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Friday, May 29, 2009

Patricia Briggs: Mercy and Faith

Patricia Briggs was born in Butte, Montana, and graduated Montana State University with degrees in history and German.

Briggs's first novel Masques appeared in 1993, followed by sequels Steal the Dragon (1995) and When Demons Walk (1998). The Hob's Bargain (2001) was a standalone; Dragon Bones (2002) and Dragon Blood (2003) formed the Hurog duology; and Raven's Shadow (2004) and Raven's Strike (2005) make up the Raven duology.

She switched from more traditional fantasy to urban fantasy with the popular Mercedes Thompson series about a were-coyote mechanic in a world of werewolves and vampires: Moon Called (2006), Blood Bound (2007), Iron Kissed (2008), and Bone Crossed (2009), with Silver Borne (2010) forthcoming. Her spin-off Alpha and Omega series started with Cry Wolf (2008) and continued with Hunting Ground (2009). She also wrote graphic novel Mercy Thompson: Homecoming (2009).

Excerpts from the interview:

“After I got out of college and married, we moved to Chicago. More people worked at the Hancock Building in Chicago than lived in the biggest city in Montana at the time. It was odd to me that there were so many people in the world! You could drive for hours and not see anything but more city, so I retreated into books. In Montana, you think of the world as being this broad open place with just a few people. That's why I write fantasy, because I like to think of the world like that. It scares me when I start thinking about how many people there really are.”


“Progress in women's rights make us forget that historically women have been very powerful; they just haven't been powerful in the way men are. The old medieval abbesses were incredibly powerful! Roman women weren't empowered the way men were, but they had a lot of power too. We work differently. In a lot of Native American tribes, women ran the tribe. And in fact, if you want to go to the most masculine society of all, the Spartans, the men went out and fought and the women ran the world!

“I'm a big romance reader -- I love romances. But my books are not romances. A romance novel turns on the relationship between a man and a woman; that's the most important thing in the book. I think love is a wonderful motivator, because it makes us do really stupid things, things we would never do for any other reason. And it's something we all need. So I use romance, but I don't turn my plots on it. You could take the romance out of any of my books and still have a book, with a plot and characters and things, but if you took magic out the book would fall apart. That's the big difference between the paranormal romance and urban fantasy.”


“Odd as it sounds, realism is the heart of urban fantasy. Your world has to feel real. You have to get the names of the places right, and you have to get the feel of it right, so if you stick a werewolf in people won't go ‘Oh, that's one thing too many, I can't believe that, that's stupid.' I'm speaking of modern urban fantasy, but I think that's true of the urban fantasy of Tim Powers and Charles de Lint, too. Making sure people know this is the real world is very important.”


“Urban fantasy lends itself to series with one major character where paranormal romance doesn't, actually. In paranormal romance series, we usually jump from one pair of characters in one book, to another pair in the next. (If there's gradual world-building, it evolves into urban fantasy whether the author wants it or not.) Urban fantasy series tend to be template series, where the characters don't do a lot of evolving. That isn't necessarily bad. Look at Louis L'Amour, who made a career out of writing the same book over and over again! I love every one of his books and I have favorites, and I look at them and know they're predictable, but they're awesome and wonderful because he's a great storyteller. If you're a good storyteller, you can get away with anything. We have a lot of great storytellers in urban fantasy.

“At the same time, that would bore me to tears as a writer. I try to challenge myself with each book, try to do something different so I'm not bored and I don't get into a rut. To keep me interested, characters have to work through their problems, get new problems, work through those, and every time they change. You should still be able to recognize the core of who the person was at the beginning, but all these things you learn, and all these things they do, need to change them.”

Photo by Liza Groen Trombi


Monday, May 25, 2009

Kim Harrison: Secret Identity

Kim Harrison, who began her career writing as Dawn Cook, grew up near Ann Arbor MI. As Dawn Cook she published high fantasy First Truth (2002), followed by sequels Hidden Truth (2002), Forgotten Truth (2003), and Lost Truth (2004). She also wrote fantasy The Decoy Princess (2005) and sequel Princess at Sea (2006).

In 2004 she began publishing The Hollows, her bestselling urban fantasy series about witch Rachel Morgan, as Kim Harrison. She keeps the Harrison and Cook identities separate, and does public appearances as Harrison in a wig and a different wardrobe.

The first Hollows book, Dead Witch Walking (2004), was followed by The Good, the Bad, and the Undead (2005), Every Which Way But Dead (2005), A Fistful of Charms(2006), For a Few Demons More (2007), The Outlaw Demon Wails (2008; as Where Demons Dare in the UK); and White Witch, Black Curse (2009). At least two more books in the series are planned. Her first YA, Once Dead, Twice Shy, is forthcoming.

She lives in South Carolina with her husband and two children.

Excerpts from the interview:

“I've had a lot of people link the Kim Harrison name with the Dawn Cook name. Until now my pat answer to people asking if Dawn and Kim were the same person has always been, 'I heard that before, and I just laughed and laughed!' (I have never really lied to a reader or a fan -- I've just evaded the question.) I've also had readers who know Dawn and Kim are the same person, and have watched them jump down somebody's throat and tell them, 'This is not true, this is not so.' They're fighting my battles for me, because they know I love my privacy! They are very loyal, and I love them all. But lately the rumor mill has been going nuts, and it's time to come out.

“I'm glad it's out in the open, because it is hard to maintain these two separate identities, and remind your friends or family when you go out, 'I'm Kim today, so don't call me Dawn.' The division has served its purpose. I'm still going to be Kim, but now if somebody calls me Dawn I won't have to say 'Shut your mouth!'”


“I could almost give you the date when I started writing. Tim was off at a business meeting and I was home with the kids, and I got bored. I'd recently read two books where I wasn't happy with the endings, and I said, 'I could do that!'

“Well, I couldn't. But I picked up the pen and started writing. I wrote for about an hour, and then the next day wrote for another hour. And then I got bit by the ink bug really bad. It just kind of took over. Like I said, I couldn't write as well as the people that I was reading, but I fell in love with the process of putting words on paper and seeing how you could manipulate thoughts and images.”


“The Kim Harrison persona has really become more of a job title, if I can put it that way. When I'm out doing things with the public -- when I'm on my website answering e-mail -- when I'm doing interviews and events -- I'm totally different then when I'm home writing. When you go out in front of people, you put on your good clothes and you get your hair done. It's an extension of that. I don't want to say it's like armor, but there's a little bit of that, too. If I'm wearing my Kim Harrison 'hat,' they can't hurt the author who's actually typing the stuff.

“I was requested to keep the two personas separate so the numbers for the Kim books were not influenced by the numbers for the Dawn books. That was the original intent. But when I started doing more public appearances, I realized how valuable the separation was. That's when the black started entering my wardrobe. I probably went overboard a little bit when I started out, with the leather and the Goth, but it's been fun watching my wardrobe evolve and become a little more sophisticated. Now I've got some actual color in my Kim wardrobe, which has been nice.”


“I don't want the name 'Kim Harrison' plastered all over the Dawn Cook books. We're trying to treat the division with dignity and respect. A lot of my Kim readership, right from the beginning, has come from the romance genre. Most urban fantasy has a strong-willed female protagonist, and there's always been attention spent to relationships -- not necessarily romance, but romance readers like seeing how a relationship develops and they can usually get that in urban fantasy. There's not always a happy ending in urban fantasy, and that can get you in trouble if you're trying to tap into that romance market. Killing off a main love interest got me a lot of hate mail, but I think they forgave me.

“What seems to define the two genres is the characters themselves rather than any writing style. With urban fantasy and paranormal romance both having vampires, werewolves, witches, mythological creatures, everybody wants to lump them in the same group, and you just can't do that. There's a definite split between them. Urban fantasy has traditionally been a series of books about the same character or (as in the case of Kelley Armstrong) the same world, and I see that wearing off into paranormal romance. Romance readers are becoming more acclimated to ongoing series -- they don't have to have that happy-happy ending where everything is all done and the woman's gets the man anymore. As long as there's an assurance that we're going to continue this story, they're pretty happy with it.”


“I have a young adult as by Kim coming out in June from HarperTeen, Once Dead, Twice Shy, and I'm really excited about it. HarperTeen is really backing it, with a mini-tour, along with Kelley Armstrong, Melissa Marr, Aprilynne Pike, and Claudia Gray. Once Dead, Twice Shy is a completely different universe from The Hollows, closer to our reality. I don't have vampires or witches this time; I have reapers and fallen angels. I didn't tailor it too much toward young readers except in the areas of language (just a wee bit), and of course the sex came out. My heroine doesn't really have a relationship at this point, but she's in high school -- she's not dead, romance-wise!

Comments are welcome, but are moderated.

Photo by Liza Groen Trombi


Saturday, May 9, 2009

Extreme Geek

by Cory Doctorow

I am by no means the geekiest SF writer working in the field today; on the power-law curve of geekiness, there are many ancient and gnarly masters before whom I am but a noviate, barely qualified to check the syntax in their shell-scripts. Stross, I'm looking at you here.

Nevertheless, I am far more geeky than average, and that geekiness has crept into my writing practice in a way that is very close to perfectly geeky inasmuch as it probably costs me as much effort as it saves me, inasmuch as it delights me, and inasmuch as it points the way to civilian applications that someone else might want to develop into products that the less geekified may enjoy.

In that spirit, I offer you three quirky little tassles from the fringes of technology and SF writing:

1. Business: Book donation program

This is the lowest-tech entry on the list, but it's also the most generally applicable. As you know (Bob), I give away all my books as free, Creative Commons-licensed e-books the same day they go on sale in stores, on the grounds that for most people, a free e-book is more apt to entice them to buy the print book than to substitute for it.

But there's a small minority — mostly other geeks — for whom the e-book is all they want, and who, nevertheless, want to see the writers they enjoy compensated (bless 'em!). They write to me with some variation on, "Can't I just send you a donation?" And my answer has always been no, because:

  1. I don't want to have to bookkeep, file taxes on, and otherwise track your $5;

  2. I don't want to cut my extremely valuable and useful publisher out of the loop;

  3. I don't want to reduce my print-books' sell-through rates (which determine advance sizes, print runs, and bookstore orders).

So, traditionally, I asked my readers to compensate me by donating a book to a school or library or halfway house. But, practically speaking, this isn't very useful advice. Most of us have no idea how to give books away to schools or libraries — do you just show up at the reception desk with a book, shove it into the clerk's hands and say, "Here, this is for you?"

Starting with my novel Little Brother, I've been doing something different: I actually provide a matchmaking service to connect donors with willing recipients. I hired an assistant — the talented Olga Nunes — to monitor through a googlemail address that I published in a solicitation to schools, libraries, etc., telling them to e-mail their work contact details if they wanted a free copy of the book. Olga vetted these to ensure that they weren't fakers or scam artists, and then posted a geographically sorted list of would-be donees to my site.

Then, I put the word out to potential donors that there was an easy (or at least easier) way to compensate me if you liked the e-book and didn't need the hardcopy: visit your favorite bookstore and buy as many copies as you'd like for any of the organizations that solicited donations, then e-mail us the receipt so we can cross them off the list. Judging from donor e-mails, many of them just gave to the first outstanding request, others looked for requests from their region, and others judged by merit. Some donated several copies — as much as 15! As I type this, we've given away well over 200 copies to people who really wanted the book. I got the sales number, my publisher got the sale, the library or school got the material, and the reader got to feel like s/he had paid for the value s/he'd received.

Now, this wasn't cheap. I needed to hire someone with the good judgment to tell scammers from honest people and with the HTML skills to format and update the page. I definitely spent at least twice as much as I made on this program. As a commercial venture, it was a flop.

But as a proof-of-concept, it was a ringing success. There is a market opportunity here for someone who wants to automate the service. I envision something run jointly by, say, the American Library Association (or maybe the International Federation of Library Associations) and the Adopt-a-School program (to ease vetting), that works with a couple dozen booksellers, national and local, and lists books by all kinds of authors and requests from all over the world. Donors can either get a suggestion for a book to donate (perhaps based on preferences like "Science Fiction" or "Young-Adult Novels" and "Schools in My Area" or "Schools in the Nation's Poorest ZIP Codes") and, with a few clicks, donate a book, receiving a tax-deduction receipt in return.

2. Research: Twitter meets notekeeping

I'm in the middle of a research-intensive novel, for which I've read some 50 or 60 books. I made extensive notes as I did, unconsciously falling into a Twitter-style shorthand in my long text-file, for example:

  • Newborn babies are swaddled tightly at birth, it tames them. If you aren't swaddled, you grow up wild and restless. Socialism 79 #china #childhood #control

  • Louche boy wearing wide-bottom "trumpet trousers" and shirt rolled up to expose his belly on a hot day. Socialism 86 #china #fashion

  • "Drink vinegar" is "conjugal jealousy." Socialism 155 #china #slang #romance

These notes are from "Socialism is Great!", Lijia Zhang's amazing memoir of life in rural China during the period of economic reform and industrialization. The hashtags (#tag) are loose categories that each note seemed to fit into while I was writing them down. These notes, and hundreds more, live in a text file.

As I made these notes, I had a sense that, somewhere, there'd be a program that would parse through them, generating a tag-cloud [see picture] with clickable links to different hashtags' contents. Unfortunately, as this file grew longer, I realized that no such program existed.

I put the call out to the readership at Boing Boing, the blog I co-edit, and Dan McDonald, one of my readers, came through with a fantastic little Perl script called that does exactly this, parsing all my notes into a database that I can search or query visually, by clicking on the cloud.

Now, as I write the novel, this has become an invaluable aid: for one thing, it lends itself to a kind of casual, clicky browsing in which one hashtag leads to another, to a search-query, to another tag, exploring my notes in a way that is both serendipitous and directed.

For another, the format is one that comes naturally to me, because of all the other services I use — such as Twitter — that employ this telegraphic, brief style.

Dan's Perl script is freely licensed and can be downloaded from

3. Process: Flashbake

I know a lot of archivists and one of their most common laments is the disappearance of the distinct draft manuscript in the digital age. Pre-digital, authors would create a series of drafts for their work, often bearing hand-written notations tracking the thinking behind each revision. By comparing these drafts, archivists and scholars could glean insights into the author's mental state and creative process.

But in the digital era, many authors work from a single file, modifying it incrementally for each revision. There are no distinct, individual drafts, merely an eternally changing scroll that is forever in flux. When the book is finished, all the intermediate steps that the manuscript went through disappear.

It occurred to me that there was no reason that this had to be so. Computers can remember an insane amount of information about the modification history of files — indeed, that's the norm in software development, where code repositories are used to keep track of each change to the codebase, noting who made the changes, what s/he changed, and any notes s/he made about the reason for the change.

So I wrote to a programmer friend of mine, Thomas Gideon, who hosts the excellent Command Line podcast (, and asked him which version control system he'd recommend for my fiction projects — which one would be easiest to automate so that every couple of minutes, it checked to see if any of the master files for my novels had been updated, and then check the updated ones in.

Thomas loved the idea and ran with it, creating a script that made use of the free and open-source control system "Git" (the system used to maintain the Linux kernel), checking in my prose at 15-minute intervals, noting, with each check-in, the current time-zone on my system clock (where am I?), the weather there, as fetched from Google (what's it like?) and the headlines from my last three Boing Boing posts (what am I thinking?). Future versions will support plug-ins to capture even richer metadata — say, the last three tweets I twittered, and the last three songs my music player played for me.

He called it "Flashbake", a neologism from my first novel, Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom. I was honored.

It's an incredibly rich — even narcissistic — amount of detail to capture about the writing process, but there's no reason not to capture it. It doesn't cost any more to capture all this stuff every 15 minutes than it would to capture a daily file-change snapshot at midnight without any additional detail. And since Git — and other source repositories — is designed to let you summarize many changes at a time (say, all the changes between version 1 and version 2 of a product), it's easy to ignore the metadata if it's getting in the way.

Now, this may be of use to some notional scholar who wants to study my work in a hundred years, but I'm more interested in the immediate uses I'll be able to put it to — for example, summarizing all the typos I've caught and corrected between printings of my books. Flashbake also means that I'm extremely backed up (Git is designed to replicate its database to other servers, in order to allow multiple programmers to work on the same file). And more importantly, I'm keen to see what insights this brings to light for me about my own process. I know that there are days when the prose really flows, and there are days when I have to squeeze out each word. What I don't know is what external factors may bear on this.

In a year, or two, or three, I'll be able to use the Flashbake to generate some really interesting charts and stats about how I write: does the weather matter? Do I write more when I'm blogging more? Do "fast" writing days come in a cycle? Do I write faster on the road or at home? I know myself well enough to understand that if I don't write down these observations and become an empiricist of my own life that all I'll get are impressionistic memories that are more apt to reflect back my own conclusions to me than to inform me of things I haven't noticed.

Thomas has released Flashbake as free/open software. You can download it and start tinkering at As I said, it's not the kind of thing that an info-civilian will be able to get using without a lot of tinkering, but in the month I've used it, I've already found it to be endlessly fascinating and useful — and with enough interest, it's bound to get easier and easier.

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