Inside a writer’s mind

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Wired asked writers to create 6-word SF stories.

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

More from Wired HERE

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The art of rewriting

The art of rewriting photoPhoto by Matthew Payne at Unsplash

First drafts are supposed to be awful.

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

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

And there…are..imperfections.

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

You know the drill.

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

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

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

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

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

Well, you get the idea.

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

Pardon the mess.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Wired asked writers to create 6-word SF stories.

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

More from Wired HERE

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How do you build a world?

Part 1: The Five W’s and a H

Before reporting became a dying craft, every newbie was taught that a news story had to answer five fundamental questions:

Who, What, Where, When, Why

… and sometimes, How.

In any piece of fiction, these questions are just as fundamental.

I’m going to talk about The Questions, here, while referencing a particular set of books, my own, The Were Chronicles – “Random”, “Wolf”, and “Shifter”.

Question 1: WHO?

When a squib arrived in my inbox announcing a forthcoming anthology of short stories about Weres, – accompanied by an admonishment of “and let’s see something different than the usual tired old tropes!” – I sat down to write a story that immediately popped into my head.

It was a story about a kind of Were-being that was very definitely not a “tired old trope” – it was something that I’d never seen described before, a wholly crazy out-of-left-field idea…

…the Random Were.

A Random Were was a shape-changer who would change into the last warm-blooded creature they saw just before the moment of their Turn – and if it was their FIRST Turn then that would remain their primary form, the form that they will always turn to if they do not see any other critters cross their path in the crucial moments.

The idea had some wonderful comedic possibilities – and in fact the short story I began for that anthology was very light and humorous. It began by positing an unfortunate farmyard incident which left my protagonist’s mother stuck for the eternity of her existence on this world… as a Were-chicken. And trust me, this still gets a laugh if I read that section of the story in a public reading. A Were chicken is FUNNY.

Except that this story quickly ceased to be mindlessly amusing. The Random Were could not exist without rules, and the more I thought about the rules the more a cohesive Were society began to shape itself – a society consisting of various clans who shift true to their form (the Corvids, the Felids, the folk who turn into dogs or bears or sheep or llamas…), the wild-card Randoms (who were the lowest on the totem pole, for obvious reasons) and another new thing, the New Moon Were, the kindred who shifted at the New Moon and not the Full Moon and who generally found themselves living as bats for the three days and nights of their Turn.

They rose in front of me, these people, these races, this society, and they became as solid and real for me as any (now all too ordinary) human being I happened to cross paths with in the street.

I abandoned the short story. It became clear that “Random” wanted to be a book, a huge book, in concept if not words. It meant creating a whole new world and building it up from its foundations… peopled by characters who quickly became some of the best fictional people I had ever had the privilege to work with.

But quite aside from tackling the big questions this book was also an intensely focused one, dealing with things on a much smaller scale than societal pressures – dealing with family secrets, and very very personal issues. The big picture was the Weres and their society – but within it, etched with a diamond-tipped pen, a sharp storyline emerged, and at the center of it was a girl called Jazz.

Jazz was the youngest in an immigrant family of Randoms who came to a new place looking for safety from persecution in the land in which they had been born. The safety proved to be somewhat illusory, because it was, first of all, bought at the very high price of personal freedom. The Were kindred was just as feared and hated here as they had ever been before except in the new world this was carefully hidden behind “rules” and “laws”.

Laws, of course, have always existed to be broken – and there is a level of both subtle and quite open torment – bullying, discrimination – leveled at the Were from their human peers. Jazz’s older sister Celia, who is central to this story, bore the brunt of this torment, to the point that it led to the fracture at the heart of this family – the silences and the secrets surrounding Celia’s death from an overdose of a Were-specific drug.

“Random” is an exploration of an individual trying to find her place in her world (particularly when her own Random nature leads to a transformation which will leave her in a very uncomfortable position) as well as an exploration of what it means to belong to a family, a clan, a race, a species.

It is, on the surface, a story about Were-kind. It is on a deeper level a story about what it means to be human.

“Random” wanted to be a full length book – but it was obvious very quickly that the story I had begun telling would not fit into a single book. I had a series on my hands.

What The Were Chronicles became is not so much a trilogy as a triptych, with a story arc being approached in three different books by three different POV characters – and in “Wolf”, book 2 of the series, the POV character is Jazz’s brother Mal. Mal is battling his own demons – he is at 17 the oldest unturned Were of his generation, which is destroying him, especially since his younger sister Turns before he does; and also, perhaps far more powerfully, he sees himself as guilty for his sister Celia’s death (because it was he who procured the tablets which she took, which then killed her).

The frustration and the guilt make Mal a dark character, perhaps even an unlikeable one – but it is his strength, his convictions, his ability to grasp a nettle when required and endure the stings which are necessary in order to achieve a particular goal, his growth as a character, his willingness to learn and change and shoulder both love and responsibility when they are both laid upon him, it is all these things that make him unique, and wonderful, and real.

He begins his book, “Wolf” as a whiny and petulant boy. He ends it as a man. This is a coming of age story, and it charts a path which may be thorny but which is always true.

Mal’s friend is the titular character of Book 3, “Shifter”.

Chalky is a young man who has lived by his wits and fended for himself since a very young age. He has acquired self-reliance, and power, and knowledge, and a mastery of his not inconsiderable gifts. He is a talented computer hacker, and he is also, as the book’s title implies, a wild card in the Were universe. 

He can change, as his kind can, into something other than human but for him this is not constrained by the phase of the moon or restricted to three days (neither more nor less). He can Turn into whatever he wants or needs to Turn into, whenever he wants, for however long he wants.

So my characters Jazz in “Random”, Mal in “Wolf”, “Chalky in “Shifter”, and Celia, the eldest sister, who spans all three books – these are the faces of the answer to my “WHO” question.

These are the characters who bear the weight of my story on their shoulders, which sometimes look entirely too fragile to hold up the load. But they are strong, my people. And they have a story to tell of their kind, of their families, of themselves.

Aspiring writers often ask how characters are created – and I have to disappoint them with an answer that, for me, characters aren’t created, they are born. My characters tend to step out of the back of my mind, fully formed, demanding that I sit down and take dictation.

They are real to the point that they will come and sit on my bed at night, kicking the side of the mattress with their heels, and tell me I am “doing it wrong” if they feel that I am. And they are usually right, damn them. To me, the person telling the story is a real companion, someone I know well, someone with whom I can squabble and tussle but whose opinions about their own story I deeply respect and whose suggestions (if I may call them that) I take very seriously indeed.

When it comes to “WHO”, it is very important to me that I know and understand the dramatis personae of my stories. Because without a strong “WHO” everything else can disintegrate fast. Do I begin with character, then? I could answer yes but again every story is different.

Sometimes it’s a situation that the characters are in. Sometimes it’s no more than the whistle of a distant train. Stories go where they will. But in the end, they are anchored by character – by the “WHO” in the equation. Because without a strong answer to that question you have invisible people who never come to life at all, and a story with characters who do not live – for you, the creator, as well as for those who will be reading about their lives when your story is done – is a story which will crumble to ashes at a touch.

Find out more about the Were Chronicles HERE

Why do protagonists do stupid things?

Because they’re in love.

Because in their best judgment making a certain choice seems to be the right thing to do and they only find out otherwise much later that they didn’t know some critcal things.

Because their moral compass tells them to flout authority because they don’t agree with that authority, even though consequences might be dire for themselves.

Because they care. Because they DON’T care anymore, because something has hurt them so badly that they’re beyond caring.

Because they’re flawed.

Now, how do you make your readers root for them anyhow?

Read my essay at Book View Cafe HERE

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Exactly what are writing prompts?

— and why am I offering you one?

There is a new feature on my Patreon page which I call Living Literary.

Living Literary consists of writing prompts — suggestions that present an idea or describe a situation in a graph or two and then urges you to begin writing with that as a starting point,

Illustration of author in shadowIf you are a writer, you have probably used one or two in the past. Whether you have writers block, or are just trying to keep your hand in with a little warmup writing, prompts are a godsend. But writing prompts are not just for the committed writer. They can be fun for anybody.

The prompts that I offer come in two parts. The first part is the prompt itself, and that is for everybody. Just go to my Patreon site to try it out.

Take my latest, for example:
Do you have special things in your life that reminds you of people who are gone?

I know you do and I can almost hear the story bursting to get out from here.

The second part contains an essay that I wrote from that prompt, and that can only be read by my patrons. (You can become a patron for as little as a $2a  month pledge.)

I hope that some of you will share your thoughts about my essay, or share the pieces you yourself write from the prompts in the comments section.

You can see the prompts at my Patreon page HERE

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Literary Box

Do you have a reader in your life who hasn’t discovered me yet? Let’s talk.

We can set up a quarterly Book Box gift, where they get surprised by something to read every quarter – a Spring Book, a Summer Book, a Fall Book, and a Winter Book.

Drop me a note 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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Why are villains so much fun?

Protagonists are all very well. You pick a central character, you get into their head, you understand his or her point of view. That protagonist is by very definition the Knight of Virtue. There are protagonists with shades of gray, of course, and they are complex and lovely. But mostly, mostly, they ride on the side of light.

And then there are the people who will rise to stand in that protagonist’s way. The Bad Guys. The Black Hats. The forces of evil. And your reader remembers them. Often better than your protagonist.

Who did you remember?

When you walked out of Star Wars, whom did you carry out with you? Luke Skywalker or Darth Vader? Yes, you might have recognized a few quoted lines from the protagonist, years down the line. But as soon as someone started doing that breathing you did more than that. You were back there, in Vader’s shadow, touched by the billowing black cloak. If you hadn’t been… well, he might have found your lack of faith disturbing.

What of other famous villains? What of Saruman? What of Voldemort? What of deliberately half-shadowed characters who took on the mantle of protagonist even while potentially being a creature of the darker realms of morality and ethics – characters like Elric of Melnibone?

Humans may admire virtue, but they do not necessarily like it all that much. Characters whose every facet is bright, shiny and pure tend to annoy after a while. Everyone needs their flaws because without them they cease to be something that any reader will be able to identify with at all.

Writing a villain frees you from certain constraints.

You can have these people do whatever it takes, whatever is necessary, and they don’t have to answer to anyone except themselves. And they come in different shapes and sizes and darknesses.

A few of my own examples… In the Changer of Days books, there are two characters who might qualify for this particular badge.

One of them is Sif, the older and illegitimate half-brother of the true queen. He rose to power in the midst of a war, when his army decided that they needed a leader who was a grown man instead of the nine-year-old girl waiting in the royal throne room, far away from the battles. Sif had been disqualified from taking the crown, by virtue of his bastard birth, but also by virtue of the fact that his mother had not been wedded because she lacked a valued attribute – that of Sight (to learn more about that you really WILL have to read the books…) But Sight, or the lack of it, has always been a chip on Sif’s shoulder, and it drives him to do ugly and evil things in its name. And it is those things that have forged his reputation – that of being ruthless, pitiless, and able to kill without hesitation or regret.

It is that reputation which sends my second villain, Ansen, the traitor, straight to him. Ansen, the foster-brother of the young hidden queen, races to Sif’s side with news of the girl so he can destroy her in order to assure his grip on his throne. Ansen is certain of his welcome as the bearer of such news – the betrayal is nothing, in the face of the reward he thinks he can reap – that such tidings will gain him.

But he has the misfortune of arriving at the wrong place and the wrong time, and Sif is closed to him. Sif barely acknowledges his existence before he snuffs him out carelessly. There is a scene where Ansen, about to die on Sif’s orders, is still hoping that his hero will save him will intercede for him. But when Sif, casting a desultory eye on the execution that he had ordered, is asked who the hapless person about to die had been.

“Nobody,” Sif replies, turning away. “He was nobody.”

Already forgotten. Insignificant.

And yet he was a terrific villain, and he was remembered by others. Readers who had forgotten the names of many other characters remembered Ansen’s. Because his actions had stabbed deep into their own sense of justice and fairness and the meaning of glory. Everyone hated him, with the fire of a thousand suns. That was partly because I sketched him with such passion, with such gusto. I was unconstrained by what he SHOULD do, who he OUGHT to have been, and so neither was he – and, freed, he did unconscionable things and became instantly memorable because of them.

In a different book. I painted a different villain. His name was Lihui and he was a courtier at the Imperial court in The Secrets of Jin-shei. The man never raised his voice, was always unfailingly courteous and polite, would reach out to help a crippled girl stand when he came upon her fallen… and yet this is the character of whom one of the book’s readers would write, “…and I just wanted to put both Lihui’s eyes out with my thumbs.”

That’s when I knew that my job there was done. I had effectively gone behind the screen and showed the real soul of a dark and twisted character – and after that no amount of window dressing and surface politeness and general outward good behavior would have been enough. The reader had seen, and could never unsee. It was fascinating to write a character like that, free to follow every shady impulse, and to make the reader go with him, recoiling and swearing and disgusted but nevertheless unable to look away.

In my recent series, The Were Chronicles, there is a man called Barbican Bain. Another of the quiet, almost oily, ones. But because he held so fast to his convictions – his terrifying and terrible and wrong convictions – he was a train wreck you couldn’t forget. His presence was very Vader-like – you could almost hear his breathing in the background when you stopped to listen, wherever you were in that book. He was omnipresent, a shadow in everyone’s life, the cause of great sorrow that was and great troubles to come. He was an incredible character to write.

That’s why you’ll find that so many villains in literature are utterly memorable. Because you cannot believe that you are there with them – the only real way to disavow them completely and declare that no, you are SO NOT on their side is to stop reading the story they are in, and you can’t, because they’ve got you held fast and you can’t help but look at the things they’re showing you.

A good writer will use a good villain to shine a black light into the darkest recesses of the human spirit and human condition. It’s in that darkness when the writer and the reader reach out and find each other’s hand, and hold fast – because the only other person there in the shadows is someone whose breathing you will hear loud in the silence that surrounds you, and whose presence is going to haunt the dreams of anyone whose path that specter has crossed.

And that is why writing those villains is so absolutely rewarding, in the end.

With every word, with every brush stroke, the writer is painting the story that is being told into the reader’s memory. It is the shadows we remember best.

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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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Why epigraphs?

“Dune” did it to incredible effect. Asimov’s Foundation series did it beautifully. There are other books where this was used to enhance and deepen the worldbuilding.

I am talking about epigraphs, quotes that open chapters or sections of novels, quotes which often come from Science Fiction or Fantasy worlds that do not exist outside the book being read.

The Ages of Mankind

When I wrote “The Secrets of Jin-shei“, I used epigraphs to define the Ages of Mankind, as seen through the eyes of the culture and beliefs of my imagined country of Syai – Liu, Lan, Xat, Qai, Ryu, Pau, and Atu.In that order, they cover emergence (birth and babyhood), growing (childhood), coming of age (becoming adult), reproducing and replacing one’s self (the age of childbearing), the secondary stage of reproducing and replacing one’s self, and growing old (sliding into senescence), the sunset and twilight of one’s life (death), and that existence that bridges the end of the last life and the beginning of a brand new one, a sort of hovering in the waiting room of the gods (the closing of the circle).Jin-shei Ages of Mankind Liu poster

What emerged as the quotes for each section were these delicate ‘Chinese’ poems, fragile and ethereal, almost written by brushwork rather than typed on hard keys on a computer keyboard. They were astonishing to me, who created them, but they had a sturdy reality – despite their tender fragility – which served to anchor my new-made world firmly to a reality which would not otherwise have been possible. There is a power here which is difficult to define, but which is palpable. This would not have been the book it is without the epigraphs which serve as the scaffold on which the entire structure was built.

I did a similar thing with the follow-up to that book, “Embers of Heaven”, where the epigraphs came from various works of reference and literature and liturgy. Imaginary, all. But, again, the quotes serve to anchor the novel into its world, a world where these books existed, where they would have been recognizable and familiar to someone of that world, of that culture. They anchored my own mind in that world, in the way it was thinking and feeling, in the unquestionable reality of its existence.

This is powerful stuff. Even now, rereading the material, years after it was written, I find myself transported straight back into the world of Jin-shei by these quotes.Jin-shei Ages of Mankind Lan poster

The right epigraphs, even if they have been as wholly invented by an author as the novel which they anchor, serve to link the words of fiction to a world which is only a sideways step from our own, as real as that which we see when we look out of our own windows. They serve as windows, also, and they allow the reader of a book to glance directly into the mind of its writer, and understand more completely the fictional realm into which the writer has led them. The epigraphs are the keys to a massive door which open into a place which we may not have ever seen before… but which, because of those imagined yet easily recognized quoted words, we *know*.

I’ve built a series of posters based on those Ages Of mankind, the first two enclosed here. I’ll post the others at another time.

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