Archive for October, 2011

Harry Potter Re-read: Half-Blood Prince

Happy Halloween, Squiders!

If we look at the entire Harry Potter series as a whole, where Order of the Phoenix is the Dark Moment and Deathly Hallows is the climax, then Half-Blood Prince is the lead-up.  Sure, it has some Dark Moment tints to it, as Harry loses the last adult he ever really looked up to, but for the most part, Half-Blood Prince tells us why.  Voldemort’s backstory is told through a series of pensieve visits, allowing us to see how the Dark Lord became the force of evil he is.  We find out about the horcruxes, how they’re made, how Voldemort thinks about them.  All this information is essential for Harry to go out on his own to accomplish his end goal: the destruction of Voldemort, finally and completely.

Also, eventually I will get through this book without crying at Dumbledore’s funeral, but today is apparently not that day.

Half-Blood Prince messes up convention.  I remember, my first readthrough, how shocking it was when Slughorn turned out to be the Potions teacher and that Snape was to be Defense Against the Dark Arts.  Up until HBP, there’d been a lot of discussion about his loyalties.  I’d been leaning towards good, since Dumbledore trusted and relied on him so much, and he’d always been there when it counted, but the end…brilliant, really.  HBP leaves you sure that Snape has been evil this whole time and yet…yet there’s this tiny doubt.  Just how much does Dumbledore know?  How far ahead is he really thinking?

Harry’s calmed a bit, though he still has his moments where you kind of want to punch him in the arm and tell him to shut up.  It’s almost like Sirius’s death has shown him the dangers of not thinking things through, of acting before having all the information.  Ron and Hermoine act like tools for half the book so we’re still reminded that they’re teenagers, to even things out a bit.

(Also, I like how Firefox tells me that Hermoine is not a word, but Voldemort’s okay. EDIT: Siri informs me that I am spelling Hermione wrong.  Whoops.  Carry on.)

We’ve also got two out of three Deathly Hallows in HBP, though, of course, we don’t know of their existence yet.  In the pensieve memories, Gaunt points out the crest on his ring: the Peverell coat of arms.  A random name at this point, means nothing; the scene distracts you from it with Slytherin’s locket.  Both would be turned into horcruxes, but only one contains the Resurrection Stone.  I wonder, since Voldemort was familiar with the Deathly Hallows enough to know of the Elder Wand, that he didn’t recognize the ring for what it really was, but maybe he just had no use for it.  After all, he had no loved ones to bring back.

Poor Harry has his hands on Ravenclaw’s diadem and doesn’t even realize it.

There’s also a vague hint of Dumbledore’s backstory, while he and Harry are in the cave.  Interesting that the guilt is so strong, even after all those years.

Half-Blood Prince is the last book in the series that attempts convention at all.  There are still classes, there is still Quidditch, there are still hormones and rivalries, but in the end, Dumbledore is gone, Harry will not return to Hogwarts, and the war looms ever closer.

Questions for Discussion:

1. Dumbledore thinks it’s important for Harry to know the truth of Voldemort’s past.  Harry himself has often noted the similarities between himself and Voldemort.  What do you think Dumbledore is trying to show Harry through this?

2. Scrimgeour is a much more active Minister of Magic, but is he a better one than Fudge?

3. Scrimgeour accuses Harry of being Dumbledore’s Man, through and through.  What exactly does this mean?

4. What does it say about Harry that he gives his Felix Felicitas to his friends to keep them safe, rather than keeping it for his own use?

5. Dumbledore knew that Draco had been trying to kill him all year.  Why didn’t he act on this knowledge?  Was there anything he could have done that would have kept both him and Draco safe?

Deathly Hallows will be on deck for November 21st.


Subgenre Study: Superhero Fiction

Up in the sky!  It’s a bird, it’s a plane, it’s…well, it’s a Sky Shark, but we will ignore it for the time being and pretend it’s Superman to go along with today’s entry.

Superhero fiction is somewhat unique among speculative fiction subgenres in that it exists almost exclusively in visual formats.  Comic books, movies, TV shows.  There are the occasional radio show or novel, but they are definitely in the minority.  Some alternative names for this subgenre include Superhuman and Super-powered fiction as villains tend to feature as prominently as the heroes.

It also crosses the boundary between science fiction and fantasy, like many of these subgenres do.  At first glance, a lot of it is science fiction: characters like Batman and Ironman depend on advanced technology, Superman is an alien from another planet, the Green Lantern is just one of many throughout the galaxy.  But there are also more fantastical characters such as Thor (who is the Norse God), and Wonder Woman, and some of the things that both the heroes and the villains get up to have absolutely no basis in science.

This is a very trope-y subgenre, for the most part.  There are the Superheroes.  There are their nemeses, the Supervillains.  They all tend to have silly names.  Most have mild-mannered (or not) alter egos.  Some are more obvious than others.  (Clark Kent, of course, wears glasses while Superman does not.  Batman is at least smart enough to wear a mask.)  Increasingly, superheroes all seem to live in the same universe, allowing them to participate in a number of crossovers with other superheroes, and leading to series such as the Justice League or the Avengers.

While the DC and Marvel characters are probably the most well-known, there are an increasing number of non-mainstream characters, produced through webcomics and indie presses.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about this genre is that it is constantly evolving, the characters being re-done and updated to meet the concerns of each age they find themselves a part of.  The modern Superman is very different from the 1940s Superman, because we worry about different things than they did back then.  There’s also been a trend lately of creating antiheroes or adding darker twists to superheroes’ backgrounds, or more media focusing on the villains instead of the heroes.

What’s your take on superheroes, Squiders?  Anything to recommend?  (I’m partial to Batman myself).  Read any books in this genre?

The Social Aspect of Nanowrimo

Writing, as so many books and other sources like to tell us, is a solitary activity.  We think of the “great” writers, holed up in their studies, never seen for days at a time, chain-smoking and drinking their absinthe and tossing wads of crumpled-up pieces of paper onto the floor in an ever-growing pile.

Maybe that worked for Hemingway, but if you’re going to participate in Nanowrimo, if you skip out on the social aspect of the event, you’re missing out.

Part of the energy of Nano comes from that fact that hundreds of thousands of people are doing the same thing at the same time.  If you’re dragging, it picks you up and takes you with it.  It’s easy to find someone if you need to bounce ideas off of someone or need a challenger in a word war.  There’s always someone to reassure you when things are going poorly, and someone to cheer you on if things are going well.

So what can you do to integrate yourself fully into the madness (and I highly highly recommend that you do):

1. Kick-Off and Thank God It’s Over (TGIO) parties
Almost every region (or sometimes combinations of regions) will have a party at the beginning and the end of Nano, normally outside of November so you’re not actually sacrificing any writing time.  These allow you to sound your plot ideas off of willing compatriots, get to know the other crazies Wrimos in your region, make friends, and hopefully eat a ridiculous amount of sugar.  Some regions also have halfway parties sometime around November 15th where you can socialize (and eat candy) or type desperately to try to catch up to where you should be.

2. Write-Ins
These are the backbones of Nano.  Hopefully there is at least one near you that you can make on a near-weekly basis.  A write-in is where a group of Wrimos, sometimes but not necessarily accompanied by the Municipal Liaison (ML), invade a coffee shop or a library or a 24-hour breakfast place or a bar or anywhere, really, where you can sit and type and giggle for several hours and not get kicked out.  These are useful for a variety of reasons.  MLs often have goodies from HQ to hand out, you can participate in word wars (races to see who can write the most words in a specific amount of time), and if you find yourself stuck, you can address the group at large for help.  Plus sometimes it’s good to get out of your own head and see other people.

3. Regional Forum
When you register, the website asks you to select a Home Region.  This connects you to the Wrimos closest, geographically, to you, lets you know what events are being planned, and helps you plan meet-ups with other people.  It’s also the region you give your words and any money you might donate to, allowing them to fight other regions to the death.  I mean, uh.  Regional wars are fairly common, so don’t be surprised if you occasionally get emails from your MLs asking you to crush Glasgow.  It’s all in good fun and gives you bragging rights.

4. Nano Forums
The Nano Forums are where you can reach out to your fellow Wrimos all over the world, help with plot issues, browse the Adopt-a-Character thread, accept Dares, and see what madness people have come up with for this year.  There’s also a variety of forums to help you find new friends, from the Newbie forums to the Age Lounges to Clubs to the Rebels Forum.  The boards can be a bit overwhelming, but find a few places that you like and you’ll be fine.

5. Twitter and Chat Rooms
Nanowrimo has two twitter accounts, one for announcements and one for Word Sprints.  I suggest you follow both.  Your local region may also have a twitter account specific to your region.  There’s also several chat rooms across multiple services if you need social support at any time of the day or night.  You can find some of these through the forums.  Your local region may also have a chat room.

Of course, the amount of social interaction you crave is completely individual, but I’ve found that participating and interacting with your fellow Wrimos makes it a lot easier to keep your motivation up and get across the finish line.

Anyone have anything they’ve found helps, or recommend any additional hangouts?

Editing: Breaking Everything Down

I’ve been taking an editing class, not necessarily because I feel like I don’t know how to edit, but that I am ridiculously inefficient at it and can probably use all the help I can get.

This class’s point is to, eventually, get it so you can identify all major issues in a single pass of your manuscript, so it has several classes where you go through your manuscript looking at certain things with the idea that, in the end, you can find everything at once.

I admit it’s been a bit frustrating doing it piecemeal, but on the other hand, it is helping me find things that I may not have picked up otherwise, and more importantly, it’s helping me solve plot problems that I was unaware existed.

(I am, admittedly, not supposed to be solving plot problems yet.  I am writing things down for when I get to that part of the class.)

It makes your fingers itch, to get into fixing things, but I admit this is probably better than doing a major edit (taking a chainsaw to it, as some of my writing friends say) and then having to keep fixing and messing with things until things either work correctly or you go insane trying to keep track of what you’ve changed and why.

I’m using the story that made it through a few rounds of Amazon’s Breakthrough Novel contest for this, which I affectionately call my most complete first draft ever.  I remember one reader thought I’d already edited and polished my first draft when she read it, but this process has made me realize there’s a lot of problems, from weird character motivations, to chapters that are in the wrong point of view, to objects that show up late in the book and really should have been mentioned earlier. (Foreshadowing, my nemesis, we meet again.)

No matter how good (or not) it was before, this is going to make it much better, if only because I can better see its flaws.

Fellow writers, what’s your editing technique?  Taken any classes that have changed your life?

Subgenre Study: Fairy Tale Fantasy

Once upon a time, there was a writer who wrote a writing/reading/scifi/fantasy blog, and she and her pet Landsquid and the Landsquid’s nemesis the Alpaca all decided to go to a coffee shop to get some peppermint mochas.  All seemed to be going according to plan until the Alpaca attempted to eat the pastry display and then…


Fairy tale fantasy runs the gamut from original works that incorporate fairy tale tropes to retellings of classic fairy tales, but like many of the subgenres we’ve discussed, there’s very fuzzy lines.  Sometimes you read something and it just feels fairy-tale-y, you know?  But it’s subjective.  Some people consider Lord of the Rings to be a modern fairy tale, based on the mythos it has inspired, but a lot of people just consider it to be epic fantasy.

It really makes you wonder where the line is drawn.  I mean, most fairy tales, while not written down until the 1800s, are based off of folklore that had been passed down for generations, and if you think about it, the Lord of the Rings is as well; Tolkien certainly didn’t invent elves and dwarves.  But by that argument, you can take any truly influential story and assign it fairy tale status, which is diluting things.  (I admit I am in the LotR =/= fairy tale camp.)

(=/= means does not equal for those of you who didn’t spend a million years taking math in high school and college.  Just to be clear.)

On the other end of the spectrum, you have the fairy tale retellings, which don’t necessarily follow the classic fairy tale format but are based off of stories that have been around forever.  Some of these have been rewritten to make the protagonists stronger, or to explain plot holes in the original, or to make things darker (though one can argue that some tales are dark enough as it is.  The originals contain rape, cannibalism, murder, torture, mutilation, and suicide).  Fairy tale retellings have appeal because they take something that almost everyone is familiar with and twists it in some way, which I admit appeals to me greatly.  (Did you play Epic Mickey?  The “evil” Sleeping Beauty song is my most favorite thing in the world.)

Some authors who have fairy tale fantasy books include Robin McKinley, Jasper Fforde, Gail Carson Levine, Margaret Atwood, Jane Yolen, Patricia Wrede, etc.  This is a popular subgenre.

What are your feelings about Fairy Tale Fantasy, Squiders?  I admit it’s one of my very favorite subgenres.

Putting the Pep Back Into Nanowrimo

Continuing our October Nano-prep series, today (tonight, I guess, technically at this point) we will discuss what to do when the initial excitement of doing Nanowrimo begins to ebb.

(Don’t worry if you have no idea what I’m talking about.  Some people never get tired of Nano.  This will be my ninth year, and the first year I’m not doing a straight Nano.  There’s nothing wrong with you.  You can sit this one out.  The Landsquid will provide lemonade and cookies.)

Some people, after they’ve done Nano a few times, find that they just don’t look forward to the event like they used to.  Some of the magic is gone, and a “been there, done that” attitude asserts itself.

What can you do?  Well, you can always sit Nano out, but then when it’s part of the way through Nano and all your friends are doing it and it’s all your writing group will talk about, you feel a bit sad and lonely.

So here are some ideas to spice up your November:

1. Change Your Genre
This is risky, but if you’re not feeling the love, you can always try something new.  Always dreamed of writing a gothic novel?  Give it a spin.  Want to give romance a try?  Why not?  Just be aware that you may run into issues with an unfamiliar genre and get stuck.

2. Raise Your Wordcount
You think 50K is a piece of cake?  (I hate you, by the way.)  Up your word count.  I know people who have managed 300K in a single thirty-day month.  Sure, it was probably all crap, but if you feel you need more of a challenge, go for it.

3. Write Multiple Books
Alternately, you can try to do more than one story.  This can take a variety of forms — related short stories, for example, or you can quite literally, write two or three complete novels.  (I recommend you go back and read the post on compartmentalization, however, before going forward with this.)

4. Invoke the Zokutou Clause
We talked about this a few weeks ago, but this allows you to write 50K on a book you’ve already started.  Nice if the drafts either aren’t getting done or are piling up in the corner.

5. Write Crack
If Nano’s got you down, why not pick something completely for fun?  Write that fluffy gay romance fanfiction you’ve always wanted to.  Tell the tale of intergalactic space monkeys (and their forbidden cheese fetish).  Write something you know’s going to be fun.

Any additional ideas, Squiders?  Anything you’ve tried in the past?


I talk to a lot of people who tell me that they’d like to write a novel (or short stories, or anything) but they just don’t have the time.

You know what that says to me? It’s not really a priority. It’s like…I would like to be a rock star, but I don’t care enough to do anything about it, and so it will never happen.  I suspect novel-writing goes much the same way for a lot of people.

But for the rest of us who do want to make it a priority and want to actually get things done, it’s still sometimes tough to fit it in around the things that life tells us are a necessity: school, work, family.  (For instance, I’m fitting in writing this around making dinner.  Luckily, the salmon is taking longer to cook than the recipe advertised.)

The best thing to do is to schedule writing into your schedule, whether it’s every day or once a week (but I do recommend doing it at least every week to avoid getting rusty).  It kind of goes back to my compartmentalizing article a few weeks back.  You can train your brain to do something at a specific time.  So you can get up early every morning and write from 6-8 before your kids/spouse get up.  You can put your kids to bed and write from 8-10 at night.  I have a group I meet with every Wednesday from 7-10.

But Kit, I hear you say, what if my schedule isn’t routine enough to schedule in regular time?  No worries.  When I was in college and had no idea how much homework I would have or when my groups would want to meet, I would just carry everything with me, and if I found myself with 20-30 minutes free, I’d pull out my laptop and get something done when I could.  As long as you make it a priority, it will get done.  (Though do remember to eat and shower.)

How’s your schedule, Squiders?  Are you a write-when-you-get-the-time sort or a scheduler?  What works for you?  What did you try that didn’t work?

Subgenre Study: Military Science Fiction

A fairly major subgenre of science fiction is military science fiction.  I bet you can name at least one book or movie in this subgenre off the top of your head.  Starship Troopers.  Ender’s Game.  The Forever War.  Military SF, as the name implies, focuses on military conflicts.

A lot of science fiction focuses on conflict on some sort, but military SF features characters that are members of some sort of military unit.  The conflicts tend to have much in common with past or current wars from here on Earth, with tactics and sometimes weaponry being much the same.

The main characters are often member of a specific unit, with comrades and sacrifice being a major theme.  There are very few lone heroes in military SF.  Technology is normally explained in great detail, as are the military tactics.  It’s what you’d expect if you took Band of Brothers and stuck it in deep space as, in most cases, these stories are set in the far future somewhere out in space against an alien species that’s a substitute for whatever side.

Just because something has a “military” does not necessarily make it military SF.  In Star Wars, the Empire (and also the Rebels, to some extent) has militaries, with ranks and squadrons and so forth, but it is not military SF.  Star Trek has Starfleet, which is very obviously based off the US Navy, but with the possible exception of the later seasons of Deep Space Nine, it also is not military SF.  The focus on the story is important here.

Military SF is sometimes assigned political messages, as much of science fiction is, by exploring the folly of war and the sacrifices it forces on those who perpetrate it, as well as how it affects those men and women in the service.

Read/watch a lot of military SF, Squiders?  What do you like/dislike about it?  What do you recommend for other people looking to get into the genre?

Nanowrimo Prep and Avoiding Plot Death

Nano looms ever closer, my friends.  (Also, it’s my birthday!)  I talked last year about Nano Zen and Plot Death — this cheats Nano Zen a bit, but I do think it’s important.  It’s hard to experience Plot Death if you have no plot.

A quick rundown for those too lazy to click the above link: Nano Zen involves not actively working on your Nano story in October to allow your brain to work on it subconsciously and to avoid Plot Death.  Plot Death is where you overplan your story to the point that you no longer want to write it.

“Kit,” I can hear you say (or perhaps it’s just the Landsquid, who wants some of my hot chocolate), “How can you write a post about Nano prep when you practice — and are the founder — of Nano Zen?”

As much as I advertise Nano Zen, it doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t do any planning for Nano.  In fact, I ardently believe that there are some things you should have going into November, and if you don’t, you should try to get some before Nano starts.

A main character (or two).  The main conflict (what does the MC want?).  A starting point.

What gets you in trouble is the overplanning, and what counts as overplanning varies from person to person.

So how can you tell if you’re planning to the point where you are approaching Plot Death?

Well, first things first.  Make sure you’re registered at (the 2011 site is up now) and have chosen a home region (this is the region that gets to count your words).  See if your region has any write-ins near you and, if not, suggest some.  The social aspect is a major part of Nano and I highly recommend you participate in it.

…sorry, I totally got distracted by the Nano site.

If you’ve done Nano (or written a novel) before, you probably have a good idea of what you need and how much you can do before you experience Plot Death.  For you newbies, find the above (characters, plot, beginning).

How are you feeling?  Are you excited or panicky?  If you’re excited, good job.  You’re probably good to go.  Go make yourself a book cover.  If you’re panicky, you probably need more.  I recommend fleshing out your characters a bit, finding a villain, and doing a basic outline of your plot.

Repeat the above until you find a place where you’re excited to write.  Then stop planning.

See, the problem with Nano and Plot Death is that you can’t start writing until November 1st.  So people reach that excited state, and then, since they can’t write, they just keep planning and planning and planning and then…Plot Death.

It’s hard, I know.  And by all means, write down anything important as you think of it, but after you reach the excitement phase, that’s when Nano Zen is essential.

Ever experienced Plot Death, Squiders?  Where’s your happy middle between panicking and overplanning?

Harry Potter Re-read: Order of the Phoenix

Oh, Order of the Phoenix, longest book of the series.  Perhaps annoyingly so, because it’s the first book to break the mold of school-year specific plots.  Harry spends about 75% of the book whining and yelling at everyone and at first glance it seems like there’s no point.  OotP I’ve only read a handful of times, mostly because I spend a lot of the book wanting to punch Harry in the face, but I didn’t feel that way this time.  I’m not sure why, except perhaps now that I’m looking at the books in a way that takes the entire series into account, so Harry’s feelings make more sense to me.

You see, in every character’s arc, there’s something that we writers refer to as the Dark Moment.  The Dark Moment is when a character is at their lowest, when they don’t know if they have the strength to go on, or if it would be worth it to just give up.  And OotP is Harry’s Dark Moment.  The entire book, but especially the end.

You see, up to now, while Harry has had his problems and people who don’t like him (Snape, Malfoy), in general things have been okay.  In some ways, even better than okay, because he’s the Boy Who Lived and that title pulls some weight around.  Here, everything changes.  Sure, there was that bit at the beginning of the Triwizard Tournament, but that was nothing compared to what’s happening here.  Suddenly, most of the wizarding world is against Harry.  He’s branded as a liar or, perhaps worse, off in the head. Voldemort’s back and he knows what that means, and yet, no one will listen, no one will prepare.

And then, at the end, Harry does something stupid and someone close to him dies, and he realizes that maybe he’d been buying into his own hype.  He’d been getting away with stupid, reckless things for years, but this time luck wasn’t on his side and things went horribly wrong.  And it had dire consequences.  While Harry never really settles down, he takes things much more seriously from here on out.

We see the prophecy for the first time here, we see Harry realize what must be done before this will all be over.  (There’s also a scene, just after Harry tells Dumbledore Arthur Weasley has been attacked, where Dumbledore fiddles around with snakes and shadows, which without knowing about horcruxes makes very little sense, but knowing that they’re coming, makes much more.  A nice hint, really, because I’ve always kind of thought that the horcruxes come out of left field in HBP.)

Taken by itself, Order of the Phoenix is kind of obnoxious, but it does contain a lot of important information for the remaining two books.  And it has its fun parts.  Personally, the scene where Fred and George make their exit is one of my favorites in the whole series.

(Ha, and yes, I managed to get through my entire write-up without mentioning Umbridge.  Extra cookies for me!)

Ye Olde Questions for Discussion:

1. So much epic fantasy revolves around the idea of Good and Evil.  How does JK Rowling subvert this in the character of Dolores Umbridge?

2. Harry and Cho are both a bit obtuse in their actions with each other.  What could each have done differently?  How would the books have changed if they had managed to make a go of it?

3. There’s a few hints of a future Ron/Hermoine in Goblet of Fire and that’s continued here.  How would it have changed things if they had acted on their feelings sooner?

4. To get off the topic of romance, Harry can sometimes see and feel what Voldemort is doing through their connection.  Voldemort uses this against him here and tries to possess him, but never does again afterwards.  Why not?

5. We learn here that Neville also fit the initial terms of the prophecy, though he no longer fits because Voldemort did not mark him.  How would the series be different if this were the Neville Longbottom series?  How do you think growing up under different circumstances would have changed Neville’s character?

We’re going to give Half-Blood Prince three weeks, so we’ll discuss it on Oct 31.  (That scene with the Inferi is certainly Halloween appropriate!)