Last January, I set myself a goal of writing a weekly blog post. Mostly as a discipline thing; partly for writing practice; partly to lay a foundation for the future. Overall, I’ve been good at sticking to that goal.
Except for last week. There wasn’t a blog post last week.
Actually, there wasn’t much of anything last week. I posted a poem to Facebook and a sunrise to Instagram, but that’s about it. I deleted all my social media apps from my phone and tablet. Sometimes I’d pop into Facebook on a browser for a quick peek, but only rarely.
See—I try to keep my social media activity mostly positive. Oh, I’ll post a sigh of despair over the latest shenanigans down south or the odd frustration, but mostly—if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.
And so I stayed real quiet.
There’s another principle I try to keep: you don’t look in other people’s bowls. Actually the real quotation goes, “The only time you look in your neighbour’s bowl is to make sure that they have enough.” The thing with social media is that everyone’s bowls are on display all the time. And everyone’s tilting their bowl, and adjusting the lighting, and fiddling with filters to make sure that they look as good as possible.
And I just—I wanted to take my bowl and leave the table and sit quietly by myself for a little while. I didn’t want to worry about hiding its cracks. I didn’t want to expend the effort disguising how empty it’s gotten. In a weird way, I felt ashamed; like, why am I even at this table with a bowl like this?
I just wanted to sit quietly by myself. I wanted to remember why I love my bowl. And I wanted to take a good, hard look at it and say, “Okay. This isn’t working anymore. What now?”
So I spent my time reading a lot. Lots of magical realism. Lots of CanLit and Southern Gothic. Lots of fiction that skates the line between literary and genre (the irony is—after spending years and years rebelling against the literary—it’s calling me pretty strongly right now).
I listened to a lot of music.
I went for walks in the woods.
It was like leaving a noisy, noisy party and entering into silence again. I’ve been feeling pretty jangled up inside. The solitude’s been like a cool compress for the soul.
But even I can’t hermit forever. Last week, I dipped a toe back into the community—I grabbed a pal and went to the monthly Chiaroscuro Reading Series. Confession: I almost bailed at the last minute.
“I can’t,” I said. “I can’t smile and small talk today. I can’t be on my best behaviour.”
But bailing at that point would’ve been terribly unfair to my pal. And I knew, deep down, that it’d be good for me.
And you know what? I saw a bunch of people I normally only see at conventions. Like, right there! Because we actually all live in the same city! Whoa! I had some really nice conversations and cake. My pal got to meet one of his favourite authors, which seemed like a lovely moment for both.
And I remembered that I like writing. I like the fantastic and speculative. I like this community. A lot.
But since this whole experience has the whiff of burnout, I think I need to achieve better balance. Not only loving my bowl, but finding a place at the table where I can still hear myself think.
So I’m not quite back to the table, yet. I need a little more time with the quiet. But I’m edging closer to my seat.
What I’m Listening To This Week
Ah, Celtic Woman, my guilty pleasure.
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.
Okay. Wow. Hi. I just spent the last week performing for six hours a day in the museum’s Sherlock Holmes program. It was incredibly fun, and also very taxing—both physically and mentally. But hey, it’s over, so life should settle down somewhat.
Besides that, I was reading The Ladies’ Guide to True Politeness and Perfect Manners: or, Miss Leslie’s behaviour book, written by Miss Eliza Leslie and published in various editions from 1839 onwards (I had the 1864 edition). And guess what?
It has advice for authors!I sat there reading and shaking my head—because it’s more-or-less the same advice we get today. I greatly enjoy the image of hoop-skirted young ladies eagerly setting about preparing their manuscripts. Because of course, I did the same (minus the hoop skirt). Some things don’t change—wannabe writers are one of them, apparently.
I’ve pulled out some choice tidbits. Enjoy!
Chapter XX: Conduct to Literary Women
“On being introduced to a female writer, it is rude to say that “you have long had a great curiosity to see her.” Curiosity is not the right word. It is polite to imply that, “knowing her well by reputation, you are glad to have an opportunity of making her personal acquaintance.”
Still good advice for conventions, I think.
“When in company with literary women, make no allusions to ‘learned ladies’ or ‘blue stockings,’ or express surprise that they should have any knowledge of housewifery, or needle-work, or dress; or that they are able to talk on ‘common things.’ It is rude and foolish, and shows that you really know nothing about them, either as a class or as individuals.”
Admittedly, I don’t get this much. But it is interesting to place it in historical context—Miss Leslie is trying really hard to show that authoresses are women, too!
“Recollect that to a woman who gets her living by her pen, ‘time is money,’ as it is to an artist. Therefore, encroaching on her time is lessening her income.”
Yep. I love people. I love socializing. But yep.
“Long manuscripts are frequently sent for the revisal ‘at leisure’ of a person who has little or no leisure. Yet in the intervals of toiling for herself, she is expected to toil for some one else; probably for a stranger whom she does not know, in whom she can take no interest, and who has evidently ‘no writing in her soul.’ If, however, the modest request is kindly complied with, in all probability to the corrections will only give offence, and may perhaps be crossed out before the manuscript is offered to the publisher, who very likely may reject it for want of these very corrections.”
Something tells me Miss Leslie has personal experience with this. Something tells me that many modern-day authors do as well.
Chapter XXI: Suggestions to Inexperienced Authors
“Before you commence your manuscript, take a quire, and prepare each sheet by splitting it all down the folded side, with a sharp paper-cutter, thus dividing it into half-sheets. You can do this better on a flat table than on the slope of a desk. Keep your left hand pressing down hard on the quire, while you are cutting it with your right.”
Scrivener? Microsoft Word? WordPerfect? An app on your iThing? Whatever you use, just remember—at least we don’t have to prepare our own writing paper anymore.
“The printers will gladly dispense with covers, ribbons, and fairy-like penmanship, in favour of a plain legible hand, pages regularly numbered, and leaves written on one side only.”
No coloured paper, no extra fills, no fancy fonts. Standard manuscript format, my friends.
“If the publisher lives in your own town, it will be sufficient to roll up the manuscript in clean white paper, twisted at each end, and wafered in the middle. But however short the distance, write on the outside of the paper the full direction of the publishing office; that, in case of its being dropped in the street, any person finding it may know exactly where to take it.”
The thought of a Victorian urchin finding a rolled-up manuscript in the street, reading the address, and hustling it off to the appropriate publisher’s just makes me happy. And also glad for electronic submissions.
“Keep a memorandum-book for the express purpose of setting down whatever relates to your literary affairs. Insert the day when you commenced a manuscript, the day when you finished it, and the day on which it went to the publisher.”
Still good advice. I have an Excel spreadsheet.
“If the printer’s boy can wait, you had best correct the proofs while he stays.”
Of course. What else is the printer’s boy doing? This was the very last sentence in the two chapters concerning literary etiquette—and it strikes me as quintessentially Victorian.
And now – more rewrites on the Creepy Play!
What I’m Listening to This Week
Tchaikovsky this week—the “Hymn of the Cherubim.” It’s a slow, heavy progression of chords, with the darkness and richness that I associate with much Russian choral music. Until the sopranos have a glorious surge around 2:30. A little disquieting, but very beautiful.
The third and final leg of the American Grand Tour is coming to an end. The 2017 Smoky Writers retreat finished yesterday. Still ensconced in Virginia, I’ll be back in my garret midweek.
As mentioned previously, Smoky is one of my favourite events: great friends, great food, and great productivity. I had been planning to start a novel, but quickly found that it wasn’t quite ready—I tend to flail around with my novel openings, and Smoky wasn’t quite the forum for it.
But that’s all right—I wrote three solid short stories, a flash piece, and 4000 words of something that probably needs to be a novella, if not a novel. My stable of short pieces was getting pretty empty as submissions go out, so the situation feels much more secure now.
Of course, it’s difficult to distill the entire week-long experience into a single blog post. But something that came up in many conversations was why Smoky works as well as it does.
Essentially, there are three rules:
- Write new words
- Read new words
- Contribute positively to the community
Simple rules, but important ones. If the retreat can’t keep to them, it falls apart; I hugely respect the organizers for their dedication in defending it. Their leadership has resulted in a safe, productive space that’s also a lot of fun.
You see, writing is largely a solitary endeavour (publishing is not, but writing is). But it is nice to touch base with the people you care about. It’s nice to discuss the functions of short stories over breakfast and alien biology over evening drinks. It’s nice to share specific joys and frustrations with people who get it.
We all want to be understood. That may be why some of us started writing in the first place. We had something to say, and we wanted someone else to hear it. This is why I love conventions and retreats. In addition to the other professional benefits, they are places where connections are made between people who love stories—whether they’re editors, agents, writers, or readers.
And art is about connection, isn’t it? It’s about saying, “I understand,” “I hear you,” “I need to be heard,” “Me too.”
What I think is truly amazing is this: twenty people come together from all different places, all different backgrounds, all different walks of life. Abiding by three rules, we write, and the results vary as much as the people themselves.
We care about each other, and we care about our work. Having both is very, very precious, and they tend to feed off each other. While I’m quite content to write alone in my garret, there is something quite wonderful about being surrounded by people also focused on their creativity.
So, connection and diversity, our strengths. These are what I’ll take with me as I return home to edit (lots), write (lots), and read (lots and lots).
As ever, I am so grateful.
What I’m Listening to This Week
A sprightly madrigal by Thomas Morley: “I love, alas, I love thee.” It weaves effortlessly through unison and contrapuntal sections, ticking along like a perfectly-designed clock. In a way, it reminds me of short stories: it is complete unto itself, and no note could be anything other than what it is.
I was all ready to write a post about T.S. Eliot and a particularly evocative line of his, but then this happened:
At the very least, you’ve probably heard about this. Mike Pence attended a performance of Hamilton. He was booed. Following the show, the cast made the following statement:
“We, sir — we — are the diverse America who are alarmed and anxious that your new administration will not protect us, our planet, our children, our parents, or defend us and uphold our inalienable rights. We truly hope that this show has inspired you to uphold our American values and to work on behalf of all of us.”
By any objective standard, it’s a measured, civil statement. Pence said he “wasn’t offended.” But of course, this happened:
So here’s the thing. The theatre is not—never has been—ought not to be—a safe space. Naturally, we need to talk about what we mean by “safe space.” The theatre ought to be a safe space in that it contains sufficient fire exits and Ministry of Labour-approved standards of workplace safety. The theatre ought to be a safe space in that it
….is a place where anyone can relax and be able to fully express, without fear of being made to feel uncomfortable, unwelcome, or unsafe on account of biological sex, race/ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, cultural background, religious affiliation, age, or physical or mental ability. (Advocates for Youth)
But that, pals, is just common decency and courtesy.
A theatre ought not to be a safe space in that it is a space free from dissent, protest, and conflicting viewpoints. Drama, lest we forget, is founded on conflict. Not just conflict within the plot and characters of a piece, either. Theatre has always served—as one of its many functions—as a forum for the oppressed, the marginalized, the voiceless, and the Other.
Dissecting the history of politics-in-theatre would take a book, not a blog post, but I’ll point to Augusto Boal’s “Theatre of the Oppressed” (theatre as means of promoting social/political change), Bertolt Brecht and epic theatre (political theatre aimed at commenting on/changing social processes), Athenian satire plays (aimed at commenting on/changing the Athenian democracy), and even theatre-in-education (while generally not overtly political, TIE encourages students to form, test, and evaluate their own opinions on various subjects…by using theatre techniques to assist in reaching educational goals).
Do you notice any themes here?
Theatre as agent of change. Theatre as commentator. Theatre as means of education. This is what good theatre does. This is what good art does. And this is why the arts are not—will never be—ought never be—safe. Good theatre does not only entertain. Good theatre provokes. Good theatre forces reconsideration and re-evaluation of deeply held beliefs. Good theatre provides a space in which to empathize with the Other.
And I know I’m probably preaching to the choir here. Theatre is a commentator and change agent. What else is new?
What’s new is that this may not seem so self-evident in years to come. And that’s why it is important to speak out about it—so that we don’t lose sight of what theatre does. Have you ever noticed, autocrats tend to go for artists early on? This is why. Art pushes back; it always has. What’s more, it is damn good at commenting and fostering change—because art makes the makes the Other familiar; and the familiar, Other. When the Other isn’t the Other anymore—when they’re human, when there’s common ground—it becomes a lot harder to oppress them.
Granted, there has been some debate about whether it was appropriate for the cast to address Pence. Honestly, I’m not sure they could have avoided doing so. Every incarnation of art is a product of its time, and Hamilton is perhaps more so than most. In this particular political climate, this particular play would have completely undermined its own thesis by keeping silent. Hamilton is the “Other” America—the America that did not vote for Trump. Pence, of course, is free to see whatever shows he likes, but we all understand, “Ev’ry action has its equal, opposite reaction.”
So yes, it was appropriate. It was respectful. It was not harassment. But nor was it a particularly safe move. It was something far more—it was brave.
We’re going to need more of that sort of bravery in the years ahead. May we all have the courage to speak out and provoke. May we all have the courage to not be safe.
What I’m Listening to This Week
Oh, I should probably put a Hamilton song in solidarity, but that’s not what I was listening to this week. It’s a little early, but bring on the Christmas music. This week, it was Pearsall’s arrangement of “In Dulci Jubilo.” It’s a macaronic piece, which means it throws together Latin and English willy-nilly. It’s also rather heartbreaking in the final verse, yearning, “Oh, that we were there!”
It’s 2007. I’m sixteen. And I’m terrified. I’m sitting on a hard church pew, music in hand. The notes don’t make sense. They make sense for piano, but I can’t just pluck a G out of the air and sing it. Besides, I’m supposed to be singing the harmony, not the melody, but I can’t hear it under all the other voice parts. Tenors, basses, and piano completely bury it, but the sopranos are worst because they actually have the melody and they’re loud and even though I’m singing barely above a whisper, people keep shooting me sideways glances because I keep screwing up and I just want to sing so badly but I can’t do it.
And that’s my first year of choir in a nutshell.
A combination of writing my first real “book” (Phantom of the Opera fanfic) and Toronto getting its first real opera house had given me an insatiable appetite for opera. My younger sister had spent the last year in the Canadian Children’s Opera Company, and I watched the Youth Chorus rehearsals agog.
I wanted to sing like that. So, so badly.
There was, of course, one slight snag.
I couldn’t sing.
Somehow, I got in. I’m still not sure why. Maybe Ann—the music director, a wonderful Texan force of nature—saw how badly I wanted it. Maybe it’s hard enough to find teens willing to sing classical music, and she worried about crushing my interest.
I don’t know. In any case, I was in so far over my head, I couldn’t even see the surface.
Most of the kids in the Youth Chorus had graduated from the CCOC’s younger divisions. Which meant they’d been singing for years. Not only that, they’d been singing together for years. And then there was me: new, and shy, and totally unable to keep up with the music.
I couldn’t even read it. Oh, I mean, I could look at a piece of music and tell you, “Yes, that note is a B, and that’s a sharp, and we’re supposed to get louder over here.” But when it came to matching “note on page” with “note in voice,” I had nothing.
As for technique—I had less than nothing. The voice is an instrument. Like all instruments, you have to learn how to use it. My joining the Youth Chorus was like grabbing a trumpet and expecting to join an orchestra.
All that to say, I was pretty effing terrible. In a choir of burgeoning pros, I was the weakest link. And I wasn’t used to that. My whole life, I’ve been an overachiever and a quick study. At the risk of sounding arrogant, I was used to just…picking things up.
Algebra. French. Soccer. Piano. Never much of a learning curve. Never much angst. Just trying something, and very quickly becoming good at it.
This was the first time that hadn’t happened. Those rehearsals fighting back tears were the first time I wasn’t near the top of the class.
People worried, of course. Ann worried. My parents worried. Every Monday afternoon, dread sat in my throat like a mouthful of cold worms, and every Monday night, I came home sobbing at my own incompetence. But I. Kept. Going. Back. It was stubbornness, sheer and simple—this was the first time something had beaten me, and I couldn’t let that stand.
So I did what anyone does in those situations:
I learned to survive.
Since I couldn’t read the music, I memorized it instead, tracking down recordings of every piece we did. I went to weekly lessons wherein I worked my bum off learning technique (without the mentoring I got from Ann’s daughter Erin, I might well have crashed out). Finally, I decided that if I couldn’t be the best singer, I would be the best chorister—always on time, always prepared, always listening and well-behaved.
“Come on, you guys! Get ready!”
“You don’t count. You’re always ready.”
When I aged out at eighteen, I still wasn’t a strong singer, but I’d passed the initial hurdle. Music had woven itself into my life—to feel grounded and whole, I needed a choir.
By this point, I knew enough about my own voice to realize that opera was not a great match. To the surprise of no one, my voice is very high, very light, and very straight-toned. I don’t have the vocal weight for opera, and I never will. In terms of voice, I’m not built that way.
I am built for church singing.
So I went hunting church choirs. One rainy night in September, I climbed a million stairs to one church’s choir room. I said, “I’m a first soprano,” and the director pointed me to a seat.
Whilst my voice is better suited for church singing, there was an entirely new learning curve to contend with. Hymns that the church ladies knew by heart, but which I’d never seen. The shape and structure and music of the liturgy itself. Psalms.
But the CCOC had given me enough foundation that I could stick things out. Of course, the community helped. The ladies very quickly became like a legion of extra aunts; the men, like older brothers.
Here’s the thing about singing church services, though. There isn’t actually a ton of rehearsal. Anthems get a few weeks of practice, but the hymns and psalms change every time. It was too much music for me to memorize.
So I finally learned to read.
There was no shaft of light and angelic “Alleluia!” as the notes resolved themselves. It happened bit by bit, water wearing away at a stone, until I realized I’d actually been reading the music for a while.
I learned to support. I learned to breathe. I learned to make my voice do what I wanted as we tackled a huge range of music—from Palestrina and Byrd to spirituals. Sure, there is something of an “Anglican hoot” about it, but I’m pleased with the way it’s developed.
And I learned all the ecclesiastical side: the psalms, the hymns, the pulse and pattern of the liturgical year.
But the best thing?
I’m proud that I stuck it out. I’m proud of how much I’ve learned. But in a funny way, I’m even more proud of the battle I fought with myself. It took a long, long time, but I learned to stay with something because I love it, and no other reason.
You see, I’m still not the top of the class. Not even close. I am a competent vocalist. Not great—competent. And in this arena, I’m okay with that. I’m okay with it because for me, it’s all out of love: love for the music, love for my friends, and love for the sheer breathless rush of having a high G hit the church’s vaulted ceiling.
I am a chorister, well and truly. As the hymn goes, “How can I keep from singing?”
What I’m Listening to This Week
We’re returning to Rachmaninoff’s Bogoroditse Devo. I never thought I’d do this, but here’s…um, well, here’s me. Anglican hoot and all.
I love conventions. They’re exhausting, they usually involve consistent forays beyond my comfort zone, and I absolutely love them. You’re packing several hundred like-minded people into a hotel for three days and talking about the things we love. What’s not to like?
This was my first Can-Con, and Marie Bilodeau, Derek Künsken, and their army of committee members and volunteers put on one heck of a party. Honestly, I’m so used to being the token Canadian in the room that it was wonderful to spend time with writers from my neck of the woods. You don’t have to explain yourself, in a funny way.
It’s impossible to distill conventions down into 500 words. So, in a nutshell: the programming was stellar, the other guests and attendees hugely welcoming, and it was a great time. I saved five Six Stories, Told at Night beer coasters for future giveaways…the rest found their way into the hands of Can-Con attendees. The reading/performance also went well—thanks to everyone who came out! I met/chatted with a ton of fantastic people (here’s looking at you, SM Carrière, Nicole Lavigne, Sheila Williams, Jay Odjick, Fanny Darling, Eric Choi, Krista Walsh, Lesley Donaldson, Gillian Clinton, Madeline Ashby, Tanya Huff, and many, many, many more). I caught up with old friends as well.
Contented sighs all around.
Beyond the sheer enjoyment, I come away from Can-Con 2016 thinking about three things in particular:
It gets easier
Marie caught me looking a little overwhelmed the first night. Somewhere like Balticon, I can walk into a room and know more people than not. Can-Con was different, because I only knew a handful of people.
But then I remembered: my first Balticon was actually super awkward, because I only knew a handful of people. My first Dragon*Con was super awkward, because I didn’t know any people.
The first time at any convention is awkward, because it’s the first time. But here’s the thing I’m noticing: these situations are getting less awkward as time passes. Partly, I’m accreting a more solid, wide-ranging bedrock of people I know. And partly, I’m better able to deal with the initial butterflies.
The second night felt like Balticon: that same comfort and good vibe. Having awesome people helps, of course—but also, it gets easier.
This is where I belong
Connected to the point above. There’s just something when you hang out with other writers. You’re on the same wavelength. Attending this con brought that home even more.
I’m young, and new, and relatively inexperienced—but this is where I belong.
It’s the long haul
Being young, and new, and relatively inexperienced, it can be easy to look at all the mountain still ahead and wonder if you’ll ever make it.
But then you keep going. Always, you keep going.
On the Sunday, Can-Con held a meeting about joining SFWA. It was a great opportunity to chat with writers further up the peak, and it stoked the fire in my belly.
I want this. 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. Always, you keep going.
If we want it badly enough, we don’t really have a choice, do we?
That was my Can-Con 2016. Thank you very much to the organizers, con committee, hotel staff, panellists, vendors, volunteers, and attendees. Your hard work is greatly appreciated, and you should be very proud. I can’t wait to come back next year. 🙂
What I’m Listening To This Week
“Falling Slowly” hails from the musical Once. Unusually for me, I preferred the movie to the stage version (the medium fit better, I think—the visuals just work better on film).
Anyway, it’s a wistful little piece, perfect for continuing to ride the wave of wistfulness that is Six Stories, Told at Night. Enjoy!
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!
Six Stories, Told at Night released its first episode yesterday! If you’ve heard it, you’ll know that it’s a strange sort of hybrid piece: it’s sort of like an audiobook, but it’s really more a one-woman play, and it’s really comprised of six discrete short stories, while simultaneously being one cohesive whole…
It’s weird. It’s wonderful, and I think we’ve hit on a really interesting form of audio fiction, and also, it’s weird.
Which is fine—I’ve joked that Submissions Grinder needs to develop a filter for fiction labelled “weird af,” since that seems to be what I write. Not intentionally, necessarily—it’s just that with every story, you need to find the best (or often, only) possible way to tell it.
Look at Six Stories: the story that emerged—this story of Sam and Joëlle, of loss and friendship—was always meant to be voiced by one person. That’s what it demanded—this story of stories within stories.
So, cool. An audiobook with extra bells and whistles, a straight read supplemented with sound effects. Right?
It IS a story that absolutely must be performed aloud. It loses a layer of meaning if you’re reading it on the page, the same way that scripts only spring to life when you get them on their feet. And I choose my words very carefully: performed aloud, not read aloud. There’s a difference in energy and intention. It’s subtle, but it’s there:
“If this was a regular stage play,” I told Blythe, “it’d be black-box studio theatre, with a minimalist set.”
“I treated it like I was onstage,” Blythe told me, after. “It was different than Heartstealer.”
So. Not quite an audiobook. But not quite a conventional audio drama, either. Basically, I took that lovely taxonomy I developed at Stonecoast and threw it out the window. We have something new, I think. A weird, hybridized, emergent art form.
Because that’s how this particular story must be told.
We instinctively make these choices when we start noodling ideas. Is it a play, or prose? Short story or novel? First person or third person? Linear timeline, or jumping all over the place?
Sometimes we only find out by writing. Sometimes we change our minds halfway through. Sometimes we change our minds at the very end, when we’ve given the draft a cold, hard look.
In the end, though, it always falls to the demands of that particular piece. “This is the only way I could think of to tell this story,” is a perfectly valid reason for making certain artistic choices.
Even when they’re weird af. 😉
What I’m Listening to This Week
I’m typing this somewhere over the Atlantic Ocean, on my way home after a week in Ireland as visiting choir at St. Patrick’s Cathedral (I wasn’t the entire visiting choir, don’t worry—there were close to 40 of us singing). Conveniently, Ireland was next on my “Want-To-Visit” list after New Zealand, so things worked out quite well.
After all, I have a lot of upcoming fiction that either draws from Irish history/mythology, or straight-out takes place in Ireland. So while the choir was there to sing, I used this as a research trip alongside.
Mostly, this research consisted of walking around and looking at things. Getting a feel for Dublin and its qualities of light; how the air lies against the skin; the smells and shadows and tastes. My pal Erin and I took some day trips as well, so I did the same heading north to the Giants’ Causeway, and then cutting across the country to the Cliffs of Moher.
It’s a funny thing. When you’re in this research-mode, you’re always hanging back a little. You take notes, mentally or otherwise. My phone is full of things like, “Horn spoons can’t be sharpened,” and “Mugshot mirrors,” and “Body-snatching cemetery near Kilmainham: jail visible.” It’s kind of like being a spy: silently gathering information as you move through the world.
Of course, you still enjoy yourself. It’s true: there’s something about the Cliffs of Moher that take the talking away from you. At the same time, it’s like having double-vision: gasping at the Cliffs of Moher because they’re really quite shockingly beautiful, while also saying, “Right…this is the contrast of grey-lilac cloud and bright green. This is how it looks.”
I think that writers are simultaneously hyper-engaged with the world, and standing apart from it. Constantly stroking the limestone (smooth, warm, grainy under the fingers), really paying attention to the salt on the wind (it gets on the lips), studying our bus tour group (that passive-aggressive woman insinuating that maybe the driver can stop at her hotel, not the official bus drop-off). You’re right there, but always saying, “So that’s how it is, I can use that.”
Really, though, you don’t need to travel to conduct this sort of research. Watch the people on the subway—the power dynamics over shared seats. Pay attention walking down the street—ears open, eyes wide, breathing deep.
It’s tiring. I don’t think anyone can do it all of the time. Sometimes, you can’t be standing apart, taking notes. But I do think I made the most of my time in Ireland. I understand it better; we’ve gotten to know each other a bit.
Now, of course, even more fun and hard work: taking those impressions and scraps and synthesizing them into good stories. 🙂
What I’m Listening to This Week
Ah, it’s been “The Wind that Shakes the Barley” (no, I’ve not seen the movie; yes, I want to). There was a lot of Irish history on this trip. There’s a wonderful crescendo about midway through this piece that cuts to a lot of grief—it’s given insight into a certain character.
I understand him better; we’ve gotten to know each other a bit.