Take a Moment

A life is made of moments.

 It is stitched together from the things you remember most vividly — the peaks and the valleys, the turning points, the places where you paused, or hurried, or changed direction.

In fiction, these are the things that will linger in a reader’s mind after the story is over.

And this is when a visual medium definitely has a edge on the written word. A moment in a movie can hinge on a gesture, an exchange of meaningful glances without a word being spoken. It can be the tiniest change of expression.

 In an episode of the TV show “The Mentalist”, one of the characters was a young man who was ‘slow’, developmentally disabled. The character presentation was utterly perfect – the open and trusting expression on the boy’s face, the way everyone spoke to him with an edge of pitying kindness and his apparent grateful acceptance of that attitude… right until the moment when everything changed. The boy whom we had thought of as simple-minded was sitting in a chair in an interrogation room, having his bluff called and something indescribable changed. His eyes hardened and sharpened, somehow, and you realized with an electric jolt that he had been stringing everyone along in an expert con, that this was no simpleton but instead a very cold and calculating mind capable of incredible things.

 There are several such scenes shared between Londo Mollari and G’Kar in the Babylon 5 TV series. At one point, Londo offers to share a drink to a peaceful future between their once-warring worlds… and G’Kar, holding Londo’s eyes and in absolute silence, lifts the glass that Londo has filled as if to toast and then slowly, deliberately, pours it back into the bottle untasted. “I see,” Londo says stiffly. And so do we: there can be no forgiveness. What lies between these two is too big, too powerful to dismiss with a toast. We understand all of this, viscerally, through a fragment of a scene which lasts less than a minute of shared screen time.

 Sometimes the entire emotional landscape of a character – frustration, hatred, love, triumph, envy, pity, sorrow, exultation, surrender, regret, fury, even a lapse into full and chaotic madness – can be distilled into a single gesture, a single glance. What you can convey in less than thirty seconds of film time… would take you a chapter of words to convey properly in a book.

 This is the thing with the written word. It requires more mental engagement. A visual moment is seen, and shared, and immediately understood. A written moment needs more set-up, and develops more slowly in your head; it is probably never quite the same for any two readers of the same given scene because what is built up in each reader’s head is different and utterly beyond any writer’s control.

 It is not to say that the written moments are the lesser. They can be more enduring because of the simple fact that the readers paint them with their own imagination, their own mental scenery, and etch it into permanence in their mind.

 But a book needs time, and effort, and attention to do this. You can look at a scene on a screen and you can respond immediately, viscerally, because you are responding to what your senses are handing you, to what you can see and hear. But you have to give a book far more than that. You need to get deeply enmeshed, you need to reach in and wrap the words around you like so many tangled Christmas lights. A good book, one with good moments, becomes a lifelong friend and one to which you will return again and again because of that moment that it shared with you.

 There are dozens of books with “moments” I remember, where the plot revolves around those moments, where the characters are built and wrapped around those moments. Guy Gavriel Kay’s “Tigana” has a lot of such moments. In one, one of the characters defiantly screams out the forbidden and decreed-by-magic forgotten name of the country which he loves. It is a hair-standing-up-on-the-back-of-my-neck moment, that, and if you haven’t read that book I suggest you hie off and get yourself a copy now).

 In my own latest novel, “Midnight at Spanish Gardens”, there are a number of these moments. One which has been singled out by readers occurs during the segment to do with John, my young doctor, while he is on rotation in the children’s cancer ward.

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In the beginning, he copes – by putting up a defense of basic professionalism, and trying to treat the kids as patients, and their syndromes as disease, and himself as The Doctor with all the answers. The ‘moment’ comes when he realizes how utterly beyond his control everything really is – and everything rearranges in his head. The patient becomes a little dying boy; the disease becomes a fire-breathing monster against which he is helpless. And it breaks him. He is two very different people in the instant before this ‘moment’ hits him, and immediately afterwards. And there is no reconciling those two people. In the blink of an eye he has crossed from one world into another and he can’t go back. He simply sees everything in a different light.

 Writers have to invest far more into that moment because all they have with which to evoke that visual and sensory response from you, are the words on the page. A writer doesn’t have the luxury of showing a viewer the transformation in a character’s personality just because the viewer is watching that character’s eyes change from “good natured, slightly simple” to “cold calculating potential serial killer.” A writer has to describe this to you, the reader, and then you have to visualize it – there is an extra step in there, and you BOTH have to work harder for it, writer and reader alike.

As a writer, I am sometimes profoundly envious of the way that a movie scene of less than a minute, can convey a feeling, an attitude, that is an instant  gratification – something that it would take me pages and pages to properly present and explore in a book. But also as a writer I am also grateful that the medium of the written word allows me a more enduring connection with a reader’s mind… because what I present in those pages is not so much the destination as a map and then I allow the reader to create their own destination which will color and enrich their own experience of the things that I wrote.

A writer allows readers to create their own moments.

Writing short and long

When not writing, author Susan Curnow of Alberta, Canada, is wrangling horses, walking her Irish Wolfhound or being owned by her cats. She recently interviewed me on her blog:                                             —-

Susan: As  well as your novels, you’ve put together some superb anthologies. Do you think this is an essential part of an author’s resume – to write short stories? Is this why you are putting together the Alexander Triads?


Alma: No, of course not. Some fine novelists have never written anything “short” in their lives – others have, but the short works were awful (because they insisted on being embryonic novels), and some brilliant short story writers have never written anything longer than maybe 10,000 words.

And that’s perfectly okay. Being able to write both short AND long is not a requirement in this game. But you are blessed if you can. Some people, like Neil Gaiman, for instance, are equally at ease in both formats.

I actually don’t write that much “short” fiction – my natural length is somewhere in the region of (on average) 90,000 words. The rules for writing long and writing short are very different indeed and it takes experience and practice to be able to follow them properly in either format.

Think of novels as a necklace of gleaming diamonds, something that works together to produce a nice, well balanced piece of jewelry. A short story is by contrast a single perfect gem. And where the occasional flawed stone in the necklace can be masked by the quality of the stones next to it, the short story has no such luxury – it has to work and stand on its own, there is nothing that exists around it to hide those imperfections. This can be a daunting task. You wouldn’t think so if you just compared the sheer amount of words but a short story is a much heavier load than a novel is – and if the novel is all you can comfortably carry the weight of a short story can crush you.

And no, it is in no way essential as a part of a writer’s resume. You write short stories because they insist on being told that way, because you WANT to, and never, not EVER, because you think you are obliged to.

As for the Triads, they kind of grew out of an original collection of short stories which was literally my first published book, “The Dolphin’s Daughter and Other stories.” It now has a new lease of life as the Alexander Triads book #1, “Once upon a fairy tale.”

Once I reissued those three thematically connected  stories it was a natural progression to come up with other “triads” of connected stories, some published and others never before seen. It’s been rather fun, actually. And there are a couple more Triads planned, and in the works.

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Susan asked some interesting questions and you can read the whole interview here

The Rapture of Language

I was afflicted early with a love of language.

I was barely four when I taught myself to read, because a favorite book that had been read to me by my mother had been finished, and she could not be persuaded to start again from the beginning – so I just picked up the book and started reading it for myself.

I was a fluent reader by the time I was five, and it was then my poet grandfather started to include me in his work. He wrote sonnets and would read them out loud to me. I listened with childish gravitas, sitting quietly, letting the words come and settle on me like butterflies. Then one day I told him,

“Grandpa, that one doesn’t scan.”

He blustered a bit – “Of COURSE it scans!” – and then checked and discovered I was right. He was astonished, and exhilarated; he had found a kindred spirit, an heir for his love of language and of poetry. As for myself, language, poetry, were so much in my blood by this time that I would never ever live another day without them.

I read my mother’s collected works of Pearl Buck and Howard Spring before I was ten years old. In translation, of course – it was when I was ten that we moved from my native land and into an English-speaking environment. A new language for me, and one which I fell into and drowned in. To be sure, I started out reading the very early Enid Blyton, the subject matter might have been far too “young” for me but the language level was entry-level perfect. By the time I was thirteen , I was reading John Galsworthy. From Noddy to the Forsyte Saga in less than three years – it was quite a leap, that.

But in between I had started to read other things, too.

I read the Narnia books. A little later, “The Hobbit”, and not too much after that, “Lord of the Rings”. I read Asimov. Bova. Zelazny. Clarke. Bradbury. I detoured into Moorcock and McCaffrey. T H White and Mary Stewart’s Merlin books. The stars and the dragons were calling me, and I surrendered willingly to the spell.

I wrote my first “novel” when I was a pre-teen – it was horrible, derivative, and thankfully it does not survive. But the NEXT one does, the one I started writing when I was thirteen – in pencil -nearly six hundred PAGES of cramped tiny handwriting.  It resurfaced recently, and you know what, it stands up. Oh, the writing is quite silly sometimes, for the love of God I was thirteen! – but the story stands up. I’m actually considering going back in there, tossing most of the thirteen-year-old writing, and resurrecting the STORY.

I was well and truly caught up in the Rapture of Language by this time. Swirled around in a tornado of words, making landfall now and then in strange and unexpected places, writing, always writing. I wrote the massive doorstop novel that would eventually become the “Hidden Queen” and “Changer of Days” duology – all quarter-million words of it – while I was pursuing a graduate degree in Microbiology, writing a high fantasy novel in the lab while experiments bubbled away on the bench behind me.

I wrote more than a thousand book reviews, from the 1980′s to the present day, published in newspapers and journals and magazines in five countries and four continents as well as online. I wrote stories. I wrote more poetry. I continued reading.

And then, in Auckland, New Zealand, I discovered science fiction conventions – more to the point, I discovered that there was going to be one in Auckland, that there was to be a writers workshop at it, and that one of the guests of honor was one of my personal literary gods, Roger Zelazny,.

I sent in my story immediately, to be considered for the workshop, and then spent the next six months biting my fingernails, asking myself in pitiful tones why I had thought this would be a good idea, I had sent a sample of my scribbling to be read by ROGER ZELAZNY, why was I not satisfied with allowing people to THINK that I was a fool who thought she could write instead of flinging a sample of said writing at them and removing all doubt. But I was accepted into the workshop, and when the day dawned I presented myself with four other lucky winners to the small conference room where it was to be held. The idea was for us to crit each other’s stories, and when all of us were done with a particular tale the two pros in the room – Roger Zelazny and Vonda McIntyre, of whom I have to admit I hadn’t heard prior to this con – would weigh in with their comments.

When it came to my story, Vonda handed her copy to me annotated to an inch of its life, commentary in every margin and in between lines, some of it pointing out infelicities to be sure but there was at least one “Great!” in there too.

And then I turned to Roger Zelazny, sitting on my left, and my soul was in my eyes. And the man sat there, smiling, making no effort to look at piece of paper or hand me back anything at all, just this quiet smile that lit up his grey eyes with a luminous inner light, and said to me,

“I just have two questions. How long have you been writing?”

“Since I was able to hold a pencil,” I said.

 He nodded knowingly.

“And do you read and/or write a lot of poetry?”

“Yes.”

He nodded again, and his smile widened. And he pronounced the blessing that has stayed with me for many years, unfaded by time.

“It shows,” Roger Zelazny said to me. “You have a voice all of your own. Nobody else will ever write quite like this.”‘

That was barely two months before he died. But those words stay with me always, keeping the light alive, never letting me forget that I was part of this world, part of the Word and its Community, part of the Rapture of Language – I walk into bookshops and breathe deep of the scent of books, I walk into strangers’ houses and the first thing I look at are bookshelves and what’s on them, I have wept and laughed out loud at things caught on the pages of books, and I have continued to weave words and worlds of my own, cast in that language of dream and poetry that once caused Roger Zelazny to call it my “voice”.

It’s addictive.

If you’re already in the same place, you’ll understand this addiction with a visceral instinct, you’ll recognize it, you’ll have your own stories which either *are* books or are about books.

If you’re just getting here… welcome and come on in. The books are waiting. The Rapture is already reaching out for you.

Which door would you pick?

Something going the rounds in LiveJournal posits this: You find yourself in front of seven identical doors. A voice from above tells you, “These seven doors lead to seven different places: Narnia, Neverland, Wonderland, Hogwarts, Camelot, Middle Earth, and Westeros. Which door do you go through?”

I would add two more doors that lead into my own worlds:

Syai, the China-that-never-was-but-might-have-been, either in “The Secrets of Jin-shei” or the book set in the same world hundred of years later, “Embers of Heaven.”

Worldweavers, the home of Thea Winthrop and Elemental Magic, where you could walk and talk with Nilola Tesla and Corey the Trickster.

Okay. My answers on the original seven (because asking an author which of her own worlds  she would choose to live in is like asking her which of her children she loves best):

First off, the obvious NO: Westeros. I’ve never read the whole entire series of books, and from what I’ve seen of the TV show basically tells me that unless I step out of that door on the far side as ALREADY a queen (and even THEY often don’t fare all that well), my life would tend to be short sharp and brutal and thank you very much but I’ll pass. Besides, for some reason, what I HAVE seen of George R R Martin’s epic I’ve enjoyed on the level that it’s a punchy story that rolls you forward but on some deep and fundamental level it just never did satisfy me.

Narnia – if you has asked me this question when I was fourteen I would probably have run, not walked, to Narnia. Particularly if I could meet Aslan (who was not, after all a TAME lion). There was just… something. Something magical. But then I fatally read, or was educated about, the stuff between the lines, and Narnia has sort of lost its gloss after that. I can still love it, and enjoy it, but there is a tight wary part of me that wants nothing to do with the allegorical layering within it and I do NOT want to end up where I think I would end up if I went there, with Aslan magically transforming into one of those religious-postcard blue-eyed Jesuses with an expression of inexpressible beatitude and an attitude of “you will be just fine if you do what I say you do and think only what I say you think”. I’m sorry, but I’m way beyond that. I have my own ideas. If I could be guaranteed Aslan and ONLY Aslan, I might consider it. Otherwise….

Neverland and Wonderland share a particular characteristic which means I’d love to visit but not stay there longterm – an overwhelming preponderance of the twee and the whimsical. In the case of Alice – particularly in the Looking Glass books – you might say that it all means an entirely different thing and that if you pay attention you might actually understand this and have an experience that is vastly different from what you think you are seeing. And while I do ADORE Lewis Carroll’s obvious and irrepressible love of language – if I had to LIVE with that I’d be insane in short order. I’d probably TURN into a Jabberwock and start eating people.

Hogwarts – oh, I don’t know. There are wonderful things in that world. There are also things that make me roll my eyes mightily and go, oh, REALLY?!? And learning pig latin to do spells… would lose its charm fast.

Which leaves us with Camelot, and Middle Earth.

Camelot was an enduring love affair, for me. I LOVE the Arthurian cycle (well, the parts of it before it turns into a Christian tract and the only thing that matters is finding the metaphysical equivalent of selvation in the shape of the Holy Grail. But it had a power to it that I responded to, the power of PEOPLE living a MYTH. When I was 19 I even wrote an entire novel from the POV of Guinevere (and discovered that it was a damnably difficult thing to do because she could not POSSIBLY know half the things that I needed her to know in order to carry the plot forward, without resorting to silly little-girl tricks like listening at doors…) Given a chance to go through that door and find myself in Camelot… ah, well, the rub here is WHICH Camelot, and what I will find there. But this one would tempt me. Tempt me hard.

In the end there is only one door for me, though, and I am sure those of you who know me picked this one for me right from the start.

I am a Tolkien girl.

For a very long time I have lived and breathed Middle Earth.

I may not know Quenya, but my heart speaks that, and Entish, and knows how to sing “Misty Mountains” in the original tongue of the Dwarves who wrote it. I understand this world, and I treasure it. In fact, I hardly need to open that door and step through… because I am already there. I’ve been there for as long as I know.

So, then. Which door would you pick?