The Dream Café

Steven Brust: “A masterful storyteller of contagious glee and self-deprecating badassery” —Skyler White

28 September 2020
by skzb
11 Comments

Klava

I keep getting asked if klava is real, and if so, how do you make it?

No, it isn’t real, but people have been working on it. The problem is the wood chips, which tend to increase the bitterness, and the whole idea behind it is to remove the bitterness (I’m one of those unfortunate people with an over-sensitivity to bitter; it’s why I hate most of the really good beers).

Now, one individual says he’s actually made it work, and even sent me the recipe plus all of the ingredients to test it out, and, to my shame, I got lazy and never got around to it. But if that person wants to come forward, I’ll put that recipe here, and then stick this post onto the sidebar.

 

10 August 2020
by skzb
23 Comments

Harmonics and Correspondence

Some time ago I distilled some of what I’ve figured out about writing into the phrase, “The art of writing reduces itself to the craft of manipulating correspondence; the craft of writing reduces itself to the art of finding the right word.” I’ve been letting that float around in my head for a while now, to see if I could explain it in terms that might be useful to someone. The tricky part is that word, “correspondence,” and what it means and how I’m using it about writing.

I’ve just been re-watching “Doctor Strange,” and going to school with the script. I was noticing some bits with Wong: having a single name (“like Adele….or Aristotle,”) and whether he ever laughs, and how the writer (C. Robert Cargill)  used that, returned to it—the exact moments in the film when those came up again, the release of tension, the sense of a callback, the completion of something we weren’t aware needed completing. That last is a lovely thing to pull off. Season 6 of Game of Thrones did a lot of it: paying off things we didn’t even expect to pay off (“Hodor!”).

When I talk about correspondence in writing, that’s the sort of thing I mean. Cargill uses it, as I said, to relieve some tension, to control the pacing, to amuse us, and simultaneously add a bit of depth to a character. But look at the setup for it: we’re at the point where our protagonist is trying to come to terms with his new environment, and the interaction with Wong tells us a great deal both about Strange and about that environment and how far he is from anything familiar. That is all it needed to do. That it then turns around and unexpectedly pays off is a special kind of elegance.

But here’s the thing: that technique can work with amusing bits, and with powerful thematic statements; with word play, and with subtext; with trivialities, and with profundities.  In all cases, it is establishing a correspondence between disparate elements or moments.  It is how symbols—images in which extra meaning is concentrated—can tell their own story simultaneously with the one being told “on top” if you will.  Done badly, it is why that symbolic story gets in the way and makes us feel we’re at a lecture rather than reading a story; done well, the symbolic story reinforces, comments on, corresponds with, the incidents.

Now set all of that aside for a moment, because I want to talk about music.

On the guitar, there are things called “voicings” that are important to better musicians than I am. That is, there are numerous ways to play the same chord, all of which will work with the melody, but each of which is different. For me, if I can find a way to play a chord that’s good enough to not sound horrible, I’m satisfied; but a good guitarist will be aware of the different overtones and harmonics* that each chord formation will have, and will use different voicings to add to the overall effect of the song. The unsophisticated listener (like me) will often be unaware of those choices, but it will nevertheless affect us; if done right, the music will be more fulfilling, more elegant, more lasting.

So now we get to the part of this that I’m struggling to express, because it is simultaneously the most abstract part, and the most practical. Let’s try it this way: Every scene is a chord, every sentence is a string. The string has a note that contributes to the chord, but it also has harmonics.  These harmonics might be the exact metaphor used to express a thought, or the rhythm of the sentence, or the generation of a symbol by infusing an image with extra meaning, or the sound of the words, or a bit of semi-accidental worldbuilding, or a sensory detail, or an extra hint of characterization, or any number of other things.

When you’re aware of those harmonics, you can use them, so even as the melody resolves, you return to the harmonic, you can find correspondences and resonances that deepen the melody, provide a counterpoint to it, or suggest other melodies that are implied but never played.  What I’m saying is that these harmonics are already in the sentence you’ve written.  You just have to look for them.

Maybe this is something you look for in your second draft, maybe for you, you can find it as you’re creating, but it comes down to this: that sentence you’ve written that contributes to the scene, that in turn serves the story: look at it again, and see if maybe there are some harmonics there you can come back to.

* For you mathematicians,  a harmonic is a sound wave that has a frequency that is an integer multiple of a fundamental tone. For the rest of us, a harmonic is a secondary tone generated by the vibration of a string that harmonizes with the dominant note.

7 August 2020
by skzb
43 Comments

On the SF “Canon” and the Development of Art

John Scalzi has, as is his wont, produced a thought-provoking post.  This one is about the SF “Canon” (I’m finding it difficult to type that without quotation marks, which may tell us something).  You can find his remarks here.  He was kind enough to mention me as an influence, for which I am duly flattered.

I’m writing about this for two reasons, neither of which have to do with the question, “Is there actually a science fiction canon, and, if so, should new writers study it?”  The reasons are, first, with all that is going on in the world right now, with all the difficulties and challenges in both understanding it, and in communicating that understanding, it struck me as a relief to pull my brain away from that for a few minutes, and talk about art as if it existed apart from everything else—which, although clearly nonsense, can be treated as true for a short time.  The second reason is that it struck a chord with some things I’ve been thinking about, and I want to see if my thoughts will come together coherently (the answer is either that they will, or you’ll never see this post).

Strictly speaking, I disagree with John to some extent (did I qualify that enough?), but for all practical purposes, my disagreements are trivial.  I’m going to immediately move away from that, and talk about what all of this made me think of, and then pull it back.

Every form of art (art, in this case, being given the broadest possible definition), every sub-form, every genre and sub-genre, develops by contradiction, that is, in dialog with and (to a greater or lesser degree) in opposition to earlier forms.  The breathtaking changes in the world around us (ha.  I should have known I couldn’t stay away from that) strike artists as well as everyone else, because, you know, artists live here too. Our familiarity, whether deep or shallow, intense or casual, with the earlier works that made us want to create this stuff, is a huge part of what drives us, what gives us, consciously or unconsciously, our sense of, “this is good, this is bad, this is what I want to accomplish, this is what I want to stay away from.”

This means that every time something significantly new comes along—in painting, in music, or in science fiction—it involves a rejection of what went before.  One can almost hear the earliest punk artists, or the realist painters, or the “new-wave” science fiction writers, screaming at the past, “How come you didn’t do this?”  The rejection of what went before, of its assumptions, aesthetic, ways of addressing the viewer, are exactly what gives the new form or approach its dynamics, its energy.  I think this is a good thing, but that’s beside the point too, because it is also inevitable.

But here’s where it gets interesting: As we reject the old in order to bring in the new, some will carry it deeper.  The most serious and dedicated will inevitably, at a certain point in their development, find themselves going backward, looking to those who came before, studying them, learning, and sometimes rejecting them at a deeper level, and sometimes finding important elements that they can incorporate in their work.  As before, that I consider this a good thing doesn’t matter, because it will happen in any case.   As for what should and should not be considered “canon” within our sub-field, I think time spent arguing about it is time wasted.  Those writers who, in their drive to create what is new and exciting, will find themselves exploring what is old, will determine that on their own, find what is valuable, reject what is not, and move forward.

27 July 2020
by jenphalian
146 Comments

Baron of Magister Valley Chapter 16 Support Group

There are going to be SPOILERS for MAGISTER VALLEY here, but I’ll keep them in the comments.

So, you’ve read chapter sixteen, and you’re ready to yell at Steven about it?

Readers of Dragaeran historical romances will be familiar with wishing to yell at Paarfi and Steven. But this one is really going to cause some wailing and gnashing of teeth. Comments here for us to commiserate together.