When I was a small child, I never went anywhere without a book. In the car (even though it made me ill). At the doctor’s. At grandma’s. In the backyard. Under the covers. Though it makes me sad to admit it, I read for pleasure far more back then.
Part of it comes from the way I was reading. I remember all of these fantastic worlds being so real. I’ve noticed that when kids get into a book, they get really into it. There’s a sense of wonder when kids read: a willingness to engage with the story, almost as if they can slip sideways in just the right way, they’ll fall into the book’s universe.
I read the first Harry Potter at eight and bemoaned the fact that I would need to wait three years for my Hogwarts letter (my parents were torn between amusement and slight concern). By the time I started on Redwall, I knew I wasn’t going anywhere—and yet, somehow, I still have a solid grasp of the Abbey’s layout. Even now, when I squish a bug, part of me wonders if I’ve killed an Andalite or Animorph in morph.
Unless we’re very careful, we lose that wonder somewhere along the way. You experience Kit and Nita’s wizardry differently when there’s rent to be paid and deadlines to be met. Oh sure, you STILL really enjoy it, and read the book in a night, and love and cry for and adore the characters, but it’s not the same as when you’re a kid. The colours are just slightly faded, the edges slightly dulled.
It’s sad. For a writer, it’s terrifying.
I’ve been working to rekindle that sense of wonder. Given my line of work and field of study, I’m always reading to learn. But since finishing my undergrad, I can create my own syllabus. There’s still a lot of fantasy and SF (I’ve finally gotten around to reading Mercedes Lackey’s Arrows of Valdemar and I’m having a rollicking good time), but I’m trying to branch out-of-genre as well.
Slight digression: I got asked recently if I put myself into my writing. It took me a moment to answer. I don’t do self-inserts (“And then, the plucky young street urchin…named Caytee…went and did awesome stuff”) but I’ve noticed that my writing is always stronger when my actual, genuine emotions are in there: love, joy, grief, whatever.
Maybe that’s the way that books become real, whether we’re reading or writing them: we come to them with real emotions, real feelings. We’re not afraid to feel the emotions books create in us and we’re not afraid to transfer our own feelings onto the page.
Knowing how to spot symbolism, theme, allegory…these are all important things. Understanding the craft, appreciating a deft bit of characterization, or questioning an author’s plot choice…also important.
But entering the story on its own terms, opening yourself up to it…that’s not just important, it’s necessary.
What books enthralled you as a child? What books make your spine tingle and your eyes gleam now? What are the books that you close with a pang?
With NaNoWriMo starting tomorrow, word count and pace-of-writing has been on my mind. For those unfamiliar with the term, National Novel Writing Month challenges writers to write 50,000 words in 30 days. That’s 1667 words per day.
Word count’s a really personal thing. Some people have bigger ones, some have smaller ones, but as long as yours works for you and gets the job done, it’s probably fine.
(Yes, I’m twelve. Why do you ask?)
I’m a fast writer and I can slog. In my third year of university, I made the wonderful discovery that armed with a decent outline, I could write a paper in a day. A hard, brutal, brain-numbing day, but a single day.
When writing Strix 2.0, I was motivated to push it out very quickly. I rewrote the novel essentially from scratch from late April to late June: 80,000 words in about two months, averaging 2000 words/day.
Then I wrote the Victorian Dark Fantasy. There was no pushing involved with this book. It gushed out (*snerk*) from late July to late September: 100,000 words in about two months, averaging 2000 words/day with a few 5000-7000 word days.
I’m not convinced this way is better.
After all, here we are in late October, and what have I done since then?
Pretty well nothing. I rested for two weeks while my betas read, and then I’ve spent the last two weeks editing. I’ve written a few blog posts and such for the day job. Looking at my Whiteboard of Doom, I see several things due in the next two weeks, all of them hitting just when I’m really, really tired.
This is the thing: writing is draining. Not just in terms of long nights, it’s draining in that you’re pulling out raw emotion, distilling it down, and putting it on paper. For me, this was particularly true of the Victorian Dark Fantasy. In one sense, it was an easy book to write, because the words wouldn’t stop flowing. In another, it was incredibly difficult for precisely the same reason.
When I was a little kid, I ran a lot of cross-country. My strength lay in pacing—I understood that if I went off the start line like gangbusters, I’d be too tired to finish. Far better to take a steady pace and pass the early leads later on.
I don’t seem to be very good at that while writing. I charge out of the gate and sprint the whole way, and I think the only reason I haven’t collapsed so far is that I’m young and spry and excessively caffeinated.
It’s a weird balance, though. On the one hand, yes, I’d love to take things slowly and not feel exhausted by the end of every project. I’m reminded of Spoon Theory: you only have so many spoons, so you need to consciously choose how to spend them. But at the same…there are so many things I want to write. There are so many stories to tell. And frankly, writing’s been pretty important to the ol’ budget this year.
I guess finding the happy balance between WRITING ALL THE THINGS and not dying is another aspect of professionalism. Full time authors can’t burn out, because then their circumstances become very precarious. If you don’t write, you don’t eat—so it’s probably best to ensure you can write consistently for years and years to come. The secret I need to learn is that word count means very little if it kills you.
So to all of you starting NaNo tomorrow: best of luck, have fun, write as much as you are able—and take care of yourselves. We’re all here cheering!
As you may have noticed, I write under the pen name “K.T. Bryski.” I’ve seen a few articles about pen names lately; specifically, about gender-neutral pen names. “K.T. Bryski” is gender-neutral, I guess. I could be Kevin Thomas Bryski. Or Katherine Tallulah Bryski. Or Kaye Taylor Bryski (if I wanted to be super, super gender-neutral).
In fact, I’m Kaitlin Elizabeth Bryski.
Let’s back up.
Growing up, I was always Kaitlin at school, and Katie or Kate at home. Don’t ask me why—the strict preference for Kaitlin in public was entirely my own doing, even though I never particularly felt like a Kaitlin. I was a very strange child.
When I was sixteen or so, I discovered that Katie felt much better. It was far too late for my high school—in that context, I remained Kaitlin right until graduation. But when meeting new people, I slowly started introducing myself as Katie. The real breakthrough came in university. Very few people knew me, so it was a new beginning: I was able to start off as Katie, instead of asking people to retrain themselves.
Of course, I’m still Kaitlin on the dotted line: contracts, grad school applications, resumes, my passport, etc. Since it is my legal name, it feels safer, though it frequently causes confusion. I submitted Hapax to DMP under “Kaitlin” and then had to explain why I signed subsequent emails “Katie” (because I hadn’t thought about it, was the short answer). Similarly, when I started at the living history museum, I was “Kaitlin” to my bosses and “Katie” to my coworkers. I remember Blythe stopping me on the boardwalk one morning and asking in exasperation, “But which do you actually prefer?!”
(Side note: everyone there calls me “Katie” now—even my official contract this year was for “Katie Bryski.” Not going to lie, it made me all happy inside.)
So what does all this have to do with K.T. Bryski? Why did I choose initials? Was I scared of writing sci-fi/fantasy under a female name? Did I want to sound older?
Actually, it’s a family joke.
See, “K.T.” sounds a lot like “Katie.” Remember I said that I was Katie at home? Well, growing up, my parents would refer to me as “KT” in notes around the house, in texts, and in emails.
KT, please let the cat out when you get home.
KT Dentist Appt: 1:30
C u soon KT!!!
I thought it was funny. And clever. When feeling rushed or informal, I’ll sign things KT. Although Katie is technically already my nickname, you can create an uber-nickname by calling me KT (amazing what that slight change in intonation does!). Eventually, I made it my email. And then, a few years later, I made it my pen name.
DMP asked if I’d be ok with another name on the cover. I thought about it, long and hard. As discussed, I didn’t feel like a Kaitlin, so that was out. Katie Bryski suits me fine, but I didn’t think it suited an apocalyptic fantasy with lots of fire and blood and death. Kate Bryski didn’t roll off the tongue well.
Thus, by process of elimination: K.T. Bryski.
And that’s the whole story.
I thought K.T. was funny. And it’s my nickname.
Originally, this was going to be a post about Thanksgiving, and how my warm-and-fuzzy love for my friends and families (biological and otherwise) overcame my knee-jerk reaction of “Screw. You.” After all, I have a lot to be thankful for.
But then I was still feeling sad, so I left it. And then I wondered if I still talk about grief too much, and why can’t I be an adult and keep my feelings inside? And then I started panicking about being a burden and a Negative Nellie. Then I wrote a really long post about my absolute dependency on work/writing as a means of distracting my mind from itself, but I deleted it.
So, anxiety isn’t fun. Neither is grief. Mix the two of them, remove every distraction, and you have yourself quite a party.
And now I’m here, wondering if writing about the grieving process is brave or just irritating. Does it shine a light into the dark spaces to discover that none of us going this is alone? Or does it just shine it into the eyes of everyone else, making them throw their hands up and cry, “Owww!”
It’s a question of public vs private processing, I suppose. And it occurs to me that I can drag history into this. Last year, during one of our special Halloween weekends at the living history museum, I was assigned to be “in mourning.” I got to wear a special black dress, a veil, and gloves, park myself in front of a casket, and talk about mourning customs (in character). It was some of the most fun I’ve had at work.
I’m never doing it again.
But here’s where I’m going to make the connection (and adopt my Interpreter Voice). See, in the Victorian era, grief and mourning were hugely public displays. There were strict codes and timelines, depending on your relationship to the deceased. Dress was particularly prescribed. Widows wore full mourning—black clothing: especially crape, since it doesn’t combine well with anything—for a year. Second mourning followed for nine months. Widows still wore drab fabric, but with some trim and the veil worn back over the head. Finally, this all lightened to half mourning, a period of three to six months characterized by a gradual return to colours (greys, mauve, browns, etc.).
Children mourned their parents for a year.
Among the upper classes (and those aspiring to the upper classes) the grieving process was incredibly intricate and elaborate. This is where we find hearses drawn by black horses wearing black plumes, ornate headstones, long wakes with the body lying in repose…. During those first, numb days, as we were scrambling to make arrangements, I couldn’t help but wonder what it must have been like for the Victorians.
After all, you’re not thinking clearly. You’re in shock. It’s very much like being in a dream; you look back on it later and wonder how any of it seemed to make any sense at the time (I remember showing up at choir rehearsal Tuesday night—two nights after—and being very confused as to why people were surprised to see me).
But I digress. My point was that while the outward display didn’t necessarily match what was happening on the inside, Victorian mourning didn’t hide itself. Somewhere along the line, we became uncomfortable with grief—our own and others’. We started shunting death aside. After the funeral, you’re kind of left to stumble along as best you can, never quite sure if you’re “doing it right.”
Of course, there is no right way, not really. That can be comforting, but sometimes, it’d be nice to know that the feelings at any given point are normal. Does this mean I prefer the Victorians’ mourning?
Not necessarily. It’s funny, though. Last fall, as I brightly responded to visitors’ comments about the casket’s small size with, “Wellington was big where it counted…in his heart!” I felt sorry for widows having to still wear mourning clothing two years on, because surely they’d be over it by then?
Now, I feel bad for the children, given only a year to mourn their parents. At least on the outside.
I guess no one, Victorian or otherwise, really knows how to handle grief. And perhaps that’s comforting. If no one knows what the heck is going on, no one expects you to have an answer.
But yeah, Canadian Thanksgiving this weekend. I’m intensely thankful for all of you. Lots of hugs.
I’ve been editing the Victorian Dark Fantasy all afternoon, headphones in, as per usual. In keeping with the mood of the book, it’s been mostly Celtic music the past few weeks—both pseudo-Celtic-inspired-it-sounds-close-enough music and actual Gaelic-language folksongs.
I love them.
But it’s not just the bouncing fiddles and reels that have me wriggling with joy. See, lots of people know about using images as story prompts. You look at a picture and it triggers a story (or questions that lead to a story) on some visceral level.
Honestly, I mostly use music.
I’m not a musician, but music seems to bypass my squirrel-brain and punches me right at the level of emotion. Because I tend to hear everything at once if I’m not careful, it also helps quiet my brain down—the racing thoughts just get drowned out. And, like many writers, I use music to help get into the mood of a story/scene.
But for me, it also triggers stories. And that’s kind of awesome, because I’ll be searching for music to help with one story, and inadvertently stumble across another piece that sparks something else. It exposes me to a lot of cool stuff, both musically and story-wise.
Take the Victorian Dark Fantasy. Early thoughts had been clattering around for a while, but the story really only snapped into place when I found a lovely Scottish tune called “Mari’s Wedding” (or “Marie’s Wedding,” or “Mairi’s Wedding” or “Mairi Bhan”). Actually, the song only caught my attention because I wondered if it had anything to do with the play “Mary’s Wedding.” It doesn’t seem to. And aside from the fact that someone named Mari/Marie/Mairi is getting married, it has nothing to do with the VDF, either.
Except it does. Because listening to that song, I caught a flash of character—and then I started asking questions. I also started looking for more music, something that could help me enter this emerging world.
That’s the one that’s been making me grin like an idiot for the past two days. Because in this song about a young girl wanting to hook up with some sailors in Galway, I hear another conflict in this world. I hear opportunities to make my characters confront some really difficult choices. I hear the beginnings of another story.
After a very rough year, I think I’m finding my passion again. That’s a very, very good thing.
Naturally, I’m getting ahead of myself, still riding the “I FINISHED THE BOOK!” high. I do need to return to Strix. Not to mention a few other projects in the pipe…
But oh man, when I hear that chorus, I just squirm with excitement:
Téir abhaile riú, téir abhaile riú
Téir abhaile riú Mhearai
Téir abhail gus fan sa bhaile
Mar tá do mhargadh déanta…
Theme. Now there’s a word that conjures up memories from high school. All those English classes, probing texts, trying to answer the question, “But what are the themes of this work? What is the author saying?“
At the time, I think I mostly muttered something about “we murder to dissect” and deconstructed stories with both great efficiency and resentment.
Ah, the arrogance of youth. Although I think my main issue was actually some teachers’ insistence on imposing their interpretation and only their interpretation on the stories. When I’m writing, I do consider theme just as much as pacing, characterization, setting, mood, etc. Stories are always about something. That doesn’t mean that everything is a symbol or metaphor for something. Even the actual, literal narration points to the theme, because the way the story unfolds tells us something about the author’s assumptions.
If the protagonist is brave and loyal and wins out in the end, that tells us something different than if they get the same result by being dishonest and cowardly.
The theme(s) of a book is/are a lot like a thesis in an essay. It’s an argument, a proposition. When I wrote essays in the days of yore, I constantly checked to make sure whatever I’d said hadn’t invalidated my thesis. Same thing with fiction: you’re always testing the narrative against the theme and seeing if it holds. If your theme is “Honesty is the most important” and then your hero saves the day by lying, you may want to take a second look at your story.
Often, I find theme helps with plot. I just finished the Victorian Dark Fantasy. However, unusually for me, I wasn’t entirely sure how it was going to end.
So I looked at my themes and asked, “What is the point of this book? What is my protagonist’s arc? How has she changed? What would illustrate those changes/what this story is really about?”
Theme is world building. The cool thing about writing is that you are creating your own universe with its own rules. Some of those rules might relate to things like magic, but some of them are more abstract. Take Hapax – hope beats fear. Taking that as something True, it does influence the plot and world itself. It’s like an experiment: in a world where this is A Thing, what happens? Is that wonderful, horrifying, or does it have an effect at all?
But setting out to Write A Message doesn’t end in themes. It ends in morals. Just as plot and character develop naturally out of each other, so too does theme. Sometimes, you have to do what I did in high school: look at the story, its plot and characters, and try to find a theme that fits it all, the same way scientists develop hypotheses to explain the things they see.
And on that note, onwards to edits!
Dragon Con felt subdued this year. Not that it was small; I swear there are more people every time, and this year I actually needed 30 minutes to travel between panels. Nevertheless, a lot of faces were missing. Don’t get me wrong, I had fun, but it was a different convention than last year’s.
Now, the fun stuff: what did I do for three days? (Yep, I skipped out early Monday morning; Tuesdays at cons are too depressing for me.)
I chatted with editor Gabrielle Harbowy about Strix and saw a very early mock-up for a potential cover (spoiler: I love it…which means I should possibly get this darn thing finished). I wandered the dealers’ room and finally met Thomas and Sarah of Brute Force Studios. I went to some panels and readings, where I met Suzanne Church and caught up with Rob Sawyer. I wrote. In a happy twist of fate, I discovered that the Hyatt was screening a 24h/day Doctor Who marathon all weekend long, which gave me a place to retreat when I needed to recover but still wanted to feel like I was participating in the convention.
Several of my friends had exciting things happen: Mur Lafferty won the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer (i.e. the Hugo that is not a Hugo). I can’t think of anyone more deserving, and I’m absolutely thrilled for her. Pip Ballantine and Tee Morris picked up another Parsec for Tales from the Archives. Again: so very proud.
Also, Sylvester McCoy, better known as the seventh Doctor, presented at the Parsecs. He pwned the ceremony. He needs to get his own podcast which I will then listen to obsessively, because he was brilliant…though I’m sensing a trend towards very short acceptance speeches next year!
And that was about it, really. The post-con haze is settling upon me, and I’m very cognizant of the fact that I now have to work for eight days straight while juggling three different writing projects and starting Strix-the-Podcast.
So, you know, a typical month coming up.
I’m in an anthology entitled “When the Hero Comes Home 2,” the second volume of the acclaimed “When the Hero Comes Home.” The Hero anthologies (along with “When the Villain Comes Home”) are about what happens after “ever after.” When the journey is over, the battle done, and the hero returns in victory or defeat…well, then what? Can you really come home again?
This theme is close to my heart; I got my invitation to submit only a few months after returning from New Zealand. So basically, the conversation went like this:
Gabrielle: Hey, Katie, do you write short fiction?
Me: Um…I could.
Gabrielle: You know you’re getting an invitation to Hero 2, right?
Me: I do now. (thinking) So, I totally just came home from a long adventure to the other side of the world….
I don’t usually gravitate towards writing short stories. But it’s something I’m trying to do more of, so I was really grateful for the opportunity to write something for Hero 2, especially because the theme was so meaningful to me. In the end, I’m quite pleased with the way my story (“After the Winds”) turned out. Things change while you’re away from home: not just for you, but for the people you left behind. How do you deal with the fact that you’ve all become different people who have grown in different ways, at different rates?
(And my usual rule applies: I’ll shamelessly borrow places (oh hai, NZ!), but nothing else.)
The coolest thing about Hero 2? All the other authors in there. There’s some serious talent here – I work with really cool people.
So where can you get this wonderful book? Well, it’ll be off the printer and on Amazon very shortly. In the meantime, the ebook version is available early…at a discount!
There’s also a Goodreads page!
And more excitement! Dragon Con is this upcoming weekend, and I will be there, despite the fact that my con preparation looks like this:
Oh, yeah, Dragon Con…mmm, that’ll be fun…
Hey, what day is my flight?
What TIME is my flight?
Lalalala, writing away on a new book…
…I guess I should edit Strix more, because I’ll see Gabrielle soon…
…at DRAGON CON! When is that, again?
I guess I should pack soon.
Where am I staying again?
Oh yeah. Ok. I know where that is.
Don’t I have a confirmation number or something? Hey, when do I need to be at the airport?
What’s my name? Who am I?
If you’re around, come say hi. I’ll have a few copies of Hapax on hand to sell in back alleys. I suspect I’ll be mostly lurking by the podcasting and alternate history tracks (not on any panels, but always looking to learn things!).
See you soon!
One of my favourite lines in Doctor Who comes right before the Tenth Doctor’s regeneration. As the Doctor is dying, Ood Sigma tells him: “This song is ending, but the story never ends.”
This idea of regeneration, transformation instead of destruction (and sometimes transformation through destruction), fits quite nicely with themes that crop up in Hapax and Strix. There’s a subtle difference, though. The Tenth Doctor’s song is over; the story goes on. My characters’ songs change, but they never actually end. Not really.
Broken down to its simplest level, I guess it really says, “Life goes on.”
And that is a painful, wonderful thing. Today marks exactly eight months since I lost my dad. Some days are harder than others. The magnitude, unexpectedness, and sheer absurdity of what happened shielded me for a long time. Intellectually, of course, I knew. Believe me, no delusions here. In terms of feelings…different story. My dad, have a heart attack? My dad, the healthy, vibrant athlete? No way, no how: not a thing.
Except it was a thing: a stupid, terrible thing that should never have happened, but did anyway.
The glory, the beauty, and the triumph of life is that it continues. The long, hard winter eventually passed into spring. Over the past eight months, some of my friends have had wonderful things happen to them. I’ve had some wonderful things happen to me. The mornings dawned bright and clear. New sheep were born. Our tiny little speck of a planet kept whirling through the cosmos.
It’s really easy to look at all of that and think, “Well, frak. The universe clearly doesn’t care—everything’s ticking right along even though we’re short one awesome person.”
Sometimes I wonder if that’s missing the point. Is it painful to write knowing he’ll never read it? Occasionally. Does it suck knowing he’ll never see another mist-shrouded cottage morning? Absolutely.
But the story never ends. It continues in the love my dad left us. It continues in the blue eyes I have to face in the mirror every morning. “Life goes on” isn’t necessarily a trite platitude, or a bitter cry of resentment. It doesn’t suggest uncaring. Not at all.
It suggests that as permanent and inevitable as death is, life will always find a way. Even in the darkest of times, there are still things which are good. And that can be a huge, huge comfort.
When the Doctor regenerates, he isn’t quite the same. Different looks, obviously, but also a slightly different personality. And yet, despite the differences, he is still—inherently, always— the Doctor. The good doesn’t get through unscathed, but it does get through.
That night eight months ago was the worst night of my life. Most of the time, it still doesn’t feel real. Unless I’m in the grip of a flashback, it’s just a chaotic whirlwind of fragmented memories and sharp edges. To be completely frank, the death of a loved one sucks more than anything else in the universe. I’ve learned a lot, but I’d really rather just have my dad and skip the life lessons.
Unfortunately, I don’t have a TARDIS. I can’t go back and change the outcome. That song ended eight months ago.
But the story—of love, warmth, joy—that never ends. As painful as this is, I’m glad, at least, of that.
PS. Skip to ~2:30 or thereabouts. Get Kleenex first.