Monthly Archives: November 2015
It’s December on Tuesday, and no one told me. This year has absolutely zoomed by—honestly, I’ve no idea quite how that happened. But as we’re in the home stretch of 2015, it’s time for a very important part of my creative life.
See, every New Year’s Day, I sit down with a blank piece of paper and a Sharpie. And I sketch out my main goals for the year ahead. Not in any great detail: it’s a rough list of the main points I want to hit by year’s end. Knowing this, the year has some shape. I’m not just flailing about between creative projects willy-nilly. Since it’s December on Tuesday, let’s check in.
For me, this sort of planning is helpful because it’s a combination of measurable and conveniently vague. You hear about measurable goals all the time: the goals that you can straight-up say, “Yes, I did that,” or, “No, I did not do that.” Write more awesome is not a measurable goal, because you do you quantify that? Write three new short stories is measurable, because at the end of the day, you either did or you didn’t. Nothing wishy-washy about it.
Hence goals like “Launch Coxwood” or “Get HS out somehow.” I did both of these things in 2015, which brings a sigh of relief. I wouldn’t have wanted to go another year without releasing things, which is another reason why I find setting things to paper helpful. This scrawled-on list sits above my desk all year. It’s literally always in sight. Helps accountability like anything.
But sometimes—life happens, plans change. Note that I said “Get HS out somehow.” I wasn’t exactly sure how until two months ago, simply because monkey wrenches kept getting thrown into the mix. That’s fine. That’s not the important part with this sort of planning. The important part is that it happened.
Sometimes, though, things are put on hold. And that’s okay. My podcasting bestie Lauren Harris and I are still working on PodCon, but between our schedules, we figured it’d be better to take some more time, get the project really solid, and then strike it hard in 2016. You can label Coxwood History Fun Park and Heartstealer “complete;” PodCon is a solid “in progress.”
Sometimes lists don’t make sense to anyone but you. That’s fine; who else is reading it? I realize “Canadian Folklore Project” is the only item without a verb. But…in my head, “Canadian Folklore Project” encompassed, “I want to do an audio drama about Canadian Folklore. So…research and select folk tales, craft a story, write the story, see if Blythe wants to do it, research and apply for grants…”
Right. So, Canadian Folklore Project. (Grant application is away, incidentally; we should find out by March.)
And lastly, “Outline HB.” This was meant to be Heartbreaker: a sequel to Heartstealer. Which is great, but I have two novels fighting for brain space right now, and the Magic Australian Dinosaurs story is winning.
(It’s not only about dinosaurs. And it’s not actually Australia. But there is magic!)
I figure as long as I outline that by the end of the year, I’m close. It’s still outlining a novel, right?
So there we have it: I more-or-less met all my goals for 2015. I’m learning it’s a fine balancing act of knowing definitively what you want, and being flexible enough to change course if needed. I suppose I should start thinking about 2016…
What I’m Listening to This Week
I let myself start listening to Christmas carols after American Thanksgiving, which means I’ve been binging for the last three days. It’s mostly been the medieval carol “Gaudete.” I love the poetry of Latin: “gaudete” means “rejoice,” and there’s plenty of that happening here, especially when the full choir hits at 1:24. Today’s the first Sunday of Advent, so I’m in a philosophizing mood, but that’s what it’s all about, isn’t it? Gaudete—rejoice.
So I’ve thought about it,
And while a Hugo would be nice-
If we could figure out the politics, maybe?
-That isn’t what I really want.
I admire the Nebulas, and
The World Fantasy Award has
But if I never get one,
I won’t lose sleep.
I don’t know if I still qualify
(Or ever qualified, let’s be honest)
For the John W. Campbell,
But I think
I no longer care.
See, I’ve thought about it, and
I love getting fan mail
From people I don’t know.
I appreciate the reviews on Goodreads,
And other fine book retailers.
And yes, I squirmed with
When my advisor said
That I deserve a “Pass Plus.”
But I’ve thought about it,
And what I really want
I want you to find me,
Some Tuesday afternoon
When we aren’t doing anything.
I want you to pause,
Just for a moment,
“I read your story –
It was really good.
I liked it.
I’m so proud of you.
So I’ve thought about it,
And I think
I’ll beat on:
Seeking the words
That you’ll find beautiful.
What I’m Listening To This Week:
“There Will Be Rest,” a lovely choral piece by Frank Ticheli, set to a poem by Sara Teasdale. Honestly, I’m really tired right now, so just listen. Absolutely divine lyrics and treatment.
“Write what you know.” We hear this so often, it’s not even cliché anymore. It’s a cliché of a cliché: the archetypal advice given to new writers.
Write what you know. You can see what they’re driving at. Write those things you’ve lived and held in your bones; write the things that matter to you. Write your experience, because your experience is unique and no one knows it better than you.
Except—I don’t think we write what we know. Not really. We write what we don’t understand.
I look at my fiction, and I see the same motifs emerging over and over again. Frigid, brittle winters. Loss and grief. Sibling and pseudo-sibling angst. These are the stories I tell myself, again and again. Turning them over, swapping things around, changing the key. Almost as though, if I keep trying, I’ll hit the magic combination that lets “The End” sing with comprehension.
It’s not intentional. I don’t think writers consciously set out to write stories based on their psychological hang-ups. I certainly don’t sit down and think, “Right, short story time. Let’s see, I need my northern village in the grip of winter, my tiny ray of hope at the very end…” No, the stories that come to us come from inside us. We write what we don’t understand because those unresolved questions are what the mind returns to—quietly, subconsciously—expressing its findings as wendigo and little gods and ice, because those are the best images it can find. And so, as artists, our metal workshops are filled.
I do worry about becoming a cliché of myself. “Oh, northern village, hidden god, sad orphan—must be a KT Bryski story.” I do try to push myself. “Does this story have to be set in winter? Is there a way to accomplish this without resorting to divinity?” And sometimes, the answer is yes. And sometimes, the answer is no.
Because—I don’t think I understand winter. Not really, not on a metaphorical level. Not the long nights, and the cracking ice, and that peculiar grey time between late afternoon and twilight. I don’t understand loss. I don’t understand being torn from home—or exiles.
After this week, I realize I really don’t understand the pains of this world.
But we keep writing. Or painting. Or singing. Or even just talking. That’s the only way to come close, I think—to get scraps of insight, a piecemeal comprehension. The only way out is through. And that is the wonderful, powerful thing about literature. It’s how we try to understand. I can think of nothing more meaningful than that.
What I’m Listening To This Week
Continuing our theme of “loud and complex,” I’ve been enjoying “Mars, the Bringer of War,” from Holst’s Planets suite. It starts low but ominous—striking strings beat a menacing pulse in the background while the brass carries the melody. We get louder and fuller through the first two minutes, sound crashing like waves…
And then we break at 2:11, with an extended dialogue between the horns and the rest of orchestra. A murky, serpentine section in the middle gradually disintegrates into our original, Darth Vader-like theme.
And you know what? Holding onto that pulse all the way through—it never lets you rest. It’s like alarms going off the entire time. Until the crashing, thunderous chords in the last minute. This piece pretty much just obliterates everything in its path.
Hope you’ve all been well. The thesis is finally out of my hands—huzzah!—and if I can muster all my strength to make it past Tuesday or so, I think I can finally take a breath.
So recently, my choir held a cabaret night to raise funds for our trip to the UK next year. I think I was meant to be a general dogsbody, but then I said, “I’ll just help set up the bar.” One thing to led to another, and…I spent the rest of the evening bartending.
Which was good. Because here’s the thing: as soon as my bar was set up (and see, even without thinking, it’s my bar), I felt like something had settled on its tracks properly. Everything fell into place. I knew what to do. I was on. I was home.
And it made me think about art, naturally. In his book Zen in the Art of Writing, Ray Bradbury talks about practice. Through enough practice and time, you can relax. Things become second nature; the very conscious focus on the mechanics falls away. You’re relaxed, but not in an apathetic way. It’s the relaxation when you know a situation.
This is what being behind a bar feels like for me. My first jaunt in the brewery—oh, the awkwardness. The glasses slipped between my fingers, the beer sloshed as I poured, and I was terrified of the dishwasher.
Art’s similar. Look at writers’ first pieces; artists’ first sketches; dancers’ first practices. They tend to be gawky and ungainly, don’t they? Adverbs slipping through the prose, paint sloshing all over, and terror leading up to certain turns. But that’s okay. The mechanics take practice. And here’s the rub: they take time, too.
A lot of time has passed since my first stint slinging beer. Lots of tastings. Lots of tours. Lots of events. Countless glasses poured and bottles lifted. And so, I can relax a little. It’s muscle memory. Once the motion and intention is worked into the body—your mind doesn’t need such a death-grip. It’s free to think about other things: the witty banter, the tasting notes, the fact that there’s a new queue all clutching drink tickets but the gentleman to the right still needs his Guinness.
At that point, you can start exploring ways to push your art. Deepen it. Enrich it. Hearkening back to Mr. Bradbury, fingers and subconscious and story all come together in one motion: an archer releasing an arrow, a beer wench snatching up the correct bottle and pouring exactly four ounces without looking.
When that happens—you got this. You know how to move your wings. And you can fly.
What I’m Listening To This Week
Something old and new at the same time. An old friend has an album out—Erin Cooper Gay gave me my choral mechanics and foundation, so it certainly fits today’s theme! In Black Market, she’s blending indie music with Renaissance and baroque; it’s fresh and spirited, and feels very classic at the same time.
“Manchester” is my favourite track…partly because it’s about a writer (the line “I guess I’ll have to write a sequel” makes me smile). But also because it’s got a lovely, bouncing chorus, and it feels…well again, it feels like something new and something familiar simultaneously—the voice in particular feels contemporary, but listen to the strings in the background. There’s some of your baroque influences. 😉
Welcome back to the Stonecoast blog train. And how timely, because I’ve just received my signature pages. Their international journey took them to Boston—to be signed by my advisor—and then to Maine—for my second reader’s signature—and now they’re briefly back with me in Toronto before I send the entire thesis to the MFA office. I’ve not been fretting. Not at all.
Anyway, today my Stonecoast comrades and I are discussing genre. As in, what’s our genre, why that genre, what is genre…?
I’m primarily a fantasy author. It tends towards dark fantasy, but we’re not talking full-blown horror. I like historical fantasy too, and I’ve written steampunk on occasion. I’ve yet to write any hard SF. The closest I’ve gotten is my quirky romp of an RPG, though one thesis short story could maybe be soft SF.
And right away, you have an idea of the types of stories I tell, even if you’ve never read anything of mine.
I write stories that have magic. Sometimes they get a little scary and grim, but that’s not their main focus, nor will you find gore. Steampunk suggests Victoriana, gears, and perhaps a touch of whimsy. I don’t write stories centred on technology and scientific concepts very often; even my stories without magic focus mainly on people.
You can tell this because different genres carry different sets of expectations. In the “Fantasy” section of the bookstore, we expect different stories than in the “Thriller” section. And we judge them according to those expectations as well, which means that genre frames the reader’s experience of the story at hand.
For example, I have strongly resisted attempts to classify my novel Heartstealer as “steampunk.” Why? Simple—it does not meet the expectations for the steampunk genre. Yes, it is set in a pseudo-Victorian society. But that’s about the only similarity it shares with steampunk. Magic may be present in steampunk, but it tends to be something lurking in the shadows. In Heartstealer, it’s front-and-centre: an integral part of the story. Steampunk frequently features societies powered by advanced steam technology. Heartstealer has none of that.
Rather than being a creative re-imagining of the Victorian era, Heartstealer is fantasy, set in a world that is not our own, but shares our Victorian age’s social structures, psyche, fashions, and technology.
As a “steampunk” novel, it’s not a very good example, because it does not meet those expectations. As a “historical dark fantasy,” I think it does much better.
So do you write to genre expectation, then?
A harder question that it seems. I think when you start any story, you have a rough idea of where it might fall. If there’s spaceships and warp drives, you’re probably not writing a Western, for instance. You know your direction. The more nuanced, particular sub-classifications can come later. Okay, so you know right away that it’s a SF story—but is it a space opera, or soft SF, or a science fantasy, or military SF, or a first contact story? That, you may know only after you’ve finished the thing and taken a good look at it.
Because here’s the thing: I think genre is mostly useful for telling readers how to approach a given story. It gives them a framework in which to work. Is it the be-all and end-all? No, but it’s an efficient shorthand.
Really, it’s like our goats at the museum. They’re walked on leashes, and whenever I see them from the corner of my eye, I invariably think, “Wow, what ugly dogs.”
Then I look again and think, “Wow! What cute goats!”
Different approaches yield different expectations yield different responses. Make sure your readers know whether your story’s a dog or a goat.
What I’m Listening to This Week
Oooh, something awesome. The “Dies Irae” and “Tuba Mirum” movements from Verdi’s Requiem. We maybe know Verdi more for this operas—and my goodness, that theatrical streak shows here. This could basically just be the opera setting for the apocalypse.
Those initial bangs, his favourite trick of passing the line between parts…this is a glorious cacophony of sound and fury. Until suddenly things quiet. And that’s even more terrifying.
And oh, those trumpets beginning at 2:25- Verdi’s a freaking genius. See, in Revelations, there’s meant to be trumpets to signify the ending of ages and coming of judgements. These are them. Right here. That’s what they would sound like, I’m pretty sure. Seriously, just grab a set and actors, and you pretty much have Revelations for the stage.
And next on the train…
My fellow steampunk-lover, J.R. Dawson! She is a highly talented writer with whom I’ve had the distinct pleasure of workshopping. Which means that I got to read snippets of her fabulous YA steampunk novel. A strong voice in our Stonecoast community, I will miss her upon graduation. Also, her blog is really pretty.
Check her out, and head onto the next stop here!