I’ve been rereading Ursula K. Le Guin’s excellent essay collection, The Language of the Night, most particularly “From Elfland to Poughkeepsie,” which examines the importance of language and style in writing fantasy. Le Guin’s main thesis is that fantasy isn’t defined so much by wizards and dragons. What makes it fantasy is the style: “The style, of course, is the book…If you remove the style, all you have left is a synopsis of the plot.” (Le Guin, The Language of the Night, p. 94).
She hastens to add, “I speak from the reader’s point of view. From the writer’s point of view, the style is the writer…Style is how you as a writer see and speak” (ibid).
Which is certainly true. Style can be learned, imitated, affected—but we all have a style that is uniquely us, as personal as our fingerprints or speaking voice.
But I was thinking—I have a story coming out in Lackington’s at the end of this month that’s a very different style than my other fiction. It’s contemporary and snappish (the editor called it “almost hardboiled,” which delighted me to no end). And yet—it’s still me.
As usual, I turn to music to help me understand my own writing process.
First, some technical things: vocal registers.
Vocal pedagogy is its own delight, but for our purposes, let’s talk about chest voice, head voice, and the break. Super simply (I apologize), chest voice is the low part of the vocal range, head voice is the upper part, and the break is that frustrating bit in the middle.
There’s a difference singing across registers. Physically, of course, but also in terms of intention.
And yet, it’s still the same voice—used differently, resonating in different places, useful for different types of music (I would die trying to sing descants in my chest voice).
For me, this is a useful way to think about writing. Some stories sit in my chest voice. Some sit in my head voice. Same voice, same style, just applied differently.
(As a sidebar that really deserves its own blog post, I think that the same logic applies to fairy tales. Tolkien famously described a “fairy-story” as “…one which touches on or uses Faërie, whatever its own main purpose may be…” (Tolkien, Tree and Leaf, p. 16). Much like how fantasy isn’t defined by wizards and dragons, fairy tales aren’t defined by wee sprites. I think defining “fairy tale” comes down to register, rather than plot motifs or tropes—a “Faerie voice,” if you will. But I digress.)
But wait, there’s more!
Even within the same register, vowels change the sound dramatically! Consciously adapting vowels is an important skill for choristers; just like adapting vocabulary, syntax, and vernacular is important for writers.
Good singers can sing across all genres of music. Sure, it may sound different, but it’s always them, always their style. Good writers do the same—and that’s what I’m aiming for.
What I’m Listening To This Week
Christmas has started at the dayjob, so bring on the Christmas/Advent music! It’s going to be a fun six weeks. Here’s a macaronic piece already getting considerable play on my rotation:
I’d like to tell a story.
About a year ago, I was heading to a Christmas party when I learned that Six Stories, Told at Night had gotten into the Toronto Fringe. That’s a story I’ve told before.
This is a Christmas party with lots of (choral) music-types. Fantastically nerdy conversations abounded. After a few pints, a friend and I were talking in the hallway about Toronto’s two big Christmas shows—Handel’s Messiah and the National Ballet’s The Nutcracker—and how many people tend to be a “Messiah” person or a “Nutcracker” person, and—
“Hold on,” quoth I, “what if you combined them?”
“The music of Messiah,” I continued, flush with possibility and good ale, “and the story of The Nutcracker!”
My friend giggled.
“But who may abide the nut of his cracking?” I sang. Then, to the tune of the Hallelujah chorus, “O Nutcracker! O Nutcracker!”
We giggled some more and eventually I went home, and that should’ve been the end of it.
Except that in the morning, it was still funny. New words to “There were shepherds” dripped from my fingers easily enough. And for a few months, I poked at the idea again and occasionally threatened to put this show on.
“It wouldn’t be too hard,” quoth I (so innocent, then!). “You just need a piano and people who know Messiah.”
On and off, on and off, I wavered back and forth. And then Blythe had the brilliant idea of using it as a fundraiser for Gangway! Theatre Co., and we were off to the races. For the first time, I seriously considered what I needed:
Quartet of soloists
Thanks to awesome, dedicated friends…uh, we got all those things. Yes, certain parts were harder than I anticipated. Like my poetry, my parody seems to prefer spontaneity—sitting down to a keyboard and messing with Messiah for realsies was less footloose and fancy-free than I expected. Also, as I learned with Six Stories, there are always tiny maddening logistical things that crop up like black flies.
Will it be funny? I mean, I think it’s funny. The choir thinks it’s funny. People outside a cross-section of classical music nerds?
This was an anxiety-making moment over the last week.
But we’re doing it. The hilarious drunk idea has become a real show, hitting the Comedy Bar mainstage (945 Bloor St. West), November 13th at 9:30 pm. And I’m proud: I’m proud of the musicians, proud of my friends, and proud we got this sucker to the stage. We actually went for it.
Comfort ye, my people. For unto us, Nutcracker comes!
What I’m Listening to this Week
But of course…
For many reasons, I’m heart-sore this week. There isn’t a long post in me, but I didn’t want to let this slide another week. And so, here are three autumn poems. You may recognize them from previous postings – that’s okay.
See you next week.
I Saw My Ghost
I saw my ghost yesterday,
Drinking tea in dappled light.
I checked all my bones,
Running soft fingers along
Testing the joints
And painted-over cracks.
I am pleased to report
They all held up
A tiny splinter
On my least significant metatarsal.
It gave a short yelp
We did not speak,
My ghost and I,
Though she lifted cold china
To a mouth that cut.
I silenced those bones
Better left to old closets:
Those bones best forgotten
October Fell Upon My Back
October fell upon my back,
The brindled wood, the barren lack,
Smoke-yellowed light a slantwise cross
Through bleak-bald trees gone gaunt with loss.
Before the wind, the dead leaves whirled,
Grey starving mist between them swirled.
The forest asked me, low and pained,
“And is it good, what you have gained?”
I stood alone on earth hard-packed,
Stood weighing grief
And weighing lack.
Dry berries withered on the thorn,
The season’s hinge creaked plaintive, worn,
While streams decayed to stiffened mud,
A sting of smoke and smear of blood.
October dark caressed my bones,
The trees leaned in, my lovely crones,
But standing in the forest bare,
I could not speak, and did not dare.
And the last fall wind
Crept under my coat.
The Elegance of the Turtle
This is not a poem
I have written for you,
The elegance of the turtle
As he drifts through
And for the slow guilelessness
In his farewell.
I am certain of the turtle,
It is better that I sing for him,
Where withered cattails shiver
And greying willows weep
Over the water.
What I’m Listening To This Week
Last night, I stumbled back into my flat and I slept hard. Head hit the pillow, lights went out. For ten glorious hours, I was submerged in deep, (mostly) dreamless sleep.
See, it was Can*Con this weekend.
I’ve talked about Can*Con before. It’s a SFF convention in Ottawa, and my favourite con by far. This year was no exception. It felt like the platonic ideal of cons.
Good professional things happened. My workshop went really well. I spent time with dear friends. I scored some sweet stuff in the dealers’ room. Fun food expeditions were had.
I could ramble on about how great the weekend was, and leave it at that. But I want to take a moment to dissect why Can*Con works.
Can*Con was inaugurated in the nineties. After going on hiatus for a time, it was resurrected by Derek Künsken (who just released his debut novel, THE QUANTUM MAGICIAN!). He currently co-chairs the con with my pal Marie Bilodeau. The Ottawa writers’ community is lovely and vibrant, and most of them are involved in the con on some level, whether on the programming or corporate teams.
So what makes this a good con?
When a con attempts everything, it ends up with nothing. Cosplay, media, literature, gaming, science, and history attract different audiences and need different skills. Spreading yourself thin to hit them all dilutes the con’s purpose. Some cons fragment into self-contained enclaves; others just end up feeling watered-down, and can’t progress beyond surface-level skimming of their topics.
Can*Con has two main focuses: literature and science.
There are some history panels, of course, and I taught a podcasting workshop. The focuses allow some room to breathe, but all programming aligns with that basic mandate.
Accessibility and inclusivity aren’t after-thoughts. They are incorporated into planning from the outset. There is also a designated Accessibility Coordinator.
Pronoun stickers for badges, a dealers’ room designed with mobility in mind, all-gender washroom availability, a quiet room, accessibility seating in programming rooms—these are all givens. Accessibility and inclusivity are non-negotiables.
Is it perfect? Of course not. But identified shortfalls are met with commitment to refining and improving—not denial and shirking of responsibility.
Get the Right People
Convention teams need a carefully curated mix of personalities and skills sets. After all—those personalities and skill sets become the con.
It’s a diverse group, but there is a common factor: commitment to the convention’s mission and values. Without that, you’ve got no coherency in your team, which translates to no coherency in the con either.
Just a little bit. Every con has a personality—which in turn influences the audience it attracts. Author and storyteller (and my friend) Nicole Lavigne describes Can*Con as “the little con that does.”
At this point, it’s the best game in eastern Canada. And it got there partly by saying it was. It’s a bit like performer A.E. Shapera pointed out…if you claim you’re famous, eventually people make you so.
Commitment to Harassment Policies
Again, there are always procedures to refine and improvements to make.
But the commitment to upholding the current code of conduct is total and absolute.
End of story.
It takes a lot to make a convention. It takes even more to make a convention work. As I reflect back on the weekend, I keep coming back to this:
A convention is its community.
I feel very fortunate to call this community—and this con—my friends.
What I’m Listening to this Week
Ēriks Ešenvalds’ wonderful piece, “Northern Lights.” It starts with a Latvian folksong, and then changes to the writings of American explorer Charles Francis Hall, set to music. The piece reminds me very much of The Flying Dutchman.
From one adventure to the next!
Six Stories, Told at Night had its showcase and reception last week. Overall, we were thrilled with how it all went (I regret a few moments of clumsiness). And to celebrate, The Seventh Story was released on Friday! This is a companion story written as one of our GoFundMe rewards. You can find it here!
So what’s next?
Yes, I return once again to this delightful con! Its numbers are swelling, the programming looks awesome as ever, and I’m so looking forward to seeing lots of cool people. It’ll be a busy weekend, too!
Friday, October 12
WORKSHOP: A Sound Idea – Fiction Writing for Podcasts
Ever wanted to dip a toe in the ocean of podcasting? Play with sounds and learn the difference between a read and performed narrative? Then step right up! I’ll be teaching a session on podcasting writing and production.
Can-Con has a few masterclasses running, so click here to learn more and register!
READING: 3:00 pm
It’s gonna be Anatoly Belilovsky and me kicking off the readings!
Saturday, October 13
A Seriously Folked-Up Panel on Fairy Tales — 12:00 pm
Me, Amal el-Mohtar, Kari Maaren, Rati Mehrotra, Derek Newman-Stille (m)
Sunday October 14
Beyond Romantic Entanglements— 2:00 pm
Me, James Alan Gardner, Jessica Reisman, Kelly Robson (m)
Of course, then fun doesn’t stop after Can-Con. There’s a slew of projects in the works. I’ve deviated some from my magic New Year’s Day list of goals, but I’m happy with the things in the hopper…including a new musical comedy crossover.
Things are good. Exhausting, but good.
What I’m Listening to this Week
I just came across César Franck’s “Le Chasseur Maudit” (The Damned/Accursed Hunter). It’s a wonderful musical take on the Wild Hunt motif. I love the hunter’s horn crying out in the beginning, and the grand, sweeping lines as he’s pursued by Hell. Perfect for this time of year!
The Six Stories, Told at Night showcase/party is distressingly close. Blythe and I have been racing about, organizing things and booking things…and going to other people’s events.
It has been a bad week for social anxiety, as I feel terribly out of my element. In many ways, indie theatre is a lot like the SFF world. It’s small. Most people know each other. Different theatres have their niches. There is a whole web of social connexions and unwritten social codes that I can’t see, because I’m not aware of them. Going to the Word on the Street book/magazine festival yesterday felt like heaving myself onto a life raft.
Writers! Editors! Readers! Book people! I know how to do this! I have friends here! I feel safe!
And then back to feeling generally useless.
So what does it feel like, when the anxiety starts kicking in?
Imagine, dear reader, a dimly-lit bar with lots of loud conversations and lots of people clustered in groups. But it’s not a background hum of noise. Oh, no. You’re getting ten different conversations piped directly into your ears—and your brain treats them all as equally important.
It’s a bit like having pop-ups that can’t be turned off. You’re just trying to surf the web, but you can’t get very far before something fills the screen demanding all the attention, right now. My brain’s trying to navigate a situation that it’s fairly sure might kill us, but half of it’s stuck processing incoming sound.
Sensory issues make me good at podcasting, and bad at crowds.
Anyway, they’re all having conversations. Great. So – who has two thumbs and gets intimidated by groups?
Except at cons, weirdly. But then, I know con etiquette better. Loose circle of people drift into the hallway after that panel you all saw? It’s probably okay to introduce yourself and have a brief chat. Two people in a deep conversation, by themselves, in a withdrawn corner of the bar? Keep walking.
Anyway, it’s that classic social anxiety thing of being the weird kid standing along the playground fence.
And we can throw in some general competency-based anxiety, just for fun.
My chest tightens. My thoughts race. My hands shake. Really, my brain is trying to be helpful. It’s CERTAIN that danger’s lurking RIGHT HERE, and by George, it’s going to let me know.
But—I’ve been trying to remind myself that SFF has only started feeling comfortable over the last few years. And it’s only been really comfortable for…I don’t know, maybe the last two? Whenever I started going to Can-Con, I suppose.
What made the difference?
Some of it was time, of course. It takes a lot of form rejections, awkward cover letters, and nervous pitches to learn the rhythms of publishing. It also takes time to nurture relationships.
And I started going to stuff. That made the biggest difference. Take ChiZine’s reading series. I made myself go month after month. Sometimes, I had to literally force myself up the stairs. I still went. Every month. Hard rule.
And now…man, I love ChiSeries.
But the point is that it was a conscious decision to force myself over the hump. Going to new cons is a conscious decision. I can do it. I’ve proved it to myself.
I just need to trust that theatre works the same way.
Reminder that you can purchase your tickets for Six Stories, Told Again right here. And join us at Theatre Passe Muraille for the after-party! The Seventh Story will drop there, that night, and in the podcast feed the next day!
What I’m Listening to this Week
More Emilie Autumn, a take on “The Lady of Shalott” this time. I’ve been thinking about that poem a lot this year…
So I’m reading Terri Windling’s The Wood Wife for the first time, and I’m only surprised that it’s taken me this long. Terri Windling is a superb editor (her fairy tale series with Tor is particularly worth reading). I love her blog, where she talks about her creative life amidst the green of Dartmoor. Her takes on mythic fiction fascinate me.
In short, she’s entirely up my alley. I’m not quite done The Wood Wife yet, but I am devouring it. It’s contemporary fantasy, and it’s still got very old magic in it. In many ways, it reminds me of Charles de Lint’s fiction (unsurprising), and I love it for many of the same reasons I love his (even more unsurprising).
It is also a novel inextricably tied to place; in this case, the desert and mountains outside of Tucson, Arizona. The dried-out washes, saguaros, vivid mountain colours, and harsh desert light enfold everything else: place is the magic and place is the character, and it speaks to a lot of what I’m mulling right now in terms of place, identity, and building Home.
This passage particularly struck me:
“He could only guess by the lines of his face what lineage was in him…Did it matter? He was of this land, whatever it had been. He was born here. Eaten its food, drunk its water, sweated under its hot, hot sun; he had taken the land into his body. His blood and bones were formed of it. He belonged here, as nowhere else.” – Terri Windling, The Wood Wife
The same can be said for the novel as a whole. Somehow, Windling has taken the land into the novel. It wouldn’t work, set anywhere else.
Place is particularly on my mind because I finished rewrites on the Beer Magic novel this week. Beer Magic isn’t mythic fiction—there are no Old Ones, here—but I’m trying to treat place in a similar way, trying to take Toronto and its ravines into the story, to sing its own song back to it.
We’ll see how well I do. That is one nice thing about the new place, though. I am closer to the ravines…
Of course, another writer’s words float to mind:
“I truly believe that each of us has a natural home. It may or may not be where we are born. We make it—yes. But we cannot make it perfect unless we discover where it belongs.” – Timothy Findley, Inside Memory: Pages from a Writer’s Notebook
I think I’m trying to figure that out now. I don’t think I shall do so within the next year, or even the next two, or five. But it will come closer—and I think the persistent preoccupation with place and home in my fiction is part of that journey.
But for now? The goldenrod and chicory are blooming in the ravines, and the leaves have that limp, strung-out look they get before they change colour. The sun sets earlier; warm though it remains, autumn is hastening.
And I have more of The Wood Wife to read.
What I’m Listening to this Week
“One foot in front of the other foot” will be my motto for the next while. Repetitive, forceful as marching footsteps, this song’s been surprisingly comforting.
It’s one of those weeks where I feel like I haven’t anything insightful or interesting to say. Mostly, it’s just been a lot of hard work. But I figured that it’s probably prudent to give updates on a few things…
Yes, it’s true! My interactive fiction novel with Choice of Games released last week. It’s a sword-and-sorcery epic…with dinosaurs! Choose your prehistoric pal, fight in duels, learn magic, and get involved in various schemes!
Six Stories, A Surprise at Night!
After a thrilling run at the Toronto Fringe, we have more plans for Six Stories…
…which we’ll announce very soon!
Super Secret Seventh Story
I need to edit the audio. We also want to time its release to coincide with our surprise, so mark your calendars for early October! It’ll drop into the same Six Stories feed!
Return to Coxwood
Yes, yes, yes, it’s happening!!!
Believe me, ideas are percolating. I’ve got a general thrust of plot, along with a list of actors I’m keen to worth with. Currently, I’m looking at an early 2019 release. Again, mark those calendars!
This novel is so entirely my heart: queer ladies making magic beer across alternate versions of Toronto. I’m well into my own edits on it, and I’ll be looking for betas around early-mid September. If you’re keen, hit me up!
…is that it for now? I feel like that might be it for now.
OH, NO, WAIT.
The story of The Nutcracker, told through the music of Handel’s Messiah. (Albeit with some tweaks to the libretto!) Somehow, incredibly, this appears to actually be happening on November 14th. In addition to being a hilarious mash-up of Toronto’s two favourite holiday traditions, it’s also a fundraiser for Gangway! Theatre Co!
We’ve got a venue and roughly half our artists booked. Again…mark those calendars, it’ll be a party!
Okay. I think that’s it for now.
What I’m Listening to this Week
Lots of fugues, lots of J.S. Bach. In my endless spare time, I’m also doodling with some short story ideas…and I’m trying to figure out how to steal the fugue’s structure. I love the idea of starting simply, with one voice, and getting steadily more complex before simplifying again and resolving at the end.
But we shall see.
I wasn’t going to make this a thing, but I’m still processing it…and writing is the way I process, so here we are.
Yesterday morning, I was on the subway heading to work. And let’s be honest: things haven’t been great for a bit. Everything is kind of A Lot right now, I’m not sleeping well, my anxiety is flaring, huge upheavals are happening. And yes, I’m getting help for those things.
But, context: I’m miserable.So about halfway to work, a young man gets on the train and sits across from me. He’s maybe a few years younger than me. “That’s a cool jacket,” I think, and then lapse back into sadness.
A few stops later, I look up and notice that he’s crying. Silent tears course down his cheeks.
I pretend engrossment in my phone, because public emotion is awkward and I want to give him privacy. After all, I am also miserable. If I started crying right then, I’d want everyone to ignore me until I could regain control.
But then silent tears turn to that thin weeping you do when your heart’s really broken.
Shit shit shitshitshit
My heart’s hammering. We’re almost at my stop. The moment’s poised on the edge: it’s going to tip one way or the other, but which?
I look left. I look right. I take a deep breath.
And I go and sit—not beside the guy, but near him. “Hey, man. Is there anything I can do?”
He jerks upright, scrubbing his eyes. “I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry.”
“No, no,” I say lamely. “It’s just…I wasn’t sure, if it were me, would I want a stranger to reach out or leave me alone? So I needed to ask. That’s all.”
He hesitates a moment, then blurts, “I’m going to the cemetery.”
And so we have Dead Fathers Club: Subway Edition. Blowing past my stop, we talk about death, grief, and fathers all the way to his. “It may never be okay,” I tell him. “But it does get easier.”
He nods. “That’s why I’m alone, this time.”
Then we reach his stop. We say goodbye. He goes his way and I catch a train south to get back on mine.
And for all the sadness, I’m glad I was able to be of service; I’m glad he found the kindness he needed in that moment. But I think it helped me just as much as it helped him. I needed the connection too. I needed to remember that humans are Neat and we really do Try Our Best and that even two random strangers on a train can lighten each other’s burden. I needed to crawl free from my sadness and remember that this life is all about service and love.
But it’s strange: it’s both a beautiful thing that happened, but also I don’t want to make it a big thing. I didn’t do anything special. This isn’t at all about me.
The reason I’m writing this is…I just want us to remember to be kind. I want us to remember that even in the depths of our own darkness, we can still offer light. And I want us to remember that Being Human sometimes means being very, very sad, and also lifting each other up, as we are able.
Thank you, Guy with Cool Jacket. I hope you find peace and healing.Be kind. Be well.
What I’m Listening To This Week
“Soon Ah Will Be Done” is another spiritual that has a jaunty tune and a heartbreaking historical context.
I’m not even quite sure where to start. It’s been a time. It’s also been a week since I moved from my beloved little garret, and we are…settling in. Kind of. Change is hard, change to my home environment harder still. I do not do well when I’m uprooted.
(Sidebar: which is why I’m amazed that people can routinely move between cities, provinces, and countries. It’s like…how? How do you transplant yourself somewhere completely new, where there is nothing familiar? I’ve only done it temporarily, and I am not keen to try it again anytime soon.)
But we are getting there. Guinness has become braver in his explorations. I vacillate between “ahhhhhhhhhhhh” and “wait this isn’t so bad and I specifically chose this neighbourhood because it contains ravines and many of my friends.” For now, I hold out hope for an eventual triumphant return to Little Italy, because…well, I can’t really do anything else.
And the office set-up is really quite cute. That’s my stable point, too. As long as I have a solid place to do my work, I can handle quite a lot else.
With all this change, though, something has helped immensely. Apologies, as this was cross-posted to Twitter, but I think it’s worth repeating here.
I’ve been watching a lot of Doctor Who regenerations. Not full episodes, mind you. Just the regenerations. In doing so, I’ve noticed a rather helpful pattern.
It happens after something big
The Doctor doesn’t just regenerate willy-nilly. S/he regenerates after some big adventure, some massive outpouring of effort that would usually result in death.
I mean, in a mythic sense, the Doctor does die. The Doctor constantly dies. And the Doctor is constantly reborn.
The lead-up hurts
But anyway, regeneration happens after something monumental. The Doctor is almost always wounded. S/he is almost always in pain. Sometimes, s/he is alone. And so we usually see the Doctor stumbling around the TARDIS, knowing that regeneration is inevitable but still attempting to fight it off, just for those last few moments.
This is the hard part: the letting go of the old self.
The Doctor sets his/her house in order
Sometimes the Doctor makes a speech for his/her successor. This is where everyone cries. This is where we find out what’s been really important to this iteration.
This is when s/he puts his/her old self to rest. The chapter closes.
When it finally happens, after all the lead-up, all the inexorable steps, regeneration is violent. There’s fire. Explosions. The TARDIS gets damaged. It is not a pretty, gentle transition. It’s like the phoenix conflagrating.
It’s that thing where a lot of small changes build up until there’s a MASSIVE change.
A new adventure starts right away
But then the music changes. Humour ensues. There’s very little time spent mourning the old Doctor—we hit the ground running right away with the new.
We’re onto the adventures only the new Doctor could have. And the Doctor always wears a specific face for a reason; it underscores his/her personal arc. The universe needed the War Doctor at a very specific time; it needed Smith’s off-kilter gregariousness just as much.
It’s okay to be in pain. It’s okay to be wracked with upheaval. This is the stumbling-around-the-TARDIS phase. There may be a big explosion of light and sparks soon.
But that’s okay.
That’s when the adventures really begin.
We all change, when you think about it. We’re all different people all through our lives. And that’s okay, that’s good, you gotta keep moving, so long as you remember all the people that you used to be.
– Eleventh Doctor
For obvious reasons, I’ve been thinking about cycles a lot. The dance of creation-stability-destruction, the phoenix and its ashes, the Doctor…
2018 has been a rather more tumultuous year than expected. But I’m excited to see what subsequent chapters bring.
This song is ending, but the story never ends.
What I’m Listening to this Week
I’ve used the composer Brunuhville for writing playlists before. It’s all very epic-cinematic-fantasy music. To the surprise of no one, this one also touches on the idea of cycles, of falling darkness leading to dreams…