Why epigraphs?

“Dune” did it to incredible effect. Asimov’s Foundation series did it beautifully. There are other books where this was used to enhance and deepen the worldbuilding.

I am talking about epigraphs, quotes that open chapters or sections of novels, quotes which often come from Science Fiction or Fantasy worlds that do not exist outside the book being read.

The Ages of Mankind

When I wrote “The Secrets of Jin-shei“, I used epigraphs to define the Ages of Mankind, as seen through the eyes of the culture and beliefs of my imagined country of Syai – Liu, Lan, Xat, Qai, Ryu, Pau, and Atu.In that order, they cover emergence (birth and babyhood), growing (childhood), coming of age (becoming adult), reproducing and replacing one’s self (the age of childbearing), the secondary stage of reproducing and replacing one’s self, and growing old (sliding into senescence), the sunset and twilight of one’s life (death), and that existence that bridges the end of the last life and the beginning of a brand new one, a sort of hovering in the waiting room of the gods (the closing of the circle).Jin-shei Ages of Mankind Liu poster

What emerged as the quotes for each section were these delicate ‘Chinese’ poems, fragile and ethereal, almost written by brushwork rather than typed on hard keys on a computer keyboard. They were astonishing to me, who created them, but they had a sturdy reality – despite their tender fragility – which served to anchor my new-made world firmly to a reality which would not otherwise have been possible. There is a power here which is difficult to define, but which is palpable. This would not have been the book it is without the epigraphs which serve as the scaffold on which the entire structure was built.

I did a similar thing with the follow-up to that book, “Embers of Heaven”, where the epigraphs came from various works of reference and literature and liturgy. Imaginary, all. But, again, the quotes serve to anchor the novel into its world, a world where these books existed, where they would have been recognizable and familiar to someone of that world, of that culture. They anchored my own mind in that world, in the way it was thinking and feeling, in the unquestionable reality of its existence.

This is powerful stuff. Even now, rereading the material, years after it was written, I find myself transported straight back into the world of Jin-shei by these quotes.Jin-shei Ages of Mankind Lan poster

The right epigraphs, even if they have been as wholly invented by an author as the novel which they anchor, serve to link the words of fiction to a world which is only a sideways step from our own, as real as that which we see when we look out of our own windows. They serve as windows, also, and they allow the reader of a book to glance directly into the mind of its writer, and understand more completely the fictional realm into which the writer has led them. The epigraphs are the keys to a massive door which open into a place which we may not have ever seen before… but which, because of those imagined yet easily recognized quoted words, we *know*.

I’ve built a series of posters based on those Ages Of mankind, the first two enclosed here. I’ll post the others at another time.

HELP ME BUILD NEW WORLDS: As publishing changes, most authors need new sources of income. If you would like to help me continue writing about wizards and Weres, Jin-shei sisters, and girls who rise from the gutter to Empress, consider pitching in with a small monthly pledge. For the cost of a latte or two you too can become a patron of the arts. Details HERE

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Why do we keep some books forever?

Books with tenure

Falling Books Bookcase photoSometimes I get an urge to run a finger down my bookshelves and remember books – why I got them, why I loved them, why I still own some but not others, what it is that makes a book get tenure in my library.

I still have a bunch of the early Asimov stuff – the robotics stories, the  detective-in-the-stars tales – and this is what I cut my SF teeth on… it was my password – “Hello stars, Asimov sent me”.

I still love some of the robotics stories, but it’s a sentimental affection. I, and the world, have moved on from the early simple sweet Asimovian storytelling. Comparing Asimov with, say, Stross, is like going from a Newtonian to an Einsteinian universe.

I can pinpoint exactly when McCaffrey began to go south on me. It was the Crystal Singer books. Good grief, but that woman was unpleasant. Tough, sure, able to fend for herself, talented, but MAN was she unpleasant. Why would I care about what happened to an unpleasant woman? I read the Crystal Singer books. I no longer own them.

I still have the Dragonflight/Dragonquest/White Dragon trilogy. EVERYTHING that has been said about them in so many other places is absolutely true. McCaffrey tapped into a powerful fantasy with her dragon-human bond – who wouldn’t want to have such a creature for a pet, a friend, a companion? But those books fail me TODAY in that they are too linear, too simplistic, too damned obvious. My tastes have gravitated towards the complex and the layered, the rich and the lush.

I first read Orson Scott Card’s Songmaster novel as a partial published in a magazine. I fell in love with the story, with the power of the tale, with the voice in which it was told, with the compassion and the tragedy that followed the development of the relationships of young Ansset and those who surrounded him, loved him, molded him, ruined him, redeemed him.

I picked up Ender’s Game – and really loved it. But then that franchise ran out of steam fast, and by the third book in that series I was gone.

The original Dune took my breath away then, and still does today. Here was my thirst for complexity slaked, and then some. It was incredible, and powerful, and it found a deep place within me. But the sequels – ah, the sequels – I managed to read the first three. I haven’t touched any since then.

Roger Zelazny’s Amber. I LOVE the original five. I am less devoted to the second set, but I still have them. Those books have full tenure. And not just because one of them happens to be signed.

Mary Stewart’s Merlin books? Keepers, all. One of the best and most powerful tellings of a story told many, many times. Spider Robinson’s stuff – ye gods, do I have to explain? The man’s a Pun King, and for someone similarly afflicted his books are a constant joyride of rolling-eye groaning delight. Keepers, again – and once more not because one of them is signed thusly: ‘To Alma, who obviously has The Callahan Touch herself.’

What else have I got there? Gene Wolfe? Larry Niven? Michael Moorcock?

Guy Gavriel Kay? Oh, him I’ve got – ALL of his books I’ve got. I could rank them for you, sure, from the astonishingly sublime (Tigana) to the merely magnificent (Song for Arbonne, Lions of Al-Rassan). I’ve got ’em all. He’s a keeper. Always will be.

Glenda Larke – friend and colleague – who understands story, worldbuilds with passion, and Writes Good Character. Keepers. Newer favorites, like Catherynne Valente, Elizabeth Bear.

Some books get bought, get read, get evicted. Others… stay.

They’ve got their hooks into my heart and my memory, somehow, and they are more than just the contents of a bookshelf. They are a set of signposts for the literary road I’ve traveled so far. They are not possessions. They are that part of me that is – that part that CAN be – written in other people’s words. They represent the bits of my mind and heart and spirit which THAT writer, THAT story, made possible.

So. What’s on your bookshelves, then…?

The complete version of this can be found at the Book View Cafe HERE

In a lithub interview, Joyce Carol Oates talks about:

Great Editors, Bad Reviews, and the Internet

Joyce Carol Oates head shotJoyce-Carol-Oates- Photo Dustin Cohen

“The internet can provide a kind of visual beauty, but it does not seem somehow permanent, or “objective”—it can so readily be replaced by the next image. A book on a table, in the hand, on a shelf seems to exude a degree of integrity and “there-ness” totally missing in the digital world. However, I do much of my reading online and even on an iPhone. There is nothing wrong with this, and such reading is far better than no reading at all.”

Read the whole interview at lithub.com HERE

At bustle.com, Joan Didion offers

11 Writing Tips

Joan Didion head shotJemal Countess/Getty Images Entertainment/Getty Images

“I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear.”

Sound just like me.

Read the whole interview at bustle.com HERE


What would happen if a first-born child is promised to two different witches? someone asked.

The question was irresistible. I began writing a short tale. 

To read my version of the story, consider making a small donation HERE

Quote of the DayClive Barker quote

And it is one that all fiction writers bend their knee to.

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Read it now?

Or wait?

It’s an ever-vexing quandary.

Should you start a series when the first book is out and then bite your nails as you wait for each new installment? Or wait until the series is complete and read everything at once, possibly running the risk of the early books becoming unavailable before you get the final one?

Well, my Worldweavers series is now complete and all four books are readily available so you can binge read the entire thing. (Click the ‘Buy at Amazon’ link in the sidebar).

Random and Wolf, the first two books of my new series, The Were Chronicles, are both out and the third book, Shifter, will be out in November so it might be safe to start reading now. (Click the Wolf link in the sidebar. Or read an excerpt).

At Off The Shelf, Emma Volk, offers some other series suggestions:

11 Binge-Worthy Literary Series

Detective Agency

The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, by Alexander McCall Smith:

Botswana’s premier lady detective Precious Ramotswe navigates her cases and her personal life with wit, wisdom, and a keen moral eye in this long-lasting and bestselling series. Compelling and good-hearted, she never forgets that she is drawn to her profession to “help people with problems in their lives.”

See all Volk’s suggestions HERE


Scottish children getting automatic library cards
Library CardsIn a bid to promote literacy, Scottish children will be given library cards either at birth, age three or four – or in their first primary school class.

In Glasgow, for example, a pilot program will target pupils in areas with issues of lower literacy and every baby registered will be given a library card.

Access to books and learning materials will help us to make sure that every child has the opportunity to get excited about reading,” First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said.

What a fantastic idea. Of course, there are some restrictions on the cards and if it were me, I would soon want a REAL, that is, unrestricted card.

I could read fluently by age 5 and I blew through the children’s section of my own home town library well before I left it for Africa when I was ten years old. In Africa, I had to learn a new language (English, actually), but by the time I was 13, I wanted the run of the adult library. I want ALL the books. ALL of them. I always did. I was word-greedy from an early age…

Scotland leads the way, HERE

Science fiction – a commie plot to undermine American values?

It’s an idea that the FBI was strongly considering during the height of the Cold War, as their lengthy investigation into Ray Bradbury shows, JPat Brown says.

The FBI followed Ray Bradbury’s career very closely, in part because an informant warned them that his writing was not enjoyable fantasy, but rather tantamount to psychological warfare.
Bradbury and the FBI“The general aim of these science fiction writers is to frighten the people into a state of paralysis or psychological incompetence bordering on hysteria,” the informant warned. “Which would make it very possible to conduct a Third World War in which the American people would believe could not be won since their morale had seriously been destroyed.”

Read the whole story HERE

Dune Sandworm‘Dune’ – climate fiction pioneer

‘...there’s no more Earth left for you.’

Frank Herbert’s novel turns 50 this year and since its ecological lessons were ahead of its time, the slowly dawning interest in the doomsday potential of climate change may bring new respect for the masterpiece, Michael Berry writes at Salon.

Dystopian fiction has never been so plentiful. Much of it depends on familiar landscapes being ravaged by drought, rising seas and other environmental disasters, and ‘Dune’ stands as an important early example of a novel that explored ecology and environmentalism,” Berry notes.

In 1970, on the First Earth Day, Frank Herbert spoke to 30,000 people in Philadelphia and  told them, ‘I don’t want to be in the position of telling my grandchildren:

‘I’m sorry, there’s no more Earth left for you. We’ve used it all up.’

Read the whole story HERE

50 Books for 50 Classes

At Flavorwire, Emily Temple offers us some surprising choices to create a ‘College Curriculum on Your Bookshelf’

For example:


Cosmicomics, Italo Calvino: This book of short stories delivers all you really need to know about the creation of the universe in one slim package.

Each story is based on a scientific principle, whether factual or erroneous, and spirals out into a glorious, spellbinding work of art. Here you’ll find stories about atmosphere, particles, existence as a single point before space and time, and what happens when you’ve got that one uncle who hasn’t evolved to walk on land and still lives in the primordial sea, and you’d like to introduce him to your new girlfriend.

See her other 49 choices HERE



The romance of a tumbling pile of books waiting to be read is so much more enticing than a grey, plastic screen.”

17 things only real book lovers will understand

Quote of the Day
It's Called Reading~~~~~
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Men’s Lib in Austen

The comic Manfeels Park takes comments from men on the internet and puts them into scenes from Jane Austen’s stories, Jenna Guillaume of BuzzFeed reports. The comic is the brainchild of Mo and Erin, who were inspired after discussing the “man-feels” on an internet comment thread and realising it was the perfect pun for Mansfield Park.
Men's lib in Jane AustenRead the Article

Hilarious archive of librarians’ harsh children’s book reviews

One hundred years before post-millennial parents were deeming Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs inappropriate for young vegans, Jenni Avins writes at Quartz, the children’s librarians of the New York Public Library kept a card catalog of hand-typed kids’ book reviews.

“There’s about a billion card catalogs in the library,” says librarian Lynn Lobash. “But these are special in that they were used as a tool for collection development, for the staff to evaluate the children’s collection.”
Kid's book reviewRead the Article

27 Reasons Literary Nerds Will Love Tumblr

Book lovers and Tumblr were basically made for each other, Heben Nigatu tells us at BuzzFeed, and offers examples from

Tumblr punsto an examination of “the underlying anxieties of your favorite genres.”
TumblrRead all the reasons

Speaking of puns…

Isaac Fitzgerald of BuzzFeed offers puntastic book titles “that will make you laugh out loud.”

Here's Looking at EuclidSee them all

Chillingly Evil Corporations in Literature

In Flavorwire, Jason Diamond looks at novels that no longer seem so farfetched. There is Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park, of course, any corporation in any William Gibson book, CHOAM from Frank Herbert’s Dune.

Or take Rachel Cantor’s debut novel, A Highly Unlikely Scenario, for example:
Rachel CantorCan you imagine a world where Burger King really is the king, where Papa John is Big Brother, or where Colonel Sanders was worshiped as a deity? It might seem farfetched, but in a real world where some corporations earn more than some entire countries, and employ armies of workers, the idea might be more plausible than you think.

In A Highly Unlikely Scenario, the book’s protagonist works for Neetsa Pizza, a new bizarre corporation with memorably insane businesses ideas.

Read the Article

This Cat is the Stationmaster in Her Own Train Station
Trainmaster catMeet Tama, the highly praised “Stationmaster” at a train station in Japan. She has her own office, greets all of the passengers, and is paid in cat food. Never before has there been a stationmaster so adored by those who ride through her platform. And check out her Tama-themed train.

Read the article

Quote of the Day

Creativity is allowing yourself to make mistakes. Art is knowing which ones to keep.” ~ Scott Adams

Alma Alexander
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The books that shaped a writer

John Scalzi uses a personal milestone, the 12th anniversary of his first pro publication in Science Fiction, to write about the works of Science Fiction and Fantasy that shaped his life and career.

I’m impressed that he knows the exact anniversary of his very first pro publication. I’ve been writing since Methuselah was a boy and I don’t even know what my first pro published story was never mind when it was. Writing has always been a part of my life.

But there were, of course, formative works in the genre in which I write. So here are mine,  a random number in random order. These are the things that mattered to me when I was growing up and learning to live and love and write.

1. Lord of the Rings, J.R.R.Tolkien

tolkien, LOTR cover 2This is the cover of the paperback edition I own of the full trilogy in one wrist-breaking volume. This is a book which has been LOVED, my friends. I have read and re-read it until I know it by heart. I can get lost in it. And every time I think I can go back and figure out what it is about this world and the way that Tolkien rendered it that makes it so deeply magical for me I fail at that task miserably because by the second chapter I’m into it again, the story closes over my head, and analysis becomes irrelevant.

In today’s world of fast food and fast fixes, many readers say that they ‘can’t get into’ LOTR because it is too dense or too complex or too slow or too *somethihg*. There can be no greater recommendation than someone calling a book “complex”. I can have shallow any day – I am frequently SWIMMING in it – newspaper headlines reeking of selfishness and greed, bestsellers such as “Fifty Shades of Grey” – I need my dose of complex to survive it all. And LOTR delivers on that. It has always delivered.

This is the thing that taught me that an imaginary world can be more real than reality could ever be. This is the kind of thing that made me WANT to create worlds of my own. Tolkien once spoke of “desiring dragons with a deep desire” – well, his story made me desire to write one of my own, with just as much depth and substance, with a desire fully equal to his own for his dragons. This book taught me to dream with my eyes open.

We will NOT talk about the movies.

2. The Amber Chronicles, Roger Zelazny

AmberIt’s way too long ago now for me to remember details, but at some point I received a box of books which contained, amongst other things, the five books that now form the First Amber Chronicles. The illustration, above, is of the first book in that series. I was a teenager, young, inexperienced, still searching for direction, when I cracked open “Nine Princes in Amber”… and fell in love.

I was astonished by so many things in these books. The fact that they fyve books interlocked and made a seamless whole – which ended, in the final volume, at the very place where the first volume began. It was possible to simply put the fifth book down and start reading again from the beginning (which I did…) and realise immediately that one was now reading a different story, because of all the background knowledge that had been gained from that first innocent “cold” read. The complexity of the story – are we starting to see a pattern here? – blew me away, the realism of characters born of pure undiluted fantasy fascinated me; the whole idea of the Family Tarot Pack and all that it represented made me positively giddy.

Amber satisfied so many different longings that it is almost impossible to be coherent about any of it.

From that moment on Zelazny was a must-read author and I gathered up his books zealously until I owned an entire shelf of them. He wasn’t ALWAYS transcendent, but when he was good he was brilliant and a complete nonpareil and he quickly became one of my personal literary gods.

I was fortunate enough to meet him, only a few months before he died. I brought THAT book, the first Amber book, in that oriignal well-loved paperback edition, for him to sign. He took it into his hands and turned it this way and that, looking genuinely mystified for a moment and then asked me just how long I’d HAD that particular volume because that edition had been out of print for years. (He told me other things, too. Things I greatly treasure. But that’s another story…)

Amber. How I love Amber. Its weird architecture, its dysfunctional family, the possibility that hero might turn into villain and vice versa, that you never really knew what you could expect next, the sense of storied history and legend that underlay it all, the beauty and the occasional ugly betrayal, the glory and the sorrows. All of it. How did this change and inform my own writing? It made me realize there is ALWAYS something going on behind the curtain, and that it is an author’s gift to his or her readers not to reveal EVERYTHING. A little mystery matters.

3. Tigana, Guy Gavriel Kay

TiganaI don’t actually remember if this was the first book by Guy Gavriel Kay that I ever read, although it might have been. I know that I’ve had a couple of favorites since “Tigana” – “A Song for Arbonne”, for instance, or “Lions of Al-rassan” – and I know that I consider him a master of the historical fantasy genre.

But “Tigana” was one the best books I have ever read. Not genre, I go beyond that Anne McCaffrey blurb on the cover. Yes, it was a great fantasy – but its power, for me, lay in its stark and raw TRUTH.

I don’t know how a white middle-aged Canadian male knows what it means to lose your country, your soul, the core of your being… but he does. Oh, he does.

“Tigana” ripped my heart out because it viscerally conveyed something that I could not believe that anyone could understand about me — the fact that I am adrift because my anchor has been destroyed.

The country I was born in no longer exists; it has been dismemembered into several sqaubbling warring statelets, some of whom would sooner cut my head off than admit that I was once a part of the same nation as they were. And just like the fabled Tigana of this story, there will come a time when living memory will fail and nobody will remember any more the land in which I was born, in which I grew up and learned to see the world, to love people and places, to dream big dreams. I find myself remembering a place which simply no longer exists, which is as much of a fantasy as any novel, and it’s *my own past*. And this is the thing that “Tigana” touched so deeply, in so raw a fashion – it made me scream and weep and sob and pray.

Some day I can only hope that I can write something with the power of this book.

4. Dune, Frank Herbert

DuneI wrote about “Dune” already, here – I invite you to go read that in its entirety. But – hey – pattern – why did I fall in love with this book? Can you say “complexity”? “Depth”? A sense of three-dimensional truth that informed the very fabric of it – sure, perhaps none of this was true, none of this could ever be, but dear GOD it felt like it was.

How did it inform my own writing…? Well, aside from the obvious (this was a masterclass in worldbuilding…) here’s what I said in that article I linked to, above:

“The themes of this work are enormous and wide-ranging — from Machiavellian politics to ecological change and its consequence, to mystical religious transformation. Many of these ideas took me years to fully take in — fourteen or fifteen is far too young for some of the ramifications, unless you’re one of Paul Muad’dib’s children — but they have percolated through my own visions, since. When I wrote the desert sequences of The Hidden Queen and Changer of Days, for instance, they may have owed much to what I knew of places such as Morocco, which are firmly in our own “real” world — but the roots of my own world, without the spice or the great worms or the sheer breadth of Herbert’s vision, are sunk deep into the mystic sands of Arrakis.”

Greatness matters. You know it when you see it. And I saw it, the first time I reached for a book called “Dune”.

5. Songmaster, Orscon Scott Card

SongmasterYes, I know. And it’s been a really long time since I’ve actually picked up anything by him at all; the last thing that I did was so preachy and stultifying that I couldn’t get into it at all. And even this particular book has its problems – but let me explain.

I read the first part of this book as a stand-alone story somewhere in the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction or the like, I don’t recall now, and I was shaken by its insight and its power and its beauty.

When the book came out, I bought it immediately – and yes, that first part, the part I had read before and loved, that part was still wonderful. The second part… had its moments, had its ideas and they were perfectly adequately explored…. but… it left me colder. The second half of the book had a whiff of Message to it, something the author wanted to Convey and to have the reader Understand. It jarred. It marred the beauty and the power of that first part, the part I had loved, the part that had moved me.

What did it teach me? That the author’s personal soapboxes really should go into storage when a work of fiction is attempted. Things work just fine if the author is exploring an idea and inviting the reader along on the journey. Things work less well when the author is convinced that he has already been to the place where this idea lives and has the maps and the blueprints to prove it. The author has grasped The Only True Truth and is going to TELL you about it, dammit, and you’d better accept it if you know what’s good for you.

It taught me not to think that I am in any way superior to my readers, or know more, or know better. I let THEM read into the story the things that I think I have put in there. I don’t bludgeon them with those things.

6 and beyond – “Elric of Melnibone” by Michael Moorcock; almost anything at all by Octavia Butler, Ursula Le Guin, Judith Tarr, Ray Bradbury, China Mieville, Tamora Pierce…

SO many books. SO little time. And I am still reading and learning, every day.

What books have shaped you?

Alma Alexander

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