A back door into magic

Skating alone on a pond photoPHOTO by Filip Mroz at Unsplash

If you walk into any bookstore you will find things shelved and classified according to rigorous  criteria. Cookbooks, hither, not to be confused with memoirs, there, or history, over there. There is an entire section called FICTION sorted into boxes such as Mysteries, Young Adult, Romance, Science fiction, Fantasy. .

And then you hit the sub-boxes – what KIND of fantasy? Is it historical fantasy with hints in the background about a real historical era? s it urban fantasy with gritty city streets? Is it high fantasy with a dragon on the cover? Secondary world fantasy? Tolkien clone? Does it take place in Hogwarts?…

My novels have had their share of labels.

For example, “The Secrets of Jin-shei” – by virtue of being carried by eight female protagonists – has been called “feminist fantasy.”

My “Midnight at Spanish Gardens“ has been called “religious fantasy” by someone struggling to pin this rather uncategorizable book down to a soundbite, although I struggle to find anything overtly “religious” in that novel.

An article on io9 a few years ago offered a new sub-category — “Bckdoor Fntasy”. Here’s what they meant by that:

When our everyday lives are full of devices and discoveries that feel magical, it’s time for fantasy to reinvent itself. And it has, in a new form you could call backdoor fantasy… instead of drawing us deeper into an alternate world of magic that seethes just beneath the city…it draws us deeper into the real world. What characterizes a backdoor fantasy is that it uses all the tricks and tropes of a fantasy story without ever actually showing us anything that can’t be explained by science.”

This sounds like most of my novels.

The io9 article says a Jo Walton novel “Among Others” is a perfect example of Back Door Fantasy. “In it we encounter familiar fantasy ideas: there is more to the world than meets the eye; evil is a part of nature; we can control reality with our minds. And yet Walton’s protagonist could easily be spinning a fantasy story in her head to escape the horrors of her home life. The fantasy in Among Others may, in other words, be a fantasy.”

If you haven’t read that book, I urge you to do so. But here’s the thing about that book for me. Walton’s heroine… was kind of… me. Okay, I didn’t have a vanished twin, or a witchy mother who could do actual awful crazy magickal stuff, or an estranged guilt-ridden dad who sent me off to a posh boarding school… but the boarding school and the escape into books, that was my own life.

I daresay that this particular back door is hardly likely to be there for other readers who haven’t shared my own particular life and times and experiences. The point, however, is that the magic in these cases might just lie in that kernel of pure recognition – something that leaps from the page at you and catches you by the throat and screams, YOU KNOW ME! YOU LIVED ME!

I touched that for readers of “Midnight at Spanish Gardens“. I know I did  because readers and reviewers have spoken of a feeling that they got from the book, a feeling of being able to identify with the place in which the novel is set, with the circumstances in which it takes place, with the relationships of once-friends who were being picked up after years of hiatus. Reviewers and readers said things like: 
“It feels like you had just sat down for a cup of coffee with some old friends”,
“It seemed as if I had been to this particular café before”,
“I kind of knew the people in this book, because they were me, they were my friends”

The only magic in this book is a sprinkling of fairy dust. There is a manifestly supernatural character who refers to himself as “the Messenger”, although he never says whose messenger he is. Readers have identified him as variously an angel or a sprite of some sort – someone through whom the power to make a choice is transferred to a human soul.

And it is in that choice that the magic lies.

I write about people. I write about what makes people change. Like I said to someone in a conversation about this very novel, what makes people change are answers to two polar-opposite questions: what makes you happy, and what do you fear. The first will make you run towards something; the second, away. But both will MOVE you, and once you are in motion you cannot help but encounter choices.

The io9 people go on to say, “This strand in fantasy writing is exploding right now. The more we suck information out of light waves and glowing boxes, the more we are slain by invisible assassins called viruses, the more obvious it becomes that we are living in what feels like a fantasy. Just because your world has been transfigured by science doesn’t mean your imagination will stop seeing terrible sorcery in it.”

I say, amen. There is just so much magic in our world, the “real” world, which we are so often too busy to stop and appreciate. Let me give you some examples from a real life. Mine.

The first one concerns a skating pond in the woods behind one of the world’s great hotels in Banff. This is one of those unreal hotels build in the shape and form of a castle, situated amongst tall firs, and I was there one cold, cold winter. You could go down a winding stair into the woods to a frozen pond. I went down the stair and found that it gloriously and completely empty of any other soul except me. Christmas fairy lights in the trees twinkled on the snow around me. The trees stood like silent white sentinels in the dark, and the stars in the night sky were bright and sharp like shards. It was just me and the wilderness.

I started skating, alone in the night, the swish of skate blades on ice, multicoloured shadows falling about my feet. And I felt like weeping with a holy joy because I felt as though I could pass right through this unreal scene and step – or skate – into a whole other world which trembled just there, just in the corner of my eye, just out of reach.

Tell me this moment had no magic in it. True magic. Real magic. MY magic.

The second example is a long way from that night, a bright day in the Florida Keys. I’m kneeling on a low wooden platform next to a pool with two dolphins, a mother and son I had just spent a half hour swimming with, holding out treats. The younger dolphin was still very much a “child” in every sense – exuberant, playful, pushy and completely and passionately free with his emotions. Instead of coming for his treat, this baby dolphin came swimming full-tilt at the jetty, leaped out of the water completely, and tucked himself under my arm. Our eyes met, and I swear he smiled. And then, with one flip of that powerful tail, he had reversed himself and had slid back into the water.

A dolphin had HUGGED me.

A little piece of magic, right there. Right in my arms.

The third one. A letter arrived at my house one day. From NASA. FROM NASA.

They were producing a commemorative poster for the Mercury 13, the women who trained in the early astronaut program back when women had no chance of going into space. They had stepped up anyway, because they refused to relinquish the dream of the stars or the idea that those stars belonged to them just as much as to men. NASA wanted to know whether I would grant them permission to use an excerpt from one of my poems on that poster.

I cried. I was so humbled, so proud, so full of feelings I cannot begin to describe to you.

Like the Mercury 13 themselves, I would never myself float out there amongst the stars – but my words are there now, for keeps, on a poster which commemorates women reaching for that then impossible dream. That is a piece of magic that I treasure, a very real piece of magic, something that I am reminded of every time I walk past the wall in my house on which a framed copy of that poster hangs.

I will find some little piece of magic to build into my next story, too, and the next, and the one after that. If that is what they want to call it, a back door fantasy, I’ll take it. But I’ll keep on opening those back doors. There is too much joy and beauty and sadness and glory and pure humanity behind them to leave them closed, and people need to be reminded – always, and constantly – that the magic is there for the taking, just by reaching out and touching it.

In this December, if you live somewhere where you might be expecting snow, remember this presence of magic in the white silence of a snowfall – go out and walk in one, and let that silence and whiteness surround you, and listen for the songs of that silence. If you live in a place where you aren’t expecting snow, wander out into the balmy air in your shorts and your short sleeves and wonder at the magic that lets you walk along a beach with your toes in warm water breaking into white foamy lace at your feet while someone else out there is wandering in that joyous snow.

When you wake up January 1 of the new year, open your eyes and know that you are living in a brand new world, just born with the sun. And that, right there, is a piece of magic that you can carry with you every day of your life.

Open the back door. Step into magic. It is waiting.

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Wired asked writers to create 6-word SF stories

“Epitaph: He shouldn’t have fed it.” – Brian Herbert

More from Wired HERE

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Quote of the day

“The ability to “fantasize” is the ability to survive. It’s wonderful to speak about this subject because there have been so many wrong-headed people dealing with it…. The so-called realists are trying to drive us insane, and I refuse to be driven insane…. We survive by fantasizing. Take that away from us and the whole damned human race goes down the drain.” ~ Ray Bradbury

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The “Blessed Book”

The Secrets of Jin-shei cover frony and back

Hard cover of U.S. HarperCollins edition

An ebook version of “The Secrets of Jin-shei”, a historical fantasy that I wrote in a white heat in 2002, was released this year and has sparked renewed interest in the story of a group of women set in a China-that-never-was.

White heat means exactly that. Its 200,000 words took me less than three months to write and what came out was was a clean first draft which required very little editing. This was a story that was ready to live, and to fly.

I’ve never managed to match that blazing speed with any of my other books.

It’s a sweeping epic set in a land I called Syai that is modeled on medieval China; it is the story of a group of women, the Jin-shei sisterhood, who form a uniquely powerful circle that transcends class and social custom. They are bound together by a declaration of loyalty that transcends all other vows, even those with the gods, and by their own secret language passed from mother to daughter, and by the knowledge that some of them will have to pay the ultimate sacrifice to enable others to fulfill their destiny.

It has been published in 13 languages in more than a score of countries. In the United States it was put out by HarperCollins with the help of a wildly enthusiastic editor who loved the story fiercely… but the HC division which produced this book promptly went away as an entity. The book, after an initial publicity push, was pretty much left to fend for itself after the editor who had spoken so eloquently for it was out of the picture.

And yet it did exceedingly well in foreign editions. In Spain, for example, it sold more than 30,000 hardcover copies and “Bestseller” was stamped on the cover, I call it the Blessed Book.

It’s still in print, at least in the USA, but sales had dropped dramatically… until an ebook version as issued and it has been selling steadily ever since.

I am astonished and delighted that it still gets constant and on-going attention on reading venues like Goodreads where it has received 1,480 ratings (averaging just under four stars) and 166 reviews.

It has scored a respectable number of reviews on Amazon but because of Amazon’s astounding marketing power, I’d love to see the number of reviews climb there. (Hint, if anyone reading this blog has read Jin-shei and would like to add an Amazon review, I’d love to know what you think of it.)

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News about Children of a Different Sky

Carl Slaughter interviewed me on my themed fantasy anthology filled with  tales of migrants and refugees, with profits going straight to charities working with refugees and migrant..

CARL SLAUGHTER:  What prompted you to do an anthology with this theme?

ALMA ALEXANDER:  There are seven words that underlie the status of any refugee in the world, ever: “There but for the grace of God…”

It is not a new issue — people who run from disaster in the hope of finding a better future have always been with us. But what IS new is that now it is all being televised on 24-hour 7-days-a-week news channels, always available online on news websites.

We can no longer hide from the misery of these displaced souls because we see them running now — we see them on the crowded boats on open seas, we see them clawing to shore and drowning on the doorstep of salvation, we see them languish in camps where conditions are enough to horrify any sane mind, we see them crowding against barbed wire and against walls and being denied harbor because they are hated and feared and basically unwanted by the populace already on the ground in the places where the migrants wish to go.  People who cannot see that the refugees in this restless and lost crowd might one day, some day, just as easily be themselves.

 

I was eager to do what I could to help and the only way open to do that for someone like myself is to do that thing that I do – Tell Stories. And since there is always strength in numbers and I knew many stellar writers whom I knew I could ask to help this endeavor and who, if they were on board, would make a magnificent contribution.

That is how Children of a Different Sky came to be.

CS:  What was the story selection process?

AA: The theme of the anthology was the migrant/immigrant/refugee experience, and the story criteria were simple enough:

“Make me think; make me feel.”

And oh boy, did the stories in this book deliver on those terms. As an editor, this is a collection of which I am very proud. As a reader…this is one of the most luminous collection of stories I have ever seen in one place. This anthology began as a project with an idea – a charity anthology with proceeds of sales to go to organizations helping migrants and refugees on the ground. During the process of its incarnation, it grew into a living thing with breath and heartbeat.  And every story and poem in this book is one essential component of this transformation.

Read the whole interview HERE:

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Wired asked writers to create 6-word SF stories.

TIME MACHINE REACHES FUTURE!!! … nobody there …
– Harry Harrison

More from Wired HERE

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Quote of the day

Memory is not a storage place but a story we tell ourselves in retrospect. As such, it is made of storytelling material: embroidery and forgery, perplexity and urgency, revelation and darkness.”  — Psychologist Noam Shpancer

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Slava: a spiritual family reunion

2 slava dishes photo

 

A Slava day defines you, as a Serb

Where I come from, under the wing of the Orthodox Christian church, there is a custom which hinges on a saint’s identity and which is  I believe unique to the Serbian Orthodox faith. This is something that we know as “Slava”.

The word literally means “Celebration” – or maybe “Thanksgiving”. It is not an individual but rather a family celebration, and it is kept on the feast day of the patron saint of the entire family. The identity of this saint depends on the day on which the family celebrating the Slava first became Christians. The Slava of a family is something that unites the entire family under the banner of this commemoration of their first acceptance of their faith, and the same saint has been celebrated by individual families for centuries, for generations.

Even during the most suppressive of the Communist years, when the church was not popular and the people were hardly church-going on a regular basis, the Slava was kept – because in a  lot of ways it is embedded in a secular as well as a religious bedrock.

A Slava day defines you, as a Serb, in much the same way that keeping Seder would identify you as a Jew. There are celebrations and traditions which are passed down from generation to generation together with the icon of the family saint which is a treasured heirloom from the old to the young over the passage of decades and centuries.

In the traditional religious sense, on the day of the family Slava the family home is literally considered consecrated, if just for the day – it becomes a church, and the family within its congregation.

It is a day for the family to gather from near and far, traditionally at the home of the oldest living member of the family – the holder of the family icon. The gathered people, from great-grandparents to babes in arms, gather together to celebrate the existence of that family, to pray for the shining futures of the young ones, and to remember the ones who have passed from the family circle.

This is perhaps one of the most poignant and moving aspects of this tradition – the dead, the beloved ancestors, are not forgotten. The Slava has been called a “spiritual family reunion” by some, and while some may recoil from that, I think it is beautiful. In this church, in this culture, death has no dominion, and the grave does not sunder loved ones.

Those of us who have gone ahead are as present at these family celebrations as the noisiest of toddlers being kept a solicitous eye on by young parents. We are all one, we are family, we exist in a timeless place where there is always a memory. My own grandparents, two decades and more dead now, are as present to me on Slava days as if they were still sitting across the table from me at the family feast. I have loved them; they loved me; they live within me, always, under the blessing of the Slava.

The religious aspects of the celebration are – perhaps inevitably, given the identity of the celebrants – wrapped up and embedded in that feast. The family gathering generally culminates in a shared  smorgasbord which the women of the family labor for days to produce.

But there are two things on the menu that have deep religious and spiritual significance. One of them is the so-called “Slavski Kolac” (it’s pronounced “slavsky kolach”, and literally means Slava cake) which is a sort of bread baked specially for the occasion. It bears on its crust the sign of the cross.

But before you even get to the table you are greeted with a bowl of a special dish known as “Koljivo” (pronounced “kolyivo”) which is a dish made from wheat, nuts, sugar, and cloves. It is offered to visitors at the door in a bowl, and a spoonful is taken almost as a ritual greeting with “Sretna Slava!” (Happy Slava!) offered in return. The wheat has deep ecclesiastical meanings of its own – symbolizing such things as the Resurrection of Christ – but this is… a remembrance dish, made and offered and consumed in remembrance of all those who are only here with the family in spirit.

Every morsel of koljivo I take on November 11, my own Slava day, serves to take my mind back to those vanished and beloved grandparents whom I carry in my heart.

a slava feast and candleAnother of the Slava traditions is the candle – one that is supposed to have been purchased at the Church, or at least blessed by a priest, and which, once lit, is not permitted to be snuffed out. It must be allowed to burn down naturally  until it gutters out of its own accord. To do otherwise invites death into the family. (In practice, this has often meant that somebody has to sit up with the candle until the wee small hours,  until the moment it dies – leaving unattended open flames in a household, particularly one with (for instance) pets, is not a good idea and it needs to be supervised;

I have resorted, on occasion, to having the guttering candle tucked away in a metal foil nest in the bathtub in a bathroom firmly closed to unauthorized entry, if it persisted in still burning at two or three in the morning – but nothing on earth would  induce me to be practical and just snuff it out and go to bed. It must be allowed to burn down in God’s time, not my own.

Slava is passed on through the generations – but it gets complicated by intermarriage and the lineages of the families which celebrate different saints. It is usually the husband’s patron saint that the family takes on when a newly-wed couple choose their Slava – but the family icon is kept and treasured by the eldest member of the family and that only gets passed down to the next heir after he inherits the mantle of Eldest.

In my own family it was an interesting wrinkle that my grandmother and grandfather proved to have the same Slava day. This is very unusual, especially if the saint is a relatively minor one, and in this case the saint in question was St Avram, or Avramije – which translates into Abraham in the more westernized versions and when I was younger I was extremely puzzled for a long time as to what the Jewish biblical patriarch Abraham had done to deserve being turned into a Christian saint. But this was a different Avram, whose feast day fell on November 11, and my grandparents both held allegiance to him as their families’ patron saint –and thus he became ours.

This particular family, mine, has almost disintegrated in some respects – my grandparents had no sons, only two daughters, and each daughter produced a daughter in her turn, and one of those (my cousin) married a Jewish man, and so out of faith, and has only daughters herself in any event and the other (myself) married a relatively agnostic American and has no children who will ever embrace Slava. The two cousins, myself and my aunt’s daughter, both still keep Slava anyway, and our husbands have been trained to accept this and even to partake in it, being “adopted” into the family and the faith.

But after us, the branch grinds into dust because there is no son to inherit, no more generations to carry it further.

This “adoption” is partly possible because of the dual religious/secular nature of the celebration – because a big part of the family Slava is, well, family. And food. Traditionally anyone who calls at the door wishing the family a happy Slava must be fed; the women make appetizers and entrees, roast beasts of every stripe, and soups, and salads, and sweets of every description from tea cookies to rich cakes, and it’s all brought out and set out around the icon of the family saint, for the nourishment of the living and the souls of the dead. There is so much light, and love, and laughter, and remembrance.

It is truly a celebration, a celebration of life and of living, and it is a protection and a shelter against the onslaught of a world that does not care. FAMILY cares, and you will always have family – and the family will always have their Slava.

I will be celebrating once again, with the koljivo and the candle and the icon, come November 11. In honor of that St Avram on whose feast day, once, a long time ago, the distant ancestors whose blood now flows in my veins laid down their pagan beliefs and embraced Christianity. In memory of their blood and their bones, and the laughter and the loving arms of the grandparents who once loved me.

Happy Slava.

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Wired asked writers to create 6-word SF stories.

Gown removed carelessly. Head, less so.
– Joss Whedon

More from Wired HERE

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The power of words

The magic in booksBen White (@benwhitephotography) at Unsplash

Unbidden, unrehearsed, we supplied the next lines

Many years ago, on Opening Day of the then-new glass-and-steel Library in downtown Seattle, my husband and I happened to be on the scene together with literally THOUSANDS of enthusiastic people who were thronging the street outside the edifice (and my writer’s heart was gladdened to see so many readers who couldn’t wait to pour through the front doors…)

We got inside, with the rest of them and wandered around inspecting the place. We sat down to rest a moment, together with a bunch of other people who were all strangers to one another, on a chair which was part of a grouping of seats in the foyer.

One of the other people there was a young parent with a small child, and the child was having a picture book read to it, out loud. It might have been any picture book, but the words were familiar, familiar, familiar – and not just to me. So while the kid listened, rapt, those strangers at the group of seats began to smile and their heads began to swivel.

And the picture book came to,

If the area window was found ajar
And the basement looked like field of war,
If a tile or two came loose on the roof,
Which presently ceased to be waterproof,
If the drawers were pulled out from the bedroom chests,
And you couldn’t find one of your winter vests,
Or after supper one of the girls
Suddenly missed her Woolworth pearls.

Several of us, unbidden, unrehearsed, supplied the next two lines in a Greek chorus:

Then the family would say: “It’s that horrible cat!
It was Mungojerrie-or Rumpleteazer!”- And most of the time they left it at that.

That kid’s eyes, as they lifted off the book and onto us, were wide and awed. I suspect we made a lifelong convert to the world of books that day – because it was utter magic, how these people who didn’t know HER and apparently didn’t know ONE ANOTHER all knew how the next line went.

The grown-ups all smiled and nodded at each other across the space between the seats. Readers, all. THank you, Old Possum and all the Practical Cats.

And there’s more where that came from.

Jellicle cats are black and white
Jellicle cats are rather small…

Some time after that my own Jellicle left me. The cat I had left out of my matched pair of black-and-whites, was lost and bereft, her cries piteous in the night for a long time after.

It took me much longer. Even now, years later, there’s a hole in my life where Boboko used to live. I miss him, so badly – his goofiness, his playfulness, his loving nature, his imperious demands. Mungojerrie has gone to wreak his gentle Jellicle havoc someplace else while he waits for us all wherever it is that loved souls wait for those with whom they shared their earthly lives. And in time, maybe, I will learn to leave it at that.

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Wired asked writers to create 6-word SF stories.

His penis snapped off; he’s pregnant!
Rudy Rucker

More from Wired HERE

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Inside a writer’s mind

A few years back, a blog called ‘Universal Historicals’ interviewed me and asked some of the most interesting questions I’ve ever been asked. Some excerpts:

What’s the one thing that keeps you going back and writing?

Well, there are stories to be told. If I have been procrastinating too long, they shake me by the shoulders and tell me to get on with things. My stories are in a way my muses – I keep going back to them and talking to them and cajoling them and yelling at them and threatening dire action if they don’t do exactly as I say. They rarely do.

The stories are my friends, and a collective nemesis, and they demand that I tell them. What can I do but obey? They need my mind and my hand to release themselves out into the world. So I lend them. Willingly. Often. Again and again.

 

Why did you base your novel “The Secrets of Jin-shei” on a fictional China instead of making it a pure fantasy setting, as you did in, say, “Changer of Days”?China photo

The first inkling I had of the story which became “The Secrets of Jin-shei” was a page of ten character sketches, each a short paragraph long – the characters were nameless and faceless at that point.

I knew that they were going to be Oriental but not that they were to be specifically Chinese-inspired. Then I received a newspaper clipping about a dying language, a written women’s language taught from mother to daughter in China – and of how the last woman who had learned it organically in this way was dying and would take the living language with her. My ten character sketches sat up and became people, and after that China was inevitable.

With the fantasy duology, “Hidden Queen”/”Changer of Days”, it was more of a pure joyous storytelling, something that came from absolutely nowhere but my own imagination. It was tied to nothing and nobody in the “real”, our world.

Every book is different. Look at just these two examples – one purely imaginary, the other researched and rooted in an actual historical and geographical setting but still fantasy, a China-that-never-was. Another of my novels “Midnight at Spanish Gardens”, is set in a cafe called Spanish Gardens, a place which existed once, exactly as I described it.

A story chooses its context – at least, my stories do. Stories are like semi-sentient jewels, seeking for the setting that best shows them off. And they know best.

What are some of your favorite resources for research? Do you purchase the books you need, or find them at the library?

I buy them, I borrow them, I cadge them from friends if they have what I need, I use whatever means necessary.

And let me put in a plug here for used bookstores. The used books stores in the town in which I live are fantastic. They are stuffed with treasures, some which you never knew you needed until you tripped over them in a bottom shelf somewhere. I’ve found gems of obscure biographies in these stores, books long out of print, which contained precisely the context I needed for a scene or a chapter or a character. I’ve found coffee table books full of pictures, some of which gave birth to spectacular settings in my novels.

Old outdated encyclopedias can be invaluable resources (as in, “Good GRIEF – they actually believed THAT?”)

Memoirs, letters, even old creaky out of print novels by writers you’ve never heard of which happen to be set in the world which you are researching. As always, caveat emptor – you have to do ENOUGH research to know what’s true and what’s pure malarkey – you have to know the real rules before you are allowed to break them. But anything can be grist to the mill.

Research can be intoxicating and dizzying and it may be difficult to know just when to STOP. But while you’re doing it, it’s amazing, it’s like riding a wild horse without tack, and you never quite know where you’re going to end up. And sometimes that final destination is quite, quite different from the one you thought you were aiming at. Good research will do that – redirect you to Wonderful, instead of just This Will Do.

What scene do you like the most? Is there anything a character did that surprised you? 

I’m going to answer this one as pertains to “Midnight at Spanish Gardens”.

There are a dozen scenes in this book which I love. The scenes that bookend the book – my narrator Olivia’s thoughts on the café as she first approaches it, after so many years have passed since her last visit, and her thoughts about the place in the aftermath of the whole story that takes place between the covers of this book. The scene where another character finds out about… but that would be a spoiler… but it is one of the most powerful scenes in the book. The scene where another character meets her partner’s family at their wedding. Almost every scene with Ariel, the bartender around whom strange things happen.

The thing about scenes, for me, is that they have never been something that stands out as and of themselves. I know some writers literally use them as building blocks for a novel, working scene by scene, building up a story that way – whereas I tend to tell the story and then be surprised when it breaks up into discrete scenes afterwards. I am a most organic writer, and to me the value is in the whole, not the scenes. That said… YOU, the reader, might find individual scenes, which matter more than others. If anyone out there wants to let me know which, I would be fascinated to hear it.

And as for my characters doing things to surprise me… EVERYTHING my characters do surprises me. My best characters are very much in charge of their own stories. I have learned the hard way that my characters are not TAME characters – they are not hawks trained to jesses and hood. I set them free, and then I follow where they lead me. Everyone is happier that way.

My characters, my lovely ever surprising characters, are real people who live and breathe, they are someone you just haven’t met yet, but they exist. And if they walked out of the book, off the page, and stuck out their hand for you to shake it, you’d recognise them even if you have never formally met. Yes, they surprise me. I’ve been known to weep at some of the things my characters have chosen to do. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

There was a lot more to this Q&A and if you would like to read the rest, you can find it HERE

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Wired asked writers to create 6-word SF stories.

The baby’s blood type? Human, mostly.
– Orson Scott Card

More from Wired HERE

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The art of rewriting

The art of rewriting photoPhoto by Matthew Payne at Unsplash

First drafts are supposed to be awful.

That’s what they are for. You simply give yourself the permission necessary to write badly if you have to, for the purpose of getting the bones of the story down on the page. There will be time for fix-ups later.

So you do this thing, and the story comes out, and there it is, staring at you. And yea, verily, in your mind’s eye it was ever beautiful – and it’s still marginally lovely – but now that it is outside of you it begins to be glimpsed in its true shape.

And there…are..imperfections.

Let’s see. This can be tweaked. That can be fixed. This other thing needs to go, really. Something else needs to be written, and added in, to add clarity.

You know the drill.

For most of us, the architecture of the town of First Draft is familiar, and I have no real doubt that we’d probably recognize one another’s FirstDraftTowns fairly easily. But a strange thing happens when each individual writer leaves the city limits, en route for the wilds of SecondDraftia. It’s a dimensional portal that sends everybody to a different place, unique to themselves, full or peculiar traps and difficulties that are never quite found in the same shape or form in any other writer’s world.

i.e. All first drafts are rotten in a similar way. Every second draft has its own unique problems.

Different writers react to the art and the craft (and it is both) of rewriting in their own peculiar ways. Some tell me that they enjoy the act of rewriting and editing far more than they enjoy the actual storytelling – because for them the telling of the story is the hard part, and now that they have that, in however awful a shape, for them the real fun begins, and that is actually chiseling this raw and barely recognizable slab of marble into a real Michelangelo’s David, chipping away one tiny flake of marble at a time until it is all perfect and polished.

Others, – and oh dear GOD I fall into this category – want to tear their hair out at the roots at this point. Because the story, you see, has been told, and yes we who feel this way can see that it isn’t without flaw, nothing ever is, but in some senses it is perfect, it has a shape and a form and a balance inside our heads, and changing anything tends to have consequences everywhere, and you are faced with continuity issues from hell itself, and AAAARGH.

It’s the difference in tone – having a character say something as simple as “I’m sorry” in a different tone of voice, an inflection that might change it from an empty phrase of cold indifference (I’m sorry but I couldn’t care less really) to a genuine and sincere sympathy. It changes that character. And it changes the way other people respond to that character. And that changes other conversations. And that changes what people might have known, and when they might have known it. And that changes the flow of the story. And that…

Well, you get the idea.

Before too long, you pull out one thread and you realize that it’s all falling apart around you and you’re scrambling to hold together in a coherent whole something that looked perfectly solid just a moment before. It’s like the cement holding the story together suddenly turns to jello on you and the edifice starts tottering precariously and oops, there goes a piece you really didn’t want to lose but argh it doesn’t fit any more, and dammit, there’s all those words on the cutting room floor and wasn’t there something important there that you absolutely need to salvage – or rephrase – or do something constructive with…

Pardon the mess.

And you know what the worst of it is? It’s that if you’re good enough you’ll end up with a seamless piece of prose that doesn’t look like it’s been tinkered with, that looks like it’s always been perfect, that it was born this way. A reader who never saw the original will never know.

And they shouldn’t, that’s part of the point, but while you’re in the throes of working as hard as you know how, trying your damndest to change your beloved tale from passable to good or maybe even from good to great, you know that this part of your job is always going to be done alone and in the dark and without reward. It’s just a hard slog. Yes, knowing that there is something worthwhile at the end of it all helps but in the meantime you’re working on your own in the dark with a flashlight held between your teeth and with the right tools always just out of reach in the shadows.

I’ve just started writing a new novel now, a story that excites me and could be even be something transcendent, an eagle, soaring high and powerful up there in the open skies.

It’s not even a first draft yet, but all too soon it will be. And then the dreaded rewriting starts all over again.

However much of a mess that first draft is going to be, the basic good story will be there. In the rewriting I will have to make it better, and it can always be better, I know that.

But still – it is one of those things that I will be glad to have done even though I will be far from happy doing it. With luck, those of you who might read it one day will never know what I changed, how I tweaked, what I had to lose and what it was necessary to graft on.

And please, for the the sake of everybody involved… if you should happen to see a little dust, or a stray broken bit of a past imperfection littering the floor at the feet of the completed story statue, be merciful, and forgive. And kick it discreetly someplace out of sight.

~~~~~
Wired asked writers to create 6-word SF stories.

Easy. Just touch the match to
– Ursula K. Le Guin

More from Wired HERE

~~~~~
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It’s a matter of consent

Photo by Mike Wilson on Unsplash

Photo by Mike Wilson on Unsplash

The difference

I just spent an evening – together with several other women – trying desperately to explain to a man why #metoo matters and why he was wrong to obstinately insist, “yeah yeah yeah but MEN, let’s talk about the men” in between snippets of “and I’m an ally, look at what I said HERE and HERE and HERE.’

One thing he simply couldn’t get. There are many kinds of men. Some are with us and some are against us – but we don’t know which are which. It is often really hard to tell because it isn’t what they say that matters; in the end, it’s what they do.

Let me tell you two stories, about two different men.

Story #1

The flight I was supposed to be on was leaving from Belgrade and we had all been herded into this single small room and left there to stew while the flight was delayed and delayed and delayed again.

There was an agent podium in the room but no agent at it. When one finally arrived, I took it upon myself – because I spoke Serb and most of the others didn’t – to go up there and demand, unsuccessfully as it turned out, an update and explanation.

When the fllght finally boarded after a several hours (still unexplained) delay, I found my seat. A small dark man sat down next to me and informed me that he had paid the hostess to change his seat so that could sit beside me because he had watched me deal with the agent at the gate and “loved feisty women.”

As we taxied out, he showed me pictures of a lovely house he owned in Cyprus.

He then asked me to marry him.

As a Muslim he was allowed four wives, he explained. He assured me that his senior wife wouldn’t mind and told me that I could have the Cyprus house for my own (and he’d just come and visit me there, I suppose…) I told him I had no plans to get married. He took the book I was reading and wrote his name and phone number on the front cover — in case I ever changed my mind.

It was a short hop, but it was the longest flight of my life. I waited for him to leave, pretending to be busy with my possessions. I left the book – which I had not finished, but which I really didn’t want to own any more – in the seat pocket when I finally left the plane. I sneaked out of the airport looking over my shoulder, hoping that he hadn’t hung around to accost me, hoping he wouldn’t see me catch a cab, follow me elsewhere.

Story #2, about quite a different kind of man.

I was in Heathrow airport, and once again the flight I was supposed to be catching to Cape Town was delayed and delayed and delayed.

There came a time when I had read everything I had to read, even the small print on the back of my ticket (for once in my life I knew all the terms and conditions of my carriage on this plane.) I finally gave up the struggle and dragged my baggage to the concession store. I found a new novel by a writer I quite liked – but all I had left of the local currency was a pocketful of loose change. And what I had wouldn’t stretch to the price of the book. I turned my coins over and over in my hands but they obstinately refused to come out to the right amount.

Finally this amused male voice behind me said, “Okay, how much do you need?

Twenty bloody P,” I snarled, and a hand came snaking over my shoulder with the required coinage.

Please take it,” the voice said, “I can’t bear to watch.

I took it, and bought the book. I ended up not reading it, because I struck up a conversation with this guy. We sat chatting for another two hours before the flight got off the ground, and because we’d got on so well we made plans to try and swap out seats with people next to us when on the plane so that we could sit together and continue talking.

When I claimed my assigned seat, I realized I couldn’t do anything about this because I was in a family knot – two parents and three children, and me in the last seat that made up those two rows. But then I saw him waving at me across the plane, and I picked up my stuff and made my way over there.

He informed me triumphantly that he had just arranged for us to do what we had planned… and then his face fell when he realized that he had made this arrangement not with the passenger sitting next to him but with one sitting in the equivalent seat in the row BEHIND him.

The woman who was sitting in the seat that we needed was sufficiently entertained by the fiasco to volunteer without being asked to swap rows, and so there we were, my new friend and I, finally ensconced next to each other, laughing and in a breathlessly good mood not often found on long flights.

Turned out he was “in diamonds”, and he inspected the ones I wore on my hands and told me fascinating stuff about their caratage and quality and how diamonds were rated and made and valued. We talked for hours about that and all sorts of other things. And then I began to yawn and squirm in my seat trying to get comfortable – an impossibility because I have never been able to become comfortable in economy class seats on long flights. He watched for a moment and then lifted an arm, patting his shoulder with his other hand. It was a wordless invitation – not an entitlement, not an expectation, just this: if you need a shoulder to lean on as a pillow, here I am.

So I did. And he held me, in security and comfort and trust – because he ASKED, and I CHOSE TO ACCEPT, this was the ultimate code of consent.

It might have been the best night’s sleep I ever had on a long uncomfortable flight. If he felt stiff or cramped he never said a word, and when I woke and sat up he released me, and we had breakfast, and then the plane landed, eventually, in Johannesburg, which was a transit stop, and the place where he got off. He gathered his stuff together, we smiled and said goodbye. He walked down the airplane aisle, his briefcase in one hand, his coat folded over his other arm.

Then he stopped, turned, and came back. He leaned down and kissed me, gently, lightly, just a brush of lips. He smiled again, a smile of farewell. And was gone.

I have tried very hard to forget that first guy. I have never had any trouble remembering the second one.

It was all wrapped in consent, that second encounter; it was a man who was being a friend, an ally, someone I could trust who never once did a single thing to abuse that trust. He held a stranger for hours while she slept, and protected her, and kept her safe and completely secure. I think that when he turned, as he left, if he had seen anything on my face that gave him the impression that I was done with him, he would have walked on. But I was still watching him, and I was smiling. He understood that at face value He knew he was entitled to claim no more than that light kiss, but he claimed it. And I freely gave it. He DESERVED it.

For anyone who wants to understand… there it is. The difference between a #metoo story and a cherished memory. If you are a man and you ever want to know what you can do, how you can help… take what lessons you can from these two stories.

~~~~~
Wired asked writers to create 6-word SF stories.

I’m dead. I’ve missed you. Kiss … ? – Neil Gaiman

More from Wired HERE

~~~~~
If you found this blog post interesting, amusing or helpful, then please use the icons below to share it with other writers, readers or the guy next to you on the subway.