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This entry is astoundingly long. It deserves to be. It's on Hitherby Dragons.

You all know I love webcomics. I love them for many reasons, but one reason is because I can't do them. We've seen the results when I try, and they aren't pretty. And so I can set aside any aspirations for drawing a strip, because I just don't have the chops, and I can revel in the artistic goodness I find without rancor.

However... I can write. I've even been told I'm good at it. Clever. I can write a story and make it readable, if not necessarily salable. All the work and time and effort I haven't put into illustration skills I have put into the written word. It's been the better part of a decade since I last let more than four or five days pass without putting a sequence of words into an order no one's tried before (not counting major surgery or other such external forces). I write because I like writing. And I dream of having impact -- not necessarily great popular renown, but emotional impact. I dream of having someone read my work and set it aside and shiver, eyes closed, unable to go on for a few moments.

I've seen it done. Dan Simmons did it in Hyperion, in a substory called "The Scholar's Tale." Sean Stewart does it. Neil Gaiman does it, though he did it better in comics than in fiction. But I don't aspire to be Simmons or Stewart or Gaiman. My dreams are humbler. I just want to have done it.

Which makes reading the glorious Hitherby Dragons actively painful for me. Because what I yearn to do with all my heart Rebecca Borgstrom does as naturally as she breathes. I have to keep reading, because I can't imagine my life without Hitherby Dragons in it, but each day I am reminded that she can do what I cannot, and that way lies madness.

I've met Rebecca Borgstrom. Met her before the days of Hitherby Dragons. I once bought her sushi and got my copy of Nobilis -- the Role Playing Game Borgstrom wrote, and perhaps the single finest development in the evolution of Role Playing Games in the last ten years -- signed by her. It was only the second copy she'd ever autographed. I knew then that she was supremely talented. I had no idea she would create a new art form within a few short years, or that it would inspire almost Grecian Tragedy levels of envy in me.

Hitherby Dragons defies simple definition. And yet, I once tried, in my Livejournal back in the dark days before Websnark. In that entry, I proposed we make 'hitherby' a noun and verb alike, to encapsulate the new art form that Borgstrom is creating with every passing day on her site. To quote myself:

Hitherby Dragons is simply, elegantly beautiful.

However, it's also indescribable.

Seriously. It embraces Magic Realism, but also a sense of whimsy. It's got elements of the old Fairy Tales and the new descendants of them all at once. It's got pop culture, but with brushstrokes of texture and depth.

They are themselves, and they can make you laugh, and break your heart, and make you laugh while breaking your heart. If you're not reading them now, you should.

Well, I was chatting with my friend Lon through the magic of the internet earlier today, and he made a comment about working in the comic and game mines. And I said "now I'm thinking about Comic Mines. There's a Hitherby there, I'm just sure."

And he knew exactly what I meant.

That's a compliment unlike any other, really. If you work in a style and genre of fiction so innovative, so engaging, and so captivating that a simple reference to your site name can evoke that style and genre, you become a noun. You have meaning beyond even your own work.

If I'm going to use the word 'hitherby' in casual conversation, I need to have a coherent definition, though. When grok left Stranger in a Strange Land and entered Webster's Third International Dictionary, the entry couldn't well define the word the way Heinlein did -- Heinlein's definition was ineffable. It meant love, and cherish, and drink, and hate, and any number of other things. You just knew what it meant. But dictionaries don't work that way, and if I tell you I grok Hitherby Dragons (I'm not at all sure I do, by the way) you're going to run to the Oxford English Dictionary and look it up. And you'll see that it says grok means:

a. trans. (also with obj. clause) To understand intuitively or by empathy; to establish rapport with.

b. intr. To empathize or communicate sympathetically (with); also, to experience enjoyment.
which isn't very much what Heinlein meant, but it is what I mean when I use the word now. And it's not wrong when applied to Stranger in a Strange Land, so if it's inadequate we yield to the limitations of lexicography and accept it. And thus the English language grows.

So, defining hitherby in a way that makes sense, that isn't wrong when applied to Hitherby Dragons but also acknowledges it misses the forest for the trees, I come up with:

hitherby: /Hith"er-bE/ a. (noun) A vignette or short story that employs the fantastic or whimsical in structure, form and idiom while maintaining a strong internal consistency and sense of realism

b. (noun) A story (often fantasy or horror) that maintains its sense of the real despite absurdist events.

c. (verb) To write a hitherby; to write in fantastic or whimsical tropes while cleaving to realistic style.
It's inadequate, but it's what I can do. Suggestions cheerfully solicited.

It is a fine thing to become a word, I think.

Which makes this whole entry pretty long, but what the Hell. I'm baring my soul here.

I go on and on and on in Websnark.com on how more and more webcomics are embracing what makes their art form unique -- presenting an art form that couldn't exist in newspapers or books -- not the same way. Perhaps not in any way. Well, Hitherby Dragons is a textual art form born out of Movable Type that couldn't exist in the same way it does in a book. It is inexorably born out of the blog-form, and whether we use 'hitherby' to describe the individual stories or not, Hitherby Dragons transcends that definition to create the whole. Often funny, often tragic, blending folklore and physics, puns and pathos, Greek Tragedy and Passion Plays and Commedia Del Arte all rolled into one... it is like reading a painting, with each brushstroke adding more texture and color to the whole, and when you begin to glimpse the canvas over time you begin to understand how terribly wonderful the vision will be in the end.

It drives me mad, because I can't do it. I can't do it and I want to.

Take "At the Cherry Tree", a hitherby from last week. It takes a bit of folklore, a bit of Americana. Something we all own, culturally -- the "cannot tell a lie" story of George Washington. And it makes it....

...it makes it horrific, and beautiful, all at once. You understand the price of lying, the price of murder, the price of emptiness. You understand....

There are cherry trees behind his house. He goes to them, still with liquor on his breath, and there he sees the dryad. She is curled and straight: her body upright, but her hair wound round her in gentle curls and knots. It forms bark, and leaves, and flowers. It gives her more branches than her outthrust arms. Her teeth are wooden.

"George," she says. It is a minimal acknowledgment. She does not give much time to George.

"Dance for me," he says. It is rude, but he is a child, and he is drunk.

"There is sun," says the dryad. "There is soil. Leave me in peace, child. I am content."

"Dance," insists George.

"You are nothing," she says.

"I'm more than you."

So George goes to the shed, and he finds an axe, and he takes it out.

You see, don't you? Read the entries if you don't. Read them all, but measure them out. You'd get drunk on too many at once. Measure your consumption or pay for it in the morning.

I can't do this, and I want to. I want to so badly, and I work on my craft, and my imagination, and seeing the world in that way. I work on phrasing and impact and pacing and vocabulary. And then I write a story and send it away, because that's what you do with stories, and then it comes back with a form letter and I send it somewhere else, and then I go back to "Hitherby Dragons" and she's done it again!

I understand the legend of Salieri, staring askance at Mozart, whether those stories are true or not. I understand the yearning desire to be the defining artist of a generation, and being forced to watch someone else become that because they're just so damn good. So I'll smile, and tell you all to read Hitherby Dragons. But if, ten years from now, Rebecca Borgstrom lies stricken with consumption, eyes closed and dictating words of transcendent beauty to me that I then type into my word processor, an evil smile on my face....

Well, I warned you. Didn't I?

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Comments

It's often said that greatness comes at a price. Maybe not a price that seems connected to what it buys you, but it's there. Knowing some small part of the price Rebecca has paid, I am content to be merely good.

I write for myself and a small number of friends, acquaintances and people who just happened to find my work and like it. If I've touched upon the sublime once or twice, well, you know what they say about stopped clocks and blind pigs.

I'm good. My work is of professional-level quality, even if I don't go out and try to sell it very often. But it's enough for me to be good, a talented hobbyist in the art of writing. Writing is not my life, it's not something I will do at the expense of all else.

You see, I'm not interested in paying that price either.

And you've got to pay to play.

At the same time...

...well, the broader tragedy of Achilles's choice was that he got to make it. Most of us don't have the option to choose.

As for Rebecca herself... well, whatever price she may have paid, I hope she realizes the highest compliment I can pay her and her work is to stare and say "Great Hopping Vampires, I wish I'd written that."

I read Hyperion three or four years back. It was recommended to me by a friend whose recommendations I trust. I will listen to anyones recommendations, but there are only a few people's opinion that I implicitly trust. The recommendation did come with a warning "You might not want to read any more than the first book", he said. After reading it I spent some time considering what I had read and the words of my friend and came to the conclusion that I did not want to read the books following it. I just could not imagine them adding anyting to the first book, and I was afraid that they might diminish it.

I occasionally recommend Hyperion to people I think would enjoy it, but I always add a warning.

Sean Stewart? I love Gaiman and Simmons (in fact, the complete Sandman and Hyperion are not three feet from me), but I've never heard of Sean Stewart. If you rate him with Gaiman and Simmons, I have to read some of his books. What would you recommend?

Galveston is considered his best, though I admit partiality to Resurrection Man. The Night Watch is also good soup, and Nobody's Son won awards, if you like a more traditional fantasy. Which, I should add, I do.

It's also worth noting that "Nobody's Son" is a Young Adult book...not that that diminishes it in any way.

The truly amazing thing about Stewart is how much very different each book he writes is from the last. His first book, "Passion Play" was a post-cyberpunk detective story that was marketed as pulp sci-fi. He followed that up with three magic-realist novels: Resurrection Man, Galveston, and Mockingbird. RM is a surreal coming-of-age story dealing with themes of family and mortality. Galveston is a large-scale postapocalyptic exploration of class dynamics. And Mockingbird is a quiet and intimate exploration of mother/daughter relationships, with just a touch of voodoo. And, of course Nobody's Son is pure fairy tale. Every one of them has something wonderful to offer, though I usually suggest starting with either RM or Galveston.

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