Sunday, February 22, 2015

When the rules don't apply.

Reading can be a subversive exercise. Sometimes it encourages you to break the rules.

I just finished a book that I received in my book bag at last fall's World Fantasy Convention:  Lifelode by Jo Walton. I'd never read anything by Walton before this, so I didn't really know what to expect. But the book's description appealed to me -- it's set in what appears at first glance to be a fantasy world. Applekirk is more or less a castle, and those who live there more or less practice magic, which is called yeya in the world of this book. There are some peculiarities in this world: the farther East you go, the more yeya there is and the more time speeds up; the farther West, the more time slows down, and yeya becomes a rumor, or maybe even a fairy tale. But the oddest thing at first glance is that the book is written in present tense. And it works -- or at least, it worked for me, because one of the main characters views time in a non-linear fashion. Often when she looks at someone, she sees a sort of ghost or shade of their past or future self, so that everything happens at once, all the time.

Now, writing in present tense is not a usual choice for authors. Sure, Suzanne Collins uses it in her Hunger Games books, but by and large, the default is past tense. And the intarwebz are full of reasons why you should stick with past tense (although I would argue that a competent writer -- like, say, Walton, for instance -- would easily avoid the pitfalls listed in this Writer's Digest article).

It turns out that Walton stretched another boundary, too. While at first glance, Lifelode is fantasy, Walton says in the Q&A at the end of the book that it's definitely sci-fi. The novel's world is actually a pocket universe -- a fold in space-time -- which explains why time passes faster, the farther east you go. I don't know that you need to know that to enjoy the book; you can certainly read it as fantasy set in an odd magical world.

This tweaking of expectations is also evident in Ann Leckie's Ancillary Justice, which was my Rursday Read this week. This book is very definitely sci-fi -- spaceships, aliens, and artificial intelligences abound. Leckie's protagonist, Breq, was once part of the AI that operated a spaceship, which may be mind-bending enough. But the people of the society that created the ship have the capability of becoming either gender -- so their language has no gender. Leckie could have taken the easy way out and denoted this by having Breq use "it" as his/her default pronoun. But instead, it's "she". It's a little disorienting, and a constant reminder that the reader's not in Kansas anymore.

Both of these authors are multiple award winners. Leckie's book won the Hugo, the Nebula, and the Arthur C. Clarke awards last year. Walton's past work has also won the Hugo and the Nebula.

I'm bringing this up because I saw a bit of advice on Facebook this week about how you shouldn't use big words in your fiction writing. Supposedly, it's because throwing a bunch of unfamiliar words at your reader will throw them out of the story. Now, usually I'm on board with this advice; after all, I spent a lot of years writing radio copy. For that, you use short words and simple sentences because when you're writing for the ear, clarity is key. But fiction is a different beast, and sometimes complexity is better. One of my favorite authors is Stephen R. Donaldson, whose Thomas Covenant books are rife with unfamiliar words. Donaldson has said he used the difficult vocabulary in part to make it clear that the Land is not our world. And Donaldson's work has won numerous awards, too.

So we have three authors who have won a boatload of awards for breaking the rules. It's probably no accident that these three authors write speculative fiction, where rule-bending of all sorts is allowed, and even encouraged. But I think the takeaway is that each of these authors had a good reason for doing what they did. Donaldson used unusual words to set the Land apart from our world. Leckie's Breq calls everyone "she" to underscore his/her alien origins. And Walton uses present tense to reinforce the idea that time moves oddly in her world.

So if you're tempted to bend or break a writing rule, have at it. But don't just do it to do it. Know what the rule is there for, and figure out why it doesn't apply in the case of your story. After all, that's how the award-winning authors do it.

Speaking of awards: Congrats to Birdman on winning the Oscar for Best Picture tonight! (Did I call it, or did I call it?)

These moments of rule-breaking blogginess have been brought to you, as a public service, by Lynne Cantwell.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

What's a naja, and where does it come from?

Every now and then, I fall into these mini-obsessions -- something that strikes me as interesting, and there I go, Googling down a rabbit hole, trying to appease my curiosity. Whole afternoons can go by this way.
That's what happened when I spotted this necklace a few weeks back on Mission Del Rey's website and fell in love with it. (If you click through, you'll see it's listed as out of stock. That's because they only had one, and I bought it. Sorry.) It's Navajo made, and it interested me because I've seen the design featured as a pendant on other Navajo-made pieces that are commonly called squash blossom necklaces.

Wikimedia Commons |
Over to the right is an example of a squash blossom necklace -- and not a very elaborate one, at that. The ones you usually see are encrusted with hunks of turquoise. I've looked at the them for years but have never bought one -- partly because I'm not really into big, gaudy necklaces, and partly because I didn't understand the symbolism.

Sure, Native Americans make these necklaces for the tourist trade. But I've been leery about symbols on jewelry ever since I was a kid. The summer I was on vacation with my parents in South Dakota, I spotted a beaded necklace with an "Indian" motif in a gift shop. I think there was a tipi on the medallion, and it had beaded fringe hanging from it -- very '60s. For all I know, it was probably made in China. But I thought it was groovy (keep in mind the era here), and I pestered my mother into buying it for me. She also bought me two ice cream cones that day. What the heck, right? We were on vacation. Yeah, well, I was wearing that brand-new necklace when the toothache hit me that night. Call me superstitious, or just young and silly, but I associated that necklace with bad luck ever afterward. I finally threw it out.

So I want to know what stuff means before I decide to wear it. And as I said, I never knew the symbolism behind the squash blossom necklace. So before I plunked down my money for the Navajo piece that had caught my eye, I dove down the Google rabbit hole to find out what I was getting into.

I had always thought "squash blossom" referred to the pendant part of a squash blossom necklace, but it doesn't. The squash blossoms are the vaguely trumpet-shaped beads on the chain. The pendant is called a naja -- pronounced NAH-hah, with a Spanish "j". And it doesn't mean anything. The design came to the New World with the conquistadores. Those guys may have gotten it from the Moors, who used to put an inverted crescent on their horse's bridles to ward against the ol' evil eye. (I guess it didn't work too well; Ferdinand and Isabella kicked them out of Spain in 1492.)

But the naja even predates the Moors. I fell into another Google rabbit hole this evening, and ended up on a Czech website that sells reproduction items for historical re-enactors. I was looking through their stock of Slavic designs when I saw this. It's a reproduction of a 9th-century pendant found in Nitra, Slovakia.

And going back even further, the inverted crescent was a symbol of the Phoenician fertility goddess Astarte.

 In any case, by the time the Southwestern tribes got hold of it, it was just an appealing motif. So I felt safe on that score. But what do the etched designs on my naja mean? As near as I can tell, the spirals represent lightning, and the sawtoothed design on the arms symbolizes mountains. Rain is always welcome in the dry Southwest, so I'm viewing it as a good omen. And I've already worn the necklace several times without disaster striking.

Knock on wood.

These moments of historically superstitious blogginess have been brought to you, as a public service, by Lynne Cantwell.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Closing Pandora's box.

It's been quite a while since I wrote a punctuation-related post. Guess it's time.

One of the most common punctuation mistakes I see is when an author wants to use punctuation to set off a phrase, but doesn't do it correctly. Here, let me show you want I mean. See if you can spot the errors in the following sentences:

I introduced my brother, Hal to the group.*
Frieda swears she's going to shave her head because her hair (which is naturally curly is so hard to manage.
The most annoying thing about punctuation mistakes -- the thing that makes my teeth itch the most is that they're so easily fixed.

In each case, the author has begun the job of setting off a parenthetical expression with some type of punctuation, but has not followed through and finished the job.

I get that sometimes people get going on their point and forget. Or in revision mode, they add something here and forget to adjust the sentence there. But sometimes I wonder whether people even realize they're making a mistake. Hence, this post.

I guess first we ought to define what this thing-that-ought-to-be-between-punctuation-marks is. If you can take the words in question out of the sentence and it's still grammatically correct, then what you have is a parenthetical expression or a parenthetical phrase. And yes, that's what it's called even if no parentheses are involved.

So for our examples above, if I take out the parenthetical material, the sentences would read like this:

I introduced my brother to the group.*
Frieda swears she's going to shave her head because her hair is so hard to manage.
The most annoying thing about punctuation mistakes is that they're so easily fixed.

See? The sentences work just fine this way. So if I go back and insert the words I've left out, I need to set them off on both sides with my punctuation of choice -- commas, parentheses, dashes, brackets, whatever -- so that my reader knows where the parenthetical material starts and ends.

When you put in the first punctuation mark and don't put in the second, it's a little like you've opened Pandora's box. You know that story, right? Zeus was mad at Pandora's husband, so He gave her a box (or actually, a jar) and told her not to open it. But of course her curiosity got the best of her. As it turned out, Zeus had stuffed the jar full of all the bad things in creation, and when Pandora opened it, they all escaped into the world. But the jar contained one more thing: hope. And when the bad stuff got out, it did, too.

So when you put in the first punctuation mark, you've opened the box. You need to remember to close that box when you get to the right place -- or else you run the risk of doing a bad thing: confusing your reader. Setting off that parenthetical material on both sides makes your sentence easier to understand. Which is all punctuation does, guys. Honest.

Anyway, I'm hopeful that you all will remember to close the box the next time you include parenthetical material in a sentence. (See what I did there?)

*A word about this sentence: I've set off the name with commas here (or intended to, anyway) because in this example, I'm assuming Hal is my only brother. So his name is superfluous to the meaning of the sentence; regardless whether I name him or not, I'm still talking about the same guy. However, if I had two brothers, I would omit the commas because the name is now critical to the meaning of the sentence. If I say, "I introduced my brother to the group," my reader won't know whether I mean Hal or Fred unless I say his name.

Only one brother? "I introduced my brother, Hal, to the group."
Two or more brothers? "I introduced my brother Hal to the group."

Okay? Okay. Glad we've cleared that up.

In the news: I was very pleased to learn that I've been named to a 2014 Honours List of Indie Authors in Australia. Thanks very much to Tabitha Ormiston-Smith for the hono(u)r!

This moment of bloggy box-closing has been brought to you, as a public service, by Lynne Cantwell.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Brigid at the Crossroads.

It's become something of a tradition here at hearth/myth to do an Imbolc post. A quick recap: Imbolc is the halfway point between the winter solstice and the spring equinox. It's known as Candlemas to Christians, and as Groundhog Day to most Americans. (As my dad used to say, "If the groundhog sees his shadow, we'll have six more weeks of winter. If he doesn't see his shadow, we'll have another month and a half!" Yeah, thanks, Dad. I'll make a note.)

For Pagans, Imbolc honors Brighid, the Irish goddess of spinning and weaving, smithcraft, and poetry. But she's also sometimes called a goddess of the crossroads. I have occasionally wondered where the association came from, so I committed a little Google-fu tonight to see what I could scope out.

If you do a search for "crossroads goddess," the first name that will pop up -- in a big box, no less -- is Hecate. She's considered to be a Greek goddess, although the Greeks probably adopted Her from somewhere else. She was originally considered to be a beautiful young woman, and was associated with abundance. By the time the Romans got hold of Her, She had morphed into a crone, the goddess of the dead. Even in Greece, She had aged, and had picked up an association with the underworld; Hecate is the one who led Demeter there to find her daughter Persephone, after Hades had carried her off.

Hecate was specifically in charge of the kind of intersection where three roads meet. This is not necessarily a good thing. In the old days, criminals and people who committed suicide were buried at a crossroads, and people thought these intersections were haunted.

As I said earlier, Brighid too is sometimes considered to be a goddess of the crossroads -- but nobody's ever put Her in charge of the underworld, or suggested She is anything but good. The Catholic Church even made her a saint. So where did this association come from?

St. Brigid's Cross - Wikimedia CommonsFrom what I can tell, it has to do with the Brighid's Cross. It's traditionally woven of reeds or rushes on Imbolc, and hung above the front door of the house as a blessing. (Reeds and rushes are hard to find in my part of the world, so chenille stems, which we called pipe cleaners when I was a kid, are my media of choice.) It's said St. Brigid wove the first one while she comforted a dying Irish chieftain; when he heard her explanation of the significance of the cross, he converted to Christianity. But Brighid's Cross predates Christianity in Ireland. And some say the design symbolizes the Four Provinces of Ireland, with Brighid Herself at the center.

Interestingly, there's apparently a tradition in which Hecate is said to pass a torch to Brighid on January 31st, the eve of Imbolc -- the implication being that Hecate rules the dark half of the year, and Brighid rules the light half. I guess that would mean that Brighid gives the torch back to Hecate on the eve of Lughnasa? Or extinguishes it then? I don't know. If you're familiar with this tradition, please let me know in the comments. I'd be grateful.

If you're interested in making your own Brighid's Cross, I found these directions online. It requires either 12 or 16 pieces of straw, and they need to be flexible enough to bend without breaking, so you need to either pick them fresh or soak them. (I am not good at advance planning for this sort of thing, which is why I always use pipe cleaners. Plus then you can make each arm of your cross a different color.) You could also make a three-armed cross (there's that Y-intersection again...), with either 9 or 12 pieces of straw; the construction principle is the same.

And you can incorporate the construction of your Brighid's Cross into a divination or ritual. The idea is to ask Brighid to help you figure out the direction your life should take for the next year. Here's one from the Llewellyn Encyclopedia, and another from I've used the one from before and I liked it a lot. Everybody's different, of course. But if you're finding yourself at a crossroads these days, talking to Brighid could be one more way to help you make a decision.

Happy Imbolc!

You may be interested to know that my writing future has been mapped out for at least the next few months. I'm almost 20,000 words into the first book of Sage's story as we speak. I'm still dithering over the title, but as soon as I figure it out, I'll let y'all know.

In other news, "The Door into Summer" has been picked up for the inaugural issue of Five59 Monthly. You can read the whole issue online for free at the link. I'm told there will be a way to download a copy for your e-reader here shortly. As soon as I find out the specifics, I'll let y'all know.

This bloggy crossroad has been brought to you, as a public service, by Lynne Cantwell.