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Lizard Brain is a shared blog about Science Fiction and Fantasy from Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck.

Balfour & Meriwether

01.04.11
by Daniel Abraham

Two bits of news:

1) Balfour & Meriwether in the Adventure of the Emperor’s Vengeance is now available from your friends and mine at Podcastle.

2) Balfour & Meriwether in The Vampire of Kabul has sold to Subterranean.

3) There appears a non-zero chance of a Balfour & Meriwether novella sometime next year.

It appears I may have a hobby.

9 Comments

A few things vicious and graceful

12.28.10
by Daniel Abraham

Vicious Grace has been out for about a month now, and there are a few more reviews: Urban Fantasy InvestigationsBibliopunkk, Book Series Reviews, Single Titles, Night Owl Paranormal, Romance Books Forum, Flamingnet (with particularly nifty emoticon summation), a bunch of opinion at GoodReads, and — of course — it’s been Klausnered.

*And* my very good friend from across the aisle, Pat of Pat’s Fantasy Hotlist has been so kind as to post an excerpt.

Two bits of carry-home wisdom:

1) The only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about. — Oscar Wilde

2) Daniel, you know you shouldn’t read your reviews, right?  Seriously, this way lies madness. — Carrie Vaughn (somewhat misquoted)

[EDIT: And Calico Reaction.]

2 Comments

100 Aspects of Genre: Story v. Sentence

12.25.10
by Daniel Abraham

A couple of years ago, I had a very pleasant dinner with (among others) THE Sodomite Hal Duncan, a delightful and brilliant gentleman and good dinner conversation besides.  We had a polite disagreement that has come up again recently, and I find myself reviewing my position in the conversation we had back then and amending my position (without actually going so far as to embrace his).  The subject was whether text and meaning were separable.  This is the kind of thing that happens when overly intellectual writer types sit down over pizza, and should be carefully considered when arranging dinner parties for fear that it take over the table.  Hal’s take, as well as I remember it, was that the literal series of words on the page *is* the story, and any change to that sequence of words necessarily makes it a different story.  My take was that story was more structural: that a particular image or meaning can be reached by a variety of different arrangements of words, and one story can be told using different words without doing violence to the story itself.

Constant readers of the blog here may remember David Hartwell calling me on my poor scholarship over a previous post.  If you skipped the comments on that, the relevant bits were “This is intelligent and thoughtful, but it ignores most of what other intelligent and thoughtful people have said about genre over the last forty years, and that is a severe difficulty, leading to some wheel-reinvention and loose terminology.” and “…I’d suggest starting with Delany’s discussion in The Jewel-Hinged Jaw.”

"A story is not a replacement of one set of words by another -- plot-synopsis, detailed recounting, or analysis. The story is what happens in the reader's mind as his eyes move from the first word to the second, the second to the third, and so on to the end of the tale." -- Delany

So like a good boy, I toddled out and bought The Jewel-Hinged Jaw, and I’m still digesting it.  One of the points Delaney makes in the first essay (or at least the first essay in my edition — apparently it’s a slightly different lineup than the original) was essentially Hal’s point.  Specifically, Delaney argues that “Put in opposition to ‘style,’ there is no such thing as ‘content.’”  And he makes a pretty strong case.  He posits the example of two different translators creating with the same content two wildly different books (one of them engaging, the other unreadable).  He proposes ruining Zelazny’s “The Doors of His Face, the Lamps of His Mouth” by changing one word and adding one in every grammatical unit of every sentence without altering the synopsis — the “content.”

It’s impossible to keep from being persuaded of something by the arguments, but the conclusions I’m reaching aren’t Delany’s or Duncan’s.

A professional editor of my acquaintance who shall remain nameless was talking about a bestselling author who I don’t know (who also with the nameless, right?).  Editor said that reading Author was page by page a terrible, punishing experience full of cringe-worthy sentences and clumsy word choices, but that he couldn’t put it down.  For Editor, there are two different levels: sentence and story, and of the two story sells more books.  I suspect that’s true, but more to the point, it reminded me of where my own opinions about the role of language were set.

A personal aside.  Before I was born, my father spent two years in the Peace Corps, teaching English and some simple construction skills in Malagana, Columbia.  When I was born, my father was fluent in Spanish and taken by Central and South American literature.  He read me Enrique Anderson Imbert when I was very young, translating them on the fly.  Cortazar’s “The House Taken Over” is one of the most important ghost stories of my adolesence. I read some Marquez and Fuentes when I was growing up, and was fairly taken by both of them.  The most problematic relationship I have with the great names of Latin American Literature is Borges. I don’t actually like him much, but I keep reading him.  And more often than I like, I agree with him.

"The impoverished condition of our literature, its incapacity to attract readers, has produced a superstition about style, an inattentive reading that favors certain affectations ... This superstition is so established that no one dares admit to an absence of style in compelling works, especially the classics ... Let us take the example of Don Quixote. Confronted with the proven excellence of this novel, Spanish literary critics have suppressed the thought that its greatest (and perhaps only irrefutable) worth may be its psychological acumen, and they ascribe to it a stylistic brilliance which many readers find mysterious." -- Borges

For one thing — a minor point — I don’t think we read word by word so much as phrase by phrase.  That’s trivial.  The greater point is that I *do* think content separately from any given specific verbal expression of it.  Or, to go all perl programmer on it, there’s more than one way to do it.  The argument that I read in Borges lo these many years ago when I was all doughy and impressionable was that language changes, and yet classic stories exist.  It is possible for some folks to take genuine and unambiguous pleasure in reading Chaucer and seeing Shakespeare performed despite the fact that “It is ful fair a man to bere him evene,/For alday meeteth men at unset stevene.” and “Here’s a farmer, that hanged himself on the expectation of plenty: come in time; have napkins enow about you; here you’ll sweat for’t.” are almost meaningless to an ear accustomed to modern language.  When Delany offers to destroy “Doors” by swapping out words with the same meanings but different nuances, he’s doing what time and the natural drift of language do anyway.  Even the relatively recent classics like Dickens wouldn’t be publishable if they were turned in as fresh manuscripts today, but the stories persist.  Part of that is that they’re armored by the stories about them, but part of it is also that the level of what Editor calls storytelling exists, and at that level Macbeth is strong enough to pull us through despite the inaccessibility of the language.  And there are contemporary novels full of cringe-worthy sentences and clumsy word choices that are also strong enough on that higher level of abstraction to be compelling.

There are a lot of writers in speculative fiction who are very aware of language and of the nature of stories as words on a page.  I’m thinking of Kelly Link, for instance, who writes some of the most pyrotechnic sentences in modern literature, often in ways that absolutely defy a literal interpretation of their content.  And as soon as I’ve thought of that, I think of Carol Emshwiller and Karen Joy Fowler’s Elizabeth Complex.  These aren’t stories that are trying to create an immersive movie-like dream so much as an compelling experience of language.  There are also authors who try to have the sentences vanish and their meaning carry the story.

Used to be, I was in the camp that said the individual words are less important than the story being told.  And I still am, but I’m less militant than I was when Hal and I had dinner.

I feel a little weird writing an essay about something that seems self-evident to me.  I can only take comfort in the fact that it didn’t always seem that way.  Anyway, here’s what I’m thinking now:

You can have a story without language, but you usually don’t.  You can have sentences that don’t carry a narrative of any sort, but (at least in fiction) you usually don’t.  The vast majority of the time, sentence and story go together.  And by that I mean style and content.  They are interdependent but separable in just about the same way as a dancer’s movements and the choreography of the piece they perform.  It would be silly to say that, for instance, that a piece choreographed by Bob Fosse becomes a different dance whenever a new dancer joins the company.  It would also be silly to say that the dancers don’t matter.

A dance with great choreography can — I am assured by those who grok dance better than I do — be interesting even if the individual dancer performing it may not be top-notch (though when they’re just godawful, it may be hard to enjoy).  And a really amazing dancer can forgive pedestrian choreography.  A really great story — great content — can be compelling even when expressed in awkward style, and a beautiful style can carry a predictable plot and unconvincing characters.  And because of that, I have to believe that style and content — story and sentence — are different things.

And sure, it’s better when they’re both good.

[EDIT: Well, less an edit than a note.  If you'd be interested in what Ted Chiang and S. M. Stirling thought about this, they're commenting over at the livejournal that Lizard Brain feeds]

7 Comments

*Now* We’ve Got Cover Art

12.14.10
by Daniel Abraham

If y’all have been following the blog, you may recall that a preliminary cover for the new epic fantasy The Dragon’s Path got leaked a while back.  I had it up for a few minutes, then took it back down.  Well the real deal is now among us.  Check it out:

Coming Soon to a Bookstore Near You

4 Comments

Leviathan Wept and Other Stories almost gone…

12.07.10
by Daniel Abraham

I am informed by reliable sources that my collection of short stories Leviathan Wept and Other Stories has under fifty copies left unsold.  It’s got some of my best short work in it, including one done as an assignment by Catherynne Valente which isn’t available anywhere else.  Plus which, seriously, check out this cover art:


Seriously, folks.  If you were waiting, this is it.  I don’t expect it to be reprinted, and there’s some stuff in here you won’t find anywhere else.

8 Comments

Writers Talk About Urban Fantasy 12/05/10

12.07.10
by Daniel Abraham

Writers Talk About Urban Fantasy 12/05/10.

MLN Hanover, Carrie Vaughn, and Seanan McGuire talking about urban fantasy with Gillian Polack.

1 Comment

Cool Hunting 12-4-10: The Driveby Edition

12.06.10
by Daniel Abraham

1) Fast food and pictures of fast food. (with thanks to Metafilter).  Isn’t there some kind of false advertising lawsuit that could come from this?

2) Vicious Grace is reviewed again.  Having just read King’s Full Dark, No Stars and then this review of my stuff, I’m thinking about the asymmetry of writing horror v. reading it.  More later.

3) Oh.  That’s what classical music is about.

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An Old Meme Resurrected and Reappropriated

12.02.10
by Daniel Abraham

Larry at OF Blog of the Fallen had an old post when RaceFail ’09 was still generating a lot of heat.  I didn’t come across it at the time, but I’ve hit it now, and reading it over, it had me thinking about some things.  I’ll just post and play:

1. Name the last book by a female author that you’ve read.

You know, the hardest thing about this is remembering the order in which I’ve read things.  They all seem to clump up in a “recently” folder in my head.  I’m pretty sure it was Catherynne Valente’s The Habitation of the Blessed.  I am, however, expecting an MS from Carrie Vaughn pretty soon here.

2. Name the last book by an African or African-American author that you’ve read.

Easy.  The Jewel-Hinged Jaw by Samuel Delaney (as assigned me by David Hartwell).  About which more when I’ve sat with it for a bit.

3. Name one from a Latino/a author.

Upside Down: A Primer for the Looking Glass World by Eduardo Galeano.  But my *favorite* South American author is Enrique Anderson Imbert.

Argentine fantasist or Daniel's grandpa?

4. How about one from an Asian country or Asian-American?

Hmm.  Well, Ted Chiang’s The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate, I guess.  Before that Maximum City by Suketu Mehta.  But I can’t think of two books I’ve read in recent memory that have less in common than those two.

And oddly, I feel very uncomfortable characterizing Ted by his genetics.  He’s a friend of mine.  I admire him no end.  I’m pretty sure his ancestors spent some of the Pleistocene in Asia.  So . . . all right.  Sure.
5. What about a GLBT writer?

Jeanette Winterson.  The Passion.  I read it again every few years.  Gorgeous book.  The Darling Wife also got me David Sedaris’ Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk which I’ve grazed a little.  For non-fiction, I’m a real fan of Nora Vincent’s Self-Made Man.
6. Why not name an Israeli/Arab/Turk/Persian writer, if you’re feeling lucky?

Saladin Ahmed is going to be the first one that comes to mind because I need to get back to his book and finish it.  Soon.  Probably instead of doing this, actually.  It’s a good one, and it’s got to be going into production soon here.  But if the question is about an Arab who doesn’t live in New York, it’ll be Edward Said’s Reflections on Exile.  And that was a few years back.

As for Israeli authors, I’ve got a bunch of Jews on the shelf, but none that I’m sure live in Israel.

7. Any other “marginalized” authors you’ve read lately?

You see, there’s where I get confused.  I’ve done the exercise — I can indeed name a bunch of authors who I’ve read and enjoyed and have here on my shelf where I can see them — and I think I haven’t actually proven anything.  Or even given anything very strong evidence.  I am perfectly willing to believe that someone could read all the books I have and come away just as racist and sexist as they went in.  It’s fun to remember these particular books by these particular writers, and I hope folks who are interested go out and read ‘em themselves because they’re good.  But I don’t think my reading list can give me any kind of free pass or authority on matters of privilege.  I think the impulse to demonstrate my political awareness and empathy is itself suspect.

Marginalized author or Daniel's grandpa?

But that’s not the only thing about this particular exercise that’s interesting to me.  And by interesting, I mean troubling.

When I think of marginalized authors — marginalized –  I don’t find myself thinking about people of a certain race or sexuality or political class.  By the time I pop over to Amazon.com or wander through my local Barnes and Noble, the folks nearest the margin have already been weeded out.  Everyone I’ve mentioned in this post has a book deal.  Has distribution.  Has a pulpit from which to declaim their point of view.  I like Junot Diaz.  By which I mean I like his writing and I enjoyed his company the one time we hung out.  He writes from a perspective and with a voice that is both deeply familiar (role-playing game geek) and very much outside my experience (Dominican-American).  But the guy’s won a Pulitzer, he’s on the Pulitzer committee, and he’s teaching at an ivy league college.  If he, as an individual, is marginalized, I have misunderstood the term.  At a guess, I’d say that the most utterly outside voice I’ve mentioned was Galeano, and he’s got nine or ten books in print here in the United States.

We live in a racist, sexist, homophobic culture.  We as individuals are racist and sexist and homophobic, myself included.  And in addition to that (not but but and)  the voiceless are voiceless.  By the time I’ve heard them, they aren’t anymore.  The thing I’ve read most recently by a genuinely marginalized author probably read something like: Homeless Veteran.  Anything will help.  God Bless!

Credo.

6 Comments

Ambition, or Vicious Grace Hits Shelf

12.01.10
by Daniel Abraham

Well, this is it.

Yesterday, Vicious Grace hit shelves officially (though my experience working in bookstores is that it’s probably been ootching out for a week or two).  Go tell your friends and relatives. Shout it from the mountaintops and the street corners.  Mention it at work.  Like that.

For me, the work for that one is over, and now there’s nothing for me to do but hope people like it, put my head down, and keep doing the next project.

When I was an ambitious kid wanting to be a writer, I didn’t actually picture this moment.  In fact, I didn’t really picture any of the moments exactly.  Like any of my fellow authors, I bounced between thinking I was the best writer of my generation and knowing that I was a fraud and not even a very good one.  In my travels, I haven’t yet met a writer who didn’t suffer that useless, inaccurate oscillation of self-worth.  I think it’s our defining characteristic.

But when I started this gig, I didn’t know what I was getting into.  I didn’t get into it for the money.  (Funny story.  I knew this very high-power lawyer — Fred — for a while.  We didn’t get along well, and yet I think of him fondly.  He had a talent for the utterly cutting remark, and some part of him lodged in my head and comes out every now and then to say something mean.  Daniel’s-Fred-Homonculus on writing for money:  “Writing fiction is a stupid way to make money.  If you’re writing fiction to make money, you’re stupid.”)  I didn’t get into it for the fame (as evidenced by my apparently freakish willingness to strip off my name and put on a pseudonym at the first opportunity).  I didn’t do it to win awards (they’d be nice, but if I never won one again, that’s cool too).  God knows I didn’t do it to be accepted by the academic world or I sure as hell wouldn’t be writing the kinds of things I write.

So if i it’s not the money or the fame or the awards or the academic respectability — to riff briefly on The Lookout — what am I doing here?

When I started getting published and asking people who were better and more established and invested in this industry than myself what their ambitions were, I got a wide variety of answers, but none of them ever really seemed to describe my situation.  And what’s more, I often got the feeling that the people telling me weren’t actually sure of themselves either.  It’s easy when someone asks a question I don’t know the answer to — especially if its something about my internal psychological life — to make up some post-hoc rationalization on the fly and trot it out as if it were truth.  But I look around at the writers I know, and the rich ones are just as desperate and insecure as the poor, the ones who’ve never won an award are just as dedicated and driven as the ones with a shelf of Hugos and Nebulas and those hilariously ugly Lovecraft heads they give out for the World Fantasy.  There’s something else that we get out of this that makes long years of labor with little return, the constant casual judgment of others, and the cultivated insecurity of the job worth it.  There is an ambition that is just his side of driven by demons, but I don’t know what it’s driving us — by which I mean me — toward.

I know that Vicious Grace is out.  (And also “Hurt Me” — MLN Hanover’s first published short story, which has been mentioned kindly in some reviews of Songs of Love and Death.)  I know some folks like them.  The Dragon’s Path will be out in April.  Leviathan Wakes, in June.  And I hope y’all enjoy reading them as much as I enjoyed writing them.

But I also know that this moment — my book is in print! — is a necessary step, but it isn’t what I’m here for.  I’m not filled with joy and satisfaction so much as bracing for the blow of lousy reviews and poor sales numbers that may or may not come.  What I’m really looking forward to is the next chapter of the next book, the thing I haven’t written yet, the one that might yet achieve and fulfill my ambition.

Whatever it is.

10 Comments

Countdown to Vicious Grace II

11.28.10
by Daniel Abraham

The giveaway is all closed up, and my thanks to the random number generator for taking out any actual decision making on my part.  I am contacting all the folks chosen by unpredictable atmospheric noise.  If you haven’t heard from me, thank you for playing, and please do come again.  :)

In other news, Vicious Grace reviews are starting to pop up.  Some with spoilers, others without. Peruse at your own risk.

And finally (before I crawl off to bed), one of the nifty things a wordpress site like this does is give you a list of what search terms folks used to find the page.  So for whoever came here by googling “Daniel Abraham author home address” — dude, stop that.  You’re freaking me out, right?

4 Comments