yesterday’s Words as Magic panel was excellent, with some great conversations and good laughs. Greer Gilman had a great line that “writers are magicians who spell”, while John Crowley asked if magicians always know why some spells work and others fail. Crowley also related the magic of words with an anecdote of learning Latin as an altar boy; he didn’t understand Latin as a language, though he knew what the words he’d learned meant and could still recite them all verbatim. Gilman is a proud ‘archeoliguicist’, even to the point of actually looking up every word she uses in the OED that’s always open on her desktop (physical and digital) for its origins. good discussion about the fact that even the best magician’s are still entirely dependent upon an audience/target/reader.
Ellen Klages mentioned that while her mind and mouth tend to be first come first serve, in real life, her writing is the opposite, where she will fuss over commas for hours, seeking the write cadence.* Delia Sherman talked about her upbringing in a seriously old-fashioned scholastic environment, but one where she was forced to learn by examples, writing essays in the style of this author/essayist or that one, and the ear this gave her for style and cadence. Crowley remembered an old English textbook of his that did much the same, teaching with examples from literature, in particular a mystery involving a Father Brown who was hunting a criminal and sitting in a tea shop, stirring his tea, which showed the value of sentence variety. the first paragraph was a long, involved internal dialogue about the evidence he had, but no more clues, followed by a single line sentence of him putting down the tea because he’d put salt in it by accident. this was the first time Crowley noticed the power of words.
Gene Wolfe made the kind of statement that seems self-evident after the fact: a character should ONLY say what that character would say. dialogue should be obvious without character identification. he claims he’s not that good, himself, but constantly strives for it. Klages had similar statement about trying to always differentiate characters, but sometimes it takes over and she finds her own cleverness to be to the detriment of the book, and she must ultimately chop it out.** but she takes these sentences and puts them on her fridge afterward, like the child’s crayon drawings. everybody laughed.
interesting tangent on translations and the impact on the ‘magic’ of the words, and Wolfe described a situation where a German translation of a story was sold to a magazine, but when he translated it back to English, it was better than he wrote it.
How I Wrote ‘A is for Alien’ was very interesting, as Caitlin Kiernan seems always to be (though this is only my second time hearing her speak), though a bit less so for the book itself than for some other observations: identified quickly with Lovecraft, etc., but wanted to take his Cosmocism into space, which seemed perfectly suited to it; she is amazed how people can write full length SF novels, because she doesn’t think herself capable of it; believes information can be free when rent is free and healthcare is free, etc.***; doesn’t like being bound to markets to pay her bills, but does credit the need to write what people ask her for as pushing her to write a really good story that she really likes and which she hated every moment of writing it. honest.
Catherynne Valente‘s How I Wrote the Orphan’s Tales was similarly enlightening, and i have to go pick up those books because i think my niece might really like them. but there’s a definite dark streak, here, which Valente readily admits, as well as the fact that these books are heavily influenced by her own personal life during her 20’s when she wrote them. described feeling no possessiveness over her work once handed to editor; happy to make changes that will make the book better. believes genre writing doesn’t use enough cool tricks, the way literary fiction does (plot devices, stories within stories, etc.), because it relies on the cool ‘things’ (dragons, magic, etc.). believes fairy tales are ways to help kids deal with trauma, and that those who suffer are special.
and then i went home with that splitting headache…
* obviously, i instantly liked her.
** did i mention i liked her?
*** made me think of this in a whole new light. very interesting (and like so much else here, self-evident to me after someone else says it)