing more logical than sending people to explore planets without telling them that beforehand.

They land.  They find an underground installation.  They set out to investigate.  And here's where the plot and logic begins to fall apart.  There's the usual idiocy of "this is a scientific mission, we don't need guns" which suggests that Shaw has no concept of, say, tigers in the jungle.  David is clearly doing all sorts of stuff outside "look around, don't touch anything".  The token scientists snark and quail, are surly and then stomp off as soon as things look worrying.  Naturally, despite the computer generated mapping technology and the fact that their positions show up on it clearly, they get lost.  They Get Lost.  And nobody notices!

Scary chamber of goo is located.  David secretly takes goo sample.  Head of dead alien is brought back, and theoretically establishes that these very tall, white-skinned, black-eyed people have the near-same DNA as humans, thus somehow proving that they made us...  'kay...?

Unnecessary storm drama.  Someone finally notices token scientists are stuck in the alien installation overnight, until the storm dies.  What the two token scientists get up to, alone overnight and weaponless, is so unspeakably idiotic I can't even bring myself to detail it.

Why do they send such stupid people on trillion dollar scientific missions?

To untangle what's going on afterward, it's fairly clear at around this point that Weyland has brought himself along in cryostorage, hoping for a jolt of immortality from humanity's "creators", and is ordering David to investigate on his own, and do little experiments like give some black goo to Holloway to drink, to see what happens.  [Which leads to yet another variation of alien baby, and Shaw having an emergency caesarian and then doing tons of dramatic running about afterwards.  Shaw is superwoman.]

David finds one last Engineer still alive in stasis, and removes Weyland from cryostorage to take him down to wake the Engineer and ask for some immortality plz.  Vickers, his daughter, thinks this is suicidal but she's obedient to his commands, as is David and the rest of the crew.  The behaviour of everyone at this point is surreal - Shaw is running around all bloody after her self-inflicted caesarian and dead Mr Weyland is heading into the dig and everyone is just...disconnected, doing their own thing.  I presume that everyone except Shaw and Holloway (and the two token scientists) knew the true purpose of the mission, but there's such an air of complete unreality about it all.

It's pretty damn obviously clear that the ship is totally full of jars of alien goo, and David later helpfully tells them it was heading to Earth, but only Shaw and the ship crew care about this.  They figure that this world is some kind of bioweapon research facility and that the Engineers, after creating humans, decided to destroy them, and the goo is the bioweapon they planned to use, but it got out of hand and killed them.

Uninterested in this, all but Vickers and three core crew members head down to wake up the surviving Engineer and ask for some immortality plz.  Weyland has David wake the Engineers and ask for immortality plz and the Engineer kills them all.  Oops.  Shaw sensibly runs away and warns the ship crew.  Vickers is all for just leaving, but ship crew heroically sacrifices themselves to knock alien ship out of the sky, leaving Vickers to eject.  Alien ship crashes, Vickers and Shaw run away, Vickers gets squished.  [I think Vickers got squished because she was logical and selfish and driven and the character (other than the ship captain) I actually found by far the most interesting in the story.  I wanted her to live.]

Shaw has obligatory final alien encounter, then retrieves David's head and sets off (in a handy other ship) to hunt down the Engineers' home world and again ask them why.

Yeah, total mess.  I think we're supposed to come out of the film wondering about the creation of humanity, and what it means to create life in turn, and how Holloway was so dismissive of David, and David helpless to do anything but what Weyland ordered him to, while the Engineers in turn seem hellbent on destroying humanity for whatever reason.

So, you know Mary Shelley's Frankenstein?  Subtitled "The Modern Prometheus"?  We're meant to come out of this movie wondering if we're the Doctor or the Monster.

I came out of this movie thinking: "Why do they send such stupid people on trillion dollar scientific missions?"

29 May 2012

The Travelling Fantasy Round Table: Part 3: Religion in Fantasy

Part 3 of the Travelling Fantasy Round Table, our roaming discussion on aspects of fantasy literature, is up at Carole McDonnell's blog.  This month we're looking into religion in fantasy.

15 May 2012

And All the Stars preview

Previews are something I never read because I can't stand then having to wait to read the rest, but for those who enjoy such things I've added a two-chapter preview for And All the Stars.

The preview can also be viewed via the book's Goodsreads page.

09 May 2012

Another far-off giveaway...

Since I'm now reasonably certain I'll have this done this year.  [On chapter 9.]

Goodreads Book Giveaway

And All the Stars by Andrea K. Höst

And All the Stars

by Andrea K. Höst

Giveaway ends December 20, 2012.

See the giveaway details at Goodreads.

Enter to win

08 May 2012

All those other fairytales...

So everyone knows fairytales.  Sleeping Beauty, Beauty and the Beast, The Little Mermaid, Rapunzel, Little Red Riding Hood, Snow White, Snow White and the Huntsman...

Odds are good that there'll be a few people who can't name many more.  Most will also produce Rumpelstiltskin, Jack and the Beanstalk, Jack the Giant-killer, the Nine Dancing Princesses, the Princess and the Pea, Three Billy Goats Gruff, the Three Little Pigs...Donkeyskin...Snow White, Blood Red...  And then we'll begin to peter out, different people coming up with a few more suggestions.  You'd think that there were only twenty or thirty fairytales out there.

With my memory, I couldn't really claim to name dozens off the top of my head.  But I was lucky enough in my teens to stumble across the collections of Ruth Manning-Sanders, which exposed me to so many more.  Manning-Sanders collected fairytales from all around the world (though with a preponderance of European tales) in books with names like A Book of Sorcerers and Spells and A Book of Enchantments and Curses.  Bizarrely, libraries liked to keep these gems in the reference collection where few were likely to find them - but that worked out well for me!  No competition.

Not only did I discover that there were a great many fairytales which feature Girls Doing Stuff (usually rescuing princes), but the Manning-Sanders collections were taken to an extra level by the illustrations of Robin Jacques.

Frontispiece, A Book of Charms and Changelings
Delicate, detailed, beautiful and gruesome, the illustrations were definitely worth more than a glance.

Chien-Nang: be careful who you elope with
The Flute Player: Witches & changelings (or baby stew!)
The Great Bear of Orange: Katrine gets thrown to the snakes, the sharks AND the lions!

The Hat: First rule of fairytales: always be kind to strangers.

Vasilissa Most Lovely: Baba Yaga has an eccentric taste in torches.
All of these books are out of print, but if you've a child who likes fairytales (or like them yourself) it's worth checking out AbeBooks for ex-library copies.  Some are rare (the mermaid volume goes for around $100) but most are reasonably priced and quite lovely.

25 April 2012

The Travelling Fantasy Round Table: Part 2: The Baggage of Language

Welcome to Part 2 of the Travelling Fantasy Round Table, a roaming discussion on aspects of fantasy literature! 

Today, Theresa Crater, Carole McDonnell, Warren Rochelle, Deborah J. Ross and Sylvia Kelso join me in discussing the baggage of language.

Andrea K Höst

One of the seminal essays dealing with language in fantasy is Ursula K Le Guin's "From Elfland to Poughkeepsie".  Le Guin examines a passage from a secondary world fantasy novel which, she notes, could very well depict politicians in Washington DC.  She suggests the problem is with the style, which does not transport the reader away from our world to a world of heroes and magic, but instead creates cardboard scenery, leaving the reader feeling cheated, as if they were promised another world, an Elfland, but travelled no further than Poughkeepsie.

Although few fantasy novels today resemble the master stylists Le Guin recommends, her point stands that a secondary world which sounds exactly the same as our world will ring untrue, and any writer venturing to create a whole new world needs to pay attention to language.

Stepping back from style to focus on word choice, we can look to the example set by Mary Robinette Kowal's regency fantasy Glamour in Glass, where Kowal pared her word use down to words which existed prior to 1815, creating an exceptional level of verisimilitude. 

For writers who create secondary worlds (instead of alt histories), the challenge is not dissimilar, for even though a truly secondary world novel would not employ a language of this world at all, terms which are particularly modern or wedded to a time and place on Earth will jar the reader – and thus most fantasy writers don't reference "freeways", or name cities New York or Mumbai.

But all words bring their own baggage, and you don't have to mention a warp drive to slingshot a reader to Poughkeepsie and beyond.  A word such as "okay", though debatably around since the 1800s, has a very modern feel which will not ring true when spoken by a Knight of the Round Table.  And certain words and phrases are so absolutely embedded in a real-world event that use of them is fraught with extra meaning.

One of my favourite phrase origin stories is that of "Sweet F.A.", which means "nothing at all".  It has a semi-modern feel and the common incorrect expansion of the phrase (sweet fuck all) would not feel too out of place in a hard-speaking warrior's mouth.  But "Sweet F.A." has its origin in 1867, when an eight year-old girl named Fanny Adams was murdered and dismembered.  With a turn for dark humour the Royal Navy began to refer to newly distributed tins of mutton as "Sweet Fanny Adams".  It is a phrase which means "worthless", "nothing", but it means that for very specific reasons.

A writer creating a secondary world, aware that our modern languages are not the language of that world, must pick and choose from broad vocabulary to eliminate terms which will throw the average reader out of the story, while accepting that the story is still being written in a modern language, because the reader is a modern reader.  Is it unreasonable, for instance, to say "Beowulf stood silhouetted in the mead-hall's doorway", even though 'silhouette' is derived from one Etienne de Silhouette, a French minister of the 1700s?

The word choice I struggle with most frequently is that of ranks and titles.  To neologise or not to neologise?  If you create a new hierarchy of titles for aristocracy, priests, or civil positions, the reader must learn a series of new words and their relationship to each other.  Kier, Kierash, Keridahl...they mean nothing to the reader, and an entire hierarchy of neologisms may swiftly lead to reader overload.  So why not fall back on Emperor, Crown Prince, Duke...?

There are two layers of meaning which come with most Earth hierarchies – an assumed culture, and gender issues.

I recently noted that I started placing guns (flintlock pistols) in my fantasy novels to signal to the reader that the book was not set in the middle ages.  Too often I have seen one of my stories described as "pseudo-medieval", even though the people in those stories clearly had far more education, upward mobility, and freedom to move about than those generally enjoyed under a feudal or manorial system, and usually a highly different relationship to God(s).  But clearly I had conjured an entire culture by the use of the word 'King'.  If I had used Shah, or Daimyo or Pharaoh I would conjure entirely different cultures – but none of those cultures would match the world I had created.

Most problematic of all is the baggage, the immense complexity, which comes with the use of the word "Queen".

There are very specific terms for different types of queens (helpfully provided by Wikipedia):
  • Queen regnant: a female monarch of equivalent power to a male king.
  • Queen consort: the wife of a reigning king.
  • Queen dowager: a former queen consort whose husband has died.
  • Queen mother: either a queen dowager, or a queen regnant who has abdicated, whose son or daughter has become the monarch.
If you look up "King" in Wikipedia, it redirects to "Monarch".  There is no "King widower" or "King regnant" or "King father".  King is a word which means "monarch".  Queen is a word which means "wife or mother", and only in the most exceptional of occasions "monarch".

Of all the words which have baggage in fantasy, rank carries one of the heaviest toll.  Baggage-free neologisms may be the better option after all.

Andrea K Höst was born in Sweden but raised in Australia. She writes fantasy and science fantasy, and enjoys creating stories which give her female characters something more to do than wait for rescue.

Theresa Crater

“The Baggage of Language in Fantasy” is the topic this month, and my short answer to this dilemma is “that’s why I write urban fantasy.” But even then, problems arise. I like to explore alternative theories in my work, and people naturally bring their preconceptions and own certainties to the text.

My partner – now there’s a language problem for you. If I say “partner,” most people will think I mean I’m a lesbian and I’m referring to a woman. If I say “husband,” most people will think I’m 100% straight and we did a traditional marriage ceremony. If I say “domestic partner,” I sound like a social worker. I sometimes say “my guy,” which is quite ambiguous and sometimes causes confusion, but I sort of enjoy that.

Anyway, my partner is an Egyptologist, but not exactly. He came up with a new term. He says he’s created a new field, “Khemitology.” This is the study of pre-dynastic Egypt sort of. Or the study of Egypt as seen from an indigenous perspective, because his teacher was an indigenous elder of Egypt. His teacher claimed that Egyptology was created by the Greeks, who were imperialists, and as such didn’t get told the whole truth about the civilization they were dominating.

One of their ideas that I put into my first fantasy, Under the Stone Paw, was that the word “pharaoh” was a misunderstanding of the term “Per-Aa.” The Greeks, being patriarchal, assumed there were male rulers in Egypt, but Egypt was a matriarchy. (We could pause here and say this doesn’t mean that matriarchy is the reverse image of patriarchy, with women in charge and perpetrating whatever acts they wish upon men with no repercussions. But let’s not.) Descent was from mother to daughter. “Per-Aa” meant “the High House,” which was the woman’s house. The woman chose her consort to help her rule. He was perceived to be the king by the Greeks and the term “Per-Aa” became “pharaoh.”

How would you put this idea into action in fiction? You can’t have someone standing there explaining it. Who are they explaining it to? All the characters belong to that world and understand this as the basis of their reality. So in comes the stranger who needs things explained. Or the text just lives in this world and tells a story, but will the reader relate to and enjoy the story? It might take a while for the reader to acclimate. The Big Six publishers might not like that. They’re in Business. And not in the business of changing minds and hearts primarily. The book must make money first.

Avatar did something many other texts do, and here I’m thinking of some South African anti-apartheid films a few decades back that told the story of apartheid beginning with a naive white guy who had good intentions, but learned the nasty truth through a series of shocking (to the white guy) encounters. Avatar begins in a world familiar to the viewer, then slowly takes us into a foreign world. We learn that world through the character until we suddenly look back at that once familiar world and see . . . . Well, perhaps T.S. Eliot said it best: “The end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”  

Theresa Crater has published two contemporary fantasies, Beneath the Hallowed Hill & Under the Stone Paw and several short stories, most recently “White Moon” in Riding the Moon and “Bringing the Waters” in The Aether Age: Helios. She’s also published poetry and a baker’s dozen of literary criticism. Currently, she teaches writing and British lit in Denver. Born in North Carolina, she now lives in Colorado with her Egyptologist partner and their two cats. Visit her website at http://theresacrater.com.

Carole McDonnell

Recently, there was a bit of an uproar about the Hunger games. Apparently, many folks who had read the book were not aware that certain "dark-brown" characters were what we in the United States would call "a black person."

Words are a powerful thing.  I've had moments when I simply wanted to describe a character as a Native American or a Chinese person -- but such countries and groups did not exist in my story. I therefore had to use words such as "crescent-shaped eyes" (which only made a few people wonder if my characters were aliens.

But there are other issues besides physical descriptions of characters. I always seem to trip over what to call eating implements: Forks...meat spear? Pronged utensil?

Of course, Language can be revitalized in fantasy as well. We all know what a zombie does without calling them "zombies." Same for "vampires" and "witches." It's great using words in a new way. 'Friend age-long' for a best friend. 'Unfleshed ones for spirits.' By changing language, a Christian can do a lot with the idea of zombies versus Resurrection  -- true spiritual growth versus a spiritual legalism herd-mind. Or vampires and cannibals and the Christian idea of taking on the lifeforce of another. Or witchcraft and the spiritual power of words to curse or heal.

My biggest issue in fantasy is all the high english or high fantasy language. Noble folk should speak nobly, and poor uneducated folk should speak badly. But even if one creates a world without class distinctions, there will be different cultures who all  use different greetings, vocabulary, customs. Of course if the fantasy takes place in a world that is very like Europe, one can fall into the old patterns created by other fantasy authors. But how does one create a Native American fantasy language with a folkloric language when high fantasy Arthurian words are whispering in one's ear? And how does one get one's reader to understand the grammar, vocabulary, lingo, of the various non-European clans and castes one has created?

Carole McDonnell is a writer of ethnic fiction, speculative fiction, and Christian fiction. Her works have appeared in many anthologies and at various online sites. Her novel, Wind Follower, was published by Wildeside Books. Her forthcoming novel is called The Constant Towerhttp://carolemcdonnell.blogspot.com/

Warren Rochelle

The problem or the question posed for this round is this: we write our fantasies in English—usually—and those words have their own history that does not—usually—match up with the history of our fantasy world. 

What does this mean? Does this refer to the language of magic? Or Elfspeak in some form or another? No, I don’t think so. Rather, that by using English to write stories set in worlds which cannot possibly be using English—words particular to the Anglophone world, with their etymologies, words that are charged and layered with meaning and history—we cannot possibly match the world we have imagined. This means that on some level the created fantasies cannot be truly described or expressed. Our language must invariably fall short of the fantasy we have imagined.

Give up in despair, go home? Contemplate the wasted years spent on this stuff?

No, because this is always the case when one is trying to tell a story in words, to write down the dream. The idea—the dream—the vision—must be translated into a narrative through language. We can only retrieve an approximation of that dream, a suggestion of the vision, the idea, no matter what genre. The task becomes one of process and an approximation of a product. The added element of the fantastic would, it seems, push this approximation even farther away from vision and dream. The other world of fantasy is at even farther remove than that of the mainstream writer of fiction.
Back to going home, deleting that file?

A solution that I have tried (although solution doesn’t seem to be the right word—we are not going to stop writing just because writing is more process than product) is to set my fantasies here, in the world in which I and my readers live, albeit a skewed, peripheral distortion of said world. My goal is to weave the fantastic into the reader’s world—whether that world is North Carolina, particularly the central Triangle region in which I grew up—or another real-world locale.  This is the vision I am trying to capture and express and tell my story—currently in Richmond, Virginia, and various places in England. So far.

But, the created worlds of any writer is a personal vision, whether it is North Carolina or Virginia, North Queensland, or Prydain/Wales, or the world behind the walls where Mary Norton’s Borrowers live, or something far more divorced from primary reality, such as George R. R. Martin’s Seven Kingdoms.

I think a more hopeful way to approach this question of the gap between the language employed by the writer to describe a world which has no connection to this language is metaphor and symbol and myth. Language is inherently metaphoric and symbolic and the created world of the fantastic is, more often than not, a metaphor, a symbol, of the world of the writer and the reader. And it is the reader we want to connect to with our fantastic vision and so we use their metaphors, their symbols. We want them to glimpse our dream and the language of metaphor is the common ground for this glimpsing.

This may be easier when the writer, as I do, employs the stuff of his or her world. Perhaps.  The writer is still speaking in metaphor and is still describing a vision, regardless of the distance between the writer and the imagined world. The stuff of the dream is still inherent in the language weaving the tale. And that dream, its people, its places, is still made out of the writer’s stuff, as it were.

But the gap remains.

Perhaps the gap should be there, as long as one is mindful of it, and if one remembers it is the process, the telling, that matters. It is the process that casts the spell, that allows the reader to make his or her way into to the product of the fantastic world, world, if created successfully, is there before the reader arrives, and will be there when the reader leaves—an ongoing world revealed in metaphor and symbol, glimpsed in words.

Mind the gap. Enter the dream. Write.

Warren Rochelle has taught English at the University of Mary Washington since 2000. His short story, "The Golden Boy” (published in The Silver Gryphon) was a Finalist for the 2004 Gaylactic Spectrum Award for Best Short Story and his novels include The Wild Boy (2001), Harvest of Changelings (2007), and The Called (2010). He also published a critical work on Le Guin and has academic articles in various journals and essay collections.  http://warrenrochelle.com

Deborah J Ross

This topic brings two things to mind. One is the level of diction in fantasy prose, the other the role of language and languages in fantasy stories.

Once upon a time – and you see right away that this phrase conveys a host of expectations about what follows – “fantasy” conveyed images of far-off lands, usually exotic, times-gone-by, and heroes of courage, dignity, and high rank. Whether fairy tales for children or the Arthurian cycle, these stories often (although not always) centered around royal or at least aristocratic characters. Even those who weren’t (the poor woodcutter, the third son off to make his fortune) partook of the same elevated language. The works of E. R. Eddison and J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings did much to cement this association in the mind of the reader.

The subsequent explosion of Tolkienesque fantasy stories varied tremendously in the skillfulness with which prose language was handled. We can undoubtedly all come up with examples of laughably inept examples that stem from lack of research or incomplete understanding of diction.

Almost in reaction to the “high-falutin’” language of kings and elves, the “cozy hedge-witch fantasy” introduced contemporary slang (and social attitudes) into medieval and other “fantastical” settings. Again, the results ranged from fresh and innovative to awkward to inadvertently hilarious. Many of these represented attempts to reconcile fantasy elements (including what was regarded as the necessary pre-industrialized setting) with “the way people really talk.” The style of narration had shifted from omniscient to tight-third person (or first person), and this required that the diction level in exposition be roughly equivalent to that of dialog and internal monolog.

Finally, as fantasy expanded into properly contemporary urban settings, prose language and setting regained a measure of congruence. The language itself became as modern as the surroundings.

For most of us, the way people spoke three or five hundred or two thousand years ago might as well be a foreign language. We have to take classes in order to properly understand any writer before Shakespeare (and most of us need a “Reader’s Guide” to Will). With the exception of literature classes on Middle English, Chaucer gets read in translation. So those of us who are not linguists approach creating the “elevated” language of high fantasy with several handicap. If we’ve grown up in a single-language community (or worse yet, a single-class community), we’ve never had the direct experience of the interactions of culture, language, attitude, and personality, or of public versus private languages, or of separate men’s and women’s languages (although one could argue the latter does exist in English). We have to stop and think about how people who speak different languages learn to communicate – sign language? Translators? Trade dialects? Telepathy? How does a long-established, stable mutual-language/translation convention differ from those that have come before? What are the cultural assumptions that come with each language and each social class within that language-culture? What are the occasions for misunderstanding and what are the consequences? I find these questions fascinating in themselves, but also fertile ground for exploring character, culture, and conflict (not to mention alliteration). Fascinating in themselves, but also fertile ground for exploring character, culture, and conflict (not to mention alliteration).

Deborah J Ross began writing professionally in 1982 as Deborah Wheeler with JAYDIUM and NORTHLIGHT, and short stories in ASIMOV'S, F & SF, REALMS OF FANTASY and STAR WARS: TALES FROM JABBA'S PALACE. Now under her birth name, Ross, she is continuing the" Darkover" series of the late Marion Zimmer Bradley, as well as original work, including the fantasy trilogy THE SEVEN-PETALED SHIELD. She is a member of Book View Cafe. She has lived in France, worked for a cardiologist, studied Hebrew, yoga and kung fu, and is active in the local Jewish and Quaker communities.

Sylvia Kelso

Time was, everything appearing on the SF and Fantasy bookshop shelf (ah, those pre-Kindle days!) could have been assessed against Ursula Le Guin’s ukases in her now famous 1973 essay, “From Elfland to Poughkeepsie.”


"Many readers, many critics and most editors speak of style as if it were an ingredient of a book, like the sugar in a cake ... The style, of course is the book...”

"Why is style of such fundamental significance in a fantasy?... In fantasy there is … no borrowed reality of history, or current events... There is no comfortable matrix of the commonplace to substitute for the imagination, to provide ready-made emotional response... There is only a construct built in a void, where every joint and seam and nail is exposed...”

As exemplar,  Le Guin did a masterly hatchet job on one unfortunate fantasy writer of the early ‘70s whose language could not move from the Poughkeepsie of a contemporary political or spy story to the rarefied air of Elfland.

Le Guin charted a number of the traps, now listed all over the Web, that await young players attempting such Elsewhereness. Archaisms the writer can’t handle, esp. the old second and 3rd person singular verbs (I just found a current blog purporting to speak for Chaucer and using 3rd singular for an imperative.) Exotic but evanescent oaths and ditto gods. The Dreaded X-Y-Z-apostrophe invented-word: Xard’ril the Warrior (Princess?). Yarrin the Village. Zal’ope the God of  Small Things.  (Many others are pilloried in Diana Wynne Jones’ Tough Guide to (High) Fantasyland.)

(At this point, please note, I am now using Elfland as a metonym for Elsewhere – elves are optional, but a successful fantasy must still transcend Here.)

Le Guin did cite two master stylists whose passports to Elfland were secure: Tolkien and E. R. Edison. The latter, I have seen dismissed recently for “too elaborate language,” and the other is probably going the same way,  but everything Le Guin found in them is still true. The fantasy she wrote about does demand language from Elsewhere, it goes best with a real stylist, and, as Le Guin also wrote,

"A fantasy is a journey. It is a journey into the subconscious mind, just as psychoanalysis is. Like psychoanalysis, it can be dangerous; and it will change you."
Except, nowadays, most of what’s sold as fantasy isn’t high fantasy.

So, does it need a master stylist to reach Elfland if you aren’t producing a secondary world, a “construct in a void” totally reliant on your language skills? Can you even see Elfland from the streets of a contemporary urban fantasy, even one as sharp as Katharine Kerr’s License to Ensorcell series? Or have Stephanie Meyer and Peter Jackson’s hairdressers overloaded the genre with tall pale handsome men who either glitter or carry FAR too much hair?

And if you can’t see Elfland, is the language to blame?

It’s certainly easier for the less-skilled writer to handle characters with “realist” names and venues he or she may walk through daily. But it’s also harder. Because how do you invest these places and people with “the air of Numenor?” How do you get Elfland to happen, right here?

It can be done. Peter Beagle’s The Folk of the Air transformed parts of San Francisco with no more than some SCA players, a goddess, a witch, and some time travel, but Peter Beagle, like Tolkien, is a stylist par excellence. I have to admit that it doesn’t happen for me in most current urban fantasies, where the Otherworld element either has really dorky names, or appears so mundane I feel I’m in The Gated Hell Community or Vampire Suburbia. These are Elvenlords. These are vampires. They are not the Guyz Next Door. They are danger, REAL danger, they carry the scent of Elsewhere. They should raise your neck hair, not your fashion sense.

So, yes, language in fantasy does still matter. For this reader there is no substitute for a word-smith, whether in modern San Francisco or beyond a helpful wardrobe. The old traps still pertain, and so do the old demands. By the end, as Le Guin stipulated, a “real” fantasy novel, high or contemporary, will have to deal successfully with archetypes. And hence it will need to be, “a journey into the subconscious mind, just as psychoanalysis is.” And ‘’[l]ike psychoanalysis, … it will change you."

I don’t know that huge numbers of the contemporary fantasy and paranormal romance market will reach that last criterion. It will be the language that does it, if they do.

Sylvia Kelso lives in North Queensland, Australia. She writes fantasy and SF set in analogue or alternate Australian settings. She has published six fantasy novels, two of which were finalists for best fantasy novel of the year in the Australian Aurealis genre fiction awards, and some short stories in Australian and US anthologies.

That's it for this month's Travelling Round Table!  Feel free to join in the discussion in the comments.

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