Editing the HEARTSTEALER audiobook continues apace. As with every new type of project, I’m learning lots: some things about particular voices, some things about my own idiosyncrasies in writing (they’re a lot more obvious when read aloud…).
Blythe’s narrating, of course. It’s been fascinating for me, because the two characters that blow me away are the two I never would’ve pegged her for. Naturally, she’s doing stellar work with the entire novel – but these two broken, fragile, hard-edged women are standout performances.
Naturally, that got me thinking, and I realised something:
I write best when I get out of the way.
I’ve had this nagging insecurity for a while. When I write characters for Blythe to voice, they’re…well, they’re good. They’re funny, sad, scary, whatever. But we’re not getting to that same depth I’m seeing in HEARTSTEALER.
And I finally realise:
When I write like that, I’m not giving her space.
I sing the praises of collaboration all the time. How different artists bring different aspects to the piece. How no one has to carry the entire piece alone, because the others are there, giving their support. How they are some things an actor or composer can do that a writer can’t, and so the words don’t have to try to do everything.
I’m not doing that.
It’s almost like I write to a certain level. There’s a ceiling. This is what I’m giving you; this is what you can do with it. It’s very difficult to rise past that level, because there simply isn’t enough there. Perhaps for the reader; not for the actor. It’s like how in prose, you have to leave room for the reader to bring something: otherwise, you smother them and there’s no engagement. You can’t resolve the chord for them.
So what makes Evelyn and Charlotte different?
I never wrote them to be performed aloud. I never wrote HEARTSTEALER with the intention of releasing it as an indie audiobook. And they are not the well-loved character types I’ve seen Blythe play a hundred times before.
You know that saying, “Dance like no one is watching”? That’s how I feel about them. I wrote like no one would be acting. I wrote them because I wrote them. They are what they are because they are, not because I think it’ll be challenging, or funny, or show off a particular strength.
They don’t have ceilings. There’s room to breathe.
A quick survey of my stable of short stories shows the same. The best stories are the ones I just wrote. Not the ones I wrote to further some grander design, or to vent, or because someone asked me to. I wrote as though no one were listening – I wrote for the story.
It’s hard. I’m looking at Six Stories, Told at Night (Secret Canadian Folklore Podcast: we got OAC funding!), and the play I’m noodling, and I wonder. After this long, how do you not write for a specific voice? Once you’ve seen the basilisk, how do you un-see it?
A line from Eliot comes to mind: “Teach us to care and not to care.” It’s a balancing act: giving the actor enough to chew on, not enough to choke them. Which means trusting more, I suppose. Trusting their art, trusting what they bring.
It also means letting go, a little. Focusing not on the other voice, but your own writer’s voice. Paradoxically, I think that’s how the actor finds theirs: when you half-forget they’re there. You may write assuming one actor or another will play the character, but it mustn’t affect the writing itself.
“Teach us to care and not to care…”
I’ve learned to care. Now, teach me not to care. Teach me to sit still.
What I’m Listening To This Week
I know this clip is 20 minutes long. I’m only listening to the first minute and a half. I looked, but the only recording I found of Eleanor Daley’s “Requiem Aeternam” is bundled into the entire requiem.
This piece haunts me. The choir sounds like passing bells: a hypnotizing chant, over and over. But it’s the words that get me: a setting of Carolyn Smart’s “The Sound of the Birds.” It captures grief and loss so very well, it’s like glass to the heart.
“Each night, I listened for your call.
And I but witness to the end.”
I’ve been sequestered for the past week with ~15 other writers, in a cabin perched in high in the mountains. And it has been amazing. I could talk about the monastery-like atmosphere, everyone moving silently through the cabin, everyone writing alone and together. I could talk about the comradery, the kinship and connection I feel with these very special people. I could talk about the insanely diverse group of talent and the countless conversations we had about art, craft, life, and how you would hide the body.
I could talk about all of that, and I will, but I need to process it a little more. So, last time, I mentioned that I abandoned a story because it wasn’t really my story. It didn’t feel like a story that I would write.
While on the retreat, I wrote several stories with which I’m quite pleased, because they do feel like my stories. There’s a certain short-story voice that I’m starting to associate with getting closer to writing my stories. In my own head, I call it the “cut-glass voice.” Again, I think I hit this voice in my story “P.G. Holyfield’s Travelling Magnificent Spectacular.”
There’s something else, though. And it involves me putting “What I’m Listening to This Week” right here.
I’ve been listening to Rupert Lang’s “Kontakion.” Not to get all maudlin, but I want this music played at my funeral. This piece touches something very deep in me. Take a listen.
You may or may not have listened all the way through. For me, this piece is smiling through the tears, shining through the darkness. There is a line at 3:25 in particular that makes me say, “Yes. Yes, this.”
All of us go down to the dust,
Yet even at the grave, we make our song:
Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.
And here—my God, my God, those rolling, magnificent, soaring alleluias. It gives a sense of something…well, something more, something hopeful and wonderful and awesome, something that takes a lot of courage to get to, because you have to get to it through darkness. That is precisely why it’s so powerful. Slightly more modern, but no less valid, is another line from Doctor Who: “Pain is easy to portray. But to use your passion and pain to portray the ecstasy and joy and magnificence of our world…”
This is what I want my stories to do. I want them to go out singing.
Authors spend a lot of time peering carefully at things in their head. It’s fun, but it’s also difficult…so when you get to see things outside of your head, it is very exciting.
All of which to say—when I saw Heartstealer’s cover for the first time, I gave a piercing squeal of delight. Then I swooned.
Starla Hutchton doesn’t just write about superheroes. She is one. She’s captured the feel and atmosphere of the novel. She’s got a woman on the cover who looks just like Sara. Look, there’s my heroine!
And she even managed to work in my beloved cloak. No, it’s not actually my cloak on the cover, but in my heart of hearts, it is totally my cloak.
So…ready to see Heartstealer?
Are you sure?
Here it is:
Back cover copy reads:
Autumn came early that year…
Sara Wolfe was told three things:
Her husband and sister-in-law died in a backwater village. Wraiths are only stories. Her nephew needs her.
She believes none of it.
Following her husband’s supposed death, Sara travels to Grey Run in search of answers, quickly becoming embroiled in the village’s old hurts and older magic –
Grey Run sits on the crossroads between the human realm and the Gloaming: a shadowy world of ghosts and little gods. With the curtain between the worlds thinning, Sara must unravel the truth behind her husband’s disappearance—
Because the wraiths are not the only ones lurking in the night.
Heartstealer is slated for a March release. When more information (and pre-order links) are available, I will let you know. In the meantime—please share, far and wide.
What I’m Listening to This Week
If I’m revealing the Heartstealer cover, I can’t really listen to anything other than Marie’s Wedding/Mairi’s Wedding/Mari’s Wedding/Mary’s Wedding/Mhairi Bhan/The Lewis Bridal Song.
Yeah, this song has a lot of names.
Sara may be the protagonist, but her pal Mairi has a very special place in my heart. Backstory: one day in New Zealand, as I was homesick and forlornly looking up harmonica tabs, I came across a song called “Mairi’s Wedding.”
“Hey!” I said, “I wonder if it is related to the play of the same name!”
It isn’t. Not at all. As near as I can tell, the identical titles are a complete and utter coincidence. But when I heard it for the first time, Mairi’s character burst into my head—fully formed, complete, her eyes already sparkling with mischief.
I love when that happens.
At 2:43, when the chorus returns after a mini-violin solo, I pretty much see the entire novel flash before my eyes. Also, I dance.
I’m back from my Stonecoast residency: ten days packed full to bursting with workshops, presentations, seminars, readings, and the occasional shenanigan or two. (I saw Val Griswold-Ford! It was awesome!)
So, we’re a year into this MFA. Those of you with good memories may remember that I spent my first semester at Stonecoast thrashing Heartstealer into shape with my mentor, Theodora Goss. Since Heartstealer is coming out in March and all, I figured it’d be a good idea to tell her in person, rather than letting her find out through the internet.
I was a wee bit nervous. Writing books is one thing. I’m absolutely fine to share them and get feedback. But talking about them still feels strange and frightening to me. After some thought, I decided to break the ice by showing her the beautiful cover designed by Starla Hutchton.
“That’s it,” Dora said. “That’s the cover! That’s what it looks like!”
Starla’s work tends to have that effect on people. That’s what I said when I saw the finished product, too.
Then I explained that Heartstealer will be out in March (I say now, fingers and toes crossed). And she was very excited, which left me feeling warm and glowy. The conversation moved into some of my dayjobbery, and she said, “I don’t know how you do all you do—it’s very impressive.”
The consummate cool cucumber, I froze, taken aback. All that I do—what exactly do I do? Impressive? Huh? Stonecoast’s faculty teach at multiple programmes and institutions, they have families, they’re all working writers with countless projects at any given time. Then I listed everything out to myself and had a terrifying moment of vertigo.
Here is something that I learned this past semester, though. During one of my Skype chats with my mentor Nancy Holder, she asked if there was anything else I wanted to discuss. I hesitated, and then in a rush, blurted, “It’s not related to Stonecoast, but about my dayjob…”
She listened, and gave me advice, and then said, “You know, you shouldn’t divide things up in your head like this—Stonecoast and Not Stonecoast. All of these things are part of who you are as an artist.”
She’s right, of course. In some ways, it’s obvious, as when my beloved buildings and creek bleed into my novels and short stories. But it goes the other way, too. I’m lucky enough to do some creative work for the dayjob. Of course, of course everything I’m learning from Stonecoast and from my own muddling shows up there as well.
That being said, there is still a stubborn part of me that clings to some writing as “mine.” Looking closer, though, that doesn’t hold. Heartstealer was mine, and then it was for Stonecoast, and now it’s mine again. My short stories were once for Stonecoast, and I’ve got an eye on them for my thesis, but now they’re mine. My colleague Katherine is experiencing something similar with her podcast. There seems to be a constant dialogue between my MFA programme and me. I think that’s the way it should be. I’ve always liked collaboration, intermedia writing, and cross-genre work—so why should this be any different?
Maybe this holistic approach to the creative life is why it doesn’t feel like as much stuff as it is. Sure, I distinguish between projects (three big ones right now, two potentials on the horizon), but the lines between the spheres of my life apparently got blurred without my noticing terribly much.
That doesn’t sound unappealing, though. For me, the best thing about writing across genres and disciplines is that you can foster connections and inspirations you wouldn’t normally get.
The vertigo is better now.
What I’m Listening To This Week
Apropos of historical things, I’ve been listening to The Ashokan Farewell by Jay Ungar. This piece was written in the 1980s, but most people think it’s from the nineteenth century because it was the theme of Ken Burns’ Civil War documentary. It’s a heartrending, exquisitely beautiful piece, with the violin entering into dialogue with the other strings.
It makes me want to write.
It looks like you’re playing Donkey Kong Country 2 for the umpteenth time while listening to opera on low, but you’re actually plotting a novel.
Lying flat on one’s back in the middle of the floor and engaging in long, rambling monologues about magic and theology is not crazy. Just working.
Engaging in long, rambling monologues about non-existent people’s personal problems while in the shower? You guessed it—also work!
When a character informs you that you’ve been spelling her name wrong, you thank her for the correction.
Reading books on the Revelations of Saint John the Divine and string theory for the same project.
The reason your beta reader has yet to respond is because they secretly hated your book. Actually, they probably secretly hate you as well, even though you’ve been friends for years. During periods of anxiety, this makes perfect sense. However, this IS crazy.
Coffee and tea are proof that God exists and wants us to be happy.
Characters have their own opinions on your iPod playlists. Your writing soundtracks, too.
Standing up in the middle of a crowded bar at a convention and declaring, “I need to be alone now.”
When an email from an agent/editor/publisher comes, and all you see is “DEAR AUTHORwordswordswordswordsNOT A FIT FOR US AT THIS TIMEwordswordswordswords.”
Alternatively, “DEAR AUTHORwordswordswordswords PLEASED TO ACCEPT YOUR SUBMISSIONwordswordswordswordswords.”
Meeting someone with the same accent as one of your characters, and listening hyper-intently to everything they say in an attempt to fix their speech patterns in your brain.
The irresistible lure of the conversation at the next table over.
The absolute squee that is fan art:
Having detailed plans to survive the zombie apocalypse. And escape from pirates. And to run away and flee across the country, evading the authorities and news media.
Arguing the semantics of politics/history/theology that you created.
The thrill of finding an image that IS your character/setting/whatever.
Blocked words = existential dread.
The simultaneous need for solitude and heartbreaking yearning for closeness.
“Sorry, mate, can’t make it tonight—I need to write.”
Converting between the Gregorian calendar and your characters’ calendar.
Getting notes: all of the terror and all of the excitement.
Workshopping: see above, except with more anxiety-induced nausea.
The mingled joy and jealousy when you read a book you wish you’d written.
Crying when terrible things happen to characters you like.
Being incredibly pleased when terrible things happen to characters you like.
Listening to the same song over and over, because it makes you feel something that’s the kernel of a story, if you could just put your finger on what that something is….
Spending an awful lot of time worrying about sound laws and vowel shifts.
As crushing as your first rejection was, you’re still proud of it.
Looking like you’re half-asleep on the bus, but really just talking to characters in your head.
Pens are just always there. Like oxygen. Except when they’re not, you panic. Also like oxygen.
Show, don’t tell, except when telling is really just the logical thing to do.
There’s no right way, only the way that’s right for you.
Googling questionable things in the name of research. Goat decapitations, anyone?
Using Google Street View to plot routes in cities you’ll never visit.
Counting people among your good friends when you’ve met them once in real life. Or not at all.
That instant, unmistakeable connection to other writers.
WHAT DOES NOT MAKE SENSE TO (MOST) AUTHORS: