Why do characters love?

Love is one of the guiding principles of the human condition. Things have been done in the name of love – both great things and evil things – that defy explanation, or rationalization. Love is what love is, and when it comes down like a ton of bricks there is nothing you can do except be buried in it.

Come on, admit it – what is the first thing that comes into your head when the issue of “romantic love” is invoked? The deathless (if you can call it that) Romeo and Juliet, isn’t it? But yet, remember the envoi from that play –

For never was there a tale of more woe
Than that of Juliet, and her Romeo.

It isn’t a love story, except in the shallowest of ways. It’s a story of two unformed teenagers and their infatuation and obsession with one another. This is something that ends badly for literally everybody, starting with the two young lovers themselves – and yet this is the ultimate romantic thing, something that is as firmly attached to the idea of romance as are red roses and chocolates and Valentine’s day (yes, I know. They’re just as shallowly symbolic…)

But there are many kinds of love out there….

Read the rest at Book View Cafe HERE

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Remembering Nüshu

In the 19th-Century, there was a Chinese script, Nüshu, that only women could write.

When I first read of this, my imagination ran wild and I wrote a book at white heat, 200,000 words in less than four months. The book was ‘The Secrets of Jin-shei‘ and has been my most successful novel. It sold all over the world in 13 languages and more than a decade later, it still draws attention.

Authors are sometimes warned against writing about a culture not their own. I wasn’t overly concerned because the novel is a fantasy. But it was set in a country not unlike Imperial China and when a woman of Chinese heritage approached me at a reading I braced myself for a possible attack that I had dared write such a novel. But all she said was that she had loved the book, but then added ruefully “part of me wishes you were Chinese.”

Read more about Nüshu at Atlas Obscura HERE
See ‘The Secrets of Jin-shei’ at Amazon HERE

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Quote of the DayALMA Rewriting History poster~~~~~

HELP ME BUILD NEW WORLDS: As publishing changes, most authors need new sources of income. If you would like to help me continue writing about wizards and Weres, Jin-shei sisters, and girls who rise from the gutter to Empress, consider pitching in with a small monthly pledge. For the cost of a latte or two you too can become a patron of the arts. Details HERE

~~~~~
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But it’s not real…Is it?

Every book has a story – of its origins, of the secrets and the inspiration which led to its existence, the surprises that leaped out at the writer during the process of creation, the dead end alleys, the astonishing moments of transcendence, the feelings that linger when the writer types “The End.” These essays about my books originally appeared at the Book View Café Blog,

Alma’s Bookshelf

The story behind ‘Midnight at Spanish Gardens’

Let me take you to a place which once was real and is now no more, a place that existed as the worst-kept secret of the University where I was young, handed down like a legacy from generation to generation. Called Spanish Gardens, it was curled up at the end of a nondescript alley waiting for you – if you knew it was there.

Even today, more than thirty years after I and others of my generation left it behind, if you cornered any of us anywhere in the world, we will all describe it to you perfectly in the exact same way, an image frozen in time, like a magical photograph.

It was just a matter of time before I returned to this place in spirit to immortalize it in a book.

The book is “Midnight at Spanish Gardens”, and in it you will find this:

Spanish Gardens cover F&B

Evening. You walk down a shuttered street; turn into a narrow alley you should never have known was there. At the end of the alley, there’s a courtyard. And at the far end of the courtyard… there’s Spanish Gardens.

It does not look very Spanish. It certainly doesn’t look anything like a garden.

This place serves up your past like one of its fabled Irish Coffees – all froth and innocence on top and the dark, bittersweet mystery below – and watches you drain it, and then try to scry for your future in the patterns left behind on the walls of your glass.

You come here to laugh,  to cry, to mourn, to celebrate – the place where only truth can be spoken, where you are forced to look all your most cherished illusions in the eye and watch them look down first and slink away like ghosts into the shadows leaving only the shining core of your own true self behind.

This is where you come to learn who and what you were, and are, and may become. You leave the ivied and hallowed walls of the edifices of higher education, and your textbooks, and your professors, and your exams; you come here for the love and the laughter and the understanding. You abandon education, and come seeking wisdom.

Everyone has a place like this, a stop along the way on their life’s journey. Yours might be called Café Adagio, or Mama Rosa’s, or Ming’s Dim Sum – the name and the style and the ambience may be quite different – but if you start to tell me about that place it will not take me long to sigh, and smile, and murmur, “Ah, yes. I know the Spanish Gardens”.

It is a place out of time, a perfect location to marry with a moment that was gleefully proclaimed the end of days, the Mayan end of the world, and produce a novel that is all about choices.

I wrote a story about five people, old friends from college days, who were scattered to the four winds by betrayal, and estrangement, and, well, just life and living. But on this day, on the “last day of the world”, they get back together again for an evening of reunion. Many old bones are stirred and many skeletons rattle in their cupboards – and on the night this magical place offers up a piece of magic to all of these five people.

It gives them a glimpse of another life they might have lived had they, back in the time of their youth, made different choices, taken different life paths. At the end of that glimpse they have to choose – they can stay in that new life, and forget about the one that they had previously led, and it will be erased as though it had never been and all trace of it would vanish from their memory.

Or they can return to their old life.

Four of them choose to come back to the lives which they had been living, which had shaped them, which had made them into the people who they knew they were.

One does not.

It is a visceral thing, this choice. Everyone who has read and reviewed this book turned inward and asked, inevitably, “What would I have done?” You trace the forks in your own road and you wonder where you would have ended up if you had chosen a different direction at those crucial moments of decision which presented themselves.

But in the end most of us come back to the feeling that if we are at all happy with our lot then it is impossible to regret anything that led us to be where we are. And if we do have regrets… for us, there is no magic, not of the kind which I imbued my semi-mystical Spanish Gardens with. We have to live with our regrets. There is no going back to erase things, to do something else, something different. There are no do-overs. Our lives are our lives.

But still. That was a potent cocktail, that story. A place out of time, and a moment at the end of time (and maybe the beginning of a whole another universe). Married together, they made for a heady elixir. This was not an easy book to write, nor is it an easy book to read. This isn’t something you pick up and put down and then go back to later – it’s complex and full of unexpected aftertaste, much like those Irish Coffees for which Spanish Gardens was so justly famous.

This is a book of questions, and if I offered up answers for the characters who live within this story that doesn’t mean I offer up answers for the reader. You have to bring those along for yourselves. All I do is put the questions on the table, lay them out like a Tarot reading, and then sit back and watch you interpret the meanings for yourselves.

Would you have chosen a different life if you were given a chance? Would you have given up a lover, a career, would you have traded high achievement and unhappiness for a lesser but more content existence?

Nobody knows, except you.

Come with me. Come to Spanish Gardens. Take the first sip of that Irish Coffee story.

And choose.

Pick up your copy HERE

~~~~~
Flash fiction photo of lightningThe State of Flash Fiction

 

At Electric Literature, David Galef & Len Kuntz break down the newest developments, achievements and emerging classics in the world of chiseled prose.

Read the whole article HERE

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Quote of the Day

A Flood of knowledge poster

https://www.facebook.com/writerscircle/photos/a.469562786290.301523.110046421290/10154697212786291/?type=3

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My real name is…

I am home from the hospital in time for Christmas and will be back to normal  activities, including blogging, soon. I wish you all a very Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays.
~~~~~

Regarding pen names

All y’all know me as Alma Alexander. Easy. Alliterative. But it was not always so. My maiden name and first author byline was Alma Hromic.

But back in the day when “The Secrets of Jin-shei” was first published, I got a call from my agent with a deal-breaker issue. The publishers didn’t want to put the book out under my maiden name, because “it was too difficult to spell, say, or remember”.

Granted, that’s been an issue ever since I waded into the English-speaking world. The English language mind cannot seem to get itself around the fact that two consonants such as H and R can follow one another. They keep on helpfully introducing a vowel between the two when they write it down, even if I am SPELLING IT FOR THEM AT THE TIME.  Spellcheck tosses its cookies and offers up “chronic” or “chromic” as alternatives. Other people equally helpfully assume that the H in front must be silent when pronounced. It isn’t.

I’m not the only who has ever faced this, of course. At LitHub, Emily Temple gives us

An Incomplete Guide to Proper Literary Name-Dropping

starting with Vladimir Nabokov, J.M. Coetzee, and Ayn Rand (It’s pronounced “ine,” like “eye” with an “n” at the end.)

Read the whole article at LitHub HERE

~~~~~
How to choose a book

If you are still searching hard for gifts, I’d like to remind you there is only one indispensable present for any occasion.

While there are hundreds of wonderful reads out there waiting to be discovered, I have a few suggestions involving… surprise… my own books. If you don’t know them, let me help you decide which ones might be of interest to you and your gift recipients.

If you  loved Harry Potter… try my Worldweavers series (Gift of the Unmage, Spellspam, Cybermage, Dawn of Magic). It’s the story of a girl who couldn’t do magic, then grew up to be the greatest mage her world had ever known.

If you loved Jo Walton’s “My Other Children”, . try “Midnight at Spanish Gardens”

If you love Guy Gavriel Kay… try “The Secrets of Jin Shei”, “Embers of Heaven”, or my newest, “Empress”.

If you love Cassandra Clare or Suzanne Collins, try The Were Chronicles (Random, Wolf, Shifter)

if you Loved John Scalzi’s “Red Shirts”, try “AbductiCon” in which time-traveling androids kidnap a hotel full of Science fiction fans and take them for a loop around rge moon.

You can get further information and links to sales points on all of my books by going to “My Books” in the top menu under the header.

~~~~~
About me    My books    Email me    

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5 things to do …

Another year is almost over, and it’s time to begin reflecting – amongst other things – on the act of writing, and those who perform it.

Here’s something true: before you can write about life, at least adequately, you have to have lived it. In some way, shape or form. And I don’t mean vicariously on Facebook, or even online at all.

Here are five things to do with your life before you’re ready to be a writer. There are  more than five things, of course. But these are pretty broad.  Feel free to add in your own subcategories, or nuances.

1) DO SOMETHING DANGEROUS.

Know what an adrenaline surge REALLY feels like. You cannot possibly write about one without that visceral knowledge. And “dangerous” is huge – you can fit in a lot of things under that umbrella – do something that your mother might have warned you about, or something that society considers “unsafe”, or something simply exhilarating.

Here are a few of mine.

*Three of my (young, female) friends and I once climbed down from Table Mountain in Cape Town, on foot, in the dark, sliding down scree slopes and falling into the switchback roads, until we finally ended up hitch-hiking a ride the rest of the way down in a solitary car coming down from the topside parking lot, with a single male occupant inside. He was nice. We were taken down the mountainside and deposited at its foot without any incident at all. I was in my twenties; this was half my life ago. The adrenaline rush remains to this day.

*I jumped off a mountain. In a parachute. With an instructor, to be sure, in tandem, but still – I parasailed off a mountainside. I have pictures to prove it. When my father saw them – unexpectedly, before I did, long story – his response was, “If you survived that, when you get home, I’m going to kill you.” Yeah. Adrenaline.

*I swam off the edge of a coral reef. The adrenaline of THAT makes my teeth ache right now while I am thinking about it. The experience can still make my heart race.

*I gave my heart completely. And had it broken. And it HURT. And I’m the better off for having dared to do it.

2) TRAVEL.

You will gain only a very limited understanding of humanity if you seek it only with people who live in the small town where you were born, and you’re too afraid to venture beyond the edges into the great wide world beyond. Learn at least the basics of another language in which you can communicate with people who are NOT LIKE YOU. The world will open up like an unexpected dream. It’s nice if your destination is far flung and exotic, but it doesn’t have to be. Take a road trip. A train ride. If you have to start small, begin by going an hour, two, four, six, outside your comfort zone. Then ,if you feel ready, tackle the world.

Some of the places I’ve been:

* Fiji and Tahiti (learned a few phrases of the Micronesian/Polynesian vernacular, learned to snorkel, swam with dolphins, saw an octopus and a coconut crab in the wild, made friends with local people and learned their dreams. And I will never forget the colors of the coral lagoons, nor the black depths of ocean that lie beyond them. The colors of the world.)

* Vienna (walked the polished wooden floors of Imperial palaces and the cobbles of its streets, listened to waltzes, drank young wine in the wine shops of Grinzig, tasted Sacher Torte in the Sacher Hotel where it was born.)

* Kruger National Park, South Africa, and Etosha National Park, Namibia (saw lions and leopards in the wild, saw an elephant pace slowly and majestically away into the purple African twilight, breathed in the dust and the heat while watching herds of impala and zebra and wildebeest. Learned that rhinos are the firemen of the African savannah, and run TO a fire instead of away from it, and stomp it out with those hard-soled stumpy little feet of theirs if they can – which means that they can be damned dangerous to campsites when they blunder into the midst of fragile human campers.

* Japan (the first and only place on this earth where I was ever totally functionally illiterate – but I managed. Learned about the Shinto and the Buddhist faiths, and what each means to the Japanese people. Saw many beautiful temples. Saw many beautiful gardens. Been aware that I walked the ground where an ancient and vivid civilization had thrived for CENTURIES, and felt breathless with that knowledge, particularly when gazing, in a museum, at a samurai sword from something like 1452 – still bright and shining steel and still probably capable of cutting a hair in half as it floated down upon its edge.)

You get the idea. The world is a wide and wonderful place, and it is FULL of gifts.

3) FEEL REAL GRIEF.

You cannot know what it’s like to lose a living thing that you love until you do that – until you lose the cat you’ve had by your side for the last fifteen or twenty years of your life from a simple and inevitable advent of old age, or watch a beloved pet waste away before its time from something you cannot do anything about and make the decision on their behalf that they have suffered enough, or sit by the bedside of a grandparent who is slipping away and holding the soft wrinkled hands in your own knowing that they may not feel your doing so but that somehow, somehow, they know that you are there.

Real grief is raw and bitter, and tastes of tears. Before you write of it, you have to have had it tear your own heart apart. Because everything else will feel inadequate to those readers of your future work who HAVE known such grief, and will know if you speak the truth.

4) FEEL REAL ANGER.

Something should make you feel your way down to your core, until you find that cold hard ember that is at the heart of you, not the swift mundane attacks of being cross about someone cutting you off in traffic or being rude to you on a subway. Something should reach all the way down to that primeval thing, the cold fury, the anger that does not leave you blinded with temporary passion but leaves you clear headed and clear eyed and knowing that ALL OF YOU hates this thing that you are seeing, hates with every fiber. True fury needs few words,  but if you want to write about it, you have to know what it FEELS LIKE. What it feels like to be REALLY that angry.

So look for something. Cruelty to animals. Cruelty to children. Pointless war. Something precious being willfully wasted. Ignorance and bigotry. Hypocrisy. Something, anything, something that you consider to be IMPORTANT ENOUGH to tap that cold fury in support of. Know it, understand it. Only then can you own it.

5) FAIL.

Because you will. it is inevitable. Do what you need to do anyway, knowing that it may meet this fate. Because fear of failure is otherwise going to put the brakes on too many things that you need to do or want or know in your life before you can understand any other human being alive deeply enough to write their story. You HAVE to know what it means to fail.

The lives of the very rich and the very happy seldom make for good story fodder – because these people can be seen as insulated from failure. Everything is handed to them, and if failure becomes a looming option then a scapegoat is found to take the weight of it leaving the one who truly failed unscathed by it all. The most interesting stories come from people who have failed HARD, and then learned from that failure, and risen up like proverbial phoenixes to touch fire again. Don’t be afraid to fail. Just be afraid of not trying.

Any questions…?

~~~~~

If you liked that book, you would surely like my…

Christmas and the end of the year are approaching and you are beginning to think about finding gifts for mom and dad and the kids, as well as Aunt Sarah, your best friend and maybe a work mate or two.

Personally, I think there is only one indispensable gift for any occasion — a book, naturally.

Wolf boy cartoonWhile there are hundreds of wonderful reads out there waiting to be discovered, I have a few suggestions involving… surprise… my own books. If you don’t know them, let me help you decide which ones might be of interest to you and your gift recipients.

If you  loved Harry Potter... try my Worldweavers series (Gift of the Unmage, Spellspam, Cybermage, Dawn of Magic). It’s the story of a girl who couldn’t do magic, then grew up to be the greatest mage her world had ever known.

If you loved Jo Walton‘s “My Other Children”, . try “Midnight at Spanish Gardens”

If you love Guy Gavriel Kay… try “Secrets of Jin Shei”, “Embers of Heaven”, or my newest, “Empress”.

If you love Cassandra Clare or Suzanne Collins, try The Were Chronicles (Random, WOlf, Shifter)

if you Loved John Scalzi‘s “Red Shirts”, try “AbductiCon” in which time-traveling androids kidnap a hotel full of Science fiction fans and take them for a loop around the moon.

You can get further information and links to sales points for all my books by going to “My Books” in the top menu under the header.

~~~~~

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Whence AbductiCon?

Every book has a story – of its origins, of the secrets and the inspiration which led to its existence, the surprises that leaped out at the writer during the process of creation, the dead end alleys, the astonishing moments of transcendence, the feelings that linger when the writer types “The End.”  These essays about my books originally appeared at the Book View Café Blog.

From Alma’s Bookshelf

AbductiCon: When time-traveling androids take a hotel full of SF fans for a trip around the moon

When people ask writers “Where do you get your ideas?”, they might get a growl, or an answer for some value of “EVERYWHERE!”, or some snarky comment about backyard idea trees. Or sometimes they get a bewildered look and disavowal of having any inkling whatsoever as to the provenance of a story that swam into the writer’s mind and demanded to be told.

Abducticon coverI am not entirely sure where ‘AbductiCon’ came from.

It’s like nothing I have ever done before. It is science fiction, not fantasy, although as  I frequently point out most SF is fantasy: (Beam me up? Really?).

It is contemporary, its characters are people you will probably recognize. It is funny. It is metaphysical. It touches on the lore of my tribe and our favorite pastime, the SF Convention. At its heart, it’s a love letter to the con culture and the tropes of the world of SF&F. I actually deliberately named a character something in order to have ONE PARTICULAR LINE appear in the book (and you’ll know it when you see it. Trust me.)

It is one of the most polarizing books I have ever written. People don’t have meh feelings for this thing. They love it and laugh and hug it to themselves in recognition, or they berate me for having wasted my time on it and call it frivolous, shallow, silly, not worth the time spent ticking off the tropes that appear in its pages on the AbductiCon bingo card.

In what is known in the industry as an elevator pitch, a summary of the book in one or two pithy sentences, this one comes in as possibly — “It’s like the cult movies ‘Paul’ and ‘Galaxy Quest’ had a love child”.

The basic plot: What we have is a classic comedy of errors which happens with any convention, anywhere. It is thrown into a higher gear when a bunch of time traveling androids kidnap the entire con – HOTEL AND ALL – and take it for a swing around the moon while they finish figuring out their own origins

It is a book for people who love science fiction. It is a book for people like me, for people I love, for all the friends and colleagues I have met over the years – it is a thank you to that world for being all that it has been for me in its time, for giving me strength, and courage, and fellowship, and laughter – yes, even while I was writing this, the book was giving me warmth and support and permission to laugh while I sometimes escaped into it, writing it as I did during a wretched period of my father’s last illness.

This book is both for new or casual con goers, and for those who actually know what FIAWOL means.

Get your copy Here

~~~~~Indians With Umbrellas illustration

Featured art: Fritz Scholder, “Indians with Umbrellas.”

With thousands of veterans on the way to Standing Rock to help defend Dakota Pipeline protesters against militarized police, Obama under increasing pressure to take a stand, and the timid corporate media beginning to admit there may be a story to cover, things are likely to get even more complicated and ugly.

This might be a good time to look at…

10 Books by Indigenous Authors You Should Read

For example:
Last Standing Woman cover

 

Winona LaDuke, Last Standing Woman

This novel spans decades and generations of people living on the White Earth Reservation in Minnesota, telling stories of struggle, strength and resistance that culminate in an uprising for independence.
See all the books at Lithub HERE

~~~~~
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Whence The Weres?

One of a series of essays about the backstories of my books – the origins, the inspiration, the difficulties, the surprises. The essays originally appeared in the Book View Café Blog.

Every book has a story – a story of origin, of the secrets and the inspiration which led to its existence, the surprises that waited to leap out at the writer during the process of creation, the dead end alleys one wanders into and then has to battle to reverse out of when it becomes obvious that one is astray, the astonishment at the moments of transcendence that sometimes come unlooked for, the feelings that linger when the writer types “The End” and lifts hands from the keyboard.

These are the stories of my books, the children of my mind and my heart, and how they came to be.

~~~~~

Alma’s Bookshelf

The Were Chronicles

The origins of this series lie in my quintessential problem: I don’t write short stories, at least not easily or often or even willingly.

But when I got wind of an upcoming anthology about Were-kind, with the specific fiat that the editor did not want just the iconic wolves but OTHER creatures, exploring the possibilities of the trope, I had a wild idea out of absolutely nowhere.

It involved a Random Were, a creature that has its own primary form into which it Turns at its changing time under the proper moon, but if another warm-blooded creature is seen by the Were entity just as the Turn begins… then it is THAT creature which the Were turns into.

The potential for trouble and comedy was high, and that was the way I began to write the short story – and the tone was set early. For instance, my protagonist’s mother was… a Were-chicken. Because of an unfortunate farmyard accident at the moment of her first Turn.

You can see where this was going. I giggled to myself and began to write the story I thought I had started to write…

right until the moment that I realized that it was turning into something potentially much darker than the comic little tale I was originally pursuing, and that I was more than 5000 words into it and I hadn’t  even properly said hello yet. This thing wanted to be a novel.

And the further I waded into it and the more it unfolded it became clear that it was even more complex than that.

It ended up being three novels. But not your classic trilogy. More of a triptych, with each of the three books presented as a first-person narrative from a different POV character… involved in the same central tragedy. The different prisms through which the world and its events were viewed by these three very different characters gave my story an unparalleled depth and dimension. I was writing something very special.

Thematically, the books differentiated according to their protagonists.

The Were Chronicles coversJazz, the voice of “Random” (Book 1) was the youngest of the POV characters and one who was, perhaps, by far the most innocent of them. It fell to her to explore the dark and vindictive shadows of bullying and discrimination, of finding out about the bitterness of being “other” in the world, of having to struggle with the harsh realities of being alone and not quite knowing who or what to trust. It turned out to be a harrowing book, holding up a mirror to the truths which were being played out in many a reader’s real life – and for some readers it proved to be an unexpected spar of salvation and insight and understanding. (Buy it HERE)

Book 2, “Wolf” dealt with Science. I finally went back to my own educational background, my MSc in Molecular Biology, and I worked out the genetics behind being Were as opposed to being human. The book also dealt with the dangers of dogma and agendas when hidden behind the shield of that science, and explored those issues as well as ideas of guilt and expiation, of sacrifice and salvation, of growing up and finding one’s place in an uncaring world. Mal, my protagonist, Jazz’s older brother, was a brooding and moody angsty teenage BOY, in every sense of that word, until circumstances made him step up and take responsibility – and I was in awe of this character and what he brought to me and to my story, of how he showed the process of coming of age. (Buy it HERE)

And then came Book 3, “Shifter”, where Mal’s friend Saladin van Schalkwyk , better known as Chalky, took center stage. A Don Quixote of a character, a lost boy, a creature lonely and wary and abandoned, and the greatest and most unique Were of them all. He was a white knight and a trickster both, a transcendent creature, a joy to write about. And his book dealt with the dangers and the heady triumphs brought on by that isolation and that responsibility – and also, in broader terms, circled back to the original issues of being “different” and being hated and feared and where those things could lead (open warfare) when fueled by the torches of fundamentalism and malice. (Buy it HERE)

The three books are some of the best and potentially some of the most important things I’ve ever written. And I am immensely proud of them.

Quite aside from the main characters, all of whom were absolute gifts, there were moments of unexpected beauty and poignancy. There was the love between siblings, between family, which was stronger than anything that the world piled on and had to be honored. There was the love between friends, which was the bond of promise and trust. There was the love between mates, the two halves of a couple, and the bonds that are forged when two soulmates meet one another. And all of this was luminous. And then there was the dark light of hatred and fear and the wicked shadows that it cast across the world.

These may be be books about Were kind in title, but at their fundamental root they are actually books about what it means to be human.

People tell me they wept when they reached the conclusion of “Shifter.” I’m glad. It shows me that these books have reached a deep emotional core within people, as they had been meant to.

Writers are often asked  which of their books are their favorites – and it’s an impossible question to answer because it’s like asking a mother to choose her favorite child. But if I had to pick the books of which I am proudest – well – I don’t think I’ve ever been prouder of anything I wrote than I am of these books. They matter. They are part of a huge human story, instantly recognizable to those who pick up the books and yet breathlessly followed from narrator to narrator into places where the reader might not have expected to go.

I am lighting a path. I hope that readers will follow it.

~~~~~

Buy Random HERE

Buy Wolf HERE

Buy Shifter HERE

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!”

…through

“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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