Raised On Potter: Give the People What They Want?

Monday, April 21st, 2014 | Posted by markrigney

864751637_bbb406661f_zAs I mentioned in a recent post, I just finished teaching a creative writing course. Most of my students were college sophomores. None were creative writing majors. To cut a successful swath through my class, they had to write a short story, a poem, and a short play — and then revise each one multiple times. In order to bring a proper perspective to their efforts, I forced them (at dagger point) to read a great many examples of each form.

Thus ends the exposition. Now for the drama!

At the tail end of the semester, I asked my students to rank each reading on a five point scale, with one being exceptional and five a yawner. Imagine my surprise when I discovered that without exception, it was the fantasy and horror offerings on my syllabus that drew the strongest responses.

What can account for this?

My answer: J.K. Rowling.

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Teaching and Fantasy Literature: Worlds Without End

Wednesday, April 16th, 2014 | Posted by markrigney

Fourteen years ago, I taught my first college-level writing class. Let’s face it, I was verySO-2 green, an adjunct hired to fill an unexpected gap in the wake of a fast-departing faculty member. Whether I did well or poorly I do not claim to know, but of my eleven students, two had their final projects subsequently published, and one went on to get an M.F.A. in creative writing (which means he’s now flipping burgers in your local Mickey D’s, so next time you’re there, be nice).

The other fact of which I’m sure is that my toss-the-feathers syllabus mixed fantasy and literary readings. Yea and verily, it’s a wonder I wasn’t burned as a heretic – but perhaps the resident firemen, Montag & Smaug, Inc., were extra busy that season.

I’m now on my third go-round as a writing teacher, and while my reading selections remain whimsically mixed, I do have one fresh challenge on my plate: for the first time, I have a student invested in writing out-and-out science fiction. And not just any sci-fi, we’re talking guns-a-blazing space opera.

By the glowing rings of Saturn, what am I to do?

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The Adventure Continues: the Return of Renner and Quist

Monday, February 17th, 2014 | Posted by markrigney

Sleeping Bear coverWhen I first dreamed up my odd-couple pair of Renner & Quist, one of the many goals I had in mind was to write their stories specifically and consciously as adventures. This was not perhaps the most sensible decision, given a literary market polarized between nominally realistic “grown-up” fare and the highly fantastical tomes aimed at teens. (I shall not deign to even mention Romance; call me biased, go ahead. I can take it.) Nor did my conception of Renner & Quist allow for them to don armor, wield swords, or inhabit some far-flung or alternate world. No, these two, Reverend Renner being a Unitarian Universalist minister and Dale Quist a former P.I. and ex-linebacker, required a contemporary setting; to emplace them elsewhere would be to guarantee that any stories woven around them would be untruthful.

This is not to say that I’m against high fantasy; quite the opposite. I’m here, aren’t I? For further proof, take a gander at my Black Gate trilogy concerning Gemen the Antiques Dealer.

But not all ideas trend that direction and with Renner & Quist, I knew I had nearer waters to chart. Now that their second novella, Sleeping Bear, is out in the world, and with their first proper novel, Check-Out Time, very much in the production pipeline, it seems high time to explore what remains, in the 21st century, of that cracking good term, “adventure.”

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The Plot Thickens. Or Maybe Stretches.

Friday, November 15th, 2013 | Posted by Violette Malan

NovelistI had occasion to look into John Gardner’s On Becoming a Novelist for something totally unrelated to the posts I’ve been doing lately on plotting and plot devices. While I was checking through the book for the quote I needed, however, I found a few things he had to say about plot that I thought you might find interesting.

For those of you wondering, this is not the British John Gardner who was tapped to write the 007 pastiches in the 1980′s, but the American one who wrote all that Old English literary criticism, who’s one of the best known teachers of creative writing, with his book The Art of Fiction considered one of the seminal works in the field for students and teachers alike. For those of us in the Fantasy and SF community, however, he’s likely best known as the author of novels like Grendel, and Freddy’s Book, and October Light.

I’m going to share these observations in the order in which they appear, for the most part without regard to context. I won’t apologize for all the male-centric pronouns, I’ll just  point out that the book was published after Gardner’s unexpected death (so no changes could be made in later editions) and that male-centric was the default back then (pre-1982), even for most female writers. Here we go:

The wise writer counts on the characters and plot for his story’s power, not on tricks of withheld information, including withheld information at the end . . .

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Fierce and Fey: An Interview with Artist Lauren K. Cannon

Sunday, October 13th, 2013 | Posted by C.S.E. Cooney

Baalhu_by_navateI think I first saw Lauren K. Cannon’s art at the World Fantasy Convention in San Diego, 2011. John O’Neill and I were brainstorming about cover art for Mike Allen’s book and the moment I saw Cannon’s work, I was riveted.

I took home one of her postcards. It’s still pinned up by my writing desk, where I can watch the woman in her bird-skull headdress, kneeling by a bone-embedded riverbed and feeding her creepy little bird friends from bowls of blood.

I love that bird woman. I’d love to write about her, this Baalhu of the Ancients. But even when I didn’t know her name, I adored the bones of her. That’s what Cannon’s art does to me: catapults me from the quotidian into INSTANT STORYBRAIN.

By and by, John bought “Black Bride” to be the cover art for Mike Allen’s Black Fire Concerto. You should have heard the squeals of ecstatic (and perhaps mildly terrified) joy coming from my corner of Rhode Island. John didn’t even need a cell phone, probably. He could’ve just stepped out into his driveway somewhere in Suburbia, Illinois and heard the echoes. I couldn’t have been happier.

And then, as I began this series of Fantasy and the Arts Interviews (1 and 2 here and here), I knew immediately I wanted to interview her.

Cannon very graciously agreed to answer my questions in an email, and here I have them for you, dear Black Gate readers.

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Readercon 24: “A Most Readerconnish Miscellany”

Thursday, July 18th, 2013 | Posted by C.S.E. Cooney


Yours Truly, C.S.E. Cooney

First of all…

HALLOOOOO Black Gate Readers!

I don’t even know if you remember me; it’s been so long, and I think there are probably a lot more of you now. Anyway, I’m C.S.E. Cooney, and I’m a writer, and sometimes I blog here, and today is one of those days.

So, hi. Again.

This last weekend, I attended Readercon 24, as participant and performer. This year, instead of signing up for ALL THE SCARILY CLEVER PANELS that I’m mostly unsuited for, I signed up to perform stuff.


Caitlyn Paxson, Jacqueline of All Trades

Because I like performing.

Performing’s cool.

And since performing is so cool, why, Caitlyn Paxson (another writer, also a storyteller, also a harpist and banjo-player, also the Artistic Director of the Ottawa Storytellers and All-Around Belle Dame Sans Merci, only, like, Avec Merci) and I proposed to teach a workshop at Readercon called “From Page to Stage: Adapting Your Text for Performance.”

But I get ahead of myself.

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Teaching and Fantasy Literature: Or Should That Be Teaching Versus Fantasy Literature?

Wednesday, May 29th, 2013 | Posted by Sarah Avery

The Woman Upstairs Claire MessudTeaching and writing can feed one another.

My students needed me to articulate how I work, so I had to examine my own processes. My writing processes didn’t serve all my students well, so I had to learn other writing processes, ones I might never have considered for myself otherwise, deeply enough to help my students try them.

As a student, I could get away with not revising, until about three years into grad school. My students couldn’t get away with that, and I learned to revise from watching their successes when they followed the advice I’d been hearing all along, and passed on to them, but had never put to use.

Above all, my students made me fit, as a human being, to write fiction. All the characters I tried to write when I was in my teens and in college were either my own doubles or cardboard cut-outs.

Only when I had to think my way into my students’ experiences and thought processes did I develop the imaginative empathy to write a character fundamentally unlike myself. There are days when it’s hard to remember all that. It is worth remembering.

Teaching and writing can tear at one another.

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Teaching and Fantasy Literature: Or Maybe It Can’t Be Toned Down

Thursday, May 23rd, 2013 | Posted by Sarah Avery

I got my first taste of Greek mythology from D’Aulaire’s Greek Myths. Later, when I was old enough for Bulfinch’s Mythology, I thought I had graduated to the real thing. Homer came to me by way of a dusty turn-of-the-century book with a title along the lines of The Boy’s Own Homer, with glorious color illustrations. D’Aulaire gave me the Norse myths, too, though I didn’t get The Ring of the Niebelungen until a friend gave me a mixtape that included Anna Russell’s brilliant twenty-minute Ring cycle sketch.

When my parents realized I knew nothing whatever about the Bible — I was ten — they rectified my cultural illiteracy with Pearl Buck’s two-volume The Story Bible. Of all those beginner versions of classics, only Buck’s biblical books kept all the sex and violence in. Imagine my shock when my mother handed me Ovid’s Metamorphoses in Mandelbaum’s complete and very faithful translation. I was twelve. What was she thinking? If the Metamorphoses were a blog, every post would have cut text with PTSD trigger warnings.

Mark Rigney’s post on how old a kid should be before reading or watching The Hunger Games touched on a problem I face often as a teacher of teenagers, some as young as 13. Since I’m a freelance teacher, making house calls, my students’ parents are sometimes directly involved in the question of how old is old enough for which book. Other times, especially when the parents don’t speak much English, I actually wish I could involve them more directly than the language barrier allows.

I’ll face the age question all over again, differently, when my own kids can read on their own. Inevitably, I come at the predicament through my own history as a reader — which stories I was denied too long or permitted too early. As a maker of stories, I’m fascinated also with seeing what of a story can survive the translation into the consciousness of the young, either through the efforts of adult writers who reinterpret the stories, or through the efforts of kids themselves when they try to make sense of them.

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Teaching and Fantasy Literature: Battles, Reluctance, and Service to the Sea of Stories

Thursday, May 9th, 2013 | Posted by Sarah Avery

We’ve come to the last installment of my review of Writing Fantasy Heroes: Powerful Advice from the Pros. It’s a peculiar book, different in several ways I have talked about before from other books on writerly craft. It’s specialized by both genre and cluster of techniques, and each chapter shows a noted author using examples from his or her own work to demonstrate how to use a particular technique well (or, in the case of early drafts, badly, followed by advice on revision). Although the book is, by design, most useful for the newcomer to writing fantasy, it has something to offer more seasoned writers, and it’s of great value to teachers of writing who specialize in, or are at least willing to engage with, genre fiction.

Paul Kearney’s piece on large-scale battle scenes is just what I hoped it would be. You know all the familiar gripes about fantasy warfare that fails the suspension-of-disbelief test: the army never seems to eat or excrete, never needs to get paid, charges its horses directly into walls of seasoned enemy pikemen, and so on. “So You Want to Fight a War” addresses all those mundane things an author must get right if the fantasy elements of her story are to feel real to the reader, and then Kearney pushes past the gripes into solutions that any conscientious author can learn to implement. It’s that last bit that I found truly refreshing — many discussions of military verisimilitude get bogged down in griping. Kearney assumes throughout that it’s possible for his reader to get this stuff right, with enough good models, research, and practice.

As in Brandon Sanderson’s chapter on “Writing Cinematic Fight Scenes,” the reader is urged to map the combatants’ positions in space. Of course, with at least two armies’ worth of combatants, what one does with the map is a little more complicated this time around:

Keep the map beside you as you write, and as the narrative progresses and the lines move and break and reform, annotate your map. By the end of the battle it should be covered in scrawls, but you will still see the sense within it. It should also have a scale, so that if you want one character to see another across that deadly space, you can gauge whether it’s possible or not. Battlefields can be large places, miles wide. Our ten thousand men, standing in four ranks shoulder to shoulder, will form a line over a mile and a half long, and that’s close-packed heavy infantry such as Greek spearmen or Roman legionaries. If your troops are wild-eyed Celtic types who like a lot of space to swing their swords, it will be even longer.

Okay, that’s a little daunting, but Kearney also offers things like a breakdown of pre-gunpowder tactics into a set of relationships that he likens, persuasively, to rock-paper-scissors. If you can remember how that kindergarten game works, you can avoid some of the biggest beginner blunders in the genre.

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The Kids Are Alright: The Fate of the Novel lies in the Hands of Teenagers

Sunday, May 5th, 2013 | Posted by Garrett Calcaterra

Dinner at Deviant's PalaceLike many authors, I teach writing to help make ends meet. Teaching part-time at a college and an arts high school doesn’t exactly make you rich, but I for one find it very satisfying. One of the obvious perks for me is getting to teach alongside steampunk progenitors Tim Powers and James P. Blaylock, both of whom are fascinating, brilliant men.

The other perk — the less obvious one — is the students themselves.

On one hand, I often find myself wringing my hands like an old fuddy-duddy about how this youthful generation is enslaved by technology. I’ve had two college students this year write about how they were “catfished,” for example, and it’s hard to understand a generation that has made the act of duping someone into having a phony online relationship so commonplace.

And then there’s their obsession with smart phones, providing a constant distraction in the classroom and leading students to shamble mindlessly down the hallways between classes with their phones in their faces, heedless of who or what they bump into. The zombie apocalypse is here already, I tell you!

On the other hand, I’m constantly inspired by my students, both by their creativity and their exuberance for crossing genres and mediums. And really, it all stems from the ubiquity of technology in their lives. Yes, even those damned smart phones.

At the behest of a handful of my high school students this year, I taught a class called Writing for Alternative Mediums (WAM), meaning writing for video games, phone apps, web comics, and whatever else the kids could dream up.

Like any savvy teacher who has no expertise or experience on a given topic, I “taught” the course as a seminar, meaning the students were forced to perform their own self-guided research, develop a project, and then present their work to the class.

The big winner ended up being me.

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