‘Tis the season—I’ve just finished my annual writers’ retreat. As per usual, it was a week of fabulous friends, food, and words. Plus, beer and hot tubs. Rockstar life, basically.
I wrote last year about a moment I had at the retreat. It was one of those insights that cut to the quick. Towards the retreat’s end, I was sitting out alone in the hot tub…
It was nearing the golden hour, sunlight spilling over the mountains. The sky was endless, cloudless blue; the woods rang with the singing of birds and frogs. I settled into the hot tub with a book. My beer rested beside me.
And sitting there—sated with finished stories, dear friends typing inside, spring unfolding across the mountains—I could think only:
Enjoy this now. It won’t always be like this.
And I was right. Last year was rather a lot, and it was good to carry that moment inside me, returning to it whenever I felt like drowning in the midst of everything. This year, I had the mirror-version insight.
When the retreat finished, we broke the drive back from Tennessee into two parts. After a lovely dinner, I headed back to my hotel room—and crashed. Curled on the bed with some choral favourites, slightly dazed. For the first time all week, I was entirely alone. In the silence of my own thoughts, without friends around, I suddenly ached.
I missed my cat, down to the bone. I missed my choir friends and girlfriend and family. I missed my apartment and my own bed. After a fantastic (and full) week, I suddenly felt lonely.
But of course, I have novel rewrites due soon. So I sat in an American hotel room, booted up my computer, and got to work. Rockstar life, right? As I poked at revisions, the thought came—
This is the other part of it.
This is the rockstar life. This is part of the career I want.
See, sometimes creative life is hot tubs and intense productivity in the mountains. Or going to conventions and meeting cool writers and book people. Heck, sometimes it’s wandering in the woods and soaking in the trees.
But sometimes it’s getting work done…even in anonymous hotel rooms far from home.
Because it’s all about the work, in the end. Word by word, draft by draft. So this is going to keep happening. I want my writing career to include travel and work. Sitting there, I asked myself, “Are you good with this? Really, truly, are you good?”
And the answer was, “Yes.”
So this is the other part of it. I still wouldn’t change it for the world—but I’ll always love coming home.
PS. I suppose I ought to give a retreat report:
- One story I need to trash
- Two stories that are probably pretty close to done
- One flash I’m unsure of
- Two stories that need heavier revision
- Also, novel rewrites.
What I’m Listening to this Week
Ah, Cherubino, the hormone-riddled adolescent boy most often played by a woman. He’s one of my favourite characters in opera; I love the fluidity of trouser roles. We’ve had a version of “Non so più” here before, but this is a wonderfully cinematic version that is queer af.
We’re deep into Beer Magic revisions this week! My wonderful agent and I had a great phone call about the novel and thoughts for the next draft. It involved much pacing around the apartment while we thought out loud—and also lots of leaping to my laptop/notebook to jot things down.
Fortunately, it doesn’t need a massive structural overhaul. Even so, this is what my office looks like right now:
I’m not sure I’ve talked about my notecards, but they’re an essential part of my initial plotting process and later-draft revisions. My method is kind of-sort of adapted from Holly Lisle’s notecard plotting workshop. She uses notecards to throw scene ideas down and weave a plot from thin air.
I find it difficult to plot that way. My stories tend to marinate for a long time in my head and then burst out in a torrent. But part of the marinating process is getting a roadmap. And that’s where the notecards first come in.
The first step is knowing the major plot points. Beginning, catalyst, midpoint, crisis, ending. It’s the barest of five-act structures. (Note that I usually don’t know the climax yet—I have no idea how the crisis gets resolved into the ending.) But whatever, I write all of those scenes down on notecards.
By then, there are usually some few discrete flashes of story floating around. Unconnected scenes, moments from a mental movie trailer. Those get their own notecards as well. Usually, it’s just a single line or a few words—enough to trigger the scene in my head.
Then we get away from the desk! I start laying cards out on the floor: main plot points first. Gradually, an order starts suggesting itself for the unconnected scenes. More importantly, I can see where gaps appear in the plot. “If B is here and G is here, what has to happen in-between?”
Eventually, a basic point-by-point outline emerges from the morass of notecards. That outline gets transferred into a Word doc (I don’t worry about assigning scene POVs yet—that happens in the moment), and then I write the book.
That sounds like it should be more complicated. But that’s all it is. I follow my map and I write the book.
But then the notecards come back!
After the first draft, some scenes inevitably need to get moved. Or maybe there’s the same POV for a million years in a row and it needs to get broken up. I’m sure there are programs to help play with the structure of an ms, but I’m an analogue kind of person.
I lay my notecards out again. This time, I include the POV character (assuming more than one). Sometimes I even colour-code them, so that I can tell narrators at a glance!
And the re-arranging begins. For me, the tactile nature of physically moving scenes helps me hold the entire story in my head. I can literally see and manipulate the structure.
Would this method work for everyone? Of course not. But that’s the way it goes, right? You mess around, adapting advice and experience until you find something that works for you.
Onwards with rewrites!
What I’m Listening to this Week
It was another Ešenvalds week. We had “Long Road” on here not that long ago, but the poetry is so good, I had to return to it.
Oh, thy bright eyes must answer now
When Reason with a scornful brow
Is mocking at my overthrow!
Oh, thy sweet tongue must plead for me
And tell why I have chosen thee!
Okay, so there are these three women, right? All writers. Frustrated by the lack of opportunity around them, they decide to make their own damn opportunities. They devise a plan to get published. They’re going to start with a collection of poems first, to build a platform, and then they’ll do novels—deliberately plotting novels different than anything they’ve written before.
It could be happening now, except it’s totally the Brontë sisters, and yes, I was watching the film To Walk Invisible this past week.
Why I have persevered to shun
The common paths that others run
And on a strange road journeyed on,
Heedless, alike of wealth and power—
Of glory’s wreath and pleasure’s flower.
Admittedly, I’m not done yet. But I’ve always been a Brontë fan. I love their poetry, and I like Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights (I could never get into Agnes Grey, though—sorry, Anne!). And of course, they introduced Jane Eyre in high school, and of course, the Brontës’ personal narrative resonated with my teenaged writer-self.
They made up their own fantastic world and wrote reams of stories set in it! They were governesses in various terrible places! They had enough of that and pursued writing with remarkable tenacity! Emily and Anne died young and it was super sad!
These once indeed, seemed Beings Divine;
And they, perchance, heard vows of mine,
And saw my offerings on their shrine.
But careless gifts are seldom prized
And mine were worthily despised.
It was interesting to contrast To Walk Invisible with another work that made my teenaged writer-self ache: Ernest Hemingway’s A Movable Feast.
Since I last read it a decade ago, I mostly remembered it as, “Ernest Hemingway writes in cool Parisian cafés with famous writers.” This reread, it struck me as more, “Ernest Hemingway drinks a lot and references making love pretty creepily.” Then I did a cursory search for more context and ran up against the usual issues with memoirs (and Hemingway, quite frankly). He’s certainly not objective and the manuscript was edited with various motives after his death.
Not quite what I remembered.
For all that, something still tugs at me. There is a sense of community—running into friends in cafés and bookshops and being interested in each other’s work. But I couldn’t help thinking…
A Movable Feast never mentions doubt. There’s a lot of drinking and gallivanting, but Hemingway never seems to question the likelihood of his own success.
The Brontës draw up a freaking battle plan, because they know the odds are against them. And they’re going to Do The Things regardless.
My darling pain that wounds and sears
And wrings a blessing out from tears
By deadening me to earthly cares;
And yet, a king, though Prudence well
Have taught thy subject to rebel.
Two different forms of confidence, I suppose. I’m glad I reread A Movable Feast…but I’m even more grateful to return to the Brontës. They have a steely, grim confidence that’s missing from Hemingway’s cafés and bars. It’s the kind of self-assuredness that gives no quarter, but also takes nothing for granted.
And am I wrong to worship, where
Faith cannot doubt, nor hope despair,
Since my own soul can grant my prayer?
Speak, God of visions, plead for me
And tell why I have chosen thee!
Walking invisible, perhaps…but determined to share in the feast.
PS. The poem referenced throughout is “Plead For Me,” by Emily Brontë!
What I’m Listening to this Week
“O great mystery…”
I listened to Morten Lauridsen’s “O Magnum Mysterium” while watching the lunar eclipse last week. True, it’s a little schmaltzy, but it was perfect for the occasion. And yes, I hard-core love the intense crescendo around 4:10.
I don’t want to get into the Marie Kondo “you should only have thirty books” thing more than I already have, because I’ve been gnashing my teeth all week and the quote was taken out of context and it’s wrong. However, I was looking at my books and I got a pang.
I have a lot of books about the Victorian era, Toronto history, and beer. And just for a moment, the sad thought flashed across my mind, “I don’t need these anymore; that chapter’s done…”
But that’s ridiculous.
True, I’m not immersed in Victorian history in quite the same way. But that’s the beautiful thing about writing. All of our loves and interests filter down into the creative mulch. (Terroir is perhaps a fancier word, but I do think mulch more accurately describes the subconscious breaking-down-and-reconstituting of things.) As long as I keep writing about the time period, I don’t have to leave it.
In a way, this idea fits within Marie Kondo’s philosophy. The whole point of her system is that if it sparks joy, you keep it, whether that’s books or clothes or shoes. The same approach applies to writing. If robots fighting in space spark joy for you, you write about those robots and have fun. If magic beer in Victorian Toronto gets your heart beating faster, you rock on with that.
(I’ll be spending the next month or so on Beer Magic rewrites, incidentally.)
Sometimes we overlook the value of joy in and of itself. Things don’t always have to be useful. Some things just make you happy. Like this little guy:
And likewise, I think writers can get so tangled up in the grind, the self-doubt, and the relentless striving, we lose sight of what we really enjoy. Look into your mulch. What have you got down there, in the dark? There’s probably some stuff you can let go of—I certainly have motifs that I’ve outgrown.
But there are always the themes and images that sing to you, the ones that make you catch your breath and sit straighter in your chair. You know, the things that spark joy.
Those things? Yeah. Keep those.
What I’m Listening To This Week
Okay, okay, it’s so overdone…and I adore the Rossetti text in the original “The Rose”…
But this is nice with strings, too. 🙂
“Gahhhhhh KT, you left, why are you still talking about this?”
Because whilst I pretend to have a heart of ice, I’m actually the sappiest sap that ever sapped. Also, I needed time to process. You know how it is. Emotions, man. Emotions.
So as everyone knows, I left my museum dayjob at Christmas. And here’s the thing about that particular dayjob: you need to be a little bit in love for it to work long-term. It’s hard work—mentally, physically, emotionally—and in many ways, it’s not just a job. It really is like living in a small village.
When I started, I was nineteen years old and painfully shy. Like, painfully. So naturally, I got a job where I needed to initiate conversations with strangers all day long.
Best exposure therapy ever.
I honed those people skills at Black Creek, and then I took them to conventions. I transferred tour banter to presentations and workshops. I adapted my History Actor chatter for podcasts. It’s not overstating to say that the job changed me—it gave me the tools and support to find my voice. And then, to use it.
So I fell in love with the village. I still love it. After so long, how could I not? Every board, every nail, every twig. The bucolic setting and physical work intersected with my life at exactly the right time.I’ve always done better among trees; I’m always calmer outside my own head…
I loved autumn mornings, before anyone else had really arrived. I loved the roofs sheening against the blue October sky, the smoked tang of fall winds in my nostrils and leaves crunching underfoot. I loved the way the air stirred—the year turning, but not settling just yet—too much to do, yet. I loved going into my building and starting my fire, that first rush of heat warming cold fingers.
To the surprise of no one, this setting bled into my fiction a lot.
I run. Down the lane, towards the village proper. Chimneys stab the bright sky like fingers. No curls of smoke lie against the blue. At the blacksmith’s, I stop. Clanging metal shatters the muffled quiet. If he is working, the forge must be lit. It must be.
I creep inside his shop. Sunlight shines off whitewashed walls. The blacksmith stands over his anvil, striking again and again. As the floorboards creak beneath my feet, he glances up. Frost coats his cheeks so that they gleam.
She liked gardening, but baking was her favourite. In their house, Marie positioned a little table just so—close to the hearth, so the bread would rise better, but near enough to the window that the sunlight fell across her work, and she could gaze across the rippling barley to the forest on the far side.
One morning, Jean-Luc builds the fire high in the bake-oven. When it is this cold, the dough lies sluggish beneath his hands. As he kneads it, he glances out the window. A skeletal shape stands by the cottage opposite. He blinks, twisting for a better look, but then the door creaks and distracts him.
Black Creek has totally infused itself into my creative mulch. It’s part of my terroir now—I suspect my fiction will always carry the taste of wood-smoke.
And the people—
You could probably write a whole book just on the people. The strong female mentors who took me under their wings; the colleagues I laughed and drank with (at pubs, not onsite); the visitors who bemused and amused and very often moved me…
I’m richer for all of them.
(I almost forgot: working in the brewery sparked my fascination with beer, so there you go. An important hobby and facet of my author life, born at Black Creek!)
It was a wonderful place to work. It was a bizarre place to work. It was a beautiful playground to grow and explore and test myself.
For a very long time, it was home.
But it feels right, heading out now. It feels like I’ve spent the last eight years becoming this person, whoever I am now. With that complete, it’s time to see what this person can do. I’m already doing things for my new dayjob, there are so many adventures lined up for 2019, and I can’t wait to dive into this new chapter.
Thank you, Black Creek. Until we meet again!
What I’m Listening To This Week
Because reasons. 🙂
Well. That was…quite a year.
2018 was life changes and personal growth all the way through. Not just writing-wise, either! I moved. I left my museum job after eight years. I did a lot of work on my anxieties and various relationships. I met amazing people, strengthened some pretty important friendships, and then things took a super delightful turn right at the end.
When I look at where I was in January, versus where I am now, the gulf seems staggering.
And it was staggering, going through it. Earlier in the year, I wrote about feeling like the Doctor going through a regeneration: lots of flash and fire and stumbling about the TARDIS. Or it felt like a caterpillar going into its cocoon. Did you know that caterpillars liquefy when they do that? Everything breaks down into messy goo and then it reconstitutes itself into a butterfly.
There was a lot of messy goo in 2018. Sitting at this end of December, I feel like the Doctor flailing about figuring out how their new body works (and whether they like pears)…or like the butterfly waiting for its wings to dry out.
Let’s be honest: a lot of people probably feel this way. On a broad scale, 2018 was packed with Sturm und Drang. Many of us feel shaken and battered.
But we’re still here. Still caring for each other. Still learning/remembering to care for ourselves. And I don’t know, people seem cautiously optimistic for 2019? Like we’ve been through the fire this year and found ourselves far stronger than we imagined. What will we do, knowing that?
I don’t know. I’m looking forward to finding out.
Goodbye, 2018. You closed some big chapters—let’s turn to a new page.
What I’m Listening To This Week
Lots of madrigals this week! Particularly this Thomas Morley gem. First of all, it’s an over-the-top flirtatious dialogue, which brings me considerable joy—and of course, it’s performed with absolutely straight faces. The lower voices’ harmonies are especially chilling; I’m so here for the tenors’ intervals on the word “tormenting.”
Welcome to another round-up post! This is where I hold myself accountable and cast an eye over what I did this year.
As per usual, I feel like it wasn’t enough. But then, it always feels that way. At this point, I’m sure it will never feel like “enough.” “Enough” is an asymptote—we may get close, but we never really reach it. I think we need to hold onto conflicting truths (It’s never enough/We can do it!) simultaneously, or we spiral into despair.
But enough philosophizing. What did I do this year?
What I Did in 2018
Six Stories, Told at Night won the Parsec Award
Finished writing/editing the Beer Magic novel
Took the first steps in finding it a home
Wrote 9.5 new short stories
Submitted short stories, though not as many as I’d like
“On Thin Ice” came out on Tales from the Archives
“Ti-Jean’s Last Adventure, as Told to Raccoon” sold to Lightspeed (it’s out in February)
“Song of the Oliphant” sold to/came out with Lackington’s (read it here)
Reprint rights to “La Corriveau” sold to Augur (it’ll be on their blog in the new year)
“Her Hands Like Ice” will be included in Bracken’s print anthology (details when I have them)
Finished writing DinoKnights for Choice of Games
Released DinoKnights with Choice of Games (play it here!)
Attended ReaderCon and Can-Con
A Canticle of Light was produced by Missed Metaphor Productions
Adapted/produced a stage version of Six Stories, Told at Night for the Toronto Fringe Festival
Six Stories, Told at Night got shortlisted for Best of Fringe
Produced Six Stories (again!) for an independent showcase
Started plotting out Coxwood History Fun Park—Season Two
Officially tendered my resignation after eight (!) years at the museum (I’ll have many thoughts about that later)
Landed a new dayjob
But that doesn’t capture the most important work I did this year.
I went back to therapy to actually get a handle on my social anxiety. I spent a lot of time discovering what actually makes me happy, rather than the things I “should” be pursuing. I took a good hard look at how I relate to people.
And I’m…getting somewhere. Slowly, but surely. I feel like this is work that has to happen now, so I have a foundation for the future.
Anyway. That was my 2018!
What I’m Listening To This Week
Honestly, I keep bouncing back and forth between Handel’s Messiah and Benjamin Britten’s A Ceremony of Carols. We’ve had “This Little Babe” on the blog before, but it’s my favourite part of Ceremony. I love how the relentless, martial phrases mimics the imagery in the text…plus, it’s ridiculously fun to sing!
Another year, another slew of amazing books! A ton of incredible fiction came out this year—and I read some older chestnuts as well. It was difficult to narrow the field to five particular favourites, but I have done it! (And of course, this doesn’t discount any of the other books I read).
In roughly the order I read them, here is…
What I Read and Loved in 2018
(For the sake of transparency, * denotes an author with whom I’m also friends!)
Leaving behind her fashionable West Coast life, Maggie Black comes to the Southwestern desert to pursue her passion and her dream. Her mentor, the acclaimed poet Davis Cooper, has mysteriously died in the canyons east of Tucson, bequeathing her his estate and the mystery of his life–and death.
Maggie is astonished by the power of this harsh but beautiful land and captivated by the uncommon people who call it home–especially Fox, a man unlike any she has ever known, who understands the desert’s special power.
So…I adore Terri Windling: her fiction, her art, and her blog. I knew I’d love this novel, too.
And I did. It is everything I love: myth lurking in the shadows, art, and stunning landscapes. This contemporary-yet-ageless-myth style of fantasy reminds me a lot of Charles de Lint (no surprise, they’ve worked together) and I am entirely here for it.
Firefly meets The Fast and the Furious in this science fiction adventure series that follows a crew of outcasts as they try to find a legendary ship that just might be the key to saving the universe.
A washed-up treasure hunter, a hotshot racer, and a deadly secret society.
They’re all on a race against time to hunt down the greatest warship ever built. Some think the ship is lost forever, some think it’s been destroyed, and some think it’s only a legend, but one thing’s for certain: whoever finds it will hold the fate of the universe in their hands. And treasure that valuable can never stay hidden for long….
Queer lady space pirates treasure-hunting and racing. There is a lot going on in this book, and it’s all great. I particularly love Alex’s work with characterization and it’s wonderful to watch them coming into their own. This is a strong book with a strong voice, and it’s getting well-deserved accolades!
PLUS, the sequel drops tomorrow!! Check out A BAD DEAL FOR THE WHOLE GALAXY!
While most of the world has drowned beneath the sudden rising waters of a climate apocalypse, Dinétah (formerly the Navajo reservation) has been reborn. The gods and heroes of legend walk the land, but so do monsters.
Maggie Hoskie is a Dinétah monster hunter, a supernaturally gifted killer. When a small town needs help finding a missing girl, Maggie is their last best hope. But what Maggie uncovers about the monster is much more terrifying than anything she could imagine.
Maggie reluctantly enlists the aid of Kai Arviso, an unconventional medicine man, and together they travel the rez, unraveling clues from ancient legends, trading favors with tricksters, and battling dark witchcraft in a patchwork world of deteriorating technology.
As Maggie discovers the truth behind the killings, she will have to confront her past if she wants to survive.
Welcome to the Sixth World.
Wow. Just…wow. I absolutely loved Roanhorse’s story “Welcome to Your Authentic Indian Experience (TM)” in Apex last year, so I was stoked to read her debut novel. And goodness, it was worth the long library queue. Gripping plot, steely characters with achingly nuanced relationships, and rich worldbuilding—this is a gritty, bloody world. So good.
THE ULTIMATE HEIST
Belisarius is a Homo quantus, engineered with impossible insight. But his gift is also a curse—an uncontrollable, even suicidal drive to know, to understand. Genetically flawed, he leaves his people to find a different life, and ends up becoming the galaxy’s greatest con man and thief.
But the jobs are getting too easy and his extraordinary brain is chafing at the neglect. When a client offers him untold wealth to move a squadron of secret warships across an enemy wormhole, Belisarius jumps at it. Now he must embrace his true nature to pull off the job, alongside a crew of extraordinary men and women.
If he succeeds, he could trigger an interstellar war… or the next step in human evolution.
Some stories have their authors’ personality and passion embedded into their DNA to such an extent, it’s like seeing them in book form. That’s how I felt about THE QUANTUM MAGICIAN. It’s just so…Derek.
Which is a good thing: Derek is a shining light in SFF in general and Canadian SFF in particular. This book doesn’t shy away from hard science and tough questions—but it’s also hilarious. Like, genuinely, incredibly hilarious…even as some of this world’s darker implications made me run cold.
An ancient society of witches and a hipster technological startup go to war in order to prevent the world from tearing itself apart. To further complicate things, each of the groups’ most promising followers (Patricia, a brilliant witch and Laurence, an engineering “wunderkind”) may just be in love with each other.
As the battle between magic and science wages in San Francisco against the backdrop of international chaos, Laurence and Patricia are forced to choose sides. But their choices will determine the fate of the planet and all mankind.
In a fashion unique to Charlie Jane Anders, All the Birds in the Sky offers a humorous and, at times, heart-breaking exploration of growing up extraordinary in world filled with cruelty, scientific ingenuity, and magic.
Okay, so I’m a little late to the party with this one. But I’m so glad that I’m here now. This is a delightfully charming book with a confident, playful voice. I love the interplay between magic and science, talking birds and talking AIs. This feels very much like Diane Duane’s “Young Wizards” series grew up, donned hipster glasses, and catapulted into the Millennial experience.
The Only Harmless Great Thing is a heart-wrenching alternative history by Brooke Bolander that imagines an intersection between the Radium Girls and noble, sentient elephants.
In the early years of the 20th century, a group of female factory workers in Newark, New Jersey slowly died of radiation poisoning. Around the same time, an Indian elephant was deliberately put to death by electricity in Coney Island.
These are the facts.
Now these two tragedies are intertwined in a dark alternate history of rage, radioactivity, and injustice crying out to be righted. Prepare yourself for a wrenching journey that crosses eras, chronicling histories of cruelty both grand and petty in search of meaning and justice.
The bonus round is usually for short stories, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention this novelette (that’s right—novelette, NOT novella). The writing is beautiful, the voice unwavering and lyrical. In relatively few pages, Bolander sketches deep characters and a deeper mythos. Haunting, gorgeous, and quivering with anger, this story will be rattling around my head for a while.
What did you read and love in 2018? Drop off your recommendations below!
What I’m Listening to this Week
I love writing to Arvo Pärt’s music. The mystic, minimalist feel is perfect for drafting – and since I’ve been working on a few new short stories, he’s getting consistent play lately!
I’m writing this on the first Sunday of Advent. Among other things, Advent is a season of waiting and preparation—and a fresh page, as the start of a new liturgical year. For me, it’s also an introspective pause before the dayjob season ends and the regular New Year begins.
But I think most people turn introspective, this time of year. That’s what all the year-end wrap-up posts and summaries are about, right? They’re a chance to tie up loose ends and look back over our shoulders before turning the next corner.
What did you accomplish this year? What goals do you have for next year?
Where are you, right now? Are you happy, here? What will you change, as we move forward again?
So our thoughts run, as the days get cold and the nights grow long. In this weather, there’s more space to spend time with yourself.
Over the next few weeks, we’ll get to the lists of “What I Read in 2018” and “What I Did in 2018.” But for today—I’ve realized something, in my introspecting.
Years ago, I wrote a poem entitled, “What I Want.” You can read it here, but this is the pertinent stanza:
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.
And you know what?
I think I’ve found precisely that, but it wasn’t in the place I expected. It’s like the thing where you see someone out of context and don’t recognize them. So much our perception is built on preconception, the essentials get clouded.
Sometimes, I think, our goals are closer than we believe. It’s just that we want so badly for things to look a certain way—we don’t always realize when we’ve attained them. Maybe this is why the idea of “success” is so slippery. We clutch at specific images—book deals, signings, awards, fans. But sometimes, those are stand-ins: symbols for something deeper.
What do you want, really? Have you already found it?
Something to consider, as the year passes ever more quickly away!
What I’m Listening To This Week
More Ešenvalds! Yes, “Long Road” is the same ethereal, dreamy choral music we’ve been hearing a lot lately. But it’s all too pertinent right now. I might be crying.
I’ve been rereading Ursula K. Le Guin’s excellent essay collection, The Language of the Night, most particularly “From Elfland to Poughkeepsie,” which examines the importance of language and style in writing fantasy. Le Guin’s main thesis is that fantasy isn’t defined so much by wizards and dragons. What makes it fantasy is the style: “The style, of course, is the book…If you remove the style, all you have left is a synopsis of the plot.” (Le Guin, The Language of the Night, p. 94).
She hastens to add, “I speak from the reader’s point of view. From the writer’s point of view, the style is the writer…Style is how you as a writer see and speak” (ibid).
Which is certainly true. Style can be learned, imitated, affected—but we all have a style that is uniquely us, as personal as our fingerprints or speaking voice.
But I was thinking—I have a story coming out in Lackington’s at the end of this month that’s a very different style than my other fiction. It’s contemporary and snappish (the editor called it “almost hardboiled,” which delighted me to no end). And yet—it’s still me.
As usual, I turn to music to help me understand my own writing process.
First, some technical things: vocal registers.
Vocal pedagogy is its own delight, but for our purposes, let’s talk about chest voice, head voice, and the break. Super simply (I apologize), chest voice is the low part of the vocal range, head voice is the upper part, and the break is that frustrating bit in the middle.
There’s a difference singing across registers. Physically, of course, but also in terms of intention.
And yet, it’s still the same voice—used differently, resonating in different places, useful for different types of music (I would die trying to sing descants in my chest voice).
For me, this is a useful way to think about writing. Some stories sit in my chest voice. Some sit in my head voice. Same voice, same style, just applied differently.
(As a sidebar that really deserves its own blog post, I think that the same logic applies to fairy tales. Tolkien famously described a “fairy-story” as “…one which touches on or uses Faërie, whatever its own main purpose may be…” (Tolkien, Tree and Leaf, p. 16). Much like how fantasy isn’t defined by wizards and dragons, fairy tales aren’t defined by wee sprites. I think defining “fairy tale” comes down to register, rather than plot motifs or tropes—a “Faerie voice,” if you will. But I digress.)
But wait, there’s more!
Even within the same register, vowels change the sound dramatically! Consciously adapting vowels is an important skill for choristers; just like adapting vocabulary, syntax, and vernacular is important for writers.
Good singers can sing across all genres of music. Sure, it may sound different, but it’s always them, always their style. Good writers do the same—and that’s what I’m aiming for.
What I’m Listening To This Week
Christmas has started at the dayjob, so bring on the Christmas/Advent music! It’s going to be a fun six weeks. Here’s a macaronic piece already getting considerable play on my rotation: