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10 Authorial Confessions

10 Authorial Confessions

1. There are times that I have sat and watched words which *I am typing* appear on the screen in front of my eyes… and not recognized them. That’s how much my characters – or sometimes just my story – take over when I’m in “writer mode”. I sometimes think it’s a mild form of possession.

2. There are characters I have created that I actively dislike and there are times that it’s HARD to be fair to those characters. I like to think I generally come out on the side of the angels, but I don’t know…

3. In my stories, people *die*. Sometimes they do so for a really really good reason, or a good cause. Sometimes they do it willingly, in the hopes of achieving something with that death. Other times their death may appear meaningless or wholly arbitrary. But see, this is the way things work in the real world, too, and I don’t think that my fictional realms should be any the less “real” for being created by my mind.

4. I don’t work from outlines or to rigid pattern. My stories are organic. I stick a story seed into the ground, water it copiously, and it sometimes astonishes even me when something weirdly exotic comes up out of the good earth.

5. There is a time, after the completion of every single one of my books, that I wander around the house chewing my nails and driving my poor husband nuts with the whine that “Nobody wants my book!” I go through phases of absolutely believing that every sane reader out there simply HAS to hate this thing I have just completed.

6. I flinch at bad reviews. Silence, however, is far worse. At least a bad review means that someone has READ the book, even though they hated it. Resounding silence makes an author wonder if the book actually does exist, or if the previous months of frenetic editorial activity and galleys and copyedits and proforeading have all been just a figment of one’s imagination.

7. There is something frankly terrifying the first time you see your book in the hands of a complete stranger.

8. You never stop learning in this game. Even when you start teaching, you learn from the people who call themselves your students.

9. There are times that it’s a royal pain in the ass, being a writer. You learn to THINK like one. You sit down to watch a TV show, or go to a movie, and the rest of the people watching the same thing will sit rapt for an hour or two and then drop their jaws in utter astonishment at some twist ending… which you worked out halfway through and were waiting with increasing impatience to be vindicated.

10. It never gets old. Every time a new book arrives, it’s like the first time. Every book is a little piece of a dream come true. It’s a little bit like sitting outside on the porch just as the clouds break on a gray day and the sun streams through, and everything that was monochrome is suddenly part of a bright and vivid world, and you understand perfectly just why you were born – simply to be the one to see those colors come to life before your eyes.”

On Magic

Fantasy is a lens which sharpens and clarifies the sliver of reality viewed through it; magic is one of the tools used to accomplish this. It’s a powerful tool and often it is a threatening one, because there is the propensity to react against something that affects you deeply.

Sufficiently advanced magic takes on a reality all of its own and begins to be something believed in on its own terms, with something approaching religious faith. This is possibly the reason why more fundamental Christians feel so violently threatened by such things as the magic in Harry Potter; they confuse a powerful system of magic being used to shape a fictional story and certain aspects of the reality in which it is based with a potential rival to their own creed and dogma and set of beliefs.

Thus magic gets a reputation because it’s batting against an already established system which is entrenched, and very much opposed to the things that the new fantasy might be bringing in with it. If any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic, as Arthur Clarke said, then it is also possible that any sufficiently advanced magic is indistinguishable from a religion.

If anything that is beyond our comprehension or ability to explain away by empirical means may be tagged with the word ‘magic,’ then the Christian mythos starts to drip with the thing – what are miracles if not magic? Changing water into wine? Walking on water? Resurrection, for that matter…? But over the course of two thousand years the magic has hardened into a cracked outer shell of dogma. It is no longer the original magic but the recasting of that magic into something useful and controllable by a series of human interpreters to support their own thesis and grip on power.

There is real magic in belief. Sometimes wishing for something hard enough makes it come true because the sheer power of the act of visualization means that you are working for the manifestation of that thing in your life.

Richard Bach’s “Illusions: the adventures of a reluctant Messiah” encapsulates this precisely. Specifically, I am thinking about the blue feather incident, where the reluctant Messiah of the title instructs our POV character, his equally reluctant disciple, on the principles of visualization. Visualize something, the Messiah says, and it will manifest in your life. All right, says the disciple, a blue feather. The Messiah raises an eyebrow but goes, okay, blue feather. CONCENTRATE on it.

Next thing, they’re passing a dairy delivery truck and our disciple’s eyes go wide. Hey, LOOK, he says, and sure enough, on the side of the truck it says BLUE FEATHER DAIRIES.

This is where it gets interesting.

The disciple says that he expected a “real” blue feather. Yes, says the Messiah, but how did you visualize this when you invited it into your life? Were you holding it in your hand or was it just, like, floating disembodied in space?… Floating, the disciple admits. Well, the Messiah explains, that accounts for it. You didn’t personalize the magic and all you did was manifest a generic iteration of the item that you were seeking, not the thing itself in your possession.

Oooooh. It’s MAGIC. It’s real magic because this is delivered utterly matter-of-factly, as though it were common knowledge, as though anybody could do it.

But this is where the organized and dogmatic faith departs from the pure unfettered faith of a child not yet trained to obey all the rules. The original miracles are crusted over by the barnacles of creed, words that are repeated verbatim every Sunday to the point of becoming invisible, and completely detached from the things that they may actually mean.

Are the “body of Christ” and “blood of Christ” just representations of the things they purport to be or are they MAGICALLY — and I use the word advisedly — transformed into the real thing when the priest intones the words above the plate and the chalice? Magic is rich and powerful stuff. Powerful enough to make the faithful, who would otherwise recoil at the idea of eating human flesh or drinking human blood, accept even the most potent of the interpretations of those words when they are uttered by a consecrated being over a consecrated thing and freely partake of it despite the implications and moral and ethical contradictions inherent in what they believe they are consuming.

True magic lies in weaving together something that is impossible with something that is yearning for the impossible in such a way that the impossible thing becomes not just possible but inevitable.

This is what writers do every day.

What is it that makes magic come alive for the reader? Is it that the writer must believe in it first, and to what degree should that belief be taken – philosophical, empirical, dogmatic? What is it about magic that pulls in the human mind? What are the riptides and the undertows of that wine-dark sea in which we all like to occasionally drown?

What makes magic … for YOU?…

In Defense of Slow

Just the other day an editor I like and respect – and have sold several stories to – wrote this on her blog:

“Some good stories but not good enough to send up the line. Most stories start too slow to catch my eye… if I’ve past the first or second page, I think, ‘This would’ve been a great story if it started here.’ In other words, get to the point already.”

And I know what she means. I do. I do, really. Yes, a story should have a point. Tales that meander all over the place – tales that go no further than internal angsting of the characters – tales that basically consist of a beautifully described setting – aren’t engaging.

I christened them ‘New Yorker stories.’ Every time I’ve dipped my toe into the waters of New Yorker ‘literary’ fiction I’ve kind of found myself swimming with these myopic literary sharks, taking random bites out of anything because they can’t seem to focus hard enough or long enough to actually be dangerous. I’ve read stories labeled as ‘literary’ that were deeply brilliant. But on the whole, I do prefer my stories to be going somewhere, and taking me there with them. A point is essential; a story has to have something to TELL me, and something within it to change the characters who inhabit it to the point that I can tell that this has actually happened.

But in one sense the editor conflates ‘slow’ and ‘badly paced and starting in the wrong place’ – and I have to take a step back here, and speak up in defense of ‘slow.’

Starting in the wrong place is most often a beginner’s mistake. You kind of wander into your story through a side door and poke around the place for a bit until you find yourself comfortable enough to get on with telling the tale which you meant to tell all along.

But this is a fairly specific problem, and ‘starting in the wrong place’ is not the same as ‘slow’ – because slow can be beautiful, and a story that is all point and nothing else is just as awkward and uncomfortable as one that has no point at all.

Slow is depth. Slow is taking the time to know your tale. You take your story out and ply it with wine and roses by candlelight, you don’t slam it against the wall in a back alley and have your wicked way with it without first asking its name. Slow is waking to a perfect tropical day in a beach resort, wandering out to the verandah and stretching languorously as you watch the sun glitter on perfect pale-blue waters… and then remembering that you came here with the love of your life, that he wasn’t in bed when you woke this morning, and that he said that he might be wanting an early morning swim before breakfast, and that you’ve just caught a glimpse of something thrust under your door and half under the rug, a note from resort management which, when you pick it up, warns you that a hungry shark has been seen close to shore and that you should not go into the water until the problem has been sorted out. Cue ominous music.

But without that slow – without that first glimpse of paradise – the point of the shark is kind of lost. Unh, yeah, sure, there’s a predator in the water. But far more importantly than that, there’s a PREDATOR in PARADISE – and without the slow, without the establishing shot that gives you that paradise to begin with, all you’re left with is the monster.

Think of all those horrible B-movie slasher films with bucketloads of fake blood and monsters killing for no particular rhyme or reason. There is no ‘slow’ there. No subtle. Nothing but the fake blood and the teenage scream queen who’s about to become hamburger. Now think of some of the more subtle Stephen King efforts, where you are lulled by slow, where the small and pretty and innocent and innocuous Maine towns which King loves to set his stories in hide some ghastly horror beyond imagining – made all the more horrifying because of the way that it comes in and leaves bloody footrpints of Point all over the carefully and painstakingly manicured lawns of Slow.

In other words, it isn’t the slow that the problem. It’s a lack of proper pacing, a lack of sense of just enough ‘slow’ to set up ‘sharp.’ Give slow a chance to catch you, because it is the slow that will hold you in the end. The point, however brilliant it is, is sharp and swift – it stabs, and is gone. The slow, it lingers, and twists, and prolongs the pain and the pleasure, both.

Speaking for myself, I build worlds with a loving touch – I like to think I am the kind of writer who can make a reader forget for just an instant that the story that they’re in is really just a stage play and all that surrounds it just painted plywood. To make the reader forget this just long enough to start believing in the truth of it all, to make that reader look at a painted forest and begin to feel the breeze picking its way between the trees, just barely stirring the leaves, lifting strands of the reader’s hair as though with tender fingers, to hear things rustle in the undergrowth.

I am a slow writer, a writer of slow and subtle. I’m kind of proud of that.

Stories Readers Tell About My Stories

One of the things that I had simply never factored into the equation when I started publishing books… was people writing to me, from here there and everywhere, people whose only connection to me was the story that I had written, and they had read.

A note that was at once disconcerting and massively ego-boosting came from a reader of one my foreign editions, who told me that after reading “Jin Shei” she had put me squarely at the top of her Favorite Authors list, supplanting the current crown-holder. Who was… Ken Follett. You know, the guy who wrote “Pillars of the Earth”. THAT Ken Follett. I mean, wow. This would take some living up to.

Someone I had met personally, very briefly, who had been encouraged to purchase “The Secrets of Jin Shei” by a mutual friend, wrote, Damn you. Damn you! I didn’t sleep but 5 hours last night, because I could not stop reading Jin-Shei. (I can think of few sweeter reasons for damnation. I was grinning for days…)

Another friend phoned me from Florida at 3 AM to scream at me across the continent, “You KILLED HER! How could you kill her?!” when a favorite character met an apparently premature (according to her) demise.

Somebody else wrote on a blog somewhere, “And as for Lihui, I wanted to choke him until those gorgeous eyes of his popped right out!” (Any time I can get that response with a fictional character, well, my work here is done, as it were…)

And then there’s the utterly un-obvious demographic – all of the above comments were from women readers who might have been expected to enjoy this sort of a book, but on the heels of all that came a note I sincerely treasure, from a male reader writing in an obviously African American voice, who told me that he was moved to tears by certain parts of the book (but that I should definitely not tell his homies this). He also said he would tell all his friends about it. Somewhere I had a devoted circle of readers to whom I had never thought my story would reach out – and this is the kind of moment we writers live for, the knowledge that the readers are out there, and that some of them care this much.

But one of my favorite stories about my stories had to be the guy who wrote to me to tell me about the time he was taking out the trash at his condo when he happened to notice a stack of books that somebody had left – obviously discards, but left by the trash chute rather than tossed down it, for anyone potentially interested. Most of them were various incarnations of ageing reference books – but one, a new and apparently unread paperback novel… was my “Hidden Queen”. (By this stage I’m not sure whether to laugh or cry…) In any event, he decided to pick up the novel and keep it around for something to read, you know, if he got bored and stuck without anything better to do. Two days after this, he continues, he picked up the book and read the first couple of paragraphs, figured it was lightweight “airport reading” type material, put it down again… picked it up three or four days after that… and didn’t lay it down again until he was done, five days later. He put down “Hidden Queen”, went straight out to buy “Changer of Days” (the sequel), and devoured that 24 hours later.

He described the original discovery of “The Hidden Queen”… as “a very nice accident”. Whoever originally bought the book did not find it remotely worth keeping – or, apparently, even reading – but somehow stories will find a way. They grow through cracks in concrete, like wild flowers, and they’ll catch the right eye.

Oh, there’s more where all of this came from. Lots more. I have a particular attachment to the letters I’ve received from kids, both older teens and some as young as eleven, who had read my YA stuff and had to write and tell me about it. I would love to think that the story of THIS actually continues into the future – that these young readers, after they put down my own books, picked up others, somebody else’s and continued on this fabulous reading life. Just as I, once, had done when I was their age. I started reading… and simply never figured out how to stop.

And – as a writer – every kind word that comes my way, or every passionate and emotional response that I’ve managed to carve out of a reader, it all makes me treasure this, what I do, more than ever. If there’s an author YOU particularly love, find a way to tell that author this. They may not know that they are waiting for such a note, but if it comes their way, when it comes, it is manna from heaven, it is food for their inspiration and their passion, a replenishing of the wellspring of their ideas and their stories, and out of your handful of words telling a writer thanks for a story past there will come a hundred new stories waiting to be born.

Tell your writers stories about their work, and how their work has found a place in your own life. Tell them. Watered by the elixir of your response to their worlds, they will blossom like flowers in the desert. We – the writer tribe – thank every reader out there for sharing our stories; without you, what we do would have no purpose, and no meaning. So tell us your stories about our stories. It’s a little bit like receiving postcards from the children of our hearts after they’ve left home and gone out into the world to live their own lives – and it’s ALWAYS good to hear back from them and see how they’re doing.

Stories whispering in our walls

I am a book collector. My husband is another one.

When we got married, he already had a considerable collection of books; and when we moved from Florida to Washington state fully two thirds of our moving boxes were stuffed with books, probably 1,500 of them. In Washington, my own moving boxes arrived from New Zealand. Thirty book boxes out of some fifty contained books– another 1,500 or so.

We have now been together for a decade. In those ten years, we have not ceased to gather up books. We have a library off the office, an entire room filled with wall-to-wall and floor-to-ceiling bookshelves on three of the four walls. One wall sports a sliding secret door that, when closed, hides the library. From the office side, the door is, of course, disguised as a bookcase.

A floor-to-ceiling bookcase in the office is stuffed with enough reference material – on things as diverse as a dictionary of poisons and antidotes, histories of medieval women, a manual on screenplay writing and a Chinese-English dictionary – to make it groan under the weight.

Another room has built-in shelves most of which are triple-stacked with paperbacks, and that room has other shelves where larger hardcovers roost. There’s a book case in the bedroom downstairs. There’s a book case in the second bedroom upstairs – a double one, from floor to ceiling. We built in another shelf into a wall in the corridor. There’s a shelf of large coffee-table books (on Antarctica, on China, on bonsai, on castles in Scotland and trees in South Africa…) tucked under what in normal houses would be a breakfast counter off of our open-plan kitchen.

There are books stacked on the piano, next to my armchair in the living room, which I am currently reading. There are books stacked next to my husband’s armchair. There are piles on the coffee table. There are random books scattered on the dining room table, next to my bed, in the car.

You will have done the math already and figured out a simple truth: we have not lived so long, even combining our lifetimes, to have read every book in this house. There are unread books on our shelves.

They are not abandoned. British writer Nick Hornby said, “With each passing year, and with each whimsical purchase, our libraries become more and more able to articulate who we are, whether we read the books or not.” Recently I came across another essay on the subject, Kirsty Logan’s “Confined by Pages: the Joy of Unread Books.” Kirsty says, “An unread book exists only in the primordial soup of your imagination, and there it can evolve into any story you like. An unread book­any unread book­could change your life.”

Because, she says, having an unexplored world right at your fingertips is a totally exhilarating idea. It’s ALL THERE, still waiting for you, still unread. It doesn’t matter. What matters is that they’re there, and every one of the books on your shelves is part of you, of who you are, of who you were, of who you are becoming.

There is a very good reason I gravitate to the bookshelves of every new house I step into. Those books will tell me more about the inhabitants of that house in five minutes of browsing than in twenty four hours of intense conversation.

Anyone coming into our house would no doubt be similarly enlightened about us. Who am I? What am I interested in? What are my husband’s interests? Where do we meet and converge, and where do we each go our own way? Which one of is interested in ancient mysteries and crop circles, and which one in the histories of Byzantium and the Crusades?

Yes, there are books in this house which haven’t been read. We LIKE it that way. We will never be caught in the unthinkable situation of having “nothing to do”. All we ever have to do to keep from feeling bored and at a loose end, even for just an instant, is walk to a bookshelf and run our fingers across the spines of the books that live there, and choosing one we have not yet been introduced to, and settling in to become better acquaintances.

Our house is full of unread books, of dreams yet to be dreamed, of roads yet to be traveled down. It is a place of magic. Walk in through our front door, and you will hear stories whispering in our walls.

The letter I should have written a long time ago

Dear Lynne Reid Banks,

I have always written. Always. I’ve made up stories since I knew what making up stories meant.

I’ve scribbled them down in countless notebooks over the years, in longhand, in pen or pencil, and then after I’d crossed the great computer divide, directly into the hard drive of at least five computers so far in my lifetime. My passion for this, my vocation, has outlasted many a tool used in the creation of the things I do.

By the time you came to my school to talk to my class, I was fifteen years old. I was a stellar scholar in most spheres (well, let’s not talk too closely about math) and particularly in language – and yes, I was writing. But things were fairly nebulous at this point when it came to that vast country known as “the rest of my life” and what I would do when I got there.

I knew, of course, that books were written by actual people – but I do believe that you were amongst the first, if not the very first, person who was an actual working writer whom I had ever laid eyes on. And you came to talk to us about your life.

I still remember that day, when you came to speak – we were in the wood-paneled old library with serried ranks of books surrounding us (how appropriate was that) and you stood in front of us, and you told it it all. You told us of the dramas. You told it all.

You spoke about the highs, and the purest joy when something turns out so right — often almost by accident — but still, your doing, your touch. You told us about the purest happiness of having a reader, particularly a young reader, come up to you and tell you in an eager rush how much your book has meant to them, about the reader who comes up and confides that one of your characters is her new best friend, about the reader who rails at you if you hurt a character he likes. About the people who follow you into your worlds, and make a home for themselves there. About the people who believe in what you did, in what you are doing, and about the way it gives you wings and lets you soar high above the world in joyous flight.

You also told us about the waiting, about the blood and sweat and tears that went into the making of a book, about the rivers of red ink that go into the editorial process, about the pain of change, about writer’s block, about people who don’t understand your intentions or your prose and who can be bitterly unkind, about the frustrations, and the failures, and the pain of it all when it goes wrong. But even when you spoke of these things, you spoke with the light of angels in your eyes, the light that told eloquently of your love for your work, for your craft, for your art – that told eloquently of the simple fact that you could not, would not, EVER do anything else with your life.

This was the moment when my fifteen-year-old self sat up and began to pay attention.

I had written all of my life. But this was the moment that I knew without any doubt whatsoever that what I wanted to be was a WRITER. Here was a signpost, clear and unequivocal, into that deep country of the rest of my life. This is what I wanted to do This is who I wanted to be. This was the light I wanted to come into me, just like it had filled you.

THIS, I told myself, sitting up straight and clutching the arms of my chair, staring at you as though you were a living epiphany, which is precisely what you were. I WANT THIS. I WANT THIS LIFE.

I do school visits myself these days, and every time I face a class of bright-eyed youngsters I think of you, and of what you have done for me. And I hope that one, just one, of those kids watching me talk about my own life and work is sitting up straight, and staring at me with a heart that is suddenly beating harder, and thinking that they have found their dream. I can only hope that the strength and the power of my own vision are as vivid and beautiful and inspiring as yours once was.

I’ve never written you a letter to tell you all this. One is long overdue.

Thank you. Thank you for my life.
Alma Alexander

The Mything Link

As a guest blogger on the blog [Myth, the Universe, and Everything] of writer Alana Joli Abbott, I recently discussed the mythworld:

—-

There is a certain line of descent when it comes to things literary. A regression would take us from the contemporary world through history – and, from there into folktale, then into legend, then into myth.

Myth is what the magic stardust of time and distance does to someone else’s reality – things turn bigger and brighter and darker and more numinous for being sprinkled with the stardust of magic and mystery and a pinch of faith.

The world of the folk tale, or fairy tale (which is a form of folk tale woven with a magic thread), is a world that is only touching on the otherworldly, and it depends on what happens to the humans who stumble into that other world. It is not fundamentally about the creatures that inhabit that other world – and it is certainly not about things that are much vaster than the human characters who carry the story. There are no transcendent gods or angels here.

The folk and fairy tales depend on certain accepted tropes and storylines and types of character – they are stories, if you like, of STEREOTYPE. Instantly recognizable stereotype. Princess in peril. The youngest of three princely siblings. Talking animals. Baba Yaga and her cottage with the chicken legs.

That is the world of the fairy tale.

Myth is just BIGGER than everything else. So much bigger.

The myth is inhabited by ARCHETYPES rather than stereotypes. Archetypes are not named. They are not actual character. They are EveryCharacter, they are over-reaching ideas which cross space and time and personal vision. An angel is an archetype; a fairytale princess is not.

There is a very definite archetype vs stereotype divide.

I have used a bit of both in my young adult “Worldweavers” series. My “misfit kids” who turn out to do well for themselves are almost stereotypes – and Thea Winthrop, my protagonist, is very much one, the plucky heroine who “figures it all out”. But in my story the stereotype has acquired added dimensions, and learns and grows through the series in a way that genuine stereotypes never do because they never step out of the mould at all.

On the other hand, the Native American characters from the Worldweavers books (Grandmother Spider, Coyote) are VERY much archetypes, and highly mythopoeic in the sense that their roots lie in deeper and older myths – and they are not confined to any particular story therein, just to a certain kind of ideas and meaning and over-reaching context.

A character like Nikola Tesla can be a little bit of both – he was “real” in the sense that he lived but I have mythologised him in the books to the extent that I have used the nickname that he WAS known by in his own real life, The New Wizard of the West, as a “genuine” title.

So it’s a question of scale, really. Where you peg your character, what context you give that character. A diminished archetype can turn into a stereotype, and a sufficiently exalted stereotype can metamorphose into an archetype – the chasm is not completely impossible to cross.

Tread carefully on the fragile bridge that is the mything link, metamorphosing a story into either star-blazing mythology or the quiet hearthside folktale. Transcended, the archetype vs. stereotype transformation can be absolutely awe-inspiring. Failure means crashing into that chasm, and it’s a long, long way down.