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.
So it’s 2013. I’m at my second Dragon*Con, still quite wee. This time, I’m trying to get around to more panels, so I’m at a late-night talk on LGBTQA+ characters in YA. Mercedes Lackey strolls in, takes her place at the table, and then peers into the water jug. She sighs. Very quietly, she says, “I was hoping for vodka.”
And being quite wee, I think, That’s what I want when I grow up. I want to do a midnight panel at Dragon*Con and bemoan the lack of vodka. I want my books to be part of someone’s childhood. I want a huge freaking corpus under my belt…
…but how do you build a career like that?
The answer floated up, sure and clear.
The same way you write a book. Word by word.
I’m glad I remembered this particular insight. Building a career feels like climbing a mountain, sometimes. A very steep, very slippery mountain. You push yourself for ages—you push so that you’re exhausted, you push so that your hands are bleeding, you push so that it feels you’ve been climbing forever—
But then you look back. Just for a moment—if you spend all your time looking down, you’ll never move forward. But you look back. And you see that the ground looks a bit further away than it used to. You’ve made progress.
Step by step. Word by word.
There’s still a lot of mountain ahead. (Spoiler: it will always feel like there’s a lot of mountain ahead. I don’t think the summit actually exists: we’re always striving to climb further.) Only sometimes you realize you’ve passed some marker on the climb. I did this recently. The realization had been building for a time, but then it broke on me all at once: I can no longer do things for free. It wasn’t a proud, self-aggrandizing kind of realization. It was quite matter-of-fact: that same little voice speaking clearly and quietly.
I can’t do things for free anymore. I don’t have the time.
So that’s a useful thing to know, as I sit gasping on this ledge, still fairly low on the mountain. Word by word, I’ve gotten this far. Since that late-night panel, I have made progress. Maybe you’ve had similar insights about your own climb. They’re almost silly, aren’t they? Little things, arbitrary things. But hey, whatever helps us along.
Of course, there’s still a lot of mountain ahead. But this is why I’m glad I remembered about that night at Dragon*Con:
Thinking word by word takes the pressure off each individual work. Some people shoot up the mountain on one story. It’s not common, but it happens. But I want a corpus. Which means that any one story, any one book, or play, isn’t the be-all and end-all. It’s a single word in the piece; one step on the road; one stone in the cathedral.
That’s not to devalue your work. After all, each word in the story is important. Without them, you don’t have terribly much.
Besides, breaking it down to the most basic level: that’s what writing is, isn’t it? It’s putting words on a page, one after the next. Is it really any surprise that a writing career should be the same thing?
Step by step. Word by word.
That’s all it is.
You got this.
What I’m Listening To This Week
It’s spring, so I’ve been cleaning the garret, rejoicing in the sunlight, and generally feeling much lighter and freer. I’ve got a wonderful album of classic Parisien-café-type songs. I’m not quite sure what it is about this style. It makes me happy; it makes me feel secure and recharged, ready to out and do the things.
Really, I’ve had them all on repeat. But this one makes me smile particularly broadly. Enjoy. 🙂
Happy Thanksgiving! And yes, American-types, it is Canadian Thanksgiving, which tends to be a much lower-key affair than yours. Mostly there’s just turkey and general goodwill. And also, no pilgrims. Although I like the pilgrims’ hats.
Anyway. For some reason, Facebook has been doing that “See Your Memories” thing a lot lately. Oddly, the memories it’s choosing to show are all memories from three years ago. Remember when your box of books arrived? Remember when you went on a quest for an author photo? Remember when Hapax came out? Remember that book launch?
I remember it being a very surreal time…that also felt very much in flux. As I recall, I was newly back from my first Dragon*Con. There were a lot of tentative friendships just starting to get their feet under them. And in hindsight, I was very wide-eyed and adorably eager about the whole thing.
Looking back at this, the friendships and relationships stand out most. Facebook keeps sharing pictures of friendships just barely starting to sprout. So much has happened since then. Sunshine and frost and cozy afternoons and dark nights of the soul. Those little seedlings have put down strong roots, toughened up their leaves, and come forth with fruit.
And how thankful I am for this harvest.
I do believe—very strongly—that everything happens for a reason. Even the painful, hard things—they’re transition points, turning points. No, you don’t have to like them. But I think it’s helpful to recognize them as such. Sometimes, to get to the light, we need to pass through the tunnel first.
Again, you don’t have to like it. You don’t have to like the angst or the uncertainty. In fact, it’d be strange if you did. My point, I suppose, is that later—when the fever is broken, when the storm has passed, when the dawn is come—it is possible to look back to the darkness and heartache and be thankful. Not thankful that it happened, necessarily, but thankful for what came of it.
Friendships. Love. Purpose. Beauty.
It’s a rough road, but often the rough roads lead us where we need to go. With love, no journey is impossible. Right now, I’m in a good spot. And for those currently travelling—I’ll walk with you.
What I’m Listening To This Week
You all know I like early music. Byrd, Tallis, Palestrina…that’s my jam. This beautiful little Palestrina motet has become fixed with Thanksgiving in my mind. As soon as I hear it, I start feeling crisp breezes and smelling fallen leaves.
As with most Baroque pieces, there’s a million different lines happening at once, the parts passing the melody around like a hot potato. Unusually for me, I can actually follow the bass part pretty well in this one…although perhaps that’s not surprising, as it tends to complement/mirror the top line throughout. I LOVE the section around 1:20 when the “Buccinates” start – especially for the sopranos, it’s just so joyful. Also the runs on “tuba” make me happy.
I’ve never had a big budget for podcasting. When I first sat down to record Hapax, I was halfway through my undergrad. And now…I’m halfway through grad school. So funds have been an ongoing issue.
Luckily, there are ways to work around impecuniousness. The impoverished podcaster has a variety of free things of which to take advantage: sound editing programs, sound effects, royalty-free music. An imagination and willingness to do weird things to make your own sound effects. Honestly, the biggest investment I’ve made has been on microphones and headphones.
And I’d been managing pretty well…until it became clear that I was lacking an essential piece of equipment.
A pop filter.
A pop filter sits in front of the mic to prevent plosives. Plosives are fun—hard, explosive consonants like p, d, b, k. When the breath hits the mic funny, it creates a pop of air. My plosives are becoming more noticeable, and the more I podcast, the less tolerance I have for them.
So, a pop filter. Research for this post indicates that they’re actually pretty reasonably priced. I have a Blue Yeti, which needs a special kind…which Amazon is currently listing for $22.84. But it looks fiddly. Besides, I need two: one for each mic, and then that gets pricier.
(My other mic is a Blue Nessie…it’s a charming wee thing, but its “built-in pop filter” doesn’t exactly get the job done.)
I’d seen tutorials for constructing one’s own pop filter. Unfortunately, they’re meant for mics with proper booms. My Yeti sits just in front of me. Some slight alterations were in order.
And so, I present: The Beer Bottle Pop Filter
- 6-inch embroidery hoop: $2.80
- Pantyhose (queen size): $1.99
- Metal rod: $0.00 (scavenged from back room) (A piece of dowel rod would probably work just as well)
- 2 clothes pins: $0.00 (scavenged from back room)
- Duct tape: $1.29
- Piece of cardboard: $0.00 (ripped from a shoe box)
- Beer bottle: $0.00 (okay, okay, originally something like $4.25, but you can find a beer bottle lying around, right?)
Total cost: $6.08
Not too shabby.
With a pair of sharp scissors, cut the legs off the pantyhose. I try to go as low as possible – there was no way that was going to sound good, was there?
Remove the small screw from your embroidery hoop and separate the inner and outer rings. Place your legless pantyhose overtop the inner ring, and put the outer ring on top, surrounding it. Make sure that there are no holes or gaps!
Stretch the fabric as tight as you can. Then stretch it tighter. When the fabric is taut, cut the excess. It’s okay if it looks a little raggedy; I prefer to err on the side of caution. If you don’t have enough fabric to cover the hoops’ frame, you’re screwed.
Cut your cardboard into a thin strip—mine’s maybe 1.5 cm wide by 8 cm long. Punch a small hole close to the tip.
Run the embroidery hoop screw through the hole, and then tighten to close the hoops.
Secure the cardboard to the rod with duct tape. At the screw, secure the cardboard—which probably looks like it’s about to tear—with more duct tape. Duct tape wherever it looks like you need it.
Attach a clothespin on either side of the screw. This will help the screen (formerly an embroidery hoop) stay upright. Then more duct tape.
Place the metal rod in the bottle. And then? MOAR DUCT TAPE.
My bottle is pretty sturdy, but if yours is tippy, you can try putting sand in the bottom to weight it down.
Set in front of microphone. Get recording! 🙂
What I’m Listening to This Week
It’s not all classical music and Irish pub songs over here. Coming off March Break, thinking about the year ahead, and all the changes in store…I’ve needed something a little more driving.
Because my musical taste is nothing if not eclectic, I nurture a soft spot for Queen. And these days, I do feel like I’m rushing headlong towards something—so what else would I listen to?
I’ve been thinking about pride lately. Alas, as they occasionally do, my thoughts began spinning. Oh God, am I secretly an awful person and no one bothered to tell me? Am I really awful, like seriously un-talented, and I haven’t been able to hear the sniggers over my own pride ringing in my ears?
It’s been a fun week.
And of course, as many writers are wont to do, I got sucked into a Second-Guessing Spiral of Doom. Well, if I’m not as good as I thought at one thing…maybe I’m wrong about EVERYTHING ELSE. Maybe I should just put my head down and not call any attention to myself at all.
Except I have HEARTSTEALER coming out next month, so that’s not really an option.
And therein lies the paradox many authors face: we have both insane self-confidence and crippling insecurity. To even dare submit a story – heck, to even show it to another human being – you need to think that it’s good. If you don’t honestly think, “This story is so good, people I’ve never met will give me money for it,” then why are you wasting your time? Not to mention the editors’ time?
That’s not all, either. When you have sold things, you can very rarely get away with proceeding to sit quietly in the corner. Doesn’t matter how good your books are – if people can’t find them, they’re a whole lot less likely to buy them.
All of which means: if you are overly self-deprecating – because, hey, I’m just some Canadian kid who hasn’t actually done all that much – if you never speak up and out, if you deflect all attention away from you, if you don’t aggressively seek opportunities… Well, it’s still possible to have a career, but you’re setting up a lot of roadblocks for yourself.
So we can’t do away with pride. Great. That doesn’t help my roiling anxiety.
But then I thought: is taking pride in one’s work different from being proud?
Google didn’t have an answer. I wonder, though, if maybe we should be talking about respecting one’s own work. So not inflating one’s ego by extolling its virtues, but simply giving it the time and attention it needs. Part of respecting one’s work – and I think this is the key difference – is being able to accept criticism to make it better.
Because the difference between egoism and respecting the work is this: what’s it about? If it’s about YOU, and how it makes YOU feel, and why isn’t anyone paying attention to YOU – in other words, if it’s entirely personal – then we may be looking at pride.
If it’s about the work…accepting criticism that might hurt your feelings in order to make the work better, making the writing (not you and your awesomeness) the main focus, doing what you can to make sure the work gets what it needs…that might be a different matter.
Remembering too that no work is perfect. We can strive to make it so. We’ll never get there, but that’s no reason not to try. But when criticism comes a-knocking…it may spur your future works on to be even better, and future works need just same amount of respect. (And if your ego is a bit, uh, puffier, you may find people less inclined to read your future works, so there’s that angle on this whole “respect the work” thing too.)
There’s another word I’d like to throw out: audacity.
No, not that Audacity. The actual dictionary definition of audacity, which is, “the willingness to take bold risks.” This is a term that’s become very important to me, and not just because of the sound editing program.
It’s a good counterpoint to pride. Recently, I had a conversation in which it was suggested that if I’m self-publishing HEARTSTEALER, I must be very proud of it.
I have worked very hard on HEARTSTEALER. I believe in it. I believe there’s a place for it out there. But what this whole endeavour boils down to is audacity. This is a bold risk. Every time I’ve reached out to people for help, that’s audacity. My relentless pushing at the dayjob? Audacity. Also, sheer stubbornness, but that’s another post.
And podcasting. To have the sheer audacity to suggest to people that they might really like to spend their afternoons recording dialogue, and no worries, you’re totally going to figure out this whole audio editing thing before it goes live…
I like the term audacity because of the element of risk. Someone who is too over-confident doesn’t see any risk involved in these activities. Why would they? They’re awesome, so clearly, everything will work out. And when you don’t see the snakes, that’s when you get bit.
Creative types who push the envelope, who suggest new things, who pull other people aboard—they may not have any idea if it’ll actually work. Hence, it’s a risk. Being proud means assuming the dangers will never touch you. Having audacity means you see the dangers, and you’re willing to try anyway.
So respect your work. Be grateful with criticism, gracious with praise.
And above all: be audacious.
What I’m Listening To This Week
Oh, man, I love me some Verdi. La Traviata was the first opera I ever heard, and it’s still one of my favourites. Courtesan meets guy, courtesan loses guy, guy briefly reconciles with courtesan, courtesan dies of consumption.
Yeah, I consistently cry through the third act. Sue me.
Si ridesta in ciel l’aurora takes place after a party at Courtesan Violetta’s house: the dawn is breaking in the sky, and it’s time for the guests to go home. I love the exuberant, galloping introduction here. Also, Verdi writes really, really well for choruses: the lower and upper voices pass the melody off, back and forth, getting progressively louder and more intense, until we burst into a triumphant climax at 0:36, complete with crashing percussion.
The melody becomes almost march-like, nearly militaristic, and then the original light, peppy tune ushers us out. Sidebar: this modern production looks super interesting. Love where they placed the chorus, and how Violetta is left all alone…with a spinning clock, because her time is running out, get it???
Hello! Guess what day it is? It is Bell’s Let’s Talk Day, wherein for every text message sent, mobile call made, Tweet using #BellLetsTalk, and share of the Facebook image, Bell Canada will donate 5 cents to mental health initiatives. Besides raising monies, it’s also a day to promote awareness and combat stigma.
As most of you know, mental health is a cause close to my heart. It’s a factor in the lives of people I love, mental illness affects creative types at a disproportionate rate—and as my much wiser boyfriend says,
We all have a mental health.
Whether or not there’s an active illness, taking care of one’s mental health is important for all of us.
As I’ve been made aware (often painfully so) in the past. I’ve always been pretty open about anxiety. And it’s the anxiety I want to talk about today, since it’s the one I live with.
So, Let’s Talk:
Anxiety is a tricky beast. It is defined as “a nervous disorder characterized by a state of excessive uneasiness and apprehension, typically with compulsive behavior or panic attacks.” Which tells us some things, but not all of the things.
Anxiety comes in many flavours
Let’s line up ten people with anxiety. While there may be similarities between them, there may also be ten different types of anxiety. Kierkegaard over here has existential anxiety. Sally Student has crippling test anxiety, a diagnosable form of social phobia. Billy-Bob has Generalized Anxiety: persistent, disproportionate worrying and an inability to let go of worries.
I have social anxiety. Which means that I approach social interactions with the profound dread of doing something wrong, I become easily overwhelmed, and I constantly second-guess my ability to read social cues.
Anxiety does not hit with the same intensity all the time
This is a frustrating one. “Okay,” you say, “you have anxiety. Except—hey, last time, you talked to people just fine! Therefore, you are better! So why is this time such an issue?”
Beats me, and I wish I knew. The stimulus that provoked a strong response last week might be manageable this week, and next week, it could be worse again. Generally speaking, the more familiar anxiety-sufferers are with a situation/person, the easier it is—except for those times when it’s not.
“But you’re so social and outgoing!”
I’m a writer. I can also act when needed. So joking around on panels, being gregarious on podcasts, bantering with visitors at the museum—I might be super familiar and comfortable with the situation, but there is also a really, really good chance that I’m faking it.
The better you know me, the more likely it is you’ve seen me in the grip of a meltdown.
The play’s the thing
Going along with the acting metaphor—anxiety hates uncertainty. Hates it. I do not do well with ambiguity at all. So, what’s the answer to that?
This is why it’s actually sometimes easier to be thrown into a group of people I don’t know well. There is a script for such situations. Ask about their jobs, family, hobbies. Make small talk about a Topic Of Common Interest. It’s a formalized, ritualized way of interacting. Anxiety doesn’t mind that, because it can predict what’s coming next.
(This is also why I’m a boss at tours and presentations, by the way—I don’t just have a script, I wrote the f****** script).
So…for whatever reason, we’ve hit a point where the anxiety becomes greater than the person’s ability to contain it. What happens then?
Honestly, depends on the person. Some people lash out. Some people have panic attacks. I withdraw. It’s awful and I hate it. Imagine a really heavy, cold blanket slowly draping over you. You can feel yourself going numb, getting weighed down, slowed down, but you can’t do anything to stop it. The voice goes flat. Emotional affect dampens. It’s like when your computer overheats and triggers an automatic shut-down. Whatever the response is—it’s no one’s fault.
But as it’s not fun for anyone, prevention is the key: heading off the anxiety before it hits that point. There are many ways to do this. Exercises from Dialectical Behavioural Therapy were developed for people with borderline personality disorder, but they can work well for anxiety, too. Since sensory overstimulation can be a thing with me, I sometimes take my best sense (my ears, yo) and selectively flood that—music is a godsend when my brain is spinning too quickly.
Kind of like writing, though: there’s no One True Way, you just have to experiment until you find what works for you.
To close things off, let’s talk about labels. Sometimes, labels can feel helpful. It is awfully comforting to be able to put a name to the feelings and experiences you’re having—and being able to name it gives you some power over it. At a basic level, it certainly helps you find other people who are going/have gone through the same thing.
The thing to remember with labels, though, is that they are a starting point, not an ending. So, you can name this creeping dread “anxiety.” Fantastic, now you can more easily find resources to help, and maybe talk yourself down better (“This is not my thinking—this is anxiety”). It becomes tricky when the label becomes the be-all and end-all; when it becomes intrinsic to your self-conception. You are not a label. Whatever you have, you are not it.
As always, I’m glad we talked. Yes, it can be difficult, and awkward, but opening the dialogue is hugely important: for ending stigma, and for helping others find the support and help that they need.
Kids Help Phone: http://www.kidshelpphone.ca/teens/home/splash.aspx
Canadian Mental Health Association: http://www.cmha.ca/mental-health/find-help/
Centre for Suicide Prevention: http://suicideinfo.ca/
Mental Health America: http://www.mentalhealthamerica.net/go/help
American Crisis Hotlines: http://suicidehotlines.com/national.html
British Mental Health Infoline: http://www.mind.org.uk/help/advice_lines
Mental Health Council of Australia Helplines: http://www.mhca.org.au/index.php/help
New Zealand Ministry of Health: http://www.health.govt.nz/yourhealth-topics/health-care-services/mental-health-services
Mental Health Foundation of New Zealand Resource Finder: http://www.mentalhealth.org.nz/resourcefinder/listings/resource/73/support-groups/#content-222
What I’m Listening to This Week
This week, it’s “Fac ut ardeat cor meum” from Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater. Once this movement starts, it doesn’t stop—I’ve actually heard it run faster than the version below. “Make me feel as thou hast felt,” runs a loose translation. In essence, this piece is a plea: and done well, it is hugely emotional.
Baroque music pleases me because of how precisely constructed it is. Again, done well, all the parts fit together like clockwork. Here, that’s particularly noticeable with the runs of three quarter notes at 0:18 (the “ah-ah-ah, ah-ah-ah” bit)—the soprano is rising higher, the countertenor steady underneath, and then they come together so perfectly.
So, in order to get time off for Stonecoast this July, I traded a whole bunch of shifts at work…which has resulted in me working eleven days straight. Right before that, I worked ten days straight—I had a day off in between the two stretches. Plus, I write at night.
I shouldn’t complain. I know people who work more hours, longer stretches, more stressful jobs.
But darn it, I really just want to sit alone by myself for a day. In the dark. And silence. Without people. Alone.
Huzzah for introversion!
As most people know, introversion isn’t about shyness or anti-sociability. It’s about energy production. Introverts generate energy within themselves, and lose it during social interaction. Important caveat: the energy loss varies from person to person. Chilling with friends takes energy, but significantly less than dealing with irate customers or dozens of strangers at a party. By contrast, extroverts generate energy through social interaction, and lose it when they have to be alone.
So ideally, for an introvert, life should look something like this:
And for an extrovert:
Energy loss more-or-less equals energy generation. For introverts, that means that they get enough alone time to balance out the social interaction (which, while fun, is expensive, energy-wise). Extroverts get enough people time to compensate for the times that they’re alone. Everyone is happy.
It doesn’t always work this way.
Sometimes, like at cons, the creative environment and awesomeness of seeing everyone face-to-face masks the energy loss. That’s why so many introverts collapse after conventions; we’ve been steadily losing energy all weekend, we just haven’t really noticed. Adrenaline does the same thing. We had a fairly busy weekend in the brewery recently—and man, I was flying.
Sample! Growler! Growler sample growler! RETURN GROWLER SAMPLEGROWLERSAMPLESAMPLE!
And then I went home and promptly crashed.
Since Balticon, however, my own graph has looked more like this:
It’s out of sync. My alone time isn’t enough to pay for the energy I’m spending on work, writing, and various other things. Think of a bank account. If my paycheque is suddenly slashed from $500 to $100/month (I’m using round numbers, bear with me), I’ll go into debt if I keep trying to pay my $200/month rent (again, I am pulling these numbers from the air).
Whether you’re an introvert or an extrovert, your energy source is just as important as food and water. Extroverts need people. Introverts need solitude. Force them to go too long without their generator of choice, and bad things happen.
All of which explains my own exhaustion and irritability. Yeah, I’ll own up to that—I’m trying very, very hard, and I feel terrible after snapping at people, but it happens.
But what can we do? After all, at some point, every one of us will go through stretches like this.
Setting boundaries and limits helps, I think. I am protecting my few off-days. Communication, as well: explaining to people that you love them, AND ALSO need to sit alone by yourself in such solitude that you cannot even sense the presence of another human being.
And of course, knowing yourself and maybe planning for those stretches. For me, some of these extra shifts were unexpected; I’m trying to roll with it, but having strategies in place—carving out time with/without people, allowing yourself breaks, getting enough sleep and such, which I admit I struggle with—might have made this easier.
Ah well. Only a few more days. And then—
Cool Thing of the Week
Apparently, I’m getting a reputation as a lush! My ten-year-old self would be horrified. Two people sent me the same link to 18th century drink recipes—I raise my eyebrow at the ones with egg and cream, but some of them actually look quite good!
I sat at the spinning wheel. Grey afternoon light fell through the window behind me. The spinning wheel clicked gently as I moved my foot up and down. Pinch the wool. Draw. Release.
Besides the clicking, the log cabin was quiet. Faint traces of wood smoke lingered, but the hearth was growing colder. With no one else around, I let my mind wander.
Pinch. I hope they’re taking care of him. I wonder if he misses me. I wish I was there—I should be there. Draw. It’s meant to be me. I trust Mairi, but it’s meant to be me.
He’s my son.
Ha! Startled some of you, I bet.
So, here’s what is happening. I think the Victorian Dark Fantasy is starting to gel. The novel has changed throughout Stonecoast—I think the plot’s getting there, now I’m bearing down on voice and character. To help with this, my thoroughly brilliant mentor posed me an interesting challenge:
One thing you might want to do, and this will sound less strange to you as a playwright than to other people, is to go around being each of the main female characters for a while, and do things the way they would do them. How do you feel as those characters? How do you walk and talk?
I laughed in delight upon reading this. So…I thought, grinning, I spend most of my days wearing period-appropriate clothing, doing period things…
Plus…I kind of stole half our buildings.
Heck, I can reconstruct entire scenes in these buildings, mapping out exactly where this character was standing, where that one paused before coming around the corner. It’s like being on a movie set.
So…I have the right clothing (mostly—for two of them, I really need a crinoline, and I only wear that in the brewery), I’m doing the right things, and I’m in the right place. Sometimes, it’s almost a little disorienting.
It’s also taught me a lot.
I’ve always talked with my characters. Usually as mental knitting—on the bus, while walking, during quiet times at work. Just relaxing, asking questions, hearing what the response is. Sometimes full-on conversations develop; Serafine, for instance, rarely shut up once she got going.
It’s one thing to invite a character into your head. Thus far, it’s been quite another to invite them into your skin. Really, really cool, but different. Because this way, I’m not guiding the discussion. I’m not prompting anything. I’m essentially retreating to the sidelines and seeing how my characters assert themselves once they have the space and freedom to do so.
- One worries far more than she lets on; she’s clinging by her fingertips.
- In another time, place, and culture, one could be a geek girl. As it is, she’s sensitive, carefully (and constantly, my God!) analyzing and observing.
- And the last POV character…I don’t think I ever really understood the depths of her possessiveness, her sense of entitlement.
My circumstances definitely give me a leg-up, but it’s also interesting to take characters on field trips. Point out a streetcar, stop in a grocery store. What do they think, how do they react to this world so unlike their own?
It’s been fun—and I still love working on this story, still love exploring these people and their lives. Even after so long (yeah…longer than I anticipated…) the joy hasn’t ebbed.
Let’s just hope that I never, ever answer visitors as my villain.
Actually, that’d be hilarious.
I’ll be good. 😉
Cool Thing of the Week
So, there’s the solar system, right? Then our galaxy, then our “local group” of galaxies, then our galaxy cluster, then our supercluster…and then the filaments.
The thought makes me shiver. So many stars and worlds, so much void between them…
More than anything, it makes me want to write.
Edits for the Victorian Dark Fantasy continue apace. After weeks of poking at it every so often, it’s like the pressure in my head has built up to that point where I no longer have any say in the matter. All good books are like that, I find. You hit the point where writing it stops being a choice—you have to.
Which is a good thing. A very good thing. There are some pretty deep edits here; nothing that actually changes the story that much, just reordering of scenes and characters that are a little tricky to effect. This isn’t editing with a chain-saw; it’s performing delicate surgery.
One of the major changes? Swapping one of the POV characters. The Victorian Dark Fantasy is written from three first-person point-of-views: our heroine, the villain, and our heroine’s husband. Only then I realized that the husband’s sister actually has more at stake and a more interesting/pronounced character arc…from a craft and structural perspective, it made more sense to have her narrate.
Here’s the thing, though: it’s not as easy as going through the husband’s scenes and switching pronouns. (She looked at me quizzically > I looked at him quizzically) We’re literally seeing the scene through a new pair of eyes, which means that every single detail gets interpreted differently.
Voice changes substantially. It should, anyway. You, me, Bob down the street, we all have different takes on the world and a unique ways of expressing ourselves. Charlotte’s more tightly-wound than her brother. Throw in some high-stress situations, and she becomes downright prickly. Which tends to manifest in a harsher, more sardonic tone than we previously had in those sections.
It’s kind of like dialect and accent. There’s an external stimulus; how does your character take it in, make sense of it, and then express it back to the world?
Thoughts Hidden, Thoughts Revealed
Unlike in omniscient POV, where you can dip into multiple characters’ heads in a single scene, first-person and third-person limited narrators can only relate their own thoughts. This is hugely fun. Maybe I’m just a jerk, but I sometimes enjoy using POV limitations as almost a sleight-of-hand. Sort of a she-doesn’t-know-he-knows-she-knows thing.
Yeah, I’m a jerk.
But the point is, I’ve had to edit out the husband’s thoughts and replace them with external action. Same thing with Charlotte.
It’s probably easier to show you. Here is the original, from Ned’s POV:
Charlotte cocked her head. “What are you thinking?”
I meant to tell her about the whisperings I’d heard, but instead I blurted, “I miss Sara.”
Charlotte gave me a sad smile, gazing down on me much the way she had in our nursery days. “I know. I miss Findley.”
Despite myself, I felt like a child once more. “I wish I could write her a letter, let her know when I’ll come home. Too much longer without any news and she’ll start fretting.”
“So will the Braes. They think I’m sick, remember?” Charlotte rose to check the fire. She tossed more wood on it, adjusted the crane so that the kettle hung over the hottest part. “Sometimes,” she continued, her back to me, “I can’t tell if it’s a good thing that Findley won’t worry.”
And the edit:
He fell silent, gazing across the cramped space towards the smouldering hearth. Subdued, unusual for him. I cocked my head. “What are you thinking?”
It took him a moment to answer, conflict playing over his face. Then, he blurted, “I miss Sara.”
My heart broke a little. “I know,” I said quietly. “Less than a week, and I already miss Findley.”
“I wish I could write her a letter, let her know when I’ll come home. Too much longer without any news and she’ll start fretting.”
“So will the Braes. They think I’m sick, remember?” Needing to do something with my hands, I rose to check the fire. I tossed more wood on it, adjusted the crane so that the kettle hung over the hottest part. “Sometimes,” I continued, murmuring more to the fire than to him, “I can’t tell if it’s a good thing that Findley won’t worry.”
Same scene, same dialogue, same actions, two POVs. In the second round, we see Charlotte’s thought process in asking after Ned. We see Ned conflicted over something, but because we’re not in his head, we don’t know what (which might be a problem later on…did I mention that I’m a jerk?). Likewise, in the first version, Charlotte goes to check the fire. When she’s narrator, we see the reason why.
Which leads me into…
Every Action Originates From an Intention or Trigger
I was pretty proud of this little epiphany. Seriously, learning that actors attach a verb to every bit of dialogue has helped my writing more than I ever thought possible. What does it mean, though?
Basically, with every action you take or word you utter, you’re trying to accomplish a goal. Think about it. We’re having a really intense discussion, you get up to open a window.
Why? Maybe you’re feeling so uncomfortable, you need physical space from me. Maybe this discomfort is also having a physiological effect. Your face feels flushed, so you’re trying to cool down, as well. Both of each relate to the goal/verb: self-soothe—I want to make myself feel better.
You’re at a party. Someone you like is also there. Maybe you stare down at your beverage—I want to avoid embarrassing myself. Or maybe you strike up a conversation with someone nearby, making sure everyone nearby can hear how charming you are—I want to impress him/her.
When the scene is not in a character’s POV, we only see the external action. When the scene is from their perspective, we see the internal trigger/thought process as well.
Rewriting these scenes has been almost like playing with audio. Some parts of Ned’s track get muted; Charlotte has no way of “hearing” them. Conversely, some of Charlotte’s levels get brought way up; if we’re in her head, they have to be prominent.
There is a strong temptation to not do this. After all, the scene has played out already; Charlotte and Ned have made their choices as to what they’re doing and saying.
Except I’m the author, I have the red pen, and sometimes for the sake of the story, you have to “re-dream the dream.”
Restart. Let the scene play out again. Let it go differently.
First scene: Ned’s checking out the mysterious curtain that divides the worlds, Charlotte’s keeping him safe. Which was cool when it was his POV. But tell me, which is more interesting—a mysterious curtain, or making sure your sibling’s still breathing?
Yeah. I thought so. In the edits, Charlotte got the interesting action (because POV character), which necessitated some dialogue switching. A little rephrasing to match each character’s voice, but really, no big deal.
This is actually really fun. I’ve loved getting to know this character better. And I’ve loved writing some new solo scenes for her. So much more interesting than swapping pronouns!
ALSO: Cool thing of the week!
Remember how I fell in love with The Star of the County Down? I found this image of the song’s heroine. If anyone ever turned this book into an animated Disney film, this would be Mairi.
Recently, I’ve had two characters with accents. Because I’m a geek about language and sound laws, I did sit down and have a good think about this. I’ve seen accents portrayed phonetically; I’m reading The French Lieutenant’s Woman right now, and John Fowles spells words such that you can actually distinguish between a Yorkshire and Cockney accent:
“’Ow about London then? Fancy seein’ London? Expec’ you will. When they’re a-married orf hupstairs. I’ll show yer round.”
“Would ‘ee? All they fashional Lunnon girls, ‘ee woulden want to go walking out with me.”
“If you ‘ad the clothes, you’d do. You’d do very nice.”
“Doan believe ‘ee.”
“Cross my ‘eart.”
-John Fowles, The French Lieutenant’s Woman
This works very well.
But I didn’t want to do that. Partly, I was nervous that it would turn into something like, “An’ den, ze deah boy wen’ doon t’crick” (I don’t even know what accent what that would be). But also, I had a theory.
Fresh off writing an opera libretto and suggesting music through text, I wondered if it was possible to show cadence and speech rhythms through syntax and word choice.
Two characters, two backgrounds, two different accents:
In my story for the Tales from the Archives podcast, Anouk Tremblay is an agent of the Québec version of the Ministry—le Ministère Officiel d’Occurrences Sans Explication (M.O.O.S.E.). She’s a francophone, uses English sometimes at work, and speaks with a Québecois accent.
For the Victorian Dark Fantasy, Mairi Brae’s got a lovely Skarrish accent—which in my head is pretty much an Irish accent. Skarrish is her first language, though she grew up speaking both Skarrish and Aldoran.
This doesn’t work in every case (like Fowles, above), but it helped me with Anouk. I’d write some of her lines in French and then translate them back into English:
Et ici, mes supérieurs ont dit, c’est nécessaire d’avoir une présence Québécoise.
And here, my superiors have said, it is necessary to have une présence Québécoise.
A few things. First: yeah, I left some French in there. Not much, but enough to flavour it. Second: structurally, the sentence is a little different than one a native English speaker might compose. Still perfectly understandable, just different.
Think of dialogue the way your character would. How does their first language shape their approach to others?
Skarrish has a tense called the “after past” (funnily enough, a variant shows up in Irish English). It’s the immediate past, the past which just happened, and the past to which some emphasis is attached. In Aldoran, it shows up thusly:
I just asked her!
I’m after asking her!
Not a construction you’d find in native Aldoran, because that tense doesn’t exist in that language. Doesn’t stop Mairi from trying to use it.
Other weird things can carry over from language to language—what forms and structures is your character unconsciously clinging to?
At one point, Anouk tells Brandon to “Take care.”
Except, that’s not a phrase that’s found in French. The nearest equivalent is faire attention—“to make/have attention.”
Working with anglophone Ministry agents, Anouk knows enough to replace attention with care. But “take care” still wouldn’t necessarily sound natural to her—she ends up saying, “Have care” instead.
Anouk pretty much only uses English when she’s dealing with English government officials. She’s fluent, but it’s a work language. It’s similar to how students learning French in an academic setting take a long time to relax from “Bien, je m’appelle KT” to “Ben ouai, j’pelle KT.” You don’t break the rules until you know them very well—which is why Anouk doesn’t use contractions.
Mairi, on the other hand, grew up bilingual. Skarrish left an indelible mark on her syntax and grammar, but it’s a subtler effect:
“Ah, she’s a flair for the dramatic.” Mairi chuckled as we turned up the road. “She’s like to do a few wreaths herself, for to get her mind off it, and then I’ll finish the rest when we’re back.”
I could probably do an entire post on Skarrish-Aldoran grammar. But for now, notice the abbreviated possessive (she’s, not she has), she’s like to (not she’s likely to) and the for to + infinitive.
“The Skarrish tale’s a touch of the darkness to it, to be sure, love,” she said. “But never you mind yourself!”
Overuse of the definite article (The Skarrish tale, the darkness), idiom carryover (to be sure), and overuse of the reflexive (never you mind yourself).
Practice and Instinct
After a while, your characters’ speech patterns do settle in your ears:
Even Charlotte says—said he’s spoken naught at home…
Which didn’t seem right to me, so I changed it to:
Even Charlotte says—said he’s naught spoken at home…
Only to realize later that you can place the past participle after the object in Irish English (naught = object, it’s what is being spoken; spoken = our past participle).
Kind of, I guess. If you’re letting different rule sets bounce off each other, it helps to know the rules in the first place. But we can sum it up:
Is your character attempting word-by-word translation?
What grammar/vocabulary exists in one language, but not another?
How does your character’s background affect their speech patterns?
Can you LISTEN to people who have your character’s accent?