Alma's Weblog... the writing life and more
I just read a comprehensive essay on the subject, which is well worth reading - go here to do likewise - and although I don't agree with EVERYTHING this guy says he makes some wonderful points, and he is also well-read enough to quote from quite a number of other people with names that are quite luminous in the genre who had things to say on the same subject. I'm not going to do that - the quotage, I mean - but the piece did stir up the subject in my own mind and I'm going to throw out a few ideas here.
Fantasy is a lens which sharpens and clarifies the sliver of reality viewed through it, or at least that's what the very best fantasy is. Magic is one of the tools used to accomplish this, and it's a powerful one. I'll even go so far to say that it's a threatening one, because there is, and always has been, that propensity to react against something that affects you deeply.
Sufficiently advanced magic takes on a reality all of its own and begins to be something believed in on its own terms, with something approaching religious faith. This is possibly the reason why the more fundamental Christian ilk feels so violently threatened by such things as the magic in Harry Potter, because they confuse a powerful system of magic being used to shape a fictional story and certain aspects of the reality in which it is based with a potential rival to their own creed and dogma and set of beliefs and a false dichotomy of "people who like and believe THIS cannot possibly believe OUR
magic faith and so they must be like be our enemies". And enemies are there to be attacked. And thus magic gets a reputation because it's batting against an already established system which is entrenched, and very much opposed to the things that the new fantasy might be bringing in with it.
If anything that is beyond our comprehension or ability to explain away by empirical means may be tagged with the word “magic”, then the Christian mythos starts to drip with the thing – what are miracles if not magic? Changing water into wine? Walking on water? Resurrection, for that matter…? But over the course of two thousand years the magic has hardened into a cracked outer shell of dogma. It is no longer the original magic but the recasting of that magic into something useful and controllable by a series of human interpreters who sought to use the instances of true magic into something that supported their own thesis, or theory, or grip on power.
I believe there is real magic in belief. I truly believe that sometimes wishing for something hard enough actually does make it come true because the sheer power of the act of visualisation often means that you are, however unwittingly, also working in real-terms for the manifestation of that thing in your life. I remember reading Richar Bach’s “Illusions: the adventures of a reluctant Messiah” (I couldn’t remember the exact title so I just looked it up and this jumped out at me from one of the book’s Amazon reviews: “I'm a Christian, but believe that when you move beyond a literal interpretation of Christ's words and see the symbolic message in them, it's not too different from what's in this book. But that's a big leap for most Christians and this book will probably make their blood boil).” – this encapsulates precisely the conundrum I was talking about up there in the third paragraph…) Specifically, I am thinking about the blue feather incident, where the reluctant Messiah of the title instructs our POV character, his equally reluctant disciple, on the principles of visualisation. Visualise something, the Messiah says, and it will manifest in your life. All right, says the disiple, a blue feather. The Messiah raises an eyebrow but goes, okay, blue feather. CONCENTRATE on it.
Next thing, they’re passing a dairy delivery truck and our disciple’s eyes go wide. Hey, LOOK, he says, and sure enough, on the side of the truck it says BLUE FEATHER DAIRIES.
This is where it gets interesting.
The star that got taken off? Well, here's what she says in the review:
The writing style on the book was perhaps the only part I did not find excellent. Alexander has quite a turn for poetic language, but sometimes her paragraph-long sentences did not quite match the intended audience for the book. These sentences are not in the dialogue, which was fine; they were in the narration. Again, individual parts of these sentences were lovely, and they were all grammatically correct, but the length was sometimes oppressive. I can’t imagine that fourteen-year-olds would find these more appealing than I do. For example:
Grimoires were temperamental books, sometimes with a life of their own, unpredictable and often dangerous; they were usually kept well apart from the main part of any library, but even so accidents happened every so often and the consequences could be dire.
Again, the story was lovely, and a nice introduction to Thea’s world. I’m very interested to read the next book in the trilogy (which I have on a shelf, quite nearby), and I’m sure I won’t be able to wait for book 3. This book comes recommended to readers who like interesting settings and vibrant characters, but who wouldn’t mind waiting a few months for book 3, and for whom short, choppy sentences aren’t a necessity.
To which my response is, well, yes, but it isn't a bug, it's a *feature*.
Perhaps I am underestimating my readership, at that. Perhaps there are folks out there for whom short and choppy sentences ARE a necessity. But that's just the thing - I've never been able to write them. Short choppy sentences exercise no fascination for me - I get no charge from creating them and therefore I cannot see any reader getting a charge out of reading them, and if I TRIED to write like that I would come off sounding like the very worst of what I've always tried to avoid both reading and writing - someone who is *writing down to her readership*.
When my first ever solo effort got published, a slim little volume of three Oscar Wilde-like fairy tales called "The Dolphin's Daughter and other stories" (you could try AmazonUK, or occasionally you get lucky at Amazon US, but at any rate you can see the cover art if you scroll down to the bottom of this page) what they did was put together these three stories that I had written *for an adult readership*, written in as lush and complex and uncompromising a manner as I knew how, and they had put them together in this little book which was aimed at a 15-year-old demographic. When the proofs of that book came to me to check, I remember holding them out to my father in a hand that literally shook, and saying "You look, I daren't, they must have eviscerated the language." Because I figured they had to have done, in order to make it palatable to a young readership.
You know what? They hadn't. Those proofs remain one of the most lightly edited sets of proofs I've ever seen. Longman trusted the audience; that the trust wasn't entirely misplaced is that - although it currently seems to be on the outs with both Amazons - the book, published in 1995, STILL brings me a trickle of royalties every so often. Still being read. No, it wasn't Potterological, it didn't sell ten million copies, but it sold a respectable number of copies for a thin little book that was never published commercially but only under the auspices of a strictly defined reading project by an educational publisher.
So I throw it out to you. What do you think? Should children's books in general, YA books in particular, be written in short choppy sentences - or is it all right to be lush and complex? What do you think about this issue? How important is language? Should we be making readers stretch beyond what they thought might be the limits of their linguistic capabilities, or should we be writing to the LOWEST common denominator and using language that will make a work of fiction accessible to the less well linguistically endowed? Is it the level of language used or the themes within a story that differentiate a children's book from a YA book?
I was very aware of my audience, of the changed demographic at which the Worldweavers books were aimed, when I wrote these books. And yet... I was writing them for the reader who was once myself, a reader who always wanted more, bigger, brighter, wider, mroe complex, more dramatic. In my own family I was always treated as though I had a mind of my own, and the rule was that if I picked up a book that was in my house and I could understand it and it interested me there were no borders or bans enforced on what my reading material "should" have been. In point of fact I pretty much skipped the whole YA demographic altoghether - which isn't REALLY unexpected, seeing as how recent a marketing bracket that particular genre actually is - and I simply read what were considered to be adult books by the time I was in my early teens. The classics - Austen, Bronte, Stendhal, Hugo - as well as the more "modern" oeuvre which encompassed several Nobel prize winners (Henryk Sienkiewicz, Ivo Andric, Pearl Buck, Sigrid Undsett, John Galsworthy). I thought lush and complex was the way language was SUPPOSED to be.
So. Am I - are writers like me - asking too much of our young readership...? Or can we be said to be nursing these fragile hopes that some day those readers... will grow up as blindly, powerlessly, hopelessly tenderly in love with the lushness of language and word, and believe in it with the same kind of deep and all-encompassing faith...?
You will notice from the Spellspam widget on the main page that we are now less than 12 hours from the moment that the book officially hits the bookstores. In honour of the occasion, I've been doing a "virtual blog tour", with interviews and essays and things like this appearing all over the blogosphere, at the blogs adn websites of friends and colleagues. You will find the latest installment, with some links, at my LJ blog - please do go and have a look. I'm particularly proud of my three-part essay the links to which are in that post. See you there!
Even as Worldweavers #1 is about to hit the bookstores in paperback...
Even as Worldweavers #2 is about to hit those same bookshelves in its maiden hardcover edition, and the reviews begin to come in...
Even as Worldweavers #3 sits on the editor's desk in New York, hopefully en route to the copyediting process soon...
...I have cleared the decks, finished my research reading, annotated my newest New Book Bible notebook where all my research notes are lovingly stored in tiny crabby handwriting determined to take up every ounce of available space on the page, and I am about to gird my loins and start a brand new project.
Current word count: zero. With luck that should change, fast.
Wish me luck.
Here lies the gem that is her acceptance speech for the award.
Here's a few tastes of it:
Writers are often asked: "How do you write? With a word processor? an electric typewriter? a quill? longhand?" But the essential question is: "Have you found a space, that empty space, which should surround you when you write? Into that space, which is like a form of listening, of attention, will come the words, the words your characters will speak, ideas - inspiration." If a writer cannot find this space, then poems and stories may be stillborn. When writers talk to each other, what they discuss is always to do with this imaginative space, this other time. "Have you found it? Are you holding it fast?"
My mind is full of splendid memories of Africa that I can revive and look at whenever I want. How about those sunsets, gold and purple and orange, spreading across the sky at evening? How about butterflies and moths and bees on the aromatic bushes of the Kalahari? Or, sitting on the pale grassy banks of the Zambesi, the water dark and glossy, with all the birds of Africa darting about? Yes, elephants, giraffes, lions and the rest, there were plenty of those, but how about the sky at night, still unpolluted, black and wonderful, full of restless stars?
There are other memories too. A young African man, 18 perhaps, in tears, standing in what he hopes will be his "library". A visiting American, seeing that his library had no books, had sent a crate of them. The young man had taken each one out, reverently, and wrapped them in plastic. "But," we say, "these books were sent to be read, surely?" "No," he replies, "they will get dirty, and where will I get any more?"
The storyteller is deep inside everyone of us. The story-maker is always with us. Let us suppose our world is attacked by war, by the horrors that we all of us easily imagine. Let us suppose floods wash through our cities, the seas rise . . . but the storyteller will be there, for it is our imaginations which shape us, keep us, create us - for good and for ill. It is our stories that will recreate us, when we are torn, hurt, even destroyed. It is the storyteller, the dream-maker, the myth-maker, that is our phoenix, that represents us at our best, and at our most creative.
I salute this storyteller.
Go read the rest of the speech.
I've done a double-barelled blog, starting at my main LiveJournal blog (here) and then crossing over and concluding on the SFNovelists site, here, where I blog on the fifth of every month. Please do go read both, and enjoy!
Well, it's September, and all kinds of things are in the air....
"Gift of the Unmage", Worldweavers #1, has been critically very well
received, with a starred review in the prestigious VOYA journal, no
less. I've had mail from readers, too, both the younger kind and the
adults, and I seem to have hit a couple of issues that people are
responding to - one in particular being Thea's craving for parental
approval and not getting it in the manner which she wants or for the
Thea grows and develops fast - her world is changing, and she is in no
small way part of what is changing it. She has some difficult choices
to make in Worldweavers #2, "Spellspam" - if you haven't been my blog
or my website lately, you may not have seen the cover for the new
book, and you can go have quick look at it href="http://www.almaalexander.com/covers/worldweavers2_us_lg.jpg">here
- I think it's fabulous. "Spellspam", by the way is available for
Amazon.com, right now - so if you have young 'uns (or older 'uns
for that matter) for whom you are wanting presents, here's a deal for
you - pre-order the book, email me that you've done that and give me a
snailmail address, and I will send you a signed bookplate SPECIALLY
made for the Worldweavers books which you can then put into people's
stockings this Christmas and tell them that they will be able to stick
the bookplate into the book in the Spring. The lines are, as they say,
I might also add that I"ve finished and handed in the third book in
the trilogy, and am awaiting the editorial letter on that imminently -
the book should be in production before Christmas... keep your eyes on
bookstore shelves for that one in the spring of 2009.
2. JIN SHEI NEWS
Please welcome my twelfth language for the Blessed Book - I have just
received word that it will be out in Russian sometime next year. I am
particularly pleased at this, because, of course, it's going to be in
the Cyrillic font - and that's the closest I've come to seeing my work
in my OWN home language. Let us recap - this means that the book is
now out in English (of course), Italian, Spanish, Catalan, Portuguese,
German, Dutch, Turkish, Czech, Lithuanian, Hebrew, andnow Russian. I
am feeling very international, and very happy, and very loved right
3. CHANGER OF DAYS NEWS
And yet another language to report - the "Changer of Days" duology has
been sold to Spain, due out in 2009. That makes it three languages for
my little fantasy books. Again, one happy writer here...
Just returned from my trip to Japan, where I was treated to the full
experience including my first crack at international business class
travel, and being right in the path of a tropical typhoon. I've never
QUITE seen vertical water before, but that one downpour that we got
caught in while wandering down the side of the Imperial Palace in
Tokyo was... sobering. We didn't GET the full brunt of the typhoon,
which veered off into the west and missed a direct hiton TOkyo, but
what we saw was interesting. We never did trip across Godzilla, but I
think I should get a T shirt that says "i survived a Tokyo Typhoon".
Pictures, of course. Lots of pictures. I'm making calendars for
For those whose acquaintance with one of those objects has been confined, so far, to holding the finished product hefted off a bookstore's shelf packed with other examples and flipping through the perfect pages and thinking, hell, I can do this, how hard can it be... that's great. Now take off those rose-tinted spectacles, and put on these other ones. Yes, these, the ones I'm holding out. They aren't so pretty, and the lenses look weird but that's because they see through appearances and show you what's really there.
1. You write a book. Do remember that at this stage it's no more than a sheaf of loose paper, neat in your computer, the printouts of the last four versions of the beast overflowing in untidy piles on your desk and your floor. You finally come up with what is known as a "first" draft, which is no more than the first draft you consider to be passable in the sense that it is telling the story you want to tell in something resembling the way you want to tell it.
2. You revise the first draft, and you find that you have a character who was supposed to have left the building three chapters ago having what is really a VERY important conversation with someone in the final scene of the book. You rewrite to fix. You discover that in the rewrite you forgot to take out six separate references to the character's leaving which are still littering the manuscript. You rewrite to fix. You discover that in the rewrite... you rewrite to fix... rinse and repeat. You are finally, wrung out and exhausted, in possession of what is now the "final" draft. You package it up and you send it out to your editor.
3. Final draft. HAH.
4. Your editor sends you an editorial letter. It starts out with, "This is a LOVELY novel! I thoroughly enjoyed reading it, and I think it's shaping up very nciely." (shaping up? shaping UP????) "But..." (you heard that but coming didn't you) "here's a few suggestions to improve it." What follows is six single-spaced pages. Of editorial suggestions. And you read them through and you do triage - THIS third I disagree with and I will not change, THIS third I'll look at with an eye to tweaks here on there, and THIS third - oh, but this is what breaks the heart - THIS third consists of things that are now jumping up out of the MS and hitting me upside the head and screaming, "Why am I still in here? WHy didn't YOU see this problem?"
5. You go through the MS and you fix. You send the MS back to editor. If you and it are lucky, the editor accepts this version, and the book is sent into copy editing.
6. The copy edited manuscript arrives back on your doorstep, like a bad penny. Now, if you're a career writer or want to be, you're hip deep in the big muddy with your NEXT book at this stage - which you now have to drop mid-stream and haul you mind back to this old MS and get your head around it. And a copy edit MS is, if you haven't seen one before, frightening. It's gone through three pairs of hands - the Chief Honcho editor, who leaves her comments in blue pencil; the in-house copy editor, who leaves hers in red pen; the freelance copyeditor, who leaves hers in green - and it's bristling with post-its on every edge like there's a post-it monster in there howling to get out. So you gird your loins and you take a pen that's a different colour from everyone else and you get your own set of post-its and you sit down with this thing. You go through it, often snarling as you notice that one of the copy editors (we'll call them Thing 1 and Thing 2) have completely missed your point somewhere, or have tried to recast a sentence and have managed to do so in a manner that completely reverses its meaning for you, or, if you've grown up with proper British punctuation, have changed everything to weird American ways that makes your hackles stand up because it just looks so wrong to YOUR eyes. And trust me, those six references that you thought you had expunged, concerning that character who left before having that conversation in the final scene? You may THINK you've expunged them, and you probably have, but Thing 1 or Thing 2 or both will find three other instances which were hiding behind walls of gerunds or prepositions and yelling, "that one! take that one! he's more egregious!" The copy edit is a drama fest, and by the time you're done you are a wrung-out dishcloth and you are looking at your precious novel and it looks like a bag of incomprehensible drivel (it must be, else why so many post its?) and you wonder who in the right mind would ever want to read this thing let alone shell out good money to BUY it. But anyway, you send the copyedited beast back - and it vanishes into the maw of the publishing machine.
7. It pupates, over the space of several months, into another animal called the "page proofs". Technically, you aren't supposed to find anything major wrong in the page proofs - because fixing it now actually costs money. This is supposed to be the cleaned-up and spruced-up result of that pathetic post-itted wounded animal that was your copy edit. But then you find that somehow they've missed a sentence or a paragraph in the proofs, and inserting the missing stuff back will shift the whole chapter (sometimes two, if the timing and the space where they did the oopsie is particularly badly placed). And there are typos you could swear weren't there before. And there are things in there that don't appear in your original, so it must have been something that happened at the copy edit stage, but you must have been too wrung out to notice or care by that point because you would have never agreed to that change if you had been in your right mind. But this is starting to look clean, like a finished book, and you're suddenly *reading it as a story again*, and if you're lucky even liking it a little. You put aside the new project you're still in first-draft stage at, and you go through your proofs with a fine tooth comb, and you hope you found everything, and you send it back again.
8. The galleys are bound, and distributed for advance reviews. You sit at home chewing your fingernails and trying to remember what your other project was all about.
9. In the fullness of time, the book - the actual book - is printed, and distributed to stores where you might encounter one in the wild.
You pick it up off the shelf, and you open it up, and you look at the pages. And you see four different drafts of that particular section of narrative, and you see the page scrawled over with indecipherable notes, and you see copy-edit commentary in blue, red, green, purple and orange ink, and you see post-its sticking out at every angle, and you see the place where they put back the missing sentences and wonder if they put them ALL back so you scour to make sure, and you see the hands that this thing has passed through - yours, the editor's the plethora of copy editors', the printer, the binder, the bookseller - and then you look up and there's a reader and a would-be writer and that person is holding your book in their hands and looking at it and going, "How hard can this be...?"
I would not, probably could not, do anything else but write. But the next time you wonder just how hard it can be... find one of the tribe, and ask to have the birth of a book explained one more time. If, after that, you still want in... welcome. Just be VERY careful what you wish for,..
I was Writer-In-Residence for the summer writing camp organised and run by the fabulous Book For All Seasons independent bookstore in Leavenworth, WA - the glorious pseudo-Bavarian village where accordion players play polkas in the little park in the centre of town or yodellers in lederhosen do their thing from the gazebo bandstand; where every window has a window-box overflowing with petunias and geraniums, and every street light pole and house overhang is festooned with flower baskets of extraordinary size and fecundity; where you can have honest-to-goodness Kassler pork chops and Wiener Schnitzel accompanied by spaetzle and sauerkraut and red cabbage in restaurants whose muzak is Mozart and Strauss. I seriously love that place.
However, back to business, as it were - the bookshop folks were kind enough to put us up for the night (on the Sunday) in one of the rooms of the associated guest house - this time we stayed in the Sherlock Holmes room, complete with a genuine Underwood typewriter on the desk, a pipe stand, and a black umbrella hanging in the hallway - and although we stayed up to watch the Perseids the same thing happened as ALWAYS happens with me - the clouds came in and that was pretty much that. I've yet to see a meteor shower. The clouds have it in for me. But I went for a walk just as the sun set (and it appeared to do so in three separate directions, with a fiery sky here there and everywhere what with apparent reflections and light bouncing off mountains and all that) and I saw what might have been a juvenile bald eagle land on top of a sharp A-frame roof point and perch there while he surveyed...
However, back to business again.
Monday morning, the writing camp was supposed to begin. I was "on" at 9:30 that morning, so while we waited for the mob to be ready we hung out in the Starbucks adjoining the bookstore with coffees (I made the occasional foray into the bookshop, and I saw the troops descending the stairwell from above where they had been having a pre-camp briefing, and that was the time I made the "balcony is full of teenagers" remark that
What can I say? It was fun. We did a bunch of writing exercises, starting off with one where I told them "write a story about [insert topic, culled from a writing exercise book], you have five minutes". Some of them pulled a real dog of a topic (one of them had to write a story about a yawn!) but they handled it gamely, and even the yawn story was, if not spectacularly brilliant, then at least spectacularly original and it had me and the rest of the crowd on the balcony in stitches when the perpetrator shared it with us. Then I told them that I wanted them to "come to their senses" and we spent an hour and a half exploring the many ways of perceiving a world. I started them out with "Christmas - see what you can come up with that means "Christmas" for you without relying on your eyes only". I was introduced, during this exercise, to the wonders of peppermint ice cream and frozen cookie dough ("You've NEVER had frozen cookie dough?" one of the kids asked while the rest of her table wore faces of horrified pity. "I usually bake mine first," I said, and the youthful voices rose in a hubbub telling me no, that was not the way of things, you eat the frozen stuff first and then you bake whatever's left of it when you're done. I gravely took this under advisement.) Then I told them I would now give them each a separate topic, and they were to do the same sense-collating thing but this time they were supposed to come up with a story at the end of it. One table got "Fourth of July", and one of the things that they came up as their "keywords" before they wrote their story was "destruction" (their story wound up being all about how a stray firecracker burned down a house. These kids don't let the grass grow under their feet). Then I told them to pick a "mystery topic" per table, and collaborate on writing down a list of sensory "clues" to give to the next table down to guess what they were thinking of. One of the tables immediately came up with "pirates of the caribbean", which started of a spirited discussion about the fact that the original idea was about "real pirates", not "movie pirates", and then we degenerated into a squabble about whether Orlando Bloom was "hot" or, in the words of one of the younger participants, "oogy". At which point I admitted defeat.
They all got copies of my book, the first "Worldweavers", and one of them told me later in passing (later in the afternoon, when I had a signing slot at the bookstore and the kids meandered past as they were being picked up by their caregiver units) that she had "Already read a few pages, and it's *very good*..."
We picked up sticks and waved Leavenworth goodbye at around 3 PM on Monday afternoon, and were home by just after 6 o'clock. It's a long drive, but much of it is so breathtakingly beautiful that it doesn't seem like a chore.
All in all, a good time was had - German food, geraniums, Strauss and writing. In theory, this is "Work" - it's something that a writer just does, in addition to putting words on paper. The appearances, the workshops, the teaching, the signings, the readings, all that stuff. It's "Work". But you'll have to forgive me if I simply cannot see the chores for the joy of it. I love what I do.
My sincere thanks to Book For All Seasons staff - Amy and Nat and Stephen and Pat - and, hey, Leavenworth, I'll be back...
Tomorrow morning the third book in the Worldweavers trilogy will be winging its way into New York.
I feel the usual mix of exhilaration and apprehension. There goes another novel, done and written and dreamed up and brought up to behave properly in civilised society and now it's time to let it go out into the world.
To become my tenth published book, in its turn. Congratulate me, I've just stepped into double digits. Excuse me while I take a moment to look at that fact with a sense of bemused wonder.
In the next three weeks or so, I'll catch up with the reviews that I'm due to write for a couple of places, do a reading and a writing camp workshop, and gather stuff together for Worldcon. Japan, here I come.
Back on my home newsgroup, rasfc, there's another discussion sparked by a fly-by "editor" offering to make us immortal by virtue of mere "exposure" in her journal. A follow-up message from a fellow who was apparently published by this outfit berated us all in terse if misspelled prose for being such boors as to complain about the fact that no pay would be forthcoming for our contributions to the original journal, whereupon one of our semi-regular folks came back with a comment that he kind of half-agreed with the second poster, in that...
>Writing *should* come from the joy of it, and not be focused on dollar signs.
Whereupon I responded with this:
Oy. Let me throw a monkey wrench into that spinning wheel, for just a
*Of course* writing should be done for the joy of it. Good God, who
would do it otherwise? Why put up with the frustrations and the blood
and sweat and tears of this game unless you really seriously honestly
love what you do? Before I ever got to smelling distance of being
published, I wrote - I wrote, because that is what I loved to do, I
loved the scent of fresh words in the morning and the nightingale song
of sleepy words at night. Words were better friends to me in some of
my more socially awkward phases of life than people could ever have
been - they were ever patiend, kind, understanding, and always there
when I needed them.
I love writing. I love the fear and the fury of it, the drama and the
laughter, the ring of swords and the crackle of winter fires within
stories and poems and myths and legends and tales. I love creating a
world, I love opening the doors of this newly minted world to
characters who come creeping or leaping or striding or dancing in to
explore it and have adventures in it and live their lives in it and
sing about it and cry about it and cling to it and to one another when
the storms come. I love it. I *LOVE* it. I cannot imagine myself not
doing it, not ever.
HOWEVER - having said that - this love is a bonus for me, right now,
because those words are working for me, they pay my bills, they light
my house and feed my cats and allow me to sit here writing this note
on the Internet. I love what I do, but the only reason I am able to
continue doing it at the level that I am is because someone,
somewhere, was willing to pay me for it.
I am not focused on dollar signs (although I DO wish my Amazon sales
ranks were higher. Sigh. But then that's an occupational hazard) but
the dollars play an important part. Whenever I bank a check from my
agent, I am putting income from my writing into my account, and that
money supports me, and my family, and my pets. The fact that I love
what I do merely means that I enjoy doing the work - but it's the
doing of the work that's the important thing here, because it's the
work that I love that enables me to stay alive and functioning in this
world. I could love writing just as well if I were homeless and living
in the streets - but how would I function in such a position, and who
other than me would be in a position to know that I loved writing, or
care? It isn't being "focused on dollar signs" to look at one's next
project and wonder if it will bring in enough to keep one's head above
water for the next month or three. I'm sure J K ROwlings no longer
needs to think such thoughts - but how many of her are there in the
industry...? The rest of us live from check to check, don't have a
nice monthly income like "normal" people do, can't afford health
insurance, occasionally gaze fondly at some thing that we would very
very very much like and sigh and admit that we can't afford to have
it, and yes, glory in the company of words all the way. We write
because we love it; we survive in the writing arena because we are
paid for doing the work that we love.
That's all I wanted to say. Back to your usually scheduled
Now back to my chapter. Need to fix up chapter-the-previous before I can allow myself to go on with chapter-the-next.
Back to your, er, regularly scheduled entertainments...
I've just received the prototype of the cover for the Portuguese edition of "Embers of Heaven", and I can't post this yet but believe me I will the moment I have the opportunity because it's a breathtaking cover, and my cover genie is being really good to me yet again.
But in the meantime I went back to the Difel website (that's my Portuguese publisher) and they have some 20 pages of catalogued works under the "Literatura Estrangeira" heading (that is to say, foreign books which have been translated into Portuguese). The catalogue begins here, on page one; I am somewhere on page 15, I think, but ye gods and little fishes. Look at the rest of the people on those pages. Umberto Eco. Isabel Allende. Collen McCullough. Marguerite Duras. J.D.Salinger. Herman Hesse. Yann Martel. H. Rider Haggard. Francoise Sagan.
I'm... kind of... shellshocked. To even BE there.
The Gods have been kind.
Back when I was nineteen years old and steeped up to my innocent ingenue ears in the Matter of Britain, I dreamed up a story - technically a novel, I guess, seeing as it was over 40 000 words, but not much over. It was a solid chunk of writing, though, pretty much written over a year or so when I was about 18, and it told the story of Queen Guenevere.
In first person. From her own point of view.
It has since been done, and published, by several other writers. But at the time I was writing this, it had not been - and I struggled with it mightily, seeing as the Queen was not present at so much of what was key in the storyline as the legend knew it. So I twisted things a little, made her a little more... active and independent... holy cow, I only just realised I was writing feminist fantasy when I was a teenager... whatever, the story was done and completed when I was about 19, and it wasn't my first novel at that point but I guess it was really the first one that got looked at by Publishing Professionals. It got handed to an editor of a local publishing house - we were in South Africa at the time - and he handed it to an outside reader for an evaluation.
The reader was Andre P Brink. He was less well known outside South Africa, I guess, and it may be that nobody who reads this has ever heard of him - but he was a Big Deal in SOuth Africa at this time, a real novelist with awards hanging from his belt like scalps, but quite possibly the last person in the Universe to be handed an Arthurian fantasy by a teenager and expected to get anything at all out of it. I hadn't even known that it had been him that had been tapped to evaluate it, not until the editor who had taken the book to look at came back with a regretful rejection - and, breaking protocol somewhat, gave me a copy of the reader's report to have a look at.
Andre Brink, South Africa's pre-eminent novelist, started his report thusly:
"This is an impressive piece of writing, especially if it is taken into account that it was written by a 19-year-old. I have no doubt that this young woman will be a major writer one day."
You heard the but coming, didn't you?...
But, he went on to say, the story was too tame, especially given the subject matter of lust and adultery and multi-layered betrayals. There was plenty of drama, he said, but there was none of... oh, let me quote him again... "...it lacks what Kazantzakis calls 'madness'."
TOday, I know of this madness. I understand it from within. I take no issue with his comments, not from this side of the bridge of time, because he was probably right - my story was one of innocence rather than guilt and machinations, my Queen was a child caught up in an adult world, much as I was at the time. But when he wrote this report, I had yet to read Kazantzakis. I had heard of Zorba the Greek, but I had not read the book, nor seen the movie at that time.
I have done both, since. In fact, I watched the movie on TiVo tonight, just an hour or so ago. I was astonished at how much of it I remembered, verbatim, and how much of the BOOK came flooding back as I saw certain scenes unfold in the film. It is a searing work that celebrates life and presents death in a form as raw and matter-of-fact as I have ever seen it. It is here that the "madness" comes from, Zorba flings it at his staid and strait-laced Englishman, "You have to have some madness in you or you will never be able to cut the strings."
This "madness". At its worst, it's something that can only be learned by living a life - sometimes only when you are ready to leave it. It is a place where there is nothing but choices, and sometimes they all seem equally bad - and picking one means "cutting the strings". flying solo, doing the high trapeze act without a net, laughing in the face of destiny and thumbing your nose at God. At its best it's the fire that tempers the iron in us, the one choice that HAS to be made no matter what, the need to learn to live with consequences.
Some day, ah, some day... I might return to the Guenevere story. I know I held her in my hand once, and it was good, good enough for a real publisher to take an interest even though nothing ever came of it, good enough for my boyfriend at the time to identify me with Camelot's queen so strongly that he called me Guenevere ever after, even years after, remembering the name and whence it came a quarter of a century after we two were an item in my first year of University.
I've grown up. I've lived. Out there in the world it lives too, the "madness", like a virus - you might lift your face into a gentle rain and a single raindrop will have a potent dose of it, and will come into your eye and burn like acid, and you will cry without having the faintest idea why - and then you might go out and do something you've never done before, like write a sonnet, or ride a horse bareback, or fall in love.
I had an enchanted, sheltered, protected childhood, and I was shielded from all this when I was young. But it's in my blood now, inevitably, as it comes to everyone in their time. I would love to know whether Andre Brink remembers me, and if he would be able to sense the "madness" in what I am writing today. It is by no means certain - I doubt he has changed, and he has become even more academic than he had been at the time he wrote the original report, and it isn't too outrageous to wonder whether his own dose of "madness" is still living within him or if it has been quelled by the years that have flowed under the bridge since our initial encounter. He would probably still hate the kind of stuff I write, just as I find his style a little too dry, too "advanced", too pure and distilled and literary, for my own taste. But still... I wonder. SOmetimes I am taken back to being that innocent teenager who sloughed off the rejection and saw only that glowing first sentence, and found in it enough fire to keep a dream alive.
Or perhaps that should be, "wither, reading?" - there is a disquieting trend that is becoming obvious out there.
A little while ago, in February, I stumbled on this particular report:
The Associated Press is ending the book review package provided to
newspapers, Editor and Publisher reports.
A spokesperson says the "AP is revamping its Lifestyles coverage to
focus more resources on topics like food and parenting, and as a
result we are discontinuing the book-review package that had moved
through that department."
She adds that book coverage will continue through the Arts and
Entertainment Department, though the emphasis appears to be on news
Chop, chop, chop. Who needs books when you can have scintillating recipes or other more "lifestyley" features such as how to arrange cushions on your sofa or which plasma TV to choose? Oh, hey, I know, people have to eat - and watching the latest game on the best possible hardward has to count for something. Like, who needs books anyway...?
Perhaps you think I'm over-reacting. Perhaps I am. But both as a reader AND as a writer things like this sting - people like me seem to be increasingly dismissed as harmless kooks who can go away and indulge their shameful little reading habit in private, thank you very much. Perhaps some day reading in public will come to be regarded as just as "dangerous" to public morals as breastfeeding a child is today - who knows, someone's passions might get so inflamed at the sight of a book in another person's hand that they'll race off to the nearest bookstore and buy several, and get so engrossed in them that they'll miss the game on the new plasma TV, and whither our society then...?
Granted, I'm exaggerating, and it's a symptom rather than the disease - but then, on the heels of the AP decision, comes something like this:
Trying to Save Books at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Zachary Steele, owner of Wordsmiths Books, is one of the leaders of
an effort to make the Atlanta Journal-Constitution rescind its
decision to fire book editor Teresa Weaver and cut back book coverage.
In addition, Shannon Byrne, a publicity manager of Little, Brown, is circulating a petition that
says among other things that the paper's book section is one of the
best-edited literary pages in the country.
"It provides Atlanta, which ranks #15 on the University of
Wisconsin's list of most literate cities in the U.S., with a powerful
and necessary cultural dialogue. Under the astute guidance of the
section's editor Teresa Weaver, the books page has demonstrated an
admirable commitment to both literature and nonfiction works which
have grappled with some of America's most complicated issues and themes."
In a Shelf Awareness ezine blog entry, bookstore owner Zachary Steele wrote, among other things, that
"an absence of a literary presence in the primary source of news in Atlanta robs not only you and I, but it deprives future generations the exposure to what is and always will be the most vital aspect of their maturation. A book--literacy in its global form--is a necessary
component to intellectual growth. Reading is on the rise amongst our youth (check out the great success of Decatur's Little Shop of Stories if you doubt me) and now is not the time to reduce or eliminate the one place they can go to read further."
Check out your local paper. Does it have a book page? Does it have a book page that provides more than just a stump of a review one paragraph long which pretty much encapsulates the plot of the book under discussion and no more?
I cannot imagine a world without books, without reading. But much more of this, and an entire generation will find it hard to imagine a world WITH them.
If nothing else helps, try this - why can't newspapers consider books and reading as a "Gardening" feature? The word is a tender plant, and its care should be of interest to those who wish to cultivate a flourishing garden. And there is no sweeter fruit, when it is ripe and ready, than Story.
1. I got my first glimpse of what will one day soon become the cover for BOok 2 of Worldweavers. I can't share yet, but let me tell you, it's fabulous. Watch this space!
2. New review of Worldweavers#1, here.
3. Back to Book 3 now. Things are heating up nicely there...
So. You've signed the contract, and the champagne flowed like a river. You knuckled under and wrote the book, and it was good, and you sat back and closed your eyes and thanked your muse. You sent the manuscript in, it got looked at, it got the "accepted" stamp on it. (You may even have received your on-acceptance check already, if you're lucky.)
Now comes... the Copy Edit.
There are different publishing houses, different editors, different styles and approaches - in some of my books the copy edit was so minor as to be almost negligible. In YA, though, apparently, they are far mroe thorough than that - the second WOrldweavers book is in the copyedit stage, it's spread all over my living room floor festooned with purple post-its and scribbled over in four different species of handwriting (my editor's, the in-house copy editor's, the freelance copy editor's, mine)... and this is invariably the stage of production that makes me hate eveyrthing I've ever written.
Don't get me wrong. I appreciate the thoroughness of this. I appreciate the way minor inconsistencies have been picked up and poked at, the kind of inconsistencies that I wouldn't even have noticed (being too close to the manuscript) but whose addressing makes for a better book. There are places where my editor, who is a real gem of an editor, let me say right now and right here, tweaks a sentence of mine and suddenly makes it sing a far purer note - without changing any actual words, just tightening here and tightening there. It's all completely invaluable, and it all adds immesurably to the final book in a way that I cannot begin to express - and yet and yet and yet in order to get there *four different people including me* have just been through this thing with a fine tooth comb, and then a finer, and the nits are being picked here and there and everywhere, and if you're the author who has the whole bigger picture in your head it can drive you insane to be so closely focused on the fine print. It's like - well - I do tapestry. You know, those printed canvases where you buy the "picture" and then you buy the wool and you do individual colours, or you even do the counted ones where all you have is a schematic and you have to count each stitch of each colour as you do them. It's all detail, detail, detail - I am now doing the BLACK part, I am doing the GREEN part, I am doing the LIGHT RED part and then the DARK RED part and look there I've missed a few stitches of the WHITE part - and you are so consumed with individual stitches that you are almost startled when you're almost done and the entire picture suddenly leaps into focus for you.
It's like that, the copy edit. It's individual stitches. It's the black part and the red part an the yellow part. But that's the copy editor's *job*. And you, the writer, can't help but hold the big picture in your head - and with every ounce of appreciation that goes out to the copyeditor for paying such close attention comes another ounce of frustration that the MS you thought was finished is apparently far, far from it.
And you KNOW that you still have the proofs to come, once the copy edited stuff is input and the final version is printed out.
As much as you love your stories, there comes a time when you start feeling like - well - if you have to read the fricking thing through ONE - MORE - TIME while paying attention to every adjective and every semi-colon, you just know you're going to scream. Loudly.
Deadlines don't help, and copyedits are frequently associated with those, too.
So here I am, in the copy edit stage of The Game. There are sections of this book that still manage to make me sigh or smile, even through the forest of editorial shorthand and commentary, and that's all to the good - and the first book appears to be doing okay so far in terms of response (heck, it's still the first week of its release and already I have five official reviews and a BUNCH of readers' responses which is pretty damn cool) and I'm at the stage of yearning for the day that BOok 2 will be, you know, DOOOOOOONE. (Book 3 is still only one-quarter finished. I kind of need to get back to that. Like, soon. Like, NOW. Argh.)
So. Back to the copyedit.
There's a bookstore in Mount Vernon called Scott's Bookstore - in an old brick building, one of those classic funky, unique, independent bookstores which you love to go into not just because of the inventory but because being in there is an experience, it's a journey and not a destination, it's got people working in it who know their stock and who can TELL you about it - all the best that an independent bookstore could offer.
Well. It's about half an hour to forty minutes away from us by car, and we don't go there every day - but we DO go there, every so often, and with the new book imminent we thought we'd go visit the place this morning, leave them a few bookmarks, let them know it's coming.
The first thing I saw as I negotiated the odd little twisty main street approach in downtown Mount Vernon was a large banner sign attached to the bookstore building, partially obscuring the name painted on the bricks, flapping in the wind.
There are stages in this game.
First you scribble aimlessly, because you love it.
Then you start attaching the fact that you love reading books to the fact that you love writing stories - all the books you are reading started out as stories someone ELSE wrote - hey, people *publish* their stories.
Then you start reading with a slightly more critical eye, and you start having the reaction which can be summed up as, "Hey, I can do better than this! I *have* done better than this! If this dude can get published... *so can I*!!!" (You'd be surprised at how many authors started with that sentence.)(Well, actually, you probably would not be....)
But so far, so good - you've been coasting, writing because you're writing, for little reason over and above that.
NOW, the hard work starts. You're writing with one eye towards seeing YOUR name on a book spine, on bookstore shelves, alongside the names of the writers you have known and loved.
The pitfalls and sinkholes and thorny hedges along the way are many and various and have been elucidated in a lot of different places - how-to writing books, authors' blogs, interviews - they're everywhere you care to look. For the purposes of this particular post, we'll take a detour around them all, and assume that you've successfully navigated the mine field and arrived safely at the far shore, and the ink on your publishing contract is just starting to dry.
And this is where it begins. The Thirst.
You can find it here. Enjoy!
Over at what is known as the Purple Zone by the regulars, the discussion has taken a turn on the value of uniqueness of story. You may notice my contribution to the discussion somewhere in the toils of the commentary, but I figured I might as well contribute something lengthier and more meaningful.
See, it's like this. The thing hinges on those 27/10/7/3/2/1 plot(s) available to authors (according to whichever philosophy of the craft you espouse). Personally, as I said in the comment thread of that other website, I believe that there are two basic plotlines, or possibly only one - the "Someone leaves town/A stranger comes to town" dichotomy, or, to simplify things considerably, the overwhelmingly inclusive and very simple "Something is wrong". If you take ANY book and distill it down into its smallest component parts you are going to get down to that last, eventually, because in their purest essence all stories have this in common - they revolve around a character with a problem (i.e. "something is wrong") and the story then complicates and convolutes itself around that skeleton of a plot and fleshes it out... differently. Every time.
This kerfuffle started by a poster on the messageboards demanding archly that every story be "unique", and that if the story is not unique (by which (s)he presumably meant that it was possible to foresee any single part of the development in advance of its actual occurrence) this particular poster wishes to inform the authors of such works that they are "wasting [his or her] precious time".
This kind of harks back to the discussion I had earlier on this blog, about what readers and writers owe each other.
I realise, and appreciate, that I must tell a good story to keep a reader interested. I try to do this. If blogosphere commentary alone is anything to go by, I am not succeeding with everyone - in fact, someone said recently (I think it might have been John Scalzi, but I could be wrong) that if you haven't got someone who absolutely hates and despises your book you probably haven't been read by enough people to make a statistically significant readership quorum. When it comes to "The Secrets of Jin Shei", comments range from things like
"Go out there and get this book. And I mean NOW."
"Graceful and lyrical"
"My favourite book, ever!"
"Okay. Not worth keeping"
"Falls into all the old traps, and I threw it against the wall"
"Anti-feminist diatribe" (yes, truly, apparently because I made Tai and her happy life the kind of thing that EVERY woman must have and thus damning Tai's jin-shei sisters who were "doing other things".
I tell you truly, you cannot please all of the people all of the time. Those who see the story as "feminist" see only that there's a book out there (shock! horror!) with not just one but a BUNCH of female protags; the ones who want to pick holes in the social fabric can only see that,for instance, Nhia was made Chancellor... and then nothing about her work as Chancellor was referred to in the book every again; or that Liudan was the classic screaming-memie angsty psychotic fem-bitch who chooses to rule alone without a man and that I therefore made her OF COURSE go mad because I apparently wanted to make a point that women needed a man to make them whole, and and and and...
Man, I didn't know I PACKED so much subtext into that story.
There's been another go-round on the subject of the Naming of Names on my home newsgroup recently. We hold to the "nine and sixty ways" rule in that place, which is a quote from Kipling: "There are nine and sixty ways/of constructing tribal lays/and every one of them is right" (or something close to that - I haven't gone on Google to dig up the precise quote, people are free to correct me in comments if they so wish. The sentiment, though, is what's important. Every writer writes differently, writes in their own way. And that's okay.
But I have to admit my constant and consistent bafflement with those writers who appear to be able to write entire novels with characters who boast only "placeholder" names, or, worse, are referred to only as X or Y. How, *HOW*, are you supposed to have REAL people in a REAL story if they're no more than cyphers? In one of my comments on the names thread, I said -
>> True Names Have Power...
And this is something that an entire canon of Faerie lore has been built on, after all. You do not give your true name to people unless you trust them absolutely, or you give them power over you. Sometimes you don't even give you true name to people you trust completely, in order not to lead them into temptation. In other connected lore, if you summon a demon to your side you'd better know his name, precisely, or you will neither be able to control him while he's here nor un-summon him when you think you're done with him. And sometimes you have to actually find OUT something's true name before it will honour a bargain (remember Rumpelstiltskin?)
Sometimes a name will nail a culture - for example, when Chinese people living in the Western world actually have two names, the one which they turn to the outside world of their everyday existence (an ordinary Western name like Joy or Sam) and a traditional Chinese name which, in its original form, few Western tongues could even pronounce properly and which non-speakers of the original language would utterly fail to appreciate anyway because it has a meaning beyond the actual name itself and defines the person and the personality of its bearer to a degree that is incomprehensible outside the culture.
Even T S Eliot knew this truth. Go read the poem about the cat contemplating its third name its secret name -
that no human research can discover--
But The Cat Himself Knows,
and will never confess.
When you notice a cat in profound meditation,
The reason, I tell you, is always the same:
His mind is engaged in rapt contemplation
Of the thought, of the thought,
of the thought of his name:
His ineffable effable
Deep and inscrutable singular Name.
I could not even contemplate, in my own work, writing a story about a character whose name is just stuffed into the narrative because I have to call the thing something *for the time being*, or about someone called X or Y. If I tried the latter, I'd start weaving daydreams about what kind of names start with X - Xavier? Xander? Xerxes? Xena" (there aren't THAT many!) or with Y - Yseult? Yvonne? Yelisaveta?... What kind of culture am I in - Greek? Persian? Pseudo..? (one of my favourite EVER quotes overheard on the Web was someone's comment that she liked things to be, you know, *real*, like in Xena...) Already, you see, I'm off at a worldbuilding tangent, figuring out where my people fit, how they live, what they want, what will hurt them and what will make them happy. With placeholder names, I cannot possibly write the same character if I call her Tiffany or if I call her Sophia or if I call her Eleanor or if I call her Mary, or Lessa, or Ash, or Jane Eyre (Tiffany Eyre? Really? The same?...) My characters don't get begun unless I know them well enough to call them by name - their real name - their TRUE name. The name of their spirit. The name that allows them to come alive and sometimes put their own hand on their story, guiding it, making it better by helping ME, who is writing it, understand it from within.
True Names Matter.
There's been a bunch of writing-related stuff wandering past the Internets over the last fewdays/weeks/months. I got too busy, or too sidetracked, or too incoherent (on occasion) when a topic got too much under my skin and I wound up explaining things to myself rather than to anyone else in material not fit for public consumption. But it's the end of the year, and I'll take a bit of time and opine on a variety of subjects in the writing sphere.
Writing The Other and Cultural (Mis)Appropriation
I am a member of the human race. If I can track it down and understand it, it belongs to me just as much as it belongs to anyone else. If I can take something with gentle hands, with respect, without bigotry or ignorance, and try and give it life - even while acknowledging that the butterfly I am hatching is not coming out of its original chrysalis - I believe a writer has a right to do this. By all means be senseitive, and be thorough, and have the requisite amount of respect - but we simply cannot be confined to writing only and absolutely what we have ourselves experienced or most of the writers writing today might as well hang up the "closed" sign right now. And besides, let's put it this way - if it's okay to write about a world not yet born, a world wholly and completely invented, why is it not okay to write about the world that exists? And if a native practitioner of something you're writing about is moved by reading your work (whether positively or negatively!) to sit up and produce a better, truer, more authentic version of that thing - then the balance only swings to the positive, doesn't it?
Let me put it this way. I have written about a secret language of women, which existed once in long-ago China. I have wriiten a novel based on a historical period in CHina which was full of turmoil and drama. I was not there in medieval China to learn about the women's language first-hand; I did not experience the cruelties of the Cultural Revolution on my own skin - but the power of this world we are all living in today is that it is possible to find out about these things from people who DID experience them themselves. And "write about what you know" becomes "write about you can know".
Again, one word, and it's an important word: RESPECT. Do not deal with anyone's dreams with deliberate ignorance or malice aforethought. Beyond that, we are all human. It all belongs to all of us.
It IS possible to understand something you have no real experience of. It is, I know it is, for I have proved it. I submitted a story for a competition once - it had to be in the first person, and it had to be about blindness. I had a story about a blind guy, written in third person, with a main protagonist who was sighted - but I tweaked it, retold it from the point of view of the blind guy, and sent it in. ANd it got placed second. ANd I got an email which I still treasure: "Would you please settle an argument between my friend and me? We would like to know if you are in fact, or have ever been, blind."
To me, that meant I had nailed that character, the sense of being sightless. And all without spending one day in the true dark. *It is possible*. We, as writers, put on characters as masks - we may not think or react the same way as any one given character that we have written, but that doesn't mean that those characters are bad or wrong - I've known true-blue hetero writers write about gay relationships with a breathtaking sensitivity without EVER having an ounce of attraction for the same sex themselves. *It is possible*.
You may not, however, wish to share your attempts at "writing the other" with the reading public until you yourself are certain that you have done the best you can with it. And if you don't feel you can do something justice, then perhaps not ever. But *it is possible*.
Genre As Shield And All That Jazz
I tend to come down on the side of
The book I always bring up as the ultimate diamond inthis kind of discussion is Guy Gavriel Kay's "Tigana". I still cannot get over how sharp that pain is, every time I read that book; how unerring the aim of his story dagger, which lodges straight in the tender core of me and hurts, hurts *HURTS*, drops of bright heart's blood coming from where it stabbed. And this, from a man who cannot possibly understand what it feels like to lose a country. But he understands pain, and he can convey it, and make his reader feel it and share it - and that story is luminous with it, transfigured with it.
I think we all have our own pain. I think that a story which seems innocuous to some may be a dagger of the soul to others. I firmly believe that it is our job, as writers, to try and understand where that pain comes from. If we get through to that ONE reader, the reader who understands with an instinct, with tears, with a response to some naked emotional truth - that will be a story well written.
True pain is tough. Writing about it is tougher still. But if you can lift up a hand and show a scar, and make your reader feel the heat of the fire that burned you, you've done a great and wonderful thing.
How not to deal with them. Vintage stuff. I can't put it better than this
I have this story. It's a good story. It's one of the few short stories that I've ever, kind of, you know, DONE - I don't generally write short, mainly because I run away with myself a lot and wind up with 180 000 word doorstops - even the second YA book, with me holding on to the reins every step of the way, eventually weighed in at a first-draft length of 108 000 - which, although not as and of itself LONG, *is* long in YA land. (We won't talk about HP here - and even Rowlings didn't dare put out real doorstops until book 4 or 5 in the series. You have to earn the right.) But back to that short story - look, I write in the genre. I READ in the genre. It's a good story.
Can I find a home for it? Not so far, honey. Not for lack of trying. So far I have uniformly got back responses of the "beautifully written BUT" variety. One of the "buts" was that it was not "upbeat enough" for that particular magazine's audience - well, hello, I am not the world's most optimistic spreader of sunshine, and yes, the story was a tad dark... but are they telling me we're into a publishing era where only a happy ending will do? (If so, I'm dead in the water...) In other words, I may disagree with the rejection - but spewing vitriol at the rejecter makes absolutely certain that I cannot look at that market again (because they will DAMN WELL REMEMBER ME!) and the market is shrinking fast enough without my adding to the problem. So, then. How to deal with rejection? Pack it up again. Send it somewhere different. Rinse and repeat, for as many options as you got. And when you run out of options, start something new.
It's good if you got 'em.
Even the bad ones.
That's all I'll say on that.
When The Novel Starts Talking Back
Kate Elliot writes over at the Deepgenre blog about this particular phenomenon - about a fellow who asked her what to do when his novel suddenly started growing and changing and generally misbehaving on him as he started to find out more and more about it, its world, its characters. And she said "This Is A Great And Wonderful Thing", and I second that, in spades. Because, as I keep on telling people, my name is Alma and I hear voices. ALl the time.
Good books, good stories, are like children - they are born out of our minds and our spirits, our thoughts and feelings and experiences, and in the beginning they are us and only us - how can they be anything other? They have never touched the world until they are released through the words a writer pours out onto a blank page. But liek most children good stories learn from their experiences. Their characters, given a bit of time to flex their muscles (as it were) learn things about themselves that even their creators never knew. ANd such stuff can change a story from the fundament.
It is a great and wondrous thing to experience this for the first time, let me tell you. "Number Five is Alive!" - and yes, it's off and running, and sometimes it NEEDS to be off and running. If you're only just starting out and you have a very strict idea about what your story is supposed to be about, it can be a scary thing to watch it careen out of control, as it were, and wander off at various tangents into parts of your mental map marked "Here Be Dragons". But follow the story, and meet the dragons, and have a bit of fire breathed on the tale, and you've got... something new. SOmething different. SOmething that isn't what you meant it to be, perhaps, but maybe something BETTER. And you can probably measure your own development as a writer from the day you first become aware that you have done this, let the story take its course, and not been paralysed by the prospect of where it might be going.
If you are a writer of any description, a New Year's Resolution which covers a lot of ground is simply this: Commit Words. Write.
Get on the road... and then go where it takes you.
...the edits of book 2 of "Worldweavers", that is. Now I need to go through it again and figure out if I unravelled anything important when I pulled a few plot threads here and there according to editorial tweak fiat. This has to be done this week, because I have tend ays to get this draft into my editor's hands before she absonds for the silly season - sure, she'll be back in early January but I'd rather she had this from me THIS year. If she does, and she likes what I've done with it, the sooner she has it and the sooner she reads it and the sooner she makes that decision, well, the sooner my on-acceptance half of the advance gets paid. Won't happen before Christmas, but early in the new year would be just GREAT.
Then I have to gather up a bunch of reviews I've written and not sent in to SFSIte and mail those in before the end of the year.
Then I have another pow wow with my lovely agent about The New Sekrit Project tomorrow (I swear, I'll babble about that as soon as I am able).
Basically I don't think I'll hear from anyone again concerning anything writerly before 2007 after this MS goes into the editor's hands, so here's a bit of recap of the writerly 2006...
Over on Live Journal, someone said while commenting on another writerly thread:
The most effective and concise statement I know about doing this kind of work came from a mentor of mine in comics:
"If you really want to do this for a living, no one can stop you. But if you don't really want to do this for a living, no one can help you."
That's hitting the nail on the head, that is. Word.
There's something about ALL the "glam" professions that attracts the glib and the unwary and the innocent who have yet to learn better - because that, at first, is all you see - the bright light and the glitter, and the front of the stage while you're taking your bows while the audience is giving you a standing ovation, and the spotlights on the paintings in the museums (usually by Grand Masters long dead and largely unappreciated during their lifetime - what do you think Van GOgh could have done with thirty million dollars, and that was for ONE painting...? And would he have ever done another...?)
And the perceived magnificence of the Writerly Existence, you know,the stereotype reinforced by a handful of superstars - sure, if Neil Gaiman or J K ROwlings come out to play they're recognised and mobbed and there are lines around the block twice and into the next street, and their shelves are full of their own books rendered in strange foreign tongues or shiny awards and they have long since ceased to keep a scrapbook of their reviews because there's just too many of them to clip and they're uniformly glowing anyway. The kind of writer who owns a mansion in the country, fully paid for, with waterfront views or facing some magnificent mountain over acres of estate, and within it a wood-panelled study with a fireplace which always has a fire lit and never needs cleaning out.
Let me tell you a fairy tale.
Years ago, I was dragged if not exactly kicking and screaming then certainly grumbling darkly something along the lines of "But WHY would I want to go and see a sports movie?" to see "Chariots of Fire" when it first opened in the cinemas. I remember, this was back in Cape Town. I was, what, first or second year of University; the cinema was reached from our hall of residence by catching a suburban light rail to a commercial and entertainment main hub a couple of stops down the line. I seem to recall that we had to run to catch the train, a fact that, in the light of the movie we were going to see, took on a greater than expected significance in the aftermath.
I remember grumbling all the way in.
I also remember being obvlivious to the world on our way back to our residence. The movie might have been a "sports" movie, but it was also a transcendent look at the human spirit, and it had caught and conquered me from the first moment of that incredible opening shot of the young men running on the beach, with that surging and never-to-be-forgotten music beating like a heart in the background. I suppose over and above the visceral reaction of having the movie make me fall in love with it on the purely emotional level, there was, even then, the writer in me who was looking at the few minutes of that opening shot of running on the shore and marvelling at how well the main characters were established with just a few lingering moments - the sheer joy of Eric Liddell, the fierce concentration of Harold Abrahams, the slightly bewildered Aubrey Montague, the easy aristocratic sense of entitlement of Andrew Lindsey. It was masterful.
1. There are times that I have sat and watched words which *I am typing* appear on the screen in front of my eyes... and not recognised them. That's how much my characters - or sometimes just my story - take over when I'm in "writer mode". I sometimes think it's a mild form of possession.
2. There are characters I have created that I actively dislike (no, I'm not telling which). There are times that it's HARD to be fair to those characters. I like to think I generally come out on the side of the angels, but I don't know...
3. In my stories, people *die*. Sometimes they do so for a really really good reason, or a good cause. Sometimes they do it willingly, in the hopes of achieving something with that death. Other times their death may appear meaningless or wholly arbitrary. But see, this is the way things work in the real world, too, and I don't think that my fictional realms should be any the less "real" for being created by my mind.
4. I don't work from outlines or write-by-scenes (which is the literary equivalent of paint-by-numbers, I guess) or to rigid pattern. My stories are as organic as they come. I stick a story seed into the ground, water it copiously, and it sometimes astonishes even me when something weirdly exotic comes up out of the good earth. Having said that, I do have to admit to one amendment to this - for the kind of complicated stuff that I write, keeping a timeline is kind of... essential. All of these characters exist and live and work and play and plan independently, and it sometimes matters that one of them has to be a certain age before another meets them - it really will not DO to have a wonderful romantic relationship happen, and then discover that in your original timeline one of the two lovers has to be three years old...
5. There is a time, after the completion of every single one of my books, usually after it's "safely" out of the house and in the hands of someone who has influence on its future (such as an editor), that I wander around the house chewing my nails and driving my poor husband nuts with the generic whine of "Nobody wants my book!" He usually counters, once some sort of positive reaction has come in, by putting on his "I told you so" face. But for a while, there, things get sticky. They do. I go through phases of absolutely believing that every sane reader out there simply HAS to hate this thing I have just completed.
6. I flinch at bad reviews, despite trying to train myself into the mode of understanding, on an intellectual level, that there are bound to be people out there whose cup of tea my work ISN'T. Silence, however, is far worse than even the worst of bad reviews. At least a bad review means that someone has READ the book, even though they hated it. Resounding silence makes an author wonder if the book actually does exist, or if the previous couple of months of frenetic editorial activity and galleys and copyedits and proforeading have all been just a figment of one's imagination. (All this means, usually, is that the reviews arrive in a clump six months later, having been collected by someone in the publicity department and then gathered dust in their inbox for a while before they got sent out. But tell yourself that when you are sitting in your bubble and waiting for something, ANYTHING, to happen...)
7. There is something frankly terrifying the first time you see your book in the hands of a complete stranger.
8. You never stop learning in this game. Even when you start teaching, you learn from the people who call themselves your students. That's because writing is as individual as people - it's almost like a mental fingerprint, people have pet words, pet phrases, a way of painting an image or an emotion, and people will ask the damndest questions in a workshop or classroom scenario, questions which sometimes make the *teacher* stretch in order to answer them. That's absoltuely wonderful.
9. There are times that it's a royal pain in the ass, being a writer. You learn to THINK like one. You sit down to watch a TV show, or go to a movie, and the rest of the people watching the same thing will sit rapt for an hour or two and then drop their jaws in utter astonishment at some twist ending... which you worked out halfway through the story and were waiting with increasing impatience to be vindicated. And you usually are. You learn fast not to open your mouth when other people are watching anything with you, because objects get thrown at you otherwise.
10. It never gets old. Okay? It just never gets old. Every time a new book arrives, it's like the first time. A flutter of the heart, a burying of the authorial nose into the pages to inhale that fresh new book smell, a strange and silly smile that won't leave your face for the next forty eight hours. Every book is a little piece of a dream come true. It's a little bit like sitting outside on the porch just as the clouds break on a gray day and the sun streams through, and everything that was monochrome is suddenly part of a bright and vivid world, and you understand perfectly just why you were born - simply to be the one to see those colours come to life before your eyes.
The Portuguese edition of "Jin Shei" is in - and a lovely book it is too!
Today I was counting up the languages the book is in, and I know there are ten, and I kept on getting nine and not remembering the last one.... until I realised that the one I was leaving out is actually *English*... Sigh.
Still awaiting the German edition (they said (Fall 2006, not specifying precisely when in the fall), and then the Lithuanian, Turkish and Czech editions. Oh, and also imminent...? the Dutch edition of "Embers of Heaven".
I'm running out of bookshelf space. For my OWN books. That... is quite a feeling.
I cannot possibly top THIS - but I may just be in the mood to discourse on it anyway.
"Where do you get your ideas?"
This question has been asked of every writer at some time. It is asked hopefully, by people wanting to go to the same source and drink from it, a source which has so far frustratingly eluded them; it has been asked with genuine curiosity by people who don't necessarily want to know because THEY want to go there and get ideas but because they honestly cannot conceive of how a story gets spun; it has been asked aggressively, or in the aggrieved tone of someone ill done by, because the writer being questioned has obviously gone and somehow purloined the ideas that rightfullty belong to the person doing the questioning. And none of those questions have an answer that the questioner wants to hear. Because the simple answer, for most writers, is that they are hip deep in ideas and they have a harder time fighting the rest of the pests off while they're grappling with any single ONE at a time. But writing -while being dismissed in one breath as something that anyone can really do, as in, "Oh, I'll sit down and write a book when I retire/when the kids are in school/when I have more time", as though time and opportunity are all that's lacking - manages to retain an aura of the semi-mystical anyway, because that is what story telling has always been - mystery and a gift from the gods.
So where do you get your ideas?
Where do I get mine?
...ahead of its September 4 release date - which is only a couple of days away now, anyway. Would you look at the sales rank on this thing?
Once again, my thanks, UK!
I'm not a Big Name, okay? People's eyes don't exactly light up when they happen to fall on my name tent in a signing situation. But I've had some experience with signings, both in and out of conventions.