I’ve had my eye caught repeatedly by the covers to Virginia author L. Jagi Lamplighter’s Prospero’s Daughter series, which borrows from Shakespeare’s The Tempest and other classical sources to create a robust modern fantasy. But not all sources of inspiration and creativity and setting are so easily borrowed from, as she writes here for “The Hardest Part” guest column series.
The Hardest Part: Filing off the Serial Numbers
By L. Jagi Lamplighter:
When I was twelve, I started my first novel. My father distributed movies to television stations, and I occasionally worked for him, stuffing Gumby dolls into envelopes and other odd tasks that the children of film distributors are called upon to do. Because of his work, though, I was very familiar with copyright laws and the fact that it was not legal to write about other people’s characters.
Armed with this information, I very carefully put in hours of work to invent my own stuff, rather than write in the worlds of favorite authors, as friends occasionally did.
I was tremendously conscientious about it. Read the rest of this entry »
I was delighted when Bull Spec poetry editor Dan Campbell bought one of Sofia Samatar‘s poems, and we worked to sneak “The Year of Disasters” into issue #7 last year as her debut novel, A Stranger in Olondria, was due that summer. Buzz was already building and Small Beer Press soon released a multiple chapter PDF preview which I happily devoured, waiting for more. But, as sometimes happens, the book was moved to this year’s publishing schedule instead. Released to some fantastic reviews early on (Library Journal gave it a starred review, and Locus praised its “elegant language” and “revelatory focus”, calling it “the rare first novel with no unnecessary parts … the most impressive and intelligent first novel I expect to see this year, or perhaps for a while longer.”) it has remained a book of interest; Strange Horizons published Newcastle University’s Nic Clarke’s review just last month. And this week, after some months of growing impatience on my part let me tell you, the book was released in audio as well. Now, for the guest column series The Hardest Part, Samatar writes about her 13-year struggle with the book’s 7th chapter. Who believes in lucky numbers, anyway?
By Sofia Samatar:
The hardest part of writing A Stranger in Olondria was Chapter Seven.
At the end of Chapter Six, Jevick, my main character, sees a ghost. This is a young man enjoying the pleasures of a foreign city—he’s a merchant, a student, an amateur philosopher, a wanderer in bookshops and cafés. The first six chapters of the book have an even, contemplative tone: Jevick’s story is part memoir and part travelogue. Then a ghost starts haunting him, and his whole world changes. My writing needed to reflect that change. How? Read the rest of this entry »
The Hardest Part: Jeremy Zerfoss on Wonderbook: The Illustrated Guide to Creating Imaginative FictionPosted: 13 November, 2013
Life is sometimes a fortuitous sequence of events and meetings all leading to someplace interesting. For example: artist Jeremy Zerfoss started doing work with Jeff VanderMeer; I was publishing a review of VanderMeer’s non-fiction collection Monstrous Creatures and found room for Jeremy’s fantastic limited edition dust jacket cover; and then was later able to commission Jeremy to put together his amazing cover for Bull Spec #6 to celebrate all things VanderMeer. Looking back, I barely remember the process on my end of asking for that cover: “Do something weird and cool, thanks!” is probably as far as I got, and before long this amazing thing grew and became the cover. This process was quite short and brief, not taking years of back and forth collaboration via email, phone, and perhaps coded telegraphs or carrier pigeon missives, as the process Jeremy writes about here: that of working with Jeff to create Wonderbook: The Illustrated Guide to Creating Imaginative Fiction.
By Jeremy Zerfoss:
Blunderbook: Or The Hardest Part Of Working With A Murderous Bear
Hello everyone – my name is Jeremy Zerfoss and I’m the main illustrator of Wonderbook: The Illustrated Guide to Creating Imaginative Fiction by Jeff VanderMeer, newly released by Abrams and available wherever awesome can be found.
Sam asked me to write a bit about the hardest part of working on this two year (OMG!) project and it took a bit longer than I expected since for a book that was this crazy, and this unprecedented — there were quite a few obstacles to tackle.
So… let me break this down as best I can: Read the rest of this entry »
I know Roanoke, VA author Mike Allen primarily through his fantastic speculative poetry (his poem “Hungry Constellations” is currently featured at Goblin Fruit) and in his role as editor of both his poetry journal Mythic Delirium and his anthology series Clockwork Phoenix. But he’s also quite an accomplished short fiction writer, with stories in Solaris Rising 2, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Weird Tales, and his Nebula Award nominated story “The Button Bin” in Helix. (Though, admittedly, I didn’t catch it until it was podcast at Pseudopod.) And, with The Black Fire Concerto, he’s a published novelist as well. Here, Mike writes about the potential pitfalls of outrunning your own story.
By Mike Allen:
The hardest part of writing The Black Fire Concerto? Maintaining the pace without losing sight of the story. Read the rest of this entry »
Charlotte author Gail Z. Martin is no stranger to Bull Spec’s ongoing guest column series The Hardest Part, as she wrote about launching a new epic fantasy universe with Ice Forged in January after six books in her . Here, she writes about an interesting difficulty encountered when jumping between epic fantasy and urban fantasy for her forthcoming 2013 novel, Deadly Curiosities as part of her ongoing Days of the Dead blog tour. Read on past the end for more info on her tour and for info on a one-day Kindle Daily Deal tomorrow (Oct 31) on Ice Forged.
By Gail Z. Martin:
With my new novel Deadly Curiosities (Solaris Books, summer 2014), I make the jump to urban fantasy. I’ve been writing epic fantasy for seven years, and will be continuing my Ascendant Kingdoms Saga books for Orbit with Reign of Ash in April, so I’ll really have a foot in both camps. That’s like trying to ride two horses at once, which are each running at different paces.
I’ve read a lot from both epic and urban fantasy, but it was a bit of a switch shifting from third-person narrative for the epic books into first-person for the urban stories. But I would say that the hardest part has been convincing myself that it’s ok to use modern phrases in the urban book since I worked so hard to become aware of them and avoid them in the epic books.
There are so many words and phrases that we use every day that do a great job of conveying exactly what we mean. In normal conversation, we don’t worry about the origin. In writing, it matters a lot. There are a couple of etymology web sites that have become bookmarks on my computer because I am frequently checking to see when a word or phrase was first used, and how it was used. For example, people have been puking since the Middle Ages, but they didn’t barf until recently. And while they have been pissing for hundreds of years, it’s only in the last few decades that anyone has been pissed off.
It matters because the wrong word choice is an anachronism and it ruins the suspension of disbelief for the reader. The right words take the reader deeper into the atmosphere of the book. The wrong word yanks them out with a hook.
Since I’m a word junkie, I find this fun. I collect cool words like other people collect shiny rocks. So I’m overjoyed when I find a great period-authentic word that is exactly what I need. The trick is to sprinkle those less familiar, but authentic, words so that they are enjoyable little bonuses instead of annoying readers by sending them to their thesaurus on every page.
With Deadly Curiosities, it’s also fun because the book is set in modern-day Charleston, SC, so there are some wonderful concepts and phrases unique to that area that help to set the mood. And while visiting the Middle Ages to check out locations isn’t entirely possible (although it’s amazing how instructive it is to visit what’s left), scouting local spots in Charleston is easy and always a pleasure.
So there you have it–the hardest part is remembering to have characters speak in modern English. Strange, but true!
Come check out all the free excerpts, book giveaways and other goodies that are part of my Days of the Dead blog tour! Trick-or-Treat you way through more than 30 partner sites where you’ll find brand new interviews, freebies and more–details at www.AscendantKingdoms.com.
Ice Forged will be a Kindle Daily Deal with a special one-day price of just $1.99 only on October 31! Get it here: http://amzn.com/B008AS86QY
Reign of Ash, book two in the Ascendant Kingdoms Saga launches in April, 2014 from Orbit Books. My new urban fantasy, Deadly Curiosities, comes out in July, 2014 from Solaris Books. I bring out two series of ebook short stories with a new story every month for just .99 on Kindle, Kobo and Nook—check out the Jonmarc Vahanian Adventures or the Deadly Curiosities Adventures.
About the author: Gail Z. Martin is the author of Ice Forged in The Ascendant Kingdoms Saga and the upcoming Reign of Ash (Orbit Books, 2014), plus The Chronicles of The Necromancer series (The Summoner, The Blood King, Dark Haven & Dark Lady’s Chosen ) from Solaris Books and The Fallen Kings Cycle (The Sworn and The Dread) from Orbit Books. In 2014, Gail launches a new urban fantasy novel, Deadly Curiosities, from Solaris Books. She is also the author of two series of ebook short stories: The Jonmarc Vahanian Adventures and the Deadly Curiosities Adventures. Find her at www.ChroniclesOfTheNecromancer.com, on Twitter @GailZMartin, on Facebook.com/WinterKingdoms, at DisquietingVisions.com blog and GhostInTheMachinePodcast.com.
Durham author Nathan Kotecki‘s debut novel, 2012′s The Suburban Strange, was an exercise in lengthy revision, as Kotecki wrote about in a The Hardest Part piece about its writing. When I got to talk to Kotecki about his new sequel, Pull Down the Night, on Carolina Book Beat, I started to get the impression that his second book had been an almost painless process. Not quite so, as the author writes here. Welcome back, Nathan Kotecki, to The Hardest Part:
By Nathan Kotecki:
When it came time to write my second book – the sequel to last year’s The Suburban Strange – I was not at a loss. I had plenty of inspiration, a solid conceptual idea, and no shortage of motivation. I suppose I felt a bit of anxiety that my first book might have been a “fluke,” and that perhaps lightning wouldn’t strike a second time, but that concern wasn’t strong enough to slow me down.
I had a clear idea of how the series was going to develop. Rather than follow my protagonist from The Suburban Strange (Celia), the series is really about a location through which characters will continue to pass – Suburban High School. And so as much as I loved Celia, and even though she is still a major character in books two and three, I was going to shift the point of view to a new character with each subsequent installment. I met Bruno and a few other new characters to join the story in book two, titled Pull Down the Night, and got down to work.
As with the first book, I felt it was important for my secondary characters to have some sort of arc, themselves. (In The Suburban Strange, seven of Celia’s friends have minor but significant arcs of their own.) If only the main character grows and changes in a novel, it feels artificial; while we change, the world is changing around us, too. So, in conjunction with the coming-of-age crossed with supernatural journey I envisioned for Bruno, I conceived secondary plot lines for his friends, attempting to weave them together into a coherent whole.
For a while, though, the coherent whole wasn’t appearing. I had plot points sprawling out in every direction: a love triangle as well as a shot at romantic redemption, sets of misaligned agendas – both real and supernatural, the meddling of a mischievous ghost, a chaotic neutral gatekeeper, a few betrayals and their consequences, and a flock of boys who want to sleep with everyone. Oh, and a minister who is trying to deal with a crisis of faith.
Yeah, it was a bit of a mess. But as sprawling as it was, I loved all of it, and I really didn’t want to let go of anything, because deep down I believed there was a place in this book for all my ideas. I just had to figure out how to whip it into shape.
(That wasn’t an easy call, by the way. I imagined my editor saying, “We really need to think about walking away from [insert any of the subplots here].” There is that dreaded note: “Plot confusion.” When I resolved to protect all the pieces I had, it was very important that I get it right, or I risked giving my editor the impression that there was too much going on, and then having to try to overcome her request to cut back.)
Typically my writing process begins with a research and idea-generation phase, which results in a collection of clear impressions of scenes, moments, and turning points toward which I will begin to write. For Pull Down the Night, instead of creating an outline at that stage – which felt like a flat and lifeless exercise, I jumped directly into a gloriously messy first draft, replete with gaping holes, inconsistencies, and unresolved chronology issues. This paid off, because I had many great experiences of being pleasantly surprised during those early writing sessions.
I always get excited when I realize mid-scene that a character really needs to take a different direction than I envisioned, or that a missed opportunity can be reclaimed with a certain change in setting or plot – these epiphanies convince me I’m being true to the project, allowing it to develop authentically, rather than forcing my agenda. (I will admit, this approach probably also contributed to my overabundance of ideas.) Once the first draft was done – and fully aware that at that point it resembled three distinct novels more than one, I went about extracting an outline from the draft, and in so doing, began to make structural decisions to refine the manuscript.
This is what saved me with Pull Down the Night. I made a mess, then wrote an outline to tighten it up. Then I wrote the next draft (still incredibly messy and sprawling) and afterward went back to re-outline, see what had changed, and figure out how it might change further. I kept looking around in my story for the places where loops could be tightened, scenes and motives combined, and characters returned to balance.
The design process – whether it is in visual art, choreography, architecture, or, yes, writing – has always fascinated me. I have found so many instances in other people’s work and in my own when the work is strongest because the design process was customized to best facilitate the project. What I mean by that is: While this cadence of draft/outline/draft/outline/draft/outline worked very well for Pull Down the Night, it’s simply the technique that was appropriate to solve the problems I encountered with this project, and not the default approach I’ll use to write other books.
As it happens, the next project I’m working on – a young adult novel without any supernatural elements – is a bit of a roman a clef, and as such, it called for a much more structured outline before I began any writing at all. That’s not to say there haven’t been some major epiphanies following the first draft, but they have been of a very different type, and the outline has remained intact. Hopefully I’ll be able to tell you the hardest part of finishing that novel before too long.
Durham author Jay Posey has written stories for a living for a while now; Tom Clancy gets his name on the cover of the game box, though. Posey got his own cover treatment yesterday, however, as his debut novel, the post-apocalyptic-set Three, the first in his Legends of the Duskwalker series set to be published by Angry Robot Books. Here, Posey writes about the help and encouragement along the way to getting past attacks of self-doubt and all the way to “The End”.
By Jay Posey:
It probably comes as little surprise, but for me, being a first-time novelist, the hardest part of writing Three was believing in it enough to actually finish it.
By the time I started working on Three, I’d already written a number of screenplays, short stories, and video games, so I was no stranger to the hard work that it takes to finish a story. But by that time, I’d also seen a number of much-beloved projects vanish into the ether without any discernible effect on the world or my bank account. Looking around, there wasn’t really any reason to believe this work was going to be any different.
There were many times over the course of writing where I lost my way, when I told myself that even if I finished this novel no one would care, it would never amount to anything, that I was a terrible hack, and plenty of other self-defeating things. Sacrifices had to be made to carve out that writing time, and most of the time it didn’t seem worth it.
But there were two saving graces over that long process. First off, I’m extremely blessed with a great family and supportive friends who were willing to cheer me on even when I didn’t see much point in sticking with it. There was encouragement without condemnation, and plenty of patience with the Mr. Grumpypants Precious Snowflake Misunderstood Artiste that showed up around the house from time to time. (Maybe most of the time.) There was grace for the many missed self-imposed deadlines. And I had a good friend who was willing to read each chapter of the manuscript as I completed it, and who was also kind enough to continually demand the next chapter until I actually delivered it.
It may also have helped that I specifically chose Three for the sole purpose of proving to myself that I actually could finish something. I’d spent several years working on my Epic Fantasy Trilogy off and on, convinced that it would surely be my ultimate masterpiece. But I’d never been able to get it to a point where I felt like I was achieving my vision for it. After some honest soul-searching, I realized that I just wasn’t a good enough writer yet to tell the story I wanted to tell in that world. So, I decided to set that story aside and pick one of my other many ideas to work on, one that I “didn’t care as much about”. I told myself the only goal for the novel was to finish it.
Of course, as I worked on Three, I came to care about it very much, which sort of started me down the same road I’d been on with the Epic Fantasy Trilogy … I started to convince myself that even if I did finish it, it’d never be what I wanted it to be. But I stuck with it, thanks to a lot of helping hands who wouldn’t let me quit.
It’s strange to be a writer who sometimes dreads writing. It’s sobering to recognize that sometimes you’re your own worst enemy.
And it’s invaluable to surround yourself with people who believe in your dream so much that they’ll keep the faith even when you can’t.
Jay Posey is a narrative designer, author, and screenwriter. Currently employed as Senior Narrative Designer at Red Storm Entertainment, he’s spent about 8 years writing and designing for Tom Clancy’s award-winning Ghost Recon and Rainbow Six franchises. He started in the video game industry in 1998, and has been writing professionally for over a decade.
When I asked NC author Danny Birt about the hardest part of writing Ending, the recently-published fourth book in his Laurian Pentology, I thought I might get an essay about the tumultuous landscape of publishing that led to both a delay between the book and its predecessor and to a new publisher, Dark Quest Books. Instead, Danny writes here about stepping beyond “write what you know” (which for Danny certainly includes a playful sense of humor, revealed in his “Rum and Runestones” short stories, his YA novel Between a Roc and a Hard Place, and certainly in his filking) and the journey not just as an author but as a person such a stretch can become.
By Danny Birt:
Attempting to write against one’s nature may be one of the hardest parts about writing (at least for me).
Most people have heard the usual bits of authorial wisdom such as “Write what you know” and “Part of an author goes into every story.” Well, what happens when you have to write outside your usual self? To some extent we do it all the time, of course — writing characters of an opposite gender, crafting dialogue which would never come out of our mouths in normal conversation — but what about when you dig deeper, to the foundational bits of yourself? How do you write around those?
Take, for example, humor. Anyone who is familiar with my filk albums in addition to my fantasy and science fiction literature recognizes that humor is arguably an intrinsic part of me. Life without humor wouldn’t be worth living, speaking personally. Recently I had a conversation with my girlfriend during which I was challenged to name any story of mine which was devoid of reason to laugh. I thought I had found one — a zombie/horror short story which has not yet been published — only to be shot down: “Dude, what about what happened to the goat in the moat?” … “Oh, yeah.” It just comes out, I suppose.
Other examples of foundational bits are reason and honor. I (like most people) consider myself to be a fairly reasonable and logical person, and honor is a way of life so basic one rarely even has to think about it. Yet, if every character in a story agrees upon what is reasonable and honorable, and they all act reasonably and honorably, there’s really not much conflict left to the story, and if there’s not much conflict then there’s no resolution necessary, and… uh… where’d the story go?
One of the ways around getting yourself stuck in that rut is by making sure that different characters place different emphasis on the same values. For example, in the penultimate book of the Laurian Pentology, “Ending,” one character tries to kill her erstwhile mentor, obviously betraying his trust in her — yet, from her perspective, he brought this vengeance upon himself by harming one of her family members. That the harm happened during a legal, arbitrated duel doesn’t matter to her: family comes first.
These are all good explanations of why some of the best and most prolific authors you’ll ever meet seem to always have their mind wandering “somewhere else” during a conversation: if an author is firmly rooted in their own head to the point they can’t see another person’s point of view, all their stories will soon start to have the same tone, same plot, same characterization. Being able to go outside oneself in a variety of differing directions is essential to good long-term fiction writing… and, if one may be so bold as to point out, be ye author or reader, going outside oneself and looking back can be life-changing.
Award-winning author Danny Birt was born about three decades ago in Washington State to Irish and Californian parents, and has since lived in Idaho, California, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Louisiana, Florida, Hawaii, Virginia, and North Carolina. He attended high school at New Mexico Military Institute, studied music therapy and psychology at Loyola University New Orleans, and most recently graduated from Shenandoah University with his Master’s Degree in Music Therapy.
Danny has been a contributing author to several sci-fi, fantasy, and professional magazines, anthologies, and journals. Formerly, he was an editor for Flashing Swords Magazine and small-press publisher Ancient Tomes Press. His first children’s/YA novel “Between a Roc and a Hard Place” won recognition with The National Parenting Center’s 2010 Seal of Approval, Creative Child Magazine’s 2010 Seal of Excellence, and was named one of Dr. Toy’s Best Picks of 2010.
In addition to literary publication, Danny composes classical and filk music, such as his nonstop hour-long piano solo “Piano Petrissage,” and the ever-peculiar album “Warped Children’s Songs.” Danny’s humorous music has been featured on radio and internet programs such as The Dr. Demento Show and The Funny Music Project.
Danny has now settled in eastern North Carolina where he is a faculty member at a local college. In his spare time, Danny’s hobby is finding new hobbies.
You can follow @Danny_Birt on Twitter, and/or find him at these upcoming conventions:
- Sunday, November 10th, 2013: Atomacon (Charleston South Carolina)
- Sunday, January 19th, 2014: MarsCon (Williamsburg Virginia)
- Sunday, July 13th, 2014: ConGregate (Winston-Salem North Carolina)
Durham author Richard Dansky has helped hawk Bull Spec to passers-by at the Bimbe Cultural Arts Festival while wearing a vintage Montreal Expos shirt; he let me excerpt his novel, Firefly Rain, in Bull Spec #2; he’s been pressed to participate in several NC Speculative Fiction Night events, most recently in April, where he read from his new collection Snowbird Gothic; and he’s written a long list of reviews, interviews, and articles for Bull Spec, most recently a tribute to the late Ray Bradbury in issue #8. Here, Rich takes part in the guest author series “The Hardest Part” as it applies to his just-released novel, Vaporware.
Vaporware by Richard Dansky
JournalStone, May 2013
By Richard Dansky:
The hardest part of writing Vaporware was knowing where to draw lines.
It’s the subject matter that made things difficult, as well as interesting. Vaporware is set at a video game company, and I am a video game developer by trade. I have been for fourteen years, give or take, with four years in-house at a tabletop game company before that. That’s a lot of years spent making games, a lot of games worked on, and a lot of years hanging out with other people who make games.
And here’s something that probably shouldn’t be a surprise: not every game development cycle goes smoothly. Even the best ones demand long hours, hard work, and sacrifice of personal time. As for the ones that aren’t the best, well, the less said about those, the better. I’ve seen good and I’ve seen bad, and just as importantly, I’ve swapped stories with friends and professional peers. I’ve heard their stories of the good, the bad, the ugly, the really ugly, and the “why did this not produce an armed insurrection?”
All of which is an extremely long-winded and ominous way of saying that I know a fair bit about how video games get made, the people who make them, and what it takes to get a game from “I have an idea! Let’s have the game star a robot ninja Dimetrodon!” to finished product. Not everything, not by a long shot, and I’m constantly aware that different studios have different ways of doing things so that no experience is universal, but it’s something I feel comfortable talking and writing about.
Which is where the notion of lines comes in, and yes, I said “lines”, as in “plural”. Because on this project, there was the creative line that had to be drawn, and there was the professional line, and there was the emotional line.
The creative line took the longest to draw, but in a lot of ways, it was the easiest. Basically, it’s the manifestation of the question: How much accuracy is too much. Sure, there are technothrillers that drown the reader in jargon; that’s part of the appeal to an audience that likes that sort of thing. But there are other audiences that don’t like it, or who get overwhelmed by it, and while the urge to get every last detail juuuuust right was strong, so was the urge to not frighten off readers who don’t necessarily want to internalize data check-in procedures along with their fiction. So a line had to be drawn there, one that delineated how much realism was too much for readers who weren’t subject matter experts, and how little was too little for people to understand what goes on during game development. So one draft had a little too much inside baseball and confused people; another didn’t have enough and genericized the game development aspect of the book too much. It was, as they say, a process.
The professional line that had to be drawn was about what I could or couldn’t say. The book was never intended as a roman a clef about my employer, and I didn’t want it to be taken that way. I also felt I had a professional obligation not to whitewash some of the craziness that happens making games; to do less would be to do a disservice to my peers. But again, the question was “how much is too much” – how much could I include without doing my profession a disservice, or creating misapprehensions about what I was trying to do.
Then there was the personal line – how much of myself was I willing to put out there before it was too much. Vaporware was in many places a difficult book to write, dredging up some old memories and rough patches. And when you’re writing material you’re intimately familiar with, what goes in may not be what you intended. I don’t view the book as autobiographical, and I don’t view the protagonist – who is not, in my opinion, a hero – as a stand in for yours truly. But in writing him, in watching the behaviors that he exhibited, it was easy to see echoes of my own in there, or of places I could have gone. Self-examination was unavoidable and, to be honest, not particularly pleasant.
In the end, I think it was worth it to wrestle long and hard with the question of how much to show – of the biz, of the details, of myself. It wasn’t fun, and it wasn’t easy. But if you wanted to hear about the easiest part of writing the book, well, that’s a whole other piece.
Briefly known as the world’s greatest living authority on Denebian Slime Devils (a true fact), Richard Dansky works as the Central Clancy Writer for Red Storm/Ubisoft. In 2009 he was named one of the Top 20 Videogame Writers by Gamasutra, and his numerous credits include the acclaimed Splinter Cell: Conviction, Far Cry, and Rainbow Six: Black Arrow. A prolific fiction author as well, Richard has published five novels and a short fiction collection, Snowbird Gothic. His latest novel, Vaporware, was released in May by JournalStone, and he writes regularly for magazines such as Bull Spec and Green Man Review.
UNC/Duke professor Tyler Curtain has an avid interest in literary sf and fantasy translations, and introduced me to Duke ecology PhD student Matthew Ross, whose translation from the French of Pierre Grimbert’s bestselling and award-winning The Secret of Ji: Six Heirs was about to be published by AmazonCrossing (Publishers Weekly review) and Brilliance Audio (SFFAudio review). Ross talked a bit about this process at the recent NC Speculative Fiction Night in April, where he also gave a reading from the book, and here writes about the difficulties of translating the untranslatable.
By Matthew Ross:
At the beginning of W.S. Merwin’s career as a poet, Ezra Pound told the aspiring writer that he couldn’t possibly have enough experience to write about anything at the age of 18. So Pound told Merwin to learn a language and translate. The translation would be the way to learn your own language and practice. And so it has been in our translation of Pierre Grimbert’s Le Secret de Ji.
I say “our” because my translation partner, Eric Lamb, and I equally contributed to the work and it was a completely shared experience. Eric and I have been friends since early college. At the time of our first meeting in 2006, he spoke French fluently, and I had never taken a class. A year later he became my mentor as I began French lessons. Three years later, Eric helped me work through some of the trickier parts of a few Baudelaire translations from Les Fleurs du Mal. Four years later, we were both teaching English in France. The jobs entailed only about 20 hours a week, so Eric took on a translation project of his own, and I followed my friend and mentor by starting a translation of Le Secret de Ji. Finally, when the project solidified, I knew I would need help finishing such a large project, so I asked Eric to join and we have been translating together for two years now. But this partnership isn’t the hardest part, it may be the easiest.
Instead our difficulties translating stem from the growing pains of learning our own language, as Pound noted to Merwin. Of course, there are other difficulties in translating a French fantasy novel, especially French-specific concepts, such as dividing time into periods of tens. A ten-day work week, a ten “hour” day, a hundred “minutes” in an hour, etc. . . In essence these concepts of décade, décan, décille are untranslatable.
They stem from a brief period in France’s history right after the French Revolution when the revolutionaries wanted to abandon all Christian concepts, so they created the time system based on base tens. Of course, in English, we have no concept of this time system, so the concept requires a lot of introduction or abandonment. We went with the former, and many readers have found it alienating and difficult. But this part of the translation is quite exciting and fun. The oulipo, a group of primarily French writers who write with ridiculous constraints such as no e’s in an entire novel, knows the joy and freedom writing within strict constraints can provide. Translating a fantasy novel provides some of these strict constraints, given how important it is to recreate the original author’s world-building effort. So these “untranslatable” terms were not the hardest part.
Rather it was most difficult to work on recreating a tone, pacing, and feeling in English. This difficulty has nothing to do with our abilities in French, but rather our experience as writers in English. Since my background is primarily in science writing, and Eric had done a very literary translation prior to The Secret of Ji: Six Heirs, we both had a formal, sometimes stilted tone that pervaded much of our initial translations.
I found this stilted part of my writing particularly difficult to fix because it was so embedded in who I am. I have spent the last six years focusing on being a better science writer, and though many of the skills cross over to fiction writing, creating the proper tone for storytelling is not one of them. Furthermore (see that sciencey formalism?), unlike the untranslatable terms, tone cannot be precisely extracted, identified, and reworked to some satisfactory state. It permeates every aspect of the novel and every moment of translation. How do you fix that?
For us, we really worked hard in editing each other’s work, but we still have a lot more to learn and have opened up our second translation of The Secret of Ji (it’s a series!) to more comments and edits from outsiders, namely our partners, Nicole and Cassidy, and our editor Joel Bahr. They see subtle, but easily fixable, moments that create a stilted tone. Like changing “the details were finalized,” to “Together, they finalized the last details.” Though this little change seems minor at first, compounded with hundreds of others it was quite difficult to extract and perfect these kinds of simple moments where we failed to keep an active, exciting tone.
As Merwin has, I hope to use translation as a way to work on my knowledge, not of French, but of English. But this part of writing, for us at least, was one of the hardest and we hope we keep improving as the next Ji book comes out.
About Matthew Ross:
Born in 1987 in Colorado, Matthew Ross grew up in the rapidly suburbanizing rangelands outside of Monument, CO. The youngest member of the family, he first fell in love with the speculative fiction genre when he read Ursula K. Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea on a trip to his parents’ native home of Amarillo, Texas. His mom, a school teacher, always encouraged his sometimes distracting obsession with books, while his dad, a salesman, made sure he got outside and learned something about the actual world we live in. His brother, an avid cyclist and sports enthusiast, still tries to keep him in shape and well-rounded.
As an undergraduate at the University of Colorado at Boulder, he studied Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, which left him yearning for some non-science conversation. He tried to add a major in English, but after an English professor strongly encouraged him to major in some language other than English, he began taking French. From there, he fell in love with the language, moved to France for a year, and began a search for an excellent French Fantasy author. He found Pierre Grimbert and tentatively began translating his novel. After sending out samples to a few publishing companies, he heard nothing back and moved ahead with his plans to start his PhD in ecology at Duke University.
Two months before he started at Duke, Amazon Crossing contacted him and asked if he wanted to translate The Secret of Ji: Six Heirs. Knowing he might need help, he called his close friend and French mentor, Eric Lamb and asked if he wanted to join the project. They have been translating together since. Eric has been speaking French for ten years and has lived in France for two of those years. Now he is a high-school French teacher, who lives in Carbondale, CO with his fiancée, Cassidy. Ross lives in the Braggtown neighborhood of Durham with his wife, Nicole.