Coming of Age…Eventually

One of my favorite moments at an SF con was when someone asked Lois McMaster Bujold about some conspiracy theory or other, and she said something like, “The longer I live the more I realize that no grand conspiracy could ever work, because people just aren’t that competent.  There are no grown-ups, we’re all faking it, and no one is in charge.”

I tend to agree about the conspiracy part—how many people do you know who really keep secrets?  Yeah, a few, maybe…but what percentage?

However, I’m not so sure about the “there are no grown-ups” part.  Mind you, when young adults “come of age” they haven’t actually grown up—they just move to a station in life where they’ve got more freedom to make their own mistakes.  And that’s as it should be.

But for myself, I find there is an age when you’ve gained enough experience that you start feeling genuinely grown-up.  A bit less like you’re faking it all the time.  Or more accurately, even though life still throws you plot twists, you’ve learned enough about how the world and people work that you’re at least a bit better at coping with them.  I’ve named this phenomena “Crone Power,” because it was around my late forties or early fifties when I finally started to feel like I was beginning to get things figured out.  People who don’t understand the symbolism of the Maiden, the Mother and the Crone don’t get this name…but since the biggest part of Crone Power comes from knowledge, I have no real problem with that.  By the time they get to be Crones, maybe they’ll have figured it out.  And it’s a very real power.  Your body pretty much sucks (menopause, arrrgh!) but your greater experience actually begins to compensate—and this is something nobody ever told me would happen, and I didn’t expect it.

So anyway, I think there is a time in life when we finally come of age…it’s just a lot later than people usually assume.

Bell_Thief_cover-12-16Hilari Bell is the author of many coming of age novels, and they’re all about teens and new adults—is she a hypocrite, or what?

Slam, Bam…Your Attitude’s Adjusted!

 

Bell_Thief_cover-12-16By Hilari Bell

I’ve been busy enough lately that I find myself wasting more time and energy than I should in stewing about all the things I’m not getting done.  Yes, I know that’s completely unproductive, but I do it anyway.

But yesterday I remembered a technique my brother taught me—it’s actually no more productive than stewing, but at least you end up feeling better.

You start your day with a list of things you want to accomplish.  And yes, even if it’s something you’ll probably do anyway, it still counts.  The things on your list can be daily habits you want to maintain, like exercise, or eating right, or even taking some time to read for pleasure.  They can be household chores, like getting the fridge cleaned out or fixing that broken latch.  They can certainly be work or work related tasks, like revising chapter 14 or writing your Scene13 blog.  (Slam!  I’ll explain that in a minute.)  It can be anything at all that you want to get done, today.

Then, as the day goes on, you reward yourself with Slam points for everything on the list that you do.  If you get one thing done, then your score for the day is a Slam.  And let’s face it, there are some days when a Slam is a pretty good score.  It may be kind of par for the course…but hey, you got par.  You got something done…so, Slam!  If you get two things done, you’ve got a Grand Slam day.  If you get three things crossed off your list, you’ve got a Super Slam!  Four gets you a SuperDuper Slam.  I’m not sure my brother had a category for five things accomplished…but if you’ve crossed five things off your list in one day, you’re probably feeling so good about yourself that you don’t need this system.

The Slam System is completely customizable—you can make your tasks as hard or as easy as you like, and include whatever you like.  I choose not to put walking my dog on the list, even though it’s exercise, because that’s pretty much automatic—but doing this blog absolutely counts!  However, I have to schedule it before I can count it as a point.  You could even elaborate on the system, so you get some other reward for your points at the end of the day.  But for me, just being able to say “I got a Super Slam today!” is enough.  And how much healthier is it, to end the day celebrating how much you’ve accomplished, instead fretting over how much you didn’t do?  So I’m going to spellcheck this and schedule it, and…Slam!

Hilari Bell writes SF and fantasy for kids and teens—and if she can get Scholar’s Plot (book 5 in the Knight & Rogue, series) out in November like she plans, it will be a Supercalifragalistic Slam.

 

In the Moment

Babylon 5 was one of the best SF TV series, ever. (Firefly was better, but then Firefly is better than anything.) It had a five year story arc, fabulous characters, and even if I think J. Michael muffed the ending a bit, you really ought to take a few months and watch the whole thing. You won’t regret it.

But one particular episode has always stuck with me—the ship’s doctor encounters a traumatic event and decides to go walkabout in the station, which is big enough that this is feasible. His religion advises this, he tells another character. Every now and then you’re supposed to go wandering through the world until you meet yourself—metaphorically, of course. Then you’re supposed to experience this moment of incredible cosmic understanding. The episode’s climax ends with him being knifed in the lower levels of the station, a vision of himself appears to him…and rips him up one side and down the other for running off from his job, for his failure to deal with the trauma, for everything he’s done wrong in his life. Himself tells him that he’s not even worth saving, and he drags his bleeding body toward the access port where he might find help, murmuring, “I want to do it again. I want another chance. I want to do it again.” The whole episode is full of the intelligent, humorous irony that made Babylon 5 so wonderful, but it’s the final line that stays with me. The doctor, mostly recovered, goes to dance with a woman in a bar, and tells another character, “The moments are all we have.”

I think the reason this lingers in my mind, is that the more I know the truer it gets. Life, real life, is a series of moments in which we exist, right now. The past is certainly there to be learned from, and hopefully remembered fondly. The future should certainly be planned for, and worked toward… But right now is it. Right now is all we’ve really got. So as I struggle to get my revision done, despite some business chaos and the dog coming down with giardia, I try to remember to take the moments as they come. I watch birds at the feeder, feel the cool breeze coming over the field beside our house, and cuddle my poor good dog on my lap. I make time for coffee with a friend, and help my mom with her computer. I grant myself time to go to a movie, or play a video game.

Honestly, I’m not sure whether the revision, and all the other things I “should” be doing are the better for this or not. But I know I’m better for it, saner and happier—at least, in this moment. And after all, the moments are all we have.

Bell_Thief_cover-12-16Hilari writes SF and fantasy for kids and teens. Her most recent book is Thief’s War, the 4th book in her Knight & Rogue series—the book she’s currently revising is book 6!

Where’s the Love?

OK, maybe this marks me as a crotchety spinster (heck, maybe this is why I’m a spinster, crotchety or not) but lately I’ve come across a number of romance manuscripts in which there’s all kinds of lust…and hardly any romance.  The protagonists take one look at each other, realize that their opposite number is sizzling hot, and after that there’s nothing but lust, interspersed with quarrels and story obstacles—and almost nothing of getting to know each other, getting to like each other, discovering why this really hot person is worthy of being loved…

Don’t get me wrong—I’m not a prude.  I don’t have any problem with a good sex scene.   (Though when you’ve got one every 20 or 30 pages they do get kind of repetitive.)  I also like nudity in movies, and profanity in most forms of fiction.  But if you’re going to call it a love story, shouldn’t there be a bit more connection in this personal connection?

I also have to confess that I don’t read a lot of romance (like you hadn’t guessed that already) but surely there should something more heartfelt, to even category romances than a classy version of, “Oooooh.  I’d like to get me some of that.”

I’ve lately found that even in the romances I read (Susan Elizabeth Phillips, Elizabeth Lowell) I’ve been more interested in the relationships between minor characters than the protagonist’s romance, or with the mystery than the romance.

And maybe it is me…but whatever happened to “the meeting of true minds?”  Whatever happened to hearts and souls, as well as bodies?

In fairness, I should say that I think it’s a lot harder to create characters who fall in love for reasons of character, instead of hormones, and that I don’t think I could do it—though I’m beginning to be inspired to try.

For my money, the best romance writer today is SF author Lois McMaster Bujold, and I think the reason her romances work so well for me is because her characters aren’t interchangeable.  In most romances, you could probably swap any of the author’s heroines or heroes out for any of their other protagonists, and write exactly the same book—but I can’t imagine Aral or Cordelia ever loving anyone but each other.  The Sharing Knife series is the most “romantic” of all Bujold’s books, and Fawn and Dag’s May/December love story works for all kinds of reasons.  But mostly it works because, while I must admit that Fawn might have been able to find happiness with someone else, she was clearly Dag’s last chance for happiness in this life—and he gave up just about everything to hold onto her because he knew it.  (Though I have to say, that first sex scene between Fawn and Dag was delightful—but that was probably because it was more about Fawn and Dag than about sex.)

Anyway, does anyone but me feel the same way?  And what authors have you found, whose characters fall in love, as well as in lust?

 Bell_Thief_cover-12-16Hilari writes SF and fantasy for kids and teens—without, it must be confessed, a lot of romance.

How Big a Hammer? Is it important for readers to understand your theme?

The topic this week is books with a theme or message…but I just got back from camping, this is due tomorrow, I’ve got a ton of things I need to do…and an old Writing Tip on the subject of theme, so I’m going to resort to (gasp) reposting.  Though if I say so myself, it’s a good tip!

A friend of mine recently submitted his first novel to my critique group, a fantasy with a deeply spiritual theme and lots of symbolism.  He was somewhat distressed when his theme and symbolism were completely invisible to 90% of his readers, and the following discussion raised some interesting questions—and very few definitive answers.

How important is it for a novel to have a theme?

I’d have to say, it depends on what kind of novel you’re writing.  For literary fiction—very important.  For popular fiction, maybe not.  I can think of plenty of popular fiction, that I enjoyed a lot, that had no discernable theme.

But what about Science Fiction, the literature of ideas?  Or fantasy?

My personal take is that having a theme enriches any novel, but it doesn’t always have to show.  Since my books are mostly for kids and young adults the theme is usually pretty clear, though I try not to hit people over the head with it.  At least, not with too big a hammer.  If your thematic hammer is too big, the reader is likely to find the experience painful rather than enlightening—and your story will suffer for it.

I believe that the presence of a theme can greatly enhance a novel without the reader ever knowing it’s there.  It will probably be your theme that determines the choices your character makes, and how he grows.  It gives the novel a feeling of depth, of being “about” something.  As I told my friend, it could well be his understanding of the theme that gives his writing the luminous, stained-glass quality that lifts it out of the ordinary—even while his intended meaning flies right over my head.

I’d like to say that theme is like an underground river.  (That sounds so poetic.)  But actually it’s more like the water table.  It’s an intrinsic part of the structure of the land, influencing the climate, and the flora and fauna.  It pops up in beautiful, unexpected springs that give life to the surrounding territory.  And when the people who know that it’s there tap into it, it brings them healthy, growing crops, not to mention drinking water.  But I drove from Denver to the coast of Oregon last summer—seven days across southern Idaho and down the Columbia River gorge and five days back through the beautiful deserts of Utah and Nevada.  And driving through plains, along rivers, in coastal rain forests and deserts, appreciating the scenery and the ecosystems all along the way…not one single thought of the water table ever so much as crossed my mind.

So I should put down my hammer, and go for hidden water instead?

 Well, it depends on what kind of novel you want to write….

Hilari’s other Writing Tips can be found for free on her website, hilaribell.com, or for 99cents wherever ebooks are sold—and she promises not to do this a lot. Really. Well, mostly really.

The Jane Austen of SF: Connie Willis

When I read that the topic of the month was humor, one writer leapt to mind, and beat down all the others with ease.  For my money, Connie Willis’ comedies are the funniest, smartest books (and short stories) going.  I call her the Jane Austen of SF, because many of her books and stories are about ordinary people going about their ordinary lives…but funny…!  My favorite of her short stories, At the Rialto, is about a bunch of particle physicists holding their annual convention at the Rialto hotel in Hollywood.  You wouldn’t think particle physics could be that funny…and in point of fact, it’s not the physics that are funny, but the people.

That could actually be said of all Connie Willis’ comedy—and her tragedy, too, because she writes both.  (Fair warning—her tragedy still has her trademark humor and humanity, but she’s notorious for killing practically everyone.)  But even her comedy isn’t simply “funny.”  Like all satirists, she sees people with a clarity that is both scalpel sharp and hilarious.  Her time travel comedy, To Say Nothing of the Dog, is the best of her humorous novels, and it’s superb.  I was trying to think of one quote to introduce Connie Willis to those who haven’t yet found her books, and half a dozen leapt to mind.  But the one I’m going with comes, not from her fiction, but from one of the short story introductions she wrote in her story collection, Impossible Things:

When you tell people you write Science Fiction, they say, “Oh, space ship and aliens,” and then want to know your qualifications. … And it’s no good telling them that your qualifications are that you’ve seen some strange worlds all right, and you didn’t need a space ship to get to them.  They probably wouldn’t understand.

 I’ve sung in church choirs, had Mary Kay facials, put on garage sales.  I’ve been to the mall and the orthodontist and the second-grade Valentine’s party.  I’ve even been to Tupperware parties—only slightly stranger than Venusian eye-stalk bonding ceremonies—at which you participate in arcane contests (“How many words can you make out of ‘Tupperware’?”  “Warp, put, upper, rue…”  I always win.  It’s the only thing majoring in English is good for) and eat ritual preparations of Cool Whip and graham-cracker crumbs and purchase plastic boxes that burp.

 Science fiction?  Piece of cake.  (“Pert, rat, paw tarp, prate, weep, apt, true, wart, Ra…”)

 Bell_Thief_cover-12-16Hilari Bell writes SF and fantasy for kids and teens—and while she’s not as funny as Connie Willis (who is?) her Knight and Rogue series is pretty amusing too.

By Swashbuckler, out of Buddy Cop Show…

 

Bell_Thief_cover-12-16The topic this month is “books outside your genre that have influenced you.”  But since I read a fair bit outside my genre, and practically everything has influence somewhere, I thought I’d talk instead about the two genres I squashed togeth…ah, melded seamlessly, to create my current series, the Knight & Rogue books.

I grew up in the heyday of buddy cop TV shows.  I Spy is the first I remember watching—in black and white, no less, and before you write me off as ancient I was very young when I Spy was on, and they may have been reruns…  OK, I’m ancient.  But it was a really good show, full of action and witty banter, resting on the solid foundation of a deep, warm—straight—male friendship.

(A lot of fans ask me if Fisk & Michael are gay—and if not, why not?  I wouldn’t mind if they were gay, but that’s not the genre tradition they come from.  And despite the everything-has-to-be-a-romance trend that has taken over YA these days, there are many non-romantic human relationships that are very important to the people involved in them.)

Man from Uncle, Simon & Simon, Starsky and Hutch (forget the movie, the TV show was good).  By the time Miami Vice came out, the buddy cop show was fading from TV screens, and the Lethal Weapon movies were probably its last gasp.  But it left an indelible impression on me, of how deeply partners and friends can care about each other.  And what a great combination banter and action make.

The other parent of my Knight & Rogue books was all the swashbucklers I read (and watched) at about the same time the buddy cop shows were on.  Captain Blood is Sabatini’s best known novel, but I liked The Black Swan best.  Then there’s Robin Hood—I think I was in third grade when I read Howard Pyle’s version, which is by far the best—Zorro, The Scarlet Pimpernel…  The swashbuckler perished even before the buddy cop show did, but they were fueled by the same appealing combination of wit and derring do.

Perhaps it’s not surprising that the Knight & Rogue novels are the only ones I’ve written where the characters came into my head before the core of the plot—because for all their action and wit, it’s the friendship between the two protagonists that forms the core of a buddy cop show.  Putting that relationship into a swashbuckler setting felt utterly natural—witty banter from both it’s genre parents, thank you.  Then throw in just enough magic to get by with calling it a fantasy, and viola!  The Last Knight was born.  Rogue’s Home and Player’s Ruse followed shortly, and after a bit of a hiatus, Thief’s War has just emerged into the world, with two more siblings planned to follow.  And while they may not be my “best” books (I love all my novel-children, for different reasons and in different ways) I have to confess that these are the ones I like the best, because they are, quite simply, the most fun.

Hilari Bell has already shamelessly plugged her book, but you can buy Thief’s War at Amazon.com (hardcover and paperback, as well as ebook) BarnesandNoble.com and Smashwords.com, and it should be up on Apple’s I-Bookstore very shortly.