The right seasons

I was born in the Northern hemisphere, in July, in the SUMMER.

I grew up on the changing of the seasons in their proper order – the bare trees of winter would bud into pale yellowish-green young leaves, and those leaves would unfurl into the full deep green of summer and spread thick dark shade on the ground underneath the full crowns of trees, and then those leaves would start turning colors.

This was proper. New Year’s Eve was crisp and cold and snowy; May smelled of lilac and June of roses; Octobers were golden. All was well with the world.

Then I turned 10 and we left old Europe for barely subtropical Africa. New Year arrived that year and it was WARM, snow was only a memory. Then it got worse – we moved further down into the southern hemisphere and ALL my seasons reversed. My birthday was now sweater weather and came close to mid-winter. And Christmas and New Year were celebrated by barbecues on the beach, in bikinis. The years slipped by, one after another.

Everything was wrong wrong wrong wrong. All the seasons upended.

Then I married, moved to tropical Florida and lived for just over two years in flip-flops and bare feet. The heat and humidity was relentless, the bleached skies, the sapping weight of it all. I said to my husband, GET ME OUT OF HERE!

I wanted my seasons back. I wanted to look outside my window at a tree and be able to tell you what season it is. I wanted to recognise winter if a branch was bare or covered in sparkling frost; or fall if it was golden; or summer if it was deep green; or spring if it was budding.

We started looking for a place like that. And then we found it.Fall in Washington photo

I looked outside today and the golden branches of my maple against the backdrop of the deeper green of the cedars told me everything about what season it was – October, late fall. I look out of that same window, or out into my garden, and I know what time of year I am in. And it is the RIGHT time of year. And I am grounded again, like I used to be in my childhood, connected to my world and its seasons and its turning.

I am home.


Bob Dylan’s silence “Impolite and Arrogant”, Nobel Prize member says

Bob Dylan montageLex Van Lieshout/European Pressphoto Agency

Nobel lit prizes seem to be given to the most obscure candidate on the list – a novelist from Outer Mongolia, or a poet from Central Africa whose single collection was rarely ttranslated into any language the selection committee had any hope of understading it in. Rarely does anyone actually recognize a laureate’s name from before they were awarded the Nobel.

Bob Dylan may not be the first songwriter who was considered for this prize. By all accounts, Rabindranath Tagore wrote songs in his time, but I WOULD like to respectfully suggest that in that time songs were something rather different than what they are today. Today, lyrics may be POETIC but they’re hardly LITERATURE which makes this award a little bit awkward for me. If anyone deserves an award like this and is also a musician, how about someone like Leonard Cohen.

Or if they really wanted to ring the changes, why not a GENRE WRITER? I know, shock horror. I nominate Ursula Le Guin. How about it?

Read the whole story about the upset member’s comments at the NYT HERE


Resurrecting gods: Where discarded deities wait for shelter

Could there be such a thing as a no-kill shelter for unwanted gods? What happens when you stop believing in a god?

Actually I wrote a story along those lines – “Night Train“, which appeared in the Dark Faith II: Invocations anthology a couple of years back. The answer might be that old gods never die, just fade away — unless you keep believing.

So all that incense being burned. It isn’t a no-kill shelter. It’s a no-death shelter…

Read the whole story HERE

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Something is wrong

The uniqueness of story

You hear all kinds of numbers for the plot lines available to authors — 27, 10, 7, 3, 2, 1.

Those who favor two – “Someone leaves town/Someone comes to town” — have a point.

But personally I believe that there is really only one : “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.

There have always been demands that every story be “unique”. Presumably that means that it’s  possible to foresee any single part of the development in advance of its actual occurrence or the authors of such works are “wasting their precious time”.

This circles back to the other discussion, the one about what readers and writers owe each other.

I realize, 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, 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.

Take my own work. When it comes to “The Secrets of Jin-shei”, comments have ranged from:

“Go out there and get this book. And I mean NOW.”
“Graceful and lyrical”
“My favorite book, ever!”


“Okay. (but) Not worth keeping.”

…all the way to

“Feminist claptrap”
“Anti-feminist diatribe”
“Falls into all the old traps, and I threw it against the wall”

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 with not just one but a BUNCH of female protags (shock! horror!).

The ones who want to pick holes in the social fabric can only see that, for instance, one character was made Chancellor… and then nothing about her work as Chancellor was referred to in the book ever again; or that another character 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.

But the point is, this subtest (counterplot if you like) is the thing that the reader brings to the story. This subtext may or may not have anything to do with the story being told. Of course it would have been fascinating to explore the character’s Chancellorship – but this book was plenty long enough as it was, and *it wasn’t just that character’s story*. Etcetera. I wrote the story that I was told, not, perhaps, the story that that particular reader wanted to read. I cannot be apologetic about that.

But coming back to the uniqueness of the tale – I actually stumbled onto the whole idea of nushu, the secret language of the Chinese women on the concept of which my story was based, and I wrote a historical fantasy or alternative history based on that idea. There didn’t seem to be many books with that as the plot bunny around – but less than two years after mine came out, hello, here they all  came – anyone heard of “Snow Flower and the Secret Fan”?

I promise you this – pick up the two books and read them side by side and although they are based on the same idea – i.e. NOT UNIQUE – they could not be more different. Boil down their plots to the distillate, and nushu – or, as I renamed it, jin-ashu – and the bonds it forged between women of a certain geographical and temporal locale are there in both books, and if you rendered the plots of both books into a single sentence, you’d probably find it hard to differentiate between the two of them.

How much more prevalent this is when you look at genre?

Mills and Boons and Harlequin books made a business out of the non-uniqueness of their plots and stories – they had a fricking TEMPLATE which their authors got and were supposed to adhere rigidly to. But even leaving that aside completely, ALL romance shares a certain set of genre requirements.

In a romance, and this defines it, the two protagonists have to be together on practically every page – and if they are not in an actual physical clinch then they must be quarelling with each other, hating each other, thinking obsessively about each other. A happy ending was mandatory (perhaps certain more modern lines have a bit of wiggle room on this, but you could NOT have a self-respecting romance novel where He and She did not end up together happily ever after. Just how unique is ANYONE’s romance? Utterly, I’d say – no two relationships are the same – but when you reduce it to a plot of a novel, it remains Boy Meets Girl, whatever dressing up you apply to the basic mannequin.

In fantasy, my own beloved, things are even more dire, because you have a limited number of tropes which define fantasy – and by definition no fantasy book is truly unique. It is the details that the writer puts in that make it so, the world that is being built, the interaction of the characters. “Lord of the Rings” is emphatically not the same book as Guy Gavriel Kay’s “Tigana” or “A song for Arbonne”; neither of those books bear much resemblance to the work of Kate Eliot, Glenda Larke, or J K Rowling.

But scratch them all hard enough, and the same tropes will bleed out, silvery and scintillating fantasy blood, for it is of quests we speak (personal or chasing after magic rings), and of insurmountable troubles, and often of battles and deaths and mourning, and transcendent love, and betrayal, and pity, and of building up and tearing down, learning to fly and tumbling from the sky, finding one’s own gifts or a place in one’s world, sometimes over dead bodies of those one loved or through tragedy stark enough to drain a human being and leave him or her a creature of stone and poison and ice and fury.

But still, whatever drama we the writers throw at our hapless heroes to make our stories “unique”, it all boils down to that same simple sentence that encapsulates the Plot: SOMETHING IS WRONG.

I’ve seen genre books (SF and fantasy) juxtaposed with so-called literary or mainstream fiction by describing the former as stories where strong and normal and (relatively) well-adjusted people take on broken circumstances, and the latter where broken people deal with ordinary circumstances.

I suppose that, too, is one way of breaking down plot – but once again, even on that basis, there is no such thing as a unique story.  The last certified original idea was seen fleeing for the hills back when humans first started telling stories.

There is no such thing as an original story – for everything is a circle, things that HAVE happened will happen again; things that ARE happening have happened before; human life is human life, and THAT is what our fiction is based on. It has to be. We know no other yardstick.

What I, the writer, owe you, the reader, is a GOOD story, not one that has never been told before. I cannot promise that, or deliver it. And if you come into this relationship seeking that, then we will both wind up disappointed.

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The acceptance of moose

A 5-star review of ‘Dawn of Magic’, the fourth and final book in my young adult series, Worldweavers, contains this delightful sentence:

“There is probably some truth there to carry away on what college is, diplomas, and the inevitable acceptance of moose.”

Everyone knows about diplomas, of course. But you might have to read the book to understand where the “acceptance of moose” comes into it. 🙂

Opening lines quizDawn Of Magic poster Which novel started with the above line?

1) “Molloy” by Samuel Beckett
2) “The Sirens of Titan” by Kurt Vonnegut
3) “Murphy” by Samuel Beckett
4)  “Slaughterhouse-Five” by Kurt Vonnegut

I did OK. You?

See the whole quiz at Buzzfeed HERE

I so want to be Ursula Le Guin when I grow up…

The gift of Ursula Le Guin:

‘She makes the ordinary feel as important as the epic’:

Ursula Le Guin head shotsRead the whole article at The Guardian HERE

Another story from The Nation notes that:

Ursula Le Guin Has Stopped Writing Fiction—but We Need Her More Than Ever

The author on sexism, aging, and the radical possibilities of imaginative story telling.

Read it The Nation HERE

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Photo by Mary Anne Mohanraj

You can read anywhere in time and space, but I’m not sure if it is bigger on the inside.

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Free books forever

Well, for the rest of your life, anyhow.

Heywood Hill, a London bookshop, is offering the books in a contest marking its 80th anniversary. To win, readers must nominate the book that has meant the most to them.

The winner, who will be chosen at random in a drawing, will get “one newly published and hand-picked hardback book per month, for life, delivered anywhere in the world”.

Heywood Hill Bookshop photoHeywood Hill bookshop. Photograph: Heywood Hill

Think about that for a minute. Free books. Sent to you. For the rest of your life. Books on the doorstep. Packages of words. The utlimate gift of reading. And all you have to do to change your life to this wondrous reality is to go tell these good people about a book which has ALREADY changed your life in some way.

That should be easy – you love reading, don’t you? You’ve read so many that are great… so many… ah but which to choose?

Well, if any book of mine ever changed your life and you want to submit it… Well, I’d be deeply honored. 🙂

Read the whole story at The Guardian website HERE

5 Hotels with Artists-In-Residency Programs

Insanely cool idea!

But I’m not sure about this one from the New York Ace Hotel.

Ace Hotel room photoEmerging writers, including Chelsea Hodson and Dale Peck, stay and explore a forgotten art form: the letter. They then leave the missives bedside for guests.

I don’t know – if I came in to my hotel room to turn in for the night – especially if it addressed me by name – I might find it a little bit eerie (and start looking for the hidden cameras…)

Read more at HERE

42 Douglas Adams quotes to live by

“Reality is frequently inaccurate.”

Douglas Adams headshotThe author of The Hitch-hiker’s Guide To The Galaxy knew a thing or two about life, the universe and everything. for example:

“Beauty doesn’t have to be about anything. What’s a vase about? What’s a sunset or a flower about? What, for that matter, is Mozart’s Twenty-third Piano Concerto about?”

“Human beings, who are almost unique in having the ability to learn from the experience of others, are also remarkable for their apparent disinclination to do so.”

See all the quotes at the BBC website HERE

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“Logic will get you from A to B. Imagination will take you everywhere.” ~ Albert Einstein

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