In Which Our Heroine Gets Into the Great War Again

13 February 2005

And this, my dears, is the danger of starting journal entries and not finishing them: you talk about the rain and how unsatisfactory it is to get rain in February and how if you wanted rain in February, you'd have stayed in California. Then the rain turns to a gorgeous fluffy snow.

That's most likely a metaphor for something or other. Lots of things are.

I've finished a read-through of Thermionic Night. I still have many more things to do with this draft before it's done, but finishing the read-through gave me a much better sense of my own book, where it's been, and where it's trying to go. What I read is the rough draft. What I'm making of it is the kitchen sink draft. (Numbers are overrated.) From there will be a couple rounds of critique drafts.

Books are big. This book is bigger than most, harder for me. But I'm getting it. I really am. They say you don't learn to write books, you learn to write the book you just wrote, and then the next one is a whole new thing. This may be true, but for awhile I was having doubts that I was even learning to write this book, and now I know I am.

I'm currently reading Anthony Price's Sion Crossing, and I can already tell it won't be my favorite in the series. Too many Americans/too much America in it. This is the most common reason cultural appropriation goes awry: it's just not very well-done. Not damaging, really, just bad. Well. I've acquired enough faith that Mr. Price is going to build on the stuff he does in one book later that I'm willing to read this one even with some hideous attempts at accents and the like, because it's part of something larger that's good enough to be worth a few down bits.

I think that's what people mean when they say that every word has to count in a short story, but I think they're wrong. That is, I think they're wrong about contrasting it with a novel. I don't think it's a good thing to consciously have bits of a novel that are there for no reason. The things you need in a novel are different, and are done differently, but that doesn't mean they're unnecessary and short story stuff is all necessary. It's not just that you can get away with extended funny bits or in-depth characterization or broader setting information in a novel; it's also that many novels require them for balance, for tone, for the whole thing to go like it's supposed to.

So it's not just that, to take a favorite example, Lois McMaster Bujold has the room to develop Miles Vorkosigan's character further in the series as a whole than she did in "The Mountains of Mourning." It's that she is obliged to do so, and it's a very good thing she's lived up to the size of her work, or the whole thing would fall apart and we'd all stop reading. Or at least we'd talk wistfully of the good old days and how we really truly hope the next book will get out of that boring rut and go somewhere, and we swear we're not buying the next one because the last four sucked and well okay but only in paperback and not the first week it's out, dammit. Not that we know any writers who went that way.

Oh, Karina -- and everyone else who cares -- I've got a piece of it: Newford needs an arc. We talk about plot arcs and character arcs, but if we're making setting a major part of our stories, the setting has to go somewhere, too. The obvious example of this is that the plot, the characters and their actions, should change the world. But worlds change anyway. If you have a massive huge series and the world only changes in the ways your characters intend, or even only in the ways they cause while intending something else, things are going to get very claustrophobic around there.

I think this is why I'm stuck with a series arc in my head that goes from before Thermionic Night to something that I have to classify as science fiction fantasy. I can't stop the world with how things are now, with "contemporary" or "urban" fantasy, because that world has places to go, and once I'm thinking on a scale that starts in the Napoleonic Wars, 1997 is not the endpoint, it's a midpoint. Because what's over? Nothing's over out here, and I certainly don't intend to nuke the world in there at the end of Midnight Sun Rising.

And this is where WWI comes in again, and whoever could have predicted that? I'm really alarmed at the resonance WWI has had with me. It's a bit like Finland that way: I didn't intend it, and in fact if you'd asked me I'd have made disparaging noises, but here we are, talking about WWI again. Over on lj, Copperwise was talking about how intensely WWII stuff "gets" her. For me it's WWI. And what's "getting" me this time around is how people can write fantasy novels with last battles in them any more. How people can write the war to end all wars. Don't they remember how those turn out? Or do they remember, and do they just want to rewrite it so that it goes the right way this time? But then they don't rewrite that part. They don't rewrite the bits afterward, trying to make the ending stick. Mostly they want us to believe that it will this time, but wanting it desperately won't do. I just can't.

Someone else -- I forget who, so if it was you, e-mail me -- was talking about how they didn't like sequels because they wanted to read about the most important or interesting part of the characters' lives. And that preference just didn't make any sense to me. In 1918 we signed the treaties on the war to end wars. Does that become boring just because we managed to start them up again in record time? Does it become insignificant? No. The deaths are worth remembering. The lives are worth remembering. And the points where people were just plain wrong about what it all meant, those are worth remembering, too.

Even on a personal level -- especially on a personal level! -- there is no total ordering of climactic events, and there is no permanent evaluation, either. That person you sat next to in calculus could have seemed vitally important to your life at the time -- could have been vitally important to your life at the time -- but could have transferred after that semester and never shown up again. Or the next door neighbor who seemed like a placeholder could, with time, become your best friend for the next fifty years. Your only child could be far and away the most precious baby in the world, until your first grandchild is born -- or not, or not, I don't know, and until you get there neither do you.

And getting there is what fiction does. If getting there was the trivial part, all of our stories would read, "Someone was born, did some stuff, and probably died at some point." Fiction is the bits that knock us over, the bits that take us by surprise, the bits that mean something even when we're not sure what. But we're given more than one of those bits. Events and epiphanies are not rationed one to a customer. Even the same event or epiphany isn't. Lucky for us: we can be a pretty thick-headed lot, we humans.

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