Archive for May, 2012|Monthly archive page

Vocalizing Magic

In Uncategorized on May 25, 2012 at 10:41 am

When I was younger, I thought certain physical things were magical. Coins, keys and locks, playing cards and games, candles and mirrors, clocks. I still do, it’s not that I’ve stopped; even more things are magical for me now, like the flashdrive I keep my work on. The difference is that I’m starting to assemble more of the why.

When I was a kid I couldn’t have expressed the reasons for my visceral feeling that these things had a special power. Some of it is obvious, like candles; contained fire, a light in the darkness, something you see in old places, in mysterious places. Mirrors seem obvious, because they’re such a part of western folklore — Snow White, Bloody Mary — but of course then you have to ask yourself why they’re so popular in folklore, why they were used.

These things come with their own set of rules, which are sometimes inexplicable in themselves. Why do playing cards have worth? Did you know that the face cards have names? Not king or queen, actual names. I’d have to go look up my notes, but they’re named things like Alexander and Arthur. Coins have a very simple worth wrapped in very complicated imagery. Keys fit certain locks; locks are safe or unsafe, and like clocks are intricately built, difficult to understand.

They’re also multiple in their purpose or construction. They combine the practical and the mystical. Coins can be used as offerings, and they crop up in a fair few fairy-tales as well. A key has no use without its matching lock, and a key found on the ground is an eternal mystery. Mirrors can show us what we look like, but they hold an entire separate backwards-world inside them. Clocks tell time, but are also works of mechanical wonder, some of the earliest automata that exists, and they’re based on timepieces that used the sun and earth to regulate the world. My ridiculous flashdrive is a thin little stick, practically an adornment that hangs on my neck, but it contains whole worlds I’ve made up.

It seems to be that these things are crafted, not just made; they contain mysteries, and their rules are different to the rules of the everyday.

Ordinarily this wouldn’t perhaps be important, and understanding them certainly wouldn’t be wise; the essence of magic is mystery (viz the old saying — Magic is just Science we don’t understand yet) and solving the mystery kills the magic. But part of the job of being a writer, particularly one who deals in magic in their writing, is to understand things others don’t, and to poke at mysteries until they’re not mysteries any longer but tools. There’s a reason I opened The Dead Isle with a coin; I didn’t understand at the time, but I felt I had to include it. I understand better, as I get older.

The process of writing is sometimes the process of breaking down symbols from our culture, not just from our own heads. It’s an oddly un-artistic activity, quite analytical. Perhaps that means there’s no more magic for us, but to be able to wield those symbols skillfully makes us magicians, in a sense. That’s pretty powerful.

The mundane is full of magic, and magic is made out of the most interesting mundanities. That’s an elemental aspect of both steampunk and magical realism. It’s really no wonder they attract me; they engender a sense of wonder at the world.


Contacts and Contracts

In Uncategorized on May 18, 2012 at 9:00 am

I wrote a week or two ago about the work I was doing adapting my short story Out Of Rome to a novella-length work, which eventually ended up being submitted to Riptide Publishing under the title The City War. I have to say that while I worked really hard to make sure I cared as much about the quality of this story as I would about one I’m publishing myself, there was no loss of thrill when I got the acceptance letter from the editors on Monday.It’s very validating; it’s like someone saying “I work in this field, and I officially approve of you!”

I’ve been working lately to build up a network of writers and editors, not so much for my own sake but because it’s really fun to hook them up with each other and watch what happens. It’s like matchmaking; it’s very satisfying. Even so, I didn’t realise when I emailed the submissions editor that I actually knew at least one of the editors, possibly more, through livejournal. This world is smaller than we know, most of the time.

But it’s cool, now I have a whole new publishing house to add to my repertoire of places I can send people I think have promise.

I’ve always sort of let the numbers side of the business slide past me. I’ve read plenty about it in my trawlings for information on how we, as a literary culture, are making the leap to digital; I’ve read about how publishing houses work, how authors interact with them, and how that process has to change with the advent of e-readers. The information’s been there, but it wasn’t something I paid a lot of attention because it didn’t seem terribly relevant except in the “Wow, authors get shafted” sense.

Thing is, I’ve apparently absorbed enough about it that I can tell when I’m getting a good deal; with both this contract and the last one I signed for Candlemark & Gleam, I was capable of reading the whole thing over, making sure I was protected and so were they, and signing with a free heart. Both Riptide and C&G are small presses, and the terms are generous as only an e-publisher or a print publisher with a very efficient model can be. At any rate, I signed this morning and sent it off, which is always fun.

Sometimes when I take the envelope with a contract in it downstairs to put it in the mail box, I pretend I’m a spy mailing secret coded messages to home base.

I’m a writer, these are the things I do.

The Glacial Writer

In Uncategorized on May 15, 2012 at 9:00 am

It’s not difficult to see a writer’s progress if you read a couple of their books at once. The way their skills and techniques change can be pretty evident, especially in cases where talent sometimes outstrips ability at first. Sometimes it’s just a matter of having breathing space to be creative, or of knowing your characters — Harry Harrison’s “Stainless Steel Rat” series improves drastically over time from his first pulp attempt. It’s my personal opinion that the later Narnia novels are much better than the earlier ones, but that’s more up for debate, I think. At any rate, it’s possible to watch a writer mature — or sometimes, naming no names, regress — if you can get a look at several eras of their work at once.

It’s much, much more difficult for a writer to see their own work change and grow. As immediate as it seems when reading, when writing you’re undergoing a process that takes months to begin with, years and decades to progress. The pace for the writer is glacial, and it’s always more difficult to be objective about your own work.

It’s been an interesting process, reading and re-writing The Dead Isle, because I wrote it going on four years ago, before I’d put Nameless up for mass critique. That process sped up a lot of my skill acquisition so that now, four years on, I am a visibly better writer. I think this would have taken longer without Extribulum, but who knows.

In rewriting Dead Isle these past few months, I often asked myself what the hell I was thinking, writing this or that phrase, or putting a scene where I did. The truth is, at the time, I either had a perfectly rational reason for doing it, or I just wasn’t paying attention. More likely the latter. The more lessons about writing that I internalize, the easier it is to pay attention, so that now I can fix what was broken and add new flourishes to cover the breaks.

But I can also see where I was doing things on instinct that were good, and now I can put a name to why they were good.

Learning to write is a process that takes pretty much your whole life, I think. I believe that writing has a lot to do with connecting to the reader and trying to evoke certain feelings or thoughts, which involves a lot of different identifiable techniques — structure, prose, arc — but also involves understanding the way people think and feel, and why they think and feel that way. It’s almost too big for any one person to grasp, trying to comprehend cultural shifts and motivations, trying to tap into the spirit of the moment. I don’t necessarily need to know what’s going on in order to write a better character; I need to know what’s going on in order to write better for the reader.

I feel like there should be more depth to this whole theory of literature than “It all comes down to the reader”, but so far that’s all I’ve got. Perhaps that’s just a place from which to build, and I just need to fumble in the dark until I find some blueprints. But I feel that it is a basic, fundamental truth: I am writing for a reader, and everything I do, every skill I learn, every technique I perfect, is aimed at forging  that link with the reader. I don’t often feel that link anymore when I read a book, but I used to; it seems like something that began and ended in childhood, or perhaps it’s just not that permissible as an adult to allow yourself to be influenced so heavily by something.

Maybe it’s time I learned more about the reader; I’ve learned a lot, but never in any systematic way. Perhaps the next step is to ask why people read books and how, and what kinds of books people have bonded to. The way we read is changing, and the written word has never been more popular — high literacy rates and the necessity of textual communication over the internet have made writing important in a different way than it was before. Perhaps that needs study, too.

These are big, scary things, but then writing a book isn’t as big or scary as it used to be, for me, so a new challenge may be just the thing.

Another Word For “Nothing Left To Lose”

In Uncategorized on May 4, 2012 at 9:00 am

Well, yesterday marked the halfway point for putting The Dead Isle through the Extribulum process. It’s never an easy thing to undergo, but it has its pleasures too.

It’s hard and humbling to open up your work to the outside world and not just ask for but demand criticism. Nobody likes to be told they’re wrong, and being told you’re wrong approximately a dozen times per chapter is hard to handle. It’s good — it makes for a better book and it’s an ongoing process of education to hear what the readers want — but there’s a lot of work that goes into swallowing the instinctive No, you’re wrong! reaction and reiterating to myself, over and over again, that I am not an infallible writing god.

The flip side of that is the fascinating puzzle of fixing what’s wrong, and the euphoric feeling of being able to. I’ve reached a point in my career as a writer where I have not only hard-won objectivity about my work but also the skill to improve on it when it’s broken. It’s difficult to describe without sounding like an egotist or a nutbag, but I feel a little like an acrobat: capable of flipping and turning and tumbling in midair and knowing where I’ll land. For someone who is physically a klutz, to be able to do that intellectually is thrilling. Writing is the one thing I am really, solidly, enthusiastically good at, the one thing that I have done longer than I’ve done anything else, and I’m proud of that. It’s fun.

While I’ve been working with my readers on The Dead Isle, I’ve also been adapting a short story I wrote, Out Of Rome. I happened to see a call from a small press for LGBT-themed novels and novellas about the ancient world, and somewhat on a self-made dare I thought I would expand the thousand words of Out Of Rome into a novella. The minimum word-count for the call was 25,000, which worked out to about a thousand words a day if I wanted to get it in on time. A thousand words is a slightly higher goal than I like to set myself — eight hundred is about my average when I’m pushing, though when I’m in the zone I can hit a few thousand easily.

Still, I thought I might as well try, and if I failed, there was no real penalty. Happily, I’ve completed Out Of Rome — now titled Himself At War — with two weeks still to spare before it’s due.

What interests me most about posting The Dead Isle for critique while adapting Himself At War is how much less invested I was in making it the best novella it could possibly be. I wanted it to be good, of course, and I put plenty of effort in, but I didn’t push as far into burnout as I generally do with the stories I publish myself, and I was hesitant to send it to beta because I knew they’d be stricter with it than I was willing to be (fortunately they probably will, which will help motivate me to suck less).

Ironically, I seem to have lower standards for a submission to a professional publishing house than I do for my own. I’ve had to work hard to make myself care as much about the quality of the story as I normally do.

Perhaps it’s that, again, there’s no real penalty. It would be nice to have a professionally published novella and perhaps to make a little money from it, but if they reject the book I can publish it myself. Besides, I’ve done enough submission to professional houses and agents, and done enough slush-file reading as a theatre professional, that I have internalized two important things:

One, a rejection is mostly about the editor, somewhat about the story, and very little about the writer. While you may be embarrassed that they didn’t like your work, they probably won’t remember it or you in a few weeks.

Two, a rejection genuinely isn’t something to take personally, nor is it the end of the world. It sounds like boilerplate to say sometimes a story just doesn’t click with a reader, but sometimes it doesn’t.

Admittedly, I’ve always had a fairly philosophical attitude towards rejections, and I chalk it up to visiting the Jack London museum in Sonoma when I was young. I hadn’t yet started writing creatively, but I had read Call Of The Wild and White Fang, and I was a big admirer of London’s adventure stories. One of the cases in the museum contained what seemed to me to be stacks of rejection letters London had received, and I was deeply awed by the number of people who clearly had no clue what they’d held in their hands when he sent them his manuscripts. It impressed upon me just how irrelevant rejection letters generally are.

(Some of mine have been super-funny. One of them was from an agent who had changed her focus so that she only handled books about dogs, and regretted there were too many humans in my novel for her to consider representation.)

At any rate, being capable of doing my own typesetting and cover design, I find that the risk of rejection is negligible for me. Certainly it’s easier on the psyche than Extribulum, and I do Extribulum on a yearly basis. If nothing else, being able to put my work out there in the manner I choose has given me a certain freedom that rejection letters can’t really touch anymore. It gives me some concern that I don’t do my best work when I think someone else will be putting their publisher’s mark on it, but on the other hand it certainly takes the stress off sending it out to be judged.

Maintaining proper respect for the professionals is not a challenge I thought I’d ever have to tackle, but it should be an interesting one.

The Oxford English Dictionary, Martin Van Buren, and the Telegraph

In Uncategorized on May 1, 2012 at 9:00 am

There’s a great scene in one of Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe mysteries, The Zero Clue, where Wolfe is interviewing a small time crook. Archie, Wolfe’s chronicler, records the following exchange:

“[…] We would hand-pick a hundred and no more, and each one would ante one C per week, which if I can add at all would make ten grand every sennight. That would – ”
“What?” Wolfe exploded. “Ten grand every what?”
“Meaning a week?”
“Where the deuce did you pick up that fine old word?”
“That’s not old. Some big wit started it around last summer.”
“Incredible. Go on.”

Sennight is an archaic term, deriving from Old English, and the scene where Wolfe discovers it being used in the New York underworld is short but striking (when I Googled to find the exact exchange, I found a lot of blog entries that open rather like I just did). Rex Stout was a master of the English language and liked to introduce strange or archaic words in his books, and the pleasure of discovering one and puzzling it out is one of many his readers experience. I learned “weltschmerz” from Archie Goodwin.

The interesting thing about writing a historical novel, even a fantasy-historical one like The Dead Isle, is the anachronisms that you run across — both forward (“That word wasn’t in use yet”) and backward (“Wow, we don’t use this word anymore”). In a recent chapter one of my readers, StGreyhounds, asked if “Okay” was actually in use at the time the book is set, in the late 19th century, and I honestly had to stop and scratch my head. Was it?

Right here is where we fall down the rabbit hole, by the way.

Fortunately for me there is the Oxford English Dictionary, which I can access through my day job. I went and looked it up and sure enough, “O.K.” (close enough for jazz and for me) was in use by 1839. I did go through and take out a few instances from the book, because it was mostly an American term, but that’s just the start of the story. It pinged me as interesting that O.K. was used by telegraph operators to signal “everything’s fine”, first because telegraph is part of the whole gestalt of antique “modern” technology that belongs to steampunk, and second because it sounded like a story in the making. So I did some digging.

O.K. is, according to the OED, most likely a shortened form of Orl Korrect or Oll Korrect. The OED dismisses claims that it derived from the Choctaw oke, French au quai, Scots English och aye, or West African o ke; Wikipedia is not so swift to judge, but I leave that to better minds than mine. What was more intriguing to me was that neither OED nor Wiki appear to have any information on where the hell Oll Korrect came from. There’s a stab at the idea that it was part of a Bostonian fad for mis-spelled words in the 1830s, but no backup citations. A New York Times article suggests that it’s a Dutch phrase, which I suppose is as good an explanation as any.

Most sources seem to  be in agreement that O.K. was popularized if not invented by Martin Van Buren’s run at the White House, where he was referred to in campaign media as “O.K.” for “Old Kinderhook”, Kinderhook being the town in the Hudson Valley he hailed from. (In case you were wondering, there is totally a Wikipedia list of Presidential Nicknames. I know.)

So, that’s one mystery not-actually-solved-but-at-least-debated, anyhow. Now: telegraph operators?

The reference comes from the OED: 1865 – W. H. Russell Atlantic Telegr. 61 – “The communication with shore continued to improve, and was, in the language of telegraphers, O.K.” At first I thought Atlantic Telegr. was a newspaper, because I am an idiot, but it turns out it’s a book on, you guessed it, the transatlantic telegraph cable. I found the book, thank you GoogleBooks, but the reference is an isolated one. (The book is actually pretty interesting reading for those of a Steampunk bent.) I thought it was a shame, because I’d like to learn more about telegraph slang; small slang languages like Polari are a fascination of mine for some reason I don’t fully understand.

Fortunately, not only did the telegraph offices have a slang language and a subculture, some enterprising benefactor of the future named LC Hall wrote an article about it in 1902 for McClure’s Magazine. In the great human spirit of “Anything you can do, I can do better” telegraph operators even had contests:

A great hall was filled one night with people, mostly telegraphers and their friends.  On the stage were a dozen men, a few tables upon which were sets of shining telegraph instruments, and a number of  pen writing machines of different patterns.  The occasion was a “fast sending tournament,” held to establish records in rapid transmission.

The entire article, from a story about a friendship developed by two telegraph operators to the way an earthquake silenced the wires in Charleston as if the city had died, is absolutely fascinating reading, especially when you mentally compare them to today’s stories about the internet. There’s even a section on “hog morse” which might as well be damnyouautocorrect for the fin de siècle set.

I did not, however, find any references to “O.K.” At this point, though, I’m far more fascinated by telegraph culture — so that’s okay.

And this is What I Learned From Writing A Historical Steampunk Fantasy, By Sam Starbuck, Age 32 1/2.