Thursday, December 26, 2013

Thursday Thoughts

Happy Holidays to all, whatever days of celebration you observe and however you do it, religious or secular.  Expect a post of retrospection and introspection soon, but today is not that day.

Today, perhaps appropriately, I'd like to talk a little bit about endings, albeit in the fictional sense.

The past few weeks have been difficult emotionally and physically - a nasty cold which evolved into a sinus infection - so I can perhaps be forgiven for missing my usual warning signs of impending plot hole:  writer's block.  Instead, I ground to a halt with Unnatural Causes and tried to keep plugging away ... but the problem was, I couldn't walk the characters through what amounts to a fantastic autopsy (and believe me, I am having fun with the atmospherics of this scene) without knowing whodunnit.

Seems obvious, perhaps, but years ago, I saw a collection of mystery writers speak at Books and Company in Dayton, and more than one admitted that when they started writing, they didn't know which suspect had committed the murder.  This really stuck with me, and I decided when I broached the idea of a fantasy mystery novel that I was going to go into it with suspects, but no chosen killer.

I finally found this just wasn't working for me, and I needed to decide whodunnit to work through this autopsy (I'm not going to get tired of describing it like that).  What I looked at first was how I wanted to play with various assumptions that had already been made about the crime and the logic behind it.  That gave me some specific parameters to play with and one idea I knew I wanted to incorporate.

Then I started looking at the ultimate motive - was it political?  Personal?  Was she just in the wrong place at the wrong time?  In deciding which way I wanted to go with this, I had a distinct sense of how I wanted the characters (and hopefully, the reader) to react, and this dictated my ultimate choice.

This somewhat less organic than I usually work, but I'm satisfied with the conclusion I came to, and knowing where I'm going helps me shape the tone of the steps along the way.  I've never liked the concept of stories having a message, but I do like to play around with certain themes and tropes.  I suppose it's the difference between a short answer on a test - which would be the "message" - and a stream of consciousness poem.  It's not about the destination, it's about the journey.

Friday, December 20, 2013

GoodReads Review: The Founding Foodies

The Founding Foodies: How Washington, Jefferson, and Franklin Revolutionized American CuisineThe Founding Foodies: How Washington, Jefferson, and Franklin Revolutionized American Cuisine by Dave DeWitt
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

An entertaining look at the early history of food in America and the Founding Fathers who were greatly influential in its development, this book was full of delightful information. The period recipes, presented verbatim, are fun to read - and definitely give you an appreciation for modern cookbooks, because I would hate to try to follow one. Be aware that book is perhaps mistitled; the first segment of it (a significant portion of the book) is not so much about founding foodies as it is about the early economy, necessity and evolution of food, from the explosion of the pepper trade in Salem to the duties of the baker-general of George Washington's army.

This is not a general history book - it is an in-depth analysis of American eating, and includes a lot of elements we often take for granted nowadays, such as the requirements imposed by geography and the creation of a national identity. The chapters that focus specifically on Washington and Jefferson are really well-balanced, providing a general sense of their lives and historical high-points, while keeping the focus on the real star on the story: the cuisine.

For me, where this book falls down is the translation of recipes at the end of the book. The author has attempted to modernize the recipes, but the result seems half-hearted at best, both in the product and the methodology used to arrive at these interpretations. To be honest, I would have been perfectly content - might have even enjoyed it better - to have another few chapters, looking at some of the other early culinarians, rather than the recipes. This kind of a project really requires an entire book to itself - perhaps even for each individual region (for instance, New England fare versus Jefferson's Virginia), never mind the whole Revolutionary landscape; it's not really suited to be squashed into 46 pages.

Still, as a reading book rather than a recipe book, highly recommended. If you love the story behind the food, this is for you.

View all my reviews

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Thursday Thoughts

It's been a long, draining week.

As some of you who follow me on social media may have noticed, my grandmother passed away this Monday.  To her other numerous grandchildren and grandnieces, she was Juju, but she's always been Grandma Junie to me.

I've always tried to keep this blog "angst-free" with a low personal threshold - I talk about my habits and quirks, but I don't think (as a general rule) people want to read the latest saga of my life.  When it comes to my Grandma Junie, though, I wouldn't feel right without a few words.

The family asked me to write the obituary; it was one of the hardest things I've ever had to write.  I didn't want to gush or use the same trite words seen in every obit.  How to encapsulate what a wonderful, nurturing woman meant to her family with brevity and clarity?  I thought about what I remembered most - both from my own experiences and stories I had heard.  She really gave all of us what we needed, and that's what I wrote.  I'm not an overly demonstrative person; I went for simplicity and truth.

My Papa Tony (her late husband) preceded her in death by several years; you couldn't have imagined a more loving couple.  They both adored the people around them.  Papa Tony started a local tradition at the drive-thru of buying coffee for the person behind you.  Grandma Junie continued to visit the Dunkin Donuts up the street for years simply to keep in touch with the young women who worked there.

And they were wonderful to us grandkids.  For a long time, I was the only grandchild who lived out of town, but they went out of their way to make me feel special and included.  While looking through my grandmother's things, my mother found some very heartfelt thank-you notes I'd written them when they came to visit us in Ohio, along with some very puzzling nonsequitors that definitely refer to events I can no longer remember ...

One of the things I remember about Grandma Junie, both from my personal experience and tales from other relatives, is that she was always willing to stir our imaginations and join in our games.  One of the activities we shared when I was younger was painting rocks.  Can't remember how many hours we spent.  But I probably owe a bit of my creativity to her.

As I grew older, I learned about a few other traits that we share, including a slight tendency to be obsessive-compulsive about the little things.  She's the source of my Welsh heritage.

When she moved out of her house into an assisted living facility, she gave away a lot of her things.  I was asked if I wanted anything, and I had an immediate answer:  the crane plate.  After my mother was born in Bermuda, the family moved to Japan.  There, my grandmother acquired a golden plate covered with a latticework of cranes flying in all directions.  The Thousand Crane Plate is hand-painted, and no one crane flies in the same direction; it's considered good luck.  Some people might call it gaudy, but I had always been fascinated by it; and more importantly, it made me think of her house and of her.  The plate sits in a place of honor on top of my music cabinet.

Alzheimer's is a terrifying illness.  To think of losing those pieces of yourself fills me with dread.  I hate losing my grandmother and I will miss her, but I'm also happy she's whole again.  And maybe looking after and loving people still in her next phase of existence.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Thursday Thoughts

Today is the last day of my first quarter of classes.  I've taken all my exams associated with my coursework; I have one more test, for ServSafe certification, on Saturday ... at 8am.  Who schedules an exam at that date and time, I ask you?

In any case, the academic courses were, generally, no sweat - and my concepts course was fascinating, a goldmine of intriguing information about food and associated topics.  I've always enjoyed exploring the interconnection of information - how the habitat of birds and the necessity of disguise influences the color of their eggs, for instance.

For me, the challenge was the lab course.  First of all, I have a slow physical learning curve; I'm always a bit behind everyone else.  Second of all, I was homeschooled my entire life and then took the majority of my previous college courses online.  I am not accustomed to retaining information solely from lecture format.  So suffice to say ... it was a learning experience.  I've definitely learned to take notes in greater detail.

Overall, the experience was intense, but I enjoyed it.  I love learning; I love keeping busy.  Now it's time to start applying what I've learned ...

Thursday, December 05, 2013

Thursday Thoughts

Nostalgia, part two!

A couple more projects I've pondered rewriting.  Like the others, they all have their problems and their plusses.  The allure of new novels is still potent, so it may be a while, but I'm sure these ideas will materialize in some form or another, even if they're cannibalized for another project.

Conspiracy:  This was actually a series of short stories, storyline never finished, that was "published" in my Eye of Unicorn, Tongue of Dragon ezine, which was a private "subscription" (note all the quotation marks!) circulated among a small number of people.  It never quite worked the way I wanted it to - I intended people to "pay" for it (more quotes!) by submitting at least one piece in a certain period of time - but it was a good idea ... and this is off-topic, in any event.  Conspiracy followed a dissolute playboy prince and the leader of the song mages who both had problems that could be solved by each other's resources ... so even though they could barely stand each other, they decided to pretend a romance and get married.  As the story unfolds, we learn a lot more about Calina's dark past ... and two secondary characters on each "side" of the tale develop who I simply adored.

But there's one huge problem with the story:  what's wrong with an arranged marriage?  Why pretend?  I came up with a tentative worldbuild element that might explain this, but I'm still working against the expectations formed by earth's entire history.  This is probably the primary reason why I haven't tackled this already.

Blood From Stone:  This story was a journal written in "real-time" - if there was a three-day lapse between entries, I waited three days to write the next one, and I tried to finish the events of a single day *in* that day, though I think as the storyline heated up and got more complicated, I eventually found this was an impossible quantity of typing.  The basic premise was that everyone was bound to a stone embedded in their body that allows them to be monitored and harmed / disciplined by a class of sorcerers known as Lithomers.  The main character is essentially a gypsy, from a class of people who are still bound to stones, but do not have to keep them on their person ... and she is adopted by a scheming noble to enter the Lithomers.  There's a love ... polygon of some kind (her and three men) and a lot of conspiracy, complication, mythic backdrop ...

Probably the main issue with this story is the slow start and the amount of complication.  To rewrite it, I'd probably have to do a plot / scene outline and identify elements that could be cut ... and I'm sure there are a few. ... a few.  The current draft is about 160,000, which is untenable for a newbie author these days ...

Some of you are probably wondering about my Nano novel, Unnatural Causes.  (Or possibly none of you, but allow me my illusions.)  I'll chatter about that next week, but suffice it to say, I did not "win," but was thoroughly satisfied with what I did get written.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Thursday Thoughts

I've occasionally contemplated rewriting old projects.  They have fascination and appeal for me still.  I'm never sure if it's because I lucked upon - and let's face it, especially with the oldest, it probably was luck; I had no idea what I was doing as a writer - something particularly powerful or compelling, or ... just pure nostalgia.  The new is never quite as good as the old.  I've gained a lot of experience and technique, but I've lost some craziness.  I "know better" and so I've stopped making rash decisions that may turn out to be gems in the end.

Here's a few old projects I've considered rewriting:

The Cats of Mordue:  my first real novel, it was five "books," the first two of which were novella length, and the rest of which were novel length.  It was a run of cliches:  a rebellious tomboy princess, a wise old mentor, and a shadowy dark one.  But then there were the telepathic cats - I always had a soft spot for them - and the plot revolved around the mentor figure (the Mordue of the title) being kidnapped.  Later on, we find out that she and the evil overlord are siblings.  I've actually rethought the magic system and the main character's history a bit (making her an actual gladiator first), and I'm intrigued by the possibilities.

Unnamed:  This was "Nelia.doc" and it was also cliche-ridden - another tomboy, sword-wielding heroine, this one refusing to acknowledge her powers, a wise old mentor and a shadowy dark one, with no explanation of his motives or why people were opposing him.  Where it diverges is an order of warriors bonded to intelligent swords - though I'll confess that I was unduly influenced by Craig Shaw Gardner, and Paquel was something of a coward.  I added a secondary nemesis with goals that, in theory, opposed the dark one.  I did attempt (horribly) to give the dark one some motive by having him use magic surveillance, but I'd definitely ditch that.  And more family dysfunction:  one of Nelia's allies was the son of the dark one.  I really think this is a rich area for exploration, but it does lead me to considering that the resulting story should be more his than hers.  The difficult decisions end up being his.

The Sintellyn Medallion:  Here's the first time I deliberately tried to invert some cliches.  My main character is the "chosen one" ... but it's years after the pivotal events, he's become a young king due to them, and has ended up the figurehead of a political mastermind.  There is a second plotline that weaves in and out of the main plot before they converge.  There also a lot of other elements I like:  unrequited love stories, someone who chooses their life's work over romance, and - of course - political conspiracy.  But the specifics of the plot and the ultimate solution need overhaul, and with two storylines intertwined and timing interdependent, that would take a lot of work.

This post is getting long, so I'll probably post a few more later.  But you can see where I'm dealing with some sticky elements ... and why I've generally chosen to move on into the future.  Still, there's valuable and possibility to be mined from all of these.  And certainly, I've learned what not to do from the final product.

Or at least, *some* of what not to do ...

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Let Me Digress ...

In my management and supervision course, it discusses two types of people when it comes to problems on the job:  opportunity thinkers, who focus on finding ways to solve the problem; and obstacle thinkers, who simply accept difficulties as the end of the story and give up.  As I thought about this concept, I decided there was an additional way to look at it.  There are two types of people:  external-problem people and internal-problem people.

When external-problem people are confronted with a problem, they attribute it to the circumstances.  In school, the class is too hard or the teacher is unfair; on the job, the boss is out to get me or the equipment is subpar.  When internal-problem people are confronted with a problem, they attribute it to themselves.  I need to try harder, come up with memory hooks, or treat the equipment more gently.

Internal-problem people are generally more likely to come up with a solution, because they believe the situation is in their hands.  They have taken responsibility for their circumstances and improving them.  It doesn't necessarily matter if their perspective is correct; a sunny disposition might just turn the unfair boss around.

However, being an internal-problem person isn't always positive, and being an external-problem person isn't always negative.  Sometimes, the equipment really does need to be replaced, and all the gentle treatment in the world only delays the inevitable breakage.  An internal-problem person may beat themselves up trying to be something else when the true solution lies elsewhere.

Probably the best compromise is to first consider if the problem is internal:  is it something that you are doing, or something in your outlook?  If an honest assessment tells you that you're doing everything you can for the problem, then it is time to look outward.  And starting with a positive attitude - and opportunity thinking - will improve your odds of solving any problem.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Thursday Thoughts

As I've been working on Unnatural Causes (the working, and probably final, title of my novel in progress), I came to a realization:  almost all of the suspects in the murder are male, whereas the detective, sidekick and victim are female.  I was instantly concerned about generalizing the genders, making the men "villains" and the women "heroes."  I considered changing the gender of one of the suspects to help balance this, and then decided not to.  I had several reasons:

The character I contemplated inverting had a history that specifically connected to his gender.  To give him a sex-change would require a complete rewrite of backstory, which also is integral to his personality and personal motives, which ... certainly, I could come up with an equivalent storyline, but it would require a fair amount of consideration and note revision.

Second, while there is gender inequality, it isn't completely black and white.  There are female suspects, and the queen is the one who ordered the investigation suppressed (forcing our heroes to step in).  I decided to emphasize this a bit by changing the motives of the guard captain, too.  There are other male characters who are allies and sympathetic.

And finally - and ultimately, what I thought was most important - is that the story isn't about "a man who" or "a woman who" - it's about "a person who" ... and I feel that to arbitrarily flip the gender of a character would subvert that.

Or maybe I'm just lazy.  Take your pick.

Thursday, November 07, 2013

Thursday Thoughts

So as mentioned in a previous post, I knew from the beginning that I (likely) wouldn't finish the requisite number of words for Nanowrimo, but thought it was a valuable experience for the camaraderie and the "excuse" to focus solely on one project for a month.  With going to school full-time and working (almost) full-time, my writing time is necessarily limited, so I'm not putting must-finish pressure on myself.

Another reason I don't have my eyes fixed on the word count is because I want to do it right.  I am some cross between a plotser and a pantser; I don't plan out my plot in advance (in fact, at this point in the mystery, I don't know who the murderer will turn out to be), but I do plan the characters and world in extensive detail.  So one of my goals as I write is to trickle the information out in a way that orients the reader, sets up the personalities, introduces the victim in a way that will hopefully build sympathy for her, intimates the politics, and develops potential motives for murder, without heavy info-dumping ...

All within the first four thousand words.

Why four thousand words?  I've read in guides for mystery writing that the victim should be dead within twenty pages - which typically assumes 250 words a page.  I decided to use this as my standard, my first goal post to keep the plot on track.

And I'm almost there ...

Yes, I have a long way to go.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Thursday Thoughts

First of all, check out my eerie fractal in the sidebar.  Happy Halloween, everyone!

Since it is, after all, Halloween, I thought I'd talk about some of the classical monsters.  So many of these - ghosts, zombies, vampires - revolve around the fear of death.  It's a concept that leaves me flat.  I don't find it frightening.  Once a person is dead, their body is an empty shell.  I don't find anything particularly horrifying or unnerving about the idea of being confronted by the unnaturally animated form of a departed friend or family member.  The thing that gets me (the only thing that gets me) about zombies is the unforgiving nature of fighting one:  it doesn't matter if you get away, one bite, one scratch will doom you.

To me, I find humanized monsters less viscerally frightening than the inhuman.  If the monster is human, you can reason with it - you have a chance of dealing with it through personal interaction, however slim.  The inhuman simply doesn't respond or react.  It keeps coming and coming.  On the other hand, a humanized monster is more compelling, more nuanced ... likely more ambivalent.  With logic and rationale, there is a chance for sympathy, however unwilling.

Witches?  So often, today, they're the heroines.  Devils? ... well, the same thing, really, but unless handled in a unique fashion, the religious element fails to invoke a deep, instinctive fear.

The only thing I can say about werewolves is - paranormal romance.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Thursday Thoughts

It's official:  I'm going for it.

Two years ago, I aborted my NaNoWriMo project a few days in, not because I lost inspiration or thought I couldn't meet the goal, but because I felt I had too many other writing projects to put on hold for a month.  It was a decision of business and practicality, also taking into consideration the fact that I knew I didn't "need" Nano:  I could produce the 1,667 words a day required without it being a mad dash for production.

None of these things have changed.  I'm a little less buried in projects, but I still have a novel to edit (Who Wants To Be A Hero?) and a much longer to-do list with being in school.  It's been a while since I've produced a few thousand words a day, but I know I'm still capable of working back up to it.

But with all the pressures and deadlines in my life, it's time to set aside what I "have" to do as a writer and just do something I want to do, and having the communal goal of Nano may give me that extra little spark I need to find writing time.  I'm also keeping in touch with an online friend who has also committed to giving it a try.  Worst case scenario, I get a good chunk of my next project down.  Best case scenario ... if all goes well, Unnatural Causes may be a finished novel by the end of November.

Even if I make 50,000 words, I actually don't expect the book to be complete ... but who knows?  I'm in the mood to go for it.

Monday, October 21, 2013

GoodReads Review: Ice Will Reveal

Ice Will Reveal (The Time of Turning Back, #1)Ice Will Reveal by Julia Dvorin
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is an intriguing fantasy novel of destiny, intrigue and what it means to be chosen ... and if that all sounds a bit familiar, the story makes it into a strength. Fantasy readers are intimately acquainted with these ideas, and "Ice Will Reveal" does an excellent job both in examining them and in playing off our expectations. This is a book that takes familiar ground and makes it new. The use of religion is also particularly vivid - we're left wondering, just as the characters might be, which face of the Goddess is true? Has she intervened? Is there a plan? There are two characters developed throughout the book whose apparent role is suddenly and abruptly turned on its heel, and it's powerful both times.

As a writer, I particularly appreciate when multiple perspectives are used not just to show us what more than one character is thinking, but to foreshadow and increase tension by giving us knowledge one character or the other doesn't have ... and Ice Will Reveal does this beautifully with only a handful of scenes.

The two main characters are nicely balanced - one serious and faithful, the other cynical and clever. It's particularly interesting to see them through each other's eyes.

As an aside, not the author's fault, I think, but the book is littered with typographical errors in the use of italics. Some thoughts are italicized, others aren't, entire paragraphs that are clearly not character thought end up in italics ... the proofing in this book is otherwise clean, though.

Ultimately, I struggled with the star rating on this book because it is definitely a Book One in a series. There is an ending - which I was pretty confident for the last seventy pages or so wasn't going to be at all possible - but it feels shoehorned in and truncated solely to make sure that this was a standalone volume (and even at that, it really isn't). I definitely want to read the next book, but this was handled badly both as a traditional fantasy to-be-continued and a finished-story-arc.

It's a shame, because I really have no other complaints. If you love traditional fantasy and want a thoughtful, unusual exploration of some of its core tropes, pick this one up.

View all my reviews

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Thursday Thoughts

My creative process - especially when it comes to arranging music - sometimes frustrates me:  while I feel very strongly about discipline and consistency in my creative schedule, I have trouble taking an idea or a tune and immediately creating from that jumping point.  I need time to let it stew and develop ... well, flavor.

Two weeks into culinary school, and already I'm putting my blog posts into cooking metaphors.  Be afraid.  Be very afraid.

But there is something to be said for the metaphor.  Just like a simmering stockpot or crockpot, just because you aren't actively minding an idea doesn't mean that it isn't developing.  Maybe one has to give it a stir every now and again, but the development for me is on the backburner of the mind.  Without the time, it lacks depth.  With too much time, the product evaporates.

I'm turning into the villain in Blazing Saddles, so I'd better stop with the comparisons.  But for me, the process is almost magical:  all of a sudden, what I need to do is crystal clear under my fingers, materializing almost as if by outside influence.  It's just a matter of striking that balance between patience and procrastination.

Sunday, October 06, 2013

Anatomy of an Idea: Lightning Strikes

My story "Lightning Strikes" was just released by Kaleidotrope - go and check it out if you haven't.  This story has a lot of history behind the scenes, which all began with my favorite pastime:  worldbuilding.

A long time ago, I started working on a world just for fun - an ancient setting with various Greek-inspired city states.  I worked extensively on naming languages, in particular, but also designed a full pantheon and explored each city in depth.  I had intended to design other cultures - an ancient Egypt analogue, a Celtic / Spanish cross, and possibly a Native American-esque culture - but I never did get to that point.

However, I used this backdrop to write a story.  Nope, not "Lightning Strikes" - it was "Chatter Me Timbers," inspired broadly by the mythological Argo, the ship with a talking board installed by Athena.  It was published by the now-defunct Afterburn SF, which I miss - such a fun magazine.

Unless you have both stories for reference and are looking for it, though, you'd probably miss the connection between the two tales.  "Lightning Strikes" is set several hundred years later - Rome to Chatter's Greece.  I've done similar loose connections before, and coincidentally, the story was also published by Kaleidotrope:  "Voices" is a near-prehistory prequel to my novel "Journal of the Dead."

The idea for "Lightning Strikes" started with two ideas.  First, I wanted to write an action story with a character who wasn't career soldier, fighter, mercenary, etc, and second, I wanted to write about augurs.  As I started to develop the storyline, I decided to use marauding barbarians ... and for interest, I decided to make them centaurs.  (I did very loosely use the Native American inspiration.)  This meant I had to consider a fair amount of logistics about how they would deal with buildings in the city ...

When designing the climactic fight in the story, I decided I wanted to hit all the elements - earth, air, fire and water - but have the solution to each be inspired by a specific Greek myth.  The result was a story I'm very pleased at last found a home.

Thursday, October 03, 2013

Thursday Thoughts

This will be a short one due to first week of class:  still adjusting to the new schedule and working out both my workload and how much I need to do in one day to keep pace.  I'm hyper and energized and starting to feel the writing bug, but until I get all this sorted out, it has to be at the bottom of my list.

However ... I decided to do something a little wild with the vocabulary terms for my various classes - create a fantasy character and write in-context sentences including each word.  After having gotten my list for the Career Development, Management and Supervision course, I realized it will have to be an urban fantasy character, but some fun ideas are already popping into my head ...

I'm dithering whether to actually include these in my student notebook, which is a quasi-official document that will be reviewed and is part of the grade.  Obviously, that would be along with (and after) the usual vocab lists, but I wonder if it would just make them think I'm crazy ...

On the other hand, A) it is an art school; and B) I *am* crazy.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Thursday Thoughts

A story of firsts - part two.

While "But Before I Kill You ..." was my first sale, between that blood-stained event (see last week's post) and the publication of the anthology, I sold a couple other stories which came out before ... and so my first publication was "The Dreamweaver's Dispute" in Leading Edge Magazine.

This story was written from a series of random inspiration - five images drawn from a fantasy art site with absolutely nothing to do with each other, and woven together into a story.  The underlying premise became:  what if the fairies came to you and told you that if you didn't fulfill your late husband's bargain with them, they would return your first-born child?  So "Firstborn" was written.

It got a few encouraging responses in submissions, including a lovely reply from Strange Horizons.  I was extremely excited when Leading Edge accepted it, and quite curious when I heard it would be illustrated, but there were a few hurdles to overcome first.

First, I had to change the title.  They had printed a story in their last issue with the same title ("Firstborn"), by Orson Scott Card.  Titles have always been a weakness of mine, so I came up with a list of every character, plot point and theme in the story, brainstorming with the help of my mother (hi!) until I finally hit upon "The Dreamweaver's Dispute" - a reference to the main character's profession.  Not perfect or brilliant, but it was catchy and would work in a pinch.

Second, for whatever reason, they didn't receive my contract, and I found about this pretty close to the publication deadline.  There were some technical issues I can no longer recall the details of - maybe the file was too big to email? - and back and forth that eventually required me to call the magazine office.  Small snag:  being a student-run publication, the office was only open a few days between 7-9pm. ... MST.  So I had to wait until 9pm my time to try them.

But finally got it sorted out just in time for Leading Edge #51 to go to print with its lovely illustrations, and "The Dreamweaver's Dispute" on the table of contents.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Thursday Thoughts

Feeling nostalgic this week, so thought I would turn back the clock and talk about my first story sale - though it wasn't my first published story, the way the timeline worked out.

I had been writing and submitting short stories for a while, with some encouraging responses.  Then I saw the submissions calls for Fantasist Enterprises' Bash Down The Door And Slice Open The Badguy - humorous stories of sword and sorcery.  I had never attempted to write a story for a specific theme before and the deadline was already near, but I had an old story entitled "But Before I Kill You ..." that I had written years ago with the Evil Overlord list for inspiration.  The core of the story would remain, but I rewrote extensively, finished it swiftly, and edited it in time to hurry it off in the mail.

A little less than two months later, I received a reply.  I opened it, expecting another rejection letter, and promptly cut my finger on the side of the page.  I read the contents in shock.  At the time, I was still living at home; my mother came in and asked me what was going on because I was white as a sheet.  I stammered out an explanation.

And that was how "But Before I Kill You ..." found a home.

Check it out here:  Bash Down The Door And Slice Open The Badguy

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Stardust Now Available!

My flash fiction story, Stardust, is now available in Silver Blade!  Check it out.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Thursday Thoughts

This past week, I've had a modest goal of writing 500 words on my short story a day.  I haven't reached that every day, but I've generally come close - with the exception of one day when I was just utterly work-slammed and didn't even get to touch it.  I'm estimating this is going to be about a 7000 word story, which is where most of mine tend to fall.  I'm about 2500 words in and on good track to finish in time to do a bit of editing before I post it for the FWO challenge.

The joy of writing every day is hard to express.  It can be frustrating when I can't quite figure out the sequence, have to stop and puzzle something out, worry that there's not enough foreshadowing, doublecheck to be sure I have sufficient description without stopping the story cold ... but oh, the delight of the flow of words.

I know my writing time and energy will decrease again when I'm in school, so I'm pondering short projects that I can finish quickly.  One thought I had was to do a piece of flash fiction, micro fiction or even a poem every day based on a sparker, such as the word of the day or a random Deviantart / Elfwood picture.  I'm certainly open to suggestions of a good source for quick inspiration!  (Weekly may be more realistic; I'll have to think about it and experiment.)

Other writers:  what do you do to keep your muscles sharp when time is limited?

Thursday, September 05, 2013

Thursday Thoughts

Quick bit of non-writerly news:  for those who might have missed it, I will be starting culinary school in less than a month - first class, September 30.  I am hoping to be able to blog about the experience, so please feel free to check out Evil Overlady In The Kitchen.

Back to the topic at hand, I am currently tackling the FWO monthly challenge:  write a story in one of the "punk" genres.  Well, how could there possibly be a question?  I'll be writing a mannerpunk story.

I'm fairly fascinated by this subgenre and have even credited it with influencing Journal of the Dead - though truth be told, that is probably more of an intrigue novel.  I love the idea of political and societal manuevering and the matching of wits as the driving plot force of a novel.  It also happens to fit very well with my interest in fantasy mysteries, positively made for labyrinthine motives and alliances.  Unnatural Causes, the fantasy/mystery novel that is on hold until I get Who Wants To Be A Hero? in shape (yes, I have novel overload) is based on a fine web of conflicts and consequences ... and my two outsider detectives, the familiar and the apprentice, are doubtless going to have their clashes with society.

Assuming I ever get a chance to write it, but that's another story (pun intended).

I suppose even the culinary is good practice for all this:  in what other subgenre would it be appropriate to lovingly (but briefly!  I am not a flowery writer) describe food?

Ironically, I was rather turned off by Swordspoint, the alleged originator of this subgenre, but I will recommend a few mannerpunk books I enjoyed:  Patricia C. Wrede's Mairelon The Magician and sequel; and Barbara Hambly's regretfully standalone Stranger At The Wedding.  Galen Beckett's The Magicians and Mrs. Quent has most of the hallmarks of mannerpunk (indeed, it often feels like fantasy Jane Eyre!), but it wasn't a book I can wholeheartedly suggest.   (Check out my review here if you're curious.)

So it's off to the mannerpunk ball with me ...

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Thursday Thoughts

Between the editing for Scylla and Charybdis, editing / revision for stories that have gone into submission in the past while, and of course, the synopses and query letter I mentioned in my last post (which are now being looked over by two brave volunteers and will, of course, result in even more revision), I haven't done any new writing in a while, and it's beginning to drive me a bit batty.  Well, more batty than usual, before anyone points out my normal state ...

It's high time to start something new - a short story, of course, as I still have Who Wants To Be A Hero? waiting for its own turn at edits. Or perhaps the zombie novella ...

However, starts up their monthly challenge at the beginning of the month, and I want to be able to tackle it for the first time in several months - which means, short of bribing someone, I need to wait a few more days.  Idle in the meantime?  Not me.

I think I've mentioned before my favorite exercise book - and the only one I've found almost universally adaptable to fantasy writers - is The 3AM Epiphany, by Brian Kiteley.  I went through the entire book in order once, doing an exercise (roughly) a day; over the next few days, I'll be making some random selections to warm up my author muscles.

Are there any warm-ups, idea sparkers, etc, that people particularly enjoy using, have found especially inspirational ... or especially challenging?  Inquiring minds want to know.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Thursday Thoughts

My main writing project over the past short while has been the dreaded synopsis, or rather, in plural - I have a long version and a short version, which was intended to be five paragraphs, but is currently sitting defiantly at six.  The way the action breaks up, however, it seems better suited in its current form ... and it should be a one-page synopsis when formatted in normal-person font etc - which is to say, not in the 8-9 pt font in which I habitually write.  (I don't like how little of the screen the text fills on Word at 100%, so I write at 150% ... but that would make the text huge, so I use smaller font.  Previous editions of Word allowed you to word wrap, but then it's hard to know where you are on the page ...

(There is a method to my madness, suffice to say.)

I've been pleasantly surprised by how easy this synopsis was to write in a compact format, though I'm sure I still have extraneous details.  For my longest novel in a while, I was dreading it ... but I found that it was fairly easy to move through the action points, and that I didn't need to go back and fill in as much as I usually do when I reached the latter parts of the synopsis.  (That's usually my problem:  I'll think, "Oh, I can omit ABC" and then when I get about two-thirds of the way through, I realize that S and T depend more than tangentially on B, which ... etc.)  It may be because the whole book was written with a circular arc, returning to its starting point geographically and perhaps thematically.

Now as I'm tidying up what I have, I'm wondering - does anyone have any tips for tightening a synopsis?

Thursday, August 01, 2013

Thursday Thoughts

First of all, if anyone hasn't seen this, here's Abyss and Apex's review of my novel:

Abyss and Apex 3Q Book Reviews

I'm quite pleased, and grateful they took the time to review it.

On to my thoughts for the week, I've recently discovered (or rediscovered) another tendency of mine in character creations:  I like to explore issues of identity, what defines it, and what happens when you learn that part of your identity wasn't what you thought it was.  (This does, in fact, tie very strongly into Flow.)  I write a lot of characters who are outsiders in their own societies; to a certain extent, I suppose you could argue that most heroes need to be, but it's often used more as an excuse / impetus to adventure than a driving part of the plot.

But I've always been fascinated with circumstances that alter identity and that moment of self-realization, whether it be coming-of-age (Flow again) or something else.  Ioweyn in Who Wants To Be A Hero? is a goddess of change itself, which means that the faces she presents throughout are varied both physically and in the way she acts - but is that real change, or is it pretense over a static identity?  Isn't there a paradox in here somewhere?  And this in what is intended to be a lighthearted comedy ... Vri from Bird Out Of Water (available in Trespass) is half merman, half harpy, and focused on becoming something better ... or is it?

When something forcibly alters your consciousness, how do you deal with it?  Are there circumstances in which you aren't "you" any more?  If your origins are revealed to be something different - your parents, your early childhood circumstances - does that change anything?  And what if you have a terrible past, but you no longer remember it ...

This last is an idea I started to work on a very long time ago in a fandom setting, but I never got to implement more than fleetingly, because the community was on its way out.  Now I'm taking another stab at it in another shared-world environment, and hoping to do it right.  We'll see.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Thursday Thoughts

I'm not quite sure how I managed to miss posting entirely last week, but I suppose that means I didn't have anything pressing to say ... not that I'm ever busting at the seams with unique and incomparable insights, but cut me a little slack.

This week, however, I've finally finished what (for now) is my final edit of Scylla and Charybdis, coming in just a bit under 145,000 words.  The first chapters have seen critiques in multiple stages ... and now, with a finished novel lurking ominously on my hard drive, I have my eye on the dreaded synopses (long and short ... or in my case, longest and a-little-less-long) and a query letter.

I'm a bit nervous about this one - as a science fiction novel, it's outside of my usual writing zone.  I have it in mind to emphasize the social and worldbuilding aspects of the novel ... and, of course, I won't be looking at publishers or agents that don't also cover fantasy.  I realize there's some risk in this genre hopping, but if nothing else, it was worth writing for my own growth ... and it seems silly just to let it molder.  I certainly would appreciate any advice anyone has as far as the subgenre box-hopping involved, though.

Next up!  I probably will dabble in a few short stories and poetry before moving along to ... more editing.  Who Wants To Be A Hero? has been sitting far too long.  Yes, I am two novels back (one now).  It ain't pretty.

Thursday, July 04, 2013

Thursday Thoughts

Happy Fourth of July!

(It may only be Independence Day in the United States, but it's July 4th everywhere.  ;-))

I've always been fascinated with the (US) Revolutionary War period - from pre-colonial to those first few decades after, which were filled with more turmoil than most people think about.  And it wasn't lofty ideals and political principles.  When you think about the fuss of taxation without representation, it seems to me that there was a significant percentage that was more concerned with the "taxation" part ... and looking at the reasons England was turning to its colonies for funds, they may have had a point, even if the way they went about it turned out high-handed and incendiary.

I love the movie / musical 1776 for its portrayal of the warts of the whole process, and of course the music itself is brilliant. This quote from John Adams (the character, not the actual historical figure), I think, comes in some ways frighteningly close to the way the Revolutionary War has sometimes been perceived:

"It doesn't matter. I won't be in the history books anyway, only you. Franklin did this and Franklin did that and Franklin did some other damn thing. Franklin smote the ground and out sprang George Washington, fully grown and on his horse. Franklin then electrified him with his miraculous lightning rod and the three of them - Franklin, Washington, and the horse - conducted the entire revolution by themselves."

And then there's my favorite political quote ever, sung by Adams:

"A second flood, a simple famine, plagues of locusts everywhere, or a cataclysmic earthquake I'd accept with some despair ... but no, you sent us Congress!  Good God, sir, was that fair?"

Happy holiday, everyone.

Friday, June 28, 2013

Stardust sold to Silver Blade!

I'm pleased to announce Silver Blade will be publishing my flash fiction story, Stardust.

This is the actually the first flash piece I wrote with a "looping" technique (the last word of the sentence is the first word of the next) - before The Hurricane Cavalry, which recently appeared in Penumbra - and I'm delighted to see it find a home.

My third piece with this technique is now in submissions (though there, the form is directly imbedded into the plot), so clearly, I need to write another ...

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Thursday Thoughts

So the next few days, for me, will be consumed with a massive event on my roleplaying game:  an alien invasion.  (This wouldn't have been my first choice, as I have no skill for either big battles or space-based scenes, but I've managed to find myself some events to hold for players, and I'm writing flavor news from around the game world.)  In working with my fellow staff-folk to build this event, I've been reminded of something ...

I am not a seat-of-the-pants writer.

I may seem like that on the surface because I don't outline plots in great detail, unless I'm dealing with short fiction where precise mapping helps me remain within a reasonable word count (which actually happens almost zero percent of the time, but I digress).  What I do, however, is build my world, scenery, characters and motivations to such depth that when put into motion, the plot flows naturally without the need for guideposts.

I've found this even more useful in gaming, because some of those characters, of course, don't belong to me - they belong to the players.  So I need to be able to roll with whatever decisions they choose to make.

None of this happens, however, if I don't start from a clear foundation ... and I like to have my map well in advance, so I can get comfortable with the lines.

Of course, I suppose this means that by the time I get back to Unnatural Causes (a Nano project I regretfully abandoned due to too many irons in the fire), it will be absolutely superb ...

Well, I can hope, right?

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Thursday Thoughts

Today, I'd like to talk about the idea that, "If you do what you love, you'll never work a day in your life."  I wish I could remember where I first saw commentary debunking this particular pearl of wisdom, because I would give credit where it's due - but at least I can clarify that these thoughts didn't originate with me.

First of all:  it's nonsense, and not only that, it's harmful nonsense, prompting people who *are* doing what they love and still feeling frustrated or stressed to secondguess themselves.  Every profession has aspects that are drudgery; every profession also has aspects that are bound not to be an individual's cup of tea.  (These aspects may or may not fully overlap.)

For instance, I adore performing and teaching the harp.  However, I dislike:

Making phone calls to clients.
Diagnosis of buzzing strings.
Explaining the limitations of the instrument to clients - no, I can't realistically pick up a brand-new piece of music in four days; no, I can't accompany a vocalist if the tune is in five flats; no, XYZ can't be played on a lever harp (though I can work some miracles and this rarely happens - the last tune I tried to work up and failed was personal, and it was "Til There Was You" from Music Man).  The lever harp has a steeper learning curve than many instruments, and even other musicians are sometimes surprised when I have to say "no" - or better, "I can, but it wouldn't be to a standard I would feel comfortable with for your event."
... okay, that was a rant.  Back to the list.
Special requests to learn a tune I can't stand (example redacted ;-))
Required standard repertoire I can't stand (Danny Boy and Wagner's Bridal Chorus ("Here Comes The Bride"), I'm looking at you)  (Conversely, I adore the Pachelbel's Canon, cliche though it is)
Cameras, especially for posed shots.  Get out of my face!  Or at least warn me so you only get the instrument.  It's the only part of the package worth photographing.
Long, narrow staircases.

From this laundry list, there's clearly some work involved in this occupation I love ... but if I were to omit any (or at least most) of these items, I would have difficulty booking jobs.  The same is true for any vocation.  I think few writers enjoy the process of submission and rejection; many also loathe editing or marketing (or both).

Let's play Devil's advocate for a moment.  Let's say your passion in life is gardening, but you hate tracking plant shipments and physically unloading the plants ... but!  An employer is willing to pay you to do just the part of the job you're interested in.  Someone else will do the tracking and the heavy lifting.  Sounds like you've escaped ... but now you have to deal with your boss' expectations and requirements, either clock in and clock out at specific times (convenient or not) or in some way record your hours ... the work has found you again.

Does that mean I suggest having any old job, because you'll never be totally happy?  Not at all.  The pleasure of doing what you love is hard to beat.  But expecting that there won't be any rough patches or places where you're just slogging along seems unrealistic to me.  Every occupation has its work:  you just have to find one where the good outweighs the bad to the point ...

Well, where you find yourself forgetting the bad and spouting, "If you do what you love, you'll never work a day in your life."  But please don't.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

GoodReads Review: Outlaw Cook by John Thorne

Outlaw CookOutlaw Cook by John Thorne
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Rather than a single, cohesive memoir, story or thesis, Outlaw Cook is a series of essays, divided into sections by a joining theme. The first part, Learning To Cook, had both an autobiographical and thematic arc, describing how Thorne developed his relationship with food and hunger. It was thus a disappointment when the following sections - Made To Taste and The Baker's Apprentice - diverged into an unordered discussion of various cuisines. The final section - The Culinary Scene - is a bit of a puzzlement with book reviews, but a couple of the pieces here are quite intriguing: the one on Martha Stewart and Cuisine Mecanique, the closing essay. It's an eminently appropriate ending and a perfect summation for the whole book.

Thorne has a distinct way of looking and writing about cooking, centered on a very primal philosophy of its uses. Even when not addressing his primary viewpoint, every essay in the book reflects this thesis. At times, he takes the whole thing to a pretentious degree ... which is ironic when the book argues vehemently against such pretention in the culinary field. Still, whether or not you agree with him as a reader, his discussion will make you think about your attitude towards cooking ... and why you hold it. (I came to the conclusion that my philosophy is almost entirely the polar opposite of his, which might color this review.)

Thorne's discussion of the history and physics of food is absorbing, though, and he takes a deep look at the cultural roots of each dish he considers. There are recipes a-plenty throughout this book, but it's not really a cookbook ... and Thorne would be the first person to tell you to be suspicious of recipes, so they are intended to be jumping-off points / inspiration. (Hand in hand with this, they were too simple for me - I noted only a few.) It's easy to see why Alton Brown was electrified by his point of view - I originally found out about this book from "I'm Just Here For The Food" - even though he took it in a completely different direction.

Even though I don't agree with a lot of this book, it makes for an interesting, thought-provoking read.

View all my reviews

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Thursday Thoughts

Another blog post that starts with a sample of the internet's finest, one of my favorite bits of humor, which I will title only:

Commas Are Important

This never fails to make me giggle, and is a great illustration of the importance of punctuation ... though unlike most examples, this one distorts the meaning by addition rather than subtraction.

I've always been a stickler for commas - not only where they belong, but where they don't.  (Whenever I see a sentence starting with "And," or "But," I cringe.)  I'll cheerily confess to overusing my ellipses, my semi-colons and my dashes, especially for effect, but I try to make sure every comma is in its place.

Lately, however, I've noticed an increasing trend of disappearing commas.  Some e-publications seem to have style-guides that omit not only standard comma use, but occasionally remove them from places where they're crucial for clarity.  I don't chalk this up to poor proofing or ignorance:  it seems to be a deliberate choice.

So all right, maybe I'm an old fogey in some regards.  Is this sentence really hindered by the loss of its comma?

Earlier that day, she had tea with a dragon.

(I've warned y'all about my examples before, haven't I?)

It's still clear what's being talked about, but I can't help but feel the loss of the beat.  On the other hand:

She turned around slowly assessing the beast.

Is she turning slowly, or assessing slowly?  The lack of comma makes it muddy.

I think part of the reason commas are something I spend so much energy with is they are the tools of beat, rhythm and accent in language.  As a musician, I can't help but notice the flow.  As a harp player, I'm particularly attuned to phrases in music.  When you work out the fingering for a tune, as long as there is at least one finger on the harp, the notes provide a connected phrase.  As soon as you come off, that breaks the connection - the end of the phrase, the pause, the singer's breath mark ... the comma.

Thursday, June 06, 2013

Thursday Thoughts

My post this week comes as a result of this:

World's Cutest Kid Explains Why He Doesn't Eat Octopus

(For those who might not be in a place to watch a video, basically, it's a young boy declaring he doesn't want to eat animals because he wants them to stay standing.  It is pretty adorable.)

When I first saw this, I was struck by the boy's logic and how dismayed he became.  I enjoyed this as a clever glimpse into a child's mind and personally, it didn't even occur to me to think, "Oh, sheesh, another touchy-feely plea for vegetarianism."  (Yes, I am very much a carnivore, myself.)

Until I read the comments.

Ninety percent of those who commented seemed to ignore what to me is the "story" here to praise or criticize the kid's point of view, point out that he'll change his tune as soon as he has a bacon cheeseburger, etc.  I wondered ... why can't people just enjoy this without obsessing over the message?

(Now, I'll admit the end of the video is a bit more blatant - the comment that he's doing something beautiful - but I still don't think that undermines my overall point.)

This is my problem with fiction writing - I feel like some people, both writers and readers, miss the delights of the story because they're fixated on the message.  Now, that isn't to say that the message can't enhance the story, or that many stories don't have some kind of organic message even if the writer has no conscious intent ... but there is a matter of focus and priority here.

To me, the first priority is always the integrity of the story.  I think this is in good part because a good story feels real to me - as if the writer is a travelogue writer in another realm, not an inventor.  When story elements are excessively shaped to portray something specific, it robs me of the verisimilitude.  The Cave People of Shri should be superstitious about people flying because that's how they are, not as a metaphor for shortsightedness.

(One of these days, I should cull all my terrible examples in these posts and attempt to write a story from them.  It would be epic ... in the worst sense.)

So when writing, at least in novel length, I always start with worldbuilding - and once that's in place, I rarely change it to the convenience of the story.  (I can't say never, but I would be extremely reluctant.)  To me, the reality of the world is not negotiable for the advancement of plot.

Scylla and Charybdis, which I'm in the process of final editing right now, does a lot with gender dynamics.  I decided very early on that I didn't want to make some specific statement about how men and women interact - but rather that I wanted to use the situation to set up some interesting (and rather broken) societies and then explore them, and gender interaction happened to be the experimental variable.  If there is a central message in SaC, it's less about gender and more about the hazards of concealing things from others "for their own good" ... but I didn't set out to say that.  It's just a statement (one of many) that you could make from the events of the plot.

So when I watch the video above, I'm not thinking too much about the ethical dimensions of vegetarianism.  I'm thinking about the boy's choice of words.  I'm amused by the mother referring to the "chopped little legs" of the octopus.  I'm thinking about octopus gnocchi and where can I get some of that - and where was this filmed that it's an appropriate food for a three year old?

I'm coming up with a horror story where the food comes back to life ... all right, maybe not.  However, I did write a story once from the point of view of an animated servitor comprised of foodstuff ...

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Thursday Thoughts

It's been an eventful week, most of which I spent on the east coast - traveling to Baltimore to visit with my folks, and from there into Virginia wine country.  Got to tour Monticello (and Jefferson's more private retreat, Poplar Forest), saw so many gorgeous views, dabbled in wine-tasting, and tried duck for the first time.  As always, it wasn't long enough and I'm reluctantly easing back into the daily routine, but I did miss my puppies.

On the writing front, I wrote a poem - free verse - got the germ of an idea for another, and pondered expanding a third ... but as to the last, I've looked at it multiple times and it seems to resist being turned from its current state - a single cinquain, a snapshot of imagery - into something with enough meat to submit.  I also finished Nesting Instinct, which at 17,700 words and a little change has a lot of heft of it ... and still has that, "Yes, but ..." ending I love to wirte.  Oh, boy, does it ever.  I think an immediate sequel to this work would have to be a novel:  the implications are too broad even for another novella.

... and if there's one thing I learned from writing Nesting Instinct, it's that I don't think I could survive writing an entire novel from the first person perspective of a blind woman.  The tactics I used in a shorter (relatively) work would begin to wear thin and leave a reader unsatisfied in book-length fiction, I think.  On the other hand, maybe I should take that as a challenge ...

My next project is the final editing pass for Scylla and Charybdis, a focused, "cramming style" readthrough.  I found this immensely helpful with Butterfly's Poison (even if Harper Voyager didn't agree) and I'm looking forward to a similar clean sweep.

Forward march!

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Thursday Thoughts

The subject on my mind this week is stories inspired by or reinterpreting various myths, fairy tales, ballads, and so forth.  I'm going to arbitrarily set what I'm talking about apart from retellings that are relatively faithful to the source material - that's not the topic I'm interested in.  Obviously, there are grey areas, but for the purposes of this, let's say that a retelling would relating part or all of Snow White from the point of view of the huntsman; a reinterpretation would be a story where Snow White is a werebear and she's hibernating, not sleeping.  (I never promised to provide good examples.  On the other hand, I would read that story.)

I'm fascinated with the opportunities provided by this source material.  Much of it has a primal depth to it, and you can offer a number of variations before you start to dilute the core.  The story (or stories) that got me thinking about this was a (series of) retellings from a shared world where I decided to use the ballad The Cruel Sister as partial inspiration for a character's background.

(It's a common story with a lot of variations.  One version is here:  The Cruel Sister.  Loreena McKennit also has an - overly prettified - version, The Bonny Swans.)

Since my character was a harp player - ironically, this was before I came to the instrument; ancient history, that - obviously, he came into play as the musician of the piece.  I decided he and the lady-harp developed a romance, one that is shattered in the fallout of the revelation that ends the ballad.  (We never find out what happens after, at least not in any versions I've seen.)

This was a fantasy land created by someone else outside of the bounds of story or ballad, so some changes / disguise of the original narrative were inevitable.  Still, I made a few direct references:  the title of one of the stories was "So Coal Black Grew The Other One" (another version of a line in the first verse, above).

As I start thinking about rewriting it, I ask questions that aren't in the original narrative.  One I've already indicated - what happens after the harp reveals the murder?  What happens to the beloved after the younger sister drowns?  Why / would the older sister really think she could just be given the beloved like a prize?  (Not that women haven't been treated like this in old stories so often it almost doesn't bear mentioning.)  What kind of love is that?

I think this is another powerful lure of these old stories - so often, we're left to ourselves to fill in the gaps, ask the questions ... or be content with the mysterious and nebulous impression that it would all make sense if we pulled back the curtain.  The authority of these stories is such that we don't always feel we have to ... and a fiction writer drawing them can sometimes get away with the same trick, sometimes not.

When dealing with these sources, though, the question (or a question; there are numerous) is how much to disguise them.  Does one maintain names, settings, even specific lines?  Some tales are practically public consciousness; others are more obscure, such that only a student / scholar / geek would recognize even extensive references.  Then there's the story where the author conceals the recognizable elements, only to reveal them at the end, with an, "aha" moment for the reader.  The infamous example of this is the two people who crashland on a planet and turn out to be named Adam and Eve.  Writing this story will get you retroactively blacklisted back to the point your parents met.

I'll plead guilty to writing love letters to Greek myths ... a lot of them.  We're having quite the steamy affair.  Mythocraft is essentially a reintepretation of Greek mythology with a clockwork (we'll call it proto-steampunk) angle.  A story I haven't sought publication for yet, Inside The Box, imagines that Pandora was trapped in the box after she opened it (there's another myth / tale where I don't think we really find out what happens after) and leads her through a series of dream-encounters with other mythological figures.

Then there's the simple substitution method:  X, only with Y.  A writers' challenge to take a fairytale and use a subgenre with which I wasn't comfortable led to a tale I simply had a blast writing:  a steampunk retelling of The Six Swans (or Seven - fairytales seem to have difficulty counting higher than three).  And, of course, The Naming Braid combines multiple Lais of Marie de France.

All of these are pretty transparent:  anyone who is familiar with the source material should recognize it quickly, if not immediately.  One of the major projects I've contemplated writing down the line is a fantasy reinterpretation of the Helen of Troy myth, really utilizing and treating the gods as they were in the source material:  flawed, larger-than-life meddlers.  I've been in continuous debate how much to obscure the original.  Does it lose power if too subtle - or contrary-wise, if one is slapped in the face with it?  But mythological research has already suggested some interesting variants, not all of which the purists will be happy with ... so I don't want to stay so strictly in the lines that people will pick at inaccuracies.  (For instance, my Odysseus is a woman in disguise, and while I have multiple mythological tidbits that made me decide it was appropriate ... oh, there could be uproar.  Confessedly, part of my reason for doing it was also that I hate Odysseus and it's interesting to justify "his" behavior as the effects of trying to conceal gender.)

But enough about me ... finally ... and this is by far the longest post I've done in a while, at that.  What's your favorite myth variation scheme?  How much do you think a reinterpretation or inspired-by story should be disguised?

Monday, May 20, 2013

Mondays for Moms

One of the most important things mothers do for us is introduce us to the world, answering the limitless questions we have - even after we leave the infamous "Why?" stage.  The closest I've come to this personally is as a teacher, and I've found that sharing knowledge with other people is a heady thing.  There are times, however, when it has to get wearing for a parent.  Here's a bit from Taming The Weald.  Keryn has brought Verdant to her home in the space station's living quarters after years in a small, artificial wilderness:

Keryn almost needed a cargo lift to get Verdant into the shower, but once the girl got used to it, she laughed, splashed and used far too much soap.  She reached for her plant-cloak when she came out.  Keryn intercepted her with a towel.

Keryn almost needed a cargo lift to get Verdant into the shower, but once the girl got used to it, she laughed, splashed and used far too much soap.  She reached for her plant-cloak when she came out.  Keryn intercepted her with a towel.

"It's better than the waterfall," Verdant chirped.

"Of course it is," Keryn said.  "You're no longer in the Weald."  Was there running water in the Weald?  There must be - she had heard plants needed it.

"You call my home the Weald?" Verdant asked.


"What do you know about it?"

Keryn had the uncomfortable feeling she was being tested.  She knew children did this.  "No one knows its exact origins," she said.  "It was part of the original station.  Much larger, at one time, but cut down when the need for it passed.  The rest remains out of a sense of tradition."

"What was the need?"

Keryn was embarrassed how little she knew about the Weald.  "I don't know," she said, "but the station has grown immensely since then.  There are a lot of things we don't need.  Most have been forgotten, but the Weald stays."

"That's sad," Verdant said.  "Everyone should remember their roots."

The clothing arrived via chute that afternoon.  Verdant adored it - until she had to put it on.

"It's heavy and slimy," she complained.

"It's not slimy, it's smooth," Keryn said.  "No rough edges, unlike the -" she stopped herself before she could describe the girl's old attire as trash.  "You'll get used to it."

"Is this what living in your world is like?"  Verdant pursed her lips in a frown.

"It's your world, too," Keryn said, "even if - somehow - you were ripped out of it.  You can't go outside dressed in anything else."

"It's not cold," Verdant said.  "Why not?"

She found herself explaining modesty and that led into other social norms, things she had always taken for granted and never been terribly good at.  There was so much to be explained she would have wondered if she was making the right decision, but the girl was avid, attentive, drinking it in ...


(Check out the full story here:  Taming The Weald)

Of course, at least most mothers don't have to explain to their children what clothing is ... do they?

Sunday, May 19, 2013

GoodReads Review: Icons of American Cooking

Icons of American CookingIcons of American Cooking by Victor W. Geraci
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book offers twenty-four mini biographies of important figures in the popular culture of cooking. It offers an interesting range, individuals important not just for their careers as chefs or cookbook authors but reviewers (Ruth Reichl, the Zagats), television personalities (Martha Stewart, Rachael Ray), a kitchen supplier (Chuck Williams of Williams-Sonoma) and even a few entitites that aren't people at all (Betty Crocker and the Culinary Institute of America). It spans a good range of the modern era, with a bit of a paucity in the last two decades - but I guess it's hard to say which currently prominent chefs will endure as icons. I do think that this book isn't properly complete without Alton Brown, however. I'd argue the man is more of a modern institution than Mario Batali is.

These biographies cover a lot of ground, from history to critique to the personalities of these famous faces. I particularly loved how almost every entry surveyed how the individual became acquainted with food and what their childhood relationship to it was. (The obvious exception being the fictitious entity in the list above.) I was very surprised by the Betty Crocker "bio" - it's fascinating. Who knew an imaginary figure had such a backstory?

Unfortunately, the fact that this book is written by multiple authors makes it somewhat uneven. Some of the bios are slight; some are overly consumed with lists and dates; some don't talk about the personality of the chef, which was one of my favorite parts; others don't make sufficient effort to present events chronologically, which requires the reader to stop and retread. I was particularly disappointed by the brevity of the James Beard bio here, and the Culinary Institute of America "bio" is a particular mishmash of trivium. In some cases, I think the bios aren't much more detailed than you could find on Wikipedia.

Overall, though, the biographies that are good here are fascinating, and there are definitely people in here I hadn't heard of before (and am hunting down now). There are plenty of moments of, "So that's what happened with XYZ" ... and even a bit of dirty laundry. And if you're a foodie follower, you'll be entertained by references to other figures in the field - there's a great story about Tom Colicchio in here, and Rick Bayless comes up several times. This book is definitely worth checking out as a kickstart into culinary figures.

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