Pondering Robert Jordan

You have to respect a man who does what he says he’s going to do.

I have been re-reading the Wheel of Time series by Robert Jordan, now that the whole thing is complete.  Most of the library copies I’ve picked up were published after Jordan passed away, so they had the posthumous “About the Author” in them.  This one (Crown of Swords, in case you were curious) has the earlier author description, which got me thinking.

The last line of the bio is “He has been writing since 1977 and intends to continue until they nail shut his coffin.”  Which he did, in a way.

If you’re unfamiliar with the story, the Wheel of Time series was incomplete when Jordan passed away in 2007.  (I recall a very dismayed lunch conversation with several colleagues at the time, all of us wondering what would become of the characters we had come to know.)  However, he knew he was ill and prepared for it, writing as much as he could and telling his wife how he intended the epic to end.  Another author was recruited by Jordan’s publisher, with input from his widow, and that author completed the final three books of the series.

If that’s not writing “until they nail shut [the] coffin,” I don’t know what is.  As an author, it’s both amazing to think about someone working that hard for both his characters and his readers, and also totally understandable.  We all get invested in our characters, even for just one novel, so after eleven books I’m sure Jordan was just as eager as his readers to have everything play out and come to a resolution.

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I’ve Been Pronouncing It Wrong This Whole Time!

As an auditory learner, I hear the words in my head as I read.  (I know that other people read differently, although I still can’t quite wrap my mind around how that works.)  Because I hear the words, I need to know how to pronounce them.  I read fantasy, so there are often unfamiliar names or terms in what I read.

Different authors take different approaches to this.  Some just let you pronounce names of people and places however you want, or leave you to figure it out on your own.  Some have the characters with tricky names explain it to others (Hermione does this in the fourth book, as does a character in one of Jacqueline Carey’s novels).  I particularly like it when the author has a character list or glossary in the back, complete with phonetic explanations.  (The back is better than the front, so there is less temptation to peek ahead.)  If the author isn’t nice enough to tell me how to pronounce a name, and especially if it has odd letters together, I just make something up.  Sometimes I’ll even just substitute another word – after about six or seven times of seeing the word, my brain usually just puts in the substitute with very little thought required.

I’m currently on the sixth book in the Wheel of Time series by Robert Jordan.  This is a massive series (it ended up at a total of 14 books) with lots of different countries and peoples, so the author was kind enough to include a glossary.  For some reason, I decided today to look up one of the countries (Cairhein) to see how it should be pronounced.  I’d been flipping back and forth between two possible pronunciations (CAR-hine and CARE-hine), and I guess I wanted to know which was correct.

It turns out neither of them was correct.  The right way, according to Jordan, is KEYE-ree-EHN.  I’ve been pronouncing the name of the country totally wrong for five books (not to mention when I read some of the series before) and now I have to re-adjust.  Every time I see it I have to correct myself mentally.  Hopefully it will end up like the substitutions, and it won’t take too long to fix.

If you write fantasy and make up names and terms, please be kind to your auditory learners and include a pronunciation guide!

Unusual Sentence Structure

I am re-reading the Wheel of Time series, and I’ve noticed that Robert Jordan used an odd sentence structure that I haven’t really seen anywhere else.  He (or his editor) must have liked it, as it shows up on a regular basis throughout the first three books.  Here are two examples from The Dragon Reborn:

“It was one of the two large men — Sanor or Vasa; he did not give his name — who came to pull the captain’s iron-bound money chest from under the bed.”

“The road led to arched gates twenty feet high, standing open under the watchful eye of red-coated Queen’s Guards in their shining breastplates — they eyed Thom and him no more than anyone else, not even the quarterstaff slanted across his saddle in front of him; all they cared was that people keep moving, it seemed — and then they were within.”

The dashes adding extra detail to the sentence aren’t unusual, nor is the semicolon.  What you don’t see as often is the combination of the two.  It took me a minute when I saw this the first time to completely grasp what is going on with the structure.  My first thought was that the semicolon separated two thoughts that each required a dash, but based on the contents I realized that I was reading it wrong.  The semicolon is for the stuff inside the dashes; the thought contained there needs (or at least benefits from) the punctuation.  Once I wrapped my head around the concept, this structure seems as normal as any other in the novels.

Like many fantasy authors, Jordan is a fan of long sentences.  (See the second example above if you don’t believe me!)  Combining punctuation, like dashes and semicolons, helps make longer sentences possible without adding too much confusion for the reader.  Have you seen any other unusual sentence structures in your reading?

Why everyone should have a collection of short stories

Everyone should have at least one collection of short stories in their personal library.  It should be a collection that you like, that you can read over and over.  (I have five.)  The reason for this is best illustrated by an experience I had today.

Before I begin my tale, let me first explain that I do not like being without reading material.  When I finish something, I start something else.  Even if I don’t open the reading material for a day or two, I don’t feel complete unless I am “reading” something.  Now, to the story.

I am reading Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series again from the beginning.  (I haven’t read the three concluding books yet, but I decided I would enjoy them better if I worked my way there.)  I do not currently own any of the series, so I’ve been requesting them from my local library.

When I get to about 100 pages left, I put a hold on the next book in line.  This time, when I was nearly done with book two, someone already had book three checked out, so it took a bit longer.  Fortunately, I had two months worth of National Geographic waiting for me.  I switched right over to those when I finished The Great Hunt.

Last night I read the last article of this month’s NG.  This morning I had the realization that I was without reading material, and at one of those “reading required” moments in my day.  These moments, when I am mid-series and yet without material, are when I reach for one of the well-worn short story collections on my shelf.

Here is the beauty of a book of short stories: they give you something to read without requiring a great deal of commitment.  You can read one story to get you through until the next trip to the library, or you can read several stories to get a fiction fix in the middle of a long stretch of non-fiction.

The end of my tale is quite fun, too, although not entirely related to the point I’m trying to make.  I was not without reading material for long, because I got both my notification from the library and next month’s National Geographic today!

Religion in Fantasy

One of the hardest moments for me in writing Butterflies came when I had to describe a wedding.  The reason this was difficult was because I had to address a question I had not considered prior to the wedding: religion.

I know that weddings do not necessarily require religion to happen, but for many people the ceremony is based on the forms and traditions of their faith.  As Butterflies is set in a world that I created, it fell to me to create everything about the people and culture.  Religion is a part of this, and this issue has been handled differently by different authors.

In most fantasy worlds that are very strongly magical, I have typically seen two variations on religion.  Either the belief system and the magic are heavily intertwined (as in The Wheel of Time by Robert Jordan) or the magic makes religion a moot point.  Ursula K. LeGuin explained in a description of Earthsea that relatively common magic use in part of the world had precluded the development of an organized religion. 

Several of my favorite authors have a different approach.  For these authors, the deities in the story are heavily active in the lives of their chosen people.  Jacqueline Carey’s Kushiel series is fairly light on magic, as fantasy goes, but is full of gods and angels intervening in the lives of the characters.  Some of the cultures in Mercedes Lackey’s Valdemar books get their ability to work with magic (on its own a natural phenomenon) from the very involved goddess or god of their people. 

I have read some fantasy that takes place in a setting similar to medieval Europe.  In these books religion seems similar to what is expected for Europe at the time.  And then there is fantasy that doesn’t really approach the question at all; if it weren’t for that wedding, I would never have felt the need to address the issue in Butterflies.  Honestly, I kept it pretty simple; I described the ritual and a brief glimpse into the beliefs, but I didn’t dig around or get philosophical about it.  I figured that was sufficient.