WFC Post #4: Fangirling and Leaving Things Out

Winding up the WFC posts on a personal note:

Ellen Kushner’s Swordspoint is high on my list of favorite books. Fall of the Kings (co-written with Delia Sherman and set in the same universe 60 years later) I actually admire even more, though I found it less enjoyable a read (those being different things). Ellen’s Thomas the Rhymer blew me away, too.* I want to write things like this. If I have a regret about Clarion, it’s that I didn’t get my act together two years earlier, when Ellen was teaching.

So when I found out she and I were both going to be at WFC, a portion of my brain started squealing and jumping up and down.

Of course I went to her reading. She read from a new story set in the Swordspoint universe. I was in heaven. I went up to her afterwards and introduced myself–we had exchanged e-mails on a Clarion-related thing and it turns out we have a mutual friend who’s not a member of the Clarion community, so that helped as a jumping-off point–and she was very friendly. I told her how much I loved Swordspoint and asked her to sign my copy and somewhere in the middle of a lot of stammering, admitted that I was trying to be all cool and not fangirl at her. She laughed and encouraged me to fangirl all I wanted, since that doesn’t happen anywhere near enough to her, or words to that effect. 🙂 We had a very pleasant conversation.

Later, I went to one of Delia’s panels–“What Is Left To The Imagination,” described as “fantasy fiction is the art of leaving things out.”** And Delia was just a delight to listen to. One of her comments made it into my notebook of amusing quotations–in reference to lazy worldbuilding in fantasy fiction–that there’s a type of costume-drama secondary-world fantasy where the world that surrounds the characters is clearly “what the author was accustomed to having surround him or herself. Only with much better clothes. And much more stew.”

I spent some time chatting with Delia at a steampunk party while drinking something called a “love potion” and something else called “the fountain of youth”. She was similarly warm and welcoming and friendly–we discussed Clarion and how much I liked Fall of the Kings and what it’s like to live in a two-writer household–and I walked away with this dizzy glee at belonging, kinda-sorta, to this community that includes these awesome people. (Perhaps I should finish the goddamned novel so I can strike “kinda-sorta” off that? Yes, I think so too.)

And finally, I went to the dealer room and bought the chapbook of the story Ellen had read from. “The Man With The Knives” is a story about Alec and Sophia (and Richard a little, very briefly) set between The Privilege of the Sword and The Fall of the Kings. It’s gorgeous, of course. Did we expect anything less? Only four hundred and eleven copies of the chapbook were printed. I own one of them. Signed by Ellen Kushner, thank you very much. Squee. You can’t borrow it, but I’ll let you read it while sitting in my house, if you like. Or you can read it in The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year, Volume 5, which will be out in March. Or right now, for free, at


*To forestall the question, I have read Privilege of the Sword, but it’s my least favorite of the four. I was delighted to romp through the city again and I always enjoy Ellen’s language and some of the scenes were spot-on amazing (I particularly enjoyed the play), but I felt that the plot overall lacked the masterful cohesion of Swordspoint and Fall. I appear to be in the minority with this opinion. I find this interesting. But it’s a different conversation.

** I should mention tangentially that I really enjoyed and felt validated by the point of view espoused by the panelists in general–that it is okay, in fact even preferable, to not explain every damn thing. My crit group usually criticizes me for lack of tangible details, and they’re not wrong, and I’m working on it, but I have a streak of minimalism or something in my make-up that makes me faintly allergic to cumbersome descriptions/explanations. I attribute this in part to spending so many of my formative years reading classic fiction–not period fiction, in which authors are generally careful to explain what you need to know, but actual fiction from an earlier era, in which they don’t explain the world in the same way a modern writer doesn’t think to explain how a highway works or what a cell phone is, because they assume you know. Arthur Conan Doyle, similarly, nowhere defines a hansom cab as a light two-wheeled horse-drawn vehicle available for hire on the part of those who cannot afford their own carriages, more expensive and considered more elegant than a four-wheeled cab–but, you know, you can get it from context if you’re paying attention, and if you’re stumped you can look it up. Jane Austen does not define “five thousand a year,” the difference between “taking” Netherfield and owning Pemberly, the court of St. James, the significance of Gretna Green, etc. etc. etc., but again, if you can’t figure it out from context, you can look it up. I prefer not have lines like “When the light two-wheeled vehicle drew up to the curb, I patted the horse and got in. It was pleasant to me to be able to afford the elegance of a hansom cab” inserted between “We called for a hansom” and “It took us to the scene of the crime.” I would rather have secondary world fantasy presented in such a way that I can figure stuff out from context. As far as I’m concerned, period fiction can take even less care with its arranging of context because I can look it up.

But that’s me. There’s a wide variety of tastes. I remember a debate with a friend regarding a bit of worldbuilding in Guy Gavriel Kay’s Tigana–the red glove that is worn by prostitutes and also by high-born maidens on their wedding nights. Kay does not tell us that this is what red gloves are for; he only has a scene in which a woman trying to pose as a prostitute spends some time attempting to acquire a red glove, and then a different scene where a girl eagerly anticipating her marriage is making her red glove for her wedding night, and her father is so uncomfortable watching her do it that he has to leave the room. I got everything I needed to get from those two lines. My friend, on the other hand, was sharply critical of Kay for his lack of explicit explanation, considering that to be a weakness of worldbuilding.

I think I might actually be in the minority here as well–certainly I’d begun to think so after a critical mass of comments regarding the detail and explanation I don’t naturally put into my own prose–so it was a considerable relief to hear a “Left To The Imagination” panelist describing a frustration almost identical to my own. In a piece set in the Regency period, she used the word “barouche” without defining it, in a sentence along the lines of, “Lady so-and-so’s barouche arrived, the lady climbed into it, and the barouche drove away.” She was annoyed by comments to the effect of, “I don’t know what this word means! You need to describe it!” Her response: “What do you think it means, from the sentence?” “I think it’s a carriage.” “Yes! You’re right! It’s a carriage! Let’s move on!”

Comments (7)

Liz ArgallDecember 1st, 2010 at 1:13 pm

Nice comments on the world of imagination. I love juicy nouns. Often when I say I want more exposition, what I actually want are more specific nouns and a context to put them in.

Barouche is a perfect example. Hansom cab clattering up a street that smells of elderberries and consumptive prostitutes tells me so much more than telling me a Hansom has four wheels and two really big ponies.

HeatherDecember 1st, 2010 at 3:51 pm

“I love juicy nouns. Often when I say I want more exposition, what I actually want are more specific nouns and a context to put them in.”

Ooh, well said.

“Hansom cab clattering up a street that smells of elderberries and consumptive prostitutes tells me so much more than telling me a Hansom has four wheels and two really big ponies.”

Yes, exactly.

AdamDecember 1st, 2010 at 6:48 pm

Re: footnote 2: One of the things I’ve been thinking about recently is the role of “trompe l’oeil” in writing, whether in stories or in interactive fiction. Part of the idea is that writing can create the impression of a fully realized world without depicting the whole world in all of its details. One of the techniques for that, I think, is to use terminology without explaining it. If you explain what all the details mean, you have to actually realize the whole world completely in order to make it satisfying and convincing–otherwise, the inclusion of specific details in a world devoid of other details demonstrates the shallowness of the worldbuilding. If, in contrary, you use details in a satisfying, realistic way, without explaining them, they help create the feeling of depth and consistency.

There’s then the further distinction between the relatively deeply realized world whose depth is depicted through trompe l’oeil and the world where all the worldbuilding is in the illusion. Done well, you get the feeling of depth through unexplained but neat feeling details, but when the explanation is needed or when things are approached from a different angle, they’re explained consistently and we see that they’re part of a realized world. When it’s done poorly, (e.g. by George Lucas or J.K. Rowling, especially in their later works), it becomes increasingly obvious that there’s nothing really there–there’s only the illusion of a well-thought through world, but the more you look at it, the less it makes sense.

JohnDecember 2nd, 2010 at 12:04 am

Growing up, I always liked the “lack of explanation” technique – it struck me as something that happened in books meant for adults, or old-school books for children, and not the tedious modern children’s books that were a blatant learning exercise. This feeling was exquisitely confirmed in college, when I read “The Phoenix Guards” and “Agyar” by Steven Brust, in jacketless hardcovers with no prior knowledge of the author or anything inside the books other than their titles. 🙂 Or maybe the lesson was to listen to Julian’s book recommendations. 🙂

JulianDecember 2nd, 2010 at 8:28 am

That’s a good lesson, I think 😉

HeatherDecember 2nd, 2010 at 12:38 pm

Listening to Julian’s book recommendations led me straight to Swordspoint, so I encourage the technique. 🙂

Shauna RobertsDecember 7th, 2010 at 3:02 pm

The Privilege of the Sword is my second favorite of the four. I found “The Man with the Knives” unbearably sad, and The Fall of the Kings disappointed me by introducing magic into what for me was a well-defined world without it.

Still, I wish I had gotten a signed copy of the story. I’m not going to pay all that money for the chapbook if I don’t have her signature in it.

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