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

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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

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Just a reminder

11.23.10
by Daniel Abraham

I’m closing down the MLN Hanover giveaway tomorrow so I can actually get to the mailing stuff out part. Get in on it if you want to get in on it.

And exactly one week until Vicious Grace drops . . .

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Countdown to Vicious Grace

11.21.10
by Daniel Abraham

The official release date for Vicious Grace is November 30th.  We are in the final countdown.  In celebration — or possibly as a kind of cargo cult offering to the gods — I’m going to try running a giveaway.  I’ve heard good things about them in the past.  might as well give it a shot, right?

But I’m not entirely sure how to go about it.  Should I give away copies of Vicious Grace?  Or copies of the first two books?  All three?  Should I print up copies of MLN’s only published short story (“Hurt Me” in Songs of Love and Death)?  Should I give the books to the folks who ask for ’em, or should I get y’all to nominate some friend or relative of yours who we can surprise with signed copies in the mail?  Should I try to get Carl Kassel’s voice on your home answering machine?

Hell if I know.  I’m new around here myself.

Let’s start easy, then.  I’ll open requests now.  If you’d like a free signed copy of Vicious Grace, leave a comment here with your email address in some slightly disguised form to confound spammers or drop me a line at dja at daniel abraham dot com.  On Wednesday, I’ll pick five folks at random and send out copies.

Additionally, in honor of our previous conversations here on the blog, the first five people to donate $50 to your local rape crisis line / rape prevention training / sexual abuse counseling joint, I’ll send you all three books.  And we’re working on the honor system here, folks.  I’m not gong to ask for receipts or anything.  Just know that if you lie about it just to score some free books, you’ll be the kind of person who’d lie about something like that just to score some free books.  You have to live with yourself.  Do the right thing.

Okay.  Back to work now.

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Notes on the New Art

11.21.10
by Daniel Abraham

By which I mean console gaming.

My first computer game was Colossal Cave Adventure.  I was in third grade, going over to Laura Buxton’s house after school.  Her father, Larry, had built his own computer in the back bedroom, and Laura and I spent a lot of hours back there figuring out how to avoid the grue, navigate the maze of twisty passages, and say Plugh to the best effect.  As I remember, Laura also introduced me to Pong, which I found somewhat less interesting.  In Advent, I could explore hidden caves, solve complex puzzles, kill dragons with my bare hands.  In Pong, I could move either up or down.

Yeah, no contest.

I also didn’t have a television for large swaths of my childhood, and as a direct result I sat out the Atari and Nintendo revolutions.  When I got older and had a computer anyway, I played through some Blizzard games — Warcraft, Starcraft, Diablo.  They were fun, but I wouldn’t have bought a dedicated computer just to play them.  And then I met Ty, and lo, I was corrupted.

And the game that got me twitching at all hours of day and night?  Was it a new story of exploration with dragons to defeat, hidden caverns to explore, intellectual and linguistic puzzles to tease apart?  Nope.  I went for the game that was all about action, and not just action, fairly simple, repetitive action.  My first love of console gaming was the great, great grandchild of Pong.  Left 4 Dead.  I broke.  I caved.  I got not only an Xbox, but the most expensive television I’ve ever owned (okay, that’s a low bar — my taste in electronics is pretty cheap, but still . . .) and all for a game I could only play when the kid was asleep.

Left 4 Dead, for those who haven’t yet been corrupted, is a first-person shooter where you take the role of one of four survivors of a zombie apocalypse.  It’s built as four “movies” with exactly the same plot:  get from point A to point B without getting everybody killed at once.  There were two things about it that fascinated me:  the simplicity and the design.

As these games go, Left 4 Dead is very straightforward.  Your inventory consists of at most two weapons, a health pack, a bottle of pills, and one of two kinds of grenade-like things.  There is nothing more to manage.  There are a bunch of zombies, with a few special enemies with powers and behaviors that are simple to understand.  The whole game is demonstrated in a short action-packed video introduction — every obstacle, every strategy, every bad guy, every ability.  But because the placement of the enemies and supplies varies so much, every play-through is a little different.

And the design.  Left 4 Dead was built to make players work together.  Anyone striking off on their own is doomed.  The game designers force the players to cooperate.  It is a game about supporting and protecting the people around you.  It’s simple, it’s visceral, it’s tactical, and it takes very little time to learn.

And the best part?  It comes with designer notes.  If you go to the extras menu, there’s an option to play through the game’s commentary track where you go through the game landscape from point to point, hearing the designers commentary about what they were thinking, what concerns they had, and what solutions they adopted.  I played through for months without thinking particularly about how the game used color to direct me, or how important it was to have the silhouettes of the players be distinct from each other and from the enemies, or, or, or . . .

With respect to Roger Ebert, Left 4 Dead was and is my entrance into an elegant art form that has come to exist within my lifetime.  The aesthetic and technical issues that it engages with are unlike anything I’ve seen elsewhere, and they’re also very familiar.  I’ve thought about how art leads the eye through a painting or a book cover.  I’ve talked about how rule sets shape behavior.  I’ve read people much smarter than me who were concerned with how interactivity changes narrative.  Gaming has its roots in Colossal Cave and Pong, and it has pulled a tremendous body of theory and practice up around those to become something new and interesting.

And, of course, Left 4 Dead isn’t like sitting down with a book.  It doesn’t have that depth of characterization, the sharp interplay of dialog between characters, the sense of everything coming together in ways that weren’t obvious but seem neccesary after the fact.

For that, you need Dragon Age.

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Collaboration

11.15.10
by Ty Franck

So, three people have asked me about collaboration, specifically my collaboration with Daniel on the Expanse series, in the last couple days. I thought it might be nice to explain the origin of James Corey and his project The Expanse.

Why:

First off, the obvious answer. Daniel and I are collaborating on this project because we actually want to. We’ve been friends longer than we’ve been writing partners. His family hangs out at my house, my wife and I hang out at his. We would see each other fairly often even if we didn’t have a joint project. I mention this, because the first piece of advice I’d give to someone considering a collaboration is that you should probably like the person you are about to work with.

How:

How it all came about is a bit more complex. In my spare time, I’m a game designer. By which I mean I spend a fair amount of time developing settings for role playing games, and then convincing other people to try them out. I had a space opera setting I’d been developing over a three year period, while running the game in a play-by-post format on a friend’s forum. The player reaction had been quite positive, and I decided to try and run a game in that setting with my live group. The initial group consisted of a few people from the New Mexico writer’s mafia, including my boss George, along with our friends Melinda and Ian and Chip, and my wife. That group played as the crew of a tramp steamer in space who get caught up in a solar system wide war, and everyone seemed to have a good time with it.

At about that time, Daniel and his wife were exploring the idea of getting back into gaming, and I offered to run a different game for them in the same setting. In that game, they were playing cops on a space station carved into the asteroid Ceres.

After our first session, I let Daniel take a look at the giant volume of notes I had on the setting. He immediately said, “This needs to be a book. You’ve already done all the heavy lifting with this world-building. Now you just need to write the story.”

At first, his idea was to write the entire first draft with me narrating the events of the story, then going over his draft and making edits. But after our first session working together, I knew that wasn’t going to work. As I watched him working on the prologue, my fingers were itching to get at the keyboard. I immediately changed the deal, and said I’d only do the book if I wrote half. I’d only written half a dozen short stories, and sold two of them, so I wasn’t on Daniel’s level as a professional writer by any means. But I knew I’d never be able to sit back and let him tell my story without getting my hands dirty too.

The Process:

As the book had two protagonists in alternating chapters, it was fairly simple to split up. I wrote all of the chapters from one POV, he wrote all the chapters from the other.

We meet about once a week to talk about the next two chapters we’re working on. We work from a simple outline of the story, so each week we know, at a sort of single sentence level, what needs to happen in those chapters. We flesh that simple outline out, discussing the chapter at a scene by scene level, concentrating especially on those things that need to happen to make sure the subsequent chapters have sufficient foundation.

Once that’s finished, we retire to the living room and play Xbox until Daniel has to leave to pick his daughter up from school (the awful backbreaking drudgery of the professional writer, right?).

Over the course of the week, we write the chapters we discussed. At the next meeting, we exchange our chapters and do a read and first pass edit of the other person’s work. Daniel winds up adding a lot of sensory detail to my sections. My eyes tend to glaze over when reading descriptive detail, so I have a hard time remembering to add it in my own work. And when I edit Daniel’s sections, my most common edits are to details that keep the technology, if not plausible, at least consistent. Though, that is only in general. I’ve made prose changes to some of Daniel’s stuff, and he’s caught me in more than one inconsistency and fixed it.

The details are not that important, but what is important about this process is that each of us has to turn in a chapter to the other person, and then be okay with that person making changes to it. We discuss anything that’s significant, but even so, we rewrite each other pretty much every week. If you can’t handle someone rewriting your stuff, then collaborating is probably not for you.

I think there are two things absolutely essential for this sort of collaboration to work: One. you both have to be working on the same project. Not just the same book or story, but the same artistic goal. If I wanted nothing but action, and Daniel wanted nothing but economics, and we kept rewriting each other to replace one for the other we’d never get anywhere.  And two, you have to work with someone you trust.  You have to believe that they have the talent and the craft to write good prose, and to have useful suggestions about your writing.  If you don’t trust them, the process will be very painful.

When we began the project, our consensus was that we were writing old fashion space science fiction with a deeply sentimental heart. Every time we lose our way, we just have to remember our mission statement, and we get back on track. If we didn’t agree utterly on what that mission was, the project would falter and die as we tried to pull it in two different directions.

We’re getting close to halfway done with our second monster space opera novel. And 250,000 words into our joint venture, things seem to be stronger than ever. After finishing Leviathan Wakes, our shared reaction seemed to be, “This is a pretty good book. I hope we get to write a lot more of these.”

Here’s hoping.

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Surreal Life

11.10.10
by Ty Franck

Ser Jorah Mormont/David Bowie

So I return from Malta tired and deeply aware of how strange my life is. This is something that I am forced to remind myself from time to time, as even the strangest life can come to seem mundane without a proper frame of reference.

For example: I’m a writer, by at least a few definitions of that word. Like most people in difficult and competitive professions, I value the advice and counsel of those who have succeeded. In an odd and totally unrelated coincidence, I work for George R.R. Martin, who Time magazine once called “The American Tolkien.” Honestly, totally unrelated. I didn’t get this job because of being a writer, and in point of fact, up until relatively recently George was utterly uninterested in my writing.

But even while working as a stealth writer, totally under George’s radar, I got to sit and talk the business of writing with him. Often for hours. I learned the ins and outs of the publishing business, along with George’s theories on craft. Things that any neophyte would pay thousands of dollars to hear (and many a Clarion student has) George lecture on. I received this enormous bounty because George happened to be looking for an assistant at about the same time that I was half heartedly looking for a job.

Now, three years later, in a series of increasingly unlikely events that would make most struggling writers pull their hair out with disbelief, I am a paid novelist with a series of books coming out. And those years of learning from the master have paid off in entirely unexpected ways.

So, that’s just one example.

So, Malta.

I went with the boss to the Island nation of Malta to visit the set of the Game of Thrones series HBO is filming. We got to watch a bunch of the filming, and even had time to visit a few historic sites on an island absolutely brimming with history.

As I ambled through an armor museum in Valletta chatting with George about the amazing displays, it struck me that once again I was experiencing a surreal moment. The author of one of the most beloved fantasy series of all time was chatting with me about full plate armor, and why it was designed in certain ways to stop certain kinds of attacks. How did that happen? If I wrote a story in which that happened to the protagonist, no one would believe it.

And I kept coming back to that surreal feeling as I ate lunch with the guy who is going to play Conan the Barbarian in an upcoming film, or had a drink and a laugh with Daenerys Targaryen, talked Converse sneakers with an award winning costume designer. This is weird, I had to keep reminding myself. This is unusual. Don’t let this become mundane.

And I think I mostly succeeded. I hope I stored up that sense of strangeness for later, so that when I write about being in a strange situation I can bring it back.

But the real reason I wrote all of this is to talk about the most surreal thing I’ve ever seen:

One day while filming on some stunning cliffs overlooking the Mediterranean sea near Rabat, I saw Iain Glen, dressed in full plate and chain armor, loudly singing Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars.

Yeah, my life is fucking weird.

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