Like many writers I know, I keep quotations at my desk. As with most people, they represent an eclectic mix of memories, aspirations, and feelings. Now, I like seeing what words other writers use for compasses. Here, then, are mine:
There’s a reason this picture has shown up a few times. It’s one of the most important of the bunch. Shortly after I graduated, Elizabeth Hand and I had a long, lovely conversation. This is how she finished it. At any stage of a career, it all comes down to this, doesn’t it?
From Doctor Who (the beautiful Vincent Van Gogh episode, more specifically). My writing goes dark, more often than not. While it’s all very well – easy – to hit the reader that way, there has to be more to a story than emotional button-pushing and personal catharsis.
Another contribution from Liz: this is from a poem by Theodore Roethke. She put this on the easel during our first workshop, and it’s stayed with me since. The voice of the story is always there. Often, we simply need to centre ourselves, breathe, and listen to it.
From another friend: Dave Robison. During my first Smoky Mountain Writers’ retreat, I joined a renegade critique group that met to offer criticism after cocktail hour. I read a story about undead French-Canadian steampunk cyborgs (of course). After the silence that followed, this is what Dave said.
This probably deserves its own blog post, but I have to believe it. I have to. Words aren’t coming? You’re going to win a Hugo one day. Rejection letter? You’re going to win a Hugo one day. Feeling frightened, alone, and talentless? Dust yourself off and keep going, because you’re going to win a Hugo one day.
Of course, it seems terribly arrogant to presume that, but I think a weird mix of arrogance and humility is part and parcel of the writing mindset. In any case, it’s proven a lifeline, a beacon, something to drive my ship towards. Can’t ask for more than that, can you?
Okay, so this is probably the most idiosyncratic of the bunch. Earlier this year, I read The Sun, the Moon, and the Stars, by Steven Brust. It was part of Terri Windling’s series of fairy tale retellings. It’s about a painter and it’s about a Hungarian fairy tale. It’s mostly about art and creation. Throughout, the narrator asks, “Bones?” He explains that in traditional Hungarian fairy tales, it’s a way of asking if the listener is still awake, if they want more.
And then the story continues.
When I’m beaten, and exhausted, and battling a three-day migraine (I was doing so well with migraines, for a while), I look just past my monitor. There, on one of many whiteboards, the question waits.
And inevitably, my tired brain mumbles, “Tiles.”
And then the story continues.
Can’t ask for more than that, can you?
What I’m Listening to This Week
We’re finally going to Dublin! The choir flies out at the end of this week, so naturally, when it’s not tour music, I’ve been listening to all sorts of Irish music. I’ve heard other versions of “Óró Sé do Bheatha Bhaile,” but none like this. Loosely translated, it runs something like, “Oh-ro, welcome home, Oh-ro, welcome home, now that summer’s coming!”
It’s a rebel song, and it’s the intensity of the vocalists that gets me here. It’s sparking something in the back of my mind: possibly a way to fix the novel I drafted earlier this year (Dublin will be part choir tour, part research trip….)
It’s mid-July, and I’m not in Maine.
It’s the first Stonecoast residency since I graduated. Today is Monday, which means it’s the third day of workshops. The groups have bonded by now. Follies is tomorrow. The Secret Firstie Meeting probably hasn’t happened yet. People are starting to get a little tired, but there’s still very much a feeling of, “Residency will last forever!” It’s not the same as the second half. After the Break Day, everything just goes on an ever-faster slide to the end.
And here I am, in Toronto.
A very large part of me misses Stonecoast. For two years, my twice-annual trek to Maine has been part Hogwarts, part con, and part summer camp. I miss hopping off the airport shuttle onto beautiful green Bowdoin campus. You’d pick up your packet and name tag from Matt at the front desk, drag your stuff into the dorms—such sterile white halls, but oh, what wonderful people! It’s hot. Of course it is. But the air is full of moisture (we’re close to the ocean) and everything feels possible.
The bar at the Brunswick Tavern is used to us by now. Oh, that long porch with the spindly metal chairs and tables, and that small-but-mercifully-air-conditioned lobby, and the room where we had readings, with the windows letting the evening light in and the ridiculous pattern of that carpet.
Everything felt possible at Stonecoast. Everything was morning and potential and wonderful things yet to come. And of course—the people are a big part of that. Our wonderful faculty, our fellow students—each cohort slowly emerging with its own distinctive personality.
Part of me feels like Peter and Susan, barred from Narnia. And yet—perhaps a bigger part of me knows that this is right, that I’ve graduated, that I had my time at Stonecoast and now it’s time to move on.
See, Stonecoast is a finite thing. You get two years, and then you’re on your own. This is part of the magic: it’s precious because it’s so short. It’s not meant to be the point of the journey—it’s a waystation—a place in the coastal shallows where you ready yourself for the open ocean ahead.
And so, there’s understandably some trepidation, post-graduation. You’re on your own. The defined structure is gone. Now’s the time to take everything you’ve learned and use it. There’s some pressure in that. I want to make the faculty proud. I want to put my time in Maine to good use. And I don’t want to disappear beneath the waves. I don’t want to return to dry land. I don’t want the wonder and potential of those Stonecoast years to fade into the hum of dayjob and ordinariness and Everyday Life.
So yeah, pressure. I don’t think it’s a bad thing. It spurs me on. It makes me keep trying. Honestly, I know I’ve done some good stuff post-Stonecoast. It’s not enough. It won’t ever be enough. I don’t think that’s a bad thing either.
See, the thing about Stonecoast is that while it’s an MFA that you pay for, it is also a wonderful gift and opportunity. For two whole years, you get top-notch instruction. You get peers. You get friendships, and experiences, and challenges, and memories. You get so very much—and then it’s up to you.
I don’t want to squander the gift I’ve been given.
I want to be one of the ones who make it.
But even as I yearn for Bowdoin’s sun-filled quad and gorgeous Maine mussels and IPA, I’ve realized—Stonecoast isn’t just a place. It isn’t just a program. It’s a community, and it’s the principles of that community.
Stonecoast changed my life. Sounds hyperbolic, but it’s true: I shudder to think where my writing would be without it. Really, it’s where I grew up, as a writer and a person. For me, residencies are done, but I’ll always have Stonecoast as my compass.
For those graduating this residency: congratulations, and remember—this is where the real work begins.
For those incoming and continuing: take care of our community—leave it even better than you found it.
For our faculty and administration—thank you.
What I’m Listening To This Week
Ah, Schubert, we meet again. For whatever reason, the phrase “Death and the Maiden” came floating through my head this week. It may be the title of a new short story; I’m not sure. In any case, it got me thinking about this piece.
In parts, it could almost be sweet…almost. Instead, it’s largely discordant and creepy: a nightmarish dance that makes me see crumbling gothic castles and flickering candlelight.
It’s my birthday tomorrow! Granted, this does happen every year. But tomorrow is rather a milestone. I’m turning twenty-five, you see.
It feels like a big number.
I’m sure I’ll look back on that sentence in ten years and laugh.
Regardless, the idea of twenty-five seems to be settling quite well. It feels like I am exactly where I’m meant to be at this point in time. And a slow realization has been dawning on me…
I’m really, overall, very happy.
There was a time that I didn’t think that would be possible. Frankly, there was a time when I thought I’d be lucky to make it to twenty-five. That period leaves an overwhelming impression of greyness and cold. I was living by my fingernails, and I would’ve been miserable, but everything inside was too frozen for that.
Going into this twenty-fifth year, it’s green-gold and light, all the way through. Honestly, when I think about how happiness looks to me, it’s the same image over and over: those golden summer mornings at the village, early, before the public arrives. When the day’s heat is banked and the air’s shimmering and full of dew, and the dust lies quiet on the road.
Of course, there have been bumps in between Then and Now. There was also an impressive derailment. But overall…
I’ve worked really, really hard to create a life that makes me happy. I’ve learned stuff, too.
It is always, always better to talk things out.
Unexpressed emotions fester. They turn septic, poisoning you from the inside out. It is always better to get them out in the open.
I can’t drink beer and be productive on the same night.
Not at 20, definitely not at 25.
The prevailing narrative isn’t the only valid one.
Grow up, meet significant other, marry, buy house, have 2.1 children, work, retire, etc.
This is the narrative we all receive as children. It’s a fine narrative; there’s nothing wrong with it at all. But it isn’t the only one. Over the last year especially, I’ve learned that my life narrative is NOT going to look like this. And at first, that was really hard to accept—because damn, isn’t something wrong, if you stray from the Approved Story?
But you get to write your story. You can change the ending. Throw in a plot twist. Whatever narrative you end up living is no less valid than the one with the most cultural currency.
The arts really is a matter of taste.
I recently read an award-winning story (from a few years back), and said, “Eh.” Nothing wrong with it. Just not for me. And then I realized, OMG this is what editors do too!!!
See also: my experiences with modern art.
Success is a numbers game.
If you are lucky, talented, and persistent, you will eventually make it.
I’m talented. My Canadian soul quakes to say it, but it’s disingenuous not to. I’m lucky.
The minimum amount of sleep I need to be reasonably functional is 4 hours.
This has been extensively tested. 3 hours is not pretty.
There’s always a line in the sand.
Whenever I go into tailspins, there’s always some line in the sand—something that I am not willing to lose—that pulls me upright again. It’s an impetus to start clawing my way back to the light.
Everyone has their price. It’s a matter of sorting it out, before it’s too late.
My family/friendships are my centre.
I like Being Alone. I like staying up until 4:00 am writing. I like bopping around museums and galleries by myself. I like having my art play a prominent role in my life.
But without you—you, my families; you, my friends; you, my Tribe—there’s nothing.
So that’s twenty-five years. They’ve been good ones, on the whole, made much better by a whole host of wonderful people.
Here’s to a whole bunch more!
What I’m Listening To This Week
More Hamilton, #sorrynotsorry. The musical just works for me, okay? It’s incredibly well-crafted, and the music does hugely interesting things. That’s why I have to keep listening – because you can’t quite get it all, the first time around.
So: the Reynolds Pamphlet. My inner history geek loves this because they quote the actual primary source document. My ear loves the deep-voiced, “Daaaaaamn.” My plotting self loves that this is the moment at which Hamilton’s world crumbles – plotwise, this is pivotal. And my character loving self adores Angelica’s rage and Jefferson’s unrestrained glee.
Quite a lot, for a two-minute song!
Well. It never rains, but it pours. We got back to our museum life, hit the ground running, and then immediately got walloped with all the things ever. Including a video series! I’m not complaining. It’s all good stuff. It’s exactly what we want to be doing, and we’re stoked to see where it all leads.
(See our videos here!)
And it also takes up a lot of brain space.
I’ve been doing all right, actually. The play and some short stories are moving a little more slowly than I’d like, but they’re moving. For now, I’ll take that.
I do want to talk about something, though. Lauren Harris first articulated it for me this spring, I’m conscious of it now, and it really struck home while I flailed about rehearsing my new monologue:
I’m the freaking Energizer Bunny, and I run at 100 mph.
It’s not even something I’m usually aware of, until it’s pointed out: the rapid speech, the constantly tapping foot, the thirty million simultaneous projects…. Sometimes, I feel like my body’s trying to compress 1000 mL of ideas and energy into 750 mL of KT. It mostly sort of works, but inevitably, stuff brims over and spills out.
I’m not the only one, though. There are other freaking Energizer Bunnies out there—I know some. It can be a wonderful thing, but it can also be challenging. When you crash at 100 mph, you’re more likely to crash spectacularly.
There’s really two main challenges that I’m learning to work around: one entirely related to the individual, and the other to dealing with other people.
Let’s talk about the individual challenge first.
When you’re the freaking Energizer Bunny, you tend to mistake exhaustion for accomplishment. You bank on endless energy, rather than actual self-care. Then, when the well dries up, you don’t know how to get yourself back on track. It’s like bright kids who coast through elementary and high school, and then hit university without proper study skills. Sheer strength only gets you so far; you need to learn how to channel and preserve it.
Of course, measured pacing seems less appealing when the ideas are coming so fast, you’re already struggling to keep up. You know, those nights you want to weep because you can’t turn your brain off. Even if you wanted to. But there’s so many ideas, and not enough time, and another just hit, and…
And so I become that child who doesn’t want to go to bed. And if you can stay up all night, or take on another thing without consequences, why not?
Because ultimately, it’s better over the long term to take care of yourself. As I see it, you can roll at a slow burn for a good long time, or go out in a flash fire blaze of glory. Sometimes the latter is tempting, but it’s probably not the smartest.
What’s more, Energizer Bunnies are exhausting to other people. For a long time, that simply never occurred to me. And it’s hard, because there are all of these amazing things to do right NOW, and they’re fun, and what do you mean you don’t want to hit up another museum???
I’m learning to moderate my pace. Sometimes, that’s really, really hard. Again, because there are all of these amazing things to do right NOW—who wants to wait?
I do….because it’s not just about the amazing things. It’s about respecting other people’s limits and being a decent human being. And hey, if you’re good at working with people, more amazing things tend to happen anyway. It’s win-win!
A last thought: it becomes very easy to pathologize our various quirks. My thyroid has been tested approximately eighty times, because I am wee and run at 100 mph.
My thyroid is fine.
People who do not run at 100 mph are fine.
I feel like a children’s TV show right now—but difference isn’t always abnormality. It’s this vast spectrum of people and experiences that make us humans so interesting. Of course, self-knowledge and understanding go a long way towards smoothing the places where those differences clash.
After all, we’re all driving on the same road.😉
What I’m Listening to This Week
This upcoming choir tour introduced me to Haitian composer Sydney Guillaume. I really like the piece we’re doing, so I went hunting for more. And I found this one! I love it!
“Twa Tanbou” is about three drums having an argument: the boula drum, who says he’s the loudest; the tanbouren, who says he’s the most beautiful; and the kata, who thinks they’re both ridiculous. Guillaume himself says: “The central theme of Twa Tanbou: In order for a team to reach the optimal result, each member must play his or her own part as a team…”
The music itself embodies this philosophy—it demands very rhythmic precision and listening from all parts. Each line is like a piece of clockwork that, set in motion with the others, ultimately makes the gears move.
When I was a wee sprogget, I was irrationally, intensely, phobic-ly afraid of things turning to stone. I didn’t read The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe until high school, and still have no desire to see the film. Pokemon: the First Movie felt like a betrayal. It still makes me nauseous.
So of course, Medusa was my personal Boogeyman. She scared me absolutely shitless. See, the White Witch at least had to decide to point her wand at you; Medusa doesn’t have to do anything. You look at her, and bam—too late.
I have vivid memories of watching an ancient Bugs Bunny cartoon when I was seven. Most of the classic monster movie references flew way over my head…but then, suddenly, unexpectedly, there she was.
A wave of coldness rolled down my throat. I started shaking. I felt sick. I turned off the TV and did not look at the clip again until right now.
That was not my first encounter with Medusa. That was an episode of Tales from the Cryptkeeper, circa 1995. I refuse to watch it, but it’s online here.
So what was the big deal? Why the persistent, overwhelming terror?
I’m not sure. It could be as simple as: I got really scared by a stupid cartoon too young, and it’s left an indelible mark on my psyche. It could be as complicated as a visceral existential horror at the prospect of oblivion and death.
(I do remember intensely debating with myself about what happened to the souls of Medusa’s victims. Can the soul turn to stone too? Was petrifaction like death? Did the soul pass on? Was it stuck in limbo? I was a weird little kid; that’s all I can say.)
So now I’m an adult (allegedly), and I still don’t like watching Medusa. But I can read about her just fine. I can read about how she was once a beautiful young woman, pledged to chastity to serve her goddess. I can read about how she was raped, betrayed, transformed. I can read about how the goddess she loved condemned and damned her for what was done to her.
I can read how, following that, she’s consistently named the most horrifying woman EVAR, the archetype of womanhood gone Wrong—and how she’s also been co-opted as a symbol of female rage.
I can read about all this, and I can look at the world we live in today: a world no less horrifying than that of the Cryptkeeper. I can read about how a young woman was taken behind a dumpster: raped, betrayed, transformed. I can read how the same story unfolds again and again and again: this inability to understand consent; this persistent paradigm that women are their bodies, and that said bodies are only valuable insofar as they are useful to men. I can read how she should’ve known better, she should’ve been more responsible, she didn’t protect herself.
I can read about these victims made into Gorgons by public shame, this brokenness deep in our culture. And I can read my own experiences: the experiences that are heartbreakingly mundane, that aren’t special, that every woman has known.
The man who ran after me when I was fifteen to inform me that I had a nice chest.
The man who inserted himself between me and my friends at the bar, cutting me off like a wounded antelope, grinding closer and closer until someone grabbed me, hauled me back into the circle, and stayed by my side until Creepy Guy left.
The man who barked at me to smile last year, and when I gaped in bewilderment, snarled, “Whatever, foureyes.”
I can write this, and feel tired. Because it happens all the time. Because it isn’t special. Because every woman has similar stories. Because I’ve never bothered to tell anyone half of it, because we all go through it.
And the rage starts boiling: slow and bubbling under my breastbone, because Jesus F****** Christ, how far do we have to go before we hit a tipping point?
I can feel this, and because I’m a writer, I tell stories about it. I find symbols. I speak in metaphor, because otherwise I would give an inarticulate scream.
And so I return, perhaps inevitably, to Medusa.
When Perseus handed Medusa’s head to Athena, the goddess put it on her shield. It became a protective object: The Gorgoneion.
I’m writing about Medusa. The story is there, itching to get out. A Gorgoneion of my own: my worst and oldest fear transformed into a weapon against the real monsters.
What I’m Listening To This Week
Something not full of rage, actually. My choir’s heading to the UK on tour soon, so I’ve been stamping music into my brain. Due to my bizarre work schedule, I’ve mostly been rehearsing with the children, and they’ve been spending lots of time on this piece.
It’s grown on me. It took a while, but now I can hear how the soloist and choir work together. There’s some fun bits throughout: the C natural at ~1:35, the passing of melody around 2:50, and that glorious high G at 3:54. If I have a money note, that’s it. Nothing better than just floating in the stratosphere.😉
Good news, everyone! The audiobook version of HEARTSTEALER is now available from Audible.com! If you recall, I spent a good chunk of this off-season editing this thing, so it’s delightful to have it out in the wild, ready to be purchased.
Blythe does a fantastic job narrating. Naturally, she was my first choice. Both for sheer talent, and also, becomes this book comes from such a specific period of my life.
“Grief hadn’t made me weak. It had made me stronger than I’d ever known I could be.”
It was such a strange, full-circle feeling, hearing her speak those words. Because it’s true. I figured that out about grief a long time ago: I believed it then, I believed it when I wrote it, and I believe it now.
The thing with spending 130 hours listening to someone read your words aloud is that you hear more in them. Yes, HEARTSTEALER came from a place of great grief…but also from a place of great love. Love for a place, and love for the people I found there.
So, thank you. Thank you to everyone who’s had a hand along the way…and thank you most especially to Blythe. I know it was not an easy project—luckily, I also knew your talent would be more than a match for it!
Now before we get too maudlin, here’s some fun statistics:
Total word count: 105,000
Total running time: 12 hours, 9 minutes.
Total editing time: 130 hours (best guess)
Total time between first handshake and audiobook release: Seven months.
Distinct speaking characters: 61
Distinct voices: 65
Distinct voice actors: 1
Buildings gleefully borrowed: I count 10, but probably more.
Voice talent cursed: Lost count.
Voice talent praised: Also lost count, but it was more.
So—check it out, tell your friends, and most importantly:
If you enjoy it—either the story, the performance, or both—please, for the love of Cthulhu, leave a review. It honestly helps so very, very much. And in this case, it helps both me and Blythe. So hey, boosting two artists for the price of one. Sounds like a deal I could get behind.
Or very craftily and deliberately orchestrate. You know. Either way.
Cheers, everyone. Thanks again, and enjoy the ride to this remote northern village, full of old hurts, older magic, and things that stalk the night…
What I’m Listening To This Week
MOAR VERDI AND TRAVIATA!
La Traviata is still my favourite opera. When I hear the prelude, I’m fifteen again. Because I was a really, really cool fifteen-year-old, obviously. Anyway, the prelude pretty much encapsulates the entire opera in three minutes. The first minute or so is super moody, delicate strings with a wilting-flower melody (spoiler: La Traviata does not end well).
Alfredo is our main romantic man here. His theme starts around 1:20. Hear how earnest he sounds? Only then—scary minor chords at 1:53. This is the operatic equivalent of going DUN DUN DUN. Our lady Violetta herself follows at 2:10 or so: a lovely, flippant little tune. You can practically see her bare shoulders and flipping hair. Listen to the contrast between the two…
The opera in a nutshell.
Yesterday, I pushed back my chair in the Historic Programs office with a heavy, exaggerated sigh. Supervisor glanced up. “What’s wrong?” she asked.
“This monologue. I can’t make it good.”
Assistant Supervisor popped his head up too. “What are you having trouble with?”
“Making it good.”
As I then tried (partly successfully) to explain, it was more a struggle of art than pedagogy. Museum theatre, as we’ve discussed before, holds museum and theatre equally. I knew my historical information. I knew the concepts I want the visitors to learn. But I was struggling to make good theatre—to map history onto theatrical architecture and create some semblance of story arc and character development.
I think I got it in the end. Maybe. We’ll see. I’ll feel better once my partner-in-crime has taken a look.
But it was interesting, because the one thing that’s coming much more easily is voice. My character is a sixteen-year-old tavern-keeper’s daughter named Delilah. She lived in the inn with her mother and older brother (her father died when she was eleven). Then her mother died when she was sixteen. Then her brother died three years later. Then Delilah married some farmer’s son in a township quite far away, had five children, and died herself in 1908.
The way we chose these characters was thus: we looked for people who were a) connected to our buildings, and b) roughly the right age, at c) roughly the right time.
Delilah fit the bill, and I like taverns. And so we began getting acquainted.
It’s a different process than, say, writing a musical about Alexander Hamilton. There are no biographies of these people. There are biographical facts, which you can compile into a vague sketch, and then you take your best, most responsible guesses.
So Delilah was sixteen in 1872, not going to school. Her mother had been running the inn for a while. The 1871 census reveals they were taking in boarders, which suggests that the railway that was laid in 1856 really did take a bite out of the business they’d been getting from the stagecoach line.
Okay, so, what would the experience of a person in that situation be like? How would different types of personalities react to that situation? Maybe Delilah loved helping around the inn, and flitted about like a bright, spirited young belle. Maybe she was super moody, and bitter that she was no longer in school.
There’s no way to know.
So you take what you do know, and you blend it with art. I am most comfortable playing characters that are freaking Energizer Bunnies. So by virtue of the actor playing her, we see a version of Delilah that’s a little naïve, very earnest, and who wants so, so badly to be helpful. She’s a puppy on a sugar rush.
But the deeper you dig, the more details emerge to fill in the picture you’re creating. I’ve sorted out most of her family tree. Delilah lived surrounded by aunts and uncles (all from her mother’s side). She had about a million cousins, approximately half of whom are also named Delilah. And it’s a family that seems to shuffle relatives around as needed. Elderly Grandpa James is living at the inn in 1861. By 1871, a cousin mini-Delilah is staying there (oddly, mini-Delilah’s brothers are staying with yet another uncle across the street…I wonder why they split the kids up, but I also wonder if that’s where both my Delilah and mini-Delilah went after her mother dies).
Again, there’s no way of telling what it was really like. But you want to believe the best, don’t you? This pattern of taking relatives in suggests—to me, with my eternal optimism—that it was a fairly tight-knit family. The fact that all of Delilah and half of her million cousins are named after their grandmother suggests the same.
You take what you know of history, and you take what you know of people. Delilah marries some guy named Wesley, from a township really far away. It perplexed me, until I realized he had relatives who lived near Delilah. Among them: a girl named Celestia who was a year older.
So…a girl about your age, who lives nearby, and you marry her cousin (I’m not sure of the degree of cousin-hood, but it’s something). Of course, I’m going to project my own history onto it, and hope that Delilah and Celestia were friends—that of course, Delilah married her friend’s relation.
No way to know—maybe Celestia was incredibly bitter about it. But the census tells me that Celestia also wasn’t in school (seems about half the teenagers in Scarborough were). It tells me that she has two siblings who probably needed a lot of help—“unsound mind” is a terrible and vague term, but it’s all the census provides.
So two girls the same age, both not in school, both with fairly heavy family obligations.
From what I know of people…I imagine it was nice to have someone who understood. In my art—related to, but ultimately separate from the pure history—I make the choice that they were friends. And so another bit of shading, another bit of context.
I’ve been deeply involved in this girl’s history for about a year now. It’s very strange, because I do feel a connection and emotional investment, and I know her family tree about as well as my own…and I have no way of know what she was really like. More than anything, I’d love to see a photograph—I’d love to see her face—but I don’t even have that.
But that’s what museum theatre is all about, isn’t it? Translating those stark facts into something human, and forging connections out of smoke and dust.
What I’m Listening to This Week
Well, actually, I’m listening to the song “Non-Stop” from Hamilton, but it’s not online anywhere. With June looking like a crunch month, it’s been my motivation/training montage song:
How do you write like tomorrow won’t arrive?
How do you write like you need it to survive?
How do you write every second you’re alive?
Of course, based on the way the musical ends, I probably shouldn’t identify with Hamilton too much… But as I said, no versions online. So here’s a general Hamilton montage.
The Naming of Cats is a difficult matter,
It isn’t just one of your holiday games….
With apologies to T.S. Eliot, the naming of characters is no less a holiday game. It’s been on my mind lately, as I poke and prod this story that is probably a play, but may yet turn into a novel. So far, I know four characters well enough to chat at a party. Like Topsy, they just growed…names and all.
While the vaguest outlines of story have been rattling around for nearly a year and a half, I’ve only spent the last few days concertedly sketching at the whiteboards. Even so, it seems inconceivable that these characters could be named anything but what they are.
That said, I’m not quite sure where my characters’ names come from. For me, character creation is like watching an image develop in an old Polaroid snapshot. Bits and glimpses, until suddenly, the whole picture jumps out at you. The names are a part of that inexorable development. Usually, I get the first letter. Charlotte started that way in HEARTSTEALER. She could’ve been a Caroline and I thought she might be a Catherine, but I could hear that those initial sounds weren’t quite right.
So you sit. And listen. And wait for the Polaroid to develop a little further.
Because, you see, eventually I can start to hear the cadence of the name. How many syllables; where the stress falls. In SING TO THE BONES, I knew Raiepe started with an R. And I could hear the music, the waltz-like stress on the first syllable: RYE-ay-pay.
In both cases, it’s really just transcribing what I hear: what names have those sounds and those stresses? It was a little easier in HEARTSTEALER, using real-world names, but it’s worked out more-or-less the same for names of my own invention, too. I do try to keep consistent sound laws in my secondary-world languages (and sometimes nerd out about those sound laws just a bit too much).
So you sit and wait, and sometimes the Polaroid develops even more—you might get corrected on spelling. Cody becomes Codie; Neve becomes Nieve. Changes like these don’t affect pronunciation, but I think the way the name looks on the page is just as important as the way it sounds. That’s why I preferred Mairi to Mari, and why Caitlin looks so strange to me, as compared to Kaitlin.
(Sidebar; my name is Katie, most definitely.)
Of course, sometimes names strike like a bolt from the blue, and then the rest of the character’s details emerge around them. Little-known fact: very, very early ponderings on HEARTSTEALER had it as a science-fiction Wizard-of-Oz retelling aboard a space station. All I had at that point were names: Findley and Sara. And again, “Sara,” not “Sarah.”
And sometimes, you sit and wait long enough that you no longer remember how the Polaroid started developing. Much like your own name, it’s just always been that way, and it doesn’t seem like it could ever be otherwise. Where did Ned get his name? Beats me.
It’s worth throwing in two caveats, though.
One: for walk-on characters, I don’t wait for any Polaroids. I keep a list of names that make sense for the relevant culture/language, and grab the one that fits best.
Two: waiting for developing Polaroids maybe sounds more passive than I mean it. True, it takes patience, and it’s not something you can force, but you need to be actively looking, probing, and trying to make sense of the mist. Character names may emerge, but you have to be listening very carefully, or you won’t hear them.
What about you lot? How do names come to you—for characters, children, cats, pet rocks?
What I’m Listening to This Week:
I’ve always had a soft spot for Romantics of all stripes. This week, I’ve been re-listening to Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique. Specifically, the 5th movement – “Songe d’une nuit du sabbat,” or Dream of the Witches’ Sabbath.
A lot’s been written about the imagery here: basically, our protagonist of this symphony sees himself at “…a hideous gathering of shades, sorcerers and monsters of every kind who have come together for his funeral.” Super plaintive and haunting. His beloved shows up as a repeating phrase – the idee fixe – around 1:18, but warped and twisted into something frankly ugly.
One of my favourite bits? The funereal knells about three minutes in, followed by judicious quoting of the Dies Irae at 3:15 (don’t worry, everyone does it; not just Berlioz). By the third repetition, it sounds like a monster stirring. This is a piece where the more you listen, the more you see as well as hear.
This week, we have a special guest post from author/editor/my friend Val Griswold-Ford. As her new novel releases, she’s here to chat about music and writing. Enjoy!
First, thanks, KT, for letting me hang out here today! Music is a big part of my writing, and in fact, Winter’s Secrets, the book that is coming out now, started as a musical advent calendar. It’s very hard for me to write without music. I have playlists for every novel/project I’m working on.
I’m also fairly musically eclectic. I’ll listen to almost anything. When I write Molly and Schrodinger (the main characters for Winter’s Secrets), I listen to Christmas carols. In fact, Winter’s Secrets was originally based on a musical Advent Calendar, and the only outline I had was a list of my favorite Christmas carols. Which is weird for me, because I’m very much a plotter, not a pantser. But I found that by allowing myself the freedom to simply allow the song of the day to dictate what was going to happen in the story, it really helped me to write each day. The original blog story was written daily, and there were some days that I honestly had NO idea what I was going to write. Schrodinger was a complete surprise (as was the fact that this story got the following it did), and so was the Gate stations.
When I posted the daily story, I attached a link for a YouTube video of the song that Molly received, so that my readers could enjoy the music along with Molly and Schrodinger. I didn’t want to lose that experience when I decided to publish the book, but I also couldn’t afford royalties on 25 songs. So I looked around and realized that while performances of songs are copyrighted, titles are not. And since I hate coming up with chapter titles anyways, what better way to keep the list there? So I titled each chapter with the song that Molly received each day.
If you follow me on Spotify (I’m there as vgford), you can follow the Winter’s Secrets playlist, which is the entire calendar that Molly received. I’ve made it available for anyone to follow. If you’re interested in any of my other playlists for my projects, you’ll want to follow me on Patreon.
What I’m Listening to This week:
I’ve gone back to the Dark Horseman universe for my current book, and so I’m listening to a combination of Billy Joel, Nightwish, Lyriel, Magica, Indica, and Tori Amos. Shanna is a lot darker character than Molly or Schrodinger, and the music that I use to channel her reflects that. Interestingly enough, I do have some Christmas music on the list, but it’s from the Nightmare before Christmas, which is one of my favorite musicals. Shanna’s personal preference is for Billy Joel and 80s music, but Jonathan, who is the other main character, is into electric violins and Finnish music. Yes, really.
This is one of the songs that is on repeat in my head at the moment:
Beta readers are awesome people.
Every single one of my novels has gone through a few rounds of betas. I honestly don’t know what I would do without them. They’re like that friend who runs lines with you before performances, or asks questions for mock interviews. They love you and they have your back, and they’ll call you on things.
Like I said: awesome people.
My novel just went out to betas. As I compiled my list, I had to smile. Over the years, I’ve collected a lot of wonderful beta readers. They come from all spheres of my life: the museum, my writing pals, my church/choir, my family, my former schoolmates…
For me, there’s no particular formula for finding good beta readers. Mostly, it’s about keeping your eyes and ears open: paying attention to the people around you. And making sure they actually have time. But looking closely at my Beta Super Team, some patterns emerge.
First and foremost: they’re readers. They love books; they love stories; they love words. Most are well-versed in fantasy—they know tropes; they can sense when a story’s out of joint. And those with diverging tastes are still lovers of story. They offer new insights, fresh takes, all while keeping the story’s interests uppermost in mind.
They’re conscientious and thoughtful. Some have read absolutely everything I’ve ever written ever (Hi, Cara!). This round, a few haven’t read anything of mine before. Either way, I’ve spent enough time with all of them to know: they’re smart people. Their judgement is sound; I know they won’t just fling random thoughts at me willy-nilly.
And they have insights both brilliant and varied. I like having a fairly large Beta Super Team. (Novel’s currently out to 11, and I have a few more people to approach.) Partly, this is to try and get some consensus in response. A note from one person may or may not indicate a problem; the same note from a dozen probably does.
But also—remember how my Beta Super Team comes from many, many different parts of my life? They have vastly different backgrounds, experiences, and areas of knowledge/skill.
I love using actors as beta readers because they’re trained to look at texts and analyze characters. I love using my healthcare-type pal because she’s flipping brilliant with story logic and prose-level technical issues. I love using history types who can call me on worldbuilding; fantasy lovers who can feel if the story hits right; writers who can delve into issues of art and craft.
All that’s great. But you know why beta readers are really awesome?
They’re doing this for love. Love for you; love for the story; love for the process. It means so much to me when someone agrees to beta read. They’re giving up their free time to help me. Everyone has their own lives and projects; it’s no small thing.
And it’s a special thing, this relationship between beta reader and author. Like falling in love – when it clicks, you know. Everyone’s working towards the same goal:
The most kickass story possible.
So, to my Beta Super Team: thank you thank you thank you. I hope you enjoy the novel, and I am stoked to hear your thoughts!
What I’m Listening To This Week:
I actually can’t listen to this piece too much, because it makes me cry, and I’m scared that repeated exposure will dull the effect. This rendition of “Calon Lân” is a beautifully-sung traditional Welsh hymn, but it’s the choir that makes it here. There’s something in these young men’s eyes—passion, spirit—that gets me every single time.
This is how choirs should sing, always. Music starts at 2:10.