Lying for a living

What is fiction for?

Why on earth do we read fiction?

One of my husband’s favorite “writer” stories concerns an author with a very Southern mother whom he called to tell her that his novel was being published. After a pause, the mother asked, a little desperately, “But do they KNOW it’s a LIE?” When he said yes, his mother sighed, “I will NEVER understand that.”

That’s what writers labor under – coming up with stories that you and I and those who pay us money to publish us and to read us KNOW are absolute filthy lies, made up to a word, sometimes literally impossible or unimaginable given the known rules of physics and biology in the world as we know it.

werewolf in front of full moon illustrationScience Fiction and Fantasy are particularly guilty of this, because we lie egregiously about the possibility of faster-than-light interstellar travel, or the existence of vampires, werewolves, angels or fairies at the bottom of your garden.

And you, the reader, know that we are making it up as we go along. And you are willing to follow us on that journey. Few readers who read a fairy tale about brownies in the home will then go on to start leaving milk and cookies on the hearth from then on or wander off to the bottom of that garden with a flashlight and a magnifying glass to look for those fairies. Instead, you close the book with a happy sigh, and you go on with your own mundane everyday existence, secure in the knowledge, however wistfully,  that no brownie will wash the dinner dishes.

And then you come back, and you pick up another book. Of fiction. Of lies.

Yes, we all read non-fiction too – news, a travel guide, a history book, instruction manuals, textbooks for school, and political manifestos. But when it comes to many of these things, we are already armored with a set of opinions and attitudes, and reading items which challenge those opinions and attitudes are generally greeted with skepticism if not outright hostility – because how DARE those other people try to shove their silly, ludicrous, ridiculous, astonishing, and dammit downright dangerous ideas down our throats?!

But here’s the thing. People WILL read about those “other” ideas in fiction – sugarcoated as they are in the “lie”. Kids who are being bullied or otherwise mistreated because they are different in whatever way from their tormentors – because they are gay, or black, or Jewish, or [insert quality of choice here] – might take heart from a novel which tells of a teen who is being bullied because he is a blue-skinned singleton on a planet full of orange-skinned people and looks DIFFERENT – and somehow overcomes this in the story.

Yes, we all know it’s all a lie.  But fiction is an incredibly important medium for getting the truth out there – even when you pretend that it only happens to other people, or to people who cannot exist or will never be real. A generation of readers breathlessly followed the growing up and the growing wise of a young wizard named Harry Potter without EVER doing a single magic spell themselves. A girl called Scout learned about discrimination and courage in a NOVEL and a different generation of readers learned about those things with her. The list goes on.

The best books, the ones that we instinctively keep, the ones we go back to again and again – they succeed as entertainment, yes, and they can be riveting – but they leave you knowing more and feeling more deeply than you had been capable of before you read that book. They leave you empowered. They might have lied to you about the context and the circumstances – but the truth that lies within those false parameters is nonetheless the real truth and some part of you knows this, recognizes it, values it. People say about certain books, “This book changed my life”. Sometimes, they even mean it.

And that’s the power of fiction.

THAT is what it’s all for.

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A few years ago I was interviewed by V.M. Simandan. She had several discerning questions, including this one:

VMS: The Secrets of Jin-shei, your saga set in medieval China, is a powerful story of a group women from different social classes. How much research did you do before you started writing this novel?

Alma at 'The Secrets of Jin-shei' signing

Alma at ‘The Secrets of Jin-shei’ signing

AA: Short answer: HEAPS. I have a double shelf of books relating to the history, philosophy, geography, anthropology, culture and literature of China.

But I was consciously NOT writing a book that was directly about Imperial China, but it owed everything to that country and that general era in the way that I build up my own country, my own world.

The idea of research, as I see it, is to inform the imagination, rather than strangle it – which is why I like writing things with an fantastical edge, it gives me a little bit of wiggle room to tell a good story and not be constrained by “THIS happened THEN” with no way to work around it. In Jin-shei, for instance, one of the things that astonished and delighted me was the alchemy aspect of it – because what I knew about alchemy as a subject owed a lot to the Western ideas on the subject, but when I went to do a bit of research on it I discovered that there was an entire body of knowledge alchemical which was very much rooted in the Eastern and Oriental tradition, and this was wonderfully helpful with building my own version of it in my own world. I believe in research, in trying to be true to an idea, a time, a place. But it should not be a fetter. It should be an unfolding of wings, allowing you to fly over everything and see all things anew from a high vantage point up in the sky. You would be surprised how much good research can actually shape and drive a story.

Read the whole interview HERE

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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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Whence The Weres?

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

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

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

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Alma’s Bookshelf

The Were Chronicles

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thematically, the books differentiated according to their protagonists.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Buy Random HERE

Buy Wolf HERE

Buy Shifter HERE

Readers Everywhere

Reinier Gerritsen doesn’t think books will be around much longer, Jordan G. Teicher writes at Slate. That’s why he took a photo every time he saw someone reading on the subway.
Readers everywhereLike a scientist cataloging the last of an endangered species, the Dutch photographer wandered the New York City subway system for weeks, snapping pictures of readers of printed books among an increasingly dominant population of iPhone and Kindle readers.

“This is how it goes. Everything is always changing, but there’s a beautiful phenomenon that’s vanishing. That’s why I wanted to document it,” he said.

See all his photos HERE

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8 Tricks To Help You Read Faster

O.K. This piece by Linda Paull at Lifehack is aimed more at productivity than reading fiction for pleasure, my particular interest.

But everyone needs to read for efficiency at times, whether it’s a student studying for school, a worker reading a long screed from his boss, or a writer doing research for her latest novel.
Read fasterYou probably don’t remember learning to read as a child,” Linda Paull writes at Life Hack. “But the way we were taught to read when we were in our infant years has little relevance to how we should read as an adult. Learning to read faster is one of the best skills to develop as an adult, saving you time as you study, research, and sort through your inbox. Read on for some great tips on how to read faster.”

For example:
1. Learn How to Scan

The most important skill you need to develop if you want to read faster is scanning. Many adults find scanning difficult because it feels counter-intuitive. After all, when we were taught to read, we were taught to pay attention to every word in a sentence. However, much of this is unnecessary, because research shows that our adult minds have an amazing ability to fill in information gaps.

Read the whole article HERE

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FREE ebook

I will send a free ebook version of Random, Book 1 in my YA series The Were Chronicles, to the next 10 people who pledge to leave a review on Amazon.

To accept the offer, just send an email HERE with the subject line “Free Random Offer”
 
Include:
(1) a valid email address to send the ebook to
(2) a single sentence in the body of the email acknowledging that a review will follow.

I hope you love the book, but reviews, of course, need only be honest.

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10 signs you’re a bibliophile

So what if you like books more than people? Lara Rutherford-Morrison ask at Bustle, but offers warning signs in case you’re worried.10
BibliophilePeter Macdiarmid/Getty Images News/Getty Images

Bibliophile warning signs HERE

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Extreme adventures: the top 10 stories of real-life peril

From Wilfred Thesiger journeying through the Arabian desert to Joe Simpson nearly losing his life in the Andes, these are some of the finest accounts of life on the edge, Emma Barrett and Paul Martin write in The Guardian.

For example:
Chris HadfieldHadfield with floating tomatoes on the International Space Station in 2013. NASA/REX

Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield does a fine job of applying the lessons of space to everyday life on earth. Work hard, value learning, remember that the journey is worthwhile even if the destination seems unattainable, and keep things in proportion. And try to be nice. As Hadfield points out, “no one wants to go into space with a jerk”. Sound advice, indeed.

Read the whole article HERE

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Mystery book sculptor answers questions

An anonymous artist has been leaving delicate paper sculptures made from old books at locations in Edinburgh and around Scotland for more than three years.
Book artA sculpture for Book Week Scotland inspired by Alasdair Gray’s Lanark

The identity of the woman has remained secret despite the international attention that the book sculptures have received. BBC Scotland’s arts correspondent Pauline McLean conducted an interview with her – via email to maintain her anonymity.

Read the whole article HERE

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THIS ‘n THAT

What sounds don’t we hear any more?

J. L. Tympanum writes:
“While discussing music with my 24-year old son, the Typewriter Song (Leroy Anderson) came up. Within 10 seconds he had it playing on his laptop, but he didn’t really get the joke because he had never seen a typewriter, nor heard the characteristics sounds — the clack of the keys, the end-of-line bell, the zip of the carriage return — that the typewriter makes.”

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Quote of the Day
A book dies

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Alma Alexander     My books     Email me

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Werewolf DNA


The genetic basis of the Were Creatures

There is science fiction and there is fantasy, and never the twain shall meet. At least, that is the silly notion adopted by so many SF writers, readers and reviewers.

Personally, I find the StarTrek world, which I dearly love, to be one of the greatest fantasies in fiction. Beam me up, Scotty? Really? Warp nine, Geordi? Sure. Just let me reverse the polarity…

The distinction, as best as I can see, is that science fiction sometimes involves spaceships and uses pseudoscience as a basis for the magic of faster than light travel, teleportation and other marvels.

One way I’ve heard that particular hair split is that science fiction is the genre of things that could conceivably exist somedayonedaymaybe  but just haven’t happened yet, and fantasy is the genre of things that can simply never be without positing some sort of secondary-world factor. A bit of a distinction without a difference, if you split the hair far enough.

There is a new world out there, a world of Werewolves and Wereowls and Weremice and Werecats. I know all about it, because I created it. Welcome to my new series, The Were Chronicles.

But is it fantasy? You might say it is purest fantasy because there IS that “secondary world” touch to it all  And besides, Werewolves have been the stuff of fantasy – and nightmares – for eons, always conjuring up images of howling murderous mindless beasts.

But what if I can show you there is a genetic science underlying that world? Would that make it science fiction?Random blurbRandom, the first book in my new series, The Were Chronicles, is due out imminently.

I set out to develop a genetic basis for the “being Were” thing, which is touched upon in Random, and is more fully developed in the next two books, Wolf, and Shifter.

I wanted Weres to be real. I want the reader to start glancing nervously at the person sitting next to them on the bus or the subway and start to wonder whether that strange fox-faced sharp-featured woman or the pig-nosed broad-featured guy dozing in the corner actually turns into the things you think they might be turning into, when the moon is right.

I realized that the way to do that, to make them that real, was to develop a genetic basis for Were creatures. And I was just the woman to do that. After all, I do have a a MSc in Molecular Biology and Microbiology and even, briefly, worked toward getting a PhD in the field.

It all started when I sat down to write a wildly fun short story about Were-critters. The short story stopped being “short”, in any sense, very quickly. And started being a lot more solid, a lot darker, a lot more sophisticated…and I heard once again a still small voice I had not been listening to for years.

My long-gone youth, glittering with science, was speaking to me once again. And so I set out to do what is, likely, flatly impossible. After all, if Were had a “true” genetic basis, they would probably already exist. That did not stop me, however, from sitting down and working out how it would all work, if they did exist.

I was faced with the problem of a question of  science in a head-on collision with fantasy. ‘High Science and High Fantasy walk Into a bar…’

The crash was spectacular, the debris on the story road was fascinating, and putting everything back together again in a new and never before seen shape…was exhilarating.

I develop these thoughts a bit more in an SF Fiction article which you can read HERE:

Meanwhile, Random is due out from the publisher, Dark Quest Books, very soon now and you can pre-order it HERE:

or from Amazon HERE

You can read an excerpt from the first chapter of Random by clicking on ‘Free Story‘ in the menu at the top of the  blog.

it’s all real, the Were world. There is science behind it. Honest.

Were logoCome join my world, meet all the Were creatures. You’ll never look at your neighbor the same way again.

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Quote of the day

If you’re only reading the books that everyone else is reading, you can only think what everyone else is thinking.” ~ Haruki Murakami

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Alma Alexander
My books

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