I had an epiphany this week: no one cares that I have an MFA.
Another epiphany immediately followed: no one should care.
It all sounds much more dramatic than it was, really. Sometimes after shows, visitors ask us, “So…did you, like, go to school for this or something?”
“I went to theatre school!” inevitably draws admiring murmurs and follow-up questions. “I have my Masters in Creative Writing!” not so much.
It’s a silly thing. I hate the small, venomous part of me that bristles at it. But you know what? We all have our vanities and our arrogances, and I want to be honest. It is such a silly thing, but sometimes it really sucks.
What helps is remembering why I got an MFA. I didn’t get it for glory. I got it so that I could become a better writer. No other reason. Degrees and workshops and grants are all very nice—but having them isn’t what matters. What matters is what you do with them.
Forging new opportunities.
And writing isn’t full of much glamour anyway. We tend to be paid last and least. We’re generally the silent partner, drafting proposals in the basement. Like good sound editing, good writing is often invisible, which doesn’t help if you’re after recognition.
GOBLIN 1: The Snow Queen doesn’t make any sense without goblins. We’ve got the most important part: there’s no story without us.
GOBLIN 2: But after this, we’re never seen again. No glory, no thanks, no nothing!
GOBLIN 1: It could be worse. (Pause) We could be playwrights.
The Snow Queen: a Pantomime, by Me (2016).
So if not for fame and fortune, why write?
Because we must; because we’re artists. But I’m not going to say, “Forget external validation.” That’s not realistic; most humans like praise. When you’ve worked really hard on something—put your heart and soul into it—pulled off the impossible on sheer grit and nerve—of course you want a clap on the back. There’s nothing wrong with that.
But to counterbalance that craving, we need an even stronger core of self-assurance and self-knowledge. Because the praise won’t always come. The kudos won’t. The appreciative murmurs won’t. And when that happens, an inner, steely kernel will keep you going. That’s your compass: external validation is a nice boost, but you don’t want to steer by it.
At the end of the day…yeah, I have a hungry ego. And I’ve worked to temper it, because it doesn’t have any place in the creative process. What good is praise and validation if you don’t value what you do? “Believe in yourself” sounds so cliché, but if you don’t, who will?
I think it’s one of the hardest things we face, as artists. Putting the mitts back on, wiping our faces, and striding out into the silent ring. But if you can know—if you can know, deep down—that what you’re doing is good and worthwhile—
Then the fight is already won.
What I’m Listening to This Week
I found “Dacw ‘Nghariad” by accident and immediately became obsessed. It’s one of those pieces that make stories flash before your eyes. Pretty sure this is a lullaby for my new novel’s protagonist… Of course, she’s not Welsh, but we’ll forget about that for now.
This week, I kicked a few more pieces of the new novel into place, which felt good. It’s at a peculiar stage: I know the general plot arc, but I’m not ready to start writing. Partly, I need to know the characters better. But also, there’s more substance and under-the-surface thinking I need to figure out.
It felt too superficial. A colourful facade with nothing beneath. And so, I’ve been continuing my research: not only delving into Toronto history, but also theories of the Gothic and the sublime.
Including this roundtable on Southern Ontario Gothic!
Coles’ notes: Southern Ontario Gothic blends realism with terror, generally through explorations of family dysfunction, decay, decrepitude, and repressed trauma. In Southern Ontario. The conversation is well worth watching in full, especially for its characterization of Canada as a haunted country, which suggests a way to reconcile some artistic problems I’ve been having.
I was particularly struck by Jane Urquhart. First of all, because she reminds me of Elizabeth Hand—slightly in mannerism; greatly in her razor intelligence.
But also, because of this:
I think that, as an author, I write about what intrigues me, and then it’s later that somebody else decides that whether or not I’m part of some kind of movement.
The genre was handed to the writer. The writer did not think to him or herself—“I know, I’m going to write something in the Southern Ontario Gothic genre.” I don’t think writers think like that. They don’t invent genres.
It was interesting. It’s not even that I necessarily disagree with her—I just want to explore these ideas further.
I think there is often a bumblebee-doesn’t-know-it-can’t-fly phenomenon going on with the development of new literature. Look at steampunk: K.W. Jeter only coined the term after he, Tim Powers, and James Blaylock had produced early examples of it. And once you have a name for something, once you have tropes—that’s when the family resemblances start appearing in subsequent works, whether the author intended them or not.
So what about when the genre is already established? I mean, the Creepy Play was initially code-named “Southern Ontario Gothic.” I wrote the script knowing exactly which genre it was.
But then—as Urquhart said, the genre was handed to the writer. I didn’t fit the story to the genre; I fit the genre to the story. (“Oh, wow, this is a dysfunctional family shot through with degeneration and repression—in Southern Ontario—I think I know what shelf this goes on!” rather than, “I want to write SOG, so I’d better build a family on the brink of collapse…”)
Going further with the bumblebee theory, I know some writers who refuse to read anything in their genre, for fear of contamination. For me, though—I fall back on my Stonecoast training. If you’re writing a Gothic novel, you read other Gothic novels. You read the early ones; you read the most recent; you read the literary criticism surrounding them. It’s important to understand where the genre came from, how it developed, and what people are saying now. Because it’s a dialogue—and you’re part of it. How can you contribute if you don’t know what’s been said before?
As for writing what intrigues me—I’m intrigued by the haunted, the degenerate, the many shades of family dysfunction. I’m intrigued by the liminal space between realism and the fantastic: the place where the worlds cross. I’m intrigued by the mountain of CanLit I’ve consumed this year: but I want to add magic.
So no—I don’t think (most) writers set out to create genres. But I think it is useful to have some idea of what you’re working with; what you intend to do. It’s like painting: tempera, oils, and watercolours all behave differently, and they all create different effects.
Perhaps we don’t name the movement. But surely, we imagine its form and colours…
What I’m Listening to This Week
I cycled back to a lovely Scottish-Gaelic piece. There’s still something about this music that makes me want to write all the things…
I have a friend from Stonecoast visiting this week, which means there has been lots of gallivanting and little else. So not much musing today, just updates.
I’m a Sunburst nominee?
So last Monday, I posted about this strange, transitional sense I’ve been having. And the minor crises of self-esteem. Then I opened Twitter…
…and found the awesome and talented Kelly Robson congratulating me.
Having “La Corriveau” on the longlist was a huge honour; I honestly never expected it to go any further than that. This is likewise a huge honour—look at that list! Go back and look at the longlist! There is serious talent there!
It’s very humbling. And I’ve always been fond of “La Corriveau.” If nothing else, the historic Marie-Josephte Corriveau was a remarkable woman: I hope I’m doing her some justice.
The Sunburst winners will be announced sometime this fall.
Starting in September, I’ll be producing the Apex Magazine podcast!
This was unexpected, but delightful news! I’ve missed working with sounds—as everyone predicted when Six Stories wrapped up, I love podcasts too much to quit them entirely. Not only is Apex a wonderful team, it seems like the perfect balance: I’m just producing. That cuts down on time and workload, but still lets me keep a toe in the pool.
At the moment, I’m busy cultivating a stable of narrators. So yes, you’ll be hearing more from Blythe. I’m also excited to bring some new voices to your ears, too!
And that’s about it for the week. Things continue to tick along. We shall see where we end up.
What I’m Listening to This Week
Sometimes, the hardest thing about finishing a story is leaving the world. I was very fond of Heartstealer and Skarland. This piece brings me right back to the northern woods and autumn hearths…
So I’ve seen Moulin Rouge! three times over the last week. Partly it’s because the music got well and truly stuck in my head (as we’ll see in What I’m Listening to this Week), but also, I feel like a little kid with their favourite story.
“Tell it again!”
“Um…they still fall in love. It still doesn’t end well.”
And it got me thinking. In a funny way, I feel like I imprinted on this particular story very young. Not just Moulin Rouge! per se, though that was the first variant I encountered. Moulin Rouge! is itself mostly a riff on La Traviata with some strains of La Bohème. La Traviata, of course, is the operatic adaptation of a mid-Victorian play called La Dame aux Camélias. In turn, that play was adapted from Alexandre Dumas fils’ novel of the same name.
Lots of variations, all essentially the same story: a courtesan and an earnest young man; impossible love; self-sacrifice through deception; and of course, consumption.
Doomed love and unabashed romanticism—what can I say? It’s my catnip. La Traviata remains my favourite opera, and I’ve never survived Act Three dry-eyed.
And looking at my fiction, I can see echoes here and there. Not necessarily in courtesans and consumption, but in some of the themes, the feel…the motif of impossible love.
I think that some stories do leave their mark on us quite deeply. They find touchstones within us, and so resonate through our own works. Asking why is kind of like asking why we have recurring dreams. There is something deep in our subconscious that sings the same song back, and so it makes sense that these are the stories we return to again and again—even if we’re not entirely sure why.
Sometimes, they’re wholly unexpected. Honestly, I find myself returning to Neuromancer more than people might expect. I wouldn’t say it’s one of my favourite books—not like La Traviata is my favourite opera; not like East o’ the Sun and West o’ the Moon is my favourite fairy tale. But there’s a bit towards the end that’s never left me.
Beyond ego, beyond personality, beyond awareness, he moved, Kuang moving with him, evading his attackers with an ancient dance, Hideo’s dance, grace of the mind-body interface granted him, in that second, by the clarity and singleness of his wish to die.
And one step in that dance was the lightest touch on the switch, barely enough to flip—
and his voice the cry of a bird
3Jane answering in song, three
notes, high and pure.
A true name.
Neon forest, rain sizzling across hot pavement. The smell of frying food… But all of this receding, as the cityscape recedes…as the roads and crossroads scribed on the face of a microchip, the sweat-stained pattern on a folded, knotted scarf.
William Gibson, Neuromancer
Fantasy author can’t get over the climax of a seminal cyberpunk work? Say what?
It’s the moment of transcendence, you see. That’s what I keep trying to answer, in my own way. And that’s really it: some stories, you keep trying to write back to, subconsciously or not.
For me, this all gets back to the idea that we write what we don’t understand. We write what confounds us, perplexes us, what the mind cannot quite work through. I’m not sure that it always does, of course. Some stories echo in us forever.
And so we keep singing back to them.
What stories resonate in you?
PS. A reminder that Lauren Harris’s YA novel UNLEASH released last week! Do you like gritty urban fantasy and kickass heroines? You can get your copy here!
What I’m Listening to This Week
Really, all of Moulin Rouge! but let’s just say, “One Day I’ll Fly Away,” which is a song to which I never really paid attention before this week. SPOILERS, it shows up as a devastating motif later, but I like it here as a way to show another side of Satine’s personality. It’s really the only time in the film we see her in (assumed) privacy, not performing for other people.
I’m in the beginning throes of a new novel, which feels an awful lot like making your entrance in an unfamiliar choral piece. If you can get your starting pitch, things usually stay more-or-less on track. Landing sharp or flat? It’s difficult to stop the piece falling apart when you’re wrong-footed from the first note.
I usually forget how much flailing about I do at the beginning of a story. And then because I never remember the angst, the flailing feels disastrous, and I freak myself out.
And so, I thought it would be instructive to remind myself exactly how common false starts are for me:
It was a clear evening, one of the first of summer. A warm breeze wound through the City, caressing friends drinking outside taverns and lovers strolling through narrow streets. Plucking guitars floated over conversation and laughter, occasionally joined by soulful tenors. The golden stones that formed the City’s buildings still carried the heat of the noonday sun. Overtired children and the elderly clustered on them; the latter thanked the warmest spring in memory for driving away the chill winds that usually made one last appearance. And above, the stars, ever twinkling: familiar constellations smiling on the summer night. The Ox, the Hunter, the Vineyard, all the old friends that heralded the beginning of the new season.
(Then there’s an extended bit where two old men eat chicken and talk. Seriously.)Eventually:
The time, at last, had come.
A new star ignited over the City. Like a drop of blood glinting in the darkness, it blazed in the Serpent, brighter than any other star in the constellation. Under the starlight, the City crouched in the night, perched atop its plateau. Sheer cliffs fell away on every side; if not for lack of water, it could have been an island.
No breeze stirred the warm air. In narrow alleys, shadows stretched as quiet and endless as the gorges beyond the City.
Time passed. The stars danced on.
Sara had not felt so ill since her first glimpse of her husband’s headstone. That had been nearly six weeks ago, and plenty of stomach-turning moments had filled the emptiness between. Yet juddering along a country road in a carriage with shot springs ranked high among them. Sara clenched her hands in her lap, gritting her teeth each time the horses pounded over a half-buried stone or fallen branch. To her amazement, the coach’s other two passengers slept. An older woman leaned against the side of the coach, while a towheaded boy nestled into her.
I had not felt so ill since the funeral. The stagecoach rattled over the road and my teeth rattled in my skull. I kept watching the road ahead, even though dust streaked the windows. We jolted again. A large rock or another half-buried stump. There hadn’t been macadamized roads since several towns back, and since we’d left the train station at Ossington, the road had only gotten rougher. Too slow—I just wanted to get this journey over with.
Sophie clutches her knife tight, watching the unicorn across the pit.
(That is, apparently, as far as I got. It was bad.)
The hunt begins as it always does: with quarry, bait, and hunter.
This is the first story.
Once, there were two girls who lived in a little village far in the north of Québec. Let’s say the younger girl was seven, and the older one was ten. When you told me this story, you didn’t say what the girls looked like, but I always imagined that they looked like us.
The older girl had flashing dark eyes and knees covered in bruises. Her mouth quirked at the corners. The younger girl, her friend…well, she was paler. Frailer. Just a wisp, her grand-mère always said, just a bit of thistledown that would blow away in the wind.
This is the first story.
I’ve got this friend Joëlle, right? She moved in when I was seven. She was ten—a big kid. Only she wasn’t much bigger than me. Bruised knees and these huge, haunted eyes. Mom made sure she got an extra slice of pizza at our first sleepover, that’s how skinny she was when she arrived.
When my sister rose for the third time, we called the vampire-hunter.
He came in the stillness between afternoon and dusk: that suspended, grey time that happens only in winter. From the forest he came, shouldering a leather pack, and he went straight to the inn. There, by the smouldering hearth, he spread a cloth over the scarred taproom table and opened a glossy walnut box with hinged lid. In the firelight, the wood gleamed, and his onlookers—the entire village, it felt like—pressed closer.
The hands of the vampire-hunter move like spiders, and I hate them. They creep over our kitchen table, avoiding the plates of sausage and country bread my mother has laid out. They scuttle along the sides of a polished walnut case. Quick fingers, sly fingers—they lift belts and let brass buckles fall with a clink, clink, clink. They ease the lid up. Inside, his tools rest on velvet the colour of old blood. My mother chokes on a gasp; my father will not look.
You get the point. Sometimes, vestiges of an early attempt survive, but really, it takes me a while to figure out the tune.
Worth remembering, as I flail about with this novel…
My friend Lauren Harris recently revealed the cover of her upcoming YA urban fantasy UNLEASH.
What I’m Listening to This Week
Even after all these years, I have a soft spot for the French horn. Here, I love the dialogue between the horn (basses supporting) and the rest of the orchestra, especially the building tension around the 1:30 mark. Also, those devastating accidentals around 2:20.
And it’s Mozart. Of course it’s exquisitely well put-together.
Welcome back! Last week, we looked at some great fiction from a talented bunch of authors. This week, our year-in-review continues with Things I Did In 2016.
Every year on New Year’s Day, I sit down with a piece of 8.5 x 11 paper and a Sharpie, and I write down my creative goals for the year. I ask myself, “When we get to December 31st, what do I want to have accomplished?”
Here was my list for 2016:
Let’s go through these one by one.
Write first draft of Sing to the Bones
I did that in February. It was insane. In hindsight, I have mixed feelings about writing a novel that quickly, but I’m also not sure that I could do it any other way.
This was a novel that I had to let sit for a while (I also had to go to Ireland to really get it right in my head). I spent October editing it to a second draft, and sent it to readers again. I’m waiting on a few last notes to come back, and I intend to start agent-hunting in the New Year.Finish scripts for Pod-Con
Man, we didn’t even touch this. For those newcomers, this is a podcasted musical that Lauren Harris and I wanted to write. However, I’m moving away from audio fiction, so I’m not sure this is still in the cards. Honestly, I’d mentally removed it from the list.
Produce Folklore somehow
Folklore was an early code-name for Six Stories, Told at Night. Making this list in January, I knew grant decisions wouldn’t go out until March. I figured if I didn’t get the money, I’d throw it up on Audible or something. But as it happened, the Ontario Arts Council did give us the grant, and so this one-woman audio drama rolled out exactly as hoped…although the response was even warmer than I’d dared dream!Write a play: Southern Ontario Gothic
That was November! It was slightly less insane than writing Sing to the Bones. This will get edited around the New Year, and hopefully I can haul some actors in to read it in late January/early February.
Write and submit short stories to pro markets
Really, I wanted to put, “Sell a short story to a pro market,” but I can’t control whether my stories get bought, so I didn’t. But that was the real goal, deep in my heart of hearts.
And I did sell stories to pro markets! “La Corriveau” sold to Strange Horizons and “The Love it Bears Fair Maidens” just came out at Apex. “Wendigo” also won the Toronto Star Short Story Contest, which I will count as publication (hey, most government arts councils do).Outline TEGG novels
I did that! Sort of. Enough that I can knock off the first novel of the trilogy in summer 2017.
So…I achieved my creative goals. But as is my wont, I felt like I could’ve done more, like I could’ve tried harder. Then I realized that I did more than what I’d put on the list. Looking at the year in its entirety, this is What I Did In 2016:Got my Masters’ degree
Wrote the first draft of a novel
Edited three manuscripts for other people
Wrote eight short stories
Wrote the first draft of a full-length play
Wrote two pantomimes for the museum dayjob
Wrote, produced, and released a s***-tonne of videos for the museum dayjob
Got an Ontario Arts Council grant to produce Six Stories, Told at Night
Produced and released Six Stories, Told at Night
Produced and released the Heartstealer audiobook
“Don’t Read This Story” came out at Daily Science Fiction
Sold “La Corriveau” to Strange Horizons
Sold “The Love it Bears Fair Maidens” to Apex
Won the Toronto Star Short Story Contest with “Wendigo”
Wrote/currently producing “On Thin Ice” for the final season of Tales From the Archives
Edited the first draft of a novel into the second draft
Was a guest at Can*Con
Became an Active Member in SFWA
Sold one more story, details to come.
…so do I still feel like I could have done more?Absolutely. Much like Alexander Hamilton, I will never be satisfied. On the one hand, I think that’s a good thing. Hunger goes a long way in this business. On the other hand, that perpetual ache is something I’m going to have to learn to live with.
But while I might not be completely satisfied, I am pleased. Very pleased. See, in 2015 one of my Stonecoast mentors told me that I was on the cusp, to be patient, and to just keep working as hard as I could. Some big breaks came my way in 2016. I don’t think I’ve tipped over the cusp yet, but I feel a lot closer, and I’m excited to see what 2017 brings!
What I’m Listening to this Week
Y’all know I’m honest with this segment. Last week I saw my colleague Devon Hubka’s one-woman show Everything I Need. It was a delightful exploration of her love of theatre and pursuit of acting. This song recurred as a motif throughout:
Not only is it ridiculously catchy, the lyrics speak to me, particularly in light of this week’s post. No room for doubt—just shut up and dance.
Until last week, I snickered at the name “Pigeon Forge.” It sounds like a made-up name, doesn’t it? The name alone has always struck me as the Platonic ideal of a small town in the Deep South. I mean, listen to it: Pigeon Forge, Tennessee.The Tennessean towns of Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg are the gateway to the Great Smoky Mountains. For me, they’re the gateway to an annual writing retreat I take with ~20ish dear friends. And yeah, until last week, I dismissed them as “the weirdest places I’ve ever been.”
Until last week, this is what I saw:
The main street unfurls like a midway, flashing lights and sugary music spilling onto crowded sidewalks. On one side, a collection of concrete faux-log cabins nestles like a sanitized vision of an alpine village. Olde Time Photography Studios and Olde-Fashioned Candy Shoppes stand every few paces, while black bears grin from neon t-shirts, chipped ceramic mugs, and motel doorways (TV WIFI POOL).Outside of Gatlinburg, signs proclaim JESUS SAVES right next to others announcing GUNS GUNS GUNS. Pickup trucks trundle past with plywood bumpers, and rusted-out trailers sit on hills, and Biblically-themed parks and theatres abound.
Until last week, I snickered. And believe me, it feels very uncomfortable to say that. Giving myself a long, hard stare, I see a blend of big-city blindness, liberal arrogance, and Canadian smugness.
“So typical. So kitschy.”
Then the fire happened.
Last week, wildfire (possibly “human-caused”) broke out in the mountains and swept with little warning into Gatlinburg, fuelled by the region’s worst drought in a decade. Within hours, swathes of mountainside and residences were destroyed, and 14,000 people were evacuated. At time of writing, 13 people are dead and 1000 buildings have been damaged or destroyed.
Our retreat cabin is right in the danger zone, so we stayed glued to the incoming reports. As more data rolled in, I was stunned.
- “[FARM] has a field for evacuated livestock. No charge. Call [Suzy] at [NUMBER].”
- “Shelter for pets available at [LOCATION].”
- “Biologists reluctant to leave Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies, fearing for animals.”
- “Dolly Parton is giving $1000 a month to victims of Tennessee wildfires.”
- “Thank you for your prayers.”
- “We’re okay. Thank you for your thoughts.”
- “Thank you.”
With all the tourists, it’s easy to forget that Gatlinburg is a town of only 4000 people. The more I read, the more I glimpsed a tight-knit community, generous and kind-hearted. My throat closed up.
I was wrong about Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge. I was so very wrong.
Coming on the heels of the US election and the subsequent soul-searching on the political left, this feels particularly poignant. It is so, so easy to see the JESUS SAVES signs and forget about the genuinely fervent faith enclosed within those walls. It is so, so easy to wander through a fake village and laugh at the concrete snow, not seeing the livelihoods that happen behind the STAFF ONLY doors. And this is the sort of easy self-absorption that we cannot afford. Not ever, but especially not now.
In a cabin outside Gatlinburg, I wrote both “La Corriveau” and “The Love it Bears Fair Maidens,” my first pro short fiction sales. Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge will always claim a very special place in my writer’s heart.
If you enjoy my fiction—particularly those stories—may I request something?
Will you help me give back to Gatlinburg? I’ve done some digging: most donations of food, supplies, and money need to be dropped off in person, but if you’re far away—
And a relief fund for locals and businesses has been established by the Gatlinburg Chamber of Commerce Foundation. Donations can be mailed to:
PO Box 1910
Pigeon Forge, TN
All my best, Tennessee. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. I will never, ever look at you the same way again.
What I’m Listening to this Week
I’ve never listened to Dolly Parton before, but now seems like a good time to start…
I need to eat my words, I’m afraid. Last week, I said:
I want [SFWA membership]. I want this so badly. It’s a long game: I doubt very much I’ll be strolling into the Nebulas next year. But you keep going.
You should still keep going. Always. But the same day I posted the above, I checked the rules for membership to the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America more carefully. Authors are eligible for Active Membership with, among other things…
One Paid Sale of a work of fiction (such as a novel) of a minimum of 40,000 words to a qualifying professional market, for which the candidate has been paid at least $3,000 as a non-returnable advance before or at the time of publication ($2000.00 if sale made on or before 12/31/2014).
“Wait,” quoth I. “When did I sign the contract for Yeti’s Parole Officer?”
Turns out I made the sale on 08/20/2014. Which means that I’ve actually been SFWA-eligible for over two years.
So after a little head-shaking, I sent in my paperwork, and received my approval a few days ago. I’m in! Huzzah! And…it looks like I will be strolling into the Nebulas next year, at least to take in the atmosphere and meet people.
A lot can happen in a week.
When I was a wee sprogget, I wanted to be published by the time I was 25. I have vivid memories of my first year of university. February in Toronto is an interminable stretch of grey, cold, and slush. It’s when you fear that spring will never come. So I plodded along, miserable, these newfangled “podcast novels” trickling through my headphones.
I wanted to be in that world so badly. So very badly. I ached for it, slogging to class. I wanted to go to conventions, and I wanted to collaborate with other writers, and I wanted to be part of it all. Ideally by 25, though I knew that was a long shot.
I’m 25 now. When I look at how much things changed in seven years—well, first of all, seven years? What??? But also—holy frak, nothing is the same.
We can’t always see those changes, is the thing. Sure, sometimes, there’s a big milestone. Selling a novel. First time on a convention panel. Landing the agent. But more often, there’s all these tiny little steps that accrete, almost without your realizing. Those little steps provide the foundation for those big milestones. So, I suppose, while it seems like things can move very quickly, there’s a much longer process happening under the surface. Yeti’s Parole Officer came about, indirectly, through Hapax and my scriptwriting.
So maybe a lot can happen in a week. But none of it happens without the seven (or five, or ten, or fifty) years preceding.
What I’m Listening To This Week
Ola Gjeilo once again, returning to an old favourite: his “Northern Lights” piece, which uses an absolutely gorgeous text. I mean, listen to this:
Pulchra es amica mea,
suavis et decora sicut Jerusalem,
terribilis ut castrorum acies ordinata.
Averte oculos tuos a me
quia ipsi me avolare fecerunt.
Thou art beautiful, O my love,
sweet and comely as Jerusalem,
terrible as an army set in array.
Turn away thy eyes from me,
for they have made me flee away.
How wonderful is that? A great and terrible beauty, much like the aurorae themselves. *swoon*
This is the last story.
Six Stories, Told at Night wrapped up last week. It’s been quite a ride, and a huge learning curve. The numbers keep rising – after three weeks, it’s performed better than I dared hope. You guys have been great, and I’m incredibly proud of what we accomplished.
And I have something I’d like to say.
This is the last story. Maybe if I type that often enough now, it won’t break my heart when the time really comes.
Six Stories, Told at Night is my last fiction podcast. Sure, there may be one-offs here and there—I’m still slated to write/produce a Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences story this fall, and Blythe and I are recording a wrap-up show tonight. While I’m happy to write for other people, this is the last major story, the last story that’s wholly mine, for a while.
Nothing has happened. There was no disaster, no sudden break. Six Stories, Told at Night was always conceived as my last, always planned as my “…gift, song, blessing, and also, farewell.” This is why I wanted the grant—why I wanted to hire artists for custom music and art, why I wanted to finally pay Blythe what she’s worth, and why I wanted to take home a little cash as well. This is my last huzzah: my swan song. I wanted to go out with a bang.
This is the story of two girls…They’re two friends, two modern-day girls. How modern do we want this from the start? Pretty modern, I would think, crossing and re-crossing the fairy tale boundary. Joëlle is older, of course. Probably 3-4 years older: enough that they can still be friends, enough that there’s still a gap.
This decision was not an easy one, but it’s been in the works for nearly two years. Coxwood, then a last Ministry piece, then the “Folklore Grant Project,” and then hiatus. That was always the plan. My personal plot arc has been building to this for a while; I’ve just not said anything.
The short answer: because it’s time.
The Storyteller is the folklorist, cataloguing the stories, collecting them, a little more cautious. Joëlle is the transmedia artist, podcasting, Kickstarting, making friends and hitting the town. And she wonders if she can get into Story, that shadowy place from whence it all comes.
The longer answer: when I started producing my first podcast back in 2011, I had clearly defined goals. I wanted to learn to tell stories through sound. I wanted to get my name out, build a platform, and meet people.
Five years on, and I have done these things.
“But why stop?” I hear people asking. “Even if you met your goals, why not keep going?”
Every podcast has to grow from the one before it. Otherwise, you stagnate. With every story, every piece, you should be doing something new, or there’s no point. For me, I’m at the point with podcasting where the next step—the next learning curve from this comfortable plateau—is to be doing audio dramas on the level of Bryan Lincoln. These are audio dramas that approach movie soundtrack quality. They’re really, really cool.
I don’t want to do those.
I don’t want to do those because then I wouldn’t write as much. Now, I love audio. It has taught me a lot and it’s a hell of a lot of fun. But at the end of the day, I’m not an audio artist. Not really. I’m a writer. Novels, short stories, and stage plays are where my passions truly lie. So if audio becomes a choice between stepping up and stepping back—well, I have to step back.
And the thing the Storyteller learns—Story is already inside of us. So to reach Jöelle, she needs to keep looking inside. To their stories.
So I got my name out there. I met people. I learned to tell stories through sound. I did some really cool things. Past this point, I suspect that anything I produce will benefit Blythe’s career more than mine.
“Oh no!” the podcasting community cries. “Did something happen between you two?”
Nah, we’re solid. Like all creative pairs, we scrap occasionally…but we’ve gotten good at it, and I love her like the big sister I never had. But look, in five years, we’ve done—
There isn’t a lot else I can do for her. Not with audio, anyway. We continue to collaborate very, very closely at our dayjob. There will be other projects for us – believe me. It’s a good partnership. No one wants to break up the band.
And we’re friends. Above all else, we’re really good friends.
This is also my last chance to push Blythe’s voice and range as far as it will go. Which means A) ALL the emotion. If it’s not there in the text, she can’t bring it out. And B) Sam has to have some of that flash and fire…but she also has gentleness and support in a way I’ve not done yet.
I’d like to be quite clear about something, though:
While I’m focusing more on prose fiction and stage plays, that does NOT mean that I am abandoning this community. Podcasting brought us together, and it has been so wonderful to see us all grow into our creative lives – whatever form they take. I’ll still be around at cons. I’m sticking around social media. I love my jaunts south of the border to visit you all.
None of that is changing. I’m still here, still part of you. The only reason for this very public goodbye is – I don’t want people to wonder at the silence. I don’t want a year, two years, five years to pass without explanation. I don’t want people to think, Oh, she never pulled it together again. Another pod-fade. No. I want to go out on my terms.
And never say never, right? I don’t plan to pursue audio fiction further, but if ever the stars align and the perfect project strikes at the right moment – I won’t refuse for reasons of pride. The door’s closed, but it definitely isn’t locked. Who knows? Maybe I can do a non-fiction podcast. I’d love that. It’d balance my love of audio with my rapidly diminishing time.
The last story is the first story…But what is this story? Is it a story that loss sucks and then you grieve? No…no, I don’t think so. I think it’s the story of how this wonderful, transformative friendship made our girl who knew no stories become The Storyteller.
So I have many thank you’s to say. Thank you to everyone who listened, everyone who shared, everyone who encouraged us. Thank you for welcoming me into this community in the first place. And thank you for your unbridled enthusiasm for this swan song.
With Six Stories, Told at Night, I have accomplished what I wanted to do artistically, and said what I wanted to say. It is a nice feeling to end on – to know that I’ve written the podcast that justifies me, and the immensely talented partner with whom I work.
I think it’ll be cool. I think so. I hope so. Maybe even beautiful in parts. We’ll see.
It was. Every bit of it – all these five years.
Thank you, all.
What I’m Listening To This Week
We’ve heard the “Ashokan Farewell” here before, but this version has lyrics. They are appropriate to this week, and I have been bawling every time I hear them.
So I assume we’ve all seen the WIRED article, right? This one: the one really excited that podcast fiction is “finally” a thing?
Evidently, they’ve overlooked that podcast fiction kicked off in 2005, and that 2007-2009 was arguably the Golden Age of the Podcast Novel. In fact, the origins and development of the genre were the topic of a massive essay I wrote at Stonecoast. I suspect others will be doing overviews of podcasts from 2005-2012, so… I’d like to share a different portion of my essay, one that proposes a new means by which to classify the genre.
II. Parsing the Parsecs: Proposing a New Taxonomy of Podcast Fiction
Despite the genre’s significant development over the past decade, few attempts have been made to rigorously classify podcast fiction. Nevertheless, there is a generally understood difference between “full cast podcasts” and “straight reads.” A “full cast podcast” generally refers to a fully scored and produced podcast novel featuring the use of numerous actors, as in the case of Morevi, Chasing the Bard, Murder at Avedon Hill, Metamor City, et al. By contrast, a “straight read” features a single reader and minimal production. Mur Lafferty’s Heaven series is thus a “straight read,” alongside numerous audio fiction magazines such as the Escape Artists’ triumvirate—Escape Pod, PodCastle, and PseudoPod—and the Clarkesworld podcast.
However, the distinction between “straight read” and “full cast” is ultimately limiting, particularly within the field of “full cast” podcast fiction. “Full cast,” as it appears in general usage, obscures the distinction between fully-produced, fully-casted podcast novels, and fully-produced, fully-casted audio dramas. Adhering strictly to a straight read/full cast binary, both Morevi and We’re Alive could be considered full cast podcasts. However, Morevi was originally released as a print novel, and relies heavily on narration to tell the story. As such, it undertakes a fundamentally different approach to storytelling than does We’re Alive, which instead lies primarily on dialogue, performance, and sound, with minimal narrative segments.
This difference between podcast novel and audio drama is recognized by the Parsec Awards for Excellence in Speculative Fiction Podcasting. There, the primary distinction amongst podcasts is not between straight read/full cast, but rather between “story” and “audio drama.” According to the Parsecs’ 2015 category descriptions, a story “…uses narration as its primary means to convey scene and action,” whereas in an audio drama, “Storytelling is effected through the dialogue of its characters and sound effects/scenery presenting action and scene as it’s [sic] primary mechanism.” While these categories differentiate between the two major approaches to storytelling within podcast fiction, they also have certain limitations. Specifically, there is perhaps insufficient nuance in the “story” category.
For example, the 2014 category “Best Speculative Fiction Story: Small Cast (Short Form),” included both the stories “Why the Sea is Boiling Hot,” (author Michael Spence, podcasted on Tales from the Archives) and “Growth Spurt,” (author Paul Lorello, podcasted on Pseudopod). However, while both “Why the Sea is Boiling Hot” and “Growth Spurt” are indeed small cast, short stories, they function very differently. Despite being small cast, “Why the Sea is Boiling Hot” adopts the production values associated with “full cast” podcasts: music and complex sound effects to denote an aethergate are particularly noticeable. Conversely, “Growth Spurt” has a single reader, no music, and no sound effects.  Despite being in the same category, “Why the Sea is Boiling Hot” is essentially a “full cast” podcast with a very small cast, whereas “Growth Spurt” is a straight read.
Thus, neither a full cast/straight read nor audio drama/story dichotomy is sufficient to classify podcast fiction. The full cast/straight read binary obscures the artistic differences between audio book and audio drama (though again, this difference is understood in general parlance), while focusing on that distinction to the exclusion of all else overlooks the many variances in production amongst podcast stories.
As such, this paper proposes a new taxonomy for podcast fiction. Examining the genre broadly, it is evident that some podcasts (PodCastle, Clarkesworld, Jim Kelly’s Free Reads, Heaven) use audio primarily as a means of distribution, whereas for others (Hidden Harbour Mysteries, The Antithesis Progression, We’re Alive, The Leviathan Chronicles), sound is integral to the story itself—whether the podcast in question is an audio book or audio drama. Therefore, this paper proposes classifying podcasts not by “full cast/straight read,” or by “audio drama/story,” but rather, by “read fiction” and “performed fiction.” “Performed fiction” relies on the use of dramatic techniques to tell the story—that is, music, sound effects, and acting— while “read fiction” does not. The category of “performed fiction” can then be subdivided into “audio drama” and “audio story,” under the same criteria utilized by the Parsecs. This classification, therefore, combines both the commonly-understood distinction between straight read and full cast, along with the Parsecs’ observance of stories and dramas as separate genres.
However, this means of classifying podcasts is not intended as a strict binary. Rather, conceiving of podcast fiction as a spectrum more accurately reflects the vast array of podcasts that have been produced. At one extreme are those stories which are read by a single narrator, without music, acting, or sound effects. Indeed, such stories might not have originally been intended for audio distribution at all. In its submissions guidelines, Pseudopod states, “We do not discriminate between previously published and unpublished works…we encourage new authors to send their work to other markets first, and then send it to us for audio rights after the story has appeared.” Thus, the stories it solicits are not necessarily written with podcasting in mind, unlike We’re Alive or Hidden Harbor [ETA: Or Six Stories, Told At Night]. As such, the performance is not an integral part of those stories—they lose very little when experienced as pure text.
The shift from read to performed podcast fiction occurs as a result of the use of dramatic techniques. Music, sound effects, and voice acting are used to communicate setting, atmosphere, and character in addition to what is already suggested by the text. Thus, reading and listening to performed narratives are ultimately very different experiences. The key distinction between read and performed narratives therefore lies not in the amount of dramatic techniques used, but rather, in their importance to the story. For instance, it is fairly common to have musical interludes introduce and finish segments of audiobooks; however, they have little impact on the storytelling. By contrast, the now-removed podcast Weather Child had relatively light scoring and sound effects, and a cast of two. As these elements were integral, Weather Child was nevertheless performed. This is particularly evident when considering its use of voice acting to portray character.
The use of voice acting is the most telling characteristic of performed fiction. Acting necessarily denotes performance. However, it is misleading to deem a read narrative “performance” when the reader has simply used different voices to distinguish characters. Here, this paper draws a distinction between “reading with voices” and “voice acting.” While reading, the reader speaks like the character. While performing, the actor speaks as the character. Admittedly, this distinction contains a certain amount of subjectivity, but it is generally useful.
For example, the podcast novels Weaver’s Web (Philippa Ballantine) and Ancestor (Scott Sigler) are both read by a single voice. However, Ballantine offers performances of her characters—this is particularly evident in her portrayal of the Weavers. Sigler can affect accents and emotions effectively—as in the case of troubled geneticist Lu Jian Dan—but ultimately, the difference is one of kind rather than degree. While some allowance should be made for a reader/actor’s particular skill, the difference between reading and acting is ultimately one of intention rather than talent.
Having determined the importance of voice acting in distinguishing podcast works as performed fiction, it is now necessary to examine the distinctions between performed narrative and audio drama. As the name suggests, performed narratives are primarily told through narration, whereas audio dramas are told through sound. This paper agrees with the general definitions put forth by the Parsec Awards.  However, this paper maintains that performed narratives fall along a spectrum. Weaver’s Web lies at one extreme: it is a performance due to its use of voice acting, but relies almost entirely on narration. Conversely, Hidden Harbor Mysteries is explicitly presented as a 1930s radio play. Therefore, it is unquestionably a drama. Not only is there minimal narration, but the narrator himself is another character. Yet between these two extremes fall podcasts such as The Guild of the Cowry Catchers, Metamor City: Making the Cut, and The Antithesis Progression. Sound is more integral to the storytelling than would be the case in a strict narrative, yet there is more narration than would be incorporated into a drama.
Thus, using these distinctions and taxonomy, one might say that We’re Alive is a large-cast audio drama, Weaver’s Web is a solo performed narrative, and “England Under the White Witch,” by Theodora Goss, as read by Kate Baker on Clarkesworld, is a read short story.
 Bryan Lincoln, Episode 73: Straight Read vs. Full Cast, accessed March 26, 2015.
 “2015 Category Descriptions,” Parsec Awards, accessed March 26, 2015. <http://www.parsecawards.com/2015-parsec-awards/category-descriptions/>
 “2014 Parsec Award Winners and Finalists,” Parsec Awards, accessed March 26, 2015.
 Michael Spence, Why the Sea is Boiling Hot, podcast audio, Tales from the Archives Vol. III, edited Philippa Ballantine and Tee Morris, MP3, 24:30-32:30, accessed March 24, 2015. <http://www.ministryofpeculiaroccurrences.com/2014/03/25/tales-from-the-archives-iii-three/>
Paul Lorello, Growth Spurt, podcast audio, Pseudopod, edited Shaun M. Garrett, MP3, accessed March 24, 2015. <http://pseudopod.org/2013/10/25/pseudopod-357-growth-spurt/>
 Lincoln, Episode 73: Straight Read vs. Full Cast, 35:06.
 “2015 Category Descriptions,” Parsec Awards, accessed March 26, 2015. <http://www.parsecawards.com/2015-parsec-awards/category-descriptions/>
So I’m still not entirely sure where Six Stories, Told at Night falls…but since it’s performed, and uses a lot of narrative – a solo performed piece?
Also, Tee Morris and I made this awesome infographic detailing other fiction podcasts pre-dating Welcome to Night Vale’s 2012 launch. Check it out, and discover some other cool listens!
What I’m Listening To This Week
Sometimes, there’s a song that I don’t even remember stumbling across. Amy MacDonald’s “This is the Life,” for instance. I heard this first back in high school, and it’s popped up again. Not my usual style, but quite enjoyable!