The latest instalment of my Art of SFF column on Tor.com is a little different this time around. Instead of focusing on the overall career and work of one of SFF’s wonderful artists, I caught up with Charles Vess, who’s a legend of the field, to chat about Ursula K. Le Guin, her renowned Earthsea stories, and his work as artist and collaborator on Saga Press’s 2018 collection, The Books of Earthsea.
Le Guin had enjoyed previous collaborations with theatre groups and musical artists, but told Vess that every artist she’d worked with previously would say, “Yes! I’d love to collaborate,” and then that was the last she’d hear from them until the book was finished and printed. “So, I don’t think she believed me when I said I wanted to collaborate. But, after four years and lord knows how many emails, she sent me a copy of her latest book, her essay book, and her dedication to me was ‘To Charles, the best collaborator ever.’”
There was perhaps a bittersweet note to Vess’s laugh.
“I felt very gratified. It was a long, and very intimidating project, but it’s the best kind of project to have, because it will bring out the best in you.”
One of the book’s double-page illustrations shows Tenar, Ged, and Tehanu after they have just caught a goat that escaped its pen and fled into a garden. “It’s a very quiet drawing.” Le Guin loved it. “Every once in a while, she’d go, ‘More goats, Charles. Put more goats in there.’”
Charles was absolutely wonderful to speak with. He’s warm and genial, and a natural storyteller. There’s something wonderful about speaking with an artist who’s a legend in their own field, and hearing the love, passion, and reverence they have for another master. It’s clear that Vess’ love to Earthsea and the rest of Le Guin’s work runs deep and long.
From a personal perspective, this interview was a long time coming, and fought through several technical difficulties, so it’s particularly vindicating to come out the other end with what I consider some of my finest work.
You won’t find tips for writing tighter dialogue, cleaner prose, better transitions. There’s nothing inside its pages about how to make your action scenes sing, improve your descriptions, or increase your word count. It’s not a worldbuilding bible.
My genre fiction bread and butter is definitely epic fantasy. So, naturally, my two latest reviews, both on the Barnes & Noble Sci-Fi & Fantasy Blog, are near-future thrillers that dig deep into current socio-political issues through their action-packed plots.
Street Freaks by Terry Brooks
Street Freaks is Terry Brooks like you’ve never read him before, but it also manages to strike a fine balance between the bold and the familiar. If you’ve finished Red Rising and The Darkest Minds, and are looking for more, this one will satisfy. It’s fun, progressive, relentlessly paced, and full-to-the-brim with interesting people. Unlike epic fantasy in the ’70s, science fiction doesn’t need saving exactly, but Street Freaks shows that Brooks has it, no matter the genre.
Red Moon is another wonderful Kim Stanley Robinson novel, and all that implies. If it lacks the scope of some of his earlier works, it more than makes up for it with the ambitiousness of its themes, its breakneck pace, and its thoughtful examination of the way societies evolve organically during times of upheaval.
If Andy Weir’s Artemis showed us the perils of surviving on the moon. Red Moon takes it one step beyond, showing us the uncertainly that comes from powerful competing interests vying for control of a new resource—even one that’s been staring us in the face for at least as long as we’ve been around to look up at the sky, and wonder.
I’ve recently been talking a lot about my two WIPs—a novella called “The Rose and Honey Soul,” which is nearly complete, and a novel called The Thousand Shattered Gods. The process for writing both of these has been fraught with all the perils that come with working on long-form projects as an unsigned/unpublished writer—including the ever-wavering certainty that you’re balancing on the knife’s edge of brilliance and existential irrelevance. Fun times.
Of course, there’s all the great stuff about writing, too: excitement, possibility, craft, research, discovering your world and characters are so much more than you ever expected or hoped they would be. It’s heady, and I’m constantly reminded why I pursue my writing goals.
Over the years, I’ve written a lot of short fiction, and sold/published a fair bit of it. You can find those stories here. I’ve learned a lot, and though I’m still on a neverending journey of improving my craft and becoming a better storyteller, I feel like I have a good handle on the business side of short fiction. I know when I’ve reached the point where a short story is as good as it’s going to get—when it’ll either sell or it won’t, and further tinkering won’t change that. For me, this is roughly the fourth draft (first draft is the bones of the story, drafts two and three focus on structural/thematic/character issues, draft four focuses on cleaning up language, tightening, copyedit, etc.) I know what to do with my short stories once they’re ready. (Hint: The Submission Grinder is an invaluable tool.) I know how to send a short story out into the world, whether that’s through a publication that’s purchased the rights, or by self-publishing.
In case you somehow missed it, comic/book Twitter was ablaze on Friday with the news that Marvel fired Chuck Wendig in a rather unceremonious and contentious fashion. (Wendig recaps the news here.) A lot of readers were justifiably upset and angry. Myself among them.
As a result, I ended up buying Wendig’s book on writing, Damn Fine Story: Mastering the Tools of a Powerful Narrative. I’ve been meaning to read it for a while—especially with a major fiction project coming up as I wrap up “The Rose and Honey Soul” and I move on to devoting writing time fully to The Thousand Shattered Gods—and it seemed as good a time as ever to finally follow through. No surprise, Damn Fine Story is… damn fine. Anyone who reads Wendig’s blog, Terrible Minds, knows his sublime ability to to provide writing advice with a narrative voice that’s at once funny, cutting, and insightful. He’s got the uncanny ability to turn writing advice into page-turning material. (More on that later, when I post my full impressions of the book.)
I’ve made no secret of how much I adore Avatar: The Last Airbender. I didn’t discover it until a few years ago (after a friend bugged me endlessly to watch it) and my eventual experience bingeing it was life-changing. I wrote at length about what I think makes Avatar: The Last Airbender so magical, but the gist is that Avatar was able to imbue levity and colour into every facet: from its humour and character building, to its plot, worldbuilding, and visual design. It’s an absolutely delightful show, which makes it so much more effective when it hits you with an emotional hammer. I discovered Avatar at a difficult time in my life, and it helped me through a period of (what I now recognize as) depression.
My praise was high:
Avatar: The Last Airbender is a remarkably consistent piece of storytelling that retains its quality from the first episode to the last. In fact, even if pressed, I’d find it difficult to find a point in the entire series where pacing is ever an issue. Every episode, even the sidestory episodes that don’t directly involve Aang’s plot against plight against the Fire Nation, like the previously mentioned “Tales of Ba Sing Se,” all serve a purpose in the tale, revealing more about the characters and their world. There’s not a wasted frame, not a wasted word, and that’s something that can be said about so few pieces of fiction, no matter the medium.
A season of The Legend of Korra (a follow-up set in the same world with some of the original creators involved) was already out when I finished Avatar, and I unabashedly jumped on board, expectations unfairly high. Korra did many things right (and its third season is particularly good), but it’s much more of a roller-coaster in terms of quality compared to its predecessor. Though I enjoyed it in its entirety, and appreciate many of the elements it introduced to the series (Korrasami <3), it failed to capture me in the same way as Avatar. In a lot of ways, Korra was missing the heart and soul that made Avatar so special. It took itself a bit too seriously at times, its storytelling was fraught with melodrama, and thanks to never quite knowing if it would get another season, the pacing of the overall narrative was rocky.
One notable exclusion from the Korra staff was Aaron Ehasz, and now, with hindsight, I realize how many elements of Avatar likely originated with him. Ehasz (along with Justin Richmond) has returned to the world of YA fantasy with a new show on Netflix, The Dragon Prince. In many ways it’s the follow-up to Avatar that I’ve been waiting for.
I’m pleased to say that my story, “The Penelope Qingdom,” is now available in audio format at Cast of Wonders! The episode is hosted by Katherine Inskip, and narrated by the wonderful Andrew K. Hoe. The entire text of the story is also available on Cast of Wonders.
For fans of Stranger Things, The Chronicles of Narnia, and Ken Liu’s “The Paper Menagerie,” “The Penelope Qingdom” is a love letter to growing up, ’80s Saturday morning cartoons, Dungeons & Dragons, and falling in love for the first time.
It’s always a thrill to hear one of your stories come to life in audio, and I’m beyond pleased that “The Penelope Qingdom” is part of Cast of Wonders’ library. They produce beautiful work, and I hope this publication will open doors to a whole new audience for one of my personal favourite stories I’ve written. And, can I just say how much I love the banner image they chose for the story? You’ll understand once you’ve listened.
“The Penelope Qingdom” was first published in 2016 by Mothership Zeta and can also be read on Curious Fictions.
In which I discuss my experience with self publishing SFF short stories.
Hey, y'all! #Worldcon76 is on, but not all of us could make it. So I thought it would be fun to for those of us staying home to join in the fun by hosting some #NotAtWorldCon panels. I'm going to kick things off by discussing my experience with self publishing short fiction. 1/
In general, self publishing short stories has been a positive experience for me. It all began a few years ago when I published my short fiction collection, TIDE OF SHADOWS AND OTHER STORIES. You can read my in-depth thoughts on Medium: https://t.co/5nLdm5eXiW#NotAtWorldCon 2/
The gist, though, is that I believe readership outpaces the number of paying markets for short fiction. I've discussed this with @tyschalter in the past, and one thing seems clear: we spend a lot of our day on social media and reading news/non-fiction articles. #NotAtWorldCon 3/
Wherein I discuss the challenges of finding/making time to read as an adult after a childhood and adolescence full of books.
Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about how I spend time reading, and what sort of changes I could enact to make reading more of a priority. I find it relaxing and invigorating—it’s a huge part of who I am—but… I don’t often make time for it.
It’s impossible to understate how obsessed I was with dinosaurs during my youth. I devoured the thick textbook-style tome that covered dozens of dinos, each with its own detailed sketch, to-scale comparisons against humans, maps detailing where they lived. It had it all. It was beautiful. By the time I was nine, I’d moved onto Michael Crichton’s classic Jurassic Park. I still vividly remember sitting in the movie theatre, lights dimming, and trying, frantically, to finish the novel before the film started. I didn’t quite manage it, but was quite pleased, hours later, to discover the the ending of the book is quite different than the film. I’m sure my parents heard about all the differences between the book and the film for weeks.
I was dino crazy.
As a teen and adult, I wasn’t quite so vociferous in my dino fandom, it was replaced instead by a newfound love for epic fantasy, but I’ve always been drawn to their vast history and all the millions of question marks that remain about our planet’s most enduring species.
Steve Brusatte’s The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs is the absolute best re-entry point I could ask for as a formerly-dino crazy kid who, as an adult, wants to learn more about the history of dinosaurs. It’s thorough and academic, but not at the expense of being readable and charismatic. It’s clear that Brusatte is more than a dry scientist—so much of his passion and knowledge about the subject shines through with his clear, often humourous voice. At times, especially during the first couple of chapters, he can become a little self-referential, dropping extensive lists of names and anecdotes about his fellow palaeontologists, but once he digs into the history of the dinosaurs, everything is smooth sailing.
At this point in my life, most of my knowledge of dinosaurs has dwindled to not much more than “it happened in Jurassic Park.” I’ve been pleased with Brusatte’s work both from the perspective of easing me back into the dinosaur world, but also his efficacy as a narrator and storyteller. There’s something epic and beautiful about the way he writes about the slow, labyrinthine rise and inevitable, tragic fall of the dinosaurs.