YA and the ‘Real World’

The Were Chronicles: “Random”, “Wolf”, “Shifter”

At a certain level, the line between YA and adult literature becomes so fine as to be totally irrelevant.

Yes, there are always some readers whose worlds are so cushioned, so protected, so absolutely walled off from reality that they can can find reading about real problems to be distancing and completely alien. But those readers are very few, And even they, growing up, have to deal with SOME issues in their lives no matter how gilded they are.

There are books which are labelled YA that deal with a lot of subjects which might be considered difficult. Subjects like suicide, like discrimination, like loss, like fear, like helplessness.

The books aren’t there to exacerbate or underline a reader’s own issues. As with all literature, they exist primarily to tell a story. At least, the best of them do. They don’t moralize, they don’t frighten or terrorize, they don’t stroke a love of violence

But they do have real power. It lies in the fact that they let readers know that they are not alone, that they aren’t the only ones to suffer such things or feel such feelings. That can be empowering for the reader. Sometimes it is safer to sublimate such feelings into the pages of a powerful story, to learn how to deal with one’s own situation through the prism of storytelling, than it is to blunder about trying to solve overwhelming problems.

YA literature isn’t sweetness and light. It can be harrowing. Because young people can sometimes live harrowing lives.

When Weres become human

The Were Chronicles logoWhen I set out to write The Were Chronicles books, the whole thing started as a light-hearted thing. The project began as a short story intended for a Were-creatures anthology which wanted something other than the traditional wolves. So I pulled an odd creation out of the story-cauldron, something I’d never seen anyone play with before – a Random Were, a creature which can literally become the last living warm-blooded thing they see just before the Turn comes upon them. The idea had immense comic possibilities. In fact – as I put it in the first book – due to an “unfortunate farmyard accident”, my main protagonist’s mother is a Were-Chicken.

But while I was clucking to myself about that… the story changed under my touch, became bigger and darker. What was originally a short story became abook – and the book became series. It changed into that most amazing thing, a YA story but also a story about what it means to be human.

My Weres became a persecuted minority in society, and themes of discrimination and bullying reared up and demanded to be addressed. What do you do when your peers are bullying and threatening you and making you miserable, because you are “different”? That’s hard enough as and of itself, but what happens if those attitudes are then taken up by people in authority over you, whom you aren’t in a position to question or to fight?

My Weres touched off a nerve – because they explored, in my fantasy setting what it means *in our own world* for people to be a different color, or a different faith, or a different sexual orientation. I wrote about the power of persecution, and the power of spirit necessary to rise against and above that.

And then the themes multiplied. What does it mean to be considered an abject failure at something – by your own peers, your own class? How far would you be willing to go to prove yourself worthy? What things, what people, what ideas in your life are you willing to fight and die for? What happens if you are the only one of your kind, and you don’t know where you came from, or what is going to happen to you because there is no precedent for what you are?

The story unwound in a powerful and explosive way, the same story seen through the POV of three different characters who play a major part in the tale, a story seen through three separate prisms which thus acquires a certain three-dimensionality which was never before so obvious in any of my stories.

This is a work of fiction, a work of FANTASY no less, but its world… is our world, and it matters. It matters deeply. These are some of my most beloved, most astonishing characters, avatars of so many out there who face pain with courage and with knowledge and with earned wisdom.

The power of story

That is part of the power of story – this identification with a protagonist, who somehow arrives out of nowhere ready to completely understand our own innermost feelings and secrets. For adult readers who have had years of living under their belt, who have been working to acquire that necessary wisdom for a long time, stories like this may be memories – a look back into a time when things were difficult for themselves, and a recollection (with or without pain) of how they dealt with those situations.

For young readers, stories like these are part of that acquisition of wisdom and experience. If there is a good reason for a YA label at all then this is it – stories of people LIKE THE YOUNG READER, characters who are potential friends, but also potential role models in how they react and respond to fictional situations that the reader might find something to identify with. The best such stories are not moralizing or didactic or arrive with a knuckle-rapping “lesson” embedded inside – the best such stories are involving, enveloping, enfolding, they are things in which you can wrap yourself, and come out of wearing them as armour against the realities which might be out there waiting to assault you.

The best “lessons” are not the ones that are forcefully and insistently taught, but those answers which you find within yourself when a story like this helps you ask the right questions. What, then, would you do? In that story, in similar circumstances, what then would you do? How would you overcome?

The story gives you the pieces, the hints, but they don’t add up to anything that is a overweening Answer To Everything. Those pieces are different for every reader. They combine with pieces you bring to the story yourself. And every book connects with every reader in a different way, and the answers are always YOURS, deeply and personally yours, because every reader is unique and there are no two questions out there about people’s identity or their life situation which are exactly alike.

Stories are powerful. And stories aimed at, and read by, young readers are amongst the most powerful stories of all. We may read many books during the course of our lives – but by the time we get to be forty, fifty, sixty years old and half a century has rolled away from underneath us… for all too many of us, it is the books we read when we were sixteen which somehow remain with us, and in which we finds the roots of many things that we grew up to become.

You can find the first book in The Were Chronicles, Random, HERE

Wolf is HERE

Shifter is HERE

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Just what is YA?

Children’s Book Week – June 12-16

When books were just books

When I was growing up, there was no such thing as “young adult” as a marketing niche.

In my house, there were just books. Never was I told that any of those books were not for me. I was reading fully “grown-up” literature when I was 7. I read my mother’s Pearl Buck collection before I was 10 and I didn’t have any difficulty with any of it.

Children who are encouraged to read and permitted to read will find their own level. They might well enjoy today’s “age-appropriate” middle grade or YA offerings, But then, if the books are good enough, so will many people who have long since left their teens behind. A good story can be read by anybody who loves to read, from age 12 to 92, without any artificial age boundaries in there.

And I’m using 12 as a beginning with a distinct sense that it is fungible. There are precocious readers who can read this stuff much younger, as I did, The relationship between a book and its reader is always very individual and specific and quite often unpredictable.

Age distinctions are a recent development, and since their arrival we have had kidlit fragment into picture books for VERY young readers, chapter books, middle grade, YA, New Adult.

People are constantly asking where are the lines? And that is a good question because it simply isn’t true that a young protagonist is all that it takes for a book to be YA. You could look at “Lolita” through that lens and because it has a young girl center stage – she’s even the title – you might throw a wholly undeserved YA label on it.

For a long time Harry Potter was pretty much THE YA genre. Everyone knew about Harry. And a generation grew up having picked up the first book when they were Harry’s age and then aged concurrently with it, adding their years just as Harry did his.

But the Harry Potter books and movies are very much a ladder and the first one feels almost simplistic. The subsequent books are much darker, much more complicated while still rated YA. Young readers are expected to cope with a very broad range of material, and this is often underestimated when it comes to “children’s literature”. Children can understand so very much – especially if you root it in familiar tropes.

My first YA series

Worldweavers coversThe first series I wrote for a YA audience was Worldweavers (“Gift of the Unmage”, “Spellspam”, “Cybermage”, “Dawn of Magic”) It was born out of a YA panel at the 2002 Fantasy Worldcon, where Jane Yolen, the grande dame of children’s lit, said at one point that she didn’t like the way the Potter books treated their girls. I lost the rest of the panel completely because that was all it took for Thea Winthrop to step out of the shadows and introduce herself to me.

Her story had all the tropes. Thea went to a school known as the Last Ditch School for the Incurably Incompetent, a place for the weird and geekish in her magical world. Thea was a Double Seventh, the seventh child of two seventh children, and her magical gifts were expected to be profound. Instead, she grew up as the Girl Who Couldn’t Do Magic.

It wasn’t that she was bad at magic in her magical world – she could not do it at all. To her, it was like she was standing behind a glass wall, unable to reach or touch or practice it. The reason behind that initial paralysis drove the whole series.

I peopled my book with three different kinds of creatures.

There are humans, much like us who can’t do magic. And there are those who can. And some of the magic users were rather famous in our own world, like Nikola Tesla, known widely as the Wizard of the West during his life and, when he appears in my books, the only quad-Elemental mage in human history.

The second group group of creatures are those I wholly invented, like my Alphiri. They look like Tolkien’s elves but have the grasping souls of Star Trek’s Ferengi and a built-in conviction that everything is for sale.

The third group of creatures are drawn from the American mythos – creatures like Grandmother Spider, and Tawaha the Sun God, and Coyote the Trickster.

I wove a story around them all – a story which revolved around one thing: about Thea’s coming of age, and into her own.

In fact, she becomes powerful indeed – becomes something quite unique (no spoilers; you’ll have to read the books to find out what.) But this doesn’t happen overnight, or easily. There are things she has to be willing to sacrifice on her road to the apex of her existence. She has to be willing to offer things she cherishes deeply, in order to save a friend. And then in order to save her world, she has to make tough choices that will haunt her for the rest of her life. By the end of these books, my little girl is a little girl no longer. She is a grown, fully developed human being.

That is not to say she has become perfect – but that is not the point of a YA book. It is not to tell a young reader that one has to be flawless in order to survive. It is to assure them that flaws are inevitable, even necessary, but that it is possible to transcend them, or incorporate them into one’s being, and grow through that process.

Thea Winthrop is an amazing character who was a gift to work with. She is fourteen when we first meet her, and she is the perfect insecure teenager, one who disappoints her parents and knows it and is made miserable by it. She doesn’t quite know how to make it right. This is familiar territory to many young readers, who don’t live in a world of magic but who have, in their time, known that look of disappointment on their elders’ faces and have quailed at it. They will be standing right there next to Thea when she has her experiences. They understand – and they will be waiting for her to deal with that burden, to see how she does it, to see if they can learn something about how to deal with their own.

I wrote a book and series about choices and about growing up DIFFERENT and how to handle it all, even when you have to do it with fear, or with reluctance, or with only just enough grace to scrape by. And also with joy – the joy of discovery of one’s real identity, one’s real potential. The joy of friendship. The joy of learning, and of growing wise. And also the bitterness of betrayal, and the agony of failure, and what sometimes feels the almost unbearable burden of survival against the odds. It’s about proving something, both to oneself and to others.

In some ways, that journey is the best of “children’s literature” – the coming of age stories – and there are many out there, from Susan Cooper, to Madeleine L’Engle, to C S Lewis, to J K Rowling and the Potterverse. And I’m not talking about just fantasy. There are plenty of authors over there in the REAL “real” world who tell stories that could well have happened in our own real lives. But is something like “Stand by Me” or “The Outsiders” truly limited to a YA audience? Can the people who might already have passed the finish line of the “coming of age” race and are acknowledged as fully adult not be allowed to look back and remember the road they travelled to get there, in the worlds of “children’s literature”?

It’s all about the story

The best of children’s literature is basically a good story which can be enjoyed by a reader of any age. In the end, what it boils down to is whether your young reader can stand beside a character in a story, stand beside them and support them, at the same time stand beside them and learn from them what is possible, what is permitted and what is unthinkable – and why.

“Children’s literature” is formative, introducing the young to the realms of Story where they will either flourish and thrive or where they will founder – and foundering is easy enough, if the readers in question are bullied or forced into books. A fostered love of reading is essential when it comes to staying in love with the written word.

In my books, that translates into a certain complexity of story. Thea’s tale is layered and complicated, just like any “real” growing up would have been. I paint relationships there – very different ones – relationships where she is very much the acolyte, relationships where she is the adversary, and relationships where she is loved and cherished.

They are all necessary for the story to get woven together. They form as complex a backdrop as any “real” life might, and the reason they are necessary and the reason they work are the same – they sparkle with recognition, with tiny glittering pieces which a reader might pause and take a closer look at and find something very familiar in them, perhaps a reflection of themselves.

When we are adults, we assume that we understand the world we live in and are able to deal with what it throws at us because we are familiar with the context of it all. In “Children’s literature” the protagonist is just starting to come to terms with a world – that is often baffling and sometimes frightening.

That is what makes the Worldweavers books the “youngest” books I have ever written, not because of a simplistic measure like the age of their protagonist but because this isn’t about a journey finished and now remembered, being, instead, about the journey AS IT HAPPENS, counting the steps it takes to cross a room, a river, or a world. The young readers of such books are sharing that journey themselves, in real time, and that is why a good “kid” book is going to appeal to them – they will recognize themselves in the protagonist and that protagonist’s position in the story they’re reading.

In the space of a few short days devoted to a Children’s Literature Week, it is impossible to cover all the books that matter in this context – but what is important is simply this: that there are certain books which are The Beginning, the origin station for a lifelong journey into the world of the word. And that is to be celebrated.

My second YA series is The Were Chronicles – but that’s for another time.

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Quote of the Day

“The great thing about getting older is that you don’t lose all the other ages you have been.” ~ Novelist Madeleine L’Engle

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The world I built

 

Fact, historical fiction, & fantasy, oh my!

It might be because I grew up in a land where history is still lurking behind a sheer veil, always present and within the reach of not so much individual as a tribal memory, that I look on it a way not easy for a Western mindset to understand.

To me and so many people of my blood and ancestry, history isn’t just a dead account of ancient battles and who whacked whom when. It’s WHY the whacking took place. It’s WHO did the whacking and WHO got whacked. In my head, history isn’t a dead letter, it lives. I can close my eyes and BE those people who once walked the ground on which I took my own first toddler steps. My umbilical is tied back to something greater and vaster than just a single gentle mother

I am a child of my people and of my past, part of something much bigger than myself, a mosaic in which I am just a single tessera but which, seen as a whole, makes for a huge complex picture of a world.

I can close my eyes and BE those people who once walked the ground on which I took my own first toddler steps. My umbilical is tied back to something greater and vaster than just a single gentle mother.

Hold that thought for a moment, and let me step back a little here.

The Secrets Of Jin Shei By HoshiakaWhen I wrote the novel, “The Secrets of Jin-shei”, it was not my own historical background that I referenced, but that particular time frame and setting, a land inspired by Imperial China which I called Syai and it became the foundation of an entire alternate world.

I wrote it as historical fantasy – as a sweep of history which takes place in an imaginary country – and I succeeded so well that I have been rapped on the knuckles for being “wrong” about some historical detail despite there being no historical detail to be wrong about. What this said to me is that I got the SENSE of history right, a sense of this being “real” in some aspect of it, that people feel that it has been rendered with enough verisimilitude for them to be able to believe that it (or something very like it) must have REALLY happened.

I fast-forwarded my story 400 years and wrote “Embers of Heaven”, which is set in the same land as “The Secrets of Jin-shei” but after four centuries have wrought their changes on the people and the social fabric of that country. A lot can change in four hundred years, and much – too much! – did change, here; This second book was still inspired by China but this was the China of the Cultural Revolution, much harsher, much more visceral than the first novel set in Syai – and yet, and yet, “Embers” has some of the most lyrical passages I have ever written, some of the most tender scenes of love and caring and passion that I have ever conceived. Set against the harshness of the milieu, these scenes shine.

But more than that – I extended the geography of this world. There are other countries in this world I am creating, just as there are countries which are not China in this our own familiar world. I introduced Ellas, which to anyone reading the scenes set in it can simply be nothing other than what maps in OUR world is Greece.

And having established the fact that my imagined world is is a complete world, I then wrote a third book set there. “Empress” is a historical fantasy just as lush and lyrical as the previous two, but this time set in the glory days of the empire of Byzantium, a story based on the immortal tale of the relationship between Emperor Justinian and the Hippodrome-bred actress and courtesan who became the Empress Theodora. If you pay attention you will notice a tiny detail in “Empress” – there is a caravan which is preparing to set off for exotic lands far away to pursue trade in silks and spices… a land called… Syai.

I am drawing a map here.

Six hundred and fifty years after the events of “Empress”, the empire which I called Visant still exists – it is old now, and rotting from the inside, and ripe for all kinds of disasters and outside influences… and I come full circle here.

Go back to that first paragraph. Read it again. Read it carefully. Because here is what I am writing about now: a historical fantasy about 14th century Balkans, my own history, my own past, rich rich rich with story. The novel is already well wrapped in the layers of history and of drama, but here’s the thing.

When I wrote the Jin-shei novels, editors and booksellers sometimes INSISTED that these things were pure historical fiction, which they weren’t, and marketing them as such tended to doom them because the history buffs got annoyed when I committed “faux pas” atrocities against known and accepted historical fact. And the fantasy buffs who would have loved those liberties, never found them because they didn’t look for this book where it was shelved, with “real” historical fiction.

When I first offered “Empress” for publication, I was given to understand that it would be considered much more acceptable if I went back and reversed my careful filing off of the serial numbers and retold the story as a straight historical fiction, without inventing an empire called Visant or an Emperor and Empress called Maxentius and Callidora, or a religion which I coldly and deliberately created so as to be parallel but NOT identical to Christianity.

I declined. This wasn’t THAT world, our world, the real world. This was a parallel world of my own creation where I had the freedom to follow what history I needed to but then to people it with characters and incidents and events and faith and social constructs that I required to tell the story that I wanted to tell.

Writer Bernard Cornwell was asked in a recent interview whether he saw the boundary between historical fiction and historical fantasy as being a blurred line or clear and distinct, and he said that he believed it to be totally distinct, that writers of fantasy have “a freedom which an historical novelist doesn’t enjoy… A fantasy writer might well ground his or her work in a real historical background, but they have no duty to that history. The historical novelist does!”

Cornwell is right.

It isn’t that I don’t feel as though I have a “duty” to history. I do. But I also feel the necessity to be able to break from the “real” history if I need to make a change to suit my story – in “Empress” I took two real historical incidents and I reversed the order in which they occurred because that was the way MY story fell out better, and it worked just fine; I also melded a little bit of two historical characters of the era, the scholarly bookish Justinian and the great general Belisarius, in order to create the character of Maxentius who would be a little of both and his own man who just happens to be in the shoes that a “real” historical character might have occupied in the annals of our own accepted historical record.

Now I have been urged to write my current novel – the 14th-century Balkans one – as a “straight” historical, because honestly, I couldn’t invent some of the stuff that was going on back then and there seems to be plenty of material in the raw history for me to play with – but it’s already bigger than me, and this story is part of the larger body of alt-history which I am building for that other world in which I write, and this is a part of the history of THAT world as much as my own forebears were part of the literal historical 14th century Balkan backdrop.

I NEED to mythologize and to render larger-than-life. I need the freedom of that empty canvas, not one already painted with a backdrop to which I absolutely have to hew. I need the space for my mind’s wings to spread out, for my imagination to soar, for my vision to see things that may or may not have been “Real”.

You might say that it would be all too easy to do something like that in a 14th century setting because primary sources are few and often iffy. That is true; researching details behind this story turned up stuff in the crevices of the stuff I already did know, osmotically, as part of my upbringing, stuff that astonished me and is almost too hard to believe. Bur a lot of such stuff is directly contradicted by other period accounts. I can literally pick the history I WANT to be true and I wouldn’t be wrong. But it’s still constraining. I don’t know these characters, these real characters, well enough to write their true motivations, and I balk at the idea of trying.

Make them semi-mythological, however, and I can get inside their minds and their hearts and their souls, I can imagine what they thought and they believed, and I can make something true spring up to hold and support them. That is my gift, the creation of worlds; if I use a historical base, a sourdough starter if you will, to bake the bread of my tale that is something that I use as a foundation – and what I create from that starter, from that foundation, is something that I have made from raw material mixed with pure imagination. It is what I love about creating stories like these.

There are many ways that history is taught “wrong” in our schools. Our children are never made to feel as though history is a part of them, only that it is a boring record of What Went Before and has nothing to do with their here and now. Who cares who was king when and which battle was fought where or who won, not when those facts are something that you have to learn by rote and regurgitate on command as a litany of “facts” as dull and dry and dusty as ashes. Our students are never shown that history as the fire that preceded those ashes, are never made to feel as though they themselves belonged in it.

The way *I* was raised – it is easy to reach out and lift the veil and look upon the years and the centuries that had gone before as being just someone else’s present, things that are happening to people JUST LIKE US but simply of another place or time. History can be a huge unifier for the human race because we are all living it, different parts of it that make the whole. Instead, it’s been as divisive as anything can be. History is iconically written by the “winners” of those battles which the children are forced to learn and remember; the “losers” of those battles find their voices stilled, silenced, erased.

There are many stones in the landscape of history which would reveal incredible narratives if they were permitted to be turned, and what lies underneath them to be examined.

This is the basic constraint of what we consider to be historical “fact”, and therefore also of what is strictly considered to be historical “fiction”, a novelized account of something that really happened and is on record as having happened. Because historical fiction that is true to historical fact is inevitably only true to that accepted account, the “winners” account. Deviate one iota from what is “known” to be true, and you’re already writing fantasy, because there is no way any more to document that other narrative that you want to tell. The loser’s side. Because of the silence in which it is wrapped.

But all the stories need to be told. And that’s why I choose to wrap my truths into the silver tissue paper of lies which is called “fantasy” by some. Because my stories aren’t a regurgitation of history-as-was. They are a retelling of an emotional and empathetic and wide-eyed greater truth – the things that didn’t “really” happen out there, but “really, REALLY” happened in here, inside the human heart and mind and vision. The stories that will resonate because on a fundamental level they are truer than the truth. That is the gift of fantasy. That is the world in which I choose to walk.

Watch for the latest installment of the history of my world – coming soon.

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Books to change who you are

In Today’s Blog

  1. A Reading Plan
  2. A year of reading an author named Alma

At medium.com, Jon Westenberg offers a one-year reading plan to “transform who you are, what you do & how you do it.” 

It’s an intriguing idea and well worth checking out (link below) and it inspired me to offer my own reading plan.

Month 1: Transcending loss

Tigana, by Guy Gavriel Kay: I don’t know how this man knows what it means to *lose a country* but he does, he viscerally does, and this book rips my heart out every time I re-read it and I re-read it regularly.

There are many ways to fight against this loss and the entire book is a kind of poetry of courage and endurance and never giving up. And then there is Dianora – the tragic, transcendent Dianora who is one of the most memorable characters ever to grace any novel.

Month 2: Laughter

Three Men in A Boat by Jerome K Jerom: I challenge anyone to read this book without laughing out loud at least once – and for me, at least, it cemented the reasons why I don’t EVER want to go camping (and yes I am laughing again just thinking about it)

Month 3: Rising to your gifts

Born to Run by Christopher McDougall

One of those books which came out of nowhere and totally captivated me – a lost tribe of super-runners, and the most engrossing race you’ve never heard about.

Month 4: A bit of history

Bridge on the Drina by Ivo Andric: For people like me who have roots in in the real-world history in which this novel takes place, it is riveting and heartbreaking. Even if it’s not your personal history, this novel by a Nobel Literature Prize winning author can leave you gasping. It is a tragedy. It is a determination to endure. It is a living thing with a beating heart.

Month 5: Through a glass darkly

Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman: It is a gift to be able to take something utterly UTTERLY familiar and recast it in a shape that makes it utterly UTTERLY strange. You go along on that journey believing every step of the way, or at the very least wanting to. I think this is the first Gaiman book I ever read, and I have read most everything the man has ever written purely on the strength of it.

Month 6: Art

The Golden Key by Melanie Rawn, Jennifer Roberson, Kate Elliot: Because I am a fantasy writer, why not pick a fantasy book with art as the central theme? This particular book is a rich reinvention of what it means to give yourself to your art, BODY and soul. And how immensely magical art can be. It’s the kind of thing that can be iffy – a book with three authors, but this WORKS. And you’ll never look at a painting the same way again.

Month 7: Poetry month

Here I am not going to say “go read THIS ONE or THAT ONE.” Start with the ones you might have heard of, the “classics”, like, oh, I don’t know, Sonnets from the Portuguese or something (Elizabeth Barrett Browning). Then go learn a bit about the poet and see if you can fit the poetry to the person. You can find stuff by Emily Bronte which is every bit as wild as her novel; you can go more modern and search recent journals publishing people you may never have heard of. Get adventurous. And if at the end of the month you still don’t like poetry, you’ll really know why.

Month 8: Visual art in story

There’s a new graphic novel of Laurie Halse Anderson’s “Speak”. Or you could give manga a try. Go outside your comfort zone. Stories are sometimes told with the help of pictures.

Month 9 : Writers from another continent.

Make a point of reading at least one book by a writer who lives on a different continent from you, perhaps even one which you might never have visited. Go and find out about writers from Africa, from Asia (India, China, Japan…), from South America, from Europe from North America (if you aren’t based there!), Specifically try some which come in translation, from a language you do not speak. Learn to think the thoughts of someone who comes from a different world than you. Broaden your horizons, literally and metaphorically.

Month 10: Visit the past

Read a novel or two from a different century. The Twentieth, particularly the early Twentieth, perhaps; or (if you can handle it) even delve into the Nineteenth, or even before. People were very different back then. But if you know where we came from, perhaps it might become easier to start understanding where we might be going.

Month 11: Jump to the future – or the weird.

Pick up books by Charles Stross, China Mieville, Samuel Delany, Ursula Le Guin.

Month 12: Plan a year of books for a youth

What would you recommend to a young person who is only just beginning their literary journey? Which books were important to YOU, growing up? Why? You might have to re-read them and make sure they hold up? Which books weren’t around when you were young, but you WISH they had been – books which you read as a grown-up but which you know would have changed your life if you had found them younger? Put a list together and then maybe give it as a Christmas present to a reader in your life. Maybe even with a package of the recommended books.

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A year of reading an author named Alma

Just in case you might want a monthly reading list on those topics drawn from my own work, on similar topics:

Month 1 : Transcending loss – Letters from the Fire – an epistolary novel told in emails, about war and love and courage and loss of country. It’s fiction, but this one is deeply rooted in a very recent historical past.

Month 2: Laughter – Spellspam, the second book in the Worldweavers series. If you like puns, you will quite enjoy the spellspams that lead off each chapter This one also leaves you with quite a bit to think about, though, when you’re done laughing.

Month 3: Rising to your gifts – the entire Worldweavers series, really. “Gift fo the Unmage”, “Spellspam”, “Cybermage” and “Dawn of magic” All about the Girl Who Couldn’t, the one of whom much was expected but who apparently failed to rise to those expectations…. right untilthe moment she did, and transcended them all.

Month 4: A bit of history – Empress, a story which is based in the immortal love story of Emperor Justninan of Byzantium and a girl from the Hippodrome named Theodora who became an Empress. This one’s alt-history, or historical fantasy – but it skates quite close to the real tale. Pick it up, read it, and you might be moved to find out about the Real Thing, afterwards…

Month 5: Through a glass darkly – The Were Chronicles (“Random”, “Wolf”, “Shifter”) This is a world that could so easily be our own, with just one major change. There are Were-creatures. And instead of the usual suspects (any people with a darker skin, Jews, lower social castes or classes,) it is the Were kind who are the lowest on the social totem pole. These are books that look at what that means, what it feels like, and how to rise above it…

Month 6: Art – Um. I have to give you a rest this month. i don’t do visual But if you want another medium.. I have a couple of books out as audiobooks (currently “Embers of Heaven” and “Gift fo the Unmage”, with “Empress” coming soon…)

Month 7: Poetry month – I DO have a book a poetry out, which my was instrumental in getting published when I was 18 years old. There aren’t many copies about. But I give you leave to read other poets, instead. Or email me and ask me for a poem. I’ll send you one.

Month 8: Visual art in story – I have a story that won a competition run by the BBC, no less. About a painting. It’s called “The Painting”. You can find it in Weight of Worlds, a collection of my short stories (only in ebook…)

Month 9 : Writers from another continent. Well, I’ve lived on a lot of continents, so wherever you are right now you can make a case of picking ANY of my books and you’d be safe. But I suggest “Midnight at Spanish Gardens” because it is about a real place which I left behind on another continent, a long time ago. And it might bring up some memories of your own.

Month 10: Visit the Past – Try my Jin-shei books – “The Secrets of Jin-shei” and “Embers of Heaven”. They are alt.history/historical fantasy but they are rooted in Imperial China and the Cultural Revolution, respectively. I did a ton of research for these books. They may be fantasy but they are truly “historical” in their own way.

Month 11: Jump to the future, or the weird. Try “AbduciCon”, especially if you are a Science Fiction fan who has ever been to a convention – you will have fun both hunting familiar SF tropes, and recognizing characters who will seem familiar.

Month 12: Visit “my books” at www.AlmaAlexander.org and plan a year of MY books for somebody…? (If you want to plot, you can always let me know and we can get them signed.)

LINKS
Jon Westenberg at medium.com HERE

5 significant books in an author’s life HERE

All my books HERE

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The writer and sex

 

The writer and sex

In her book, Love and Trouble, Claire Dederer explains how a book review brought her
“an unforeseen gift, or burden: Suddenly everyone wanted to tell me about his or her sex life. I mean everyone. I heard secrets, nonstop, for months.”

What kind of secrets? Well…

Secret 3: A note from a college friend, via Facebook: “Loved the piece. Struck a chord. These days it seems like I want to Do It all the time and [husband’s name redacted] never wants to. I don’t know what to do. Am seriously thinking about having an affair but HOW???? How do you even do that?”

Fascinating excerpt HERE

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The Power of Cautionary Questions:

At BrainPickings, Maria Popova introduces Neil Gaiman’s thoughts on Ray Bradbury’s ‘Fahrenheit 451,’ Why We Read, and How Speculative Storytelling Enlarges Our Humanity

“The abiding splendor and significance of the ideas and ideals at the heart of Bradbury’s classic is what Gaiman explores in a beautiful piece titled ‘Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451, and What Science Fiction Is and Doe.’ It wasoriginally written as an introduction to a sixtieth-anniversary edition of the book and is now included in his altogether magnificent The View from the Cheap Seats:”

Book city illustration

Book city

One great quote:
“There are three phrases that make possible the world of writing about the world of not-yet (you can call it science fiction or speculative fiction; you can call it anything you wish) and they are simple phrases:

What if … ?
If only …
If this goes on …”

And one more:
“People think, wrongly, that speculative fiction is about predicting the future, but it isn’t — or if it is, it tends to do a rotten job of it. Futures are huge things that come with many elements and a billion variables, and the human race has a habit of listening to predictions for what the future will bring and then doing something quite different.

“What speculative fiction is really good at is not the future, but the present. Taking an aspect of it that troubles or is dangerous, and extending and extrapolating that aspect into something that allows the people of that time to see what they are doing from a different angle and from a different place.”

Read the whole fascinating story at BrainPickings HERE

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10 Easy Ways to Raise a Reader

1) Have books in the house
2) Have many different books in the house
3) Let your reader read what they want (they will find their own level)
4) Be available and willing to discuss things that have been read; answer questions willingly and honestly
5) Be a reader yourself and share your knowledge and your favorites
6) Make language something to play with and enjoy rather than a burden to be ‘learned’
7) Don’t be a reading snob – “high literature” is not the only kind of book there is – if your kid wants to read Asimov don’t insist on Nobel Prize winners, or suggest that nineteenth-century novels have to be read in order for the fun stuff to be accessed
8) Get the kid a library card and encourage the hell out of its full use
9) Make reading something to be proud of, not something to hide from your peers because they will think you are “weird”
10) Love books. Period. It’s’ catching.

Common Sense Media has some more ideas HERE

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I was quite happy to learn that Laurel Book Store, an indie bookstore in California, has a good listing of my books. I wish my local bookstore would do is well.

The stories motto is:  A little bit of everything and the ability to get the rest.

Check my books out HERE

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In the Age of Conventions, YA Fans Rule

 

Publishers Weekly tells us that “Readers are turning out in droves for the chance to meet favorite authors while collecting tchotchkes, autographs, or memorable selfies with artful backdrops.”

And adds:
“Increasingly, marketing YA books means meeting fans where they’re at—online—and in municipal buildings across America: New York, Seattle, or San Diego, Calif., for Comic Con; Charleston, S.C., for YallFest; or at Santa Monica High School in California for YallWest.”

Read the whole story at Publishers Weekly HERE

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Do You Know What These British Words Mean?

Take the Quiz HERE

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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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About me      My books      Email me

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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

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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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About me    My books    Email me    

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