Monthly Archives: October 2016
I love Halloween. It’s one of those holidays that I like even more as an adult. Sure, trick-or-treating is fun, but I’ve grown to appreciate the lengthening shadows and chill in the air even more.
For me, this time of year is all about the rattle in the leaves, the orange streetlights pooling on the evening pavement. It’s the wind stripping the branches bare; the shadow that wasn’t there a moment ago; the frost coating roofs slick in the morning; the soil slowing and gathering itself for a long slumber until spring rolls around again. It’s the seductiveness of twilight and shadows; the half-understood shiver that comes with incense and decaying leaves and words like All Hallows, and Wheel of the Year, and the dark months.
Halloween, of course, shares its roots between the Feast of All Hallows and Samhain: the Celtic (and modern pagan) New Year. I think the closing of autumn is as good a New Year as any. As discussed before, the shape of my year divides neatly into two halves: season and off-season; museum time and writing time; the warm, secure months and the colder, leaner ones. Halloween is the beginning of the end; the harbinger; the already, but not yet.
At the museum, you see, Christmas starts in mid-November: only two weeks away. Once Christmas starts, it’s a quick, short slide to the end and the off-season. Halloween isn’t the beginning of the dark months; it’s the herald of it, much the way that Easter usually isn’t springtime itself, but the promise that warmth and sunlight are returning.
So because we haven’t actually gotten into the off-season yet, for me, it’s a time of potential. You can taste winter on the wind—but it isn’t here yet. And it’s oddly appropriate to have potential beginning in the dark, isn’t it? I think of the harvest gathered in, the seeds dormant in the ground—waiting. For me, Halloween is a time of baited breath. I’m planning my off-season writing. I’m gathering myself for one last push before the season ends. I’m sensing the winds grow colder; the last leaves falling; the knowledge that the warmth is well and truly gone, now.
And if that’s all sounding a little Victorian—the winter is coming on fast—then yes, I suppose it is, a little. Now, don’t get me wrong: I cherish and value and treasure my four months of full-time writing so very much. I’m very lucky to have the set-up that I do.
But in some ways, the winter is harder. While I’m very pleased with how my writing’s supported me thus far, it’s never a sure thing. Toronto gets cold: the whole city feels too hard, like you could bruise yourself on it. Without a daily commute, a Metropass becomes too expensive to justify, which means that I spend four months walking everywhere.
None of that is here yet. But it’s coming. And Halloween is the first sign—the first shiver and held breath and remembrance of everything else that might be out there. (All those ghosties and ghoulies and long-legged beasties…)
No matter what you call today, or how you celebrate, all my best to you as we enter into the year’s dark half. The winter gets cold, but the most exciting things usually start in the shadows. 😉
What I’m Listening to this Week
Well, it couldn’t be anything else, could it?
It’s 2007. I’m sixteen. And I’m terrified. I’m sitting on a hard church pew, music in hand. The notes don’t make sense. They make sense for piano, but I can’t just pluck a G out of the air and sing it. Besides, I’m supposed to be singing the harmony, not the melody, but I can’t hear it under all the other voice parts. Tenors, basses, and piano completely bury it, but the sopranos are worst because they actually have the melody and they’re loud and even though I’m singing barely above a whisper, people keep shooting me sideways glances because I keep screwing up and I just want to sing so badly but I can’t do it.
And that’s my first year of choir in a nutshell.
A combination of writing my first real “book” (Phantom of the Opera fanfic) and Toronto getting its first real opera house had given me an insatiable appetite for opera. My younger sister had spent the last year in the Canadian Children’s Opera Company, and I watched the Youth Chorus rehearsals agog.
I wanted to sing like that. So, so badly.
There was, of course, one slight snag.
I couldn’t sing.
Somehow, I got in. I’m still not sure why. Maybe Ann—the music director, a wonderful Texan force of nature—saw how badly I wanted it. Maybe it’s hard enough to find teens willing to sing classical music, and she worried about crushing my interest.
I don’t know. In any case, I was in so far over my head, I couldn’t even see the surface.
Most of the kids in the Youth Chorus had graduated from the CCOC’s younger divisions. Which meant they’d been singing for years. Not only that, they’d been singing together for years. And then there was me: new, and shy, and totally unable to keep up with the music.
I couldn’t even read it. Oh, I mean, I could look at a piece of music and tell you, “Yes, that note is a B, and that’s a sharp, and we’re supposed to get louder over here.” But when it came to matching “note on page” with “note in voice,” I had nothing.
As for technique—I had less than nothing. The voice is an instrument. Like all instruments, you have to learn how to use it. My joining the Youth Chorus was like grabbing a trumpet and expecting to join an orchestra.
All that to say, I was pretty effing terrible. In a choir of burgeoning pros, I was the weakest link. And I wasn’t used to that. My whole life, I’ve been an overachiever and a quick study. At the risk of sounding arrogant, I was used to just…picking things up.
Algebra. French. Soccer. Piano. Never much of a learning curve. Never much angst. Just trying something, and very quickly becoming good at it.
This was the first time that hadn’t happened. Those rehearsals fighting back tears were the first time I wasn’t near the top of the class.
People worried, of course. Ann worried. My parents worried. Every Monday afternoon, dread sat in my throat like a mouthful of cold worms, and every Monday night, I came home sobbing at my own incompetence. But I. Kept. Going. Back. It was stubbornness, sheer and simple—this was the first time something had beaten me, and I couldn’t let that stand.
So I did what anyone does in those situations:
I learned to survive.
Since I couldn’t read the music, I memorized it instead, tracking down recordings of every piece we did. I went to weekly lessons wherein I worked my bum off learning technique (without the mentoring I got from Ann’s daughter Erin, I might well have crashed out). Finally, I decided that if I couldn’t be the best singer, I would be the best chorister—always on time, always prepared, always listening and well-behaved.
“Come on, you guys! Get ready!”
“You don’t count. You’re always ready.”
When I aged out at eighteen, I still wasn’t a strong singer, but I’d passed the initial hurdle. Music had woven itself into my life—to feel grounded and whole, I needed a choir.
By this point, I knew enough about my own voice to realize that opera was not a great match. To the surprise of no one, my voice is very high, very light, and very straight-toned. I don’t have the vocal weight for opera, and I never will. In terms of voice, I’m not built that way.
I am built for church singing.
So I went hunting church choirs. One rainy night in September, I climbed a million stairs to one church’s choir room. I said, “I’m a first soprano,” and the director pointed me to a seat.
Whilst my voice is better suited for church singing, there was an entirely new learning curve to contend with. Hymns that the church ladies knew by heart, but which I’d never seen. The shape and structure and music of the liturgy itself. Psalms.
But the CCOC had given me enough foundation that I could stick things out. Of course, the community helped. The ladies very quickly became like a legion of extra aunts; the men, like older brothers.
Here’s the thing about singing church services, though. There isn’t actually a ton of rehearsal. Anthems get a few weeks of practice, but the hymns and psalms change every time. It was too much music for me to memorize.
So I finally learned to read.
There was no shaft of light and angelic “Alleluia!” as the notes resolved themselves. It happened bit by bit, water wearing away at a stone, until I realized I’d actually been reading the music for a while.
I learned to support. I learned to breathe. I learned to make my voice do what I wanted as we tackled a huge range of music—from Palestrina and Byrd to spirituals. Sure, there is something of an “Anglican hoot” about it, but I’m pleased with the way it’s developed.
And I learned all the ecclesiastical side: the psalms, the hymns, the pulse and pattern of the liturgical year.
But the best thing?
I’m proud that I stuck it out. I’m proud of how much I’ve learned. But in a funny way, I’m even more proud of the battle I fought with myself. It took a long, long time, but I learned to stay with something because I love it, and no other reason.
You see, I’m still not the top of the class. Not even close. I am a competent vocalist. Not great—competent. And in this arena, I’m okay with that. I’m okay with it because for me, it’s all out of love: love for the music, love for my friends, and love for the sheer breathless rush of having a high G hit the church’s vaulted ceiling.
I am a chorister, well and truly. As the hymn goes, “How can I keep from singing?”
What I’m Listening to This Week
We’re returning to Rachmaninoff’s Bogoroditse Devo. I never thought I’d do this, but here’s…um, well, here’s me. Anglican hoot and all.
Once, in the distant days of my youth, I was at a ChiZine reading series talking to Canadian fantasy author Caitlin Sweet. She was very kind to me (she ended up being the final, encouraging push to send Hapax into the world), and I’ll never forget the advice she gave me:
“Don’t worry about getting published too early.”
She went on to explain that publishing too early sets up expectations: both for you and by you. It can mess with your head. It tends to leave you perpetually insecure that you’re not living up to the promise and potential of your youth.
Naturally, I sold Hapax less than a year later. Go figure.
Anyway, she was right on some counts. I’ve gotten a lot better at managing insecurities, but there is sometimes a certain worry that things are taking “too long,” that I’m not living up to the expectation set. While I’m pleased with what I’ve accomplished so far, I’m nowhere near where I want to be.
So I did a little research.
I pulled up some stats on twenty-four modern science fiction and fantasy authors. Some have been at this for a few decades. Some are new to the scene. Some are American; some Canadian; some British. Some are friends. (Hi, Mur! Hi, Pip! Hi, Jim!) Some, I’ve never met. All are still writing; all are authors I admire.
Specifically, what I wanted to find out what this: how much time passed between an author’s First Sale, and their Big Sale?
By Big Sale, I mean the sale that you look at, and say, “Yes, they’ve arrived.” The sale that made them as authors. It was less black-and-white than you’d think. Some authors took the fairly traditional route of starting with a short story in a small magazine and then eventually landing a novel deal with one of the Big Five.
For those who are primarily short-story writers, I looked for the first big award: the Hugo, Nebula, World Fantasy Award, etc.
For one mostly-independent author, I went with the year they left their dayjob.
So a mixture of strict criteria, and saying, “Eh, I guess this makes sense?” Here’s what I found:
The average gap between an author’s First Sale and their Big Sale was 5.75 years.
Of course, looking at the data, there are some outliers. For some authors, their First Sale was their Big Sale, and they’ve been churning out fiction ever since. Conversely, three authors had more than ten years pass between the two.
Generally speaking, though, the bulk of my sample fell within 4-6 years.
There are some theories I can put forth for this Five-Year Gap. First of all, in the case of novels, you’re looking at an 18-month lag time…at least…between acceptance and publication. Add to that the agent hunt, which can take a year, and that goes part-way to explaining it.
Otherwise…dude, after your first sale, you’re still growing. I return once again to my “boy soprano’s breaking voice” analogy. When the first cracks in your voice appear, you don’t go straight to singing bass. You might wander around the different parts for a while until you settle. Even if you can hit the notes, the full richness and technical mastery of an adult voice won’t come until later.
Similarly, there’s still a period of growth that happens with new authors. And sometimes, I suspect, the gap between sales may be sheer dumb luck, or lack thereof, or other priorities.
Because Caitlin Sweet was right and I retain some neuroticism over my relative youth, I also examined biographical information, where available. If a birth date wasn’t on an author’s Wikipedia page, I didn’t hunt too hard for it.
Looking purely at biography, most authors seem to make their First Sale in their late twenties to early thirties, and their Big Sale in their mid-thirties to early forties. Again, there are outliers (looking at you, Rachel Swirsky). The age range, I suspect, probably has to do with the emotional maturity that develops through the twenties. Lots of university kids write well; there’s not always the same depth, which is to be expected.
One interesting thing I noted: the younger an author was when making their First Sale, the longer the gap tended to be until their Big Sale (Swirsky aside). This lends credence to my “emotional maturing = better writing” theory, and seems to jive with Kelly Robson’s thoughts on being a “late bloomer.”
Of course, comparing your career to others’ is rarely touted as a good idea. That way, madness lies. I mean: look at all my outliers! Everyone follows their own path!
…but sometimes, it is comforting to look at trends. We all follow our own paths, but it’s nice to see if you’re going in the same general direction. Looking at my own data, my First Sale was Hapax in 2012.
I haven’t made my Big Sale, yet. But looking at the charts, I seem to be right on track. 🙂
What I’m Listening to this Week
Regular readers know of my love for Ola Gjeilo’s music. Guess what??? I got to see him this weekend at a choral concert! (I also saw my lovely former collaborator, composer Norbert Palej.)
I hadn’t heard the “Credo” portion of Gjeilo’s Sunrise Mass before, and it totally captivated me. Listen to the frantic, pulsing strings: totally captures the rush of urban life. The “crucifixus” motif around 4:24 is a jagged little heartbreak, and of course, I’m a sucker for the last driving, thundering two minutes.
Happy Thanksgiving, pals!
That’s right—it’s Canadian Thanksgiving Monday today. Canadian Thanksgiving is kind of like American Thanksgiving, only there’s no story about pilgrims and a “first Thanksgiving celebration.” Likewise, we don’t have parades. Or sales. Basically, we eat pumpkin pie and turkey and give thanks that our northern climate didn’t kill us again this year.
We also give thanks for other things. I’ve done Thanksgiving posts on this blog before, and it seemed fitting to do another. I really wanted to give this one some thought, though—because once again, I find myself in a completely different place than I was a year ago.
When I think about what I’m thankful for, my friends and family immediately spring to mind. As I’ve said time and time again, the communities in which I find myself are incredibly important to me. And then I started to think deeper. Why are they important? What, precisely, is it about all you wonderful people that makes my heart swell?
First and foremost, I’m thankful for the acts of love—great and small—that I see play out every single day. Enquiries into people’s wellbeing as Hurricane Matthew batters the Caribbean and the southern US (stay safe, okay?), hugs and support in the face of loss, books arriving on my doorstep because my Books By Friends Shelf looked “too empty.” Sometimes, we see each other every day. Sometimes, once every few years. I’m thankful that it doesn’t matter. I’m thankful that we live in a world unhindered by geographic distance.
I’m very thankful for your respective passions. Perusing the aforementioned Books By Friends Shelf, I was struck by what incredible artists I know. Writers, audio storytellers, editors, visual artists, dancers, actors, cosplayers, musicians, composers, photographers—your creations make the world a better place. We all benefit by your friendship and presence, and also your dreams, your hopes, your quivering hearts. So thank you for creating. Thank you for your art.
I’m thankful for all of you. All of you. I’m thankful for my immediate collaborators, and my choir family, and the people who like my work and Tweet about it, and the guy in the apartment down the street, and the visitors at the museum, and some sheep farmer in rural New Zealand that I’ve never met.
You see, the world’s a scary place right now. There’s a lot more darkness than I would like, particularly that patch swirling south of the border. There is hate and fear, cruelty and heartbreak.
But we’re all in this together, aren’t we?
At the end of the day, I have to believe that love, passion, and light overcomes darkness. And I’m thankful that I can believe that—that in all of you, loving and creating and doing your thing no matter what it is—we’re all sharing in this light together, making a web of it across the globe.
So what I’m trying to say—what I’ve never really said properly—what we should be saying every day we draw breath—is this—
Thank you for being you.
Thank you for being here.
Thank you for everything.
What I’m Listening To This Week
Jumping styles again—back to opera, with Mozart’s Nozze di Figaro. If I were ever going to play any opera role, it would totally be Cherubino. He’s a lovesick teenage boy played by a woman—I’m already doing precisely that in our dayjob pantomime!
There are lots of Cherubino interpretations, but I quite like this one from Swedish soprano Tove Dahlberg. This particular aria is Cherubino’s first, and it’s a roiling mess of teenage hormones. He’s very… frustrated.
Part of the fascination with Cherubino comes from the way his performance blurs boundaries—we know he’s a woman, that’s part of the fun—but he needs a certain amount of boyishness to work. Dahlberg’s interpretation is interesting because she’s not just got that ambiguity in her physical performance, but vocally, too. The tone is often straighter than most female operatic sopranos can pull off…and then the full power of a mature woman’s voice comes out (as around 1:46).
Excitement! I have a story out today! (Read it here!) “La Corriveau” is available over at Strange Horizons. I absolutely love the magazine and the fiction they publish, so I’m honoured for my story to be included in their ranks!
If you heard Six Stories, Told at Night, “La Corriveau” may be familiar. Marie-Josephte Corriveau was actually a real person. She was accused of murdering her second husband, she was hanged, and then, her body was suspended in a gibbet like this:
All sorts of legends grew up around her. She was a witch, she met with Satan, she actually had seven husbands. Myself, I looked at the cage and figured it would lend itself well to steampunk.
To get some more background information on 1700s Québec, I started researching La Corriveau…
..and fell down a rabbit hole, wherein the historic record is utterly fragmented and often contradictory. As a historian, I couldn’t piece together what really happened. Did she kill her husband? Was she abused? Was there a cover-up? Since she was tried by an English court martial, were things lost in translation?
I didn’t know.
So, sitting in the media room of a cabin in Tennessee, I stopped trying to tell the real story. I tried to tell her story – all her stories – the story of the witch and the story of the woman. As with much of my fiction, “La Corriveau” has an unusual structure, but that’s the only way I could figure out how to do it.
In all these explorations into Canadian folk tales, La Corriveau has been one of my favourites. She is a fascinating woman…partly because, from what I can tell, she started out incredibly ordinary. I am quite fond of this story, and I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed the research and writing!
What I’m Listening To This Week
An old Broadway standard: “Who Can I Turn To?” from The Roar of the Greasepaint – The Smell of the Crowd. This isn’t the precise version I’m familiar with – I know Louise Pitre’s rendition best, which is considerably slower and sultrier (I think she described it as the song that closes out the club, one last vodka in hand).
In any case, it’s a poignant little mix of heartbreak and grit. Enjoy!