Sorry pals, everything is ridiculous right now. Sturm und drang! Sound and fury! Madness and chaos!
Okay, that’s perhaps a little dramatic. But over the next three days, I am…
Finishing a major writing project!
I’m aiming to complete the first draft of my interactive fiction novel for Choice of Games either today or tomorrow. It’s running about 115k in total. You can become a knight…riding a dinosaur!
Good fun, but I shall be relieved to have it off my plate for now, because…
A CANTICLE OF LIGHT opens on May 30th!
Dress rehearsal tonight, opening the day after tomorrow! The cast and crew have worked extremely hard, and I’m so incredibly proud of them. I can’t wait to see this Canadian Gothic piece live onstage!
Still need your tickets? Buy them here!
“Six Stories: Road to the Fringe” drops on May 30th!
Because we’re really good at planning! Just kidding, just kidding, I pulled out my calendar and worked out a whole release schedule for the SIX STORIES companion podcast. Turns out this was the best day. It’s almost poetic, the way these two plays have stayed in lockstep…
Anyway, interviews, behind-the-scenes chatter, and more faerie tale goodness coming your way soon. It’s dropping right into the preexisting “Six Stories, Told at Night” feed. Subscribe here (if you haven’t already)!
Wait. Was this a post?
Ah, let’s say it was. To dinosaurs!
What I’m Listening To This Week
When you need something high energy and emotional, and also a reminder that it’ll be okay in the end…
When it rains, it pours! More SIX STORIES updates for all of you!
First, we needed to take promotional photos for the play. These are the images we send to the Toronto Fringe for use in the programme and website.
Y’all remember the podcast image?
We thought it would be cool to recreate it as much as possible…in real life! And so I spent a very pleasant evening tromping through Toronto’s least-sketchy ravine, looking for a suitable tree.
Although I heard my own podcast running through my head, over and over:
At the ravine’s edge, I hesitated. There could be druggies in there. Gangs. Guys like Peter.
Witches, fairies, wolves.
–Six Stories, Told at Night: “Le Chien d’Or”
Hence choosing the least-sketchy ravine. I found a very nice tree. Though it’s hard to tell without leaves, I’m fairly sure it was an oak cultivar. This is what it looked like on my scouting expedition:
And this is what the ravine looked like, post-April ice storm:
Snow by itself wouldn’t have been awful. This is Canadian theatre, after all; some snow is probably appropriate. The problem is that we’d already decided that Blythe would be shooting in a sundress—though the season is never specified in the play itself, the Toronto Fringe is in July.
She was a trouper. Armed with a portable light from our awesome pals at Missed Metaphor Productions, our intrepid photographer, and a thermos of tea, we set to work.
Table-reads aside, it’s the first chance I’ve had to see Sam come to life. And pals—it’s so flipping cool. This is my favourite part of playwriting: this moment when someone who’s only lived in your head is suddenly standing before you. While I mainly write prose, theatre gives me too great a high to shake completely.
Also—like, we were in the woods, at night, in a distinctly faerie-esque atmosphere as the April snows drifted down. “This is what Sam did,” I thought. “This is the story.” The fabric between our world and SIX STORIES’ felt a tiny bit thin at that moment.
We got the shots we needed, we went out for drinks, and there was much rejoicing.
THEN we launched a GoFundMe for the show. We’re on a shoestring budget for this show: Fringe works on a profit-share basis. Expenses come out of the box office, and the remainder gets split amongst the company.
“We don’t need much,” Blythe and I told each other. “Just to offset some props and stuff.”
We blew past our goal within 12 hours.
Which, hey, lesson learned. We didn’t think big enough the first time around. So back to the drawing board we went.
“I mean…well, we’re gonna need to get programmes printed.”
“Yeah. And it’d be nice if we could…you know…not worry so much about the set, props, and costumes.”
“Don’t forget the administrative fees…”
Currently, we’ve got a number of stretch goals and reward tiers (yes, yes, if we make the Ultimate Uber Stretch Goal, I’ll write another season of Coxwood History Fun Park). And we’re completely humbled by the response thus far. Seriously, our most sincere thank you to everyone who’s shared, liked, commented, supported…we literally couldn’t do this without you.
We want to make you proud. We want to produce the best show possible. We’re so very thankful for your belief in us.
The GoFundMe will close on May 2nd. Then…well, I guess we’ll see if we return to Coxwood. We seem to be well on our way! You can find the campaign (and donate, if you’re so inclined) here!
It’s been a lot of emotions and long nights, pals. But we are so very happy.
What I’m Listening To This Week
Ahh, Ēriks Ešenvalds, you awesome contemporary choral composer. “Only In Sleep” is neat because it kinda sounds like a traditional folk song, but it’s got choral chords and harmonies up the wazoo.
Also, super poignant lyrics. But from Sara Teasdale, I expect nothing less. 😉
The news has filtered through the internet by now: SIX STORIES, TOLD AT NIGHT has won the Parsec Award for Best Small Cast Story (Novella). It’s an incredible honour, I’m very pleased, and I want to show you a picture:
This is the 2012 Parsec Awards at Dragon*Con. It’s blurry because my hands were shaking, even worse than usual.
I was very young. Sitting alone, at the fringes. I was awkward and incredibly nervous. And also overwhelmed by the fact I’d made it to Dragon*Con. Guys, for 2012 KT, this was like attending the Oscars. My favourite podcast celebrities were all there. I’d been hanging out with some of them through the weekend. This was mind-blowing.
I remember feeling so uncomfortable, though.
Uncomfortable and hungry. God, I was so hungry (metaphorically speaking). After the awards, Pip Ballantine nodded to the big screen, saying, “Maybe one day, it’ll be your name up there.” And oh, I wanted that so much. Even then, I was gingerly feeling around the dream’s edges. Podcasting means a lot to me—I’ve always believed in the art form. I always wanted to create something beautiful with it.
In 2014, my short story “Under Oak Island” made the finalist round. So yes, my name was up there. It didn’t win, but it was a huge honour nonetheless.
Coxwood History Fun Park didn’t make the finalist round. Honestly, that was Okay.
And then I wrote SIX STORIES, TOLD AT NIGHT.
I’ve said before: SIX STORIES is the first time I’ve sat back after production and said, “Yes. Yes, I have produced the podcast that justifies me.” It is not a perfect podcast, but it contains all of my heart and all of my ability, and it is exactly the way I wanted to go out.
From the start, I knew it was my last kick at the Parsec can.
One last story. One last shot.
And we did it.
And it feels—okay, well, honestly, it feels incredible. This is a dream I’ve had since I was eighteen years old. It was a long, long road—eight years!—which makes it all the more poignant. I have learned so much whilst podcasting, I’ve made so many friends, and I’ve grown so much.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m LOVING my tenure producing the Apex Magazine Podcast. But in terms of producing my own fiction, writing my own intensive audio dramas…
I’m good. Parsec or no, SIX STORIES said precisely what I want to say. With this story, I’ve done what I set out to do.
The Parsec is a wonderful symbol of that. I can scarcely describe how it feels to have a story that means so much to me, recognized with an award that holds such weight for me.
But I stand on the shoulders of giants. My utmost thanks to the many talented podcasters who came before me, inspired me, mentored me, and laid the foundation of the audio fiction canon we see today. My thanks to the Ontario Arts Council for providing the funding that made SIX STORIES possible. My thanks to Alex White, Starla Huchton, and Ellen McAteer for their contributions to this podcast. And of course, my thanks to Blythe Haynes for a beautiful performance.
It’s been an incredible ride, and I could not be happier.
But it’s not over. Not yet, not with SIX STORIES hitting the Toronto Fringe in July.
So thank you, all, for believing in this little podcast that could. I’m truly touched.
What I’m Listening to this Week
I had a bunch of choral pieces, but I cycled back to Kevin MacLeod’s “Long Road Ahead.” This was the piece that concluded Hapax, and it feels especially apt for this week…particularly the final movement at 1:40.
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!
Cover reveal and podcast announcement! Huzzah!
Our new audio drama, Six Stories, Told at Night releases soon—Episode 1 should drop on Sunday, August 14th. There will be links aplenty once that happens, rest assured.
Six Stories, Told at Night has been generously funded by the Ontario Arts Council. What does this mean? It means that, after years of podcasting on a shoestring, I could finally afford to do things properly. Custom music, pro rates for voice talent (an actor AND a singer, oh my), and a gorgeous cover image.
Would you like to see this gorgeous cover image?
Of course you would.
It’s designed by Starla Huchton, after all.
Here it is:
I am so incredibly grateful to the Ontario Arts Council. Someone, please correct me if I’m wrong, but I think I’m the first fantasy podcaster to receive government funding? While that’s neat for my ego, it’s also highly encouraging.
You guys, the government funded an independent podcast. Not only that, the government funded an independent fantasy podcast.
Ten years ago, not many people knew what a podcast was. Not many people outside the community took them all that seriously. While podcasts have since grown more mainstream, this feels incredibly validating. It reaffirms that yes, podcast fiction is legitimate art. It shows that podcasts have changed the way we tell stories—maybe not quite the way we all imagined ten years back, but nevertheless.
And it reaffirms the legitimacy of speculative fiction outside its community. For those keeping score at home—earlier this year, a straight-up fantasy story about cannibal ice monsters won the largest short story contest in Canada. Now Six Stories and its fairy tales contribute to the arts in Ontario. It makes me feel very honoured, very blessed, and very humbled.
It’s been a wild ride. Blythe sounds phenomenal, of course—I think this may be my favourite vocal performance from her. I can’t wait to show you what we’ve been working on. See you next Sunday!
What I’m Listening To This Week
So here’s how I do this: I literally just find whatever song has been most played on my iPod over the past week. That’s it.
Sorry. Not sorry.
This song has acquired a very special poignancy for me. Music starts at 1:04.
“Write what you know.” We hear this so often, it’s not even cliché anymore. It’s a cliché of a cliché: the archetypal advice given to new writers.
Write what you know. You can see what they’re driving at. Write those things you’ve lived and held in your bones; write the things that matter to you. Write your experience, because your experience is unique and no one knows it better than you.
Except—I don’t think we write what we know. Not really. We write what we don’t understand.
I look at my fiction, and I see the same motifs emerging over and over again. Frigid, brittle winters. Loss and grief. Sibling and pseudo-sibling angst. These are the stories I tell myself, again and again. Turning them over, swapping things around, changing the key. Almost as though, if I keep trying, I’ll hit the magic combination that lets “The End” sing with comprehension.
It’s not intentional. I don’t think writers consciously set out to write stories based on their psychological hang-ups. I certainly don’t sit down and think, “Right, short story time. Let’s see, I need my northern village in the grip of winter, my tiny ray of hope at the very end…” No, the stories that come to us come from inside us. We write what we don’t understand because those unresolved questions are what the mind returns to—quietly, subconsciously—expressing its findings as wendigo and little gods and ice, because those are the best images it can find. And so, as artists, our metal workshops are filled.
I do worry about becoming a cliché of myself. “Oh, northern village, hidden god, sad orphan—must be a KT Bryski story.” I do try to push myself. “Does this story have to be set in winter? Is there a way to accomplish this without resorting to divinity?” And sometimes, the answer is yes. And sometimes, the answer is no.
Because—I don’t think I understand winter. Not really, not on a metaphorical level. Not the long nights, and the cracking ice, and that peculiar grey time between late afternoon and twilight. I don’t understand loss. I don’t understand being torn from home—or exiles.
After this week, I realize I really don’t understand the pains of this world.
But we keep writing. Or painting. Or singing. Or even just talking. That’s the only way to come close, I think—to get scraps of insight, a piecemeal comprehension. The only way out is through. And that is the wonderful, powerful thing about literature. It’s how we try to understand. I can think of nothing more meaningful than that.
What I’m Listening To This Week
Continuing our theme of “loud and complex,” I’ve been enjoying “Mars, the Bringer of War,” from Holst’s Planets suite. It starts low but ominous—striking strings beat a menacing pulse in the background while the brass carries the melody. We get louder and fuller through the first two minutes, sound crashing like waves…
And then we break at 2:11, with an extended dialogue between the horns and the rest of orchestra. A murky, serpentine section in the middle gradually disintegrates into our original, Darth Vader-like theme.
And you know what? Holding onto that pulse all the way through—it never lets you rest. It’s like alarms going off the entire time. Until the crashing, thunderous chords in the last minute. This piece pretty much just obliterates everything in its path.
Welcome back to the Stonecoast blog train. And how timely, because I’ve just received my signature pages. Their international journey took them to Boston—to be signed by my advisor—and then to Maine—for my second reader’s signature—and now they’re briefly back with me in Toronto before I send the entire thesis to the MFA office. I’ve not been fretting. Not at all.
Anyway, today my Stonecoast comrades and I are discussing genre. As in, what’s our genre, why that genre, what is genre…?
I’m primarily a fantasy author. It tends towards dark fantasy, but we’re not talking full-blown horror. I like historical fantasy too, and I’ve written steampunk on occasion. I’ve yet to write any hard SF. The closest I’ve gotten is my quirky romp of an RPG, though one thesis short story could maybe be soft SF.
And right away, you have an idea of the types of stories I tell, even if you’ve never read anything of mine.
I write stories that have magic. Sometimes they get a little scary and grim, but that’s not their main focus, nor will you find gore. Steampunk suggests Victoriana, gears, and perhaps a touch of whimsy. I don’t write stories centred on technology and scientific concepts very often; even my stories without magic focus mainly on people.
You can tell this because different genres carry different sets of expectations. In the “Fantasy” section of the bookstore, we expect different stories than in the “Thriller” section. And we judge them according to those expectations as well, which means that genre frames the reader’s experience of the story at hand.
For example, I have strongly resisted attempts to classify my novel Heartstealer as “steampunk.” Why? Simple—it does not meet the expectations for the steampunk genre. Yes, it is set in a pseudo-Victorian society. But that’s about the only similarity it shares with steampunk. Magic may be present in steampunk, but it tends to be something lurking in the shadows. In Heartstealer, it’s front-and-centre: an integral part of the story. Steampunk frequently features societies powered by advanced steam technology. Heartstealer has none of that.
Rather than being a creative re-imagining of the Victorian era, Heartstealer is fantasy, set in a world that is not our own, but shares our Victorian age’s social structures, psyche, fashions, and technology.
As a “steampunk” novel, it’s not a very good example, because it does not meet those expectations. As a “historical dark fantasy,” I think it does much better.
So do you write to genre expectation, then?
A harder question that it seems. I think when you start any story, you have a rough idea of where it might fall. If there’s spaceships and warp drives, you’re probably not writing a Western, for instance. You know your direction. The more nuanced, particular sub-classifications can come later. Okay, so you know right away that it’s a SF story—but is it a space opera, or soft SF, or a science fantasy, or military SF, or a first contact story? That, you may know only after you’ve finished the thing and taken a good look at it.
Because here’s the thing: I think genre is mostly useful for telling readers how to approach a given story. It gives them a framework in which to work. Is it the be-all and end-all? No, but it’s an efficient shorthand.
Really, it’s like our goats at the museum. They’re walked on leashes, and whenever I see them from the corner of my eye, I invariably think, “Wow, what ugly dogs.”
Then I look again and think, “Wow! What cute goats!”
Different approaches yield different expectations yield different responses. Make sure your readers know whether your story’s a dog or a goat.
What I’m Listening to This Week
Oooh, something awesome. The “Dies Irae” and “Tuba Mirum” movements from Verdi’s Requiem. We maybe know Verdi more for this operas—and my goodness, that theatrical streak shows here. This could basically just be the opera setting for the apocalypse.
Those initial bangs, his favourite trick of passing the line between parts…this is a glorious cacophony of sound and fury. Until suddenly things quiet. And that’s even more terrifying.
And oh, those trumpets beginning at 2:25- Verdi’s a freaking genius. See, in Revelations, there’s meant to be trumpets to signify the ending of ages and coming of judgements. These are them. Right here. That’s what they would sound like, I’m pretty sure. Seriously, just grab a set and actors, and you pretty much have Revelations for the stage.
And next on the train…
My fellow steampunk-lover, J.R. Dawson! She is a highly talented writer with whom I’ve had the distinct pleasure of workshopping. Which means that I got to read snippets of her fabulous YA steampunk novel. A strong voice in our Stonecoast community, I will miss her upon graduation. Also, her blog is really pretty.
Check her out, and head onto the next stop here!
I said goodbye to some dear friends today.
Rachel arrived at the church a year after I did—she was a seminary student, I was in the choir. After completing her placement, Rachel stayed on. For the past while, she’s been an Associate Priest. Her husband Leeman is a brilliant performer, a vibrant presence in Toronto’s geek community, and he also voiced Rodney in Coxwood History Fun Park.
Now they’re heading off to the US, where Rachel has secured a pretty amazing chaplaincy position. I am so incredibly proud of her.
And my friends are moving away.
During Rachel’s last homily, I got misty-eyed in the choir stalls, but I mostly kept it together until afterwards. Then the canon caught my eye and I dissolved into tears.
“That was such a beautiful funeral service,” he said.
The tears were a ball in my throat, and I couldn’t speak.
“She was absolutely the right person,” he continued.
See, Rachel organized and conducted my dad’s funeral. She commended the coffin to its gravesite. She prepped me for months before my confirmation. She’s my friend.
And yet, even as we kept making each other cry, there was a part of me that hung back, marvelling. Is this not wonderful?
Specifically, is it not wonderful that such communities can form? For myself, I entered both choir and church without any intention of staying. But I did. More than that, I formed relationships with these people. Yes, there was no dry eye in the parish hall, but is it not wonderful that we care enough about each other to cry like that? Is it not wonderful that all of us—imperfect, flawed, broken human beings that we are—can come together and form family? And finally, is it not wonderful that we can be so vulnerable—that we can bare our hearts, and not hide the tears, and actually say what we feel for each other?
This vulnerability comes from deep, abiding trust. Hearts are delicate things. It takes a lot of courage to expose them. It also takes a lot of faith—faith that the other party will treat your heart gently and not break it. Or almost worse, be indifferent to it. Like all matters of the heart, it’s a risk. So is it not wonderful when we find people who are willing to take that risk with us?
I did wonder, there in the parish hall, if these painful goodbyes are the price we pay for developing close relationships. Deeper tears for deeper joys?
But I’m not actually sure that’s the case. I don’t think it’s a price. I don’t think it’s a bargain we strike between hearts. Tears are not comeuppance or payment for joy. Rather, the tears and the joys come from the same place—that deep wellspring of love (however you want to define and contextualize “love”). Really, it’s all the same thing, arising from the same source. Which is why, while goodbyes are incredibly difficult—well, is this not wonderful? Is it not wonderful we had this time together? Is it not wonderful we care so much?
In any case, it’s not like anyone’s died. Social media is a wonderful tool. And honestly, the chances that we’ll all see each other at some convention are higher than not.
Best of luck, my friends. It has been wonderful to have these years together.
What I’m Listening to This Week
After leaving the reception, I ducked back into the nave for a moment to centre and recollect myself. From nowhere, this piece began playing in my head. I’d almost forgotten I knew it. It’s light, it’s gentle, and it is very self-explanatory. This. All of this.
Excitement! Some Stonecoast classmates and I have decided to band together and create a blog train: linking our sites to each other like cars in a train. They’re all pretty cool people, so I’m glad to be along for the ride!
This post is meant to be, “Who am I? What is this blog?”
Well…I’m KT Bryski: Canadian author and podcaster. I’ll write just about anything, but I mostly stick to fantasy. Dark/historically-flavoured fantasy. Sometimes I podcast—I just finished releasing an audio drama, and I’m in the midst of outlining another. This blog started when I went to New Zealand way back in 2012 (oh…man…where did the time go?) and has since mutated into a general repository for ponderings/updates too long to fit in Facebook posts.
So that’s all cool, I guess, but it doesn’t tell you a whole lot about me.
Can I introduce you to my desk instead?
A writer’s workspace says a lot about them: it’s their bridge, castle, command centre, and hobbit hole all in one.
This office nook is my favourite thing about my garret. Sometimes noise off the street interferes with podcasting, but a) it’s a small space, which I find comforting as I’m less likely to be attacked from behind by ninjas, and b) there is LOTS of natural light. In the evening, I get the sunset right through that window. Plus I can watch squirrels and neighbourhood cats frolicking in the street, which is a good thing when the fantasy gets a mite *too* dark.
This is my mic. Most of the aforementioned audio drama was recorded on this guy. A while back, I had a post about constructing a pop filter from beer bottles. As you can see, I’ve upgraded. Note the custom stand made from The Science Fiction Century (solid), Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None (a favourite) and The Actors’ Thesaurus (aka, my Writer-Actor Dictionary).
I learned about clickers when I interned with the Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences! It’s just an ordinary dog training clicker, but the sound makes a very distinctive waveform on audio playback. Which means you can sync things, and it’s a lot easier to find where you’ve made mistakes. More efficient than just swearing loudly, which is what I used to do (okay, I still do that sometimes….).
Lucky D20 was obtained at Balticon. It reminds me of everyone there: all my writing family.
I’m obsessed with whiteboards and bulletin boards. I like to have things in front of me, so I can have all the information and schedules I need at a glance. For me, it’s better than hunting through piles of paper—keeps the fingers flowing more smoothly, eh?
Luckily, the garret’s former tenant was both writerly and crafty: this whiteboard/bulletin setup was here when I moved in. Some sentimental things, some motivational things, a general outline of things I want to accomplish this year…everything I need, right there.
As mentioned, I am at Stonecoast: a low-residency creative writing MFA program. This is the plan for the next few months. At least, thesis-wise. Everything else is on the other side of the whiteboard.
December 2nd seems both way too close and distressingly far away…
And that’s the nook. It’s my spot. It felt like home the moment I got my own desk in, but after a few months here in the garret, I feel nicely settled in.
How about you? What’s your spot? Where do you feel completely at home, and in control?
What I’m Listening to this Week
Yep, still doing this. This week it’s “The Dark-Haired Girl” by Méav Ní Mhaolcatha. Méav is an Irish singer, but this piece is in Scottish Gaelic. The next few prose projects in the docket are mostly Celtic-flavoured for one reason or another, so my Gaelic playlist is back.
This is a strangely hypnotic piece, with the percussion providing a steady, anchoring piece throughout. I quite like Méav’s voice: clear and pure, and it balances nicely against the murkier instrumentals. For some reason, this piece has always reminded me of a snake: coiling and uncoiling, restlessly, endlessly…
Next in the train is the dapper and talented Joseph Carro. He is a man of fine hats, excellent moustaches, and a writerly sensibility. Sadly, I never got a chance to workshop with Joe – the historical/dark/quirky edge to his fiction is right up my alley. He also runs an insightful review site. You can check out Joe’s blog here!