Michaeline: “The Flowers of Vashnoi” (discussion and spoilers in the comments)

The Vorkosigan butterbugs in their radbug incarnation, glowing with radiation markers on their backs.

Lois McMaster Bujold’s “The Flowers of Vashnoi” came out on May 17, 2018! I’m not really a bug person, but boy, Ekaterin knows how to make a glorious bug! Art, science and passion is a winning combination for this heroine! (Image via Goodreads)

It has been a great month for short fiction for me. I started with Bujold’s latest novella, “The Flowers of Vashnoi” (Amazon), and then thanks to filkferengi’s comments last week, I discovered a couple of new short fiction magazines.

I’ve already bought and read issues 7 and 8 of Heart’s Kiss, a relatively new magazine of romance stories that is available on Kindle (and I bought it from amazon.co.jp, so it’s internationally available) and in print. Their editorial board changed with issue 7 (February 2018), and it turns out that one of our Eight Ladies, Jeanne, knows one of the editors through the RWA Golden Heart awards program.

The stories are a lot of fun – exactly the kind of short, happy fiction I enjoy best. Most of them (all of them?) are liberally laced with magic and fantasy; one series has a cupid-in-training, and a different series is full-on Outlander-style timeslip/historical fantasy. The stand-alone stories stand alone, and have been very satisfying.

I will put in one caveat: if typos destroy the experience for you, you might want to proceed with caution. I’m not the most vigilant proofreader in the world, and even I caught several words that were misspelled or small editing errors. There’s one author in the series who uses the word “fisting” to mean “grasping” . . . and I don’t want to see “fisting” anywhere near my sexy, romantic fiction, even if it’s not “that” kind of activity. Not my cup of kink!

I just mention this because I know a lot of people who are extremely annoyed by typos; I still enjoyed the series, and am looking forward to part three (even though I just know she’s going to slip in “fisting” the sheets or clothing in some way or another!).

To tell the truth, the errors in editing just add a certain gritty, blast-from-the-past flavor to the magazine; it brings me back to a time when it was quite common to pick up a magazine and find a nice short fiction piece in it – or a girl could go down to the drugstore, and pick from six different romance comics. In order to cultivate a Dorothy Parker or a James Thurber, we need fields and fields of these kinds of magazines – and the internet e-reading revolution can provide those fertile grounds. I’m glad to have found Heart’s Kiss.

Which brings me back to today’s main theme: did you get a chance to read “The Flowers of Vashnoi”? What did you take away? Like so many Bujold books, the story is great while you are reading it, improves when you think about it, and rewards re-reading. The whole icing on the cake is when you get to discuss the many issues and techniques with like-minded readers. Because even though we may be like-minded in enjoying a good yarn, we all bring different interpretations and spins to the table when we have time to discuss a shared story.

I’m looking forward to hearing from you!

Michaeline: A Review of Bujold’s New Novella (No Spoilers, Some Marketing Theories)

The Vorkosigan butterbugs in their radbug incarnation, glowing with radiation markers on their backs.

Lois McMaster Bujold’s “The Flowers of Vashnoi” came out on May 17, 2018! I’m not really a bug person, but boy, Ekaterin knows how to make a glorious bug! Art, science and passion is a winning combination for this heroine! (Image via Goodreads)

Lois McMaster Bujold’s newest novella, “The Flowers of Vashnoi” (with beautiful cover art by Ron Miller), came out on May 17 (Goodreads announcement), and it’s a good one. If you like Bujold, you will like this novella set in the Vorkosigan’s radioactive district, about four years after Ekaterin and Miles get married.

I really like the spirit of experimentation Lois puts into her self-published novels. She’s a pro, and writes well, and has apparently learned good lessons from her time with traditional publishers (I might be wrong: is it natural, or is it L’Oreal?). But now, she’s retired, and she’s been breaking some of the rules in order to tell the stories she wants to tell, without undue stress and story-bending to fit the rules of an outside publisher.

For example, this is women’s fiction. (We’re told over and over that women’s fiction doesn’t sell . . . and women’s science fiction? Not even a category. Chick Sci’ Lit? Chicka-Sicca-Fi Lit? Nobody’s labeled it as such.) This is totally Ekaterin’s story, and she isn’t some sweet young single fresh out of school. She’s in her mid-30s with three children, and a husband she loves to bits, but who gets slightly in the way at times. This is her project; she makes decisions as Lady Vorkosigan; and she shares the credit gracefully, but is the boss. Not exactly a common heroine in modern genre fiction.

It’s not a love story; it’s not an epic adventure. There are no demons or vampires or werewolves (although there is soupcon of Baba Yaga), but there are some cool bugs that turn widespread radiation into something that can be dealt with. (Not a spoiler: Bujold has been flirting with this since A Civil Campaign. We fans are very lucky to see it happen on the page.) A dash of love, a dash of horror, a dash of thrills.

It isn’t a book. It’s a novella, and runs about 20,000 words – so it’s a nice treat for the afternoon, as well. But “we all know” that publishers like books — and even more, they like series. The kind of thing that makes readers binge for the entire weekend or more.

What is “The Flowers of Vashnoi”, then? Continue reading

Michaeline: NaNo Special: Chapter Transitions

People who read Lois McMaster Bujold’s new novella, “The Prisoner of Limnos” in the first 24 hours of release got  bit of a shock when Lois announced on her blog that the early edition had somehow dropped the last lines of several chapters. (Links at the end; WordPress isn’t in a sharing mood today.)

As students of writing, we’re taught that these last lines are of extreme importance. Story, by Robert McKee, talks about how a scene can change the whole situation from a plus to a minus, or vice versa – and sometimes, it’s that last line in a scene or chapter that gives the final twist. Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King also places importance on the final words of any scene. Compared to painters, we writers have it a little bit easier – we can put on as many finishing touches as we like, and all of them can be take-backs or do-overs with a simple application of the delete key or strike-out. In the editing stage, we decide, and the reader never has to know the anguish we put into those decisions to keep or to leave.

Given the importance of the endings, what’s shocking to me is that as an early reader of “The Prisoner of Limnos”, I only noticed one chopped-off ending. If endings are so important, what was going on here? I had had a great experience with the book as-is; had I missed an even greater book because the ending lines had been dropped?

Well, I’m happy to report my second reading was as rewarding as the first, even though I had to stop (!) and think (!) instead of ride the wave of story. From now on, we’re heading into spoiler territory, so if you haven’t read the Penric novellas, I highly recommend that you do, and come back. They are all fixed now, and you can update the old ones. (See second link below.)

In general, Lois’s last lines add Continue reading

Michaeline: Lois McMaster Bujold and Three Questions about Writing “Penric’s Fox”

Exciting August news, all! Lois McMaster Bujold came out with a new Penric novella on August 8, 2017! Hang onto your time-travelling imagination caps: “Penric’s Fox” is actually book three, following “Penric and the Shaman” by about nine months, and before “Penric’s Mission” (NB: as of 2017 08 08. Your mileage and chronometer may vary).

"Penric's Fox" title cover with a castle, a fox and a ghostly young woman in elegant medieval robes.

“Penric’s Fox” follows further adventures of Learned Penric, court sorceror for the princess-archdivine. It’s about 37,400 words, so if you read “Penric’s Demon” and “Penric and the Shaman” as well, you’ll have a good chunk of fantasy to enjoy this weekend! Follow it up with the older Penric in “Penric’s Mission” and “Mira’s Last Dance”. (Image courtesy of Lois McMaster Bujold)

“Whaaa?” Not to worry — all the stories can stand on their own, and who is going to quibble when we have the chance to see Penric in action again?

So, go. Make a liter of  something seasonal and delicious, find your favorite reading pillow, and download the book. When you’re done, come back here and see what Lois has to say about the process of writing things.

EMD: I suppose the first question is why did you write a follow-up to “Penric and the Shaman” (the second Penric novella) and not a follow-up to “Mira’s Last Dance”? I mean, I’m grateful for whatever you’ve got, but it is a question that comes up.

LMB: This was the story that wanted to be written first. I am considering a follow-up to “Mira”, yes, but those ideas were not ripe at the beginning of this year (2017), and then the key idea that this story was awaiting suddenly slotted in, so.

The delay proved to be, as is often the case, good for the other set of ideas as well, as a few more have joined that collection since January that I could not have foreseen. For me, a story in the process of assembling itself is like a box of loose objects rattling around aimlessly, till some connecting idea drops in and things suddenly get interesting. (Note that some of those pieces may also prove to be wrong ones, like two jigsaw puzzles mixed together. Sorting those out can also take some time.) Trust me, stories only look inevitable in retrospect.

Some of the ideas for “Penric’s Fox” had been kicking around ever since I was developing backstory prior to starting what became “Penric’s Mission”, but they weren’t necessarily stories yet. The seven years I jumped over to get to Penric at age 30 were full of experiences that were important to him but not necessarily story-like, though I needed to know roughly what they were before I could write him at that later stage. It was basically the same sort of task as developing any new character’s backstory before starting them off on a tale for the first time, even though the reader will never see most of it.

I should also note that one of the developments in the tale came from watching the family of foxes that denned under my garden shed earlier this year, not something I could have anticipated. There’s nothing like Continue reading

Jilly: Dunbar’s Number for Writers and Readers

How many authors are on your mental auto-buy checklist? How many are on your keeper shelf? And how long have those authors been at the heart of your reading universe?

I’ve been noodling around with these questions for some time—a couple of years, probably—ever since I first read about Dunbar’s Number. If you’re not familiar with the concept, Wikipedia describes it as a suggested cognitive limit to the number of people with whom one can maintain stable social relationships. Or, to put it crudely: there’s a limit to the number of people your brain has space for.

Dunbar’s Number has been around since the 1990s, but I came across it when I started writing fiction with an eye to publication and realized that meant I’d have to get to grips with social media. If you’d like to know more about the idea in the context of online relationships, click here for a Youtube link to anthropologist Robin Dunbar’s 15-minute Tedx talk: Can The Internet Buy You More Friends?

If you’d prefer the short version, it goes something like this: we humans maintain social relationships at various levels of intimacy, and the number of people we have the capacity to manage at each level is more or less predictable.

  • We have a very inner core of intimate friends and relations, people we would turn to in times of deep emotional stress. Typically there are about five of them.
  • We have a group of best friends, people we know well, confide in, trust, spend time with. That group would likely be about fifteen people, including the inner five.
  • The next closest layer, good friends, would be about fifty people (including the first fifteen);

Continue reading

Michaeline: New Penric! and Thoughts on Life-Long Love

A still life with two masks.

The fourth Penric novella by Lois McMaster Bujold is a delightful episode! (Image via Goodreads; cover design by Ron Miller)

So, first the most exciting news I had all week: Lois McMaster Bujold’s new Penric novella, Mira’s Last Dance came out this week (February 27th and 28th) on all the usual e-outlets! And it was fantastic! If you were left hanging a little bit by Penric’s Mission, then you’ll be pleased to hear that the story picks up from that point, and we get one lovely episode of courtship via political intrigue, escape and a brothel. That Penric is a delightful travelling companion, and I recommend the journey.

I’m not going to spoil you, though – Bujold reports that the novella is 28,000 words, which is perfect for a large pot of tea and an afternoon on the sofa. Spoil yourself.

What I am going to talk about is something that Mira said in the book. She’s the . . . well, the ghost/image of an Adrian courtesan who is part and parcel of the past lives that make up Desdemona. (Desdemona is the demon in Penric’s head.) She has a very clear and pragmatic view of sex and love, and mentions at one point,:

“The darling men used to imagine they’d fallen in love with me all the time. Most of them were actually in love with their own cocks.”

Ah, yes. And thus, genitalia doth betray us all. Continue reading

Jilly: Filling the Well

filling-the-wellWhat have you done to recharge your batteries/top up your creative well this week? I’ve spent most of the last three days with my nose in a book (well, pressed against a Kindle.) It’s been wonderful.

I had great plans to read and recharge over the holidays. That didn’t happen, because I used all my spare time to work on my Golden Heart entry. I wrote a new opening scene—it took multiple attempts before I finally found one I liked. I figured out an opening sentence that made promises about the story instead of just plunging into the action. I filled in plot holes. I checked the etymology of every significant word to make sure it was appropriate to my world. I tailored my metaphors. I wrote a new synopsis that reflected Alexis and Kierce’s relationship arc instead of wandering off into the mystery sub-plot. And then—yay!—this week, I uploaded the lot to the RWA website.

I have a lot of work left to do on this story, but I needed a breather so I decided to treat myself to the book binge I didn’t get in December.

Continue reading