Friday, June 25, 2010

Anatomy of an Idea: The Swan Maiden

There are spoilers, express or implied, in this post, so if you intend to go read The Swan Maiden ( ... do that before you read this.

The Swan Maiden came about through an intersection of three distinct thought lines:

First, the monthly challenge, the topic being madness. Now, when the topics are fairly simple (and sometimes when they aren't), I liked to take them and give them another twist. So I decided to construct a storyline where the take on this theme was, "Just because you're right doesn't make you sane." So the story appears to go back and forth on whether or not Alita is crazy, and in what fashion.

Second, Golden Bough's beautiful, haunting, "Song of the Swan Maiden." It leapt immediately to mind as I was considering the topic. The inspiration is more thematic than direct, though there are a few specific elements of the plot that were influenced by this lovely ballad. It's contemporary, not traditional - written by their harper, Margie Butler.

Third, my world files. I went straight for one of my more bizarre scrawls, a fantasy / sci-fi post-apocalypse setting. You see only a very tiny fraction of this setting in The Swan Maiden. Some of the concepts contained within seemed ideal for this story.

Since the lyrics for "Song of the Swan Maiden" don't appear to be out there, I've written them below and hope I don't get into trouble for it. To affirm, these are not mine, and I'll be happy to remove if this is a problem.

The people of the town say she's crazy
The people of the town say she's mad
As she wanders by the shore long hours
Dreaming of the love she once had

Many nights I've seen her weeping
Underneath a darkened sky.
Many days I've heard her singing
The same sad lullaby.
I have wandered by the ocean.
Just to hear her mournful song.
Her heart so filled with longing,
To the night she does belong.


In the cold light of the dawning,
Just as the morning sun did break,
I thought I saw her swimming
With the swans upon the lake.
On that silent day she vanished,
Of her song there was no trace.
I walked the cliffs and meadows,
I searched in every place.

They say some strange enchanted magic
Has taken her away.
Bewitched so by her sorrow
They say she'll always stay.
Some say that she's become a swallow,
And out to sea has flown.
Some say into a willow,
Weeping, she has grown.


Through the seasons I will wander,
Through the heather, through the snow.
I'll sing it to the willow,
Surely, she will know.
I'll sing it to the morning,
The song that she has given me,
Likewise into the evening,
Someday I know she'll see.


**fade out**

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Thursday Thoughts

Anatomy of an Idea post tomorrow, because I'm tired and lazy and I have to find my Golden Bough CD that has the full words for Song of the Swan Maiden. I'm sure everyone is crushed. Ha.

I posted my big news two days ago: Scylla and Charybdis is complete. The overall arc and the general shape of the plot is very close to what I thought it would be, but the details and subplots seemed to create themselves ... and the emotional arc grew almost organically. In some ways, it's a Coming of Age story, wrapped around an exploration story with a dose of a high stakes and a cast that came together much better than I could have hoped.

I look at both Journal of the Dead and Scylla and Charybdis, and I see that both tackle the themes of, "How do you know if you're doing the right thing? How can anyone expect to know?" in different ways and different prominence to the plot. I wonder what that says about my mental state from whenever it was I started Journal forward to present?

SaC will need to sit a while before I even think about reading it for editing, but I know that the post-completion multi-point outline I did for Journal of the Dead will be crucial here, and I think I will end up doing what I ended up shrugging off last time: making a wall sheet of it so I have the global picture (literally).

And of course, I can't help thinking ... what's next? Back to fantasy, of course ... this was a great stretch, but science fiction isn't quite my home. And it will come down to a choice between The Project (which is a massive, immense tangle of pros and cons) and a series of other ideas, all of which I think are more unique, but ... well, it's a long story.

The Swan Maiden now out!

My story, The Swan Maiden, is now out in Issue #2 of Port Iris Magazine:

Full story available for reading. Check it out!

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Wait. *What*?

I've been gearing up for this for so long, and then the past four days have been so hectic, stressful and weird ... that it snuck on me.

I just typed the last sentence of Scylla and Charybdis.

Let's repeat that. I just typed the last sentence of Scylla and Charybdis!

Holy mackerel.

Now for the insanity: 161k (that's 161,000 words) and a little change ... which, actually, is about where I was estimating it would come in back when I had just gotten Anaea and Gwydion off the starting space station and out into the wider galaxy, even though the structure changed some since then. Which means that my goal in editing is to shave off somewhere between 30 - 40k.

I will take serious looks at cutting subplots and potentially Penelope, the pet kearl who spends the whole novel with the MC. I love the "character" ... but as I was writing, I kept consistently having to write / plot / manuever around her. "Okay, they can run to ... crap. They have to bring Penelope."

All is not bleak! There is hope (and lots of too-fatty description, I already know that). We shall see.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Thursday Thoughts

Confession time: I've spent a significant portion of the last two weeks with an online roleplaying game. Not a MMORPG - I hate those things! - but a text-exclusive MUSH (Multi-User Shared Hallucination). I don't consider this a bad thing unless it gets excessive, because this style of roleplaying hones some of the writing skills. Flexibility - responding to events that wouldn't be how you'd write them, because you didn't write them - collaboration (of course), and clarity ... you get immediate feedback if you're not makin' sense. And character development, because the nature of these MUSHes means you roleplay some scenes that are purely social and don't have any "plot" impact.

The storyline I was laying out involved an intensive series of events, ICly (In Character ... ly ;-)) occurring between Tues and Sunday, but needing these two weeks to roleplay out. (Ah, people's schedules.) So now that it's pretty much done with only one scene still dangling - started last Friday, at that! - I will be able to fix my eye more firmly back on my writing projects.

Which means getting back into the most two recent stories I've finished and giving them their first edit ... cower in fear, stories, for I am coming for you!

Wednesday, June 16, 2010


Aubrie over at Flutey Words created a brand-new award for us in the spec fic genres: the Fantasy / Sci-fi Blogger Award! Pictured above ... so pretty. ;-)
(Btw, I tried repeatedly to get more carriage returns into this post and it just refused to accept them, so - sorry about the text bunching!)
The award requests that you talk about five favorite SF/F books or movies (and I think that in some way inspired you, though I'm not sure I'm adhering to that), so I thought I'd mix the old and the new.
(The Old)
1. Willow -- This movie was my favorite fantasy flick for a long, long time ... and arguably still is. It was one of my introductions into the genre, and it has so many of the traditional elements: prophecies, sorcerous combat, fairies, love potions, shapeshifters ... action, comedy, romance. I read somewhere - and still maintain it sounds true - that George Lucas actually wanted to make Willow, not Star Wars, but the computer technology wasn't up for the morphing. (And I also have to admit that every time I see the Gandulf / Saruman staff battle in Lord of the Rings, I think, "... dang. Was that a purposeful rip-off?") It's a very strong, archetypal story.
2. The Prydain Chronicles by Lloyd Alexander -- These, by contrast, were the first fantasy books I ever read ... and reread ... and reread, to the point where my copies (which I still have) are sort of tattered. I think they also started me on my way to my fascination with Welsh myth, though it was years before I was able to look back at the story and appreciate the way the novels are inspired by the myths without cloning them.
(The New)
3. The Thursday Next novels by Jasper Fforde -- These really are readers' books, turning literature into a wild adventure where no subject is sacred. As a writer, too, I love the fanciful turns of how stories are created in this universe. I recommend these books as medicine. For me, at least, they just make you feel better.
4. Sojourn by Jana Oliver -- An absorbing science fiction time travel mystery, why this book makes this list in particular is how deftly Oliver handles the different sets of knowledge each character has. She does a fantastic job of helping the reader keep this straight and generating tension from something they know that character X or Y doesn't ... while still presenting viable surprises on top of that. This is a skill set I'd dearly love to be able to master.
5. Murder By Magic ed. Rosemary Edghill -- I love anthologies and short fiction, so I really have to put an anthology on this list ... and what better than an engaging assembly of mystery-meets-fantasy stories created by writers in both genres? This anthology runs the gamut from hilarious - oh, how I love Laura Resnick's short works - to touching ... and, of course, it represents a capsule package of something I'm trying to do. When I stop and think about it. ;-)
This list could be much, much longer - but there's five.

Sale to Illumen!

Illumen just purchased my poem, Aeolian Harp! It was my first crazy stab at a sestina ... and probably my last. ;-) It will be in their Spring 2011 issue.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Anatomy of an Idea: The Final Encounter

Since this story isn't available online, I will keep this post spoiler-free (as it were).

The Final Encounter started as a prompt. It was one of their monthly challenges, but wasn't submitted for the challenge - in fact, it was originally posted before I joined. However, I got bored at one point and went looking back through old topics for a sparker. "After the adventure" appealed to me.

And I got to thinking ... what if the last, climactic encounter between the hero and the villain never happened? What if one - or both - walked away? What would be the consequences? Where would they go from there?

I wanted to create a very recognizable action-fantasy scene - the kind you might even see in a genre movie - but with some deeper and unusual details and twists ... then build out from the pivotal reversal, that both had the chance to fight and walked away. I had editors reject it as using too many tropes, but that was the point. To play with the story the way I wanted to, I needed those familiar archetypes. Luckily, Tyree Campbell over at Aoife's Kiss decided to give it a home.

I've been published with Aoife's Kiss before and always enjoyed working with them. My first publication there was what is still one of the plum-weirdest pieces of fiction I've sold: Good Taste, a story told from the POV of a sorcerer's created servitor whose flesh is regenerating foodstuff. (This is one of the few stories that was inspired by a single image: I cannot remember how I stumbled across it, but it was so disturbing / evocative it demanded a story.)

In any case, The Final Encounter is also about respect for the dead versus celebration of the living, destiny versus free will ... and an alicorn. Because the world needs more alicorns. ;-)

The Final Encounter now available!

You kind folks are not getting any pieces of my mind because HP support is receiving the brunt. Oy. I am not buying another HP machine.

But! Today, I received my contributor's copy of Aoife's Kiss! Shiny and gorgeous as always. (It's a very well-constructed magazine.) Haven't had a chance to read anything in it, but I have a story in it, of course, (The Final Encounter) and I critiqued Nyki Blatchley's The Ice In Her Voice before it got out and submtited, and that was also marvelous. ;-) Check out Aoife's Kiss.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Thursday Thoughts

Status: Quo.

All is fairly normal on the writing front, save that for the first time in a while, I'm working on a short story where I don't have the conclusion mapped out. It's slower writing, but I am fairly comfortable with letting play out ... just concerned about the foreshadowing I may have to go back and do. I can also see places where the reader would say, "I don't know what to believe about character X" and ... I think that's the point. Those blanks are for the reader, in the end - imagined edges outside the scope of the story.

Out of the wrenching section of Scylla and Charybdis, finally ... and wow, on the downswing. Of course, I've been saying that for months ...

Tuesday, June 08, 2010

Goodreads Review: Sword in the Storm

Sword in the Storm (The Rigante, # 1) Sword in the Storm by David Gemmell

My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Following the adventures of Connavar from childhood to hero, this is an intense book sternly loyal to the archetypes of sword and sorcery. For those who are fans of the style, it is atmospheric and immersive, a skillful take on those underlying tropes. The dark mystery of magic, the evils of civilization, the glories of battle ... it's exactly as old-school sword and sorcery should be. There is nothing new here, but it's homage rather than derivation.

... mostly. There are a few spots, particularly later in the book, where I felt that the author was adhering to The Formula rather than thoughtfully applying the circumstances of his world and characters to the plot. I just didn't buy some of Connavar's later bursts of rage, except that they were "in style" for the subgenre. I do agree with other reviewers that these made me lose a lot of sympathy for the character.

And the sex. Oy, the sex. More graphic than I wanted, thank you. However, once you get past the first eighty pages or so, the scenes become the kind of "gentle fade" that really seemed all that was necessary to make the point. Beats me.

Also, there are several phrases used - particularly in these sex scenes, but also in some of the healing / injury descriptions - that seem really modern. I am sorry, I can't see a character in the period described in Sword in the Storm saying, "Was it good for you, too?"

That aside, I did enjoy much of this book. It's a leisurely style you can't get away with much any more, unfolding back to the character's first days and watching him grow ... while still holding the reader and making you want to read on. There's a real pleasure in this long-term development, and the secondary characters grow and change in satisfying ways, as well. Connavar may be a lone hero, but he's also part of a vibrant community.

But - and this is why the book ultimately gets three stars from me, not four - in the end, the conflict we've been promised and foreshadowed through the vast majority of the book never materializes. I didn't even feel like the ending was a real ending. This might be forgiveable in a more compact work, but for me, you can't provide a sprawling life story and then stop before the epicenter, even with a promised sequel.

View all my reviews >>

The Mystery in Story

A while back, I took a course that involved gothic, detective / mystery and horror fiction. It was not a writing course, but rather a comparitive literature course. And it changed the way I think about building plots, especially in short fiction.

For the detective side of the course, it focused on the cultural evolution that made the form so popular in its infancy, on the use of the scientific method as a framework for detective work, and most importantly, on the rules of fair play.

Fair play covers both how the crime is committed - it needs to be plausible; it can't be a random accident ... and in a "real world" story, the supernatural can't be involved - and how clues are provided. It also covers how the detective solves the crime, which means that leaps of intuition and stumbling upon answers by luck is usually out.

Fair play boils down to a set of rules for allowing the reader to play along and essentially "race" the detective to the solution ... and I've found that fair play applies to far more than just the conventional mystery story, though it's eminently useful there. It can be applied to any story where the outcome involves a surprise, revelation or a solution not apparent from the opening.

Have a character who is a traitor? Play fair with the how, the why and the foreshadowing. For me, "playing fair" with my reader is far more important than surprising them with a twist ... though for the stories I've done this where I've had them critiqued, a satisfying number of people don't pick it up ahead of time but definitely can read back into the clues.

Have a plot that hinges on a power the character has? You can't just trot it out in the last page. (I did extended foreshadowing on something like this with "The King's Passing" - which IS a mystery story, but the character's supernatural ability isn't at all part of the mystery.)

Need a character to overcome great odds? They can't be bailed out by a god or a benevolent stranger at the last minute.

To me, I think most short stories are their own kind of mystery. They pose a question, the answer to which is initially concealed, and revealed throughout the plot. Certainly, you couldn't categorize most shorts as mysteries in the classical sense, but I've found thinking about them that way when building helps me with structure and even micro details.

Saturday, June 05, 2010

Stopping in the Middle

Many, many years, I read a piece of advice - I can't even remember when or where - that suggested the strategy that when you stop writing, stop in the middle of a sentence. The logic of it is ... then when you return, you have a platform to start from. For those who write by the seat of their pants, there's always the fun that the sentence may go in a different direction than intended, too.

I decided to try this out. I found it really worked for me. I can usually recapture where I was going and it makes it just that smidge easier to bound back in. Every now and again, re-examining the previous paragraph elicits the response, "No, that wasn't the start I wanted," bt the process still offers forward momentum.

To me, it's not just about stopping for the day: if I pause to get a glass of water, pick up the mail, run out to handle an errand, I always hang in the middle of a sentence. I've also found it works best not just in the middle of a sentence, but in the middle of a clause - truly in the middle of the thought.

For those who counter that they prefer to write until they're entirely out of steam ... well, if you do this long enough, the energy pattern starts matching it. ;-)

Thursday, June 03, 2010

Goodreads Review: Skate Crime

Skate Crime (A Figure Skating Mystery, #5) Skate Crime by Alina Adams

My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I love Alina Adams' complex, compelling take on the skating world, and her signature style is very much in evidence in Skate Crime, but there are definitely changes from the previous books.

There has always been a healthy dose of darkness and betrayal in Adams' breathless portrayal of the skating world, but this time, it seemed more intense and somber. I'd tentatively label Skate Crime as a black comedy.

Format-wise, Adams makes the interesting choice of telling us the backstories of various characters directly through their eyes. It's very well-done and convincing, but I did notice that the only characters we heard from were the ladies.

Another format twist is the use of forum posts at the head of many chapters to highlight the absurdity of fans. At first, it's entertaining but seems quite random. Later in the book, however, I became aware there was a more thematic reason for these entries.

As always, I devoured this book and particularly enjoyed Bex's blundering on more fronts than usual. Her proactive sleuthing is back with a vengeance, though I did feel as if her reason for jumping to a conclusion of murder needed to be fleshed out more initially.

Looking forward to another book in this series, but hoping this is the bottom line for its darker edge.

View all my reviews >>

Thursday Thoughts

I want to officially declare that, like other bloggers on my list - yeah, I'm rather funked. Must be something in the air ... could it be as simple as the pollen? I always blame the allergies, this time of year, but all I'm hearing is that this time, they really are that bad ...

In any case, in an effort to clear up the silence, I promise to post between now and next Thursday about two things: my ending-in-middle-of-sentence tic, and the idea of mystery in story (even stories that don't qualify as mysteries by the genre definition). Feel free to whip me with wet noodles if I do not produce.

Other than that, I feel like I have finally settled back into a slow groove, though Scylla and Charybdis continues to be a grind as I stumble from one difficult-to-write patch to another. Hopefully, the end result will be worth it ... but wow. One thing I'm also making note to watch is that the emotional arc is consistent. Anaea's progression from doubt to certainty seems to resolve pretty abruptly, but it is backed / foreshadowed by a lot of choices she doesn't consciously realize she's made. She's a stronger person than she gives herself credit for. Aren't most of us like that?

Working on another story which I feel has an excellent premise, but may simply be too massive for a short story - and thus, cramming it into a smaller plotline feels a bit forced and infodumpy. I'm letting it spin out to see how it turns out.

One grouse about Query Tracker: it doesn't differentiate between agents who want any fantasy and agents who want just urban. I must have gone through six in a row like that. Of course, one still does research, but it's irritating to have to sort through the invalid hits. While Flow (which is what I'm still querying right now) does qualify as urban, my understanding is that an agent is a longer term commitment ... so I don't want to pitch to someone who wouldn't be interested in anything else I write.