October 18th, 2012

no tea

Sucked Through a Portal

Will I make it through a day without anything breaking or needing repair? I'm starting to wonder. After I got the car battery replaced yesterday, in the afternoon my water was cut off. When I got desperate for tea, I called the HOA manager to see what was up and if she had a timetable for the water being back on (and if it was just me). She didn't know anything about it, which had me worried. But it turned out they were doing some sprinkler system repairs and had cut off the water and neglected to notify anyone that they were doing so, I guess assuming that everyone was at work. Well, I was at work, but I was at work at home, and I needed tea. I was just about to start melting ice cubes in the microwave to get water for making tea when the water came back on. Still, with all the little things that have gone wrong around me lately, I'm starting to wonder if I have some kind of Trouble that makes devices in my presence fail. It's one of the more minor, inconvenient Troubles, as it doesn't seem to kill anyone. It's just going to end up isolating me as I sit around at home, waiting for repairmen to show up, and people will stop letting me in their homes when the handle comes off the kitchen faucet and the refrigerator goes on the blink after I've been there for a while. My only social interactions will be with repairmen, who do become rather fond of me. I'm already on a first-name basis with the greeter at Home Depot.

I didn't get much work done, and I can't really blame the tea craving when I had no water. I think it was another case of my unconscious getting my conscious mind out of the way so it could work. I found that the parts I thought I'd need to rewrite are actually exactly what they need to be. I was surprised that the parts where I thought I got back on track were actually the parts that need to be scrapped and done over, but I didn't know quite what to do. I figured it out right before I had to go face the kindergarteners. Now we'll see how much I get done today. Mom says the first half is probably the best book I've written so far. Now I need to make the last half that good.

In other news, when I was asking for book recommendations a few weeks ago, one of the things I was looking for was "portal" novels about someone from our world ending up in a fantasy world. I got some recommendations, but they were mostly from the 80s and 90s. And it turns out that there aren't a lot of these being published today, for some pretty odd reasons. I found a couple of blog posts on the issue. This one gives some of the editors'/agents' reasons why they aren't looking for these kinds of books. And this post also gets into some of the reasons.

Some of the reasons they don't want these books are kind of silly. For instance, they think that since the hero is in a fantasy world, what happens there doesn't matter. But then what about books taking place entirely in a fantasy world? Aren't we supposed to imagine that the fantasy world is a real world, and the distinction between "real" and "fantasy" is a matter of perspective? We only think of the "real" world as "real" because it's our world. All novels take place in fantasy worlds, to some extent, because the events of those books aren't actually happening. There's also the argument that these books all follow the same pattern -- hero goes to fantasy world, turns out to be just the hero needed to save the fantasy world, then comes home a changed person. Except I can think of several exceptions.

But what it seems to boil down to is an argument that sounds like Yogi Berra went to work in publishing: They don't want this kind of book because it's just too popular. Apparently, most fantasy submissions are some kind of portal novel, which indicates that it's a very popular genre. People generally write what they want to read. But most of them are really awful self-insertion Mary Sue stories. That makes editors recoil from the very idea of portal fantasy, since they've seen so many awful ones. When agents discover that editors aren't buying it, they stop considering those submissions. That probably creates a downward spiral. If the agents aren't looking at it because editors aren't buying it, then the only ones editors see are those that haven't gone through agents, so they're even worse, so they're even more opposed to the very idea. But that then means none are getting published, which means there's even more of a hunger for this kind of book among fans, and so when people with any inkling of desire to write can't find what they want to read, they write it, and that means there are that many more submissions of that kind of book, most of which are bad (because, in general, most submissions of anything are bad), so editors are even more violently opposed to anything even resembling a portal.

I can see where they'd get overwhelmed by those kinds of stories. I think it's a safe guess that the first effort of at least half of all would-be fantasy writers is a portal story. If you're a fantasy fan, then the longing to have adventures in Middle Earth or Narnia is going to hit, and a portal story is like writing real-person fanfic about yourself entering that other world. I didn't actually write this sort of thing when I was just starting to write, but I certainly had a lot of daydreams of that kind of story. When I was first getting into the Narnia books, we lived in Germany on the edge of the Odenwald (as in it was on the other side of the fence from our yard), which is the perfect fantasy land setting. I couldn't take a walk without imagining that if I stepped just the right way between two particular trees, I'd find myself in Narnia. Then while I was still working my way through the series we moved to a different place, where there was a ruined castle on the hill behind our neighborhood. We walked up to that castle almost every weekend, and I kept imagining that if we found the right path, when we got there, the castle wouldn't be ruined but would be the way it was at the height of its glory, full of knights and ladies.

Not to mention that the portal story is the ultimate literal expression of the hero entering the "special world" of the story in a hero's journey sense, and that story is pretty much hard-wired into the human psyche. We can't help but tell ourselves these stories. All that adds up to probably tons of immature Mary Sue portal adventures that choke out the good ones. One of those essays I linked to also suggests the attitude that this sort of story is childish -- about the only ones being published these days are children's books. But do we ever really outgrow the desire to escape? When all my modern stuff is breaking down on me, the idea of escaping to another world is really appealing.

This may be one of those areas where self publishing can help fulfill the need -- if there's a hunger for something that publishers won't touch, readers will find it that way. But then readers will be put in the position of editors, seeing so many awful ones that they recoil from the idea and may not discover the good ones.

I've written a YA portal story that didn't sell (surprise) but that I also think needs extensive work before I could even self publish it. Now I suspect my brain is going to get to work on a good adult portal story, just to be contrary. I do have a slight advantage in the self-publishing game in that I have an established reputation, and readers will know they're less likely to get a bad Mary Sue from me.