The writer and the storyteller

I’m going to a writers’ retreat in a rustic and charming place on the shores of Lake Quinault in Washington. It’s March. The light is that earnest bright shade of springtime when I pack my paraphernalia into the trunk of my car, early on the morning of my departure. Before I start the car, I put in a single CD which will play on repeat all the way through the six-hour drive ahead of me. “The Eessential Leonard Cohen”

Falling in love with Leonard

Leonard Cohen head shotI discovered Leonard Cohen late in life – so late as to be practically afterwards, as a character in a sitcom once described a boyfriend’s announcement. At some point, I heard k d lang perform “Hallelujah”, a song I’d never heard before which made the hair on the back of my neck stand up. I listened to this version, and then listened to it again and again and again and again. When I discovered that it belonged to Leonard Cohen and heard it for the first time in his own voice, fell in love. Hard. With his music. With the poetry of his lyrics. With his soul.

It was no accident I picked that particular CD to play me into a weekend at a writer’s retreat far away from the distractions of anything except the Word. Leonard Cohen’s songs are something that stirs my mind and my heart

They’re ALL stories. Some of them aren’t comprehensible at the level of the lyrics because those words are just glorious jigsaw pieces in themselves, and it isn’t your brain that puts them together into the pictures and the stories which they end up making inside of you, it’s your heart, and your spirit, and your soul.

“Suzanne” takes me out of my driveway and I’m on my way, the perfect body of those lyrics touching my mind, telling me to trust this, to trust the story that he tells me now and that I will start telling when I sit down with my fingers on the keyboard of my laptop. “The Stranger Song” and “Sisters of Mercy” – the latter with its strange calliope music in the background that makes me think of abandoned carnival spaces after the carnies have left and all the lights have been turned off for the ghosts to start roaming free – follow me onto the highway.

I pass the open fields which spill by the sides of the road while belting along with Leonard to “Hey that’s no way to say goodbye” and “So long, Marianne”. I remember reading about the real Marianne, Leonard’s love and his muse, and about the letter he wrote to her when she was dying, the letter that made my heart clench, because this man with his hoarse raspy voice and his half disillusioned and half angelically optimistic soul is a nonpareil poet and someone who truly understood love. All of it, even the dark side.

I can sing along with him and laugh and cry about it all again, right there with him, with Marianne whom I never met but who is in the car with me, with Leonard and his voice and his poetry and his memories, with all the stories which are starting to bud and flower and intermingle in the car while I sing and weave through highway traffic on the I 5.

“Bird on a Wire” catches me in a slowdown through a city, and “The Partisan” with its sudden unexpected segue into French catches me in the midst of a sudden shower with the windshield wipers thwapping disconcertingly out of time with the song. I have to force myself to stop extrapolating the story of the “Famous Blue Raincoat” while I am negotiating the passing of several large trucks which are slowing me down and driving me crazy.

I leave the highway and turn into smaller roads curving along the bottom of the Olympic Peninsula. Traffic is light and I get haunted by songs like “The Guests” and “If It Be Your Will”.

I stop for coffee and gas in Aberdeen, to the tune of “Who By Fire”, and remember the tales I was told about both the history and the current events of that city, while my road takes me directly through it – over a bridge, down one residential street then another, past houses which look like they have histories of their own, some decorated with kitsch and some so plain and suburban and poor and empty of any spark of creative life that they wrench your heart.

Somewhere past Aberdeen, back on the empty roads, I get hit by that song that is my anthem, “Hallelujah”. Somewhere near a place that rejoices in the queer name of Humptulips I pass a house with a sign that says “Three for $1” Three what? I am writing a story about that in my head even as I drive by without stopping to find out. It’s much more interesting that way, anyway. It isn’t the first story I’m playing with on this long drive, with Leonard Cohen as my companion, guide and inspiration.

I struggle to understand the undercurrents of “Night Comes On” and another story comes pushing forward, demanding attention. Another song tells me that “Everybody Knows” and here too there is a story waiting for me, waiting to be found, to be shaped and reshaped, to be inspired by those words which are easy to listen to, easy to take in as though by osmosis, through the skin and the fingers on the steering wheel, my thighs on the seat of the car, and the ends of my hair tucked into a braid.

The closer I get, the less I am human, the more I am story. I am changing. The music is changing me. “I’m Your Man”, Leonard tells me, and I whisper, “I know.” He’s more than that right now. He’s an unlikely craggy-faced raspy-voiced muse who is casting a hook into my subconscious and fishing out stories, one by one. Word by word. He might have ended up in the “Tower of Song” but he’s taking me to a place where all the stories live, and he will bless me with his music, and he will make my words live.

The stories the songs have to tell me solidify and set, and words march off in directions the songs themselves could not have imagined. After a long empty and solitary stretch of a narrowish country road, I see the sign at last, Lake Quinault to the right. I turn and Leonard turns with me, insistent, quietly powerful, teaching me how to dream.

Through the trees, the glitter of sun on the water. Lake Quinault. A piece of quiet beauty. Waiting with its gifts of silence and solitude and sun and dappled shade, water and a lawn made of moss. By the time I arrive the light is already on the turn, starting for evening, with one of Lake Quinault’s incandescent sunsets to come.

I turn the engine off, and Leonard falls silent, his voice gone from the real world around me… but his words echoing, still, inside my mind, elbowed aside by the stories which they have rearranged themselves into, which they have made on this journey – stories which have (on the face of it) very little directly to do with the lyrics which have inspired them. But which are, nevertheless, the natural-born children of those songs which have been my companions for the last six hours in that car.

I’m here. It’s time to write.

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Q&A about “Midnight at Spanish Gardens”

What if you could relive your life?

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Where did the idea for the book come from?

There was a restaurant known as Spanish Gardens that I used to go to when I was a student at the University of Cape Town. It was a place of true magic, and I’ve carried it within me for decades. It’s a memory caught in amber, ageless and eternal, and it’s something that demanded its story. And here it is. I hope you’ll follow me into Spanish Gardens, that you will recognize the place somehow as somewhere that magic lives, that perhaps you will find yourself thinking about the magical places in your own lives. And the choices you made there over the years.

What genre does your book fall under?

Contemporary fantasy, I guess – but it’s basically a story of people and how they change, with a sprinkling of magic fairy dust over the top, just to make it glitter.

Which actors would you choose to play your characters?

I would love complete unknowns – people who would lend their faces to my characters, who would then BECOME those people in the minds of the people who were taking in the story – rather than casting well-known actors who would distract from what’s happening up there on screen. But I’d love to know, here, who my readers might cast as these characters. Any reader want to tell me your dream cast?

One-sentence synopsis of the book?

What is the most important thing in the life that you have been given to live – and what would you be willing to give up if you were given a chance to change your life completely?

What other books would you compare this story to?

Well, one recent review compared it to Haruki Murakami’s work, which was a little startling but nonetheless a compliment. So that’s ONE opinion. Another one for you, readers. Did it make you think of any other stories or writers?

Who or what inspired you to write this book?

The memory of that place was the inspiration for the setting. But married to the end-of-the-world scenario as applied to 2012 – it became something else again, something rich and strange. This became a novel about telling the truth, about living a lie, about settling or reaching for the stars, about love, longing, betrayal, and most of all about choices.

What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?

It asks questions that everyone has asked themselves about their own lives at some point – what if I had chosen THIS instead of THAT, one person over another, a different direction?

Many of the reviews basically begin with the reviewers asking those questions of themselves. They couldn’t help it; the book appears to function as a literary mirror. The readers look into it and somehow past the characters and see… themselves. It may not be an entirely comfortable place to be. But it’s a fascinating one.

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Wired asked writers to create 6-word SF stories.

Internet “wakes up?” Ridicu – no carrier.
– Charles Stross

More from Wired HERE

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Too many characters?

Lovereading.co.uk once wrote that they love epic books with swathes of characters creating a wonderfully complex plot, but asked rather plaintively:

“Sometimes is it all too much?”

They produced a wonderful infographic about books like Shogun, Bleak House, The Stand, Game of Thrones.

You can see the infographics at the link below, but first I decided to look at a few of my own books as to number of characters.

The Secrets of Jin-shei:

Eight protagonists, or nine if you count the ghost, and several times that number of named characters. When asked about the writing of it, I sometimes suggest that if I ever have a similar idea for another book with so many major characters, I plan to go lay down until the impulse passes.

Embers of Heaven:

The sequel-that-is-not-a sequel to the The Secrets of Jin -shei — it takes place in the same world but hundreds of years later — has only two major protagonists, but more than twenty named characters.

Abducticon:

On the other hand, my science-fiction romp has an entire SF/fantasy con of named characters and ensemble protagonists, at least half a dozen other important named
characters and four time-traveling androids.

Empress coverEmpress:

 

My newest book has two main protagonists,                         at least four secondary “important” characters                   with agency on the plot, and more than twenty              named characters

The Were Chronicles:

It is a series and thus tougher to count. There are three MAIN protags, one per book, but each one also features as characters in each other’s books, so it’s hard to know if you’re counting them twice. And numerous other named characters, of course

Worldweavers:

There is only one main protagonist in this four-part series, unless you want to count Coyote The Trickster and other characters from Native American mythology —  along with 25+named characters, some of them from other worlds.

Midnight at Spanish Gardens:

There are five protagonists, or perhaps six counting the enigmatic bartender named Ariel, and several other named characters, although they are less importance in the scheme of things.

You can find ALL my books HERE

Check out the Lovereading infographic HERE

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Children of a Different Sky

Children Title banner

The fantasy anthology, “Children of a Different Sky”, is a collection of stories which illuminate the lot of the lost, bewildered and abandoned refugees and immigrants of our time.

If you wish to help, and don’t know how, pick up a copy of this book, both for the inspiration and insight the stories will give you, and the material aid you will offer by your purchase. All profits go to aid groups.

To pre-order “Children of a Different Sky”, click on the book cover HERE

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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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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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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.
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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

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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.

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About me    My books    Email me    

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Something is wrong

The uniqueness of story

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

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

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

If you take ANY book and distill it down into its smallest component parts you are going to get down to that last, eventually, because in their purest essence all stories have this in common – they revolve around a character with a problem (i.e. “something is wrong”) and the story then complicates and convolutes itself around that skeleton of a plot and fleshes it out… differently. Every time.

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

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

I realize, and appreciate, that I must tell a good story to keep a reader interested. I try to do this. If blogosphere commentary alone is anything to go by, I am not succeeding with everyone – in fact, if you haven’t got someone who absolutely hates and despises your book you probably haven’t been read by enough people to make a statistically significant readership quorum.

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

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

…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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Your favorite quote?

At bookwitty.com, Véesah Afifi offers:

Alice in Wonderland cover photoChildren…in their innocence can’t fathom the weight of some of the most important quotes they hear in bedtime stories,” Afifi writes. “However, we’re adults now, and it’s time we appreciated some of the most profound quotations in the literature of our youth.”

e.g. “It’s no use going back to yesterday, because I was a different person then.”
– Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll

What’s your favorite quote from a beloved children’s book?

See the other quotes at Bookwitty HERE

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A 5-star review of ‘Wolf’, the second book in The Were Chronicles, by L. Bruce Diamond is the kind authors pick for their blurbs. He says, for example, that ‘Wolfis simultaneously frustrating, engrossing, infuriating, and satisfying.”  If a book can stir up that kind of reaction in a discerning reader, the author’s labors in producing it were well worth it.

He was a bit less pleased with ‘Shifter,’ the last book in my series. He gave it four stars,  noting that it was “A somewhat satisfying and slightly frustrating end-piece to an otherwise entertaining shape-changing triptych.”

You can read his and other reviews of ‘Wolf‘ at Amazon HERE

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At  My Modern Met, Sarah Ann Loreth interviews Seattle-based photographer Kindra Nikole about her:

Portraits of Medieval Knights Reimagined as Fearless Women

CursedWightKindraNikole photoPhoto by Kindra Nikole

For her latest series entitled Árísan, Kindra drew inspiration from a visit to Glastonbury, the legendary resting place of Arthur, King of the Britons (aka King Arthur)”, Loreth writes. “The photographer now captures the essence of the ancient castle ruins and imbues its historical setting with new meaning. Although women did not originally take part in battle, Kindra’s images recreate history, imagining round table knights as strong, fearless women adorned in period armor.”

See all her stunning photos at mymodernmet.com HERE

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Quote of the Day

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Always dream with your eyes open.

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