Sep 19 2019

The Steerswoman panel at Readercon


Now, this is the second time that there’s been a panel discussing my books; and yes, there were significant differences between the two.

The panel at Scintillation (you can read about it here) was, in essence, celebratory; the panelists, and the audience, focused on sharing the things that they liked about the books.  It was wonderful to hear, and so heartwarming.

The Readercon panel, on the other hand, was more analytical.  The panelists (Yves Meynard, Kate Nepveu, Victoria Janssen, Cecilia Tan, Elaine Isaak AKA E.C. Ambrose) are writers themselves, and they they came at the discussion from that direction.

And of course, the biggest difference: I was not on the panel myself this time.

Nope, I was in the audience.  Just a fly on the wall, don’t mind me, nothing to see here, la, la, la —

Of course everybody did see me right there. Heh.  And the very first thing Kate Nepveu, the moderator, did was address me directly and say that I was absolutely forbidden to speak — until the very end of the panel, when I would be given five minutes for follow-up and/or rebuttal.  She wanted the panelists to speak freely,  as if I were not there, and discuss the things that they wanted to discuss, good, bad, or whatever.

Excellent, thought I.  Should be fun.

Because, as it happens, I have what I can only describe as a very clear-eyed view of my own work.

I know this isn’t true of all writers, or of artists in general, actually.  We creative types are notoriously sensitive — or contrariwise, absolutely convinced of our inherent superiority!   Some of us will spin into  abject misery, binge-eating rocky road ice cream, if you say that our story is not quite perfect; and certain others (naming no names here!) will go into paroxysms of outrage and spout prodigies of vitriol if you happen to disagree about the Oxford comma.

Me? Not so much.  Why?  Beats me.

Possibly it’s really just a variation on the egotistical end of the axis.   But generally, my reaction to criticism falls in three categories:

  1. You’re wrong, and here’s why.
  2. You’re right!  Wow, did I ever screw up on that one!
  3. Your complaint actually reflects merely a matter of personal preference; and we could have a very interesting discussion about why we differ on the issue.

But the most interesting thing about all kinds of critical analysis — positive and negative — is this: someone cared enough about your work to give it deep, careful thought and come up with real opinions.  That’s always a compliment, really, and always gratifying.

And they did say many things: compliments, speculations, and yes, a few complaints.

I tried not to react when they brought up the speculations about what was what, and where the story might be going.   But I found it fascinating to watch them go back and forth about the possibilities.  I loved hearing their reasoning, seeing them pick up cues and clues, turn them over, subject them to scrutiny, and even surprise each other.

I can’t put down everything that was said, but for highlights:

Yves Meynard paid me one of the loveliest compliments ever, as he explained to the audience how much he loved my prose.   Not the sort of thing you generally find in fantasy, he said; beautiful but not flowery,  each word well chosen, and flowing like music.  And also many other complmentary things, which my humility (yes, I do have some) make it impossible for me to quote in detail.

But the one that got me most was luminous: he said that my prose was luminous –  and frankly, when you bury me please use that as my epitaph.  Her prose was luminous.  In fact, feel free to leave my name off the tombstone entirely.  Her prose was luminous would be enough.

Victoria Janssen pointed out that within the overall plot, the books also hit a lot of the fantasy-trope plot lines. I was particularly pleased by that she caught that, as it was absolutely intentional on my part.

They all appreciated how the books present logic, reason, and discovery as joyful acts; and again, exactly what I was trying to do, and what I’m most glad of when people relate to  it.

Kate Nepveu noted that the meetings between cultures were not simplistic, and included some actual friction.

Cecilia Tan connected my books to other works that were SF with a fantasy feel — Bradley’s Darkover and McCaffrey’s Pern  books, for example.  And she noted that this was an approach that women sometimes turned to in the past because SF had more respect than fantasy did.

Elaine Isaak pointed out that having the reader know more than the characters of the story do puts the reader in an interesting position.  The readers themselves participate in the worldbuilding, providing  information about the world that the characters might not notice.  And it creates an interesting tension: the reader sees it — will Rowan?

And one of the audience members pointed out the inherent, matter-of-fact equality in the background of the books.  Any role, any job, might be held by a man or a woman.

And as for some complaints…

Kate pointed out  that the books depicted PTSD with both Fletcher and Janus, but that Zenna seemed unaffected by her own experience.

Victoria Janssen noted that ASL (or something like it) appears, but there seemed to be no Deaf Community.

And Kate says that she makes it a point to warn people about the torture scene in the first book… and that Janus’ name is just too “spot on.”

And eventually I did get to my 5 minutes of reply and rebuttal.  The very first thing I did was thank them all because: wow, that really was fun.  Five really sharp people turning their brilliant brains on my books?  What’s not to love?

As for rebuttal:

I had to point out to Kate that, strictly speaking, there is no actual torture scene.  There’s torture, but no scene.  It all takes place out of sight, off-stage.  Still, one can see why it would be disturbing that the story refers to it, and Rowan can hear what’s happening, for part of it.

And Janus’ name?

Absolutely correct.  Worst name ever!  I explained what happened:

I was writing first the draft of  The Steerswoman, and I came to the point where I had to plant a reference to that steersman who had quit the order.   He had to be referred to now, in Book One, in order to pay off in Book Three.

However, I hadn’t decided on a name for him yet.

No problem, I told myself.  I’ll just stick something in here, a sort of placeholder, so can move on and finish the rest of the book.   Pick a letter –  how about “J”?  Sure.  What starts with J?  I dunno — Janus?  Right, good enough,  I’ll go back and fix it later.

And… I did not go back and fix it later.  I basically forgot, until it was just too late, and the book was in print.

Yeah, I was kicking myself when I realized… Not only is the name too “on point,” as Kate said, it was also  too similar  to the name of the wizard Jannik.  Thus breaking my own rule to never have character names that resemble each other closely, as it is very unkind to  the reader.

Well.  At least Janus and Jannik never appear in a scene together, or get mentioned in the same breath.   And this is also why I always pronounce Janus with a long “a,” just for my own peace of mind.

(By the way, I since learned that the correct thing to do when you need a placeholder is to insert TK — which stands for “To Come.”   Then you can do global search for TK when you want to fix the placeholder; and if you forget the editor and typesetter know what TK means, and will know to ask you to fix it before going to press.)

What I did not have time to address:

There was no Deaf Community, because… well, you have to have more than one Deaf person around, for there to be a community.  Deafness isn’t common, and travel is not easy.  There might not be even a single other deaf person within a hundred miles.  You can’t just hop a bus and go hang out together. For a Deaf community to exist, you’d first have to locate all the deaf people, and gather them together in one place.   This just doesn’t happen in Rowan’s world.

And Zenna being apparently unaffected by her trauma?  Hm.  I think if you look closely, you might see her veneer cracking a bit, in the scene in Brewer’s tavern.  It’s one of those things where there’s just no room to fully tell everyone’s back story — so I put the cues in there, for the reader to find, or not.  (There are a couple other places in the books where Someone Has a Story, which I intentionally do not tell.)

Okay: wrap up.

In conclusion: What can I say?  So much fun.  These are some really sharp minds, and it was so gratifying that they chose to talk about my books.

I’d like to suggest that you go buy their books!


Sep 16 2019

Quick attempt to catch up



Rather than opening out, my fall seems to be filling up even more than I had originally thought it would.  I find myself in crunches of various types, on more than one project… and it’s become  clear that at least one thing I had planned to do This Month For Sure has to be pushed to Next Month For Really Sure.

The new item on my schedule is the Acadia Night Sky Festival, an event I’ve wanted to attend for years.   My sister has gone to it in the past, but I’ve never been able to make it, for various reasons.  But Sabine is going to hit the road to live the truck-camper life next year, and the prospect of not actually seeing her for many months on end has convinced me that we must do at least one extremely cool sisters-thing before then.  Other sisters do spa days, or go on shopping sprees; the Kirsteins camp out in the woods, attend lectures and presentations on astronomy, go boating under the stars, and look through telescopes.

Meanwhile, all the recent events that I intended to cover here, but have not yet caught up on, have fallen into that liminal state between  stale news and something resembling fond reminiscence…

As in: you heard about the Hugo Awards, right?  Of course you did.  But just in case you didn’t, here’s the list of nominees and winners, courtesy of Tor.Com (my personal go-to for the edifying side SF/F news; for the nuts-and-bolts, all-the-details, down-and-dirty-when-necessary stuff, I turn to File 770).

And Readercon!  I did mention it  a couple of posts ago, largely to say that I very much enjoyed it, and that the panel discussion of my own books was especially interesting to me.  Because, of course: how could it not be?

But I want to discuss that in more detail, so I’ll save it for the next post (probably Wednesday).

In other  (short) news:

My latest distraction while dutifully doing my daily walking has been Catherynne M. Valente’s Space Opera. 

This was, you will note, a nominee for the Hugo this year.

It might be described as Eurovision meets Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy — but this does not communicate its true virtues.  The thing is, it’s  Catherynne Valente’s own characteristic brand of weird, but cranked up to eleven –  and with the addition of humor.  And emotional depth as well (which Valente never does skimp on).

I have to especially urge you to get the audiobook version.  Sabine got me hooked on it by playing the beginning for me in the car while we were driving somewhere, and the narrator, Heath Miller, is simply a genius.  He’s got all the voices, all the accents, all the characters.  And his deep artistic comprehension of this work is possibly aided by the fact that  he is  (as Sabine found out during the Q&A of Valente’s reading at Readercon) Catherynne Valente’s actual husband.

Well.  More later, as it is now more late than I intended.  (Why do I always start my blog posts at the end of my night?)